These are the most important developments in the podcast business so far in 2017

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 135, published September 5, 2017.

Programming note! Ah yes, so we are in September! As you might already know, I’m taking a five-issue break from writing Hot Pod, starting next week and back on October 17, to do the Knight Visiting Nieman Fellowship in Cambridge (very on-brand, I’d say). But that doesn’t necessarily mean the Hot Pod #content will stop flowing, as I’ll be serving up bonus goodies here and there to those who read Hot Pod as a newsletter. (You can sign up to that here.)

But even as the newsletter churns out extra, the Hot Pod column as you know it will be on ice for a while. So, before the break and ahead of the third annual IAB Podcast Upfront happening later this week (also the NowHearThis Festival, I suppose), I figured this is probably a good time to take stock of the year in podcasting so far, which is, you know, quite a lot. In this issue, you’ll find top-level numbers, the six big things/trends/developments that stood out to me, thoughts about the three most interesting podcast companies, and some news hits before we break for a month and a half.

Let’s jump in.

The year so far. We begin by asking: Just how much has the industry grown over the past year? And do we have a better understanding of the space than we did before? I’ve been keeping these two digits pinned to my notebook:

  • Audience size: 67 million U.S. monthly listeners, according to Edison and Triton Digital’s annual Infinite Dial report, up 21 percent from 57 million from the year before. The volume of growth between 2017 and 2016 is slightly less than the period immediately preceding it (4 percentage points off a smaller base), which was a source of consternation among some in the podcast community at the time. But as I wrote back when the report first dropped: “We’re still talking 10 million new Americans actively listening to a medium that (a) is still propped up by a barely evolved technological infrastructure, (b) has only seen a few instances of significant capital investment, and (c) still sees its industry power very much under-organized.” Those three things, by the way, have changed a little since I wrote that line. More on that in a bit.
  • Advertising: The industry is expected to top $220 million in podcast advertising revenue by the end of 2017, according to an Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) study. The study is the first of its kind, a long-awaited official research effort into a pool of the biggest players in the space — which gives us a floor, at the very least — that’s a marked a step up from that methodologically-fuzzy Bridge Ratings report that’s been floating about the past few years. (Yeah, it’s all totally weird.) The IAB study was also able to give us some valuable historical context: 2016’s podcast ad revenue came in at $119 million, while 2015 came in at $69 million.

I’ll be thinking about how the industry moves forward based on three dimensions:

  • Growth — whether audiences and revenues will continue to grow, obviously;
  • Sustainability — whether companies will meaningfully diversify their revenue streams and whether the industry will see its activities and fortunes spread out across a wide number of companies; and
  • Refinement — whether the ecosystem will improve upon its various inefficiencies, from discovery to measurement to monetization.

Cool. So, with all that out of the way, let’s talk about six big things that’ve stood out to me since January.

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(1) Fundraising uptick. The summer closed with what might have been the loudest month in terms of significant investments in the podcast industry since…well, since I’ve started writing this newsletter in November 2014. August saw a total of four big investments in all (that were publicly disclosed, of course):

  • August 1: Gimlet Media announced a $15 million Series B funding round led by the New York-based Stripes Group, whose portfolio also includes Refinery29, eMarketer, and Blue Apron. Participants in the round also included Laurene Powell Jobs’ Emerson Collective, Graham Holdings, Cross Culture Ventures, and Betaworks. Variety had the first writeup.
  • August 3: DGital Media (which would later rebrand as Cadence13) announced that Entercom, the fourth-largest radio broadcaster in the U.S., paid $9.7 million to buy 45 percent of the company. The arrangement was described as an “investment and a strategic partnership” in the press release, and Entercom also signed a “multi-year services agreement under which DGital will dedicate ‘significant resources’ to create on-demand audio content leveraging the broadcaster’s roster of local talent and relationships.”
  • August 23: Art19, the California-based podcast technology company, announced a $7.5 million Series A round led by Bertelsmann Digital Media Investments (BDMI) and DCM Ventures. Other investors in the round included United Talent Agency (!), Gallo Digital, angel investor Zach Coelius, and Array Ventures, according to the press release.
  • August 31: HowStuffWorks, the Atlanta-based veteran podcast company that’s been publishing for almost a decade across multiple parent corporations, announced that it will be spinning out as a new independent company with a $15 million Series A fund led by the Raine Group. Here’s TechCrunch with a writeup, which also includes a look at an executive reshuffle and marginal insight into expansion plans. The spinoff news comes not too long after the company announced a West Coast expansion, one that explicitly targets the comedy category.

First of all, mazel tov to all! But also: Why did all these investments come in at the same month? Also, why did it all come out in the time of year when many a venture capitalist is thought to be on vacation? Conal Byrne, HowStuffWork’s new incoming president, was game to put a positive spin on it, though he doesn’t quite answer the question. “The industry has finally hit the tipping point that investors have been waiting for,” he wrote, through a rep. “Validation of a big market opportunity.” That feeling is generally shared across other sources that I reached out to, though the timing thing remains a puzzle. (Herd mentality? An actual tipping point? Maybe a bit of both?) Nevertheless, there were several private expressions of relief that dollars are finally flowing.

One thing to observe from all this: These four investments are substantially different from the kinds of investments we’ve often seen in (and adjacent to) the podcast space up until this point. Much of the attention over the past few years has generally been on consumer-focused audio app and platform plays — Anchor, Bumpers, Otto Radio, 60dB, RadioPublic, and so on — which are, in other words, stuff that’s more conventionally known within the broader tech industry. But these recent investments — three straight-up media companies, one podcast technology infrastructure company — are specific to the needs, textures, and idiosyncrasies of the podcast ecosystem.

I like where this is going.

(2) Apple analytics. While the summer closed out with news of investments, the season kicked off with an Apple bombshell. During its WWDC conference back in June, the company’s podcast team announced that publishers will soon be provided with in-episode analytics — which is to say, publishers will soon be able to systematically go beyond the download and tell just how much of their episodes are actually being listened to on the aggregate. This is undeniably the most significant development to hit the podcast industry since…well, since Apple consolidated the disparate ecosystem by featuring podcasts in the iTunes architecture, breaking it out as a standalone app, and then eventually packaging the app with iOS by default.

My coverage on the matter was spread across three separate issues:

Nieman Lab also ran a useful piece from WAMU’s Gabe Bullard, who sought to project what might happen to podcasts by examining what happened to the radio industry when its ratings became more precise ten years ago. To sum: A fragmented world was revealed, genres died off, accuracy disputes emerged, and some who were thought to be big turned out not to be all that big after all. We’ll likely see the same kinds of effects ripple across the podcast industry, and as a result, we’ll probably see some recalibration of power and standing. We’re due for a moment of disruption, which is as much a period of potential as it is pitfall. (Chaos is a ladder, after all, as some dude once said.)

(3) More and more adaptations. To illustrate the prevalence of this trend, here’s a sample of just a few of noteworthy developments in this area over the past few months:

  • Gimlet Media articulating its intellectual property pipeline as a prominent talking point for press coverage around its recent fundraise, building on a steadily increasing track record of adaptations that include Homecoming and StartUp being adapted for television, along with the “Man of the People” episode on Reply All being adapted for film.
  • In August, HBO announced that it will be adapting WNYC’s 2 Dope Queens into a series of four hour-long specials.
  • Also in August, Universal Cable Productions announced that it was adapting Night Vale Presents’ Alice Isn’t Dead for the USA Network. Accompanying the news was word of a novel based on the podcast, to be published by Harper Perennial in 2018.
  • The TV adaptation of Aaron Mahnke’s Lore, picked up by Amazon Studios, has an October release date and now, a trailer. A book adaptation is also in the works.
  • There remains scuttlebutt that First Look Media was shopping Missing Richard Simmons around as “potential source material for a TV series,” per a Hollywood Reporter article from April.

The prospect of adaptation is valuable for publishers in three key ways: (1) obviously, it represents a whole new potential revenue stream, (2) they’re good expressions of recognition by more established systems of media and publishing, and (3) each successfully executed adaptation is an audience development and marketing vessel for the original podcast as much as it is a standalone product.

That said, some attention should be paid as to whether these adaptations actually pay off. Remember, it took a while for comic books to rev up as hot sources of intellectual property for the more lucrative film industry, especially after an uneven string of performances in the ’90s and early 2000s. (But then again, the film industry did have a…challenging summer. But maybe that doesn’t really tell us anything?)

(4) On programming. It’s been kind of a strange year, at least for me. We’ve seen a heckuva lot more podcasts of increasing ambition, and we’ve seen some tremendous successes that have taken the medium to new heights. But I can’t seem to shake the feeling that the pace of successes has been somewhat uneven. Like there isn’t much certainty that the space as a whole can hold the public conversation for a sustained period of time.

In any case, the year in #content so far has been defined in my mind by two things:

  • Two unambiguous hits from early in the year that broke into the mainstream, First Look Media’s Missing Richard Simmons (debuted in February) and Serial Productions’ S-Town (debuted in March).
  • The rise of the daily news podcast, about which I’ve written a frightful amount over the past few months. But frankly, between The New York Times’ The Daily (debuted in February) and NPR’s Up First (debuted in April), I think it’s the most exciting front in the space in a long time. The category represents a whole bunch of things: Innovation! Ambition! Serious consideration of the medium that breaks from podcasting’s still governing skeuomorphisms with radio! And with Vox Media throwing its hat into the ring soon, I’m excited to see how the genre continues to heat up.

Two questions moving forward: (a) Where will the next hit come from? (b) Does my thesis from May — where I argued that the success of Missing Richard Simmons, taken in context of the success of S-Town, indicates that podcasting remains fairly accessible and meritocratic, which is to say that a good thing can stand out no matter of pedigree — still stand?

(5) More and more windowing. There’s been a noticeable increase in such shenanigans between publishers and non-Apple platforms, particularly in terms of promotional partnerships that sees the former giving “exclusive early drop” opportunities to the latter. Examples include:

  • First Look Media’s Missing Richard Simmons releasing episodes early (along with some bonus material) on Midroll Media’s Stitcher platform. Of course, that flow was ultimately interrupted due to some, uh, “extraneous circumstances” related to the meta-elements of the podcast by the end of the show’s run, but I heard the experiment paid off quite a bit for Stitcher. A Midroll rep told me that the partnership drove six times the usual number of daily new subscription signups during the show’s run.
  • Gimlet Media debuted its collaboration with the Loud Speakers Network, Mogul, on Spotify weeks before the podcast would eventually be distributed through the open ecosystem. The Brooklyn-based company later announced that its upcoming history podcast, Uncivil, will be windowed on TuneIn.
  • Speaking of TuneIn, the platform had previously tested out an exclusive distribution arrangement with The Ringer’s MLB Show at the start of baseball season.
  • And speaking of Spotify, the music streaming platform also developed a windowing relationship with WNYC, where the public radio station debuted the latest season of 2 Dope Queens earlier on Spotify.

Aside from Stitcher, it’s unclear to me whether such arrangements are paying off enough to establish this as a worthwhile strategy to be commonly implemented across the space. What is clear, however, is that such moves have not gone unnoticed by Apple, the long-time steward of the space.

And there were hints of blowback from Cupertino. As Digiday reported during the Missing Richard Simmons run:

According to multiple people familiar with the matter, Apple was excited about promoting Missing Richard Simmons until it heard about the windowing strategy. They subsequently abandoned all the marketing plans for the show, those people said.

Awkward! Also, perturbing.

(6) Platform fluidity. Last March, reacting to the launch of Audible’s original programming slate, the introduction of Google Play Music’s podcast feature, and the continued rollout of Spotify’s video and podcast offerings, I argued that the word “podcast” will lose all of its original meaning by the end of that year. Which is to say, the concept will no longer be too tethered to its initial infrastructural connotations — RSS feeds, podcatchers, and so on — and that arguments over what’s a “podcast” and what’s not will be fully relegated into a game of pure semantics and ideological identities. Instead, the way we talk about all of this — the content, the technology, the audiences — will have shifted from a narrative about the clash between an incumbent and an insurgent (“the future of radio”) towards a clash between publishing factions defined by different formations of publishing communities (“a type/genre/kind of audio”).

(Man, I was so much less literal back then.)

I think there’s been a fair bit of evidence that precisely this has played out over the intervening year and a half, contributing to a space that feels a lot more…fluid, conceptually, than it once was.

