The Curious Case of Getting Curious with Jonathan Van Ness

I’m nowhere near the first person to say this, but it’s nevertheless worth shouting out loud: Getting Curious With Jonathan Van Ness is exceptional listening. The chief reason as to why is right there in the title: the Queer Eye star is a vivid interviewer whose curiosity is sharp, sprawling, infectious. That’s a real and rare gift, and its depth is further expressed by the strength of the show’s archives. Even a cursory glance at the list of previous episodes reveals a devilishly vast scope of the world, with interview subjects that range from gender bias in film scoring to the difference between Sunni and Shia Muslims to the definition of cults to, of course, the lives of his fellow Queer Eye co-stars. (The consistent quality of the podcast’s growing catalogue also reflects the effective wielding of another uncommon skill: smart booking. Getting Curious often builds experts around the subject being discussed, and almost everyone that’s been brought on has been perfectly engaging in front of the mic.)

Van Ness is a natural on-air interviewer: he listens, collaborates, vibes. He gamely leans into the give-and-take of effective conversation, deploying biography to cultivate trust and a permission structure for the interviewee to open up. He’s also damn fun, and damn funny. Binge-listening to Getting Curious episodes additionally serves as a reminder that as much as interviewing is hard, interviewing as a performance is so much harder.

Anyway, I’m not writing about Getting Curious today just because I think it’s an exceptional interview show. There’s also a pretty interesting story to be told about its production history, one that have something to tell us about the nature of celebrity — or, more accurately, on-the-verge-of-celebrity — podcasts.

Here’s how the story goes, as told to me by various sources on the network-level: Van Ness originally developed and launched Getting Curious in December 2015, foremostly as a passion project. He had, by that time, gained some popularity for his work on Gay of Thrones, the Emmy-nominated Funny Or Die parody web series. With the help of producer Colin Anderson, a BBC alumnus who was then working at Maximum Fun that Van Ness had connected with through mutual friends (podcasters Erin Gibson and Dave Holmes), the podcast began publishing on a bi-weekly schedule. At the time, the podcast was an official Maximum Fun production.

About a year into publishing, in late 2016, Anderson left Maximum Fun for Midroll Media. A few months after Anderson’s departure, Maximum Fun winded down its arrangement with Van Ness. “We started Getting Curious with Jonathan because we believed in his incredible, incandescent talent, and that never changed,” Jesse Thorn, founder of Maximum Fun, told me over email. “As the world is now getting to see, he’s a brilliant, sensitive, thoughtful and hilarious guy. We worked really hard to bring Getting Curious to a larger audience, but were never able to get enough folks to check it out to sustain the production, much less pay Jonathan what he deserved to get paid for it. Ultimately, we gave the show back to him in the hopes that in future, circumstances would change.”

And then, of course, it did. As the story goes, the day after Maximum Fun cancelled Getting Curious, Van Ness booked Queer Eye.

The Netflix series wouldn’t premiere until February 2018, and for a number of months in the run-up, Van Ness continued to publish Getting Curious without the backing of an official network. Anderson, now the Executive Producer at Earwolf, helped produce the show in his spare time. “He’s a friend, and I love the show,” Anderson said, by way of explanation. After Queer Eye debuted on Netflix, well… the podcast took off.

These days, Getting Curious is said to be “hitting well into six figures” per episode, according to Midroll VP of Marketing Amy Fitzgibbons. The show was officially brought into the company’s comedy brand, Earwolf, back in May, and as Queer Eye continues to capture the imagination of TV viewers across the country, it appears to be effective in pusing more and more people to the podcast. “We’re seeing tremendous growth, and it’s actually hard to give a precise number as even older episodes are continuing to grow quickly,” Fitzgibbons notes. Another Midroll spokesperson claims that many of the new listeners report being new to podcasting altogether.

It’s a fascinating story, but what, exactly, does it tell us? Three views:

  • Amy Fitzgibbons argues that a major key to Getting Curious is its original nature as a passion project. She extends this analysis to the celebrity podcast gere more broadly. “When it’s not just for the paycheck, and when they devote their energy to really making a great show, the listeners can tell,” she wrote. “[Van Ness is] also super engaged with his fans on social media, and that helps. A lot of celebrities have large followings on social, but don’t successfully pull those fans onto other platforms like podcasts.”
  • Colin Anderson: “It’s been a spectacular combination of a compelling show, a host who was a star even before he was famous, Queer Eye being a breakout hit, Jonathan’s skill at building and nurturing his own fans through social media, and his continued commitment to the podcast even as his TV career took off.”
  • Jesse Thorn: “Getting Curious is a show format that’s tough to get people to check out when the host isn’t a famous person (no matter how talented he or she may be), and a lot easier when the host is famous,” he wrote. “These days, Jonathan is famous. Deservedly. I’m sorry we weren’t able to make the show work for him (or for us), but I’m sincerely glad it’s such a success today. Jonathan deserves it.”

Personally, I’m sympathetic to Thorn’s argument. There isn’t much of a compelling reason to try out a new personality or celebrity-driven podcast if you didn’t have much of a prior relationship with the individual — something that seems increasingly true in a podcast market that’s becoming even more competitive, even saturated. Thorn is probably right: Getting Curious is a show format that’s really hard to get people to check out if there is no alternative work being produced by the core talent. Even with a really good show under the hood, it truly takes a whole lot of luck.

Something else I’m thinking about: just how much my experience with Queer Eye informs my experience with the podcast and vice versa. Indeed, the two shows consumed together conveys a Van Ness that’s infinitely more interesting, and I’m pretty sure the opposite would be have been true if the podcast wasn’t as exceptional as it is.

What’s coming next in podcast adaptations: Adaptations of other forms of media to podcasts

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 129, published July 25, 2017.

Hey folks! We’re talking about adaptations, once again.

Gimlet wraps a big week for Homecoming. In the same week that the experimental fiction podcast debuted its second season, Deadline reported that its TV adaptation has received a two-season pickup by Amazon, with Julia Roberts confirmed in the lead role. (Sad times for Catherine Keener fans!) News of the adaptation was first publicized last December, with Mr. Robot creator Sam Esmail attached as director and executive producer.

For those keeping tally: Gimlet currently has three pieces of IP that are being pipelined into the more lucrative world of film and television (that we know of, anyway. You can damn well bet that there are many more in development at various stages of maturity). The other two are: (1) the StartUp podcast, which will be hitting television as ABC’s Alex Inc. starring Zach Braff, and (2) the Reply All episode “Man of the People,” set to be a Richard Linklater film starring Robert Downey Jr.

The company has officially expanded its adaptation pipeline beyond film and television as well. Accompanying Homecoming’s latest season is a companion ebook called The Lost Coast, which follows a storyline that’s separate but related to the narrative playing out in the podcast. (Expanded universe, anybody?) The first chapter of the ebook rolled out alongside the new season’s first episode, and the series will be exclusive to Apple’s iBooks platform. With this, the company walks a path well-trod by earlier pioneers: the Night Vale team, in particular, pulled off a successful crossover to books, publishing an original novel in 2015 along with two episode volumes. (A second original Night Vale novel, It Devours!, will drop in October.)

The podcast-to-TV adaptation trend has been around for a while — for what it’s worth, I first wrote about the trend last April, though activity in this sector long predated that column — but credit to Gimlet here for the pace of its machinations and the depth of its media savvy: from my perch, the company seems to have pretty effectively concentrated the podcast-to-TV adaptation narrative into a discernible and trackable thread that flows straight through it, keeping the focus and attention tight in such a way that I imagine only further builds interest around the podcast category as a whole.

One might argue that Gimlet is taking up too much oxygen in this space, a zero-sum articulation that sees this domination of the narrative as directly taking away from or crowding out other teams working on building out their own IP adaptation pipelines. That might be fair if there is an actual IP-peddling arms race currently taking place across multiple podcast companies at this point in time; as it stands, Gimlet does seem to be working at a noticeably higher level compared to everyone else, and they seem to have established quite a bit of a lead. (As an aside, I’m a little surprised that Midroll hasn’t fleshed out a more robust IP development pipeline, given its Los Angeles heritage. Then again, the company’s programming framework has historically been built on relationships with individual talent as opposed to intellectual property development; one imagines there are rather limited gains made when an Earwolf podcaster goes on to do a movie.)

Anyway, the strategy for Gimlet here is straightforward, in case you’re unfamiliar: As Chris Giliberti, the company’s head of multi-platform who is principally involved in many of these adaptation deals, told Wired: “The potential over the long term is a business that could look a good bit like Marvel…You’re originating worlds and stories in a low-cost, experimental format, and then transitioning high-potential prospects into higher-return formats.” He made the point even more explicitly in a recent StartUp episode: “In my mind, it’s the thing that could turn Gimlet into a unicorn.” You could also appraise the value from an even more basic value-extraction equation: a lot of effort and resources goes into creating, producing, and polishing a podcast — why not squeeze as much juice out of the fruit as you can?

Giliberti’s evoking the Marvel connection is also interesting on another level. Consider the following Variety article, published last week: “Comic book sales fly on the capes of hit movies, TV shows.

Risk. Intellectual property adaptations can be read as being expressions of risk management. It’s a gambit that’s part of a larger toolkit that also includes, by the way, stacking a project with star power (see the aforementioned Homecoming, also every celebrity podcast ever) or drawing from well-trod genres (see: true crime).

The thought process behind adaptations is easy to grasp: it’s simply less risky to deploy a budget on concepts already proven in a marketplace compared to ones that are not, and particularly when you’re working with a big budget, the incentives are such that you’d want to reduce the potential for failure as much as possible. That said, it should be noted that such cautious thinking isn’t just present in production formats with generally high levels of investment, like film and television. This logic can govern in just about every medium, working at just about every scale, because risk is perceived and managed in relative terms.

Which is why we see — or are beginning to see — the gambit emerge even within podcasts, long said to be on the cheaper end of the production format spectrum: Wondery, for example, recently scored its first placement on the top of the Apple Podcast charts with what is essentially a podcast adaptation of a popular TV show (“Locked Up Abroad,” more on that in a bit). ESPN’s recently launched 30 for 30 podcast, obviously, is also an adaptation, and you can also say that adaptation exists on the episode level in that show as well: “Yankees Suck!,” the podcast’s best episode so far, can itself be described as an adaptation of a successful 2015 Grantland feature by Amor Bashad. (That feature, by the way, is also being turned into a movie.)

The broad line of critique against an increasing reliance on adaptation as a medium-wide strategy is that, on the one hand, it highlights a deficiency in creativity, and on the other hand, it’s a trend that may well detract from the ascendance of original ideas. The former is an underwhelming assertion: adaptations are themselves opportunities for immense originality and creative expression (e.g. HBO’s The Leftovers = GOAT). But the latter is more interesting, because it’s a hypothesis that I think still hasn’t been fully tested: the notion is at least partially predicated on an anxious view of the media ecosystem moving into a future where there are no more low-cost spaces for new and existing creators to play-test new concepts.

