Spotify in “advanced talks” to acquire Gimlet

If I had a podcast, this is when I’d drop an emergency pod, because this is some Kristaps Porzingis-level shit.

Recode’s Peter Kafka and the Wall Street Journal’s Ben Mullin both fired out the story within the past two hours that Spotify, the Swedish music streaming company, is apparently in “advanced talks” to acquire Gimlet Media. Both articles cite sources familiar with the matter, and it’s worth noting that the situation remains somewhat fluid.

Recode’s Peter Kafka had the story out first (barely), and he has the potential price on the deal: “A person familiar with the proposed deal says Spotify will pay more than $200 million in cash for the company.”

I can add to that with a confirmation: a source familiar with the matter tells me that the specific price is $230 million.

Though, here’s WSJ’s Ben Mullin has a crucial detail you shouldn’t miss: “Talks are still ongoing and it is still possible that a deal won’t happen, the people said.”

If you’re looking for a yard-stick, we can probably talk about EW Scripps’ 2015 acquisition of Midroll Media (now rebranded as Stitcher) for $50 million, plus an additional $10 million based on milestone achievements. But more appropriately, we’d have to talk about iHeartMedia acquiring Stuff Media for $55 million, which comps better because that’s a platform-ish company acquiring a straight-up content company, which is what we’re seeing with this Spotify-Gimlet situation.

Which is to say: if this deal closes, Spotify’s ingestion of Gimlet would be the biggest acquisition in the podcast industry to date. By quite a mile.

(Oh, and if you’re keeping track: the venture-backed Gimlet Media has raised around $28.5 million in funding to date, from a pool of investors that includes WPP, Betaworks, Emerson Collective, and Panoply parent company Graham Holdings. As Kafka pointed out, the company last raised money in 2017 on a $70 million valuation. You know what? Just check out the Crunchbase listing.)

Also worth noting: this is Spotify’s first acquisition of a content company.

Gimlet Media presumably doesn’t need any introduction in this newsletter, but just in case: it’s the Brooklyn-based podcast company founded in 2014 by former This American Life staffer/Planet Money co-founder Alex Blumberg  and former WNYC producer/BCG consultant Matt Lieber that’s (a) responsible for shows like Startup, Reply All, and Homecoming, and (b) has become the somewhat polarizing venture-backed poster child for the current wave of podcast industrialization.

Spotify, in case you need reminding, has been getting up on podcasting’s business quite a bit for a while now. In fits and starts, it has attempted to carve out a proper podcast presence within its platform over the past few years, initially functioning as a modest closed distributor before evolving into its current iteration, which involves an exclusives-driven strategy (which largely takes the form of talent deals with folks like Amy Schumer, Joe Budden, and Jemele Hill, though shout-out to Dissect) that’s built on top of a more traditional “open-ish” podcast distribution system. Last month, the company signaled stronger intentions with podcasting, disclosing through a minor press push that it has been experimenting with selling ads on its own podcasts since mid-2018 and is currently exploring the possibility of building out its own ad insertion tech. I wrote about Spotify’s podcast adventures and prospect during that push, and raised a shit-ton of questions of how a Spotify podcast strategy would work.

I’m not going to toot my own horn here… oh what the hell. Here’s one point I raised: “Given Spotify’s content-led strategy, what are the odds it’s going to straight-up acquire one or more podcast content companies in the near future? (If I were a betting man, I’d probably take that bet.)” Gimme my money.

I also want to flag another point I raised in that column, which I think will probably become an important piece in the coming days. It’s a chunk:

Spotify’s two-pronged podcast supply approach — directly curating unique show assets and opening up podcast submissions — should be recognized as a familiar one for the company. The move seems to be an inverted echo of an initiative that Spotify has been testing on the music side: first, quietly striking deals directly with independent artists (said to be relatively modest; “with advance payments of tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars, according to several people involved,” per The New York Times), and then, rolling out a new feature that allows independent artists to “upload songs and albums directly — without going through a single label company, distribution group or Spotify employee — and automatically receive royalty payments in their bank accounts,” as Rolling Stone described it. That latter feature, which is seen to be an upgrade to the listener-intelligence-oriented Spotify for Artists program, is in invite-only beta at the moment.

Okay, so. I’m going to mull on this and deliver a little more analysis in next Tuesday’s newsletter, but in the meantime, a few quick thoughts:

  • This will almost certainly spark a huge conversation about podcasting, the podcast industry, its openness, is this the end of an era, so on and so forth. All of that conversation is totally warranted, and I’m here for it.
  • Don’t forget that Gimlet and Spotify have worked closely before, applying a windowing arrangement around Crimetown S2 and Mogul.
  • Here’s my gut: I can’t help but feel that there was some inevitability to Gimlet being acquired. Being a venture-backed company, it entered existence under pressure to realize some considerable return for its investors — growth and conclusion, not independence, was written into its DNA. Combine this with the fact that Gimlet specializes in resource-intensive, often limited-run seasonal programming, it doesn’t feel like there were many pathways for the company to develop a business model that isn’t super risky. Now that it’s going to be ingested into a larger entity with its own (matured-ish) business model, it can stand to keep doing what it’s good at doing without the attendant pressures of needing to revolutionize the seasonal podcast business model on their own.
  • On a separate note, I go back and forth in feeling whether Spotify was the inevitable buyer. At this moment in time, Spotify feels like the only buyer that makes sense given its priorities, its current intent with podcasts, and its current adventures in podcasts, but I can’t help thinking about other potential places Gimlet could have ended up in.
  • One thing I’m going to be thinking about: how does Gimlet’s staff — which now numbers well north of hundred in the headcount — integrate into Spotify? Who stays, who leaves? How will shows be situated within the company?
  • Will Gimlet’s programming be exclusive on Spotify? (Probably, probably.)
  • Please don’t hurt Reply All.
  • I hope they fucking make a Startup season about this. Come on now.

Okay, that’s all for now. More on Tuesday.

Gimlet to produce a daily news podcast with the Wall Street Journal

I’ve just learned that Gimlet Media is stepping into the daily news podcast space, courtesy of the Wall Street Journal. The move was announced internally earlier today, and as it stands, the two companies are currently seeking an executive producer and a host to staff the production. Specific details are still scants, but the hope, I hear, is to roll the show out around the second quarter of 2019.

This will mark Gimlet’s second partnership with an establishment media company; the other being The Cut on Tuesdays, a co-production with the New York Magazine vertical. (The Cut on Tuesdays, by the way, was named as one of the New York Times’ “Five Great Podcasts from 2018.”)

The move, to my mind, makes a ton of strategic sense, for a few reasons:

  • For Gimlet, it’s a potential revenue boon. As we’ve come to learn, a daily news podcast product is one that’s able to hold a ton of advertising inventory and thus will be very valuable from a reliable revenue standpoint;
  • The Wall Street Journal gets to benefit from Gimlet’s production infrastructure and expertise;
  • And Gimlet won’t have to worry all too much about building a daily news podcast audience from scratch, because the point would be to convert Wall Street Journal readers.

Two things to consider:

  • The big question is whether Gimlet’s sensibility is a good fit for the Wall Street Journal’s sound; and
  • This isn’t the Wall Street Journal’s first podcast rodeo, nor their first daily news podcast. They’ve had podcast endeavors going way back, from their early internal attempts at news audio during the first Podcast Boom up through the 2015 era via a partnership with Panoply, back when that company was still in the content business and pursued a strategy of replicating Gabfest-style programming for a variety of media partners. That Gimlet is exhibiting a growing interest in taking over that media partner-strategy is absolutely fascinating.

Ah yes, the daily news podcast. Between existing productions like The Daily, Up First, Today, Explained, and The Indicator (happy one-year anniversary!) and recent launches like Post Reports, Front Burner, What Next, Today in Focus, the allure of the format is stronger than ever as we close out 2018.

Google wants to do for podcasts on Android what Apple did for podcasts on iOS

GOOGLY EYED. You might have already heard about Google’s new strategy around podcast servicing on Android devices — I briefly linked to it last week after my whole spiel on the Apple HomePod — that the search giant announced through the content marketing blog of Pacific Content, the Canadian branded podcast studio. The announcement was broken out into five parts, and if you haven’t read them already, you absolutely should. You can find the first entry here, and then work outward from there.

But if you need a TLDR: Google’s apparent mission statement is “to help double the amount of podcast listening in the world over the next couple years,” and by that they mean to do to the untapped masses of potential podcast-consuming Android users what Apple did to potential podcast-consuming iOS users back in 2015 when it started distributing the stuff through iTunes. Of course, Google will try to do so via the strength of its specific Googlean skill-sets. (Also worth noting: this is separate and apart from the podcast stuff on Google Play Music, which didn’t really seem like it amounted to much?)

FWIW, my gut reaction to the news is about the same as when I heard about Pandora wanting to “double down on podcasts,” which is “cool, cool, let me know how that goes.” Because, really, I could say something like “man, this is (maybe) totally going to change everything!”, but that wouldn’t be particularly useful, and by all means, whether everything changes or not, it’s still worth adhering to Google’s inclusion guidelines to gain whatever listenership will be driven by this initiative.

Anyway, there are a fair few elements to Google’s podcast strategy, but I’ve come to view its heartbeat according to these building blocks:

(1) Capture. The most immediate development is how Google has already begun listing podcast and audio episodes in search results at a level similar to text, video, and images within the Google app on Android devices. This is being referred to as an effort to make podcasts a “first-class citizen” within Google’s search architecture, and it’s also a move that widely expands Google’s presence as the top-of-the-funnel option for all future podcast/audio discovery pathways among potential casual listeners noodling around on their Android devices.

(2) Contain. But here’s the most notable development, IMHO: Podcast consumption and management can now be handled directly on the Android Google app, through a user experience that’s baked into the app environment itself called “Homebase.” Based on the posts, it’s sort of an app within the app, and the significance here is that listeners can theoretically discover, listen, and subscribe to podcasts within the same app experience.

This would presumably reduce the number of steps that many assume are major pain points preventing adoption. Previously, an Android user bumping into, say, Wooden Overcoats for the first time while tumbling down a search rabbit hole would have to figure out which third-party podcast app to download on the Google Play Store — or head over to Spotify, I guess — learn how to use that product, and then start habituating with said third-party app in order to formalize their relationship with the show. By sliding in as the listening layer itself, Google theoretically collapses the distance between the point of discovery and the point of listening. (Speaking of which: pour one out for third-party podcast apps that primarily made a living serving the previously underserved Android market. Godspeed, fellas.)

Interestingly, some of the write-ups around the announcement seem to possess an expectation that the podcast experience will likely be broken out into its own standalone app at some point in the future. I don’t know about whether that’s actually the case, but…isn’t the point to reduce the number of steps to begin with?

(3) Cover. And then there’s all the stuff about connecting and syncing all these podcast consuming experiences between Google’s Android app and the Google Assistant, the company’s Alexa competitor. If you’ve been reading this newsletter for any period of time, you probably know what I’m going to say at this point: I think the potential here should be viewed less as a smart speaker thing and more as a voice-first computing thing, as the Google Assistant is likely going to be spread wide across a wide expanse of interfacing surface areas (cars, smart homes, dog collars, public restrooms, etc.)

I’ll show my bias here and say that the podcasting stuff here is a little less interesting to me than the notion of Google beginning to dabble with realizing a search engine for atomic units of audio experiences on an aurally-represented internet. Sure, we’re talking about podcasts now, but are we really only talking about podcasts with the kind of infrastructure that’s being built here? Come on, are you really going to use all that fire just to heat cans of soup? Get outta here.

A couple of other thoughts specific to podcast stuff:

(1) When I first started outlining this item, I had this whole bit reheating my skepticism about good search functionality being the answer to podcast discovery: I’m just iffy on the notion of a significant discovery pathway into podcasts that runs through subject- or topic-oriented searches.

But then I recalled that search is only part of the picture when it comes to Google these days, which now appears to hang on the twin principles of going “from search to suggest” and being “AI-first” as illustrated in this essay by Andre Saltz, which has been pretty helpful for me to think through these things. I’ve evoked it before in this column.

(2) As a veteran digital media executive recently told me: “There’s one fact of life that has remained constant — that someone is trying to game the system.” That person was talking to me for another story about another situation that I’ll publish next week, but it’s applicable here with whatever the audio SEO framework is going to look like, of course. On a related note, I’m looking forward to “What time is the Super Bowl?”, but for audio.

(3) Related to this idea of “gaming the system” is the heady, navel-gazing, but actually really interesting question of how platforms impact publishers and vice versa. Having a new system from which to extract value always offers new opportunities, but I think it’s an open question whether Google’s moves with search here will actually lead to better outcomes for the existing spread of publishers.

What’s less of an open question is the probability that we’ll see new kinds of publishers playing to the new system that Google’s endeavors here open up. Look, if I were an enterprising young person who wasn’t particularly romantic about the Way Audio Should Be Made, I’d be working hard to game the shit out of the system with new forms of content that’s sticky to its rules. (We already see versions of this enterprising spirit in the Apple Podcast charts with the spread of true crime podcasts.)

(4) Speaking of whether Google’s podcast endeavors will actually lead to better outcomes for existing podcast publishers, I’ve been hearing that the search giant has been in contact with some publishers over the past few months as it builds out its podcast features. Like many other configurations of such interfacing in the past (publishers and Facebook, publishers and Apple News, etc. etc.), I wouldn’t put too much stock in the…proposed symmetry of that relationship.

Alrighty, let’s move along.

Meanwhile, over on iOS. “Apple’s podcasts just topped 50 billion all-time downloads and streams,” reported Fast Company last week, highlighting a milestone for Apple’s long-documented history of intimacy with podcast-land.

In the piece, the benchmark came accompanied by data points that Apple has publicly provided in previous years:

  • In 2014, there were 7 billion podcast downloads.
  • In 2016, that number jumped to 10.5 billion.
  • In 2017, it jumped to 13.7 billion episode downloads and streams, across Podcasts and iTunes.
  • In March 2018, Apple Podcasts passed 50 billion all-time episode downloads and streams.

Note that the numbers for 2014, 2016, and 2017 all refer to downloads and streams that took place in that year, while the March 2018 data point refers to all-time numbers — which is to say, downloads and streams that took place since Apple began serving podcasts in 2005. (A pretty straightforward switch in framing, but one that tripped me up the first time I scanned the article. Which reminds me: I should schedule my annual vision exam soon.)

