Introducing: Hot Pod 3.0

Hey all!

Today, I’m announcing some big changes to Hot Pod: how it looks, how it feels, and how it will publish.

Here are the changes, in the bullet form:

  • HotPodNews.com, the front page of Hot Pod, has been completely redesigned. As you can probably tell by now.
  • The redesigned website will now contain all Hot Pod articles. This includes both free Tuesday Hot Pod issues — which will still be syndicated on Nieman Lab — as well as Hot Pod Insider issues. Insider newsletters are demarcated with the golden key icon, and are exclusively to paid subscribers, obviously.
  • Hot Pod Extra has been renamed Hot Pod Insider, which, really, is a cosmetic change, but it belies a larger shift…
  • Tuesday Hot Pod newsletters will be skimmed down and made tighter. Previously, the newsletter features around 6-7 stories plus Bites, often totaling up to an ungodly 4000 words per issue. Now, it will switch to something that feels more like a column: 2-4 stories, plus Bites, coming up to around 2000 words per issue. (Of course, these are just rough estimates. It’ll be shorter or longer depending on the week’s stories.)
  • Hot Pod Insiders will now be published on Thursday and Friday mornings ET. They’ll provide stuff that’s exclusive to paid subscribers, follow-ups to on-going stories, and additional material. Each issue will feature 2-3 stories, coming to around 1500-1800 words per newsletter. You can read a little more about what Hot Pod Insider is designed to do here.
  • Annual subscriptions will now be cheaper. Starting next Tuesday, the price of an annual subscription will be $70/year, down from $84/year. If you’re an annual subscriber, you’ll see that change reflected automatically that day. If you’re a monthly subscriber and are thinking about switching, just head over to the account panel on the website, click “Profile,” click “Subscriptions,” and click “Change Plans.” The plan will shift in the next billing cycle. And speaking of the website…
  • Starting Tuesday, stories will be atomized. Which is to say, every news item will be published as its own post on the website, to facilitate better linking and sharing in the future. Over the next few months, I’ll be breaking older issues up and atomizing them as well.
  • There is now a dedicated Facebook Page and Twitter account for Hot Pod. I’ll be treating those places as a streamlined news wire for Hot Pod and my work more generally, because I use my personal Twitter to tweet out garbage all the time.

    You can find the Facebook Page here.
    The Twitter account is here.

So, why the relaunch and redesign? A few things on this:

  • The first reason’s super obvious. Hot Pod’s web presence has been laughably bad since, like, forever. So, this is just me finally stepping into the 21st century.
  • The second has to do with the past. I’ve been thinking a lot about the blood, sweat, and life I’ve spent over the past nearly four years on this little operation, and among the big things I’m hoping to achieve with this is to better store, structure, and string together all the work I’ve done since launching the first newsletter — every on-going thought, every explore idea, every narrative followed, every mistake made. In that vein, I’m currently developing a plan to reorganize the archives, so that folks who are interested in certain thread can search and follow through them easily.
  • The third has to do with the future. So, there is a version of the future where Hot Pod can take on other writers and begin tackling beats more specifically so that Hot Pod may formally grow into something that isn’t just me. I think this is possible, and it’s a future I’d love to make happen, but it depends on a lot of factors: first and foremost, whether enough willing paid subscribers to drive this business. I believe there are quite strongly, actually — but I need to set the guts of this thing first as well as test a few hypotheses before I can try that.

So, that’s the long and short of it all. Also: I’ve updated the “About” page, in case you need a check-in on why I’m here.

I’d just like to quickly thank the great Bob Kim of Tiger+Rat, who is responsible for the entire website design, creation, and execution. He’s excellent to work with, and I highly recommend reaching out if you have design needs. Couldn’t have done this without him.

As always, let me know if you have any questions: nick@hotpodmedia.com. I’m excited to keep this guy chugging away.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A couple of other thoughts specific to podcast stuff:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alrighty, let’s move along.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[storybreak]

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

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

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

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

[storybreak]

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

Bites

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grab your space suits, fellas.

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

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

Public radio genes run deep.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tip of the hat, Louisville.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[storybreak]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[storybreak]

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

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

Bites:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[storybreak]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[/conr]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday morning news drop.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A couple of notes:

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

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

Speaking of investigative public radio podcasts…

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

Binge notes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Demogorgon indeed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A few things:

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

Bites.

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

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

Enough with the “round-robin hot takes”: Techmeme tries a new kind of aggregation show

Infinite Dial 2018. In the run-up to every Infinite Dial  — the annual report from Edison Research and Triton Digital presenting what is, in my opinion, the definitive sizing on podcast listenership due to its assiduousness and the simple fact of its continuity — my stomach tends to produce a little knot. Part of writing this newsletter every week involves a suspension of disbelief, some taming of the nagging sense that all of this is so new, so strange, so tentative. Now, I’m not the kind of person who is certain of anything, from the shape of the world in five years to the muffin I’m planning to eat once this issue goes out, and so in the lead-up to the report, I often find myself prepared for a severe reality check.

Looks like those preparations weren’t necessary — at least not for another year. The numbers are in, and they continue to look good.

As always, you can study the report and watch the webinar for yourself. But here are the biggest things that stood out to me:

(1) Steady, unsexy growth continues

Will there ever be any other kind? The share of Americans who report listening to podcasts within the last month — which remains the key metric I track — is now 26 percent (73 million), up from 24 percent (67 million) the year before. To put it another way: a little more than a quarter of Americans can now broadly be considered active podcast listeners.

That said, it’s a smaller year-over-year growth than the preceding period. The jump in podcast listenership between 2018 and 2017 is only two percentage points (or 6 million Americans), which is a little less than the three-percentage-point gain (or 10 million Americans) between 2017 and 2016.

Is this deceleration noteworthy? I’m not sure, but I think it’s worth taking a step back and contextualize within the bigger picture: between 2014 and 2018, monthly American podcast listenership has grown by a whopping 73 percent.

No matter how you cut it, we’ve come a long way.

(2) Depth and breadth

In the webinar, Edison Research SVP Tom Webster singled out the following data point as perhaps the most interesting in the entire deck: for weekly podcast listeners, the average number of podcasts consumed per week is now seven.

That’s up from the average number of five podcasts that was recorded in the previous two editions of the report. This is a pretty exciting finding, suggesting that not only are more Americans consuming podcasts, but more podcasts are being consumed. Which is to say: new listeners who are brought into the ecosystem are also being spread around.

Webster theorizes that this development could have something to do with the daily podcast genre that’s been growing over the past year or so. I agree with this assessment, but I’d broaden the theory: I think it’s also the effect of growing podcast operations that have been more aggressive in being present within the lives of their audiences. This includes hard daily news products like Up First and The Daily, yes, but also high-output shops like Crooked Media, whose prolific multi-show publishing schedule blankets the media diets (and private lives) of their target audiences. In my mind, these efforts stand in contrast to podcasts that publish with comparatively less urgency and are designed more as intermittent experiences of delight and engagement — narrative shows, in other words, that fit into lives more like a magazine or a novella.

It’s also worth considering how limited-run podcasts fit into this equation: S-Town, Dirty John, Heaven’s Gate, Atlanta Monster, etc. Given that the Infinite Dial report is largely a measure of perception, I wonder how these shows are understood as part of a basic listening diet?

(3) A problem of retention?

I’m still thinking about the conundrum articulated by Eric Nuzum, Audible’s SVP of original content, the last time I wrote up the Infinite Dial. In a nutshell, he argues that the big metric to watch is the disparity between Americans who report ever having tried out a podcast and Americans who report being monthly podcast listeners — in other words, a measure of the medium’s ability to efficiently retain new listeners and expand its active consumer base.

Sticking with that concept, I thought it could be useful to break out the ratio of the share of Americans who’ve tried the medium (“Ever-Listened”) to the share of monthly American podcast listeners (“Monthly”) over the past few years:

(*reads basketball analytics once*)

From this breakdown, it’s noticeable that the retention ratio has more or less kept steady within a tight range over the past three years, aside from a drop-off between 2015 and 2016. This suggests an ecosystem that hasn’t really been able to improve upon its ability to proportionally retain new listeners despite the boom it’s experiencing. I’m curious to hear what you think about this framing, though, or if I’m using this statistic incorrectly.

Anyway, in that discussion with Nuzum, he speculated on why we’re seeing this:

When people sample and don’t habituate, it speaks to interest that isn’t being met by the content that’s available today. There either isn’t enough variety of things for people to listen to — or there isn’t enough of what they like to meet their appetite. With 350,000 podcasts, that seems like a strange thing to say, but the simple truth is that potential listeners aren’t sticking with it — and there are only two potential reasons: not enough good stuff — or they simply can’t find it. Ah, the old twin-problems of programming and discovery.

So, in the past, I’ve consistently argued against putting much stock into viewing discovery as the defining challenge of the podcast ecosystem, and for putting more stock into the issue of developing more types of programming for more types of people. Of course, it’s not an either/or situation, and sure, you’re totally free and justified to continue touting discovery as the final frontier. But I’d also encourage further interrogation of that perspective: what are we really asking for when we ask for better podcast discovery? Are we extending hope for a more aggressive platform that ultimately centralizes all knowledge, awareness, and conduct of podcast products? And to what extent are gripes of podcast discovery actually gripes against the relatively unexplored art of podcast marketing?

Just a thought.

(4) Gains in the car

So, this is cool: as expressed in the webinar, 2018 marks the first time that podcasting overtook satellite radio in the car, 23 percent to 21 percent. Podcasting still comes behind online radio (28 percent), owned digital music (45 percent), CDs (49 percent), and that steady behemoth, AM/FM radio (82 percent).

(Indeed, the persistent prominence of CDs may be surprising to some. But I’ll have you know: I own a 2006 Subaru Forester with a barely attached door handle and an in-car entertainment system that barely features a screen, and I don’t have any plans to get a new car anytime soon. I keep things simple.)

In related news, the share of Americans with cars that feature in-dash information and entertainment systems is now 15 percent (or 42 million), up from 12 percent the year before.

Anyway, be sure to check out the slide in the report that tracks year-over-year changes for all these in-car audio source categories. Notice how podcasting, by growing from 19 percent in 2017 to 23 percent in 2018, represents the biggest jump across its largely flat or receding peers, and how these in-car podcasting gains track greater than podcasting’s overall growth. There is so much room for growth here, and I think it has everything to do with the friction of the in-dash entertainment user experience. Watch that scene closely.

(5) “What is the ceiling of podcast listenership?”

That Very Big question was posed during the presentation, and it’s absolutely worth unpacking. This year, the share of Americans who report being familiar with the term “podcasting” is 60 percent (or 168 million), which is a far cry from the years when this stat stayed flat — between 2009 and 2014, that share was trapped within 45 percent and 48 percent.

Edison Research made it a point to emphasize how this data point on term-familiarity is a reflection of awareness, not comprehension, and so even though a big share of Americans report having heard of the concept, it’s not any literal indication that they understand what it specifically means: the podcatchers, the RSS feeds, the distinction against streaming or broadcast radio, the amorphous and vibrant culture that has emerged from its component parts, and so on.

Which raises the question: what are we talking about when we talk about podcasting from a outward-facing perspective? What should we be talking about? Are we discussing a specific community or bundle of creators working within a particular paradigm of a shifting technological world, or are we referring more to a specific technology configuration of audio content distribution?

For what it’s worth, and in case you haven’t noticed, I’ve largely stacked my chips on the former — not only because I’ve found it infinitely more productive as a framework to ground my coverage in this newsletter, but also because it’s the creative community that matters. The structural world will continue to change in vast and peculiar ways; the people, not so much. I think this is only going to become more true as we move forward in time and continue to see other platforms, technical infrastructures, and distributional opportunities converge to further interact and impact the identity of the space: from external platforms like Spotify and Pandora to the ruthlessly political world of the in-car dashboard, from new apps portending new ways of doing things to voice-first computing (née smart speakers), from in-closet productions to corporate products. It’s all audio, but it’s an audio of change.

And so, I’m less curious about podcasting’s ceiling. As I’ve maintained before, I’m more curious about what we’re going to call it — and how we’re going to recognize it — in the years to come.

(6) Smart speaker ascendant

Speaking of smart speakers, they’ve totally arrived, having invaded the lives of Americans everywhere. Smart speaker ownership doubled over the last year, now at 18 percent (or 51 million). Notably, the report observed that “smart speaker adoption is growing at a faster rate than the early days of smartphones.” Some of this might be attributable to the fact that Americans are probably more comfortable these days allowing intimate personal devices from major technology companies into their private lives, having already done so multiple times over. But it probably has more to do with the smart speaker — as a vessel of voice assistants (or voice-first computing) — being a particularly sticky product in the broader culture.

One thing to note: there was some discussion about the curious growth of Amazon Music’s usage as an online audio brand — and how that indicates the strength of smart speakers in driving a certain of listening behavior. That’s the upside to the fight to figure out the ecosystem: to reap the benefits of becoming the default presence, brand, or experience on this rapidly-growing device category.

Side note: I can’t stop thinking about how Google Glass, in hindsight, is probably some sort of multiverse branching point. I wonder how that parallel universe looks like, and what that Nick Quah is doing right now.

Miscellaneous Notes

  • This one’s really cool: the share of American men who consider themselves monthly podcast listeners has stayed flat (27 percent), but the share of American women has increased year-over-year: 24 percent, up from 21 percent the year before.
  • The share of Americans aged 18-34 who don’t own a radio receiver in the home is now 50 percent. A decade ago, in 2008, that share was six percent.
  • Among Americans who have ever listened to a podcast, 80 percent report typically consuming most or the entirety of a given episode. That’s a little down from 85 percent last year. Y’all should square this against what you’ve been finding with the new Apple in-episode podcast analytics.
  • Only roughly one in five podcast listeners report speed-listening behaviors. Look, you’re just special.
  • NPR One’s brand awareness is flat at 20 percent, same as last year.
  • Also flat, interestingly enough: audiobook listening, which has hovered within 43 percent and 45 percent over the past four years. Shouts to Audible, one of podcasting’s blue chip advertisers.

