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)

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.

Is the Stitcher deal a step toward a closed podcast ecosystem?

Big moves at Midroll Media and EW Scripps. Okay, two big things from Midroll:

(1) E.W. Scripps, the parent company of Midroll Media, has acquired Stitcher, the podcasting app that’s widely considered to be the most popular alternative to the default Apple podcast app, for $4.5 million in cash. According to the Wall Street Journal report on the move yesterday, Stitcher will now operate under Midroll, with the former’s dozen-or-so employees being transferred onto Midroll’s payroll. Stitcher previously operated under Deezer, the French streaming audio company, after the latter acquired it for an undisclosed sum in October 2014. Stitcher had been quiet in terms of new developments ever since.

Acquisition talks started in earnest in early January, Midroll’s vice president of business development Erik Diehn told me over the phone yesterday. “It’s one of those things where serendipity drove the whole process,” he said, adding that both companies had compelling strategic reasons for the acquisition. In a separate call, Midroll CEO Adam Sachs provided clarity on this point: “Stitcher, as we know it as a podcatcher, is the second most popular podcast player in the world, and there’s a lot of value in there right off the bat,” he said. “But there are a lot of other pieces that are also really valuable, like the fact they come with a strong technology team.” Sachs pointed out how Midroll’s technology team has up until this point been fairly small, a state of affairs that complicates the fact that the company is increasingly pushing deeper into initiatives that require a lot more tech talent, like its premium subscription app Howl.

Speaking of Howl, it remains unclear how Stitcher will affect that particular piece of the company’s business. Diehn told The Wall Street Journal that at some point, the apps will “intersect,” and he told me that any plans for such intersection is TBD. “One thing we don’t want to do is disrupt Stitcher, and we don’t want Stitcher to disrupt Midroll,” Diehn said. He further added that Midroll aims to leave Stitcher’s role as a provider-agnostic platform intact, in that it will continue serving users podcasts regardless of where they come from. “We won’t turn it into a walled garden, we’re leaving ads intact, and you won’t start seeing a giant feed of Comedy Bang Bang and Lauren Lapkus and the occasional Midroll show,” Diehn said.

The acquisition met some criticism, however, particularly from Overcast app creator Marco Arment and prominent tech blogger John Gruber, both of whom are strong voices in the podcasts-as-extension-of-the-open-web contingent of the ecosystem. They highlighted Stitcher’s nature as a proprietary platform, whose possible dominance — combined with some suboptimal elements of the platform’s agreements with creators — will lead to a closed ecosystem that’s bad for both creators and consumers . Both posts are worth the read (you can find them here and here). Midroll’s vice president of sales and development Lex Friedman tweeted his disagreement, of course, and promised a more substantial rebuttal in a blog post to come.

All right, so there’s that, but then there’s also the bombshell that…

(2) Adam Sachs, the company’s CEO, is stepping down. Sachs has been the CEO of Midroll since June 2014, taking over from Jeff Ulrich, one of the company’s original founders. He shepherded the company through its acquisition by Scripps in July 2015 for $50 million. Previously, Sachs was the co-founder of Stepout, a dating app acquired by IAC in September 2013.

Sachs first announced his departure to the company in an email sent out last Tuesday. “The truth is that I’ve been running a startup (Stepout and then Midroll) for nearly a decade and that’s exhausting!”, he wrote. “Still, at my core, I’m an entrepreneur. I still have the fire in my belly to build companies.”

According to the note, he will remain at the company for another week, after which he will spend another month on a consulting basis to aid with the transition. There is no clear successor or succession plan in place, though Diehn and Friedman are expected to take up the brunt of Sach’s managerial responsibilities. Sachs told me that a replacement might not take place any time soon, but added that he believes the company has a strong enough management team to handle the interim.

He has no idea what his next move will be, or so he tells me.

