Which is the bigger morning news podcast, The Daily or NPR’s Up First? And does it matter?

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 134, published August 29, 2017.

Art19 closes out a busy August. Last week, the California-based technology company announced a $7.5 million Series A funding round led by Bertelsmann Digital Media Investments and DCM Ventures. This makes Art19 the third podcast venture to issue such a pronouncement this month, after Gimlet Media and DGital Media (which now goes by a whole different name, by the way — more on that in a bit).

Sean Carr, Art19’s CEO, tells me that the new funds will primarily be used to increase its headcount and reach. “We’re going to accelerate product development by hiring more designers and developers,” he said. “And we’re going to expand our business team so that we can continue offering high touch support to our U.S. customers and start expanding into international markets.”

I asked if Art19 was going to maintain its focus on bigger clients (its customer list includes Wondery, the New York Times, and DGital Media, among others, and it’s also the default hosting choice for Midroll Media’s network) or whether there were plans to open up its platform for the broader self-serve, plug-and-play market that’s primarily cornered by older companies like Libsyn, which continues to grow. (Libsyn’s revenues grew 22 percent between 2015 and 2016, up to about $8.8 million, while its number of hosted podcasts grew 24 percent in that same time period, according to its 10-K.)

“We work with some smaller shows and individual users now,” Carr tells me. “It’s not our focus now, because we want to offer white glove support to our customers and that’s tough to do with a lot of volume. But as we scale our business, we will definitely broaden our product offering and our target market.”

That’s one way to do it, I guess.

A rose by any other name. DGital Media, the podcast company that provides production and ad sales support to organizations like Crooked Media and individual talent like Tony Kornheiser, is undergoing a substantial rebranding. It will now go by the name of Cadence13, and the company accompanied this announcement with news of several additions to its leadership team. You can find the full list of those people in the press release. Nothing really stands out to me in particular, other than the detail concerning the company’s intent to cultivate more logistics-related capabilities throughout the country.

They’ve also moved their offices to midtown Manhattan, in case anybody cares about the significance of corporate real estate. (FWIW, I totally do.)

Anyway, this development comes shortly after the announcement earlier this month that the company has received investment from (and is entering a strategic partnership with) the corporate broadcast radio giant Entercom. Specifically, Entercom paid $9.7 million for a 45 percent stake in Cadence13, and the former will also provide “‘significant’ annual marketing and promotion” across its broadcast infrastructure for the latter. I wrote about that situation, and provided some long-term analysis for the company, here. My thinking on the matter remains largely the same.

Also interesting, I suppose: The company’s client list now includes Girlboss Media, which recently relaunched its podcast. That podcast was once part of the Panoply network, curiously enough.

Can I get a topic, any topic? Podcasting has long been good shelter for the comedy world, consistently proving itself able in taking on many parts of that ecosystem. It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that (really longform) improvisational comedy would make its way into podcasting and germinate into a budding sub-genre of its own. Hello from the Magic Tavern, a child of the Chicago Podcast Collective and now a fully grown teenager under the auspices of Earwolf, is perhaps the first prominent example of (excessively longform) improvisational comedy distributed through RSS feeds, and it appears that its success is breeding successors.

Described as an “improvised sci-fi sitcom,” Mission to Zyxx is an upcoming podcast project that seeks to blend the instant world-building tasks inherent to improv with aggressive editing and creative sound design. It’s being spearheaded by one Alden Ford, a New York-based comedian, who currently serves as the show’s executive producer, and the podcast is staffed by a team principally drafted from the New York comedy scene — the press release makes some hay about its distinction from the more prominent Los Angeles scene — including Jeremy Bent, Allie Kokesh, Winston Noel, Moujan Zolfaghari, and Seth Lind (who, by the way, also serves as This American Life’s director of operations).

Somewhat more germane to our interests is the fact that the project is part of Audioboom’s initial foray into original programming, whose rollout is well underway. That slate also includes: another podcast from the Undisclosed team called The 45th, which is another Trump analysis show, and a new upcoming project by the team behind Up and Vanished, called Fork, among others.

What does being part of Audioboom’s network mean for the Zyxx team, exactly? I’m told that the deal involves Audioboom paying an advance to offset production costs, along with generally being responsible for a substantial marketing push around the show’s launch. (Which is table-stakes stuff, as far as such arrangements go these days.) And in case you’re wondering, the Mission to Zyxx team is compensated based on a revenue split, as is customary.

Facts and figures and trust. Last week saw the publication of two documents — one from the research firm Nielsen, one from the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) — that are both meant, in their own ways, to increase trust, familiarity, and the general level of knowability in podcasting among advertisers. (They’re also meant to increase the profiles of their respective publishers within their respective functions; for Nielsen, it’s to serve as a prime provider of business intelligence for the industry, and for the IAB, it’s to serve as a reliable advocate for the industry, in so far that it can.)

Nielsen’s document, “Podcast Insights Report,” is the first podcast-related inquiry for the research firm, and it attempts to say something about the shopping habits of the average podcast consumer in relation to particular item categories. Specifically, it examines the preferred brands and spending volumes of podcast listeners in bottled water, beer, and baby food categories (a curiously alliterative mix). It’s a useful tool for sellers to add to their kit, but it’s also fairly interesting to skim through if you’re a civilian — there are tidbits like “the podcast audience influences over $2.8 billion of bottled water sales annually,” and “popular beer brands among podcast consumers include Sam Adams and Coors,” stuff like that.

Also interesting in the report: a more general demographic finding that non-white podcast listenership has increased over the past six years, from 30 percent in 2010 to 36 percent in 2016.

Published ahead of its third annual podcast upfronts, the IAB’s document is a “playbook” designed to introduce potential brands, advertisers, and marketers to the basics of buying into the medium. In other words, it’s another primer for the space, albeit one with the officiating stamp of a fairly well-known trade association.

I wouldn’t underestimate the marketing value that these documents provide the podcast space as a whole. The world is big and complex and made up of many, many little bubbles, and such badges of honor go a long way in opening up the podcast industry’s relationships with new companies in previously untouched sectors.

On a related note: While we’re talking about intelligence reports, you might be interested in a recent study conducted by NuVoodoo, a research and marketing firm, and Amplifi Media on podcast discovery and consumption that was presented in last week’s Podcast Movement conference. InsideRadio has a full rundown of the findings, but remember: Take the study as one piece of a much larger mosaic. (Or, you know, one of those color dots that collectively make up like a more tangible image. Or TV pixels. Whatever. You know what I mean.)

Speaking of the IAB, just got this info from a Midroll Media rep last night:

In October, Stitcher will be making changes to align its downloading definitions with some of the emerging standards put forth by the IAB. This will give podcasters more standardized, accurate, and granular data about their shows…As part of this change, some podcasters may see an increase or decrease in the downloads attributed in Stitcher. Ultimately, the data podcasters receive from Stitcher will be more accurate and more useful for shows looking to grow, work with advertisers and gain insight into their performance.

Take note.

Preamble: All right, before I move on to the next story, which is about the way we read metrics, impute success, and orient shows in relation to one another — a story that somewhat continues last week’s discussion on daily news podcasts, The New York Times’ The Daily and NPR’s Up First — I have to first establish the following:

The New York Times’ The Daily averaged more than 750,000 downloads every weekday in August, a spokesperson from the organization told me. Which, you know, is pretty remarkable growth from the 500,000 number that was listed in the Vanity Fair feature from last month.

And as a reminder, last week NPR informed me that “Up First currently reaches a weekly unique audience of almost a million users,” with “97 percent of Up First listeners say that the podcast is part of their morning routine and 80 percent say that they listen every day.”

