Can Canada build its own independent podcast industry in the True North strong and free?

Notes from north of the border. When it comes to the Canadian podcast industry, there seems to be a lot to talk about. At least, that’s what I found after writing up last month’s report from Ulster Media and The Globe and Mail about the country’s podcast listening statistics. That study, which you can find here, provided an independent sizing of the country’s overall podcast listenership: 24 percent of Canadians over the age of 18, or 7 million people, report consuming podcasts at least once a month. (A straightforward comparison with American numbers is tricky; Edison Research’s numbers place monthly podcast listenership in the U.S. at around 24 percent of the American population, or an estimated 67 million people, but its survey pool was of adults over the age of 12, not 18.)

My writeup of the study was meant to be a quick one: I saw the report, pulled the most salient data points, and ran it with some broad contextualizing details. But response to the item was considerable. Canadian readers and podcasters made themselves known in my inbox, and non-Canadian readers wrote in wanting to know more; the country’s podcast industry, as one reader expressed, often feels “like a black box, more or less.”

And so I spent some time over the past few weeks emailing around, trying to dig up information and additional insight into what’s going on in the great white north — even if I’m well aware of the follies embedded in any attempt to adequately capture the complexities of a country’s industry in newsletter dispatches. (Hell, I’ve been writing about the American podcast industry for three years now, and I’m still haunted by the acute sense that I only ever really see a fraction of what’s truly going on.)

Over the next few newsletters, I’ll be publishing a few stories that hopefully, as a collective, serves as a workable entry-point into the Canadian podcast industry. This week, I’ll be kicking things off with the independent news organization Canadaland. Next Tuesday, I’ll spend some ink on the Quebec region and on the machinations of an indigenous media company called Indian & Cowboys. Finally, in the week after that, I’ll round things up with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, along with some more general observations.

So, why start with Canadaland? Simple: because it’s interesting.

Scrappy. “There are no major players. There is no industry,” said Jesse Brown, founder of Canadaland, the independent news organization and podcast network. “Canada is five years behind the U.S. with professional podcasting, at least.”

Brown, of course, was one of the first people I wanted to trade emails with about Canadian podcasting, given his prominence as a media critic in the country and the fact that he’s a close observer of local industry dynamics out of necessity. Further, Canadaland has consistently popped up across conversations I’ve had about the country, looked upon as both symbol and test case for a longstanding question: Can an independent news organization exist in Canada? Can an independent podcast network? (Those questions, as you could imagine, are equally deployable with respect to the United States.)

At this point in time, the case continues to be tested. “So, Canadaland sells our own ads to brands like Casper and Hello Fresh, and we work with Midroll to sell to Squarespace and other familiar podcast advertisers,” Brown wrote, when asked about his adventures in podcast advertising. “Our founding sponsor was Freshbooks, a Canadian company. But one or two Canadian brands does not a industry or ecosystem make.” Canada has unique problem with advertising, in Brown’s formulation, as its smaller population means that advertising alone won’t be enough to sustain podcasting at a professional level. Which is why Canadaland is structured as a hybrid business built on both ad sales and crowdfunding, with the latter engine being positioned as the primary driver of the business. At this writing, the company’s Patreon account enjoys over 4,500 supporters and brings in over $22,000 a month.

Brown believes the crowdfunding model is replicable throughout the country — “nobody really knew who I was before Canadaland, so I don’t think I had any special powers in that respect,” he claimed — but he seems ultimately dubious on whether that opportunity will be capitalized upon anytime soon. “The usual Canadian dynamics are at work,” he said. “It’s far more attractive to young talent to try to break into American podcasting than to try to build our own industry from scratch. The Heart and Heavyweight are touch points, and people like Chris Berube and Drew Nelles have shown that they have marketable skills, if they are willing to move. Entrepreneurial efforts are sadly scarce. It’s sad that Canada is a laggard in this, given that the CBC has an amazing history of pioneering audio storytelling.”

Whether he’s right on the crowdfunding model’s replicability remains to be seen. Some observers I’ve spoken with are hopeful about the company’s position, but hold some reservation about its emphasis on news, an editorial focus that’s notoriously difficult to scale. They point to the fact that the company’s biggest successes (and presumed bumps in direct support) have been fundamentally tethered to its ability to break news — as it did with its scoops on Jian Ghomeshi, Peter Mansbridge, and Rebel Media — and how that offers an extremely high bar to clear for growth and sustainability.

