Google wants to do for podcasts on Android what Apple did for podcasts on iOS

GOOGLY EYED. You might have already heard about Google’s new strategy around podcast servicing on Android devices — I briefly linked to it last week after my whole spiel on the Apple HomePod — that the search giant announced through the content marketing blog of Pacific Content, the Canadian branded podcast studio. The announcement was broken out into five parts, and if you haven’t read them already, you absolutely should. You can find the first entry here, and then work outward from there.

But if you need a TLDR: Google’s apparent mission statement is “to help double the amount of podcast listening in the world over the next couple years,” and by that they mean to do to the untapped masses of potential podcast-consuming Android users what Apple did to potential podcast-consuming iOS users back in 2015 when it started distributing the stuff through iTunes. Of course, Google will try to do so via the strength of its specific Googlean skill-sets. (Also worth noting: this is separate and apart from the podcast stuff on Google Play Music, which didn’t really seem like it amounted to much?)

FWIW, my gut reaction to the news is about the same as when I heard about Pandora wanting to “double down on podcasts,” which is “cool, cool, let me know how that goes.” Because, really, I could say something like “man, this is (maybe) totally going to change everything!”, but that wouldn’t be particularly useful, and by all means, whether everything changes or not, it’s still worth adhering to Google’s inclusion guidelines to gain whatever listenership will be driven by this initiative.

Anyway, there are a fair few elements to Google’s podcast strategy, but I’ve come to view its heartbeat according to these building blocks:

(1) Capture. The most immediate development is how Google has already begun listing podcast and audio episodes in search results at a level similar to text, video, and images within the Google app on Android devices. This is being referred to as an effort to make podcasts a “first-class citizen” within Google’s search architecture, and it’s also a move that widely expands Google’s presence as the top-of-the-funnel option for all future podcast/audio discovery pathways among potential casual listeners noodling around on their Android devices.

(2) Contain. But here’s the most notable development, IMHO: Podcast consumption and management can now be handled directly on the Android Google app, through a user experience that’s baked into the app environment itself called “Homebase.” Based on the posts, it’s sort of an app within the app, and the significance here is that listeners can theoretically discover, listen, and subscribe to podcasts within the same app experience.

This would presumably reduce the number of steps that many assume are major pain points preventing adoption. Previously, an Android user bumping into, say, Wooden Overcoats for the first time while tumbling down a search rabbit hole would have to figure out which third-party podcast app to download on the Google Play Store — or head over to Spotify, I guess — learn how to use that product, and then start habituating with said third-party app in order to formalize their relationship with the show. By sliding in as the listening layer itself, Google theoretically collapses the distance between the point of discovery and the point of listening. (Speaking of which: pour one out for third-party podcast apps that primarily made a living serving the previously underserved Android market. Godspeed, fellas.)

Interestingly, some of the write-ups around the announcement seem to possess an expectation that the podcast experience will likely be broken out into its own standalone app at some point in the future. I don’t know about whether that’s actually the case, but…isn’t the point to reduce the number of steps to begin with?

(3) Cover. And then there’s all the stuff about connecting and syncing all these podcast consuming experiences between Google’s Android app and the Google Assistant, the company’s Alexa competitor. If you’ve been reading this newsletter for any period of time, you probably know what I’m going to say at this point: I think the potential here should be viewed less as a smart speaker thing and more as a voice-first computing thing, as the Google Assistant is likely going to be spread wide across a wide expanse of interfacing surface areas (cars, smart homes, dog collars, public restrooms, etc.)

I’ll show my bias here and say that the podcasting stuff here is a little less interesting to me than the notion of Google beginning to dabble with realizing a search engine for atomic units of audio experiences on an aurally-represented internet. Sure, we’re talking about podcasts now, but are we really only talking about podcasts with the kind of infrastructure that’s being built here? Come on, are you really going to use all that fire just to heat cans of soup? Get outta here.

A couple of other thoughts specific to podcast stuff:

(1) When I first started outlining this item, I had this whole bit reheating my skepticism about good search functionality being the answer to podcast discovery: I’m just iffy on the notion of a significant discovery pathway into podcasts that runs through subject- or topic-oriented searches.

But then I recalled that search is only part of the picture when it comes to Google these days, which now appears to hang on the twin principles of going “from search to suggest” and being “AI-first” as illustrated in this essay by Andre Saltz, which has been pretty helpful for me to think through these things. I’ve evoked it before in this column.

(2) As a veteran digital media executive recently told me: “There’s one fact of life that has remained constant — that someone is trying to game the system.” That person was talking to me for another story about another situation that I’ll publish next week, but it’s applicable here with whatever the audio SEO framework is going to look like, of course. On a related note, I’m looking forward to “What time is the Super Bowl?”, but for audio.

(3) Related to this idea of “gaming the system” is the heady, navel-gazing, but actually really interesting question of how platforms impact publishers and vice versa. Having a new system from which to extract value always offers new opportunities, but I think it’s an open question whether Google’s moves with search here will actually lead to better outcomes for the existing spread of publishers.

What’s less of an open question is the probability that we’ll see new kinds of publishers playing to the new system that Google’s endeavors here open up. Look, if I were an enterprising young person who wasn’t particularly romantic about the Way Audio Should Be Made, I’d be working hard to game the shit out of the system with new forms of content that’s sticky to its rules. (We already see versions of this enterprising spirit in the Apple Podcast charts with the spread of true crime podcasts.)

(4) Speaking of whether Google’s podcast endeavors will actually lead to better outcomes for existing podcast publishers, I’ve been hearing that the search giant has been in contact with some publishers over the past few months as it builds out its podcast features. Like many other configurations of such interfacing in the past (publishers and Facebook, publishers and Apple News, etc. etc.), I wouldn’t put too much stock in the…proposed symmetry of that relationship.

Alrighty, let’s move along.

Meanwhile, over on iOS. “Apple’s podcasts just topped 50 billion all-time downloads and streams,” reported Fast Company last week, highlighting a milestone for Apple’s long-documented history of intimacy with podcast-land.

In the piece, the benchmark came accompanied by data points that Apple has publicly provided in previous years:

  • In 2014, there were 7 billion podcast downloads.
  • In 2016, that number jumped to 10.5 billion.
  • In 2017, it jumped to 13.7 billion episode downloads and streams, across Podcasts and iTunes.
  • In March 2018, Apple Podcasts passed 50 billion all-time episode downloads and streams.

Note that the numbers for 2014, 2016, and 2017 all refer to downloads and streams that took place in that year, while the March 2018 data point refers to all-time numbers — which is to say, downloads and streams that took place since Apple began serving podcasts in 2005. (A pretty straightforward switch in framing, but one that tripped me up the first time I scanned the article. Which reminds me: I should schedule my annual vision exam soon.)

Strung together, these numbers paint a vivid picture of accelerating podcast activity across Apple platforms. But here’s what I find even more interesting: consider just how much of Apple’s all-time podcast download and streaming activity apparently took place between 2014 and now.

Now, we don’t have 2015 numbers, but let’s assume it’s somewhere in the midpoint between the 7 billion in 2014 and 10.5 billion in 2016: say, a conservative 8.5 billion. What we have, then, is a situation where 39.7 billion (7 + 8.5 + 10.5 + 13.7) out of Apple’s all-time 50 billion podcast downloads and streams took place between January 2014 and March 2018.

Which is to say, from these numbers, it seems that almost 80 percent of all podcast downloads and streams on Apple platforms took place over the past four years.

Let’s hold our horses for a hot second, run that statement back, and think this through. Shouts to RadioPublic’s Jake Shapiro for helping me kick up some much-needed caveats:

  • These numbers should not be taken to suggest that almost 80 percent of all podcast listening on Apple platforms took place over the past four years. As always, keep in mind that a podcast download is no direct indicator of actual listening; after all, an episode can be delivered but not literally consumed.
  • It’s also worth asking, in general, whether we can take Apple’s tracking of all-time podcast downloads and streams to be consistent all the way across time back to 2005 — that is, whether measurement of earlier numbers were processed with the same rigor as measurement of more contemporary numbers — and consider the possibility of earlier activity going untracked. I see no particular reason to suspect inconsistency, but the potential bears keeping in mind nonetheless. One can never be too careful.
  • Also, we don’t have much of a clear picture of actual Apple podcast activity for any of the years before 2014.

Even with these caveats in mind, I’m still comfortable with the original takeaway: that a considerable majority of Apple podcast activity took place over the past four years.

What is the significance of this? For one thing, it further solidifies 2014’s status as the crucial pivot point for the podcast ecosystem, resulting from a combination of Apple bundling the Podcast app into iOS by default and the catalyzing awareness-raising effects of Serial as a cultural phenomenon. For another, it gives us a sense of the pivot point’s scale.

Other than that…I dunno. Purely an academic observation, and it’s one I’m squirreling away if I ever get to write the Big Book on Podcasting.

The BBC partners with Acast for international monetization. The deal, announced Tuesday morning, will see the Swedish podcast technology company take the lead on generating revenue off the downloads that BBC podcasts are currently enjoying outside of the UK.

According to the press release, podcast episodes from the BBC are downloaded over 30 million times a month outside the UK. It’s unclear how much of that is within the United States, where podcast advertising is significantly more mature. The podcast portfolio for the big U.K. public service broadcast includes Radio 4’s In Our Time, repackages of the BBC World Service, The Assassination, and the recently released Death in Ice Valley, a true crime collaboration with Norwegian public broadcaster NRK.

The deal doesn’t cover every BBC podcast, however. A spokesperson told me that it only covers “most” of the organization’s English-language podcasts. Some will be excluded for either rights-related or specific editorial reasons. One example: the historical audio fiction epic Tumanbay. In September 2017, the BBC forged a deal with Panoply to bring Tumanbay to American earballs where the latter also serves as a co-producer of the project. That relationship still stands.

The BBC does not monetize its podcasts within the U.K.

On a related note: just a reminder that the BBC recently tapped Jason Phipps, previously head of audio at The Guardian, to be the organization’s podcast commissioner.

This week in #Brands. Squarespace, the ubiquitous podcast advertiser, is launching an extended campaign with Gimlet in the form of an American Idol/Project Greenlight-esque competition, Casting Call, a national talent-seeking endeavor in which the winner gets their own show on Gimlet. The process will be documented as a podcast (what else?) that will be released in September. Judges include Gimlet’s Nazanin Rafsanjani, the great Aminatou Sow, and Squarespace founder/CEO Anthony Casalena. Submissions are open starting today.

A little hokey, but I’ve always thought there should be more things like Radiotopia’s PodQuest and WNYC’s Podcast Accelerator. In any case, shrewd move from Gimlet to take lessons from those initiatives and build a whole revenue engine around it.

On a related note: Should the day come when artificial intelligence becomes self-aware, pray it does not look like a brand.

The latest on WNYC’s inappropriate conduct imbroglio: An investigation by the law firm Proskauer Rose has apparently found “no evidence of systemic discrimination at the organization,” which is…peculiar. Here’s the WNYC News piece on the development, and further observations and analysis can be found in this 22-minute segment on the Brian Lehrer Show. Some of those observations can be found in this Twitter thread by WNYC reporter Ilya Marritz. You can read the actual report here.

WME adds PRX to its podcast client list. According to the Hollywood Reporter, the major talent agency will “work to expand the audio media nonprofit’s business in all areas, including film, television and books.” For the record, WME’s podcast clients include Crooked Media, Panoply Media, Freakonomics Radio’s Stephen Dubner, and Two Up Productions, among others. The agency was also involved in the negotiations around the Dirty John TV adaptations and, given the tentacular fortitude of its clientele reach, will likely continue to be involved in many, many more negotiations to come.