Consider the following developments:

  • Spotify is producing original podcasts in addition to their overarching efforts to establish their platform as a meaningful alternative to Apple. (Or, internally, to establish podcasts as a meaningful addition to their raison d’etre of being a music consumption platform.) The company seems to be getting ready for another round of original podcast programming, according to Bloomberg, though it’s unclear how that’s been affected by the dismissal of Tom Calderone, its head of video and podcasting operations.
  • Audible and Stitcher Premium, both of which possess value propositions that are defined by a sense of exclusivity, have begun trickling shows out beyond their paywalls and into the open ecosystem.
  • Meanwhile, Google Play Music is making its own quiet excursion into original podcast programming.
  • iHeartRadio, a native of Internet radio (and progeny of old radio), is increasingly agitating to claim some portion of the podcast space. In the past year, the platform has established distribution relationships with Art19, Libsyn, and NPR member stations. It, too, dabbles with some original programming, branded and otherwise.
  • SiriusXM is quietly developing a podcast platform of their own by the name of Spoke.
  • And while we’re on the subject of apps, we’ve also seen increasing activity within the social audio app front. In particular, the Betaworks-backed Anchor — a contemporary of Bumpers — is increasingly deploying podcast nomenclature (and getting involved in the concerns of podcasts writ large) to describe itself, its machinations, and by extension, its value proposition. A prime example of this can be found in its latest audio-to-social video feature, which adapts the broader Audiogram initiative into its infrastructure.

One way to thread all of these developments together is to frame it all as the story of several non-Apple platforms slowly (and clumsily) encroaching on Apple’s position as a steward of the space with a relatively hands-off stance, maybe to one day capitalize on the various inefficiencies that have resulted from that stance.

Have we seen a meaningful alternative platform to Apple yet? It doesn’t seem like it, based on what I’ve seen. As it stands, Apple remains the primary firehose, and everyone else is still a tiny spigot by comparison. Nevertheless, the encroachment marches on.

(A quick side thought on the fate of user generated content-oriented apps: While it’s unclear what their precise value propositions are to bigger publishers, you could argue that they could collectively serve as a good next step for the species of smaller solo independent publishers that find themselves being pushed out by bigger, more organized, and typically moneyed publishers. I haven’t really thought this through just yet, but should Apple change its hands-off stance — and should Apple Podcasts’ facilitation of the space be diluted beyond some proportional tipping point — small and upstart creators would need a place to go.)

[storybreak]

So those are the six trends that’ve stood out to me. As a collective, I think they describe a space that has made meaningful gains where it counts (size, revenue, legitimacy, prestige, awareness, and so on), but as a result has become increasingly complex. That complexity can be destabilizing, and this story has a bigger potential curveball coming its way with the introduction of the new analytics layer in November. Rest assured: I’ll be back by then to cover all of that.

Before I move on to some quick news hits, I also want to quickly talk about the three companies in the industry that have most stood out to me over the past eight months. They aren’t necessarily the most successful or the biggest — though they are quite successful and big — but rather, they’re the most interesting, and they’ve been the most fun to think and/or talk about.

The three most interesting podcast companies

HowStuffWorks. HWS is officially almost two decades old; its podcast business, headlined by Stuff You Should Know, is about half that. And yet the Atlanta-based company has, over the past year, operated with a verve of a much younger venture. It has aggressively hired new talent (working from a playbook that seems to be revolved around drafting established Internet media pioneers from the mid-aughts, including Cracked.com founder Jack O’Brien and Mental Floss’ Will Pearson and Mangesh Hattikudur), expanded the geography of its operations, and spun out as a whole new independent entity with new funds. Can an older hand successfully retool itself for the future?

The Ringer. I happen to love The Ringer as a publication, but I also think the stuff that they’re doing with their podcast network is low-key revolutionary. It features rigorous experimentation (Binge Mode, of all things, is a triumph in concept and execution), a fluid use of their writers as valuable audio assets, and an approach that seems to have meaningfully integrated their audio division with the rest of the business. The Ringer isn’t for everybody, but when it’s yours, it’s really, really yours, and its podcast division is the purest expression of that fact.

That said, the fact that its ownership structure is a mystery makes the enterprise tricky to fully trust. We can’t quite know for sure how the company is doing, and as a result, we can’t assess for sure whether the model is financially successful — and therefore replicable — or not. Then again, The Ringer head Bill Simmons told Recode’s Peter Kafka back in February that they’re doing well, and the organization seems to be valuable enough for Vox Media to establish a technology and advertising relationship with in May, so hey, maybe something’s there.

The New York Times. When the Gray Lady originally announced that it was assembling a new podcast team last year, I imagined an outcome not unlike what we’ve seen with, say, Slate: a portfolio of subject-specific shows that export the feel and sensibility of its parent publisher, only tighter and more pristine. What ended up emerging was something more drastic, the creation of a whole new…let’s call it a franchise. (Or, heaven forbid, a #brand.) By the end of summer 2017, it’s not inaccurate to say as far as the Times’ audio machinations are concerned, you have The Daily, and you have everything else that orbits The Daily.

On the one hand, this is incredibly exciting. That team has built a powerful machine, one that has equal capacity to break stories, deepen impact, and serve as a platform to launch complementary projects. But on the other hand, the problem with building a basketball team around a single player is the implosion that happens when that player gets injured, gets tangled up in controversy, or just gets old. This is a privileged problem, of course, but it’s a problem nonetheless. What happens next will be fascinating to watch.

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Two stories on political podcasts.

(1) The genre is strong! Which is not entirely surprising, of course, given the current spirit of the times where politics and the media have definitively fused into one giant, amorphous, Jeff Goldblum-in-The Fly-like blob. The Hollywood Reporter’s Jeremy Barr (formerly of Ad Age) has a piece up checking in on the growing category, and it contains two nifty data points for us: First, that the twelve-year-old Slate Political Gabfest “brought in about $1 million in revenue last year at a $25 CPM and an average download of a few hundred thousand per episode,” and second, that revenue for the political podcasts in Midroll Media’s portfolio “has doubled this year compared to 2016.”

(2) Vice News is the latest media org to engage with the “podcasts as left-wing political talk radio” angle, providing a broad accounting of the emerging phenomenon. Do pair that with the “alternative left wing media infrastructure” by The Atlantic’s McKay Coppins from July, titled “How the Left Lost Its Mind.”

Kids podcasts make a marketing push. Drawing some inspiration from February’s #TryPod audience building campaign, a coalition of kids-oriented podcasts are attempting a similar cross-promotion scheme to spread their audiences around and generally bring more attention to the category. Participating shows include Brains On (APM), Wow in the World (NPR), Eleanor Amplified (WHYY), But Why (Vermont Public Radio), Tumble Science (Wondery), Circle Round (WBUR), Story Pirates, and The Longest Shortest Time (Stitcher).

I’m told that the coalition was formed organically, with NPR running point on the outreach to potential participants. This campaign is said not to be directly related to the Kids Listen collective, of which all of these podcasts are members.

As part of the effort, Brain On’s Molly Bloom will be producing a “bonus preview” episode that will feature highlights from participating shows. The preview will be distributed throughout the coalition’s podcast feeds in early October.

The campaign kicked off yesterday, and will run for 13 weeks.

Bites:

  • BlogTalkRadio and Spreaker have announced a merger. Note: “Shareholders from each of Spreaker and BlogTalkRadio will be making investments in support of the combined company’s growth plan, which will be rolled out over the next several months,” the press release states. Terms were not disclosed. (Press release)
  • Ben Johnson, host of APM’s Marketplace Tech and Codebreaker, is moving to WBUR to start a new project on “the vast/complex/rich community of the Interwebs.” Congrats on the move! (Twitter)
  • This is cool: “Welcome to Night Vale’s Cecil Baldwin on Finding the Queerness in His Character.” (Slate)
  • KCRW is ending the broadcast run of its weekday talk show, “To The Point,” and will repackage it as a weekly podcast. Anomaly or trend? Let’s hope that we stick around long enough to find out. (Current)
  • Frontline, the investigative documentary series from PBS and WGBH, is rolling out a podcast with the legendary Jay Allison serving as senior editor and creative director. PRX serves as distributor. The show officially launches on September 14.
  • Now, I don’t usually derive much value from content marketing pieces, but this audioBoom writeup sees the digital advertising agency Ad Results claiming to “own” 40 percent of the podcast industry’s revenues. This isn’t too far-fetched, from what I’ve heard. (audioBoom)
  • Keep an eye on this: “Traditional Radio Faces a Grim Future, New Study Says.” (Variety)

Cool! Thanks for reading. See you in six weeks.

[photocredit]Photo by Gauthier Delecroix used under a Creative Commons license.[/photocredit]

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)

“If a Serial episode was a mountain peak, S-Town was the Himalayas”

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 116, published April 18, 2017.

Midroll formalizes the Stitcher editorial brand. When I wrote up the return of First Day Back for last week’s newsletter, I was mostly thinking out loud when discussing its label as a Stitcher show and how that might’ve hinted towards the spinning out of the podcast app as its own editorial brand. It looks like I was a day early on that, as the company announced last Wednesday that it was indeed firming up the Stitcher branding, and that it was shuffling some Earwolf shows into its purview.

Stitcher will now carry The Longest Shortest Time and the Katie Couric Podcast, both of which were previously categorized as Earwolf shows. The new umbrella will also carry The Sporkful, whose departure from WNYC I covered two weeks ago, and Tell Me Something I Don’t Know, the Stephen Dubner-led game show previously housed in The New York Times’ audio unit.

The reason for all of this shuffling? In a word: #branding.

Speaking over the phone yesterday, Midroll CEO Erik Diehn explained that, while he ultimately thinks a network’s brand won’t mean very much to a broad audience, he does find that it carries significant weight with its core audience. As such, any programming move has to make sense within the context of that audience’s relationship with the brand. “Every once in a while, a content brand rises above the fray to stand for something more than the individual shows organized within it,” Diehn said, also pointing to Gimlet Media, Barstool Sports, and The Ringer as examples. “There is value there for a certain core audience.”

The company bumped up against this when it initially attempted to broaden the Earwolf network out from its core comedy and comedy-adjacent sensibility; Diehn told me that Stranglers, a true-crime documentary podcast that Midroll published under the Earwolf network, was perceived by some to be a parody in large part due to its association with Earwolf. (It is most certainly not that.) The decision to carve out Stitcher as a separate entity from Earwolf, then, is meant to create a separate audience architecture for the more newsy and serious shows that Midroll hopes to get more involved in.

For what it’s worth, I personally feel that a brand means as much to listeners, audiences, and consumers as it makes itself out to be — which is to say, I tend to believe its effectiveness — and, for that matter, the effectiveness of things like bylines and datelines — is chiefly derived from the amount of work put into making it mean something.

Anyway, when I asked about how Stitcher Premium was doing, Diehn noted that it was “doing quite well,” and that it was “hitting all of its forecasts for the year so far.” He declined to share specific numbers when asked.

Speaking of brands…

“Apple Podcasts.” Last week saw a quiet announcement from Apple’s iTunes teams that nonetheless sent ripples throughout the community: The company is rebranding “iTunes Podcasts” as “Apple Podcasts.” Aside from an updated set of marketing guidelines and visual assets for use by publishers — get those badges and switch up your tags, folks — the announcement was made with little accompanying information that could tell us anything substantial about how (or even whether) Apple is actually fundamentally rethinking its relationship with the growing podcast ecosystem — a possibility that was first hinted back in February’s Recode Media conference when Apple’s senior vice president of Internet software and services Eddy Cue vaguely noted that the company was “working on new features for podcasts.”

Which is to say, we know nothing new about whether the company plans to: revamp the podcast app’s underlying user experience (long criticized as being virtually unchanged since its introduction over a decade ago); provide any further analytics support; allow for external verification of metrics (as in the case of Apple News); increase the sophistication of podcast discovery and publisher promotion on the podcast app; provide additionals pathways for monetization within the Apple podcast ecosystem; or clarifying the editorial and symbolic significance of the podcast charts.

On the flipside, it does maintain a status quo that continues to leave unreconciled the larger question about how the space will continue to play out structurally — that is, it holds in place the tension between podcasts-as-blogs contingent and podcasts-as-future-of-radio contingent that seemingly came to a public head last summer. (Here’s the relevant Hot Pod column from that time.) A lot has changed since then; the industry has continued to grow, more hit shows have come to be, more platforms have begun to encroach on Apple’s majority share with experiments in windowing and exclusives, and so on.

There’s a legit story in here somewhere…but this isn’t quite it. Looks like we’ll have to keep being on the lookout.

“If a Serial episode was a mountain peak, then S-Town was the Himalayas.” On Friday, PRX chief technology officer Andrew Kuklewicz published a Medium post discussing the backend of hosting the hit podcast — which, as you probably know by now, opted to drop all of its seven episodes at once as opposed to a recurring drop structure. In case you didn’t know, This American Life hosts all of its podcasts on Dovetail, the CMS platform created by PRX (which also distributes the company’s shows to public radio stations).

I’ve briefly written about Dovetail before, but the platform has kept a relatively low profile compared to its more aggressive competitors, like Art19 and Panoply’s Megaphone, and I suppose you could read this post as the company flexing its muscles somewhat. “After S-Town, we are that much more confident in our technology, both in new ways of using it, and under extreme load,” Kuklewicz wrote. “Plus, the next time someone asks me what Dovetail can do, I have a new graph to show them.”