Okay, time to get out of this thread, lest Hot Pod becomes an Edison Research blog.

Scenes from another report. While the Infinite Dial remains the industry’s gold standard report, I’m always hungry for more research. Atlantic Re:think, The Atlantic’s creative marketing group, has commissioned an upcoming whitepaper that hopes to generate more insight into the behaviors and preferences of podcast listeners. In particular, the study hopes to contextualize their podcast consumption habits within their broader media diets.

The full report, which was conducted in partnership with the consumer intelligence firm Maru/Matchbox, will be released within the next few weeks, but in the meantime, here are some excerpts I found noteworthy from the early look that was given to me:

  • “Podcast listeners report listening to podcasts for 4.2 hours a week and listening to twelve different podcast episodes a month. 58 percent of listeners report that their podcast consumption has even increased in the past year. But, while we’re seeing podcasts outpacing other media in terms of growth, they’re not replacing other media. Most respondents are either increasing or keeping their time spent with other media flat.”
  • “58 percent of listeners said they’ve increased podcast listening in the past year, and are currently averaging 4.2 hours of listening each week. It’s the most year-over-year growth of any medium; by comparison, 44 percent of those surveyed said they are reading more digital news; 40 percent are watching more TV; and 38 percent are reading more magazines or newspapers.”

The report takes pains to emphasize the thesis that these data points represent a world in which podcasts are outpacing — but not replacing — other forms of media, like television or digital news. This is in keeping with one of the fundamental arguments about podcasts: that it is the perfect medium to fill “in-between times” like commutes, exercising, cooking, etc. I think the thesis is broadly true, but with one caveat: we shouldn’t forget that podcasting directly competes with other forms of “in-between time”-oriented content sources, like, say, AM/FM radio or maybe the social graces of your roommates.

Anyway, in addition to these findings, Atlantic Re:think’s report also touches upon the halo effects of podcast advertising and views towards branded podcasts. So if you’re interested in that kind of stuff, keep your eyes peeled for the report when it pubs.

All the news that’s fit to serialize. New York Times Audio has announced its first serialized narrative nonfiction project: Caliphate, a limited-run documentary featuring the reporting of Rukmini Callimachi, the Times’ stellar foreign correspondent and in-house expert — probably the expert — on the Islamic State.

The press release describes the podcast as follows: “Recorded and produced over the past year, Caliphate follows Callimachi as she searches building after building in the city of Mosul, collecting thousands of pages of secret papers from al-Qaeda’s North African branch, showing how they governed and answering the disturbing question of their longevity.”

The podcast is slated to debut later this spring, and working on the project are: Larissa Anderson, Wendy Dorr, Andy Mills, Asthaa Chaturvedi, Lisa Tobin, and Samantha Henig.

Take note: subscribers to the New York Times will have early access to the audio documentary. A spokesperson confirmed to me that subscribers can cash in on the first-listen through the Times’ web and app platforms. This is the first time we’re seeing the Times audio team attempt a version of windowing that explicitly loops a podcast’s value proposition back into the organization’s broader subscription-first business strategy. The exact structure of the window — that is, how long before non-subscribers get to listen — remains unclear. I should also note that this technical gambit naturally extends from the Times’ recent move to ensure that it is able to directly distribute The Daily to listeners through its app.

I like this move, by the way, and here’s why I think it’s different from other windowing campaigns we’ve seen so far: the Times already has a strong subscriber base that’s scattered across a range of media and platforms. As such, Caliphate isn’t made to bear the burden of needing to drive new conversions and spark new lines of businesses to justify its investment. Furthermore, the fact that the Times’ subscriber base is already significant means the project doesn’t run the risk of artificially capping any potential momentum it might generate off the bat. This raises a broader question: are audio windowing strategies only unambiguously strong when its attached to a mature and developed subscriber base?

Anyway, for what it’s worth: this is the kind of show I was hoping to see from the Times the very second I heard they were assembling an audio team. Vast in ambition and consideration of the medium it will use, the project is poised to be a fine example of what we can get when a huge news organization leverages its resources to build a podcast-first news product — and not a product whose form or function is derivative of a separate broadcast or legacy infrastructure.

(TL;DR: The Times is coming for that Embedded money.)

Two more things:

  • Let me once again stan for Longform and re-up Rukmini Callimachi’s amazing two-part interview on that show. It’s one of my favorites from that podcast.
  • Song Exploder dropped a special episode last week breaking down The Daily’s theme song. I heard that Sam Dolnick, the Times’ assistant masthead editor and NYT Audio superfan, was partially responsible for this collaboration. Look, my favorite Song Exploders are theme song exploders, and you should probably pair this with Hrishikesh Hirway’s unpacking of the Reply All theme.

Okay. Now I’m going to break my daily news podcast moratorium to talk about Techmeme. Let’s go.

Rewrite this headline. Techmeme, the highly influential technology news aggregator read by everybody from Sundar Pichai to that dudebro who just launched an app, has rolled out a new daily podcast that, well, delivers you a snippy roundup of the day’s most important tech news.

The show is called Techmeme Ride Home, and each edition — which runs between fifteen and twenty minutes — drops every weekday at 5 p.m. ET in its bid to hit the evening commute. Producing and hosting the podcast is Brian McCullough, the creator of the Internet History Podcast and author of the upcoming book How the Internet Happened: From Netscape to the iPhone.

As Peter Kafka points out over at Recode, Techmeme Ride Home marks a rare product extension for the famed tech aggregation site and its founder, Gabe Rivera. “I don’t know why Gabe hasn’t done many Techmeme extensions over the years,” McCullough wrote when we traded emails last week. “But as someone said on Twitter, he seems to have impeccable timing in terms of which trends to be a part of, and which to ignore forever. I do know this is something he had been thinking about doing for a while.”

On the face of it, the podcast seems to fall within the extensive tradition of tech podcasts designed to highlight and unpack the key technology developments of the moment: think Daily Tech News Show or the This Week in Tech (TWiT) network. But the way McCullough tells it, Techmeme Ride Home was designed less to compete with those podcasts and more to fashion something new out of the site’s core editorial value propositions. “The problem I was running into was that all the existing tech news roundups had the same formula: get 3-4 people at a table and get round-robin hot takes about the news of the week,” he explained. “It made no sense to just do another one of those.”

McCullough continued:

So, we both sort of brainstormed how to do it differently and we decided that Techmeme was good for two big use cases: quickly catching up on what was new in the world of tech; and — and I think this is crucial — giving the CONTEXT for what is going on… someone reported X, but someone else said Y about X, and someone else tweeted the real story about X. Here’s what it all means. So, our whole mission was to build off of Techmeme’s existing strengths: what did I miss, and what does it mean?

He also posed the question: “Though daily news wraps HAVE been done, has news aggregation been done in a major way in pods before?” It’s a pretty interesting query, but if pressed, I’m tempted to think that the answer is yes, very much so, but mostly because I think the chat-show model that we see with the aforementioned Daily Tech News Show and TWiT — along with stuff like the Slate Gabfests that operates within other various news genres — represents a form of aggregation in its own way.

But I get where McCullough’s coming from, and I have a sense that the kind of aggregation he’s raising is a matter of flash efficiency: an audio product that allows for quick downloads of the news. That, I believe, we’ve seen emerge with growing Alexa’s Flash Briefing content universe, and I suspect that’s the trend Gabe Rivera is tracking.

Before I switch gears, I just wanted to link to Charlie Warzel’s nifty profile on Rivera and Techmeme, which you can read on BuzzFeed.

Specific. McCullough was also eager to discuss what appears to be podcasting’s gradual introduction to day-parting, the broadcast programming practice of dividing the day into separate temporal parts whose audience profile possess different traits and needs.

I’m just going throw a chunk of what he wrote in here, because there’s a lot going on and McCullough was hyper-specific with his enthusiasm:

So, day-parting has been around since the 1920s because early on everybody realized that audiences have different expectations and different use cases for content at different times of the day. With podcasting, everyone fell in love with the time shifting aspect of the medium… But by focusing on that, producers ended up with a bias toward leisure listening (I’ll listen to this when I’m ready and want to chill out) and they forgot about the day-parting lesson of filling a listener’s need at a given time of day.

I fully credit The Daily for reminding everyone about this: oh, I can listen to a podcast in the morning and feel like I’m educated on the recent zeitgeist! We’re trying to do a similar thing (in the reverse commute time) but the Ride Home moniker is just a suggested use case. Really, if you wanted to save up a week’s worth of shows and binge on the weekend, clearly you can do that too. I do think producers will be thinking more about meeting needs around people’s lives as they go through their day. THIS is the pod I take the gym. THIS is the pod I listen to to fall asleep (those exist BTW, and I find them fascinating!).

Shouts to Drew Ackerman’s Sleep with Me, by the way.

Anyway, I think day-parting can be further situated within a broader trend of how daily podcast news products can further dig into use-case niches to trigger the next phase of evolution. Cutting deeper into temporal chunks is one way to do, but so is slicing the genre up based on regions and locales, as we can see with the case of KQED’s recently-launch The Bay and ongoing efforts like AL.com’s Down in Alabama with Ike Morgan.

There’s no telling where else it can go.

Bites.

  • Three updates from NPR: (1) Planet Money welcomes two new hosts: Sarah Gonzalez, formerly of WNYC, and Karen Duffin, formerly of This American Life; (2) Invisibilia is back with its fourth season; and (3) Hidden Brain celebrates its 100th episode.
  • I’m skipping SXSW this year — it’s been an exhausting few months — but I hear there’s a bunch of podcast stuff that’s going on in Austin, including a couple of live shows and some announcements. Apple’s Eddy Cue took the stage yesterday, but that didn’t really generate anything particularly interesting for us. Still, it’s always worth keeping an eye on Cupertino. When whales move, the tides shift, something something.
  • Incremental update on Spotify going public: the streaming platform is planning to begin listing shares on the week of April 2. (Bloomberg)
  • Goop, Gwyneth Paltrow’s lifestyle media company, is testing the podcast waters, with Cadence13 providing support. (Apple Podcast)
  • Shannon Cason, the mind behind Homemade Stories, has a new show out with WBEZ: The Trouble. The podcast received some cross-promotional love from Glynn Washington’s Snap Judgment. (Apple Podcast)
  • My reviews this week: West Cork from Audible, and from Marvel and Stitcher.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[storybreak]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[storybreak]

Bites:

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

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

Podcast publishers, start preserving your stuff. (This podcast will tell you how.)

Democratizing podcasts, again. Call it pivot, call it a rebrand, call it Ziggy Stardust; whatever it is, Anchor is once again driving a new throng of headlines, this time due to its re-premiere as a one-stop shop for podcast publishers that don’t currently need sophisticated editing platforms like ProTools and Hindenburg or industrial-level hosting options like Art19 and Megaphone. In that sense, Anchor 3.0 theoretically situates itself as an entry-level competitor against a host of longtime stalwarts catering to various aspects of the podcasting stack, from Audacity to Libsyn. This makes for a considerable contrast to the company’s original short-form social audio premise that got it some buzz at SXSW in 2016.

You can read up on the full 3.0 feature suite here, but a couple of noteworthy things for our analytical purposes: Firstly, Anchor now features easy publishing to all major distribution points including, most notably, the relatively walled-off Spotify. (Previously, you’d have to go through a somewhat manual process to get a podcast listed on the Spotify platform.) Secondly, the platform now sports updated web and mobile creation tools, which keeps the beginner-friendly, on-the-fly editing dream alive. Thirdly, Anchor has a tool that’s meant to let publishers transfer their podcasts over from other hosting platforms pretty easily. This feature was originally rolled out last summer, and I’ll say now what I said then: It clarifies and further solidifies the competitive dynamic between Anchor and other hosting platforms.

Also, users get unlimited podcast hosting for free, which is interesting. We’ll come back to this in a bit.

It’s worth noting that the relaunch also comes with its own batch of publishing partners, including BuzzFeed News, RelayFM, The Outline, Cheddar, and Atlantic Records. You can guess the myriad strategic rationales for this. On the one hand, the presence of these publishers theoretically gives potential users more of a reason to download the app, use it as a listening tool, and potentially stay within the platform. Get that engine going, and it may well lead to a situation where other potential publishers see Anchor as a space with a solid built-in audience to tap into. On the other hand, it’s a signal for other publishers to take the platform seriously as an all-in-one publishing tool. I’ll leave it up to you to decide if that gambit works.

Okay, back to the free hosting bit. The immediate question that this raises, of course, is monetization. All this stuff is great, but how will Anchor make money once it runs out of the $10 million in Series A funding it raised last September, and whatever fundraising rounds come after that? “Right now we’re focused on making products that empower creators, and part of our mission of democratizing audio is enabling podcasters to make a living,” Anchor CEO Michael Mignano wrote me. “There are a variety of monetization methods that have been proven to be successful in audio, and a number of ways this could be a valuable business, so as you can imagine, in the future, creator monetization will be a big priority for us.”

That’s vague, but I thought Mignano’s response to the same question over at The Verge holds more clues:

Mignano also spoke to how Anchor might eventually make money and said it won’t be off of creators. “We view creators having to pay for services as friction. Even $10 a month will stop an ambitious creator,” he said. Instead, the goal will be to help podcasters monetize their shows. That could be through pairing them with advertisers, or through enabling subscriptions or tip jars. “There are a bunch of proven models out there that you can imagine we’ll explore,” he said.

Which reminds me a little bit of Patreon. Maybe it’s time to brush up on readings about that company.