With that out of the way…

Safety in numbers. I’m going to preface all this by saying the following discussion may come off as a tremendous bit of navel-gazing — even by the standards of this newsletter — but I nonetheless think this story has a lot to say about measurements, milestones, and the way we think about “success” in an emerging industry still in need of public serious arbiters of value.

So, for last week’s issue of Hot Pod, I wrote up this whole thing about Vox Media’s upcoming daily news podcast, the strategic openings in that product genre, and drew pretty heavily from the adventures of NPR and The New York Times in that arena. It was, I thought, a wide-ranging and interesting discussion that examined the question of how best to design your way into a field that’s competitive and, in some ways, already pretty well defined.

But it seems that readers were most compelled to the off-handed statement I made pitting Up First against The Daily — which, of course, is a tricky proposition given that each uses different metrics to publicly indicate performance and therefore lacks a fundamental baseline of comparison. The Daily has been using the download to convey its size, while Up First has been using a “unique weekly audience” metric that they gleaned off an in-house analytics tool from an outside company called Splunk, a move that falls from NPR’s broader commitment to move beyond the download. “The differences in metric might make an apples-to-apples comparison complicated for those interesting in doing so,” I wrote. “But I think the victor is pretty clear.”

The reader reaction to that off-handed sentence was exceptionally voluminous, and that indicated two things to me: (a) I was quite wrong in thinking that the victor was all that clear, and (b) people really, really wanted to know who won.

I quickly grew doubtful of my original assessment on the matter, so I felt it appropriate to dig more deeply into the question and explore the shape of its context a little further. And to do that, I traded emails Velvet Beard, the vice president of podcast analytics at Podtrac, which verifies audience sizes and download performance (using its own “unique monthly audience” metric) for a lot of major podcast providers — including both NPR and The New York Times.

You might know Podtrac from the public-facing industry ranker they publish every month — which I have some issues with as an exclusive conveyor of value for the podcast space as a whole due to its somewhat incomplete participant pool, as I wrote about when the ranker originally rolled out last year, but which I have eventually come to accept the ranker as a useful reference sheet for generally assessing what’s up with the market. In my correspondence with Beard, I wanted to learn two things: What should be the right metric to make evaluative comparisons between shows, and what was her opinion on the matter of Up First vs. The Daily?

To begin with, Beard dismissed the notion of ranking one over the other, arguing that the emphasis shouldn’t really about who “won” but rather about how there’s room in the market for two large competitive shows. (An overwhelmingly reasonable point.) And with respect to the question of the appropriate comparative metric, she expounded upon Podtrac’s choice to go with a “unique monthly audience” paradigm as opposed to, say, downloads: it better controls for varying publishing schedules, because you can’t meaningfully compare a daily show with a weekly show with a weekly show that’s deploys more than a few bonus episodes. In her reply, Beard also brought up a range of other valuable points, including how an open conversation about relative successes might disincentivize publishers from verifying their measurements and the differing definitions of “success” in the industry. (It’s a really interesting discussion, and I’ll run the full Q&A after this.)

Beard is, of course, absolutely correct in her assertion that the notion of who “won” shouldn’t be all that important, because it’s not like we exist in some zero-sum, winner-takes-all market. (Nor would we want to. Good lord no.) But I do think it’s somewhat useful to make direct comparisons between shows and to determine who’s serving more audiences (and how deeply) — particularly when you’re able to appropriately match up the two editorial products as exactly as we can with The Daily and Up First. From matchups like these, we can say something about the efficacy of each player’s choices and their capacities to make choices, and we can further draw other actionable lessons like:

  • Did NPR’s straightforward adaptation of Morning Edition pay off better than the more experimental machinations of the Times’ audio team? Or did they pay off equally, and if so, what’s the significance of that?
  • Which type of design gambit better resonated with the current composition of overall podcast listenership, the answer to which could be useful for future show development?
  • Was NPR able to maintain its various competitive advantages as the incumbent in the audio medium, and what we can say about its decision-making and creative leadership as follows from that question?

So, that’s my broader thinking about the premise of this inquiry. But, returning to the original inquiry itself, was I able to come up with a clear victor between the two shows? Let’s break it down:

  • As mentioned earlier, The Daily received at least 750,000 downloads every weekday in August. That’s tremendous, indicating some measure of high engagement.
  • We don’t have a way to figure out The Daily’s listenership on a weekly unique audience paradigm, but we can work from the other direction. Up First reports having “a weekly unique audience of almost a million users,” and that “80 percent say that they listen every day.” If we’re being fairly conservative and peg the weekly uniques to, say, 950,000, we’re talking about a volume of at least 760,000 every weekday — comparable to the level The Daily topped each weekday in August.

It’s close! You could theoretically call this close to a neck-and-neck draw, or even a slight advantage to Up First despite launching three months after its competitor. But then again, you could also say that it sure is something that a relative newcomer to the audio space — admittedly, one with the resources and pedigree of the Times — has been able to pretty effectively match the public radio mothership, whose incumbency is built on decades and decades of experience in audio news. Further, you could say that there’s a sense that the terms and outcome of this matchup are far from being finished; as previously established, The Daily’s growth in recent months, from a daily average of 500,000 in June/July or so up to a daily minimum of 750,000 in August, suggests a show that’s coming further into its own and increasingly reaping the benefits of self-discovery.

As always, I’ll be keeping my eye on this.

Q&A with Velvet Beard. As I mentioned, here it is in full:

[storybreak]

[conl]Hot Pod: The Podtrac industry ranker is built on a “unique monthly audience” paradigm, which stands separate and apart from the general “downloads” metric that’s generally used to discuss show performance. Let me start by asking why you guys decided to focus on the “unique monthly” metric.[/conl]

[conr]Velvet Beard: As you know, Podtrac began in 2005 providing free podcast measurement and demographic services to publishers with the aim of gathering the information on podcast audiences that advertisers needed to make ad buys. By late 2015, when the podcast renaissance was in full swing, we began to hear consistently from advertisers that they were interested in podcasting but confused about download metrics. It was clear to advertisers that even the definition of a download was different from publisher to publisher and this kept some advertisers on the sidelines which was frustrating to the publishers we work with.

Here’s how one podcast advertiser put it to Digiday:

The way that some of these tools piece together these download numbers can be bizarre, confusing, and not necessarily the most accurate representation of what’s actually happening…You’d be surprised how many podcasts don’t even have analytics on their downloads.

We knew that unique monthly audience is an important metric used in other types of digital media because it enables planners to consider monthly audience reach regardless of potential impressions served. Given Podtrac’s 10-plus years of measurement data and experience, we realized we were in a unique position to create an audience/reach metric that would be consistent across publishers and shows whether episodes post daily, twice a week, weekly, or even less frequently.[/conr]

[conl]HP: When we were emailing, you mentioned that the choice between the metrics depends on “how the industry wants to ultimately define success.” What do you mean by that, and can you walk me through the thinking?[/conl]

[conr]Beard: We didn’t create the audience metric to “define success,” but to help advertisers understand what they are buying (audience reach) and publishers understand how many unique people their content reaches. But out of that did come a ranking which does lead to comparisons and implications of success.

Given that, what I was trying to say in regard to choosing a metric for success is that it depends on what the objective is. So again, while setting a success metric was not our intention, I do think this is super interesting to think about. If the publisher/advertiser/industry most values reach/influence, then having the largest unique audience would make you the most successful. If ad revenue is most valued, then having the most impressions to sell (unique downloads) would make you the most successful (though I guess you would have to sell the inventory to capitalize and seal the deal on this success).

