Apple, podcasting’s dominant (and mostly benign) middleman, is rebooting how it delivers shows

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 122, published June 6, 2017.

I sunk a lot of hours this weekend trying to write a column on “Peak Podcasting,” following some inspiration from a tweet by the esteemed Lizzie O’Leary — which speaks to a broad feeling that I’ve been seeing a lot of — but I’m going to postpone that discussion to next week. For now, let’s talk WWDC, Gimlet, and JSON.

WWDC. The big Apple developer’s conference — which serves as a periodic hub for major product and upgrade announcements from the tech colossus — started in San Jose yesterday, and there are two big things you probably need to know.

(1) We’re getting a redesigned Podcasts app that’ll come with the announced iOS 11 update. Official details are scant at the moment, and while your mileage may vary with sourcing Reddit, there are a couple of screenshots of the new app floating about from this thread, which also hint at potential upcoming livestreaming tool support. Meanwhile, on the WWDC schedule, there’s an Apple Podcasts session due to take place on Friday, and it notes in the description: “iOS 11 upgrades the Apple Podcasts app to support to new feed structures for serialized shows.” From screenshots coming out of Twitter, it looks as if this in part means bundling by season, and providing a little more control over how episodes are presented to listeners over the feed. (It’s the small stuff that goes a really long way.)

As a sidenote, it’s notable that these changes seem to be particularly focused on better serving serialized shows, to the point it even shows up in the official language. Such shows — like Serial, S-Town, Missing Richard Simmons, and so on — do tend to be the medium’s breakout hits, though they are merely one of many show structures that exist in the space. Anyway, there’s probably a lot more to come on this; I’ll be on the lookout.

The iOS 11 update is scheduled to drop sometime this fall, alongside the new iPhone.

(2) You might already be aware of this, given that it was the closer: Apple finally unveiled its own foray into smart speakers, which comes in the form of a bulbous appliance rather awkwardly called the HomePod. (Apropos of nothing, it might time to rename this newsletter. I’m taking suggestions.)

It goes without saying that Apple finally breaking into the smart speaker category — and bringing with it the full body of its media ecosystem — is a big, chunky story with a lot to parse out. Now, I’m no technology journalist, but I will say that I’m deeply curious to see how Apple’s move here will add competition to the market currently dominated by the Amazon Echo. Some indicators suggest that Amazon has built a pretty far lead in this category with its line of fairly affordable smart speakers, and given the fact that Apple’s HomePod is priced at $349 to start (for reference, the Echo Dot goes for about $50), it seems as if Apple will be sliding into the market on the luxury end and will at least initially play more toward its moneyed base, which was more or less what it did with the smartphone. While it’s understandable to replicate that move, it does mean that whatever improvements the smart speaker brings to the podcast listening experience — and whatever listening gains for publishers and podcasters might come from it — we’re probably not going to be seeing much of a substantial broadening of the active listening base from a demographic perspective, at least not initially. Indeed, if anything, we’re probably going to see a deepening within the category of audiences already predisposed to podcasts.

Nevertheless, it’s worthwhile to think through the big picture here: The higher aspirational register for this emerging set of products is the seeding of an audio-first computing experience, one of the alternative beachfronts for the “ambient computing” version of the consumer tech future highlighted in Walt Mossberg’s final column. To play this out further, the long-term structural value that this potential shift brings is one that ultimately liberates the growth trajectory of on-demand audio content from being principally tethered to the mobile device toward a trajectory that extends across whatever vessels audio-first computing is going to be channeled through in the future.

All right, that’s a whole lot of horizon-staring chin-stroking, so let’s kick it back a notch and talk present-day industry scuttlebutt. (Read the Nieman Lab writeup if you’re looking for more keynote takeaways for publishers.)

Gimlet makes a curious acquisition. In what is probably a sign of the times, Gimlet announced this week that it’s bringing on a new show from outside its trendy Gowanus walls: The Pitch, which is basically Shark Tank but a podcast. The show is made and hosted by Josh Muccio, a Florida-based entrepreneur.

The Pitch was first published in 2015, when Muccio developed the show in partnership with Silicon Valley venture capitalist Sheel Mohnot. The show was able to carve out a niche audience during its initial run, and as the story goes, after the first season, Muccio decided to take it in a different direction, redeveloping the concept and raising a small production team around the enterprise that included, among others, Devon Taylor, a freelancer who worked on Radiotopia’s Millennial.

Muccio shopped the second season around different networks — a common practice these days, in case you weren’t aware — before Gimlet ultimately moved to pick it up. That happened earlier this year, and I’m told that the acquisition process took about three weeks after Gimlet officially expressed interest in the project. As part of the deal, Muccio joined the company full time in early March, and Taylor, who by the way cofounded the now defunct podcast review site The Timbre (R.I.P.), was brought in full time as well.

The Pitch marks the first independent podcast that Gimlet has absorbed into its ranks, though it isn’t the company’s first acquisition. (The network brought over Science Vs, along with host Wendy Zukerman, from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation last year.) In many ways, it’s a bit of an unexpected addition for the nearly three-year-old company, which has thus far built a strong reputation off a portfolio of highly produced, narrative-driven programming — you know, the kind of stuff you’d lump into a pile with This American Life and 99% Invisible. The Pitch feels considerably different from the rest of Gimlet’s portfolio…though, if pressed, I’m not quite sure what I mean by that. I quite enjoy the podcast, but I have a bit of trouble seeing how it fits into the Gimlet brand and house sound. And as I dig deeper into my gut reaction to the news, I can’t quite tell whether my response says more about my prejudices about reality programming — which I have a distinct palate for, by the way, one that I keep separate from the rest of my entertainment diet — or my own conceptions of what the Gimlet house style is supposed to be.

Matt Lieber, president of Gimlet, appears to hold a broader definition of that house style than I do. “I think it’s pretty consistent with our strategy,” he said when we spoke by phone Monday. Gimlet shows, according to Lieber, are largely defined by, among other things, a sense of curiosity, high production quality, and a strong point of view — all things, he argues, that The Pitch shares. Plus, the ambition of the whole reality programming dimension, and how it mingles with these core Gimlet principles, is a big part of what drew Gimlet to the project. “It combines the best of reality TV — that tension and excitement — and the best of narrative storytelling,” Lieber said. “Reality has always been a category we’ve been intrigued by. If you think about it, the first season of StartUp had some of those qualities.”

That StartUp connection, I think, is pretty meaningful. One way of reading the company’s history is to see it as having built an initial core audience off a show, StartUp, that appeals to those who are drawn to stories about entrepreneurship and technology. From this position, The Pitch, then, is an expansion of that genre offering within Gimlet’s portfolio, one that deepens the available product range for the entrepreneurship-oriented audience — and, subsequently, its extractable value for advertisers. Think about the kinds of people who listen to StartUp and podcasts about entrepreneurship, and then think about the types of advertisers who value that set of ears, and then think about capitalism and the resulting CPM rate. (Speaking of which, I’d love to tie NPR’s How I Built This into this somehow.)

One more thing before I move on. I was curious as to why Muccio decided to move onto a network, why he eschewed independence. Here’s his response:

1. The #1 way people find out about podcasts is on other podcasts. So the right network presents an opportunity for audience growth that would take years to build as an independent.

2. Advertising. Some networks have horrible CPMs and are known for really bad ads. But Gimlet is not one of them. They’re one of the best in the biz. If not the best. We sold our own ads for The Pitch. It’s really REALLY hard to do well. This wasn’t an area I was willing to compromise so I’m lucky to be joining a network that is really crushing it on the advertising front. Bottom line? Ads on The Pitch are higher quality and more profitable.

3. Focus and specialization. I wore all the hats as an independent producer. I did pretty damn well considering, but still you can only be so good at any one thing when you have 50 other things you also need to be good at. Joining a network has allowed me to focus on building a great show, refining my skills as a host and building a team that can carry the vision of the show with me. Ultimately building something with a team of amazing people is more fulfilling to me than building something in a silo.

The Pitch debuts under new management on June 14. There will also be a crossover episode with the StartUp podcast on that day.

Side note. Deadline reported a new development on the upcoming Homecoming TV adaptation: Julia Roberts is currently in talks for the lead role, which was played by Catherine Keener in the podcast. The project looks like it’s still in its pretty early stages, so fans shouldn’t get too attached to the prospect of an adaptation just yet.

A directory, a list, a market. “Podcast discovery is broken,” goes the familiar critique, the opening gambit of most product pitches that hit my inbox. And it was as true two or three years ago as it is now — though as longtime readers might know, I’m wont to think of it mostly as a secondary issue, not one that’s fatally prohibitive to the long-term fate of the space. I imagine some will disagree. In any case, I still read every email that hits my inbox on the matter.

The latest of such gambits is something called PodSearch, and there is some reason to pay attention here. A project of Patty and Dave Newmark, proprietors of Newmark Advertising and longtime audio advertising operatives with strong relationships on the advertising side of the industry, PodSearch boasts a premise that’s so straightforward as to be blunt: It’s the Yellow Pages, but for podcasts.

There isn’t a ton about PodSearch that’s interesting from a design perspective, particularly on the business-to-consumer side. A lot of its touted features — search, personalization, top-show categorizations — are table stakes as far as digital products in 2017 are concerned, and there are some things about the interface that create an unnecessarily high level of friction for potential users, like requiring visitors to make an account before being to actually use the platform.

I see the theoretical value of the product for consumers, of course. Having a consolidated point of reference for the whole space that’s marginally more organized than Apple Podcasts (née iTunes) is nice, though perhaps not quite the drop of water in the desert it’s made out to be, and I’m partial to the view that more competition on the directory and search portal-level is always good for podcast discovery. However, execution matters more than ideas, as the old adage goes, and there’s a long road ahead for PodSearch to make a good first impression. (And second, and third, and fourteenth.)

That said, here are two things to consider:

(1) PodSearch has potential to create genuine value for advertisers. In researching this story, a few people brought up the way in which it might quietly solve a discovery problem of another kind: Advertisers and agencies, I’m told, currently have to do a fair bit of manual digging around to generate a list of podcasts (and their respective contact information for sponsorship inquiries) to potentially buy spots off, and so a directory that’s able to provide an easily digestible serving of the menu on offer, with the relevant contact information, would be useful for this community. And given the Newmarks’ expertise and history, I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re able to create a decent market on the advertiser side of the equation.

(2) One way that PodSearch is interesting to me is how it can serve as a vessel to get the most utility out of search engines for its listed podcasts writ large. When I spoke with Dave last week, he spoke of a meaningful volume search queries for terms relating to podcasts on a general level — “What is a podcast?”, “How do I listen to one?”, and so on — and how there isn’t much incentive for individual publishers to aggressively capitalize on those generic paid search terms. And so, by assuming the position of a wholesale podcast directory, PodSearch is able to make those spends on behalf of publishers and extract value from those broad queries for its listing participants. There’s a lot of juice in this fruit, and I’m compelled to see if the utility here can be appropriately realized.

In sum, I really do think there’s a lot more value for PodSearch to pursue a more explicit business-to-business path than one that also tacks on a business-to-consumer dimension. Solving discovery for everyday users is a tough and deeply nuanced problem in 2017, and as far as digital media categories are concerned, we live in a world with high thresholds for user experience expectations — and it’s only going to get higher.

Two more things to mull over in your own assessment about the service:

  • There’s a cost associated with listing on the directory ($9.99 a month, which might feel steep for most that are already paying comparable amounts for hosting), and a small cost for advertisers to access the aforementioned point-of-contact information ($19.99 a year). I’m told that the costs are to qualify leads on both sides, and I imagine it also generates revenue for the platform to keep the lights on, which is fair.
  • The Newmarks are kicking off PodSearch with some major publisher partnerships already in the bag; in the press outreach email, I was informed that the company is fielding sales chiefs from National Public Media, Public Media Marketing, Midroll, and Panoply to talk on the record about the initiative. We’re talking institutional support here; let’s see how that shakes out.

Developments over at HowStuffWorks. Back in March, it was reported that Will Pearson and Mangesh Hattikudur, who founded the online curiosity Mental Floss back in 2001, were leaving the company to develop a new podcast for HowStuffWorks. That project is now public: it’s called Part Time Genius, and it appears to be some combination of game show and a piece of education media. In other words, the show sounds a lot like Stephen Dubner’s Tell Me Something I Don’t Know, and it fits into HowStuffWorks’ wheelhouse pretty neatly.

Part Time Genius will launch with four full episodes in the feed. That happens on June 7.

Meanwhile, HowStuffWorks has also relaunched its popular Stuff Your Mom Never Told You podcast, almost half a year after the show’s previous hosts, Cristen Conger and Caroline Ervin, left the show to launch their own independent media company, Unladylike Media. (You can find my story on that, which touches on questions of ownership and network arrangements, can be found here.) The new setup features Emilie Aries and Bridget Todd in the hosting seat, and they will be based in Washington, DC.

“Replacing a host or hosts is not easy, especially when you consider that so much of what makes podcasting great is the personal connection between listeners and the hosts,” wrote Jason Hoch, the chief content officer of HowStuffWorks, through a PR rep about the transition. “We really wanted to take our time finding new hosts that could continue on with the show’s message, but we also wanted to make sure we were pushing ourselves to continue to evolve the show. We felt from the get-go that it was better to take our time finding the absolute best hosts for the show instead of rushing into this.”

