Reply All gets a movie deal (with Robert Downey Jr.), and Spotify is on the hunt for original shows

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 107, published February 14, 2017.

“We’re working on new features for podcasts, stay tuned,” Eddy Cue, Apple’s SVP of internet software and services, told Recode’s Peter Kafka on stage at the Code Media conference last night. Kafka had pressed Cue on whether Apple would get more involved in podcasts — specifically, whether better analytics could be provided. (Thank goodness for Kafka.) Cue, as you would imagine, was reticent to provide more details. We’ll just have to see where this goes.

The discussion on podcasts was very short, and you can hear the rest of the interview when it gets posted on the Recode Replay feed sometime later this week.

Missing Richard Simmons. Here’s an audio documentary with a delicious hook: three years ago, Richard Simmons, the fitness guru who was super popular in the eighties (Sweatin’ To The Oldies!), suddenly and inexplicably withdrew from the public eye. The podcast follows Dan Taberski, a documentarian and TV producer who is a friend and former student of Simmons, as he tries to track down and figure out what happened to the man — and in the process, explores Simmons’ place in the culture.

The podcast has a fair bit of firepower behind it. First Look Media is leading the project, with Adam Pincus, the company’s EVP of programming and content, and Leital Molad, who recently left WNYC to head up First Look’s podcast efforts, both holding executive producer credit. The company contracted Pineapple Street Media to produce the show — Max Linsky also serves as executive producer, Henry Molofsky as producer — while partnering with Midroll for sales and distribution.

Part of Midroll’s play here involves positioning Stitcher, which it acquired last summer, as an “exclusive launch partner.” That essentially amounts to a form of windowing: subscribers to Stitcher Premium will receive new episodes a week in advance. Wait, Stitcher Premium — doesn’t Midroll have its own premium subscription service? We’ll get to that in a bit.

Missing Richard Simmons is First Look Media’s latest foray in what is now a substantial push into podcasting. Its portfolio includes the podcast version of the company’s flagship digital property, The Intercept, which rolled out last month; Politically Re-Active; and Maeve in America.

Interestingly, Missing Richard Simmons is First Look’s first audio project that isn’t handled by Panoply, which is involved in the company’s other three shows.

The podcast drops tomorrow.

Related: First Look also announced that Politically Re-Active, its politics show with W. Kamau Bell and Hari Kondabolu, will return for a second season sometime in the early spring. Maeve in America kicked off its second season today.

A few notes on Stitcher Premium. The feature quietly rolled out late last year, but I was late to the party, only spotting the “Premium” button on the Stitcher website sometime in mid-January. Todd Pringle, Stitcher’s GM and VP of product, tells me that what we’re seeing is a soft launch — not a “relaunch” of the service’s previous iteration, Stitcher Plus.

At this time, Stitcher Premium remains separate from Howl, that other premium subscription play under the Midroll banner that the organization had been developing internally prior to its acquisition of Stitcher (awkward). Pringle notes that Howl subscribers can continue to use the platform’s web and mobile apps, and that the merge will come later. “We are planning a simple migration path that, over time, will transition Howl users over to the Stitcher Premium product,” he explained.

So, what’s the deal with Stitcher Premium? The “Netflix for Podcasts” tagline was once again evoked in the response sent to me — ahem, ahem — with ad-free exclusivity being the cornerstone of the strategy here: exclusive archives, exclusive sneak previews, and of course, exclusive original content, dubbed “Stitcher Originals.” (Who isn’t doing original material these days?)

Original projects include:

  • The Seth Morris Radio Project, which launched last week;
  • A show by comedian Jessie Kahnweiler called Schmucks;
  • A new show by the duo behind CBC’s Love Me, Cristal Duhaime and Mira Burt-Wintonick, called Pen Pals; and
  • The second season of The Mysterious Secrets of Uncle Bertie’s Botanarium, whose first season is currently being distributed over the open infrastructure.

