The future of podcasting is strong, but the present needs to catch up

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 111, published March 14, 2017.

Infinite Dial 2017. The latest Edison Research report capturing the size of podcast listening audience is in, and growth continues to look pretty solid. However, just how we should feel about that growth appears to be a debated question among some pockets of the community — there were, to be sure, many observers who were expecting a greater acceleration in listeners following a year of solid media exposure to the medium, and they didn’t quite see that this year.

Before jumping into the numbers, some background: the Infinite Dial report comes from Edison Research in partnership with Triton Digital, and it examines consumer adoption of digital media with particular emphasis on audio. It’s also the most reputable independent study that has researched the state of podcast listenership since the medium’s inception, with data going back to 2006. The study is survey-driven, offering a complementary data source for an industry largely defined by a black box platform and which possibly looks to further fracture across several other black boxes as it moves into the future. Which is all to say, the study presents us with the closest, most trustworthy read of the actual market we’re dealing with.

You can check out the whole report on the Edison Research website, but here are my top-line takeaways:

(1) Steady, unsexy growth?

The share of Americans who report being monthly podcast listeners (the key metric in my mind) is now 24 percent (67 million), up from 21 percent (57 million) the year before. That’s a 14 percent (or 3 percentage point) growth year-over-year. The story is more dramatic if you take a longer view: Over the past two years, monthly podcast listening has grown by 40 percent.

However, the monthly podcast listening growth between 2017 and 2016 (3 percentage points) is a little less compared to the period immediately preceding it (4 percentage points off a smaller base), which has become a source of consternation among some in the podcast community. More than a few people have written me noting the disparity between the hype that we’ve been experiencing — about how 2016 was supposed to be “the year of podcasts” — and the steady, seemingly unsexy growth we’re seeing here.

I think the concern is fair, but I also think it comes from staring a little too closely. Two quick reality checks:

— We’re talking 10 million new Americans actively listening to a medium that (a) is still propped up by a barely evolved technological infrastructure, (b) has only seen a few instances of significant capital investment, and (c) still sees its industry power very much underorganized. That last thing was reflected, somewhat, in something that Tom Webster, Edison Research’s VP of strategy and marketing, said during the Infinite Dial webinar last week: “As I’ve maintained for a number of years now, there’s not really been a concerted industry to define and sell podcasting and talk about what it really means to the general public.”

— We’re also talking about solid, continuous growth following years of marginal gains (and a dip in 2013) in terms of active podcast listeners, and what are essentially years of non-movement in terms of podcast awareness. Between 2010 and 2013, podcast awareness hovered between 45 and 46 percent of Americans.

Which isn’t to say that continuous growth is inevitable in Podcastland, of course. Far from it. The industry has a crap ton of work to do, and the bulk of it should revolve around this next topic.

(2) The problem of programming

Eric Nuzum, Audible’s SVP of original content — who often seeks to dissociate his work with the term “podcasting,” but we’ll sidestep that for now — sent me a few thoughts he had about the report over the weekend, and this point stood out to me in particular:

[One thing] I find significant, that no one is discussing — and is podcasting’s massive opportunity — is the disconnect between occasional users and regular users. To me, the fact that 40 percent of U.S. adults have tried podcasting, yet only half of them listen regularly, that’s astounding. Show me any other medium that has that gap. None. 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. Solving this could go as far as doubling the audience for podcasting.

In all, I see this year’s report as clear evidence that there is a lot of headroom left to go, but I think it’s time to stop blaming awareness as a core problem.

For reference, here are the data points that Nuzum was responding to:

  • 40 percent of Americans [112 million] report having ever tried listening to a podcast, up from 36 percent the year before.
  • Again, 24 percent of Americans report sticking around to becoming monthly podcast listeners.

Between the two potential reasons that Nuzum laid out to account for this disparity — programming and discovery — it does appear to me that the latter seems to get the bulk of the attention as the principal problem that the space needs to solve in order to realize this potential. The phrase “discovery is broken” certainly functions as the value proposition for a lot of innovation and strategic movement in the space: the initial entrances of Spotify and Google Play Music, the creation of apps like RadioPublic, the proliferation of various independent podcast curation newsletters floating in the ether, etc. (The phrase also serves as a go-to complaint from many publishers, but let’s ignore that for now.)

Frankly — and maybe it’s no act of bravery on my part now to express this when someone else has gone and said it — but I’ve never put much stock in the discovery thesis. It’s always occurred to me that discovery functions in the podcasting space along the same dynamics as the rest of the Internet: There is simply so much stuff out there that the problem isn’t the discovering an experience in and of itself — it’s discovering a worthwhile or meaningful experience within a universe of deeply suboptimal experiences. (Which isn’t unlike the experience of being alive.)

Thus, to speak personally for a second, my discovery of the things that I tend to stick with, both on the Internet and in podcasts, come from the same three broad avenues: (a) the thing earns its place in my attention sphere by bubbling up across my existing circuits, (b) I personally go out and dig for a specific thing through various search pathways, and (c) somebody personally recommended that thing to me. And all of those processes of discovery are driven, anchored, and defined by the nature of those things and whether they are actually things that I would sort into my life based on my consumptive predispositions. (Sorry for the many uses of the word “thing.”) Which is to say: No matter how much you try to fix discovery processes, the act of discovery necessarily breaks down when the things that people want don’t exist.

