Today, Explained, explained: Vox enters the daily news podcast race with a comma-happy, personality-driven show

Quick preamble: I was working on my taxes yesterday when I realized that last Thursday marked the two-year point since I incorporated Hot Pod Media LLC. To celebrate the occasion, I’m hauling an old Hot Pod feature out of retirement just for this issue: the unnecessary deployment of irrelevant GIFs. Thanks for being a reader, and to those who’ve been reading me for a while now, thanks for sticking around. I really don’t know where all that time went.

Every Day, Explained. Rejoice, news nerds: We now have a name, a release date, and a sound palette for Vox Media’s upcoming entry into the daily news podcast genre. The show will be called Today, Explained — props for keeping it #onbrand — and it will begin publishing next Monday, February 19. A trailer for the podcast went up yesterday, and it sounds…well, quite different from what I would expect from Vox.com, but entirely in keeping what I would expect from host Sean Rameswaram, whose various hijinks I’ve followed intermittently over the years.

I wrote a preview of the podcast for Vulture that came out yesterday, and I spent much of that article trying to contextualize Today, Explained within the current state of the emerging daily news podcast genre. Now, “emerging” is a word I tend to use a lot (more on that in a bit), at times way too cavalierly, but in the context of this story, the use of the term is literal: It’s been a blast watching this species of podcast come into being.

Two things I’d like to emphasize from the preview:

  • The choice to target the evening commute is a really, really smart one. I’ve argued this before, but I think it’s safe to assume that there might be considerable overlap between the audiences of The New York Times and Vox.com. As such, a move to complement The Daily is significantly more prudent than engaging it as a direct competitor. In any case, even if the overlap was small, the evening commute remains untapped by the daily news podcast to begin with — aside from Mike Pesca’s The Gist, of course, which isn’t really playing the same game anyway. It’s a safer, and therefore more reliable, base to build from, and besides, Today, Explained could always expand with an a.m. version at some point in the future. (Same goes with The Daily and a p.m. version, a prospect that it has previously explored with breaking news specials.)
  • In case it fully doesn’t come across in the writeup: I think Today, Explained’s success will mostly hinge on Sean Rameswaram’s personality — more so, I’d argue, than how Michael Barbaro fits into The Daily as a presence. Which is, I suppose, kind of the point when you bring in someone with a specific sense of showmanship like Rameswaram to headline a project.

And two more things I’d like to add to the preview:

  • Here’s Vox.com general manager Andrew Golis, responding to an inquiry about how the podcast fits into the company’s overall business goals: “It gives us an opportunity to have an audio daily presence in our audience’s life in the way our website does in text and our YouTube channel does in video. That persistent relationship and trust is a powerful platform for building our business…we believe ‘Today, Explained’ will give us a new way to introduce audiences to a growing network of Vox podcasts as we continue to expand our ambitions and programming.”
  • I’d be remiss if I didn’t discuss Midroll Media’s involvement in the production. The Scripps-owned podcast company serves as the exclusive advertising partner for Today, Explained, but I’m also told that they provided upfront investment to help assemble the team and build out the production. Chris Bannon, Midroll’s chief content officer, was also involved in the development of the show. “Creatively speaking, I spent a day in D.C. with the Vox team, and together we started sourcing host and staff candidates,” explained Bannon over email. “Right now we’re in the fun part, listening to show drafts and sharing notes. They’re alarmingly well-organized, cheerful, and efficient.” Bannon, by the way, worked with Rameswaram back when he was still at WNYC. (He left for Midroll in early 2015.)

When asked about his perspective on the potential of Today, Explained, Bannon offered an analogy. “I think we want Today, Explained to be All Things Considered to the The Daily’s Morning Edition,” he said. “Except that we will be more like All Things Considered’s smart, funny, well-informed, and streetwise uncle.”

“Streetwise uncle” sounds about right.

On a related note: I heard there’s some big news coming later today on The Daily. Keep your eyes peeled.

What comes next for the Fusion Media Group. Last week, The Onion binge-dropped A Very Fatal Murder, the satirical news site’s first stab at a long-form audio project. The show was designed to parody the wildly popular — and eminently bankable! — true-crime podcast genre, which is an appealing premise right off the bat: indeed, there’s no team I’d love to see interpret the phenomenon more than the brains behind The Onion. A Very Fatal Murder turned out to be enjoyable enough, no more and no less, though I did end up thinking it didn’t come anywhere close to realizing its promise as podcast satire.

But there’s a thing, and then there’s everything around the thing. And despite the minor swing and miss of A Very Fatal Murder, I was nonetheless left quite excited about the prospect of future projects from The Onion, and curious about what’s going on with the audio team at The Onion’s parent company, Fusion Media Group (FMG).

So I checked in with Mandana Mofidi, FMG’s executive director of audio. In case you’re unfamiliar, FMG is the sprawling, multi-tentacled corporation best known in some circles — mine, namely — for absorbing the remains of the Gawker empire post-Terry Bollea lawsuit in the form of the Gizmodo Media Group that spans Gizmodo, io9, Jezebel, and others. A television arm factors in somewhere, as does the city of Miami.

Anyway, Mofidi tells me that since her team kicked off operations about a year ago, they’ve been playing around with a couple of ideas and formats to see what would stick. Weekly interview and chat shows made up the early experiments, which apparently ended up working well for Lifehacker (The Upgrade), Kotaku (Splitscreen), and Deadspin (Deadcast). But following the reception they received for A Very Fatal Murder as well as Containers, Alexis Madrigal’s audio documentary about the sexy, sexy world of international shipping from last year, more plans have to been put in place to build out further narrative projects.

Mofidi’s overarching goal this year, it seems, is to ensure that each of FMG’s properties gets a solid podcast of their own. To that end, they have several projects in various stages of development, including:

  • A six-part narrative series from Gizmodo about “a controversial and charismatic spiritual guru who uses the internet to build her obsessive following.” That show is being developed with Pineapple Street Media, which appears to be really carving out a niche around themes of obsession, charismatic leaders, and the followings they spawn, following Missing Richard Simmons and Heaven’s Gate.
  • A show for Jalopnik called Tempest, which will examine “the funny and at times tragic intersectionality of people and cars.”
  • A series that “explores the connectivity of our DNA” — which evokes memories of Gimlet’s Twice Removed — featuring Grammy Award-winning artist René Pérez, a.k.a. Residente. Gretta Cohn’s Transmitter Media is assisting with this project.
  • A collaboration with The California Endowment that’ll produce stories on young activists “who are using their platforms to promote solidarity between different communities and causes.”

Mofidi also talked about an intent to dig deeper into events. “We recently did a live taping of Deadspin’s Deadcast in St. Paul before the Super Bowl. We were expecting to sell about 200 tickets, but ended up with over 360 people,” she said. The smart speaker category is also of interest, along with figuring out ways to collaborate with FMG’s aforementioned television arm.

I asked Mofidi if she had any dream projects that she’d love to produce in her role. “A daily show,” she wrote back. “It would be ambitious, but with so many passionate voices across our sites it feels like something we could do in a way that was distinct.”

Related reading: Publishers with TV ambitions are pursuing Netflix.

We’re back with this nonsense: “Public media again in bull’s-eye in president’s FY19 plans.” Re-upping my column from the last time we were in this mess, on why it’s bad in ways you already know and in more ways you don’t.

And while I’m linking Current, the public media publication just announced the new host for its podcast, The Pub: Annie Russell, currently an editor at WBEZ.

Pod Save America heads to HBO. Surprise, surprise. Crooked Media’s flagship podcast is heading to the premium cable network with a series of hour-long specials that will follow the Obama bros — that’s former Obama aides Jon Favreau, Tommy Vietor, and Jon Lovett, in case you’re unfamiliar with the deep-blue podcast phenomenon — as they host live tapings on the campaign trail for what will most definitely be a spicy midterm election season this fall. This is the latest addition to the newly buzzy trend of podcasts being adapted for film and television, and the deal for this adaptation in particular was handled by WME.

Over at Vulture, I tried to turn a series of dots into a squiggly shape linking this development, the recent debut of 2 Dope Queens’ HBO specials, and HBO’s relationship with Bill Simmons to say something about the premium cable network’s potential strategic opportunities with podcasting. Put simply: Traditional standup comedy programming is getting more expensive due to the pressure of Netflix’s infinitely large war chest, and one could argue that certain types of conversational podcast programming offer HBO an alternative resource to adapt and develop content that can potentially hit the same kind of experience and pleasure beats you’d get from conventional standup TV specials.

But sometimes dots are just dots, and those aren’t really constellations in the sky — just random, meaningless arrangements of stars that are indifferent to your experience of them.

Happy Valentine’s Day.

Meanwhile, in the nonprofit world. This one’s pretty interesting: Tiny Spark, the Amy Costello-led independent nonprofit news outfit that covers the world of philanthropy and nonprofits, has been acquired by Nonprofit Quarterly, which is…well, a much larger independent nonprofit news organization that covers the world of philanthropy and nonprofits. “Amy…has done an exceptional job building the audience for her podcast. We are excited not only to add this new media channel to our organization, but also to collaborate with Amy to expand our reach into public radio,” said Joel Toner, NPQ’s president and chief operating officer.

As part of this arrangement, NPQ owns Tiny Spark’s intellectual property and Amy Costello is brought on as a senior correspondent to lead the organization’s investigative journalism work, podcast development, and public radio outreach. “Tiny Spark’s work fits very well into the topics we cover at NPQ,” said Toner, when asked about the strategic thinking behind the acquisition. “Additionally, our 2017 annual audience survey confirmed that our readers had a significant interest in having us develop a podcast channel.”

I’d like to point out just how much this arrangement reminds me of the one that was struck between USA Today and Robin Amer, which I profiled last week. Speaking of which…

A quick update to last week’s item on The City. In the piece, I talked a little bit about the USA Today Network’s podcast plans for 2018, chiefly drawing information from a summer 2017 press release the organization circulated when they first announced the acquisition of The City. The plans mostly involve launching more podcasts across its properties.

The company reached out to let me know that their thinking has since evolved. “The network already produces dozens of podcasts across its 109-plus sites, but is now focusing on a handful of those shows to support with resources and marketing à la The City,” wrote Liz Nelson, the USA Today Network’s vice president of strategic content development. “At the time [the press release] was written, we did have 60-plus podcasts — most of which bubbled up organically at the local level. We’re closer to 40 now. That number will continue to ebb and flow and we encourage experimentation at the local level, which gives our journalists the space they need to experiment in the medium.”

Nelson added: “But from a network level, we are not putting the same amount of resources we’ve put into The City into every single show. We’re concentrating on a smaller set of shows we believe can have national impact.”

Hold this thought. We’re going to talk about other stuff for a bit, but we’ll get back to this notion of resource focus.

“It amuses me,” wrote Traug Keller, ESPN’s senior vice president of audio, in a corporate blog post touting the sport media giant’s podcasting business, “when I read about podcasting in the media with references to it being ‘new’ or ’emerging.'”

Keller continued:

As ESPN has done with other technologies — be it cable TV in 1979, the Internet in the ’90s, HD television or mobile initiatives more recently — we embraced podcasting as soon as we could and ran with it — even if we didn’t always know where we would end up! We launched our first podcast way back in 2005. A head start is often critical in a competitive business environment.

I also chuckle when people refer to podcasting as some mysterious new format to figure out. I’ve spent a career in audio, and I can tell you the key ingredients for compelling audio are constant…

Yeah, I don’t know, dude.

The borderline condescending tone of the post isn’t exactly something I’d want to hear from a company whose public narrative is one of crisis on multiple fronts — from the disruption of its cable-bundle–reliant business model to layoffs to its uneven handling of social media policies to the uncertain future of a gamble on OTT distribution — let alone a podcast publisher whose Podtrac ranking placement (as always, disclaimers of that service here and here) is powered by what is still largely a spray-and-pray strategy, in which 82 shows are deployed to bring in 35 million global unique monthly downloads. For reference, the infinitely smaller PRX team gets 4 million more with less than half that number of shows (34 podcasts), while NPR bags three times more downloads with just 42 podcasts that don’t at all traffic in naturally addictive sports content.

To be clear, I am, very generally speaking, more appreciative of a world with a strong (and better) ESPN in it than one without. And let me also just say that I really like some of its recent moves in on-demand audio, namely the creation of the 30 for 30 Podcast and having Katie Nolan launch her own show.

But I just don’t think very highly of this whole “oh we’ve been doing this for a long time/we were doing this first therefore we are super wise” mindset that either mistakes early sandbox dabblings for meaningful first-mover value creation or simply being first for being noteworthy. To be fair, this isn’t a knock that exclusively applies to Keller’s blog post; that thinking governs an alarming share of press releases and huffy emails that hit my inbox. But here’s the thing: I really don’t think it matters whether you did first. What mostly matters is if you did it right. Which is to say: If you invented Facebook, dammit, you’d have invented Facebook. Furthermore, as it stands, if there’s anything I’m acutely aware of writing this newsletter every week, it’s that, much like everywhere else, nobody really knows anything. It’s just a bunch of people working really hard, trying to figure this whole podcast thing out.

Anyway. I normally try not to be too worked up about anything, but this stuff really bugs me, and goodness, there’s nothing I would love more than to take this mindset, strap it onto the next Falcon Heavy rocket, and launch it straight into the dying sun.

Still, credit should be given where’s credit due: The post goes on to discuss what I think is a really positive development for ESPN’s podcast business:

To get there, we pared our lineup — once numbering in triple digits — to about 35, focusing on the most popular offerings (NFL, MLB, and NBA) and other niche topics where we can “own” the category. It’s a “less is more” strategy, where we can better produce and promote a smaller lineup.

Which reminds me of something…

After spray-and-pray. ESPN’s move to pare down and focus its overflowing podcast portfolio reminds me of another podcast publisher that’s been pretty active since the first podcast boom: NPR.

NPR’s podcast inventory, too, once numbered in the triple digits. In August 2005, its directory housed around 174 programs, 17 of which were NPR originals while others were shows from member stations that the public radio mothership were distributing on their behalf. (That practice has since been terminated.) The show number peaked around 2009, when the directory supported about 390 podcasts.

