The podcast industry puts on a too-big blazer and tries to impress the old guy at the party

The dog and pony show. Yesterday saw the second annual IAB Podcast Upfronts, the industry event meant to drum up interest in the medium among ad buyers. The day’s programming — which was long, exhausting a full-day affair that ran over eight hours that nearly drove me to my first cigarette in a long while — was packed to the brim with endless announcements and minutiae. In the interest of time, I’m just going to stick what the things that struck me as interesting in terms of what it says about where we’re going, along with some spattering of notable, piecemeal developments. Do read the writeups over at The Wall Street Journal, Ad Age, and AdExchanger if you’re looking for broader overviews.

We gonna get wonky here.

1. This year’s festivities saw an increase in the number of participating presenters, from eight podcast publishers to twelve. The returnees were: NPR, WNYC Studios, ESPN, CBS, AdLarge, Panoply, Midroll, and Podtrac’s recently spun-off ad sales arm known as Authentic. Joining the slate were: Wondery, HowStuffWorks, Time Inc., and PodcastOne. A strange mishmash of companies, to be sure, with the proportion of companies with legacy media roots slightly outweighing the digital natives. (My personal count on the latter category: HowStuffWorks, Panoply, Midroll, Podtrac.)

2. In their presentation yesterday, Panoply announced it was building something they regarded as an “imprint,” to borrow a book publishing concept, around the author Gretchen Rubin, which hosts the popular Happier podcast on the network. Following something of a sub-network model, Rubin is set to help curate a collection of podcasts within the self-improvement genre, likely drawing from her community of like-minded writers. This isn’t the first time such a model would be tested; Midroll, of all places, tested this out with its Wolfpop network, which was curated by comedian Paul Scheer. Wolfpop was later folded into Earwolf when Midroll moved to streamline its content offerings.

But the real thing of interest here is Panoply’s use of the book publishing analogy. That company has consistently exhibited behaviors that suggest a lean towards the direction of that industry — especially now, as it builds products around known quantities within the book publishing space, like Malcolm Gladwell and Sophia Amoruso — and a recent quote by Slate chairman Jacob Weisberg, published in a recent Ken Doctor column(more on that later), further emphasized this possible way that the company views itself:

In the world of books, nobody cares if something is published by Viking or Random House. They care about the author and the book. I think podcasting is going to be more like that.

Super interesting.

3. “One in five podcast listeners are listening to an ESPN podcast,” said JonPaul Rexing, ESPN’s senior director of sales, apparently citing numbers from Edison Research. This particular method of presenting audience data seemed to gain some currency in yesterday’s event, with Time Inc. also adopting similar language. In a press release that accompanied their presentation, the company noted that its podcast programming “reaches 3 in 4 adults who have listened to a podcast,” citing numbers from comScore-MRI Fusion. I have a little trouble internalizing these stats, the boldness of which doesn’t seem to square at all with the medium’s long-running distrust in its apples-to-apples analytics at an industry-wide level. (Not directly relevant, but totally worth knowing: ESPN works with first-party data.)

4. Speaking of ESPN, I find myself unreasonably excited about its upcoming podcast adaptation of the brand’s well-loved 30 for 30 documentary series. (News of the adaptation first surfaced back in July, when the relevant job listings went up.) The show’s first season is scheduled for an early 2017 rollout, and the production team will be announced publicly soon. I’m told that they will include alums from WNYC, NPR, and the BBC. And from the rumors I’ve heard about their identities, I’m very, very excited. And so was senior producer Jody Avirgan when he announced the project on-stage, who seemed beside himself as he enthused, “We’re going to be committing acts of journalism.”

5. There’s a bit I really enjoyed in AdExchanger’s coverage of the event that discusses skepticism over dynamic ad insertion. Check out the whole article, of course, but here’s the money:

“We are typically hearing from advertisers who are the biggest, longest-term folks in the space [that they] are concerned about insertion,” said Midroll’s [Lex] Friedman. “The networks that force them to move to insertion are seeing performance worsen.”

This sentiment echoes an item I wrote back in May, which involved reservations expressed by Mack Weldon’s marketing manager Collin Willardson (an aggressive buyer of podcast ads) about the technology. “Dynamic ad insertion disassociates the host from the advertiser, so they care less about the actual product or brand they’re trying to sell,” he told me then. “Audiences pick up on that, and quickly tune out.”

