Post-election, how do you create a politics podcast for a market (still) flooded with politics podcasts?

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 130, published August 1, 2017.

Strong early feedback for NPR’s Wow in the World. Kids’ podcasts: there are rising arguments for more, and we now have some numbers for those looking into building a strategy. NPR tells me that Wow in the World, the organization’s science podcast for kids, broke the 2 million download mark as of last Wednesday, achieving that feat in slightly over two months and across 17 episodes. These figures are based on internal measurements described as relatively conservative; the actual number is likely somewhat higher. For reference, the show, hosted by TED Radio Hour’s Guy Raz and SiriusXM’s Mindy Thomas, officially launched on May 15. (Also: Between the three shows he hosts for NPR alone, how Raz has any time for his own kids is a mystery to me.)

Listener engagement is also said to be robust. The show features a prominent call-in component, and I’m told that the team has been receiving around 150 voicemails a week through the 800 number that was set up for the production.

Wow in the World, of course, should be read as an anomaly among its peers given its institutional heritage. Indeed, as a learning matter, its success only gives us a glimpse at the highest ends of the genre at this point in time, as the podcast is the beneficiary of factors largely inaccessible by most other kids’ podcasts. Among them: NPR’s built-in brand benefits and marketing infrastructure, along with Raz and Thomas’ long-cultivated followings. But Wow in the World can nonetheless be understood as proof-of-concept for the growing enthusiasm around the potential of podcast programming for kids. There’s value here, its early success seems to say, and there’s more for the taking.

In related news… Gen-Z Media’s The Disappearance of Mars Patel is being adapted for television by Anonymous Content and Paramount TV, Deadline reports. Anonymous Content, by the way, is the production company also responsible for the Homecoming adaptation that we discussed last week. Something else to track from the Deadline report: UTA was the talent agency responsible for brokering the deal on behalf of the Mars Patel team.

The kids’ audio drama, which received a Peabody Award a few weeks ago, recently wrapped up its second season. It is also part of Kids Listen, and partners with Panoply for hosting and ad sales. Gen-Z declined to disclose download numbers when contacted.

A branded podcast, a studio, a playbook. There are curious qualities to note about “Rebellion in Detroit,” a branded podcast that premiered last Friday. To begin with, Midroll Media is the company responsible for that campaign, working with the film studio Annapurna Pictures as a move to promote the latest Kathryn Bigelow project Detroit, about the summer of civil unrest (or rebellion, or uprising) that took place in the titular city in 1967. The branded podcast takes the shape of a three-part series hosted by Courtney B. Vance, who you might remember from FX’s “The People vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story.” It also possessed a rather peculiar rollout strategy: the show debuted as an exclusive on the website of the local Detroit area Scripps-owned TV station, WXYZ, last Friday morning. (Scripps, of course, being Midroll’s parent company.) But the exclusivity window only lasted for a few hours — extremely short, in other words — and the podcast went wide later in the afternoon.

Why, exactly? “Annapurna Pictures wanted to make sure local audiences had the chance to hear this content first,” a spokesperson said. Okay, I guess?

Anyway, here is what’s most interesting to me about the campaign: to produce the branded podcast, Midroll turned to Transmitter Media, the studio recently created by former Midroll executive producer Gretta Cohn. It seems that Cohn and co. have been pretty busy since officially rolling out back in May. In addition to Rebellion in Detroit, Transmitter was also responsible for that Walmart podcast that a reader wrote in to ask about earlier this month, and is currently working with ESPN’s 30 for 30 to produce material for the period between seasons. (Called Off Season, the project is described as “a sound-rich conversation show” that serves as a companion to the documentary series. The second season is scheduled to drop in November.) Cohn also tells me that the company has two “longer-term narrative storytelling projects with really exciting partners” in the works. No details were offered at this time, only that the first of those will launch in November.

As a side note… This might be stating the obvious, but I’ll state it anyway because it’s probably helpful for some reading this: We have, it seems, the beginnings of a launch playbook as far as independent podcast studios are concerned. You begin by hammering down a few branded podcast clients (big companies, preferably), which unlocks strong upfront pay-to-production dollars, after which you then use those dollars to lay down the foundation for creative, personal, or longer-term bets.

Pineapple Street Media’s Jenna Weiss-Berman articulated as much during a recent Third Coast panel in Brooklyn. “We think about things in a few different buckets,” she said. “One of them is ‘lots of money branded stuff’ that you can’t really say no to, and the way we think about that is that stuff can fund a lot of the other stuff we want to do. That stuff allows us to take risks… like we do a few shows pro bono and that was always something we always wanted to do.” (If you’re tuning into the segment, the relevant section starts at around the 30-minute mark.)

One should also pay attention to how the “lots of money branded stuff,” as in Pineapple and Transmitter’s cases, isn’t just limited to advertisers looking to cobble together branded podcasts. The strategy includes working with bigger, deep-pocketed editorial companies interested in a meaningful podcast play, that lack the time or internal means to form an audio team. Pineapple Street did, after all, work with The New York Times and First Look Media to produce straight-up editorial projects — Still Processing and Missing Richard Simmons, respectively, with more presumably on the way — while Transmitter has whatever it has going on with ESPN.

Speaking of ESPN…

ESPN’s 30 for 30 podcast beat 2.1 million downloads in its first month, marking a pretty successful launch for the sports audio documentary series. Those numbers are based on Podtrac measurements, which the organization uses to verify its downloads, and a spokesperson tells me that the show is ESPN’s most popular podcast on a per-episode basis. If you’re doing the math, all five episodes of the show’s first season dropped within that first month period.

Gauging the success of podcast launches remains an elusive exercise, of course, given the absence of a third-party measurement that’s able to dole out some form of apples-to-apples paradigm. But we do have the relative performance of other shows to draw from, like Radiotopia’s Ear Hustle, which broke 1.5 million downloads across two episodes in its first month, and Wondery’s Locked Up Abroad, which broke 1 million downloads across three episodes in its first week.

The New York Times’ The Daily launches a limited-run spinoff. The New Washington, which will drop episodes weekly through the fall, is designed to “help listeners make sense of the figures remaking Washington,” according to the press release. While this politics-focused spinoff is being produced by the very same team behind The Daily — even using Michael Barbaro as host — it will use a completely separate RSS feed and visual branding. It is perhaps productive, then, to think about this distribution structure as somewhat akin to an established print magazine rolling out a smaller, special edition that’s sold separately from the main publication within the same magazine stand. (Like what Monocle is doing. Sort of. Kinda?) Of course, there are potential branding, audience education, and listener acquisition complications embedded in this configuration, but if they can figure out the marketing, there’s considerable editorial upside: the move gives the same team considerable room to flex different creative muscles, spread out to a wider surface area, allow for additional emphasis on coverage areas that might warrant more focus, and perhaps most importantly, introduce a marginal evergreen element to an entity principally defined by its ephemeral newsiness.

(A side note: If you’re wondering about The Run-Up — the standalone Times politics podcast that published in the lead-up to the election and Michael Barbaro’s first podcast project — I’m told that The New Washington isn’t meant to be a replacement. “With that said, there are no immediate plans to revive The Run-Up at this time,” a spokesperson said. Just as well, I suppose. What would we be running up to, at this point in time? 2020? Get outta here.)

Anyway, if you’re wondering how The Daily is doing, you’re in luck. A big Vanity Fair feature from the weekend on the great New York Times-Washington Post newspaper wars has a number for us: the podcast phenomenon “averages half a million downloads a day.” A stunning feat. (Ignore the confusion with the Times’ VR product, if it’s still there.)

Here’s the question that I’m thinking about: how do you create a politics podcast for a market already absolutely flooded with politics podcasts? Not only is it a go-to product move for most media organizations dabbling in the medium, it’s also the essential subject focus of one of the fastest-growing new companies in the industry, Crooked Media. Further, where do you go from a design standpoint, when the gamut has been well run from conversational recaps (the Gabfest model along with its many, many children) to subject interviews (Politico’s Off Message) to even historical (WaPo’s Presidential) and legal niches (What Trump Can Teach Us About Con Law)? Combine all of that with a more general concern about news exhaustion — and the unrelenting news pace, which shatters the dreams and dinner plans of producers everywhere — and you have, in the politics podcast, a genre of the highest degree of difficulty.

We’ll see how The New Washington grapples with the genre’s inherent pitfalls, and how the Times will angle the new podcast to lock in a fresh listener base. From the introductory episode, the Big Idea here seems to be keeping a tight focus on the cast of characters in this bonkers soap opera of a political system. Hey man, such a granular, detail-oriented, deep-dive content focus worked for the Game of Thrones Media Industrial Complex. I guess it can work for real world politics too?

Spotify readies another podcast push? Lucas Shaw, the scrappy young entertainment reporter over at Bloomberg, published a mighty interesting piece yesterday with some really juicy details on Spotify’s continued podcast dalliances.

Here’s the money:

Spotify is experimenting in new media to increase the time customers spend with its app — and boost advertising sales. As of now, most consumers looking for music videos or podcasts leave Spotify for Apple and YouTube. In particular, the company wants to assess awareness of its service among avid podcast listeners and could expand the campaign to more providers later this year. Spotify confirmed the details of the effort, but declined to make an executive available for interview.

The company is also funding “a new batch of original podcasts in the coming months, according to people familiar with the matter who asked not to be identified discussing the private plans.” As a reminder, Spotify had worked with Panoply to produce its existing batch of original audio programming. We’ll see if that partnership continues or broadens out.

Shaw also highlighted the streaming music company’s recent advertising collaborations with podcast publishers like Gimlet, Crooked Media, and The Ringer — where Spotify runs both digital (like this) and outdoor ads (the article mentions ads on buses, I’ve also seen them on New York subway station screens while enduring the summer of hell), and in return publishers talk up the platform through host-reads.

Cool. Be sure to give Shaw your click.

Pledge drives, but for podcasts. There are no new ideas… only new combinations, I suppose? Or “rediscoveries,” if you’re feeling frisky. However articulated, that seems to be a trend of note as far as Slate is concerned. About a year after sister company Panoply mashed up War of the Worlds with branded audio content, Slate has found value in repurposing the old public radio gambit of pledge drives through its podcasts to bump up subscriptions for its membership program, Slate Plus.

Digiday has the report, and here’s the key chunk:

Those interruptions might have been unexpected for readers, but they worked. The program drove “hundreds” of new sign-ups from Wednesday to Sunday, per Slate Group Chairman Jacob Weisberg. That total — the publisher declined to provide a hard number — was four times greater than the average number of sign-ups that Slate Plus typically gets every week, according to a Slate spokesperson. The results were encouraging enough that Slate will launch a pledge drive across all of its podcasts later this fall, though it declined to be more specific about the plans.

It’s all rather preliminary, but nonetheless amusing. That said, a couple of risk factors should be highlighted. Execution matters, of course, and one imagines the best practices you would apply to podcasting advertising should be applied to these neo-pledge drives as well — after all, a pledge drive spot is essentially a house ad, and a pledge drive is essentially the ad campaign equivalent of a napalm drop. And like all advertising formats, both within and between mediums, there are probable diminishing returns over time, especially once the novelty wears off. (Indeed, the fact that the interruptions were unexpected might itself be a reason the campaign worked.)

Some attention should also be paid to the dangers of stacking the ad-load way too much. Slate, I’d say, is already playing a fairly risky game with that Trumpcast drive, with Digiday observing that “in some cases, the interruptions took up as much as 15 percent of every Trumpcast episode.” (Trumpcast editions are already fairly short, often falling between 20 to 30 minutes.)