Will this premium exclusive approach to the market pay off? My thinking on this remains the same as the first time I wrote about the model back in August 2015:

Midroll’s choice to play the premium subscription game — with content and a sizable amount of back catalogs placed behind the paywall — and the subsequent positioning of the product as the potential “Netflix for podcasts” exhibits a very specific hypothesis of podcasts as consumable media, one that posits podcasts will be valued by audiences enough where they would pay for it and that enough podcasts have back-catalogues that will be deemed “worth it.”

This is difficult enough to internalize in the present tense. Unlike Netflix and television/movies or Tidal and music, podcast audiences have little-to-no experience with paying for shows in the past, and the hurdle of convincing users to go from an entire experiential history of enduring host-read ads, which they can skip fairly easily, to paying for an ad-free experience is tremendous.

To state the obvious: the success of Stitcher Premium would almost purely come down to a question of programming: Will the team be good enough at curating the right kind of paywalled library, and will it be savvy enough to build right incentives for certain creators to put their wares behind that paywall? And barring that, will the company figure out how to further increase the value of the premium service beyond just the content?

A Reply All episode is being adapted into a movie, according to The Hollywood Reporter. The episode in question is “Man of the People,” a shockingly relevant tale of a con-man who built an empire off fake medicine, populism, and radio dominance — and the man who works to take him down. The adaptation will be directed by Richard Linklater, with Robert Downey Jr. in the starring role. Linklater and Downey will also serve as producers under their respective production banners, along with Susan Downey, Annapurna’s Megan Ellison, and Gimlet Media’s own PJ Vogt (who reported and hosted the episode), Tim Howard (who edited the episode), and Chris Giliberti (the company’s head of multi-platform).

This is Gimlet’s first announced film adaptation deal. The company currently has two TV adaptations in the pipeline: StartUp (recently given a pilot order by ABC) and Homecoming (being developed by Mr. Robot’s Sam Esmail). Giliberti also holds producer credit with those two projects. With this third adaptation, I think it’s safe to say that Gimlet has officially built out a formal adaptation pipeline — a move that introduces a whole new revenue dimension and potential to its content backlog. You can read my previous analyses on the topic here, here, and here.

“Spotify has been talking to podcast producers about original shows,” according to a new report at Digiday. Those being approached include: Gimlet, HowStuffWorks, and Pineapple Street Media. The article cites “multiple people familiar with the discussions.” What’s unclear: how developed those discussions are, the substance of those plans, and how central original and non-music content currently are in Spotify’s machinations. (Though, recall that original video programming is apparently still a notable part of the company’s vision.)

Spotify has produced original audio programming before…in Germany. That podcast, featuring the talents of German comedians Jan Böhmermann and Olli Schulz, rolled out last May. (Here’s the press release, for all you German speakers in the crowd.)

Here’s another interesting bit from the Digiday writeup: “To date, podcasts have fit awkwardly into Spotify’s product…The number of users that have bothered to look them, thus far, is quite small. For most podcast producers, Spotify accounts for less than 5 percent of their total shows’ listens.”

Hmm. The article frames the development as a “big new front has opened up in the war for exclusive podcasts.” We’ll see, but at this point, I’m not inclined to read too much into it for all the hesitations I outlined earlier about podcasts and exclusivity. I mean, I see the upside for Spotify to hammer out these deals with bigger podcast shops, but I don’t see any upside for those shops other than pocketing upfront cash — which, as we saw with the now-ceased Facebook Live publisher deals, is good enough reason for some, so long as there are excess resources to commit.

HowStuffWorks partners with AdsWizz to make use of the latter’s dynamic advertising tech to expand its ad inventory and monetize its substantial content library. The partnership will apparently also grant the Atlanta-based infotainment podcast network with increased targeting and reporting capacities, according to the press release.

The move will probably lead to a significant revenue increase for HowStuffWorks, given its relatively evergreen structure. Jason Hoch, HowStuffWorks’ chief content officer, tells me that listening across the network in any given week is evenly distributed between the head and the tail — that is, between the latest episode of a given show and the rest of that show’s catalogue.

