“A step in the right direction,” but “I want more…”: The industry reacts to Apple’s podcast changes

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 124, published June 20, 2017.

Industry responses to the Apple analytics news. Last week’s newsletter was super heavy on my own analysis on the matter, and to balance things out, I’m course-correcting this week with a handy-dandy roundup of some of the more interesting (and, in some cases, telling) reactions from various notable industry folk.

Let’s jump in:

(1) “A lot of indie podcasts already speak to a highly targeted audience, so having this better data gives them more ways to pursue advertising,” Call Your Girlfriend’s Gina Delvac tells Wired. “It’s for people who can’t yet afford the middleman.”

(2) “Analytics. Finally. Industry should embrace, not run from this. Podcast tech is exploding: dynamic ads, data, streaming, scale,” tweeted HowStuffWorks’ Jason Hoch. He adds: “Exciting times to be in the podcast space. From a consumer perspective, Podcasts being treated as equal class citizen w Apps & Music.”

(3) From Norm Pattiz, founder of PodcastOne, when I reached out for comment: “We very much look forward to the release of this new data from Apple. I don’t see how it can be anything but beneficial. Much of what has been indicated is that Apple will be able to confirm and inform about audience and consumption patterns. Though most of that information is available on a number of platforms, having Apple provide further insight and confirmation is nothing but good.”

(4) From Rob Walch, of LibSyn, when reached for comment: “In the end, Apple giving this info will be good for podcasting — they were the only one in a position with enough clout to do this.”

(5) From Chris Morrow, of the Loud Speakers Network, when reached for comment: “I don’t doubt the impact is going to be significant, but do think it will be a while before we start to feel it fully. On a network like Loud Speakers, probably close to 90 percent of the ads are still Direct Response, so the attitude for the foreseeable future will be ‘if it’s not broke, don’t fix it.’ But if six months from now a few big agencies make it clear that they’re going to be buying based on Apple’s new metrics, then we’re going to have to pivot quickly.”

(6) Eric Nuzum, SVP of original content at Audible, hit up my inbox to say that conversations about the value of the new data layer should only be focused around two things: ad validation and editorial feedback. “All the rest: it’s trivia. Not actionable. But like most data, people will overuse, over-examine, and over-literalize. It’s human nature to assume data contains answers. It doesn’t,” he wrote.

(7) From Market Enginuity’s Sarah van Mosel: “This is certainly a step in the right direction. This is what we asked for and I thank the Apple team for hearing and responding to the podcast community. Now I want more… I want to be able to track individual ad campaigns via third party server… on-demand audio ad tags that will work on the Apple Podcast player.”

Of all the responses to the news that I’ve read so far, I find this argument from Tom Webster, he of Edison Research and the Infinite Dial study fame, to be the one that stuck with me the most. Let’s dig into it.

The optimization trap. They say you are what you measure, but what does it mean if you’re not actually in control of what you can measure?

That’s probably the biggest thing I took away from Webster’s post, which he published on Medium over the weekend, though by no means is it the only story here. I highly recommend reading the whole thing to get the full nuance of it, but here’s the basic framework of the argument:

  • The new Apple analytics is a largely positive development for the industry on the whole, even when you account for the various shakeouts, resizing, and resetting of expectations and conduct that it’s going to trigger across the space.
  • However, this development will likely strengthen Apple’s position as the defining metrics-provider for the industry — a state of affairs some have described as a stranglehold, and that should be some cause for concern.
  • Why? Because it doubles down on an ecosystem where publishers will be further incentivized to optimize just for Apple. “Any measurement/ratings system is a game, and the winners aren’t the best operators,” Webster writes. “They are the ones that best play that game, even to the detriment of the medium.” Aside from the garden-variety concerns associated with stacking all your bets on one (opaque, sometimes capricious) horse, there’s a grander downside at play here: while the introduction of Apple’s new analytics might be productive in deepening relationships with a broader set of advertisers, it is nonetheless a development that incentivizes publishers as a class to keep their focus on Apple — therefore constraining the ecosystem very much within Apple’s boundaries.
  • And what do those boundaries mean? As Webster points out, it’s worth keeping in mind that Apple’s consumer base, while very large, is nonetheless still very specific and non-universal in demographic. Which is to say, it isn’t everybody — and deliberately so, to some extent. As such, should the industry be pulled along this dynamic, the podcast industry’s outer boundaries will always be defined (and therefore limited) by those of Apple’s. That, to be sure, is not a good thing.

“I call that ‘the optimization trap’: When we optimize to fit the universe we already have, we make a smaller and smaller universe happier and happier,” Webster concludes. “This is why, although access to enhanced Apple statistics is generally good news for now, the industry cannot and must not stop innovating towards a non-platform-specific measure.”

Webster adds that he holds out hope for NPR’s Remote Audio Data initiative. And what is that, exactly?

Remote Audio Data. It’s a technology initiative to carve out that non-platform-specific measure by setting an open industry standard for publishers and third-party distributors in the space. The initiative was originally conceived long before the Apple news, and in its wake, the enterprise takes on additional gravity. In some ways, you could frame the effort as an opportunity for the industry to wrest a little more control over its narrative back from Apple.

The initiative is being led by National Public Media, the sponsorship arm of NPR. They’re working with Triton Digital to develop the measure, which is being piloted on NPR One at the moment. News of project first appeared publicly earlier this month, with appearances in stories by AdExchanger and Inside Radio from early June.

I reached out to Bryan Moffett, the chief operating officer of NPM, for more details, and he was kind enough to oblige with a blog post-length statement.

“Remote Audio Data is a model for improving podcast listening data,” it began. “The premise is that publishers have a right to know what happens to their content when it’s distributed by third-party platforms.” He goes on to explain some of the technical aspects of how the model would be implemented:

There are two parts to RAD. First, a method for publishers to add metadata to audio files that describes important points in the file. These could be quartile markers for the content, markers for where meaningful content starts and end in an episode, or markers for sponsorships or promotional elements of an episode. Part of the encoded data is a URL where playback platforms should send data events. In this way, everything is self-contained in the file.

The second part is a lightweight way for playback platforms to read this metadata and send pings back to the publishers when those key audio events are heard by a human. The current spec is designed to make this anonymous listening data — no personally identifiable information (PII) is passed. We want to know if a human was listening to our content, not which human.

A lot of this, I should also point out, is contingent on NPM being able to effectively build a coalition of publishers and third-party listening platforms to adopt the model. That, in my mind, would’ve been difficult before the Apple news. Interestingly enough, I suspect there’s a lot more incentive to jump on this boat moving forward. Anyway, the statement touched on this later on:

Right now, we’re working on a second pass at the spec after much discussion with industry stakeholders. Once that version reaches consensus, we hope to build support for RAD across the industry, and bring stakeholders like the IAB and others into the discussion to help.

I followed up to ask Moffett if he viewed Apple’s participation as integral to the initiative’s success. “Not at all,” he wrote back. “It’s just as vital whether Apple participates or not. We still need something to measure listening for the third of our audience not on Apple’s platforms, and that ecosystem is very splintered…If they participate we have the benefit of the same apples-to-apples method across the industry (hopefully!). If they don’t, we at least have comparable metrics we could likely amass together to get at listening.”

You can read Moffett’s whole statement here.

Notes on branded podcasts. While the bulk of the discourse around how the new analytics layer will impact podcast advertising focuses on in-episode ad spots (rightfully so), don’t sleep on the question of how it’s going to impact branded podcasts as well. It’s reasonable to presume that the increased ability to understand in-episode performance of branded podcasts will give advertisers a more tangible idea of whether their highly involved form of content marketing is really building a connection with targeted audiences, giving them even more leverage over the agencies they commission in setting rates and ordering follow-ups. On the flip side, the new analytics layer does have the rather productive side effect of more directly aligning the editorial feedback loop with the branded podcast performance feedback loop, which is interesting.

Here’s a relevant AdWeek article from last week: “Thanks to nearly 8 million downloads, GE remains bullish on branded podcasts.” A key data point from the write-up:

In 2015, GE launched its first branded podcast called The Message under the umbrella of the GE Podcast Theater platform… leading to 4.5 million downloads as of November. After launching a second podcast late last year, the two programs have been downloaded another 3.2 million times in the past seven months and 7.7 million downloads overall.

Hmm. Looks like Life/After didn’t match The Message’s performance after all…

And while we’re on the subject of branded podcasts… Keep an eye on this really interesting piece of execution: On She Goes, a travel podcast for women of color hosted by Call Your Girlfriend’s Aminatou Sow. The show is part of a larger digital platform launched by the ad agency Wieden+Kennedy, and the agency commissioned Pineapple Street Media to produce the podcast.