The problem of programming, then, should necessarily supersede the problem of discovery among any and all media entities that fundamentally struggle with the boundaries of their potential.

We see this idea express itself in another data point, and observation, raised during the Infinite Dial webinar last week. The presentation had highlighted the fact that podcast consumption among the oldest demographic (55-plus) is pretty low — making up only 12 percent of the American monthly podcast listening population, up from 11 percent last year — which is a finding that, as Edison Research’s Tom Webster pointed out during the presentation, is a little strange given the talk radio format’s general popularity among that age demographic. “Now, certainly, one growth area for podcasting is to continue developing content and to market to older Americans,” Webster said.

(That said, I suppose there’s a limitation to the depth of that theory, particularly when we examine an entity like, say, NPR, which is working hard to indoctrinate a generation of younger audiences into its listening universe while simultaneously functioning as a formidable power in podcasting.)

But that’s not to dispute Webster’s argument here, because its core idea is true, crucial, and worth fighting for at every turn. We need to be developing more types of programming for more types of people, shows that are of and for: more women, more people of color, more older people, more different kinds of communities, more nationalities, and so on.

All right, let’s move on.

(3) Depth of listening

This year’s report further underscores the idea that if you like podcasts, you probably really, really like podcasts. The key data points:

  • Podcast consumers listen to an average of five podcasts per week. And to break that out further: More than half of all podcast consumers listen to three or more podcasts per week, and over a fifth of podcast listeners listen to six or more per week.
  • The average number of podcasts that listeners subscribe to: 6.
  • Perhaps the most notable finding: 85 percent of podcast listeners say they tend to consume the majority or the entirety of the episode.

As Izzi Smith, NPR’s senior director of promotion and audience development, pointed out to me over Twitter, these are self-reported numbers and should therefore be taken with a grain of salt.

The move here, then, would be to compare that against the internal analytics findings of various podcast publishers who have the means of measuring the behaviors of their own listeners — and of course, mentally accounting for potential differences between the specific quirks of those publishers’ audiences and the more general aggregate behaviors of all audiences combined.

Of course, doing that comprehensively would take more time than I have right now, so I’ll leave you with two cases:

  • HowStuffWorks chief content officer Jason Hoch tells me that the Infinite Dial numbers were consistent with data pulled from a streaming partner. “We see ~50% do ‘half’ and 35-40% do all of an episode,” he tweeted.
  • Nick DePrey, NPR’s analytics manager, tells me that “NPR One data shows 65 percent of listeners hear more than half the audio and 46 percent hear the whole thing, but that’s only half the story. These broad averages conceal the most important factor: Length is everything in determining completion rates.” He went on to discuss the specific findings, which you can find on the Twitter thread.

Miscellaneous takeaways

  • Active podcast listeners still skew male.
  • The home is still the most common place for podcast listening.
  • It’s still early days for in-car podcast listening.

That’s all I got for now. The future looks strong, though it looks as if the present still needs to catch up. Again, you can find the whole Infinite Dial 2017 report on the Edison Research website — there is a ton of good stuff I didn’t touch here, so go check it out. The research team is scheduled to publish a report that digs even deeper into the podcast data sometime in May, so watch out for that.

Quick note on Missing Richard Simmons. The smash-hit, massively popular, [insert maximal adjective here] podcast is wrapping up its six-episode run next Wednesday, and soon, we’ll find out whether we’ll actually hear from the titular subject himself. But I was also curious about the show’s windowing arrangement with Stitcher, in which episodes were released a week early on Stitcher Premium, and whether it would still apply to the final episode, which I imagine would significantly deflate the momentum leading up to the big reveal.

Midroll, which owns Stitcher, tells me that the final episode will indeed be released early on Stitcher Premium, but instead of publishing tomorrow, the episode will come out next Monday — two days before everybody else gets it.

Cool. I’ll be listening. Also, it occurs to me that, among other accolades, Missing Richard Simmons stands out as being a podcast that has achieved considerable success — it has sat at the top of the iTunes charts for several weeks now (caveats on the significance of iTunes podcast chart placement applies) — without any promotional placement from iTunes itself. I can’t quite recall another example of a podcast for which this has been the case, and that’s super interesting, to say the least.

Two platforms, two pieces of news. So the first was the development I was referring to in the preamble of last week’s newsletter, and the second threw me for a loop.

(1) Google Play Music rolls out its own original podcast. City Soundtracks features biographical interviews with musicians about the elements — in particular, places — that shaped their aesthetic lives. The podcast is hosted, appropriately, by Song Exploder’s Hrishikesh Hirway, and Google Play Music contracted Pineapple Street Media to handle production. The show’s distribution isn’t exclusively limited to the Google Play Music app; it can also be found just about everywhere else, including iTunes. It is not, however, available on Spotify. The first three episodes were released last Wednesday, when the show was first officially announced.

(2) More windowing: WNYC will release the new season of 2 Dope Queens two weeks earlier on Spotify. This development comes on top of a more general partnership that’ll see more shows from WNYC Studios made available on the platform. Here’s the relevant portion of the press release:

Spotify and WNYC Studios, the premiere podcast and audio producer, today announced a partnership to showcase many of WNYC Studios’ top podcasts on the platform. The partnership includes a special two-week exclusive on Season 3 of WNYC Studios’ hit podcast 2 Dope Queens, premiering on March 21,  before it becomes available on other platforms.  All podcasts will be available to both free and premium users.

