Hot Pod: What will happen to the election podcast boom on Nov. 9?

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue ninety-three, published October 25, 2016.

“We’re built on top of a foundation that we feel pretty good about,” PRX CEO Kerri Hoffman said. “I’m excited that we’ll never start from zero again.”

We were discussing Radiotopia’s 2016 fall fundraising campaign, which kicked off on October 13 and ends later this week, and Hoffman was telling me how she’s significantly less stressed out this year. Last fall marked the first time the organization switched away from a seasonal Kickstarter strategy to a recurring donor model, an approach whose internal logic bears more than a passing resemblance to public radio’s pledge drive system. The bulk of last year’s work, she explained, involved building out basic fundraising infrastructure: pulling together email lists, developing the beats of their marketing push, testing out the messaging, and so on. A lot of those fundamentals remain in place this year, and they merely had to build upon them.

Accordingly, PRX’s focus is a little different this year: While last November’s campaign had the more precarious goal of building out its donor base for the first time, this year’s drive has the more modest goal of merely expanding that base. Last November’s drive successfully drew support from over 19,500 people, and a blog post PRX published at the time noted that 82 percent of those folks signed on as recurring donors at different contribution levels, which would place the recurring donor number at around 15,990 people. The campaign’s CommitChange page for this cycle indicates that 12,647 recurring donors from that initial drive have stayed on, illustrating a bit of a drop-off in the intervening 12 months. Donors in good standing were gifted a free challenge coin, and their recurring contributions are set to continue unless they decide to adjust their levels. Existing donors were also invited to make additional one-time donations. This year’s campaign is also a little shorter than the previous year’s, taking place across 20 days compared to 2015’s 30.

That said, this campaign has had its challenges. Hoffman tells me that, interestingly enough, this year’s bonkers election cycle has made messaging and marketing a little more difficult, given the oxygen it has sucked up over social media. “We’ve definitely had to work a little harder to keep the momentum going,” she said. “Everyone’s distracted.” And early on, a slight timing hiccup led to the campaign missing its first challenge grant — in which a sponsor pledges a particular amount if certain goals are met — by a little bit.

But even with those bumps, the campaign appears to be going strong, clocking in just over 3,200 new supporters by Monday evening. What’s interesting to me here, though, is the way in which the campaign goal of expanding its recurring donor base — which is a game of attrition, really — lends to a relatively unsexy marketing narrative. It’s one thing to announce the recruitment of over 15,000 supporters and have that be the core of a triumphant story, but it’s another thing altogether to try and drive a narrative about adding on 3,000 more supporters, and one wonders whether this narrative issue will pose a structural problem for Radiotopia’s ability to create a sense of urgency for future fundraising and donor recruitment efforts.

This predicament, I think, is an interesting microcosm of where we are in the larger narrative arc of this second coming of podcasts: the phase of the excitement of the new is coming to a close, and we march steadily on into the more mundane work of adolescence.

In related news: Radiotopia also welcomed a new podcast to the family this week: The Bugle, the popular satire podcast launched back in October 2007 by Andy Zaltzman and John Oliver (who you may know as the host of HBO’s Last Week Tonight). Oliver will no longer host the show, for obvious “there is not enough time in the world”-related reasons, and Zaltzman, who is staying on, will be supplemented with a rotating crew of guests.

The Bugle is Radiotopia’s second addition in recent weeks. In late September, the collective announced its recruitment of the West Wing Weekly, which is cohosted by Hrishikesh Hirway, who is already part of the Radiotopia family with Song Exploder. The Bugle and West Wing Weekly are noticeable departures away from Radiotopia’s usual aesthetic, which tends to favor narrative storytelling. The former can be categorized as a straightforward comedy podcast while the latter is a pretty extensive TV-club podcast. This departure appears to be strategic. In the related press release, executive producer Julie Shapiro noted: “These shows help us expand into new areas of entertainment, political news and satire, which will ultimately build on the existing Radiotopia brand and bring new audiences to all shows within the network.”

The Bugle is Radiotopia’s sixteenth show.

