Miscellaneous Bites: December 14, 2018

(1) A quick follow-up on the Remote Audio Data story from Wednesday. A few readers wrote in asking if the initiative would still be successful without the participation of Apple. My sense is that Apple participation would make things significantly easier — or at least less challenging — as far as bringing together an aggregate listens-based data analytics picture that can induce confidence is concerned. But generally speaking, it seems to me that the initiative was designed with the possibility of Apple non-participation, and that the specs were developed to be a common solution for publishers to adopt in order to better enable publishers to lead the shift towards listens-based analytics.

(2) Another follow-up: I very stupidly forgot to name-check another pretty interesting — perhaps super consequential — acquisition from the year in Tuesday’s year in review: Scripps acquiring Triton Digital. Do not sleep on that.

(3) This one’s pretty interesting: Dr. Phil, the very popular daytime talk show host, is now launching his upcoming collection of podcasts with Stitcher. Back at the IAB Podcast Upfronts in September, it was thought that Podcast Media Marketing — formerly Public Media Marketing, which handles ads for shows like Serial and The Joe Rogan Experience — was bringing that project to market.

Two things to note:

  • I haven’t pinned the “how” just yet, but I think you can group this story with Stitcher’s recent release of Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend and iHeartMedia’s recent deal-striking to secure the Anchorman podcast. There’s some sort of trend-line here that’s a little different from the broader celebrity pod shift, and I’d keep an eye on the action here.
  • About that Dr. Phil podcast collection: the dude will apparently roll out four podcast projects over the course of 2019. Two active questions: (1) Will he be able to convert his strong television audience base into a strong podcast audience base? (Also add: newer older audiences? etc. etc. ) and (2) Just how much do you think advertisers will like this inventory? Quite a bit, I imagine.

(4) ESPN announced yesterday that the Miami-based Dan Le Batard, one of its more prominent radio and television hosts, will be launching a podcast-first project in early January. It will be an interview show, and it will be called South Beach Sessions. If you’re watching closely, you should probably know this: according to numbers circulated in a recent press release, the podcast repackage of The Dan Le Batard Show with Stugotz is the leading performer of its podcast portfolio, with 8.3 million downloads in November. But you should also know that the lead could be a function of publishing volume: the repackage breaks down the radio broadcast into separate chunks, and ends up publishing four episodes every weekday.

(5) Shifting gears a bit: over at WBEZ, Jennifer White, the host of a number of the station’s critically acclaimed podcasts (Making Oprah, 16 Shots, etc.), is now the full-time host of The Morning Shift live morning talk show broadcast, replacing veteran Tony Sarabia. She was previously just the Friday host of The Morning Shift. I’m told that she will continue hosting the “Making” podcast series, plus other digital projects that are currently in the oven.

(6) This is interesting to me, as well as very specific slice of the Hot Pod Insider readership I imagine: “Anna Faris Partners With WeWork on New Podcast Studio.” (The Hollywood Reporter) Pair that with this story from last month: “Stitcher partners with Sennheiser to produce state-of-the-art podcast studios,” (Press release)

(7) Finally: Serial‘s Sarah Koenig had a cameo in a Samantha Bee skit this week.

Report: Liberty Media angling to take control of iHeartMedia

The New York Post reports that Liberty Media is aiming to take control of iHeartMedia as soon as the financially-struggling radio giant (which recently acquired Stuff Media for $55 million) crawls out of bankruptcy early next year. Here’s the report. iHeartMedia had been struggling with a $20 billion debt burden over the years due to a leveraged buyout in 2008.

For reference, Liberty Media’s portfolio already includes a majority stake in SiriusXM — which, remember, recently agreed to acquire Pandora — plus a 33% stake in Live Nation Entertainment, the parent company of Ticketmaster. Web Barr, friend of the newsletter and biz-ops/strategy person at Bleacher Report, floated this observation over Twitter: should Liberty take control of iHeart, an audio stack composed of iHeartMedia + SiriusXM + Pandora + Ticketmaster is… a most interesting one.

Meanwhile, don’t forget: Apple is said to be potentially exploring an investment in iHeartMedia. Discussions were described to be preliminary, and Apple is said to be considering a minority stake.

Headspin: Panoply, iHeartMedia-HowStuffWorks, Weisberg-Gladwell

Been quite the week, hasn’t it? In case you missed it: last Wednesday, Panoply announced that it was getting out of the content business and, as a result, would be letting go of its entire editorial division — putting more than a few good products out of a job — in favor of focusing solely on its “podcast hosting and ads services business,” i.e. its Megaphone platform. The company is also getting out of direct ad sales — leaving its client base to shop for new sales partners, seemingly abruptly — in favor of its podcast monetization offering that’s rooted in its partnership with Nielsen’s audience segmentation tool. Which is to say: Panoply is essentially shifting into a direct LibSyn and Art19 competitor with an additional monetization edge.

The Panoply news wasn’t an isolated development. That same day, Slate Group chairman Jacob Weisberg announced that he was leaving to form a new audio company with the author Malcolm Gladwell of contemporary Revisionist History fame. On Thursday, the linear radio giant iHeartMedia acquired HowStuffWorks’ parent company Stuff Media for $55 million (that’s $5 million above what Scripps paid for Midroll, by the way). Capping things off, later that Thursday, the media conglomerate Endeavor began rolling out word of its own podcast division, Endeavor Audio, to the public.

That’s a ton of big news for a two day span. Each story is complicated enough on its own, but the clustering of stories was dramatic enough to inspire questions about what they mean as a collective and what they tell us about the podcast industry. Nieman Lab’s Joshua Benton strung together the news blitz in a blog post on Thursday, which he closed with a useful framing question: “Is this a classic case of legacy media (iHeart) buying into its digital disruptor (podcasting), à la the investments of companies like Comcast, Hearst, Time Warner investing into digital natives like BuzzFeed, Vox Media, and Mic?” he wrote. “Or something less positive, a sign of further shakeouts in an industry that, while far more structured than in its loosey-goosey early days, is still relatively decentralized?”

Both things are probably true at the same time, or somewhere in the middle, and then some. Come, friends. Let’s navel-gaze into oblivion.

I.

In my understanding, the Panoply decision was driven by a cold calculation. Put simply, the company has moved to no longer stretch its resources (and identity) across multiple lines of businesses — content, direct ad sales, technology — and purely restructure itself around the one business that it has identified as having the most differentiation and long-term growth potential in the marketplace. Panoply may have had some high-profile shows over the years, but the business of hit-production is exorbitantly risk-heavy, and when it comes to podcasts, you’re talking about an environment with an infinite competitive horizon that’s already stacked with formidable players. That challenge is further grounded with a more mundane truism: it’s hard to build any business whatsoever, but it’s exponentially harder to build three interrelated businesses from scratch at the same time. Based on the messaging that came out from the restructure, it seems Panoply’s higher-ups determined that it would be more prudent to put all their chips on Megaphone. (It should be noted Steve Lickteig, EP of podcasts at sister company Slate, asserted over Twitter that Panoply’s move has no bearing on their operations. “We are still 100% in the game,” he wrote.)

Some readers wrote in to draw a line between Panoply’s withdrawal from the podcast content business and Audible’s early August move to eliminate a considerable number of roles within its original programming unit, particularly the podcast-style production team led by former NPR exec Eric Nuzum. Some suspected the two stories to be linked by a similar skepticism, perhaps from the company’s respective higher ups, about the prospects of podcasting. I don’t see how that could be the case. If anything, Panoply’s move feels like a doubling down on the industry’s prospects, as the choice to focus on Megaphone is itself a bet that there will be more popular and profitable podcasts to come that would need next-gen technology support.

The Audible situation is a tad messier. As I’ve mentioned previously, I suspect the reshuffling of the company’s original programming division to primarily be linked to the executive turnover that took place last December. A shift in leadership philosophy and internal politics, in other words. In any case, the platform appears to going down its own path on original programming: audiobook-only products, theatrical adaptations, meditation app acquisitions. The Amazon-owned audiobooks giant may not be competing within the infrastructural context of podcasting, but they still very much compete for the relationship with audiences. Those two stories aren’t linked by skepticism about podcasting; rather, they’re linked by a similar move to double-down on their respective ecosystems in pursuit of the same goal: to derive value from capturing the earballs of people everywhere.

Nevertheless, the timing of the Panoply news was suspect, as it took place shortly after the company presented at the IAB Podcast Upfronts where, among other things, it announced a new fiction podcast co-written by The Bright Sessions’ Lauren Shippen and starring Kelly Marie Tran. (The project is still apparently going to roll out in November which… you know, awkward.) I don’t know, exactly, what’s behind the strange timing, but I reckon it has to do at least something with Jacob Weisberg’s decision to head out on his own.

II.

In parallel to the Panoply news on Wednesday, Weisberg announced that, after twenty-two years, he was leaving the Slate Group, which houses both Panoply and sister company Slate, to form a new audio company with Malcolm Gladwell. His departure comes at a moment where Slate, a veteran internet magazine operation, appears to have found some success navigating the choppy digital media waters with the help of a growing podcast business. At the end of 2017, podcasting comprised of 25% of the company’s revenues, up from virtually nothing in 2014. And this year has looked to be a good one so far for Slate Podcasting. Working off the strength of a formidable long-running portfolio that includes the Slate Political Gabfest and The Gist, the company has been rolling out a fleet of new shows, which includes the critically-acclaimed, widely-consumed (its first season reportedly brought in 11 million downloads), and utterly fantastic Slow Burn. More big projects are in the oven: I’ve previously reported that Slate is currently working with another well-known author, Michael Lewis, to develop a podcast series.

Which raises the question: why is Weisberg leaving to form a new audio venture with Gladwell now, instead of keeping things in-house at Slate? I have no special insight into this, and there is likely a ton of backstory we’re not publicly privy to, but I can’t help seeing a possible parallel with the Panoply story here: whatever the overarching circumstances, this could well be a situation where Weisberg and Gladwell want to run where they could previously only walk.

Anyway, specific details about Weisberg and Gladwell’s new venture are still scant, but we do know that it will focus on producing podcasts, audiobooks, and smart speaker content. I find the explicit evocation of audiobooks especially interesting: given Audible’s strategic shift to partnering directly with well-known authors to produce audiobook-only products as means to bypass publishing houses, it’s hard not to imagine the play here. And if Weisberg and Gladwell haven’t already thought about striking up a direct relationship with Audible, they should be.

III.

I’ll admit to not being particularly surprised about iHeartMedia acquiring Stuff Media. I’ve heard rumors about HowStuffWorks slipping on a price tag as far back as June that, when I followed up with the company, were categorically denied. (¯\_(ツ)_/¯). But here we are.

I vibe with Josh Benton’s suggestion that this story is, indeed, one of a legacy media acquiring its way into area knowledge and expertise of its digital disruptor. The move is good for iHeartMedia: up to this point, the liner radio entity had experimented with various ways of interpreting the on-demand audio business, with ambiguous results (as communicated through ambiguous Podtrac ranking analytics) and some minor measurement controversies along the way. In HowStuffWorks, they’ve acquired a humming content factory that already performs well within the context of podcasting. (Endeavor Audio pulled a similar move in its roll-out, striking a partnership with the Parcast network and its lines of genre product.)

