If podcasts and radio move to smart speakers, who will be directing us what to listen to?

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 139, published November 7, 2017.

Charla de Cóctel. Slate Podcasts is now bilingual. Last week, the network leveraged its hefty experience with conversational programming — which birthed the style known as the “gabfest” — to launch what it bills as its first-ever Spanish language product, El Gabfest en Español. The lineup includes León Krauze, the main anchor at Univision’s KMEX station in Los Angeles and the Wallis Annenberg Chair in Journalism at USC; Fernando Pizarro, a political reporter for Univision’s local TV stations; and Ariel Moutsatsos, the Washington bureau chief for Noticieros Televisa. (A fourth panelist will be added at a later date.) The podcast comes out of a collaboration with Univision Noticias, the Spanish-language American news source, but I’m told that Slate has full editorial control over the project. Paulina Velasco, who is based in Los Angeles, serves as the show’s producer.

When I asked the managing producer of Slate Podcasts, June Thomas, about the motivation behind the project, she systematically ticked off the drivers: demographic opportunity (“We know the stats about the growth of Spanish and bilingualism in America,” Thomas said: “37 million Latinos speak Spanish at home; the U.S. Latino population is set to reach 107 million by 2065, etc.”); a largely untapped market (“Everyone working on English-language podcasts worries about market saturation…There are a few U.S.-produced Spanish-language podcasts out there — Radio Ambulante is especially great — but the market is the opposite of saturated”); and Slate’s general intent to seek new audiences to bring into the fold.

That last bit is as much opportunity as it is challenge for Slate Podcasts. “Although lots of bilingual Spanish speakers read Slate, it isn’t an obvious place for people to come to seek out Spanish-language content,” Thomas notes. “So we have to go out and find them.” Thus the Univision Noticias partnership, given the channel’s deep knowledge of the market, its sustained relationship with the demographic, and its growing interest in podcasting as a channel.

Another challenge that Thomas’ team is finding: advertisers. “The direct-response companies that advertise on podcasts work by driving listeners to a site that touts the product’s benefits; many have told us they don’t yet have a Spanish-language website,” Thomas explained. “I don’t want to be too much of a downer, though, some of our brand advertisers are specifically looking for a sophisticated Spanish-speaking audience as they launch new products, and we expect to see more of that business.”

You can check out the show here.

Side note: In my estimation, and do let me know what I’m missing, there seem to be few formal entities explicitly working to serve and build a business around Spanish-speaking podcast listeners. (Granted, I’m a non-Hispanic immigrant who doesn’t speak Spanish, so my natural grasp of that ecosystem is limited.) Among the ones I’m familiar with: Caroline Guerrero and Daniel Alarcón’s aforementioned Radio Ambulante, CNN en Español, and Revolver Podcasts, the network founded by former Univision executive Jack Hobbs. Speaking of which, Hobbs tells me that the network sees about 2.3 million monthly downloads across its 47 shows, and that they, too, enjoy a partnership with Univision.

More podcasts on Pandora? Facing third-quarter declines across a slate of key metrics — monthly listeners, listening hours, and sold ads — the music streaming platform indicated in a recent earnings call that it will be shaking some things up to get things back on track. Among the moves articulated: expanding the platform’s non-music programming, like podcasts and spoken-word content, according to Variety.

You might remember that Pandora had previously struck up an arrangement with This American Life to bring the show, along with the two Serial seasons, onto the platform last April, where the podcasts were chapterized, given their own station, and packaged with a Pandora-specific ad unit. (You might also remember that this arrangement led to the WBAA-TAL kerfuffle, which raised the question of whether such partnerships with explicitly for-profit platform companies compromised This American Life’s commitment to the public media mission, and whether TAL should therefore be penalized by the system as a result.) In any case, despite indications at the Hivio conference in Los Angeles last summer that Pandora was “pleased with the experiment,” it hasn’t looked like the platform was moving to scale up the initiative anytime soon…until now.

What does this mean for publishers? Probably that one should expect Pandora to go knocking around for potential partnerships — I presume we’re going to see more instances of exclusives and windowing — and that the first teams to get contacted are the ones you’d expect. (The big get bigger, etc.)

Two more things to note. The first is how this tosses Pandora into the pit with Spotify, TuneIn, iHeartMedia, Stitcher, and Audible in the hunt for content partnerships that would give any one of them an edge over the others. The second is Pandora’s strategic assumptions in its pursuit of such arrangements; new Pandora CEO Roger Lynch “signaled that such a move would also make economic sense since royalties will be lower than for music programing,” as the Variety writeup notes. Remember to squeeze, folks.

What does this mean for every other type of publisher — the independents, the small shops, the niches, the locals, the ones that advocate for the medium’s openness? Nothing particularly comforting, I reckon.

Crisis at NPR. The story can be told in a series of headlines: “NPR’s top editor placed on leave after accusations of sexual harassment,” “Top NPR News Executive Mike Oreskes Resigns Amid Allegations Of Sexual Harassment,” “NPR bosses knew about harassment allegations, but kept top editor on job,” “At NPR, Oreskes harassment scandal leaves deep wounds,” “NPR retains law firm to review how Oreskes allegations were handled,” “NPR CEO to staff: ‘I let you down’,” “NPR Management Under Fire Over Sexual Harassment Scandal.”

It’s been an exceedingly dispiriting week for the public radio mothership. The question now is what happens next to NPR’s leadership, and in particular CEO Jarl Mohn, given his handling of newsroom concerns in the wake of the scandal — and his management of the actual allegations in the years before they were publicly revealed by The Washington Post. Parallel to this, and perhaps more importantly, is the longer-term question of how, and how vigorously, the organization will build systems to combat sexual harassment and support a better workplace culture. This latter question involves a process, constant and attentive, as the organization moves to repair a culture that has systematically affected the women in its ranks.

None of this should be viewed strictly as an internal affair. The health and internal culture of any news organization is directly relevant to our relationship with them, and this is ever more true for NPR, which is fundamentally supposed to be more than a news organization. It is a civic institution, a symbol that this society — from its government down to its people — can continuously collaborate to maintain a system meant to elevate the whole. It is also an operation financed in this spirit. NPR is not a news organization that sells you the news; it’s an entity in which you invest to improve public knowledge. You’re invited to be directly responsible for the thing — for its achievements, its character, its moral authority. Indeed, that responsibility is core to the strength of its identity and brand, if we’re allowed to use the term. That’s why any scandal, and particularly one of this nature, within NPR cuts deeper. That’s why, as both its consumers and its constituents, what troubles the institution should trouble us too.

The string of stories about sexual harassment in the media and beyond has raised a great number of questions that should be grappled with long after this moment — about its painful pervasiveness and complexities, about the way it has shaped public narratives, and so on. The NPR case clarifies an additional layer, refining a question about the role of the audience. There is a tension, it seems, when it comes to figuring out how to support the general while protesting the specific as consumers with the voting power of a listen or a download or some contribution to the AQH (now at an all-time high, we’re told). How does one express solidarity with Mary Louise Kelly & Co., while signaling displeasure or ambivalence with the leadership? How does one do these things in a way that matters?

Read also: “Reporting on Journalist-on-Journalist Sexual Harassment is a Proxy for Dealing With the Trust Problem (and can make it worse),” by Nikki Usher.

WNYC boomerangs? The station circulated an internal memo last Tuesday that Pat Walters, most recently of Gimlet Media, has returned to the Radiolab team that gave him his start. Walters left Radiolab in 2014 to join Pop-Up Magazine, the beloved “live magazine” operation, as senior editor. He later moved to Gimlet to launch and host the Undone podcast, which was ultimately canceled after one season. He was subsequently involved in the launch of Uncivil, a Civil War history podcast with journalists Chenjerai Kumanyika and Jack Hitt. At Radiolab, Walters will assume the role of “senior editor of the special projects unit.”

Walters marks the second return to WNYC in recent weeks. Joel Meyer, who was an executive producer at the station before leaving for Slate in 2014, kicked off his return engagement as an executive producer for WNYC Studios last Monday. Is this the beginning of a trend for the station?

Keep an eye on WNYC. I hear something else is afoot.

And while we’re on the subject of personnel: American Public Media’s Marketplace announced a few executive hires last week, the most relevant of which is Sitara Nieves, who will now serve as executive director of on-demand audio. Nieves was previously the interim executive producer of Marketplace, and before joining the organization in 2012, she worked on WNYC and PRI’s The Takeaway. The news comes as APM sees off the retirement of Dinner Party Download, and not too long after losing its former Marketplace Tech host, Ben Johnson, to WBUR’s budding podcast division.

Search to suggest. Look, this is going to get pretty woo-woo head-in-the-clouds in, like, a hot second, but this is my newsletter and I’ll cry if I want to, so strap in and bear with me for a bit.

So I was talking to this guy, Dan Sacher, who heads up content partnership in the United States for this Tel Aviv-based company called Audioburst, which according to Crunchbase endeavors to create a “screen-free, speech-based technology that enables search and interaction with audio.” The premise is basically “Google, but for audio,” which isn’t an entirely new gambit all by itself, if you’ve been looking around long enough. Among other tools, there’s Pop-Up Archive’s Audiosearch (which ceased public operations two weeks ago), and more recently there’s this service called Listen Notes, which got itself billed as “the Best Podcast Search Engine” by Lifehacker back in September.

But I’m not talking to Audiosearch or Listen Notes; I’m talking to Sacher, and the dude is describing how Audioburst works. As explained to a lay person (i.e. me), the mechanics feel straightforward and familiar: The technology ingests on-demand audio files and linear broadcast streams to create transcripts, which it then scans for keywords to be broken out as searchable tags for listeners — and eventually advertisers, I suppose — to look up. As with all things artificially intelligent and machine-learning–related, Audioburst’s abilities theoretically improve over time as more raw material is fed into it, and this is presumably where choices are made pertaining to the substance of the algorithm. (Here’s also where conversations about the “editorial character” of algorithms should be located, I guess.)

There is an apparent ambition to use that data to build personalized matches for individual consumers, constructed around personas or listener profiles. (This portion would not be unprecedented in this space; think Panoply’s partnership with Nielsen Data.) To this date, Audioburst has rolled out a few products built off its core indexing capability, including two smart device integrations (one for Google Assistant, one for Amazon Alexa), a developer API, and most recently, a consumer-facing search engine. One assumes there are more to come.

TechCrunch has a more in-depth explanation of the company, if any of this tickles your fancy, and the piece contains some detail on Audioburst’s strategic machinations. Among them:

The company is largely focused on partnership deals with radio stations, radio programs, and podcasters. It’s also starting to venture into the TV space, with plans to index TV news, and is chatting with a small handful of auto manufacturers about integrating Audioburst into their own in-car entertainment systems.

All right, so. This is all super interesting, but what’s the bigger thought bubble here? What’s this got to do with you?