So, what’s the big picture here? A really smart person (whose identity I’ve unfortunately completely forgotten — my apologies to whoever you are) once told me that the principal puzzle of podcasting lies in the fact that because it has an extremely low barrier to entry, it has an extremely high barrier to scale. Anchor, with its tagline of being “the easiest way to make a podcast,” seems intent on further lubricating the former barrier. One wonders if the maximal outcome of this is the exacerbation of the latter.

Speaking of which, where are we with social audio? First of all, R.I.P. Bumpers. And second of all, I think it’s worth positing that the premise of building Twitters for Audio, Tumblrs for Audio, or Snapchats for Audio just isn’t working out, for reasons that I outlined in a few column from years ago: namely that, among other things, the relatively high-friction nature of listening compared to seeing cuts into the social velocity that functions as the principal engine governing the commercial success of social media platforms. I’ve also previously argued that resources and attention should instead be further concentrated on aspects more pertinent to the current podcast publishing infrastructure like improving measurement, developing better programming, building alternative monetization channels, and firming up relationships with the advertising community.

To some extent, I think we’re already seeing this shift happen, particularly with the wave of digital audio investments last September that saw a lot more money go into podcast-specific companies like Gimlet Media, Cadence13 née DGital Media, HowStuffWorks, Acast, and Art19 — in other words, ventures that work directly on expanding and improving positions within the current podcast architecture, culture, and market as opposed to ventures trying to create whole new digital audio behaviors and ecosystems within their platforms.

Anchor initially appeared to be the one exception in that fall 2017 wave, raising $10 million in a Series A round led by GV (née Google Ventures) to be the lone double-down on social audio. But with its 3.0 relaunch, Anchor doesn’t seem to be that exception any longer. While the platform still sports some social listening features, its rebooted core value proposition situates it well within the concerns of the overarching podcast universe.

Perhaps there’s room to restart the search for social audio in the future. I suspect the emerging smart speaker category might be a promising frontier for that kind of stuff. But for now, I’m bearish on the concept.

While we’re talking about podcast tech-ventures: On Monday, RadioPublic announced that Bose, the audio equipment corporation, is investing in the startup through its strategic investment arm, Bose Ventures. The specific amount wasn’t publicly disclosed, but the new investment adds to the $2.8 million that the Boston-based startup had raised as of last November. RadioPublic CEO Jake Shapiro tells me that, as a result of this development, a member of Bose’s venture group will join WGBH and The New York Times as having board observers.

The investment comes a few weeks after the launch of RadioPublic’s Paid Listen program, which aims to help smaller podcast publishers monetize their inventory.

Corporate art. It’s all so strange. Last Thursday saw the release of The Sauce, a branded podcast collaboration between McDonald’s (shouts to the Filet-O-Fish) and the creative agencies of two Fusion Media brands: The Onion and Gizmodo. The project is a tight three-part series that portends to be the inside story of that crazy, crazy incident last October, when the fast food corporation revived an old condiment — the Szechuan sauce, originally released in 1998 as a promotional tie-in to the release of Disney’s Mulan — as a spot promotional campaign looking to capitalize on an off-hand joke in the popular contemporary Adult Swim cartoon Rick and Morty. However, McDonald’s underestimated the unnaturally high volume of demand and administered a roll-out that ultimately led to mass fan disappointment which, in turn, led to unruly conditions in certain branches and an accompanying media firestorm.

The entire episode was horrifying and hilarious, infinitely surreal and yet completely unsurprising to anyone who’s paid a modicum of attention to 21st-century fan culture. Anyway, cut to the present, and McDonald’s has published a branded podcast to signal a mea culpa in the form of a follow-up: as a response to the supply misestimation last fall, the fast-food empire is shipping out 20 million packages of Szechuan sauce throughout the country, starting yesterday.

The Sauce is an utterly fascinating artifact. The show comes with the facetious billing of an “investigative series,” a tongue-in-cheek posture reminiscent of The Onion’s recent stab at lampooning the true crime podcast genre, A Very Fatal Murder. But despite its meta-context and the jokey billing, the podcast turns out to be a relatively straightforward experience: interview tape with McDonald’s executives feature heavily throughout the three episodes, and while there’s a minor subplot featuring a pair of fans, the branded podcast is fundamentally the presentation of McDonald’s internal corporate narrative throughout the sauce incident.

It’s a crafty bit of corporate message control (if anybody ends up listening to it, anyway), but what strikes me as really fascinating is how this story could — and should — have been an episode of a show like Planet Money. The complexity of supply chains, the hit-miss interaction between corporate marketing and genuine pop culture, the ensuing mania that hints at larger and darker truths about the first-world human in the 21st century; there is so much in that nexus that’s genuinely interesting to explore (yes, I’m a nerd), and here we have a situation where a corporation is attempting to trend toward those storytelling directions.

Of course, The Sauce doesn’t actually end up going particularly deep into any of those topics. Its aesthetic echoes of Planet Money, then, feel like the product of a creative mutation that never quite finished, ending up with a creature that exists well within the uncanny valley. It is nonetheless intermittently interesting, and the prospect of its potential interesting-ness leads me back to a question I’ve often wondered pertaining to the branded podcast: If this content category is going to compete for real estate in the Apple Podcast charts and directories, and if it ends up competing for stories as in the case of The Sauce, and if more and more podcast entrepreneurs lean on branded podcasts as a revenue engine, what should we expect from them, creatively speaking? What standards should listeners be placing on these corporations as sources of stories and narrative experiences? Taking the example of Gimlet Media: how should we critically pit Tinder’s DTR, a production of Gimlet Creative that folks seem to enjoy, against Reply All?

Anyway. Whatever questions there may be, I can’t say that The Sauce isn’t effective. Truth be told, I’m probably going to try and hit up a sauce packet later.

This week in hardware:

  • Guess what? Spotify is reportedly moving to make its own hardware line. Early speculation suggests a probable foray into the budding smart speaker race, but there doesn’t seem to be any concrete evidence on the specific form the first product will take. Given Spotify’s recent machinations in the non-music programming category, this is worth paying some attention to.
  • Meanwhile, in Cupertino: Apple is said to be planning significant upgrades to its wireless AirPod headphones. There’s some chatter about a water-resistant model, but the real prognostication of note is the prospect of a feature that lets users communicate with Apple’s Siri digital assistant through the AirPods without having to physically interact with the headphones. Listen, personally speaking, this is the feature I’ve been waiting for my whole listening life for. I have scars from treadmill incidents. Bloomberg has the story.

Freedom from. The Daily Beast’s Taylor Lorenz flagged last week that the YouTuber Logan Paul — recently embroiled in an extremely disheartening controversy that you can read about here because I’m not going to recap it — is “spending less time” on YouTube and moving into podcasting. The development is presumably a response to YouTube’s decision to limit its relationship with Paul following the controversy. (Those limitations, however, appear to be in flux.)

This seems like yet another data point supporting the thesis that The Ringer’s Bryan Curtis extended last December: that podcasting is the new frontier for American media pariahs. Which, in my mind, is itself a particular expression of the much larger consequence of the overarching media ecosystem being broken down into a multiverse of fragmented, self-contained bubbles.

Notes on preservation. Someday, this will all end. Probably not literally (hopefully), but at some point, the way things work now won’t be the way things will work in the future, and there is no guarantee we’ll remember, or have ways to remember, the world as it is today.

Molly Schwartz is the studio manager at the Metropolitan New York Library Council (METRO), a regional hub for libraries, archives, and museums in New York City and Westchester County. An archivist by training and a technologist, Schwartz thinks a lot about what we lose in a time when media technology moves really, really quickly. “I worry that we are witnessing a digital dark age, where we are creating new media formats faster than we are developing effective preservation methods,” she told me over email recently. “It’s possible that a lot of the content of our time will be lost.”

Schwartz, along with project co-leads Mary Kidd and Dana Gerber-Margie, is part of a new project that hopes to grapple with this issue within the context of podcasting. The project recently received $142,000 in grant funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and it has a couple of goals: to raise awareness around podcast preservation, to give people a clear set of guidelines for how to preserve podcasts, and to encourage activists to focus more on including digital audio in their collections. It will primarily take the form of a podcast about how to preserve podcasts, natch, one that falls from the growing tradition of the auto-documentary meta-pod that includes Megan Tan’s Millennial, Gimlet’s Startup, and Allison Behringer’s The Intern in its ranks.

Schwartz and her collaborators will also produce a zine-workbook that helps publishers keep track of their preservation steps, as well as in-person podcast preservation workshops at different venues around the country, including Third Coast in Chicago, the Podcast Garage in Allston, MA, and the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke in North Carolina. You can read more about the project in this announcement post. “We want this to be as accessible as possible, so we’re trying to provide multiple ways to get at the content,” Schwartz said.

Allow me to show my cards here: I’ve always been aware of the importance of preservation and archival work, but I must admit I do not truly grasp it. I understand it in theory, but I have not internalized it. So I wanted to learn more from Schwartz, and as such, sent over some questions to get the low-down on the basics of the whole issue. She was more than generous with her time.

Here’s the Q&A, very lightly edited for flow:

[conl]Hot Pod: Could you illustrate to me why media — in this case, podcast — preservation is important?[/conl]

[conr]Molly Schwartz: We live in a time of media abundance. It’s like an embarrassment of riches. There are conflicting opinions about whether or not the information explosion ushered in by the digital technologies of the 20th century is a good thing, but value judgments are kind of beside the point. We need to be aware that, in the same way that new software and devices make it easier and faster to put content out there, new technology comes with corresponding updates and obsolescence that threaten the endurance of the content that flows across it.

Does the meaning of a podcast lie in the fact that I’m accessing it via an RSS feed that’s hosted by SoundCloud that I listen to on the podcast app on my iPhone? No. I listen to it for the human voices and stories, because it captures my imagination or teaches me new things or makes me feel more connected to other humans.

But, is my ability to access these stories dependent on all these pieces of technology working together? Absolutely. As soon as one piece breaks down — SoundCloud goes out of business, or Apple podcasts are replaced by a proprietary audio streaming service, or we all replace our iPhones with Google glasses, or whatever — then I might not be able access the audio stories I want to listen to. And as time goes on, it’s inevitable that pieces of the technology chain will break down. History has shown us this much. We are facing a magnetic media crisis where we are about to lose all the audio and video media that were recorded onto magnetic tape (audio cassettes, VHS’s, betacams, u-matic tapes, miniDVs, you name it). Born-digital audio, like podcasts, will face similar challenges.

People have put so much time and effort into crafting and sharing audio stories via podcasts. I’m hoping for a future in which we can reach back and find audio stories that we want to listen to, regardless of whether we are accessing them via some VR simulator or AI wetware embedded in our brains or vinyl records. Our archives and museums and libraries are full of books and movies and images from the past that add richness to our lives. Some of my favorite books are over 100 years old. Some of my favorite music is over 50 years old. I think it’s safe to say that 50 years from now, people will enjoy listening to podcasts that we’re creating now. That’s what we’re working for.[/conr]

[conl]Hot Pod: According to your announcement post, it seems there exists a basic lack of preservation practices among most podcast publishers. Why do you think this is the case?[/conl]

[conr]Schwartz: I think there are a couple of factors playing into a lack of awareness about preservation, both among podcast publishers and in the general public. First, we live in a culture that fetishizes newness. We tend to prioritize new technologies and new projects over the maintenance of old ones. Most people aren’t thinking about media from an archival perspective. They are working on tight production schedules, and the priority is to get new pieces published rather than worry about how people will access their work 10 years from now.

Which brings me to my second point: the invisibility of archival work. A lot of people don’t know or think about archives — what their purpose is, who maintains them. Too frequently archival collections are literally stuck in the basement, and archivists are often the first to get fired during budget cuts. And this is partly the fault of archivists. We haven’t done enough effective outreach to help people understand what preservation practices look like and why they’re important. That’s part of the purpose of this project. To connect archivists and content creators, so that they can work together from the outset.

Archivists approach media with particular values. Values of authenticity, preservation, context, and long-term access. It’s not everybody’s job to care about these things or to know how the technical tools work, like Digital Asset Management systems, etc. But content creators should be aware that there are basic steps they can take to share their work with future generations. And if they have problems or questions, there are archivists out there who would be happy to help.

My third point relates to the nature of born-digital media. Podcasts are born-digital. They are recorded as digital audio files. People access them on digital audio players. I think there are a few misconceptions floating around about digital media. People seem to think that once things go online they somehow become ubiquitous. Podcasts feel like social media, like they’re everywhere because you can find them on many different podcatchers. But they all originate from one RSS feed, and if that feed goes down and the files aren’t backed up anywhere, then the content is lost. Or if the RSS feed goes down and the files are stored on someone’s local computer, then it’s not accessible to a wider public.

We’ve been conditioned by Google to think that things we want to find will be indexed and searchable, forever. Not everything is indexed. Not everything is searchable. Not everything is stored in a file format that will last. Not everything is stored on a platform that will last. The cheap cloud storage options — like Google Drive and Dropbox and Amazon Web Services — these are all commercial platforms. They will die if they become financially unsustainable. Do they provide guarantees that they will export your data if they go under? Or ensure fixity of your files over time? Probably not, because that’s not their mission. So we need to take the responsibility on ourselves to prioritize preservation if it’s something that matters to us.[/conr]

[conl]Hot Pod: Could you tell me about the other challenges that media preservation faces in general?[/conl]

[conr]Schwartz: Media preservation faces loads of challenges: software gets outdated, hardware becomes obsolete, files get disorganized, storage gets expensive (especially for uncompressed files), bits rot over time, files get corrupted. And these problems only crop up when people start prioritizing media preservation, which isn’t generally the case. I honestly think one of the biggest challenges is a lack of awareness. Many media organizations can’t afford, or don’t prioritize, having an archivist (or a team of archivists) on staff to focus on preservation. And media is increasingly created by independent producers and freelancers who don’t have an institution behind them to help provide preservation infrastructures.[/conr]

[conl]Hot Pod: Do you see this lack of practices present equally among independent publishers vs. bigger publishers? Or is it more lopsided in either direction?[/conl]

[conr]Schwartz: Podcasts are definitely at an advantage if they are associated with a larger network or institution. The publishers don’t have to be corporate. Public media has a long legacy of in-house archives. WNYC, for example, has an archives with archivists on staff who are responsible for the ingest, organization, preservation, and access databases of content created at WNYC. There are requirements to save records at organizations that are funded by the public.

