Could Google’s new podcast app change the way we understand the Average Podcast Listener?

IN PLAY. The hope had always been for more. Or, at least, for another.

On Tuesday, Google officially launched its standalone podcast app for Android. As of right now, it is available for download in the Google Play store. This was well expected, given the steady drumbeat of preview posts that Google had collaborated with the branded podcast studio Pacific Content to produce and publish. Those write-ups laid out how the search giant viewed its place in the audio universe, how it might contribute to the easing of its frictions, and how it might move to own a piece of the whole thing. And then there was the matter of last week’s code sighting, which suggested the prospect of a standalone podcast app in addition to the core audio search features that Google was apparently baking into its main Android search app. That suggestion turned out to be signal, as a standalone app is precisely what we were given.

The Problem had always been clearly understood, but it never felt as if anyone had found a way to get out of it. Podcasting had long been a ward of Apple, which historically stood as some sort of impartial steward. The space grew and flourished in large part because of a string of Apple decisions: inclusion into iTunes, breaking out as a standalone app, bundling with iOS by default. But, as has long been documented, the relationship between Apple and the ecosystem it helped foster is a complicated one. Some argue that Apple should get more involved with discovery, analytics, and monetization. Others believe Apple already wields too much power. This split in opinion broadly tracks alongside a split in communities; it is an expression of ideological tensions between those who function as independents and those who pursue empire. (I have also heard this tension framed as actually being between those who had power in the past and those who want power in the future. Whatever the case may be, have sympathy for those caught in between.) All throughout these debates, Apple’s commitment to being an impartial steward mostly never wavered, save for one exception: the introduction of in-episode analytics in the waning days of 2017. For many, this was a step in the right direction. But some, if not many, wanted so much more. Despite the incremental progression, the entire episode only further clarified the nature of the status quo: podcasting is Apple’s world, podcast publishers just live in it. Whatever progress these publishers want to make for themselves, they would have to make it on terms set, directly and indirectly, by the things Apple will and will not do.

Google, in theory, offers an alternative to this reality. The supposed argument is a diplomatic one: this wouldn’t be a case of Google eating Apple’s lunch, but rather a move to unlock the previously underserved Android market, which would give podcast publishers a path to building meaningful relationships with the other half of U.S. smartphone owners and the vast majority of smartphone owners in the world. Android owners had previously been served by a collection of third-party apps — Pocket Casts, RadioPublic, Podcast Addict, Overcast, and so on — all of which were able to claim their own relatively modest fiefdoms within the expansive Android universe. It was a fragmented state, and so the opportunity here would be a push for unification… or consolidation (likely at the expense of these third-party solutions, but that’s another matter.)

Of course, this is all not as simple as it sounds. And it’s not as if Google hasn’t been here before. Google had another standalone podcast app not too long ago, Google Listen, an experimental product launched in the summer of 2009. Google Listen was eventually shuttered in 2012 on the reasoning that there were other, better podcast apps out there, as the search giant told Android Central at the time. But that was two years before the beginning of the so-called Podcast Boom, and quite some time before we’d come to know what we know now. In late 2015, Google added podcasts to Google Play Music, which was an attempt to fit the media category into the Concierge system the company had gained through the acquisition of Songza. It was an intriguing idea, but it didn’t end up moving the Android podcast needle very much.

Tuesday’s standalone podcast app has significant differences that separate then from now, we’re told. These features will include, but are not limited to:

  • Greatly decreasing the friction from search results to an actual mobile listening experiencing, thus operationalizing searches as a true top of the funnel;
  • AI-assisted features like quick transcription, greater in-episode searchability, automatic visual subtitling across multiple languages, and content-indexing, which will presumably give audiences more control over the judgment and navigating of a listening experience (and, also presumably, put some speech-to-text transcription companies out of business);
  • Cross-device syncing, which allows users to easily transition between listening on a smartphone or through a smart speaker;
  • Direct monetization features, like the possibility of a “donate” button.

It remains to be seen whether these features will be enough to convert large volumes of podcast-curious Android users into an actual podcast listeners. For what it’s worth, I think they could be helpful in getting more pedestrians to at least try the damn thing. But I also think that Google will need the cooperation of publishers to do some of the awareness-raising work for them. Then again, if there was ever a time to get a critical mass of publishers to split focus between Apple and an alternative, this moment would be it.

