The daily podcaster’s choice: Try to fit in listeners’ crowded mornings or tackle the evening commute?

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 133, published August 22, 2017.

The daily show. If The New York Times’ The Daily and NPR’s Up First — taken collectively as, like, an index fund of the daily news podcast construct writ large — have taught us anything, it’s that there’s a market for such an audio product — at least for one that’s done smartly, thoroughly, and in a way that brings the weight of legendary newsrooms to bear.

The successes of these two operations have been nothing short of impressive. As you might remember from this Vanity Fair feature that dropped last month, The Daily is now averaging half a million downloads per day, a feat made even more remarkable given that the thing launched in February. As for Up First, NPR tells me that it’s reaching a weekly unique audience of almost a million users; that show launched in April. (The differences in metric might make an apples-to-apples comparison complicated for those interesting in doing so — but I think the victor is pretty clear.) Between the two shows — three if you count the offbeat entry from The Outline, but you shouldn’t, because it’s doing something completely different — you could argue that the daily news podcast space is more or less defined now, with the broad major players set well in place.

We’ll soon find out the extent to which that is true with a new entrant, one significantly different from the two incumbents in many key ways. Last week, I led the newsletter with word that Vox Media is working with Midroll Media to create a daily news podcast. That show will be supported by a six-person team, housed under the Vox.com banner, and will hopefully launch in early 2018. The search for the host and executive producer is on, with the job postings going up shortly after the initial news drop. (Here and here, if you’re wondering.)

I can’t say I’m surprised by the news. Vox Media has long exhibited a deep interest in the on-demand audio space, and the organization has proven to be consistently effective in its experimentation and increasingly formalized in its machinations: initially developing working relationships with multiple companies across the industry, deploying different arrangements for different podcasts between brands, eventually hiring an executive producer to oversee the entire operation, and finally inching towards consolidation. (Vox.com’s The Weeds and The Ezra Klein Show, whose productions were once handled by Panoply, were recently moved in-house.) This move to get into the daily news podcast fight seems a logical next step in Vox Media’s ambitions, even more so given the genre’s newfound prestige and rising prominence as the place to blaze some trails.

Where the Times and NPR are legacy entities with the weights and advantages of history behind them, Vox Media is young, emergent, and digitally native. Which, you know, kinda makes it unclear whether the latter will have any weight to bear or if this will be a pure deadlift. But then again, the critique against legacy entities has always been that they’re comparatively slow and lumbering. In any case, there’s a lot to consider with this bubbling development, and me, I’m mostly thinking about two things: time and talent.

Time. There’s something that the job description doesn’t note that I find eminently interesting: whether the podcast will cater to the morning or evening commute. This, in my mind, is the most interesting, if not the biggest, strategic question. My gut (which is by no means a reputable or scientific source) tells me that there’s some meaningful overlap in audience between The New York Times and Vox.com, and so I imagine if Vox were to pursue the morning news route they would be putting a good portion of their target audience in the position of having to choose between The Daily and its new audio product. Whether that outcome is suboptimal is worth weighing; on the one hand, Vox’s product starts off in a position of working to cull from the former’s base, and on the other hand, you might have a situation where Vox’s new product rubs up against the work of having to interrupt a habit that’s been cultivated as far back as possibly February.

One could assume the position that the daily-news-podcast-consuming audience — with its voracious appetite for news — would want more than one daily news podcast in their morning routine. But to play to that base is to set hard ceilings off the bat. Such a news consumer is a highly specific creature, the theoretical opposite of a general consumer — which is fine if that’s the intention, but there’s only so far you can go unless the broader strategy is to foster a new, bigger generation of news obsessive. (Again, if that’s the plan, fantastic.) Further, as a matter of programming, aiming to be the second in a morning rotation means having to prevent a sense of repetition.

But let’s say the strategic premise of developing another daily morning news podcast is to carve out a new audience, separate and apart from what’s already been built with The Daily and Up First. What competitive traits do you need to guarantee? You would, at the very least, require that your brand means something distinct (and perhaps meaningfully separate) from those of The New York Times and NPR, such that the brands do not overlap. (Is that possible, or even desirable? The question is worth entertaining.) You would also have to develop a mastery over podcast audience development channels that aren’t already over-exploited; would plastering house ads over Vox Media’s various brands be enough in forming a new base audience for the podcast?

Anyway, this is all a longwinded way of saying: At this moment, there’s more upside than downside to making a move for the evening commute. It’s a different kind of game, sure, but the end-of-the-work-day news roundup (the All Things Considered slot, essentially) is still unclaimed territory in podcast-land. (Though, I suppose, you’d still have to account for Slate’s The Gist, which can technically be sorted as a news podcast but is truly more of a magazine.)

Before I move on, there’s something else I’m wondering: Will the competitive environment of the daily morning news podcast function more like the morning TV arena — in that program-audience relationships are more or less exclusive and fixed — or will it be a little more fluid, like how multiple physical newspapers can fit into a morning media diet? I hope it’s more the former, and if so, someone better get moving on writing Top of the Morning, but for podcasts.

Talent. From the official job listing:

As we envision it, the host of this show will be the audience’s guide and champion — asking the questions they would ask, having the conversations they want to have, channeling the curiosity they feel. You are their smart, enthusiastic, skeptical friend — not their boring professor. To that end, we are relying on the host to have a strong point of view on the world, to see unusual angles and interesting stories everywhere, and to be genuinely, joyously interested in pretty much everything.

Big job, big ask, eh? My queries, right off the bat: Will Vox.com bring in a relatively experienced talent, perhaps from an established radio or podcast team, or will they elevate someone from in-house that may be less proven in front of the mic? (Or will they perhaps bring in an untested outsider with some measure of celebrity? Totally valid option, let’s be real.) Who will be the non-Ezra Klein sound of Vox.com, which is essentially what this amounts to?

Also, side question: How will they test the hire? The Daily’s Michael Barbaro, after all, was able to cut his teeth with the comparatively low stakes The Run-Up, and NPR never really had to deal with that question — after all, Up First was basically just a straightforward adaptation of the built-in Morning Edition operation, no talent testing required.

There’s so much potential here, and there’s a whole lot of room to assemble a really cool voice and vision with this gig. (And the opportunity for host-producer superteams! Man.) Anyway, I’m excited, obviously, I’ll be tracking this story closely. Who will be the anti-Barbaro? Send me your ideas, let’s place some bets, I’m all ears. (Speaking of which, the dude now has, like, two published appreciations: The New Yorker and BuzzFeed. This is getting out of control.)

More on Up First. In their response to my queries for the previous item, NPR also shared the following data points: A survey of Up First’s audience shows that 61 percent of its listeners are under 35, which is said to be younger than NPR’s overall podcast audience, and that 44 percent of the podcast’s listeners have never listened to Morning Edition. Further, 97 percent of the audience report that the podcast is “part of their morning routine” and 80 percent report that “they listen every day.”

Fun times.

Radiotopia’s Millennial has come to an end, creator Megan Tan announced in a final dispatch that dropped last Wednesday. The reason, we’re told, has to do a lot with the difficulty of sustainably maintaining the show’s unique diaristic format — Millennial is, was, for a long time, the first-person account of a life — and grappling with the podcast’s shifting identity when Tan made the decision to open the show up in scope after it was picked up by Radiotopia last May.

“Maintaining a memoir-style show is difficult,” she explained to me over email. “Even as Millennial transitioned from Season One’s linear narrative of my life to other people’s stories, we still had to tie each episode back to me personally. Finding ways to create a personal throughline to each episode with an emotional tie became taxing and wasn’t always possible…at a certain point, the more we problem-solved the production of the show, the more it felt like Millennial’s identity started to blur. When those two factors started to come to a head, it made sense for me to end the show.”

Millennial is the first Radiotopia show to officially cease production since the podcast collective’s launch in February 2014. The show’s closure also technically means that Tan is no longer with Radiotopia, though the possibility for future collaborations exists. As for what comes next, she tells me: “Being an independent podcaster in many ways is extremely lonely. My next steps are to find a team of people to work with and help contribute to a show. Right now, I’m casting a wide net and exploring a lot of different opportunities.”

Third Coast adds a new component to its programming. Tomorrow, the organization will announce a new public-facing live event series that will accompany its usual producer-focused conference. “The Fest,” as it’s called, will take place in Chicago, of course, and the programming slate will span across a two-week period in November. Its inaugural lineup will include live shows from Love+Radio, Re:sound, Reveal, and Longform, with more to come.

“To us, it’s the perfect scenario: A conference that hones producers’ talent alongside a public festival of live events, together making Chicago the epicenter of the audio storytelling world for two weeks in November,” the team tells me. “We’re excited to flex our Third Coast curatorial muscles to gather audiences for story-based podcasts that were nurtured over the years at our very own conference.”

The Fest’s website will launch tomorrow, so watch for that, and by the way, registration for this year’s conference opens today.

Alice Isn’t Dead gets adaptation deals. The Night Vale team is no stranger to book publishing, with two novels (Welcome to Night Vale: A Novel, It Devours) and one episode collection (Mostly Void, Partially Stars) under their belt. Last week, they announced a new addition to their list of book projects: Alice Isn’t Dead, Joseph Fink’s creepy road-trip audio drama about a truck driver in search of her wife, will now be a novel as well. Fink notes that the book will feature a new story “built on the same bones,” and it’s scheduled to drop next fall. The audio drama is also getting a TV adaptation, which will be Night Vale Presents’ first. That project is being developed by Universal Cable Productions for USA Network, though no specific dates are attached to it just yet.

The steady drumbeat of podcast-to-TV adaptations rumbles on.

Gatekeepers, demographics, a production studio. “It’s not a democratic process at all,” wrote Juleyka Lantigua-Williams, CEO of the newly formed production company Lantigua Williams & Co., when I asked for her thoughts on whether the podcast industry has gatekeepers. “The major distributors make themselves de facto gatekeepers by selecting what they distribute…Big media companies with deep pockets also crowd the field by using their megaphones to promote passable content and drowns out new voices in the process.”

She continued: “So much of what is being created now is still geared to the standard media audience: a middle-class white person living in a suburb. That is the media consumer from the past, and creators — especially Latino and other people of color — must orient their work towards the audience of the future: an educated middle-class woman of color living in a midsize city. She’s the future.”

Lantigua-Williams is a 17-year media veteran, having operated as an editor, writer, and syndicated columnist for various organizations including The Atlantic and National Journal. Most recently, she served as the lead producer and editor on NPR’s Code Switch team, roles she held until June when she decided to leave and start her own venture. She describes Lantigua Williams & Co. as a production company, one that’s dedicated to “partner with people and organizations to produce work that has a clear social justice thread using radio, digital, and visual media.” Since launch, the company has assembled a solid initial string of clients, including: Latino USA, a project called Protégé Podcast (which examines people of color in corporate America), and various independent film projects.

I originally got in touch with Lantigua-Williams when she sent me a pitch arguing that “podcasts are the perfect medium for Latinos to truly break into media and forego the traditional loops associated with establishment media.” When I followed up, she provided a response worth running in full:

As with most worthwhile endeavors, a good podcast starts off as a good idea that sprouts at the intersection of knowledge and storytelling. You have to figure out something that is worth knowing and worth sharing and find the most compelling way to bring it to an audience that has too many choices.

Latinos, because of our long history in the U.S.; because of how vociferous we have been about asserting our right to belong here; because of the continuous flow of Latinos and our ideas into and throughout the country; because we are the youngest population cohort in the country (60,000 of us turn 18 every single month); and because we will constitute the largest group in the ascending brown majority, are largely defining what it will mean to be American in the next century and beyond. What we eat, the sports we love, how we worship, how we spend our trillion-dollar portion of the economy, and ultimately how we define our hyphenated identity creates the most fertile ground for creatives with vision to amplify their version of life as in the U.S. now.

And podcasts are among the most cost-efficient media forms right now. With less than $1,000 in equipment and some savvy social media marketing, a good idea can flourish, and an original voice can be amplified by the masses.

For too long, Latinos have followed a very traditional path to success, the original formula dictated by the myth of the American Dream: We go to school, get a job, and wait to be promoted. That formula is outdated and outmoded. Billenials (as bilingual Latino millennials have been dubbed by Univision) can leapfrog the usual gatekeepers by using their natural high tech-adoption rates, advanced social media skills, and cross-cultural knowledge to tell rich and necessary stories beyond the fight at the border.

For more information, you can hit up the Lantigua Williams & Co. website here.

Career Spotlight. Let’s say you’re a young person looking for professional purpose, some idea of a future, so what do you do? You move cities, get closer to the action, grab some people, take whatever opportunities cross you by: internships, fellowships, freelance jobs here, there, anywhere. You cobble together whatever you can into the shape of a thing that could hopefully pass as a career. If you’re lucky, you don’t have to work a third or fourth gig to pay the bills. But that’s only if you’re lucky. And you wonder: Where is this all going? What does this all lead to? The answer, maybe, is always the same: Who knows, we’ll see.

This week, I traded emails with Alice Wilder, a young producer from the South in her early 20s.

[storybreak]

[conl]Hot Pod: Tell me about your current situation.[/conl]

[conr]Alice Wilder: Currently I’m the podcast/video intern for FiveThirtyEight. Really, I’m the podcast intern. Right now, my manager Galen Druke is working on a miniseries for the site, so I’ve been focusing mostly on that (transcribing tape, assembling sessions, scheduling interviews etc). I also work on the weekly politics podcast.

In my spare time I run a newsletter called Cult of the Month with my best friend Kelsey Weekman. It’s our passion project (and a way to justify spending hours researching the Breatharians).[/conr]

[conl]HP: How did you get to this point? What does your career arc thus far look like?[/conl]

[conr]Wilder: I would not have any type of “career arc” if it wasn’t for Lauren Spohrer and Phoebe Judge, who let some random college girl transcribe tape for Criminal. People think I’m bullshitting when I say that I actually enjoyed transcribing tape, but listening to Phoebe interview is a masterclass and it gave me a deeper understanding of each story we did. I still miss logging tape for Criminal.

Then I asked if I could be an intern, and made a promise to myself that I would not say no to anything they asked of me. Lauren, Phoebe, and Nadia Wilson (our new producer!) are the best people to work for, they did not restrict me to typical intern tasks and took my thoughts (and pitches!) seriously, which means a lot when you’re an intern.

I stayed at Criminal for two years (I did not spend much time on homework for those years). When I graduated from UNC (Go Heels!) I moved to New York to start my internship at FiveThirtyEight. I’ll be here until early September, when I’ll start interning for Planet Money. I’m also starting a weekly(ish) newsletter for interns in the media industry. We don’t have access to much institutional power and I want to help build a network for jobs and career resources.[/conr]

[conl]HP: Being pretty early on in your work life, how do you think about your next steps? What does a career mean to you, at this point?[/conl]

[conr]Wilder: To me, a career means having health insurance. I really, really want health insurance. My initial thought going into my senior year of college was that I want to make radio in the South. I have roots in North Carolina and Louisiana and want to hear stories that come from those regions. I’m in New York right now because that’s where podcast jobs are. Eventually I’ll find a way to move back south.[/conr]

[conl]HP: When you started out, what did you think wanted to do?[/conl]

[conr]Wilder: LOL. I thought I was going to be a social worker. For all of high school and the first two years of college I was very involved in local activism and centered my identity around being a Teen Feminist. My 15-year-old self would be horrified that I didn’t participate in the Women’s March. But I couldn’t, because doing so violated my employer’s policies on political action. Instead I spent that time dogsitting for a family that was going to the march.