There’s a more interesting theoretical question here for us to chew on, of course: is this model replicable for other publishers? There are many non-Slate operations that stand to benefit from successful adaptations of the pledge drive, in particular publishers that possess supplementary membership support programs (i.e. Gimlet Members), horizontal subscription businesses (i.e. The New York Times), or direct support models (i.e. Patreon-using podcasts like Chapo Trap House and NPR Podcasts). We’ll just have to hope that someone else tries it out in order to answer to that question. Though I suppose quantity is also a factor that might even affect the outcome over time: if every podcast operation utilizes the pledge drive, would we see pledge drive fatigue?

That’s a question for another future, or another universe.

Meanwhile, in Australia. Earlier this summer, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) consolidated its podcasting efforts into a new internal division that’s dedicated to the medium. The division, called ABC Audio Studios, is the product of a merging between ABC Radio’s long-form Radio Features team and the pre-existing internal podcast team. It is being led by Kellie Riordan, who previously served as a strategist for the organization and has overseen the creation of several new ABC podcasts.

This move was driven in large part by a desire for better podcast development workflows. “Structurally, the creation of ABC Audio Studios means we can all work more collaboratively and maximize everyone’s unique skills in audio delivery. Previously, we had too many places for staff to pitch ideas and too many areas for on-demand content creation whereas now we’ll have one commissioning process for podcasts,” Riordan wrote me in an email. “For audiences, this also means a more streamlined offer where duplication is minimized and we can more readily commission content for market gaps or audience segments we’re not catering to.”

Riordan also checked off various programming areas that her new division is interested in: kids’ podcasts, comedy shows (of which several are in development), solutions-based journalism, and something that she describes as content for working families in general (“busy people who want shortcuts and hack to help them navigate their hectic lives”), among others. She further explained that, on top of the baseline content development work, ABC Audio Studios will also be exploring new storytelling styles and formats through collaborations with external teams — Riordan pointed to a show called Outer Sanctum, which the ABC eventually acquired — and other parts of the sprawling multi-platform organization.

You can find additional information through this ABC Backstory post.

And while we’re on the subject of the ABC and podcasts… The organization’s podcast conference, OzPod, is coming back for its second year on September 8, with WBEZ’s Jenn White serving — of Making Oprah fame, among many other things — as the keynote speaker. If you’re on the continent this fall, check it out.

Bites:

  • Looks like Anchor is positioning itself to pick up podcast publishers hosted on Soundcloud. An interesting TechCrunch spot, to say the least, titled “Sick of SoundCloud? Anchor offers podcast transfer with free hosting.” Sneaky, sneaky. There are a couple of things at play here that are really interesting to me. I’ll write some thoughts up for next week’s newsletter.
  • From NPR One’s Tamar Charney and analytics manager Nick DePrey: “How to make local listeners care about your story.” (NPR Training Blog)
  • Well that’s interesting for a bunch of reasons: “AudioBoom’s revenue increased by 460 percent to £1,843,000 [USD $2,439,145] in the six months to the end of May, ahead of the previous trading update for the period announced on 7 June.” (Press Release)
  • Charley Locke’s latest is a great profile of a fascinating upcoming project from Night Vale Presents called “Conversations with People Who Hate Me.” That show dropped this week. (Wired)
  • Shouts to Kelly Moffitt: “A new newsletter helps listeners discover podcasts produced in flyover country.” (Poynter)
  • Dissect, one of the more interesting takes on the music podcast, is back with its second season today. (Website)
  • Another contender in the “searchable audio” arena: “With its new project Hertz, Prisa Radio wants to make audio more discoverable online.” (Journalism.co.uk)
  • “With vocal fry and upspeak, these podcast hosts parody the policing of women’s voices.” (The Washington Post)

[photocredit]U.S. capitol building photo by Geoff Livingston used under a Creative Commons license.[/photocredit]

Amazon’s next move is giving its Audible original programming to all Prime members

Just out this morning: Audible Channels now comes bundled with the Amazon Prime membership. The new offering is only available for U.S. members.

Three quick things:

  • While Amazon doesn’t publicly disclose exact numbers of Prime memberships, analysts at Piper Jaffray estimate the number to be around 57 to 61 million people, according to a CNET writeup. A CNN Money report from earlier this year noted that Prime memberships were estimated to have jumped 35 percent across 2015 alone, citing numbers from a Consumer Intelligence Research Partners report.
  • Obviously, this greatly — and automatically — expands the reach of potential listeners with easy access to Audible’s original programming. This development is consistent with, and weirdly expands upon, a speculation I made to Bloomberg’s Lucas Shaw in a January article: “Amazon is doing to Audible what it’s done to Prime Video.” This has become the defining lens for the way I read the company.
  • Also worth keeping in mind: Audible’s insistence on not calling their original programming “podcasts.”

And in case you missed it, I wrote about Audible’s first batch of original shows earlier this summer. I wasn’t particularly enthused, but I suppose it was a launch set. Audible Channels costs $4.95 a month for non-members; normal full Audible memberships cost $14.95 a month.

Ken Doctor is putting me out of business. If you’re reading this, you’ll probably be very interested to check out his ongoing five-part series on the podcasting business that Nieman Lab is running this week. The first entry, which came out yesterday, is a fantastic primer to the industry, and holds some ideas that I find are incredibly useful.

Doctor closed his first post with a wonderful series of guiding questions, to which I’d like to add one more: Is it possible for podcasting to grow rapidly while maintaining its openness for independents?

I should’ve taken a vacation this week. But we’ve got some guidelines to talk about.

Your handy guide to the IAB’s guidelines. This is going to be a long one, and a poor sequel to some of what I’ve written before.

Ahead of its second annual podcast upfront event last week, the Interactive Advertising Bureau Tech Lab published its Podcast Ad Metrics Guidelines, a document seeking to assist in the resolution of what has commonly been asserted as the medium’s defining problem: measurability. Given that these guidelines were issued from an ostensibly independent third-party like the IAB, they were much anticipated. In some circles, it’s thought to be just the kind of stuff the industry needs to get its house in order.

Time will tell, of course, whether the document will have some sort of impact. But for what it’s worth, I’m bearish.

Let’s consider the problem. The real issue here is less about podcast measurability than it is about the verification of podcast ad impressions. Specifically, advertisers want to effectively track the delivery of the spots they’re paying for.

And to be even more specific, this issue principally pertains to brand advertisers. The space has long operated on a healthy stream of direct advertisers (your MailChimps, your Audibles, your Blue Aprons, and so on) whose ad buying operations are primarily driven by a focus on promo-code conversions. Their assessments would definitely benefit from better ad verification, but they’re ultimately not dependent on them, because direct advertisers can bypass the black-box nature ((In case you’re not familiar: By “black box,” I mean that, for the majority of downloads, it remains relatively unknowable what happens to a podcast ad once it’s stitched into an episode file and shipped off to a listener.)) of current podcast tracking practices by making their own return-on-investment calculations, based on how many listeners end up using a promo code. In contrast, brand advertisers need to know how many people they are reaching as a way to justify their ad buys, because their advertising initiatives are driven by intangible concepts like mindshare, influence, and brand identity — more fluid factors meant to influence buying decisions over the long term.

From the perspective of advertisers, the problem is that “downloads” don’t mean the same thing across different podcast publishers. Sarah van Mosel, Acast’s chief commercial officer, once phrased the problem to me this way: “Buyers just need to know that when they’re spending $100K on one podcast, they’re getting the same amount of ‘stuff’ as if they spend $100K on another podcast.” The IAB’s goal with this report, then, is to provide a publicly available technical framework that the industry can use as a common language, so that brand advertisers can engage with podcast publishers off a baseline layer of trust. (Implicit in this idea is that the actual accuracy of the technical specs is besides the point — so long as everyone is incorrect in the exact same way.)

If this all sounds extremely familiar to you, it’s because we’ve been here before. Back in February, a consortium of public radio organizations banded together to publish their own set of guidelines on podcast metric measurements. My analysis then (which you can read here) saw the publication of that document as a political move by that consortium to accelerate the IAB’s production of its own report. I was also skeptical about the report’s capacity for impact, and a lot of my thinking then can be directly applied to this situation.

Two chunks on why I’m bearish on the new report:

1. The IAB’s guidelines merely serve as a best practices document — there is no formal enforcement of these standards. To state the obvious, best practices are only as strong as the number of people who adopt them, and as a result, we’re left in a situation where, for the standards to be useful, a critical mass of industry participants must be achieved on their own accord.

But the reason podcast downloads have historically been fluffy is that various players in the space aren’t incentivized right now to speak to advertisers in the same language…or to challenge the narrative of their current reporting systems. Why? A relevant quote in an Observer article from Midroll’s now-CEO Erik Diehn, responding to the public radio guidelines in February: “If everybody adopted these standards today, some shows might come down a little bit in size and some might come down pretty dramatically.” It’s an irrational, but understandable, collective psychology: Though measurement standards in some form or another will benefit companies in the long-term, some are hesitant to suffer in the short-term, and as a consequence, the lesser status quo is favored.

There are few possible paths to a future where the IAB’s guidelines can mean something. For one thing, we could see a future in which a critical mass of podcast publishers — all occupying a solid enough position to sustain whatever corrections the guidelines may bring onto their reporting structures — voluntarily bite the metaphorical bullet, adopt the standards, and collusively enforce those standards by convention. And for another, it’s also possible to see a future in which advertisers would use the mere existence of these guidelines as a “cudgel” (to quote a source) to pressure publishers into being more aggressive about refining their measurement capabilities.

Either outcome would be constructive, but they would be so in spite of the IAB’s guidelines — because the document itself isn’t very good in the first place.

2. Put simply: The IAB’s guidelines appear to be a compromised product. Compared to February’s public radio guidelines document, the IAB’s report is significantly less technically rigorous, with key fundamental definitions still half-heartedly defined. One of several red-flags: a “partial download” is still defined as “a unique file request that was less that 100% downloaded” — which means that a podcast file that’s, say, 1 percent downloaded is still valued as equal to a podcast file that’s, say, 99 percent downloaded.

The report’s lack of a punch might well have something to do with its long drafting process, which stretched well beyond a year. (I’ve been hearing gossip about it since Q2 of 2015, and a lot of that involved talk about internal tensions.) And looking at the eclectic list of volunteer participants involved the process — 23 strong, including representation from new and old podcast companies, public radio institutions, tech companies, legacy media types, and Nielsen — one imagines, given everyone’s possibly clashing incentives, that the fact we even saw a report at all is itself a miracle. One presumes that the process was agonized.

But in the scale of things, I don’t think the report’s miss — or any future fumbles — is going to matter very much. Indeed, I suspect it’s entirely possible that individual companies can secure the interest and trust brand advertisers on their own, converting them for the rest of the industry’s benefit. In Ken Doctor’s Hot Pod-beating column yesterday, National Public Media’s Bryan Moffett cited getting business from Fortune 100 brands brands like Wells Fargo, Dell, and Target. Doctor would further note that “six-figure ad buys, rare until recently, are now more commonplace.”

The question, of course, is whether those dollars, six figures and all, will stay in the industry over time.

Broader considerations. When I’ve written about this topic previously, I’ve often been asked: Why do podcast companies want brand advertisers in the first place? Generally speaking, brand advertising dollars tend to be much bigger and more reliably scheduled across a longer period in time than direct advertising dollars. That kind of money stabilizes — and catalyzes — advertising-driven media businesses. There’s also an element of prestige involved here, and the professionalizing layer of podcast companies are principally driven at this point in time to be accepted as part of the upper echelons of the media industry.

A followup question/thought experiment: Does the podcast ecosystem actually need brand advertisers to function as a legit industry? It’s worth some debate, but I’d argue they aren’t that essential. There’s an entirely plausible future where the podcast ecosystem runs on a rich marketplace of direct and local advertisers powered by dynamic ad insertion technology. That’s provided, of course, that more efficient ad marketplaces will develop somewhere down the line in order to facilitate greater transaction volumes. (And that don’t fully corrupt the advertising experience, preferably.)

