Turns out people really like podcasts after all (and now we have numbers to prove it)

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 149, published January 30, 2018.

One month in. When Apple rolled out its long-awaited in-episode podcast analytics last month, part of the anxiety (and excitement, really) was finding out whether, essentially, the world would end. Which is to say, whether this whole podcast thing was a bubble, a house of cards; whether perhaps many of the metrics the industry had been using to articulate, extract, and transact its value was nothing more than inflated abstraction, like the hollow vitality of a viral tweet lifted up by a golemnic army of stolen identities.

You can scratch that particular anxiety off the list. Over at Wired, Miranda Katz checked in with a few publishers one month in and wrote:

Though it’s still early days, the numbers podcasters are seeing are highly encouraging. Forget those worries that the podcast bubble would burst the minute anyone actually got a closer look: It seems like podcast listeners really are the hyper-engaged, super-supportive audiences that everyone hoped.

Among those quoted for the piece were reps from Midroll, Headgum, and Panoply.

But of course, whether podcasting was a bubble that better analytics would pop was always only half the question. The other half, whether the new data would lead to a boom, is a whole other bag of nuts. Katz writes:

On the business side, it’s likely that these high engagement rates and low levels of ad skipping will see a flood of new advertisers who have until now been reticent to enter the Wild West of podcasting — welcome news to anyone who feels about ready to throw their phone across the room any time they hear another ad for Squarespace or Casper.

We’ll see! When the analytics were first announced in the summer, Market Enginuity’s Sarah van Mosel told me: “This is certainly a step in the right direction. This is what we asked for and I thank the Apple team for hearing and responding to the podcast community. Now I want more.” More, as in the expected adtech bells and whistles like better targeting capabilities. More, as in anything above table stakes.

But hey, exciting stuff. I suppose this also means that Hot Pod will be somewhat relevant for at least a little while longer. Yay for jobs.

(Side note: I wonder how MailChimp, Squarespace, and Casper feel about their semi-lampooned ubiquity? Probably good, because ubiquity and synonymity with the rise of the medium is a plus, but there’s something about the mocking tone that suggests a more complex linkage.)

Big new clients for PRX. The Cambridge, Mass.-based podcast company announced two eye-catching partnerships yesterday: one with Night Vale Presents, the indie podcast outfit founded by Welcome to Night Vale creators Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor; and one with Gen-Z Media, the kids podcast company founded by the people behind The Disappearance of Mars Patel.

These partnerships will see PRX providing the two companies with marketing, ad sales, and technology support services. That third bit means that both Night Vale Presents and Gen-Z Media will be moving their portfolio of shows onto PRX’s Dovetail platform, which currently serves as the hosting provider for all podcasts in Radiotopia network. (Well, almost. The Allusionist migrates over in April.) Dovetail also hosts podcasts from Serial Productions, most notably handling S-Town’s monster run. (More information on that situation can be found in this column from last April.)

Gen-Z Media’s shows were previously housed on Panoply’s Megaphone platform as a result of a previous partnership struck last January, which saw Panoply supplying production, financing, distribution, and technology support. Gen-Z is also an active partner on Pinna, Panoply’s app-oriented kids programming initiative, for which the podcast company was reportedly developing a suite of new shows.

“Truly, we’re not moving away from Panoply,” replied Ben Strouse, one of Gen-Z’s principals, when asked for clarification on the company’s standing with its previous provider. “Our shows on Pinna will proudly stay there, and we’ll continue collaborating with them on new projects. Our partnership with PRX is all about connecting with new listeners and reaching bigger and bigger audiences for our upcoming shows. We’ve got to diversify our business in 2018 to continue growing, and PRX has a tremendous distribution network and highly respected collection of great podcasts.”

Gen-Z’s move to PRX caps off a complicated month for Panoply, in which the company saw (1) the departure of its kids programming chief, Emily Shapiro; and (2) Slate, its sister company, taking over its podcasts’ sales processes from Panoply.