Gimlet cancels Twice Removed. The celebrity-studded family history podcast hosted by AJ Jacobs will not be coming back for a second season, the company announced in a Facebook post last Friday. “Ultimately, Twice Removed proved too complicated to produce on a consistent basis,” the post read. “As part of our commitment to making the best podcasts possible for our listeners, we decided it was best to sunset Twice Removed, and refocus our efforts on making other great shows.” The podcast only published six episodes during its run. I’m told that all full-time Twice Removed staffers have been reallocated to other projects within the company.

Twice Removed is the fourth Gimlet podcast to be discontinued, following Undone (which cited a tight market for hiring editors as the principle reason), Sampler (which reallocated host Brittany Luse to a new project), and Mystery Show (which was super complicated in a bunch of ways). A fifth, Surprisingly Awesome, was recently restructured and relaunched as a whole new IP, called Every Little Thing. The news comes about two weeks after the company announced it had acquired The Pitch, a Shark Tank-esque business podcast hosted by Josh Muccio. It’s only the second time the company has brought on a show already in the market, the first being Science VS, which Gimlet acquired from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in early 2016.

On Twitter, friend-of-the-newsletter Nick Guy sees this as part of a larger trend for the company that expresses its “seeming willingness to swing for the fences and admit when it doesn’t work.” It’s an entirely plausible read, though I will say my own fixation with this story is one that ties back to my write-up on Gimlet’s acquisition of The Pitch from two weeks ago: what, exactly, constitutes a Gimlet show, and how does that question factor into cancellation decisions? (Apropos of nothing, I’m crossing my fingers for the return of Heavyweight.)

A new resource for Spanish-language producers. This is really cool, and very much needed. Radio Ambulante, the Spanish-language narrative journalism project that recently struck a distribution and marketing deal with NPR, has rolled out a set of online resources in Spanish for aspiring Latin American and Latino producers. Operating under the name “Escuela Radio Ambulante,” the project comes out of a partnership with Transom.org, the beloved online education resource for audio producers, and Hindenburg Systems, the Danish audio editing software company. There will also be paid fellowships associated with the project, offering the opportunity to work with Daniel Alarcon and the Radio Ambulante team to learn the story development process from start-to-end. Applications for that will open up later this year, so keep an eye out.

I’m told that Radio Ambulante CEO Caroline Guerrero developed the project when she was a John S. Knight Fellow at Stanford, and that it’s mostly funded through grants at the moment. You can learn more on the project’s website.

And while we’re on the subject of producer education and support… I hear that applications for AIR’s New Voices Scholarships for 2017 are now open. Go, go, go!

Talent agencies and the podcast industry. It doesn’t take a lot of looking to notice that talent agencies are growing increasingly involved in the podcasting space — not just in brokering deals for the top layer of companies, but also in picking up talent from certain pockets of indie podcast publishers.

But for many producers, indie and otherwise, talent agencies might seem strange and opaque — and that’s even more the case within the context of the budding world of podcasts. So, to get a better sense of what talent agencies do, why they’re increasingly interested in the podcast industry, and what they’re looking for, I traded emails with the very nice Ben Davis, an agent at William Morris Endeavor, one of the largest agencies in the country.

[storybreak]

[conl]Hot Pod: Could you briefly walk me through what you do as an agent at WME?[/conl]

[conr]Ben Davis: An agent’s job is to represent the interests of talent and properties across media — this includes strategizing, sourcing and negotiating deals on a client’s behalf. Through the representation of talent an agent packages projects together, then manages the project’s market to find the best home for it.

I’m an agent in the Digital department at WME. Digital covers several emerging areas within the media industry, and podcasts are a fast (very fast) growing piece of that.[/conr]

[conl]HP: Which podcasts have you worked with?[/conl]

[conr]Davis: Some of the podcasts I’ve worked with are:

Freakonomics Radio; Tell Me Something I Don’t Know; Pod Save America (and the Crooked Media network); Limetown; 36 Questions; Crimetown; Missing Richard Simmons; Revisionist History; Lebron James’ Uninterrupted Network; Under the Skin with Russell Brand; The Tony Kornheiser Show (with our sister company IMG producing); Unsolved Murders.

While the role I played in each of these podcasts is different, I typically negotiate the terms of a show’s deal with its respective distribution partner or network. When applicable, we also sell podcast IP into TV, film and other media.

For example, with Pod Save America/Crooked Media, we connected the team to DGital and structured the terms of their relationship.

In the case of Limetown, we signed creators Skip Bronkie and Zack Akers after it hit — and helped explore derivative opportunities for the IP. They are now developing Limetown for television (with IMG serving as the studio), sold the prequel to Simon and Schuster, and received a separate film script deal at Warner Brothers. We’re currently helping them with distribution and casting of their upcoming podcast musical, 36 Questions.[/conr]

[conl]HP: Could you describe what drives WME’s interest in the podcast space?[/conl]

[conr]Davis: WME’s is interested in any creative medium that drives culture, and podcasting’s impact on culture is undeniable.

Podcasts are a source of compelling new voices and properties. Not only has this created an exciting business in it of itself, but also one that feeds into other areas that we work in. For example, WME has been involved with crossing podcast properties such as a StarTalk and Men In Blazers into television.

At the same time, podcasting is a new medium for our clients from other areas, whether it is Malcolm Gladwell or Amblin, to create and experiment in. Clients can also own their distribution in a way that is not traditionally possible in other areas of the entertainment business.[/conr]

[conl]HP: My understanding is that talent agencies — WME, of course, but also CAA (Creative Artists Agency) and UTA (United Talent Agencies) — are playing an increasing role in (some layers of) the podcasting industry, though podcasting itself as a sector might not necessarily be growing as quickly within talent agency portfolios. Is that accurate, and what is your view on where we are now with talent agencies and the podcast industry?[/conl]

[conr]Davis: I can’t speak for the other agencies, but podcasting is growing very quickly within WME.

Agents are most useful with shows that have added complexities within their agreements. Is there a guarantee or advance? Who controls the RSS feed? Could this become the next hit TV show? This only applies to a segment of the market, typically higher budgeted or otherwise premium shows.[/conr]

[conl]HP: Where do you think this relationship between talent agencies and the podcast industry is going?[/conl]

[conr]Davis: I think talent agencies will play an increasingly important role in the ecosystem by:

— Helping podcast creators cross IP over into other media (whether that is audiovisual, live or written).
— Pairing creators with the right distribution partners, and negotiating the terms of the relationship.
— Packaging creative elements (i.e. talent and writer) to create turnkey audio productions for distributors.

The space is changing so quickly, though, and my answer would have been different 6 months ago. So really, who knows?[/conr]

[conl]HP: What are the most important things that you think podcast publishers should know about talent agencies, if they don’t already know?[/conl]

[conr]Davis: It’s amazing to me how podcasts have emerged as a longer-form medium with insanely engaged audiences, in a world where traditional media is fighting for the attention of distracted and fragmented consumers. In this current environment and in the future, those with an engaged audience have an enormous opportunity. Talent agencies provide a platform to maximize the impact and value of that opportunity.[/conr]

[storybreak]

You can find Ben on Twitter at @benjamin_davis, though it doesn’t look like he tweets much. I guess you can hit up his LinkedIn instead.

Bites:

  • Not content with its business-to-business position in the market, AudioBoom — best known, perhaps, for repping the popular Undisclosed podcast — is getting into the original programming game. This comes after some restructuring and what appears to be a rigorous PR push, with the company pumping out a few studies about the podcast industry into the public sphere. (Press release)
  • Heads up, Jesse Thorn fans: the Maximum Fun proprietor has a new ~summertime~ project where the famed interviewer interviews interviewers about interviewing. The guest lineup includes Terry Gross, Larry King, Werner Herzog (!!), and Audie Cornish, among others. And interestingly enough, it’s being distributed in partnership with the Columbia Journalism Review. (website)
  • The first advertising network for the Amazon Echo’s Alexa Skill ecosystem has shut down in the wake of an Amazon policy change that bans advertising for third-party products and services. (TechCrunch)
  • The New York Times’ The Daily is going to test a guest host as Michael Barbaro heads off for a summer vacation: Caitlin Dickerson takes over the mic. (Twitter)
  • BuzzFeed audio fellow Alex Laughlin is conducting a survey on audio producer salaries. Go take it. She posted some preliminary findings on Twitter yesterday.
  • NPR is funding two pilots off its Story Lab program: “Midnight Oil” from Alaska Public Media and “Inter(Nation)al” by an independent production team. Cheers, folks! (Press Release)
  • One of these days, I’m going to build out a bracket for Podcasts by Major Media Companies. We’re going to have to add some upcoming stuff from The Atlantic to the list now, which is currently on the lookout for its very own (short-term) podcast producer, it seems. (The Atlantic)
  • Poynter owning the “McClatchy getting into podcasts” beat. Kristen Hare’s latest is on Biloxi’s Sun Herald and its podcast about LGBT issues, Out Here in America. It follows Ben Mullin’s write-up on Majority Minority and Beyond the Bubble, two politics podcasts from McClatchy DC. No specific download numbers were present in either write-up, unfortunately.
  • Rooster Teeth, the Austin, Texas-based digital media production company focused on gaming content, has launched a new business unit focused on podcast creators. “The company is hoping to gather between 30 and 50 creators for its network, and it’s already peeled a couple rising stars away from its bigger competitors,” Max Willens reports. (Digiday)
  • Signl.fm, a platform focused on making podcasts more searchable, is part of the latest Matter.vc class. (Nieman Lab)

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

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

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

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

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

(1) Steady, unsexy growth?

