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Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue ninety-six, published November 15, 2016.
Outlook. Last Tuesday’s shocking electoral conclusion has severe ramifications not just for the media generally — print and digital, legacy and new, mainstream and alternative — but also for podcasting specifically, whose position as an emerging industry would historically render it more susceptible to the fallout of uncertain economic and media environments. And make no mistake: We are marching straight into a thick fog of uncertainty.
Keep your eyes peeled for two things. First, a potential slowdown in advertising spending. Second, the significant possibility of an economic recession over the next few years, something that was already being predicted prior to this election and that some economists believe could be exacerbated by the proposed policies of the incoming administration. From The Wall Street Journal last Wednesday:
“Uncertainty is bad for ad spending growth,” said Jonathan Barnard, head of forecasting for Zenith, an ad buying and research arm of Publicis Groupe. Still, he said there will not be an “apocalyptic pullback” and just how much contraction occurs depends largely on how the economy performs and what specific moves the new administration makes.
And what of public radio? Keep your eye on the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), the federally funded organization whose financial support is essential to the health of the public media system. Familiarize yourself with two things:
1. The breakdown of NPR’s revenue sources, articulated best in this blog post from 2013 that highlights public radio’s dependence on CPB funding:
These station programming fees comprise a significant portion of NPR’s largest source of revenue. The loss of federal funding would undermine the stations’ ability to pay NPR for programming, thereby weakening the institution
Executives at podcast publishers are generally adopting a wait-and-see stance on the days to come. At least, that’s what I’ve found based on my email interactions with several over the past week. Many are bracing for impact — one phrased the situation this way: “I am placing higher probabilities on the downside cases in all of our financial models” — though there are a few that believe such concerns to be overblown. (“I wouldn’t worry about it,” one person said.)
“We’ve seen no signs of any slowdown,” Matt Lieber, president and cofounder of Gimlet Media, told me. “Obviously, if a recession happens, then ad budgets will get cut. But to be honest, we’re seeing so much growth in podcast spending right now that, even in recession, I would expect slowing growth, yes, but not negative growth.”
Hernan Lopez, founder of Wondery, submitted a more positive view: “I’ve never seen ad spend decline in a growing economy. In times of general market-driven anxiety, ad budgets may shift from a quarter to the next, or between different kinds of media, and if anything podcasting has more to gain than to lose.”
National Public Media’s Bryan Moffett noted that he remains “cautiously optimistic,” pointing out the strength of 2017 upfront buys and the medium’s steady quarter-over-quarter gains. “Niche media do tend to get cut faster in turbulent times, but I also wonder if podcasting will weather any storm better than history would predict,” he wrote. “We all know how effective podcasting can be in terms of marketers reaching the right audience with the right message. So, I think we’d need a pretty significant economic pullback before any real cuts come, and they’d probably come in line with everything else.”
An executive of an independent podcast network expressed some general concern, but pointed out that even if there is to be an ad-spending cooldown, direct response advertisers would likely stay within the medium, as they’ve already figured out how to assess and achieve the return-on-investments they want. Another person I spoke to posited a similar outcome — there will always be companies looking for people to sell things to, that person said — but did say to watch how companies engaged in direct response podcast marketing will fare moving forward.
We need to move on, but I’ll just quickly note three more things:
- This climate of uncertainty will be felt by every aspect of the podcast ecosystem, but it will be felt hardest by the community of independent producers and freelancers that provide labor, efficiency, and creativity to the space, these proprietors of small boats in a sea that thrashes from the movement of bigger ships.
- Given everything that we’re currently seeing in the nexus of media and politics, it seems imperative, now more so than ever, that podcasting remains open.
- Remember to donate to your local public radio station, people.
Okay, let’s go.
Radio Ambulante inks distribution deal with NPR. The public radio mothership will distribute, market, and promote the show across all of its platforms, including NPR.org and the NPR One app. I’m told to expect collaborations between Radio Ambulante and a number of other podcasts from the NPR newsroom like Code Switch, Latino USA, and Embedded. I’m also told that the show will have a presence on the weekend newsmagazines. The deal came out of conversations that started about a year ago, when NPR approached the Radio Ambulante team.