I wrote columns for my college paper for two years, and that involved writing about myself a lot. Right after I had a bad experience (intense street harassment, reporting sexual assault, etc) I would turn around and publish it for thousands of people to read. I (finally) realized that writing about something and sharing it with the world is not the same as actually processing it. So I stopped the column, did that processing, and used the platform I had built at the newspaper to tell other people’s stories.

The best lesson I learned about having a career in this field, I learned from Phoebe Judge. She gave a workshop at The Daily Tar Heel and told us that there’s not just one route to having a fulfilling career. You don’t have to major in journalism, intern for The Washington Post or NPR, and go straight to a big name publication after college. At the time, it felt like all my peers were taking that route and I felt like it was already too late for me. It was such a relief to hear that there are so many paths that can lead to a great career, and they don’t always involve having The New York Times on your resume by the time you turn 22.[/conr]

[storybreak]

You can find Wilder on Twitter at @Alice_Wilder.

Bites:

  • “How public radio is using Amazon’s smart speakers.” (Current) Note that none of the three stations profiled in this piece “has had more than a few hundred unique listeners on the platform” and “St. Louis Public Radio saw about 6,000 plays on Alexa devices from some 500 unique customers from late January to mid-June.” Also, do pair this article with: “Why The Amazon Echo Show Won’t Bring Up Charlottesville (Or Bad News In General).” (Fast Company)
  • TuneIn has raised $50 million to expand its programming portfolio, Bloomberg reports. “TuneIn will use the money to pay for rights to live sporting events and original programming like podcasts and music shows, which will help the company sign up more customers for a two-year-old subscription service.” (Bloomberg)
  • This is curious, and generally consistent with RadioPublic’s principal thesis: the podcast playing platform is now “the only universal embed whitelisted on WordPress and Medium that works with any podcast hosting solution,” as CEO Jake Shapiro tells me. (WordPress Blog)
  • Apple is moving its iTunes U collection, its audio-visual repository of free educational content, into the Podcasts ecosystem with the upcoming iTunes 12.7 update that will drop in September. A bit crowded in there, huh? Here’s the official statement on the matter, and here’s some analysis from MacStories. Fun fact: iTunes U is the old haunt of Steve Wilson, the former editorial gatekeeper for Apple Podcasts (now the division’s first marketing lead).

[photocredit]Photo of evening commute on Highway 85 in San Jose, California by Travis Wise used under a Creative Commons license.[/photocredit]

The New York Times’ The Daily vs. NPR’s Up First: Which morning news podcast is better at what?

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 121, published May 30, 2017.

Back from vacation, folks. We’re talking conventions, independent media, The Daily v. Up First, and careers. Let’s get to it.

PodCon. The crop of live podcasting programming — or festivals or conferences or whatever you’d like to call it — has grown fairly robust over the past few years. A rough list, by no means comprehensive: WNYC’s Werk It, Midroll’s Now Hear This, the LA Podcast Festival, DC Podfest, the Mid-Atlantic Podcast conference, Third Coast, Podcast Movement, the Hot Docs Podcast Festival…and so on, and so on.

There’s a new addition on the horizon, one that sports a notable heritage: this December will see the inaugural edition of PodCon, a podcast convention by Hank Green, the largely internet-based personality who is also responsible for, among many other things, the YouTube series vlogbrothers, the podcast Dear Hank & John, the Internet Creators Guild, and, most pertinently, VidCon, the popular online video conference. The convention will take place in Seattle. The lineup of attending shows thus far includes Lore, Radiotopia’s Criminal, the McElroy brothers, and Night Vale Presents. Green is bringing in his team of experienced convention producers to organize PodCon, and Night Vale’s Joseph Fink is playing an active role in curating the lineup.

PodCon is meant to be distinctly fan-oriented, Fink told me. “Podcast conventions and festivals have mostly either focused on a specific kind of podcasting (comedy, documentary, etc.) or focused on the technical or business side (essentially the podcaster side of podcasting, rather than the listener),” he said. “We really want to create convention that treats podcasting as a broad and diverse art form, and that is primarily for fans, whether those fans are also podcast makers or not.”

Green concurred, describing a convention that threads both sides of the creator-audience relationship. “We think the people who love podcasts deserve and want to be included in conversations about issues the field is facing, from diversity to monetization. We think the wall between professional discussion and community celebration is not real,” he said.

According to Green, the convention will chiefly be funded through ticket sales, both through an Indiegogo campaign that currently serves as the event’s primary web presence — as of Monday morning, it has raised about $81,000 of a $300,000 goal — and ticket sales that happen afterward. (The campaign features several contribution tiers, but backers need to provide a minimum of $90 for admission to the actual convention. For reference, the standard admission pricing for VidCon is at $150 for fans, and $200 for creators.) The Indiegogo campaign was deployed mostly to get a sense of the event’s scope; I’m told that the convention will proceed regardless of what happens with the campaign. The organizing team holds out some hope that there will be sponsors, noting that it’s very hard for first-year events to wrangle in sponsorship. (Though given the fact that VidCon eventually locked down YouTube as an advertiser for that convention, I suspect they’ll be fine.)

So, why Seattle? It’s podcast country, Fink told me. “People in the Northwest really love podcasts. Night Vale has done some huge shows in New York and London, but by far the biggest show we’ve done was in Seattle. We consistently see the most excitement for our events in the Bay Area, Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver. In my mind, that’s podcast country,” he said.

You can find out more about PodCon on its Indiegogo page.

On podcasting and independent media. Given Green’s extensive history with independent internet media and YouTube — with all its opportunities and travails over time — I was curious about Green’s take on the current state of the ecosystem. He was kind enough to oblige:

It’s a mixed bag, like any media. I like that it’s harder to control and consolidate because the technology underneath it is so simple, but it’s also gotten extremely hard to break into. Production costs can be the lowest of any media, but if you want to get noticed these days, it’s much easier if you’ve got money and experience (or a pre-existing audience). Because it can be so cheap to produce, we’ve seen an influx of people with existing audiences moving into podcasting (like me, for example), which I have mixed feelings about — obviously not so mixed that I don’t do it, because I love it, but I do see it as making the medium less meritocratic. Monetization is pretty sustainable if you can put together a fairly large audience, but unavailable to smaller podcasts, which is a shame. But ad rates are fairly high and competition for podcast ad slots seems to be getting more heated, which is good.

As the consumption of podcasts has become a more understood and normal thing, and a path to revenue has gotten more clear, a huge diverse range of genres and styles have emerged. Some of that has happened under the umbrella of networks that, from my perspective thus far, have been pretty up front and fair. And some of it has happened independently. I think that’s all part of a pretty healthy ecosystem.

Radiotopia readies Ear Hustle for launch. The podcast indie label’s latest addition, which features stories of life in prison produced by the people who live them, is set to roll out its first episode on June 14. To mark the occasion and to promote the show, Radiotopia has prepared a unique launch strategy: between June 1 and 15, all other 16 Radiotopia shows (!) will drop episodes around the theme of “doing time.” A preview of Ear Hustle is already up in its feed.

Notes on the morning news front. When on vacation, I try to stay unplugged. I make an effort to keep away from the news (I tried), to avoid Twitter (I really tried), and to not do too much work (ha) in favor of more immediate experiences, like actually being present for human conversation, or savoring details (the smell of flowers, the ashy taste of Claritin). I also established a moratorium on podcasts for a bit, though I, eventually, made an exception for two shows: NYT’s The Daily and NPR’s Up First. I suppose I couldn’t stay away all that much.

Third Coast Festival tweet-polled its followers on which show they preferred, and while the poll shouldn’t be taken to say anything other than the preferences of TCF’s Twitter followers, it does present us with a good opportunity to take stock of their efforts in relation to each other so far. The question about which production is better is, as always, a super fun one, but as polite argument goes, such a paradigm may well be educationally limited. Both podcasts, after all, represent different approaches to the morning podcast news — Up First favors breadth and speed, exhibiting a purpose parallel to A.M. email news digests, while The Daily favors depth and experience, building a space that often feels remarkably close to magazine features — and even if you could construct the argument for one’s superiority, there is always the natural (though somewhat frustrating) meta-counter-argument that both models provide different kinds of value to different kinds of people’s needs and preferences. From here, the move should instead be to think of what they tell us as a collection; of what they tell us about where the genre is.

Fair enough, but I do think that The Daily is unambiguously superior to NPR’s offering on a number of levels where it counts — particularly in terms of the way it achieves what it has set out to do, and the way it has definitively furthered the experience of news consumption in the podcast format. To begin with, The Daily possesses a greater degree of inventiveness and generally makes much better use of the podcast format, resulting in a freshness that makes the prospect of listening to the news more attractive. It does this by being emotionally ambitious, which feels both rare and miles apart from another, more commonly deployed strategy to increase the appeal of news: by dumbing it down. Its choice to focus on a small number of deeply executed stories per day has allowed it to extract tremendous narrative value from depth, and it gives the show greater versatility in its ability to traffic both in headlines and features that seem to exist out of time; there is no greater example of this than last Friday’s gorgeous episode adapting a feature on assisted suicide in Canada.

Nevertheless, the places where The Daily is most dynamic also happen to be its sources of risk and potential weaknesses. And, interestingly enough, where Up First has chosen to be comparatively more conservative — only marginally innovating on the core sound or formula of NPR — also happens to be where it is at its most orthogonally competitive with The Daily. In its pursuit of emotional depth, The Daily is in a position that consistently runs the risk of stacking the deck too far in one direction, which may well open it up to critiques of myopia and manipulation. This manifests itself in the podcast’s use of music as something more than window dressing; it is, to use a cliché, a character of its own in the show that interacts with and augments the narrative, and it has the capacity to emotionally condition listeners in a way that some might consider ethically dubious. (No different, it could be argued, from the choice of photographs deployed within articles.)

It also manifests itself in the show’s choice to heavily tether its perspective on its host, Michael Barbaro, a move that highlights the trickiness of that emotional ambition (see that one episode about the coal miner, where your mileage may vary, or even roll backward). There also exists the question of how The Daily might function, or whether it can remain as strong, should Barbaro need to take a week off or, oh I don’t know, decide to work for WaPo or something. It’s a classic question of high-level media production: the choice between the vessel or the talent, and it is here that Up First’s more conservative choice to lean on the voice of the institution feels more solid. (Don’t believe in the king, NPR’s gambit seems to say, believe in the kingdom.)

At its core, I think the underlying story here is really one about experimentation in and the risk-reward profiles of large institutions. It’s been remarkable to watch these moves play out from these organizations, and I’m excited to see what happens next. Anyway, to state the blindingly obvious, this is merely my take on the matter — I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Public radio watch. (1) As expected, the Trump administration’s proposed budget for the 2018 fiscal year pushes for the closure of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the body that serves as a key layer of financial support for the country’s public broadcasting infrastructure. According to the draft, the CPB will receive about $30 million to “conduct an orderly closeout of federal funding.” Current has a good (paywalled) writeup on this, and for more information on the significance of such a closure, check out this Hot Pod issue from February. Keep in mind that this is merely a budget proposal — it requires congressional approval.

(2) From a piece about WAMU, the Washington D.C.–based public radio station, by Washingtonian: “In 2014, about 45,000 weekly listeners were African-American and 49,000 Latino. By early this year, those audiences had leapt to about 106,000 apiece, almost a quarter of listeners. That’s far from reflecting the region as a whole, where blacks and Latinos account for about 40 percent of the population, but for a public radio station it’s unusual.” What accounts for the growth? NPR’s Sam Sanders:

The Washingtonian piece also contains an overview of the hires that contributed to the diversification of WAMU’s staff. (Hell yeah.)

(3) David Eads, the outgoing senior supervising editor for NPR’s visuals team, posted a farewell note that’s equal parts critique, warning, and message of hope. He writes: “This is a historic moment for us. Huge swaths of print journalism are on life support. TV journalism is saturated with spectacle. A few dominant national news outlets continue to grow and attract investment along with a gaggle of digital newcomers who understand the power of the screen. Public media is actually doing OK. But history is going to catch up with us any minute if we don’t reinterpret the model with both care and speed.”

Personnel notes:

  • Speaking of WAMU, Daisy Rosario joins the station as the new managing producer of The Big Listen. Rosario most recently served as the creative director for the short-form audio platform 60dB (under NPR emigre Steve Henn), and was previously a senior producer at Latino USA.
  • Youth Radio, the Peabody Award–winning youth-driven news organization, is apparently looking for a podcast producer.

Career spotlight. Time for another chat about careers! If you need a quick reminder on the thinking behind this feature, go here. This week, I talked with Jonathan Mena of the Loud Speakers Network, who just wrapped up production on Mogul. The dude is super interesting, and his story is both remarkable and remarkably representative of a lot of career arcs I’ve seen in the space.

[conl]Hot Pod: What do you do?[/conl]

[conr]Jonathan Mena: I work for the Loud Speakers Network as a producer for the Combat Jack Show, Tax Season, TK Kirkland Show, and Mogul: The Life and Death of Chris Lighty, which is our first collaboration with Gimlet Media. My day for LSN always starts off looking at the analytics. It’s not just about the plays but also the demographics and locations of our listeners that helps us better strategize. Our network is very young so a lot of us at LSN wear many hats.

For the shows I produce, my philosophy is always to have the host focus solely on the interview. I never want the host to worry about the production side. So if I have to write questions, book a guest or studio, edit audio, or even make a drink for a guest, I’m going to do it all so we have the best show possible. I also sometimes have to wrangle ornery hosts and guests, so I guess I also have the title of podcast whisperer at LSN. As we’ve grown in the almost four years since the start of the network, I’ve expanded into developing podcasts and creating video content. To sum it up, my job is to create great content.[/conr]

[conl]HP: Where did you start, and how did you get to this point?[/conl]

[conr]Mena: I started podcasting in 2006 around the time when iPods first started getting color screens and Twitter had just launched. I was in college editing lectures for the German department, which we would upload on iTunes University. I don’t speak any German so the professor would go through her lecture and tell me in English when to cut and start again. Around this time I was going to school for journalism and production and had a great professor and mentor named Gregg Morris. Morris made podcasting part of the curriculum and pushed us to produce our own shows. He’s really the first one who showed me there was more to journalism than being in front of a mic or camera. Back then, I never thought podcasting would be what it is now. Can you imagine a time before the podcast app where you had to physically download the podcast on your computer and transfer the file via cable to your device?