The post is chock-full of interesting stuff — including some fascinating insights into binge-download behavior — but I’d like to draw your attention to something: Long-time observers of the podcast industry are probably familiar with the conversation around dynamic ad insertion technology, how its proponents argue that it allows for greater advertising inventory and opportunity (by allowing ads to be dynamically switched out according to who is listening), and how the current generation of professionalizing podcast companies have generally integrated the technology by treating the ad slot as the unit that gets dynamically switched out.

According to Kuklewicz’s post, it appears that the S-Town team made a peculiar request: to treat the entire episode as the dynamic unit. This effectively maintains the baked-in nature of the ad-read while still allowing for the fundamental utility of each individual episode being able to serve different ads to different kinds of people. When I asked Kuklewicz about the logic behind this, he said: “They wanted to maximize the flow between show and spots, and allow for music under the end roll. So I understand it to be an aesthetic motivation, and considering the years of time put into the show, and the way the music is practically a character, I can see now why they wanted it just that way.”

Related. BuzzFeed has a chunky feature up on S-Town that should be interesting to fans on two major levels. First, it sheds some additional light on the narrative threads that the podcast ultimately leaves unresolved — which, as we learn from the piece, is purely by design. And second, it serves as a nice companion to host Brian Reed’s interview on Longform. Also, this from The Awl: “Call it Shit Town, because that is its name.”

Call Your LLC. I highly recommend digging into last week’s episode of Call Your Girlfriend, the well-loved conversational podcast by Ann Friedman and Aminatou Sow (produced by Gina Delvac), which features a pretty substantial look at how the team has built out an independent business around the show. No specific figures were disclosed — other than mention that ad slots cost at least four figures and a solid-sounding revenue range — but there’s a lot going on here. The episode touches on the uncertainties involved in working with a network, the general weirdness of the podcast industry, and figuring out a business model that best fits the values of a production. Check it out.

Missing Richard Simmons on TV? The Hollywood Reporter is apparently reporting that First Look Media, which led the production for the podcast, has “begun meeting with would-be buyers for a small screen narrative adaptation of the investigative show searching for the reclusive fitness guru.” Two things on this:

  • It’s yet another data point in the emerging trend that sees the podcast category as another IP pool for TV and film to trawl in for potential adaptations. (Though, it should be noted that real life — or very recent history — remains the IP pool du jour.)
  • Maybe I lack vision, but I can’t for the life of me see how the adaptation could possibly either (a) a good idea, given the myriad of ethical questions surrounding the podcast, or (b) effective or interesting in the same way, probably as a result of those ethical conundrums surrounding the podcast.

But then again, I am but a humble podcast bard, and not a wheelin’ dealin’ TV exec.

Tracking… Looks like CNN en Español recently rolled out a Spanish-language podcast slate, most of which are repackages of existing shows. There’s one original production in there, however: a culture show called Zona Pop. With this rollout, the company steps into a lane whose primary current occupant appears to be the Revolver Podcast network, which has built out a sizable Spanish-language podcast portfolio in addition to its work with music executive Jason Flom on the Wrongful Conviction podcast.

The Outline, daily. I suppose I should start looking for another way to describe the daily news podcast space in terms other than “heating up” — if only to avoid ledes defined by a cliche — but it does seem like the experimental genre is certainly growing more active by the week.
The latest of such experiments comes in the form of World Dispatch, a new daily morning podcast by the digital curiosity known as The Outline. John Lagomarsino, The Outline’s audio director, told me that show is meant to be the closest approximate representation of the publisher’s coverage in the audio format. Episodes are between 8 to 12 minutes, and segments will be a mix of stories that draw from material already on the site and stories produced specifically for the podcast. (“We’ll also be leaning on freelancers a fair amount for more reported-out, strictly audio stories — get at me!” he adds.)

I’m told that the show is the result of some internal experiments with social audio that didn’t go very far. (“Turns out audio still is not particularly shareable,” Lagomarsino quipped.) Those experiments eventually shifted to the social audio app Anchor when it re-launched back in March, and the team ultimately decided to move those efforts over to a daily podcast feed as a natural next step. The resulting podcast is an intriguing artifact: strange, compelling, but ultimately a little confusing — which, given the show’s explicitly conscious sense of style, is probably the point.

Lagomarsino notes that the podcast isn’t exactly meant to be newsy. “The podcast is for curious humans who are not looking for a news rundown that barely goes past headlines,” he said. “These are angled stories, often *about* news, but this is not for the listener who wants the ‘what I need to know today’ thing.” Hmm.

World Dispatch debuted yesterday, with new eps dropping Mondays to Thursdays.

Explainer ambition. In times of confusion, go back to the basics. That was, more or less, the thinking behind Civics 101, the explainer podcast by New Hampshire Public Radio that covers the fundamental institutions, mechanisms, and even concepts that make up the United States. That approach has proven to be pretty successful: Since launching on Inauguration Day, Civics 101 has clocked in about 1.88 million listens, with episodes averaging about 75,000 listens per month. (To be clear: that’s per episode per month, suggesting strong back catalog activity.)

The way Civics 101’s editorial director Maureen McMurray tells it, the podcast was the product of a completely organic process. The show came out of an ideas meeting for the station’s daily show, Word of Mouth, shortly after the elections. “Our producer, Logan Shannon, expressed frustration over the endless ‘hot take’ election coverage and said something along the lines of, ‘I don’t want any more analysis. I just want to go six steps back to find out how things work,'” McMurray said. What started out as a segment idea soon broadened out into an accompanying podcast experiment pegged to the first 100 days of the Trump administration. It was all pretty scrappy. “There were some clever titles thrown about, but I insisted on calling it Civics 101,” she said. “Logan made the logo, and we sent a trailer and pilot episode to iTunes.”

“In retrospect, I guess we just did it. There wasn’t a big meeting with executives or anything,” McMurray added.

As the weeks rolled on, the show steadily grew into its own. It consistently dived headfirst into wonky subjects (emoluments, the Office of Scheduling and Advance, gerrymandering) while remaining fundamentally accessible, and the podcast eventually adopted an appealing topical edge (calling your congressperson, impeachment, the nuclear codes) that nonetheless retains a broad, evergreen perspective. Almost three months in, Civics 101 has grown in depth and complexity. And, as I found in a recent email correspondence with McMurray, it has certainly grown in ambition. Here’s our chat:

[storybreak]

[conl]Hot Pod: How has the show evolved over the past four months?[/conl]

[conr]McMurray: Our editorial vision has shifted a lot, and continues to evolve. Civics 101 was intended to be a short-run series. We planned to drop one episode per week for the first 100 days of the Trump administration. In part, we thought “How many governmental agencies and cabinet positions do people really want to know about?”, but I was also concerned about resources. Our production team is responsible for producing a daily magazine program, Outside/In, the 10-Minute Writer’s Workshop podcast, and a series of live events, among other things.

After iTunes featured Civics 101 in its New and Noteworthy section, everything went to hell in a good way. Our audience numbers shot up and we started to receive unsolicited listener questions. We captured the moment, and began releasing two episodes per week, created a Civics 101 website where listeners could submit questions via Hearken, and started a Civics 101 hotline with Google. A lot of the questions coming in stemmed from current events. For example, when Steve Bannon was appointed to the National Security Council’s principals committee, there was an uptick in National Security Council-related questions. So, Civics 101 became newsier than I anticipated, but editorially, I wrestle with it. It’s easy to be seduced by the latest scandal, and to bump those questions to the top of the list, but I want Civics 101 to be a meaningful resource for future listeners. What’s timely today may sound dated in six months, and it will certainly sound dated by 2020. For the time being, we’re trying to balance the timely issues with the evergreen questions.

Oh, and a shout out to our producer, Logan Shannon, who created the Civics 101 weekly newsletter, Extra Credit. We’ve seen a lot of audience engagement around it, and it has quizzes and gifs.[/conr]

[conl]Hot Pod: Does NHPR have any future plans for Civics 101 — and for its podcast operations more generally?[/conl]

[conr]McMurray: Civics 101 will continue answering listener questions on a biweekly basis. New questions come in everyday, so there’s no shortage of content. Of course, we want to grow and monetize our podcast audience, and that’s where a distributor will come in handy. We’re planning to repackage the podcast content for different platforms. Specifically, we’d like to become a multimedia resource for educators, and hope to create and distribute supplemental materials to teachers and students. That includes anything from videos to lesson plans.

My real dream, though, is to farm Civics 101 out to other stations/production units in time for midterm elections. We cover the national stuff well, but member stations are in a unique position to tackle state and local politics. And, as our yet-to-be-created production guide will show, Civics 101 is a scalable, turnkey format, and a fairly easy lift for smaller teams. In 2018, I’d love to see Civics 101: Louisiana, Civics 101: Albany, Civics 101: Michigan. Heck, you could do Civics 101: Canada, Civics 101: Australia, Civics 101: Brazil. Of course, resources are the elephant in the room. We’re currently working out ways to resource this thing. So check back in with me.

As far as podcast operations go, Civics 101 and Outside/In have been great proofs of concept for NHPR, but weren’t part of a formal, top down strategy. Our first major podcast, Outside/In, was intended to be a weekly, one-hour broadcast. When the show was in development, we found ourselves gravitating to longer stories that involved original reporting, narrative arc, sound design, and (for lack of a better adjective) a “podcasty” tone. Long story short, we put those early experiments into a podcast feed and came to realize those 15-30 minute prototypes were what distinguished Outside/In from other environmental shows and, given the size of our team, producing an hour-long program with those elements would be impossible. At the same time, the Outside/In podcast was developing an audience. So, the question became: is the podcast the show? In a way, our failure to deliver a sustainable, one-hour broadcast model coupled with the success of Outside/In and Civics 101 forced NHPR to consider the value and potential of podcasts. It’s been a learning curve for everyone, from producers to the underwriting department to membership, but we’re starting to develop an infrastructure that supports and leverages podcast creation.

One more really important detail: in order to double down on Civics 101, we had to make an editorial decision to ease up on something. So, we’ve been strategically replaying interviews and stories on our daily magazine program, Fresh Air-Friday style. There are some upcoming changes that will ease our production load, but for the time being, it’s a quick fix.[/conr]

[storybreak]

Bites:

  • Reminder: Edison Research’s Podcast Consumer 2017 report comes out later today. (Edison)
  • The Webby Awards has a pretty broad and interesting set of podcast and digital audio nominations this year. Check it out. (Website)
  • Audible has apparently taken over the billboards at the Rockefeller Center subway stop in New York to promote its original show, Sincerely X, which debuted back in February. (Pictures) Speaking of Audible, it looks like the company has been building another content strategy: creating original programming out of existing IP. (Rolling Stone).

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

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

Midroll’s new executive hires:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bites:

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

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

Hot Pod: Will the next wave of audio advertising make podcasts sound like (yuck) commercial radio?

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue eighty-nine, published September 27, 2016.

Panoply opens a London office. The Slate Group’s audio arm announced yesterday that it was expanding into the good ol’ United Kingdom. Specifically, the company is opening a new production office in London that will “facilitate closer collaboration with U.K.-based audio talent.” Ryan Dilley, a BBC veteran, has been hired to lead the new operation.

Here’s the most straightforward way to think about this: Panoply intends to do in the U.K. whatever it does here, including original and partner programming, the cultivation of a U.K.-based network of talent, and the recruitment/aggregation of local podcasts into its network.

This move also puts Panoply in a good position to do two things: first, to grow a bigger advertising presence that would allow them to monetize U.K. listeners on their existing American shows (up until this point, it’s basically money that’s been left on the table), and second, to challenge digital audio companies with British operations that have spent the past few years making in-roads into the more lucrative U.S. market, like Audioboom and Acast.

Andy Bowers, Panoply’s chief content officer (and my old boss, by the way), told me that U.K. ad sales aren’t the primary motivation for this expansion. “This is about talent,” he wrote, adding that they have already been engaged with targeted U.K.-only ad sales using their new Megaphone platform. I was also told to expect Panoply’s first slate of U.K. programming to roll out early next year.

Speaking of which, I should consider opening up a Euro Hot Pod bureau.

Keep an eye on this: Nielsen is working on a software development kit (SDK) that will, among other things, cater to the measurement of podcasts, according to a report by Radio Ink. They’ve been testing the kits with ESPN, and the company is “working towards having a syndicated service out there in the marketplace sometime in 2017.”

An SDK-approach is one of a few ways to deal with the industry’s measurement gap. But Nielsen will face similar political problems of adoption that plague companies like Podtrac — although it is a neutral third party. For what it’s worth, I’ve heard skepticism over an SDK-approach from a number of execs in the space, so we’ll see where this goes.

Midroll’s live intent. The end of October will see the inaugural Now Hear This festival in Anaheim, Calif., which will mark Midroll’s first foray into Lollapalooza-style multi-partner live programming. Now Hear This is set to feature shows from both within the Midroll ecosystem — that is, the Earwolf network and its universe of third-party ad sales clients — and without, boasting shows like Radiotopia’s Criminal and NPR’s How I Built This on the lineup. (I’m told that most of these external partners are paid an upfront fee for participation; no revenue shares are involved.)