Still, I imagine this might be a contestable point, and that some might believe this to be a more direct alignment between mission and business model as far as a journalistic organization is concerned. Other sources have also insisted in pointing out Brown’s recent attainment of wealth as the cofounder of Bitstrips, the maker of Bitmoji that sold to Snapchat for an estimated $100 million or so in March 2016, and how that development may render any external reading of Canadaland’s financial health a little more complicated. (I can barely wrap my own head around it.)

But Brown’s observation on the country’s entrepreneurial chutzpah might prove to be the question that’s more fundamental to whatever the future of podcasting in Canada looks like. And that’s much more complicated to parse out; it has, I think, everything to do with factors like the availability of capital, being around potential partners and acquirers, and miscellaneous elements of social and cultural support.

More next week.

Additional material. The CBC’s Lindsay Michael was kind enough to point me to two fantastic resources when researching the scene: this overview of the Canadian industry by Erica Ngao for the Ryerson Review of Journalism, and the Podcast Playlist’s Canadian Podcast Database.

Swipe. So this is interesting: An independent podcast, Food 4 Thot, has formed a publishing relationship with Grindr, in which potential fans can now discover the show right off the latter’s app. The partnership also sees the podcast featured on Grindr’s recently launched digital magazine, INTO. Here’s the announcement post on how the arrangement will work:

When you open your lovely Grindr app (we know you have it) the show will pop down with a quick summary of what this week has in store for you from topics to guests to tea — with sometimes even a quick audio preview of the episode if you ask nicely — before being brought to INTO where you can subscribe and listen. Cute, right?

With the placement, the podcast is in a position where it can potentially be exposed to Grindr’s user base — roughly 3 million daily users, according to this AdExchanger report, though it’s worth controlling the relevant number in your head for English-speakers — through what is essentially an in-app house ad. This setup also evokes the ouroboros-esque inquiry of: Just how big is the Venn overlap between being a “platform” and a “media entity” for such companies these days? Or is it more appropriate to think of these operations as one and the same? What is a publisher, anyway?

In case you’re not in the know, Food 4 Thot is an energetic indie roundtable podcast featuring: Tommy Pico, a critically acclaimed indigenous American poet and author; Dennis Norris II, a writer and MacDowell Fellow; Joseph Osmundson, a scientist and memoirist, and Fran Tirado, the executive editor of Hello Mr.

“Right now, our audience is small for a podcast, but big for one that has been 100 percent independently funded and distributed up to this point,” Tirado tells me. “Our eps get anywhere from 12,000 to 20,000 downloads.” The show’s current goal is to grow the listening base up to six figures.

When asked about dream guests, Tirado replied: “Tracee Ellis Ross. With Sasha Velour, Janet Mock, & Cardi B in close seconds.”

Coloring book. “I’m super excited about this project — I’ve been wanting to do something like this for a while,” said Matt Lieber, Gimlet’s president and local dad.

Lieber’s talking about Gimlet’s latest show, a kids podcast, which it’s launching hot on the heels of Panoply’s Pinna initiative and NPR’s Wow in the World. The move comes with an interesting angle: The podcast is a collaboration with Story Pirates, a kids-centric media company and arts-education advocacy group primarily known for letting kids be the ones that tell stories themselves — a commitment to the belief that kids are more original and wildly more creative than anything adults can ever impose on them.

Season 2 of the Story Pirates podcast debuted yesterday under the Gimlet brand, and upcoming episodes will feature appearances from prominent celebrity performers like Kristen Schaal, Billy Eichner, and Conan O’Brien, among others. To accompany the release, they’re publishing a coloring book with stuff for kids to color alongside each episode that parents can download and print out for free. “It’s part of an effort to create a social experience around the show,” Lieber adds.

This marks Gimlet’s latest creative partnership with an external organization, after producing Mogul with Loud Speakers Network. (One could theoretically make the argument that Crimetown also qualifies as a collaboration, given the involvement of The Jinx’s Zac Stuart-Pontier and Marc Smerling. But I’m told it is considered more of an in-house affair.) Is this an increasing part of the company’s strategy? “I wouldn’t say that,” said Lieber. “But our doors are open to partnership, especially if it’s a story or category we haven’t done before.”

