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]

Get ready to binge-listen to Serial’s new spinoff S-Town: All 7 episodes will drop at once next week

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 112, published March 21, 2017.

Missing Richard Simmons dropped its final episode yesterday, two days before it was originally scheduled for a wide release. The episode was released to Stitcher Premium subscribers on Sunday — Midroll had previously indicated that those subscribers would’ve gotten the episode two days before wide release. Even with the sudden shift, Stitcher was still able to honor the first-listen value proposition.

I’m told that the move was intentional. In the episode, host Dan Taberski provided what was essentially an editorial explanation within the narrative. “What’s important is telling the story about Richard as it happens,” he said. That’s an interesting reason, but I don’t think I buy it. Minor spoilers (maybe?), but there was nothing stated in that last episode — nothing that was particularly pegged to a recent public news development — that warranted such a sudden, complicated reordering of the release windows. So yeah, I’m wondering.

Panoply brings on a full-time head of scripted programming. Missed this last week, but it’s definitely worth keeping tabs on. The company has hired John Dryden, a U.K.–based writer and radio director, to lead a “new division dedicated to creating scripted programming of both the comedic and dramatic variety,” according to AdWeek, which published the news March 10.

To decode that: The term “scripted programming” is kind of a carry-over from established linear media industries. We’re basically looking at Panoply acting on its ambition to punch harder in the audio fiction genre. It’s a move that’s potentially very lucrative, given the podcast ecosystem’s growing value to other more developed adjacent creative industries, be it film, television, or books. (I’ve written about this a bunch before, start here and here.)

In hiring Dryden, Panoply gains an award-winning producer with a substantial body of work. Based on his talent agency’s website, Dryden’s rap sheet includes: The Seventh Test, a 10-part audio thriller broadcasted on BBC Radio 4 that’s based on a book by Vikas Swarup, whose debut novel, Q&A, was adapted into the film Slumdog Millionaire; A Kidnapping, a three-part radio drama, also first broadcast on BBC Radio 4, that’s being adapted into a film; and Tumanbay, a historical epic set in ancient Egypt that came out in 2015. (Indeed, it’s all very British.)

Dryden has some history with Panoply: He served as the executive producer and director of LifeAfter, Panoply’s follow-up to The Message, its well regarded branded fiction podcast borne out of a partnership with GE. It’s unclear to me whether LifeAfter was able to match or beat the success of The Message, and when I reached out to Panoply’s communications team, they declined to comment, noting that they don’t release download numbers and thus can’t comment on the performance of one show relative to another.

To my knowledge, Dryden is only the second person to hold such a role among American podcast companies. The other individual is Eli Horowitz, the “executive producer of scripted content” at Gimlet, who was responsible for Homecoming.

Dryden will keep his residence in the U.K. for the job.

Rookie Magazine is launching a podcast next month, courtesy of MTV. In my mind, Rookie is something of a miracle. A beloved online publishing concern created by blogging prodigy Tavi Gevinson for teenagers (“and their cohorts of any age”) that dates all the way back in 2011 — the same year Grantland made its debut — Rookie is part zine, part blogroll, a fascinating, amorphous digital package that’s bound together by a smart and thoughtful commitment to serving its core constituency. It represents a reminder, still, of the original promise that the Internet brought to publishing: an environment that allows for the existence of an independent creative operation with a very specific point of view and a very specific role to play.

Anyway, many other publishing concerns in 2017, Rookie is rolling out a podcast, which will be a weekly magazine show (not unlike, perhaps, The New Yorker Radio Hour). But what’s particularly interesting about the rollout narrative here is the involvement of MTV, with which Rookie has partnered to produce the show.

It’s an intriguing collaboration, and it brings the MTV Podcasts team back into my view. Frankly, I haven’t been paying much attention to that crew — which is led by Grantland alum Alex Pappademas — since they rolled out their initial programming slate around this time last year, though on the occasions that I’ve checked in, I find myself consistently fascinated with the stuff they’re trying out. I wonder how they’re doing. Check back in next week.

The Rookie Podcast will debut on April 4. It will be hosted on the Megaphone platform, as an extension of MTV Podcasts’ technological relationship with Panoply. The upcoming podcast received a shoutout in this week’s episode of This American Life, which ran a segment on the magazine’s popular “Ask A Grown Man/Woman” series. (The episode, by the way, is exquisite.)

And speaking of This American Life…

S-Town comes out this time next week. The hotly anticipated Serial spinoff, the first project to be released under the newly created Serial Productions banner, debuts Tuesday, March 28, and I’ll taking the day off to dig into it.

All seven episodes of the show will drop at once — I believe the olds call this “Netflix-style” or “binge-style” — when it comes out next week, switching up the typical cadence we’ve come to expect from longform serialized storytelling, as established by the first season of Serial and, most recently, Missing Richard Simmons. This marks the first high-profile attempt at employing this format within the podcast space. Previous full-season-drop experiments, like ESPN’s Dunkumentaries and Panoply/Parents Magazine’s Pregnancy Confidential, were not serialized storytelling endeavors.

For folks keeping tabs on the numbers: Serial’s second season surpassed 50 million going into the final episode, with each episode yielding a 3 million download average during its launch week. Blue Apron and Squarespace are serving as the show’s exclusive launch sponsors.

Oh man, I’m so excited for this. Also: It’s only been three months, but 2017 already feels like it’s been a damn good year for podcast listeners. Damn. Damn. *throws laptop out the window*

It’s official — the fight for Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s federal funding is on. The budget blueprint released by the Trump administration last Thursday confirmed what many suspected: that the decades-old conservative flirtation with the defunding of public broadcasting would be revived once again under the new president, with the CPB’s annual allocation of $445 million on the chopping block. (The CPB is one of many programs, including the National Endowment for the Arts and the Legal Services Corporation, being targeted for cuts.) What makes the stakes of today’s fight all the more towering is the political and economic environment of the fourth estate; the broader news and media ecosystem has been tremendously weakened over the past decade by digital disruption, and they walk into this struggle in an increasingly combative environment between the state and public information as they represent it.

Nieman Lab covered the news in some depth, but here are the four top-line things you need to know:

  • The budget blueprint is just a proposal — it will need to go through Congress. It already looks as if the budget is going to have a hard time with congressional Republicans. But pushback on the budget as a whole doesn’t necessarily equate with pushback on the specifics; it’s up to the CPB to ensure the cut doesn’t remain in future iterations of the budget.
  • To that end, the CPB and its advocates are executing on a playbook that’s been developed for these budgetary fights. Among these efforts are strong messaging efforts — including an PR press push touting all-time high ratings — and public participation campaigns like the Protect My Public Media petition. CNN’s Brian Stelter has a good piece providing an overview of the fight.
  • As Nieman Lab notes, and as I’ve written about before, defunding the CPB would fundamentally cripple the public broadcasting system. That isn’t the same as saying public media would be dead; as many have pointed out, NPR and the bigger stations like WNYC and WBUR would likely survive in some leaner form, but the real damage would be to smaller stations that often support underserved and information-poor markets — many of which are populated by Republican voters.
  • Why does this matter to the emerging podcast industry? Well, as I’ve argued before, a weaker public radio system is a weaker podcast ecosystem, as the former has substantially contributed to the space through cultivating a generation of strong talent, supplying a good chunk of solid programming, leveraging its prestige to draw in more advertisers, and generally raising the medium’s profile for wider audiences. There’s also, you know, the whole issue of a weaker public broadcasting system almost definitely leading to a weaker society, which kinda makes an environment where we all, save for a capital-rich few, ultimately suffer alone together.

So there’s that. And there’s this too:

Some relief for West Virginia Public Broadcasting. Following weeks of staring down a budget blueprint in which West Virginia Governor Jim Justice, a Democrat, had proposed the elimination of the annual $4.6 million support it gets from the state, WVPB’s state support will be restored. The governor issued a press release last Friday that the money will be reinstated. State funding accounts for 45 percent of WVPB’s budget.

The press release also noted that Governor Justice “is working on a deal with West Virginia University to allow Public Broadcasting to become a fully integrated part of WVU in the near future.” It is unclear to me how this shift would affect WVPB operations. I’ve gone ahead and submitted a Currently Curious request to my buddies over at Current, who assure me they’re looking into it.