As for The Wolf Den, the company’s podcast about the podcast industry, there is also no clear successor in line. Though, from what I hear, Friedman and chief content officer Chris Bannon are campaigning hard for the role.

Highlights from Hivio. I spent the better part of last week in Los Angeles, checking out a digital audio conference called Hivio. The conference drew a quirky mix of commercial radio, public radio, online audio, podcast, and assorted media types, and though it wasn’t immediately clear who, exactly, the audience was meant to be, I found the dynamics involved in the hodgepodge nonetheless informative. Many of these worlds have thus far kept each other at arms’ length, even as some grow more prominent and others begin to question their foundations, and as all these different digital audio sectors continue down what I’m fairly convinced is a collision course, it was great to get an early preview on how everyone will deal with each other.

Anyway, the conference programming drew out a lot of information — and even more rote talking points — and you can check out full recaps elsewhere, but here are a few things that stood out to me:

    • NPR’s vice president of programming and audience development, Anya Grundmann, noted in a presentation that the number of NPR listeners (across all platforms) over the age of 55 is now roughly the same as the number of listeners in the 13-34 age group. That data point comes from an Edison’s Share of Ear study covering the first quarter of 2016.
    • “We’re pleased with the experiment,” says Lizzie Widhelm, Pandora’s senior vice president of ad product sales and strategy, when discussing the company’s partnership with This American Life. Worth noting: Widhelm positioned the partnership as a move to keep its more engaged users from going off-platform in pursuit of spoken word content, something that those users previously couldn’t find on the service before.
    • ESPN’s senior vice president of audio, Traug Keller, dropped a 40 million monthly download number for the company’s on-demand audio content. ESPN, by the way, isn’t a participant in Podtrac’s measurement system, so your mileage may vary.
  • Maximum Fun’s Jesse Thorn notes that the most popular show in his network is Adventure Zone. He also talked about the network’s unique conference/live events business, MaxFunCon, noting that his team is developing a cheaper version in an effort to disrupt itself.

One more thing: It was interesting to see a few commercial radio executives cite ZenithOptimedia’s podcast ad-spend projection — about $36.1 million in 2016 — when discussing the medium’s emergence in relation to their own businesses on-stage. Since that projection was first published some months ago, I’ve heard several podcasting executives vehemently dispute it in private, typically saying something to the effect of “if that’s the number, then my company makes up 30-40 percent of that.” Granted, that retort is totally expected, but I’m inclined to agree just intuiting from the download numbers and CPMs that can be found in publicly available reports. (The Podtrac ranker, for all the caveats involved with its sample, is also very helpful in this regard.)

However, despite these private pushbacks, I haven’t encountered any podcast executive willing to provide a specific alternate estimate…until last Friday, of course, which saw Acast’s chief commercial officer Sarah van Mosel provided an estimated range of $80 to 200 million for 2015 during a presentation — a number she particularly draws from her previous work as WNYC’s vice president of sponsorships.

A glimpse at Future Panoply? Last Friday, the Graham Holdings-owned podcast company (and my former day job employer) announced its latest big-swing project: Revisionist History, a 10-part miniseries by author (and Charlie Kaufman-lookalike) Malcolm Gladwell. The company drew some notable writeups for the announcement, with Fast Company and CNN.com providing coverage on the teaser. Interestingly, the project is positioned as “the thing that Gladwell decided to make instead of a book this season,” which is a pretty solid pitch, I guess.

On stage at Hivio, Panoply chief creative officer Andy Bowers called the podcast a template for future projects. “A lot of podcasts we’ve done so far has followed a simpler, conversational format,” he said, noting that the company will likely be developing more projects with higher production values from here on out. This move makes sense, though I do wonder how this will affect existing Panoply shows, which typically result from partnerships with other publishers.

Revisionist History drops its first full episode on June 16.

