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]

Is Hillary Clinton’s podcast propaganda or a milestone for political podcast advertising?

With Her. Well, this is certainly something. Last Friday saw the launch of With Her, the official Hillary Clinton presidential campaign podcast, which both marks a milestone for the industry and, I suppose, is a sign of the times. The show also has the distinction of being Pineapple Street Media’s first launch, the podcast company recently founded by former BuzzFeed director of audio Jenna Weiss-Berman and Longform Podcast cohost Max Linsky. Linsky holds hosting duties on the podcast, which he ostensibly shares with Clinton herself, though one imagines that her extensive campaigning schedule will ultimately have a say in that.

The podcast is an absolute coup for the company and a strong, attention-getting start to its portfolio. The linkup between Pineapple Street and the Clinton campaign grew out of Weiss-Berman’s previous collaboration with the team, back when she worked on BuzzFeed’s Another Round podcast that booked Clinton on as a guest last October. “I stayed in touch with her digital team,” Weiss-Berman told me over email. “And shortly after Max and I started Pineapple Street, we started talking to them and we all loved the idea of a campaign podcast that focused on day-to-day life on the trail and not policy.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, that last point — the podcast’s focused on campaign trail life and not on policy — ended up being the point of critique for a few media outlets. Politico’s writeup of the podcast bore the headline: “Hillary Clinton finds another way to avoid the press: Her campaign launches a podcast with an on-payroll moderator whose first interview is the nominee herself,” highlighting the show as an extension of a long-running grievances held by the parts of the news media about Clinton’s tightly messaged campaign. That perspective was echoed by Michelle Goldberg over at Slate, who called the show “charming and gutless propaganda” and further argued that “a politician attempting to circumvent the media by creating media of her own sets a bad precedent.”

I don’t buy those critiques. For one thing, media creation — whether through tweets, a YouTube channel, creating a TV spectacle out of a convention, and so on — is an essential tool for a candidate’s political communication, and it’s one that’s part of a much wider set of tools, with messaging through the news media (either directly, e.g. sitdowns with Charlie Rose, or indirectly, i.e. free media) being only one within a larger toolkit. A candidate’s aversion to working directly through the press, as in the case of the Clinton campaign, may well be morally and procedurally frustrating for the press, but a perfectly fine outcome in this scenario is to make the absence of participation mean something as part of the candidate’s larger spectrum of political communication. (Which, indeed, is what is already happening, and we see traces of that in Slate and Politico’s analysis.)

So the media aversion/”propaganda” reading of the podcast isn’t one that really resonates with me, but I think the reason for that lies in an understanding that the podcast shouldn’t be read as anything too dramatically different from it actually is: a political ad.

Consider With Her as yet another example of a branded podcast — not unlike Gimlet Creative’s Open for Business or Pacific Content’s Slack Variety Pack. (Indeed, viewed this way, With Her is quite possibly the first major political ad buy in the history of the podcast medium.)

And because it’s a branded podcast, we should levy onto it the very same questions (of ethics and execution) that we would those projects from Gimlet, and Pacific Content. Questions like: Is the show successful in harnessing the format’s associations with sincerity, authenticity, and intimacy? (I.e: Do the interviews make her feel more real, the way the Longform Podcast and Another Round have drawn out people in the past? Also, just how real can a career politician, so hardened by decades of battle, feel?) Is the podcast able to be engaging while nulling the overarching context that the listener has opted to enter a space where the brand is trying to get them to think and feel a certain way? Is the project doing a good job being clear with its targeting — is it focused on deepening the candidate’s relationship with her supporters, or is it more engaged with humanizing Clinton in the face of on-the-fence supporters? And is the podcast, with its opt-in, on-demand, and high-involvement consumption requirements, appropriate for that?