Hmm.

More paywalled podcasts trickle out into the open ecosystem. Two recent cases: (1) Audible and TED’s “Sincerely, X,” previously distributed as an Audible Original exclusively on Channels, and (2) “Fruit,” an audio drama by the multi-talented Issa Rae that originally premiered as an exclusive on Midroll’s Howl platform — now integrated into Stitcher Premium — last February. All episodes of the drama’s first season dropped last Monday. A spokesperson for Midroll explained the move to me: “Fruit was an audience favorite for Stitcher Premium listeners and, with the new season of Insecure coming up, we thought it was the perfect time to bring it to a wider audience.”

Insecure, of course, being Rae’s critically acclaimed HBO show that returned this past Sunday. Chalk this up, perhaps, as a pretty interesting piece of marketing on Midroll’s part.

And speaking of Midroll…

Midroll expands its Earwolf lineup, and the list of additions to the comedy-oriented network is pretty chunky. It includes two new shows, Off Book (described as the “first-ever improvised musical podcast”) and the conversational Homophilia, along with several recruitments from other places: Cracked Movie Club and Cracked Gets Personal join the network from the humor website — which is interesting, given that Cracked.com founder recently joined HowStuffWorks to launch its comedy division — while Throwing Shade and James Bonding are being brought in from Maximum Fun and Nerdist, respectively. Meanwhile, Stitcher Premium is also getting new inventory: it will soon be getting episodes of Chickenman, a popular superhero-spoof radio show from the 1960s. (Deep cut, my dudes.)

An interesting and aggressive summer for Earwolf, to say the least.

As a side note: congrats to Comedy Bang! Bang! — née Comedy Death-Ray Radio — for its 500th episode, out this week. The Daily Beast has a great oral history of the podcast, and there’s a Scott Aukerman quote in there that ties pretty well to the earlier parts of this newsletter:

The only reason the podcast has outlasted the TV show is that the TV show cost millions of dollars to make and the podcast costs very little to make. Because of that, the pressure is on to put out a really consistent product. When you’re doing a TV show, you want every episode to be good.

NPR premiered What’s Good with Stretch and Bobbito last week, bringing the legendary pair of New York hip-hop radio DJs into podcast feeds. One way to contextualize this launch: between What’s Good, It’s Been a Minute with Sam Sanders, and to some extent Live from the Poundstone Institute, all of which were rolled out over the past few weeks, it looks as if the public radio mothership is heavily dabbling in personality-driven podcast programming — that is, shows where the principal audience hook isn’t a topic framework (NPR Politics) or story platform (Invisibilia, Embedded), but literally the human at the heart of the program. I might be mistaken, but I think this is genuinely new for the organization on a podcast level.

Adam Ragusea is hanging up his mic as the host of Current’s The Pub. This means that the podcast, which functions as an extension of the publication and covers the goings-on in public media, is looking for a new host. You should totally consider it, especially if you’re young, hungry, and willing to kick the system in the butt. (Hard.)

As for Ragusea, he’s off working on other stuff, including additional podcast criticism at Slate and another podcast project currently in development. He declined to give details on the show, but he did send me some parting words for the role he’s leaving behind:

Public media is in a really weird spot. On the radio side at least, it’s booming bigger than ever, and yet I think it increasingly has no coherent idea about what it wants to be, or what it’s supposed to be. Making this podcast is an opportunity to significantly influence what I see as the inevitable reformation of the public media system. I’ve had my say, now I think it’s someone else’s turn.

I’ll be honest, when I founded the show with Current almost three years ago, I had the fantasy that it would pass every few years from one host/producer to the next — like an ombudsmanship, but for people who haven’t yet penetrated the power circle. The Pub has a robust audience for such a niche product; it includes high-powered people like Terry Gross and, more importantly I think, it includes scores of people in their first or second public media jobs who are trying to get oriented. The show is a labor of love to be sure, but I’ve been able to see it directly influence events, and it’s certainly raised my profile in a way that has brought me a flood of new opportunities, which is part of what’s now pulling me away from the show. It’s a great side gig for the right person, and I hope we find her.

Good luck.

Wondery’s Locked Up Abroad breaks 1 million downloads in slightly over a week, CEO Hernan Lopez tells me, based on its internal Art19 hosting numbers. He also disclosed the show’s Podtrac numbers, which measures unique monthly audiences: that number is 373,000. (Those two numbers contextualized against each other makes for some juicy extrapolation. I’ll leave it up to you to do the math.) Worth noting: the podcast premiered on July 11, dropping three episodes in its first day and hitting the top spot on the Apple Podcast charts not too long after, presumably off the strength of its brand name. It has since trickled down to a lower position, as life on the Apple Podcast charts is a fickle, transient thing.

The podcast is an adaptation of the popular National Geographic TV show, and there’s a personnel connection to be noted here: Lopez, a former television executive, once ran National Geographic Channels outside the United States, where he had an inside look at the considerable viewership for the property. “The whole process took nearly nine months from beginning to end, since once we secured the rights, we had to select the stories most suited for the ear, replace the music, and re-edit for clarity. We’re really pleased with the result,” he said.

The company also recently welcomed another new show to its portfolio: Tides of History, which debuted last Thursday with two episodes in the bank. According to Podtrac’s industry listings, Wondery is bringing in over 2.6 million unique monthly audiences across 38 podcasts.

And speaking of Wondery…

Career spotlight. Thus far, I’ve mostly focused this feature on producers and the creative side: staffers, freelancers, veterans, rookies. But producers alone don’t make up the industry. This week, I spoke with Karo Chakhlasyan, the director of audience acquisition at Wondery, who came into the industry through the media buying side.

[storybreak]

[conl]Hot Pod: Tell me about your current situation.[/conl]

[conr]Karo Chakhlasyan: I am currently the director of audience aquisition at Wondery. My responsibility is to ensure our shows are heard by the right people. I use different marketing techniques to make that happen. Right now, I’m working to get our latest release, Tides of History, into Apple Podcast’s top 10. I think a screenshot of Tides right next to Locked Up Abroad, our last release, in the top 10 really shows the progression of our network and it’ll be a cool little picture to have.[/conr]

[conl]HP: How did you get to this point? What does your career arc look like — where did you start, and how did you end up in this position?[/conl]

[conr]Chakhlasyan: My local NPR affiliate station, KCRW, was a constant go-to for me in high school and KPCC became another go-to in college. That motivated me to take all the radio courses I could find in college. During that time I loved this show called Comedy Death-Ray that aired on a now defunct station called Indie 103.1. I started to stream Indie 103.1 on my desktop and eventually mobile. Then I discovered this company called Earwolf and loved everything about it. I emailed their first CEO asking if they had any job I could do. He said no, and that I should go listen to every episode of The Wolf Den. I emailed him back to thank him and I never heard back.

In 2013, right after college, I lived abroad and my obsession with podcasts grew. I tried to listen to everything I could download. I couldn’t stop listening to the 20072010 archives of the BBC’s The Documentary, The Story, Milt Rosenberg, Notebook on Cities and Culture, and The Sinica Podcast. Sometime while abroad it clicked that people will eventually stop listening to the radio, listen to more podcasts and podcasts can make money with ads!

When I came back to the States, I promised myself that I would only take a podcast-oriented job. I emailed every Los Angeles based podcast or radio company I could find and having a year of teaching experience abroad didn’t really wow any of the companies. I then searched for “podcast” on Craigslist and found Oxford Road, an agency that bought ads on podcasts. In fact, the managing director of Oxford Road at that time was an intervewee on The Wolf Den!

I mentioned how I heard him there, got hired to work in their mailroom, and confused everyone with my podcast obsession. Luckily, I had two generous coworkers who taught me how to cut podcast deals and what to do to make them profitable for our clients while keeping the shows and networks happy — I thank them quite often.

A couple of Excel sheets later, I realized how profitable podcast ads could be for our clients. It took a few dozen phone calls and meetings, but we grew podcast billings over 100 percent in a year. That was fun.

But I always wanted to be on the publisher side of things so when I met this guy named Hernan Lopez who had a new podcast company, and found out they had an interesting position open, I applied.[/conr]

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

[conr]Chakhlasyan: I didn’t really know what to do at first (sorry, Hernan!) so I just applied the same playbook I used at Oxford Road. Buy podcast ads, measure, optimize and scale. And I lucked out again by having such amazing and generous coworkers and friends to learn from. I’m happy to say my playbook has grown. I still rewrite and add to that playbook every day. So much to learn![/conr]

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

[conr]Chakhlasyan: I really wanted to produce comedy podcasts. I think I still do! It’ll be about a person who quits their day job to start their own podcast network. I’ll call it Jim and The Podcast Factory. Oh wait.[/conr]

[storybreak]

You can find Karo at @birdscanttweet.

Speed-listening. The topic gained a bit of conversational steam last week, principally triggered, it seems, by a write-up from The Wall Street Journal’s Ben Cohen (“How do podcast nuts find the time? They listen at chipmunk speed,” mind the paywall) with a few follow-ons, including pieces from The Guardianthe Chicago Tribune, and WNYC (#MyWrongOpinion).

I’m tempted to point out that this particular thread was already taken up as recently as last December by Christopher Mele at the Times, but even a rudimentary Google search reveals that the speed-listening debate is one that recurs in cycles. A sample list of ghosts from cycles past: The Verge in February 2015, The Atlantic in June 2015, Slate in October 2016. It seems that when it comes to matters of taste and culture, we are doomed to live the same moment, again and again, until the end of time or civilization, whichever comes first.

I don’t have a ton to say on the matter, other than this: Speed-listening is a god-given right and haters gonna hate.

Well, maybe I do have something to say. Principally, I view this debate as yet another expression of the classic tension between creators and audiences — one that falls from a misalignment between creator intent and consumer preference. It’s not too far removed, I think, from various similarly flavored arguments that’ve emerged across media formats since the beginning of time: people should be reading more features and not listicles, or that films should be watched in theaters and not on iPhones, or that print > digital > mobile. And in many ways, this debate (and all other debates of this kind) are somewhat irrelevant. The longer arc of the power relationship between creators and audiences seems to generally bend toward the latter, as the decentralization of media structures and progression of consumption technology seem to strip more and more producer control — over the consumption environment, over distribution strength, over context in general — while broadly expanding audience consumption (more choices, more control, more agency). That’s a tide that’s hard to stop.

But then again, what’s truly new here? Radio producers have long been compelled to develop design conventions to prevent listeners from switching stations, and if 1x listening is core to the entire point of a given episode’s experience, one presumes there to be a pathway of design R&D to keep listeners at the original speed. Of course, such design work is hard as nuts, but then again, so is the entire enterprise of making good stuff with a microphone, marketing said stuff effectively, and getting people to pay money for it.

And for what it’s worth: I have a very close relationship with the speed-listen feature across the several podcast apps that I use. I generally keep things at 1.5x unless it’s clear to me that the pacing, mood, or feel is central to the point of the experience as opposed to keeping things smooth or I get to a place where the space of a show becomes a little more important to me than the information being piped into my earballs. Of course, I’m completely unrepresentative, given that I’m professionally obliged to swim through as much material as possible, but still. #PeakPodcasts.