Podquest playoffs. Last Thursday, Radiotopia released the list of 10 podcast pitches that have been accepted as semi-finalists into Podquest, its talent search program. From this group of 10, three finalists will be announced in July at the Podcast Movement conference in Chicago, where they will then be made to develop three pilot episodes over the course of four months. The winner, which will be invited into the Radiotopia network, will be announced in November at the Third Coast Festival.

You can find in-depth descriptions of all ten semifinalists on the Podquest site. And if you’re curious, you can find the stat-breakdown of Podquest applicants (1,537 entries! 53 countries! Wah!) on the PRX blog.

Congrats to the crews, and good luck! I’m rootin’ for ya.

Related: “The new audience is really where we are where we want to be — the diverse audience and the young audience, and the young people who haven’t been buying radios. How are they finding content and how do we get in front of them?” Still curious about what’s next for PRX? Check out this Fortune article featuring an interview with PRX’s newly minted CEO Kerri Hoffman by Lauren Schiller, which pairs well with my writeup from two weeks ago.

Towards more pods for kids. A couple of months ago, I wrote a few pieces exploring the relatively quiet genre of kids podcasting, and over the course of my research, I spoke to Lindsay Patterson, one of the creators of Tumble: A Science Podcast for Kids, who proved to be a very, very strong advocate of the space. Now, the Austin-based producer is taking her advocacy to the next level, collaborating with a number of other kid-focused podcast producers to form what they’re calling “a new grassroots organization of podcasters and advocates for high-quality audio content for children.”

“We want to increase visibility for the medium and enable the creation of more great audio shows for kids,” Patterson told me over email. “And since we exist in the children’s space, we think that standards and ethics should be a big part of the conversation.”

The organization will kick off its work with a public survey project that hopes to identify the makeup, behavior, and dynamics of the potential audiences for kids podcasts. “There’s no baseline data for how kids consume (or don’t consume) podcasts,” Patterson wrote. “Our June 2016 survey is a first step toward understanding how our audience values what we do.”

At this point in time, the podcasts participating in Kids Listen are: Tumble, Ear Snacks, Brains On!, Sparkle Stories, Book Club for Kids, StoryPirates, and Zooglobble. (These names!) Its digital presence consists of a Slack, a website, a hashtag (#kidslisten), and social media. “The beginnings of something great,” Patterson added.

The survey launches today. You can find the Kids Listen website here.

New podcast study from comScore. The report found that podcast advertisements were found to be the least intrusive compared to other kinds of digital advertising formats, according to Adweek. It should be noted that the survey study was commissioned by Wondery, a fairly new podcast network based in Los Angeles, suggesting increased efforts among podcast companies to raise the overall awareness of the space. To my eyes, the study itself isn’t as interesting as the fact that comScore produced it. There’s been an emerging argument among some circles that the big thing holding back more brand advertisers from jumping into the space is not necessarily the medium’s well-known measurements problem, but the absence of a reputable, legacy measurements company like comScore and Nielsen actively participating and vetting the space. This comScore study isn’t quite the active participation that will lead to a so-called legitimization the space is looking for, but I think it’s a good step.

Where to, newsmagazine? Add Steve Lickteig, former executive producer of All Things Considered and current executive producer of Slate podcasts, to the list of public radio emigres publishing essays on the future of audio. Lickteig wrote a Slate piece last Thursday arguing that voice-recognition technology — à la Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana, and Google’s…OK Google thing, which will soon be integrated into car dashboards en masse — will marginalize (or even kill) the straightforward broadcasts, a state of affairs that poses a significant threat to the newsmagazine format.

Central to Lickteig’s argument is the expectation that on-demand consumption behaviors will vastly supersede consumption behavior around linear formats. Here’s the key quote (heads up, the Keith Olbermann reference is related to the lede in Lickteig’s piece):

While listening to the radio remains easier than the alternative, it’s not very satisfying for the generation of people raised in an on-demand culture. People Keith Olbermann’s age (he’s 57) feel an obligation to consume news as it’s served. Tell a bunch of 19-year-olds that it should be up to the professionals to determine what news is most important, and they’ll laugh until their earbuds fall out.

