The Curious Case of Getting Curious with Jonathan Van Ness

I’m nowhere near the first person to say this, but it’s nevertheless worth shouting out loud: Getting Curious With Jonathan Van Ness is exceptional listening. The chief reason as to why is right there in the title: the Queer Eye star is a vivid interviewer whose curiosity is sharp, sprawling, infectious. That’s a real and rare gift, and its depth is further expressed by the strength of the show’s archives. Even a cursory glance at the list of previous episodes reveals a devilishly vast scope of the world, with interview subjects that range from gender bias in film scoring to the difference between Sunni and Shia Muslims to the definition of cults to, of course, the lives of his fellow Queer Eye co-stars. (The consistent quality of the podcast’s growing catalogue also reflects the effective wielding of another uncommon skill: smart booking. Getting Curious often builds experts around the subject being discussed, and almost everyone that’s been brought on has been perfectly engaging in front of the mic.)

Van Ness is a natural on-air interviewer: he listens, collaborates, vibes. He gamely leans into the give-and-take of effective conversation, deploying biography to cultivate trust and a permission structure for the interviewee to open up. He’s also damn fun, and damn funny. Binge-listening to Getting Curious episodes additionally serves as a reminder that as much as interviewing is hard, interviewing as a performance is so much harder.

Anyway, I’m not writing about Getting Curious today just because I think it’s an exceptional interview show. There’s also a pretty interesting story to be told about its production history, one that have something to tell us about the nature of celebrity — or, more accurately, on-the-verge-of-celebrity — podcasts.

Here’s how the story goes, as told to me by various sources on the network-level: Van Ness originally developed and launched Getting Curious in December 2015, foremostly as a passion project. He had, by that time, gained some popularity for his work on Gay of Thrones, the Emmy-nominated Funny Or Die parody web series. With the help of producer Colin Anderson, a BBC alumnus who was then working at Maximum Fun that Van Ness had connected with through mutual friends (podcasters Erin Gibson and Dave Holmes), the podcast began publishing on a bi-weekly schedule. At the time, the podcast was an official Maximum Fun production.

About a year into publishing, in late 2016, Anderson left Maximum Fun for Midroll Media. A few months after Anderson’s departure, Maximum Fun winded down its arrangement with Van Ness. “We started Getting Curious with Jonathan because we believed in his incredible, incandescent talent, and that never changed,” Jesse Thorn, founder of Maximum Fun, told me over email. “As the world is now getting to see, he’s a brilliant, sensitive, thoughtful and hilarious guy. We worked really hard to bring Getting Curious to a larger audience, but were never able to get enough folks to check it out to sustain the production, much less pay Jonathan what he deserved to get paid for it. Ultimately, we gave the show back to him in the hopes that in future, circumstances would change.”

And then, of course, it did. As the story goes, the day after Maximum Fun cancelled Getting Curious, Van Ness booked Queer Eye.

The Netflix series wouldn’t premiere until February 2018, and for a number of months in the run-up, Van Ness continued to publish Getting Curious without the backing of an official network. Anderson, now the Executive Producer at Earwolf, helped produce the show in his spare time. “He’s a friend, and I love the show,” Anderson said, by way of explanation. After Queer Eye debuted on Netflix, well… the podcast took off.

These days, Getting Curious is said to be “hitting well into six figures” per episode, according to Midroll VP of Marketing Amy Fitzgibbons. The show was officially brought into the company’s comedy brand, Earwolf, back in May, and as Queer Eye continues to capture the imagination of TV viewers across the country, it appears to be effective in pusing more and more people to the podcast. “We’re seeing tremendous growth, and it’s actually hard to give a precise number as even older episodes are continuing to grow quickly,” Fitzgibbons notes. Another Midroll spokesperson claims that many of the new listeners report being new to podcasting altogether.

It’s a fascinating story, but what, exactly, does it tell us? Three views:

  • Amy Fitzgibbons argues that a major key to Getting Curious is its original nature as a passion project. She extends this analysis to the celebrity podcast gere more broadly. “When it’s not just for the paycheck, and when they devote their energy to really making a great show, the listeners can tell,” she wrote. “[Van Ness is] also super engaged with his fans on social media, and that helps. A lot of celebrities have large followings on social, but don’t successfully pull those fans onto other platforms like podcasts.”
  • Colin Anderson: “It’s been a spectacular combination of a compelling show, a host who was a star even before he was famous, Queer Eye being a breakout hit, Jonathan’s skill at building and nurturing his own fans through social media, and his continued commitment to the podcast even as his TV career took off.”
  • Jesse Thorn: “Getting Curious is a show format that’s tough to get people to check out when the host isn’t a famous person (no matter how talented he or she may be), and a lot easier when the host is famous,” he wrote. “These days, Jonathan is famous. Deservedly. I’m sorry we weren’t able to make the show work for him (or for us), but I’m sincerely glad it’s such a success today. Jonathan deserves it.”

Personally, I’m sympathetic to Thorn’s argument. There isn’t much of a compelling reason to try out a new personality or celebrity-driven podcast if you didn’t have much of a prior relationship with the individual — something that seems increasingly true in a podcast market that’s becoming even more competitive, even saturated. Thorn is probably right: Getting Curious is a show format that’s really hard to get people to check out if there is no alternative work being produced by the core talent. Even with a really good show under the hood, it truly takes a whole lot of luck.

Something else I’m thinking about: just how much my experience with Queer Eye informs my experience with the podcast and vice versa. Indeed, the two shows consumed together conveys a Van Ness that’s infinitely more interesting, and I’m pretty sure the opposite would be have been true if the podcast wasn’t as exceptional as it is.

Maximum Fun broadens its horizons

Last month, Jesse Thorn’s Los Angeles-based podcast network rolled out its first foray into scripted programming. The show is called Bubble, an eight-episode scripted comedy series that — and I’m quoting the pitch I got for it, which is pretty succinct and effective — is “sort of a sci-fi/alternate-universe comedy about a group of friends who live in a town protected by a (literal) bubble.” Having listened to a few episodes, I guess you could also call it a cross between Portlandia and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It’s super zany, is what I’m saying, and if you like Maximum Fun stuff, you’re probably going to like this: It has all the warm, loving, and fun sensibilities that you’ve come to know and love from the network, plus it features a bunch of the MaxFun extended family like Eliza Skinner and the McElroy Brothers.

Anyway, the thing about Bubble that caught my attention was how it presents a case study of a particular challenge that more podcast companies are — and should be — facing: Let’s say you want to push your creative boundaries. How do you think through the business side of that effort? So, in pursuit of that question, I reached out to Maximum Fun’s managing director Bikram Chatterji, and he was kind enough to write at length. I like this interview quite a bit, as he really lays out a good deal of the strategic considerations he deems to be important when breaking a project like this.

Hot Pod: Tell me about how MaxFun came to produce Bubble.

Bikram Chatterji: I think you could say it was entirely organic — Bubble was created by Jordan Morris, one half of Jordan, Jesse Go!, longtime friend of Jesse and the network, and one of the funniest people we know. Jordan had written the pilot for television and had taken a bunch of meetings on it — people loved the concept and the script, but were looking for a more tangible proof-of-concept (which would be tough to film because: monsters). We did a table read of the TV script last year with some friends — little/no production, small black-box theater — and when we released it in the JJGo feed it got a really positive response.Separately, MaxFun was interested in developing a scripted comedy — as a way of trying some new things creatively, production-wise, and in terms of marketing/business model. We’d had a few meetings but nothing had grabbed us.

Bubble presented a rich and smart premise with hilarious jokes, from a person that we and our community knows and loves, so it was an ideal first step. Also, as a step in a new direction for all of us, I think that the trust that we all had in each other went a long way in making it a smooth and collaborative development process.

Hot Pod: The show strikes me as a little different from what Maximum Fun typically produces. What were the challenges involved in the production, and what were the differences in how you approached development?
Chatterji: It is different! The main assets we had going into development were (1) we know what a joke is, and how to make stuff funny, (2) we have good relationships with very talented people who know, like, and trust us, and (3) we’re nimble and creative when it comes to making stuff sound good.For some aspects — developing a serialized arc for a cohesive season of the show, voice-directing for drama and comedy, and sound design/audio world-building, for instance — we worked with some very smart and talented folks who have done this before (in the three examples listed: Nick Adams, exec producer on Bubble, who works on Bojack Horseman and story-edited for New Girl, amongst other credits; Eric Martin, director for Bubble, hundreds of audio books, VO, directed Hoot Gibson: Vegas Cowboy for howl.fm, amongst other credits; Ben Walker, producer/editor/sound design, many credits for BBC Radio that, frankly, U.S. audiences probably don’t recognize).

There were other production/creative aspects that the team worked collaboratively on — a big one being, making a show that is visually rich and involves monsters/many cool fights work in audio. The writers introduced a narrator with some personality and, fortunately, Tavi Gevinson agreed to play this part, so we were able to do the whole “constraints = opportunities” thing.

Hot Pod: Tell me about the revenue end. How did you approach building a business engine around this project?
Chatterji: This was always envisioned as an investment with a long-term, slightly unconventional return profile. That is to say, we started down this road not expecting/needing to make our money back in a hurry. At a minimum, the near-term value was expected to be:

  • Stretching ourselves creatively a bit
  • Making something great that our community would appreciate and enjoy
  • Creating a kind of statement work for people who might not know us all that well, to start broader conversations about our capabilities

We’ve ticked all those boxes, which we feel really good about. That said, we are trying some things out on the revenue side as well:

  • Like all of our shows, we envision Bubble to be paid for primarily by listeners. [Note: For more on Maximum Fun’s audience-supported model, read this column.] Unlike our other shows, it’s a limited-run series, so we’re not asking for ongoing monthly contributions, but listeners can (and have!) made one-time payments at maximumfun.org/bubble.
  • We are talking with some folks about advertising as, midway through the run, we have a solid track record of downloads to pique advertisers’ interest.
  • The show is especially suited to some other revenue channels — for instance, merchandise. So we’re exploring those as well.

MaxFun has always been different from other networks in that advertising is a secondary revenue source for us. We don’t have anything against ads — they help our creators get rewarded for their work, and we sincerely believe that if done correctly, they provide our listeners with a service. One thing we’ve always insisted on is having the option to forego ads if something doesn’t feel right — because, frankly, as listeners we have experienced ads that feel wrong (two common problems: they are so frequent as to disrupt the listener experience, or they’re so subtle as to blur the line between what is content and what’s an ad). We know that there are a bunch of smart folks working on the challenge of making advertising work in service of listeners, and we’re paying attention to that; practically, though, our approach has been to not make anything we do contingent on getting ad revenue, because it’s easy to see that forcing us into an uncomfortable position.

Hot Pod: What else did you learn through this process?

Chatterji: I think the other piece that is fundamentally different from anything we’ve done before is marketing a limited-run series. We have put a lot of time and energy into this show, and we think it’s wonderful. I was (and am) well aware of other limited-run shows that have high production values but limited long-term impact. I didn’t want that to happen here.Philosophically, you can probably divide marketing strategies between creating a massive event (often at considerable cost in terms of time and resources) and relying on something more sustained/word-of-mouth based. We tried a hybrid approach — a big bang within our community, who we could reach pretty easily and who we know will be responsive to our messaging, and a longer, slower burn for the wider podcast audience. It’s still something we’re working on, and something that is in progress, but so far it seems to be going okay.

The main other thing that I’ve taken away from this is how — this could be obvious, but I find it gratifying — creative people love working on something really good. At the start of this process, I was a little apprehensive about whether we could bring aboard some of the big names to do this thing that was new to us and that, frankly, did not pay much money (relative to TV, etc.). I think the fact that we were successful attests in part to the great reputation MaxFun and Jesse have built up over the years, but also — and members of the cast have mentioned this at a few of the Q&As we’ve been hosting — that the same hunger for good shows that is out there from our audience exists amongst the creative people we work with as well.