On HowStuffWorks’s end, things strike me as a little more mixed.The Atlanta-based podcast giant has been at this for a long time, persisting through early podcast history beneath the umbrella of multiple parent companies before spinning out as an independent entity and raising $15 million in Series A money about a year ago. Since going solo, they’ve made some expansions, struck a few new partnerships, modernized their back-end, and rolled out a few big-swing shows, including Atlanta Monster. That company made the decision to be acquired for $55 million — which feels a little flat, IMHO — instead of staying independent to either (a) further bump that number up or (b) become a bigger business of their own is the sticking point. A year is a really short time for a spin-out and exit, so either they didn’t read their long-term independent prospects positively… or perhaps this was always part of the plan.

Anyway, the Panoply and iHeartMedia-HowStuffWorks stories interact in a really interesting way: prior to the acquisition, HowStuffWorks hosted its podcast portfolio on Megaphone, which I presume is an arrangement that’s pretty lucrative for Panoply. It’s unclear to me whether iHeartMedia will move HowStuffWorks onto another platform — perhaps its own in-house solution? — or whether they’ll keep things as is and build a sales infrastructure to meet it. We’ll see.

IV.

So, taken as a collective, what do all these stories mean? Are they data points contributing to some impending cataclysm, or do they point elsewhere — towards something simultaneously better and worse, something just different?

One way to read this is a story of an industry “maturing.” In the final accounting, we have: a broad multi-purpose podcast company that’s restructured into a pure tech company, one big radio company gobbling up a smaller podcast content company, and one brand new content company. Put another way: you have a company that’s finally decided on what it should be, one big legacy media company buying their way into the medium, and a new audio company built on the foundation of a really popular blue chip podcast (and Broken Record).

Another way to read it: the past few years marked a period of unchecked experimentation on a large scale, where a wide spread of gambits were laid out with ample runway to play. What we’re seeing might now might be the beginning of a turn: the tests have been run, the results have come in, and the time has come to shift resources based on what was found. In other words, as the podcast industry continues down its steady and relatively unsexy path of growth, a collection of players reshuffle their decks in response.

V.

The unfortunate reality, of course, is that the machinations of companies, corporations, and organizations tend to come at the expense (or indifference) of workers. With Panoply’s exit from the content business, a number of talented producers are back out on the job market at the end of the month. I tweeted out earlier that I thought the market for is better now for experienced audio producers that it ever was, given the preponderance of new audio companies and increased need for skilled labor. (Yes, everyone can make a podcast. No, not everyone can make a listenable one.) I do believe this, by the way, but the belief is not without caveat: by a “better” job market, I mean that the current environment is one where producers can more easily get paid gigs compared to, say, five or six years ago. That doesn’t necessarily refer to the ability to get a desirable job at a company that will make good decisions, listen to you, and provide you with a place to grow — that’s a whole other bag of worms. But you can get paid. And that’s the frustrating heart of all this: abundant jobs or no, producers function within a system where the fates of workers are mostly at the relatively unprotected mercy of capital, companies, and their leadership team struggling through their respective problems of identity, vision, and product-market fit.

VI.

One last thing. The framework for thinking through all of this remains the same: demand for time-shifted on-demand audio content continues to increase, and demand for good on-demand audio creators and producers are going up accordingly. The central question we’re grappling with here is how money is made; that story is only partly about how the podcast industry/community figures out its arrangements and business model, and it is also partly about how it deals with opportunities, challenges, and interactions with other systems like audiobooks, music streaming platforms, and whatever else lies around the corner.

Who are podcast “super listeners,” what do they do, and how do we build podcasts for them?

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 140, published November 14, 2017.

Hello from Chicago, where I’m writing this in the lovely Hearken offices. Much thanks to the team for letting me in from the Midwestern cold.

The voice of Vox. We now know who is going to host the upcoming Vox daily news podcast: the Canadian-born Sean Rameswaram. A veteran WNYC staffer, his tenure includes work on the Kurt Andersen-led Studio 360 while the show was still at the station and, more recently, as a reporter on Radiolab’s More Perfect. Rameswaram has long exhibited considerable ambition to lead his own program: he hosted the Studio 360 spin-off podcast Sideshow, served as a guest host on a season of the CBC’s Podcast Playlist, and put himself in the running to take over the popular Canadian culture program Q in the post-Ghomeshi era. (He would eventually be beaten out by the rapper Shadrach Kabango.)

Rameswaram now finds himself at the front of Vox’s latest, and splashiest, foray into audio with a daily news podcast at a time when the genre is truly heating up. Some things to watch: How will the show differentiate itself from the New York Times’ The Daily? How will Vox carve out its own piece of the daily news podcast listening audience? And how will Rameswaram fare as the Barbaro alternative? Will we ever find the time to Feel. All. This. News?

He will move to DC for the gig, where he will be stationed in Vox’s core newsroom. The press release notes that he will eventually be joined by a staff of five. The show, whatever it will be called, is scheduled to launch early next year.

The most engaged. This morning, the Knight Foundation published a report — conducted by Edison Research — that identifies a specific subset within the podcast listening population: what it’s calling “super listeners,” referring to exceptionally engaged consumers of informative digital audio content.

Among the observed characteristics include:

  • Super listeners consume twice the amount of podcast content compared to generic listeners. “The average number of shows listened to per week was much higher with Knight respondents (13) than with weekly podcast listeners from the Infinite Dial (5),” the report notes.
  • They are loyal evangelists of the medium. The report notes that 96 percent of surveyed super listeners had recommended a podcast to a friend.
  • These listeners prefer in-depth content, and increasingly prefer digital consumption over broadcast.

The report also explores the relationship between this listener subset and public media. The findings are intriguing, with the study finding that: “Despite the fact that self-reported radio listening is down with these respondents as a result of podcast listening, two-thirds indicated that they have listened to their local public radio station in the last month… Nearly one-third indicated that they had donated money in the last year to their local public radio station, and 28% had donated to a podcast or radio program directly.” But the study also discovered that there isn’t necessarily a universal “halo effect” for public media podcasts: 51 percent said they like public and nonpublic media podcasts “equally,” and another 15 percent indicated that they “couldn’t tell the difference.” From this, the report suggests that while this listening group has strong loyalty to public media at this point in time, it does not say very much about how that relationship will hold over time.

The report doesn’t quite explore how big or prevalent the “super listener” demographic is in relation to the general listening population, and it should be further noted that the report has a distinct public media focus in its framing and methodology. (Which is to say, as much as this might be identification of a subset within the overall listening population, we might also be looking at a subset that may well be specific to the publishers involved in the study.) I reached out to the Knight Foundation for its take on just how big this group might be, and this is what Sam Gill, the VP of communities and impact, wrote back:

Good question, however it’s outside the scope of the study. The study focused on survey data from more than 28,000 listeners in order to paint a compelling picture of this audience. Respondents were identified through audio callouts (solicitations typically done by the hosts) on podcasts created by six networks: NPR, PRI, APM, WBUR, PRX, and Gimlet. The on-air promotion and the fact that these organizations shared their data, makes the study particularly unique.

The rest of the methodology is explained in further depth in the report’s appendix. Anyway, do check out the whole thing, as one imagines that this is a specific consumer type that publishers can identify, build for, and activate differently.  Speaking of which, the report actually pairs pretty well with this next item…

Podfasting. And we’re back onto the Great Speed-Listening Debate. (See the Chicago Tribune, Slate, the Wall Street Journal, The Ringer, and for older takes, The Atlantic and The Verge.)

BuzzFeed’s Doree Shafrir pubbed a piece over the weekend about people who listen to podcasts at 2x speed (and beyond). It’s a fantastic, fascinating read, not least for the coining of the term “podfaster.” Article skimmers — a species genealogically related to the podfaster, really — should catch two things:

(1) The question of how speed-listening may affect advertising impressions was touched upon, with Midroll’s Lex Friedman providing what seems to be an expected answer. To quote the chunk:

Podfasters could potentially be more valuable to advertisers because they may be less likely to skip ads… ‘I think people like me are less likely to skip ads because they’re wasting less time when they’re listening,’ [Friedman] said. He added that he’s never heard an advertiser complain about podfasters. ‘I really do genuinely believe that if it’s having any effect on ads, it’s making them more likely to be heard. Now they’ll pay attention to the ads. I don’t think it harms the ads’ efficacy.’

We’ll see.

(2) In much the way that the Knight report identifies the subset of podcast “super listeners,” Shafrir’s piece sheds some light on what might be an even more granular sub-group: podcast completists, for whom the ability to speed-listen is essential, and whose relationship to a given show is perhaps the most profound.

So, the thing I’ve always found interesting about this debate is how it highlights this tension in the relationship between producer intent and listener autonomy, between sender and receiver. We’ve seen different iterations of this struggle play out in other mediums, like the notion of watching feature films on smartphones (“Get real,” says David Lynch), or reading novels by having sentences be flashed rapidly before your eyeballs. Shafrir’s piece underscores, to me anyway, just how little direct power producers have over the listening experience. Perhaps it’s a situation where, much like how producers had to develop tricks to catch radio listeners to stop turning the dial, they’ll have to now figure out ways to get them to slow down.

As a side note, I guess we have a partial answer to that old New Yorker cartoon nut: “I feel like everybody’s podcasting and nobody’s podlistening.”

A test case. So you know that whole “convergence of audio media” idea that I’ve been yammering on about since last year? I think we have our first major test case, with some pretty interesting theoretical questions to boot.

Here’s the news: IHeartMedia has broken into the second spot of the Podtrac ranker for the month of October, but the development comes with a rather interesting caveat: its portfolio apparently contains over five hundred shows. The platform — or “platisher,” if I may bring the term back up, given its voluminous original audio programming — reached slightly under 9 million monthly unique US listeners and over 33.5 million unique global downloads over a whopping 525 shows.

IHeartMedia ranks second to NPR, which reaches over 16 million monthly unique U.S. users but on the strength of only 41 programs. (The company with the next largest show portfolio is ESPN, with 79 programs that reach over 4.8 million unique U.S. users.) IHeartMedia’s stats are reminiscent of the Podtrac adventures of another traditional radio-originated podcast publisher: CBS, which last listed on the Podtrac ranker on the ninth spot back in June by reaching over 1.7 million unique US listeners across a whopping 417 shows.

Over Twitter, iHeartRadio SVP of podcasting Chris Peterson informed me that the platisher expects to add more active shows to the Podtrac ranker — therefore further pumping up the numbers — and that they will be looking to launch more in the months to come. When asked to clarify the shape of the portfolio, he explained that the 500-plus show number includes both programs that were created specifically as podcasts along with programs that were radio shows later repurposed for on-demand. It should be further clarified that iHeartMedia’s Podtrac numbers do not include counts of third-party podcasts that are consumed off its platform. As a reminder, NPR is an example of a publisher that also distributes its podcasts on iHeartMedia.

So, what’s the big thought bubble here? We have a situation where a traditionally linear-oriented company has leveraged the sheer scale of its inventory — largely pulled from its sprawling broadcast infrastructure that’s been developed over the years — to produce a performance measure that sends it up to the second spot of the only public-facing podcast ranker that exists at this point in time.

Here’s the key question to ask: are we looking at a truly apples-to-apples situation here? Which is to say, can iHeartMedia’s on-demand audio inventory be meaningfully evaluated within the same value system as every other publisher on that list, from NPR to HowStuffWorks to The New York Times?

