Who needs video? Slate is pivoting to audio, and making real money doing it

Slate Outlook. This is a tad newsier and more with-the-pack than I generally like to be, but whatever — there’s a bunch of juicy, usable stuff in here.

Slate readers woke up this morning to something big from the 22-year-old online magazine: a total redesign, complete with an overhauled backend to improve the site’s user experience and a new logo to mark its third decade of publication. Accompanying the aesthetic revamp are significant adjustments to the site’s editorial architecture — including, among other things, a reorganization of its content verticals and, of course, a long-overdue push to make its substantial audio output more prominent across its web presence.

“We look at the redesign as a recommitment to the written word and audio,” Julia Turner, Slate’s editor-in-chief, tells me. She also notes that those renewed commitments are, in part, a reaction to the “pivot to video” gambit employed elsewhere in the digital media ecosystem, increasingly lampooned these days either as folly or a cynical ploy to extract dollars from the unstable hype surrounding digital video. “We’re planning to expand editorial spending on podcasts and articles,” she said. “There are good economic models behind both.”

We’ll stick to the audio portion here, of course, and our primary interest is to get a sense of just how strong that podcast business model is for Slate. Turner dished out some numbers to set the scene:

  • Slate enjoyed 100 million downloads in 2017 across its entire podcast network, not counting shows under the Slate Extra banner.
  • Podcast downloads are said to be up 42 percent from 2016.
  • December proved to be Slate’s biggest podcasting month, driven in good part by Slow Burn (more on that show in a bit), with 3.5 million downloads across the period.
  • Slate’s podcast advertising revenues were up 36 percent in 2017 over 2016, and the company expects continued growth this year, or so it is said.

(“We like to share when they’re happy numbers,” Turner said, when I expressed marvel over the volume of information being provided.)

But perhaps the most telling data point is this: In 2014, podcasting made up 0 percent of Slate’s revenue portfolio. By the end of 2017, that number has shot up to 25 percent. Whether that number continues to grow over the next few years will be something to watch. Unsurprisingly, the company expects growth in all key revenue areas — including display advertising and membership dollars in addition to podcast advertising — which, if true, would stabilize the growth of Slate’s podcast advertising dependency. But I do find it compelling to contemplate a future in which Slate primarily operates as a podcast publisher with a significant written web engine that functions as an effective lead-generation tool. (Thereby ultimately adhering to the construct sketched out by Stratechery’s Ben Thompson in his November 2015 piece, “Grantland and the (Surprising) Future of Publishing.” Indeed, such a result would create an unexpected homology between Slate and Grantland’s successor, The Ringer, if I’m reading the latter correctly.)

Anyway, depending on how you look at it, one could interpret Slate’s podcasting fortunes either as a product of luck or persistence, maybe both. Slate’s adventures in podcasting began over a decade ago, in 2004, and as Andy Bowers, who joined the company around that time as its OG producer after a twenty-year career in public radio, is fond of telling it, the site’s early audio dabblings involved publishing recordings of him reading articles out loud into a microphone. (Some ideas never really go away.) Those experiments would eventually evolve into shows with more substantial discursive formats, which would then go on to cultivate strong communities over an extended period of time. Digging through the archives and thinking back on that era, one could argue that there was no real reason for the company to continue producing those podcasts beyond simple enjoyment and serving those early communities; hence the notion of luck and persistence. But sticking to the experiment paid off, as that commitment ultimately primed them to be particularly ready for this historical juncture in digital audio publishing.

Nowadays, the Slate podcast network is a sprawling 24-show portfolio that’s spread across various Gabfests (a model that it pioneered across multiple shows and that is widely emulated these days by other online publications dabbling in the medium), some personality-driven shows (The Gist, Dear Prudence, etc.), and an emerging bucket of more ambitious projects. Bowers, after a long tenure as Slate’s EP of podcasts, went on to cofound a podcast-specific sister company, Panoply, in early 2015, and his role has now been passed onto another bald public radio veteran: Steve Lickteig.

2017 proved to be an interesting year for Slate Podcasts. Most prominently, it struck a curious partnership with Studio 360 last summer, taking over coproduction and digital distribution responsibilities from WNYC (where the show had been housed since its launch in 2000) as well as physically bringing the team into its offices. The network also steadily rolled out a suite of new shows, including a Spanish-language Gabfest and a few highly-produced narrative projects.

One such narrative project was Slow Burn, the Leon Neyfakh-led narrative podcast that sought to capture a sense of how it felt to live through Watergate, which I largely enjoyed and reviewed for Vulture last week. It turned out to be a hit for the company — not just as a standalone podcast project, but also as a lead-generation vessel for its membership program, Slate Plus.

Even though the core Slow Burn experience is available for free as a weekly podcast, a Slate Plus membership gives Burn-heads access to bonus episodes and other additional material. The carrot was apparently effective. “We’re seeing conversion at an extraordinary rate,” Turner said, noting that the Slow Burn campaign yielded 2.5× to 3× the daily conversion rates of an average day. “We’re seeing a ton of overlap between audio audiences and Slate Plus,” she adds. Plans are now in place to develop the property further, including an upcoming live event at the Watergate itself and a broader vision to untether the podcast from Watergate and use its conceit as a way to build future seasons around other historical events.

Slow Burn’s success should give Slate some extra confidence for the upcoming shows they’re planning to launch this year. Projects in the development pipeline includes:

  • A documentary series led by the author Michael Lewis, of The Big Short and Moneyball fame, about umpires.
  • A project built around Slate TV critic Willa Paskin, which I’m told will neither be a chat show nor an interview-show.

One imagines there will be more to come.

