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Nothing particularly major here, but I caught up with this article I previously missed about Panoply’s divestment from content by AdExchanger, which is a super tradey publication about online advertising. The piece came out around the time of Panoply’s announcement last week, and it has the distinction of featuring pretty extensive quotes from Panoply CEO Brendan Monaghan which, in my mind, offers some public insight into the company’s thinking.
I’ll hit you with three choice sections:
“We love [the content] business. However, it’s limited in how much it can scale top line revenue,” said Brendan Monaghan, CEO at Panoply Media. “Technology has a real opportunity to scale significantly, both on the content management and ad insertion side, as well as the ad technology side.”
Panoply has laid off its entire editorial staff as part of the shift, but declined to break out an exact number of employees. The company, which has seen revenues double over the past year, will build on its technical staff as it pivots its focus.
“When you hear layoffs, there’s a tendency to think the company may be performing poorly,” Monaghan said. “For us, this was a strategic decision to go where we see opportunity. Unfortunately, that means not being in certain segments.”
Note: that’s doubling revenues, which bucks the some of the gloom-and-doom narratives out there. And then…
Panoply plans to build sales technology that helps publishers “make more money and distribute shows as effectively as possible” as well as enhance and scale MTM to bring more brand advertisers to the medium, Monaghan said.
“Brands are used to buying specific audiences within huge buckets,” Monaghan said. “They don’t want to do 50 IOs for 50 different shows. They want to buy the audiences, shows and scale they’re seeking in a really efficient way.”
By buying through MTM, brands can monetize their back catalogues with more recent ads, rather than being stuck with an ad that was baked into the show when it aired. For publishers, it’s an easy way to monetize inventory they are unable to sell directly.
In other words, it’s a pure ad tech play: Megaphone will now be specifically catering to the needs of the advertising community, perhaps more bluntly so than ever before. One of the arguments I’ve consistently heard about Panoply housing both an hosting/advertising technology company and a content company at the same time is that the former gets to learn from the latter as the latter serves as the testing sample for the former; that Panoply has the capacity to be internally empathetic about its adventures with ad tech, because they would have an in-house content division to viscerally feel pain and ingest potential experience complaints from listeners first-hand. With its divestment from the content business, Panoply has indeed fully transitioned into the relatively unsexy — but incredibly consequential — ad tech side of the podcast business. But they may well also be doubling down on the advertising community’s specific worldview, and if successful, the end result could end up being a truly mixed bag for actual content publishers.
Unsexy or not, whatever’s happening with Megaphone is extremely important to all of our machinations, so let’s all keep an eye on it.
One more chunk:
Today, MTM deals are brokered directly by Panoply staff, but the company hopes to roll out a self-serve UI down the line. It’s hesitant to use the word programmatic, though, as the podcast industry associates the buying mechanism with plummeting CPMs and low-quality ads.
“Programmatic for us is streamlining the way buyers transact on inventory,” Monaghan said. “We’re moving to a world where there’s more automation put into the process. That is something in early 2019 you’re going to start to see a lot more of.”
The association, and concerns, still stand.
WILD WILD COUNTRY. If I had a dime for every time someone made a reference to podcasting, the podcast industry, and/or podcast metrics being the “Wild West,” well…I wouldn’t have enough dimes to retire, exactly, but I’d certainly have enough to buy a few Happy Meals. The latest such reference comes from AdWeek, whose podcast industry write-up bears the title “Podcast metrics are still the Wild West — but networks are moving to change that.” It’s a fairly standard check-in for the Way Things Are Right Now, albeit with a pretty concise spotlight on the 24-hour window download count measure that governs the current iteration of the IAB standard.
But the article also features two other things that I think are worth further unpacking. The first is the focus on Wondery being “one of the first commercial podcasting companies to adopt these standards, hoping other networks and publishers will follow suit, and many have already partially opted in.” It’s probably useful to note that the list of publishers already compliant with the IAB standards — and a quick reminder that we’re talking about the latest iteration of the standards, known as V2 — includes but is not limited to: HowStuffWorks, PRX, the Turner Podcast Network, and ESPN. I’ve spoken with several other publishers that have long been actively working to shift over by the end of the year, following some period of technical recalibrations and testing.
It’s also worth remembering that, when assessing the state of standardization, a publisher can only be IAB-compliant if its shows are hosted on a platform that’s capable of supporting the IAB’s 24-hour window requirements. Those platforms include, but not are limited to, Megaphone, Streamguys, and Whooshkaa. Art19 tells me that its 24-hour filtering window measurement option is very close to the IAB V2 standard, and that it’s in the final stages of preparing for certification.
All of which is to say that a lot of this is already on the way, and that the reason standardization hasn’t been fully achieved just yet has more to do with technical particularities than a lack of political will. Like most complex things, it just takes time.
The second thing that needs unpacking is a little more delicate, and that’s the actual nature of reservations about the IAB standards. In the AdWeek write-up, it’s largely characterized as a kind of fear of pulling off the band-aid; that is, trepidation over the short-term losses despite the upside of long-term gains. But according to some podcasters, particularly independents, it’s not the immediate pains that creates anxiety. It’s the concern of whether the IAB actually got it right with this iteration of the standard.
“My frustration is why it wasn’t right the first time,” Dallas Taylor, a sound designer and the creator of the beloved independent podcast Twenty Thousand Hertz, told me. “When everyone first migrated to IAB, it was a 30- to 40-percent decline. I was fine with that for the sake of better numbers. Then, it’s like…oopsie…here comes another 20- to 25-percent drop on V2 from the same organization. What are V3 and V4 going to look like?”
Taylor also pointed out that highly produced shows — independent and otherwise — will be disproportionately affected by the revenue shifts that follow downward adjustments of listener numbers. As much as a drop in revenue from, say, $130,000 to $100,000 hurts the bottom line of quick-turnaround chat or interview shows, it materially hurts more for more intensive productions that need every dollar to pay editors, sound designers, composers and others to actually put together an episode. “It makes it harder for highly produced shows to break in,” said Taylor. “The staples will remain, but shows like mine need a loooong runway of time in order to build a big enough audience to break even and become profitable.”
He added: “IAB V2 needs to be right. We can’t keep getting a 20- to 30-percent drop in numbers every six months. Just make it right, and we’ll all move forward and adapt. I’d rather the numbers be ultra-conservative than leave any room for doubt.”
Again, to be clear about the focus: no one is against better numbers. It’s just that the shifts affect some more than others, and the hope is that any subsequent rollout will be handled with care.
Crowd-centered. RadioPublic, the listening platform led by former PRX CEO Jake Shapiro, is generally eager to play around with the possibilities of how things are and could be, and the startup’s latest experiment is no different. Last week, RadioPublic launched an equity crowdfunding campaign that lets everyday users and audiences invest small amounts — from $50 to a maximum of about $100,000 — into the venture. As of Monday morning, the company had raised almost $60,000 from 53 backers, well over its $25,000 minimum goal. The campaign is managed over a new investment platform called Republic.
I asked Shapiro what, exactly, is motivating the initiative. Is this an active component of its fundraising operations, or is it more of a community-building campaign? “Definitely more the latter, but the former is potentially really good for us too,” he wrote back. “[It’s] just hard to predict success, so only made sense to do it without counting on that. But yes, if we can knock it out of the park, having $1M of crowd financing gives us more options/capacity for our roadmap and ambitions, is a good signal for other investors we’re always talking to, and creates an army of incentivized investor/ambassadors along the way.”
RadioPublic was founded in the summer of 2016 as a public benefit corporation, and has since raised over $3 million from investors that include The New York Times, WGBH, Bose, and Andrew Mason (of Groupon and Descript fame). The company’s Republic campaign page publicly lists a number of active performance data points, including:
- The platform achieved 600,000 monthly active users within 12 months;
- The Paid Listens program, which helps smaller podcasts monetize, currently boasts around 600 participants; and
- Users average 72 minutes of listening a day.
It’s a cool fundraising experiment, but it’s also a cool look into the guts of what’s going on with RadioPublic. The listening platform is up against a competitive environment that’s changed substantially over the past few months, particularly with Google rolling out a standalone Podcast app and a consortium of public radio stations acquiring the Australian podcast app known as Pocket Casts. Can RadioPublic figure out a clear way forward to carve out a place among the podcast consumption apps? Or it is poised to become something else entirely?
Your rights and Anchor. How does that saying go? “If you’re not paying for the product, you’re the product?” Whatever the phrase, that’s the specter conjured by the Mac Observer blog with respect to Anchor, the once-buzzy social audio app turned next-generation podcast hosting platform. In a post published on June 20, Mac Observer’s Andrew Orr drew attention to a chunk of Anchor’s Terms of Service that seems to give the company overly broad powers over what it can do with podcast episodes hosted on the platform.
Here’s the part excerpted in the article, under the section “License Grant”:
By submitting User Content through the Services, you hereby do and shall grant us a worldwide, non-exclusive, perpetual, irrevocable, royalty-free, fully paid, sublicensable and transferable license to use, edit, modify (including the right to create derivative works of), aggregate, reproduce, distribute, prepare derivative works of, display, perform, and otherwise fully exploit the User Content in connection with the operation of the the Services, the promotion, advertising or marketing of the Services, or any other purposes.
“This means that Anchor can do whatever it wants with your podcasts, and can also transfer those rights to ‘other companies, organizations, or individuals’ it chooses to work with,” Orr wrote. “Now to be fair, T&C like that aren’t uncommon. Other companies like Google and Facebook own the rights to pretty much anything you upload to their servers. But unless you’re a professional photographer, uploading photos isn’t the same as uploading and making a living off of podcasting. Just be aware of what you sign up for.”
Wow, @anchor's terms in regards to user content is absolutely 100 percent unacceptable. You post a show and they suddenly get the right to creative derivative works? Among other horrible things you should never agree to.
— Justin McLachlan (@justinmclachlan) June 19, 2018
Anchor modified the section on June 21, adding the line “You retain all of your ownership rights in your User Content” at the top of the paragraph and removing the “irrevocable” aspect of the license that users granted the company by accepting the terms. The modified version nonetheless maintains the company’s right to create derivative works of content hosted on the platform.
You can view the latest version of the Terms of Service here, and you can view the prior version on the Wayback Machine (saved on May 16). Michael Mignano, Anchor’s CEO, also replied to McLachlan’s tweet with a thread explaining the changes and clarifications made to the Terms of Service.
When reached for comment, Anchor responded with this statement:
Anchor users always have, and always will, own the content they create on our platform. At Anchor our mission is to democratize audio, and in service of this mission we have reimagined podcasting from the ground up to give creators powerful, easy-to-use tools that make it easier than ever before for anyone to make a high quality podcast — from first time creators to seasoned pros.
Anchor is not a traditional podcasting company. Nothing like it exists to date. We’re breaking down barriers for audio — allowing people to create together and use content in new and interesting ways. Creators give us a license for the content created on our platform in order to power features we believe should be available to everyone. Simply put, this license allows us to distribute your podcast as far and wide as we can and innovate on features that don’t exist on other platforms.
A creator-first mentality is at the core of Anchor’s values, and we listen closely to our community in order to serve their needs. To clarify and reaffirm our commitment to creators owning the content they create on our platform, we have adjusted the language of our terms of service to indicate when and how a creator can terminate the license they agree to when using Anchor. To be absolutely clear — the license is not in any way intended to take ownership of a creator’s content. Any claims that Anchor is attempting to misuse creators’ work are patently false. Our aim is to make podcasting as easy, accessible, and fun as possible for everyone and we hope folks will give Anchor a try.
But those adjustments might not be enough. As McLachlan told me:
I still think the license grants far too many rights that the company simply doesn’t need. Particularly for something like what I do, which is mostly episodic fiction. The derivative rights the company still takes (and oddly seems to grant to other users immediately on account creation) aren’t constrained. Those rights in a content-rich creation like a podcast are really important to hold onto free and unencumbered, especially if, like me, you view podcasting as more than a hobby.
I just point to what Adobe does. That’s clean, clear license grant that makes it clear the company only needs the rights to operate its services and its software. They don’t take derivative rights. That’s the standard Anchor should just, honestly, copy.
Agent acquisition. CAA, one of the major Hollywood talent agencies (FWIW, I found this THR guide super-handy), has hired Josh Lindgren to be a part of its touring department, where he will work on expanding the agency’s portfolio of touring podcast properties, Billboard reports. Lindgren joins CAA after spending almost ten years at the Billions Corporation, the nearly three-decade-old touring agency with offices in Chicago, Los Angeles, Seattle, Toronto, and Nashville, where he repped shows like Hello from the Magic Tavern, Radiotopia Live, and The Flop House.
