Alexa, can you get my kid to brush his teeth? (Oh, and Alexa? How exactly can I make money with you?)

Chomping at the bit. “Gimlet is a multimedia storytelling brand, not just a podcast network,” declared Jenny Wall, the company’s newly hired chief marketing officer, in a Fast Company piece in January. That identity refashioning is mostly tethered to Gimlet’s increasingly formalized dealings with Hollywood, but it’s beginning to rear its head in other intriguing ways as well.

Last Thursday, Gimlet announced its first offering for the Amazon Alexa platform: Chompers, a skill that takes the form of a twice-daily toothbrushing companion for young children. To produce the skill, the podcast company partnered with Volley, a San Francisco-based startup that specializes in building entertainment products for voice assistants. They’re also releasing Chompers as a vanilla podcast for those who have yet to join the smart speaker cult.

This is a shrewd piece of business for two reasons. The first is hunger: The kids, they really love those speaking computer tubes. According to Edison Research and NPR’s Smart Audio report, 88 percent of smart speaker owners whose households include children report that said children really, really enjoy Alexa. And while I’m not a fan of anecdotal evidence, I will say I’ve seen this myself and let me tell ya: The level of fervor is genuinely frightening. (Bigger picture: Health experts are apparently warily optimistic about the relationship between kids and smart speakers, though concerns about data privacy seem to be the more prominent thorn.)

The second reason is money: The first season of Chompers, we’re told, is sponsored by Oral-B and Crest Kids. With this move, Gimlet has made the choice to dive headfirst into the ethical hairiness of advertising to children, which is a can of worms commonly tossed about in discussions about kids podcasts. It’s also a notable attempt to grapple with an Alexa development environment that’s ambiguous about how it allows skill developers to monetize their efforts. More on that in a second.

The Wall Street Journal’s Ben Mullin picked up the story, which you should totally check out in full, but there are three nuggets in there you shouldn’t miss:

  • Gimlet has hired a voice director to lead further content development for voice assistants: Wilson Standish, formerly the director of innovation at the marketing agency Hearts & Science.
  • (Brand) money moves: “In 2017, more than half of Gimlet Media’s ad revenue came from brand advertisers, according to Anna Sullivan, vice president of brand partnerships for the company. Ms. Sullivan added that the company’s brand advertising revenue grew 134 percent in 2017 compared with 2016.”
  • Gimlet president Matt Lieber re-emphasized the company’s commitment to audio: “The way I think about Gimlet is that we’re trying to build a new kind of modern media company where everything begins in audio.”

The company continues to sprawl into a myriad of directions, and it occurs to me that Gimlet’s narrative these days has mostly been about its meta-show developments and much less about the actual shows themselves. Anyway, I think they’re due to announce a spring slate soon, so maybe we’ll start getting more of that too.

Okay, back to making money off Alexa. So it’s a complicated situation. Chompers emerges against an Alexa development environment that happens to ban all third-party ads (with some exceptions for music and flash briefing apps). It’s also an environment that seems to encourage advertisers and brands to directly create or commission skills themselves; a sort of Alexa-skill equivalent of the branded podcast. For further consideration of this, I highly recommend this Wired piece, “Amazon’s Alexa Wants You To Talk To Your Ads,” from December.

All of this amounts to a deeply uncertain context for audio publishers thinking about investing time and resources in creating a presence on the platform. Even if the smart speaker category feels really exciting in general, it’s incredibly hard for publishers to figure out a decent way to yield returns — a problem exacerbated by Amazon’s total and often opaque governance of the Alexa platform. It’s a familiar conundrum: You want to be a part of something on the up and up before you miss it, but what are you really getting if the nature of the thing is so capricious and beyond your control?

With Chompers, Gimlet appears to have figured out a loose workaround. Oral-B and Crest Kids are indeed sponsors, but according to Amazon’s rules, the Chompers skill can’t convey the sponsorship of the two brands at all. However, the usual ad spots will be present on the podcast version, which will receive the usual cross-promotion treatment across its show portfolio. A spokesperson further told me:

We are also including P&G in all our marketing materials, including social, promotional boxes/kits with Oral-B and Crest Kids products, an Echo Dot, etc. to pediatric dentists in NY SF LA and Seattle, celebs, press and parenting influencers, etc.

P&G, by the way, refers to Procter & Gamble, the multinational consumer goods corporation that owns both Oral-B and Crest. The move with promotional materials leans onto a larger marketing theory: By virtue of its relative monopoly over dental hygiene products, P&G will likely benefit from any broader lift in general toothbrushing practices — which, you know, is both terrifying in its expression of corporate monopoly and also a value-creation hypothesis I’d totally explore if I were said corporate monopoly.