Hoch added: “For any podcast, it does take some time to settle into a rhythm and build chemistry between co-hosts, producers and listeners. But this is also what makes podcasting so special — it’s analogous to finding a new friend. It builds over time.”

An uptick in support for a new podcast delivery format. I don’t spend a ton of time digging into the technical and infrastructural end of podcasts, and I’d like to be clear here that I only have a pedestrian understanding of the issues. But a recent string of announcements have caught my eye: Over the past week or so, a few third-party podcast apps, including Breaker, Fireside, and Cast, have all added support for the JSON Feed format. JSON is a data-interchange format, a way in which computers exchange information with one another, and JSON Feed is an RSS-like feed format built on top of it. The trend was written up by noted technology writer John Gruber at his site Daring Fireball, which is how I initially bumped into the story.

As far as I can tell, there’s some philosophical significance here among technologists who are developing tools for the podcast space. But I wanted to get a broad sense of what it means for those outside that category of people, and so I reached out to Leah Culver and Erik Michaels-Ober of Breaker to help explain some things to me.

The main takeaway? It’s largely a matter of efficiency, as the argument goes.

“JSON is generally more compact than XML,” the team wrote back. (XML is the format that provides the foundation for RSS which, as you might know, is currently the primary format of the podcast space.) “All things being equal, the JSON Feed could be transferred between two computers 27% faster and the transmission costs would be 27% lower. In a competitive marketplace, these types of cost savings are typically distributed in one or more of three ways: (1) returned to consumers, in the form of lower prices, (2), returned to shareholders, in the form of a dividend, and (3) reinvested in the business. Each of these has either direct or indirect benefits to consumers and podcasters. Essentially, the argument here is that efficiency is an end in itself. There no reason for computers to communicate more verbosely when they could communicate more concisely.”

They added: “Beyond efficiency, there are no new capabilities unlocked by JSON Feed. If all goes according to plan for JSON Feed, consumers and podcasters won’t notice that anything has changed—other than the podcast services they use have become cheaper or better, due to improved resource utilization.”

So, what’s listed here is actually an abbreviated version of a much longer Q&A with Michaels-Ober and Culver, which gets fairly wonky and technical. You can find the full discussion in this Google Doc.

Bites:

  • NPR’s Invisibilia returned for its third season last week, and this time around it boasts a unifying season-wide structure: playfully tethered to the idea of a “concept album,” this chunk of episodes will all revolve around the theme of concepts. (NPR)
  • Feral Audio, home of Harmontown, recently launched a comedy podcast focused entirely on stories and the happenings that go on in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Los Feliz. It’s a curious take on the whole locally-minded media thread; we’ll see if they actually harvest anything interesting out of the conceit. (Feral Audio)
  • Kids Listen, the loose collective that advocates for children’s programming in the podcast space, has a website now. Watch the space for upcoming initiatives and roster expansions by the group. (Kids Listen)
  • AudioBoom recently commissioned a study with Edison Research on listener demographics. It’s worth checking out in full, but here’s a data point that caught my eye: Only 22 percent of respondents reported that they currently have mail-order subscriptions to companies like Blue Apron, Birchbox, and Barkbox. That’s a lot lower than I would ordinarily think. (LinkedIn)
  • Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has a podcast now…and, uh, I didn’t think much of it. (WBEZ)
  • Not directly podcast-related, but I loved reading this: “In well-mannered public radio, an airwaves war,” a story about WBUR and WGBH, which have struck up a fascinating coexistence in the public radio-friendly city of Boston. (The Boston Globe)

So how in the world do you break into a career in podcasting, anyway?

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 119, published May 9, 2017.

S-Town breaks 40 million downloads in its first month. That’s global downloads, by the way. I wrote up the milestone for Vulture, and to conjure a sense of the context, I hope you don’t mind me quoting myself:

It’s the biggest rollout a podcast has ever seen in the medium’s history, solidly beating the previous titleholder, Serial season two, which saw an average of 4 million downloads per episode in its first 30 days, according to the measurement firm Podtrac. (For more context, consider that the This American Life podcast, one of the biggest in the industry, is said to see about 2.5 million downloads a week.)

And in case you’re thinking growth rates, recall that the podcast (which dropped all seven of its episodes at once) enjoyed about 16 million downloads in its first week.

Something to consider: The big thought bubble I tried to inflate in the writeup is this idea that S-Town’s success suggests that the very young industry remains fairly malleable. Which is to say, because the ecosystem is still emergent — that is, comparatively unburdened with an extensive sense of its own creative and financial history — it remains relatively easy for bold, audacious experiments to make their way to market to test the limits of their opportunities, and there exists a sense that the medium’s audiences still have appetites that can tolerate, and maybe even expect, greater unconventionality. (An alternate, but not necessarily oppositional, argument is that a good story is a good story is a good story, and that experimentation imbues the product with a differentiating factor, and that the story of more established creative industries is largely a story of its history and accrued creative conservatism getting in their own ways.)

That said, it’s worth asking if S-Town’s success is unique to the conditions set up by its progenitor, This American Life. Over the decades that it’s been in business, that show has built out a considerable existing audience base across multiple channels, an extensive proven track record of quality across multiple shows (let us not forget Serial), and a strong brand presence that’s able to drive tangible impact should they set out to promote something new and unconventional. S-Town, then, can perhaps be described the beneficiary of long-cultivated advantages, which increased its chances at getting in front of enough people who were willing to try it out — and enjoy it.

Which brings us to an interesting question: Just how much does S-Town’s success actually tell us about the opportunities of the space as a whole? Or is it just a story that only tells us about the strength of This American Life and Serial Productions?

I think it’s pretty hard to parse out, but my instinct is to lean much more on the latter at the moment. There is just so much about that project that’s frankly unreplicable. That said, I will also say that when I’m trying to think through that broader question of the space’s opportunities as a whole, I find myself thinking more about Missing Richard Simmons. That show, in many ways, came out of nowhere, and it’s a particularly strange production at almost every level. It was a real-time mystery but also a biography but also a confessional but also a piece of celebrity media. It was an extravagant exercise in building a boat mid-sail. It held no prominent names on the creative team — both Pineapple Street Media and First Look Media, I’d argue, carry virtually no weight with general audiences — and the marketing push was light-to-moderate, at best. It lay on the subject, the celebrity Richard Simmons, to carry the bulk of the weight as the audience draw, and even then, the actual potential return of that celebrity was probably hard to estimate at the time of release.

But the show ended up being an undeniable hit despite all of that. On March 28, a little over a month after the show first debuted, First Look Media told me that the podcast had been downloaded on average more than 1 million times a week since its release, which a considerable feat that the show achieved with none of the advantages of This American Life that I previously mentioned. Missing Richard Simmons was the show, I think, that properly represented the opportunities of the space’s still-low barriers to entry, more so than S-Town.

Anyway, that’s what I’ve been kicking around in my head. I reckon that this is a question we’ll continue to heavily parse over time.

Summer pre-preview. It’s pretty cold here on the East Coast — too cold — but the Gregorian calendar gonna calendar, which means summer is upon us, which means there’s a summer launch slate assembling on the horizon. I’ve got a summer preview piece coming up later this week that’ll be more comprehensive, but here are two things worth tracking in the meantime:

(1) We’re set to see a fair number of high-profile returns:

  • Most notably, NPR’s Invisibilia — a near overnight success when it first debuted in January 2015 — returns with its third season on June 1.
  • Malcolm Gladwell’s back at the mic. Revisionist History, Panoply’s big-swing project from last summer, will drop its sophomore season sometime in June.
  • Homecoming, Gimlet’s experimental audio drama, will resume its cliffhanger in mid-July.

(2) Kids, kids, kids. NPR’s prepping to launch Wow in The World, which it is billing as the first kids podcast in the organization’s 47-year history. It will be hosted by Guy Raz, who already double-duties for NPR as the host of the TED Radio Hour and How I Built This, together with Mindy Thomas. Raz and Thomas already collaborate on the Breakfast Blast Newscast, a SiriusXM show that’s also aimed at kids. According to the formal press release, the podcast will be produced by Tinkercast, a newly formed production company that focuses on family-friendly content, with NPR acting as distributor. Nieman Lab has a good writeup.

Wow in the World will premiere on May 15.

But NPR isn’t the only the public radio organization getting into the pre-pre-teen game. WNYC is apparently piloting its own kids-focused podcast with a live event at The Greene Space on May 20 and 21 — called “Friends for Now,” the podcast will be a trivia game show for kids hosted by comedian Jo Firestone. (Firestone, by the way, has a beloved WFMU radio program, “Dr. Gameshow,” that’s currently being adapted for podcasts under the Earwolf banner, or so I’m told. That’ll be out sometime this season too.)

Macmillan’s experimental imprint. Earlier this month, Tor Books, one of the largest publishers of scifi novels and a subsidiary of Macmillan, announced something called Tor Labs, which is being positioned a new fiction imprint with a twist.

From The Verge:

The new venture will focus on “experimental approaches to genre publishing, beginning with original dramatic podcasts.” Its first podcast, Steal the Stars, will begin streaming this fall…Tor describes Steal the Stars as a “noir science fiction thriller” about two government employees guarding a crashed UFO.

This new initiative is interesting for two primary reasons:

  • That first project, Steal the Stars, is being written by Mac Rogers, who wrote The Message and LifeAfter, the two branded podcast productions that came out of a partnership between Panoply and GE.
  • After the podcast completes its run, the company will repackage the show as an audiobook and will also produce a printed novelization.

That second bit is really, really smart. It drastically expands the surface area of the project across multiple platforms (and therefore multiple markets), which further deepens the project’s ability to financially benefit from a single, core creative enterprise. I’m excited to see whether Tor Labs can pull this off — which is contingent, of course, on whether the podcast is actually any good — and if so, whether MacMillan can leverage its position to replicate that model across various other imprints and genres.

By the way, Tor Books’ parent company, Macmillan Publishing, is also the proprietor of the Quick and Dirty Tips podcast network. You can find my writeup on that operation here.

A hotel partnership? PRX has struck up a “co-marketing” partnership with the Freepoint Hotel, a new establishment that just opened in Cambridge, Mass., that sees the company serving guests podcasts with “interesting, localized content.” Naturally, the content will be distributed via the RadioPublic app. The hotel has also commissioned an episode from Radiotopia’s The Memory Palace that will explore the history of the West Cambridge neighborhood. That episode will come out later this summer. (Memory Palace host Nate DiMeo, by the way, has already been doing similar topically-focused work in his recent gig as the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s artist-in-residence.)

It’s a fairly zany marketing initiative, one that definitely draws some influence from Detour, the guided walking tour app by Groupon founder Andrew Mason. But it’s pleasingly zany, the kind of weird that’s interesting to appraise and experience, and I hope to see more unconventional marketing tactics like this from other companies in the future.

Two dispatches from the live show circuit.

(1) HeadGum’s flagship show, the comedy advice show If I Were You hosted by HeadGum founders Jake Hurwitz and Amir Blumenfeld, is currently on its East Coast tour. I’m told that the podcast stages about 25 live shows a year, which accounts for about 10 to 20 percent of the show’s total revenue.

“As a general note for HeadGum’s touring strategy, a number of shows on our network also do live shows, and we don’t take any of the revenue they make from touring,” said Whitney Simon, the company’s business development executive.

(2) Crimetown, the true crime Gimlet Media production hosted by The Jinx’s Marc Smerling and Zac Stuart-Pontier, is rounding out its inaugural season with a live show in Brooklyn this Thursday. The live show will feature some of the subjects documented throughout the season, which trained its focus on the history of organized crime and corruption in Providence, Rhode Island with a particular emphasis on the city’s, uh, “decorated” former mayor, Buddy Cianci.

“There are so many incredible stories we couldn’t include in each episode, and we wanted to give some of the people we interviewed another forum to talk about their experiences,” said Rob Szypko, the show’s digital editor.

When I asked him how Providence has received the show, he notes that it’s been pretty warm. “From January 1 to May 1 of this year, we’ve received the sixth most downloads from Rhode Island listeners out of all 50 states — which is pretty significant considering that Rhode Island is the 44th most populous state in the country,” he said, adding that local residents have also been considerably engaged with the podcast, sending in anonymous tips for the show’s weekly newsletter.

“We’re optimistic that we can take a version of this live show to Providence too,” Szypko adds.

Career spotlight. Over the past year or so, two things have become increasingly apparent to me: First, it feels like there are more young people than ever before trying to break into and build a career in radio and podcasting — which is great, and which is what we need. And second, there remains a dearth of accessible information about what it means to have a career and what, exactly, one looks like. That’s a not-so-great thing, IMHO, and I find myself fixated on this problem because it’s reminiscent of something I face in my own professional life (such as it is): I don’t have that many accessible models of living that could help me shape my own course, and that’s been a problem when it comes to appraising what’s possible. I think that general state is true for this space, and when it comes to the new generation of people trying to bring their potential into the community, that’s a problem for both those people and the community.