I spoke with Lindgren about his work back in July 2017. “Unlike advertising, live revenue is not as directly related to download numbers as you might think,” he told me. “I know podcasts that can outsell artists with ten times their download numbers. It all comes down to your relationship with the audience that you have, and establishing a reputation for delivering great live shows.”
This is a really smart hire by CAA. In Lindgren, the agency has brought in somebody that not only has considerable experience with the nuts-and-bolts of producing and staging live podcast events, they also have somebody who is keenly aware of the specific upsides, limitations, and quirks of the growing podcast revenue channel. I’m a fan of this.
Blockchain…? So there’s this thing called Civil, and it’s working to build a “decentralized marketplace for sustainable journalism” using blockchain technology — that is, the tech behind cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and… experiments, I suppose you call them, like Cryptokitties. And I’m bringing it up because, as part of its efforts to build newsrooms on the technology, it’s included two podcast-oriented projects: Stable Genius Productions’ ZigZag, which is also affiliated with Radiotopia, and FAQ NYC, a Hearken-esque “How Does New York Work?” production.
I am, of course, intrigued by the hope and hook of it all. I’ve followed Civil somewhat since its introduction — unsurprisingly, I highly recommend these Nieman Lab posts for background reading: one, two, three — and I totally vibe with much of what’s on paper: Civil’s goal to promote a “more ethical and sustainable model for journalism,” to pull the news ecosystem away from attention-based incentives, to build a system that protects the independent storage and distribution of information. Again, I’m super down with all these goals. I’d just like to have a better handle on how the thing actually works.
At this point, I should show my cards: I have a fairly limited understanding of the blockchain. This isn’t for lack of trying — though it’s entirely possible I haven’t tried hard enough — as I’ve spent some time sorting through blog posts, sitting down with whitepapers, listening to podcasts like Coin Talk and Ledger Cast, and hell, even rewatching that one Silicon Valley episode where they whip up their own cryptocurrency. Even after all that, I feel like I still have a tenuous grasp on the core concepts of how the thing actually works, and how that applies to news, information, and media. I also think it doesn’t really help that much of the material seems to emphasize why the blockchain is good as opposed to how it functions on a technical level; the seemingly disproportionately emphasis on the former is the very aspect that gives the whole thing a slightly….Soylent vibe. I mean, sure, this technology may well take us somewhere, but I tend to like my revolutions with a side of doubt.
Anyway, this is a newsletter about podcasts, so let’s loop back to a relevant question: how does Civil’s blockchain technology specifically interact with audio? In other words, how does the technology’s application change the way an audio venture can work? Megan Libby, Civil’s brand marketer, was kind enough to help me walk through the questions.
Hot Pod: Could you briefly tell me how, exactly, Civil liberate participating media projects from the needs of traffic and advertising? Like, how does it provide a new business model?
Megan Libby: Civil runs on a token economy that facilitates direct relationships between journalists and citizens on the blockchain. It’s this element that allows Civil to eliminate the needs of advertisers and third-party publishers; journalists use tokens to access publishing rights on Civil’s platform, and citizens use these tokens to moderate behavior on the platform (CVL tokens are voting stakes in determining whether a Newsroom should be allowed to publish on Civil or not, among other utilities). This process is outlined more clearly in Civil’s Constitution, which is a good “rules of the road” outline for publishing on Civil — and is kept in balance by the Civil Foundation (led by former NPR’s CEO, Vivian Schiller). This is the new operating model to which we are referring: One that makes newsmakers accountable to their readership alone.HP: So, there are a couple of podcast operations that’s part of Civil. What does that mean? Are they hosted on Civil platforms? Is there an audio-specific iteration of Civil?Libby: Civil is the publishing platform that allows Newsrooms — like podcasts, or digital publications — to live on the Civil Registry alongside other Newsrooms. More specifically, Civil is the underlying protocol of the publishing platform; it is this protocol that enforces Civil’s community standards of journalism. When launched, each Newsroom will have its own website, business model and team that it will be responsible for overseeing. There is not an audio-specific iteration of Civil. We’re working on native podcast support, but that won’t be live at launch.
Which is to say: there isn’t a direct relationship between audio and the blockchain at this point in time, but there may be soon enough. For now, though, the way ZigZag has structured its operations is pretty illuminating. When I spoke with Stable Genius Productions founders Manoush Zomorodi and Jen Poyant last week, they described something that feels like a classic multi-platform situation. Indeed, the podcast exists and operates through traditional means — it is distributed through RSS feeds and monetized via podcast advertising managed by Radiotopia — but it will also feature a textual element that lives on the blockchain, where it will participate in the whatever the new business model over there will look like.
Libby’s explanation was fairly helpful for me to marginally better understand how Civil’s technology is supposed to create a new incentive structure — though, I’ll admit, this is going to be one of those things that I’m just going to have to see in action before fully understanding it. Nevertheless, the back-and-forth has also further clarified how I should think about the blockchain’s relationship to contemporary media operations: like television adaptations and podcasting, it is yet another platform to invest in, to watch closely, and to hold at arm’s length until the foundations of the thing reveal its full shape.
Unboxed. Loot Crate, the subscription box service that specializes in fandom merchandise, has been a direct response advertiser in podcasting for a good while now, which means that it’s been at the forefront of the way podcast advertising has grown and changed over the past few years. In that vein, I thought it could be pretty useful — or, at least, fairly interesting — to check in with the company and get a sense of how it’s thinking about the space these days.
So, I sent over some questions, and Andrea Carter, who manages marketing and partnerships at Loot Crate, was kind enough to return them with some rapid-fire responses:
Hot Pod: Tell me about Loot Crate, and what you do at the company.Andrea Carter: I’m the marketing & partnerships manager at Loot Crate, the #1 fan subscription service in the market. Loot Crate takes your favorite fandoms and turns it into a monthly mystery box — it’s the best surprise you know is coming. I’ve been with the organization since 2015 and am currently working remotely in Denver. I’ve overseen podcast marketing since 2016 and have been obsessed ever since.
HP: What shows does Loot Crate advertise on?Carter: Since Loot Crate covers just about everything you could possibly be a fan of, we have worked with an incredibly diverse roster of shows. Big shows like Joe Rogan all the way down to small indie darlings like This is Rad. Primarily we like to be on geeky shows and comedy shows.HP: How do you find new podcasts to advertise on?Carter: I’ll actually go through Reddit pages of shows that do well for us — I’ve found some great gems by going through The Weekly Planet’s Reddit page in the past. There’s almost always a subreddit thread of fans talking about other shows that they love. Trust the fans!HP: In your mind, what are the biggest misconceptions that podcast publishers have about advertisers?Carter: Perhaps that it isn’t as big as it truly is. Podcast customers are loyal and incredible and so much mightier than people realize. It may seem in the shadows of digital/social marketing, but at this point it truly is one of the most authentic channels to sell in.HP:: How do you measure the success of your ad buys?Carter: Carefully.
No, but for real — we track via both vanity URLs and promo codes and I’ll go through results for both for as accurate an average as possible. Since podcasts aren’t a click-through channel, I’ll also include multipliers to account for customers who have heard about Loot Crate but haven’t used a URL or promo code. Those multipliers are based on survey results when our Looters say they heard about Loot Crate on podcasts.
HP: How has your approach to podcast advertising changed over time?Carter: We’ve been able to take risks on new shows and more interesting partnerships since starting up podcast advertising. In 2016/2017 we were trying new shows every month for about 6 to 8 weeks to reach new audiences. In 2018, we’ve taken podcasts down a bit to focus on launches of new products, but I’d love to see what’s in store for the back end of 2018 and into 2019.HP: It’s been about six months since Apple rolled out in-episode analytics. How has that affected the way you approach campaigns?Carter: I have been keeping the same analytics strategy for our records, but the Apple analytics are fascinating and something I’ve been following. I’d love to see what this looks like in another six months when groups are taking lots of data into account.HP: How do you view the IAB metric standardization issue?Carter: The IAB info doesn’t affect me in my world too much, but I’m curious to see what happens next.HP:: What are you thinking about these days?Carter: Justice. Also, the Planet Broadcasting team! I’ve been working with the absolutely brilliant Claire Tonti in doing some sales and advocacy for the shows. Adore them, adore their team, all about it. Same with Allyson [Marino] at Lipstick & Vinyl. Absolutely brilliant, wonderful, powerful and so excited to see what’s next (and happy to connect anyone as needed for additional info!).
Big thanks to Andrea for taking the time to answer my questions.
- Quick revolving door item: WNYC’s Jim Lally has moved to Market Enginuity, where he will serve as SVP of national podcast and broadcast sales. At New York Public Radio, he was the senior director of national sponsorship. As a reminder, Market Enginuity handles advertising sales for PRX. (LinkedIn)
- The Austin Film Festival has announced the return of its Fiction Podcast Script Competition. The judges for this year’s iteration includes The Bright Sessions’ Lauren Shippen, Panoply’s John Dryden, and Studio 360’s Jocelyn Gonzales. Deadline for entries is July 6. (Website)
- Food 4 Thot’s Tommy Pico is rolling out a new interview podcast next month: Junk, which will feature Pico interviewing literary and cultural luminaries about a keepsake, souvenir, or random bauble they’ve held onto over the years.
- “How BBC Stories experiments with audio to reach younger audiences.” (Digiday)
- ICYMI: “UTA and Cadence13 launch Ramble Podcast Network for Digital Stars.” (Deadline)
- “The New York Times agreed not to use on-the-record audio for The Daily after the White House objected.” (HuffPost)
- Speaking of which: my latest review looks at Caliphate. (Vulture)
- Not directly podcast-related, but thought this was super interesting: “It Was an Ad? So What. It’s Still Art.” (NY Times)
Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 137, published October 24, 2017.
WBUR wades into the daily podcast grind…with sports. So, one of the structural advantages of on-demand audio — and of the internet more broadly, with the way it collapses physical space — is how it allows publishers to identify, carve out, and super-serve distinct identity sets, which is a fancy way of saying how the medium excels at activating niches. (This is, of course, an exceptionally sharp blade that cuts in both directions.)
And so it’s to the credit of WBUR, one of Boston’s two public media institutions, that it moved to seize on both this natural advantage of the medium and the emerging genre of the daily podcast to serve a constituency well within their jurisdiction: the Boston sports fan, its own very specific species of human with its own dynamics, traditions, and diaspora.
Season Ticket, as the podcast is called, is off to a reasonable start. In its first two weeks, the show received approximately 200,000 downloads across its first 10 dispatches (a 20,000-per-episode average), which is a workable floor for what is essentially a show that’s not meant for everybody. I’m tempted to use the word “niche” here, but I’ve been told the word comes with the unfair connotation of smallness, which is, of course, an inaccurate notion. A book about Star Wars is “niche,” but Star Wars fans are legion.
Two things to watch with Season Ticket. The first is how much, and how fast, it will grow. Recall that the station’s first major podcast achievement, Modern Love, garnered 1.4 million downloads in its first month, and after four months the podcast was averaging 300,000 downloads a week. The second is how Season Ticket will find its place within the Boston sports fan media diet. This is, after all, a media consumer long super-served by New England’s sprawling network of sports media institutions, talk radio and otherwise, and WBUR’s task will be to tap into a completely new set of previously unserved fans — a younger generation, perhaps, or a diaspora in need — or test the limits of the hypothesis that the Boston sports fan’s hunger for coverage could very well be infinite.
Whatever WBUR finds out, they can definitely add another feather to their cap of respectable partnerships, which the station’s podcasting operations, led by the formidable Jessica Alpert, appears to be turning into a core program strategy. Season Ticket comes out of a collaboration with The Boston Globe — it’s hosted by Chris Gasper, a sports columnist for the paper — and a quick overview of WBUR’s listings on the Apple podcast directory show that Season Ticket is one of three such projects now out in the open. The other two are the aforementioned Modern Love, with The New York Times, and the upcoming Edge of Fame, with The Washington Post. More, I’m told, are on the way.
With this partnership-driven orientation, WBUR finds itself in the position where it could give Panoply — whose content strategy was once premised on such collaborations with media companies — a run for its money. But the challenge, as always, will be whether the station is able to draw talent to Boston as it grows its podcast team commensurate with demand…and, more importantly, whether it can retain them. It’s probably worth recalling, at this point, that Modern Love was originated by Lisa Tobin, who left WBUR last summer to be the executive producer of audio at The New York Times. Talent acquisition and retention is a problem for all in the industry, but one imagines it’s doubly so for any non-New York, non-Los Angeles shop at this point in time — even if Boston is a sub-four-hour train ride north from the self-declared Podcast Capital of the World. That’s a toughie.