There are a couple of really interesting elements in Lickteig’s argument here that you can spool out, including the notion that us ~millennials~ and post-millennials (whatever you call those people) have in large swathes no love for editorial judgment. But I think the most interesting and pressing element here is the glimpse Lickteig provides at an underlying process that sees the further atomization of audio content and information into discrete units that users can customize, shift, and reorient…not unlike the way we exist as digital consumers of music now. (If I branded myself as some sort of thought leader, this would be the point where I’d regretfully coin the phrase the Spotification of News.)

Here’s my counterpoint to Lickteig’s bullish argument: As a voracious consumer of many, many different types of media, I’d argue that the tyranny of choice and control is totally real. And it’s absolutely crippling. (Consider two things: the gaping abyss that stares back at you from the Netflix menu, and the relief embedded in celebrations of Spotify’s Discover Weekly feature.)

Which isn’t to say, of course, that I disagree with the broad strokes of Lickteig’s forecasts: Indeed, the broadcast newsmagazine format as we know it today will likely become ineffectual, as will all other creations of linearity, like the nightly news, SportsCenter, and the front page. But I’d argue that this isn’t a consequence of the decline of broadcast; rather, it’s a consequence of the relegation of broadcast from being the primary information channel to being one-of-many in a much larger arsenal of information presentation. And yeah, sure, a story of decline always sucks, but there’s that thing about lemonade: When you’re no longer expected to be dominant, you’re liberated from the pressure — and design limitations — of dominance.

That’s no small consolation. In my mind, at least.

Bites:

  • DGital Media announced “league direct partnership” with the UFC to produce a show covering the mixed martial arts league. This will prove to be an interesting addition to the company’s portfolio of partnerships, which includes Recode and Yahoo’s The Vertical. (UFC)
  • Bloomberg News launched the latest in its steadily growing stable of podcast, Material World, a show that will deliver stories on the consumer goods world. I’ll more about Bloomberg podcasts at some point — they’ve got a unique structure going on over there — but for now, keep your eyes on Bloomberg News HQ. (iTunes)
  • Radio Diaries published quite a remarkable episode recently, featuring a young woman in Saudi Arabia, Majd, documenting her life over two years. It aired as a 22-minute segment on All Things Considered, with which the podcast has a partnership, last Tuesday. I listened to it over the weekend, and my goodness, it’s quite lovely. (Radio Diaries)
  • NPR launched Code Switch, its newest podcast, last week. The show will explore issues at the intersection of race and culture, and from the sound of its first episode, it appears to draw heavy influence from the specificity and presentational looseness of the NPR Politics podcast. Nieman Lab has a great interview with principals Shereen Marisol Meraji and Gene Demby, which you should totally check out. (Nieman Lab)
  • Speaking of public radio launches, WNYC rolled out More Perfect, the Radiolab spinoff focusing on the Supreme Court, last week. The podcast is being billed as a mini-series. (Radiolab)
  • Audioboom signs the popular Undisclosed podcast to an “exclusive ad sales deal.” (RAIN News)

Like it or not, audio is entering the Content Wars. How do we navigate that fight?

“This isn’t about arguing who’s right or wrong,” writes Federico Viticci, a technology blogger who publishes on his own independently operated site, Mac Stories. “It’s about recognizing the divergence of needs and opinions in an industry that, in many ways, is still in its formative years.”

That, in a nutshell, sums up where we are right this second in the podcast community. On the one hand, you have a set of professionalizing, ambitious podcast companies pushing for better data analytics, discovery, and revenue opportunities — gripes that should be familiar if you read this column with any frequency — in their pursuit for maturity and considerable growth. And on the other hand, you have a grassroots population which has thus far enjoyed a version of the open internet, one that results from a delicate balance of power facilitated by the medium’s relative niche status up until this point.