I inquired about the podcast’s approach to ads, reflecting upon Panoply and Sparkle Stories’ choice to bypass the advertising-to-kids conundrum altogether with a paid subscription model. Lieber notes that they’re pretty sensitive about being exceedingly clear that the ads are targeted towards parents, and not the children. “We’re working that out right now,” he said, when I asked about the design choices to reflect that. “You won’t be seeing ads for sugar or candy.”

Gotcha. By the way, how was Gimlet’s 2017?

“It’s been a great year,” Lieber said, flashing his trademark confidence. He tells me that business has doubled, and that the company is working on things that will blow people away in the coming months, and that Gimlet Creative, too, has had a strong year, growing into “the defining agency in the digital audio world.”

He also points to what I think is the company’s defining thread of 2017: its very loud success in building out an intellectual property pipeline into the lucrative film and television business. “This is a year where Homecoming went from an audio project to something that will become one of the tentpole projects for Amazon next year starring Julia Roberts,” he said. (Also worth noting: Last week saw the announcement that Crimetown, too, will be heading to television with FX. No surprises there, frankly, given the creative team’s television roots.)

“We’ve set the stage for next year,” he concluded.

On a related note: Perhaps sensing something in the winds, a WNYC spokesperson reached out unannounced yesterday evening to remind me of the existence of their own upcoming forays into the kids podcasting space: This Podcast Has Fleas, which comes out of a partnership with Koyalee Chanda and Adam Peltzman, and Pickle, a co-production with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Both shows are set to launch sometime in December. The station has also produced a standalone website for its kids programming.

Binders full of editors. I’ve previously written about editor scarcity and its discontents in podcast-land, something that continues to plague a lot of teams even today. (If you missed it, here’s the link to the column, which features a solid discussion with NPR’s Alison MacAdam.) I haven’t spotted much formal development on the matter in the intervening year, save for this one: Megan Tan, the host and creator of the now-retired Millennial, has assembled a spreadsheet of narratively-oriented audio editors who are available for work. She describes the type of editors that she’s included into the document as follows:

People who act as a bird’s eye over your house as you build it, by hand, from the ground up. They would provide feedback on drafts and maybe some written line suggestions here and there, but they don’t touch the tape at all. They would provide feedback on structure, help you hone in on universal themes, driving questions, plot points, character development, get rid of shitty tape, and emphasize great tape, etc.

Or, in other words, “the people you call when you can’t hear your piece anymore because you’ve heard it too many times.”

Tan’s impulse to create the speadsheet rose after her former editor on Millennial transitioned to work at a network full-time, putting her in the search for a suitable replacement. “All of a sudden, I had to find an editor who could speak the same story-structure language, who understood character development, archetypes, thresholds, and who I trusted to help me define the edges of my episodes and strip the fat off a piece when I was immersed in the weeds…AND who also fit my budget,” she said.

The resulting process left her with some pressing takeaways. Among them: “More than anything, I wanted to find someone who ‘got it,'” Tan explained. “When you’re first starting out, you don’t really understand the number of genres, styles, and approaches to radio that exist. Hiring ‘an editor’ doesn’t mean that editor is the best fit for your show.”

With a particular focus on that kind of matchmaking, she hopes the spreadsheet can set producers up with good pairings — and surface this species of editors often thought to be “hard to find,” despite their high demand. “Ideally, this Google Sheet becomes the telephone book for those people,” she said.

You can find the spreadsheet here.

Bait and switch. This is a tricky one, and it involves a mea culpa on my part. Last week saw the conclusion of the latest series in Radiotopia’s Showcase initiative, called The Polybius Conspiracy, which saw the “audio documentary” reveal itself to be — spoiler alert, I guess — in large part fictional. This comes after a run in which the show mostly carried itself as a work of nonfiction, though it never said as much outright. (For what it’s worth, the inverse was also true: The show never explicitly identified itself as a piece of fiction either.) Many reviewers, including myself, approached the show off its conduct (and initial press signaling) as a piece of nonfiction, and I would ultimately write a review for Vulture off the first three episodes to that effect. “A seven-part audio documentary,” was how I described it, working from the press release and various assumptions I internally made about the Showcase initiative.