“Back in those days, podcasts were hard to access and only the really digitally savvy listeners could find and download them,” an NPR spokesperson told me. “We were experimenting and we were excited with the possibility of putting out NPR content on-demand, repackaging content that had aired about specific topics, seeing what the audience would like…It also allowed for additional creativity in programming, podcasts could be a sandbox for piloting new ideas.” Some of those ideas eventually grew into segments and radio shows of their own, but these podcasts mostly ended up being an unruly system of small, quiet, under-the-radar projects.

All that changed with this most recent podcasting boom, which started in the latter half of 2014. Around that time, a focused effort was made to identify and retain shows that fit a certain set of criteria that included having a native podcast experience (and not just recycled segments from existing shows), strong listener communities, an alignment with the organization’s business needs, and so on. The rest were culled. By the end, NPR was left with 25 shows. “Our thinking was that by having a smaller portfolio, we could draw more attention to them, serve them better, cross-promote, bring sponsorship support, create significant reach,” the spokesperson said.

The move felt like a gamble at the time, but it paid off. “While everyone expected our downloads to go down, within two months, downloads were somewhere near 50 million a month,” remembered Audible’s Eric Nuzum, then vice president of programming at NPR. “Within a year, it was over 80.”

That number is now 110 million. The point of this little parable is…well, I don’t think I have to spell it out. You get the picture.

Call Your 2018. There are few teams I admire more than the trio behind Call Your Girlfriend, the podcast for long-distance besties everywhere: journalist Ann Friedman, international woman of mystery Aminatou Sow, and radio producer Gina Delvac. The show has, over its nearly four years of existence, evolved from a fun side project to stay connected into something so much more than that. It is, in equal parts, a platform, a community, and an ever-growing resource. And if the enthusiasm of some friends of mine who consider themselves devout CYG fans are any indicator, Call Your Girlfriend is also damn close to being a full-fledged movement.

Last year was a difficult one for the team, given the political environment, but it was also a call to arms to which they responded with vigor. “Despite the trash-fire that was 2017 in America,” they wrote me, “Better yet, because of it, we wanted CYG to function as a place of refuge for our listeners, and for ourselves.” This translated into an interview schedule that was dense with guests that spoke directly to the moment — including but not limited to Hillary Rodham Clinton, Kirsten Gillibrand, Margaret Atwood, and Ellen Pao — as well as a multipart series on women running for office that featured sit-downs with first-time candidates and organizations that support women seeking political office. The team also worked to push the show creatively, producing a special episode on pelvic pain and trauma and occasionally handing the mic over to other podcasting teams, like Who? Weekly’s Lindsey Weber and Bobby Finger along with Good Muslim Bad Muslim’s Tanzila Ahmed and Zahra Noorkbakhsh.

The year was also fruitful for Call Your Girlfriend’s business. Though specific numbers were not disclosed, I’m told that the show’s revenues — which come from a combination of ad sales, live events, and a healthy merchandising arm — far exceeded their original targets. More ambitious goals were set for the new year.

We’re neck-deep into the second month of 2018, so I thought it was a good a time as any to check in with the team about their plans for the coming months, their thoughts on how the industry has changed, and their commitment to being independent. They were kind enough to oblige:

[storybreak]

[conl]Hot Pod: What are y’all hoping to do this year?[/conl]

[conr]Call Your Girlfriend: One of our first interviews of the year was with Cameron Esposito, and we loved her answer to everyone who’s told her she’s too loud or too gay: She’s simply getting gayer and louder. Likewise here at CYG, we’re getting more political, more feminist, and more obsessed with the transformative power of friendship.

Editorially, we’re both digging in and branching out. We’ll be featuring more of our sheroes as well as women whose stories you haven’t heard yet. We’re deepening our work with political candidates who will (hopefully) be running our country soon, and the writers, critics, and artists whose interpretive work helps us endure. We have a number of themed episodes in the works.

We’re also each taking on more as individuals: Amina is sharing more of her personal experience with illness and grief, Ann is bringing more of her stellar reporting and editorial strategy evident in her many bylines and newsletter to the podcast, and Gina is stepping in front of the mic to host an upcoming episode about sex.

We’re also hiring our first ever associate producer! Applications just closed, so we’ll be excited to announce the newest member of our coven in the coming weeks.[/conr]

[conl]Hot Pod: How has it grown over the years?[/conl]

[conr]Call Your Girlfriend: We are very happy that we’ve stayed independent, and we’re working on some more official/structured ways of helping newer, like-minded independent podcasts find their footing as well. We’re also working on ways to leverage our listeners’ incredible political engagement. Our audience — primarily millenial women — drives book sales, ticket sales, merch sales, charitable donations in the tens of thousands and more. Folks on our mailing list are even volunteering to donate their blood for a national drive we’ll be announcing soon.

Part of how we’ve stayed independently owned is through the ads Midroll sells on our behalf. We’ve heard from the partnerships team that our sell-through rates are excellent, and our audience is a highly prized demographic segment. From a pure capitalistic standpoint, there are more advertisers recognizing the buying power in our demo than available ad inventory. We’d like to see more women behind the mic for myriad reasons, including getting paid. We’d also like to see more and better products and services that our audience will enjoy. We’re looking into ways to carve open more space, to bring revenue to great projects and better ads to fit women’s outsized purchasing power. (Weight-loss products need not apply. We love women of all sizes.)[/conr]

[conl]Hot Pod: How do you see Call Your Girlfriend right now, and how has the vision for the show changed over time?[/conl]

[conr]Call Your Girlfriend: When we started, this was a project to stay connected to one another and have fun. We still do that, but we’ve added a number of elements outside the podcast itself along the way. Like the music touring model, that’s mainly meant live events and selling merch. Now and looking into the future, we see Call Your Girlfriend as a great clearinghouse for authentic content for ladies who get it. We’re always thinking about bigger projects in audio, as well as TV, digital, political action, and more.

We’ve talked about engagement, but on a qualitative level our fans respond and show up the way that close friends do. The live shows are a great example. We see friends in cahoots who seem like lifelong besties — and then discover they’ve just met. The number of friends who’ve planned road trips or flown in to be with their long-distance BFF for our shows is astonishing. The community around what we do is really positive and powerful. So we’re interested in adding to that experience as much as possible, that sense of pride and belonging, whether it’s on stage, in your earbuds, on a t-shirt or, perhaps, a screen.[/conr]

[conl]Hot Pod: What’s worrying you guys?[/conl]

[conr]Call Your Girlfriend: As exciting as it’s been to see the emergence of so many new shows and projects, it seems harder than ever for new self-funded shows to find their footing. In an ad-centric model, it takes a lot of work to build a sizeable audience. Audience support has practical challenges. And while we’re excited about the energy around podcasting from media companies, not everyone has the production and marketing budget to invest to help insure a smash hit.

Discoverability remains a challenge. We’re also interested to see whether the proliferation of connected cars, smart home devices, and other access points to audio make it easier to entice brand new listeners.

Finally, for us and shows like ours, hosted by women who are overtly political, we worry about being overlooked or diminished, particularly when compared with similar endeavors that feature men. We specialize in conversations among politically-savvy women who are running things or will be soon. We blend serious discussion of the policies that dramatically impact women’s lives with a good dose of banter. We hope that audiences and industry watchers see that our delight in friendship is completely in line with the seriousness of our analysis and aims. We’re here for every facet of women’s humanity.[/conr]

[conl]Hot Pod: What have you been seeing with the rollout of Apple’s new podcast analytics?[/conl]

[conr]Call Your Girlfriend: It’s been really interesting to run a weekly show with the emergence of so many serialized and/or seasonal programming, watching which episodes really pop and which ones less so. It’s causing us to think critically about re-engagement, promotion, and leaning into vs expanding our style of content.[/conr]

[conl]Hot Pod: Has it been difficult staying independent?[/conl]

[conr]Call Your Girlfriend: It hasn’t been hard for us to stay independent — that’s remained one of our core values — but as we each advise fellow podcasters we recognize that these are very different waters to wade into. Listeners are getting really sophisticated, which is great. But, that makes it harder to learn as you go. There’s much less room to fudge things like your show’s editorial framing, ill-considered artwork, or audio quality. And kind of like your inner circle of friends, once you have core besties, you limit how many new intimates you take on, by necessity.[/conr]

[conl]Hot Pod: Finally, is there anything else you’d like to talk about?[/conl]

[conr]Call Your Girlfriend: Anyone who has money to burn, talk to us. You’re a fool not to talk to us. We’re killing it.[/conr]

[storybreak]

Bites:

    • This is Love, the limited-run spinoff series from the team behind Radiotopia’s Criminal, is rolling out this week just in time for Valentine’s Day. Should be perfect for those who enjoy a steaming plate of romance with a side of spiders. (Website)
    • WBEZ debuted Making Obama, the Chicago public radio station’s followup to Making Oprah, last week. As previously mentioned, I’m personally psyched for the entire “Making” model, and its Hearken-like potential for local radio stations across the country. Snazzy landing page, too. (Said landing page)
    • FiveThirtyEight’s whiz kid Harry Enten has left the Nate Silver-led statistical analysis site to join CNN. Enten was a fixture on the site’s politics podcast, which I’ve always thought is one of the more entertaining and informative in the genre. Just as a reminder: There’s been some hubbub about FiveThirtyEight possibly being sold off. It’s currently owned by ESPN.
    • However unclear the path forward might be for a reputable public radio station mired in controversy, the show must go on. Last week, WNYC launched Trump, Inc., a collaboration with ProPublica that endeavors to answer basic questions on how the president’s business works — a set of facts that remain quite murky. The fine folks at Nieman Lab have some deets.
    • Speaking of Trump content, NPR’s Embedded is back with another season on the current presidential administration. (Show listing)
    • “Podcasting Is the New Soft Diplomacy.” The underlying premise here isn’t particularly novel, but there are some nice ideas in this Bryan Curtis piece that help illustrate soft power in the age of digitally distributed media intimacy. (The Ringer)
  • TheSkimm, that popular media company whose morning newsletter product reaches more than 6 million largely female readers, has launched its first podcast. (Though, it’s not the company’s first audio product. That would be the Skimm Notes feature that’s packaged into its app.) The show is called Skimm’d from The Couch, and it takes the shape of a career advice vessel in the minor key of Guy Raz’s How I Built This. (Official blog)

[photocredit]Photo of Sean Rameswaram by James Bareham/Vox Media.[/photocredit]

The New York Times’ The Daily vs. NPR’s Up First: Which morning news podcast is better at what?

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 121, published May 30, 2017.

Back from vacation, folks. We’re talking conventions, independent media, The Daily v. Up First, and careers. Let’s get to it.

PodCon. The crop of live podcasting programming — or festivals or conferences or whatever you’d like to call it — has grown fairly robust over the past few years. A rough list, by no means comprehensive: WNYC’s Werk It, Midroll’s Now Hear This, the LA Podcast Festival, DC Podfest, the Mid-Atlantic Podcast conference, Third Coast, Podcast Movement, the Hot Docs Podcast Festival…and so on, and so on.

There’s a new addition on the horizon, one that sports a notable heritage: this December will see the inaugural edition of PodCon, a podcast convention by Hank Green, the largely internet-based personality who is also responsible for, among many other things, the YouTube series vlogbrothers, the podcast Dear Hank & John, the Internet Creators Guild, and, most pertinently, VidCon, the popular online video conference. The convention will take place in Seattle. The lineup of attending shows thus far includes Lore, Radiotopia’s Criminal, the McElroy brothers, and Night Vale Presents. Green is bringing in his team of experienced convention producers to organize PodCon, and Night Vale’s Joseph Fink is playing an active role in curating the lineup.

PodCon is meant to be distinctly fan-oriented, Fink told me. “Podcast conventions and festivals have mostly either focused on a specific kind of podcasting (comedy, documentary, etc.) or focused on the technical or business side (essentially the podcaster side of podcasting, rather than the listener),” he said. “We really want to create convention that treats podcasting as a broad and diverse art form, and that is primarily for fans, whether those fans are also podcast makers or not.”

Green concurred, describing a convention that threads both sides of the creator-audience relationship. “We think the people who love podcasts deserve and want to be included in conversations about issues the field is facing, from diversity to monetization. We think the wall between professional discussion and community celebration is not real,” he said.

According to Green, the convention will chiefly be funded through ticket sales, both through an Indiegogo campaign that currently serves as the event’s primary web presence — as of Monday morning, it has raised about $81,000 of a $300,000 goal — and ticket sales that happen afterward. (The campaign features several contribution tiers, but backers need to provide a minimum of $90 for admission to the actual convention. For reference, the standard admission pricing for VidCon is at $150 for fans, and $200 for creators.) The Indiegogo campaign was deployed mostly to get a sense of the event’s scope; I’m told that the convention will proceed regardless of what happens with the campaign. The organizing team holds out some hope that there will be sponsors, noting that it’s very hard for first-year events to wrangle in sponsorship. (Though given the fact that VidCon eventually locked down YouTube as an advertiser for that convention, I suspect they’ll be fine.)

So, why Seattle? It’s podcast country, Fink told me. “People in the Northwest really love podcasts. Night Vale has done some huge shows in New York and London, but by far the biggest show we’ve done was in Seattle. We consistently see the most excitement for our events in the Bay Area, Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver. In my mind, that’s podcast country,” he said.

You can find out more about PodCon on its Indiegogo page.

On podcasting and independent media. Given Green’s extensive history with independent internet media and YouTube — with all its opportunities and travails over time — I was curious about Green’s take on the current state of the ecosystem. He was kind enough to oblige:

It’s a mixed bag, like any media. I like that it’s harder to control and consolidate because the technology underneath it is so simple, but it’s also gotten extremely hard to break into. Production costs can be the lowest of any media, but if you want to get noticed these days, it’s much easier if you’ve got money and experience (or a pre-existing audience). Because it can be so cheap to produce, we’ve seen an influx of people with existing audiences moving into podcasting (like me, for example), which I have mixed feelings about — obviously not so mixed that I don’t do it, because I love it, but I do see it as making the medium less meritocratic. Monetization is pretty sustainable if you can put together a fairly large audience, but unavailable to smaller podcasts, which is a shame. But ad rates are fairly high and competition for podcast ad slots seems to be getting more heated, which is good.