That sounds like more of a creative consideration than a business one, but I think it’s something at the heart of our strategy, long-term: Make something great and the rest of your job becomes a lot easier.

You can find Bubble…well, pretty much anywhere you’d find podcasts, aside from those pesky podcast platforms with a big paywall blocking out the sun.

The Subscription Problem

There are some questions that we’re fated to circle round and around, over and over again, until someday something sticks. Like, for example, “will people pay for podcasts?”, which is a question the podcast industry has already been grappling with in a bunch of different ways, but still keeps coming back to one way or another.

Last week, the podcast app company CastBox announced that it was launching a “premium subscription tool” designed to make it easier for podcast publishers to build a paywalled audio strategy through its app. If that sounds familiar to you, that’s probably because the Swedish podcast app company Acast, with which CastBox bears a striking resemblance, released a similar product in the summer of 2016. (Recall the infamous “crowdfunding is begging” quote.)

Scott Porch covered the development for Fast Company, where he compared the new feature to Amazon Prime Video’s Channels service and VRV, the Otter Media-owned streaming platform that digitally distributes a number of over-the-top (OTT) video streaming services, including Nerdist’s digital video network, the art-house cinema VOD service Mubi, and the anime-focused provider Crunchyroll. It’s an intriguing picture, but the comparison isn’t all that appropriate. After all, at this writing, there aren’t really enough (or indeed, any) robust OTT-style on-demand audio services to warrant that kind of service structure.

Rather, CastBox’s tool lets partners more easily build out “bonus content” offerings. One such partner happens to be Wondery, which is chiefly using CastBox’s tool to help roll out Wondery+, a service where Wondery superfans, whoever they are, can pay $5 a month to access an ad-free experience, bonus material, and early downloads. In other words, it’s more of a premium membership program, a secondary product akin to Slate Plus or Gimlet Members. (Semantics, semantics.) Wondery+ will be offered as a streamlined in-app purchase on CastBox’s app, but it’s also worth noting that the premium membership program will also be available through all other available podcast distribution points, where Wondery will rely on the traditional method of generating special RSS feeds for members that must be then manually insert into their own podcast apps through a pretty wonky process. You know, the whole pain-in-the-ass workaround user flow that’s been the go-to method for shops trying to build out such membership programs. This is the point where CastBox likely provides some added value.

CastBox is a startup that remains pretty puzzling to me. A China-based startup with offices in California, Castbox has raised $29.5 million in funding to date including a $13.5 million Series B round back in April, per Crunchbase. (Again, Acast is the appropriate comp: the Swedish company has raised a total of $35.2 million to date, including a $19.5 million Series B round last September, again per Crunchbase.) All of its investors appear to be Chinese-owned investments firms (Qiming Ventures, IDG Capital, GSR Ventures, SIG China, and Zhen Fund), though its operational focus seems squarely planted on North America for now. Its core product is a souped-up free listening app, though the company has also begun financing original content in recent months, including shows from the Canadian shop Kelly & Kelly and Studio71, a digital video networks specializing in YouTube stars that’s trying to expand into podcasting, presumably as a form of advertising. It also announced some sort of blockchain project called “ContentBox” back in May, which claims intent to “decentralize the podcast industry.” CastBox does not appear to have any prominent revenue engines that are immediately visible.

When asked about performance, a CastBox representative claims the app has 2 million global daily active users, defined as “users who use the app every day Mon-Fri.” I must admit: that number strikes me as surprisingly — almost comically — large for an app that’s only been making a North American push for less than a year. Though, I could see someone talking me into thinking that number could theoretically make sense given a global context, but still…  ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

All of which is to say that I don’t have a ton of certainty over where the company stands in the space, or how valuable any of its partnerships can eventually be. (Then again, if they’re willing to give you money with no platform-exclusivity requirements for your show, by all means, take the dough.) Sure, there’s the whole tech-boi mantra about how startups are organizations formed to search for a business model, but at some point, some effort should be made to discern between what’s an intentional search process and what’s a strategy made out of Hail Marys. And much of that discernment should probably be made within the context of knowing what, exactly, CastBox’s vision of the future actually turns out to be: is its long-term strategy ultimately based on increasing its profile as the first-choice listening option for an increasing number of people, or is it based on ultimately spreading itself out to meet listeners wherever they are, a la RadioPublic?

In any case, startups come and startups go, so let’s leave CastBox behind and attend to all the things that this development evokes: Amazon Prime Video’s Channels, VRV, OTT distribution services — and, of course, Netflix. To put some alliterative spin of this baby: let’s consider the Promise and Problem of Premium Subscription in Podcasting.

***

The CastBox new tool announcement blurs definitions quite a bit, but I think it’s really important to separate the idea of a genuine subscription-first model — that is, a business truly in the vein of Netflix — from other support constructions that selectively deploy paywalls: memberships, direct support donations, listener-plus services, Patreon, etc. To state the obvious, those latter models are built on a completely different value proposition, one where publishers are working to be paid after delivering value to listeners, and it’s already been proven to be effective many times over as revenue solutions for podcast publishers big and small, independent and otherwise: from Radiotopia to Maximum Fun, Good Christian Fun to Chapo Trap House, RelayFM to Second Captains. It’s an open universe of allegiances, causes, and identity; I think somewhat safe to argue that the success of any such direct support campaigns is a strong proxy for the strength of a given publisher’s brand. (Another stray thought on this: this post-experience payment relationship can be further expressed through other secondary means, like merchandising and live shows. Those things, too, directly reflects the strength of the relationship between a publisher and its audience base.)

Conversely, an actual “Netflix for Podcasting” venture is built on the premise that it’s able to build a product strong enough for listeners to cough up cash before they are delivered value. It’s a more classically transactional relationship, and within the context of the current podcast ecosystem, I’d argue such a venture is basically in the business of extending the promise that it can consistently and perpetually beat the entire universe of free alternatives. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the venture needs to provide better programming than all available alternatives in the open ecosystem — that is, to be entrenched in the highly-volatile hits-making business. It can also mean that venture can simply opt for providing a better overall experience when it comes to interacting with on-demand audio in general. Consider one of the fundamental issues for new listeners trying out podcasts: they are made to navigate the full spectrum of options that spans millions and find content that means something to their given tastes.

CastBox’s paid subscription tool launch comes a few weeks after the public unveiling of a more interesting company: Luminary Media, a new venture aiming to build a subscription service that’ll serve a “portfolio of premium podcasts” that has raised $40 million in a funding round led by New Enterprise Associates. In my head, that company is a cleaner test for the promise of a premium podcast subscription platform, and with $40 million in the bank, it’s got a fair bit of ammunition to go out and see where this goes. But its early machinations — the Wall Street Journal reported back in May that the company has approached Wondery, PRX, HowStuffWorks, and Cadence13 to strike content deals, and one imagines that they’ve initiated talks with many more — doesn’t seem particularly convincing for this reason: it isn’t especially hard for any potential new listeners to discover and access programming from those publishers under the current context of the open podcast ecosystem, and it seems like unnecessary burden for existing fans if they were made to cough up additional dollars per month in order to further the relationships they already have with those publishers.

In theory, I understand the ideal behind all of this. A prominent premium podcast platform is a more reliable source of money than advertising dollars to fund projects in the space. A strong subscription player can cultivate a better environment for creatively and structurally riskier projects. Its existence ensures the continuity of the podcast economy regardless of what happens on the advertising side of the ecosystem. And to be clear: I am very, very in favor of a strong subscription-first player in podcast-land somewhere down the line.

I just don’t think a strategy primarily focused with “premium publishers” is a productive place to start, unless you’re able to successfully convince a hefty critical mass of publishers to sign on and effective shift the status quo of the podcast ecosystem in one fell swoop… and even then it seems like you’d be creating value by intentionally increasing friction on the part of the user. That just ain’t good karma.

The thing that’s always annoyed me about the “Netflix for Podcasting” shorthand is how it’s much too focused on what that company looks like right now. It almost always skips the fact that Netflix, in its original iteration, started out by building a business around a more specific problem that’s a little less sexy — to improve upon the video rental market — before moving upmarket. Which is to say, it almost always overlooks the humble beginnings in search of glorious ends.

***

Inspiration should instead to be taken from elsewhere. This is going to be something of a crazy leap, but bear with me: I think there’s a lot that subscription on-demand audio gambits can learn from the increasingly formidable world of mindfulness apps.

Two recent stories of relevance:

  • “Meditation app Calm hits a $250M valuation amid an explosion of interest in mindfulness apps,” reports TechCrunch.
  • Headspace, arguably the more prominent meditation app, recently announced the launch of a new division: Headspace Health, reportedly the first “prescription meditation app.” Here’s the CBS News write-up on the matter.

Calm and Headspace are, in purpose and presentation, meditation apps. But strip it down to its technical components, and you’ll see that they’re effectively on-demand audio platforms built on strong subscription-first business models. Indeed, I’d argue they’re the most successful on-demand audio apps in the marketplace right now.

Consider the product composition of Headspace: for $12.99 a month or $95.88 a year (or, in a fascinating muscle flex, $399.99 for a lifetime), users buy into a substantial content archive — ostensibly rooted in the practical wellness category — that’s chopped up a bunch of different ways for different audience sets: beginners, intermediates, sufferers of specific anxieties (flying, say), and sufferers of more elemental ones (self-esteem, for example). The full spread of the archive functions as the main draw for subscribers, but there’s a layer of regularly updated material that goes a long way in entrenching the habit. It’s a straight-up editorial product, complete with a team that makes discerning content judgments about what to create next in order to keep bringing listeners back.

The on-demand wellness audio platform just works, and it does so because, at a fundamental level, the product is a specific service that fulfills a specific need for specific group of people. And it just so happens that its audience set is not only clearly defined but also potentially massive, because the need it fulfills is expansive and deep as life itself. (Wild.)

Yeah, this argument might be a bit of a stretch, and one could push back with the differences between a wellness activity like meditation and something that feels more frivolous like a piece of entertainment media. But I don’t think that’s the right way to look at it, because it downplays the role of entertainment and media in everyday life. A comedy podcast isn’t just a time-filler; it’s a space of communion. A horror movie isn’t just a shot glass of cheap thrills; it’s a potent space to tackle primal emotions and ideas without physical risk or consequences. (Hell, I’d rather watch Hereditary than base-jump.)

When it comes to the problem of starting up a paid podcast platform, the key, I think, doesn’t really lie in the nature of the content. Instead, it’s grounded in a focus on a specific engagement of an audience need, and from there, it’s about how to grow and scale in accordance with that engagement of need. I’m curious to see how a venture like Luminary Media plays its initial hand, and I’m excited to interpret it through that idea of specific need.

Also, I guess what I’m additionally saying is: Pinna, Panoply’s on-demand audio platform for kids podcasts, should be a bigger deal than it is.

 

Phew, we’ve apparently solved 97% of the podcast measurement problem — everybody relax

MEASUREMENT BITE. Been a while since we’ve checked back into what is arguably the most important subject in the podcast business. Let’s fix that, shall we?

“The good news for podcasters and buyers is measurement challenges are 97 percent solved,” Midroll Media CRO Lex Friedman said on a podcast panel at the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) Show last week. “What we can report now is more specific than we could before.” You can find the quote in this Inside Radio writeup on the panel.

Be that as it may, there’s still some work left to be done. I reached out to Friedman for his perspective on what constitutes the remaining 3 percent of the challenges left to be solved, and here’s his response (pardon the customary Midroll spin):

In TV today, advertisers would struggle if NBC used Nielsen ratings, and ABC used Nielsen but with a different methodology, and CBS used some other company’s measurement technology.

Today in podcasting, the measurement problem is solved; the remaining 3 percent is getting everyone standardized. It doesn’t happen often, but every once in a while, Midroll loses a show to a competitor. When we sell a show at 450,000 downloads, and the next day the same show and same feed is being sold at 700,000 downloads, that’s a problem.