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

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

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

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

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

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

(2) The problem of programming

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

[One thing] I find significant, that no one is discussing — and is podcasting’s massive opportunity — is the disconnect between occasional users and regular users. To me, the fact that 40 percent of U.S. adults have tried podcasting, yet only half of them listen regularly, that’s astounding. Show me any other medium that has that gap. None. When people sample and don’t habituate, it speaks to interest that isn’t being met by the content that’s available today. There either isn’t enough variety of things for people to listen to — or there isn’t enough of what they like to meet their appetite. With 350,000 podcasts, that seems like a strange thing to say, but the simple truth is that potential listeners aren’t sticking with it — and there are only two potential reasons: not enough good stuff — or they simply can’t find it. Solving this could go as far as doubling the audience for podcasting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All right, let’s move on.

(3) Depth of listening

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

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

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

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

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

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

Miscellaneous takeaways

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bites:

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

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

播客增长劲头仍在, 内容与渠道之争是重要拐点

The Infinite Dial 是一份针对消费者数字媒介、尤其是音频媒介的使用情况研究报告,自 1998 年来持续以听众数据为依托进行独立研究。最新发布的 Infinite Dial 2017 显示,播 客听众的数量呈持续增长态势。然而,不少播客界人士对此并不满意,认为介于外部市场环 境,播客听众的增速应该远高于这个数字。

(1) 增速缓慢暴露行业短板

报告显示,2017 年全美播客的月活跃听众占到其覆盖听众的 24% (6700 万), 比去年同 期的 21% (5700 万)增长 14%。还有一个更亮眼的数字:过去两年间,全美播客的月活 跃收听人数增长了40%。

然而,今年来的增速趋缓似乎与前阵子备受吹捧的“播客元年”概念形成了强烈的反差。在 我看来,质疑情有可原,却也不宜操之过急:

— (a) 首先,播客背后的基础技术这么多年来就没有过突破性的飞跃; (b) 其次,针对播客的大笔投资 案例较为少见,资本对音频内容似乎不太感冒; (c) 第三, 整个播客行业的格局还十分混乱; 关于这一点, Edison Research 公司的战略和营销副总裁 Tom Webster 最近也表示:“这 么些年,播客业仍然没能形成一个组织良好的生态,甚至连‘播客’一词的定义都非常模糊, ‘播客如何做营销’、‘对大众的意义何在’等一系列问题也悬而未决。”

虽然用户基数仍在增长,但不容忽视的是,这些年来用户对这个领域的认知近乎停滞。从 2010 年到 2013 年,美国民众中,对“播客”有概念的群体比例一直在 45%-46%徘徊。 播客行业接下来何去何从,或许离不开以下几个探讨:

(2) 内容与渠道之争

难道认知度提高,播客就能突破目前的“平台期”了吗?显然并没有这么简单。

Eric Nuzum,亚马逊旗下有声读物平台 Audible 的原创内容高级副总裁,在报告发布后是 如此点评的:

“播客行业里有一个问题似乎被很多人忽视了,在我看来却蕴藏着巨大的潜 力,那就是“听过”和“常听”受众之间的断层 — 40%的美国人用过播客,固定的活跃听众却只占其中的一半多,这说明播客仍然存在不小的增长 潜力。当人们只是偶尔使用而没有形成习惯时,原因或许是内容本身不够吸 引人、种类不够多元。然而,这样的解释对于拥有 35 万个播客频道的美国 来说,实在有点说不过去。很多听众没有对播客形成依赖的事实只能证明: 要么内容不够好,要么就是听众没法找到自己喜欢的好内容。由此看来,播 客的发展空间还很大,但增长乏力不能怪在‘认知不够’身上。”

在 Eric Nuzum 提到的两个潜在原因—内容和渠道之间,多数人选择把注意力放在后者 身上。似乎,“能被大量用户发现”才是核心要务,Spotify 和 Google Play Music 的流量 入口、RadioPublic 等 App 的争夺战、各种独立播客的大量涌现都是佐证。

即便可能要站到大多数人的对立面,我仍然得说,自己从来没有觉得“被发现”有这么重要。 在这个内容极度冗余的时代,问题不在于如何让用户发现内容,而是如何让他们在鱼龙混杂 的内容中发现对自己真正有价值的那一部分。

就个人来说,我喜欢的播客节目、乃至任何互联网产品,通常来自于这三个渠道: (a) 在我关注的领域内自己出现,并引起我的注意; (b) 我出于兴趣去主动搜索; (c) 身边有朋友亲自推荐; 这些“发现”的过程都由产品本身的特性、所能提供的服务和我个人的消费喜好决定。也就 是说,无论你如何优化“发现”的过程,当人们无法在产品中找到自己想要的内容时,一切 都是白费。所以,“内容”应该取代“渠道”,成为那些想要尽快突破瓶颈的媒体们的发力重点。

相似的探讨也出现在了上周 Infinite Dial 2017 的网络研讨会上:数据显示,55 岁以上的 播客用户比例较低,只占全美月活跃用户的 12%。这个结论出乎了很多人意料,正如 Edison Research 的 Tom Webster 指出,毕竟谈话类广播节目理应是这个年龄段群体的菜。由此, 他提出播客出品方应该加强对中老年群体的推广营销。(在我看来,这样的推演逻辑是站不住脚的,就拿 NPR(全国公共广播电台)举例,作为音 频内容界实力元老,NPR 就一直以吸引更多年轻用户为战略目标。)

当然,我也并没有一票否决 Webster 的意思,中老年群体的确是播客的重要受众,但我们 仍应该针对不同的用户群体开发出更多元的节目:为女性、不同肤色、不同年龄段、不同社 区甚至不同国籍的听众定制专属他们的节目。

(3) 注意力经济时代

还有一个有趣的结论在今年的报告里被再次证实:如果你喜欢播客,那么你一定非常非常喜欢!来看数据:

  • 用户平均每周会收听 5 档播客节目,其中又有一大半听了 3 档以上,每周收 听 6 档以 上的比例超过二成
  • 用户在播客上的平均订阅节目数为 6 档
  • 还有一个重要发现,85%的用户说他们倾向于将自己订阅的广播节目从头到 尾全部听完

不过,NPR 用户推广部高级主管 Izzi Smith 在 Twitter 上也表示,调研数据以听众自己上 报为主,最终的数字可能存在一定的“水分”。

为了避免主观问卷调查可能带来的误差,我们或许得将这份报告的结果同各家媒体的内部用 户数据做个比较。当然,这就是一件工作量极大的事情了,在这里我只列举两家媒体的反馈:

还有一些零散的小发现:

  • 播客的活跃用户中,男性居多
  • 人们还是更愿意在家中收听播客节目
  • 车载播客的发展仍然处于初期阶段


媒体巨头跨界涌入, 大平台间内容流转加剧。 先来看两则最近的播客行业新闻:

1. Google Play Music 旗下播客 City Soundtracks。Google Play Music 的原创播客节目 City Soundtracks 是一档音乐家的人物访谈,由资深音乐节目主持人 Hrishikesh Hirway主持,对嘉宾的艺术风格和音乐流派进行溯源式的探 究。该节目不仅可以在 Google Play Music 找到,其他应用商城(包括 iTunes,但不包括 Spotify)也同步上线。前三集已于本月发布。

2. WNYC 与 Spotify 的跨界握手。WNYC(纽约公共广播电台)近期宣布,将提前两周在 Spotify 上独家播映最新一季的 2 Dope Queens,播客和音频界的领军者之间建立起了一种更常态化的合作关系。

从以上两个例子中或许可以预见,未来的播客行业生态将会呈现出更多变化,平台相继崛起、 内容加速流转、跨界频繁牵手。毕竟,Spotify 给一个非音乐类的节目开放流量入口还是有 些出乎我的意料。看来在精准服务音乐爱好者和开放生态之间,Spotify 这一次选择了后者, 效果如何,将是一个许多人拭目以待的问题。

除此之外,《纽约时报》最近推出了一档新的音频—The EP。该播客与《纽约时报杂志》 合作,在多方面有非凡表现:制式有点类似于电子音乐专辑,每个单集都短而精,节选了音 乐批评家们对歌曲的精彩点评等,在我看来非常新颖。

可以看出,尽管播客在美国早有良好的受众基础,在持续发展上却仍面临“动力不足”的问 题。当认清“受众认知”不是最大软肋之后,节目内容的精耕、渠道和入口效应的加强,就 成了竞争者们争取用户粘度的努力方向。毕竟,媒体巨头还在纷纷加入这场混战,播客行业 的巨大发展空间不容小觑。

Hot Pod: Slate tries a rolling audio mashup to cover Election Day live

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue ninety-five, published November 8, 2016.