For Night Vale Presents, the move appears driven by an eye towards scale. Its shows were previously hosted on Libsyn. “We’ve got nothing but positive things to say about Rob Walch and the Libsyn team. They were amazing to work with — we’ve been with them since the beginning of Welcome to Night Vale, and we’ve always been very happy with them,” said Christy Gressman, partner at Night Vale Presents. “That said, we’re really looking forward to working with PRX in a streamlined way, where we’ll get to use their sales team and sponsor management resources and distribution technology (via their proprietary Publish and Dovetail applications), along with sharing other resources.”

Locking down Night Vale Presents and Gen-Z is a pretty big win for PRX, whose operations continue to sprawl out in a myriad of directions. The organization has evolved several times since its founding in 2003, when it was originally built to serve as a technology provider and tool hub for public radio stations looking to take advantage of the internet. (This involved, among other things, the creation of an online marketplace for programming and station-specific app development services.) In its current iteration, PRX has espoused a renewed commitment to independent creators, a stance that has expressed itself through the creation of its “indie podcast label” Radiotopia; the Podcast Garage in Allston, Mass.; and providing end-to-end podcast services for select partners that fit into this indie worldview. The organization is currently led by CEO Kerri Hoffman, who succeeded Jake Shapiro in 2016 when Shapiro moved on to found RadioPublic.

So, what’s the big picture here? One could argue that PRX — with its indie-minded orientation, technology stack, and expanding ad sales capacity supplied by Market Enginuity — makes for a fascinating foil for Midroll, which has long established itself as the dominant full-service provider for a good deal of the emerging podcast ecosystem. It’ll be interesting to see how PRX will further express itself as distinct from its competitors, and what kind of clients it will continue to target and lure away.

On a related note: Radiotopia’s Criminal is working on a spinoff called This Is Love that’s slated for a Valentine’s Day drop. I wrote about the details for Vulture, but I’d also like to say: What the Criminal team is trying out here seems like a good model for creative teams looking to flex their muscles in different creative directions without necessarily compromising the consistent audience interfacing of their core economic/production engines. It sets up an advantage not unlike what you’re getting in the relationship between This American Life and Serial Productions, where talent can flow between the mothership and one-off projects.

This week in public radio:

1. Last Friday, WNYC announced an executive reshuffle that sees Dean Cappello — the station’s chief content officer and CEO Laura Walker’s righthand man throughout her two-decade-plus tenure at the station — demoted into an advisory role with no direct reports. Cappello was previously responsible for overseeing WNYC News and WNYC Studios, the station’s on-demand audio division. The shift comes almost two months after New York Magazine’s The Cut published a piece from the journalist Suki Kim detailing sexual harassment complaints and allegations made against The Takeaway’s John Hockenberry during his hosting tenure at the show. Kim’s story has since catalyzed a broader reckoning about the station’s management, which was deemed to have inadequately handled the Hockenberry complaints and, more broadly, manifested a culture that allowed for bullying, harassment, and discriminatory behaviors that have especially hurt women and people of color.

However, in a statement to Splinter, a WNYC spokesperson clarified that Cappello’s demotion was part of a strategic shift and unrelated to The Takeaway controversies. (Cappello directly oversaw The Takeaway and worked closely with Hockenberry for years, as a recent New York Times piece noted.)

It’s a peculiar clarification. But then again, if Cappello’s demotion was indeed meant to be the official response to the overarching concerns about the station’s culture, then it would have been an insufficient act of accountability. As it stands then, the station still hasn’t outwardly — or inwardly, as far as I can tell — indicated what it will concretely be doing to seriously address its systemic issues.

We may well still see…something from the station. In the WNYC News piece on the matter, it was noted that station management has brought in the law firm Proskauer Rose to investigate workplace conduct and former NPR executive editor Madhulika Sikka to review editorial content and structure. But for now, it feels like the impetus for change remains more centered in the hands of the station’s supporting member base, and how that constituency will collectively choose to alter the cost of reinforcing the status quo.