That’s how I’d approach reading the podcast. Which is why I’ll say this: Based on the first episode (which runs short, at about 15 minutes), I’m not very sure whether With Her will answer these questions much beyond its novelty as the first presidential campaign podcast ever. To be sure, it’s a fizzy and fun listen, and longtime Hot Pod readers know I love love love me some Linsky interviews. But as a person already predisposed to the Clinton campaign, I didn’t feel like I gained anything particularly new or meaningful that wasn’t already telegraphed at the Democratic National Convention. And considering the broader messaging context, I also don’t think it’s clear yet who the podcast is for — and, by extension, how it’s supposed to carry out the aims of the campaign, which (and this isn’t a new thought at all) really struggles with connecting.

That said: It’s only been one episode, and I want to be clear that an assessment like this doesn’t quite honor the immense complexities that go into working with a campaign that aims to win the highest office of the land. (I can’t even begin to imagine the number of clearances that the production must go through.) The podcast is slated to run up until the election in November, and I have a good amount of faith that the team will figure out a way to take this powerful, powerful novelty — let’s not forget the fact that the first presidential campaign podcast is a major milestone for the emerging medium — and fashion it out into a genuine tool of political communication in the future.

What’s next for PSM? Weiss-Berman: “We’re working on lots of great stuff and something I’m really excited about is that we’re trying many different styles. So we’re doing a very heavily produced short-run serialized mystery show, a really fun chat show with The New York Times, Women of the Hour season two with Lena Dunham, and we’re developing a bunch of original shows. And so much more! And all the shows are really different, with amazingly diverse hosts, so I’m hoping they bring in audiences that are new to podcasting.”

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The convention bump. The Republican and Democratic conventions were dramatic and often confusing affairs, and it seems like a significant number of folks turned to political podcasts to figure some stuff out. Indeed, several enjoyed noticeable jumps in downloads across the two-week period. Some highlights:

  • The NPR Politics Podcast saw more than a 50 percent increase in weekly unique downloaders. (That metric tracks the number of individual listeners based on measurements of IP addresses.) The podcast dropped episodes every morning across the conventions, with each edition covering the goings-on of the night before.
  • Panoply reportedly experienced a 35 percent increase in weekly downloads (over the average of the previous four weeks) among their set of political podcasts: the Slate Political Gabfest, The Gist, and Vox’s The Weeds. The Gist, which is already a daily podcast, opted to drop short review episodes every morning in addition to its normal episodes across the period. The other two shows maintained their weekly schedules.
  • The FiveThirtyEight Elections podcast also saw “a big rise in downloads and rankings,” according to producer Jody Avirgan. A spokesperson later added that over the convention period, the team “saw consumption of the Elections podcast increase nearly 300 percent compared to daily consumption before the conventions.” The podcast also dropped episodes daily across the two events.
  • The Ringer’s Keepin’ It 1600, which features former Obama administration staffers Jon Favreau and Dan Pfeiffer, saw a bump of about 15 percent. Before the conventions, the podcast had steadily grown up to an average of over 200,000 downloads per episode, and went up to about 230,000 downloads per episode through the two events.
  • BuzzFeed’s No One Knows Anything saw a “171 percent increase in downloads during the two weeks of the conventions, compared to the two weeks before the conventions,” said Meg Cramer, who produces the show. “But, it’s hard to make comparisons, because our convention coverage was different from our weekly show. (Several topical mini-episodes, vs. one big show.)”

These event-based growth bursts are extremely valuable, but the real question is whether the shows will be able to retain the influx of new listeners. Brent Baughman, who produces the NPR Politics Podcast, tells me that, while it’s still a little too early to tell, he estimates that about three-quarters of the podcast’s new listeners have stuck around since the conventions. He also notes that the podcast now enjoys an audience of over 560,000 weekly unique downloaders.