And maybe it isn’t how the industry “ultimately defines success,” but maybe there are multiple potential metrics used for different purposes and so there could be multiple winners depending on how you look at it although right now at the publisher level I would say these two metrics track. That is, NPR has by far the largest unique audience and I would venture to say generates the most ad revenue.[/conr]

[conl]HP: From your vantage point, could you walk me through the advantages of using “weekly uniques” over “downloads”? And, if you could flip that on its head for a moment, what are the advantages of using “downloads” over “weekly uniques”?[/conl]

[conr]Beard: I’m going to assume you are asking about the advantages of unique audience over unique downloads as a metric to determine a show/publisher’s success/ranking, since I think both numbers are valuable and have their uses and I don’t think we should throw either of them out.

(We don’t actually publish a weekly unique number right now, although we do have publishers asking. Right now we are calculating monthly audience.)

This is a bit in the weeds, but for a weekly podcast, the weekly unique download number for an episode is the unique audience number for that episode. So we don’t calculate unique audience at the episode level but at the show level and at the publisher level.

What the unique audience number lets us do is understand the overlap in listeners to a show across episodes or overlap in listeners across all shows for a publisher during a specific period of time — which right now is monthly.

The general advantage I see to a unique audience number versus a download number is that it controls for number of episodes/impressions served and measures more accurately how many people are actually listening to a show or a publisher’s shows. So if we looked at only download numbers to compare shows, then, daily shows will have a huge advantage over weekly shows in their ability to generate downloads (5-7 times more opportunities), but that doesn’t mean they are reaching any more people. So this advantage holds if what you want to understand is your audience = how many individual people you are reaching, which is something that advertisers are interested in. Audience numbers also fluctuate less than download numbers as downloads are influenced a lot by adding a bonus episode, doing a promotion of an episode or other one-off activities which may or may not bring in new audience members but usually always increase downloads.

The “advantages” of using downloads to compare shows/publishers are probably that it is easier for the general public and less sophisticated publishers to understand and that the numbers are always larger — which makes everyone feel better. :-)[/conr]

[conl]HP: So, I’m personally of the opinion that it’s valuable and productive to be able to pit two comparable shows — say, a daily news podcast vs. another daily news podcast — against each other and be able to tell who has come out on top. I think you disagree with me on this. What’s your perspective on this issue?[/conl]

[conr]Beard: If two shows are in our top 20, it means they are highly successful in gaining audience. So you could say which has more than the other, but it might be more interesting/productive to ask why these two are more popular than others in their category.

I’d be interested to understand what value you see coming out of the pitting of two shows against one another, unless it is for an advertiser to choose where to put their money? In that case I think that already happens everyday on media plans — just not publicly. We really did create the rankings to help raise the visibility of podcasts and try to help advertisers be more comfortable with podcast metrics in an effort to grow the pie for everyone. Publishers like NPR and HowStuffWorks saw the value in this and were eager to participate.

To my mind, “pitting” one show against another at this point in the industry’s development could be counterproductive in that “losers” will not want to share data and could then become even further incentivized to create their own numbers. I think we already see this at the publisher level. Maybe once the industry has stabilized around success metrics this type of public comparison becomes more useful, however, I still say pitting of shows against one another based on just one metric (audience or downloads) seems overly simplistic as it doesn’t consider demographics, distribution and access points, audience-host connection, etc. It seems more useful for multiple publishers to consider their shows successful and then be able to differentiate them to audiences and advertisers based on those factors.

The feedback from publishers and advertisers in regard to the rankings using unique U.S. audience has been very positive, and having most top podcast publishers embrace transparency in this way is helping more and more brands understand the space and build confidence in their podcast advertising decisions.[/conr]

[storybreak]

Bites

  • Gimlet Media has announced its latest podcast: Uncivil, which seeks to “brings you stories that were left out of the official history of the Civil War, ransacks America’s past, and takes on the history you grew up with.” It will be hosted by Chenjerai Kumanyika and Jack Hitt. You might remember Kumanyika from the great Scene on the Radio series Seeing White, and Hitt is a longtime journalist whose works have appeared on This American Life and in The New York Times Magazine. Launches October 4. (Uncivil)
  • ESPN has makes two additions to its podcast portfolio ahead of football season: one new college football show and one new weekday NFL show. They’re also rolling out “bonus” conversation episodes in the 30 for 30 feed. (Press release)
  • For some reason, I’ve been asked multiple times this week whether I had any intel on when WNYC’s More Perfect will return for a second season. I don’t know much beyond what’s publicly available, which is that it’ll be back sometime in fall. That team takes its time, y’know? (Twitter)
  • Hmm. “Leela Kids opens up the world of podcasts to children.” (TechCrunch)
  • This is fascinating: “Love it or hate it, truckers say they can’t stop listening to public radio.” (Current) As an aside, while reading this I couldn’t stop thinking about the coming effects of automation on those jobs. (Quartz, The Atlantic)
  • Remember, the Channels initiative isn’t Audible’s only foray into original content. “Mother Go is an audio-first novel that harkens back to the golden-age of sci-fi.” (The Verge)
  • Reveal’s Al Letson is an American treasure. (Reveal)

[photocredit]Photo by kokotron bcm used under a Creative Commons license.[/photocredit]

Hot Pod: The indies weigh in on a podcast business gone pro (“Capitalism!”)

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue ninety-seven, published November 22, 2016.

Five perspectives from independent podcasts. We’re doing something a little different this week. One of the fundamental narratives driving the podcast space, I think, is the consequences of formalization. Much of this newsletter focuses on the exploits of a professionalizing layer of companies agitating to build a more formalized industry on top of a vibrant open ecosystem that had thus far been fueled by an expansive community of independent creators. A tension exists in the attempted cohabitation between the two; the prevailing concern that emerges from this is whether the developments of the past two years have mutually benefited both parties or whether they have largely privileged the professionalizing layer.

That tension is challenging to study, given the severe deficiencies in publicly available data on podcasts in the aggregate and the general amorphousness of what we’re talking about when we talking about “independent podcasts: — a category that encompasses a wide variety of different content, scales, business models, and ambitions. Comprehensive representation, then, is improbable, so keep that in mind as you read this. Anyway, I spoke with five independent podcast operations about how they’re processing the exploits of the bigger fish, and I’m running chunky excerpts from their responses here. Here we go.

1. Rose Eveleth, of the Flash Forward podcast, on the challenges of crowding:

I think that the gains in podcasting-as-a-business is both great and terrible for indies. The increased attention and money are largely directed at the top-of-the-food-chain shows that come from legacy radio. Even the companies that have spun out, like Gimlet, have that same DNA. They sound like the conventional audio storytelling shows and, crucially, they employ people whose job it is to get more listeners and better advertisers and make money. That’s not bad! It makes them safe business propositions for advertisers. You’ve had success advertising with NPR, This American Life, Radiolab? Great, you see Startup and Reply All as safe bets. They’re shows with an infrastructure and sales team that looks really similar to an advertiser to traditional bets they might have made on radio or big name podcasts.

With that money comes an increase in attention to podcasts in general. Which means more podcasts. Which means more competition from teams that have an infrastructure and budget like Gimlet. I think that’s great. But it also changes how viable it is for an indie show to build an audience.

Let’s take science podcasts, for example. It used to be that if you were a science nerd, you would discover Radiolab. And then you’d be like “Wow, how do I get more podcasts like this?” You’d go to iTunes and click on “Science & Medicine” and you’d get Radiolab, and then the rest of the shows on there were indie: Star Talk, You Are Not So Smart, Inquiring Minds, The Naked Scientist etc.

Now, you go to iTunes and you click “Science & Medicine” and you get: Hidden Brain (NPR), Radiolab (WNYC), Invisibilia (NPR), How to Do Everything (NPR), Science Vs (Gimlet), Science Friday, Only Human (WNYC) and then you start to get indies. The average person isn’t going to listen to more than a couple of science podcasts, probably. So, the competition is getting tougher, and the top is crowded by podcasts that have teams and systems behind them.