2. Minnesota Public Radio’s Garrison Keillor problem continues to be a flaming mess. A quick list of recent developments:

  • Last Tuesday, MPR News published an investigation going deep into Keillor’s troubling history of inappropriate workplace behavior around women. “An investigation by MPR News…has learned of a years-long pattern of behavior that left several women who worked for Keillor feeling mistreated, sexualized or belittled,” the piece wrote. “None of those incidents figure in the ‘inappropriate behavior’ cited by MPR when it severed business ties.”
  • That same day, MPR CEO Jon McTaggart published a note responding to several questions that have been sent in by listeners about the controversy. “The irony is that while MPR has been careful to protect Garrison’s privacy and not hurry any decisions, others have rushed to judge and criticize MPR’s actions without knowing the facts,” he wrote in response to one query.
  • A few days later, Keillor pushed back against MPR, MPR News, and an accuser through a statement published on his website and sent to HuffPost. “If I am guilty of harassment, then every employee who stole a pencil is guilty of embezzlement,” he wrote.

There remains a standoff between MPR management and Keillor, with the fate of the Prairie Home Companion archives — considered “historically valuable” by a curator at the University of Maryland, and to which Keillor holds many of the rights — at stake, as the Star Tribune reports.

3. NPR published the 2017 edition of its staff diversity numbers last week, which shows virtually no progress from the year before. Ombudsman Elizabeth Jensen with the details:

The overall racial and ethnic diversity of the news and information division remained virtually unchanged as of Oct. 31, 2017, when compared with the year earlier. Figures supplied by NPR’s human resources department showed the division of 377 people to be 75.10 percent non-Hispanic white (as self-identified). That compared to 75.4 percent the year earlier, when there were 350 newsroom employees. I’ll repeat what I said of the 2016 numbers, which showed only incremental change over the last five years: this was a disappointing showing.

Year-to-year, there were some small changes in the makeup of the remaining 25 percent of the newsroom. The percentage of employees who reported they were Latino or black rose slightly; Asian employees as a percentage dropped slightly.

Jensen’s piece unpacks a number of elements embedded in the station’s problem with employment diversity that’s worth thinking about, including a “trickle down” dynamic as well as the indirect impact of the broader public radio ecosystem’s lack of diversity as a potentially relevant factor in the station’s failure to adequately solve the problem. (One thing I’m personally wondering about, though, because I’m a yellow person: Why did the percentage of Asian employees drop slightly? Are we just, like, not talking more about that?)

But there is absolutely nothing new to be said about this issue that hasn’t already been said, not that doesn’t it have to be said repeatedly, ad infinitum, until the light of the sun snuffs out or the percentages actually change: This needs to be fixed, like now, and it’s ridiculous that the needle has barely moved, maybe even regressed.

In other news: Marjorie Powell, vice president of human resources, has left the organization. Current has some noteworthy background on the development.

Nope, not a good week for public radio.

Personnel notes:

  • Dave Shaw, the executive producer of podcasts at E.W. Scripps, has moved to Politico to lead the podcast team there. He started work today. Also at Politico: Bridget Mulcahy has been promoted to senior producer, and Micaela Rodríguez joins full time as assistant producer.
  • Vox Media now has a dedicated podcast marketing manager: Zach Kahn, who previously worked in the brand marketing and sponsorship division.

Dirty John in the age of Peak TV. The multimedia true-crime project from the Los Angeles Times is in the process of being adapted into two different series for two different networks, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

Bravo, home of the Real Housewives Expanded Universe, is reportedly “near a deal” for an anthology series based on the Times’ Christopher Goffard’s reporting and accompanying podcast (produced in collaboration with Wondery). It will be a two-season order; first season of that show will be based on the Dirty John story, while the second will focus on a new tale altogether.

The Oxygen network is the other suitor, having ordered a companion unscripted series focused on the subject of Goffard’s feature, John Meehan.