Meanwhile, in Australia. The continent is set to welcome a new podcast network later this week. The network is called Planet Broadcasting, and it will be launching off the strength of an established YouTube channel, Mr. Sunday Movies, and a podcast, The Weekly Planet, which I’m told enjoys about 250,000 downloads per episode. Planet Broadcasting’s aims are fairly ambitious; according to the circulated press release, the network primarily aims to develop a space for the country’s comedy community to break onto the world stage. As an extension of that goal, Planet Broadcasting will launch on March 26 with a variety of comedy offerings, and some nonfiction documentary fare as well (including the well regarded Human/Ordinary).

I’ll be keeping an eye on this. Podcast consumption in Australia is growing, though I’d still characterize it as underdeveloped relative to the American podcast industry. According to an audience research report by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation published last October, 36 percent of surveyed Australians indicate that they listened to more podcasts in 2016 than in 2015, though numbers for baseline listenership were not circulated. The ABC is the largest podcast publisher in the country, enjoying about 160 million overall downloads in 2016.

Side note. One of the more interesting stories from last year — a story that’s affected how I view the tradeoffs of the relationship between creators and distribution platforms — was the dustup between the Indiana public radio station WBAA and This American Life. (This is the third mention of This American Life in this issue. My apologies: That show was on my mind a lot this week.)

Last summer, the station announced that it had decided to cut the show from its airwaves as a response to its partnership with Pandora, which gave the music streaming service the ability to distribute and sell advertising against both This American Life and Serial. Mike Savage, WBAA’s general manager, argued that Pandora, with its profit-making incentive, posed a fundamental threat to public radio’s broadcast model and that by entering into a relationship with the service, This American Life engaged in an arrangement that places it at odds with the public radio system’s incentives.

Ira Glass, the show’s creator, argued otherwise, noting that the money gained from the partnership was reinvested to further improve on the programming that will continue to appear throughout the public radio system. Glass also made another point, which to me lies at the heart of this item, about reaching more audiences. “Nationally, we’re not losing audience on the radio because people are getting us on other platforms — we’re just adding audience,” Glass said, as printed in Current. “We’re adding to the number of people who are hearing public radio content by offering it on these other platforms.”

Maybe I’m connecting dots in the most tenuous of ways — I’m prone to being worried about that, particularly these days, as conspiracy theorizing seems to have become prominent as a mindset in power — but I can’t help seeing parallels between that incident and the contemporary concern of how the increasing involvement of streaming platforms like Spotify, Google Play Music, iHeartRadio, and Pandora (to the extent they become involved beyond This American Life), many of which are closed, will affect the open podcast system, its value, and the role it plays in the current state of podcast publishing and distribution. At some level, the value proposition that they bring to podcast publishers remain the same: All these platforms, in theory, provide access to an audience that may very well be untouched, and even if podcast listening ultimately doesn’t end up happening on those platforms, at least participating publishers will be able to pocket some extra money that can be reinvested in their shows, which will be nonetheless enjoyed on other platforms and on the open ecosystem.

There are limits to this, of course. For one thing, it’s hard to square the parallel I’m sketching here against what’s happening on the rest of the Internet: the platform dependency that’s growing between publishers and Facebook, between video creators and YouTube, between music artists and, well, Spotify, Pandora, et. al. For another thing, This American Life stands as an exception to the broader universe of publishers: it has unparalleled clout to both establish and benefit from this relationship, and it has a strong pre-existing listener base that protects it from any potential development of future dependency on Pandora.

Bites:

  • Today in Black Mirror: Google Home recently tested what appears to be an audio ad for the new live-action film adaptation of Beauty and the Beast. When pressed, Google appeared to briefly regard it instead as some sort of content experiment before backing off on that too. It’s weird and confusing, but kind of a great beyond-the-veil story. (The Register) Also: “Woman who shares name with ‘Alexa’ and ‘Siri’ says life is ‘waking nightmare'” (The Huffington Post)
  • Crooked Media continues to reproduce, adding another show to the top of the iTunes charts: Lovett or Leave It. I swear, it’s like watching mitosis.
  • Wondery is pumping out a podcast unpacking the production of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. It’s pretty well timed; the TV adaptation of the movie, A&E’s Bates Motel, is quickly approaching its final season, where the show will catch up with the film. It will be interesting to see if Wondery is able to capture the spillover from whatever interest is currently being enjoyed by the TV show, and, more importantly, whether it can make that argument explicitly if it is able to do so. (iTunes)
  • It looks as if the new season of Politically Re-Active, the First Look Media podcast featuring W. Kamau Bell and Hari Kondabolu, is now being sold by Midroll Media instead of Panoply. Interesting. Shouts to Jeff Umbro writing for The Daily Dot for that scooplet.

As more podcasts become TV shows, can their founders retain creative control?

Adaptation. Let me start by saying this: There are very few things in the world that I love more than watching and obsessing about television. And I don’t care that John Landgraf, CEO of cable channel FX, complained not too long ago that we’re hitting “peak TV.” (The combined total of scripted series on all TV distribution formats in 2015 was 409, nearly double the total in the past six years, according to the LA Times.) I say, what of it, my man! Give me more dragons, more zombies, more weeping costumed British people, more cops. Drown me in your linear video content!

But we’re here today to talk about podcasts, and I’m here to say, gladly, that more and more podcasts have begun contributing to the peak TV problem. At risk of writing what is essentially a trend piece, here are three things that were announced over the past two weeks that struck me as fortuitously close together:

  • Last Wednesday, The Hollywood Reporter dropped an exclusive reporting that Lore is currently being developing into a TV show. Lore is an independent horror podcast created by writer Aaron Mahnke, with each episode featuring a different story in the anthological style of Nate DiMeo’s The Memory Palace. Among the team heading up the adaptation process is Gale Anne Hurd, an executive producer on The Walking Dead, that wildly popular zombie apocalypse TV show that’s steadily shepherding AMC through the post-Mad Men era. No network is attached to the project yet.
  • The Lore news comes about a day after Two Up Productions, the studio behind the audio drama Limetown, announced through a newsletter that they, too, were working on a television pilot based on the podcast. “We have nearly completed a first draft of the pilot, and we feel pretty great about it somehow,” wrote Zack Akers and Skip Bronkie, the duo behind Two Up. “But this doesn’t mean anything, because there are so many steps between a draft and your television.” (Akers and Bronkie also mentioned that they’re still hard at work developing the second season of the podcast, along with “a completely new and separate podcast series which will probably really surprise you.”)
  • And a week before that, The Hollywood Reporter (again) reported that the TV adaptation of Throwing Shade, a comedy podcast that originally launched in 2011 and has since become a web video series on Funny or Die, has received a series pickup by TV Land. The network is hoping for a January 2017 premiere date for the show, which will feature ten episodes. News of the podcast being adapted for television first surfaced in December 2015.

All three podcasts join a steadily growing list of podcasts that, through various means and configurations, have been developed or are currently being adapted for the small screen. A partial list of examples: Comedy Bang Bang, Maron, Stuff You Should Know. We also know that a TV adaptation of Serial is being developed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, who in the past have demonstrated a knack for pulling off improbable adaptations like The Lego Movie and Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs.

My reading of the TV industry has consistently led me to perceive it as a remarkably conservative creature — albeit one capable of rather great feats — and the fact that we’re seeing that industry’s adaptation funnel expand to include podcasts a lot more is a completely expected development that builds upon the processes it has established with books, graphic novels, movies, and so on.

And we’re going to see a lot more of these, I reckon, whether it means just picking up intellectual property (for narrative and fiction podcasts, in particular) or breaking out talent in the vein of The Nerdist’s Chris Hardwick, Throwing Shade, and Men in Blazers. However, as it is the case with startups, actors, science experiments, and first dates, most of these pod-to-TV adaptations will fail. But the opportunity is here for podcast folk — for more money, more exposure, more creative frontiers. And as an avid television viewer, I’m just glad for the opportunity to have more stuff to slap my eyeballs with.

However, as someone who is both an avid television viewer and a podcast obsessive, my main query is whether these podcast talents will get the opportunity to flex their creative muscles in the way they want to — and the extent to which they should be allowed to do so. Television is an notoriously difficult industry that trades in a lot of money, and I’m sympathetic to arguments that such enterprises should be left up to the folks who have devoted their lives to the form. But yet, what’s the point of a creative industry if it does not allow for creators to create?

In any case, it’s a blindingly rare occasion that television affords the audio-native talent full creative control. And when that happens, well, it sure is something. A prominent example: in 2007, the team at This American Life launched a TV show on the Showtime channel which ran for two seasons before they called it quits. They explained in a blog post that “it was too much work doing both the radio and television shows.” In that same post, the team mentioned that they still held out hope of returning to television someday, perhaps as a special.

