These are the most important developments in the podcast business so far in 2017

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 135, published September 5, 2017.

Programming note! Ah yes, so we are in September! As you might already know, I’m taking a five-issue break from writing Hot Pod, starting next week and back on October 17, to do the Knight Visiting Nieman Fellowship in Cambridge (very on-brand, I’d say). But that doesn’t necessarily mean the Hot Pod #content will stop flowing, as I’ll be serving up bonus goodies here and there to those who read Hot Pod as a newsletter. (You can sign up to that here.)

But even as the newsletter churns out extra, the Hot Pod column as you know it will be on ice for a while. So, before the break and ahead of the third annual IAB Podcast Upfront happening later this week (also the NowHearThis Festival, I suppose), I figured this is probably a good time to take stock of the year in podcasting so far, which is, you know, quite a lot. In this issue, you’ll find top-level numbers, the six big things/trends/developments that stood out to me, thoughts about the three most interesting podcast companies, and some news hits before we break for a month and a half.

Let’s jump in.

The year so far. We begin by asking: Just how much has the industry grown over the past year? And do we have a better understanding of the space than we did before? I’ve been keeping these two digits pinned to my notebook:

  • Audience size: 67 million U.S. monthly listeners, according to Edison and Triton Digital’s annual Infinite Dial report, up 21 percent from 57 million from the year before. The volume of growth between 2017 and 2016 is slightly less than the period immediately preceding it (4 percentage points off a smaller base), which was a source of consternation among some in the podcast community at the time. But as I wrote back when the report first dropped: “We’re still talking 10 million new Americans actively listening to a medium that (a) is still propped up by a barely evolved technological infrastructure, (b) has only seen a few instances of significant capital investment, and (c) still sees its industry power very much under-organized.” Those three things, by the way, have changed a little since I wrote that line. More on that in a bit.
  • Advertising: The industry is expected to top $220 million in podcast advertising revenue by the end of 2017, according to an Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) study. The study is the first of its kind, a long-awaited official research effort into a pool of the biggest players in the space — which gives us a floor, at the very least — that’s a marked a step up from that methodologically-fuzzy Bridge Ratings report that’s been floating about the past few years. (Yeah, it’s all totally weird.) The IAB study was also able to give us some valuable historical context: 2016’s podcast ad revenue came in at $119 million, while 2015 came in at $69 million.

I’ll be thinking about how the industry moves forward based on three dimensions:

  • Growth — whether audiences and revenues will continue to grow, obviously;
  • Sustainability — whether companies will meaningfully diversify their revenue streams and whether the industry will see its activities and fortunes spread out across a wide number of companies; and
  • Refinement — whether the ecosystem will improve upon its various inefficiencies, from discovery to measurement to monetization.

Cool. So, with all that out of the way, let’s talk about six big things that’ve stood out to me since January.

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(1) Fundraising uptick. The summer closed with what might have been the loudest month in terms of significant investments in the podcast industry since…well, since I’ve started writing this newsletter in November 2014. August saw a total of four big investments in all (that were publicly disclosed, of course):

  • August 1: Gimlet Media announced a $15 million Series B funding round led by the New York-based Stripes Group, whose portfolio also includes Refinery29, eMarketer, and Blue Apron. Participants in the round also included Laurene Powell Jobs’ Emerson Collective, Graham Holdings, Cross Culture Ventures, and Betaworks. Variety had the first writeup.
  • August 3: DGital Media (which would later rebrand as Cadence13) announced that Entercom, the fourth-largest radio broadcaster in the U.S., paid $9.7 million to buy 45 percent of the company. The arrangement was described as an “investment and a strategic partnership” in the press release, and Entercom also signed a “multi-year services agreement under which DGital will dedicate ‘significant resources’ to create on-demand audio content leveraging the broadcaster’s roster of local talent and relationships.”
  • August 23: Art19, the California-based podcast technology company, announced a $7.5 million Series A round led by Bertelsmann Digital Media Investments (BDMI) and DCM Ventures. Other investors in the round included United Talent Agency (!), Gallo Digital, angel investor Zach Coelius, and Array Ventures, according to the press release.
  • August 31: HowStuffWorks, the Atlanta-based veteran podcast company that’s been publishing for almost a decade across multiple parent corporations, announced that it will be spinning out as a new independent company with a $15 million Series A fund led by the Raine Group. Here’s TechCrunch with a writeup, which also includes a look at an executive reshuffle and marginal insight into expansion plans. The spinoff news comes not too long after the company announced a West Coast expansion, one that explicitly targets the comedy category.

First of all, mazel tov to all! But also: Why did all these investments come in at the same month? Also, why did it all come out in the time of year when many a venture capitalist is thought to be on vacation? Conal Byrne, HowStuffWork’s new incoming president, was game to put a positive spin on it, though he doesn’t quite answer the question. “The industry has finally hit the tipping point that investors have been waiting for,” he wrote, through a rep. “Validation of a big market opportunity.” That feeling is generally shared across other sources that I reached out to, though the timing thing remains a puzzle. (Herd mentality? An actual tipping point? Maybe a bit of both?) Nevertheless, there were several private expressions of relief that dollars are finally flowing.

One thing to observe from all this: These four investments are substantially different from the kinds of investments we’ve often seen in (and adjacent to) the podcast space up until this point. Much of the attention over the past few years has generally been on consumer-focused audio app and platform plays — Anchor, Bumpers, Otto Radio, 60dB, RadioPublic, and so on — which are, in other words, stuff that’s more conventionally known within the broader tech industry. But these recent investments — three straight-up media companies, one podcast technology infrastructure company — are specific to the needs, textures, and idiosyncrasies of the podcast ecosystem.

I like where this is going.

(2) Apple analytics. While the summer closed out with news of investments, the season kicked off with an Apple bombshell. During its WWDC conference back in June, the company’s podcast team announced that publishers will soon be provided with in-episode analytics — which is to say, publishers will soon be able to systematically go beyond the download and tell just how much of their episodes are actually being listened to on the aggregate. This is undeniably the most significant development to hit the podcast industry since…well, since Apple consolidated the disparate ecosystem by featuring podcasts in the iTunes architecture, breaking it out as a standalone app, and then eventually packaging the app with iOS by default.

My coverage on the matter was spread across three separate issues:

Nieman Lab also ran a useful piece from WAMU’s Gabe Bullard, who sought to project what might happen to podcasts by examining what happened to the radio industry when its ratings became more precise ten years ago. To sum: A fragmented world was revealed, genres died off, accuracy disputes emerged, and some who were thought to be big turned out not to be all that big after all. We’ll likely see the same kinds of effects ripple across the podcast industry, and as a result, we’ll probably see some recalibration of power and standing. We’re due for a moment of disruption, which is as much a period of potential as it is pitfall. (Chaos is a ladder, after all, as some dude once said.)

(3) More and more adaptations. To illustrate the prevalence of this trend, here’s a sample of just a few of noteworthy developments in this area over the past few months:

  • Gimlet Media articulating its intellectual property pipeline as a prominent talking point for press coverage around its recent fundraise, building on a steadily increasing track record of adaptations that include Homecoming and StartUp being adapted for television, along with the “Man of the People” episode on Reply All being adapted for film.
  • In August, HBO announced that it will be adapting WNYC’s 2 Dope Queens into a series of four hour-long specials.
  • Also in August, Universal Cable Productions announced that it was adapting Night Vale Presents’ Alice Isn’t Dead for the USA Network. Accompanying the news was word of a novel based on the podcast, to be published by Harper Perennial in 2018.
  • The TV adaptation of Aaron Mahnke’s Lore, picked up by Amazon Studios, has an October release date and now, a trailer. A book adaptation is also in the works.
  • There remains scuttlebutt that First Look Media was shopping Missing Richard Simmons around as “potential source material for a TV series,” per a Hollywood Reporter article from April.

The prospect of adaptation is valuable for publishers in three key ways: (1) obviously, it represents a whole new potential revenue stream, (2) they’re good expressions of recognition by more established systems of media and publishing, and (3) each successfully executed adaptation is an audience development and marketing vessel for the original podcast as much as it is a standalone product.

That said, some attention should be paid as to whether these adaptations actually pay off. Remember, it took a while for comic books to rev up as hot sources of intellectual property for the more lucrative film industry, especially after an uneven string of performances in the ’90s and early 2000s. (But then again, the film industry did have a…challenging summer. But maybe that doesn’t really tell us anything?)

(4) On programming. It’s been kind of a strange year, at least for me. We’ve seen a heckuva lot more podcasts of increasing ambition, and we’ve seen some tremendous successes that have taken the medium to new heights. But I can’t seem to shake the feeling that the pace of successes has been somewhat uneven. Like there isn’t much certainty that the space as a whole can hold the public conversation for a sustained period of time.

In any case, the year in #content so far has been defined in my mind by two things:

  • Two unambiguous hits from early in the year that broke into the mainstream, First Look Media’s Missing Richard Simmons (debuted in February) and Serial Productions’ S-Town (debuted in March).
  • The rise of the daily news podcast, about which I’ve written a frightful amount over the past few months. But frankly, between The New York Times’ The Daily (debuted in February) and NPR’s Up First (debuted in April), I think it’s the most exciting front in the space in a long time. The category represents a whole bunch of things: Innovation! Ambition! Serious consideration of the medium that breaks from podcasting’s still governing skeuomorphisms with radio! And with Vox Media throwing its hat into the ring soon, I’m excited to see how the genre continues to heat up.

Two questions moving forward: (a) Where will the next hit come from? (b) Does my thesis from May — where I argued that the success of Missing Richard Simmons, taken in context of the success of S-Town, indicates that podcasting remains fairly accessible and meritocratic, which is to say that a good thing can stand out no matter of pedigree — still stand?

(5) More and more windowing. There’s been a noticeable increase in such shenanigans between publishers and non-Apple platforms, particularly in terms of promotional partnerships that sees the former giving “exclusive early drop” opportunities to the latter. Examples include:

  • First Look Media’s Missing Richard Simmons releasing episodes early (along with some bonus material) on Midroll Media’s Stitcher platform. Of course, that flow was ultimately interrupted due to some, uh, “extraneous circumstances” related to the meta-elements of the podcast by the end of the show’s run, but I heard the experiment paid off quite a bit for Stitcher. A Midroll rep told me that the partnership drove six times the usual number of daily new subscription signups during the show’s run.
  • Gimlet Media debuted its collaboration with the Loud Speakers Network, Mogul, on Spotify weeks before the podcast would eventually be distributed through the open ecosystem. The Brooklyn-based company later announced that its upcoming history podcast, Uncivil, will be windowed on TuneIn.
  • Speaking of TuneIn, the platform had previously tested out an exclusive distribution arrangement with The Ringer’s MLB Show at the start of baseball season.
  • And speaking of Spotify, the music streaming platform also developed a windowing relationship with WNYC, where the public radio station debuted the latest season of 2 Dope Queens earlier on Spotify.

Aside from Stitcher, it’s unclear to me whether such arrangements are paying off enough to establish this as a worthwhile strategy to be commonly implemented across the space. What is clear, however, is that such moves have not gone unnoticed by Apple, the long-time steward of the space.

And there were hints of blowback from Cupertino. As Digiday reported during the Missing Richard Simmons run:

According to multiple people familiar with the matter, Apple was excited about promoting Missing Richard Simmons until it heard about the windowing strategy. They subsequently abandoned all the marketing plans for the show, those people said.

Awkward! Also, perturbing.

(6) Platform fluidity. Last March, reacting to the launch of Audible’s original programming slate, the introduction of Google Play Music’s podcast feature, and the continued rollout of Spotify’s video and podcast offerings, I argued that the word “podcast” will lose all of its original meaning by the end of that year. Which is to say, the concept will no longer be too tethered to its initial infrastructural connotations — RSS feeds, podcatchers, and so on — and that arguments over what’s a “podcast” and what’s not will be fully relegated into a game of pure semantics and ideological identities. Instead, the way we talk about all of this — the content, the technology, the audiences — will have shifted from a narrative about the clash between an incumbent and an insurgent (“the future of radio”) towards a clash between publishing factions defined by different formations of publishing communities (“a type/genre/kind of audio”).

(Man, I was so much less literal back then.)