Election podcasts enter the homestretch. Let’s quickly check in on their game plans:

  • Starting today (October 25), the NPR Politics Podcast will publish new episodes every day until the election. The podcast also hit a milestone recently; according to a recent press release (which we’ll get back to in a bit), the show enjoyed 1,118,000 downloads during the first week of October and. It had averaged about 450,000 downloads a week over the past three months.
  • The FiveThirtyEight Elections podcast will also be publishing new episodes daily until the election starting today. Additionally, the show will continue past November 8 on a weekly schedule “through at least Inauguration Day.”
  • I’m told that there is no systematic plan to increase the output of Slate’s Trumpcast, which already publishes on a semi-daily basis. When I asked Steve Lickteig, executive producer of Slate podcasts, if the show will continue past the big day, he told me: “If there is a peaceful transition of power, Trumpcast will do one or two wrap-up shows. If it gets contentious, stay tuned!” The podcast reportedly draws 1 million monthly downloads and considered internally to be one of the most popular podcasts in Slate’s history, according to Digiday.
  • The Ringer’s Keepin’ It 1600, consumed by many as therapy, will “likely” continue past November 8. It has already shifted to a twice-a-week publishing schedule.

As always, much love to all the producers of these podcasts that are putting in the extra physical, mental, and emotional energy to stay close to the news cycle. It’ll be over soon, folks. (Or will it?)

A new lab, a podcast strategy? Last Wednesday, NPR announced an expansion and restructuring of its Storytelling Lab, its internal innovation incubator launched last June. Nieman Lab has the full story on the new setup, but at high level, you should know the following:

  • The lab has been renamed as “Story Lab,” and its structure has shifted from an incubator to what’s being called a “creative studio.” (Hey, nomenclature is important and words have meaning, folks.) According to the related press release, the studio’s articulated aim is to “support innovation” across the organization, “increase collaboration” with member stations, and better identify talent.
  • The initiative will apparently also be “investing in training, audio workshops and meetups,” which is a pretty solid idea, given that the supply chain for talent in the space seems deeply underserved at this point in time.
  • The release also noted that the Lab is funding three pilots, which is cool, though the pathway to full seasons and distribution for those pilots remain to be seen.

The Story Lab announcement was followed shortly after by news of NPR’s ratings increase this season which, among other things, drew attention to the breaking of broadcast audience records by Morning Edition and All Things Considered, as well as the fact that NPR One has grown by 124 percent year-over-year.

Cool news from the mothership, but when it comes to NPR and podcasts, I typically approach the situation with the following questions: What is the shape of its podcast strategy, how does it fit into the larger strategy, and what do these developments tell us about both of those things? From that framework, the Story Lab is clearer to me as a way for NPR to better capitalize on its ecosystem of potential talent than it is a focused strategy that says something explicit about how on-demand audio fits into NPR’s grand vision.

It may well be the case that there is a plan — or at least a theory — in place that isn’t being communicated at this point in time. “We don’t have a quota,” an NPR spokesperson said when I asked if the Story Lab had specific output benchmarks for pilot production. “We do have some internal goals about how many shows we want to pilot and launch, but we’re not ready to share those publicly.” What those are, and what they’ll be, is something we’re going to have to wait to find out.

An alternate narrative on the connected car dashboard? Two weeks ago, Uber announced an integration with Otto Radio, a commute-oriented audio and podcast curation app, that will serve riders with a talk programming playlist that’s dynamically constructed to fit their trips.PC Magazine has a pretty good description on how the experience enabled by the integration is supposed to work:

The next time you request a ride using the Uber app, a playlist of news stories and podcasts, perfectly timed for your trip’s duration, will be waiting for you in Otto Radio. Once your driver has arrived, you can sit back and enjoy your “personally curated listening experience and arrive at your destination up-to-date about the things you care about most,” the companies said.

Otto Radio is a quirky participant in the much larger fight among audio programming providers and platforms for the dashboard of the connected car — widely considered in the industry to be one of the biggest untapped frontiers — but this integration with Uber brings into the equation a potential wrinkle in that dashboard struggle narrative: What does that fight mean in an environment where Uber looks to (a) contend for transportation primacy over car ownership and (b) push deeper into self-driving cars? In this rather likely version of the future, does the fight for the dashboard dissolve back into the fight for the mobile device?

Splish splash. The Times’ public editor Liz Spayd turned her attention to the organization’s nascent (or rather, re-nascent) podcast operations over the weekend, and her column contained a bunch of pretty interesting nuggets for close watchers of the Gray Lady, along with anybody working at a media organization thinking about podcasts.