So I’m introducing a new recurring feature that’ll try to help in its own way, where I run some basic questions by podcast and radio folk of various stripes about their careers and how they learned to do what they do. I’ll be working to convey as wide a range of experiences and people as possible, and if I’m doing it right, we’ll all get a good sense on just how weird and scrappy and unstructured things can get.

First up: Clare Toeniskoetter, from APM’s Marketplace.

[storybreak]

[conl]Hot Pod: What do you do?[/conl]

[conr]Clare Toeniskoetter: I’m a podcast producer at Marketplace’s New York bureau. I produced two seasons of Codebreaker (check it out, we just won a Webby!), two seasons of Actuality, and now I’m piloting new shows with our growing on-demand team. I also produce Marketplace Tech a few times a month — that’s our daily tech show.

My workload changes, depending on the day: researching and pitching stories, engineering interviews, cutting tape, reporting, booking guests, writing scripts, scoring and sound designing, and recently co-hosting Facebook Live videos. My position was brand new when I started at Marketplace two years ago, so I was able to shape it so it includes a bit of everything.[/conr]

[conl]Hot Pod: Where did you start, and how did you get to this point?[/conl]

[conr]Toeniskoetter: I didn’t grow up listening to any public radio — the Toeniskoetters were more of a ‘today’s hits and yesterday’s favorites’ radio family — but I was always interested in music, so I started hosting a freeform music show with WCBN at the University of Michigan. College radio was a gateway radio drug for me, and I soon started listening to public radio and podcasts. (I actually called my favorite podcasts “hot pods” early on, I have gchats as proof). It wasn’t until I drove through the night from Michigan to New York to volunteer at WFMU’s Radiovision conference that I realized I could have a career in public radio (which I almost didn’t go to — looking back at old emails, I didn’t want to miss a football game that weekend).

Back in Ann Arbor, I started interning for our NPR affiliate, Michigan Radio. I worked on a daily news magazine program, finding stories and booking guests, and eventually pitching and producing a new recurring segment. In 2014, I moved to New York for a part-time Radiolab internship and quickly started another part-time internship at Slate working on The Gist, all while working a bunch of Craigslist odd jobs to pay my rent. From there, I did temp work at WNYC and Panoply, and eventually found myself at Marketplace after replying to a two-line job posting email for a “six-month gig” as “a NY-based producer for two podcasts.” Six-plus-nineteen months later, I’m still at Marketplace producing podcasts.[/conr]

[conl]Hot Pod: How did you learn to do the job?[/conl]

[conr]Toeniskoetter: On the first day of my Michigan Radio internship, my manager lent me a copy of Sound Reporting: The NPR Guide to Audio Journalism and Production. I read it cover to cover, and ordered Reality Radio: Telling True Stories in Sound and Radio: An Illustrated Guide. With my radio encyclopedia in place, I also listened to archived Third Coast conference sessions, read guides from Transom, and talked to other radio reporters and producers at our Detroit-based radio club. Despite all this, the early pieces I made lacked structure, pacing, and purpose, but I kept at it. Case in point, another gem copy-and-pasted from my old emails:

Me, to other Michigan Radio interns: Let’s make a podcast! I’ll borrow some equipment. Come over on Sunday to record.

Co-intern: Hey guys! What’s going on with a podcast? This sounds hilarious!

Me: I don’t think we really have a plan for it, we’re just going to see what we can create with microphones in front of us!

No, no one ever heard that podcast. That said, most of my learning was through doing. One of my internship managers told me to fake it till I make it, which, if you didn’t get from the “see what we can create” podcast, I definitely did. Eventually, the failure becomes adequacy, and the adequacy becomes improvement, and the improvement becomes success. And today I’m still pushing myself outside of my comfort zone and taking on new roles and responsibilities at Marketplace.[/conr]

[storybreak]

You can find Clare on Twitter at @claretoenis.

Bites:

  • WNYC has announced the schedule for the third edition of Werk It, its annual festival for women in podcasting. The lineup looks pretty damn stellar, IMHO. (WNYC)
  • Anybody else notice that First Look Media has switched out the branding of its podcasts? Missing Richard Simmons, Politically Re-Active, and Maeve in America are now all listed as podcasts from Topic, its “entertainment studio” whose actual machinations remains a mystery to me.
  • 60dB, the short-form audio listening app, revamps its design and rolls a new beta app for Android. Here’s the customary Medium post, and you can read my previous analysis on the company here.
  • The Hive, Vanity Fair’s buzzy technology vertical, is launching its own podcast with Nick Bilton serving as host. DGital Media plays support.
  • Science Friday, the long-running weekly science radio show hosted by Ira Flatow, is launching a podcast spinoff: Undiscovered. (Apple Podcasts)
  • This is cool: “Celestial Blood” is a bilingual radionovela produced by Gisele Regatao in partnership with Santa Monica public radio station KCRW, and it launched earlier this month. (Apple Podcasts)

[photocredit]Photo of Careers board game by huppypie used under a Creative Commons license.[/photocredit]

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!

A new player aims to bring the podcast advertising analytics some want (and others fear)

Art19 steps into the spotlight. “We’re not really pulling ourselves out of beta,” said Sean Carr, cofounder and CEO of Art19, a California-based tech startup that’s built a podcast hosting, monetization, and distribution platform. “We’re just ready to make some noise and draw attention to ourselves.”

And you should, indeed, pay attention.

Art19 organized a small press push last week, which comes after a long period of relative quiet for the company. The messaging in the push included a good amount of detail illustrating the company’s technological proposition to the podcast industry: the foundational elements for a shift away from the industry’s download count-oriented, RSS feed-driven paradigm towards one that focuses its counts on whether an ad within a download or stream has been initiated, consumed, or skipped by a listener — what Carr refers to as listener telemetry, a term he emphasized when we spoke over the phone last week.

And what are the foundational elements that make up that new paradigm? “To start with, we’re offering embeddable players and, more importantly, APIs that are public so that both our partners and third-party consumer apps can connect to us,” Carr said, laying out a vision of the future where more data would be flowing with greater freedom throughout the podcast ecosystem. He quickly added: “But to be clear: We won’t be using that data. We’re a SaaS [software as a service] company.”

The company’s push towards an API-connected listening orientation is, in my mind, more or less what much of the professionalizing layer of the podcast community — from bigger networks to advertisers to agencies — have been asking for when they lament about the medium’s measurability woes: greater means to look into the consumption behavior around an episode, and therefore greater capacity to cultivate trust and buy-in from more advertisers.

(Conversely, it’s also precisely what much of the podcasts-as-extension-of-the-free-web have been arguing against, fearing the platform control that often happens when a piece of technology emerges that potentially grants more power to bigger entities. I’ve always been of the position that technological developments are inevitable, and that the discourse should always be focused on cultivating better regulation structures and a new system of balance instead of attempting to limit such developments.)

But of course, for Art19’s gambit to work, the company would need to secure the trust and participation of a critical mass of partners — including publishers, agencies, advertisers, and distributors, among others — in order to build a coalition that would work to actually shift the paradigm across the industry. Indeed, while there’s a general hunger to move away from RSS feeds and download counts as the standard, there will always be the problem of inertia (e.g. “we’ve been making buys and allocating budgets this way for a while now”) and, more pressingly, there will always be the problem of politics. One imagines that Art19’s competitors — including but not limited to Libsyn, Panoply’s Megaphone, PRX’s Dovetail, Triton Digital’s Tap, and Acast — would want to be the anchor of any such paradigm shift themselves — or, at the very least, for no one to be the anchor, perhaps through some open-sourced alternative.

And so it’s crucial to examine the key allies that the company has secured. At this time, Art19’s major clients include: (1) Wondery, the L.A.-based podcast network recently started by the former CEO and president of Fox International Channels; (2) DGital Media, the network that produces podcasts for Recode, Yahoo’s The Vertical, Fortune, and the UFC, among others; and perhaps most crucially, (3) Midroll Media, which is currently in the process of moving its entire Earwolf network onto the platform and will now be pitching Art19 as its preferred platform to its wide range of ad sales clients. The company is also expected to make a few more major partnership announcements by the end of this month.

The company also appears to have a strong ally in the agency world in the form of Ogilvy & Mather, the well-known advertising agency that’s part of the WPP network. Teddy Lynn, the agency’s chief creative officer for content and social, has been involved in Art19’s press push. “I’ve been working with Sean for many, many years,” Lynn told me. “What I can say: For close to a decade, podcasting has been a very rudimentary ad unit that one can buy. And I think Art19 is advancing the medium to a place where media buyers would feel comfortable buying.” An AdExchanger article further notes that Art19’s platform design was designed with agency input, and that’s something that shouldn’t be discounted.

Art19 will likely be served well by its twin alliances with Midroll and Ogilvy. As one of the bigger players in the space, Midroll has deeper pockets following its acquisition by Scripps, and its expansionist sensibilities should make them as strong advocate for Art19’s technological vision in the marketplace over the long run. And in Ogilvy, Art19 has an advocate for legitimacy in the agency world, which is key to unlock the next level of advertising dollars for the medium.

But the question is whether that’s enough, and who else Art19 is able to bring into its vision: more publishers, the right podcast distributors and apps, the critical mass of advertisers. And of course, whether the company will be able to ward off coalitions formed by other sectors of the industry, whether it comes from another hosting platform — or from something else entirely.

giphy (3)

A new model for branded content? Slate launched a new podcast last week, Placemakers, that’s a bit of a complicated beast to explain. On the surface, it’s a show about urban revitalization, with host Rebecca Sheir traveling across the country, reporting out city-specific stories on the subject. Sheir is a public radio veteran who has served at NPR, WAMU, and the Alaska Public Radio Network.

But the podcast is also the product of a branded content partnership with JPMorgan Chase, the multinational banking organization. The bank is underwriting the show’s 18 editorial episodes — which, I’m told, are completely produced by the Slate editorial team — and is directly involved with three additional sponsored episodes, which will tell JPMorgan Chase-centered stories about urban revitalization in Detroit, Seattle, and New Orleans. Those three branded episodes are produced by the Panoply Custom team, the unit within Panoply, Slate’s sister podcasting company, that’s in charge of building out branded podcasts for clients. That team’s portfolio includes Purina’s DogSmarts, Umpqua Bank’s Open Account, and most notably, the audio sci-fi drama The Message, which came out of a collaboration with GE.

“The project came about from both the editorial and advertising sides having a shared passion about the revitalization of urban cities,” said Keith Hernandez, president of Slate, when we spoke last week. “[Slate editor-in-chief] Julia Turner was really excited about the subject, and when we brought it to the JPMorgan Chase team we figured out that they were really excited about it too.”

Serendipitous as it may be, the long-running concern of a show like this — one where it’s not all that easy to tell at what point the Slate voice ends and the JPMorgan Chase one begins, given how complicatedly blended the two actors are within the larger project — is how the line between editorial and advertorial is established and communicated. This concern reared its voluminous head again just last week, when the Online Trust Association released a report that found that 71 percent of native ads that appeared on the homepages of the top 100 news websites were providing inadequate disclosures and transparencies that help audience make the distinction between an ad and an editorial content. (The report also instigated a fascinating and feisty Twitter joust between Current’s Adam Ragusea and On The Media’s Bob Garfield.) No such report has been conducted yet for on-demand audio, but it goes without saying that this issue stretches across all mediums that are involved in the possible production of journalistic content.

Which raised to me the question: How exactly will Placemakers illustrate that line for listeners?

“There’s going to be a different host for the three sponsored episodes,” Hernandez replied. “We want this to be clear and evident that these are special episodes. There are also going to be, ahead of time, midroll and post-roll announcements within the episodes that custom episodes are coming.”

Hernandez also suggested that Placemakers is an early prototype of a new branded content model: one that involves the production of branded spinoffs from a pre-existing show. “Brands are moving away from an idea of themselves as a bland corporate entity…they want something deeper than a brand logo. I think this is just the beginning of a longer trend, of brands digging deeper into ideas and building relationships with the publishing community,” Hernandez said. “And I think this Placemakers model is scalable: How do we take existing shows and find an interesting spinoff that could be dedicated to a brand and leverage the sensibility of those shows?”

Of course, the “pre-existing” show in this case had to be made contemporaneously with the branded campaign, but the proposition here stands. (Also worth noting: This notion of a branded spinoff shares some structural similarity to the My Brother, My Brother and Me’s bonus episode sponsored by Totino’s Pizza Rolls, which I wrote about back in May.)

When I asked about the size of the deal — whether it was larger than previous Custom partnerships — Hernandez declined to comment, understandably. But he did answer my question about JPMorgan Chase’s expectation for the campaign, calling it an “evolving conversation” and one that respects the experimental nature of the project. Hernandez also tells me that the campaign will be playing around with on-site and off-site promotion, including a popup website, native ad units on the Slate website, and paid units on social (not unlike what they’ve been running with Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History).

Before signing off, I asked Hernandez how Panoply was doing on the whole. Understandably, again, he express immense optimism around the company’s position, and in particular, the potential of Megaphone, its CMS platform. “Megaphone is going to be a game-changer,” he said.

(Disclaimer: Panoply used to be my day-job employer, way back when.)