Three things:

    • Dirty John is the latest in a growing line of podcast-to-television adaptations, which you can read more about here, here, and here. At some point, I’ll put together a spreadsheet or something tracking the pipeline so we can figure out the split between fiction and nonfiction projects, true crime and non-true crime, so on and so forth.
    • The fact that Dirty John is being adapted into both scripted and unscripted forms is super interesting. How much juice can you squeeze out of a fruit? Depends on the fruit, I guess. Or maybe not?
  • This bit of news comes as the L.A. Times is increasingly engulfed by managerial maelstroms, including dramatic reshuffles in its management, sexual harassment allegations levied against publisher and CEO Ross Levinsohn, and a comically capitalistic parent company called Tronc that’s engaged in questionable business strategies to the detriment of its talented newsrooms. The situation remains fluid; I recommend following Ken Doctor and David Folkenflik if you’re tracking the story.

Macmillan outlook. The podcasting adventures of Macmillan, the international book publishing giant, can be traced back to the closing weeks of 2006 when John Sterling, then the publisher and president of the Henry Holt imprint, called up a science writer named Mignon Fogarty after reading about her rapidly growing podcast, Grammar Girl, in The Wall Street Journal. A phone call about a potential book deal turned into the mutual identification of a unique opportunity, which in turn led to the creation of the Quick & Dirty Tips Podcast Network, one of the earliest podcast publishing experiments by a non-audio native company. (Simon Owens has a great recent history of QDT on his website.)

The network has since grown into a robust and well-oiled machine. It is now over 275 million podcast downloads strong, having added 25 million episode downloads across 2017 to the 250 million in lifetime downloads the network had accumulated by the end of 2016. Fogarty continues to publish Grammar Girl, the network’s flagship program now flanked by an array of spinoffs, and she has published several books that direct extend from her work on the podcast. Meanwhile, Sterling, who continued to oversee QDT even as he ascended to the role of executive vice president at Macmillan proper in 2008, recently announced that he was stepping back from full-time work at the publisher to get into politics. The news comes shortly after he completed work as the editor of Michael Wolff’s Fire & Fury.

With delicious lore to spare, Macmillan is a fascinating figure in podcasting: an early adopter, a persistent player, and a singular operation. And last year proved to be no different for the publisher as it continued to work the on-demand audio angle.

At the tail end of 2016, I wrote about Macmillan’s ambitions to further scale up its on-demand audio operations with the formation of Macmillan Podcasts, a new internal venture that seeks to explore more systematic ways of bridging authors and podcasts. Led by Kathy Doyle, the company’s vice president of podcasts, the newly formed division spent the year setting the table — “We tripled the size of our team and put together a workflow that enables us to be nimble and responsive to requests from our publishers, as well as authors and talent, as we grow our catalog,” she said — and establishing their presence within the organization. This work was mostly tied in the development and rollout of new projects, of which there were five in the latter half of 2017 (Raise My Roof, Dig If You Will, Feminasty, Rossen to the Rescue, and Steal the Stars), but it also revolved around an internal awareness-raising campaign. “We did a road show introducing the potential inherent in podcasts to all our publishers and showcasing the ways we can help contribute to their success — no topic or narrative style is off limits,” she explained.

Steal the Stars, in particular, emerged as the standout project for the division. I first wrote about the podcast last summer, when Tor Books, a science fiction and fantasy-focused Macmillan subsidiary, announced the formation of Tor Labs, an experimental imprint “emphasizing experimental approaches to genre publishing,” which developed Steal the Stars as its first project. I loved the idea of Tor Labs; here you have a new internal venture that’s working to cultivate publishing projects that are meant to contemporaneously span across multiple platforms such that value can be simultaneously extracted from the different markets of different mediums. Such a setup vastly expands the surface area of a single project, dramatically increasing the work’s exposure and further allowing for the possibility of ushering more audiences to cross over between mediums. Sure, much like Subcast from last week, the whole thing isn’t particularly revolutionary — we do live in an age where just about everything gets adapted into any given direction, from podcasts-to-television to documentaries-to-podcasts — but the real innovation is the efficiency and contiguity of the arrangement. Every element is plugged in together from the outset, and that seems new to me.

