Enough with the “round-robin hot takes”: Techmeme tries a new kind of aggregation show

Infinite Dial 2018. In the run-up to every Infinite Dial  — the annual report from Edison Research and Triton Digital presenting what is, in my opinion, the definitive sizing on podcast listenership due to its assiduousness and the simple fact of its continuity — my stomach tends to produce a little knot. Part of writing this newsletter every week involves a suspension of disbelief, some taming of the nagging sense that all of this is so new, so strange, so tentative. Now, I’m not the kind of person who is certain of anything, from the shape of the world in five years to the muffin I’m planning to eat once this issue goes out, and so in the lead-up to the report, I often find myself prepared for a severe reality check.

Looks like those preparations weren’t necessary — at least not for another year. The numbers are in, and they continue to look good.

As always, you can study the report and watch the webinar for yourself. But here are the biggest things that stood out to me:

(1) Steady, unsexy growth continues

Will there ever be any other kind? The share of Americans who report listening to podcasts within the last month — which remains the key metric I track — is now 26 percent (73 million), up from 24 percent (67 million) the year before. To put it another way: a little more than a quarter of Americans can now broadly be considered active podcast listeners.

That said, it’s a smaller year-over-year growth than the preceding period. The jump in podcast listenership between 2018 and 2017 is only two percentage points (or 6 million Americans), which is a little less than the three-percentage-point gain (or 10 million Americans) between 2017 and 2016.

Is this deceleration noteworthy? I’m not sure, but I think it’s worth taking a step back and contextualize within the bigger picture: between 2014 and 2018, monthly American podcast listenership has grown by a whopping 73 percent.

No matter how you cut it, we’ve come a long way.

(2) Depth and breadth

In the webinar, Edison Research SVP Tom Webster singled out the following data point as perhaps the most interesting in the entire deck: for weekly podcast listeners, the average number of podcasts consumed per week is now seven.

That’s up from the average number of five podcasts that was recorded in the previous two editions of the report. This is a pretty exciting finding, suggesting that not only are more Americans consuming podcasts, but more podcasts are being consumed. Which is to say: new listeners who are brought into the ecosystem are also being spread around.

Webster theorizes that this development could have something to do with the daily podcast genre that’s been growing over the past year or so. I agree with this assessment, but I’d broaden the theory: I think it’s also the effect of growing podcast operations that have been more aggressive in being present within the lives of their audiences. This includes hard daily news products like Up First and The Daily, yes, but also high-output shops like Crooked Media, whose prolific multi-show publishing schedule blankets the media diets (and private lives) of their target audiences. In my mind, these efforts stand in contrast to podcasts that publish with comparatively less urgency and are designed more as intermittent experiences of delight and engagement — narrative shows, in other words, that fit into lives more like a magazine or a novella.

It’s also worth considering how limited-run podcasts fit into this equation: S-Town, Dirty John, Heaven’s Gate, Atlanta Monster, etc. Given that the Infinite Dial report is largely a measure of perception, I wonder how these shows are understood as part of a basic listening diet?

(3) A problem of retention?

I’m still thinking about the conundrum articulated by Eric Nuzum, Audible’s SVP of original content, the last time I wrote up the Infinite Dial. In a nutshell, he argues that the big metric to watch is the disparity between Americans who report ever having tried out a podcast and Americans who report being monthly podcast listeners — in other words, a measure of the medium’s ability to efficiently retain new listeners and expand its active consumer base.

Sticking with that concept, I thought it could be useful to break out the ratio of the share of Americans who’ve tried the medium (“Ever-Listened”) to the share of monthly American podcast listeners (“Monthly”) over the past few years:

(*reads basketball analytics once*)

From this breakdown, it’s noticeable that the retention ratio has more or less kept steady within a tight range over the past three years, aside from a drop-off between 2015 and 2016. This suggests an ecosystem that hasn’t really been able to improve upon its ability to proportionally retain new listeners despite the boom it’s experiencing. I’m curious to hear what you think about this framing, though, or if I’m using this statistic incorrectly.

Anyway, in that discussion with Nuzum, he speculated on why we’re seeing this:

When people sample and don’t habituate, it speaks to interest that isn’t being met by the content that’s available today. There either isn’t enough variety of things for people to listen to — or there isn’t enough of what they like to meet their appetite. With 350,000 podcasts, that seems like a strange thing to say, but the simple truth is that potential listeners aren’t sticking with it — and there are only two potential reasons: not enough good stuff — or they simply can’t find it. Ah, the old twin-problems of programming and discovery.

So, in the past, I’ve consistently argued against putting much stock into viewing discovery as the defining challenge of the podcast ecosystem, and for putting more stock into the issue of developing more types of programming for more types of people. Of course, it’s not an either/or situation, and sure, you’re totally free and justified to continue touting discovery as the final frontier. But I’d also encourage further interrogation of that perspective: what are we really asking for when we ask for better podcast discovery? Are we extending hope for a more aggressive platform that ultimately centralizes all knowledge, awareness, and conduct of podcast products? And to what extent are gripes of podcast discovery actually gripes against the relatively unexplored art of podcast marketing?

Just a thought.

(4) Gains in the car

So, this is cool: as expressed in the webinar, 2018 marks the first time that podcasting overtook satellite radio in the car, 23 percent to 21 percent. Podcasting still comes behind online radio (28 percent), owned digital music (45 percent), CDs (49 percent), and that steady behemoth, AM/FM radio (82 percent).

(Indeed, the persistent prominence of CDs may be surprising to some. But I’ll have you know: I own a 2006 Subaru Forester with a barely attached door handle and an in-car entertainment system that barely features a screen, and I don’t have any plans to get a new car anytime soon. I keep things simple.)

In related news, the share of Americans with cars that feature in-dash information and entertainment systems is now 15 percent (or 42 million), up from 12 percent the year before.

Anyway, be sure to check out the slide in the report that tracks year-over-year changes for all these in-car audio source categories. Notice how podcasting, by growing from 19 percent in 2017 to 23 percent in 2018, represents the biggest jump across its largely flat or receding peers, and how these in-car podcasting gains track greater than podcasting’s overall growth. There is so much room for growth here, and I think it has everything to do with the friction of the in-dash entertainment user experience. Watch that scene closely.

(5) “What is the ceiling of podcast listenership?”

That Very Big question was posed during the presentation, and it’s absolutely worth unpacking. This year, the share of Americans who report being familiar with the term “podcasting” is 60 percent (or 168 million), which is a far cry from the years when this stat stayed flat — between 2009 and 2014, that share was trapped within 45 percent and 48 percent.

Edison Research made it a point to emphasize how this data point on term-familiarity is a reflection of awareness, not comprehension, and so even though a big share of Americans report having heard of the concept, it’s not any literal indication that they understand what it specifically means: the podcatchers, the RSS feeds, the distinction against streaming or broadcast radio, the amorphous and vibrant culture that has emerged from its component parts, and so on.

Which raises the question: what are we talking about when we talk about podcasting from a outward-facing perspective? What should we be talking about? Are we discussing a specific community or bundle of creators working within a particular paradigm of a shifting technological world, or are we referring more to a specific technology configuration of audio content distribution?

For what it’s worth, and in case you haven’t noticed, I’ve largely stacked my chips on the former — not only because I’ve found it infinitely more productive as a framework to ground my coverage in this newsletter, but also because it’s the creative community that matters. The structural world will continue to change in vast and peculiar ways; the people, not so much. I think this is only going to become more true as we move forward in time and continue to see other platforms, technical infrastructures, and distributional opportunities converge to further interact and impact the identity of the space: from external platforms like Spotify and Pandora to the ruthlessly political world of the in-car dashboard, from new apps portending new ways of doing things to voice-first computing (née smart speakers), from in-closet productions to corporate products. It’s all audio, but it’s an audio of change.

And so, I’m less curious about podcasting’s ceiling. As I’ve maintained before, I’m more curious about what we’re going to call it — and how we’re going to recognize it — in the years to come.

(6) Smart speaker ascendant

Speaking of smart speakers, they’ve totally arrived, having invaded the lives of Americans everywhere. Smart speaker ownership doubled over the last year, now at 18 percent (or 51 million). Notably, the report observed that “smart speaker adoption is growing at a faster rate than the early days of smartphones.” Some of this might be attributable to the fact that Americans are probably more comfortable these days allowing intimate personal devices from major technology companies into their private lives, having already done so multiple times over. But it probably has more to do with the smart speaker — as a vessel of voice assistants (or voice-first computing) — being a particularly sticky product in the broader culture.

One thing to note: there was some discussion about the curious growth of Amazon Music’s usage as an online audio brand — and how that indicates the strength of smart speakers in driving a certain of listening behavior. That’s the upside to the fight to figure out the ecosystem: to reap the benefits of becoming the default presence, brand, or experience on this rapidly-growing device category.

Side note: I can’t stop thinking about how Google Glass, in hindsight, is probably some sort of multiverse branching point. I wonder how that parallel universe looks like, and what that Nick Quah is doing right now.

Miscellaneous Notes

  • This one’s really cool: the share of American men who consider themselves monthly podcast listeners has stayed flat (27 percent), but the share of American women has increased year-over-year: 24 percent, up from 21 percent the year before.
  • The share of Americans aged 18-34 who don’t own a radio receiver in the home is now 50 percent. A decade ago, in 2008, that share was six percent.
  • Among Americans who have ever listened to a podcast, 80 percent report typically consuming most or the entirety of a given episode. That’s a little down from 85 percent last year. Y’all should square this against what you’ve been finding with the new Apple in-episode podcast analytics.
  • Only roughly one in five podcast listeners report speed-listening behaviors. Look, you’re just special.
  • NPR One’s brand awareness is flat at 20 percent, same as last year.
  • Also flat, interestingly enough: audiobook listening, which has hovered within 43 percent and 45 percent over the past four years. Shouts to Audible, one of podcasting’s blue chip advertisers.

Okay, time to get out of this thread, lest Hot Pod becomes an Edison Research blog.

Scenes from another report. While the Infinite Dial remains the industry’s gold standard report, I’m always hungry for more research. Atlantic Re:think, The Atlantic’s creative marketing group, has commissioned an upcoming whitepaper that hopes to generate more insight into the behaviors and preferences of podcast listeners. In particular, the study hopes to contextualize their podcast consumption habits within their broader media diets.

The full report, which was conducted in partnership with the consumer intelligence firm Maru/Matchbox, will be released within the next few weeks, but in the meantime, here are some excerpts I found noteworthy from the early look that was given to me:

  • “Podcast listeners report listening to podcasts for 4.2 hours a week and listening to twelve different podcast episodes a month. 58 percent of listeners report that their podcast consumption has even increased in the past year. But, while we’re seeing podcasts outpacing other media in terms of growth, they’re not replacing other media. Most respondents are either increasing or keeping their time spent with other media flat.”
  • “58 percent of listeners said they’ve increased podcast listening in the past year, and are currently averaging 4.2 hours of listening each week. It’s the most year-over-year growth of any medium; by comparison, 44 percent of those surveyed said they are reading more digital news; 40 percent are watching more TV; and 38 percent are reading more magazines or newspapers.”

The report takes pains to emphasize the thesis that these data points represent a world in which podcasts are outpacing — but not replacing — other forms of media, like television or digital news. This is in keeping with one of the fundamental arguments about podcasts: that it is the perfect medium to fill “in-between times” like commutes, exercising, cooking, etc. I think the thesis is broadly true, but with one caveat: we shouldn’t forget that podcasting directly competes with other forms of “in-between time”-oriented content sources, like, say, AM/FM radio or maybe the social graces of your roommates.

Anyway, in addition to these findings, Atlantic Re:think’s report also touches upon the halo effects of podcast advertising and views towards branded podcasts. So if you’re interested in that kind of stuff, keep your eyes peeled for the report when it pubs.

All the news that’s fit to serialize. New York Times Audio has announced its first serialized narrative nonfiction project: Caliphate, a limited-run documentary featuring the reporting of Rukmini Callimachi, the Times’ stellar foreign correspondent and in-house expert — probably the expert — on the Islamic State.

The press release describes the podcast as follows: “Recorded and produced over the past year, Caliphate follows Callimachi as she searches building after building in the city of Mosul, collecting thousands of pages of secret papers from al-Qaeda’s North African branch, showing how they governed and answering the disturbing question of their longevity.”

The podcast is slated to debut later this spring, and working on the project are: Larissa Anderson, Wendy Dorr, Andy Mills, Asthaa Chaturvedi, Lisa Tobin, and Samantha Henig.

Take note: subscribers to the New York Times will have early access to the audio documentary. A spokesperson confirmed to me that subscribers can cash in on the first-listen through the Times’ web and app platforms. This is the first time we’re seeing the Times audio team attempt a version of windowing that explicitly loops a podcast’s value proposition back into the organization’s broader subscription-first business strategy. The exact structure of the window — that is, how long before non-subscribers get to listen — remains unclear. I should also note that this technical gambit naturally extends from the Times’ recent move to ensure that it is able to directly distribute The Daily to listeners through its app.

I like this move, by the way, and here’s why I think it’s different from other windowing campaigns we’ve seen so far: the Times already has a strong subscriber base that’s scattered across a range of media and platforms. As such, Caliphate isn’t made to bear the burden of needing to drive new conversions and spark new lines of businesses to justify its investment. Furthermore, the fact that the Times’ subscriber base is already significant means the project doesn’t run the risk of artificially capping any potential momentum it might generate off the bat. This raises a broader question: are audio windowing strategies only unambiguously strong when its attached to a mature and developed subscriber base?

Anyway, for what it’s worth: this is the kind of show I was hoping to see from the Times the very second I heard they were assembling an audio team. Vast in ambition and consideration of the medium it will use, the project is poised to be a fine example of what we can get when a huge news organization leverages its resources to build a podcast-first news product — and not a product whose form or function is derivative of a separate broadcast or legacy infrastructure.