The podcast sought to explore an Oregonian urban legend and conspiracy theory of a mysterious arcade cabinet that started bubbling up around the ’80s, one in which the myth describes a game so addictive that it caused weird things to happen to people when they stopped playing. Polybius, the podcast, was narratively structured around a main subject who claimed to have been the victim of a traumatic incident as a result of the arcade cabinet, and a good deal of the resulting drama falls from the tension about whether that the incident actually happened or not. The show essentially uses the narrative conceit as a way to explore the shape and textures of urban legends — and, to some extent, the way a person deals with trauma. Of course, by the end of the show’s run, we learn that the central character was a fictional invention, and that much of the stakes involved weren’t as high, or as meaningful, as one would initially think it was.

Slate’s Jacob Brogan was the first, I believe, to raise the question about the show’s claim to documentary, and he rightfully called me — along with other reviewers — out for taking the bait. And it seemed Radiotopia eventually received enough pushback to address the matter in a blog post. Here’s the most relevant portion:

The Polybius Conspiracy itself takes on the form of the urban mythology it interrogates, wrapping layers of conjecture and invention around elements of truth and nostalgia. As a network, we value the overall ideas and cultural critique built into the series. We do apologize to listeners who were disappointed to discover that the story isn’t completely true, and felt we intentionally misled them by not stating outright, from the beginning, that the story was a blend of fact and fiction.

Thinking through the whole situation a little more, I will say I’ve come to find myself pretty annoyed by the ordeal. Annoyed, partly for what felt like a completely unnecessary embellishment on the creative team’s part, particularly these days when the notion of reality, digital and otherwise, seems especially politically fraught and sensitive. Maybe there’s a version of this show, interrogating this idea, that earns this sleight of hand; this podcast, however, wasn’t that.

But mostly, I’m annoyed by the fact that I let the ball fly right by me, that I was played a fool, that I wasn’t skeptical of the show enough to double down on a double check. To some extent, perhaps I’m still operating with kid’s gloves as an observer and critic of the space, working off an internal assumption that the space is still small and young and should still constantly be given the benefit of the doubt due to its youth. But at the end of day, I shouldn’t be automatically taking things as face value, as there are potential negative ramifications to overlooking something like this on my part. So, I’ll be taking the L on this one.

Over the weekend, a few readers wrote me inquiring as to whether this incident raises some larger questions about norms and ethics in the space — if we’re seeing some editorial crisis in what appears to be a tendency among certain corners of the podcast ecosystem to aggressively flirt with evoking journalistic or documentary tropes to build fictional spaces. (One reader pointed to the constant use of the technique by another Radiotopia show, by way of example.) I’m not quite sure if we’re in such a “crisis” just yet, though I’m tempted to agree with the broader critical focus on the community’s norms: one thing that I do constantly find myself perturbed by is the relatively unchecked nature of certain true crime podcasts and their interaction with real, physical lives and communities, which is itself a direct extension of transgressions we’re seeing elsewhere in digital media.

But I’ll hold my tongue — and my pen — on that one for now, lest I succumb to hypocrisy. I did, after all, just fall for The Polybius Conspiracy’s ruse.

Career Spotlight. I’m a casual fan of The Black Tapes and its associated “Pacific Northwest Stories” fiction podcasts — there’s something about its public access feel that gets me — but I’ve long admired the team for just how far they’ve come. (Tanis, one of their projects, is currently being developed for television.) This week, I traded emails with Paul Bae, one of the show’s creators who recently rolled out a new show called The Big Loop, to get a sense of where he is with himself these days.

[storybreak]

[conl]Hot Pod: Tell me about your current situation.[/conl]

[conr]Paul Bae: I live and work out of my home in Vancouver, B.C., writing and producing the audio drama anthology series The Big Loop. I also walk the dogs my girlfriend adopts. So far, we’re sticking to an intake limit of three.[/conr]

[conl]Hot Pod: How did you get to this point? What does your career arc thus far look like?[/conl]

[conr]Bae: I used to be an evangelical youth pastor back in the early 90s. When I lost my faith in the mid-’90s, Jesus and my wife walked out the door. (Black Tapes fans: “Is that why Dr. Richard Strand is such a bitter atheist with a missing wife complex?” Hmmm.)