The IAB’s recommended a 24-hour measurement window, while some folks still advocate for 60 minutes or two hours, and too many vendors continue to sell at 5 minutes, which we universally know is way too liberal a count. That’s unfair and confusing to advertisers, and that’s the piece that needs fixing.

That’s no small 3 percent, in my opinion.

Anyway, if you’re new to the podcast measurement problem, my column from February 2016 — back when a group of public radio stations published a set of guidelines on the best way for podcast companies to measure listenership — still holds up as a solid primer on the topic, if I do say so myself.

Fool’s gold? Something else to note from Inside Radio’s article on the NAB panel: a strong indication, delivered by Triton Digital president of market development John Rosso, that there is increasing demand for programmatic podcast advertising.

Programmatic advertising is a system by which ads are automatically bought and sold through algorithmic processes. In other words, it’s a monetization environment where the facilitation of advertising value exchange is automated away from human interaction. The principal upside that comes with programmatic advertising is efficiency: As an advertiser, you theoretically don’t have to spend a lot of time identifying, contacting, and executing buys, and as a publisher, you theoretically don’t have to spend a lot of time doing those things in the opposite direction. In theory, both sides don’t have to do much more work for a lot more money. But the principal downside is the ensuing experience on listener-side, and all the ramifications that fall from a slide in said experience: Because these transactions are machine-automated, there’s no human consideration governing the aesthetic intentionality of an advertising experience paired with the specific contexts of a given podcast.

Combine this with the core assumptions of what makes podcasting uniquely valuable as a media product — that it engenders deeper experiences of intimacy between creator and listener, that its strength is built on the cultivated simulacra of personal trust between the two parties, that any podcast advertising spot is a heavy act of value extraction from the relationship developed between the two sides — and you have a situation where a digital advertising technology is being considered for a medium to which its value propositions are diametrically opposed.

The underlying problem, put simply: Can you artificially scale up podcasting’s advertising supply without compromising its underlying value proposition? To phrase the problem in another direction: Can you develop a new advertising product that’s able to correspondingly scale up intimacy, trust, and relationship-depth between podcast creator and consumer?

The answer for both things may well be no, and that perhaps the move shouldn’t be to prescribe square pegs for round holes. Or maybe the response we’ll see will sound more like “the way we’re doing things isn’t sustainable, we’re going to have to make more money somehow” with the end result being an identity-collapsing shift in the defining characteristics of this fledgling medium. In which case: Bummer, dude.

Binge-Drop Murphies. Gimlet announced its spring slate last week, and two out of three of them, the audio drama Sandra and the Lynn Levy special The Habitat, will be released in their entirety tomorrow. When asked about the choice to go with the binge-drop, Gimlet president Matt Lieber tells me:

We decided to binge both The Habitat and Sandra because we felt that they were both so engrossing and engaging, so we wanted to give the listener the decision to either power through all the episodes, or sample and consume at their own pace. Sandra is our second scripted fiction series and we know from our first, Homecoming, that a lot of people chose to binge the series after it was out in full. With The Habitat, it’s such a unique and immersive miniseries, and we wanted to give listeners the chance to get lost in the world by listening all at once.

Grab your space suits, fellas.

The beautiful game. The third show in Gimlet’s spring bundle is We Came To Win, the company’s first sports show, which promises to deliver stories on the most memorable soccer matches in history. The press release appears to be playing up the universal angle of the sport: “Soccer is a sport that is about so much more than goals. It’s about continents, countries, characters, and the relationships between them.” (I mean, yeah.)

In an interesting bit of mind-meld, Gimlet’s first foray into sports mirrors WNYC Studios’ own maiden voyage into the world of physical human competition. Sometime this spring, the New York public radio station will roll out its own World Cup-timed narrative podcast, a collaboration with Men in Blazers’ Roger Bennett that will look the U.S. Men’s National Soccer Team’s journey from its triumphant 1994 World cup appearance to its doomed 1998 campaign. (Yikes.)

Public radio genes run deep.

Peabody nominations. The 2017 nominations were announced last week, and interestingly enough, six out of the eight entries in the Radio/Podcast category are either podcast-only or podcast-first. The nominees are: Radiotopia’s Ear Hustle, Minnesota Public Radio’s 74 Seconds, Serial Productions’ S-Town, the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University’s Scene on Radio: Seeing White, Gimlet’s Uncivil, and Louisville Public Media/Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting’s “The Pope’s Long Con.

Notes on The Pope’s Long Con. It was an unbelievable story with unthinkable consequences. Produced by the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting (KyCIR) and Louisville Public Media, The Pope’s Long Con was the product of a seven-month long investigation into Dan Johnson, a controversial bishop-turned-Kentucky state representative shrouded in corruption, deceit, and an allegation of sexual assault. KyCIR’s feature went live on December 11, bringing Johnson’s story — and the allegations against him — into the spotlight. The impact was explosive, leading to immediate calls for Johnson to resign. He denied the allegations at a press conference. Two days later, Johnson committed suicide.

It was “any journalist’s nightmare,” as KyCIR’s managing editor Brendan McCarthy told CJR in an article about how the newsroom grappled with the aftermath of its reporting. (Which, by the way, you should absolutely read.)

In light of those circumstances, the podcast’s Peabody nomination feels especially well-deserved. It’s also a remarkable achievement for a public radio station relatively new to podcasting. “The Pope’s Long Con was the first heavy-lift podcast Louisville Public Media had undertaken,” Sean Cannon, a senior digital strategist at the organization and creative director of the podcast, tells me. “It didn’t start out as one though…Audio was planned, but it was a secondary concern. Once we realized the scope and gravity of it all, we knew everything had to be built around the podcast.”

When I asked Cannon how he feels about the nomination, he replied:

Given the situation surrounding the story, it’s still a confusing mix of emotions to see The Pope’s Long Con reach the heights it has. That said, we’re all immensely proud of the work we did. It’s necessary to hold our elected officials accountable.

In the context of the podcast industry, it taught me a lesson that can be easy to forget. I was worried the hierarchy of publishers had become too calcified, rendering it almost impossible for anyone below the top rungs to make serious waves — without a thick wallet, anyway. It’s a topic that comes up regularly in Hot Pod.

While the industry will never purely be a meritocracy, The Pope’s Long Con shattered that perception. It served as a reminder of something that gets glossed over when you’re caught up in the business of it all: If you can create compelling audio, that trumps everything else.

Tip of the hat, Louisville.

Crooked Media expands into film. According to The Hollywood Reporter, the media (political activism?) company will be co-producing a new feature documentary on Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke’s bid to unseat Senator Ted Cruz in the upcoming midterm elections. This extends on Crooked Media’s previous adventures in video, which already involve a series of HBO specials to be taped across the country amidst the run-up to midterms.

A quick nod to Pod Save America’s roots as The Ringer’s Keepin’ It 1600 here: Crooked Media will likely crib from the playbook The Ringer built around the recent Andre the Giant HBO documentary, which was executive produced by Ringer CEO Bill Simmons, where the latter project received copious promotion through The Ringer website and podcast network. What’s especially interesting about that whole situation is the way it is essentially a wholesale execution of what I took as the principal ideas from the analyst Ben Thompson’s 2015 post “Grantland and the (Surprising) Future of Publishing.”

I’m not sure if I’d personally watch a Beto O’Rourke doc — the dude has been a particularly vibrant entry into the “blue hope in red country” political media subgenre for a long while now, and I’m tapping out — but Pod Save America listeners most definitely would.

Empire on Blood. My latest for Vulture is a review of the new seven-part Panoply podcast, which I thought was interesting enough as a pulpy doc but deeply frustrating in how the show handles its power and positioning. It’s a weird situation: I really liked host Steve Fishman’s writing, and I really liked the tape gathered, but the two things really shouldn’t have been paired up this way.

The state of true crime podcasts. You know you’re neck-deep in something when you can throw out random words and land close to an actual example of that something: White Wine True Crime, Wine & Crime, Up & Vanished, The Vanished, Real Crime Profile, True Crime Garage, Crimetown, Small Town Murders, and so on. (This is a general observation that goes well beyond true crime pods. Cryptocurrencies: Sumokoin, Dogecoin, PotCoin. Food startups: Plated, Pantry, PlateIQ. Names: Kevin.)

Anyway, I’ve said it once, and I’ll say it again: True crime is the bloody, bleeding heart of podcasting, a genre that’s proliferating with a velocity so tremendous it could power a dying sun. And in my view, true crime podcasts are also a solid microcosm of the podcast universe as a whole: What happens there, happens everywhere.

When it comes to thinking about true crime podcasts, there are few people whose opinions I trust more than crime author, podcaster, and New Hampshire Public Radio digital director Rebecca Lavoie. As the cohost of the indispensable weekly conversational podcast Crime Writers On… — which began life as Crime Writers On Serial, a companion piece to the breakout 2014 podcast phenomenon — Lavoie consumes and thinks a lot about true crime and true crime podcasts specifically.

I touched base with Lavoie recently to get the latest on what’s been going on in her neck of the woods:

[storybreak]

[conl]Hot Pod: In your view, how has the true crime podcast genre evolved over the past four years or so?[/conl]

[conr]Rebecca Lavoie: It’s evolved in a few directions — some great, some…not so much.

On the one hand (and most wonderfully), we have journalism and media outlets who would never have touched the true crime genre a few years ago making true crime podcasts based on the tenets of great reporting and production. And when it comes to the “never would have touched it” part, I know what I’m talking about. Long before I was a podcaster, I was the coauthor of several mass-market true crime books while also working on a public radio show. Until Criminal was released and enjoyed some success, public radio and true crime never crossed streams, to an extent where I would literally avoid discussing my true crime reporting at work — it was looked down upon, frankly.

Today, though, that kind of journalistic snobbery is almost non-existent, and podcasts (especially Criminal and Serial) can claim 100 percent responsibility for that. Shows that exist today as a result of this change include Accused from the Cincinnati Enquirer, West Cork from Audible, Breakdown from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, In the Dark from APM reports, and the CBC’s recent series Missing & Murdered. (And yes, even the public radio station where I still work — now on the digital side — is developing a true crime podcast!)

Credit is also due to Serial for the way journalism podcasts are being framed as true crime when they wouldn’t have been in a pre-Serial era. Take Slow Burn from Slate, which is the best podcast I’ve heard in the past year or two. While the Watergate story would have been so easy to frame as a straight political scandal, the angles and prose techniques used in Slow Burn have all the hallmarks of a great true crime narrative — and I’m pretty sure the success of that show was, at least in part, a result of that.

Of course, where you have ambitious, high-quality work, you inevitably have ambitious terrible work, right? It’s true, there are very big and very bad true crime podcasts being produced at an astonishing rate right now, and because they have affiliation with established networks, these shows get a lot of promotion. But as much as I might personally love to hate some of these terrible shows (I’m talking to YOU, Atlanta Monster!) I do see some value in their existence.

I think about it the same way I think about movies: Not every successful big budget blockbuster is a good movie, but ultimately, those films can serve to raise the profile and profitability of the movie industry as a whole, and help audiences discover other, higher-quality content.[/conr]

[conl]Hot Pod: What do you think are the more troubling trends in how true crime podcasts have evolved?[/conl]

[conr]Lavoie: One is what I see as a glut of podcasts that are, quite frankly, building audience by boldly recycling the work of others. Sword & Scale is a much-talked-about example of that, but it’s not even the worst I’ve come across. There was a recent incident in which a listener pointed me to a monetized show in which the host simply read, word for word, articles published in magazines and newspapers — and I can’t help but wonder how pervasive that is. My hope is that at some point, the transcription technologies we’re now seeing emerge can somehow be deployed to scan audio for plagiarism, similar to the way YouTube scans videos for copyright infringement.

But there’s another trend that, for me, is even more troubling. There’s been a recent and massive growth of corporate podcast networks that are building their businesses on what I can only compare to the James Patterson book factory model — basically saying to creators, “Hey, if you think you have a story, partner with us and we’ll help you make, distribute, and monetize your podcast — and we’ll even slap our name on it!”