The notion of an online magazine entering its third decade is a wild thing to consider. (I’m not too much older than the site itself, which was founded in 1996.) Even wilder is the challenge of continuing to exist — and to fight for relevance — as a digital publication in a notoriously rough industry environment whose narratives are generally oriented around the downswings of the hype cycle these days. In its relative geriatricity, Slate now has the opportunity to contribute to a playbook that few digital publications get the chance to write.

Some odds and ends:

  • I’m also told that, as part of the changes surrounding the redesign and internal shifts, Slate will be taking over its own podcast sales from its sister company Panoply, which previously held that responsibility. A spokesperson explained the change as follows: “Since Slate podcasts are separating from the rest of Panoply, the direct response advertisers that Panoply was calling exclusively for the total network — including Slate — will, starting Q2, be called on by Slate sellers for only Slate’s network of shows. Panoply will continue to call on them for Panoply shows. Obviously, Slate very much believes in Panoply. We are creating this structure so that Slate and Panoply can each focus and do what it does best.” This separation is, of course, quite curious for Panoply.
  • It is not lost on me that the Slate Political Gabfest, one of the network’s oldest and most prominent shows, is hosted by three people who are no longer full-time Slate employees: David Plotz (now the CEO of Atlas Obscura), Emily Bazelon (now a staff writer for The New York Times Magazine and senior research fellow at Yale Law School), and John Dickerson (installed last week as cohost of CBS This Morning). This is both a testament to the legacy that Slate Podcasts has created across its run, and an indication of a potential vulnerability.
  • Speaking of Dickerson, Slate’s podcast chief Steve Lickteig confirmed that Dickerson will continue with the Slate Political Gabfest and Whistlestop.
  • As part of the editorial restructure, the Double X vertical is being phased out as its previous responsibilities become absorbed by all other verticals (there are now five: News & Politics, Culture, Technology, Business, and Human Interest). But the Double X Podcast will continue to operate, serving as the living connection to the vertical’s legacy.

Panoply loses its kids chief. I’ve confirmed that Emily Shapiro, the director of children’s programming, has left the company. Shapiro was originally hired in January 2017 to lead the emerging division, which is primarily built around the Pinna platform. I wrote about Pinna when it first rolled out last October.

Panoply declined to comment on Shapiro’s departure, citing a strict policy on discussing personnel matters.

Prior to joining Panoply, Shapiro was the cofounder of the New York International Children’s Film Festival — considered by some critics as one of New York’s best film festivals — where she worked for almost two decades. Her departure comes at a particularly hot time for the kids podcast genre, including recently launched pushes from WNYC Studios and Gimlet Media, along with long-running efforts from the Kids Listen community.

WBEZ is working on a follow-up to Making Oprah. But it won’t be about Oprah. Brendan Banaszak, the station’s interim executive producer of content development, confirmed the project over email, and noted that they’re applying the “Making” conceit to another Chicago figure whose identity will be revealed at a later date. (A move not unlike what Slate is hoping to do with Slow Burn.) Jenn White will host once again.

I don’t know about you, but I’m really into the idea of “Making” as a podcast template for local public radio stations across the country in the vein of the Hearken-powered Curious City franchise expansions. I would love a Making-style show for Idaho. (Aaron Paul??)

Science Friday joins the WNYC Studios portfolio. The move was announced last Friday. Here’s what that means:

  • WNYC Studios will lead sponsorship sales for the Science Friday podcast along with its spinoff show Undiscovered.
  • Starting April 11, WNYC Studios will take over distribution responsibilities for the Science Friday radio broadcast.
  • Science Friday remains an independent nonprofit media organization, and will continue production as usual in their current studios and offices.
  • WNYC Studios will also assist in the scaling of Science Friday’s audience, along with fielding opportunities for potential future creative collaborations between the two organizations.

This development bears strong resemblance to the August 2015 Snap Judgment move to enter into a coproduction deal with WNYC, the specifics of which you can read in this Current writeup from the time. In this case, however, Science Friday is breaking away from its distribution ties with PRI, with whom they’ve had a relationship since January 2014.

“We love PRI — they’ve been great partners, and our audience is bigger than its ever been” Christian Skotte, codirector and head of digital at Science Friday told me. “For us, as we look forward into the future, WNYC has shown how to launch and market podcasts, and as we think about what our future looks like, we’re thinking beyond just being a radio show and podcast towards being able to create whole new suites of content.”

Science Friday is currently celebrating its 27th year of production.

This week in the revolving door:

  • Eleanor Kagan, the director of audio at BuzzFeed, is leaving the company to join Pineapple Street Media. This move comes almost a month after BuzzFeed announced that it was parting ways with Another Round due to “strategic changes” at the company. Worth noting: Pineapple was cofounded by Jenna Weiss-Berman, who originated the podcast team at BuzzFeed.
  • Jessica Stahl, who originated The Washington Post’s current audio operations in her role as deputy editor on the audience team, has been promoted to director of audio. In related news, The Washington Post’s audio operations launched seven new podcasts in 2017, including two specifically for smart speaker devices.
  • James Green, cofounder of the Postloudness collective and a former producer at Gimlet Media, is joining The Outline to work on its daily show, World Dispatch.
  • John Lagomarsino, audio director at The Outline, is moving to Anchor to serve as head of production. It is a newly created role.

Wait, Anchor has a head of production now? Yep. But the gig is more a product role than anything else. “Ultimately, I’m responsible for making sure content on Anchor is high-quality, well-curated, and relevant for creators and listeners,” Lagomarsino tells me through a rep, before going on to describe a role that liaises between Anchor’s userbase and the company’s product, marketing, and content teams.

For the uninitiated, Anchor is a mobile-oriented app that originally rolled out within the “Twitter, but for audio” construct. That initial orientation was defined by a twin focus: ease of creation and ease of sharing. The company was founded in 2015 and, after picking up some initial buzz at SXSW the year after, has persisted to kick about in pursuit of a place within the marginally iterating podcast technology ecosystem. Last fall, Anchor raised $10 million in a Series A round led by Google Ventures. According to a TechCrunch writeup at the time, the company is still not generating revenue.