This is good in some ways! It means that in order to get ahead you have to make something that’s good, and surprising, and high-quality. I don’t want to overstate the quality of those pre-big-business-podcast shows — many of them were not good. But it was true that by simply making something about science and medicine you could find yourself in the top 50 on iTunes without needing a marketing team. Now, that’s much much harder, in my opinion, even if you are making something really great.

All of this isn’t unique to podcasts, right? This is a thing that happens to small industries that get an influx of cash. Capitalism!

(2) Gina Delvac, who produces Call Your Girlfriend, on the dynamics of attention:

I have a public radio background like so many podcasters, and really cut my teeth at the national show Marketplace. So from my business journo perspective, I think it makes sense to watch the people who are generating the largest volumes of venture capital, acquisitions, and revenue, and driving new fundraising models. That’s going to impact all podcasters, whether or not we are affiliated with any of those companies, because they push the boundaries of what is economically possible. (I’m talking about creators getting paid for these weird, difficult, fulfilling, and/or transformative little gems we make). We’re all watching to see how this nascent industry develops. I say “nascent” because I think there are possibilities for disruptions far beyond what we’ve seen since mid-2014 when Call Your Girlfriend (CYG) started.

At CYG, in addition to having two incredibly brilliant and delightful hosts, Aminatou [Sow] and Ann [Friedman] have their own platforms and friends in media circles, who were big boosters for us. Early writeups in Entertainment Weekly and The Guardian and regular features on iTunes helped us find an audience in a big way early on. We’ve benefited from a lot of additional press since then. I don’t say that to brag, but to acknowledge that many indie podcasters do not have quite the same bullhorn that we do outside of the podcast itself. A lack of attention paid to smaller shows is a genuine problem for those individuals to be able to continue on, and obviously for the rest of us looking to have our ears challenged by new creative approaches and the viewpoints of people who can’t afford to work for free.

(3) Paul Bae and Terry Miles, of Pacific Northwest Stories, on whether growth at the professionalizing layer has cannibalized independents:

Not at all. If you look at who rules the top of the iTunes charts, you’ll consistently see independent players like Aaron Mahnke and Dan Carlin up there with the Gimlet and Radiotopia shows. So when it comes to podcasting success, exposure is important, but, at the moment, content would still seem to be king.

What we hope doesn’t happen is a glut of mediocre celebrity-driven podcasts, people dipping their toes into the podcasting waters for a couple of episodes here and there. That could color the new listener’s impression of what the medium of podcasting is capable of delivering. It’s great that everybody can make a podcast, and there’s room for everyone, but we hope that, when it comes to exposure, the media covering the form continues to reward and trumpet high-quality, well-thought-out audio productions rather than simply looking at a name or brand and chasing that association.

It’s one thing to draw significant media attention away from the plethora of amazing content being created by those of us dedicated to podcasting for a different high-quality audio experience. It’s another to turn people off of the medium because their introduction to the form wasn’t compelling.

(4) Lauren Shippen, of The Bright Sessions, on podcast coverage:

I do think that most of the attention is paid to the big networks, but I also understand the necessity of that. There are so many podcasts out there that, for someone who is writing about podcasts, it makes sense to start with the proven, known entities and work your way down. Things break through if they get enough listens, but there are still a lot of hidden gems. But this is like any other industry — there are a lot of good musicians that no one’s ever heard of because they don’t have the machine of a label behind them…

It will be interesting to see what happens to podcasts like ours in the next six months as these bigger networks start to get into the audio drama game. My only concern is that some listeners will enjoy the “name-brand” audio drama, yet still be reluctant to try “unbranded” audio drama. We’re right up there on the charts with the recognizable names, but we don’t have the cachet of a large company behind us. I think audio drama becoming mainstream is inevitable and ultimately a good thing, but there’s always the fear that we’ll be swallowed up by bigger, shinier fish. Only time will tell!

(5) Claire Friedman, of Cards Against Humanity’s Chicago Podcast Cooperative, on the clustering of interest at the top:

Sometimes [podcast networks] are going to see an indie show and reach down and pull them up. Other times, they’ll miss something truly great. And that’s all right too! They’re not perfect. The benefit for indies is that there’s even a path now. There’s somewhere to go. They may take that path and they may not, but having it changes your mentality.

There may be people who listen to fewer indie shows now because they’re listening to ones produced on networks. There may be people who just can’t get a break where they may have previously been able to. But I truly don’t think that’s hurt indies as a whole. It’s done work to familiarize more people with the medium and more companies with the potential, and I think that’s made indies more able to communicate why they’re doing something different and cool.

Third Coast debrief. The beloved Chicago-based audio conference wrapped up its eleventh edition two weekends ago, and while I wasn’t able to attend in person — and thus, disappointingly, was unable to experience the fireworks at the contentious post-election panel (Current has a solid play-by-play) — I heard it went swimmingly, with record attendance amid what is essentially a boomtime for audio. I managed to get Third Coast’s Sarah Geis, the conference’s artistic director, and Maya Goldberg-Safir, the conference’s communications strategist, on the phone yesterday for a debrief. Some selected notes:

  • “The conference was bigger than ever before,” Geis noted. “There were about 750 people this year, up from under 600 when we last held the festival two years ago.”
  • Geis and Goldberg-Safir told me that one of the major differences from the last conference was an increased presence of organizations recruiting for talent. That was reflected both in the attending companies as well as the sponsorships.
  • “I was grateful that it didn’t feel like a trade show at all,” Goldberg-Safir said, bringing up the festival’s emphasis on maintaining a sense of intimacy and approachability. This will be a continued point of focus as the team accommodates for likely increases in attendees in the years to come.
  • Finally, the team is setting up a podcast feed that will serve listeners audio recordings of the sessions from the 2016 conference as well as selected sessions from previous years. It will also contain some educational material. The feed will be published over the next few days; keep an eye on the website for details.

Geis, by the way, is leaving Third Coast at the end of the year. The organization is restructuring as a result, and will be posting job listings for an artistic associate and a manager of operations soon. As for Geis, she’ll be looking to leverage her three years developing her skills as an editor in pursuit of other opportunities.

Approaches to translation. I don’t speak many languages — truthfully, all I have is English, the mother tongue of the country I come from, and bits of obscenities scattered across various Romance languages — which means that I am largely at a loss when I cover stuff like Slate France’s early podcasting efforts, which I wrote about back in August, and the Spanish-language narrative show Radio Ambulante’s distribution deal with NPR, which I discussed last week. Ideally, I would have loved to actually experience those shows before writing about their developments, structures, and business contexts; after all, a core belief driving this newsletter is the ways in which product impacts business models and vice versa.

My frustrations with covering stories like that led me to wonder about the set of moves currently available for podcast translation and localization, which subsequently led me to U.K.-based radio producer Eleanor McDowall, whose site, Radio Atlas, seeks to bridge the language gap by converting non-English-language radio pieces into video packages that layers visual subtitles over original recordings. I first heard of Radio Atlas from a Poynter column published back in February (when the site originally launched), and at the time, I felt that the choice to essentially shift the experience from audio-first to video-first was one I ultimately didn’t want to follow as a consumer. I still feel that way, but I figured McDowall had nonetheless worked through the alternatives of approaching translation when developing the site, so I asked her to walk me through her choices.

Over email, she outlined the three approaches she considered:

(1) Transcripting, where listeners are encouraged to either read a script online or as a print-out while consuming an episode. “This happens a lot at European conferences and competitions like the IFC and the Prix Europa,” McDowall pointed out, referring to two well-known international radio competitions. “My issues with the transcript method are that you completely lose the timing. If you’re a quick reader, you’re going to leap ahead and spoil everyone’s punchlines. Yu might miss the musicality of the edit or the pause mid-sentence as an interviewee becomes overcome with emotion.”