From one angle, you could very well argue in the affirmative: that a listener is a listener is a listener, no matter how they are accessed, touched, or engaged with. On the other hand, it could be equally posited that not all listening experiences are the same or should be evaluated in the same manner. That a huge part of the value narrative around podcasts in the first place is based on a certain idea of the relationship between the listener and the show, and on a given podcast company’s ability to produce shows of depth and scale. The findings from the Knight Foundation report, and the further identification of the podcast completist, gives more weight to this latter position.

We should ask if a publisher — sorry, a “platisher” — like iHeartMedia is even playing the same game as everybody else on the ranker. Does it merely represents one strategy out of many within the podcast industry — that is, the move to accrue the largest amount of ad inventory through the aggressive bundling of small shows in order to unlock podcast advertising dollars, as opposed to producing a much smaller portfolio of big shows with big communities around each individual operation? (To phrase this line of inquiry in another way: what, exactly, is the product being sold, and are they the same?)

I’m pretty Switzerland on this, and besides, it’s not as if it’s going to come down to me to figure it out. That kind of taxonomical work should come down to the publishers themselves, working out the terms of the market that they’re playing. Or perhaps it comes down more to Podtrac itself, functioning as a value arbiter in the space.

In any case, we’re looking at a minor clash in context with big-time ramifications. “We are thrilled to be leading the industry in terms of podcast content creation, joining the ranks of NPR for top podcast publishers, and proving that broadcast radio is a major driver for the podcast space,” according to the press release announcing the achievement. Indeed, I suppose that’s one way to skin a cat.

Full service. “I see the industry as something that’s going to stratify in the next five years,” said Rose Reid, the cofounder of a new podcast agency that I’m going to tell you about after I land this opening quote. “When we get analytics, when we see more money going to the top ten percent of producers — and I’m thinking about how to position producers within those changes.”

Reid is telling me about just one of the roles that ARC, a new agency she launched earlier this month with the independent producer Alex Kapelman (Pitch, The Decision), is meant to play in the industry. They bill ARC as a “full-service creative podcast agency,” and when I asked them what that meant, they broke it down into three component parts.

“We’re at this intersection of being a production company, much like Pineapple Street and Transmitter Media, but also an advertising and talent management agency,” Kapelman explained. Which is to say, they make podcasts for other networks, they produce branded content for podcast advertisers, and they work with producers to improve their lot in the market. That said, they’re keeping an open mind. “We don’t want to limit ourselves in the services that we provide.”

It’s a fairly broad value proposition, but I suppose it affords a flexibility to better maneuver within an emerging podcast studio-agency that’s particularly dense as it pertains to shops that focus on editorial production, whether for brands or for bigger podcast companies like Midroll; think Pacific Content, Gimlet Creative, Panoply Custom, Pineapple Street, and so on. Within this bucket, the primary differentiating factor tends to be a given team’s core creative value, but the ARC duo attempts to articulate a more strategy and planning-oriented value-add. “Take what Gimlet Creative did with Tinder, for example,” Reid said, by way of explaining their approach. “They made a podcast for them, and I think that’s great, but it’s just one thing to do. For us, we’d would look at how to take a narrative episodic series and make it part of a bigger integrated campaign. Maybe the Tinder show was launched as part of a bigger campaign, with live events or something, but I didn’t see it.”

(I checked in with Gimlet Creative, and a spokesperson noted that some of their branded podcasts have indeed been integrated into broader campaigns. Their Gatorade podcast, for example, was part of a larger initiative that included TV spots, digital ad buys, and a PR campaign.)

ARC’s success on that front will come down to the duo’s ability to compete for advertising clients, but it is their interest in talent management that stands out to me as especially compelling. Freelancing and independent operation makes up a big portion of life within the podcast industry, and it seems to me that much of the pedagogy around contracts and negotiations tends to happen informally between independents who’ve been there and independents who haven’t. That talent agencies like WME and UTA have been bringing their expertise into the space is a noteworthy development on this front, but I imagine you could make the argument that their focus necessarily tends to be on the top end of talent, and that those agencies have as much to learn from the ground as the other way around.

Reid was most recently a Gimlet producer, where she worked on Sampler, but she spent four years before that working at the advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather. “At Ogilvy, I worked on contracts all the time, between talents and brands, and between subcontractors and Ogilvy,” she said. “I feel like my entire professional experience has been one huge wakeup call for how to advocate for creators.”

She describes the need for that kind of advocacy as acute. “A lot of podcasters… they’re not business people. They’re creators, and so when they get signed, they often don’t know what they’re getting themselves into,” Reid explained. “I’ve seen people get totally screwed over, mostly women. It’s very hard to negotiate for yourself when you’re operating in a vacuum, when you don’t know what your value is and what the market value is.”

I asked when we should expect operations to kick off in earnest. Reid and Kapelman tell me that they will be announcing their initial client list in the months to come. When pressed for specific names, they declined, but made a slight muscle flex. “Big brands,” Reid said. “As big as it gets.”

On a related note… Spotify rolls out a new original podcast series, The United States of Music, produced with Transmitter Media. It’s a six-part music storytelling series hosted by Sasheer Zamata.

Agency. Ever heard the phrase “nobody knows anything”? It’s an old nugget from the screenwriter William Goldman in his book about the movie business, and over the years the sentiment has been evoked to describe the state of so many things, from predictive modeling to the economy to, of course, politics. (In fact, a version of the phrase, “No One Knows Anything,” was the title of BuzzFeed’s now-defunct politics podcast.) But the notion is a little imprecise, I think. It seems more precise to say that some people know some things, and that they do so operating within a general environment where nobody knows everything.

Opportunity falls from the space between those two notions, and I think that best describes the layer of free-floating podcast studios and agencies that has been emerging steadily over the past two years. My sense is that we’re going to see more of such businesses in the coming years, as some individual talent double down on their respective skill-sets — subject expertise, say, or creative edge, or process knowledge — and depart from larger institutions, having understood from working on the inside that no one has truly built an insurmountable amount of control or edge yet, to build a business that focuses on a specific problem or gap in the space. This theoretically offers some competition to bigger and more traditionally structured organizations that publish podcasts while working to build a business at scale, as these smaller and nimbler entities can front meaningful challenges for clients with greater focus (and lower prices).

I’m tempted to think this sense of opportunity is particularly true for the podcast industry at this specific point in time, while everything is still young with no such mythology around how things work or who knows what having calcified just yet — and while the feeling that no one (or two, or three) has full control or power in the ecosystem just yet is still palpable.

Two quick expansionsStories. Crooked Media welcomes three new shows to its mix: Majority 54 with Democratic politician Jason Kander, Girls Just Wanna Have Pod with The Daily Beast’s Erin Gloria Ryan, and Keep It with The Daily Beast’s Ira Madison. The left-wing talk podcast movement continues to grow.

Secondly, the New York Times will begin testing out a special version of The Daily meant for children to listen with their parents later this month. The effort is part of a larger project to further experiment with building out news experiences targeting kids. Nieman Lab has the write-up.

In other news:

Bites

  • Sara Sarasohn, the former managing editor of NPR One, has joined Gimlet as an editor. (LinkedIn
  • Shortcut, the audio clipping app that lets listeners easily select and share moments from a podcast episode, is now open source. The project was developed by This American Life and feel train with support from the Knight Foundation. (Announcement)
  • Stitcher has rolled out a redesign update. (Stitcher Blog) The podcast player also launched an accompanying Alexa skill, and I’m just going to re-up my whole discussion about consumer choice and voice-first interfaces from last week’s newsletter.
  • The Daily Beast profiled Mike Duncan, creator of the long-running History of Rome and Revolutions podcasts, who also serves as another data point in the emerging trend of podcasters being hit up by book agents, and his book, The Storm Before the Storm, debuted on the New York Times bestseller list last week. (The Daily Beast)
  • Marc Maron addresses the Louis CK sexual assault allegations on the latest episode of his podcast. (Vulture) The NY Times’ Sopan Deb transcribed the segment and posted the text on Twitter.
  • Audible has launched a new Chinese audiobook offering. (VentureBeat)
  • The Skimm adds an audio product to their paid app. (Nieman Lab)
  • “It’s surprising that people are into this nerdy shit. We’re surprised, too, to be honest.” Bloomberg profiles the super-niche NBA podcast Dunc’d On. (Bloomberg)
  • The BBC is rolling out a single podcast sampler feed to improve the discoverability of all the on-demand shows throughout the institution, called Podcasting House. The British radio mothership also noted that they are commissioning more podcast-first works, and that they enjoyed around 240 million podcast downloads in 2016, which is apparently an improvement from the year before. (BBC)

  • So it turns out Rick Rubin and Malcolm Gladwell have a podcast together now. And their first guest is Eminem. Where am I? (Pitchfork)
  • Last week, I helped shepherd the last segment of the last broadcast of KCRW’s To The Point as it transitions into a weekly podcast. (KCRW

[photocredit]Illustration from Knight’s super-listener report.[/photocredit]

What a podcast needs to do to put on a good live show (and why so many are trying)

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 138, published October 31, 2017.

Happy Halloween folks!

Subscriptions at a personal level. When I wrote about Panoply’s paid kids-oriented listening service, Pinna, earlier this month, I was drawn to a question that didn’t end up being articulated in the piece: Does a subscription-first audio product need to be big? Pinna’s explicit goal, as I understand it, is to become the “premiere kids listening service,” pushed forward with a long-term strategy of building the first and last stop for any parent looking for stuff to swap out screen time with an aural alternative. But is it possible just to build a self-contained audio subscription business that isn’t premised on an expansive content acquisition strategy?

Shortly after the Pinna write-up went out, Lindsay Patterson, the cofounder of children’s podcast advocacy group Kids Listen, reached out, flagging the existence of a small Austin, Texas–based operation called Sparkle Stories. Founded by Lisabeth and David Sewell McCann, Sparkle Stories is an independent media company that serves customers with over a thousand original audio stories for children. There are two things about Sparkle Stories that are noteworthy: first, all of the stories are produced and performed by David, a former elementary school educator adept at telling pedagogical stories, and second, the service charges $15 a month…and, from what Lisabeth tells me, business seems to be good.

While the two declined to provide hard numbers, they did disclose having “thousands of subscribers” from around the world, enough to sustain as a business. The two are the only people who work on the company full-time — David since the beginning, Lisabeth transitioning out of her day job after about a year — and the company brings in enough revenue to compensate eight part-time employees who also work on other projects. Sparkle Stories is completely bootstrapped, with one successful Kickstarter excursion in 2015 to fund the development of a listening app. (That campaign brought in over $48,000 from 1,174 backers.)

Sparkle Stories was formed in 2010 when, as Lisabeth put it, “mom blogs were big and getting bigger.” Mr. Rogers is cited as a major source of inspiration (interestingly enough, David enunciates a lot like the sweatered public media icon himself), and it’s reflected in the team’s goals. “Our mission is to make stuff that’s nurturing, and slow, for kids,” Lisabeth said. “We’re all about bringing media back to a simple, sweet place.”