This, unfortunately, seems to be what’s behind a recent spate of shows that, in the hands of a more caring set of producers, could have (maybe?) been good, but ultimately, the podcasts end up being soulless, flat, “why did they make it at all” experiences.

Why is this the most upsetting trend for me? First, because good journalists are sometimes tied to these factory-made shows, and the podcasts aren’t doing them, or their outlets, or the podcast audience as a whole any favors.

The other part of it is that these networks have a lot of marketing pull with podcast platforms that can make or break shows by featuring them at the top of the apps. These marketing relationships with Apple etc. mean factory networks have a tremendous advantage in getting their shows front and center. But ultimately, many of the true crime podcasts getting pushed on podcast apps are very, very bad, and I can’t imagine a world in which a lot of bad content will end up cultivating a smart and sustainable audience.[/conr]

[conl]Hot Pod: In your opinion, what were the most significant true crime podcasts in recent years?[/conl]

[conr]Lavoie: In the Dark by APM Reports is up there. What I love about that show is that they approached the Jacob Wetterling story with an unusual central question: Why wasn’t this case solved? (Of course, they also caught the incredibly fortunate break of the case actually being solved, but I digress…) Theirs is a FAR more interesting question than, say, “What actually happened to this missing person?” Or “Is this person really guilty?” Of course, In the Dark also had the benefit of access to a talented public media newsroom, and I really enjoyed how they folded data reporting into that story.

I most often tell people that after Serial season one, my favorite true crime podcast of all time is the first season of Accused. Not only do I love that show because it looks at an interesting unsolved case, but I love it because it was made by two women, seasoned newspaper journalists, with no podcasting experience. Amber Hunt is a natural storyteller and did an amazing job injecting a tremendous amount of humanity and badass investigative journalism skills into that story. It’s not perfect, but to me, its imperfections are a big part of what makes it extraordinary.

More recently, I’ve really enjoyed the shows I mentioned above, including West Cork and Missing & Murdered. But when it comes to significance, Slow Burn is the most understated and excellent audio work I’ve heard in a long time. I loved every minute of it. I think that Slate team has raised the bar on telling historical crime stories, and we’re the better for it.[/conr]

[conl]Hot Pod: What do you generally want to see more of from true crime podcasts?[/conl]

[conr]Lavoie: I want to see more new approaches and formal risk-taking, and more integrity, journalistic and otherwise.

One of my favorite podcasts to talk about is Breakdown from the AJC. Bill Rankin is the opposite of a radio reporter — he has a folksy voice and a writing style much more suited to print. But beginning in season one, he’s been very transparent about the challenges he’s faced while making the show. He’s also, as listeners quickly learned, an incredible reporter with incredible values. That show has embraced multiple formats and allowed itself to evolve — and with a couple of exceptions, Bill’s voice and heart have been at the center of it.

I’d also love to see some trends go away, most of all, this idea of podcast host as “Hey, I’m not a podcaster or a journalist or really anyone at all but LET’S DO THIS, GUYS” gung-ho investigator.

Don’t get me wrong, some really good podcasts have started with people without a lot of audio or reporting experience, but they aren’t good because the person making them celebrates sounding like an amateur after making dozens of episodes.[/conr]

[storybreak]

Again, you can find Lavoie on Crime Writers On…, where she is joined every week by: Kevin Flynn, her true crime coauthor (and “former TV reporter husband,” she adds); Toby Ball, a fiction writer; and Lara Bricker, a licensed private investigator and fellow true crime writer. Lavoie also produces a number of other podcast projects, including: …These Are Their Stories: The Law & Order Podcast, HGTV & Me, and Married With Podcast for Stitcher Premium.

On a related note: The New York Times’ Jonah Bromwich wrote a quick piece on the Parcast network, described as “one of several new networks saturating the audio market with podcasts whose lurid storylines play out like snackable television.” The article also contains my successful effort at being quoted in ALL CAPS in the Times.

Bites:

  • This year’s Maximum Fun Drive has successfully accrued over 28,000 new and upgrading members. (Twitter) Congrats to the team.
  • WBUR is organizing what it’s calling the “first-ever children’s podcast festival” on April 28 and 29. Called “The Mega Awesome Super Huge Wicked Fun Podcast Playdate” — shouts to whoever came up with that — the festival will be held at the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline, Massachusetts and will feature shows like Eleanor Amplified, Story Pirates, But Why, and Circle Round, among others. (Website)
  • “Bloomberg expands TicToc to podcasts, newsletters.” For the uninitiated: TicToc is Bloomberg’s live-streaming video news channel that’s principally distributed over Twitter. On the audio side, the expansion appears to include podcast repackages and a smart-speaker experiment. (Axios)
  • American Public Media is leaning on Westwood One to handle advertising for the second season of its hit podcast In The Dark. Interesting choice. The new season drops next week. (AdWeek)
  • I’m keeping an eye on this: Death in Ice Valley, an intriguing collaboration between the BBC and Norway’s NRK, debuted yesterday. (BBC)
  • Anchor rolls out a feature that helps its users find…a cohost? Yet another indication that the platform is in the business of building a whole new social media experience as opposed to something that directly relates to podcasting. (TechCrunch)
  • On The New York Times’ marketing campaign for Caliphate: “The Times got some early buzz for the podcast before its launch; 15,000 people have signed up for a newsletter that will notify them when a new episode is ready, twice as many as expected.” (Digiday)
  • “Alexa Is a Revelation for the Blind,” writes Ian Bogost in The Atlantic.

[photocredit]Photo of a tape measure by catd_mitchell used under a Creative Commons license.[/photocredit]

The New York Times launches a Facebook group to discuss podcasts (and learn to make better ones)

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 115, published April 11, 2017.

Maximum Funded. Maximum Fun, the L.A.-based podcast company led by radio wunderkind Jesse Thorn, recently concluded the latest edition of its aptly named MaxFunDrive, the yearly membership drive it organizes to refresh and expand its recurring support base. The network is home to a sprawling range of programming — including the well loved My Brother, My Brother and Me, Magic Lessons with Elizabeth Gilbert, and Pop Rocket — with distinctly community-oriented vibes, and the company has long used the membership support structure as its primary engine.

The campaign, which officially wrapped at the end of March, was incredibly successful: By the end of its two-week run, the network had gathered 24,181 new and upgrading members, overshadowing its initial goal of 10,000. “We were really nervous,” MaxFun’s Bikram Chatterji told me, with a touch of exhaustion, when we spoke over the phone on the Monday after the drive. Chatterji is the network’s relatively new managing director, barely seven months into the role, and he was telling me about losing for sleep for fear of missing even the initial target.

[Insert Casper mattress joke here, set laptop on fire.]

“It was the highest target we ever set for ourselves,” he said, noting that last year’s goal was a comparatively modest 5,000. (The final haul for last year was somewhere over 9,000.) When this year’s campaign kicked off in mid-March, it surpassed its initial 10,000 target within a week.

It’s a significant achievement, especially when you put that number in context. Maximum Fun has six available recurring support tiers ranging from $5 a month to $200 a month, and Chatterji informed me that the network went into this year’s drive with around 20,000 active supporting members. “So within that 24,181, there was obviously a mix of both new members and longer-term members who upgraded,” he explained. “Both of these cohorts are really important to us.” For a quick comparison, Radiotopia — which uses a similar member support structure, though it only shifted to a recurring support model in 2015 — closed its 2016 drive with over 6,200 new supporters, and it went into that campaign with slightly over 12,500 active recurring donors. (According to my number crunching, anyway. My writeup on that campaign can be found here.)

How all of those new, upgrading, and existing MaxFun members translate into the network’s actual revenue picture depends on how you figure the distribution across its various support tiers, and you’re going to have to guess on that: Understandably, Chatterji declined to share the specific breakdown. But he was kind enough to oblige when I asked about the broader picture, and how the revenue is typically used within the business.

I’m told that membership funds accounted for about 70 percent of the company’s revenue in 2016 — that proportion is expected to hold — with the rest being made up of advertising revenue and money from a distribution deal with NPR that revolves around Bullseye, Thorn’s interview show. “We also do a tiny bit of consulting,” Chatterji added. Almost three-quarters of the money raised from the membership drive goes directly to the shows; when a new membership is confirmed, listeners are asked to name the shows they listen to, and that impacts the proportion of the money that goes to those programs. “Doing that creates a real sense of connection between the shows and the listeners,” Chatterji explains. “It also allows us to offer potential shows a very clear value proposition in working with us.” The rest of the funding gets distributed across administration costs, show development, and general office maintenance.

So that’s the broad shape of Maximum Fun’s business, and one could argue that MaxFun’s achievements with this year’s drive further solidify the value of the membership model for network proprietors that may be anxious over the erraticisms of the advertising business. But it should be noted that MaxFun’s current picture is the product of almost a decade’s worth of work building out a community of fans and getting the company to this point; indeed, this edition of the MaxFunDrive is the latest in a very long line that goes back to 2008. It should also be noted that a membership model is, intuitively speaking, probably better suited for some kinds of shows and listener communities compared to others — which is all to say, MaxFun’s real achievement here is having built out a company on the strength of a model that directly channels the spirit of the enterprise.

“Yeah, I don’t know,” Chatterji replied, when I asked if the MaxFun structure is replicable. “I think the evolution of this model is so organic…So much of it from the start has been about Jesse, his vision, his way of doing things, and the community that he’s built around himself.”

Pea-pod. The list of finalists for the 2017 Peabody Awards — which recognize works of broadcasting and the web in service of the public — is out, and the radio/podcast category sports some really interesting entries, including the kids podcast The Unexplainable Disappearance of Mars Patel, Marlo Mack’s wonderful How To Be A Girl, APM Reports’ In The Dark, The Heart’s devastating Silent Evidence Series, and interestingly, Homecoming, Gimlet’s experimental fiction project. The full list can be found here, and congrats to all.

Meanwhile, at BuzzFeed. The digital media giant — octopus? — launched a new podcast last week, and it’s a timely one. It’s called Newsfeed with BuzzFeed Ben, an interview show hosted by editor-in-chief Ben Smith that sets its sights on the increasingly perturbing nexus of politics, media, and technology. The inaugural episode features former Obama strategist David Axelrod, and it doubles as the second part of the same conversation that began in last week’s episode of Axelrod’s own interview podcast, The Axe Files, which had featured Smith as the guest. If all these newsy interview podcasts feel like they make up some crowded, conjoined expanded comic book universe, I totally feel you.

And so does Recode’s Peter Kafka, apparently, who wrote up the new BuzzFeed podcast. His piece, by the way, contains a pretty juicy data point for observers: BuzzFeed’s podcasts reportedly generated 9 million downloads in 2016, a good chunk of which was apparently driven by Another Round. For reference, the company had five active podcasts throughout the year, and though I can’t find any good numbers on Another Round’s download performance — aside from a Forbes 40 Under 40 item published in early 2016 honoring cohost Heben Nigatu that places monthly listener numbers at a vague “hundreds of thousands” — the overall number doesn’t strike me as particularly surprising. (Here’s the link to that 40 Under 40 item; beware the usual Forbes ad-avalanche.)

Kafka’s writeup also notes that No One Knows Anything, the company’s politics podcast (which I first wrote about last May), is being rebooted with new talent behind the mic: The show will now be hosted by Kate Nocera, BuzzFeed’s Washington bureau chief, and senior writer Charlie Warzel. No One Knows anything was originally anchored by Evan McMorris-Santoro, who left the company last August to join the Vice News Tonight team.

At the Times, a Podcast Club. Last Wednesday, The New York Times published a fascinating interactive titled “9 Podcast Episodes Worth Discussing,” which served as a tiny door into a much broader enterprise: a digital listening club, one that’s being largely conducted over a moderated Facebook group where new podcast episodes of concern are posted every Monday for members to discuss in long, threaded comments sections. It’s open to the public, and at this writing, the group is fast approaching 10,000 members.