Steal the Stars was indicative of what the bleeding edge for Macmillan Podcasts could look like. It involved close coordination between Gideon Media (which created and produced the podcast), Tor and Tor Labs, Macmillan Podcasts, and Macmillan Audio (which oversees its audiobooks operations), all collectively working together to ensure that every format of the show was set up to perform well within their respective markets.

Doyle considers the experiment a success. The podcast ended up clocking in a solid performance with listeners; I’m told that the 14-part run surpassed 1 million downloads and continues to perform well in the postseason. “Our strategy included taking the podcast content and adapting it into a trade paperback and ebook and just last week we released an audiobook with bonus content — we even did a prequel live event that sold out — all of which continues to drive interest in the podcast,” she explained. “We’ll be leveraging this model again.”

As far as the product itself goes, I thought it was a really fun listen. A sci-fi audio drama written by Gideon Media’s Mac Rogers, who also wrote The Message and Life After for Panoply, Steal the Stars was a comparatively straightforward narrative romp involving aliens, secret government hijinks, and romance.

So, what does the year ahead hold for Macmillan Podcasts? As you would expect, they’ve got a pile of projects in the pipeline. The division recently released a few trailers teasing two February launches: the first is called One True Pairing, which will be hosted by two St. Martin Press staffers — “Think My Favorite Murder for people who read US Weekly,” Doyle said, a description that sounds a lot like a Who? Weekly competitor — and the second is called But That’s Another Story, which “looks at how books and reading change and shape our lives” and will be hosted by best-selling author Will Schwalbe. More are on the way.

Doyle also notes that the year will be spent further building out key relationships, distribution points, and co-marketing opportunities within the industry. “We’re spending a lot of time thinking about ways we can collaborate with our partners in support of our authors and continue to innovate with new audio-first formats,” she said. You can already see some of that with Macmillan Podcasts’ participation in the marketing of Launch, a new podcast about writing a novel developed by Wondery.

Like most other podcast operatives, Doyle is thinking about the discovery gap — and where the closing of that gap will come from — as well as the longevity of the advertising model, which is the primary revenue channel for their show portfolio. That latter concern is pushing her to explore alternatives. “We’re open to additional models, perhaps working with distributors on a windowing relationship or developing exclusive content,” Doyle added. “It’s a case-by-case basis.”

But for now, though, Macmillan Podcasts is settling into itself. They remain occupants of a unique corner in the broader podcast ecosystem, hard at work figuring out how to add more layers to its niche.

Bites:

  • ESPN is reportedly exploring a sale of FiveThirtyEight. Should FiveThirtyEight break off from Disney — which owns ESPN, among so many other things — there would be considerable ramifications for the FiveThirtyEight Politics podcast and ESPN’s 30 for 30 podcast, as both shows share Jody Avirgan as a principal producer. (The Big Lead)
  • Gimlet is producing a live festival for itself. Called Gimlet Fest, it is scheduled to take place on June 16-17, not too far from their new 27,000-square-foot downtown Brooklyn offices.
  • A documentarian is developing a project about Joe Frank, and is raising funds on Indiegogo.
  • WBUR is launching its collaboration with The Washington Post, Edge of Fame, next month. The show is fronted by WaPo national arts reporter Geoff Edgers, and each episode will profile artists, actors, musicians, and comedians — including Ava DuVernay, Jimmy Kimmel, and Norm Macdonald — through a blend of interview and field recordings. Debuts on February 15.
  • Two shows to track on the local podcasting front: Nashville Public Radio’s The Promise, a limited-run series on public housing in the city, out now; and KPCC’s Repeat, which investigates the story of an L.A. County sheriff’s deputy who shot at four people in seven months. It starts February 7.
  • Variety has a big feature up on Spotify as the music streaming company sets off towards going public, titled “With 70 Million Subscribers and a Risky IPO Strategy, Is Spotify Too Big to Fail?” The piece is super useful to get a sense of what’s going on (and what’s at stake) for the company and its relationship to the broader music industry. Once you’re done with that, pair it with this Financial Times bit: “Songwriters’ court victory deals a blow to Spotify.
  • Not directly podcast-related, but maybe it can be: “A Bunch of TV Writers Are Building a Salary-Transparency Database.” (Vulture)
  • Because true crime is arguably the pulping heart of podcasts in 2018…”Hunt a Killer, One Subscription Box of Clues at a Time.” (The Ringer)