In case you need further context on how a talent agency like WME views the podcast space as a potential pool of assets, let me refer you back to my June 2017 interview with Ben Davis, an agent with the digital department at WME. A pertinent excerpt:

[storybreak]

[conl]Hot Pod: Where do you think this relationship between talent agencies and the podcast industry is going?[/conl]

[conr]Ben Davis: I think talent agencies will play an increasingly important role in the ecosystem by:

  • Helping podcast creators cross IP over into other media (whether that is audiovisual, live or written).
  • Pairing creators with the right distribution partners, and negotiating the terms of the relationship.
  • Packaging creative elements (i.e. talent and writer) to create turnkey audio productions for distributors.

The space is changing so quickly, though, and my answer would have been different 6 months ago. So really, who knows?[/conr]

[storybreak]

Who knows, indeed. As a reminder, PRX is a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based nonprofit that runs the indie podcast collective Radiotopia and provides various podcast support services to teams like The Moth and Night Vale Presents.

Bites

  • The New York Times is reportedly considering adapting The Daily and the Modern Love column for television. At the NewFronts presentation yesterday, COO Meredith Kopit Levien said “The Daily has more listeners than the weekday newspaper has ever had.” You sell those ads, people! (AdWeek)
  • ICYMI: Freakonomics Radio moves from WNYC Studios to Stitcher. (Press release)
  • Slate’s podcast project with its fantastic TV critic Willa Paskin, called Decoder Ring, is now live. (Slate)
  • Also live now: TED en Español. (Apple Podcasts)
  • The wave of Westworld podcasts is now back upon us. Let it consume you.
  • Heads up, antipodal Hot Pod readers: The third Audiocraft Podcast Festival will take place in Sydney in early June. (Media release)
  • Reese Witherspoon’s media company Hello Sunshine, not content with adapting a true crime podcast-centric novel for television, has launched an original podcast of its own, which is not a true crime podcast. (EW)

Podcast publishers, start preserving your stuff. (This podcast will tell you how.)

Democratizing podcasts, again. Call it pivot, call it a rebrand, call it Ziggy Stardust; whatever it is, Anchor is once again driving a new throng of headlines, this time due to its re-premiere as a one-stop shop for podcast publishers that don’t currently need sophisticated editing platforms like ProTools and Hindenburg or industrial-level hosting options like Art19 and Megaphone. In that sense, Anchor 3.0 theoretically situates itself as an entry-level competitor against a host of longtime stalwarts catering to various aspects of the podcasting stack, from Audacity to Libsyn. This makes for a considerable contrast to the company’s original short-form social audio premise that got it some buzz at SXSW in 2016.

You can read up on the full 3.0 feature suite here, but a couple of noteworthy things for our analytical purposes: Firstly, Anchor now features easy publishing to all major distribution points including, most notably, the relatively walled-off Spotify. (Previously, you’d have to go through a somewhat manual process to get a podcast listed on the Spotify platform.) Secondly, the platform now sports updated web and mobile creation tools, which keeps the beginner-friendly, on-the-fly editing dream alive. Thirdly, Anchor has a tool that’s meant to let publishers transfer their podcasts over from other hosting platforms pretty easily. This feature was originally rolled out last summer, and I’ll say now what I said then: It clarifies and further solidifies the competitive dynamic between Anchor and other hosting platforms.

Also, users get unlimited podcast hosting for free, which is interesting. We’ll come back to this in a bit.

It’s worth noting that the relaunch also comes with its own batch of publishing partners, including BuzzFeed News, RelayFM, The Outline, Cheddar, and Atlantic Records. You can guess the myriad strategic rationales for this. On the one hand, the presence of these publishers theoretically gives potential users more of a reason to download the app, use it as a listening tool, and potentially stay within the platform. Get that engine going, and it may well lead to a situation where other potential publishers see Anchor as a space with a solid built-in audience to tap into. On the other hand, it’s a signal for other publishers to take the platform seriously as an all-in-one publishing tool. I’ll leave it up to you to decide if that gambit works.

Okay, back to the free hosting bit. The immediate question that this raises, of course, is monetization. All this stuff is great, but how will Anchor make money once it runs out of the $10 million in Series A funding it raised last September, and whatever fundraising rounds come after that? “Right now we’re focused on making products that empower creators, and part of our mission of democratizing audio is enabling podcasters to make a living,” Anchor CEO Michael Mignano wrote me. “There are a variety of monetization methods that have been proven to be successful in audio, and a number of ways this could be a valuable business, so as you can imagine, in the future, creator monetization will be a big priority for us.”

That’s vague, but I thought Mignano’s response to the same question over at The Verge holds more clues:

Mignano also spoke to how Anchor might eventually make money and said it won’t be off of creators. “We view creators having to pay for services as friction. Even $10 a month will stop an ambitious creator,” he said. Instead, the goal will be to help podcasters monetize their shows. That could be through pairing them with advertisers, or through enabling subscriptions or tip jars. “There are a bunch of proven models out there that you can imagine we’ll explore,” he said.

Which reminds me a little bit of Patreon. Maybe it’s time to brush up on readings about that company.

So, what’s the big picture here? A really smart person (whose identity I’ve unfortunately completely forgotten — my apologies to whoever you are) once told me that the principal puzzle of podcasting lies in the fact that because it has an extremely low barrier to entry, it has an extremely high barrier to scale. Anchor, with its tagline of being “the easiest way to make a podcast,” seems intent on further lubricating the former barrier. One wonders if the maximal outcome of this is the exacerbation of the latter.

Speaking of which, where are we with social audio? First of all, R.I.P. Bumpers. And second of all, I think it’s worth positing that the premise of building Twitters for Audio, Tumblrs for Audio, or Snapchats for Audio just isn’t working out, for reasons that I outlined in a few column from years ago: namely that, among other things, the relatively high-friction nature of listening compared to seeing cuts into the social velocity that functions as the principal engine governing the commercial success of social media platforms. I’ve also previously argued that resources and attention should instead be further concentrated on aspects more pertinent to the current podcast publishing infrastructure like improving measurement, developing better programming, building alternative monetization channels, and firming up relationships with the advertising community.

To some extent, I think we’re already seeing this shift happen, particularly with the wave of digital audio investments last September that saw a lot more money go into podcast-specific companies like Gimlet Media, Cadence13 née DGital Media, HowStuffWorks, Acast, and Art19 — in other words, ventures that work directly on expanding and improving positions within the current podcast architecture, culture, and market as opposed to ventures trying to create whole new digital audio behaviors and ecosystems within their platforms.

Anchor initially appeared to be the one exception in that fall 2017 wave, raising $10 million in a Series A round led by GV (née Google Ventures) to be the lone double-down on social audio. But with its 3.0 relaunch, Anchor doesn’t seem to be that exception any longer. While the platform still sports some social listening features, its rebooted core value proposition situates it well within the concerns of the overarching podcast universe.

Perhaps there’s room to restart the search for social audio in the future. I suspect the emerging smart speaker category might be a promising frontier for that kind of stuff. But for now, I’m bearish on the concept.

While we’re talking about podcast tech-ventures: On Monday, RadioPublic announced that Bose, the audio equipment corporation, is investing in the startup through its strategic investment arm, Bose Ventures. The specific amount wasn’t publicly disclosed, but the new investment adds to the $2.8 million that the Boston-based startup had raised as of last November. RadioPublic CEO Jake Shapiro tells me that, as a result of this development, a member of Bose’s venture group will join WGBH and The New York Times as having board observers.

The investment comes a few weeks after the launch of RadioPublic’s Paid Listen program, which aims to help smaller podcast publishers monetize their inventory.

Corporate art. It’s all so strange. Last Thursday saw the release of The Sauce, a branded podcast collaboration between McDonald’s (shouts to the Filet-O-Fish) and the creative agencies of two Fusion Media brands: The Onion and Gizmodo. The project is a tight three-part series that portends to be the inside story of that crazy, crazy incident last October, when the fast food corporation revived an old condiment — the Szechuan sauce, originally released in 1998 as a promotional tie-in to the release of Disney’s Mulan — as a spot promotional campaign looking to capitalize on an off-hand joke in the popular contemporary Adult Swim cartoon Rick and Morty. However, McDonald’s underestimated the unnaturally high volume of demand and administered a roll-out that ultimately led to mass fan disappointment which, in turn, led to unruly conditions in certain branches and an accompanying media firestorm.

The entire episode was horrifying and hilarious, infinitely surreal and yet completely unsurprising to anyone who’s paid a modicum of attention to 21st-century fan culture. Anyway, cut to the present, and McDonald’s has published a branded podcast to signal a mea culpa in the form of a follow-up: as a response to the supply misestimation last fall, the fast-food empire is shipping out 20 million packages of Szechuan sauce throughout the country, starting yesterday.

The Sauce is an utterly fascinating artifact. The show comes with the facetious billing of an “investigative series,” a tongue-in-cheek posture reminiscent of The Onion’s recent stab at lampooning the true crime podcast genre, A Very Fatal Murder. But despite its meta-context and the jokey billing, the podcast turns out to be a relatively straightforward experience: interview tape with McDonald’s executives feature heavily throughout the three episodes, and while there’s a minor subplot featuring a pair of fans, the branded podcast is fundamentally the presentation of McDonald’s internal corporate narrative throughout the sauce incident.

It’s a crafty bit of corporate message control (if anybody ends up listening to it, anyway), but what strikes me as really fascinating is how this story could — and should — have been an episode of a show like Planet Money. The complexity of supply chains, the hit-miss interaction between corporate marketing and genuine pop culture, the ensuing mania that hints at larger and darker truths about the first-world human in the 21st century; there is so much in that nexus that’s genuinely interesting to explore (yes, I’m a nerd), and here we have a situation where a corporation is attempting to trend toward those storytelling directions.

Of course, The Sauce doesn’t actually end up going particularly deep into any of those topics. Its aesthetic echoes of Planet Money, then, feel like the product of a creative mutation that never quite finished, ending up with a creature that exists well within the uncanny valley. It is nonetheless intermittently interesting, and the prospect of its potential interesting-ness leads me back to a question I’ve often wondered pertaining to the branded podcast: If this content category is going to compete for real estate in the Apple Podcast charts and directories, and if it ends up competing for stories as in the case of The Sauce, and if more and more podcast entrepreneurs lean on branded podcasts as a revenue engine, what should we expect from them, creatively speaking? What standards should listeners be placing on these corporations as sources of stories and narrative experiences? Taking the example of Gimlet Media: how should we critically pit Tinder’s DTR, a production of Gimlet Creative that folks seem to enjoy, against Reply All?

Anyway. Whatever questions there may be, I can’t say that The Sauce isn’t effective. Truth be told, I’m probably going to try and hit up a sauce packet later.

This week in hardware:

  • Guess what? Spotify is reportedly moving to make its own hardware line. Early speculation suggests a probable foray into the budding smart speaker race, but there doesn’t seem to be any concrete evidence on the specific form the first product will take. Given Spotify’s recent machinations in the non-music programming category, this is worth paying some attention to.
  • Meanwhile, in Cupertino: Apple is said to be planning significant upgrades to its wireless AirPod headphones. There’s some chatter about a water-resistant model, but the real prognostication of note is the prospect of a feature that lets users communicate with Apple’s Siri digital assistant through the AirPods without having to physically interact with the headphones. Listen, personally speaking, this is the feature I’ve been waiting for my whole listening life for. I have scars from treadmill incidents. Bloomberg has the story.

Freedom from. The Daily Beast’s Taylor Lorenz flagged last week that the YouTuber Logan Paul — recently embroiled in an extremely disheartening controversy that you can read about here because I’m not going to recap it — is “spending less time” on YouTube and moving into podcasting. The development is presumably a response to YouTube’s decision to limit its relationship with Paul following the controversy. (Those limitations, however, appear to be in flux.)

This seems like yet another data point supporting the thesis that The Ringer’s Bryan Curtis extended last December: that podcasting is the new frontier for American media pariahs. Which, in my mind, is itself a particular expression of the much larger consequence of the overarching media ecosystem being broken down into a multiverse of fragmented, self-contained bubbles.