You can now find both seasons of the TV show on Amazon Video. I went through a bunch of the episodes over the weekend for the first time, and it’s an utterly remarkable watch. Not because it’s particularly great television — I mean, it’s good, it’s solid, it won two Primetime Emmys — but rather, because it was able to perfectly capture the feel of the radio show itself while evading any sort of “adaptation uncanny valley.” Still, for me, the pleasure came less from the show itself than the meta-show — in knowing that the team had such freedom to make whatever it wanted.

And maybe that’s enough.

As an aside: for certain digital media companies — particularly the ones thinking about linear television — the concept of adaptation probably means much less. We recently saw digital media enfant terrible Vice roll out Viceland, a whole new cable channel, and we’re months away from seeing whether Bill Simmons will be able to develop a permeable membrane-like relationship between his HBO show and his digital media baby, The Ringer.

The past couple of months have yielded whispers of Vox and BuzzFeed looking to get into TV as well. With that in mind, one could easily imagine a future in which Vox moves to cycle its talent base — Ezra Klein, Sarah Kliff, Matt Yglesias, et. al. — further beyond their basic text, YouTube-style video, and podcast output into television. Likewise, one could imagine BuzzFeed spinning Heben Nigatu and Tracy Clayton out to television in addition to their work with Another Round.

For these companies — which have control over a pool of talent and have significant control access to the various means of production for all these different platforms — crossing over from digital to linear and back again would be considerably easier and, to be honest, expected. #Content is fluid, man, and it’s especially so for these companies.

Additional reading: Ira Glass’s 1997 diary entries on Slate covering an early adaptation opportunity.

Time-shifted cable television. Speaking of TV and podcasts, here’s something that I’ve been keeping an eye on: cable news channels that reach some audiences through (free!) podcasts. Look, I’m one of those pesky Brooklyn-occupying ~snake people~ working in media with an erratic income stream. My personal finance game is laughable, but I still managed to decide that getting a cable bundle is ridiculous. I get my sports fix at the bar down the street. I watch The Bachelor vicariously through Twitter and Bachelor recap podcasts.

And I love me some Brian Stelter, and if I’m ever going to get my grubby hands on CNN’s Reliable Sources — and not through indirect means like clips off the website, the newsletter, or Twitter — it’s going to be through the podcast, which is basically the show stripped of its video. Which is completely fine; I don’t really see the point for the visual elements of that show’s reporting anyway. (I’m sure other people do; I personally think it’s superfluous.)

CNN serves a bunch of its other, more magazine-style news programming this way as well: Amanpour, Anderson Cooper 360, State of the Union. And so do the other two major cable news channels: MSNBC — with Morning Joe, Rachel Maddow, Hardball, and others on tap — and Fox News, in case you just need your O’Reilly Talking Points during your, oh I don’t know, morning jog or something.

I tried to get a general sense of how CNN currently feels about its podcast strategy — and if it could share some ballpark audience numbers. I reached out to Tyler Moody, CNN’s VP of sales and affiliate relations, who also happens to be fairly involved with the audio arm. He wrote back:

Several CNN shows have been available as audio podcasts for many years now, and we continue to add more and more. We’ve found that fans of CNN seek out our programming across platforms including live streaming audio and video. We’re happy with the performance and look forward to doing more with on-demand audio as it continues to grow.

No numbers, but that’s still interesting to hear. Moody’s response here contextualizes CNN’s podcast strategy as a pure audience engagement play. Which makes sense: even if the cable channel chose to monetize these podcasts with ads, the revenue it would generate would probably be a mere pittance compared to what it typically wants from a new channel, at least for now. Plus, an ad load would add significantly more friction to an experience that’s able to highlight an audience segment with a very specific monetizable potential: the type of individual who finds a cable bundle cost too high a barrier, but who still wants the content enough to seek out a hacked-up audio version of it that isn’t actually optimized for the ear.

Those individuals (and I’m one of them, mind you) are slightly below the top of the funnel, and should cable costs go down — or if we finally see the Great Cable Unbundling at scale — they’ll slide all the way to conversion easily, I imagine. Of course, the problem with figuring out the exact size of that potential audience type is being able to discern between these folks and the cable subscribers who also listen to these stripped-down audio versions.

Those people, though…man, talk about engaged.

MTV News launches its first podcast slate. Here’s the trouble with writing a piece about MTV: it’s a media institution with so much history, baggage, and cultural detritus that the instant temptation is to kick a corresponding news item off with some dad-friendly pun. “I Want My PodTV,” perhaps, or “Digital Killed The Radio Star.” The alternative, of course, is to do what I just did, which is to comment on said temptation without having to actually commit to the dad-core, even though, privately, I really like those puns and just want to share them widely.

Anyway.

Last week, MTV News — the digital arm of the wider Viacom-owned cable channel operation — announced the lineup of its first batch of podcast programming. There are five shows in this initial slate, and they run the gamut you would expect from a culture and entertainment-oriented digital media company in 2016: Three pop culture shows, a politics show (it is an election year, after all), and a film podcast. It’s a rollout strategy that’s remarkably similar to that of other digital media orgs dabbling in podcasts, and each MTV News podcast would fit quite comfortably into a genre that’s packed with dozens of equivalent shows.

But the revived music news operation has a distinct competitive advantage: the company hired very, very well. This is true for a good portion of the front-of-mic talent — which includes Molly Lambert and Alex Pappademas, formerly of Grantland (RIP), and film critic Amy Nicholson, co-host of Earwolf’s The Canon — and it is uncommonly for the staff that make up the production team. According to Deadline, it’s a list of four: former Marketplace producer Mukta Mohan, former Pitchfork Radio station manager Michael Catano, former This American Life producer Jane Marie, and The Memory Palace’s Nate DiMeo.

(Current first reported on DiMeo joining the MTV News team back in January, in one of the earliest articles discussing the shape and ambition of MTV News’ audio operations. “The truth is while everyone else is writing about Drake or whatever,” DiMeo told them, “I will probably be sitting there writing about the Brooklyn Bridge.” He will continue producing The Memory Palace in addition to his duties at MTV News.)

Alex Pappademas, who also serves as the site’s executive editor, is reportedly the person leading MTV News’s podcasting operations, according to Variety. Pappademas, by the way, was half of the great Grantland podcast Do You Like Prince Movies? (RIP, on two counts), which he co-hosted with Wesley Morris (who’s now at The New York Times and can be heard sporadically on the NYT Music Popcast.)

And speaking of Prince (RIP, again): Shortly after news of Prince’s death broke last Thursday, the team published a 30-minute podcast special reflecting on the artist’s legacy. The special featured conversations with various critics and was, to some extent, a baptism by fire. I thought it was really good, and a fine — if not raw — example of what this operation can do.

One more thing before we move on: podcasts about music and podcasts that substantially utilize popular music as part of sound design are rich, potential genres that many podcast producers and networks are simply dying to get into but that have so far been held up in the podcasting space, largely due to the legal costs associated with licensing. I reckon MTV News, with its existing licensing relationships, is uniquely positioned to do a lot more with music in podcast programming than its competitors. Which is great! But I want more Carly Rae Jepsen in my podcasts, man.

At this writing, the iTunes listings for the podcasts are not live yet, but you can find them on MTV News’ Soundcloud account.

Funding Postloudness. Last week saw the announcement of a new podcast collective coming out of Chicago called “Postloudness,” which hopes to provide a platform to bring more underrepresented voices into the podcast medium. My buddies at Nieman Lab posted a great write-up on the collective last week, and you should totally check it out in its entirety, but there was a line in there that caught my eye:

[T]he ideal advertisers for the network are niche local brands and organizations that cater to Postloudness listeners’ worldview and interests, such as women-owned book stores or independent sex-positive sex toy shops. That’s a niche where there is opportunity for growth, (co-founder Cher) Vincent believes.

At a time when all I hear about are podcast networks looking to attract big brands into the market, this struck me as refreshingly idealistic. Curious, I wrote to the founders — James Green, Cher Vincent, and Alexandra Cox — for more information.

One of the more consistent knocks I’ve heard made against podcasts is how the same kinds of advertisers keep showing up in all podcasts — Squarespace, Mailchimp, etc. What is your approach to sourcing these new advertisers?