I think there’s been a fair bit of evidence that precisely this has played out over the intervening year and a half, contributing to a space that feels a lot more…fluid, conceptually, than it once was.

Consider the following developments:

  • Spotify is producing original podcasts in addition to their overarching efforts to establish their platform as a meaningful alternative to Apple. (Or, internally, to establish podcasts as a meaningful addition to their raison d’etre of being a music consumption platform.) The company seems to be getting ready for another round of original podcast programming, according to Bloomberg, though it’s unclear how that’s been affected by the dismissal of Tom Calderone, its head of video and podcasting operations.
  • Audible and Stitcher Premium, both of which possess value propositions that are defined by a sense of exclusivity, have begun trickling shows out beyond their paywalls and into the open ecosystem.
  • Meanwhile, Google Play Music is making its own quiet excursion into original podcast programming.
  • iHeartRadio, a native of Internet radio (and progeny of old radio), is increasingly agitating to claim some portion of the podcast space. In the past year, the platform has established distribution relationships with Art19, Libsyn, and NPR member stations. It, too, dabbles with some original programming, branded and otherwise.
  • SiriusXM is quietly developing a podcast platform of their own by the name of Spoke.
  • And while we’re on the subject of apps, we’ve also seen increasing activity within the social audio app front. In particular, the Betaworks-backed Anchor — a contemporary of Bumpers — is increasingly deploying podcast nomenclature (and getting involved in the concerns of podcasts writ large) to describe itself, its machinations, and by extension, its value proposition. A prime example of this can be found in its latest audio-to-social video feature, which adapts the broader Audiogram initiative into its infrastructure.

One way to thread all of these developments together is to frame it all as the story of several non-Apple platforms slowly (and clumsily) encroaching on Apple’s position as a steward of the space with a relatively hands-off stance, maybe to one day capitalize on the various inefficiencies that have resulted from that stance.

Have we seen a meaningful alternative platform to Apple yet? It doesn’t seem like it, based on what I’ve seen. As it stands, Apple remains the primary firehose, and everyone else is still a tiny spigot by comparison. Nevertheless, the encroachment marches on.

(A quick side thought on the fate of user generated content-oriented apps: While it’s unclear what their precise value propositions are to bigger publishers, you could argue that they could collectively serve as a good next step for the species of smaller solo independent publishers that find themselves being pushed out by bigger, more organized, and typically moneyed publishers. I haven’t really thought this through just yet, but should Apple change its hands-off stance — and should Apple Podcasts’ facilitation of the space be diluted beyond some proportional tipping point — small and upstart creators would need a place to go.)

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So those are the six trends that’ve stood out to me. As a collective, I think they describe a space that has made meaningful gains where it counts (size, revenue, legitimacy, prestige, awareness, and so on), but as a result has become increasingly complex. That complexity can be destabilizing, and this story has a bigger potential curveball coming its way with the introduction of the new analytics layer in November. Rest assured: I’ll be back by then to cover all of that.

Before I move on to some quick news hits, I also want to quickly talk about the three companies in the industry that have most stood out to me over the past eight months. They aren’t necessarily the most successful or the biggest — though they are quite successful and big — but rather, they’re the most interesting, and they’ve been the most fun to think and/or talk about.

The three most interesting podcast companies

HowStuffWorks. HWS is officially almost two decades old; its podcast business, headlined by Stuff You Should Know, is about half that. And yet the Atlanta-based company has, over the past year, operated with a verve of a much younger venture. It has aggressively hired new talent (working from a playbook that seems to be revolved around drafting established Internet media pioneers from the mid-aughts, including Cracked.com founder Jack O’Brien and Mental Floss’ Will Pearson and Mangesh Hattikudur), expanded the geography of its operations, and spun out as a whole new independent entity with new funds. Can an older hand successfully retool itself for the future?

The Ringer. I happen to love The Ringer as a publication, but I also think the stuff that they’re doing with their podcast network is low-key revolutionary. It features rigorous experimentation (Binge Mode, of all things, is a triumph in concept and execution), a fluid use of their writers as valuable audio assets, and an approach that seems to have meaningfully integrated their audio division with the rest of the business. The Ringer isn’t for everybody, but when it’s yours, it’s really, really yours, and its podcast division is the purest expression of that fact.

That said, the fact that its ownership structure is a mystery makes the enterprise tricky to fully trust. We can’t quite know for sure how the company is doing, and as a result, we can’t assess for sure whether the model is financially successful — and therefore replicable — or not. Then again, The Ringer head Bill Simmons told Recode’s Peter Kafka back in February that they’re doing well, and the organization seems to be valuable enough for Vox Media to establish a technology and advertising relationship with in May, so hey, maybe something’s there.

The New York Times. When the Gray Lady originally announced that it was assembling a new podcast team last year, I imagined an outcome not unlike what we’ve seen with, say, Slate: a portfolio of subject-specific shows that export the feel and sensibility of its parent publisher, only tighter and more pristine. What ended up emerging was something more drastic, the creation of a whole new…let’s call it a franchise. (Or, heaven forbid, a #brand.) By the end of summer 2017, it’s not inaccurate to say as far as the Times’ audio machinations are concerned, you have The Daily, and you have everything else that orbits The Daily.

On the one hand, this is incredibly exciting. That team has built a powerful machine, one that has equal capacity to break stories, deepen impact, and serve as a platform to launch complementary projects. But on the other hand, the problem with building a basketball team around a single player is the implosion that happens when that player gets injured, gets tangled up in controversy, or just gets old. This is a privileged problem, of course, but it’s a problem nonetheless. What happens next will be fascinating to watch.

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Two stories on political podcasts.

(1) The genre is strong! Which is not entirely surprising, of course, given the current spirit of the times where politics and the media have definitively fused into one giant, amorphous, Jeff Goldblum-in-The Fly-like blob. The Hollywood Reporter’s Jeremy Barr (formerly of Ad Age) has a piece up checking in on the growing category, and it contains two nifty data points for us: First, that the twelve-year-old Slate Political Gabfest “brought in about $1 million in revenue last year at a $25 CPM and an average download of a few hundred thousand per episode,” and second, that revenue for the political podcasts in Midroll Media’s portfolio “has doubled this year compared to 2016.”

(2) Vice News is the latest media org to engage with the “podcasts as left-wing political talk radio” angle, providing a broad accounting of the emerging phenomenon. Do pair that with the “alternative left wing media infrastructure” by The Atlantic’s McKay Coppins from July, titled “How the Left Lost Its Mind.”

Kids podcasts make a marketing push. Drawing some inspiration from February’s #TryPod audience building campaign, a coalition of kids-oriented podcasts are attempting a similar cross-promotion scheme to spread their audiences around and generally bring more attention to the category. Participating shows include Brains On (APM), Wow in the World (NPR), Eleanor Amplified (WHYY), But Why (Vermont Public Radio), Tumble Science (Wondery), Circle Round (WBUR), Story Pirates, and The Longest Shortest Time (Stitcher).

I’m told that the coalition was formed organically, with NPR running point on the outreach to potential participants. This campaign is said not to be directly related to the Kids Listen collective, of which all of these podcasts are members.

As part of the effort, Brain On’s Molly Bloom will be producing a “bonus preview” episode that will feature highlights from participating shows. The preview will be distributed throughout the coalition’s podcast feeds in early October.

The campaign kicked off yesterday, and will run for 13 weeks.

Bites:

  • BlogTalkRadio and Spreaker have announced a merger. Note: “Shareholders from each of Spreaker and BlogTalkRadio will be making investments in support of the combined company’s growth plan, which will be rolled out over the next several months,” the press release states. Terms were not disclosed. (Press release)
  • Ben Johnson, host of APM’s Marketplace Tech and Codebreaker, is moving to WBUR to start a new project on “the vast/complex/rich community of the Interwebs.” Congrats on the move! (Twitter)
  • This is cool: “Welcome to Night Vale’s Cecil Baldwin on Finding the Queerness in His Character.” (Slate)
  • KCRW is ending the broadcast run of its weekday talk show, “To The Point,” and will repackage it as a weekly podcast. Anomaly or trend? Let’s hope that we stick around long enough to find out. (Current)
  • Frontline, the investigative documentary series from PBS and WGBH, is rolling out a podcast with the legendary Jay Allison serving as senior editor and creative director. PRX serves as distributor. The show officially launches on September 14.
  • Now, I don’t usually derive much value from content marketing pieces, but this audioBoom writeup sees the digital advertising agency Ad Results claiming to “own” 40 percent of the podcast industry’s revenues. This isn’t too far-fetched, from what I’ve heard. (audioBoom)
  • Keep an eye on this: “Traditional Radio Faces a Grim Future, New Study Says.” (Variety)

Cool! Thanks for reading. See you in six weeks.

[photocredit]Photo by Gauthier Delecroix used under a Creative Commons license.[/photocredit]

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s one way to do it, I guess.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Take note.

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

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

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

With that out of the way…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[storybreak]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[storybreak]

Bites

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

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

So how in the world do you break into a career in podcasting, anyway?

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 119, published May 9, 2017.

S-Town breaks 40 million downloads in its first month. That’s global downloads, by the way. I wrote up the milestone for Vulture, and to conjure a sense of the context, I hope you don’t mind me quoting myself:

It’s the biggest rollout a podcast has ever seen in the medium’s history, solidly beating the previous titleholder, Serial season two, which saw an average of 4 million downloads per episode in its first 30 days, according to the measurement firm Podtrac. (For more context, consider that the This American Life podcast, one of the biggest in the industry, is said to see about 2.5 million downloads a week.)

And in case you’re thinking growth rates, recall that the podcast (which dropped all seven of its episodes at once) enjoyed about 16 million downloads in its first week.

Something to consider: The big thought bubble I tried to inflate in the writeup is this idea that S-Town’s success suggests that the very young industry remains fairly malleable. Which is to say, because the ecosystem is still emergent — that is, comparatively unburdened with an extensive sense of its own creative and financial history — it remains relatively easy for bold, audacious experiments to make their way to market to test the limits of their opportunities, and there exists a sense that the medium’s audiences still have appetites that can tolerate, and maybe even expect, greater unconventionality. (An alternate, but not necessarily oppositional, argument is that a good story is a good story is a good story, and that experimentation imbues the product with a differentiating factor, and that the story of more established creative industries is largely a story of its history and accrued creative conservatism getting in their own ways.)

That said, it’s worth asking if S-Town’s success is unique to the conditions set up by its progenitor, This American Life. Over the decades that it’s been in business, that show has built out a considerable existing audience base across multiple channels, an extensive proven track record of quality across multiple shows (let us not forget Serial), and a strong brand presence that’s able to drive tangible impact should they set out to promote something new and unconventional. S-Town, then, can perhaps be described the beneficiary of long-cultivated advantages, which increased its chances at getting in front of enough people who were willing to try it out — and enjoy it.

Which brings us to an interesting question: Just how much does S-Town’s success actually tell us about the opportunities of the space as a whole? Or is it just a story that only tells us about the strength of This American Life and Serial Productions?

I think it’s pretty hard to parse out, but my instinct is to lean much more on the latter at the moment. There is just so much about that project that’s frankly unreplicable. That said, I will also say that when I’m trying to think through that broader question of the space’s opportunities as a whole, I find myself thinking more about Missing Richard Simmons. That show, in many ways, came out of nowhere, and it’s a particularly strange production at almost every level. It was a real-time mystery but also a biography but also a confessional but also a piece of celebrity media. It was an extravagant exercise in building a boat mid-sail. It held no prominent names on the creative team — both Pineapple Street Media and First Look Media, I’d argue, carry virtually no weight with general audiences — and the marketing push was light-to-moderate, at best. It lay on the subject, the celebrity Richard Simmons, to carry the bulk of the weight as the audience draw, and even then, the actual potential return of that celebrity was probably hard to estimate at the time of release.

But the show ended up being an undeniable hit despite all of that. On March 28, a little over a month after the show first debuted, First Look Media told me that the podcast had been downloaded on average more than 1 million times a week since its release, which a considerable feat that the show achieved with none of the advantages of This American Life that I previously mentioned. Missing Richard Simmons was the show, I think, that properly represented the opportunities of the space’s still-low barriers to entry, more so than S-Town.

Anyway, that’s what I’ve been kicking around in my head. I reckon that this is a question we’ll continue to heavily parse over time.

