What’s coming next in podcast adaptations: Adaptations of other forms of media to podcasts

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 129, published July 25, 2017.

Hey folks! We’re talking about adaptations, once again.

Gimlet wraps a big week for Homecoming. In the same week that the experimental fiction podcast debuted its second season, Deadline reported that its TV adaptation has received a two-season pickup by Amazon, with Julia Roberts confirmed in the lead role. (Sad times for Catherine Keener fans!) News of the adaptation was first publicized last December, with Mr. Robot creator Sam Esmail attached as director and executive producer.

For those keeping tally: Gimlet currently has three pieces of IP that are being pipelined into the more lucrative world of film and television (that we know of, anyway. You can damn well bet that there are many more in development at various stages of maturity). The other two are: (1) the StartUp podcast, which will be hitting television as ABC’s Alex Inc. starring Zach Braff, and (2) the Reply All episode “Man of the People,” set to be a Richard Linklater film starring Robert Downey Jr.

The company has officially expanded its adaptation pipeline beyond film and television as well. Accompanying Homecoming’s latest season is a companion ebook called The Lost Coast, which follows a storyline that’s separate but related to the narrative playing out in the podcast. (Expanded universe, anybody?) The first chapter of the ebook rolled out alongside the new season’s first episode, and the series will be exclusive to Apple’s iBooks platform. With this, the company walks a path well-trod by earlier pioneers: the Night Vale team, in particular, pulled off a successful crossover to books, publishing an original novel in 2015 along with two episode volumes. (A second original Night Vale novel, It Devours!, will drop in October.)

The podcast-to-TV adaptation trend has been around for a while — for what it’s worth, I first wrote about the trend last April, though activity in this sector long predated that column — but credit to Gimlet here for the pace of its machinations and the depth of its media savvy: from my perch, the company seems to have pretty effectively concentrated the podcast-to-TV adaptation narrative into a discernible and trackable thread that flows straight through it, keeping the focus and attention tight in such a way that I imagine only further builds interest around the podcast category as a whole.

One might argue that Gimlet is taking up too much oxygen in this space, a zero-sum articulation that sees this domination of the narrative as directly taking away from or crowding out other teams working on building out their own IP adaptation pipelines. That might be fair if there is an actual IP-peddling arms race currently taking place across multiple podcast companies at this point in time; as it stands, Gimlet does seem to be working at a noticeably higher level compared to everyone else, and they seem to have established quite a bit of a lead. (As an aside, I’m a little surprised that Midroll hasn’t fleshed out a more robust IP development pipeline, given its Los Angeles heritage. Then again, the company’s programming framework has historically been built on relationships with individual talent as opposed to intellectual property development; one imagines there are rather limited gains made when an Earwolf podcaster goes on to do a movie.)

Anyway, the strategy for Gimlet here is straightforward, in case you’re unfamiliar: As Chris Giliberti, the company’s head of multi-platform who is principally involved in many of these adaptation deals, told Wired: “The potential over the long term is a business that could look a good bit like Marvel…You’re originating worlds and stories in a low-cost, experimental format, and then transitioning high-potential prospects into higher-return formats.” He made the point even more explicitly in a recent StartUp episode: “In my mind, it’s the thing that could turn Gimlet into a unicorn.” You could also appraise the value from an even more basic value-extraction equation: a lot of effort and resources goes into creating, producing, and polishing a podcast — why not squeeze as much juice out of the fruit as you can?

Giliberti’s evoking the Marvel connection is also interesting on another level. Consider the following Variety article, published last week: “Comic book sales fly on the capes of hit movies, TV shows.

Risk. Intellectual property adaptations can be read as being expressions of risk management. It’s a gambit that’s part of a larger toolkit that also includes, by the way, stacking a project with star power (see the aforementioned Homecoming, also every celebrity podcast ever) or drawing from well-trod genres (see: true crime).

The thought process behind adaptations is easy to grasp: it’s simply less risky to deploy a budget on concepts already proven in a marketplace compared to ones that are not, and particularly when you’re working with a big budget, the incentives are such that you’d want to reduce the potential for failure as much as possible. That said, it should be noted that such cautious thinking isn’t just present in production formats with generally high levels of investment, like film and television. This logic can govern in just about every medium, working at just about every scale, because risk is perceived and managed in relative terms.

Which is why we see — or are beginning to see — the gambit emerge even within podcasts, long said to be on the cheaper end of the production format spectrum: Wondery, for example, recently scored its first placement on the top of the Apple Podcast charts with what is essentially a podcast adaptation of a popular TV show (“Locked Up Abroad,” more on that in a bit). ESPN’s recently launched 30 for 30 podcast, obviously, is also an adaptation, and you can also say that adaptation exists on the episode level in that show as well: “Yankees Suck!,” the podcast’s best episode so far, can itself be described as an adaptation of a successful 2015 Grantland feature by Amor Bashad. (That feature, by the way, is also being turned into a movie.)

The broad line of critique against an increasing reliance on adaptation as a medium-wide strategy is that, on the one hand, it highlights a deficiency in creativity, and on the other hand, it’s a trend that may well detract from the ascendance of original ideas. The former is an underwhelming assertion: adaptations are themselves opportunities for immense originality and creative expression (e.g. HBO’s The Leftovers = GOAT). But the latter is more interesting, because it’s a hypothesis that I think still hasn’t been fully tested: the notion is at least partially predicated on an anxious view of the media ecosystem moving into a future where there are no more low-cost spaces for new and existing creators to play-test new concepts.

Hmm.

More paywalled podcasts trickle out into the open ecosystem. Two recent cases: (1) Audible and TED’s “Sincerely, X,” previously distributed as an Audible Original exclusively on Channels, and (2) “Fruit,” an audio drama by the multi-talented Issa Rae that originally premiered as an exclusive on Midroll’s Howl platform — now integrated into Stitcher Premium — last February. All episodes of the drama’s first season dropped last Monday. A spokesperson for Midroll explained the move to me: “Fruit was an audience favorite for Stitcher Premium listeners and, with the new season of Insecure coming up, we thought it was the perfect time to bring it to a wider audience.”

Insecure, of course, being Rae’s critically acclaimed HBO show that returned this past Sunday. Chalk this up, perhaps, as a pretty interesting piece of marketing on Midroll’s part.

And speaking of Midroll…

Midroll expands its Earwolf lineup, and the list of additions to the comedy-oriented network is pretty chunky. It includes two new shows, Off Book (described as the “first-ever improvised musical podcast”) and the conversational Homophilia, along with several recruitments from other places: Cracked Movie Club and Cracked Gets Personal join the network from the humor website — which is interesting, given that Cracked.com founder recently joined HowStuffWorks to launch its comedy division — while Throwing Shade and James Bonding are being brought in from Maximum Fun and Nerdist, respectively. Meanwhile, Stitcher Premium is also getting new inventory: it will soon be getting episodes of Chickenman, a popular superhero-spoof radio show from the 1960s. (Deep cut, my dudes.)

An interesting and aggressive summer for Earwolf, to say the least.

As a side note: congrats to Comedy Bang! Bang! — née Comedy Death-Ray Radio — for its 500th episode, out this week. The Daily Beast has a great oral history of the podcast, and there’s a Scott Aukerman quote in there that ties pretty well to the earlier parts of this newsletter:

The only reason the podcast has outlasted the TV show is that the TV show cost millions of dollars to make and the podcast costs very little to make. Because of that, the pressure is on to put out a really consistent product. When you’re doing a TV show, you want every episode to be good.

NPR premiered What’s Good with Stretch and Bobbito last week, bringing the legendary pair of New York hip-hop radio DJs into podcast feeds. One way to contextualize this launch: between What’s Good, It’s Been a Minute with Sam Sanders, and to some extent Live from the Poundstone Institute, all of which were rolled out over the past few weeks, it looks as if the public radio mothership is heavily dabbling in personality-driven podcast programming — that is, shows where the principal audience hook isn’t a topic framework (NPR Politics) or story platform (Invisibilia, Embedded), but literally the human at the heart of the program. I might be mistaken, but I think this is genuinely new for the organization on a podcast level.