Again, these feel like cobbled-together workarounds, and the larger problem of how one can derive meaningful revenue through voice assistant platforms remains very much up in the air. Two more things to that point:

  • I’m tempted to think that what we’ll see over the long run with the Echo is a media ecosystem akin to YouTube: a closed, centralized platform that largely leads to the creation of a content type unique to itself. As such, if you’re a purveyor of fine podcast products, the choice of developing programming for Alexa is ultimately an optional one — but one that requires its own infrastructures, teams, and playbooks. Which is probably why Gimlet hiring a dedicated director of voice makes sense.
  • There’s something about the current demographics of smart speaker users that makes me think it’s a good tool for audio publishers to deepen their relationship with superfans. Drawing from the various Smart Audio reports, these users are highly engaged, display increased audio consumption behaviors, and appear inclined to use the device as a mechanism to make purchases. Seems like a ripe constellation of traits for an audio publisher looking to build out a subscription or freemium model.

But yeah, I don’t know. The more I think about it, the more unsettled I get. If I were a podcast publisher, I’d be incredibly wary of dedicating too much of myself to Alexa. I don’t know where this particular road goes, but it certainly reminds me of the many, many roads that have ended badly.

Chaser: Then again, maybe it’s not a good idea to build out a distribution presence on a sentient platform? “Amazon Alexa Devices Are Laughing Spontaneously And It’s ‘Bone Chillingly Creepy'” (BuzzFeed).

While we’re on the subject of kids podcasts: Gen-Z Media, which joined PRX’s portfolio of clients back in January, has announced a new slate of shows for the spring: The Mayan Crystal, Six Minutes, and a game show called Pants on Fire.

Of particular note is Gen-Z’s new website, dubbed Best Robot Ever, which functions as its new consumer-facing online home that also features programming from kids podcast publishers outside its network.

Clustering. Two months after wrapping Heaven’s Gate, Stitcher has rolled out another podcast that sticks with the theme of cults and cult-ish movements. The new show is called Dear Franklin Jones, and it’s by Jonathan Hirsch, most known for creating the independent podcast ARRVLS.

I liked the first episode enough (and loved the tinkly retro theme music), but what’s up with Stitcher and cults? This reminds me of the twin films phenomenon, except, of course, this isn’t an instance of semi-serendipitous cross-industry synchronicity, it’s just one publisher being fixated on a subject. Anyway, shouts to 1997, when Hollywood released both Volcano and Dante’s Peak within two months of each other, and to 1998, which saw Armageddon and Deep Impact come out within a similar chunk of time.

Anyway, I’d just like to flag that Dear Franklin Jones is another example of Stitcher working the windowing angle to drive more Stitcher Premium conversions through its original programming. The podcast debuted last week with new episodes weekly, but Jonesheads can access the whole run of episodes now if they signed up for Stitcher Premium.

For the record: I go back and forth debating the merits of windowing arrangements like this. I mean, I get it. By virtue of being a short-run series, Dear Franklin Jones is considerably harder to monetize than a longer-term recurring production, simply because there’s a much shorter runway to develop an active listenership and monetize the “head” of the production. As such, I completely empathize with the need to break out complementary channels for revenue.

But the tradeoff involves dampening the upside should it become a hit during its original run. The option to let listeners pay up and instantly access the rest of the show potentially diffuses the listenership and attention; you’d get two populations experiencing the show at different speeds, and are therefore less likely to participate in the same kinds of conversations. We see a version of this diffusion in the streaming vs. linear television context: Streaming platforms Netflix and Amazon Prime Video simply haven’t seemed capable of driving conversations with the same fervor and intensity that linear networks like HBO have consistently been able to do. I guess what I’m saying is: Scared money don’t make money, but I get it.

It’s a tough balance to strike, and I don’t envy podcast programming chiefs juggling the twin facts that (a) there seems to be genuine hunger for great, high-quality short-run podcasts and (b) they’re so much harder to monetize within the current system. And I imagine this will come to a head for Stitcher when the network rolls out its collaboration with Marvel, Wolverine: The Long Night. That show will debut exclusively on Stitcher Premium next Monday, before going wide in the fall.

The Big Listen ends. WAMU will cease production on the Lauren Ober-hosted broadcast about podcasts after “the program in its current format didn’t gain the traction with other NPR stations that we required to continue the investment in its weekly production,” the station announced Friday.

Keep an eye on Spotify. The Swedish music streaming service finally filed to go public on the New York Stock Exchange last week, and the big story thread is how it will pursue a relatively unconventional (and consequently riskier) route to do so. Recode has a helpful summary of the move — Theodore Schleifer writes: “There are no bankers that will underwrite the listing, meaning no one is trying to make a market for shares. There are no institutional investors who will get first dibs at their shares who could prop up Spotify’s value. And a lot of the rules that are meant to keep a stock from soaring or crashing are out the window” — and I also found Andrew Flanagan’s writeup over at NPR helpful to grasp the bigger picture.

You should check out Flanagan’s entire piece, but here’s the money:

Let’s take [Spotify CEO Daniel] Ek at his word here and assume he truly, deeply would like to pay creators as much as humanly possible, enough to survive on their creativity, while at the same time continue to operate a globally dominant technology company. To do that, Ek and Spotify may need to remove other players from the equation — or as he puts it, “break free of their medium’s constraints.” Ek isn’t talking about the constraints of human hearing or the constraints of creating beautiful and challenging sounds. He’s talking about the constraints represented by an industry of fiefdoms. It sounds as though he’d like the job of king.