Strung together, these numbers paint a vivid picture of accelerating podcast activity across Apple platforms. But here’s what I find even more interesting: consider just how much of Apple’s all-time podcast download and streaming activity apparently took place between 2014 and now.

Now, we don’t have 2015 numbers, but let’s assume it’s somewhere in the midpoint between the 7 billion in 2014 and 10.5 billion in 2016: say, a conservative 8.5 billion. What we have, then, is a situation where 39.7 billion (7 + 8.5 + 10.5 + 13.7) out of Apple’s all-time 50 billion podcast downloads and streams took place between January 2014 and March 2018.

Which is to say, from these numbers, it seems that almost 80 percent of all podcast downloads and streams on Apple platforms took place over the past four years.

Let’s hold our horses for a hot second, run that statement back, and think this through. Shouts to RadioPublic’s Jake Shapiro for helping me kick up some much-needed caveats:

  • These numbers should not be taken to suggest that almost 80 percent of all podcast listening on Apple platforms took place over the past four years. As always, keep in mind that a podcast download is no direct indicator of actual listening; after all, an episode can be delivered but not literally consumed.
  • It’s also worth asking, in general, whether we can take Apple’s tracking of all-time podcast downloads and streams to be consistent all the way across time back to 2005 — that is, whether measurement of earlier numbers were processed with the same rigor as measurement of more contemporary numbers — and consider the possibility of earlier activity going untracked. I see no particular reason to suspect inconsistency, but the potential bears keeping in mind nonetheless. One can never be too careful.
  • Also, we don’t have much of a clear picture of actual Apple podcast activity for any of the years before 2014.

Even with these caveats in mind, I’m still comfortable with the original takeaway: that a considerable majority of Apple podcast activity took place over the past four years.

What is the significance of this? For one thing, it further solidifies 2014’s status as the crucial pivot point for the podcast ecosystem, resulting from a combination of Apple bundling the Podcast app into iOS by default and the catalyzing awareness-raising effects of Serial as a cultural phenomenon. For another, it gives us a sense of the pivot point’s scale.

Other than that…I dunno. Purely an academic observation, and it’s one I’m squirreling away if I ever get to write the Big Book on Podcasting.

The BBC partners with Acast for international monetization. The deal, announced Tuesday morning, will see the Swedish podcast technology company take the lead on generating revenue off the downloads that BBC podcasts are currently enjoying outside of the UK.

According to the press release, podcast episodes from the BBC are downloaded over 30 million times a month outside the UK. It’s unclear how much of that is within the United States, where podcast advertising is significantly more mature. The podcast portfolio for the big U.K. public service broadcast includes Radio 4’s In Our Time, repackages of the BBC World Service, The Assassination, and the recently released Death in Ice Valley, a true crime collaboration with Norwegian public broadcaster NRK.

The deal doesn’t cover every BBC podcast, however. A spokesperson told me that it only covers “most” of the organization’s English-language podcasts. Some will be excluded for either rights-related or specific editorial reasons. One example: the historical audio fiction epic Tumanbay. In September 2017, the BBC forged a deal with Panoply to bring Tumanbay to American earballs where the latter also serves as a co-producer of the project. That relationship still stands.

The BBC does not monetize its podcasts within the U.K.

On a related note: just a reminder that the BBC recently tapped Jason Phipps, previously head of audio at The Guardian, to be the organization’s podcast commissioner.

This week in #Brands. Squarespace, the ubiquitous podcast advertiser, is launching an extended campaign with Gimlet in the form of an American Idol/Project Greenlight-esque competition, Casting Call, a national talent-seeking endeavor in which the winner gets their own show on Gimlet. The process will be documented as a podcast (what else?) that will be released in September. Judges include Gimlet’s Nazanin Rafsanjani, the great Aminatou Sow, and Squarespace founder/CEO Anthony Casalena. Submissions are open starting today.

A little hokey, but I’ve always thought there should be more things like Radiotopia’s PodQuest and WNYC’s Podcast Accelerator. In any case, shrewd move from Gimlet to take lessons from those initiatives and build a whole revenue engine around it.

On a related note: Should the day come when artificial intelligence becomes self-aware, pray it does not look like a brand.

The latest on WNYC’s inappropriate conduct imbroglio: An investigation by the law firm Proskauer Rose has apparently found “no evidence of systemic discrimination at the organization,” which is…peculiar. Here’s the WNYC News piece on the development, and further observations and analysis can be found in this 22-minute segment on the Brian Lehrer Show. Some of those observations can be found in this Twitter thread by WNYC reporter Ilya Marritz. You can read the actual report here.

WME adds PRX to its podcast client list. According to the Hollywood Reporter, the major talent agency will “work to expand the audio media nonprofit’s business in all areas, including film, television and books.” For the record, WME’s podcast clients include Crooked Media, Panoply Media, Freakonomics Radio’s Stephen Dubner, and Two Up Productions, among others. The agency was also involved in the negotiations around the Dirty John TV adaptations and, given the tentacular fortitude of its clientele reach, will likely continue to be involved in many, many more negotiations to come.

In case you need further context on how a talent agency like WME views the podcast space as a potential pool of assets, let me refer you back to my June 2017 interview with Ben Davis, an agent with the digital department at WME. A pertinent excerpt:

[storybreak]

[conl]Hot Pod: Where do you think this relationship between talent agencies and the podcast industry is going?[/conl]

[conr]Ben Davis: I think talent agencies will play an increasingly important role in the ecosystem by:

  • Helping podcast creators cross IP over into other media (whether that is audiovisual, live or written).
  • Pairing creators with the right distribution partners, and negotiating the terms of the relationship.
  • Packaging creative elements (i.e. talent and writer) to create turnkey audio productions for distributors.

The space is changing so quickly, though, and my answer would have been different 6 months ago. So really, who knows?[/conr]

[storybreak]

Who knows, indeed. As a reminder, PRX is a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based nonprofit that runs the indie podcast collective Radiotopia and provides various podcast support services to teams like The Moth and Night Vale Presents.

Bites

  • The New York Times is reportedly considering adapting The Daily and the Modern Love column for television. At the NewFronts presentation yesterday, COO Meredith Kopit Levien said “The Daily has more listeners than the weekday newspaper has ever had.” You sell those ads, people! (AdWeek)
  • ICYMI: Freakonomics Radio moves from WNYC Studios to Stitcher. (Press release)
  • Slate’s podcast project with its fantastic TV critic Willa Paskin, called Decoder Ring, is now live. (Slate)
  • Also live now: TED en Español. (Apple Podcasts)
  • The wave of Westworld podcasts is now back upon us. Let it consume you.
  • Heads up, antipodal Hot Pod readers: The third Audiocraft Podcast Festival will take place in Sydney in early June. (Media release)
  • Reese Witherspoon’s media company Hello Sunshine, not content with adapting a true crime podcast-centric novel for television, has launched an original podcast of its own, which is not a true crime podcast. (EW)

Phew, we’ve apparently solved 97% of the podcast measurement problem — everybody relax

MEASUREMENT BITE. Been a while since we’ve checked back into what is arguably the most important subject in the podcast business. Let’s fix that, shall we?

“The good news for podcasters and buyers is measurement challenges are 97 percent solved,” Midroll Media CRO Lex Friedman said on a podcast panel at the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) Show last week. “What we can report now is more specific than we could before.” You can find the quote in this Inside Radio writeup on the panel.

Be that as it may, there’s still some work left to be done. I reached out to Friedman for his perspective on what constitutes the remaining 3 percent of the challenges left to be solved, and here’s his response (pardon the customary Midroll spin):

In TV today, advertisers would struggle if NBC used Nielsen ratings, and ABC used Nielsen but with a different methodology, and CBS used some other company’s measurement technology.

Today in podcasting, the measurement problem is solved; the remaining 3 percent is getting everyone standardized. It doesn’t happen often, but every once in a while, Midroll loses a show to a competitor. When we sell a show at 450,000 downloads, and the next day the same show and same feed is being sold at 700,000 downloads, that’s a problem.

The IAB’s recommended a 24-hour measurement window, while some folks still advocate for 60 minutes or two hours, and too many vendors continue to sell at 5 minutes, which we universally know is way too liberal a count. That’s unfair and confusing to advertisers, and that’s the piece that needs fixing.

That’s no small 3 percent, in my opinion.

Anyway, if you’re new to the podcast measurement problem, my column from February 2016 — back when a group of public radio stations published a set of guidelines on the best way for podcast companies to measure listenership — still holds up as a solid primer on the topic, if I do say so myself.

Fool’s gold? Something else to note from Inside Radio’s article on the NAB panel: a strong indication, delivered by Triton Digital president of market development John Rosso, that there is increasing demand for programmatic podcast advertising.

Programmatic advertising is a system by which ads are automatically bought and sold through algorithmic processes. In other words, it’s a monetization environment where the facilitation of advertising value exchange is automated away from human interaction. The principal upside that comes with programmatic advertising is efficiency: As an advertiser, you theoretically don’t have to spend a lot of time identifying, contacting, and executing buys, and as a publisher, you theoretically don’t have to spend a lot of time doing those things in the opposite direction. In theory, both sides don’t have to do much more work for a lot more money. But the principal downside is the ensuing experience on listener-side, and all the ramifications that fall from a slide in said experience: Because these transactions are machine-automated, there’s no human consideration governing the aesthetic intentionality of an advertising experience paired with the specific contexts of a given podcast.

Combine this with the core assumptions of what makes podcasting uniquely valuable as a media product — that it engenders deeper experiences of intimacy between creator and listener, that its strength is built on the cultivated simulacra of personal trust between the two parties, that any podcast advertising spot is a heavy act of value extraction from the relationship developed between the two sides — and you have a situation where a digital advertising technology is being considered for a medium to which its value propositions are diametrically opposed.

The underlying problem, put simply: Can you artificially scale up podcasting’s advertising supply without compromising its underlying value proposition? To phrase the problem in another direction: Can you develop a new advertising product that’s able to correspondingly scale up intimacy, trust, and relationship-depth between podcast creator and consumer?

The answer for both things may well be no, and that perhaps the move shouldn’t be to prescribe square pegs for round holes. Or maybe the response we’ll see will sound more like “the way we’re doing things isn’t sustainable, we’re going to have to make more money somehow” with the end result being an identity-collapsing shift in the defining characteristics of this fledgling medium. In which case: Bummer, dude.

Binge-Drop Murphies. Gimlet announced its spring slate last week, and two out of three of them, the audio drama Sandra and the Lynn Levy special The Habitat, will be released in their entirety tomorrow. When asked about the choice to go with the binge-drop, Gimlet president Matt Lieber tells me:

We decided to binge both The Habitat and Sandra because we felt that they were both so engrossing and engaging, so we wanted to give the listener the decision to either power through all the episodes, or sample and consume at their own pace. Sandra is our second scripted fiction series and we know from our first, Homecoming, that a lot of people chose to binge the series after it was out in full. With The Habitat, it’s such a unique and immersive miniseries, and we wanted to give listeners the chance to get lost in the world by listening all at once.

Grab your space suits, fellas.

The beautiful game. The third show in Gimlet’s spring bundle is We Came To Win, the company’s first sports show, which promises to deliver stories on the most memorable soccer matches in history. The press release appears to be playing up the universal angle of the sport: “Soccer is a sport that is about so much more than goals. It’s about continents, countries, characters, and the relationships between them.” (I mean, yeah.)

In an interesting bit of mind-meld, Gimlet’s first foray into sports mirrors WNYC Studios’ own maiden voyage into the world of physical human competition. Sometime this spring, the New York public radio station will roll out its own World Cup-timed narrative podcast, a collaboration with Men in Blazers’ Roger Bennett that will look the U.S. Men’s National Soccer Team’s journey from its triumphant 1994 World cup appearance to its doomed 1998 campaign. (Yikes.)

Public radio genes run deep.

Peabody nominations. The 2017 nominations were announced last week, and interestingly enough, six out of the eight entries in the Radio/Podcast category are either podcast-only or podcast-first. The nominees are: Radiotopia’s Ear Hustle, Minnesota Public Radio’s 74 Seconds, Serial Productions’ S-Town, the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University’s Scene on Radio: Seeing White, Gimlet’s Uncivil, and Louisville Public Media/Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting’s “The Pope’s Long Con.

Notes on The Pope’s Long Con. It was an unbelievable story with unthinkable consequences. Produced by the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting (KyCIR) and Louisville Public Media, The Pope’s Long Con was the product of a seven-month long investigation into Dan Johnson, a controversial bishop-turned-Kentucky state representative shrouded in corruption, deceit, and an allegation of sexual assault. KyCIR’s feature went live on December 11, bringing Johnson’s story — and the allegations against him — into the spotlight. The impact was explosive, leading to immediate calls for Johnson to resign. He denied the allegations at a press conference. Two days later, Johnson committed suicide.

It was “any journalist’s nightmare,” as KyCIR’s managing editor Brendan McCarthy told CJR in an article about how the newsroom grappled with the aftermath of its reporting. (Which, by the way, you should absolutely read.)

In light of those circumstances, the podcast’s Peabody nomination feels especially well-deserved. It’s also a remarkable achievement for a public radio station relatively new to podcasting. “The Pope’s Long Con was the first heavy-lift podcast Louisville Public Media had undertaken,” Sean Cannon, a senior digital strategist at the organization and creative director of the podcast, tells me. “It didn’t start out as one though…Audio was planned, but it was a secondary concern. Once we realized the scope and gravity of it all, we knew everything had to be built around the podcast.”

When I asked Cannon how he feels about the nomination, he replied:

Given the situation surrounding the story, it’s still a confusing mix of emotions to see The Pope’s Long Con reach the heights it has. That said, we’re all immensely proud of the work we did. It’s necessary to hold our elected officials accountable.

In the context of the podcast industry, it taught me a lesson that can be easy to forget. I was worried the hierarchy of publishers had become too calcified, rendering it almost impossible for anyone below the top rungs to make serious waves — without a thick wallet, anyway. It’s a topic that comes up regularly in Hot Pod.

While the industry will never purely be a meritocracy, The Pope’s Long Con shattered that perception. It served as a reminder of something that gets glossed over when you’re caught up in the business of it all: If you can create compelling audio, that trumps everything else.

Tip of the hat, Louisville.

Crooked Media expands into film. According to The Hollywood Reporter, the media (political activism?) company will be co-producing a new feature documentary on Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke’s bid to unseat Senator Ted Cruz in the upcoming midterm elections. This extends on Crooked Media’s previous adventures in video, which already involve a series of HBO specials to be taped across the country amidst the run-up to midterms.