There will always be products, services, and people looking for attention, and as such, there will likely always be potential (if hard-fought) dollars for podcast ad slots, whose unique value proposition in the advertising marketplace is that intimacy thing everybody talks about. (Unless, of course, Facebook continues to grow its power and scale as the attention-monster it is beyond all counterargument, in which case we should all just give up and go to welding school.)

But I will say that I think brand advertising dollars would make it substantially easier for podcast companies who aspire to be massive triple-A upper echelon institutions — equivalent to the Big Three labels in the music industry and the major studios in the film industry. Which we should probably follow by asking whether we actually want podcast companies that big in the first place — which is a fair question.

Talking Points Memo now has a podcast offering of its own. The influential left-leaning political news website is attempting the paywalled podcast method. Episodes of the interview-based podcast, called The Josh Marshall Show (named for the site’s founder), are automatically available to the site’s paying TPM Prime members; non-paying readers can buy individual episodes for $1 each off Podbean. A free version, which will feature highlights from the full interviews, will be available to non-members.

Earlier this summer, Marshall told Nieman Lab that its paid subscription arm stabilized the site’s overall business, citing a number of roughly 11,000 paying subscribers.

I’m personally not that much of a TPM consumer, but the rollout strategy is one that I think fits well with the way the site’s system of offerings is already set up: It increases the value of the membership system in a way that matches the podcast format’s capacity for depth with the paying subscriber’s demand for depth. Square peg, meet square hole.

A financial snapshot of an independent podcast. “I’d always heard that new restaurants take five years to show a profit. I have no idea if that’s true, but this was kind of the attitude we went into it with,” said Scott Philbrook. “From day one, we approached it like a business and not a hobby, but we had absolutely zero information on whether or not a podcast that wasn’t backed by a major network or some other corporation could be a viable business model.”

Philbrook is cohost of Astonishing Legends, a California-based podcast that bills itself as the “Click and Clack of esoterica,” its programming focus being strange historical events. Extensively researched, lovingly produced, and presented with the requisite amount of kitsch, the two-year-old show comes out of a rich tradition of podcasts — and media in general, I suppose — that trade in creepiness and pulp, finding kindred spirits in the Pacific Northwest Stories programs and Lore, plus whatever’s going on over at SyFy and the History channel.

It’s also an independent creative operation figuring out its terms of existence. Philbrook and Forrest Burgess, his creative partner and cohost, took some time in a recent episode to discuss the current state of their business:

We’re so grateful to have several hundred patrons pledging amounts from $1 a month all the way to $25, and we’re currently bringing in around $1,500 monthly from that. We’ve also managed to attract the attention of several sponsors and they are testing the waters with us to see if we’re a good investment for their advertising dollars. When you guys support them, they feel good about sponsoring the show. So with three to a max of four sponsors per episode and at the support we have from you on Patreon, our gross income has currently become roughly equivalent to a single person working an entry-level part-time job.

At a time when the more well-financed elements of the industry seek to earn legitimacy and scale from the top-down, Philbrook and Burgess’ discussion provides a window into the conditions of operators on the ground level. Curious, I reached out for more details, and Philbrook was kind enough to spent some time discussing the show’s approach and current financial makeup.

The note Philbrook sent was long and rich with detail, but this newsletter has some serious space constraints (ha), so I’m going to break this out into chunks focusing on the stuff that you can most tangibly use.

1. While the show is currently testing advertising possibilities (more on that in a bit), Patreon plays a huge role in the business. “It’s such a great way to connect with listeners and a lot of listeners really want to help the show out and that’s a way that’s convenient for them,” Philbrook said. All of that Patreon money, which adds up to about $1,500 a month, goes to paying their editor and sound designer. Their editor, Sarah Vorhees, is hired on a per-episode basis, and she charges the team an hourly rate.

“And we’re finally start getting some funds out to our sound designer as well, who’s been working for free from the beginning,” he added. “The money we’ve paid both of them is insulting, but they continue to be available for us for their own reasons. We are within striking distance of getting them their full rates, however.”

2. The show currently has an exclusive sponsorship representation deal with Audioboom, the U.K.-based podcast services company, to cover ad sales. Philbrook noted that they initially attempted to handle advertising directly by themselves, but eventually decided to outsource it, given their production workload. They’ve been represented by Audioboom for almost exactly a year now, and they also host their episodes on Audioboom’s platform.

While Philbrook declined to disclose specifics, he tells me that the show’s advertising revenue outpaces its Patreon haul. But he maintains that their advertising arrangements have been largely experimental, illustrating the difficulty of longer-term planning at this point in time. “We are so grateful to have advertisers, but the thing is when you start out, they are all testing their return on investment, so the sponsorship fees you’re collecting are not necessarily commensurate with your downloads or listens,” he said. “The idea is that if your sponsors see people responding to the live reads you’re doing on your show, and it proves to be a good investment for them, then they come back and you get closer to appropriate rates.”

3. The show currently averages 115,000 downloads per episode across its initial 45 days, the standard Audioboom uses to negotiate advertising. They report having over 4.8 million downloads across the whole catalog since moving over to Audioboom, with an additional 600,000 back when they were hosted on Libsyn.

4. The team also deals with a little merchandising, but they view it more as a way to connect with their listeners than an actual profit center. For one thing, Philbrook tells me, they’re not trading in high volumes, and what little profit they’re able to accrue is often canceled out by the amount of time they put into fulfillment.

5. Philbrook, a former editor of TV commercials, is the only person working on the show full-time, while his cohost Burgess still works a day-job. The production also involves work from a volunteer research group that involves over two dozen people and which formed organically out of the show’s fanbase.

“Our overall experience so far with podcasting has been absolutely amazing,” Philbrook said. “Will we survive indefinitely? It’s hard to know. We’re currently netting about 10 percent of what we think we’d need to be making to both be full time employees of Astonishing Legends and be able to pay members of our team fair rates for what they do for us. Can we get the other 90 percent? I guess we’ll find out.” (Hat tip to Erin M. for inspiring this segment.)

Bites:

  • Last week, I threw a good deal of reflexive shade on Apple’s AirPods announcement. I still think the name is ridiculous — though perhaps no more ridiculous than the word “podcast,” goodness — but I’m totally sold on the argument put forward by Slate’s Will Oremus that Apple’s new tech is an early iteration of an “ear computer,” which functions on a voice-to-cloud computing paradigm not unlike that of the Amazon Echo. (Slate)
  • “With a show that has a celebrity host that companies want to associate their brand with, you can get between $100 and $200 [CPM], which is amazing,” Pineapple Street Media’s Jenna Weiss-Berman tells Fast Company. However, a marketing executive at SeatGeek expressed some skepticism over the rates to me on Twitter. (Fast Company)
  • DGital Media, continuing its sports programming bent, is partnering with “collegiate marketing” company Learfield to produce a suite of college sports-related podcasts. (Press release)
  • NPR will nationally distribute WAMU’s The Big Listen, its podcast-curation radio show. That description was complicated to write. (Current)
  • Overcast, Marco Arment’s bespoke podcast app, tries out display advertising. (Marco.org)
  • Sound designer Shani Aviram and ARRVLS’ Jonathan Hirsch collaborated to make Liminal, a “small-batch” sound library and production house. (Liminal Audio)

Is Hillary Clinton’s podcast propaganda or a milestone for political podcast advertising?

With Her. Well, this is certainly something. Last Friday saw the launch of With Her, the official Hillary Clinton presidential campaign podcast, which both marks a milestone for the industry and, I suppose, is a sign of the times. The show also has the distinction of being Pineapple Street Media’s first launch, the podcast company recently founded by former BuzzFeed director of audio Jenna Weiss-Berman and Longform Podcast cohost Max Linsky. Linsky holds hosting duties on the podcast, which he ostensibly shares with Clinton herself, though one imagines that her extensive campaigning schedule will ultimately have a say in that.

The podcast is an absolute coup for the company and a strong, attention-getting start to its portfolio. The linkup between Pineapple Street and the Clinton campaign grew out of Weiss-Berman’s previous collaboration with the team, back when she worked on BuzzFeed’s Another Round podcast that booked Clinton on as a guest last October. “I stayed in touch with her digital team,” Weiss-Berman told me over email. “And shortly after Max and I started Pineapple Street, we started talking to them and we all loved the idea of a campaign podcast that focused on day-to-day life on the trail and not policy.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, that last point — the podcast’s focused on campaign trail life and not on policy — ended up being the point of critique for a few media outlets. Politico’s writeup of the podcast bore the headline: “Hillary Clinton finds another way to avoid the press: Her campaign launches a podcast with an on-payroll moderator whose first interview is the nominee herself,” highlighting the show as an extension of a long-running grievances held by the parts of the news media about Clinton’s tightly messaged campaign. That perspective was echoed by Michelle Goldberg over at Slate, who called the show “charming and gutless propaganda” and further argued that “a politician attempting to circumvent the media by creating media of her own sets a bad precedent.”

I don’t buy those critiques. For one thing, media creation — whether through tweets, a YouTube channel, creating a TV spectacle out of a convention, and so on — is an essential tool for a candidate’s political communication, and it’s one that’s part of a much wider set of tools, with messaging through the news media (either directly, e.g. sitdowns with Charlie Rose, or indirectly, i.e. free media) being only one within a larger toolkit. A candidate’s aversion to working directly through the press, as in the case of the Clinton campaign, may well be morally and procedurally frustrating for the press, but a perfectly fine outcome in this scenario is to make the absence of participation mean something as part of the candidate’s larger spectrum of political communication. (Which, indeed, is what is already happening, and we see traces of that in Slate and Politico’s analysis.)

So the media aversion/”propaganda” reading of the podcast isn’t one that really resonates with me, but I think the reason for that lies in an understanding that the podcast shouldn’t be read as anything too dramatically different from it actually is: a political ad.

Consider With Her as yet another example of a branded podcast — not unlike Gimlet Creative’s Open for Business or Pacific Content’s Slack Variety Pack. (Indeed, viewed this way, With Her is quite possibly the first major political ad buy in the history of the podcast medium.)

And because it’s a branded podcast, we should levy onto it the very same questions (of ethics and execution) that we would those projects from Gimlet, and Pacific Content. Questions like: Is the show successful in harnessing the format’s associations with sincerity, authenticity, and intimacy? (I.e: Do the interviews make her feel more real, the way the Longform Podcast and Another Round have drawn out people in the past? Also, just how real can a career politician, so hardened by decades of battle, feel?) Is the podcast able to be engaging while nulling the overarching context that the listener has opted to enter a space where the brand is trying to get them to think and feel a certain way? Is the project doing a good job being clear with its targeting — is it focused on deepening the candidate’s relationship with her supporters, or is it more engaged with humanizing Clinton in the face of on-the-fence supporters? And is the podcast, with its opt-in, on-demand, and high-involvement consumption requirements, appropriate for that?

That’s how I’d approach reading the podcast. Which is why I’ll say this: Based on the first episode (which runs short, at about 15 minutes), I’m not very sure whether With Her will answer these questions much beyond its novelty as the first presidential campaign podcast ever. To be sure, it’s a fizzy and fun listen, and longtime Hot Pod readers know I love love love me some Linsky interviews. But as a person already predisposed to the Clinton campaign, I didn’t feel like I gained anything particularly new or meaningful that wasn’t already telegraphed at the Democratic National Convention. And considering the broader messaging context, I also don’t think it’s clear yet who the podcast is for — and, by extension, how it’s supposed to carry out the aims of the campaign, which (and this isn’t a new thought at all) really struggles with connecting.

That said: It’s only been one episode, and I want to be clear that an assessment like this doesn’t quite honor the immense complexities that go into working with a campaign that aims to win the highest office of the land. (I can’t even begin to imagine the number of clearances that the production must go through.) The podcast is slated to run up until the election in November, and I have a good amount of faith that the team will figure out a way to take this powerful, powerful novelty — let’s not forget the fact that the first presidential campaign podcast is a major milestone for the emerging medium — and fashion it out into a genuine tool of political communication in the future.