Well, as you might’ve noticed, I’ve spent some time in this newsletter keeping tabs on the emerging smart-speaker category, and that attention is driven by a sense that some conflict and conciliation is on the horizon between the way we currently consume podcasts — as well as radio and music, for that matter — and how we will eventually consume all audio should voice-first computing further broaden itself out in the mainstream. (This is directly related to the probable convergence among different publisher types that I’ve been yammering on about since last March; the notion is that as the nature of distribution changes, so do the structural groupings of different kinds of spoken-audio content, which drains the fundamental meaning from a word like “radio” as much as it does “podcast.”)

I think the way Audioburst is setting itself up in the market, and how it views the field in the years to come, is worth mentally working through if you plan to continue playing in this space five to ten years from now. Currently, the company appears to be building out a search portal for audio content, but it’s really laying a foundation for a more linear — and to some extent, more opaque, even than Apple’s podcast editorial pages and chart algorithms — form of discovery and distribution: personalized suggestion. Audioburst’s “search to suggest” thesis comes as an anticipation of how the internet, represented visually and aurally, might next shift paradigmatically. And as this one dude Andre Staltz pointed out in a recent blog post about the Internet and Everything Else, “search to suggest” is precisely the thesis currently being operationalized by Google.

(It’s worth reading Staltz’s whole piece, by the way, which essentially walks us through the end of the seb and the rise of what he calls the Google-Facebook-Amazon “Trinet.” This all has the capacity to make you feel so very small in the face of the conflicts and tensions of structures way bigger and way more powerful than you, and that may well be true for most of us normal human individuals. But much like matters of foreign relations, we will nonetheless be recipients of the process and outcomes of those conflicts. Side note: The thing about optimism is that given a long enough time horizon, all optimism turns into tragedy. Moving on.)

Assuming you’re the kind of podcast publisher that likes to worry — or just think through — hypothetical futures, it’s worth applying some imagination in pursuit of a few workable questions around this scenario. What I’m personally trying to grasp, and where I think new knowledge is to be created, revolves around the question of how consumer power can meaningfully express itself within the “Suggest” paradigm, if consumer power will continue to exist at all. If the Amazon Echo, Google Home, or whatever else that comes down the pike becomes the primary way of consuming podcasts, the radio, or music, what does the user pathway of selecting what to listen look like? How are those user journeys structured, how can they be designed to push you in certain ways? (The “Power of the Default,” by the way, is a very real thing.) How would discovery work? Which is to say, how does the market look like? Where and how does the consumer make choices? What would choice even mean?

All right, I’ll come down from La La Land now.

Career spotlight. This week I traded emails with James Kim, a Los Angeles-based producer who primarily works at KPCC, and who probably represents the strongest argument for us needing to have some sort of IMDb situation going on. Kim’s rap sheet is a steady stream of weird, interesting shows, both broadcast and podcast, and it suggests a consistency in aesthetic as much as a professional progression.

[storybreak]

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

[conr]James Kim: I’m an associate producer at KPCC making podcasts with my boss/work wife Arwen Champion-Nicks. Side note: She’s so damn good at what she does and is constantly inspiring me in many ways. We’re working on some new projects that I can’t talk about at the moment (I feel like I’m in the CIA), but you’ll hear about it pretty soon!

I’m also working on the audio drama podcast Deadly Manners. It’s been a nice shift from the projects and podcasts that I normally do.[/conr]

[conl]Hot Pod: How did you get to this point?[/conl]

[conr]Kim: I grew up on Korean talk radio and Top 40 music, and I had no idea what NPR was until I got to college. I was studying music and making documentaries and I somehow found This American Life on iTunes. That show told everyday stories in an interesting way and each episode sounded like an indie film. After becoming obsessed with it, I realized that I wanted to make audio documentaries as a career.

My first job in public radio was actually at KPCC. I started as an intern a few years back for the weekend show Off-Ramp and I did an internship with The Dinner Party Download (R.I.P., fam) shortly after. After finishing those internships, I couldn’t find a job or even freelance work in radio for about a year.

During that time, I almost gave up in finding a career in public radio entirely. But I decided to give it one last shot and I moved to a 2,000-person town in Texas to do another internship. I told myself, “You better make this one count, girl.”

I spent every waking hour making a podcast at Marfa Public Radio called There’s Something Out There. It was an audio documentary series about the supernatural activity in West Texas. Right before I ended my internship, I got offers to work on a couple shows and eventually got a job as a producer on KPCC’s The Frame.

Even though I finally got a full-time job, I didn’t stop making podcasts. After clocking out at The Frame I was creating a podcast called The Hiss. The show is about people holding onto memories that they want to forget. I then took a producer job with The Dinner Party Download and I continued to work on my passion projects outside of work. This time, it was a podcast called The Competition with Elyssa Dudley and Cameron Kell. The first season followed the most prestigious piano competition in the world from beginning to end, and it was inspired by my love for reality TV competition shows such as Top Chef and RuPaul’s Drag Race (anyone ready for All-Stars 3?)

I haven’t had many free weekends because of my various side hustles, but I’m sure that’s the case with a lot of producers in this field. I’m young and I got the energy to sleep 4 hours a day. So why not put that energy to good use, right?[/conr]

[conl]Hot Pod: What does a career mean to you, at this point?[/conl]

[conr]Kim: At first, it meant health benefits and enough money to move out of my parent’s house. Now it’s a way for me to practice my craft every day and get better at what I do.[/conr]

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

[conr]Kim: This is so embarrassing, but I wanted to be the next Ira Glass. Admit it! You’ve had that goal, too![/conr]

[storybreak]

Bites:

  • Two-Up Production’s Limetown will return in early 2018, almost two full years after wrapping its first season. (Apple Podcasts) The team has had quite an adventure in the intervening period, including a novelization in process, a TV adaptation potentially on the cards, and a three-act podcast musical starring Jonathan Groff and Jessie Shelton.
  • 30 for 30 Podcasts will return for its second season later this month, thereby executing a shockingly short turnover time between seasons (under four months). Turns out that those early speculations appeared to be true: For this coming five-episode bundle, ESPN relied on outside partners to produce three of them. Those partners: NFL Films, Long Haul Productions, and Pineapple Street. This structure makes the podcast series more closely mirror its parent film operation. (Press release)
  • Cardiff Garcia, the editor of the Financial Times’ flagship financial and economics blog Alphaville, is moving to NPR’s Planet Money, where he’s attached to a “new project to be revealed soon.” Garcia, of whom I’m a fan, starts work next Monday. Also: Planet Money spinoff? (Talking Biz News)
  • Just a periodic reminder that Podcasts in Color is an invaluable resource. (Twitter)
  • Al Jazeera has launched its own podcast network, called Jetty. One thing to watch: the network will apparently be experimenting with Facebook Watch as a potential audience driving channel. Mark that up as another test on social podcast discovery — even if we’re talking about digital video on a social platform, which seems to be all the rage these days. (Nieman Lab)
  • Steal the Stars, MacMillan Publishing’s first foray into the audio drama category with its Tor Labs division, wrapped its first season last week. (Website)
  • “Podcast patent troll’s fight might finally be over.” This story, geez. (Engadget)

The New York Times launches a Facebook group to discuss podcasts (and learn to make better ones)

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 115, published April 11, 2017.

Maximum Funded. Maximum Fun, the L.A.-based podcast company led by radio wunderkind Jesse Thorn, recently concluded the latest edition of its aptly named MaxFunDrive, the yearly membership drive it organizes to refresh and expand its recurring support base. The network is home to a sprawling range of programming — including the well loved My Brother, My Brother and Me, Magic Lessons with Elizabeth Gilbert, and Pop Rocket — with distinctly community-oriented vibes, and the company has long used the membership support structure as its primary engine.

The campaign, which officially wrapped at the end of March, was incredibly successful: By the end of its two-week run, the network had gathered 24,181 new and upgrading members, overshadowing its initial goal of 10,000. “We were really nervous,” MaxFun’s Bikram Chatterji told me, with a touch of exhaustion, when we spoke over the phone on the Monday after the drive. Chatterji is the network’s relatively new managing director, barely seven months into the role, and he was telling me about losing for sleep for fear of missing even the initial target.

[Insert Casper mattress joke here, set laptop on fire.]

“It was the highest target we ever set for ourselves,” he said, noting that last year’s goal was a comparatively modest 5,000. (The final haul for last year was somewhere over 9,000.) When this year’s campaign kicked off in mid-March, it surpassed its initial 10,000 target within a week.

It’s a significant achievement, especially when you put that number in context. Maximum Fun has six available recurring support tiers ranging from $5 a month to $200 a month, and Chatterji informed me that the network went into this year’s drive with around 20,000 active supporting members. “So within that 24,181, there was obviously a mix of both new members and longer-term members who upgraded,” he explained. “Both of these cohorts are really important to us.” For a quick comparison, Radiotopia — which uses a similar member support structure, though it only shifted to a recurring support model in 2015 — closed its 2016 drive with over 6,200 new supporters, and it went into that campaign with slightly over 12,500 active recurring donors. (According to my number crunching, anyway. My writeup on that campaign can be found here.)

How all of those new, upgrading, and existing MaxFun members translate into the network’s actual revenue picture depends on how you figure the distribution across its various support tiers, and you’re going to have to guess on that: Understandably, Chatterji declined to share the specific breakdown. But he was kind enough to oblige when I asked about the broader picture, and how the revenue is typically used within the business.

I’m told that membership funds accounted for about 70 percent of the company’s revenue in 2016 — that proportion is expected to hold — with the rest being made up of advertising revenue and money from a distribution deal with NPR that revolves around Bullseye, Thorn’s interview show. “We also do a tiny bit of consulting,” Chatterji added. Almost three-quarters of the money raised from the membership drive goes directly to the shows; when a new membership is confirmed, listeners are asked to name the shows they listen to, and that impacts the proportion of the money that goes to those programs. “Doing that creates a real sense of connection between the shows and the listeners,” Chatterji explains. “It also allows us to offer potential shows a very clear value proposition in working with us.” The rest of the funding gets distributed across administration costs, show development, and general office maintenance.

So that’s the broad shape of Maximum Fun’s business, and one could argue that MaxFun’s achievements with this year’s drive further solidify the value of the membership model for network proprietors that may be anxious over the erraticisms of the advertising business. But it should be noted that MaxFun’s current picture is the product of almost a decade’s worth of work building out a community of fans and getting the company to this point; indeed, this edition of the MaxFunDrive is the latest in a very long line that goes back to 2008. It should also be noted that a membership model is, intuitively speaking, probably better suited for some kinds of shows and listener communities compared to others — which is all to say, MaxFun’s real achievement here is having built out a company on the strength of a model that directly channels the spirit of the enterprise.

“Yeah, I don’t know,” Chatterji replied, when I asked if the MaxFun structure is replicable. “I think the evolution of this model is so organic…So much of it from the start has been about Jesse, his vision, his way of doing things, and the community that he’s built around himself.”