A quick nod to Pod Save America’s roots as The Ringer’s Keepin’ It 1600 here: Crooked Media will likely crib from the playbook The Ringer built around the recent Andre the Giant HBO documentary, which was executive produced by Ringer CEO Bill Simmons, where the latter project received copious promotion through The Ringer website and podcast network. What’s especially interesting about that whole situation is the way it is essentially a wholesale execution of what I took as the principal ideas from the analyst Ben Thompson’s 2015 post “Grantland and the (Surprising) Future of Publishing.”

I’m not sure if I’d personally watch a Beto O’Rourke doc — the dude has been a particularly vibrant entry into the “blue hope in red country” political media subgenre for a long while now, and I’m tapping out — but Pod Save America listeners most definitely would.

Empire on Blood. My latest for Vulture is a review of the new seven-part Panoply podcast, which I thought was interesting enough as a pulpy doc but deeply frustrating in how the show handles its power and positioning. It’s a weird situation: I really liked host Steve Fishman’s writing, and I really liked the tape gathered, but the two things really shouldn’t have been paired up this way.

The state of true crime podcasts. You know you’re neck-deep in something when you can throw out random words and land close to an actual example of that something: White Wine True Crime, Wine & Crime, Up & Vanished, The Vanished, Real Crime Profile, True Crime Garage, Crimetown, Small Town Murders, and so on. (This is a general observation that goes well beyond true crime pods. Cryptocurrencies: Sumokoin, Dogecoin, PotCoin. Food startups: Plated, Pantry, PlateIQ. Names: Kevin.)

Anyway, I’ve said it once, and I’ll say it again: True crime is the bloody, bleeding heart of podcasting, a genre that’s proliferating with a velocity so tremendous it could power a dying sun. And in my view, true crime podcasts are also a solid microcosm of the podcast universe as a whole: What happens there, happens everywhere.

When it comes to thinking about true crime podcasts, there are few people whose opinions I trust more than crime author, podcaster, and New Hampshire Public Radio digital director Rebecca Lavoie. As the cohost of the indispensable weekly conversational podcast Crime Writers On… — which began life as Crime Writers On Serial, a companion piece to the breakout 2014 podcast phenomenon — Lavoie consumes and thinks a lot about true crime and true crime podcasts specifically.

I touched base with Lavoie recently to get the latest on what’s been going on in her neck of the woods:

[storybreak]

[conl]Hot Pod: In your view, how has the true crime podcast genre evolved over the past four years or so?[/conl]

[conr]Rebecca Lavoie: It’s evolved in a few directions — some great, some…not so much.

On the one hand (and most wonderfully), we have journalism and media outlets who would never have touched the true crime genre a few years ago making true crime podcasts based on the tenets of great reporting and production. And when it comes to the “never would have touched it” part, I know what I’m talking about. Long before I was a podcaster, I was the coauthor of several mass-market true crime books while also working on a public radio show. Until Criminal was released and enjoyed some success, public radio and true crime never crossed streams, to an extent where I would literally avoid discussing my true crime reporting at work — it was looked down upon, frankly.

Today, though, that kind of journalistic snobbery is almost non-existent, and podcasts (especially Criminal and Serial) can claim 100 percent responsibility for that. Shows that exist today as a result of this change include Accused from the Cincinnati Enquirer, West Cork from Audible, Breakdown from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, In the Dark from APM reports, and the CBC’s recent series Missing & Murdered. (And yes, even the public radio station where I still work — now on the digital side — is developing a true crime podcast!)

Credit is also due to Serial for the way journalism podcasts are being framed as true crime when they wouldn’t have been in a pre-Serial era. Take Slow Burn from Slate, which is the best podcast I’ve heard in the past year or two. While the Watergate story would have been so easy to frame as a straight political scandal, the angles and prose techniques used in Slow Burn have all the hallmarks of a great true crime narrative — and I’m pretty sure the success of that show was, at least in part, a result of that.

Of course, where you have ambitious, high-quality work, you inevitably have ambitious terrible work, right? It’s true, there are very big and very bad true crime podcasts being produced at an astonishing rate right now, and because they have affiliation with established networks, these shows get a lot of promotion. But as much as I might personally love to hate some of these terrible shows (I’m talking to YOU, Atlanta Monster!) I do see some value in their existence.

I think about it the same way I think about movies: Not every successful big budget blockbuster is a good movie, but ultimately, those films can serve to raise the profile and profitability of the movie industry as a whole, and help audiences discover other, higher-quality content.[/conr]

[conl]Hot Pod: What do you think are the more troubling trends in how true crime podcasts have evolved?[/conl]

[conr]Lavoie: One is what I see as a glut of podcasts that are, quite frankly, building audience by boldly recycling the work of others. Sword & Scale is a much-talked-about example of that, but it’s not even the worst I’ve come across. There was a recent incident in which a listener pointed me to a monetized show in which the host simply read, word for word, articles published in magazines and newspapers — and I can’t help but wonder how pervasive that is. My hope is that at some point, the transcription technologies we’re now seeing emerge can somehow be deployed to scan audio for plagiarism, similar to the way YouTube scans videos for copyright infringement.

But there’s another trend that, for me, is even more troubling. There’s been a recent and massive growth of corporate podcast networks that are building their businesses on what I can only compare to the James Patterson book factory model — basically saying to creators, “Hey, if you think you have a story, partner with us and we’ll help you make, distribute, and monetize your podcast — and we’ll even slap our name on it!”

This, unfortunately, seems to be what’s behind a recent spate of shows that, in the hands of a more caring set of producers, could have (maybe?) been good, but ultimately, the podcasts end up being soulless, flat, “why did they make it at all” experiences.

Why is this the most upsetting trend for me? First, because good journalists are sometimes tied to these factory-made shows, and the podcasts aren’t doing them, or their outlets, or the podcast audience as a whole any favors.

The other part of it is that these networks have a lot of marketing pull with podcast platforms that can make or break shows by featuring them at the top of the apps. These marketing relationships with Apple etc. mean factory networks have a tremendous advantage in getting their shows front and center. But ultimately, many of the true crime podcasts getting pushed on podcast apps are very, very bad, and I can’t imagine a world in which a lot of bad content will end up cultivating a smart and sustainable audience.[/conr]

[conl]Hot Pod: In your opinion, what were the most significant true crime podcasts in recent years?[/conl]

[conr]Lavoie: In the Dark by APM Reports is up there. What I love about that show is that they approached the Jacob Wetterling story with an unusual central question: Why wasn’t this case solved? (Of course, they also caught the incredibly fortunate break of the case actually being solved, but I digress…) Theirs is a FAR more interesting question than, say, “What actually happened to this missing person?” Or “Is this person really guilty?” Of course, In the Dark also had the benefit of access to a talented public media newsroom, and I really enjoyed how they folded data reporting into that story.

I most often tell people that after Serial season one, my favorite true crime podcast of all time is the first season of Accused. Not only do I love that show because it looks at an interesting unsolved case, but I love it because it was made by two women, seasoned newspaper journalists, with no podcasting experience. Amber Hunt is a natural storyteller and did an amazing job injecting a tremendous amount of humanity and badass investigative journalism skills into that story. It’s not perfect, but to me, its imperfections are a big part of what makes it extraordinary.

More recently, I’ve really enjoyed the shows I mentioned above, including West Cork and Missing & Murdered. But when it comes to significance, Slow Burn is the most understated and excellent audio work I’ve heard in a long time. I loved every minute of it. I think that Slate team has raised the bar on telling historical crime stories, and we’re the better for it.[/conr]

[conl]Hot Pod: What do you generally want to see more of from true crime podcasts?[/conl]

[conr]Lavoie: I want to see more new approaches and formal risk-taking, and more integrity, journalistic and otherwise.

One of my favorite podcasts to talk about is Breakdown from the AJC. Bill Rankin is the opposite of a radio reporter — he has a folksy voice and a writing style much more suited to print. But beginning in season one, he’s been very transparent about the challenges he’s faced while making the show. He’s also, as listeners quickly learned, an incredible reporter with incredible values. That show has embraced multiple formats and allowed itself to evolve — and with a couple of exceptions, Bill’s voice and heart have been at the center of it.

I’d also love to see some trends go away, most of all, this idea of podcast host as “Hey, I’m not a podcaster or a journalist or really anyone at all but LET’S DO THIS, GUYS” gung-ho investigator.

Don’t get me wrong, some really good podcasts have started with people without a lot of audio or reporting experience, but they aren’t good because the person making them celebrates sounding like an amateur after making dozens of episodes.[/conr]

[storybreak]

Again, you can find Lavoie on Crime Writers On…, where she is joined every week by: Kevin Flynn, her true crime coauthor (and “former TV reporter husband,” she adds); Toby Ball, a fiction writer; and Lara Bricker, a licensed private investigator and fellow true crime writer. Lavoie also produces a number of other podcast projects, including: …These Are Their Stories: The Law & Order Podcast, HGTV & Me, and Married With Podcast for Stitcher Premium.

On a related note: The New York Times’ Jonah Bromwich wrote a quick piece on the Parcast network, described as “one of several new networks saturating the audio market with podcasts whose lurid storylines play out like snackable television.” The article also contains my successful effort at being quoted in ALL CAPS in the Times.

Bites:

  • This year’s Maximum Fun Drive has successfully accrued over 28,000 new and upgrading members. (Twitter) Congrats to the team.
  • WBUR is organizing what it’s calling the “first-ever children’s podcast festival” on April 28 and 29. Called “The Mega Awesome Super Huge Wicked Fun Podcast Playdate” — shouts to whoever came up with that — the festival will be held at the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline, Massachusetts and will feature shows like Eleanor Amplified, Story Pirates, But Why, and Circle Round, among others. (Website)
  • “Bloomberg expands TicToc to podcasts, newsletters.” For the uninitiated: TicToc is Bloomberg’s live-streaming video news channel that’s principally distributed over Twitter. On the audio side, the expansion appears to include podcast repackages and a smart-speaker experiment. (Axios)
  • American Public Media is leaning on Westwood One to handle advertising for the second season of its hit podcast In The Dark. Interesting choice. The new season drops next week. (AdWeek)
  • I’m keeping an eye on this: Death in Ice Valley, an intriguing collaboration between the BBC and Norway’s NRK, debuted yesterday. (BBC)
  • Anchor rolls out a feature that helps its users find…a cohost? Yet another indication that the platform is in the business of building a whole new social media experience as opposed to something that directly relates to podcasting. (TechCrunch)
  • On The New York Times’ marketing campaign for Caliphate: “The Times got some early buzz for the podcast before its launch; 15,000 people have signed up for a newsletter that will notify them when a new episode is ready, twice as many as expected.” (Digiday)
  • “Alexa Is a Revelation for the Blind,” writes Ian Bogost in The Atlantic.

[photocredit]Photo of a tape measure by catd_mitchell used under a Creative Commons license.[/photocredit]

Homepages may be dead, but are daily news podcasts the new front page?

Paywalls and prospects. I’ve always been curious about Stitcher Premium. There are several reasons for this. The first and most prominent is a matter of my inbox: over the past few months, I’ve seen an uptick in messages from creators asking about the pros and cons of working with the paywalled premium podcast platform. Some, I suspect, were driven to inquire by the presence of opportunity. Others, perhaps, were merely curious.

The second reason has to do with my ever-shifting feelings on the value of paywalls within the context of podcasting. I understand the strategic need for business model and product diversification over the long term. But I’ve always been skeptical about the upside for both listeners and creators. In terms of the former, I can’t get past the feeling that it’s incredibly difficult to get someone to pay for something that they can get free alternatives to. In terms of the latter, I tend to see it as a pathway with a high floor but low ceiling — which is to say, it’s a more stable deal, but the trade-off involves a hard limit in what you can get back.

The third reason is risk as it specifically pertains to Midroll. Indeed, the move to build a complementary non-advertising revenue stream is a smart one for the long term. But the short-term trade-off involves possibly incurring the distaste of Apple. The front editorial page of Apple remains valuable real estate for driving earballs, and it’s an open secret that access to said real estate is still very much a manual affair. It’s also been reported that Apple doesn’t really like it when publishers prioritize their own platforms and engage in acts of “windowing” — as in the case of Missing Richard Simmons, a Stitcher Premium collaboration, in which Apple abandoned marketing plans for that podcast after learning that it would be releasing episodes early on the paywalled Stitcher platform, according to Digiday. In my mind, any move to further expand Stitcher Premium’s power, then, is a move that brings the Stitcher-Apple relationship deeper into complication.

Anyway, back to the matter of my inbox. At some point over the past few months, I made a note to myself: once I get thirty inquiries on Stitcher Premium, I’ll hit up Midroll CEO Erik Diehn to lay out his thinking — and his pitch — on the service. It’s been thirty, so here’s a Q&A with Diehn.

[storybreak]

[conl]Hot Pod: I’ve been hearing that you guys have been more aggressive over the past few months in signing up new shows for Stitcher Premium. Is this true?[/conl]

[conr]Erik Diehn: I’m not sure what that means, exactly, but if investing in more great new original content, hiring staff to help connect with more content creators and more listeners, and ramping up on the product side to make a better experience is more aggressive, then I suppose we are!

In truth, we’ve been working for a while on our premium offering, and as with any product, those investments can take time to pay off. Even though we are ramping up, our efforts have really just been a continuous process of growth and improvement. We’ve been steadily adding users, and as the pool of subscribers has grown, so has the budget for Stitcher Premium content. It’s true that we are now at a point where we can undertake some very substantial content projects — e.g. Wolverine — so I can understand the perception that we’re suddenly upping the game. But the reality is that we’ve been pushing just as hard all along, and we’re finally hitting a scale where that’s becoming evident to a wider audience.[/conr]

[conl]Hot Pod: Could you walk me through what, exactly, shows will be getting out of signing up to be distributed through Stitcher Premium? Let’s say I create a decently sized fiction podcast — what’s the incentive to go behind the paywall?[/conl]

[conr]Diehn: I’d phrase it less as the benefits for “signing up” to be on Stitcher Premium and more like this: what are the benefits that a creator, podcaster or publisher can realize from working with Stitcher to develop a premium offering?

Broadly speaking, one very obvious benefit is adding a new revenue source — subscription revenue — that is both complementary to and reduces reliance on advertising. Diversification of revenue is happening throughout the media landscape, and podcasting is no exception. The boom-and-crash cycles of advertising (digital advertising in particular) make growing a sustainable career or business in media risky, and paid models absolutely help mitigate that risk. Creating a premium offering through us is increasingly a reliable and sustainable paid model for podcast talent.