Simplicity might be the editorial north star, but it’s supported by a robust operational structure. Though the Sparkle Stories inventory is primarily stored and distributed behind a paywall, the company also makes use of a podcast feed that serves five free episodes to prospective paid customers — or consumers of more modest means. The inventory itself is managed through a website that further supplements the audio stories with a host of related digital material that broadens out topical experiences: recipes, craft lessons, parent education. “The podcast is only the beginning,” David explained. “It brings people to the next step, which is a website full of child development information. The story is only the beginning, and then you continue on. And that’s what people are willing pay for.”

Sparkle Stories has a bunch of things planned for the future. The team hopes to continue making the website experience as easy as possible for children and families, such that, in David’s words, “a child can look for a story about a wombat, or about Idaho, and then suddenly there are three stories about that, and then they can put the device down and listen.” An Android app is somewhere on the horizon, to complement the existing iOS app. There are further ambitions to figure out ways to integrate with smart speaker devices, which seems to be catching on among “millennial parents and their kids,” as AdWeek points out. (Though data privacy concerns remain an issue.) However, despite these plans, Lisabeth and David are comfortable taking on a slow, organic approach to growing the operation. “We tried a lot of the traditional ways to market and build our business, and they just didn’t work,” they explained. “Sponsored content, traditional advertising, Facebook and Google stuff…but the thing that really ended up working more than anything is for us to help somebody love what we’re doing.”

That approach, it seems, is partly driven by a sense of caring for their customers, whose parenting lives the McCanns feel partially responsible for. “It’s that Seth Godin thing of just taking care of your tribe,” David said. “We took that to heart. And so we create, create, create, we’re on schedule for three or four stories a week. Offer a lot, and if people want more, they’ll be more than happy to pay for it.”

You can find more about Sparkle Stories on their website.

Two extraneous threads:

(1) One question that stands out to me: assuming that all goes as intended for this sector of the on-demand audio universe, can there be a paid kids’ podcasting ecosystem that be equally occupied by a primary dominant one-size-fits-all service and a constellation of personally driven, independent, and presumably niche players? I imagine there’s something to be gleaned from looking at the makeup of the digitally distributed audiobook world, now dominated by Audible and a host of much smaller alternatives — Scribd, Overdrive, Kobo, and so on — even though the latter group in this composition isn’t terribly differentiated from the former, at least on my read.

(2) Not directly related but still thematically appropriate, I guess: Patreon, the creator support platform that raised $60 million last month, recently announced a new platform initiative that lets its users better integrate with other tools and platforms that they’ve been using to manage the membership process. Quite a few podcast publishers use Patreon to tap into direct listener support, including and especially the “dirtbag left” podcast Chapo Trap House, which still reigns as the biggest Patreon campaign that brings in over $86,000 a month from slightly over 19,500 backers. Crazy.

Acast aims to go public on the Stockholm Stock Exchange. The news comes about a month after the company raised $19.5 million in Series B funding from a group of Swedish investors, with the apparent intent to use that money to build its presence in the United States, the UK, and Australia. With this exit, they’ll have access to further capital for those attempts. Di Digital, a Swedish news site, has a write-up that I, uh, had to run by some Swedish-speaking friends and readers (thanks, fellas). Here are the bits that stood out to me:

  • The company’s valuation is pegged at around SEK 1.1 billion (Swedish kroner), which comes to around $131 million USD.
  • Last year, Acast drew SEK 49.8 million (slightly under $6 million USD) in revenue, but ran at a loss of SEK 52.5 million (slightly over $6 million USD).
  • As part of the Swedish IPO, founders Måns Ulvestam and Karl Rosander are leaving their operational roles in the company and, having done their jobs, will leave Ross Adams, a former Sales Director at Spotify, in the CEO spot.

This brings the number of publicly listed, podcast-specific companies up to three — that I know of, I guess — the other two being LibSyn (trading on the Nasdaq as LSYN) and, somewhat arguably, Audioboom (trading on the London Stock Exchange as BOOM), which also deals with digital audio more broadly. I think it might be useful to skim through Audioboom’s annual report to get a sense of how Acast will be positioning its growth metrics, given the similarities in structure, levers, and function in the market.

Meanwhile, in the Great North. There’s apparently a new research report floating around that focuses on Canadian podcast consumption, conducted by Audience Insights, a Canadian audience research firm, and Ulster Media, a podcast consulting company started by former CBC director of digital talk content Jeff Ulster. It was produced with support from The Globe and Mail.

The full report isn’t available at this point in time, it seems, only a summary report with some initial findings that you can view in this link. Nonetheless, there are a couple of data points that are worth unspooling in your head, in case you’re up to something in that neck of the woods:

  • Twenty-four percent of Canadians over the age of 18, or 7 million people, report listening to podcasts at least once a month. (Comparable stats: 17 percent of the Australian population over 12, 24 percent of the American population over 12.)
  • The demographic is pretty much what you’d hink it would be: trends younger, more affluent, and more educated, also leans male. That’s more or less in the same bucket as Australia and the U.S.
  • Here’s one that really stands out to me: “47 percent of (Canadian) podcast listeners say they would like to hear more about what Canadian podcasts are available.”

My knowledge of Canada and podcasting is relatively limited. In my estimation, the institutions to watch are: the CBC, obviously, but also the branded podcast shop Pacific Content and Jesse Brown’s Canadaland. Also: there is a sneakily abundant number of Canadians all throughout the American podcast industry — I see you Berube — and Montreal is still pretty sweet for radio producers, given the manageable rent prices. (Note to self: abscond to Montreal.)

In transition. This isn’t a new phenomenon by any means, but there have been three podcast-to-broadcast developments that’ve hit my inbox over the past month:

(1) NPR’s “It’s Been a Minute with Sam Sanders” started rolling out to a bunch of stations earlier this month (list can be found on this here Twitter thread), in some ways to plug the big Car Talk–sized hole that seems to popping up here and there.

(2) Politico’s Morning Media newsletter ran this mini-profile a few weeks ago: The Takeout is a podcast hosted CBS News’ Chief White House Correspondent Major Garrett and political director Steve Chaggari. It originally launched just before President Trump’s inauguration as a side project, and eventually cultivated a fairly small following (about 80,000 monthly downloads on a roughly weekly publishing schedule). But it gained enough listeners to get it repurposed as a TV show on CBS’s streaming network and re-distributed over several terrestrial stations owned and operated by CBS.

I’m pretty fascinated by this use of podcasts as testing ground for potential broadcast material, though I’ll be interested to see what emerges in the Venn Diagram overlap of what works on both broadcast and podcast. (The inverse would also be intriguing to unspool: shows starting in broadcast that would later find more heat as a podcast. Radiolab, I think, is a good example of this.)

(3) iHeartMedia aired Wondery and Mark Ramsey’s Inside Psycho, which was originally published as a six-episode podcast, as a one-hour broadcast Halloween special over the weekend on select iHeartRadio News/Talk radio stations across the country. Curiously, the press release calls the arrangement “the first time a made-for-podcast show will air across broadcast radio”…which isn’t exactly true. Between 2012 and 2014, Slate had a program called Gabfest Radio, which condensed the Political and Culture Gabfests into a one-hour broadcast, that aired as a weekly show on WNYC. NPR, as well, began packaging a joint hour of Planet Money and How I Built This for broadcast over the summer. (And not to mention the various times a public radio podcast story was re-formatted for All Things Considered.)

Finally, there’s also the recently departed Dinner Party Download, which originally launched as a podcast in 2008 before being picked up a few years later by American Public Media for broadcast as a radio hour. So, technically, DPD might have more claim over being the first time ever that a made-for-podcast show was picked up for terrestrial radio. But who’s checking, y’know?

Politician-speak. As you might expect, I deeply enjoyed this critique of podcasting politicians by Amanda Hess over at the New York Times. Hess’s central barb, which comes around the middle of the piece, is a dual-pronged affair that gives shape to something that I’ve been feeling for while now: “The lawmaker podcast boom is just another way that our political news is becoming less accountable to the public and more personality driven. But that’s not the only thing wrong with it. The podcasts are also boring.”

That dual point on accountability and actual listenability illustrates the vaguely lose-lose proposition that the politician podcasting genre poses to the public. On the one hand, if the show is literally hard and pointless to consume, then it really sucks to be littered with them. But on the other hand, if the show turns out to be an experience worth sitting down with, then you’re grappling with the much hairier prospect of a more undefined (and unregulated) form of political communication, with all the spin, worldview expression, and image management that it entails.

Not that political communication is a thing inherently worth balking at, of course. Political figures and candidates need spaces to reach their constituents and sites to flesh out their philosophies, policy positions, and reasons for politically being. (Provided they have those things, of course.) It’s just that Hess’s point on accountability — that the general structural arc of these political figures going direct and fully controlling the terms of their messaging, that the power of the personality is the mechanism disproportionately empowered by everything we’ve seen in digital media so far — is the shadow that looms large here, and it brings up the question of whether the larger opportunity that these structural shifts gives to hermetically sealed political communication is a tide that can be stopped. We’re starting to see statements by politicians made in podcast appearances being written up, though not necessarily mediated, by political news sites — by way of example, here are three instances in The Hill — yet one can’t but ask whether any of that will ever be enough. Indeed, one wonders that the thing that’s really been blunting the edge of this political opportunity, of the continued empowerment of the Personality, so far is the fact that the overwhelming majority of politicians as a class don’t or still haven’t figured out the personality part of the equation.

This parallel has probably already been made many times before, but it bears bumping: a lot can be learned from what’s long been playing out in the sports world, where celebrity athletes have, perhaps not categorically but certainly in more than a few specific paradigm-altering instances, been able to utilize various digitally enabled media channels to amp up the power of the personality and dis-intermediate the gatekeeping/filtering capacities of the sports press. In the NBA alone, you have a variety of examples ranging from the Players Tribune to Joel Embiid’s surely-contract-padding social media prowess to LeBron James’ budding Uninterrupted media empire, whose premise hinges on players directly communicating with fans (and whose machinations involves several podcasts which were briefly profiled back in June by the Wall Street Journal). All of this amounts to a considerable challenge to the power, purpose, and intermediating role of the press, and while the actual details, terms, and broader implications of that dynamic change can be argued, the fact of the matter remains: the press is arguable.

(By the way, here’s my favorite story illustrating the fight between press and Personality: Grantland’s “Distant Thunder: What Did Oklahoma City’s Media Do to Piss Off Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant?”)

Anyway, that’s enough of that. But one more thing about Hess’s piece: her point on boring-ness — and on folks probably needing to put effort into something full-time, or at least meaningfully so, to make anybody worth anybody’s time — is probably a lesson that should be applied up and down the podcast directory, from celebrities to journalists to news organizations to independents.

From the mailbag. Eh, why not?

I’d be curious to know your take on podcasts doing live performances. I feel like EVERY podcast I listen to has done one of these. Why? I can only guess that the ticket sales for these events make a ton of money for them? More than ads? Crooked Media has done a ton of these. RadioLab, WTF, Gimlet Media, hell even the NPR Politics podcast is doing one soon. NPR! What is driving this??

— Nevin, from Iowa

Someone I knew once described seeing The Read live as a religious experience. This was a few years back, and while I don’t recall much else about her description of the show, I do remember this: I don’t believe I’ve ever been as enthusiastic about anything as she was talking about witnessing Crissle and Kid Fury on stage.

Anyway, point is: Live podcast shows are great. Provided they don’t suck, of course. (Which is the simple truth of everything that’s ever existed.)