Bites:

  • This is great: “Ten lessons from West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s near-death experience.” (Current)
  • If you’re interested in the Australian podcast scene, Edison Research recently released additional consumer information. (Radio Today)
  • And speaking of public media: The Corporation for Public Broadcasting has hired PRI’s Kathy Merritt as SVP for journalism and radio. (CPB)
  • Larry Wilmore’s conversation with Malcolm Gladwell about Revisionist History is really, really interesting. (Black on the Air)
  • “BuzzFeed’s new audio morning briefing was made for Amazon Alexa.” (Poynter)
  • The Atlantic rolls out Radio Atlantic, while The Washington Post launches its follow-up to Presidential: Constitutional.
  • “J.J. Redick takes his podcast from The Vertical to Uninterrupted.” Which is to say, from Yahoo and DGital Media to that LeBron James media company, which has a partnership with reVolver podcasts. (Clutchpoints)
  • Speaking of sports, I reviewed ESPN’s 30 for 30 podcast. (Vulture)
  • Coverage on Two-Up Productions’ podcast musical, 36 Questions: “This podcast is a love story, for your ears only” from the New York Times, and my own write-up for Vulture from earlier this month.

[photocredit]Photo of food chain mural by Dan Nguyen used under a Creative Commons license.[/photocredit]

“If a Serial episode was a mountain peak, S-Town was the Himalayas”

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 116, published April 18, 2017.

Midroll formalizes the Stitcher editorial brand. When I wrote up the return of First Day Back for last week’s newsletter, I was mostly thinking out loud when discussing its label as a Stitcher show and how that might’ve hinted towards the spinning out of the podcast app as its own editorial brand. It looks like I was a day early on that, as the company announced last Wednesday that it was indeed firming up the Stitcher branding, and that it was shuffling some Earwolf shows into its purview.

Stitcher will now carry The Longest Shortest Time and the Katie Couric Podcast, both of which were previously categorized as Earwolf shows. The new umbrella will also carry The Sporkful, whose departure from WNYC I covered two weeks ago, and Tell Me Something I Don’t Know, the Stephen Dubner-led game show previously housed in The New York Times’ audio unit.

The reason for all of this shuffling? In a word: #branding.

Speaking over the phone yesterday, Midroll CEO Erik Diehn explained that, while he ultimately thinks a network’s brand won’t mean very much to a broad audience, he does find that it carries significant weight with its core audience. As such, any programming move has to make sense within the context of that audience’s relationship with the brand. “Every once in a while, a content brand rises above the fray to stand for something more than the individual shows organized within it,” Diehn said, also pointing to Gimlet Media, Barstool Sports, and The Ringer as examples. “There is value there for a certain core audience.”

The company bumped up against this when it initially attempted to broaden the Earwolf network out from its core comedy and comedy-adjacent sensibility; Diehn told me that Stranglers, a true-crime documentary podcast that Midroll published under the Earwolf network, was perceived by some to be a parody in large part due to its association with Earwolf. (It is most certainly not that.) The decision to carve out Stitcher as a separate entity from Earwolf, then, is meant to create a separate audience architecture for the more newsy and serious shows that Midroll hopes to get more involved in.

For what it’s worth, I personally feel that a brand means as much to listeners, audiences, and consumers as it makes itself out to be — which is to say, I tend to believe its effectiveness — and, for that matter, the effectiveness of things like bylines and datelines — is chiefly derived from the amount of work put into making it mean something.

Anyway, when I asked about how Stitcher Premium was doing, Diehn noted that it was “doing quite well,” and that it was “hitting all of its forecasts for the year so far.” He declined to share specific numbers when asked.

Speaking of brands…

“Apple Podcasts.” Last week saw a quiet announcement from Apple’s iTunes teams that nonetheless sent ripples throughout the community: The company is rebranding “iTunes Podcasts” as “Apple Podcasts.” Aside from an updated set of marketing guidelines and visual assets for use by publishers — get those badges and switch up your tags, folks — the announcement was made with little accompanying information that could tell us anything substantial about how (or even whether) Apple is actually fundamentally rethinking its relationship with the growing podcast ecosystem — a possibility that was first hinted back in February’s Recode Media conference when Apple’s senior vice president of Internet software and services Eddy Cue vaguely noted that the company was “working on new features for podcasts.”

Which is to say, we know nothing new about whether the company plans to: revamp the podcast app’s underlying user experience (long criticized as being virtually unchanged since its introduction over a decade ago); provide any further analytics support; allow for external verification of metrics (as in the case of Apple News); increase the sophistication of podcast discovery and publisher promotion on the podcast app; provide additionals pathways for monetization within the Apple podcast ecosystem; or clarifying the editorial and symbolic significance of the podcast charts.

On the flipside, it does maintain a status quo that continues to leave unreconciled the larger question about how the space will continue to play out structurally — that is, it holds in place the tension between podcasts-as-blogs contingent and podcasts-as-future-of-radio contingent that seemingly came to a public head last summer. (Here’s the relevant Hot Pod column from that time.) A lot has changed since then; the industry has continued to grow, more hit shows have come to be, more platforms have begun to encroach on Apple’s majority share with experiments in windowing and exclusives, and so on.

There’s a legit story in here somewhere…but this isn’t quite it. Looks like we’ll have to keep being on the lookout.

“If a Serial episode was a mountain peak, then S-Town was the Himalayas.” On Friday, PRX chief technology officer Andrew Kuklewicz published a Medium post discussing the backend of hosting the hit podcast — which, as you probably know by now, opted to drop all of its seven episodes at once as opposed to a recurring drop structure. In case you didn’t know, This American Life hosts all of its podcasts on Dovetail, the CMS platform created by PRX (which also distributes the company’s shows to public radio stations).

I’ve briefly written about Dovetail before, but the platform has kept a relatively low profile compared to its more aggressive competitors, like Art19 and Panoply’s Megaphone, and I suppose you could read this post as the company flexing its muscles somewhat. “After S-Town, we are that much more confident in our technology, both in new ways of using it, and under extreme load,” Kuklewicz wrote. “Plus, the next time someone asks me what Dovetail can do, I have a new graph to show them.”

The post is chock-full of interesting stuff — including some fascinating insights into binge-download behavior — but I’d like to draw your attention to something: Long-time observers of the podcast industry are probably familiar with the conversation around dynamic ad insertion technology, how its proponents argue that it allows for greater advertising inventory and opportunity (by allowing ads to be dynamically switched out according to who is listening), and how the current generation of professionalizing podcast companies have generally integrated the technology by treating the ad slot as the unit that gets dynamically switched out.

According to Kuklewicz’s post, it appears that the S-Town team made a peculiar request: to treat the entire episode as the dynamic unit. This effectively maintains the baked-in nature of the ad-read while still allowing for the fundamental utility of each individual episode being able to serve different ads to different kinds of people. When I asked Kuklewicz about the logic behind this, he said: “They wanted to maximize the flow between show and spots, and allow for music under the end roll. So I understand it to be an aesthetic motivation, and considering the years of time put into the show, and the way the music is practically a character, I can see now why they wanted it just that way.”

Related. BuzzFeed has a chunky feature up on S-Town that should be interesting to fans on two major levels. First, it sheds some additional light on the narrative threads that the podcast ultimately leaves unresolved — which, as we learn from the piece, is purely by design. And second, it serves as a nice companion to host Brian Reed’s interview on Longform. Also, this from The Awl: “Call it Shit Town, because that is its name.”

Call Your LLC. I highly recommend digging into last week’s episode of Call Your Girlfriend, the well-loved conversational podcast by Ann Friedman and Aminatou Sow (produced by Gina Delvac), which features a pretty substantial look at how the team has built out an independent business around the show. No specific figures were disclosed — other than mention that ad slots cost at least four figures and a solid-sounding revenue range — but there’s a lot going on here. The episode touches on the uncertainties involved in working with a network, the general weirdness of the podcast industry, and figuring out a business model that best fits the values of a production. Check it out.

Missing Richard Simmons on TV? The Hollywood Reporter is apparently reporting that First Look Media, which led the production for the podcast, has “begun meeting with would-be buyers for a small screen narrative adaptation of the investigative show searching for the reclusive fitness guru.” Two things on this:

  • It’s yet another data point in the emerging trend that sees the podcast category as another IP pool for TV and film to trawl in for potential adaptations. (Though, it should be noted that real life — or very recent history — remains the IP pool du jour.)
  • Maybe I lack vision, but I can’t for the life of me see how the adaptation could possibly either (a) a good idea, given the myriad of ethical questions surrounding the podcast, or (b) effective or interesting in the same way, probably as a result of those ethical conundrums surrounding the podcast.

But then again, I am but a humble podcast bard, and not a wheelin’ dealin’ TV exec.

Tracking… Looks like CNN en Español recently rolled out a Spanish-language podcast slate, most of which are repackages of existing shows. There’s one original production in there, however: a culture show called Zona Pop. With this rollout, the company steps into a lane whose primary current occupant appears to be the Revolver Podcast network, which has built out a sizable Spanish-language podcast portfolio in addition to its work with music executive Jason Flom on the Wrongful Conviction podcast.

The Outline, daily. I suppose I should start looking for another way to describe the daily news podcast space in terms other than “heating up” — if only to avoid ledes defined by a cliche — but it does seem like the experimental genre is certainly growing more active by the week.
The latest of such experiments comes in the form of World Dispatch, a new daily morning podcast by the digital curiosity known as The Outline. John Lagomarsino, The Outline’s audio director, told me that show is meant to be the closest approximate representation of the publisher’s coverage in the audio format. Episodes are between 8 to 12 minutes, and segments will be a mix of stories that draw from material already on the site and stories produced specifically for the podcast. (“We’ll also be leaning on freelancers a fair amount for more reported-out, strictly audio stories — get at me!” he adds.)

I’m told that the show is the result of some internal experiments with social audio that didn’t go very far. (“Turns out audio still is not particularly shareable,” Lagomarsino quipped.) Those experiments eventually shifted to the social audio app Anchor when it re-launched back in March, and the team ultimately decided to move those efforts over to a daily podcast feed as a natural next step. The resulting podcast is an intriguing artifact: strange, compelling, but ultimately a little confusing — which, given the show’s explicitly conscious sense of style, is probably the point.

Lagomarsino notes that the podcast isn’t exactly meant to be newsy. “The podcast is for curious humans who are not looking for a news rundown that barely goes past headlines,” he said. “These are angled stories, often *about* news, but this is not for the listener who wants the ‘what I need to know today’ thing.” Hmm.

World Dispatch debuted yesterday, with new eps dropping Mondays to Thursdays.