Happy Election Day (oh dear god). Three quick stories with that sweet, sweet podcast-angle (#onbrand):

1. Avail yourself with dueling podcast columns on the subject: The New Statesman, “How to use podcasts as U.S. election therapy,” and Wired, “Fed-up, freaked-out Americans find comfort in politics podcasts.”

2. Slate’s trying something new: dynamically reporting on the elections in near real-time through podcasts. According to an internal email by executive producer Steve Lickteig: “Producers will update stories throughout the day, and listeners will get refreshed news whenever they want…The best way to experience this is by opening slate.com/newscast in a browser tab and leave it open all day. At least once per hour (but probably much more often as the day heats up), you can return to that page and hear fresh stories mixed with ones you’ve heard before or, even more likely, an entirely new batch of stories.”

The company is leveraging its in-house audio CMS, Megaphone, to produce the feed, which interestingly enough won’t be available in iTunes or podcast apps. The updates will be hosted by This American Life’s Zoe Chace and PBS Newshour’s Alison Stewart. Updates began at 9 a.m. Eastern.

3. Poynter ran a vote over the weekend on the best political coverage in this election cycle, breaking out a category just for podcasts. Keepin’ It 1600 (considered by some as therapy) was beat out by FiveThirtyEight’s election podcast (considered by some as anti-therapy) for first place, with NPR’s politics podcast bagging third. Full list on the article, near the bottom. I’ll do a postmortem next week on the set of very, very strong shows we’ve seen breaking out in this genre.

GE Podcast Theater announced the followup to its hit branded podcast The Message last week, and it looks like the team is sticking close to the playbook on this one. The new show will be a single-season, short-run science fiction podcast that draws heavy influence from contemporary works (the press-outreach email described it as “Her meets Ex Machina” that will be enjoyed by “lovers of Westworld and Black Mirror” — a title salad) while exhibiting a light touch from the actual brand sponsoring the project. The followup will also continue The Message’s core design conceit of telling a story based on a piece of technology that, of course, GE is interested in. (Image-building by association, in other words.)

The show will be called Life After, and the plot will follow an FBI employee who tries to communicate with his departed wife through digital assets left behind on an all-audio social media platform. It’s not…the most original premise, sporting strong similarities to the Black Mirror episode “Be Right Back” (as well as a Michael Keaton film from the mid-2000s called White Noise, which was kind of criminally bad). But it’s worth noting that The Message wasn’t all that original either, leaning hard on the now cliched “fictional radio reporter” as the framing device and making use of plot points that, again, bore very strong similarities to another project, this time a very early episode of the indie-horror podcast The Black Tapes. Nevertheless, the podcast’s core value was firmly rooted in its polished execution, and we’ll likely see the same with this new project.

(At this point, I’d like to issue a quick disclaimer: I used to work for Panoply.)

Let’s take a few steps back for a second. For the uninitiated, GE Podcast Theater is an experimental partnership in branded podcast production between GE, Panoply, and the advertising agency BBDO. The Message, the team’s first foray into this nexus, debuted last October and pulled off a very, very successful run, with the most recent publicly available audience tally putting the podcast at around 500,000 downloads per episode, according to a Bloomberg article published in June. (Keep the imprecision of the metric in mind here; that number probably refers to downloads per episode since the show’s launch in October 2015, which doesn’t really give us a good sense on download acceleration, growth rate, or the long tail. Alas.) But the campaign’s successes expanded well beyond its downloads: The Message was a minor press hit (The Atlantic: “The Radio-Age Genius of The Message”) and even managed to bag a few Cannes Lions international advertising awards.

Much of that success, I think, comes from a combination of two things: first, the project’s novelty as an unconventional piece of advertising: aside from a small logo on the podcast art, The Message was near-devoid of direct references to its corporate progenitor, and I reckon there was something about this quality that likely drew critical attention from the advertising community; and second, its ability to competently capitalize on a general hunger for genre fiction among podcast consumers by serving a highly produced product in a field that was then dominated by independent works with a more artisanal feel. (Ugh, sorry about the use of “artisanal.”)

On that front, it’s worth considering just how much the podcast space has changed in the past year, particularly with regard to audio fiction. There are more ambitious audio fiction enterprises now than ever before — see Night Vale Presents, The Paragon Collective, The Sarah Awards, Wondery, Gimlet’s Homecoming, and so on — and one imagines the broad podcast consuming body, which absorbs and evolves as it expands and matures in numbers and demographics, has shifted somewhat in its taste and expectations for something like fiction.

So, with all that in mind, and given just how close they’re sticking to the formula, I wonder if the team expects to receive the same kinds of returns as last year.

Alexa Christon, GE’s head of media innovation, appeared to be keeping a realistic but hopeful view on Life After when we spoke over the phone last week. “We actually never expected The Message to go to No. 1 on iTunes,” Christon explained. “We were just excited about the content and the concept. We felt we had something, but we also knew it was really hard to crack No. 1…We’re hoping that there will be buzz again, but we’ll see.” (When asked how much GE is paying for Life After, Christon declined to spill details. She merely replied: “It’s nothing unusual.”)

Without the novelty, Life After doesn’t quite have the same structural advantage that The Message did. This leaves the team having to tough it out the way all other shows do: executing at a very, very high level. But hey, the trailer, which dropped last week, sounds really good, and I’m curious to hear if the rest of the show will be able to match it.

Life After comes out on November 13 and will run for 10 episodes. It will be distributed through The Message’s RSS feed. Also worth noting: Giant Spoon, a media agency, is involved in the distribution strategy for the project.

Relevant: GE also announced an original podcast for the Australian market last week called Decoding Genius.

Radiotopia names the winner of its Podquest competition: Ear Hustle, a nonfiction narrative podcast that “unveils the hidden stories of life inside prison, told and produced from the perspective of those who live it,” according to the PRX blog post announcing the result. The show’s creative force is made up of Earlonne Woods, Antwan Williams, and Nigel Poor. Woods and Williams are currently sentences in San Quentin State Prison. Poor is an artist and professor at California State University, Sacramento. The team is a remarkable story, one that was most recently told in a California Sunday Magazine profile back in late September.

Ear Hustle beat out nine other semifinalists that were themselves selected out of an applicant pool made up of 1,537 entries from 53 different countries. You can read up on the other semifinalists on the Podquest website — and if you’re a publisher, I highly recommend you consider them for recruitment. (There’s no talent shortage if you look hard enough, folks.)

In winning Podquest, Ear Hustle’s 10-episode first season will be picked up by Radiotopia for a 2017 debut. It will be Radiotopia’s 17th show, the third addition in recent weeks following the pickups of West Wing Weekly and The Bugle, two shows that are somewhat departs from the podcast collective’s story-driven, highly-produced narrative programming. As such, Ear Hustle’s pickup represents a return to Radiotopia’s roots, albeit one that, interestingly enough, itself looks to be a deeper realization of the collective’s sensibilities and aesthetic.

A trailer for the show can be heard here.

How Stuff Works’ Jason Hoch, observing on Twitter Saturday morning: “4 of the top 6 podcasts on iTunes are new and contain only a short promo episode clocking in under 4 minutes…Why do podcast publishers launch promo episodes as ‘episode 1’ of a series? Easy — get subscribers, and therefore, future downloads.” Hoch, by the way, made an appearance on the Digiday podcast last week, where he declared: “There is no podcast bubble.” Dude is full of soundbites that makes my job easier, I swear.

The history, and future, of AV Club’s Podmass column. Long before The Timbre (RIP), Charley Locke’s work at Wired, Caroline Crampton’s New Statesman column, and long, long before Hot Pod, you had The AV Club’s Podmass column. Since 2011, the column has consistently served as one of the few places on the Internet that took podcasts seriously in front of a wide, mainstream audience. But its future appears to be in question now that Becca James, who has edited the column since 2014, is leaving the company.

I traded emails with James last week, asking a few questions about her time at Podmass and what happens next. Here’s the Q&A in full:

Can you tell me about the history of Podmass?