Pea-pod. The list of finalists for the 2017 Peabody Awards — which recognize works of broadcasting and the web in service of the public — is out, and the radio/podcast category sports some really interesting entries, including the kids podcast The Unexplainable Disappearance of Mars Patel, Marlo Mack’s wonderful How To Be A Girl, APM Reports’ In The Dark, The Heart’s devastating Silent Evidence Series, and interestingly, Homecoming, Gimlet’s experimental fiction project. The full list can be found here, and congrats to all.

Meanwhile, at BuzzFeed. The digital media giant — octopus? — launched a new podcast last week, and it’s a timely one. It’s called Newsfeed with BuzzFeed Ben, an interview show hosted by editor-in-chief Ben Smith that sets its sights on the increasingly perturbing nexus of politics, media, and technology. The inaugural episode features former Obama strategist David Axelrod, and it doubles as the second part of the same conversation that began in last week’s episode of Axelrod’s own interview podcast, The Axe Files, which had featured Smith as the guest. If all these newsy interview podcasts feel like they make up some crowded, conjoined expanded comic book universe, I totally feel you.

And so does Recode’s Peter Kafka, apparently, who wrote up the new BuzzFeed podcast. His piece, by the way, contains a pretty juicy data point for observers: BuzzFeed’s podcasts reportedly generated 9 million downloads in 2016, a good chunk of which was apparently driven by Another Round. For reference, the company had five active podcasts throughout the year, and though I can’t find any good numbers on Another Round’s download performance — aside from a Forbes 40 Under 40 item published in early 2016 honoring cohost Heben Nigatu that places monthly listener numbers at a vague “hundreds of thousands” — the overall number doesn’t strike me as particularly surprising. (Here’s the link to that 40 Under 40 item; beware the usual Forbes ad-avalanche.)

Kafka’s writeup also notes that No One Knows Anything, the company’s politics podcast (which I first wrote about last May), is being rebooted with new talent behind the mic: The show will now be hosted by Kate Nocera, BuzzFeed’s Washington bureau chief, and senior writer Charlie Warzel. No One Knows anything was originally anchored by Evan McMorris-Santoro, who left the company last August to join the Vice News Tonight team.

At the Times, a Podcast Club. Last Wednesday, The New York Times published a fascinating interactive titled “9 Podcast Episodes Worth Discussing,” which served as a tiny door into a much broader enterprise: a digital listening club, one that’s being largely conducted over a moderated Facebook group where new podcast episodes of concern are posted every Monday for members to discuss in long, threaded comments sections. It’s open to the public, and at this writing, the group is fast approaching 10,000 members.

Samantha Henig, the Times’ editorial director for audio, tells me that the club isn’t part of any broader New York Times Facebook group strategy; rather, it’s an extension of something that had organically formed within the organization. “When we first announced that we were starting an audio team at The New York Times” — that was last March, by the way — “pretty much everyone I ran into at work started gushing to me about how excited they were and how much they love podcasts,” Henig told me. Some, she said, had even been running their own personal podcast clubs, and so she figured, what if they made a company-wide version of that?

“My main goal was to harness all that energy and enthusiasm in the building around podcasts, and get a bunch of smart and engaged people in a room together,” she said. “And, selfishly, I thought it would help me and our growing audio team be smarter about our own programming if we’re in regular discussion about what’s working best or falling flat in other shows.”

And so they did. The club eventually drew a varied mix of attendees from throughout the organization, from reporters to developers to data analysts to whatever you call those people working in business development, and Henig describes a wide age range — she notes a higher representation of young folks than what one might usually expect from the Times, while also singling out Ben Weiser, “a Metro reporter who has been one of the most loyal and enthusiastic members but is very much not a millennial” — as well as a variety in taste.

When I asked about the decision to bring the club out into the wild, Henig said: “The Podcast Club has always felt like a very special thing, in part because it scratches an itch that no doubt exists beyond the office. There are lots of people listening to podcasts and eager to discuss what they’re in the middle of or to hear recommendations for what to try next. So [executive producer of audio] Lisa Tobin and I have been thinking for a while about how to go bigger with it.”

Here’s the Facebook Group, and the supporting RadioPublic playlist.

Weekend at Bernie’s. You might have heard over the weekend that Bernie Sanders, the senator from Vermont, rival to Hillary Clinton for the Democratic candidacy in the 2016 presidential campaign, and Larry David muse, now has a podcast.

Sort of.

At the moment, the Bernie Sanders Show’s podcast feed appears to be nothing more than an additional distribution point for the interviews that the senator originally recorded as Facebook Live videos — and that shows in the sound quality, as the available episodes are pretty rough listens. (Though, aside from the near inaudible first episode with Rev. William Barber, it’s not all that different from the quality you’d find off the podcast feeds repackaging cable news broadcasts.) All of that sound quality stuff doesn’t seem to have affected listeners and Sanders supporters one bit, though: The podcast zipped up the iTunes charts, riding the algorithm that largely privileges novel interaction, where it peaked at the No. 2 spot over the weekend, just under S-Town.

There are a myriad of potential threads baked into this. With the podcast’s high chart performance, this might well be a story that reflects on the ideological spread of podcasts as a digital medium and how it can be interpreted as tending to lean somewhat liberal. I’ve written a little bit about this in the past, mostly from the publisher’s side, but the performance of the Bernie feed seems to tell us something about the demand side — or, perhaps more likely, something about the digital savviness of Sanders supporters. In any case, this narrative thread also gestures toward a potential story about the theoretical opportunity podcasts provide political communication: This is a thread whose current history is marked by Hillary Clinton’s Pineapple Street–produced campaign podcast With Her, whose prehistory can be traced back to Senator John Edwards setting up his own podcast in 2005 (with assistance from LibSyn evangelist Rob Walch, no less), and whose various related development includes deputy DNC chairman Keith Ellison’s revival of his own issues podcast and a couple of Democratic legislators in Missouri trying to push a progressive agenda in a red state. Indeed, there are enough nuggets here to suggest the makings of a possible trend or operational opportunity — but then again, it’s just as likely that all of this simply makes for a protracted digital curiosity. We shall see what the future brings to this.

A quick note on live podcasts. Bloomberg published a piece last Friday on the live podcast events business. The article contains some interesting nuggets — Slate’s Steve Lickteig tells the reporters that the company’s live podcast shows “make money” — but it frames the phenomenon as something in its early, budding, perhaps yet-to-be-proven phase. Notably, the article glosses over Welcome to Night Vale’s machinations in this arena, which is unfortunate. As Night Vale co-creator Joseph Fink told me a few weeks ago, live shows have long driven a good deal of the team’s business; the shows sell 50,000 to 60,000 tickets a year.

The Night Vale team is currently in its fourth year of touring globally, and its latest production, All Hail, will be hitting cities across North America this spring.

Public Radio updates. A couple stories here:

  • Looks like the fight for West Virginia Public Broadcasting isn’t over yet: shortly after state governor Jim Justice restored WVPB funding in his budget proposal, the state’s senate finance committee passed a budget bill last Monday zeroing that very funding out. WVBP’s website has more on the story.
  • Big Bird brass: Retired Army General Stanley McChrystal penned a New York Times op-ed arguing in defense of public broadcasting.
  • I didn’t cover this when it originally took place, but: In February, a legal scuffle broke out between New Hampshire Public Radio and Outside Magazine when the latter’s owner, Mariah Media Network, sent a cease-and-desist letter over the station’s use of the word “Outside” on one of its podcasts, “Outside/In.” The dispute has now been resolved with a negotiated trademark coexistence agreement, according to Current. If all that sounds ridiculous to you, well…you’re totally right. It’s bananas, b-a-n-a-n-a-s.

Back, but bigger. First Day Back started out as a quiet, introspective podcast by Tally Abecassis, a Canadian documentarian who moved to craft a small, indie project about her personal experience coming back to work after a lengthy maternity leave. The show, which at the time was associated with the podcast collective The Heard, published sporadically throughout 2015 and into mid-2016, and it eventually got the attention of Scripps, the parent company of Midroll. The company reached out to Abecassis in late 2015, and the show was officially picked up last summer.

The podcast’s second season debuts today, and it features several significant changes. To begin with, the scope is now expanded from the personal to focus on other people’s stories, this time focusing on the tale of a woman as she returns home from prison after years of incarceration for accidentally killing her husband. This type of scope-shifting isn’t entirely unprecedented among podcasts; it echoes the trajectory of Millennial, which pointedly widened its viewpoint after being picked up by Radiotopia, and perhaps more directly, of Gimlet’s StartUp, which broke from its original season’s personal narrative to build future seasons around other companies. First Day Back’s sophomore effort also sports the trappings of support from a much larger company: Abecassis is no longer producing the story by herself, but collaborating with Marc Georges, a Scripps producer, and Dave Shaw, an executive producer at the company. There are now launch sponsors too: Audible and ZipRecruiter.

With corporate trappings, though, come some corporate interests. It’s worth noting that the show is now being positioned as a Stitcher production as opposed to a Scripps production, which was how it was framed to me when I initially wrote about the pickup. Between this and Missing Richard Simmons, which listed Stitcher as a co-producer, it would seem that Midroll is steadily working to fashion Stitcher out as its own editorial brand. This might raise some eyebrows given that Stitcher, which was acquired by Scripps and rolled into the Midroll brand early last summer, is primarily known in the marketplace as a podcast listening app, and Midroll has been looking to build a premium subscription business off the platform. Something’s going on here, and it’s worth keeping an eye on Stitcher.

Anyway, for now, we’re talking about Abecassis’ experience shifting gears. So I sent her a couple of questions:

[storybreak]

[conl]Hot Pod: Why did you decide to partner up with a bigger organization?[/conl]

[conr]Abecassis: Well, making good radio or good films requires resources, and there is only so much I can do alone. I think there is a myth that podcasts are easy or inexpensive to make. The kind of work I like doing involves spending a lot of time with a subject, interviewing, investing in the story. Working with a bigger organization means support in doing that — I now have producers and resources that I didn’t have before. It allowed me to tackle a much more ambitious story for S2.

I had never intended to keep telling my own story and it had a natural “end point” — it didn’t make sense to stretch it beyond that. And the whole point of the first season was about getting back to film and TV! But when the series connected with people, I started thinking about doing more podcasting. And deciding to use the idea of a first day back as a framework to tell other stories got me super excited. I made a list of possible ideas — first day back from the army, from a sports injury, from gender reassignment surgery…All I knew what that I wanted the first one I did to be completely different from Season 1.[/conr]

[conl]Hot Pod: Tell me about your approach to the second season.[/conl]

[conr]Abecassis: The starting point was finding someone who was having a “first day back” from prison, and I really wanted to tell a woman’s story. The woman I found had just come out of prison for accidentally killing her husband and her story was so much more complex and layered than I could have anticipated. The whole thing was tailor-made for radio because the woman agreed to being recorded, but did not want her image used. (A TV producer I work with actually asked me if we could do a TV version and the woman would never agree to that.)