Explainer ambition. In times of confusion, go back to the basics. That was, more or less, the thinking behind Civics 101, the explainer podcast by New Hampshire Public Radio that covers the fundamental institutions, mechanisms, and even concepts that make up the United States. That approach has proven to be pretty successful: Since launching on Inauguration Day, Civics 101 has clocked in about 1.88 million listens, with episodes averaging about 75,000 listens per month. (To be clear: that’s per episode per month, suggesting strong back catalog activity.)

The way Civics 101’s editorial director Maureen McMurray tells it, the podcast was the product of a completely organic process. The show came out of an ideas meeting for the station’s daily show, Word of Mouth, shortly after the elections. “Our producer, Logan Shannon, expressed frustration over the endless ‘hot take’ election coverage and said something along the lines of, ‘I don’t want any more analysis. I just want to go six steps back to find out how things work,'” McMurray said. What started out as a segment idea soon broadened out into an accompanying podcast experiment pegged to the first 100 days of the Trump administration. It was all pretty scrappy. “There were some clever titles thrown about, but I insisted on calling it Civics 101,” she said. “Logan made the logo, and we sent a trailer and pilot episode to iTunes.”

“In retrospect, I guess we just did it. There wasn’t a big meeting with executives or anything,” McMurray added.

As the weeks rolled on, the show steadily grew into its own. It consistently dived headfirst into wonky subjects (emoluments, the Office of Scheduling and Advance, gerrymandering) while remaining fundamentally accessible, and the podcast eventually adopted an appealing topical edge (calling your congressperson, impeachment, the nuclear codes) that nonetheless retains a broad, evergreen perspective. Almost three months in, Civics 101 has grown in depth and complexity. And, as I found in a recent email correspondence with McMurray, it has certainly grown in ambition. Here’s our chat:

[storybreak]

[conl]Hot Pod: How has the show evolved over the past four months?[/conl]

[conr]McMurray: Our editorial vision has shifted a lot, and continues to evolve. Civics 101 was intended to be a short-run series. We planned to drop one episode per week for the first 100 days of the Trump administration. In part, we thought “How many governmental agencies and cabinet positions do people really want to know about?”, but I was also concerned about resources. Our production team is responsible for producing a daily magazine program, Outside/In, the 10-Minute Writer’s Workshop podcast, and a series of live events, among other things.

After iTunes featured Civics 101 in its New and Noteworthy section, everything went to hell in a good way. Our audience numbers shot up and we started to receive unsolicited listener questions. We captured the moment, and began releasing two episodes per week, created a Civics 101 website where listeners could submit questions via Hearken, and started a Civics 101 hotline with Google. A lot of the questions coming in stemmed from current events. For example, when Steve Bannon was appointed to the National Security Council’s principals committee, there was an uptick in National Security Council-related questions. So, Civics 101 became newsier than I anticipated, but editorially, I wrestle with it. It’s easy to be seduced by the latest scandal, and to bump those questions to the top of the list, but I want Civics 101 to be a meaningful resource for future listeners. What’s timely today may sound dated in six months, and it will certainly sound dated by 2020. For the time being, we’re trying to balance the timely issues with the evergreen questions.

Oh, and a shout out to our producer, Logan Shannon, who created the Civics 101 weekly newsletter, Extra Credit. We’ve seen a lot of audience engagement around it, and it has quizzes and gifs.[/conr]

[conl]Hot Pod: Does NHPR have any future plans for Civics 101 — and for its podcast operations more generally?[/conl]

[conr]McMurray: Civics 101 will continue answering listener questions on a biweekly basis. New questions come in everyday, so there’s no shortage of content. Of course, we want to grow and monetize our podcast audience, and that’s where a distributor will come in handy. We’re planning to repackage the podcast content for different platforms. Specifically, we’d like to become a multimedia resource for educators, and hope to create and distribute supplemental materials to teachers and students. That includes anything from videos to lesson plans.

My real dream, though, is to farm Civics 101 out to other stations/production units in time for midterm elections. We cover the national stuff well, but member stations are in a unique position to tackle state and local politics. And, as our yet-to-be-created production guide will show, Civics 101 is a scalable, turnkey format, and a fairly easy lift for smaller teams. In 2018, I’d love to see Civics 101: Louisiana, Civics 101: Albany, Civics 101: Michigan. Heck, you could do Civics 101: Canada, Civics 101: Australia, Civics 101: Brazil. Of course, resources are the elephant in the room. We’re currently working out ways to resource this thing. So check back in with me.

As far as podcast operations go, Civics 101 and Outside/In have been great proofs of concept for NHPR, but weren’t part of a formal, top down strategy. Our first major podcast, Outside/In, was intended to be a weekly, one-hour broadcast. When the show was in development, we found ourselves gravitating to longer stories that involved original reporting, narrative arc, sound design, and (for lack of a better adjective) a “podcasty” tone. Long story short, we put those early experiments into a podcast feed and came to realize those 15-30 minute prototypes were what distinguished Outside/In from other environmental shows and, given the size of our team, producing an hour-long program with those elements would be impossible. At the same time, the Outside/In podcast was developing an audience. So, the question became: is the podcast the show? In a way, our failure to deliver a sustainable, one-hour broadcast model coupled with the success of Outside/In and Civics 101 forced NHPR to consider the value and potential of podcasts. It’s been a learning curve for everyone, from producers to the underwriting department to membership, but we’re starting to develop an infrastructure that supports and leverages podcast creation.

One more really important detail: in order to double down on Civics 101, we had to make an editorial decision to ease up on something. So, we’ve been strategically replaying interviews and stories on our daily magazine program, Fresh Air-Friday style. There are some upcoming changes that will ease our production load, but for the time being, it’s a quick fix.[/conr]

[storybreak]

Bites:

  • Reminder: Edison Research’s Podcast Consumer 2017 report comes out later today. (Edison)
  • The Webby Awards has a pretty broad and interesting set of podcast and digital audio nominations this year. Check it out. (Website)
  • Audible has apparently taken over the billboards at the Rockefeller Center subway stop in New York to promote its original show, Sincerely X, which debuted back in February. (Pictures) Speaking of Audible, it looks like the company has been building another content strategy: creating original programming out of existing IP. (Rolling Stone).

Hot Pod: What will happen to the election podcast boom on Nov. 9?

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue ninety-three, published October 25, 2016.

“We’re built on top of a foundation that we feel pretty good about,” PRX CEO Kerri Hoffman said. “I’m excited that we’ll never start from zero again.”

We were discussing Radiotopia’s 2016 fall fundraising campaign, which kicked off on October 13 and ends later this week, and Hoffman was telling me how she’s significantly less stressed out this year. Last fall marked the first time the organization switched away from a seasonal Kickstarter strategy to a recurring donor model, an approach whose internal logic bears more than a passing resemblance to public radio’s pledge drive system. The bulk of last year’s work, she explained, involved building out basic fundraising infrastructure: pulling together email lists, developing the beats of their marketing push, testing out the messaging, and so on. A lot of those fundamentals remain in place this year, and they merely had to build upon them.

Accordingly, PRX’s focus is a little different this year: While last November’s campaign had the more precarious goal of building out its donor base for the first time, this year’s drive has the more modest goal of merely expanding that base. Last November’s drive successfully drew support from over 19,500 people, and a blog post PRX published at the time noted that 82 percent of those folks signed on as recurring donors at different contribution levels, which would place the recurring donor number at around 15,990 people. The campaign’s CommitChange page for this cycle indicates that 12,647 recurring donors from that initial drive have stayed on, illustrating a bit of a drop-off in the intervening 12 months. Donors in good standing were gifted a free challenge coin, and their recurring contributions are set to continue unless they decide to adjust their levels. Existing donors were also invited to make additional one-time donations. This year’s campaign is also a little shorter than the previous year’s, taking place across 20 days compared to 2015’s 30.

That said, this campaign has had its challenges. Hoffman tells me that, interestingly enough, this year’s bonkers election cycle has made messaging and marketing a little more difficult, given the oxygen it has sucked up over social media. “We’ve definitely had to work a little harder to keep the momentum going,” she said. “Everyone’s distracted.” And early on, a slight timing hiccup led to the campaign missing its first challenge grant — in which a sponsor pledges a particular amount if certain goals are met — by a little bit.

But even with those bumps, the campaign appears to be going strong, clocking in just over 3,200 new supporters by Monday evening. What’s interesting to me here, though, is the way in which the campaign goal of expanding its recurring donor base — which is a game of attrition, really — lends to a relatively unsexy marketing narrative. It’s one thing to announce the recruitment of over 15,000 supporters and have that be the core of a triumphant story, but it’s another thing altogether to try and drive a narrative about adding on 3,000 more supporters, and one wonders whether this narrative issue will pose a structural problem for Radiotopia’s ability to create a sense of urgency for future fundraising and donor recruitment efforts.

This predicament, I think, is an interesting microcosm of where we are in the larger narrative arc of this second coming of podcasts: the phase of the excitement of the new is coming to a close, and we march steadily on into the more mundane work of adolescence.

In related news: Radiotopia also welcomed a new podcast to the family this week: The Bugle, the popular satire podcast launched back in October 2007 by Andy Zaltzman and John Oliver (who you may know as the host of HBO’s Last Week Tonight). Oliver will no longer host the show, for obvious “there is not enough time in the world”-related reasons, and Zaltzman, who is staying on, will be supplemented with a rotating crew of guests.

The Bugle is Radiotopia’s second addition in recent weeks. In late September, the collective announced its recruitment of the West Wing Weekly, which is cohosted by Hrishikesh Hirway, who is already part of the Radiotopia family with Song Exploder. The Bugle and West Wing Weekly are noticeable departures away from Radiotopia’s usual aesthetic, which tends to favor narrative storytelling. The former can be categorized as a straightforward comedy podcast while the latter is a pretty extensive TV-club podcast. This departure appears to be strategic. In the related press release, executive producer Julie Shapiro noted: “These shows help us expand into new areas of entertainment, political news and satire, which will ultimately build on the existing Radiotopia brand and bring new audiences to all shows within the network.”

The Bugle is Radiotopia’s sixteenth show.

Election podcasts enter the homestretch. Let’s quickly check in on their game plans:

  • Starting today (October 25), the NPR Politics Podcast will publish new episodes every day until the election. The podcast also hit a milestone recently; according to a recent press release (which we’ll get back to in a bit), the show enjoyed 1,118,000 downloads during the first week of October and. It had averaged about 450,000 downloads a week over the past three months.
  • The FiveThirtyEight Elections podcast will also be publishing new episodes daily until the election starting today. Additionally, the show will continue past November 8 on a weekly schedule “through at least Inauguration Day.”
  • I’m told that there is no systematic plan to increase the output of Slate’s Trumpcast, which already publishes on a semi-daily basis. When I asked Steve Lickteig, executive producer of Slate podcasts, if the show will continue past the big day, he told me: “If there is a peaceful transition of power, Trumpcast will do one or two wrap-up shows. If it gets contentious, stay tuned!” The podcast reportedly draws 1 million monthly downloads and considered internally to be one of the most popular podcasts in Slate’s history, according to Digiday.
  • The Ringer’s Keepin’ It 1600, consumed by many as therapy, will “likely” continue past November 8. It has already shifted to a twice-a-week publishing schedule.

