Could Google’s new podcast app change the way we understand the Average Podcast Listener?

IN PLAY. The hope had always been for more. Or, at least, for another.

On Tuesday, Google officially launched its standalone podcast app for Android. As of right now, it is available for download in the Google Play store. This was well expected, given the steady drumbeat of preview posts that Google had collaborated with the branded podcast studio Pacific Content to produce and publish. Those write-ups laid out how the search giant viewed its place in the audio universe, how it might contribute to the easing of its frictions, and how it might move to own a piece of the whole thing. And then there was the matter of last week’s code sighting, which suggested the prospect of a standalone podcast app in addition to the core audio search features that Google was apparently baking into its main Android search app. That suggestion turned out to be signal, as a standalone app is precisely what we were given.

The Problem had always been clearly understood, but it never felt as if anyone had found a way to get out of it. Podcasting had long been a ward of Apple, which historically stood as some sort of impartial steward. The space grew and flourished in large part because of a string of Apple decisions: inclusion into iTunes, breaking out as a standalone app, bundling with iOS by default. But, as has long been documented, the relationship between Apple and the ecosystem it helped foster is a complicated one. Some argue that Apple should get more involved with discovery, analytics, and monetization. Others believe Apple already wields too much power. This split in opinion broadly tracks alongside a split in communities; it is an expression of ideological tensions between those who function as independents and those who pursue empire. (I have also heard this tension framed as actually being between those who had power in the past and those who want power in the future. Whatever the case may be, have sympathy for those caught in between.) All throughout these debates, Apple’s commitment to being an impartial steward mostly never wavered, save for one exception: the introduction of in-episode analytics in the waning days of 2017. For many, this was a step in the right direction. But some, if not many, wanted so much more. Despite the incremental progression, the entire episode only further clarified the nature of the status quo: podcasting is Apple’s world, podcast publishers just live in it. Whatever progress these publishers want to make for themselves, they would have to make it on terms set, directly and indirectly, by the things Apple will and will not do.

Google, in theory, offers an alternative to this reality. The supposed argument is a diplomatic one: this wouldn’t be a case of Google eating Apple’s lunch, but rather a move to unlock the previously underserved Android market, which would give podcast publishers a path to building meaningful relationships with the other half of U.S. smartphone owners and the vast majority of smartphone owners in the world. Android owners had previously been served by a collection of third-party apps — Pocket Casts, RadioPublic, Podcast Addict, Overcast, and so on — all of which were able to claim their own relatively modest fiefdoms within the expansive Android universe. It was a fragmented state, and so the opportunity here would be a push for unification… or consolidation (likely at the expense of these third-party solutions, but that’s another matter.)

Of course, this is all not as simple as it sounds. And it’s not as if Google hasn’t been here before. Google had another standalone podcast app not too long ago, Google Listen, an experimental product launched in the summer of 2009. Google Listen was eventually shuttered in 2012 on the reasoning that there were other, better podcast apps out there, as the search giant told Android Central at the time. But that was two years before the beginning of the so-called Podcast Boom, and quite some time before we’d come to know what we know now. In late 2015, Google added podcasts to Google Play Music, which was an attempt to fit the media category into the Concierge system the company had gained through the acquisition of Songza. It was an intriguing idea, but it didn’t end up moving the Android podcast needle very much.

Tuesday’s standalone podcast app has significant differences that separate then from now, we’re told. These features will include, but are not limited to:

  • Greatly decreasing the friction from search results to an actual mobile listening experiencing, thus operationalizing searches as a true top of the funnel;
  • AI-assisted features like quick transcription, greater in-episode searchability, automatic visual subtitling across multiple languages, and content-indexing, which will presumably give audiences more control over the judgment and navigating of a listening experience (and, also presumably, put some speech-to-text transcription companies out of business);
  • Cross-device syncing, which allows users to easily transition between listening on a smartphone or through a smart speaker;
  • Direct monetization features, like the possibility of a “donate” button.

It remains to be seen whether these features will be enough to convert large volumes of podcast-curious Android users into an actual podcast listeners. For what it’s worth, I think they could be helpful in getting more pedestrians to at least try the damn thing. But I also think that Google will need the cooperation of publishers to do some of the awareness-raising work for them. Then again, if there was ever a time to get a critical mass of publishers to split focus between Apple and an alternative, this moment would be it.