I’m still mulling over just what, exactly, these two developments tell us about the growing dynamic between the rise of various platforms and how content will flow through the podcast ecosystem in the near future, but I will admit that this move from Spotify — that is, carving out a windowing arrangement with a non-music oriented show — seemed a little confusing to me. I had originally interpreted the programming strategy for both Spotify and Google Play Music as instances in which these platforms were integrating shows that would vibe with their music-oriented user base. To me, that’s the focused, albeit more narrow, play. But this arrangement with 2 Dope Questions opens up that strategy a little bit, and gives the entire enterprise a little less definition than before. Will it pay off? Obviously, that’s the question everyone and their second cousin is asking.

Quick note from SXSW: ESPN’s 30 for 30 podcast. The Jody Avirgan-led team produced a panel on Sunday about the upcoming audio iteration of ESPN’s (and Bill Simmons’) beloved sports documentary brand. A couple of details for those, like myself, keeping a close eye on the project: The podcast will be released in short batches, with the first five-episode season dropping sometime in June and another five-episode season dropping later in the fall. Episodes are within the classic 30-40 minute range, and the podcast will follow the film’s anthology format in that no two episodes cover the same story. The panel revealed two out of the five subjects from the podcast’s upcoming first season: One will tackle the first all-women relay trek to the North Pole that took place in 1997, and another will examine the curious case of Dan & Dave, the 1992 Reebok advertising campaign rolled out in the runup to the 1992 Olympics that focused on two decathletes. Rose Eveleth is leading the former story, while Andrew Mambo leads the latter.

And here’s a second mention of Hrishikesh Hirway in today’s newsletter: He’s handling the theme music. (Hirway has worked on the theme music for FiveThirtyEight’s podcast.) Ryan Ross Smith is scoring the individual episodes.

I’m super excited about this — the panel played two short clips from those episodes, and they sound really, really good. That’s a hopeful sign, as the team has a lot to push through. Beyond the basic requirements of producing a good show, the team has to balance between meeting the brand expectations while ensuring the episodes have standalone value for non-30 for 30 fans, weaving together stories that are appealing to both the sports literate and non-sports literate, and finding ways to push certain conventions of the audio documentary format without entirely losing the core audio documentary consumer.

Still tracking that West Virginia Public Broadcasting story…and it looks like the station is anticipating having to lay off 15 full-time staffers — more than 20 percent of its workforce — in preparation for cuts to its state funding as proposed by West Virginia Governor Jim Justice, as Current reports. WVPB GM Scott Finn told the West Virginia House Finance Committee last Wednesday that, should the state funding cuts go through, it places West Virginia at risk of being the first state in the country to lose public broadcasting, according to West Virginia Metro News.

Gov. Justice’s proposition to eliminate state support for West Virginia Public Broadcasting was ostensibly to close a $500 million budget gap. Cutting WVPB from the budget would save a mere $4.5 million, and some have hinted at an alternative motivation for Justice to strike the state-supported journalism operation from the budget.

For those hoping to keep a close eye on the situation, WVPB has assembled a Facebook Page with updates and call-to-actions. (Hat tip to Joni Deutsch.)

One more thing. Just wanted to quickly shout-out The New York Times’ latest audio project, The EP. The podcast was produced in partnership with The New York Times Magazine for the latter’s second annual Music issue, which came out earlier this week, and the show is fascinating on a bunch of different levels: Its structure mimics the feel of a digital music album, each episode is bite-sized, each features a very tiny snippet of conversation with a critic about a specific song that nonetheless feels like the perfect capsule from a much longer discussion, and if you look down the feed’s release date column, you can see evidence of some sneaky CMS hijinks to create the track sequence.

And most importantly: The podcast is really, really good. It’s one of those projects that’s so good, so smart, and so…new that it makes me very, very angry. It’s gorgeous. Go listen to it. The EP was produced by the internal NYT audio team, which is led by Samantha Henig and Lisa Tobin.

Bites:

  • Essence magazine has its own podcast now, called Yes, Girl! The show debuted on March 9, and it appears that DGital Media is responsible for production. (Essence)
  • Sleep with Me, the sleeper-hit — heh, sorry — avant garde podcast by San Francisco-based Drew Ackerman designed to, well, amusingly help listeners drift off to bed, has been snagged up by the Feral Audio podcast network. (Press release)
  • BuzzFeed’s See Something Say Something, a show about being Muslim in America, is back with its second season. (BuzzFeed)
  • This is interesting: Detroit-based producer Zak Rosen has an independent project up that tells the story of a couple deciding whether or not to have children. Teaser’s up, the first ep drops Friday. (iTunes)
  • “Why the podcast boom has yet to hit Mexico — and why it needs to.” (Current)
  • I hear podcasting was a category on Jeopardy last night. Answers (questions?) included Keepin’ It 1600, Alec Baldwin, and Reply All.

[photocredit]Obligatory photo of a microphone by TVZ Design used under a Creative Commons license.[/photocredit]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Over email, she outlined the three approaches she considered:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bites:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Bugle is Radiotopia’s sixteenth show.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bites:

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

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

Is the NPR podcast promotion kerfuffle overblown or a sign of something real?