It should be noted that the bumps didn’t come from organic discovery alone. Around the convention period, FiveThirtyEight carried out aggressive cross-promotion efforts that hoped to draw in audiences that exist on its other platforms and on platforms controlled by parent ESPN. Those efforts included a refocus on embedding the podcast in FiveThirtyEight articles, adding language that welcomed new listeners to the show, featuring the podcast in the ESPN app, and working with ESPN Radio to run a spot on terrestrial stations promoting the podcast. “That’s going to start working into the rotation soon, I hope,” Avirgan added. “It’s not going to be a huge push, but frankly I imagine a lot of the kinds of folks who are just tuning in to the election are the types of folks who are listening to ESPN Radio, etc. So, we’re trying to be smart about targeting that group.”

NPR marshalled similar efforts of their own. On July 14, Gimlet’s Reply All dropped an episode containing a guest dispatch by NPR reporter and Politics Podcast cohost Sam Sanders (who, by the way, is an absolute star) that focused on the shooting in Dallas. And in the following two weeks, NPR director of programming Israel Smith coordinated a strong cross-promotion push across the organization’s other podcasts, acutely focusing attention onto the Politics Podcast and its presence on the convention floors.

Key national events like these conventions are essential opportunities for podcasts — or any new medium, really — to prove their worth as possible additions to the world’s wider information architecture, and the onus is on them to make themselves known in times when collective reality feels increasingly distorted.

“I think you build news consumption habits in a year like this,” Baughman said. “It’s a time when you generally want to be more informed than you are.”

An audio newsletter. It’s always a wonder to find a place that’s doing strange and wonderful things.

One such place is Boston public radio station WBUR, which will be launching an experimental 21-day fitness podcast project called The Magic Pill next month. Here’s how it works: People who sign up will receive daily Magic Pill newsletters, with each missive — that can be consumed right off their inbox — containing a short podcast episode that contains exercise tips, stories about fitness, and even some music to get that body movin’. Participants move through three-week-long sequence on their own, as they’re given the ability to initiate the challenge cycle at any time, and their relationship with the podcast will be tightly managed through their interactions with the newsletter.

“In a way, you could call this an audio newsletter,” said Lisa Williams, who holds the title of engagement director at the station. “It’s a real hybrid.”

The challenge is one of the many projects being developed in WBUR’s Public Radio BizLab, a Knight Foundation-funded initiative that seeks to explore possible new business models that can help sustain public radio stations in the future through rigorous experimentation and design. (And let me tell ya’, some of these experiments are fascinating, including a blockchain-powered emerging music library.) The lab is a smart, deeply needed enterprise and, quite frankly, I’m amazed that such a thing exists in the first place.

Like all other BizLab projects, The Magic Pill was designed to answer very specific, testable questions: Could you create a tightly-design podcast experience that plays out within a subscriber’s inbox (as opposed to, say, an RSS feed)? Can the process of creating that experience increase the level of data literacy among the operators at WBUR? And, perhaps most importantly, are listeners who take part in an ongoing experience more likely to donate or become members?

That last question, which focuses on discovering new fundraising avenue within the public radio system, is a crucial pillar for the BizLab initiative. And much of the project designs are guided by tangible, and often frustrating, past experiences. “We did this great project once on Whitey Bulger,” Williams said. “It was just such amazing work, but we didn’t do anything to package it in a way that would get people to support the station more. But when we packaged and sold it as an ebook, about 11,000 people bought it. We left money on the table.” (Interestingly, the ebook, “Whitey on Trial,” is generally available for free, but it’s priced at $1.99 on the Amazon Store — the lowest possible rate — because ebooks can’t be listed there for free.)

When I asked Williams what conversion rates she would consider a success, she guided me to focus more on the balance between outcome and effort. She noted that relatively low conversion rates would still be considered fine, given that the amount of work that goes into making The Magic Pill is significantly less than the huge fundraising efforts that involve heavy participation across the whole station. In Williams’ mind, the emphasis is on the tightness of workflow and a rigor in pushing specific sets of audiences down the fundraising funnel. It is a valiant, refreshing prospect, and I’m curious to see where this goes.