The current iteration of Anchor further increases its focus on creating the “easiest path to making a podcast” for the biggest number of people (the bulk of which, one imagines, is relatively inexperienced in audio production). This positioning was expressed last July, when Anchor seized on the reported instabilities at SoundCloud — previously the go-to hosting option for first-time and newer podcast publishers — by offering easy hosting transfers. It was a shrewd move, as the two services map nicely for their target demo given that both platforms are free and relatively simple to use.

How Anchor fits into the broader on-demand audio universe remains to be seen. Will the platform continue to be the lord of its own content universe, or will it meaningfully usurp portions of the technology stack that supports the rest of the podcast ecosystem? The answer hinges on whether CEO Mike Mignano’s thesis on the space pans out.

“The reality of the current landscape is that podcasting has remained an artificially small industry, because it’s so hard to contribute to,” Mignano wrote through a rep. He continued:

Between the friction that exists at nearly every step of the content lifecycle, and the antiquated technology that the industry has relied on for years, creators are left with limited data and limited opportunity for monetization, thus capping the potential of the market. We’re well past the breaking point where innovation across the entire stack is absolutely necessary for growth.

With Anchor, we’re focused on creating technology that strengthens the entire ecosystem and unlocks the true potential of the audio landscape. I expect Anchor to have a lot of competition in the coming years, which we’re excited about, because true innovation is ultimately going to come from technology pushing the boundaries of what’s previously been possible.

I happen to agree with the characterization of podcasting as an “artificially small industry.” The question I’ve kept encountering throughout my years writing this newsletter is whether that’s actually a bad thing.

Billboard outside ATL, Georgia. Atlanta Monster, the new true crime series from Atlanta podcast companies HowStuffWorks and Tenderfoot, appears to be playing around with OOH advertising local to the Atlanta city area:

Neato.

“Gimlet is a multimedia storytelling brand, not just a podcast network.” So goes the opening argument from Gimlet’s new chief marketing officer, Jenny Wall, which headlined a quick Fast Company piece last week, as she moves to elevate the company’s profile.

This is, of course, no new revelation for Gimlet, which has pretty explicitly highlighted its formalizing intellectual property pipeline — carved out in large part by Chris Giliberti, its young “head of multiplatform” — as both differentiating factor and exceptionally strong potential growth channel. Nor is it a particularly new revelation for the industry as a whole; as I noted in my 2017 year-in-review column, the adaptation pipeline is one that extends widely across the ecosystem (though with particular concentration within the audio drama category) and offers the industry a significant pathway to gain strength independently from the platform dynamics governed, still, by Apple. Nor is Gimlet the only entity that’s been exceptionally active in ushering podcast-first properties into projects for other mediums; Night Vale Presents has proven to be equally prominent, with the added nuance of not potentially burdened by the demands of venture capital.

But I thought the quote was interesting for three reasons:

  • It’s super reminiscent of HBO’s “It’s Not TV, It’s HBO” campaign that Wall worked on earlier in her career, which I pointed out last week when writing up her appointment.
  • I was wondering when Gimlet would explicitly make the “actually, we’re not just a podcast company” turn in its narrative. It’s a mindset that you could arguably trace back to a point as early as the company’s participation in the summer 2016 Brooklyn NewFronts event, where it sought to gain association with broader digital media brands like Genius, Atlas Obscura, and Lenny Letter. Perhaps you can trace it back even further.
  • One potential function for the narrative redraft: to open and grease more paths for acquisition. It’s one thing if you’re a podcast company whose most literal suitors would be a bigger, traditional audio company — see Cadence13 and Entercom — but it’s another thing altogether when your perceived value is non-medium specific. It definitely makes things more interesting for, say, a talent agency, or perhaps even a global advertising agency not unlike the one that chipped in $5 million into Gimlet’s recent investment round.

Bites:

  • Like Slate, This American Life has also undergone a redesign, which includes a new shock-red logo. I think the Washington Post’s Alexandra Petri said it best: “Congrats to @ThisAmerLife on its new job as The Economist.” I myself, er, am not a fan. (Website)
  • Last Thursday, ESPN Audio rolled out the first episode of a new podcast from Katie Nolan, who joined the sports media giant from Fox Sports in October.
  • The Loud Speakers Network is bringing back its brand collaboration with State Farm, Color Full Lives, with Aminatou Sow and Angela Yee in the hosting seats. Interestingly, this will be the branded podcast’s third season. They’re also set to experiment with an accompanying video component. (Apple Podcasts)
  • At CES last week, NPR published a new smart speaker study that has some additional data points for your pitch decks. Check it out.
  • This is cool: closing out her third season, Flash Forward’s Rose Eveleth graphed the gender ratio and racial diversity of the guests she brings onto her episodes. (Flash Forward)
  • This is also cool: Doree Shafrir, author and senior tech writer at BuzzFeed, is independently publishing a podcast called Forever35, which is focused on serving women in their 30s and 40s. This is her second indie podcast project, following Matt & Doree’s Eggcellent Adventure, which chronicles her and her husband’s experience of conceiving through in-vitro fertilization.
  • Meanwhile, on the Beltway: Senator Cory Booker (D-New Jersey) has jumped on the politician podcasting train with one of those shows where he talks to people doing stuff he’s likes. He joins senators Bernie Sanders (D-Vermont) and Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), along with former U.S. Attorney General Preet Bharara, in the style.
  • “Pandora CEO Roger Lynch Wants to Create the Podcast Genome Project.” Okay. (Variety)
  • “The Opening of the American Mind: How Educational Podcasts Are Making Us Smarter Citizens.” (Pacific Standard)
  • “Alexa, We’re Still Trying to Figure Out What to Do With You.” (NY Times)
  • PodcastOne announces partnership with the Associated Press around a daily audio news product accompanying the Winter Olympics. (Press Release)
  • “Whatever it is, I’m not afraid of what happens after death.” Don’t miss this glorious conversation with Terry Gross by Vulture’s David Marchese.