Midroll is not the first podcast company to organize such an event. Indeed, this past weekend saw the L.A. Podcast Festival, and the Vulture Festival this past May also included a solid block of live podcast tapings. But Now Hear This is notable in how it reflects Midroll’s ambitions to diversify its revenue base. When the company announced Lex Friedman as its new chief revenue officer earlier this month, an explicit mention of a deeper focus on live events in the press release caught my eye.

“We don’t expect that, in the near term, live events will be as big as ads or subscription,” Friedman said when we spoke over the phone yesterday. “But it’s another way for us to diversify, and it’s the closest thing we have to kick off a network effect.” Friedman tells me that a festival like Now Hear This not only brings in ticket sales and sponsorship revenue, but the live tapings create additional material that can be served in Howl, the company’s premium subscription play. (Speaking of sponsorship: Casper and Mack Weldon, both veteran podcast buyers, are sponsoring the festival, with live show ad-integrations that will go beyond on-stage host-reads. More sponsors are expected to be announced soon.)

Midroll intends to produce more live shows of individual Earwolf podcasts in 2017, and Friedman hopes to collaborate with his third-party ad sales clients on live events as well. It’s an ambitious vision, one that I assume is backed by a long E.W. Scripps runway.

“We’re building a media empire, Nick,” he said, before bursting into terrifying laughter.

There’s been a misunderstanding, asserted Art19 cofounder Sean Carr when we spoke over the phone last week. He tells me that too many people have been conflating dynamic ad insertion technology with an automatic flood of programmatic radio-style prerecorded ads. One doesn’t necessarily lead to the other, he argues, pointing out that many of today’s production conventions — the ones that contribute to the medium’s identity of “intimacy” — don’t actually have to change. “Most host-read ads are recorded separately from the conversation anyway, and edited in after the fact,” he added.

For the record, I’ve come to agree with Carr’s position. (That view has been fleshed out across previous Hot Pods.) But I’d say that the anxiety that drives this conflation remains very real, and that Carr felt the need to reach out on this suggests it remains top-of-mind among many emotionally invested the space. There is now, after all, very little that would structurally prevent the inflow of eardrum-assaulting radio-style ads — a state of affairs that could spoil the medium’s identity for listeners trying it out for the first time.

“That anxiety will probably go away with better data,” Carr said. I’m inclined to agree, though there will always be a gap between where we are right now and a place where we’re have that abundance of appropriate, agreed-upon data. Not for nothing, but transition periods almost always suck — whether we acknowledge that or not.

Anyway, Carr also tells me that his team is working on some research that he hopes will increase advertiser confidence. Watch out for them.

Some notes on the border between publishers and podcasts. Last week saw news that Actuality, the podcast collaboration between Quartz and APM’s Marketplace, is coming to a close. The show first launched last summer and ran for two seasons. According to a joint blog post, the podcast was cancelled due to a lack of sufficient interest. “We’d rather hit pause now and move on to other experiments,” wrote Quartz editor-in-chief Kevin Delaney and Marketplace VP/executive producer Deborah Clark. The podcast averaged 100,000 monthly downloads across the last three months of the show.

“After two seasons, we learned a great deal about what works and what doesn’t in podcasting, and produced some strong episodes,” Delaney told me over email last week. He added: “I doubt this will be the last podcast product that Quartz develops.”

APM, for their part, will continue their efforts in these cross-platform partnerships. “Though not all our new podcasts at either Marketplace or APM overall will be in partnership with others, I think many will,” Clark told me. “Our guiding principle is how do we serve our audience better and sometimes that’s best done with other strong partners.”

One such example is Codebreaker, its collaboration with Business Insider, which will drop its second season later this fall. Another project to watch: Historically Black, which is a collaboration between The Washington Post and APM Reports (American Public Media’s documentary unit), which dropped its first episode last Monday.

As one media company shelves its audio ambitions (for now), another finds its runway. Bloomberg Media, the business news behemoth, has found some joy in its on-demand audio operations over its past year of experimentation. Michael Shane, a Bloomberg operative who was recently promoted to the position of global head of digital innovation, told me last week that the company’s young podcast arm is now a seven-figure business.

Bloomberg’s on-demand audio offerings are chiefly made up of subject-specific shows built around key reporters in the newsroom. Examples include, but are not limited to: Odd Lots (finance, featuring Joe Weisenthal and Tracy Alloway), Material World (retail broadly speaking, featuring Jenny Kaplan and Lindsey Rupp), and Game Plan (the workplace, featuring Rebecca Greenfield and Francesca Levy). The company is adding a tech podcast to its network next month, and is on the hunt for a San Francisco-based producer to handle duties on that show. (It’s worth noting that, shockingly, the team has only been composed of four producers up to this point. “It’s a lean team,” Shane said. “Which is great, because we like to do things profitably around here.”)

Shane’s team is also investigating potential collaborations with the company’s long-running 24-hour broadcast radio division. The most prominent example of this is Bloomberg Surveillance, a typically three-hour broadcast program that is being repackaged as highlights to serve podcast listeners. “It would be crazy of us to build a digital audio strategy that didn’t involve Bloomberg Radio,” Shane said. He also noted that Surveillance currently hits six-figure audiences per month, and that the show’s ad inventory has been sold out through 2017, with Bank of America as the sponsor.

When I asked about CPMs, Shane informs me that company sells at premium rates across all platforms — and that audio, certainly, is no exception. He also did pontificate, briefly, on the industry’s expectations of fallings CPMs as the basic ad formats get commoditized over the long run. “I spend a lot of time wondering: What’s next? What can Bloomberg offer [advertisers] around digital audio that’s more than an ad read?” Shane said.

“I heard someone say once that the business model for podcasts is to be beloved,” he continued. “As long as we can keep being audience-first and not squander that goodwill, this can be a great business for us over the long term.”

A sneak peek at RadioPublic. Jake Shapiro and the RadioPublic team have been keeping busy. After the crew of PRX alums announced their new venture earlier this summer, they’ve been hard at work on the listening app that will mark their first foray into product market. Shapiro was kind enough to invite me to take a look at a very basic prototype of the app. Some notes from our conversation:

  • The team intends to preserve and advance the medium’s open nature — which is to say, it will eschew a YouTube or Spotify-style closed ecosystem. “We just don’t think that’s the right way to do things,” Shapiro said, adding that the app’s experience will be built on top of open RSS feeds while being focused on serving listeners with a much better user experience than what exists now. That user experience is driven by a goal of “helping listeners make a more informed choice,” as Shapiro puts it.
  • While those ideas were understandable in the abstract, I had trouble visualizing the significance of the product even with the prototype in front of me. Shapiro provided an analogy to Flipboard, the social magazine app that, in many ways, serves as a user-friendly portal through which mobile users could manage their experience navigating the unruly web while respecting its open quality.
  • When I asked Shapiro about publisher outreach, he told me that, while the app is being built to provide value autonomously from any required publisher participation, the rise of dynamic ad insertion technology across an emerging class of hosting platforms necessitates some “technical handshakes” in order for both parties to properly benefit from the experience. Publishers are encouraged to get in touch.

Meanwhile, on the West Coast, the small team known as Tiny Garage Labs — founded by Planet Money alum Steve Henn along with former longtime Netflix operatives Steve McLendon and John Ciancutti — has been kicking up some noise as well. Last Thursday, Henn published a semi-manifesto and call-for-collaborators on Medium, and the team also scored a chunky Nieman Lab mini-profile that fleshes out their general product direction with 60dB, Tiny Garage Labs’ first market offering.

Here’s my read in a nutshell: It would be a mistake, in my opinion, to lump 60dB in with either your basic podcatcher play or a “Netflix for audio”-minded play like Midroll’s Howl. (In this case, it is prudent to not read too much into the team’s Netflix lineage.) Rather, given Tiny Garage Lab’s outsized focus on short-form audio — a perspective that views individual segments as the atomic unit of content, as opposed to the episode — 60dB would best be categorized against something like the Amazon Echo’s Flash Briefing experiments — which is to say, it is a wholly new, and entirely separate, product category.

ESPN Audio’s 30 for 30 team. Senior producer Jody Avirgan has announced the team that will take on the brand’s well-loved 30 for 30 adaptation into audio. They are: Rose Eveleth, of Flash Forward; Julia Henderson, formerly of WNYC’s Studio 360; Andrew Mambo, formerly of WNYC’s great Radio Rookies project; Katie McAuliffe, formerly of WNPR and a former ESPN music assistant; and Marcus Anderson, who comes in without a radio background (which is fantastic, IMHO).

Another quick ESPN-related tidbit, for those interested: According to an Awful Announcing blog post, “FiveThirtyEight podcasts across the board were downloaded over 7.8 million times in August alone, a 422 percent increase from February.”

Bites:

  • WNYC has had a busy week: it rolled out The United States of Anxiety, their second collaboration with The Nation (the first being the excellent There Goes the Neighborhood). The station also welcomed the second season of 2 Dope Queens. I’m told season one drew “millions of listens.”
  • Wondery CEO Hernan Lopez writes in to let me know that the network expects to hit 8 million downloads by the end of the month. The network is currently spread across 14 shows, with two originals. They’re hosted on the Art19 platform.
  • Radiotopia recruits The West Wing Weekly. The addition is said to allow the collective to “explore a new content direction, and evolve as a network.” (PRX)
  • Speaking of PRX, the company announced a new initiative last week called Project Catapult, where it will work with five chosen stations over a 20-week program to develop a sustainable local podcast strategy. (Current)
  • Have you checked out Audible’s Channels recently? The lineup now features what appears to be several new additions. Note, also, how the presentation flattens different content types, from original shows to comedy to article readouts. (Audible)
  • Speaking of article readouts, iTunes apparently is getting ready to promote a similar type of articles-read-aloud content. This is probably a nothingburger in terms of the larger questions of what this means for the podcast industry, a good chunk of which are crossing their fingers for access to their listening data, but hey, if you’re into Apple Kremlinology, this is a data point just for you. (TechCrunch)
  • An adapted version of the Politico Playbook, the political news website’s flagship newsletter, is now being distributed in audio form over the Amazon Echo’s Alexa platform. The audio version adopts the “90-second flash briefing” model, and drops daily starting yesterday. (Washingtonian)
  • Two reads for the public radio-oriented: “Great journalism alone won’t guarantee public radio’s survival” (Current) and “This American Fight” (Fast Company)

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

Is This American Life violating the public radio mission by straying to platforms like Pandora?

Radiotopia lets a snake person in. The beloved Cambridge-based podcast indie label (or network or collective or whatchamacallit) is welcoming a new show to its ranks today: the bildungsroman-extraordinaire Millennial, produced by 25-year-old Megan Tan out of Portland, Maine. It’s the network’s 14th show overall, and the first addition since Julie Shapiro assumed the executive producer throne at the network last September.

In case you haven’t checked it out before, Millennial is…a bit of tricky podcast to explain. First gracing podcast feeds in January 2015, it’s a thoughtfully-crafted narrative podcast about a woman navigating her 20s. Principally written in the first person, the show is constructed on a complex machine of identity choreography where the documentarian is the central character and an unreliable narrator, one actively choosing the points in which the real world and the narrative intersects.

(In this sense, the show is incredibly reminiscent of the first season of StartUp, albeit with the enterprise of constructing a self instead of a business. Well, at first, anyway. Like I said, it’s complicated. Of course, StartUp has since moved away from complex structure to feature more straightforward stories about, uhm, startups I guess, and here I am mourning the loss of Alex Blumberg The Character.)

But Millennial is also a show overtly engaged in a certain kind of self-awareness. You can feel the show thinking about itself even as it unfolds (creating an interesting stiltedness); you can hear it in the way it’s uneasy with its own sincerity (even as the show wades forward with its heart fully on its sleeve), and you can even see it in its very title design (the word “Millennial” emblazoned with the colors of the rainbow, as if sashaying past the cultural agita — and reductiveness — that the concept evokes).

It’s a bizarre, intriguing, playful podcast. And so it’s a no-brainer to me, then, that Radiotopia, whose roster also includes the similarly hard-to describe Love+Radio and Benjemen Walker’s Theory of Everything, would embrace the show.

“I just felt like she ticked so many boxes for us: having the right content, having a vision, having done so much of it by herself,” Shapiro explained when I asked about the addition. “It’s equal part quality of the work, part spirit of the producer — a sense of determination and wanting to be independent, but also having that creative spark…She’s also, you know, a young woman of color doing it on her own. One of the Radiotopia goals is to get different voices in here, to support people who don’t have traditional training but have that moxie.”

Millennial’s recruitment into the network comes shortly after Tan left her job at New Hampshire Public Radio to pursue the show full-time earlier this year. When we spoke last week, she talked about the decision coming out of a desire for something close to creative freedom, or a space to learn and explore and develop on her own terms. But the effort to do so was grounded, it turned out, in a grappling with her economic chances. “I crunched the numbers, and I figured I could be making more money doing Millennial if I started putting out two episodes a month,” she said. Prior to joining Radiotopia, the show enjoyed an average of 27,000 downloads per episode. (That’s the number reported to advertisers, by the way. Keep in mind, in thinking through the number, that the show did not support dynamic ad insertion at the time.)

