The New York Times Opinion is launching a podcast

Prominent, storied, and consistently controversial, the New York Times’ Opinion section often feels like a part of the news organization that’s distinct unto itself. It is also uniquely powerful within the Times. Tyson Evans, NYT Opinion’s senior editor for strategy and product, tells me that the section is often the most-read section among all the journalism the Times publishes each day. It is only natural, then, that such an audience engine should have a podcast of its own — and soon, it will.

Called The Argument, the weekly Opinion podcast will feature columnists David Leonhardt, Michelle Goldberg, and Ross Douthat (plus special guests) guiding listeners through the news cycle with their commentary and analysis. In other words, it is yet another entry in the exceptionally saturated genre of roundtable political podcasts, which includes the Slate Political Gabfest, Vox’s The Weeds, Pod Save America, and even Chapo Trap House.

Podcasts in this genre tend to be differentiated by the strength of publisher’s brand along with the individual appeal and connecting chemistry of its panelists. Evans submits that The Argument’s particular edge will apparently come from the oppositional ideologies of the three core anchors. “There are not many [political podcasts] who have worldviews as different as Ross, Michelle and David do,” he said. ”Ross is an intellectual, religious conservative. Michelle is a proud progressive. David’s politics are heterodox center-left. We think there is real value in their honestly hashing out the most complicated issues of the day and striving to understand each other’s positions.”

The show will also routinely draw from the section’s deep bench of columnists, all of whom will presumably bring their followings into the listener mix. Seems like a useful back-pocket move to have, from an audience development perspective.

It’s worth noting that the Times’ in-house audio team won’t be handling the show’s day-to-day production. Instead, they’ve farmed out duties to to Transmitter Media, the boutique podcast studio founded by former Midroll Media executive producer Gretta Cohn. The specific producers on task are Alex Laughlin, who was part of BuzzFeed’s recently laid-off podcast team, and freelancer Ryan Kailath. The Times’ audio team is said to remain involved in shaping the show’s identity, assisting with research, and developing an audience strategy.

So, here’s my thing about this story: I think it’s a no-brainer for the Opinion section to put out some audio product. I have no special insight into the data on this, but I’ve long suspected that there are chunks of the Times readership who primarily get their news through the columns of Frank Bruni, Gail Collins, and Paul Krugman. (In Krugman’s case, it’s news and music recommendations.) I’m thinking, specifically, about my septuagenarian father-in-law in the Mountain West who, while quirky in many ways, is also more representative of a big chunk of the “average American news consumer” that’s demographically separate from myself or my murderous millennial cohort that lives and dies by the push notification.

I also think that given the Opinion section’s… let’s-call-it-unique place in media and the wider culture, there is a ton of room to build a show that’s more formally adventurous than a basic round-table show. Maybe The Argument will be a really good conversational podcast; we’ll find out soon enough. It’ll probably do good business. But the fact of the matter is: these are not normal times, no sirree. These are emotional, difficult, harrowing, “why the hell are there white nationalists” times. And as much as you need the right journalists to step up to the plate, you also need the right formats to step up as well.

The Argument will roll out its first episode this Thursday.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grab your space suits, fellas.

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

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

Public radio genes run deep.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tip of the hat, Louisville.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[storybreak]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[storybreak]

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

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

Bites:

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

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

Alexa, can you get my kid to brush his teeth? (Oh, and Alexa? How exactly can I make money with you?)

Chomping at the bit. “Gimlet is a multimedia storytelling brand, not just a podcast network,” declared Jenny Wall, the company’s newly hired chief marketing officer, in a Fast Company piece in January. That identity refashioning is mostly tethered to Gimlet’s increasingly formalized dealings with Hollywood, but it’s beginning to rear its head in other intriguing ways as well.

Last Thursday, Gimlet announced its first offering for the Amazon Alexa platform: Chompers, a skill that takes the form of a twice-daily toothbrushing companion for young children. To produce the skill, the podcast company partnered with Volley, a San Francisco-based startup that specializes in building entertainment products for voice assistants. They’re also releasing Chompers as a vanilla podcast for those who have yet to join the smart speaker cult.

This is a shrewd piece of business for two reasons. The first is hunger: The kids, they really love those speaking computer tubes. According to Edison Research and NPR’s Smart Audio report, 88 percent of smart speaker owners whose households include children report that said children really, really enjoy Alexa. And while I’m not a fan of anecdotal evidence, I will say I’ve seen this myself and let me tell ya: The level of fervor is genuinely frightening. (Bigger picture: Health experts are apparently warily optimistic about the relationship between kids and smart speakers, though concerns about data privacy seem to be the more prominent thorn.)

The second reason is money: The first season of Chompers, we’re told, is sponsored by Oral-B and Crest Kids. With this move, Gimlet has made the choice to dive headfirst into the ethical hairiness of advertising to children, which is a can of worms commonly tossed about in discussions about kids podcasts. It’s also a notable attempt to grapple with an Alexa development environment that’s ambiguous about how it allows skill developers to monetize their efforts. More on that in a second.

The Wall Street Journal’s Ben Mullin picked up the story, which you should totally check out in full, but there are three nuggets in there you shouldn’t miss:

  • Gimlet has hired a voice director to lead further content development for voice assistants: Wilson Standish, formerly the director of innovation at the marketing agency Hearts & Science.
  • (Brand) money moves: “In 2017, more than half of Gimlet Media’s ad revenue came from brand advertisers, according to Anna Sullivan, vice president of brand partnerships for the company. Ms. Sullivan added that the company’s brand advertising revenue grew 134 percent in 2017 compared with 2016.”
  • Gimlet president Matt Lieber re-emphasized the company’s commitment to audio: “The way I think about Gimlet is that we’re trying to build a new kind of modern media company where everything begins in audio.”

The company continues to sprawl into a myriad of directions, and it occurs to me that Gimlet’s narrative these days has mostly been about its meta-show developments and much less about the actual shows themselves. Anyway, I think they’re due to announce a spring slate soon, so maybe we’ll start getting more of that too.

Okay, back to making money off Alexa. So it’s a complicated situation. Chompers emerges against an Alexa development environment that happens to ban all third-party ads (with some exceptions for music and flash briefing apps). It’s also an environment that seems to encourage advertisers and brands to directly create or commission skills themselves; a sort of Alexa-skill equivalent of the branded podcast. For further consideration of this, I highly recommend this Wired piece, “Amazon’s Alexa Wants You To Talk To Your Ads,” from December.

All of this amounts to a deeply uncertain context for audio publishers thinking about investing time and resources in creating a presence on the platform. Even if the smart speaker category feels really exciting in general, it’s incredibly hard for publishers to figure out a decent way to yield returns — a problem exacerbated by Amazon’s total and often opaque governance of the Alexa platform. It’s a familiar conundrum: You want to be a part of something on the up and up before you miss it, but what are you really getting if the nature of the thing is so capricious and beyond your control?

With Chompers, Gimlet appears to have figured out a loose workaround. Oral-B and Crest Kids are indeed sponsors, but according to Amazon’s rules, the Chompers skill can’t convey the sponsorship of the two brands at all. However, the usual ad spots will be present on the podcast version, which will receive the usual cross-promotion treatment across its show portfolio. A spokesperson further told me:

We are also including P&G in all our marketing materials, including social, promotional boxes/kits with Oral-B and Crest Kids products, an Echo Dot, etc. to pediatric dentists in NY SF LA and Seattle, celebs, press and parenting influencers, etc.

P&G, by the way, refers to Procter & Gamble, the multinational consumer goods corporation that owns both Oral-B and Crest. The move with promotional materials leans onto a larger marketing theory: By virtue of its relative monopoly over dental hygiene products, P&G will likely benefit from any broader lift in general toothbrushing practices — which, you know, is both terrifying in its expression of corporate monopoly and also a value-creation hypothesis I’d totally explore if I were said corporate monopoly.

Again, these feel like cobbled-together workarounds, and the larger problem of how one can derive meaningful revenue through voice assistant platforms remains very much up in the air. Two more things to that point:

  • I’m tempted to think that what we’ll see over the long run with the Echo is a media ecosystem akin to YouTube: a closed, centralized platform that largely leads to the creation of a content type unique to itself. As such, if you’re a purveyor of fine podcast products, the choice of developing programming for Alexa is ultimately an optional one — but one that requires its own infrastructures, teams, and playbooks. Which is probably why Gimlet hiring a dedicated director of voice makes sense.
  • There’s something about the current demographics of smart speaker users that makes me think it’s a good tool for audio publishers to deepen their relationship with superfans. Drawing from the various Smart Audio reports, these users are highly engaged, display increased audio consumption behaviors, and appear inclined to use the device as a mechanism to make purchases. Seems like a ripe constellation of traits for an audio publisher looking to build out a subscription or freemium model.

But yeah, I don’t know. The more I think about it, the more unsettled I get. If I were a podcast publisher, I’d be incredibly wary of dedicating too much of myself to Alexa. I don’t know where this particular road goes, but it certainly reminds me of the many, many roads that have ended badly.

Chaser: Then again, maybe it’s not a good idea to build out a distribution presence on a sentient platform? “Amazon Alexa Devices Are Laughing Spontaneously And It’s ‘Bone Chillingly Creepy'” (BuzzFeed).

While we’re on the subject of kids podcasts: Gen-Z Media, which joined PRX’s portfolio of clients back in January, has announced a new slate of shows for the spring: The Mayan Crystal, Six Minutes, and a game show called Pants on Fire.

Of particular note is Gen-Z’s new website, dubbed Best Robot Ever, which functions as its new consumer-facing online home that also features programming from kids podcast publishers outside its network.

Clustering. Two months after wrapping Heaven’s Gate, Stitcher has rolled out another podcast that sticks with the theme of cults and cult-ish movements. The new show is called Dear Franklin Jones, and it’s by Jonathan Hirsch, most known for creating the independent podcast ARRVLS.

I liked the first episode enough (and loved the tinkly retro theme music), but what’s up with Stitcher and cults? This reminds me of the twin films phenomenon, except, of course, this isn’t an instance of semi-serendipitous cross-industry synchronicity, it’s just one publisher being fixated on a subject. Anyway, shouts to 1997, when Hollywood released both Volcano and Dante’s Peak within two months of each other, and to 1998, which saw Armageddon and Deep Impact come out within a similar chunk of time.

Anyway, I’d just like to flag that Dear Franklin Jones is another example of Stitcher working the windowing angle to drive more Stitcher Premium conversions through its original programming. The podcast debuted last week with new episodes weekly, but Jonesheads can access the whole run of episodes now if they signed up for Stitcher Premium.

For the record: I go back and forth debating the merits of windowing arrangements like this. I mean, I get it. By virtue of being a short-run series, Dear Franklin Jones is considerably harder to monetize than a longer-term recurring production, simply because there’s a much shorter runway to develop an active listenership and monetize the “head” of the production. As such, I completely empathize with the need to break out complementary channels for revenue.

But the tradeoff involves dampening the upside should it become a hit during its original run. The option to let listeners pay up and instantly access the rest of the show potentially diffuses the listenership and attention; you’d get two populations experiencing the show at different speeds, and are therefore less likely to participate in the same kinds of conversations. We see a version of this diffusion in the streaming vs. linear television context: Streaming platforms Netflix and Amazon Prime Video simply haven’t seemed capable of driving conversations with the same fervor and intensity that linear networks like HBO have consistently been able to do. I guess what I’m saying is: Scared money don’t make money, but I get it.

It’s a tough balance to strike, and I don’t envy podcast programming chiefs juggling the twin facts that (a) there seems to be genuine hunger for great, high-quality short-run podcasts and (b) they’re so much harder to monetize within the current system. And I imagine this will come to a head for Stitcher when the network rolls out its collaboration with Marvel, Wolverine: The Long Night. That show will debut exclusively on Stitcher Premium next Monday, before going wide in the fall.

The Big Listen ends. WAMU will cease production on the Lauren Ober-hosted broadcast about podcasts after “the program in its current format didn’t gain the traction with other NPR stations that we required to continue the investment in its weekly production,” the station announced Friday.

Keep an eye on Spotify. The Swedish music streaming service finally filed to go public on the New York Stock Exchange last week, and the big story thread is how it will pursue a relatively unconventional (and consequently riskier) route to do so. Recode has a helpful summary of the move — Theodore Schleifer writes: “There are no bankers that will underwrite the listing, meaning no one is trying to make a market for shares. There are no institutional investors who will get first dibs at their shares who could prop up Spotify’s value. And a lot of the rules that are meant to keep a stock from soaring or crashing are out the window” — and I also found Andrew Flanagan’s writeup over at NPR helpful to grasp the bigger picture.

You should check out Flanagan’s entire piece, but here’s the money:

Let’s take [Spotify CEO Daniel] Ek at his word here and assume he truly, deeply would like to pay creators as much as humanly possible, enough to survive on their creativity, while at the same time continue to operate a globally dominant technology company. To do that, Ek and Spotify may need to remove other players from the equation — or as he puts it, “break free of their medium’s constraints.” Ek isn’t talking about the constraints of human hearing or the constraints of creating beautiful and challenging sounds. He’s talking about the constraints represented by an industry of fiefdoms. It sounds as though he’d like the job of king.

So why should we care about Spotify again? As a reminder, the platform has made various attempts — albeit in the form of tentative minor experiments — to build out programming alternatives to its core music offering, a good chunk of which revolves around podcasts and non-music audio content. These attempts are ongoing, and to this date they have manifested themselves in a few different ways including: basic third-party podcast distribution (both through manual submission and through new partnerships with Anchor and Spreaker), original content creation (some of which are produced by podcast shops like Panoply and Transmitter), exclusive windowing arrangements (e.g. Gimlet Media with Mogul and WNYC Studios with 2 Dope Queens), and a new multimedia initiative called Spotlight.

According to the F-1, the music streaming platform boasts 159 million monthly users and 71 million paid Premium subscribers as of December 31st, 2017. The document also spotlight’s the company’s apparent emphasis on expanding “non-music content and user experience,” listed within the growth strategy section. Note the following disclosure:

There were a total of 348 million podcast listeners across all platforms worldwide at the end of 2016 and the number of podcast listeners increased to an estimated 484 million in 2017 according to Ovum, representing growth of 39% year-over-year. This engagement presents a significant opportunity for Spotify as we believe we have the ability to enhance the podcast User experience with a better product that is focused on discovery.

I’m not sure how Ovum, the business intelligence service referenced here, counts a “podcast listener,” but the growth rate is notable nonetheless. For what it’s worth, I’m a heavy user of Spotify for podcast listening, mostly because it works better with my data plan and I often spend huge chunks of the day without Wifi. Then again, I’m the guy that hits Chipotle before 11 a.m. to beat the lunch rush. Which is to say, I’m no indicator of anybody.

Related story: iHeartMedia is preparing to file for bankruptcy, Bloomberg reports.

Career Spotlight. We’re back at it again. This week, I traded emails with Vanessa Lowe, the creator of Nocturne, an independent podcast that’s part of The Heard collective. She’s based in Berkeley, California, which I hear has a hoppin’ radio scene these days.