I then turned to teaching high school English for the next seven years. But my parents always hated the idea. They — my very Korean parents — initially wanted me to be a stand-up comedian. They were casual fans of Johnny Carson and David Letterman and they somehow got it into their heads that I could do that. (If you’re wondering where I get the confidence to ditch everything to attempt to scratch out a living making podcasts, this is it.)

So I started doing stand-up comedy in 2000, and eventually landed a TV gig hosting a small, daily news-comedy show in Vancouver. When that folded a year later in 2010, I found myself tired of touring the standup circuit. So I returned to teaching.

That’s when my friend Terry Miles approached me about making a podcast together. And that led to The Black Tapes, which was a lot of fun and a tremendous learning experience.

With The Big Loop, I have a chance to turn everything I’ve learned into a more intimate listening experience with stories that are more personal to me.[/conr]

[conl]Hot Pod: What does a career mean to you, at this point?[/conl]

[conr]Bae: I’ve been writing my whole adult life. That has been the one constant for me. The part I love most about this career is knowing that whatever I write is now going to have an audience almost immediately. If I can make a living out of this, that would mean the world to me. Since I’ve made this foray into podcasting, my girlfriend has had to do all the heavy lifting regarding our finances. I’m hoping I can take that over and let her have a turn resting at home with our dogs.[/conr]

[conl]Hot Pod: When you started out, what did you think you wanted to do?[/conl]

[conr]Bae: When Terry hit “publish” on the first two episodes of The Black Tapes in 2015, I had no idea what was going to happen. I don’t think I even fully understood what podcasting was at the time. To me, it was This American Life and 99% Invisible. That’s it. But I knew we had a potential hit. Personally, I had hoped to gain a good audience and open some doors for my fiction writing. Making a career of podcasting didn’t even enter my mind.

Then, one day in early 2016, I listened to Love + Radio for the first time and it stopped me in my tracks. I thought, “This is what podcasting can do. It’s way more than I thought it was.” And it changed everything for me. And I hope people recognize that influence in The Big Loop.[/conr]

[storybreak]

Bites:

  • Sarah Larson penned a great — and more importantly, holistic — snapshot piece on Third Coast Festival that came out over the weekend, and you shouldn’t miss it. (The New Yorker) Feel free to pair that with my own notes from last week, which I’ve broken out into a separate post here.
  • High-level turmoil at NPR continues: Roger LaMay, NPR Board chairman and general manager of Philadelphia public radio music station WXPN, announced last week that he was stepping down at the end of his second one-year term. But NPR also reports that “LaMay is the subject of a complaint filed with NPR alleging past inappropriate behavior.” (NPR)
  • Slate is launching a series about what it was like to live through the days of Watergate, called Slow Burn. It’s hosted by Leon Neyfakh, produced with Andrew Parsons, and slated to launch on November 28. (Apple Podcasts)
  • Speaking of Slate, sister company Panoply worked off a news hook this week, repackaging You Must Remember This’ stellar Charles Manson season into its own standalone podcast after news of Manson’s passing hit the newsreels. This is the second Manson-related podcast to emerge in recent weeks; Wondery currently has its own take on the subject in the podcast charts as well. One day, we’ll see such energy for something other than true crime and morbidity. But this is not that day.
  • “I’m that dude from the ad about background checks where I put a rifle together blindfolded.” Celeste Katz writes up the latest Crooked Media podcast, Majority 54, that comes with a Q&A with host Jason Kander. (Newsweek)
  • The Death, Sex & Money team has rounded up some podcast recs from some famous friends for Turkey Day. (Medium)

Hot Pod: Did the election podcast glut of 2016 fail its listeners?

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue ninety-six, published November 15, 2016.

Outlook. Last Tuesday’s shocking electoral conclusion has severe ramifications not just for the media generally — print and digital, legacy and new, mainstream and alternative — but also for podcasting specifically, whose position as an emerging industry would historically render it more susceptible to the fallout of uncertain economic and media environments. And make no mistake: We are marching straight into a thick fog of uncertainty.