Beyond that, the premium model enables content types that this industry sometimes struggles to successfully support through ad sales — for example, fiction. Short-run series have a very finite window in which to generate ad revenue, but as a paid product can have a long and venerable life as part of a premium catalog offering. Integrating ads into fiction content effectively can be a struggle; with a paid model, they’re not necessary. As a result, our growing pool of premium revenue actually allows creators to get paid to bring things to life that might have never seen the light of day (or at the very least, never earned a dollar otherwise).

Finally, a premium offering is a great way for shows and creators to deliver something extra to their most devoted fans, deepening engagement and giving fans a way to directly support their favorite shows. We’re not alone in doing this — Kickstarter, Patreon, and even public radio all thrive on this idea — but it’s especially effective in podcasting, where great shows earn outsized fan loyalty and affection.[/conr]

[conl]Hot Pod: Setting aside Wolverine, what would you say are the best examples of successful Stitcher Premium campaigns?[/conl]

[conr]Diehn: This list has grown amazingly long; we have thousands of hours of original content available for Stitcher Premium now, and that’s before even considering the many thousands of hours of back catalog/archive content we have available. But if I had to pick a few:

  • WTF: As a launch partner and a pioneer in the paid archive model, this collaboration remains one of the best we’ve entered in to. We’re also pleased that it’s expanded beyond the untouched back catalog; “Lorne Stories” is a great example of how archive content can be repurposed into an original special in a compelling way that really adds value for listeners.
  • The Mysterious Secrets Of Uncle Bertie’s Botanarium: We took a big chance (at the time) on this epic comedic fiction series from Jemaine Clement, and it paid off fabulously. This show gave us a blueprint for what premium original content could be, and it sent a signal to listeners that we’d be raising the bar with what we do.
  • GWF, Bitch Sesh, and other shows with bonus episodes: We have a growing list of partner shows with highly, highly engaged audiences, and we’ve now demonstrated that an extra episode every couple of weeks can really deliver for both creator and fan. We also love that the exchange of value here isn’t limited to the bonus eps — all these fans get access to the full catalog of Stitcher Premium, so the reward they get for supporting their favorite show just grows in value every month.
  • Comedy albums (Comedy Central and AST Records): Early on, these provided a large chunk of the catalog value for our comedy-centric Howl subscribers, but they remain a valuable staple even as the audience expands into new genres. We wanted to make sure we launched with content that was a good value, so bringing in content that was already only available in a paid model was an excellent way to do this.
  • The Seth Morris Radio Project, The Andy Daly Podcast Pilot Project Season 2, Hollywood Masterclass: We have produced so many really amazing and innovative shows for the Earwolf audience from our best Earwolf talent that it’s hard to list them all. We are at a point with Earwolf and comedy that I think we’re really fulfilling the promise of Premium, which is (as I noted earlier) helping creators get paid to bring amazing things to life that might otherwise have not happened.
  • The BBC: I love that we have the full The Hitchhikers’ Guide To The Galaxy radio drama in Stitcher Premium. It was hard to find for a long time, and now we’re able to bring to a whole new generation of listeners.
  • Today, Explained, ad-free: I know we’re a partner in creating it, but I really enjoy this show. And I know we’re a major seller of advertising, but listening to shows ad-free can be a real joy in a world filled with commercial messages.

[/conr]

[conl]Hot Pod: I’m going to guess that you’re not able to publicly disclose the number of Premium subscribers. Can you gesture toward the broad size?[/conl]

[conr]Diehn: That’s correct, I can’t disclose numbers. I can tell you that we’ve hit or exceeded our growth forecasts for two years now, and we are funding projects like Wolverine because we have an audience that’s grown large enough to support projects of that scope.[/conr]

[conl]Hot Pod: Could you talk about the standard deal that shows get if they sign onto Premium? Or does it differ drastically from show to show?[/conl]

[conr]Diehn: These do indeed differ drastically by show. Some deals have been fixed fee; some are based on a share of subscriber revenue. In some cases we’re acquiring IP; in others, we’re just licensing it. But we think that overall, the deals are fair for all sides and providing real value to creators.[/conr]

[conr]Hot Pod: Anything else you want to add?[/conr]

[conr]Diehn: In a nutshell, Stitcher Premium let us build a direct-to-consumer, paid subscription business that provides real revenue to creators (and, obviously, to Midroll). It provides an increasingly large ad-free offering for those who prefer to go ad-free, and it enables and allows new content types and genres at a higher level of support and production than might be possible otherwise.

In our mission to build the best place for podcasts, it’s important for both audiences and creators to really make this offering work, and we’re very encouraged by what we’ve seen so far.[/conr]

Tuesday morning news drop.

  • The BBC has announced that Jason Phipps, currently the head of audio at The Guardian, will be the organization’s first commissioning editor for podcasts. (Not an American!)
  • WNYC and PRI have announced that Tanzina Vega, reporter and columnist previously at CNN and The New York Times, will be the new host of The Takeaway starting May 7. Vega replaces John Hockenberry, who was accused of sexual harassment last December. Todd Zwillich had been serving as the interim host.

“The Daily is the new front page,” said Sam Dolnick, The New York Times’ assistant managing editor, in a speech last Friday during an event celebrating the podcast’s first year. It was a triumphant and somewhat straightforward affair, featuring a mix of Times folk, Daily superfans, and, of course, a number of podcast executives. The gathering also doubled as the pump-primer for the Times Audio team’s upcoming gamble: Caliphate, the limited-run series on the Islamic State hosted by Rukmini Callimachi, which will further serve as the Times’ first attempt at windowing. Subscribers will get the podcast early through the Times app at some point in April; everyone else will have to wait a few more weeks.

The notion of the daily news podcast as the new front page is an interesting one, especially when considered against the conventional wisdom that “the front page is dead” in the age of the social web, which was an argument beaten into me when I was first starting out in the media business, like, four years ago. (Feels like just yesterday, but also an eternity.) The dominance of the social web resulted in what you could describe as a furious atomization of media organizations to the point of non-identity. Within this environment, it’s hard for media entities to express their will as editors, as it’s hard to put your foot down and call something important when the sound of that foot-stepping is smothered by the editorial priorities of opaque, capricious, and vaguely pernicious social media algorithms.

You could argue that a good deal of the power underlying the daily news podcast, and The Daily in particular, comes from the way its structure reclaims the benefits of a holistic editorial identity. As a self-contained media bundle, the editorial team of any given daily news podcast still has the capacity to express judgment, discretion, direction. Within the relative linearity of a podcast episode, a “top story” is truly a top story, as it is fully backed by a consumption context in which the “top story” label means something. That meaning is derived from an established understanding of finitude and scarcity; there is only one story (or one small set of stories) we’re telling you today, and then it ends, because really it’s the biggest thing you need to know in a given morning, and everything else is rendered into something you have to fish out for yourself.

The Daily is paying off for the New York Times — someone was telling me that, beyond whatever advertising revenue it’s generating, the podcast is furthermore a strong piece of brand advertising for the organization. And sure enough, that’s going to have a ripple effect, in that we’re bound to see other companies to build stuff for the category. We already have a decently long list of other daily news podcast publishers: NPR’s Up First, Vox’s Today, Explained, BuzzFeed’s Reporting To You, The Outline World Dispatch.

But we will almost certainly see more in the months to come. ABC News just announced its own daily news podcast, “Start Here,” which will begin its run tomorrow, and from the sounds of the trailer, it sounds like it’s going to be “The Daily, but with these people instead of those people.” And I’ve heard of at least two more major media companies thinking seriously about commissioning their own takes on the genre.

It makes me wonder: what happens to the value of daily news podcasts when the space becomes saturated? I don’t know the answer to that. What happens when there is an abundance of front pages?

Significant digits. KPCC, the Los Angeles public radio station, closed out its first investigative podcast, Repeat, earlier this month, and as of Friday afternoon, the six-part limited-run series has reportedly brought in over 910,000 downloads. “I think we will be hitting that million download mark soon,” Arwen Nicks, senior producer of on-demand audio, told me.

That strikes me as a fairly successful podcast campaign, though it should be noted that KPCC is one of the biggest public radio stations in the country.

A couple of notes:

  • A decent comparison would probably be Minnesota Public Radio’s 74 Seconds. According to this grantee information sheet, that show has brought in more than 1.2 million downloads since its release, making it “the most successful podcast MPR has produced.” However, this isn’t quite a good apples-to-apples comparison. 74 Seconds is an investigative podcast, conducted in semi-real time, that debuted last May and wrapped production in mid-August after 22 installments (not counting a trailer and “further listening” package that dropped in February).
  • “I don’t feel like I have enough data to know exactly what worked and what didn’t as far as getting the word out,” Nicks said, when asked about major learnings from the project. “But my advice for anyone who is trying to get listeners is to get your show featured on NPR One. That was a huge push for us.”
  • The team is currently working on KPCC’s next podcast project. It’s apparently top secret at this writing, with official details to be announced later.

For now, Nicks is no longer waking up in the middle of the night to check download numbers. She also notes that she’s rewatching ER, which she finds “really holds up.”

Speaking of investigative public radio podcasts…

  • In The Dark, American Public Radio’s really good series from 2015, is back with a different case for its second season on May 1. Mark your calendars.
  • Meanwhile, WHYY is bringing back Cosby Unraveled for its own second season, which will endeavor to “prepare listeners for Bill Cosby’s retrial set against the backdrop of the #MeToo moment.” Cosby’s first trial for sexual assault last summer ended in a retrial. That podcast will kick off tomorrow.

Binge notes.

  • Panoply will release its new serialized nonfiction narrative show, Empire on Blood, tomorrow. They’re doing the all episode-drop thing, which we should talk about at some point.
  • Speaking of binge-dropping: tomorrow also marks one year since the release of S-Town. Cheers to Brian Reed, who can be found most recently discussing North Korean walls on This American Life.

No, Gimlet isn’t actually interested in buying NPR One. Went back and forth on including this one, but I received enough messages on the matter that it warranted at least a mention. Let’s bust this out in bullets:

  • During a session at the RAIN Podcast Business Summit last week, Gimlet CEO Alex Blumberg was interviewed by Laura Correnti and Alexa Christon, hosts of the advertising industry podcast Adlandia.
  • Adlandia has this recurring feature called “Kill, Buy, DIY,” which is pretty much what you think it is: a game where guests are made to name advertising or marketing or media thing they’d…kill, buy, or DIY.
  • Anyway, Blumberg’s “Buy” was NPR One, because, well, the dude likes the app.
  • Of course, this being 2018, context takes a hit when something travels. This tweet led to these tweets, which led to folks texting me on a Thursday afternoon about “this Gimlet-NPR One thing,” which then led to you reading this sentence right now.

To put a lid on it, a spokesperson wrote when contacted: “Literally just a compliment to NPR One for being a great app. We, of course, have zero plans at all. It was a hypothetical game!”

So there’s that. That being said, there are kerfuffles, and then there are the conditions that fertilize the growth of kerfuffles in the first place. You could say that this peculiar incident tells us something about Gimlet’s complicated — some would say polarizing — profile in the podcast ecosystem as the big venture capital-backed demogorgon out for global dominance. But you could also say that it tells us something about the anxieties that pervade certain corners around what’s changing in the ecosystem. It’s a strange episode, though a perfectly telling one as well.

Anyway, I imagine the thing that Gimlet is really focused on this week is the premiere of Alex, Inc on ABC, which marks the first of the company’s adaptations to hit the market. That takes place on tomorrow night.

Also, take a gander at this line from a Washington Post article previewing the TV show: “The network, known for producing shows like Reply All and Crimetown, reports that its podcasts are downloaded more than 12 million times per month, and StartUp has ‘tens of millions’ of downloads on its own.” It’s unclear if that’s global or just within the US, but for comparison’s sake, WNYC Studios pulled in over 42 million global downloads in February across 50 shows, per Podtrac. Gimlet had 13 active shows, 5 dormant.

Demogorgon indeed.

Membership in the age of podcasts. So, there’s this thing called the Membership Puzzle Project, and it’s a research collaboration between the Dutch news site De Correspondent and New York University that’s working to pull together knowledge on how news organizations can best integrate membership strategies into their respective business models.

Last week, the project released a new report on how public radio — a system historically built on the strength of memberships carved out from its broadcast audiences — is grappling with the model as the world shifts towards digital modes of consumption.

The whole report is worth plumbing through, but I wanted to break out this chunk:

Podcasts have been successful partly because they offer a way to build new and deeper relationships with niche audiences. WFMU’s Ken Freedman explains: “I wouldn’t want to have a program about architecture on the air because it would turn off all the political people,” he says. “But if you do a podcast, you can work the Internet and find every last person on the face of the planet who is interested in architecture.” By taking advantage of on-demand behavior, public media organizations can create ongoing relationships with these niche audiences, in a new way.

But in the podcast world, the idea of the pledge drive simply doesn’t fit.

“No one would download it,” says Anne [O’Malley, WNYC’s VP of Membership].

Ken says he’s noticed a difference between loyalty to a podcast and loyalty to his station, although he doesn’t frame that difference as a bad thing. “One thing I started noticing about ten years ago: people would say ‘I love that podcast’ not ‘I love WFMU.’ They know of it [the station] because of a podcast. So there has been a huge upsurge in people who just know of us because of a particular program’s podcast.”

A few things:

    • As my buddies at Nieman Lab pointed out, there exists a counter-example: “Slate has experimented successfully with urging listeners to subscribe to Slate Plus within its own podcasts.” However, it’s worth noting that Slate’s strategy there is largely built around additional podcast content for paid members, which isn’t a move that’s all that present in the way public radio stations operate their membership models.
  • Better counter-examples can be found with the fine folks at Maximum Fun and Radiotopia. The former enjoyed a particularly successful drive last year, which I wrote about. That campaign, which took place over two weeks, led to the conversion of 24,181 new and upgrading members. Which is to say: ways to do it well have been done before.
  • Ken Freedman’s perspective here highlights, in precise terms, the audience relationship challenge that comes with the shift toward on-demand: as a publisher, you are now in a position where you can build niche programming that’s able to connect with people far beyond your geographic bounds and well within the depth of that niche’s community — but among the notable trade-offs here is a situation where the identity of a show supersedes the identity of the publisher. I’d argue that this likely shifts the psychology of the ask involved in any sort of pledge drive.