Something else that remains to be seen: how the Google Podcast app’s new features, if effective in capturing listeners, will shift the value narrative of podcasting — that is, the way we understand how a listener relates to a podcast, and thus how podcast impressions are sold to advertisers. After all, much of its contemporary value is based around the idea of podcasts being an “intent-driven” medium — which is to say, it’s pretty damn hard to listen to a podcast, so the kinds of folks who listen to them regularly must really love the thing enough to walk on coals. Google’s new AI-assisted features are designed to cut down the necessity of that intensity. As a result, we’re in for a shift in how we understand, and articulate, the Average Podcast Listener. That’s going to cause some considerable reformulation of how the industry works. It’s also going to shift the nature of who has the real power, and who will set the terms of what podcast publishers can and cannot do.

All of which leads us to the real question: what happens once you get what you’ve always hoped for?

One more thing: In addition to the app, Google has also announced that it is “partnering with the podcast industry on a program to increase the diversity of voices and remove barriers to podcasting.” It seems reminiscent of Spotify’s recent effort at creating a podcast bootcamp aimed at women of color. More information is due late this summer.

Chris Hardwick accused of emotional and sexual abuse. The allegations against the prominent podcaster and Nerdist Industries founder were made by an ex-girlfriend, the actress and model Chloe Dysktra, in a Medium essay published last Thursday. Hardwick wasn’t named in the essay, but he issued a statement to Deadline on Friday denying the allegations.

Various companies that work and have worked with Hardwick have distanced themselves from the presenter. They include Legendary Entertainment, AMC, NBC, and San Diego Comic-Con, among others.

Hardwick launched the Nerdist podcast in 2010, and formed Nerdist Industries in early 2012. Later that year, the company was acquired by Legendary Entertainment. The New York Times profiled him in April 2016. Hardwick left Nerdist Industries this past February, taking the flagship Nerdist podcast with him and subsequently rebranding it as ID10T.

Cadence13 serves as the ad sales partner on the podcast. When contacted yesterday, a spokesperson told me: “Cadence13 serves as a third-party sales representative to Chris Hardwick’s podcast show ID10T. We are currently assessing the situation as we take these allegations very seriously.”

WNYC’s Dean Cappello has left the public radio organization, a little over six months since The Cut published the journalist Suki Kim’s exposé of former Takeaway host John Hockenberry and the station. The report, which drew from Kim’s own experience with Hockenberry as well as the experiences of many others, accused him of sexual harassment and toxic workplace conduct. Cappello, who was the station’s chief content officer when the story broke, was one of the primary targets of criticism during the ensuing fallout, given his role in creating and overseeing The Takeaway as well as his general management of the organization’s controversial culture in the subsequent years. Once widely viewed as CEO Laura Walker’s top lieutenant, he was demoted to an advisory role in January. Cappello had been with the station for over two decades.

As Current noted, WNYC did not provide a specific reason for his departure. On Twitter, WNYC reporter Ilya Marritz highlighted: “Cappello’s departure underscores the fact that the only people held to account (publicly, at least) were on air talent, not executives.”

Marritz added: “Questions I asked today of WNYC: was it Cappello’s decision to leave? Did he get severance? Does he have an NDA? No answers.”

The global scene. The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism published its annual Digital News Report last week, and the study contains a ton of noteworthy podcast-specific findings. Even cooler: its survey of audio and podcasting spanned 22 nations, which gives us a good comparative look across countries.

From the report, here are some key data points on podcast usage across countries:

  • The top three countries with the highest proportions of surveyed respondents who indicated having accessed a podcast in the past month were all in Asia: South Korea (58 percent), Hong Kong (55 percent), and Taiwan (47 percent). The report suggested that this is likely tied to those countries having stronger smartphone penetrations together with “high levels of social sharing.” Not quite sure about the latter, but the former sure sounds right.
  • Here are the rates for the three countries most covered in this newsletter: the U.S. (33 percent), Australia (33 percent), and the UK (18 percent).
  • On the question of the UK’s relatively low usage rate — which is consistent with other Northern European countries — the report’s authors speculate: “Surprisingly, podcasts seem to be least accessed in North European countries with a strong audio tradition such as Finland (24 percent), Germany (22 percent), the UK (18 percent), and the Netherlands (18 percent). This may be because popular public broadcasters have little incentive to undermine their linear radio listening by producing or promoting podcasts.”
  • The authors also suspect: “On the other hand, there may also problems of definition with the term podcast not equally understood across countries. In the UK, for example, much listening comes via the popular BBC iPlayer radio app but on-demand streams and downloads accessed this way are not labelled specifically as podcasts and may not be understood as such in surveys such as ours.” I’m curious if this can also be applied to the inverse; that is, on the three Asian countries with the highest rates of podcast usage.