Samantha Henig, the Times’ editorial director for audio, tells me that the club isn’t part of any broader New York Times Facebook group strategy; rather, it’s an extension of something that had organically formed within the organization. “When we first announced that we were starting an audio team at The New York Times” — that was last March, by the way — “pretty much everyone I ran into at work started gushing to me about how excited they were and how much they love podcasts,” Henig told me. Some, she said, had even been running their own personal podcast clubs, and so she figured, what if they made a company-wide version of that?

“My main goal was to harness all that energy and enthusiasm in the building around podcasts, and get a bunch of smart and engaged people in a room together,” she said. “And, selfishly, I thought it would help me and our growing audio team be smarter about our own programming if we’re in regular discussion about what’s working best or falling flat in other shows.”

And so they did. The club eventually drew a varied mix of attendees from throughout the organization, from reporters to developers to data analysts to whatever you call those people working in business development, and Henig describes a wide age range — she notes a higher representation of young folks than what one might usually expect from the Times, while also singling out Ben Weiser, “a Metro reporter who has been one of the most loyal and enthusiastic members but is very much not a millennial” — as well as a variety in taste.

When I asked about the decision to bring the club out into the wild, Henig said: “The Podcast Club has always felt like a very special thing, in part because it scratches an itch that no doubt exists beyond the office. There are lots of people listening to podcasts and eager to discuss what they’re in the middle of or to hear recommendations for what to try next. So [executive producer of audio] Lisa Tobin and I have been thinking for a while about how to go bigger with it.”

Here’s the Facebook Group, and the supporting RadioPublic playlist.

Weekend at Bernie’s. You might have heard over the weekend that Bernie Sanders, the senator from Vermont, rival to Hillary Clinton for the Democratic candidacy in the 2016 presidential campaign, and Larry David muse, now has a podcast.

Sort of.

At the moment, the Bernie Sanders Show’s podcast feed appears to be nothing more than an additional distribution point for the interviews that the senator originally recorded as Facebook Live videos — and that shows in the sound quality, as the available episodes are pretty rough listens. (Though, aside from the near inaudible first episode with Rev. William Barber, it’s not all that different from the quality you’d find off the podcast feeds repackaging cable news broadcasts.) All of that sound quality stuff doesn’t seem to have affected listeners and Sanders supporters one bit, though: The podcast zipped up the iTunes charts, riding the algorithm that largely privileges novel interaction, where it peaked at the No. 2 spot over the weekend, just under S-Town.

There are a myriad of potential threads baked into this. With the podcast’s high chart performance, this might well be a story that reflects on the ideological spread of podcasts as a digital medium and how it can be interpreted as tending to lean somewhat liberal. I’ve written a little bit about this in the past, mostly from the publisher’s side, but the performance of the Bernie feed seems to tell us something about the demand side — or, perhaps more likely, something about the digital savviness of Sanders supporters. In any case, this narrative thread also gestures toward a potential story about the theoretical opportunity podcasts provide political communication: This is a thread whose current history is marked by Hillary Clinton’s Pineapple Street–produced campaign podcast With Her, whose prehistory can be traced back to Senator John Edwards setting up his own podcast in 2005 (with assistance from LibSyn evangelist Rob Walch, no less), and whose various related development includes deputy DNC chairman Keith Ellison’s revival of his own issues podcast and a couple of Democratic legislators in Missouri trying to push a progressive agenda in a red state. Indeed, there are enough nuggets here to suggest the makings of a possible trend or operational opportunity — but then again, it’s just as likely that all of this simply makes for a protracted digital curiosity. We shall see what the future brings to this.

A quick note on live podcasts. Bloomberg published a piece last Friday on the live podcast events business. The article contains some interesting nuggets — Slate’s Steve Lickteig tells the reporters that the company’s live podcast shows “make money” — but it frames the phenomenon as something in its early, budding, perhaps yet-to-be-proven phase. Notably, the article glosses over Welcome to Night Vale’s machinations in this arena, which is unfortunate. As Night Vale co-creator Joseph Fink told me a few weeks ago, live shows have long driven a good deal of the team’s business; the shows sell 50,000 to 60,000 tickets a year.

The Night Vale team is currently in its fourth year of touring globally, and its latest production, All Hail, will be hitting cities across North America this spring.

Public Radio updates. A couple stories here:

  • Looks like the fight for West Virginia Public Broadcasting isn’t over yet: shortly after state governor Jim Justice restored WVPB funding in his budget proposal, the state’s senate finance committee passed a budget bill last Monday zeroing that very funding out. WVBP’s website has more on the story.
  • Big Bird brass: Retired Army General Stanley McChrystal penned a New York Times op-ed arguing in defense of public broadcasting.
  • I didn’t cover this when it originally took place, but: In February, a legal scuffle broke out between New Hampshire Public Radio and Outside Magazine when the latter’s owner, Mariah Media Network, sent a cease-and-desist letter over the station’s use of the word “Outside” on one of its podcasts, “Outside/In.” The dispute has now been resolved with a negotiated trademark coexistence agreement, according to Current. If all that sounds ridiculous to you, well…you’re totally right. It’s bananas, b-a-n-a-n-a-s.

Back, but bigger. First Day Back started out as a quiet, introspective podcast by Tally Abecassis, a Canadian documentarian who moved to craft a small, indie project about her personal experience coming back to work after a lengthy maternity leave. The show, which at the time was associated with the podcast collective The Heard, published sporadically throughout 2015 and into mid-2016, and it eventually got the attention of Scripps, the parent company of Midroll. The company reached out to Abecassis in late 2015, and the show was officially picked up last summer.

The podcast’s second season debuts today, and it features several significant changes. To begin with, the scope is now expanded from the personal to focus on other people’s stories, this time focusing on the tale of a woman as she returns home from prison after years of incarceration for accidentally killing her husband. This type of scope-shifting isn’t entirely unprecedented among podcasts; it echoes the trajectory of Millennial, which pointedly widened its viewpoint after being picked up by Radiotopia, and perhaps more directly, of Gimlet’s StartUp, which broke from its original season’s personal narrative to build future seasons around other companies. First Day Back’s sophomore effort also sports the trappings of support from a much larger company: Abecassis is no longer producing the story by herself, but collaborating with Marc Georges, a Scripps producer, and Dave Shaw, an executive producer at the company. There are now launch sponsors too: Audible and ZipRecruiter.

With corporate trappings, though, come some corporate interests. It’s worth noting that the show is now being positioned as a Stitcher production as opposed to a Scripps production, which was how it was framed to me when I initially wrote about the pickup. Between this and Missing Richard Simmons, which listed Stitcher as a co-producer, it would seem that Midroll is steadily working to fashion Stitcher out as its own editorial brand. This might raise some eyebrows given that Stitcher, which was acquired by Scripps and rolled into the Midroll brand early last summer, is primarily known in the marketplace as a podcast listening app, and Midroll has been looking to build a premium subscription business off the platform. Something’s going on here, and it’s worth keeping an eye on Stitcher.

Anyway, for now, we’re talking about Abecassis’ experience shifting gears. So I sent her a couple of questions:

[storybreak]

[conl]Hot Pod: Why did you decide to partner up with a bigger organization?[/conl]

[conr]Abecassis: Well, making good radio or good films requires resources, and there is only so much I can do alone. I think there is a myth that podcasts are easy or inexpensive to make. The kind of work I like doing involves spending a lot of time with a subject, interviewing, investing in the story. Working with a bigger organization means support in doing that — I now have producers and resources that I didn’t have before. It allowed me to tackle a much more ambitious story for S2.

I had never intended to keep telling my own story and it had a natural “end point” — it didn’t make sense to stretch it beyond that. And the whole point of the first season was about getting back to film and TV! But when the series connected with people, I started thinking about doing more podcasting. And deciding to use the idea of a first day back as a framework to tell other stories got me super excited. I made a list of possible ideas — first day back from the army, from a sports injury, from gender reassignment surgery…All I knew what that I wanted the first one I did to be completely different from Season 1.[/conr]

[conl]Hot Pod: Tell me about your approach to the second season.[/conl]

[conr]Abecassis: The starting point was finding someone who was having a “first day back” from prison, and I really wanted to tell a woman’s story. The woman I found had just come out of prison for accidentally killing her husband and her story was so much more complex and layered than I could have anticipated. The whole thing was tailor-made for radio because the woman agreed to being recorded, but did not want her image used. (A TV producer I work with actually asked me if we could do a TV version and the woman would never agree to that.)

Structuring a six-part serialized story is a beast. (I bow down to the S-Town producers; I don’t even know how they did what they did.) When we started working on this story, we were really taken with this big WTF moment, that our main character did this horrible thing and she claimed to have no memory of having done it. We also wanted to be honest with our listeners that this isn’t your typical whodunnit crime story. She did it. There’s no question about that. What makes it a First Day Back story is what her life is like after and how she tries to come back from it. But there are a lot of challenges: the story still has to build, the sequence of events has to have a context, the themes have to weave in and out, and listeners need to feel invested in this woman’s story knowing she did something terrible…Marc and I have worked and reworked the whole thing so many different ways. We followed her for over a year, so as you can imagine, there were twists and turns through the course of documenting her story.[/conr]

[storybreak]

First Day Back, despite its Stitcher branding, is available on all platforms.

Bites:

  • Heads up: Edison Research will be presenting its podcast-specific audience report in a 30-minute webinar on April 18. Registration to view is free, and open. (Edison Research)
  • WNYC launched its latest podcast, Nancy, this week. (iTunes)
  • Jian Ghomeshi, the disgraced former host of CBC’s Q who was embroiled in a long sexual assault scandal, has apparently resurfaced with a new project. (CBC)
  • The Hollywood Reporter covered the latest DGital Media project, a podcast by author James Andrew Miller. I’ll be keeping an eye out for this because I loved the dude’s book on the CAA, but man, this is an…interesting writeup. Anyway, the show, Origins, which will “explore how a single thing — a TV show, album, company or event — came to be,” comes out this summer. (THR)
  • Twenty Thousand Hertz, one of those podcasts that tells stories about sounds, has a writeup by Entrepreneur editor-in-chief Jason Feifer that sheds some light on its rough costs: creator Dallas Taylor spent about $50,000 on producing the show last year, and expects spend $100,000. (Entrepreneur)
  • S-Town’s Brian Reed was on the most recent episode of the Longform podcast, and talked at length about process. The interview is fabulous, and Mystery Show fans will appreciate the detail on Starlee Kine’s involvement in the story editing phase. (Longform)

[photocredit]Illustration for The New York Times Podcast Club by Laurent Cilluffo.[/photocredit]

Is the Stitcher deal a step toward a closed podcast ecosystem?

Big moves at Midroll Media and EW Scripps. Okay, two big things from Midroll:

(1) E.W. Scripps, the parent company of Midroll Media, has acquired Stitcher, the podcasting app that’s widely considered to be the most popular alternative to the default Apple podcast app, for $4.5 million in cash. According to the Wall Street Journal report on the move yesterday, Stitcher will now operate under Midroll, with the former’s dozen-or-so employees being transferred onto Midroll’s payroll. Stitcher previously operated under Deezer, the French streaming audio company, after the latter acquired it for an undisclosed sum in October 2014. Stitcher had been quiet in terms of new developments ever since.

Acquisition talks started in earnest in early January, Midroll’s vice president of business development Erik Diehn told me over the phone yesterday. “It’s one of those things where serendipity drove the whole process,” he said, adding that both companies had compelling strategic reasons for the acquisition. In a separate call, Midroll CEO Adam Sachs provided clarity on this point: “Stitcher, as we know it as a podcatcher, is the second most popular podcast player in the world, and there’s a lot of value in there right off the bat,” he said. “But there are a lot of other pieces that are also really valuable, like the fact they come with a strong technology team.” Sachs pointed out how Midroll’s technology team has up until this point been fairly small, a state of affairs that complicates the fact that the company is increasingly pushing deeper into initiatives that require a lot more tech talent, like its premium subscription app Howl.