(TL;DR: The Times is coming for that Embedded money.)

Two more things:

  • Let me once again stan for Longform and re-up Rukmini Callimachi’s amazing two-part interview on that show. It’s one of my favorites from that podcast.
  • Song Exploder dropped a special episode last week breaking down The Daily’s theme song. I heard that Sam Dolnick, the Times’ assistant masthead editor and NYT Audio superfan, was partially responsible for this collaboration. Look, my favorite Song Exploders are theme song exploders, and you should probably pair this with Hrishikesh Hirway’s unpacking of the Reply All theme.

Okay. Now I’m going to break my daily news podcast moratorium to talk about Techmeme. Let’s go.

Rewrite this headline. Techmeme, the highly influential technology news aggregator read by everybody from Sundar Pichai to that dudebro who just launched an app, has rolled out a new daily podcast that, well, delivers you a snippy roundup of the day’s most important tech news.

The show is called Techmeme Ride Home, and each edition — which runs between fifteen and twenty minutes — drops every weekday at 5 p.m. ET in its bid to hit the evening commute. Producing and hosting the podcast is Brian McCullough, the creator of the Internet History Podcast and author of the upcoming book How the Internet Happened: From Netscape to the iPhone.

As Peter Kafka points out over at Recode, Techmeme Ride Home marks a rare product extension for the famed tech aggregation site and its founder, Gabe Rivera. “I don’t know why Gabe hasn’t done many Techmeme extensions over the years,” McCullough wrote when we traded emails last week. “But as someone said on Twitter, he seems to have impeccable timing in terms of which trends to be a part of, and which to ignore forever. I do know this is something he had been thinking about doing for a while.”

On the face of it, the podcast seems to fall within the extensive tradition of tech podcasts designed to highlight and unpack the key technology developments of the moment: think Daily Tech News Show or the This Week in Tech (TWiT) network. But the way McCullough tells it, Techmeme Ride Home was designed less to compete with those podcasts and more to fashion something new out of the site’s core editorial value propositions. “The problem I was running into was that all the existing tech news roundups had the same formula: get 3-4 people at a table and get round-robin hot takes about the news of the week,” he explained. “It made no sense to just do another one of those.”

McCullough continued:

So, we both sort of brainstormed how to do it differently and we decided that Techmeme was good for two big use cases: quickly catching up on what was new in the world of tech; and — and I think this is crucial — giving the CONTEXT for what is going on… someone reported X, but someone else said Y about X, and someone else tweeted the real story about X. Here’s what it all means. So, our whole mission was to build off of Techmeme’s existing strengths: what did I miss, and what does it mean?

He also posed the question: “Though daily news wraps HAVE been done, has news aggregation been done in a major way in pods before?” It’s a pretty interesting query, but if pressed, I’m tempted to think that the answer is yes, very much so, but mostly because I think the chat-show model that we see with the aforementioned Daily Tech News Show and TWiT — along with stuff like the Slate Gabfests that operates within other various news genres — represents a form of aggregation in its own way.

But I get where McCullough’s coming from, and I have a sense that the kind of aggregation he’s raising is a matter of flash efficiency: an audio product that allows for quick downloads of the news. That, I believe, we’ve seen emerge with growing Alexa’s Flash Briefing content universe, and I suspect that’s the trend Gabe Rivera is tracking.

Before I switch gears, I just wanted to link to Charlie Warzel’s nifty profile on Rivera and Techmeme, which you can read on BuzzFeed.

Specific. McCullough was also eager to discuss what appears to be podcasting’s gradual introduction to day-parting, the broadcast programming practice of dividing the day into separate temporal parts whose audience profile possess different traits and needs.

I’m just going throw a chunk of what he wrote in here, because there’s a lot going on and McCullough was hyper-specific with his enthusiasm:

So, day-parting has been around since the 1920s because early on everybody realized that audiences have different expectations and different use cases for content at different times of the day. With podcasting, everyone fell in love with the time shifting aspect of the medium… But by focusing on that, producers ended up with a bias toward leisure listening (I’ll listen to this when I’m ready and want to chill out) and they forgot about the day-parting lesson of filling a listener’s need at a given time of day.

I fully credit The Daily for reminding everyone about this: oh, I can listen to a podcast in the morning and feel like I’m educated on the recent zeitgeist! We’re trying to do a similar thing (in the reverse commute time) but the Ride Home moniker is just a suggested use case. Really, if you wanted to save up a week’s worth of shows and binge on the weekend, clearly you can do that too. I do think producers will be thinking more about meeting needs around people’s lives as they go through their day. THIS is the pod I take the gym. THIS is the pod I listen to to fall asleep (those exist BTW, and I find them fascinating!).

Shouts to Drew Ackerman’s Sleep with Me, by the way.

Anyway, I think day-parting can be further situated within a broader trend of how daily podcast news products can further dig into use-case niches to trigger the next phase of evolution. Cutting deeper into temporal chunks is one way to do, but so is slicing the genre up based on regions and locales, as we can see with the case of KQED’s recently-launch The Bay and ongoing efforts like AL.com’s Down in Alabama with Ike Morgan.

There’s no telling where else it can go.

Bites.

  • Three updates from NPR: (1) Planet Money welcomes two new hosts: Sarah Gonzalez, formerly of WNYC, and Karen Duffin, formerly of This American Life; (2) Invisibilia is back with its fourth season; and (3) Hidden Brain celebrates its 100th episode.
  • I’m skipping SXSW this year — it’s been an exhausting few months — but I hear there’s a bunch of podcast stuff that’s going on in Austin, including a couple of live shows and some announcements. Apple’s Eddy Cue took the stage yesterday, but that didn’t really generate anything particularly interesting for us. Still, it’s always worth keeping an eye on Cupertino. When whales move, the tides shift, something something.
  • Incremental update on Spotify going public: the streaming platform is planning to begin listing shares on the week of April 2. (Bloomberg)
  • Goop, Gwyneth Paltrow’s lifestyle media company, is testing the podcast waters, with Cadence13 providing support. (Apple Podcast)
  • Shannon Cason, the mind behind Homemade Stories, has a new show out with WBEZ: The Trouble. The podcast received some cross-promotional love from Glynn Washington’s Snap Judgment. (Apple Podcast)
  • My reviews this week: West Cork from Audible, and from Marvel and Stitcher.

The podcast business playbook: What’s the best way for a podcast studio to raise money?

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 131, published August 8, 2017.

Fundraising and futures. The past seven days saw two significant stories about money being raised here in Podcast-land. Taken together, the stories contain a fair bit of meat, because they offer two very different approaches to the industry — and two different visions of what it could be.

We’ll start with the flashier one. Last Wednesday, Gimlet Media announced that it had successfully executed a $15 million Series B fundraising round led by Stripes Group, whose portfolio also includes Refinery29 and notable podcast advertiser Blue Apron. The round includes Laurene Powell Jobs’ Emerson Collective and re-ups from Cross Culture Ventures, Betaworks, and Graham Holdings (also known around these parts as Panoply’s parent company). The round brings Gimlet’s total funding raised to $22 million. A spokesperson declined to disclose valuations, but Peter Kafka’s reporting over at Recode has this gem: “Industry sources told me that Gimlet wanted a $75 million valuation when it first went looking for funding this year, but couldn’t find takers at that price.”

Gimlet cofounder Matt Lieber noted that the round was bigger than originally intended. He described the $15 million raise as opportunistic to some extent, a reaction to the level of interest Gimlet received. “But it’s not like we’ll be spending it all at once,” he told me. The company will, however, be spending that money across several areas it’s identified as key channels of growth: more programming, more training and development, more on the internal brand content agency known as Gimlet Creative, more intellectual property pipeline development. (The prospect of a virtual reality pipeline was kicked around.)

If you’re wondering how the company is doing, the press release alludes to this opaquely, as is custom: “In the past year, Gimlet doubled listenership, revenue, and output of Gimlet Creative, the company’s in-house advertising arm and content studio.” That revenue factoid doesn’t mean much without baseline numbers, and the only one I’ve got for you is $2 million — that’s the amount of revenue Gimlet generated in its first year, which Gimlet co-founder Matt Lieber disclosed in an interview with the Financial Times back in 2015. I trust you can do the speculative math yourself.

Getting somewhat less formal attention, but no less important, is news that DGital Media, the podcast company with a client list that includes Crooked Media, Recode, and Tony Kornheiser, has secured investment money from Entercom, the fourth largest broadcast radio company in the United States (it owns over a hundred radio stations across the country). The investment is phrased as a strategic partnership, and Inside Radio reports that Entercom paid $9.7 million for a 45 percent stake in DGital Media (which strikes me as a curious arrangement, all things considered), where the former will also provide “‘significant’ annual marketing and promotion” across its broadcast infrastructure for the latter. I guess we’ll find out if radio-to-podcast conversion is a thing, or not.

DGital Media has always struck me as fascinating, exhibiting a blend of old- and new-school that turned out to be somewhat effective. Founded and built by Westwood One alums — a cadre that includes CEO Spencer Brown, president David Landau, and chief content officer Chris Corcoran, along with many other imports up and down the staff directory — the podcast company has firmly worked off what you could call a familiar playbook: build a roster of personalities across well-validated genres (business, sports, comedy, politics), develop a portfolio of talk programming on top of them, and leverage their advertising expertise and relationships carried over from their radio days. It’s conservative: there are no especially big gambles on technology, no plays to build out new advertising formats or workflows, no designs for the more complicated narrative formats. It’s the playbook held by PodcastOne and CBS’s Play.it, a dimension that reflects all three companies’ roots in traditional commercial radio. But DGital Media has curiously proven itself to be consistently effective with its partnerships, which you could qualify as a savviness. The Crooked Media relationship, in particular, is a coup for the company, with a lot more room to grow.

That DGital Media is selling off a 45 percent stake to Entercom, a behemoth of the old world, is a glimpse at the company’s most probable exit strategy. And from a distance, you can begin to see the overarching narrative: this is a story about a company serving as a vessel building the bridge between the old world and the new world, one whose value is largely contained in its ability to perpetuate the pre-existing industry power structure.

Where DGital Media’s future is directly informed by its past, Gimlet’s future is defined by a whole different framework: one that seeks to figure just how far this rabbit hole goes. The company’s more ambiguous arc was sealed with its original choice to pursue venture capital from the beginning — something that DGital Media didn’t do — and further solidified when it positioned itself as being closer to more digital-native media companies as opposed to radio companies, as the company did with the way it participated in the more bespoke Brooklyn NewFronts last year with brands like Atlas Obscura, Genius, and Lenny. What will Gimlet become? How big can it truly become? How will this end? All is uncertain, and it’s hard to visualize a playbook that hasn’t been written yet. That’s sort of the point with these types of ventures, though, and for some it’s a point of relish. (Like myself, I’d say, perhaps as an affect of my relative youth.) But when directly contrasted against DGital Media’s more straightforward path, others might be tempted to perceive it as a point of burden.

One more thing to note. Some have raised the question to me, publicly and privately, about the significance of the timing around these deals. As Bumpers’ Ian Ownbey phrased it over Twitter, “Lot of people getting ready for that iTunes analytics launch.” I’m inclined to not put too much stock into that, but hey, it’s a theory worth considering nonetheless.

Investment hurdles. Peter Kafka’s piece on the Gimlet round also contains a chunk worth highlighting:

When I first heard that Gimlet was raising money a couple months ago, I asked a range of venture capitalists whether they were investing in the company or any other podcast startup. I got lots of noes.

The longer answer: VCs had looked, but found various reasons not to invest. They were concerned that there’s no real tech in podcasting. Or that the industry is dominated by Apple, and Apple doesn’t seem terribly interested in podcasting. Or that the podcasting industry just isn’t big enough to produce an exciting return.

Kafka hedged the analysis slightly in the DGital Media-Entercom article he wrote later in the week, but for what it’s worth, his findings are somewhat consistent with my own. What might spur actual investment interest? Explosive and public growth, perhaps, or some technological development that brings the medium closer to the language that VCs speak.

Justice and fairness. It’s no secret that Preet Bharara, the former US Attorney famous for his work on corruption and financial malfeasance, has been attached to some sort of podcast project following his recent controversial dismissal by the Trump administration. The Hill reported as such earlier this summer, shortly after Bharara joined the media firm Some Spider Studios, which was founded by his brother, the entrepreneur Vinit Bharara. The only question was who’s going to get that account.

We got the answer yesterday. The weekly podcast, which will be called “Stay Tuned with Preet” and will apparently focus on issues of “justice and fairness,” is officially a project by Cafe, an entertainment brand from Some Spider Studios. But the show sees Cafe partnering up with Pineapple Street Media to handle production — bringing Pineapple’s list of political clients up to two, the other being, of course, Hillary Clinton —  and WNYC Studios to handle distribution, promotion, and ad sales. (WNYC Studios will also consult on the show, a spokesperson added.) If you’re looking for more details off the press release, Variety’s got you covered.

There are so many story threads you can pull from this, it’s basically one big fat ball of yarn: What’s the conceivable function of such a podcast? What’s up with politicians and podcasts? What does this tell us about the opportunities that podcasting provides political media and advertising? What does Pineapple Street Media’s continued work with liberal(-ish) political figures suggest about its arc as a media agency, and how should this impact the way we think about its pre-existing relationship with the New York Times? What does this tell us about WNYC Studios’ game plan (which seems to be quite pleasantly leaning heavily on its New York-ness)? Why is it called Some Spider Studios? Does Preet Bharara know what a podcast is? #Sohe’srunning?