Next week, we’re talking crypto-pods.

Correction: In the January 2, 2018 edition, I mentioned that Mary Wilson, current producer of Slate’s The Gist, was a former WNYC staffer. She is not. I regret the error!

Hot Pod: The indies weigh in on a podcast business gone pro (“Capitalism!”)

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue ninety-seven, published November 22, 2016.

Five perspectives from independent podcasts. We’re doing something a little different this week. One of the fundamental narratives driving the podcast space, I think, is the consequences of formalization. Much of this newsletter focuses on the exploits of a professionalizing layer of companies agitating to build a more formalized industry on top of a vibrant open ecosystem that had thus far been fueled by an expansive community of independent creators. A tension exists in the attempted cohabitation between the two; the prevailing concern that emerges from this is whether the developments of the past two years have mutually benefited both parties or whether they have largely privileged the professionalizing layer.

That tension is challenging to study, given the severe deficiencies in publicly available data on podcasts in the aggregate and the general amorphousness of what we’re talking about when we talking about “independent podcasts: — a category that encompasses a wide variety of different content, scales, business models, and ambitions. Comprehensive representation, then, is improbable, so keep that in mind as you read this. Anyway, I spoke with five independent podcast operations about how they’re processing the exploits of the bigger fish, and I’m running chunky excerpts from their responses here. Here we go.

1. Rose Eveleth, of the Flash Forward podcast, on the challenges of crowding:

I think that the gains in podcasting-as-a-business is both great and terrible for indies. The increased attention and money are largely directed at the top-of-the-food-chain shows that come from legacy radio. Even the companies that have spun out, like Gimlet, have that same DNA. They sound like the conventional audio storytelling shows and, crucially, they employ people whose job it is to get more listeners and better advertisers and make money. That’s not bad! It makes them safe business propositions for advertisers. You’ve had success advertising with NPR, This American Life, Radiolab? Great, you see Startup and Reply All as safe bets. They’re shows with an infrastructure and sales team that looks really similar to an advertiser to traditional bets they might have made on radio or big name podcasts.

With that money comes an increase in attention to podcasts in general. Which means more podcasts. Which means more competition from teams that have an infrastructure and budget like Gimlet. I think that’s great. But it also changes how viable it is for an indie show to build an audience.

Let’s take science podcasts, for example. It used to be that if you were a science nerd, you would discover Radiolab. And then you’d be like “Wow, how do I get more podcasts like this?” You’d go to iTunes and click on “Science & Medicine” and you’d get Radiolab, and then the rest of the shows on there were indie: Star Talk, You Are Not So Smart, Inquiring Minds, The Naked Scientist etc.

Now, you go to iTunes and you click “Science & Medicine” and you get: Hidden Brain (NPR), Radiolab (WNYC), Invisibilia (NPR), How to Do Everything (NPR), Science Vs (Gimlet), Science Friday, Only Human (WNYC) and then you start to get indies. The average person isn’t going to listen to more than a couple of science podcasts, probably. So, the competition is getting tougher, and the top is crowded by podcasts that have teams and systems behind them.

This is good in some ways! It means that in order to get ahead you have to make something that’s good, and surprising, and high-quality. I don’t want to overstate the quality of those pre-big-business-podcast shows — many of them were not good. But it was true that by simply making something about science and medicine you could find yourself in the top 50 on iTunes without needing a marketing team. Now, that’s much much harder, in my opinion, even if you are making something really great.

All of this isn’t unique to podcasts, right? This is a thing that happens to small industries that get an influx of cash. Capitalism!

(2) Gina Delvac, who produces Call Your Girlfriend, on the dynamics of attention:

I have a public radio background like so many podcasters, and really cut my teeth at the national show Marketplace. So from my business journo perspective, I think it makes sense to watch the people who are generating the largest volumes of venture capital, acquisitions, and revenue, and driving new fundraising models. That’s going to impact all podcasters, whether or not we are affiliated with any of those companies, because they push the boundaries of what is economically possible. (I’m talking about creators getting paid for these weird, difficult, fulfilling, and/or transformative little gems we make). We’re all watching to see how this nascent industry develops. I say “nascent” because I think there are possibilities for disruptions far beyond what we’ve seen since mid-2014 when Call Your Girlfriend (CYG) started.

At CYG, in addition to having two incredibly brilliant and delightful hosts, Aminatou [Sow] and Ann [Friedman] have their own platforms and friends in media circles, who were big boosters for us. Early writeups in Entertainment Weekly and The Guardian and regular features on iTunes helped us find an audience in a big way early on. We’ve benefited from a lot of additional press since then. I don’t say that to brag, but to acknowledge that many indie podcasters do not have quite the same bullhorn that we do outside of the podcast itself. A lack of attention paid to smaller shows is a genuine problem for those individuals to be able to continue on, and obviously for the rest of us looking to have our ears challenged by new creative approaches and the viewpoints of people who can’t afford to work for free.

(3) Paul Bae and Terry Miles, of Pacific Northwest Stories, on whether growth at the professionalizing layer has cannibalized independents:

Not at all. If you look at who rules the top of the iTunes charts, you’ll consistently see independent players like Aaron Mahnke and Dan Carlin up there with the Gimlet and Radiotopia shows. So when it comes to podcasting success, exposure is important, but, at the moment, content would still seem to be king.