You can sign up for the newsletter here. The Magic Pill project goes live on September 1.

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Bumpers. I believe I’ve been on the record before as not particularly enthusiastic about social audio apps and any relevant enterprise that seeks to make podcasts more shareable on social platforms like Twitter and Facebook more broadly. For me, the arguments largely takes two forms: (1) a sense that the rendering of a piece of media into something more shareable threatens to deconstruct, atomize, and commoditize that piece of media for a whole other purpose — and for podcasts, that fundamentally means a stripping it of its original value proposition, and (2) a general feeling that social platforms are universes upon themselves whose activities should be native to the very structures of those platforms. Plus, there’s a whole square peg/round hole bit to such efforts, and I just find it all rather inelegant.

That said, I’ve still made it a point to keep an eye on new social audio apps like Anchor (my write up here) and Rolltape (R.I.P., my write up here) because I figured there’s always something to learn from such experiments.

Which is why I’ve been tracking a new app called Bumpers for some time now and, I have to say, it’s perhaps the audio-oriented app that comes closest to deconstructing and replicating the original value proposition of a podcast. Where apps like Anchor and Rolltape focused on communication, Bumpers firmly trains its eye on creation and expression — and that, I think, is where it gets the association right.

Here’s how it works: Users record a session through the app, which then automatically segments the recording based on sentences that users can stitch together into a podcast (referred to as a bumper within the app’s universe, for obvious reasons) by selecting and sequencing those sentence units into a whole through the app’s rather intuitive mobile audio editing interface (which, goodness, is key to the whole experience). There’s a library of preset sounds that you can throw into the mix, the additions of which greatly influences the feel of the bumper — not unlike, say, how an Instagram filter alters the feel of a picture.

That evocation of Instagram is not accidental. “I think a good analogy is Instagram for podcasts,” said Ian Ownbey, one of Bumpers’ creators, when I asked him to describe the app, which I had trouble articulating. “Instagram’s goal wasn’t to replace professional photographers — it was to let everyone else easily take and share high quality photos.”

Ownbey, who was an early engineer at Twitter and is also responsible for the OneShot app (which I’ve written about in relation to the theory behind screenshorting audio), has been paying close attention to the dynamics of the podcast space to build Bumpers, and thus is privy the complexities associated with the distribution and listener-end of the ecosystem. A lot of those considerations inform the development of the app.

“The problem isn’t solvable as long as the community is fractured over all these different consumption mediums,” he said, reflecting on the distribution question. “Even if I went out and created a consumption client that had the best discoverability in the whole world, it would be impossible to get adoption high enough that it was useful…If all the listening happens in Bumpers itself (or in an embed from bumpers), we can start to solve these problems.”

For now, though, it’s still early days for Bumpers, and so tackling the distribution angle will have to be a future preoccupation. “Creation is our entire focus right now,” Ownbey said.

Bites:

  • A little more on the NPR Politics Podcast: Producer Brent Baughman believes the experience producing the daily convention episodes have given them a roadmap for possible breaking or morning news podcast projects in the future. “Someone’s going to plant the flag on the morning news podcast, and I think it can be us,” he said.
  • I am super, super psyched over Castro 2, a new podcasting app that shifts the user experience paradigm in such smart, wonderful ways. (Supertop)
  • After the Cleveland Browns, another NFL team has launched their own official podcast: the Baltimore Ravens. (Official Ravens website)
  • According to Current, “the audience for NPR’s newsmagazines and its member stations has been growing,” bucking a recent trend. The organization credits the rise to a bunch of different factors — much of them internally driven, but also one that involves a change in how Nielsen collects listening data — but as Tape’s Mickey Capper tweets out, “wouldn’t the main factor be the election?” Be sure to check out the ensuing thread.
  • “The (Future) Queens of Podcasting.” (The Ringer)
  • This is super cool: “Introducing 1,000 Words, a podcast that describes internet pictures in binaural audio.” (The Verge)