We are finding new advertisers out of necessity. We aren’t one of the big guys, so we’re not going to get the attention of Squarespace or Mailchimp, nor do we believe that our listenership would get a lot of value from something they’ve heard many times over. Our approach has been to align with small businesses that want to support a small collective.

We are actively doing the groundwork to reach out to businesses, but each show on the network can actively seek out their own sponsorship, either for ad slots on their shows, or to share among the entire collective. We know we have to get the word out somehow, so we are organizing live events, partnerships with other organizations and festivals in the area, and other ways to get more ears acquainted with Postloudness.

Are y’all thinking about monetizing in any way beyond advertising?

Currently we are focusing on smaller advertisers, but we know there are individuals who want to support Postloudness directly. One of the great things about Simplecast, the hosting service we use, is that they offer direct donations. Along with donations, we are also investigating support through grants and residency programs.

One more question: I have my own theories, but why do you think podcasting is so white, straight, and male?

Podcasts are cis, white, and male for the same reason all emerging media throughout history has been. We all know the radio community is very small and usually produced by the same people, so an echo chamber is created and unknowingly (at times) cultivated. With jobs and new projects, people usually hire friends or those in adjacent networks. If that cycle continues, then radio (or any other field that suffers from this issue) will continue to be homogeneous. If Postloudness can even fissure this cycle by a mere margin, more voices are heard, the podcast audience grows, and everyone wins in the long run.

Cool.

This version of Hot Pod has been adapted for gentle Nieman Lab-reading eyes. For the full stuff, you can subscribe to the main newsletter here. The mother version has more news, analysis, material. And you can support the work done on Hot Pod by becoming a member. More information on the website.

Charting the outflow of public radio talent to the new for-profit podcast industry

Pods for all seasons. Lately I’ve been noticing something of a small trend: podcasts that were launched to accompany a big, seasonal event. Specifically, there have been two big clusters: podcasts that have been launched to cover the 2016 presidential election cycle and podcasts that are designed to accompany the Oscar race.

The list of election podcasts is fairly substantial. You’ve got the NPR Politics podcast (which I’ve written about before), along with Panoply’s Podcast for America and an upcoming show by Scripps called Trail Mix 2016. All three shows seem to be designed to track the campaign trail, and all three shows appear to take the premise of being informal very, very seriously. They also uniformly seem to serve the function, at least in theory, of giving journos the space to openly react to the news cycle, something that they presumably can’t do in their usual reporting platforms.

On top of these podcasts, you also have a new show from The Washington Post called Presidential, which takes a more evergreen approach by providing thematically associated material: Each episode will focus on a different U.S. president, guaranteeing us 44 episodes worth of content (if they give Grover Cleveland two episodes). Oh, and FiveThirtyEight is coming up with its own elections podcast too. That crew has been workshopping off the feed for their What’s The Point podcast. (What a fine way to soft launch, by the way.)

On the other side of serious, but with no less pomp and circumstance, you’ve got a slightly smaller stack of 2016 Oscar podcasts. There’s the Awards Show Show, a coproduction of New York’s Vulture and KPCC’s The Frame, which adopts the structure of a classic two-person you-go-now-you-go reporting outfit. And then there’s the Awards Chatter podcast by The Hollywood Reporter, which features a long list of interviews with award-hungry actors and directors currently doing the good ol’ publicity circuit. That podcast recently made rounds on the entertainment blogosphere with its fairly dry J.J. Abrams interview, which gave us an official answer to the much asked question about why The Force Awakens felt so gosh darn familiar. And finally, you have the Little Gold Men podcast from Vanity Fair, which is basically the Slate Gabfest for Hollywood gossipmongers and those who go all Ezra Klein on film and the Academy Awards (so, nerds like me, basically).

These podcasts are, in my mind, journalistic cousins of a certain podcast subgenre that’s been around for a long time: the TV recap podcast, long formalized by entities like the AfterBuzz TV Network. These shows are companion pieces, accompaniments, instruments for listeners to further critique, pore over, or generally spend more time with these narratively propulsive events — the morbidly fascinating Academy Awards race and the fascinatingly morbid American presidential elections — which, let’s face it, for the right kind of person, is a rabbit hole that keeps going down and down and down.

NPR One and retooling the concept of local. So here’s a big, juicy development coming out of the public radio mothership: NPR has hired Tamar Charney, the program director at Michigan Radio, to be the new local editorial lead for NPR One, its buzzy streaming audio app experiment. Some, like myself, might remember Charney from the piece she wrote for Current last July, where she pushed back against the podcast rush that, at the time, was taking place among some public radio stations that had been afflicted by some sense of FOMO. “I worry we are putting too much of our creative energies into this one platform,” Charney wrote. “As I see them, podcasts are just a distribution technology. Listeners sought out Serial because it was great content, not because it was a podcast per se.”

For the record, I think Charney’s absolutely right. It’s an argument that evokes discussions happening elsewhere in the media space, particularly in the war of attrition that TV and film streaming services like Netflix seem to be slowly and quietly winning against traditional broadcasting companies. At this point in time, the medium may well be the message, but as we move forward into the future, it will be the thing that the medium was built to carry that will ultimately determine the fate of these institutions.

Anyway, back to NPR One: Nieman Lab, my powerful enablers, published a really great article digging into Charney’s hire and how she fits into the larger goal that the institution is trying to achieve with the app. Essentially, NPR One is less a move to digitize and replicate the “radio” part of public radio than an initiative to digitize the concept of “local.” Which is to say, the goal isn’t to better connect the listener with quality content generated by NPR and local member stations in general — the goal is really to better connect the listener within an existing local public radio ecosystem. This is expressed in the very first question that the app asks you when you first boot it up: What’s your home station? You may well be living in Nashville, but if your real yearning is to be connected with your New Jersey roots, the NPR One experience is meant to serve you news and information from that local public radio ecosystem.

This approach is designed to meet NPR’s unique challenge when it comes to digital. Unlike WNYC — what with its pushes deeper into podcasting, self-distribution, and self-actualization as an entity unto itself — NPR has the distinct challenge of balancing a member-driven organizational structure against an imperative to establish a sustainable avenue for digital growth. Remember that dues from member stations make up NPR’s principal revenue stream. And remember as well that, theoretically speaking, if NPR were to push hard into digital by upping its ability to serve its content directly to listeners across America, that would be bypassing their member stations, which both challenges its core revenue stream and undermines what is created to do. This initiative to modernize the concept of “local,” then, is a smart move to balance its shift towards digital and stay true to its commitments.

Anyway, back to Charney: what exactly does the role of “local editorial lead” entail? What will Charney’s day-to-day look like? “Oh man, I have no idea,” Sara Sarasohn, the app’s editorial lead, told me. “Nick, you gotta realize: Our jobs are totally made up. I have some ideas as to what her job is going to be, but I have no idea what the day-to-day is going to be.” But broadly speaking, Charney is meant to be something of ambassador — among other things, she will be principally in charge of figuring out the needs of local public radio stations and ensuring that the app is able to match those needs as best as possible. Which will be hard, of course; as with everything else in America, nothing is equal, least of all needs.

Before we move on, here’s a fun factoid in the Nieman Lab piece that may be interesting to some of you: “App usage ‘has been growing at a steady pace of 9 percent month over month’ — that works out to about 280 percent growth per year — since launch, with the average listening session over half an hour long.” Juicy.

More on ESPN, Grantland, and podcasts. Brian Koppelman, a screenwriter and the creator of The Moment podcast, went on the Wolf Den podcast last week to talk podcasts and the podcast business, and his conversation with Midroll CEO Adam Sachs pleasantly shed more light on the way podcasts were handled at ESPN and Grantland — which proved to be a source of frustration (among many, presumably) for high-profile talent Bill Simmons, who would later be dismissed by ESPN and who eventually launched his own podcast network while signing onto a multi-platform deal with HBO.

Koppelman, whose podcast was originally housed at Grantland before he moved it over to Slate, told Sachs:

Grantland understood and valued podcasts tremendously. But I felt that ESPN did not…and one of the ways in which that manifested is that I did the podcast for free and at a loss for the first year and a half.

And when the show began to develop an audience, ESPN began running commercials on the show — and still not giving me any of it. And then that just felt weird! At a certain point, I’m happy to run a commercial-free show and then somehow break even — that would’ve been fine. So that was in my head. And then I feel like they weren’t going to grow it at all.