So why should we care about Spotify again? As a reminder, the platform has made various attempts — albeit in the form of tentative minor experiments — to build out programming alternatives to its core music offering, a good chunk of which revolves around podcasts and non-music audio content. These attempts are ongoing, and to this date they have manifested themselves in a few different ways including: basic third-party podcast distribution (both through manual submission and through new partnerships with Anchor and Spreaker), original content creation (some of which are produced by podcast shops like Panoply and Transmitter), exclusive windowing arrangements (e.g. Gimlet Media with Mogul and WNYC Studios with 2 Dope Queens), and a new multimedia initiative called Spotlight.

According to the F-1, the music streaming platform boasts 159 million monthly users and 71 million paid Premium subscribers as of December 31st, 2017. The document also spotlight’s the company’s apparent emphasis on expanding “non-music content and user experience,” listed within the growth strategy section. Note the following disclosure:

There were a total of 348 million podcast listeners across all platforms worldwide at the end of 2016 and the number of podcast listeners increased to an estimated 484 million in 2017 according to Ovum, representing growth of 39% year-over-year. This engagement presents a significant opportunity for Spotify as we believe we have the ability to enhance the podcast User experience with a better product that is focused on discovery.

I’m not sure how Ovum, the business intelligence service referenced here, counts a “podcast listener,” but the growth rate is notable nonetheless. For what it’s worth, I’m a heavy user of Spotify for podcast listening, mostly because it works better with my data plan and I often spend huge chunks of the day without Wifi. Then again, I’m the guy that hits Chipotle before 11 a.m. to beat the lunch rush. Which is to say, I’m no indicator of anybody.

Related story: iHeartMedia is preparing to file for bankruptcy, Bloomberg reports.

Career Spotlight. We’re back at it again. This week, I traded emails with Vanessa Lowe, the creator of Nocturne, an independent podcast that’s part of The Heard collective. She’s based in Berkeley, California, which I hear has a hoppin’ radio scene these days.

[storybreak]

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

[conr]Vanessa Lowe: I produce and host the podcast, Nocturne. I’m also a freelance radio producer and do occasional freelance sound editing for independent films. Most of what I’m doing these days is Nocturne, since it’s largely a one-person show. I do 99 percent of the research, interviewing, writing, music supervision, sound editing, mixing, and promotion.[/conr]

[conl]Hot Pod: How did you get to this point?[/conl]

[conr]Lowe: My career has been less of an arc then a strange, but enjoyable, jagged line. I call myself a “dormant psychologist” because I have a doctorate in clinical psychology but haven’t done any work in that field for a long time. I also spent many years being a performing singer-songwriter-guitarist and released five albums.

In 2008, I produced my first longform radio documentary with no training or experience. That was great fun and the piece was actually aired by several public radio stations around the country. I learned two key things from that experience: I loved making audio stories, and I had a lot to learn. That led me to take a workshop on longform audio documentary production from Claire Schoen, a wonderful veteran radio producer in Berkeley. After the workshop, I became her intern, and eventually an associate producer on her multimedia project about rising sea levels. I worked on that project for two years while producing a couple more docs on my own and with collaborators. I grew more confident making audio, but soon grew tired of working for a year or more on one story. Podcasts were picking up at that point, and I got really excited about the idea of an ongoing project that would have variety and novelty by virtue of being composed of individual episodes. That excitement, combined with my curiosity and complicated relationship with the night, led to Nocturne.

I found learning opportunities everywhere. AIR hooked me up for a mentorship. I did the Transom Travelling Workshop on Catalina Island. Shortly after that, my partner, Kent Sparling, and I entered the KCRW 24-Hour Radio Race and ended up in the top ten (we called ourselves Sleep Mice). I became a founding member of The Heard shortly after starting Nocturne. The Heard is a collective of other indie podcasts, all sharing an ethos of wanting to build things that had unique voices as well as a desire to support and learn from each other.

Having come from the indie music world, I initially felt hesitant to bring on ads to Nocturne. It is first and foremost an artistic project with a distinctive emotional atmosphere. I was concerned that ads would diminish that. I tried to find other ways to support the show, but ultimately came to embrace the advertising model. However, I remain picky about what kinds of ads I do and the tone they take. This shift in mindset came in part from my experience at the first Werk It Festival in New York, where sage female producers spoke convincingly about the importance of placing financial value on your work. At this point, I work with a few different podcast ad companies.[/conr]

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

[conr]Lowe: For some reason I’ve always had a hard time with the word “career,” maybe because I’ve rarely felt like an “expert.” I’m always acutely aware of everything there is to learn. But when I think about what career means for me, it has always involved doing something — or multiple things — that I love, feels valuable, and connects with other people in a meaningful way. Some of that has to do with lofty ideals, but honestly I think a lot of it has to do with only being able to sustain interest and motivation in things that really absorb me.