“I feel like there’s just a window of time when I can do this,” Tan said. “It feels like, well, nobody’s going to be talking about Millennial a year from now, and I can’t wait that long until I decide that this is what I want to do. There’s a lot of urgency in myself to just, sort of, buy the ticket and take the ride.”

(Boy, don’t I know that feeling.)

It’s worth noting, commensurate with a recent column by Current’s Adam Ragusea about the podcast industry’s trend towards clustering in New York, that Tan’s being able to make this professional leap can largely be attributed to her financial realities being based in Portland, Maine — where housing costs are roughly 58 percent lower than in Brooklyn, according to this nifty CNN Money calculator that sources its data from C2ER.

Speaking of New York, Tan mentioned that she was considering interest from a few other New York-based networks, which would’ve possibly led to her moving to the city. But her choice to go with Radiotopia came from multiple alignments — structural, creative, ideological — that she couldn’t ignore. “They feel like a family, and I feel like they have a similar intention for what they want stories to sound and be like that I have,” she said. “And there’s this freedom with them that’s almost unheard of in the industry…I mean, you get to own your own show! I don’t need someone to hold my hand through everything. I want to feel like I have as much stake in my show as somebody else. And I think, when you get to some of these other institutions, that’s not necessarily true.”

“Plus: When I think about Radiotopia, I just think about the fact it’s run by these badass women like [chief operating officer] Kerri Hoffman and Julie Shapiro,” she added. “And I’m like, yeah, I want to be on your team, and I want you to be on my team!”

With Radiotopia’s backing, Tan is looking to expand the scope of the show. “I want Millennial to be the show that people go to about coming-of-age,” she said. “And the best thing about that topic is that it’s narrow enough to be focused but it’s still big enough to encompass everything. You don’t stop coming of age when you get out of your 20s.”

You can find the podcast here. I imagine, given the podcast’s affinity for meta-narrative, that Tan will producer her own narrative on the show being picked up by Radiotopia. In which case, that episode is probably already out by the time you read this. [It is:]

How Radiotopia works. I figured this was a good opportunity to try and figure out what, exactly, a partnership with Radiotopia looks like. So I posed the question to Shapiro, and she was kind enough to walk me through it — even if my brain had a hard time grappling with it.

Radiotopia shows are supported by a collection of three different revenue streams. There’s advertising revenue (Radiotopia takes a 20 percent cut of the advertising revenue; they handle some sponsorships, but shows are incentivized to bring in more by themselves); there’s money that comes in from listener donations that are open persistently throughout the year (which are then distributed evenly across shows); and there are the annual pledge-drive fundraisers we’ve become familiar with (which are then distributed based on performance on top of an evenly split base amount). The way this works out, then, is that all shows get a baseline financial support but are still able to benefit in proportion to how well they perform both with advertisers and listeners.

Also worth noting: Ownership of the shows remain with the creators, not Radiotopia.

It’s a balanced, equitable approach; one that lets shows enjoy a relatively small cushion of comfort but places them in a position where they’re incentivized to hustle, because they stand to directly benefit from their own inputs.

And the network systems are designed such that the growth of each show will directly and indirectly benefit the wider family — a kind of virtuous cycle that encourages network cohesion. As Shapiro explains: “The shows make a nice chunk from the fundraiser, but that means everybody has to jump in and help fundraise. And the more we raise, the more they make from that. Then over the course of the year, as the shows get stronger and as the listeners get deeper and more loyal, listeners give more randomly and then the shows get more from that, and that means the networks get greater visibility for sponsors so they pay more. There’s a symbiotic relationship.”

It’s a fascinating system, but it’s certainly not for everybody. “There are other networks doing interesting, great work with business models that are in some ways more stable for producers,” Shapiro said. “I mean, if you work for a company, you get a steady paycheck.”

And boy, steady paychecks are sexy.

Mission vs. economics vs. a false dichotomy. Okay, let’s think through this one:

Last Thursday, Mike Savage, the general manager of WBAA, a public radio station operating out of West Lafayette, Indiana, announced in a LinkedIn post that the station will no longer carry This American Life come August. Several factors reportedly informed the decision, but Savage singled out TAL’s recent move to partner with the streaming service Pandora for distribution as the prime reason.

His argument is built on two key concepts:

  • Pandora poses a fundamental threat to public radio’s broadcast model. “Pandora is not complementary nor friendly to public radio,” Savage wrote. “Just go for a test drive in a new car and you will see their aggressive presentation…In fact, I believe it’s one of Pandora’s main goals to put traditional radio out of business.”
  • This American Life’s partnership with Pandora, then, represents a misalignment in interests, and given that WBAA pays TAL in order to serve its programming to the station’s listeners, the station would rather not fund an entity that is indirectly contributing to its demise.

This is, of course, an incredibly complex issue. It touches upon the disparity in resources between bigger and smaller stations, questions about how stations (and to extrapolate, publications and media companies) can hold their own, grow, and perhaps thrive in smaller markets, and of course, the structural tensions between emerging digital platforms and traditional broadcast. Add to that Savage’s claim that TAL wasn’t actually performing well for the station, and you have what looks to be a performative gesture with little immediate sacrifice for the station itself, which further complicates the way we read this. All of that is at play here, yes, and those things deserve discussion. And discussions are happening across Twitter, in Facebook groups, in forums, and most importantly, in the comments section of Savage’s LinkedIn post, where a substantial, multi-threaded conversation has been playing out, which even includes Glass mounting several responses.

But there a few parts of Savage’s decision — and more importantly, his rationale and argumentation — that I find especially troubling apart from those discussions. I’ll point out two in particular.

The first is an axiom that seems to drive Savage’s thinking: the sense that any programmatic attempt at aggressively growing an audience is somehow antithetical to the public radio mission. “At what cost do we grow the audience?” Savage writes at one point, in a response to a comment. “That’s the great thing about public broadcasting — we put mission first as opposed to shareholder value or audience size,” he writes at another.

There is, I think, a fundamental difference between the intention to aggressively grow your audience to maximize profits and the responsibility to aggressively grow your audience because they make up the Public you are meant to serve. Furthermore, such audience and revenue growth initiative should be a concern only if such initiatives directly contribute to a decrease in the quality of work being produced or service being provided. (Conversely: To impede initiatives that would generate greater audiences that wouldn’t dilute editorial quality should be read, then, as being counter-productive to the public good. I mean, what’s the point of producing work of quality if nobody’s listening to it?) Quality dilution obviously isn’t a problem that This American Life faces, which has demonstrably increased its capacity for public service journalism since incorporating as a public benefit corporation and has gotten more financially ambitious (a sample list of stellar reporting from the past four months alone: “My Damn Mind,” “I Thought I Knew You,” “Anatomy of Doubt“). Savage seems to almost automatically equate a drive towards revenue or audience growth with an immediate straying away from the public good — which is a viewpoint that’s not only simplistic, but also counterintuitive to the entire enterprise of helping to build a more informed public.

The second part is considerably more troubling. The thing that’s most striking to me about Savage’s whole deal is this: Here we have a public radio station that seems to not only fail to recognize who its natural friends are, but one that is lashing out at potential allies — a state of affairs that isn’t great for a system that thrives on cohesion and solidarity.

This whole business would be one thing if all we’re seeing is a brash decision made by a small public radio station — operating with few resources within the 236th-largest market size in the country, as Savage himself noted in the comments — even though, yes, the station represents a view held by a number of other, similarly under-resourced public radio station. But it’s incredibly important to note that Savage is a member of NPR’s board of directors, and that he actively brings this thinking into those meetings and could well complicate efforts to strengthen the core over there.

Let’s pause a second. It’s important to note that Savage’s decision comes chiefly out of fear — a concern for its own existence, for whether the shifting conditions will leave it to wither and die. I understand that. And that fear is especially acute when you’re small; indeed, when you’re small, a lot of things seem scary. But the way to survive isn’t to shrink inwards and struggle for the status quo. The way to survive is the same as it has always been: to continuously embrace new ways of doing things, new political realities, new balances of power.

I’m trying to be sympathetic here, but it’s really hard not to read this as anything but a scenario where a station is making a principled stand for its own existence at the expense of the mission it purports to serve. Perhaps, as I’ve done in the past, it’s worth asking whether many of the stations that make up the public radio system — all of which were created at a very different point in history with very different technological realities — are still the right entities to carry out its mission.

Meanwhile, Nieman Lab has a great interview with NPR One’s Tamar Charney on what’s been up with the app. (Spoiler alert: There are hamsters.) Also, this week’s Frederic Filloux column over at Monday Note seems particularly pertinent to this hullabaloo: “Fossilized culture, not lack of funding, put news media on deathwatch.”

To everyone reading this who isn’t really into the whole public radio thing: Sorry about that.

Responses to dynamic ad insertion concerns. Last week, I published a few concerns held by Collin Willardson, who heads up marketing over at Mack Weldon, about the changes that dynamic ad insertion brings to podcast advertising. Joel Withrow, director of product over at Panoply (my old day job employer), was kind enough to address some of those issues.

His reply was pretty long, so I posted it in full over in this Google Doc, but here’s the essential paragraph:

Podcast ad sales are undergoing a big change — one of steadily increased scale, better technology, and professionalization. Our growing pains focus on ad insertion because the technology behind it should be held to a higher standard, so that we don’t mess things up for listeners or advertisers. While giving podcasters access to the best reporting and sales opportunities out there, the best platforms will keep ceding total creative control over every minute of the episode, ads included, to the creators. If we do that, any given show’s migration to ad insertion should be inaudible.

Cool.

Bites:

  • In other Radiotopia news, the 10 finalists for their Podquest competition have been locked in. They were informed last week. Watch out for more developments on this front as the weeks roll on.
  • Wondery, the new L.A.-based podcast network launched by former Fox executives Hernan Lopez and Jeffrey Glaser, announced three additions to its roster last week: Radio Drama Revival, The Cleansed, and Ruby: Adventures of A Galactic Gumshoe. That last show comes out of ZBS, an audio drama-oriented nonprofit founded by Thomas Lopez, who was recently profiled on All Things Considered.
  • Two weeks after publicly announcing its arrival, Pineapple Street Media makes its first hire: Bari Finkel, who has previously worked on Radiolab, the upcoming Radiolab spinoff, and the Panoply Custom team.
  • “Apple updates iTunes with a ‘simpler’ design that doesn’t really help.” (The Verge)
  • “How Monocle found money in radio.” (Digiday)

Like it or not, audio is entering the Content Wars. How do we navigate that fight?

“This isn’t about arguing who’s right or wrong,” writes Federico Viticci, a technology blogger who publishes on his own independently operated site, Mac Stories. “It’s about recognizing the divergence of needs and opinions in an industry that, in many ways, is still in its formative years.”

That, in a nutshell, sums up where we are right this second in the podcast community. On the one hand, you have a set of professionalizing, ambitious podcast companies pushing for better data analytics, discovery, and revenue opportunities — gripes that should be familiar if you read this column with any frequency — in their pursuit for maturity and considerable growth. And on the other hand, you have a grassroots population which has thus far enjoyed a version of the open internet, one that results from a delicate balance of power facilitated by the medium’s relative niche status up until this point.

At stake in the tension between these two camps is, frankly, the fate of the medium’s future. (How dramatic! How lovely.)

It’s a story as old as content. But let’s start from the beginning.

Over the weekend, The New York Times published a spicy article by John Herrman — a media critic-savant who wrote the excellent “Content Wars” column when he was a staffer at The Awl —  about the relationship between the emerging podcast industry and Apple, which at this point still commands an outsized measure of influence over the space, and how those relationship dynamics define the current state that the professionalizing podcast industry finds itself in.

I highly recommend reading the whole thing, obviously, and there are so many nuances baked into the report, but the two key elements I want to focus on to get to the heart of this narrative are the following:

(1) The article paints a picture of a professionalizing and ambitious industry frustrated by the limits of its dependencies on Apple’s infrastructure, which still maintains its outsized influence on the space. The article interprets Apple as an indifferent steward of a podcast ecosystem that exists at the fringes of the company’s operational focus — a state of affairs that may be shifting, by the way, following reports that suggest an increasing shift in focus toward services (see this Wall Street Journal article, and also this Bloomberg article on Apple Music) — and it chiefly illustrates this by exploring how the team that curates the iTunes promotions page, one of the very few reliable drivers for discovery and marketing in the space, is remarkably small and largely managed by one individual. (Hey Steve!)

(2) The heart of the piece is as follows: “The question for podcasters — and for Apple — is about what comes next,” Herrman writes. “Apple has at least two obvious choices: to rush to accommodate an industry that is quickly outgrowing its origins, or to let podcasting be, at the risk of losing its claim over a medium that owes its very name to the company.”

The piece is, by and large, consistent with my own reading of the space, and I say this with full awareness that my coverage and focus has always been on the podcast companies, entities, and individuals that are agitating against the status quo for the purposes of growth.