Me, I’m more interested in why WNYC Studios is partnering with an outside podcast agency for a show that it has every means and capacity to produce on its own. Someone’s flexing here. I’m just wondering who.

Radiotopia’s Showcase, a place for unconventional shapes. Fresh off a strong start to Ear Hustle, Radiotopia has wasted no time unveiling its latest magic trick. Last week saw the launch of Showcase, a new banner and RSS feed under which the indie podcast collective will curate original, limited-run series from producers around the world. Some of the curated will be entrants to Radiotopia’s Podquest competition that didn’t make it through for reasons of structural fit, which is a reflection of one of the collective’s larger findings from the competition: not every idea is best served as a conventionally structured podcast.

The first series to be featured is called Ways of Hearing, a Podquest entrant that takes the shape of a six-part series about listening in the digital age and is hosted by the musician Damon Krukowski. Following that will be “a nonfiction series about an urban legend based on an arcade game” called “Polybius Conspiracy,” according to Fast Company.

Its enterprise is a feat of creative flexibility over anything else, putting the team in a good position to do a lot of things that are great for the space that most other podcast companies are ill-positioned to do. The accompanying press release lists some of those things: support ideas that are best delivered in short servings, highlight more perspectives and voices, systematically throw more weight behind emerging talent, test run crazy ideas that could grow into longer-term projects, push boundaries, break down walls.

Here’s hoping for more crazy.

Meanwhile, across the pond. This is interesting: a recent market study in the United Kingdom found that while the number of listeners within its borders continues to creep up, there is a quietly growing concern that the popularity of advertising-free programming in the region — a consequence of the BBC being dominant in the ecosystem, where the government-funded body generally eschews advertising — might be a suppressive force on podcast advertising growth in the market. Emarketer has the write-up.

I wonder if Canada, where public broadcaster CBC also makes up most of the regional podcast market and also boxes out advertising, faces the same dynamic.

It’s a small world. Yesterday NPR announced details for its upcoming podcast, Rough Translation, which will see the organization bring the weight of its international presence to bear on its podcasting operations. The show will be hosted by Gregory Warner, a longtime international correspondent for the public radio mothership, and it seeks to “explore how the ideas we talk about in the US…are being discussed somewhere else in the world.”

Some qualities worth tracking: to begin with, the project’s structure seems strangely similar to the Kelly McEvers-led Embedded, which also featured some episodes that applied a narrative journalism framework to stories from other countries. Rough Translations is also said to be a product of NPR’s Story Lab, an agitating body within the organization meant to aid in the internal development of new shows and training resources. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the show will apparently draw from NPR’s reporting assets scattered across the organization’s 17 international bureaus across the globe. If the team can work out a solid and replicable workflow, I suspect there’s a way in which those workflows could be transposed to the “regional hub” initiative that the organization has been going on about. Eh, just a thought.

Rough Translation will debut on August 14.

In related news… The Pew Research Center just published the most recent edition of its “Public Broadcasting Fact Sheet,” which you should totally check out.

Here’s what I find to be the most interesting finding, though: NPR’s total operating revenue in 2016 was $213 million, up 9 percent from 2015 levels, while revenues for the 125 largest news-oriented licensees — organizations that operate local public radio stations — remained flat. APM’s revenue, however, went down 6 percent year over year, garnering $126 million in 2016.

Podcast coverage. We’re doing something a little different with Career Spotlight this issue. Today’s Q&A is with Sarah Larson, a New Yorker staffer who will be writing the website’s new podcast column, “Podcast Dept.,” which launches this week.

So, I’m a big fan of Larson’s work, both the stuff she’s written about podcast in the past — including write-ups on Happier with Gretchen Rubin, Serial, Mogul, and Norman Lear’s All of the Above — and her stuff more generally, like a recent essay titled “U2 Plays ‘The Joshua Tree’: Outside, It’s America,” which is about a lot of things, but is most importantly about returning to something when you’re no longer the same.

Anyway, I thought it’d be useful to hear what Larson has to say about critical podcast writing and her approach to the matter. Let’s jump in.

[storybreak]

[conl]Hot Pod: What do you do for a living, and how did you end up doing it?[/conl]

[conr]Sarah Larson: My somewhat hilarious job title is “roving cultural correspondent” for newyorker.com. I’ve been on staff at The New Yorker since 2001. For most of that time, I was a copy editor for the print magazine, and I also wrote theatre blurbs for Goings On About Town. I hadn’t thought of myself a journalist — my first love was writing fiction and memoir, which I have always done on the side. But in January 2013, I discovered a style of journalistic writing that suited me, for the webite. I wrote a freewheeling post about Barry Manilow’s show on Broadway, and suddenly it was as if everything clicked. I was having fun, and it felt right. I began writing regularly for the site and for Talk of the Town, in the magazine, and in 2014 my editors hired me to write for the site full-time. As roving cultural correspondent, I go out into the city and report on theatre, music, comedy, podcasts, other cultural creations, and the people who make them. I cover a very wide range of cultural work. (Including “Game of Thrones”!)[/conr]

[conl]HP: How did your new podcast column come about?[/conl]

[conr]Larson: I was avoiding the form of criticism, generally, because we have critics at the magazine, and that was their role, not mine. But in my writing about podcasts over the past few years, which I’ve loved and found exciting, I’ve been surprised to hear gratitude from people in the podcast community for writing anything critical at all. Everybody covers the podcasts that hit it very big, but there’s a dearth of critical podcast writing in comparison with the amount of podcasts there are — even for the bigger-budget highly produced podcasts, and, as you know, there are hundreds of lesser known podcasts beyond that. When my colleague Emily Stokes suggested that I write a weekly podcast column, I thought, Yes! It felt exactly right. It’s such an exciting time in the podcast world. I wish I’d started it a year ago.[/conr]

[conl]HP: Could you tell me about how you’re approaching the work?[/conl]

[conr]Larson: My first objective with this column is to listen closely, to get to know what the podcast is doing and the intentions of the people creating it, and to give the reader a sense of what the experience is for the listener and how well the podcast accomplishes its goals. It’s not necessarily to pronounce various podcasts good or bad but to take them seriously and to think about them. The landscape has changed so much in the past few years, as you know, Nick. I’m really intrigued to see where that goes in the next year or two.

I’m listening for work that creates an authentic, interesting experience for the listener and a connection to the listener, and which connects us to the larger world in a way that feels valuable. I tend to be very sensitive to sound design and its use and misuse, and to hosts’ voices, and the particular feeling of intimacy that this form can foster. Another thing I’m paying attention to is the wonderful but insidious role of storytelling, which can enhance journalism beautifully but can also become treacherous.

Basically, I want to take a look at a genre that hasn’t been one of the standard categories of criticism and do my part to pay it the respect that it’s earned in our culture in this moment. Podcasts are incredibly plentiful and diverse, and I know a great many, but I also feel like I’m on the edge of a very lush forest, curious to see what’s within. So I thought, I better get hiking.[/conr]

You can find Sarah on Twitter at @asarahlarson.

Bites

  • This is good: “Personal Audio loses its appeal for podcasting patent.” (TechCrunch) And for further background, refer to this episode from This American Life, “When Patents Attack!” (This American Life)
  • The Ringer’s Paolo Uggetti takes on the podcast speed listening question, as part of the site’s “Inefficiency Week” editorial package. (The Ringer)
  • Props to TheNew Yorker Radio Hour for giving us the Scaramucci tapes. (WNYC) Speaking of which, did you know that he actually has his own podcast called, uh, The Motivation Inside (TMI)? Yeah. I can’t wrap my head around this. (Apple Podcasts)
  • Not directly related to podcasts, but nothing happens in a vacuum: “For the new far right, YouTube has become the new talk radio.” Plus, the ideological alignments between digital formats is a theme we’ve visited before. (NYT Magazine)

[photocredit]Piggybanks photo by Subash BGK used under a Creative Commons license.[/photocredit]

What’s coming next in podcast adaptations: Adaptations of other forms of media to podcasts

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 129, published July 25, 2017.

Hey folks! We’re talking about adaptations, once again.

Gimlet wraps a big week for Homecoming. In the same week that the experimental fiction podcast debuted its second season, Deadline reported that its TV adaptation has received a two-season pickup by Amazon, with Julia Roberts confirmed in the lead role. (Sad times for Catherine Keener fans!) News of the adaptation was first publicized last December, with Mr. Robot creator Sam Esmail attached as director and executive producer.

For those keeping tally: Gimlet currently has three pieces of IP that are being pipelined into the more lucrative world of film and television (that we know of, anyway. You can damn well bet that there are many more in development at various stages of maturity). The other two are: (1) the StartUp podcast, which will be hitting television as ABC’s Alex Inc. starring Zach Braff, and (2) the Reply All episode “Man of the People,” set to be a Richard Linklater film starring Robert Downey Jr.

The company has officially expanded its adaptation pipeline beyond film and television as well. Accompanying Homecoming’s latest season is a companion ebook called The Lost Coast, which follows a storyline that’s separate but related to the narrative playing out in the podcast. (Expanded universe, anybody?) The first chapter of the ebook rolled out alongside the new season’s first episode, and the series will be exclusive to Apple’s iBooks platform. With this, the company walks a path well-trod by earlier pioneers: the Night Vale team, in particular, pulled off a successful crossover to books, publishing an original novel in 2015 along with two episode volumes. (A second original Night Vale novel, It Devours!, will drop in October.)

The podcast-to-TV adaptation trend has been around for a while — for what it’s worth, I first wrote about the trend last April, though activity in this sector long predated that column — but credit to Gimlet here for the pace of its machinations and the depth of its media savvy: from my perch, the company seems to have pretty effectively concentrated the podcast-to-TV adaptation narrative into a discernible and trackable thread that flows straight through it, keeping the focus and attention tight in such a way that I imagine only further builds interest around the podcast category as a whole.

One might argue that Gimlet is taking up too much oxygen in this space, a zero-sum articulation that sees this domination of the narrative as directly taking away from or crowding out other teams working on building out their own IP adaptation pipelines. That might be fair if there is an actual IP-peddling arms race currently taking place across multiple podcast companies at this point in time; as it stands, Gimlet does seem to be working at a noticeably higher level compared to everyone else, and they seem to have established quite a bit of a lead. (As an aside, I’m a little surprised that Midroll hasn’t fleshed out a more robust IP development pipeline, given its Los Angeles heritage. Then again, the company’s programming framework has historically been built on relationships with individual talent as opposed to intellectual property development; one imagines there are rather limited gains made when an Earwolf podcaster goes on to do a movie.)

Anyway, the strategy for Gimlet here is straightforward, in case you’re unfamiliar: As Chris Giliberti, the company’s head of multi-platform who is principally involved in many of these adaptation deals, told Wired: “The potential over the long term is a business that could look a good bit like Marvel…You’re originating worlds and stories in a low-cost, experimental format, and then transitioning high-potential prospects into higher-return formats.” He made the point even more explicitly in a recent StartUp episode: “In my mind, it’s the thing that could turn Gimlet into a unicorn.” You could also appraise the value from an even more basic value-extraction equation: a lot of effort and resources goes into creating, producing, and polishing a podcast — why not squeeze as much juice out of the fruit as you can?

Giliberti’s evoking the Marvel connection is also interesting on another level. Consider the following Variety article, published last week: “Comic book sales fly on the capes of hit movies, TV shows.

Risk. Intellectual property adaptations can be read as being expressions of risk management. It’s a gambit that’s part of a larger toolkit that also includes, by the way, stacking a project with star power (see the aforementioned Homecoming, also every celebrity podcast ever) or drawing from well-trod genres (see: true crime).

The thought process behind adaptations is easy to grasp: it’s simply less risky to deploy a budget on concepts already proven in a marketplace compared to ones that are not, and particularly when you’re working with a big budget, the incentives are such that you’d want to reduce the potential for failure as much as possible. That said, it should be noted that such cautious thinking isn’t just present in production formats with generally high levels of investment, like film and television. This logic can govern in just about every medium, working at just about every scale, because risk is perceived and managed in relative terms.

Which is why we see — or are beginning to see — the gambit emerge even within podcasts, long said to be on the cheaper end of the production format spectrum: Wondery, for example, recently scored its first placement on the top of the Apple Podcast charts with what is essentially a podcast adaptation of a popular TV show (“Locked Up Abroad,” more on that in a bit). ESPN’s recently launched 30 for 30 podcast, obviously, is also an adaptation, and you can also say that adaptation exists on the episode level in that show as well: “Yankees Suck!,” the podcast’s best episode so far, can itself be described as an adaptation of a successful 2015 Grantland feature by Amor Bashad. (That feature, by the way, is also being turned into a movie.)

The broad line of critique against an increasing reliance on adaptation as a medium-wide strategy is that, on the one hand, it highlights a deficiency in creativity, and on the other hand, it’s a trend that may well detract from the ascendance of original ideas. The former is an underwhelming assertion: adaptations are themselves opportunities for immense originality and creative expression (e.g. HBO’s The Leftovers = GOAT). But the latter is more interesting, because it’s a hypothesis that I think still hasn’t been fully tested: the notion is at least partially predicated on an anxious view of the media ecosystem moving into a future where there are no more low-cost spaces for new and existing creators to play-test new concepts.

Hmm.

More paywalled podcasts trickle out into the open ecosystem. Two recent cases: (1) Audible and TED’s “Sincerely, X,” previously distributed as an Audible Original exclusively on Channels, and (2) “Fruit,” an audio drama by the multi-talented Issa Rae that originally premiered as an exclusive on Midroll’s Howl platform — now integrated into Stitcher Premium — last February. All episodes of the drama’s first season dropped last Monday. A spokesperson for Midroll explained the move to me: “Fruit was an audience favorite for Stitcher Premium listeners and, with the new season of Insecure coming up, we thought it was the perfect time to bring it to a wider audience.”