Keep your eyes peeled for two things. First, a potential slowdown in advertising spending. Second, the significant possibility of an economic recession over the next few years, something that was already being predicted prior to this election and that some economists believe could be exacerbated by the proposed policies of the incoming administration. From The Wall Street Journal last Wednesday:

“Uncertainty is bad for ad spending growth,” said Jonathan Barnard, head of forecasting for Zenith, an ad buying and research arm of Publicis Groupe. Still, he said there will not be an “apocalyptic pullback” and just how much contraction occurs depends largely on how the economy performs and what specific moves the new administration makes.

And what of public radio? Keep your eye on the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), the federally funded organization whose financial support is essential to the health of the public media system. Familiarize yourself with two things:

1. The breakdown of NPR’s revenue sources, articulated best in this blog post from 2013 that highlights public radio’s dependence on CPB funding:

These station programming fees comprise a significant portion of NPR’s largest source of revenue. The loss of federal funding would undermine the stations’ ability to pay NPR for programming, thereby weakening the institution

2. The historical string of on-again, off-again tensions surrounding the system’s perceived relationships with ideological bias.

Executives at podcast publishers are generally adopting a wait-and-see stance on the days to come. At least, that’s what I’ve found based on my email interactions with several over the past week. Many are bracing for impact — one phrased the situation this way: “I am placing higher probabilities on the downside cases in all of our financial models” — though there are a few that believe such concerns to be overblown. (“I wouldn’t worry about it,” one person said.)

“We’ve seen no signs of any slowdown,” Matt Lieber, president and cofounder of Gimlet Media, told me. “Obviously, if a recession happens, then ad budgets will get cut. But to be honest, we’re seeing so much growth in podcast spending right now that, even in recession, I would expect slowing growth, yes, but not negative growth.”

Hernan Lopez, founder of Wondery, submitted a more positive view: “I’ve never seen ad spend decline in a growing economy. In times of general market-driven anxiety, ad budgets may shift from a quarter to the next, or between different kinds of media, and if anything podcasting has more to gain than to lose.”

National Public Media’s Bryan Moffett noted that he remains “cautiously optimistic,” pointing out the strength of 2017 upfront buys and the medium’s steady quarter-over-quarter gains. “Niche media do tend to get cut faster in turbulent times, but I also wonder if podcasting will weather any storm better than history would predict,” he wrote. “We all know how effective podcasting can be in terms of marketers reaching the right audience with the right message. So, I think we’d need a pretty significant economic pullback before any real cuts come, and they’d probably come in line with everything else.”

An executive of an independent podcast network expressed some general concern, but pointed out that even if there is to be an ad-spending cooldown, direct response advertisers would likely stay within the medium, as they’ve already figured out how to assess and achieve the return-on-investments they want. Another person I spoke to posited a similar outcome — there will always be companies looking for people to sell things to, that person said — but did say to watch how companies engaged in direct response podcast marketing will fare moving forward.

We need to move on, but I’ll just quickly note three more things:

  • This climate of uncertainty will be felt by every aspect of the podcast ecosystem, but it will be felt hardest by the community of independent producers and freelancers that provide labor, efficiency, and creativity to the space, these proprietors of small boats in a sea that thrashes from the movement of bigger ships.
  • Given everything that we’re currently seeing in the nexus of media and politics, it seems imperative, now more so than ever, that podcasting remains open.
  • Remember to donate to your local public radio station, people.

Okay, let’s go.

Radio Ambulante inks distribution deal with NPR. The public radio mothership will distribute, market, and promote the show across all of its platforms, including NPR.org and the NPR One app. I’m told to expect collaborations between Radio Ambulante and a number of other podcasts from the NPR newsroom like Code Switch, Latino USA, and Embedded. I’m also told that the show will have a presence on the weekend newsmagazines. The deal came out of conversations that started about a year ago, when NPR approached the Radio Ambulante team.

For the uninitiated, Radio Ambulante is a fully Spanish language narrative journalism project — in the vein of This American Life and Snap Judgment — focusing on stories from Latin America and Latino communities in the United States. The show was founded in 2011 by Daniel Alarcón, Carolina Guerrero, Martina Castro, and Annie Correal. (Castro and Correal have since left the team.) Radio Ambulante is widely loved and critically acclaimed, and received the Gabriel García Marquez Prize for Innovation in Journalism in 2014.