And here are some other standout findings from the report’s audio-podcast breakout:

  • News podcasts popular among younger listeners. “Just under half of under 35s are using news-related podcasts, which is almost certainly far more of this group than listen to traditional radio news.”
  • Brief case study: Turkey. “We also asked about podcasts in Turkey, where we poll using an urban sample. Here we find more than two-thirds of this group using podcasts monthly, partly as a result of improving connectivity and ubiquitous smartphone use amongst the urban population. A number of the most popular podcasts are in English with the BBC’s Global News topping the iTunes chart.”
  • Concluding note. “Critically, the demographics of podcasting are explosive. The younger generation is embracing content at a time and in a format that works for them — a trend that looks unlikely to be reversed any time soon.”

Yo, I’m just aggregating at this point. You can read the whole audio/podcast breakout here, and you can find the full Digital News Report here.

With this, I know the next story I’m digging into: what’s going on in South Korea, Hong Kong, and Taiwan? Is the picture painted in the report as straightforward as it appears to be? Will this be my opportunity to finally visit Taiwan? Oh boy oh boy.

Meanwhile, across the channel. How about a quick look at what’s going on over in France, whose podcast access rate was pegged at 28 percent in the Digital News Report? “The French media landscape is pretty dire those days,” Charlotte Pudlowski, a Paris-based media entrepreneur, tells me. “Two magazines that launched with big ambitions and a big press coverage died this year, after only a few months of existence. The French version of BuzzFeed just shut down.”

Oh.

But, she added, it looks as if on-demand audio represents one of the few bright spots for the French media industry. Pudlowski cited a recent market study published by Audible and the Parisian research firm OpinionWay, which gives shape to a French podcast listening demographic that’s increasingly drawing the attention of local advertisers in addition to the usual suspects like the aforementioned Audible and an expansionary Casper. The data points sound familiar:

  • More than 40 percent of French people say they listen to podcasts;
  • Of these 40 percent, more than 50 percent are highly educated and work high-paying jobs;
  • French podcast listeners skew young, with 52 percent between the ages of 18 and 24.

Young, highly-educated, and well-paid — not unlike the audience demographic profile you’d get from the American podcast listening audience. (Though, as recently pointed out in the most recent Infinite Dial presentation by Edison Research, the American podcast listenership is slowly beginning to resemble the general American population.)

Sure, it’s a sales pitch. After all, Pudlowski is the co-founder of a new Parisian podcast studio called Louie Media, which specializes in narrative podcasts. But Pudlowski felt strong enough in the opportunity to strike out on her own and form this venture, and Louie Media has found enough work these days to sufficiently validate her claim.

The last time I traded notes with Pudlowski was back in the summer of 2016. At the time, she was working at Slate France, the French sister company of the American digital magazine (she describes it as the “French version of Slate, but independent economically”), and she had just launched a podcast for the site called Transfert, which has grown to average about 350,000 listens a month. After spending a year as the site’s editor-in-chief, Pudlowski decided to break off and follow through with her work in audio. In November, she formed Louie Media with Mélissa Bounoua, old college friend and her deputy editor at Slate France.

The podcast studio is currently built on three revenue channels:

  • Advertising-supported original work, which includes a recently launched narrative podcast called Entre that has booked Audible as a sponsor;
  • Co-productions, which see the studio producing podcasts for other media companies like Madame Figaro, a leading women’s magazine in France, and Slate France; and of course,
  • Branded podcasts, including a recent campaign with Birchbox France.

Again, a good deal of similarity can be gleaned with what we see in the States. This, I should add, extends to the studio’s major hurdles, which also include concerns with measurement and analytics as well as the general need to explain the quirks of a new medium. “The challenge lies both in the lack of precise figures and the earliness of the market in France,”  Pudlowski wrote me. “We still have to [explain to] a lot of advertisers what podcasts are.”