Cults! So, I’m keeping an eye on Heaven’s Gate, the 10-part documentary about the cult infamous for perpetrating the largest mass suicide ever to take place in the United States back in the nineties. The podcast, which launched last week, seems pretty spicy, and it happens to double as the sophomore effort for the creative team behind Missing Richard Simmons, the duo of Pineapple Street and Midroll. It’s worth pointing out, as I did with my Vulture writeup, that Midroll is more creatively involved this time around, with the company originating the show’s concept. (That wasn’t the case with Simmons. Dan Taberski, via First Look Media, had that honor. Taberski is listed in the Heaven’s Gate credits, though.)
But of course, the focus here is on Pineapple Street, who leads production. (Ann Heppermann, the cofounder of the Sarah Awards who is now on the company’s payroll, helms the rig.) The primary question here is whether Pineapple can go two-for-two with a hit feature. Which, I imagine, will help us attend to some other interesting questions: Was Missing Richard Simmons a fluke? Can Pineapple reliably stretch beyond its go-to move of extracting value from the star power of larger brands and celebrities, which appears to be its primary strategic angle? Aside from Missing Richard Simmons, the company’s portfolio is made up of shows built around The New York Times’ Jenna Wortham and Wesley Morris, Lena Dunham, Janet Mock, Aminatou Sow, Matt Bellassai, Preet Bharara, and, obviously, Hillary Clinton. (Though, I suppose, you could argue that Missing Richard Simmons’ appeal was principally built on the draw of the titular celebrity, which cast a Godot-like shadow over the proceedings. In which case, there’s an argument to be made about Pineapple’s principal occupation being the interlocution of celebrity. It’s not a particularly strong argument, but it’s workable.)
Aaaanyway. You want to talk benchmarks? Let’s talk benchmarks. Figuring out a true number to beat is a little tough. Looking back at my notes, the clearest baseline for Missing Richard Simmons given was: “On March 28, a little over a month after the show first debuted, First Look Media told me that the podcast had been downloaded on average more than 1 million times a week since its release.” I guess that’ll have to serve our touchpoint for the first month.
The New York Times’ The Daily hits a milestone, outlines its future. Last week, the news industry analyst Ken Doctor pumped out two pieces on The Daily, one for Nieman Lab and one for TheStreet, and they give us a good snapshot of where the Times’ audio team currently sits and where it wants to go.
To begin with, Doctor reports that the morning news podcast has officially surpassed the 100 million download mark. As of the article’s pub date, October 17, The Daily had delivered 186 editions, which means the show has a 530,000~ download per episode average. Add to that two other key data points from Doctor’s piece in The Street — that The Daily was estimated to have hit 3.8 million unique visitors in August, and that the company is able to command ad rates comparable to pivot-inspiring levels of digital video — and you have an editorial product that stretches widely and draws deep dividends, both right now and in the days to come.
Doctor’s reporting also gives us a sense of NYT Audio’s immediate next steps: further expanding its headcount (now 16 full-time employees strong, seven of which hold production duties on The Daily according to Barbaro’s recent Longform interview), slapping on a digital engineering development arm to the team (!), stretching out The Daily to six editions per week, and rolling out more “extensions” of the program (presumably in the vein of The New Washington). He also notes two more things that I think are especially worth tracking: firstly, that the team is working on a “big narrative project” (isn’t everybody, though?), and secondly, that “within the next several weeks, Times readers will be able to access The Daily directly from their apps and browsers without using a separate podcast app.” This is incredibly significant, in that it illustrates a team meaningfully working to bypass the cumber of dedicated podcast apps to deliver its product to consumers. And it just so happens that, in doing so, the company will be able to keep those audiences within the universe of its primary mobile app, which puts them in a better position to spread the value generated by the podcast around the other aspects of the business. Further, it doesn’t take much to imagine the various audience and listening behavior analytics tools that will be layered on that built-in player, which will better aid the Times in carrying out the primary business goals of the podcast: to convert new subscribers, to retain existing subscribers, and to gather even more intelligence that will help them to do both those things.
I’m noodling on two more thoughts:
- This quote provided by Sam Dolnick, the paper’s assistant editor and one of the long-running champions for the audio division, stands out to me: “This is the birth of a franchise for us that can live on and on in many different mediums for a long time.” A bold statement, though it does support any such suspicion that, when it comes to organizing NYT Audio, you have The Daily on one side, and everything that’s not The Daily on the other. Recall that the audio team still ships other non-Daily-related podcasts: Still Processing (with Pineapple Street), Modern Love (with WBUR), Popcast, and The Book Review — none of which were mentioned in either piece by Doctor. Which raises the question: What are the futures of these shows? And what is the future of non-Daily podcast programming? Will that aforementioned “big narrative project” be rolled out under The Daily banner, or not? Question marks!
- I was chatting with a public-radio station operative at ONA a few weeks ago, who shared a sentiment that I’ve taken the liberty to brand on the back of my skull. To liberally paraphrase: Getting your first hit is one thing, what happens after is a whole other bag of bananas.
Three notes on measurement.
- I have a mea culpa for you. Contrary to what I noted in last week’s issue, the Apple in-episode analytics was never pegged to the iOS 11 release, with the upgrade always being slated for a vague “later in the year” target date. That’s a note-taking fumble on my part, and I regret the error. The deployment timeline makes sense, even if I airballed: For there to be workable and reliable in-episode listening analytics, iOS 11 adoption needs to achieve critical mass, and that often takes some time following iOS rollouts. Again, my bad.
- Keep a lookout: I’ve been getting sporadic reports from some publishers and independents that are experiencing rocky metrics readjustments well before this anticipated Apple change. The destabilizing shifts are thought to be tied to two other measurement changes, specifically: (1) Libsyn’s stats overhaul to become more compliant to IAB reporting standards, which took place in mid-September, and (2) Stitcher’s implementation of several changes — including a stats adjustment to fit IAB compliance, along with the presentation of “Front Page Impressions” as a separate metric — that kicked in earlier this month. For at least some publishers, the combination of the two have resulted in serious drops in performance data, though I have also heard of some upward revisions. I wasn’t able to pin down a specific change range that I’d be comfortable printing just yet, though. I’ll be keeping an eye on this.
- I suspect we’re in the midst of a situation in which various podcast platforms are moving to adopt the IAB standard, but are doing so at different rates. While this will ultimately lead to a more cohesive and accountable ecosystem in the long run, the uneven adoptions have immediately cultivated some serious dysfunctions and pitfalls for individual publishers — particularly those that are interested in switching vendors. A publisher recently opined to me about the drastic performance data readjustments it experienced after migrating from Audioboom to Megaphone earlier this year, which fundamentally threw off its revenue projections. That’s bad enough, but the publisher felt that its ordeal was further exacerbated by a lack of vendor transparency. “I have a bunch of theories as to what happened, but the fact that podcast platforms are so cagey about their measurement standards drives me insane, and it impacts the work we do,” that publisher told me. Audioboom tells me that the platform adheres to the first version of IAB standards that was published last year — which is distinct from the newer edition that was circulated last month for public comment — but also notes that podcasts that move away from Audioboom’s platform will no longer have access to additional listenership facilitated through the company’s app. Nevertheless, the larger issue remains: For some, it’s still hard to tell what’s what, and that’s a big problem.
I imagine it would be prudent to anticipate more turbulence to come.
Career Spotlight. I love running this feature, mostly because it’s often a miracle that even a fraction of anything ever happens the way you hope it would. This week, I traded emails with Robin Amer, a Chicago-based journalist, editor, and audio documentarian who is in the midst of leading the development of a long-form investigative podcast, The City, that she sold to the USA Today Network over the summer. Amer’s on the up-and-up, and it’s great to catch her at this point in time.
[conl]Hot Pod: What’s going on right now?[/conl]
[conr]Robin Amer: I’m working to launch my podcast, The City, in 2018. It’s a long-form, investigative show that explores how our cities actually work — I’ve described it as being like The Wire, only true. By that I mean that every season will go deep into one city and one story. And every story will have a gritty sense of place, a memorable, multi-racial ensemble cast, and will be as revealing about the power struggles of all cities as it is about the particulars of the city where it’s set. Season 1 is set in Chicago, where I live. I can’t say much about the story right now except that when I started reporting it I thought, holy moly, this really is like The Wire, only true.
Because I’m the show’s executive producer as well as its the host, I’ve spent the last few months building the foundation for the show on business side as well as on the editorial side: building a whisper room studio in our offices in Chicago; hiring a team of journalists; working with my company’s product and sales teams to design our website and secure sponsorships; that kind of thing. I’m hoping to have most of my reporting and production team in place in the next few weeks, at which point we’ll dive back into the reporting for Season 1.[/conr]
[conl]Hot Pod: How did you get to this point?[/conl]
[conr]Amer: In a narrow sense, I won the WNYC Podcast Accelerator competition in 2015, piloted the show with WNYC Studios last year, then sold the pilot to the USA Today Network in May. USATN was interested in the show because the company wants to be a player in the premium podcast space, and because my vision for the show — to go to a different city every season — fits perfectly with its overall editorial strategy. The company owns 109 local news outlets, and we’re already soliciting pitches from journalists in the network for stories for Season 2.
In a broader sense, I’ve been working up to this project for more than 15 years. I feel in love with public radio-style storytelling à la This American Life when I was in high school, then talked my way into an internship at NPR when I was 18. My senior thesis at Brown was an hour-long radio documentary that aired on several public radio stations in New England and that I premiered as a live performance in front of about 200 people.
That doesn’t mean it’s been a straight trajectory. I moved to Chicago in 2007 to work for Vocalo and then for WBEZ, and truly thought I’d be there forever, because it had always been my dream to work there, and because I loved Chicago, and Chicago was sort of a one-horse town when it came to opportunities in radio. But at a certain point I started to stagnate, and I wasn’t able to do the kind of work I wanted to do most, so I took a risk that not everyone understood, and left my stable job in journalism to go back to journalism school at Medill.
It seemed a little crazy at the time, even to me. But it was totally the right move. I got a full scholarship, and then a fellowship with Medill Watchdog, where I trained with Pulitzer Prize-winner Rick Tulsky on how to be an investigative reporter. That opened a lot of doors for me. After I graduated, I freelanced for a year, which included a stint at the interactive audio walking tour company Detour, before I was hired to be the deputy editor at the alt-weekly Chicago Reader. Then I won the WNYC competition just a few weeks after I started at the Reader. (It was kind of a heady time!)[/conr]
[conl]Hot Pod: What does a career mean to you at this point?[/conl]
[conr]Amer: The most important thing to me is the work, in whatever form it takes, and to keep making it. I think it’s really important to be adaptable and nimble, given both the incredible opportunities in media right now and the incredible instability in the media job market. It’s so boom and bust, feast and famine, that you have to figure out what really drives you, so that you can use that to guide you through various opportunities and challenges.
So for me, I’ve figured out that as a journalist and storyteller I’m incredibly inspired by place. Typically I come across some place that is strange or confusing or surprising or upsetting, and I want to figure out, in a very literal sense, what happened here? How did this place come to be the way it is? And what are the consequences of this place being the way it is for the people who live here?