As always, much love to all the producers of these podcasts that are putting in the extra physical, mental, and emotional energy to stay close to the news cycle. It’ll be over soon, folks. (Or will it?)

A new lab, a podcast strategy? Last Wednesday, NPR announced an expansion and restructuring of its Storytelling Lab, its internal innovation incubator launched last June. Nieman Lab has the full story on the new setup, but at high level, you should know the following:

  • The lab has been renamed as “Story Lab,” and its structure has shifted from an incubator to what’s being called a “creative studio.” (Hey, nomenclature is important and words have meaning, folks.) According to the related press release, the studio’s articulated aim is to “support innovation” across the organization, “increase collaboration” with member stations, and better identify talent.
  • The initiative will apparently also be “investing in training, audio workshops and meetups,” which is a pretty solid idea, given that the supply chain for talent in the space seems deeply underserved at this point in time.
  • The release also noted that the Lab is funding three pilots, which is cool, though the pathway to full seasons and distribution for those pilots remain to be seen.

The Story Lab announcement was followed shortly after by news of NPR’s ratings increase this season which, among other things, drew attention to the breaking of broadcast audience records by Morning Edition and All Things Considered, as well as the fact that NPR One has grown by 124 percent year-over-year.

Cool news from the mothership, but when it comes to NPR and podcasts, I typically approach the situation with the following questions: What is the shape of its podcast strategy, how does it fit into the larger strategy, and what do these developments tell us about both of those things? From that framework, the Story Lab is clearer to me as a way for NPR to better capitalize on its ecosystem of potential talent than it is a focused strategy that says something explicit about how on-demand audio fits into NPR’s grand vision.

It may well be the case that there is a plan — or at least a theory — in place that isn’t being communicated at this point in time. “We don’t have a quota,” an NPR spokesperson said when I asked if the Story Lab had specific output benchmarks for pilot production. “We do have some internal goals about how many shows we want to pilot and launch, but we’re not ready to share those publicly.” What those are, and what they’ll be, is something we’re going to have to wait to find out.

An alternate narrative on the connected car dashboard? Two weeks ago, Uber announced an integration with Otto Radio, a commute-oriented audio and podcast curation app, that will serve riders with a talk programming playlist that’s dynamically constructed to fit their trips.PC Magazine has a pretty good description on how the experience enabled by the integration is supposed to work:

The next time you request a ride using the Uber app, a playlist of news stories and podcasts, perfectly timed for your trip’s duration, will be waiting for you in Otto Radio. Once your driver has arrived, you can sit back and enjoy your “personally curated listening experience and arrive at your destination up-to-date about the things you care about most,” the companies said.

Otto Radio is a quirky participant in the much larger fight among audio programming providers and platforms for the dashboard of the connected car — widely considered in the industry to be one of the biggest untapped frontiers — but this integration with Uber brings into the equation a potential wrinkle in that dashboard struggle narrative: What does that fight mean in an environment where Uber looks to (a) contend for transportation primacy over car ownership and (b) push deeper into self-driving cars? In this rather likely version of the future, does the fight for the dashboard dissolve back into the fight for the mobile device?

Splish splash. The Times’ public editor Liz Spayd turned her attention to the organization’s nascent (or rather, re-nascent) podcast operations over the weekend, and her column contained a bunch of pretty interesting nuggets for close watchers of the Gray Lady, along with anybody working at a media organization thinking about podcasts.

Of course, do check out the column, but here are the bits that stood out to me:

  • “The politics podcast, called The Run-Up, is attracting the youngest audience of any Times product ever surveyed, and one that spends far more time on it than most readers do on stories.”
  • “As the team gears up, it plans to produce a range of shows, from the more conversational to serial-style narratives. It will also scope out opportunities for audio on demand: newsy, gripping sound that could be found directly on the Times website rather than in podcast form.” ← this latter point is really, really interesting.
  • The Times’ next podcast, a game show featuring Freakonomics’ Stephen Dubner called Tell Me Something I Don’t Know, is scheduled to launch next month. Dubner, by the way, is hitting the free-agent game pretty hard: Freakonomics is still chugging along at WNYC, and his short Question of the Day podcast, produced under the Earwolf label, is also publishing industriously. Dubner has some history with the Times; Freakonomics was a blog on NYTimes.com between 2007 and 2011, and Dubner was once a story editor at the Times Magazine.

For what it’s worth, I liked Spayd’s analysis a lot. There remain tremendous questions about the promise of audio for digital media and news organizations, and whether it can deliver as a revenue boon in a business environment starved for growth injections and stabilizing pillars. Two core tensions exist in these questions: whether podcasts will offer incremental growth or whether it will be a so-called “magic bullet,” and whether podcasts will be deployed as a kind of top-of-the-funnel — a recruitment tool to reach previously unharvested audiences and pull them down the marketing funnel — or as a fully-fledged outpost all on its own.

Patreon partners with podcast hosting platform Podomatic. The partnership will let Podomatic users easily set up Patreon support buttons on their user profile, according to the press release. If you’re unfamiliar with Patreon, it’s a platform that helps creators receive funding and donations directly from their supporters — or patrons, to use the synonym that makes Patreon’s etymology more obvious.

It’s a nifty service, and I’ve used it before for Hot Pod back before I decided to take the newsletter full-time. And it’s also pretty widely used — separate and apart from Podomatic — by a number of podcasters, like Flash Forward’s Rose Eveleth. A Patreon spokesperson told me that the platform has about 10,000 podcast creators with Patreon accounts, and that the company is actively working to draw more podcasters onto the service. It’s a decent option, I think, for shows way under the audience threshold for advertiser interest but have an ardent, engaged base that may be willing to chip in some cash monthly to sustain the show. Hey, that model works for me.

Bites:

  • Politico’s hallmark newsletter product, the Politico Playbook, is now available in 90-second audio format, distributed both through the Amazon Echo and as a podcast. The birthdays, alas, will not be carried over. (Politico)
  • “Midroll Media did ‘in the ballpark’ of $20 million in sales last year, and is on pace to bring in more than $30 million this year,” Ad Age reports, using a source “with knowledge of the company.” (Ad Age)
  • WNYC Studios will launch its next podcast, Nancy, early next year. Nancy, formerly known as Gaydio, was one of the winners of the station’s podcast accelerator initiative that took place back in September 2015. (MediaVillage)
  • In The Dark, APM Reports’ limited-run podcast that investigates the 1989 child abduction of Jacob Wetterling in rural Minnesota, will be broadcast on the radio as a 4-hour roundup special. The show, by the way, is amazing, and I think it’s probably the most thoughtful true-crime podcast I’ve ever heard. The last episode dropped today. (Twitter)
  • Bumpers, an audio-creation app that I wrote about back in August, has raised $1 million in seed funding. (TechCrunch)
  • The first Chicago Podcast Festival, scheduled to take place after the Third Coast Festival from Nov. 17 to 19, has posted its lineup. (Chicago Podcast Festival)
  • Like many media nerds, I’ve been watching The Verge cofounder Joshua Topolsky’s latest venture, The Outline, with much interest, given its maybe-kinda-sorta “The New Yorker but for snake people” pitch. So consider me interested, and a little bemused, that their first public project is a podcast that recaps HBO’s Westworld, called Out West.
  • Julia Barton, a veteran audio editor, has long been frustrated with the use of microphone stock photos in podcast write-ups, believing it to be a considerable reduction and misrepresentation of the culture, work, and medium. (Current)
  • FWIW, I’m told that Starlee Kine is going to make an appearance at the Now Hear This festival this Saturday, doing a guest spot on the live Found show.

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

Hot Pod: Will the next wave of audio advertising make podcasts sound like (yuck) commercial radio?

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue eighty-nine, published September 27, 2016.

Panoply opens a London office. The Slate Group’s audio arm announced yesterday that it was expanding into the good ol’ United Kingdom. Specifically, the company is opening a new production office in London that will “facilitate closer collaboration with U.K.-based audio talent.” Ryan Dilley, a BBC veteran, has been hired to lead the new operation.

Here’s the most straightforward way to think about this: Panoply intends to do in the U.K. whatever it does here, including original and partner programming, the cultivation of a U.K.-based network of talent, and the recruitment/aggregation of local podcasts into its network.

This move also puts Panoply in a good position to do two things: first, to grow a bigger advertising presence that would allow them to monetize U.K. listeners on their existing American shows (up until this point, it’s basically money that’s been left on the table), and second, to challenge digital audio companies with British operations that have spent the past few years making in-roads into the more lucrative U.S. market, like Audioboom and Acast.

Andy Bowers, Panoply’s chief content officer (and my old boss, by the way), told me that U.K. ad sales aren’t the primary motivation for this expansion. “This is about talent,” he wrote, adding that they have already been engaged with targeted U.K.-only ad sales using their new Megaphone platform. I was also told to expect Panoply’s first slate of U.K. programming to roll out early next year.

Speaking of which, I should consider opening up a Euro Hot Pod bureau.

Keep an eye on this: Nielsen is working on a software development kit (SDK) that will, among other things, cater to the measurement of podcasts, according to a report by Radio Ink. They’ve been testing the kits with ESPN, and the company is “working towards having a syndicated service out there in the marketplace sometime in 2017.”

An SDK-approach is one of a few ways to deal with the industry’s measurement gap. But Nielsen will face similar political problems of adoption that plague companies like Podtrac — although it is a neutral third party. For what it’s worth, I’ve heard skepticism over an SDK-approach from a number of execs in the space, so we’ll see where this goes.

Midroll’s live intent. The end of October will see the inaugural Now Hear This festival in Anaheim, Calif., which will mark Midroll’s first foray into Lollapalooza-style multi-partner live programming. Now Hear This is set to feature shows from both within the Midroll ecosystem — that is, the Earwolf network and its universe of third-party ad sales clients — and without, boasting shows like Radiotopia’s Criminal and NPR’s How I Built This on the lineup. (I’m told that most of these external partners are paid an upfront fee for participation; no revenue shares are involved.)

Midroll is not the first podcast company to organize such an event. Indeed, this past weekend saw the L.A. Podcast Festival, and the Vulture Festival this past May also included a solid block of live podcast tapings. But Now Hear This is notable in how it reflects Midroll’s ambitions to diversify its revenue base. When the company announced Lex Friedman as its new chief revenue officer earlier this month, an explicit mention of a deeper focus on live events in the press release caught my eye.

“We don’t expect that, in the near term, live events will be as big as ads or subscription,” Friedman said when we spoke over the phone yesterday. “But it’s another way for us to diversify, and it’s the closest thing we have to kick off a network effect.” Friedman tells me that a festival like Now Hear This not only brings in ticket sales and sponsorship revenue, but the live tapings create additional material that can be served in Howl, the company’s premium subscription play. (Speaking of sponsorship: Casper and Mack Weldon, both veteran podcast buyers, are sponsoring the festival, with live show ad-integrations that will go beyond on-stage host-reads. More sponsors are expected to be announced soon.)