Bites.

  • New York Media has acquired Splitsider from The Awl Network (RIP). Splitsider has a great “This Week in Comedy Podcasts” column that I frequently skim, and I’m excited to see the feature pop up on Vulture. (Wall Street Journal)
  • Art19 now hosts podcasts from the following TV companies: NBC Sports, NBC News, MSNBC, CNBC, NBC Entertainment, Bravo, Oxygen and SYFY.
  • Speaking of Bravo: Connie Britton has been cast in Bravo’s TV adaptation of the Los Angeles Times and Wondery’s Dirty John. (Vulture)
  • And speaking of Wondery: the Los Angeles-based podcast company has another collaboration with a Tronc-owned newspaper in the pipeline: Felonious Florida, with Broward County-area paper Sun Sentinel.
  • First Look Media has a new podcast out to pair with Intercepted: Deconstructed, with the British political journalist Mehdi Hasan.
  • Spotify has rolled out a voice-control feature. I’m not quite ready to say “Play God’s Plan” out loud in public, so you can keep it.

[photocredit]Photo by Holger Prothmann used under a Creative Commons license.[/photocredit]

Alexa, can you get my kid to brush his teeth? (Oh, and Alexa? How exactly can I make money with you?)

Chomping at the bit. “Gimlet is a multimedia storytelling brand, not just a podcast network,” declared Jenny Wall, the company’s newly hired chief marketing officer, in a Fast Company piece in January. That identity refashioning is mostly tethered to Gimlet’s increasingly formalized dealings with Hollywood, but it’s beginning to rear its head in other intriguing ways as well.

Last Thursday, Gimlet announced its first offering for the Amazon Alexa platform: Chompers, a skill that takes the form of a twice-daily toothbrushing companion for young children. To produce the skill, the podcast company partnered with Volley, a San Francisco-based startup that specializes in building entertainment products for voice assistants. They’re also releasing Chompers as a vanilla podcast for those who have yet to join the smart speaker cult.

This is a shrewd piece of business for two reasons. The first is hunger: The kids, they really love those speaking computer tubes. According to Edison Research and NPR’s Smart Audio report, 88 percent of smart speaker owners whose households include children report that said children really, really enjoy Alexa. And while I’m not a fan of anecdotal evidence, I will say I’ve seen this myself and let me tell ya: The level of fervor is genuinely frightening. (Bigger picture: Health experts are apparently warily optimistic about the relationship between kids and smart speakers, though concerns about data privacy seem to be the more prominent thorn.)

The second reason is money: The first season of Chompers, we’re told, is sponsored by Oral-B and Crest Kids. With this move, Gimlet has made the choice to dive headfirst into the ethical hairiness of advertising to children, which is a can of worms commonly tossed about in discussions about kids podcasts. It’s also a notable attempt to grapple with an Alexa development environment that’s ambiguous about how it allows skill developers to monetize their efforts. More on that in a second.

The Wall Street Journal’s Ben Mullin picked up the story, which you should totally check out in full, but there are three nuggets in there you shouldn’t miss:

  • Gimlet has hired a voice director to lead further content development for voice assistants: Wilson Standish, formerly the director of innovation at the marketing agency Hearts & Science.
  • (Brand) money moves: “In 2017, more than half of Gimlet Media’s ad revenue came from brand advertisers, according to Anna Sullivan, vice president of brand partnerships for the company. Ms. Sullivan added that the company’s brand advertising revenue grew 134 percent in 2017 compared with 2016.”
  • Gimlet president Matt Lieber re-emphasized the company’s commitment to audio: “The way I think about Gimlet is that we’re trying to build a new kind of modern media company where everything begins in audio.”

The company continues to sprawl into a myriad of directions, and it occurs to me that Gimlet’s narrative these days has mostly been about its meta-show developments and much less about the actual shows themselves. Anyway, I think they’re due to announce a spring slate soon, so maybe we’ll start getting more of that too.

Okay, back to making money off Alexa. So it’s a complicated situation. Chompers emerges against an Alexa development environment that happens to ban all third-party ads (with some exceptions for music and flash briefing apps). It’s also an environment that seems to encourage advertisers and brands to directly create or commission skills themselves; a sort of Alexa-skill equivalent of the branded podcast. For further consideration of this, I highly recommend this Wired piece, “Amazon’s Alexa Wants You To Talk To Your Ads,” from December.

All of this amounts to a deeply uncertain context for audio publishers thinking about investing time and resources in creating a presence on the platform. Even if the smart speaker category feels really exciting in general, it’s incredibly hard for publishers to figure out a decent way to yield returns — a problem exacerbated by Amazon’s total and often opaque governance of the Alexa platform. It’s a familiar conundrum: You want to be a part of something on the up and up before you miss it, but what are you really getting if the nature of the thing is so capricious and beyond your control?

With Chompers, Gimlet appears to have figured out a loose workaround. Oral-B and Crest Kids are indeed sponsors, but according to Amazon’s rules, the Chompers skill can’t convey the sponsorship of the two brands at all. However, the usual ad spots will be present on the podcast version, which will receive the usual cross-promotion treatment across its show portfolio. A spokesperson further told me:

We are also including P&G in all our marketing materials, including social, promotional boxes/kits with Oral-B and Crest Kids products, an Echo Dot, etc. to pediatric dentists in NY SF LA and Seattle, celebs, press and parenting influencers, etc.

P&G, by the way, refers to Procter & Gamble, the multinational consumer goods corporation that owns both Oral-B and Crest. The move with promotional materials leans onto a larger marketing theory: By virtue of its relative monopoly over dental hygiene products, P&G will likely benefit from any broader lift in general toothbrushing practices — which, you know, is both terrifying in its expression of corporate monopoly and also a value-creation hypothesis I’d totally explore if I were said corporate monopoly.

Again, these feel like cobbled-together workarounds, and the larger problem of how one can derive meaningful revenue through voice assistant platforms remains very much up in the air. Two more things to that point:

  • I’m tempted to think that what we’ll see over the long run with the Echo is a media ecosystem akin to YouTube: a closed, centralized platform that largely leads to the creation of a content type unique to itself. As such, if you’re a purveyor of fine podcast products, the choice of developing programming for Alexa is ultimately an optional one — but one that requires its own infrastructures, teams, and playbooks. Which is probably why Gimlet hiring a dedicated director of voice makes sense.
  • There’s something about the current demographics of smart speaker users that makes me think it’s a good tool for audio publishers to deepen their relationship with superfans. Drawing from the various Smart Audio reports, these users are highly engaged, display increased audio consumption behaviors, and appear inclined to use the device as a mechanism to make purchases. Seems like a ripe constellation of traits for an audio publisher looking to build out a subscription or freemium model.

But yeah, I don’t know. The more I think about it, the more unsettled I get. If I were a podcast publisher, I’d be incredibly wary of dedicating too much of myself to Alexa. I don’t know where this particular road goes, but it certainly reminds me of the many, many roads that have ended badly.

Chaser: Then again, maybe it’s not a good idea to build out a distribution presence on a sentient platform? “Amazon Alexa Devices Are Laughing Spontaneously And It’s ‘Bone Chillingly Creepy'” (BuzzFeed).

While we’re on the subject of kids podcasts: Gen-Z Media, which joined PRX’s portfolio of clients back in January, has announced a new slate of shows for the spring: The Mayan Crystal, Six Minutes, and a game show called Pants on Fire.

Of particular note is Gen-Z’s new website, dubbed Best Robot Ever, which functions as its new consumer-facing online home that also features programming from kids podcast publishers outside its network.

Clustering. Two months after wrapping Heaven’s Gate, Stitcher has rolled out another podcast that sticks with the theme of cults and cult-ish movements. The new show is called Dear Franklin Jones, and it’s by Jonathan Hirsch, most known for creating the independent podcast ARRVLS.

I liked the first episode enough (and loved the tinkly retro theme music), but what’s up with Stitcher and cults? This reminds me of the twin films phenomenon, except, of course, this isn’t an instance of semi-serendipitous cross-industry synchronicity, it’s just one publisher being fixated on a subject. Anyway, shouts to 1997, when Hollywood released both Volcano and Dante’s Peak within two months of each other, and to 1998, which saw Armageddon and Deep Impact come out within a similar chunk of time.

Anyway, I’d just like to flag that Dear Franklin Jones is another example of Stitcher working the windowing angle to drive more Stitcher Premium conversions through its original programming. The podcast debuted last week with new episodes weekly, but Jonesheads can access the whole run of episodes now if they signed up for Stitcher Premium.

For the record: I go back and forth debating the merits of windowing arrangements like this. I mean, I get it. By virtue of being a short-run series, Dear Franklin Jones is considerably harder to monetize than a longer-term recurring production, simply because there’s a much shorter runway to develop an active listenership and monetize the “head” of the production. As such, I completely empathize with the need to break out complementary channels for revenue.

But the tradeoff involves dampening the upside should it become a hit during its original run. The option to let listeners pay up and instantly access the rest of the show potentially diffuses the listenership and attention; you’d get two populations experiencing the show at different speeds, and are therefore less likely to participate in the same kinds of conversations. We see a version of this diffusion in the streaming vs. linear television context: Streaming platforms Netflix and Amazon Prime Video simply haven’t seemed capable of driving conversations with the same fervor and intensity that linear networks like HBO have consistently been able to do. I guess what I’m saying is: Scared money don’t make money, but I get it.

It’s a tough balance to strike, and I don’t envy podcast programming chiefs juggling the twin facts that (a) there seems to be genuine hunger for great, high-quality short-run podcasts and (b) they’re so much harder to monetize within the current system. And I imagine this will come to a head for Stitcher when the network rolls out its collaboration with Marvel, Wolverine: The Long Night. That show will debut exclusively on Stitcher Premium next Monday, before going wide in the fall.

The Big Listen ends. WAMU will cease production on the Lauren Ober-hosted broadcast about podcasts after “the program in its current format didn’t gain the traction with other NPR stations that we required to continue the investment in its weekly production,” the station announced Friday.

Keep an eye on Spotify. The Swedish music streaming service finally filed to go public on the New York Stock Exchange last week, and the big story thread is how it will pursue a relatively unconventional (and consequently riskier) route to do so. Recode has a helpful summary of the move — Theodore Schleifer writes: “There are no bankers that will underwrite the listing, meaning no one is trying to make a market for shares. There are no institutional investors who will get first dibs at their shares who could prop up Spotify’s value. And a lot of the rules that are meant to keep a stock from soaring or crashing are out the window” — and I also found Andrew Flanagan’s writeup over at NPR helpful to grasp the bigger picture.

You should check out Flanagan’s entire piece, but here’s the money:

Let’s take [Spotify CEO Daniel] Ek at his word here and assume he truly, deeply would like to pay creators as much as humanly possible, enough to survive on their creativity, while at the same time continue to operate a globally dominant technology company. To do that, Ek and Spotify may need to remove other players from the equation — or as he puts it, “break free of their medium’s constraints.” Ek isn’t talking about the constraints of human hearing or the constraints of creating beautiful and challenging sounds. He’s talking about the constraints represented by an industry of fiefdoms. It sounds as though he’d like the job of king.

So why should we care about Spotify again? As a reminder, the platform has made various attempts — albeit in the form of tentative minor experiments — to build out programming alternatives to its core music offering, a good chunk of which revolves around podcasts and non-music audio content. These attempts are ongoing, and to this date they have manifested themselves in a few different ways including: basic third-party podcast distribution (both through manual submission and through new partnerships with Anchor and Spreaker), original content creation (some of which are produced by podcast shops like Panoply and Transmitter), exclusive windowing arrangements (e.g. Gimlet Media with Mogul and WNYC Studios with 2 Dope Queens), and a new multimedia initiative called Spotlight.

According to the F-1, the music streaming platform boasts 159 million monthly users and 71 million paid Premium subscribers as of December 31st, 2017. The document also spotlight’s the company’s apparent emphasis on expanding “non-music content and user experience,” listed within the growth strategy section. Note the following disclosure:

There were a total of 348 million podcast listeners across all platforms worldwide at the end of 2016 and the number of podcast listeners increased to an estimated 484 million in 2017 according to Ovum, representing growth of 39% year-over-year. This engagement presents a significant opportunity for Spotify as we believe we have the ability to enhance the podcast User experience with a better product that is focused on discovery.

I’m not sure how Ovum, the business intelligence service referenced here, counts a “podcast listener,” but the growth rate is notable nonetheless. For what it’s worth, I’m a heavy user of Spotify for podcast listening, mostly because it works better with my data plan and I often spend huge chunks of the day without Wifi. Then again, I’m the guy that hits Chipotle before 11 a.m. to beat the lunch rush. Which is to say, I’m no indicator of anybody.

Related story: iHeartMedia is preparing to file for bankruptcy, Bloomberg reports.

Career Spotlight. We’re back at it again. This week, I traded emails with Vanessa Lowe, the creator of Nocturne, an independent podcast that’s part of The Heard collective. She’s based in Berkeley, California, which I hear has a hoppin’ radio scene these days.

[storybreak]

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

[conr]Vanessa Lowe: I produce and host the podcast, Nocturne. I’m also a freelance radio producer and do occasional freelance sound editing for independent films. Most of what I’m doing these days is Nocturne, since it’s largely a one-person show. I do 99 percent of the research, interviewing, writing, music supervision, sound editing, mixing, and promotion.[/conr]

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

[conr]Lowe: My career has been less of an arc then a strange, but enjoyable, jagged line. I call myself a “dormant psychologist” because I have a doctorate in clinical psychology but haven’t done any work in that field for a long time. I also spent many years being a performing singer-songwriter-guitarist and released five albums.

In 2008, I produced my first longform radio documentary with no training or experience. That was great fun and the piece was actually aired by several public radio stations around the country. I learned two key things from that experience: I loved making audio stories, and I had a lot to learn. That led me to take a workshop on longform audio documentary production from Claire Schoen, a wonderful veteran radio producer in Berkeley. After the workshop, I became her intern, and eventually an associate producer on her multimedia project about rising sea levels. I worked on that project for two years while producing a couple more docs on my own and with collaborators. I grew more confident making audio, but soon grew tired of working for a year or more on one story. Podcasts were picking up at that point, and I got really excited about the idea of an ongoing project that would have variety and novelty by virtue of being composed of individual episodes. That excitement, combined with my curiosity and complicated relationship with the night, led to Nocturne.