[storybreak]

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

[conr]Vanessa Lowe: I produce and host the podcast, Nocturne. I’m also a freelance radio producer and do occasional freelance sound editing for independent films. Most of what I’m doing these days is Nocturne, since it’s largely a one-person show. I do 99 percent of the research, interviewing, writing, music supervision, sound editing, mixing, and promotion.[/conr]

[conl]Hot Pod: How did you get to this point?[/conl]

[conr]Lowe: My career has been less of an arc then a strange, but enjoyable, jagged line. I call myself a “dormant psychologist” because I have a doctorate in clinical psychology but haven’t done any work in that field for a long time. I also spent many years being a performing singer-songwriter-guitarist and released five albums.

In 2008, I produced my first longform radio documentary with no training or experience. That was great fun and the piece was actually aired by several public radio stations around the country. I learned two key things from that experience: I loved making audio stories, and I had a lot to learn. That led me to take a workshop on longform audio documentary production from Claire Schoen, a wonderful veteran radio producer in Berkeley. After the workshop, I became her intern, and eventually an associate producer on her multimedia project about rising sea levels. I worked on that project for two years while producing a couple more docs on my own and with collaborators. I grew more confident making audio, but soon grew tired of working for a year or more on one story. Podcasts were picking up at that point, and I got really excited about the idea of an ongoing project that would have variety and novelty by virtue of being composed of individual episodes. That excitement, combined with my curiosity and complicated relationship with the night, led to Nocturne.

I found learning opportunities everywhere. AIR hooked me up for a mentorship. I did the Transom Travelling Workshop on Catalina Island. Shortly after that, my partner, Kent Sparling, and I entered the KCRW 24-Hour Radio Race and ended up in the top ten (we called ourselves Sleep Mice). I became a founding member of The Heard shortly after starting Nocturne. The Heard is a collective of other indie podcasts, all sharing an ethos of wanting to build things that had unique voices as well as a desire to support and learn from each other.

Having come from the indie music world, I initially felt hesitant to bring on ads to Nocturne. It is first and foremost an artistic project with a distinctive emotional atmosphere. I was concerned that ads would diminish that. I tried to find other ways to support the show, but ultimately came to embrace the advertising model. However, I remain picky about what kinds of ads I do and the tone they take. This shift in mindset came in part from my experience at the first Werk It Festival in New York, where sage female producers spoke convincingly about the importance of placing financial value on your work. At this point, I work with a few different podcast ad companies.[/conr]

[conl]Hot Pod: What does a career mean to you, at this point?[/conl]

[conr]Lowe: For some reason I’ve always had a hard time with the word “career,” maybe because I’ve rarely felt like an “expert.” I’m always acutely aware of everything there is to learn. But when I think about what career means for me, it has always involved doing something — or multiple things — that I love, feels valuable, and connects with other people in a meaningful way. Some of that has to do with lofty ideals, but honestly I think a lot of it has to do with only being able to sustain interest and motivation in things that really absorb me.

I often fall into the trap of undervaluing what I do from a financial perspective, though, because it feels like such a privilege to get to experience such joy. I’ve only just recently started calling Nocturne “my business.” I need to remind myself that work has value even if it’s really, really fun. But there’s always the fear that something that becomes a “business” will cease to be intrinsically pleasurable.[/conr]

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

[conr]Lowe: When I moved into audio, I wanted to experiment with a different way of communicating ideas from what I’d done before. I didn’t really have a long game. I wanted to do good work in ways that fit who I am, allow for change and play, and hopefully even pay the bills. When I started Nocturne, I told myself I would do it for three years and then evaluate whether I wanted to continue. Nocturne just started it’s fourth year, and I don’t have any plans to stop.[/conr]

[storybreak]

Bites:

  • Emilie Aries, cohost of Stuff Your Mom Never Told You, has stepped down from the HowStuffWorks’ podcast after a year-long tenure and launched a new project: Bossed Up, a podcast that comes out of her award-winning career service and training company of the same name. Transmitter Media provided guidance on the project. This is the second instance of SYMNTY hosts leaving the show to start their projects in two years, the other being Cristen Conger and Caroline Ervin, who went on to start Unladylike.
  • The team from CBC Original Podcasts reached out to flag a few updates: Its true crime show Someone Knows Something is now back with its fourth season, On Drugs returns for its second, and they welcomed a new show called Personal Best.
  • ESPN has announced its third season of 30 for 30 Podcasts, which will mark a departure from its anthology structure to roll out a serialized story. The season will explore the “complicated world of Bikram Yoga — a community grappling with its own identity and survival in the wake of sexual assault allegations against its charismatic guru and founder.” The story is reported and produced by Julia Lowrie Henderson, who notably worked on the “Yankees Suck!” episode from the first season, and the whole season will drop at the same time on May 22.
  • The music label Atlantic Records has launched its own in-house line of podcasts. (Variety) Agreed with Nieman Lab’s Joshua Benton’s take on the matter: “It is interesting to see a record company like Atlantic invest in podcasts, but what they really should do is a regular show with actual Atlantic music on it. Benefit from the fact that other podcasters don’t have a music library at their disposal!”
  • The New York Times welcomes a new show: Charles Duhigg’s Change Agent. (Apple Podcasts)
  • Sort of adaptation in the opposite direction: The Osbournes now have a podcast. (Apple Podcasts)
  • “Branded Podcasts Are The Ads People Actually Want To Listen To.” (Fast Company)
  • Wild: “An Artificial Intelligence is Generating an ‘Infinite’ Podcast.” (Motherboard)
  • “Florida teacher ‘removed from classroom’ after alleged white-nationalist podcast.” (ABC News)
  • Marc Maron is moving garages, marking an end of an era. The New York Times produced a lovely package memorializing the storied production space.
  • Goodness, Sunday’s This American Life was stunning.

[photocredit]Photo by Sean Donohue used under a Creative Commons license.[/photocredit]

Today, Explained, explained: Vox enters the daily news podcast race with a comma-happy, personality-driven show

Quick preamble: I was working on my taxes yesterday when I realized that last Thursday marked the two-year point since I incorporated Hot Pod Media LLC. To celebrate the occasion, I’m hauling an old Hot Pod feature out of retirement just for this issue: the unnecessary deployment of irrelevant GIFs. Thanks for being a reader, and to those who’ve been reading me for a while now, thanks for sticking around. I really don’t know where all that time went.

Every Day, Explained. Rejoice, news nerds: We now have a name, a release date, and a sound palette for Vox Media’s upcoming entry into the daily news podcast genre. The show will be called Today, Explained — props for keeping it #onbrand — and it will begin publishing next Monday, February 19. A trailer for the podcast went up yesterday, and it sounds…well, quite different from what I would expect from Vox.com, but entirely in keeping what I would expect from host Sean Rameswaram, whose various hijinks I’ve followed intermittently over the years.

I wrote a preview of the podcast for Vulture that came out yesterday, and I spent much of that article trying to contextualize Today, Explained within the current state of the emerging daily news podcast genre. Now, “emerging” is a word I tend to use a lot (more on that in a bit), at times way too cavalierly, but in the context of this story, the use of the term is literal: It’s been a blast watching this species of podcast come into being.

Two things I’d like to emphasize from the preview:

  • The choice to target the evening commute is a really, really smart one. I’ve argued this before, but I think it’s safe to assume that there might be considerable overlap between the audiences of The New York Times and Vox.com. As such, a move to complement The Daily is significantly more prudent than engaging it as a direct competitor. In any case, even if the overlap was small, the evening commute remains untapped by the daily news podcast to begin with — aside from Mike Pesca’s The Gist, of course, which isn’t really playing the same game anyway. It’s a safer, and therefore more reliable, base to build from, and besides, Today, Explained could always expand with an a.m. version at some point in the future. (Same goes with The Daily and a p.m. version, a prospect that it has previously explored with breaking news specials.)
  • In case it fully doesn’t come across in the writeup: I think Today, Explained’s success will mostly hinge on Sean Rameswaram’s personality — more so, I’d argue, than how Michael Barbaro fits into The Daily as a presence. Which is, I suppose, kind of the point when you bring in someone with a specific sense of showmanship like Rameswaram to headline a project.

And two more things I’d like to add to the preview:

  • Here’s Vox.com general manager Andrew Golis, responding to an inquiry about how the podcast fits into the company’s overall business goals: “It gives us an opportunity to have an audio daily presence in our audience’s life in the way our website does in text and our YouTube channel does in video. That persistent relationship and trust is a powerful platform for building our business…we believe ‘Today, Explained’ will give us a new way to introduce audiences to a growing network of Vox podcasts as we continue to expand our ambitions and programming.”
  • I’d be remiss if I didn’t discuss Midroll Media’s involvement in the production. The Scripps-owned podcast company serves as the exclusive advertising partner for Today, Explained, but I’m also told that they provided upfront investment to help assemble the team and build out the production. Chris Bannon, Midroll’s chief content officer, was also involved in the development of the show. “Creatively speaking, I spent a day in D.C. with the Vox team, and together we started sourcing host and staff candidates,” explained Bannon over email. “Right now we’re in the fun part, listening to show drafts and sharing notes. They’re alarmingly well-organized, cheerful, and efficient.” Bannon, by the way, worked with Rameswaram back when he was still at WNYC. (He left for Midroll in early 2015.)

When asked about his perspective on the potential of Today, Explained, Bannon offered an analogy. “I think we want Today, Explained to be All Things Considered to the The Daily’s Morning Edition,” he said. “Except that we will be more like All Things Considered’s smart, funny, well-informed, and streetwise uncle.”

“Streetwise uncle” sounds about right.

On a related note: I heard there’s some big news coming later today on The Daily. Keep your eyes peeled.

What comes next for the Fusion Media Group. Last week, The Onion binge-dropped A Very Fatal Murder, the satirical news site’s first stab at a long-form audio project. The show was designed to parody the wildly popular — and eminently bankable! — true-crime podcast genre, which is an appealing premise right off the bat: indeed, there’s no team I’d love to see interpret the phenomenon more than the brains behind The Onion. A Very Fatal Murder turned out to be enjoyable enough, no more and no less, though I did end up thinking it didn’t come anywhere close to realizing its promise as podcast satire.

But there’s a thing, and then there’s everything around the thing. And despite the minor swing and miss of A Very Fatal Murder, I was nonetheless left quite excited about the prospect of future projects from The Onion, and curious about what’s going on with the audio team at The Onion’s parent company, Fusion Media Group (FMG).

So I checked in with Mandana Mofidi, FMG’s executive director of audio. In case you’re unfamiliar, FMG is the sprawling, multi-tentacled corporation best known in some circles — mine, namely — for absorbing the remains of the Gawker empire post-Terry Bollea lawsuit in the form of the Gizmodo Media Group that spans Gizmodo, io9, Jezebel, and others. A television arm factors in somewhere, as does the city of Miami.

Anyway, Mofidi tells me that since her team kicked off operations about a year ago, they’ve been playing around with a couple of ideas and formats to see what would stick. Weekly interview and chat shows made up the early experiments, which apparently ended up working well for Lifehacker (The Upgrade), Kotaku (Splitscreen), and Deadspin (Deadcast). But following the reception they received for A Very Fatal Murder as well as Containers, Alexis Madrigal’s audio documentary about the sexy, sexy world of international shipping from last year, more plans have to been put in place to build out further narrative projects.

Mofidi’s overarching goal this year, it seems, is to ensure that each of FMG’s properties gets a solid podcast of their own. To that end, they have several projects in various stages of development, including:

  • A six-part narrative series from Gizmodo about “a controversial and charismatic spiritual guru who uses the internet to build her obsessive following.” That show is being developed with Pineapple Street Media, which appears to be really carving out a niche around themes of obsession, charismatic leaders, and the followings they spawn, following Missing Richard Simmons and Heaven’s Gate.
  • A show for Jalopnik called Tempest, which will examine “the funny and at times tragic intersectionality of people and cars.”
  • A series that “explores the connectivity of our DNA” — which evokes memories of Gimlet’s Twice Removed — featuring Grammy Award-winning artist René Pérez, a.k.a. Residente. Gretta Cohn’s Transmitter Media is assisting with this project.
  • A collaboration with The California Endowment that’ll produce stories on young activists “who are using their platforms to promote solidarity between different communities and causes.”

Mofidi also talked about an intent to dig deeper into events. “We recently did a live taping of Deadspin’s Deadcast in St. Paul before the Super Bowl. We were expecting to sell about 200 tickets, but ended up with over 360 people,” she said. The smart speaker category is also of interest, along with figuring out ways to collaborate with FMG’s aforementioned television arm.

I asked Mofidi if she had any dream projects that she’d love to produce in her role. “A daily show,” she wrote back. “It would be ambitious, but with so many passionate voices across our sites it feels like something we could do in a way that was distinct.”

Related reading: Publishers with TV ambitions are pursuing Netflix.

We’re back with this nonsense: “Public media again in bull’s-eye in president’s FY19 plans.” Re-upping my column from the last time we were in this mess, on why it’s bad in ways you already know and in more ways you don’t.

And while I’m linking Current, the public media publication just announced the new host for its podcast, The Pub: Annie Russell, currently an editor at WBEZ.

Pod Save America heads to HBO. Surprise, surprise. Crooked Media’s flagship podcast is heading to the premium cable network with a series of hour-long specials that will follow the Obama bros — that’s former Obama aides Jon Favreau, Tommy Vietor, and Jon Lovett, in case you’re unfamiliar with the deep-blue podcast phenomenon — as they host live tapings on the campaign trail for what will most definitely be a spicy midterm election season this fall. This is the latest addition to the newly buzzy trend of podcasts being adapted for film and television, and the deal for this adaptation in particular was handled by WME.

Over at Vulture, I tried to turn a series of dots into a squiggly shape linking this development, the recent debut of 2 Dope Queens’ HBO specials, and HBO’s relationship with Bill Simmons to say something about the premium cable network’s potential strategic opportunities with podcasting. Put simply: Traditional standup comedy programming is getting more expensive due to the pressure of Netflix’s infinitely large war chest, and one could argue that certain types of conversational podcast programming offer HBO an alternative resource to adapt and develop content that can potentially hit the same kind of experience and pleasure beats you’d get from conventional standup TV specials.

But sometimes dots are just dots, and those aren’t really constellations in the sky — just random, meaningless arrangements of stars that are indifferent to your experience of them.

Happy Valentine’s Day.

Meanwhile, in the nonprofit world. This one’s pretty interesting: Tiny Spark, the Amy Costello-led independent nonprofit news outfit that covers the world of philanthropy and nonprofits, has been acquired by Nonprofit Quarterly, which is…well, a much larger independent nonprofit news organization that covers the world of philanthropy and nonprofits. “Amy…has done an exceptional job building the audience for her podcast. We are excited not only to add this new media channel to our organization, but also to collaborate with Amy to expand our reach into public radio,” said Joel Toner, NPQ’s president and chief operating officer.

As part of this arrangement, NPQ owns Tiny Spark’s intellectual property and Amy Costello is brought on as a senior correspondent to lead the organization’s investigative journalism work, podcast development, and public radio outreach. “Tiny Spark’s work fits very well into the topics we cover at NPQ,” said Toner, when asked about the strategic thinking behind the acquisition. “Additionally, our 2017 annual audience survey confirmed that our readers had a significant interest in having us develop a podcast channel.”