Summer pre-preview. It’s pretty cold here on the East Coast — too cold — but the Gregorian calendar gonna calendar, which means summer is upon us, which means there’s a summer launch slate assembling on the horizon. I’ve got a summer preview piece coming up later this week that’ll be more comprehensive, but here are two things worth tracking in the meantime:

(1) We’re set to see a fair number of high-profile returns:

  • Most notably, NPR’s Invisibilia — a near overnight success when it first debuted in January 2015 — returns with its third season on June 1.
  • Malcolm Gladwell’s back at the mic. Revisionist History, Panoply’s big-swing project from last summer, will drop its sophomore season sometime in June.
  • Homecoming, Gimlet’s experimental audio drama, will resume its cliffhanger in mid-July.

(2) Kids, kids, kids. NPR’s prepping to launch Wow in The World, which it is billing as the first kids podcast in the organization’s 47-year history. It will be hosted by Guy Raz, who already double-duties for NPR as the host of the TED Radio Hour and How I Built This, together with Mindy Thomas. Raz and Thomas already collaborate on the Breakfast Blast Newscast, a SiriusXM show that’s also aimed at kids. According to the formal press release, the podcast will be produced by Tinkercast, a newly formed production company that focuses on family-friendly content, with NPR acting as distributor. Nieman Lab has a good writeup.

Wow in the World will premiere on May 15.

But NPR isn’t the only the public radio organization getting into the pre-pre-teen game. WNYC is apparently piloting its own kids-focused podcast with a live event at The Greene Space on May 20 and 21 — called “Friends for Now,” the podcast will be a trivia game show for kids hosted by comedian Jo Firestone. (Firestone, by the way, has a beloved WFMU radio program, “Dr. Gameshow,” that’s currently being adapted for podcasts under the Earwolf banner, or so I’m told. That’ll be out sometime this season too.)

Macmillan’s experimental imprint. Earlier this month, Tor Books, one of the largest publishers of scifi novels and a subsidiary of Macmillan, announced something called Tor Labs, which is being positioned a new fiction imprint with a twist.

From The Verge:

The new venture will focus on “experimental approaches to genre publishing, beginning with original dramatic podcasts.” Its first podcast, Steal the Stars, will begin streaming this fall…Tor describes Steal the Stars as a “noir science fiction thriller” about two government employees guarding a crashed UFO.

This new initiative is interesting for two primary reasons:

  • That first project, Steal the Stars, is being written by Mac Rogers, who wrote The Message and LifeAfter, the two branded podcast productions that came out of a partnership between Panoply and GE.
  • After the podcast completes its run, the company will repackage the show as an audiobook and will also produce a printed novelization.

That second bit is really, really smart. It drastically expands the surface area of the project across multiple platforms (and therefore multiple markets), which further deepens the project’s ability to financially benefit from a single, core creative enterprise. I’m excited to see whether Tor Labs can pull this off — which is contingent, of course, on whether the podcast is actually any good — and if so, whether MacMillan can leverage its position to replicate that model across various other imprints and genres.

By the way, Tor Books’ parent company, Macmillan Publishing, is also the proprietor of the Quick and Dirty Tips podcast network. You can find my writeup on that operation here.

A hotel partnership? PRX has struck up a “co-marketing” partnership with the Freepoint Hotel, a new establishment that just opened in Cambridge, Mass., that sees the company serving guests podcasts with “interesting, localized content.” Naturally, the content will be distributed via the RadioPublic app. The hotel has also commissioned an episode from Radiotopia’s The Memory Palace that will explore the history of the West Cambridge neighborhood. That episode will come out later this summer. (Memory Palace host Nate DiMeo, by the way, has already been doing similar topically-focused work in his recent gig as the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s artist-in-residence.)

It’s a fairly zany marketing initiative, one that definitely draws some influence from Detour, the guided walking tour app by Groupon founder Andrew Mason. But it’s pleasingly zany, the kind of weird that’s interesting to appraise and experience, and I hope to see more unconventional marketing tactics like this from other companies in the future.

Two dispatches from the live show circuit.

(1) HeadGum’s flagship show, the comedy advice show If I Were You hosted by HeadGum founders Jake Hurwitz and Amir Blumenfeld, is currently on its East Coast tour. I’m told that the podcast stages about 25 live shows a year, which accounts for about 10 to 20 percent of the show’s total revenue.

“As a general note for HeadGum’s touring strategy, a number of shows on our network also do live shows, and we don’t take any of the revenue they make from touring,” said Whitney Simon, the company’s business development executive.

(2) Crimetown, the true crime Gimlet Media production hosted by The Jinx’s Marc Smerling and Zac Stuart-Pontier, is rounding out its inaugural season with a live show in Brooklyn this Thursday. The live show will feature some of the subjects documented throughout the season, which trained its focus on the history of organized crime and corruption in Providence, Rhode Island with a particular emphasis on the city’s, uh, “decorated” former mayor, Buddy Cianci.

“There are so many incredible stories we couldn’t include in each episode, and we wanted to give some of the people we interviewed another forum to talk about their experiences,” said Rob Szypko, the show’s digital editor.

When I asked him how Providence has received the show, he notes that it’s been pretty warm. “From January 1 to May 1 of this year, we’ve received the sixth most downloads from Rhode Island listeners out of all 50 states — which is pretty significant considering that Rhode Island is the 44th most populous state in the country,” he said, adding that local residents have also been considerably engaged with the podcast, sending in anonymous tips for the show’s weekly newsletter.

“We’re optimistic that we can take a version of this live show to Providence too,” Szypko adds.

Career spotlight. Over the past year or so, two things have become increasingly apparent to me: First, it feels like there are more young people than ever before trying to break into and build a career in radio and podcasting — which is great, and which is what we need. And second, there remains a dearth of accessible information about what it means to have a career and what, exactly, one looks like. That’s a not-so-great thing, IMHO, and I find myself fixated on this problem because it’s reminiscent of something I face in my own professional life (such as it is): I don’t have that many accessible models of living that could help me shape my own course, and that’s been a problem when it comes to appraising what’s possible. I think that general state is true for this space, and when it comes to the new generation of people trying to bring their potential into the community, that’s a problem for both those people and the community.

So I’m introducing a new recurring feature that’ll try to help in its own way, where I run some basic questions by podcast and radio folk of various stripes about their careers and how they learned to do what they do. I’ll be working to convey as wide a range of experiences and people as possible, and if I’m doing it right, we’ll all get a good sense on just how weird and scrappy and unstructured things can get.

First up: Clare Toeniskoetter, from APM’s Marketplace.

[storybreak]

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

[conr]Clare Toeniskoetter: I’m a podcast producer at Marketplace’s New York bureau. I produced two seasons of Codebreaker (check it out, we just won a Webby!), two seasons of Actuality, and now I’m piloting new shows with our growing on-demand team. I also produce Marketplace Tech a few times a month — that’s our daily tech show.

My workload changes, depending on the day: researching and pitching stories, engineering interviews, cutting tape, reporting, booking guests, writing scripts, scoring and sound designing, and recently co-hosting Facebook Live videos. My position was brand new when I started at Marketplace two years ago, so I was able to shape it so it includes a bit of everything.[/conr]

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

[conr]Toeniskoetter: I didn’t grow up listening to any public radio — the Toeniskoetters were more of a ‘today’s hits and yesterday’s favorites’ radio family — but I was always interested in music, so I started hosting a freeform music show with WCBN at the University of Michigan. College radio was a gateway radio drug for me, and I soon started listening to public radio and podcasts. (I actually called my favorite podcasts “hot pods” early on, I have gchats as proof). It wasn’t until I drove through the night from Michigan to New York to volunteer at WFMU’s Radiovision conference that I realized I could have a career in public radio (which I almost didn’t go to — looking back at old emails, I didn’t want to miss a football game that weekend).

Back in Ann Arbor, I started interning for our NPR affiliate, Michigan Radio. I worked on a daily news magazine program, finding stories and booking guests, and eventually pitching and producing a new recurring segment. In 2014, I moved to New York for a part-time Radiolab internship and quickly started another part-time internship at Slate working on The Gist, all while working a bunch of Craigslist odd jobs to pay my rent. From there, I did temp work at WNYC and Panoply, and eventually found myself at Marketplace after replying to a two-line job posting email for a “six-month gig” as “a NY-based producer for two podcasts.” Six-plus-nineteen months later, I’m still at Marketplace producing podcasts.[/conr]

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

[conr]Toeniskoetter: On the first day of my Michigan Radio internship, my manager lent me a copy of Sound Reporting: The NPR Guide to Audio Journalism and Production. I read it cover to cover, and ordered Reality Radio: Telling True Stories in Sound and Radio: An Illustrated Guide. With my radio encyclopedia in place, I also listened to archived Third Coast conference sessions, read guides from Transom, and talked to other radio reporters and producers at our Detroit-based radio club. Despite all this, the early pieces I made lacked structure, pacing, and purpose, but I kept at it. Case in point, another gem copy-and-pasted from my old emails:

Me, to other Michigan Radio interns: Let’s make a podcast! I’ll borrow some equipment. Come over on Sunday to record.

Co-intern: Hey guys! What’s going on with a podcast? This sounds hilarious!

Me: I don’t think we really have a plan for it, we’re just going to see what we can create with microphones in front of us!

No, no one ever heard that podcast. That said, most of my learning was through doing. One of my internship managers told me to fake it till I make it, which, if you didn’t get from the “see what we can create” podcast, I definitely did. Eventually, the failure becomes adequacy, and the adequacy becomes improvement, and the improvement becomes success. And today I’m still pushing myself outside of my comfort zone and taking on new roles and responsibilities at Marketplace.[/conr]

[storybreak]

You can find Clare on Twitter at @claretoenis.

Bites:

  • WNYC has announced the schedule for the third edition of Werk It, its annual festival for women in podcasting. The lineup looks pretty damn stellar, IMHO. (WNYC)
  • Anybody else notice that First Look Media has switched out the branding of its podcasts? Missing Richard Simmons, Politically Re-Active, and Maeve in America are now all listed as podcasts from Topic, its “entertainment studio” whose actual machinations remains a mystery to me.
  • 60dB, the short-form audio listening app, revamps its design and rolls a new beta app for Android. Here’s the customary Medium post, and you can read my previous analysis on the company here.
  • The Hive, Vanity Fair’s buzzy technology vertical, is launching its own podcast with Nick Bilton serving as host. DGital Media plays support.
  • Science Friday, the long-running weekly science radio show hosted by Ira Flatow, is launching a podcast spinoff: Undiscovered. (Apple Podcasts)
  • This is cool: “Celestial Blood” is a bilingual radionovela produced by Gisele Regatao in partnership with Santa Monica public radio station KCRW, and it launched earlier this month. (Apple Podcasts)

[photocredit]Photo of Careers board game by huppypie used under a Creative Commons license.[/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.

Amazon’s next move is giving its Audible original programming to all Prime members

Just out this morning: Audible Channels now comes bundled with the Amazon Prime membership. The new offering is only available for U.S. members.

Three quick things:

  • While Amazon doesn’t publicly disclose exact numbers of Prime memberships, analysts at Piper Jaffray estimate the number to be around 57 to 61 million people, according to a CNET writeup. A CNN Money report from earlier this year noted that Prime memberships were estimated to have jumped 35 percent across 2015 alone, citing numbers from a Consumer Intelligence Research Partners report.
  • Obviously, this greatly — and automatically — expands the reach of potential listeners with easy access to Audible’s original programming. This development is consistent with, and weirdly expands upon, a speculation I made to Bloomberg’s Lucas Shaw in a January article: “Amazon is doing to Audible what it’s done to Prime Video.” This has become the defining lens for the way I read the company.
  • Also worth keeping in mind: Audible’s insistence on not calling their original programming “podcasts.”

And in case you missed it, I wrote about Audible’s first batch of original shows earlier this summer. I wasn’t particularly enthused, but I suppose it was a launch set. Audible Channels costs $4.95 a month for non-members; normal full Audible memberships cost $14.95 a month.

Ken Doctor is putting me out of business. If you’re reading this, you’ll probably be very interested to check out his ongoing five-part series on the podcasting business that Nieman Lab is running this week. The first entry, which came out yesterday, is a fantastic primer to the industry, and holds some ideas that I find are incredibly useful.