At stake in the tension between these two camps is, frankly, the fate of the medium’s future. (How dramatic! How lovely.)

It’s a story as old as content. But let’s start from the beginning.

Over the weekend, The New York Times published a spicy article by John Herrman — a media critic-savant who wrote the excellent “Content Wars” column when he was a staffer at The Awl —  about the relationship between the emerging podcast industry and Apple, which at this point still commands an outsized measure of influence over the space, and how those relationship dynamics define the current state that the professionalizing podcast industry finds itself in.

I highly recommend reading the whole thing, obviously, and there are so many nuances baked into the report, but the two key elements I want to focus on to get to the heart of this narrative are the following:

(1) The article paints a picture of a professionalizing and ambitious industry frustrated by the limits of its dependencies on Apple’s infrastructure, which still maintains its outsized influence on the space. The article interprets Apple as an indifferent steward of a podcast ecosystem that exists at the fringes of the company’s operational focus — a state of affairs that may be shifting, by the way, following reports that suggest an increasing shift in focus toward services (see this Wall Street Journal article, and also this Bloomberg article on Apple Music) — and it chiefly illustrates this by exploring how the team that curates the iTunes promotions page, one of the very few reliable drivers for discovery and marketing in the space, is remarkably small and largely managed by one individual. (Hey Steve!)

(2) The heart of the piece is as follows: “The question for podcasters — and for Apple — is about what comes next,” Herrman writes. “Apple has at least two obvious choices: to rush to accommodate an industry that is quickly outgrowing its origins, or to let podcasting be, at the risk of losing its claim over a medium that owes its very name to the company.”

The piece is, by and large, consistent with my own reading of the space, and I say this with full awareness that my coverage and focus has always been on the podcast companies, entities, and individuals that are agitating against the status quo for the purposes of growth.

That distinction is notable, because the article drew criticism from the grassroots layer of the ecosystem. The critique principally came from Marco Arment, the creator of the relatively well-known podcasting app Overcast and something of an elder statesman for the older end of the podcast ecosystem. (Arment is also an angel investor in Gimlet, curiously enough.)

Writing on his blog, Arment expresses a deep skepticism of podcast entities advocating for more data and involvement from Apple. He argues that, in their endeavors to further grow their businesses, these agitating companies will end up compelling changes that fundamentally compromise the open nature of the medium. Apple would take control over a previously open ecosystem, and all of this would lead to the creation of a “data economy” that deleteriously commoditizes the entire space. The medium would naturally shift to a state that shuts out independent creators forever. Arment’s critique is, essentially, an argument of the slippery slope variety.

“Podcasting has been growing steadily for over a decade and extends far beyond the top handful of public-radio shows,” Arment argues. “Their needs are not everyone’s needs, they don’t represent everyone, and many podcasters would not consider their goals an ‘advancement’ of the medium.”

I’ve been tracking this entire conversation since the very second that the Times piece dropped, and I’m still struggling to find my own position on this. (It’s hard to form a take in such a short period of time, and I imagine my feelings will go through several iterations.)

But frankly, I’m torn.

On the one hand, I am thoroughly invested in seeing podcasts grow, mature, and further professionalize into a Big, Big Industry. I’d like this industry to grow to a point where it can command high and reliable revenue margins and generate high volumes of employment opportunities for creative audio professionals (not everybody can be self-employed and run a small, independent shop). I’d like the industry to wield cultural influence and become capable of tremendous impact. And I simply don’t believe any of that is possible — at least, it’s incredibly difficult, a factor that I’d argue influences the industry’s financial accessibility — without much of what the professionalizing podcast entities are pushing for.

I just don’t buy the notion of retaining the podcast’s RSS 2.0 roots and the black box nature of its knowability… like, I get the romance and nostalgia of it, I just think that’s really regressive.