For the uninitiated, Radio Ambulante is a fully Spanish language narrative journalism project — in the vein of This American Life and Snap Judgment — focusing on stories from Latin America and Latino communities in the United States. The show was founded in 2011 by Daniel Alarcón, Carolina Guerrero, Martina Castro, and Annie Correal. (Castro and Correal have since left the team.) Radio Ambulante is widely loved and critically acclaimed, and received the Gabriel García Marquez Prize for Innovation in Journalism in 2014.
Alarcón told me that the team intends to expand in the near future. “We have to see where we stand early next year, but I think we have to grow in order to fulfill our mission,” he said. “This deal will help us get there.”
The show will roll out its latest season on November 22. The news was formally announced early on Tuesday, but the gossip trickled out at the Third Coast Festival in Chicago this past weekend.
A Serial spinoff? Speaking of Third Coast, I wasn’t able to be there myself this year, but I wish I had been, because this bit of news was apparently announced at a presentation by Serial’s executive producer Julie Snyder. The details, cobbled together from tweets by attendees: A Serial spinoff will debut in March. It will be hosted by This American Life producer Brian Reed, and it will be an “artsy” and “novelistic” seven-part series set in Alabama, following “a man who despises the town he’s lived in all his life and decides to do something about it.” Cool.
Audible expands comedy offerings on its Channels lineup, stacking its deck with audio shows from comedians like Will Arnett, Nick Offerman, and Eugene Mirman. The new slate also features something called “Audible Comedy Specials,” a programming channel that bears strong structural similarities to the comedy special blocks you’d find on television networks like HBO and Comedy Central. It’s kind of a shrewd move, efficiently tapping into the well-established sub-community of comedy podcasts and, on the supply side, offering comedy producers yet another platform to monetize a given performance.
This expansion likely draws from a supply and production infrastructure established by Rooftop Media, the company’s West Coast-based, comedy-focused arm. Audible acquired Rooftop Media back in October 2014.
Meanwhile, in Canada: The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) isn’t cool with third-party podcast apps distributing its programming with in-app ads served on top, according to a report by Canadaland. Specifically, the CBC “has sent legal threats to at least one third-party podcast app developer for serving ads without a prior agreement with the broadcaster.” The corporation is also blocking the presence of its programming on those apps. The exact apps that are affected are not confirmed, though the article highlights the Podcast Republic app and also points out the other apps that adopt the in-app ad practice, like Stitcher, Overcast, and Podcast Addict. Hit up Canadaland for more details on this story.
“The wrong format for the moment?” Josh Nathan-Kazis, a staff writer at The Forward, published a string of tweets (a tweetstorm, as the kids call it) that mounted an intriguing critique of the political roundtable podcast format in the wake of last Tuesday’s election. Reproduced here, with some streamlining:
An item for the media post-mortem: The political roundtable podcast turns out to have been exactly the wrong format for the moment…They’re cheap to produce, and fun to half-listen to while doing the dishes.
And there was a lot to talk about. It felt like you could understand the election through the roundtables. Everyone was so smart. Knew what they were talking about. The intimacy inherent to podcasting made them addictive: Hang out with the smart kids each week and they’ll tell you all you need to know.
On Tuesday, it turned out the smart kids were wrong. Some were flagrantly, smugly, obnoxiously wrong. Others were a bit wrong. They weren’t uniquely wrong. But there’s something about that intimacy that makes their particular wrongness feel almost like a betrayal. I wonder how much we really learned from these podcasts. They were closed loops; arguments among friends, played for entertainment.
And were we really trying to learn? Did anyone go to Keepin’ It 1600 or Slate’s Political Gabfest for anything but affirmation? And if that was just 2016’s “unskewing,” then maybe these shows were more harmful than we realized. Ear candy. If we’d spent a bit less time listening to our radio buddies joke about “bedwetters,” maybe we wouldn’t have been so surprised this week. (To be fair, Keepin’ It 1600’s post-election mea culpa episode on Wednesday was really good.)
Put simply: did the political roundtable podcast glut of the 2016 election cycle fail us?