Podmass technically started in 2010 when Kyle Ryan ((Ryan is currently an editor-at-large for the AV Club and the VP of development at Onion Inc., the AV Club’s parent company. He had left in April 2014 to briefly serve as Entertainment Weekly’s online editor, returning to the AV Club a year later.)) included a best podcasts roundup in the site’s year-end coverage. When everyone returned from holiday break in 2011, Kyle suggested they review podcasts each week, recommending which ones to listen to and which ones to skip on a weekly basis, which gave rise to the “The Best” and “The Rest” format that you see in the February 2011 debut of Podmass. The coverage treated podcasts as episodic entities, reviewing the same shows each week and was based on the original lineup from the 2010 article, which writers added and subtracted to at will. The concept was new then, as podcasts weren’t getting much coverage other than occasional stories about specific shows and the first podcast boom had already ended. As Kyle explained to me, “This was a way to write about the medium but also be a utility because even back then it felt like there were too many podcasts to keep track of.” I was hired in 2013 and started compiling Podmass when Kyle was on vacation or otherwise busy. Eventually, he left to pursue a career with EW, and Podmass was handed down to me in the spring of 2014. By that fall I had changed the format to highlight 10-15 of the previous week’s best episodes. I felt this was a better way to introduce a larger group of people to podcasts, as opposed to the more inside-baseball, labor-intensive former version of Podmass, which covered the same 30 or so shows each week. The new format was really about showcasing the medium of podcasting as something for everyone, with The A.V. Club ready and willing to help readers find their niche in this world.

What kind of work goes into producing the column?

I have a staff of writers that come from all walks of life — designers, comedians, artists — but that are steeped in the world of podcasting. They pitch episodes to me by EOD on Thursday each week. Once I have everyone’s pitches, I go through and curate a list of 10-15 based on a number of things I extract from the writers’ pitches. Then I send out assignments. The writers come back with 200 words and some quotes from the episode by noon the next day. I spend Friday compiling the reviews in our CMS before adding a feature image and a headline. Often throughout the week, I will email suggestions to the group and ask if anyone would like to cover that episode. These can come from emailed tips, Twitter, Hot Pod, etc.

There’s an argument floating about — most recently articulated by the Third Coast Festival folks — that there isn’t enough mainstream coverage of podcasts. What do you think of that argument, and where do you think we are in the state of cultural conversation about podcasts?

Podcasts are tricky because statistics still show that they are not as widely consumed as, say, TV. I remember making this argument when changing the Podmass format, saying that Podmass should be doing its part to draw more people toward this form of entertainment, which is why we should have more expansive, welcoming coverage. That is all to say that I agree with the Third Coast folks that there isn’t enough coverage of podcasts. People often comment on the enormous amount of podcasts, naming it as a hurdle in the quest to provide adequate coverage, but I think the stuff worth listening to rises to the top.

How has Podmass performed?

Podmass does well in my opinion. It is by far not the most-read feature on our site, but it often makes it into the top 10 most-read articles the day it publishes. It has its diehard fans, which I greatly appreciate and wish I had more time to shoot the shit with in the comments section, which is where you’ll find a lot of them hanging out.

What happens to Podmass now?

I worry Podmass won’t make it into 2017 once I’m no longer around to wrangle it. It’s difficult to articulate how melancholy that makes me feel, as I really see this feature as a service to the readers, as true journalism. It’s a numbers game though, and without a salaried employee willing to take on the feature, it’s hard to justify it’s existence financially. As for me, I have a dear friend that spends a lot of time daydreaming about keeping the Podmass dream alive. After all, the spirit of podcasting is that anyone can do it, so it seems fair to say that anyone could create podcast reviews and share them online.

James will be done with Podmass by the end of the year. She currently holds interest in going back into teaching, and expects to be freelancing for a few places — including the AV Club — on the side.

Bites:

  • Adobe has apparently prototyped a “Photoshop for Audio.” Called Project VoCo, the program “can produce the sound of someone saying something they didn’t actually say with unsettling realism.” Oh dear god. (Pitchfork)
  • The New York Times’ Amanda Hess has a fascinating story on an expansive digital community of female Star Wars fans made up of metacriticism, fan art, fan fiction, and a “podcast sorority that includes Scavengers Hoard, Rebel Grrrl, Lattes With Leia, and Rebels Chat.” Cool reminder of how communities benefits of an open medium. That’s what I took from this, anyway. (The New York Times)
  • Speaking of the Times, its latest podcast is out: Tell Me Something I Don’t Know, its collaboration with Freakonomics’ Stephen Dubner working under an LLC called Dubner Productions. (The New York Times)
  • “‘I felt like Morse tapping his first code’ — the man who invented the podcast.” (The Guardian)
  • Looks like WBEZ is going to pump out a three-part special series on the rise of Oprah Winfrey, starting Thursday. Personally, I’m psyched. It’s a great time for audio documentaries, folks. (WBEZ)
  • NPR comms director Isabel Lara tells me that Planet Money’s recent reporting on the Wells Fargo fraudulent account debacle (here and here) was cited in a formal letter by senators Elizabeth Warren and Robert Menendez. Very cool.
  • Also: Goodbye to NPR’s How To Do Everything, which will post its final episode on November 18. Don’t tell anybody, but you were my favorite NPR podcast.

Happy America, every one. Godspeed.

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: There’s a new (and problematic) way to measure which podcasts are the most popular

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue eighty-eight, published September 20, 2016.

Another public-facing podcast ranker. It’s troublesome, though if you’re a podcast publisher you best pay close attention nonetheless. This one’s going to be long, so either skip it or strap in.

Here’s the deal: Podtrac, the decade-old podcast measurement (and until its recent restructure, advertising) company, announced a new podcast ranker yesterday, one that aspires to display the top 20 podcasts in the industry based on monthly downloads. This is the second such public-facing ranking that the company has released in recent months; In May, Podtrac pumped out a chart that ranked podcast publishers against each other based on network-wide monthly downloads.

That initial ranker suffered from two glaring flaws. First, it can’t be considered adequately representative of the podcast industry because of its incomplete sampling. (The original report purports to cover of “90 percent of the top podcasts.”) And second, there’s a general lack of transparency around its sampling methodology. (Said “top podcasts” category isn’t clearly defined, and it isn’t clear who is and isn’t included.) The publisher ranker’s initial May 2016 sample did not include important publishers like Panoply, Gimlet, Earwolf, The Ringer, and Wondery. That’s not to say that they would all show up in the top 10 if they were included, mind you; I’m just making a point about representation, and many of them remain excluded at this writing.

This new show ranker, which was reportedly assembled due to advertiser demand, suffers from those same fundamental issues, plus some new complexities that further interrupt itss capacity to serve as a trustworthy conveyor of value in the podcast industry.

Let’s break this down:

1. Yesterday’s new chart ranks individual podcasts based on “Unique Monthly Audience” (as determined by Podtrac’s internal measurement rules), but the chart itself does not explicitly display actual download numbers. I view this as an incredibly odd — and even counterproductive — choice. The omission strips the chart of important granular analytical value, and patrons of the chart are placed in a position where they wouldn’t even be able to, say, discern the scale of the difference between two consecutively-ranked podcasts, which can go a long way in properly conveying the shape and form of the competitive landscape.

Interestingly enough, Velvet Beard, Podtrac’s VP of podcast analytics, tells me that this omission came out of a compromise with certain publishers who are reticent to disclose their show numbers.

2. That reticence is further reflected in the eighth ranking on the new chart, which awkwardly reads: “Publisher declined to list show.” This state of affairs comes out from a crucial distinction between the two Podtrac rankers: While the original podcast publisher ranker lists publishers that explicitly measure their podcasts with Podtrac (an arrangement understood by Podtrac as permission for inclusion into their ranker), this new show-oriented ranker does not require explicit publisher participation in the company’s measurement services for inclusion.

It was explained to me that part of the ranker’s methodology involves some internal modeling that doesn’t actually require publishers to opt into their measurement system for download size assessment. Which, you know, the more I think about it, is a choice that would creep me out if I was a publisher, because not only are we left with a situation where an external body has taken upon itself to tell the story of my audience for me — without my explicit acknowledgment and consent — it’s also a story based on their terms, the foundations of which may well be different from my own. And that means something in an industry that lacks a universally standardized and enforced measurement paradigm.

That mystery eighth podcast (whose identity was included in the initial press release sent to me, and was scrubbed in a followup version after I attempted to verify) isn’t the only show that was included in the ranker without given permission; the Joe Rogan Experience, which came in on the eleventh slot, appears to be a non-participant as well.

3. Beard tells me that the company has been consistently trying to reach out to publishers to get them involved with the ranker. “We send out emails, but not everybody writes us back,” she said.