He also talked about his interest in pursuing non-advertising supported podcasts. “A part of me always thinks, ‘Is there another way to do this whole thing where people don’t have to listen to advertising? Is there a subscription model that works, that I can have a smaller audience in the beginning that would contribute? There’s an appeal to that,” Koppelman said.

Well, Brian, according to this Splitsider interview, the comedian Artie Lange apparently draws in about $400,000 a year for his paywalled podcast (which goes for $7 a month). So there’s that.

A Canadian mag re-enters the podcasting space. I was a huge, huge fan of The Arcade, a literary interview podcast by the Portlandia-esque folks over at Hazlitt Magazine — back when the podcast was a thing before it suddenly ceased operations eight months ago. When I asked Anshuman Iddamsetty, the magazine’s art director and podcast quarterback, what’s up with the whole peacing-out thing, he was coy in his response and vague with the details, choosing to reply only in haikus. Of course, I’d expect nothing less of a person whose Twitter handle blares out BOARLORD and whose brain is capable of such personal essay gems like “Swole without Goal.” But still, the cessation, and the lack of details, stung.

Well, it looked like the mag pulled another fast one on me, as it launched a new podcast under the nose last November: It’s called Cavern of Secrets and it bills itself as a “show about extraordinary women.” It’s hosted by Toronto-based comedian Lauren Mitchell, and it’s three episodes deep, with guest spots by Carrie Brownstein and Tavi Gevinson.

I sent a quick note to Iddamsetty demanding more details — about goals, about strategy, about what the heck is up. His reply was swift and comprehensive:

Cavern is a departure from our previous podcasting efforts, which were more literary in scope. At Hazlitt, we’re not too concerned with chasing clicks and that gives us the freedom to experiment and focus on what I think is our core competency: giving impossibly talented voices a platform. Also paying them on time. I mean, it doesn’t seem that far off from what Canadian publishing should be doing anyway, and that means taking risks with developing voices, with mediums outside of the written word.

We recently finished the construction of a studio just for our multimedia efforts, and Cavern is the first salvo in a battery of audio products we hope to launch later this year. We’ve started development on our second show, but we’re always open to pitches, especially in the categories of religion, sports, and technology. So! If you’re a woman or person of colour or trans person interested in Canadian podcasting, drop us a line!

What a mensch. Anyway: What on earth is Hazlitt Magazine? It’s so quirky, so weird, and so utterly gorgeous that I can’t believe the forces of capitalism allowed this thing to exist. Apparently I’m not the first person to ask that question.

Moves from public radio to private, in spreadsheet form. So I finally sat down to actually begin building out this spreadsheet of radio/podcast folks who’ve jumped off the public radio ship into the private sector. This is just a very small start, and I’ll build and update it over time, but from what little there is, one can already spot some pretty clear dynamics right off the bat. Namely, that only a handful of institutions are providing the supply, and everybody’s white.

You can find the list here, and you can suggest names here. I’ll add them as soon as I vet them.

Related reads this week:

  • “To Attract New Listeners, Podcasts Need To Move Beyond Sound.” (Wired)
  • “Beyond ‘Mail-Kimp’: The Future of Podcast Advertising” (Fast Company)
  • “So, Like, Why Are We So Obsessed With Podcasts Right Now?” (Vanity Fair)
  • SoundCloud, which serves as a hosting platform for a bunch of podcasters, has reportedly secured $35 million in debt funding. (Original report by Digital, a Swedish site; TechCrunch for the English report)

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What happens when NPR tries to sound casual and podcast-y

NPR’s new politics podcast, also a multiplatform coverage play. Look, American elections can be a drag. And confusing. And painful. And exciting. And nihilism-inducing. Also, just plain weird. And speaking as a person who’s not from this country, I’ve depended on podcasts quite a bit to help me get familiar with (and internalize) American political culture. As a really smart dude once told a really smart cartoonist, radio/audio works best when it’s didactic, and the truth of this is most apparent (perhaps literally so) to me through podcasts like these — they take an event, a development, a situation, and break it down with insight and context. It’s great. Hence, my eternal gratitude to the Slate Political Gabfest, On the Media, and the New Yorker Political Scene.

So I was excited to hear that NPR was launching a politics podcast that would accompany the current election cycle. An extension of the NPR Politics page, the podcast serves as part of a larger multi-platform reporting effort that will also include, to quote the press release, a Facebook group, a fact-checking network, new partnerships, additional beats (along fascinating lines like “data and technology” and “demographics”), and greater collaborative coverage across the country.

I love this stuff, but I gotta say, the podcast teaser that dropped on November 9 got me pretty worried. It was kind of a hot mess, suggesting a show that would be some sort of chaotic cross between the Slate Political Gabfest and the New Yorker Radio Hour. The teaser also made the show sound like it’s further burdened by an editorial command to be “casual, loose, and funny” — some sort of attempt to be, dare I say, appealing to millennials snake people. (Casual, by the way, is code for “cool,” and given that the definition of cool is simply not giving a damn, any instruction of the kind would be an inherently self-defeating proposition.)

The show that dropped on November 13 turned out to be a bit of all those things, but there were glimpses of stuff that could be truly worth your time. The podcast was at its best when it evoked the sense of being a tourist in the newsroom, as if you are walking up to a reporter who chooses to kick back and sound off on what he or she really thinks.

Conversely, the pod was at its clunkiest when it was attempting that aforementioned manufactured casualness. That’s not to say that manufactured casualness is inherently bad; Planet Money is an example of that conceit done very well. (There’s a design parallel here: Note how, in the NPR Politics podcast teaser, part of the pitch was: “So when you need to sound smart [about politics] at a party…” which isn’t too far from the central idea of the Planet Money cross promos, which featured the pitch of a show that’s akin to having the economy explained to you by a friend at a bar.) But the difference with Planet Money is that the intentional casualness serves a distinct, didactic purpose; that is, to explain complexity with simple language and every-person metaphor. The Politics podcast, alas, has yet to hit this mark.

But forget the content for a second. What’s really interesting here is how the pod is packaged as a multi-platform area-specific coverage initiative. A couple of things that I’m thinking about:

  • A multi-platform coverage initiative like this has two central conceptual premises: (1) that each individual platform/appendage is both able to stand alone as reportage and able to express a unique value that differentiates its worth from the overall reportage effort, and (2) that a conveyed interconnectedness between the coverage on all platforms is able to provide a collective value that’s greater than the mere sum of its parts.
  • What’s the best way to quantitatively measure the holistic effectiveness of a multi-platform initiative like this? A podcast download does not have the same value as an article click-through, and I’m curious about how the internal team will set up goals and expectations for this project.
  • A thought experiment: if NPR were an ad-driven, for-profit entity, what would be the best way to go about selling the show? As a bundle, or individually?

Fun times, fun times.

The Next Picture Show. If you consider yourself a film buff, or at the very least a connoisseur of fine film writing, you’re probably aware of The Dissolve, the well-loved but ill-fated website that sought to provide its readership with a steady stream of world-class, deeply thoughtful film criticism, analysis, and historiography. And you’re probably also aware that The Dissolve was, like Grantland, a Great Miracle and Anomaly of Digital Publishing that was too beautiful to live. The Pitchfork-operated website could not be sustained, and in July of this year, the site shuttered, and its merry band of film critics scattered in the winds.

Until now, of course. Last week, a group of Dissolve veterans launched The Next Picture Show, a podcast that seeks to continue the website’s editorial mission. The podcast is structured around two-episode chunks, where the show tries to critically link a new cinematic release with a film from the past. It’s deliciously nerdy stuff, and as a person who dreams of the Boulevard, I’m super, super jazzed about this.

The podcast is part of WBEZ’s Filmspotting family, the third in line after the original Filmspotting, a movie review and discussion podcast (which, fun fact, was one of the first podcasts I personally got into), and Filmspotting: Streaming Video Unit, which tackles movies that are available on demand. The Filmspotting Network is shaping up to be a very strong argument for a podcast network-as-curatorial entity, on top of whatever shared infrastructure they have in terms of ad sales and operations (if any), as the three shows are linked by a common style, sensibility, and corner of the larger cultural fabric.

With this development, there’s some sort of larger argument that can, and should, be made about podcasts being a viable medium for…well, for lack of a better word, resurrections of failed larger media projects. The Next Picture Show isn’t a particularly well-produced podcast — it has some basic audio quality issues that, for some, might be hard to get around — but it’s perfect for a highly niche, enthusiast audience base whose relative small size was not monetizable enough to allow The Dissolve website to continue. A podcast, which is probably substantially cheaper to make and is not strictly bound to traffic goals/concerns, is theoretically a lot more manageable, while taking up a smaller fraction of each individual’s overall time, freeing them up for other (probably more profitable) pursuits.