6. Miscellanea:

  • The New York City Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment is apparently working on a report on the state of the podcast industry in the city, which will likely include an examination of its labor dynamics. (Re-upping this Adam Ragusea piece, as appropriate.) A city-driven ad campaign to raise podcast awareness is also impending.
  • Edison Research rolled out some additional data points to their Share of Ear study, revolving around the way podcast consumers relate to the medium’s current advertising executions and practices. You check those out in a report posted on the IAB website ahead of the upfront.
  • AdLarge announced its own consumer-facing podcast play: a platform called Cabana. Details to come.
  • Panoply’s branded podcast collaboration with GE, which resulted in last year’s The Message, is due for a second show later this year.
  • Also for the horse-race observers, Midroll is now repping APM’s Brains On!, which they grouped with The Longest Shortest Time as a parenting show. And speaking of Midroll, they’re trying their hand at true crime, with a show about the Boston Strangler called Stranglers, which comes out of a partnership with documentary shop Northern Light Productions. (Not that anybody asked, but my favorite Boston Strangler media is the Sebastian Junger book A Death in Belmont.)
  • Night Vale Presents’ new show: something called The Orbiting Human Circus. Their ad sales are being represented by Authentic.
  • Time Inc. officially announced its slate of podcasts yesterday. You can find the details in the customary press release. And speaking of Time Inc., one of its brands, Sports Illustrated, announced its own batch of new shows this week. It also mentioned that it is now partnered up with DGital Media. This marks the brand’s move away from Panoply, which it previously worked with on the podcast front. I was told the departure was amicable.

Wow that made my neck hurt.

What’s going on? This year’s upfront festivities took place in Time Inc.’s Henry R. Luce auditorium in downtown Manhattan, somewhat of a step up in lavishness compared to last year’s venue, the homelier Greene Space at WNYC. That isn’t intended as shade on the Greene Space, which I love. Rather, I state it as an indication of an underlying problem.

While the proceedings yesterday were significantly smoother compared to last year’s festivities — “there’s air conditioning!” was a common refrain among attendees, a reference to some ventilatory disturbances back then — it was also significantly stranger, a little more strained. It had, simultaneously, the feel of a child wearing a much-too-big blazer and the feel of a much-too-older man at a college party.

The former is something I’ve articulated before: the strangeness of the podcast industry, as the new new thing, appropriating the traditional structure of the upfront ritual, an anthropological performance carried over from the old world of commercial television and radio. I called it a conservative stance, one that operates off the sense that you win trust by performing the rituals they do and by the looking the way they look, as opposed to creating new rituals, spaces, and market expectations of their own.

The latter comes out from what is an inevitable dynamic: the entrance of folks from legacy radio backgrounds bringing in legacy radio sensibilities, along with a not-insignificant amount of overconfidence that those sensibilities will transition well — and in a manner that isn’t destructive — as they followed both the potential money and the new cool. It’s that sensibility that defined the tone of yesterday’s festivities, I think: all the usual tropes associated with the positive elements of the medium, but devoid of its rich, glorious complexities.

This upfront, at this particular point in time, bore the responsibility of publicly constructing the narrative of the medium for the benefit of not just the advertising community, but everything else around it as well. Some of those people were not ready to do that, and the ones who were, alas, were given the wrong stage to do it. The result? A deficiency of cool — a currency vital to the function of a creative advertiser — and a representation of a medium, with all the power and thrills and beauty it contains, that only fleetingly comes close to being vaguely recognizable.

“It’s kind of a coming-out party,” said Jason Hoch, the chief content officer of HowStuffWorks, when we spoke on Tuesday ahead of the IAB Podcast Upfronts. “I mean, people have heard of us. It’s just that they didn’t realize we were as big are.”