Adam Ragusea is hanging up his mic as the host of Current’s The Pub. This means that the podcast, which functions as an extension of the publication and covers the goings-on in public media, is looking for a new host. You should totally consider it, especially if you’re young, hungry, and willing to kick the system in the butt. (Hard.)

As for Ragusea, he’s off working on other stuff, including additional podcast criticism at Slate and another podcast project currently in development. He declined to give details on the show, but he did send me some parting words for the role he’s leaving behind:

Public media is in a really weird spot. On the radio side at least, it’s booming bigger than ever, and yet I think it increasingly has no coherent idea about what it wants to be, or what it’s supposed to be. Making this podcast is an opportunity to significantly influence what I see as the inevitable reformation of the public media system. I’ve had my say, now I think it’s someone else’s turn.

I’ll be honest, when I founded the show with Current almost three years ago, I had the fantasy that it would pass every few years from one host/producer to the next — like an ombudsmanship, but for people who haven’t yet penetrated the power circle. The Pub has a robust audience for such a niche product; it includes high-powered people like Terry Gross and, more importantly I think, it includes scores of people in their first or second public media jobs who are trying to get oriented. The show is a labor of love to be sure, but I’ve been able to see it directly influence events, and it’s certainly raised my profile in a way that has brought me a flood of new opportunities, which is part of what’s now pulling me away from the show. It’s a great side gig for the right person, and I hope we find her.

Good luck.

Wondery’s Locked Up Abroad breaks 1 million downloads in slightly over a week, CEO Hernan Lopez tells me, based on its internal Art19 hosting numbers. He also disclosed the show’s Podtrac numbers, which measures unique monthly audiences: that number is 373,000. (Those two numbers contextualized against each other makes for some juicy extrapolation. I’ll leave it up to you to do the math.) Worth noting: the podcast premiered on July 11, dropping three episodes in its first day and hitting the top spot on the Apple Podcast charts not too long after, presumably off the strength of its brand name. It has since trickled down to a lower position, as life on the Apple Podcast charts is a fickle, transient thing.

The podcast is an adaptation of the popular National Geographic TV show, and there’s a personnel connection to be noted here: Lopez, a former television executive, once ran National Geographic Channels outside the United States, where he had an inside look at the considerable viewership for the property. “The whole process took nearly nine months from beginning to end, since once we secured the rights, we had to select the stories most suited for the ear, replace the music, and re-edit for clarity. We’re really pleased with the result,” he said.

The company also recently welcomed another new show to its portfolio: Tides of History, which debuted last Thursday with two episodes in the bank. According to Podtrac’s industry listings, Wondery is bringing in over 2.6 million unique monthly audiences across 38 podcasts.

And speaking of Wondery…

Career spotlight. Thus far, I’ve mostly focused this feature on producers and the creative side: staffers, freelancers, veterans, rookies. But producers alone don’t make up the industry. This week, I spoke with Karo Chakhlasyan, the director of audience acquisition at Wondery, who came into the industry through the media buying side.

[storybreak]

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

[conr]Karo Chakhlasyan: I am currently the director of audience aquisition at Wondery. My responsibility is to ensure our shows are heard by the right people. I use different marketing techniques to make that happen. Right now, I’m working to get our latest release, Tides of History, into Apple Podcast’s top 10. I think a screenshot of Tides right next to Locked Up Abroad, our last release, in the top 10 really shows the progression of our network and it’ll be a cool little picture to have.[/conr]

[conl]HP: How did you get to this point? What does your career arc look like — where did you start, and how did you end up in this position?[/conl]

[conr]Chakhlasyan: My local NPR affiliate station, KCRW, was a constant go-to for me in high school and KPCC became another go-to in college. That motivated me to take all the radio courses I could find in college. During that time I loved this show called Comedy Death-Ray that aired on a now defunct station called Indie 103.1. I started to stream Indie 103.1 on my desktop and eventually mobile. Then I discovered this company called Earwolf and loved everything about it. I emailed their first CEO asking if they had any job I could do. He said no, and that I should go listen to every episode of The Wolf Den. I emailed him back to thank him and I never heard back.

In 2013, right after college, I lived abroad and my obsession with podcasts grew. I tried to listen to everything I could download. I couldn’t stop listening to the 20072010 archives of the BBC’s The Documentary, The Story, Milt Rosenberg, Notebook on Cities and Culture, and The Sinica Podcast. Sometime while abroad it clicked that people will eventually stop listening to the radio, listen to more podcasts and podcasts can make money with ads!

When I came back to the States, I promised myself that I would only take a podcast-oriented job. I emailed every Los Angeles based podcast or radio company I could find and having a year of teaching experience abroad didn’t really wow any of the companies. I then searched for “podcast” on Craigslist and found Oxford Road, an agency that bought ads on podcasts. In fact, the managing director of Oxford Road at that time was an intervewee on The Wolf Den!

I mentioned how I heard him there, got hired to work in their mailroom, and confused everyone with my podcast obsession. Luckily, I had two generous coworkers who taught me how to cut podcast deals and what to do to make them profitable for our clients while keeping the shows and networks happy — I thank them quite often.

A couple of Excel sheets later, I realized how profitable podcast ads could be for our clients. It took a few dozen phone calls and meetings, but we grew podcast billings over 100 percent in a year. That was fun.

But I always wanted to be on the publisher side of things so when I met this guy named Hernan Lopez who had a new podcast company, and found out they had an interesting position open, I applied.[/conr]

[conl]HP: How did you learn to do the job that you do today?[/conl]

[conr]Chakhlasyan: I didn’t really know what to do at first (sorry, Hernan!) so I just applied the same playbook I used at Oxford Road. Buy podcast ads, measure, optimize and scale. And I lucked out again by having such amazing and generous coworkers and friends to learn from. I’m happy to say my playbook has grown. I still rewrite and add to that playbook every day. So much to learn![/conr]

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

[conr]Chakhlasyan: I really wanted to produce comedy podcasts. I think I still do! It’ll be about a person who quits their day job to start their own podcast network. I’ll call it Jim and The Podcast Factory. Oh wait.[/conr]

[storybreak]

You can find Karo at @birdscanttweet.

Speed-listening. The topic gained a bit of conversational steam last week, principally triggered, it seems, by a write-up from The Wall Street Journal’s Ben Cohen (“How do podcast nuts find the time? They listen at chipmunk speed,” mind the paywall) with a few follow-ons, including pieces from The Guardianthe Chicago Tribune, and WNYC (#MyWrongOpinion).

I’m tempted to point out that this particular thread was already taken up as recently as last December by Christopher Mele at the Times, but even a rudimentary Google search reveals that the speed-listening debate is one that recurs in cycles. A sample list of ghosts from cycles past: The Verge in February 2015, The Atlantic in June 2015, Slate in October 2016. It seems that when it comes to matters of taste and culture, we are doomed to live the same moment, again and again, until the end of time or civilization, whichever comes first.

I don’t have a ton to say on the matter, other than this: Speed-listening is a god-given right and haters gonna hate.

Well, maybe I do have something to say. Principally, I view this debate as yet another expression of the classic tension between creators and audiences — one that falls from a misalignment between creator intent and consumer preference. It’s not too far removed, I think, from various similarly flavored arguments that’ve emerged across media formats since the beginning of time: people should be reading more features and not listicles, or that films should be watched in theaters and not on iPhones, or that print > digital > mobile. And in many ways, this debate (and all other debates of this kind) are somewhat irrelevant. The longer arc of the power relationship between creators and audiences seems to generally bend toward the latter, as the decentralization of media structures and progression of consumption technology seem to strip more and more producer control — over the consumption environment, over distribution strength, over context in general — while broadly expanding audience consumption (more choices, more control, more agency). That’s a tide that’s hard to stop.

But then again, what’s truly new here? Radio producers have long been compelled to develop design conventions to prevent listeners from switching stations, and if 1x listening is core to the entire point of a given episode’s experience, one presumes there to be a pathway of design R&D to keep listeners at the original speed. Of course, such design work is hard as nuts, but then again, so is the entire enterprise of making good stuff with a microphone, marketing said stuff effectively, and getting people to pay money for it.