That distinction is notable, because the article drew criticism from the grassroots layer of the ecosystem. The critique principally came from Marco Arment, the creator of the relatively well-known podcasting app Overcast and something of an elder statesman for the older end of the podcast ecosystem. (Arment is also an angel investor in Gimlet, curiously enough.)

Writing on his blog, Arment expresses a deep skepticism of podcast entities advocating for more data and involvement from Apple. He argues that, in their endeavors to further grow their businesses, these agitating companies will end up compelling changes that fundamentally compromise the open nature of the medium. Apple would take control over a previously open ecosystem, and all of this would lead to the creation of a “data economy” that deleteriously commoditizes the entire space. The medium would naturally shift to a state that shuts out independent creators forever. Arment’s critique is, essentially, an argument of the slippery slope variety.

“Podcasting has been growing steadily for over a decade and extends far beyond the top handful of public-radio shows,” Arment argues. “Their needs are not everyone’s needs, they don’t represent everyone, and many podcasters would not consider their goals an ‘advancement’ of the medium.”

I’ve been tracking this entire conversation since the very second that the Times piece dropped, and I’m still struggling to find my own position on this. (It’s hard to form a take in such a short period of time, and I imagine my feelings will go through several iterations.)

But frankly, I’m torn.

On the one hand, I am thoroughly invested in seeing podcasts grow, mature, and further professionalize into a Big, Big Industry. I’d like this industry to grow to a point where it can command high and reliable revenue margins and generate high volumes of employment opportunities for creative audio professionals (not everybody can be self-employed and run a small, independent shop). I’d like the industry to wield cultural influence and become capable of tremendous impact. And I simply don’t believe any of that is possible — at least, it’s incredibly difficult, a factor that I’d argue influences the industry’s financial accessibility — without much of what the professionalizing podcast entities are pushing for.

I just don’t buy the notion of retaining the podcast’s RSS 2.0 roots and the black box nature of its knowability… like, I get the romance and nostalgia of it, I just think that’s really regressive.

At the same time, I have my own background concerns over whether the podcast companies that will grow to constitute Big Podcasting — Gimlet, Panoply, Midroll — will collectively drive the ecosystem to a state that reductively commoditizes the form and freezes out independents. (Those ad loads, they keep getting heavier and heavier. I see you.) And I do very much want to retain a relatively open podcast environment (no matter how conditional that openness is) where crazy shit like The Worst Idea Of All Time can still have a shot at an audience, no matter how small the chance of discovery.

Indeed, the tension between the two communities with very separate needs and beliefs that share the same infrastructure is very real. It’s podcasts-as-blogs versus podcasts-as-future of radio, it’s the independents versus the corporate. But whatever happens with Apple, we’re going to have to confront this question. The push toward professionalization is fully underway. As Herrman put it succinctly in a series of tweets: “Whether or not Apple encourages it, online audio will develop beyond current infrastructure… Anyway, I understand horror at the industrialization of a creative medium. Participants I talked to think it’s coming one way or another. So the question *right now* is: by apple’s hand, or someone else’s. These conversations should sound familiar!”

The question is, then: Can we cultivate a media universe that can effectively and simultaneously support two very, very different kinds of communities without compromising the integrity and efforts of each?

It’s not a matter of whether we will see audio float into the Content Wars, it’s a matter of how we navigate that fight. Yes, the way forward opens up a universe of potential horrors: atrocious advertising ad experiences, advertising fraud (which already happens, by the way), excessively invasive tracking mechanisms that grossly compromise personal privacy, and so on.

But what the hell: you can’t make an omelet without cracking open a few skulls, and you can’t get the great without running the risk of getting the very, very bad. Things will change — things always change — but there will be new balances of power to find. And maybe it’s naive, but I believe there absolutely can be a future that’s better for every one of us.

Two more quick things:

  • The Times article had a particularly interesting news hook: Late last month, seven “leading podcast professionals” were reportedly invited to Apple to air their grievances for a collection of employees. According to a source who was present, that group was a mix between newer, enterprising Big Podcast companies and folks from what can only be described as the “older guard.” My source also mentioned that there were no representatives from public radio.
  • Some perspective from friend-of-the-newsletter Joseph Fink, who tweeted me the following: “I was interviewed for that article, but guess my response of ‘Yeah I dunno, it’s all pretty much fine’ wasn’t interesting.”

Measured. Time now for someone much smarter than me to weigh in. I recently asked Andrew Kuklewicz, chief technology officer at PRX, to talk a bit about his vision for some sort of middle ground in requests for increased data granularity. He writes:

There’s data, and there’s creepy data. I want to know what anonymous people actually play and hopefully hear. We don’t need to fall down the creepy, slippery, slope and get names, blood types, or shoe sizes. We can survive without this, but it’s easier to sell new sponsors on audience numbers that resemble reality rather than shared fictions.

I don’t know what others are asking for, but I’m not looking for Apple to extend their store model to podcasts. Even if they did, I expect and hope it would be one option among many built on podcasting. I also value the openness of podcasting, with its underlying standards, but standards progress when there is competition fueling innovation. As web browsers got better with competition, so did their standards. I want podcasting to do the same — progress made with competition on products and content, but cooperation on open standards, platforms, and measures.

It will be messy, messier than a benevolent monopoly, but I also agree with keeping independence over ceding control to buy simplicity.

One important footnote on data and listening metrics: Doc Searls, the furthest thing from a sell-out when it comes to privacy and people owning their data, has pushed for an idea where people should own their own listening data, and share with whom they choose. Most great ideas are tried a few times before they take off (e.g., “six degrees” before Facebook), maybe six years later we should give Listen Log another go.

Sweet.

Designing an elections podcast for the non-wonk. If you’re launching an elections podcast, man, I don’t envy you. It’s one of the most saturated podcast genres in the market right now, a state of affairs not unrelated to the fact that there’s a U.S. presidential election going on and it’s all been absolute bonkers.

A sample list of elections pods, which has considerably grown since the last time I discussed political pods: the NPR Politics podcast, the FiveThirtyEight Elections podcast, Politico’s 2016 Nerdcast, Mic and The Economist’s Special Relationship, Slate’s longtime stalwart Political Gabfest and the topically driven Trumpcast, MTV News’ The Stakes, The New Republic’s “Primary Concerns, Vox’s The Weeds (occasionally; the show largely sticks to policy), The Ringer’s Keepin’ It 1600 (featuring former Obama staffers Jon Favreau and Dan Pfeiffer, no less), The Huffington Post’s Candidate Confessional, Futuro Media Group’s In the Thick, The Pollsters, and so on.

(For the record: I listen to a bunch of these, largely because…well, it’s my job, for one thing, and also because I’m just a very curious foreign person despite my inability to actually vote. But man, I can’t even begin to imagine how any discerning voter should choose from this pile.)

Into the fray walks No One Knows Anything, a new political podcast from BuzzFeed. No One Knows Anything is the company’s sixth podcast overall, and the last show launched before Jenna Weiss-Berman, BuzzFeed’s director of audio, left the company to launch her own podcast venture. It also has the distinction of being the first in BuzzFeed’s pod roster that actively draws from talent and material from its news desk. Anchored by BuzzFeed politics reporter Evan McMorris-Santoro, the show aims to distinguish itself from the gabfest-style horse race roundup pod formats of its competitors, choosing instead to tell larger stories about the election.

I recently talked to Meg Cramer, who produces the show (and who previously worked at APM’s Marketplace), and asked her a bunch of questions about the show’s design, podcast structures more broadly, and miscellaneous production-related things. Here are excerpts from our chat:

On process. “We’re on a weekly production schedule. We do it a little differently every time. We don’t script the show…we have very, very light scripting, and what we do instead is, like, we have a loose structure, we go into the studio, Evan and his guest host will move through the structure and hit every point, riff if they want to, usually beforehand we have the ‘found sound’ audio planned out. So if we know that we have a supercut of people saying “Trump will never get elected,” I’ll be in the studio cuing that up and they’ll react to the cut in real time. And then we put the tracking together with all the interviews in whatever order they happen in, listen to a rough cut of the episode, and then do an edit altogether, and then go back and do pickups.”

On the structure of the show. “There are lots of things that you can refer to when you talk about structure. You can say, ‘every episode we will have this kind of segment,’ or ‘every episode we will do a certain thing.’ And I try really hard to resist that because I think it can be very tempting to give yourself a superstructure when you start a project, and you also learn that your superstructure was maybe a cool idea or a cool concept but it turns out to be very restricting and it doesn’t let you tell certain stories. It winds up being a situation where you’re working for the structure rather than have it work for you.”

On the relationship to the news cycle. “There will be times where we have to speak to the news that’s happening that week, but for the most part, I don’t think that’s what we’re going to do. Because for the most part, that’s what a lot of other political shows do. And we’re trying not to be like a wrap-up show, and we’re trying to tell stories about things that have already happened because we want as much information as we can get when we tell those stories. We don’t want to predict — this is like an anti-prediction show.”

On the show’s target audience. “We’re trying to serve a general news audience with a show about politics, because there are lots of things that serve the political news audience and we’re trying to reach a broader group of people than that. People who are not necessarily political junkies, but who care about their vote. They’re probably going to vote, but they really care about who the next president is going to be and they want to be thoughtful about how they cast their vote.”

On newsroom integration. “I’m interested to learn what it’s like to get a lot of people in a newsroom involved in podcasting. I think places like Slate have their flagships shows where people get to try out being on a show — being a panelist, being a guest — and they get to see if they’re good at it. I think that one thing that I’m really excited about this project is that it’s not going to just be about me and Evan. I’m excited that other people in the newsroom get to try out having a big voice on this platform.”

You can find the pod here.

Reservations over dynamic ad insertion. I haven’t written about dynamic ad insertion in a while, and I really should, because it’s one of the bigger narratives that’s been driving the technology piece of the space for the past year or so.

In case you’re unfamiliar with the concept, podcast hosting platforms that support dynamic ad insertion would allow publishers to easily swap out ad spots within a given podcast episode. This structurally breaks podcasts away from having “baked-in” ads — where they are one with the episode for the rest of time (or the internet, or until somebody replaces the file) — and drives them to a state where the ad inventory of a given episode is dramatically deepened and the friction of ad serving is drastically reduced. It also sets the conditions for tailored advertising experiences like geotargeting and a programmatic audio advertising business to be built somewhere down the line.

To put it another way: money, money, money for publishers. If they can swing it, of course.

It’s a vision of the future that’s renders the podcast space drastically different in its monetization potential compared to whatever’s come before, one that would make podcasts function like the rest of the internet — for good or for bad, we don’t know yet (see the newsletter’s headline item). I imagine it’s being pitched as a win-win situation; advertisers get to more specifically target listeners, and publishers get to squeeze more value out of a given ad slot.

But some advertisers are not without reservations. Advertisers like Mack Weldon, the fancy bright-colored underwear startup, which now dedicates about a quarter of its monthly ad spend to podcast buys.

I recently traded emails with Collin Willardson, Mack Weldon’s marketing manager, about some of his concerns. He listed out three in particular:

  • Firstly, Willardson argued that the imposition of format requirements for dynamic ad insertion support would end up putting a cap on the creative vitality that can go into the ad read. “Our biggest reservation with dynamic ads is that the ad is capped at thirty seconds,” he wrote. “We have found success when the host is allowed to do the read however long they feel best. They’ll know if they get the message across to their listeners, and sometimes they aren’t able to do that in just thirty seconds or less.” (I imagine the thirty-second cap may differ from platform to platform and from show to show depending on how campaigns are sold, but I take his overall point.)
  • Secondly, Willardson touched upon the arbitrage value being lost when ads are no longer permanent — an appealing feature for some buyers. “Another reservation is knowing that our ad will not be there forever,” he argued. “We want to be associated with the show we have chosen carefully, even if you listen to it five years from now. There is something special about being a part of a show that you can listen to and be entertained by five years later, and we want to be a part of that experience.”
  • Finally, Willardson brings up what may well be the fundamental hurdle presented by the technology: the dissolution of the “intimacy” so associated with the media format. “Dynamic ad insertion disassociates the host from the advertiser, so they care less about the actual product or brand they’re trying to sell. Audiences pick up on that, and quickly tune out. On a medium with a built-in fifteen-second skip button, a thirty-second ad is too easily never heard,” he wrote.

I’ve been hearing variations of these concerns from a few advertisers — all of which are direct response advertisers relatively new to the medium — over the past few weeks. For what it’s worth, I don’t think these reservations are particularly insurmountable or fundamentally detract from the value of dynamic ad insertion technology; rather, my sense that Willardson’s arguments stem from a frustration with the pitches currently being made by podcast publishers.