What’s next for PSM? Weiss-Berman: “We’re working on lots of great stuff and something I’m really excited about is that we’re trying many different styles. So we’re doing a very heavily produced short-run serialized mystery show, a really fun chat show with The New York Times, Women of the Hour season two with Lena Dunham, and we’re developing a bunch of original shows. And so much more! And all the shows are really different, with amazingly diverse hosts, so I’m hoping they bring in audiences that are new to podcasting.”

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The convention bump. The Republican and Democratic conventions were dramatic and often confusing affairs, and it seems like a significant number of folks turned to political podcasts to figure some stuff out. Indeed, several enjoyed noticeable jumps in downloads across the two-week period. Some highlights:

  • The NPR Politics Podcast saw more than a 50 percent increase in weekly unique downloaders. (That metric tracks the number of individual listeners based on measurements of IP addresses.) The podcast dropped episodes every morning across the conventions, with each edition covering the goings-on of the night before.
  • Panoply reportedly experienced a 35 percent increase in weekly downloads (over the average of the previous four weeks) among their set of political podcasts: the Slate Political Gabfest, The Gist, and Vox’s The Weeds. The Gist, which is already a daily podcast, opted to drop short review episodes every morning in addition to its normal episodes across the period. The other two shows maintained their weekly schedules.
  • The FiveThirtyEight Elections podcast also saw “a big rise in downloads and rankings,” according to producer Jody Avirgan. A spokesperson later added that over the convention period, the team “saw consumption of the Elections podcast increase nearly 300 percent compared to daily consumption before the conventions.” The podcast also dropped episodes daily across the two events.
  • The Ringer’s Keepin’ It 1600, which features former Obama administration staffers Jon Favreau and Dan Pfeiffer, saw a bump of about 15 percent. Before the conventions, the podcast had steadily grown up to an average of over 200,000 downloads per episode, and went up to about 230,000 downloads per episode through the two events.
  • BuzzFeed’s No One Knows Anything saw a “171 percent increase in downloads during the two weeks of the conventions, compared to the two weeks before the conventions,” said Meg Cramer, who produces the show. “But, it’s hard to make comparisons, because our convention coverage was different from our weekly show. (Several topical mini-episodes, vs. one big show.)”

These event-based growth bursts are extremely valuable, but the real question is whether the shows will be able to retain the influx of new listeners. Brent Baughman, who produces the NPR Politics Podcast, tells me that, while it’s still a little too early to tell, he estimates that about three-quarters of the podcast’s new listeners have stuck around since the conventions. He also notes that the podcast now enjoys an audience of over 560,000 weekly unique downloaders.

It should be noted that the bumps didn’t come from organic discovery alone. Around the convention period, FiveThirtyEight carried out aggressive cross-promotion efforts that hoped to draw in audiences that exist on its other platforms and on platforms controlled by parent ESPN. Those efforts included a refocus on embedding the podcast in FiveThirtyEight articles, adding language that welcomed new listeners to the show, featuring the podcast in the ESPN app, and working with ESPN Radio to run a spot on terrestrial stations promoting the podcast. “That’s going to start working into the rotation soon, I hope,” Avirgan added. “It’s not going to be a huge push, but frankly I imagine a lot of the kinds of folks who are just tuning in to the election are the types of folks who are listening to ESPN Radio, etc. So, we’re trying to be smart about targeting that group.”

NPR marshalled similar efforts of their own. On July 14, Gimlet’s Reply All dropped an episode containing a guest dispatch by NPR reporter and Politics Podcast cohost Sam Sanders (who, by the way, is an absolute star) that focused on the shooting in Dallas. And in the following two weeks, NPR director of programming Israel Smith coordinated a strong cross-promotion push across the organization’s other podcasts, acutely focusing attention onto the Politics Podcast and its presence on the convention floors.

Key national events like these conventions are essential opportunities for podcasts — or any new medium, really — to prove their worth as possible additions to the world’s wider information architecture, and the onus is on them to make themselves known in times when collective reality feels increasingly distorted.

“I think you build news consumption habits in a year like this,” Baughman said. “It’s a time when you generally want to be more informed than you are.”

An audio newsletter. It’s always a wonder to find a place that’s doing strange and wonderful things.

One such place is Boston public radio station WBUR, which will be launching an experimental 21-day fitness podcast project called The Magic Pill next month. Here’s how it works: People who sign up will receive daily Magic Pill newsletters, with each missive — that can be consumed right off their inbox — containing a short podcast episode that contains exercise tips, stories about fitness, and even some music to get that body movin’. Participants move through three-week-long sequence on their own, as they’re given the ability to initiate the challenge cycle at any time, and their relationship with the podcast will be tightly managed through their interactions with the newsletter.

“In a way, you could call this an audio newsletter,” said Lisa Williams, who holds the title of engagement director at the station. “It’s a real hybrid.”

The challenge is one of the many projects being developed in WBUR’s Public Radio BizLab, a Knight Foundation-funded initiative that seeks to explore possible new business models that can help sustain public radio stations in the future through rigorous experimentation and design. (And let me tell ya’, some of these experiments are fascinating, including a blockchain-powered emerging music library.) The lab is a smart, deeply needed enterprise and, quite frankly, I’m amazed that such a thing exists in the first place.

Like all other BizLab projects, The Magic Pill was designed to answer very specific, testable questions: Could you create a tightly-design podcast experience that plays out within a subscriber’s inbox (as opposed to, say, an RSS feed)? Can the process of creating that experience increase the level of data literacy among the operators at WBUR? And, perhaps most importantly, are listeners who take part in an ongoing experience more likely to donate or become members?

That last question, which focuses on discovering new fundraising avenue within the public radio system, is a crucial pillar for the BizLab initiative. And much of the project designs are guided by tangible, and often frustrating, past experiences. “We did this great project once on Whitey Bulger,” Williams said. “It was just such amazing work, but we didn’t do anything to package it in a way that would get people to support the station more. But when we packaged and sold it as an ebook, about 11,000 people bought it. We left money on the table.” (Interestingly, the ebook, “Whitey on Trial,” is generally available for free, but it’s priced at $1.99 on the Amazon Store — the lowest possible rate — because ebooks can’t be listed there for free.)

When I asked Williams what conversion rates she would consider a success, she guided me to focus more on the balance between outcome and effort. She noted that relatively low conversion rates would still be considered fine, given that the amount of work that goes into making The Magic Pill is significantly less than the huge fundraising efforts that involve heavy participation across the whole station. In Williams’ mind, the emphasis is on the tightness of workflow and a rigor in pushing specific sets of audiences down the fundraising funnel. It is a valiant, refreshing prospect, and I’m curious to see where this goes.

You can sign up for the newsletter here. The Magic Pill project goes live on September 1.

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Bumpers. I believe I’ve been on the record before as not particularly enthusiastic about social audio apps and any relevant enterprise that seeks to make podcasts more shareable on social platforms like Twitter and Facebook more broadly. For me, the arguments largely takes two forms: (1) a sense that the rendering of a piece of media into something more shareable threatens to deconstruct, atomize, and commoditize that piece of media for a whole other purpose — and for podcasts, that fundamentally means a stripping it of its original value proposition, and (2) a general feeling that social platforms are universes upon themselves whose activities should be native to the very structures of those platforms. Plus, there’s a whole square peg/round hole bit to such efforts, and I just find it all rather inelegant.

That said, I’ve still made it a point to keep an eye on new social audio apps like Anchor (my write up here) and Rolltape (R.I.P., my write up here) because I figured there’s always something to learn from such experiments.

Which is why I’ve been tracking a new app called Bumpers for some time now and, I have to say, it’s perhaps the audio-oriented app that comes closest to deconstructing and replicating the original value proposition of a podcast. Where apps like Anchor and Rolltape focused on communication, Bumpers firmly trains its eye on creation and expression — and that, I think, is where it gets the association right.

Here’s how it works: Users record a session through the app, which then automatically segments the recording based on sentences that users can stitch together into a podcast (referred to as a bumper within the app’s universe, for obvious reasons) by selecting and sequencing those sentence units into a whole through the app’s rather intuitive mobile audio editing interface (which, goodness, is key to the whole experience). There’s a library of preset sounds that you can throw into the mix, the additions of which greatly influences the feel of the bumper — not unlike, say, how an Instagram filter alters the feel of a picture.

That evocation of Instagram is not accidental. “I think a good analogy is Instagram for podcasts,” said Ian Ownbey, one of Bumpers’ creators, when I asked him to describe the app, which I had trouble articulating. “Instagram’s goal wasn’t to replace professional photographers — it was to let everyone else easily take and share high quality photos.”

Ownbey, who was an early engineer at Twitter and is also responsible for the OneShot app (which I’ve written about in relation to the theory behind screenshorting audio), has been paying close attention to the dynamics of the podcast space to build Bumpers, and thus is privy the complexities associated with the distribution and listener-end of the ecosystem. A lot of those considerations inform the development of the app.

“The problem isn’t solvable as long as the community is fractured over all these different consumption mediums,” he said, reflecting on the distribution question. “Even if I went out and created a consumption client that had the best discoverability in the whole world, it would be impossible to get adoption high enough that it was useful…If all the listening happens in Bumpers itself (or in an embed from bumpers), we can start to solve these problems.”

For now, though, it’s still early days for Bumpers, and so tackling the distribution angle will have to be a future preoccupation. “Creation is our entire focus right now,” Ownbey said.

Bites:

  • A little more on the NPR Politics Podcast: Producer Brent Baughman believes the experience producing the daily convention episodes have given them a roadmap for possible breaking or morning news podcast projects in the future. “Someone’s going to plant the flag on the morning news podcast, and I think it can be us,” he said.
  • I am super, super psyched over Castro 2, a new podcasting app that shifts the user experience paradigm in such smart, wonderful ways. (Supertop)
  • After the Cleveland Browns, another NFL team has launched their own official podcast: the Baltimore Ravens. (Official Ravens website)
  • According to Current, “the audience for NPR’s newsmagazines and its member stations has been growing,” bucking a recent trend. The organization credits the rise to a bunch of different factors — much of them internally driven, but also one that involves a change in how Nielsen collects listening data — but as Tape’s Mickey Capper tweets out, “wouldn’t the main factor be the election?” Be sure to check out the ensuing thread.
  • “The (Future) Queens of Podcasting.” (The Ringer)
  • This is super cool: “Introducing 1,000 Words, a podcast that describes internet pictures in binaural audio.” (The Verge)

Will any of the companies trying to build the YouTube of podcasting succeed?

The anatomy of an independent podcast network. I’ve always been aware of Relay FM, the two-year-old podcast outfit that churns out shows often marked with vaguely mysterious titles (Isometric, Cortex) and spiffy, flat cover art. But it has always existed at the edges of my attention, and I’ll be the first to say that the reason for this is completely indefensible. Relay FM is a network that largely (though not completely) revolves around the delights and concerns of developers and tech enthusiasts, and while this places the network firmly within a long tradition of such programming in the medium’s history (making it an essential primary source for any attempt to document the space), I had subtly cultivated the idea in my head that the network was inaccessible to me. That I lacked sufficient vocabulary to meaningfully engage with Relay FM’s material in order to form an opinion. And so, for a long time, I abstained from doing so.

Again, indefensible. Even if Relay FM’s shows were inaccessible to me, it doesn’t mean I shouldn’t engage with it. So I did, and after spending several hours sifting through various podcasts on the network, I can safely say that, with some exceptions, this is totally a thing that was made for someone else. And perhaps that’s totally the point; Relay FM is very much a niche, independent media business. A thing that some people made for communities of their own kind, a thing that’s less concerned with a certain aggressive idea of scale — though, yes, scale would be nice — than it is with a particular sense to build a place for dense spaces.