I often fall into the trap of undervaluing what I do from a financial perspective, though, because it feels like such a privilege to get to experience such joy. I’ve only just recently started calling Nocturne “my business.” I need to remind myself that work has value even if it’s really, really fun. But there’s always the fear that something that becomes a “business” will cease to be intrinsically pleasurable.[/conr]

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

[conr]Lowe: When I moved into audio, I wanted to experiment with a different way of communicating ideas from what I’d done before. I didn’t really have a long game. I wanted to do good work in ways that fit who I am, allow for change and play, and hopefully even pay the bills. When I started Nocturne, I told myself I would do it for three years and then evaluate whether I wanted to continue. Nocturne just started it’s fourth year, and I don’t have any plans to stop.[/conr]

[storybreak]

Bites:

  • Emilie Aries, cohost of Stuff Your Mom Never Told You, has stepped down from the HowStuffWorks’ podcast after a year-long tenure and launched a new project: Bossed Up, a podcast that comes out of her award-winning career service and training company of the same name. Transmitter Media provided guidance on the project. This is the second instance of SYMNTY hosts leaving the show to start their projects in two years, the other being Cristen Conger and Caroline Ervin, who went on to start Unladylike.
  • The team from CBC Original Podcasts reached out to flag a few updates: Its true crime show Someone Knows Something is now back with its fourth season, On Drugs returns for its second, and they welcomed a new show called Personal Best.
  • ESPN has announced its third season of 30 for 30 Podcasts, which will mark a departure from its anthology structure to roll out a serialized story. The season will explore the “complicated world of Bikram Yoga — a community grappling with its own identity and survival in the wake of sexual assault allegations against its charismatic guru and founder.” The story is reported and produced by Julia Lowrie Henderson, who notably worked on the “Yankees Suck!” episode from the first season, and the whole season will drop at the same time on May 22.
  • The music label Atlantic Records has launched its own in-house line of podcasts. (Variety) Agreed with Nieman Lab’s Joshua Benton’s take on the matter: “It is interesting to see a record company like Atlantic invest in podcasts, but what they really should do is a regular show with actual Atlantic music on it. Benefit from the fact that other podcasters don’t have a music library at their disposal!”
  • The New York Times welcomes a new show: Charles Duhigg’s Change Agent. (Apple Podcasts)
  • Sort of adaptation in the opposite direction: The Osbournes now have a podcast. (Apple Podcasts)
  • “Branded Podcasts Are The Ads People Actually Want To Listen To.” (Fast Company)
  • Wild: “An Artificial Intelligence is Generating an ‘Infinite’ Podcast.” (Motherboard)
  • “Florida teacher ‘removed from classroom’ after alleged white-nationalist podcast.” (ABC News)
  • Marc Maron is moving garages, marking an end of an era. The New York Times produced a lovely package memorializing the storied production space.
  • Goodness, Sunday’s This American Life was stunning.

[photocredit]Photo by Sean Donohue used under a Creative Commons license.[/photocredit]

Hot Pod: The three numbers that mark the state of podcasting in 2017

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 102, published January 10, 2016.

Digits to start the year. Is the podcast industry growing, and if so, how? I’m keeping these three numbers taped to the corner of my laptop as benchmarks to keep track:

  • Audience size: 57 million U.S. monthly listeners, according to Edison and Triton Digital’s annual Infinite Dial report, which gives the industry its clearest number to beat. The latest version of the report is expected to come out in early summer.
  • Advertising: More than $200 million projected for 2017, according to media research firm Bridge Ratings, which the industry seems to have coalesced around.
  • iTunes downloads and streams: More than 10 billion in 2016, which was up from more than 8 billion in 2015 and over 7 billion in 2014, according to a writeup by The Huffington Post.

Two quick news updates on Apple: The Apple podcasts team is apparently looking for someone to join their editorial team — also known as the people who looks after the iTunes front page.

In a related note, I’m hearing that Steve Wilson, who managed the editorial and partner relations team at iTunes and who was once described in The New York Times as Apple’s “de facto podcast gatekeeper,” has moved to the iTunes Marketing team to manage the podcast vertical. I believe it’s the first time the company is dedicating any marketing resources for podcasts.

The Keepin’ It 1600 team breaks off from The Ringer to start a new venture: Crooked Media, named after the standard Donald Trump pejorative. Its first product, a twice-a-week politics podcast called Pod Save America, rolled out Monday and quickly hit the top of the iTunes charts. For reference, Crooked Media is made up of former Obama staffers Jon Favreau, Jon Lovett, and Tommy Vietor. Dan Pfeiffer, who launched Keepin’ It 1600 with Favreau when it first debuted on The Ringer last summer, will continue his hosting duties in the new podcast, but he will not hold any stake in the new venture. The venture has plans to add more podcasts, video, editorial content, and “new voices” with a distinct emphasis on activism and political participation, according to its mission statement. There doesn’t appear to be any talk of external investment, with the team fully relying on ad revenues from Pod Save America for now.

DGital Media serves as Crooked Media’s partner in production and ad sales. This extends DGital Media’s already impressive portfolio of partners, which includes Recode, The Vertical’s podcast network, and Tony Kornheiser.