Insecure, of course, being Rae’s critically acclaimed HBO show that returned this past Sunday. Chalk this up, perhaps, as a pretty interesting piece of marketing on Midroll’s part.

And speaking of Midroll…

Midroll expands its Earwolf lineup, and the list of additions to the comedy-oriented network is pretty chunky. It includes two new shows, Off Book (described as the “first-ever improvised musical podcast”) and the conversational Homophilia, along with several recruitments from other places: Cracked Movie Club and Cracked Gets Personal join the network from the humor website — which is interesting, given that Cracked.com founder recently joined HowStuffWorks to launch its comedy division — while Throwing Shade and James Bonding are being brought in from Maximum Fun and Nerdist, respectively. Meanwhile, Stitcher Premium is also getting new inventory: it will soon be getting episodes of Chickenman, a popular superhero-spoof radio show from the 1960s. (Deep cut, my dudes.)

An interesting and aggressive summer for Earwolf, to say the least.

As a side note: congrats to Comedy Bang! Bang! — née Comedy Death-Ray Radio — for its 500th episode, out this week. The Daily Beast has a great oral history of the podcast, and there’s a Scott Aukerman quote in there that ties pretty well to the earlier parts of this newsletter:

The only reason the podcast has outlasted the TV show is that the TV show cost millions of dollars to make and the podcast costs very little to make. Because of that, the pressure is on to put out a really consistent product. When you’re doing a TV show, you want every episode to be good.

NPR premiered What’s Good with Stretch and Bobbito last week, bringing the legendary pair of New York hip-hop radio DJs into podcast feeds. One way to contextualize this launch: between What’s Good, It’s Been a Minute with Sam Sanders, and to some extent Live from the Poundstone Institute, all of which were rolled out over the past few weeks, it looks as if the public radio mothership is heavily dabbling in personality-driven podcast programming — that is, shows where the principal audience hook isn’t a topic framework (NPR Politics) or story platform (Invisibilia, Embedded), but literally the human at the heart of the program. I might be mistaken, but I think this is genuinely new for the organization on a podcast level.

Adam Ragusea is hanging up his mic as the host of Current’s The Pub. This means that the podcast, which functions as an extension of the publication and covers the goings-on in public media, is looking for a new host. You should totally consider it, especially if you’re young, hungry, and willing to kick the system in the butt. (Hard.)

As for Ragusea, he’s off working on other stuff, including additional podcast criticism at Slate and another podcast project currently in development. He declined to give details on the show, but he did send me some parting words for the role he’s leaving behind:

Public media is in a really weird spot. On the radio side at least, it’s booming bigger than ever, and yet I think it increasingly has no coherent idea about what it wants to be, or what it’s supposed to be. Making this podcast is an opportunity to significantly influence what I see as the inevitable reformation of the public media system. I’ve had my say, now I think it’s someone else’s turn.

I’ll be honest, when I founded the show with Current almost three years ago, I had the fantasy that it would pass every few years from one host/producer to the next — like an ombudsmanship, but for people who haven’t yet penetrated the power circle. The Pub has a robust audience for such a niche product; it includes high-powered people like Terry Gross and, more importantly I think, it includes scores of people in their first or second public media jobs who are trying to get oriented. The show is a labor of love to be sure, but I’ve been able to see it directly influence events, and it’s certainly raised my profile in a way that has brought me a flood of new opportunities, which is part of what’s now pulling me away from the show. It’s a great side gig for the right person, and I hope we find her.

Good luck.

Wondery’s Locked Up Abroad breaks 1 million downloads in slightly over a week, CEO Hernan Lopez tells me, based on its internal Art19 hosting numbers. He also disclosed the show’s Podtrac numbers, which measures unique monthly audiences: that number is 373,000. (Those two numbers contextualized against each other makes for some juicy extrapolation. I’ll leave it up to you to do the math.) Worth noting: the podcast premiered on July 11, dropping three episodes in its first day and hitting the top spot on the Apple Podcast charts not too long after, presumably off the strength of its brand name. It has since trickled down to a lower position, as life on the Apple Podcast charts is a fickle, transient thing.

The podcast is an adaptation of the popular National Geographic TV show, and there’s a personnel connection to be noted here: Lopez, a former television executive, once ran National Geographic Channels outside the United States, where he had an inside look at the considerable viewership for the property. “The whole process took nearly nine months from beginning to end, since once we secured the rights, we had to select the stories most suited for the ear, replace the music, and re-edit for clarity. We’re really pleased with the result,” he said.

The company also recently welcomed another new show to its portfolio: Tides of History, which debuted last Thursday with two episodes in the bank. According to Podtrac’s industry listings, Wondery is bringing in over 2.6 million unique monthly audiences across 38 podcasts.

And speaking of Wondery…

Career spotlight. Thus far, I’ve mostly focused this feature on producers and the creative side: staffers, freelancers, veterans, rookies. But producers alone don’t make up the industry. This week, I spoke with Karo Chakhlasyan, the director of audience acquisition at Wondery, who came into the industry through the media buying side.

[storybreak]

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

[conr]Karo Chakhlasyan: I am currently the director of audience aquisition at Wondery. My responsibility is to ensure our shows are heard by the right people. I use different marketing techniques to make that happen. Right now, I’m working to get our latest release, Tides of History, into Apple Podcast’s top 10. I think a screenshot of Tides right next to Locked Up Abroad, our last release, in the top 10 really shows the progression of our network and it’ll be a cool little picture to have.[/conr]

[conl]HP: How did you get to this point? What does your career arc look like — where did you start, and how did you end up in this position?[/conl]

[conr]Chakhlasyan: My local NPR affiliate station, KCRW, was a constant go-to for me in high school and KPCC became another go-to in college. That motivated me to take all the radio courses I could find in college. During that time I loved this show called Comedy Death-Ray that aired on a now defunct station called Indie 103.1. I started to stream Indie 103.1 on my desktop and eventually mobile. Then I discovered this company called Earwolf and loved everything about it. I emailed their first CEO asking if they had any job I could do. He said no, and that I should go listen to every episode of The Wolf Den. I emailed him back to thank him and I never heard back.

In 2013, right after college, I lived abroad and my obsession with podcasts grew. I tried to listen to everything I could download. I couldn’t stop listening to the 20072010 archives of the BBC’s The Documentary, The Story, Milt Rosenberg, Notebook on Cities and Culture, and The Sinica Podcast. Sometime while abroad it clicked that people will eventually stop listening to the radio, listen to more podcasts and podcasts can make money with ads!

When I came back to the States, I promised myself that I would only take a podcast-oriented job. I emailed every Los Angeles based podcast or radio company I could find and having a year of teaching experience abroad didn’t really wow any of the companies. I then searched for “podcast” on Craigslist and found Oxford Road, an agency that bought ads on podcasts. In fact, the managing director of Oxford Road at that time was an intervewee on The Wolf Den!

I mentioned how I heard him there, got hired to work in their mailroom, and confused everyone with my podcast obsession. Luckily, I had two generous coworkers who taught me how to cut podcast deals and what to do to make them profitable for our clients while keeping the shows and networks happy — I thank them quite often.

A couple of Excel sheets later, I realized how profitable podcast ads could be for our clients. It took a few dozen phone calls and meetings, but we grew podcast billings over 100 percent in a year. That was fun.

But I always wanted to be on the publisher side of things so when I met this guy named Hernan Lopez who had a new podcast company, and found out they had an interesting position open, I applied.[/conr]

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

[conr]Chakhlasyan: I didn’t really know what to do at first (sorry, Hernan!) so I just applied the same playbook I used at Oxford Road. Buy podcast ads, measure, optimize and scale. And I lucked out again by having such amazing and generous coworkers and friends to learn from. I’m happy to say my playbook has grown. I still rewrite and add to that playbook every day. So much to learn![/conr]

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

[conr]Chakhlasyan: I really wanted to produce comedy podcasts. I think I still do! It’ll be about a person who quits their day job to start their own podcast network. I’ll call it Jim and The Podcast Factory. Oh wait.[/conr]

[storybreak]

You can find Karo at @birdscanttweet.

Speed-listening. The topic gained a bit of conversational steam last week, principally triggered, it seems, by a write-up from The Wall Street Journal’s Ben Cohen (“How do podcast nuts find the time? They listen at chipmunk speed,” mind the paywall) with a few follow-ons, including pieces from The Guardianthe Chicago Tribune, and WNYC (#MyWrongOpinion).

I’m tempted to point out that this particular thread was already taken up as recently as last December by Christopher Mele at the Times, but even a rudimentary Google search reveals that the speed-listening debate is one that recurs in cycles. A sample list of ghosts from cycles past: The Verge in February 2015, The Atlantic in June 2015, Slate in October 2016. It seems that when it comes to matters of taste and culture, we are doomed to live the same moment, again and again, until the end of time or civilization, whichever comes first.

I don’t have a ton to say on the matter, other than this: Speed-listening is a god-given right and haters gonna hate.

Well, maybe I do have something to say. Principally, I view this debate as yet another expression of the classic tension between creators and audiences — one that falls from a misalignment between creator intent and consumer preference. It’s not too far removed, I think, from various similarly flavored arguments that’ve emerged across media formats since the beginning of time: people should be reading more features and not listicles, or that films should be watched in theaters and not on iPhones, or that print > digital > mobile. And in many ways, this debate (and all other debates of this kind) are somewhat irrelevant. The longer arc of the power relationship between creators and audiences seems to generally bend toward the latter, as the decentralization of media structures and progression of consumption technology seem to strip more and more producer control — over the consumption environment, over distribution strength, over context in general — while broadly expanding audience consumption (more choices, more control, more agency). That’s a tide that’s hard to stop.

But then again, what’s truly new here? Radio producers have long been compelled to develop design conventions to prevent listeners from switching stations, and if 1x listening is core to the entire point of a given episode’s experience, one presumes there to be a pathway of design R&D to keep listeners at the original speed. Of course, such design work is hard as nuts, but then again, so is the entire enterprise of making good stuff with a microphone, marketing said stuff effectively, and getting people to pay money for it.

And for what it’s worth: I have a very close relationship with the speed-listen feature across the several podcast apps that I use. I generally keep things at 1.5x unless it’s clear to me that the pacing, mood, or feel is central to the point of the experience as opposed to keeping things smooth or I get to a place where the space of a show becomes a little more important to me than the information being piped into my earballs. Of course, I’m completely unrepresentative, given that I’m professionally obliged to swim through as much material as possible, but still. #PeakPodcasts.

Bites:

  • This is great: “Ten lessons from West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s near-death experience.” (Current)
  • If you’re interested in the Australian podcast scene, Edison Research recently released additional consumer information. (Radio Today)
  • And speaking of public media: The Corporation for Public Broadcasting has hired PRI’s Kathy Merritt as SVP for journalism and radio. (CPB)
  • Larry Wilmore’s conversation with Malcolm Gladwell about Revisionist History is really, really interesting. (Black on the Air)
  • “BuzzFeed’s new audio morning briefing was made for Amazon Alexa.” (Poynter)
  • The Atlantic rolls out Radio Atlantic, while The Washington Post launches its follow-up to Presidential: Constitutional.
  • “J.J. Redick takes his podcast from The Vertical to Uninterrupted.” Which is to say, from Yahoo and DGital Media to that LeBron James media company, which has a partnership with reVolver podcasts. (Clutchpoints)
  • Speaking of sports, I reviewed ESPN’s 30 for 30 podcast. (Vulture)
  • Coverage on Two-Up Productions’ podcast musical, 36 Questions: “This podcast is a love story, for your ears only” from the New York Times, and my own write-up for Vulture from earlier this month.

[photocredit]Photo of food chain mural by Dan Nguyen 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]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ah well, back to Barbaro it is.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two quick things about the Variety article:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

While we’re on the subject of public radio…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Grift dropped its first episode today.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bites:

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

Get ready to binge-listen to Serial’s new spinoff S-Town: All 7 episodes will drop at once next week

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 112, published March 21, 2017.

Missing Richard Simmons dropped its final episode yesterday, two days before it was originally scheduled for a wide release. The episode was released to Stitcher Premium subscribers on Sunday — Midroll had previously indicated that those subscribers would’ve gotten the episode two days before wide release. Even with the sudden shift, Stitcher was still able to honor the first-listen value proposition.

I’m told that the move was intentional. In the episode, host Dan Taberski provided what was essentially an editorial explanation within the narrative. “What’s important is telling the story about Richard as it happens,” he said. That’s an interesting reason, but I don’t think I buy it. Minor spoilers (maybe?), but there was nothing stated in that last episode — nothing that was particularly pegged to a recent public news development — that warranted such a sudden, complicated reordering of the release windows. So yeah, I’m wondering.

Panoply brings on a full-time head of scripted programming. Missed this last week, but it’s definitely worth keeping tabs on. The company has hired John Dryden, a U.K.–based writer and radio director, to lead a “new division dedicated to creating scripted programming of both the comedic and dramatic variety,” according to AdWeek, which published the news March 10.

To decode that: The term “scripted programming” is kind of a carry-over from established linear media industries. We’re basically looking at Panoply acting on its ambition to punch harder in the audio fiction genre. It’s a move that’s potentially very lucrative, given the podcast ecosystem’s growing value to other more developed adjacent creative industries, be it film, television, or books. (I’ve written about this a bunch before, start here and here.)

In hiring Dryden, Panoply gains an award-winning producer with a substantial body of work. Based on his talent agency’s website, Dryden’s rap sheet includes: The Seventh Test, a 10-part audio thriller broadcasted on BBC Radio 4 that’s based on a book by Vikas Swarup, whose debut novel, Q&A, was adapted into the film Slumdog Millionaire; A Kidnapping, a three-part radio drama, also first broadcast on BBC Radio 4, that’s being adapted into a film; and Tumanbay, a historical epic set in ancient Egypt that came out in 2015. (Indeed, it’s all very British.)