There is a lot to think through here, and I’ll start by saying that the strokes being painted here are way too broad. (And Nathan-Kazis qualified them as such in follow-ups.) At the heart of this critique, I think, are two central ideas: The first is the explicit notion that the insular space created by the roundtable podcast either leads to or creates a greater probability of confirmation bias, and the second is an implicit sense that the media product supplied by these shows exacerbates a potential negative tendency among consumers to use these media products, some journalism and some not so much, as a crutch as opposed to one of many tools of news and information.
The first idea can be straightforwardly interrogated: My immediate reaction is to argue that the risk of confirmation bias here is less linked to the format itself than it is to the participants of the roundtable. Which is to say, it’s not the tool, it’s the wielder; failures, where they existed, were specific to the show, not general to the form. We were awash with election podcasts this cycle, but there were definable differences between shows that were explicitly journalistic in intent (like the NPR Politics Podcast) and shows that were rooted more in a classical sense of punditry (like Keepin’ It 1600, which was consumed by many as therapy and which, interestingly enough, now appears to be the mirror image of conservative talk radio). Those are two very separate product types with very different relationships to the journalistic position, and speaking personally, my experience of what I now recognize to be confirmation bias between the two shows was dramatically different.
The second idea is harder to parse. Essentially, it attends to what appears to be a causal question: does the sense of comfortable insularity conjured by these podcasts somehow discourage listeners from seeking out additional or competing viewpoints? Attempts to unpack the question only leads to further inquiries: is it even possible to prove a causal relationship? Is there a certain condescension in this causal hypothesis — one that suggests news consumers to be anything other than perfectly intelligent adults who will take the time to fully read complex pieces, verify sources, balance out their information intake, and check their biases on their own? To whom does the responsibility of information fall: those who produce the information, or those who consume information? These are fundamental questions akin to those pertaining to corporate social responsibility on the part of the information producers; I am tempted to think that governance is required, but government often seems antithetical to the productive creation and free flow of information.
Nathan-Kazis’ point on the medium’s intimacy triggering a stronger feeling of betrayal hits closer to home, as it highlights the previously unrealized problem that emerges from the design premise of many of these roundtable podcasts, particularly those produced by journalistic institutions like Slate and FiveThirtyEight. The conceit of such shows is to give listeners a sense of what journalists or experts are talking about in spaces separate from the performed professionalism of the public platform; after all, what is said on the front page is far from what was debated in editorial discussions leading up to an article’s final construction or what was discussed on a human level at the bar afterwards. The basic idea in these setups is to engender trust in the people and the process, not just the product. But when the people and the process fail, the cut feels so much deeper, and it is incredibly hard to win that trust — that sense of comfort and safety (which is perhaps the problem?) — back.
That intimacy and sense of process, however, proved essential to how several non-political roundtable podcasts played the role of therapy for many with their post-election episodes. And it is perhaps here that the roundtable conventions are unambiguously valuable. Shows like Call Your Girlfriend, Still Processing, Nerdette, and The Read all provided listeners with personal spaces of communion — spaces to be alone but together, to feel and process the scope of the night’s events, to emotionally prepare for the days to come.
So, did the political roundtable podcast fail us in 2016? Some did, some didn’t; but the problem listeners face is the fact of living in a world where both successes and failures — emerging from both journalistic and non-journalistic sources — exist, flatly, within the same platform, the same space, the same context.
A media format is a tool; it is only as strong, and only as right, as its practitioners. Whether we screw it up or not, podcasting’s core value proposition is always going to be there for us all: a distinct ability to create a space to talk things through, to feel things out, to let doubt grip you. If anything, maybe the lesson here is that we should have leaned more into conveying doubt. A scene from On The Media’s bonus episode, dropped the day after the elections:
Bob Garfield: “What I most hope… is that we are not all passengers on the ship of fools.”
Brooke Gladstone: “What the fuck does that mean?”