Structuring a six-part serialized story is a beast. (I bow down to the S-Town producers; I don’t even know how they did what they did.) When we started working on this story, we were really taken with this big WTF moment, that our main character did this horrible thing and she claimed to have no memory of having done it. We also wanted to be honest with our listeners that this isn’t your typical whodunnit crime story. She did it. There’s no question about that. What makes it a First Day Back story is what her life is like after and how she tries to come back from it. But there are a lot of challenges: the story still has to build, the sequence of events has to have a context, the themes have to weave in and out, and listeners need to feel invested in this woman’s story knowing she did something terrible…Marc and I have worked and reworked the whole thing so many different ways. We followed her for over a year, so as you can imagine, there were twists and turns through the course of documenting her story.[/conr]

[storybreak]

First Day Back, despite its Stitcher branding, is available on all platforms.

Bites:

  • Heads up: Edison Research will be presenting its podcast-specific audience report in a 30-minute webinar on April 18. Registration to view is free, and open. (Edison Research)
  • WNYC launched its latest podcast, Nancy, this week. (iTunes)
  • Jian Ghomeshi, the disgraced former host of CBC’s Q who was embroiled in a long sexual assault scandal, has apparently resurfaced with a new project. (CBC)
  • The Hollywood Reporter covered the latest DGital Media project, a podcast by author James Andrew Miller. I’ll be keeping an eye out for this because I loved the dude’s book on the CAA, but man, this is an…interesting writeup. Anyway, the show, Origins, which will “explore how a single thing — a TV show, album, company or event — came to be,” comes out this summer. (THR)
  • Twenty Thousand Hertz, one of those podcasts that tells stories about sounds, has a writeup by Entrepreneur editor-in-chief Jason Feifer that sheds some light on its rough costs: creator Dallas Taylor spent about $50,000 on producing the show last year, and expects spend $100,000. (Entrepreneur)
  • S-Town’s Brian Reed was on the most recent episode of the Longform podcast, and talked at length about process. The interview is fabulous, and Mystery Show fans will appreciate the detail on Starlee Kine’s involvement in the story editing phase. (Longform)

[photocredit]Illustration for The New York Times Podcast Club by Laurent Cilluffo.[/photocredit]

Is Spotify’s move into original podcasts a pure platform play or something more open?

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 109, published February 28, 2017.

Hey folks — we got a ton of news to sort through. Let’s clip through, pew pew pew.

About those original Spotify podcasts. The music streaming giant announced its initial ((Initial, that is, if you don’t count Clarify, the tentative first English-language original podcast that the company produced with Mic.com and Headcount.org back in 2013.)) slate of original audio programming last week, somewhat validating the Digiday report from the week before about the company talking with various podcast companies — including Gimlet, HowStuffWorks, and Pineapple Street Media — to partner up for that initiative.

According to the writeups circulating last week, the three projects are: (1) Showstopper, a show looking back at key moments in television music supervision hosted by Fader editor-in-chief Naomi Zeichner that premiered last Thursday; (2) Unpacked, an interview show set in various music festivals around the United States that will drop on March 14; and (3) a yet-unnamed audio documentary about the life and times of the late music industry executive Chris Lighty, a seminal figure in hip-hop history. That last project will be released sometime April. For those wondering, it appears that Spotify is directly involved in the production of Showstopper and Unpacked, the former of which comes out of a partnership with Panoply. The Chris Lighty project, meanwhile, is produced by the Loud Speakers Network and Gimlet, with Spotify providing distribution and miscellaneous support.

It should also be noted that more Spotify Original projects are, apparently, on the way.

This news was extensively covered, but the integral question — namely, if the shows will live exclusively on Spotify, which one imagines would be central to the platform’s strategy with this — went largely unanswered. I reached out to the various parties involved in the arrangement, and here’s what I learned:

  • Showstopper and Unpacked will be distributed exclusively over Spotify for now, though it remains a possibility that they might be distributed over other platforms in the future. As Dossie McCraw, the company’s head of podcasts, told me over the phone yesterday, the plan is to concentrate effort on raising awareness of original podcast programming on the platform at this point in time. When contacted about Showstopper’s distribution, a Panoply spokesperson seems to corroborate this point. “At this point, we can’t speculate whether it’ll be on iTunes in the future,” she said.
  • The Chris Lighty project enjoys a different arrangement. Gimlet tells me that the podcast will not exclusively live on the Spotify platform, and that Spotify has what essentially amounts to an eight-week first-dibs window; episodes will appear on other platforms (like iTunes) eight weeks after they originally appear on Spotify. The show will be released on a weekly basis, regardless of the platform through which they are distributed. Gimlet cofounder Matt Lieber explained the decision: “One of our core goals is to increase the number of podcast listeners, and Spotify has a huge qualified audience that’s interested in this story of hip-hop and Chris Lighty.”
  • In our conversation yesterday, McCraw puts Spotify’s upside opportunity for podcast publishers as follows: The platform’s user base, which he describes as being “music fans first,” serves as a potential audience pool that’s ripe for publishers to convert into new podcast listeners. (Echoing Lieber’s argument.) McCraw further argues that Spotify is able to provide publishers with creative, marketing, and even production support — even to those that produce shows not exclusive to the platform. To illustrate this point, he refers to a recent arrangement with the audio drama Bronzeville which involved, among other things, a live event that the company hosted in New York. “Admittedly, we’re still growing the audience for podcast listening for audiences in the U.S.,” he said, before positioning last week’s announcement as the company’s first big push to draw attention.

So what does this all mean? How do we perceive this development, and more importantly, how does it connect with the windowing that’s being done with Stitcher Premium? Is this the real start of the so-called “platform wars” in the podcast ecosystem? What, truly, happened at the Oscars on Sunday night? (Was there a third envelope?) I’ll attend to that next week, because we’re not quite done yet with developments on this front. We have one more piece of the puzzle to account for. Watch this space.

Speaking of Gimlet…

Gimlet announces its spring slate. The returning shows are:

  • Science Vs, which will return for its second season under Gimlet management on March 9 and will stage its first live show on March 23 in Brooklyn;
  • StartUp, which will return for a 10-episode fifth season on April 14 and will see the show go back to a weekly non-serialized format;
  • Surprisingly Awesome, which will return on April 17 and will feature a new host: Flora Lichtman, formerly of Science Friday and Bill Nye Saves The World. This new season is being described as a “relaunch.”

A coalition of podcast publishers are launching a podcast awareness campaign on March 1. The campaign, called #TryPod, is being shepherded by Izzi Smith, NPR’s senior director of promotion and audience development, and the coalition involves over 37 podcast publishers — ranging from WNYC to The Ringer to How Stuff Works.

AdWeek’s writeup has the details: “Hosts of podcasts produced by those participating partners will encourage their listeners to spread the word and get others turned on to podcasts. The campaign is accompanied by a social media component unified under the #TryPod hashtag, which is already making the Twitter rounds ahead of the launch.”

The Sarah Lawrence College International Audio Fiction Award announces this year’s winners. Impeccable timing, I’d say. They are:

The actual awards for each of these winners will be announced at this year’s ceremony, which will take place at WNYC’s Greene Space on March 28. An interesting way to do things, but cool nonetheless. Website for tickets and details.

Vox Media hires its first executive producer of audio: Nishat Kurwa, a former senior digital producer at APM’s Marketplace. A spokesperson tells me that Kurwa will be responsible for audio programming and development across all eight of the company’s editorial brands, which includes The Verge, Recode, Polygon, and Vox original recipe. She will move to New York from L.A. for the job, and will be reporting to Vox Media president Marty Moe.

I’ve written a bunch about Vox Media’s podcast operations before, and the thing that’s always stood out to me is the way in which its audio initiatives are currently spread out across several brands according to considerably different configurations. The production for Vox.com’s podcasts, for example, is being handled by Panoply, with those shows hosted on its Megaphone platform as a result. Meanwhile, Recode’s podcasts are supported by DGital Media with Art19 providing hosting, and that site still appears to be hunting for a dedicated executive producer of audio. The Verge, Polygon, Eater, Curbed, and SB Nation — though not Racked, alas — all have various podcast products of their own, but they all appear to be produced, marketed, and distributed individually according to their own specific brand infrastructures.

Kurwa’s hiring suggests a formalization of those efforts across the board. What that will mean, specifically, remains to be seen, but I wouldn’t be particularly surprised if it involves a consolidation of partnerships, infrastructures, and branding. In fact, I’d even go so far as to say that’s necessary.

Midroll announces the second edition of Now Hear This, its live podcast festival, which will take place on September 8-10. This year sees the company shift the festivities from Los Angeles to New York, which I’m told is largely a function of customer experience.

“[New York City] is an easy city for locals to commute in for the event and for out-of-towners to come for the weekend and easily get around. While our fans and performers loved Anaheim, it’s not always the easiest place to get to from the LA area. The fan experience continues to be our top priority,” Lex Friedman, Midroll’s chief revenue officer, told me. He also added that it was an opportunity to mitigate impressions of the festival as a West Coast event. (And, I imagine, impressions of Midroll as a West Coast company.)

Details on venues and performers will be released over the coming weeks. In the meantime, interested folk can reach out to the team over email, or get email alerts from the festival website, which also features peculiar videos of gently laughing people.

What lies ahead for APM’s on-demand strategy? Last month, I briefly mentioned APM’s hiring of Nathan Tobey as the organization’s newest director of on-demand and national cultural programming, which involves running the organization’s podcast division and two of its more successful cultural programs: The Dinner Party Download and The Splendid Table. Tobey’s recruitment fills a six-month gap left by Steve Nelson, who left APM to become NPR’s director of programming last summer. It was notable development, particularly for a network that wrapped 2016 with a hit podcast under its belt (In The Dark) and a bundle of new launches (The Hilarious World of Depression; Terrible, Thanks for Asking; Make Me Smart).

I traded emails with Tobey recently to ask about his new gig. Here are three things to know from the exchange:

Tobey’s role and immediate priorities:

The title is a mouthful. But it really consists of equal parts creativity facilitator, entrepreneur, and audience-development strategist.

He phrases his two immediate priorities as follows: the first is to invest in the future of the organization’s current podcast roster, and the second is to lay the foundation for APM’s on-demand future, including content development, business planning, and team building.

What defines an APM show?

The basic traits are similar to some of our big public media peers — production craft and editorial standards you can count on, creative ambition to spare, plus a steady focus on addressing unmet needs, from making science fun for kids (Brains On!) to de-stigmatizing depression (The Hilarious World of Depression). But really, the new shows we’ll be making will define what we stand for more than any slogan ever could – so I think the answer to your question will be a lot clearer in a year or two.