And for what it’s worth: I have a very close relationship with the speed-listen feature across the several podcast apps that I use. I generally keep things at 1.5x unless it’s clear to me that the pacing, mood, or feel is central to the point of the experience as opposed to keeping things smooth or I get to a place where the space of a show becomes a little more important to me than the information being piped into my earballs. Of course, I’m completely unrepresentative, given that I’m professionally obliged to swim through as much material as possible, but still. #PeakPodcasts.

Bites:

  • This is great: “Ten lessons from West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s near-death experience.” (Current)
  • If you’re interested in the Australian podcast scene, Edison Research recently released additional consumer information. (Radio Today)
  • And speaking of public media: The Corporation for Public Broadcasting has hired PRI’s Kathy Merritt as SVP for journalism and radio. (CPB)
  • Larry Wilmore’s conversation with Malcolm Gladwell about Revisionist History is really, really interesting. (Black on the Air)
  • “BuzzFeed’s new audio morning briefing was made for Amazon Alexa.” (Poynter)
  • The Atlantic rolls out Radio Atlantic, while The Washington Post launches its follow-up to Presidential: Constitutional.
  • “J.J. Redick takes his podcast from The Vertical to Uninterrupted.” Which is to say, from Yahoo and DGital Media to that LeBron James media company, which has a partnership with reVolver podcasts. (Clutchpoints)
  • Speaking of sports, I reviewed ESPN’s 30 for 30 podcast. (Vulture)
  • Coverage on Two-Up Productions’ podcast musical, 36 Questions: “This podcast is a love story, for your ears only” from the New York Times, and my own write-up for Vulture from earlier this month.

[photocredit]Photo of food chain mural by Dan Nguyen used under a Creative Commons license.[/photocredit]

Hot Pod: Did the election podcast glut of 2016 fail its listeners?

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue ninety-six, published November 15, 2016.

Outlook. Last Tuesday’s shocking electoral conclusion has severe ramifications not just for the media generally — print and digital, legacy and new, mainstream and alternative — but also for podcasting specifically, whose position as an emerging industry would historically render it more susceptible to the fallout of uncertain economic and media environments. And make no mistake: We are marching straight into a thick fog of uncertainty.

Keep your eyes peeled for two things. First, a potential slowdown in advertising spending. Second, the significant possibility of an economic recession over the next few years, something that was already being predicted prior to this election and that some economists believe could be exacerbated by the proposed policies of the incoming administration. From The Wall Street Journal last Wednesday:

“Uncertainty is bad for ad spending growth,” said Jonathan Barnard, head of forecasting for Zenith, an ad buying and research arm of Publicis Groupe. Still, he said there will not be an “apocalyptic pullback” and just how much contraction occurs depends largely on how the economy performs and what specific moves the new administration makes.

And what of public radio? Keep your eye on the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), the federally funded organization whose financial support is essential to the health of the public media system. Familiarize yourself with two things:

1. The breakdown of NPR’s revenue sources, articulated best in this blog post from 2013 that highlights public radio’s dependence on CPB funding:

These station programming fees comprise a significant portion of NPR’s largest source of revenue. The loss of federal funding would undermine the stations’ ability to pay NPR for programming, thereby weakening the institution

2. The historical string of on-again, off-again tensions surrounding the system’s perceived relationships with ideological bias.

Executives at podcast publishers are generally adopting a wait-and-see stance on the days to come. At least, that’s what I’ve found based on my email interactions with several over the past week. Many are bracing for impact — one phrased the situation this way: “I am placing higher probabilities on the downside cases in all of our financial models” — though there are a few that believe such concerns to be overblown. (“I wouldn’t worry about it,” one person said.)

“We’ve seen no signs of any slowdown,” Matt Lieber, president and cofounder of Gimlet Media, told me. “Obviously, if a recession happens, then ad budgets will get cut. But to be honest, we’re seeing so much growth in podcast spending right now that, even in recession, I would expect slowing growth, yes, but not negative growth.”

Hernan Lopez, founder of Wondery, submitted a more positive view: “I’ve never seen ad spend decline in a growing economy. In times of general market-driven anxiety, ad budgets may shift from a quarter to the next, or between different kinds of media, and if anything podcasting has more to gain than to lose.”

National Public Media’s Bryan Moffett noted that he remains “cautiously optimistic,” pointing out the strength of 2017 upfront buys and the medium’s steady quarter-over-quarter gains. “Niche media do tend to get cut faster in turbulent times, but I also wonder if podcasting will weather any storm better than history would predict,” he wrote. “We all know how effective podcasting can be in terms of marketers reaching the right audience with the right message. So, I think we’d need a pretty significant economic pullback before any real cuts come, and they’d probably come in line with everything else.”

An executive of an independent podcast network expressed some general concern, but pointed out that even if there is to be an ad-spending cooldown, direct response advertisers would likely stay within the medium, as they’ve already figured out how to assess and achieve the return-on-investments they want. Another person I spoke to posited a similar outcome — there will always be companies looking for people to sell things to, that person said — but did say to watch how companies engaged in direct response podcast marketing will fare moving forward.

We need to move on, but I’ll just quickly note three more things:

  • This climate of uncertainty will be felt by every aspect of the podcast ecosystem, but it will be felt hardest by the community of independent producers and freelancers that provide labor, efficiency, and creativity to the space, these proprietors of small boats in a sea that thrashes from the movement of bigger ships.
  • Given everything that we’re currently seeing in the nexus of media and politics, it seems imperative, now more so than ever, that podcasting remains open.
  • Remember to donate to your local public radio station, people.

Okay, let’s go.

Radio Ambulante inks distribution deal with NPR. The public radio mothership will distribute, market, and promote the show across all of its platforms, including NPR.org and the NPR One app. I’m told to expect collaborations between Radio Ambulante and a number of other podcasts from the NPR newsroom like Code Switch, Latino USA, and Embedded. I’m also told that the show will have a presence on the weekend newsmagazines. The deal came out of conversations that started about a year ago, when NPR approached the Radio Ambulante team.

For the uninitiated, Radio Ambulante is a fully Spanish language narrative journalism project — in the vein of This American Life and Snap Judgment — focusing on stories from Latin America and Latino communities in the United States. The show was founded in 2011 by Daniel Alarcón, Carolina Guerrero, Martina Castro, and Annie Correal. (Castro and Correal have since left the team.) Radio Ambulante is widely loved and critically acclaimed, and received the Gabriel García Marquez Prize for Innovation in Journalism in 2014.

Alarcón told me that the team intends to expand in the near future. “We have to see where we stand early next year, but I think we have to grow in order to fulfill our mission,” he said. “This deal will help us get there.”

The show will roll out its latest season on November 22. The news was formally announced early on Tuesday, but the gossip trickled out at the Third Coast Festival in Chicago this past weekend.

A Serial spinoff? Speaking of Third Coast, I wasn’t able to be there myself this year, but I wish I had been, because this bit of news was apparently announced at a presentation by Serial’s executive producer Julie Snyder. The details, cobbled together from tweets by attendees: A Serial spinoff will debut in March. It will be hosted by This American Life producer Brian Reed, and it will be an “artsy” and “novelistic” seven-part series set in Alabama, following “a man who despises the town he’s lived in all his life and decides to do something about it.” Cool.

Audible expands comedy offerings on its Channels lineup, stacking its deck with audio shows from comedians like Will Arnett, Nick Offerman, and Eugene Mirman. The new slate also features something called “Audible Comedy Specials,” a programming channel that bears strong structural similarities to the comedy special blocks you’d find on television networks like HBO and Comedy Central. It’s kind of a shrewd move, efficiently tapping into the well-established sub-community of comedy podcasts and, on the supply side, offering comedy producers yet another platform to monetize a given performance.

This expansion likely draws from a supply and production infrastructure established by Rooftop Media, the company’s West Coast-based, comedy-focused arm. Audible acquired Rooftop Media back in October 2014.

Meanwhile, in Canada: The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) isn’t cool with third-party podcast apps distributing its programming with in-app ads served on top, according to a report by Canadaland. Specifically, the CBC “has sent legal threats to at least one third-party podcast app developer for serving ads without a prior agreement with the broadcaster.” The corporation is also blocking the presence of its programming on those apps. The exact apps that are affected are not confirmed, though the article highlights the Podcast Republic app and also points out the other apps that adopt the in-app ad practice, like Stitcher, Overcast, and Podcast Addict. Hit up Canadaland for more details on this story.