Notes on preservation. Someday, this will all end. Probably not literally (hopefully), but at some point, the way things work now won’t be the way things will work in the future, and there is no guarantee we’ll remember, or have ways to remember, the world as it is today.

Molly Schwartz is the studio manager at the Metropolitan New York Library Council (METRO), a regional hub for libraries, archives, and museums in New York City and Westchester County. An archivist by training and a technologist, Schwartz thinks a lot about what we lose in a time when media technology moves really, really quickly. “I worry that we are witnessing a digital dark age, where we are creating new media formats faster than we are developing effective preservation methods,” she told me over email recently. “It’s possible that a lot of the content of our time will be lost.”

Schwartz, along with project co-leads Mary Kidd and Dana Gerber-Margie, is part of a new project that hopes to grapple with this issue within the context of podcasting. The project recently received $142,000 in grant funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and it has a couple of goals: to raise awareness around podcast preservation, to give people a clear set of guidelines for how to preserve podcasts, and to encourage activists to focus more on including digital audio in their collections. It will primarily take the form of a podcast about how to preserve podcasts, natch, one that falls from the growing tradition of the auto-documentary meta-pod that includes Megan Tan’s Millennial, Gimlet’s Startup, and Allison Behringer’s The Intern in its ranks.

Schwartz and her collaborators will also produce a zine-workbook that helps publishers keep track of their preservation steps, as well as in-person podcast preservation workshops at different venues around the country, including Third Coast in Chicago, the Podcast Garage in Allston, MA, and the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke in North Carolina. You can read more about the project in this announcement post. “We want this to be as accessible as possible, so we’re trying to provide multiple ways to get at the content,” Schwartz said.

Allow me to show my cards here: I’ve always been aware of the importance of preservation and archival work, but I must admit I do not truly grasp it. I understand it in theory, but I have not internalized it. So I wanted to learn more from Schwartz, and as such, sent over some questions to get the low-down on the basics of the whole issue. She was more than generous with her time.

Here’s the Q&A, very lightly edited for flow:

[conl]Hot Pod: Could you illustrate to me why media — in this case, podcast — preservation is important?[/conl]

[conr]Molly Schwartz: We live in a time of media abundance. It’s like an embarrassment of riches. There are conflicting opinions about whether or not the information explosion ushered in by the digital technologies of the 20th century is a good thing, but value judgments are kind of beside the point. We need to be aware that, in the same way that new software and devices make it easier and faster to put content out there, new technology comes with corresponding updates and obsolescence that threaten the endurance of the content that flows across it.

Does the meaning of a podcast lie in the fact that I’m accessing it via an RSS feed that’s hosted by SoundCloud that I listen to on the podcast app on my iPhone? No. I listen to it for the human voices and stories, because it captures my imagination or teaches me new things or makes me feel more connected to other humans.

But, is my ability to access these stories dependent on all these pieces of technology working together? Absolutely. As soon as one piece breaks down — SoundCloud goes out of business, or Apple podcasts are replaced by a proprietary audio streaming service, or we all replace our iPhones with Google glasses, or whatever — then I might not be able access the audio stories I want to listen to. And as time goes on, it’s inevitable that pieces of the technology chain will break down. History has shown us this much. We are facing a magnetic media crisis where we are about to lose all the audio and video media that were recorded onto magnetic tape (audio cassettes, VHS’s, betacams, u-matic tapes, miniDVs, you name it). Born-digital audio, like podcasts, will face similar challenges.

People have put so much time and effort into crafting and sharing audio stories via podcasts. I’m hoping for a future in which we can reach back and find audio stories that we want to listen to, regardless of whether we are accessing them via some VR simulator or AI wetware embedded in our brains or vinyl records. Our archives and museums and libraries are full of books and movies and images from the past that add richness to our lives. Some of my favorite books are over 100 years old. Some of my favorite music is over 50 years old. I think it’s safe to say that 50 years from now, people will enjoy listening to podcasts that we’re creating now. That’s what we’re working for.[/conr]

[conl]Hot Pod: According to your announcement post, it seems there exists a basic lack of preservation practices among most podcast publishers. Why do you think this is the case?[/conl]

[conr]Schwartz: I think there are a couple of factors playing into a lack of awareness about preservation, both among podcast publishers and in the general public. First, we live in a culture that fetishizes newness. We tend to prioritize new technologies and new projects over the maintenance of old ones. Most people aren’t thinking about media from an archival perspective. They are working on tight production schedules, and the priority is to get new pieces published rather than worry about how people will access their work 10 years from now.

Which brings me to my second point: the invisibility of archival work. A lot of people don’t know or think about archives — what their purpose is, who maintains them. Too frequently archival collections are literally stuck in the basement, and archivists are often the first to get fired during budget cuts. And this is partly the fault of archivists. We haven’t done enough effective outreach to help people understand what preservation practices look like and why they’re important. That’s part of the purpose of this project. To connect archivists and content creators, so that they can work together from the outset.

Archivists approach media with particular values. Values of authenticity, preservation, context, and long-term access. It’s not everybody’s job to care about these things or to know how the technical tools work, like Digital Asset Management systems, etc. But content creators should be aware that there are basic steps they can take to share their work with future generations. And if they have problems or questions, there are archivists out there who would be happy to help.

My third point relates to the nature of born-digital media. Podcasts are born-digital. They are recorded as digital audio files. People access them on digital audio players. I think there are a few misconceptions floating around about digital media. People seem to think that once things go online they somehow become ubiquitous. Podcasts feel like social media, like they’re everywhere because you can find them on many different podcatchers. But they all originate from one RSS feed, and if that feed goes down and the files aren’t backed up anywhere, then the content is lost. Or if the RSS feed goes down and the files are stored on someone’s local computer, then it’s not accessible to a wider public.

We’ve been conditioned by Google to think that things we want to find will be indexed and searchable, forever. Not everything is indexed. Not everything is searchable. Not everything is stored in a file format that will last. Not everything is stored on a platform that will last. The cheap cloud storage options — like Google Drive and Dropbox and Amazon Web Services — these are all commercial platforms. They will die if they become financially unsustainable. Do they provide guarantees that they will export your data if they go under? Or ensure fixity of your files over time? Probably not, because that’s not their mission. So we need to take the responsibility on ourselves to prioritize preservation if it’s something that matters to us.[/conr]

[conl]Hot Pod: Could you tell me about the other challenges that media preservation faces in general?[/conl]

[conr]Schwartz: Media preservation faces loads of challenges: software gets outdated, hardware becomes obsolete, files get disorganized, storage gets expensive (especially for uncompressed files), bits rot over time, files get corrupted. And these problems only crop up when people start prioritizing media preservation, which isn’t generally the case. I honestly think one of the biggest challenges is a lack of awareness. Many media organizations can’t afford, or don’t prioritize, having an archivist (or a team of archivists) on staff to focus on preservation. And media is increasingly created by independent producers and freelancers who don’t have an institution behind them to help provide preservation infrastructures.[/conr]

[conl]Hot Pod: Do you see this lack of practices present equally among independent publishers vs. bigger publishers? Or is it more lopsided in either direction?[/conl]

[conr]Schwartz: Podcasts are definitely at an advantage if they are associated with a larger network or institution. The publishers don’t have to be corporate. Public media has a long legacy of in-house archives. WNYC, for example, has an archives with archivists on staff who are responsible for the ingest, organization, preservation, and access databases of content created at WNYC. There are requirements to save records at organizations that are funded by the public.

I’m not sure that some of the corporate podcast networks, which are generally quite young, have many preservation practices in place. They are probably thinking about it as digital asset management, which is a huge chunk of preservation work. Sometimes people think about preservation in terms of preserving historic houses or something, but most digital preservation work isn’t about reconstructing damaged files. It’s doing the asset management work in advance to make sure all of your files are organized and well labeled. But this might not be a top priority at new podcast networks where they are just trying to get shows produced and out there.

For independent publishers, oftentimes people are just winging it and figuring out the technology as they go. They are focused on the content and the stories that they want to put out there, as they should be. We are trying to help make independent publishers aware of the tools available to them to incorporate preservation practices into their routine. I know this is challenging. I started a podcast a little over a year ago, and my own preservation practices are non-existent. That’s part of what inspired this project. I was thinking, if I’m a trained archivist and I’m not even putting my files in the Internet Archive, then how can we expect other people to do this? So this podcast will be documenting my own journey toward peak podcast preservation. And I want others to be able to follow along and fix their own preservation practices with me.[/conr]

[conl]Hot Pod: Let’s say we get to a point where podcast preservation practices are well-established and we have some sort of cultural institution that functions as the central point of such efforts. Is there a challenge of balancing between choosing what programs are “historically important” and not important enough? How have cultural heritage institutions grappled with this in the past?[/conl]

[conr]Schwartz: Yes, there’s always a point where institutions are making value judgments about what to save and what to get rid of. Preservation is expensive. Digital preservation is really expensive. And the ease of creating digital information has led to an information explosion, or overload. We don’t need to save every tweet or every email. A big part of an archivist’s job is weeding, or deciding what not to keep. So if cultural heritage institutions do start collecting podcasts on a wider scale, as I hope they will, they will need to make calls about what is important enough to put resources toward saving. That’s why collections policies are so important. Institutions need to decide what their purpose is and what’s in scope for them. Who is their audience? It’s a big responsibility that institutions have taken on, more or less successfully.

But we are taking more of a personal digital archiving approach here, i.e. helping people save their own things. This has become a trend where archivists teach people how to organize and preserve their own digital content, like digital photos, for example. Digital information is really complicated and people need some tools and techniques. We are looking more immediately at helping podcast creators at least gett their files saved in multiple locations, as uncompressed files, and with good metadata and labels. We hope that this has the effect that the historical record is more democratized, and not totally at the mercy of collecting institutions, who might prioritize more privileged, or visible, communities and their content. I like the idea of empowering people to decide what they would like to save and how they would like to be remembered.[/conr]

[conl]Hot Pod:Who is media preservation for?[/conl]

[conr]Schwartz: Media preservation is for everyone. At least, it’s preserved for anyone and everyone to access later on. There’s not a target audience. We can’t foresee how or why people will want to access podcasts, or data about podcasts, in the future. That’s kind of the beauty of it. Maybe a media scholar will want to do a cultural analysis of the switch to on-demand listening habits. Maybe the New Yorker will want to write an article about the true crime podcast phenomenon of 2016. Maybe someone will stumble upon Vicki Bennett and get inspired to make audio collages. Maybe someone’s grandchildren will want to hear the sound of their voice. If we don’t save the files with their corresponding metadata, then it’ll all be a moot point.[/conr]

Schwartz also gave some additional reading material in case you, like me, have some time to read on the train later:

Build for a world without you, folks.

Bites.

  • On Monday, the CBC circulated a vague pre-announcement about an upcoming project it’s developing with The Heart’s Kaitlin Prest. The Heart, a show within the Radiotopia network, ended production in January. No concrete details on the new project just yet, though the CBC notes that more information will come out over the summer.
  • Two public radio items that are joined at the hip: first, a consortium of public radio stations — including WNYC, WAMU, and KPCC — has acquired and plans to relaunch the local news organization Gothamist and some of its associated sites. (Wired) Second, Minnesota Public Radio is apparently in the venture capital game now. Its portfolio currently includes RadioPublic, interestingly enough. (TwinCities Business)
  • An update on the investigation of harassment allegations at NPR: “Report Detailing Harassment At NPR Cites ‘High Level Of Distrust’ Of Management.
  • In case you didn’t hear, The Atlantic is on a hiring spree following Emerson Collective’s acquisition of major ownership over the magazine last summer. The expansion reportedly includes more positions for podcast producers, so watch out for that, job hunters. (NY Times)
  • The independent film studio A24, whose voluminous output includes Lady Bird and Ex Machina, is rolling out a show of its own. I’ve got nothing much else to say on this, other than that it’s a convenient excuse for me to link to David Ehrlich’s great profile on the studio for Slate from 2015.
  • Earwolf’s U Talkin’ U2 To Me?, which to this day remains extremely hard for me to explain succinctly to another human being, gets a follow-up: R U Talkin’ R.E.M. Re: Me? (Indiewire)

[photocredit]Photo of the Internet Archive by Scott Beale used under a Creative Commons license.[/photocredit]

What the rise of the smart speaker might mean for podcasts (and on-demand audio in general)

Just a heads up: I’m told that the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) will indeed be publishing a 2018 update to its podcast advertising study, which means we’ll be able to get at least one contiguous read of the industry’s year-over-year ad revenue growth.