Dryden has some history with Panoply: He served as the executive producer and director of LifeAfter, Panoply’s follow-up to The Message, its well regarded branded fiction podcast borne out of a partnership with GE. It’s unclear to me whether LifeAfter was able to match or beat the success of The Message, and when I reached out to Panoply’s communications team, they declined to comment, noting that they don’t release download numbers and thus can’t comment on the performance of one show relative to another.

To my knowledge, Dryden is only the second person to hold such a role among American podcast companies. The other individual is Eli Horowitz, the “executive producer of scripted content” at Gimlet, who was responsible for Homecoming.

Dryden will keep his residence in the U.K. for the job.

Rookie Magazine is launching a podcast next month, courtesy of MTV. In my mind, Rookie is something of a miracle. A beloved online publishing concern created by blogging prodigy Tavi Gevinson for teenagers (“and their cohorts of any age”) that dates all the way back in 2011 — the same year Grantland made its debut — Rookie is part zine, part blogroll, a fascinating, amorphous digital package that’s bound together by a smart and thoughtful commitment to serving its core constituency. It represents a reminder, still, of the original promise that the Internet brought to publishing: an environment that allows for the existence of an independent creative operation with a very specific point of view and a very specific role to play.

Anyway, many other publishing concerns in 2017, Rookie is rolling out a podcast, which will be a weekly magazine show (not unlike, perhaps, The New Yorker Radio Hour). But what’s particularly interesting about the rollout narrative here is the involvement of MTV, with which Rookie has partnered to produce the show.

It’s an intriguing collaboration, and it brings the MTV Podcasts team back into my view. Frankly, I haven’t been paying much attention to that crew — which is led by Grantland alum Alex Pappademas — since they rolled out their initial programming slate around this time last year, though on the occasions that I’ve checked in, I find myself consistently fascinated with the stuff they’re trying out. I wonder how they’re doing. Check back in next week.

The Rookie Podcast will debut on April 4. It will be hosted on the Megaphone platform, as an extension of MTV Podcasts’ technological relationship with Panoply. The upcoming podcast received a shoutout in this week’s episode of This American Life, which ran a segment on the magazine’s popular “Ask A Grown Man/Woman” series. (The episode, by the way, is exquisite.)

And speaking of This American Life…

S-Town comes out this time next week. The hotly anticipated Serial spinoff, the first project to be released under the newly created Serial Productions banner, debuts Tuesday, March 28, and I’ll taking the day off to dig into it.

All seven episodes of the show will drop at once — I believe the olds call this “Netflix-style” or “binge-style” — when it comes out next week, switching up the typical cadence we’ve come to expect from longform serialized storytelling, as established by the first season of Serial and, most recently, Missing Richard Simmons. This marks the first high-profile attempt at employing this format within the podcast space. Previous full-season-drop experiments, like ESPN’s Dunkumentaries and Panoply/Parents Magazine’s Pregnancy Confidential, were not serialized storytelling endeavors.

For folks keeping tabs on the numbers: Serial’s second season surpassed 50 million going into the final episode, with each episode yielding a 3 million download average during its launch week. Blue Apron and Squarespace are serving as the show’s exclusive launch sponsors.

Oh man, I’m so excited for this. Also: It’s only been three months, but 2017 already feels like it’s been a damn good year for podcast listeners. Damn. Damn. *throws laptop out the window*

It’s official — the fight for Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s federal funding is on. The budget blueprint released by the Trump administration last Thursday confirmed what many suspected: that the decades-old conservative flirtation with the defunding of public broadcasting would be revived once again under the new president, with the CPB’s annual allocation of $445 million on the chopping block. (The CPB is one of many programs, including the National Endowment for the Arts and the Legal Services Corporation, being targeted for cuts.) What makes the stakes of today’s fight all the more towering is the political and economic environment of the fourth estate; the broader news and media ecosystem has been tremendously weakened over the past decade by digital disruption, and they walk into this struggle in an increasingly combative environment between the state and public information as they represent it.

Nieman Lab covered the news in some depth, but here are the four top-line things you need to know:

  • The budget blueprint is just a proposal — it will need to go through Congress. It already looks as if the budget is going to have a hard time with congressional Republicans. But pushback on the budget as a whole doesn’t necessarily equate with pushback on the specifics; it’s up to the CPB to ensure the cut doesn’t remain in future iterations of the budget.
  • To that end, the CPB and its advocates are executing on a playbook that’s been developed for these budgetary fights. Among these efforts are strong messaging efforts — including an PR press push touting all-time high ratings — and public participation campaigns like the Protect My Public Media petition. CNN’s Brian Stelter has a good piece providing an overview of the fight.
  • As Nieman Lab notes, and as I’ve written about before, defunding the CPB would fundamentally cripple the public broadcasting system. That isn’t the same as saying public media would be dead; as many have pointed out, NPR and the bigger stations like WNYC and WBUR would likely survive in some leaner form, but the real damage would be to smaller stations that often support underserved and information-poor markets — many of which are populated by Republican voters.
  • Why does this matter to the emerging podcast industry? Well, as I’ve argued before, a weaker public radio system is a weaker podcast ecosystem, as the former has substantially contributed to the space through cultivating a generation of strong talent, supplying a good chunk of solid programming, leveraging its prestige to draw in more advertisers, and generally raising the medium’s profile for wider audiences. There’s also, you know, the whole issue of a weaker public broadcasting system almost definitely leading to a weaker society, which kinda makes an environment where we all, save for a capital-rich few, ultimately suffer alone together.

So there’s that. And there’s this too:

Some relief for West Virginia Public Broadcasting. Following weeks of staring down a budget blueprint in which West Virginia Governor Jim Justice, a Democrat, had proposed the elimination of the annual $4.6 million support it gets from the state, WVPB’s state support will be restored. The governor issued a press release last Friday that the money will be reinstated. State funding accounts for 45 percent of WVPB’s budget.

The press release also noted that Governor Justice “is working on a deal with West Virginia University to allow Public Broadcasting to become a fully integrated part of WVU in the near future.” It is unclear to me how this shift would affect WVPB operations. I’ve gone ahead and submitted a Currently Curious request to my buddies over at Current, who assure me they’re looking into it.

Meanwhile, in Australia. The continent is set to welcome a new podcast network later this week. The network is called Planet Broadcasting, and it will be launching off the strength of an established YouTube channel, Mr. Sunday Movies, and a podcast, The Weekly Planet, which I’m told enjoys about 250,000 downloads per episode. Planet Broadcasting’s aims are fairly ambitious; according to the circulated press release, the network primarily aims to develop a space for the country’s comedy community to break onto the world stage. As an extension of that goal, Planet Broadcasting will launch on March 26 with a variety of comedy offerings, and some nonfiction documentary fare as well (including the well regarded Human/Ordinary).

I’ll be keeping an eye on this. Podcast consumption in Australia is growing, though I’d still characterize it as underdeveloped relative to the American podcast industry. According to an audience research report by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation published last October, 36 percent of surveyed Australians indicate that they listened to more podcasts in 2016 than in 2015, though numbers for baseline listenership were not circulated. The ABC is the largest podcast publisher in the country, enjoying about 160 million overall downloads in 2016.

Side note. One of the more interesting stories from last year — a story that’s affected how I view the tradeoffs of the relationship between creators and distribution platforms — was the dustup between the Indiana public radio station WBAA and This American Life. (This is the third mention of This American Life in this issue. My apologies: That show was on my mind a lot this week.)

Last summer, the station announced that it had decided to cut the show from its airwaves as a response to its partnership with Pandora, which gave the music streaming service the ability to distribute and sell advertising against both This American Life and Serial. Mike Savage, WBAA’s general manager, argued that Pandora, with its profit-making incentive, posed a fundamental threat to public radio’s broadcast model and that by entering into a relationship with the service, This American Life engaged in an arrangement that places it at odds with the public radio system’s incentives.

Ira Glass, the show’s creator, argued otherwise, noting that the money gained from the partnership was reinvested to further improve on the programming that will continue to appear throughout the public radio system. Glass also made another point, which to me lies at the heart of this item, about reaching more audiences. “Nationally, we’re not losing audience on the radio because people are getting us on other platforms — we’re just adding audience,” Glass said, as printed in Current. “We’re adding to the number of people who are hearing public radio content by offering it on these other platforms.”

Maybe I’m connecting dots in the most tenuous of ways — I’m prone to being worried about that, particularly these days, as conspiracy theorizing seems to have become prominent as a mindset in power — but I can’t help seeing parallels between that incident and the contemporary concern of how the increasing involvement of streaming platforms like Spotify, Google Play Music, iHeartRadio, and Pandora (to the extent they become involved beyond This American Life), many of which are closed, will affect the open podcast system, its value, and the role it plays in the current state of podcast publishing and distribution. At some level, the value proposition that they bring to podcast publishers remain the same: All these platforms, in theory, provide access to an audience that may very well be untouched, and even if podcast listening ultimately doesn’t end up happening on those platforms, at least participating publishers will be able to pocket some extra money that can be reinvested in their shows, which will be nonetheless enjoyed on other platforms and on the open ecosystem.

There are limits to this, of course. For one thing, it’s hard to square the parallel I’m sketching here against what’s happening on the rest of the Internet: the platform dependency that’s growing between publishers and Facebook, between video creators and YouTube, between music artists and, well, Spotify, Pandora, et. al. For another thing, This American Life stands as an exception to the broader universe of publishers: it has unparalleled clout to both establish and benefit from this relationship, and it has a strong pre-existing listener base that protects it from any potential development of future dependency on Pandora.

Bites:

  • Today in Black Mirror: Google Home recently tested what appears to be an audio ad for the new live-action film adaptation of Beauty and the Beast. When pressed, Google appeared to briefly regard it instead as some sort of content experiment before backing off on that too. It’s weird and confusing, but kind of a great beyond-the-veil story. (The Register) Also: “Woman who shares name with ‘Alexa’ and ‘Siri’ says life is ‘waking nightmare'” (The Huffington Post)
  • Crooked Media continues to reproduce, adding another show to the top of the iTunes charts: Lovett or Leave It. I swear, it’s like watching mitosis.
  • Wondery is pumping out a podcast unpacking the production of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. It’s pretty well timed; the TV adaptation of the movie, A&E’s Bates Motel, is quickly approaching its final season, where the show will catch up with the film. It will be interesting to see if Wondery is able to capture the spillover from whatever interest is currently being enjoyed by the TV show, and, more importantly, whether it can make that argument explicitly if it is able to do so. (iTunes)
  • It looks as if the new season of Politically Re-Active, the First Look Media podcast featuring W. Kamau Bell and Hari Kondabolu, is now being sold by Midroll Media instead of Panoply. Interesting. Shouts to Jeff Umbro writing for The Daily Dot for that scooplet.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anyway, here’s Mr. Rogers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thomas starts her new role on February 27.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bites:

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

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

Reply All gets a movie deal (with Robert Downey Jr.), and Spotify is on the hunt for original shows

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 107, published February 14, 2017.

“We’re working on new features for podcasts, stay tuned,” Eddy Cue, Apple’s SVP of internet software and services, told Recode’s Peter Kafka on stage at the Code Media conference last night. Kafka had pressed Cue on whether Apple would get more involved in podcasts — specifically, whether better analytics could be provided. (Thank goodness for Kafka.) Cue, as you would imagine, was reticent to provide more details. We’ll just have to see where this goes.

The discussion on podcasts was very short, and you can hear the rest of the interview when it gets posted on the Recode Replay feed sometime later this week.

Missing Richard Simmons. Here’s an audio documentary with a delicious hook: three years ago, Richard Simmons, the fitness guru who was super popular in the eighties (Sweatin’ To The Oldies!), suddenly and inexplicably withdrew from the public eye. The podcast follows Dan Taberski, a documentarian and TV producer who is a friend and former student of Simmons, as he tries to track down and figure out what happened to the man — and in the process, explores Simmons’ place in the culture.

The podcast has a fair bit of firepower behind it. First Look Media is leading the project, with Adam Pincus, the company’s EVP of programming and content, and Leital Molad, who recently left WNYC to head up First Look’s podcast efforts, both holding executive producer credit. The company contracted Pineapple Street Media to produce the show — Max Linsky also serves as executive producer, Henry Molofsky as producer — while partnering with Midroll for sales and distribution.

Part of Midroll’s play here involves positioning Stitcher, which it acquired last summer, as an “exclusive launch partner.” That essentially amounts to a form of windowing: subscribers to Stitcher Premium will receive new episodes a week in advance. Wait, Stitcher Premium — doesn’t Midroll have its own premium subscription service? We’ll get to that in a bit.

Missing Richard Simmons is First Look Media’s latest foray in what is now a substantial push into podcasting. Its portfolio includes the podcast version of the company’s flagship digital property, The Intercept, which rolled out last month; Politically Re-Active; and Maeve in America.

Interestingly, Missing Richard Simmons is First Look’s first audio project that isn’t handled by Panoply, which is involved in the company’s other three shows.

The podcast drops tomorrow.

Related: First Look also announced that Politically Re-Active, its politics show with W. Kamau Bell and Hari Kondabolu, will return for a second season sometime in the early spring. Maeve in America kicked off its second season today.

A few notes on Stitcher Premium. The feature quietly rolled out late last year, but I was late to the party, only spotting the “Premium” button on the Stitcher website sometime in mid-January. Todd Pringle, Stitcher’s GM and VP of product, tells me that what we’re seeing is a soft launch — not a “relaunch” of the service’s previous iteration, Stitcher Plus.