Something else that remains to be seen: how the Google Podcast app’s new features, if effective in capturing listeners, will shift the value narrative of podcasting — that is, the way we understand how a listener relates to a podcast, and thus how podcast impressions are sold to advertisers. After all, much of its contemporary value is based around the idea of podcasts being an “intent-driven” medium — which is to say, it’s pretty damn hard to listen to a podcast, so the kinds of folks who listen to them regularly must really love the thing enough to walk on coals. Google’s new AI-assisted features are designed to cut down the necessity of that intensity. As a result, we’re in for a shift in how we understand, and articulate, the Average Podcast Listener. That’s going to cause some considerable reformulation of how the industry works. It’s also going to shift the nature of who has the real power, and who will set the terms of what podcast publishers can and cannot do.

All of which leads us to the real question: what happens once you get what you’ve always hoped for?

One more thing: In addition to the app, Google has also announced that it is “partnering with the podcast industry on a program to increase the diversity of voices and remove barriers to podcasting.” It seems reminiscent of Spotify’s recent effort at creating a podcast bootcamp aimed at women of color. More information is due late this summer.

Chris Hardwick accused of emotional and sexual abuse. The allegations against the prominent podcaster and Nerdist Industries founder were made by an ex-girlfriend, the actress and model Chloe Dysktra, in a Medium essay published last Thursday. Hardwick wasn’t named in the essay, but he issued a statement to Deadline on Friday denying the allegations.

Various companies that work and have worked with Hardwick have distanced themselves from the presenter. They include Legendary Entertainment, AMC, NBC, and San Diego Comic-Con, among others.

Hardwick launched the Nerdist podcast in 2010, and formed Nerdist Industries in early 2012. Later that year, the company was acquired by Legendary Entertainment. The New York Times profiled him in April 2016. Hardwick left Nerdist Industries this past February, taking the flagship Nerdist podcast with him and subsequently rebranding it as ID10T.

Cadence13 serves as the ad sales partner on the podcast. When contacted yesterday, a spokesperson told me: “Cadence13 serves as a third-party sales representative to Chris Hardwick’s podcast show ID10T. We are currently assessing the situation as we take these allegations very seriously.”

WNYC’s Dean Cappello has left the public radio organization, a little over six months since The Cut published the journalist Suki Kim’s exposé of former Takeaway host John Hockenberry and the station. The report, which drew from Kim’s own experience with Hockenberry as well as the experiences of many others, accused him of sexual harassment and toxic workplace conduct. Cappello, who was the station’s chief content officer when the story broke, was one of the primary targets of criticism during the ensuing fallout, given his role in creating and overseeing The Takeaway as well as his general management of the organization’s controversial culture in the subsequent years. Once widely viewed as CEO Laura Walker’s top lieutenant, he was demoted to an advisory role in January. Cappello had been with the station for over two decades.

As Current noted, WNYC did not provide a specific reason for his departure. On Twitter, WNYC reporter Ilya Marritz highlighted: “Cappello’s departure underscores the fact that the only people held to account (publicly, at least) were on air talent, not executives.”

Marritz added: “Questions I asked today of WNYC: was it Cappello’s decision to leave? Did he get severance? Does he have an NDA? No answers.”

The global scene. The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism published its annual Digital News Report last week, and the study contains a ton of noteworthy podcast-specific findings. Even cooler: its survey of audio and podcasting spanned 22 nations, which gives us a good comparative look across countries.

From the report, here are some key data points on podcast usage across countries:

  • The top three countries with the highest proportions of surveyed respondents who indicated having accessed a podcast in the past month were all in Asia: South Korea (58 percent), Hong Kong (55 percent), and Taiwan (47 percent). The report suggested that this is likely tied to those countries having stronger smartphone penetrations together with “high levels of social sharing.” Not quite sure about the latter, but the former sure sounds right.
  • Here are the rates for the three countries most covered in this newsletter: the U.S. (33 percent), Australia (33 percent), and the UK (18 percent).
  • On the question of the UK’s relatively low usage rate — which is consistent with other Northern European countries — the report’s authors speculate: “Surprisingly, podcasts seem to be least accessed in North European countries with a strong audio tradition such as Finland (24 percent), Germany (22 percent), the UK (18 percent), and the Netherlands (18 percent). This may be because popular public broadcasters have little incentive to undermine their linear radio listening by producing or promoting podcasts.”
  • The authors also suspect: “On the other hand, there may also problems of definition with the term podcast not equally understood across countries. In the UK, for example, much listening comes via the popular BBC iPlayer radio app but on-demand streams and downloads accessed this way are not labelled specifically as podcasts and may not be understood as such in surveys such as ours.” I’m curious if this can also be applied to the inverse; that is, on the three Asian countries with the highest rates of podcast usage.