I can damn well engage with that, and so here we are.

Myke Hurley, a U.K.-based podcaster who runs the network with his Tennessee-based friend Stephen Hackett, was kind enough to answer my questions on how things work. I’m going to lay it out across a few chunks.

Structure. The network currently supports 21 active shows, a portfolio that’s made up of a hairy, eclectic mix of podcasts that go deep on various technology and tech-adjacent topics. There’s a show about independent app development (Under the Radar), there’s one about something called mobile productivity (Canvas), there’s another about design (Presentable), and even one that celebrates people who face inequalities in their respective industries (Less Than or Equal). But there are a few shows that stray from the technology focus but nonetheless carry the network’s overall geeky ethos, like the stationery-enthusiast podcast The Pen Addicts (which claims Slate’s June Thomas as a huge fan).

“We like to think of ourselves as a collection of shows for creative, curious, and obsessive people,” Hurley noted. “All of our shows are made by people that have a real love for the thing they are talking about.”

All the podcasts on the network tend to follow the same conversational format that has driven the medium’s structural associations with the early days of blogging. Indeed, when I have previously talked about the podcast-as-extension-of-blogging side of the equation, this is pretty much the apotheosis of what I had in mind — a bunch of people sitting around and talking, more or less preserving the original torch held by Odeo, that thing that would later spawn Twitter.

This all makes it somewhat unsurprising, then, that among Relay FM’s extensive list of hosts and contributors — which includes Mashable’s Christina Warren, notable indie game developer Brianna Wu, and former Macworld editor Jason Snell — you’d also find Marco Arment and Federico Viticci, two of the stronger voices that have pushed back against the sense that the space is industrializing in a way that would hurt its openness.

Scale and monetization. Hurley tells me that the business is sustainable, and that the company is “growing quite nicely.” The network is reportedly approaching 2 million downloads a month across all shows, a scale that’s been able to pull in enough advertising revenue to support both Hurley and Hackett, both of which now work full-time on Relay FM. (The network is hosted on Libsyn, so presumably the download numbers follow the standards of that platform, if you’re looking for a point of reference.) Hurley declined to provide specific revenue numbers (understandably, but hey, thought I’d ask, y’know?). All shows utilize host-read ads.

“Both Stephen and myself manage the actual relationships, both with individual advertisers and also with advertising agencies,” he explained when I asked him about the ad sales process. “As it stands we have no dedicated sales person, and we don’t have any plans for that either.”

Although Hurley is based in the U.K. and both founders equally split duties, the company is incorporated in Tennessee. At this point in time, 60 percent of the network’s audience is in the U.S., which means that Hurley sees more interest coming in from American advertisers.

“I have companies from outside the U.S. contact me, and if they are a company that delivers software products or web services, we can work with them easily,” he tells me. “[But] when it comes to physical products it can be trickier. If a company can only ship to a local market, it gets harder for them to commit to a budget, when a smaller percentage of our audience base is in the location they want to sell to.”

Hurley expects that the U.S. will remain Relay FM’s biggest market. “But for shows that have larger audiences in other countries, I totally see a world in which more local advertisement will come forward,” he told me. “I don’t need to tell you that podcasting is seeing another boom, but this time it does feel like the tide is shifting on the money side also.”

View of the future. I was curious about Hurley’s take on the recent developments in the space — the entrance of bigger companies with deeper pockets, the consolidations and acquisitions, the push for more data — given his position as an independent, whose feasts and famines are often dictated by the whims of much larger entities.

“It’s interesting to see how many platforms are appearing right now,” he replied. “We currently work with a selection of the big players, and we are keeping an eye on what’s working and what isn’t. My background in podcasting comes from the ‘indie tech show’ scene, so I am much more focused on the idea of keeping podcasting open, and centered around the RSS feed that can be played in any player. Our audiences like the choice of the apps they want, and there remains a vibrant community of people building apps and tools for that space. As more companies pop up that are trying to own the distribution, it’s going to be interesting to see where things lie.”

(Related reading on this point: The “Third Way” section on Ben Thompson’s recent column, “The Future of Podcasting.”)

Hurley doesn’t believe that the ecosystem will progress to a point where it would support a wide variety of different distribution platforms operating in some sort of equilibrium, as that would be deeply inefficient for podcast producers. I’d agree with that; not only would they have have to constantly manage an overwhelming number of vendors, they would also have to put up with the thousands of paper-cuts imposed by the various terms that go into working with each vendor.

“Honestly, I do not see a world where we have something akin to YouTube,” Hurley concludes. “I think many people will try to do that, but I think the ship has sailed on that one.

I had originally intended for this item to be an extension of the brief look I carried out last week on the state of podcast businesses in the U.K. That writeup was the thing that drove Hurley to reach out to me in the first place: to let me know that there was another person in that part of the world that was making a living from podcasting.

But over the course of writing this out, it became apparent to me that Relay FM was a much better case study of another deeply interesting dimension of the podcast ecosystem: the archetypal independent network model that those who argue for podcasts as an extension of the open web are trying to protect — and, to extrapolate from that, the very kind of business that those advocates fear is being threatened by the expansionary sensibilities of some professionalizing podcast companies.

Another related reading: I’m just going to throw Joshua Benton’s “Podcasting in 2015 feels a lot like blogging circa 2004” here once again, which really has become absolutely seminal.

And The New York Times’ new executive producer for audio is… Lisa Tobin! She will head to the Gray Lady from Boston public radio station WBUR, where she most recently served as a senior producer. Tobin’s rap sheet at the station reflects quite a remarkable fit for the kind of work that the Times would likely pursue, with a resume that includes work on Finish Line, the amazing collaboration with The Boston Globe covering the trial of Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev; Dear Sugar Radio, the podcast adaptation of the popular Cheryl Strayed advice column; and of course, Modern Love, the other adaptation of a wildly popular column — this one belonging to the Times itself, indicating a prior relationship between Tobin and the company.

Tobin’s hire comes a little over four months since the Times announced that it was building out a new in-house audio team as part of a hard push into the medium. Here’s a quick look at the Times’ stated strategy, courtesy of a memo that was circulated back in March by EVP for product and technology Kinsey Wilson and senior editor Sam Dolnick:

The plan is to pursue a two-fold strategy: to launch a handful of shows with outside partners which, like Modern Love, have a strong prospect of quickly attracting a wide audience; and then use those shows as a platform from which we can build audience for shows produced within The Times that are as integral to our coverage as our live events and visual journalism efforts.

Aside from WBUR on Modern Love, that list of outside partners also includes Pineapple Street Media, the new audio agency formed by former BuzzFeed director of audio Jenna Weiss-Berman and Longform.org cofounder Max Linsky.

Tobin will report to Samantha Henig, who serves as the unit’s editorial director. The in-house team includes Kelly Alfieri, executive director of special editorial projects; Diantha Parker, editor and senior audio producer; Pedro Rosado, an audio producer; and Catrin Einhorn, another audio producer. Adam Davidson, host of Gimlet’s Surprisingly Awesome and a columnist for The New York Times Magazine, is reportedly serving as an adviser.

One quick thing before moving on. As I’ve previously mentioned, I’m pretty bullish on the manner in which the Times is doubling down on audio — that is, by focusing on developing reasonably-staffed, highly-produced shows in-house and augmenting those projects with expertise brought in through smart partnerships. That’s undoubtedly going to help the company stand out in an increasingly dense field of media organizations currently dabbling in podcasts. And man, that field has become absolutely bonkers.

(A sample list: BuzzFeed, The New Yorker, CNN, The Ringer, ESPN, The Economist, Vox Media, MTV, CBS, Bloomberg News, Politico, Mic, The Wall Street Journal, Time Inc., New York Magazine, Vulture, Entertainment Weekly, The Dallas Morning News, Atlanta Constitution-Journal, The Washington Post, Esquire, Outdoor Magazine, Runner’s World…and so on. Oy.)

I’m excited to see what comes out of it.

Open Audio Weekend. The New York Public Library and The Moth teamed up at the end of June to produce a hackathon where participants were nudged to “make audio accessible for the public good.” The event is an extension of something called Together We Listen, an ongoing crowdsourcing effort that specifically focuses on making it easier to build searchable archives for large quantities of spoken audio files.

Here are three projects that stood out to me:

  • Crowdscribe. “A Chrome extension prototype for public requesting and gathering transcriptions.” There’s a cottage industry for freelance project-based transcribing, so this project might encounter some resistance.
  • Instaburns. “An experiment in auto-generating common terms and their frequency from transcripts in order to explore the relationship of terms within and across audio files.” In other words, auto-tagging.
  • Storynode. “Wouldn’t it be great if we could see all the locations mentioned in an oral history on a map?” Detour would love this.

You can find them, and all the other projects, on the hackathon’s GitHub page.

Australia gets another podcast conference. The radio arm of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation is putting together a podcast-focused conference called OzPod. This will be the second relatively high-profile Australian conference for the year, after the more independent and creative process-minded Audiocraft back in March. It will take place in Sydney at the end of September, and is set to cover the more grittier topics of distribution, marketing, revenue, and so on.

“Podcasting is growing enormously in Australia, but we felt the lack of a nationwide industry conversation about its potential and future,” Louise Alley, a spokesperson for the ABC, told me over email last week. “We wanted to bring together radio networks, tech companies, independent podcasters and startups to share ideas, opportunities and best practice as we enter the new golden age of audio.

ABC Radio is the largest podcast publisher in the country, reporting about 135 million overall downloads and streams in 2015. According to Alley, it has currently clocked in 64.6 million download and streams since the beginning of the year.

Quick note at this point: I’m scheduled to do the international keynote for the conference, which means I’m due to get on a plane for about 20 hours in the very near future. And I don’t know if I’ve ever told you this, but I’m terrified of flying. Time to stock up on meds. Oh boy.

Bites:

  • New York Public Radio announced a string of additions to its board of trustees last week, including: artist, producer, and entrepreneur Questlove, tech investor David Tisch, and entertainment lawyer Marc Chaplin. The organization also announced that Billie Tisch, a longtime board member, has been elected to its honorary board. (Variety)
  • NPR CEO Jarl Mohn: “Great local journalism mixed with our national and international journalism — you don’t go to a podcast for that. We think that’s the way to compete for the future.” (L.A. Times)
  • The Week is the latest in a long line of magazines dipping their toes in podcasts — and they’re betting on shorter formats. (The Week)
  • Been thinking a lot about the recent Nieman Lab post that ran with the headline “Sure, people like online video, but that doesn’t mean they want to watch your hard news videos” and how much that, well, may well apply to every other media format — including, and perhaps especially, audio. (Nieman Lab)

A podcast ranking that misses a lot, new listenership data, and funny Australians

The podcast consumer. Last Thursday, Edison Research and Triton Digital released the Podcast Consumer 2016 report, an extension of the Infinite Dial 2016 study that was dropped back in March that specifically focuses on U.S. consumer demographics and some aspects of user behavior — data points that will, no doubt, find their way into many, many investment and advertising decks in the coming months. (Charts! Charts! Charts!) The report touches on a nice range of aspects, and I think I’d be doing the depth of the report a disservice if I regurgitated and butchered them in whole here, but here are the three high-level points that most caught my eye:

(1) A pop in awareness. Awareness of the term “podcasting” significantly jumped between 2015 and 2016. According to the study, an estimated 150 million Americans are now familiar with the term “podcasting.” Put it another way, that’s 55 percent of Americans, up 6 percentage points from 49 percent the year before. That’s a noticeably huge bump, compared to the mere 1 percentage point increase between 2014 (48 percent) and 2015.