As a reminder, the IAB’s inaugural podcast advertising report, which dropped last summer, found that the industry brought in $119 million in 2016 and was projected to bring in $220 million by the end of 2017. We’ll see how that projection holds up.

And once again, the report’s methodology revolves around the study a bundle of major podcast publishers, which means that it’s not meant to be comprehensive but representative. Think a stock market index like, say, the Dow Jones Industrial Average (sorta), along with all the benefits and limitations of using that indicator to discern something about the overall stock market and economy.

Don’t rat me out, Alexa. The International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) is happening this week, and in the spirit of that fine mess, I thought it might be a good time to review what’s been going on with smart speakers. It’s the device, after all, that may prove to be a significant new frontier for on-demand audio consumption.

Smart speakers have become, perhaps improbably, one of the more prominent technology categories over the past few years. A recent report by Canalys, a research firm, found that the smart speaker has surpassed AR, VR, and wearables in market share, becoming the fastest growing consumer technology in recent times, according to a ZDNet write-up. Over 30 million smart speaker units — including the Amazon Echo, Google Home, and so on — were shipped worldwide last year, with 16.1 million units shipped in the fourth quarter alone. That trend of rapid growth is expected to continue this year, with Canalys projecting 70 percent year-over-year worldwide shipment growth totaling up to 56 million units by the end of 2018. (If you’re looking for further detail and context, this summary by The Guardian is pretty succinct.)

The Amazon Echo lies at the forefront of the category, with the Google Home serving as a fairly distant second. (Apple’s own entry, the HomePod, is scheduled to roll out sometime early this year, following delays.) Amazon’s lead on its competitors is said to be considerable, given its longer time in the market — the device rolled out in mid-2015 — and aggressive pace in terms of product iteration and distribution (Amazon Echoes next to the deli counter at Whole Foods, y’know?). But one should expect a fight from other tech giants, most notably Google, which is estimated to have sold at least 6.73 million units since its October launch, as they move to close the gap on this new front of computing while trying to keep newer competitors at bay. One expression of this: analysts have noted that both Amazon and Google engaged in deep price discounting over the holiday season in the run-up to the launch of the pricier Apple HomePod, which has resulted in the two companies losing money in the short term but creating a slightly less accommodating environment for Apple’s entry into the market, as Reuters reported.

And let us not forget what’s happening outside the probable Big Three: over the past few months, other hardware makers — including Roku, Samsung, Harman, LG, Sonos, and JBL — have put forward their own takes on the smart speaker category as well.

So, what does this all mean for podcasts, or on-demand audio content publishers more generally? A couple of thoughts:

  • At this point in time, podcast consumption behavior can generally be broken down along two tracks: you have listening directly off traditional computers, and you have listening off mobile devices — smartphones, tablets, portable devices, etc. — with the smartphone, I believe, being the core distribution point in this track. This setup is reflected in Edison Research’s studies on device usage among podcast listeners, which has thus far expressed a trend in which listening has shifted away from desktop toward mobile over the years. The emergence of smart speakers introduces a third track into the mix, and how listening behavior gets reallocated between smartphones and smart speakers is going to be the dynamic to watch over time. Let’s see if podcast listening actually shifts toward smart speakers to the zero-sum detriment of smartphones (and desktop).
  • Or perhaps there’s a more complex outcome: “podcast listening” doesn’t shift over, but non-music smart speaker audio content originates as a category of its own that locates “podcasting” as a specific phenomena within the Apple ecosystem. Should that be the case, we’re going to be awash with further taxonomical questions, which are both necessary and completely annoying.
  • How will choices be made in this new smart speaker paradigm, and how will publishers express influence or jockey for attention in that new choice paradigm? I wrote about this line of inquiry last November, which came out of a reflection on Audioburst, a relatively new company that endeavors to be “Google, but for Audio,” and the “Search to Suggest” thesis for audio computing use.
  • There’s a whole other side to this question of choice: how will these smart speakers choose to bring in and orient non-music audio content within the user experience? Based on what’s already been happening, it occurs to me that we’re going to see a dramatic reliance on platforms: not just Spotify, TuneIn, Pandora, and iHeartRadio (pending whatever’s going on with their counts, more on that later) as curation portals of podcast publishers spanning indies to major organizations, but also organizations big and prominent enough to develop their own apps for these devices, like NPR and The New York Times. Should “podcast listening” indeed spill into the smart speaker ecosystem, we’re bound to see this platform-conflict dynamic play itself out once again. Unless, of course, we see one such platform adopt a distinctly Apple-like, hands-off, semi-open middleman approach as we have historically seen between Apple, its iTunes architecture, and the early-to-mid stage podcast community.
  • There is also, of course, the possibility that smart speaker operators will themselves make choices about primary content distribution. An example of this: Apple readying an audio news feature for its upcoming HomePod release that delivers content from the Washington Post by default — see: the power of defaults — though HomePod owners have the option to switch off to Fox News, CNN, or NPR.

This is all to say that it’s unclear to me whether the podcast medium’s relative openness will be retained should there be a considerable listening shift toward smart speakers. Just a thought.

One more thing: what’s wild about all of this is how much this echoes the dynamics, structures, and limitations that exists in the fight for the automobile media dashboard.

[insert super casual segue here]

They see me rollin’. This one’s a little late, but it’s worth tying into the previous item, given thematic linkage. At the end of December, General Motors announced that it was rolling out in-car podcast availability for some of its newer models, a fleet size that reportedly numbers around a million cars. This is slightly less noteworthy than it sounds.

To begin with: only a few podcast publishers were given the opportunity to develop their own apps for distribution content in these cars, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, Fox Sports, and USA Today. These publisher-specific apps join an in-car media ecosystem that already includes more general audio distribution platforms like Spotify and iHeartRadio, many of which have steadily increased their own capacities as podcast distributors over the past few years. The question worth asking is whether this addition features a substantial step up for greater listening ease: after all, car owners could long consume podcasts during their drives if they were willing to fiddle around with various Bluetooth setups or mobile device platform integrations like Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.

The automobile media dashboard is an overwhelming point of interest for audio publishers of all stripes, as it is a site that pits traditional broadcast airwaves against satellite radio against Internet radio streams against on-demand audio. But the fundamental dynamic of this conflict lies in how car media incumbents have long held a structural advantage due to the considerable amount of time it takes for car ownership to turn over, as well as the fact that the car is essentially a choke-point where consumer preferences over relatively minute design choices (like media options) are still superseded by preferences established in corporate relationships. As such, it is also a glacial, protracted fight, one that can be hard to keep track of but that portends considerable gains.

Then again, one could also argue that it’s a fight that might not end up meaning all that much at the end of the day, given the possibility of self-driving cars which, according to some, are coming faster than you think. (Knife-wielding robot dogs notwithstanding.) Oh well.

Some fun facts I found while I was poking around on this story: according to a 2016 study by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, American drivers spend an average of more than 17,600 minutes behind the wheel each year. This could be further contextualized within a broader trend of lengthening commute times; according to a Washington Post analysis of U.S. Census data, the average American commute increased by nearly 20 percent between 1980 and 2014.

Gimlet furthers its brand ambitions. Gimlet really wants to break out into something much bigger, huh? To that end, the Brooklyn-based podcast company has hired its first Chief Marketing Officer: Jenny Wall, who served as Hulu’s SVP and head of marketing for three years before exiting the streaming service last May.

At Hulu, Wall oversaw the launches of Hulu’s own original shows, including The Handmaid’s Tale, Difficult People, and Casual, in addition to the service’s commercial-free offering and Live TV bundle. She joined the company in 2014 from Netflix, where she built brand and promotional campaigns for its initial slate of original programming that includes House of Cards, Orange is the New Black, and the Arrested Development revival season.

Wall’s considerable expertise building campaigns around original programming for streaming platforms, as well as what appears to be a penchant for working at companies that aggressively grapple with rapidly evolving distribution, branding, and monetization models, make this hire an utterly compelling development. One imagines that she’ll bring her experiences to bear on Gimlet’s ambitions toward becoming the so-called “HBO of Audio” — oh, here’s another fun fact: earlier in her career, Wall worked on the famed “It’s not TV, it’s HBO” campaign — and, in the process, perhaps write the initial playbook for podcast companies looking to elevate beyond a scrappy, independent vibe into… well, something else entirely.

This recruitment comes about a month after Gimlet’s last round of high-level hire announcements. In December, the company brought on a new head of fiction, a new editor, and a new head of product.

While we’re talking prestige TV… This is podcast-adjacent, but whatever: Apple, in pursuit of a formidable TV strategy to measure up against Netflix and Hulu, is commissioning an original TV show based on Kathleen Barber’s 2017 novel Are You Sleeping, which is about a true crime podcast gone viral. The novel is said to be conceptually interested in the country’s relationship with true crime and true crime podcasts, along with how public performances of journalism blur the lines of entertainment and ethics. On the one hand, you could say it’s a work of fiction that explores the complexities of podcast phenomena that extend from Serial to Missing Richard Simmons to Up and Vanished. But on the other hand, it sounds like an examination that could be broadened out and applied to so many other forms of journalism as well.

Anyway, some noteworthy details about the TV project: Octavia Spencer is set to star, Serial Productions’ Sarah Koenig is set to consult, and Reese Witherspoon is set to executive produce. This project further serves to grow Witherspoon’s footprint as a powerful Hollywood producer, a role that she has been cultivating through her production company Hello Sunshine. According to The Hollywood Reporter, Are You Sleeping is “the first development project to land at Apple, which previously commissioned three straight-to-series orders.” It’s also the second project between Witherspoon and Apple.

I haven’t read Are You Sleeping yet, but I suppose its existence — along with the constellations of ingredients that make up the TV project around it — could perhaps be interpreted as some further evidence toward the notion that true crime, as a genre, is truly podcasting’s beating, bloody heart. At least, at this point in time.

And a little bonus: Kathleen Barber was a guest on WAMU’s The Big Listen, the station’s podcast-broadcast about podcasts and beyond, back in September to talk about the book.

NPR outlook. “The thing that hovers over all of this is our desire for our audio to be everywhere,” Neal Carruth, the public radio mothership’s GM of podcasts, told me. “But also to have experiences be properly tailored for each of those new platforms.”

Yeah, yeah. I know. Look, I hear the complaints that I write too much about NPR. (And Gimlet, and Panoply, and Midroll, and The New York Times, and even Night Vale Presents, which is weird.) But come on. NPR is a distinctly complex problem to think through: how does the organization balance the responsibilities of serving a broader multi-sided system and weather a shifting environment that radically changes the terms of your original responsibilities while continuing to operate at the highest possible level? It’s fascinating!

Anyway, I recently spoke to Carruth about his view on NPR’s podcast division in the coming year, and from our conversation, it struck me that you could broadly organize the strategy into four discrete parts:

  • Develop and launch new projects (though Carruth declined to say with any certainty what the volume and nature of those rollouts will look like this year);
  • Continue supporting and expanding existing podcast properties;
  • Experiment with new forms and distribution models, including over voice-activated platforms;
  • Explore and operationalize new ways for individual member stations to extract value from successful podcast products.