Speaking of Howl, it remains unclear how Stitcher will affect that particular piece of the company’s business. Diehn told The Wall Street Journal that at some point, the apps will “intersect,” and he told me that any plans for such intersection is TBD. “One thing we don’t want to do is disrupt Stitcher, and we don’t want Stitcher to disrupt Midroll,” Diehn said. He further added that Midroll aims to leave Stitcher’s role as a provider-agnostic platform intact, in that it will continue serving users podcasts regardless of where they come from. “We won’t turn it into a walled garden, we’re leaving ads intact, and you won’t start seeing a giant feed of Comedy Bang Bang and Lauren Lapkus and the occasional Midroll show,” Diehn said.

The acquisition met some criticism, however, particularly from Overcast app creator Marco Arment and prominent tech blogger John Gruber, both of whom are strong voices in the podcasts-as-extension-of-the-open-web contingent of the ecosystem. They highlighted Stitcher’s nature as a proprietary platform, whose possible dominance — combined with some suboptimal elements of the platform’s agreements with creators — will lead to a closed ecosystem that’s bad for both creators and consumers . Both posts are worth the read (you can find them here and here). Midroll’s vice president of sales and development Lex Friedman tweeted his disagreement, of course, and promised a more substantial rebuttal in a blog post to come.

All right, so there’s that, but then there’s also the bombshell that…

(2) Adam Sachs, the company’s CEO, is stepping down. Sachs has been the CEO of Midroll since June 2014, taking over from Jeff Ulrich, one of the company’s original founders. He shepherded the company through its acquisition by Scripps in July 2015 for $50 million. Previously, Sachs was the co-founder of Stepout, a dating app acquired by IAC in September 2013.

Sachs first announced his departure to the company in an email sent out last Tuesday. “The truth is that I’ve been running a startup (Stepout and then Midroll) for nearly a decade and that’s exhausting!”, he wrote. “Still, at my core, I’m an entrepreneur. I still have the fire in my belly to build companies.”

According to the note, he will remain at the company for another week, after which he will spend another month on a consulting basis to aid with the transition. There is no clear successor or succession plan in place, though Diehn and Friedman are expected to take up the brunt of Sach’s managerial responsibilities. Sachs told me that a replacement might not take place any time soon, but added that he believes the company has a strong enough management team to handle the interim.

He has no idea what his next move will be, or so he tells me.

As for The Wolf Den, the company’s podcast about the podcast industry, there is also no clear successor in line. Though, from what I hear, Friedman and chief content officer Chris Bannon are campaigning hard for the role.

Highlights from Hivio. I spent the better part of last week in Los Angeles, checking out a digital audio conference called Hivio. The conference drew a quirky mix of commercial radio, public radio, online audio, podcast, and assorted media types, and though it wasn’t immediately clear who, exactly, the audience was meant to be, I found the dynamics involved in the hodgepodge nonetheless informative. Many of these worlds have thus far kept each other at arms’ length, even as some grow more prominent and others begin to question their foundations, and as all these different digital audio sectors continue down what I’m fairly convinced is a collision course, it was great to get an early preview on how everyone will deal with each other.

Anyway, the conference programming drew out a lot of information — and even more rote talking points — and you can check out full recaps elsewhere, but here are a few things that stood out to me:

    • NPR’s vice president of programming and audience development, Anya Grundmann, noted in a presentation that the number of NPR listeners (across all platforms) over the age of 55 is now roughly the same as the number of listeners in the 13-34 age group. That data point comes from an Edison’s Share of Ear study covering the first quarter of 2016.
    • “We’re pleased with the experiment,” says Lizzie Widhelm, Pandora’s senior vice president of ad product sales and strategy, when discussing the company’s partnership with This American Life. Worth noting: Widhelm positioned the partnership as a move to keep its more engaged users from going off-platform in pursuit of spoken word content, something that those users previously couldn’t find on the service before.
    • ESPN’s senior vice president of audio, Traug Keller, dropped a 40 million monthly download number for the company’s on-demand audio content. ESPN, by the way, isn’t a participant in Podtrac’s measurement system, so your mileage may vary.
  • Maximum Fun’s Jesse Thorn notes that the most popular show in his network is Adventure Zone. He also talked about the network’s unique conference/live events business, MaxFunCon, noting that his team is developing a cheaper version in an effort to disrupt itself.

One more thing: It was interesting to see a few commercial radio executives cite ZenithOptimedia’s podcast ad-spend projection — about $36.1 million in 2016 — when discussing the medium’s emergence in relation to their own businesses on-stage. Since that projection was first published some months ago, I’ve heard several podcasting executives vehemently dispute it in private, typically saying something to the effect of “if that’s the number, then my company makes up 30-40 percent of that.” Granted, that retort is totally expected, but I’m inclined to agree just intuiting from the download numbers and CPMs that can be found in publicly available reports. (The Podtrac ranker, for all the caveats involved with its sample, is also very helpful in this regard.)

However, despite these private pushbacks, I haven’t encountered any podcast executive willing to provide a specific alternate estimate…until last Friday, of course, which saw Acast’s chief commercial officer Sarah van Mosel provided an estimated range of $80 to 200 million for 2015 during a presentation — a number she particularly draws from her previous work as WNYC’s vice president of sponsorships.

A glimpse at Future Panoply? Last Friday, the Graham Holdings-owned podcast company (and my former day job employer) announced its latest big-swing project: Revisionist History, a 10-part miniseries by author (and Charlie Kaufman-lookalike) Malcolm Gladwell. The company drew some notable writeups for the announcement, with Fast Company and CNN.com providing coverage on the teaser. Interestingly, the project is positioned as “the thing that Gladwell decided to make instead of a book this season,” which is a pretty solid pitch, I guess.

On stage at Hivio, Panoply chief creative officer Andy Bowers called the podcast a template for future projects. “A lot of podcasts we’ve done so far has followed a simpler, conversational format,” he said, noting that the company will likely be developing more projects with higher production values from here on out. This move makes sense, though I do wonder how this will affect existing Panoply shows, which typically result from partnerships with other publishers.

Revisionist History drops its first full episode on June 16.

Podquest playoffs. Last Thursday, Radiotopia released the list of 10 podcast pitches that have been accepted as semi-finalists into Podquest, its talent search program. From this group of 10, three finalists will be announced in July at the Podcast Movement conference in Chicago, where they will then be made to develop three pilot episodes over the course of four months. The winner, which will be invited into the Radiotopia network, will be announced in November at the Third Coast Festival.

You can find in-depth descriptions of all ten semifinalists on the Podquest site. And if you’re curious, you can find the stat-breakdown of Podquest applicants (1,537 entries! 53 countries! Wah!) on the PRX blog.

Congrats to the crews, and good luck! I’m rootin’ for ya.

Related: “The new audience is really where we are where we want to be — the diverse audience and the young audience, and the young people who haven’t been buying radios. How are they finding content and how do we get in front of them?” Still curious about what’s next for PRX? Check out this Fortune article featuring an interview with PRX’s newly minted CEO Kerri Hoffman by Lauren Schiller, which pairs well with my writeup from two weeks ago.

Towards more pods for kids. A couple of months ago, I wrote a few pieces exploring the relatively quiet genre of kids podcasting, and over the course of my research, I spoke to Lindsay Patterson, one of the creators of Tumble: A Science Podcast for Kids, who proved to be a very, very strong advocate of the space. Now, the Austin-based producer is taking her advocacy to the next level, collaborating with a number of other kid-focused podcast producers to form what they’re calling “a new grassroots organization of podcasters and advocates for high-quality audio content for children.”

“We want to increase visibility for the medium and enable the creation of more great audio shows for kids,” Patterson told me over email. “And since we exist in the children’s space, we think that standards and ethics should be a big part of the conversation.”

The organization will kick off its work with a public survey project that hopes to identify the makeup, behavior, and dynamics of the potential audiences for kids podcasts. “There’s no baseline data for how kids consume (or don’t consume) podcasts,” Patterson wrote. “Our June 2016 survey is a first step toward understanding how our audience values what we do.”

At this point in time, the podcasts participating in Kids Listen are: Tumble, Ear Snacks, Brains On!, Sparkle Stories, Book Club for Kids, StoryPirates, and Zooglobble. (These names!) Its digital presence consists of a Slack, a website, a hashtag (#kidslisten), and social media. “The beginnings of something great,” Patterson added.

The survey launches today. You can find the Kids Listen website here.

New podcast study from comScore. The report found that podcast advertisements were found to be the least intrusive compared to other kinds of digital advertising formats, according to Adweek. It should be noted that the survey study was commissioned by Wondery, a fairly new podcast network based in Los Angeles, suggesting increased efforts among podcast companies to raise the overall awareness of the space. To my eyes, the study itself isn’t as interesting as the fact that comScore produced it. There’s been an emerging argument among some circles that the big thing holding back more brand advertisers from jumping into the space is not necessarily the medium’s well-known measurements problem, but the absence of a reputable, legacy measurements company like comScore and Nielsen actively participating and vetting the space. This comScore study isn’t quite the active participation that will lead to a so-called legitimization the space is looking for, but I think it’s a good step.

Where to, newsmagazine? Add Steve Lickteig, former executive producer of All Things Considered and current executive producer of Slate podcasts, to the list of public radio emigres publishing essays on the future of audio. Lickteig wrote a Slate piece last Thursday arguing that voice-recognition technology — à la Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana, and Google’s…OK Google thing, which will soon be integrated into car dashboards en masse — will marginalize (or even kill) the straightforward broadcasts, a state of affairs that poses a significant threat to the newsmagazine format.

Central to Lickteig’s argument is the expectation that on-demand consumption behaviors will vastly supersede consumption behavior around linear formats. Here’s the key quote (heads up, the Keith Olbermann reference is related to the lede in Lickteig’s piece):

While listening to the radio remains easier than the alternative, it’s not very satisfying for the generation of people raised in an on-demand culture. People Keith Olbermann’s age (he’s 57) feel an obligation to consume news as it’s served. Tell a bunch of 19-year-olds that it should be up to the professionals to determine what news is most important, and they’ll laugh until their earbuds fall out.

There are a couple of really interesting elements in Lickteig’s argument here that you can spool out, including the notion that us ~millennials~ and post-millennials (whatever you call those people) have in large swathes no love for editorial judgment. But I think the most interesting and pressing element here is the glimpse Lickteig provides at an underlying process that sees the further atomization of audio content and information into discrete units that users can customize, shift, and reorient…not unlike the way we exist as digital consumers of music now. (If I branded myself as some sort of thought leader, this would be the point where I’d regretfully coin the phrase the Spotification of News.)

Here’s my counterpoint to Lickteig’s bullish argument: As a voracious consumer of many, many different types of media, I’d argue that the tyranny of choice and control is totally real. And it’s absolutely crippling. (Consider two things: the gaping abyss that stares back at you from the Netflix menu, and the relief embedded in celebrations of Spotify’s Discover Weekly feature.)

Which isn’t to say, of course, that I disagree with the broad strokes of Lickteig’s forecasts: Indeed, the broadcast newsmagazine format as we know it today will likely become ineffectual, as will all other creations of linearity, like the nightly news, SportsCenter, and the front page. But I’d argue that this isn’t a consequence of the decline of broadcast; rather, it’s a consequence of the relegation of broadcast from being the primary information channel to being one-of-many in a much larger arsenal of information presentation. And yeah, sure, a story of decline always sucks, but there’s that thing about lemonade: When you’re no longer expected to be dominant, you’re liberated from the pressure — and design limitations — of dominance.

That’s no small consolation. In my mind, at least.