But I’m very open to and excited by the idea of exploring these kinds of stories across a variety of media and in a variety of contexts. I look at someone like Alex Kotlowitz as a model here. He writes long-form magazine articles and books, produces radio stories, and is involved with making feature films like The Interrupters. But his work always has the unifying themes of poverty, race, and inequality (and often education and/or childhood), so regardless of the “container” it’s in, you can tell it’s his. I’m also newly inspired by Ira Glass right now, because he somehow manages to be deeply involved in the journalism coming out of TAL, Serial, S-Town, etc., while also managing and growing what is essentially a business empire.[/conr]
[conl]Hot Pod: When you started out, what did you think you wanted to do?[/conl]
[conr]Amer: In one sense, I thought I wanted to do more or less what I’m doing now: make long-form audio stories. When I was younger I was in love with old-school, sound-rich European features by people like Peter Leonard Braun and Kaye Mortley, people whose work I had been introduced to by the Third Coast International Audio Festival. But it took me a while to articulate the kind of subject matter I was drawn to, and to realize that what I was doing was journalism, and that the ethics and tools and practices of journalism were an important component of my work. Fifteen years ago I would have self-identified as a radio producer or a radio documentary maker. Now I tend to self-identify as an investigative reporter. More recently it’s been a shock to see myself as somewhat entrepreneurial. I didn’t see that part coming.[/conr]
- Radiotopia has kicked off its annual fundraiser. The campaign runs from October 23 to November 10, and its explicit goal is to increase its donor base to 20,000. (Campaign page)
- ESPN has cancelled Barstool Van Talk, which the company had adapted for its ESPN2 channel from Barstool’s Pardon My Take podcast. Apparently, they got what they thought they were getting, but realized it wasn’t something they actually wanted, I guess? (Variety)
- The Dinner Party Download has parted ways with American Public Media. The show was first launched as a podcast 10 years ago, and spent the last six being syndicated as a public radio weekend show. It will run its last broadcast on December 1. A sad development, but not to worry: details about the podcast future of hosts Brendan Francis Newnam and Rico Gagliano are “forthcoming.” Phew. (Announcement)
- With a $100,000 grant from the Knight Foundation, the Charlotte, N.C. public radio station WFAE has “announced a plan to better connect with its audiences and develop fresh content using NPR One.” The station has hired Joni Deutsch, previously at West Virginia Public Broadcasting, as the on-demand producer to implement these efforts. It’s possible this might end up being the model of how most public radio stations will interface with the NPR One platform being positioned as “the (potential) future of public radio,” but who knows with these things really. (Press release)
- Speaking of NPR One, the platform makes an appearance in this stellar article about news personalization by Adrienne LaFrance. (The Atlantic)
- The CBC’s true crime podcast, Someone Knows Something, returns for a third season on November 7. It has reportedly garnered 32 million downloads across its first two seasons, which is made up of 27 dispatches. (Press release) As an aside, a cry for help.
- The podcast adaptation of the L.A Times’ Dirty John helped drive 21,000 additional signups to the paper’s Essential California newsletter. (Digiday)
- LeVar Burton is now legally cleared to use his catchphrase from Reading Rainbow for his podcast with Midroll. You don’t have to take my word for it — you can find the background for this weird but entertaining story here.
can someone make something that isn’t a true crime podcast at some point please
i already hate people
— “Nick” 🎃 (@nwquah) October 23, 2017
[photocredit]Photo of Fenway Park by John Sonderman used under a Creative Commons license.[/photocredit]
Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 127, published July 11, 2017.
The IAB has announced the lineup for its third-annual podcast upfront, and it boasts some changes. Gimlet, Public Media Marketing, and iHeartRadio are added to the mix, while CBS and AdLarge appear to be sitting this one out. This year’s festivities will take place on September 7 at Time Inc.’s Henry R. Luce Auditorium in New York. As you might recall, I wasn’t much of a fan of last year’s proceedings. Details here.
Gimlet’s diversity report. The company revisited the issue in a recent AMA-style episode of StartUp — after its first dive into the topic back in December 2015 — and the big picture is more or less what you’d expect: still not great, but better than the last time. Poynter has a good summary of the segment, and I’d like to state here that it’s interesting how you can basically evaluate the company based on two public fronts: There are the numbers, and there’s the way Alex Blumberg, as CEO and narrator and one of the producers of the episode (presumably), talks about the numbers. For what it’s worth, I’m still mulling over what both things tell us about how the company thinks about diversity, and the extent to which we can productively regard them as adequate or insufficient. The reality is what it is — imperfect. But more importantly, do we trust the process?
Notably, Gimlet followed up the segment with a more productive move: They posted the hard numbers and statistics on the company website. It gives us specific insight into how the company thinks about diversity in policy and on paper at this point in time. And so we’re able to go a little deeper beyond “still not great, but improving”; indeed, Gimlet’s makeup is still fairly homogenous in that the staff remains heavily white, and though it does appear that the company’s breakdown skews more female, front-of-mic talent still skews white and male. (For a company in the content business, that front-of-mic representation really matters.) The numbers also let us see how they track the metric, and there’s room to take some issue here: personally, I’ve always found that broadly tying the classical demographics — male and female, different census categories of ethnicities, and so on — is incredibly limiting, given the shifting, intersectional, and multi-dimensional nature of power positions and many permutations of diversity that fall from it. For what it’s worth, the company acknowledges that in the segment (and further, when we spoke about it over the phone), and again, the question remains whether you, personally, trust the process.
In any case, credit should be given where due: Thanks to Gimlet, we now have a public baseline for the rest of the private podcast industry. The public posting of the report is good practice for an ecosystem frequently criticized for being overwhelming white and male, and I highly encourage other companies to conduct similar publicly-available reports on their own operations. I will, for what it’s worth, be poking around to check on whether other companies will be doing so.
What happened the last time. Nieman Lab ran this great piece by Gabe Bullard last week: “Here’s what happened the last time audio producers got better data,” which sought to tell the story of broadcast radio when it experienced its own step-up in metrics to say something about what’s going to happen to podcasts. There’s not much in here that hasn’t already been talked through in previous Hot Pod issues (show resizing, over-emphasis on metrics concerns, and so on), but it’s still cool to see the story from the other side.
That said, it’s worth pointing out two governing themes that loom large over these narratives about data. On the one hand, there’s a general feeling of anxiety over the change it brings; on the other hand, there’s a specific concern about opening the system up to being deleteriously gamed. I don’t think much of either theme. Change is a constant, as they say, and the podcast ecosystem in its current state is already well gamed on its own terms. We see this even in something like the widespread presence of the true crime genre and the cottage industry of podcasts about Serial, and in the many ways the Apple podcast charts have been worked. Further, the gaming of systems is a constant through human endeavor, one imagines. We already see that with Spotify and television ratings, though you can’t quite make the argument that it significantly compromises the business of music or television. The bigger story, I think, should be less about the changing systems and more about building structures of collective responsibility around those systems; less about how the system shifts, and more about what we should be doing in response.
SoundCloud is laying off 40 percent of its workforce, the company announced in a blog post last Thursday. The cuts are apparently a defensive move to maintain its independence in the face of an increasingly difficult online music market, as The New York Times notes. The company provided assurances that it will remain in business, but whether that’s really the case for the platform remains to be seen. In the meantime, it might be a prudent move for publishers using SoundCloud as their primary hosting platform — of which there are many, from small independents to the Loud Speakers Network — to consider contingencies.
Career Spotlight. There are freelancers, and then there are podcast showrunners. This week, I had the pleasure of running this Q&A with Gina Delvac, the L.A.-based producer who quarterbacks the popular Call Your Girlfriend podcast.
[conl]Hot Pod: Tell me about your current situation.[/conl]
[conr]Gina Delvac: I’m a podcast showrunner. Like the creative-meets-editorial-meets-business role that many TV show creators play, I work with brilliant hosts to make podcasts that best showcase their talents and interests.
The two shows I’m most focused on right now are:
- Call Your Girlfriend, the podcast Aminatou Sow, Ann Friedman, and I created in 2014. We explore the news and pop culture and our periods, and Amina and Ann have really intimate, smart, and fun weekly conversations along the way. A podcast for long-distance besties everywhere.
- And Pitch Makeover, a project hosted and conceived by Natalia Oberti Noguera and which launched in May. Styled like a fashion makeover, Natalia offers targeted and insightful feedback to startup founders about their 60-second business pitches. If you love tech but are feeling rightly sick about its culture of discrimination and harassment, you might find a little glimmer of hope between Natalia’s infectious energy and our slate of women and nonbinary founders.
In the day-to-day, that includes a little bit of everything for Call Your Girlfriend: high-level editorial, editing, and mixing, and a bunch of meetings and admin on the business side, too. For Pitch Makeover, I work closely with Natalia to record and edit each episode. (I’ve even co-hosted).[/conr]
[conl]HP: How did you get to this point? What does your career arc look like — where did you start, and how did you end up in this position?[/conl]
[conr]Delvac: It started with bankruptcy. Okay, not mine. I was working as a paralegal at a legal aid clinic in 2008, fresh out of college and watching the economy collapsing. What I was reading in The New York Times didn’t square with what my bankruptcy clients described on a daily basis: thousands of dollars of credit issued to people living on SSI. Utility shutoffs that jeopardized the housing of single moms. The transference of debt from one collector to the next to the next.
When This American Life did their Giant Pool of Money story, I remember I was wandering down Benjamin Franklin Parkway (yes, toward the Rocky steps), listening to this podcast that was finally, finally explaining what the hell was going on. And it did it in a way that connected Wall Streeters to young college grads like me to my clients who were living in poverty. Of course, this essential style of documentary but accessible reporting became Planet Money.
It took me a while to discover who these public radio producer people were and what they actually did, so when I moved home in Los Angeles in 2009, I started interning at KPCC, which I did for 18 months, something I was able to do thanks only to my mom letting me live in her basement (literally) in exchange for paying the gas bill.
Once I had some basic editorial chops and booking experience, I started down the freelance public radio path that so many producers have trodden. Picking up days when I could, taking the longest stints, trying to learn as much as possible and work on different types of shows, including Marketplace, where I really cut my teeth as a journalist and producer.
My first real podcasting job was working with tech investor Jason Calacanis on his long-running show This Week in Startups. There, I learned the startup beat, got to interact with a totally different kind of superfan, and saw the insane drive and energy that so many entrepreneurs have. During that time, Aminatou and Ann and I started talking more seriously about Call Your Girlfriend. Being around founders all the time definitely made it seem like a no-brainer to quit my day job and get way more serious about my passion project.
It would be easy to pretend here that Call Your Girlfriend was an instant success and money-maker. While we found an audience early on, we didn’t turn a profit for over a year and all worked multiple jobs throughout. We love making the show but no one counts on it like a fulltime job. (More on this in our Businesswoman Special episode).[/conr]
[conl]HP: How did you learn to do the job that you do today?[/conl]
[conr]Delvac: After benefiting from the wisdom of so many people at KPCC (notably my bosses Linda Othenin-Girard and Kristen Muller and my then-fellow-interns Lauren Osen and Arwen Nicks) I got a chance to start filling in at Marketplace.
What began as a two week “we’ll try you out, kid” fill-in run, turned into months of steady freelance work. Megan Larson (now at KPCC), Sitara Nieves, and Kai Ryssdal took insane chances on the weird skits I wrote and field production ideas I pitched while I was still so green. They also taught me how to edit with a reliable and steady ear on a fierce deadline.
Later, I got a chance to work on the beginnings of the Wealth and Poverty Desk, and then its first standalone podcast, The Uncertain Hour, hosted by Krissy Clark. As a listener, Krissy is one of my favorite reporters. Getting to explore how welfare gets (de)funded — and who gets those funds — was a major highlight of 2016.
Aminatou and Ann have taught me pretty much everything else I know: how to break the established rules; how being your specific you — IRL and on a podcast — can be a path to personal fulfillment and success; and how to have fun and hold yourself accountable to your ideals and goals at the same time. I truly cannot say enough about my work wives.[/conr]
[conl]HP: When you started out, what did you think wanted to do?[/conl]
[conr]Delvac: I didn’t — and still don’t — know what I want to be when I grow up.[/conr]
Peak Podcast, considered. “How will we know when we hit peak podcast?” tweeted the esteemed Lizzie O’Leary of APM’s Marketplace early last month. Now, I can’t remember what exactly I was doing when I saw the tweet — which is true for most tweets I peruse — but wherever I was, the question, and the concept, stuck with me. Perhaps my interest in the issue went way too far, and maybe I’ve ultimately misjudged the original intent of the question. But regardless, I’ve been mulling over this question for weeks now.
To be sure, the number of podcasts active in the market today is massive, and it continues to balloon every day. The prospect of saturation has crossed my mind more than a few times across this newsletter’s nearly three-year lifespan, as it seems to be with many others in the industry: listeners, observers, critics, producers. Insofar as I understand it, there’s a general anxiety that the ever-increasing abundance of podcast supply may well lead to some fundamental breakdown in the podcast industry’s form and future potential. The idea of “peak podcasts” tastes a little funny on the tongue, but the idea nonetheless holds great theoretical ramifications, and it’s worth attention.
With that in mind, I’m spending this week over-thinking the issue of “Peak Podcast” to death. My thinking is a little scattered, and I have some conclusions scattered about — to which I expect reasonable disagreement — but I believe the thought process is more important than the final assembly.
Grab your helmets. We’re going down a rabbit hole.
We have, thankfully, some numbers to work with. I doubt we’ll ever be able get a hyper-accurate read of the actual number of podcasts that exist — who really knows anything, truly? — but Apple stats are nevertheless a good place to start. A presentation from the PMDMC conference last week contains a solid overview of the numbers; here’s the deck, but these are the two important points:
- Approximately 400,000 podcasts are listed in the Apple Podcasts store, of which only 75 percent are actively publishing. For what it’s worth, that’s up from 250,000 in mid-2013, according to Macworld. (Note the interesting byline.)