The NPR memo. “It was intended as a small internal memo for a specific operational purpose,” he said over the phone. “A ready checklist for people to think about when these particular issues came about it was never intended to be an external document, some sort of formal statement from NPR.”

I’m talking to Chris Turpin, NPR’s vice president of news programming and operations. It was Friday evening, the last stretch of a long week, and we had gotten in touch over phone to talk about the uproar that took place a day earlier. Given that you’re reading a wonky newsletter about the podcast industry or, alternatively, you’re skimming this off a Harvard-housed journalism innovation blog, you probably already know the broad details, so forgive me for dropping a play-by-play for the uninitiated:

  • Last Thursday, NPR published a memo on its Ethics Handbook blog noting that on-air talent should avoid promotional language when mentioning NPR podcasts. This would include explicit instructions on where to find, and how to download, podcasts. The memo also contained a second instruction, which stated that “for now, NPR One will not be promoted on the air.”
  • The publication of the memo kicked up what NPR ombudsman Elizabeth Jensen called “a spirited conversation” on Twitter and multiple closed Facebook groups among “public radio insiders and others who closely follow the digital evolution of journalism.” (Current.org has a good roundup.)
  • Later on Thursday, Nieman Lab’s Joshua Benton published a post critical of NPR, where he contextualized the underlying thinking of the memo as one that’s trapped within the institution’s business structure — namely, its being accountable to member stations. Benton further drew a comparison to the way newspapers kept their focus on their print while they were being disrupted digitally; he evoked the concept of the “strategy tax.”
  • On Friday afternoon, the brouhaha found its way into posts by Quartz and The Verge, suggesting that the situation drew broader interest. Benton’s post served as the theoretical anchor to these posts, which also skewed critical.
  • Late Friday, NPR ombudsman Elizabeth Jensen published her findings on the issue. Jensen situated the memo within its literal scope: that it’s meant to guide language specifically within journalistic contexts, and that it doesn’t necessarily outlaw podcast promotion outside of editorial journalism content on broadcast. But she did note that the tension NPR feels navigating its digital future is real.

There’s a lot to unpack here, with many different things bound up in this one incident. But on a broad level, here’s what I think: That memo, written for a specific context, was taken largely out of context, and as a result its significance was blown out of proportion.

But I also think the fact that the underlying questions raised by the uproar — whether NPR takes seriously the notion of digital and podcasts as central to its future, whether it’s strategizing adequately, whether it can reshape relationships with member stations or their priorities, whether it can retain its status as a journalistic stalwart moving into the future — returned to the forefront so easily with this misunderstanding suggests that the organization, up to this point, hasn’t done a very good job giving anybody enough confidence to believe that they’ll be able to adequately address these questions.

And this kerfuffle — an unanticipated breakdown in optics which may well have real ramifications on internal morale — further undermines the faith and confidence of observers (mostly external, but some internal), many of which are emotionally invested in NPR and its ability to grapple with the extremely complex problems that will define the terms of its future.

Sometime later on Friday evening, Turpin sent out an internal followup. “Let’s be absolutely crystal clear; NPR is deeply committed to podcasting,” he wrote. Later on in the email: “Our podcasts regularly top the charts, and our leadership in the podcast space is obvious.”

Indeed, that’s certainly true for today. But of course, what we’re really concerned about is tomorrow.

Four takes here.

1. The key to evaluate NPR’s fate, I believe, lies in the way the institution views radio and digital/podcast audiences as two separate categories with separate strategies for audience development. Turpin indicated this view when he spoke to Jensen, stating that the two formats “serve different audiences. This isn’t some kind of zero-sum game.”

That thinking makes some sense to me; an entirely plausible strategy to anticipate is one that sees NPR playing something of a caretaking role with broadcast — let them age out, allowing a dignified transition into a niche channel — while increasing its investments, activities, and long-term operational bets on digital and podcasts. But my thinking comes from a firm belief that terrestrial radio will become less dominant over time, a view that Turpin does not seem to share. “This is a win-win. Terrestrial radio has a lot more life in it, and it will continue to have more life in it as young talent comes in,” he told me.

Let’s assume, for argument’s sake, that I’m wrong and that broadcast may well hold strong over time. It still doesn’t explain to me why, frankly, the organization omits even taking the step to educate them on how to download a podcast — I’d argue that education is something theoretically different from promotion. (To anticipate the counterargument using the bookstore analogy: it’s one thing to tell them to go to Barnes & Noble, it’s another thing altogether to explain how a bookstore works to a population that’s new to the concept of bookstores.)

When I asked this question, I got two answers. The first is the fact that they simply haven’t seen meaningful conversions from broadcast to podcast. The second that, in Turpin’s view, it isn’t that hard for listeners to learn how to consume a podcast they heard about on broadcast. “I think people know where to go and find podcasts,” Turpin said. “Downloading a podcast is not that hard to figure out. They can easily Google it!”

I’ll take the point, but I will say that there’s something about that position that strikes me as distinctly not-user-centric — presumptuous, even, of who makes up NPR’s audience.