Bites:

  • DGital Media announced “league direct partnership” with the UFC to produce a show covering the mixed martial arts league. This will prove to be an interesting addition to the company’s portfolio of partnerships, which includes Recode and Yahoo’s The Vertical. (UFC)
  • Bloomberg News launched the latest in its steadily growing stable of podcast, Material World, a show that will deliver stories on the consumer goods world. I’ll more about Bloomberg podcasts at some point — they’ve got a unique structure going on over there — but for now, keep your eyes on Bloomberg News HQ. (iTunes)
  • Radio Diaries published quite a remarkable episode recently, featuring a young woman in Saudi Arabia, Majd, documenting her life over two years. It aired as a 22-minute segment on All Things Considered, with which the podcast has a partnership, last Tuesday. I listened to it over the weekend, and my goodness, it’s quite lovely. (Radio Diaries)
  • NPR launched Code Switch, its newest podcast, last week. The show will explore issues at the intersection of race and culture, and from the sound of its first episode, it appears to draw heavy influence from the specificity and presentational looseness of the NPR Politics podcast. Nieman Lab has a great interview with principals Shereen Marisol Meraji and Gene Demby, which you should totally check out. (Nieman Lab)
  • Speaking of public radio launches, WNYC rolled out More Perfect, the Radiolab spinoff focusing on the Supreme Court, last week. The podcast is being billed as a mini-series. (Radiolab)
  • Audioboom signs the popular Undisclosed podcast to an “exclusive ad sales deal.” (RAIN News)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can find the report here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bites:

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

A few important new players are going to change what people think of as a “podcast”

Infinite Dial. The numbers are in, and…well, they’re looking quite good. Last Thursday, Edison Research dropped the latest edition of their annual “Infinite Dial” report, a survey study that looks at consumer adoption of digital media. The report, which is conducted in partnership with Triton Digital, has a particular emphasis on audio, though it also contains pretty fascinating excursions into social media and whatever’s going on in the streaming space more broadly. And, unless I’m committing a massive piece of oversight here, it’s also the biggest reputable independent study that has observed the podcast format almost since the medium’s inception, with survey data going back to 2006. (That’s a long time, guys! A long time!)

Do check out the whole report on Edison Research’s website, but here are the three big things that are stuck in my head:

1. Mainstream. According to the study, an estimated 98 million Americans have listened to a podcast at least once in their lives. Put another way, that’s more than 1 in 3 Americans surveyed by this study. I mean, that measure is pretty dramatic, and it also sounds pretty loose — just because you tried something doesn’t mean that something is meaningful. But then again, it does show that you at least know about the thing enough to actually try it out. But if you contextualize that these two other data points:

  • More than 1 in 5 Americans report having listened to a podcast within the past month; and
  • Podcast consumption skews towards the younger side (the data shows that monthly consumption by respondents in the 12-24 age range is growing at a faster rate and at a higher volume than respondents in 25-54 and 55+ age range)

…you get a picture of a medium trending towards a fairly hopeful future. The study also pretty strongly declared: “Nearly 100 million Americans have ever listened to a podcast — it has made the jump to mainstream.”

2. Gender. According to the study, the number of women consuming podcasts has effectively doubled since 2013. Specifically, 18 percent of women surveyed report having listened to a podcast within the past month, up from 9 percent in 2013. Data still confirms that podcasting is a predominantly white male thing, but I’m fairly confident that this trend of gender diversification will continue, if only for the reason that enough people making stuff for the market are going to figure out that gender and race-inclusive programming is a positive value differentiator.

3. The continuing shift toward mobile. 64 percent of respondents who consume podcasts report doing so primarily on their mobile devices, up from 55 percent in 2015. Though some may well find it strange that a significant chunk of people consume podcasts on desktop in the first place, it’s actually a fairly established consumption behavior, especially when you think back to how difficult it was to catch a podcast on your phone before the great gods of Apple decided to bundle the native Podcasts app, which is widely understood to drive roughly 70 percent of podcast consumption, into iOS by default. (FWIW, a ton of my listening happens on desktop, both on headphones and through my Bluetooth speaker, which I also happen to take into the shower with me. Probably too much information, but I’m just sketching out, you know, multiple use cases and such.)

Related to this desktop situation is whether significant podcast consumption happens on YouTube, which is a fair inquiry because, according to the Infinite Dial study, a sizable portion of music consumption takes place there (14 percent of respondents report using YouTube most often to keep up-to-date with music, to be exact), and we can presumably suggest that the behavior might map onto podcasts. I personally haven’t found any reliable sources concretely proving this behavior on a wide scale, though I have seen some successful case studies of YouTube-as-podcast-consumption-source. Most notably, Welcome to Night Vale and some shows under the Loud Speakers Network tend to drive tens of thousands of listens through their YouTube channels, and podcasts with strong video components — like KindaFunny and some of the old Grantland shows — also tend to post strong numbers on the platform.

So that’s the big stuff from the study that I wanted to talk about. But there is one more thing that I want to riff on, if you’d be so kind to indulge me:

What’s in a word? Right now, the Infinite Dial report’s definition of a podcast is pegged to a classic description: the consumption of non-music audio content through an on-demand delivery channel, typically in the shape of the Apple podcasting app and its myriad of smaller, direct competitors (Overcast, Stitcher, and so on). But as we move deeper into the year, we’re going to see several developments that will significantly challenge the clarity of that definition. Namely:

  • The rolling out of Audible’s original content, which will likely be distributed through an infrastructure that bears little resemblance to the way we currently consume podcasts — and how we create podcasts, for that matter;
  • The scaling up of Spotify’s “Audio/Video Shows” offerings, whenever that happens. They’re still buried pretty deep in the Spotify UI, and it’s worth noting that the use of the word “show” over “podcast” is noteworthy;
  • The launch of Google Play Music’s podcast feature. Again, whenever that happens. Early rumors pegged that the feature was supposed to be live by now, and that the “podcast” wording would be maintained. But as of this writing, the fate of both things remain unclear. In any case, with Google Play (and Spotify) podcasts are delivered through what is largely perceived as a streaming music, and if it feels like we’re splitting hairs with the nomenclature here, I’d say that the words are important — because how these words play out among mass audiences and popular culture will directly influence how respondents are going to react the surveys like Infinite Dial moving forward.

Here, then, we begin to be able to see how the long established parallels between podcasts and blogs — sketched out perfectly by Nieman Lab’s Joshua Benton not too long ago — will come to play out its predictive accuracy and teleology. Audio content produced for the Internet and distributed through the Internet will soon no longer be identified based on a singular technological method (the aforementioned “podcatcher”), but to the #content itself. And when that happens, what we’ll see is a narrative that’s less of a clash between an insurgent and an incumbent (“the future of radio”), but rather, a clash between content factions defined by generations, communities, and cultures (“a type/genre/kind of radio”).

For what it’s worth, I’m fairly certain that, with its liberation from an infra-structurally imposed definition, the word “podcast” will lose all of its original meaning by the end of the calendar year. My sense is that it will likely become an identifier for a certain corner of a reconstituted landscape of all non-music audio content that’s created and distributed digitally. It’s a scope that will not only include the new podcasting companies of the last year or so, public radio, and digital media companies developing new audience development channels in the audio space (which have been my topical biases, in case you haven’t already noticed), but also commercial radio powers, streaming and Internet radio companies like iHeartMedia and SiriusXM, and community radio infrastructures.

It’s a kind of convergence; or, if you’d allow me some drama, a kind of collision.

As you can imagine, this poses an editorial challenge for me. I’ve never pretended to be comprehensive in scope with Hot Pod, but I’ve always been focused on a certain narrative of change — and power — when I sit down and choose stories to pursue every week. So, with this expected shift, I’m still not quite sure how I’ll adapt my terms and coverage, but I should figure it out and whip out, like, a mission statement pretty soon, I imagine.

The value-add of a podcast network. Slate president Keith Hernandez was on the Digiday podcast last week, and in addition to talking about the larger developments on the business and advertising fronts of the 20-year-old publication, he also got the chance to talk a bit about the company’s sister podcasting business, Panoply — which I used to work for, by the way, in case you’re new to this column. I never got to work directly with Hernandez back when I was bumming around the Slate offices, so it’s interesting to me to hear how he articulates the company’s value proposition.

Anyway, there’s a bit in the conversation that stood out to me where Digiday’s Brian Morrissey astutely points out the fundamental challenge of podcast networks, or any network in general for that matter:

Morrissey: Is it one of those things when someone becomes…It’s like ad networks always have this problem, their clients always wanted to fire them because they wanted to become self-sufficient so they wouldn’t have to share [revenue]. Is that a thing where people get to a certain size, they sort of leave behind the network?

Hernandez: I don’t think anybody wants to be a logo on a slide, you know? What we care about on that end, when working with big partners and big publishers, is how can we be more than just a network, that logo on a slide? How can we provide help on the production end, how can we provide insights, the right music supervisor and producers for their shows? It’s more a partnership on the creation side than it is a partnership on the monetization side.

You can check out the whole conversation on Digiday. The section on Panoply begins at the 17:00 mark.

In tangentially related news, two partner shows on the Panoply network have lost significant talent over the past two weeks.

  • Margaret Lyons, of the very good Vulture TV podcast, has left Vulture to join The New York Times’ Watching site.
  • Allison Davis, of New York’s Sex Lives podcast, is heading to The Ringer.

This brings to light a tension, one that’s logistical but also creative, that lies at the heart of podcasts created by publications: what are listeners responding to — the publication’s brand, or the personality on the show?

On the flip side, Slate launched a pop-up podcast yesterday called Trumpcast, which features short (~15 minute) near daily audio reporting by (the very boss) Jacob Weisberg, Slate Group’s editor-in-chief and chairman, on all things Trump. This thing is great, guys; it’s such a smart, swift way to leverage newsroom resources to create something that speaks directly to the present moment. Gah, it makes me so angry how good and specific and focused it is.

On iTunes, part two. Last week, I went deep into what, exactly, makes the iTunes charts tick. There were two takeaways: First, the charts act as a sort of “trending” measure based on iTunes interactions — chiefly, new subscriptions — and second, the iTunes charts being the only major consumer-facing value signifier of podcasts distorts the medium’s ability to understand itself.

Given its ambiguous capacity to adequately convey value, I was curious about the extent to which the charts reflect value outwards. Specifically, I wanted to know how it influences the thinking of advertisers, and whether it creates informational inefficiencies that makes it difficult for advertisers to find decent campaign opportunities, for ad buyers to buy ads, and for creators to create sustainable revenue streams. I asked around, and found that podcast advertisers and media buyers do, indeed, rely on the charts for information, but only to a point. (Thankfully.)

“Advertisers mostly care about whether a show drives results for them,” said Lex Friedman, Midroll Media’s EVP of sales and development. “But certainly, there’s a core group of advertisers I hear from anytime they notice a new show catapult into the Top 10. They don’t mind if a show that’s already working doesn’t rank there; they know the numbers and are happy regardless. But when a new show jumps into the iTunes charts, advertisers are definitely curious about whether we represent it, or know who does, and can help them get on it.”

Karo Chakhlasyan, a media buyer with Los Angeles-based ad agency Oxford Road, agrees with this perspective. “As a buyer, it doesn’t really matter to me where a podcast is on the charts,” he told me over the phone last week. “But it does play a role in outreach. Every Tuesday, I get together with one of our media coordinators and go through the list to see if a podcast broke into the Top 200 or got featured. And then we get the podcast on the phone and try to get a general idea of whether we’re able to buy.”

But the charts’ particularities often generate poor leads for advertisers. Chakhlasyan describes often finding himself on calls with small podcasts that have short shelf-lives. “Usually, those calls don’t pan out too well because it usually turns out that they’re not really serious about the show. Maybe they’re on the charts by luck, or some lucky marketing push that gets them featured,” he explained.

At the same time, however, the charts have been helpful for advertisers to check against…let’s call it improprieties. “Advertisers have also used the iTunes charts (in part) to get wise when a show touts numbers that don’t add up,” said Friedman. “For example, if you hear a show is doing 1.5 million downloads per episode, and it doesn’t rank anywhere in the iTunes Top 200, you know that what you’re hearing is hooey.”