I’m not sure that some of the corporate podcast networks, which are generally quite young, have many preservation practices in place. They are probably thinking about it as digital asset management, which is a huge chunk of preservation work. Sometimes people think about preservation in terms of preserving historic houses or something, but most digital preservation work isn’t about reconstructing damaged files. It’s doing the asset management work in advance to make sure all of your files are organized and well labeled. But this might not be a top priority at new podcast networks where they are just trying to get shows produced and out there.

For independent publishers, oftentimes people are just winging it and figuring out the technology as they go. They are focused on the content and the stories that they want to put out there, as they should be. We are trying to help make independent publishers aware of the tools available to them to incorporate preservation practices into their routine. I know this is challenging. I started a podcast a little over a year ago, and my own preservation practices are non-existent. That’s part of what inspired this project. I was thinking, if I’m a trained archivist and I’m not even putting my files in the Internet Archive, then how can we expect other people to do this? So this podcast will be documenting my own journey toward peak podcast preservation. And I want others to be able to follow along and fix their own preservation practices with me.[/conr]

[conl]Hot Pod: Let’s say we get to a point where podcast preservation practices are well-established and we have some sort of cultural institution that functions as the central point of such efforts. Is there a challenge of balancing between choosing what programs are “historically important” and not important enough? How have cultural heritage institutions grappled with this in the past?[/conl]

[conr]Schwartz: Yes, there’s always a point where institutions are making value judgments about what to save and what to get rid of. Preservation is expensive. Digital preservation is really expensive. And the ease of creating digital information has led to an information explosion, or overload. We don’t need to save every tweet or every email. A big part of an archivist’s job is weeding, or deciding what not to keep. So if cultural heritage institutions do start collecting podcasts on a wider scale, as I hope they will, they will need to make calls about what is important enough to put resources toward saving. That’s why collections policies are so important. Institutions need to decide what their purpose is and what’s in scope for them. Who is their audience? It’s a big responsibility that institutions have taken on, more or less successfully.

But we are taking more of a personal digital archiving approach here, i.e. helping people save their own things. This has become a trend where archivists teach people how to organize and preserve their own digital content, like digital photos, for example. Digital information is really complicated and people need some tools and techniques. We are looking more immediately at helping podcast creators at least gett their files saved in multiple locations, as uncompressed files, and with good metadata and labels. We hope that this has the effect that the historical record is more democratized, and not totally at the mercy of collecting institutions, who might prioritize more privileged, or visible, communities and their content. I like the idea of empowering people to decide what they would like to save and how they would like to be remembered.[/conr]

[conl]Hot Pod:Who is media preservation for?[/conl]

[conr]Schwartz: Media preservation is for everyone. At least, it’s preserved for anyone and everyone to access later on. There’s not a target audience. We can’t foresee how or why people will want to access podcasts, or data about podcasts, in the future. That’s kind of the beauty of it. Maybe a media scholar will want to do a cultural analysis of the switch to on-demand listening habits. Maybe the New Yorker will want to write an article about the true crime podcast phenomenon of 2016. Maybe someone will stumble upon Vicki Bennett and get inspired to make audio collages. Maybe someone’s grandchildren will want to hear the sound of their voice. If we don’t save the files with their corresponding metadata, then it’ll all be a moot point.[/conr]

Schwartz also gave some additional reading material in case you, like me, have some time to read on the train later:

Build for a world without you, folks.

Bites.

  • On Monday, the CBC circulated a vague pre-announcement about an upcoming project it’s developing with The Heart’s Kaitlin Prest. The Heart, a show within the Radiotopia network, ended production in January. No concrete details on the new project just yet, though the CBC notes that more information will come out over the summer.
  • Two public radio items that are joined at the hip: first, a consortium of public radio stations — including WNYC, WAMU, and KPCC — has acquired and plans to relaunch the local news organization Gothamist and some of its associated sites. (Wired) Second, Minnesota Public Radio is apparently in the venture capital game now. Its portfolio currently includes RadioPublic, interestingly enough. (TwinCities Business)
  • An update on the investigation of harassment allegations at NPR: “Report Detailing Harassment At NPR Cites ‘High Level Of Distrust’ Of Management.
  • In case you didn’t hear, The Atlantic is on a hiring spree following Emerson Collective’s acquisition of major ownership over the magazine last summer. The expansion reportedly includes more positions for podcast producers, so watch out for that, job hunters. (NY Times)
  • The independent film studio A24, whose voluminous output includes Lady Bird and Ex Machina, is rolling out a show of its own. I’ve got nothing much else to say on this, other than that it’s a convenient excuse for me to link to David Ehrlich’s great profile on the studio for Slate from 2015.
  • Earwolf’s U Talkin’ U2 To Me?, which to this day remains extremely hard for me to explain succinctly to another human being, gets a follow-up: R U Talkin’ R.E.M. Re: Me? (Indiewire)

[photocredit]Photo of the Internet Archive by Scott Beale used under a Creative Commons license.[/photocredit]

Today, Explained, explained: Vox enters the daily news podcast race with a comma-happy, personality-driven show

Quick preamble: I was working on my taxes yesterday when I realized that last Thursday marked the two-year point since I incorporated Hot Pod Media LLC. To celebrate the occasion, I’m hauling an old Hot Pod feature out of retirement just for this issue: the unnecessary deployment of irrelevant GIFs. Thanks for being a reader, and to those who’ve been reading me for a while now, thanks for sticking around. I really don’t know where all that time went.

Every Day, Explained. Rejoice, news nerds: We now have a name, a release date, and a sound palette for Vox Media’s upcoming entry into the daily news podcast genre. The show will be called Today, Explained — props for keeping it #onbrand — and it will begin publishing next Monday, February 19. A trailer for the podcast went up yesterday, and it sounds…well, quite different from what I would expect from Vox.com, but entirely in keeping what I would expect from host Sean Rameswaram, whose various hijinks I’ve followed intermittently over the years.

I wrote a preview of the podcast for Vulture that came out yesterday, and I spent much of that article trying to contextualize Today, Explained within the current state of the emerging daily news podcast genre. Now, “emerging” is a word I tend to use a lot (more on that in a bit), at times way too cavalierly, but in the context of this story, the use of the term is literal: It’s been a blast watching this species of podcast come into being.

Two things I’d like to emphasize from the preview:

  • The choice to target the evening commute is a really, really smart one. I’ve argued this before, but I think it’s safe to assume that there might be considerable overlap between the audiences of The New York Times and Vox.com. As such, a move to complement The Daily is significantly more prudent than engaging it as a direct competitor. In any case, even if the overlap was small, the evening commute remains untapped by the daily news podcast to begin with — aside from Mike Pesca’s The Gist, of course, which isn’t really playing the same game anyway. It’s a safer, and therefore more reliable, base to build from, and besides, Today, Explained could always expand with an a.m. version at some point in the future. (Same goes with The Daily and a p.m. version, a prospect that it has previously explored with breaking news specials.)
  • In case it fully doesn’t come across in the writeup: I think Today, Explained’s success will mostly hinge on Sean Rameswaram’s personality — more so, I’d argue, than how Michael Barbaro fits into The Daily as a presence. Which is, I suppose, kind of the point when you bring in someone with a specific sense of showmanship like Rameswaram to headline a project.

And two more things I’d like to add to the preview:

  • Here’s Vox.com general manager Andrew Golis, responding to an inquiry about how the podcast fits into the company’s overall business goals: “It gives us an opportunity to have an audio daily presence in our audience’s life in the way our website does in text and our YouTube channel does in video. That persistent relationship and trust is a powerful platform for building our business…we believe ‘Today, Explained’ will give us a new way to introduce audiences to a growing network of Vox podcasts as we continue to expand our ambitions and programming.”
  • I’d be remiss if I didn’t discuss Midroll Media’s involvement in the production. The Scripps-owned podcast company serves as the exclusive advertising partner for Today, Explained, but I’m also told that they provided upfront investment to help assemble the team and build out the production. Chris Bannon, Midroll’s chief content officer, was also involved in the development of the show. “Creatively speaking, I spent a day in D.C. with the Vox team, and together we started sourcing host and staff candidates,” explained Bannon over email. “Right now we’re in the fun part, listening to show drafts and sharing notes. They’re alarmingly well-organized, cheerful, and efficient.” Bannon, by the way, worked with Rameswaram back when he was still at WNYC. (He left for Midroll in early 2015.)

When asked about his perspective on the potential of Today, Explained, Bannon offered an analogy. “I think we want Today, Explained to be All Things Considered to the The Daily’s Morning Edition,” he said. “Except that we will be more like All Things Considered’s smart, funny, well-informed, and streetwise uncle.”

“Streetwise uncle” sounds about right.

On a related note: I heard there’s some big news coming later today on The Daily. Keep your eyes peeled.

What comes next for the Fusion Media Group. Last week, The Onion binge-dropped A Very Fatal Murder, the satirical news site’s first stab at a long-form audio project. The show was designed to parody the wildly popular — and eminently bankable! — true-crime podcast genre, which is an appealing premise right off the bat: indeed, there’s no team I’d love to see interpret the phenomenon more than the brains behind The Onion. A Very Fatal Murder turned out to be enjoyable enough, no more and no less, though I did end up thinking it didn’t come anywhere close to realizing its promise as podcast satire.

But there’s a thing, and then there’s everything around the thing. And despite the minor swing and miss of A Very Fatal Murder, I was nonetheless left quite excited about the prospect of future projects from The Onion, and curious about what’s going on with the audio team at The Onion’s parent company, Fusion Media Group (FMG).

So I checked in with Mandana Mofidi, FMG’s executive director of audio. In case you’re unfamiliar, FMG is the sprawling, multi-tentacled corporation best known in some circles — mine, namely — for absorbing the remains of the Gawker empire post-Terry Bollea lawsuit in the form of the Gizmodo Media Group that spans Gizmodo, io9, Jezebel, and others. A television arm factors in somewhere, as does the city of Miami.

Anyway, Mofidi tells me that since her team kicked off operations about a year ago, they’ve been playing around with a couple of ideas and formats to see what would stick. Weekly interview and chat shows made up the early experiments, which apparently ended up working well for Lifehacker (The Upgrade), Kotaku (Splitscreen), and Deadspin (Deadcast). But following the reception they received for A Very Fatal Murder as well as Containers, Alexis Madrigal’s audio documentary about the sexy, sexy world of international shipping from last year, more plans have to been put in place to build out further narrative projects.

Mofidi’s overarching goal this year, it seems, is to ensure that each of FMG’s properties gets a solid podcast of their own. To that end, they have several projects in various stages of development, including:

  • A six-part narrative series from Gizmodo about “a controversial and charismatic spiritual guru who uses the internet to build her obsessive following.” That show is being developed with Pineapple Street Media, which appears to be really carving out a niche around themes of obsession, charismatic leaders, and the followings they spawn, following Missing Richard Simmons and Heaven’s Gate.
  • A show for Jalopnik called Tempest, which will examine “the funny and at times tragic intersectionality of people and cars.”
  • A series that “explores the connectivity of our DNA” — which evokes memories of Gimlet’s Twice Removed — featuring Grammy Award-winning artist René Pérez, a.k.a. Residente. Gretta Cohn’s Transmitter Media is assisting with this project.
  • A collaboration with The California Endowment that’ll produce stories on young activists “who are using their platforms to promote solidarity between different communities and causes.”

Mofidi also talked about an intent to dig deeper into events. “We recently did a live taping of Deadspin’s Deadcast in St. Paul before the Super Bowl. We were expecting to sell about 200 tickets, but ended up with over 360 people,” she said. The smart speaker category is also of interest, along with figuring out ways to collaborate with FMG’s aforementioned television arm.

I asked Mofidi if she had any dream projects that she’d love to produce in her role. “A daily show,” she wrote back. “It would be ambitious, but with so many passionate voices across our sites it feels like something we could do in a way that was distinct.”

Related reading: Publishers with TV ambitions are pursuing Netflix.

We’re back with this nonsense: “Public media again in bull’s-eye in president’s FY19 plans.” Re-upping my column from the last time we were in this mess, on why it’s bad in ways you already know and in more ways you don’t.

And while I’m linking Current, the public media publication just announced the new host for its podcast, The Pub: Annie Russell, currently an editor at WBEZ.

Pod Save America heads to HBO. Surprise, surprise. Crooked Media’s flagship podcast is heading to the premium cable network with a series of hour-long specials that will follow the Obama bros — that’s former Obama aides Jon Favreau, Tommy Vietor, and Jon Lovett, in case you’re unfamiliar with the deep-blue podcast phenomenon — as they host live tapings on the campaign trail for what will most definitely be a spicy midterm election season this fall. This is the latest addition to the newly buzzy trend of podcasts being adapted for film and television, and the deal for this adaptation in particular was handled by WME.

Over at Vulture, I tried to turn a series of dots into a squiggly shape linking this development, the recent debut of 2 Dope Queens’ HBO specials, and HBO’s relationship with Bill Simmons to say something about the premium cable network’s potential strategic opportunities with podcasting. Put simply: Traditional standup comedy programming is getting more expensive due to the pressure of Netflix’s infinitely large war chest, and one could argue that certain types of conversational podcast programming offer HBO an alternative resource to adapt and develop content that can potentially hit the same kind of experience and pleasure beats you’d get from conventional standup TV specials.