I found learning opportunities everywhere. AIR hooked me up for a mentorship. I did the Transom Travelling Workshop on Catalina Island. Shortly after that, my partner, Kent Sparling, and I entered the KCRW 24-Hour Radio Race and ended up in the top ten (we called ourselves Sleep Mice). I became a founding member of The Heard shortly after starting Nocturne. The Heard is a collective of other indie podcasts, all sharing an ethos of wanting to build things that had unique voices as well as a desire to support and learn from each other.

Having come from the indie music world, I initially felt hesitant to bring on ads to Nocturne. It is first and foremost an artistic project with a distinctive emotional atmosphere. I was concerned that ads would diminish that. I tried to find other ways to support the show, but ultimately came to embrace the advertising model. However, I remain picky about what kinds of ads I do and the tone they take. This shift in mindset came in part from my experience at the first Werk It Festival in New York, where sage female producers spoke convincingly about the importance of placing financial value on your work. At this point, I work with a few different podcast ad companies.[/conr]

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

[conr]Lowe: For some reason I’ve always had a hard time with the word “career,” maybe because I’ve rarely felt like an “expert.” I’m always acutely aware of everything there is to learn. But when I think about what career means for me, it has always involved doing something — or multiple things — that I love, feels valuable, and connects with other people in a meaningful way. Some of that has to do with lofty ideals, but honestly I think a lot of it has to do with only being able to sustain interest and motivation in things that really absorb me.

I often fall into the trap of undervaluing what I do from a financial perspective, though, because it feels like such a privilege to get to experience such joy. I’ve only just recently started calling Nocturne “my business.” I need to remind myself that work has value even if it’s really, really fun. But there’s always the fear that something that becomes a “business” will cease to be intrinsically pleasurable.[/conr]

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

[conr]Lowe: When I moved into audio, I wanted to experiment with a different way of communicating ideas from what I’d done before. I didn’t really have a long game. I wanted to do good work in ways that fit who I am, allow for change and play, and hopefully even pay the bills. When I started Nocturne, I told myself I would do it for three years and then evaluate whether I wanted to continue. Nocturne just started it’s fourth year, and I don’t have any plans to stop.[/conr]

[storybreak]

Bites:

  • Emilie Aries, cohost of Stuff Your Mom Never Told You, has stepped down from the HowStuffWorks’ podcast after a year-long tenure and launched a new project: Bossed Up, a podcast that comes out of her award-winning career service and training company of the same name. Transmitter Media provided guidance on the project. This is the second instance of SYMNTY hosts leaving the show to start their projects in two years, the other being Cristen Conger and Caroline Ervin, who went on to start Unladylike.
  • The team from CBC Original Podcasts reached out to flag a few updates: Its true crime show Someone Knows Something is now back with its fourth season, On Drugs returns for its second, and they welcomed a new show called Personal Best.
  • ESPN has announced its third season of 30 for 30 Podcasts, which will mark a departure from its anthology structure to roll out a serialized story. The season will explore the “complicated world of Bikram Yoga — a community grappling with its own identity and survival in the wake of sexual assault allegations against its charismatic guru and founder.” The story is reported and produced by Julia Lowrie Henderson, who notably worked on the “Yankees Suck!” episode from the first season, and the whole season will drop at the same time on May 22.
  • The music label Atlantic Records has launched its own in-house line of podcasts. (Variety) Agreed with Nieman Lab’s Joshua Benton’s take on the matter: “It is interesting to see a record company like Atlantic invest in podcasts, but what they really should do is a regular show with actual Atlantic music on it. Benefit from the fact that other podcasters don’t have a music library at their disposal!”
  • The New York Times welcomes a new show: Charles Duhigg’s Change Agent. (Apple Podcasts)
  • Sort of adaptation in the opposite direction: The Osbournes now have a podcast. (Apple Podcasts)
  • “Branded Podcasts Are The Ads People Actually Want To Listen To.” (Fast Company)
  • Wild: “An Artificial Intelligence is Generating an ‘Infinite’ Podcast.” (Motherboard)
  • “Florida teacher ‘removed from classroom’ after alleged white-nationalist podcast.” (ABC News)
  • Marc Maron is moving garages, marking an end of an era. The New York Times produced a lovely package memorializing the storied production space.
  • Goodness, Sunday’s This American Life was stunning.

[photocredit]Photo by Sean Donohue used under a Creative Commons license.[/photocredit]

Can public radio powerhouse WNYC navigate a crisis of its own making?

“The Troubles.” We’re three months into New York Public Radio’s reckoning with sexual harassment and an organizational culture that allowed for bullying and discriminatory behaviors that have especially hurt women and people of color. (See here, here, and here.) And it’s far from over.

Boris Kachka, writing for New York magazine’s The Cut (where the original John Hockenberry piece by journalist Suki Kim dropped on December 1), published a whopper Monday evening that provides one of the most detailed looks at the station’s troubling history with sexual harassment and where it stands today. There’s a lot packed into it, and the piece performs a wide range of functions, including, among others:

  • Vividly illustrating the toxic nature of the culture that the station has cultivated over the decades;
  • Capturing the historically persistent systematic failures of the station’s human resources infrastructure — along with its weaponization (“regarded by many as the organization’s spy and enforcer”);
  • Providing additional details on the behavior of Hockenberry, Leonard Lopate, and Jonathan Schwartz;
  • Filling in some of the blanks of what has been happening in the station over the past few months.

Kachka was also able to secure an interview CEO Laura Walker last week, and in doing so, creates a partial portrait of a station leader under heavy fire whose future remains deeply, utterly in question.

The piece is sprawling and remarkably dense, but also somewhat strange. I’ve read it a couple of times now, and the piece strikes me as a keyhole-sized window into the chaos gripping the institution in the current moment — there are dangling threads everywhere, and there are places where I’m not sure how they fit together. Anyway, go read the feature, which is illuminating, but here are some details you probably shouldn’t miss:

  • Here’s what Dean Cappello has apparently been up to following his demotion to an advisory role: “While Walker made sure to be omnipresent around the office, Cappello traveled to London. According to two sources, he was negotiating with the BBC on a partnership to build a morning news podcast to rival the current market leader, the Times’ The Daily.” Hmm.
  • Here’s Walker’s view of what happens next: “She described the future as a monumental but exciting challenge, and gave herself a window of roughly a year to produce results. In addition to [former NPR News executive editor Madhulika] Sikka’s work, Proskauer’s investigation, and several ‘working groups’ of employees, there was a forthcoming ‘integrated plan for change,’ based on a dissection of the workplace now being conducted pro bono by the prestigious Boston Consulting Group.” Not for nothing, though, it should be noted that Proskauer Rose, the law firm brought in to investigate the harassment complaint, is known for union-busting at universities and being on the other side of labor in the sports world.
  • And here’s the kicker: “Cappello’s demotion left many relieved, others even more frustrated that both he and Walker are still in the building. But one thing is true, everyone agrees: Walker is trying. ‘I think she wants to save the company and save herself,’ says one WNYC reporter. ‘But my colleagues and I feel like if it doesn’t truly change, we are out of here.'”

Pocket ecosystem. This morning, RadioPublic, the podcast listening platform and PRX spinoff, announced a new revenue initiative primarily aimed at smaller podcasts that haven’t yet developed a big enough audience to secure advertisers. RadioPublic is calling it the Paid Listen program, with a hook that involves the company guaranteeing payments to participating podcast publishers. Here’s how CEO Jake Shapiro describes the basic premise in an introductory blog post:

Podcasters make ad-free episodes available in their feeds, we place ads on our platform that bookend each episode, and we pay participating podcasters $20 for every thousand listens on the RadioPublic apps for iOS and Android.

Those ads will be produced in-house by RadioPublic itself for now — hence, publishers should note that they’ll lose that bit of creative control and experience contiguity, should they indeed be concerned about such things — and producers must first submit their podcasts for screening approval to participate in the program. It’s worth noting that the compensation program is limited to listens that take place on the RadioPublic mobile apps, not its embed players scattered across the internet.

In his blog post, Shapiro situates the Paid Listen program within the broader vision he holds for RadioPublic, one that sees advertising as one-of-many pathways for creator compensation that the platform will ultimately support. “Soon we will support listeners who prefer to pay podcasters directly instead of hearing an ad; brands who pay users to opt-in for more info; podcasters who invite their true fans to become paying members,” he writes. But those alternative models will come some other day; today, we’re given advertising, the tried-and-true and still-sexy business model that still drives the bulk of business in the podcast ecosystem.

Viewed from a distance, the Paid Listen program can be understood as another variation on your standard marketplace-building gambit deployed by advertising-oriented content platforms — see: YouTube, Spotify, Facebook, early Stitcher, etc. — where incentives are created to attract more creators onto the platform, after which their capacity to draw attention and generate sellable impressions are bundled as attention commodities and sold to advertisers. The nexus of content platforms and digital advertising has come under increasing criticism over the years (not to mention the platformization of everything in general, but that’s a whole other story), and so the distinct challenge for RadioPublic here is how the company will integrate its Paid Listen gambit into its orientation as a public benefit corporation and its stated goal to assist smaller publishers. That challenge gives rise to a broader philosophical question: Do differences in the social consequences of digital advertising and its resultant content/platform dynamics come down to details, and RadioPublic’s long-term commitments to those details — or are the outcomes ingrained purely in the structural arrangement, never to be overcome?

Whatever the answer to that question, it’s useful to read this initiative as the latest step in what may well end up being RadioPublic’s endgame: building a pocket ecosystem specifically for small, independent, and upstart creators in anticipation of a future in which that creator class will be pushed out of the current iteration of the podcast ecosystem by bigger, more organized, and typically deeper-pocketed publishers. It’s a pathway towards relevance that I’ve previously suspected we would see from the rising cohort of user-generated content-oriented apps like Anchor and Bumpers, but it seems that RadioPublic is, and has always been, much more aligned with this particular vision of the future.

The Hollywood hustle. A preamble: Last week, a reader wrote me a particularly profane note complaining about all the adaptation, IP-harvesting, and Hollywood/podcast baby-making stories I’ve been publishing for quite some time now. “Why should we care?” the note asked. “It doesn’t apply to 95% of us.” Now, this isn’t the first time I’ve received such a complaint on this subject. But this week, I figure I should just at least acknowledge the question, and make explicit what has been implicit all along: I cover it because it’s happening, and it’s going to keep happening, and it’s likely going to impact the structures of money, power, and leverage that inform relationships throughout the podcast ecosystem. Which means that one way or another, it’s going to impact you, whether you like it or not — and whether you can see it or not, so you should probably be aware about it.

Anyway, here’s the news peg. Last week, Gimlet announced something that should surprise absolutely nobody: the formation of Gimlet Pictures, its official film and television unit. As Deadline emphasized, the new division will be led by Chris Giliberti, the Boston Consulting Group alum (and Forbes 30 Under 30 fella) who formerly held the amorphous “head of multiplatform” title. Giliberti originally joined the company in the summer of 2015 as chief of staff to Gimlet president Matt Lieber. His team includes Eli Horowitz, who initially joined the company as the head of its fiction division in the run-up to the launch of Homecoming, and another development executive who is yet to be hired, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

Do read that THR piece on the matter, by the way, which also contains two noteworthy details:

  • Messaging from Lieber insisting that the company remains committed to being audio-first;
  • IMG Original Content, a division of WME, has hired Moses Soyoola, Panoply’s director business development and strategy, into its ranks.

That Gimlet moved to formalize its film and television unit isn’t particularly surprising; it is, after all, the logical end to much of what the company has been doing on the adaptation front. It’s also worth remembering that Gimlet’s adaptation pipeline — and the commoditization of its shows, episodes, and projects into intellectual property — was explicitly stated as one of its core growth pathways during its $15 million fundraising announcement last fall.

But what does putting up a shingle for a film and television development arm entail? What does having one actually mean? An industry insider tells me:

It’s all about what you do with it. The facade alone won’t open doors. Will you actually build out the resources and team? Will your deals be set up in such a way that you’re actually the production company and receiving real fees for it (a.k.a. will your agency do a good job). There is a layer of deals that are purely options and no real dollars come the way of the rights holders. They may look fancy but there is no serious financial value.

Gimlet’s announcement, together with the premiere of 2 Dope Queens’ standup specials on HBO over the weekend, kicked off a series of writeups formally documenting the ongoing podcast adaptation trend, from USA Today and Variety, along with the aforementioned Deadline and Hollywood Reporter pieces. Over at Vulture, I tried to contextualize this current wave of podcast adaptations within the sporadic podcast-to-TV attempts of the past.

On a related note: Chris Hardwick, the creator of the podcast-centric multimedia network Nerdist Industries, did not renew his contract with Legendary Entertainment, according to The Hollywood Reporter. Legendary acquired the company in 2012. Instead, Hardwick has branched off and rebranded his flagship Nerdist podcast as ID10T, which will be the basis of his new media company of the same name. That said, he remains the CEO of Nerdist Industries, but will not be involved in the day-to-day. Cadence13, formerly known as DGital Media, will support the new show on ad sales, and as such it’ll be hosted in Art19.

A note on last week’s issue. I’d like to revise an element of the writing in last Tuesday’s profile of Macmillan podcasts: in my introductory paragraph that sought to quickly establish the origin myth of the QDT–Macmillan relationship, I regrettably glossed over QDT’s pre-Macmillan history and Mignon Fogarty’s work therein. By the time she struck a licensing deal with Macmillan, Fogarty had already formally founded QDT and developed it into what she describes as a “thriving podcast network” spanning six podcasts. She remains involved in some high-level QDT decision-making to this day. The way the paragraph was originally written implies that QDT did not exist before the Macmillan deal, and that is patently not the case.

On a related note: Tor Teen, a Macmillan imprint, has brokered a three-book publishing deal with Lauren Shippen adapting her fiction podcast, The Bright Sessions. Paste Magazine has the exclusive.

Making your own shots. “If The Wire or Treme were a podcast and all the stories were true, this is what you’d get.” That’s how Robin Amer, the creator, host, and executive producer of The City, described her project in short-hand when she originally developed the concept for WNYC’s 2015 Podcast Accelerator. The City, described nowadays as a serialized longform investigative podcast exploring the “power structures of different American metropolises,” emerged as one of two winners of that accelerator competition, but WNYC Studios ultimately ended up passing on the project.