Though the observation you make is actually a pretty tricky one to appraise. I think you’re right in there being a noticeable uptick in podcast creators building out a live events circuit — I feel like the stuff I’ve been seeing in my inbox alone can reflect this —  but it’s also worth noting that live podcast shows have long been a practice in vogue. Radiolab and WTF with Marc Maron have been staging live shows going way back (really good ones, too!), and one shouldn’t forget about the podcasts that are actually live shows first and are later repackaged and redistributed over RSS feeds, like The Dollop, RISK!, and The Moth. (Of those, you could ask an inverse question: “Why record your live shows and distribute them as on-demand audio content?” Any one thing looks a little funny from a different angle.)

What’s driving the uptick? You can point to a few different things. Most straightforwardly, there is the core motivation of wanting to fashion out an additional revenue stream to not be completely dependent on advertising, to create some sort of ballast against volatilities to come. (Analytics shenanigans, agency chicanery, bumps in the economy, so on and so forth.) I think that incentive has been bubbling up to the forefront over the past few months, maybe. You can also point your finger at the bumper crop of new podcast festivals that have popped up over the past year-plus (NowHearThis, PodCon, WBEZ’s Podcast Passport, Third Coast’s The Fest, and the LA Podcast Festival, among so many others), which I imagine functions as an additional structural incentive for publishers to develop live performance capabilities. You can further consider the ongoing involvement of touring companies (like the Billions Corporation, which I interviewed back in July) and talent agencies (WME reps Crooked Media, by the way, among many other teams), which continue to bring live events expertise into the ecosystem that, in and of itself, is a pretty good motivator to keep playing within the channel.

Personally, I’m a big fan of publishers building out a live show presence. There are tons of benefits to glean. Physically communing with your audience is tight, as it deepens the relationship and sense of community. Visiting different cities, towns, and venues is super fun, if you don’t mind the travel, and it also provides good opportunities to peel off qualitative audience data. Merch can be sold. And also, some teams like doing live shows because they like doing live shows! Live shows are fun! Stage adrenaline is a drug! Damn!

The question, of course, is whether possible to make decent money off live shows. And I think the answer is yes, most definitely, provided you can pull off the logistics, manage the budget, and serve an actual experience people want to pay for. (You know, not unlike everything else in a goods-and-services-based economy.) A good example of a team that’s figured it out is Welcome to Night Vale, which has long used live shows as its primary revenue stream. (The team would only begin truly taking up advertising once it formed Night Vale Presents, its indie podcast label.) Now in its fourth year of touring, the show sells anywhere between 50,000 to 60,000 tickets a year, and they’ve staged over 200 shows across 16 countries in the past three years. You can figure the math out from there.

The Night Vale team has roots in the theater scene — creators Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor are alums of the Neo-Futurists — and that expertise really shows in their live shows. (Slight non-sequitur: in what was probably a formative pre-Hot Pod podcast experience, I checked out a Night Vale show at New York’s Town Hall venue back in the summer of 2014, and man was I not prepared to stand amidst that much cosplay and teenage enthusiasm.) That brings me to another, earlier evoked, and perhaps bigger, point: producing a live show involves a whole other skillset that’s completely separate and apart from producing a podcast. Which is why, even as a fan of the entire idea of testing live shows as a diversifying business channel, I also think that it’s not a great fit for most publishers.

But the idea of a “good fit” between the two forms doesn’t always fall out the way you think it would. One doesn’t necessarily need to have theater or stage chops to effectively adapt a podcast to a live show. I went to a live Slate Political Gabfest show once, and I couldn’t quite get over how strange it felt to stand among a bunch of political and legal nerds — I’m guessing from the number of cardigans — giggling at David Plotz wisecracks. But at the same time, the effectiveness of the whole thing made a great deal of sense: much of podcast consumption involves forging an intimate connection with personalities and a conversation that’s taking place separate and apart from you. There is, then, a familiar appeal to live shows of coming close to celebrity. There is also the broader appeal of not being alone in having a beloved experience.

That said, I hear ya, Nevin: there’s something way weird about the prospect in concept. I mean, political reporters as celebrities? NPR political reporters as celebrities? Bizarro! Then again, if I was NPR, I’d totally lean into it. Look, if we’re living in a media environment where it’s all being summed up to fight between personalities, then yes, I’d lather makeup onto Scott Detrow and send him out on stage too. Happy viewing.

Bites:

  • Pop-Up Archive, the transcription platform that also runs the podcast search engine Audiosearch, will be winding down public operations on November 28, 2017. (Company email)
  • Dirty John, from the LA Times and Wondery, has reportedly garnered over 7 million downloads across six episodes since debuting at the top of the month. (CJR) The show is hosted on Art19. I’m personally pretty meh on the show, but hey, other critics seem to like it. All about that critical plurality.
  • True crime shows Sword and Scale and Up and Vanished are the next two podcasts headed to television. Between these guys and Lore, it seems like genre fare is having a field day. (Variety)
  • NPR’s monthly podcast audience hits 15.5 million unique users, and the organization typically garners 82 million monthly downloads. For reference, the organization uses Splunk to generate those numbers, and for further reference, Podrac pegs NPR’s unique U.S. monthly listeners at 13.3 million and global monthly streams/downloads at 99 million. (Press Release)
  • So, Spotify looked into the behavior of podcast listeners on its platform, and according to Fast Company, it found that “podcast listening peaked during the middle of the day. Interestingly, when they looked at weekday numbers versus the weekend, people listened to fewer podcasts on the weekend. In fact, the drop off is pretty significant, 45% to be exact.” Recall that these are listeners who choose to consume off Spotify, which is rather specific indeed. (Fast Company)

[photocredit]Photo of curtains by AnToonz used under a Creative Commons license.[/photocredit]

Hot Pod: Macmillan’s new network shows how podcasts can be a logical next step for book publishers

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue ninety-nine, published December 6, 2016.

Midroll’s new executive hires:

  • Korri Kolesa is the new head of sales, replacing Lex Friedman as he settles into his new chief revenue officer role.
  • Eric Spiegelman is the new VP of business affairs, taking now-CEO Erik Diehn’s place. I’m told more information on this hire will be released soon.

  • Peter Clowney is the new executive editor. He was previously the head editor at Gimlet Media.

Of particular interest is Kolesa, who is taking over what is probably Midroll’s biggest revenue engine, its ad sales business. A digital media veteran with ample experience heading up sales teams for digital products not yet quite understood by the advertisers — she led the strategy for sites in the Fox Interactive Media portfolio like MySpace and IGN in the late 2000s, if that means anything to you — Midroll is bringing Kolesa in to transition its sales operations out of its often patchwork startup configurations toward structures more capable of scaling. She was most recently a project director at Spark No. 9, a consultancy aimed at launching new businesses.

“Our team already knows how to sell, so the focus now is going to be, ‘What can we optimize?'” said Lex Friedman, who has headed sales at the company since 2013. Friedman was recently promoted to chief revenue officer, following former CEO Adam Sachs’ departure over the summer. Friedman will still be involved on the sales side, but his role will see him spending more time figuring out the next steps for the company’s emerging live events strategy and getting ready for a “significant announcement” regarding its premium subscription business, Howl. That’ll come “pretty soon.” Kolesa started work yesterday.

The road ahead for the Quick and Dirty Tips network. The decade-old, 12-podcast-strong network recently surpassed its 250 million lifetime download, and it’s getting ready for a busy, but focused, 2017. Network head Kathy Doyle told me over email:

We’re focused on continuing to build QDT’s audience and increase distribution for our core shows. We’re always open to testing new talent but, for now, we want to ensure we’re able to tap into the surge we’re all seeing in podcast consumption and make sure we’re reaching new listeners as we work to continue our great growth.

Also on the plate: the launch of a sister network. For those unfamiliar, QDT is a joint venture between Macmillan Publishing and Mignon Fogarty, whose Grammar Girl podcast anchors the network (you can find more details in a recent profile by Simon Owens), and Doyle informs me that the publishing house is getting ready to launch the Macmillan Podcast Network, its own slate of author-centric shows. She writes:

We’re taking our expertise and leveraging relationships with in-house Macmillan authors who are logical fits for the medium. These new shows will come in a variety of formats to help deepen relationships with readers and expand an author’s platform.

This new Macmillan network appears to be the logical conclusion of a long-running trend that sees authors adopting podcasts as a channel to deepen and sustain their relationship with audiences — and build out alternative revenue stream to book sales. (See: Maximum Fun’s podcast with Elizabeth Gilbert, Panoply’s Happier with Gretchen Rubin podcast, and so on.) I’d be interested to see if other book publishers will follow suit, though, given that none of them possess an arrangement quite like that between Macmillan and QDT, I kinda doubt it.

Anyway, the nascent Macmillan Podcast Network is kicking things off by releasing a preview of an upcoming author show: Raise My Roof with Cara Brookins, which is meant to accompany Brookins’ memoir that’s scheduled for a January release.

Some non-American NPR One listeners will be able to donate directly to NPR through the app, starting next year. This marks the first time the public radio mothership is establishing a contribution pipeline directly with listeners, according to Current.

If you’re asking, what about Americans? Well, join the club. When I popped the question over to the network, a spokesperson replied: “We are actively working to improve the local-station pledge experience within the app over the coming months… In 2017, we will expand on this by working with a pilot group of stations to explore a more direct connection between their listeners and their payment gateway.”

That likely means direct donations from American listeners to NPR will remain off the table. If that bums you out, considering purchasing 50 Nina Totin’ Bags off the NPR merch site. The effect is probably equivalent, plus some percentage sales tax.

The Financial Times rolls out the latest in its growing line of podcasts last week: Everything Else, a culture magazine show. This marks the fifth podcast that the paper has launched in 2016. (Which, y’know, seems kind of aggressive.)

When I asked how the paper evaluates its podcast strategy, a spokesperson replied:

We measure the success of our podcasts in a number of ways. Subscriber numbers are important, of course, but we also gather data on engagement — whether readers favorite or share our podcasts, whether readers write in and interact with our hosts. Shows like FT Management’s Business Book Review and Alphachat have particularly enthusiastic listener responses.

High engagement is great, but of course, the larger question is whether the organization will be able to translate that into a proportional revenue outcome that would justify the investment. Anyway, when I requested some stats on the publication’s podcast audience, I was told there were over 3.5 million downloads of FT podcasts in the last 30 days. Cut that up however you will.

Just a side note: the only FT podcast that I consume with any regularity is Alphachat. That show goes deep, really embracing its casual wonkiness — a direct extension of its parent blog, Alphaville, which just celebrated its 10-year anniversary — and that’s generally a winning formula for the specific value proposition that the medium brings to a publication like The Financial Times.

The Outline went live yesterday, with a new podcast in its lineup: Sound Show. The publication also has two other shows: Tomorrow, which basically functions as founder Joshua Topolsky’s personal stump, and Out West, a fan theory pod for HBO’s Westworld, which wrapped its first season this past weekend. And for those keeping tabs: the pods are hosted on Megaphone.

Outline audio director John Lagomarsino tells me that he’s totally taking freelance pitches for Sound Show. “We’re not limiting it to just in-house writers, by any means. Multi-story episodes with a mix of writers/producers is totally the vibe we’re gonna arrive at,” he says. Hit it up, buds.