Midroll intends to produce more live shows of individual Earwolf podcasts in 2017, and Friedman hopes to collaborate with his third-party ad sales clients on live events as well. It’s an ambitious vision, one that I assume is backed by a long E.W. Scripps runway.

“We’re building a media empire, Nick,” he said, before bursting into terrifying laughter.

There’s been a misunderstanding, asserted Art19 cofounder Sean Carr when we spoke over the phone last week. He tells me that too many people have been conflating dynamic ad insertion technology with an automatic flood of programmatic radio-style prerecorded ads. One doesn’t necessarily lead to the other, he argues, pointing out that many of today’s production conventions — the ones that contribute to the medium’s identity of “intimacy” — don’t actually have to change. “Most host-read ads are recorded separately from the conversation anyway, and edited in after the fact,” he added.

For the record, I’ve come to agree with Carr’s position. (That view has been fleshed out across previous Hot Pods.) But I’d say that the anxiety that drives this conflation remains very real, and that Carr felt the need to reach out on this suggests it remains top-of-mind among many emotionally invested the space. There is now, after all, very little that would structurally prevent the inflow of eardrum-assaulting radio-style ads — a state of affairs that could spoil the medium’s identity for listeners trying it out for the first time.

“That anxiety will probably go away with better data,” Carr said. I’m inclined to agree, though there will always be a gap between where we are right now and a place where we’re have that abundance of appropriate, agreed-upon data. Not for nothing, but transition periods almost always suck — whether we acknowledge that or not.

Anyway, Carr also tells me that his team is working on some research that he hopes will increase advertiser confidence. Watch out for them.

Some notes on the border between publishers and podcasts. Last week saw news that Actuality, the podcast collaboration between Quartz and APM’s Marketplace, is coming to a close. The show first launched last summer and ran for two seasons. According to a joint blog post, the podcast was cancelled due to a lack of sufficient interest. “We’d rather hit pause now and move on to other experiments,” wrote Quartz editor-in-chief Kevin Delaney and Marketplace VP/executive producer Deborah Clark. The podcast averaged 100,000 monthly downloads across the last three months of the show.

“After two seasons, we learned a great deal about what works and what doesn’t in podcasting, and produced some strong episodes,” Delaney told me over email last week. He added: “I doubt this will be the last podcast product that Quartz develops.”

APM, for their part, will continue their efforts in these cross-platform partnerships. “Though not all our new podcasts at either Marketplace or APM overall will be in partnership with others, I think many will,” Clark told me. “Our guiding principle is how do we serve our audience better and sometimes that’s best done with other strong partners.”

One such example is Codebreaker, its collaboration with Business Insider, which will drop its second season later this fall. Another project to watch: Historically Black, which is a collaboration between The Washington Post and APM Reports (American Public Media’s documentary unit), which dropped its first episode last Monday.

As one media company shelves its audio ambitions (for now), another finds its runway. Bloomberg Media, the business news behemoth, has found some joy in its on-demand audio operations over its past year of experimentation. Michael Shane, a Bloomberg operative who was recently promoted to the position of global head of digital innovation, told me last week that the company’s young podcast arm is now a seven-figure business.

Bloomberg’s on-demand audio offerings are chiefly made up of subject-specific shows built around key reporters in the newsroom. Examples include, but are not limited to: Odd Lots (finance, featuring Joe Weisenthal and Tracy Alloway), Material World (retail broadly speaking, featuring Jenny Kaplan and Lindsey Rupp), and Game Plan (the workplace, featuring Rebecca Greenfield and Francesca Levy). The company is adding a tech podcast to its network next month, and is on the hunt for a San Francisco-based producer to handle duties on that show. (It’s worth noting that, shockingly, the team has only been composed of four producers up to this point. “It’s a lean team,” Shane said. “Which is great, because we like to do things profitably around here.”)

Shane’s team is also investigating potential collaborations with the company’s long-running 24-hour broadcast radio division. The most prominent example of this is Bloomberg Surveillance, a typically three-hour broadcast program that is being repackaged as highlights to serve podcast listeners. “It would be crazy of us to build a digital audio strategy that didn’t involve Bloomberg Radio,” Shane said. He also noted that Surveillance currently hits six-figure audiences per month, and that the show’s ad inventory has been sold out through 2017, with Bank of America as the sponsor.

When I asked about CPMs, Shane informs me that company sells at premium rates across all platforms — and that audio, certainly, is no exception. He also did pontificate, briefly, on the industry’s expectations of fallings CPMs as the basic ad formats get commoditized over the long run. “I spend a lot of time wondering: What’s next? What can Bloomberg offer [advertisers] around digital audio that’s more than an ad read?” Shane said.

“I heard someone say once that the business model for podcasts is to be beloved,” he continued. “As long as we can keep being audience-first and not squander that goodwill, this can be a great business for us over the long term.”

A sneak peek at RadioPublic. Jake Shapiro and the RadioPublic team have been keeping busy. After the crew of PRX alums announced their new venture earlier this summer, they’ve been hard at work on the listening app that will mark their first foray into product market. Shapiro was kind enough to invite me to take a look at a very basic prototype of the app. Some notes from our conversation:

  • The team intends to preserve and advance the medium’s open nature — which is to say, it will eschew a YouTube or Spotify-style closed ecosystem. “We just don’t think that’s the right way to do things,” Shapiro said, adding that the app’s experience will be built on top of open RSS feeds while being focused on serving listeners with a much better user experience than what exists now. That user experience is driven by a goal of “helping listeners make a more informed choice,” as Shapiro puts it.
  • While those ideas were understandable in the abstract, I had trouble visualizing the significance of the product even with the prototype in front of me. Shapiro provided an analogy to Flipboard, the social magazine app that, in many ways, serves as a user-friendly portal through which mobile users could manage their experience navigating the unruly web while respecting its open quality.
  • When I asked Shapiro about publisher outreach, he told me that, while the app is being built to provide value autonomously from any required publisher participation, the rise of dynamic ad insertion technology across an emerging class of hosting platforms necessitates some “technical handshakes” in order for both parties to properly benefit from the experience. Publishers are encouraged to get in touch.

Meanwhile, on the West Coast, the small team known as Tiny Garage Labs — founded by Planet Money alum Steve Henn along with former longtime Netflix operatives Steve McLendon and John Ciancutti — has been kicking up some noise as well. Last Thursday, Henn published a semi-manifesto and call-for-collaborators on Medium, and the team also scored a chunky Nieman Lab mini-profile that fleshes out their general product direction with 60dB, Tiny Garage Labs’ first market offering.

Here’s my read in a nutshell: It would be a mistake, in my opinion, to lump 60dB in with either your basic podcatcher play or a “Netflix for audio”-minded play like Midroll’s Howl. (In this case, it is prudent to not read too much into the team’s Netflix lineage.) Rather, given Tiny Garage Lab’s outsized focus on short-form audio — a perspective that views individual segments as the atomic unit of content, as opposed to the episode — 60dB would best be categorized against something like the Amazon Echo’s Flash Briefing experiments — which is to say, it is a wholly new, and entirely separate, product category.

ESPN Audio’s 30 for 30 team. Senior producer Jody Avirgan has announced the team that will take on the brand’s well-loved 30 for 30 adaptation into audio. They are: Rose Eveleth, of Flash Forward; Julia Henderson, formerly of WNYC’s Studio 360; Andrew Mambo, formerly of WNYC’s great Radio Rookies project; Katie McAuliffe, formerly of WNPR and a former ESPN music assistant; and Marcus Anderson, who comes in without a radio background (which is fantastic, IMHO).

Another quick ESPN-related tidbit, for those interested: According to an Awful Announcing blog post, “FiveThirtyEight podcasts across the board were downloaded over 7.8 million times in August alone, a 422 percent increase from February.”

Bites:

  • WNYC has had a busy week: it rolled out The United States of Anxiety, their second collaboration with The Nation (the first being the excellent There Goes the Neighborhood). The station also welcomed the second season of 2 Dope Queens. I’m told season one drew “millions of listens.”
  • Wondery CEO Hernan Lopez writes in to let me know that the network expects to hit 8 million downloads by the end of the month. The network is currently spread across 14 shows, with two originals. They’re hosted on the Art19 platform.
  • Radiotopia recruits The West Wing Weekly. The addition is said to allow the collective to “explore a new content direction, and evolve as a network.” (PRX)
  • Speaking of PRX, the company announced a new initiative last week called Project Catapult, where it will work with five chosen stations over a 20-week program to develop a sustainable local podcast strategy. (Current)
  • Have you checked out Audible’s Channels recently? The lineup now features what appears to be several new additions. Note, also, how the presentation flattens different content types, from original shows to comedy to article readouts. (Audible)
  • Speaking of article readouts, iTunes apparently is getting ready to promote a similar type of articles-read-aloud content. This is probably a nothingburger in terms of the larger questions of what this means for the podcast industry, a good chunk of which are crossing their fingers for access to their listening data, but hey, if you’re into Apple Kremlinology, this is a data point just for you. (TechCrunch)
  • An adapted version of the Politico Playbook, the political news website’s flagship newsletter, is now being distributed in audio form over the Amazon Echo’s Alexa platform. The audio version adopts the “90-second flash briefing” model, and drops daily starting yesterday. (Washingtonian)
  • Two reads for the public radio-oriented: “Great journalism alone won’t guarantee public radio’s survival” (Current) and “This American Fight” (Fast Company)

This 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.

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

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

We gonna get wonky here.

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

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

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

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

Super interesting.

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

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

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

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

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

6. Miscellanea:

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

Wow that made my neck hurt.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bites:

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

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!

Is the BBC’s power to blame for the U.K. podcasting scene’s underdevelopment?

The view on the other side. “I think the corporate heart of the BBC currently undervalues radio and may well be about to undermine it,” wrote Gillian Reynolds, the radio critic at The Telegraph, in a column published two weeks ago. (Radio critic! I want that job!)

Reynolds noted that “a 20 percent portion of [the BBC’s license fee] is spent on radio but [radio] accounts for 40 per cent of total BBC consumption,” and that the BBC’s radio properties — along with its digital audio relatives — provides its public with an unmatched programming value. She is concerned, then, with the institution’s recent move to merge its radio commissioning division with its television unit. “There really is nothing like BBC radio anywhere else in the world. Dilute it and it will vanish,” she argued.

It’s a fascinating argument, and one that feels more than a little familiar with respect to certain conversations about the American public radio system (see: the WBAA-This American Life-Pandora narrative that largely revolves around concepts of diluting the public radio mission) — though, of course, the dynamics and actual questions at play are drastically different. At the heart of it all lies the question about what gives public media its “public-ness” and quality, and how these things will survive in the face of increasing economic crunch.

Reynolds’ column also grants us some really interesting numbers on the U.K.’s podcast sector, which appears to be an opportunity that hasn’t been properly capitalizes upon just yet, on both the consumption and creation ends. Here are the numbers:

The BBC offers 450 podcasts from across its networks: Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time gets 2.3 million downloads every month, The Archers 2.2 million. That’s about 25 million a year, each.