“The wrong format for the moment?” Josh Nathan-Kazis, a staff writer at The Forward, published a string of tweets (a tweetstorm, as the kids call it) that mounted an intriguing critique of the political roundtable podcast format in the wake of last Tuesday’s election. Reproduced here, with some streamlining:

An item for the media post-mortem: The political roundtable podcast turns out to have been exactly the wrong format for the moment…They’re cheap to produce, and fun to half-listen to while doing the dishes.

And there was a lot to talk about. It felt like you could understand the election through the roundtables. Everyone was so smart. Knew what they were talking about. The intimacy inherent to podcasting made them addictive: Hang out with the smart kids each week and they’ll tell you all you need to know.

On Tuesday, it turned out the smart kids were wrong. Some were flagrantly, smugly, obnoxiously wrong. Others were a bit wrong. They weren’t uniquely wrong. But there’s something about that intimacy that makes their particular wrongness feel almost like a betrayal. I wonder how much we really learned from these podcasts. They were closed loops; arguments among friends, played for entertainment.

And were we really trying to learn? Did anyone go to Keepin’ It 1600 or Slate’s Political Gabfest for anything but affirmation? And if that was just 2016’s “unskewing,” then maybe these shows were more harmful than we realized. Ear candy. If we’d spent a bit less time listening to our radio buddies joke about “bedwetters,” maybe we wouldn’t have been so surprised this week. (To be fair, Keepin’ It 1600’s post-election mea culpa episode on Wednesday was really good.)

Put simply: did the political roundtable podcast glut of the 2016 election cycle fail us?

There is a lot to think through here, and I’ll start by saying that the strokes being painted here are way too broad. (And Nathan-Kazis qualified them as such in follow-ups.) At the heart of this critique, I think, are two central ideas: The first is the explicit notion that the insular space created by the roundtable podcast either leads to or creates a greater probability of confirmation bias, and the second is an implicit sense that the media product supplied by these shows exacerbates a potential negative tendency among consumers to use these media products, some journalism and some not so much, as a crutch as opposed to one of many tools of news and information.

The first idea can be straightforwardly interrogated: My immediate reaction is to argue that the risk of confirmation bias here is less linked to the format itself than it is to the participants of the roundtable. Which is to say, it’s not the tool, it’s the wielder; failures, where they existed, were specific to the show, not general to the form. We were awash with election podcasts this cycle, but there were definable differences between shows that were explicitly journalistic in intent (like the NPR Politics Podcast) and shows that were rooted more in a classical sense of punditry (like Keepin’ It 1600, which was consumed by many as therapy and which, interestingly enough, now appears to be the mirror image of conservative talk radio). Those are two very separate product types with very different relationships to the journalistic position, and speaking personally, my experience of what I now recognize to be confirmation bias between the two shows was dramatically different.

The second idea is harder to parse. Essentially, it attends to what appears to be a causal question: does the sense of comfortable insularity conjured by these podcasts somehow discourage listeners from seeking out additional or competing viewpoints? Attempts to unpack the question only leads to further inquiries: is it even possible to prove a causal relationship? Is there a certain condescension in this causal hypothesis — one that suggests news consumers to be anything other than perfectly intelligent adults who will take the time to fully read complex pieces, verify sources, balance out their information intake, and check their biases on their own? To whom does the responsibility of information fall: those who produce the information, or those who consume information? These are fundamental questions akin to those pertaining to corporate social responsibility on the part of the information producers; I am tempted to think that governance is required, but government often seems antithetical to the productive creation and free flow of information.

Nathan-Kazis’ point on the medium’s intimacy triggering a stronger feeling of betrayal hits closer to home, as it highlights the previously unrealized problem that emerges from the design premise of many of these roundtable podcasts, particularly those produced by journalistic institutions like Slate and FiveThirtyEight. The conceit of such shows is to give listeners a sense of what journalists or experts are talking about in spaces separate from the performed professionalism of the public platform; after all, what is said on the front page is far from what was debated in editorial discussions leading up to an article’s final construction or what was discussed on a human level at the bar afterwards. The basic idea in these setups is to engender trust in the people and the process, not just the product. But when the people and the process fail, the cut feels so much deeper, and it is incredibly hard to win that trust — that sense of comfort and safety (which is perhaps the problem?) — back.

That intimacy and sense of process, however, proved essential to how several non-political roundtable podcasts played the role of therapy for many with their post-election episodes. And it is perhaps here that the roundtable conventions are unambiguously valuable. Shows like Call Your Girlfriend, Still Processing, Nerdette, and The Read all provided listeners with personal spaces of communion — spaces to be alone but together, to feel and process the scope of the night’s events, to emotionally prepare for the days to come.

So, did the political roundtable podcast fail us in 2016? Some did, some didn’t; but the problem listeners face is the fact of living in a world where both successes and failures — emerging from both journalistic and non-journalistic sources — exist, flatly, within the same platform, the same space, the same context.

A media format is a tool; it is only as strong, and only as right, as its practitioners. Whether we screw it up or not, podcasting’s core value proposition is always going to be there for us all: a distinct ability to create a space to talk things through, to feel things out, to let doubt grip you. If anything, maybe the lesson here is that we should have leaned more into conveying doubt. A scene from On The Media’s bonus episode, dropped the day after the elections:

Bob Garfield: “What I most hope… is that we are not all passengers on the ship of fools.”
Brooke Gladstone: “What the fuck does that mean?”

Relevant: Melody Joy Kramer on Poynter — “Spread your masthead across the country, and other ideas to prevent groupthink”

Bites:

  • For those keeping tally, add the following companies to the list of brands making their own podcasts: InterContinental Hotel, Avion Tequila, State Farm Insurance. (AdWeek)
  • Refinery29 is launching what appears to be a combined podcast-newsletter product, called “UnStyled.” The last example I heard of such a product combination was WBUR’s “The Magic Pill” project. (Refinery29)
  • “The story so far: Fiction podcasts take their next steps” (New York Times)
  • “Where political talk radio is driven by a sense of community, not partisanship” (CJR)
  • DGital Media launches the latest show under its new partnership with Sports Illustrated, “The Seth Davis Podcast.” (SI.com)
  • Meanwhile, in Australia: The Wheeler Center and the Audiocraft conference are collaborating to launch “The Australian Audio Guide,” “an online companion to the best Australian podcasts and radio features.” (Link)

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

Hot Pod: Will the next wave of audio advertising make podcasts sound like (yuck) commercial radio?

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue eighty-nine, published September 27, 2016.

Panoply opens a London office. The Slate Group’s audio arm announced yesterday that it was expanding into the good ol’ United Kingdom. Specifically, the company is opening a new production office in London that will “facilitate closer collaboration with U.K.-based audio talent.” Ryan Dilley, a BBC veteran, has been hired to lead the new operation.

Here’s the most straightforward way to think about this: Panoply intends to do in the U.K. whatever it does here, including original and partner programming, the cultivation of a U.K.-based network of talent, and the recruitment/aggregation of local podcasts into its network.

This move also puts Panoply in a good position to do two things: first, to grow a bigger advertising presence that would allow them to monetize U.K. listeners on their existing American shows (up until this point, it’s basically money that’s been left on the table), and second, to challenge digital audio companies with British operations that have spent the past few years making in-roads into the more lucrative U.S. market, like Audioboom and Acast.

Andy Bowers, Panoply’s chief content officer (and my old boss, by the way), told me that U.K. ad sales aren’t the primary motivation for this expansion. “This is about talent,” he wrote, adding that they have already been engaged with targeted U.K.-only ad sales using their new Megaphone platform. I was also told to expect Panoply’s first slate of U.K. programming to roll out early next year.

Speaking of which, I should consider opening up a Euro Hot Pod bureau.

Keep an eye on this: Nielsen is working on a software development kit (SDK) that will, among other things, cater to the measurement of podcasts, according to a report by Radio Ink. They’ve been testing the kits with ESPN, and the company is “working towards having a syndicated service out there in the marketplace sometime in 2017.”