The Ringer CEO Bill Simmons is said to be supportive of the new venture, though one imagines the departure of Keepin’ It 1600, which grew incredibly popular during the 2016 election cycle, will leave quite a dent in monthly download totals for the website’s podcast network. However, given the network’s general culture that allows for continuous, iterative experimentation through its Channel 33 feed, they’re well positioned to fill the gap soon enough.

Here’s the thing that’s interesting to me: Crooked Media appears to be a stab at building out a new progressive counterpoint to conservative media, perhaps specifically its right-wing talk radio ecosystem, which has long been a curiously strong marriage of medium and ideological content with significant influence over American politics. It’s a curious thing that podcasting now offers Favreau & Co., insofar as they represent progressive politics, a potential site to match up against the conservative media-industrial complex; as I’ve noted in the past, the podcast medium does seem to feature an ideological spread that tends to lean liberal — even if it’s sticky business to characterize the politics of individual organizations. The theoretical question that occurred to me then, as it does now, is whether there is something about a medium’s structural traits — and demographic spread, and so on — that uniquely supports certain kinds of ideology. With this venture, we’ll have an opportunity to test the question a little further.

Related: Just re-upping this discussion from mid-November: Did the election podcast glut of 2016 fail its listeners?

Launches and returns for the year ahead. I was recently asked to write a preview of upcoming new podcasts for Vulture, and in the process of my outreach, I had a hard time getting concrete, specific release dates for upcoming launches. This, I think, says a fair bit about how the podcast industry, maturing as it is, still has ways to go in terms of developing a rhythm, cycle, and culture around show and season launches for its audience.

All right, here’s what I got so far beyond the stuff on the Vulture list:

  • Gimlet Media is keeping mum on new shows, but they have confirmed that Science Vs will return for its second season in March, while Heavyweight will drop its second season in September.
  • NPR’s vice president of programming and audience development Anya Grundmann tells me that the public radio mothership will be launching several new podcasts and debuting new seasons of some of its most popular shows, including Embedded and Invisibilia. No specific dates, but Grundmann did mention that a three-episode Embedded miniseries will drop in March.
  • Night Vale Presents has confirmed that Alice Isn’t Dead and Within the Wires will return sometime this year. They also note that the team behind Orbiting Human Circus (of the Air) is working on some new projects, which will be released throughout the year. And, as noted in Vulture, the company will be making its nonfiction debut at some point in the form of a collaboration with indie band The Mountain Goats.
  • The New York Times will roll out its latest podcast, Change Agent with Charles Duhigg — which sounds like a cross between an advice column, Oprah, and Malcolm Gladwell — sometime this spring. It’s also building a new show around Michael Barbaro, who hosts The Run-Up and has since moved into the audio team full-time. According to Politico, the Times is planning to expand its podcast roster from seven up to possibly twelve this year.
  • Radiotopia’s newest addition to its roster, Ear Hustle, is set to debut sometime this summer.
  • First Look Media tells me that they will be launching a weekly podcast for its flagship investigative news site, The Intercept, on January 26. The show will apparently be called “Intercepted.” There’s a joke in here somewhere, but we should move along.

That’s all I got for now. I’m going to keep a page going for this, and will update as more information trickles out. Send me what you have.

Panoply kicked off the year with the launch of its first “imprint”: The Onward Project, a group of self-improvement podcasts curated by author Gretchen Rubin, who hosts the popular Happier podcast under the network’s banner. The imprint is currently made up of three shows: the aforementioned Happier; Radical Candor, a management-oriented show; and Side Hustle School, a daily show made up of bite-sized episodes that describe financially successful side projects. The Onward Project was first announced during last September’s IAB Podcast Upfront.

Call it an imprint, call it a subnetwork, call it whatever you want: The concept seems to be more of an innovation in audience development than anything else. “I’d say success looks like what we’re already seeing — a collection of podcasts in which each show brings in its host’s unique audience, which is then exposed to the other shows through tight cross-promotion,” Panoply chief creative officer Andy Bowers told me over email, when I asked about the thinking around the imprint. “With podcast discovery still such a vexing problem, we think the imprint offers listeners a simple answer to the question they’re always asking Gretchen: ‘I love your show — what else should I listen to?'”

We’re probably going to see Panoply develop more imprints in the near future, further establishing a structure that makes the company look more like a “meta-network” — or a network of networks — which is a form that was only hinted at by its previous strategy, where it partnered with other media organizations to develop multiple podcasts under their brands.

60dB hires Recode reporter, adding to its beefy editorial team. The short-form audio company has hired Liz Gannes, previously a reporter at the tech news site Recode, to join its editorial team. Gannes, a senior hire, rounds out a team that has thus far primarily drawn from public media. It includes: Daisy Rosario, who has worked on NPR’s Latino USA and WNYC’s 2 Dope Queens; Brenda Salinas, formerly at Latino USA and KUT Public Media; Hannah McBride, formerly at the Texas Observer and KUT Public Media; and Michael Simon Johnson, formerly at Latino USA.