I’d like to point out just how much this arrangement reminds me of the one that was struck between USA Today and Robin Amer, which I profiled last week. Speaking of which…

A quick update to last week’s item on The City. In the piece, I talked a little bit about the USA Today Network’s podcast plans for 2018, chiefly drawing information from a summer 2017 press release the organization circulated when they first announced the acquisition of The City. The plans mostly involve launching more podcasts across its properties.

The company reached out to let me know that their thinking has since evolved. “The network already produces dozens of podcasts across its 109-plus sites, but is now focusing on a handful of those shows to support with resources and marketing à la The City,” wrote Liz Nelson, the USA Today Network’s vice president of strategic content development. “At the time [the press release] was written, we did have 60-plus podcasts — most of which bubbled up organically at the local level. We’re closer to 40 now. That number will continue to ebb and flow and we encourage experimentation at the local level, which gives our journalists the space they need to experiment in the medium.”

Nelson added: “But from a network level, we are not putting the same amount of resources we’ve put into The City into every single show. We’re concentrating on a smaller set of shows we believe can have national impact.”

Hold this thought. We’re going to talk about other stuff for a bit, but we’ll get back to this notion of resource focus.

“It amuses me,” wrote Traug Keller, ESPN’s senior vice president of audio, in a corporate blog post touting the sport media giant’s podcasting business, “when I read about podcasting in the media with references to it being ‘new’ or ’emerging.'”

Keller continued:

As ESPN has done with other technologies — be it cable TV in 1979, the Internet in the ’90s, HD television or mobile initiatives more recently — we embraced podcasting as soon as we could and ran with it — even if we didn’t always know where we would end up! We launched our first podcast way back in 2005. A head start is often critical in a competitive business environment.

I also chuckle when people refer to podcasting as some mysterious new format to figure out. I’ve spent a career in audio, and I can tell you the key ingredients for compelling audio are constant…

Yeah, I don’t know, dude.

The borderline condescending tone of the post isn’t exactly something I’d want to hear from a company whose public narrative is one of crisis on multiple fronts — from the disruption of its cable-bundle–reliant business model to layoffs to its uneven handling of social media policies to the uncertain future of a gamble on OTT distribution — let alone a podcast publisher whose Podtrac ranking placement (as always, disclaimers of that service here and here) is powered by what is still largely a spray-and-pray strategy, in which 82 shows are deployed to bring in 35 million global unique monthly downloads. For reference, the infinitely smaller PRX team gets 4 million more with less than half that number of shows (34 podcasts), while NPR bags three times more downloads with just 42 podcasts that don’t at all traffic in naturally addictive sports content.

To be clear, I am, very generally speaking, more appreciative of a world with a strong (and better) ESPN in it than one without. And let me also just say that I really like some of its recent moves in on-demand audio, namely the creation of the 30 for 30 Podcast and having Katie Nolan launch her own show.

But I just don’t think very highly of this whole “oh we’ve been doing this for a long time/we were doing this first therefore we are super wise” mindset that either mistakes early sandbox dabblings for meaningful first-mover value creation or simply being first for being noteworthy. To be fair, this isn’t a knock that exclusively applies to Keller’s blog post; that thinking governs an alarming share of press releases and huffy emails that hit my inbox. But here’s the thing: I really don’t think it matters whether you did first. What mostly matters is if you did it right. Which is to say: If you invented Facebook, dammit, you’d have invented Facebook. Furthermore, as it stands, if there’s anything I’m acutely aware of writing this newsletter every week, it’s that, much like everywhere else, nobody really knows anything. It’s just a bunch of people working really hard, trying to figure this whole podcast thing out.

Anyway. I normally try not to be too worked up about anything, but this stuff really bugs me, and goodness, there’s nothing I would love more than to take this mindset, strap it onto the next Falcon Heavy rocket, and launch it straight into the dying sun.

Still, credit should be given where’s credit due: The post goes on to discuss what I think is a really positive development for ESPN’s podcast business:

To get there, we pared our lineup — once numbering in triple digits — to about 35, focusing on the most popular offerings (NFL, MLB, and NBA) and other niche topics where we can “own” the category. It’s a “less is more” strategy, where we can better produce and promote a smaller lineup.

Which reminds me of something…

After spray-and-pray. ESPN’s move to pare down and focus its overflowing podcast portfolio reminds me of another podcast publisher that’s been pretty active since the first podcast boom: NPR.

NPR’s podcast inventory, too, once numbered in the triple digits. In August 2005, its directory housed around 174 programs, 17 of which were NPR originals while others were shows from member stations that the public radio mothership were distributing on their behalf. (That practice has since been terminated.) The show number peaked around 2009, when the directory supported about 390 podcasts.

“Back in those days, podcasts were hard to access and only the really digitally savvy listeners could find and download them,” an NPR spokesperson told me. “We were experimenting and we were excited with the possibility of putting out NPR content on-demand, repackaging content that had aired about specific topics, seeing what the audience would like…It also allowed for additional creativity in programming, podcasts could be a sandbox for piloting new ideas.” Some of those ideas eventually grew into segments and radio shows of their own, but these podcasts mostly ended up being an unruly system of small, quiet, under-the-radar projects.

All that changed with this most recent podcasting boom, which started in the latter half of 2014. Around that time, a focused effort was made to identify and retain shows that fit a certain set of criteria that included having a native podcast experience (and not just recycled segments from existing shows), strong listener communities, an alignment with the organization’s business needs, and so on. The rest were culled. By the end, NPR was left with 25 shows. “Our thinking was that by having a smaller portfolio, we could draw more attention to them, serve them better, cross-promote, bring sponsorship support, create significant reach,” the spokesperson said.

The move felt like a gamble at the time, but it paid off. “While everyone expected our downloads to go down, within two months, downloads were somewhere near 50 million a month,” remembered Audible’s Eric Nuzum, then vice president of programming at NPR. “Within a year, it was over 80.”

That number is now 110 million. The point of this little parable is…well, I don’t think I have to spell it out. You get the picture.

Call Your 2018. There are few teams I admire more than the trio behind Call Your Girlfriend, the podcast for long-distance besties everywhere: journalist Ann Friedman, international woman of mystery Aminatou Sow, and radio producer Gina Delvac. The show has, over its nearly four years of existence, evolved from a fun side project to stay connected into something so much more than that. It is, in equal parts, a platform, a community, and an ever-growing resource. And if the enthusiasm of some friends of mine who consider themselves devout CYG fans are any indicator, Call Your Girlfriend is also damn close to being a full-fledged movement.

Last year was a difficult one for the team, given the political environment, but it was also a call to arms to which they responded with vigor. “Despite the trash-fire that was 2017 in America,” they wrote me, “Better yet, because of it, we wanted CYG to function as a place of refuge for our listeners, and for ourselves.” This translated into an interview schedule that was dense with guests that spoke directly to the moment — including but not limited to Hillary Rodham Clinton, Kirsten Gillibrand, Margaret Atwood, and Ellen Pao — as well as a multipart series on women running for office that featured sit-downs with first-time candidates and organizations that support women seeking political office. The team also worked to push the show creatively, producing a special episode on pelvic pain and trauma and occasionally handing the mic over to other podcasting teams, like Who? Weekly’s Lindsey Weber and Bobby Finger along with Good Muslim Bad Muslim’s Tanzila Ahmed and Zahra Noorkbakhsh.

The year was also fruitful for Call Your Girlfriend’s business. Though specific numbers were not disclosed, I’m told that the show’s revenues — which come from a combination of ad sales, live events, and a healthy merchandising arm — far exceeded their original targets. More ambitious goals were set for the new year.

We’re neck-deep into the second month of 2018, so I thought it was a good a time as any to check in with the team about their plans for the coming months, their thoughts on how the industry has changed, and their commitment to being independent. They were kind enough to oblige:

[storybreak]

[conl]Hot Pod: What are y’all hoping to do this year?[/conl]

[conr]Call Your Girlfriend: One of our first interviews of the year was with Cameron Esposito, and we loved her answer to everyone who’s told her she’s too loud or too gay: She’s simply getting gayer and louder. Likewise here at CYG, we’re getting more political, more feminist, and more obsessed with the transformative power of friendship.

Editorially, we’re both digging in and branching out. We’ll be featuring more of our sheroes as well as women whose stories you haven’t heard yet. We’re deepening our work with political candidates who will (hopefully) be running our country soon, and the writers, critics, and artists whose interpretive work helps us endure. We have a number of themed episodes in the works.

We’re also each taking on more as individuals: Amina is sharing more of her personal experience with illness and grief, Ann is bringing more of her stellar reporting and editorial strategy evident in her many bylines and newsletter to the podcast, and Gina is stepping in front of the mic to host an upcoming episode about sex.

We’re also hiring our first ever associate producer! Applications just closed, so we’ll be excited to announce the newest member of our coven in the coming weeks.[/conr]

[conl]Hot Pod: How has it grown over the years?[/conl]

[conr]Call Your Girlfriend: We are very happy that we’ve stayed independent, and we’re working on some more official/structured ways of helping newer, like-minded independent podcasts find their footing as well. We’re also working on ways to leverage our listeners’ incredible political engagement. Our audience — primarily millenial women — drives book sales, ticket sales, merch sales, charitable donations in the tens of thousands and more. Folks on our mailing list are even volunteering to donate their blood for a national drive we’ll be announcing soon.

Part of how we’ve stayed independently owned is through the ads Midroll sells on our behalf. We’ve heard from the partnerships team that our sell-through rates are excellent, and our audience is a highly prized demographic segment. From a pure capitalistic standpoint, there are more advertisers recognizing the buying power in our demo than available ad inventory. We’d like to see more women behind the mic for myriad reasons, including getting paid. We’d also like to see more and better products and services that our audience will enjoy. We’re looking into ways to carve open more space, to bring revenue to great projects and better ads to fit women’s outsized purchasing power. (Weight-loss products need not apply. We love women of all sizes.)[/conr]

[conl]Hot Pod: How do you see Call Your Girlfriend right now, and how has the vision for the show changed over time?[/conl]

[conr]Call Your Girlfriend: When we started, this was a project to stay connected to one another and have fun. We still do that, but we’ve added a number of elements outside the podcast itself along the way. Like the music touring model, that’s mainly meant live events and selling merch. Now and looking into the future, we see Call Your Girlfriend as a great clearinghouse for authentic content for ladies who get it. We’re always thinking about bigger projects in audio, as well as TV, digital, political action, and more.

We’ve talked about engagement, but on a qualitative level our fans respond and show up the way that close friends do. The live shows are a great example. We see friends in cahoots who seem like lifelong besties — and then discover they’ve just met. The number of friends who’ve planned road trips or flown in to be with their long-distance BFF for our shows is astonishing. The community around what we do is really positive and powerful. So we’re interested in adding to that experience as much as possible, that sense of pride and belonging, whether it’s on stage, in your earbuds, on a t-shirt or, perhaps, a screen.[/conr]

[conl]Hot Pod: What’s worrying you guys?[/conl]

[conr]Call Your Girlfriend: As exciting as it’s been to see the emergence of so many new shows and projects, it seems harder than ever for new self-funded shows to find their footing. In an ad-centric model, it takes a lot of work to build a sizeable audience. Audience support has practical challenges. And while we’re excited about the energy around podcasting from media companies, not everyone has the production and marketing budget to invest to help insure a smash hit.

Discoverability remains a challenge. We’re also interested to see whether the proliferation of connected cars, smart home devices, and other access points to audio make it easier to entice brand new listeners.

Finally, for us and shows like ours, hosted by women who are overtly political, we worry about being overlooked or diminished, particularly when compared with similar endeavors that feature men. We specialize in conversations among politically-savvy women who are running things or will be soon. We blend serious discussion of the policies that dramatically impact women’s lives with a good dose of banter. We hope that audiences and industry watchers see that our delight in friendship is completely in line with the seriousness of our analysis and aims. We’re here for every facet of women’s humanity.[/conr]

[conl]Hot Pod: What have you been seeing with the rollout of Apple’s new podcast analytics?[/conl]

[conr]Call Your Girlfriend: It’s been really interesting to run a weekly show with the emergence of so many serialized and/or seasonal programming, watching which episodes really pop and which ones less so. It’s causing us to think critically about re-engagement, promotion, and leaning into vs expanding our style of content.[/conr]

[conl]Hot Pod: Has it been difficult staying independent?[/conl]

[conr]Call Your Girlfriend: It hasn’t been hard for us to stay independent — that’s remained one of our core values — but as we each advise fellow podcasters we recognize that these are very different waters to wade into. Listeners are getting really sophisticated, which is great. But, that makes it harder to learn as you go. There’s much less room to fudge things like your show’s editorial framing, ill-considered artwork, or audio quality. And kind of like your inner circle of friends, once you have core besties, you limit how many new intimates you take on, by necessity.[/conr]

[conl]Hot Pod: Finally, is there anything else you’d like to talk about?[/conl]

[conr]Call Your Girlfriend: Anyone who has money to burn, talk to us. You’re a fool not to talk to us. We’re killing it.[/conr]

[storybreak]

Bites:

    • This is Love, the limited-run spinoff series from the team behind Radiotopia’s Criminal, is rolling out this week just in time for Valentine’s Day. Should be perfect for those who enjoy a steaming plate of romance with a side of spiders. (Website)
    • WBEZ debuted Making Obama, the Chicago public radio station’s followup to Making Oprah, last week. As previously mentioned, I’m personally psyched for the entire “Making” model, and its Hearken-like potential for local radio stations across the country. Snazzy landing page, too. (Said landing page)
    • FiveThirtyEight’s whiz kid Harry Enten has left the Nate Silver-led statistical analysis site to join CNN. Enten was a fixture on the site’s politics podcast, which I’ve always thought is one of the more entertaining and informative in the genre. Just as a reminder: There’s been some hubbub about FiveThirtyEight possibly being sold off. It’s currently owned by ESPN.
    • However unclear the path forward might be for a reputable public radio station mired in controversy, the show must go on. Last week, WNYC launched Trump, Inc., a collaboration with ProPublica that endeavors to answer basic questions on how the president’s business works — a set of facts that remain quite murky. The fine folks at Nieman Lab have some deets.
    • Speaking of Trump content, NPR’s Embedded is back with another season on the current presidential administration. (Show listing)
    • “Podcasting Is the New Soft Diplomacy.” The underlying premise here isn’t particularly novel, but there are some nice ideas in this Bryan Curtis piece that help illustrate soft power in the age of digitally distributed media intimacy. (The Ringer)
  • TheSkimm, that popular media company whose morning newsletter product reaches more than 6 million largely female readers, has launched its first podcast. (Though, it’s not the company’s first audio product. That would be the Skimm Notes feature that’s packaged into its app.) The show is called Skimm’d from The Couch, and it takes the shape of a career advice vessel in the minor key of Guy Raz’s How I Built This. (Official blog)

[photocredit]Photo of Sean Rameswaram by James Bareham/Vox Media.[/photocredit]

Can sports turn the local podcast business into a green monster?