I finished school and got a day job in IT but was still freelancing for a local blog covering the crime beat. It was around this time that Reggie Osse (aka Combat Jack) was doing internet radio and getting some big guests for a show only a few hundred people were listening to in New York. We all started following each other on Twitter and would see each other at events around the city. A year or so later they announced they were thinking of starting a podcast network. They didn’t even have a name at the time. I reached out to Chris Morrow, who eventually became a cofounder of LSN, to see if they needed any help. Morrow offered me a shot at editing a new podcast they were launching about sneakers. The show wound up having a short run of only a few months.

A few weeks later out of the blue, I get an email from Reggie asking to edit a Combat Jack Show episode. He needed the episode turned around as soon as possible. Now I knew that email wasn’t for me and he had sent it by mistake, but I answered it anyway. I turned that episode around as fast as I could — two hours later he had the completed episode ready for posting. The next day Reggie invited me for coffee to talk about coming on the show as a producer, but never gave me a time or location. Two weeks go by and I never hear back from him or got any response from my follow up emails. Then one day he calls me and says, “We have Russell Simmons in the studio today, can you come by so we can talk about you joining the team?” Reggie later admitted he sent the email to me by mistake, but said it was meant to be.[/conr]

[conl]HP: How did you learn to do the job?[/conl]

[conr]Mena: Necessity truly is the mother of invention. There was a time when I couldn’t afford editing software so I taught myself how to use Audacity. In college when we didn’t have the equipment we needed, we would duct tape and bubble gum something together. I come from a DIY generation that has used the internet to our advantage. I still look at tutorials on YouTube and use Twitter to network or find talent for our shows. I also have the luxury of having a close relationship with the co-founders of the Loud Speakers Network, Chris Morrow and Reggie Osse. The two of them have taken me under their wing and allowed me to grow as a producer. Working at LSN has been like going to podcasting school.[/conr]

[conl]HP: When you started out, what did you think wanted to do?[/conl]

[conr]Mena: As a kid, I was always fascinated with radio and how it was created. I would record the Angie Martinez show on a cassette and listen back to it at night. I vividly remember listening to 1010 WINS as a kid in the car. Getting on the radio always seemed like something so abstract and unattainable. That’s why I think podcasting came at the right time for me. I’m a first-generation American and the first in my family to go to college, so it was expected I either become a lawyer or a doctor. I did well in my science classes but after a year switched majors and focused on journalism and media production. I never told my parents but I guess they figured it out by now. They just got smartphones and my mom just learned how to text, so when I tried to describe podcasting it was a little abstract for them. They tell their friends I work in TV, which is hilarious, but at least I don’t have uncles asking me if I’m a doctor yet.[/conr]

You can find Mena on Twitter at @jonathanmena.

Bites:

  • Audible broke the Top 5 of the Apple Podcast charts for the first time with its upcoming show, “Where Should We Begin? With Esther Perel,” charting near the top over the past few days — another example, some have pointed out, of the coveted Ira Glass bump. This American Life had featured the Audible original as a segment on its May 22 episode. Interestingly enough, the trailer that currently occupies the Esther Perel Apple Podcast feed points listeners to Audible Originals, where the full series is already available. It will enjoy a wider release in October.
  • Not quite sure I agree with this piece, but it’s worth pondering: “Podcasting Is the New Talk Radio.” (The Atlantic)
  • Atlanta welcomes a new podcast network: Zero Mile Media, which begins life with three projects including a serialized fiction podcast (out June 1), an interview show focused on the growing film industry in Atlanta (out mid-June), and a podcast developed with the Decatur Book Festival (out July).

Gabfest, explainer, local, The Daily: A taxonomy of news podcasts

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 117, published April 25, 2017.

Notes on the podcast consumer. Last week, Edison Research released its Podcast Consumer 2017 survey findings, which is a supplementary breakout study from its annual Infinite Dial report. Turns out that nothing has fundamentally changed about how we think about the podcast listener as a media consumer demographic. This is both a positive and a negative thing, depending on how you look at it and what your priorities are. Major takeaways:

  • Podcast consumers remain distinctly young, affluent, and educated.
  • Within surveyed monthly podcast consumers, 56 percent report as male and 44 percent report as female.
  • Podcast listeners tend to really love podcasts, and they tend to favor them over other forms of media.

Other details that stood out to me:

  • It’s really interesting to see that the primary user behavior sees consumers opting to click and listen immediately as opposed to downloading first and listening much later. The study further found that 47 percent of monthly podcast consumers listen to podcasts within 24 hours of downloading them, which is probably useful to know for publishers with dynamic advertising insertion capabilities.

  • Monthly podcast consumers subscribe to an average of six podcasts, so that’s the number you’re trying to squeeze into if you’re designing to fit into the average listener’s rotation.
  • The data illustrating smart speaker correlation is fascinating: podcast consumers tend to be more aware of smart speakers than the general US population, and monthly podcast listeners are more likely to own an Amazon Echo than the general population (9 percent of monthly podcast listeners, against 5 percent of the U.S. population over age 12.) Interestingly, podcast listeners are equally as likely to own a Google Home as the general population, both at 2 percent.

There’s some additional interesting data in there about public radio awareness among monthly podcast consumers, and I’ll leave that up to you to appraise that.

So, what’s the big idea here? I’m trying to think through what it means for the Podcast Consumer to largely be defined and broadly thought of in these terms — young, affluent, educated — and the extent to which advertising rates are tethered to that understanding. Depending on who is arguing (and how), you could frame the value of the podcast listener as something that’s intrinsic to who they demographically are — they have years of brand loyalty to give, they have the disposable income to spend, and they are discerning consumers — just as easily as you could argue for podcasting’s value to be intrinsic to the current traits of the medium and its structural relationship to its listeners: those who love podcasts really love podcasts because it’s still relatively tricky to listen to them, podcast advertising experiences are still novel and relatively thoughtful compared to most other media ad units, and the podcast listener is generally a person who really knows how to control their consumption environment.

The industry and community around podcasting will surely evolve out of these steady conceptualizations, in some ways because we must — like the ways in which we need to program for more diverse audiences — and in other ways because we choose to, like how the industry will attempt to scale up advertising inventory and volume of transactions. In either evolutionary direction, and in all directions in between, that value narrative will require its own evolution, and I’m curious to see how various parties in the industry will cultivate, interact with, and react to those changes.

DeRay Mckesson to launch a new podcast with Crooked Media. The show by the Black Lives Matter activist and former Baltimore mayoral candidate will be called Pod Save The People and will focus on activism and social justice. There doesn’t seem to be a clear roll-out date just yet, and it will be the fifth podcast in the Crooked Media portfolio after flagship Pod Save America, Pod Save the World, the Ana Marie Cox-led interview show With Friends Like These, and the live conversational showcase Lovett or Leave It.

BuzzFeed News has the first beefy write-up on the new show, framing it as a part of Crooked Media’s strategy to dedicate a show “exclusively to activism, organizing and what steps people could take to make a difference.” This notion was the central hook in the liberal-leaning media network’s original pitch for itself; when Crooked Media was first unveiled back in January, a big part of its messaging revolved around a greater emphasis on activism and political participation. Four months in, it doesn’t seem as if that emphasis has explicitly manifested itself very much, at least within the company’s existing podcast and live show operations that appear to be its most vibrant platforms up until this point. Instead, much of Crooked Media’s work seems to further deepen its identity as some mirror image to conservative talk radio — a space heavy on internal discourse that creates a near hermetically-sealed emotional space to process news within a singular political paradigm.

Which is good business, I suppose, and inarguably a great experience for those who resonate with that political paradigm. But at this point, it certainly doesn’t feel as if the company — founded by former Obama staffers Jon Favreau, Jon Lovett, and Tommy Vietor — has lived up to its original promise, or innovated very much within that curious nexus between digital media and political participation. Indeed, it mostly just feels like Air America: Degrassi: Next Class.

Does Pod Save The People portend a shift back to realizing that original gambit? Friends of the pod will find that out soon enough.

Related, sorta: Bill O’Reilly, the former primetime Fox News anchor who was forced out last week after an extensive sexual harassment scandal (I guess I didn’t need to provide a description, given that it led virtually all national news outlets, but what the hell), returned to the public eye through his premium subscription-only podcast, No Spin News, last night.

In the lead up to the episode, various O’Reilly-related podcasts — like this and this — bubbled their way up the iTunes/Apple Podcast charts. Subscribers were presumably looking for this feed, which, in a development that’s somewhat timely for Hot Pod readers, is currently employing what we now call a ~windowing~ strategy: It will be free until May 1, after which it will cost O’Reilly devotees about $5 a month to access. In last night’s 19-minute episode, O’Reilly indicated that this premium subscription model would serve as the foundation of his future efforts.

There’s probably a piece to be written someday that digs deep into the way liberal podcasts tends to pair well with the open podcast ecosystem and the way conservative podcasts pairs with over-the-top premium subscription models (see also: Glenn Beck and his activities with The Blaze), but this is not that day.

As we get closer to the end of Trump administration’s first 100 days…

  • WNYC president Laura Walker wrote a CJR op-ed arguing for the preservation of funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. “Local public radio is one of the only places where many ordinary Americans hear local news and are exposed to people living outside their immediate bubbles,” Walker wrote. “Public radio is what connects Kansas to Seattle, New York to Oklahoma.”
  • Shannon Bond’s latest at the Financial Times, “U.S. media outlets look to bridge partisan bridges,” includes a look at WNYC, Minnesota Public Radio, and The Economist’s Indivisible radio project, which wraps up after the 100-day mark.

Your weekly NPR jibber jabber:

  • They’re giving legendary ‘90s hip-hop radio DJs Stretch and Bobbito a new home. The podcast comes out sometime in July. “We anticipate collaborations between this podcast and NPR’s Alt.Latino and Code Switch, as well as segments on All Songs Considered, World Cafe and NPR’s newsmagazines,” I’m told by an NPR spokesperson.
  • The organization has been named the 2017 Harris Poll EquiTrend News Service Brand of the Year. The Harris Poll EquiTrend study measures brand perception based on survey methodology.
  • But NPR hasn’t seen much improvement in creating a more diverse organization. “In 2016, NPR made virtually no progress in changing the makeup of its staff,” writes NPR public editor Elizabeth Jensen. “There’s simply no way around it: If the goal is to increase diversity in the newsroom, last year’s was a disappointing showing.” A damning appraisal, indeed. When I asked about the issue, I was offered additional information specific to podcasting that was apparently not included in the column. “There is quite a lot of diversity in the producers who do an incredibly important job in some of our most successful podcasts like TED Radio Hour and How I Built This,” wrote a spokesperson, who also referred to how the organization has been using podcasts and the Story Lab to discover and develop new voices. “This did not come up in the ombudsman’s piece because she was doing an overview of the newsroom, but many of the ideas and points of views in our shows come from the editorial staff.” I suppose, but it doesn’t really address the heart of the matter: the numbers are what they are, and further, as NPR’s own Lulu Garcia-Navarro noted on Twitter, the most glaring omission in the article is any formal response from senior management on these numbers.

Speaking of which…

Third Coast Festival is raising $$$ for its Residency Fund, which works to provide training, mentorship, and time for budding producers whose voices and perspectives are underrepresented within public media. The fundraising target is $10,000 by May 2, and if you’re interested in helping out, here you go.

The episodic serialized narrative, reinvigorated. I’m fascinated by this Nieman Storyboard article by Ricki Morell that illustrates how a few recent efforts in print and podcasting have come to showcase the way a serialized storytelling structure can introduce a certain verve into journalistic products. It also contains some tasty podcast-specific nuggets, like the three-part Making Oprah podcast series being WBEZ’s “most successful podcast launch” (though no specific download numbers were given) and how that show was structurally inspired by House of Cards. (Yep.)

Anyway, the thing that this article is really making me think about is this notion that a piece of journalism delivered as a storytelling experience plays a very different civic or service function than, say, a breaking news post. And it necessarily follows from this notion, I think, that there are clear and productizable structural differences between intelligence, information, news, and content of various kinds — and narrative journalism should be produced, distributed, and sold as an experience separate and apart from these other categories.

Notes from ISOJ. I was fortunate enough to be included on a panel about podcasts at the International Symposium for Online Journalists in Austin this past weekend, and tons of juicy stuff was disclosed during the panel presentations.

You can check out the whole hour-long-ish panel on the YouTube recording, but here are the big takeaways from my co-panelists that I scribbled down on my notebook:

(1) Lisa Tobin, the New York Times’ executive producer of audio, had a fascinating presentation on The Daily which provided some stats and a window into the audio team’s thinking. The Daily has brought in about 20 million listens in the first two months — “which far surpassed expectations for the show,” Tobin said, and yes, listens aren’t necessarily the same as downloads, and a quick reminder that Art19 hosts the Times’ podcasts — and the team is finding that they’re bringing in the youngest ever audience for the Times’ news products. What also stood out to me: the way in which Tobin talked about The Daily being designed in terms of building out an “architecture” to deliver the organization’s news through the audio format.

Much of this is reflected in Ben Mullin’s write-up over at Poynter about the podcast that came out yesterday, which also references plans to “launch ‘a number of narrative series’ over the next year and a couple of conversational shows,” along with some extra plans to staff up. (Also, uh, Barbaro-mania…?)

In another session at ISOJ, it was disclosed that there’s a team in the Times playing with the idea of making an interactive voice-bot of host Michael Barbaro, Alexa-style. A… Barbaro-bot, if you will.

(2) Why Oh Why producer Andrea Silenzi, who was also the founding producer of Slate’s The Gist, built an argument around the idea that formats and concepts carry over from radio fairly frequently and pretty well, couching her thinking within the somewhat provocative formulation of the notion that “there are no new ideas” and that, specifically, “The Gist is a radio show.” There’s some amount of semantic jujitsu in this framing, and though I’m inclined to intellectually disagree with the argument, I do think it’s a fascinating illustration of one of the ways you set up an internal strategy for the creation of a show in a new, young medium.

(3) Eric Nuzum, Audible’s VP of original programming, raised two major points in what was largely a critique of a large swathe of news podcasts in the market today: “news isn’t inherently interesting,” and “having a story isn’t as important as how you tell it.” Both are points that I generally agree with, and I think it’s further interesting to put that second point in context with the ideas put forth in that Nieman Storyboard article on serialized narratives I linked to earlier.

A taxonomy of news podcasts. My own presentation was an attempt to draw up a rough taxonomy of news podcasts, which ended up being a much more difficult enterprise than I had originally thought.

I’ve reformatted my prepared presentation text into a Google Doc for your perusal. Hopefully it’s useful to you if, say, you’re part of a news team thinking about developing a podcast project, or if you’re teaching a class about podcasts, or if you, like me, just really like making lists, categories, taxonomies, and/or power rankings.

But while you’re here, this is the taxonomy in the order they were presented:

  • The Conversational or “Gabfest” format
  • The Documentary format
  • The Interview format
  • The News Magazine format
  • The Explainer format
  • The Local Podcast
  • The Morning News or Daily News Podcast

A quick note on that last one: I’ve generally sorted The Daily into the Morning News category, for obvious reasons, but it should noted that Tobin has come to regard the format the team has developed as “Narrative News.” I really like that formulation, as it evokes a stylistic paradigm to the category. However, it is close to being a category of one, as using it would very much exclude NPR’s Up First, which is quite clearly not playing in the same experiential field. There’s a lot going on here, and I’m curious to see how this section of the ecosystem evolves and challenges itself over time.