Hot Pod: Should Apple become a more useful middleman for the podcast industry — and if so, how?

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue ninety-seven, published November 29, 2016.

Ken Doctor on the role Apple should play. The media analyst made an appearance on the latest episode of The Wolf Den, Midroll’s pretty handy content marketing podcast-slash-guide to the industry, to discuss his spectacular series on the podcasting boom that recently ran on Nieman Lab.

Of particular note is his take on Apple, which came up at around the 16:45 mark:

What I would like to see is [Apple] not get into the middle of things where they actually overwhelm all the smaller companies that are in it…The money looks like it’s going to be mainly advertising and less listener payment, and that’s not a field they’re very good at. They’ve proven that they’re not a very good advertising company. And that’s a good reason for them not to get into it: [there’s] not a lot of money in it right now, and they’d need big hits…

If their role could be the providing of information and data in a Switzerland-kind of way for the industry, given that 60 percent or so of all the listening comes through Apple devices, and maybe get paid a little to do that — but to do that in a way that is non-competitive — that might be their best role for the industry. It will support their core businesses, which is selling hardware and software, but not put them in direct competition and snuff out the creativity and imagination that’s in the industry.

Doctor’s position here — for Apple to become more involved as an information and data provider, and not as some sort of involved content distributor — is more or less the position favored by most in the industry at this point in time. It’s a highly specific vision of Apple’s role in the podcast space that requires a delicate balance, one that was largely reflected in the agitation aggregately portrayed in that semi-controversial New York Times article back in May. (A controversy, by the way, that now seems driven by fears that drawing attention to the problem would trigger an unpredictable action from Apple, and not based on any vision of the future articulated by anybody interviewed.)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I completely second Doctor’s position here, both for the positives — yes, it would be very nice for all of us to get better access to actionable data that could yield greater audience insight (preferably in such a way that isn’t particularly invasive) and foster greater intangible confidence in the medium from the advertising community — as well as for the severity of its negatives.

The darkest timeline. Now, I’m not an Apple kremlinologist — I’ll leave that to the vast blog ecosystem dedicated to Apple coverage — and so I can’t, of course, personally predict with any confidence how the company is thinking about its podcast strategy (or even whether it’s thinking about it with any seriousness at all). My gut reaction, and I know I’m not the only person who suspects this, is that podcast money is still very much chump change, and that any attempt to step in as a layer that takes off a percentage of the entire space would still amount to what is essentially a rounding error for the company. (Recall that the current valuation of the podcast industry’s ad spend is only so much — for 2016, ZenithOptimedia projected $35.1 million back in March, while others have so far estimated it to be as high as $167 million — while digital music revenue is pegged to be about $2.66 billion this year, radio ad spend was $17.5 billion in 2015, and Apple’s App Store revenue was estimated to be about $6.4 billion in 2015.)

However, if I were to imagine a possible world in which they’d try to do something at this specific point in time, I’d figure that the guiding incentive would not be to capitalize on peeling a layer off revenues in the space as it is, but to instead become an underlying condition of how future business is conducted in the space. Which is to say that, in such a scenario, Apple would want to position itself in a way that’s similar to how, say, Art19 or Panoply would want their respective platforms to be the de facto podcast hosting solution, or how Stripe is becoming increasingly synonymous with internet payments.