So here’s what I’m thinking about: The editorial team apparently exists as an in-house team that works to produce audio stories with partner publications, often discussions about a written article that recently published, for distribution over its platform. (Is it too much of stretch to call it high-touch adaptation aggregation?) It’s a dramatically manual — and not to mention human — content acquisition process, and that’s a structure that does not scale cheaply, which I imagine presents a problem for a founding team mostly made up of former Netflix executives.

Two questions that frame my thinking on the company: Where is 60dB supposed to fall within the spectrum between a Netflix-like platform and an audio-first newsroom with an aggressive aggregation strategy? And to what extent do the partnerships that the company currently pursues make up the long-term content strategy, or do they merely serve as a stepping stone into purely original content?

Anyway, I hear that more 60dB news is due next week. Keep your earballs peeled.

Related: In other tech-ish news, it looks like Otto Radio, the car dashboard-oriented podcast curation platform that recently hammered down an integration with Uber, has secured a round of investment from Samsung. Note the language in the press release describing Otto Radio’s distribution targets: “connected and autonomous cars, smart audio devices and appliances, and key integrations with premium content providers.” Appliances? I guess with Amazon’s Alexa platform creeping into everything — which was one of the bigger takeaways from this year’s CES — we’re about that close to a world in which your refrigerator can blast out those sweet, sweet Terry Gross interviews.

Facebook Live Audio. Shortly before Christmas, Facebook announced the rollout of its latest Live-related feature, Live Audio, on its media blog. Key details to note:

  • The feature is in its testing phase, and its broadcasting use is limited to a few publishing partners for now. At launch, those partners include the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), the London-based national talk radio station LBC, book publisher HarperCollins, and authors Adam Grant and Brit Bennett. It remains unclear whether those publishers are being paid for their partnership similar to the way that Facebook has been paying major media organizations like BuzzFeed and The New York Times, along with celebrities, to use the Live video feature.
  • The post notes that the feature will be made “more broadly available to publishers and people” over the next few months.
  • The launch of Live Audio is the latest in Facebook’s efforts to expand its Live initiative, which the company has been banking heavily on for the better part of the past year. It had launched Live 360 just the week before.
  • The pitch, as it has always been, primarily revolves around interactivity — which speaks directly to the “social audio” conversation carried by many in the radio and podcast industry (see This American Life’s Shortcut, WNYC’s Audiogram, and so on). The introductory post writes: “Just as with a live video on Facebook, listeners can discover live audio content in News Feed, ask questions and leave reactions in real time during the broadcast, and easily share with their friends.”

Right, so with all that out of the way: What does this mean for podcast publishers, and maybe even radio broadcasters? I haven’t quite developed a unified theory just yet, but I’ve been breaking the question down into two components.

First, it’s worth asking if Facebook Live Audio is compatible with much of what currently exists in the podcast (or radio) space. Facebook, as a digital environment, has always seemed to be structured such that only certain kinds of publishers — or “content creators” can “win.” More often than not, those are the publishers whose business or impact goals are functionally aligned with that of Facebook’s, and from everything that we’ve seen, read, and heard about the company, it seems pretty clear that Facebook’s primary goal is to drive up user numbers and, more importantly, user engagement, whose quantifiable attention are then sold to advertisers.

But that’s obvious; the question is, of course, how has the company preferred to generate those engagements? It’s one thing if Facebook’s underlying game plan here is to “replace” broadcast, be it television or radio. But it’s a whole other thing if the company is instead trying to build out and further define its own specific media ecosystem with dynamics, incentives, behaviors, and systems unique to itself — which is exactly what appears to be the case here.

So, what kind of audio content is likely to benefit from playing into Facebook Live Audio’s unique dynamics? Probably not the highly produced narrative stuff. Nor anything particularly long. Oddly enough, I have a somewhat strong feeling that many conversational podcasts could be much better suited for Facebook Live Audio than they ever were for the existing podcast infrastructure. But at the end of the day, what appears to be true for Facebook Live Video — and for most new social platforms — will probably be true for Facebook Live Audio: the kind of content it will favor is the type of content that’s native to the form. Everything else is either filler or a means to generate actionable data.

Second: The Facebook Live program displays high levels of volatility, both in terms of the program simply functioning as intended — see: miscalculated audience metrics, surging, lingering questions over Facebook’s role in digital governance and its relationship to the state — and, perhaps more crucially, in terms of the program’s underlying view of publishers and the actors of the wider media ecosystem.

The functional volatility alone should give some thinking about dedicating resources to building out a Facebook Live Audio strategy. But the greater pause should come from the second point on the program’s underlying position. Facebook’s general abstinence from making any concrete statement about its relationship to the media (and its potential identity as a “media company”) suggests a materialistic, neutralizing view that sees all actors on the platform as functionally and morally equal. Another way of putting this: The health of individual publishers, regardless of its size, hopes, dreams, and virtues, is a tertiary concern to the platform, as long as it is able to drive up the primal behavior it wants — its own definition of engagement.