Potential collaborators are encouraged to pitch, regardless of where you are:

Hot Pod readers: send me your pitches and ideas, and reach out anytime – with a collaborative possibility, or just to say hi. I’ll be in New York a lot in the coming years, and we’ve got an office in L.A. too, so don’t think you need to be out here in the Twin Cities (though you should totally come visit). We’ll be looking for podcast-focused talent of all kinds in the years to come — from producing to sponsorship to marketing — so be sure to check our job listings.

I dunno, man. Minneapolis and St. Paul are pretty great.

NPR’s Embedded returns with a three-episode mini-season. Dubbed a “special assignment,” all three episodes will all focus on a single topic: police encounters caught on video, investigated from all sides. Two things to note:

  • Embedded will enjoy some formal cross-channel promotion between podcast and broadcast. Shortened versions of the show’s reporting will be aired as segments on All Things Considered, and NPR is also partnering with WBUR’s morning talk program On Point with Tom Ashbrook to produce on-air discussions of the episodes.
  • NPR seems to be building live event pushes for the show: Host Kelly McEvers presented an excerpt from the upcoming mini-season at a Pop-Up Magazine showing in Los Angeles last week, and she’s due to present a full episode at a live show on March 30, which will be held under the NPR Presents banner. Investigative journalism-as-live show, folks. I suppose it’s officially a thing.

I’m super excited about this — I thought the first season of Embedded was wonderful, and I’m in awe at McEvers’ capacity to lead the podcast in addition to her work as the cohost of NPR’s flagship news program, All Things Considered. (Personally, I can barely write a newsletter without passing out from exhaustion.)

Episodes of the mini-season will drop on March 9, 16, and 23.

Related: “NPR, WNYC, and Slate Explain Why They Are Betting on Live Events” (Mediafile)

RadioPublic formally pushes its playlist feature, which serves as one of its fundamental theses on how to improve the ecosystem’s problems with discovery. The company’s playlist gambit is largely editorially driven and built on collaborations with publishers, with those collaborators serving as the primary manufacturers of playlists. A blog post notes that the company has been “working with industry leaders like The New York Times, Salon, The Huffington Post and PRX’s Radiotopia network.” (RadioPublic CEO Jake Shapiro was formerly the CEO of PRX.)

We’ll see if the feature ends up being a meaningful driver of discovery on the platform — provided the platform is able to accrue a critical mass of users, of course — but I do find the discovery-by-playlist idea is intriguing. The moment immediately after an episode ends is a sphere of user experience that’s ripe for reconstruction, and I suspect that a playlist approach, which takes the search and choice burden off the listener to some extent, could serve that really well. Again, it all depends on RadioPublic’s ability to siphon users into that mode of consumption, so I reckon it’s the only real way the playlist approach is able to be properly tested.

Following up last week’s item on Barstool Sports. So it looks like the company’s podcast portfolio is being hosted on PodcastOne’s infrastructure, which isn’t measured by Podtrac. As such, it’s hard to accessibly contextualize the company’s claims of 22 million monthly downloads against how other networks — particularly those measured by Podtrac, like NPR, This American Life, and HowStuffWorks — and therefore how it fares in comparison. Nonetheless, it’s a useful piece of information to have in your back pocket.

Related: After last week’s implosion of Milo Yiannopoulos, the now-former Breitbart editor and ostensibly conservative provocateur, PodcastOne appears to have terminated his podcast — which the network produced in partnership with Breitbart — and scrubbed any trace of it from iTunes and the network’s website.

DGital Media announces a partnership with Bill Bennett, the conservative pundit and Trump advisor, in the form of a weekly interview podcast that promises to take listeners “inside the Trump administration and explain what’s really going in Washington, D.C. without the hysteria or the fake news in the mainstream media.” (Oy.) The first episode, which features Vice President Mike Pence, dropped last Thursday.

Interestingly enough, Bennett now shares a podcast production partner with Recode and, perhaps most notably, Crooked Media, the decidedly progressive political media startup helmed by former Obama staffers Jon Favreau, Tommy Vietor, and Jon Lovett.

Related: Crooked Media continues to expand its podcast portfolio with its third show, With Friends Like These, an interview-driven podcast by political columnist Ana Marie Cox.

Bites:

  • Hmm: “As it defines relationship with stations, NPR gains board approval for price hike.” Consider this a gradual shift in system incentives, one that anticipates potential decreases in federal support and further shifts in power relations between the public radio mothership and the vast, structurally diverse universe of member stations. (Current)
  • And sticking with NPR for a second: Their experiments with social audio off Facebook doesn’t seem to have yielded very much. (Curios)
  • This is interesting: “Progressive legislators turn to podcasts to spread message.” (The Missouri Times) It does seem to speak directly to the stuff I highlighted in my column about the ideological spread of podcasts from last summer, along with my piece for Vulture about the future of political podcasts.

[photocredit]Photo of someone listening to Spotify with a vaguely Spotify-colored mug by Sunil Soundarapandian used under a Creative Commons license.[/photocredit]

Hot Pod: The three numbers that mark the state of podcasting in 2017

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 102, published January 10, 2016.

Digits to start the year. Is the podcast industry growing, and if so, how? I’m keeping these three numbers taped to the corner of my laptop as benchmarks to keep track:

  • Audience size: 57 million U.S. monthly listeners, according to Edison and Triton Digital’s annual Infinite Dial report, which gives the industry its clearest number to beat. The latest version of the report is expected to come out in early summer.
  • Advertising: More than $200 million projected for 2017, according to media research firm Bridge Ratings, which the industry seems to have coalesced around.
  • iTunes downloads and streams: More than 10 billion in 2016, which was up from more than 8 billion in 2015 and over 7 billion in 2014, according to a writeup by The Huffington Post.

Two quick news updates on Apple: The Apple podcasts team is apparently looking for someone to join their editorial team — also known as the people who looks after the iTunes front page.

In a related note, I’m hearing that Steve Wilson, who managed the editorial and partner relations team at iTunes and who was once described in The New York Times as Apple’s “de facto podcast gatekeeper,” has moved to the iTunes Marketing team to manage the podcast vertical. I believe it’s the first time the company is dedicating any marketing resources for podcasts.

The Keepin’ It 1600 team breaks off from The Ringer to start a new venture: Crooked Media, named after the standard Donald Trump pejorative. Its first product, a twice-a-week politics podcast called Pod Save America, rolled out Monday and quickly hit the top of the iTunes charts. For reference, Crooked Media is made up of former Obama staffers Jon Favreau, Jon Lovett, and Tommy Vietor. Dan Pfeiffer, who launched Keepin’ It 1600 with Favreau when it first debuted on The Ringer last summer, will continue his hosting duties in the new podcast, but he will not hold any stake in the new venture. The venture has plans to add more podcasts, video, editorial content, and “new voices” with a distinct emphasis on activism and political participation, according to its mission statement. There doesn’t appear to be any talk of external investment, with the team fully relying on ad revenues from Pod Save America for now.

DGital Media serves as Crooked Media’s partner in production and ad sales. This extends DGital Media’s already impressive portfolio of partners, which includes Recode, The Vertical’s podcast network, and Tony Kornheiser.

The Ringer CEO Bill Simmons is said to be supportive of the new venture, though one imagines the departure of Keepin’ It 1600, which grew incredibly popular during the 2016 election cycle, will leave quite a dent in monthly download totals for the website’s podcast network. However, given the network’s general culture that allows for continuous, iterative experimentation through its Channel 33 feed, they’re well positioned to fill the gap soon enough.

Here’s the thing that’s interesting to me: Crooked Media appears to be a stab at building out a new progressive counterpoint to conservative media, perhaps specifically its right-wing talk radio ecosystem, which has long been a curiously strong marriage of medium and ideological content with significant influence over American politics. It’s a curious thing that podcasting now offers Favreau & Co., insofar as they represent progressive politics, a potential site to match up against the conservative media-industrial complex; as I’ve noted in the past, the podcast medium does seem to feature an ideological spread that tends to lean liberal — even if it’s sticky business to characterize the politics of individual organizations. The theoretical question that occurred to me then, as it does now, is whether there is something about a medium’s structural traits — and demographic spread, and so on — that uniquely supports certain kinds of ideology. With this venture, we’ll have an opportunity to test the question a little further.

Related: Just re-upping this discussion from mid-November: Did the election podcast glut of 2016 fail its listeners?

Launches and returns for the year ahead. I was recently asked to write a preview of upcoming new podcasts for Vulture, and in the process of my outreach, I had a hard time getting concrete, specific release dates for upcoming launches. This, I think, says a fair bit about how the podcast industry, maturing as it is, still has ways to go in terms of developing a rhythm, cycle, and culture around show and season launches for its audience.

All right, here’s what I got so far beyond the stuff on the Vulture list:

  • Gimlet Media is keeping mum on new shows, but they have confirmed that Science Vs will return for its second season in March, while Heavyweight will drop its second season in September.
  • NPR’s vice president of programming and audience development Anya Grundmann tells me that the public radio mothership will be launching several new podcasts and debuting new seasons of some of its most popular shows, including Embedded and Invisibilia. No specific dates, but Grundmann did mention that a three-episode Embedded miniseries will drop in March.
  • Night Vale Presents has confirmed that Alice Isn’t Dead and Within the Wires will return sometime this year. They also note that the team behind Orbiting Human Circus (of the Air) is working on some new projects, which will be released throughout the year. And, as noted in Vulture, the company will be making its nonfiction debut at some point in the form of a collaboration with indie band The Mountain Goats.
  • The New York Times will roll out its latest podcast, Change Agent with Charles Duhigg — which sounds like a cross between an advice column, Oprah, and Malcolm Gladwell — sometime this spring. It’s also building a new show around Michael Barbaro, who hosts The Run-Up and has since moved into the audio team full-time. According to Politico, the Times is planning to expand its podcast roster from seven up to possibly twelve this year.
  • Radiotopia’s newest addition to its roster, Ear Hustle, is set to debut sometime this summer.
  • First Look Media tells me that they will be launching a weekly podcast for its flagship investigative news site, The Intercept, on January 26. The show will apparently be called “Intercepted.” There’s a joke in here somewhere, but we should move along.

That’s all I got for now. I’m going to keep a page going for this, and will update as more information trickles out. Send me what you have.

Panoply kicked off the year with the launch of its first “imprint”: The Onward Project, a group of self-improvement podcasts curated by author Gretchen Rubin, who hosts the popular Happier podcast under the network’s banner. The imprint is currently made up of three shows: the aforementioned Happier; Radical Candor, a management-oriented show; and Side Hustle School, a daily show made up of bite-sized episodes that describe financially successful side projects. The Onward Project was first announced during last September’s IAB Podcast Upfront.