For The New York Times, a politics podcast of its own. Called The Run Up, the show is hosted by Times national political reporter Michael Barbaro and will cover this long, painful, brain-melting American presidential election cycle as its trundles through its final three months. (Hence, the name.) According to the PR email I received about the launch, the podcast will release new episodes twice a week and will serve listeners with “engaging conversations around the 2016 election and keep them up to speed about what happened (and what might happen),” with some key interviews thrown in here and there. From that description, it doesn’t seem like The Run Up will differ very much from other elections podcasts as far as structure is concerned, which suggests that the major differentiator between podcasts in this genre lies within the nexus of the analysis, access to key interviews, and discussion quality more broadly.

But thinking this through a little further, I’m wont to wonder: Just how much can you stretch this particular genre in terms of form and structure? And how much of that stretching is actually necessary to create a strong enough hook, or develop a genuinely novel value proposition, for new audiences? I’m tempted to credit BuzzFeed’s No One Knows Anything with legitimately attempting a new hook — that is, trying to keep a distance from the horse-race coverage and working to tell broader stories about the election, while aiming at a demographic that’s less bought into the cycle — but 23 episodes in, the show as a whole does seem to feel very much a part of the larger plethora of elections podcasts that we’ve seen to date, at least to my ears. (Though if I’m pressed to identify a show that’s done a good job providing a genuinely novel value proposition, I’d point to the tight set of election-related episodes in Scott Carrier’s Home of the Brave, which has been stringing together on-the-ground missives that have been furiously visceral, constantly surprising, and often terrifying.)

Anyway, I’m reminded that this is the Times’ first podcast rollout since bringing on WBUR’s Lisa Tobin as the organization’s new executive producer for audio; she started work just last month. I was also able to find out that this podcast is being produced completely in-house, and not as the product of an external partnership like Modern Love, which is a collaboration with WBUR, and the now-defunct Ethicists podcast, which was produced with Panoply. For those keeping tabs at home, the organization is slated to produce a show with Pineapple Street Media, which we’ll probably be treated to sometime in the near future.

giphy (3)

Multi-story. This is interesting: ESPN is currently in the middle of a new multi-platform initiative that “could be a model for future storytelling at the sports network,” according to The Hollywood Reporter. The initiative, called Pin Kings, is a documentary narrative that follows the story of two former high school wrestling teammates that go on to be on different sides of the East Coast drug war.

The first phase of the initiative is a 16-episode podcast miniseries that drops new episodes every weekday. At this writing, we’re on episode 7, and the narrative is being unfolded through a mixture of host narrations — which are done by Brett Forrest, the reporter who has been working on this story for over a year, and producer Jon Fish — and subject interviews. The podcast will lead up to a one-hour primetime television special that’ll broadcast on ESPN2 August 22, which will then be followed by a big print feature on the August 26 issue of ESPN the Magazine.

Personally, I’m curious how all the platforms will complement one another in terms of audience development and management: How will audiences be aggregated across the different platforms, and how will they be monetized? Which leads us to a broader question: What level of monetization would make a podcast-involved multiplatform initiative like this worth it for ESPN, a massive and principally TV-driven operation (though not for long, possibly)? That’s a question, I believe, that’s a perfectly relevant query for all other major media organizations dabbling in podcast-land.

Bites:

    • “SoundCloud owners said to mull $1 billion sale of music service.” Pretty speculative article, but it’s worth monitoring this potential development if you’ve been relying on the service for revenue in any way. (Bloomberg)
  • “How NPR marketed the second season of its hit podcast Invisibilia.” Number to watch: The podcast has currently achieved 10 million downloads, according to the report, which is lower than the first season’s tally of 50 million downloads. Of course, these numbers are difficult to discern without an apples-to-apples time period, which we’re not given, and the report further notes that NPR has changed how it counts downloads in order to minimize the possibility of duplicate counts. (Digiday)
  • Podtrac’s July podcast publisher ranking report shows a lineup that’s virtually unchanged since June, with NPR holding the top spot ahead of WNYC Studios and This American Life. Though, as RAIN News notes, the report observed a 5 percent increase in unique streams and downloads this month compared to last. As always, the usual disclaimers about the ranker apply. (Podtrac, RAIN News)
  • The Guardian’s new interactive for the Rio Olympics: Pokémon Go meets Detour/walking tours. You knew it had to happen. (The Guardian)
  • Saavn, a New York-based digital distributor of primarily Bollywood and Indian regional audio entertainment, announced a new set of original spoken word programming last week. Keep an eye on this company, and keep an eye on India. (Yahoo Finance)
  • “When will YouTube deal with its audiobook and podcast piracy problem?” Yeah, YouTube. When are you gonna do dat. (Observer)

Yay Olympics.

New podcasts, more existential public radio talk, and progress on intern wages

Factsheet. I’m all about those 30,000-foot views. Last week, the Pew Research Center published its respected State of the News Media 2016 report, a dependable resource of material for media nerds to geek out over. Like previous versions, this year’s report comes with a dedicated podcasting section, and for the most part, it does a pretty good job of providing a snapshot of the industry at this point in time. Interested podcast-oriented readers should also pay attention to the section on public broadcasting, which digs into NPR’s current dynamics pretty well and digs up some handy data points to boot. (NPR One adoption is still stronger among iPhone users than among Android users, but not for long you say? Delicious.)

I highly recommend checking both sections out, but I just wanted to make a quick note: This is presumably the report that many newcomers and unfamiliar media analysts will turn to — and the one that future podcast entrepreneurs will cite in pitch decks — for a clean, clear description of the state of the podcast industry in the months to come. It’s important, then, to note the many quirks of the report, including its utilization of Libsyn data to chart out the scale of podcast hosting and downloads — which doesn’t account for the volumes of hosting and downloads that take place on premium platforms like Art19, Megaphone, and whatever public radio stations use — as well as its perpetuation of the ZenithOptimedia $34 million estimate of ad spend for the medium in 2015, the problems of which I discussed in my last column.

Anyway, the Pew report wasn’t the only high-level overview of the podcast industry that came out over the past few weeks. The independent tech analyst Ben Thompson also recently published a very, very solid assessment on his Stratechery blog, which you should absolutely peruse if you haven’t already. His reading of the medium’s history is consistent with my own, and it even comes with an interesting — and possibly very complicated — alternate path for the industry to go down in the months to come.

The new NewFront. “We wanted to make it feel scrappy,” said Chris Giliberti, Gimlet’s chief of staff, when we spoke over the phone last week. “There are companies in the digital media world that aren’t just focused on scale — some are also focused on building deep connections with their audiences. Some concentrate on making their artisanal media more premium.”

Giliberti is describing the impetus behind the Brooklyn NewFronts, a new digital media industry event that took place for the first time last Tuesday. This inaugural edition saw Gimlet present its upcoming slate of programming alongside a few other up-and-coming digital media companies: the Lena Dunham-branded publication Lenny, the travel curiosity site Atlas Obscura, the annotation platform Genius, and the Hearst-powered Snapchat channel Sweet. (All five companies contributed to the organization of the event.)

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to attend the event despite the fact it took place in Genius’ offices — a mere ten-minute walk from my apartment/kitchen office — as I’m unexpectedly West Coast-based for the summer, but I’m told that it was a fairly stripped down, focused affair. Politico Media described it as “a sort of lower-budget, smaller-scale, cool-kid version of the Digital Content NewFronts,” which I guess squares with the whispers I’ve been getting. (Interestingly enough, the Digital Content NewFronts can probably also be described as a smaller-scale, cool-kid version of the traditional TV upfronts — though, given the fact that the scale and spectacle of that NewFront seem to be growing year over year, one could expect the prestige hierarchies to flip soon enough.) An upfront, for the uninitiated, is best described as an industry event that typically features publishers presenting their upcoming wares in a move to drum up interest among ad buyers.

It should be noted that Tuesday’s alt-Front isn’t the first upfront event to feature podcast programming. The past twelve months have already seen two other podcast-oriented upfronts: one organized by the Interactive Advertising Bureau and another put together by a consortium of public radio organizations (including NPR, WNYC, and WBEZ).

But what Gimlet’s doing here is interesting. Train your focus on what the company is trying to do by grouping itself within Lenny, Atlas Obscura, Genius, and Sweet. By lumping themselves in with these digital media companies working within relatively trusted mediums, Gimlet is effectively taking advantage of a halo effect generated by companies whose buzz and narratives are tied almost solely to their editorial brands and substance, as opposed to their distribution technologies — which is, unfortunately, a narrative burden that still handicaps much of the conversation around most other podcast companies. Instead of drawing overt attention to its nature as a podcast company, Gimlet appears to be focusing the conversation purely on its programming and brand, two areas of focus where the company knows it can win.

It’s a smart move. Hopefully, it pays off.

The new Gimlet shows. So what new podcasts did Gimlet trot out at the dog-and-pony show? Some we already know, others we don’t. Here’s the lineup:

  1. A true crime show developed with the creators of HBO’s The Jinx, Zac Stuart-Pontier and Marc Smerling;
  2. Twice Removed, a genealogy-oriented show by author A.J. Jacobs — known for books documenting his life experiments, like The Year of Living Biblically — which will explore connections between two disparate people;
  3. Heavyweight, the latest project by Wiretap’s Jonathan Goldstein, which will presumably feature his trademark use of autobiography and literary writing;
  4. Afterwards (a working title), a show that will take a fresh look at the events of the past (not unlike, perhaps, Panoply’s newly launched project with Malcolm Gladwell; and
  5. Science Vs., the science podcast that Gimlet acquired from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Full-court press. Last week was a busy one for Panoply, which rolled out the first episode of Revisionist History, its big-swing project with author and general man-about-town Malcolm Gladwell. The Graham Holdings-owned podcast company appeared to lean hard on Gladwell’s celebrity to establish a strong promotional circuit involving spots on CBS This Morning, CBC’s Q, and the Recode Media podcast. The buzz around Gladwell’s podcast, which pushed it up to the No. 1 spot on the iTunes hotness chart (where it remains at this writing), also scored Panoply a Bloomberg profile. (Disclosure: Panoply is my former day-job employer.)

That Bloomberg profile, by the way, provides some meaty details on Panoply’s internal expectations around the podcast. Note the following quote:

[Matt] Turck [Panoply’s chief revenue officer] predicts that Revisionist History could draw over 500,000 downloads per episode, with Gladwell providing star power and Apple giving support. That would match the best performance of The Message…”I don’t know if there will ever be another Serial, anything that explosive,” said Turck. “But boy we’ve stacked the deck to give it a run for the money.”

Panoply’ll have to set their sights a little further if they really intend to give Serial a run for its money, of course: 500,000 downloads per episode, either as a projected goal or a realized performance, simply won’t put Revisionist History anywhere close to being “the next Serial.” When Serial’s second season was closing up its final week, the team’s community editor Kristen Taylor told me that each episode had consistently enjoyed around three million downloads on its launch week throughout the season.

Speaking of Panoply…it looks as if they’re developing a podcast project with First Look Media, the Pierre Omidyar-backed news organization. The project, Politically Re-active, which features comedians W. Kamau Bell and Hari Kondabolu — regulars on the public radio circuit and its podcast descendants — will explore basic, fundamental questions pertaining to the 2016 U.S. presidential elections.

This partnership with Panoply marks First Look Media’s first foray into audio, serving as a continuation of its multibrand, multiplatform strategy that’s included The Intercept, the Glenn Greenwald-fronted national security journalism site, and Reported.ly, its socially-distributed news organization focused on human rights and social justice. First Look Media has also started dabbling in film, acting as a producing partner on the Academy Award-winning Spotlight.

Crisis narrative. Add yet another thread to public radio’s growing existential crisis narrative: the fact that a generation of established talent is steadily aging out, which The Wall Street Journal’s Ellen Gamerman observes using the retirement of Prairie Home Companion’s Garrison Keillor as the hook.

“Some of the biggest radio stars of a generation are exiting the scene while public-radio executives attempt to stem the loss of younger listeners on traditional radio,” Gamerman writes, before describing how NPR is grappling with slowing the loss of younger listeners over the radio and how its member station–reliant business model is under threat from the competition generated by emerging podcast companies that complicate its attempts to transition into digital.

If you’re keeping tabs on the growing body of public radio existential-crisis literature, here’s a quick list of the other incidents that have inspired this narrative: (1) NPR CEO’s Jarl Mohn summer 2015 incident during his visit to the organization’s New York bureau, which served as the catalyzing event for Politico’s “Can NPR seize its moment?” article, the first of this genre; (2) the NPR Memo kerfuffle; and (3) WBAA’s (later reversed) decision to stop syndicating This American Life, citing mission-based disagreement over the latter’s partnership with Pandora.

(And speaking of that NPR Memo kerfuffle, Gamerman’s piece contains a detail that sheds a little more light on the thinking behind the policy, highlighted by the infamous memo to hold off on promoting NPR One over broadcast: according to an NPR spokeswoman, Chris Turpin, VP of news programming and operations, “doesn’t want hosts to promote NPR One until all local stations are represented on the app.” Interesting! (Update: Isabel Lara, NPR’s senior director of media relations, emailed me to say that the Journal misquoted her when she relayed Turpin’s point. “He never said that all stations needed to be part of NPR One before we could promote it on the air,” she wrote. “The point that I was trying to make…is that we are encouraging stations to participate because our goal is to make the national/local listener experience better and better.” I’ll follow up next week.)