It’s a toughie. On the one hand, you have a platform that theoretically connects you with various segmentations and iterations of the platform’s 1.79 billion monthly active users. But on the other hand, it’s really hard to get around the whole unfeeling, arbitrary-governing-structure thing. It’s up to you — depending on what your goals are, what relationship you want to have with your audience, your stomach for instability and risk — to decide if you want to live that Facebook Live Audio life.

None of this particularly new, by the way. But it’s still worth saying.

Bites:

  • Tamar Charney has been confirmed as NPR One’s managing editor, having assumed the role in an interim basis since Sara Sarasohn left the organization. Emily Barocas joins the team full-time as an associate producer to curate podcasts for the app. Nick DePrey, who has been supporting NPR One in his capacity as an “innovation accountant,” is now the digital programming analytics manager at NPR Digital Services. Elsewhere in the organization, Juleyka Lantigua-Williams has joined as the senior supervising producer and editor for Code Switch.
  • PRX has announced its first cohort for Project Catapult, its podcast training program aimed at local public radio stations. Also note: the organization has hired Enrico Benjamin, an Emmy award-winning producer, as the initiative’s project director. (PRX)
  • “Why branded podcasting could more than double in 2017.” (Digiday)
  • SiriusXM is now distributing WNYC Studios’ podcasts over its Insights channel. This continues an emerging trend that sees SiriusXM mining podcasts for quality inventory to build a content base beyond its Howard Stern-shaped engine: Last August, the company hammered down a partnership with The Vertical’s podcast network, and it has been distributing the Neil DeGrasse Tyson podcast Startalk since January 2015. (SiriusXM)
  • I’m hearing that the first round of judging for this year’s Webby Awards is underway. Several folks have also written me pointing out that the group of judges for the Podcast and Digital Audio category is pretty public-radio heavy — and not to mention, overwhelmingly white. (Webby Awards)
  • This is cool: Norway has become the first country to shut down its nationwide FM radio in favor of digital signals. (NPR)

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What will we find out from the deeper podcast metrics everyone says they want?

“I always get kind of confused by the talk of how podcasts don’t have good data.” So says Roman Mars, steward of the great 99% Invisible and Radiotopia, on this week’s episode of Big Venture Capital Firm Andreessen Horowitz’s a16z podcast, which discusses the surge we’re currently seeing in podcasts. Mars’ point, which is well taken, is that podcast measurements via downloads are way better and significantly more precise than broadcast radio measurements and that, besides, the metrics we use to conduct transactions with advertisers come from a kind of shared fiction (a “lie”) anyway. Metrics, much like gender and time and the basis of life in liberal arts colleges, are a social construct.

Broadly, I absolutely agree with these points. And I suspect (though I have no way to prove this, so let’s just call this a strawman right out of the gate) that this perspective comes from a very legitimate skepticism (or perhaps fear) that our various pursuits to generate better, more granular data reporting on the way people listen to audio on the Internet are ill informed. It’s very possible that we would open the black box only to realize that most people don’t actually listen past the 10th minute for most shows — much like how most people don’t actually scroll past the first two paragraphs of meaty investigative long-form pieces, you know, the kind that takes down presidents and wins Pulitzers and gets synecdoched — and we consequently lose whatever clout, bargaining chip, or basis of reasoning in our dealings with the advertising community.

And I also suspect, with no proof yet again, that the bulk of us are ill prepared to rapidly rebuild that collective fiction to a workable place once it’s broken. If that’s the case, it must explain why it feels like everybody is squeezing as much juice as they can out of their oranges before the frost. (Holy crap, what a pretentious metaphor.) Many businesses, both good and not-so-good-but-still-businesses, have been built on the rudimentary metrics that podcasting as a medium has been able to provide so far. Much of that building must have taken a lot of hard, hard work, the kind of labor that I simply can’t begin to understand. It’s hard to truly understand the entrepreneur — particularly, the creative entrepreneur — unless you do it yourself, and so it’s hard to know the true emotional impact of such, er, disruption.

But on a conceptual level, I still believe that increasing the knowability of podcast consumption is an essential and worthwhile pursuit. Maybe it’s a function of my youth, arrogance, and/or relative lack of structural power in the space, but I believe that breaking apart the makeshift fundamentals of today’s podcasting business models will lead to better creative and revenue environments in the future. More granular data will lead to better editorial decisions and better, perhaps more meaningful advertising practices. It could perhaps even lead to better alternatives to advertising.