The UK’s underdeveloped podcast consumption levels also appear to be matched by a similarly immature podcast advertising market.

“In my experience, the big players are still Squarespace and Audible, so the money is really coming from the U.S.,” observed U.K.-based Helen Zaltzman, of the Answer Me This and The Allusionist podcasts, when I reached out to her over email for some insight. “Generally, the whole of podcasting is undercooked here. The U.K. is years behind the U.S. in all aspects of the business. I don’t know anyone else here in the same position as me, making a living from their own podcasts (i.e., not counting producers for hire).”

Zaltzman noted that this lack of financially viable independent podcasts in the U.K. — along with an overall lack of podcasts — can possibly be attributed to the region’s large and varied radio industry. Two dynamics are suggested to be at play here: On one hand, the general structure of work opportunities provided by that industry incentivizes talent away from starting and running their own ships, and on the other, that talent is further deterred from doubling down on their own projects due to an immature business environment.

It’s a tough situation for stalwarts like Zaltzman, who is one of the very few U.K. podcast creators able to lean on the U.S. for a revenue stream that grants her sustainability. It also raises the question, then, of what kind of value is actually being created by companies that portend to support podcasters that currently operate in the U.K.

So-called begging. A very, very frustrating quote coming out of Acast cofounder Måns Ulvestam, who said the following in a recent Nieman Lab writeup about their new paid subscription feature:

If you look at the Spotifys of the world, they started with advertising, then turned to subscriptions. If you look at the history of podcasting, you’ve got Patreon, you’ve got crowdfunding efforts. But for me that’s not a business model, that’s just begging.

Ulvestam’s comments here are not only ignorant of models that have proven to be incredibly successful in the past — see the entire public radio system (including WNYC), Radiotopia, Maximum Fun, and so on — but also deeply ignorant of the realities of contemporary digital media, which are increasingly reflecting the notions that: (1) different business models must be adopted by different businesses based on their specific traits, public profile, and configuration, and (2) Patreon and crowdfunding efforts are part and parcel of larger development efforts to cultivate a direct relationship between publishers and consumers in a way that generates trust, collaboration, and community.

His comment is also deeply arrogant and incredibly disrespectful of the way a sizable chunk of independent creators need to function on the Internet in order to build out sustainable businesses. Independent creators, by the way, that also happen to be one of their target clienteles — like Flash Forward, which is distributed by Acast and is listed as an example on that Nieman Lab piece, but whose creator, Rose Eveleth, also relies on Patreon for a sizable chunk of her revenue.

Note:

Ugh.

A long-running podcast ends its run. Vox Tablet, an award-winning weekly podcast by Tablet Magazine, is shutting down after 11 years and 500 episodes, marking the end of one of the oldest podcasts maintained by a publication. When I reached out for comment, the team behind Vox Tablet, host Sara Ivry and producer Julie Subrin, cited changing economics and shifting priorities within Tablet as the primary reasons for the closure.

The show’s archives will be digitally maintained, and listeners can access them in all the usual places. Ivry and Subrin are on the hunt for their next gigs — with Ivry indicating an intent to find more work within the audio space (“In fact, I have some podcast ideas I want to pitch,” she noted), and Subrin hoping to help alleviate the impending editor shortage crisis.

I asked them if they would be willing to share what they’ve learned from their 11 years making the show. They responded:

Ivry: “To follow your curiosity as an interviewer, trust that you have this job on account of your imagination, willingness, and ability to have a good conversation. Another way to put that is, as the interviewer, you are the proxy listener who may know nothing about the topic, and so never assume foreknowledge and don’t talk over/condescend to your audience. That makes it alienating and unwelcoming to listeners.”

Subrin: “I’ve come to appreciate a the pleasures of a good two-way (or three-way, or…). I still love listening to (and making) carefully crafted, well-produced pieces, but I find my ears really prick up when I’m listening to something and I can hear that there’s a real conversation underway — unscripted, lively, thoughtful, engaged.”

Good luck, Sara and Julie!

First Day Backed. June has been eventful for the Cincinnati-based media octopus E.W. Scripps, which announced its acquisition of podcast app Stitcher (and the app’s impending absorption into the Midroll brand) a few weeks ago. But the corporation is also making some moves on the programming front.

Scripps has officially picked up First Day Back, a small independent podcast affiliated withThe Heard podcast collective, for its second season. Produced by film documentarian Tally Abecassis, the podcast’s first season followed Abecassis as she attempted to resume her filmmaking career after a long, long maternity leave. The narrative plays out in the diaristic first person, with Abecassis switching constantly between audio journaling and field recordings (the “field” often being places within her home, as she interacts with her family). The form and tone may be familiar to you; it’s reminiscent of Millennial, along with the pilots of Only Human and Death, Sex & Money. There are special standalone episodes featuring a memory, or listener feedback. It’s raw, and it’s really good.

The second season of the show will pivot away from Abecassis and the theme of work/life balance in motherhood. She did not clarify what the new season will focus on — only that it will focus on another person, that it’ll be a whole different storyline, and that it’ll adopt a more traditionally documentary-like feel.

Conversations for a possible pickup began when Scripps approached Abecassis late last year, after the show caught the attention of Scripps producer Marc Georges. “We loved what she did and felt it fit really well with the company’s desire to develop podcasts that blend journalism and storytelling in new ways and to be a destination for people who have great ideas,” explained Ellen Weiss, chief of the Scripps Washington Bureau who also oversees the organization’s podcast initiatives, when I reached out over email last week.

To be clear: First Day Back will be a Scripps-supported show, not an Earwolf show — unlike the former WNYC podcast Longest Shortest Time, which appears to be very much branded as an Earwolf property — and it’ll play out with an arrangement that’s different than DecodeDC, which is a podcast that Scripps fully owns, produces, and distributes. Furthermore, the fact that Scripps supports the show doesn’t necessarily translate into the inception of some sort of “Scripps Podcast Network,” as Weiss assures me. It’s a little confusing, but I think it’s more or less consistent with the view of Scripps as some sort of Berkshire Hathaway-esque holdings group as opposed to a straightforward media company.

The podcast will receive editorial support from the organization. The two entities are still figuring out how the distribution portion of the partnership would work, but advertising on First Day Back will be sold through Midroll — which is the case for all other shows that Scripps supports.

Weiss was unwilling to be more specific on the arrangements. “We really don’t discuss the details of our partnerships,” she wrote.

First Day Back will also continue its affiliation with The Heard.

The Radiotopia Podquest finalists. The talent-hunt initiative announced its slate of finalists this morning — and surprise! There’s going to be a final four, instead of a final three. They are:

  • Ear Hustle, by Nigel Poor, Antwan Williams, and Earlonne Woods. This podcast will bring you “the hidden stories of life inside prison, told and produced from the perspective of those who live it.”
  • Meat, by Jonathan Zenti. This is a show about “bodies and the lives we live because of them.” (Fantastic name, by the way.)
  • The Difference Between, by Jericho Saria and Hadrian Santos. This show will explore “the world of ‘information doppelgängers’ — the stuff you always confuse for that other thing — to find out what makes them truly unique.”
  • And Villain-ish, by Vivian Le. It’s a show about “gaining new perspectives on dubious figures we’ve been taught to revile, and exploring the hidden details we may have never considered.” (Which, I suppose, places it pretty thematically close to Revisionist History and that new history-oriented show that Gimlet hopes to put out later this year. A growing subgenre, perhaps?)

All four finalists will receive $10,000, along with additional editorial and technical support to create three pilot episodes. The finalists will be introduced onstage at the Podcast Movement conference in Chicago next week. Only one will be selected to join the Radiotopia collective at the end of this process — that’ll happen at the Third Coast Conference in November.

You can read the bios of the finalists — and the six semi-finalists — on the Podquest website.

Podcast networks, pay attention: After November, there will be some good show teams and concepts up for grabs.

Bites:

  • This is fantastic: “Obama White House Veterans Gleefully Enter the Podcast World.” (The New York Times)
  • Night Vale Presents has rolled out a second show, after Alice Isn’t Dead. Written by Welcome to Night Vale cocreator Jeffrey Cranor and author Janina Matthewson (Of Things Gone Astray), Within The Wires is a 10-part podcast that’s told through a series of relaxation cassettes. Given that this is the Night Vale team, the cassettes are expectedly creepy in the classic left-of-center way. (iTunes)
  • WNYC CEO Laura Walker responds to the growing narrative on public radio’s existential crisis: “Radio’s Next Incarnation: Join the Creative Disruption.” (Medium)
  • Why Oh Why?, an excellent and super trippy show by Andrea Silenzi, is now officially a Panoply show — and it’s on the hunt for a producer. (Panoply)
  • NPR One data point: “The largest age group listening to NPR One is 25- to 34-year-olds, according to NPR, with 40 percent of listeners under 35. More than a third of users who answered NPR surveys said they never or only occasionally listen to broadcast radio.” (Current)
  • “Seven ways public can attract a more diverse workforce.” Current recaps a panel moderated by Andrew Ramsammy at the recent Public Radio News Directors conference in St. Louis. (Current)
  • Ramsammy, by the way, is a former Public Radio International operative who is leaving the organization to start something called UnitedPublic Strategies, which comes with the tagline “Taking public media beyond broadcast.” Not much is known about it at this point in time, but expect more details when it launches sometime in July. (UPStrategies)

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)

Decoding what makes a podcast a hit on the iTunes charts

Edison Research: Monthly podcast consumption surges. More than 1 in 5 Americans report having listened to a podcast within the past month, according to data teased in a new blog post by Edison Research. Specifically, 21 percent of Americans (an estimated 57 million) report having done so, representing a pretty significant jump from 2015, which saw 17 percent of surveyed Americans reporting that behavior. In 2014, that number was 15 percent, so growth seems to be accelerating.

Another sweet way to cut it: Monthly American podcast consumption grew about 24 percent between 2015 and 2016. Don’t you just love stats?

It’s certainly an encouraging data point for all who are enthusiastic about podcasts as the future of radio/audio/blogging. And I’m certainly tempted to think that we’re finally seeing evidence of tangible widescale conversions from all the buzz and hype that podcasting enjoyed last year.

A plausible counterargument is as follows: Is this number a true reflection of solid, genuine, sustainable consumer acquisition (and retention) across the medium, or does it more represent a period where listeners are merely testing out the format? That question, to some extent, is irrelevant for two reasons. First, it’s a question with no meaningful immediate answer, because the process is still playing itself out. And second, the number itself is an influencing factor — as a positive public indicator that fuels for the industry’s vision and presentation of itself, one imagines that countless folks out to build new businesses within the medium will use this statistic in a pitch deck, playing out a fulfillment of their own prophecy.

Which is all to say: This data point is very good, and I’m going to call my mum and tell her I didn’t screw up my life joining this industry. Cool? Cool.