Meanwhile, NPR appears to be looking for a new product manager to work on podcasts and social. (I had initially thought that this hire would work alongside Mathilde Piard, who had been the organization’s product manager working podcasts but has since evolved into a more general programming role. Fascinating!) And last week also saw the start of the second season of Invisibilia, NPR’s record-breaking podcast that reportedly broke 10 million downloads within its first four weeks of launching last year.

Balance that out however you’d like.

More on branded podcasts. Gamerman’s Garrison Keillor article wasn’t The Wall Street Journal’s only piece on pods last week. One of the paper’s media reporters, Steven Perlberg, pubbed an update on the trend of brand-sponsored podcasts following the launch of eBay’s Open for Business, the first podcast put out by Gimlet Creative, that company’s branded podcast unit.

The juiciest tidbit from that article does not have to do with Gimlet, however. It has to do to with its counterpart over at Panoply. From Perlberg’s article:

The ruling metric of the podcast industry is the “unique download” of an episode. Podcasters are often unclear on how many actually listen after downloading an episode, how long they listened and their demographic makeup.

To deal with that issue, Panoply created landing webpages for each podcast, which it distributes across its social channels and buys ads on places like Facebook. Mr. Hernandez said Panoply guarantees marketers a certain amount of engagement on those webpages, as opposed to being able to guarantee a certain number of listeners.

That’s certainly an interesting way to handle the metrics issue. At the end of the day, brand advertising effectiveness is grounded in however brands can be convinced that their making an impression over their target demographics. Panoply, then, has an advantage here, given that it has control over a platform through which they have the potential to gain some control over the way brands have conversation about advertising efficacy — through the development of new ad measurement features, through potentially partnering with third-party measurement arbiters, and so on.

Also relevant here is the following detail from the previously mentioned Bloomberg profile of Panoply from a few items up:

At the low end, Panoply charges a brand $150,000 to produce and promote a podcast. The biggest productions reach into the seven digits.

Seven digits, eh?

WNYC interns get fair-wage assurances. But will the station follow through? A few weeks ago, I wrote about a petition initiative that’s been floating about urging New York Public Radio to pay its interns more than the $12-a-day stipend they currently get. It looks like the initiative is making some headway.

Mickey Capper, the freelance radio producer who headed up the petition effort, wrote me in an email:

Jennifer Houlihan Roussel [head of the station’s comms team] confirmed that NYPR would start paying interns in fiscal year 2017. Exact wage TBD and most details TBD, but she said that all internships would be paid and they’re currently working on it. It seems Brenda Williams-Butts has been championing this and spearheading it on the inside and deserves oodles of credit.

Williams-Butts, by the way, is NYPR’s vice president of recruitment, diversity, and inclusion. I asked Capper if he thinks whether the organization will follow through. He seemed optimistic. “I believe WNYC will follow through as they’ve been very careful to commit to anything beyond vague statements of intention up to this point,” Capper wrote back.

I’ll be keeping a close eye on this. And speaking of WNYC…

Werk It, part two. The station held the second edition of its annual women in podcasting festival, Werk It, late last week. The three-day event, which took place in WNYC’s Greene Space, featured a stellar schedule of panels and presentation from some truly remarkable talent and operators, including PRX’s Julie Shapiro, Another Round’s Tracy Clayton, NPR’s Kelly McEvers, and Radiolab’s Molly Webster, among many, many others. If you didn’t get to attend, don’t worry! You can check out a recording of the festival on its website.

Meanwhile, on the West Coast. PodcastOne has named Jim Berk as the company’s new CEO, according to The Wall Street Journal, replacing founder Norm Pattiz in the position. Pattiz, who also has the distinction of founding American radio network Westwood One, will retain his title as the company’s executive chairman.

Twitter invests in SoundCloud. But I don’t think it changes much as far as the Berlin-based audio distribution platform’s relationship to the podcast space is concerned. In case you’re curious about the details: Last Tuesday, Recode reported that Twitter has invested about $70 million in SoundCloud through its venture arm. The investment apparently took place under the radar earlier this year, and both the deal’s specifics and the strategic thinking behind the move remains unclear to the public at this time.

Whatever the logic may be, however, I think it’s safe to say that however SoundCloud progresses into the future, it will do so with the music streaming business firmly in mind. (Recall that SoundCloud successfully signed a licensing deal with Sony Music, the last of the three major labels with whom the company sorely needed formal relationships with, back in March.

Which is to say, while this investment means that we should expect SoundCloud to be around for a little while longer, we probably shouldn’t cross our fingers for any solid feature developments that’ll cater to non-music audio any time soon.

Bites:

  • Be sure not to miss this interview with E.W. Scripps’ chief digital officer Adam Symson for some insight into how the corporation views podcasting and how it may further its investments in the space in the months to come. (Nieman Lab)
  • Curious about public benefit corporations, the corporate structure of choice for This American Life and RadioPublic? This recent Current column is a pretty good overview. (Current)
  • WBUR is piloting a new, fascinating podcast experiment: The Magic Pill, a 21-day health podcast challenge with each day featuring 10-minute episodes of “new science, big ideas, human stories, quick tips.” The challenge starts September 1, but the pilot episode’s out now. (WBUR)
  • The Amazon Echo slides its tentacles into local news distribution. (Information Week)
  • “‘The British Serial’: Podcast on mysterious murder of Daniel Morgan tops [the U.K.’s] iTunes chart.” (Evening Standard)

How big are Audible’s ambitions in changing short-form audio? Really, really big

Audible launches Channels. If you’re reading this column at Nieman Lab, you probably already know the basics: Over the course of last week, Audible initiated the staggered rollout of a new feature called Channels, a portal through which the company now delivers what it’s calling “short-form listening experiences.” Right now, such short-form content on offer appears fairly limited, and a little strange: narrated reads of articles from newspapers like The Washington Post (natch) and The New York Times, some standup comedy recordings, and even a couple of meditation guides for the Headspace-inclined. (Nieman Lab, as usual, has a good breakdown on the details.)

There’s no mistaking what we’re seeing here: Audible has effectively changed its definition, almost overnight — it is no longer an audiobook company, but an audio content company, broadly speaking.

What we don’t see, however, is original podcast content. Which isn’t to say that there aren’t any podcasts in there right now — some digging through the Channels library reveals episodes from established podcast brands like APM’s Marketplace and Risk! — but there doesn’t appear to be anything that’s specially commissioned or developed by the original content team over at Audible’s baroque New Jersey campus, anything that feels like the podcast-equivalent of Amazon Prime Video’s Transparent or Mozart in the Jungle. (More on that in a second.)

Channels has been a long time coming. Whispers of Audible developing their own content — along with a more general portent towards aggressively stretching beyond its audiobook offerings — first hit my radar when the company hired Eric Nuzum away from NPR, where he was vice president of programming, to serve as the company’s senior vice president of original content. That happened last May. Since then, the company has been steadily packing its original content team with a long line of strong producers with solid public radio lineages: Jesse Baker, Ellen Horne, Martha Little, Lina Misitzis, and John L. Myers, among others.

But with the new feature rolling out in what appears to be in restrained fashion, it appears that I’ll have to wait a little more to see how Audible really takes a swing at the podcast market — and what, exactly, the rest of us are in for.

Or, you know, I could lob some questions over at Nuzum himself.

Q&A with Eric Nuzum, Audible’s SVP of original content. Shortly after news of the rollout began to trickle out, I managed to corner Nuzum in the kitchen of a Flatiron District office building to ask a few questions. Here’s the interview, lightly edited and condensed.

Quah: There’s probably not much you can say, so let’s start with this: What can you tell me on the record?

Nuzum: It’s really exciting for people to see Channels, which is something that was being worked on for a long time way before I got to Audible. I would describe it as if you’ve just shown a house that’s empty — it doesn’t have any furniture, there’s nobody living in it — and it’s the very, very elemental foundation of what we plan to do. There are things there right now that we’re very proud of, but it’s a fraction of what we expect to be in that place over the next couple of months.

People will find some narrated licensed material, some comedy material — which is an area we’re going to go much larger in — some drama, some literature. There is very little original stuff in there right now, almost none…

Quah: And when can we expect the originals?

Nuzum: Later.

As we get into the summer, things will get clearer both in terms of what we’ve been working on and the scale of our ambition. And I will say that “scale of our ambition” has two possible meanings, both of which are correct. So, scale of ambition as in how many things we’re working on, and also in terms of what we’re doing.

Look, when I left NPR, everybody came up to me and said, “I want to see what shows you’re going to build, what podcasts you’re going at Audible.” And that’s the completely wrong question, and it never has been the question.

I’m not at Audible to build podcasts. I’m at Audible to start a revolution. In the way audio is produced, and in the way audio is distributed.

I look at some of things that frustrate people in the podcasting space, and I’m trying to solve them both for creators and for listeners. So it really is not a question of what shows we create. The question we ask is: What do people want to listen to? That gets into a whole broader category of types of content than what you typically hear from podcasts.

I’m actually of the belief that one of the reasons many people don’t listen to podcasts is because there aren’t podcasts people want to listen to. There’s no audio content that matches a broader section of interests. And so we’re trying to figure out some of that other space.

Quah: Are we going to see non-American audio programming in Channels soon?

Nuzum: We’re trying to get this right here [in the United States] first.

But one thing that we’ve learnt — which surprised me — is how un-parochial people are in content interest. There are people in other territories, countries, and areas of the world…There isn’t a linear line we see where American people are interested in American content and British people are interested in British content.

It’s always been about: Is this relevant and good to me? And if you hit that relevant bit and be good, the boundaries and borders completely open up. That’s caused us to take a much broader look at the world of content sourcing as well as who we’re working with and who we’re offering it to.

Quah: Do you look for pitches?

Nuzum: Yeah, we do. But I think that…so, one of the things that a lot of people have been confused by is what are our aspirations are. If you draw a Venn diagram between podcast and public radio and what Audible is doing, there’s a lot of crossover. But we’re doing a lot of stuff outside the crossover. There’s a lot of things that will feel and sound like podcasts, but there will be a lot of things that sound very different. We’ll make some big mistakes, but we’re trying to expand out the realm of what people think of when think of what short-form listening experiences can be.

It’s an intoxicating thing to say to people that we have the appetite and aspiration to do things that other people can’t do. One of the things that I always tell producers pitching me is that if you can imagine something being a podcast, it’s probably not a big enough idea for us. I think our risk tolerance is very high.

We’re at the point now where things are starting to come in, and we’re finishing things and stacking things up. And we’re rejecting a large number of things because they sound like they can be on NPR, because they sound like a podcast. It would be very easy just have everything sound like what you’d expect. We’re always pushing to go further — and sometimes we’ll get there, and sometimes we won’t.

If you’re giving us the same pitch that you’re giving to Gimlet or Midroll or whatever, we pass on almost all of those. But if someone has a crazy idea, or an amazing story, and they just don’t know how to get someone to back them…It’s got to be a big idea. We want big ideas.

So that’s that.

Mind you: It’s all sheer potential right now for Audible, and it remains to be seen how the company will ultimately change things up for the rest of us. We don’t know yet how it will affect the podcast industry, opportunities for creators, the producer labor market, and overall non-music audio consumption (what a clunky phrase! I wonder how Edison Research is going to deal with measurements). And we have yet to see whether it’ll result in a net positive for all digital audio businesses or, in a familiar eating of the industry, whether it’ll become the center of the universe or break up the ecosystem into a multiverse. And whether it will truly pull from the obvious advantages enjoyed by the company on paper: instant access to a large existing pool of subscribers, along with gobs and gobs of money and resources from a terrifyingly dominant company with tentacles that stretch into a murderer’s row of parallel industries.

It’s all potential right now. Which is fine; I’ll just leave my tinfoil hat on.

By the way, if you’re wondering: Audible members get full access to the new content libraries, while non-members are only provided with 30 minutes of free listening a week. Basic memberships go for $14.95 a month.

NPR, one more time. So here we are again. Sunday night treated us with a Slate cover story that rang ye olde “What’s the future of NPR?” bell, extending the conversation recently instigated by the NPR Memo kerfuffle well into its fourth week.

The article didn’t bring us anything particularly new, but it does do a pretty good job neatly summing up all the future of NPR talk. In case you’re short on time, here’s the back-of-the-flap version: Young pub radio listeners are shifting towards digital! NPR is still dependent on broadcast, because member stations! The podcasts are coming! Critics are all like “the NPR C-suite is too slow to innovate!” Jarl Mohn, NPR CEO, is all like “y’all don’t do news”! And so on, and so on.

All that stuff is still true. But as I enter the fourth week of watching the discussion play out around the ol’ social media watering hole and gossiping on this subject with many, many people — what else can I do? — I’m beginning to feel something of a tension. Eh, maybe I should’ve felt it a long time ago, but it hit me really hard this week.

It’s interesting, I think, to consider that much of the critique that we’re seeing — particularly those from Adam Davidson, whose writings and quotations powers much of the skepticism that appears in these Future of NPR pieces, including Slate’s — appears to be grounded in an outsized optimism for the swathe of new podcast companies that have emerged outside the public radio system.