But sometimes dots are just dots, and those aren’t really constellations in the sky — just random, meaningless arrangements of stars that are indifferent to your experience of them.

Happy Valentine’s Day.

Meanwhile, in the nonprofit world. This one’s pretty interesting: Tiny Spark, the Amy Costello-led independent nonprofit news outfit that covers the world of philanthropy and nonprofits, has been acquired by Nonprofit Quarterly, which is…well, a much larger independent nonprofit news organization that covers the world of philanthropy and nonprofits. “Amy…has done an exceptional job building the audience for her podcast. We are excited not only to add this new media channel to our organization, but also to collaborate with Amy to expand our reach into public radio,” said Joel Toner, NPQ’s president and chief operating officer.

As part of this arrangement, NPQ owns Tiny Spark’s intellectual property and Amy Costello is brought on as a senior correspondent to lead the organization’s investigative journalism work, podcast development, and public radio outreach. “Tiny Spark’s work fits very well into the topics we cover at NPQ,” said Toner, when asked about the strategic thinking behind the acquisition. “Additionally, our 2017 annual audience survey confirmed that our readers had a significant interest in having us develop a podcast channel.”

I’d like to point out just how much this arrangement reminds me of the one that was struck between USA Today and Robin Amer, which I profiled last week. Speaking of which…

A quick update to last week’s item on The City. In the piece, I talked a little bit about the USA Today Network’s podcast plans for 2018, chiefly drawing information from a summer 2017 press release the organization circulated when they first announced the acquisition of The City. The plans mostly involve launching more podcasts across its properties.

The company reached out to let me know that their thinking has since evolved. “The network already produces dozens of podcasts across its 109-plus sites, but is now focusing on a handful of those shows to support with resources and marketing à la The City,” wrote Liz Nelson, the USA Today Network’s vice president of strategic content development. “At the time [the press release] was written, we did have 60-plus podcasts — most of which bubbled up organically at the local level. We’re closer to 40 now. That number will continue to ebb and flow and we encourage experimentation at the local level, which gives our journalists the space they need to experiment in the medium.”

Nelson added: “But from a network level, we are not putting the same amount of resources we’ve put into The City into every single show. We’re concentrating on a smaller set of shows we believe can have national impact.”

Hold this thought. We’re going to talk about other stuff for a bit, but we’ll get back to this notion of resource focus.

“It amuses me,” wrote Traug Keller, ESPN’s senior vice president of audio, in a corporate blog post touting the sport media giant’s podcasting business, “when I read about podcasting in the media with references to it being ‘new’ or ’emerging.'”

Keller continued:

As ESPN has done with other technologies — be it cable TV in 1979, the Internet in the ’90s, HD television or mobile initiatives more recently — we embraced podcasting as soon as we could and ran with it — even if we didn’t always know where we would end up! We launched our first podcast way back in 2005. A head start is often critical in a competitive business environment.

I also chuckle when people refer to podcasting as some mysterious new format to figure out. I’ve spent a career in audio, and I can tell you the key ingredients for compelling audio are constant…

Yeah, I don’t know, dude.

The borderline condescending tone of the post isn’t exactly something I’d want to hear from a company whose public narrative is one of crisis on multiple fronts — from the disruption of its cable-bundle–reliant business model to layoffs to its uneven handling of social media policies to the uncertain future of a gamble on OTT distribution — let alone a podcast publisher whose Podtrac ranking placement (as always, disclaimers of that service here and here) is powered by what is still largely a spray-and-pray strategy, in which 82 shows are deployed to bring in 35 million global unique monthly downloads. For reference, the infinitely smaller PRX team gets 4 million more with less than half that number of shows (34 podcasts), while NPR bags three times more downloads with just 42 podcasts that don’t at all traffic in naturally addictive sports content.

To be clear, I am, very generally speaking, more appreciative of a world with a strong (and better) ESPN in it than one without. And let me also just say that I really like some of its recent moves in on-demand audio, namely the creation of the 30 for 30 Podcast and having Katie Nolan launch her own show.

But I just don’t think very highly of this whole “oh we’ve been doing this for a long time/we were doing this first therefore we are super wise” mindset that either mistakes early sandbox dabblings for meaningful first-mover value creation or simply being first for being noteworthy. To be fair, this isn’t a knock that exclusively applies to Keller’s blog post; that thinking governs an alarming share of press releases and huffy emails that hit my inbox. But here’s the thing: I really don’t think it matters whether you did first. What mostly matters is if you did it right. Which is to say: If you invented Facebook, dammit, you’d have invented Facebook. Furthermore, as it stands, if there’s anything I’m acutely aware of writing this newsletter every week, it’s that, much like everywhere else, nobody really knows anything. It’s just a bunch of people working really hard, trying to figure this whole podcast thing out.

Anyway. I normally try not to be too worked up about anything, but this stuff really bugs me, and goodness, there’s nothing I would love more than to take this mindset, strap it onto the next Falcon Heavy rocket, and launch it straight into the dying sun.

Still, credit should be given where’s credit due: The post goes on to discuss what I think is a really positive development for ESPN’s podcast business:

To get there, we pared our lineup — once numbering in triple digits — to about 35, focusing on the most popular offerings (NFL, MLB, and NBA) and other niche topics where we can “own” the category. It’s a “less is more” strategy, where we can better produce and promote a smaller lineup.

Which reminds me of something…

After spray-and-pray. ESPN’s move to pare down and focus its overflowing podcast portfolio reminds me of another podcast publisher that’s been pretty active since the first podcast boom: NPR.

NPR’s podcast inventory, too, once numbered in the triple digits. In August 2005, its directory housed around 174 programs, 17 of which were NPR originals while others were shows from member stations that the public radio mothership were distributing on their behalf. (That practice has since been terminated.) The show number peaked around 2009, when the directory supported about 390 podcasts.

“Back in those days, podcasts were hard to access and only the really digitally savvy listeners could find and download them,” an NPR spokesperson told me. “We were experimenting and we were excited with the possibility of putting out NPR content on-demand, repackaging content that had aired about specific topics, seeing what the audience would like…It also allowed for additional creativity in programming, podcasts could be a sandbox for piloting new ideas.” Some of those ideas eventually grew into segments and radio shows of their own, but these podcasts mostly ended up being an unruly system of small, quiet, under-the-radar projects.

All that changed with this most recent podcasting boom, which started in the latter half of 2014. Around that time, a focused effort was made to identify and retain shows that fit a certain set of criteria that included having a native podcast experience (and not just recycled segments from existing shows), strong listener communities, an alignment with the organization’s business needs, and so on. The rest were culled. By the end, NPR was left with 25 shows. “Our thinking was that by having a smaller portfolio, we could draw more attention to them, serve them better, cross-promote, bring sponsorship support, create significant reach,” the spokesperson said.

The move felt like a gamble at the time, but it paid off. “While everyone expected our downloads to go down, within two months, downloads were somewhere near 50 million a month,” remembered Audible’s Eric Nuzum, then vice president of programming at NPR. “Within a year, it was over 80.”

That number is now 110 million. The point of this little parable is…well, I don’t think I have to spell it out. You get the picture.

Call Your 2018. There are few teams I admire more than the trio behind Call Your Girlfriend, the podcast for long-distance besties everywhere: journalist Ann Friedman, international woman of mystery Aminatou Sow, and radio producer Gina Delvac. The show has, over its nearly four years of existence, evolved from a fun side project to stay connected into something so much more than that. It is, in equal parts, a platform, a community, and an ever-growing resource. And if the enthusiasm of some friends of mine who consider themselves devout CYG fans are any indicator, Call Your Girlfriend is also damn close to being a full-fledged movement.

Last year was a difficult one for the team, given the political environment, but it was also a call to arms to which they responded with vigor. “Despite the trash-fire that was 2017 in America,” they wrote me, “Better yet, because of it, we wanted CYG to function as a place of refuge for our listeners, and for ourselves.” This translated into an interview schedule that was dense with guests that spoke directly to the moment — including but not limited to Hillary Rodham Clinton, Kirsten Gillibrand, Margaret Atwood, and Ellen Pao — as well as a multipart series on women running for office that featured sit-downs with first-time candidates and organizations that support women seeking political office. The team also worked to push the show creatively, producing a special episode on pelvic pain and trauma and occasionally handing the mic over to other podcasting teams, like Who? Weekly’s Lindsey Weber and Bobby Finger along with Good Muslim Bad Muslim’s Tanzila Ahmed and Zahra Noorkbakhsh.

The year was also fruitful for Call Your Girlfriend’s business. Though specific numbers were not disclosed, I’m told that the show’s revenues — which come from a combination of ad sales, live events, and a healthy merchandising arm — far exceeded their original targets. More ambitious goals were set for the new year.

We’re neck-deep into the second month of 2018, so I thought it was a good a time as any to check in with the team about their plans for the coming months, their thoughts on how the industry has changed, and their commitment to being independent. They were kind enough to oblige:

[storybreak]

[conl]Hot Pod: What are y’all hoping to do this year?[/conl]

[conr]Call Your Girlfriend: One of our first interviews of the year was with Cameron Esposito, and we loved her answer to everyone who’s told her she’s too loud or too gay: She’s simply getting gayer and louder. Likewise here at CYG, we’re getting more political, more feminist, and more obsessed with the transformative power of friendship.

Editorially, we’re both digging in and branching out. We’ll be featuring more of our sheroes as well as women whose stories you haven’t heard yet. We’re deepening our work with political candidates who will (hopefully) be running our country soon, and the writers, critics, and artists whose interpretive work helps us endure. We have a number of themed episodes in the works.

We’re also each taking on more as individuals: Amina is sharing more of her personal experience with illness and grief, Ann is bringing more of her stellar reporting and editorial strategy evident in her many bylines and newsletter to the podcast, and Gina is stepping in front of the mic to host an upcoming episode about sex.

We’re also hiring our first ever associate producer! Applications just closed, so we’ll be excited to announce the newest member of our coven in the coming weeks.[/conr]

[conl]Hot Pod: How has it grown over the years?[/conl]

[conr]Call Your Girlfriend: We are very happy that we’ve stayed independent, and we’re working on some more official/structured ways of helping newer, like-minded independent podcasts find their footing as well. We’re also working on ways to leverage our listeners’ incredible political engagement. Our audience — primarily millenial women — drives book sales, ticket sales, merch sales, charitable donations in the tens of thousands and more. Folks on our mailing list are even volunteering to donate their blood for a national drive we’ll be announcing soon.

Part of how we’ve stayed independently owned is through the ads Midroll sells on our behalf. We’ve heard from the partnerships team that our sell-through rates are excellent, and our audience is a highly prized demographic segment. From a pure capitalistic standpoint, there are more advertisers recognizing the buying power in our demo than available ad inventory. We’d like to see more women behind the mic for myriad reasons, including getting paid. We’d also like to see more and better products and services that our audience will enjoy. We’re looking into ways to carve open more space, to bring revenue to great projects and better ads to fit women’s outsized purchasing power. (Weight-loss products need not apply. We love women of all sizes.)[/conr]

[conl]Hot Pod: How do you see Call Your Girlfriend right now, and how has the vision for the show changed over time?[/conl]

[conr]Call Your Girlfriend: When we started, this was a project to stay connected to one another and have fun. We still do that, but we’ve added a number of elements outside the podcast itself along the way. Like the music touring model, that’s mainly meant live events and selling merch. Now and looking into the future, we see Call Your Girlfriend as a great clearinghouse for authentic content for ladies who get it. We’re always thinking about bigger projects in audio, as well as TV, digital, political action, and more.

We’ve talked about engagement, but on a qualitative level our fans respond and show up the way that close friends do. The live shows are a great example. We see friends in cahoots who seem like lifelong besties — and then discover they’ve just met. The number of friends who’ve planned road trips or flown in to be with their long-distance BFF for our shows is astonishing. The community around what we do is really positive and powerful. So we’re interested in adding to that experience as much as possible, that sense of pride and belonging, whether it’s on stage, in your earbuds, on a t-shirt or, perhaps, a screen.[/conr]

[conl]Hot Pod: What’s worrying you guys?[/conl]

[conr]Call Your Girlfriend: As exciting as it’s been to see the emergence of so many new shows and projects, it seems harder than ever for new self-funded shows to find their footing. In an ad-centric model, it takes a lot of work to build a sizeable audience. Audience support has practical challenges. And while we’re excited about the energy around podcasting from media companies, not everyone has the production and marketing budget to invest to help insure a smash hit.

Discoverability remains a challenge. We’re also interested to see whether the proliferation of connected cars, smart home devices, and other access points to audio make it easier to entice brand new listeners.