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 137, published October 24, 2017.

WBUR wades into the daily podcast grind…with sports. So, one of the structural advantages of on-demand audio — and of the internet more broadly, with the way it collapses physical space — is how it allows publishers to identify, carve out, and super-serve distinct identity sets, which is a fancy way of saying how the medium excels at activating niches. (This is, of course, an exceptionally sharp blade that cuts in both directions.)

And so it’s to the credit of WBUR, one of Boston’s two public media institutions, that it moved to seize on both this natural advantage of the medium and the emerging genre of the daily podcast to serve a constituency well within their jurisdiction: the Boston sports fan, its own very specific species of human with its own dynamics, traditions, and diaspora.

Season Ticket, as the podcast is called, is off to a reasonable start. In its first two weeks, the show received approximately 200,000 downloads across its first 10 dispatches (a 20,000-per-episode average), which is a workable floor for what is essentially a show that’s not meant for everybody. I’m tempted to use the word “niche” here, but I’ve been told the word comes with the unfair connotation of smallness, which is, of course, an inaccurate notion. A book about Star Wars is “niche,” but Star Wars fans are legion.

Two things to watch with Season Ticket. The first is how much, and how fast, it will grow. Recall that the station’s first major podcast achievement, Modern Love, garnered 1.4 million downloads in its first month, and after four months the podcast was averaging 300,000 downloads a week. The second is how Season Ticket will find its place within the Boston sports fan media diet. This is, after all, a media consumer long super-served by New England’s sprawling network of sports media institutions, talk radio and otherwise, and WBUR’s task will be to tap into a completely new set of previously unserved fans — a younger generation, perhaps, or a diaspora in need — or test the limits of the hypothesis that the Boston sports fan’s hunger for coverage could very well be infinite.

Whatever WBUR finds out, they can definitely add another feather to their cap of respectable partnerships, which the station’s podcasting operations, led by the formidable Jessica Alpert, appears to be turning into a core program strategy. Season Ticket comes out of a collaboration with The Boston Globe — it’s hosted by Chris Gasper, a sports columnist for the paper — and a quick overview of WBUR’s listings on the Apple podcast directory show that Season Ticket is one of three such projects now out in the open. The other two are the aforementioned Modern Love, with The New York Times, and the upcoming Edge of Fame, with The Washington Post. More, I’m told, are on the way.

With this partnership-driven orientation, WBUR finds itself in the position where it could give Panoply — whose content strategy was once premised on such collaborations with media companies — a run for its money. But the challenge, as always, will be whether the station is able to draw talent to Boston as it grows its podcast team commensurate with demand…and, more importantly, whether it can retain them. It’s probably worth recalling, at this point, that Modern Love was originated by Lisa Tobin, who left WBUR last summer to be the executive producer of audio at The New York Times. Talent acquisition and retention is a problem for all in the industry, but one imagines it’s doubly so for any non-New York, non-Los Angeles shop at this point in time — even if Boston is a sub-four-hour train ride north from the self-declared Podcast Capital of the World. That’s a toughie.

Non sequitur, but this line of inquiry also pleasantly evokes the whole Amazon HQ2 dance, of which Boston is a participant. Man, what a weird thing to watch.

Cults! So, I’m keeping an eye on Heaven’s Gate, the 10-part documentary about the cult infamous for perpetrating the largest mass suicide ever to take place in the United States back in the nineties. The podcast, which launched last week, seems pretty spicy, and it happens to double as the sophomore effort for the creative team behind Missing Richard Simmons, the duo of Pineapple Street and Midroll. It’s worth pointing out, as I did with my Vulture writeup, that Midroll is more creatively involved this time around, with the company originating the show’s concept. (That wasn’t the case with Simmons. Dan Taberski, via First Look Media, had that honor. Taberski is listed in the Heaven’s Gate credits, though.)

But of course, the focus here is on Pineapple Street, who leads production. (Ann Heppermann, the cofounder of the Sarah Awards who is now on the company’s payroll, helms the rig.) The primary question here is whether Pineapple can go two-for-two with a hit feature. Which, I imagine, will help us attend to some other interesting questions: Was Missing Richard Simmons a fluke? Can Pineapple reliably stretch beyond its go-to move of extracting value from the star power of larger brands and celebrities, which appears to be its primary strategic angle? Aside from Missing Richard Simmons, the company’s portfolio is made up of shows built around The New York Times’ Jenna Wortham and Wesley Morris, Lena Dunham, Janet Mock, Aminatou Sow, Matt Bellassai, Preet Bharara, and, obviously, Hillary Clinton. (Though, I suppose, you could argue that Missing Richard Simmons’ appeal was principally built on the draw of the titular celebrity, which cast a Godot-like shadow over the proceedings. In which case, there’s an argument to be made about Pineapple’s principal occupation being the interlocution of celebrity. It’s not a particularly strong argument, but it’s workable.)

Aaaanyway. You want to talk benchmarks? Let’s talk benchmarks. Figuring out a true number to beat is a little tough. Looking back at my notes, the clearest baseline for Missing Richard Simmons given was: “On March 28, a little over a month after the show first debuted, First Look Media told me that the podcast had been downloaded on average more than 1 million times a week since its release.” I guess that’ll have to serve our touchpoint for the first month.

The New York Times’ The Daily hits a milestone, outlines its future. Last week, the news industry analyst Ken Doctor pumped out two pieces on The Daily, one for Nieman Lab and one for TheStreet, and they give us a good snapshot of where the Times’ audio team currently sits and where it wants to go.

To begin with, Doctor reports that the morning news podcast has officially surpassed the 100 million download mark. As of the article’s pub date, October 17, The Daily had delivered 186 editions, which means the show has a 530,000~ download per episode average. Add to that two other key data points from Doctor’s piece in The Street — that The Daily was estimated to have hit 3.8 million unique visitors in August, and that the company is able to command ad rates comparable to pivot-inspiring levels of digital video — and you have an editorial product that stretches widely and draws deep dividends, both right now and in the days to come.

Doctor’s reporting also gives us a sense of NYT Audio’s immediate next steps: further expanding its headcount (now 16 full-time employees strong, seven of which hold production duties on The Daily according to Barbaro’s recent Longform interview), slapping on a digital engineering development arm to the team (!), stretching out The Daily to six editions per week, and rolling out more “extensions” of the program (presumably in the vein of The New Washington). He also notes two more things that I think are especially worth tracking: firstly, that the team is working on a “big narrative project” (isn’t everybody, though?), and secondly, that “within the next several weeks, Times readers will be able to access The Daily directly from their apps and browsers without using a separate podcast app.” This is incredibly significant, in that it illustrates a team meaningfully working to bypass the cumber of dedicated podcast apps to deliver its product to consumers. And it just so happens that, in doing so, the company will be able to keep those audiences within the universe of its primary mobile app, which puts them in a better position to spread the value generated by the podcast around the other aspects of the business. Further, it doesn’t take much to imagine the various audience and listening behavior analytics tools that will be layered on that built-in player, which will better aid the Times in carrying out the primary business goals of the podcast: to convert new subscribers, to retain existing subscribers, and to gather even more intelligence that will help them to do both those things.

I’m noodling on two more thoughts:

  • This quote provided by Sam Dolnick, the paper’s assistant editor and one of the long-running champions for the audio division, stands out to me: “This is the birth of a franchise for us that can live on and on in many different mediums for a long time.” A bold statement, though it does support any such suspicion that, when it comes to organizing NYT Audio, you have The Daily on one side, and everything that’s not The Daily on the other. Recall that the audio team still ships other non-Daily-related podcasts: Still Processing (with Pineapple Street), Modern Love (with WBUR), Popcast, and The Book Review — none of which were mentioned in either piece by Doctor. Which raises the question: What are the futures of these shows? And what is the future of non-Daily podcast programming? Will that aforementioned “big narrative project” be rolled out under The Daily banner, or not? Question marks!
  • I was chatting with a public-radio station operative at ONA a few weeks ago, who shared a sentiment that I’ve taken the liberty to brand on the back of my skull. To liberally paraphrase: Getting your first hit is one thing, what happens after is a whole other bag of bananas.

Three notes on measurement.

  • I have a mea culpa for you. Contrary to what I noted in last week’s issue, the Apple in-episode analytics was never pegged to the iOS 11 release, with the upgrade always being slated for a vague “later in the year” target date. That’s a note-taking fumble on my part, and I regret the error. The deployment timeline makes sense, even if I airballed: For there to be workable and reliable in-episode listening analytics, iOS 11 adoption needs to achieve critical mass, and that often takes some time following iOS rollouts. Again, my bad.
  • Keep a lookout: I’ve been getting sporadic reports from some publishers and independents that are experiencing rocky metrics readjustments well before this anticipated Apple change. The destabilizing shifts are thought to be tied to two other measurement changes, specifically: (1) Libsyn’s stats overhaul to become more compliant to IAB reporting standards, which took place in mid-September, and (2) Stitcher’s implementation of several changes — including a stats adjustment to fit IAB compliance, along with the presentation of “Front Page Impressions” as a separate metric — that kicked in earlier this month. For at least some publishers, the combination of the two have resulted in serious drops in performance data, though I have also heard of some upward revisions. I wasn’t able to pin down a specific change range that I’d be comfortable printing just yet, though. I’ll be keeping an eye on this.
  • I suspect we’re in the midst of a situation in which various podcast platforms are moving to adopt the IAB standard, but are doing so at different rates. While this will ultimately lead to a more cohesive and accountable ecosystem in the long run, the uneven adoptions have immediately cultivated some serious dysfunctions and pitfalls for individual publishers — particularly those that are interested in switching vendors. A publisher recently opined to me about the drastic performance data readjustments it experienced after migrating from Audioboom to Megaphone earlier this year, which fundamentally threw off its revenue projections. That’s bad enough, but the publisher felt that its ordeal was further exacerbated by a lack of vendor transparency. “I have a bunch of theories as to what happened, but the fact that podcast platforms are so cagey about their measurement standards drives me insane, and it impacts the work we do,” that publisher told me. Audioboom tells me that the platform adheres to the first version of IAB standards that was published last year — which is distinct from the newer edition that was circulated last month for public comment — but also notes that podcasts that move away from Audioboom’s platform will no longer have access to additional listenership facilitated through the company’s app. Nevertheless, the larger issue remains: For some, it’s still hard to tell what’s what, and that’s a big problem.

I imagine it would be prudent to anticipate more turbulence to come.

Career Spotlight. I love running this feature, mostly because it’s often a miracle that even a fraction of anything ever happens the way you hope it would. This week, I traded emails with Robin Amer, a Chicago-based journalist, editor, and audio documentarian who is in the midst of leading the development of a long-form investigative podcast, The City, that she sold to the USA Today Network over the summer. Amer’s on the up-and-up, and it’s great to catch her at this point in time.

[storybreak]

[conl]Hot Pod: What’s going on right now?[/conl]

[conr]Robin Amer: I’m working to launch my podcast, The City, in 2018. It’s a long-form, investigative show that explores how our cities actually work — I’ve described it as being like The Wire, only true. By that I mean that every season will go deep into one city and one story. And every story will have a gritty sense of place, a memorable, multi-racial ensemble cast, and will be as revealing about the power struggles of all cities as it is about the particulars of the city where it’s set. Season 1 is set in Chicago, where I live. I can’t say much about the story right now except that when I started reporting it I thought, holy moly, this really is like The Wire, only true.

Because I’m the show’s executive producer as well as its the host, I’ve spent the last few months building the foundation for the show on business side as well as on the editorial side: building a whisper room studio in our offices in Chicago; hiring a team of journalists; working with my company’s product and sales teams to design our website and secure sponsorships; that kind of thing. I’m hoping to have most of my reporting and production team in place in the next few weeks, at which point we’ll dive back into the reporting for Season 1.[/conr]

[conl]Hot Pod: How did you get to this point?[/conl]

[conr]Amer: In a narrow sense, I won the WNYC Podcast Accelerator competition in 2015, piloted the show with WNYC Studios last year, then sold the pilot to the USA Today Network in May. USATN was interested in the show because the company wants to be a player in the premium podcast space, and because my vision for the show — to go to a different city every season — fits perfectly with its overall editorial strategy. The company owns 109 local news outlets, and we’re already soliciting pitches from journalists in the network for stories for Season 2.

In a broader sense, I’ve been working up to this project for more than 15 years. I feel in love with public radio-style storytelling à la This American Life when I was in high school, then talked my way into an internship at NPR when I was 18. My senior thesis at Brown was an hour-long radio documentary that aired on several public radio stations in New England and that I premiered as a live performance in front of about 200 people.

That doesn’t mean it’s been a straight trajectory. I moved to Chicago in 2007 to work for Vocalo and then for WBEZ, and truly thought I’d be there forever, because it had always been my dream to work there, and because I loved Chicago, and Chicago was sort of a one-horse town when it came to opportunities in radio. But at a certain point I started to stagnate, and I wasn’t able to do the kind of work I wanted to do most, so I took a risk that not everyone understood, and left my stable job in journalism to go back to journalism school at Medill.

It seemed a little crazy at the time, even to me. But it was totally the right move. I got a full scholarship, and then a fellowship with Medill Watchdog, where I trained with Pulitzer Prize-winner Rick Tulsky on how to be an investigative reporter. That opened a lot of doors for me. After I graduated, I freelanced for a year, which included a stint at the interactive audio walking tour company Detour, before I was hired to be the deputy editor at the alt-weekly Chicago Reader. Then I won the WNYC competition just a few weeks after I started at the Reader. (It was kind of a heady time!)[/conr]

[conl]Hot Pod: What does a career mean to you at this point?[/conl]

[conr]Amer: The most important thing to me is the work, in whatever form it takes, and to keep making it. I think it’s really important to be adaptable and nimble, given both the incredible opportunities in media right now and the incredible instability in the media job market. It’s so boom and bust, feast and famine, that you have to figure out what really drives you, so that you can use that to guide you through various opportunities and challenges.

So for me, I’ve figured out that as a journalist and storyteller I’m incredibly inspired by place. Typically I come across some place that is strange or confusing or surprising or upsetting, and I want to figure out, in a very literal sense, what happened here? How did this place come to be the way it is? And what are the consequences of this place being the way it is for the people who live here?