(2) Audio reversioning, where a captioning voice is integrated into the piece itself in a way that flows over parts of that piece, often extending the listening experience well beyond its original design and runtime. “There have been some really creative approaches to audio reversioning. The translation voice might offer a new dimension, act as a new interviewee, or play with the form of a doc, to a certain extent,” she explained. “I think audio reversioning is really interesting, but for me — although every act of translation is obviously a transformation — it’s a tool that changes the character of the original documentary into something else. As with the transcript method, having the presence of a translating voice might mean that you miss the music of the original delivery… Should audio translation be neutral? Or should the speaker try and capture the tone in which lines are delivered? And if we’re listening to a ‘performed’ translation, are we diluting the authenticity of the documentary to a certain extent?”

(3) Subtitling, which is the method McDowall employs at Radio Atlas, a move that structurally reconstructs the experience from being purely aural to primarily visual. “[Subtitling] controls when you get the translation so you can get a much better sense of timing and delivery and it’s not disrupting the audio world of the original,” she said. “Radio Atlas is designed with the hope that you think as little as possible about the act of reading. I’m keen that words only appear as you need them and, where possible, I leave the screen blank so that you’re focused on the act of listening rather than looking.”

Thinking this through, it’s also entirely possible to consider a fourth option: direct translation, where the script is rewritten and reperformed in English. Of course, this wouldn’t be feasible for many nonfiction shows, which are typically structured around primary recordings of source or guest interviews, but one imagines that this could work well for non-English audio dramas — and for attempts to export English audio dramas to non-English-speaking countries as well, of course.

Aside from running Radio Atlas, McDowall is a senior producer at Falling Tree Productions, an independent production company, and the series producer of Short Cuts, a BBC Radio 4 documentary show and podcast.

Here’s an editorial partnership to watch: Song Exploder is teaming up with Vulture for “a series of episodes on the most interesting film scores of the year.” The series kicked off last week with an episode covering the score for the movie “Arrival,” composed by Jóhann Jóhannsson. It’s a very smart, non-zero-sum collaboration, with obvious up sides for both parties: Song Exploder gets itself in front of the Vulture audience (many of whom may be new potential listeners), and Vulture gets a piece of compelling, resonant #content that’ll engage and further monetize its readership. (#Synergy, baby.) Other podcasts, and other digital publications, would be wise to replicate this move.

And props to Song Exploder creator Hrishikesh Hirway for his entrepreneurial efforts to participate in a collaboration like this. This partnership with Vulture isn’t his first; between May 2015 and March 2016, Song Exploder was presented almost weekly on Wired.com as what appears to be a syndicated package.

Codebreaker returns for season two. Interesting and curious, gimmicky but somewhat pleasantly so: I thought Codebreaker’s first season was an uneven but admirable attempt to go beyond your standard podcast publication format. The show sought to build an interactive experience on top of the show, hiding codes throughout the episodes — which were ordinarily scheduled to publish weekly — that would unlock the rest of the season for the more involved audiences. You could call it a tiered community management structure, one that’s designed to identify, segment, and reward the more engaged listeners (a data point that could undoubtedly prove useful to the Codebreaker team).

The podcast, which comes out of a partnership between American Public Media and Business Insider, kicked off its second season last week. This season focuses on the question: Can technology save us? Host Ben Johnson tells me that the new season is more ambitious than the first, both in terms of the storytelling and the code design. He seems very excited. You can check out the website for more information.

Bites:

  • RadioPublic is now publicly available on iOS and Android. (Nieman Lab)
  • “Podcasts’ strong ad sales help NPR reach second year of budget surplus.” According to National Public Media CEO Gina Garrubbo, “Podcast income drove the growth in digital…with advertisers renewing at an “extremely high” rate.” (Current)
  • Digiday reports that The Ringer’s podcast network apparently brings in 5 million downloads per month, citing “people familiar with the matter.” (Digiday)
  • How a local news nonprofit is experimenting with audio to build new revenue streams. Gotta hand it to those Vermonters. (Nieman Lab)
  • Add this to the list of podcasts-to-TV jumps: “‘Drink Champs’ podcast coming to Diddy’s Revolt TV Network.” Though one imagines a celebrity-driven podcast strategy — like the one practiced by Drink Champs’ parent podcast network, CBS Play.it — is set up to more efficiently, but perhaps not necessarily more effectively, cultivate conversions like these. (Variety)
  • Radio journalist Joshua Johnson will succeed Diane Rehm as host of WAMU’s long-running public-affairs discussion program. The new show will be called “1A.” It’s not directly podcast-related, but I’ve been a long-time listener of Rehm’s show, so I’m just dropping this here because I find it super exciting. (Washington Post)

This shortened version of Hot Pod has been adapted for Nieman Lab, where it appears each Tuesday. You can subscribe to the full newsletter here. You can also support Hot Pod by becoming a member, which gets you more news, deeper analysis, and exclusive interviews; more information on the website.

How can news organizations better prepare the next generation of editors?

The ideological spread of podcasts. It’s been…an interesting election cycle here in the United States, to say the least, one that’s caused me enough anxiety to burrow deeper into the insular, cord-cutting media cocoon I’ve built for myself — an assemblage of ye old newspapers (The New York Times and The Washington Post, mostly), cable TV (CNN, mostly), broadcast radio (public, mostly), social media (the ideologically self-reinforcing Facebook and Twitter, mostly) and, of course, podcasts — in a bid to find some assurance that everything will…be okay, I suppose, or whatever it is I’m trying to look for when I seek out election news.

Which isn’t a great way of doing things, of course, given that it’s a function of larger problems associated with media fragmentation and selective exposure (see the recent Wall Street Journal interactive feature “Red Feed, Blue Feed”) that’s believed to have exacerbated the country’s political polarization. Frankly, I buy this explanation of the present: the idea that the increasingly abundant, on-demand, and personalized nature of our news media has led to whole swathes of populations creating worlds and realities of their own that don’t have much reason to overlap and interact with each other, until they absolutely must (like, say, during a national election), in which case the result is pure combustion.

There was a Wired article by Charley Locke not too long ago that grabbed my attention — about a five-year-old conservative leaning podcast network called Ricochet — in which Locke characterized the podcast space to be disproportionately liberal. (Whether that refers to actual composition or representation is hard to establish; it’s related to all the ways we complain about the medium’s measurement difficulties.) Using the upper echelons of the iTunes charts as her principal dataset, Locke wrote: “There’s not much ideological diversity in the conversation…Podcasts have proven a viable platform to reach a liberal audience, just as radio talk shows have for conservative listeners. But what does that mean for the Americans in the middle?”

Of course, characterizing some media organization versus others as liberal is sticky business. Locke’s rubric places organizations like NPR, FiveThirtyEight, Vox.com, and Slate in the liberal bucket, a characterization that might be challenged by some of these institutions more so than others. (Indeed, NPR has had a long history of being accused of liberal biasa charge they constantly challenge — while one imagines FiveThirtyEight and Vox would orient themselves more towards analytical impartiality.) However, given Locke’s other more unambiguous examples — former Obama staffers Jon Favreau and Dan Pfeiffer’s Keepin’ It 1600 with The Ringer, and David Axelrod’s The Axe Files with CNN, both of which are expressions of that administration’s relative comfort with the medium , recently covered by the Times — her overarching point seems to hold: The podcast charts don’t offer very much in the way ofexplicitly conservative programming, and one could understandably draw a hypothesis about the medium’s larger ideological distribution from that.