Anyway, here are the two concluding notes from the presentation:

  • I’ve loosely based the ordering of the taxonomy according to a rough narrative about the trajectory of news podcasts. It should be noted that the news podcast is a concept that’s aggressively evolving; as we move forward in time, we’ve seen more intentionality in producing higher-quality experiences, in producing better and more thoughtful show designs, and in thinking more consciously about the user experience and the casual audience. I expect that trend to continue, and I expect only good things to come.
  • Let’s not forget that podcasting is a weird medium. It is to a considerable extent a forgotten child of Apple, and it’s not a particularly sexy media category — in fact, it’s a medium that’s unlikely to ever experience hockey-stick growth — and as has constantly been said, it’s still a technologically underdeveloped industry in many key ways. But because it’s unsexy and slowly but steadily growing, and because it’s still a space that’s allowed for really interesting and fantastic pieces of journalism and art and culture despite all of its quirks, I do believe the podcast medium is something of an opportunity to realize the original dream of digital publishing. We’ve got something good going with the podcasts; it’s still fresh, green open fields that we haven’t screwed up yet — and that’s no small thing.

Again, the Google Doc can be found here.

Bites.

  • The Bill Simmons Podcast has apparently hit 100 million downloads over a 200-episode span, according to Simmons’ preamble on the 4/19 edition.
  • Mogul, the upcoming collaboration between Loud Speakers Network and Gimlet with distributional and marketing support from Spotify, debuts on Thursday. A reminder that episodes of the show will be released weekly on Spotify, before being distributed everywhere else eight weeks after. (Vulture) And in related Gimlet news: the company has hired James Green, co-founder of the Postloudness podcast collective and the producer on the Rookie Mag podcast, away from MTV to work on the upcoming Brittany Luse project.
  • Also: I’m hearing chatter on another podcast-to-film adaptation deal, probably out later today.
  • Panoply’s been running a pageant-slash-Amazon Prime Video-style pilot project over the past few weeks, and the votes are in: Family Ghosts, a Sam Dingman-led personal narrative show, and By The Book, a comedic conversational that reviews self-help books featuring comedian Jolenta Greenberg and WNYC alum Kristen Meinzer, will receive pick-ups. Dingman and Meinzer are both also internal Panoply producers, which means that the company might be shuffling internal producer arrangements if it’s going to really invest in these shows. Keep your eye on the personnel; changes ahead.
  • Separate from its machinations with the Gizmodo Media Group, Univision has launched its own pretty sizable slate of twelve Spanish-language audio programs. The shows are organized under the brand umbrella “Uforia Audio On-Demand,” and note the language in the press release that links its thinking around podcasts and re-packaged live streams. (Press Release)

[photocredit]Taxonomy by Rebecca Siegel used under a Creative Commons license.[/photocredit]

NPR’s upcoming daily news podcast sounds like a Morning Edition promo, which would be too bad

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 114, published April 4, 2017.

First things first. NPR announced Monday that it’s launching something called Up First, a take on the morning news brief podcast that draws from the DNA of Morning Edition, one of NPR’s two tentpole programs. Editions will be published at 6 a.m. ET on weekdays, starting Wednesday, and it will feature the same team of David Greene, Rachel Martin and Steve Inskeep on hosting duties.

Nieman Lab, Poynter, and NPR’s own press blog have the assorted details on the project, including the press messaging surrounding this launch (“a way to do it that makes sense for the whole system”), target demographic breakdown (young folk, clearly), and the names involved in its development (note the headlining of Morning Edition EP Sarah Gilbert and NPR GM of pdcasting Neal Carruth).

Let’s talk big picture here. The most meaningful way to read this launch is to think through what it tells us about how NPR is balancing the need innovate in order to set itself up for the future with the delicate politics and incentives strung out across the wide spectrum of local public radio stations that make up its major constituency, whose carrier fees for NPR’s major news programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered make up a sizable chunk of NPR’s revenue. (And, I suppose, whose well-being is sort of among NPR’s main reasons for being.) The Nieman Lab write-up, in particular, examines this dynamic, and it’s telling how Gilbert and Carruth talk up the groundwork that was done to attain political support from stations. “A lot of station managers we have spoken to in preparation for this launch have expressed genuine excitement about the possibility of reaching a new discrete, younger audience, and finding a way to invite them into the public radio system,” Gilbert told Nieman Lab.

But it is the way Up First resembles a top-of-the-funnel instrument more than anything else that most draws my attention. Each episode is said to be made up of the “A” segment from the 5 a.m. ET newscast that’s sandwiched between a preview of the other stories in the edition along with…well, what sounds like marketing material for public radio. “We’re also going to have language in the episodes that tells listeners — many of whom will be new to public radio content — about the public radio system, the availability of all kinds of incredible programming on our stations, guiding them in finding ways to donate, if they want to donate to their local stations,” Carruth said later on in the article.

In other words, it sounds like a big, fat Morning Edition podcast promo.

Perhaps another way to look at it is to view Up First as an audio equivalent of the morning news email newsletter digest — though not the beefy, newsletter-first constructions like Politico Playbook or CNN’s Reliable Sources newsletter, but something closer to, say, The New York Times’ First Draft, whose existence is designed to pull readers to a core destination.

I suppose all of that is perfectly fine, but it’s nevertheless disappointing given what appears to be the heating-up of a content area that’s long been discussed as fertile land for on-demand audio: the newsy podcast. Up First’s launch comes about two months after The New York Times drew first blood with the format (Marketplace’s Morning Report doesn’t count, alas) in the shape of its 10- to 20-minute weekday morning news brief The Daily. Though calling The Daily a “news brief” is somewhat imprecise, as that show functions a lot more like a straightforward news magazine that feels incredibly native to the podcast format, given its impressive dedication (and resource allocation) to structuring each edition around one or two stories that are exclusive to podcast, often providing deeper or additional reporting on the biggest stories from the day before, and executing them in a rich, intimate, non-broadcast-reminiscent style. That design gambit has yielded a unique and compelling package, and though it has certainly made the occasional choice falling from its design commitments that have led to criticism (I’m still mulling over the interview in question from last week, and find myself increasingly perturbed), it is absolutely a creature of its own and is cultivated as such.

It’s bad form to sling a full judgment on Up First without actually experiencing it firsthand, so I’ll give it a couple of weeks before piping up conclusively. And I will also say that I’m fully cognizant that this is a podcast execution that’s probably unique to Morning Edition within the context of NPR, given its political complexity within the broader public radio ecosystem. I will also say that NPR’s other podcasting efforts have proven to be more encouraging, between the stuff they’ve been doing with NPR Politics and Embedded as well as whatever the heck they’re cooking up with Sam Sanders. But I’m just inclined to pour one out for a genuine go at building out a full-blown NPR News podcast, which is something I now suspect might never actually happen.

Ah well, back to Barbaro it is.

Apple freeze? Digiday has an article on the emerging windowing trend that we’re seeing in the podcast industry — prominent first with Missing Richard Simmons, and then with the Spotify deal with Gimlet over what is now known as Mogul: The Chris Lighty Story — and while the write-up mostly touched on developments that shouldn’t be particularly new for Hot Pod readers (relevant issues here and here), the piece does bring forth a genuinely juicy scooplet that might be worrying, depending on where you stand:

According to multiple people familiar with the matter, Apple was excited about promoting Missing Richard Simmon until it heard about the windowing strategy. They subsequently abandoned all the marketing plans for the show, those people said.

If true (I’ve heard talk on my end that corresponds with this, but I couldn’t corroborate on the record with full confidenc,
and if we still buy the premise that Apple continues to drive the majority of podcast listening, and if we also continue to buy that the iTunes front page is still a meaningful driver of podcast discovery, then we’re left with what is the clearest example of Apple, previously described as a dominant but hands-off of the podcast ecosystem, actively placing its thumb on the scale when it comes to dictating the shape of the space. That Missing Richard Simmons ended up being a success regardless is interesting, but nonetheless irrelevant; this is a situation that feasibly validates the fears of those who are concerned about the unchecked conduct of Apple as a governing platform.

One imagines this also adds fuel to the fire among the pockets of the community that feel that, at the rate and substance that the podcast industry is growing, the way things are with Apple can’t possibly be sustainable, with its erratic charts system, its user experience, its opacity. But then again, that’s kind of the story of all modern digital publishing.

I reached out to Apple for comment yesterday, but have not heard back.

One more on windowing… looks like The Ringer will distribute its MLB podcast exclusively on TuneIn Radio for the month of April, a development that might worry some of the more open internet-oriented folks in the industry.

Early S-Town numbers. It’s a whopper: the Serial spinoff reportedly enjoyed 10 million downloads in four days since launch day, according to Variety. That report came from before the weekend, so it’s possible there’s a bump we can’t account for, though it has traditionally been unclear whether listening happens very much on the weekends. But given S-Town’s unique full-season release structure — which encourages binges — and buzzy profile, it’s feasible to think that the show might’ve enjoyed anomalous weekend listening behavior.

Two quick things about the Variety article:

— The 10 million number refers to overall downloads, not unique downloads as a proxy of the actual size of the audience base. Back-of-the-napkin math (10 divided by 7 to spell it out, but I mean come on) places that somewhere north of 1 million unique listeners at the time of publication.

— From the piece: “In another data point highlighting the popularity of S-Town, the feed for the podcast series already has 1.45 million subscribers since Serial Productions released the trailer a little over two weeks ago. By comparison, the Serial feed has 2.4 million, and This American Life has 2 million.” I’m told that Serial Productions uses Feedburner to check these numbers, and that the number was up to 1.48 million by Monday morning. Feed subscription numbers aren’t exactly a metric that’s in vogue among the industry at this point in time, but that’s besides the point: compared against its own portfolio, S-Town has performed very well within a very short period of time.

Two curious developments from WNYC. I haven’t written very much about the station recently — probably my own oversight as opposed to the station genuinely laying low — but two things caught my eye over the past week:

— The station announced in an internal email last Wednesday that it will not be renewing its relationship with The Sporkful, the James Beard-award nominated food podcast hosted by Dan Pashman that’s been in the WNYC portfolio since 2013.

“Despite our pride in what we have accomplished, we’ve made the tough decision not to renew The Sporkful and so that means we will be saying farewell to Dan and Anne this week,” WNYC’s chief content officer Dean Cappello wrote. “That’s not a commentary on the show’s growth or the work in any way but rather a recognition of the changes that are inevitable as we continue to grow WNYC Studios.”

I’m told that the decision to part ways actually took place several months ago, with Pashman given ample runway to secure a new home. A new network has indeed moved to pick up The Sporkful, though its identity remains uncertain to me. Details of the arrangement will announced sometime over the next two weeks, ahead of the podcast’s relaunch on April 17.

For anybody keeping a record (and I know there’s a Greek chorus of you): the last show to leave WNYC was Hillary Frank’s The Longest Shortest Time, which ultimately landed at Earwolf.

(2) Several readers also flagged this job posting last week: WNYC is apparently looking for a branded content producer. Here’s the most salient portion of the job description:

You will be part of a little startup agency nested within an established, mission-driven organization populated by the most creative and pioneering audio producers in the country. Your focus will be creating original podcasts and bringing to life other cross-platform productions on behalf of our sponsor partners…

I’m still wrapping my head around this, though it does strike me as genuinely surprising — and more than a little strange — that a public radio station, especially one as big and prominent as WNYC, is moving to develop what looks like an in-house creative advertising agency. When contacted for comment, a spokesperson simply told me: “For several years now, clients and agencies have been asking us about creating custom content. And like every media organization, we’re trying to meet the needs of our clients who are eager to work with us.” Hm.

While we’re on the subject of public radio…

(1) I’m following the WUTC story, in which the Chattanooga-based NPR affiliate station fired reporter Jacqui Helbert after local lawmakers complained about Helbert’s reporting on a state transgender bathroom bill.

There’s a thick line you could draw between this incident and the Marketplace-Lewis Wallace story from February, and also between this story and the West Virginia Public Broadcasting state defunding crisis from last month, which was only superficially resolved after Governor Jim Justice pulled back on defunding and pushed toward a deal that would see the state’s public broadcasting infrastructure integrated into West Virginia University. The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga owns and operates WUTC, and Helbert’s dismissal is said to have been a decision made by university officials, not newsrooms editors, providing one notable data point for a question I wondered aloud when writing up the West Virginia Public Broadcasting story: how does university ownership affect a public broadcasting system?

Anyway, the WUTC story is far from over. Since Helbert’s dismissal, NPR has condemned the decision, and the reporter has filed a lawsuit against the university.

(2) Missed this last week, but Ben Calhoun, the VP of content and programming at WBEZ, is leaving the station, according to Robert Feder (the all-powerful source of Chicago media news). Calhoun is expected to return to This American Life, where he had served as a producer between 2010 and 2014. It is unclear who is up to take over the position.

(3) On Current: “CPB board members excoriate colleague for publicly backing defunding.”

Alice Isn’t Dead returns for its second season today, as Night Vale Presents pushes forward in its intriguing attempt to build out a predominantly fiction-oriented podcast network (it has one nonfiction project, a documentary collaboration with indie band The Mountain Goats, in the pipeline) off the long-running momentum cultivated with Welcome to Night Vale. I’m told that the first season’s ten episodes collectively garnered over five million downloads, as of last week. That season ran from March to July 2016. I’ll be keeping an eye on this.

Panoply readies its follow-up to Revisionist History. The project is called The Grift, a podcast on the world of con artists hosted by psychologist and author Maria Konnikova. Konnikova is a regular on Slate’s The Gist, and I suppose you could call The Grift a podcast adaptation of the work Konnikova has built out for her book The Confidence Game, which was published early last year.

The Grift appears to represent Panoply’s next step in a strategy that originated with Revisionist History, where the network partners with a known author — in that case Malcolm Gladwell, whose value in the marketplace has long been proven — to create a highly produced, non-linear podcast that more or less resembles the composition of your basic nonfiction New York Times bestseller. This also seems to be the programming zone within which Panoply feels most comfortable developing its big swing projects.

Coming up with benchmark numbers to evaluate The Grift is a little tricky. When asked about Revisionist History’s numbers, a Panoply spokesperson told me the company doesn’t share download or subscriber numbers for any of its shows at this time. I was told the same thing when I reached out a few weeks ago for numbers on Life After, the network’s most recent fiction project. The best I can come up with is a number pulled from a rosy Bloomberg profile of Panoply published ahead of its launch last summer, where chief revenue officer Matt Turck was quoted saying that Revisionist History “could draw over 500,000 downloads per episode” — citing Apple marketing support and Gladwell’s #personalbrand as factors in his prediction — which the article also notes would match the best performance of The Message.

The Grift dropped its first episode today.

Audio fiction over the past year. Last Tuesday saw the second annual Sarah Lawrence College International Audio Fiction Awards. It’s an increasingly active time in the fiction podcast space: the higher-profile projects, growing interest in adaptation deals, the rising ambition both in terms of quality and quantity. I checked in with Ann Heppermann, the awards’ founder, to get her view on what has changed in the genre over the past year or so.