And here are some other standout findings from the report’s audio-podcast breakout:

  • News podcasts popular among younger listeners. “Just under half of under 35s are using news-related podcasts, which is almost certainly far more of this group than listen to traditional radio news.”
  • Brief case study: Turkey. “We also asked about podcasts in Turkey, where we poll using an urban sample. Here we find more than two-thirds of this group using podcasts monthly, partly as a result of improving connectivity and ubiquitous smartphone use amongst the urban population. A number of the most popular podcasts are in English with the BBC’s Global News topping the iTunes chart.”
  • Concluding note. “Critically, the demographics of podcasting are explosive. The younger generation is embracing content at a time and in a format that works for them — a trend that looks unlikely to be reversed any time soon.”

Yo, I’m just aggregating at this point. You can read the whole audio/podcast breakout here, and you can find the full Digital News Report here.

With this, I know the next story I’m digging into: what’s going on in South Korea, Hong Kong, and Taiwan? Is the picture painted in the report as straightforward as it appears to be? Will this be my opportunity to finally visit Taiwan? Oh boy oh boy.

Meanwhile, across the channel. How about a quick look at what’s going on over in France, whose podcast access rate was pegged at 28 percent in the Digital News Report? “The French media landscape is pretty dire those days,” Charlotte Pudlowski, a Paris-based media entrepreneur, tells me. “Two magazines that launched with big ambitions and a big press coverage died this year, after only a few months of existence. The French version of BuzzFeed just shut down.”

Oh.

But, she added, it looks as if on-demand audio represents one of the few bright spots for the French media industry. Pudlowski cited a recent market study published by Audible and the Parisian research firm OpinionWay, which gives shape to a French podcast listening demographic that’s increasingly drawing the attention of local advertisers in addition to the usual suspects like the aforementioned Audible and an expansionary Casper. The data points sound familiar:

  • More than 40 percent of French people say they listen to podcasts;
  • Of these 40 percent, more than 50 percent are highly educated and work high-paying jobs;
  • French podcast listeners skew young, with 52 percent between the ages of 18 and 24.

Young, highly-educated, and well-paid — not unlike the audience demographic profile you’d get from the American podcast listening audience. (Though, as recently pointed out in the most recent Infinite Dial presentation by Edison Research, the American podcast listenership is slowly beginning to resemble the general American population.)

Sure, it’s a sales pitch. After all, Pudlowski is the co-founder of a new Parisian podcast studio called Louie Media, which specializes in narrative podcasts. But Pudlowski felt strong enough in the opportunity to strike out on her own and form this venture, and Louie Media has found enough work these days to sufficiently validate her claim.

The last time I traded notes with Pudlowski was back in the summer of 2016. At the time, she was working at Slate France, the French sister company of the American digital magazine (she describes it as the “French version of Slate, but independent economically”), and she had just launched a podcast for the site called Transfert, which has grown to average about 350,000 listens a month. After spending a year as the site’s editor-in-chief, Pudlowski decided to break off and follow through with her work in audio. In November, she formed Louie Media with Mélissa Bounoua, old college friend and her deputy editor at Slate France.

The podcast studio is currently built on three revenue channels:

  • Advertising-supported original work, which includes a recently launched narrative podcast called Entre that has booked Audible as a sponsor;
  • Co-productions, which see the studio producing podcasts for other media companies like Madame Figaro, a leading women’s magazine in France, and Slate France; and of course,
  • Branded podcasts, including a recent campaign with Birchbox France.

Again, a good deal of similarity can be gleaned with what we see in the States. This, I should add, extends to the studio’s major hurdles, which also include concerns with measurement and analytics as well as the general need to explain the quirks of a new medium. “The challenge lies both in the lack of precise figures and the earliness of the market in France,”  Pudlowski wrote me. “We still have to [explain to] a lot of advertisers what podcasts are.”

Related reading. From a March press release by AdsWizz, announcing a partnership with the French advertising agency NextRegie:

“Programmatic buying is the wave of the future, and we are eager to move into the future with AdsWizz and make our premium podcast inventory available to advertisers,” said Pierre-Henry Medan, general ganager of NextRegie. “Podcast listening has been growing rapidly in France, Europe, and all over the world, and we are very excited to enable advertisers to communicate on our brands through this new format.”

Hmm.

On voice. These three pieces caught my attention this week, and when grouped together in one place, they collectively paint a really interesting picture.

First of all, Amazon is pushing the Echo into France, which means that it has to build out a voice interaction system in French. From Wired:

When you think about what it takes to launch Alexa in France, start with the basics. There’s the language, obviously. But unpack that: French is complex, both linguistically and societally. It has formal and informal address. It demands of its speakers euphony, harmonious and seamless transitions between words to maintain an almost musical cadence. And as you might expect from a country with nearly 70 million inhabitants, a multitude of regional accents inform pronunciations.

Modeling for one language is hard. (Hell, it’s hard enough to write good dialogue in English.) Adapting across different languages is a whole other challenge altogether.