Doctor closed his first post with a wonderful series of guiding questions, to which I’d like to add one more: Is it possible for podcasting to grow rapidly while maintaining its openness for independents?

I should’ve taken a vacation this week. But we’ve got some guidelines to talk about.

Your handy guide to the IAB’s guidelines. This is going to be a long one, and a poor sequel to some of what I’ve written before.

Ahead of its second annual podcast upfront event last week, the Interactive Advertising Bureau Tech Lab published its Podcast Ad Metrics Guidelines, a document seeking to assist in the resolution of what has commonly been asserted as the medium’s defining problem: measurability. Given that these guidelines were issued from an ostensibly independent third-party like the IAB, they were much anticipated. In some circles, it’s thought to be just the kind of stuff the industry needs to get its house in order.

Time will tell, of course, whether the document will have some sort of impact. But for what it’s worth, I’m bearish.

Let’s consider the problem. The real issue here is less about podcast measurability than it is about the verification of podcast ad impressions. Specifically, advertisers want to effectively track the delivery of the spots they’re paying for.

And to be even more specific, this issue principally pertains to brand advertisers. The space has long operated on a healthy stream of direct advertisers (your MailChimps, your Audibles, your Blue Aprons, and so on) whose ad buying operations are primarily driven by a focus on promo-code conversions. Their assessments would definitely benefit from better ad verification, but they’re ultimately not dependent on them, because direct advertisers can bypass the black-box nature ((In case you’re not familiar: By “black box,” I mean that, for the majority of downloads, it remains relatively unknowable what happens to a podcast ad once it’s stitched into an episode file and shipped off to a listener.)) of current podcast tracking practices by making their own return-on-investment calculations, based on how many listeners end up using a promo code. In contrast, brand advertisers need to know how many people they are reaching as a way to justify their ad buys, because their advertising initiatives are driven by intangible concepts like mindshare, influence, and brand identity — more fluid factors meant to influence buying decisions over the long term.

From the perspective of advertisers, the problem is that “downloads” don’t mean the same thing across different podcast publishers. Sarah van Mosel, Acast’s chief commercial officer, once phrased the problem to me this way: “Buyers just need to know that when they’re spending $100K on one podcast, they’re getting the same amount of ‘stuff’ as if they spend $100K on another podcast.” The IAB’s goal with this report, then, is to provide a publicly available technical framework that the industry can use as a common language, so that brand advertisers can engage with podcast publishers off a baseline layer of trust. (Implicit in this idea is that the actual accuracy of the technical specs is besides the point — so long as everyone is incorrect in the exact same way.)

If this all sounds extremely familiar to you, it’s because we’ve been here before. Back in February, a consortium of public radio organizations banded together to publish their own set of guidelines on podcast metric measurements. My analysis then (which you can read here) saw the publication of that document as a political move by that consortium to accelerate the IAB’s production of its own report. I was also skeptical about the report’s capacity for impact, and a lot of my thinking then can be directly applied to this situation.

Two chunks on why I’m bearish on the new report:

1. The IAB’s guidelines merely serve as a best practices document — there is no formal enforcement of these standards. To state the obvious, best practices are only as strong as the number of people who adopt them, and as a result, we’re left in a situation where, for the standards to be useful, a critical mass of industry participants must be achieved on their own accord.

But the reason podcast downloads have historically been fluffy is that various players in the space aren’t incentivized right now to speak to advertisers in the same language…or to challenge the narrative of their current reporting systems. Why? A relevant quote in an Observer article from Midroll’s now-CEO Erik Diehn, responding to the public radio guidelines in February: “If everybody adopted these standards today, some shows might come down a little bit in size and some might come down pretty dramatically.” It’s an irrational, but understandable, collective psychology: Though measurement standards in some form or another will benefit companies in the long-term, some are hesitant to suffer in the short-term, and as a consequence, the lesser status quo is favored.

There are few possible paths to a future where the IAB’s guidelines can mean something. For one thing, we could see a future in which a critical mass of podcast publishers — all occupying a solid enough position to sustain whatever corrections the guidelines may bring onto their reporting structures — voluntarily bite the metaphorical bullet, adopt the standards, and collusively enforce those standards by convention. And for another, it’s also possible to see a future in which advertisers would use the mere existence of these guidelines as a “cudgel” (to quote a source) to pressure publishers into being more aggressive about refining their measurement capabilities.

Either outcome would be constructive, but they would be so in spite of the IAB’s guidelines — because the document itself isn’t very good in the first place.

2. Put simply: The IAB’s guidelines appear to be a compromised product. Compared to February’s public radio guidelines document, the IAB’s report is significantly less technically rigorous, with key fundamental definitions still half-heartedly defined. One of several red-flags: a “partial download” is still defined as “a unique file request that was less that 100% downloaded” — which means that a podcast file that’s, say, 1 percent downloaded is still valued as equal to a podcast file that’s, say, 99 percent downloaded.

The report’s lack of a punch might well have something to do with its long drafting process, which stretched well beyond a year. (I’ve been hearing gossip about it since Q2 of 2015, and a lot of that involved talk about internal tensions.) And looking at the eclectic list of volunteer participants involved the process — 23 strong, including representation from new and old podcast companies, public radio institutions, tech companies, legacy media types, and Nielsen — one imagines, given everyone’s possibly clashing incentives, that the fact we even saw a report at all is itself a miracle. One presumes that the process was agonized.

But in the scale of things, I don’t think the report’s miss — or any future fumbles — is going to matter very much. Indeed, I suspect it’s entirely possible that individual companies can secure the interest and trust brand advertisers on their own, converting them for the rest of the industry’s benefit. In Ken Doctor’s Hot Pod-beating column yesterday, National Public Media’s Bryan Moffett cited getting business from Fortune 100 brands brands like Wells Fargo, Dell, and Target. Doctor would further note that “six-figure ad buys, rare until recently, are now more commonplace.”

The question, of course, is whether those dollars, six figures and all, will stay in the industry over time.

Broader considerations. When I’ve written about this topic previously, I’ve often been asked: Why do podcast companies want brand advertisers in the first place? Generally speaking, brand advertising dollars tend to be much bigger and more reliably scheduled across a longer period in time than direct advertising dollars. That kind of money stabilizes — and catalyzes — advertising-driven media businesses. There’s also an element of prestige involved here, and the professionalizing layer of podcast companies are principally driven at this point in time to be accepted as part of the upper echelons of the media industry.

A followup question/thought experiment: Does the podcast ecosystem actually need brand advertisers to function as a legit industry? It’s worth some debate, but I’d argue they aren’t that essential. There’s an entirely plausible future where the podcast ecosystem runs on a rich marketplace of direct and local advertisers powered by dynamic ad insertion technology. That’s provided, of course, that more efficient ad marketplaces will develop somewhere down the line in order to facilitate greater transaction volumes. (And that don’t fully corrupt the advertising experience, preferably.)

There will always be products, services, and people looking for attention, and as such, there will likely always be potential (if hard-fought) dollars for podcast ad slots, whose unique value proposition in the advertising marketplace is that intimacy thing everybody talks about. (Unless, of course, Facebook continues to grow its power and scale as the attention-monster it is beyond all counterargument, in which case we should all just give up and go to welding school.)

But I will say that I think brand advertising dollars would make it substantially easier for podcast companies who aspire to be massive triple-A upper echelon institutions — equivalent to the Big Three labels in the music industry and the major studios in the film industry. Which we should probably follow by asking whether we actually want podcast companies that big in the first place — which is a fair question.

Talking Points Memo now has a podcast offering of its own. The influential left-leaning political news website is attempting the paywalled podcast method. Episodes of the interview-based podcast, called The Josh Marshall Show (named for the site’s founder), are automatically available to the site’s paying TPM Prime members; non-paying readers can buy individual episodes for $1 each off Podbean. A free version, which will feature highlights from the full interviews, will be available to non-members.

Earlier this summer, Marshall told Nieman Lab that its paid subscription arm stabilized the site’s overall business, citing a number of roughly 11,000 paying subscribers.

I’m personally not that much of a TPM consumer, but the rollout strategy is one that I think fits well with the way the site’s system of offerings is already set up: It increases the value of the membership system in a way that matches the podcast format’s capacity for depth with the paying subscriber’s demand for depth. Square peg, meet square hole.

A financial snapshot of an independent podcast. “I’d always heard that new restaurants take five years to show a profit. I have no idea if that’s true, but this was kind of the attitude we went into it with,” said Scott Philbrook. “From day one, we approached it like a business and not a hobby, but we had absolutely zero information on whether or not a podcast that wasn’t backed by a major network or some other corporation could be a viable business model.”

Philbrook is cohost of Astonishing Legends, a California-based podcast that bills itself as the “Click and Clack of esoterica,” its programming focus being strange historical events. Extensively researched, lovingly produced, and presented with the requisite amount of kitsch, the two-year-old show comes out of a rich tradition of podcasts — and media in general, I suppose — that trade in creepiness and pulp, finding kindred spirits in the Pacific Northwest Stories programs and Lore, plus whatever’s going on over at SyFy and the History channel.

It’s also an independent creative operation figuring out its terms of existence. Philbrook and Forrest Burgess, his creative partner and cohost, took some time in a recent episode to discuss the current state of their business:

We’re so grateful to have several hundred patrons pledging amounts from $1 a month all the way to $25, and we’re currently bringing in around $1,500 monthly from that. We’ve also managed to attract the attention of several sponsors and they are testing the waters with us to see if we’re a good investment for their advertising dollars. When you guys support them, they feel good about sponsoring the show. So with three to a max of four sponsors per episode and at the support we have from you on Patreon, our gross income has currently become roughly equivalent to a single person working an entry-level part-time job.

At a time when the more well-financed elements of the industry seek to earn legitimacy and scale from the top-down, Philbrook and Burgess’ discussion provides a window into the conditions of operators on the ground level. Curious, I reached out for more details, and Philbrook was kind enough to spent some time discussing the show’s approach and current financial makeup.

The note Philbrook sent was long and rich with detail, but this newsletter has some serious space constraints (ha), so I’m going to break this out into chunks focusing on the stuff that you can most tangibly use.

1. While the show is currently testing advertising possibilities (more on that in a bit), Patreon plays a huge role in the business. “It’s such a great way to connect with listeners and a lot of listeners really want to help the show out and that’s a way that’s convenient for them,” Philbrook said. All of that Patreon money, which adds up to about $1,500 a month, goes to paying their editor and sound designer. Their editor, Sarah Vorhees, is hired on a per-episode basis, and she charges the team an hourly rate.

“And we’re finally start getting some funds out to our sound designer as well, who’s been working for free from the beginning,” he added. “The money we’ve paid both of them is insulting, but they continue to be available for us for their own reasons. We are within striking distance of getting them their full rates, however.”

2. The show currently has an exclusive sponsorship representation deal with Audioboom, the U.K.-based podcast services company, to cover ad sales. Philbrook noted that they initially attempted to handle advertising directly by themselves, but eventually decided to outsource it, given their production workload. They’ve been represented by Audioboom for almost exactly a year now, and they also host their episodes on Audioboom’s platform.

While Philbrook declined to disclose specifics, he tells me that the show’s advertising revenue outpaces its Patreon haul. But he maintains that their advertising arrangements have been largely experimental, illustrating the difficulty of longer-term planning at this point in time. “We are so grateful to have advertisers, but the thing is when you start out, they are all testing their return on investment, so the sponsorship fees you’re collecting are not necessarily commensurate with your downloads or listens,” he said. “The idea is that if your sponsors see people responding to the live reads you’re doing on your show, and it proves to be a good investment for them, then they come back and you get closer to appropriate rates.”

3. The show currently averages 115,000 downloads per episode across its initial 45 days, the standard Audioboom uses to negotiate advertising. They report having over 4.8 million downloads across the whole catalog since moving over to Audioboom, with an additional 600,000 back when they were hosted on Libsyn.

4. The team also deals with a little merchandising, but they view it more as a way to connect with their listeners than an actual profit center. For one thing, Philbrook tells me, they’re not trading in high volumes, and what little profit they’re able to accrue is often canceled out by the amount of time they put into fulfillment.