I’ve committed my fair share of sins writing this newsletter, and perhaps one of the biggest is the lack of attention I’ve paid to HowStuffWorks, the 18-year-old Atlanta-based digital media outfit that also happens to be one of the strongest, and most interesting, podcast operations currently running. A multi-platform entity spanning across audio, video, and text that has transferred ownership a few times — its current parent company is Washington-based Blucora — HowStuffWorks has built a considerable following on its so-called “longform edutainment” programming whose strengths, in my view, are largely tethered to its enthusiastic hyper-focus on subject verticals — which are Wikipedia-esque in scope and sprawl — and celebrity-creation, which gives the company a digital sensibility vaguely reminiscent of YouTube multi-channel networks (MCNs). It’s overwhelmingly pleasant, smart, and nourishing.

The podcast arm of HowStuffWorks is substantial, 12 shows strong at this writing, and it’s growing. According to a press release sent out earlier this week, the network tripled its downloads over the past two years, from 8.8 million monthly downloads in 2014 to over 28 million downloads in June 2016. Download volumes, I’m told, are split equally between new episodes and across the network’s back catalogues. (Worth noting: HowStuffWorks relies on Podtrac’s measurement standards, and regularly appears in the latter company’s monthly podcast ranker.)

Hoch tells me that Podtrac’s Industry Rankings, which was introduced in May and ranked networks by unique monthly downloads in the U.S., proved to be a boon for the network. HowStuffWorks debuted in the fourth spot, where it remains, and while the ranker should be interpreted with copious disclaimers (context and caveats can be found in a previous Hot Pod), it brought the company a great deal of fresh attention. “The in-bounds we got from that were amazing,” Hoch said, exuding confidence over advertising prospects. (Relevant: the company has secured Liberty Mutual as an exclusive advertiser on its CarStuff podcast for a full year, if that’s interesting to you.)

So, what does the future hold for HowStuffWorks? I’m told that the company expects to double its podcast revenue across the next year, and that more shows — along with some possible headcount expansion — should be expected down the line. But I’m also told to watch out for a technology-related development. In a tech environment that seems more than a little ad-tech envious, I’m curious to see what, exactly, this means.

One more thing: I find myself endlessly fascinated by the company’s physical placement in Atlanta. I’ve often thought that it’s a great media city, beyond Turner Broadcasting. Hoch tells me that between the university system and the region’s robust film and television industry (which he claims is substantially better than that of Los Angeles), he has easy access to a strong talent pool for both talent and engineering. Speaking as someone who is growing increasingly weary of the coasts, that’s utterly welcome news.

Juicy, juicy details. I’m a big fan of media analyst Ken Doctor and his Newsonomics columns — which tend to be extravagantly long and mercilessly wonky — and so it was such a pleasure for me to find that he’s put out two very separate podcast-related analyses over the past week.

The first column, published in Politico, is structured around newly announced developments at The New York Times’ audio team and contains several bits of detail that, as a collective, vividly illustrates how this baby industry operates on a ecosystemic-level. Do read the whole column in its entirety, but here are my highlights:

  • The New York Times announced its newest podcast on Tuesday, Still Processing, a culture podcast featuring critic-at-large Wesley Morris (formerly of the now-defunct Grantland and the Do You Like Prince Movies? podcast) and the Times Magazine staff writer Jenna Wortham (who focuses on technology and culture in the broadest sense, and who was gave a really wonderful interview on a recent ep of the Recode Media podcast). This launch comes several weeks after the Times launched The Run-Up” its election podcast, establishing what appears to be start of a pretty aggressive rollout strategy.
  • Still Processing is produced in partnership with Pineapple Street Media. The project was hinted at in a previous Hot Pod.
  • The Times’ podcasts are now hosted on Art19. This new Art19 partnership was also hinted in a previous Hot Pod, and I assure you there are more big partnership announcements to come. Watch for them.
  • Andy Mills, a long-time Radiolab producer (the one with the hair), is joining the Times’ audio team, further illustrating the team’s strategy of recruiting from the public radio talent pool.
  • The Times has a “three-year investment” in the audio team, which I’m reading as, more or less, a three-year runway.

Between its selective partnerships, the manner in which its spread its bets, and the way it juxtaposes internal development with external collaborations, I think the Times is hitting a very sweet spot between being strategic caution and intelligent risk. Half of the battle, frankly, is starting out in a good position, and while some of their partnerships (and projects and hires) will probably fail, they’re configured to do so in a way that’ll help them survive into the next step.