2. I’ve spent the better part of the past three days toiling over this story. Frankly, I started out fairly sympathetic to NPR, and then I swung to being very frustrated, and now I find myself stuck somewhere down an apathetic middle. I don’t believe, not even for a second, that NPR isn’t investing significant resources into digital and podcasts. The substantial success of Invisibilia, the launches of Hidden Brain, the NPR Politics podcast, and the upcoming Embedded (more on that next week), and the hiring of Tamar Charney as the local editorial lead for NPR One are all signals to me of considerable investment.

But reviewing my notes and re-reading all the responses, I can’t help but bash my head against…how much it feels like NPR isn’t taking the threat of its digital disruption seriously enough. The spectre of that rather unflattering Politico story from last August still looms over my thinking, and I wonder just how much has changed over the past seven months.

3. Much has already written about how this all is largely a function of NPR’s being beholden to the desires, interests, and anxieties of its member stations. And much has been said, on the other side, about how public radio as a whole — member stations included — is internalizing the digital disruption that the medium is facing. “Everyone is working out how podcasts fit into their overall long-term strategy,” as Turpin told Jensen.

But I just want to talk, very briefly, about the purpose that NPR is supposed to fulfill. As I interpret it, NPR was created to serve the public, but through member stations that collectively serve as proxies for the public. It’s worth asking, then, whether member stations still serve their respective publics at the level they once did before — and whether the limitations they introduce to NPR’s calculus outweighs, on a net level, the benefits of NPR serving the public directly.

4. I think it’s important to note that the NPR One issue should be considered separately from the larger podcast promotion issue. Based on my conversation with Turpin, along with some insiders, I’ve come to think that the institution views the app as a work-in-progress. The NPR One portion of the memo, then, is more the result of marketing housekeeping: Why push an incomplete product in front of the bulk of your audience? Turpin also told me that they are getting ready for a big marketing push surrounding the app. (“When?” I asked. “In a matter of months,” he replied.) This information is consistent with what I’ve heard about in the past, and I do feel like we haven’t quite seen what’s in store for NPR One.

Okay, that’s way too much ink spilt on NPR takes, and my head’s spinning. Let’s move on.

Additional reading: Adam Davidson, co-founder of NPR’s Planet Money who now writes for The New York Times Magazine and hosts of Gimlet’s Surprisingly Awesome, on his fear that NPR is allowing itself to grow irrelevant. (Facebook)

A hunt for new sounds. PRX’s Radiotopia launched a new talent-seeking competition called Podquest last week, a campaign that will ultimately resulting in a brand new show joining the network/label/collective’s current roster of 13 shows. The competition will select 10 semifinalists; from among them, three finalists will each receive $10,000 along with creative, entrepreneurial, and technological support from PRX throughout the entire process.

Calls for submissions are open until April 17, and the competition will conclude in November.

Diversity is top of mind for the PRX team. “We’re looking for shows not yet represented by Radiotopia’s roster — both in the ‘who’ and the ‘what’ behind each proposal,” wrote Julie Shapiro, PRX’s executive producer, in an email to me. “Intentional use of sound and an innovative weaving of story are hallmarks of all Radiotopia shows…but we also want to support someone(s) new on the podcasting scene, who might have a different background and approach to creative storytelling in mind, and the ambition and drive to do the hard work to get there.”

To ensure a more diverse pool of applicants, the company has also been reaching out to organizations, Facebook groups, and university programs to increase awareness of the competition in communities beyond their existing networks.

I’ve been struggling to come up with a good analogy for Podquest, particularly after spotting Fast Company equating the competition to American Idol and a press release evoking Project Greenlight. Podquest strikes me as more in the style of the tech accelerator/incubator model, or maybe some sort of expedited MFA for podcasts. Shapiro is sympathetic to this perspective. “I actually don’t feel a tension between the tech-style startup approach and simultaneous creative-editorial guidance; rather the bundling of ALL of it seems necessary right now to help any new podcast succeed,” she wrote.

Anyway, I’m excited for this! With this initiative, Radiotopia is providing a spin on what a podcast network-label-collective should be doing: identifying talent and material that listeners will find valuable. And they seem to be particularly committed to finding and developing fresh, original, sui generis talent — as opposed to adapting another celebrities, brands, or another logo on a slide — which I’m thankful for.

If you’re interested to learn more, head over the Podquest page. And good luck!

And while we’re on the subject of pod competitions (pod-petitions?): I hear that the winners of WNYC’s podcast accelerator are still chugging away. Developments, and possibly launches, are expected to come soon.

On iTunes, part three. ICYMI, I’ve been going pretty deep into the subject of the iTunes charts over the past few weeks. First, I sketched out a theory on how the iTunes charts work and how they fit into the industry’s larger ecosystem of values. Then I took a look at how podcast advertisers perceive, understand, and utilize those charts. I’d like to conclude this miniseries now by unbundling the three major functions that iTunes has come to play in Podcastland, and discuss the various companies (that I know about, anyway) trying to fulfill those functions:

1. Discovery. Above all things, the iTunes charts is the principal driver of podcast discovery — a position that’s no doubt closely tied to the fact that an estimated 70 percent of consumption takes place on the platform. There are several companies currently looking to stake claim in this space: As we’ve discussed previously, Google Play and Spotify are potential competitors, though it increasingly appears that their entry has been slow and muted. We also have relatively older solutions like Stitcher, though its activity has been dimmed down since its acquisition by Deezer. The challenges for both kinds of solutions are associated with their existence as apps; the task comes down to user acquisition, management, and engagement in a mobile space that’s incredibly congested.