What we hope doesn’t happen is a glut of mediocre celebrity-driven podcasts, people dipping their toes into the podcasting waters for a couple of episodes here and there. That could color the new listener’s impression of what the medium of podcasting is capable of delivering. It’s great that everybody can make a podcast, and there’s room for everyone, but we hope that, when it comes to exposure, the media covering the form continues to reward and trumpet high-quality, well-thought-out audio productions rather than simply looking at a name or brand and chasing that association.

It’s one thing to draw significant media attention away from the plethora of amazing content being created by those of us dedicated to podcasting for a different high-quality audio experience. It’s another to turn people off of the medium because their introduction to the form wasn’t compelling.

(4) Lauren Shippen, of The Bright Sessions, on podcast coverage:

I do think that most of the attention is paid to the big networks, but I also understand the necessity of that. There are so many podcasts out there that, for someone who is writing about podcasts, it makes sense to start with the proven, known entities and work your way down. Things break through if they get enough listens, but there are still a lot of hidden gems. But this is like any other industry — there are a lot of good musicians that no one’s ever heard of because they don’t have the machine of a label behind them…

It will be interesting to see what happens to podcasts like ours in the next six months as these bigger networks start to get into the audio drama game. My only concern is that some listeners will enjoy the “name-brand” audio drama, yet still be reluctant to try “unbranded” audio drama. We’re right up there on the charts with the recognizable names, but we don’t have the cachet of a large company behind us. I think audio drama becoming mainstream is inevitable and ultimately a good thing, but there’s always the fear that we’ll be swallowed up by bigger, shinier fish. Only time will tell!

(5) Claire Friedman, of Cards Against Humanity’s Chicago Podcast Cooperative, on the clustering of interest at the top:

Sometimes [podcast networks] are going to see an indie show and reach down and pull them up. Other times, they’ll miss something truly great. And that’s all right too! They’re not perfect. The benefit for indies is that there’s even a path now. There’s somewhere to go. They may take that path and they may not, but having it changes your mentality.

There may be people who listen to fewer indie shows now because they’re listening to ones produced on networks. There may be people who just can’t get a break where they may have previously been able to. But I truly don’t think that’s hurt indies as a whole. It’s done work to familiarize more people with the medium and more companies with the potential, and I think that’s made indies more able to communicate why they’re doing something different and cool.

Third Coast debrief. The beloved Chicago-based audio conference wrapped up its eleventh edition two weekends ago, and while I wasn’t able to attend in person — and thus, disappointingly, was unable to experience the fireworks at the contentious post-election panel (Current has a solid play-by-play) — I heard it went swimmingly, with record attendance amid what is essentially a boomtime for audio. I managed to get Third Coast’s Sarah Geis, the conference’s artistic director, and Maya Goldberg-Safir, the conference’s communications strategist, on the phone yesterday for a debrief. Some selected notes:

  • “The conference was bigger than ever before,” Geis noted. “There were about 750 people this year, up from under 600 when we last held the festival two years ago.”
  • Geis and Goldberg-Safir told me that one of the major differences from the last conference was an increased presence of organizations recruiting for talent. That was reflected both in the attending companies as well as the sponsorships.
  • “I was grateful that it didn’t feel like a trade show at all,” Goldberg-Safir said, bringing up the festival’s emphasis on maintaining a sense of intimacy and approachability. This will be a continued point of focus as the team accommodates for likely increases in attendees in the years to come.
  • Finally, the team is setting up a podcast feed that will serve listeners audio recordings of the sessions from the 2016 conference as well as selected sessions from previous years. It will also contain some educational material. The feed will be published over the next few days; keep an eye on the website for details.

Geis, by the way, is leaving Third Coast at the end of the year. The organization is restructuring as a result, and will be posting job listings for an artistic associate and a manager of operations soon. As for Geis, she’ll be looking to leverage her three years developing her skills as an editor in pursuit of other opportunities.

Approaches to translation. I don’t speak many languages — truthfully, all I have is English, the mother tongue of the country I come from, and bits of obscenities scattered across various Romance languages — which means that I am largely at a loss when I cover stuff like Slate France’s early podcasting efforts, which I wrote about back in August, and the Spanish-language narrative show Radio Ambulante’s distribution deal with NPR, which I discussed last week. Ideally, I would have loved to actually experience those shows before writing about their developments, structures, and business contexts; after all, a core belief driving this newsletter is the ways in which product impacts business models and vice versa.

My frustrations with covering stories like that led me to wonder about the set of moves currently available for podcast translation and localization, which subsequently led me to U.K.-based radio producer Eleanor McDowall, whose site, Radio Atlas, seeks to bridge the language gap by converting non-English-language radio pieces into video packages that layers visual subtitles over original recordings. I first heard of Radio Atlas from a Poynter column published back in February (when the site originally launched), and at the time, I felt that the choice to essentially shift the experience from audio-first to video-first was one I ultimately didn’t want to follow as a consumer. I still feel that way, but I figured McDowall had nonetheless worked through the alternatives of approaching translation when developing the site, so I asked her to walk me through her choices.

Over email, she outlined the three approaches she considered:

(1) Transcripting, where listeners are encouraged to either read a script online or as a print-out while consuming an episode. “This happens a lot at European conferences and competitions like the IFC and the Prix Europa,” McDowall pointed out, referring to two well-known international radio competitions. “My issues with the transcript method are that you completely lose the timing. If you’re a quick reader, you’re going to leap ahead and spoil everyone’s punchlines. Yu might miss the musicality of the edit or the pause mid-sentence as an interviewee becomes overcome with emotion.”