But I’m very open to and excited by the idea of exploring these kinds of stories across a variety of media and in a variety of contexts. I look at someone like Alex Kotlowitz as a model here. He writes long-form magazine articles and books, produces radio stories, and is involved with making feature films like The Interrupters. But his work always has the unifying themes of poverty, race, and inequality (and often education and/or childhood), so regardless of the “container” it’s in, you can tell it’s his. I’m also newly inspired by Ira Glass right now, because he somehow manages to be deeply involved in the journalism coming out of TAL, Serial, S-Town, etc., while also managing and growing what is essentially a business empire.[/conr]

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

[conr]Amer: In one sense, I thought I wanted to do more or less what I’m doing now: make long-form audio stories. When I was younger I was in love with old-school, sound-rich European features by people like Peter Leonard Braun and Kaye Mortley, people whose work I had been introduced to by the Third Coast International Audio Festival. But it took me a while to articulate the kind of subject matter I was drawn to, and to realize that what I was doing was journalism, and that the ethics and tools and practices of journalism were an important component of my work. Fifteen years ago I would have self-identified as a radio producer or a radio documentary maker. Now I tend to self-identify as an investigative reporter. More recently it’s been a shock to see myself as somewhat entrepreneurial. I didn’t see that part coming.[/conr]

[storybreak]

Bites:

  • Radiotopia has kicked off its annual fundraiser. The campaign runs from October 23 to November 10, and its explicit goal is to increase its donor base to 20,000. (Campaign page)
  • ESPN has cancelled Barstool Van Talk, which the company had adapted for its ESPN2 channel from Barstool’s Pardon My Take podcast. Apparently, they got what they thought they were getting, but realized it wasn’t something they actually wanted, I guess? (Variety)
  • The Dinner Party Download has parted ways with American Public Media. The show was first launched as a podcast 10 years ago, and spent the last six being syndicated as a public radio weekend show. It will run its last broadcast on December 1. A sad development, but not to worry: details about the podcast future of hosts Brendan Francis Newnam and Rico Gagliano are “forthcoming.” Phew. (Announcement)
  • With a $100,000 grant from the Knight Foundation, the Charlotte, N.C. public radio station WFAE has “announced a plan to better connect with its audiences and develop fresh content using NPR One.” The station has hired Joni Deutsch, previously at West Virginia Public Broadcasting, as the on-demand producer to implement these efforts. It’s possible this might end up being the model of how most public radio stations will interface with the NPR One platform being positioned as “the (potential) future of public radio,” but who knows with these things really. (Press release)
  • Speaking of NPR One, the platform makes an appearance in this stellar article about news personalization by Adrienne LaFrance. (The Atlantic)
  • The CBC’s true crime podcast, Someone Knows Something, returns for a third season on November 7. It has reportedly garnered 32 million downloads across its first two seasons, which is made up of 27 dispatches. (Press release) As an aside, a cry for help.
  • The podcast adaptation of the L.A Times’ Dirty John helped drive 21,000 additional signups to the paper’s Essential California newsletter. (Digiday)
  • LeVar Burton is now legally cleared to use his catchphrase from Reading Rainbow for his podcast with Midroll. You don’t have to take my word for it — you can find the background for this weird but entertaining story here.

[photocredit]Photo of Fenway Park by John Sonderman used under a Creative Commons license.[/photocredit]

These are the most important developments in the podcast business so far in 2017

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 135, published September 5, 2017.

Programming note! Ah yes, so we are in September! As you might already know, I’m taking a five-issue break from writing Hot Pod, starting next week and back on October 17, to do the Knight Visiting Nieman Fellowship in Cambridge (very on-brand, I’d say). But that doesn’t necessarily mean the Hot Pod #content will stop flowing, as I’ll be serving up bonus goodies here and there to those who read Hot Pod as a newsletter. (You can sign up to that here.)

But even as the newsletter churns out extra, the Hot Pod column as you know it will be on ice for a while. So, before the break and ahead of the third annual IAB Podcast Upfront happening later this week (also the NowHearThis Festival, I suppose), I figured this is probably a good time to take stock of the year in podcasting so far, which is, you know, quite a lot. In this issue, you’ll find top-level numbers, the six big things/trends/developments that stood out to me, thoughts about the three most interesting podcast companies, and some news hits before we break for a month and a half.

Let’s jump in.

The year so far. We begin by asking: Just how much has the industry grown over the past year? And do we have a better understanding of the space than we did before? I’ve been keeping these two digits pinned to my notebook:

  • Audience size: 67 million U.S. monthly listeners, according to Edison and Triton Digital’s annual Infinite Dial report, up 21 percent from 57 million from the year before. The volume of growth between 2017 and 2016 is slightly less than the period immediately preceding it (4 percentage points off a smaller base), which was a source of consternation among some in the podcast community at the time. But as I wrote back when the report first dropped: “We’re still talking 10 million new Americans actively listening to a medium that (a) is still propped up by a barely evolved technological infrastructure, (b) has only seen a few instances of significant capital investment, and (c) still sees its industry power very much under-organized.” Those three things, by the way, have changed a little since I wrote that line. More on that in a bit.
  • Advertising: The industry is expected to top $220 million in podcast advertising revenue by the end of 2017, according to an Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) study. The study is the first of its kind, a long-awaited official research effort into a pool of the biggest players in the space — which gives us a floor, at the very least — that’s a marked a step up from that methodologically-fuzzy Bridge Ratings report that’s been floating about the past few years. (Yeah, it’s all totally weird.) The IAB study was also able to give us some valuable historical context: 2016’s podcast ad revenue came in at $119 million, while 2015 came in at $69 million.

I’ll be thinking about how the industry moves forward based on three dimensions:

  • Growth — whether audiences and revenues will continue to grow, obviously;
  • Sustainability — whether companies will meaningfully diversify their revenue streams and whether the industry will see its activities and fortunes spread out across a wide number of companies; and
  • Refinement — whether the ecosystem will improve upon its various inefficiencies, from discovery to measurement to monetization.

Cool. So, with all that out of the way, let’s talk about six big things that’ve stood out to me since January.

[storybreak]

(1) Fundraising uptick. The summer closed with what might have been the loudest month in terms of significant investments in the podcast industry since…well, since I’ve started writing this newsletter in November 2014. August saw a total of four big investments in all (that were publicly disclosed, of course):

  • August 1: Gimlet Media announced a $15 million Series B funding round led by the New York-based Stripes Group, whose portfolio also includes Refinery29, eMarketer, and Blue Apron. Participants in the round also included Laurene Powell Jobs’ Emerson Collective, Graham Holdings, Cross Culture Ventures, and Betaworks. Variety had the first writeup.
  • August 3: DGital Media (which would later rebrand as Cadence13) announced that Entercom, the fourth-largest radio broadcaster in the U.S., paid $9.7 million to buy 45 percent of the company. The arrangement was described as an “investment and a strategic partnership” in the press release, and Entercom also signed a “multi-year services agreement under which DGital will dedicate ‘significant resources’ to create on-demand audio content leveraging the broadcaster’s roster of local talent and relationships.”
  • August 23: Art19, the California-based podcast technology company, announced a $7.5 million Series A round led by Bertelsmann Digital Media Investments (BDMI) and DCM Ventures. Other investors in the round included United Talent Agency (!), Gallo Digital, angel investor Zach Coelius, and Array Ventures, according to the press release.
  • August 31: HowStuffWorks, the Atlanta-based veteran podcast company that’s been publishing for almost a decade across multiple parent corporations, announced that it will be spinning out as a new independent company with a $15 million Series A fund led by the Raine Group. Here’s TechCrunch with a writeup, which also includes a look at an executive reshuffle and marginal insight into expansion plans. The spinoff news comes not too long after the company announced a West Coast expansion, one that explicitly targets the comedy category.

First of all, mazel tov to all! But also: Why did all these investments come in at the same month? Also, why did it all come out in the time of year when many a venture capitalist is thought to be on vacation? Conal Byrne, HowStuffWork’s new incoming president, was game to put a positive spin on it, though he doesn’t quite answer the question. “The industry has finally hit the tipping point that investors have been waiting for,” he wrote, through a rep. “Validation of a big market opportunity.” That feeling is generally shared across other sources that I reached out to, though the timing thing remains a puzzle. (Herd mentality? An actual tipping point? Maybe a bit of both?) Nevertheless, there were several private expressions of relief that dollars are finally flowing.

One thing to observe from all this: These four investments are substantially different from the kinds of investments we’ve often seen in (and adjacent to) the podcast space up until this point. Much of the attention over the past few years has generally been on consumer-focused audio app and platform plays — Anchor, Bumpers, Otto Radio, 60dB, RadioPublic, and so on — which are, in other words, stuff that’s more conventionally known within the broader tech industry. But these recent investments — three straight-up media companies, one podcast technology infrastructure company — are specific to the needs, textures, and idiosyncrasies of the podcast ecosystem.

I like where this is going.

(2) Apple analytics. While the summer closed out with news of investments, the season kicked off with an Apple bombshell. During its WWDC conference back in June, the company’s podcast team announced that publishers will soon be provided with in-episode analytics — which is to say, publishers will soon be able to systematically go beyond the download and tell just how much of their episodes are actually being listened to on the aggregate. This is undeniably the most significant development to hit the podcast industry since…well, since Apple consolidated the disparate ecosystem by featuring podcasts in the iTunes architecture, breaking it out as a standalone app, and then eventually packaging the app with iOS by default.

My coverage on the matter was spread across three separate issues:

Nieman Lab also ran a useful piece from WAMU’s Gabe Bullard, who sought to project what might happen to podcasts by examining what happened to the radio industry when its ratings became more precise ten years ago. To sum: A fragmented world was revealed, genres died off, accuracy disputes emerged, and some who were thought to be big turned out not to be all that big after all. We’ll likely see the same kinds of effects ripple across the podcast industry, and as a result, we’ll probably see some recalibration of power and standing. We’re due for a moment of disruption, which is as much a period of potential as it is pitfall. (Chaos is a ladder, after all, as some dude once said.)

(3) More and more adaptations. To illustrate the prevalence of this trend, here’s a sample of just a few of noteworthy developments in this area over the past few months:

  • Gimlet Media articulating its intellectual property pipeline as a prominent talking point for press coverage around its recent fundraise, building on a steadily increasing track record of adaptations that include Homecoming and StartUp being adapted for television, along with the “Man of the People” episode on Reply All being adapted for film.
  • In August, HBO announced that it will be adapting WNYC’s 2 Dope Queens into a series of four hour-long specials.
  • Also in August, Universal Cable Productions announced that it was adapting Night Vale Presents’ Alice Isn’t Dead for the USA Network. Accompanying the news was word of a novel based on the podcast, to be published by Harper Perennial in 2018.
  • The TV adaptation of Aaron Mahnke’s Lore, picked up by Amazon Studios, has an October release date and now, a trailer. A book adaptation is also in the works.
  • There remains scuttlebutt that First Look Media was shopping Missing Richard Simmons around as “potential source material for a TV series,” per a Hollywood Reporter article from April.

The prospect of adaptation is valuable for publishers in three key ways: (1) obviously, it represents a whole new potential revenue stream, (2) they’re good expressions of recognition by more established systems of media and publishing, and (3) each successfully executed adaptation is an audience development and marketing vessel for the original podcast as much as it is a standalone product.

That said, some attention should be paid as to whether these adaptations actually pay off. Remember, it took a while for comic books to rev up as hot sources of intellectual property for the more lucrative film industry, especially after an uneven string of performances in the ’90s and early 2000s. (But then again, the film industry did have a…challenging summer. But maybe that doesn’t really tell us anything?)

(4) On programming. It’s been kind of a strange year, at least for me. We’ve seen a heckuva lot more podcasts of increasing ambition, and we’ve seen some tremendous successes that have taken the medium to new heights. But I can’t seem to shake the feeling that the pace of successes has been somewhat uneven. Like there isn’t much certainty that the space as a whole can hold the public conversation for a sustained period of time.

In any case, the year in #content so far has been defined in my mind by two things:

  • Two unambiguous hits from early in the year that broke into the mainstream, First Look Media’s Missing Richard Simmons (debuted in February) and Serial Productions’ S-Town (debuted in March).
  • The rise of the daily news podcast, about which I’ve written a frightful amount over the past few months. But frankly, between The New York Times’ The Daily (debuted in February) and NPR’s Up First (debuted in April), I think it’s the most exciting front in the space in a long time. The category represents a whole bunch of things: Innovation! Ambition! Serious consideration of the medium that breaks from podcasting’s still governing skeuomorphisms with radio! And with Vox Media throwing its hat into the ring soon, I’m excited to see how the genre continues to heat up.

Two questions moving forward: (a) Where will the next hit come from? (b) Does my thesis from May — where I argued that the success of Missing Richard Simmons, taken in context of the success of S-Town, indicates that podcasting remains fairly accessible and meritocratic, which is to say that a good thing can stand out no matter of pedigree — still stand?

(5) More and more windowing. There’s been a noticeable increase in such shenanigans between publishers and non-Apple platforms, particularly in terms of promotional partnerships that sees the former giving “exclusive early drop” opportunities to the latter. Examples include:

  • First Look Media’s Missing Richard Simmons releasing episodes early (along with some bonus material) on Midroll Media’s Stitcher platform. Of course, that flow was ultimately interrupted due to some, uh, “extraneous circumstances” related to the meta-elements of the podcast by the end of the show’s run, but I heard the experiment paid off quite a bit for Stitcher. A Midroll rep told me that the partnership drove six times the usual number of daily new subscription signups during the show’s run.
  • Gimlet Media debuted its collaboration with the Loud Speakers Network, Mogul, on Spotify weeks before the podcast would eventually be distributed through the open ecosystem. The Brooklyn-based company later announced that its upcoming history podcast, Uncivil, will be windowed on TuneIn.
  • Speaking of TuneIn, the platform had previously tested out an exclusive distribution arrangement with The Ringer’s MLB Show at the start of baseball season.
  • And speaking of Spotify, the music streaming platform also developed a windowing relationship with WNYC, where the public radio station debuted the latest season of 2 Dope Queens earlier on Spotify.

Aside from Stitcher, it’s unclear to me whether such arrangements are paying off enough to establish this as a worthwhile strategy to be commonly implemented across the space. What is clear, however, is that such moves have not gone unnoticed by Apple, the long-time steward of the space.

And there were hints of blowback from Cupertino. As Digiday reported during the Missing Richard Simmons run:

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

Awkward! Also, perturbing.

(6) Platform fluidity. Last March, reacting to the launch of Audible’s original programming slate, the introduction of Google Play Music’s podcast feature, and the continued rollout of Spotify’s video and podcast offerings, I argued that the word “podcast” will lose all of its original meaning by the end of that year. Which is to say, the concept will no longer be too tethered to its initial infrastructural connotations — RSS feeds, podcatchers, and so on — and that arguments over what’s a “podcast” and what’s not will be fully relegated into a game of pure semantics and ideological identities. Instead, the way we talk about all of this — the content, the technology, the audiences — will have shifted from a narrative about the clash between an incumbent and an insurgent (“the future of radio”) towards a clash between publishing factions defined by different formations of publishing communities (“a type/genre/kind of audio”).

(Man, I was so much less literal back then.)

I think there’s been a fair bit of evidence that precisely this has played out over the intervening year and a half, contributing to a space that feels a lot more…fluid, conceptually, than it once was.