Related reading. From a March press release by AdsWizz, announcing a partnership with the French advertising agency NextRegie:

“Programmatic buying is the wave of the future, and we are eager to move into the future with AdsWizz and make our premium podcast inventory available to advertisers,” said Pierre-Henry Medan, general ganager of NextRegie. “Podcast listening has been growing rapidly in France, Europe, and all over the world, and we are very excited to enable advertisers to communicate on our brands through this new format.”

Hmm.

On voice. These three pieces caught my attention this week, and when grouped together in one place, they collectively paint a really interesting picture.

First of all, Amazon is pushing the Echo into France, which means that it has to build out a voice interaction system in French. From Wired:

When you think about what it takes to launch Alexa in France, start with the basics. There’s the language, obviously. But unpack that: French is complex, both linguistically and societally. It has formal and informal address. It demands of its speakers euphony, harmonious and seamless transitions between words to maintain an almost musical cadence. And as you might expect from a country with nearly 70 million inhabitants, a multitude of regional accents inform pronunciations.

Modeling for one language is hard. (Hell, it’s hard enough to write good dialogue in English.) Adapting across different languages is a whole other challenge altogether.

Next, Mozilla, the makers of the Firefox browser (which, by the way, is my internet vessel of choice), is reportedly working on a voice-controlled browser called Scout. From CNET:

The nonprofit revealed the Scout project in an agenda item for an all-hands meeting taking place this week in San Francisco. “With the Scout app, we start to explore browsing and consuming content with voice,” Mozilla said. A sample command shows how it might work: “Hey Scout, read me the article about polar bears.”

Not to be confused with the other voice-first project called Scout FM, previously known as Subcast, which I wrote about in January. What’s with the affinity for the word “scout”? Weird.

And finally, here’s Ian Bogost, the academic and game designer, writing for The Atlantic about the experience and significance of the AirPods:

After an hour with the AirPods in, listening to music and making a few calls while working, I lose the sensation that they occupy my auricle anymore. But unlike the corded buds, there’s no need to untether myself from the phone when I get up to do something else…I am connected to the phone, and therefore the world, without being tethered to it directly.

This makes the AirPods more than just a wireless headset; it puts the device squarely in the domain of voice assistants and devices, like Amazon Echo and Google Assistant. Even as augmented and virtual reality promise to immerse users in space and information, speech offers a simpler answer that is no less science-fictional: Being able to talk at a computer and have it respond. Echo does so in the room, Siri on your phone, and AirPods right inside your skull.

Looking forward to a world where my wife and I no longer ignore each other at the dinner table as we fiddle with our phones, but where we fearfully keep our conversation down to the dimmest whisper lest we mistakenly wake the myriad smart devices lining the walls. At least it brings us closer together.

Bites

  • Cannes Lions, the annual glitzy advertising festival, is happening this week, and I hear there are a couple of podcast shops in attendance. So watch out for possible stories coming out from that.
  • Welcome to Night Vale has announced dates for its 2018–2019 world tour, which will take the podcast’s live show performance across 44 cities in nine countries. On a related note, the show turned six last Tuesday. Congrats! (Website)
  • WAMU is launching something called The Pod Shop, “a three-month initiative that will train, support and promote local podcast producers.” Up to five people will be selected to participate, and they’ll get mentorship as well as a $2,500 funding award. (Website)
  • “The podcasters who want you to stop listening.” (The Ringer) I’m here for all the Drew Ackerman love.
  • Desus and Mero are heading to Showtime. Avail yourself of this fine profile. (The Brand is Strong)
  • Afropop Worldwide has launched the third season of its Closeup podcast, which delivers “ten- to twenty-minute episodes that tell intimate stories about a musician or a moment in time and explore genres of music and social justice issues from Africa and the diaspora.” (Website)
  • “Remember Pandora Radio? Recently logging on to my old Pandora account felt like meeting a former self.” (BuzzFeed Reader)
  • I think I missed this earlier, but the trailer for Amy Schumer’s big $1 million+ Spotify podcast dropped not too long ago. (Apple Podcasts)
  • Know what? You should be reading Andrew Liptak’s Pod Hunters column over at The Verge. His latest: “The witch who came in from the cold.
  • My latest for Vulture: In The Dark, season 2. (Madeleine Baran is a boss)
  • Not directly related, but worth chewing over: “Why you can’t really trust negative online reviews.” (New York Times)

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]