As the consumption of podcasts has become a more understood and normal thing, and a path to revenue has gotten more clear, a huge diverse range of genres and styles have emerged. Some of that has happened under the umbrella of networks that, from my perspective thus far, have been pretty up front and fair. And some of it has happened independently. I think that’s all part of a pretty healthy ecosystem.

Radiotopia readies Ear Hustle for launch. The podcast indie label’s latest addition, which features stories of life in prison produced by the people who live them, is set to roll out its first episode on June 14. To mark the occasion and to promote the show, Radiotopia has prepared a unique launch strategy: between June 1 and 15, all other 16 Radiotopia shows (!) will drop episodes around the theme of “doing time.” A preview of Ear Hustle is already up in its feed.

Notes on the morning news front. When on vacation, I try to stay unplugged. I make an effort to keep away from the news (I tried), to avoid Twitter (I really tried), and to not do too much work (ha) in favor of more immediate experiences, like actually being present for human conversation, or savoring details (the smell of flowers, the ashy taste of Claritin). I also established a moratorium on podcasts for a bit, though I, eventually, made an exception for two shows: NYT’s The Daily and NPR’s Up First. I suppose I couldn’t stay away all that much.

Third Coast Festival tweet-polled its followers on which show they preferred, and while the poll shouldn’t be taken to say anything other than the preferences of TCF’s Twitter followers, it does present us with a good opportunity to take stock of their efforts in relation to each other so far. The question about which production is better is, as always, a super fun one, but as polite argument goes, such a paradigm may well be educationally limited. Both podcasts, after all, represent different approaches to the morning podcast news — Up First favors breadth and speed, exhibiting a purpose parallel to A.M. email news digests, while The Daily favors depth and experience, building a space that often feels remarkably close to magazine features — and even if you could construct the argument for one’s superiority, there is always the natural (though somewhat frustrating) meta-counter-argument that both models provide different kinds of value to different kinds of people’s needs and preferences. From here, the move should instead be to think of what they tell us as a collection; of what they tell us about where the genre is.

Fair enough, but I do think that The Daily is unambiguously superior to NPR’s offering on a number of levels where it counts — particularly in terms of the way it achieves what it has set out to do, and the way it has definitively furthered the experience of news consumption in the podcast format. To begin with, The Daily possesses a greater degree of inventiveness and generally makes much better use of the podcast format, resulting in a freshness that makes the prospect of listening to the news more attractive. It does this by being emotionally ambitious, which feels both rare and miles apart from another, more commonly deployed strategy to increase the appeal of news: by dumbing it down. Its choice to focus on a small number of deeply executed stories per day has allowed it to extract tremendous narrative value from depth, and it gives the show greater versatility in its ability to traffic both in headlines and features that seem to exist out of time; there is no greater example of this than last Friday’s gorgeous episode adapting a feature on assisted suicide in Canada.

Nevertheless, the places where The Daily is most dynamic also happen to be its sources of risk and potential weaknesses. And, interestingly enough, where Up First has chosen to be comparatively more conservative — only marginally innovating on the core sound or formula of NPR — also happens to be where it is at its most orthogonally competitive with The Daily. In its pursuit of emotional depth, The Daily is in a position that consistently runs the risk of stacking the deck too far in one direction, which may well open it up to critiques of myopia and manipulation. This manifests itself in the podcast’s use of music as something more than window dressing; it is, to use a cliché, a character of its own in the show that interacts with and augments the narrative, and it has the capacity to emotionally condition listeners in a way that some might consider ethically dubious. (No different, it could be argued, from the choice of photographs deployed within articles.)

It also manifests itself in the show’s choice to heavily tether its perspective on its host, Michael Barbaro, a move that highlights the trickiness of that emotional ambition (see that one episode about the coal miner, where your mileage may vary, or even roll backward). There also exists the question of how The Daily might function, or whether it can remain as strong, should Barbaro need to take a week off or, oh I don’t know, decide to work for WaPo or something. It’s a classic question of high-level media production: the choice between the vessel or the talent, and it is here that Up First’s more conservative choice to lean on the voice of the institution feels more solid. (Don’t believe in the king, NPR’s gambit seems to say, believe in the kingdom.)

At its core, I think the underlying story here is really one about experimentation in and the risk-reward profiles of large institutions. It’s been remarkable to watch these moves play out from these organizations, and I’m excited to see what happens next. Anyway, to state the blindingly obvious, this is merely my take on the matter — I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Public radio watch. (1) As expected, the Trump administration’s proposed budget for the 2018 fiscal year pushes for the closure of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the body that serves as a key layer of financial support for the country’s public broadcasting infrastructure. According to the draft, the CPB will receive about $30 million to “conduct an orderly closeout of federal funding.” Current has a good (paywalled) writeup on this, and for more information on the significance of such a closure, check out this Hot Pod issue from February. Keep in mind that this is merely a budget proposal — it requires congressional approval.

(2) From a piece about WAMU, the Washington D.C.–based public radio station, by Washingtonian: “In 2014, about 45,000 weekly listeners were African-American and 49,000 Latino. By early this year, those audiences had leapt to about 106,000 apiece, almost a quarter of listeners. That’s far from reflecting the region as a whole, where blacks and Latinos account for about 40 percent of the population, but for a public radio station it’s unusual.” What accounts for the growth? NPR’s Sam Sanders:

The Washingtonian piece also contains an overview of the hires that contributed to the diversification of WAMU’s staff. (Hell yeah.)

(3) David Eads, the outgoing senior supervising editor for NPR’s visuals team, posted a farewell note that’s equal parts critique, warning, and message of hope. He writes: “This is a historic moment for us. Huge swaths of print journalism are on life support. TV journalism is saturated with spectacle. A few dominant national news outlets continue to grow and attract investment along with a gaggle of digital newcomers who understand the power of the screen. Public media is actually doing OK. But history is going to catch up with us any minute if we don’t reinterpret the model with both care and speed.”

Personnel notes:

  • Speaking of WAMU, Daisy Rosario joins the station as the new managing producer of The Big Listen. Rosario most recently served as the creative director for the short-form audio platform 60dB (under NPR emigre Steve Henn), and was previously a senior producer at Latino USA.
  • Youth Radio, the Peabody Award–winning youth-driven news organization, is apparently looking for a podcast producer.

Career spotlight. Time for another chat about careers! If you need a quick reminder on the thinking behind this feature, go here. This week, I talked with Jonathan Mena of the Loud Speakers Network, who just wrapped up production on Mogul. The dude is super interesting, and his story is both remarkable and remarkably representative of a lot of career arcs I’ve seen in the space.

[conl]Hot Pod: What do you do?[/conl]

[conr]Jonathan Mena: I work for the Loud Speakers Network as a producer for the Combat Jack Show, Tax Season, TK Kirkland Show, and Mogul: The Life and Death of Chris Lighty, which is our first collaboration with Gimlet Media. My day for LSN always starts off looking at the analytics. It’s not just about the plays but also the demographics and locations of our listeners that helps us better strategize. Our network is very young so a lot of us at LSN wear many hats.

For the shows I produce, my philosophy is always to have the host focus solely on the interview. I never want the host to worry about the production side. So if I have to write questions, book a guest or studio, edit audio, or even make a drink for a guest, I’m going to do it all so we have the best show possible. I also sometimes have to wrangle ornery hosts and guests, so I guess I also have the title of podcast whisperer at LSN. As we’ve grown in the almost four years since the start of the network, I’ve expanded into developing podcasts and creating video content. To sum it up, my job is to create great content.[/conr]

[conl]HP: Where did you start, and how did you get to this point?[/conl]

[conr]Mena: I started podcasting in 2006 around the time when iPods first started getting color screens and Twitter had just launched. I was in college editing lectures for the German department, which we would upload on iTunes University. I don’t speak any German so the professor would go through her lecture and tell me in English when to cut and start again. Around this time I was going to school for journalism and production and had a great professor and mentor named Gregg Morris. Morris made podcasting part of the curriculum and pushed us to produce our own shows. He’s really the first one who showed me there was more to journalism than being in front of a mic or camera. Back then, I never thought podcasting would be what it is now. Can you imagine a time before the podcast app where you had to physically download the podcast on your computer and transfer the file via cable to your device?

I finished school and got a day job in IT but was still freelancing for a local blog covering the crime beat. It was around this time that Reggie Osse (aka Combat Jack) was doing internet radio and getting some big guests for a show only a few hundred people were listening to in New York. We all started following each other on Twitter and would see each other at events around the city. A year or so later they announced they were thinking of starting a podcast network. They didn’t even have a name at the time. I reached out to Chris Morrow, who eventually became a cofounder of LSN, to see if they needed any help. Morrow offered me a shot at editing a new podcast they were launching about sneakers. The show wound up having a short run of only a few months.

A few weeks later out of the blue, I get an email from Reggie asking to edit a Combat Jack Show episode. He needed the episode turned around as soon as possible. Now I knew that email wasn’t for me and he had sent it by mistake, but I answered it anyway. I turned that episode around as fast as I could — two hours later he had the completed episode ready for posting. The next day Reggie invited me for coffee to talk about coming on the show as a producer, but never gave me a time or location. Two weeks go by and I never hear back from him or got any response from my follow up emails. Then one day he calls me and says, “We have Russell Simmons in the studio today, can you come by so we can talk about you joining the team?” Reggie later admitted he sent the email to me by mistake, but said it was meant to be.[/conr]

[conl]HP: How did you learn to do the job?[/conl]

[conr]Mena: Necessity truly is the mother of invention. There was a time when I couldn’t afford editing software so I taught myself how to use Audacity. In college when we didn’t have the equipment we needed, we would duct tape and bubble gum something together. I come from a DIY generation that has used the internet to our advantage. I still look at tutorials on YouTube and use Twitter to network or find talent for our shows. I also have the luxury of having a close relationship with the co-founders of the Loud Speakers Network, Chris Morrow and Reggie Osse. The two of them have taken me under their wing and allowed me to grow as a producer. Working at LSN has been like going to podcasting school.[/conr]

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

[conr]Mena: As a kid, I was always fascinated with radio and how it was created. I would record the Angie Martinez show on a cassette and listen back to it at night. I vividly remember listening to 1010 WINS as a kid in the car. Getting on the radio always seemed like something so abstract and unattainable. That’s why I think podcasting came at the right time for me. I’m a first-generation American and the first in my family to go to college, so it was expected I either become a lawyer or a doctor. I did well in my science classes but after a year switched majors and focused on journalism and media production. I never told my parents but I guess they figured it out by now. They just got smartphones and my mom just learned how to text, so when I tried to describe podcasting it was a little abstract for them. They tell their friends I work in TV, which is hilarious, but at least I don’t have uncles asking me if I’m a doctor yet.[/conr]

You can find Mena on Twitter at @jonathanmena.

Bites:

  • Audible broke the Top 5 of the Apple Podcast charts for the first time with its upcoming show, “Where Should We Begin? With Esther Perel,” charting near the top over the past few days — another example, some have pointed out, of the coveted Ira Glass bump. This American Life had featured the Audible original as a segment on its May 22 episode. Interestingly enough, the trailer that currently occupies the Esther Perel Apple Podcast feed points listeners to Audible Originals, where the full series is already available. It will enjoy a wider release in October.
  • Not quite sure I agree with this piece, but it’s worth pondering: “Podcasting Is the New Talk Radio.” (The Atlantic)
  • Atlanta welcomes a new podcast network: Zero Mile Media, which begins life with three projects including a serialized fiction podcast (out June 1), an interview show focused on the growing film industry in Atlanta (out mid-June), and a podcast developed with the Decatur Book Festival (out July).

Get ready to binge-listen to Serial’s new spinoff S-Town: All 7 episodes will drop at once next week

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 112, published March 21, 2017.

Missing Richard Simmons dropped its final episode yesterday, two days before it was originally scheduled for a wide release. The episode was released to Stitcher Premium subscribers on Sunday — Midroll had previously indicated that those subscribers would’ve gotten the episode two days before wide release. Even with the sudden shift, Stitcher was still able to honor the first-listen value proposition.

I’m told that the move was intentional. In the episode, host Dan Taberski provided what was essentially an editorial explanation within the narrative. “What’s important is telling the story about Richard as it happens,” he said. That’s an interesting reason, but I don’t think I buy it. Minor spoilers (maybe?), but there was nothing stated in that last episode — nothing that was particularly pegged to a recent public news development — that warranted such a sudden, complicated reordering of the release windows. So yeah, I’m wondering.

Panoply brings on a full-time head of scripted programming. Missed this last week, but it’s definitely worth keeping tabs on. The company has hired John Dryden, a U.K.–based writer and radio director, to lead a “new division dedicated to creating scripted programming of both the comedic and dramatic variety,” according to AdWeek, which published the news March 10.

To decode that: The term “scripted programming” is kind of a carry-over from established linear media industries. We’re basically looking at Panoply acting on its ambition to punch harder in the audio fiction genre. It’s a move that’s potentially very lucrative, given the podcast ecosystem’s growing value to other more developed adjacent creative industries, be it film, television, or books. (I’ve written about this a bunch before, start here and here.)

In hiring Dryden, Panoply gains an award-winning producer with a substantial body of work. Based on his talent agency’s website, Dryden’s rap sheet includes: The Seventh Test, a 10-part audio thriller broadcasted on BBC Radio 4 that’s based on a book by Vikas Swarup, whose debut novel, Q&A, was adapted into the film Slumdog Millionaire; A Kidnapping, a three-part radio drama, also first broadcast on BBC Radio 4, that’s being adapted into a film; and Tumanbay, a historical epic set in ancient Egypt that came out in 2015. (Indeed, it’s all very British.)

Dryden has some history with Panoply: He served as the executive producer and director of LifeAfter, Panoply’s follow-up to The Message, its well regarded branded fiction podcast borne out of a partnership with GE. It’s unclear to me whether LifeAfter was able to match or beat the success of The Message, and when I reached out to Panoply’s communications team, they declined to comment, noting that they don’t release download numbers and thus can’t comment on the performance of one show relative to another.