5. Philbrook, a former editor of TV commercials, is the only person working on the show full-time, while his cohost Burgess still works a day-job. The production also involves work from a volunteer research group that involves over two dozen people and which formed organically out of the show’s fanbase.

“Our overall experience so far with podcasting has been absolutely amazing,” Philbrook said. “Will we survive indefinitely? It’s hard to know. We’re currently netting about 10 percent of what we think we’d need to be making to both be full time employees of Astonishing Legends and be able to pay members of our team fair rates for what they do for us. Can we get the other 90 percent? I guess we’ll find out.” (Hat tip to Erin M. for inspiring this segment.)

Bites:

  • Last week, I threw a good deal of reflexive shade on Apple’s AirPods announcement. I still think the name is ridiculous — though perhaps no more ridiculous than the word “podcast,” goodness — but I’m totally sold on the argument put forward by Slate’s Will Oremus that Apple’s new tech is an early iteration of an “ear computer,” which functions on a voice-to-cloud computing paradigm not unlike that of the Amazon Echo. (Slate)
  • “With a show that has a celebrity host that companies want to associate their brand with, you can get between $100 and $200 [CPM], which is amazing,” Pineapple Street Media’s Jenna Weiss-Berman tells Fast Company. However, a marketing executive at SeatGeek expressed some skepticism over the rates to me on Twitter. (Fast Company)
  • DGital Media, continuing its sports programming bent, is partnering with “collegiate marketing” company Learfield to produce a suite of college sports-related podcasts. (Press release)
  • NPR will nationally distribute WAMU’s The Big Listen, its podcast-curation radio show. That description was complicated to write. (Current)
  • Overcast, Marco Arment’s bespoke podcast app, tries out display advertising. (Marco.org)
  • Sound designer Shani Aviram and ARRVLS’ Jonathan Hirsch collaborated to make Liminal, a “small-batch” sound library and production house. (Liminal Audio)

Can a political podcast avoid being overtaken by events?

A design challenge for political podcasts. I’ve spilt a fair bit of ink on election-related podcasts over the past few weeks here on Hot Pod, and perhaps just as well: For any serious news media endeavor, the U.S. presidential elections is a fundamental reason for being, and for the professionalizing layer of the emerging podcast industry — desiring so much to be taken seriously — the elections present an opportunity to step up and prove its worth. (Particularly given this exceptionally bonkers cycle, lord help us.)

But I’d been planning to give it a rest today, because…oh I don’t know. I figured some variety in the A-slot is a good thing, and besides, there are always other summer concerns in Podcastland. Maybe I felt I needed a break, for fear of running out things to say. (The eternal dread of the columnist.) Maybe I did run out of things to say.

So thank goodness for Mother Jones editor-in-chief Clara Jeffery, who dropped a tweet last week that inspired a bout of head-nodding so hard I needed a neck brace and gave me my A-slot:

Political podcasts, particularly those of the conversational genre that publish on a weekly schedule, possess a peculiar kind of disposable value. Typically tethered to the state of the news cycle at the time of recording, they are often serve as a recap of the week: a place to catch up on the events of that specific seven-day stretch, and a space to reflect on their significance in the context of what has happened and what may happen in the days to come. With every episode, the discussion produces a model for the listener that helps guide their reading of the news, and like all models, they are forced into iteration by every future development. As a result, the discussion in those episodes — frozen as they are in time — exist with built-in half-lives; their value erodes, organically, as more new things happen.

It isn’t too difficult, then, to see how the breakneck rate of developments coming out of the Trump campaign has exponentially strained the value propositions of this podcast genre. (Say what you want about the Clinton campaign’s controversies — at least they adhere to classic media tempos.)

What we’re left with are episodes that get way too stale, way too quickly. Given that the weekly gabfest format is a staple among podcasts, that’s not great, and the extremes of this anomalous cycle have drawn more attention to the limitations of the on-demand audio channel — or, more accurately, the way on-demand audio is wielded at this point in time. (I felt those limitations most acutely last week, when both The Ringer’s Keepin’ It 1600 and the Slate Political Gabfest dedicated segments on former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort’s ties to Russia, only to have the issue rendered somewhat moot when Manafort announced his resignation the next day. I ended up skipping them and spent the next two hours hitting the blogroll.)

There are, I think, pretty clear pathways to solving this problem:

(1) Per Jeffery’s tweet, the most straightforward way would be to increase the frequency of the output, so rapid developments can be addressed at a faster rate and iterations can be made more aggressively. In other words, the move would be to make each episode more disposable but also more responsive to the news. We’ve seen this executed before in the way several political podcasts tackled the conventions by pushing out special daily episodes (I highlighted some of them in last week’s writeup), and some, like the NPR Politics podcast, have also made good use of shorter update episodes published throughout the week. We also see this play out in choices made by some podcasts — The Pollsters is a good example of this — to go twice-a-week by design.

(2) An alternative would be the opposite route: adjust the approach to handle topics more thematically and render each episode less disposable (that is, more evergreen) than its competitors. This isn’t a practical option at all for many of these shows — as it would mean fundamentally altering their long-established value propositions — but I’d still argue it’s something to consider. We see executions of these in the many shows that are primarily interview-driven, like First Look Media’s Politically Re-Active, and idea-driven, like The New York Times’ The Run-Up podcast, which also has the distinction of taking a more blended approach. You could also go Full Dickerson and pull a Whistlestop, but that’s taking it way too far.

(3) Here’s something more left-field for ya: Break the archives, throw the whole frozen-in-time nature of the podcast episode out the damn window, and update older episodes in the archives as further developments take place. Theoretically speaking, this is a feasible option, given the possibilities afforded by dynamic ad insertion. Since we live in a world where podcast ads can be pretty easily swapped out of audio files to prevent them from getting stale and valueless, can’t we apply similar principles to the actual show itself? (Imagine if you could take all the energy and innovation focused on ads in the world, and apply it elsewhere.) Anyway, just a thought.

Jeffery also served up one more request that producers should consider: “More weekly podcasts should drop at beginning or middle of week. They bunch up!”

This, too, I heartily agree with.

Recode on the hunt. Recode, the tech-industry news arm of Vox Media, is on the lookout for an executive producer for podcasts and audio. Dan Frommer, the site’s editor-in-chief, tells me that Recode has been “editorially and financially successful” with their early podcasting efforts — stretched out across four shows — and that this hire is a move to formalize audio as a key part of their product offering. Frommer expects to launch at least two new shows, including one “that will feature significantly more ambitious, original audio journalism.”

I’ve expressed my admiration for the site’s podcast operations in the past, but I’ve always had a sense that they were starting gambits — both for the team and their parent company, Vox Media. Frommer suggests that this is very much case, noting that this move is “an early sign of things to come from Vox on the audio front.” Fascinating.

For reference, keep in mind that Vox Media’s other properties also have podcast experiments of their own, including: Vox.com’s partnership with Panoply to produce The Weeds and The Ezra Klein Show, The Verge’s Ctrl+Walt+Delete and What’s Tech? (among others), Eater’s Upsell, and Polygon’s eclectic suite of podcasts from the daily update show Minimap to the voiced features experiment Polygon Longform. It’s a bit of an unruly empire, and I suspect some sort of consolidation — whatever that means — might be in order if Vox Media is going to formalize its audio efforts across the board.

If that were to happen, and I’m just spit-balling here, the question would be the role that podcast networks will continue to play in that future configuration. To my knowledge, Vox Media works with two networks, DGital Media for Recode and Panoply for Vox.com, and in a podcast interview with Digiday’s Brian Morrissey back in June, Vox Media president Marty Moe explained the company’s relationship with networks as follows:

We’re using [podcast networks], but we’re selling directly, and that’s in part having to educate our sales teams about the advantages of podcasting and how to reach consumers best with brand messages, how to create the best kind of advertising. But we also work with networks because there’s just not enough direct selling right now to fill all of the opportunity.

Depending on how things look on the sales side at this point in time, I imagine these network partnerships may persist for a while. But given that no one has much of a handle over podcast distribution (just yet), one imagines that the value of these largely ad-sales-driven network partnerships may well be drawn into question over time — particularly as Vox Media gets savvier handling podcast ad sales themselves.

Anyway, parties interested in the Recode job should check out the job posting, or hit up Frommer himself.

A broadcast partnership. Missed this earlier, but it’s worth tracking: Last week, the satellite radio company SiriusXM announced that it will now broadcast the Yahoo Sports-affiliated Vertical Podcast Network, a stable of three personality-driven shows that are produced by New York-based DGital Media. The podcasts will air every weekday in a 3 p.m. ET slot (that’ll rotate between the three shows) on a few SiriusXM channels, along with in the SiriusXM app. Broadcast began last Monday.

This is the point in the writeup where I draw upon some historical context and note that this isn’t the first podcast property to find distribution over SiriusXM. You can find another example in Neil deGrasse Tyson’s popular Star Talk podcast, which was picked up last January for distribution over SiriusXM Insight, the channel within the satellite radio company’s offerings that focuses on “entertaining informative talk.” (A category that, interestingly enough, includes The Takeaway, the public radio program produced by PRI, WGBH, and WNYC. (I did not know about this partnership earlier, and finding this out brings new weight to the This American Life-WBAA dispute over the former’s Pandora partnership back in May.)

Similarly, this is also the point in the story where I’d raise examples of parallel partnerships between podcast shops and other more broadcast-esque platforms, like the aforementioned one between This American Life and Pandora, or one that saw iHeartRadio, the Internet radio streaming platform company, forming distribution partnerships with Libsyn and NPR.

And I happily bring up both those threads because they tug at a trend that I’ve been tracking for a while: an impending structural convergence and reorientation of what we talk about when we talk about on-demand audio. I last revisited that idea as recently as last month, and I’m going to re-up the same passage from my original analysis in March that I recycled for that July column:

For what it’s worth, I’m fairly certain that, with its liberation from an infra-structurally imposed definition, the word “podcast” will lose all of its original meaning by the end of the calendar year. My sense is that it will likely become an identifier for a certain corner of a reconstituted landscape of all non-music audio content that’s created and distributed digitally. It’s a scope that will not only include the new podcasting companies of the last year or so, public radio, and digital media companies developing new audience development channels in the audio space…but also commercial radio powers, streaming and Internet radio companies like iHeartMedia and SiriusXM, and community radio infrastructures.

And here’s the concern I trumpeted in July:

Implicit in these hypotheses is an understanding that the core assumptions that make up the economics of the industry — the high CPMs relative to other audio and digital formats, the “intimate,” “opt-in,” and “highly engaged” narrative points in podcasting’s value propositions, and so on — will be fundamentally altered, and the onus should be on podcasting companies to both craft a new, evolved narrative as well as develop more involved methods of ad verification and impact assessments.

Anyway, this SiriusXM business also sees the Vertical Podcast Network becoming the first partner within the DGital Media portfolio, which also includes the Recode and UFC podcasts, to have its distribution expanded to include broadcast on top of its on-demand audio channel.

I asked Chris Corcoran, the company’s chief content officer, whether broadcast distribution will be a standard value proposition brought to the other clients within DGital Media’s portfolio. “What I will say is that we have wonderful partners who are always aligned in thinking the same way, which is finding new ways to grow the audience,” Corcoran said. “From there, we figure out what makes since with each partner, respectively.” Cool.

Relevant: Missed this last month but keep tabs on this: “Pandora wants to add more podcasts to grow listening hours.” (Variety) In June, Lizzie Wilhelm, Pandora’s SVP of ad product sales and strategy, told the Hivio conference that the company was “pleased” with their partnership with This American Life.

Sound design, explained to me. While the past two years have yielded an absolute bumper crop of podcasts, it doesn’t quite feel like there has been a proportional increase in the specific kind of podcast that leans heavily on sound design to shape narrative experiences — which, quite frankly, is what drew me, and I suspect many others, to the iTunes page in the first place.

But what, exactly, do I mean when I say sound design? ((Note: When I refer to “sound design,” I don’t mean it to be synonymous with “high production value.” One thing does not automatically lead to the other, I’m fully aware, no more than using black-and-white in student film theses. (Hours I will never get back.) Nor do I necessarily equate narrative podcasts with high production values either, or orient them in my head such that they outranks conversational podcasts in quality or value. Though I suffer from many illusions, I don’t suffer from that one in particular.)) My own understanding of the concept is fuzzy, despite my irresponsible, sweeping characterization here. I mean, I have some idea of how it feels — a sense of atmosphere, some gestures toward the “cinematic” — but what does actually it entail, and how does it tangibly differ from the skill-set exercised by your standard audio producer? I asked around.