An SDK-approach is one of a few ways to deal with the industry’s measurement gap. But Nielsen will face similar political problems of adoption that plague companies like Podtrac — although it is a neutral third party. For what it’s worth, I’ve heard skepticism over an SDK-approach from a number of execs in the space, so we’ll see where this goes.

Midroll’s live intent. The end of October will see the inaugural Now Hear This festival in Anaheim, Calif., which will mark Midroll’s first foray into Lollapalooza-style multi-partner live programming. Now Hear This is set to feature shows from both within the Midroll ecosystem — that is, the Earwolf network and its universe of third-party ad sales clients — and without, boasting shows like Radiotopia’s Criminal and NPR’s How I Built This on the lineup. (I’m told that most of these external partners are paid an upfront fee for participation; no revenue shares are involved.)

Midroll is not the first podcast company to organize such an event. Indeed, this past weekend saw the L.A. Podcast Festival, and the Vulture Festival this past May also included a solid block of live podcast tapings. But Now Hear This is notable in how it reflects Midroll’s ambitions to diversify its revenue base. When the company announced Lex Friedman as its new chief revenue officer earlier this month, an explicit mention of a deeper focus on live events in the press release caught my eye.

“We don’t expect that, in the near term, live events will be as big as ads or subscription,” Friedman said when we spoke over the phone yesterday. “But it’s another way for us to diversify, and it’s the closest thing we have to kick off a network effect.” Friedman tells me that a festival like Now Hear This not only brings in ticket sales and sponsorship revenue, but the live tapings create additional material that can be served in Howl, the company’s premium subscription play. (Speaking of sponsorship: Casper and Mack Weldon, both veteran podcast buyers, are sponsoring the festival, with live show ad-integrations that will go beyond on-stage host-reads. More sponsors are expected to be announced soon.)

Midroll intends to produce more live shows of individual Earwolf podcasts in 2017, and Friedman hopes to collaborate with his third-party ad sales clients on live events as well. It’s an ambitious vision, one that I assume is backed by a long E.W. Scripps runway.

“We’re building a media empire, Nick,” he said, before bursting into terrifying laughter.

There’s been a misunderstanding, asserted Art19 cofounder Sean Carr when we spoke over the phone last week. He tells me that too many people have been conflating dynamic ad insertion technology with an automatic flood of programmatic radio-style prerecorded ads. One doesn’t necessarily lead to the other, he argues, pointing out that many of today’s production conventions — the ones that contribute to the medium’s identity of “intimacy” — don’t actually have to change. “Most host-read ads are recorded separately from the conversation anyway, and edited in after the fact,” he added.

For the record, I’ve come to agree with Carr’s position. (That view has been fleshed out across previous Hot Pods.) But I’d say that the anxiety that drives this conflation remains very real, and that Carr felt the need to reach out on this suggests it remains top-of-mind among many emotionally invested the space. There is now, after all, very little that would structurally prevent the inflow of eardrum-assaulting radio-style ads — a state of affairs that could spoil the medium’s identity for listeners trying it out for the first time.

“That anxiety will probably go away with better data,” Carr said. I’m inclined to agree, though there will always be a gap between where we are right now and a place where we’re have that abundance of appropriate, agreed-upon data. Not for nothing, but transition periods almost always suck — whether we acknowledge that or not.

Anyway, Carr also tells me that his team is working on some research that he hopes will increase advertiser confidence. Watch out for them.

Some notes on the border between publishers and podcasts. Last week saw news that Actuality, the podcast collaboration between Quartz and APM’s Marketplace, is coming to a close. The show first launched last summer and ran for two seasons. According to a joint blog post, the podcast was cancelled due to a lack of sufficient interest. “We’d rather hit pause now and move on to other experiments,” wrote Quartz editor-in-chief Kevin Delaney and Marketplace VP/executive producer Deborah Clark. The podcast averaged 100,000 monthly downloads across the last three months of the show.

“After two seasons, we learned a great deal about what works and what doesn’t in podcasting, and produced some strong episodes,” Delaney told me over email last week. He added: “I doubt this will be the last podcast product that Quartz develops.”

APM, for their part, will continue their efforts in these cross-platform partnerships. “Though not all our new podcasts at either Marketplace or APM overall will be in partnership with others, I think many will,” Clark told me. “Our guiding principle is how do we serve our audience better and sometimes that’s best done with other strong partners.”

One such example is Codebreaker, its collaboration with Business Insider, which will drop its second season later this fall. Another project to watch: Historically Black, which is a collaboration between The Washington Post and APM Reports (American Public Media’s documentary unit), which dropped its first episode last Monday.

As one media company shelves its audio ambitions (for now), another finds its runway. Bloomberg Media, the business news behemoth, has found some joy in its on-demand audio operations over its past year of experimentation. Michael Shane, a Bloomberg operative who was recently promoted to the position of global head of digital innovation, told me last week that the company’s young podcast arm is now a seven-figure business.

Bloomberg’s on-demand audio offerings are chiefly made up of subject-specific shows built around key reporters in the newsroom. Examples include, but are not limited to: Odd Lots (finance, featuring Joe Weisenthal and Tracy Alloway), Material World (retail broadly speaking, featuring Jenny Kaplan and Lindsey Rupp), and Game Plan (the workplace, featuring Rebecca Greenfield and Francesca Levy). The company is adding a tech podcast to its network next month, and is on the hunt for a San Francisco-based producer to handle duties on that show. (It’s worth noting that, shockingly, the team has only been composed of four producers up to this point. “It’s a lean team,” Shane said. “Which is great, because we like to do things profitably around here.”)

Shane’s team is also investigating potential collaborations with the company’s long-running 24-hour broadcast radio division. The most prominent example of this is Bloomberg Surveillance, a typically three-hour broadcast program that is being repackaged as highlights to serve podcast listeners. “It would be crazy of us to build a digital audio strategy that didn’t involve Bloomberg Radio,” Shane said. He also noted that Surveillance currently hits six-figure audiences per month, and that the show’s ad inventory has been sold out through 2017, with Bank of America as the sponsor.

When I asked about CPMs, Shane informs me that company sells at premium rates across all platforms — and that audio, certainly, is no exception. He also did pontificate, briefly, on the industry’s expectations of fallings CPMs as the basic ad formats get commoditized over the long run. “I spend a lot of time wondering: What’s next? What can Bloomberg offer [advertisers] around digital audio that’s more than an ad read?” Shane said.

“I heard someone say once that the business model for podcasts is to be beloved,” he continued. “As long as we can keep being audience-first and not squander that goodwill, this can be a great business for us over the long term.”

A sneak peek at RadioPublic. Jake Shapiro and the RadioPublic team have been keeping busy. After the crew of PRX alums announced their new venture earlier this summer, they’ve been hard at work on the listening app that will mark their first foray into product market. Shapiro was kind enough to invite me to take a look at a very basic prototype of the app. Some notes from our conversation:

  • The team intends to preserve and advance the medium’s open nature — which is to say, it will eschew a YouTube or Spotify-style closed ecosystem. “We just don’t think that’s the right way to do things,” Shapiro said, adding that the app’s experience will be built on top of open RSS feeds while being focused on serving listeners with a much better user experience than what exists now. That user experience is driven by a goal of “helping listeners make a more informed choice,” as Shapiro puts it.
  • While those ideas were understandable in the abstract, I had trouble visualizing the significance of the product even with the prototype in front of me. Shapiro provided an analogy to Flipboard, the social magazine app that, in many ways, serves as a user-friendly portal through which mobile users could manage their experience navigating the unruly web while respecting its open quality.
  • When I asked Shapiro about publisher outreach, he told me that, while the app is being built to provide value autonomously from any required publisher participation, the rise of dynamic ad insertion technology across an emerging class of hosting platforms necessitates some “technical handshakes” in order for both parties to properly benefit from the experience. Publishers are encouraged to get in touch.

Meanwhile, on the West Coast, the small team known as Tiny Garage Labs — founded by Planet Money alum Steve Henn along with former longtime Netflix operatives Steve McLendon and John Ciancutti — has been kicking up some noise as well. Last Thursday, Henn published a semi-manifesto and call-for-collaborators on Medium, and the team also scored a chunky Nieman Lab mini-profile that fleshes out their general product direction with 60dB, Tiny Garage Labs’ first market offering.