Tom Webster, the VP of strategy at Edison Research who presented the report on a webinar last week, made a point to note the lag between any so-called “Serial effect” — recall that the podcast’s explosive first season dropped in late 2014 — and this rise in term-awareness. What accounts for the lag? Your guess is as good as mine, but I’m partial to viewing the jump as the result of Serial and the torrent of activity that took place around the same time and shortly after: the creation of new companies, the wave of new content driven by non-podcast native publishers that built some awareness conversion among their built-in audiences, and, perhaps more significantly, increased media attention that further carried forward usage of the term “podcasts.”

But before we get ahead of ourselves here: It remains useful to contextualize the awareness level against actual listenership: an estimated 98 million Americans (or 36 percent of the country) have listened to a podcast at least once in their lives, and an estimated 57 million Americans (21 percent) can be counted as monthly active listeners.

(2) Immediacy in consumption. This one’s my favorite. 55 percent of respondents reported consuming podcasts within 24 hours of downloading the episode, following by 18 percent reporting consumption within 48 hours and 15 percent reporting consumption within a week. That 24-hour data point is considerably made more rich when combined with the additional finding that 59 percent of respondents report immediate consumption behavior — marked in the survey as “click and listen immediately” — as opposed to save-for-later options.

(3) An insulated audience. The report made a point to sketch out the connection between podcast listeners and a general affinity towards on-demand video services. Webster observes that this reflects a highly technologically-oriented demographic that is increasingly insulated from ads. They are, thus, highly valuable targets for advertisers — not only because their cable-cutting orientations signify a certain kind of high-value demographic, but also because they can’t otherwise be reached through conventional advertising channels like television, broadcast radio, and so on. (It would be extremely interesting if a future report inquires about ad-blocking use among this sample; that would be a dead giveaway.)

It’s important to note that this demographic’s advertising insulation should probably be viewed an expression of its desire for control over their exposure to advertising more generally. Podcast advertising experiences, then, need to be maintained at a very, very high level to prevent an undermining of their trust — not just in any given podcast, but in the medium as a whole. Yeah, yeah, I’m basically repeating myself on this idea at this point, but it’s a flag I’m going to keep waving for as long as there appears to be the threat of quality dilution in the podcast advertising experience, which, let’s face it, is going be there forever.

There are so, so, so many other findings in the report — including, but not limited to overall demographic shifts that suggest a strong break away from the podcast listenership’s once core wealthy male cluster, rough parity in device usage between iOS and Android, and some flashes of growing influence in the car — but I’ll leave that up for you to explore.

You can find the report here.

Additional reading: Nielsen, the global measurements company, put out a blog post highlighting podcast consumer demographic data points of their own last Monday. It doesn’t surface anything particularly novel or surprising — and it’s stuck with an unfortunate “gee whiz!” tone — but there’s some fairly interesting data in there about the financial life of the podcast listenership, in case you’re looking for something like that.

Contextualizing the Podtrac ranker. “I’ve asked Comscore and Nielsen over the years to do this, and they haven’t for various reasons…And here we are, Podtrac, with data on 7 billion unique downloads over 10 years, and we’re not putting it out for the industry? We would be remiss if we continue to sit on the data, versus putting out there to add a certain amount of legitimacy to podcasting for the advertising community.”

Mark McCreary, CEO of Podtrac, speaks in a slow, deliberate manner. His speech is filled with pauses that indicate, perhaps, a strong internal filter, which in turn suggests a certain degree of thoughtfulness…and caution. And so when he becomes animated over the phone, you can tell that it ain’t bullshit. When he believes something, it shows. Which is to say, when the guy says he’s genuinely trying to help, I’m inclined to believe it.

But that isn’t to say I believe in the ranker itself. At least, not at this point in time.

Let’s back up a second. In case you missed it: Podtrac, a decade-old podcast measurement and advertising company, rolled out a consumer-facing chart that supposedly ranks the “top ten podcast publishers” in the industry last Tuesday. Utilizing a “unique monthly U.S. audience” as the anchor metric charted against the number of active podcasts within that month — an unprecedented bundle of markers, to my knowledge, one whose nuances are somewhat underappreciated — the ranker placed NPR at the very top with 7.2 million monthly uniques in the U.S., followed by This American Life/Serial (5.6 million) and WNYC Studios (5.5 million).

As you could probably imagine, Podtrac’s chart caused no small amount of consternation among different parts of the podcast community, which grappled over the chart’s actual representation of the industry, what are legitimate metrics and what are not, and the politics involved in Podtrac’s assumption of this value-arbitrating role.

The issue at the heart of the whole hubbub is, of course, the chart’s claim towards an accurate representation of the industry as a whole. And, as I touched on a little in my original writeup last week, there are some very real questions about this. The report argues that it measures “90 percent of the top podcasts,” and the press release that was published with the ranker noted that “it plans to have close to 100 percent participation in the weeks ahead.” The significance and depth of the remaining 10 percent is absolutely crucial to understanding the strength of the chart, and over the past week, I was able to confirm that the following publishers are not part of Podtrac’s sample: Panoply, Gimlet, Earwolf, The Ringer, Maximum Fun, CNN, and Wondery.

(Not that all of these networks would make it into the top 10 if they were part of the sample, of course. I’m just saying I’m confident some of these publishers — not all — are probably big enough to displace a few publishers in the top ten; the very possibility of that cuts into the ranker’s representative utility. Also, if you’re curious as to which podcasts in the iTunes charts’ Top 200 are using Podtrac for measurement, check out this invaluable spreadsheet assembled by friend-of-the-show Dan Misener.)

This makes it abundantly clear to me, at this point in time, the ranker simply isn’t fully representative of the podcast industry. But I don’t think that automatically invalidates its value as a marker of the space — whatever your misgivings about its representativeness, it still provides utility for the space by conveying the relative shape of a certain slice of the industry at the publisher level (more on that in a second), which in turn serves as a starting point for a broader, possibly multi-sourced picture to be drawn out. That’s something we never had before, and that’s something we really need now.

Podtrac’s fundamental problem comes purely down to communication, and this plays out — quite unfortunately — in two ways.

The first is the manner in which the ranker outwardly portrays itself in somewhat grandiose terms that glides over the nuances of its rollout sample. This runs the risk of being misinterpreted by other media sources that may automatically assume complete representativeness of the ranker; and in fact, one such example can be found in a recent Adweek article on NPR’s expectations that it will double its podcast revenue this year. (Congrats!) It’s up to you to decide whether this comes as the result of a language oversight, or something else entirely.

The second is the company’s communication level with actual publishers. As I noted last week, I was informed that publishers needed to opt into Podtrac’s sample in order to be considered for the ranker. What was revealed to me later on was that inclusion is automatically assumed when a publisher adopts Podtrac as a measurement tool — which struck me as not only a rather questionable practice, but also puts certain participating publishers at risk of having its data shared without its prior knowledge. (Appearance in the ranker came as a surprise to at least one publisher. I asked McCreary whether Podtrac-using publishers can opt out of inclusion in the ranker. He said it is, indeed, possible.) Furthermore, there were also situations in which the company did not adequately reach out to publishers that believe they could’ve been ranked.

When I spoke with McCreary — along with Podtrac’s VP of product Velvet Beard and VP of business development Julia Price — last week, they assured me that the initial rollout was made with the assumption that it would trigger conversations with publishers that could eventually lead to the filling out of that last 10 percent. That’s an understandable argument to make, but it remains troubling that the company has not been better at adequately communicating what it’s trying to do, and what it has actually done…to the detriment of some publishers.

You have every right to question Podtrac’s intent, or the substance of its decade-long experience, or its supposed objectivity — as I noted last week, Podtrac also has an ad sales arm that it recently spun out into a different division of the company, a fact that may or may not assuage the discomfort of other publishers — or whatever. But in my mind, whether Podtrac will ultimately become representative of the industry or be successful in its handling of the space’s larger politics is a relatively secondary question. For me, it is unambiguous that its ranker, however messy the rollout, is nothing but productive in the way it’s pushing the medium — every single quirky corner of it — out of the comforts of its previous opacity. It’s drawing attention, generating conversation, and will ultimately provoke the kind of counter-initiatives that will move the industry towards a greater accountability.

As McCreary told me, “All the people who put effort into podcasts every single day, they deserve to have a media that the advertising industry thinks is legitimate. And you need an objective advertising company to provide that, and so that’s what we built here. Also, publishers who choose not to participate are still going to benefit, because the industry now has a ranker.”

Representation. Between this Podtrac ranker story and the recent debates spurred by that New York Times article a few weeks ago, a key tension of the space has steadily shifted from being implicit to explicit. It’s been growing since the space found its moment for a second time, and it’s one that’s grounded in questions over the industry’s identity: What constitutes the podcast space? What defines the “Big Companies,” and what differentiates from everybody else? Who gets to speak for and represent the industry?

These questions, in turn, are built on several clear dichotomies: between independent podcasts and a class of professionalizing podcast companies, between an older generation of podcast companies that believe they remain relevant and an emerging generation that wants relevance, between those who view podcasts as an extension of blogs and the free web and those who view podcasts as the next phase for digital radio and audio content, and between companies that aspire to be big and companies that hope its scale-chasing brethren won’t screw everything up for the rest of them.

As I’m observing more and more these days, it’s a tale as old as content. But at the same time, I’m having less and less of an idea how this is all going to shake out.

Same pigeon, new paint. Great news, producers! The Third Coast International Audio Festival, the Chicago-based nonprofit focused on the development of storytelling audio and independent producers (and whose mascot is, inexplicably, a pigeon), rolled out a brand-spanking new design for its website last week. And while the news of the updated design is fantastic in and of itself, I want to highlight a specific element of that redesign: the greatly improved user experience for the site’s Producer Index, which can — and should — be utilized as an IMDd for Audio Producers of sorts. If you’re on the hunt for talent, be sure to give it a look-see.

The redesign comes months after a fundraising campaign that sees the nonprofit looking to grow and expand its reach for the first time since it was founded in 2000. “We’ve been a small group for a long time — three full-timers, two part-timers — and we’ve been able to do what we do and really work hard at it,” Johanna Zorn, the organization’s executive director, told me when we spoke last December. “We want more people at our conference” — the organization’s flagship event — “but we need more than just me and one other person to make that happen.”

This November will mark the latest edition of the Third Coast Festival. The conference takes place in Chicago every two years.

“I don’t think there’s such a thing as too many podcasts.” Pineapple Street Media’s Jenna Weiss-Berman tells Marketplace’s Kai Ryssdal that in a segment produced the day after the Gracies, an award ceremony honoring the work of women in media. (BuzzFeed’s Women of the Hour podcast, which Weiss-Berman produced, was among the winners.)

“In order for a podcast to be successful, they don’t have to have massive listenerships,” she continues. “So there might be someone who wants to do a podcast about crocheting and they might be able to find sponsorship from a company that sells yarn, for example. And they might have 20,000 extremely devoted listeners who listen to the podcast and then go buy that yarn.”

Obviously, I cosign this opinion. Check out the whole segment.

Funny Down Under. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation is getting involved in the country’s emerging comedy podcast scene. The public service broadcaster has a new initiative called Radio Comedy — housed under the First Run banner, the corporation’s pod-oriented skunkworks which I’ve covered before — that will be commissioning a set of original comedy podcasts sourced from local talent.

“We’re attempting to use podcasting in the way that radio was once used, as a test space for TV comedy series,” Tom Wright, a development producer on the initiative, explained to me over email. “This was the model at the BBC in the U.K., which led to comedy hits like The Mighty Boosh and Little Britain.”