Doctor’s second column, published in Current, is far more exhaustive and surveys the breadth of the industry along with its requisite opportunities. This piece, in particular, I’m not going to disrespectfully butcher through excerpt and extensive aggregation, and I highly encourage you to spend some time with this. But I did want to point out an idea embedded in the writeup that I’m currently turning around in my head:

In the wider sense, podcasts offer tryouts for public radio, “minor leagues” for talent development, with candidates given greater responsibility and opportunity to be coached and nurtured. Further, the freer and bigger market for audio talent begins to impact hiring throughout the public radio ecosystem.

This is true beyond the public radio system, as we’ve seen with the emerging trend of podcast-to-TV adaptations and the continuous stream of moneyed networks picking up homegrown independent podcasts. It’s a function of, and remains a testament to, the medium’s creator-friendly openness. (The condition of which, by the way, is increasingly thought to be contested as the industry professionalizes.)

Quick note. The IAB Tech Lab issued some guidelines for podcast advertising earlier this week. Check out the Ad Age writeup, and expect my analysis next week.

Bites:

  • Early last week, American Public Media announced a new investigative podcast, In The Dark, that’ll examine the child abduction of Jacob Wetterling in rural Minnesota — the case that led to a law enforcing state sex-offender registries. In a chilling coincidence, Wetterling’s remains were discovered last Thursday. The podcast launched early Wednesday morning, with the reporting fully on the case. In The Dark hit at the top of the charts earlier this week, on the strength of its teaser. (iTunes, Star Tribune)
  • Midroll has a new CEO: Erik Diehn, formerly the company’s VP of business development. He replaces Adam Sachs, who announced his departure from the company back in June after two years in the role. Also, Lex Friedman, formerly the EVP of sales and development, is the company’s new chief revenue officer. (Company blog)
  • This is pretty cool: WNYC is finding some success in using text-to-donate campaigns whose call-to-actions are included in their podcasts. It’s still not a system where you can donate directly to a specific podcast, however, but I think that set-up is never going to happen. (Current)
  • Jonathan Goldstein’s new show, which he’s making at Gimlet, is finally coming out later this month. I swear it’s like summer is the season everyone drops stuff even though we’re all on vay-cay. (iTunes)
  • Pandora is experimenting with the host-read advertising format, which it will use in the music-interview show hybrid station the company is launching with musician Questlove — who, together with Malcolm Gladwell, gave the opening keynote at yesterday’s IAB podcast upfront. (Digiday)
  • NPR’s going for that sweet Tim Ferriss/Recode/StartUp money with How I Built This, a new interview podcast about entrepreneurship and stuff. Hosted by Guy Raz, that other guy with the cool glasses. (NPR)
  • Starbucks has branded podcasts. Yep. Part of a larger multi-platform branded content situation. (TechCrunch)
  • Apparently there’s a piece of fancy apparel called the “Boho Mid-length Long Sleeve Podcast Co-Host Top,” courtesy of Modcloth. No, this isn’t a native ad, but I’m all ears if someone from Modcloth is reading this. (New York; WBEZ’s Nerdette podcast also did some digging)
  • Also, Apple is getting rid of the headphone jack. And introduces “AirPods.” Oh boy. (BuzzFeed)

Is This American Life violating the public radio mission by straying to platforms like Pandora?

Radiotopia lets a snake person in. The beloved Cambridge-based podcast indie label (or network or collective or whatchamacallit) is welcoming a new show to its ranks today: the bildungsroman-extraordinaire Millennial, produced by 25-year-old Megan Tan out of Portland, Maine. It’s the network’s 14th show overall, and the first addition since Julie Shapiro assumed the executive producer throne at the network last September.

In case you haven’t checked it out before, Millennial is…a bit of tricky podcast to explain. First gracing podcast feeds in January 2015, it’s a thoughtfully-crafted narrative podcast about a woman navigating her 20s. Principally written in the first person, the show is constructed on a complex machine of identity choreography where the documentarian is the central character and an unreliable narrator, one actively choosing the points in which the real world and the narrative intersects.