To my knowledge, Dryden is only the second person to hold such a role among American podcast companies. The other individual is Eli Horowitz, the “executive producer of scripted content” at Gimlet, who was responsible for Homecoming.

Dryden will keep his residence in the U.K. for the job.

Rookie Magazine is launching a podcast next month, courtesy of MTV. In my mind, Rookie is something of a miracle. A beloved online publishing concern created by blogging prodigy Tavi Gevinson for teenagers (“and their cohorts of any age”) that dates all the way back in 2011 — the same year Grantland made its debut — Rookie is part zine, part blogroll, a fascinating, amorphous digital package that’s bound together by a smart and thoughtful commitment to serving its core constituency. It represents a reminder, still, of the original promise that the Internet brought to publishing: an environment that allows for the existence of an independent creative operation with a very specific point of view and a very specific role to play.

Anyway, many other publishing concerns in 2017, Rookie is rolling out a podcast, which will be a weekly magazine show (not unlike, perhaps, The New Yorker Radio Hour). But what’s particularly interesting about the rollout narrative here is the involvement of MTV, with which Rookie has partnered to produce the show.

It’s an intriguing collaboration, and it brings the MTV Podcasts team back into my view. Frankly, I haven’t been paying much attention to that crew — which is led by Grantland alum Alex Pappademas — since they rolled out their initial programming slate around this time last year, though on the occasions that I’ve checked in, I find myself consistently fascinated with the stuff they’re trying out. I wonder how they’re doing. Check back in next week.

The Rookie Podcast will debut on April 4. It will be hosted on the Megaphone platform, as an extension of MTV Podcasts’ technological relationship with Panoply. The upcoming podcast received a shoutout in this week’s episode of This American Life, which ran a segment on the magazine’s popular “Ask A Grown Man/Woman” series. (The episode, by the way, is exquisite.)

And speaking of This American Life…

S-Town comes out this time next week. The hotly anticipated Serial spinoff, the first project to be released under the newly created Serial Productions banner, debuts Tuesday, March 28, and I’ll taking the day off to dig into it.

All seven episodes of the show will drop at once — I believe the olds call this “Netflix-style” or “binge-style” — when it comes out next week, switching up the typical cadence we’ve come to expect from longform serialized storytelling, as established by the first season of Serial and, most recently, Missing Richard Simmons. This marks the first high-profile attempt at employing this format within the podcast space. Previous full-season-drop experiments, like ESPN’s Dunkumentaries and Panoply/Parents Magazine’s Pregnancy Confidential, were not serialized storytelling endeavors.

For folks keeping tabs on the numbers: Serial’s second season surpassed 50 million going into the final episode, with each episode yielding a 3 million download average during its launch week. Blue Apron and Squarespace are serving as the show’s exclusive launch sponsors.

Oh man, I’m so excited for this. Also: It’s only been three months, but 2017 already feels like it’s been a damn good year for podcast listeners. Damn. Damn. *throws laptop out the window*

It’s official — the fight for Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s federal funding is on. The budget blueprint released by the Trump administration last Thursday confirmed what many suspected: that the decades-old conservative flirtation with the defunding of public broadcasting would be revived once again under the new president, with the CPB’s annual allocation of $445 million on the chopping block. (The CPB is one of many programs, including the National Endowment for the Arts and the Legal Services Corporation, being targeted for cuts.) What makes the stakes of today’s fight all the more towering is the political and economic environment of the fourth estate; the broader news and media ecosystem has been tremendously weakened over the past decade by digital disruption, and they walk into this struggle in an increasingly combative environment between the state and public information as they represent it.

Nieman Lab covered the news in some depth, but here are the four top-line things you need to know:

  • The budget blueprint is just a proposal — it will need to go through Congress. It already looks as if the budget is going to have a hard time with congressional Republicans. But pushback on the budget as a whole doesn’t necessarily equate with pushback on the specifics; it’s up to the CPB to ensure the cut doesn’t remain in future iterations of the budget.
  • To that end, the CPB and its advocates are executing on a playbook that’s been developed for these budgetary fights. Among these efforts are strong messaging efforts — including an PR press push touting all-time high ratings — and public participation campaigns like the Protect My Public Media petition. CNN’s Brian Stelter has a good piece providing an overview of the fight.
  • As Nieman Lab notes, and as I’ve written about before, defunding the CPB would fundamentally cripple the public broadcasting system. That isn’t the same as saying public media would be dead; as many have pointed out, NPR and the bigger stations like WNYC and WBUR would likely survive in some leaner form, but the real damage would be to smaller stations that often support underserved and information-poor markets — many of which are populated by Republican voters.
  • Why does this matter to the emerging podcast industry? Well, as I’ve argued before, a weaker public radio system is a weaker podcast ecosystem, as the former has substantially contributed to the space through cultivating a generation of strong talent, supplying a good chunk of solid programming, leveraging its prestige to draw in more advertisers, and generally raising the medium’s profile for wider audiences. There’s also, you know, the whole issue of a weaker public broadcasting system almost definitely leading to a weaker society, which kinda makes an environment where we all, save for a capital-rich few, ultimately suffer alone together.

So there’s that. And there’s this too:

Some relief for West Virginia Public Broadcasting. Following weeks of staring down a budget blueprint in which West Virginia Governor Jim Justice, a Democrat, had proposed the elimination of the annual $4.6 million support it gets from the state, WVPB’s state support will be restored. The governor issued a press release last Friday that the money will be reinstated. State funding accounts for 45 percent of WVPB’s budget.

The press release also noted that Governor Justice “is working on a deal with West Virginia University to allow Public Broadcasting to become a fully integrated part of WVU in the near future.” It is unclear to me how this shift would affect WVPB operations. I’ve gone ahead and submitted a Currently Curious request to my buddies over at Current, who assure me they’re looking into it.

Meanwhile, in Australia. The continent is set to welcome a new podcast network later this week. The network is called Planet Broadcasting, and it will be launching off the strength of an established YouTube channel, Mr. Sunday Movies, and a podcast, The Weekly Planet, which I’m told enjoys about 250,000 downloads per episode. Planet Broadcasting’s aims are fairly ambitious; according to the circulated press release, the network primarily aims to develop a space for the country’s comedy community to break onto the world stage. As an extension of that goal, Planet Broadcasting will launch on March 26 with a variety of comedy offerings, and some nonfiction documentary fare as well (including the well regarded Human/Ordinary).

I’ll be keeping an eye on this. Podcast consumption in Australia is growing, though I’d still characterize it as underdeveloped relative to the American podcast industry. According to an audience research report by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation published last October, 36 percent of surveyed Australians indicate that they listened to more podcasts in 2016 than in 2015, though numbers for baseline listenership were not circulated. The ABC is the largest podcast publisher in the country, enjoying about 160 million overall downloads in 2016.

Side note. One of the more interesting stories from last year — a story that’s affected how I view the tradeoffs of the relationship between creators and distribution platforms — was the dustup between the Indiana public radio station WBAA and This American Life. (This is the third mention of This American Life in this issue. My apologies: That show was on my mind a lot this week.)

Last summer, the station announced that it had decided to cut the show from its airwaves as a response to its partnership with Pandora, which gave the music streaming service the ability to distribute and sell advertising against both This American Life and Serial. Mike Savage, WBAA’s general manager, argued that Pandora, with its profit-making incentive, posed a fundamental threat to public radio’s broadcast model and that by entering into a relationship with the service, This American Life engaged in an arrangement that places it at odds with the public radio system’s incentives.

Ira Glass, the show’s creator, argued otherwise, noting that the money gained from the partnership was reinvested to further improve on the programming that will continue to appear throughout the public radio system. Glass also made another point, which to me lies at the heart of this item, about reaching more audiences. “Nationally, we’re not losing audience on the radio because people are getting us on other platforms — we’re just adding audience,” Glass said, as printed in Current. “We’re adding to the number of people who are hearing public radio content by offering it on these other platforms.”

Maybe I’m connecting dots in the most tenuous of ways — I’m prone to being worried about that, particularly these days, as conspiracy theorizing seems to have become prominent as a mindset in power — but I can’t help seeing parallels between that incident and the contemporary concern of how the increasing involvement of streaming platforms like Spotify, Google Play Music, iHeartRadio, and Pandora (to the extent they become involved beyond This American Life), many of which are closed, will affect the open podcast system, its value, and the role it plays in the current state of podcast publishing and distribution. At some level, the value proposition that they bring to podcast publishers remain the same: All these platforms, in theory, provide access to an audience that may very well be untouched, and even if podcast listening ultimately doesn’t end up happening on those platforms, at least participating publishers will be able to pocket some extra money that can be reinvested in their shows, which will be nonetheless enjoyed on other platforms and on the open ecosystem.

There are limits to this, of course. For one thing, it’s hard to square the parallel I’m sketching here against what’s happening on the rest of the Internet: the platform dependency that’s growing between publishers and Facebook, between video creators and YouTube, between music artists and, well, Spotify, Pandora, et. al. For another thing, This American Life stands as an exception to the broader universe of publishers: it has unparalleled clout to both establish and benefit from this relationship, and it has a strong pre-existing listener base that protects it from any potential development of future dependency on Pandora.

Bites:

  • Today in Black Mirror: Google Home recently tested what appears to be an audio ad for the new live-action film adaptation of Beauty and the Beast. When pressed, Google appeared to briefly regard it instead as some sort of content experiment before backing off on that too. It’s weird and confusing, but kind of a great beyond-the-veil story. (The Register) Also: “Woman who shares name with ‘Alexa’ and ‘Siri’ says life is ‘waking nightmare'” (The Huffington Post)
  • Crooked Media continues to reproduce, adding another show to the top of the iTunes charts: Lovett or Leave It. I swear, it’s like watching mitosis.
  • Wondery is pumping out a podcast unpacking the production of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. It’s pretty well timed; the TV adaptation of the movie, A&E’s Bates Motel, is quickly approaching its final season, where the show will catch up with the film. It will be interesting to see if Wondery is able to capture the spillover from whatever interest is currently being enjoyed by the TV show, and, more importantly, whether it can make that argument explicitly if it is able to do so. (iTunes)
  • It looks as if the new season of Politically Re-Active, the First Look Media podcast featuring W. Kamau Bell and Hari Kondabolu, is now being sold by Midroll Media instead of Panoply. Interesting. Shouts to Jeff Umbro writing for The Daily Dot for that scooplet.

The Corporation for Public Broadcasting is on a White House hit list for elimination

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 108, published February 21, 2017.

The Corporation for Public Broadcasting is now officially on a hit list of programs that the White House might eliminate, according to a New York Times article that led the site over the weekend, effectively pushing what was previously speculation — originated by a report from The Hill last month, which claimed that the Trump administration was considering privatizing the CPB — into an unambiguous news development.

I’ve highlighted this story a few times before, and while this specific development seems arguably incremental, it is nonetheless incredibly important to track given the depth of its consequences. Plus, there’s been a bunch of writing and side-stories that have emerged on this topic, which gives us enough material to piece together a clearer picture of what’s happening, why it matters, and why it bites.

Now, it should be noted that the public broadcasting system in general — and the CPB in specific, which serves as a key funding layer for NPR, PBS, and various public broadcasting stations across the country — have been consistent targets of cuts and criticism by conservatives. Personally, I’ve always been unclear on the precise reason for this; based on my reading, it appears to be some amalgamation of perceived liberal bias — a characterization that seems to be uttered with increasing synonymity with accountability media — and misuse of taxpayer dollars, never mind the public benefit and the paltry sums of savings such an elimination would entail. (For reference, CPB appropriations in recent years are around $445 million annually. And for further reference, government spending is projected to be $4 trillion this year.) This Currently Curious article from last November is a pretty good historical guide to the last time the GOP controlled the government, and over at Recode, friend-of-the-newsletter Dan Frommer pointed out how Richard Nixon once proposed halving CPB funding in 1969 — a few years after the CPB was formed. Despite those threats, federal support for the system has never seriously been compromised, and it is in this historical fact that fuels the beliefs of some that this simply won’t happen. But, as I’ve pointed out before, this is very much in an anomalous political environment, one where nothing seems off the table whether it’s a travel ban, or a wall previously thought to be a symbolic piece of campaign bravado, or a defunding of a federally supported public information system that improves the lives of millions.

If the elimination of federal support were to take place, the consequences for the public broadcasting system would be catastrophic. According to a CPB-commissioned study by Booz & Company, cited by Media Matters and Current’s reporting on the issue, “there is no substitute for federal support of public broadcasting, and that the loss of federal support would mean the end of public broadcasting.”

The defunding of public broadcasting will be an unpopular measure. A survey commissioned by PBS, which was reported by Current, found that the majority of American voters oppose the elimination of federal funding for public television. Specifically, 73 percent of those surveyed oppose the proposed measure — which breaks down to 83 percent of Democrats, 82 percent of independents, and 62 percent of Republicans — while 76 percent of respondents want funding levels to be maintained or increased. (The survey made no direct mentions of public radio, but I reckon the study serves as a reasonable proxy for the broader public broadcasting system. And for reference, the survey study was conducted by both Democratic and Republican polling teams.)

The Times report notes that the list of eliminated programs could still yet change, which means that the public broadcasting system still has a bit more time to continue its preparations for cuts and/or lobbying against it — which is something that they’ve already been doing.

This is probably the point of the article where I’m supposed to bring up an opposing, or contrarian, view on the matter. That perspective comes from the libertarian magazine Reason, where Jim Epstein, a former WNET producer, makes the survival-of-the-fittest argument: He argues that government funding actually hurts PBS and NPR, and that the elimination of federal support would shock the system out of its broadcast-oriented dependencies and incentives towards online distribution. Which, you know, is a view that I understand conceptually (even if it’s a little reductive and certainly overly Pollyanna-ish). But the evolution argument always strikes me as hollow and inhumane, as it never really fully reckons with and takes responsibility of the human cost of the resulting layoffs, the organizational complexity attached to structural transitions, and the simple fact that evolution necessarily yields losers — which is fine if we’re talking about markets distributing doorknobs, but totally sucks for markets distributing public goods like civic-oriented news, emergency signals, and supplemental forms of public education. Look, I’m as critical about the public broadcasting system’s predisposition for inertia and its many, many, many problems as the next guy, but I’d much rather see a transition to the future that takes place under conditions of strength and volition, not one under unnecessary duress and survival.