Relevant: Melody Joy Kramer on Poynter — “Spread your masthead across the country, and other ideas to prevent groupthink”
- For those keeping tally, add the following companies to the list of brands making their own podcasts: InterContinental Hotel, Avion Tequila, State Farm Insurance. (AdWeek)
- Refinery29 is launching what appears to be a combined podcast-newsletter product, called “UnStyled.” The last example I heard of such a product combination was WBUR’s “The Magic Pill” project. (Refinery29)
- “The story so far: Fiction podcasts take their next steps” (New York Times)
- “Where political talk radio is driven by a sense of community, not partisanship” (CJR)
- DGital Media launches the latest show under its new partnership with Sports Illustrated, “The Seth Davis Podcast.” (SI.com)
- Meanwhile, in Australia: The Wheeler Center and the Audiocraft conference are collaborating to launch “The Australian Audio Guide,” “an online companion to the best Australian podcasts and radio features.” (Link)
This shortened version of Hot Pod has been adapted for Nieman Lab, where it appears each Tuesday. You can subscribe to the full newsletter here. You can also support Hot Pod by becoming a member, which gets you more news, deeper analysis, and exclusive interviews; more information on the website.
Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue seventy-nine, published July 12, 2016.
Audible pulls Channels out of beta. Well, it’s finally here: The spoken audio entertainment arm of Amazon has officially launched Channels, a new “short-form audio”-focused subscription service that will come packaged with the originally audiobook-oriented Audible app. The service has been in beta since April. In case you missed the writeups by The New York Times and Bloomberg, here’s the low-down: The feature is available to existing Audible members (who already pay $14.95 a month for the service) and will cost $4.95 a month for non-members who want access Channels content without having to deal with those pesky audiobooks. Offerings range from audio digests of publications like Forbes and Harvard Business Review to standup comedy recordings to ad-free versions of popular podcasts like WNYC’s Radiolab and Radiotopia’s The Truth.
Oh, and original Audible programming, of course. I mean, that’s the real cause for speculation and excitement, isn’t it? The service launched last week with four original products — an interview show featuring writer Ashley Ford called Authorized; a texture-driven documentary series about New York City called Mortal City that, quite frankly, is more than a little reminiscent of Radio Diaries; a Mary Roach-esque narrative show featuring stories about the human breast by writer Florence Williams called Breasts Unbound; and another narrative show that serves quirky stories about American presidents hosted by historian Alexis Coe and comedian Elliott Kalan called Presidents Are People Too! — along with the teaser for an upcoming project called The Butterfly Effect, which will feature the offbeat stylings of author and occasional This American Life contributor Jon Ronson.
“You’re seeing the first half dozen this week,” Eric Nuzum, Audible’s senior vice president of original content, said in a recent interview with Nieman Lab, referring to the original programming rollout. “But what will surprise people is how often we’re putting out material at the level we’re doing.” According to the writeup, the rate translates to about one new show every one or two weeks, with 40 projects being baked in the pipeline. Seasonal considerations will also impact rollout decisions. When we spoke at the Podcast Movement conference in Chicago last week, Nuzum told me to keep a particular eye out for the launches in September, hinting towards the release of more interesting projects during that period — a choice that was made to reflect generally higher on-demand audio engagements in the fall compared to the slower summertime.
So here it is: the long-awaited play from the 500-pound gorilla that’s been creepin’, quietly but surely, at the edges of the podcasting pond. The question is, of course, whether Audible can convert its infinite pool of potential into some form of tangible dominance over non-music audio. And will it fully change the way we think about, produce, and consume the stuff we used to throw over the airwaves and down RSS feeds?
Time will tell, obviously. But three things for now:
- Audible has, to some extent, already won the battle to become the “Netflix for podcasts,” or “spoken audio,” or whatever it is you want to call non-music audio programming. After all, the company long ago beat the fundamental barrier to entry for any subscription content business: a critical mass of paid customers, which it cultivated and solidified through its years outmaneuvering and outpacing its relatively technologically flat-footed competitors in the book publishing business before sidestepping into podcasts and non-music audio content more broadly. By expanding its understanding of the product it serves and reducing audiobooks into one of many product categories that it will deal with, Audible instantly holds a tremendous structural advantage over any newcomers — including Howl, Midroll’s own attempt at a subscription audio content play that mixes back catalogues with original programming.