The Interactive Advertising Bureau releases a revised Digital Audio Buyer’s Guide. For those unfamiliar, the IAB is a trade association that functions as a kind of mediating body between various elements of the digital media ecosystem and the advertising community. The IAB has played a somewhat active role in attempting to attract more advertisers to the podcast industry, in part by trying to get podcast companies to cooperate over a standard ad metric (last I heard, with mixed results), in part by setting the narrative for advertisers. The buyer’s guide comes out from the latter, and this particular version was prepared by Jennifer Lane, the association’s newly appointed Industry Initiatives Lead for Audio. Lane previously worked at the digital audio trade news site RAIN News.

Obviously, check out the guide in full if you work on the advertising side of things, but this is what I’m primarily thinking about:

One has to wonder about the narrative/branding effects of lumping podcasts together with the rest of digital audio, placing the format — and its very specific quirks (as well as potential) — within the same buying conversation as streaming services like Pandora, Spotify, and iHeartMedia. Those latter companies currently function at a much greater scale than podcasts, and the value propositions for the two groups, both in terms of advertising formats and content, are drastically different. That being said, there is some transaction to be made in that consolidation of types, I think; podcasting is able to get some spillover attention from those digital audio platforms whose narratives are already established, while those platforms benefit somewhat from the shiny novelty of podcasting’s (re)surging profile. (It is, after all, something new to talk about, no?) The question is whether or not that transaction is equitable, and that’s up to you to decide. My personal, initial impression is that it isn’t, and that the podcast industry suffers more from experiencing a high likelihood of being subjected to inappropriate one-to-one audience comparisons.

In any case, I’ve previously written about my suspicion that we’re bound for a convergence in platforms and types either way — that at some point, the term “podcasting” will have no functional purpose as the content being developed in the industry becomes more agnostic in how it’s distributed. (We’ve begun to see some of that. Two examples: iHeartMedia’s peculiar creep into the podcast space; Audible’s repackaging of one of its original programs for distribution outside its Channels ecosystem.) I stand by the conclusion I made back when I first wrote about that potential convergence: that the podcast space, as well as the digital audio space more broadly, will begin to be more defined by its content type than by its distribution structure.

Related: iHeartRadio is apparently producing a podcast with Arianna Huffington’s new media venture, Thrive Global. Hm.

A mess of options. The number of potential distribution points for on-demand audio is kinda getting out of hand. Consider the following question in the last month of 2016: if you’re a podcast publisher, which distribution platform should you be keeping a close eye on and investing tangible resources toward?

You have, of course, the de facto stronghold that everybody already knows about and has probably dedicated much of their distribution strategy to wooing: the native iOS Podcast app and its underlying iTunes infrastructure, whose share of ear is roughly upwards of 50 percent. But you also have the wide, wide range of independent third-party podcast apps, from Overcast to Castro, all of which command some small percentage of the overall podcast listenership. And then you have Stitcher, previously one of the biggest of those third-party apps, which was acquired earlier this year by Midroll Media and is therefore likely to see some resurgence in capital and activity.

Now, let’s not forget the slew of new, buzzy contenders, like RadioPublic and 60dB (not to mention the public radio–specific NPR One, which is less new but remains nonetheless part of this category), all jonesing to do some exciting with the consumer-side experience. And then you have the larger music streaming platforms, like Google Play Music and Spotify, which over the past year have added podcasts into their inventory… to so-far little revolutionary effect, it appears. (Which reminds me: best not leave out Pandora’s lone dalliance into the space with This American Life and Serial.)

And then we have the more unconventional routes to market — things like Otto Radio, with its car-specific integrations and recently announced partnership with Uber, and the Amazon Alexa platform, which is pulling in a steady stream of short content publishers. And what about the spread of older audio streaming platforms in the space, like iHeartMedia and TuneIn, which are agitating their way into podcasts, whatever that means for those companies that come from drastically different structural interpretations of digital audio? Oh, and what about the connected car dashboard? (What ABOUT the dashboard?)

It’s a mercilessly long list, and from the whispers I’ve been hearing, it’s only going to get a whole lot longer as we move into the new year. Which is theoretically interesting; while I don’t completely buy the oft-uttered refrain that podcast discovery and distribution is broken — even now at the very end of 2016 (garbage, garbage 2016) — it remains well below par, and what’s theoretically exciting about all of this is how this reflects a high level of competition in approaches for how to improve listening experiences and growing the overall pie, which I view as a good thing.

But at this point in time, all those approaches are yet-to-be-fully-realized potentials, and a good chunk of them are requesting support — or at least, cooperation and participation — from publishers. This presents a problem for the perpetually resource-constrained podcast publisher, which I articulated at the top of this item: which nascent distribution platform should I be keeping a close eye on and investing tangible resources toward? I can’t tell you what to do, but here are three quick thoughts on the matter:

  • The basics: keep in mind that any such partnership is a transaction, and just the math of figuring out of whether any such arrangement you strike up equitably benefits both sides. After all, both publisher and platform are targeting the same thing: more listeners/users, and at the end of the day one imagines there would be some eventual tension in how both parties are competing for listener/user loyalty.
  • It’s quite possible that we end up in a situation where each app commands very specific kinds of users. Consider the possibility that a user who ends up primarily listening to podcasts over Spotify doesn’t possess the same demographic or psychographic profile as a user who favors RadioPublic. These differences, then, should be the basis of a publisher’s strategy in the way it chooses which distribution partnership to invest more time, energy, and resources in. This also suggests a way every distributor can illustrate its value proposition in attempts to cultivate greater cooperation or participation with a given publishing partner.
  • This point should be obvious, but I’ll say it anyway: if you’re a resource-constrained publisher, don’t overextend yourself across all possible partnership options. Pick your battles, and your partners, wisely.

Anyway, that’s all I’ll say about that.

Bites:

  • Gimlet Creative, the company’s branded content division, has a launched a show for Tinder, the dating app/cultural shorthand for “oh you know what a world we live in now.” It’s called… well, DTR. (Wall Street Journal)
  • Sam Sanders is leaving the NPR Politics Podcast roster at the end of January, though he’s staying at the public radio mothership and will be launching a new show (Twitter). Sanders’ co-panelist, Asma Khalid, is leaving NPR to work the biz/tech beat at WBUR. She will also be launching a new podcast ((Twitter).
  • DGital Media is reportedly seeing revenue “in the high seven figures.” (LA Biz Journal)
  • “Hearst is launching a 10-person team tasked with building voice-activated experiences.” (AdWeek)
  • “Using podcasts to capture stories: Gardner Pilot Academy sixth graders push their writing and technical skills.” (Harvard Gazette)
  • “Here’s the climate change podcast you didn’t know you were looking for.” (The Verge)

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: Is there an opening for budding U.K. podcast businesses to challenge the BBC?

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue ninety, published October 4, 2016.

Night Vale Presents welcomes a new show to the podcast universe: The Orbiting Human Circus (of the Air), an audio drama that will “tell the story of a mysteriously impossible variety show broadcast from the top of the Eiffel Tower”…well, let’s just say it’s appropriately strange, and exactly what you’d expect from the Night Vale team. The show is written by musician Julian Koster of the band Neutral Milk Hotel, and will feature a really remarkable lineup of voice talent that ranges from Mandy Patinkin to Charlie Day and Mary Elizabeth Ellis of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia fame.

Orbiting Human Circus is the third project to be released under the Night Vale Presents label since its formation in January, after Within the Wires and Alice Isn’t Dead. The show also has the distinction of being the network’s first “independently produced” podcast, meaning that it’s the first project being distributed by the Night Vale Presents team that does not creatively involve Night Vale creators Jeffrey Cranor and Joseph Fink. (Cranor cowrote Within the Wires, while Fink wrote Alice Isn’t Dead. Both write Welcome to Night Vale.)

“Julian and his artistic team built the world entirely on their own and approached us with the season one concept and the first three episodes already produced,” Cranor told me when I reached out last week. “We saw a group of artists making music and theater, and they had devised this brilliant digital audio show, and we wanted to provide them with a financial base and audience base to get this work off the ground.”

Authentic, Podtrac’s advertising arm, is handling sales for the show, as they are for the rest of the Night Vale Present portfolio (including the flagship Welcome to Night Vale).

I’ve come to view Night Vale Presents as conceptually equivalent to an indie label and, to some extent, a book publishing imprint — with a strong curatorial commitment to a very specific sensibility, closer in spirit to something like Radiotopia but in structural opposition to more conventional, scale-oriented podcast network like Panoply. (That reminds me: I’ve got to come up with a different vocabulary for these companies; the specificities of their details have accumulated enough to become strong differentiators.) Which is really, really interesting given that, for the past year or so, the podcast industry has come to feel like a protracted land-grabbing conflict perpetrated by entities looking to become the foundational arbiter of economic activity in the space. And I have, in recent weeks, come to suspect that much of that fight has already completed its course.

That leaves us, of course, with the question of what frontiers are left for entrepreneurial creators looking to stretch out their arms in this ecosystem. The enterprise of figuring out how to build a fulfilling business in the post-scale-oriented-network stage of this creative economy is certainly a hard one, but I think Night Vale Presents is doing just that — and providing us with a template of one way forward.

“We have a couple of other artists with imaginative ideas/concepts and we are using our experience to help these people enter the world of podcasting,” Cranor wrote when I asked about what’s down the pipeline. “Joseph and I reaching out to provide whatever resources we can to help initiate these good ideas, whether that is professional support, financial support, or just cheerleading. We want more fiction podcasts, more diverse podcasts, more original podcasts.”

Season one of Orbiting Human Circus (of the Air) premieres on October 12, with new episodes dropping every other Wednesday. The first season will run for nine episodes. The podcast will also involve a live tour component, which will start this fall.

Spotify in “advanced talks” to buy SoundCloud, according to the Financial Times. Do keep an eye on this, given that the latter has long served as a solid podcast hosting platform option for newcomers — and even a few networks — and given the former’s gradual push into becoming a worthwhile podcast distributor. (Worth noting: I’ve been hearing from some publishers that their Spotify listenership appears to be growing steadily over time, though not a rate that particularly pops.)

I’m tempted to speculate how this acquisition may impact podcast publishers hosting on SoundCloud or publishers looking to distribute through Spotify — it remains a closed garden — but I imagine that will all be contingent on the details of whatever deal may emerge, should there be one.

Some notes on the U.K. I was curious, like most, when I heard that Panoply was setting up shop in the U.K. When I last wrote about the podcast scene in that region, I was left with the impression that building out an on-demand audio business there would be a tremendously difficult proposition, particularly given the outsized role that the BBC plays in the local non-music audio economy, presumably leaving little oxygen for potential competitors.

Panoply, I figured, is in for a tough fight. But I wondered what someone who has had experience building out a podcast business in the U.K. would think, and so I reached out to Stuart Last, general manager and SVP of audioBoom, a British on-demand audio company that has, in recent years, made inroads in the U.S. His extensive reply:

The podcast market [in the U.K.] is really in its infancy — there’s been an increasing number of independent podcasts, but a noticeable lack of podcast networks compared to the U.S., so the first stage of consolidation has not really begun. Also, the ad sales market is not hugely established yet, both in the money agencies and brands are dedicating to podcasting, and how sellers are selling.