(In this sense, the show is incredibly reminiscent of the first season of StartUp, albeit with the enterprise of constructing a self instead of a business. Well, at first, anyway. Like I said, it’s complicated. Of course, StartUp has since moved away from complex structure to feature more straightforward stories about, uhm, startups I guess, and here I am mourning the loss of Alex Blumberg The Character.)

But Millennial is also a show overtly engaged in a certain kind of self-awareness. You can feel the show thinking about itself even as it unfolds (creating an interesting stiltedness); you can hear it in the way it’s uneasy with its own sincerity (even as the show wades forward with its heart fully on its sleeve), and you can even see it in its very title design (the word “Millennial” emblazoned with the colors of the rainbow, as if sashaying past the cultural agita — and reductiveness — that the concept evokes).

It’s a bizarre, intriguing, playful podcast. And so it’s a no-brainer to me, then, that Radiotopia, whose roster also includes the similarly hard-to describe Love+Radio and Benjemen Walker’s Theory of Everything, would embrace the show.

“I just felt like she ticked so many boxes for us: having the right content, having a vision, having done so much of it by herself,” Shapiro explained when I asked about the addition. “It’s equal part quality of the work, part spirit of the producer — a sense of determination and wanting to be independent, but also having that creative spark…She’s also, you know, a young woman of color doing it on her own. One of the Radiotopia goals is to get different voices in here, to support people who don’t have traditional training but have that moxie.”

Millennial’s recruitment into the network comes shortly after Tan left her job at New Hampshire Public Radio to pursue the show full-time earlier this year. When we spoke last week, she talked about the decision coming out of a desire for something close to creative freedom, or a space to learn and explore and develop on her own terms. But the effort to do so was grounded, it turned out, in a grappling with her economic chances. “I crunched the numbers, and I figured I could be making more money doing Millennial if I started putting out two episodes a month,” she said. Prior to joining Radiotopia, the show enjoyed an average of 27,000 downloads per episode. (That’s the number reported to advertisers, by the way. Keep in mind, in thinking through the number, that the show did not support dynamic ad insertion at the time.)

“I feel like there’s just a window of time when I can do this,” Tan said. “It feels like, well, nobody’s going to be talking about Millennial a year from now, and I can’t wait that long until I decide that this is what I want to do. There’s a lot of urgency in myself to just, sort of, buy the ticket and take the ride.”

(Boy, don’t I know that feeling.)

It’s worth noting, commensurate with a recent column by Current’s Adam Ragusea about the podcast industry’s trend towards clustering in New York, that Tan’s being able to make this professional leap can largely be attributed to her financial realities being based in Portland, Maine — where housing costs are roughly 58 percent lower than in Brooklyn, according to this nifty CNN Money calculator that sources its data from C2ER.

Speaking of New York, Tan mentioned that she was considering interest from a few other New York-based networks, which would’ve possibly led to her moving to the city. But her choice to go with Radiotopia came from multiple alignments — structural, creative, ideological — that she couldn’t ignore. “They feel like a family, and I feel like they have a similar intention for what they want stories to sound and be like that I have,” she said. “And there’s this freedom with them that’s almost unheard of in the industry…I mean, you get to own your own show! I don’t need someone to hold my hand through everything. I want to feel like I have as much stake in my show as somebody else. And I think, when you get to some of these other institutions, that’s not necessarily true.”

“Plus: When I think about Radiotopia, I just think about the fact it’s run by these badass women like [chief operating officer] Kerri Hoffman and Julie Shapiro,” she added. “And I’m like, yeah, I want to be on your team, and I want you to be on my team!”

With Radiotopia’s backing, Tan is looking to expand the scope of the show. “I want Millennial to be the show that people go to about coming-of-age,” she said. “And the best thing about that topic is that it’s narrow enough to be focused but it’s still big enough to encompass everything. You don’t stop coming of age when you get out of your 20s.”

You can find the podcast here. I imagine, given the podcast’s affinity for meta-narrative, that Tan will producer her own narrative on the show being picked up by Radiotopia. In which case, that episode is probably already out by the time you read this. [It is:]

How Radiotopia works. I figured this was a good opportunity to try and figure out what, exactly, a partnership with Radiotopia looks like. So I posed the question to Shapiro, and she was kind enough to walk me through it — even if my brain had a hard time grappling with it.