I suppose there are strong strategic reasons why some publishers would not want to get involved in Podtrac’s ranking system. To begin with, you have the table stakes concern that a publisher who chooses to be listed would be ceding its monopoly over how it tells the story of its own downloads. Which would be fine for some…and less so for others, particularly those who make it a practice of fluffing their numbers, a very real problem in this industry that lacks mature measurement standards and an independent third-party that can serve as a check against bad practices.

But even for those whose goods are sound, there’s simply too much of a perceived risk to anoint Podtrac as that third-party due to the company’s current relationship with Authentic, its ad sales arm that was spun off as a sister company earlier this summer. The two companies still share leadership and infrastructure, which presents a strong disincentive for some publishers who would be understandably uneasy ceding parts of their narrative to company that’s structurally connected to a potential competitor. The golden rule applies: It’s not the actual conflicts of interest, it’s the perception of potential conflicts of interest that matters.

For what it’s worth, Beard tells me that the company’s long-term hope is to effectively decouple Podtrac from Authentic to mitigate such concerns. However, she also notes that the team has to first figure out how to make its business — which currently doesn’t make any money off these rankings — financially independent before any significant decoupling can happen.

Look, Podtrac’s industry rankers need a lot of work before they can be considered a genuine representation of the emerging podcast industry, and for what it’s worth, I do think the Podtrac team is operating with civil intent. (And to some extent, I really do hope they pull it off.)

But let’s be real here. In a medium whose defining problem is its lack of measurability — which therefore generates an advertising environment starved for every little bit of information — Podtrac’s good-enough rankers are bound to gain some traction among advertisers either way.

And it looks like things may be panning out in that direction: ahead of the IAB Podcast Upfronts a few weeks ago, I was speaking with Jason Hoch, the chief content officer of HowStuffWorks, which uses Podtrac for analytics verification and is listed on the industry ranker, and he noted that the original ranker drew a tremendous amount of new advertising attention to his network. “The in-bounds we got from that were amazing,” he told me.

So I’ll say this: It appears increasingly imperative that podcast publishers start engaging with Podtrac in order to win back their audience narrative (and the narrative of the industry). I’m not the biggest fan of how Podtrac has gone about doing things — their lack of methodological transparency remains troubling, and the whole including-podcasts-without-explicit-permission thing feels kinda dirty — but they are, regardless, materially contributing to the publisher-advertising relationship.

Alternatively, publishers could, oh I don’t know, develop their own data-driven public counter-narratives. That’ll be cool too.

And in case you’s still interested: According to Podtrac, the top three podcasts in August 2016 are, in downward order, This American Life, Radiolab, and Stuff You Should Know.

A leadership change at NPR One. The public radio mothership’s buzzy listening app, NPR One, is losing Sara Sarasohn, its managing editor, who is leaving the organization after 24 years of service.

Tamar Charney will reportedly step in as interim editorial lead. Charney was hired back in January to serve as the app’s “local editorial lead,” a role that involves connecting the app with local public radio stations across the country. While she will take over many of Sarasohn’s duties, she will continue focusing on her original responsibilities as well. The team remains rounded out by content programmer Viet Le, along with an NPR One-specific product team led by product manager Tejas Mistry and content strategist/analytics manager Nick DePrey.

Sarasohn, who has worked multiple positions on All Things Considered and the NPR arts desk throughout her lengthy career, is leaving public media for a position at a Silicon Valley startup, and though she declined to provide specifics, she noted that her new gig isn’t involved in the audio world.

An internal staff note announcing Sarasohn’s departure indicates that she leaves NPR One in a strong position. According to the memo, “NPR One’s audience reaches record highs with each new month, more than 80 stations are contributing content to it, and the typical listener uses the app up to 12 times per month.”

It also noted that the organization will relay more information about the app’s future in the coming days.

The NPR One app — which flirts with aspirations of being “the Netflix for podcasts” and is marketed as “the Pandora of podcasts” — is reportedly considered to be “the most exciting thing to have happened at NPR in years.” I’m broadly a fan of it myself, but I do struggle to view the app itself as somehow central to NPR’s digital future. The ecosystem of content and technology that’s being built beneath the app, however, is another story. (Side note: Between you and me, my main consumption modality with public radio nowadays is my Amazon Echo, which has come dangerously close to being my only source of verbal interaction on most days.)

Sarasohn’s last day is September 25.

Relevant: In what is probably a yuge coincidence, news of Sarasohn’s departure comes about a week after NPR announced that it was picking DC-based WAMU’s The Big Listen, a broadcast about podcasts, for national distribution. Hosted by Lauren Ober, the show is one of several audio programs currently floating about podcastland that seeks to alleviate the medium’s discoverability problem through linear, performative curation. That list includes the CBC’s Podcast Playlist and Gimlet’s Sampler.

Tangentially relevant: WNYC Studios now has a third VP of on-demand content: Tony Phillips, a former BBC veteran of 27 years. (My whole life, basically.) His most recent role at the British radio mothership was “Editor, Commissioner, and Producer.” Phillips will expand the leadership layer, which also includes Paula Szuchman and Emily Botein, into a trifecta.

Mid-October will mark WNYC Studio’s first full year of operation.

Cable podcasts. CNN, the cable news heavyweight and source of all my anxieties, is pushing deeper into podcasts with the announcement of two new podcasts:

1. The Daily DC, a daily morning political news digest show featuring CNN political director David Chalian; and

2. Party People, described as a “look at the 2016 race from a rightward perspective.” The show is hosted by two CNN contributors, Republican communications strategist Kevin Madden and The Federalist editor Mary Katharine Ham.

Both shows begin their runs today.

These additions will complement The Axe Files, the (quite excellent) David Axelrod interview show that has thus far been the media company’s only original podcast. CNN has also made it a practice of repackaging and distributing a select list of its television programming — like Fareed Zakaria GPS, State of the Union with Jake Tapper, and Reliable Sources with Brian Stelter — in podcast form.

Curious observers might be interested to know that CNN’s foray into original podcasting is largely orchestrated by one Tyler Moody, a VP at the company, and that the podcasts are being hosted — and represented in the ad sales market — by New York-based podcast CMS company Palegroove.

And speaking of right-leaning politics podcasts: Fox News is making a weekly television show out of I’ll Tell You What, an elections podcast hosted by The Five cohost Dana Perino and Fox News digital politics editor Chris Stirewalt. The show will be limited-run, airing Sunday evenings until the elections in November. According to The Washington Post, the podcast’s conversion into the television format “represents Fox News’s first new programming initiative since longtime network chairman Roger Ailes resigned in July.”

Side note. A few weeks ago, I wrote a column observing what appears to be a dearth of explicitly conservative political and election-related podcasts, which briefly led me to consider this state of affairs being a function of early adopter demographics. Since then, I’ve regularly received recommendations from readers of more conservative-oriented shows, and while I believe my original observation still holds, I will say that one podcast in particular has found its way into my primary rotation: Radio Free GOP with Mike Murphy. It’s really polished, and really, really engaging, and it’s worth a try regardless of where you are on the spectrum.

Did you read Ken Doctor’s columns? You really should. The five-part series published on Nieman Lab all throughout last week did an amazing job laying out the current state and potential future(s) of the professionalizing layer of podcasts from the 30,000-feet view more than I ever could.

The series contained a bunch of novel findings that are incredibly useful for incremental observers like myself — for example, the fact that digital native Gimlet currently scores 5 million downloads monthly across its 6 shows (many of which are off-season at the moment) and now has a 55-person headcount (damn!); that NPR, Midroll, and PodcastOne each account for $10 million in sales; that 50 percent of WNYC’s sponsorship revenue now comes from digital as opposed to terrestrial sources, a good chunk of which is driven by podcasts.

But Doctor’s columns also laid out an analogy that connects what many podcast publishers/networks are doing these days to the long-established digital media strategy of aggregation. It’s a connection that hasn’t previously occurred to me, but it has become to me an essential framework in gaming out the probable trajectory — and potential pitfalls — of many of these emerging podcast companies.

Anyway, hit ’em up.

“You can’t compare it to anything else that exists in the industry right now,” said Rena Unger, the IAB’s director of industry initiatives, in the latest episode of The Wolf Den. “Podcasts took one of the boldest moves. You’re not doing your own individual upfronts, you were sharing one stage. You have 12 competitive companies that take off their competitive hats and say, ‘Let’s work together to elevate the space and increase our pie together.'”

Unger was responding to my, uh, critique of the recent Podcast Upfronts, which largely comes out of anxieties that were pinpointed almost perfectly by Chris Bannon, Midroll’s chief creative officer and co-host of The Wolf Den, who replied to Unger: “Yeah, it’s funny. There’s a great spirit of collaboration, but I think what Nick fears in his writing is that will disappear. That it will become some sort of commercial shark-tank in which where we race to the bottom in some way together.”