More than two years have elapsed since, and The City has now found a home in a unique situation: as the core of a big podcasting gambit by the USA Today Network, the Gannett-owned media group uniting USA Today and a wide array of local news operations. And last week, the podcast announced a number of key details: the first season will focus on the city of Chicago, the show is set to debut in the fall, and the project has pulled together a team of veteran journalists and public radio producers to build the show.

And what a team it is. Supporting Amer will be: reporter Wilson Sayre, formerly of WLRN; producer Jenny Casas, formerly of St. Louis Public Radio and City Bureau; consulting composer and sound designer Hannis Brown, formerly of NYPR’s Meet the Composer; story editor Ben Austen, former editor at Harper’s Magazine and current contributor to the New York Times Magazine; and editor Sam Greenspan, formerly the managing producer at 99% Invisible.

The City’s road to the USA Today Network was an unconventional one. After learning that WNYC wouldn’t be picking up the show in August 2016, Amer secured help from a literary agent, Danielle Svetcov, with whom she started shopping the pilot episode around in November 2016. “I knew I needed a large institutional partner to produce the show,” Amer, who is the former deputy editor at the Chicago Reader and a former WBEZ producer, told me over email. “Long-form investigative reporting isn’t the kind of thing you can do by yourself, unfunded, on nights and weekends.”

The process involved preliminary conversations with more than a few of, as Amer puts it, “the usual podcasting suspects,” but she was eventually connected with the USA Today Network through John Barth, the managing director of PRX and a mentor of Amer, who introduced her to Liz Nelson, the network’s vice president of strategic content development and one of the people in charge of expanding the organization’s budding podcasting efforts. One thing led to another, and last summer, Gannett ultimately agreed to buy The City, acquiring its intellectual property, and bring Amer on an as employee to build and run the project.

“They completely bought into my vision for the show,” Amer said. “The network comprises 109 local news outlets all across the country in addition to USA Today, and is extremely committed to investigative reporting, so my vision of focusing on a different city every season not only made sense to them but was actually feasible.” When asked about the budget that the network is granting the project, Amer described it as “comparable to others that have been launched by major media organizations,” though no specific details were given. For the USA Today Network, The City represents a big swing in a larger push to expand its on-demand audio operation. The network hopes to grow its podcast portfolio to over 60 shows this year. (Which is, uh, wild.)

I’m told that the team is currently deep in the reporting process. “Now that our staff is on board, we’re resuming the reporting that I’ve been doing on and off for the last two years. We’ll be reporting through May, then in scripting and production mode through the summer,” Amer said. They are also laying the groundwork for the second season, which they hope to roll out in the spring of next year.

With a vision to build out a whole new platform for investigative reporting, The City could well emerge as the latest entry in a growing lineage of substantively journalistic podcasts like Reveal or In The Dark — or, as Amer hopes, the broader tradition of investigative narrative works spanning so many other mediums, like those of Errol Morris, Matthew Desmond, and as alluded to in The City’s original shorthand, David Simon. “If we’re successful, I hope it will be one more piece of proof that you can both tell a gripping story and have meaningful impact,” she said. “And hopefully that will spur other media outlets to invest in this kind of work.”

But for now, Amer has already carved out another kind of legacy: of pushing past closed doors with grit, and realizing new ways to raise a project.

On a vaguely related note, because Chicago: Ellen Mayer, a former engagement consultant at Hearken, has launched a new local podcast project called IlliNoise, which is dedicated to “answering your questions about the Illinois state government, how it works, and how it impacts your community.” Not to be confused with Illinoise, the second album in Sufjan Stevens’ 50 States project — where the musician would’ve made 50 albums, each based on a different state — that he would dismiss in 2009 as “such a joke.” (Alas.)

Now if you excuse me, I’m going to make audio puns out of every state.

Career Spotlight. This week, I traded emails with Jayson De Leon, one of those young, energetic whipper-snappers.

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

[conr]Jayson De Leon: Currently I’m a producer over at Slate where I primarily produce a show called Trumpcast. We started the show back in March 2016 with the idea of it being a short run thing about a fascinating campaign with the promise of doing the podcast until this was over and…well, this is still not over. We describe Trumpcast as being “quasi-daily” and have brought on two more hosts since the election who each bring their own expertise on the administration to the show (Jamelle Bouie and Virginia Heffernan).

In addition, I just finished a stint producing Family Ghosts over at Panoply alongside Sam Dingman (who hosts and created the show), Veralyn Williams (a fellow Slatester), Odelia Rubin (part of the Famoply), and Micaela Blei (The Moth). The show explores those stories you’ve always heard your family talk about, but never quite worked up the courage to look into. I think Sam put it beautifully in the second episode of the series, No Brown Spots: This is a show where “our goal is to turn burdens into talisman.” I love that line and have it pinned to a corkboard in my room. A second season of Family Ghosts is in the works.[/conr]

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

[conr]De Leon: I went to the University of Central Florida and received my degree in economics. During my senior year, I had that moment of, “oh crap, I don’t want to work in a bank for the rest of my life,” so I applied for this internship at Planet Money and got it. I started listening to Planet Money back in 2008 during the financial crisis. Orlando was in a lot of ways the epicenter of the housing crisis, and I was looking for a place to answer the questions I had about the unraveling of my family’s real estate business at the time. I was completely hooked by the pace and detail of the stories. And, to some degree, I think the early days of Planet Money have informed how I think about making a show like Trumpcast where the news changes minute to minute.

After my internship, I spent some time working as a freelancer. I was a huge Grantland fan (R.I.P.) and ended up getting connected to one of their contributors, Brian Koppelman, by sheer luck (I sent him a tweet). He had just started his own podcast on their network called The Moment and I helped produce that show for close to two years while working as Brian’s assistant on his Showtime TV series, “Billions,” which he created alongside his partner, David Levien. The Moment ended up moving to Slate in April 2015 and from there I met a ton of people who helped me land a bunch of work. I freelanced for a little over a year and worked on shows like Slate’s Working and Political Gabfest until I ultimately landed in Jacob Weisberg’s office (who runs The Slate Group) throwing around ideas for what Trumpcast could sound like alongside my then co-producer, Henry Molofsky.

TLDR — making a living doing audio feels like it required a bunch of breaks to go my way. As a former poker player, it feels like I’ve just caught a run of good cards and I’m just ecstatic to still be in the game.[/conr]

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

[conr]De Leon: Great question, Quah! Hmmm…I never get to think about this. I guess to me a career allows you to enrich those parts of your life you’ve always wanted to enrich while at the same time allowing you to build an actual life for yourself. Only recently have I started to think about this as a “career.” Where I work allows me to try all sorts of new things with storytelling and there’s a certain level of relief that comes with knowing you have time to sit and really think about the best way to tell the story you want to tell or make the best version of the show you want to make. I’m finding that the stories come from a more generous rather than desperate place these days. Like anybody engaging in this medium, I’m just looking to make something that’s urgent, compelling, and feels worthwhile to me and the people listening.[/conr]

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

[conr]De Leon: As a kid, I thought I was going to be a professional basketball player. I don’t think I’m more jealous of any other thing on Earth than people who play basketball professionally. Thinking about it is actually making me upset right now. I also thought I was going to be a professional jiu-jitsu fighter after spending four years training full-time. There was also a very good chance that if I didn’t get that Planet Money internship, I would’ve just stayed in Orlando and tried to make my life work over there. So no, when I started out in life, I never thought I wanted to tell stories, but I’m damn happy to find it when I did.

When I first started out playing in the audio space at Planet Money, I was a complete mess. I had no idea what I wanted to do so I tried to do everything. I went on a reporting trip with Zoe Chace which opened my eyes to speaking with people out in the world. Who knew you could do that for living? I pitched stories basically every week at the Planet Money edit meeting. Mainly because I’m very competitive, but also because it was kind of fun to hear why things don’t work.

Phia Bennin, who was producing over at Planet Money then, helped me with basically everything else while I was there — learning to track, edit, mix, etc., and I can’t thank her enough for that. I think I ultimately ended up producing out of necessity, because I really wanted to stay in New York and keep playing my hand in audio, but it’s just in the last year or so that it feels like I’ve been able to tell myself that this is probably what I’ll be doing with my days for years to come.[/conr]

Bites:

  • Pandora is reorganizing its business — which is to say, it’s downsizing and engaging in cost-saving measures while placing bets on new gambles, like ad tech and further expanding into non-music content. The music streaming company is also working to grow its Atlanta office, situated in “a region with lower costs than the company’s headquarters in Oakland.” What finagling! (Press release)
  • “Audible’s pursuit of more audiobook publishing rights could squeeze traditional book publishers in the fastest-growing segment of the market.” (The Wall Street Journal)
  • Amazon has acquired Pulse Labs, a startup that aims to help voice app developers “test out new apps on a target audience before publicly launching.” (Recode)
  • The Modern Love podcast celebrated its 100th episode last week. I asked the team to list out their favorite entries. (Vulture)
  • The Onion binge-dropped a six-part true-crime spoof yesterday, titled “A Very Fatal Murder.” (Website)
  • The ever-funny, always-delightful Glen Weldon with “The 6 Eminently Disprovable Rules For Roundtable Podcasting.” (NPR Monkey See)
  • Are you reading Caroline Crampton? You absolutely should.

Turns out people really like podcasts after all (and now we have numbers to prove it)

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 149, published January 30, 2018.

One month in. When Apple rolled out its long-awaited in-episode podcast analytics last month, part of the anxiety (and excitement, really) was finding out whether, essentially, the world would end. Which is to say, whether this whole podcast thing was a bubble, a house of cards; whether perhaps many of the metrics the industry had been using to articulate, extract, and transact its value was nothing more than inflated abstraction, like the hollow vitality of a viral tweet lifted up by a golemnic army of stolen identities.

You can scratch that particular anxiety off the list. Over at Wired, Miranda Katz checked in with a few publishers one month in and wrote:

Though it’s still early days, the numbers podcasters are seeing are highly encouraging. Forget those worries that the podcast bubble would burst the minute anyone actually got a closer look: It seems like podcast listeners really are the hyper-engaged, super-supportive audiences that everyone hoped.

Among those quoted for the piece were reps from Midroll, Headgum, and Panoply.

But of course, whether podcasting was a bubble that better analytics would pop was always only half the question. The other half, whether the new data would lead to a boom, is a whole other bag of nuts. Katz writes:

On the business side, it’s likely that these high engagement rates and low levels of ad skipping will see a flood of new advertisers who have until now been reticent to enter the Wild West of podcasting — welcome news to anyone who feels about ready to throw their phone across the room any time they hear another ad for Squarespace or Casper.

We’ll see! When the analytics were first announced in the summer, Market Enginuity’s Sarah van Mosel told me: “This is certainly a step in the right direction. This is what we asked for and I thank the Apple team for hearing and responding to the podcast community. Now I want more.” More, as in the expected adtech bells and whistles like better targeting capabilities. More, as in anything above table stakes.

But hey, exciting stuff. I suppose this also means that Hot Pod will be somewhat relevant for at least a little while longer. Yay for jobs.

(Side note: I wonder how MailChimp, Squarespace, and Casper feel about their semi-lampooned ubiquity? Probably good, because ubiquity and synonymity with the rise of the medium is a plus, but there’s something about the mocking tone that suggests a more complex linkage.)

Big new clients for PRX. The Cambridge, Mass.-based podcast company announced two eye-catching partnerships yesterday: one with Night Vale Presents, the indie podcast outfit founded by Welcome to Night Vale creators Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor; and one with Gen-Z Media, the kids podcast company founded by the people behind The Disappearance of Mars Patel.

These partnerships will see PRX providing the two companies with marketing, ad sales, and technology support services. That third bit means that both Night Vale Presents and Gen-Z Media will be moving their portfolio of shows onto PRX’s Dovetail platform, which currently serves as the hosting provider for all podcasts in Radiotopia network. (Well, almost. The Allusionist migrates over in April.) Dovetail also hosts podcasts from Serial Productions, most notably handling S-Town’s monster run. (More information on that situation can be found in this column from last April.)

Gen-Z Media’s shows were previously housed on Panoply’s Megaphone platform as a result of a previous partnership struck last January, which saw Panoply supplying production, financing, distribution, and technology support. Gen-Z is also an active partner on Pinna, Panoply’s app-oriented kids programming initiative, for which the podcast company was reportedly developing a suite of new shows.

“Truly, we’re not moving away from Panoply,” replied Ben Strouse, one of Gen-Z’s principals, when asked for clarification on the company’s standing with its previous provider. “Our shows on Pinna will proudly stay there, and we’ll continue collaborating with them on new projects. Our partnership with PRX is all about connecting with new listeners and reaching bigger and bigger audiences for our upcoming shows. We’ve got to diversify our business in 2018 to continue growing, and PRX has a tremendous distribution network and highly respected collection of great podcasts.”

Gen-Z’s move to PRX caps off a complicated month for Panoply, in which the company saw (1) the departure of its kids programming chief, Emily Shapiro; and (2) Slate, its sister company, taking over its podcasts’ sales processes from Panoply.

For Night Vale Presents, the move appears driven by an eye towards scale. Its shows were previously hosted on Libsyn. “We’ve got nothing but positive things to say about Rob Walch and the Libsyn team. They were amazing to work with — we’ve been with them since the beginning of Welcome to Night Vale, and we’ve always been very happy with them,” said Christy Gressman, partner at Night Vale Presents. “That said, we’re really looking forward to working with PRX in a streamlined way, where we’ll get to use their sales team and sponsor management resources and distribution technology (via their proprietary Publish and Dovetail applications), along with sharing other resources.”

Locking down Night Vale Presents and Gen-Z is a pretty big win for PRX, whose operations continue to sprawl out in a myriad of directions. The organization has evolved several times since its founding in 2003, when it was originally built to serve as a technology provider and tool hub for public radio stations looking to take advantage of the internet. (This involved, among other things, the creation of an online marketplace for programming and station-specific app development services.) In its current iteration, PRX has espoused a renewed commitment to independent creators, a stance that has expressed itself through the creation of its “indie podcast label” Radiotopia; the Podcast Garage in Allston, Mass.; and providing end-to-end podcast services for select partners that fit into this indie worldview. The organization is currently led by CEO Kerri Hoffman, who succeeded Jake Shapiro in 2016 when Shapiro moved on to found RadioPublic.

So, what’s the big picture here? One could argue that PRX — with its indie-minded orientation, technology stack, and expanding ad sales capacity supplied by Market Enginuity — makes for a fascinating foil for Midroll, which has long established itself as the dominant full-service provider for a good deal of the emerging podcast ecosystem. It’ll be interesting to see how PRX will further express itself as distinct from its competitors, and what kind of clients it will continue to target and lure away.