But the fact of the matter is: We still don’t know how it’s all going to shake out. We don’t know if Gimlet or Panoply or Acast will grow, thrive, and blossom into influential businesses. Right now, they’re all oodles of potential, and as most of us know from decent first dates, potential is intoxicating. I guess my point is: It’s a little premature to turn the heat up on NPR from the outside with such vigor and optimism in the rise of the new. They still have a lot of work that they to do to justify all that chest-thumping.

Also: To critique NPR, and to be anxious about the fate of NPR, is to be invested in the outcome of high quality public-interest journalism delivered in the audio format. Which makes it further interesting that, given the intensity of some of these critiques, none of these buzzy, new audio-oriented organizations seem to be substantially investing in the production and delivery of news for the public interest — at least not at this point in time.

To be fair, it makes some strategic logic for these new audio companies to not deal in hard news. I was once told by a very smart person that if you’re looking to enter a market with strong incumbents, you probably want to compete orthogonally — which is to say, don’t take them head on, and own the spaces they’re not touching. For Gimlet, it’s a steady stream of highly-produced narrative podcasts that are not the bread and butter of NPR and public radio stations. And for Panoply (conjoined twin-company of Slate, and my former day-job employer — hi guys!), it’s a web of talking heads programming that prizes analysis driven by personality, a currency public radio doesn’t ordinarily trade in. Those strategies has given those companies a solid foothold in their respective businesses.

But we’re still stuck with the reality that none of those companies, or any of the new audio companies for that matter, are explicitly engaged in the extra hard business of hard news. And as a result, none of them will either cause direct competition for NPR, which may spur them into readjustment, or lay the foundation for themselves to become the proper replacement should the public radio mothership match these apocalyptical prognostications.

So the critique has bit of a…I don’t want to call it hypocrisy necessarily, because it’s not as simple or straightforward as that, but a misalignment. A fundamental weirdness.

Again, I want to be clear that NPR’s C-suite still has to take its shifting fundamentals seriously. The quotes coming out of Jarl Mohn so starkly echo the stuff legacy publications said of digital media companies two or three years ago — I mean, damn. But I’m just saying that if we’re going to play that game, the knife should cut both ways.

If we take a few steps back, what do we see? New companies aren’t investing in news, and old companies aren’t investing in digital. And there’s a story here that’s really worth some attention, one that’s illustrated quite well in the Slate piece:

We are, after all, bombarded by news constantly — on our computers, on our phones, on TV, from newspapers, from cable news networks, from our friends on social media. Against that backdrop, it seems like there’s a very real possibility that the medium in which NPR’s reporters work — not just terrestrial radio, but audio full stop — could simply lose its place as a news source in people’s lives.

To sum it all up, with prescriptions: On the one hand, sure, NPR and its wider network of member stations need to really move and get wise on life after broadcast. But on the other hand, critics from the side of the upstarts should really dial it down and start showing us something. Which is all to say: Y’all should to stop throwing so much shade at each other and start fighting the real battles that need to be fought.

Don’t cha know that the Bezos is coming for us all?

One more thing. I’ve increasingly gotten the sense that this entire discussion — interesting as it is — has a certain generational quality. So, I think it’s worth us keeping in mind that is, in a lot of ways, is a privileged discussion. A lot of this debate seems to be driven among men of a certain age, race, and class, and there are tons and tons of young producers, reporters, and upstarts who are just looking for a place to catch a break and hone their craft, and the fact of the matter is the constellation of career opportunities afforded by these new audio companies haven’t actually touched the bottom, most-needed rung that will determine the fate of the craft, at least based on the increasing number of conversations I’m having. (More on that next week.)

So, to all you young producers reading this: I see you.

All right, that’s all I got. I can’t squeeze out anything more — I need to preserve some brain juice to come up with some scheme to pay next month’s rent. Moving on.

Additional reading: Jay Rosen’s tweet string on the ideological dimension of this discussion. BuzzFeed’s Tracy Clayton taking the Slate article’s writer, Leon Neyfakh, up to task on his characterization of “low-touch productions.” Former public radio operative-turned-public digital intellectual Melody Kramer’s “Public media is not content or platform. It’s more than that.”

WNYC Studios rolls out a new launch. 2 Dope Queens, a new show from WNYC Studios featuring Phoebe Robinson and Jessica Williams, debuted last week to a good amount of press, scoring writeups in Mashable, the Huffington Post, Tech Insider, and NBCNews.com. The show boasted strong positioning on the iTunes charts over the weekend, consistently occupying the top spot ahead of another newly launched public radio podcast, NPR’s Embedded — reflecting, perhaps, the two institutions’ mastery over iTunes as a marketing channel.

The release of 2 Dope Queens comes shortly after the launch of another WNYC Studios project, There Goes The Neighborhood, the limited-run series about gentrification in Brooklyn which premiered in early March. That we’ve been treated with two WNYC Studios launches within the span of a month suggests that we’re finally entering the first wave of projects coming out of the public radio station’s new podcast division since it was announced last October.

So what other shows should we be keeping an eye out for? According to the New York Times article covering the division’s launch back when it happened, we’re still due for a show with author Roxane Gay, a scripted fiction series with comedian Sara Schaefer, a Radiolab-spinoff that will focus on the Supreme Court, and a show that will come out of a partnership with Vice News.

Bits:

  • The second season of NPR’s highly successful Invisibilia podcast will drop in June. For those keeping tabs, last November the show added Hanna Rosin — of the Slate DoubleX Gabfest, and who you can also find in a recent Trumpcast episode — as the third cohost. (Twitter)
  • The lovely Radio Diaries, which is now a podcast distributed beneath the Radiotopia banner but was once a wee audio experiment, turned 20 years old last Friday. The team will be doing a bunch of things to celebrate the occasion over the next month, including releasing a story that’s been in development for over two years. So watch out for that. (Radio Diaries)
  • “Hear the Fear: The Rise of the Horror Podcast.” Couple of juicy numbers from this: the independent Lore podcast reportedly averages 385,000 downloads a week, while the beloved Black Tapes podcast scores about 200,000 a month. (The Atlantic)

Is this your first time reading Hot Pod? You can subscribe to the newsletter here. The original version has more news, analysis, material. And there’s more news briefs for paid members! Also, how’re you doing?

A few important things about the new season of Serial

Serial returns. On Thursday, shortly after 6 a.m. ET, Serial’s second season quietly went live. Over RSS feeds, and whatever metaphor you use to visualize the arterial veins of the Internet, the episode trickled into position on native and third-party podcasting apps, on streaming services, and on the Serial website.

The rollout wasn’t perfect. There were reports on Twitter of the show’s website being unresponsive. There were also mentions that, for a time after the episode drop, downloads were not successfully being facilitated on numerous podcasting apps. (For the record, I had no such trouble using Overcast, but I did find that my native Apple podcasting app refused to budge all the way until 7:30 a.m. or so.) The podcast delivery infrastructure, ten years old and not significantly evolved since the day it was born, appeared to be bending at the seams. Not quite bursting, but most definitely challenged, and challenged hard.

However, as wobbly as all that may have been, one thing was for certain: Serial is back, and all eyes were on it.

Serial is probably the most written-about podcast in the world. The New Yorker had a deep cut. The New York Times was on it. So was Slate. And Mashable. Also, the new new paper of record, The Washington Post. And of course Nieman Lab had an angle on it. All of that coverage, combined with the fact that I have no real access to the team, means that there is only so much that I can bring to the already crowded conversation. And so, with all that in mind, I’ve opted to play a tighter game. In lieu of a comprehensive take, here are four things that I think all you podcast-watchers should keep an eye on:

Pandora Serial InterfacePandora. After the streaming music company’s slightly confusing announcement about becoming the podcast’s exclusive streaming partner back in November, I was a little dubious about the significance of this development. But, as it turns out, Pandora proved to be an interesting distribution point. The podcast may have been damn near impossible to find on the app’s search engine — I found it, oddly enough, under the “Stations You Might Like” section — but once it’s loaded, you are greeted by an interface showing that Pandora has segmented the episode so that you can, if you want, jump to different parts of the episode, the way you might with a DVD using the “Choose a Scene” feature. It is an attempt at making spoken audio skimmable, and one suspects that a big research question for the Pandora team is whether a significant portion of users end up interacting with this feature at all. That answer, unfortunately, is contingent on another question: whether people will use Pandora to listen to the podcast in the first place.

Community and marketing. Here’s someone you should pay close attention to over the course of the season: Serial’s community editor Kristen Taylor. She appears to be the point person who will mediate the team’s relationship with the rest of the world — over social, press releases, news reports. She’s the meta-narrative carrying forward the direction of the podcast’s Tumblr blog, the voice pushing back against reports containing inaccuracies about the show, and most likely the person who will closely observe conversations around the show and its central investigation (a task that will probably lead to the depths of Reddit).

Other things to note: Serial now boasts a Vine account (though it didn’t seem to be working as of Tuesday morning), and the show is also the first test user of what appears to be Facebook’s new audio unit. The unit plays a pre-recorded promo by Sarah Koenig introducing the show, and the player is accompanied by a call to action that either leads you to the podcast’s website (if you’re on desktop) or the iTunes app (if you’re on mobile). There are a crap ton of questions here, but I’m sure answers will be revealed over time — with Facebook’s blessing or otherwise. In the meantime, check out Nieman Lab’s write-up of the Facebook experiment here.

Advertising. Fans who downloaded the podcast early Thursday morning were happy to find that the notorious Mailkimp ad survived the transition to the second season. (Man, I hope that kid gets royalties.) That pre-roll was accompanied by a spot from another familiar advertiser, Squarespace, thus revealing that the two original advertisers from the first season returned for this second serving. Which is great, of course, but this state of affairs did spark a bit of disappointment among some close observers. There had been a belief that, given all the insane fervor around Serial’s first season — which included a visit to Cannes — the podcast’s second season would have been a solid way for big, name-brand advertisers to get into the game for the first time. After all, if you were to place a bet on any podcast doing solid returns, that podcast would probably be Serial, right? And so the lack of brand advertisers on the new season’s first episode was a sign of limited confidence in the medium, or so the argument goes in this piece by the International Business Times.

That may well be the case, except for the fact that there are more advertisers in play than just MailChimp and Squarespace. At this writing, the pre-rolls on the first episode now include CVS Health and Audible, suggesting the use of dynamic ad insertion technology to swap out ads around. That isn’t a new development, necessarily; over the past few months, listeners who downloaded episodes from the first season would find that the Mailchimp advertisements were no longer present — they had been swapped out for newer ads. But what’s particularly interesting here is the fact that the episode isn’t even a week old and it’s already been cycled out. I’m keeping a close eye on the back catalog, and making a list of the many campaigns that are taking place on the podcast across the season.

If CVS Health doesn’t strike you as a big brand advertiser, then try listening to the podcast on Pandora. In what appears to be a campaign built specifically for Pandora and the podcast’s launch, the first episode came with an ad for a new Warner Brothers film, In the Heart of the Sea. The spot involved Sarah Koenig tag-teaming with Ron Howard, that Happy Days guy who also directed a bunch of movies you may or may not have seen, to do a host-read plugging the movie. It’s surreal enough to hear Sarah Koenig doing a podcast ad host-read with Howard, but it’s doubly surreal to hear them plug a movie about a giant fish. Well, a giant whale. (That’s what the movie’s about, by the way: Chris Hemsworth goes on the hunt for a big whale, and Moby Dick is apparently inspired by the supposed true exploits of his character.)

The Serial industrial complex. Speaking of whales: The podcast’s first season was so popular, so successful, and so frenzy-inducing that it gave rise to a veritable cottage industry of Serial-related podcasts that may, from a distance, look to some like barnacles stuck to the bottom of a much bigger thing. (Wow, that was a terrible segue. I’m so sorry.) To name a few: Slate’s Serial Spoiler Specials, AV Club’s The Serial Serial, Undisclosed: The State vs. Adnan Syed, Crime Writers on Serial, and so on.

With the second season, though, the podcast appears to have executed a relatively clean genre shift — from true crime to, for lack of better term, a political thriller. This change leaves a lot of these ancillary podcasts, particularly the ones stuck on the true crime angle, out in the cold, and it should be interesting to see if those podcasters end up being able to extend the conversation.

So, was the first episode of the second season any good? In a word, yes. Very much so. Despite all the podcast-related developments in the year since the first season ended, both in terms of aesthetics and economic infrastructure, “DUSTWUN” was perhaps the best sounding piece of tape I’ve heard all year. It is such a step above everything else on the market. Cinematic, beautifully written, tightly produced, deeply reported (or at least seeming so), and so incredibly well thought through — every single scene and line feels so purposeful — the episode definitely feels like a step upwards, a shift away from the semi-artisanal feel of the first season toward something more aggressively formal, professional, serious.

This is reflected, I believe, in the reduced reliance on Sarah Koenig as character-narrator, where the specificities of who she is as a person is given less of the spotlight. There are still moments of this, of course. “Oh, flies, yeah,” she says at one point, in a piece of tape that is suggestive of the first season’s informality but, in this context, feels a lot more like an unintentional breaking of the fourth wall. And I suppose the shift comes with the change in genre, from true crime to political thriller/documentary, which in turn comes with a similar shift in scope from local to global, from a specific community to an entire international system.