You can see many of these goals at play in a few moves that NPR has been executing in and around the turn of the new year. They include:

(1) Wrapping up a podcast-fronted donation referral campaign, in which NPR podcasts were weaponized to urge listeners to contribute to their local radio stations — an initiative that more overtly reflects how the value of NPR’s podcast gains can trickle down to the rest of the system.

(2) Completing the full roll-out of the Planet Money spin-off known as The Indicator, which now publishes episodes daily with Stacey Vanek Smith and Cardiff Garcia on hosting duties.

(3) Expanding Embedded, its investigative podcast series, a move that includes Kelly McEvers stepping down as co-host on All Things Considered to focus on Embedded full-time, as well as growing the production team. “We’re still in the process of figuring out what Embedded 2.0 is going to look like,” Carruth said, adding that they’re looking to add managing producer and another producer to its ranks. “The hope is to create a premier platform for deep-dive, investigative storytelling.” I think we’ve seen a good bit of that evolution already. Last year, Embedded switched its format from the classic documentary anthology structure — with each episode covering a different story — into mini-season-long thematic dives, between its examination of police videos in February and the Trump universe in October, November, and a little more in the coming weeks.

All this raises the question: what, exactly, is NPR’s mandate for its podcast team? Sure, the public radio mothership has to keep pumping out programming and new projects — a major news organization, after all, is built on its consistency, presence, and industriousness — but are they also incentivized to, say, spawn blockbusters and create the next S-Town?

Carruth seems to lean away from that. “Obviously, you want shows to be successful and you want them to find their audience,” he said. “Success doesn’t necessarily mean a giant audience for every show. In some cases, we’re trying to find new audiences, whether it’s a younger segment or a more diverse segment. Sometimes it’s just a longer play that you need patience to see through to the benefits.” Invisibilia’s wildly successful and attention-grabbing debut season seems so long ago.

I suppose it’s worth remembering that the organization’s operational imperatives remain rooted in its defining condition: its relationship to the broader ecosystem of local public radio stations. To that end, NPR appears focused on ensuring that its podcasting gains can be systematically drawn and quartered for equitable value dispersion across that network. And they have been doing this: Carruth points to podcasts that were later adapted into full broadcast offerings for radio stations (It’s Been a Minute is a good example) and podcasts whose individual reports were later repackaged as segments for news magazines.

From this vantage point, all of NPR’s podcasting wins and wonder seem to fall from being able to satisfy that complex, multi-part structure in the steadiest way possible. Flashiness is harder to come by in this particular challenge, but perhaps succeeding stylishly isn’t exactly the point.

Speaking of The Indicator… This year will mark the tenth anniversary of Planet Money, which, as some might remember, originated from a reporting project developed during the Great Recession to accessibly explain just what the hell was happening to the world around us. That project, which was called “The Giant Pool of Money,” was produced by Alex Blumberg and Adam Davidson for This American Life, and its success spring-boarded the duo towards the creation of Planet Money at NPR. In those early days, the podcast published daily, and some of its episodes featured a much-beloved segment called “The Indicator.”

Blumberg and Davidson have since left Planet Money for other pursuits. (Blumberg, of course, went to found Gimlet Media, while Davidson now serves as a staff writer at The New Yorker.) Ten years on, and Planet Money is still delivering a steady stream of tightly produced explainers about the economy. The show has published well over 800 episodes, and its current hosting roster includes the talents of Ailsa Chang, Jacob Goldstein, Kenny Malone, Noel King, and Robert Smith, with managing producer Alex Goldmark leading the charge. Per NPR’s internal analytics tool Splunk, the podcast averages a weekly audience of 1 million users.

Spinning off The Indicator marks a rare structural innovation for the long-running operation, and its daily bite-sized format suggests a distinctly modern orientation, given the increasing preponderance of daily new podcasts. That said, Carruth doesn’t necessarily view The Indicator as part of that cohort. “We think of it more as a daily insight show,” he said. While editorially alive to the news cycle around it, The Indicator is said to gesture more toward the temporal sweet spot between newsiness and an evergreen disposition.

Anyway: Mazel tov, Planet Money!

What’s going on with Podtrac? This is a sticky one. Last Tuesday, the Australian radio analyst James Cridland published an article on his Podnews.net blog that investigated a curious question: “Is iHeartMedia really the leader in ‘snackable’ podcasts?” Podtrac, the podcast measurement company, had just added a new short-form category to its set of industry rankers, and iHeartMedia had, quite improbably, populated seven out of ten spots on the debut list.

Cridland’s examination ultimately found that iHeartMedia’s presence on Podtrac’s charts — not just its “snackable” category, but on all lists — had greatly benefited from a methodological discrepancy. “We’ve discovered that Podtrac’s measurement hasn’t been measuring listening, but something else entirely: the total pageviews for all of iHeartMedia’s 850 radio stations,” he wrote. The crux of the problem seems to hinge on iHeartMedia’s liberal use of embedded players throughout its considerable affiliate website ecosystem. Those players automatically pre-load audio files by default, and in doing so, inadvertently register as a count by Podtrac’s measurement system whether or not a real human actually clicks and listens. Cridland concludes, then, that it’s theoretically possible for podcasts to chart highly without actually being consumed, and that iHeartMedia’s podcast figures as a result are highly overstated. You should check out the post in full, as Cridland walks through the technical components of his examination.

Podtrac has since revised its rankings, removing iHeartMedia from the lists entirely. On its blog, the company briefly discussed the revision, noting that iHeartMedia’s use of preloads on its website players was inconsistent with IAB measurement guidelines.

“We were not aware of the pre-loading behavior of the iHeart affiliate site web players,” Velvet Beard, Podtrac’s VP of analytics, told me. “While we have had algorithms in place to identify anomalies in the download data we see, we have put into place new procedures including those to identify situations where an inordinate amount of traffic comes from websites which will alert us to this situation in the future.”

When I reached out to iHeartMedia SVP of podcasting Chris Peterson, he wrote: “We are working through with Podtrac what constitutes listening, because we have so many platforms and so many ways that listeners come to podcasts that other companies don’t have available. Given our audience size and unique platforms we need to determine with them the best way to fairly capture our total listening usage and ensure it fits their criteria.”

The two are currently assessing the situation, and how to move forward.

In October, Podtrac’s public publisher ranker listed iHeartMedia in the second spot under NPR, where the company was described to reach slightly under 9 million monthly unique U.S. listeners and over 33.5 million unique global downloads over a whopping 525 shows. It is unclear what iHeartMedia’s actual podcast reach will look like after accounting for the embedded player pre-loads.

A couple of things on this:

  • This incident is pretty embarrassing for both companies, but particularly so for Podtrac. The company’s industry rankers have already long been the subject of skepticism — I wrote about the core problems when they first launched in 2016, which mostly had to do with their incomplete sampling of the industry as a whole, and expressed confusion over iHeartMedia’s improbable presence in the ranker back in November — but the fact that Podtrac missed what could be charitably phrased as an inadvertent gaming of its system raises questions over its technical acumen, particularly given its core work of verifying downloads in the space. Yikes.
  • Podtrac’s rankers matter, whether we like it or not. Beyond the Apple Podcast charts, they remain one of the very few sources of public information and representation giving some semblance of shape to the podcast industry. They further serve as raw research material for newer or casual patrons of the space — be they listeners or advertisers — who hope to get a sense of its shape, size, and order. It’s also worth noting that high placement on the chart has historically served as ammunition for podcast publishers looking to seed press mentions. Case in point: in a November Axios article, iHeartMedia’s second spot placement on the Podtrac ranker was deployed as substantive detail in the company’s bid to be position its “Middle America”-facing original programming slate. Without the perceived credibility stemming from that Podtrac ranker placement, it’s debatable whether that story would have actually earned its newsworthiness.
  • The core need remains the same: some service that helps publishers, advertisers, listeners, and beyond develop a better sense of whether a show or a network that says it’s big is actually what it says it is. In other words, we still very much have a need for a systemic check on potential misrepresentation, inadvertent or otherwise.

Bites:

  • Spotify has reportedly filed to go public on the New York Stock Exchange, but is losing its chief content officer in the run-up (Bloomberg, Recode). The service also apparently has 70 million paid subscribers. (Twitter) What does Spotify going public mean? I found Lucas Shaw’s take in his Hollywood Torrent newsletter pretty useful.
  • Over at the Financial Times, Shannon Bond’s latest looks at the children’s podcast market: “Podcasts for children boom but profits are still in their infancy.” (FT)
  • This is wild: “The Weird World of Trump-Themed Podcasts.” (Politico Magazine)
  • Ottawa’s Great Canadian Theatre Company is playing around with the possibility of distributing recordings of some performances through a podcast feed. (CBC)
  • Later this year, Night Vale Presents expects to see the return of Alice Isn’t Dead (spring), Conversations with People Who Hate Me (spring), Within the Wires (fall), and The Orbiting Human Circus (of the Air).
  • Stitcher’s First Day Back is at work on its third season, but will be releasing a limited-run interview series called First Day Back Conversations.
  • WNYC’s Nancy and Sooo Many White Guys will return for new seasons in the first half of the year.
  • Just a quick plug for Boise State Public Radio getting on that Hearken train. I friggin’ love this city, and “Wanna Know About Idaho” is a gem.

Apple Podcast Analytics is finally live (and with it, the ability to see how many people are skipping ads)

Digits to start the year. As always, we begin with the question: is the industry growing, and if so, how? Here are two numbers I’m using to keep track:

  • Audience: 67 million U.S. monthly listeners, according to Edison and Triton Digital’s annual Infinite Dial report, which gives the industry its clearest number to beat. That’s up from 57 million in 2016, and if you want to go further back, up from 32 million in 2013, the year before the iOS 8 rollout and Serial.
  • Advertising: The industry was projected to beat $220 million in advertising revenue by the end of 2017, according to a mid-year IAB study that drew on data from 20 relatively big participating podcast publishers. (Which is to say, the number is best read as a floor.) That projection is up from the $119 million in ad revenue that those 20 publishers collectively posted in 2016. What’s significant about this information, compared to last year, is that we’re no longer depending on projections by Bridge Ratings, whose methodology remains opaque even if the industry did mildly coalesce around its predictions

Something else worth noting: at the end of 2016, Apple disclosed that its iTunes platform delivered over 10 billion streams and downloads that year, up from more than 8 billion in 2015 and more than 7 billion in 2014. The company did not publicly disclose a 2017 number last month, so far that I could tell. It did, however, announce that Fresh Air remained the most downloaded podcast in the ecosystem. Congrats!

And speaking of Apple…

Apple Podcast Analytics are now live. Oh look, it finally happened! A little over a week before Christmas, no less. On December 14, 2017, Cupertino finally rolled out its long-awaited in-episode podcast analytics feature that allows publishers to learn just how much of their episodes are being consumed — at least, off the Apple Podcast app. While in-episode listening data has long been provided by a number of third-party apps, this is the first time publishers will receive that information from the Apple Podcast app, which is believed to drive the majority of all podcast listening.

The new feature is listed as still being in its beta phase, and it takes the shape of a visual dashboard displaying in-episode aggregate completion and drop-off rates. This essentially means you can now find out if anybody made it to that third midroll (whoops) or the late-game twist in the narrative (yikes) or if folks are generally opting to skip cold opens (oof). The prominence of ad-skipping, a potential podcast advertising bogeyman, can now also be identified through the new dashboard. True to Apple’s practices, user data is anonymized.

I’ve been yammering on about the significance of this development since the feature was first announced at Apple’s WWDC conference back in June (see here, here, and here). So I won’t repeat myself too much other than to say that this new information layer will likely have far-reaching consequences, from advertising transactions to editorial decision-making over time. You can read my Vulture write-up on the matter if you’re looking for a little more discussion on that, and if you don’t publish podcasts but are nonetheless curious about what the dashboard looks like, the write-ups from Recode and Techcrunch have pretty good screenshots.