Alarcón told me that the team intends to expand in the near future. “We have to see where we stand early next year, but I think we have to grow in order to fulfill our mission,” he said. “This deal will help us get there.”

The show will roll out its latest season on November 22. The news was formally announced early on Tuesday, but the gossip trickled out at the Third Coast Festival in Chicago this past weekend.

A Serial spinoff? Speaking of Third Coast, I wasn’t able to be there myself this year, but I wish I had been, because this bit of news was apparently announced at a presentation by Serial’s executive producer Julie Snyder. The details, cobbled together from tweets by attendees: A Serial spinoff will debut in March. It will be hosted by This American Life producer Brian Reed, and it will be an “artsy” and “novelistic” seven-part series set in Alabama, following “a man who despises the town he’s lived in all his life and decides to do something about it.” Cool.

Audible expands comedy offerings on its Channels lineup, stacking its deck with audio shows from comedians like Will Arnett, Nick Offerman, and Eugene Mirman. The new slate also features something called “Audible Comedy Specials,” a programming channel that bears strong structural similarities to the comedy special blocks you’d find on television networks like HBO and Comedy Central. It’s kind of a shrewd move, efficiently tapping into the well-established sub-community of comedy podcasts and, on the supply side, offering comedy producers yet another platform to monetize a given performance.

This expansion likely draws from a supply and production infrastructure established by Rooftop Media, the company’s West Coast-based, comedy-focused arm. Audible acquired Rooftop Media back in October 2014.

Meanwhile, in Canada: The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) isn’t cool with third-party podcast apps distributing its programming with in-app ads served on top, according to a report by Canadaland. Specifically, the CBC “has sent legal threats to at least one third-party podcast app developer for serving ads without a prior agreement with the broadcaster.” The corporation is also blocking the presence of its programming on those apps. The exact apps that are affected are not confirmed, though the article highlights the Podcast Republic app and also points out the other apps that adopt the in-app ad practice, like Stitcher, Overcast, and Podcast Addict. Hit up Canadaland for more details on this story.

“The wrong format for the moment?” Josh Nathan-Kazis, a staff writer at The Forward, published a string of tweets (a tweetstorm, as the kids call it) that mounted an intriguing critique of the political roundtable podcast format in the wake of last Tuesday’s election. Reproduced here, with some streamlining:

An item for the media post-mortem: The political roundtable podcast turns out to have been exactly the wrong format for the moment…They’re cheap to produce, and fun to half-listen to while doing the dishes.

And there was a lot to talk about. It felt like you could understand the election through the roundtables. Everyone was so smart. Knew what they were talking about. The intimacy inherent to podcasting made them addictive: Hang out with the smart kids each week and they’ll tell you all you need to know.

On Tuesday, it turned out the smart kids were wrong. Some were flagrantly, smugly, obnoxiously wrong. Others were a bit wrong. They weren’t uniquely wrong. But there’s something about that intimacy that makes their particular wrongness feel almost like a betrayal. I wonder how much we really learned from these podcasts. They were closed loops; arguments among friends, played for entertainment.

And were we really trying to learn? Did anyone go to Keepin’ It 1600 or Slate’s Political Gabfest for anything but affirmation? And if that was just 2016’s “unskewing,” then maybe these shows were more harmful than we realized. Ear candy. If we’d spent a bit less time listening to our radio buddies joke about “bedwetters,” maybe we wouldn’t have been so surprised this week. (To be fair, Keepin’ It 1600’s post-election mea culpa episode on Wednesday was really good.)

Put simply: did the political roundtable podcast glut of the 2016 election cycle fail us?

There is a lot to think through here, and I’ll start by saying that the strokes being painted here are way too broad. (And Nathan-Kazis qualified them as such in follow-ups.) At the heart of this critique, I think, are two central ideas: The first is the explicit notion that the insular space created by the roundtable podcast either leads to or creates a greater probability of confirmation bias, and the second is an implicit sense that the media product supplied by these shows exacerbates a potential negative tendency among consumers to use these media products, some journalism and some not so much, as a crutch as opposed to one of many tools of news and information.