There are a few noteworthy exceptions: The iTunes top 100 currently charts a podcast featuring Milo Yiannopoulos, the controversial writer and editor for the conservative Breitbart News Network who was recently banned by Twitter for racial harassment, and that show is distributed by PodcastOne. (That company is also home to a few other podcasts hosted by explicitly conservative personalities, like Laura Ingraham and Bill Kristol.) Earlier this year, the similarly conservative Jay Sekulow show broke into the top 3. Sekulow is an attorney and cofounder of the American Center for Law and Justice, a politically conservative activism organization that he cofounded with the often controversial Pat Robertson. But those examples are very few and far between, reinforcing Locke’s observation.

When I talked to Locke last week, she proposed a theory about the ideological spread: The medium’s liberal-lean is largely the result of its early adopters. As she thinks about it, relatively liberal media outlets (or media organizations perceived to be liberal) were among the firsts to develop content using the medium, laying down the foundation of its identity and eventually establishing themselves as the de facto “old guards” of the space. I’m partial to that theory, but I’m also tempted to wonder: Is there something about on-demand audio’s structural traits — and demographic spread, and so on — that uniquely supports liberal programming? (Conversely, do broadcast talk radio’s structural traits uniquely benefit conservative programming?)

“This whole thing ties into something I’ve been wondering about more broadly: Why aren’t there a lot more new media organizations oriented to conservative listeners?” Locke continued. I’m personally curious about where young conservative readers are, and where they look to get news.”

“They probably feel pretty isolated,” she added, wistfully.

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Local spaces. This Wednesday, PRX is holding a party to launch their new Podcast Garage, a recording facility and community space for Boston podcast creators. The space is part of Zone 3, a Harvard-catalyzed initiative developed to “explore experimental programs, events, and retail” along the city’s Western Avenue, which runs alongside the Harvard Business School.

“We want to foster a maker culture, create an environment of openness, and support storytelling,” said Kerri Hoffman, PRX CEO, when we spoke yesterday. “What we’re hoping to do with the garage is to bring all of those values right down to the ground at the local level, and create a physical hub for the Boston podcast community.”

The garage is stocked with studio equipment that’ll be available to the community via paid pre-booked rental arrangements and free studio times, which will be offered at certain times of day. Events will also be organized in the garage to brings podcast makers of all skill levels together, the first of which will be held on August 8 featuring a presentation by PRX Remix curator Josh Swartz.

“We really do think seasoned, local producers will make good use of our service,” Hoffman said. “But our sights are really on people who haven’t made a podcast yet, on the next generation. That’s what I’m really excited about.”

That’s the hook that really catches my eye about this project. Hoffman’s sentiment here echoes ideas that I’ve heard from similar initiatives across the country — ones that are also physically-oriented and locally-minded, like the Chicago Podcast Cooperative, which is run out of the lovely, non-descript Cards Against Humanity offices in the Lincoln Park neighborhood and managed by a great person named Claire Friedman, and the nascent XOXO Audio Studio, which is being developed out of the XOXO Outpost in Portland, Oregon by similarly great person named Tyesha Snow. Both operations involve a sense of bringing more people into the space who otherwise would not have had the opportunity to do so.

“We want to be a place that makes it easy for anyone to grab some studio space and make some magic,” Snow told me. “We believe that creation of the studio will spur all types of connections for the people…I can’t predict exactly what will happen over the coming year but people are ready and waiting. It’s going to be amazing.”

If there’s any force that would pull us away from any possible over-concentration of the podcast industry — and maybe, the production of media, more broadly — in New York and the coasts, I believe it’s going to be made up of local, physically-oriented spaces like these that makes opportunities more accessible in more places across the country. So if you’re working on an initiative like this, do let me know.

French podcasts. “Mainstream podcasts almost don’t exist in France,” wrote Charlotte Pudlowski, when we traded emails about the country’s on-demand audio landscape a few weeks ago. Pudlowski is an associate editor at Slate France, the French sister company of the American digital magazine, and is the person overseeing its emerging podcast strategy. She tells me that French podcasting mostly consists of repackaged broadcasts from Radio France, the French public radio equivalent, supplemented by some independent podcasts — “mostly talks,” she wrote, referring to conversational podcasts, a lot of which you can find here — and something called Arte Radio, which is reminiscent of a Third Coast-esque documentary directory.

Pudlowski is hoping to buck that trend by introducing longer-form narrative content to the mix. In mid-June, Slate France launched two shows: Transfert and Titiou, Nadia et les sales gosses (Titiou, Nadia, and their brats). The former features first-person narratives (or “narrative stories, told by the people who experienced them,” as Pudlowski phrased it to me), while the latter is a parenting show hosted by two Slate France writers which will mix formats on each episode.

Pudlowski was able to secure Audible as a launch sponsor, and it remains Slate France’s only audio advertiser for now. “We have made a deal for one year that corresponds to a number of minutes we have to produce in one year,” she said. “We’ll also look for other advertisers. But the contract with Audible doesn’t give us any fixed number of downloads or impressions we have to achieve, which gives us an amazing freedom of trying new things, taking risks.”

Things are looking pretty good for the two shows since they’ve launched, relatively speaking. Transfert’s first episode garnered 23,000 downloads in its first four weeks, while the second episode saw about 17,000 downloads during the same period. Titiou, Nadia et les sales gosses received about 13,000 downloads for its first episode. “We had not set a precise objective because it’s so new in France we had no possible comparison, but we’re pretty happy about it,” said Pudlowski, further noting that she was pleased with the attention the shows have been getting on social. The shows are hosted on Megaphone, the new CMS by Slate’s other sister company Panoply. (Confusing, ain’t it?)

I was curious about the potential market size for on-demand audio in France — its size, and opportunity. “It’s very hard to know because it is so new,” Pudlowski explained to me, pointing out that podcast listenership in the country isn’t widely measured just yet. “But what we do know is that French people are really into radio.”

Citing a December 2015 report from MediaMetrie, a French audience measurement company, Pudlowski tells me that more than 89 percent of the population listens to the radio every week and almost 82 percent every day, with the average French person consuming about 3 hours of radio on a given weekday and more than 2.5 hours on the weekend. That’s a whole lot, and one imagines that the bet here is that a good chunk of that listenership will carry over into on-demand, which is a transition bound to happen just about anywhere in the world.

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More on editors. Last week, I wrote about Planet Money’s hiring of Bryant Urstadt as the team’s new senior editor, contextualizing the hire within a larger conversation about an editing crisis not just in audio, but also in journalism more broadly. Given that editors more or less serves as the gatekeepers of curated, public information, I found the crisis absolutely fascinating, and it turned out to resonate with Hot Pod readers as well. Many wrote in to express their own thoughts on the matter, and many had the same question I had: how do you train to become an editor in the first place?

Curious, I reached out to Alison MacAdam, a senior editorial specialist with NPR’s editorial training team and the author of the Poynter column that sparked the conversation around the crisis, to explore the question. MacAdam, who was a senior editor on All Things Considered for almost 7 out of 12 years she worked on the program (and a former Nieman Fellow), obviously spend a lot of time thinking about the issue, operating from a place of having worked long hours in the trenches.

We spoke for a while, and I’ll break our conversation out in chunks here.

Clarifying the problem. “There are actually two separate challenges when we talk about the editor shortage and building a pipeline of editors,” MacAdam laid out. “The first is: How do content organizations train editors and create pathways for people to become editors? If you worked in, for example, WNYC or NPR, is there an explicit pathway if you went to your boss and asked to be an editor? Do they have an answer for you, or not?”

The second challenge has to do with the changing nature of what it takes to be an editor in this age where the fundamental structures of media are being increasingly disrupted (forgive the phrase). “What are the skills that editors need? That answer keeps changing because the industry keeps changing,” she said. “And because editing is a comparatively invisible craft, it’s that much harder to get the motivation to sit down and really think about the role: what they need to know now, and what’s timeless.”