A weakened public broadcasting system is bad, bad, bad. It’s bad in ways you already know, and it’s bad in countless ways you don’t. A recent episode in West Virginia is illustrative of the latter category. When West Virginia Governor Jim Justice — a Democrat — proposed eliminating state support for West Virginia Public Broadcasting — ostensibly to close a $500 million budget gap (cutting WVPB support would save $4.5 million), but maybe for a whole other reason that NPR’s David Folkenflik hinted at on Twittera statement published by Susan C. Hogan, chair of the Friends of West Virginia Public Broadcasting, and Ted Armbrecht, chair of the West Virginia Public Broadcasting Foundation, went over the various negative impacts of a debilitated WVPB: from the stuff you can probably guess, like the laying off of half their reporters and terminating a well-loved music program (long live Mountain Stage), to stuff you might not immediately consider, like how it compromises the operation of radio towers that facilitate the communication of first responders and how the loss of said music program would hurt tourism to the state. A loss in CPB support would incur the same effect for public broadcasting stations across the country, though the precise effects will vary based on their own specific configurations. Everyone will suffer in their own way, but everyone will suffer.

The West Virginia episode is also indicative of a whole other element to this story: It serves as an example of how the attacks on public broadcasting won’t just be coming from the White House; it can and will come from state leadership as well. The two developments are not unconnected — after all, the former sets the tone for the latter.

Yeah, sure, Epstein may well be right that pulling federal funding might lead to more efficient and innovative outcomes, but gains will be experienced unequally across all actors in the system — the bigger organizations in denser locations will likely thrive, while the smaller ones will likely not, and the system as a whole will almost certainly suffer. (See: the Internet and local newspapers.) And it is the integrity of the system, not any individual actor, that is so much more important at the end of the day. (See: modern democracy.)

And lest I forget this is a newsletter about podcasts, I’ll say this: A weaker public radio system is a weaker podcast ecosystem. Regardless of your feelings about public radio unfairly dominating the podcast narrative — and it has been pretty unfair, I’ll admit — it absolutely cannot be denied that the public radio contingent has represented a strong, validating pillar of an industry that often looks and feels like a chaotic mess. The term “wild west” has often been thrown about to describe the podcasting landscape, and while it is usually deployed with positive intent, the reality is that the whole thing largely resembles a “vast wasteland,” to crib from Newt Minow’s description of television back in 1961. (Hat tip to Joseph Lichterman’s spectacular historical account on Carnegie Commission on Educational Television’s 1967 report, which laid the foundation for the public broadcasting system we enjoy today.)

For all the crap you can understandably give public radio, it has undoubtedly done a lot to increase the podcast medium’s profile (increasing its appeal for both brand advertisers and audiences of all stripes), produced some great shows, and given us some truly great talent (all hail Anna Sale). I, for one, hope the system survives however this plays out.

Anyway, here’s Mr. Rogers.

Okay, that went way too long. On to the news.

iHeartRadio continues to burrow into the podcast space, signing a partnership with AudioBoom that will further expand the streaming audio company’s content catalog. This follows several podcast-related partnerships that iHeartradio has announced in recent months, including LibSyn, Art19, and NPR member stations.

As a reminder, the value proposition that iHeartRadio provides these podcast platform companies is theoretical access to the service’s reportedly large user base. iHeartRadio apparently has over 95 million registered users, but two caveats apply: (1) the exact number of monthly active users — the key metric — is still unclear, and (2) it remains to be seen whether partner podcasts can meaningfully benefit from the iHeartRadio user base. As any public radio member station that has attempted to convert broadcast listeners to podcast listeners can tell you (see the Knight Foundation’s recent podcast report, Point 1), conversion aspirations aren’t all that straightforward.

Related: Audioboom also announced a branded content partnership with SpikeTV to produce a discussion podcast companion for the latter’s upcoming six-part true crime series, Time: The Kalief Browder Story.

What’s up with Barstool Sports? I’ve previously not paid much attention to the company — which now sports several podcasts peppering the iTunes charts — and, frankly, I don’t know very much about it beyond the headlines off the trades: its 2016 acquisition by the Chernin Group, its aggressively male character, its largely sports-oriented content focus, its various controversies of the misogynist variety. I thought last week’s Digiday Podcast, which featured an interview with the company’s CEO Erika Nardini, serves as a helpful primer, and if you’re curious and confused about them as I was, do check it out.

Anyway, a press release hit my inbox last week that touted the company as “dominating” the podcast game, making the argument by listing the iTunes chart positions currently occupied by the company’s various podcasts. When asked, the marketing firm that distributed the release claims that the network enjoys 22 million downloads a month across all shows (by my count, it has 18 in the market at the moment).

The number strikes me as conspicuously high, and I’ve requested for more specific details on both downloads and the context of those numbers. (I haven’t heard back yet.) At the moment, it’s not immediately clear where the network hosts its shows — and therefore, how it counts its downloads — and whether it abides by the measurement standardization practices increasingly being adopted by the rest of the industry. For reference: If the numbers are precise and appropriate for actual apple-to-apple comparisons, that would mean the network effectively stacks up against HowStuffWorks, WNYC Studios, and This American Life/Serial as measured by Podtrac, which doesn’t measure the Barstool Sports group of podcasts.

Is that plausible? Sure. Is that the case? Let’s find out. I’ll let you know when I hear back.

Fusion is set to debut its first narrative show next month, Digiday reports. The show, titled Containers, will be hosted by editor-at-large Alexis Madrigal, and it will utilize an Oakland seaport as a prism through which various key issues like crime and immigration will be discussed. In other words, it’s The Wire season 2, but for non-fiction storytelling podcasts.

Note the mention of Panoply in the article, which is described to have “won out against a field of competitors for Fusion’s business.” I wonder who else was bidding?

Anyway, as the report establishes, Containers will be the Fusion Media Group’s first stab at a podcast that goes beyond the conversational gabfest-format that make up its current audio offerings, all of which emerge from the recently acquired Gizmodo Media Group (née Gawker). Interestingly enough, the group had dabbled with story-driven, narrative podcasts before: back in the Gawker era, Gizmodo once distributed Meanwhile in the Future, the original iteration of Flash Forward, which creator Rose Eveleth now operates independently.

Slate names June Thomas as new managing producer of podcasts, as Thomas announced on social media last week. She is a long-time member of the Slate family, serving as a culture critic for the site and the editor of Outward, its LGBTQ section, and a regular across the Slate podcast universe: she’s a host on Slate’s Double X podcast with Hanna Rosin and Noreen Malone, and a frequent guest on the Slate Culture Gabfest.

The announcement came a few days after news of Slate laying off staffers broke last week. And a bit more detail on that front: According to this pretty brutal CJR article, among those let go was Mike Vuolo, a senior producer with the company and WNYC alum who also, up until last summer, cohosted the network’s language podcast, Lexicon Valley, with On The Media’s Bob Garfield.

Thomas starts her new role on February 27.

Gimlet loses a producer to The New York Times: Larissa Anderson, who served as a senior producer on Undone, will now work on developing and running narrative podcasts at the Gray Lady. Her title there is “editor and senior audio producer.” And in case you’re tracing the timeline: Gimlet announced that it wasn’t renewing Undone for a second season in mid-January.

Signaling. One of the more technical questions that’s interesting (to me, anyway) coming out of the recent discussions over “fake news” — which is really a discussion about trust, credibility, and the decentralization of information and power — is one that distinctly strikes me as a problem of design: In the enterprise of cultivating trust, how do you convey positional context, whether an editorial piece has opinion-based elements baked in or whether it’s meant to be journalistically or somewhere in between, in a way that’s clear and efficient? (Provided that making such things clear is important to you, of course.)

It’s a hard enough question to answer on the web, print, television, or within the endless stream of social media feeds, but it seems a lot trickier within the current culture surrounding audio content, given its primary value proposition of being a unique source of intimacy by way of authenticity.

The problem was raised very briefly at a Yale event last week that featured Scott Blumenthal, deputy editor at The New York Times’ interactive news desk. (One of the benefits of living in New Haven, a university city: access to free student events — and free snacks!) An attendee had brought up The Daily, the Times’ recently launched daily morning news audio brief, and raised concerns over whether the podcast’s breezy conversational nature runs the risk of coming off as editorializing. I don’t personally share this interpretation of the brief, but I can definitely see the concern: host Michael Barbaro is certainly chatty, and I suppose we somewhat find ourselves now living in a cultural environment that increasingly views personality as a direct function of ideology. (Maybe that’s always been the case, and it’s only being recognized as a problem now.)

So, how do you convey your context? I’ll be thinking this through for a while, and I’ve been recalling some approaches to this problem that I’ve seen in the past. Sometimes it’s through the use of an explicit disclaimer delivered through scripting; an example of this can be found in With Her, that Hillary Clinton podcast, in which host Max Linsky deliberately establishes the fact he isn’t operating as a journalist — thus contextualizing the show as, essentially, a piece of political advertising. Sometimes it’s done purely through the scripting and tone of the show; Slate’s The Gist is a good example of a news-oriented podcast that largely exists as an op-ed column, while the oft-criticized “public radio voice” pervading public media newscasts is constantly described as a tool to cultivate a sense of journalistic neutrality. And sometimes it’s just a matter of being clear and unified with the branding, as with the conservative Ricochet podcasts. All these approaches are difficult to execute in and of themselves, but I imagine it’s exponentially more difficult to convey differences in context within individual episodes — say, when you switch from a reported segment to an opinion segment.

This problem seems to disproportionately trouble journalistic podcasts above all, which makes sense, as those shows are the ones under the greatest scrutiny and possess the highest burden of responsibility. And it seems to me that the problem most vibrantly expresses itself when straight-news programs seek to derive the benefits of “authenticity” and “intimacy” associated with the on-demand audio medium that more personality-driven programs seem to enjoy without much cost. Then again, I imagine the latter experiences similar difficulties if it aspires to benefit from emulating the former.

I’m curious to hear what y’all think. Hit me up.

Anyway, before I forget: The Daily is so, so good, and so smart in its use of music and tone, and its short length.

Bites:

  • Overcast, Marco Arment’s podcast app favored by the technology/podcast intelligentsia, released a major update yesterday that includes design improvements — and the introduction of what can possibly be a visual ad network for podcasts. (Overcast)
  • Hmm. “Trump’s FCC chief wants it to be easier to listen to free FM radio on your smartphone.” (Recode)
  • Looks like Vice, true to form, is trying something weird: the VICE Magazine Podcast, which drops once a month. (Vice)
  • Spotify’s first original podcast has a trailer up: Showstopper, a show that looks back at important moments in television. It’s hosted by Fader editor-in-chief Naomi Zeichner.

[photocredit]Photo of a 2011 protest in favor of continued CPB funding by Phil Roeder used under a Creative Commons license.[/photocredit]

The true crime show that’s gotten comparisons to Serial is heading for a second season and a new case

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 106, published February 7, 2017.

The Serial team forms a new production company, Serial Productions, and drops details on its latest project. This story got tons of pick-up when it was announced last Wednesday — getting write-ups on Variety, Deadline, EW.com, and Vulture, which I wrote — so you’re probably familiar with the broad strokes: the upcoming project is called S-Town, it’s a limited nonfiction series hosted by veteran This American Life producer Brian Reed, it’s set in a rural Alabama town, and all episodes will be published simultaneously sometime in March. As I pointed out in Vulture, Serial Productions also has two other projects in the works, though it remains a mystery whether they include the latest season of the company’s flagship show, Serial.

Oh, and speaking of mysteries: Starlee Kine appears to be part of the S-Town editorial team, according to the circulated press release. This would be her second podcasting effort following Mystery Show’s surprising departure from the Gimlet portfolio. (The first, some might recall, was her work as a producer on the very strange but very entertaining Election Profit-Makers, a screwball election-related prediction market podcast that wrapped, appropriately, last November.) It should be noted that Kine is a former This American Life producer. The editorial team also includes Ira Glass and Sarah Koenig, and Julie Snyder serves as the project’s executive producer.

So that’s the stuff that’s been well-established elsewhere. But I was also able to dig up the following two details that might be interesting to folks in the biz:

  • I reached out to ask about the relationship between Serial Productions and This American Life, which broke off from WBEZ to form its own standalone organization back in July 2015. Here’s the reply I got:

    Serial Productions is a separate company from This American Life. Serial Productions is headed by Julie Snyder, Sarah Koenig and Ira Glass. This American Life is headed by Ira Glass. Serial Productions is the producer of Serial, S-Town, and future podcasts. Serial Productions will often pull talent from This American Life to host, produce, and edit podcasts. For example, Brian Reed has been on leave from being This American Life’s senior producer in order to make S-Town. And Serial Productions president Julie Snyder is the former senior producer of This American Life.

  • I’m also told that S-Town’s launch sponsorships were sold by Chicago-based Public Media Marketing (PMM), and that the responsibility for subsequent inventory will be split between PMM and Authentic, the ad-sales arm of the podcast measurement company Podtrac.

That’s all I got. Obviously, I’m very excited. I’ve been hankering for a truly juicy longform nonfiction narrative pod, and I haven’t been able to find very much of that lately. That said, “S-Town” is kind of a weird name — it’s almost dad-like in its construction — but I hear it’s short for something. We’ll find out next month.