Next week, I close out this mini-series on iTunes with some notes on what the future might look like with respect to podcast charts. Cool? Cool.

Relevant bits:

  • “Dear Data And FiveThirtyEight Want You To Visualize Your Podcast Habits.” This is a pretty cool project where participants keep track of all their podcast listening habits and mail the results in the form of a podcast. I’ll probably get on this, once I figure out how to cash in my Stamps.com promo code. (FiveThirtyEight)
  • Triton Digital bags a second partner for its TAP audio advertising platform: Whooshkaa, an Audioboom/Acast-like end-to-end podcast company out of Australia. This comes weeks after Triton signed a deal with NPR to power their podcast ads. (RAIN News)
  • Interestingly, Midroll is now selling a portion of podcast ads for APM’s Marketplace. (Twitter)
  • Chicago radio personality Garry Meier, formerly of WGN Radio, launched an individual-oriented premium subscription podcast service over the weekend. Howard Stern is slated to be one of his first guests. (RobertFeder.com)
  • The Maximum Fun Drive is currently underway! And while you’re checking it out, be sure to hit up Jonah Keri’s interview with Jesse Thorn, allfather of Maximum Fun. (MaximumFun.org, Nerdist)
  • “Debatable,” the most recent Radiolab episode, is a truly, truly remarkable thing to behold. (Radiolab)
  • I’ll just leave this here. (I-Kid-A-Pod)
  • Oh, and this too. I’ll dig into this a future issue. (The Future of Listening Hackathon) [h/t LG]

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

This American Life’s audio hackathon, the end of an indie podcast, and Audible’s new hire

This American Life’s hackathon. This past weekend, This American Life organized an audio-themed hackathon ((For reference: hackathon is an event where groups of technologically-inclined individuals are stuffed into a room over an intense and short period of time to see what they could hack together — “hack,” in this particular context, being the act of manipulating or appropriate existing systems to create a new tool that’s solves a problem or fulfills one’s ends.)) here in New York. The event brought together a bunch of developers, producers of both the radio and digital persuasion, project managers, and nerds under the same roof to see what they come up with in the service of audio, and for all intents and purposes, it was a highly successful event. (I was also told that someone showed Ira Glass how to Snapchat, the historical import of which automatically imbues the event with its sheen of #winning.)

So here’s what was interesting to me: Aside from being generally fun events, hackathons are also pretty useful sociological petri dishes that let you see what the community involved in the hackathon is collectively thinking. (That’s why you see a lot of academic-, alcohol-, and pizza-related demos in college hackathons. I would also argue that’s why you keep seeing the same ideas in Silicon Valley; they all grapple with the same problems, first-world and otherwise, after all). With this hackathon, you basically have a sample population of people in the industry thinking about and working on audio from both the technology and editorial side — and so it’s particularly fascinating to find that a stunning majority of teams were grappling with the problem of shareability, either on its own merit or as a function of discoverability.

Only three out of the 13 or so product demonstrations did not deal with clipping, sharing, or some sort of group listening in the pursuit of growing the medium’s overall audience pie. You know, it’s very nice to see a tangible representation of the fact that all of us in the community are having the same dreams. But while it was great seeing multiple configurations of ways to attack this issue, it remains an open question whether audio sharing is The Problem that’s keeping spoken audio from being hotcakes, as I’ve alluded to in the past.

Anyway, definitely check out all the projects here. Really, really interesting stuff in there. A few other observations:

  • With respect to shareability, one of the key questions appears to be: Who’s supposed to be responsible for the curation? Which is to say, should an audio sharing tool be designed more for the producer or the listener as the user identifying and isolating the sound bites? (Perhaps both?) In my mind, this is a situation of quality versus quantity; either the producers know best when it comes to highlighting worthwhile clips, or we’re talking about an environment of empowered sharing masses. (What’s that thing that people say about primates, typewriters, and Shakespeare?)
  • Another open question that came out from the demos: If we do hold onto the premise of audio sharing as something to pursue, should the resultant tool be geared towards sharing across existing social platforms (as suggested by Soundszr and Hearsay) or towards creating a new audio-only environment (Boardcast, Listening Party)?
  • I was particularly drawn to Earmoji and For Your Ears Only. Now, I’m no expert in social media theory, but I think there’s a huge difference in the psychological compulsions drawn out by a shared audio clip that’s merely a segmentation of a longer piece versus a shared audio clip that’s been significantly altered by a user. The latter is stronger, of course, given its allowance of creative ownership.
  • My favorite demo: probably the one called My Radio Class. It’s pretty much a newsletter product that serves as a starter kit for podcasts. The simplicity of the idea is just bonkers, and I’m probably biased with the whole newsletter hullaballoo, but damn this thing just gets me.
  • A key stat from the hackathon: The participating group was an almost equal split in gender and one-third were people of color. Fantastic. Fantastic!

All right, that’s all I got from that. Be sure to keep an eye on the Audio Hackathon website — they’re due to post videos of the lightning talks that kicked off the event, which includes presentations from Gimlet’s Alex Blumberg, TAL’s Ira Glass, and so on.

What drives an independent podcast to shutter. Rendered, a Portland-based interview podcast about the creative arts that joined the Maximum Fun network earlier this year, is retiring. The show’s creator, Julie Sabatier, was kind of enough to respond to a couple of my questions on the matter over email. Her answers, I think, highlight the challenges of accessibility that still plague the medium despite the boom in interest that the industry has experienced over the year.

Tell me why you’re ending the show.

I’ve been doing this show in one format or another for about 9 years, and it’s always been an independent project that I do on evenings and weekends, in addition to my full-time job as a talk show producer for my local public radio station. The logistical challenges of funding the project and running the business side of things on my own have only grown with time, and sometime last summer, I started to feel like those un-fun things were overshadowing the fun stuff that I love — actually making audio stories.

When I got pregnant earlier this year, that’s what pushed me to pull the plug, so to speak, because it was clear to me that it would be impossible to give both my kid and my podcast the time they deserve. But this was a long time coming. It’s really important to me that people understand this is primarily a story about podcast economics, not a story about someone getting on the “mommy track.” I feel like many of the struggles I faced with Rendered are pretty universal across indie podcasting.

What were your original goals with the show?

I started it in 2006 as a half-hour monthly show on KBOO, the local community radio station here in Portland. At the time, my main goal was to create a monthly deadline for myself to keep making radio and learning this craft that I’d just recently fallen in love with. And I created a podcast pretty early on, so that people would have another way to access the show. At that time, and even after it became a more prominent show on public radio, I thought of the podcast as way to promote my radio show.

About 2 years ago, I reversed my thinking on that and the show became primarily a podcast, with stories that occasionally made it to air on public radio stations (which I thought of as a way to promote the podcast).

What do you think about everything else that’s been happening in the podcast space?

You want a brief answer to this?!? In short, I think it’s great that podcasting seems to have finally caught on. When I first started distributing my show as a podcast in 2006, I was constantly explaining to people what the heck a podcast was and that’s not something I ever have to do anymore. Grandmas are downloading podcasts. It’s officially a thing.

I also think that the fact that more networks are popping up is great, because it offers a way for indie podcasters to band together and support one another. Joining the Maximum Fun network was huge for Rendered, and it’s a big reason that I kept the show going for the past year.

I would like to see more stations supporting podcasts and partnering with podcasters, but I think that’s coming. I still think it’s especially challenging for women to create break-out indie podcast hits because, in general, women tend to take on more responsibilities outside of work that make it hard to make time for an unpaid, creative endeavor with a weekly or monthly deadline.

What’s next for you?

I’m looking forward to collaborating with the great people I’ve met and worked with over the years of making my own show. I’ll still be telling audio stories; they’ll just appear in other venues, and I won’t have to be a small business owner anymore! I have some ideas in the works, but nothing that I’m ready to talk about just yet. So stay tuned; you never know where I might pop up!

Adblocking and you. So adblocking. If you’re reading this on Nieman Lab, you’re probably aware that the conversation around adblocking, advertising ethics, and Marco Arment has positively rocketed into the stratosphere last week with the release of Apple’s iOS 9 update. And if you’re reading this in your email inbox, you probably already know all of that too because, let’s face it, you’re here in this nerd bunker with me. (But in case you need a refresher, I guess there’s always Vox.)

Now I’m not going to bend over backwards to make a connection between the adblocking brouhaha and podcasting when there isn’t one, but what the hell — it’s fun to think about, and what’s the point of having a ~~Future of Media~~ newsletter/column if you’re not going to go full Jarvis.

Here’s what I’m thinking with all the hoohah: Let’s assume that this spike in adblocking attention and conversation is compelling advertisers to reshuffle their thinking on strategies and budgets (if they haven’t been reshuffling already, as the narrative about traditional banner ads not actually being effective is one that’s actually pretty old). With all this reshuffling, there’s an opportunity for companies with podcasting units to enter the conversation. Theoretically, the pitch would be that podcast advertising remains less saturated, less defined, and less susceptible to technological intervention (as ads are still baked in, analog-style).

That last bit about technological intervention is a function of audio technology not being all that advanced (or existent) just yet, which should conceivably be the draw for forward-thinking advertisers looking to define the space. It’s fertile new ground that they can themselves shape; it’s literally what we talk about when we refer to something as “the Wild West.” The first step to giving the space some definition probably lies in hosting platforms that boast dynamic ad insertion, as such a feature would require the platform to be able to manipulate whole universes of audio files en masse. A couple of players in the space are already making moves to be such a platform, which compels me to think that we’re entering a crucial time where the new norms and values of proper advertising execution will be cultivated. To my mind, this state of affairs will be very similar to how the norms and behaviors of emergent social media platforms are established by its early adopters and inhabitants.

In other words, given that it’s all early days, current participants in the space bear the responsibility of defining advertising formats, ethics, and expected returns that will become customary in the future.

That’s a big deal, and it’s ours to screw it up. One could imagine a world in which dynamic ad insertion technology-enabled platforms allow for a kind of audio advertising unit that’s every bit as annoying as the popup ad. And if that ever were to happen, I think it’ll take a whole lot to bounce back from it. That’s the thing about previously analog systems being eaten up by technology: The more tech is built out to understand, formalize, and ultimately control the system and its norms, the more that system becomes less likely to be any other version of itself.

Okay wow that was way too pretentious I’m going to stop thinking right now.

Public Media Marketing CEO David Raphael on The Wolf Den. All right, I know I plug this show a lot on this newsletter, but I can’t recommend the latest episode with David Raphael highly enough. It’s a great overview on the customs, standards, and dynamics of advertising with respect to public radio, and there are tons of great little tidbits of information everywhere including, but not limited to, the fact that an announcement related to Serial season 2 is due sometime this month. Check it out.

WNYC launches new sports podcast. They’ve been keeping it pretty hush-hush. Called The Season, the podcast chronicles the Columbia University football team as they attempt to avoid yet another abysmal year on the field. Now, I’m all for more WNYC podcasts, and I’m all for more sports podcasts, and I’d absolutely be down with a WNYC sports podcast that could conceivably fill the gaping Friday Night Lights-shaped hole in my heart, but…the Columbia football team? Really??

It’s like they totally…punted on the idea. *puts on sunglasses*

Okay, okay, I kid: It’s actually a good show, and I really liked the first episode. As a person who spent most of his college life wondering what goes on in the heads of other college students, this offers a pretty interesting peek into the life of a very specific kind of college kid. Check it out.

Audible hires Ben Robins, former NPR audience insight researcher. Eric Nuzum, senior vice president of original content, announced the hire on Facebook. (That’s where I saw it anyway; there’s probably a press release floating around somewhere.) Robins will reportedly be an active part of editorial meetings to inject some data-driven flavor into the story-baking process. Said it once, said it again: I look forward to the day when Audible wipes the floor with our faces.

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