At this time, Stitcher Premium remains separate from Howl, that other premium subscription play under the Midroll banner that the organization had been developing internally prior to its acquisition of Stitcher (awkward). Pringle notes that Howl subscribers can continue to use the platform’s web and mobile apps, and that the merge will come later. “We are planning a simple migration path that, over time, will transition Howl users over to the Stitcher Premium product,” he explained.

So, what’s the deal with Stitcher Premium? The “Netflix for Podcasts” tagline was once again evoked in the response sent to me — ahem, ahem — with ad-free exclusivity being the cornerstone of the strategy here: exclusive archives, exclusive sneak previews, and of course, exclusive original content, dubbed “Stitcher Originals.” (Who isn’t doing original material these days?)

Original projects include:

  • The Seth Morris Radio Project, which launched last week;
  • A show by comedian Jessie Kahnweiler called Schmucks;
  • A new show by the duo behind CBC’s Love Me, Cristal Duhaime and Mira Burt-Wintonick, called Pen Pals; and
  • The second season of The Mysterious Secrets of Uncle Bertie’s Botanarium, whose first season is currently being distributed over the open infrastructure.

Will this premium exclusive approach to the market pay off? My thinking on this remains the same as the first time I wrote about the model back in August 2015:

Midroll’s choice to play the premium subscription game — with content and a sizable amount of back catalogs placed behind the paywall — and the subsequent positioning of the product as the potential “Netflix for podcasts” exhibits a very specific hypothesis of podcasts as consumable media, one that posits podcasts will be valued by audiences enough where they would pay for it and that enough podcasts have back-catalogues that will be deemed “worth it.”

This is difficult enough to internalize in the present tense. Unlike Netflix and television/movies or Tidal and music, podcast audiences have little-to-no experience with paying for shows in the past, and the hurdle of convincing users to go from an entire experiential history of enduring host-read ads, which they can skip fairly easily, to paying for an ad-free experience is tremendous.

To state the obvious: the success of Stitcher Premium would almost purely come down to a question of programming: Will the team be good enough at curating the right kind of paywalled library, and will it be savvy enough to build right incentives for certain creators to put their wares behind that paywall? And barring that, will the company figure out how to further increase the value of the premium service beyond just the content?

A Reply All episode is being adapted into a movie, according to The Hollywood Reporter. The episode in question is “Man of the People,” a shockingly relevant tale of a con-man who built an empire off fake medicine, populism, and radio dominance — and the man who works to take him down. The adaptation will be directed by Richard Linklater, with Robert Downey Jr. in the starring role. Linklater and Downey will also serve as producers under their respective production banners, along with Susan Downey, Annapurna’s Megan Ellison, and Gimlet Media’s own PJ Vogt (who reported and hosted the episode), Tim Howard (who edited the episode), and Chris Giliberti (the company’s head of multi-platform).

This is Gimlet’s first announced film adaptation deal. The company currently has two TV adaptations in the pipeline: StartUp (recently given a pilot order by ABC) and Homecoming (being developed by Mr. Robot’s Sam Esmail). Giliberti also holds producer credit with those two projects. With this third adaptation, I think it’s safe to say that Gimlet has officially built out a formal adaptation pipeline — a move that introduces a whole new revenue dimension and potential to its content backlog. You can read my previous analyses on the topic here, here, and here.

“Spotify has been talking to podcast producers about original shows,” according to a new report at Digiday. Those being approached include: Gimlet, HowStuffWorks, and Pineapple Street Media. The article cites “multiple people familiar with the discussions.” What’s unclear: how developed those discussions are, the substance of those plans, and how central original and non-music content currently are in Spotify’s machinations. (Though, recall that original video programming is apparently still a notable part of the company’s vision.)

Spotify has produced original audio programming before…in Germany. That podcast, featuring the talents of German comedians Jan Böhmermann and Olli Schulz, rolled out last May. (Here’s the press release, for all you German speakers in the crowd.)

Here’s another interesting bit from the Digiday writeup: “To date, podcasts have fit awkwardly into Spotify’s product…The number of users that have bothered to look them, thus far, is quite small. For most podcast producers, Spotify accounts for less than 5 percent of their total shows’ listens.”

Hmm. The article frames the development as a “big new front has opened up in the war for exclusive podcasts.” We’ll see, but at this point, I’m not inclined to read too much into it for all the hesitations I outlined earlier about podcasts and exclusivity. I mean, I see the upside for Spotify to hammer out these deals with bigger podcast shops, but I don’t see any upside for those shops other than pocketing upfront cash — which, as we saw with the now-ceased Facebook Live publisher deals, is good enough reason for some, so long as there are excess resources to commit.

HowStuffWorks partners with AdsWizz to make use of the latter’s dynamic advertising tech to expand its ad inventory and monetize its substantial content library. The partnership will apparently also grant the Atlanta-based infotainment podcast network with increased targeting and reporting capacities, according to the press release.

The move will probably lead to a significant revenue increase for HowStuffWorks, given its relatively evergreen structure. Jason Hoch, HowStuffWorks’ chief content officer, tells me that listening across the network in any given week is evenly distributed between the head and the tail — that is, between the latest episode of a given show and the rest of that show’s catalogue.

To Hoch, this partnership with AdsWizz is more a matter of efficiency than it is about unlocking a whole new driver of the business. “The old method of stitching an ad placement directly into the same MP3 file as the episode makes no more sense than hard-coding a banner ad on your website,” he said. Hoch also notes that this doesn’t really change the dynamics of selling campaigns. “We don’t differentiate between new shows and those in our deep library. In 95% of cases, advertisers aren’t buying a specific episode of a show, they are buying that show and the passionate fan base of that show,” he explained.

Quick note on the tech. HowStuffWorks uses its own internal Amazon Web Services’ hosting infrastructure to house its shows, and that it remains the case after this partnership. “Rather than move our entire infrastructure elsewhere to make this happen, the AdsWizz software platform became technology that sat on top of what we already had,” Hoch said. “That’s pretty unique in the industry and was a good fit for our approach.”

Turner Broadcasting now has its own official podcast arm. The new division, called the Turner Podcast Network, is headed up by Tyler Moody, who serves as GM and VP for the network. Moody was previously the VP of CNN Newsource, the organization’s affiliate video service, and CNN Collection, its video archive library. While in those roles, Moody laid the foundation for CNN’s tentative foray into original podcast content, signing President Obama’s former chief strategist David Axelrod’s podcast The Axe Files in late 2015.

“We want to engage with fans of our shows and networks in the podcast space, and do it in a coordinated way across all of Turner,” Moody tells me. “Initially I’ll be on the lookout for things internally, meeting with producers at our networks for show ideas and to assess our current capabilities to deliver high quality podcasts. Externally I’ll be looking at industry trends in terms of content, ad delivery, sponsorship models, and potential partnerships with other podcast producers.”

Here’s a model that other publishers can emulate: Yesterday, New York Magazine’s entertainment site Vulture rolled out Good One: A Podcast About Jokes, a limited-run podcast where comedians are brought on to deconstruct a joke in their repertoire. In other words: “Song Exploder, but for jokes.” Perhaps not unrelatedly, Song Exploder recently partnered with the site for a special run of episodes focusing on notable film scores from last year. That arrangement was timed for awards season, which culminates two weekends from now with the Academy Awards. Good One is hosted by Vulture senior editor Jesse David Fox. It kicked off yesterday, and will run weekly for ten episodes.

The podcast was described to me as an extension of the site’s experiments with topically-focused, one-off editorial projects — similar to the string of “pop-up” blogs that Vulture has executed in the past. A spokesperson directed me to a 2014 Poynter write-up of that strategy, which explained the internal process as follows:

The editorial team comes up with a series of topics they think would be a good fit for New York [Magazine], and the advertising staff tries to sell those concepts to advertisers. If the sales team finds a sponsor, the editorial side creates the blog and fleshes out plans for coverage.

“Basically, we have certain editorial projects across platforms that are pitched to advertisers for exclusive sponsorship,” that spokesperson told me. “The editorial is completely independent (though thematically aligned), but only gets created once a sponsor commits.” In this instance, that advertiser is HBO, which is peddling its latest comedy offering, Crashing.

The production of Good One is handled by Panoply, similar to NY Mag’s other podcast projects.

And speaking of Panoply, it looks as if the network’s sister company, Slate, which also functions as one of the company’s core clients, announced layoffs yesterday. The Huffington Post with the details.

Documentaries, queued up. The Bay Area public radio station KQED is testing an intriguing model to distribute short-run, multi-part audio features: a single RSS feed that will serve as a home for serialized investigation projects produced by the station. The feed is framed as being its own weekly show called Q’ed Up.

The show kicked off operations last week with the debut of its first investigation, American Suburb, an eleven-part feature on gentrification in the Bay Area as told through the story of a single suburb 45 miles east of the Bay. (As a side note, I love titles with the “American” prefix. See: American Governor, American Pastoral, etc. Much gravitas.) At this writing, the station has at least two other features in the pipeline that will immediately follow American Suburb once it concludes, including an investigation into the growing number of homeless college students in the region and another that examines the story of a wrongly accused paroled man.

Holly Kernan, KQED’s VP of news, tells me that Q’ed Up emerged as a means to solve an anticipated problem. “[American Suburb] started out as a reporting project that ended up being this really rich documentary, and so we thought, okay, we want to turn this into an on-demand audio experience,” Kernan said. “But when you have a one-off podcast like this, it’s a problem when you don’t have anything else coming down the pipe once you put all this marketing effort into and build up an audience.”

She added: “So we thought, if we’re going to put all this effort into this beautiful production, why not give it an umbrella?”

Kernan aims to grow Q’ed Up to a point where it’s able to function as a break-even proposition for the station, but she’s also keen on ensuring that the show’s investigations will yield local impact. She notes that the primary intended audience for American Suburb is listeners who live in Antioch and the East Bay — areas covered in the story — and that the station has partnered with the San Francisco Foundation (which also serves as the show’s sponsor) to hold community events to discuss issues highlighted in the investigation.

“American Suburb” is reported by Sandhya Dirks and Devin Katayama. Julia McEvoy is editor.

Keep an eye on this: West Virginia governor’s budget plan proposes to eliminate state funding for West Virginia Public Broadcasting. Tyler Falk at Current with background, The Charleston Gazette-Mail with detail.

Audible seeks the Jad Abumrad bump. Checked out the Radiolab feed lately? The widely loved WNYC podcast published what was essentially a cross-promo for an Audible Original series, the Bernie Madoff documentary Ponzi Supernova, late last week. And it wasn’t an instance of a simple rebroadcast or a straightforward drop-in-the-RSS feed either: the episode was slightly remixed in the Radiolab style, with Abumrad leading segments intros and outros.

This isn’t the first time that Radiolab has published a remixed cross-promo of other another program. Just last month, the podcast ran a similarly repackaged version of the special On The Media series “Busted: America’s Poverty Myths.” The show also gave the same treatment to its Supreme Court-focused spinoff, More Perfect, twice last year, though that’s completely understandable given the heritage. But it is, to my knowledge, the first time the show has provided exposure support to a show outside the WNYC system. That said, Ponzi Supernova isn’t a show that’s entirely outside the WNYC family — Ellen Horne, an executive producer at Audible who leads the show’s production, is a Radiolab alum.

It’s often been said within the industry that the most effective podcast marketing channel is other people’s podcasts. I guess that will apply to Audible as well.

Ponzi Supernova wrapped up its six-episode run on Audible earlier this month.

Bites:

  • The New York Times is looking for a producer for a “New York Times Arts show” — that is, stuff like books, music, film, TV, theater. It’s unclear how this show, and this producer, will be related to the still-running first-gen Times pods Popcast and the Book Review. A fascinating job posting, but certainly not as interesting as news of the organization’s partnership with Spotify. Those youngs, they love the musics. (The New York Times)
  • Looks like Who? Weekly’s Bobby Finger has a new show: “Dirtcast,” which comes out of his day-job at Jezebel. (Jezebel)
  • “How Patreon became a major source of revenue for podcasters.” Some podcasters, at least. (Simon Owens)
  • On the more strictly technology front: Betaworks, the “startup studio” responsible for (among other things) Tweetdeck, Chartbeat, and the Digg relaunch, has announced an accelerator for teams working on voice-driven interfaces. Venturebeat’s coverage has more background, and here’s the link to the application.

[photocredit]Photo by Roey Ahram used under a Creative Commons license.[/photocredit]

Hot Pod: If we want podcasting to remain open to everyone, we’re going to have to organize

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 103, published January 17, 2016.

We’re tackling the big, complex, and contentious issue of openness today. I’ll try my best to articulate the problem effectively and efficiently, though I suspect some may take umbrage on a few points.

The challenge for open podcasting. Here’s how I’ve been modeling the problem in my head for a while now: An open, decentralized publishing ecosystem like that of podcasting is beneficial, the argument goes, because it is dynamic. Its openness provides a low barrier of entry that allows anybody — big or small, new or old — to publish and ultimately compete on the same playing field governed by rules set by no one party. That dynamism is said to theoretically allow for an ecosystem to be structurally better at allowing for things like diversity, creativity, and expression because its composition isn’t ultimately structurally defined by small, centralized groups of fallible (executive) individuals; rather, it is defined by the competitive chaos generated by countless potential actors interacting with one another and with the body of consumers linked to that open publishing ecosystem.

But the fundamental problem with an open, decentralized ecosystem is precisely linked to its very virtues: it isn’t controlled, which makes focus a challenge. Those who create things for it aren’t necessarily incentivized to speak the same language, causing them to often move in different (and sometimes contradictory) directions, which in turn causes the space to be unnecessarily inaccessible to greater would-be participants — and, perhaps more crucially, to itself. Indeed, a key consequence of this chaos is that the ecosystem doesn’t really end up being motivated to evolve in ways that may benefit itself as a whole.