At the same time, I have my own background concerns over whether the podcast companies that will grow to constitute Big Podcasting — Gimlet, Panoply, Midroll — will collectively drive the ecosystem to a state that reductively commoditizes the form and freezes out independents. (Those ad loads, they keep getting heavier and heavier. I see you.) And I do very much want to retain a relatively open podcast environment (no matter how conditional that openness is) where crazy shit like The Worst Idea Of All Time can still have a shot at an audience, no matter how small the chance of discovery.

Indeed, the tension between the two communities with very separate needs and beliefs that share the same infrastructure is very real. It’s podcasts-as-blogs versus podcasts-as-future of radio, it’s the independents versus the corporate. But whatever happens with Apple, we’re going to have to confront this question. The push toward professionalization is fully underway. As Herrman put it succinctly in a series of tweets: “Whether or not Apple encourages it, online audio will develop beyond current infrastructure… Anyway, I understand horror at the industrialization of a creative medium. Participants I talked to think it’s coming one way or another. So the question *right now* is: by apple’s hand, or someone else’s. These conversations should sound familiar!”

The question is, then: Can we cultivate a media universe that can effectively and simultaneously support two very, very different kinds of communities without compromising the integrity and efforts of each?

It’s not a matter of whether we will see audio float into the Content Wars, it’s a matter of how we navigate that fight. Yes, the way forward opens up a universe of potential horrors: atrocious advertising ad experiences, advertising fraud (which already happens, by the way), excessively invasive tracking mechanisms that grossly compromise personal privacy, and so on.

But what the hell: you can’t make an omelet without cracking open a few skulls, and you can’t get the great without running the risk of getting the very, very bad. Things will change — things always change — but there will be new balances of power to find. And maybe it’s naive, but I believe there absolutely can be a future that’s better for every one of us.

Two more quick things:

  • The Times article had a particularly interesting news hook: Late last month, seven “leading podcast professionals” were reportedly invited to Apple to air their grievances for a collection of employees. According to a source who was present, that group was a mix between newer, enterprising Big Podcast companies and folks from what can only be described as the “older guard.” My source also mentioned that there were no representatives from public radio.
  • Some perspective from friend-of-the-newsletter Joseph Fink, who tweeted me the following: “I was interviewed for that article, but guess my response of ‘Yeah I dunno, it’s all pretty much fine’ wasn’t interesting.”

Measured. Time now for someone much smarter than me to weigh in. I recently asked Andrew Kuklewicz, chief technology officer at PRX, to talk a bit about his vision for some sort of middle ground in requests for increased data granularity. He writes:

There’s data, and there’s creepy data. I want to know what anonymous people actually play and hopefully hear. We don’t need to fall down the creepy, slippery, slope and get names, blood types, or shoe sizes. We can survive without this, but it’s easier to sell new sponsors on audience numbers that resemble reality rather than shared fictions.

I don’t know what others are asking for, but I’m not looking for Apple to extend their store model to podcasts. Even if they did, I expect and hope it would be one option among many built on podcasting. I also value the openness of podcasting, with its underlying standards, but standards progress when there is competition fueling innovation. As web browsers got better with competition, so did their standards. I want podcasting to do the same — progress made with competition on products and content, but cooperation on open standards, platforms, and measures.

It will be messy, messier than a benevolent monopoly, but I also agree with keeping independence over ceding control to buy simplicity.

One important footnote on data and listening metrics: Doc Searls, the furthest thing from a sell-out when it comes to privacy and people owning their data, has pushed for an idea where people should own their own listening data, and share with whom they choose. Most great ideas are tried a few times before they take off (e.g., “six degrees” before Facebook), maybe six years later we should give Listen Log another go.

Sweet.

Designing an elections podcast for the non-wonk. If you’re launching an elections podcast, man, I don’t envy you. It’s one of the most saturated podcast genres in the market right now, a state of affairs not unrelated to the fact that there’s a U.S. presidential election going on and it’s all been absolute bonkers.