- That said, Audible’s opening structural advantage can still be undermined in the long run, with the key battleground being the strength of its inventory over time. And while we’re literally in Channels’ first month at play, I will say that its initial slate of original programming strikes me as conceptually underwhelming. None of the Audible Originals seem particularly fresh, either in terms of subject matter or sheer structure and form. Authorized can be shuffled into a deck made up of Longform, Writers Who Don’t Write, The Guardian Books Podcast, and Between the Covers. Breasts Unbound can be slotted into a stable made up of Invisibilia, Hidden Brain, and Only Human. And even Jon Ronson’s The Butterfly Effect seems to be the product of fairly straightforward strategic thinking — so straightforward, in fact, that Panoply’s already done it, except with Malcolm Gladwell.Which is not to say that the shows aren’t good, or that I won’t eagerly pay $4.95 for the privilege of consuming some if not most of these projects. I enjoy Presidents Are People Too! a hell of a lot, and I will gleefully suck all the marrow out of anything Jon Ronson whips up. It’s just that the slate feels a lot like something you’d call Audiobooks+.
(Alternatively, the goal may well be to produce shows that are structurally familiar to other podcasts but are either best-in-class or good enough, to a point where Audible users are satiated enough to not go looking for shows of similar categories off the Channels platform. Programming is only part of the value proposition; convenience is another.)
And that’s a bit of a shame, considering Audible’s sheer potential to take insane risks without having to worry about conventional audience goals driven by advertising needs. Give me a musical, give me neo-Finnegan’s Wake, give me whatever’s the audio equivalent of Broad City or Terrence Malick. Give me something I’ve never heard before.
- But perhaps that was never the direction Audible was meant to go. I’m reminded of something Nuzum told me for a Q&A I ran back in April: “It really is not a question of what shows we create. The question we ask is: What do people want to listen to?” And reckoning, for a moment, with the fact that the Audible data that informs Nuzum’s thinking is essentially data about audiobook consumers, it’s no wonder that we’re seeing these projects: more Jon Ronsons, more Mary Roach-esque compositions, and so on. When people indicate what they want by indicating what they once wanted, there’s only so much you can see beyond the frontier.Which raises the question: Who, then, will bring us to the next, next thing?
A curious partnership in ad tech. AdsWizz, a digital audio ad tech company, announced the launch of something called PodWave last week, which the company bills as “the first ad marketplace specifically created to meet the needs of podcasts.”
What does that mean, exactly? The theoretical purpose of a technologically-enabled advertising marketplace like PodWave is to serve as the platform upon which publishers can sell ad spots and marketers can buy them more efficiently. What “efficient” means can play out in a number of ways, including (1) the enablement of transactions at scale, (2) the increase of control among advertisers and marketers over the shape and depth of their campaigns, and (3) a similar increase in expectation and accountability of returns through stronger metrics, improved targeting capacities, and the implementation of best practices and creative executions, among other things. Podcast advertising, in its current form, still remains relatively high-touch and artisanal, with advertisers and agencies working directly with publishers to make bids, process buys, and evaluate campaigns. (Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing; such high-touch advertising workflows are probably desirable for podcast publishers that want full control over their value narrative and sales processes.)
AdsWizz’s press release didn’t get specific on how the platform measures up to those markers of efficiency, but what’s notable is its partnership with National Public Media (NPM), the sponsorship sales arm for NPR and PBS. NPM’s involvement with AdsWizz appears to be significant, with Ad Age reporting that NPM will assemble a “special team to sell PodWave and help marketers tailor their messages” in the podcast format — a situation that sees NPM playing a sort of ambassadorial role aimed at recruiting publishers. According to the Ad Age writeup, AdsWizz CEO Alexis van de Wyer has stated that “over 500 shows and publishers will participate” in the marketplace, though he declined to provide specific names. We’ll see how the marketplace shapes up, and whether marketers will bite, in the months to come. I imagine that if AdsWizz’s gambit is successful, it could encourage more advertisers to invest in the medium.
This is the second time in recent months that NPM has thrown its weight and reputation behind another company in an effort to encourage industry-wide formalization. When the podcast measurement company Podtrac announced its industry rankings project back in May — an initiative that could well help more advertisers ease into medium — NPM chipped in on the accompanying press release, with NPM general manager Bryan Moffett providing the quote: “With Podtrac’s monthly industry rankings and unique audience metrics, advertisers now have a view of not only the combined audience size across NPR’s many podcasts, but can compare our reach to other publishers to more accurately plan their podcast media buys.”