How is The Ringer’s Podcast Network doing? Really well, it seems. That insight, among others, can be found in a long text interview with The Ringer head honcho Bill Simmons by Recode’s Peter Kafka that dropped last Friday. There’s a lot in there, but here’s the portion of the interview that’s especially relevant to us:

[conl]Kafka: So I’ve had this question since you launched, and I still do: You have some money from HBO. You have money from the podcasts. Can that support a staff that size?[/conl]

[conr]Simmons: Fuck yeah! The one thing that’s not a problem for us is money.[/conr]

[conl]Kafka: You’re generating enough revenue to cover your costs? You’re making money?[/conl]

[conr]Simmons: Yes. I don’t know why people are so surprised by that.[/conr]

[conl]Kafka: Everyone is surprised by that. Because no one believes that there’s that much money in podcasting.[/conl]

[conr]Simmons: Really? Go ask some people. We have really successful podcasts. Not just mine. But The Ringer NBA show is like 140,000, 150,000 listeners per show. Channel 33’s like 125,000 per show. Ringer NFL is like almost 100,000. You go on down the line…[/conr]

[conl]Kafka: It’s not that people don’t believe that people don’t listen to podcasts. It’s that it’s a really young industry.[/conl]

[conr]Simmons: It’s not any more.[/conr]

Those are certainly respectable download numbers, and it’s pretty remarkable that the podcast operation is able to drive a good chunk of The Ringer’s overall business (which, as the interview points out, has 65 full-time staffers). If anything, The Ringer seems to directly validate the model that Stratechery’s Ben Thompson laid out in “Grantland and the (Surprising) Future of Publishing,” which was published after the demise of Grantland, Simmons’ previous digital operation, back in November 2015. (See: writing as lead generation, a media organization structured across multiple surfaces where higher-revenue mediums are able to drive lower-revenue mediums, and so on.)

Anyway, I highly recommend checking out the whole interview (obviously), which is just chock-full of really interesting stuff. Kafka, by the way, was also responsible for the last major Simmons-related podcast revelation: his March 2015 interview with Simmons, which took place during SXSW, was revealing in terms of the way ESPN handled the business end of his podcast operation back at Grantland — and the missed opportunity that entailed.

Oh, and one more thing:

Agreed, my man. Why y’all so cagey? Gimme those numbers, people.

Panoply cancels About Race — or, “Our National Conversation About Conversations About Race,” as the show is known in its entirety. The timing for the cancellation, frankly, is a little poor given, well, the state of the country right now, and that fact seems to be reflected in the official statement on the matter released by Panoply last week:

Panoply has made the difficult decision to not move forward with the podcast “Our National Conversation About Conversations About Race.” We loved working with Baratunde [Thurston], Raquel [Cepeda], Tanner [Colby], and Anna [Holmes] over the last two years, and are proud of their important contributions to the dialog about race in America. However, frequent scheduling issues made it difficult to produce the show that we all wanted to create. Though the cancellation was unrelated to the current political climate, we regret the timing. Ending it now is painful, but a growing company like ours must make hard decisions, and this was one of the hardest. Now more than ever, Panoply recognizes the urgent need for diverse voices and frank conversations, and we’re committed to covering the important topics of race and ethnicity in America. Please stay tuned!

I reached out to ask for concrete details about any projects or plans by the company aimed at meeting that need for, you know, diverse voices, frank conversations, and coverage of topics related to race and ethnicity in America. A spokesperson for the company declined to comment beyond what’s mentioned in the statement.

I’ll be keeping an eye on this, but a note on something that crossed my mind: after initially hearing about this news, I pulled up the Panoply website in an attempt to run a quick tally on the number of shows on the network that are hosted, produced, and/or creatively led by non-white talent. Going through the list, it occurred to me that, theoretically speaking, it’s a little hard to get a precise accounting of that number, given what appears to be the company’s core strategy of partnering with other media organizations and external individuals. (Now, at this point, I should make the disclaimer that I used to work for Panoply, and that I left the company around this time last year. All the analysis here reflects information that’s publicly available and/or based on reporting that I’ve done in the intervening year.)

Further complicating this is the way in which the website blurs the line between shows it actively produces, like Vox.com’s The Weeds and The Ezra Klein Show, and the shows it does not, like the BuzzFeed portfolio that recently moved over to Panoply’s Megaphone platform for hosting. That amorphousness in editorial and production responsibility is curious from a branding perspective, but it’s also curious from an accountability perspective, as the spread makes it somewhat tricky to pin down the actual list of shows that are the product of the company’s direct editorial involvements. (To formulate it as a question: should Panoply be held accountable for — or, conversely, be well-regarded for — the diversity of the podcasts put forward by its publishing partners?) Thinking things through further, it also appears that Panoply isn’t alone in adopting this mixed structure that potentially complicates accountability checks: one could well argue that Acast, which appears to be largely driven as an ad-sales network, appears to adopt a similar hybrid model.

I don’t think there’s a specific argument that I’m making here. I just find all of this interesting, and I’m still mulling over the implications of this setup — whether there’s strategic value on the part of the company, or whether it potentially complicates its identity in the marketplace.

But yeah, about that list I was trying to make: no matter how you cut it, and running based off the website, the Panoply brand is, well, pretty white.

Quick note for fans of My Brother, My Brother, and Me. The full trailer for the comedy “advice” podcast’s TV adaptation dropped last week — following a clip that was circulated in early January — and it looks super fun. The show is set to premiere on February 23 on Seeso, the NBCUniversal-owned over-the-top streaming service that specializes in comedy programming. It will mark the second podcast-to-TV adaptation for Jesse Thorn’s Maximum Fun network in recent weeks, after Throwing Shade debuted its small screen incarnation on TV Land last month.

For more on MBMBaM and its TV project, check out podcast superfan Jaime Green’s profile of the McElroy brothers on Brooklyn Mag.

Two things for those tracking the Corporation for Public Broadcasting story:

  • Current has a story up on public media advocates pre-emptively mobilizing to deal with possible federal budget cuts ahead of the administration’s initial budget, which is expected to roll out sometime this month.
  • The New York Times published a piece this past weekend that examines the broad questions associated with the historically contentious relationship between conservatives and public funding for media and the arts. Note the pretty badass use of periods.

The NPR Training Team rolled out an “ear training guide for audio producers” last week, which focuses on helping producers identify and prevent common problems related to audio production. There’s also a pretty fun quiz that’s attached to the package, titled “Do you have the ears of an audio producer?” (In other news, I should not be an audio producer.)

“We think the guide is a really helpful resource for podcasters,” Rob Byers, of NPR’s Editorial Training team, told me. “We’re doing our best to get it in front of people as we’re also interested in receiving feedback from folks about what would help them.”

The team is also staging a webinar on this subject that will take place on March 22. Interested folks should sign up here.

In The Dark has started work on a second season, according to an update published last week by host Madeleine Baran and senior producer Samara Freemark. This is, by no means, a surprise, given the podcast’s successful run last year. The show bagged 5.5 million downloads across its first season — impressive for a relatively short, defined, and serialized freshman season that isn’t, well, Serial — and the podcast enjoyed further attention when it was repackaged as a five-part broadcast series and distributed over approximately 150 public radio stations across the country. An APM spokesperson informed me that the combined full-week audience for that broadcast run was over 5 million listeners.

Anyway, the second season will focus on a completely new case. The specifics of that haven’t been disclosed, but in the audio update released last week, Baran noted that the sophomore season will adopt pretty much the same investigative reporting structure. “What we really want to do with In The Dark,” Baran said, “is to try to get at some of the questions in this country that we don’t think are being asked often enough.” The description struck me as fairly generic, one that could well embody the premise of just about any other serious investigative endeavor. For what it’s worth, I thought the show was the best podcast series of last year, hands down, and a big part of what made it unique, for me, had to do with how well the show kept its focus on societal systems while being incredibly thoughtful with the gravity of the story — that is, the fact that a young death pervaded the entire journalistic exploration.

I can’t tell if those were necessarily the elements that resonated with the wider podcast listening audience, which is to say that I’m not sure if it’s moral and intellectual merits that drove In The Dark’s success more than its simply being able to combine a relative high level of quality with the fundamental appeal of the true crime genre. As anybody with working eyeballs and access to the iTunes podcast charts can tell you, true crime is a parodically ubiquitous genre in the industry, so much so that it appears to have been configured as programming policy by networks big and small. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course — aside from the well-established, long-running debate across multiple media over the true crime genre’s moral texture. I’m simply trying to think through whether the team has expressed a clear grasp on its differentiating factors, and whether my interpretation of those factors is legit or simply the idealistic folly of a hopeful fan.

So that’s the shiny APM news. Let’s move over to the one that’s troubling.

On Lewis Wallace and Marketplace. I trust that many of you have already heard about this story by now, but for the benefit of those who have not, I’m going to try and stuff a skeletal recap in one paragraph. However, like everything worth talking about, this predicament is incredibly layered with tons to dig through, and I implore you to actively seek out the details in the stories I’ll link throughout this item to get a better sense of the picture for yourself.

Okay, here goes: Last week, a reporter for APM’s Marketplace, Lewis Wallace, was fired for publishing a personal Medium post — and for doubling down when asked to remove it — that reflected on the meaning, need, and place of objectivity in journalism in the Trump era. The post, titled “Objectivity is dead, and I’m okay with it,” drew heavily from Wallace’s experience as a transgender journalist and, in my read at least, largely played out as a rigorous and thoughtful examination of the issue at hand. Marketplace’s decision to dismiss Wallace was attributed to his “clear violation of the ethics code,” as Deborah Clark, the VP of Marketplace, told the Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan, which prohibits reporters from publicly pronouncing their politics. “He did not agree — and he does not get to make that decision. That left me with no other options,” Clark told Sullivan.

But in Wallace’s telling of the incident, which was laid out in a follow-up Medium post, he points out that the ethics code argument doesn’t really hold up, noting that “they [Marketplace] were concerned about the section of my piece that asserted that we shouldn’t care, as journalists, if we are labeled ‘politically correct’ or even ‘liberal’ for reporting the facts. (I still maintain that we shouldn’t care, and for the record, I am not a liberal.)” It’s a bit of mess, but regardless of who is right or wrong, Wallace is out of a job, and Marketplace has come under tremendous scrutiny for its actions.

I’ll leave the recap there, and again, I’d like to reiterate that you should round out the story yourself in case you’ve completely missed this last week.

Two things should be noted at this point. First, as highlighted in Sullivan’s column, Wallace does not intend for this kerfuffle to just be about his firing from Marketplace; rather, he hopes that this will be held as a prompt for a much bigger conversation about “the core beliefs and practices of mainstream journalism.” Secondly, Marketplace has been comparatively reserved amid the public conversation that has transpired.

And what a conversation it has been, spanning across a good deal of reporting, follow-ups, and responses. Over at Nieman Lab, Laura Hazard Owen provides the most comprehensive overview I’ve seen so far, rooting the event in an examination of what appears to be a glaring contradiction between Marketplace’s decision to dismiss Wallace and its rejection of a “view from nowhere,” which was a narrative that was pushed as part of its recent initiative to rebrand and restructure to reach a broader audience beyond its aging base. Over at Current’s The Pub podcast, host Adam Ragusea does a good job in his interview with Wallace drawing out his larger thinking and parsing out the various tensions, issues, and questions baked into this story. Meanwhile, Margaret Sullivan’s column contains the clearest articulation of the conundrum for organizations that this incident highlights: “Does a news organization really want to send the message that they would prefer their reporters not think, or not care deeply about the very issues their sought-after diversity is supposed to represent? And that the punishment for standing your ground is dismissal?” At Slate, J. Bryan Lowder interprets this as a signal for “the Coming Crisis of Identity-as-Advocacy,” bringing to attention the inescapable factors of the reporter’s identity and how those could well be weaponized against them regardless of an organization’s given policy. On Twitter, United Public Strategies founder Andrew Ramsammy highlights how this incident “underscores the point on why most organizations don’t understand diversity and how to manage it.” The incident was also examined by On The Media and The Daily Beast.

Given the sheer volume of material that’s already been produced on this matter, I don’t think I can contribute very much that would be novel or helpful. I mean, I have a lot of feelings about it — who doesn’t have a lot of feelings all the time, these days? — and, if pressed, I would say that I can see why Marketplace chose to do what they did, even if I can’t quite find it in me to respect the decision.

But perhaps the thing that I find really heartbreaking about the whole matter is how this episode, in some ways, was a lost opportunity for a real moment of humanity from an institution, a system, that’s sort of meant to promote humanity. Instead of bringing up rules and policy, we could have seen a civic-oriented organization make a choice that was a little more thoughtful, perhaps a lot more difficult but certainly a lot more brave. We could have seen a public-oriented organization express a greater attempt, symbolic or substantive, at embodying a braver, keener sense of empathy. We could have seen a little more understanding in a world where folks that just, well, don’t really want to understand seem to be getting louder and louder. We didn’t see any of that, and man, I feel like all those things are so needed right now, as we find ourselves moving deeper into a time when rules and policies feel more arbitrary and weaponizable than ever before.

Bites:

  • The Guestlist with Sean Cannon, a music interview show produced by Louisville Public Media, has partnered with music label Kill Rock Stars for a new podcast series celebrating the 20th anniversary of Elliott Smith’s Either/Or. The project, called “Say Yes: An Elliott Smith Podcast,” appears to be a marketing initiative designed to lead up to the release of an expanded edition reissue of the record in early March. The episode of Say Yes was previewed on Pitchfork. (Pitchfork)
  • Hey, guess what? The amazing Hollywood history podcast You Must Remember This is back with a new season, titled “Dead Blondes.” Rolling Stone has a great interview up with creator Karina Longworth, which you totally check out. (Rolling Stone)
  • CNN announced a new podcast last Wednesday, “Boss Files with Poppy Harlow,” slowly and quietly expanding its roster of original podcasts. What’s going on down in Atlanta? Curious. (iTunes)
  • Charley Locke’s latest in Wired looks at the limited run WNYC-The Economist-Let’s Save America call-in show, Indivisible. (Wired)

[photocredit]Still taken from the final home video of Jacob Wetterling, subject of the first season of In the Dark.[/photocredit]

Hot Pod: What does an audio producer actually do, anyway?

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 104, published January 24, 2017.

Panoply signs two more partners for its Megaphone platform: WBUR and BuzzFeed Audio. The company also announced a platform feature called Megalink, which purports to “simplify the podcast subscription process.” The feature doesn’t seem to be anything particularly fancy; from the looks of it, a “Megalink” is a fancy link that simply routes the user to the primary podcast app on that device (that is, the Podcasts app for iPhones, Google Play Music for Android). This isn’t to downplay its potential usefulness, of course — anything that streamlines the flow from discovery to actual listening is a plus.