(2) Audio reversioning, where a captioning voice is integrated into the piece itself in a way that flows over parts of that piece, often extending the listening experience well beyond its original design and runtime. “There have been some really creative approaches to audio reversioning. The translation voice might offer a new dimension, act as a new interviewee, or play with the form of a doc, to a certain extent,” she explained. “I think audio reversioning is really interesting, but for me — although every act of translation is obviously a transformation — it’s a tool that changes the character of the original documentary into something else. As with the transcript method, having the presence of a translating voice might mean that you miss the music of the original delivery… Should audio translation be neutral? Or should the speaker try and capture the tone in which lines are delivered? And if we’re listening to a ‘performed’ translation, are we diluting the authenticity of the documentary to a certain extent?”

(3) Subtitling, which is the method McDowall employs at Radio Atlas, a move that structurally reconstructs the experience from being purely aural to primarily visual. “[Subtitling] controls when you get the translation so you can get a much better sense of timing and delivery and it’s not disrupting the audio world of the original,” she said. “Radio Atlas is designed with the hope that you think as little as possible about the act of reading. I’m keen that words only appear as you need them and, where possible, I leave the screen blank so that you’re focused on the act of listening rather than looking.”

Thinking this through, it’s also entirely possible to consider a fourth option: direct translation, where the script is rewritten and reperformed in English. Of course, this wouldn’t be feasible for many nonfiction shows, which are typically structured around primary recordings of source or guest interviews, but one imagines that this could work well for non-English audio dramas — and for attempts to export English audio dramas to non-English-speaking countries as well, of course.

Aside from running Radio Atlas, McDowall is a senior producer at Falling Tree Productions, an independent production company, and the series producer of Short Cuts, a BBC Radio 4 documentary show and podcast.

Here’s an editorial partnership to watch: Song Exploder is teaming up with Vulture for “a series of episodes on the most interesting film scores of the year.” The series kicked off last week with an episode covering the score for the movie “Arrival,” composed by Jóhann Jóhannsson. It’s a very smart, non-zero-sum collaboration, with obvious up sides for both parties: Song Exploder gets itself in front of the Vulture audience (many of whom may be new potential listeners), and Vulture gets a piece of compelling, resonant #content that’ll engage and further monetize its readership. (#Synergy, baby.) Other podcasts, and other digital publications, would be wise to replicate this move.

And props to Song Exploder creator Hrishikesh Hirway for his entrepreneurial efforts to participate in a collaboration like this. This partnership with Vulture isn’t his first; between May 2015 and March 2016, Song Exploder was presented almost weekly on Wired.com as what appears to be a syndicated package.

Codebreaker returns for season two. Interesting and curious, gimmicky but somewhat pleasantly so: I thought Codebreaker’s first season was an uneven but admirable attempt to go beyond your standard podcast publication format. The show sought to build an interactive experience on top of the show, hiding codes throughout the episodes — which were ordinarily scheduled to publish weekly — that would unlock the rest of the season for the more involved audiences. You could call it a tiered community management structure, one that’s designed to identify, segment, and reward the more engaged listeners (a data point that could undoubtedly prove useful to the Codebreaker team).

The podcast, which comes out of a partnership between American Public Media and Business Insider, kicked off its second season last week. This season focuses on the question: Can technology save us? Host Ben Johnson tells me that the new season is more ambitious than the first, both in terms of the storytelling and the code design. He seems very excited. You can check out the website for more information.

Bites:

  • RadioPublic is now publicly available on iOS and Android. (Nieman Lab)
  • “Podcasts’ strong ad sales help NPR reach second year of budget surplus.” According to National Public Media CEO Gina Garrubbo, “Podcast income drove the growth in digital…with advertisers renewing at an “extremely high” rate.” (Current)
  • Digiday reports that The Ringer’s podcast network apparently brings in 5 million downloads per month, citing “people familiar with the matter.” (Digiday)
  • How a local news nonprofit is experimenting with audio to build new revenue streams. Gotta hand it to those Vermonters. (Nieman Lab)
  • Add this to the list of podcasts-to-TV jumps: “‘Drink Champs’ podcast coming to Diddy’s Revolt TV Network.” Though one imagines a celebrity-driven podcast strategy — like the one practiced by Drink Champs’ parent podcast network, CBS Play.it — is set up to more efficiently, but perhaps not necessarily more effectively, cultivate conversions like these. (Variety)
  • Radio journalist Joshua Johnson will succeed Diane Rehm as host of WAMU’s long-running public-affairs discussion program. The new show will be called “1A.” It’s not directly podcast-related, but I’ve been a long-time listener of Rehm’s show, so I’m just dropping this here because I find it super exciting. (Washington Post)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Bugle is Radiotopia’s sixteenth show.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bites:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Note:

Ugh.

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

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

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

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

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

Good luck, Sara and Julie!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bites:

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

The battle for your car’s dashboard — and for your ears during your commute — is on

The fight for the dashboard. On February 20, The New York Times ran a piece about how SiriusXM, the popular subscription-based U.S. satellite radio network, is grappling with the prospect of increased competition generated by the growing ubiquity of connected cars, whose Internet-enabled infotainment systems will make it easier for drivers to use apps like Spotify, Deezer, and Pandora during their commutes. (Many of which, by the way, are becoming podcast providers themselves in addition to their music streaming functions — thus bringing them closer to SiriusXM’s product offering in concept.)

If this is the first time you’re encountering the connected car issue and how it pertains to radio and podcasts, here are two things to get you started. First, the “connected car” is a rather broad umbrella term for cars that feature better and near-persistent Internet access that’s primarily channelled to the driver through the vehicle’s dashboard interface. Its connectivity affords significant gains in the driver experience, like quicker GPS navigation (through, say, Google Maps or Waze) or better safeguards facilitated by automated car-to-car communication — but of course the thing we really want to talk about here in a column about podcasts is the benefit for the driver’s media consumption, which has up until this point been largely restricted to AM/FM and satellite radio. In the U.S., the satellite option has been dominated by the aforementioned SiriusXM, which currently boasts almost 30 million subscribers, while AM/FM radio still owns the majority of the American listening population, at 91 percent of folks over 12.