Obviously, I’ll be closely watching this story indefinitely.

Some things I’ll be tracking this year.

  • When will we see stronger pushes into podcasting from Apple’s platform competitors — specifically, Spotify, Pandora, and Google — and how will those efforts look?
  • In early December, Digiday reported that some publishers have been running into speedbumps integrating dynamic ad insertion, leaving the podcast ad product “stubbornly old-fashioned” as a whole. Will publishers be able to carry the ball forward this year? And on a related note, we’re bound to see someone have a proper go at programmatic podcast advertising. How will this change the value narrative of podcast advertising?
  • Despite Podtrac’s (hitherto sole) efforts at providing an industry ranker, I haven’t found it terribly useful when it comes to developing a greater sense of scale, order, and hierarchy in the podcast ecosystem. Will we see improvements to the system (the new “snackable” list is no step up)? And will we see more efforts at a reliable chart system from another source?
  • Tons of shows are getting adaptation deals, and lots of folks want ’em. Who’s next?
  • Keeping a close eye on this Midroll–Marvel Wolverine fiction podcast project. (Brendan Baker is directing!) It’s an intriguing arrangement, and we’ll see if adaptations in the other direction pay off proportionally.
  • And while we’re on the subject of shows, it looks like we’re kicking off the year with Atlanta Monster, the true crime collaboration between Tenderfoot (Up and Vanished) and HowStuffWorks.
  • As always, what’s the next big thing — show, company, technology — going to be?

Cool. Let’s move on to this week’s stories.

Feral Audio is shutting down following an abuse accusation against its founder. Founder Dustin Marshall announced the move on Christmas Day in a personal Tumblr post responding to an accusation of emotional abuse from an ex-girlfriend. This is a really messy, complicated, and at times troubling story that’s still very much in flux, touching upon issues of mental health and addiction. I wrote up that part of the context elsewhere, should you wish to read further. Marshall noted that he is shuttering the company at the start of the new year in order to seek treatment. “To Feral Audio artists, after six years, I can no longer have the pressure of running a company, continue this lifestyle and be mentally healthy,” he writes. Later in the post, he graphically laments the state of the industry. “Podcasting is now invaded by ‘the industry,'” Marshall wrote. “The same one systematically raping and pillaging no matter how high you climb their hill. and honestly, even trying to compete with the machiavellian shit in podcasting right now would drive a sane person mad.”

What will become of Feral Audio’s full roster remains to be seen. The day after Marshall’s post, Starburns Industries, the Burbank production company with which Feral Audio has had a long operating relationship, announced that it was launching a new venture, SBI: Audio, that will serve as the new home for at least some Feral Audio shows including Harmontown, Duncan Trussell’s Family Hour, and Dumb People Town. But not every podcast will carry over. Sleep with Me, which joined the network in early 2017, has already decided to go fully independent, while other shows, like Doughboys, have signaled that they are currently reviewing options.

Feral Audio was originally founded in 2012 as a podcast collective driven by a belief in complete creator ownership and direct listener support. (Tagline: “Fiercely Independent Podcasts.”) By the end of 2015, steps were taken to transition Feral toward a “profit sharing small business,” and the group began to integrate other revenue channels, like advertising and affiliate links, into its mix. It incorporated as a network in 2016, solidifying its partnership with Starburns Industries and bringing on new key people. (Jason Smith, first brought on as EVP of sales and services, now serves as Feral Audio’s CEO.) Later, in November 2016, the company formalized its relationship with Art19, the podcast technology company, to improve its advertising capabilities. Throughout that time, Feral Audio bore the ups and down of your typical Los Angeles comedy-oriented podcast shop. Notably, the network served as the launch site for the much-beloved My Favorite Murder podcast, which it ended up losing to Midroll last September, as well as the home of Dan Harmon and Jeff Davis’ Harmontown. Feral Audio had capped off 2017 by continuing to launch new shows — like Los Feliz and Launch Left — while competing against an increasingly crowded Los Angeles scene that includes the aforementioned Midroll (which had long expanded toward the East Coast), Maximum Fun, Headgum, and HowStuffWorks’ emerging West Coast arm.

Despite the troubling circumstances of its founder and its end, the Feral Audio vision — to foster a model of greater artist control — is one that remains salient in the podcast industry. “Sorry to see Feral’s vision ending, but I understand and support the decision,” Maximum Fun founder Jesse Thorn tweeted. He added: “Holler if you’re looking for a new fierce, independent home.”

WNYC’s culture continues to draw scrutiny. Things continue to look tough for the storied New York public radio station. Since the last newsletter, WNYC dismissed Leonard Lopate and Jonathan Schwartz for misconduct, held a partially public board meeting that went sideways, and drew a medley of critical headlines. (“How New York Public Radio is dodging accountability for its sexual harassment problem,” “Listeners vent rage as WNYC trustees shut out public,” “WNYC supporters waver amid harassment crisis.”)

On December 23, The New York Times published its own overview of the situation, portraying an organization that has struggled to adapt its culture and processes to keep up with its rapid growth over the past two decades. And what considerable growth it has seen: according to the report, in 1995, the station had a weekly audience of 1 million, under a hundred staffers, and brought in $11.8 million in annual fundraising. Last year, it had a monthly audience of 26 million, more than 600 staffers — it is unclear if this number includes its long-utilized secondary system of perma-lancers, interns, and freelancers — and brought in $52 million in annual fundraising.

But there’s a sharper question to be asked of this interpretation: it’s one thing where breakdowns in culture (and worse) are the inadvertent results of unchecked growth; it’s a whole other thing if that growth was achieved as the direct result of such a culture. Closely related as they may seem, the two things are not the same, and both pose different questions of retribution and consequences.

Moving into the new year, three questions remain about WNYC: How will Laura Walker and Dean Cappello — the primary leadership structure articulated in the piece — weather the fallout? Will the station see material backlash from the donating public in the next pledge drive campaign? And what specific steps will the station take to fix its culture problem from top to bottom?

Something else that I’m thinking about with this story: Before the break, Mary Wilson, current producer at Slate’s The Gist, made a crucial point over Twitter about a key condition that allowed this watershed moment to emerge. ((Note: This sentence originally said, incorrectly, that Wilson is a former WNYC staffer.)) “Without the podcasting boom, the great reckoning at @WNYC & NYPR does not happen. Podcasting blew open the market and gave women with stories to tell someplace else to go to work. Now you can speak up without ending your career,” she wrote.

I suspect this is true for both WNYC and the broader public radio ecosystem more generally.

PodcastOne’s Norm Pattiz continues to be mired in controversy. “UC Regent Norman Pattiz, dogged by fallout over sexually inappropriate comments, to retire,” the Los Angeles Times reports. The comments in question refers to an incident last year in which Pattiz, the founder and chairman of PodcastOne, made inappropriate remarks to comedian Heather McDonald, whose show was hosted on the network, during a taping. The show, Juicy Scoop, has since moved to Wondery, and Pattiz has apologized for the comments. Pattiz maintains that his decision is not related to the calls for resignation he’s been receiving from the UC student body.

This isn’t the only controversy that’s been plaguing the PodcastOne founder: in September, he was sued for brandishing a gun on a former employee. The employee also alleges that he was told to inflate download numbers. Pattiz has disputed that claim.

Pattiz, who also founded the radio network Westwood One, stepped down as PodcastOne’s CEO in the summer of 2016. Jim Berk, former head of the film production company Participant Media, has since taken over the role.

Another Round will no longer be a BuzzFeed show. The wildly popular podcast hosted by Tracy Clayton and Heben Nigatu is parting ways with BuzzFeed “due to strategic changes” at the company. The show announced the development through its social accounts on December 20, 2017. Another Round has been part of BuzzFeed since its in-house launch in March 2015, and has been steadily publishing under the banner even after Nigatu left the company in May 2016 to wrote for The Tonight Show with Stephen Colbert.

“We were surprised and initially disappointed to hear of these changes, but fortunately, we were offered ownership of the show,” they wrote. The duo accepted the offer, but the show will be taking a break. Clayton remains a staffer at BuzzFeed.

It is unclear at this time how the aforementioned “strategic changes” will affect the rest of the BuzzFeed Audio team, currently led by Eleanor Kagan. BuzzFeed ended 2017 on a pretty rocky note, laying off roughly 100 employees on the company’s U.S. sales and marketing sides, along with a few employees in its UK news and business teams. That news came shortly after The Wall Street Journal announced that the company was “on track to miss its revenue target for this year by a significant amount.”

This week in corporate podcasting.

  • Nintendo relaunches its beloved Nintendo Power magazine as a podcast. There’s a pretty good discussion on the significance and history of the magazine — a triumph of what is now known as “content marketing” — in this Complex article, along with Blake J. Harris’s book The Console Wars, a relevant excerpt of which you can find in this archived Grantland post.
  • Netflix releases a companion podcast to Wormwood, its original six-part documentary series from Errol Morris, with the involvement of Pineapple Street. This is the latest in a growing genre of officially sanctioned companion TV podcasts, and it’s not the first such Netflix project: Previously, the streaming service partnered with Panoply Custom for a podcast companion to Making a Murderer.

This week in NPR watch:

  • Israel Smith, NPR’s director of programming, is moving to WBEZ to serve as the Chicago public radio station’s managing director of programming and audience development. Smith joined NPR in 2012.
  • Planet Money’s recently launched spinoff, The Indicator, is shifting toward a daily production schedule starting today.
  • Mary Louise Kelly is succeeding Robert Siegel as host of the public radio mothership’s flagship program All Things Considered, starting January 17. Kelly was recently in the spotlight for being the reporter who grilled NPR CEO Jarl Mohn on-air after the sexual harassment allegations against then-VP of News Michael Oreskes.
  • On a related note, Kelly McEvers, who was a cohost on All Things Considered, is stepping from that position to focus more on her investigative podcast series, Embedded. More on that next week.
  • Jarl Mohn, who went on medical leave shortly after the Oreskes allegations first broke, is set to return to work sometime mid-month, according to Brian Stelter’s Reliable Sources newsletter. COO Loren Mayor had been handling his duties.

Over the holidays, the podcast and radio community lost two of its greats. Reggie Ossé — better known as Combat Jack — died last month from complications due to colon cancer. A former attorney for Def Jam, Ossé was more recently known for his work as the host of the pioneering hip-hop interview podcast The Combat Jack Show, the cofounder of the Loud Speakers Network, and the host of Mogul.

Loud Speaker CEO Chris Morrow was kind enough to send over some words on his late friend and business partner.

Reggie Ossé’s The Combat Jack Show was the first great hip-hop podcast. To borrow from the critic Dave Marsh’s description of the Rolling Stones as the greatest rock group of all time, “This is not legend. It is fact.”

Reggie came to podcasting in middle age, having walked away from a successful and groundbreaking career as an attorney representing rappers and hip-hop producers. Burnt out by the backbiting and egos of the music business, he’d reinvented himself as a content creator, first as a blogger, and then later as a podcaster, under the nom de plume Combat Jack.

Reggie began The Combat Jack Show in 2010, a time when the “powers that be” in hip-hop views on podcasts ran from indifference to disdain. Podcasts were only for white people. Or aspiring radio hosts who weren’t “good enough” to make it on terrestrial. Podcasts would never resonate with a hip-hop audience.

Reggie shattered those myths and out of their shards built a brilliant mosaic of hip-hop history lessons, barbershop banter, intellectual jousting, black nationalism, and on-air therapy. In theory the episodes were centered around interviews with hip-hop personalities, but the stories from Reggie’s own eventful life were what always made them so riveting and relatable. Reggie had grown up in Crown Heights in the 70s, studied fine arts at Cornell University, graduated from Georgetown Law, danced the night away on acid-laced punch at the Paradise Garage, befriended Keith Haring, made a cameo in an iconic hip-hop video while working at Def Jam (that’s him at the 3:29 mark of the “Gas Face” video) , shopped Jay-Z’s first record deal, ran with Puffy during the latter’s hedonistic heyday, and raised four beautiful children. It seemed he had experienced it all. He could talk about almost anything with almost anyone.