A sample list of elections pods, which has considerably grown since the last time I discussed political pods: the NPR Politics podcast, the FiveThirtyEight Elections podcast, Politico’s 2016 Nerdcast, Mic and The Economist’s Special Relationship, Slate’s longtime stalwart Political Gabfest and the topically driven Trumpcast, MTV News’ The Stakes, The New Republic’s “Primary Concerns, Vox’s The Weeds (occasionally; the show largely sticks to policy), The Ringer’s Keepin’ It 1600 (featuring former Obama staffers Jon Favreau and Dan Pfeiffer, no less), The Huffington Post’s Candidate Confessional, Futuro Media Group’s In the Thick, The Pollsters, and so on.

(For the record: I listen to a bunch of these, largely because…well, it’s my job, for one thing, and also because I’m just a very curious foreign person despite my inability to actually vote. But man, I can’t even begin to imagine how any discerning voter should choose from this pile.)

Into the fray walks No One Knows Anything, a new political podcast from BuzzFeed. No One Knows Anything is the company’s sixth podcast overall, and the last show launched before Jenna Weiss-Berman, BuzzFeed’s director of audio, left the company to launch her own podcast venture. It also has the distinction of being the first in BuzzFeed’s pod roster that actively draws from talent and material from its news desk. Anchored by BuzzFeed politics reporter Evan McMorris-Santoro, the show aims to distinguish itself from the gabfest-style horse race roundup pod formats of its competitors, choosing instead to tell larger stories about the election.

I recently talked to Meg Cramer, who produces the show (and who previously worked at APM’s Marketplace), and asked her a bunch of questions about the show’s design, podcast structures more broadly, and miscellaneous production-related things. Here are excerpts from our chat:

On process. “We’re on a weekly production schedule. We do it a little differently every time. We don’t script the show…we have very, very light scripting, and what we do instead is, like, we have a loose structure, we go into the studio, Evan and his guest host will move through the structure and hit every point, riff if they want to, usually beforehand we have the ‘found sound’ audio planned out. So if we know that we have a supercut of people saying “Trump will never get elected,” I’ll be in the studio cuing that up and they’ll react to the cut in real time. And then we put the tracking together with all the interviews in whatever order they happen in, listen to a rough cut of the episode, and then do an edit altogether, and then go back and do pickups.”

On the structure of the show. “There are lots of things that you can refer to when you talk about structure. You can say, ‘every episode we will have this kind of segment,’ or ‘every episode we will do a certain thing.’ And I try really hard to resist that because I think it can be very tempting to give yourself a superstructure when you start a project, and you also learn that your superstructure was maybe a cool idea or a cool concept but it turns out to be very restricting and it doesn’t let you tell certain stories. It winds up being a situation where you’re working for the structure rather than have it work for you.”

On the relationship to the news cycle. “There will be times where we have to speak to the news that’s happening that week, but for the most part, I don’t think that’s what we’re going to do. Because for the most part, that’s what a lot of other political shows do. And we’re trying not to be like a wrap-up show, and we’re trying to tell stories about things that have already happened because we want as much information as we can get when we tell those stories. We don’t want to predict — this is like an anti-prediction show.”

On the show’s target audience. “We’re trying to serve a general news audience with a show about politics, because there are lots of things that serve the political news audience and we’re trying to reach a broader group of people than that. People who are not necessarily political junkies, but who care about their vote. They’re probably going to vote, but they really care about who the next president is going to be and they want to be thoughtful about how they cast their vote.”

On newsroom integration. “I’m interested to learn what it’s like to get a lot of people in a newsroom involved in podcasting. I think places like Slate have their flagships shows where people get to try out being on a show — being a panelist, being a guest — and they get to see if they’re good at it. I think that one thing that I’m really excited about this project is that it’s not going to just be about me and Evan. I’m excited that other people in the newsroom get to try out having a big voice on this platform.”

You can find the pod here.