- Only an estimated 1 percent of those shows have more than 50,000 downloads per episode, defined within a 30-day window.
Those two data points lets us cut the world in a few different ways. If you accept 50,000 downloads as the threshold for a competitive podcast, then you have a situation where only about 4,000 podcasts are worth accounting for. But if you choose to place more emphasis on the publishing side than the consumption side, then you’re seeing a world in which 300,000 podcasts are actively in the market competing with each other for a slowly but steadily growing pool of ears.
Those numbers seem huge, but are they harmfully huge? Comparisons with other media formats might be useful for perspective, though such comparisons need to be structurally appropriate. Further, there’s room to debate over how you’d structurally categorize podcasts. To what extent is it a deep-dive activity, similar to a movie, or an in-between activity, similar to music or magazines?
In any case, some numbers to consider: In 2016, there were an estimated 729 movies released in theaters, while there were an estimated 455 scripted shows aired on TV — just scripted, not including news, live sports, and some reality programming. If you trust numbers from Statista, you can consider that there were over 7,000 magazine titles in circulation in 2015, and if you want to really get way out there, there is a measure noting that there are over 1.2 billion websites currently in existence. Indeed, such comparisons are tricky, and it’s little hard to see what specific lesson can be drawn from the perspective here.
Nevertheless, we still have 300,000 — or 4,000, depending on how you want to cut it — podcasts competing for your patronage: while you’re in the subway, doing laundry, driving your car, preparing dinner, walking the dog. It’s also worth recognizing that the number refers to actively publishing podcasts; which is to say, we’re framing our analysis here around the medium’s “head,” looking at the potential of consumers taking in new episodes being published in a given week, or a moment in time. It behooves us to additionally reckon with the vastly abundant backlog of listening that make up long-tail of the medium as a whole.
Now, if you take all of those pieces of information, it does start feeling like a medium that’s bursting at the seams.
But to what extent is this a bad thing?
I reckon the answer differs depending on who’s asking. More competition might feel bad for some publishers — it’s harder to jockey into a listener’s rotation and for the attention of advertisers — but it’s generally good for audiences, medium fatigue aside. That said, it’s complicated for ad buyers, because on one hand, you have better potential for targeting specific audiences based on show specificities, but on the other hand, it’s more difficult to efficiently survey the landscape and make appropriate buying choices. It opens up possibilities for developers, who might pursue attempts to develop solutions for discovery or programmatic advertising, but be wary: Successes in those pursuits might yield overarching negative effects: a victorious discovery platform might end up consolidating too much power, and poorly regulated programmatic podcast advertising might compromise CPM rates.
(Alas, the world is complex, and hard.)
But in my mind, that’s all peaceful conduct; preoccupations and expressions of a functioning system at work. And at this point in time, I’m inclined to see a state of abundant supply — and ever-increasing competition — as something that’s good in the long run. What we should be watching for are specific conditions, or events, accompanying these supply increases that could lead to meaningful system-wide failures. Off the top of my head, here are two such possibilities:
- If the listening audience does not grow commensurate with the supply — or, specifically, if the growing supply does not effectively drive more audience growth for the system as a whole. (Recall the Edison Research numbers: 67 million monthly active listeners in 2016, up 40 percent over the last two years.)
- If investment into the supply growth drastically outpaces the growth in audiences. It’s hard to tell the spread at this point in time, but I think it’s still fair to think that a good deal of supply growth is probably made up of relatively low-cost operations, keeping the ratio within reasonable bounds.
A quick aside: I think it’s also worth noting that a state of overabundance is inherent to the technology. Overabundance is podcasting’s state of nature, as it were. The entire notion behind podcasting is based on the medium’s democratization audio publishing and distribution. Everybody can make a show, and that’s the point. (That’s a little different from the idea that “everybody can get an audience” — and even more different from the notion “everybody should get an audience” — which are things I’ve seen conflated from time to time.)
Which is all to say the following: I don’t think we’re currently in a situation where the increasing abundance of podcasts is fundamentally compromising the structural integrity of the space. (Yet. Check back in a year. Maybe a month.) But Peak Podcasting or not, the space will continue to get more and more packed, and that will yield its own noteworthy market effects. What will we see there?
A few thoughts on what happens:
- I think it’s just as likely that the more crowding that happens, the more granular reorganization we’ll see. Which is to say, we’ll start seeing real discernment and differences: less a conversation about “podcasts,” but conversations about “narrative podcasts” and “talk podcasts” and “dudes-around-mics-in-a-basement podcasts,” all of which contain their own individual concerns about maturing and saturating their respective audiences.
- The ongoing crowding will force changes in the usual way of doing things. The most prominent example would be in any reliances on Apple for marketing support. As the number of new podcasts continues to balloon, one imagines that particular channel will become even more difficult to explore.
- The minimum bar for quality and/or differentiation will continue to rise, which is probably good for audiences.
- Abundance generally makes it harder to stand out. A few things will likely fall from this: Branding become even more important, marketing costs will go up (therefore reducing the accessibility of the space to some extent), and established names will disproportionately benefit. We already see all of these dynamics, to some extent.
- Will people grow tired of podcasts? That’s a misleading question. Podcasts, like film and television and books, are merely vessels for stories: Should they grow tired, what’s actually driving the exhaustion would be a sameness in the kinds of stories being told, the types of people telling the stories, and the ways the stories and experiences are constructed.
All right, that’s enough of that.
- “With Echo, Amazon is emerging as a friend to publishers.” (Digiday)
- WNYC’s More Perfect finally returns this fall. (Twitter)
- A reader writes in to ask: who’s producing the Walmart podcast? No idea, but it’s hosted on Megaphone. That should give you a clue.
- Nieman Lab had two other great podcast stories over the past week: one on Podchaser, an “IMDb for podcasts” that sounds a lot like Podsearch, and one on 36 Questions, the new joint from the Limetown guys. I wrote about 36Qs as well for Vulture.
- Plugging myself a little bit: I was on Recode Media and the Bumpers podcast, talking about the Apple in-episode analytics, and on the Third Coast Pocket Festival as part of a broader panel.
[photocredit]Original photo of Nevado Ojos del Salado on the Argentina-Chile border by Mariano Mantel used under a Creative Commons license.[/photocredit]
Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 116, published April 18, 2017.
Midroll formalizes the Stitcher editorial brand. When I wrote up the return of First Day Back for last week’s newsletter, I was mostly thinking out loud when discussing its label as a Stitcher show and how that might’ve hinted towards the spinning out of the podcast app as its own editorial brand. It looks like I was a day early on that, as the company announced last Wednesday that it was indeed firming up the Stitcher branding, and that it was shuffling some Earwolf shows into its purview.
Stitcher will now carry The Longest Shortest Time and the Katie Couric Podcast, both of which were previously categorized as Earwolf shows. The new umbrella will also carry The Sporkful, whose departure from WNYC I covered two weeks ago, and Tell Me Something I Don’t Know, the Stephen Dubner-led game show previously housed in The New York Times’ audio unit.
The reason for all of this shuffling? In a word: #branding.
Speaking over the phone yesterday, Midroll CEO Erik Diehn explained that, while he ultimately thinks a network’s brand won’t mean very much to a broad audience, he does find that it carries significant weight with its core audience. As such, any programming move has to make sense within the context of that audience’s relationship with the brand. “Every once in a while, a content brand rises above the fray to stand for something more than the individual shows organized within it,” Diehn said, also pointing to Gimlet Media, Barstool Sports, and The Ringer as examples. “There is value there for a certain core audience.”
The company bumped up against this when it initially attempted to broaden the Earwolf network out from its core comedy and comedy-adjacent sensibility; Diehn told me that Stranglers, a true-crime documentary podcast that Midroll published under the Earwolf network, was perceived by some to be a parody in large part due to its association with Earwolf. (It is most certainly not that.) The decision to carve out Stitcher as a separate entity from Earwolf, then, is meant to create a separate audience architecture for the more newsy and serious shows that Midroll hopes to get more involved in.
For what it’s worth, I personally feel that a brand means as much to listeners, audiences, and consumers as it makes itself out to be — which is to say, I tend to believe its effectiveness — and, for that matter, the effectiveness of things like bylines and datelines — is chiefly derived from the amount of work put into making it mean something.
Anyway, when I asked about how Stitcher Premium was doing, Diehn noted that it was “doing quite well,” and that it was “hitting all of its forecasts for the year so far.” He declined to share specific numbers when asked.
Speaking of brands…
“Apple Podcasts.” Last week saw a quiet announcement from Apple’s iTunes teams that nonetheless sent ripples throughout the community: The company is rebranding “iTunes Podcasts” as “Apple Podcasts.” Aside from an updated set of marketing guidelines and visual assets for use by publishers — get those badges and switch up your tags, folks — the announcement was made with little accompanying information that could tell us anything substantial about how (or even whether) Apple is actually fundamentally rethinking its relationship with the growing podcast ecosystem — a possibility that was first hinted back in February’s Recode Media conference when Apple’s senior vice president of Internet software and services Eddy Cue vaguely noted that the company was “working on new features for podcasts.”
Which is to say, we know nothing new about whether the company plans to: revamp the podcast app’s underlying user experience (long criticized as being virtually unchanged since its introduction over a decade ago); provide any further analytics support; allow for external verification of metrics (as in the case of Apple News); increase the sophistication of podcast discovery and publisher promotion on the podcast app; provide additionals pathways for monetization within the Apple podcast ecosystem; or clarifying the editorial and symbolic significance of the podcast charts.
On the flipside, it does maintain a status quo that continues to leave unreconciled the larger question about how the space will continue to play out structurally — that is, it holds in place the tension between podcasts-as-blogs contingent and podcasts-as-future-of-radio contingent that seemingly came to a public head last summer. (Here’s the relevant Hot Pod column from that time.) A lot has changed since then; the industry has continued to grow, more hit shows have come to be, more platforms have begun to encroach on Apple’s majority share with experiments in windowing and exclusives, and so on.
There’s a legit story in here somewhere…but this isn’t quite it. Looks like we’ll have to keep being on the lookout.
“If a Serial episode was a mountain peak, then S-Town was the Himalayas.” On Friday, PRX chief technology officer Andrew Kuklewicz published a Medium post discussing the backend of hosting the hit podcast — which, as you probably know by now, opted to drop all of its seven episodes at once as opposed to a recurring drop structure. In case you didn’t know, This American Life hosts all of its podcasts on Dovetail, the CMS platform created by PRX (which also distributes the company’s shows to public radio stations).
I’ve briefly written about Dovetail before, but the platform has kept a relatively low profile compared to its more aggressive competitors, like Art19 and Panoply’s Megaphone, and I suppose you could read this post as the company flexing its muscles somewhat. “After S-Town, we are that much more confident in our technology, both in new ways of using it, and under extreme load,” Kuklewicz wrote. “Plus, the next time someone asks me what Dovetail can do, I have a new graph to show them.”
The post is chock-full of interesting stuff — including some fascinating insights into binge-download behavior — but I’d like to draw your attention to something: Long-time observers of the podcast industry are probably familiar with the conversation around dynamic ad insertion technology, how its proponents argue that it allows for greater advertising inventory and opportunity (by allowing ads to be dynamically switched out according to who is listening), and how the current generation of professionalizing podcast companies have generally integrated the technology by treating the ad slot as the unit that gets dynamically switched out.
According to Kuklewicz’s post, it appears that the S-Town team made a peculiar request: to treat the entire episode as the dynamic unit. This effectively maintains the baked-in nature of the ad-read while still allowing for the fundamental utility of each individual episode being able to serve different ads to different kinds of people. When I asked Kuklewicz about the logic behind this, he said: “They wanted to maximize the flow between show and spots, and allow for music under the end roll. So I understand it to be an aesthetic motivation, and considering the years of time put into the show, and the way the music is practically a character, I can see now why they wanted it just that way.”
Related. BuzzFeed has a chunky feature up on S-Town that should be interesting to fans on two major levels. First, it sheds some additional light on the narrative threads that the podcast ultimately leaves unresolved — which, as we learn from the piece, is purely by design. And second, it serves as a nice companion to host Brian Reed’s interview on Longform. Also, this from The Awl: “Call it Shit Town, because that is its name.”