I’m fairly unfamiliar with the Australian podcast scene, so I asked Wright to describe the country’s culture of podcasts (and comedy podcasts more specifically). “Comedy is huge here — the Melbourne International Comedy Festival is the second biggest festival of its kind in the world. Podcasting less so…it’s less a part of the listening culture in Australia than in the U.S.A. and to a lesser extent the U.K., but it is catching up fast,” Wright wrote. “Like NPR and the BBC, the ABC has been editing some of its most popular radio shows and publishing them as podcasts, and have dominated things a bit. But ABC’s First Run is really [an example of] the organization recognizing that podcasts are different in form from radio shows, and that we can contribute to an already established scene.”

The first Radio Comedy podcast, Burn Your Passport, launched last month. You can find it in all the usual places. Radio Comedy is also looking for pitches, so Australian Hot Pod readers — here’s your shot.

Bites:

  • Friend-of-the-show Joel Leeman brought this to my attention over Twitter this weekend: An ad for Prince Street, a branded podcast promoting luxury grocery store Dean & DeLuca, made an appearance on CBS during Sunday’s broadcast of the PGA tour. Prince Street is part of Panoply Custom’s portfolio.
  • Quick clarification for last week’s RadioPublic item: some biographies! The team currently consists of three people: Jake Shapiro, who serves as CEO; Matt MacDonald, who was a software engineer at PRX before moving into product management and now serves as RadioPublic’s chief product officer; and Chris Rhoden, who serves as the company’s chief architect, where he will lead technical direction.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But frankly, I’m torn.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two more quick things:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sweet.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can find the pod here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bites:

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

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

A new podcast power is formed, on Pineapple Street

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Hear, hear!)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bites:

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

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

The podcast collective Radiotopia has a new leader

The new steward of Radiotopia. PRX has hired Julie Shapiro as the new executive producer of Radiotopia, the podcast ~collective~ that was formed in early February out of a partnership between the company and 99% Invisible’s Roman Mars.

Shapiro comes into the job with a tremendous street cred. In 2000, she cofounded the Third Coast Festival which, in case you didn’t know, is a big independent radio conference/summit/party in Chicago (“Third Coast,” get it?) where really talented and smart radio producers get really drunk together, play some really amazing stories, and have a really good time. She spent 13 years as Third Coast’s artistic director, where she firmly established herself as an incredibly influential figure in the independent radio community and beyond. She left the role in 2013, and has been spending the past couple of years kickin’ it with the wallabies down in Australia, where she served as the executive producer of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Creative Audio Unit.

Oh, and fun fact about Shapiro from the press release: “Julie originally coined the term ‘Radiotopia’ in a speech at the Third Coast Festival, describing it as a place where awesome stories live.” It was meant to be.

janye

What will Shapiro do as Radiotopia’s new executive producer? A heck of a lot, PRX COO Kerri Hoffman told me over the phone last week. On a show level, she’s tasked with upping the game of every podcast under the Radiotopia banner, which will include (but will not be limited to): working with talent to raise and maintain the level of editorial quality, figuring out how to increase revenues, finding ways to foster deeper engagement with audiences, and developing robust strategies to help shows grow in general. On a network level, Shapiro will help define Radiotopia’s long-term strategic vision and articulate its narrative to the larger market, which, in my opinion, hasn’t always been very clear. ((In fact, I’ve always wondered: What, exactly, is Radiotopia? Why the heck is it a “collective”? What makes a show Radiotopia-worthy? What does the network stand for? Who does it target? Does it dream of electric sheep?)) She will also, I presume, play a huge role in sourcing new shows to add to the group, along with improving metrics, measurements, and standards both qualitative and quantitative.

That is, indeed, a crap ton of things to do, but Hoffman is confident she’s up to the challenge. And you know what? There’s nothing to suggest otherwise. Everything I’ve heard about Shapiro paints her as nothing less than a swashbuckling badass, and furthermore, ever since I started poking my nose around the radio world, I keep hearing stories about her being a great mentor to many a young fledgling producer. To me, that willingness to actively think about the next generation of producers is shorthand for proper leadership.

Also: “It’s super important to me that Radiotopia’s executive producer be a woman,” Hoffman said at some point during our conversation. You know what? It is important, particularly after seeing a parade of white dudes absolutely dominating executive-level positions in the blossoming for-profit on-demand audio industry. This is certainly encouraging stuff.

Also also: PRX CEO Jake Shapiro wrote me yesterday to clarify that, in fact, he is not related to Julie Shapiro. “However we do feel we’re part of a Shapiro mafia in public radio that includes Ben Shapiro and two Ari Shapiros (Ari Daniel and Ari at NPR),” he added. That is some Highlander business right there.

Shapiro starts work in November.

Anyway, let’s talk more about Radiotopia! It’s such a weird thing, and it’s in my top 10 of favorite things to think about.

So, in my mind, Radiotopia is the closest thing to the platonic ideal of a podcast network. Deeply committed to quality, the collective is also uniquely far-reaching in its thinking about genre, conventions, ideas. No two shows under the Radiotopia umbrella sound alike; in some ways, each show feels like a distinctly differentiated thesis, or some sort of gambit, like each show is placing a different bet on the way things should sound. There is boldness to the range of shows that are in Radiotopia: a range of voice, tone, genre, idea, ideal, vision, hope, limitations, trajectory. (Abstaining from using the word “diversity” here, lest I mishandle the political context of that word.)

Many folks have described Radiotopia as a hippie commune, no doubt due to its nonprofit, public media-minded origins and relative looseness with the concept of maximizing revenue. Being the raging, conniving capitalist that I am, I tend to agree with this characterization. And there’s something about the way it’s structured that compels me to be curious: I’m going to guess that not all shows perform equally — in fact, I’m going to rampantly speculate that the range of those performances are huge — and looking at how, well, spotty some of the show’s episode release schedules are, I wonder about financial resources are distributed across all the shows, and I wonder if there are any hangups when it comes to feelings of equity within the collective. But this is just me thinking out loud; there’s probably nothing to that.

Besides, I’m actually more partial to a metaphor given to me by an actual Radiotopian: that the collective is best thought of as an “indie record label” — where a tastemaking entity validates many autonomous visions by providing financial and technical backing. That’s a pretty cool way of looking at it.

Anyway, for the record: My all-time favorite Radiotopia show is most definitely Criminal. That show is so RIDICULOUSLY good it literally makes me angry. Like absolutely pissed. I punched a wall once I was so pissed. It’s crazy. (Song Exploder comes in as a tight No. 2, but docked points because Hrishikesh Hirway wasn’t able to bag the Bieber before The New York Times got their grubby hands on him.)

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Gimlet president: We need a reliable third party to “set an industry standard.” Gimlet president and tallest-man-in-the-world Matt Lieber has that and plenty more things to say in this interview with the Tow Center at Columbia.

You should give the article your click, but two things to note:

  • Really enjoyed his response to the “Why would a successful show stick around a podcast network?” question. Money quote: “He hopes that by ‘super-serving’ the creators with editorial support and a sense of community they will be incentivized to remain within the network for the long term.” Of course, that works for some setups and not others, but that’s definitely one way to skin a cat.
  • Lieber’s point on initiating direct relationships with brands is absolutely essential to understanding the unique value-add that podcasting brings to advertisers. It’s also really interesting to think about the way host-read ads are typically baked into episodes in the context of the larger ad-blocking scare looming over the rest of digital media. (Assuming ad-blocking is a problem: Recode’s Peter Kafka remains skeptical, unless I’m reading him wrong.) Though, if you really think about it, once this whole dynamic ad-insertion thing kicks in, the race is theoretically on for ad-blocking tech to impact audio, perhaps even before the tech hits scale. Hmm.

Anyway, moving on.

BuzzFeed director of audio Jenna Weiss-Berman on Nieman Lab’s Press Publish podcast. This is good Weiss-Berman material. Probably not that user-friendly to link to an entire podcast episode, but the whole thing is most definitely worth a listen.

Highlights:

  • Young people listen more straight from SoundCloud, eh? Interesting.
  • “Co-optition.” Cute, but I totally dig it.
  • Note Jenna’s thinking that situates Another Round within a much larger multimedia — specifically, television — context. Question is not whether it will be successful (oh you know it probably will) but how the heck do you create that workflow?

NPR’s 10 years of podcasting. Tasty NPR Extra article here on the institution’s history with podcasting, complete with a timeline and a quick anecdote that sees National Public Media general manager Bryan Moffett, then a marketing analyst, crossing paths with the men who would go on to create (and fight over) Twitter. Anyway, check out the whole article, but here are some delicious numbers to take away:

  • “Between NPR and all of the public radio stations who contributed shows to those first collections in the directory, it took about a year and a half to reach 80 million downloads.” I’m guessing that’s total downloads across the whole network.
  • “Last month, we had 76 million downloads for just those programs NPR produces or distributes.” Daaayum.

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“Wanting to be heard.” The Toast ran this article on podcasting and representation last week, and it’s a great read. Give the whole thing your attention, but here are some quotes that really stuck with me:

  • Nia King, host of We Want The Airwaves: “If I can self-publish a book and sell 1,000 copies, what is the incentive for me to have a press that’s not going to help me with touring? It’s just unclear whether I’m better off working within the system or without. Because at least now I have complete creative control.”
  • Stephanie Foo, This American Life: “I think that as the content has started to change, the listenership has started to change. We finally have podcasts that are made for younger people now.”

Audio fiction. So, uh, I’ve been working on an item about audio fiction for about, well, four weeks now, and I’m having a lot of trouble hammering down what I really think about the genre. Now, if you’ve been following this newsletter for a while, you’re probably acquainted with my largely negative feelings about most audio fiction that can be found on the market right now.

But here’s the thing: I actually believe that audio fiction is the growth market in on-demand audio. I just think that the genre hasn’t been done right, or has been done in a way that can compel non-partisan listeners to legitimately think that it’s up to par with most other forms of mainstream entertainment. (In fact, if I ever did work up the gastrointestinal fortitude to go solo and run my own ship — or marry rich and live off a spousal bonus, either way — a big part of what I’d do would be bankrolling very specific audio fiction projects.) I think about it quite a lot, and because I’ve been thinking about it quite a lot, I haven’t been able to settle on what I want to say.

Anyway, while I’ve been sitting here and twiddling my thumbs, these two things dropped and I really think that you should check them out ASAP:

  • Nieman Lab’s writeup of the Limetown podcast. Money quote: “They’re not purposely trying to fool anyone, but their background in film has given them a refreshing view on podcasts: Why can’t they be more like movies?”
  • The Pub podcast: Ann Heppermann on the rebirth of audio fiction.

Cool? Cool. I’m going to go back and work on this audio fiction item a little more, which is now about 2,500 words long and looks suspiciously like the Little Red Book, which is why I’m probably going to junk it and just do a 500-word rant instead.

Maybe next week.

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An update on that SXSW panel I’m working on. So last week I mentioned that I’m trying to organize a panel at SXSW about podcast audience growth — strategies, philosophies, challenges, and so on. That’s still happening, but there’s been a change: the great Gretchen Rubin can’t do the panel, because she’s double-booked, so the third panelist will be Midroll’s vice president of business development Erik Diehn.

Before going to Midroll, Diehn was the senior director of business development at WNYC, and before that, he had stints at Bloomberg and the Boston Consulting Group. (You know who else did time at BCG? Matt Lieber. Small world.) Which is all to say, compared to the other two panelists — BuzzFeed’s Weiss-Berman and Longform’s Max Linsky — Diehn’s bringin’ the corporate game.

Should be fun, if we get enough votes, of course.

You can vote for the panel here. Please note that you’d have to create some sort of login to vote, which kinda sucks and I’m so sorry.

Oh man, that was a long one. All right, have a great week, see you next Tuesday!