Finally, for us and shows like ours, hosted by women who are overtly political, we worry about being overlooked or diminished, particularly when compared with similar endeavors that feature men. We specialize in conversations among politically-savvy women who are running things or will be soon. We blend serious discussion of the policies that dramatically impact women’s lives with a good dose of banter. We hope that audiences and industry watchers see that our delight in friendship is completely in line with the seriousness of our analysis and aims. We’re here for every facet of women’s humanity.[/conr]

[conl]Hot Pod: What have you been seeing with the rollout of Apple’s new podcast analytics?[/conl]

[conr]Call Your Girlfriend: It’s been really interesting to run a weekly show with the emergence of so many serialized and/or seasonal programming, watching which episodes really pop and which ones less so. It’s causing us to think critically about re-engagement, promotion, and leaning into vs expanding our style of content.[/conr]

[conl]Hot Pod: Has it been difficult staying independent?[/conl]

[conr]Call Your Girlfriend: It hasn’t been hard for us to stay independent — that’s remained one of our core values — but as we each advise fellow podcasters we recognize that these are very different waters to wade into. Listeners are getting really sophisticated, which is great. But, that makes it harder to learn as you go. There’s much less room to fudge things like your show’s editorial framing, ill-considered artwork, or audio quality. And kind of like your inner circle of friends, once you have core besties, you limit how many new intimates you take on, by necessity.[/conr]

[conl]Hot Pod: Finally, is there anything else you’d like to talk about?[/conl]

[conr]Call Your Girlfriend: Anyone who has money to burn, talk to us. You’re a fool not to talk to us. We’re killing it.[/conr]

[storybreak]

Bites:

    • This is Love, the limited-run spinoff series from the team behind Radiotopia’s Criminal, is rolling out this week just in time for Valentine’s Day. Should be perfect for those who enjoy a steaming plate of romance with a side of spiders. (Website)
    • WBEZ debuted Making Obama, the Chicago public radio station’s followup to Making Oprah, last week. As previously mentioned, I’m personally psyched for the entire “Making” model, and its Hearken-like potential for local radio stations across the country. Snazzy landing page, too. (Said landing page)
    • FiveThirtyEight’s whiz kid Harry Enten has left the Nate Silver-led statistical analysis site to join CNN. Enten was a fixture on the site’s politics podcast, which I’ve always thought is one of the more entertaining and informative in the genre. Just as a reminder: There’s been some hubbub about FiveThirtyEight possibly being sold off. It’s currently owned by ESPN.
    • However unclear the path forward might be for a reputable public radio station mired in controversy, the show must go on. Last week, WNYC launched Trump, Inc., a collaboration with ProPublica that endeavors to answer basic questions on how the president’s business works — a set of facts that remain quite murky. The fine folks at Nieman Lab have some deets.
    • Speaking of Trump content, NPR’s Embedded is back with another season on the current presidential administration. (Show listing)
    • “Podcasting Is the New Soft Diplomacy.” The underlying premise here isn’t particularly novel, but there are some nice ideas in this Bryan Curtis piece that help illustrate soft power in the age of digitally distributed media intimacy. (The Ringer)
  • TheSkimm, that popular media company whose morning newsletter product reaches more than 6 million largely female readers, has launched its first podcast. (Though, it’s not the company’s first audio product. That would be the Skimm Notes feature that’s packaged into its app.) The show is called Skimm’d from The Couch, and it takes the shape of a career advice vessel in the minor key of Guy Raz’s How I Built This. (Official blog)

[photocredit]Photo of Sean Rameswaram by James Bareham/Vox Media.[/photocredit]

Subcast wants to bring podcast publishers and smart-speaker users together

First-tinkerer advantage. There should be little doubt over who will set the terms for voice-first computing in its early going, whether via smart speaker or whatever comes immediately after that. Barring the apocalypse (in which case, we’ll be doubting a great many other things), it’ll be some combination of Amazon, Google, and/or Apple, though it does seem Amazon’s formidable lead might render the latter two irrelevant for quite some while. There is, however, a followup question to ponder: Who will end up governing and facilitating the media pipes within that voice-first environment? Will it be Amazon itself, or some high-profile serf like Spotify or Pandora? Or will it be a whole new team altogether?

One such team hoping to claim the mantle is Subcast, a company founded by a group of former Medium operatives — Cara Meverden, CEO; Saul Carlin, president; and Daniel McCartney, CTO — who worked at the platisher back when it was still jonesing to build ever-lasting partnerships with premium publishers. Sensing opportunity, they’re now focused on developing listening experiences that bridge podcast publishers and the smart-speaker user base. The company officially launched in December, but the team has been working away at the problem since last April. They found the time to raise a seed round in-between.

So what, exactly, is that gap-bridging experience? The way Subcast sees it, the game is to figure out the sweet spot that lies somewhere between the on-demand (and active) nature of podcasts and the linear (and passive) nature of ye’ old radio — and, to some extent, reconcile the two paradigms. “We’ve historically seen this artificial split between podcasts and radio,” Carlin said. “What happens when those two modes of listening converge with voice?”

For now, Subcast has constructed its initial hypothesis around something that looks like a playlist as the atomic unit of the smart speaker audio experience — though, of course, it’s a playlist with some technical complexities. Each playlist, which they’re calling “stations,” is an automatically generated composition that pulls the latest episodes from curated podcast feeds. I’m told that stations pull directly from RSS feeds in a manner roughly indistinguishable from a podcatcher, which means downloads are counted and ad experiences are left intact. Subcast is manually curating feeds for now, often informing podcasts they’ve been selected only after they’ve been included.

Currently, each station exists as its own skill in the Alexa marketplace, and this configuration has the convenient advantage of making them somewhat easier for new Echo owners to bump into and try out. “Most people are finding them simply by going through the Alexa skill portal,” Meverden said. For now, stations are built around different topical focuses. There’s “Conservative Talk Radio,” “Bachelor Nation Radio,” and so on. One imagines that there are more station composition styles to discover beyond topicality, and Carlin tells me there are some designs to try out curatorial efforts from the Subcast-using community in the future. All of this is bolstered by an overarching enterprise to create a multi-modal listening experience; that is, a setup in which users can seamlessly transition their podcast consumption as they move between their smart speaker, car, and phone. Subcast is doing this primarily by producing companion apps for those other contexts — available now for iPhone and Android! etc. etc. — that are all linked by unique user IDs.

So, yeah, it’s all pretty nifty, though nothing particularly revolutionary, but that isn’t really the point. At least, not right now. Subcast’s fundamental gambit revolves around early rapid experimentation for the Alexa platform and the broader voice-first contexts, which are still prehistoric. It’s a shrewd way to get in front of the curve and to tether fortunes on the long-term growth of the smart-speaker category. For what it’s worth, the Subcast team is bullish on the prospect, and further emboldened by Amazon’s machinations at the recent Consumer Electronics Show. “They’re hiring like crazy — it goes well beyond Amazon products,” Carlin said. “It’s an Alexa Everywhere strategy that puts the platform into third-party hardware. They want people to see that it goes beyond smart speakers. Not just in the Echo, but also cars. Not just private spaces, but public.”

“It’s also the case with Google,” Meverden added. “They’re very much a part of this land grab.” And so, it seems, is Subcast.

Three more things:

  • “One of the primary attributes of radio is that it’s everywhere,” Carlin asserted when we spoke over the phone last week. I’ve always been fascinated by that characterization, which is not uncommonly held. Indeed, it’s a strategic assumption commonly espoused and wielded by NPR, since perhaps forever. Carlin went on to connect the notion with the probable teleology of smart speakers — or voice-first computing, or whatever we’re calling these days — that they, too, will one day be everywhere. It is at that point that I’m struck by just how the asserted everywhere-ness of radio (and soon, voice) lays pretty well onto the insistent everything-ness of Amazon. It’s a techno-capitalist match made in heaven, and further suggestion that, indeed, at the end of the day, the Bezos comes for us all.
  • This whole Subcast “linear vs. on-demand: what’s voice got to do with it” line of inquiry has got me thinking, somewhat tangentially, about the relative arbitrariness of delineating Podcastland based on its technical nature of being on-demand. The way the podcast ecosystem is hosted, delivered, and consumed will inevitably change at some point in the near future, evolving away from its RSS-oriented, smartphone-driven, and download-defined composition toward a future composition made up of god knows what. How then will we consider, appraise, and apply valuation onto it? It’s also worth noting the very same question can and should be applied to how the podcast industry today relates to the digital audio world that came before. In many ways, you could say that what the past ten years of podcast evolution have wrought is less a whole new category of media product, but a whole new community of media creators. To rephrase this paragraph as a clarifying question: What defines the industry/ecosystem — its structural characteristics, or the community that has identified into it?
  • So I’m pretty certain this smart speaker business is going to be a thing. But I’ll admit that I personally have a complicated relationship with my own Echo device. To begin with, my wife makes me unplug it when I’m not being actively using it, because security anxieties, and it’s come to a point where I’m using it when I’m alone in the apartment working. Which is to say, it’s been more trouble than it’s worth. (Despite being relatively young, I am ruined by constant crouching over to plug/unplug.) Now, I’m not going to pretend that I’m a normal, representative human being, but I imagine this whole security bugaboo is actually going to become really, loudly prominent at some point…more so than it has up until now, anyway.

Let’s get out of my apartment and back to the news.

This week in platforms. Meanwhile, back in the contemporary media ecosystem…

(1) Two for Spotify:

  • Last week, it announced the impending rollout of something called Spotlight, a new media format that layers minor visual elements on top of talk audio programming from partner publishers. Seems pretty Snapchat Stories-esque in structural positioning, early-Acast-esque in format experimentation. Initial publishers will include Gimlet Media (a pre-existing homie), BuzzFeed (“strategic changes“), Crooked Media, Refinery29, and Cheddar, among others. For what it’s worth, I don’t quite buy into the “Spotify v. Apple” or the “Spotify’s gambit to listeners away from Apple” narrative just yet. For one thing, there’s a whole universe of value in defining your own media format. For another, the overall pie could always get bigger.
  • AdExchanger recently published an interview with the company’s global head of ads monetization Brian Benedik, who disclosed that it’s begun monetizing its original podcasts — though it’s selling direct for now — and that it’s seeing incoming interest from agencies and brands to play with its podcast inventory. Also: It’s working on “applying the recommendation engines” it has for music to podcasts. Which sounds vaguely similar to Pandora CEO Roger Lynch wanting to create the “Podcast Genome Project.” If you’ve got a hammer…

(2) And two for Apple:

  • Cupertino is hiring a content producer for its Siri Audio News team, who will “be responsible for the health of the podcast and audio news catalogs and act as our front-line point of provider support.” The job position has the glamorous title of “digital supply chain, technical producer.” Here’s the relevant context, and here’s that job posting.
  • This is interesting: “Today Apple launches Apple Music for Artists, a dashboard designed to provide acts with hundreds of data points giving deep analytical insight into their fans’ listening and buying habits.” Billboard has the exclusive.

Winter-bound. I’m not personally a Winter Olympics stan, but I do love me some athlete profile #content. NBC Sports, anticipating the voluminous needs of many sports-hungry Americans, has been prepping for battle to satisfy the masses across a wide variety of platforms. This year, those preparations will include podcasts, as NBC Sports announced this morning that it has partnered with Vox Media to produce “the official NBC Olympics Podcast” to cover the festivities. Called The Podium, the podcast will be published daily throughout the event starting February 8. A few things to note: The show will be recorded on-site in the South Korean city of Pyeongchang and will be executive produced by Vox Media audio head Nishat Kurwa.

I asked Vox Media whether it had any updates on the Sean Rameswaram daily explainer show, but no dice.

Relay FM outlook. The independent podcast network, led by the transatlantic duo Myke Hurley and Stephen Hackett, had a pretty stellar 2017 that saw formidable gains across its portfolio of technology- and niche-oriented conversational programming. I’ve been tracking the network pretty closely since profiling them in the summer of 2016, and I recently thought to check in with Hurley, who was more than happy to discuss the past twelve months and share some numbers.

“In the past we have been pretty secretive with sharing too many hard numbers about the company,” he said. “But we are really proud of what we achieved in 2017, so we’re ready to open up a little more than we have before.” (An echo of Slate editor-in-chief Julia Turner’s “happy numbers” quip from last week.)

Here are those digits:

  • In 2017, Relay FM saw its revenue grow by 23 percent compared to the year before, beating its goal.
  • The network enjoyed an average of 2 million downloads a month, which bundles up to about 24 million downloads for the whole year. That’s up from 18.3 million in 2016, and 12.4 million in 2015 (which was Relay FM’s first full calendar year of operation).
  • If you’re crunching the numbers, it’s worth noting that RelayFM ended the year with 25 shows in active operation. The network launched four shows last year, three of which did not carry any advertising — they had planned for that — which means the revenue growth largely comes from increases in price and sell-throughs of existing inventory. For further context, the network launched in the summer of 2014 with five shows.

Hurley notes that Relay FM is sticking to a 20 percent revenue growth target for 2018, and that the network is already on track to beat it. New show launches are also on the docket, and I’m told the team intends to play around with new formats, configurations, and topic areas. To branch out, in other words, from the playbook that has served it so well.

“We feel pretty good about where we are, and we have a good runway to the year ahead,” Hurley said, when I asked about his perspective on the year ahead. “Of course, there’s always a worry that the bottom could fall out of the advertising market, but this doesn’t seem very likely, considering trends of the last few years. And we could lose our audiences somehow, but as long as we stay the course we’re on, that doesn’t seem likely either.” Relay FM will turn four years old in 2018 — a lifetime, in some circles — and across its existence, it’s established a strong operational foundation, figured out a formula that’s worked well for it, and slinked into each successive phase with confidence.

You could largely pin that confidence on the bullishness Hurley and Hackett feel about how podcast advertising has grown up to this point — and how they expect it change in the months to come. Hurley writes:

We have seen increased advertiser interest so far this year, and this is something that’s been scaling over time. I expect that in 2018 we will start to see even bigger companies try their hand at some branding campaigns, but I expect (especially for Relay FM) that our bread and butter will remain in the type of direct response advertising we are seeing right now.

I also expect to see a rise in more agencies trying to represent brands, attempting to sell spots to multiple podcast networks. We are seeing more and more companies that are trying to do this, but mostly they are attempting to represent the same advertisers we already work with. Podcasting is a hot commodity right now, and I don’t expect that to change any time soon, and if new agencies want to get off the ground, they need to branch out and try to convince more brands to give this a try.

I asked Hurley how he feels the industry has changed since he quit his job in 2014 to start the network, and more pointedly, whether it’s harder for independent podcast outfits to exist today. “There’s more of a focus on this industry than there has ever been,” Hurley said. This is, he goes on to note, a double-edged sword, and in his thinking, the increased attention has translated to more advertiser dollars and potential returns, but also a situation where the barriers to starting a sustainable podcast production business are greater than ever. “Trying to carve out your piece of that pie is getting harder as there are more people trying to grab it,” he said.