Or borrow a passage from Doctor’s final entry in his podcast series: “The phrase of the moment, both from some in the trade and from many of the millions of listeners who’ve become podcast addicts, seems to be: Don’t screw it up.

I’m getting that tattooed.

Bites:

  • There’s a budding audio/podcast platform company floating about the Bay Area called Tiny Garage Labs that’s founded by former Netflix operatives and a former Planet Money correspondent. I’d keep an eye out on their blog — word on the street something’s coming real soon. (Tiny Garage Labs)
  • Made a quick mention of this two Hot Pods ago, but it’s more or less confirmed now: Panoply now reps MTV Podcasts, which joins the network with two new shows — Lady Problems and Videohead.
  • “A lot of sports podcasting simply reuses talk-radio formats. From the way you sound, this is clearly going to be something different.” “Yeah, I am hoping we can pull it off.” ESPN Films and FiveThirtyEight senior producer Jody Avirgan talks to Adweek about the upcoming 30 for 30 podcast documentaries. Lots of interesting nuggets in there. (Adweek)
  • “The web is built on hyperlinks, with each link a pathway to discovery, an endorsement, a reference. Podcasts could be like that too.” Jake Shapiro, CEO of RadioPublic, published what appears to be a manifesto for the upcoming listening app that will make up his team’s first independent foray into the podcasting marketplace. (RadioPublic blog)
  • The lovely Hollywood history podcast, You Must Remember This, is going on hiatus. But KQED was able to score a pretty great Q&A with creator Karina Longworth in the meantime. (KQED Arts)
  • If you haven’t been keeping up with APM’s new investigative podcast, In The Dark — along with everything that’s been happening with the actual case it’s examining — you really should. Vulture has a great interview here with Madeleine Baran, the investigative journalist who drives the show. (Vulture)
  • At the Online News Association 2016 conference in Denver last week, WNYC’s Delaney Simmons and NPR’s Mathilde Piard gave a presentation on their respective organizations’ attempts to wield social media tools as a points of audio distribution. (Journalism.co.uk)

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.

The podcast industry puts on a too-big blazer and tries to impress the old guy at the party

The dog and pony show. Yesterday saw the second annual IAB Podcast Upfronts, the industry event meant to drum up interest in the medium among ad buyers. The day’s programming — which was long, exhausting a full-day affair that ran over eight hours that nearly drove me to my first cigarette in a long while — was packed to the brim with endless announcements and minutiae. In the interest of time, I’m just going to stick what the things that struck me as interesting in terms of what it says about where we’re going, along with some spattering of notable, piecemeal developments. Do read the writeups over at The Wall Street Journal, Ad Age, and AdExchanger if you’re looking for broader overviews.

We gonna get wonky here.

1. This year’s festivities saw an increase in the number of participating presenters, from eight podcast publishers to twelve. The returnees were: NPR, WNYC Studios, ESPN, CBS, AdLarge, Panoply, Midroll, and Podtrac’s recently spun-off ad sales arm known as Authentic. Joining the slate were: Wondery, HowStuffWorks, Time Inc., and PodcastOne. A strange mishmash of companies, to be sure, with the proportion of companies with legacy media roots slightly outweighing the digital natives. (My personal count on the latter category: HowStuffWorks, Panoply, Midroll, Podtrac.)

2. In their presentation yesterday, Panoply announced it was building something they regarded as an “imprint,” to borrow a book publishing concept, around the author Gretchen Rubin, which hosts the popular Happier podcast on the network. Following something of a sub-network model, Rubin is set to help curate a collection of podcasts within the self-improvement genre, likely drawing from her community of like-minded writers. This isn’t the first time such a model would be tested; Midroll, of all places, tested this out with its Wolfpop network, which was curated by comedian Paul Scheer. Wolfpop was later folded into Earwolf when Midroll moved to streamline its content offerings.

But the real thing of interest here is Panoply’s use of the book publishing analogy. That company has consistently exhibited behaviors that suggest a lean towards the direction of that industry — especially now, as it builds products around known quantities within the book publishing space, like Malcolm Gladwell and Sophia Amoruso — and a recent quote by Slate chairman Jacob Weisberg, published in a recent Ken Doctor column(more on that later), further emphasized this possible way that the company views itself:

In the world of books, nobody cares if something is published by Viking or Random House. They care about the author and the book. I think podcasting is going to be more like that.

Super interesting.

3. “One in five podcast listeners are listening to an ESPN podcast,” said JonPaul Rexing, ESPN’s senior director of sales, apparently citing numbers from Edison Research. This particular method of presenting audience data seemed to gain some currency in yesterday’s event, with Time Inc. also adopting similar language. In a press release that accompanied their presentation, the company noted that its podcast programming “reaches 3 in 4 adults who have listened to a podcast,” citing numbers from comScore-MRI Fusion. I have a little trouble internalizing these stats, the boldness of which doesn’t seem to square at all with the medium’s long-running distrust in its apples-to-apples analytics at an industry-wide level. (Not directly relevant, but totally worth knowing: ESPN works with first-party data.)

4. Speaking of ESPN, I find myself unreasonably excited about its upcoming podcast adaptation of the brand’s well-loved 30 for 30 documentary series. (News of the adaptation first surfaced back in July, when the relevant job listings went up.) The show’s first season is scheduled for an early 2017 rollout, and the production team will be announced publicly soon. I’m told that they will include alums from WNYC, NPR, and the BBC. And from the rumors I’ve heard about their identities, I’m very, very excited. And so was senior producer Jody Avirgan when he announced the project on-stage, who seemed beside himself as he enthused, “We’re going to be committing acts of journalism.”

5. There’s a bit I really enjoyed in AdExchanger’s coverage of the event that discusses skepticism over dynamic ad insertion. Check out the whole article, of course, but here’s the money:

“We are typically hearing from advertisers who are the biggest, longest-term folks in the space [that they] are concerned about insertion,” said Midroll’s [Lex] Friedman. “The networks that force them to move to insertion are seeing performance worsen.”

This sentiment echoes an item I wrote back in May, which involved reservations expressed by Mack Weldon’s marketing manager Collin Willardson (an aggressive buyer of podcast ads) about the technology. “Dynamic ad insertion disassociates the host from the advertiser, so they care less about the actual product or brand they’re trying to sell,” he told me then. “Audiences pick up on that, and quickly tune out.”

6. Miscellanea:

  • The New York City Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment is apparently working on a report on the state of the podcast industry in the city, which will likely include an examination of its labor dynamics. (Re-upping this Adam Ragusea piece, as appropriate.) A city-driven ad campaign to raise podcast awareness is also impending.
  • Edison Research rolled out some additional data points to their Share of Ear study, revolving around the way podcast consumers relate to the medium’s current advertising executions and practices. You check those out in a report posted on the IAB website ahead of the upfront.
  • AdLarge announced its own consumer-facing podcast play: a platform called Cabana. Details to come.
  • Panoply’s branded podcast collaboration with GE, which resulted in last year’s The Message, is due for a second show later this year.
  • Also for the horse-race observers, Midroll is now repping APM’s Brains On!, which they grouped with The Longest Shortest Time as a parenting show. And speaking of Midroll, they’re trying their hand at true crime, with a show about the Boston Strangler called Stranglers, which comes out of a partnership with documentary shop Northern Light Productions. (Not that anybody asked, but my favorite Boston Strangler media is the Sebastian Junger book A Death in Belmont.)
  • Night Vale Presents’ new show: something called The Orbiting Human Circus. Their ad sales are being represented by Authentic.
  • Time Inc. officially announced its slate of podcasts yesterday. You can find the details in the customary press release. And speaking of Time Inc., one of its brands, Sports Illustrated, announced its own batch of new shows this week. It also mentioned that it is now partnered up with DGital Media. This marks the brand’s move away from Panoply, which it previously worked with on the podcast front. I was told the departure was amicable.

Wow that made my neck hurt.

What’s going on? This year’s upfront festivities took place in Time Inc.’s Henry R. Luce auditorium in downtown Manhattan, somewhat of a step up in lavishness compared to last year’s venue, the homelier Greene Space at WNYC. That isn’t intended as shade on the Greene Space, which I love. Rather, I state it as an indication of an underlying problem.

While the proceedings yesterday were significantly smoother compared to last year’s festivities — “there’s air conditioning!” was a common refrain among attendees, a reference to some ventilatory disturbances back then — it was also significantly stranger, a little more strained. It had, simultaneously, the feel of a child wearing a much-too-big blazer and the feel of a much-too-older man at a college party.

The former is something I’ve articulated before: the strangeness of the podcast industry, as the new new thing, appropriating the traditional structure of the upfront ritual, an anthropological performance carried over from the old world of commercial television and radio. I called it a conservative stance, one that operates off the sense that you win trust by performing the rituals they do and by the looking the way they look, as opposed to creating new rituals, spaces, and market expectations of their own.