But the problem of discovery doesn’t have be solved from this one channel of the mobile device. An app called Otto Radio, for example, is a lean-back curatorial solution that appears specifically designed in anticipation for increased usage on a car dashboard. Another angle comes from pre-existing media infrastructures. Think about it this way: Reviews, recaps, and writeups are central to both TV culture on the Internet and the TV industry’s marketing and discovery initiatives. It’s perfectly plausible that podcasts — and audio programming more generally — can engage in mutually beneficial relationships with culture and entertainment-oriented sites. The AV Club, by the way, has been on this for ages with its Podmass column. (Also something to keep tabs on: the way streaming video content is being serviced by Vulture’s Streaming guide and soon, The New York Times’ new Watching subsite).

2. Measure of value. A chart theoretically serves the purpose of representation. A big part of understanding the health of a show is knowing how it stacks up against other shows, and as I’ve discussed previously, the iTunes chart displays how well shows are driving iTunes interactions relative to other shows — which, as a proxy, is workable, but it provides creators, advertisers, and listeners a distorted picture.

A solution on this front is intimately bound up with the industry’s larger issue concerning standardized, transparent measurements, which will remain a roadblock for the length of this problem. However, at this point in time, it’s worth speculating that a number of podcast networks will not view themselves as being incentivized to adopt measurements standards and open themselves up to transparent rankings. As I mentioned in an issue way back when:

It’s very possible that we would open the black box only to realize that most people don’t actually listen past the 10th minute for most shows…and we consequently lose whatever clout, bargaining chip, or basis of reasoning in our dealings with the advertising community.

And I also suspect, with no proof yet again, that the bulk of us are ill prepared to rapidly rebuild that collective fiction to a workable place once it’s broken.

One could hypothesize, then, that the reason we haven’t seen an actual Billboard-style chart alternative is a hurdle the industry has imposed upon itself. Which is to say, some companies don’t really want to know how their shows are actually doing, or they don’t really want to reveal how they stack up to other shows. But as the medium experiences further increases in broad consumer adoption, and as more and more advertisers spend time coming into contact with more and more podcast companies and creators — in other words, as knowledge is generally increased across the board — the benefits of being opaque will eventually be completely eroded.

So far, the only major play I’ve heard coming down the pipeline is the software development kit (SDK) that the fine folks at Nielsen are cooking up. I’ve also heard rumors of another podcast hosting/measurement platform knocking on some doors, but I’ll confirm that when I can get something on the record.

3. Directory. Pretty straightforward here, so I’ll be quick: On a very basic level, iTunes functions as the de facto podcast search engine. A podcast not listed on iTunes is, in a lot of ways, a podcast that doesn’t really exist. (Like the tree falling in the woods. Or whatever that metaphor is supposed to be). Each podcast listing on iTunes contains key identifying information — show description, creator information, cover art, and so on — that can be grouped and linked together to build a more robust knowledge base for listeners, creators, advertisers, and producers, each looking to perform very different information-gathering tasks.

Last week, something called Podcat made rounds around the Internet and the podcast community. The site dubbed itself the “IMDb for Podcasts,” and it’s the most recent incarnation of this idea. The speech-to-text company Pop-Up Archive has a similar product in its Audiosear.ch platform, which compiles and organizes sets of identiying information that draws from its transcriptions. The challenge here is informational fidelity, accuracy, and timeliness, and from the looks of it, both solutions are still in their very early days. But it’s a glimpse of what could be, and that glimpse is pretty cool.

In related news, the iTunes charts has jumbled up again. It was brought to my attention this weekend that it experienced yet another one of these re-shufflings: This time, the top bracket favored hitherto unheard-of finance podcasts. Right now, the unstoppable MouseChat sits pretty on the top slot once again. I suppose it’s worth noting, at this point, that the underlying mechanics of iTunes charts are subject to internal change — that can’t be adequately documented externally, by the way — as well as periodic anomalies, such as the chart’s tendency to occasionally reshuffle the deck. Maybe I should’ve said that at the beginning.

Relevant bits:

  • Song Exploder’s Hrishikesh Hirway is launching The West Wing Weekly, a new pod with Joshua Malina that will cover the show’s run. They got decent press, including an NPR segment which got them in front of their best possible target demo. The first ep will drop tomorrow, or at least that’s what Hirway told me. (iTunes, NPR)
  • Audible rolled out a fully functional audio clip-sharing feature last week. Called Clip, the feature lets users can share about 30 seconds of audio with another person using a link. (Wired)
  • For anyone else keeping tabs: This American Life “currently draws 10.7 million downloads for every episode,” with CPMs sometimes reaching $50 to $60. Also, another TAL spinoff is due to drop sometime later this year. It’s probably not the only spinoff in development. (Adweek, Baltimore Sun)
  • Pretty intense to hear Uber and Viceland advertising on The Ringer’s Channel 33 podcast feed. (Soundcloud)
  • “The value of using podcasts in class — ironically, they can encourage students to read more.” (The Atlantic)
  • “DeepGram lets you search through lectures and podcasts for your favorite quotes.” (The Next Web)
  • “Why you should consider shutting down your newsroom…temporarily.” Lessons from Gimlet’s Mix Week. (Poynter)
  • “Spotify’s lack of music exclusives isn’t turning people away.” (Tech Insider)

Is this your first time reading Hot Pod? You can subscribe to the newsletter here. It’s got more stuff, and then a couple more things, but really I’m just happy you’re here with me.