Hurley added: “We are established at this point, and luckily our path has ensured that we were there at just the right time…if we were starting out today I expect it would be harder for us.”

Joe Frank, the legendary radio producer-personality-artist, died last Monday at the age of 79. His considerable body of work — mind-bending, line-blurring, often surreal, always alluringly dark — deeply influenced a significant portion of the creative generations that currently define, challenge, and reshape radio aesthetics in this podcasting era. A small sample of those he influenced: Ira Glass, Jad Abumrad, Jonathan Goldstein, Glynn Washington, Kaitlin Prest, Andrea Silenzi, Joe Richman, and Scott Carrier, among so many others. Frank may have no heirs, as the writer Mark Oppenheimer observed in a recent profile, but his disciples are legion.

Do spend some time to sit down with that profile, by the way. The piece by Oppenheimer, who is also the host of Tablet’s Unorthodox podcast, went up on Slate last Friday, and it’s rich, fascinating, and lovely. It also doubles as the man’s final interviews before his death:

Frank was chagrined, even a little embarrassed, that he hadn’t made radio for the last couple of years. He knew that the podcast revolution is a big feast at a table he set. “There is something about all these podcasts, the kind of thing I think is, ‘They don’t even know that I started it! They don’t even know where this came from!'”

Again, don’t miss it. And when you’re done with the profile, here are some other things remembering Frank that you should check out:

And then check out his website, where a good deal of his work can be found behind a paywall.

Career spotlight. This week, I traded emails with Whitney Simon, who covers business development — among many other responsibilities, I imagine — for the Los Angeles-based podcast network Headgum. I don’t think I’ve done one of these career spotlights with someone who’s working on the business side before. Given the general scope of interests in this newsletter, that’s pretty surprising to me. As an aside, I love spreadsheets.

Tell me about your current situation.

I’m currently the Business Development Executive at Headgum. Headgum was founded in 2015 by Jake Hurwitz, Amir Blumenfeld, and Marty Michael. I’ve been with them nearly two years now and was our first full-time employee.

In the big picture, Marty and I handle the business side of things. I spend most of my day selling advertisements against our show roster and investing in the client relations and brand partnerships that come along with that. I’m also responsible for our revenue tracking and financial analysis, running the invoicing and billing systems, and thinking strategically about our growth as a company. I transitioned into the biz dev role about a year ago and now manage our ad ops coordinator and any business interns we might have.

In addition, we’re constantly retooling the workflows and systems we use to better serve us, as Marty and I built them out ourselves. I’m grateful that the guys give me the freedom to really run with their vision in that sense. Because our staff is also still small, I get to dabble in a whole host of other things: UI design, talent acquisition, hiring practices, etc.

How did you get to this point? What does your career arc thus far look like?

When I was in college, I went through the admissions process for Green Corps (the field school for community organizing). The process is fairly intensive because they, and more than 100 other environmental and social justice organizations in the US, are part of one umbrella organization: The Public Interest Network (TPIN). Many of those organizations attract attention from opposition research firms, so TPIN has built out a great internal recommendation program. As a result, my application landed on the desk of the team that manages the grants operations for the entire organization. They offered me a position post-graduation and, after spending a summer working in Montana, I moved to Los Angeles in the fall of 2015 to join TPIN’s central staff.

In my role at TPIN, I was managing the (c)(3) and (c)(4) grants operations for Environment America and Green Corps and then consulting on writing and edits for a number of other organizations. The job was fascinating and intensely stressful. No matter if you made a mistake or did your job perfectly, kids’ school lunches or statewide environmental protections were always on the line. We were working 14-hour days at the office and to combat the risk of burn-out, I started listening to podcasts on my commute to give me a jolt of energy and inspiration. A few months in, I ran into a health issue, which led me to then decide to leave the position.

I gave myself three weeks to apply to any job in LA that had ever interested me, and it was during this time I shot off an email to Headgum. After not getting a response, I tracked down Marty’s assistant at the time and cold-emailed her. It turned out they had no open positions, but she called me two weeks later when she left for a different job and brought me in to meet the team. And that’s how I quickly transitioned from a large bureaucratic and historic organization to an incredibly fast-paced, relatively new one.

What does a career mean to you, at this point?

Thinking of a career today, I’d like to be useful in the world. When I look at people whose careers really impress me, they tend to be those who pull others up with them, are generous with their time and resources, and are genuinely excited by and curious about their work. We live in a time of such political, economic, and environmental uncertainty and that certainly affects people’s professional lives by the day. I’m always blown away by people who choose to bring attention or comfort to those who feel alone, oppressed, and/or unseen in the world. It’s going to be fascinating, and hopefully only mildly horrifying, in fifty years to look back on this time in America’s history. I’ve also been inspired by the #MeToo movement, because it’s helping us start to contextualize career paths and professional success in a way we haven’t before, and I hope the push to complicate the notion of a good career continues. I’d be remiss not to mention the people of color, and women of color in particular, who’ve led the movement to drive these conversations powerfully forward and into the open for years.

Not to be too trite but a good friend of mine was killed while we were in college — he was in Egypt teaching English to little kids and was one of those people with the potential to change the world. When work gets really stressful, I try to keep in mind that life is short and work is work. I want to do something with my life that I’m proud of and hopefully make life better for some people along the way.

When you started out, what did you think you wanted to do?

I found out fairly quickly that I like to be in a production role within a creative environment. On top of that, I love being able to think creatively within traditionally strict problems or environments. While my college was anti-vocational training, I’m grateful to professors who pushed me in the direction of applied studies. In general, I’ve always been fascinated by the way in which people move through the world. I toyed with going into architecture and urban design for a while, as well as into epidemiology or midwifery. I hope to always be able to draw a connection back to that sort of user-centered approach.

Bites:

  • Pineapple Street Media has hired away Jonathan Menjivar from This American Life. (Twitter)
  • This week sees a special series from Death, Sex & Money in partnership with BuzzFeed News called Opportunity Cost, about tradeoffs and choices when it comes to money, status, and class. This is the shit DSM was made to do! Damn, I’m excited. (WNYC Studios)
  • WBEZ unveiled the subject of its post-Oprah “Making” season: former President Barack Obama. Which is cool! They should’ve retained the “O” in the podcast art, though. #JustWhatIBeThinking. (WBEZ)
  • Mozilla, which has been producing a pretty solid podcast for a piece of #brandedcontent with IRL, is currently two episodes deep into its second season. (Mozilla Blog)
  • Too Beautiful To Live, the cult Seattle-based daily podcast now distributed by American Public Media, is turning 10 this year, and it celebrated by doing “a 24-hour, live-stream episode recorded on a party bus driving around the state of Washington” last Saturday. In other news, the line between genius and insanity is thin, and hinges on fuel efficiency. (APM Podcasts)
  • I reviewed Tenderfoot and HowStuffWorks’ Atlanta Monster last week. (Vulture) Something I forgot to mention: The show has near minimal transitions into ad breaks, and the result is smack dab at the bottom of the uncanny valley, folks.

What the rise of the smart speaker might mean for podcasts (and on-demand audio in general)

Just a heads up: I’m told that the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) will indeed be publishing a 2018 update to its podcast advertising study, which means we’ll be able to get at least one contiguous read of the industry’s year-over-year ad revenue growth.

As a reminder, the IAB’s inaugural podcast advertising report, which dropped last summer, found that the industry brought in $119 million in 2016 and was projected to bring in $220 million by the end of 2017. We’ll see how that projection holds up.

And once again, the report’s methodology revolves around the study a bundle of major podcast publishers, which means that it’s not meant to be comprehensive but representative. Think a stock market index like, say, the Dow Jones Industrial Average (sorta), along with all the benefits and limitations of using that indicator to discern something about the overall stock market and economy.

Don’t rat me out, Alexa. The International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) is happening this week, and in the spirit of that fine mess, I thought it might be a good time to review what’s been going on with smart speakers. It’s the device, after all, that may prove to be a significant new frontier for on-demand audio consumption.

Smart speakers have become, perhaps improbably, one of the more prominent technology categories over the past few years. A recent report by Canalys, a research firm, found that the smart speaker has surpassed AR, VR, and wearables in market share, becoming the fastest growing consumer technology in recent times, according to a ZDNet write-up. Over 30 million smart speaker units — including the Amazon Echo, Google Home, and so on — were shipped worldwide last year, with 16.1 million units shipped in the fourth quarter alone. That trend of rapid growth is expected to continue this year, with Canalys projecting 70 percent year-over-year worldwide shipment growth totaling up to 56 million units by the end of 2018. (If you’re looking for further detail and context, this summary by The Guardian is pretty succinct.)

The Amazon Echo lies at the forefront of the category, with the Google Home serving as a fairly distant second. (Apple’s own entry, the HomePod, is scheduled to roll out sometime early this year, following delays.) Amazon’s lead on its competitors is said to be considerable, given its longer time in the market — the device rolled out in mid-2015 — and aggressive pace in terms of product iteration and distribution (Amazon Echoes next to the deli counter at Whole Foods, y’know?). But one should expect a fight from other tech giants, most notably Google, which is estimated to have sold at least 6.73 million units since its October launch, as they move to close the gap on this new front of computing while trying to keep newer competitors at bay. One expression of this: analysts have noted that both Amazon and Google engaged in deep price discounting over the holiday season in the run-up to the launch of the pricier Apple HomePod, which has resulted in the two companies losing money in the short term but creating a slightly less accommodating environment for Apple’s entry into the market, as Reuters reported.

And let us not forget what’s happening outside the probable Big Three: over the past few months, other hardware makers — including Roku, Samsung, Harman, LG, Sonos, and JBL — have put forward their own takes on the smart speaker category as well.

So, what does this all mean for podcasts, or on-demand audio content publishers more generally? A couple of thoughts:

  • At this point in time, podcast consumption behavior can generally be broken down along two tracks: you have listening directly off traditional computers, and you have listening off mobile devices — smartphones, tablets, portable devices, etc. — with the smartphone, I believe, being the core distribution point in this track. This setup is reflected in Edison Research’s studies on device usage among podcast listeners, which has thus far expressed a trend in which listening has shifted away from desktop toward mobile over the years. The emergence of smart speakers introduces a third track into the mix, and how listening behavior gets reallocated between smartphones and smart speakers is going to be the dynamic to watch over time. Let’s see if podcast listening actually shifts toward smart speakers to the zero-sum detriment of smartphones (and desktop).
  • Or perhaps there’s a more complex outcome: “podcast listening” doesn’t shift over, but non-music smart speaker audio content originates as a category of its own that locates “podcasting” as a specific phenomena within the Apple ecosystem. Should that be the case, we’re going to be awash with further taxonomical questions, which are both necessary and completely annoying.
  • How will choices be made in this new smart speaker paradigm, and how will publishers express influence or jockey for attention in that new choice paradigm? I wrote about this line of inquiry last November, which came out of a reflection on Audioburst, a relatively new company that endeavors to be “Google, but for Audio,” and the “Search to Suggest” thesis for audio computing use.
  • There’s a whole other side to this question of choice: how will these smart speakers choose to bring in and orient non-music audio content within the user experience? Based on what’s already been happening, it occurs to me that we’re going to see a dramatic reliance on platforms: not just Spotify, TuneIn, Pandora, and iHeartRadio (pending whatever’s going on with their counts, more on that later) as curation portals of podcast publishers spanning indies to major organizations, but also organizations big and prominent enough to develop their own apps for these devices, like NPR and The New York Times. Should “podcast listening” indeed spill into the smart speaker ecosystem, we’re bound to see this platform-conflict dynamic play itself out once again. Unless, of course, we see one such platform adopt a distinctly Apple-like, hands-off, semi-open middleman approach as we have historically seen between Apple, its iTunes architecture, and the early-to-mid stage podcast community.
  • There is also, of course, the possibility that smart speaker operators will themselves make choices about primary content distribution. An example of this: Apple readying an audio news feature for its upcoming HomePod release that delivers content from the Washington Post by default — see: the power of defaults — though HomePod owners have the option to switch off to Fox News, CNN, or NPR.

This is all to say that it’s unclear to me whether the podcast medium’s relative openness will be retained should there be a considerable listening shift toward smart speakers. Just a thought.

One more thing: what’s wild about all of this is how much this echoes the dynamics, structures, and limitations that exists in the fight for the automobile media dashboard.

[insert super casual segue here]

They see me rollin’. This one’s a little late, but it’s worth tying into the previous item, given thematic linkage. At the end of December, General Motors announced that it was rolling out in-car podcast availability for some of its newer models, a fleet size that reportedly numbers around a million cars. This is slightly less noteworthy than it sounds.

To begin with: only a few podcast publishers were given the opportunity to develop their own apps for distribution content in these cars, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, Fox Sports, and USA Today. These publisher-specific apps join an in-car media ecosystem that already includes more general audio distribution platforms like Spotify and iHeartRadio, many of which have steadily increased their own capacities as podcast distributors over the past few years. The question worth asking is whether this addition features a substantial step up for greater listening ease: after all, car owners could long consume podcasts during their drives if they were willing to fiddle around with various Bluetooth setups or mobile device platform integrations like Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.

The automobile media dashboard is an overwhelming point of interest for audio publishers of all stripes, as it is a site that pits traditional broadcast airwaves against satellite radio against Internet radio streams against on-demand audio. But the fundamental dynamic of this conflict lies in how car media incumbents have long held a structural advantage due to the considerable amount of time it takes for car ownership to turn over, as well as the fact that the car is essentially a choke-point where consumer preferences over relatively minute design choices (like media options) are still superseded by preferences established in corporate relationships. As such, it is also a glacial, protracted fight, one that can be hard to keep track of but that portends considerable gains.