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Talent discovery, a podcast accelerator, and a Ryan Seacrest joke begging to be made

The finalists for the WNYC Podcast Accelerator have been announced! For context: The accelerator was launched back in June on the heels of the station’s first ever women’s podcasting festival, where applicants were invited to pitch their big podcast idea for a shot to getting a pilot produced under the auspices of WNYC. The announced finalists will now spend the next few weeks in a “virtual” accelerator program — no idea what this means in practice, but hey, let’s go with it — in the run up to the Online News Association 2015 conference (dubbed ONA15) in sunny Los Angeles on September 25, where they will make their trained pitches to a panel of judges that includes:

  • Dean Cappello, WNYC’s chief content officer
  • Emily Botein, WNYC’s VP of on-demand content
  • Glynn Washington, creator, host and executive producer of the exceptional Snap Judgment

Still no word on who will play the role of Ryan Seacrest, but I’m holding my flowers for Brian Lehrer, because why the hell not. Specific info on the finalists can be found here, and there’s no mention of what happens to the non-winners. But I just want to put it out there: Non-winners, feel free to gimme a call. You know that’s cooler than producing a pilot? Producing a BILLION pilots.

So, about this accelerator. To begin with, I’m still trying to get a sense of how I feel about the whole thing. On the one hand, any effort to surface and foster new talent in the (still) hierarchical and notoriously career-linear world of radio (and now podcasting) is unambiguously welcome. But on the other hand, the nature, context, and veracity of these efforts are extremely important, and there’s something about this accelerator that feels slightly off-the-mark.

When I first heard about the accelerator, my first thought was: “Why all this attention on outsiders when WNYC is positively overflowing with untapped talent?” After all, as the legend goes, Death, Sex, and Money was the winner of an internal WNYC competition a few years ago (all hail Anna Sale), and TLDR, the On the Media spinoff whose original team would later create Reply All for Gimlet, was also a podcast that came out as a result from all the talent-surfacing instigated by that competition. And plus, given WNYC’s widely-known exodus of mid-level talent (and you can imagine that at least some of those talents are just gunning for an opportunity to climb), why look outward? Why not just keep tilling the soil in your own backyard, and facilitate a robust internal mechanism that allows for continuous, perhaps seasonal, internal discovery of new potential hits, instead of dedicating effort and resources into plowing through 400 reported applications of a bunch of randos?

Thinking it through a little further, the answer is fairly straightforward: because it’s important to expand the scope of discovery beyond the organization. WNYC is an Institution; it has a specific sensibility, a certain sound, a unique aesthetic logic across its many properties. Its shows grow out of its walls; the organization informs their creation and their definitions, which is great for optimization, but not so great for ideation. An organization is limited in the way it is able to dream, at a certain point. An outward-facing accelerator, then, is an invitation for sounds that WNYC is incapable of generating to be accepted into the institution, where they can be co-opted, optimized, and distributed.

At least that’s the idea in theory, I would imagine. But the current format of the accelerator doesn’t suggest that the initiative would be able to assess the theory to its fullest extent. The best possible outcome for a finalist would be that the opportunity to have a pilot produced under the guidance, (probably) training, and resources of WNYC (and ONA, I believe!).

But then what?

Would the winner have the opportunity to secure a job at WNYC, where said winner would be able to continue honing and contributing her/his skill regardless of whether the pilot becomes a show? Would the pilot get a good shake of having the opportunity to see how it holds up in the wild? And what is the accelerator actually saying to the winner? Does it borrow the language of tech accelerators, in the sense that “we’re helping you find out whether your idea was worth it, by giving you resources/support and pushing you into conditions where you can succeed or fail fast?” Or does it more borrow from the logic of TV pilot season: “Will you strike a chord with an audience, and will you strike it quickly?” Answers to any of these really key questions remain ambiguous to me, and that’s causing me to furrow my brow a tad bit.

ALL THAT BEING SAID, even with my scruples, the accelerator still strikes me as an exceptionally positive force in the industry, both in the fact that it’s drawing attention to some really talented people and for the mere symbolism of the whole endeavor. And now that I really think about it, I suspect that I give relatively few bananas whether the podcast accelerator ends up fully realizing its conceit or not. ((However, I would give endless bananas if the accelerator didn’t end up doing right by the finalists, which is to say, if the accelerator ends up stringing them along with an inflated sense of what they could potentially get out of the initiative. Nothing, at this point in time, suggests that this will happen, but you never know, and it’s always important to just point it out.)) The fact of the matter is: We need to build more spaces and raise more structures that allows for new talent, ideas, and voices to be expressed, cultivated, and discovered.

This is something I’ve been trying to get a handle on for some time now, but there are simply not enough spaces like these for spoken audio. Speaking generically: The music industry has bars and open mic nights and YouTube channels, while the film industry has festivals and underground cinemas and, well, YouTube channels (thank you Scandinavia for Kung Fury). We have iTunes and SoundCloud, I guess, but we’re all fairly aware that both platforms are each bounded by their own specificities, so any move to create more dedicated and focused spaces for talent and podcast discovery is great, great, GREAT. The accelerator may not end up being the best of execution of the idea, but it’s another point of discovery, and at this point in the time, I have a feeling that podcast discovery is a game won by the quantity, not quality, of these discovery points.

Anyway, I was going to go on a much longer bender over the existing sites of podcast discovery, but this item is running waaayyyy long, so I’ll come back to it some other week. But speaking of WNYC…

WNYC to co-produce Snap Judgment. So this is a really interesting development, particularly if, like me, you’re fascinated by how the mechanics of this arrangement would work. The amazing Snap Judgment, which is hosted by the great Glynn Washington and features a very specific interpretation of the nonfiction narrative genre dominated by This American Life and its alums, will begin a partnership with WNYC starting October 1 where the public radio station will help support the show from a sales, marketing, and business development perspective. (Which is to say, it sounds like they will bear the responsibility for much of the show’s longterm strategy as a brand.) You can find a good, granular breakdown of the responsibilities, which WNYC will partially share with NPR, over at the Current writeup.

WNYC will also assist Snap Judgment with “creative aspects,” according to the article. What this means in practice remains to be seen, because the Snap Judgment team is based out in Oakland, California (same hometown as 99% Invisible, by the way!), so one would imagine that either a lot of flying or teleconferencing is going to happen, or somebody’s being embedded or moved. Either way, I’m pretty excited, because Snap is a phenomenal show, and those folks deserve all the support in the world possible.

This partnership also continues WNYC’s current streak of flexing its bulging, throbbing biceps in the world of public radio podcasts. Earlier this summer, the station announced that it was breaking distribution ties with NPR to distribute On The Media and Radiolab themselves, which is probably the biggest “I don’t need a man” signal coming out of WNYC. (Remember: NPR exists to serve its member public radio stations, which historically rely on NPR to handle distribution of shows from one station to every paying station in the country.) You can find more on that, again, over at Current.

Damn. I’ve spilt a lot of ink on WNYC. Ah, well, it’s a big week for them.

Bill Simmons. You can’t keep an industrious man down. The former ESPN personality is slated to make his return to podcasting on October 1, where he will debut a new show under a new multimedia contract with HBO. While it’s my understanding that your mileage may vary when it comes to Simmons, I’m personally a huge fan of his work — particularly his podcast the BS Report and his work as founder of the miracle in digital media publishing known as Grantland, itself a quality podcast producer — and I’m excited to see what he cooks up over the HBO, home of dragons, Yonkers, and Colin Farrell’s mustache.

More details and context in this handy dandy WaPo writeup.

WireTapped. Did you hear? WireTap, the painfully unique CBC radio show written, produced, and hosted by the great Jonathan Goldstein, is no more. I’m fairly upset about this. I’ve always felt that WireTap is, in many ways, the perfect podcast. It’s the sincerest embodiment of a writer’s brain — a sonic and verbal performance that oozes with the chaos, wit, and burdens of a very specific perspective. Which is to say not everything on the show is real or true, which is also to say that the show is so good at making fun of the line between fiction and nonfiction. And when the show chooses to go all nonfiction… oh what a JOY (even when it’s incredibly distressing, like in “How To Deal With Loss.” To me, this is peak Goldstein. PEAK GOLDSTEIN).

Gimlet has already announced that it is working with Goldstein on a new project. This is not surprising at the least; Goldstein is an alum of This American Life, he’s already produced an episode for the Reply All boys that hits all the beats of a good Goldstein story (“Why is Mason Reese Crying?”), and really, where else would he go if he wanted to go, oh, you know, upwards?

It’s obviously a stupendous good fit, but I still can’t help but mourn for WireTap. I know next to nothing about this new project, and to be sure I’m very excited for it, but if it’s nothing like WireTap, if it tries too hard to play around with the essential Goldstein-ness, if it tries to deviate away from the singularity of Goldstein, I’m going to flip so many shits that I’m going to need, like, 50 spatulas.

So, uh, I need your help. I’m trying to organize a panel at SXSW about podcast audience growth — the strategies, the philosophies, the challenges, the structures, the specific experiences, and the ideas; the nature and dynamics of the whole endeavor. But here’s the thing: To get a panel into SXSW, I need to get votes. Not sure why the system is set up this way, but them’s the shakes.

Here’s what I can tell you about the panel. It’s going to feature:

There are specific beats I’d like to hit with each of the panelists — in my mind, each one of them adopted very separate approaches to thinking about their audiences and, in turn, developing them — based on the hope that specific case studies are a lot more useful than the turning of generic rules of thumb. But that’s what I’m working with in theory.

You can vote for the panel here. Please note that you’d have to create some sort of login to vote, which kinda blows and I’m so sorry and I’ll make it up to you somehow.

Anyway, whether or not the panel goes through with enough votes, I’m going to write up these three case studies at some point in the future, and maybe more. We’ll see how the fall looks.

Also, if you’d rather vote for another SXSW panel about podcasting, maybe one that involves, oh I don’t know, public radio types, you can check out NPR’s sweet, sweet list of public radio-related SXSW panels. Note in particular the one titled: “Journalist Intrapreneurs: Snows Becoming Starks.” Whoever wrote that title, I salute you and your nerd cred.

Following up that Jarl Mohn piece last week: If you had a good time reading about NPR and its (digital) discontents, you might enjoy chasing that shot with this long, fizzy dialogue between Planet Money cofounder Adam Davidson and John Sutton, a professional audience researcher, about the future of public radio, which you can find in its entirety on Current. Check it out! I have many thoughts on this, but I’ve already written too much. And if you have any thoughts, please write me!

Following up that platform conversation last week: Nieman Lab (a.k.a., that weird hippie website you’re reading this on right now) ran a great piece yesterday about programmatic ads on podcasts, the challenges they raise, and the opportunities they promise. It prominently features Panoply which, in case I haven’t mentioned already, is the company I work for — so here we have a plug for a Nieman Lab article by a newsletter housed in Nieman Lab written by a guy who works the company that’s featured in said article. Ethics is a flat circle, and who’s line is it, anyway?

Slate’s Joel Meyer heads over to WBEZ. My dawg. My bro. Why you be leaving? As reported by Robert Feder, the go-to guy for coverage on Chicago’s media beat: Joel Meyer, managing producer of Slate podcasts, is moving to WBEZ to be the executive producer, starting September 14.

I am, of course, devastated, as I’m a huge fan of his work and an even bigger fan of his preroll reads. But as his colleague, I’m even more devastated because he’s just such a gosh darn calming force in the office. I’m gonna miss ya, buddy; I’m sorry we didn’t get to hang out more.

Topics? Real talk, fellas. It’s week 2 of Hot Pod being housed on Nieman Lab, and I want to put it out that I’m very aware that my coverage of the space is, for better or worse, far from comprehensive. I’ve never meant for Hot Pod to be a holistic surveyor of the industry; I’ve only worked to hammer down on things that I find particularly interesting and, to my mind, indicative of the larger trends. But! I know that I’m a limited human being in terms of language and scope and depth, so if there’s anything you feel strongly about that I should pay more attention towards and cover, please let me know. Send me a note at hotpodnewsletter@gmail.com, and I’ll try my best.

All right. That’s about it for now. See you next week, ya nerds!

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