Call Your LLC. I highly recommend digging into last week’s episode of Call Your Girlfriend, the well-loved conversational podcast by Ann Friedman and Aminatou Sow (produced by Gina Delvac), which features a pretty substantial look at how the team has built out an independent business around the show. No specific figures were disclosed — other than mention that ad slots cost at least four figures and a solid-sounding revenue range — but there’s a lot going on here. The episode touches on the uncertainties involved in working with a network, the general weirdness of the podcast industry, and figuring out a business model that best fits the values of a production. Check it out.
Missing Richard Simmons on TV? The Hollywood Reporter is apparently reporting that First Look Media, which led the production for the podcast, has “begun meeting with would-be buyers for a small screen narrative adaptation of the investigative show searching for the reclusive fitness guru.” Two things on this:
- It’s yet another data point in the emerging trend that sees the podcast category as another IP pool for TV and film to trawl in for potential adaptations. (Though, it should be noted that real life — or very recent history — remains the IP pool du jour.)
- Maybe I lack vision, but I can’t for the life of me see how the adaptation could possibly either (a) a good idea, given the myriad of ethical questions surrounding the podcast, or (b) effective or interesting in the same way, probably as a result of those ethical conundrums surrounding the podcast.
But then again, I am but a humble podcast bard, and not a wheelin’ dealin’ TV exec.
Tracking… Looks like CNN en Español recently rolled out a Spanish-language podcast slate, most of which are repackages of existing shows. There’s one original production in there, however: a culture show called Zona Pop. With this rollout, the company steps into a lane whose primary current occupant appears to be the Revolver Podcast network, which has built out a sizable Spanish-language podcast portfolio in addition to its work with music executive Jason Flom on the Wrongful Conviction podcast.
The Outline, daily. I suppose I should start looking for another way to describe the daily news podcast space in terms other than “heating up” — if only to avoid ledes defined by a cliche — but it does seem like the experimental genre is certainly growing more active by the week.
The latest of such experiments comes in the form of World Dispatch, a new daily morning podcast by the digital curiosity known as The Outline. John Lagomarsino, The Outline’s audio director, told me that show is meant to be the closest approximate representation of the publisher’s coverage in the audio format. Episodes are between 8 to 12 minutes, and segments will be a mix of stories that draw from material already on the site and stories produced specifically for the podcast. (“We’ll also be leaning on freelancers a fair amount for more reported-out, strictly audio stories — get at me!” he adds.)
I’m told that the show is the result of some internal experiments with social audio that didn’t go very far. (“Turns out audio still is not particularly shareable,” Lagomarsino quipped.) Those experiments eventually shifted to the social audio app Anchor when it re-launched back in March, and the team ultimately decided to move those efforts over to a daily podcast feed as a natural next step. The resulting podcast is an intriguing artifact: strange, compelling, but ultimately a little confusing — which, given the show’s explicitly conscious sense of style, is probably the point.
Lagomarsino notes that the podcast isn’t exactly meant to be newsy. “The podcast is for curious humans who are not looking for a news rundown that barely goes past headlines,” he said. “These are angled stories, often *about* news, but this is not for the listener who wants the ‘what I need to know today’ thing.” Hmm.
World Dispatch debuted yesterday, with new eps dropping Mondays to Thursdays.
Explainer ambition. In times of confusion, go back to the basics. That was, more or less, the thinking behind Civics 101, the explainer podcast by New Hampshire Public Radio that covers the fundamental institutions, mechanisms, and even concepts that make up the United States. That approach has proven to be pretty successful: Since launching on Inauguration Day, Civics 101 has clocked in about 1.88 million listens, with episodes averaging about 75,000 listens per month. (To be clear: that’s per episode per month, suggesting strong back catalog activity.)
The way Civics 101’s editorial director Maureen McMurray tells it, the podcast was the product of a completely organic process. The show came out of an ideas meeting for the station’s daily show, Word of Mouth, shortly after the elections. “Our producer, Logan Shannon, expressed frustration over the endless ‘hot take’ election coverage and said something along the lines of, ‘I don’t want any more analysis. I just want to go six steps back to find out how things work,'” McMurray said. What started out as a segment idea soon broadened out into an accompanying podcast experiment pegged to the first 100 days of the Trump administration. It was all pretty scrappy. “There were some clever titles thrown about, but I insisted on calling it Civics 101,” she said. “Logan made the logo, and we sent a trailer and pilot episode to iTunes.”
“In retrospect, I guess we just did it. There wasn’t a big meeting with executives or anything,” McMurray added.
As the weeks rolled on, the show steadily grew into its own. It consistently dived headfirst into wonky subjects (emoluments, the Office of Scheduling and Advance, gerrymandering) while remaining fundamentally accessible, and the podcast eventually adopted an appealing topical edge (calling your congressperson, impeachment, the nuclear codes) that nonetheless retains a broad, evergreen perspective. Almost three months in, Civics 101 has grown in depth and complexity. And, as I found in a recent email correspondence with McMurray, it has certainly grown in ambition. Here’s our chat:
[conl]Hot Pod: How has the show evolved over the past four months?[/conl]
[conr]McMurray: Our editorial vision has shifted a lot, and continues to evolve. Civics 101 was intended to be a short-run series. We planned to drop one episode per week for the first 100 days of the Trump administration. In part, we thought “How many governmental agencies and cabinet positions do people really want to know about?”, but I was also concerned about resources. Our production team is responsible for producing a daily magazine program, Outside/In, the 10-Minute Writer’s Workshop podcast, and a series of live events, among other things.
After iTunes featured Civics 101 in its New and Noteworthy section, everything went to hell in a good way. Our audience numbers shot up and we started to receive unsolicited listener questions. We captured the moment, and began releasing two episodes per week, created a Civics 101 website where listeners could submit questions via Hearken, and started a Civics 101 hotline with Google. A lot of the questions coming in stemmed from current events. For example, when Steve Bannon was appointed to the National Security Council’s principals committee, there was an uptick in National Security Council-related questions. So, Civics 101 became newsier than I anticipated, but editorially, I wrestle with it. It’s easy to be seduced by the latest scandal, and to bump those questions to the top of the list, but I want Civics 101 to be a meaningful resource for future listeners. What’s timely today may sound dated in six months, and it will certainly sound dated by 2020. For the time being, we’re trying to balance the timely issues with the evergreen questions.
Oh, and a shout out to our producer, Logan Shannon, who created the Civics 101 weekly newsletter, Extra Credit. We’ve seen a lot of audience engagement around it, and it has quizzes and gifs.[/conr]
[conl]Hot Pod: Does NHPR have any future plans for Civics 101 — and for its podcast operations more generally?[/conl]
[conr]McMurray: Civics 101 will continue answering listener questions on a biweekly basis. New questions come in everyday, so there’s no shortage of content. Of course, we want to grow and monetize our podcast audience, and that’s where a distributor will come in handy. We’re planning to repackage the podcast content for different platforms. Specifically, we’d like to become a multimedia resource for educators, and hope to create and distribute supplemental materials to teachers and students. That includes anything from videos to lesson plans.
My real dream, though, is to farm Civics 101 out to other stations/production units in time for midterm elections. We cover the national stuff well, but member stations are in a unique position to tackle state and local politics. And, as our yet-to-be-created production guide will show, Civics 101 is a scalable, turnkey format, and a fairly easy lift for smaller teams. In 2018, I’d love to see Civics 101: Louisiana, Civics 101: Albany, Civics 101: Michigan. Heck, you could do Civics 101: Canada, Civics 101: Australia, Civics 101: Brazil. Of course, resources are the elephant in the room. We’re currently working out ways to resource this thing. So check back in with me.
As far as podcast operations go, Civics 101 and Outside/In have been great proofs of concept for NHPR, but weren’t part of a formal, top down strategy. Our first major podcast, Outside/In, was intended to be a weekly, one-hour broadcast. When the show was in development, we found ourselves gravitating to longer stories that involved original reporting, narrative arc, sound design, and (for lack of a better adjective) a “podcasty” tone. Long story short, we put those early experiments into a podcast feed and came to realize those 15-30 minute prototypes were what distinguished Outside/In from other environmental shows and, given the size of our team, producing an hour-long program with those elements would be impossible. At the same time, the Outside/In podcast was developing an audience. So, the question became: is the podcast the show? In a way, our failure to deliver a sustainable, one-hour broadcast model coupled with the success of Outside/In and Civics 101 forced NHPR to consider the value and potential of podcasts. It’s been a learning curve for everyone, from producers to the underwriting department to membership, but we’re starting to develop an infrastructure that supports and leverages podcast creation.
One more really important detail: in order to double down on Civics 101, we had to make an editorial decision to ease up on something. So, we’ve been strategically replaying interviews and stories on our daily magazine program, Fresh Air-Friday style. There are some upcoming changes that will ease our production load, but for the time being, it’s a quick fix.[/conr]
- Reminder: Edison Research’s Podcast Consumer 2017 report comes out later today. (Edison)
- The Webby Awards has a pretty broad and interesting set of podcast and digital audio nominations this year. Check it out. (Website)
- Audible has apparently taken over the billboards at the Rockefeller Center subway stop in New York to promote its original show, Sincerely X, which debuted back in February. (Pictures) Speaking of Audible, it looks like the company has been building another content strategy: creating original programming out of existing IP. (Rolling Stone).
Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 104, published January 24, 2017.
Panoply signs two more partners for its Megaphone platform: WBUR and BuzzFeed Audio. The company also announced a platform feature called Megalink, which purports to “simplify the podcast subscription process.” The feature doesn’t seem to be anything particularly fancy; from the looks of it, a “Megalink” is a fancy link that simply routes the user to the primary podcast app on that device (that is, the Podcasts app for iPhones, Google Play Music for Android). This isn’t to downplay its potential usefulness, of course — anything that streamlines the flow from discovery to actual listening is a plus.
Panoply gave the story to RAIN News, so you can read more details there, but here are three things I’m thinking about:
1. That Panoply locked down WBUR as a partner is a pretty big deal. The Boston public radio station is one of the stronger publishers in the podcasting space — in December, the station enjoyed 1.2 million monthly listeners across 13 shows, according to Podtrac — and it’s also a fairly dynamic operation that’s prone to cultivating smart partnerships (see: Modern Love, which it produces with The New York Times) and interesting experiments. The partnership isn’t exactly a surprise, however, as the two organizations have some history. WBUR once partnered with Slate, Panoply’s sister company, on a personal health podcast called The Checkup, and interestingly enough, Panoply chief content officer Andy Bowers started out his radio career as a reporter for the station. (Radioland — it’s a small world.)
2. BuzzFeed Audio moving its podcasts to Megaphone should be quite a blow for Acast. The Swedish company had been hosting BuzzFeed’s podcasts since late 2015, and the partnership was widely utilized by the company as a hook for its brand development. (A buzzy partner on a slide deck goes a long way when you’re targeting bigger media organizations, after all.) This news comes shortly after the company’s former chief revenue officer, Sarah van Mosel, announced her departure to advertising sales firm Market Enginuity after only a year at the job. It also comes after what appears to be a steady trickle of notable podcasts moving away from Acast’s platform to competitors, including Call Your Girlfriend (now repped by Midroll and hosted on Art19), Switched On Pop (now with Panoply), and Who? Weekly (now with Headgum, also hosted on Spreaker). Acast’s future, and whether it will stick to its strategy of targeting big-name partners, remains to be seen. In any case, the company seems to be doubling down on the U.S. despite its losses, recently opening an office in Los Angeles. When contacted, a spokesperson simply noted that the company wishes BuzzFeed the best of luck, and that updates on its 2017 strategy are forthcoming. We’ll see how it goes.
3. Regardless of what happens with Acast, it seems like the competition between Panoply’s Megaphone and Art19 is the primary land-grab to watch, with both platforms racking up strong client lists thus far. Megaphone still sports Gimlet as a hosting client, and Panoply has largely followed through on its focus to sign, collaborate with, and represent audio programming produced by media companies (like Vox, Politico, and The Wall Street Journal) and authors (like Malcolm Gladwell and Gretchen Rubin). Art19, on the other hand, seems to have built a client list based on a strong coalition of podcast companies — including Midroll Media, Feral Audio, DGital Media, and Wondery — along with big, individual publishers like The New York Times. Which makes sense; podcast networks would likely be wary of establishing a hosting partnership with Panoply, which theoretically competes with them in the advertising marketplace. How Panoply negotiates that awkwardness, and how Art19 capitalizes on it, will be the narrative to watch over time.
The Trump administration is considering privatizing the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), according to a report in The Hill. The writeup also notes plans to eliminate other federal sources of support for the broader public media ecosystem. Really can’t say I’m surprised to hear about this — indeed, in the very first Hot Pod published after November’s elections, I felt it necessary to state that all eyes should be on the CPB, the vessel of federal funding whose operations are essential to the health of the public media system.