Next, Mozilla, the makers of the Firefox browser (which, by the way, is my internet vessel of choice), is reportedly working on a voice-controlled browser called Scout. From CNET:

The nonprofit revealed the Scout project in an agenda item for an all-hands meeting taking place this week in San Francisco. “With the Scout app, we start to explore browsing and consuming content with voice,” Mozilla said. A sample command shows how it might work: “Hey Scout, read me the article about polar bears.”

Not to be confused with the other voice-first project called Scout FM, previously known as Subcast, which I wrote about in January. What’s with the affinity for the word “scout”? Weird.

And finally, here’s Ian Bogost, the academic and game designer, writing for The Atlantic about the experience and significance of the AirPods:

After an hour with the AirPods in, listening to music and making a few calls while working, I lose the sensation that they occupy my auricle anymore. But unlike the corded buds, there’s no need to untether myself from the phone when I get up to do something else…I am connected to the phone, and therefore the world, without being tethered to it directly.

This makes the AirPods more than just a wireless headset; it puts the device squarely in the domain of voice assistants and devices, like Amazon Echo and Google Assistant. Even as augmented and virtual reality promise to immerse users in space and information, speech offers a simpler answer that is no less science-fictional: Being able to talk at a computer and have it respond. Echo does so in the room, Siri on your phone, and AirPods right inside your skull.

Looking forward to a world where my wife and I no longer ignore each other at the dinner table as we fiddle with our phones, but where we fearfully keep our conversation down to the dimmest whisper lest we mistakenly wake the myriad smart devices lining the walls. At least it brings us closer together.

Bites

  • Cannes Lions, the annual glitzy advertising festival, is happening this week, and I hear there are a couple of podcast shops in attendance. So watch out for possible stories coming out from that.
  • Welcome to Night Vale has announced dates for its 2018–2019 world tour, which will take the podcast’s live show performance across 44 cities in nine countries. On a related note, the show turned six last Tuesday. Congrats! (Website)
  • WAMU is launching something called The Pod Shop, “a three-month initiative that will train, support and promote local podcast producers.” Up to five people will be selected to participate, and they’ll get mentorship as well as a $2,500 funding award. (Website)
  • “The podcasters who want you to stop listening.” (The Ringer) I’m here for all the Drew Ackerman love.
  • Desus and Mero are heading to Showtime. Avail yourself of this fine profile. (The Brand is Strong)
  • Afropop Worldwide has launched the third season of its Closeup podcast, which delivers “ten- to twenty-minute episodes that tell intimate stories about a musician or a moment in time and explore genres of music and social justice issues from Africa and the diaspora.” (Website)
  • “Remember Pandora Radio? Recently logging on to my old Pandora account felt like meeting a former self.” (BuzzFeed Reader)
  • I think I missed this earlier, but the trailer for Amy Schumer’s big $1 million+ Spotify podcast dropped not too long ago. (Apple Podcasts)
  • Know what? You should be reading Andrew Liptak’s Pod Hunters column over at The Verge. His latest: “The witch who came in from the cold.
  • My latest for Vulture: In The Dark, season 2. (Madeleine Baran is a boss)
  • Not directly related, but worth chewing over: “Why you can’t really trust negative online reviews.” (New York Times)

Turns out people really like podcasts after all (and now we have numbers to prove it)

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 149, published January 30, 2018.

One month in. When Apple rolled out its long-awaited in-episode podcast analytics last month, part of the anxiety (and excitement, really) was finding out whether, essentially, the world would end. Which is to say, whether this whole podcast thing was a bubble, a house of cards; whether perhaps many of the metrics the industry had been using to articulate, extract, and transact its value was nothing more than inflated abstraction, like the hollow vitality of a viral tweet lifted up by a golemnic army of stolen identities.

You can scratch that particular anxiety off the list. Over at Wired, Miranda Katz checked in with a few publishers one month in and wrote:

Though it’s still early days, the numbers podcasters are seeing are highly encouraging. Forget those worries that the podcast bubble would burst the minute anyone actually got a closer look: It seems like podcast listeners really are the hyper-engaged, super-supportive audiences that everyone hoped.

Among those quoted for the piece were reps from Midroll, Headgum, and Panoply.

But of course, whether podcasting was a bubble that better analytics would pop was always only half the question. The other half, whether the new data would lead to a boom, is a whole other bag of nuts. Katz writes:

On the business side, it’s likely that these high engagement rates and low levels of ad skipping will see a flood of new advertisers who have until now been reticent to enter the Wild West of podcasting — welcome news to anyone who feels about ready to throw their phone across the room any time they hear another ad for Squarespace or Casper.