The second thing you need to know is how SiriusXM was able to develop a unique competitive advantage, which I’d argue is how the company has been able to carve out a life for itself thus far. The key is in the company’s intense structural reach, derived from the company’s successful cultivation of relationships with car manufacturers. Wooing car manufacturers grants the company default placement on their (largely pre-connected car, but not always) in-vehicle infotainment systems. Per the Times:

SiriusXM pays about $1 billion a year in subsidies and revenue splits to automakers, and according to the company, 75 percent of all new vehicles sold in the United States come with satellite radio installed. (It works with every major carmaker.) Of the 29.6 million subscribers to SiriusXM at the end of last year, 24.2 million paid the $11 to $20 monthly fee themselves, with the rest covered through promotions by car companies.

With the connected car and its new ecosystems becoming increasingly in focus — Android Auto and CarPlay are favored by many to become the operating systems of choice in the future — SiriusXM’s mastery of the dashboard as a distribution channel is potentially loosened.

It’s also become increasingly apparent that the dashboard is central to the focus of a bunch of hungry folks in the podcasting space. Last year’s DASH conference (amusingly subtitled “Radio & The Connected Car: A Survival Guide For Radio Broadcasters” — ohhhh how I love the drama) featured such radio and podcast operators as Midroll, NPR, Audible, Podcast One, Westwood One, and Adam Carolla.

Of course, just because streaming apps are more available doesn’t automatically means drivers will flock to them. (Although, it does help: Recall that the last across-the-board bump in podcast listenership is widely attributed to Apple’s decision to automatically bundle the native Podcasts app with iOS 8.) Further, the only problem we can be certain increased availability will solve is the one faced by the particularly plugged-in user who relies on a cumbersome Bluetooth solution to hook up their phone’s stream to the car stereo system. But these industrious consumers are never the prime target demo — that would be the passive, I’ll-listen-to-whatever’s-easiest, choice-is-a-burden commuter. If that user demographic can be converted at scale, the thinking goes, the game is basically won.

So, the billion-dollar question for the streaming apps — and the podcast companies who place their hope on them as the gateway between drivers and their content — is whether they’ll able to jockey their way into being the default or go-to listening option on the dashboard. Which will be difficult, of course, given that they’ll be competing with each other in addition to AM/FM and SiriusXM in dealing with whoever governs the on-board operating system (be it car manufacturers or CarPlay/Android Auto). Those apps would also to have to see if they’ll be able to successfully convert individual listeners down the marketing funnel — in essence fighting the same fight on the dashboard that they already are on the phone. After all, what is your car if not a giant mobile device? Crappy pun, but stare at it long enough and it becomes so true, yo.

Definitely check out the whole Times article, which touches upon multitudes of SiriusXM’s other flashpoints. But four more things before we move on:

  • I’m utterly fascinated by SiriusXM’s explanation for their value proposition that successfully moves folks down the subscription funnel, which essentially amounts to “a less crappy advertising load.” It can’t be that simple, can it? CAN IT? *rips hair out*
  • It’s entirely possible that some podcasting networks — particularly the ones that wrangle upwards of 25 podcasts — would consider developing an over-the-top solution that they can take directly to these operating systems. That, I think, would be an insanely difficult route to take, and I’d only recommend it if you have an asset as big and native to the form as, well, Howard Stern (who is locked in at SiriusXM, by the way, in case you missed that). But good on you if that’s your game, man.
  • Here’s a useful number I like to keep in my back pocket: 75 percent of the 92 million cars expected to ship globally in 2020 will be Internet-enabled, according to estimates by BI Intelligence.
  • How much will this all matter once self-driving cars kick in? I have no idea. I have as little idea about that as I do about how virtual reality will completely reconfigure aggregate media consumption behaviors. In the long run, we’re all self-driving cars in virtual reality, as Keynes once said.

Why isn’t there more audio programming for kids? Revisited. I asked this question last week, but only as a way to kick off an item about design points for kid-oriented podcasts. But it stuck with me — specifically in the context of public radio, but also radio and podcasts more broadly — so I spent a bit time last time asking around for theories, ideas, histories.

Here are the two that vibrated with me the most:

(1) Sponsorship uneasiness. This one comes from Guy Raz, editorial director and host of NPR’s TED Radio Hour, who emailed me after last week’s newsletter went out. Lightly edited for clarity and stuff:

It’s all about sponsorship. This is a longstanding problem with quality kids programming. Parents don’t want their kids to be exposed to ads (for good reason) and so it would have to be the kind of show that has (a) foundation support or (b) sponsorship from brands that are aligned with the mission of the show (similar to what PBS Kids does with the underwriting between shows).

There is a (c) option, and that would be very clearly delineated spots — even more so than we do on the TED Radio Hour or Alex [Blumberg] does on StartUp — but in a way where parents could skip through it. But I’m not sure advertisers would like that unless the right companies got involved — companies who understood the value of great kids shows and could accept less in-your-face ads in exchange for the so-called “halo effect” of association with the podcast.

There’s a juicy refraction that we can draw out from the problem as expressed by Raz here: One would imagine that whatever ends up working the best for kids programming — following the terms laid down in option (c) — would, in design and in theory, also work equally well for podcast advertising more broadly: that is, a set of advertising conventions built upon thoughtfulness, sensitivity to the listener’s context, alignment between brand and show, and the utmost care for the boundary between editorial and advertorial.