Bites:

  • The worst kept NPR pod secret is finally out: the Code Switch podcast will launch May 31. In case you’re unfamiliar, Code Switch is NPR’s FABULOUS blog that covers stories on race, ethnicity, and culture. The pod is going to be hosted by Gene Demby (who also hosts the Post-Bourgie pod) and Shereen Marisol Meraji. I, for one, am extremely excited about this.
  • Eleanor Kagan is BuzzFeed’s new director of audio. She produces Another Round, and will continue doing in addition to developing new projects. (Twitter)
  • Katelyn Bogucki, who has until this point headed up the Huffington Post’s podcast operation, is heading over to Gimlet, where she joins the company’s creative team.
  • “From out of nowhere, the U.S. Energy Department launches a great podcast.” (The Verge)

This version of Hot Pod has been adapted for gentle Nieman Lab-reading eyes. For the full stuff, you can subscribe to the main newsletter here. The mother version has more news, analysis, material. And you can support the work done on Hot Pod by becoming a member. More information on the website.

A new podcast power is formed, on Pineapple Street

Pineapple Street Media. “Our operating philosophy is: Everybody’s still trying to figure out this shit,” said Max Linsky, quite matter-of-factly. “All this stuff changes so quickly. We’re not going to go in and say, ‘This is the exact format we’re going to use, this is the exact person we need to use.’ We’re going to be very involved in figuring out all of that.”

It’s Thursday morning, and I’m in one of those bunker-like, poorly-lit Manhattan coffee shops sitting with Linsky, the cofounder of Longform.org and cohost of its eponymous podcast, along with his new business partner, Jenna Weiss-Berman. That’s the Jenna Weiss-Berman, who until recently was the director of audio at BuzzFeed, where she built out the company’s audio division and launched its first slate of podcasts, including the very popular Another Round. (News of her departure was officially circulated this morning.)

Weiss-Berman and Linsky are talking about the new venture they’re launching, the whimsically-named Pineapple Street Media, which will be in the business of developing podcasts for clients. They’re telling me about inquiries they’ve both received in recent months — how numerous companies were interested in starting their own podcast divisions, how those companies had been asking for help to develop shows, and how for the most part they’ve been unable to directly assist them.

“We’re trying to build something where we can say yes,” Weiss-Berman said.

The duo is starting out with a strong list of clients, all publishers of a sort: Lenny Letter (foreshadowed in this Nieman Lab writeup), the advertising agency Wieden+Kennedy’s publishing division, and most notably, The New York Times. They hinted at a few other major clients in the pipeline, but those partners have yet to be confirmed.

The Times partnership might be of particular interest to Hot Pod readers, given the paper’s recent announcement that it was building out its own in-house audio team. According to Weiss-Berman and Linsky, they’re only on contract to develop one show for the Gray Lady at this point.

“We’re big fans of the shows that Jenna and Max have created, and are excited about them helping to unleash a similar spirit and voice from New York Times personalities,” wrote Samantha Henig, the editorial director for the Times’ new audio unit, when I reached out for a statement. “We are continuing our hunt for an executive producer to oversee all of our new audio projects, including what we create with Pineapple Street. But given the enthusiasm and momentum here, we’re eager to start piloting some of the ideas we’ve been tossing around so that we’re ready to roll once we have the EP in place.”

This arrangement with the Times is indicative of the kind of work that will probably make up the bulk of Pineapple Street Media’s docket. Weiss-Berman and Linsky told me that they expect to work with a lot of companies with nascent audio divisions. They also made it a point to emphasize their flexibility as a company, a trait that will extend to their business model. “It’s going to be a slightly different scenario with each company. Some arrangements are going to involve rev shares, some are going to involve flat fees,” Linsky said.

Also notable: Pineapple Street Media will be developing its own shows. “Making original stuff is a big part of why we’re doing this,” Weiss-Berman said. She told me that Women of the Hour, the Lena Dunham-hosted podcast she produced that came out late last year is now a Pineapple Street Media show. That show was cobranded with BuzzFeed across its first season.

This all sounds like the prototypical origin story at the heart of every upstart: a plucky band of cofounders encounter a problem, identify a solution to that problem within themselves, and then form a business to capitalize on the opportunity — with hopes to drag in a few boatloads of cash along the way. And that all appears more or less the case for Weiss-Berman and Linsky. But what strikes me as significant is how relatively restrained they seem to be — in how they talk about their new venture, in their reading of the space, and in their understanding of what they’re bringing to the market. Granted, they still spoke with the swagger of people who know just exactly how good they are at what they do (well, more she than he; “I’m mostly riding Jenna’s coattails,” Linsky said), but it’s a confidence that’s noticeably tempered with the wariness of two seasoned operatives fully cognizant of the unpredictability that tomorrow brings.

Though, between the substance of their track record and the depth of their Rolodexes, perhaps they probably shouldn’t too wary. Weiss-Berman is something of a renowned figure among certain circles in the public radio and podcasting industry; based on my conversations across the industry, it’s hard to overstate just how deeply respected (and connected) she is. And though he’s not natively of the audio world, Linsky’s Longform podcast, a popular interview show that features a murderer’s row of journalists as guests (Ta-Nehisi Coates! Margaret Sullivan! Brooke Gladstone!) — of which I am a huge fan — surely serves as an indication of his consistency and access. Also worth noting: Linsky developed Brownscast, the Cleveland Browns insider podcast that I wrote about a few months ago, which to my mind represents a kind of premium sponsored-content material that Pineapple Street Media can tap into further.

It’s still very early days for Pineapple Street Media. Weiss-Berman and Linsky haven’t yet thought about which technology platforms to work with — though they mentioned that they wouldn’t be surprised if such arrangements change based on project needs — and they’re still in the process of hiring their first producers. On that topic, Weiss-Berman was adamant on a few things. “We have strong values around the company we’re building,” she said. “We want to pay people well, and we will always pay interns. That’s the only way we’re going to build a diverse company.”

(Hear, hear!)

Weiss-Berman’s last day at BuzzFeed is May 10. As for Linsky, he assures me that Longform will continue operation while he pursues this new venture. You can find the company on their new website.

BuzzFeed Audio. Jenna Weiss-Berman’s departure from the company comes accompanied by news of another exit: Heben Nigatu, one of the two hosts of Another Round, is leaving the company to join the staff at The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. “After three and a half years at BuzzFeed, my journey here is up,” Nigatu tweeted last Thursday. “It’s been an incredible ride and I really appreciate y’all rockin with me.”

This puts the future of the show in some question, but according to Eleanor Kagan, the show’s producer, it’s business as usual for the immediate future.

“We’re so, so proud of Heben and can’t wait to see what fantastic things she’ll make next,” Kagan wrote when I reached out for comment. “As for the future of Another Round, we’re working on ways that we can keep it going because we believe in it, love making it, and love the community it’s created. As Heben settles into her new job, we’ll work on finding the best way to do the show with her schedule. We’re excited to continue the work we’ve been doing, and new episodes aren’t stopping any time soon.”

Nigatu’s cohost, Tracy Clayton, was similarly optimistic. “Though I will be wearing black for the foreseeable future and am currently working on a cut-out Michael Jordan Cry Face mask to wear for the rest of my life, I am completely ecstatic for my sister and thrilled to see all the amazing things she is sure to do,” she wrote. “I’m also really, really excited to continue collaborating and working together to give you more of the best stuff ever.”

Meanwhile, the company hasn’t announced who will replace Weiss-Berman as the new director of audio, though they are expected to do so very soon. In any case, the #podsquad continues to chug along; they recently launched No One Knows Anything, a politics show that adopts a news magazine format. (We’ll talk about that next week, hopefully. News magazines, guys!) It’s BuzzFeed’s sixth podcast overall, though that number will drop down to five once Women of the Hour shuffles off to Pineapple Street.

I wish everybody involved — those who depart, those who stay, those who will come on board — the absolute best of luck.

Notes on collaborations. Last week brought word of a new podcast that comes out of a partnership between Mic and the Economist — two media brands that couldn’t be further apart from each other in my mind, but whatever I’m all for unexpected bedfellows, so more power to ya’. Anyway, that podcast, Special Relationship, aims to cover the 2016 U.S. presidential elections from an international perspective. It is also, interestingly enough, the latest in a growing list of podcasts that emerge from collaborations between two different media companies.

A sample list of such duets: Actuality from American Public Media and Quartz, Codebreaker from American Public Media and Tech Insider, Modern Love from The New York Times and WBUR, and The Awards Show Show from KPCC’s The Frame and Vulture.

These partnerships have caught the attention of a number of Hot Pod readers. Over the past few weeks, several folks have written me asking for how these collaborations work in practice. I’m sure the flow works really differently between each show, but just to get some flavor into this, I reached out to the teams at Special Relationship, Actuality, and Codebreaker asking for some process stories.

Special Relationship. “It’s really a joint effort across the board,” wrote Caitlyn Carpanzano, a spokesperson for Mic. “Our policy team is working very closely with The Economist’s editorial team to determine themes of each episode, we’re pulling in guest voices from both newsrooms. There is, of course, a good amount of coordination that goes into taping the episodes as Mic will tape in New York and The Economist tapes in London.”

In terms of coordinating production, Mic’s side of the equation is handled by John Lagomarsino, a senior post producer at the company who previously worked on the video team at The Verge. (He also cohosts his own music podcast on the side, Tuner.) Lagomarsino produces the audio, and runs point on the scripting process. The Economist’s side is coordinated by Frank Andrejasich, a product manager for the publication’s new product development department who is based in Brooklyn.

Actuality and Codebreaker. “Our editorial collaboration is pretty deep on this one,” wrote Sitara Nieves, referring to Actuality. Nieves is senior producer of Marketplace, though she also works on Actuality and has some knowledge on the process over at the Codebreaker team. “From the hosts (Sabri Ben Achour from Marketplace and Tim Fernholz from Quartz) to the feedback that comes from both teams on a periodic basis. The brain trust is shared across Quartz and Marketplace, though the production resource is largely provided by Marketplace. The sales teams work together to sell digital underwriting for the podcast and the marketing teams have worked together as well.”

“Tech Insider and Codebreaker looks a little different,” Nieves continued. “Though there are editorial conversations up front between our production team and a colleague at Tech Insider, we largely drive the editorial content. This is largely the brainchild of host Ben Johnson and he drives a lot of the approach to the podcast. Ben and the production team work with a colleague at TI during preproduction of each season to establish ideas about how reporters there can work with Ben on stories they’re thinking about.”

She went on to mention that Tech Insider handled distribution of Codebreaker through its website, producing “ancillary blog posts” for each episode that features animated videos to pull readers into the podcast.

Maximum placement. Did anybody catch the bonus Judge John Hodgman episode that dropped last Friday? The 44-minute episode, which was released outside its typical weekly publishing schedule, was a fascinating piece of advertising integration with the car company Chevrolet. The actual content saw no diversions from the typical format of the show — a sort of absurdist Judge Judy adjudicating the tiny horrors of everyday things (for the most part) — but the episode did feature a distinct automotive-related theme, an editorial choice that followed from the Chevrolet sponsorship.

That bonus sponsored episode bears some similarities to the four-part sponsored series published by the Cracked podcast last November. That run, which was a campaign by GE, also kept the general structure of that podcast firmly in place, but it also involved whole segments that appear to feature GE employees as call-in experts. (Of course, that integration was overshadowed by the other GE podcast advertising campaign that took place that month — the short-run science fiction audio drama series The Message, which was produced by Panoply and remains the weird/successful podcast advertising initiative of record.)

It’s also worth noting the Chevrolet podcast spot isn’t the first of its kind for Maximum Fun, the network that oversees Judge John Hodgman. Last summer, the network’s popular comedy podcast My Brother, My Brother, and Me ran a bonus sponsored episode that was far more ambitious in its creativity…and in the way it pushed against certain boundaries. The sponsor in question was Totino’s Pizza Rolls, and the episode saw the show’s hosts — Griffin, Justin, and Travis McElroy — stretch 45 minutes out exclusively discussing and answering questions about the microwavable meal.

It’s as surreal as you think it is, but that episode was also an example of a podcast having its cake and eating it too, advertorially speaking. In a Splitsider article lauding the episode, the critic Nathan Rabin wrote: “In an astonishing turn of events, this was not solely a hilariously meta parody of product placement and what it known as ‘native advertising’; it also doubled as a brilliant exercise in product placement and native advertising.”

The question at the heart of all of this, of course, is the extent to which advertising campaigns of this nature can be replicated enough to become an actual strategy, and whether they can fit into a podcast advertising environment where dynamic ad insertion and programmatic audio advertising are expected to become the norm for the purposes of scale. For the record, I don’t think this kind of campaigns will be anything more than one-off novelties; the onus, then, is on the networks to make sure these special campaigns are priced way through the roof.

Related reading: “Where Brands and Comedy Meet: The Weird World of ‘Native Marketing,'” from Katelyn Best on Splitsider. Also, “Big Corporate Sponsors Could Change Podcasting Forever” over at Wired, completely annihilating with the hyperboles.