“A sound designer is responsible for creating the sonic world of a piece, the space the story inhabits,” said Mira Burt-Wintonick, a sound artist who most recently worked on CBC’s Love Me podcast. (Her credits also include Wiretap). “A good producer and music supervisor will think about sound elements as well, of course, but a sound designer’s role is to make sure all those elements are all working together to create a unique aural space that envelops the listener and evokes the desired moods…Sound design is the difference between a two-dimensional image and a three-dimensional world.”

But sound design doesn’t have to be allocated to a specific role within the production process — more often than not, it’s another task to be handled by the assigned producer. “I like to think that being a sound designer is partly just a frame of mind,” notes Brendan Baker, who produces and sound designs Love + Radio. (His freelance credits include The Message and Invisibilia.) “Producers already are sound designers in some sense, it’s just a matter of how much time and attention you spend thinking about how your editorial and sonic choices have emotional or cognitive effects on your listeners.”

Both Baker and Burt-Wintonick draw great emphasis to sound design as an integral layer to the entire production process, as opposed to an add-on that happens in post-production. Baker tells me that, from his experience, he feels like way too many folks in the space consider scoring and sound design at the end of the entire production process. “I always encourage people to involve sound designers as early in the process as possible (ideally from the very start) to make the most effective work,” he said. “If I can replace the words with sound, it usually make the overall piece feel more streamlined and poetic.”

Burt-Wintonick presses the point more bluntly. “Sound design is what gives your podcast a reason to exist,” she said. “If you’re not thinking about sound design, why isn’t the story just a print piece?”

Bites:

  • A few weeks ago, I wrote briefly about ESPN’s new multi-platform project, Pin/Kings, which kicks off its run as a podcast. CJR has a neat writeup digging deeper into the multiplatform approach, and contextualizes it within a broader spectrum of previous attempts at journalistic multiplatform approaches — including a collaboration between Mother Jones and the Reveal podcast. (CJR)
  • Gimlet expects to “exceed its 2015 revenue of $2.2 million by ‘multiples’ this year,” according to Digiday’s Max Willens. I’d take their word for it, given that Gimlet has been consistently good at articulating their performance in a way that doesn’t fluff the numbers — a trait that isn’t all that common in the space, quite frankly. (Digiday)
  • Earwolf does the obviously-smart-thing-to-do-in-2016 and launches a Hamilton-related podcast. The Room Where It’s Happening, hosted by comedy writers Travon Free and Mike Drucker, takes listeners on a “song-by-song journey through the biggest musical of all time.” This isn’t the first Hamilton-related podcast in existence, of course; I mean, how can it be? Other entries in the genre include: The Incomparable’s Pod4Ham and The Hamilcast. (iTunes)
  • WNYC Studio’s Freakonomics Radio has a spinoff in the works: Tell Me Something I Don’t Know, a new live event and podcast that comes out of a partnership with The New York Times. (Freakonomics)

Quick note: Next week’s Hot Pod will be published on Thursday, September 1, and not in its usual Tuesday slot. See you then!

A new player aims to bring the podcast advertising analytics some want (and others fear)

Art19 steps into the spotlight. “We’re not really pulling ourselves out of beta,” said Sean Carr, cofounder and CEO of Art19, a California-based tech startup that’s built a podcast hosting, monetization, and distribution platform. “We’re just ready to make some noise and draw attention to ourselves.”

And you should, indeed, pay attention.

Art19 organized a small press push last week, which comes after a long period of relative quiet for the company. The messaging in the push included a good amount of detail illustrating the company’s technological proposition to the podcast industry: the foundational elements for a shift away from the industry’s download count-oriented, RSS feed-driven paradigm towards one that focuses its counts on whether an ad within a download or stream has been initiated, consumed, or skipped by a listener — what Carr refers to as listener telemetry, a term he emphasized when we spoke over the phone last week.

And what are the foundational elements that make up that new paradigm? “To start with, we’re offering embeddable players and, more importantly, APIs that are public so that both our partners and third-party consumer apps can connect to us,” Carr said, laying out a vision of the future where more data would be flowing with greater freedom throughout the podcast ecosystem. He quickly added: “But to be clear: We won’t be using that data. We’re a SaaS [software as a service] company.”

The company’s push towards an API-connected listening orientation is, in my mind, more or less what much of the professionalizing layer of the podcast community — from bigger networks to advertisers to agencies — have been asking for when they lament about the medium’s measurability woes: greater means to look into the consumption behavior around an episode, and therefore greater capacity to cultivate trust and buy-in from more advertisers.

(Conversely, it’s also precisely what much of the podcasts-as-extension-of-the-free-web have been arguing against, fearing the platform control that often happens when a piece of technology emerges that potentially grants more power to bigger entities. I’ve always been of the position that technological developments are inevitable, and that the discourse should always be focused on cultivating better regulation structures and a new system of balance instead of attempting to limit such developments.)

But of course, for Art19’s gambit to work, the company would need to secure the trust and participation of a critical mass of partners — including publishers, agencies, advertisers, and distributors, among others — in order to build a coalition that would work to actually shift the paradigm across the industry. Indeed, while there’s a general hunger to move away from RSS feeds and download counts as the standard, there will always be the problem of inertia (e.g. “we’ve been making buys and allocating budgets this way for a while now”) and, more pressingly, there will always be the problem of politics. One imagines that Art19’s competitors — including but not limited to Libsyn, Panoply’s Megaphone, PRX’s Dovetail, Triton Digital’s Tap, and Acast — would want to be the anchor of any such paradigm shift themselves — or, at the very least, for no one to be the anchor, perhaps through some open-sourced alternative.

And so it’s crucial to examine the key allies that the company has secured. At this time, Art19’s major clients include: (1) Wondery, the L.A.-based podcast network recently started by the former CEO and president of Fox International Channels; (2) DGital Media, the network that produces podcasts for Recode, Yahoo’s The Vertical, Fortune, and the UFC, among others; and perhaps most crucially, (3) Midroll Media, which is currently in the process of moving its entire Earwolf network onto the platform and will now be pitching Art19 as its preferred platform to its wide range of ad sales clients. The company is also expected to make a few more major partnership announcements by the end of this month.

The company also appears to have a strong ally in the agency world in the form of Ogilvy & Mather, the well-known advertising agency that’s part of the WPP network. Teddy Lynn, the agency’s chief creative officer for content and social, has been involved in Art19’s press push. “I’ve been working with Sean for many, many years,” Lynn told me. “What I can say: For close to a decade, podcasting has been a very rudimentary ad unit that one can buy. And I think Art19 is advancing the medium to a place where media buyers would feel comfortable buying.” An AdExchanger article further notes that Art19’s platform design was designed with agency input, and that’s something that shouldn’t be discounted.

Art19 will likely be served well by its twin alliances with Midroll and Ogilvy. As one of the bigger players in the space, Midroll has deeper pockets following its acquisition by Scripps, and its expansionist sensibilities should make them as strong advocate for Art19’s technological vision in the marketplace over the long run. And in Ogilvy, Art19 has an advocate for legitimacy in the agency world, which is key to unlock the next level of advertising dollars for the medium.

But the question is whether that’s enough, and who else Art19 is able to bring into its vision: more publishers, the right podcast distributors and apps, the critical mass of advertisers. And of course, whether the company will be able to ward off coalitions formed by other sectors of the industry, whether it comes from another hosting platform — or from something else entirely.

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A new model for branded content? Slate launched a new podcast last week, Placemakers, that’s a bit of a complicated beast to explain. On the surface, it’s a show about urban revitalization, with host Rebecca Sheir traveling across the country, reporting out city-specific stories on the subject. Sheir is a public radio veteran who has served at NPR, WAMU, and the Alaska Public Radio Network.

But the podcast is also the product of a branded content partnership with JPMorgan Chase, the multinational banking organization. The bank is underwriting the show’s 18 editorial episodes — which, I’m told, are completely produced by the Slate editorial team — and is directly involved with three additional sponsored episodes, which will tell JPMorgan Chase-centered stories about urban revitalization in Detroit, Seattle, and New Orleans. Those three branded episodes are produced by the Panoply Custom team, the unit within Panoply, Slate’s sister podcasting company, that’s in charge of building out branded podcasts for clients. That team’s portfolio includes Purina’s DogSmarts, Umpqua Bank’s Open Account, and most notably, the audio sci-fi drama The Message, which came out of a collaboration with GE.

“The project came about from both the editorial and advertising sides having a shared passion about the revitalization of urban cities,” said Keith Hernandez, president of Slate, when we spoke last week. “[Slate editor-in-chief] Julia Turner was really excited about the subject, and when we brought it to the JPMorgan Chase team we figured out that they were really excited about it too.”

Serendipitous as it may be, the long-running concern of a show like this — one where it’s not all that easy to tell at what point the Slate voice ends and the JPMorgan Chase one begins, given how complicatedly blended the two actors are within the larger project — is how the line between editorial and advertorial is established and communicated. This concern reared its voluminous head again just last week, when the Online Trust Association released a report that found that 71 percent of native ads that appeared on the homepages of the top 100 news websites were providing inadequate disclosures and transparencies that help audience make the distinction between an ad and an editorial content. (The report also instigated a fascinating and feisty Twitter joust between Current’s Adam Ragusea and On The Media’s Bob Garfield.) No such report has been conducted yet for on-demand audio, but it goes without saying that this issue stretches across all mediums that are involved in the possible production of journalistic content.

Which raised to me the question: How exactly will Placemakers illustrate that line for listeners?

“There’s going to be a different host for the three sponsored episodes,” Hernandez replied. “We want this to be clear and evident that these are special episodes. There are also going to be, ahead of time, midroll and post-roll announcements within the episodes that custom episodes are coming.”

Hernandez also suggested that Placemakers is an early prototype of a new branded content model: one that involves the production of branded spinoffs from a pre-existing show. “Brands are moving away from an idea of themselves as a bland corporate entity…they want something deeper than a brand logo. I think this is just the beginning of a longer trend, of brands digging deeper into ideas and building relationships with the publishing community,” Hernandez said. “And I think this Placemakers model is scalable: How do we take existing shows and find an interesting spinoff that could be dedicated to a brand and leverage the sensibility of those shows?”

Of course, the “pre-existing” show in this case had to be made contemporaneously with the branded campaign, but the proposition here stands. (Also worth noting: This notion of a branded spinoff shares some structural similarity to the My Brother, My Brother and Me’s bonus episode sponsored by Totino’s Pizza Rolls, which I wrote about back in May.)

When I asked about the size of the deal — whether it was larger than previous Custom partnerships — Hernandez declined to comment, understandably. But he did answer my question about JPMorgan Chase’s expectation for the campaign, calling it an “evolving conversation” and one that respects the experimental nature of the project. Hernandez also tells me that the campaign will be playing around with on-site and off-site promotion, including a popup website, native ad units on the Slate website, and paid units on social (not unlike what they’ve been running with Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History).

Before signing off, I asked Hernandez how Panoply was doing on the whole. Understandably, again, he express immense optimism around the company’s position, and in particular, the potential of Megaphone, its CMS platform. “Megaphone is going to be a game-changer,” he said.

(Disclaimer: Panoply used to be my day-job employer, way back when.)

For The New York Times, a politics podcast of its own. Called The Run Up, the show is hosted by Times national political reporter Michael Barbaro and will cover this long, painful, brain-melting American presidential election cycle as its trundles through its final three months. (Hence, the name.) According to the PR email I received about the launch, the podcast will release new episodes twice a week and will serve listeners with “engaging conversations around the 2016 election and keep them up to speed about what happened (and what might happen),” with some key interviews thrown in here and there. From that description, it doesn’t seem like The Run Up will differ very much from other elections podcasts as far as structure is concerned, which suggests that the major differentiator between podcasts in this genre lies within the nexus of the analysis, access to key interviews, and discussion quality more broadly.