What follows from this state of affairs, combined with the increasing interest we’ve seen in the space over the past two years, is a growing set of incentives for the development of closed alternatives — which, in turn, threatens the health of the open ecosystem, because the rise of those alternatives would drain it of the reason why anybody would want to publish through it in the first place: potential audiences. Again, the problem with an open, decentralized ecosystem is linked to its very virtue: how do you get it to defend itself?

Well, you try to organize.

An effort to strengthen open podcasting. Getting the various actors of the open podcast ecosystem to coordinate in their best interest is, more or less, a working group called Syndicated Media is trying to do.

“Podcasting should be decentralized — no one should get to own it,” argued Christopher Kalafarski, when we spoke over the phone last week. Kalafarski is the person responsible for getting Syndicated Media up and running, and when we spoke, he was quick to play down his role and context. Even though he’s responsible for the group’s creation, he doesn’t want to make it look like he’s in charge, maintaining instead that the working group is, and should be, community-driven. He also works as a developer at PRX, but insists that the project isn’t officially part of his day job (though the two worlds do necessarily intersect).

While Kalafarski and I agree on podcasting’s open ecosystem generally being in need of some firing up, he possesses a more nuanced (and somewhat ideological) view of the situation. To begin with, he points out how Apple, long a hands-off steward of the space, tweaks the podcast ecosystem’s narrative of being open by virtue of its unique influence, direct and indirect, over collective decision-making in the space even today. He also situates the value of podcasting’s openness not in what it offers creators simply looking to publish for an audience — indeed, Kalafarski points out YouTube as a relatively low-barrier publishing environment that nonetheless resides on a closed platform — but rather focusing on how openness sustains the potential for middlemen to continue developing things for the ecosystem, which in turn could well end up continuously improving the ways audiences can experience the ecosystem as a whole.

“For most creators, the openness is a slight advantage over many existing closed system, not a game-changing one. Which is to say, the reason to fight for openness is not for the sake of the creators, it’s for the sake of openness,” he argued. “If I had to pick any group or party for whom open/decentralized is ‘great’ for, it’s the middlemen — app developers, aggregators, etc. — they get to say exactly what they want to make money on (“pay for my app or you don’t get my app”), and can take full advantage of all the content that’s in the system. They can choose to augment what they get for free to create differentiating value-add experiences if they think the investment will pay off. And they can do that without giving back to the system if they want (because a truly open system allows for that).”

Kalafarski phrased the broader challenge as follows: Consumers are increasingly becoming used to “best case scenarios,” largely facilitated by tightly designed, closed proprietary platforms, within their default universe of user experiences (e.g. watching movies on Netflix, listening to music on Spotify). That, in turn, sets us up with a situation where the open podcast ecosystem won’t be able to keep pace with the coming rise of proprietary podcast platforms.

But that isn’t the only emerging problem. “The hypothetical future of distinct, closed systems replacing or competing with podcasting is just one reality we’re trying to prevent,” he said. “Another is where several or many companies pull an Apple and try to dictate new rules. That maintains the openness on paper, but it starts to put pressure on things (like duplication, who adopts which things, should Google honor iTunes features, etc).”

The core question, as he sees it, is articulated as follows: “How do we get closer to those proprietary systems without closing up the system?” This, Kalafarski tells me, is where Syndicated Media comes in.

“The hope of Syndicated Media is to bring people together as a community and say, ‘We all know there have to be some new rules. Let’s come up with them together and let’s do it now before it’s too late’ before we end up in one of those other realities,” he explained.

The overarching goal behind the working group, or at least the way I read it, is to organize a critical mass of the actors invested in the open podcast ecosystem to engage in a collective enterprise aimed at making the open architecture more attractive for all corners of the growing podcast ecosystem — developers, producers, consumers, perhaps even advertisers — to participate in it. The strategy behind Syndicated Media’s effort to realize this is twofold: (1) make the open infrastructure more accessible, and (2) encourage critical participation from the larger podcast community in that infrastructure.

To those ends, Syndicated Media is being envisioned as a community-driven space to guide discussions and foster decisions on a set of open standards to be adopted by a critical mass of the podcast community. Those standards would decide stuff like, say, a base set of RSS 2.0 extensions for newcomers to the architecture to get started with, or the basic way folks should go about incorporating rich media in their podcast publishing efforts, and so on. Give everyone a common baseline and language to interact with each other, the thinking goes, and that’ll make it easier for more people to get involved.

So that’s the hope. But the working group is still very much in its early days, which means there are many fundamental things that need to be sorted out. One such issue is the question of actually making, implementing, and enforcing decisions, which is still being debated by the working group. “One path to take would be very formal RFCs” — requests for comments, a kind of formal protocol used by standards-setting bodies for the Internet — “and technical specifications submitted to major governing bodies like the W3C,” Kalafarski speculates. “The other way is to keep things very loose. Which is to say, create very useful, well thought out, well-defined specs, but avoid the overhead of governing bodies for validation.”

Another is the more crucial problem of recruiting a critical mass of actors. “We’ve reached out to everyone — independent developers as well as the Apples and Googles of the world,” Kalafarski noted. “Some have joined, some haven’t.” And, I would add, the participation of some is more important than others. (Apple doesn’t appear to be involved in the working group just yet.)

It’s a big task, and Kalafarski is hopeful that the working group serves as a solid start. “Syndicated Media is totally open and welcome to anyone who wants to be a part of this conversation,” he said. “We’re trying to fix things, and we’re trying to be inclusive of everyone who is invested in the health of the space. And if we’re going to solve this, we have to start having this conversation out in the open.”

So, if you’re interested in getting involved, here’s your chance. Some practical details to note:

  • The working group concentrates its discussions and organizations in two primary areas: a GitHub project, which serves as a repository of issues, and a Slack group. Both are open to everybody, but you’d need to request for an invitation to get into the Slack group due to that platform’s processes.
  • For companies, there is a partner program. “It’s totally voluntary,” Kalafarski said. “There are some very loose guidelines around what that means, but basically it signifies a commitment to adhere to the standard.”
  • There is currently a one-day workshop being planned by Syndicated Media in partnership with the Berkman-Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard, PRX, and RadioPublic. Details aren’t confirmed, but it’s probably going to take place sometime this summer.

Cool. There’s a lot baked in this, obviouslly, and frankly, a lot of the issues being discussed here are timeless — or at least, as old as the Interne. But then again, history seems to have a way of repeating and looping back to itself these days.

Anyway, speaking of PRX…

PRX strikes up a sales partnership with Market Enginuity, an Arizona-based sales organization that specializes in public media whose client list includes KCRW, KUT, and WAMU. The deal, which is exclusive, will see Market Enginuity assume responsibility for revenue generation efforts across all PRX programming, including the Radiotopia podcast network, while PRX will provide Market Enginuity with its podcast hosting and advertising technology, Dovetail.

The move to partner with Market Enginuity is the culmination of a long learning process for the PRX team. “We’ll be strategic partners, not transactional,” PRX CEO Kerri Hoffman said when we spoke over the phone yesterday. “The key with sales, we’ve come to learn, isn’t to focus on just adding boots on the ground, but on good partnerships with people who have a lot of experience and infrastructure.”

Of Market Enginuity, Hoffman said: “We’ve known them for some time and really like the team. Together, we will build a sales team that leverages their experience and scale with PRX’s investments in content and technology.”

Which brings us to another interesting bit of news:

Sarah Van Mosel joins Market Enginuity as chief podcast sales and strategy officer as part of the team being assembled to handle the PRX account, leaving Acast after only a year and two months as chief commercial officer. The Swedish podcasting company had hired Van Mosel in December 2015, away from WNYC where she had been serving as VP of sponsorship, as part of the company’s initial push into the U.S.

Van Mosel maintained that her decision to leave was in large part due to being recruited by Harry Clark, an executive vice president at Market Enginuity. Clark, like Van Mosel, is a WNYC alum, and he is said to have hired and trained Van Mosel there. (Clark left the public radio station for Market Enginuity in May 2015, about the same time Van Mosel assumed the VP of sponsorship role there.) This is, then, the reuniting of a battle-tested team. “I was brought into Acast to assemble a stellar national sales team. I built it, they’re amazing, and they’re off to a strong 2017,” Van Mosel explained, when I reached out over email last week. “It was tough to leave, but Harry Clark called and I couldn’t say no.”

Still, it’s a remarkably short stint for an executive at an international company, raising questions about the hole she leaves behind. A spokesperson for Acast tells me that Ross Adams, who is based in the company’s London office, will absorb Van Mosel’s duties, a shift that ultimately sees Acast consolidating the management of both its U.S. and U.K. sales teams under one person. Adams was previously a sales director at Spotify. I’m also told that there are no immediate plans to search for a replacement.

Edison Research and Triton Digital’s Infinite Dial 2017 report is coming out on March 9 at 2 p.m. Eastern and not later in the summer, as I had previously thought. A senior exec at Edison Research confirmed the date with me over email last Tuesday, and the company posted a Save the Date notice on its blog the next day. As usual, the report will be premiered over a live webinar, which requires registration if you’re planning to participate.

Bridge Ratings revises its 2017 podcast ad projections upwards, but not by much. The research firm now estimates that podcast ad spending this year will amount to $243 million, according to RAIN News. That’s up from its previous projection of $207 million. As I mentioned last week, the industry seems to have coalesced around Bridge Ratings’ projections, though your guess is as good as mine as to how the firm went about its analysis.

WNYC, Minnesota Public Radio, and The Economist are collaborating on a call-in radio show. The program, called Indivisible, aims to serve as a platform to bring Americans together — or at least, the kind of Americans who call into public radio shows — for conversation and debate across the first 100 days of the incoming Trump administration. It will debut on January 23 at 8 p.m. ET, and will air Mondays through Thursdays for fourteen weeks.

Each night will be anchored by a different host. Here’s the lineup:

  • Mondays: Journalist Kai Wright, who previously helmed WNYC’s There Goes the Neighborhood and The United States of Anxiety podcasts, will host alongside The Economist’s John Prideaux and Anne McElvoy, with an explicit focus on global reactions to the new presidency.
  • Tuesdays: WNYC morning staple Brian Lehrer will anchor Tuesdays, primarily focusing on changing American norms.
  • Wednesday: The prominent Wisconsin-based conservative radio host Charlie Sykes will take the mid-week point, and will build his night around interviews and discussions on how the new administration’s opening day weigh against “American values and conservative principles.”
  • Thursday: Minnesota Public Radio’s Kerri Miller closes the week, and her night will focus on American identity.

A growing list of public radio stations across the country has picked up Indivisible for broadcast, and the show will also be available as a podcast. A quick staffing note: Kai Wright, who had been collaborating with WNYC in his capacity as an editor at the progressive magazine The Nation, has joined the New York public radio station full-time.

A few thoughts on this:

  • The fact that this project strings a line between two public radio stations and a magazine is interesting to me, and I’m curious to see if The Economist will reproduce any Indivisible content on their web or print presences in the weeks to come. In any case, I’m personally hoping to see more collaborations like this that potentially cultivates stronger relationships between magazines and radio, digital and broadcast, media consumption network A and media consumption network B. It’s been a pretty tough few weeks, between the increasingly loud accusations of fake news from all directions, the growing anxiety of life within filter bubbles, and the president-elect’s press conference last Wednesday. All of those things underscore an increasing need not for just solidarity, but functional cooperation between different corners of the journalism ecosystem. Indivisible strikes me as a pretty cool, and very encouraging, project that explicitly seeks to cut across not just ideological lines, but structural ones as well. (Though, I suppose the appropriate question here is: Are the lines being cut across sufficiently long enough?)
  • There’s something about call-in radio shows that makes the format so much more effective than, say, quotes in a news article or person-on-the-street interviews in representing the feel and complexity of people. Part of it, perhaps, has to do with the fact there isn’t the specter of viewing the subject through the lens of the writer — though callers are, more often than not, screened by producers before they’re let on the air. And the raw, relatively unedited (though probably tape-delayed) nature of the caller’s participation allows for a better projection of the more fundamental components of human interaction beyond the actual points that the participants are attempting to put across: the pauses, the tones, the doubt, the on-the-fly self-editing. (Weirdly, this aspect of call-in shows is perhaps most underscored and explored in comedian Chris Gethard’s Beautiful Stories from Anonymous People.)
  • In my mind, live programming is the one significant structural advantage that broadcast radio has over on-demand audio. (And to preempt the rebuttal: The scale it currently enjoys isn’t an advantage; it’s a product of historical conditions.) News radio would be wise to double down on live programming in the years to come; though, as cable news has consistently shown us, simply being live isn’t good enough. What’s truly valuable are live programming efforts that seek to tighten the gap of representation between listeners and the world around them. (Which, I suppose, is the premise behind the recent surge of live broadcasting features within the social media ecosystem.)

Bites:

  • Paste Magazine launches its equivalent of AV Club’s Podmass: The Pod People. It’s being edited by Massachusetts-based freelancer Muira McCammon, and it’s set to be a weekly feature. Also: did you hear that Paste is bringing back its print quarterly? Very cool. (Paste)
  • Former HLN host Nancy Grace, known for her…robust coverage of issues related to crime, has launched a new digital venture dedicated to, well, crime news. The venture is called Crime Online, and among its initial offerings is a true-crime podcast that adds to the very, very big pile of true-crime podcasts. (Business Insider)
  • “Marketplace unveiled plans for a major expansion intended to sharpen its coverage and the media it produces around the goal of ‘raising the economic intelligence of the country.'” Juicy detail: “…As the strategy rolls out, Marketplace could hire as many as 35 additional employees, building on its current workforce of 85.” (Current)
  • “Podcasts and Literary Criticism.” (The Millions)
  • “The Microculture Is Coming: The New Podcast Trend That Obsessive Fandom Spawned.” (The Ringer)
  • Maybe it’s just me, but there’s something fairly dissonant about a recent Wired headline categorizing Radiotopia’s upcoming Ear Hustle as a “crime podcast,” given the hefty connotations associated with that genre. (Wired)
  • Upcoming show launches: Food52’s Burnt Toast will return on March 9.