And while I’m spinning in this circle, the podcast medium appears to be great for creative revivals more generally. See: Marc Maron.

Bill Simmons’ podcast network. Speaking of Great Digital Publishing Miracles, untimely ends, and pod-related creative revivals: so it turns out that, among all the things that Bill Simmons is planning/contracted to build over at HBO — TV shows, documentaries, possibly another site — a full-out podcast network is part of it. To be distributed under the new “Channel 33” feed, the first new show to be launched after the Bill Simmons podcast is The Watch, featuring Andy Greenwald and Chris Ryan, and essentially a revival of Grantland’s Hollywood Prospectus podcast. (Long-time readers: Do you hear that noise? That whimpering sound is me, crying with joy. GREAT JOB, BARANSKI!)

Expect more podcasts to come under the banner, hosted by the other folks that Simmons spirited away to the land of premium cable. Also, note the network’s current usage of a singular podcast feed to house what will inevitably be a wide range of podcasts. That’s just good audience management.

WBEZ live events. WNYC isn’t the only public radio station in town looking to own the live events space. Got this note in from friend of the show and WBEZ man-about-town Tyler Greene:

WBEZ is planning a live podcast series that will feature 6 different podcasts over the course of 6 months. The series will take place in different neighborhoods across Chicago, bringing the audience closer to the stories, the personalities and the city they love.

I’m producing/directing the series and, in general as a theater-trained person, I make every attempt to create an experience that moves beyond three mics and a table. Not that there’s anything wrong with doing it that way, but I personally believe that in doing a live “thing,” you have to take into account both the listeners who will hear the podcast, but also the ones in the room. Examples of this include adding video, a live band, audience interaction, etc.

You know, Tyler, if and when I get off my butt and actually produce a live Hot Pod show, it’s totally going to be, like, a stage with just a bunch of white dudes in a garage around a microphone on a table talking about white dude stuff, but all, like, Shia LaBeouf performance art-style, y’know? It’s gonna be great.

But I feel where you’re coming from, brother. Good luck! And if you’re a Chicago reader, be sure watch out for Mr. Greene and his great many adventures.

Niche. I’m loving this Media REDEF article — in particular, a standout point it makes on niche-as-a-content-strategy, which feels incredibly relevant to anybody who is thinking about launching a podcast. To quote:

While it’s difficult to motivate people to pay for broad general content, small but passionate audiences will flock to where they need to go to get their genre (and usually pay up).

Also, a larger observation about how publishers in general probably won’t be able to control their interactions with advertisers due to programmatic (which is impending for the spoken audio format), leading to a hollowing-out that will force the assumption of the following strategies for survival:

This [hollowing-out] will force mid-tier digital publishers with real overhead and undifferentiated audiences out of the game. Other publications will survive because either their costs are so low that programmatic advertising can cover their expenses, they’re cross-subsidized by another business (see: Bloomberg), or they’re so niche in their coverage that their audience will be willing to pay (see: Jessica Lessin’s excellent The Information). Everybody else will get wiped out.

I can’t recommend the article highly enough. Check it out.

Pandora–Rdio. According to Variety, Pandora, a music streaming service that isn’t Spotify, is acquiring music subscription service Rdio for its talent, technology, and IP. Recode with the kicker: “[Pandora] wants to offer a new subscription service of its own next year.” Why is this relevant to you, podcast fans? Because Pandora kicked up some dust recently when it announced that Serial, that one obscure podcast nobody’s really heard about, will soon be available on its streaming platform. Something’s going on over there, so I’d keep an eye on ’em if I were you.

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How Google, the podcast world’s big new entrant into the field, will approach curation

Google Pod. Oh boy oh boy oh boy. Last week, Google announced that it was officially — finally — getting into podcasting, putting out a press release indicating that its Google Play service would “soon offer podcasts to listeners” and that the new service would “allow podcasters access to millions of new listeners on Android phones and tablets.”

When exactly the new service will roll out remains a mystery, but for now, Google has set up a portal through which podcast producers can submit their RSS feeds so their podcasts can be included in the Google Play listings once it goes live. The company also indicated that, prior to this announcement, they had been ardently working with a bunch of major podcasting players — including Gimlet, Earwolf, Loud Speakers Network, and Panoply (my lovely shiny day job employer) — as part of a discovery/learning/exploratory process to figure out how the service would actually work.

As you could imagine, this is a long-awaited announcement, particularly from the corners of the podcasting world that often lament the medium’s issues with discoverability and its predominant funneling through the Apple ecosystem. (Recall that a majority of all podcast consumption happens through the native iPhone podcasting app.) “What do you think of this? Could be another inflection point at the level of Apple deciding to bundle the Podcasts app with iOS by default,” a reader wrote to me last week.

Maybe, probably, hopefully. We’ll see. I’m not even being fatalistic or anything — I mean, it’s almost guaranteed that this is going to lead to some sort of bump in overall podcast listenership. But the real question is how much of a sustained bump we will actually see, and the other real question is what are the macro effects this new player will bring, and the other other real question is how will this affect the manner in which podcasters approach publishing, promotion, and audience development priorities. (See thematically-related Digiday piece, “The newest key person at publishers: platform wranglers.”) Also, to be fair, I’m the kind of guy who’s not even sure if my apartment will still be there when I get back from work this evening, so don’t take my level of optimism for anything.

Nevertheless, Google’s foray into podcasting is particularly exciting not only how it may better connect podcasts and Android users, but also for the unique hypothesis it’s hoping to validate: that a curated playlist or “concierge” experience is the ticket to cultivating greater podcast consumption.

To understand Google’s approach, you have catch up on some of the inside baseball here: the person leading Google Play’s efforts in podcasting is one Elias Roman, who used to run a popular “music concierge” web app called Songza that Google acquired in the summer of 2014. Songza sought to provide listeners with context-specific playlists — a series of tracks to prop up your commute, or some tunes to go with fancy steak dinner for one — which, of course, is not a wholly original or novel approach. Spotify, for example, wields their own version of this on their “Browse” section. But the service executed the idea very well, hence its acquisition, and I loved it as a user back in its heyday.

However, to state the blindingly obvious, what works for music doesn’t necessarily work for podcasts/spoken audio. Plus, given that the service will likely serve podcasts under the Google Play Music app, there’s the hitherto untested situation where podcasts may be “flattened” next to music, potentially causing some weirdness in the user experience. (I had raised a similar concern back when Spotify announced they were getting into podcasts as well. Speaking of which, anybody heard any updates on them?)

“We thought about that a lot,” Roman said when we got on the phone last week. “But we figured, if we separate podcasts from music too much, we won’t be serving podcasts to people who aren’t already looking for them.” And that notion — introducing podcasts to non-podcast listeners who aren’t already looking for them — is fundamental to understanding Google’s approach to podcast delivery. Roman emphasized that Android users who are already listening to podcasts are already well catered for; after all, they’ve already actively sought out a third-party podcasting app. “I love the concierge format,” he said. “It’s something that anticipates what you need and then serves it to you. Interviews and podcasts are a big leap into that direction.”

Anyway, couple of other key things you should probably know:

  • The new podcast service will be limited to the U.S. at launch. The idea is to figure out the local market first, because the American podcast consumer experience isn’t necessarily translatable to foreign markets. “We’d want to get the nuances of the local context,” Roman said.
  • The Google Play Podcast experience will likely match what existing podcast listeners have come to expect from their primary consumption environments: There will be podcasting charts, there will be a subscription flow, and so on. Which is to say, users probably won’t have to learn a new language that’s separate from what already exists. The main contribution, as mentioned earlier, would be the curated playlist experience, which extends from the team’s “concierge” vision.
  • Still early days in terms of what analytics we can expect. Roman: “We’ll start with subscribers, downloads, listeners at the episode and show level. And then we’ll evolve that over time.”
  • I still have no idea what “Google-y” means.

Okay, so, time to put the rampant speculation hat on. Perhaps the most technically interesting thing here is how, exactly, will Google Play go about constructing these playlists, presumably at scale. I imagine some part of it will be built on well trodden processes that involve sophisticated music intelligence and data platforms — stuff like The Echo Nest, which was acquired by Spotify last summer, and the infrastructure that powers Pandora’s Music Genome Project — which break down and taxonomize the component parts that make up a piece of audio content, such that they can be paired and grouped in meaningful ways. Pandora, for example, spells it out for you: so-and-so song involves acoustic strumming, a slow tempo, French teenage ennui, etc., and so the service follows up that song with others that will propel the narrative of a particular listening experience. A playlist, then, has a kind of theoretical narrative-emotional arc that it’s trying to get you to feel.