To Hoch, this partnership with AdsWizz is more a matter of efficiency than it is about unlocking a whole new driver of the business. “The old method of stitching an ad placement directly into the same MP3 file as the episode makes no more sense than hard-coding a banner ad on your website,” he said. Hoch also notes that this doesn’t really change the dynamics of selling campaigns. “We don’t differentiate between new shows and those in our deep library. In 95% of cases, advertisers aren’t buying a specific episode of a show, they are buying that show and the passionate fan base of that show,” he explained.

Quick note on the tech. HowStuffWorks uses its own internal Amazon Web Services’ hosting infrastructure to house its shows, and that it remains the case after this partnership. “Rather than move our entire infrastructure elsewhere to make this happen, the AdsWizz software platform became technology that sat on top of what we already had,” Hoch said. “That’s pretty unique in the industry and was a good fit for our approach.”

Turner Broadcasting now has its own official podcast arm. The new division, called the Turner Podcast Network, is headed up by Tyler Moody, who serves as GM and VP for the network. Moody was previously the VP of CNN Newsource, the organization’s affiliate video service, and CNN Collection, its video archive library. While in those roles, Moody laid the foundation for CNN’s tentative foray into original podcast content, signing President Obama’s former chief strategist David Axelrod’s podcast The Axe Files in late 2015.

“We want to engage with fans of our shows and networks in the podcast space, and do it in a coordinated way across all of Turner,” Moody tells me. “Initially I’ll be on the lookout for things internally, meeting with producers at our networks for show ideas and to assess our current capabilities to deliver high quality podcasts. Externally I’ll be looking at industry trends in terms of content, ad delivery, sponsorship models, and potential partnerships with other podcast producers.”

Here’s a model that other publishers can emulate: Yesterday, New York Magazine’s entertainment site Vulture rolled out Good One: A Podcast About Jokes, a limited-run podcast where comedians are brought on to deconstruct a joke in their repertoire. In other words: “Song Exploder, but for jokes.” Perhaps not unrelatedly, Song Exploder recently partnered with the site for a special run of episodes focusing on notable film scores from last year. That arrangement was timed for awards season, which culminates two weekends from now with the Academy Awards. Good One is hosted by Vulture senior editor Jesse David Fox. It kicked off yesterday, and will run weekly for ten episodes.

The podcast was described to me as an extension of the site’s experiments with topically-focused, one-off editorial projects — similar to the string of “pop-up” blogs that Vulture has executed in the past. A spokesperson directed me to a 2014 Poynter write-up of that strategy, which explained the internal process as follows:

The editorial team comes up with a series of topics they think would be a good fit for New York [Magazine], and the advertising staff tries to sell those concepts to advertisers. If the sales team finds a sponsor, the editorial side creates the blog and fleshes out plans for coverage.

“Basically, we have certain editorial projects across platforms that are pitched to advertisers for exclusive sponsorship,” that spokesperson told me. “The editorial is completely independent (though thematically aligned), but only gets created once a sponsor commits.” In this instance, that advertiser is HBO, which is peddling its latest comedy offering, Crashing.

The production of Good One is handled by Panoply, similar to NY Mag’s other podcast projects.

And speaking of Panoply, it looks as if the network’s sister company, Slate, which also functions as one of the company’s core clients, announced layoffs yesterday. The Huffington Post with the details.

Documentaries, queued up. The Bay Area public radio station KQED is testing an intriguing model to distribute short-run, multi-part audio features: a single RSS feed that will serve as a home for serialized investigation projects produced by the station. The feed is framed as being its own weekly show called Q’ed Up.