In the studio, Reggie created an atmosphere of trust, authenticity, empathy, and humor that would often force normally reticent rappers to drop their masks and reveal a bit of their true selves. As an interviewer, Reggie was equal to a Marc Maron or Barbara Walters, while remaining 100 percent black and all the way hip-hop.

Take his legendary episode with the hip-hop entrepreneur Dame Dash. Even if you’re not a hip-hop fan, it’s a riveting interview. After it dropped, there were several TV platforms furious Dame hadn’t given them the interview instead. But if he had, it just wouldn’t have been the same. Only Combat Jack could have gotten that interview from Dame. And only on a podcast.

As Questlove wrote after Reggie’s passing, “Dude. #CombatJack’s Dame Dash vs Just Blaze episodes was a game changer for me…..Ive NEVER religiously listened to a podcast before….Seriously it’s like when you hear an MC and that inspires you to be one. That’s what his show meant to me.”

Reggie was indeed a game changer. In 2012, he and I founded the Loud Speakers Podcast Network, with the hopes of bringing new voices, especially those of people of color, to the podcastsphere. Reggie’s example would help pave the way for successful Loud Speakers shows like The Read, Friend Zone, The Brilliant Idiots, and Tax Season, which in turn would further open up podcasting to new hosts, audiences and possibilities.

As more and more podcasters began riding the wave Reggie created, he shifted gears for a final time. The Combat Jack Show was raw and unpredictable, but Mogul, the award-winning podcast he did in collaboration with Gimlet, showed he was just as comfortable — and potent — in a scripted environment. There’s no doubt in the coming years that Mogul will be credited with having ushered in a second, more polished, wave of hip-hop podcasting.

Mogul made several Best of 2017 lists, including The New Yorker’s, Entertainment Weekly’s, and The Atlantic’s. By the time they were released, Reggie was already deep in the midst of his short but courageous battle with stage 4 colon cancer. Celebration was impossible. But even in the midst of so much pain, I’m sure Reggie loved that the world was starting to recognize what I’d already known for a while: Reggie Ossé was a giant of podcasting.

More than audience size, accolades, or even money, Reggie’s goal in podcasting was always to advance hip-hop. To, as he loved to say, “raise the bar” of a culture he’d grown up in and championed into middle age.

Reggie’s death is still too raw to try to put in any sort of perspective. I’m heartbroken I won’t be able to hear the projects he had planned next. But I’m comforted that I, as well as the legion of fans he left behind, will be able to experience his warmth, wisdom, humor and passion for life in the work he left behind.

Last month also saw the loss of the Australian producer Jesse Cox, who died from a rare cancer. Cox spent four years as a staffer at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, where he hosted Radiotonic, cohosted Long Story Short, and created This is About. A winner of the silver prize at the Third Coast Festival in 2014, he had recently moved to Audible’s Australian branch, where he served as head of content.

Career Spotlight. To kick off the new year, this week’s interview features Andrew Mambo, who works on one of my favorite new shows, ESPN’s 30 for 30 podcast.

Tell me about your current situation.

I’m a producer/reporter for ESPN’s 30 for 30 podcast, where I work with a talented team to tell great stories that happen to be about sports. We launched the podcast in the summer of 2017 and just wrapped up our second season a few weeks ago, where I oversaw production on two episodes: No Rules: The Birth of UFC and Madden’s Game. And in our first season I reported on two really amazing stories: The Fighter Inside and The Trials of Dan and Dave.

So now I’m working on a couple stories for future seasons of the podcast. My day to day is focussed on research but soon I’ll be going back into interviewing and cutting tape. I can’t say much about the stories I’m working on but I can say I’m ‘pumped’ about what we have coming up (that might make more sense toward the fall of 2018 or maybe not and it’s a bad pun about what I’m working on).

How did you get to this point? What does your career arc thus far look like?

I fell in love with radio and storytelling while at college in Montreal, first on campus stations and then at various local stations, but it was all on a volunteer basis. I never really thought working in radio was something I could make a career out of. But when I finished my masters in the UK, I landed a reporting gig at 1Xtra, a BBC digital radio station. I still remember how elated I was when I got that first paycheck. I was getting paid to do something I had loved doing for years for free and it made me realize that my work had value.

Long story short, I had to return to Canada and after a few months I took a detour and went to Zambia for a year to volunteer doing HIV/AIDS prevention education for young people. But that volunteer gig turned into six years living in four different countries in Sub-Saharan Africa working for the United Nations. While most of my work with the UN was focussed on program management, I figured out ways to bring my photography and writing skills into my daily job to tell the stories of the young people who were benefitting from the projects we worked on.

While overseas, I met my eventual wife and when she got a job in New York I followed her there and did some consultancy work with the UN. I was getting more into doing photography and that led to another change when an opportunity came up to work on a documentary film about the Battle of Gettysburg, aptly titled The Gettysburg Story. As with most documentary films, it was a small crew, so I got a chance to do almost everything at one point or another.

While I was working on the film I was keeping an eye out for other opportunities and got connected with Radio Rookies at WNYC, who do incredible work helping young people report stories that are important to them. I was a big fan of their work and when an opportunity came up I started out as a freelancer and then got a full-time position. My colleagues were amazing to work with and I learned a lot from them, but I also learned plenty from the young people we worked with, mainly about patience, building trust, and Snapchat filters.

Sports has always been something I’m passionate about and I’m a big fan of the 30 for 30 films, so when an opportunity came around to be part of the team that was starting up a 30 for 30 podcast, I met with Jody Avirgan, the podcast’s host and senior producer, and was excited to be a part of it. The past year has been an amazing ride. We’re thrilled with the response to the podcast so far, and with two seasons already under our belt, I’m excited about what we have coming up.

What does a career mean to you, at this point?

At this point I’ve been on such a meandering road that I don’t tend to think of myself as having a career in any traditional sense where you specialize in one field and make that your life’s work. I really enjoy storytelling, both as a consumer and creator, so I hope that I can continue to do that as long as possible, but that can take many different forms.

When you started out, what did you think wanted to do?

I knew I wanted to tell stories, but I didn’t think anyone would pay me to do it, so for awhile I was actually thinking I would be a civil servant or teacher. I mean, I always thought I would be doing storytelling in either radio or film, but I just thought I would be doing it on the side for fun.

Have a great start to the year, everybody. Drive safe now.

Apple, off-Apple, and adaptations: These were the most important podcast trends of 2017

TWENTY SEVENTEEN. What a year, folks. We’ve seen more hits, more new companies, more listening, more technical experiments, more platforms, mo’ money (mo’ problems), more interest, more stakes, more anxiety, more anticipation. It’s been a lot, but the question I keep finding myself returning to is this: if the world ended, would I know?

I don’t mean it in any apocalyptic sense, of course. The query is meant in the spirit of transitions: to what extent will we know if everything we once knew about this scene no longer was? Writing this newsletter week in and week out has the tendency to facilitate a kind of myopia, and yet, despite the squinting, I am struck by a distinct sense that we’re smack dab in the middle of a really slow but considerable change. Where we’ll be this time next year, I have no idea. But I can’t shake the feeling that it won’t look much like today.

Anyway, enough melodrama. In this week’s newsletter, the last of 2017, I try to wrap up the year in podcasting we just lived through. In the end, I think you can boil the biggest beats down to three nodes: Apple, off-Apple, and Adaptations.

Under the shadow of Apple. The year started with a tease. At the Code Media conference in February, when pressed on the company’s stance towards podcasts, Apple’s SVP of internet software and services Eddy Cue was cryptic. He told Recode’s Peter Kafka: “We’re working on new features for podcasts, stay tuned.”

We would find out what Cue meant four months later. At its developer conference WWDC in June, Apple announced with relatively little fanfare that it was finally going to open up in-episode analytics for podcasts. Details were near non-existent, but the implications were instantly evident to many, given what is believed to be Apple’s majority market share. “It may look obscure, but this is the biggest thing to happen to the podcast business since Serial first went nuclear,” tweeted Gimlet’s Matt Lieber.

The new Apple Podcast Analytics had a vague “later in the year” target roll-out date. My understanding is that the roll-out is at least partially reliant on a critical mass of iPhone users adopting iOS 11 — along with its redesigned Podcast App — which would take some time following the update’s September release date.

That leaves us still guessing today about how this new Apple-specific analytics layer will change the business as it exists — how it will change the way podcast consumption is measured and understood, and how that consumption behavior will be monetized. A few threads to consider:

  • Whatever change comes of this, the new analytics will nevertheless matter differently for direct response advertisers versus brand advertisers (even if the move presents an opportunity for all to renegotiate rates)
  • There are also some who believe the new analytics layer will trigger an apocalyptic scenario for podcast advertising rates, either revealing unwanted truths about people listen to episodes — ad-skipping remains a big worry — or causing podcast advertising rates to somehow plummet in historical rhyme to what happened with blogs.
  • How the new analytics will affect independents remains unclear. There are those who see this as ultimately beneficial — believing that the data will give indies more ways to pursue advertising dollars without middlemen — and others who believe the new analytics will only further reinforce “old thresholds dividing between ‘this is a hobby’ and ‘this pays.'”

The most useful take in all of this, in my opinion, comes from Edison Research’s Tom Webster. While he has generally mixed feelings on Apple’s new involvement, he makes a larger point about how the industry should continue working to move beyond an Apple-focused measurement and value paradigm. “When we optimize to fit the universe we already have, we make a smaller and smaller universe happier and happier,” he wrote. “This is why, although access to enhanced Apple statistics is generally good news for now, the industry cannot and must not stop innovating towards a non-platform-specific measure.”

Webster closed out the post by expressing hope for a new measurement project led by NPR called the Remote Audio Data format. That effort appears to still be ongoing. Last week, National Public Media’s Bryan Moffett published a blog post that fully contextualizes the project against Apple’s analytics push, discusses early testing, and expresses hope that the format will be taken up as the open industry standard in 2018.

The acquisition news from last week, where Apple picked up a company that was focused on building tools to organize and search audio files, remains a giant question mark, and we’ll likely not see much development on this for a while. These things take time, especially at an institution as large and complex as Apple. That said, one can’t help but notice some increased interest by Apple in audio tech more generally. Last week also saw news of another Apple acquisition in process: that of Shazam, the music recognition company.

Again, it’s worth remembering that all of this only matters insofar as the status quo of Apple’s majority market share holds. It’s very likely that the status quo will continue to hold this time next year — though, I dunno, people seem to reallydislike the new Apple Podcast App. In any case, there’s enough movement in the fringes to inspire some more fundamental questions.

Off-Apple moves. The Remote Audio Data initiative isn’t the only suggested pathway out of a fully Apple-controlled ecosystem. We’ve seen activity from other platforms displaying interest in podcast opportunities, even if those efforts haven’t truly amounted to anything meaningful just yet.

  • Spotify continues to shuffle its cards, between producing original content, experimenting with various windowing arrangements (see Gimlet and Loud Speakers’ Mogul, WNYC’s 2 Dope Queens), and slowly but surely making the presence of its podcast inventory more apparent to casual listeners. It’s unclear if any of those experiments have paid off so far, but I’m pretty sure the company’s interest in the space remains solid.
  • We haven’t heard much from Google since it added podcasts to the Google Play platform last year, aside from some minor adventures in commissioning original content and swallowing up the short-form audio app 60dB in September (smart speaker play, anyone?). I’m keeping my eye on the search giant, and you should too.
  • Pandora has signaled greater intent in growing its library of “non-music content” — including podcasts — in a bid to change its fortune following a year of steady stock price declines.
  • TuneIn has also begun dabbling in the space, positioning itself as another listening destination while also testing out windowing relationships, as it did with The Ringer’s MLB Show.