But thinking this through a little further, I’m wont to wonder: Just how much can you stretch this particular genre in terms of form and structure? And how much of that stretching is actually necessary to create a strong enough hook, or develop a genuinely novel value proposition, for new audiences? I’m tempted to credit BuzzFeed’s No One Knows Anything with legitimately attempting a new hook — that is, trying to keep a distance from the horse-race coverage and working to tell broader stories about the election, while aiming at a demographic that’s less bought into the cycle — but 23 episodes in, the show as a whole does seem to feel very much a part of the larger plethora of elections podcasts that we’ve seen to date, at least to my ears. (Though if I’m pressed to identify a show that’s done a good job providing a genuinely novel value proposition, I’d point to the tight set of election-related episodes in Scott Carrier’s Home of the Brave, which has been stringing together on-the-ground missives that have been furiously visceral, constantly surprising, and often terrifying.)

Anyway, I’m reminded that this is the Times’ first podcast rollout since bringing on WBUR’s Lisa Tobin as the organization’s new executive producer for audio; she started work just last month. I was also able to find out that this podcast is being produced completely in-house, and not as the product of an external partnership like Modern Love, which is a collaboration with WBUR, and the now-defunct Ethicists podcast, which was produced with Panoply. For those keeping tabs at home, the organization is slated to produce a show with Pineapple Street Media, which we’ll probably be treated to sometime in the near future.

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Multi-story. This is interesting: ESPN is currently in the middle of a new multi-platform initiative that “could be a model for future storytelling at the sports network,” according to The Hollywood Reporter. The initiative, called Pin Kings, is a documentary narrative that follows the story of two former high school wrestling teammates that go on to be on different sides of the East Coast drug war.

The first phase of the initiative is a 16-episode podcast miniseries that drops new episodes every weekday. At this writing, we’re on episode 7, and the narrative is being unfolded through a mixture of host narrations — which are done by Brett Forrest, the reporter who has been working on this story for over a year, and producer Jon Fish — and subject interviews. The podcast will lead up to a one-hour primetime television special that’ll broadcast on ESPN2 August 22, which will then be followed by a big print feature on the August 26 issue of ESPN the Magazine.

Personally, I’m curious how all the platforms will complement one another in terms of audience development and management: How will audiences be aggregated across the different platforms, and how will they be monetized? Which leads us to a broader question: What level of monetization would make a podcast-involved multiplatform initiative like this worth it for ESPN, a massive and principally TV-driven operation (though not for long, possibly)? That’s a question, I believe, that’s a perfectly relevant query for all other major media organizations dabbling in podcast-land.

Bites:

    • “SoundCloud owners said to mull $1 billion sale of music service.” Pretty speculative article, but it’s worth monitoring this potential development if you’ve been relying on the service for revenue in any way. (Bloomberg)
  • “How NPR marketed the second season of its hit podcast Invisibilia.” Number to watch: The podcast has currently achieved 10 million downloads, according to the report, which is lower than the first season’s tally of 50 million downloads. Of course, these numbers are difficult to discern without an apples-to-apples time period, which we’re not given, and the report further notes that NPR has changed how it counts downloads in order to minimize the possibility of duplicate counts. (Digiday)
  • Podtrac’s July podcast publisher ranking report shows a lineup that’s virtually unchanged since June, with NPR holding the top spot ahead of WNYC Studios and This American Life. Though, as RAIN News notes, the report observed a 5 percent increase in unique streams and downloads this month compared to last. As always, the usual disclaimers about the ranker apply. (Podtrac, RAIN News)
  • The Guardian’s new interactive for the Rio Olympics: Pokémon Go meets Detour/walking tours. You knew it had to happen. (The Guardian)
  • Saavn, a New York-based digital distributor of primarily Bollywood and Indian regional audio entertainment, announced a new set of original spoken word programming last week. Keep an eye on this company, and keep an eye on India. (Yahoo Finance)
  • “When will YouTube deal with its audiobook and podcast piracy problem?” Yeah, YouTube. When are you gonna do dat. (Observer)

Yay Olympics.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Revisionist History drops its first full episode on June 16.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bites:

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

Serial finishes season 2, and The New York Times, ESPN, and Digg all bet on podcasts

The New York Times builds a pod squad. Nieman Lab covered this pretty comprehensively last week, and you should definitely check out their writeup for the full skinny, but here are the highlights as I see them:

  • The paper of record is assembling a new audio unit to develop a slate of “news and opinion” shows. It hopes to roll out throughout the rest of the year and into 2017. The exact number of shows to be launched is unclear.
  • Some staffing details for this new unit: Samantha Henig is editorial director, Kelly Alfieri is executive director of special editorial projects, and Diantha Parker is editor and senior audio producer. Pedro Rosado and Catrin Einhorn will also be audio producers in the unit. Local podcast rabble-rouser Adam Davidson, who is also a columnist for The New York Times Magazine, will serve as an adviser.
  • Some info on the long-term strategy, from an internal Times memo about the new unit: “The plan is to pursue a two-fold strategy: to launch a handful of shows with outside partners which, like Modern Love, have a strong prospect of quickly attracting a wide audience; and then use those shows as a platform from which we can build audience for shows produced within The Times that are as integral to our coverage as our live events and visual journalism efforts.” Delicious.

So, what is the significance of this development? In my mind, the distinction lies in the scale (and gumption, frankly) surrounding the design of the Times’ new audio unit: its staff size and density, show rollout expectations, intent on meaningful revenue, and scope of ambition in terms of aesthetic and goals.

As anybody shouting “bubble!” will tell you, many publications are currently dabbling in podcasts; some successfully, others less so. A big part of the strategy for networks like Panoply and DGital Media involves them serving as intermediaries for publishers, shouldering significant chunks of the creative, production, strategic, and monetization burden for partners. And for many of these arrangements, it’s not exactly “plug and play,” but it’s fairly close.

Such partnerships provide reduce publishers’ risk, as startup costs are relatively low and they don’t have to personally invest much resources into infrastructure and talent that may be difficult to shed should their audio strategy burst into flames. It’s a solid, conservative strategy, but the tradeoff here is that there’s a ceiling to what publishers can achieve in these arrangements — creatively (given the limitation on dedicated resources), monetarily (given that the responsibilities are largely shouldered by the partner network), and even from a brand perspective (given that there’s a limit to how unique you can sound when you share a network’s production infrastructure, sensibility, and possibly template with other publishing competitors).

By choosing to build a team in-house and diving face-first into audio (and not for the first time), the Times is eschewing that relatively conservative route for a more aggressive and robust podcast strategy, one that sees the paper essentially doubling down on its ability to determine an aural aesthetic that will result in a better payoff. As the internal memo indicates, that strategy does not necessarily preclude partnerships; it just suggests that they demand more from those partnerships. In these arrangements, networks (or public radio stations) would be required to serve more as collaborator than intermediary, more partner-in-crime than outsource factory. We saw the fundamentals of this with the company’s enormously successful Modern Love podcast — which launched in January, currently draws over 300,000 downloads a week, and comes out of an involved partnership with WBUR.

This is all a reflection of the basic dynamics of risk and reward: The more you’re willing to risk by pouring more resources into the strategy, the more control you’re going to have over shaping the outcome of that strategy, and the more reward — from all corners — you stand to gain from it. As the adage goes, you don’t get a win unless you play in the game.

One more thing: The announcement of the unit was accompanied by a pretty gorgeous job posting for an executive producer. From the looks of the job description, they’re looking for a veteran to quarterback the team both creatively and operationally.

I’ll be taking bets on who they end up hiring, and what shows they end up rolling out. HMU.

Related: shooting up a flare just hours after the Times job posting went live, the other paper of record The Washington Post announced on its PR blog that its Presidential podcast has topped 1 million downloads on iTunes since launching in January. The post further mentioned that “more than 100,000 listeners download the podcast each week,” not including folks who listen right off the Post’s site.

I’m all about that Gray Lady-WaPo rivalry, and I’m psyched it’ll play out on the audio front too.

On strategy. Speaking of podcast strategy, you should totally check out Adam Davidson’s recent Medium post that refined and expanded his critique on that very subject as it pertains to NPR. There’s quite a bit to absorb from it, but I’d like to note two quick things:

  • Davidson’s post contains a bunch of specific prescriptions, but here’s how I interpret the fundamentals of his critique: that the organization’s process of developing podcasts is more chaotic than not, that the pace of new podcast launches is way too slow, and that both of these things come out from an ecosystem-wide podcast strategy that’s lacking in coherence, vision, scale, enthusiasm, and intent.
  • A constructive question, at this point: What, exactly, makes a podcast strategy? Seems like a simple question with an obvious answer, but I think it’s actually pretty complex. I find it helpful to think about it, above all things, in terms of goals and intent: What do we want to achieve with podcasts a year from now, and what should we do to get there? Within this framework, you can sort of begin to see the source of Davidson’s frustration: It’s probably unclear to him what NPR wants its podcast operation to look like a year from now, and when you contextualize that against the larger trends in the industry — trends that distinctly flow towards digital — you can reasonably understand why the NPR alum is unnerved. For the record, the organization’s goals on that front are pretty unclear to me too, and I spend a lot time staring into the transom. Also worth noting is the fact that it’s entirely possible there is a coherent internal strategy, and it’s just not being well communicated. In which case, the possible counterargument is: What’s the point of communicating what we’re doing right as long as we’re doing it right? To that I say: positive messaging is important for internal morale, external recruitment, and the faith of the public radio random!

By the way: The first episode of Embedded was great! It felt really raw and illustrative, and it projected a sense of place really, really well. Gonna hold my judgment until we’re a couple more episodes in, so stay tuned.

Related: NPR has finally revamped its audio player, eschewing the popup player route for a snazzier, smoother in-browser experience. The player, which now rests persistently on the right side of the site, is designed to allow users to flow seamlessly between local member station streams and NPR’s own content made available on-demand.

The revamp also affords new digital sponsorship formats, including podcast-specific matchups and multimedia mobile slots. Cool stuff.

Also, the great Linda Holmes of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour on NPR One.

Serial closes its second season. And just like that, it’s over. Last Thursday, the wildly popular This American Life spinoff published the final episode of its ambitious second season, which throughout its run had unambiguously moved beyond the first season’s local true crime scope and took on the subject of Bowe Bergdahl.

The season drew strong numbers. Entertainment Weekly reported that the second season had surpassed 50 million downloads going into Thursday’s final episode. Kristen Taylor, Serial’s community editor, confirmed those numbers, further noting that each episode had consistently enjoyed around 3 million downloads on its launch week throughout the season.

While the show’s numbers were not altogether surprising given the now-legendary response to the first season, it did strike me as incongruous with what feels like a relatively tepid critical response. I asked Taylor how the team has felt about the reception this season, and whether I’m erroneously reading my conception of hype or buzz as some approximation of critical response. “The second season is a really different type of story, and of course the field is in a different place than last year — what you’re seeing in the number is the dark social, the growing audience listening and writing to us and talking to each other privately,” said Taylor.

“The team is damn proud of the season,” she added.

Details are slim on the show’s third season, though a followup EW interview with Sarah Koenig and Julie Snyder suggests that we shouldn’t expect it anytime soon. The two also mentioned that they were “also looking into other projects, and other shows that are not Serial, but Serial-adjacent.”

ESPN does “longform” audio. The Disney-owned sports media empire flexed its audio muscles today, launching a five-part audio documentary series called Dunkumentaries. In case the word “dunk” means nothing to you, or if you’re one of those people who ducks behind the word “sports ball,” the series is a collection of stories all about the sport of basketball.

Radiotopia fans might find the project familiar: Back in February, ESPN and the 99% Invisible team collaborated for an episode called The Yin and Yang of Basketball about the sport’s invention and the design problem that came out from its initial conception. The Dunkumentaries podcast feed went live around the same time that episode was published, back in February.

Dunkumentaries comes out of ESPN Audio, and its being billed as the unit’s “first longform podcast” — signaling a trendy expansion in offerings for an operation that’s long favored talk radio fare like Jalen & Jacoby and audio-only versions of television broadcasts like Pardon the Interruption. The documentary will feature a rather unconventional ad integration with SeatGeek (a growing staple in sport podcast advertising), according to the Hollywood Reporter. Instead of a conventional host read, the campaign will involve a serialized story spread out across the five episodes’ pre-rolls.

The series was published in its entirety this morning, using a tactic last adopted by Panoply with its Pregnancy Confidential podcast. (The so-called binge method was also partially adopted by American Public Media’s Codebreaker podcast, albeit as part of a larger transmedia project.)