From where you sit, how has audio fiction changed over the past year?

Over the past year, it feels as though there have been seismic changes as well as a continuation of certain trends. This year, The Sarah Awards saw many more submissions from audio networks — and nearly, if not all, of the major podcasting networks entered this year from Panoply to Gimlet to Wondery to Radiotopia to many others. To me, that’s a good sign. It says that those who are in the business of making money from audio believe that audio fiction is something that’s both a worthwhile creative endeavor and a profitable one. It also says to me that there is a possible future for students, like mine, who are learning and want to create fiction. Not that long ago, I would encourage young producers who wanted to create audio fiction that if they wanted to make any money at it they should look into creating works for audiences outside the United States, primarily for the BBC and Australian markets. Now, gasp, I think that there might actually be some jobs they could apply for in the near future. It’s awesome.

Creatively, I feel like we are seeing more series as well as more high-budget productions. Thrillers and science fiction seem to continue to dominate the audio fiction world — or at least, in the submissions we received from this year and last — but for this year I would say that the Sarah Awards judges chose pieces representing the vast array of work that is being created. Yes, there were thrillers and science fiction pieces amongst the winners but there were also musicals, political fiction, and whatever unique category needs to be made up for Andrea Silenzi and Randy. Maybe next year an audio sitcom or an audio telenovela or some S-Town Faulkner-esque piece will win a Sarah Award. In my mind, it feels like the possibilities are endless.

What are the challenges that are still holding audio fiction back, in your opinion?

Even though I’m extremely excited about how large networks are getting more involved and that Hollywood stars signing up for audio fiction projects, I worry that it could become more difficult for creative people with lower budgets to have their works made and find audiences. I also worry that those who are putting a lot of money in these projects will be less willing to take creative risks because they, rightfully so, have to worry about the return on their investments. So the thing that excites me, increased professionalization, also scares me a little bit.

Another challenge is that there is a lot of fantastic audio fiction happening behind paywalls that I don’t think people are finding. Audio fiction can be incredibly expensive and so paywalls do make sense, but it’s just that currently most people don’t want to pay for it. I’m sure that will change, and I know that people are working on ways to mix up their fiction offerings so that their programming consists of free as well as paywall content, but I just hope they can figure it out soon because there’s some awesome stuff behind the paywall that I personally wish had larger audiences.

Oh, and diversity. The field, as with all things podcasting, needs a lot more of it—from creators to writers to producers to actors to works in languages other an English. Diversity, diversity, diversity.

You can read about the winners of this year’s Sarah Awards, and more about audio fiction more generally, on the website.

Bites:

  • Shannon Bond’s latest: “Marketers aren’t waiting for the arrival of ads on voice-powered devices – they’re already there.” (FT)
  • A couple of podcast-related honorees at the Gracie Awards, an awards ceremony presented by the Alliance for Women in Media Foundation to celebrate women in the media and media about women: Nora McInerny was named best podcast host for her work on APM’s Terrible, Thanks for Asking, and the fourth season of Gimlet’s Startup, where host Lisa Chow and team covered former American Apparel CEO Dov Charney, won best podcast. (website)
  • Did you know that Keith Ellison, congressman and recently named deputy chair of the Democratic National Committee, has a podcast? Well he does, it’s called We The Podcast (yep), and he just started it back up. (Vanity Fair)

The Corporation for Public Broadcasting is on a White House hit list for elimination

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 108, published February 21, 2017.

The Corporation for Public Broadcasting is now officially on a hit list of programs that the White House might eliminate, according to a New York Times article that led the site over the weekend, effectively pushing what was previously speculation — originated by a report from The Hill last month, which claimed that the Trump administration was considering privatizing the CPB — into an unambiguous news development.

I’ve highlighted this story a few times before, and while this specific development seems arguably incremental, it is nonetheless incredibly important to track given the depth of its consequences. Plus, there’s been a bunch of writing and side-stories that have emerged on this topic, which gives us enough material to piece together a clearer picture of what’s happening, why it matters, and why it bites.

Now, it should be noted that the public broadcasting system in general — and the CPB in specific, which serves as a key funding layer for NPR, PBS, and various public broadcasting stations across the country — have been consistent targets of cuts and criticism by conservatives. Personally, I’ve always been unclear on the precise reason for this; based on my reading, it appears to be some amalgamation of perceived liberal bias — a characterization that seems to be uttered with increasing synonymity with accountability media — and misuse of taxpayer dollars, never mind the public benefit and the paltry sums of savings such an elimination would entail. (For reference, CPB appropriations in recent years are around $445 million annually. And for further reference, government spending is projected to be $4 trillion this year.) This Currently Curious article from last November is a pretty good historical guide to the last time the GOP controlled the government, and over at Recode, friend-of-the-newsletter Dan Frommer pointed out how Richard Nixon once proposed halving CPB funding in 1969 — a few years after the CPB was formed. Despite those threats, federal support for the system has never seriously been compromised, and it is in this historical fact that fuels the beliefs of some that this simply won’t happen. But, as I’ve pointed out before, this is very much in an anomalous political environment, one where nothing seems off the table whether it’s a travel ban, or a wall previously thought to be a symbolic piece of campaign bravado, or a defunding of a federally supported public information system that improves the lives of millions.

If the elimination of federal support were to take place, the consequences for the public broadcasting system would be catastrophic. According to a CPB-commissioned study by Booz & Company, cited by Media Matters and Current’s reporting on the issue, “there is no substitute for federal support of public broadcasting, and that the loss of federal support would mean the end of public broadcasting.”

The defunding of public broadcasting will be an unpopular measure. A survey commissioned by PBS, which was reported by Current, found that the majority of American voters oppose the elimination of federal funding for public television. Specifically, 73 percent of those surveyed oppose the proposed measure — which breaks down to 83 percent of Democrats, 82 percent of independents, and 62 percent of Republicans — while 76 percent of respondents want funding levels to be maintained or increased. (The survey made no direct mentions of public radio, but I reckon the study serves as a reasonable proxy for the broader public broadcasting system. And for reference, the survey study was conducted by both Democratic and Republican polling teams.)

The Times report notes that the list of eliminated programs could still yet change, which means that the public broadcasting system still has a bit more time to continue its preparations for cuts and/or lobbying against it — which is something that they’ve already been doing.

This is probably the point of the article where I’m supposed to bring up an opposing, or contrarian, view on the matter. That perspective comes from the libertarian magazine Reason, where Jim Epstein, a former WNET producer, makes the survival-of-the-fittest argument: He argues that government funding actually hurts PBS and NPR, and that the elimination of federal support would shock the system out of its broadcast-oriented dependencies and incentives towards online distribution. Which, you know, is a view that I understand conceptually (even if it’s a little reductive and certainly overly Pollyanna-ish). But the evolution argument always strikes me as hollow and inhumane, as it never really fully reckons with and takes responsibility of the human cost of the resulting layoffs, the organizational complexity attached to structural transitions, and the simple fact that evolution necessarily yields losers — which is fine if we’re talking about markets distributing doorknobs, but totally sucks for markets distributing public goods like civic-oriented news, emergency signals, and supplemental forms of public education. Look, I’m as critical about the public broadcasting system’s predisposition for inertia and its many, many, many problems as the next guy, but I’d much rather see a transition to the future that takes place under conditions of strength and volition, not one under unnecessary duress and survival.

A weakened public broadcasting system is bad, bad, bad. It’s bad in ways you already know, and it’s bad in countless ways you don’t. A recent episode in West Virginia is illustrative of the latter category. When West Virginia Governor Jim Justice — a Democrat — proposed eliminating state support for West Virginia Public Broadcasting — ostensibly to close a $500 million budget gap (cutting WVPB support would save $4.5 million), but maybe for a whole other reason that NPR’s David Folkenflik hinted at on Twittera statement published by Susan C. Hogan, chair of the Friends of West Virginia Public Broadcasting, and Ted Armbrecht, chair of the West Virginia Public Broadcasting Foundation, went over the various negative impacts of a debilitated WVPB: from the stuff you can probably guess, like the laying off of half their reporters and terminating a well-loved music program (long live Mountain Stage), to stuff you might not immediately consider, like how it compromises the operation of radio towers that facilitate the communication of first responders and how the loss of said music program would hurt tourism to the state. A loss in CPB support would incur the same effect for public broadcasting stations across the country, though the precise effects will vary based on their own specific configurations. Everyone will suffer in their own way, but everyone will suffer.

The West Virginia episode is also indicative of a whole other element to this story: It serves as an example of how the attacks on public broadcasting won’t just be coming from the White House; it can and will come from state leadership as well. The two developments are not unconnected — after all, the former sets the tone for the latter.

Yeah, sure, Epstein may well be right that pulling federal funding might lead to more efficient and innovative outcomes, but gains will be experienced unequally across all actors in the system — the bigger organizations in denser locations will likely thrive, while the smaller ones will likely not, and the system as a whole will almost certainly suffer. (See: the Internet and local newspapers.) And it is the integrity of the system, not any individual actor, that is so much more important at the end of the day. (See: modern democracy.)

And lest I forget this is a newsletter about podcasts, I’ll say this: A weaker public radio system is a weaker podcast ecosystem. Regardless of your feelings about public radio unfairly dominating the podcast narrative — and it has been pretty unfair, I’ll admit — it absolutely cannot be denied that the public radio contingent has represented a strong, validating pillar of an industry that often looks and feels like a chaotic mess. The term “wild west” has often been thrown about to describe the podcasting landscape, and while it is usually deployed with positive intent, the reality is that the whole thing largely resembles a “vast wasteland,” to crib from Newt Minow’s description of television back in 1961. (Hat tip to Joseph Lichterman’s spectacular historical account on Carnegie Commission on Educational Television’s 1967 report, which laid the foundation for the public broadcasting system we enjoy today.)

For all the crap you can understandably give public radio, it has undoubtedly done a lot to increase the podcast medium’s profile (increasing its appeal for both brand advertisers and audiences of all stripes), produced some great shows, and given us some truly great talent (all hail Anna Sale). I, for one, hope the system survives however this plays out.

Anyway, here’s Mr. Rogers.

Okay, that went way too long. On to the news.

iHeartRadio continues to burrow into the podcast space, signing a partnership with AudioBoom that will further expand the streaming audio company’s content catalog. This follows several podcast-related partnerships that iHeartradio has announced in recent months, including LibSyn, Art19, and NPR member stations.

As a reminder, the value proposition that iHeartRadio provides these podcast platform companies is theoretical access to the service’s reportedly large user base. iHeartRadio apparently has over 95 million registered users, but two caveats apply: (1) the exact number of monthly active users — the key metric — is still unclear, and (2) it remains to be seen whether partner podcasts can meaningfully benefit from the iHeartRadio user base. As any public radio member station that has attempted to convert broadcast listeners to podcast listeners can tell you (see the Knight Foundation’s recent podcast report, Point 1), conversion aspirations aren’t all that straightforward.

Related: Audioboom also announced a branded content partnership with SpikeTV to produce a discussion podcast companion for the latter’s upcoming six-part true crime series, Time: The Kalief Browder Story.

What’s up with Barstool Sports? I’ve previously not paid much attention to the company — which now sports several podcasts peppering the iTunes charts — and, frankly, I don’t know very much about it beyond the headlines off the trades: its 2016 acquisition by the Chernin Group, its aggressively male character, its largely sports-oriented content focus, its various controversies of the misogynist variety. I thought last week’s Digiday Podcast, which featured an interview with the company’s CEO Erika Nardini, serves as a helpful primer, and if you’re curious and confused about them as I was, do check it out.

Anyway, a press release hit my inbox last week that touted the company as “dominating” the podcast game, making the argument by listing the iTunes chart positions currently occupied by the company’s various podcasts. When asked, the marketing firm that distributed the release claims that the network enjoys 22 million downloads a month across all shows (by my count, it has 18 in the market at the moment).

The number strikes me as conspicuously high, and I’ve requested for more specific details on both downloads and the context of those numbers. (I haven’t heard back yet.) At the moment, it’s not immediately clear where the network hosts its shows — and therefore, how it counts its downloads — and whether it abides by the measurement standardization practices increasingly being adopted by the rest of the industry. For reference: If the numbers are precise and appropriate for actual apple-to-apple comparisons, that would mean the network effectively stacks up against HowStuffWorks, WNYC Studios, and This American Life/Serial as measured by Podtrac, which doesn’t measure the Barstool Sports group of podcasts.

Is that plausible? Sure. Is that the case? Let’s find out. I’ll let you know when I hear back.

Fusion is set to debut its first narrative show next month, Digiday reports. The show, titled Containers, will be hosted by editor-at-large Alexis Madrigal, and it will utilize an Oakland seaport as a prism through which various key issues like crime and immigration will be discussed. In other words, it’s The Wire season 2, but for non-fiction storytelling podcasts.

Note the mention of Panoply in the article, which is described to have “won out against a field of competitors for Fusion’s business.” I wonder who else was bidding?

Anyway, as the report establishes, Containers will be the Fusion Media Group’s first stab at a podcast that goes beyond the conversational gabfest-format that make up its current audio offerings, all of which emerge from the recently acquired Gizmodo Media Group (née Gawker). Interestingly enough, the group had dabbled with story-driven, narrative podcasts before: back in the Gawker era, Gizmodo once distributed Meanwhile in the Future, the original iteration of Flash Forward, which creator Rose Eveleth now operates independently.

Slate names June Thomas as new managing producer of podcasts, as Thomas announced on social media last week. She is a long-time member of the Slate family, serving as a culture critic for the site and the editor of Outward, its LGBTQ section, and a regular across the Slate podcast universe: she’s a host on Slate’s Double X podcast with Hanna Rosin and Noreen Malone, and a frequent guest on the Slate Culture Gabfest.

The announcement came a few days after news of Slate laying off staffers broke last week. And a bit more detail on that front: According to this pretty brutal CJR article, among those let go was Mike Vuolo, a senior producer with the company and WNYC alum who also, up until last summer, cohosted the network’s language podcast, Lexicon Valley, with On The Media’s Bob Garfield.

Thomas starts her new role on February 27.

Gimlet loses a producer to The New York Times: Larissa Anderson, who served as a senior producer on Undone, will now work on developing and running narrative podcasts at the Gray Lady. Her title there is “editor and senior audio producer.” And in case you’re tracing the timeline: Gimlet announced that it wasn’t renewing Undone for a second season in mid-January.

Signaling. One of the more technical questions that’s interesting (to me, anyway) coming out of the recent discussions over “fake news” — which is really a discussion about trust, credibility, and the decentralization of information and power — is one that distinctly strikes me as a problem of design: In the enterprise of cultivating trust, how do you convey positional context, whether an editorial piece has opinion-based elements baked in or whether it’s meant to be journalistically or somewhere in between, in a way that’s clear and efficient? (Provided that making such things clear is important to you, of course.)