We’ll see! When the analytics were first announced in the summer, Market Enginuity’s Sarah van Mosel told me: “This is certainly a step in the right direction. This is what we asked for and I thank the Apple team for hearing and responding to the podcast community. Now I want more.” More, as in the expected adtech bells and whistles like better targeting capabilities. More, as in anything above table stakes.

But hey, exciting stuff. I suppose this also means that Hot Pod will be somewhat relevant for at least a little while longer. Yay for jobs.

(Side note: I wonder how MailChimp, Squarespace, and Casper feel about their semi-lampooned ubiquity? Probably good, because ubiquity and synonymity with the rise of the medium is a plus, but there’s something about the mocking tone that suggests a more complex linkage.)

Big new clients for PRX. The Cambridge, Mass.-based podcast company announced two eye-catching partnerships yesterday: one with Night Vale Presents, the indie podcast outfit founded by Welcome to Night Vale creators Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor; and one with Gen-Z Media, the kids podcast company founded by the people behind The Disappearance of Mars Patel.

These partnerships will see PRX providing the two companies with marketing, ad sales, and technology support services. That third bit means that both Night Vale Presents and Gen-Z Media will be moving their portfolio of shows onto PRX’s Dovetail platform, which currently serves as the hosting provider for all podcasts in Radiotopia network. (Well, almost. The Allusionist migrates over in April.) Dovetail also hosts podcasts from Serial Productions, most notably handling S-Town’s monster run. (More information on that situation can be found in this column from last April.)

Gen-Z Media’s shows were previously housed on Panoply’s Megaphone platform as a result of a previous partnership struck last January, which saw Panoply supplying production, financing, distribution, and technology support. Gen-Z is also an active partner on Pinna, Panoply’s app-oriented kids programming initiative, for which the podcast company was reportedly developing a suite of new shows.

“Truly, we’re not moving away from Panoply,” replied Ben Strouse, one of Gen-Z’s principals, when asked for clarification on the company’s standing with its previous provider. “Our shows on Pinna will proudly stay there, and we’ll continue collaborating with them on new projects. Our partnership with PRX is all about connecting with new listeners and reaching bigger and bigger audiences for our upcoming shows. We’ve got to diversify our business in 2018 to continue growing, and PRX has a tremendous distribution network and highly respected collection of great podcasts.”

Gen-Z’s move to PRX caps off a complicated month for Panoply, in which the company saw (1) the departure of its kids programming chief, Emily Shapiro; and (2) Slate, its sister company, taking over its podcasts’ sales processes from Panoply.

For Night Vale Presents, the move appears driven by an eye towards scale. Its shows were previously hosted on Libsyn. “We’ve got nothing but positive things to say about Rob Walch and the Libsyn team. They were amazing to work with — we’ve been with them since the beginning of Welcome to Night Vale, and we’ve always been very happy with them,” said Christy Gressman, partner at Night Vale Presents. “That said, we’re really looking forward to working with PRX in a streamlined way, where we’ll get to use their sales team and sponsor management resources and distribution technology (via their proprietary Publish and Dovetail applications), along with sharing other resources.”

Locking down Night Vale Presents and Gen-Z is a pretty big win for PRX, whose operations continue to sprawl out in a myriad of directions. The organization has evolved several times since its founding in 2003, when it was originally built to serve as a technology provider and tool hub for public radio stations looking to take advantage of the internet. (This involved, among other things, the creation of an online marketplace for programming and station-specific app development services.) In its current iteration, PRX has espoused a renewed commitment to independent creators, a stance that has expressed itself through the creation of its “indie podcast label” Radiotopia; the Podcast Garage in Allston, Mass.; and providing end-to-end podcast services for select partners that fit into this indie worldview. The organization is currently led by CEO Kerri Hoffman, who succeeded Jake Shapiro in 2016 when Shapiro moved on to found RadioPublic.

So, what’s the big picture here? One could argue that PRX — with its indie-minded orientation, technology stack, and expanding ad sales capacity supplied by Market Enginuity — makes for a fascinating foil for Midroll, which has long established itself as the dominant full-service provider for a good deal of the emerging podcast ecosystem. It’ll be interesting to see how PRX will further express itself as distinct from its competitors, and what kind of clients it will continue to target and lure away.

On a related note: Radiotopia’s Criminal is working on a spinoff called This Is Love that’s slated for a Valentine’s Day drop. I wrote about the details for Vulture, but I’d also like to say: What the Criminal team is trying out here seems like a good model for creative teams looking to flex their muscles in different creative directions without necessarily compromising the consistent audience interfacing of their core economic/production engines. It sets up an advantage not unlike what you’re getting in the relationship between This American Life and Serial Productions, where talent can flow between the mothership and one-off projects.