Here’s my read in a nutshell: It would be a mistake, in my opinion, to lump 60dB in with either your basic podcatcher play or a “Netflix for audio”-minded play like Midroll’s Howl. (In this case, it is prudent to not read too much into the team’s Netflix lineage.) Rather, given Tiny Garage Lab’s outsized focus on short-form audio — a perspective that views individual segments as the atomic unit of content, as opposed to the episode — 60dB would best be categorized against something like the Amazon Echo’s Flash Briefing experiments — which is to say, it is a wholly new, and entirely separate, product category.

ESPN Audio’s 30 for 30 team. Senior producer Jody Avirgan has announced the team that will take on the brand’s well-loved 30 for 30 adaptation into audio. They are: Rose Eveleth, of Flash Forward; Julia Henderson, formerly of WNYC’s Studio 360; Andrew Mambo, formerly of WNYC’s great Radio Rookies project; Katie McAuliffe, formerly of WNPR and a former ESPN music assistant; and Marcus Anderson, who comes in without a radio background (which is fantastic, IMHO).

Another quick ESPN-related tidbit, for those interested: According to an Awful Announcing blog post, “FiveThirtyEight podcasts across the board were downloaded over 7.8 million times in August alone, a 422 percent increase from February.”

Bites:

  • WNYC has had a busy week: it rolled out The United States of Anxiety, their second collaboration with The Nation (the first being the excellent There Goes the Neighborhood). The station also welcomed the second season of 2 Dope Queens. I’m told season one drew “millions of listens.”
  • Wondery CEO Hernan Lopez writes in to let me know that the network expects to hit 8 million downloads by the end of the month. The network is currently spread across 14 shows, with two originals. They’re hosted on the Art19 platform.
  • Radiotopia recruits The West Wing Weekly. The addition is said to allow the collective to “explore a new content direction, and evolve as a network.” (PRX)
  • Speaking of PRX, the company announced a new initiative last week called Project Catapult, where it will work with five chosen stations over a 20-week program to develop a sustainable local podcast strategy. (Current)
  • Have you checked out Audible’s Channels recently? The lineup now features what appears to be several new additions. Note, also, how the presentation flattens different content types, from original shows to comedy to article readouts. (Audible)
  • Speaking of article readouts, iTunes apparently is getting ready to promote a similar type of articles-read-aloud content. This is probably a nothingburger in terms of the larger questions of what this means for the podcast industry, a good chunk of which are crossing their fingers for access to their listening data, but hey, if you’re into Apple Kremlinology, this is a data point just for you. (TechCrunch)
  • An adapted version of the Politico Playbook, the political news website’s flagship newsletter, is now being distributed in audio form over the Amazon Echo’s Alexa platform. The audio version adopts the “90-second flash briefing” model, and drops daily starting yesterday. (Washingtonian)
  • Two reads for the public radio-oriented: “Great journalism alone won’t guarantee public radio’s survival” (Current) and “This American Fight” (Fast Company)

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

Can podcasts move beyond talking heads to produce digital-first audio news?

Movers, shakers, candlestick makers. A string of employment and talent-related stories hit my radar over the past week and a half, and though I try very hard not to read too much narrative into them as a bundle of stories, I like how they collectively paint a nice picture of dynamism. Anyway, I love this stuff.

Digital NPR. Last week, the public radio mothership announced the appointment of Thomas Hjelm as chief digital officer, a newly conceived role that will stretch across the content, technology, and revenue sides of the business. The announcement was made on Thursday, a few days after the whole (inflated, yet symbolically rich) NPR memo kerfuffle died down. Hjelm’s hiring was no doubt long in the works, and regardless of whether the timing of his appointment was providential or intentional, it gives the institution quite a nice cap to that particular narrative.

Anyway, Hjelm comes to NPR from WNYC, where he had served for over five years. He was most recently the station’s executive vice president and chief digital officer. Hjelm was recently featured in a Digiday article on WNYC’s recent adventures in digital audio, where he was quoted on the subjects of podcasting’s measurement challenges, social audio, and the need to maintain a direct relationship with audiences in the age of platforms. At NPR, he will report directly to NPR CEO Jarl Mohn. His employment begins in late April.

In a related development, Zach Brand, NPR’s VP of digital media (a roughly equivalent role to Hjelm’s newly created “chief digital officer” title), will be leaving the organization. According to his biography on NPR.org, Brand oversaw “NPR digital technology and product development efforts.” His portfolio also included NPR Digital Services, a responsibility that he inherited in late 2015, which involves the digital education of the organization’s partner member stations. Brand joined NPR in October 2007.

In another related development, there’s apparently a new opening for a temporary job on the NPR One team: podcast curator. Take from that what you will!

Meanwhile, back in New York. Filling the spot left open by Hjelm’s departure, WNYC has hired Nathaniel Landau as the station’s new chief digital officer. Landau comes to WNYC from Univision, where he served as a VP of product for over two years. Before that, he cofounded Food Republic, a lifestyle publication that was acquired in August 2013 by Zero Point Zero productions (which, among other things, is the company behind Anthony Bourdain’s television exploits).

“I’ve known for a while that Tom [Hjelm] was talking to NPR,” WNYC CEO Laura Walker told me over the phone last week, mentioning that she and Hjelm had been talking to several possible replacement candidates for a while. Landau first came to the station’s attention on the strength of a blog post he wrote on the challenges of the podcast consumption and discovery experience. The post, “Subscribing to podcasts is broken,” was published on his personal blog back in August. “The post was a wonderful mix of strategic questions and informed product solutions,” Walker said.

(Side note: Having an informed, broadcasted opinion — still your best friend.)

I asked Walker if she had any comment, opinions, or perhaps words of wisdom on the NPR Memo kerfuffle last week. “No,” she said, unsurprisingly. Well, thought I’d try, y’know?

In related WNYC news:

  • Graham Parker, the general manager of classic music station WQXR (which WNYC owns and operates), will be taking over management of performance space The Greene Space in addition to his existing responsibilities.
  • John Chao, previously a VP of business development, has been promoted to SVP of business and strategy.
  • Greg Voynow, previously a VP of content business development at Audible, is now the station’s full-time director of business development. He had joined WNYC on a part-time basis in January.

Wondery staffs up. The new podcast network by Hernan Lopez, former CEO of Fox International Channels, announced a round of hires early last week: Jeffrey Glaser, formerly the EVP of current programming at 20th Century Fox Television, as president of content, and Cristina Haro, previously of Univision, as account executive of brand solutions. The concept of “brand solutions” is probably corporate-speak that signals Wondery’s intent to get into the branded content game, which remains a bubbly frontier for podcast networks and advertisers.

I wrote about the network when it launched back in January, drawing specific attention to its partnership with technology platform Art19. Details on what Wondery will actually be producing remain slim, but the press release on the hires suggests an emphasis on audio drama. When discussing Glaser’s hire, Lopez provided the statement: “We are thrilled to have him join our team and help us attract the most talented writers, producers, and actors to a new form of storytelling.”

Another Producer. BuzzFeed’s well-loved Another Round podcast now sports a second producer working on the show, which doesn’t sound like an interesting bit of news until you note this: that producer, Antonia Cereijido, will be an Acast employee, on the podcast company’s payroll. She will be partially embedded in BuzzFeed’s newsroom, and will work under the show’s long-running producer, Eleanor Kagan. Acast has had a hosting, monetization, and distribution partnership with BuzzFeed since late last year.

“We’re delighted to welcome Antonia Cereijido to the Acast team,” Caitlin Thompson, the company’s director of content, said in an an emailed statement. “She comes to us from the storied Latino USA and other independent audio projects, and she shares — and also embodies — the Acast vision of growing new audiences in the podcast landscape.”

When asked if other Acast partner shows should expect similar arrangements, or if Cereijido will be tasked to work on other Acast partner podcasts in addition to her work with Buzzfeed, Thompson said she had no further comments.