Bites:

  • Audible launches one of its first original programs under Eric Nuzum’s tenure, “Presidents Are People Too.” (Twitter)
  • Looks like parts of SoundCloud were down for about three days, causing sporadic download and streaming shortages for podcasts hosted on the platform. The official reason is site maintenance; for the record, the RSS feeds went down late Saturday night, and was back up again early Monday morning. (Soundcloud blog)
  • The Memory Palace’s Nate DiMeo, who is a lot taller than I thought he was, is now the artist-in-residence at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Gonna write this up more extensively next week. (The New York Times)
  • Last Thursday, Quartz’s Amy Wang commemorated iTunes’ 13th birthday with a post on how it’s still pretty awful. (Quartz)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Four takes here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Relevant bits:

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

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

Decoding what makes a podcast a hit on the iTunes charts

Edison Research: Monthly podcast consumption surges. More than 1 in 5 Americans report having listened to a podcast within the past month, according to data teased in a new blog post by Edison Research. Specifically, 21 percent of Americans (an estimated 57 million) report having done so, representing a pretty significant jump from 2015, which saw 17 percent of surveyed Americans reporting that behavior. In 2014, that number was 15 percent, so growth seems to be accelerating.

Another sweet way to cut it: Monthly American podcast consumption grew about 24 percent between 2015 and 2016. Don’t you just love stats?

It’s certainly an encouraging data point for all who are enthusiastic about podcasts as the future of radio/audio/blogging. And I’m certainly tempted to think that we’re finally seeing evidence of tangible widescale conversions from all the buzz and hype that podcasting enjoyed last year.

A plausible counterargument is as follows: Is this number a true reflection of solid, genuine, sustainable consumer acquisition (and retention) across the medium, or does it more represent a period where listeners are merely testing out the format? That question, to some extent, is irrelevant for two reasons. First, it’s a question with no meaningful immediate answer, because the process is still playing itself out. And second, the number itself is an influencing factor — as a positive public indicator that fuels for the industry’s vision and presentation of itself, one imagines that countless folks out to build new businesses within the medium will use this statistic in a pitch deck, playing out a fulfillment of their own prophecy.

Which is all to say: This data point is very good, and I’m going to call my mum and tell her I didn’t screw up my life joining this industry. Cool? Cool.

Anyway, Edison’s data point here is excerpted from the much larger Infinite Dial 2016 study, scheduled to be released later this week. The study comes out a partnership between Edison Research and Triton Digital, a digital audio technology and advertising company. I’ll write it up on next week’s Hot Pod.

Midroll tightens its brand. Scripps-owned Midroll Media is sunsetting its Wolfpop podcast network this week. Wolfpop was previously branded as Midroll’s pop culture-oriented owned-and-operated content arm curated by comedian Paul Scheer — as opposed the company’s flagship comedy-oriented Earwolf brand. (Yeah, it’s a little confusing, which is probably why we’re seeing this consolidation, I imagine).

Ten out of Wolfpop’s 13 podcasts will now live under the Earwolf umbrella. The three shows that will not continue their relationships with Midroll are Rotten Tomatoes, Picking Favorites, and Off Camera with Sam Jones. The company also announced that Hello From the Magic Tavern, a well loved and utterly weird podcast previously supported by the Chicago Podcast Cooperative, is joining the network.

Midroll chief content officer Chris Bannon made these announcements on the Earwolf forums yesterday, citing that “this change is a way for us to make Earwolf a bigger, better, and more inclusive network.”

I reached out to Bannon, who previously served as WNYC’s vice president of content development and production, and asked whether we’d be seeing any news programming coming out of Earwolf anytime soon. “I’ll certainly be taking a hard look at what we can contribute to our listeners’ needs for smart news programming,” he wrote back. “Right now, it feels as though many of the newsmakers are venturing pretty deeply into the comedy space, though. We will have announcements on the news front soon.”

Coy, Bannon. Very coy.

This development was foreshadowed by a job posting that the company put up last week, which contained the following self-description:

This group, led by our VP of Business Development, identifies and brings aboard great new podcasts and creators for all three of our major lines of business: Midroll, the leader in podcast ad sales; Earwolf, our owned & operated podcast network; and Howl, our premium audio subscription service.

In related Midroll news: the company has also hired Jenny Radelet, who previously served as executive media producer for the launch of Apple’s Beats 1 service, as the managing editor for Howl, the company’s subscription service. She started work yesterday.

Limited-run local journalism. This week, WNYC will kick off There Goes the Neighborhood, a limited-series podcast that’ll explore the topic of gentrification in Brooklyn. I personally get all my New York-related gentrification news from The Awl, but I’m intrigued to see that the show is produced in partnership with The Nation — another example of the swell of collaborations between audio companies and existing publications (see WBUR’s Modern Love, WNYC’s New Yorker Radio Hour, KPCC’s recently concluded The Awards Show Show, and the majority of Panoply’s operating model). The show will run for eight episodes and is hosted by Kai Wright, The Nation’s features editor.

There Goes the Neighborhood is notable to me for two reasons. First, it looks to be a strong piece of local journalism, something I don’t get to see very much of in Podcastland. Sure, it’s local to New York, perhaps the most saturated media market in the world, but still. Secondly, it’s the first major audio project that features the involvement of Rebecca Carroll, who joined WNYC last October as a producer of special projects about race in New York City.

“I’m here to generate ideas,” Carroll told me last Friday, when I asked about her role within the station. “We’re experiencing a moment right now in American culture where our most famous public intellectual is Ta-Nehisi Coates, where we have the #BlackLivesMatters movement, Black Twitter, and an election that comes down to the black vote. It’s a moment where blackness and black culture is being listened to, and my aim is to wrest that moment and harness it in a way that can be fanned back out into the most creative, innovative, interesting life-changing way.”

There Goes The Neighborhood is scheduled to debut tomorrow, March 9. A teaser for the show is up already.

An indie label comes alive. Night Vale Presents, the new indie podcast label — that’s what I’m calling it, guys, just roll with it, come on — founded by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, the creators of the wildly popular Welcome to Night Vale podcast, is publishing its first title today. The show, Alice Isn’t Dead, is an audio drama written by Fink, and it’s scheduled to play out across 10 biweekly episodes.

Alice is, in a lot of ways, quintessential Night Vale. It shares its predecessor’s particular brand of creepiness — that is, juxtaposing the banal with thick, slabs of horror — and, like Night Vale, Alice displays Fink’s fascination with Americana. Where Night Vale is a love letter to small-town America, Alice is a meditation on the expansive, desolate imagery of the desert highways that make up the vast middle of the country. I’ve heard cuts of the first two episodes, and I really, really like ’em.

Night Vale Presents was conceived out a logistical necessity. Fink and Cranor had wanted to develop more projects beyond their core show, and built Night Vale Presents to be a framework that supports them. “We don’t have any plans to try to grow it into an empire or start taking tech funding or any of that,” Fink told me over email. “What we do hope to do is keep making new podcasts, both our own and works by other artists who haven’t worked in the podcast space before.”

On iTunes, part one. So, the most common inquiry I get from Hot Pod readers overwhelmingly comes in the form of a gripe: How, exactly, do the iTunes charts work? (The second most common inquiry, for the curious: How much does so-and-so make? That’s…I don’t know what to say about that. Leaving that for another day.)

It’s a question I try to stay away from, for a simple reason: I don’t think it’s something that should be fixated upon. Sure, 70 percent of podcast listening happens through iTunes or the native iOS Podcasts app (or so we’re told — it’s impossible to verify, frankly, given the immature state of podcast measurement). But there are many, many other avenues for podcast creators to reach potential new audiences that haven’t been adequately utilized, including basic stuff like search and social. And it benefits the medium as a whole if more creators leaned harder into non-iTunes avenues. Think about it: Attempts to convert audiences through the iTunes platform is a play to win already well worn, probably maxed-out podcast audiences, and if every podcast creator assumes a strategy with iTunes — the platform in general, the charts in specific — at the core, then every podcast creator is essentially competing for the very same pool of ears.

So that’s where my head was at. But the more I thought about it, the more I felt that there may something to be gained by really thinking through the theory and context of the iTunes charts, and asking the question: How do the charts shape the space? But in order to do that, I’d first have to try to understand how they work in the first place.

Which is exactly what I’ve been trying to do over the past couple of weeks.

At this point, I’m going to lay down two core hypotheses, and I’m going to argue for their theoretical fidelity by disclosing that they’re informed by a combination of these things: a survey I recently ran among Hot Pod newsletter subscribers (I pulled 18 representative responses that you can view here), conversations with many, many, many podcast creators, stuff published by other podcast folks who have conferred with iTunes reps in the past, and drawing from my own experience with my old day-job employer. iTunes reps, understandably, declined to publicly comment.

My hypotheses are as follows:

1. The charts are particularly biased towards new subscriptions, and to some extent interactions with the iTunes link and engagements through reviews. Which makes sense: iTunes, like Facebook and every other platform that actively benefits from keeping users within its ecosystem, is incentivized to maximize engagements. Thus, achieving half a million downloads outside iTunes won’t reward a show as much as getting that same number in iTunes — and so on.

2. The charts are designed chiefly as a discovery tool, and it performs its duty by identifying and rewarding podcasts with a sense of momentum. Thus, what’s rewarded is relative positive change — getting an additional 1,000 interactions on top of a 10,000 interaction base (say, subscriptions) will send you up quicker than an additional 1,000 on top of 100,000. Again, this makes sense: If the charts were designed to display a power ranking of the most successful shows, then the Top 10 placements would simply never change, with the biggest shows standing to just keep getting bigger. And because iTunes is fully incentivized to provide a chart that, well, actually provides value to users to keep them on the platform, they’d need to rely on a discovery mechanism that allows for the top chart placements to constantly change. In a lot of ways, the charts are actually pretty democratic.

These two hypotheses don’t explain the charts in totality (nothing could, really, other than the algorithm-turned-sentient), but I believe them to be strong starting points to understand the charts. In sum: The charts are designed for discovery, but the engine they are built upon are iTunes interactions — and so podcasts move up because they engender more iTunes-driven subscriptions and downloads, because moving up is a form of reward. Once you settle into that, some things begin to make sense. It’s how you get a Disney enthusiast podcast in the top 5 between Serial and Alice Isn’t Dead — as it was positioned at 4 p.m. ET on March 4. It’s also how you get a parodic sports talk radio podcast sitting on the top spot in that same time period, even though it’s only loaded with a preview. (The prescriptive here is fairly clear: if you wanna play the charts game, optimize your marketing for iTunes interactions. Didn’t want to point it out, but what the hell I’ve already gone this far.)

And here’s where we get back to my original query: What effect does this particular chart system have on the podcasting space?

As my inbox suggests, it generates a lot of angst. I’d argue that feeling comes out of an interpretation that the iTunes podcast charts should serve as a mechanism that adequately signals or communicates a podcast’s value or worth. Which is an understandable interpretation to hold because (and here’s where I make a sweeping overgeneralization) charts are typically designed as tools to signal value.

And that’s the thing: That’s not what the iTunes charts is designed to do. It was designed to optimize for engagement on its platform, and not to provide a direct and clear representation of what’s valuable. (Although the rocketing up of a podcast on the charts does indicate a kind of value — it’s just we’re getting a proxy value.) But there’s a strong tendency to read iTunes as a prime arbiter of value because, well, we don’t have anything else.

Absent other means of context or evaluation, a singular chart of this nature leads to a muddled representation of the podcasting landscape, as it renders any act of interpreting relative value between podcasts almost impossible. And this provides a poor feedback loop for podcast creators, because a big part of understanding the health of your show is knowing how it stacks against other shows.

But here’s the other thing: I don’t perceive this as a story about the problem with iTunes — as far as I’m concerned, there is no problem with iTunes, because iTunes gotta iTunes. Rather, it’s a story about the medium’s larger problem of being to know itself, and the fact that the main way the industry does is dependent on a single, and incredible incomplete, point of view.

Okay, so I’m running out of space right now, and I wanted to talk about two more things: how the iTunes charts impact the relationship between podcast creators and advertisers, and what market opportunities are baked into situation. We’ll start with the former next week.

Relevant bits:

  • “How Politico’s ‘Off Message’ Podcast Is Rising Above Site’s Staff Departures.” A winning combination of strong booking…and loose lips. (The Wrap)
  • “No More Car Talk as WBEZ Turns More Airtime over to Podcasts.” Something’s going on at Ben Calhoun’s Navy Pier operation. (Chicago Magazine)
  • And while we’re on the subject of Nick Quah hobby horses: Recode is probably going to continue expanding their podcast offerings. I buzz with excitement. (CNN Money)
  • “Facebook Messenger Adds Music, Starting With Spotify’s Song Sharing.” All the potential around messaging that you’re already excited about, now with more audio! (TechCrunch)
  • Amazon rolls out two alternate versions of their Echo product, including a puck-sized model designed to latch onto non-Amazon speakers and turn them into voice-based gateways to the Internet. In case you’re new to this column, I’m personally very pro-Amazon Echo as far as its potential for non-visual — read: audio-oriented — computing. As a person who’s morbidly afraid of losing his eyesight, I’m all about that. (The Verge)

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