Anyway, Edison’s data point here is excerpted from the much larger Infinite Dial 2016 study, scheduled to be released later this week. The study comes out a partnership between Edison Research and Triton Digital, a digital audio technology and advertising company. I’ll write it up on next week’s Hot Pod.

Midroll tightens its brand. Scripps-owned Midroll Media is sunsetting its Wolfpop podcast network this week. Wolfpop was previously branded as Midroll’s pop culture-oriented owned-and-operated content arm curated by comedian Paul Scheer — as opposed the company’s flagship comedy-oriented Earwolf brand. (Yeah, it’s a little confusing, which is probably why we’re seeing this consolidation, I imagine).

Ten out of Wolfpop’s 13 podcasts will now live under the Earwolf umbrella. The three shows that will not continue their relationships with Midroll are Rotten Tomatoes, Picking Favorites, and Off Camera with Sam Jones. The company also announced that Hello From the Magic Tavern, a well loved and utterly weird podcast previously supported by the Chicago Podcast Cooperative, is joining the network.

Midroll chief content officer Chris Bannon made these announcements on the Earwolf forums yesterday, citing that “this change is a way for us to make Earwolf a bigger, better, and more inclusive network.”

I reached out to Bannon, who previously served as WNYC’s vice president of content development and production, and asked whether we’d be seeing any news programming coming out of Earwolf anytime soon. “I’ll certainly be taking a hard look at what we can contribute to our listeners’ needs for smart news programming,” he wrote back. “Right now, it feels as though many of the newsmakers are venturing pretty deeply into the comedy space, though. We will have announcements on the news front soon.”

Coy, Bannon. Very coy.

This development was foreshadowed by a job posting that the company put up last week, which contained the following self-description:

This group, led by our VP of Business Development, identifies and brings aboard great new podcasts and creators for all three of our major lines of business: Midroll, the leader in podcast ad sales; Earwolf, our owned & operated podcast network; and Howl, our premium audio subscription service.

In related Midroll news: the company has also hired Jenny Radelet, who previously served as executive media producer for the launch of Apple’s Beats 1 service, as the managing editor for Howl, the company’s subscription service. She started work yesterday.

Limited-run local journalism. This week, WNYC will kick off There Goes the Neighborhood, a limited-series podcast that’ll explore the topic of gentrification in Brooklyn. I personally get all my New York-related gentrification news from The Awl, but I’m intrigued to see that the show is produced in partnership with The Nation — another example of the swell of collaborations between audio companies and existing publications (see WBUR’s Modern Love, WNYC’s New Yorker Radio Hour, KPCC’s recently concluded The Awards Show Show, and the majority of Panoply’s operating model). The show will run for eight episodes and is hosted by Kai Wright, The Nation’s features editor.

There Goes the Neighborhood is notable to me for two reasons. First, it looks to be a strong piece of local journalism, something I don’t get to see very much of in Podcastland. Sure, it’s local to New York, perhaps the most saturated media market in the world, but still. Secondly, it’s the first major audio project that features the involvement of Rebecca Carroll, who joined WNYC last October as a producer of special projects about race in New York City.

“I’m here to generate ideas,” Carroll told me last Friday, when I asked about her role within the station. “We’re experiencing a moment right now in American culture where our most famous public intellectual is Ta-Nehisi Coates, where we have the #BlackLivesMatters movement, Black Twitter, and an election that comes down to the black vote. It’s a moment where blackness and black culture is being listened to, and my aim is to wrest that moment and harness it in a way that can be fanned back out into the most creative, innovative, interesting life-changing way.”

There Goes The Neighborhood is scheduled to debut tomorrow, March 9. A teaser for the show is up already.

An indie label comes alive. Night Vale Presents, the new indie podcast label — that’s what I’m calling it, guys, just roll with it, come on — founded by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, the creators of the wildly popular Welcome to Night Vale podcast, is publishing its first title today. The show, Alice Isn’t Dead, is an audio drama written by Fink, and it’s scheduled to play out across 10 biweekly episodes.

Alice is, in a lot of ways, quintessential Night Vale. It shares its predecessor’s particular brand of creepiness — that is, juxtaposing the banal with thick, slabs of horror — and, like Night Vale, Alice displays Fink’s fascination with Americana. Where Night Vale is a love letter to small-town America, Alice is a meditation on the expansive, desolate imagery of the desert highways that make up the vast middle of the country. I’ve heard cuts of the first two episodes, and I really, really like ’em.

Night Vale Presents was conceived out a logistical necessity. Fink and Cranor had wanted to develop more projects beyond their core show, and built Night Vale Presents to be a framework that supports them. “We don’t have any plans to try to grow it into an empire or start taking tech funding or any of that,” Fink told me over email. “What we do hope to do is keep making new podcasts, both our own and works by other artists who haven’t worked in the podcast space before.”

On iTunes, part one. So, the most common inquiry I get from Hot Pod readers overwhelmingly comes in the form of a gripe: How, exactly, do the iTunes charts work? (The second most common inquiry, for the curious: How much does so-and-so make? That’s…I don’t know what to say about that. Leaving that for another day.)

It’s a question I try to stay away from, for a simple reason: I don’t think it’s something that should be fixated upon. Sure, 70 percent of podcast listening happens through iTunes or the native iOS Podcasts app (or so we’re told — it’s impossible to verify, frankly, given the immature state of podcast measurement). But there are many, many other avenues for podcast creators to reach potential new audiences that haven’t been adequately utilized, including basic stuff like search and social. And it benefits the medium as a whole if more creators leaned harder into non-iTunes avenues. Think about it: Attempts to convert audiences through the iTunes platform is a play to win already well worn, probably maxed-out podcast audiences, and if every podcast creator assumes a strategy with iTunes — the platform in general, the charts in specific — at the core, then every podcast creator is essentially competing for the very same pool of ears.

So that’s where my head was at. But the more I thought about it, the more I felt that there may something to be gained by really thinking through the theory and context of the iTunes charts, and asking the question: How do the charts shape the space? But in order to do that, I’d first have to try to understand how they work in the first place.

Which is exactly what I’ve been trying to do over the past couple of weeks.

At this point, I’m going to lay down two core hypotheses, and I’m going to argue for their theoretical fidelity by disclosing that they’re informed by a combination of these things: a survey I recently ran among Hot Pod newsletter subscribers (I pulled 18 representative responses that you can view here), conversations with many, many, many podcast creators, stuff published by other podcast folks who have conferred with iTunes reps in the past, and drawing from my own experience with my old day-job employer. iTunes reps, understandably, declined to publicly comment.

My hypotheses are as follows:

1. The charts are particularly biased towards new subscriptions, and to some extent interactions with the iTunes link and engagements through reviews. Which makes sense: iTunes, like Facebook and every other platform that actively benefits from keeping users within its ecosystem, is incentivized to maximize engagements. Thus, achieving half a million downloads outside iTunes won’t reward a show as much as getting that same number in iTunes — and so on.

2. The charts are designed chiefly as a discovery tool, and it performs its duty by identifying and rewarding podcasts with a sense of momentum. Thus, what’s rewarded is relative positive change — getting an additional 1,000 interactions on top of a 10,000 interaction base (say, subscriptions) will send you up quicker than an additional 1,000 on top of 100,000. Again, this makes sense: If the charts were designed to display a power ranking of the most successful shows, then the Top 10 placements would simply never change, with the biggest shows standing to just keep getting bigger. And because iTunes is fully incentivized to provide a chart that, well, actually provides value to users to keep them on the platform, they’d need to rely on a discovery mechanism that allows for the top chart placements to constantly change. In a lot of ways, the charts are actually pretty democratic.

These two hypotheses don’t explain the charts in totality (nothing could, really, other than the algorithm-turned-sentient), but I believe them to be strong starting points to understand the charts. In sum: The charts are designed for discovery, but the engine they are built upon are iTunes interactions — and so podcasts move up because they engender more iTunes-driven subscriptions and downloads, because moving up is a form of reward. Once you settle into that, some things begin to make sense. It’s how you get a Disney enthusiast podcast in the top 5 between Serial and Alice Isn’t Dead — as it was positioned at 4 p.m. ET on March 4. It’s also how you get a parodic sports talk radio podcast sitting on the top spot in that same time period, even though it’s only loaded with a preview. (The prescriptive here is fairly clear: if you wanna play the charts game, optimize your marketing for iTunes interactions. Didn’t want to point it out, but what the hell I’ve already gone this far.)

And here’s where we get back to my original query: What effect does this particular chart system have on the podcasting space?

As my inbox suggests, it generates a lot of angst. I’d argue that feeling comes out of an interpretation that the iTunes podcast charts should serve as a mechanism that adequately signals or communicates a podcast’s value or worth. Which is an understandable interpretation to hold because (and here’s where I make a sweeping overgeneralization) charts are typically designed as tools to signal value.

And that’s the thing: That’s not what the iTunes charts is designed to do. It was designed to optimize for engagement on its platform, and not to provide a direct and clear representation of what’s valuable. (Although the rocketing up of a podcast on the charts does indicate a kind of value — it’s just we’re getting a proxy value.) But there’s a strong tendency to read iTunes as a prime arbiter of value because, well, we don’t have anything else.

Absent other means of context or evaluation, a singular chart of this nature leads to a muddled representation of the podcasting landscape, as it renders any act of interpreting relative value between podcasts almost impossible. And this provides a poor feedback loop for podcast creators, because a big part of understanding the health of your show is knowing how it stacks against other shows.

But here’s the other thing: I don’t perceive this as a story about the problem with iTunes — as far as I’m concerned, there is no problem with iTunes, because iTunes gotta iTunes. Rather, it’s a story about the medium’s larger problem of being to know itself, and the fact that the main way the industry does is dependent on a single, and incredible incomplete, point of view.

Okay, so I’m running out of space right now, and I wanted to talk about two more things: how the iTunes charts impact the relationship between podcast creators and advertisers, and what market opportunities are baked into situation. We’ll start with the former next week.

Relevant bits:

  • “How Politico’s ‘Off Message’ Podcast Is Rising Above Site’s Staff Departures.” A winning combination of strong booking…and loose lips. (The Wrap)
  • “No More Car Talk as WBEZ Turns More Airtime over to Podcasts.” Something’s going on at Ben Calhoun’s Navy Pier operation. (Chicago Magazine)
  • And while we’re on the subject of Nick Quah hobby horses: Recode is probably going to continue expanding their podcast offerings. I buzz with excitement. (CNN Money)
  • “Facebook Messenger Adds Music, Starting With Spotify’s Song Sharing.” All the potential around messaging that you’re already excited about, now with more audio! (TechCrunch)
  • Amazon rolls out two alternate versions of their Echo product, including a puck-sized model designed to latch onto non-Amazon speakers and turn them into voice-based gateways to the Internet. In case you’re new to this column, I’m personally very pro-Amazon Echo as far as its potential for non-visual — read: audio-oriented — computing. As a person who’s morbidly afraid of losing his eyesight, I’m all about that. (The Verge)

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