What does that mean, precisely? Whatever it is, it’ll probably feature the company offering podcasters — and in particular, big podcast publishers, who are incentivized to persist in the long term — solutions, expertise, and/or access to something those podcasters themselves do not have and experience high barriers of entry to obtain. As Doctor noted, that probably isn’t going to be ad sales, since the company has historically proven itself to not be great at that. What does that leave us with? Audience development? Maybe payments? And where does that leave Apple: a strategy of exclusives, like their pursuits with Apple Music, or maybe direct payment/patronage tools, coopting the role that Patreon would play?

Anyway, that’s what I’m batting around in my head. In any case, at this point I’ll say that if Apple were ever to make a move, I suspect the very first people outside of Cupertino to find out are probably the bigger podcast publishers, so keep an eye on them. In the meantime, consider investing in building out a promotion strategy and infrastructure where iTunes — and maybe even a network — isn’t at the center, but one channel of many. Hey, it can be done. I mean, look at Chapo Trap House. (I guess?)

Two more things from the Ken Doctor interview. Do check out that Wolf Den episode — the full conversation is really, really good — but there are two additional topics that you should keep in mind:

1. On the potential of FCC regulation over podcasts (something that the medium has, up until this point, not experienced), which Doctor discusses at about the 33:00 mark:

I think there will probably be efforts, and now, given different kinds of politicization, there may be more efforts. What I’ve seen over 20 years is that essentially the law and regulatory practice has been absolutely flummoxed by digital media…The FCC and the FTC have not figured out how to deal with this. Even antitrust law has not figured out how to deal with it. I don’t think that’s going to change.

I would hope that your industry…will take that lead and make your own rules that are ethical and that are transparent to the public. And to get ahead of it, and try to avoid government regulation which is as likely to be misguided as it is to be well-guided.

2. The role podcasts can play for local media and local news was also discussed, and you can hear that chunk of the discussion at around the 38:30 mark.

“Efficiency trumps all things, in general,” said Erik Diehn, CEO of Midroll, when we spoke over the phone recently. “There are many more advertisers in the space relative to a few years ago, and they’re increasingly looking for scale. If you’re an advertiser, you can cobble a few shows together, or you can choose instead to buy one big show…That’s just where we’re at. It’s the same thing on YouTube. Ditto a few years ago with blogs. We’re at a point of bifurcation: You’re going to see more larger shows absorbing a lot more dollars…including brand dollars, that weren’t there before.”

Diehn notes that there is a very specific form of exception to this, pointing to the podcast Spilled Milk as a case study. “They aren’t huge, but they sell out because they’ve been around for a while, they have a good audience, and they do food,” he explains. “Some people will buy even at that smaller scale. If you’re going to be a commercially successful podcast at this point, you got to have a differentiated or notable product.”

I spoke with Diehn, by the way, to balance out the interviews I did for last week’s item on independent podcasts.

Digiday has a pretty interesting snapshot on the U.K. digital audio landscape, drawing from a report by U.K.-based Radio Joint Audience Research that groups together streaming platforms, digital radio, and podcasts. Expected findings apply: a preference by younger demographics, a steady growth rate (a reported double-digit growth every six months), and persisting fragmentation when it comes to centralized measurement.

As with my own reporting, the article notes that there exists a general sense that digital audio in the U.K. still “lags” behind the U.S. — though I should note that, among podcast companies specifically, there are a few entities putting in a fair bit of effort developing a connected presence on both fronts. (See: Audioboom and Acast’s long-running incursion into the U.S., Panoply’s recently-established outpost in the U.K..)

Anyway, check out the Digiday article in full. There’s some additional findings on specific company strategies that are also pretty cool.