It’s a hard enough question to answer on the web, print, television, or within the endless stream of social media feeds, but it seems a lot trickier within the current culture surrounding audio content, given its primary value proposition of being a unique source of intimacy by way of authenticity.

The problem was raised very briefly at a Yale event last week that featured Scott Blumenthal, deputy editor at The New York Times’ interactive news desk. (One of the benefits of living in New Haven, a university city: access to free student events — and free snacks!) An attendee had brought up The Daily, the Times’ recently launched daily morning news audio brief, and raised concerns over whether the podcast’s breezy conversational nature runs the risk of coming off as editorializing. I don’t personally share this interpretation of the brief, but I can definitely see the concern: host Michael Barbaro is certainly chatty, and I suppose we somewhat find ourselves now living in a cultural environment that increasingly views personality as a direct function of ideology. (Maybe that’s always been the case, and it’s only being recognized as a problem now.)

So, how do you convey your context? I’ll be thinking this through for a while, and I’ve been recalling some approaches to this problem that I’ve seen in the past. Sometimes it’s through the use of an explicit disclaimer delivered through scripting; an example of this can be found in With Her, that Hillary Clinton podcast, in which host Max Linsky deliberately establishes the fact he isn’t operating as a journalist — thus contextualizing the show as, essentially, a piece of political advertising. Sometimes it’s done purely through the scripting and tone of the show; Slate’s The Gist is a good example of a news-oriented podcast that largely exists as an op-ed column, while the oft-criticized “public radio voice” pervading public media newscasts is constantly described as a tool to cultivate a sense of journalistic neutrality. And sometimes it’s just a matter of being clear and unified with the branding, as with the conservative Ricochet podcasts. All these approaches are difficult to execute in and of themselves, but I imagine it’s exponentially more difficult to convey differences in context within individual episodes — say, when you switch from a reported segment to an opinion segment.

This problem seems to disproportionately trouble journalistic podcasts above all, which makes sense, as those shows are the ones under the greatest scrutiny and possess the highest burden of responsibility. And it seems to me that the problem most vibrantly expresses itself when straight-news programs seek to derive the benefits of “authenticity” and “intimacy” associated with the on-demand audio medium that more personality-driven programs seem to enjoy without much cost. Then again, I imagine the latter experiences similar difficulties if it aspires to benefit from emulating the former.

I’m curious to hear what y’all think. Hit me up.

Anyway, before I forget: The Daily is so, so good, and so smart in its use of music and tone, and its short length.

Bites:

  • Overcast, Marco Arment’s podcast app favored by the technology/podcast intelligentsia, released a major update yesterday that includes design improvements — and the introduction of what can possibly be a visual ad network for podcasts. (Overcast)
  • Hmm. “Trump’s FCC chief wants it to be easier to listen to free FM radio on your smartphone.” (Recode)
  • Looks like Vice, true to form, is trying something weird: the VICE Magazine Podcast, which drops once a month. (Vice)
  • Spotify’s first original podcast has a trailer up: Showstopper, a show that looks back at important moments in television. It’s hosted by Fader editor-in-chief Naomi Zeichner.

[photocredit]Photo of a 2011 protest in favor of continued CPB funding by Phil Roeder used under a Creative Commons license.[/photocredit]

A report on podcasting details some of the industry’s issues: diversity, talent, tech, and (oh yeah) money

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 105, published January 31, 2017.

The Knight Foundation has a new report out on podcasts, titled “From Airwaves to Earbuds: Lessons from Knight Investments in Digital Audio and Podcasting.” It was published last Thursday, and you can access it as a PDF or read it on Medium.

The report is the product of research done on the learnings gleaned from the various on-demand audio-related investments made by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation — of which there have been quite a few. Indeed, the foundation is strikingly ubiquitous as a funder of the space through programmatic grant support, particularly among projects that lie at the nexus of public media and podcasts. Among its beneficiaries: Gimlet Media, RadioPublic, Radiotopia, and NPR One (originally called Project Carbon). [Disclosure: Knight is also a funder of Nieman Lab.]

“It was clear to us that podcasting was beginning to meaningfully gain traction as a way to provide audiences with informative audio content,” said Sam Gill, the foundation’s vice president of learning and impact, when we spoke over the phone this week. “I believe that one of the more important things private philanthropy can do is to give risk capital to innovative ventures…We felt that’s the best thing we can do to support the field, and we hope that a lot of what we’ve learned can be useful to others entering the space.”

While the report’s focus on the foundation’s investments renders its scope somewhat limited, the issues that it ends up exploring is nonetheless pretty wide — and fairly comprehensive, I’d argue, as far as the key narratives of the space are concerned.

Longtime Hot Pod readers probably won’t be surprised by many of its findings. Among the salient issues discussed: diversity (still challenged), talent (the brain drain is real), finances (podcasting still doesn’t pay the bills for most independents and freelancers), technological infrastructure (still undercooked), data (still a mish-mash), and of course, talk of a podcasting bubble (yes and no, a respondent notes). But there are some genuine gems to be found in the details — a close read reveals mention of what appears to be WNYC’s mobile podcast discovery play, called Discover (which I’m told was quietly launched on the station’s website two months ago, and they’re laying low for now), among others.

I asked Gill if he was surprised by anything contained in the research. He pointed out two things: first, the extent to which broadcast publishers seem to genuinely embrace podcasting as a “green field for experimentation”; and second, and perhaps more notably, how self-conscious the industry seems to be in terms of how much more work needs to be done to improve the space overall. To Gill, that self-consciousness is productive.

“There’s no clear way to run a podcast business [at this point in time],” Gill said. “So what we’re seeing is a moment where everyone is very open, and which creates incentives to get really creative.”

For what it’s worth, I think I agree with that.

Art19 strikes up a distribution partnership with iHeartRadio. The partnership will give shows hosted on the Art19 the opportunity to be distributed through the broader iHeartRadio infrastructure, which includes apps for mobile devices, connected car dashboards, and various digital media players. This marks iHeartRadio’s second partnership with a podcast hosting platform in recent months. In July, a similar arrangement was announced between the company and Libsyn.

It should be noted that shows won’t automatically appear on iHeartRadio’s platform by virtue of simply being hosted on Art19. They must opt-in for inclusion, the same way shows have to submit their feeds to iTunes to get listed. “I would, however, stress that iHeart is not re-hosting Art19 podcasts nor are they running any audio ads in or around them,” Art19 CEO Sean Carr said over email last week. “Essentially, iHeart is operating just like any other podcatcher, except they are shipping much better data to us.”

Of course, the question we should be asking about iHeartRadio isn’t really about the data its players are able to give podcast companies, but about the amount of listenership it’s able to give publishers. iHeartRadio reportedly has over 95 million registered users, though it’s always worth noting that the number of monthly active users — the key metric — remains unclear. Furthermore, it should be remembered that iHeartRadio’s business is largely driven through live streams, the digital adaptation of the broadcast experience, which leads me to wonder about how much on-demand listening is actually happening off the iHeartRadio infrastructure, which would determine the actual value of this partnership. Sure, the iHeartRadio-Libsyn press release back in July noted that podcast listening on the former platform has grown 58 percent in the past year, but percentages are tricky things without the base number. (A source tells me that “a sizable amount” of iHeartRadio users are listening to podcasts, but that’s not much more to go on, even if that’s true.)

Whatever podcast listening may be happening on the platform, iHeartRadio nonetheless continues its steady creep towards the medium. This news comes after the company hired its first senior vice president for podcasting back in November (Chris Peterson, formerly a content partnership manager at TuneIn), which is a sign of things to come — and perhaps of a new era where iHeartRadio is taking the format seriously with a clear strategy intact. It also comes after a couple of experiments with the format, including a peculiar branded podcast partnership with the coworking space company WeWork. All of this really begs the question: What’s happening here?

Carr offers a clue. When we traded emails last week over this story, he noted: “Their aim is to become a premiere destination for podcast listening, and they want to be both publisher friendly and take a leadership role in propelling the industry forward.”

Don’t we all.

Three more things, quickly:

  • Art19 is a member of Syndicated Media’s partner program. (For more info on that, check out this column.)
  • I asked Carr if he thinks these partnerships with iHeartRadio — which, in my mind, adheres to the likely convergence between on-demand audio and the larger digital audio universe — might ultimately change the value proposition and economics of the podcast industry. “We certainly hope so,” he replied. “In my mind, it’s a simple equation. Better data will increase agency dollars flowing into the space. That will support the creation of more quality content, and that is great for consumers.”
  • I imagine we’re going to see a lot more partnerships like this, from Art19 and competitors like Megaphone and Libsyn, in the very near future.

WNYC announces the third edition of its annual women-in-podcasting festival, Werk It. This year’s festivities will take place at the Ace Hotel in Los Angeles on October 3-5. In addition to standard sessions, the festival will feature a one-day “Podcast Bootcamp” intensive for entry-level or early-career audio producers. The list of presenters includes Anna Sale of WNYC’s Death, Sex, and Money; Jennifer White of WBEZ’s Making Oprah; Lisa Chow of Gimlet’s Startup, and Jessica Williams and Phoebe Robinson of WNYC’s 2 Dope Queens.

Early registration is now open on the event website, and folks interested in pitching a session can do so here. I’m also told that there will be scholarships available.

Gimlet cancels Undone. The podcast revisiting major news events of the past, which was hosted by Radiolab alum Pat Walters, ran for seven episodes across its first and only season. Gimlet confirms that Walters will continue on with the company as an editor, working on both current and upcoming projects. No official word on what will happen to the show’s other two producers, Julia DeWitt (a Snap Judgment alum) and Emanuele Berry, but I presume they will be reallocated within the company as well.

This is the third time that Gimlet has pulled the plug on a project that’s been out in the open. The first, as you might remember, was Starlee Kine’s Mystery Show, which took place under fairly chaotic circumstances and triggered an outcry that risked the company’s scrappy and transparent image, and the second was Sampler, which was canceled last October. As for the reason, here’s the key section from Gimlet’s official statement on Undone’s cancellation:

Undone was performing well, but the show requires a very particular kind of editorial support, and as we got into the first season, it became clear that as of right now, we don’t have everything we need for it to keep growing and experimenting and finding its way. Gimlet is a startup. Some things we try are going to continue on for a long time. And some things won’t.

I followed up by asking if the decision was less about the show itself and more about the current state of the company. A spokesperson replied:

Actually, the decision was more so centered around the talent squeeze we’re seeing in the industry overall. Hiring the particular editorial staff we needed to meet the vision for Undone was tough in this market. Right now, there is a shortage of seasoned audio editors with deep experience making complex narrative stories. By not being able to provide the required editorial support, we were unable to continue the show in a sustainable way.

The explanation here is somewhat resonant with what I’ve been increasingly hearing from other companies and teams: that there’s a shortage of seasoned talent in general, and of seasoned editors in specific. The editor shortage has long been a topic of concern in this newsletter; long-time readers might recall the Poynter column last summer written by NPR editorial specialist (and former Nieman Fellow) Alison MacAdam warning of an editor crisis, and the subsequent interview I ran with MacAdam. This problem seems to have only grown more salient over time — my inbox is often filled with requests for talent referrals, and I imagine that the public-radio-to-private-podcasting brain drain can only go on for so long before the public media pool runs out of bodies.

The need for talent, I think, marks one of the more significant differences between audio and every other medium as they pertain to digital enablement: One could argue that many other forms of digital media have exploded because they were able to derive strong returns from relatively low resource investments. (Which is to say: cheap talent.) One could further posit that the quality barrier for acceptable consumption within on-demand audio is high — relative to web text, broadcast radio, digital video — which means that experience and talent are uniquely crucial to moving the needle for any given podcast operation and for the industry as a whole. A lack of experienced talent or even a clustering of them, then, is detrimental to the health of the ecosystem.

Anyway, this is all not to say Undone’s fate is purely the product of conditions external to itself. After all, if the show was hitting its marks, it would be a dumb idea to shut it down even with a shortage of editorial talent. Podcast measurements being what they are, it’s hard to precisely tell how well the show performed, but the fact that it didn’t quite reach the upper echelons of the iTunes charts as consistently as its cohort peers, Homecoming and Crimetown, is notable.

On the bright side, from the looks of the Undone Facebook page, the company seems to be managing the cancellation more effectively than the last time.

The New York Times set to debut the new Michael Barbaro show tomorrow. Barbaro was previously the host of the organization’s election podcast, The Run-Up. He moved to the audio team full-time in December. As I suspected when the Times first hired former All Things Considered supervising producer Theo Balcomb, this new project will indeed be a daily news show, analogous to morning email briefings. Episodes are expected to be 15 to 20 minutes long each, each covering 2 to 4 segments. They’ll drop into feeds at 6 a.m. Eastern on weekdays. And of course, it’ll also be distributed over the Amazon Echo and Google Home.

The show will be called The Daily, and BMW will serve as the launch sponsor.

There’s also a text-message component to the project, where Barbaro will keep subscribers in the news loop via SMS throughout the day. It sounds, uh, pretty intimate, but I suppose you could consider it an example of push-notifications-plus. (“To text with Michael,” the press release wrote, “listeners can sign up here.”)

My buddies over at Nieman Lab have a piece up that gives good background on the project, including the organization’s previous attempt at daily news pod — way back in 2006! — and a good overview of the very thin spread of existing daily news-related pods. Anyway, I’m excited to see how it shapes up, but here are three design questions I’m keeping in mind:

  • How will the show buck or appropriate the conventions of radio shows that trade in daily news? Will it evoke a similar feel to All Things Considered, or will it attempt to consciously challenge that format? And will such attempts to challenge be distracting?
  • How the show handles pacing, given its brief 15-20 minute structure, will be interesting to watch. How will the show convey momentum, and how will it balance between moving through stories and pausing for moments?
  • What will the show’s take on the anchor be? That is, how important is Barbaro’s personality to the hosting apparatus, and what is the emotional baseline that the show will try to convey?

I guess I’m also curious about The Daily’s target demo. As Nieman Lab’s tweet on the matter suggested, could this be a swipe at public radio territory? I put the question to the Times, and got a reply from Balcomb that sounds a lot like Matthew McConaughey from those car commercials:

We know there is a giant audience for this show. It’s for anyone who wants to understand the news of the day. For me, I’m making this show for the enthusiastic, news-hungry person who wants to know what’s going on in the world but doesn’t have a way in right now. Because the news isn’t where they want, when they want it.

Listeners will come to rely on this show. It’s the length you want and can handle every morning. And it’s conversational — real people talking to each other as they actually talk — while still featuring the best journalists in the world. This is for people on the go, people who live on their phones. This is for people who want to engage with reporters who actually break stories and live their beats.

Oookay.

True-crime pods continues to flourish, even at a small station. Current has a handy profile up of Suspect Convictions, a show developed out of a partnership between independent journalist Scott Reeder and northwest Illinois-based station WVIK, which covers the Quad Cities. The podcast has reportedly clocked in over 600,000 downloads since launching at the beginning of January, and has been hovering pretty consistently in the upper echelon of the iTunes charts.