When I asked her what, exactly, remained timeless, she replied: “Solid news judgment. Even if styles change there are some ways we distinguish good writing from bad writing. The ability to communicate is also really, really important.”

Identification. “I also think that, fundamentally, no matter what kind of editor you’re talking about, editors need a track record of making stories better. And that’s the conundrum — that’s really hard to identify,” MacAdam said. “That’s something organizations need to think about. How do you identify people you might think has potential, and what are the ways that we can give chances for them to prove themselves?”

MacAdam credits the emergence of on-demand audio with encouraging more unconventional editing approaches, many of which have increased the chances of identifying potential editors. One such approach is group-editing, a technique favored by teams like This American Life, Planet Money, and Gimlet. “It opens up the editing process so more people can take part and see what goes into shaping a story,” she said.

Independent opportunities. I was curious: if you’re not already in a newsroom, are there ways to create opportunities to learn? MacAdam seemed skeptical, but offered that the first thing to do would be to edit a friend’s work. “Though,” she was quick to add. “I think it’s worth noting that it’s really hard to qualify as an editor of stories, if you haven’t made stories yourself. I just don’t think anyone will trust that you know what’s good if you haven’t struggled to make what’s good.”

When I asked if being an editor is really something that could be self-taught, MacAdam seemed soft on that possibility as well. “Editing is about relationships,” she said. “It’s 50 percent story and journalism instincts — how is something structured? what’s the hook? — and the other 50 percent involves social skills. You can have amazing editorial, journalistic instincts, but if you can’t express your thoughts to people, there’s no real impact being made.”

But MacAdam concedes that there are things you can learn on your own, like listening (and reading and watching) closely to pick up on the micro- and macro- elements of story structure. “The macro stuff involves questions at a broad level: At what point in this story was I bored? Confused? Questions like pacing and structure,” she said. “And focusing on the micro is the ability to talk about lines and sound and the use of imagery in specific places, things like that.”

Job postings. “This might be interesting for you: It’s not like nobody is defining what an editor is. You can look at job postings to see how organizations are thinking about things,” she said.

And what are good examples of such postings? MacAdam points to an editor opening at Chicago Public Media, in particular. “I was really impressed by that posting,” she said. “It’s no surprise because that organization is run by someone who is really smart editorially, Ben Calhoun.” (Calhoun is the VP of content and programming at Chicago Public Media/WBEZ and is a former producer at This American Life.)

She also singled out the deputy managing editor for news position posted by Vox.com, pointing to a particular job requirement: “Clear, goals-based management style with proven success metrics,” it read. MacAdam expressed fascination over this. “I don’t get the sense that newsrooms prior to ten years ago had many ways of measuring success metrics. It’s a very new idea, or it’s an idea that come about because of technology,” she said. “Imagine a posting in 1985 for an investigative reporter in The Washington Post talking about success metrics. Hmm.”

  • Digiday has a pretty good writeup of Atlas Obscura’s sponsored podcast, Escape Plan, along with some interesting detail on the shape of the deal between the publication and the sponsor, ZipCar. (Digiday) And be sure to read this profile on Atlas Obscura (Washingtonian) along with this column on sponsored content more broadly. (The New York Times)
  • WNYC is open-sourcing its “audiogram” tool. (Medium, Nieman Lab) FWIW, I’m still pretty meh on the concept of audio clip distribution via social platforms as means of discovery, particularly after reading that 85 percent of Facebook video is consumed without sound — something I’ve understood to be reflective of more basic social media consumption habits. (Digiday) But hey, the point of these things is to break open paradigms, so my fingers are as crossed as ever.
  • NPR will end production of Best of Car Talk show (also known as Zombie Car Talk) as of September 30, 2017, though the show will live on as a podcast after that date. It is reportedly NPR’s third most consumed show, with a weekly audience of 2.6 million, though its existence is somewhat controversial among public media insiders. Current has a comprehensive write-up on the development, and you should check it out.
  • “Canadian podcasters are being drowned out by American offerings. Why?” (Metro Toronto)
  • The BBC’s iPlayer Radio app is now available in the U.S., which lets listeners access the full range of the institution’s radio feeds along with its podcasts and curated selections of past content. (Mac Rumors)
  • Al Jazeera’s Canvas Studio is launching an innovation competition called the “Future of Audio Challenge.” Audio technologists — check it out.

Why is WNYC making such a big bet on podcasts?

WNYC Studios, part two: In case you missed it, last week saw big public radio mothership WNYC announce the launch of its new podcast division, called WNYC Studios. The new unit ostensibly serves two purposes: first, to formally house the operations of the station’s existing digitally oriented shows, and second, to carry out the development of future programming with an eye to expanding the station’s digital revenue stream. As WNYC chief content officer Dean Cappello succinctly put it: “This is the way we will become a much, much bigger content company, period.”

You can review the launch details on the New York Times piece on the matter, and you can also check out my initial reactions on the last issue of Hot Pod, where I was particularly hung up by the division’s requirement ambition to raise all dat cash. As I wrote then: “To what extent will WNYC Studios allow the station to raise money outside the traditional nonprofit model? And is this part of a larger narrative that sees WNYC angling to enter a flexible relationship with its public broadcasting responsibilities?” Wow I can’t believe I just quoted myself I need to take a walk around the block now.

Anyway, I was able to get on the phone with Cappello and WNYC president/CEO Laura Walker to ask some questions about the launch. Here are the high-level takeaways:

Why. “This is about having enough heft in the business…We’re not boutique any more,” Cappello said. “The place where the huge growth is happening has to do with mobile and audio…We don’t want to cede that territory to anybody else.” He went on to maintain two things: (1) The formalization of WNYC Studios as an organizational structure is meant to recognize that there’s been an uptake in digital audio, and (2) the development is also, in part, a way to respect the fact that audiences for broadcast programming and audiences for on-demand audio want distinctly separate things. The division, then, can be read a move to better position the station to optimize programming for both platform categories.

But there’s a tension at play, the very same that’s at the heart of a bunch of other content companies that have been compelled to accommodate the Internet. Cappello: “When podcasting hit, there was a moment where Laura [Walker] and I looked at each other and said, ‘We’re producing content. It’s not about producing for platforms.'”

When. I had been curious about the decision-making process and the timeline that went into the division’s creation. Walker mentioned that the idea of doubling down on podcasts — that is, to build out a structure within the station that would facilitate the management and expansion of its on-demand audio assets — was presented during the last strategy meeting involving the station’s board. Cappello offered a more granular timeline of “two or three strategic plans ago,” which probably pegs the presentation to either early 2015 or late 2014.

“We came to ask ourselves a couple of questions,” Walker told me. “What would it mean to take a lead role in building this space? To be a stronger talent magnet? What would it mean to inspire new voices and diversity? And how do we figure out a way to do this in a nimble way that’s both entrepreneurial and funded with philanthropy?” (More on that last part in a bit.)

According to Cappello and Walker, WNYC Studios is largely a formalization of several initiatives that have been taking place over a longer period of time in piece-meal fashion. Consider: the steady launch of new podcast-first projects like Only Human and Death, Sex & Money, the move to self-distribute successful shows like Radiolab and On The Media, the partnership to coproduce and provide ad-sales support for Oakland-based Snap Judgment. The executive-level restructuring back in July was an explicit move to prepare for the new division, and the internally-circulated memo that announced those changes contains, perhaps, the first public sighting of the name “WNYC Studios.”

Anyway, assuming the broad strokes are right, this timeline is super interesting to me. It strikes me as relatively brisk, especially for a public institution — according to a common groan I hear in the industry, any decision-making process around a project of this scale tends to be slow. Furthermore, one could also probably infer the emotional context of the room: November 2014, the earliest possible date that plan could’ve been unveiled to the board, was the month that saw Serial entering the middle chunk of its narrative…and steadily approaching the peak of public obsession. (Coincidentally, November 2014 was also the month when Hot Pod was born.)