On a related note: Radiotopia’s Criminal is working on a spinoff called This Is Love that’s slated for a Valentine’s Day drop. I wrote about the details for Vulture, but I’d also like to say: What the Criminal team is trying out here seems like a good model for creative teams looking to flex their muscles in different creative directions without necessarily compromising the consistent audience interfacing of their core economic/production engines. It sets up an advantage not unlike what you’re getting in the relationship between This American Life and Serial Productions, where talent can flow between the mothership and one-off projects.

This week in public radio:

1. Last Friday, WNYC announced an executive reshuffle that sees Dean Cappello — the station’s chief content officer and CEO Laura Walker’s righthand man throughout her two-decade-plus tenure at the station — demoted into an advisory role with no direct reports. Cappello was previously responsible for overseeing WNYC News and WNYC Studios, the station’s on-demand audio division. The shift comes almost two months after New York Magazine’s The Cut published a piece from the journalist Suki Kim detailing sexual harassment complaints and allegations made against The Takeaway’s John Hockenberry during his hosting tenure at the show. Kim’s story has since catalyzed a broader reckoning about the station’s management, which was deemed to have inadequately handled the Hockenberry complaints and, more broadly, manifested a culture that allowed for bullying, harassment, and discriminatory behaviors that have especially hurt women and people of color.

However, in a statement to Splinter, a WNYC spokesperson clarified that Cappello’s demotion was part of a strategic shift and unrelated to The Takeaway controversies. (Cappello directly oversaw The Takeaway and worked closely with Hockenberry for years, as a recent New York Times piece noted.)

It’s a peculiar clarification. But then again, if Cappello’s demotion was indeed meant to be the official response to the overarching concerns about the station’s culture, then it would have been an insufficient act of accountability. As it stands then, the station still hasn’t outwardly — or inwardly, as far as I can tell — indicated what it will concretely be doing to seriously address its systemic issues.

We may well still see…something from the station. In the WNYC News piece on the matter, it was noted that station management has brought in the law firm Proskauer Rose to investigate workplace conduct and former NPR executive editor Madhulika Sikka to review editorial content and structure. But for now, it feels like the impetus for change remains more centered in the hands of the station’s supporting member base, and how that constituency will collectively choose to alter the cost of reinforcing the status quo.

2. Minnesota Public Radio’s Garrison Keillor problem continues to be a flaming mess. A quick list of recent developments:

  • Last Tuesday, MPR News published an investigation going deep into Keillor’s troubling history of inappropriate workplace behavior around women. “An investigation by MPR News…has learned of a years-long pattern of behavior that left several women who worked for Keillor feeling mistreated, sexualized or belittled,” the piece wrote. “None of those incidents figure in the ‘inappropriate behavior’ cited by MPR when it severed business ties.”
  • That same day, MPR CEO Jon McTaggart published a note responding to several questions that have been sent in by listeners about the controversy. “The irony is that while MPR has been careful to protect Garrison’s privacy and not hurry any decisions, others have rushed to judge and criticize MPR’s actions without knowing the facts,” he wrote in response to one query.
  • A few days later, Keillor pushed back against MPR, MPR News, and an accuser through a statement published on his website and sent to HuffPost. “If I am guilty of harassment, then every employee who stole a pencil is guilty of embezzlement,” he wrote.

There remains a standoff between MPR management and Keillor, with the fate of the Prairie Home Companion archives — considered “historically valuable” by a curator at the University of Maryland, and to which Keillor holds many of the rights — at stake, as the Star Tribune reports.

3. NPR published the 2017 edition of its staff diversity numbers last week, which shows virtually no progress from the year before. Ombudsman Elizabeth Jensen with the details:

The overall racial and ethnic diversity of the news and information division remained virtually unchanged as of Oct. 31, 2017, when compared with the year earlier. Figures supplied by NPR’s human resources department showed the division of 377 people to be 75.10 percent non-Hispanic white (as self-identified). That compared to 75.4 percent the year earlier, when there were 350 newsroom employees. I’ll repeat what I said of the 2016 numbers, which showed only incremental change over the last five years: this was a disappointing showing.

Year-to-year, there were some small changes in the makeup of the remaining 25 percent of the newsroom. The percentage of employees who reported they were Latino or black rose slightly; Asian employees as a percentage dropped slightly.

Jensen’s piece unpacks a number of elements embedded in the station’s problem with employment diversity that’s worth thinking about, including a “trickle down” dynamic as well as the indirect impact of the broader public radio ecosystem’s lack of diversity as a potentially relevant factor in the station’s failure to adequately solve the problem. (One thing I’m personally wondering about, though, because I’m a yellow person: Why did the percentage of Asian employees drop slightly? Are we just, like, not talking more about that?)

But there is absolutely nothing new to be said about this issue that hasn’t already been said, not that doesn’t it have to be said repeatedly, ad infinitum, until the light of the sun snuffs out or the percentages actually change: This needs to be fixed, like now, and it’s ridiculous that the needle has barely moved, maybe even regressed.

In other news: Marjorie Powell, vice president of human resources, has left the organization. Current has some noteworthy background on the development.

Nope, not a good week for public radio.

Personnel notes:

  • Dave Shaw, the executive producer of podcasts at E.W. Scripps, has moved to Politico to lead the podcast team there. He started work today. Also at Politico: Bridget Mulcahy has been promoted to senior producer, and Micaela Rodríguez joins full time as assistant producer.
  • Vox Media now has a dedicated podcast marketing manager: Zach Kahn, who previously worked in the brand marketing and sponsorship division.

Dirty John in the age of Peak TV. The multimedia true-crime project from the Los Angeles Times is in the process of being adapted into two different series for two different networks, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

Bravo, home of the Real Housewives Expanded Universe, is reportedly “near a deal” for an anthology series based on the Times’ Christopher Goffard’s reporting and accompanying podcast (produced in collaboration with Wondery). It will be a two-season order; first season of that show will be based on the Dirty John story, while the second will focus on a new tale altogether.

The Oxygen network is the other suitor, having ordered a companion unscripted series focused on the subject of Goffard’s feature, John Meehan.

Three things:

    • Dirty John is the latest in a growing line of podcast-to-television adaptations, which you can read more about here, here, and here. At some point, I’ll put together a spreadsheet or something tracking the pipeline so we can figure out the split between fiction and nonfiction projects, true crime and non-true crime, so on and so forth.
    • The fact that Dirty John is being adapted into both scripted and unscripted forms is super interesting. How much juice can you squeeze out of a fruit? Depends on the fruit, I guess. Or maybe not?
  • This bit of news comes as the L.A. Times is increasingly engulfed by managerial maelstroms, including dramatic reshuffles in its management, sexual harassment allegations levied against publisher and CEO Ross Levinsohn, and a comically capitalistic parent company called Tronc that’s engaged in questionable business strategies to the detriment of its talented newsrooms. The situation remains fluid; I recommend following Ken Doctor and David Folkenflik if you’re tracking the story.

Macmillan outlook. The podcasting adventures of Macmillan, the international book publishing giant, can be traced back to the closing weeks of 2006 when John Sterling, then the publisher and president of the Henry Holt imprint, called up a science writer named Mignon Fogarty after reading about her rapidly growing podcast, Grammar Girl, in The Wall Street Journal. A phone call about a potential book deal turned into the mutual identification of a unique opportunity, which in turn led to the creation of the Quick & Dirty Tips Podcast Network, one of the earliest podcast publishing experiments by a non-audio native company. (Simon Owens has a great recent history of QDT on his website.)

The network has since grown into a robust and well-oiled machine. It is now over 275 million podcast downloads strong, having added 25 million episode downloads across 2017 to the 250 million in lifetime downloads the network had accumulated by the end of 2016. Fogarty continues to publish Grammar Girl, the network’s flagship program now flanked by an array of spinoffs, and she has published several books that direct extend from her work on the podcast. Meanwhile, Sterling, who continued to oversee QDT even as he ascended to the role of executive vice president at Macmillan proper in 2008, recently announced that he was stepping back from full-time work at the publisher to get into politics. The news comes shortly after he completed work as the editor of Michael Wolff’s Fire & Fury.

With delicious lore to spare, Macmillan is a fascinating figure in podcasting: an early adopter, a persistent player, and a singular operation. And last year proved to be no different for the publisher as it continued to work the on-demand audio angle.

At the tail end of 2016, I wrote about Macmillan’s ambitions to further scale up its on-demand audio operations with the formation of Macmillan Podcasts, a new internal venture that seeks to explore more systematic ways of bridging authors and podcasts. Led by Kathy Doyle, the company’s vice president of podcasts, the newly formed division spent the year setting the table — “We tripled the size of our team and put together a workflow that enables us to be nimble and responsive to requests from our publishers, as well as authors and talent, as we grow our catalog,” she said — and establishing their presence within the organization. This work was mostly tied in the development and rollout of new projects, of which there were five in the latter half of 2017 (Raise My Roof, Dig If You Will, Feminasty, Rossen to the Rescue, and Steal the Stars), but it also revolved around an internal awareness-raising campaign. “We did a road show introducing the potential inherent in podcasts to all our publishers and showcasing the ways we can help contribute to their success — no topic or narrative style is off limits,” she explained.

Steal the Stars, in particular, emerged as the standout project for the division. I first wrote about the podcast last summer, when Tor Books, a science fiction and fantasy-focused Macmillan subsidiary, announced the formation of Tor Labs, an experimental imprint “emphasizing experimental approaches to genre publishing,” which developed Steal the Stars as its first project. I loved the idea of Tor Labs; here you have a new internal venture that’s working to cultivate publishing projects that are meant to contemporaneously span across multiple platforms such that value can be simultaneously extracted from the different markets of different mediums. Such a setup vastly expands the surface area of a single project, dramatically increasing the work’s exposure and further allowing for the possibility of ushering more audiences to cross over between mediums. Sure, much like Subcast from last week, the whole thing isn’t particularly revolutionary — we do live in an age where just about everything gets adapted into any given direction, from podcasts-to-television to documentaries-to-podcasts — but the real innovation is the efficiency and contiguity of the arrangement. Every element is plugged in together from the outset, and that seems new to me.

Steal the Stars was indicative of what the bleeding edge for Macmillan Podcasts could look like. It involved close coordination between Gideon Media (which created and produced the podcast), Tor and Tor Labs, Macmillan Podcasts, and Macmillan Audio (which oversees its audiobooks operations), all collectively working together to ensure that every format of the show was set up to perform well within their respective markets.

Doyle considers the experiment a success. The podcast ended up clocking in a solid performance with listeners; I’m told that the 14-part run surpassed 1 million downloads and continues to perform well in the postseason. “Our strategy included taking the podcast content and adapting it into a trade paperback and ebook and just last week we released an audiobook with bonus content — we even did a prequel live event that sold out — all of which continues to drive interest in the podcast,” she explained. “We’ll be leveraging this model again.”

As far as the product itself goes, I thought it was a really fun listen. A sci-fi audio drama written by Gideon Media’s Mac Rogers, who also wrote The Message and Life After for Panoply, Steal the Stars was a comparatively straightforward narrative romp involving aliens, secret government hijinks, and romance.

So, what does the year ahead hold for Macmillan Podcasts? As you would expect, they’ve got a pile of projects in the pipeline. The division recently released a few trailers teasing two February launches: the first is called One True Pairing, which will be hosted by two St. Martin Press staffers — “Think My Favorite Murder for people who read US Weekly,” Doyle said, a description that sounds a lot like a Who? Weekly competitor — and the second is called But That’s Another Story, which “looks at how books and reading change and shape our lives” and will be hosted by best-selling author Will Schwalbe. More are on the way.

Doyle also notes that the year will be spent further building out key relationships, distribution points, and co-marketing opportunities within the industry. “We’re spending a lot of time thinking about ways we can collaborate with our partners in support of our authors and continue to innovate with new audio-first formats,” she said. You can already see some of that with Macmillan Podcasts’ participation in the marketing of Launch, a new podcast about writing a novel developed by Wondery.

Like most other podcast operatives, Doyle is thinking about the discovery gap — and where the closing of that gap will come from — as well as the longevity of the advertising model, which is the primary revenue channel for their show portfolio. That latter concern is pushing her to explore alternatives. “We’re open to additional models, perhaps working with distributors on a windowing relationship or developing exclusive content,” Doyle added. “It’s a case-by-case basis.”

But for now, though, Macmillan Podcasts is settling into itself. They remain occupants of a unique corner in the broader podcast ecosystem, hard at work figuring out how to add more layers to its niche.

Bites:

  • ESPN is reportedly exploring a sale of FiveThirtyEight. Should FiveThirtyEight break off from Disney — which owns ESPN, among so many other things — there would be considerable ramifications for the FiveThirtyEight Politics podcast and ESPN’s 30 for 30 podcast, as both shows share Jody Avirgan as a principal producer. (The Big Lead)
  • Gimlet is producing a live festival for itself. Called Gimlet Fest, it is scheduled to take place on June 16-17, not too far from their new 27,000-square-foot downtown Brooklyn offices.
  • A documentarian is developing a project about Joe Frank, and is raising funds on Indiegogo.
  • WBUR is launching its collaboration with The Washington Post, Edge of Fame, next month. The show is fronted by WaPo national arts reporter Geoff Edgers, and each episode will profile artists, actors, musicians, and comedians — including Ava DuVernay, Jimmy Kimmel, and Norm Macdonald — through a blend of interview and field recordings. Debuts on February 15.
  • Two shows to track on the local podcasting front: Nashville Public Radio’s The Promise, a limited-run series on public housing in the city, out now; and KPCC’s Repeat, which investigates the story of an L.A. County sheriff’s deputy who shot at four people in seven months. It starts February 7.
  • Variety has a big feature up on Spotify as the music streaming company sets off towards going public, titled “With 70 Million Subscribers and a Risky IPO Strategy, Is Spotify Too Big to Fail?” The piece is super useful to get a sense of what’s going on (and what’s at stake) for the company and its relationship to the broader music industry. Once you’re done with that, pair it with this Financial Times bit: “Songwriters’ court victory deals a blow to Spotify.
  • Not directly podcast-related, but maybe it can be: “A Bunch of TV Writers Are Building a Salary-Transparency Database.” (Vulture)
  • Because true crime is arguably the pulping heart of podcasts in 2018…”Hunt a Killer, One Subscription Box of Clues at a Time.” (The Ringer)