This week in public radio:

1. Last Friday, WNYC announced an executive reshuffle that sees Dean Cappello — the station’s chief content officer and CEO Laura Walker’s righthand man throughout her two-decade-plus tenure at the station — demoted into an advisory role with no direct reports. Cappello was previously responsible for overseeing WNYC News and WNYC Studios, the station’s on-demand audio division. The shift comes almost two months after New York Magazine’s The Cut published a piece from the journalist Suki Kim detailing sexual harassment complaints and allegations made against The Takeaway’s John Hockenberry during his hosting tenure at the show. Kim’s story has since catalyzed a broader reckoning about the station’s management, which was deemed to have inadequately handled the Hockenberry complaints and, more broadly, manifested a culture that allowed for bullying, harassment, and discriminatory behaviors that have especially hurt women and people of color.

However, in a statement to Splinter, a WNYC spokesperson clarified that Cappello’s demotion was part of a strategic shift and unrelated to The Takeaway controversies. (Cappello directly oversaw The Takeaway and worked closely with Hockenberry for years, as a recent New York Times piece noted.)

It’s a peculiar clarification. But then again, if Cappello’s demotion was indeed meant to be the official response to the overarching concerns about the station’s culture, then it would have been an insufficient act of accountability. As it stands then, the station still hasn’t outwardly — or inwardly, as far as I can tell — indicated what it will concretely be doing to seriously address its systemic issues.

We may well still see…something from the station. In the WNYC News piece on the matter, it was noted that station management has brought in the law firm Proskauer Rose to investigate workplace conduct and former NPR executive editor Madhulika Sikka to review editorial content and structure. But for now, it feels like the impetus for change remains more centered in the hands of the station’s supporting member base, and how that constituency will collectively choose to alter the cost of reinforcing the status quo.

2. Minnesota Public Radio’s Garrison Keillor problem continues to be a flaming mess. A quick list of recent developments:

  • Last Tuesday, MPR News published an investigation going deep into Keillor’s troubling history of inappropriate workplace behavior around women. “An investigation by MPR News…has learned of a years-long pattern of behavior that left several women who worked for Keillor feeling mistreated, sexualized or belittled,” the piece wrote. “None of those incidents figure in the ‘inappropriate behavior’ cited by MPR when it severed business ties.”
  • That same day, MPR CEO Jon McTaggart published a note responding to several questions that have been sent in by listeners about the controversy. “The irony is that while MPR has been careful to protect Garrison’s privacy and not hurry any decisions, others have rushed to judge and criticize MPR’s actions without knowing the facts,” he wrote in response to one query.
  • A few days later, Keillor pushed back against MPR, MPR News, and an accuser through a statement published on his website and sent to HuffPost. “If I am guilty of harassment, then every employee who stole a pencil is guilty of embezzlement,” he wrote.

There remains a standoff between MPR management and Keillor, with the fate of the Prairie Home Companion archives — considered “historically valuable” by a curator at the University of Maryland, and to which Keillor holds many of the rights — at stake, as the Star Tribune reports.

3. NPR published the 2017 edition of its staff diversity numbers last week, which shows virtually no progress from the year before. Ombudsman Elizabeth Jensen with the details:

The overall racial and ethnic diversity of the news and information division remained virtually unchanged as of Oct. 31, 2017, when compared with the year earlier. Figures supplied by NPR’s human resources department showed the division of 377 people to be 75.10 percent non-Hispanic white (as self-identified). That compared to 75.4 percent the year earlier, when there were 350 newsroom employees. I’ll repeat what I said of the 2016 numbers, which showed only incremental change over the last five years: this was a disappointing showing.

Year-to-year, there were some small changes in the makeup of the remaining 25 percent of the newsroom. The percentage of employees who reported they were Latino or black rose slightly; Asian employees as a percentage dropped slightly.

Jensen’s piece unpacks a number of elements embedded in the station’s problem with employment diversity that’s worth thinking about, including a “trickle down” dynamic as well as the indirect impact of the broader public radio ecosystem’s lack of diversity as a potentially relevant factor in the station’s failure to adequately solve the problem. (One thing I’m personally wondering about, though, because I’m a yellow person: Why did the percentage of Asian employees drop slightly? Are we just, like, not talking more about that?)

But there is absolutely nothing new to be said about this issue that hasn’t already been said, not that doesn’t it have to be said repeatedly, ad infinitum, until the light of the sun snuffs out or the percentages actually change: This needs to be fixed, like now, and it’s ridiculous that the needle has barely moved, maybe even regressed.

In other news: Marjorie Powell, vice president of human resources, has left the organization. Current has some noteworthy background on the development.

Nope, not a good week for public radio.