Smooth moves, NPM. Smooth.
High-level staffing changes at NPR. Some personnel changes to note at the public radio mothership, with some major implications for folks shopping around their projects:
- Steve Nelson is the organization’s new director of programming. He was previously American Public Media’s director of on-demand programming, where he led the launch of the Infinite Guest podcast network in August 2014 which distributes on-demand versions of The Dinner Party Download, Too Beautiful To Live, and KPCC’s The Mash-Up Americans, among others. Nelson will reportedly front NPR’s “new anchor entertainment weekend programming” and assist with new podcast development. He starts in August, and will continue working from his current base in Minnesota.
- N’Jeri Eaton joins NPR as senior manager for program acquisition, where she will be in charge of sourcing new external talent and programming to be brought into the organization. She was previously the content development and initiative manager at the Independent Television Service, an organization principally backed by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting that supports the development of independent filmmaking. According to the press release, Eaton will the organization’s “first point of contact for program idea pitches from outside contributors to NPR,” so keep that in mind, folks!
Also: Israel Smith has been promoted to senior director of promotion and audience development. He was previously the organization’s director of programming, the role that Steve Nelson now holds.
Two new distribution points for Libsyn. Last week, the stalwart podcast hosting platform company announced that podcasts hosted on its platform can now be consumed on iHeartRadio, the digital audio arm of iHeartMedia, the media giant formerly known as Clear Channel. The service reportedly has more than 85 million registered users, though it should be noted that its monthly active user count is unclear. (For comparison: Pandora has 250 million registered users and 78 million monthly active users around the end of 2015, according to Digital Music News.) Still, it’s a new point of access for podcasts, and I suppose it’s also worth noting that iHeartRadio’s app is one of the stronger brands available on connected cars.
Also worth noting: This isn’t iHeartMedia’s first foray into podcasting. The company previously partnered with livestreaming/podcast hybrid company Spreaker in 2014 to serve as a distribution point for its content, and back in June, it collaborated with the coworking space company WeWork to produce what appears to be a branded podcast about entrepreneurship. That podcast initiative was part of a much larger project called Work Radio, which involves iHeartRadio developing a live radio station for the WeWork network of campuses. Yep, it’s strange, but frankly, so is much of the radio industry.
Libsyn also debuted a new feature last week that lets its users publish podcasts on YouTube more easily, according to a MediaShift writeup. The measure and depth to which audio-only podcasts (as opposed to video-audio podcast hybrids) are consumed on YouTube remains unclear on the aggregate, but certain networks — like Night Vale Presents and the Loud Speakers Network — have seen considerable engagement on the platform in the past when they’ve repackage their episodes as videos with static images. (Depending on the show, both networks enjoy YouTube views in the tens of thousands. Examples can be found here and here.)
- From a panel at the recent Podcast Movement conference: The IAB will be releasing a standards guideline for podcasting metrics sometime in the next quarter.
- The nascent L.A.-based Wondery network picks up the increasingly popular true crime podcast Sword and Scale, expanding its true crime and audio drama-heavy lineup to ten shows overall. This development comes shortly after the announcement of the network’s first original production, Found, which is set to premiere on July 13.
- A couple of ESPN job postings have been kicking about indicating the organization’s intent to develop an audio-version of its insanely popular 30 for 30 documentary brand. Having just burned through much of the series’ eight-hour doc on O.J. Simpson, I’m incredibly psyched for this. (Disney Careers)
- John Sheehan, a producer on WHYY’s Fresh Air, has a new podcast for kids called The Radio Adventures of Eleanor Amplified, and it’s oodles of fun. It also appears to be the product of an internal station competition — one of those bakeoffs I keep hearing about — according to a writeup on Current. Terry Gross previewed it on the Fresh Air podcast feed last week. (WHYY)
- And while we’re on the subject of kids podcasts, here’s a related read: “Who says kids don’t have podcasts? Here are 18 choices from public radio” by Melody Joy Kramer. (Poynter)
This 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.