Call it an imprint, call it a subnetwork, call it whatever you want: The concept seems to be more of an innovation in audience development than anything else. “I’d say success looks like what we’re already seeing — a collection of podcasts in which each show brings in its host’s unique audience, which is then exposed to the other shows through tight cross-promotion,” Panoply chief creative officer Andy Bowers told me over email, when I asked about the thinking around the imprint. “With podcast discovery still such a vexing problem, we think the imprint offers listeners a simple answer to the question they’re always asking Gretchen: ‘I love your show — what else should I listen to?'”

We’re probably going to see Panoply develop more imprints in the near future, further establishing a structure that makes the company look more like a “meta-network” — or a network of networks — which is a form that was only hinted at by its previous strategy, where it partnered with other media organizations to develop multiple podcasts under their brands.

60dB hires Recode reporter, adding to its beefy editorial team. The short-form audio company has hired Liz Gannes, previously a reporter at the tech news site Recode, to join its editorial team. Gannes, a senior hire, rounds out a team that has thus far primarily drawn from public media. It includes: Daisy Rosario, who has worked on NPR’s Latino USA and WNYC’s 2 Dope Queens; Brenda Salinas, formerly at Latino USA and KUT Public Media; Hannah McBride, formerly at the Texas Observer and KUT Public Media; and Michael Simon Johnson, formerly at Latino USA.

So here’s what I’m thinking about: The editorial team apparently exists as an in-house team that works to produce audio stories with partner publications, often discussions about a written article that recently published, for distribution over its platform. (Is it too much of stretch to call it high-touch adaptation aggregation?) It’s a dramatically manual — and not to mention human — content acquisition process, and that’s a structure that does not scale cheaply, which I imagine presents a problem for a founding team mostly made up of former Netflix executives.

Two questions that frame my thinking on the company: Where is 60dB supposed to fall within the spectrum between a Netflix-like platform and an audio-first newsroom with an aggressive aggregation strategy? And to what extent do the partnerships that the company currently pursues make up the long-term content strategy, or do they merely serve as a stepping stone into purely original content?

Anyway, I hear that more 60dB news is due next week. Keep your earballs peeled.

Related: In other tech-ish news, it looks like Otto Radio, the car dashboard-oriented podcast curation platform that recently hammered down an integration with Uber, has secured a round of investment from Samsung. Note the language in the press release describing Otto Radio’s distribution targets: “connected and autonomous cars, smart audio devices and appliances, and key integrations with premium content providers.” Appliances? I guess with Amazon’s Alexa platform creeping into everything — which was one of the bigger takeaways from this year’s CES — we’re about that close to a world in which your refrigerator can blast out those sweet, sweet Terry Gross interviews.

Facebook Live Audio. Shortly before Christmas, Facebook announced the rollout of its latest Live-related feature, Live Audio, on its media blog. Key details to note:

  • The feature is in its testing phase, and its broadcasting use is limited to a few publishing partners for now. At launch, those partners include the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), the London-based national talk radio station LBC, book publisher HarperCollins, and authors Adam Grant and Brit Bennett. It remains unclear whether those publishers are being paid for their partnership similar to the way that Facebook has been paying major media organizations like BuzzFeed and The New York Times, along with celebrities, to use the Live video feature.
  • The post notes that the feature will be made “more broadly available to publishers and people” over the next few months.
  • The launch of Live Audio is the latest in Facebook’s efforts to expand its Live initiative, which the company has been banking heavily on for the better part of the past year. It had launched Live 360 just the week before.
  • The pitch, as it has always been, primarily revolves around interactivity — which speaks directly to the “social audio” conversation carried by many in the radio and podcast industry (see This American Life’s Shortcut, WNYC’s Audiogram, and so on). The introductory post writes: “Just as with a live video on Facebook, listeners can discover live audio content in News Feed, ask questions and leave reactions in real time during the broadcast, and easily share with their friends.”

Right, so with all that out of the way: What does this mean for podcast publishers, and maybe even radio broadcasters? I haven’t quite developed a unified theory just yet, but I’ve been breaking the question down into two components.

First, it’s worth asking if Facebook Live Audio is compatible with much of what currently exists in the podcast (or radio) space. Facebook, as a digital environment, has always seemed to be structured such that only certain kinds of publishers — or “content creators” can “win.” More often than not, those are the publishers whose business or impact goals are functionally aligned with that of Facebook’s, and from everything that we’ve seen, read, and heard about the company, it seems pretty clear that Facebook’s primary goal is to drive up user numbers and, more importantly, user engagement, whose quantifiable attention are then sold to advertisers.

But that’s obvious; the question is, of course, how has the company preferred to generate those engagements? It’s one thing if Facebook’s underlying game plan here is to “replace” broadcast, be it television or radio. But it’s a whole other thing if the company is instead trying to build out and further define its own specific media ecosystem with dynamics, incentives, behaviors, and systems unique to itself — which is exactly what appears to be the case here.

So, what kind of audio content is likely to benefit from playing into Facebook Live Audio’s unique dynamics? Probably not the highly produced narrative stuff. Nor anything particularly long. Oddly enough, I have a somewhat strong feeling that many conversational podcasts could be much better suited for Facebook Live Audio than they ever were for the existing podcast infrastructure. But at the end of the day, what appears to be true for Facebook Live Video — and for most new social platforms — will probably be true for Facebook Live Audio: the kind of content it will favor is the type of content that’s native to the form. Everything else is either filler or a means to generate actionable data.

Second: The Facebook Live program displays high levels of volatility, both in terms of the program simply functioning as intended — see: miscalculated audience metrics, surging, lingering questions over Facebook’s role in digital governance and its relationship to the state — and, perhaps more crucially, in terms of the program’s underlying view of publishers and the actors of the wider media ecosystem.

The functional volatility alone should give some thinking about dedicating resources to building out a Facebook Live Audio strategy. But the greater pause should come from the second point on the program’s underlying position. Facebook’s general abstinence from making any concrete statement about its relationship to the media (and its potential identity as a “media company”) suggests a materialistic, neutralizing view that sees all actors on the platform as functionally and morally equal. Another way of putting this: The health of individual publishers, regardless of its size, hopes, dreams, and virtues, is a tertiary concern to the platform, as long as it is able to drive up the primal behavior it wants — its own definition of engagement.

It’s a toughie. On the one hand, you have a platform that theoretically connects you with various segmentations and iterations of the platform’s 1.79 billion monthly active users. But on the other hand, it’s really hard to get around the whole unfeeling, arbitrary-governing-structure thing. It’s up to you — depending on what your goals are, what relationship you want to have with your audience, your stomach for instability and risk — to decide if you want to live that Facebook Live Audio life.

None of this particularly new, by the way. But it’s still worth saying.

Bites:

  • Tamar Charney has been confirmed as NPR One’s managing editor, having assumed the role in an interim basis since Sara Sarasohn left the organization. Emily Barocas joins the team full-time as an associate producer to curate podcasts for the app. Nick DePrey, who has been supporting NPR One in his capacity as an “innovation accountant,” is now the digital programming analytics manager at NPR Digital Services. Elsewhere in the organization, Juleyka Lantigua-Williams has joined as the senior supervising producer and editor for Code Switch.
  • PRX has announced its first cohort for Project Catapult, its podcast training program aimed at local public radio stations. Also note: the organization has hired Enrico Benjamin, an Emmy award-winning producer, as the initiative’s project director. (PRX)
  • “Why branded podcasting could more than double in 2017.” (Digiday)
  • SiriusXM is now distributing WNYC Studios’ podcasts over its Insights channel. This continues an emerging trend that sees SiriusXM mining podcasts for quality inventory to build a content base beyond its Howard Stern-shaped engine: Last August, the company hammered down a partnership with The Vertical’s podcast network, and it has been distributing the Neil DeGrasse Tyson podcast Startalk since January 2015. (SiriusXM)
  • I’m hearing that the first round of judging for this year’s Webby Awards is underway. Several folks have also written me pointing out that the group of judges for the Podcast and Digital Audio category is pretty public-radio heavy — and not to mention, overwhelmingly white. (Webby Awards)
  • This is cool: Norway has become the first country to shut down its nationwide FM radio in favor of digital signals. (NPR)

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

Hot Pod: Will 60dB’s algorithms and user experience give it a lead over other audio platforms?

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue ninety-four, published November 1, 2016.

Tiny Garage Labs pushed its short-form audio platform 60dB out into the public last week and bagged itself a bit of press, with writeups from Fast Company, Lifehacker, TechCrunch, and Nieman Lab. A few weeks ago, I briefly wrote about 60dB and the Silicon Valley-based team, which is made up of Netflix veterans John Ciancutti and Steve McLendon together with NPR alum Steve Henn. Back then, it was still in beta, and I made a point to draw attention to its focus on individual segments as the atomic unit of content.

Now that 60dB is out in the wild, I’m still not particularly sure what to make of it. But here are two things I’m thinking about:

1. It would be imprecise to view 60dB, as Fast Company’s headline suggests, as intending to solve the structural problems of podcasts. (Though, from the looks of the app’s current content offerings, it does not mind getting involved with them for now.) Rather, the app is best interpreted as attending to the larger listener experience problems associated with broadcast radio, whose distribution structure is deeply inefficient.

Ciancutti explained the problem when we spoke last week: As a radio listener, you essentially have two options when you encounter something you don’t want — you can either change the station or wait for time to pass within the confines of a specific station. (On the supply side, the problem can be viewed this way: At any given point of time, a station only has one interface point with which to work on its relationship with a listener.) 60dB’s gambit, as a platform, is to solve the efficiencies on both the listener and publisher side: Listeners are freed from the slog of unwanted experiences and having to make the bulk of choices, through a largely automated consumptive experience driven by shorter content chunks strung together by “algorithmic personalization.” And publishers will enjoy larger volumes of listeners efficiently sorted from multiple directions into their show portfolios.

Sound familiar? It’s basically the premise of almost every digital content platform from Facebook to Spotify to, well, Netflix. Which means that the attendant considerations and calculations for publishers should be the same, as they’ve lived through this story multiple times before — and are living through versions of it now.

Considerations like: Who will ultimately own the audience, 60dB or the publisher? Would the benefit of developing for the platform outweigh the potential lack of direct audience ownership in the future? What is the likelihood of a mutually beneficial audience development for both the publisher and the platform? And so on and so on.

Which is not to say that publishers are destined to play out any particular future here, or that there isn’t substantial benefit in collaborating with Tiny Garage Labs at this moment. 60dB stands to build out a new audience development arm for publishers that they are unable to explore for themselves, and publishers stand to provide 60dB with some compelling, structurally optimized content. What I’m merely saying is: At the end of the day, the devil will be in the details of the deal.

“We’re closing deals with specific partners,” Ciancutto told me. “We’re helping partners to tell and make these kinds of audio stories.” When I asked about the monetization end of the deal for publishers, he replied: “It’s stuff we still have to work on and figure out. Right now, we’re working on nailing the experience. Monetization will come next.”