The one thing the BBC’s dominance of the audio space has created is a really competitive independent production industry. By law, the BBC has to buy a large percentage of its radio programs from the independent sector — which means there’s creative, and well established production companies ready to develop and produce fantastic audio products. So I think the main challenge for them will be how to monetize effectively. But their key opportunity is all about content and being able to tap into the independent production industry for great ideas.

I think it’s great that a third major player is launching there — obviously it’s more competition for ourselves and Acast, but because the industry is so in its infancy, it’s a chance for all three companies to shape what podcasting becomes in the U.K.

Interestingly, Last also wanted to clarify the current state of audioBoom for me: “I know we’re also seen as a British company,” he wrote. “We are — that’s where the company was founded and where our HQ is based — but the majority of global business is out of the U.S and we’re growing here at 10 percent a month.” Last further notes his company’s position as a dynamic ad-insertion platform competitor to Art19 and Acast (“and at much bigger scale,” he adds; “over 50 million downloads per month are coming via audioBoom”) and, simultaneously, a podcast advertising sales operation. It currently reps Undisclosed, Astonishing Legends, and the NBC Sports podcast network, among others.

Meanwhile, in Australia. The great continent down under — sorry folks, I couldn’t find a less cliched nickname — enjoyed its inaugural OzPod conference last week, with WNYC’s Manoush Zomorodi presenting the keynote. The conference, which was organized by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), is the second relatively high-profile conference in the country after the more indie-oriented Audiocraft that took place in March. Anyway, I’d like to draw your attention something that the ABC published ahead of the festivities: an audience research report that covers Australian podcast listenership, put together by the organization’s audience insights team.

The report drew from a sample of 1,145 surveys, and it should be noted that the majority of respondents had been listening to podcasts for more than five years. (Which, in my mind, presents a pretty engaged — and therefore somewhat irregular — respondent pool, so keep that in mind when you look through the findings.)

You can view the full report here, but here are the points that stood out to me:

  • Australian podcast consumers listen to an average of 5.5 podcasts per week. The report didn’t make it particularly clear, but I believe “podcasts” is equivalent to “podcast episodes” here. The report also found that nearly 1 in 5 respondents listen up to 11 podcasts per week.
  • The most common location where respondents consume podcasts is apparently at home, with 76 percent reporting that behavior.
  • This is interesting: 36 percent of respondents indicated that they are listening to more podcasts compared to previous year. The report further noted that this is a net 14 percent increase compared to the previous year.
  • Finally, nearly 1 in 2 discover new podcasts by word of mouth and listening to the radio or television.

Cool. And in case you were wondering: ABC Radio is the largest podcast publisher in the country, reporting about 135 million overall downloads and streams in 2015. The company is projected to enjoy about 160 million overall downloads in 2016.

A writer’s room? Parcast is a fairly new podcast network that has taken what’s becoming a conventional route to building out its initial audience base: leaning hard into true crime. (Indeed, it’s a strategy so compelling that even some city newspapers, like the Cincinnati Enquirer and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, have adopted it…with moderate success, looking at the iTunes charts.) Unsolved Murders: True Crime Stories is a dramatic, reenactment-heavy take on the genre, and it comes off as a bit of campy mix between Nightline and an old-timey radio drama. I’m told it drew 1.8 million “listens” in its first three months.

Max Cutler, a cofounder of Parcast, tells me that the company is set up “like an old-time movie studio,” in that production is built around a rotating pool of screenwriters and voice actors, with different combinations working on a given episode. It’s an intriguing way of structuring your production process, especially if you can make the economics of running a team like that work, and I think it’s a model that other shops should try out in the future — particularly the drama-inclined.

Anyway, the network launched its second show, the salaciously-named Remarkable Lives, Tragic Deaths, in early August, and Cutler notes that they intend to launch five to seven more shows over the next year.

Recognition. Something’s wrong, argues Johanna Zorn and the Third Coast Festival team in a manifesto published on Medium last Monday. It’s time for the Fall Arts Previews — an annual tradition of sorts where publications across the print and digital spectrum draw attention to upcoming artistic and creative events — but there remains, quite glaringly, an absence of radio and podcast-related coverage. Zorn & Co. further characterize this gap as an extension of a greater lack of critical recognition for the medium — a long running state of affairs, to be sure, but one that’s grown increasingly incongruous given the medium’s recent burst in attention and popularity. “We seek recognition of the Radio/Podcasting genre through thoughtful reviews, criticism, and a deeper examination of styles and trends,” the manifesto concludes. “We know you can hear us.”

As you can imagine, I’m sympathetic to the issue that Zorn & Co. raise here, but reading the manifesto, I found myself wondering: What, exactly, does “recognition” mean here?

When I spoke to the Third Coast team last week, Zorn told me: “It’s like we’re fighting for equality here…We talk about novels, dance, and movies, but we don’t talk about radio and it doesn’t feel like it’s being treated as art.” Maya Goldberg-Safir, the team’s social media strategist, presented a more practical line of argument: “People are still using The New York Times or the Chicago Tribune for event listings. I think those outlets are crucial for us to get visibility as an art form that we deserve at this point.”

A few things here:

1. It’s worth decoupling those two arguments. So, Goldberg-Safir’s argument for greater discoverability — which can yield material economic impact — really resonates with me, but I find Zorn’s appeal for greater cultural positioning much trickier. In my mind, it conveys a sense that the team is appealing to a stable of elite cultural gatekeepers to open their doors and let them in. I’m generally skeptical of any impulse that ties recognition to an acceptance from an elite class, although I understand that feeling.

2. I generally believe in cultivating radio/podcast criticism in order to realize their functional utility as a consumer guide of sorts and to increase their influence over the economic outcomes of podcast projects. To that end, I’m hopeful about the way things are shaping out: Podcast recommendation lists appear to be more common these days, there’s a growing class of young and independent online operatives taking up the task (like the Bello Collective and Podcasts in Color), and there’s been a slow but steady rise in writeups within strong publications (a very recent example: The New York Times’ recent profile of You Must Remember This’ Karina Longworth in the Style section, mere weeks after a similar writeup of The West Wing Weekly in the Arts section.)

3. I also happen to absolutely love consuming criticism as a standalone editorial product. (Hell, I love producing it too.) And as an editorial product, criticism has been subject to all the structural brouhahas that the rest of the media industry is suffering through, including the bifurcation into commodifying plays for scale and narrowing plays for niches. And therein lies the problem: Rdio/podcast criticism of the former kind may be well served by all we’re seeing already — the lists, the occasional writeups by big publications (many of which have been downsizing form-specific critics for years), and so on. The deeper and more thoughtful stuff, the stuff that the Third Coast team advocates for, requires the development of whole new, probably niche, businesses, either within an existing organization or as an entirely new venture. And that is no small thing.

Heads up. The Reply All team is trying out something weird next week: a 48-hour live show where they will take every phone call they get for 48 hours — all day, all night. “We want to see what happens when you open a line to the internet and invite anyone to use it,” wrote Alex Goldman in an email to me. “I have no doubt that will include abuse, pranks, insanity, and very little sleep.” Phone lines open on Monday at 10 a.m. Watch their Twitter and Facebook accounts for the number after that time if you want to participate.

Bites:

  • iHeartMedia dips its toe a little deeper into podcasts with Taglines, a show that comes out of a partnership with Advertising Age. This comes a few months after iHeartMedia rolled out a similar programming partnership with the coworking-space company WeWork. It also follows Libsyn announcing that it would be now distributing podcasts through iHeartMedia’s listening platforms. (Ad Age)
  • I’ve been enjoying the different ways that publications are taking to the Amazon Echo. Here, The Guardian announces its own Alexa skill for the Echo, splitting its flash content pipeline between three categories: news and opinion, reviews, and podcasts. I’m looking forward to seeing how other publications handle design taxonomy. (The Guardian)
  • WNYC’s Note to Self continues its experimentation with audience engagement and service journalism through digital research projects: the show is collaborating with ProPublica on a Chrome-extension-driven study to figure out what, exactly, Facebook knows about you (or thinks it knows about you). (ProPublica)
  • Panoply works to even out its political programming with the inclusion of two gabfest-style podcasts from Ricochet, a conservative website, into its network. I’ve written a little bit about Ricochet and the spread of conservative podcasts before, and if that strikes your fancy be sure to check out this recent article by Wired’s Charley Locke.
  • (Panoply)

  • Quick shoutout to the political podcast producers working overtime to pump out post-debate episodes mere hours after the actual event: Jocelyn Frank and Jayson DeLeon of Panoply’s Slate Political Gabfest and Trumpcast mashup, Brent Baughman of NPR Politics, Galen Druke of FiveThirtyEight, and whoever pulled the super late hours on The New York Times’ Run-Up team.
  • Dropping this here, due to the company’s relative ubiquity as a podcast advertiser: BuzzFeed’s investigation [by former Nieman Lab staffer Caroline O’Donovan —ed.] into Blue Apron’s not-so-wholesome supply practices. (BuzzFeed)

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

Can a political podcast avoid being overtaken by events?

A design challenge for political podcasts. I’ve spilt a fair bit of ink on election-related podcasts over the past few weeks here on Hot Pod, and perhaps just as well: For any serious news media endeavor, the U.S. presidential elections is a fundamental reason for being, and for the professionalizing layer of the emerging podcast industry — desiring so much to be taken seriously — the elections present an opportunity to step up and prove its worth. (Particularly given this exceptionally bonkers cycle, lord help us.)

But I’d been planning to give it a rest today, because…oh I don’t know. I figured some variety in the A-slot is a good thing, and besides, there are always other summer concerns in Podcastland. Maybe I felt I needed a break, for fear of running out things to say. (The eternal dread of the columnist.) Maybe I did run out of things to say.

So thank goodness for Mother Jones editor-in-chief Clara Jeffery, who dropped a tweet last week that inspired a bout of head-nodding so hard I needed a neck brace and gave me my A-slot:

Political podcasts, particularly those of the conversational genre that publish on a weekly schedule, possess a peculiar kind of disposable value. Typically tethered to the state of the news cycle at the time of recording, they are often serve as a recap of the week: a place to catch up on the events of that specific seven-day stretch, and a space to reflect on their significance in the context of what has happened and what may happen in the days to come. With every episode, the discussion produces a model for the listener that helps guide their reading of the news, and like all models, they are forced into iteration by every future development. As a result, the discussion in those episodes — frozen as they are in time — exist with built-in half-lives; their value erodes, organically, as more new things happen.

It isn’t too difficult, then, to see how the breakneck rate of developments coming out of the Trump campaign has exponentially strained the value propositions of this podcast genre. (Say what you want about the Clinton campaign’s controversies — at least they adhere to classic media tempos.)

What we’re left with are episodes that get way too stale, way too quickly. Given that the weekly gabfest format is a staple among podcasts, that’s not great, and the extremes of this anomalous cycle have drawn more attention to the limitations of the on-demand audio channel — or, more accurately, the way on-demand audio is wielded at this point in time. (I felt those limitations most acutely last week, when both The Ringer’s Keepin’ It 1600 and the Slate Political Gabfest dedicated segments on former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort’s ties to Russia, only to have the issue rendered somewhat moot when Manafort announced his resignation the next day. I ended up skipping them and spent the next two hours hitting the blogroll.)