The podcast collective Radiotopia has a new leader

The new steward of Radiotopia. PRX has hired Julie Shapiro as the new executive producer of Radiotopia, the podcast ~collective~ that was formed in early February out of a partnership between the company and 99% Invisible’s Roman Mars.

Shapiro comes into the job with a tremendous street cred. In 2000, she cofounded the Third Coast Festival which, in case you didn’t know, is a big independent radio conference/summit/party in Chicago (“Third Coast,” get it?) where really talented and smart radio producers get really drunk together, play some really amazing stories, and have a really good time. She spent 13 years as Third Coast’s artistic director, where she firmly established herself as an incredibly influential figure in the independent radio community and beyond. She left the role in 2013, and has been spending the past couple of years kickin’ it with the wallabies down in Australia, where she served as the executive producer of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Creative Audio Unit.

Oh, and fun fact about Shapiro from the press release: “Julie originally coined the term ‘Radiotopia’ in a speech at the Third Coast Festival, describing it as a place where awesome stories live.” It was meant to be.

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What will Shapiro do as Radiotopia’s new executive producer? A heck of a lot, PRX COO Kerri Hoffman told me over the phone last week. On a show level, she’s tasked with upping the game of every podcast under the Radiotopia banner, which will include (but will not be limited to): working with talent to raise and maintain the level of editorial quality, figuring out how to increase revenues, finding ways to foster deeper engagement with audiences, and developing robust strategies to help shows grow in general. On a network level, Shapiro will help define Radiotopia’s long-term strategic vision and articulate its narrative to the larger market, which, in my opinion, hasn’t always been very clear. ((In fact, I’ve always wondered: What, exactly, is Radiotopia? Why the heck is it a “collective”? What makes a show Radiotopia-worthy? What does the network stand for? Who does it target? Does it dream of electric sheep?)) She will also, I presume, play a huge role in sourcing new shows to add to the group, along with improving metrics, measurements, and standards both qualitative and quantitative.

That is, indeed, a crap ton of things to do, but Hoffman is confident she’s up to the challenge. And you know what? There’s nothing to suggest otherwise. Everything I’ve heard about Shapiro paints her as nothing less than a swashbuckling badass, and furthermore, ever since I started poking my nose around the radio world, I keep hearing stories about her being a great mentor to many a young fledgling producer. To me, that willingness to actively think about the next generation of producers is shorthand for proper leadership.

Also: “It’s super important to me that Radiotopia’s executive producer be a woman,” Hoffman said at some point during our conversation. You know what? It is important, particularly after seeing a parade of white dudes absolutely dominating executive-level positions in the blossoming for-profit on-demand audio industry. This is certainly encouraging stuff.

Also also: PRX CEO Jake Shapiro wrote me yesterday to clarify that, in fact, he is not related to Julie Shapiro. “However we do feel we’re part of a Shapiro mafia in public radio that includes Ben Shapiro and two Ari Shapiros (Ari Daniel and Ari at NPR),” he added. That is some Highlander business right there.

Shapiro starts work in November.

Anyway, let’s talk more about Radiotopia! It’s such a weird thing, and it’s in my top 10 of favorite things to think about.

So, in my mind, Radiotopia is the closest thing to the platonic ideal of a podcast network. Deeply committed to quality, the collective is also uniquely far-reaching in its thinking about genre, conventions, ideas. No two shows under the Radiotopia umbrella sound alike; in some ways, each show feels like a distinctly differentiated thesis, or some sort of gambit, like each show is placing a different bet on the way things should sound. There is boldness to the range of shows that are in Radiotopia: a range of voice, tone, genre, idea, ideal, vision, hope, limitations, trajectory. (Abstaining from using the word “diversity” here, lest I mishandle the political context of that word.)

Many folks have described Radiotopia as a hippie commune, no doubt due to its nonprofit, public media-minded origins and relative looseness with the concept of maximizing revenue. Being the raging, conniving capitalist that I am, I tend to agree with this characterization. And there’s something about the way it’s structured that compels me to be curious: I’m going to guess that not all shows perform equally — in fact, I’m going to rampantly speculate that the range of those performances are huge — and looking at how, well, spotty some of the show’s episode release schedules are, I wonder about financial resources are distributed across all the shows, and I wonder if there are any hangups when it comes to feelings of equity within the collective. But this is just me thinking out loud; there’s probably nothing to that.

Besides, I’m actually more partial to a metaphor given to me by an actual Radiotopian: that the collective is best thought of as an “indie record label” — where a tastemaking entity validates many autonomous visions by providing financial and technical backing. That’s a pretty cool way of looking at it.

Anyway, for the record: My all-time favorite Radiotopia show is most definitely Criminal. That show is so RIDICULOUSLY good it literally makes me angry. Like absolutely pissed. I punched a wall once I was so pissed. It’s crazy. (Song Exploder comes in as a tight No. 2, but docked points because Hrishikesh Hirway wasn’t able to bag the Bieber before The New York Times got their grubby hands on him.)