Then again, one could also argue that it’s a fight that might not end up meaning all that much at the end of the day, given the possibility of self-driving cars which, according to some, are coming faster than you think. (Knife-wielding robot dogs notwithstanding.) Oh well.

Some fun facts I found while I was poking around on this story: according to a 2016 study by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, American drivers spend an average of more than 17,600 minutes behind the wheel each year. This could be further contextualized within a broader trend of lengthening commute times; according to a Washington Post analysis of U.S. Census data, the average American commute increased by nearly 20 percent between 1980 and 2014.

Gimlet furthers its brand ambitions. Gimlet really wants to break out into something much bigger, huh? To that end, the Brooklyn-based podcast company has hired its first Chief Marketing Officer: Jenny Wall, who served as Hulu’s SVP and head of marketing for three years before exiting the streaming service last May.

At Hulu, Wall oversaw the launches of Hulu’s own original shows, including The Handmaid’s Tale, Difficult People, and Casual, in addition to the service’s commercial-free offering and Live TV bundle. She joined the company in 2014 from Netflix, where she built brand and promotional campaigns for its initial slate of original programming that includes House of Cards, Orange is the New Black, and the Arrested Development revival season.

Wall’s considerable expertise building campaigns around original programming for streaming platforms, as well as what appears to be a penchant for working at companies that aggressively grapple with rapidly evolving distribution, branding, and monetization models, make this hire an utterly compelling development. One imagines that she’ll bring her experiences to bear on Gimlet’s ambitions toward becoming the so-called “HBO of Audio” — oh, here’s another fun fact: earlier in her career, Wall worked on the famed “It’s not TV, it’s HBO” campaign — and, in the process, perhaps write the initial playbook for podcast companies looking to elevate beyond a scrappy, independent vibe into… well, something else entirely.

This recruitment comes about a month after Gimlet’s last round of high-level hire announcements. In December, the company brought on a new head of fiction, a new editor, and a new head of product.

While we’re talking prestige TV… This is podcast-adjacent, but whatever: Apple, in pursuit of a formidable TV strategy to measure up against Netflix and Hulu, is commissioning an original TV show based on Kathleen Barber’s 2017 novel Are You Sleeping, which is about a true crime podcast gone viral. The novel is said to be conceptually interested in the country’s relationship with true crime and true crime podcasts, along with how public performances of journalism blur the lines of entertainment and ethics. On the one hand, you could say it’s a work of fiction that explores the complexities of podcast phenomena that extend from Serial to Missing Richard Simmons to Up and Vanished. But on the other hand, it sounds like an examination that could be broadened out and applied to so many other forms of journalism as well.

Anyway, some noteworthy details about the TV project: Octavia Spencer is set to star, Serial Productions’ Sarah Koenig is set to consult, and Reese Witherspoon is set to executive produce. This project further serves to grow Witherspoon’s footprint as a powerful Hollywood producer, a role that she has been cultivating through her production company Hello Sunshine. According to The Hollywood Reporter, Are You Sleeping is “the first development project to land at Apple, which previously commissioned three straight-to-series orders.” It’s also the second project between Witherspoon and Apple.

I haven’t read Are You Sleeping yet, but I suppose its existence — along with the constellations of ingredients that make up the TV project around it — could perhaps be interpreted as some further evidence toward the notion that true crime, as a genre, is truly podcasting’s beating, bloody heart. At least, at this point in time.

And a little bonus: Kathleen Barber was a guest on WAMU’s The Big Listen, the station’s podcast-broadcast about podcasts and beyond, back in September to talk about the book.

NPR outlook. “The thing that hovers over all of this is our desire for our audio to be everywhere,” Neal Carruth, the public radio mothership’s GM of podcasts, told me. “But also to have experiences be properly tailored for each of those new platforms.”

Yeah, yeah. I know. Look, I hear the complaints that I write too much about NPR. (And Gimlet, and Panoply, and Midroll, and The New York Times, and even Night Vale Presents, which is weird.) But come on. NPR is a distinctly complex problem to think through: how does the organization balance the responsibilities of serving a broader multi-sided system and weather a shifting environment that radically changes the terms of your original responsibilities while continuing to operate at the highest possible level? It’s fascinating!

Anyway, I recently spoke to Carruth about his view on NPR’s podcast division in the coming year, and from our conversation, it struck me that you could broadly organize the strategy into four discrete parts:

  • Develop and launch new projects (though Carruth declined to say with any certainty what the volume and nature of those rollouts will look like this year);
  • Continue supporting and expanding existing podcast properties;
  • Experiment with new forms and distribution models, including over voice-activated platforms;
  • Explore and operationalize new ways for individual member stations to extract value from successful podcast products.

You can see many of these goals at play in a few moves that NPR has been executing in and around the turn of the new year. They include:

(1) Wrapping up a podcast-fronted donation referral campaign, in which NPR podcasts were weaponized to urge listeners to contribute to their local radio stations — an initiative that more overtly reflects how the value of NPR’s podcast gains can trickle down to the rest of the system.

(2) Completing the full roll-out of the Planet Money spin-off known as The Indicator, which now publishes episodes daily with Stacey Vanek Smith and Cardiff Garcia on hosting duties.

(3) Expanding Embedded, its investigative podcast series, a move that includes Kelly McEvers stepping down as co-host on All Things Considered to focus on Embedded full-time, as well as growing the production team. “We’re still in the process of figuring out what Embedded 2.0 is going to look like,” Carruth said, adding that they’re looking to add managing producer and another producer to its ranks. “The hope is to create a premier platform for deep-dive, investigative storytelling.” I think we’ve seen a good bit of that evolution already. Last year, Embedded switched its format from the classic documentary anthology structure — with each episode covering a different story — into mini-season-long thematic dives, between its examination of police videos in February and the Trump universe in October, November, and a little more in the coming weeks.

All this raises the question: what, exactly, is NPR’s mandate for its podcast team? Sure, the public radio mothership has to keep pumping out programming and new projects — a major news organization, after all, is built on its consistency, presence, and industriousness — but are they also incentivized to, say, spawn blockbusters and create the next S-Town?

Carruth seems to lean away from that. “Obviously, you want shows to be successful and you want them to find their audience,” he said. “Success doesn’t necessarily mean a giant audience for every show. In some cases, we’re trying to find new audiences, whether it’s a younger segment or a more diverse segment. Sometimes it’s just a longer play that you need patience to see through to the benefits.” Invisibilia’s wildly successful and attention-grabbing debut season seems so long ago.

I suppose it’s worth remembering that the organization’s operational imperatives remain rooted in its defining condition: its relationship to the broader ecosystem of local public radio stations. To that end, NPR appears focused on ensuring that its podcasting gains can be systematically drawn and quartered for equitable value dispersion across that network. And they have been doing this: Carruth points to podcasts that were later adapted into full broadcast offerings for radio stations (It’s Been a Minute is a good example) and podcasts whose individual reports were later repackaged as segments for news magazines.

From this vantage point, all of NPR’s podcasting wins and wonder seem to fall from being able to satisfy that complex, multi-part structure in the steadiest way possible. Flashiness is harder to come by in this particular challenge, but perhaps succeeding stylishly isn’t exactly the point.

Speaking of The Indicator… This year will mark the tenth anniversary of Planet Money, which, as some might remember, originated from a reporting project developed during the Great Recession to accessibly explain just what the hell was happening to the world around us. That project, which was called “The Giant Pool of Money,” was produced by Alex Blumberg and Adam Davidson for This American Life, and its success spring-boarded the duo towards the creation of Planet Money at NPR. In those early days, the podcast published daily, and some of its episodes featured a much-beloved segment called “The Indicator.”

Blumberg and Davidson have since left Planet Money for other pursuits. (Blumberg, of course, went to found Gimlet Media, while Davidson now serves as a staff writer at The New Yorker.) Ten years on, and Planet Money is still delivering a steady stream of tightly produced explainers about the economy. The show has published well over 800 episodes, and its current hosting roster includes the talents of Ailsa Chang, Jacob Goldstein, Kenny Malone, Noel King, and Robert Smith, with managing producer Alex Goldmark leading the charge. Per NPR’s internal analytics tool Splunk, the podcast averages a weekly audience of 1 million users.

Spinning off The Indicator marks a rare structural innovation for the long-running operation, and its daily bite-sized format suggests a distinctly modern orientation, given the increasing preponderance of daily new podcasts. That said, Carruth doesn’t necessarily view The Indicator as part of that cohort. “We think of it more as a daily insight show,” he said. While editorially alive to the news cycle around it, The Indicator is said to gesture more toward the temporal sweet spot between newsiness and an evergreen disposition.

Anyway: Mazel tov, Planet Money!

What’s going on with Podtrac? This is a sticky one. Last Tuesday, the Australian radio analyst James Cridland published an article on his Podnews.net blog that investigated a curious question: “Is iHeartMedia really the leader in ‘snackable’ podcasts?” Podtrac, the podcast measurement company, had just added a new short-form category to its set of industry rankers, and iHeartMedia had, quite improbably, populated seven out of ten spots on the debut list.

Cridland’s examination ultimately found that iHeartMedia’s presence on Podtrac’s charts — not just its “snackable” category, but on all lists — had greatly benefited from a methodological discrepancy. “We’ve discovered that Podtrac’s measurement hasn’t been measuring listening, but something else entirely: the total pageviews for all of iHeartMedia’s 850 radio stations,” he wrote. The crux of the problem seems to hinge on iHeartMedia’s liberal use of embedded players throughout its considerable affiliate website ecosystem. Those players automatically pre-load audio files by default, and in doing so, inadvertently register as a count by Podtrac’s measurement system whether or not a real human actually clicks and listens. Cridland concludes, then, that it’s theoretically possible for podcasts to chart highly without actually being consumed, and that iHeartMedia’s podcast figures as a result are highly overstated. You should check out the post in full, as Cridland walks through the technical components of his examination.

Podtrac has since revised its rankings, removing iHeartMedia from the lists entirely. On its blog, the company briefly discussed the revision, noting that iHeartMedia’s use of preloads on its website players was inconsistent with IAB measurement guidelines.

“We were not aware of the pre-loading behavior of the iHeart affiliate site web players,” Velvet Beard, Podtrac’s VP of analytics, told me. “While we have had algorithms in place to identify anomalies in the download data we see, we have put into place new procedures including those to identify situations where an inordinate amount of traffic comes from websites which will alert us to this situation in the future.”

When I reached out to iHeartMedia SVP of podcasting Chris Peterson, he wrote: “We are working through with Podtrac what constitutes listening, because we have so many platforms and so many ways that listeners come to podcasts that other companies don’t have available. Given our audience size and unique platforms we need to determine with them the best way to fairly capture our total listening usage and ensure it fits their criteria.”

The two are currently assessing the situation, and how to move forward.

In October, Podtrac’s public publisher ranker listed iHeartMedia in the second spot under NPR, where the company was described to reach slightly under 9 million monthly unique U.S. listeners and over 33.5 million unique global downloads over a whopping 525 shows. It is unclear what iHeartMedia’s actual podcast reach will look like after accounting for the embedded player pre-loads.

A couple of things on this:

  • This incident is pretty embarrassing for both companies, but particularly so for Podtrac. The company’s industry rankers have already long been the subject of skepticism — I wrote about the core problems when they first launched in 2016, which mostly had to do with their incomplete sampling of the industry as a whole, and expressed confusion over iHeartMedia’s improbable presence in the ranker back in November — but the fact that Podtrac missed what could be charitably phrased as an inadvertent gaming of its system raises questions over its technical acumen, particularly given its core work of verifying downloads in the space. Yikes.
  • Podtrac’s rankers matter, whether we like it or not. Beyond the Apple Podcast charts, they remain one of the very few sources of public information and representation giving some semblance of shape to the podcast industry. They further serve as raw research material for newer or casual patrons of the space — be they listeners or advertisers — who hope to get a sense of its shape, size, and order. It’s also worth noting that high placement on the chart has historically served as ammunition for podcast publishers looking to seed press mentions. Case in point: in a November Axios article, iHeartMedia’s second spot placement on the Podtrac ranker was deployed as substantive detail in the company’s bid to be position its “Middle America”-facing original programming slate. Without the perceived credibility stemming from that Podtrac ranker placement, it’s debatable whether that story would have actually earned its newsworthiness.
  • The core need remains the same: some service that helps publishers, advertisers, listeners, and beyond develop a better sense of whether a show or a network that says it’s big is actually what it says it is. In other words, we still very much have a need for a systemic check on potential misrepresentation, inadvertent or otherwise.

Bites:

  • Spotify has reportedly filed to go public on the New York Stock Exchange, but is losing its chief content officer in the run-up (Bloomberg, Recode). The service also apparently has 70 million paid subscribers. (Twitter) What does Spotify going public mean? I found Lucas Shaw’s take in his Hollywood Torrent newsletter pretty useful.
  • Over at the Financial Times, Shannon Bond’s latest looks at the children’s podcast market: “Podcasts for children boom but profits are still in their infancy.” (FT)
  • This is wild: “The Weird World of Trump-Themed Podcasts.” (Politico Magazine)
  • Ottawa’s Great Canadian Theatre Company is playing around with the possibility of distributing recordings of some performances through a podcast feed. (CBC)
  • Later this year, Night Vale Presents expects to see the return of Alice Isn’t Dead (spring), Conversations with People Who Hate Me (spring), Within the Wires (fall), and The Orbiting Human Circus (of the Air).
  • Stitcher’s First Day Back is at work on its third season, but will be releasing a limited-run interview series called First Day Back Conversations.
  • WNYC’s Nancy and Sooo Many White Guys will return for new seasons in the first half of the year.
  • Just a quick plug for Boise State Public Radio getting on that Hearken train. I friggin’ love this city, and “Wanna Know About Idaho” is a gem.