Radiotopia shows are supported by a collection of three different revenue streams. There’s advertising revenue (Radiotopia takes a 20 percent cut of the advertising revenue; they handle some sponsorships, but shows are incentivized to bring in more by themselves); there’s money that comes in from listener donations that are open persistently throughout the year (which are then distributed evenly across shows); and there are the annual pledge-drive fundraisers we’ve become familiar with (which are then distributed based on performance on top of an evenly split base amount). The way this works out, then, is that all shows get a baseline financial support but are still able to benefit in proportion to how well they perform both with advertisers and listeners.

Also worth noting: Ownership of the shows remain with the creators, not Radiotopia.

It’s a balanced, equitable approach; one that lets shows enjoy a relatively small cushion of comfort but places them in a position where they’re incentivized to hustle, because they stand to directly benefit from their own inputs.

And the network systems are designed such that the growth of each show will directly and indirectly benefit the wider family — a kind of virtuous cycle that encourages network cohesion. As Shapiro explains: “The shows make a nice chunk from the fundraiser, but that means everybody has to jump in and help fundraise. And the more we raise, the more they make from that. Then over the course of the year, as the shows get stronger and as the listeners get deeper and more loyal, listeners give more randomly and then the shows get more from that, and that means the networks get greater visibility for sponsors so they pay more. There’s a symbiotic relationship.”

It’s a fascinating system, but it’s certainly not for everybody. “There are other networks doing interesting, great work with business models that are in some ways more stable for producers,” Shapiro said. “I mean, if you work for a company, you get a steady paycheck.”

And boy, steady paychecks are sexy.

Mission vs. economics vs. a false dichotomy. Okay, let’s think through this one:

Last Thursday, Mike Savage, the general manager of WBAA, a public radio station operating out of West Lafayette, Indiana, announced in a LinkedIn post that the station will no longer carry This American Life come August. Several factors reportedly informed the decision, but Savage singled out TAL’s recent move to partner with the streaming service Pandora for distribution as the prime reason.

His argument is built on two key concepts:

  • Pandora poses a fundamental threat to public radio’s broadcast model. “Pandora is not complementary nor friendly to public radio,” Savage wrote. “Just go for a test drive in a new car and you will see their aggressive presentation…In fact, I believe it’s one of Pandora’s main goals to put traditional radio out of business.”
  • This American Life’s partnership with Pandora, then, represents a misalignment in interests, and given that WBAA pays TAL in order to serve its programming to the station’s listeners, the station would rather not fund an entity that is indirectly contributing to its demise.

This is, of course, an incredibly complex issue. It touches upon the disparity in resources between bigger and smaller stations, questions about how stations (and to extrapolate, publications and media companies) can hold their own, grow, and perhaps thrive in smaller markets, and of course, the structural tensions between emerging digital platforms and traditional broadcast. Add to that Savage’s claim that TAL wasn’t actually performing well for the station, and you have what looks to be a performative gesture with little immediate sacrifice for the station itself, which further complicates the way we read this. All of that is at play here, yes, and those things deserve discussion. And discussions are happening across Twitter, in Facebook groups, in forums, and most importantly, in the comments section of Savage’s LinkedIn post, where a substantial, multi-threaded conversation has been playing out, which even includes Glass mounting several responses.

But there a few parts of Savage’s decision — and more importantly, his rationale and argumentation — that I find especially troubling apart from those discussions. I’ll point out two in particular.

The first is an axiom that seems to drive Savage’s thinking: the sense that any programmatic attempt at aggressively growing an audience is somehow antithetical to the public radio mission. “At what cost do we grow the audience?” Savage writes at one point, in a response to a comment. “That’s the great thing about public broadcasting — we put mission first as opposed to shareholder value or audience size,” he writes at another.