2. There’s also the more fundamental question about whether 60dB’s gambit is a winning one. Two out of the three founders are Netflix veterans, and the team leans on that connection pretty hard. One imagines the shape of its strategy is appropriately Netflix-like. What does that mean? It’s helpful to refer to analyst Ben Thompson’s Stratechery newsletter this week, which spells out that strategy:

Netflix has built leverage and monopsony power over the premium video industry not by controlling distribution, at least not at the beginning, but by delivering a superior customer experience that creates a virtuous cycle: Netflix earns the users, which increases its power over suppliers, which brings in more users, which increases its power even more.

But the success of a strategy lies not just on its shape, but on the strength of its variables as well. And so the relevant question here is: Will 60dB’s interpretation of “superior customer experience” — shorter content units, largely algorithmically driven experiences — pay off?

A potential clue can perhaps be found in examinations of another media platform type whose dynamics function similarly: ad exchanges. In a piece published last week at The New York Review of Books, Slate group chairman Jacob Weisberg made the following observation: “Ad exchanges…have made digital advertising more efficient without necessarily making it more effective in increasing sales.” Which is to say, time will tell whether 60dB’s gambit of equating content efficiency with effective experiences will amount to anything, and I’m very curious to see where this goes.

Gimlet officially announced its fall launch slate this morning, and in doing so, offers a look into what appears to be a new phase for the company. Close observers probably know many of these new shows already — they were unveiled during the Brooklyn Upfronts event over the summer — but this morning’s press release revealed a previously unannounced audio drama project with a high profile cast.

Here’s the lineup:

  • Undone, a show hosted by former Radiolab producer Pat Walters that revisits big events from the past. It’s a familiar premise, one most recently utilized to great effect by Malcolm Gladwell and Panoply with Revisionist History. Launches November 14.
  • Homecoming, an original audio drama project that’ll feature Oscar Isaac, Catherine Keener, and David Schwimmer on the talent roster. Launches November 16.
  • Crimetown, which will mark Gimlet’s first foray into the ever-dependable true crime genre. The podcast is driven by part of the team behind HBO’s The Jinx — whose bubbling popularity back in early 2015 compelled critical associations with Serial — and it will examine organized crime in Providence, Rhode Island. Launches November 20.

Additionally, the company’s flagship StartUp podcast will kick off its latest full season this Thursday. This fourth season follows Dov Charney, the controversial former American Apparel CEO who was forced out of the fashion giant in 2014 following numerous reports of misconduct — including sexual harassment — as he pursues a new venture. (Frankly, I’m morbidly interested in hearing how the StartUp team handles this. The push from their end would be for reporting, the push from his end is likely image rehabilitation, and how that dynamic plays out will be the thing to watch.)

Two things:

1. The close proximity of all the launches really stands out to me here. We’re talking three launches in seven days, with each project having its own distinct press hook. Clumping is a smart strategy, I think, one that focuses attention is a way that presents Gimlet with a clear run of opportunities to firmly shape its narrative. The staggered launches of the company’s previous shows (Heavyweight in mid-September, Science Vs in late July) led to a pretty diffuse sense of momentum, and when it comes to a hits-based business — which Gimlet most definitely is — launch momentum is a crucial kind of capital.

2. Also interesting: the strategic conservatism in these bets. You can see the math at work in all three projects: the combination of a legacy radio talent with a classic premise (Undone), stacking an experimental deck with Hollywood talent (Homecoming), and tapping into a battle-tested genre that is a staple on the iTunes charts (Crimetown). Not knocking the choices here; given Gimlet’s high-value-per-project business model and a growing need for its next big hit, these are understandable moves.

The company marches into November following a few optically rough weeks between the Mystery Show controversy and the subsequent winding down of Sampler, two developments that were even dissonant within the context of the most recent StartUp mini-season, which kicked off a few hours after the Mystery Show announcement with an anxiety narrative that seemed to further split its private and public narrative. This November launch week presents a much-needed break from the past, and a chance for the company to reset its bearings.

Planet Money’s Neal Carruth is NPR’s new general manager for podcasts, a brand new position. According to the announcement memo, Carruth “will support the teams working on those shows, strengthen connections between our podcast portfolio and the newsroom and member stations, and support innovation and new program development across NPR as a key member of the newly expanded NPR Story Lab.” He will report to Anya Grundmann, VP of programming and audience development.

“I think we could probably have much richer conversations about NPR’s strategy in a few months, but what I can say is this reflects the seriousness of NPR’s commitment to podcasting,” Carruth said, when I asked about his strategy. “A big part of this for me is talent development — leveraging the incredible talent we have in our newsroom and inside the public radio system. I want to make sure NPR is a great place for creative people.”

He added: “And we want to make sure that member stations are part of this too.” (Poynter ran a longer interview with Carruth, if you’re interested.)

The hiring process for the position took place over a five-month period, with the job posted back in June. This news emerges from the shadow of the NPR podcast promotion kerfuffle (which raised questions over the organization’s relationship to podcasts) back in March, the WBAA-This American Life brouhaha (which raised questions over the broader public radio system’s relationship to podcasts and digital audio) back in May, and NPR One managing editor Sara Sarasohn’s departure from the organization in early September. NPR has been driving a positive wave of announcements lately, unveiling its restructured Story Lab initiative and drawing attention to a strong ratings increase (though, as Current’s Adam Ragusea reported, it’s unclear how to read that apart from a tweak in measurement methodology and the bump from a bonkers election year).

Carruth, a 17-year NPR veteran who most recently ran the business desk and oversaw the Planet Money podcast, will start his new role after Thanksgiving. (He’s also a super chill dude.) David Sweeney will temporarily take over the business desk.

Travel Pod. There’s huge overlap between food media and travel media: a trading in the currency of desire, an editorial choice or balance between dispensing information and peddling fantasy, an indexing towards the visual. Also worth noting to the list of shared traits is the tension I wrote about a few weeks ago within food media — between food media and media about food — which applies, I think, just as well to the travel vertical, though I do struggle to think of strong contemporary examples of viscerally driven travel media beyond the heyday of the Travel Channel circa early 2000s. (I had cable once, as a child, and it was beautiful.)

Roads and Kingdoms, a Brooklyn-based digital media concern, is one such example of a media company about travel, in the sense that it plays with the symbols of globetrotting fantasy while running longform magazine-y pieces. (A chilled-out person’s Vice, one would say.) There is much I find fascinating about R+K: its magazine gloss, its malleable niche, its acceptance of investment by media personality Anthony Bourdain. This is the kind of boutiquey media company that counts among its leaders a guy, one Nathan Thornburgh, who says stuff like: “A great listicle about seven cabanas and seven beaches is still going to kill on the Internet and power glossy magazines, but there are lots of people who think about travel as losing yourself in someone else’s life.”

The company, of course, is pursuing a podcast project, which will be called The Trip. Hosted by Thornburgh and executive editor Kara Parks, the show will showcase the kinds of stories that you’d expect from the site — a mix of travelogue, foreign journalism, cultural anthropology, scenes, and places pieces — and will be backed by sound-rich production values. Bourdain will feature in some pieces. I’m curious.

Production is led by Josie Holtzman, a Brooklyn-based producer on NPR Music’s Jazz Night in America. Philadelphia-based Alex Lewis is handling the ad creative, a set of short midroll profiles on chefs working in New York City’s Lower East Side. The first season, which will run for six episodes, is sponsored in full by Tiger Beer, and Panoply will play a supporting role with distribution and promotion, whatever that means. It will tentatively launch in the first week of March 2017.

Governmental advertising on U.K. podcasts? Caroline Crampton, an assistant editor at the left-of-center British publication the New Statesman (which has a healthy podcast roster), writes in to let me know about a string of governmental ad buys that have been taking place on UK podcasts. Over email, she explained:

We’ve had two major government-sponsor campaigns on our shows. The first ran in spring this year, and was about the benefits to UK companies of exporting their goods to other countries (part of this initiative) and the other is from the Department of Work and Pensions and encourages small business owners to sign up for the new government Workplace Pensions Scheme (this one is due to run from 7 November). Both were sponsor reads, rather than externally-recorded ads, so we were sent a brief containing the facts and figures and then our hosts worked with it to create the final audio. Both campaigns appeared on the New Statesman Podcast, which is our biggest show and focuses on UK politics, and were mostly about spreading information — the action listeners was asked to take was just to read a website for more details.

I asked Crampton if she had heard of anything beyond governmental ads. She replied:

We haven’t yet seen any non-government political ads in the UK as far as I’m aware — at the New Statesman we haven’t yet been approached by a candidate or political campaign, and I haven’t heard such an ad anywhere else. My sense is that government media buyers have bigger budgets than everyone else in the political sphere, and are thus able to be a bit more forward-thinking and experimental with how they spend their cash. They seem to be trying out podcasts as a new platform for citizen informational campaigns beyond the more traditional posters and radio/TV spots. I don’t know of any political party or union that is yet choosing to spend money with podcasts as a way of reaching voters or members, although given that the 2015 general election was the first time the UK really saw parties spending big money on targeted social media ads (dominating the so-called “cyber war” is considered to be a big part of why the Conservatives won a surprise victory) I don’t think party political podcast campaigns can be that far off here.

Fascinating. Crampton, by the way, recently launched a new podcast criticism column in the New Statesman, and you should check it out.

Bites:

  • Oh, NPR’s Story Lab Pitch Portal is now live! (NPR)
  • Audible crawls out into the wild west: One of its original shows, Presidents Are People Too, is now available for free in podcatchers everywhere. “It’s been our plan since the beginning to try other platforms as a way to introduce listeners to the great series we have available at Audible,” Audible SVP of original content Eric Nuzum tells me. (iTunes)
  • Stephen Dubner writes in to correct a detail I ran last week: His Midroll show with James Altucher, Question of the Day, is actually not running any more, having wrapped publication in early September. Sorry about that!
  • The Memory Palace’s Nate DiMeo, currently the artist-in-residence at the Met, releases his first few episodes from that stint. (The Memory Palace)
  • BuzzFeed’s latest podcast: See Something Say Something, a show hosted by Ahmed Ali Akbar about being Muslim in America. (iTunes)
  • “How To Cope With 2016: Start An Election-Gambling Podcast.” (FiveThirtyEight)
  • Midroll’s inaugural Now Hear This festival took place over the weekend, and from what I’ve heard from a few attendees, it seemed to have been a successful first run. If you were there, let me know what you think! I’d love to run a reaction roundup.
  • The great Linda Holmes of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour has a fun theory that sorts the different podcast communities according to a Hogwarts-like taxonomy, but her concluding point is cash money: “My point is mostly that when you’re trying to serve podcast audiences OR creators, many in these houses are UTTERLY indifferent to others.” (Twitter)

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

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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A few important things about the new season of Serial

Serial returns. On Thursday, shortly after 6 a.m. ET, Serial’s second season quietly went live. Over RSS feeds, and whatever metaphor you use to visualize the arterial veins of the Internet, the episode trickled into position on native and third-party podcasting apps, on streaming services, and on the Serial website.