Follow-up from last week. I capped off last week’s NPR Memo item with a link to a Facebook post by Adam Davidson, the Planet Money co-founder who now hosts Gimlet’s Surprisingly Awesome, where he articulated his fear that NPR is allowing itself to grow irrelevant. Little did I know when I dropped the link that the post would go on to grow into a vigorous and deeply respectful multi-directional comment thread, full of gorgeous specks of insight and rebuttals and intellectual confessions. Truly, a Sumatran rhino of the modern Internet, thought to be long extinct.

If you very much enjoy/are invested in the whole “future of NPR and podcasts” conversation, I can’t recommend digging through the thread highly enough, as it brings significant light to some juicy questions that these larger disruptive trends in audio — from broadcast to podcast, from legacy to new — have yet to answer, or even begin to confront.

The dominant theme through those questions is embodied by the following line coming out of a comment from that Facebook thread: “What saddens me about the podcast sphere…is the lack of journalistic ambition.”

It isn’t so much there aren’t any or many podcasts consistently trying to commit acts of journalism. On the contrary: Between the gabfests and the election-related podcasts, it’s practically a staple of the medium.

Rather, the point embedded in that statement is the sense that there simply aren’t many emerging for-profit entities that explicitly endeavor to break new ground as podcast- or audio-first journalistic institutions; indeed, I can’t think of any new organization that’s trying to rethink audio news delivery for the 21st century, or reconstructing the talent funnel, or building some alternative or continuation to radio stations as local or international sources of news.

It feels as if the new major for-profit podcasting companies tend to cluster around entertainment programming. When there is news-oriented programming involved, it tends to fall within the tradition of magazine journalism — which operates in its own kind of pace and lies more along the lines, I think of “infotainment.”

There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s still adjacent to the ebb and flow of news. Or it falls within the domain of talking head–rich gabfests, which has its place in the news and information economy but still doesn’t engage directly with the problem of digital-first audio news. I will say, though: Panoply (my former day job employer), specifically Slate, comes the closest at playing with this fire with Trumpcast, which was swiftly operationalized to address a particular political moment and seems to feel, in some small way, temporally alive (which is key).

But the question remains whether you can build a whole news operation around this model, or if the demands (and economics) of podcasting companies is such that these shows are the exceptions — anomalies built on top of a bed of more timed-out fare. Which raises the question, then, of whether the podcast format can ever represent the whole future of audio, news and all.

That, I think, is the defining tension not just between on-demand audio and broadcast organizations, but between these new podcasting companies and legacy radio institutions like NPR and its member stations. These new companies, entering the content market by embracing a new technological channel and impetus, may be well-positioned to solve a business problem, but they’re not working to solve the journalistic problem that a legacy organization like NPR fights to negotiate.

It’s a problem that stretches all the way down to the hiring and development of new blood. It’s one that stretches sideways into the unfortunate fact that, despite all the newness, we have yet to see any real new opportunities for reporters, both the ones who are experienced and the ones who are fresh. And indeed, it’s a problem that we — not all of us surely, but enough of us — need to grapple with as we move further and further into a world of greater media fragmentation, declining news literacy, the evaporation of local journalism, and polarized politics.

WaPo’s The Fix comes to Amazon Echo. In an experiment that further divorces on-demand audio from the word “podcast,” The Washington Post announced last week that The Fix, its political blog by reporter Chris Cillizza, can now be consumed in the form of short daily audio briefs delivered through Amazon Echo, the tubular audio-based computing device that’s enjoyed a swell of positive attention in recent weeks.

These briefs, which are made up of pre-recorded segments written by Cillizza, are made available at around 3 p.m. ET on weekdays. They are expected to grow in frequency over time, according to Mediapost.

Obvious corporate connection here: The Post is owned by Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon. If this strikes you as a particularly compelling spin on news delivery, then you’d probably find some chunks of Fortune’s recent Bezos profile interesting.

Speaking of Amazon…

Range roving. The Amazon-owned audiobook company Audible quietly launched a small blog last week that seeks to, and I’m quoting from the site here, “explore the world of listening and voice, literature and technology with original reporting, personal stories, playlists, and more.” The blog is called Audible Range, and it’s a piece of branded content marketing in the aesthetic of a lifestyle magazine that’s meant to do what pieces of branded content marketing are supposed to do: project a certain image, signal a company’s purported values, and carve out a specific vocabulary that the company wants to be associated with. (It reminds me of Uber’s Momentum and AirBnb’s Pineapple West Coast toast-chic magazines.) In this case, that vocabulary involves somewhat clunky synonyms for non-music audio — see: “listening and voice” — but synonyms, nonetheless, that would help the company retrain focus away from the word “podcast.”

The launch of Audible Range comes about a week after the company rolled out Clip, an audio-clip sharing feature attached to the audiobook app. All of this makes for a fair bit of activity coming out of the audio content giant that has yet to roll out the full weight of its original programming, though the tinfoil hat–wearing part of my temporal lobe is wont to view all of this as some sort of picking-up of speed, like birds fluttering before an earthquake or the air standing still before your toast pops heavenward.

For the record, if I were to make a lifestyle mag about pods, it would contain nothing but pictures of lugubrious Scandinavian men in headphones frolicking about all manner of flora.

Seats at a table. This is super interesting: Chava Gourarie, a writer-reporter-Delacorte Fellow at the Columbia Journalism Review, put together a spreadsheet yesterday tabulating the names and frequencies of underwriters of all the Marketplace programs — Morning Report, Marketplace Tech, and Marketplace Weekend — the business news audio briefs produced by American Public Media (APM), some of which are syndicated across the country. Gourarie used APM’s underwriting database, which is open to the public.

“The immediate reason was I wanted to see how far back Koch Industries has been a sponsor for Marketplace,” Gourarie told me in an email. She got the initial idea based on a discussion about the Koch brothers’ underwriting of public media programming — a topic of consternation for some — that had been going on in a listserv in which she’s a participant. “I thought it would be an interesting data point for the discussion on taking money from Koch when it’s been documented that they’re in middle of a rebranding effort. Then I got interested in the APM sponsor dataset as a whole. Could make for some interesting analysis.”

The spreadsheet, which is broken out by month going back to January 2015, paints a fascinating picture (the very same one, I’m sure, that haunts the dreams of media planners everywhere).

You can find the spreadsheet in this public Google Doc. Check it out, draw your own conclusions. And look up Gourarie’s work on the CJR website.

Bites:

  • “How Mack Weldon doubled underwear sales through podcast advertising.” Notable data point: Podcast advertising now represents 25 percent of the retailer’s overall ad budget per month. (Digiday)
  • “This local podcast network wants to find producers where others aren’t looking.” (Washingtonian)
  • “Soccer podcasts are booming in popularity.” The Guardian’s Football Weekly podcast was downloaded more than 15 million times in 2015. (The Guardian)
  • Heads up: WNYC’s invite-only women in podcasting conference, dubbed “Werk It,” will be coming back for a second edition this year. More details to come from the station very soon.
  • Another for observers of kids’ podcasts (there’s a lot of you in the HP readership): the Australian Broadcasting Corporation launched a new one of its own last week — Short and Curly, an ethics podcast for children. (Soundcloud)
  • Here’s another election podcast to track: Former Obama administration staffers Dan Pfeiffer and Jon Favreau’s Playing Politics, produced by The Ringer and distributed through their Channel 33 podcast feed. (Soundcloud)
  • Learned recently that the headcount at Gimlet is currently 45, including three interns. Pretty crazy when you think about the number of shows they have live on the market.

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Is the next front in podcast innovation hardware?

Show business and Art19. The news broke last week that 21st Century Fox, one of the Murdoch empire’s many tentacles, has invested in an upcoming podcast network called Wondery. The network is headed up by one Hernan Lopez, who was the CEO of Fox International Channels until recently, when the corporation’s globally focused programming unit was restructured out of existence.

The size of Fox’s investment is unclear, though you can draw your own conclusions from a Bloomberg report stating the network “has more than $1 million to work with,” a sum that reportedly comes from both the investment and Lopez’s own money. What exactly will make up Wondery’s future content offerings is anybody’s guess, with The Hollywood Reporter offering broad strokes that the network will “create and curate original, scripted, and unscripted programming.” I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that “curate” is roughly a synonym for content acquisition, so if there are any podcasters out in the audience, ready your pitches.