Personnel notes:

  • Dave Shaw, the executive producer of podcasts at E.W. Scripps, has moved to Politico to lead the podcast team there. He started work today. Also at Politico: Bridget Mulcahy has been promoted to senior producer, and Micaela Rodríguez joins full time as assistant producer.
  • Vox Media now has a dedicated podcast marketing manager: Zach Kahn, who previously worked in the brand marketing and sponsorship division.

Dirty John in the age of Peak TV. The multimedia true-crime project from the Los Angeles Times is in the process of being adapted into two different series for two different networks, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

Bravo, home of the Real Housewives Expanded Universe, is reportedly “near a deal” for an anthology series based on the Times’ Christopher Goffard’s reporting and accompanying podcast (produced in collaboration with Wondery). It will be a two-season order; first season of that show will be based on the Dirty John story, while the second will focus on a new tale altogether.

The Oxygen network is the other suitor, having ordered a companion unscripted series focused on the subject of Goffard’s feature, John Meehan.

Three things:

    • Dirty John is the latest in a growing line of podcast-to-television adaptations, which you can read more about here, here, and here. At some point, I’ll put together a spreadsheet or something tracking the pipeline so we can figure out the split between fiction and nonfiction projects, true crime and non-true crime, so on and so forth.
    • The fact that Dirty John is being adapted into both scripted and unscripted forms is super interesting. How much juice can you squeeze out of a fruit? Depends on the fruit, I guess. Or maybe not?
  • This bit of news comes as the L.A. Times is increasingly engulfed by managerial maelstroms, including dramatic reshuffles in its management, sexual harassment allegations levied against publisher and CEO Ross Levinsohn, and a comically capitalistic parent company called Tronc that’s engaged in questionable business strategies to the detriment of its talented newsrooms. The situation remains fluid; I recommend following Ken Doctor and David Folkenflik if you’re tracking the story.

Macmillan outlook. The podcasting adventures of Macmillan, the international book publishing giant, can be traced back to the closing weeks of 2006 when John Sterling, then the publisher and president of the Henry Holt imprint, called up a science writer named Mignon Fogarty after reading about her rapidly growing podcast, Grammar Girl, in The Wall Street Journal. A phone call about a potential book deal turned into the mutual identification of a unique opportunity, which in turn led to the creation of the Quick & Dirty Tips Podcast Network, one of the earliest podcast publishing experiments by a non-audio native company. (Simon Owens has a great recent history of QDT on his website.)

The network has since grown into a robust and well-oiled machine. It is now over 275 million podcast downloads strong, having added 25 million episode downloads across 2017 to the 250 million in lifetime downloads the network had accumulated by the end of 2016. Fogarty continues to publish Grammar Girl, the network’s flagship program now flanked by an array of spinoffs, and she has published several books that direct extend from her work on the podcast. Meanwhile, Sterling, who continued to oversee QDT even as he ascended to the role of executive vice president at Macmillan proper in 2008, recently announced that he was stepping back from full-time work at the publisher to get into politics. The news comes shortly after he completed work as the editor of Michael Wolff’s Fire & Fury.

With delicious lore to spare, Macmillan is a fascinating figure in podcasting: an early adopter, a persistent player, and a singular operation. And last year proved to be no different for the publisher as it continued to work the on-demand audio angle.

At the tail end of 2016, I wrote about Macmillan’s ambitions to further scale up its on-demand audio operations with the formation of Macmillan Podcasts, a new internal venture that seeks to explore more systematic ways of bridging authors and podcasts. Led by Kathy Doyle, the company’s vice president of podcasts, the newly formed division spent the year setting the table — “We tripled the size of our team and put together a workflow that enables us to be nimble and responsive to requests from our publishers, as well as authors and talent, as we grow our catalog,” she said — and establishing their presence within the organization. This work was mostly tied in the development and rollout of new projects, of which there were five in the latter half of 2017 (Raise My Roof, Dig If You Will, Feminasty, Rossen to the Rescue, and Steal the Stars), but it also revolved around an internal awareness-raising campaign. “We did a road show introducing the potential inherent in podcasts to all our publishers and showcasing the ways we can help contribute to their success — no topic or narrative style is off limits,” she explained.

Steal the Stars, in particular, emerged as the standout project for the division. I first wrote about the podcast last summer, when Tor Books, a science fiction and fantasy-focused Macmillan subsidiary, announced the formation of Tor Labs, an experimental imprint “emphasizing experimental approaches to genre publishing,” which developed Steal the Stars as its first project. I loved the idea of Tor Labs; here you have a new internal venture that’s working to cultivate publishing projects that are meant to contemporaneously span across multiple platforms such that value can be simultaneously extracted from the different markets of different mediums. Such a setup vastly expands the surface area of a single project, dramatically increasing the work’s exposure and further allowing for the possibility of ushering more audiences to cross over between mediums. Sure, much like Subcast from last week, the whole thing isn’t particularly revolutionary — we do live in an age where just about everything gets adapted into any given direction, from podcasts-to-television to documentaries-to-podcasts — but the real innovation is the efficiency and contiguity of the arrangement. Every element is plugged in together from the outset, and that seems new to me.