There’s already a string of solid writeups that dig into the matter — in particular, check out Current, The Huffington Post, and Media Matters. I highly recommend reading all three pieces in full, especially Media Matters’, which contains CPB’s full statement on the matter. Two things, though:
1. All three writeups make reference to the historical on-again, off-again tensions between Republican administrations and the public media system’s perceived relationship with liberal ideological bias. Which is useful context, but it also evokes some optimistic suggestion that, despite these conflicts, the public media system has survived to this day, in effect drawing upon the past to inform what might happen in the future. I hold no such optimism. If this election has illustrated anything, it’s that we’re dealing with a dramatically anomalous state of affairs cultivated by an administration that’s unprecedented on numerous levels. It’s also an administration that deeply centralizes the media as a tool of power.
2. It goes without saying that the stakes for public media are incredibly high. A 2012 report commissioned by the CPB from consulting firm Booz & Company — cited by both Current and Media Matters — is pretty straightforward about the consequences: “This report concludes that there is no substitute for federal support of public broadcasting, and that the loss of federal support would mean the end of public broadcasting.” Unsurprisingly, smaller stations and stations located in more rural areas will be the hardest hit. As the CPB notes in its statement:
The federal investment in public media is vital seed money — especially for stations located in rural America, and those serving underserved populations where the appropriation counts for 40-50% of their budget. The loss of this seed money would have a devastating effect. These stations would have to raise approximately 200 percent more in private donations to replace the federal investment.
Which is to say, while bigger stations like WNYC and WBUR might well be able to make up the gap and survive, a good swath of the smaller stations across the country — whose well-being have long been under assault between the economic conditions of their respective locations and some amount of digital disruption — will likely be blown out. The consequence of that would the further debilitation of local, civically-minded news and information infrastructures in places that really need them. Much has already been written about the decline of local newspapers, and one can only imagine that this development, with its focus on the broadcast radio end of the local media spectrum that had been relatively insulated, will further accelerate that decline — and deal yet another harsh blow to the health of civic society.
Hearken-powered local podcasts. However the problems of local media will be dealt with at a system-wide level, I nonetheless strongly suspect that the building of tools that encourage a strong sense of community will be a big part of the solution.
That’s why I pay close attention to Hearken, the audience engagement platform that works with newsrooms to develop stronger feedback loops with their readers and listeners, which has been responsible for a growing species of really interesting locally-focused podcasts. The company currently collaborates with over 50 public media newsrooms, and a good portion of those collaborations have resulted in various localizations of WBEZ’s Curious City podcast, which are shows designed to answer questions from listeners about the place or community that they live in. Curious City was originally developed by Hearken CEO Jennifer Brandel during her time as a contract worker at the station, and the growing list of Hearken-powered adaptations now include, among others: FDD’s Curious Carolina, WPLN’s Curious Nashville, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Curious Canberra, and KQED’s Bay Curious — which, by the way, recently bought ads in the city’s metro system to advertise the podcast. (Here’s the full list of “Hearken-powered podcasts.”)
“We do have some public media partners who just release their broadcast episodes as a ‘podcast,'” Brandel tells me. “But we’ve seen more and more are thinking podcast-first for the audio content, or at least making their podcasts different (and I’d say better) from what they broadcast (the clock is a cruel turkey).”
Some of Hearken’s partners are beginning to see encouraging returns. Brandel tells me that a few partners have told them how Hearken-powered stories are already being cited during membership drives as why people give for the first time, or why they increased their donation level. KQED reports that Bay Curious is seeing listenership grow every week, along with a healthy stream of positive feedback.
“People are hungry for a sense of place,” Brandel notes. “The Chipotlization of every town in America (globally?) makes the local, idiosyncratic amazing wonders of every town and city more and more endangered (or at least way less obvious), and answering questions that unearth the fascinating context for how a place came to be, how it changed, and is changing is a great way to get people feeling more local pride, engagement, and will hopefully lead them to action (whether that’s donating to their member station or getting involved civically).”
She adds: “One of the most exciting parts of our model is when the public gets to accompany reporters on the reporting. That shit is hard to do nationally. Locally, it works wonderfully. The public loves getting to meet and have an adventure with their pub media heartthrob. Hello lifelong loyalty.”
Lifelong loyalty, indeed. You can learn more about Hearken on their website.
Relevant: Melody Joy Kramer’s latest — “What does a news organization optimized for trust look like?”
Jezebel now has a podcast, the delightfully named Big Time Dicks, which spins out from the site’s Big Time Small-Time Dicks column that keeps a critical eye on politics and policy at the local and federal level. What’s interesting: note the mention of the “Fusion Audio Network” in the iTunes listing — recall that the Gizmodo Media Group is now part of Fusion in its post-Gawker existence — as well as the namedrop of Mandana Mofidi in the announcement post, who serves as the executive producer of audio for the operation.
Designing positions for audio producers (for first-timers and instigators). One of the biggest things that animates my optimism in the podcast industry is its potential to open up more substantial work opportunities for audio producers, particularly as more existing media companies and entrepreneurial types get drawn into building whole new ventures and teams around audio programming. That’s the supposed beauty of the Internet’s democratizing force: Where audio programming was previously monopolized by a few who have power over the limited means of distribution — in audio’s case, radio companies and finite broadcast airwaves — greater numbers of new businesses can now be built on top of the infinite horizon of the Internet. And the more businesses that are built, the more producers can get employed. Seems pretty straightforward.
Of course, things are never that simple. The quality of the new jobs being created is always a question, and a big part of that has to do with how these new ventures — some of which will come with significant background in radio, some of which come in fresh — understand the role of audio producers and, perhaps more importantly, the work that goes into creating valuable audio products. A breakdown in this key juncture has the potential to trigger a downward spiral; a misunderstanding of a role leads to misunderstood hires leads to poor products leads to failed efforts leads to an entrenched misunderstanding of the original opportunity, after which everybody leaves the arrangement unhappy.
All of that was in the back of my mind when I spotted veteran audio editor Julia Barton’s reaction to a recent Washington Post job posting for an audio producer a few weeks ago. “Biting my tongue,” she wrote on Facebook, in response to the job description. Barton has been quite vocal in the past about how the work of audio producers are often underestimated. Most recently, she wrote an article for Current where she argued that the widespread use of generic stock mic photos in writeups about audio work reflects and abets a harmful oversimplification of the job. The premise of Barton’s argument might be somewhat mischievous, but the underlying impulse that energizes the piece — that cultural representation has material consequences — is nonetheless important.
Curious, I reached out to Barton to talk more about the thinking behind her reaction.
[conl]Quah: What, exactly, was it about the job posting that you were responding to?[/conl]
[conr]Barton: This is not to drag The Washington Post — I’m thrilled that they’re looking to hire so much talent and expand. I came across this particular audio-producer listing because a WP staffer posted on Twitter about video hiring, and I was curious if they were hiring in audio as well.
I haven’t talked with the Post, and I’d urge you to do that because I’m probably overreacting. But if I were a potential candidate, someone with the “experience crafting rich audio storytelling and great interviews” that they want, I would be wary of some red flags. A big one is in the first line of the job description: “Work with hosts and reporters to script, record and edit a variety of Washington Post podcasts.”
That tells me (again, I hope I’m wrong!) this is a shop that views podcast production as a one-man-band effort. It carries the assumption that podcasts are easily knocked off, one after another, with a little prep, a recording session, and a couple of hours in front of an audio-editing suite. And that’s just not how it works if your goal is “rich audio storytelling.” People seem to get that it takes a village to run a newsroom or to make a broadcast or produce a studio album, but the fantasy persists that audio storytelling is simple and cheap. That’s just not true.[/conr]
[conl]Nicholas Quah: Could you broadly walk me through the job of the producer?[/conl]
[conr]Julia Barton: It really depends on the project. If you’re a daily broadcast newsmagazine like All Things Considered or PRI’s The World, and you have to fill a fixed clock? Then you need dozens of people: reporters, planning editors, story editors, show directors, engineers, and segment producers, in addition to the managers and digital teams.
Unfortunately, public radio developed its own nomenclature, one that’s different from film or TV or even European radio terms. In the world I come from, a producer is someone who works with tape, whether recorded in the studio or in the field. They “edit” tape, but they are not editors (I’ll get to that in a minute). They may run recording sessions, but they are not engineers or technical directors. They don’t assign stories or work with freelancers. But in podcasting, especially among folks without a radio background, the term “producer” has inflated to cover all those roles in some shops.
Here’s the essential problem, though: Audio production is very time-consuming. I don’t mean because we are divas at a makeup table — I mean it literally consumes time. When you have a chunk of raw tape from the field, you really should listen to it all or you’ll miss some half-second of magic. When you edit down a section of an interview, you have to listen to that section to hear if it works. When you edit out a breath, you have to listen to make sure that person doesn’t sound like they’re trapped in an airless vacuum. When you add musical scoring, you have to listen to how that affects a section, and then keep adjusting. When you finish an episode, you have to listen to the whole thing for errors, and before you know it, you’ve started tearing it all up again. And to make matters worse, this level of over-exposure means your brain can’t hear the actual content in a fresh way. You have no idea if it even makes sense after a while because you are so busy moving Lego-chunks of audio around. Afterward you are dead, and you’re not really up for planning the next episode.
That’s why it’s really important that audio producers have someone outside of this vortex to help them plan, to strategize and talk about the story so they don’t go down wrong paths that waste so much time. This is the story editor, and this cannot be the same person as the producer for the reasons I just explained above. The editor is a bridge between the producer and the listener, and the overall editorial goals of a show, production house, or newsroom. This is someone who can hear problems and give precise, actionable feedback that saves time (and lives, I like to think).
Finally, when you get to issues of audio quality, levels, gear, studio management, and sound design, you need a dedicated engineer. All these people make so much difference for producer sanity and the listener’s experience, but we almost never hear their voices.[/conr]
[conl]Quah: Any final notes for media organizations building out audio teams for the first time?[/conl]
[conr]Barton: That audio production is complicated and time-consuming, but you will be rewarded by listeners for giving it the resources it needs. Anyone building a new team needs to sit in on the weekly production cycle of a show they admire. Every person involved in that production is there for an important reason. They’re actually the reason you love that show, so figure out what they do and how you can get people like them. By the way, they don’t all have to work in the same room. Some of the best productions teams I’ve been on have been scattered around the country or world.[/conr]
I reached out to the Post in a bid to discuss the position, and perhaps to understand the team that they are planning to build. I wasn’t given a response on the record.
Anyway, I’d like to emphasize, at this point, that this story is purely about on Barton’s thinking and the larger issue of effectively translating the complexity of these jobs. This isn’t — and shouldn’t be — a story about The Washington Post’s audio team or the appropriateness of how they’re hiring for the position, as all of that very much remains to be seen. That said, it’s worth contextualizing Barton’s arguments and the Post’s situation within a dynamic that we’ve seen in other parts of the media industry — namely, that there will always exist a fine line between working to create new workflows within constraints and appropriate work-to-compensation ratios, and within this, there will always be a tension between efforts to create new pathways from the bottom up and negotiating the sanctity of traditional workflows.
In related news, the Post just released its latest podcast: the Trump-focused Can He Do That?
- 60dB is now available as a skill for the Amazon Echo. Expect more audio programming companies to follow suit, because talking refrigerators. (Company Blog)
- This morning, DGital Media announced yet another partner: The Players’ Tribune, which is that media platform for professional athletes.
- American Public Media has hired Nathan Tobey as its new director of on-demand and national cultural programming. Tobey most previously worked on podcast projects for WGBH, and was a co-creator of Strangler, which was a collaboration between Midroll Media and Northern Light Productions.
- You might have heard that Pod Save America, Crooked Media’s first podcast offering, scored President Obama’s last interview in office. But here’s an interesting tidbit about the venture started by the former Obama staffers: Pod Save America hit over a million listens in its first week-plus of operation, before the Obama interview went live. (Twitter)
- On a related note, I wrote about the future of political podcasts in the Trump era and how the genre might be ripe for activism. (Vulture)
- For what it’s worth, I listened to WNYC, MPR News, and The Economist’s Indivisible last night off Facebook. Gotta say: The experience wasn’t bad. (Twitter)
- Audible’s collaboration with TED, “Sincerely, X,” will come out on February 1. I wrote about the project back in September. As always, you can check out a running list of upcoming releases on this page.