Two bits that stood out to me from the article:

  • The station isn’t expecting tons of revenue from the show, according to the station’s general manager, Jay Pearce. “Under the station’s agreement with Reeder, it only has rights to sell local sponsorships for the show.” Fascinating.
  • Pearce “intends to look for other partners in the community to create additional podcasts, especially on local subjects that could interest listeners outside of Northwest Illinois.”

Do check out the whole article.

After the Trump administration’s chaotic first week, I’m reupping my column from last summer: “Can a political podcast avoid being overtaken by events?” At the time, I was trying to think through the bananas 2016 election cycle, which seemed to churn out controversies in a brisk, staccato clip. Those days seem quaint now, as the sheer abundance of the Trump presidency’s first 10 days — with its rapid-fire signings of executive orders and ever-expanding number of complex issues involved — further accentuates the core weaknesses of the way political coverage is currently delivered through the podcast format. Back then, I was specifically referring to podcasts that adopt the weekly recap discussion format, but at this point, it really does feel applicable to just about everything else.

I wrote: “With every episode, the discussion produces a model for the listener that helps guide their reading of the news, and like all models, they are forced into iteration by every future development. As a result, the discussion in those episodes — frozen as they are in time — exist with built-in half-lives; their value erodes, organically, as more new things happen.”

At the rate this administration is going, weekly political podcast episodes have a remarkably high chance of being rendered irrelevant even before they hit feeds. Further compounding the problem is the fact that, from the looks of it, the high-octane news environment is only going to worsen in volume and complexity over time — a state of affairs that would likely make it very difficult to communicate the news with appropriate proportionality, focus, and depth.

I’m tempted to think that deploying a cool and sober approach to presentation might be an appropriate way to solve this problem of issue abundance, but I’m not entirely sure about current conditions would necessarily allow for that. The recent years has seen an increasing rebellion against news presented by a voice of authority — presenting a view from nowhere — in favor of more personality-driven, supposedly human conversational styles. Within that latter paradigm, a cool and sober approach would be deficient. However, the problem that arises from this is that the tone and emotional performance becomes an incredibly important editorial variable to convey severity, synonymous with the size of a headline or the text of a chyron.

There is, in my mind, a surreal disconnect when that isn’t fully considered. That informational uncanny valley is pretty present in shows like, say, Pod Save America or The Washington Post’s Can He Do That?, where the political horrors being examined are considerably undercut by off-hand jokes or spritely uses of music.

I’m still working through this idea, but I’ll say one more thing: I can’t think of any show that handles tone in this news environment better than On The Media, whose recent string of episodes conjure an emotional space so sophisticated that it allows for both horror and process.

Bites:

  • Heads up, business journalists with audio work: The Society of American Business Editors and Writers’ Best in Business 2016 awards has an audio category, and the deadline is February 7. (SABEW)
  • In case you missed it, First Look Media’s The Intercept has rolled out the first episode of its new podcast, Intercepted. Jeremy Scahill hosts. Its First Look’s third podcast overall, following Politically Re-Active and Maeve in America, and the show continues the organization’s political focus. All three shows are listed in iTunes as resulting from a partnership with Panoply. (iTunes)
  • Meanwhile, in Australia: the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, the country’s national public broadcaster, has launched a TV campaign promoting its podcasts.
  • Looks like Dan Carlin’s back with another long, long episode of his hit podcast Hardcore History: “The Destroyer of Worlds,” on the nuclear age. The episode clocks in at 5 hours and 49 minutes. Hardcore History saw only two episodes drop in 2016, but Carlin’s been keeping busy nonetheless with his political commentary show, Common Sense. (iTunes)
  • As always, you can find a curated list of upcoming podcasts here. And let me know if you’d like to add to it.

Hot Pod: The three numbers that mark the state of podcasting in 2017

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 102, published January 10, 2016.

Digits to start the year. Is the podcast industry growing, and if so, how? I’m keeping these three numbers taped to the corner of my laptop as benchmarks to keep track:

  • Audience size: 57 million U.S. monthly listeners, according to Edison and Triton Digital’s annual Infinite Dial report, which gives the industry its clearest number to beat. The latest version of the report is expected to come out in early summer.
  • Advertising: More than $200 million projected for 2017, according to media research firm Bridge Ratings, which the industry seems to have coalesced around.
  • iTunes downloads and streams: More than 10 billion in 2016, which was up from more than 8 billion in 2015 and over 7 billion in 2014, according to a writeup by The Huffington Post.

Two quick news updates on Apple: The Apple podcasts team is apparently looking for someone to join their editorial team — also known as the people who looks after the iTunes front page.

In a related note, I’m hearing that Steve Wilson, who managed the editorial and partner relations team at iTunes and who was once described in The New York Times as Apple’s “de facto podcast gatekeeper,” has moved to the iTunes Marketing team to manage the podcast vertical. I believe it’s the first time the company is dedicating any marketing resources for podcasts.

The Keepin’ It 1600 team breaks off from The Ringer to start a new venture: Crooked Media, named after the standard Donald Trump pejorative. Its first product, a twice-a-week politics podcast called Pod Save America, rolled out Monday and quickly hit the top of the iTunes charts. For reference, Crooked Media is made up of former Obama staffers Jon Favreau, Jon Lovett, and Tommy Vietor. Dan Pfeiffer, who launched Keepin’ It 1600 with Favreau when it first debuted on The Ringer last summer, will continue his hosting duties in the new podcast, but he will not hold any stake in the new venture. The venture has plans to add more podcasts, video, editorial content, and “new voices” with a distinct emphasis on activism and political participation, according to its mission statement. There doesn’t appear to be any talk of external investment, with the team fully relying on ad revenues from Pod Save America for now.

DGital Media serves as Crooked Media’s partner in production and ad sales. This extends DGital Media’s already impressive portfolio of partners, which includes Recode, The Vertical’s podcast network, and Tony Kornheiser.

The Ringer CEO Bill Simmons is said to be supportive of the new venture, though one imagines the departure of Keepin’ It 1600, which grew incredibly popular during the 2016 election cycle, will leave quite a dent in monthly download totals for the website’s podcast network. However, given the network’s general culture that allows for continuous, iterative experimentation through its Channel 33 feed, they’re well positioned to fill the gap soon enough.

Here’s the thing that’s interesting to me: Crooked Media appears to be a stab at building out a new progressive counterpoint to conservative media, perhaps specifically its right-wing talk radio ecosystem, which has long been a curiously strong marriage of medium and ideological content with significant influence over American politics. It’s a curious thing that podcasting now offers Favreau & Co., insofar as they represent progressive politics, a potential site to match up against the conservative media-industrial complex; as I’ve noted in the past, the podcast medium does seem to feature an ideological spread that tends to lean liberal — even if it’s sticky business to characterize the politics of individual organizations. The theoretical question that occurred to me then, as it does now, is whether there is something about a medium’s structural traits — and demographic spread, and so on — that uniquely supports certain kinds of ideology. With this venture, we’ll have an opportunity to test the question a little further.

Related: Just re-upping this discussion from mid-November: Did the election podcast glut of 2016 fail its listeners?

Launches and returns for the year ahead. I was recently asked to write a preview of upcoming new podcasts for Vulture, and in the process of my outreach, I had a hard time getting concrete, specific release dates for upcoming launches. This, I think, says a fair bit about how the podcast industry, maturing as it is, still has ways to go in terms of developing a rhythm, cycle, and culture around show and season launches for its audience.

All right, here’s what I got so far beyond the stuff on the Vulture list:

  • Gimlet Media is keeping mum on new shows, but they have confirmed that Science Vs will return for its second season in March, while Heavyweight will drop its second season in September.
  • NPR’s vice president of programming and audience development Anya Grundmann tells me that the public radio mothership will be launching several new podcasts and debuting new seasons of some of its most popular shows, including Embedded and Invisibilia. No specific dates, but Grundmann did mention that a three-episode Embedded miniseries will drop in March.
  • Night Vale Presents has confirmed that Alice Isn’t Dead and Within the Wires will return sometime this year. They also note that the team behind Orbiting Human Circus (of the Air) is working on some new projects, which will be released throughout the year. And, as noted in Vulture, the company will be making its nonfiction debut at some point in the form of a collaboration with indie band The Mountain Goats.
  • The New York Times will roll out its latest podcast, Change Agent with Charles Duhigg — which sounds like a cross between an advice column, Oprah, and Malcolm Gladwell — sometime this spring. It’s also building a new show around Michael Barbaro, who hosts The Run-Up and has since moved into the audio team full-time. According to Politico, the Times is planning to expand its podcast roster from seven up to possibly twelve this year.
  • Radiotopia’s newest addition to its roster, Ear Hustle, is set to debut sometime this summer.
  • First Look Media tells me that they will be launching a weekly podcast for its flagship investigative news site, The Intercept, on January 26. The show will apparently be called “Intercepted.” There’s a joke in here somewhere, but we should move along.

That’s all I got for now. I’m going to keep a page going for this, and will update as more information trickles out. Send me what you have.

Panoply kicked off the year with the launch of its first “imprint”: The Onward Project, a group of self-improvement podcasts curated by author Gretchen Rubin, who hosts the popular Happier podcast under the network’s banner. The imprint is currently made up of three shows: the aforementioned Happier; Radical Candor, a management-oriented show; and Side Hustle School, a daily show made up of bite-sized episodes that describe financially successful side projects. The Onward Project was first announced during last September’s IAB Podcast Upfront.

Call it an imprint, call it a subnetwork, call it whatever you want: The concept seems to be more of an innovation in audience development than anything else. “I’d say success looks like what we’re already seeing — a collection of podcasts in which each show brings in its host’s unique audience, which is then exposed to the other shows through tight cross-promotion,” Panoply chief creative officer Andy Bowers told me over email, when I asked about the thinking around the imprint. “With podcast discovery still such a vexing problem, we think the imprint offers listeners a simple answer to the question they’re always asking Gretchen: ‘I love your show — what else should I listen to?'”

We’re probably going to see Panoply develop more imprints in the near future, further establishing a structure that makes the company look more like a “meta-network” — or a network of networks — which is a form that was only hinted at by its previous strategy, where it partnered with other media organizations to develop multiple podcasts under their brands.

60dB hires Recode reporter, adding to its beefy editorial team. The short-form audio company has hired Liz Gannes, previously a reporter at the tech news site Recode, to join its editorial team. Gannes, a senior hire, rounds out a team that has thus far primarily drawn from public media. It includes: Daisy Rosario, who has worked on NPR’s Latino USA and WNYC’s 2 Dope Queens; Brenda Salinas, formerly at Latino USA and KUT Public Media; Hannah McBride, formerly at the Texas Observer and KUT Public Media; and Michael Simon Johnson, formerly at Latino USA.

So here’s what I’m thinking about: The editorial team apparently exists as an in-house team that works to produce audio stories with partner publications, often discussions about a written article that recently published, for distribution over its platform. (Is it too much of stretch to call it high-touch adaptation aggregation?) It’s a dramatically manual — and not to mention human — content acquisition process, and that’s a structure that does not scale cheaply, which I imagine presents a problem for a founding team mostly made up of former Netflix executives.

Two questions that frame my thinking on the company: Where is 60dB supposed to fall within the spectrum between a Netflix-like platform and an audio-first newsroom with an aggressive aggregation strategy? And to what extent do the partnerships that the company currently pursues make up the long-term content strategy, or do they merely serve as a stepping stone into purely original content?

Anyway, I hear that more 60dB news is due next week. Keep your earballs peeled.

Related: In other tech-ish news, it looks like Otto Radio, the car dashboard-oriented podcast curation platform that recently hammered down an integration with Uber, has secured a round of investment from Samsung. Note the language in the press release describing Otto Radio’s distribution targets: “connected and autonomous cars, smart audio devices and appliances, and key integrations with premium content providers.” Appliances? I guess with Amazon’s Alexa platform creeping into everything — which was one of the bigger takeaways from this year’s CES — we’re about that close to a world in which your refrigerator can blast out those sweet, sweet Terry Gross interviews.

Facebook Live Audio. Shortly before Christmas, Facebook announced the rollout of its latest Live-related feature, Live Audio, on its media blog. Key details to note:

  • The feature is in its testing phase, and its broadcasting use is limited to a few publishing partners for now. At launch, those partners include the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), the London-based national talk radio station LBC, book publisher HarperCollins, and authors Adam Grant and Brit Bennett. It remains unclear whether those publishers are being paid for their partnership similar to the way that Facebook has been paying major media organizations like BuzzFeed and The New York Times, along with celebrities, to use the Live video feature.
  • The post notes that the feature will be made “more broadly available to publishers and people” over the next few months.
  • The launch of Live Audio is the latest in Facebook’s efforts to expand its Live initiative, which the company has been banking heavily on for the better part of the past year. It had launched Live 360 just the week before.
  • The pitch, as it has always been, primarily revolves around interactivity — which speaks directly to the “social audio” conversation carried by many in the radio and podcast industry (see This American Life’s Shortcut, WNYC’s Audiogram, and so on). The introductory post writes: “Just as with a live video on Facebook, listeners can discover live audio content in News Feed, ask questions and leave reactions in real time during the broadcast, and easily share with their friends.”

Right, so with all that out of the way: What does this mean for podcast publishers, and maybe even radio broadcasters? I haven’t quite developed a unified theory just yet, but I’ve been breaking the question down into two components.

First, it’s worth asking if Facebook Live Audio is compatible with much of what currently exists in the podcast (or radio) space. Facebook, as a digital environment, has always seemed to be structured such that only certain kinds of publishers — or “content creators” can “win.” More often than not, those are the publishers whose business or impact goals are functionally aligned with that of Facebook’s, and from everything that we’ve seen, read, and heard about the company, it seems pretty clear that Facebook’s primary goal is to drive up user numbers and, more importantly, user engagement, whose quantifiable attention are then sold to advertisers.

But that’s obvious; the question is, of course, how has the company preferred to generate those engagements? It’s one thing if Facebook’s underlying game plan here is to “replace” broadcast, be it television or radio. But it’s a whole other thing if the company is instead trying to build out and further define its own specific media ecosystem with dynamics, incentives, behaviors, and systems unique to itself — which is exactly what appears to be the case here.

So, what kind of audio content is likely to benefit from playing into Facebook Live Audio’s unique dynamics? Probably not the highly produced narrative stuff. Nor anything particularly long. Oddly enough, I have a somewhat strong feeling that many conversational podcasts could be much better suited for Facebook Live Audio than they ever were for the existing podcast infrastructure. But at the end of the day, what appears to be true for Facebook Live Video — and for most new social platforms — will probably be true for Facebook Live Audio: the kind of content it will favor is the type of content that’s native to the form. Everything else is either filler or a means to generate actionable data.

Second: The Facebook Live program displays high levels of volatility, both in terms of the program simply functioning as intended — see: miscalculated audience metrics, surging, lingering questions over Facebook’s role in digital governance and its relationship to the state — and, perhaps more crucially, in terms of the program’s underlying view of publishers and the actors of the wider media ecosystem.