Consider the following developments:

  • Spotify is producing original podcasts in addition to their overarching efforts to establish their platform as a meaningful alternative to Apple. (Or, internally, to establish podcasts as a meaningful addition to their raison d’etre of being a music consumption platform.) The company seems to be getting ready for another round of original podcast programming, according to Bloomberg, though it’s unclear how that’s been affected by the dismissal of Tom Calderone, its head of video and podcasting operations.
  • Audible and Stitcher Premium, both of which possess value propositions that are defined by a sense of exclusivity, have begun trickling shows out beyond their paywalls and into the open ecosystem.
  • Meanwhile, Google Play Music is making its own quiet excursion into original podcast programming.
  • iHeartRadio, a native of Internet radio (and progeny of old radio), is increasingly agitating to claim some portion of the podcast space. In the past year, the platform has established distribution relationships with Art19, Libsyn, and NPR member stations. It, too, dabbles with some original programming, branded and otherwise.
  • SiriusXM is quietly developing a podcast platform of their own by the name of Spoke.
  • And while we’re on the subject of apps, we’ve also seen increasing activity within the social audio app front. In particular, the Betaworks-backed Anchor — a contemporary of Bumpers — is increasingly deploying podcast nomenclature (and getting involved in the concerns of podcasts writ large) to describe itself, its machinations, and by extension, its value proposition. A prime example of this can be found in its latest audio-to-social video feature, which adapts the broader Audiogram initiative into its infrastructure.

One way to thread all of these developments together is to frame it all as the story of several non-Apple platforms slowly (and clumsily) encroaching on Apple’s position as a steward of the space with a relatively hands-off stance, maybe to one day capitalize on the various inefficiencies that have resulted from that stance.

Have we seen a meaningful alternative platform to Apple yet? It doesn’t seem like it, based on what I’ve seen. As it stands, Apple remains the primary firehose, and everyone else is still a tiny spigot by comparison. Nevertheless, the encroachment marches on.

(A quick side thought on the fate of user generated content-oriented apps: While it’s unclear what their precise value propositions are to bigger publishers, you could argue that they could collectively serve as a good next step for the species of smaller solo independent publishers that find themselves being pushed out by bigger, more organized, and typically moneyed publishers. I haven’t really thought this through just yet, but should Apple change its hands-off stance — and should Apple Podcasts’ facilitation of the space be diluted beyond some proportional tipping point — small and upstart creators would need a place to go.)

[storybreak]

So those are the six trends that’ve stood out to me. As a collective, I think they describe a space that has made meaningful gains where it counts (size, revenue, legitimacy, prestige, awareness, and so on), but as a result has become increasingly complex. That complexity can be destabilizing, and this story has a bigger potential curveball coming its way with the introduction of the new analytics layer in November. Rest assured: I’ll be back by then to cover all of that.

Before I move on to some quick news hits, I also want to quickly talk about the three companies in the industry that have most stood out to me over the past eight months. They aren’t necessarily the most successful or the biggest — though they are quite successful and big — but rather, they’re the most interesting, and they’ve been the most fun to think and/or talk about.

The three most interesting podcast companies

HowStuffWorks. HWS is officially almost two decades old; its podcast business, headlined by Stuff You Should Know, is about half that. And yet the Atlanta-based company has, over the past year, operated with a verve of a much younger venture. It has aggressively hired new talent (working from a playbook that seems to be revolved around drafting established Internet media pioneers from the mid-aughts, including Cracked.com founder Jack O’Brien and Mental Floss’ Will Pearson and Mangesh Hattikudur), expanded the geography of its operations, and spun out as a whole new independent entity with new funds. Can an older hand successfully retool itself for the future?

The Ringer. I happen to love The Ringer as a publication, but I also think the stuff that they’re doing with their podcast network is low-key revolutionary. It features rigorous experimentation (Binge Mode, of all things, is a triumph in concept and execution), a fluid use of their writers as valuable audio assets, and an approach that seems to have meaningfully integrated their audio division with the rest of the business. The Ringer isn’t for everybody, but when it’s yours, it’s really, really yours, and its podcast division is the purest expression of that fact.

That said, the fact that its ownership structure is a mystery makes the enterprise tricky to fully trust. We can’t quite know for sure how the company is doing, and as a result, we can’t assess for sure whether the model is financially successful — and therefore replicable — or not. Then again, The Ringer head Bill Simmons told Recode’s Peter Kafka back in February that they’re doing well, and the organization seems to be valuable enough for Vox Media to establish a technology and advertising relationship with in May, so hey, maybe something’s there.

The New York Times. When the Gray Lady originally announced that it was assembling a new podcast team last year, I imagined an outcome not unlike what we’ve seen with, say, Slate: a portfolio of subject-specific shows that export the feel and sensibility of its parent publisher, only tighter and more pristine. What ended up emerging was something more drastic, the creation of a whole new…let’s call it a franchise. (Or, heaven forbid, a #brand.) By the end of summer 2017, it’s not inaccurate to say as far as the Times’ audio machinations are concerned, you have The Daily, and you have everything else that orbits The Daily.

On the one hand, this is incredibly exciting. That team has built a powerful machine, one that has equal capacity to break stories, deepen impact, and serve as a platform to launch complementary projects. But on the other hand, the problem with building a basketball team around a single player is the implosion that happens when that player gets injured, gets tangled up in controversy, or just gets old. This is a privileged problem, of course, but it’s a problem nonetheless. What happens next will be fascinating to watch.

[storybreak]

Two stories on political podcasts.

(1) The genre is strong! Which is not entirely surprising, of course, given the current spirit of the times where politics and the media have definitively fused into one giant, amorphous, Jeff Goldblum-in-The Fly-like blob. The Hollywood Reporter’s Jeremy Barr (formerly of Ad Age) has a piece up checking in on the growing category, and it contains two nifty data points for us: First, that the twelve-year-old Slate Political Gabfest “brought in about $1 million in revenue last year at a $25 CPM and an average download of a few hundred thousand per episode,” and second, that revenue for the political podcasts in Midroll Media’s portfolio “has doubled this year compared to 2016.”

(2) Vice News is the latest media org to engage with the “podcasts as left-wing political talk radio” angle, providing a broad accounting of the emerging phenomenon. Do pair that with the “alternative left wing media infrastructure” by The Atlantic’s McKay Coppins from July, titled “How the Left Lost Its Mind.”

Kids podcasts make a marketing push. Drawing some inspiration from February’s #TryPod audience building campaign, a coalition of kids-oriented podcasts are attempting a similar cross-promotion scheme to spread their audiences around and generally bring more attention to the category. Participating shows include Brains On (APM), Wow in the World (NPR), Eleanor Amplified (WHYY), But Why (Vermont Public Radio), Tumble Science (Wondery), Circle Round (WBUR), Story Pirates, and The Longest Shortest Time (Stitcher).

I’m told that the coalition was formed organically, with NPR running point on the outreach to potential participants. This campaign is said not to be directly related to the Kids Listen collective, of which all of these podcasts are members.

As part of the effort, Brain On’s Molly Bloom will be producing a “bonus preview” episode that will feature highlights from participating shows. The preview will be distributed throughout the coalition’s podcast feeds in early October.

The campaign kicked off yesterday, and will run for 13 weeks.

Bites:

  • BlogTalkRadio and Spreaker have announced a merger. Note: “Shareholders from each of Spreaker and BlogTalkRadio will be making investments in support of the combined company’s growth plan, which will be rolled out over the next several months,” the press release states. Terms were not disclosed. (Press release)
  • Ben Johnson, host of APM’s Marketplace Tech and Codebreaker, is moving to WBUR to start a new project on “the vast/complex/rich community of the Interwebs.” Congrats on the move! (Twitter)
  • This is cool: “Welcome to Night Vale’s Cecil Baldwin on Finding the Queerness in His Character.” (Slate)
  • KCRW is ending the broadcast run of its weekday talk show, “To The Point,” and will repackage it as a weekly podcast. Anomaly or trend? Let’s hope that we stick around long enough to find out. (Current)
  • Frontline, the investigative documentary series from PBS and WGBH, is rolling out a podcast with the legendary Jay Allison serving as senior editor and creative director. PRX serves as distributor. The show officially launches on September 14.
  • Now, I don’t usually derive much value from content marketing pieces, but this audioBoom writeup sees the digital advertising agency Ad Results claiming to “own” 40 percent of the podcast industry’s revenues. This isn’t too far-fetched, from what I’ve heard. (audioBoom)
  • Keep an eye on this: “Traditional Radio Faces a Grim Future, New Study Says.” (Variety)

Cool! Thanks for reading. See you in six weeks.

[photocredit]Photo by Gauthier Delecroix used under a Creative Commons license.[/photocredit]

Which is the bigger morning news podcast, The Daily or NPR’s Up First? And does it matter?

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 134, published August 29, 2017.

Art19 closes out a busy August. Last week, the California-based technology company announced a $7.5 million Series A funding round led by Bertelsmann Digital Media Investments and DCM Ventures. This makes Art19 the third podcast venture to issue such a pronouncement this month, after Gimlet Media and DGital Media (which now goes by a whole different name, by the way — more on that in a bit).

Sean Carr, Art19’s CEO, tells me that the new funds will primarily be used to increase its headcount and reach. “We’re going to accelerate product development by hiring more designers and developers,” he said. “And we’re going to expand our business team so that we can continue offering high touch support to our U.S. customers and start expanding into international markets.”

I asked if Art19 was going to maintain its focus on bigger clients (its customer list includes Wondery, the New York Times, and DGital Media, among others, and it’s also the default hosting choice for Midroll Media’s network) or whether there were plans to open up its platform for the broader self-serve, plug-and-play market that’s primarily cornered by older companies like Libsyn, which continues to grow. (Libsyn’s revenues grew 22 percent between 2015 and 2016, up to about $8.8 million, while its number of hosted podcasts grew 24 percent in that same time period, according to its 10-K.)

“We work with some smaller shows and individual users now,” Carr tells me. “It’s not our focus now, because we want to offer white glove support to our customers and that’s tough to do with a lot of volume. But as we scale our business, we will definitely broaden our product offering and our target market.”

That’s one way to do it, I guess.

A rose by any other name. DGital Media, the podcast company that provides production and ad sales support to organizations like Crooked Media and individual talent like Tony Kornheiser, is undergoing a substantial rebranding. It will now go by the name of Cadence13, and the company accompanied this announcement with news of several additions to its leadership team. You can find the full list of those people in the press release. Nothing really stands out to me in particular, other than the detail concerning the company’s intent to cultivate more logistics-related capabilities throughout the country.

They’ve also moved their offices to midtown Manhattan, in case anybody cares about the significance of corporate real estate. (FWIW, I totally do.)

Anyway, this development comes shortly after the announcement earlier this month that the company has received investment from (and is entering a strategic partnership with) the corporate broadcast radio giant Entercom. Specifically, Entercom paid $9.7 million for a 45 percent stake in Cadence13, and the former will also provide “‘significant’ annual marketing and promotion” across its broadcast infrastructure for the latter. I wrote about that situation, and provided some long-term analysis for the company, here. My thinking on the matter remains largely the same.

Also interesting, I suppose: The company’s client list now includes Girlboss Media, which recently relaunched its podcast. That podcast was once part of the Panoply network, curiously enough.

Can I get a topic, any topic? Podcasting has long been good shelter for the comedy world, consistently proving itself able in taking on many parts of that ecosystem. It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that (really longform) improvisational comedy would make its way into podcasting and germinate into a budding sub-genre of its own. Hello from the Magic Tavern, a child of the Chicago Podcast Collective and now a fully grown teenager under the auspices of Earwolf, is perhaps the first prominent example of (excessively longform) improvisational comedy distributed through RSS feeds, and it appears that its success is breeding successors.

Described as an “improvised sci-fi sitcom,” Mission to Zyxx is an upcoming podcast project that seeks to blend the instant world-building tasks inherent to improv with aggressive editing and creative sound design. It’s being spearheaded by one Alden Ford, a New York-based comedian, who currently serves as the show’s executive producer, and the podcast is staffed by a team principally drafted from the New York comedy scene — the press release makes some hay about its distinction from the more prominent Los Angeles scene — including Jeremy Bent, Allie Kokesh, Winston Noel, Moujan Zolfaghari, and Seth Lind (who, by the way, also serves as This American Life’s director of operations).

Somewhat more germane to our interests is the fact that the project is part of Audioboom’s initial foray into original programming, whose rollout is well underway. That slate also includes: another podcast from the Undisclosed team called The 45th, which is another Trump analysis show, and a new upcoming project by the team behind Up and Vanished, called Fork, among others.

What does being part of Audioboom’s network mean for the Zyxx team, exactly? I’m told that the deal involves Audioboom paying an advance to offset production costs, along with generally being responsible for a substantial marketing push around the show’s launch. (Which is table-stakes stuff, as far as such arrangements go these days.) And in case you’re wondering, the Mission to Zyxx team is compensated based on a revenue split, as is customary.

Facts and figures and trust. Last week saw the publication of two documents — one from the research firm Nielsen, one from the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) — that are both meant, in their own ways, to increase trust, familiarity, and the general level of knowability in podcasting among advertisers. (They’re also meant to increase the profiles of their respective publishers within their respective functions; for Nielsen, it’s to serve as a prime provider of business intelligence for the industry, and for the IAB, it’s to serve as a reliable advocate for the industry, in so far that it can.)

Nielsen’s document, “Podcast Insights Report,” is the first podcast-related inquiry for the research firm, and it attempts to say something about the shopping habits of the average podcast consumer in relation to particular item categories. Specifically, it examines the preferred brands and spending volumes of podcast listeners in bottled water, beer, and baby food categories (a curiously alliterative mix). It’s a useful tool for sellers to add to their kit, but it’s also fairly interesting to skim through if you’re a civilian — there are tidbits like “the podcast audience influences over $2.8 billion of bottled water sales annually,” and “popular beer brands among podcast consumers include Sam Adams and Coors,” stuff like that.

Also interesting in the report: a more general demographic finding that non-white podcast listenership has increased over the past six years, from 30 percent in 2010 to 36 percent in 2016.

Published ahead of its third annual podcast upfronts, the IAB’s document is a “playbook” designed to introduce potential brands, advertisers, and marketers to the basics of buying into the medium. In other words, it’s another primer for the space, albeit one with the officiating stamp of a fairly well-known trade association.

I wouldn’t underestimate the marketing value that these documents provide the podcast space as a whole. The world is big and complex and made up of many, many little bubbles, and such badges of honor go a long way in opening up the podcast industry’s relationships with new companies in previously untouched sectors.

On a related note: While we’re talking about intelligence reports, you might be interested in a recent study conducted by NuVoodoo, a research and marketing firm, and Amplifi Media on podcast discovery and consumption that was presented in last week’s Podcast Movement conference. InsideRadio has a full rundown of the findings, but remember: Take the study as one piece of a much larger mosaic. (Or, you know, one of those color dots that collectively make up like a more tangible image. Or TV pixels. Whatever. You know what I mean.)

Speaking of the IAB, just got this info from a Midroll Media rep last night:

In October, Stitcher will be making changes to align its downloading definitions with some of the emerging standards put forth by the IAB. This will give podcasters more standardized, accurate, and granular data about their shows…As part of this change, some podcasters may see an increase or decrease in the downloads attributed in Stitcher. Ultimately, the data podcasters receive from Stitcher will be more accurate and more useful for shows looking to grow, work with advertisers and gain insight into their performance.

Take note.