The episode ended with a strong, funny, and jaw-dropping sort-of cliffhanger, but as whiplash-inducing as that moment was, it’s still very hard to tell where this season will go and whether it will maintain its very high quality to the end. But, as critic Matt Zoller Seitz notes (he was talking about TV shows, but the same applies to podcasts), it’s the second season of a show that defines the mettle of the production team behind it. Indeed, it is the second season — or the second article, or the second album — that proves the success of a first was not a fluke, but was truly a consequence of internal production design, composition, and structure. I suspect that Serial’s second season will determine whether it will go on to become an institution and whether this medium is able to justify all the conversation it has enjoyed thus far.

Third Coast. There are few institutions more beloved in the American radio community than the Third Coast International Audio Festival, a Chicago-based nonprofit that focuses on the development and support of audio documentary producers. (The Salt Institute is also pretty up there in the beloved radio institution power rankings. See also: the state of Vermont, probably.) Founded in 2000, first under the jurisdiction of WBEZ and then as an independent organization in 2009, the organization is responsible for a major biennial conference that draws radio and audio documentary lovers into one big space, where they meet and cavort and sow the seeds of future. It was also once the home of Julie Shapiro, now the executive producer over at the Radiotopia podcast network/indie label.

The organization is currently in the midst of a fundraising campaign — its first in what has turned out to be a remarkable year for audio. “The field has changed so much in the past year, and so many more people are rushing into it,” said Johanna Zorn, executive director of Third Coast, when we spoke over the phone recently. She sounded wistful, happy, perhaps a little amused. Like she was a little surprised about everything that’s been happening, about the fact that a lot more people now suddenly give a damn. Or maybe I was just projecting.

“We’re not here to take credit, but we’ve been here from the beginning and we want to take stock of how Third Coast has impacted the community,” she said. And it’s hard to overstate the impact it’s had on the space, even if it’s hard to quantify. Local lore has it that Lulu Miller and Alix Spiegel, the duo behind NPR’s wildly popular Invisibilia podcast, first met each other at one of these festivals. The New York Radio Club, an informal monthly gathering of young radio folk in the city, was created by a group of people who met at the festival and wanted to keep the community going on a local level.

With this year’s campaign, Third Coast is looking to grow and expand its reach for the first time in fifteen years. “We’ve been a small group for a long time — three full-timers, two part-timers — and we’ve been able to do what we do and really work hard at it,” Zorn said. “We want more people at our conference, but we need more than just me and one other person to make that happen.”

The campaign is scheduled to run through to the end of the month. Hit up this link for more information, if you’re so inclined.

Howard Stern re-signs with Sirius XM. The legendary shock jock has reportedly signed on to keep his show at satellite radio company Sirius XM for another five years. Details are still trickling in, and at this writing, it’s unclear how much the new deal is worth. Stern’s contract was due to expire this week, and there had been some speculation that he might ultimately opt to go solo and distribute his wildly popular show through other means. Some fans, according to AdAge, speculated a possible route through Google, Pandora, or Spotify — after all, all three music streaming platforms are now involved in spoken audio. Others, like tech investor (and founder of Inside.com) Jason Calacanis, made the argument for Stern to distribute his show as over-the-top content. Stern had a wide variety of options on the table, with one significant exception: he appeared to have no intention of pursuing podcasting, declaring earlier this year that “podcasts are for losers.” (You can find a pretty interesting analysis of Sirius XM’s chances of survival without Stern in this Bloomberg piece.)

Stern’s last contract with Sirius XM was signed in 2010 and paid him an estimated $80 million a year, according to Variety. In other news, I should reconsider my career choices.

Some housekeeping: I’m taking the next two weeks off Nieman Lab. But I’ll be sporadically publishing the newsletter, depending on what goes on with Serial. You can subscribe using the link below. Cool? Cool. Happy holidays, folks. Keep safe.

Is this your first time reading Hot Pod? You can subscribe to the newsletter here, which mostly features irrelevant exclusive content (mostly different GIFs and stuff about what I had for lunch but whatever that’s the newsletter strategy I’m rolling with).

About a year after Serial (and Hot Pod’s launch), what does the future of podcasts look like?

Last Thursday, I was conveniently informed by a very nice person on Twitter that, as of November 5, 2015, Hot Pod is officially one year old. That came as news to me. I don’t usually pay any attention to time, because time-awareness is super stressful, especially when you think about how much time goes into an hour, a day, a year, a lifetime, and realize hey, that’s not a lot of time at all, which is why I just don’t pay any attention to that kind of stuff, because really I’m afraid of dying quietly and pointlessly.

But Hot Pod is one year old, which is cause for some celebration. And so celebrate I will, with an extra-long navel gazing look back on the year in podcasting we’ve had. Welcome to a Very Special Edition of Hot Pod.

I love you all.

At the top of November 2014, Serial was still very much in the middle of its now-legendary run. “The Case Against Adnan Syed,” the show’s sixth (and best, IMHO) episode, had just dropped. It would be a week or so before a minor online backlash to the reporting, which would eventually fizzle and fade to reveal what we know now: that there had been a vibrant public obsession with the show, and that there has been nothing quite like it since — or, at least, one cannot not remember an experience that was taxonomically in the same ballpark.

While Sarah Koenig and company pulled into the home stretch, Gimlet Media was still carrying out its critically acclaimed bit of capitalist performance art: the Startup podcast. Shortly after, The Wall Street Journal would report on the company’s $1.5 million seed round fund. Silicon Valley was falling in love. Over in Cambridge, Massachusetts, another Radiotopia Kickstarter campaign was underway; it had blown through its original $200,000 funding goal, and the podcast commune announced a new set of stretch goals. It would go on to raise over $600,000 from more than 21,000 backers, becoming the most-funded Kickstarter project in the publishing, radio, and podcast categories.

Midroll Media was about a year into formal existence and was about to roll out Wolfpop, its second podcast network. This American Life was a few months into self-distribution through PRX, having ended its distribution relationship with Public Radio International a few months earlier. WNYC was still, by and large, the monopoly in the New York audio labor pool. Invisibilia was a twinkle on the horizon. Audible was still just an audiobook company. Marc Maron was chugging along. So was the rest of the comedy podcast scene. And so was the tech podcast scene: TWiT, 5by5, Relay FM. There had been a few articles discussing some sort of podcast revival — in particular, Kevin Roose‘s “What’s Behind the Great Podcast Renaissance?” in New York Magazine and Rebecca Greenfield‘s “The (Surprisingly Profitable) Rise of Podcast Networks” in Fast Company. A preface for greater brouhaha to come.

Meanwhile, I was a few months into my first real adult job at a digital media company (with benefits! damn!), cranking out daily paid-subscription newsletters and bored out of my mind. At the top of November 2014, Tuesdays were great days, sweaty days, days of furious texting and tweeting and emailing and Gchatting. Tuesday mornings were mornings when I would walk extra laps around the building where I worked so I could finish off Serial. Sundays were even better days; those were Serial listening-party days, where I’d gather with some people at my friend Macky’s apartment and we’d sit around the room stupidly trying to avoid eye contact while the week’s episode, played from someone’s iPhone speaker cradle, ran its course.

I remember that time well. I remember the excitement I felt that finally, finally, more people were beginning to ask the right questions, inching closer toward something that I had believed for awhile: That this medium with a stupid-sounding name, this historical aberration of a content distribution funnel, podcasts — that there was something here, that a unique little listening culture had been slowly fomenting for years, that a new frontier of experience had curdled quietly, unobserved, into existence.

Something was happening, I was fairly certain. But if that was the case, why didn’t anything that was written about this moment feel emotionally true? And so, across two lunch breaks between November 4 and 5 of 2014, I wrote the first issue of Hot Pod. Oh, the things you do when you’re sufficiently bored.

So here we are, November 2015. We’re on the cusp of the next season of Serial, which has been paraded at Cannes and will soon be adapted into a TV show. It’s all so very exciting. Gimlet Media now nears 30 employees (or maybe it’s already there?) with a fourth show under its belt, booking about $2 million in revenue from a mere three often-captivating shows over the course of the year. Midroll Media is now the property of the E.W. Scripps Company, a huge public corporation founded in the nineteenth century, marking it as the first major acquisition in the podcasting space. It’s testing a premium subscription model called Howl, and it sells for Bill Simmons.

This American Life is now a for-profit entity — a public benefit corporation, to be specific — and is, by virtue of this development, better positioned to do much more in this emerging space than ever before. Panoply is now a thing and, having acquired a technology platform, is hoping to shake up parts of the podcast ecosystem that have long remained unchecked. Radiotopia is bigger and stronger and more beautiful than ever, and rumor has it that PRX, its parent company, has something very special in the works.

Audible has fired a shot in the air; over the past year, it has hired away NPR exec Eric Nuzum to serve as SVP of original content, along with a murderer’s row of talent from public radio. BuzzFeed is making podcasts now, and it has a #podsquad that’s also principally built out of talent from the public radio.

Which is to say, public radio has seen a vibrant exodus of mid-to-high range talent, sustaining a sizable shock to system. WNYC has reacted with a gesture toward greater autonomy by shifting toward a self-distribution model, launching WNYC Studios, and generally hyping itself up. It will take awhile for the station to win back the trust of its people, who are now facing a world of increasing options. NPR faces a more uncertain world; bound by its structural commitments to member stations, it appears less capable of embracing the inevitable shift to digital over the very long run. And yet NPR is the home of Invisibilia, one of the fastest growing podcasts of all time, and despite its long-term positioning, it remains the stalwart producer of unparalleled high-quality reporting.

Speaking of reporting, more publications, journalistic and otherwise, are launching podcasts of their own. Time will tell whether these gambits pay off. Maron interviewed Obama. Spotify and Pandora are getting into the game. So is Google Play.

Adnan Syed, by the way, has been granted a hearing on new evidence.

And over on my side of the world, Hot Pod continues. I now write them in the middle of the night, over cans of beer, listening to show tunes.

Through what is surely an accident, I now work at Panoply, one of these previously discussed podcasting places. I have no idea what I’m doing, none whatsoever, and I spend most of my hours studying the network, stalking the iTunes charts, squinting at the consumption data, banging pots with distributors like Stitcher, observing partners and competitors and frenemies, thinking, writing, sketching, digging, experimenting. Sometimes I offer recommendations, sometimes I play around with things without telling anybody. Some days I feel like I’m getting closer, most days I feel pointless and unmoored and aloof. Sometimes I’m frustrated that I’m mostly observing, longing to be a lot more involved and in control. Sometimes I feel like observing is all I’m really good for.

Also, I’m also finally making enough money to afford a therapist, so there’s that.

I don’t know where this is all going, clearly.

If I did, well, I’d probably find another profession, like prophet. But I have some broad ideas about where we are, and some 30,000-feet things that I’m thinking about, and here are four such things that could be useful for you, dear reader:

The industry’s fundamental challenge remains simple, and it is unchanged from the beginning: to grow the overall pie and convert non-podcast consumers into podcast consumers. Right now, an overwhelming majority of new podcasts to hit the market are all targeting the same group of people — folks who are already listening to podcasts, mostly likely off the native iPhone podcasting app. (Alas, we watch and talk about the iTunes charts with such fervent religiosity). I’m going to guess that a lot of those people are power users. This is unsustainable, because even the most fanatic of podcast consumers are still human, and typical humans have eardrums that can only sustain so much talking.

At the same time, the shift to digital audio is inevitable; with the coming full connectivity of cars, the continuing shift toward mobile devices, and the increasing presence of the Internet in daily life, it simply boggles the mind to imagine a future where traditional radio infrastructures and power structures remain dominant. There are two scenarios in which this could be the case: (a) an apocalyptic event that wipes out the Internet, or (b) larger anti-competitive movements that keep consumers trapped within the current technological stage, not unlike the moves we see slowing down the inevitable shift toward cord cutting.

With Google officially throwing its hat back into the ring, Spotify on the horizon, and Pandora doing…whatever it’s doing, we’re being offered a peek into a potential future where podcasts/spoken audio, much like the rest of digital content, are principally distributed and consumed through an ecosystem defined by platforms as opposed to its current RSS feed-enabled state of being open, unkempt, and flat.

An ecosystem of freedom and extreme accessibility is great, except when the entire thing becomes saturated, which leads to a state of inequality (it’s no wonder that the top of the iTunes charts are dominated by public radio), which in turn leads to demands for better agents of organization and mediation (to force the connection: the podcast community’s constant lament that “podcast discovery is broken” — it’s never existed). The discovery problem could, in theory, be fixed by a decent search tool that indexes RSS feeds in an effective and user-centric way (whatever that means), but that’s probably a late 90’s way of reading the situation. I hate to put it in such cliched terms, but we live in the age of social media, and this age is built on platforms.