Reservations over dynamic ad insertion. I haven’t written about dynamic ad insertion in a while, and I really should, because it’s one of the bigger narratives that’s been driving the technology piece of the space for the past year or so.

In case you’re unfamiliar with the concept, podcast hosting platforms that support dynamic ad insertion would allow publishers to easily swap out ad spots within a given podcast episode. This structurally breaks podcasts away from having “baked-in” ads — where they are one with the episode for the rest of time (or the internet, or until somebody replaces the file) — and drives them to a state where the ad inventory of a given episode is dramatically deepened and the friction of ad serving is drastically reduced. It also sets the conditions for tailored advertising experiences like geotargeting and a programmatic audio advertising business to be built somewhere down the line.

To put it another way: money, money, money for publishers. If they can swing it, of course.

It’s a vision of the future that’s renders the podcast space drastically different in its monetization potential compared to whatever’s come before, one that would make podcasts function like the rest of the internet — for good or for bad, we don’t know yet (see the newsletter’s headline item). I imagine it’s being pitched as a win-win situation; advertisers get to more specifically target listeners, and publishers get to squeeze more value out of a given ad slot.

But some advertisers are not without reservations. Advertisers like Mack Weldon, the fancy bright-colored underwear startup, which now dedicates about a quarter of its monthly ad spend to podcast buys.

I recently traded emails with Collin Willardson, Mack Weldon’s marketing manager, about some of his concerns. He listed out three in particular:

  • Firstly, Willardson argued that the imposition of format requirements for dynamic ad insertion support would end up putting a cap on the creative vitality that can go into the ad read. “Our biggest reservation with dynamic ads is that the ad is capped at thirty seconds,” he wrote. “We have found success when the host is allowed to do the read however long they feel best. They’ll know if they get the message across to their listeners, and sometimes they aren’t able to do that in just thirty seconds or less.” (I imagine the thirty-second cap may differ from platform to platform and from show to show depending on how campaigns are sold, but I take his overall point.)
  • Secondly, Willardson touched upon the arbitrage value being lost when ads are no longer permanent — an appealing feature for some buyers. “Another reservation is knowing that our ad will not be there forever,” he argued. “We want to be associated with the show we have chosen carefully, even if you listen to it five years from now. There is something special about being a part of a show that you can listen to and be entertained by five years later, and we want to be a part of that experience.”
  • Finally, Willardson brings up what may well be the fundamental hurdle presented by the technology: the dissolution of the “intimacy” so associated with the media format. “Dynamic ad insertion disassociates the host from the advertiser, so they care less about the actual product or brand they’re trying to sell. Audiences pick up on that, and quickly tune out. On a medium with a built-in fifteen-second skip button, a thirty-second ad is too easily never heard,” he wrote.

I’ve been hearing variations of these concerns from a few advertisers — all of which are direct response advertisers relatively new to the medium — over the past few weeks. For what it’s worth, I don’t think these reservations are particularly insurmountable or fundamentally detract from the value of dynamic ad insertion technology; rather, my sense that Willardson’s arguments stem from a frustration with the pitches currently being made by podcast publishers.

Bites:

  • The worst kept NPR pod secret is finally out: the Code Switch podcast will launch May 31. In case you’re unfamiliar, Code Switch is NPR’s FABULOUS blog that covers stories on race, ethnicity, and culture. The pod is going to be hosted by Gene Demby (who also hosts the Post-Bourgie pod) and Shereen Marisol Meraji. I, for one, am extremely excited about this.
  • Eleanor Kagan is BuzzFeed’s new director of audio. She produces Another Round, and will continue doing in addition to developing new projects. (Twitter)
  • Katelyn Bogucki, who has until this point headed up the Huffington Post’s podcast operation, is heading over to Gimlet, where she joins the company’s creative team.
  • “From out of nowhere, the U.S. Energy Department launches a great podcast.” (The Verge)

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