One thing you should note about Wondery is its partnership with California-based tech company Art19, which Variety notes will help the network with “distribution infrastructure and dynamic ad insertion.” Yep, dynamic ad insertion — it’s a direct competitor to Acast, Panoply, and the solutions currently adopted by public radio stations like WNYC and WBEZ that we often discuss in this column.

Long-time podcast watchers will know that Art19 has been around for a while. (There’s a handy Daily Dot article from 2012 that serves as a great snapshot of the company at the time.) Art19 is responsible for powering pods like those coming out of the Feral Audio network — home of Harmontown! — and DGital Media‘s Comedy Voices Network.

The company was founded in 2011, when it envisioned itself as an end-to-end services provider offering everything from ad sales support to distribution. “When we first designed this company, we thought we had to do everything,” Art19 co-founder and CEO Sean Carr told me. This was a function of there simply being not enough players attacking other problems in the space around the same time. It’s hard to focus on a specific problem when there’s no ecosystem of effort to begin with.

In recent years, as more money and more companies flowed into the space, Art19 began to focus on being a technology company. Its core product involves publishing tools akin to Soundcloud and LibSyn, which will allow — as we’ve discussed — for dynamic ad insertion and ad-serving technology reminiscent of AdsWizz.

Eventually, the company plans to take on measurement and discovery. With regard to the former, Carr referred to shifting podcasting out of RSS feeds and into API-connected services, and talked a bit about something his team is calling “Art19DB,” or the IMDB for audio. There’s quite a bit to this, but I’ll let your imagination roam free here for now.

So that’s Art19, a technology that I’ve long overlooked but shouldn’t have. I have a feeling we’re going to hear quite a bit from them in the months to come.

Anyway, back to Wondery: what, exactly, are we seeing here? What’s particularly interesting about Lopez is his background in large-scale entertainment media operations — this is certainly a man oriented toward growth and scale, with considerable history in both departments. But how does that relate to the current podcasting landscape? My gut thinks we’re bound to see something closer to CBS’s Play.it network than a more bespoke operation like Gimlet or Radiotopia: a reliance on public personalities, talk radio formats, and higher content volumes; less a cultivation of new audio aesthetics, and more the adaptation of existing radio programming. That may well be a good thing, as such a genre opens itself up to be an entry point for a different kind of audience.

The Wondery website is scheduled to go live sometime this week. As for its shows, Variety notes that the company’s goal is to roll out its first offering by spring, while Bloomberg pegs those plans closer to summer.

Other fronts in audio innovation. I’ve been thinking a lot more about Amazon lately. Not in relation to Audible, mind you — although I do think a lot about that company, its subscription model, and its already robust audience penetration base — but rather, about the Amazon Echo. In case you’re unfamiliar with the thing, the Echo is a tubular object that’s a sly cross between a wireless speaker and a voice-controlled computer. It’s fairly futuristic in conceit; you can ask the Echo to describe the weather, to play your local public radio station, to make grocery lists. It’s a non-traditional way to interface with the Internet — not through keyboard, mouse, and monitor, but through structured conversation.

Recently, Amazon announced that it’s going to release a portable, smaller, cheaper version of the Echo. It was also revealed that the Echo is now able to read your Kindle books aloud, although navigation and the overall experience are limited for now.

So far, the bulk of conversation about technological solutions to podcast discovery and expansion have largely revolved around conversations about social: audio virality (or lack thereof), Facebook’s experiments with NPR, clipping and shareability (which seemed to dominate the This American Life audio hackathon last year). But what if audio shareability, a concern about the dynamics of how audio moves through the digital media ecosystem, is absolute peanuts compared to concerns about structures, availabilities/accessibilities, and hardware? After all, as we’ve discussed in the past, one of podcasting’s major and unambiguous tipping points was Apple’s decision to include the native Podcast app on the iPhone by default in the iOS8 update.

I’m not advocating that we pull back from further explorations in social audio. Rather, I think there are other, perhaps even better, fronts to pursue: re-examining the way in which we control and interface with audio in our mobile devices, expanding access points, thinking beyond headphones.

One more thing: in mid-2015, Amazon announced the creation of a $100 million fund to support innovations in artificial intelligence for the Echo. It’s called the “Alexa Fund” (Alexa, by the way, is the Echo’s version of the Apple AI avatar Siri), and the fund is principally concerned with natural language recognition.

Serial changes its publication schedule. Okay, you probably’ve heard this one already. But let’s go through the motions: last Tuesday, the Serial team announced that “new episodes of Season Two will come out every other week, instead of once a week.” In other words, it’s switching to a bi-weekly schedule, unless, of course, like Roman Mars, you take issue with the term “bi-weekly,” given its imprecision. Me, I’m partial to sheer Germanic literalism: “new episode of Season Two to be released every 14 days.”

When I first heard this news — initially through a rumor, then through the email from the Serial team — I wasn’t really sure what I was looking at. Was this an expression of extreme confidence in the audience’s capacity for patience, or some sort of editorial miscalculation?

The second season of Serial has so far struck me as more than a little frustrating. That’s not so much due to the reporting — indeed, the show’s performance remains technically impeccable, and perhaps my frustration is a result of me missing some sort of point. But there’s something about this season that feels as if the show is taking its audience, and all the goodwill it gained (perhaps accidentally) rolling off the first season, for granted. Perhaps it’s the almost leisurely pace of the early episodes — despite the intense and painful pictures they paint — or perhaps it’s the absence of a clear central gambit that goes beyond psychological exploration.

The show’s creators have signaled that the stakes, and the scope, will greatly expand at some point, and I’m looking forward to that, but the decision to further stretch out the release schedule (for good journalistic reason, I’m sure) suggests an assumption that we will return, that we will continue caring over the long-term.

This is where I’m going to walk back on my own critique. I haven’t fully processed my feelings on the show, and I’m very open to the possibility that my response may well be petty — perhaps overly, oh I don’t know, consumeristic. So I’m going to come back to this in a few weeks with a longer, more thought-out reflection. In the meantime, let me know what you think, and I also highly recommend you check out the New York Times’ write-up on the change — it touches briefly on the second season’s lack of buzz, and gives a few numbers. (Five million streams on Pandora! What!)

More presidential election podcasts. In the last edition of Hot Pod, I talked a bit about a suite of relatively new journalistic podcasts that are topically pegged to the current 2016 presidential election cycle. I guess I was on to something, because the past week saw the Huffington Post and Bloomberg Politics launch election-related — or election-adjacent — shows of their own. The new HuffPo show is called “Candidate Confessional,” and it will feature interviews with politicians who’ve run for office, presidential and otherwise, but ultimately lost. (Among the interviewed: one Michelle Bachmann, in case you’re somehow nostalgic for 2012.) For more information about the podcast, here’s Poynter with a write-up.

The two new Bloomberg Politics podcasts are called “Masters in Politics” and “Culture Caucus,” and they’re due to be published on a bi-weekly basis. Interestingly, they extend Bloomberg’s already long list of existing podcasts, which I never knew existed until I started digging into this item a few days ago. Where did these come from? I have no idea how much of a listenership all those podcasts have, but as with most things related to Bloomberg Media, I’ve stopped trying to understand how any of it works because there’s too much money and sometimes the media business makes no sense (#NYValues). In any case, the official Bloomberg announcement post mentioned that the podcasts are available on the Bloomberg Terminal in addition to iTunes and Soundcloud, which I guess is as exclusive a distribution point as you’re ever going to get.

Other news this week:

  • Longest Shortest Time re-launches under Earwolf. (Twitter shout-out)
  • “WNYC is leading public radio’s transition to public podcasting.” (CJR)
  • Did you hear? Audible bought a historic church in New Jersey and will be converting it into new office space. Oo boy. ()
  • Vulture, New York Magazine’s entertainment site, partnered with Earwolf to develop a podcast element for its upcoming festival. (Vulture)
  • First glimpses at Apple TV’s new podcast app. (9 to 5 Mac)
  • “How CBS is trying to get big-name advertisers into podcasts” (Digiday)

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