The show kicked off operations last week with the debut of its first investigation, American Suburb, an eleven-part feature on gentrification in the Bay Area as told through the story of a single suburb 45 miles east of the Bay. (As a side note, I love titles with the “American” prefix. See: American Governor, American Pastoral, etc. Much gravitas.) At this writing, the station has at least two other features in the pipeline that will immediately follow American Suburb once it concludes, including an investigation into the growing number of homeless college students in the region and another that examines the story of a wrongly accused paroled man.

Holly Kernan, KQED’s VP of news, tells me that Q’ed Up emerged as a means to solve an anticipated problem. “[American Suburb] started out as a reporting project that ended up being this really rich documentary, and so we thought, okay, we want to turn this into an on-demand audio experience,” Kernan said. “But when you have a one-off podcast like this, it’s a problem when you don’t have anything else coming down the pipe once you put all this marketing effort into and build up an audience.”

She added: “So we thought, if we’re going to put all this effort into this beautiful production, why not give it an umbrella?”

Kernan aims to grow Q’ed Up to a point where it’s able to function as a break-even proposition for the station, but she’s also keen on ensuring that the show’s investigations will yield local impact. She notes that the primary intended audience for American Suburb is listeners who live in Antioch and the East Bay — areas covered in the story — and that the station has partnered with the San Francisco Foundation (which also serves as the show’s sponsor) to hold community events to discuss issues highlighted in the investigation.

“American Suburb” is reported by Sandhya Dirks and Devin Katayama. Julia McEvoy is editor.

Keep an eye on this: West Virginia governor’s budget plan proposes to eliminate state funding for West Virginia Public Broadcasting. Tyler Falk at Current with background, The Charleston Gazette-Mail with detail.

Audible seeks the Jad Abumrad bump. Checked out the Radiolab feed lately? The widely loved WNYC podcast published what was essentially a cross-promo for an Audible Original series, the Bernie Madoff documentary Ponzi Supernova, late last week. And it wasn’t an instance of a simple rebroadcast or a straightforward drop-in-the-RSS feed either: the episode was slightly remixed in the Radiolab style, with Abumrad leading segments intros and outros.

This isn’t the first time that Radiolab has published a remixed cross-promo of other another program. Just last month, the podcast ran a similarly repackaged version of the special On The Media series “Busted: America’s Poverty Myths.” The show also gave the same treatment to its Supreme Court-focused spinoff, More Perfect, twice last year, though that’s completely understandable given the heritage. But it is, to my knowledge, the first time the show has provided exposure support to a show outside the WNYC system. That said, Ponzi Supernova isn’t a show that’s entirely outside the WNYC family — Ellen Horne, an executive producer at Audible who leads the show’s production, is a Radiolab alum.

It’s often been said within the industry that the most effective podcast marketing channel is other people’s podcasts. I guess that will apply to Audible as well.

Ponzi Supernova wrapped up its six-episode run on Audible earlier this month.

Bites:

  • The New York Times is looking for a producer for a “New York Times Arts show” — that is, stuff like books, music, film, TV, theater. It’s unclear how this show, and this producer, will be related to the still-running first-gen Times pods Popcast and the Book Review. A fascinating job posting, but certainly not as interesting as news of the organization’s partnership with Spotify. Those youngs, they love the musics. (The New York Times)
  • Looks like Who? Weekly’s Bobby Finger has a new show: “Dirtcast,” which comes out of his day-job at Jezebel. (Jezebel)
  • “How Patreon became a major source of revenue for podcasters.” Some podcasters, at least. (Simon Owens)
  • On the more strictly technology front: Betaworks, the “startup studio” responsible for (among other things) Tweetdeck, Chartbeat, and the Digg relaunch, has announced an accelerator for teams working on voice-driven interfaces. Venturebeat’s coverage has more background, and here’s the link to the application.

[photocredit]Photo by Roey Ahram used under a Creative Commons license.[/photocredit]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bites:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are three projects that stood out to me:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bites:

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

A new podcast power is formed, on Pineapple Street

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Hear, hear!)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bites:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But then what?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More details and context in this handy dandy WaPo writeup.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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