This shortened version of Hot Pod has been adapted for Nieman Lab, where it appears each Tuesday. You can subscribe to the full newsletter here. You can also support Hot Pod by becoming a member, which gets you more news, deeper analysis, and exclusive interviews; more information on the website.
Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue ninety-nine, published December 6, 2016.
Midroll’s new executive hires:
- Korri Kolesa is the new head of sales, replacing Lex Friedman as he settles into his new chief revenue officer role.
- Eric Spiegelman is the new VP of business affairs, taking now-CEO Erik Diehn’s place. I’m told more information on this hire will be released soon.
- Peter Clowney is the new executive editor. He was previously the head editor at Gimlet Media.
Of particular interest is Kolesa, who is taking over what is probably Midroll’s biggest revenue engine, its ad sales business. A digital media veteran with ample experience heading up sales teams for digital products not yet quite understood by the advertisers — she led the strategy for sites in the Fox Interactive Media portfolio like MySpace and IGN in the late 2000s, if that means anything to you — Midroll is bringing Kolesa in to transition its sales operations out of its often patchwork startup configurations toward structures more capable of scaling. She was most recently a project director at Spark No. 9, a consultancy aimed at launching new businesses.
“Our team already knows how to sell, so the focus now is going to be, ‘What can we optimize?'” said Lex Friedman, who has headed sales at the company since 2013. Friedman was recently promoted to chief revenue officer, following former CEO Adam Sachs’ departure over the summer. Friedman will still be involved on the sales side, but his role will see him spending more time figuring out the next steps for the company’s emerging live events strategy and getting ready for a “significant announcement” regarding its premium subscription business, Howl. That’ll come “pretty soon.” Kolesa started work yesterday.
The road ahead for the Quick and Dirty Tips network. The decade-old, 12-podcast-strong network recently surpassed its 250 million lifetime download, and it’s getting ready for a busy, but focused, 2017. Network head Kathy Doyle told me over email:
We’re focused on continuing to build QDT’s audience and increase distribution for our core shows. We’re always open to testing new talent but, for now, we want to ensure we’re able to tap into the surge we’re all seeing in podcast consumption and make sure we’re reaching new listeners as we work to continue our great growth.
Also on the plate: the launch of a sister network. For those unfamiliar, QDT is a joint venture between Macmillan Publishing and Mignon Fogarty, whose Grammar Girl podcast anchors the network (you can find more details in a recent profile by Simon Owens), and Doyle informs me that the publishing house is getting ready to launch the Macmillan Podcast Network, its own slate of author-centric shows. She writes:
We’re taking our expertise and leveraging relationships with in-house Macmillan authors who are logical fits for the medium. These new shows will come in a variety of formats to help deepen relationships with readers and expand an author’s platform.
This new Macmillan network appears to be the logical conclusion of a long-running trend that sees authors adopting podcasts as a channel to deepen and sustain their relationship with audiences — and build out alternative revenue stream to book sales. (See: Maximum Fun’s podcast with Elizabeth Gilbert, Panoply’s Happier with Gretchen Rubin podcast, and so on.) I’d be interested to see if other book publishers will follow suit, though, given that none of them possess an arrangement quite like that between Macmillan and QDT, I kinda doubt it.
Anyway, the nascent Macmillan Podcast Network is kicking things off by releasing a preview of an upcoming author show: Raise My Roof with Cara Brookins, which is meant to accompany Brookins’ memoir that’s scheduled for a January release.
Some non-American NPR One listeners will be able to donate directly to NPR through the app, starting next year. This marks the first time the public radio mothership is establishing a contribution pipeline directly with listeners, according to Current.
If you’re asking, what about Americans? Well, join the club. When I popped the question over to the network, a spokesperson replied: “We are actively working to improve the local-station pledge experience within the app over the coming months… In 2017, we will expand on this by working with a pilot group of stations to explore a more direct connection between their listeners and their payment gateway.”
That likely means direct donations from American listeners to NPR will remain off the table. If that bums you out, considering purchasing 50 Nina Totin’ Bags off the NPR merch site. The effect is probably equivalent, plus some percentage sales tax.
The Financial Times rolls out the latest in its growing line of podcasts last week: Everything Else, a culture magazine show. This marks the fifth podcast that the paper has launched in 2016. (Which, y’know, seems kind of aggressive.)
When I asked how the paper evaluates its podcast strategy, a spokesperson replied:
We measure the success of our podcasts in a number of ways. Subscriber numbers are important, of course, but we also gather data on engagement — whether readers favorite or share our podcasts, whether readers write in and interact with our hosts. Shows like FT Management’s Business Book Review and Alphachat have particularly enthusiastic listener responses.
High engagement is great, but of course, the larger question is whether the organization will be able to translate that into a proportional revenue outcome that would justify the investment. Anyway, when I requested some stats on the publication’s podcast audience, I was told there were over 3.5 million downloads of FT podcasts in the last 30 days. Cut that up however you will.
Just a side note: the only FT podcast that I consume with any regularity is Alphachat. That show goes deep, really embracing its casual wonkiness — a direct extension of its parent blog, Alphaville, which just celebrated its 10-year anniversary — and that’s generally a winning formula for the specific value proposition that the medium brings to a publication like The Financial Times.
The Outline went live yesterday, with a new podcast in its lineup: Sound Show. The publication also has two other shows: Tomorrow, which basically functions as founder Joshua Topolsky’s personal stump, and Out West, a fan theory pod for HBO’s Westworld, which wrapped its first season this past weekend. And for those keeping tabs: the pods are hosted on Megaphone.
Outline audio director John Lagomarsino tells me that he’s totally taking freelance pitches for Sound Show. “We’re not limiting it to just in-house writers, by any means. Multi-story episodes with a mix of writers/producers is totally the vibe we’re gonna arrive at,” he says. Hit it up, buds.
The Interactive Advertising Bureau releases a revised Digital Audio Buyer’s Guide. For those unfamiliar, the IAB is a trade association that functions as a kind of mediating body between various elements of the digital media ecosystem and the advertising community. The IAB has played a somewhat active role in attempting to attract more advertisers to the podcast industry, in part by trying to get podcast companies to cooperate over a standard ad metric (last I heard, with mixed results), in part by setting the narrative for advertisers. The buyer’s guide comes out from the latter, and this particular version was prepared by Jennifer Lane, the association’s newly appointed Industry Initiatives Lead for Audio. Lane previously worked at the digital audio trade news site RAIN News.
Obviously, check out the guide in full if you work on the advertising side of things, but this is what I’m primarily thinking about:
One has to wonder about the narrative/branding effects of lumping podcasts together with the rest of digital audio, placing the format — and its very specific quirks (as well as potential) — within the same buying conversation as streaming services like Pandora, Spotify, and iHeartMedia. Those latter companies currently function at a much greater scale than podcasts, and the value propositions for the two groups, both in terms of advertising formats and content, are drastically different. That being said, there is some transaction to be made in that consolidation of types, I think; podcasting is able to get some spillover attention from those digital audio platforms whose narratives are already established, while those platforms benefit somewhat from the shiny novelty of podcasting’s (re)surging profile. (It is, after all, something new to talk about, no?) The question is whether or not that transaction is equitable, and that’s up to you to decide. My personal, initial impression is that it isn’t, and that the podcast industry suffers more from experiencing a high likelihood of being subjected to inappropriate one-to-one audience comparisons.
In any case, I’ve previously written about my suspicion that we’re bound for a convergence in platforms and types either way — that at some point, the term “podcasting” will have no functional purpose as the content being developed in the industry becomes more agnostic in how it’s distributed. (We’ve begun to see some of that. Two examples: iHeartMedia’s peculiar creep into the podcast space; Audible’s repackaging of one of its original programs for distribution outside its Channels ecosystem.) I stand by the conclusion I made back when I first wrote about that potential convergence: that the podcast space, as well as the digital audio space more broadly, will begin to be more defined by its content type than by its distribution structure.
Related: iHeartRadio is apparently producing a podcast with Arianna Huffington’s new media venture, Thrive Global. Hm.
A mess of options. The number of potential distribution points for on-demand audio is kinda getting out of hand. Consider the following question in the last month of 2016: if you’re a podcast publisher, which distribution platform should you be keeping a close eye on and investing tangible resources toward?
You have, of course, the de facto stronghold that everybody already knows about and has probably dedicated much of their distribution strategy to wooing: the native iOS Podcast app and its underlying iTunes infrastructure, whose share of ear is roughly upwards of 50 percent. But you also have the wide, wide range of independent third-party podcast apps, from Overcast to Castro, all of which command some small percentage of the overall podcast listenership. And then you have Stitcher, previously one of the biggest of those third-party apps, which was acquired earlier this year by Midroll Media and is therefore likely to see some resurgence in capital and activity.
Now, let’s not forget the slew of new, buzzy contenders, like RadioPublic and 60dB (not to mention the public radio–specific NPR One, which is less new but remains nonetheless part of this category), all jonesing to do some exciting with the consumer-side experience. And then you have the larger music streaming platforms, like Google Play Music and Spotify, which over the past year have added podcasts into their inventory… to so-far little revolutionary effect, it appears. (Which reminds me: best not leave out Pandora’s lone dalliance into the space with This American Life and Serial.)
And then we have the more unconventional routes to market — things like Otto Radio, with its car-specific integrations and recently announced partnership with Uber, and the Amazon Alexa platform, which is pulling in a steady stream of short content publishers. And what about the spread of older audio streaming platforms in the space, like iHeartMedia and TuneIn, which are agitating their way into podcasts, whatever that means for those companies that come from drastically different structural interpretations of digital audio? Oh, and what about the connected car dashboard? (What ABOUT the dashboard?)
It’s a mercilessly long list, and from the whispers I’ve been hearing, it’s only going to get a whole lot longer as we move into the new year. Which is theoretically interesting; while I don’t completely buy the oft-uttered refrain that podcast discovery and distribution is broken — even now at the very end of 2016 (garbage, garbage 2016) — it remains well below par, and what’s theoretically exciting about all of this is how this reflects a high level of competition in approaches for how to improve listening experiences and growing the overall pie, which I view as a good thing.
But at this point in time, all those approaches are yet-to-be-fully-realized potentials, and a good chunk of them are requesting support — or at least, cooperation and participation — from publishers. This presents a problem for the perpetually resource-constrained podcast publisher, which I articulated at the top of this item: which nascent distribution platform should I be keeping a close eye on and investing tangible resources toward? I can’t tell you what to do, but here are three quick thoughts on the matter:
- The basics: keep in mind that any such partnership is a transaction, and just the math of figuring out of whether any such arrangement you strike up equitably benefits both sides. After all, both publisher and platform are targeting the same thing: more listeners/users, and at the end of the day one imagines there would be some eventual tension in how both parties are competing for listener/user loyalty.
- It’s quite possible that we end up in a situation where each app commands very specific kinds of users. Consider the possibility that a user who ends up primarily listening to podcasts over Spotify doesn’t possess the same demographic or psychographic profile as a user who favors RadioPublic. These differences, then, should be the basis of a publisher’s strategy in the way it chooses which distribution partnership to invest more time, energy, and resources in. This also suggests a way every distributor can illustrate its value proposition in attempts to cultivate greater cooperation or participation with a given publishing partner.
- This point should be obvious, but I’ll say it anyway: if you’re a resource-constrained publisher, don’t overextend yourself across all possible partnership options. Pick your battles, and your partners, wisely.
Anyway, that’s all I’ll say about that.
- Gimlet Creative, the company’s branded content division, has a launched a show for Tinder, the dating app/cultural shorthand for “oh you know what a world we live in now.” It’s called… well, DTR. (Wall Street Journal)
- Sam Sanders is leaving the NPR Politics Podcast roster at the end of January, though he’s staying at the public radio mothership and will be launching a new show (Twitter). Sanders’ co-panelist, Asma Khalid, is leaving NPR to work the biz/tech beat at WBUR. She will also be launching a new podcast ((Twitter).
- DGital Media is reportedly seeing revenue “in the high seven figures.” (LA Biz Journal)
- “Hearst is launching a 10-person team tasked with building voice-activated experiences.” (AdWeek)
- “Using podcasts to capture stories: Gardner Pilot Academy sixth graders push their writing and technical skills.” (Harvard Gazette)
- “Here’s the climate change podcast you didn’t know you were looking for.” (The Verge)
This shortened version of Hot Pod has been adapted for Nieman Lab, where it appears each Tuesday. You can subscribe to the full newsletter here. You can also support Hot Pod by becoming a member, which gets you more news, deeper analysis, and exclusive interviews; more information on the website.