This shortened version of Hot Pod has been adapted for Nieman Lab, where it appears each Tuesday. You can subscribe to the full newsletter here. You can also support Hot Pod by becoming a member, which gets you more news, deeper analysis, and exclusive interviews; more information on the website.

Hot Pod: Is investigative reporting well served by podcasts?

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue ONE HUNDRED, published December 13, 2016.

Issue 100. I would be lying if I said I was in any way satisfied with anything I’ve ever done in this newsletter. Which is unhealthy, as my shoulder muscles have constantly told me, and occasionally, I understand that. I certainly did not expect, when I started publishing this newsletter for giggles back in November 2014, that I’d still have readers two years on, let alone be running a business the size of a tiny bodega.

It’s just that I think there is so much to be done: shows can be better, companies can be better, advertising can be better, business models can be smarter, the system can be more accommodating, more people can get more jobs, more producers can get paid better, more people can be listening, we can be more ambitious, we can be braver, and so on.

And that dissatisfaction applies to me too: My writing can be tighter, my blind spots less egregious, my typos less numerous, my stories more interesting, my thinking sharper, my prose more eloquent, my perspectives more inclusive, my vision of the future more balanced, and so on. (I’ve also been told by some readers that they miss the jokes.)

But here we are, 100 issues on — hopefully there will be 100 more — and I just want to thank you so much for being a reader.

In 2016, Apple podcast listeners clocked in over 10 billion downloads and streams globally, according to a press release published by the company. I’m guessing the release is specifically referring to listeners who consumed podcasts on the native iOS Podcast app transmitted over a variety of Apple devices, including the iPhone, iPad, Apple TV, and desktop.

How meaningful is this number? It’s hard to tell without the context of the years before — what we should be watching for is the degree of change between 2016 and 2015 compared to similar time periods before that — and it’s further worth noting that the number is essentially a bulk data point that doesn’t really tell us things like A) whether there’s a large number of unique listeners or B) whether a small number of highly engaged listeners is responsible for consuming a crap-ton of podcasts. Knowing either of those things would be super useful.

One thing that the press release is unambiguous about, however: NPR’s Fresh Air is the most downloaded podcast of the year off the Apple infrastructure. Queen Terry Gross reigns supreme.

Speed listening. Christopher Mele over at The New York Times digs into the practice of speed consumption in the age of #peakcontent. “Consumers face a dizzying array of entertainment choices that include streaming video such as Amazon Prime Instant Video, Hulu and Netflix; cable channels and apps from outlets like HBO and Showtime; YouTube; and as many as 28,000 podcasts,” Mele writes. “With them all offering uncountable hours of addictive programming, how is a listener or viewer supposed to keep up? For some, the answer is speed watching or speed listening — taking in the content at accelerated speeds, sometimes two times as fast as normal.”

For what it’s worth, I’m very much pro-speed listening. I believe that, to a large extent, the burden is placed on shows to teach listeners their ideal terms of consumption, and the shows themselves must warrant acceptance of those terms.

Diversity, discovery, and (parallel) development. “As podcasts continue to carve space in mainstream consumption habits…the industry’s infrastructure seems to be perpetuating, rather than resisting, the original sins of the white-favoring context of mainstream American culture,” argues an open letter with the banner #SupportPOCpods, which was published by a group of podcasters of color last week.

The letter and accompanying Twitter campaign were spearheaded by Shaun Lau, the co-host of a film and social issues podcast called No, Totally, and the way the letter interprets and diagnoses the podcast ecosystem’s (or perhaps the emerging professionalizing layer of the podcast ecosystem’s) issues with diversity is structurally and critically ambitious, striving for a certain totality in its argumentation. It culminates in appeals to three groups — distributors (platforms like iTunes and Google Play), media organizations (to the extent they provide coverage of podcasts), and listeners — to be better, in various ways, about their respective support of creators of color.

Reporting on the letter at the New Statesman, Caroline Crampton brings additional clarity to the core argument by (I think very correctly) foregrounding the connection between the medium’s diversity challenges with discovery challenges, stitching the two elements together to reflect how the overarching problem manifests itself as a system:

It’s starting to look like podcasting’s diversity problem and its discovery problem are intertwined. It’s a vicious cycle — with distributors providing a far-from-perfect way of finding new shows, the podcast charts remain dominated by shows from established media organizations with their own diversity problems. Media organizations compiling lists of shows tend to mirror the charts, perpetuating the same issues. It’s time for us all to do better.

Though I find some technical components of the letter’s argumentation less persuasive than others, I do very much agree with the way the letter captures the state of the problem, and, of course, I agree that we must all do better. I think what’s being articulated here is itself a specific variation of the overarching tension between the professionalizing and the independent; the letter is most persuasive, in my mind, when it suggests the increasing formalization of/investment in the space is (a) reducing the accessibility of the space granted to non-white creators and (b) not equally spread out to include minority talent. But I also think that the specific proposals made at the end of the letter — the appeal it makes to the larger power structure — aren’t really the ones that would get us where we want to go.

I suppose I should note that, at this writing, my thinking has been considerably guided by my consumption of another open letter, one published early yesterday morning. This one is by the journalist Jay Caspian Kang and addressed to minority journalists, and if I’m interpreting it correctly, it sketches out the withdrawals he thinks will likely happen in the broader news media’s existing (unsatisfying) attempts at bringing progressive diversification into their structures. Frustrated with this likely outcome, Kang concludes: “We, the like-minded who believe that there is value in the cliché of speaking truth to power and value a progressive coalition over careerism, have to start building our own shit.” Which is all to say: appeals to existing power structures for relief is always conditional. Building your own is not.

Is investigative reporting well served by podcasts? I’ve been wondering about that for a while now, and it was on my mind when Kerri Hoffman, the CEO of PRX, pitched me a story over email about the Center for Investigative Reporting, whose radio show and podcast, Reveal, has enjoyed a stellar 2016 — the podcast hit 1.2 million downloads in November, far surpassing its goal of 600,000 monthly downloads — despite a media landscape that’s seen structural withdrawals in investigative reporting. (CIR partners with PRX for distribution, hence the connection.)

“As you know, the podcast landscape is filled with lighter fare, and we have been hopeful that longer-form investigative journalism can find a place and survive in the digital landscape,” Hoffman wrote. “We have been scratching our heads about how to position Reveal — it is strong in public radio where broccoli is served often. How do we encourage people to eat vegetables at an ice cream party?”

One can debate the characterization of the podcast ecosystem’s favoring lighter fare — I don’t particularly think that’s true — or the merits of framing the situation in terms of broccoli vs. ice cream, but Reveal’s strong year is definitely fascinating, and I have a sense it says something, though I’m not sure what, about the way in which investigative journalism is finding its way in the much-fractured digital media landscape.

So I took the pitch, and sent a couple of questions over email to Christa Scharfenberg, who serves as the head of studio at CIR. Here’s the Q&A:

Nicholas Quah: I’ve often felt that investigative journalism functions in a lot of ways as a very niche product — a kind of specialized good consumed by a very specific kind of person. And that, in my mind, has significant ramifications over the way investigative reports function as a public good. Do you think that’s the case?

Christa Scharfenberg: I agree that investigative reporting has traditionally been niche. But that has evolved dramatically in the last 5-10 years, as the journalism industry has had to respond (not always effectively, as we all know) to the seismic shifts in how people get and consume news. Additionally, there has been tremendous growth of the nonprofit investigative reporting field, of which CIR is part (we are the oldest in this country — next year is our 40th anniversary). To attract an audience, to deeply engage them in the journalism, and to raise the philanthropic funding necessary to keep doing our work, we have had to turn the old format of plodding 5,000 word text stories on its head. The emphasis now is on deep audience engagement and a more deliberate focus on impact. This requires us to appeal to a broader audience with more accessible storytelling while adhering to the core principles of watchdog, public service journalism. We partnered with PRX on Reveal precisely to expand the niche and connect audiences with stories of local and national relevance.

Quah: How do you think the structural traits of podcasts — being a kind of siloed experience, being itself quite niche at the moment, being somewhat challenging to consume — affects the potential impact of investigative journalism delivered through the medium?

Scharfenberg: Podcasts are a perfect medium for investigative reporting. And it is also true that to ensure impact, podcasts cannot be the only delivery vehicle for investigations. Most investigative stories, even in public radio, appear once as part of a news cycle. We create deeper content with a longer shelf life. When we set out with PRX to create Reveal, we didn’t just ask — how do we make a good radio show? We conceived of Reveal as a platform from the beginning, not just a show.

The goal of Reveal is to take complex stories and turn them into interesting narratives that people will actually want to listen to. The audio versions of our stories don’t contain all the facts and findings unearthed in the reporting process. So the backbone of every investigation still is an in-depth text story, often accompanied by data apps and video. The multi-platform approach allows us to tell the human stories AND lay out all the detail, serving our different audiences and holding the powerful accountable.

Our newsroom is constantly balancing what’s investigative with what’s interesting to the average person. And that creative tension is exactly where we need to be. It is investigative reporting’s mission to be of public service, but we also need to tell the stories in a creative and compelling way, so people will actually pay attention. We make Reveal as “ice-creamy” as possible  — with Al Letson as the host, with a strong sense of character and place, with humor and irony when appropriate, with original music and rich sound design, and with reporting on possible solutions to the problems we uncover.

Another reason the medium is great for investigative reporting is because, unlike digital news, people expect to spend time with podcasts and to learn everything there is to know about an issue, a topic, a person, a story. Listening for a half hour, an hour, even two hours for some podcasts, is expected. By contrast, people devote a few minutes to text stories. If we’re lucky.

Quah: What does 2017 hold for your team?

Scharfenberg: We will continue to focus on developing the voice of the show. Everyone in podcasting and public radio told us it would take at least the first year to figure out who we are and that work definitely continues.

For this next year, we’re planning for more episodes that bring original, in-depth reporting and context to issues already in the news cycle. This fall, we produced a number of election-related shows, covering voting rights, internet voting and the secret Trump voter. We also released an extended interview with Richard Spencer, the white supremacist, which got lots of attention. [Ed. note: Current’s The Pub podcast, by the way, had an interesting discussion about this episode.] We saw a bump in listeners to those shows, which all hit a perfect balance of being deeply reported and unique, bringing something to audiences that they wouldn’t get elsewhere, while also being timely and relevant. Other examples of that this past year were our show about Trump supporters back in February, before most news outlets were taking them seriously, and our hour long episode about the Orlando nightclub shooting which we pulled together in a few days (compared to the 3-4 months we normally spend on shows).

We’re also thinking about building on the positive response to the Richard Spencer interview, by releasing more full-length, deep dive interviews as a supplement to the regular weekly show.

Lastly, we plan to experiment with bringing documentaries to Reveal, adapting films produced by our own filmmakers (we launched a female documentary initiative this fall with significant funding from the Helen Gurley Brown Foundation) and partnering with independent producers.

The Sarah Lawrence College International Audio Fiction Awards are now accepting submissions for its second year. Applicants should note one major difference from last year’s competition: the awards are now accepting full series as part of the entries. The deadline is 5 p.m. ET on January 27, 2017. Winners will be announced at the awards ceremony on March 28 at WNYC’s Greene Space. The festivities will be hosted by audio fiction darlings Welcome to Night Vale. There will be four awards — for first, second, and third place, along with a prize to the Best New Artist — with the prize money being worth $3,750 in total.

Ann Heppermann, who heads up the awards, tells me that she hopes to see more works from non-English speaking countries and works that are not in English. “There is a robust amount of international audio dramas in the world, and I hope that the outreach I have done in the past year results in more submissions from abroad,” she said.

Bites:

  • Pop Up Archive launches an audio clipmaker off its podcast search and intelligence engine, Audiosearch. Between this, This American Life’s Shortcut, and all the open source audiogram stuff that WNYC is whipping up, the social audio nut should be well on its way to getting itself cracked — unless, of course, clipping isn’t the way to get podcasts to travel over existing social graphs. Maybe the smart speaker is the way to go here? (Audiosearch)
  • I’m being told that the AV Club’s podcast review column, Podmass, will live on after its current editor, Becca James, leaves the organization at the end of the year. “Not sure how much I can say right now, but we should still be up and running after the holidays,” she wrote me in an email last week. Sweet.
  • Earwolf and Chris Gethard’s Beautiful Stories from Anonymous People has a strange ad integration with Casper going on right now. It’s hard to explain pithily, but it’s something you’d expect from a mattress company. (Earwolf)
  • More than 40 percent of NPR’s broadcast sponsors also back its podcasts, apparently. (Variety)
  • Barstool Sports, the controversial site with a fairly strong podcast presence, is launching a daily broadcast on SiriusXM. It will kick off on January 3. (Hollywood Reporter)
  • Veritone Media, a California-based advertising agency whose dabblings in podcasts have increasingly crossed my attention, is now called “Veritone One.” (Press Release)
  • Detour, the GPS audio walking tour app, is opening up its platform. It’s a really, really cool product that’s been allowing some fantastic producers to do some really, really cool work. Check it. (Detour)

This shortened version of Hot Pod has been adapted for Nieman Lab, where it appears each Tuesday. You can subscribe to the full newsletter here. You can also support Hot Pod by becoming a member, which gets you more news, deeper analysis, and exclusive interviews; more information on the website.