The rollout wasn’t perfect. There were reports on Twitter of the show’s website being unresponsive. There were also mentions that, for a time after the episode drop, downloads were not successfully being facilitated on numerous podcasting apps. (For the record, I had no such trouble using Overcast, but I did find that my native Apple podcasting app refused to budge all the way until 7:30 a.m. or so.) The podcast delivery infrastructure, ten years old and not significantly evolved since the day it was born, appeared to be bending at the seams. Not quite bursting, but most definitely challenged, and challenged hard.

However, as wobbly as all that may have been, one thing was for certain: Serial is back, and all eyes were on it.

Serial is probably the most written-about podcast in the world. The New Yorker had a deep cut. The New York Times was on it. So was Slate. And Mashable. Also, the new new paper of record, The Washington Post. And of course Nieman Lab had an angle on it. All of that coverage, combined with the fact that I have no real access to the team, means that there is only so much that I can bring to the already crowded conversation. And so, with all that in mind, I’ve opted to play a tighter game. In lieu of a comprehensive take, here are four things that I think all you podcast-watchers should keep an eye on:

Pandora Serial InterfacePandora. After the streaming music company’s slightly confusing announcement about becoming the podcast’s exclusive streaming partner back in November, I was a little dubious about the significance of this development. But, as it turns out, Pandora proved to be an interesting distribution point. The podcast may have been damn near impossible to find on the app’s search engine — I found it, oddly enough, under the “Stations You Might Like” section — but once it’s loaded, you are greeted by an interface showing that Pandora has segmented the episode so that you can, if you want, jump to different parts of the episode, the way you might with a DVD using the “Choose a Scene” feature. It is an attempt at making spoken audio skimmable, and one suspects that a big research question for the Pandora team is whether a significant portion of users end up interacting with this feature at all. That answer, unfortunately, is contingent on another question: whether people will use Pandora to listen to the podcast in the first place.

Community and marketing. Here’s someone you should pay close attention to over the course of the season: Serial’s community editor Kristen Taylor. She appears to be the point person who will mediate the team’s relationship with the rest of the world — over social, press releases, news reports. She’s the meta-narrative carrying forward the direction of the podcast’s Tumblr blog, the voice pushing back against reports containing inaccuracies about the show, and most likely the person who will closely observe conversations around the show and its central investigation (a task that will probably lead to the depths of Reddit).

Other things to note: Serial now boasts a Vine account (though it didn’t seem to be working as of Tuesday morning), and the show is also the first test user of what appears to be Facebook’s new audio unit. The unit plays a pre-recorded promo by Sarah Koenig introducing the show, and the player is accompanied by a call to action that either leads you to the podcast’s website (if you’re on desktop) or the iTunes app (if you’re on mobile). There are a crap ton of questions here, but I’m sure answers will be revealed over time — with Facebook’s blessing or otherwise. In the meantime, check out Nieman Lab’s write-up of the Facebook experiment here.

Advertising. Fans who downloaded the podcast early Thursday morning were happy to find that the notorious Mailkimp ad survived the transition to the second season. (Man, I hope that kid gets royalties.) That pre-roll was accompanied by a spot from another familiar advertiser, Squarespace, thus revealing that the two original advertisers from the first season returned for this second serving. Which is great, of course, but this state of affairs did spark a bit of disappointment among some close observers. There had been a belief that, given all the insane fervor around Serial’s first season — which included a visit to Cannes — the podcast’s second season would have been a solid way for big, name-brand advertisers to get into the game for the first time. After all, if you were to place a bet on any podcast doing solid returns, that podcast would probably be Serial, right? And so the lack of brand advertisers on the new season’s first episode was a sign of limited confidence in the medium, or so the argument goes in this piece by the International Business Times.

That may well be the case, except for the fact that there are more advertisers in play than just MailChimp and Squarespace. At this writing, the pre-rolls on the first episode now include CVS Health and Audible, suggesting the use of dynamic ad insertion technology to swap out ads around. That isn’t a new development, necessarily; over the past few months, listeners who downloaded episodes from the first season would find that the Mailchimp advertisements were no longer present — they had been swapped out for newer ads. But what’s particularly interesting here is the fact that the episode isn’t even a week old and it’s already been cycled out. I’m keeping a close eye on the back catalog, and making a list of the many campaigns that are taking place on the podcast across the season.

If CVS Health doesn’t strike you as a big brand advertiser, then try listening to the podcast on Pandora. In what appears to be a campaign built specifically for Pandora and the podcast’s launch, the first episode came with an ad for a new Warner Brothers film, In the Heart of the Sea. The spot involved Sarah Koenig tag-teaming with Ron Howard, that Happy Days guy who also directed a bunch of movies you may or may not have seen, to do a host-read plugging the movie. It’s surreal enough to hear Sarah Koenig doing a podcast ad host-read with Howard, but it’s doubly surreal to hear them plug a movie about a giant fish. Well, a giant whale. (That’s what the movie’s about, by the way: Chris Hemsworth goes on the hunt for a big whale, and Moby Dick is apparently inspired by the supposed true exploits of his character.)

The Serial industrial complex. Speaking of whales: The podcast’s first season was so popular, so successful, and so frenzy-inducing that it gave rise to a veritable cottage industry of Serial-related podcasts that may, from a distance, look to some like barnacles stuck to the bottom of a much bigger thing. (Wow, that was a terrible segue. I’m so sorry.) To name a few: Slate’s Serial Spoiler Specials, AV Club’s The Serial Serial, Undisclosed: The State vs. Adnan Syed, Crime Writers on Serial, and so on.

With the second season, though, the podcast appears to have executed a relatively clean genre shift — from true crime to, for lack of better term, a political thriller. This change leaves a lot of these ancillary podcasts, particularly the ones stuck on the true crime angle, out in the cold, and it should be interesting to see if those podcasters end up being able to extend the conversation.

So, was the first episode of the second season any good? In a word, yes. Very much so. Despite all the podcast-related developments in the year since the first season ended, both in terms of aesthetics and economic infrastructure, “DUSTWUN” was perhaps the best sounding piece of tape I’ve heard all year. It is such a step above everything else on the market. Cinematic, beautifully written, tightly produced, deeply reported (or at least seeming so), and so incredibly well thought through — every single scene and line feels so purposeful — the episode definitely feels like a step upwards, a shift away from the semi-artisanal feel of the first season toward something more aggressively formal, professional, serious.

This is reflected, I believe, in the reduced reliance on Sarah Koenig as character-narrator, where the specificities of who she is as a person is given less of the spotlight. There are still moments of this, of course. “Oh, flies, yeah,” she says at one point, in a piece of tape that is suggestive of the first season’s informality but, in this context, feels a lot more like an unintentional breaking of the fourth wall. And I suppose the shift comes with the change in genre, from true crime to political thriller/documentary, which in turn comes with a similar shift in scope from local to global, from a specific community to an entire international system.

The episode ended with a strong, funny, and jaw-dropping sort-of cliffhanger, but as whiplash-inducing as that moment was, it’s still very hard to tell where this season will go and whether it will maintain its very high quality to the end. But, as critic Matt Zoller Seitz notes (he was talking about TV shows, but the same applies to podcasts), it’s the second season of a show that defines the mettle of the production team behind it. Indeed, it is the second season — or the second article, or the second album — that proves the success of a first was not a fluke, but was truly a consequence of internal production design, composition, and structure. I suspect that Serial’s second season will determine whether it will go on to become an institution and whether this medium is able to justify all the conversation it has enjoyed thus far.

Third Coast. There are few institutions more beloved in the American radio community than the Third Coast International Audio Festival, a Chicago-based nonprofit that focuses on the development and support of audio documentary producers. (The Salt Institute is also pretty up there in the beloved radio institution power rankings. See also: the state of Vermont, probably.) Founded in 2000, first under the jurisdiction of WBEZ and then as an independent organization in 2009, the organization is responsible for a major biennial conference that draws radio and audio documentary lovers into one big space, where they meet and cavort and sow the seeds of future. It was also once the home of Julie Shapiro, now the executive producer over at the Radiotopia podcast network/indie label.

The organization is currently in the midst of a fundraising campaign — its first in what has turned out to be a remarkable year for audio. “The field has changed so much in the past year, and so many more people are rushing into it,” said Johanna Zorn, executive director of Third Coast, when we spoke over the phone recently. She sounded wistful, happy, perhaps a little amused. Like she was a little surprised about everything that’s been happening, about the fact that a lot more people now suddenly give a damn. Or maybe I was just projecting.

“We’re not here to take credit, but we’ve been here from the beginning and we want to take stock of how Third Coast has impacted the community,” she said. And it’s hard to overstate the impact it’s had on the space, even if it’s hard to quantify. Local lore has it that Lulu Miller and Alix Spiegel, the duo behind NPR’s wildly popular Invisibilia podcast, first met each other at one of these festivals. The New York Radio Club, an informal monthly gathering of young radio folk in the city, was created by a group of people who met at the festival and wanted to keep the community going on a local level.

With this year’s campaign, Third Coast is looking to grow and expand its reach for the first time in fifteen years. “We’ve been a small group for a long time — three full-timers, two part-timers — and we’ve been able to do what we do and really work hard at it,” Zorn said. “We want more people at our conference, but we need more than just me and one other person to make that happen.”

The campaign is scheduled to run through to the end of the month. Hit up this link for more information, if you’re so inclined.

Howard Stern re-signs with Sirius XM. The legendary shock jock has reportedly signed on to keep his show at satellite radio company Sirius XM for another five years. Details are still trickling in, and at this writing, it’s unclear how much the new deal is worth. Stern’s contract was due to expire this week, and there had been some speculation that he might ultimately opt to go solo and distribute his wildly popular show through other means. Some fans, according to AdAge, speculated a possible route through Google, Pandora, or Spotify — after all, all three music streaming platforms are now involved in spoken audio. Others, like tech investor (and founder of Inside.com) Jason Calacanis, made the argument for Stern to distribute his show as over-the-top content. Stern had a wide variety of options on the table, with one significant exception: he appeared to have no intention of pursuing podcasting, declaring earlier this year that “podcasts are for losers.” (You can find a pretty interesting analysis of Sirius XM’s chances of survival without Stern in this Bloomberg piece.)

Stern’s last contract with Sirius XM was signed in 2010 and paid him an estimated $80 million a year, according to Variety. In other news, I should reconsider my career choices.

Some housekeeping: I’m taking the next two weeks off Nieman Lab. But I’ll be sporadically publishing the newsletter, depending on what goes on with Serial. You can subscribe using the link below. Cool? Cool. Happy holidays, folks. Keep safe.

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