There is, I think, a fundamental difference between the intention to aggressively grow your audience to maximize profits and the responsibility to aggressively grow your audience because they make up the Public you are meant to serve. Furthermore, such audience and revenue growth initiative should be a concern only if such initiatives directly contribute to a decrease in the quality of work being produced or service being provided. (Conversely: To impede initiatives that would generate greater audiences that wouldn’t dilute editorial quality should be read, then, as being counter-productive to the public good. I mean, what’s the point of producing work of quality if nobody’s listening to it?) Quality dilution obviously isn’t a problem that This American Life faces, which has demonstrably increased its capacity for public service journalism since incorporating as a public benefit corporation and has gotten more financially ambitious (a sample list of stellar reporting from the past four months alone: “My Damn Mind,” “I Thought I Knew You,” “Anatomy of Doubt“). Savage seems to almost automatically equate a drive towards revenue or audience growth with an immediate straying away from the public good — which is a viewpoint that’s not only simplistic, but also counterintuitive to the entire enterprise of helping to build a more informed public.

The second part is considerably more troubling. The thing that’s most striking to me about Savage’s whole deal is this: Here we have a public radio station that seems to not only fail to recognize who its natural friends are, but one that is lashing out at potential allies — a state of affairs that isn’t great for a system that thrives on cohesion and solidarity.

This whole business would be one thing if all we’re seeing is a brash decision made by a small public radio station — operating with few resources within the 236th-largest market size in the country, as Savage himself noted in the comments — even though, yes, the station represents a view held by a number of other, similarly under-resourced public radio station. But it’s incredibly important to note that Savage is a member of NPR’s board of directors, and that he actively brings this thinking into those meetings and could well complicate efforts to strengthen the core over there.

Let’s pause a second. It’s important to note that Savage’s decision comes chiefly out of fear — a concern for its own existence, for whether the shifting conditions will leave it to wither and die. I understand that. And that fear is especially acute when you’re small; indeed, when you’re small, a lot of things seem scary. But the way to survive isn’t to shrink inwards and struggle for the status quo. The way to survive is the same as it has always been: to continuously embrace new ways of doing things, new political realities, new balances of power.

I’m trying to be sympathetic here, but it’s really hard not to read this as anything but a scenario where a station is making a principled stand for its own existence at the expense of the mission it purports to serve. Perhaps, as I’ve done in the past, it’s worth asking whether many of the stations that make up the public radio system — all of which were created at a very different point in history with very different technological realities — are still the right entities to carry out its mission.

Meanwhile, Nieman Lab has a great interview with NPR One’s Tamar Charney on what’s been up with the app. (Spoiler alert: There are hamsters.) Also, this week’s Frederic Filloux column over at Monday Note seems particularly pertinent to this hullabaloo: “Fossilized culture, not lack of funding, put news media on deathwatch.”

To everyone reading this who isn’t really into the whole public radio thing: Sorry about that.

Responses to dynamic ad insertion concerns. Last week, I published a few concerns held by Collin Willardson, who heads up marketing over at Mack Weldon, about the changes that dynamic ad insertion brings to podcast advertising. Joel Withrow, director of product over at Panoply (my old day job employer), was kind enough to address some of those issues.

His reply was pretty long, so I posted it in full over in this Google Doc, but here’s the essential paragraph:

Podcast ad sales are undergoing a big change — one of steadily increased scale, better technology, and professionalization. Our growing pains focus on ad insertion because the technology behind it should be held to a higher standard, so that we don’t mess things up for listeners or advertisers. While giving podcasters access to the best reporting and sales opportunities out there, the best platforms will keep ceding total creative control over every minute of the episode, ads included, to the creators. If we do that, any given show’s migration to ad insertion should be inaudible.

Cool.

Bites:

  • In other Radiotopia news, the 10 finalists for their Podquest competition have been locked in. They were informed last week. Watch out for more developments on this front as the weeks roll on.
  • Wondery, the new L.A.-based podcast network launched by former Fox executives Hernan Lopez and Jeffrey Glaser, announced three additions to its roster last week: Radio Drama Revival, The Cleansed, and Ruby: Adventures of A Galactic Gumshoe. That last show comes out of ZBS, an audio drama-oriented nonprofit founded by Thomas Lopez, who was recently profiled on All Things Considered.
  • Two weeks after publicly announcing its arrival, Pineapple Street Media makes its first hire: Bari Finkel, who has previously worked on Radiolab, the upcoming Radiolab spinoff, and the Panoply Custom team.
  • “Apple updates iTunes with a ‘simpler’ design that doesn’t really help.” (The Verge)
  • “How Monocle found money in radio.” (Digiday)

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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