I don’t personally know of any company that’s applying this particular paradigm to spoken audio, but the opportunity is ripe for the taking. They could raise a team of research interns to apply quantitative codify qualitative experiences, graduate school style. Mystery Show is a podcast that’s deeply narrative, adopts the conventions of journalism, uses music to convey tone and propel plot, involves a female host, and features a Jake Gyllenhaal appearance. Bullseye is an interview podcast that’s biographical, exploratory, and revolves around themes of creativity. The Read is *fire hashtag*. And so on and so on, such that a unitary podcast episode is so effectively broken down in its meta-data such that you’re able to sequence and match pieces of content to produce a more glorious whole.

Okay, that’s enough of that. In other news, when pressed on what podcasts make up his rotation, Roman shouts out The Memory Palace, Stuff You Missed in History Class, Freakonomics, and, of course, Serial.

Deezer. In related news, the Paris-based music streaming company Deezer announced last week that it was adding 20,000 podcasts to its inventory. As you may recall, Deezer was the company that acquired Stitcher, the popular San Francisco-based podcasting app, in the fall of last year. At this point in time, it remains unclear how Stitcher and Deezer are integrated, though it appears that Stitcher retains its autonomy as its own standalone service for now. You can find out more about this over at The Next Web’s writeup, which seems to portray this development as a kind of defensive move to extend its theoretical lead over Google Play.

First Run. Last week, I ran a quick recap on the slate of new shows that Gimlet is set to roll out in the near future. One of those shows was Science Vs, a science podcast (duh) hosted by one Wendy Zuckerman that’s due to come out early next year, according to the iTunes listing. Now, if you checked out the preview, you’d probably notice that Zuckerman has an Australian accent, and that’s probably because she’s Australian, which is convenient because Science Vs is actually a podcast that was developed by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation out of a really, really interesting project called First Run.

According to its website, First Run is “ABC Radio’s series of digital first podcasts, developed specifically for on-demand listening…It’s our chance to trial new programs and ideas and quickly get them to you — whenever and wherever you might be listening.”

If that sounds familiar to you, that’s because you could, if you were as analytically superficial as I am, draw out a loose parallel between First Run and whatever WNYC Studios is doing, but with the two having fairly different approaches (and budgets, probably, because who else is aiming to potentially raise $15 million for audio programming?)

I wrote Angela Stengel, who served as executive producer on First Run’s first season, asking for how First Run worked. She wrote back:

The First Run project kicked off almost a year ago now and, in short, was about applying development techniques we use all the time in digital development — a “lean” approach and human centered design — to content commissioning. Our boss Linda Bracken has been a big advocate of human centered design, the idea that you need to find out what drives the audience, rather than dictating to them what they should like — whether it’s a website, app or radio program.

Curious, I asked Stengel to explain further what she meant by a “lean” approach to content commissioning in the podcast context. Her response was long, comprehensive, and amazing, and I’ve posted the whole response — which includes a breakdown of the entire development process, the major learnings they pulled out of the experience, and more info about Stengel — over in this Google Doc. Quick sample:

This approach is about not stopping at the first good idea, but flipping it around and trying the ideas different ways until you have a few different options, perhaps each better than the last.

She’s the coolest.

Other than Science Vs, First Run’s first season also produced Rum, Rebels, and Ratbags, a history podcast, and Confession Booth, a live storytelling podcast. And speaking of Science Vs, this is fun: an Australian website, Mumbrella, phrased Gimlet’s acquisition of the show as follows: “ABC to lose popular Science Vs podcast as format and presenter snapped up by US outfit.” That Gimlet, wrecking Australian homes. Tsk tsk tsk.

Hat-tip to Hot Pod reader (and native Australian) M. Martignoni for the First Run connection. You da man, Martignoni!

Serial on Pandora. Nieman Lab, my sister from another mother, has the lowdown on Pandora’s super confusing announcement yesterday that it’s secured “exclusive streaming rights” to Serial, which you should read. In short, literally nothing’s changed, except that Pandora listeners can now access Serial through the service, and Spotify/other direct Pandora competitors won’t have the rights to stream.

Talk about a bungled announcement, yikes!

In other fun news, Serial has a new community editor, Kristen Taylor, who was responsible for Serial joining Vine. In less fun news, Taylor had to deal with the aftermath of the confusing announcement. Nieman Lab with the quote:

“The whole goal of the partnership [with Pandora] was to expand our audience,” Taylor said. “But there was a lot of confusion about how you can listen to a podcast, and it was a little bit difficult to make it clear, especially to people who don’t really listen to podcasts.”

Yikes. The release date for Serial season 2 remains mysterious.

Codebreaker. So American Public Media (unfairly) doesn’t get much attention in this newsletter, partly due to my fixation with the new and the close-to-me, but it’s certainly an entity that deserves closer study for the rather unique place it occupies in the radio/podcasting landscape. APM is the second largest producer of public radio programming in the United States (according to good ol’ Wikipedia), and it’s responsible for the Marketplace shows (which occupy a special place in my heart) as well as the Infinite Guest podcast network. That network is totally weird and eclectic and expansive and I absolutely don’t understand it, except that it distributes some really fascinating podcasts like Dinner Party Download, The Frame, and Too Beautiful Too Live (the second longest running in-joke in the world). Infinite Guest was also once home to You Must Remember This before my employer, Panoply, swooped in and picked it up, which gives you a sense that whoever curates the network certainly has taste — offbeat as it is — and I’d just like to eat my hat and apologize for not paying more attention sooner.

BUT ANYWAY, this item is not about American Public Media proper. It’s about a new show project they’re rolling out called Codebreaker. Hosted by Marketplace Tech’s Ben Johnson, Codebreaker is, I’m told, a seasonal podcast set to drop its first season en masse for the purposes of binge consumption, à la Netflix. And if the whole binge-design is not enough to pique your interest for new podcast structures, there’s an additional catch that could well flip your cookie.

Cue Clare Toeniskoetter, the show’s producer:

To binge, you need to *unlock* each new episode with a code that you’ve deciphered from the previous episode. Otherwise, you have to wait and listen every week when episodes are released like a normal podcast. Our codes will get progressively harder over time.

Sound gimmicky? Bizarre? Perhaps reminiscent of Saw? Probably, totally, and yeah maybe, respectively. But props to the team for coming up with something completely whack-a-doodle and interesting, because I’m dying for some novelty in Podland here.

And yeah, sure, the codebreaking conceit might be counterintuitive to the Netflix binge metaphor, which is built on a slightly lean-back relationship between the user and a content portal that’s structured like a rabbit-hole in order to create that omg-how-is-it-evening-already-I-just-said-one-episode experience. Codebreaker’s gimmick sounds like it’s pitching more of an augmented/alternate reality experience (or transmedia storytelling, if we’re using marketing speak) angle, which is actually super cool and has been executed beautifully in the past by larger media properties like, to take the biggest example, Lost.

Oh wait, I should tell you what the show is about, shouldn’t I? Cue Toeniskoetter again:

[The show] takes one fundamental question we have about technology and applies that to one kind of technology in every episode. The first question we’re trying to answer: Is it evil? It’s tongue-in-cheek — we’re not technophobes, but we do want to evaluate the role tech plays in our lives. Think Mr. Robot and Black Mirror meet radio journalism.

I like Mr. Robot. I like Black Mirror. I like radio journalism. Okay, Codebreaker. You have my curiosity.

The Codebreaker team is going to be presenting its podcast at the New York Tech Meetup this week, which is certainly an interesting piece of marketing. The show will launch in proper on November 11, so set your feeds and wait for it wait for it.

NPR’s nifty new podcast discovery tool. Check it!

On fiction podcasts. Some nifty writeups over the week about this bumper crop of fiction-related podcasts that we’re seeing lately. Check out:

Whee!

Podcasts as means to live vicariously through journalists. The Columbia Journalism Review has an interesting argument up by one Brendan Fitzgerald, titled “Serial, Mystery Show, and why listeners want to be in on the investigation.” I’ll let you guess what article’s about, and I’m sure there’s some sort of loose parallel you can draw out with Twitch or Periscope or liveblogging or something. But I’m not going to make it because I’m a bit too lazy right now. Anyway, check it.