Panoply gave the story to RAIN News, so you can read more details there, but here are three things I’m thinking about:

1. That Panoply locked down WBUR as a partner is a pretty big deal. The Boston public radio station is one of the stronger publishers in the podcasting space — in December, the station enjoyed 1.2 million monthly listeners across 13 shows, according to Podtrac — and it’s also a fairly dynamic operation that’s prone to cultivating smart partnerships (see: Modern Love, which it produces with The New York Times) and interesting experiments. The partnership isn’t exactly a surprise, however, as the two organizations have some history. WBUR once partnered with Slate, Panoply’s sister company, on a personal health podcast called The Checkup, and interestingly enough, Panoply chief content officer Andy Bowers started out his radio career as a reporter for the station. (Radioland — it’s a small world.)

2. BuzzFeed Audio moving its podcasts to Megaphone should be quite a blow for Acast. The Swedish company had been hosting BuzzFeed’s podcasts since late 2015, and the partnership was widely utilized by the company as a hook for its brand development. (A buzzy partner on a slide deck goes a long way when you’re targeting bigger media organizations, after all.) This news comes shortly after the company’s former chief revenue officer, Sarah van Mosel, announced her departure to advertising sales firm Market Enginuity after only a year at the job. It also comes after what appears to be a steady trickle of notable podcasts moving away from Acast’s platform to competitors, including Call Your Girlfriend (now repped by Midroll and hosted on Art19), Switched On Pop (now with Panoply), and Who? Weekly (now with Headgum, also hosted on Spreaker). Acast’s future, and whether it will stick to its strategy of targeting big-name partners, remains to be seen. In any case, the company seems to be doubling down on the U.S. despite its losses, recently opening an office in Los Angeles. When contacted, a spokesperson simply noted that the company wishes BuzzFeed the best of luck, and that updates on its 2017 strategy are forthcoming. We’ll see how it goes.

3. Regardless of what happens with Acast, it seems like the competition between Panoply’s Megaphone and Art19 is the primary land-grab to watch, with both platforms racking up strong client lists thus far. Megaphone still sports Gimlet as a hosting client, and Panoply has largely followed through on its focus to sign, collaborate with, and represent audio programming produced by media companies (like Vox, Politico, and The Wall Street Journal) and authors (like Malcolm Gladwell and Gretchen Rubin). Art19, on the other hand, seems to have built a client list based on a strong coalition of podcast companies — including Midroll Media, Feral Audio, DGital Media, and Wondery — along with big, individual publishers like The New York Times. Which makes sense; podcast networks would likely be wary of establishing a hosting partnership with Panoply, which theoretically competes with them in the advertising marketplace. How Panoply negotiates that awkwardness, and how Art19 capitalizes on it, will be the narrative to watch over time.

The Trump administration is considering privatizing the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), according to a report in The Hill. The writeup also notes plans to eliminate other federal sources of support for the broader public media ecosystem. Really can’t say I’m surprised to hear about this — indeed, in the very first Hot Pod published after November’s elections, I felt it necessary to state that all eyes should be on the CPB, the vessel of federal funding whose operations are essential to the health of the public media system.

There’s already a string of solid writeups that dig into the matter — in particular, check out Current, The Huffington Post, and Media Matters. I highly recommend reading all three pieces in full, especially Media Matters’, which contains CPB’s full statement on the matter. Two things, though:

1. All three writeups make reference to the historical on-again, off-again tensions between Republican administrations and the public media system’s perceived relationship with liberal ideological bias. Which is useful context, but it also evokes some optimistic suggestion that, despite these conflicts, the public media system has survived to this day, in effect drawing upon the past to inform what might happen in the future. I hold no such optimism. If this election has illustrated anything, it’s that we’re dealing with a dramatically anomalous state of affairs cultivated by an administration that’s unprecedented on numerous levels. It’s also an administration that deeply centralizes the media as a tool of power.

2. It goes without saying that the stakes for public media are incredibly high. A 2012 report commissioned by the CPB from consulting firm Booz & Company — cited by both Current and Media Matters — is pretty straightforward about the consequences: “This report concludes that there is no substitute for federal support of public broadcasting, and that the loss of federal support would mean the end of public broadcasting.” Unsurprisingly, smaller stations and stations located in more rural areas will be the hardest hit. As the CPB notes in its statement:

The federal investment in public media is vital seed money — especially for stations located in rural America, and those serving underserved populations where the appropriation counts for 40-50% of their budget. The loss of this seed money would have a devastating effect. These stations would have to raise approximately 200 percent more in private donations to replace the federal investment.

Which is to say, while bigger stations like WNYC and WBUR might well be able to make up the gap and survive, a good swath of the smaller stations across the country — whose well-being have long been under assault between the economic conditions of their respective locations and some amount of digital disruption — will likely be blown out. The consequence of that would the further debilitation of local, civically-minded news and information infrastructures in places that really need them. Much has already been written about the decline of local newspapers, and one can only imagine that this development, with its focus on the broadcast radio end of the local media spectrum that had been relatively insulated, will further accelerate that decline — and deal yet another harsh blow to the health of civic society.

Hearken-powered local podcasts. However the problems of local media will be dealt with at a system-wide level, I nonetheless strongly suspect that the building of tools that encourage a strong sense of community will be a big part of the solution.

That’s why I pay close attention to Hearken, the audience engagement platform that works with newsrooms to develop stronger feedback loops with their readers and listeners, which has been responsible for a growing species of really interesting locally-focused podcasts. The company currently collaborates with over 50 public media newsrooms, and a good portion of those collaborations have resulted in various localizations of WBEZ’s Curious City podcast, which are shows designed to answer questions from listeners about the place or community that they live in. Curious City was originally developed by Hearken CEO Jennifer Brandel during her time as a contract worker at the station, and the growing list of Hearken-powered adaptations now include, among others: FDD’s Curious Carolina, WPLN’s Curious Nashville, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Curious Canberra, and KQED’s Bay Curious — which, by the way, recently bought ads in the city’s metro system to advertise the podcast. (Here’s the full list of “Hearken-powered podcasts.”)

“We do have some public media partners who just release their broadcast episodes as a ‘podcast,'” Brandel tells me. “But we’ve seen more and more are thinking podcast-first for the audio content, or at least making their podcasts different (and I’d say better) from what they broadcast (the clock is a cruel turkey).”

Some of Hearken’s partners are beginning to see encouraging returns. Brandel tells me that a few partners have told them how Hearken-powered stories are already being cited during membership drives as why people give for the first time, or why they increased their donation level. KQED reports that Bay Curious is seeing listenership grow every week, along with a healthy stream of positive feedback.

“People are hungry for a sense of place,” Brandel notes. “The Chipotlization of every town in America (globally?) makes the local, idiosyncratic amazing wonders of every town and city more and more endangered (or at least way less obvious), and answering questions that unearth the fascinating context for how a place came to be, how it changed, and is changing is a great way to get people feeling more local pride, engagement, and will hopefully lead them to action (whether that’s donating to their member station or getting involved civically).”

She adds: “One of the most exciting parts of our model is when the public gets to accompany reporters on the reporting. That shit is hard to do nationally. Locally, it works wonderfully. The public loves getting to meet and have an adventure with their pub media heartthrob. Hello lifelong loyalty.”

Lifelong loyalty, indeed. You can learn more about Hearken on their website.

Relevant: Melody Joy Kramer’s latest — “What does a news organization optimized for trust look like?

Jezebel now has a podcast, the delightfully named Big Time Dicks, which spins out from the site’s Big Time Small-Time Dicks column that keeps a critical eye on politics and policy at the local and federal level. What’s interesting: note the mention of the “Fusion Audio Network” in the iTunes listing — recall that the Gizmodo Media Group is now part of Fusion in its post-Gawker existence — as well as the namedrop of Mandana Mofidi in the announcement post, who serves as the executive producer of audio for the operation.

Designing positions for audio producers (for first-timers and instigators). One of the biggest things that animates my optimism in the podcast industry is its potential to open up more substantial work opportunities for audio producers, particularly as more existing media companies and entrepreneurial types get drawn into building whole new ventures and teams around audio programming. That’s the supposed beauty of the Internet’s democratizing force: Where audio programming was previously monopolized by a few who have power over the limited means of distribution — in audio’s case, radio companies and finite broadcast airwaves — greater numbers of new businesses can now be built on top of the infinite horizon of the Internet. And the more businesses that are built, the more producers can get employed. Seems pretty straightforward.

Of course, things are never that simple. The quality of the new jobs being created is always a question, and a big part of that has to do with how these new ventures — some of which will come with significant background in radio, some of which come in fresh — understand the role of audio producers and, perhaps more importantly, the work that goes into creating valuable audio products. A breakdown in this key juncture has the potential to trigger a downward spiral; a misunderstanding of a role leads to misunderstood hires leads to poor products leads to failed efforts leads to an entrenched misunderstanding of the original opportunity, after which everybody leaves the arrangement unhappy.

All of that was in the back of my mind when I spotted veteran audio editor Julia Barton’s reaction to a recent Washington Post job posting for an audio producer a few weeks ago. “Biting my tongue,” she wrote on Facebook, in response to the job description. Barton has been quite vocal in the past about how the work of audio producers are often underestimated. Most recently, she wrote an article for Current where she argued that the widespread use of generic stock mic photos in writeups about audio work reflects and abets a harmful oversimplification of the job. The premise of Barton’s argument might be somewhat mischievous, but the underlying impulse that energizes the piece — that cultural representation has material consequences — is nonetheless important.

Curious, I reached out to Barton to talk more about the thinking behind her reaction.

[storybreak]

[conl]Quah: What, exactly, was it about the job posting that you were responding to?[/conl]

[conr]Barton: This is not to drag The Washington Post — I’m thrilled that they’re looking to hire so much talent and expand. I came across this particular audio-producer listing because a WP staffer posted on Twitter about video hiring, and I was curious if they were hiring in audio as well.

I haven’t talked with the Post, and I’d urge you to do that because I’m probably overreacting. But if I were a potential candidate, someone with the “experience crafting rich audio storytelling and great interviews” that they want, I would be wary of some red flags. A big one is in the first line of the job description: “Work with hosts and reporters to script, record and edit a variety of Washington Post podcasts.”

That tells me (again, I hope I’m wrong!) this is a shop that views podcast production as a one-man-band effort. It carries the assumption that podcasts are easily knocked off, one after another, with a little prep, a recording session, and a couple of hours in front of an audio-editing suite. And that’s just not how it works if your goal is “rich audio storytelling.” People seem to get that it takes a village to run a newsroom or to make a broadcast or produce a studio album, but the fantasy persists that audio storytelling is simple and cheap. That’s just not true.[/conr]

[conl]Nicholas Quah: Could you broadly walk me through the job of the producer?[/conl]

[conr]Julia Barton: It really depends on the project. If you’re a daily broadcast newsmagazine like All Things Considered or PRI’s The World, and you have to fill a fixed clock? Then you need dozens of people: reporters, planning editors, story editors, show directors, engineers, and segment producers, in addition to the managers and digital teams.

Unfortunately, public radio developed its own nomenclature, one that’s different from film or TV or even European radio terms. In the world I come from, a producer is someone who works with tape, whether recorded in the studio or in the field. They “edit” tape, but they are not editors (I’ll get to that in a minute). They may run recording sessions, but they are not engineers or technical directors. They don’t assign stories or work with freelancers. But in podcasting, especially among folks without a radio background, the term “producer” has inflated to cover all those roles in some shops.

Here’s the essential problem, though: Audio production is very time-consuming. I don’t mean because we are divas at a makeup table — I mean it literally consumes time. When you have a chunk of raw tape from the field, you really should listen to it all or you’ll miss some half-second of magic. When you edit down a section of an interview, you have to listen to that section to hear if it works. When you edit out a breath, you have to listen to make sure that person doesn’t sound like they’re trapped in an airless vacuum. When you add musical scoring, you have to listen to how that affects a section, and then keep adjusting. When you finish an episode, you have to listen to the whole thing for errors, and before you know it, you’ve started tearing it all up again. And to make matters worse, this level of over-exposure means your brain can’t hear the actual content in a fresh way. You have no idea if it even makes sense after a while because you are so busy moving Lego-chunks of audio around. Afterward you are dead, and you’re not really up for planning the next episode.

That’s why it’s really important that audio producers have someone outside of this vortex to help them plan, to strategize and talk about the story so they don’t go down wrong paths that waste so much time. This is the story editor, and this cannot be the same person as the producer for the reasons I just explained above. The editor is a bridge between the producer and the listener, and the overall editorial goals of a show, production house, or newsroom. This is someone who can hear problems and give precise, actionable feedback that saves time (and lives, I like to think).

Finally, when you get to issues of audio quality, levels, gear, studio management, and sound design, you need a dedicated engineer. All these people make so much difference for producer sanity and the listener’s experience, but we almost never hear their voices.[/conr]

[conl]Quah: Any final notes for media organizations building out audio teams for the first time?[/conl]

[conr]Barton: That audio production is complicated and time-consuming, but you will be rewarded by listeners for giving it the resources it needs. Anyone building a new team needs to sit in on the weekly production cycle of a show they admire. Every person involved in that production is there for an important reason. They’re actually the reason you love that show, so figure out what they do and how you can get people like them. By the way, they don’t all have to work in the same room. Some of the best productions teams I’ve been on have been scattered around the country or world.[/conr]

[storybreak]

I reached out to the Post in a bid to discuss the position, and perhaps to understand the team that they are planning to build. I wasn’t given a response on the record.

Anyway, I’d like to emphasize, at this point, that this story is purely about on Barton’s thinking and the larger issue of effectively translating the complexity of these jobs. This isn’t — and shouldn’t be — a story about The Washington Post’s audio team or the appropriateness of how they’re hiring for the position, as all of that very much remains to be seen. That said, it’s worth contextualizing Barton’s arguments and the Post’s situation within a dynamic that we’ve seen in other parts of the media industry — namely, that there will always exist a fine line between working to create new workflows within constraints and appropriate work-to-compensation ratios, and within this, there will always be a tension between efforts to create new pathways from the bottom up and negotiating the sanctity of traditional workflows.

In related news, the Post just released its latest podcast: the Trump-focused Can He Do That?