An unexpected pleasure. I was catching up on Life After, GE Podcast Theater’s followup to The Message, over the weekend, and I was struck by just how positively I reacted to the show’s complete lack of advertising breaks. No preroll, no midroll, no clunky sponsorship messaging — there were simply no disruptions in the show’s contiguous experience that added onto the suspension of disbelief already being demanded by the story. The show felt more immersive as a result, washing over my earballs so much more smoothly. Heck, I swear it made me like the show more than I naturally would have, and frankly, I can’t tell if the season is any good or whether I’m just happy there are no ads. (For what it’s worth, I quite like the season.)

And yes, the irony of Life After being one gigantic piece of advertising isn’t lost on me.

Also not lost on me: the fact that my overwhelmingly positive response says a whole lot more about the state of normal podcasts than it does about branded podcasts as a, um, thing (genre?). Advertising is a tax, the price we pay for a piece of media that we didn’t pay for out of our pockets. The role of publishers, by and large, is to mitigate the burden of that tax as it is suffered by audiences; in an ideal world, publishers could even turn that tax into an additional value.

The experience of Life After brings into acute focus just how much that tax has accumulated over the past year, and just how much they’ve congealed into fatigue. (For me, at least.) Granted, I’m an edge case — I spend inhumane chunks of my days consuming podcasts, and perhaps it was only a matter of time that I’d grow blind (deaf?) to advertising in my exorbitantly high levels of podcast consumption. But I’m struck, at this moment, by the extent to which I’ve been bearing with podcast ads — and I’m saying this as a person who actually believes in advertising. The flipside to this is just how little podcast advertising I actually notice, how rarely I encounter host-reads that fill me with any memorable feelings at all.

There is, of course, a limit to which my personal experience says anything about everything else, but all of this does make me wonder how, in the midst of an expanding inflow of advertising money, the podcast industry en masse is readying itself to figure out how to preserve the medium’s intimacy — to capitalize on the fresh start it offers for digital media — while scaling up its advertising infrastructure to accommodate that money.

For those keeping close watch on Audible Channels: The number of Amazon Prime members is now estimated to be 49.5 million across the US, up 23 percent from last year, according to a report by financial services firm Cowen & Co., as cited by Barron’s.

Recall that Audible’s parent company Amazon started bundling Channels content with its Prime membership program back in September. Previously, Channels was only available to paying Audible subscribers and as a standalone paid subscription feature, priced at $4.96 per month or $60 per year. Also recall the larger strategy for Amazon with Channels: Its existence theoretically increases the value of Prime and Audible memberships, thus increasing the friction for cancellation for current members and increasing the pull for new subscribers. That allows for a programming strategy that favors hyper-targeting, which means that Audible doesn’t have to always program for the broadest possible audience. This should be nothing new for longtime Hot Pod readers, but I’d going to keep hammering on it because I believe it’s key to reading that company.

Bites:

  • Hot Pod reader Charles Wiltgen has made pretty handy tool: the Podcast Validator, which helps assess whether your RSS feed is good to go. A little bit goes a long way for that additional peace of mind. (Podbase)
  • The Providence Journal reviews Gimlet’s Crimetown, whose first season focuses on organized crime in Providence. An entertaining artifact. (The Providence Journal)
  • If you’re keeping an eye on what comes next for the CBC’s role in Canada, do yourself a favor and check out the latest episode of Canadaland. (Canadaland)
  • “A Podcast of Their Own for Women in Music.” (The Atlantic)
  • “On the Need for Queer Podcasts.” (LA Review of Books)
  • Profile on Revolver’s Wrongful Conviction podcast. (New York)
  • This week in Why We Can’t Have Nice Things: “Now even your headphones can spy on you.” (Wired)
  • Not directly podcast-related, but I’m reading: “How Silicon Valley Passed on Conservative Media” (The Information)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A trailer for the show can be heard here.

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

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

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

Can you tell me about the history of Podmass?

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

What kind of work goes into producing the column?

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

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

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

How has Podmass performed?

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

What happens to Podmass now?

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

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

Bites:

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

Happy America, every one. Godspeed.

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