Episodes are on the short-side in podcast terms, ranging between 12 to 20 minutes.

Digg dabbles in podcasts. The social curation site (and erstwhile Reddit competitor) launched a podcast project yesterday, and it’s part of a fascinating piece of multimedia journalism. What The Hell Happened In East New York? is a four-part podcast series, hosted by Sports Illustrated’s Alexander Abnos, that follows journalist Kevin Heldman as he investigates East New York’s status as one of the worst neighborhoods in the country. It’s…a little hard to provide a more substantial explanation of the podcast without diminishing one of its core hooks, but I will say that it’s vaguely Sherlock Holmesian in the sense that it presents Heldman as a character in a larger narrative.

Much like Dunkumentaries, the whole series was published simultaneously (noticing a trend, anyone?), and the project culminates this Friday with the publication of Heldman’s investigation as a feature on the Digg website. The project is a co-production with The Big Roundtable, the narrative nonfiction site founded by Columbia Journalism School professor Michael Shapiro.

This isn’t Digg’s first involvement with podcasts. In the past, the site has partnered with podcasts like Reply All and The Sporkful to package their episodes with rather lovely visuals and extensive writeups before serving them to the Digg readership through its various channels. But this is Digg’s first direct editorial involvement with an audio project, expanding on the original editorial work they’ve previously done for text features and video.

“I couldn’t be more pleased with how the project came out,” Anna Dubenko, Digg’s editorial director, told me over email. “There were moments where we were all nervous about how it would come together — there were so many moving parts…that we wondered if it would be too confusing for our readers. But, as we’re seeing in this first day of promotion, people get what the project is about and, I think, like the fact that we’re trying something with multimedia approach. More than anything, I think people appreciate that we’re not trying to do something gimmicky with audio, but really trying to honor the medium.”

When I asked if we should more audio stuff coming out of Digg in the future, Dubenko replied: “YES to more projects! Specifically with The Big Roundtable.” Fabulous.

Wonk. I spoke with Atlantic Media Strategies’ Jim Walsh the other day about the state of the podcast industry and where it’s going, and Walsh published a cleaned up transcript of our conversation over on the AMS’ Digital Index blog. It should be stated that Walsh’ efforts to transcribe and string together my chaotic, unstructured rambles made up almost exclusively of run-in sentences are nothing less than heroic, and that upon reading the article for the first time, I have swiftly concluded that I am, indeed, an insane person.

Relevant bits:

  • Here’s a sweet spinoff coming out of the HBO-Bill Simmons partnership: The Watch’s Chris Ryan and Andy Greenwald will host a weekly Game of Thrones recap show on Mondays which will be distributed through HBO Now, HBO Go, and HBO On-Demand. WATCH THE THRONES. (The Ringer)
  • SoundCloud rolled out its new subscription streaming product, dubbed SoundCloud Go, last Tuesday. The new feature pushes the company more directly in competition with existing streaming companies like Spotify and Apple Music. The future of its status as the go-to free audio hosting platform, which has made it popular with budding podcasters, remains unclear. (The Verge)
  • Speaking of Spotify, the Swedish streaming company raises a billion in debt financing. (Wall Street Journal)
  • PodcastOne, the Adam Carolla-centered network led by Norm Pattiz, launched its own premium subscription play. From the press release, it appears that much of the network’s archives will be stored behind the paywall. Priced at $7.99 a month. (All Access)
  • Distribution responsibilities for On Being to shift from American Public Media to PRX. (Current)

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Is the next front in podcast innovation hardware?

Show business and Art19. The news broke last week that 21st Century Fox, one of the Murdoch empire’s many tentacles, has invested in an upcoming podcast network called Wondery. The network is headed up by one Hernan Lopez, who was the CEO of Fox International Channels until recently, when the corporation’s globally focused programming unit was restructured out of existence.

The size of Fox’s investment is unclear, though you can draw your own conclusions from a Bloomberg report stating the network “has more than $1 million to work with,” a sum that reportedly comes from both the investment and Lopez’s own money. What exactly will make up Wondery’s future content offerings is anybody’s guess, with The Hollywood Reporter offering broad strokes that the network will “create and curate original, scripted, and unscripted programming.” I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that “curate” is roughly a synonym for content acquisition, so if there are any podcasters out in the audience, ready your pitches.

One thing you should note about Wondery is its partnership with California-based tech company Art19, which Variety notes will help the network with “distribution infrastructure and dynamic ad insertion.” Yep, dynamic ad insertion — it’s a direct competitor to Acast, Panoply, and the solutions currently adopted by public radio stations like WNYC and WBEZ that we often discuss in this column.

Long-time podcast watchers will know that Art19 has been around for a while. (There’s a handy Daily Dot article from 2012 that serves as a great snapshot of the company at the time.) Art19 is responsible for powering pods like those coming out of the Feral Audio network — home of Harmontown! — and DGital Media‘s Comedy Voices Network.

The company was founded in 2011, when it envisioned itself as an end-to-end services provider offering everything from ad sales support to distribution. “When we first designed this company, we thought we had to do everything,” Art19 co-founder and CEO Sean Carr told me. This was a function of there simply being not enough players attacking other problems in the space around the same time. It’s hard to focus on a specific problem when there’s no ecosystem of effort to begin with.

In recent years, as more money and more companies flowed into the space, Art19 began to focus on being a technology company. Its core product involves publishing tools akin to Soundcloud and LibSyn, which will allow — as we’ve discussed — for dynamic ad insertion and ad-serving technology reminiscent of AdsWizz.

Eventually, the company plans to take on measurement and discovery. With regard to the former, Carr referred to shifting podcasting out of RSS feeds and into API-connected services, and talked a bit about something his team is calling “Art19DB,” or the IMDB for audio. There’s quite a bit to this, but I’ll let your imagination roam free here for now.

So that’s Art19, a technology that I’ve long overlooked but shouldn’t have. I have a feeling we’re going to hear quite a bit from them in the months to come.

Anyway, back to Wondery: what, exactly, are we seeing here? What’s particularly interesting about Lopez is his background in large-scale entertainment media operations — this is certainly a man oriented toward growth and scale, with considerable history in both departments. But how does that relate to the current podcasting landscape? My gut thinks we’re bound to see something closer to CBS’s Play.it network than a more bespoke operation like Gimlet or Radiotopia: a reliance on public personalities, talk radio formats, and higher content volumes; less a cultivation of new audio aesthetics, and more the adaptation of existing radio programming. That may well be a good thing, as such a genre opens itself up to be an entry point for a different kind of audience.

The Wondery website is scheduled to go live sometime this week. As for its shows, Variety notes that the company’s goal is to roll out its first offering by spring, while Bloomberg pegs those plans closer to summer.

Other fronts in audio innovation. I’ve been thinking a lot more about Amazon lately. Not in relation to Audible, mind you — although I do think a lot about that company, its subscription model, and its already robust audience penetration base — but rather, about the Amazon Echo. In case you’re unfamiliar with the thing, the Echo is a tubular object that’s a sly cross between a wireless speaker and a voice-controlled computer. It’s fairly futuristic in conceit; you can ask the Echo to describe the weather, to play your local public radio station, to make grocery lists. It’s a non-traditional way to interface with the Internet — not through keyboard, mouse, and monitor, but through structured conversation.

Recently, Amazon announced that it’s going to release a portable, smaller, cheaper version of the Echo. It was also revealed that the Echo is now able to read your Kindle books aloud, although navigation and the overall experience are limited for now.

So far, the bulk of conversation about technological solutions to podcast discovery and expansion have largely revolved around conversations about social: audio virality (or lack thereof), Facebook’s experiments with NPR, clipping and shareability (which seemed to dominate the This American Life audio hackathon last year). But what if audio shareability, a concern about the dynamics of how audio moves through the digital media ecosystem, is absolute peanuts compared to concerns about structures, availabilities/accessibilities, and hardware? After all, as we’ve discussed in the past, one of podcasting’s major and unambiguous tipping points was Apple’s decision to include the native Podcast app on the iPhone by default in the iOS8 update.

I’m not advocating that we pull back from further explorations in social audio. Rather, I think there are other, perhaps even better, fronts to pursue: re-examining the way in which we control and interface with audio in our mobile devices, expanding access points, thinking beyond headphones.

One more thing: in mid-2015, Amazon announced the creation of a $100 million fund to support innovations in artificial intelligence for the Echo. It’s called the “Alexa Fund” (Alexa, by the way, is the Echo’s version of the Apple AI avatar Siri), and the fund is principally concerned with natural language recognition.

Serial changes its publication schedule. Okay, you probably’ve heard this one already. But let’s go through the motions: last Tuesday, the Serial team announced that “new episodes of Season Two will come out every other week, instead of once a week.” In other words, it’s switching to a bi-weekly schedule, unless, of course, like Roman Mars, you take issue with the term “bi-weekly,” given its imprecision. Me, I’m partial to sheer Germanic literalism: “new episode of Season Two to be released every 14 days.”

When I first heard this news — initially through a rumor, then through the email from the Serial team — I wasn’t really sure what I was looking at. Was this an expression of extreme confidence in the audience’s capacity for patience, or some sort of editorial miscalculation?

The second season of Serial has so far struck me as more than a little frustrating. That’s not so much due to the reporting — indeed, the show’s performance remains technically impeccable, and perhaps my frustration is a result of me missing some sort of point. But there’s something about this season that feels as if the show is taking its audience, and all the goodwill it gained (perhaps accidentally) rolling off the first season, for granted. Perhaps it’s the almost leisurely pace of the early episodes — despite the intense and painful pictures they paint — or perhaps it’s the absence of a clear central gambit that goes beyond psychological exploration.

The show’s creators have signaled that the stakes, and the scope, will greatly expand at some point, and I’m looking forward to that, but the decision to further stretch out the release schedule (for good journalistic reason, I’m sure) suggests an assumption that we will return, that we will continue caring over the long-term.

This is where I’m going to walk back on my own critique. I haven’t fully processed my feelings on the show, and I’m very open to the possibility that my response may well be petty — perhaps overly, oh I don’t know, consumeristic. So I’m going to come back to this in a few weeks with a longer, more thought-out reflection. In the meantime, let me know what you think, and I also highly recommend you check out the New York Times’ write-up on the change — it touches briefly on the second season’s lack of buzz, and gives a few numbers. (Five million streams on Pandora! What!)

More presidential election podcasts. In the last edition of Hot Pod, I talked a bit about a suite of relatively new journalistic podcasts that are topically pegged to the current 2016 presidential election cycle. I guess I was on to something, because the past week saw the Huffington Post and Bloomberg Politics launch election-related — or election-adjacent — shows of their own. The new HuffPo show is called “Candidate Confessional,” and it will feature interviews with politicians who’ve run for office, presidential and otherwise, but ultimately lost. (Among the interviewed: one Michelle Bachmann, in case you’re somehow nostalgic for 2012.) For more information about the podcast, here’s Poynter with a write-up.

The two new Bloomberg Politics podcasts are called “Masters in Politics” and “Culture Caucus,” and they’re due to be published on a bi-weekly basis. Interestingly, they extend Bloomberg’s already long list of existing podcasts, which I never knew existed until I started digging into this item a few days ago. Where did these come from? I have no idea how much of a listenership all those podcasts have, but as with most things related to Bloomberg Media, I’ve stopped trying to understand how any of it works because there’s too much money and sometimes the media business makes no sense (#NYValues). In any case, the official Bloomberg announcement post mentioned that the podcasts are available on the Bloomberg Terminal in addition to iTunes and Soundcloud, which I guess is as exclusive a distribution point as you’re ever going to get.

Other news this week:

  • Longest Shortest Time re-launches under Earwolf. (Twitter shout-out)
  • “WNYC is leading public radio’s transition to public podcasting.” (CJR)
  • Did you hear? Audible bought a historic church in New Jersey and will be converting it into new office space. Oo boy. ()
  • Vulture, New York Magazine’s entertainment site, partnered with Earwolf to develop a podcast element for its upcoming festival. (Vulture)
  • First glimpses at Apple TV’s new podcast app. (9 to 5 Mac)
  • “How CBS is trying to get big-name advertisers into podcasts” (Digiday)

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