Right. That’s enough of me saying a lot without providing any evidence. Other things to note from the podcast (which you should listen to in full!):

  • The other guests were Ryan Hoover and Erik Torenberg of Product Hunt, the buzzy hot app-curating startup, which recently launched its podcast discovery vertical.
  • Super interesting tidbit: At around the 7:50 mark, Hoover made reference to a new Gimlet show in the pipeline that’s due to drop sometime by the end of this year: a podcast that recommends new podcasts. The jockeying for the center of the podcast universe continues. Of course, there have been attempts at a podcast (or radio show) like this in the recent past, but I’d be damned if I didn’t admit to being super excited.
  • Also interesting: The age-old question of “What’s the atomic unit of podcasts?” Mars appears to take the position that the unit is the show, while Product Hunt has clearly sided with the episode as the discrete unit. I can’t remember what I sided with back when I asked that question myself in this newsletter, but I’ve recently come to suspect that maybe we’re asking the wrong question.
  • The episode also gave reference to a framework that I’ve long loved when it comes to thinking about the current landscape of podcasting: that it’s remarkably analogous to the early days of blogging. Waiting for that Breitbart equivalent.

Sideways to “live journalism.” Bill Simmons made some news last week when he dished out some insight into the brouhaha behind his dismissal from ESPN, openly discussing the issue with guest Wesley Morris (formerly Simmons’ employee back at Grantland, and who recently left the site to be The New York Times’ critic-at-large — R.I.P., the great “Do You Like Prince Movies?” podcast). His comments proved to be harvestable material for the digital media mill, with organizations ranging from The Washington Post to Business Insider ((Congratulations on the acquisition! I think?)) crunching out posts delivering their own highlights, recaps, and takes on the podcast episode.

So the highlight I want to highlight in this state of affairs is not anything Simmons-related, but rather the fact that the podcast episode catalyzed several other pieces of media into existence. It underlined the fact that podcasts, or certain kinds of podcasts, at least, are themselves raw material for further reporting — a primary resource that seems underutilized by media institutions that actually have their own podcasts.

Let me put it this way: This Simmons situation highlights a manner in which podcasts can be more directly linked with more established digital media output that has yet to be adequately exploited. When wielded as an extension of journalistic institutions, podcasts (and live events) can themselves serve as raw material for use by reporters who focus on shortform blog posts and actively participate in instant recap culture. I think we saw a close-to-decent example of this with a recent episode of Recode Decode featuring an interview with BuzzFeed founder Jonah Peretti, who disclosed some truly juicy numbers about the media company’s traffic proportions. Recode did a really good job getting more mileage out of that bit of news by reporting further and publishing an addendum on the actual post that originally housed the podcast episode, and we saw Business Insider doing its thing where it basically published a partial transcript of that moment in the interview.

It’s a win on a lot of levels. First, a good interview or audio report is an easy source for writers and reporters to report on, reflect on, and put up to feed the beast. Second, such posts increase the attention paid to the podcast — thus increasing the likelihood that the show would be tried out by a reader who wouldn’t typically dabble in the medium. And finally, moves like these help close the gap between audio and other kinds of digital output; they further extend the utility of the podcast as part of the institution’s overall reportage, as opposed to being a placid digest-as-distribution-play, brand-extension effort, or some wackadoo accessory to the larger operation.

Perhaps the parallel that comes closest to evoking what I’m trying to say with this is the curious manner in which The New York Times’ Charles Duhigg describes the paper’s conference initiatives. “It’s live journalism,” Duhigg has been quoted as saying.

All right. I think I’ve met my quote for ~~thought leadership~~ this week. Let’s get to some juicy announcements!

Serial to be adapted for TV. Right. So I remember reading this last week and immediately putting down my laptop and going straight to bed. But here are two things that makes this situation really interesting, per reporting over at Deadline and The Hollywood Reporter:

  • The people responsible for the adaptation are Phil Lord and Chris Miller, the insane duo that’s fashioned a fascinating and incredible career out of pulling off highly unlikely adaptations with verve. For reference, they were behind The Lego Movie and 21 Jump Street, both of which were not only box office hits but critically praised as well. (Their most recent project, the TV show The Last Man on Earth, didn’t quite reach the heights of their cinematic output, but you gotta give it to them for handling a really high concept.)
  • The adaptation concept positions it well for television. According to Deadline, “Miller and Lord will develop a cable series that would follow the making of the podcast as it follows a case.” Which makes it sound less like a miniseries adaptation and more like a straight-up season-long procedural.

Eh, why the hell not. Count me in the bag for this.

Speaking of Serial. Old news now, but in case you missed it, Maxim magazine put out the first report a few weeks ago that one of the new seasons in the podcast’s pipeline will revolve around Bowe Bergdahl, the American soldier who mysteriously went missing from his base when on duty in Afghanistan back in 2009. He was eventually found to be held captive by the Taliban, and was freed in a prisoner exchange in 2014. The Serial team has not confirmed this.

Not going to spend too much time on this, but I’ll just say: If it’s true, this is the best possible go at round two. The team at This American Life are often lauded for its capacity at storytelling, but it should never, ever be forgotten that they are also first-class journalists and documentarians — and they’re perhaps the best team to take on this subject with proper sensitivity and insight.

The release date for the next season has not been confirmed, but it could well drop as soon as a few weeks from now. For a better overview, check out the New York Times writeup.

Two new shows to check out:

Last Wednesday was International Podcast Day, apparently. And The New York Times wrote a little about it, with me and Gimlet’s Matt Lieber throwing out a couple of podcast recs. All hail Anna Sale, as usual.

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