For as long as I’ve been writing this newsletter, I’ve been struck by a tension within the format: On the one side, you have podcasts-as-the-future-of-radio, and on the other side, you have podcasts-as-an-extension-of-blogging. When one complains about podcasts being dominated by white dudes sitting in basements talking around microphones, one is in large part referring to content in that latter category. And when, in a recent Startup episode, Alex Blumberg discussed the 95 percent of the iTunes podcast charts that average a couple of hundred of listeners per episode, he was actually building an economic argument that contrasts his company — a serious, high-quality production endeavor — against a mountain of, well, hobbyist audio blogs. The two things are playing very different games, but they share the same real estate.

We have yet to collectively solve the problem of what, exactly, we are talking about when we talk about podcasts. I suspect this tension will sort itself out over time with a certain kind of innovation. The podcast-as-an-extension-of-blogging category is a species of content-creation that’s social. It’s the kind of stuff, I think, that Odeo was originally conceived to support. So, if the world ever sees a successful audio-first social network, I’m fairly confident that this type of content will be sorted into that ecosystem, and the semantic conundrum of the “podcast” will sort itself out, leaving the podcast-as-future-of-radio category to focus on its own game…

…or will it? Maybe it won’t. Given that professional publishing and journalistic entities are trying to figure out how to (a) adapt their work to be best served by those platforms and (b) carry out their editorial imperatives on those platforms, maybe what we’re heading toward is a point where the binary I’ve set up collapses into itself: everything is flattened once again, and a unit of socially optimized journalism is consumptively equal to a unit of socially optimized…detritus.

And we’d just have to start this conversation all over again. (Flat circle, baby.)

Podcast content needs to stop being so gosh darn predictable, and podcast talent needs to be further diversified. The two things are related, of course. I’m often struck by how rare it is for something to pierce straight through the iTunes charts and grab me by the lapels. The vast majority of the charts draw upon the same few concepts, deriving from the same few traditions, borne of the same few sensibilities. Touchy-feely reportage. Public radio two-ways. Public radio science-y shows. Shows about music. Comedians talking with comedians. People talking with people like themselves. Celebrities talking celebrity things. Conversationals. True crime true crime true crime. Shows about Serial (a cottage industry onto its own).

I hope to hear more things that I’ve never heard before. I hope to see more writing that subjects the medium to more punishment. I hope to see more scripted productions — not re-assumptions of old radio dramas, but the creation of real audio shows, sitcoms, serials. I hope to see more creative playfulness, more bravery. And I hope to see more kinds of people come into the space. Certainly, I’d love to see more diversity in terms of demographics — race, nationality, gender — which will most definitely stretch the limited range of sensibilities wide open to accommodate a grander universe of stories, but also, I’d love to see more diversity in terms of creative tradition. I hope to see more writers, creators, and auteurs begin to view podcasts, or spoken audio more generally, as a legitimate choice among the many mediums they can pursue, aside from television and film and blogs and magazines and the stage.

It’s been quite a year. So much has happened, so much to do. And I never thought I’d be so captivated, so drawn in, so caught up by something so bizarre. Podcasts? Radio? The journey of spoken audio from broadcast to digital? I mean, what the hell? How random can you get?

Here’s to another year of pods, voices, stories. Thanks for reading.

Is this your first time reading Hot Pod? You can subscribe to the newsletter here, which mostly features irrelevant exclusive content (mostly different GIFs and stuff about what I had for lunch but whatever that’s the newsletter strategy I’m rolling with).

Podcast upfronts, 99% Invisible goes dynamic, and Freakonomics goes broadcast

The IAB podcast upfronts. WNYC’s Jerome L. Greene Space is a fun-sized studio at the bottom of the station’s building that has served as the home of many podcasting firsts. Located on an assuming corner somewhere south of West Village, the past few months alone has seen the space used for first WNYC Women’s Podcast Festival, the first live taping of BuzzFeed’s Another Round, and the first live meeting between NPR newscaster Lakshmi Singh and the infamous, and possibly cursed, “I Am Lakshmi Singh” hat.

So perhaps it’s appropriate that the space served as the site for the Interactive Advertising Bureau’s first podcast upfront, which offered Big Advertising its first look at a relatively broad cross-section of what the sum of the nascent industry had to offer. (Side note: It’s important to note that this wasn’t the first podcast upfront ever — that honor goes to an April 2015 event held in the slightly more glamorous (Le) Poisson Rouge, a bar and concert hall located not too far away from the Greene Space, which was a more public radio-centric affair featuring presentations from WNYC, WBEZ, and NPR. That event principally extended the narrative of podcasting-as-nonfiction storytelling content.)

The IAB upfront last Thursday was a bit of chaotic affair. Within the span of three hours-plus-plus, the event juxtaposed presentations that didn’t really fit very well immediately next to each other. Companies like Panoply ((My benevolent employers, by the way — see my first Nieman Lab post for disclaimers.)) (with its talky content offerings aesthetically pegged to what one might call decorum) and Midroll (with its pop culture-driven content that gives rise to podcasting as an alternate-node for American comedy) against companies with broader plays like CBS’ Play.it network (which cultivates sounds reminiscent of traditional talk radio) and AdLarge (which offers Associated Press content in audio form and…something about EDM concerts that I’m still trying to grapple in my head). It closed with WNYC and NPR fielding the teams behind Invisibilia and Radiolab, who essentially performed a reprise of their presentation from the April 2015 upfront.

But while the event was a little whiplash-inducing, I thought it was a highly successful event for the community as a whole. The variety of companies that were brought on-stage collectively offered a broad range of content types — thus broadening the narrative of what podcasts are and what podcasts can be. As much as I absolutely enjoyed the original April upfront, I was bothered by how that event (and its importance of being the first of its kind) extended the view of the podcasting as principally the domain of highly-produced, narrative storytelling. (The overwhelming legacy of Serial, which is almost universally present in the first paragraph of just about every general-audience article written about podcasting, already skews the medium’s identity in this regard.)

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, of course, because those are damn good shows that exhibit the best of what the format uniquely provides at this point in time. And of course, I completely understand what these public radio institutions are doing: They’re pushing their wares, building towards their own core competencies, and they also just happen to be the best game in town at the moment.

But it does set a tone for expectations among Big Advertising, especially now when the industry is in its formative stages. It cultivates certain norms, standards, and structures that could raise the barrier for other types or genres of podcasts to thrive.

So in that respect, I was really glad to see the almost anarchistic range of content offerings I saw on stage last week. And while not everything felt…particularly high-quality (to put it bluntly), it felt like a much needed correction to the industry’s larger narrative, which honestly makes me feel relieved.

Anyway. Here are some other tidbits from the event that struck me as interesting:

  • Midroll Media is now the company selling ads for Bill Simmons’ new podcast, which he’s making as part of his larger multimedia arrangement with HBO.
  • NPR reports having 77.6 million podcast downloads a month across all its shows.
  • This American Life sees 9.5 million podcast downloads a month, per PodTrac, which now pushes its identity as the company selling ads for This American Life and Serial.
  • Money quote from Radiolab’s Jad Abumrad during the presentation re: podcast advertising: “It is not yet a saturated space.”

Cool. Now here are some professional writeups of the event, from professional reporters:

  • “Here’s Why the IAB’s First Podcast Upfront Was Such a Hot Event for Marketers” (AdWeek)
  • “We Don’t Have to Follow Public-Radio Rules! Podcasters Play for Keeps at an Upfront” (Ad Age)
  • “Inside the first ever ‘Podcast Upfront'” (Fortune)

99% Invisible applies dynamic ad insertion on older episodes in iTunes. The highly popular design, architecture, and holy-shit-the-physical-human-built-world-is-awesome show has opened up its full catalog on iTunes for renewed consumption, with episodes older than 8 weeks apparently monetized by dynamic ad insertion. You can hear the new ad at the top of those older episodes. The execution didn’t go off without a hitch, however; for some 99PI subscribers, the opening up triggered a mass download of episodes. (So if you’re a podcaster going down that road in the future, or if you’re working on a platform designed to allow dynamic ad insertion, watch out for that.)

(And, unfortunately, 99PI head honcho Roman Mars also noted that posting the archives “cause[d] our iTunes ranking to plummet.”)

He talked about the move in a Facebook post, writing “it allows for the catalog to continue to generate revenue over time and keeps everything available and free for all…It’s dynamic. Wave of the future. I really want the first thing you hear to be “This is 99% Invisible…” so for all the diehard fans, that’s exactly what you’ll get.”

What a dawg. I’ll hopefully have more on this next week.

The Los Angeles Podcast Festival. So I’ve never been to L.A. — home of Hollywood, Snapchat, and animal fries (or so I’m told) — and I imagine it’s every inch the way it’s represented in BoJack Horseman, Karina Longworth’s You Must Remember This, and the nightmares of Scriptnotes’ Craig Mazin and John August. But you’re in L.A., you should check out the fourth annual L.A. Podcast Festival that’s due to take place between September 18 and 20. By festival, the organizers primarily mean a “series of live shows,” with a lineup that includes Aisha Tyler’s Girl on Guy, the very useful Dinner Party Download, the excellent Mental Illness Happy Hour, the raucous My Brother, My Brother, and Me, and of course, WTF with Marc Maron.

Perhaps the most interesting thing with the way the festival is laid out has to with the sponsors. Audible has top billing here, securing an “Audible Presents” mention, while Squarespace has its name attached to something called a Podcast Lab. Familiar friends.

WNYC’s Freakonomics goes broadcast. The highly popular “let’s take this one way of thinking about things and apply the crap out of it to everything and make a show about it” podcast is no longer just a podcast. It’s now an hour-long weekly radio show to be aired on weekends beginning in October. Per the press release, Freakonomics “will join Radiolab, On the Media, and WNYC’s forthcoming collaboration with The New Yorker as national programs that WNYC will distribute independently to stations beginning this fall.”

“DISTRIBUTE INDEPENDENTLY.” Exciting times, fellow nerds. Exciting times.

Freakonomics is hosted by Stephen Dubner with Robert Krulwich-style constant appearances by Steven Levitt, an economist at the University of Chicago (a.k.a. the place where fun goes to die). Dubner, by the way, has a new show distributed by Midroll called Question of the Day, a three-times-a-week affair where he spitballs with Notable Podcaster James Altucher about, ah, stuff. That show shot up to the No. 1 spot on the iTunes chart (for whatever that’s worth) upon its debut, and now has settled around No. 20 to 30 spot after three weeks. (Are you happy with the mention now, Lex Friedman? Are you happy?)

CJR’s “So You Want To Start A Podcast.” This article by the Columbia Journalism Review, about different strategies of podcast market entry, doubles as a rough rubric for podcasting business models. It isn’t comprehensive, as pointed out by the ensemble known as The Heard, who make the argument for a fifth model where smaller, disparate shows band together as a collective to pool resources.

What’s the difference between a network and a collective? Beats me. I tend to think of the split as divided by professionalism as well as formal, legal, and business structures. But that’s just me.

Kernel Magazine. The latest issue of Kernel Magazine, an “online tabloid magazine about technology” acquired by The Daily Dot last year, is centered on podcasts, and the spread of its articles touches upon a bunch of elements that I don’t typically cover in this newsletter. Definitely check out the whole issue, but the three that I’d single out are:

  • “How the growing Austin comedy scene is turning to podcasts” (Audra Schroeder)
  • “Why Howl could be much more than the ‘Netflix for podcasts'” (Patrick Caldwell)
  • “The unfortunate truth about the podcasting industry” (Joey Keeton)

Matt Lieber is everything. Submitted without comment.

Out on the Wire. Hey, podcast and radio fans. I highly recommend that y’all check out cartoonist and remarkable human being Jessica Abel’s Out on the Wire: The Storytelling Secrets of the New Masters of Radio. It’s a lovely book that happens to be two things: (1) an educational and engaging dive into the creative process of the amazing teams behind shows like This American Life, Radiolab, 99% Invisible, and Snap Judgment, among others, and (2) a cultural artifact that documents and honors a set of players at the heart of this remarkable creative movement that’s giving radio/podcasting/on-demand audio/whatever the heck we’re going to call it its time in the mass spotlight. As much as I grumble about most of the attention going to this specific breed of audio creator, they truly are the people who drew me into this art form and industry in the first place — and to whom I owe a lot of my waking life.

Abel is also doubling down on her work with her own podcast, which seeks to extend the inquiry of her book by interviewing BAMF radio producers. Check it out.

“There’s a transaction cost associated with podcasts for every listener. It’s a commitment, a choice.” In case you missed this delicious Nieman Lab interview with Erik Diehn, Midroll Media’s chief biz dev guy, do yourself a favor and jump on it right now. By all means read the whole thing, but here are some choice morsels that stood out to me:

  • “Everyone would love to have YouTube-style metrics. But the measurement of podcasting is really not that much worse than any other medium; we just don’t have a single source that everyone endows with some sort of holy status.”
  • “So when people say, ‘We don’t know how many people listened all the way through to the last minute of this podcast,’ my feeling is, yeah, but we know a lot more than we did 20 years ago, when radio was based on the whims of a handful of people. We’re certainly getting better.”
  • “I’d also like to see the audiences grow and diversify. I think they already have, a lot. We’re getting a broadening of content and audience, but it needs to continue to grow.”

It makes so angry how good this Q&A is, it really does. Ugghhhhhhh.