An additional problem to consider here, of course, is how to apply those precepts to executions that come out of dynamic ad insertion and, whenever it happens, programmatic audio advertising. (Pairing the question of programmatic with this appeal towards thoughtful advertising, I offer, portends a much larger rabbit hole: Can automated matching solutions be efficient, effective, and data-rich enough as to be empathetically intelligent? Merp.) But that’s a whole other can of worms, and we’ll deal with it when we get there.

Raz, by the way, also moonlights for something called the Breakfast Blast Newscast, which he produces with Mindy Thomas, the program director and on-air host for SiriusXM’s Kids Place Live. Breakfast Blast features kids doing news roundups and discussing material from peer-reviewed journal articles, which honestly is something that could’ve made my grad school life a lot better. You can find it on SoundCloud.

(2) Historical precedent, or lack thereof. This one comes from Lindsay Patterson, one of the folks behind a science podcast for kids called Tumble. (She also wrote a manifesto of sorts on the issue, which you can find on Current.)

Patterson believes the sponsorship argument has limited explanatory power. “The answer may be as simple as it just never really occurring to people to make things for kids,” she said to me when we spoke over the phone last week, specifically referring to the context of public radio.

I was a little resistant to that point — there are just too many reasonably intelligent people, and too many people in power who have, well, kids, for the idea to not have come up before. Patterson gestured to the way things generally get moving within large institutions: Every project that gets developed draws, in some part, from notable past projects that serve as strong enough templates. As her argument goes: There simply hasn’t been a notable enough show or experiment in the past that’s spurred enough confidence leading to more resources being poured into more kids programming. (But enough templates, in my mind, to fuel more podcasts about the mysteries of everyday life.)

In other words, it’s the story of how anything new ever gets made in large, legacy, or relatively conservative institutions. Which says a lot about the state of podcasts, to be honest.

An Australian Third Coast. Attention, Ozzies! Audiocraft is a one-day Australian-focused audio conference that’s taking place in Sydney this Saturday. If the premise of Audiocraft sounds familiar to you, that’s because it draws inspiration from the Third Coast Festival, which I’ve talked about a fair bit before. In fact, the organizers came up with Audiocraft during the last Third Coast Festival back in 2014 (in a pre-Serial and pre-Trump America).

According to Kate Montague, the executive director of the conference, Audiocraft was conceived out of a belief that there weren’t many opportunities for the various parts of the Australian radio community — the public sector, the community radio sector, the independents, even the commercial — to come together and discuss the “state of the Australian sound.”

You can learn more about Audiocraft on their site. They’re also set to announce a short features competition soon, so watch out for that if you’re hanging out in Oceania.

Standalone spinoffs. Last week, I ran a quick item on Modern Love, the podcast that comes out of a partnership between WBUR and The New York Times, bagging 1.4 million downloads across the whole show in its first month. For the few of you in my readership who are in charge of program development in your respective institutions, and who might probably benefit (or gain anxiety) from looking into somebody else’s bowl, here are three interesting details from my conversation last Monday with Jessica Alpert, WBUR’s managing producer for program development:

  • From first conversation to negotiation to production to launch, the entire process took a year and a half.
  • Actual show development started on October 15. Given that the show launched on January 20, that’s a pretty quick turnaround: a little over three months.
  • Launch sponsors included Living Proof and Squarespace.

Okay, with that out of the way, I want to briefly talk about two things:

  • Modern Love is the latest in a relatively long line of interesting partnerships that WBUR has cultivated over the years. Currently, they have Dear Sugar Radio, another adaptation of a well known column, out on the market, and past collaborations include Finish Line with The Boston Globe and The Checkup with Slate. Now, striking up partnerships to create shows isn’t all that novel — in fact, the business model of my former day job employer, Panoply, was initially built upon that premise — but there’s something scrappy and vivacious about the way WBUR, which is basically a traditional public radio station, has been trying out partnerships. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but I’m pretty curious to see what they come up with next.
  • So, real talk for a second: I’m the kind of guy that reads the Modern Love column, uh, ironically. But I’m utterly enthralled by the execution of the show — particularly how effectively, to my ears at least, it can be consumed as a piece of media that stands apart from The New York Times’ brand. This suggests a specific way that we look for potential podcast projects to spin out of papers and magazines: What editorial elements can you adapt that could lead to shows that are able to be their own independent brand?

Relevant bits:

  • The Knight Foundation’s Prototype Fund published a list of 11 media projects that it’s funding in its latest round, and there are two audio-centric products you should pay close attention to: This American Life’s audio-sharing tool and something called Satchel, a podcast distribution platform with a local emphasis. (Nieman Lab)
  • 99% Invisible collaborated with Vox on a short video piece which came out last Friday. At 12 p.m. ET on Monday, the podcast was placing at No. 9 on the iTunes charts, with the video having clocked about 1.1 million views. (Roman Mars’ glorious Twitter feed, here’s the video on Vox.com)
  • Gimlet previews the pilot for The Hunt, a reality TV-style podcast created out of the company’s recent “Mix Week,” behind their membership paywall. They also wrote up one of those spiffy Medium posts discussing the mix-week process. (Medium)
  • Panoply dropped a 32-episode podcast about pregnancy, which they developed with Parents magazine, last week. The full series was released simultaneously — you know, Netflix-style, or whatever you want to call it. I’ll follow up in a few weeks to see how this distribution method takes, and whether it actually turns out to be a good match with the editorial need. (RAIN News)
  • Flash Forward, a podcast made by independent producer Rose Eveleth and distributed by the former zine/now quirky website Boing Boing, surged into the Top 10 of the iTunes podcast charts after its collaboration with Planet Money published last week. At 12 p.m. ET on Monday, the podcast was placed at No. 7. When asked for comment, Eveleth said: “SO MANY EMOTIONS.” (iTunes)
  • “Craig Windham, NPR Newscaster, Dies.” R.I.P. (NPR)

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