The functional volatility alone should give some thinking about dedicating resources to building out a Facebook Live Audio strategy. But the greater pause should come from the second point on the program’s underlying position. Facebook’s general abstinence from making any concrete statement about its relationship to the media (and its potential identity as a “media company”) suggests a materialistic, neutralizing view that sees all actors on the platform as functionally and morally equal. Another way of putting this: The health of individual publishers, regardless of its size, hopes, dreams, and virtues, is a tertiary concern to the platform, as long as it is able to drive up the primal behavior it wants — its own definition of engagement.

It’s a toughie. On the one hand, you have a platform that theoretically connects you with various segmentations and iterations of the platform’s 1.79 billion monthly active users. But on the other hand, it’s really hard to get around the whole unfeeling, arbitrary-governing-structure thing. It’s up to you — depending on what your goals are, what relationship you want to have with your audience, your stomach for instability and risk — to decide if you want to live that Facebook Live Audio life.

None of this particularly new, by the way. But it’s still worth saying.

Bites:

  • Tamar Charney has been confirmed as NPR One’s managing editor, having assumed the role in an interim basis since Sara Sarasohn left the organization. Emily Barocas joins the team full-time as an associate producer to curate podcasts for the app. Nick DePrey, who has been supporting NPR One in his capacity as an “innovation accountant,” is now the digital programming analytics manager at NPR Digital Services. Elsewhere in the organization, Juleyka Lantigua-Williams has joined as the senior supervising producer and editor for Code Switch.
  • PRX has announced its first cohort for Project Catapult, its podcast training program aimed at local public radio stations. Also note: the organization has hired Enrico Benjamin, an Emmy award-winning producer, as the initiative’s project director. (PRX)
  • “Why branded podcasting could more than double in 2017.” (Digiday)
  • SiriusXM is now distributing WNYC Studios’ podcasts over its Insights channel. This continues an emerging trend that sees SiriusXM mining podcasts for quality inventory to build a content base beyond its Howard Stern-shaped engine: Last August, the company hammered down a partnership with The Vertical’s podcast network, and it has been distributing the Neil DeGrasse Tyson podcast Startalk since January 2015. (SiriusXM)
  • I’m hearing that the first round of judging for this year’s Webby Awards is underway. Several folks have also written me pointing out that the group of judges for the Podcast and Digital Audio category is pretty public-radio heavy — and not to mention, overwhelmingly white. (Webby Awards)
  • This is cool: Norway has become the first country to shut down its nationwide FM radio in favor of digital signals. (NPR)

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.

A new player aims to bring the podcast advertising analytics some want (and others fear)

Art19 steps into the spotlight. “We’re not really pulling ourselves out of beta,” said Sean Carr, cofounder and CEO of Art19, a California-based tech startup that’s built a podcast hosting, monetization, and distribution platform. “We’re just ready to make some noise and draw attention to ourselves.”

And you should, indeed, pay attention.

Art19 organized a small press push last week, which comes after a long period of relative quiet for the company. The messaging in the push included a good amount of detail illustrating the company’s technological proposition to the podcast industry: the foundational elements for a shift away from the industry’s download count-oriented, RSS feed-driven paradigm towards one that focuses its counts on whether an ad within a download or stream has been initiated, consumed, or skipped by a listener — what Carr refers to as listener telemetry, a term he emphasized when we spoke over the phone last week.

And what are the foundational elements that make up that new paradigm? “To start with, we’re offering embeddable players and, more importantly, APIs that are public so that both our partners and third-party consumer apps can connect to us,” Carr said, laying out a vision of the future where more data would be flowing with greater freedom throughout the podcast ecosystem. He quickly added: “But to be clear: We won’t be using that data. We’re a SaaS [software as a service] company.”

The company’s push towards an API-connected listening orientation is, in my mind, more or less what much of the professionalizing layer of the podcast community — from bigger networks to advertisers to agencies — have been asking for when they lament about the medium’s measurability woes: greater means to look into the consumption behavior around an episode, and therefore greater capacity to cultivate trust and buy-in from more advertisers.

(Conversely, it’s also precisely what much of the podcasts-as-extension-of-the-free-web have been arguing against, fearing the platform control that often happens when a piece of technology emerges that potentially grants more power to bigger entities. I’ve always been of the position that technological developments are inevitable, and that the discourse should always be focused on cultivating better regulation structures and a new system of balance instead of attempting to limit such developments.)

But of course, for Art19’s gambit to work, the company would need to secure the trust and participation of a critical mass of partners — including publishers, agencies, advertisers, and distributors, among others — in order to build a coalition that would work to actually shift the paradigm across the industry. Indeed, while there’s a general hunger to move away from RSS feeds and download counts as the standard, there will always be the problem of inertia (e.g. “we’ve been making buys and allocating budgets this way for a while now”) and, more pressingly, there will always be the problem of politics. One imagines that Art19’s competitors — including but not limited to Libsyn, Panoply’s Megaphone, PRX’s Dovetail, Triton Digital’s Tap, and Acast — would want to be the anchor of any such paradigm shift themselves — or, at the very least, for no one to be the anchor, perhaps through some open-sourced alternative.

And so it’s crucial to examine the key allies that the company has secured. At this time, Art19’s major clients include: (1) Wondery, the L.A.-based podcast network recently started by the former CEO and president of Fox International Channels; (2) DGital Media, the network that produces podcasts for Recode, Yahoo’s The Vertical, Fortune, and the UFC, among others; and perhaps most crucially, (3) Midroll Media, which is currently in the process of moving its entire Earwolf network onto the platform and will now be pitching Art19 as its preferred platform to its wide range of ad sales clients. The company is also expected to make a few more major partnership announcements by the end of this month.

The company also appears to have a strong ally in the agency world in the form of Ogilvy & Mather, the well-known advertising agency that’s part of the WPP network. Teddy Lynn, the agency’s chief creative officer for content and social, has been involved in Art19’s press push. “I’ve been working with Sean for many, many years,” Lynn told me. “What I can say: For close to a decade, podcasting has been a very rudimentary ad unit that one can buy. And I think Art19 is advancing the medium to a place where media buyers would feel comfortable buying.” An AdExchanger article further notes that Art19’s platform design was designed with agency input, and that’s something that shouldn’t be discounted.

Art19 will likely be served well by its twin alliances with Midroll and Ogilvy. As one of the bigger players in the space, Midroll has deeper pockets following its acquisition by Scripps, and its expansionist sensibilities should make them as strong advocate for Art19’s technological vision in the marketplace over the long run. And in Ogilvy, Art19 has an advocate for legitimacy in the agency world, which is key to unlock the next level of advertising dollars for the medium.

But the question is whether that’s enough, and who else Art19 is able to bring into its vision: more publishers, the right podcast distributors and apps, the critical mass of advertisers. And of course, whether the company will be able to ward off coalitions formed by other sectors of the industry, whether it comes from another hosting platform — or from something else entirely.

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A new model for branded content? Slate launched a new podcast last week, Placemakers, that’s a bit of a complicated beast to explain. On the surface, it’s a show about urban revitalization, with host Rebecca Sheir traveling across the country, reporting out city-specific stories on the subject. Sheir is a public radio veteran who has served at NPR, WAMU, and the Alaska Public Radio Network.

But the podcast is also the product of a branded content partnership with JPMorgan Chase, the multinational banking organization. The bank is underwriting the show’s 18 editorial episodes — which, I’m told, are completely produced by the Slate editorial team — and is directly involved with three additional sponsored episodes, which will tell JPMorgan Chase-centered stories about urban revitalization in Detroit, Seattle, and New Orleans. Those three branded episodes are produced by the Panoply Custom team, the unit within Panoply, Slate’s sister podcasting company, that’s in charge of building out branded podcasts for clients. That team’s portfolio includes Purina’s DogSmarts, Umpqua Bank’s Open Account, and most notably, the audio sci-fi drama The Message, which came out of a collaboration with GE.

“The project came about from both the editorial and advertising sides having a shared passion about the revitalization of urban cities,” said Keith Hernandez, president of Slate, when we spoke last week. “[Slate editor-in-chief] Julia Turner was really excited about the subject, and when we brought it to the JPMorgan Chase team we figured out that they were really excited about it too.”

Serendipitous as it may be, the long-running concern of a show like this — one where it’s not all that easy to tell at what point the Slate voice ends and the JPMorgan Chase one begins, given how complicatedly blended the two actors are within the larger project — is how the line between editorial and advertorial is established and communicated. This concern reared its voluminous head again just last week, when the Online Trust Association released a report that found that 71 percent of native ads that appeared on the homepages of the top 100 news websites were providing inadequate disclosures and transparencies that help audience make the distinction between an ad and an editorial content. (The report also instigated a fascinating and feisty Twitter joust between Current’s Adam Ragusea and On The Media’s Bob Garfield.) No such report has been conducted yet for on-demand audio, but it goes without saying that this issue stretches across all mediums that are involved in the possible production of journalistic content.

Which raised to me the question: How exactly will Placemakers illustrate that line for listeners?

“There’s going to be a different host for the three sponsored episodes,” Hernandez replied. “We want this to be clear and evident that these are special episodes. There are also going to be, ahead of time, midroll and post-roll announcements within the episodes that custom episodes are coming.”

Hernandez also suggested that Placemakers is an early prototype of a new branded content model: one that involves the production of branded spinoffs from a pre-existing show. “Brands are moving away from an idea of themselves as a bland corporate entity…they want something deeper than a brand logo. I think this is just the beginning of a longer trend, of brands digging deeper into ideas and building relationships with the publishing community,” Hernandez said. “And I think this Placemakers model is scalable: How do we take existing shows and find an interesting spinoff that could be dedicated to a brand and leverage the sensibility of those shows?”

Of course, the “pre-existing” show in this case had to be made contemporaneously with the branded campaign, but the proposition here stands. (Also worth noting: This notion of a branded spinoff shares some structural similarity to the My Brother, My Brother and Me’s bonus episode sponsored by Totino’s Pizza Rolls, which I wrote about back in May.)

When I asked about the size of the deal — whether it was larger than previous Custom partnerships — Hernandez declined to comment, understandably. But he did answer my question about JPMorgan Chase’s expectation for the campaign, calling it an “evolving conversation” and one that respects the experimental nature of the project. Hernandez also tells me that the campaign will be playing around with on-site and off-site promotion, including a popup website, native ad units on the Slate website, and paid units on social (not unlike what they’ve been running with Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History).

Before signing off, I asked Hernandez how Panoply was doing on the whole. Understandably, again, he express immense optimism around the company’s position, and in particular, the potential of Megaphone, its CMS platform. “Megaphone is going to be a game-changer,” he said.

(Disclaimer: Panoply used to be my day-job employer, way back when.)

For The New York Times, a politics podcast of its own. Called The Run Up, the show is hosted by Times national political reporter Michael Barbaro and will cover this long, painful, brain-melting American presidential election cycle as its trundles through its final three months. (Hence, the name.) According to the PR email I received about the launch, the podcast will release new episodes twice a week and will serve listeners with “engaging conversations around the 2016 election and keep them up to speed about what happened (and what might happen),” with some key interviews thrown in here and there. From that description, it doesn’t seem like The Run Up will differ very much from other elections podcasts as far as structure is concerned, which suggests that the major differentiator between podcasts in this genre lies within the nexus of the analysis, access to key interviews, and discussion quality more broadly.

But thinking this through a little further, I’m wont to wonder: Just how much can you stretch this particular genre in terms of form and structure? And how much of that stretching is actually necessary to create a strong enough hook, or develop a genuinely novel value proposition, for new audiences? I’m tempted to credit BuzzFeed’s No One Knows Anything with legitimately attempting a new hook — that is, trying to keep a distance from the horse-race coverage and working to tell broader stories about the election, while aiming at a demographic that’s less bought into the cycle — but 23 episodes in, the show as a whole does seem to feel very much a part of the larger plethora of elections podcasts that we’ve seen to date, at least to my ears. (Though if I’m pressed to identify a show that’s done a good job providing a genuinely novel value proposition, I’d point to the tight set of election-related episodes in Scott Carrier’s Home of the Brave, which has been stringing together on-the-ground missives that have been furiously visceral, constantly surprising, and often terrifying.)

Anyway, I’m reminded that this is the Times’ first podcast rollout since bringing on WBUR’s Lisa Tobin as the organization’s new executive producer for audio; she started work just last month. I was also able to find out that this podcast is being produced completely in-house, and not as the product of an external partnership like Modern Love, which is a collaboration with WBUR, and the now-defunct Ethicists podcast, which was produced with Panoply. For those keeping tabs at home, the organization is slated to produce a show with Pineapple Street Media, which we’ll probably be treated to sometime in the near future.

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Multi-story. This is interesting: ESPN is currently in the middle of a new multi-platform initiative that “could be a model for future storytelling at the sports network,” according to The Hollywood Reporter. The initiative, called Pin Kings, is a documentary narrative that follows the story of two former high school wrestling teammates that go on to be on different sides of the East Coast drug war.

The first phase of the initiative is a 16-episode podcast miniseries that drops new episodes every weekday. At this writing, we’re on episode 7, and the narrative is being unfolded through a mixture of host narrations — which are done by Brett Forrest, the reporter who has been working on this story for over a year, and producer Jon Fish — and subject interviews. The podcast will lead up to a one-hour primetime television special that’ll broadcast on ESPN2 August 22, which will then be followed by a big print feature on the August 26 issue of ESPN the Magazine.

Personally, I’m curious how all the platforms will complement one another in terms of audience development and management: How will audiences be aggregated across the different platforms, and how will they be monetized? Which leads us to a broader question: What level of monetization would make a podcast-involved multiplatform initiative like this worth it for ESPN, a massive and principally TV-driven operation (though not for long, possibly)? That’s a question, I believe, that’s a perfectly relevant query for all other major media organizations dabbling in podcast-land.

Bites:

    • “SoundCloud owners said to mull $1 billion sale of music service.” Pretty speculative article, but it’s worth monitoring this potential development if you’ve been relying on the service for revenue in any way. (Bloomberg)
  • “How NPR marketed the second season of its hit podcast Invisibilia.” Number to watch: The podcast has currently achieved 10 million downloads, according to the report, which is lower than the first season’s tally of 50 million downloads. Of course, these numbers are difficult to discern without an apples-to-apples time period, which we’re not given, and the report further notes that NPR has changed how it counts downloads in order to minimize the possibility of duplicate counts. (Digiday)
  • Podtrac’s July podcast publisher ranking report shows a lineup that’s virtually unchanged since June, with NPR holding the top spot ahead of WNYC Studios and This American Life. Though, as RAIN News notes, the report observed a 5 percent increase in unique streams and downloads this month compared to last. As always, the usual disclaimers about the ranker apply. (Podtrac, RAIN News)
  • The Guardian’s new interactive for the Rio Olympics: Pokémon Go meets Detour/walking tours. You knew it had to happen. (The Guardian)
  • Saavn, a New York-based digital distributor of primarily Bollywood and Indian regional audio entertainment, announced a new set of original spoken word programming last week. Keep an eye on this company, and keep an eye on India. (Yahoo Finance)
  • “When will YouTube deal with its audiobook and podcast piracy problem?” Yeah, YouTube. When are you gonna do dat. (Observer)

Yay Olympics.