Steal the Stars was indicative of what the bleeding edge for Macmillan Podcasts could look like. It involved close coordination between Gideon Media (which created and produced the podcast), Tor and Tor Labs, Macmillan Podcasts, and Macmillan Audio (which oversees its audiobooks operations), all collectively working together to ensure that every format of the show was set up to perform well within their respective markets.

Doyle considers the experiment a success. The podcast ended up clocking in a solid performance with listeners; I’m told that the 14-part run surpassed 1 million downloads and continues to perform well in the postseason. “Our strategy included taking the podcast content and adapting it into a trade paperback and ebook and just last week we released an audiobook with bonus content — we even did a prequel live event that sold out — all of which continues to drive interest in the podcast,” she explained. “We’ll be leveraging this model again.”

As far as the product itself goes, I thought it was a really fun listen. A sci-fi audio drama written by Gideon Media’s Mac Rogers, who also wrote The Message and Life After for Panoply, Steal the Stars was a comparatively straightforward narrative romp involving aliens, secret government hijinks, and romance.

So, what does the year ahead hold for Macmillan Podcasts? As you would expect, they’ve got a pile of projects in the pipeline. The division recently released a few trailers teasing two February launches: the first is called One True Pairing, which will be hosted by two St. Martin Press staffers — “Think My Favorite Murder for people who read US Weekly,” Doyle said, a description that sounds a lot like a Who? Weekly competitor — and the second is called But That’s Another Story, which “looks at how books and reading change and shape our lives” and will be hosted by best-selling author Will Schwalbe. More are on the way.

Doyle also notes that the year will be spent further building out key relationships, distribution points, and co-marketing opportunities within the industry. “We’re spending a lot of time thinking about ways we can collaborate with our partners in support of our authors and continue to innovate with new audio-first formats,” she said. You can already see some of that with Macmillan Podcasts’ participation in the marketing of Launch, a new podcast about writing a novel developed by Wondery.

Like most other podcast operatives, Doyle is thinking about the discovery gap — and where the closing of that gap will come from — as well as the longevity of the advertising model, which is the primary revenue channel for their show portfolio. That latter concern is pushing her to explore alternatives. “We’re open to additional models, perhaps working with distributors on a windowing relationship or developing exclusive content,” Doyle added. “It’s a case-by-case basis.”

But for now, though, Macmillan Podcasts is settling into itself. They remain occupants of a unique corner in the broader podcast ecosystem, hard at work figuring out how to add more layers to its niche.

Bites:

  • ESPN is reportedly exploring a sale of FiveThirtyEight. Should FiveThirtyEight break off from Disney — which owns ESPN, among so many other things — there would be considerable ramifications for the FiveThirtyEight Politics podcast and ESPN’s 30 for 30 podcast, as both shows share Jody Avirgan as a principal producer. (The Big Lead)
  • Gimlet is producing a live festival for itself. Called Gimlet Fest, it is scheduled to take place on June 16-17, not too far from their new 27,000-square-foot downtown Brooklyn offices.
  • A documentarian is developing a project about Joe Frank, and is raising funds on Indiegogo.
  • WBUR is launching its collaboration with The Washington Post, Edge of Fame, next month. The show is fronted by WaPo national arts reporter Geoff Edgers, and each episode will profile artists, actors, musicians, and comedians — including Ava DuVernay, Jimmy Kimmel, and Norm Macdonald — through a blend of interview and field recordings. Debuts on February 15.
  • Two shows to track on the local podcasting front: Nashville Public Radio’s The Promise, a limited-run series on public housing in the city, out now; and KPCC’s Repeat, which investigates the story of an L.A. County sheriff’s deputy who shot at four people in seven months. It starts February 7.
  • Variety has a big feature up on Spotify as the music streaming company sets off towards going public, titled “With 70 Million Subscribers and a Risky IPO Strategy, Is Spotify Too Big to Fail?” The piece is super useful to get a sense of what’s going on (and what’s at stake) for the company and its relationship to the broader music industry. Once you’re done with that, pair it with this Financial Times bit: “Songwriters’ court victory deals a blow to Spotify.
  • Not directly podcast-related, but maybe it can be: “A Bunch of TV Writers Are Building a Salary-Transparency Database.” (Vulture)
  • Because true crime is arguably the pulping heart of podcasts in 2018…”Hunt a Killer, One Subscription Box of Clues at a Time.” (The Ringer)