Bites:

  • 60dB is now available as a skill for the Amazon Echo. Expect more audio programming companies to follow suit, because talking refrigerators. (Company Blog)
  • This morning, DGital Media announced yet another partner: The Players’ Tribune, which is that media platform for professional athletes.
  • American Public Media has hired Nathan Tobey as its new director of on-demand and national cultural programming. Tobey most previously worked on podcast projects for WGBH, and was a co-creator of Strangler, which was a collaboration between Midroll Media and Northern Light Productions.
  • You might have heard that Pod Save America, Crooked Media’s first podcast offering, scored President Obama’s last interview in office. But here’s an interesting tidbit about the venture started by the former Obama staffers: Pod Save America hit over a million listens in its first week-plus of operation, before the Obama interview went live. (Twitter)
  • On a related note, I wrote about the future of political podcasts in the Trump era and how the genre might be ripe for activism. (Vulture)
  • For what it’s worth, I listened to WNYC, MPR News, and The Economist’s Indivisible last night off Facebook. Gotta say: The experience wasn’t bad. (Twitter)
  • Audible’s collaboration with TED, “Sincerely, X,” will come out on February 1. I wrote about the project back in September. As always, you can check out a running list of upcoming releases on this page.

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.

Hot Pod: Did the election podcast glut of 2016 fail its listeners?

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue ninety-six, published November 15, 2016.

Outlook. Last Tuesday’s shocking electoral conclusion has severe ramifications not just for the media generally — print and digital, legacy and new, mainstream and alternative — but also for podcasting specifically, whose position as an emerging industry would historically render it more susceptible to the fallout of uncertain economic and media environments. And make no mistake: We are marching straight into a thick fog of uncertainty.

Keep your eyes peeled for two things. First, a potential slowdown in advertising spending. Second, the significant possibility of an economic recession over the next few years, something that was already being predicted prior to this election and that some economists believe could be exacerbated by the proposed policies of the incoming administration. From The Wall Street Journal last Wednesday:

“Uncertainty is bad for ad spending growth,” said Jonathan Barnard, head of forecasting for Zenith, an ad buying and research arm of Publicis Groupe. Still, he said there will not be an “apocalyptic pullback” and just how much contraction occurs depends largely on how the economy performs and what specific moves the new administration makes.

And what of public radio? Keep your eye on the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), the federally funded organization whose financial support is essential to the health of the public media system. Familiarize yourself with two things:

1. The breakdown of NPR’s revenue sources, articulated best in this blog post from 2013 that highlights public radio’s dependence on CPB funding:

These station programming fees comprise a significant portion of NPR’s largest source of revenue. The loss of federal funding would undermine the stations’ ability to pay NPR for programming, thereby weakening the institution

2. The historical string of on-again, off-again tensions surrounding the system’s perceived relationships with ideological bias.

Executives at podcast publishers are generally adopting a wait-and-see stance on the days to come. At least, that’s what I’ve found based on my email interactions with several over the past week. Many are bracing for impact — one phrased the situation this way: “I am placing higher probabilities on the downside cases in all of our financial models” — though there are a few that believe such concerns to be overblown. (“I wouldn’t worry about it,” one person said.)

“We’ve seen no signs of any slowdown,” Matt Lieber, president and cofounder of Gimlet Media, told me. “Obviously, if a recession happens, then ad budgets will get cut. But to be honest, we’re seeing so much growth in podcast spending right now that, even in recession, I would expect slowing growth, yes, but not negative growth.”

Hernan Lopez, founder of Wondery, submitted a more positive view: “I’ve never seen ad spend decline in a growing economy. In times of general market-driven anxiety, ad budgets may shift from a quarter to the next, or between different kinds of media, and if anything podcasting has more to gain than to lose.”

National Public Media’s Bryan Moffett noted that he remains “cautiously optimistic,” pointing out the strength of 2017 upfront buys and the medium’s steady quarter-over-quarter gains. “Niche media do tend to get cut faster in turbulent times, but I also wonder if podcasting will weather any storm better than history would predict,” he wrote. “We all know how effective podcasting can be in terms of marketers reaching the right audience with the right message. So, I think we’d need a pretty significant economic pullback before any real cuts come, and they’d probably come in line with everything else.”

An executive of an independent podcast network expressed some general concern, but pointed out that even if there is to be an ad-spending cooldown, direct response advertisers would likely stay within the medium, as they’ve already figured out how to assess and achieve the return-on-investments they want. Another person I spoke to posited a similar outcome — there will always be companies looking for people to sell things to, that person said — but did say to watch how companies engaged in direct response podcast marketing will fare moving forward.

We need to move on, but I’ll just quickly note three more things:

  • This climate of uncertainty will be felt by every aspect of the podcast ecosystem, but it will be felt hardest by the community of independent producers and freelancers that provide labor, efficiency, and creativity to the space, these proprietors of small boats in a sea that thrashes from the movement of bigger ships.
  • Given everything that we’re currently seeing in the nexus of media and politics, it seems imperative, now more so than ever, that podcasting remains open.
  • Remember to donate to your local public radio station, people.

Okay, let’s go.

Radio Ambulante inks distribution deal with NPR. The public radio mothership will distribute, market, and promote the show across all of its platforms, including NPR.org and the NPR One app. I’m told to expect collaborations between Radio Ambulante and a number of other podcasts from the NPR newsroom like Code Switch, Latino USA, and Embedded. I’m also told that the show will have a presence on the weekend newsmagazines. The deal came out of conversations that started about a year ago, when NPR approached the Radio Ambulante team.

For the uninitiated, Radio Ambulante is a fully Spanish language narrative journalism project — in the vein of This American Life and Snap Judgment — focusing on stories from Latin America and Latino communities in the United States. The show was founded in 2011 by Daniel Alarcón, Carolina Guerrero, Martina Castro, and Annie Correal. (Castro and Correal have since left the team.) Radio Ambulante is widely loved and critically acclaimed, and received the Gabriel García Marquez Prize for Innovation in Journalism in 2014.

Alarcón told me that the team intends to expand in the near future. “We have to see where we stand early next year, but I think we have to grow in order to fulfill our mission,” he said. “This deal will help us get there.”

The show will roll out its latest season on November 22. The news was formally announced early on Tuesday, but the gossip trickled out at the Third Coast Festival in Chicago this past weekend.

A Serial spinoff? Speaking of Third Coast, I wasn’t able to be there myself this year, but I wish I had been, because this bit of news was apparently announced at a presentation by Serial’s executive producer Julie Snyder. The details, cobbled together from tweets by attendees: A Serial spinoff will debut in March. It will be hosted by This American Life producer Brian Reed, and it will be an “artsy” and “novelistic” seven-part series set in Alabama, following “a man who despises the town he’s lived in all his life and decides to do something about it.” Cool.

Audible expands comedy offerings on its Channels lineup, stacking its deck with audio shows from comedians like Will Arnett, Nick Offerman, and Eugene Mirman. The new slate also features something called “Audible Comedy Specials,” a programming channel that bears strong structural similarities to the comedy special blocks you’d find on television networks like HBO and Comedy Central. It’s kind of a shrewd move, efficiently tapping into the well-established sub-community of comedy podcasts and, on the supply side, offering comedy producers yet another platform to monetize a given performance.

This expansion likely draws from a supply and production infrastructure established by Rooftop Media, the company’s West Coast-based, comedy-focused arm. Audible acquired Rooftop Media back in October 2014.

Meanwhile, in Canada: The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) isn’t cool with third-party podcast apps distributing its programming with in-app ads served on top, according to a report by Canadaland. Specifically, the CBC “has sent legal threats to at least one third-party podcast app developer for serving ads without a prior agreement with the broadcaster.” The corporation is also blocking the presence of its programming on those apps. The exact apps that are affected are not confirmed, though the article highlights the Podcast Republic app and also points out the other apps that adopt the in-app ad practice, like Stitcher, Overcast, and Podcast Addict. Hit up Canadaland for more details on this story.

“The wrong format for the moment?” Josh Nathan-Kazis, a staff writer at The Forward, published a string of tweets (a tweetstorm, as the kids call it) that mounted an intriguing critique of the political roundtable podcast format in the wake of last Tuesday’s election. Reproduced here, with some streamlining:

An item for the media post-mortem: The political roundtable podcast turns out to have been exactly the wrong format for the moment…They’re cheap to produce, and fun to half-listen to while doing the dishes.

And there was a lot to talk about. It felt like you could understand the election through the roundtables. Everyone was so smart. Knew what they were talking about. The intimacy inherent to podcasting made them addictive: Hang out with the smart kids each week and they’ll tell you all you need to know.

On Tuesday, it turned out the smart kids were wrong. Some were flagrantly, smugly, obnoxiously wrong. Others were a bit wrong. They weren’t uniquely wrong. But there’s something about that intimacy that makes their particular wrongness feel almost like a betrayal. I wonder how much we really learned from these podcasts. They were closed loops; arguments among friends, played for entertainment.

And were we really trying to learn? Did anyone go to Keepin’ It 1600 or Slate’s Political Gabfest for anything but affirmation? And if that was just 2016’s “unskewing,” then maybe these shows were more harmful than we realized. Ear candy. If we’d spent a bit less time listening to our radio buddies joke about “bedwetters,” maybe we wouldn’t have been so surprised this week. (To be fair, Keepin’ It 1600’s post-election mea culpa episode on Wednesday was really good.)

Put simply: did the political roundtable podcast glut of the 2016 election cycle fail us?

There is a lot to think through here, and I’ll start by saying that the strokes being painted here are way too broad. (And Nathan-Kazis qualified them as such in follow-ups.) At the heart of this critique, I think, are two central ideas: The first is the explicit notion that the insular space created by the roundtable podcast either leads to or creates a greater probability of confirmation bias, and the second is an implicit sense that the media product supplied by these shows exacerbates a potential negative tendency among consumers to use these media products, some journalism and some not so much, as a crutch as opposed to one of many tools of news and information.

The first idea can be straightforwardly interrogated: My immediate reaction is to argue that the risk of confirmation bias here is less linked to the format itself than it is to the participants of the roundtable. Which is to say, it’s not the tool, it’s the wielder; failures, where they existed, were specific to the show, not general to the form. We were awash with election podcasts this cycle, but there were definable differences between shows that were explicitly journalistic in intent (like the NPR Politics Podcast) and shows that were rooted more in a classical sense of punditry (like Keepin’ It 1600, which was consumed by many as therapy and which, interestingly enough, now appears to be the mirror image of conservative talk radio). Those are two very separate product types with very different relationships to the journalistic position, and speaking personally, my experience of what I now recognize to be confirmation bias between the two shows was dramatically different.

The second idea is harder to parse. Essentially, it attends to what appears to be a causal question: does the sense of comfortable insularity conjured by these podcasts somehow discourage listeners from seeking out additional or competing viewpoints? Attempts to unpack the question only leads to further inquiries: is it even possible to prove a causal relationship? Is there a certain condescension in this causal hypothesis — one that suggests news consumers to be anything other than perfectly intelligent adults who will take the time to fully read complex pieces, verify sources, balance out their information intake, and check their biases on their own? To whom does the responsibility of information fall: those who produce the information, or those who consume information? These are fundamental questions akin to those pertaining to corporate social responsibility on the part of the information producers; I am tempted to think that governance is required, but government often seems antithetical to the productive creation and free flow of information.

Nathan-Kazis’ point on the medium’s intimacy triggering a stronger feeling of betrayal hits closer to home, as it highlights the previously unrealized problem that emerges from the design premise of many of these roundtable podcasts, particularly those produced by journalistic institutions like Slate and FiveThirtyEight. The conceit of such shows is to give listeners a sense of what journalists or experts are talking about in spaces separate from the performed professionalism of the public platform; after all, what is said on the front page is far from what was debated in editorial discussions leading up to an article’s final construction or what was discussed on a human level at the bar afterwards. The basic idea in these setups is to engender trust in the people and the process, not just the product. But when the people and the process fail, the cut feels so much deeper, and it is incredibly hard to win that trust — that sense of comfort and safety (which is perhaps the problem?) — back.

That intimacy and sense of process, however, proved essential to how several non-political roundtable podcasts played the role of therapy for many with their post-election episodes. And it is perhaps here that the roundtable conventions are unambiguously valuable. Shows like Call Your Girlfriend, Still Processing, Nerdette, and The Read all provided listeners with personal spaces of communion — spaces to be alone but together, to feel and process the scope of the night’s events, to emotionally prepare for the days to come.

So, did the political roundtable podcast fail us in 2016? Some did, some didn’t; but the problem listeners face is the fact of living in a world where both successes and failures — emerging from both journalistic and non-journalistic sources — exist, flatly, within the same platform, the same space, the same context.

A media format is a tool; it is only as strong, and only as right, as its practitioners. Whether we screw it up or not, podcasting’s core value proposition is always going to be there for us all: a distinct ability to create a space to talk things through, to feel things out, to let doubt grip you. If anything, maybe the lesson here is that we should have leaned more into conveying doubt. A scene from On The Media’s bonus episode, dropped the day after the elections:

Bob Garfield: “What I most hope… is that we are not all passengers on the ship of fools.”
Brooke Gladstone: “What the fuck does that mean?”

Relevant: Melody Joy Kramer on Poynter — “Spread your masthead across the country, and other ideas to prevent groupthink”

Bites:

  • For those keeping tally, add the following companies to the list of brands making their own podcasts: InterContinental Hotel, Avion Tequila, State Farm Insurance. (AdWeek)
  • Refinery29 is launching what appears to be a combined podcast-newsletter product, called “UnStyled.” The last example I heard of such a product combination was WBUR’s “The Magic Pill” project. (Refinery29)
  • “The story so far: Fiction podcasts take their next steps” (New York Times)
  • “Where political talk radio is driven by a sense of community, not partisanship” (CJR)
  • DGital Media launches the latest show under its new partnership with Sports Illustrated, “The Seth Davis Podcast.” (SI.com)
  • Meanwhile, in Australia: The Wheeler Center and the Audiocraft conference are collaborating to launch “The Australian Audio Guide,” “an online companion to the best Australian podcasts and radio features.” (Link)

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