There are, I think, pretty clear pathways to solving this problem:

(1) Per Jeffery’s tweet, the most straightforward way would be to increase the frequency of the output, so rapid developments can be addressed at a faster rate and iterations can be made more aggressively. In other words, the move would be to make each episode more disposable but also more responsive to the news. We’ve seen this executed before in the way several political podcasts tackled the conventions by pushing out special daily episodes (I highlighted some of them in last week’s writeup), and some, like the NPR Politics podcast, have also made good use of shorter update episodes published throughout the week. We also see this play out in choices made by some podcasts — The Pollsters is a good example of this — to go twice-a-week by design.

(2) An alternative would be the opposite route: adjust the approach to handle topics more thematically and render each episode less disposable (that is, more evergreen) than its competitors. This isn’t a practical option at all for many of these shows — as it would mean fundamentally altering their long-established value propositions — but I’d still argue it’s something to consider. We see executions of these in the many shows that are primarily interview-driven, like First Look Media’s Politically Re-Active, and idea-driven, like The New York Times’ The Run-Up podcast, which also has the distinction of taking a more blended approach. You could also go Full Dickerson and pull a Whistlestop, but that’s taking it way too far.

(3) Here’s something more left-field for ya: Break the archives, throw the whole frozen-in-time nature of the podcast episode out the damn window, and update older episodes in the archives as further developments take place. Theoretically speaking, this is a feasible option, given the possibilities afforded by dynamic ad insertion. Since we live in a world where podcast ads can be pretty easily swapped out of audio files to prevent them from getting stale and valueless, can’t we apply similar principles to the actual show itself? (Imagine if you could take all the energy and innovation focused on ads in the world, and apply it elsewhere.) Anyway, just a thought.

Jeffery also served up one more request that producers should consider: “More weekly podcasts should drop at beginning or middle of week. They bunch up!”

This, too, I heartily agree with.

Recode on the hunt. Recode, the tech-industry news arm of Vox Media, is on the lookout for an executive producer for podcasts and audio. Dan Frommer, the site’s editor-in-chief, tells me that Recode has been “editorially and financially successful” with their early podcasting efforts — stretched out across four shows — and that this hire is a move to formalize audio as a key part of their product offering. Frommer expects to launch at least two new shows, including one “that will feature significantly more ambitious, original audio journalism.”

I’ve expressed my admiration for the site’s podcast operations in the past, but I’ve always had a sense that they were starting gambits — both for the team and their parent company, Vox Media. Frommer suggests that this is very much case, noting that this move is “an early sign of things to come from Vox on the audio front.” Fascinating.

For reference, keep in mind that Vox Media’s other properties also have podcast experiments of their own, including: Vox.com’s partnership with Panoply to produce The Weeds and The Ezra Klein Show, The Verge’s Ctrl+Walt+Delete and What’s Tech? (among others), Eater’s Upsell, and Polygon’s eclectic suite of podcasts from the daily update show Minimap to the voiced features experiment Polygon Longform. It’s a bit of an unruly empire, and I suspect some sort of consolidation — whatever that means — might be in order if Vox Media is going to formalize its audio efforts across the board.

If that were to happen, and I’m just spit-balling here, the question would be the role that podcast networks will continue to play in that future configuration. To my knowledge, Vox Media works with two networks, DGital Media for Recode and Panoply for Vox.com, and in a podcast interview with Digiday’s Brian Morrissey back in June, Vox Media president Marty Moe explained the company’s relationship with networks as follows:

We’re using [podcast networks], but we’re selling directly, and that’s in part having to educate our sales teams about the advantages of podcasting and how to reach consumers best with brand messages, how to create the best kind of advertising. But we also work with networks because there’s just not enough direct selling right now to fill all of the opportunity.

Depending on how things look on the sales side at this point in time, I imagine these network partnerships may persist for a while. But given that no one has much of a handle over podcast distribution (just yet), one imagines that the value of these largely ad-sales-driven network partnerships may well be drawn into question over time — particularly as Vox Media gets savvier handling podcast ad sales themselves.

Anyway, parties interested in the Recode job should check out the job posting, or hit up Frommer himself.

A broadcast partnership. Missed this earlier, but it’s worth tracking: Last week, the satellite radio company SiriusXM announced that it will now broadcast the Yahoo Sports-affiliated Vertical Podcast Network, a stable of three personality-driven shows that are produced by New York-based DGital Media. The podcasts will air every weekday in a 3 p.m. ET slot (that’ll rotate between the three shows) on a few SiriusXM channels, along with in the SiriusXM app. Broadcast began last Monday.

This is the point in the writeup where I draw upon some historical context and note that this isn’t the first podcast property to find distribution over SiriusXM. You can find another example in Neil deGrasse Tyson’s popular Star Talk podcast, which was picked up last January for distribution over SiriusXM Insight, the channel within the satellite radio company’s offerings that focuses on “entertaining informative talk.” (A category that, interestingly enough, includes The Takeaway, the public radio program produced by PRI, WGBH, and WNYC. (I did not know about this partnership earlier, and finding this out brings new weight to the This American Life-WBAA dispute over the former’s Pandora partnership back in May.)

Similarly, this is also the point in the story where I’d raise examples of parallel partnerships between podcast shops and other more broadcast-esque platforms, like the aforementioned one between This American Life and Pandora, or one that saw iHeartRadio, the Internet radio streaming platform company, forming distribution partnerships with Libsyn and NPR.

And I happily bring up both those threads because they tug at a trend that I’ve been tracking for a while: an impending structural convergence and reorientation of what we talk about when we talk about on-demand audio. I last revisited that idea as recently as last month, and I’m going to re-up the same passage from my original analysis in March that I recycled for that July column:

For what it’s worth, I’m fairly certain that, with its liberation from an infra-structurally imposed definition, the word “podcast” will lose all of its original meaning by the end of the calendar year. My sense is that it will likely become an identifier for a certain corner of a reconstituted landscape of all non-music audio content that’s created and distributed digitally. It’s a scope that will not only include the new podcasting companies of the last year or so, public radio, and digital media companies developing new audience development channels in the audio space…but also commercial radio powers, streaming and Internet radio companies like iHeartMedia and SiriusXM, and community radio infrastructures.

And here’s the concern I trumpeted in July:

Implicit in these hypotheses is an understanding that the core assumptions that make up the economics of the industry — the high CPMs relative to other audio and digital formats, the “intimate,” “opt-in,” and “highly engaged” narrative points in podcasting’s value propositions, and so on — will be fundamentally altered, and the onus should be on podcasting companies to both craft a new, evolved narrative as well as develop more involved methods of ad verification and impact assessments.

Anyway, this SiriusXM business also sees the Vertical Podcast Network becoming the first partner within the DGital Media portfolio, which also includes the Recode and UFC podcasts, to have its distribution expanded to include broadcast on top of its on-demand audio channel.

I asked Chris Corcoran, the company’s chief content officer, whether broadcast distribution will be a standard value proposition brought to the other clients within DGital Media’s portfolio. “What I will say is that we have wonderful partners who are always aligned in thinking the same way, which is finding new ways to grow the audience,” Corcoran said. “From there, we figure out what makes since with each partner, respectively.” Cool.

Relevant: Missed this last month but keep tabs on this: “Pandora wants to add more podcasts to grow listening hours.” (Variety) In June, Lizzie Wilhelm, Pandora’s SVP of ad product sales and strategy, told the Hivio conference that the company was “pleased” with their partnership with This American Life.

Sound design, explained to me. While the past two years have yielded an absolute bumper crop of podcasts, it doesn’t quite feel like there has been a proportional increase in the specific kind of podcast that leans heavily on sound design to shape narrative experiences — which, quite frankly, is what drew me, and I suspect many others, to the iTunes page in the first place.

But what, exactly, do I mean when I say sound design? ((Note: When I refer to “sound design,” I don’t mean it to be synonymous with “high production value.” One thing does not automatically lead to the other, I’m fully aware, no more than using black-and-white in student film theses. (Hours I will never get back.) Nor do I necessarily equate narrative podcasts with high production values either, or orient them in my head such that they outranks conversational podcasts in quality or value. Though I suffer from many illusions, I don’t suffer from that one in particular.)) My own understanding of the concept is fuzzy, despite my irresponsible, sweeping characterization here. I mean, I have some idea of how it feels — a sense of atmosphere, some gestures toward the “cinematic” — but what does actually it entail, and how does it tangibly differ from the skill-set exercised by your standard audio producer? I asked around.

“A sound designer is responsible for creating the sonic world of a piece, the space the story inhabits,” said Mira Burt-Wintonick, a sound artist who most recently worked on CBC’s Love Me podcast. (Her credits also include Wiretap). “A good producer and music supervisor will think about sound elements as well, of course, but a sound designer’s role is to make sure all those elements are all working together to create a unique aural space that envelops the listener and evokes the desired moods…Sound design is the difference between a two-dimensional image and a three-dimensional world.”

But sound design doesn’t have to be allocated to a specific role within the production process — more often than not, it’s another task to be handled by the assigned producer. “I like to think that being a sound designer is partly just a frame of mind,” notes Brendan Baker, who produces and sound designs Love + Radio. (His freelance credits include The Message and Invisibilia.) “Producers already are sound designers in some sense, it’s just a matter of how much time and attention you spend thinking about how your editorial and sonic choices have emotional or cognitive effects on your listeners.”

Both Baker and Burt-Wintonick draw great emphasis to sound design as an integral layer to the entire production process, as opposed to an add-on that happens in post-production. Baker tells me that, from his experience, he feels like way too many folks in the space consider scoring and sound design at the end of the entire production process. “I always encourage people to involve sound designers as early in the process as possible (ideally from the very start) to make the most effective work,” he said. “If I can replace the words with sound, it usually make the overall piece feel more streamlined and poetic.”

Burt-Wintonick presses the point more bluntly. “Sound design is what gives your podcast a reason to exist,” she said. “If you’re not thinking about sound design, why isn’t the story just a print piece?”

Bites:

  • A few weeks ago, I wrote briefly about ESPN’s new multi-platform project, Pin/Kings, which kicks off its run as a podcast. CJR has a neat writeup digging deeper into the multiplatform approach, and contextualizes it within a broader spectrum of previous attempts at journalistic multiplatform approaches — including a collaboration between Mother Jones and the Reveal podcast. (CJR)
  • Gimlet expects to “exceed its 2015 revenue of $2.2 million by ‘multiples’ this year,” according to Digiday’s Max Willens. I’d take their word for it, given that Gimlet has been consistently good at articulating their performance in a way that doesn’t fluff the numbers — a trait that isn’t all that common in the space, quite frankly. (Digiday)
  • Earwolf does the obviously-smart-thing-to-do-in-2016 and launches a Hamilton-related podcast. The Room Where It’s Happening, hosted by comedy writers Travon Free and Mike Drucker, takes listeners on a “song-by-song journey through the biggest musical of all time.” This isn’t the first Hamilton-related podcast in existence, of course; I mean, how can it be? Other entries in the genre include: The Incomparable’s Pod4Ham and The Hamilcast. (iTunes)
  • WNYC Studio’s Freakonomics Radio has a spinoff in the works: Tell Me Something I Don’t Know, a new live event and podcast that comes out of a partnership with The New York Times. (Freakonomics)

Quick note: Next week’s Hot Pod will be published on Thursday, September 1, and not in its usual Tuesday slot. See you then!