The latter comes out from what is an inevitable dynamic: the entrance of folks from legacy radio backgrounds bringing in legacy radio sensibilities, along with a not-insignificant amount of overconfidence that those sensibilities will transition well — and in a manner that isn’t destructive — as they followed both the potential money and the new cool. It’s that sensibility that defined the tone of yesterday’s festivities, I think: all the usual tropes associated with the positive elements of the medium, but devoid of its rich, glorious complexities.

This upfront, at this particular point in time, bore the responsibility of publicly constructing the narrative of the medium for the benefit of not just the advertising community, but everything else around it as well. Some of those people were not ready to do that, and the ones who were, alas, were given the wrong stage to do it. The result? A deficiency of cool — a currency vital to the function of a creative advertiser — and a representation of a medium, with all the power and thrills and beauty it contains, that only fleetingly comes close to being vaguely recognizable.

“It’s kind of a coming-out party,” said Jason Hoch, the chief content officer of HowStuffWorks, when we spoke on Tuesday ahead of the IAB Podcast Upfronts. “I mean, people have heard of us. It’s just that they didn’t realize we were as big are.”

I’ve committed my fair share of sins writing this newsletter, and perhaps one of the biggest is the lack of attention I’ve paid to HowStuffWorks, the 18-year-old Atlanta-based digital media outfit that also happens to be one of the strongest, and most interesting, podcast operations currently running. A multi-platform entity spanning across audio, video, and text that has transferred ownership a few times — its current parent company is Washington-based Blucora — HowStuffWorks has built a considerable following on its so-called “longform edutainment” programming whose strengths, in my view, are largely tethered to its enthusiastic hyper-focus on subject verticals — which are Wikipedia-esque in scope and sprawl — and celebrity-creation, which gives the company a digital sensibility vaguely reminiscent of YouTube multi-channel networks (MCNs). It’s overwhelmingly pleasant, smart, and nourishing.

The podcast arm of HowStuffWorks is substantial, 12 shows strong at this writing, and it’s growing. According to a press release sent out earlier this week, the network tripled its downloads over the past two years, from 8.8 million monthly downloads in 2014 to over 28 million downloads in June 2016. Download volumes, I’m told, are split equally between new episodes and across the network’s back catalogues. (Worth noting: HowStuffWorks relies on Podtrac’s measurement standards, and regularly appears in the latter company’s monthly podcast ranker.)

Hoch tells me that Podtrac’s Industry Rankings, which was introduced in May and ranked networks by unique monthly downloads in the U.S., proved to be a boon for the network. HowStuffWorks debuted in the fourth spot, where it remains, and while the ranker should be interpreted with copious disclaimers (context and caveats can be found in a previous Hot Pod), it brought the company a great deal of fresh attention. “The in-bounds we got from that were amazing,” Hoch said, exuding confidence over advertising prospects. (Relevant: the company has secured Liberty Mutual as an exclusive advertiser on its CarStuff podcast for a full year, if that’s interesting to you.)

So, what does the future hold for HowStuffWorks? I’m told that the company expects to double its podcast revenue across the next year, and that more shows — along with some possible headcount expansion — should be expected down the line. But I’m also told to watch out for a technology-related development. In a tech environment that seems more than a little ad-tech envious, I’m curious to see what, exactly, this means.

One more thing: I find myself endlessly fascinated by the company’s physical placement in Atlanta. I’ve often thought that it’s a great media city, beyond Turner Broadcasting. Hoch tells me that between the university system and the region’s robust film and television industry (which he claims is substantially better than that of Los Angeles), he has easy access to a strong talent pool for both talent and engineering. Speaking as someone who is growing increasingly weary of the coasts, that’s utterly welcome news.

Juicy, juicy details. I’m a big fan of media analyst Ken Doctor and his Newsonomics columns — which tend to be extravagantly long and mercilessly wonky — and so it was such a pleasure for me to find that he’s put out two very separate podcast-related analyses over the past week.

The first column, published in Politico, is structured around newly announced developments at The New York Times’ audio team and contains several bits of detail that, as a collective, vividly illustrates how this baby industry operates on a ecosystemic-level. Do read the whole column in its entirety, but here are my highlights:

  • The New York Times announced its newest podcast on Tuesday, Still Processing, a culture podcast featuring critic-at-large Wesley Morris (formerly of the now-defunct Grantland and the Do You Like Prince Movies? podcast) and the Times Magazine staff writer Jenna Wortham (who focuses on technology and culture in the broadest sense, and who was gave a really wonderful interview on a recent ep of the Recode Media podcast). This launch comes several weeks after the Times launched The Run-Up” its election podcast, establishing what appears to be start of a pretty aggressive rollout strategy.
  • Still Processing is produced in partnership with Pineapple Street Media. The project was hinted at in a previous Hot Pod.
  • The Times’ podcasts are now hosted on Art19. This new Art19 partnership was also hinted in a previous Hot Pod, and I assure you there are more big partnership announcements to come. Watch for them.
  • Andy Mills, a long-time Radiolab producer (the one with the hair), is joining the Times’ audio team, further illustrating the team’s strategy of recruiting from the public radio talent pool.
  • The Times has a “three-year investment” in the audio team, which I’m reading as, more or less, a three-year runway.

Between its selective partnerships, the manner in which its spread its bets, and the way it juxtaposes internal development with external collaborations, I think the Times is hitting a very sweet spot between being strategic caution and intelligent risk. Half of the battle, frankly, is starting out in a good position, and while some of their partnerships (and projects and hires) will probably fail, they’re configured to do so in a way that’ll help them survive into the next step.

Doctor’s second column, published in Current, is far more exhaustive and surveys the breadth of the industry along with its requisite opportunities. This piece, in particular, I’m not going to disrespectfully butcher through excerpt and extensive aggregation, and I highly encourage you to spend some time with this. But I did want to point out an idea embedded in the writeup that I’m currently turning around in my head:

In the wider sense, podcasts offer tryouts for public radio, “minor leagues” for talent development, with candidates given greater responsibility and opportunity to be coached and nurtured. Further, the freer and bigger market for audio talent begins to impact hiring throughout the public radio ecosystem.

This is true beyond the public radio system, as we’ve seen with the emerging trend of podcast-to-TV adaptations and the continuous stream of moneyed networks picking up homegrown independent podcasts. It’s a function of, and remains a testament to, the medium’s creator-friendly openness. (The condition of which, by the way, is increasingly thought to be contested as the industry professionalizes.)

Quick note. The IAB Tech Lab issued some guidelines for podcast advertising earlier this week. Check out the Ad Age writeup, and expect my analysis next week.

Bites:

  • Early last week, American Public Media announced a new investigative podcast, In The Dark, that’ll examine the child abduction of Jacob Wetterling in rural Minnesota — the case that led to a law enforcing state sex-offender registries. In a chilling coincidence, Wetterling’s remains were discovered last Thursday. The podcast launched early Wednesday morning, with the reporting fully on the case. In The Dark hit at the top of the charts earlier this week, on the strength of its teaser. (iTunes, Star Tribune)
  • Midroll has a new CEO: Erik Diehn, formerly the company’s VP of business development. He replaces Adam Sachs, who announced his departure from the company back in June after two years in the role. Also, Lex Friedman, formerly the EVP of sales and development, is the company’s new chief revenue officer. (Company blog)
  • This is pretty cool: WNYC is finding some success in using text-to-donate campaigns whose call-to-actions are included in their podcasts. It’s still not a system where you can donate directly to a specific podcast, however, but I think that set-up is never going to happen. (Current)
  • Jonathan Goldstein’s new show, which he’s making at Gimlet, is finally coming out later this month. I swear it’s like summer is the season everyone drops stuff even though we’re all on vay-cay. (iTunes)
  • Pandora is experimenting with the host-read advertising format, which it will use in the music-interview show hybrid station the company is launching with musician Questlove — who, together with Malcolm Gladwell, gave the opening keynote at yesterday’s IAB podcast upfront. (Digiday)
  • NPR’s going for that sweet Tim Ferriss/Recode/StartUp money with How I Built This, a new interview podcast about entrepreneurship and stuff. Hosted by Guy Raz, that other guy with the cool glasses. (NPR)
  • Starbucks has branded podcasts. Yep. Part of a larger multi-platform branded content situation. (TechCrunch)
  • Apparently there’s a piece of fancy apparel called the “Boho Mid-length Long Sleeve Podcast Co-Host Top,” courtesy of Modcloth. No, this isn’t a native ad, but I’m all ears if someone from Modcloth is reading this. (New York; WBEZ’s Nerdette podcast also did some digging)
  • Also, Apple is getting rid of the headphone jack. And introduces “AirPods.” Oh boy. (BuzzFeed)