Preamble: All right, before I move on to the next story, which is about the way we read metrics, impute success, and orient shows in relation to one another — a story that somewhat continues last week’s discussion on daily news podcasts, The New York Times’ The Daily and NPR’s Up First — I have to first establish the following:

The New York Times’ The Daily averaged more than 750,000 downloads every weekday in August, a spokesperson from the organization told me. Which, you know, is pretty remarkable growth from the 500,000 number that was listed in the Vanity Fair feature from last month.

And as a reminder, last week NPR informed me that “Up First currently reaches a weekly unique audience of almost a million users,” with “97 percent of Up First listeners say that the podcast is part of their morning routine and 80 percent say that they listen every day.”

With that out of the way…

Safety in numbers. I’m going to preface all this by saying the following discussion may come off as a tremendous bit of navel-gazing — even by the standards of this newsletter — but I nonetheless think this story has a lot to say about measurements, milestones, and the way we think about “success” in an emerging industry still in need of public serious arbiters of value.

So, for last week’s issue of Hot Pod, I wrote up this whole thing about Vox Media’s upcoming daily news podcast, the strategic openings in that product genre, and drew pretty heavily from the adventures of NPR and The New York Times in that arena. It was, I thought, a wide-ranging and interesting discussion that examined the question of how best to design your way into a field that’s competitive and, in some ways, already pretty well defined.

But it seems that readers were most compelled to the off-handed statement I made pitting Up First against The Daily — which, of course, is a tricky proposition given that each uses different metrics to publicly indicate performance and therefore lacks a fundamental baseline of comparison. The Daily has been using the download to convey its size, while Up First has been using a “unique weekly audience” metric that they gleaned off an in-house analytics tool from an outside company called Splunk, a move that falls from NPR’s broader commitment to move beyond the download. “The differences in metric might make an apples-to-apples comparison complicated for those interesting in doing so,” I wrote. “But I think the victor is pretty clear.”

The reader reaction to that off-handed sentence was exceptionally voluminous, and that indicated two things to me: (a) I was quite wrong in thinking that the victor was all that clear, and (b) people really, really wanted to know who won.

I quickly grew doubtful of my original assessment on the matter, so I felt it appropriate to dig more deeply into the question and explore the shape of its context a little further. And to do that, I traded emails Velvet Beard, the vice president of podcast analytics at Podtrac, which verifies audience sizes and download performance (using its own “unique monthly audience” metric) for a lot of major podcast providers — including both NPR and The New York Times.

You might know Podtrac from the public-facing industry ranker they publish every month — which I have some issues with as an exclusive conveyor of value for the podcast space as a whole due to its somewhat incomplete participant pool, as I wrote about when the ranker originally rolled out last year, but which I have eventually come to accept the ranker as a useful reference sheet for generally assessing what’s up with the market. In my correspondence with Beard, I wanted to learn two things: What should be the right metric to make evaluative comparisons between shows, and what was her opinion on the matter of Up First vs. The Daily?

To begin with, Beard dismissed the notion of ranking one over the other, arguing that the emphasis shouldn’t really about who “won” but rather about how there’s room in the market for two large competitive shows. (An overwhelmingly reasonable point.) And with respect to the question of the appropriate comparative metric, she expounded upon Podtrac’s choice to go with a “unique monthly audience” paradigm as opposed to, say, downloads: it better controls for varying publishing schedules, because you can’t meaningfully compare a daily show with a weekly show with a weekly show that’s deploys more than a few bonus episodes. In her reply, Beard also brought up a range of other valuable points, including how an open conversation about relative successes might disincentivize publishers from verifying their measurements and the differing definitions of “success” in the industry. (It’s a really interesting discussion, and I’ll run the full Q&A after this.)

Beard is, of course, absolutely correct in her assertion that the notion of who “won” shouldn’t be all that important, because it’s not like we exist in some zero-sum, winner-takes-all market. (Nor would we want to. Good lord no.) But I do think it’s somewhat useful to make direct comparisons between shows and to determine who’s serving more audiences (and how deeply) — particularly when you’re able to appropriately match up the two editorial products as exactly as we can with The Daily and Up First. From matchups like these, we can say something about the efficacy of each player’s choices and their capacities to make choices, and we can further draw other actionable lessons like:

  • Did NPR’s straightforward adaptation of Morning Edition pay off better than the more experimental machinations of the Times’ audio team? Or did they pay off equally, and if so, what’s the significance of that?
  • Which type of design gambit better resonated with the current composition of overall podcast listenership, the answer to which could be useful for future show development?
  • Was NPR able to maintain its various competitive advantages as the incumbent in the audio medium, and what we can say about its decision-making and creative leadership as follows from that question?

So, that’s my broader thinking about the premise of this inquiry. But, returning to the original inquiry itself, was I able to come up with a clear victor between the two shows? Let’s break it down:

  • As mentioned earlier, The Daily received at least 750,000 downloads every weekday in August. That’s tremendous, indicating some measure of high engagement.
  • We don’t have a way to figure out The Daily’s listenership on a weekly unique audience paradigm, but we can work from the other direction. Up First reports having “a weekly unique audience of almost a million users,” and that “80 percent say that they listen every day.” If we’re being fairly conservative and peg the weekly uniques to, say, 950,000, we’re talking about a volume of at least 760,000 every weekday — comparable to the level The Daily topped each weekday in August.

It’s close! You could theoretically call this close to a neck-and-neck draw, or even a slight advantage to Up First despite launching three months after its competitor. But then again, you could also say that it sure is something that a relative newcomer to the audio space — admittedly, one with the resources and pedigree of the Times — has been able to pretty effectively match the public radio mothership, whose incumbency is built on decades and decades of experience in audio news. Further, you could say that there’s a sense that the terms and outcome of this matchup are far from being finished; as previously established, The Daily’s growth in recent months, from a daily average of 500,000 in June/July or so up to a daily minimum of 750,000 in August, suggests a show that’s coming further into its own and increasingly reaping the benefits of self-discovery.

As always, I’ll be keeping my eye on this.

Q&A with Velvet Beard. As I mentioned, here it is in full:

[storybreak]

[conl]Hot Pod: The Podtrac industry ranker is built on a “unique monthly audience” paradigm, which stands separate and apart from the general “downloads” metric that’s generally used to discuss show performance. Let me start by asking why you guys decided to focus on the “unique monthly” metric.[/conl]

[conr]Velvet Beard: As you know, Podtrac began in 2005 providing free podcast measurement and demographic services to publishers with the aim of gathering the information on podcast audiences that advertisers needed to make ad buys. By late 2015, when the podcast renaissance was in full swing, we began to hear consistently from advertisers that they were interested in podcasting but confused about download metrics. It was clear to advertisers that even the definition of a download was different from publisher to publisher and this kept some advertisers on the sidelines which was frustrating to the publishers we work with.

Here’s how one podcast advertiser put it to Digiday:

The way that some of these tools piece together these download numbers can be bizarre, confusing, and not necessarily the most accurate representation of what’s actually happening…You’d be surprised how many podcasts don’t even have analytics on their downloads.

We knew that unique monthly audience is an important metric used in other types of digital media because it enables planners to consider monthly audience reach regardless of potential impressions served. Given Podtrac’s 10-plus years of measurement data and experience, we realized we were in a unique position to create an audience/reach metric that would be consistent across publishers and shows whether episodes post daily, twice a week, weekly, or even less frequently.[/conr]

[conl]HP: When we were emailing, you mentioned that the choice between the metrics depends on “how the industry wants to ultimately define success.” What do you mean by that, and can you walk me through the thinking?[/conl]

[conr]Beard: We didn’t create the audience metric to “define success,” but to help advertisers understand what they are buying (audience reach) and publishers understand how many unique people their content reaches. But out of that did come a ranking which does lead to comparisons and implications of success.

Given that, what I was trying to say in regard to choosing a metric for success is that it depends on what the objective is. So again, while setting a success metric was not our intention, I do think this is super interesting to think about. If the publisher/advertiser/industry most values reach/influence, then having the largest unique audience would make you the most successful. If ad revenue is most valued, then having the most impressions to sell (unique downloads) would make you the most successful (though I guess you would have to sell the inventory to capitalize and seal the deal on this success).

And maybe it isn’t how the industry “ultimately defines success,” but maybe there are multiple potential metrics used for different purposes and so there could be multiple winners depending on how you look at it although right now at the publisher level I would say these two metrics track. That is, NPR has by far the largest unique audience and I would venture to say generates the most ad revenue.[/conr]

[conl]HP: From your vantage point, could you walk me through the advantages of using “weekly uniques” over “downloads”? And, if you could flip that on its head for a moment, what are the advantages of using “downloads” over “weekly uniques”?[/conl]

[conr]Beard: I’m going to assume you are asking about the advantages of unique audience over unique downloads as a metric to determine a show/publisher’s success/ranking, since I think both numbers are valuable and have their uses and I don’t think we should throw either of them out.

(We don’t actually publish a weekly unique number right now, although we do have publishers asking. Right now we are calculating monthly audience.)

This is a bit in the weeds, but for a weekly podcast, the weekly unique download number for an episode is the unique audience number for that episode. So we don’t calculate unique audience at the episode level but at the show level and at the publisher level.

What the unique audience number lets us do is understand the overlap in listeners to a show across episodes or overlap in listeners across all shows for a publisher during a specific period of time — which right now is monthly.

The general advantage I see to a unique audience number versus a download number is that it controls for number of episodes/impressions served and measures more accurately how many people are actually listening to a show or a publisher’s shows. So if we looked at only download numbers to compare shows, then, daily shows will have a huge advantage over weekly shows in their ability to generate downloads (5-7 times more opportunities), but that doesn’t mean they are reaching any more people. So this advantage holds if what you want to understand is your audience = how many individual people you are reaching, which is something that advertisers are interested in. Audience numbers also fluctuate less than download numbers as downloads are influenced a lot by adding a bonus episode, doing a promotion of an episode or other one-off activities which may or may not bring in new audience members but usually always increase downloads.

The “advantages” of using downloads to compare shows/publishers are probably that it is easier for the general public and less sophisticated publishers to understand and that the numbers are always larger — which makes everyone feel better. :-)[/conr]

[conl]HP: So, I’m personally of the opinion that it’s valuable and productive to be able to pit two comparable shows — say, a daily news podcast vs. another daily news podcast — against each other and be able to tell who has come out on top. I think you disagree with me on this. What’s your perspective on this issue?[/conl]

[conr]Beard: If two shows are in our top 20, it means they are highly successful in gaining audience. So you could say which has more than the other, but it might be more interesting/productive to ask why these two are more popular than others in their category.

I’d be interested to understand what value you see coming out of the pitting of two shows against one another, unless it is for an advertiser to choose where to put their money? In that case I think that already happens everyday on media plans — just not publicly. We really did create the rankings to help raise the visibility of podcasts and try to help advertisers be more comfortable with podcast metrics in an effort to grow the pie for everyone. Publishers like NPR and HowStuffWorks saw the value in this and were eager to participate.

To my mind, “pitting” one show against another at this point in the industry’s development could be counterproductive in that “losers” will not want to share data and could then become even further incentivized to create their own numbers. I think we already see this at the publisher level. Maybe once the industry has stabilized around success metrics this type of public comparison becomes more useful, however, I still say pitting of shows against one another based on just one metric (audience or downloads) seems overly simplistic as it doesn’t consider demographics, distribution and access points, audience-host connection, etc. It seems more useful for multiple publishers to consider their shows successful and then be able to differentiate them to audiences and advertisers based on those factors.

The feedback from publishers and advertisers in regard to the rankings using unique U.S. audience has been very positive, and having most top podcast publishers embrace transparency in this way is helping more and more brands understand the space and build confidence in their podcast advertising decisions.[/conr]

[storybreak]

Bites

  • Gimlet Media has announced its latest podcast: Uncivil, which seeks to “brings you stories that were left out of the official history of the Civil War, ransacks America’s past, and takes on the history you grew up with.” It will be hosted by Chenjerai Kumanyika and Jack Hitt. You might remember Kumanyika from the great Scene on the Radio series Seeing White, and Hitt is a longtime journalist whose works have appeared on This American Life and in The New York Times Magazine. Launches October 4. (Uncivil)
  • ESPN has makes two additions to its podcast portfolio ahead of football season: one new college football show and one new weekday NFL show. They’re also rolling out “bonus” conversation episodes in the 30 for 30 feed. (Press release)
  • For some reason, I’ve been asked multiple times this week whether I had any intel on when WNYC’s More Perfect will return for a second season. I don’t know much beyond what’s publicly available, which is that it’ll be back sometime in fall. That team takes its time, y’know? (Twitter)
  • Hmm. “Leela Kids opens up the world of podcasts to children.” (TechCrunch)
  • This is fascinating: “Love it or hate it, truckers say they can’t stop listening to public radio.” (Current) As an aside, while reading this I couldn’t stop thinking about the coming effects of automation on those jobs. (Quartz, The Atlantic)
  • Remember, the Channels initiative isn’t Audible’s only foray into original content. “Mother Go is an audio-first novel that harkens back to the golden-age of sci-fi.” (The Verge)
  • Reveal’s Al Letson is an American treasure. (Reveal)

[photocredit]Photo by kokotron bcm used under a Creative Commons license.[/photocredit]

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]

Live touring is a real business for some podcasts (and you don’t need huge downloads for it to work)

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 128, published July 18, 2017.

Radiotopia’s Ear Hustle breaks 1.5 million downloads in its first month, qualifying the show as a “runaway hit” for the podcast collective, as the press release puts it. Also interesting from the release: the podcast, which emerged as the winner of Radiotopia’s first Podquest competition that wrapped last November, has doubled the number of advertisers that will be running spots throughout the first season. Chalk that up, perhaps, to the Today Show bump.

(By the way: Ear Hustle is very, very good, in case that’s not already clear.)

The New York Times adds a new show to its portfolio: “Dear Sugars,” formerly known as “Dear Sugar Radio,” the advice column-turned-advice podcast featuring Cheryl Strayed and Steve Almond from WBUR. This deepens the Times’ relationship with WBUR; the two organizations already collaborate on the Modern Love podcast, which itself is another column-turned-podcast initiative, and long-time observers already know that Lisa Tobin, formerly the managing producer of program development at WBUR, currently serves as the Times’ executive producer of audio.

In case you didn’t know… Lauren Osen, a former senior producer at KPCC’s AirTalk, is the new editorial lead for the Americas for the Apple Podcasts team. Which is to say, she’s the new Steve Wilson. Say hello.

NPR reaches tentative agreement with SAG-AFTRA, avoiding a strike. If you’re reading this newsletter about podcasts that’s fairly heavy on public radio-oriented coverage, you’re probably familiar with what happened here — in broad strokes, at the very least. But if you missed it, this Poynter column should suffice. (Shouts to Poynter’s Al Tompkins for hitting the beat.)