Of course, do check out the column, but here are the bits that stood out to me:

  • “The politics podcast, called The Run-Up, is attracting the youngest audience of any Times product ever surveyed, and one that spends far more time on it than most readers do on stories.”
  • “As the team gears up, it plans to produce a range of shows, from the more conversational to serial-style narratives. It will also scope out opportunities for audio on demand: newsy, gripping sound that could be found directly on the Times website rather than in podcast form.” ← this latter point is really, really interesting.
  • The Times’ next podcast, a game show featuring Freakonomics’ Stephen Dubner called Tell Me Something I Don’t Know, is scheduled to launch next month. Dubner, by the way, is hitting the free-agent game pretty hard: Freakonomics is still chugging along at WNYC, and his short Question of the Day podcast, produced under the Earwolf label, is also publishing industriously. Dubner has some history with the Times; Freakonomics was a blog on NYTimes.com between 2007 and 2011, and Dubner was once a story editor at the Times Magazine.

For what it’s worth, I liked Spayd’s analysis a lot. There remain tremendous questions about the promise of audio for digital media and news organizations, and whether it can deliver as a revenue boon in a business environment starved for growth injections and stabilizing pillars. Two core tensions exist in these questions: whether podcasts will offer incremental growth or whether it will be a so-called “magic bullet,” and whether podcasts will be deployed as a kind of top-of-the-funnel — a recruitment tool to reach previously unharvested audiences and pull them down the marketing funnel — or as a fully-fledged outpost all on its own.

Patreon partners with podcast hosting platform Podomatic. The partnership will let Podomatic users easily set up Patreon support buttons on their user profile, according to the press release. If you’re unfamiliar with Patreon, it’s a platform that helps creators receive funding and donations directly from their supporters — or patrons, to use the synonym that makes Patreon’s etymology more obvious.

It’s a nifty service, and I’ve used it before for Hot Pod back before I decided to take the newsletter full-time. And it’s also pretty widely used — separate and apart from Podomatic — by a number of podcasters, like Flash Forward’s Rose Eveleth. A Patreon spokesperson told me that the platform has about 10,000 podcast creators with Patreon accounts, and that the company is actively working to draw more podcasters onto the service. It’s a decent option, I think, for shows way under the audience threshold for advertiser interest but have an ardent, engaged base that may be willing to chip in some cash monthly to sustain the show. Hey, that model works for me.

Bites:

  • Politico’s hallmark newsletter product, the Politico Playbook, is now available in 90-second audio format, distributed both through the Amazon Echo and as a podcast. The birthdays, alas, will not be carried over. (Politico)
  • “Midroll Media did ‘in the ballpark’ of $20 million in sales last year, and is on pace to bring in more than $30 million this year,” Ad Age reports, using a source “with knowledge of the company.” (Ad Age)
  • WNYC Studios will launch its next podcast, Nancy, early next year. Nancy, formerly known as Gaydio, was one of the winners of the station’s podcast accelerator initiative that took place back in September 2015. (MediaVillage)
  • In The Dark, APM Reports’ limited-run podcast that investigates the 1989 child abduction of Jacob Wetterling in rural Minnesota, will be broadcast on the radio as a 4-hour roundup special. The show, by the way, is amazing, and I think it’s probably the most thoughtful true-crime podcast I’ve ever heard. The last episode dropped today. (Twitter)
  • Bumpers, an audio-creation app that I wrote about back in August, has raised $1 million in seed funding. (TechCrunch)
  • The first Chicago Podcast Festival, scheduled to take place after the Third Coast Festival from Nov. 17 to 19, has posted its lineup. (Chicago Podcast Festival)
  • Like many media nerds, I’ve been watching The Verge cofounder Joshua Topolsky’s latest venture, The Outline, with much interest, given its maybe-kinda-sorta “The New Yorker but for snake people” pitch. So consider me interested, and a little bemused, that their first public project is a podcast that recaps HBO’s Westworld, called Out West.
  • Julia Barton, a veteran audio editor, has long been frustrated with the use of microphone stock photos in podcast write-ups, believing it to be a considerable reduction and misrepresentation of the culture, work, and medium. (Current)
  • FWIW, I’m told that Starlee Kine is going to make an appearance at the Now Hear This festival this Saturday, doing a guest spot on the live Found show.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Balance that out however you’d like.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seven digits, eh?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bites:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Boy, don’t I know that feeling.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And boy, steady paychecks are sexy.

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

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

His argument is built on two key concepts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cool.

Bites:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Four takes here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Relevant bits:

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

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

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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