Grantland. You probably heard about Grantland. So I don’t know how you mourn, but I spent Sunday night quietly weeping on my fire escape and listening to old Longform interviews with a few choice Grantland writers. Links, for your perusal:

Remember kids: Nothing that’s beautiful is built to last forever.

GREAT JOB, BARANSKI!

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What will we find out from the deeper podcast metrics everyone says they want?

“I always get kind of confused by the talk of how podcasts don’t have good data.” So says Roman Mars, steward of the great 99% Invisible and Radiotopia, on this week’s episode of Big Venture Capital Firm Andreessen Horowitz’s a16z podcast, which discusses the surge we’re currently seeing in podcasts. Mars’ point, which is well taken, is that podcast measurements via downloads are way better and significantly more precise than broadcast radio measurements and that, besides, the metrics we use to conduct transactions with advertisers come from a kind of shared fiction (a “lie”) anyway. Metrics, much like gender and time and the basis of life in liberal arts colleges, are a social construct.

Broadly, I absolutely agree with these points. And I suspect (though I have no way to prove this, so let’s just call this a strawman right out of the gate) that this perspective comes from a very legitimate skepticism (or perhaps fear) that our various pursuits to generate better, more granular data reporting on the way people listen to audio on the Internet are ill informed. It’s very possible that we would open the black box only to realize that most people don’t actually listen past the 10th minute for most shows — much like how most people don’t actually scroll past the first two paragraphs of meaty investigative long-form pieces, you know, the kind that takes down presidents and wins Pulitzers and gets synecdoched — and we consequently lose whatever clout, bargaining chip, or basis of reasoning in our dealings with the advertising community.

And I also suspect, with no proof yet again, that the bulk of us are ill prepared to rapidly rebuild that collective fiction to a workable place once it’s broken. If that’s the case, it must explain why it feels like everybody is squeezing as much juice as they can out of their oranges before the frost. (Holy crap, what a pretentious metaphor.) Many businesses, both good and not-so-good-but-still-businesses, have been built on the rudimentary metrics that podcasting as a medium has been able to provide so far. Much of that building must have taken a lot of hard, hard work, the kind of labor that I simply can’t begin to understand. It’s hard to truly understand the entrepreneur — particularly, the creative entrepreneur — unless you do it yourself, and so it’s hard to know the true emotional impact of such, er, disruption.

But on a conceptual level, I still believe that increasing the knowability of podcast consumption is an essential and worthwhile pursuit. Maybe it’s a function of my youth, arrogance, and/or relative lack of structural power in the space, but I believe that breaking apart the makeshift fundamentals of today’s podcasting business models will lead to better creative and revenue environments in the future. More granular data will lead to better editorial decisions and better, perhaps more meaningful advertising practices. It could perhaps even lead to better alternatives to advertising.

Right. That’s enough of me saying a lot without providing any evidence. Other things to note from the podcast (which you should listen to in full!):

  • The other guests were Ryan Hoover and Erik Torenberg of Product Hunt, the buzzy hot app-curating startup, which recently launched its podcast discovery vertical.
  • Super interesting tidbit: At around the 7:50 mark, Hoover made reference to a new Gimlet show in the pipeline that’s due to drop sometime by the end of this year: a podcast that recommends new podcasts. The jockeying for the center of the podcast universe continues. Of course, there have been attempts at a podcast (or radio show) like this in the recent past, but I’d be damned if I didn’t admit to being super excited.
  • Also interesting: The age-old question of “What’s the atomic unit of podcasts?” Mars appears to take the position that the unit is the show, while Product Hunt has clearly sided with the episode as the discrete unit. I can’t remember what I sided with back when I asked that question myself in this newsletter, but I’ve recently come to suspect that maybe we’re asking the wrong question.
  • The episode also gave reference to a framework that I’ve long loved when it comes to thinking about the current landscape of podcasting: that it’s remarkably analogous to the early days of blogging. Waiting for that Breitbart equivalent.

Sideways to “live journalism.” Bill Simmons made some news last week when he dished out some insight into the brouhaha behind his dismissal from ESPN, openly discussing the issue with guest Wesley Morris (formerly Simmons’ employee back at Grantland, and who recently left the site to be The New York Times’ critic-at-large — R.I.P., the great “Do You Like Prince Movies?” podcast). His comments proved to be harvestable material for the digital media mill, with organizations ranging from The Washington Post to Business Insider ((Congratulations on the acquisition! I think?)) crunching out posts delivering their own highlights, recaps, and takes on the podcast episode.

So the highlight I want to highlight in this state of affairs is not anything Simmons-related, but rather the fact that the podcast episode catalyzed several other pieces of media into existence. It underlined the fact that podcasts, or certain kinds of podcasts, at least, are themselves raw material for further reporting — a primary resource that seems underutilized by media institutions that actually have their own podcasts.

Let me put it this way: This Simmons situation highlights a manner in which podcasts can be more directly linked with more established digital media output that has yet to be adequately exploited. When wielded as an extension of journalistic institutions, podcasts (and live events) can themselves serve as raw material for use by reporters who focus on shortform blog posts and actively participate in instant recap culture. I think we saw a close-to-decent example of this with a recent episode of Recode Decode featuring an interview with BuzzFeed founder Jonah Peretti, who disclosed some truly juicy numbers about the media company’s traffic proportions. Recode did a really good job getting more mileage out of that bit of news by reporting further and publishing an addendum on the actual post that originally housed the podcast episode, and we saw Business Insider doing its thing where it basically published a partial transcript of that moment in the interview.

It’s a win on a lot of levels. First, a good interview or audio report is an easy source for writers and reporters to report on, reflect on, and put up to feed the beast. Second, such posts increase the attention paid to the podcast — thus increasing the likelihood that the show would be tried out by a reader who wouldn’t typically dabble in the medium. And finally, moves like these help close the gap between audio and other kinds of digital output; they further extend the utility of the podcast as part of the institution’s overall reportage, as opposed to being a placid digest-as-distribution-play, brand-extension effort, or some wackadoo accessory to the larger operation.

Perhaps the parallel that comes closest to evoking what I’m trying to say with this is the curious manner in which The New York Times’ Charles Duhigg describes the paper’s conference initiatives. “It’s live journalism,” Duhigg has been quoted as saying.

All right. I think I’ve met my quote for ~~thought leadership~~ this week. Let’s get to some juicy announcements!

Serial to be adapted for TV. Right. So I remember reading this last week and immediately putting down my laptop and going straight to bed. But here are two things that makes this situation really interesting, per reporting over at Deadline and The Hollywood Reporter:

  • The people responsible for the adaptation are Phil Lord and Chris Miller, the insane duo that’s fashioned a fascinating and incredible career out of pulling off highly unlikely adaptations with verve. For reference, they were behind The Lego Movie and 21 Jump Street, both of which were not only box office hits but critically praised as well. (Their most recent project, the TV show The Last Man on Earth, didn’t quite reach the heights of their cinematic output, but you gotta give it to them for handling a really high concept.)
  • The adaptation concept positions it well for television. According to Deadline, “Miller and Lord will develop a cable series that would follow the making of the podcast as it follows a case.” Which makes it sound less like a miniseries adaptation and more like a straight-up season-long procedural.

Eh, why the hell not. Count me in the bag for this.

Speaking of Serial. Old news now, but in case you missed it, Maxim magazine put out the first report a few weeks ago that one of the new seasons in the podcast’s pipeline will revolve around Bowe Bergdahl, the American soldier who mysteriously went missing from his base when on duty in Afghanistan back in 2009. He was eventually found to be held captive by the Taliban, and was freed in a prisoner exchange in 2014. The Serial team has not confirmed this.

Not going to spend too much time on this, but I’ll just say: If it’s true, this is the best possible go at round two. The team at This American Life are often lauded for its capacity at storytelling, but it should never, ever be forgotten that they are also first-class journalists and documentarians — and they’re perhaps the best team to take on this subject with proper sensitivity and insight.

The release date for the next season has not been confirmed, but it could well drop as soon as a few weeks from now. For a better overview, check out the New York Times writeup.

Two new shows to check out:

Last Wednesday was International Podcast Day, apparently. And The New York Times wrote a little about it, with me and Gimlet’s Matt Lieber throwing out a couple of podcast recs. All hail Anna Sale, as usual.

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