The first idea can be straightforwardly interrogated: My immediate reaction is to argue that the risk of confirmation bias here is less linked to the format itself than it is to the participants of the roundtable. Which is to say, it’s not the tool, it’s the wielder; failures, where they existed, were specific to the show, not general to the form. We were awash with election podcasts this cycle, but there were definable differences between shows that were explicitly journalistic in intent (like the NPR Politics Podcast) and shows that were rooted more in a classical sense of punditry (like Keepin’ It 1600, which was consumed by many as therapy and which, interestingly enough, now appears to be the mirror image of conservative talk radio). Those are two very separate product types with very different relationships to the journalistic position, and speaking personally, my experience of what I now recognize to be confirmation bias between the two shows was dramatically different.

The second idea is harder to parse. Essentially, it attends to what appears to be a causal question: does the sense of comfortable insularity conjured by these podcasts somehow discourage listeners from seeking out additional or competing viewpoints? Attempts to unpack the question only leads to further inquiries: is it even possible to prove a causal relationship? Is there a certain condescension in this causal hypothesis — one that suggests news consumers to be anything other than perfectly intelligent adults who will take the time to fully read complex pieces, verify sources, balance out their information intake, and check their biases on their own? To whom does the responsibility of information fall: those who produce the information, or those who consume information? These are fundamental questions akin to those pertaining to corporate social responsibility on the part of the information producers; I am tempted to think that governance is required, but government often seems antithetical to the productive creation and free flow of information.

Nathan-Kazis’ point on the medium’s intimacy triggering a stronger feeling of betrayal hits closer to home, as it highlights the previously unrealized problem that emerges from the design premise of many of these roundtable podcasts, particularly those produced by journalistic institutions like Slate and FiveThirtyEight. The conceit of such shows is to give listeners a sense of what journalists or experts are talking about in spaces separate from the performed professionalism of the public platform; after all, what is said on the front page is far from what was debated in editorial discussions leading up to an article’s final construction or what was discussed on a human level at the bar afterwards. The basic idea in these setups is to engender trust in the people and the process, not just the product. But when the people and the process fail, the cut feels so much deeper, and it is incredibly hard to win that trust — that sense of comfort and safety (which is perhaps the problem?) — back.

That intimacy and sense of process, however, proved essential to how several non-political roundtable podcasts played the role of therapy for many with their post-election episodes. And it is perhaps here that the roundtable conventions are unambiguously valuable. Shows like Call Your Girlfriend, Still Processing, Nerdette, and The Read all provided listeners with personal spaces of communion — spaces to be alone but together, to feel and process the scope of the night’s events, to emotionally prepare for the days to come.

So, did the political roundtable podcast fail us in 2016? Some did, some didn’t; but the problem listeners face is the fact of living in a world where both successes and failures — emerging from both journalistic and non-journalistic sources — exist, flatly, within the same platform, the same space, the same context.

A media format is a tool; it is only as strong, and only as right, as its practitioners. Whether we screw it up or not, podcasting’s core value proposition is always going to be there for us all: a distinct ability to create a space to talk things through, to feel things out, to let doubt grip you. If anything, maybe the lesson here is that we should have leaned more into conveying doubt. A scene from On The Media’s bonus episode, dropped the day after the elections:

Bob Garfield: “What I most hope… is that we are not all passengers on the ship of fools.”
Brooke Gladstone: “What the fuck does that mean?”

Relevant: Melody Joy Kramer on Poynter — “Spread your masthead across the country, and other ideas to prevent groupthink”

Bites:

  • For those keeping tally, add the following companies to the list of brands making their own podcasts: InterContinental Hotel, Avion Tequila, State Farm Insurance. (AdWeek)
  • Refinery29 is launching what appears to be a combined podcast-newsletter product, called “UnStyled.” The last example I heard of such a product combination was WBUR’s “The Magic Pill” project. (Refinery29)
  • “The story so far: Fiction podcasts take their next steps” (New York Times)
  • “Where political talk radio is driven by a sense of community, not partisanship” (CJR)
  • DGital Media launches the latest show under its new partnership with Sports Illustrated, “The Seth Davis Podcast.” (SI.com)
  • Meanwhile, in Australia: The Wheeler Center and the Audiocraft conference are collaborating to launch “The Australian Audio Guide,” “an online companion to the best Australian podcasts and radio features.” (Link)

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