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Gimlet president: We need a reliable third party to “set an industry standard.” Gimlet president and tallest-man-in-the-world Matt Lieber has that and plenty more things to say in this interview with the Tow Center at Columbia.

You should give the article your click, but two things to note:

  • Really enjoyed his response to the “Why would a successful show stick around a podcast network?” question. Money quote: “He hopes that by ‘super-serving’ the creators with editorial support and a sense of community they will be incentivized to remain within the network for the long term.” Of course, that works for some setups and not others, but that’s definitely one way to skin a cat.
  • Lieber’s point on initiating direct relationships with brands is absolutely essential to understanding the unique value-add that podcasting brings to advertisers. It’s also really interesting to think about the way host-read ads are typically baked into episodes in the context of the larger ad-blocking scare looming over the rest of digital media. (Assuming ad-blocking is a problem: Recode’s Peter Kafka remains skeptical, unless I’m reading him wrong.) Though, if you really think about it, once this whole dynamic ad-insertion thing kicks in, the race is theoretically on for ad-blocking tech to impact audio, perhaps even before the tech hits scale. Hmm.

Anyway, moving on.

BuzzFeed director of audio Jenna Weiss-Berman on Nieman Lab’s Press Publish podcast. This is good Weiss-Berman material. Probably not that user-friendly to link to an entire podcast episode, but the whole thing is most definitely worth a listen.

Highlights:

  • Young people listen more straight from SoundCloud, eh? Interesting.
  • “Co-optition.” Cute, but I totally dig it.
  • Note Jenna’s thinking that situates Another Round within a much larger multimedia — specifically, television — context. Question is not whether it will be successful (oh you know it probably will) but how the heck do you create that workflow?

NPR’s 10 years of podcasting. Tasty NPR Extra article here on the institution’s history with podcasting, complete with a timeline and a quick anecdote that sees National Public Media general manager Bryan Moffett, then a marketing analyst, crossing paths with the men who would go on to create (and fight over) Twitter. Anyway, check out the whole article, but here are some delicious numbers to take away:

  • “Between NPR and all of the public radio stations who contributed shows to those first collections in the directory, it took about a year and a half to reach 80 million downloads.” I’m guessing that’s total downloads across the whole network.
  • “Last month, we had 76 million downloads for just those programs NPR produces or distributes.” Daaayum.

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“Wanting to be heard.” The Toast ran this article on podcasting and representation last week, and it’s a great read. Give the whole thing your attention, but here are some quotes that really stuck with me:

  • Nia King, host of We Want The Airwaves: “If I can self-publish a book and sell 1,000 copies, what is the incentive for me to have a press that’s not going to help me with touring? It’s just unclear whether I’m better off working within the system or without. Because at least now I have complete creative control.”
  • Stephanie Foo, This American Life: “I think that as the content has started to change, the listenership has started to change. We finally have podcasts that are made for younger people now.”

Audio fiction. So, uh, I’ve been working on an item about audio fiction for about, well, four weeks now, and I’m having a lot of trouble hammering down what I really think about the genre. Now, if you’ve been following this newsletter for a while, you’re probably acquainted with my largely negative feelings about most audio fiction that can be found on the market right now.

But here’s the thing: I actually believe that audio fiction is the growth market in on-demand audio. I just think that the genre hasn’t been done right, or has been done in a way that can compel non-partisan listeners to legitimately think that it’s up to par with most other forms of mainstream entertainment. (In fact, if I ever did work up the gastrointestinal fortitude to go solo and run my own ship — or marry rich and live off a spousal bonus, either way — a big part of what I’d do would be bankrolling very specific audio fiction projects.) I think about it quite a lot, and because I’ve been thinking about it quite a lot, I haven’t been able to settle on what I want to say.

Anyway, while I’ve been sitting here and twiddling my thumbs, these two things dropped and I really think that you should check them out ASAP:

  • Nieman Lab’s writeup of the Limetown podcast. Money quote: “They’re not purposely trying to fool anyone, but their background in film has given them a refreshing view on podcasts: Why can’t they be more like movies?”
  • The Pub podcast: Ann Heppermann on the rebirth of audio fiction.

Cool? Cool. I’m going to go back and work on this audio fiction item a little more, which is now about 2,500 words long and looks suspiciously like the Little Red Book, which is why I’m probably going to junk it and just do a 500-word rant instead.

Maybe next week.

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An update on that SXSW panel I’m working on. So last week I mentioned that I’m trying to organize a panel at SXSW about podcast audience growth — strategies, philosophies, challenges, and so on. That’s still happening, but there’s been a change: the great Gretchen Rubin can’t do the panel, because she’s double-booked, so the third panelist will be Midroll’s vice president of business development Erik Diehn.

Before going to Midroll, Diehn was the senior director of business development at WNYC, and before that, he had stints at Bloomberg and the Boston Consulting Group. (You know who else did time at BCG? Matt Lieber. Small world.) Which is all to say, compared to the other two panelists — BuzzFeed’s Weiss-Berman and Longform’s Max Linsky — Diehn’s bringin’ the corporate game.

Should be fun, if we get enough votes, of course.

You can vote for the panel here. Please note that you’d have to create some sort of login to vote, which kinda sucks and I’m so sorry.

Oh man, that was a long one. All right, have a great week, see you next Tuesday!

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