Content development. Glancing at the slate of shows announced with the division’s launch, it appears that a big chunk of WNYC Studio’s initial development adopts a model that significantly targets partnerships with media organizations and personalities. The first new show to premiere under the WNYC Studios banner (after the launch announcement, at least) is the long-talked-about New Yorker Radio Hour. Other projects in development include shows with Vice News, author Roxane Gay, and comedian Sara Schaefer. That model, interestingly enough, put WNYC Studios in roughly the same category as Panoply (disclaimer: my day-job employer), which pursues projects of similar vein. Of course, the key difference being that WNYC Studios is rolling off a rich history of successful broadcast-oriented programming.

When talking to Cappello about WNYC Studios’ content development process, an obvious analogy emerged: that of a film production company. However, that analogy turned out to be a lot more literal than initially anticipated. “I think it’s a two-way street,” he said. “We see HBO going into the podcast business, but we should also look at HBO. We should be focusing on making shows that huge chunks of America will entertain themselves with.” He brought up the notion of experimenting with different genres and new formats — noting that WNYC Studios is currently working on a scripted series project — along with the idea of targeting talent from other industries (say, film or television) that haven’t been able to get their projects off the ground: “What if there are ways we could produce them in the audio format?”

Fundraising and revenue sources. According to Walker, the station seeks to raise $15 million fund for WNYC Studios. “Our initial request are going to individuals, philanthropic-oriented individuals, and foundations,” she said. The fundraising process is still very much active and in its early stages as of our conversation last week. These funds will be used to pilot projects and to expand revenue streams: to raise sponsorships, up their membership numbers, and develop robust Kickstarter campaigns. “It’s a mixed model,” Walker said.

Partnerships are also expected to bring in additional resources to the table that will aid in content development, though those resources won’t be included as part of the $15 million fund.

Walker also mentioned that she’s seen interest from the venture capital community. However, she isn’t sure how that could work, given that WNYC is a non-profit, public institution. (Side note: I found this to be crux of WNYC’s biggest issue. It’s a media company currently grappling with the structural transformation afforded by the digital shift, and it clearly has…let’s call it private-industry-oriented ambitions. But its capacity to reorient and accelerate is clearly bounded by its public commitments. These commitments are not just formal, but also cultural; one recalls the slight brouhaha that accompanied Ira Glass’ statements that “public radio is ready for capitalism.” That’s the sound that wind makes when it flows between a rock and a hard place.)

Internal talent development. One hopes that the launch of WNYC Studios means that there’ll be a lot more opportunities for the station’s existing talent — from the newsroom grunts all the way up to the senior producers — to get their shot. Time will tell whether this is the case. In the meantime, the station has been conducting the initial phases of an internal fellowship program that sounds like it would encourage rotations of earlier-stage talent between shows and divisions. This program is currently led by Suzie Lechtenberg, the former executive producer of Freakonomics Radio. If you’re a young WNYC staffer and you’re reading this, hopefully you know this already. If not, you know what to do.

Anyway, you can find out more brochure-level information about WNYC Studios on the division’s new landing page, which appears to have been constructed using Squarespace. (An on-brand move if I’ve ever seen one, given that Squarespace, like Mailchimp and Audible, is synonymous with the podcast format as a result of their generous contributions to the industry’s initial ad market.)

One more thing on WNYC. On diversity. It appears that WNYC has appointed Brenda Williams-Butts, formerly the senior director of community engagement and audience development, as the station’s new VP of recruitment, diversity, and inclusion. She joins the station’s HR team and will aim to up the game in both staff recruitment and program development. I imagine the press release is floating around on the Internet somewhere.

More FT on pods. The Financial Times has been pretty great on covering the business of the emerging podcasting space — a whole lot more than The Wall Street Journal, anyway. That’s probably in no small part due to Shannon Bond, the paper’s U.S. media and marketing correspondent, who follows up on her previous reporting on the space with a pod interview featuring tallest-man-in-the-world and Gimlet cofounder Matt Lieber. You should check out the interview in full on the FT Alphachat podcast here, but here are two things that stood out to me:

  • Gimlet generated $2 million in revenue from its first year. For context, it has raised $1.5 million in venture capital so far. From what I understand off the gossip mill, most, if not all, of that revenue is being reinvested into the company to further fuel expansion — as should be the case.
  • Some updates on upcoming Gimlet projects: (1) the Adam Davidson-Adam McKay two-way show Awesome Boring, the pilot of which was available to Gimlet members, is now called Secretly Awesome and still aims for release by the end of the year. (2) Lieber also drops some details on the new show they’re working on that’ll essentially be a podcast spotlighting other podcasts that chart in the less-visible echelons of iTunes.

A dent in the (NPR) universe. New data shared by NPR last week gave further shape and form to a trend we’ve all long suspected — that its audiences are getting progressively older and older, and that its overall audience pie is getting smaller and smaller. Current reported out the data and provided a great overview of the situation, and you should definitely check out the piece in full, but here are a couple of details that stood out to me:

  • “Morning Edition has seen a 20 percent drop among listeners under 55 since 2010.”
  • “Stations are losing listeners 12–44 years of age. NPR projects that by 2020, its stations’ audience of 44-year-olds and younger will be around 30 percent, half that demographic’s audience share in 1985.”
  • Digital audiences are growing, but that growth is deemed to be inadequate. Gwynne Villota, a senior research manager at NPR, with a fascinating quote: “At this point, we don’t think that digital listening is making up for the lost broadcast listening.”

It’s a tough situation, to say the very least. Strategically, the organization appears to essentially have three choices:

  • As suggested in the Current article’s wider narrative, NPR could opt to fully double down on radio and aggressively push to grow radio listenership. It’s a tough bet, given the increasing digitization of car entertainment systems — and not to mention a society-wide shift to mobile, let alone, uh, digital. (But wait, what the hell are we even talking about here? The report appears to categorize online radio streaming as a separate category from traditional radio. It’s reasonable to assume that at some point in the near future, all linear radio consumption will be streaming-based. I’m probably getting something wrong here. Someone disabuse me of this.)
  • To go the opposite direction, take the risk, and double down on digital — either streaming or on-demand. Of course, this is an unlikely outcome, given NPR’s composition in both revenue stream and governing interests.
  • To attempt some sort of middle ground — that is, to watch the markets on both ends and split its efforts to grow both pies at agreeable rates.

In other words, NPR stations either have to make a bet on one of the two markets, or they have to make bet on themselves that they’re able to balance the two very different, possibly conflicting distribution categories.

Alternatively, a perfectly valid choice is for NPR to bite the bullet and aim for a niche market: that of the old, radio-loving sophisticate. Not unlike, perhaps, what we think about when we think about New Yorker readers. But that’s super sad so let’s not think about that.

Small is beautiful. Digiday here with a fascinating piece on Goat Rodeo DC, a podcast collective that hopes to go the hyperlocal route by matching smaller, more region-oriented shows with local advertisers. Money quote: “The Goat Rodeo’s pitch to advertisers is built around the idea that podcast listeners, however limited in number, are highly engaged and hence attractive targets for local businesses looking to be a part of the conversation.”

Think of it as a companion piece to Nieman Lab’s earlier report on the Chicago Podcast Collective, which is also cited in the Digiday article.

Dating Ring. Podcasts are the new pickup line, apparently. I’ve heard about folks building out the “Tinder for podcasts,” but really the money’s in flipping it around and making the podcasts for Tinder. Wait, what? Anyway, the Washington Post with a fascinating coda on StartUp Season 2.

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