I don’t think there’s much to say that hasn’t already been said. There’s only so much you can draw from a situation that saw NPR’s leadership put forward a contract proposal largely described as “odious” and “the single worst labor proposal in NPR history” during a time when, somewhat paradoxically, the organization has been hitting all-time high ratings and news service brand awards. A proposal that, among other things, pushed for lower pay for newer employees (which will almost definitely worsen the organization’s already lacking state of diversity), rollbacks in benefits, and the eroding of union protections, creating an environment where newsroom morale was “in the dumps” and that triggered a very public fallout. There’s only so much that can be inferred about the substance of leadership here, one whose goal is to be “economically sustainable for the long-term” but at the same time is seemingly dubious in its acceptance of a world that’s rapidly shifting toward digital — remember the NPR Memo kerfuffle? Fun fact: that has now been semi-resolved, over a year later — and, really, one that allowed a public showing of disrespect to its journalists in a time when the very profession feels under siege, when questions linger over federal support in this presidential administration, and when the industry remains ever so volatile.

What else can be said? Other than the obvious: what a damn shame.

Three storylines to track moving forward:

(1) Obviously, a tentative agreement is still tentative. Eyes peeled till the ink dries.

(2) As Poynter notes: “The union had concerns about how a proposed ‘hub’ system would work and whether it would allow non-union local journalists from NPR affiliated stations to do more work now performed by union members.” That hub system in question is the one that NPR news chief Michael Oreskes announced during PRNDI last month, where he envisioned each regional hub being staffed by “experienced managers who could help identify regional stories while making it easier for local stations in those regions to share expertise and resources around investigative work and digital content.” It is in these union negotiations with NPR newsroom staffers, and how they reconceptualize its structure moving forward, where we’ll see the fulcrum upon which the initiative will turn.

(3) Someone pointed this out to me: NPR CEO Jarl Mohn’s five-year contract takes him to 2019, and the tentative agreement runs for three years — expiring in 2020.

A case study in audience targeting. Last Tuesday, Panoply announced that it was partnering with Nielsen to give advertisers the opportunity to buy targeted ads through its Megaphone hosting platform using the latter’s Data Management Platform, an audience segmentation tool built on the company’s various audience intelligence and databases (which is broken out within Nielsen’s platform as audience “personas,” of which it boasts having over 60,000).

AdWeek has a pretty good overview of the story, but here’s the most important thing to know: looking to gain an edge among advertisers, Panoply is now in the business of building out a new podcast advertising marketplace for brands looking for more specificity beyond the broad spray of buying into a given podcast. Panoply isn’t the first to create such a targeting-oriented podcast advertising marketplace; last January, Triton Digital rolled out its Tap Podcast platform, later signing on NPR as a client. (And Panoply isn’t the first audio-related company to gain access to Nielsen’s DMP, either; the measurement giant hammered down a similar-looking partnership with Westwood One last summer.) But where the Tap Podcast partnership was specific to one organization, NPR, this Panoply arrangement theoretically give advertisers a broader, qualified catalog to choose to buy from.

That said, news of this partnership with Nielsen has caused what is now a familiar wave of concerns about how the changes such platforms brings to the advertiser’s power in the ecosystem might affect marketplace dynamics to the detriment of publishers: fears of plummeting CPMs, publishers losing leverage, and so on. To think through these concerns, I thought it might be useful to figure just how the technology and arrangement of how one of these partnerships work — and how it might affect the market — and so I reached out to Panoply to get more insight into its situation. They obliged.

Here’s my conversation with CTO Jason Cox, director of product Joel Withrow, and chief creative officer Andy Bowers (lightly edited for clarity):

[storybreak]

[conl]Hot Pod: Here’s how I comprehend the arrangement: Nielsen has a big data-driven platform that collects a bunch of aggregate user behaviors and then classes them out to 50,000 different kinds of user profiles, with those profiles being built on multi-channel behavior from stuff that they do when they’re watching videos online or surfing on their browsers. And it’s my understanding of this Nielsen data makes up a firehose that will be piped into your platform to inform the way Megaphone dynamically targets and inserts ads based on those audiences.

My initial question is: how does the Nielsen data translate specifically to podcast users? I don’t quite see how the base Nielsen data could be applicable to podcast users if there isn’t the same kind of tracking happening. And I’m curious to hear how you’re able to tell if a certain podcast listener fits within a certain profile.[/conl]

[conr]Jason Cox: That’s pretty much most of it in a nutshell. So, Nielsen tracks demographic segments against these individual user profiles they’ve got from around 9.5 billion unique devices that they’re tracking. They ingest all of that data, they anonymize it, they turn it into a hashed-out idea of the user that has a profile attached, and then they port that data over to our platform. It’s just a huge amount of data that’s constantly flowing in — they have no concept of whether the the user is a podcast listener or not. And so what we do is ingest all of that data, and at the same time we’re building profiles against the activity we’re seeing in our platform: server-side stuff, behaviors, metadata, all of those things allow us to tie user profiles together.[/conr]

[conl]HP: So you guys are trying to translate and connect the profiles they have with what you’re seeing from the podcast user-side, and you’re making those sort of interpretations and connections yourselves?[/conl]

[conr]Cox: Exactly.[/conr]

[conl]HP: Does that identification happen on the server side, and not on the listening side?[/conl]

[conr]Cox: Yep, as long as the content isn’t cached and the request is coming through the Megaphone server, which is what usually happens with the podcast apps, then we can perform the targeting.[/conr]

[conl]HP: What are the data points that you use to identify an anonymous user? Is it stuff like geography, IP addresses, consistency of listening…how does that work?[/conl]

[conr]Cox: So it’s all of that: geolocation, the content they’re requesting, the device they’re on as well as behavior we’ve tracked in the past, and so on.[/conr]

[conl]HP: How does this affect things like the podcast advertising marketplace?[/conl]

[conr]Joel Withrow: The way we envision this rolling out to our publishing partners is that you would have the option to participate in the marketplace. So, if you’re participating as a publisher, your inventory goes into the marketplace and it becomes eligible for ads that are targeted as part of this marketplace. Advertisers can choose demographic characteristics, behavioral characteristics, etc., and if you have unsold impressions that match those types of listeners, you would be eligible for these ads’ revenue from the marketplace.

We’re keeping it consolidated right now to participating publishers only. We’re not going to allow advertisers to target shows as well as applying this more granular targeting. The idea there is that we’re not trying to create any sort of channel conflict or competing demand out there for publisher’s brand: if you still want to reach Malcolm Gladwell or Gimlet’s audience and you really want to connect with the brand, then you’re going to work with that publisher and that publisher’s sales team directly and they’re going to buy into their entire audience rather than sort of drilling into, like, “I want to buy Malcolm, and I also want to do males 13 to 35 with a household income of X percentage.”[/conr]

[conr]Andy Bowers: From a producer’s point of view, we will also be getting a much clearer picture of who’s actually listening to the show. With listener surveys, even if they have great responses, you’re still getting some tiny, self-selected fraction of the listenership. Now, even for people who are using Megaphone who are not using the marketplace, they have much more data in real-time whenever they want it about who is listening to each show — and I imagine that would help on an individual level when they’re selling their shows.[/conr]

[conl]HP: If I’m a buyer working through the marketplace, what does that look like? Do I start providing generic ad experiences that’ll go into a bunch of different shows?[/conl]

[conr]Withrow: The ads themselves will be show-specific, because we won’t be enabling that kind of targeting. We’re looking to build a really premium marketplace and will be reaching out to all the usual suspects that we work with to get their opt-in and participation, and part of that is really high standards of content. In the early days of this, we’ll be doing very careful vetting of advertisers and partners that come onto the platform — so, there will be generic ads, but we will be doing our best to educate advertisers on what really works in [podcast] advertising.[/conr]

[conl]HP: More than a few folks are worried this will drive CPM rates down. What’s your take on that?[/conl]

[conr]Bowers: I think the opposite is true. I think this will enable advertisers to much more clearly identify whom they are reaching in a way that we’ve only been able to guess at until now, and that’s much more valuable, especially for a premium podcast that reaches what we all suspect is a very desirable audience. But now we can prove it.[/conr]

[conr]Withrow: The other thing to note is that we’re building this with full hindsight of mature programmatic marketplaces and video-on-display and we’ve seen the dynamics that have taken place over the last decade-plus. There’s a lot of hard-earned wisdom that’s come from that that can inform the way we roll this out. And, as you know, Panoply started out just as a podcast publisher dealing with CPMs, and so we’re not just an ad tech company trying to squeeze every cent out of every impression. We’re heavily invested in keeping CPM rates high. That’s part of the motivation of not opening up this capability far and wide — we’re trying to start out with the context of a marketplace where you know where there’s premium inventory that’s in high demand.[/conr]

[conr]Bowers: Yes, we do not intend to shoot ourselves in the foot.[/conr]

[conl]HP: Finally, and I’m just curious: Panoply is still both a content and technology company, right?[/conl]

[conr]Bowers: Well, I’m not going anywhere.

I’m really excited to see this data for our shows and to see how it can shape how we think about who’s listening to us. I think it will bring in advertisers who can now see exactly who they’re reaching. Everything we do, we do from the point of view of podcast producers first. And so, when Jason first conceived of this idea, we asked ourselves: will this help us? Will this help our shows? Will this help our partners? We wouldn’t have proceeded if we didn’t think it would.[/conr]

[conl]HP: Anything else to add?[/conl]

[conr]Bowers: One thing I’d point out is that I think this works — and not by design, because we didn’t know what Apple was planning — but I think it dovetails very well with what Apple has or will do [with the introduction of in-episode analytics] soon, because we’re all expecting that, inevitably, we will see people skipping over ads.

I mean, the number of ads being heard is not going to go up in the new Apple metric. It’s inevitably going to go down or at the very best stay flat, but probably go down a little bit. So it’s going to be more important than ever that advertisers know, of those remaining people who are listening, who they are. That’s one reason we’re confident about the CPMs with this model, and we think that the two hand-in-hand are going to become the gold standard of what advertisers expect that they can get from podcasts.[/conr]

[storybreak]

How touring agencies work the podcast scene. Live shows are shaping up to be an increasingly meaningful component of your standard podcast business (to the extent there is such a thing as “standard”), and if you’re looking to set that up, you probably need the help of touring professionals.

The Billions Corporation — a 28-year-old touring agency with offices in Chicago, Los Angeles, Seattle, Toronto, and Nashville — has been working with podcasts for a while now, representing shows like Welcome to Night Vale, Criminal, and The Flop House. I recently traded emails with Josh Lindgren, an agent at the company’s Seattle office, to get some insight into what a touring agency does and what it’s doing in the podcast space.

[storybreak]

[conl]Hot Pod: Could you walk me through what the Billions Corporation does?[/conl]

[conr]Josh Lindgren: We’re an agency that books live performances for a select roster of artists. This includes tours, one-offs, festivals, conferences, etc. As an artist’s chosen representative, we provide an experienced partner in the live entertainment industry that can advocate for the artist’s interests, participate in long-term planning, and help them build a live career that fits into their broader goals.

We were founded in the late 80s as a music agency and have had some pretty big successes in that medium, such as Mumford & Sons, Death Cab for Cutie, Arcade Fire, Sufjan Stevens, The Mountain Goats, and many more. Several years ago, we decided to start applying our established model and relationships to the newly emerging industry of live podcasts. We quickly discovered that there was a great need for our services and have built up the podcast side of our business quickly but thoughtfully. Our goal in the podcast industry is the same as our goal in the music industry — to make touring as artist-centric as possible.

Most podcasters and networks don’t have the time, resources, or experience to book live shows on a large scale. That’s our specialty. We book live podcasts every day year round, so we’re constantly maintaining up-to-date knowledge and relationship with venues big and small around the world.[/conr]

[conl]HP: What does being an agent typically entail?[/conl]

[conr]Lindgren: I work with artists to develop a touring strategy and execute it. This involves selecting venues, negotiating deals, pitching to festivals, making sure any special needs like recording or video projection are being provided, and making sure the artists are paid appropriately for their work. I also manage a team that tracks all of the day-to-day details of any given show, from door times to ticket sales. They take care of things like issuing contracts on the artist’s behalf and preparing documents for immigration. It’s also my job to find new talent and build new relationships, so I’m always listening to new podcasts and going to conferences and events.[/conr]

[conl]HP: Who do you work with?[/conl]

[conr]Lindgren: We represent Stuff You Should Know, Welcome to Night Vale, Criminal, Last Podcast on the Left, RISK!, Throwing Shade, The Greatest Generation, The Memory Palace, Hello from the Magic Tavern, FiveThirtyEight Elections Podcast, Bullseye with Jesse Thorn, The Flop House, Song Exploder, Mystery Show, West Wing Weekly, Scharpling & Wurster, One Bad Mother, and Garrison Keillor. We also book Maximum Fun’s touring festival, Very Very Fun Day, and we’ve done work for NPR on a per-tour basis.[/conr]

[conl]HP: Why do you think podcasts are interested in live touring? Do live podcast shows make money?[/conl]

[conr]Lindgren: The motivation to tour really varies from one artist to the next. It can be establishing a new revenue source, connecting with fans in person, getting in front of sponsors, recording live episodes, raising money for charity, or really anything you can think of. The wife of one of my artists asked me to book him more live shows so that they’d have an excuse to do some traveling together — I loved that!

Live shows are definitely a source of income for the podcasts I work with. The proportion of an artist’s income that’s made from live shows really varies depending on a lot of factors, like number of shows, size of venues, typical ticket prices, etc., as well as, of course, what their other revenue streams are. Unlike advertising, live revenue is not as directly related to download numbers as you might think. I know podcasts that can outsell artists with ten times their download numbers. It all comes down to your relationship with the audience that you have, and establishing a reputation for delivering great live shows.[/conr]

[conl]HP: What are the most important things that you think podcast publishers should know about live shows and agencies like yours, if they don’t already know?[/conl]

[conr]Lindgren: Working with an agency allows podcast publishers to focus on what they do best — making great audio. We focus on what we do best, which is booking great live shows. It’s really a very cost-effective model, too. We take a 10 percent commission on what the artist actually earns from live shows. No retainer fees, no percentages of merch or advertising. We just get paid for the work we do. It’s a classic agency model, just like in music or comedy. Our 10 percent is pretty much always going to be a lot cheaper than staffing a team of experienced show bookers, not to mention our accountant, marketing manager, or in-house attorney. We work with podcasts produced by massive companies and podcasts that are entirely created and operated by one person. What we do is very scalable.[/conr]

You can find Josh on Twitter at @joshtown.

Bites

  • The IAB released revised podcast measurement guidelines, and it’s opening the doc up to public comment through August 11. (IAB)
  • Remember Radio Atlas, the super-cool audio documentary translation and localization initiative by Eleanor McDowall that uses subtitled video? Well, it’s a podcast now, one that’s hoping to serve as “an English-language home for subtitled audio from around the world.” A fantastic idea. (Apple Podcasts)
  • Shouts to WNYC’s Manoush Zomorodi, whose Bored and Brilliant series off her Note to Self podcast is being adapted into a book. (Twitter)
  • “Philly podcast fest turns five, celebrates big growth.” Those McElroys, they’re everywhere. (Philly.com)
  • KCRW’s 24-hour Radio Race is back. Nifty website! (KCRW)

[photocredit]Photo of curtains by AnToonz used under a Creative Commons license.[/photocredit]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sort of.

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

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

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

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

Public Radio updates. A couple stories here:

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

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

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

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

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

[storybreak]

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

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

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

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

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

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

[storybreak]

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

Bites:

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

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