A lot of quiet jostling, but again, nothing that’s proven to be a feasible alternative to Apple Podcasts just yet — or that even trends in the direction. We’ll see.

What we have seen, though, are more adventures in windowing. We saw several such efforts this year, whether by publishers looking to extract additional cash from moneyed platforms or by publishers looking to forge deeper relationships with particularly engaged sets of audiences. Two prominent examples of the latter: Stitcher Premium, which sought to create a deeper chain of value for its original programs like Missing Richard Simmons and Heaven’s Gate, and Slate, which intriguingly used its Slate Plus infrastructure to pull more value from its limited series podcast Slow Burn.

The role that Apple continues to play in these windowing arrangements is a curious one. Despite working to create alternative pathways of value, windowing publishers still very much appear to view Apple as the primary site of extracting value — a place to ultimately return in order to fully realize the bulk of a project’s value. This is a testament to both Apple’s current strength in the ecosystem and the deeply uncertain nature of all available alternatives at this point; indeed, you may embark on whatever expeditions you want, but chances are, you’ll still come home. Even Audible, with its huge built-in user base and considerable resources, has been drawn to release its original programming beyond its paywall and within the Apple Podcast infrastructure.

How Apple feels about all of it is another matter, and the main question here, I think, is whether Apple will more directly step up to interfere with windowing experiments. After all, the very concept of alternate-platform windowing clashes with Apple’s goals, which are chiefly rooted in ensuring that users continue to interact with and stay within the Apple ecosystem. Apple retaliated briefly once before, with Missing Richard Simmons; whether it will more formally do so is something to watch for.

It’s not in any publishers’ interest to stay still and just take it, of course. Despite the uncertainty of alternatives and the looming threat of a change in the Apple status quo, I’m pretty sure we’ll see more efforts to break away and establish more direct and unmediated relationships with listeners. The upside for such a strategy is way too valuable, and the downsides of a fully dominant Apple way too unnerving. Something to watch on this front: last week, The New York Times released an update to its iOS app that lets listeners consume The Daily without having to jump to the Podcast app. Imagine the analytics the Grey Lady can now access, and the opportunity to more directly up-sell subscriptions.

The rise of the podcast-entertainment-industrial complex. It’s not all technology platforms, of course. This is the year when podcasts really heated up as a source of intellectual property for more lucrative media industries. It’s been intoxicating to watch what felt like a steady stream of stories announcing yet another podcast — both independents and from major publishers — being picked up for adaptation into a TV show, a movie, a book. (Maybe Broadway, one day?)

Here’s a non-comprehensive list of projects I have tucked away in a spreadsheet:

  • Night Vale Presents’ Alice Isn’t Dead is being developed into a show for the USA Network, and last week, it was announced that Welcome to Night Vale will also make the jump to the small screen. That show is slated for FX, with creators Jeffrey Cranor and Joseph Fink, along with Better Call Saul EP Gennifer Hutchison, serving as executive producers on the show. These projects come on top of Night Vale’s already strong pipeline into the book publishing industry. It Devours!, Cranor and Fink’s latest novel in the Night Vale universe, just came out in October.
  • Gimlet Media has four confirmed projects in the pipeline: Startup at ABC as “Alex, Inc.”; a movie adaptation of the Reply All episode “Man of the People”; Homecoming at Amazon; and Crimetown at FX. More are said to be in deep development.
  • Lore made the jump earlier this year. The adaptation is now streaming on Amazon.
  • The McElroy Brothers were also hit television this year. The “My Brother, My Brother, and Me” adaptation was released on NBC’s comedy streaming service Seeso in February. Seeso shuttered last month, and in the run-up to that closure, the show was sold to Otter Media for its own streaming service, VRV.
  • WNYC has also begun to dabble in the space. In August, it was announced that 2 Dope Queens will be getting hour-long HBO Specials, and last week, we heard news that Here’s the Thing with Alec Baldwin is reportedly being developed as a talk show for ABC.
  • Other crossover projects I’m tracking: The Black Tapes, Limetown, Missing Richard Simmons, Serial, The Bright Sessions, Up and Vanished, Sword and Scale.

It’s all really exciting. But I’m drawn to the argument that the fundamental value that this adaptation deal flow gives to the podcast industry extends way beyond additional revenue, outside validation, and the creative thrill of working across mediums: in my mind, the intellectual property pipeline also represents a vital source of power for the industry that’s largely separate and apart from an Apple-defined value system. The pipeline represent bridges to external (and multiple other) systems of value, and when viewed in this manner, you could begin to conceptualize the podcast ecosystem as being something that’s less of a closed circuit, and more diversified in opportunity for fortune, than it once was. Through crossover projects, creators working in the medium now have orthogonal means of exposure and mobility. It’s a much bigger universe now, and one that takes place mostly separate from worries about optimizing for the Apple Podcast charts.

Of course, it’s pretty interesting to think about what the increased prominence of podcasts as a valuable fount of intellectual property says about the current state of the TV industry. We’re said to be living in the age of Peak TV — a time when niche programs are able to thrive more, when the existence of a future mono-culture show (beyond Game of Thrones) is uncertain, and when the increasing power of streaming platforms is fundamentally changing the way risk and value are evaluated when financing television projects. But that’s…for another newsletter, by another beat writer.

Anyway, I’d like to point out two other trends connected to this intellectual property thread:

The first is what appears to be a greater involvement in the industry by talent agencies. In June, I ran a Q&A with Ben Davis, an agent at William Morris Endeavor, and I think it remains really useful for getting a sense of how such agencies are thinking about and approaching the space. “Agents are most useful with shows that have added complexities within their agreements,” he told me. “Is there a guarantee or advance? Who controls the RSS feed? Could this become the next hit TV show? This only applies to a segment of the market, typically higher budgeted or otherwise premium shows.” You can read that interview here.

The second are adaptations from other media formats into podcasts. We saw traces of this with Wondery’s Locked Up Abroad and ESPN’s 30 for 30 podcast, which also built one of its early episodes (“Yankees Suck!”) around a successful 2015 Grantland feature by Amor Bashad. And we’re going to keep seeing more of them, I think — last week saw the announcement of a collaboration between Marvel, the Thanos-sized comic book behemoth, and Stitcher to produce a ten-episode scripted podcast around Wolverine. Two fun facts about this. First, Midroll CEO Erik Diehn worked at Marvel early in his career (and is, from what I hear, a huge comic book nerd), and second, there is something vaguely pleasant in how this recalls what Chris Giliberti, Gimlet’s head of multi-platform and IP wrangler, told Wired back in July about how he views the value of adaptations for Gimlet: “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.”

So that’s the major arc of the year, in my mind. Now let me change gears a little bit.

The Year in #Content. A couple of notes on programming. Setting aside the obvious observations of the further preponderance of true crime as well as the baseline trend of new show launches from a myriad of sources continuing to persist year over year, I’ve found there to be three really compelling stories as far as major podcast programming trends go in the year of our lord two thousand and seventeen.

(1) If anything, the past twelve months bore out the prediction that WBUR’s Asma Khalid provided in last week’s Nieman Lab predictions package: 2017 was, indeed, the year of the newsy podcast. Specifically, it was the year of the Daily News Podcast, between The New York Times’ The Daily — which became a media sensation in its own right and now serves as the starting point for what the Times assistant editor Sam Dolnick calls a potential “franchise” — and NPR’s Up First, which continues to pump a hefty number of downloads for the public radio mothership. We’ll kick off next year with Vox Media’s own entry into the genre, helmed by former WNYC staffer Sean Rameswaram, and the question that this launch will inevitably trigger is whether there are enough earballs in the world for all this daily news content. (Similar questions could be asked of media companies in general, but let’s ignore that for now.)

(2) Another genre that saw an interesting year: the political podcast, which was forced to reorient itself in the wake of the 2016 presidential election cycle that concluded, to put it mildly, in a rather unexpected manner. Podcasts that had expected to wind down, like Slate’s Trumpcast, continued to march on, and weekly news-pegged shows, like FiveThirtyEight’s Politics podcast and the NPR Politics Podcast, had to continually grapple with an increasingly blistering news cycle. (For hard news nerds, 2017 has felt like the longest year in existence, a span of time dense with the substance of infinite lifetimes.) We also saw the launch of more and more Trump-related podcast content — in keeping with broader media business behavior, you could say — and on the other end of news, we saw the rise of political media operations like Crooked Media and Chapo Trap House, which are novel in their ability to function as a kind of anchor for a certain subspecies of the political left. They represent, to a point, a distinct evolution to the political podcast genre, coming ever closer to reflecting the politically powerful and socially impactful broadcast radio infrastructure of the right. One could go back and forth on the moral significance of this trend. On the one hand, an entity like Crooked Media can position itself to replace a wide range of institutions from liberal magazines like The New Republic to, if it perhaps so intended, even formal political fundraising arms like the DCCC. On the other hand, this could be used as yet another data point in the argument for “how the left lost its mind.

(3) Finally, this was a year that we saw considerable momentum for children’s podcast programming. A number of major networks have made investments in the space and rolled out products, from NPR’s Wow in the World to Gimlet’s Story Pirates collaboration to WNYC Studios getting into the scene to Panoply’s paid app initiative Pinna. This builds on top of the substantial work done by long-active advocates in the space like the Kids Listen group and the independent kids’ audio publisher Sparkle Stories. However, as much of a push as we’ve seen in this area this year, it feels like we’re only on the tip of this K-12 iceberg.

And to round out the year, here are the stories I’m tracking from last week…

(1) We’re beginning to see friction in the experiences of some podcast publishers working in dynamic ad insertion. This Digiday article from last Friday has everything: the jettisoning of third-party ads, a need for guidance, a community of people used to doing things one way learning how to work differently.

(2) The Heart is ending production in January 2018 as “they pursue other projects and evaluate the future of the show,” according to a PRX blog post published Friday. This is the third Radiotopia show to retire in 2017, following Lea Thau’s Strangers in November and Megan Tan’s Millennial in August.

(3) Patreon took some heat last week after the membership platform announced changes to its payment structure under the veil of making the structure more creator-friendly. Some creators have argued that the new system largely pushes the cost burden to supporters and de-incentivizes small-dollar donations, both of which are undesirable conditions for their relationships with supporters. I found this (widely cited) argument from writer Natalie Luhrs helpful in understanding the technical details of the critique, and I also found this analysis from writer-developer Chris Buecheler — which speculates a connection between the changes and Patreon’s recent involvement with venture capital funding — pretty compelling. The controversy at Patreon comes not too long after Kickstarter unveiled its own membership platform to the market, called Drip.

(4) The public radio system continues to grapple with sexual harassment scandals. In addition to the John Hockenberry accusations, WNYC also suspended Leonard Lopate and Jonathan Schwartz last Wednesday pending an investigation into allegations of inappropriate conduct. The station’s next board meeting is on Thursday, and it is open to the public. Meanwhile, in Boston, WBUR has suspended On Point host Tom Ashbrook following undisclosed allegations.

(5) Two senior employees at Audible unexpectedly resigned last week. One of those executives was chief content officer Andy Gaies, who also oversees the company’s original content initiative. In his piece on the matter, The Hollywood Reporter’s Jeremy Barr also noted: “Before Thanksgiving, the company announced plans for a broad review of Audible’s internal culture. It’s not clear whether the resignations are related to this review.”

All right, that’s it, folks. It’s been a year, we had a lot of fun, we had a lot of not-so-fun, and I’ll see you in 2018. Remember to call your mom, and stay hydrated.

If your favorite podcast gets a new host, is it still your favorite podcast?

LONGEST SHORTEST WHY. Andrea Silenzi, creator of Panoply cult favorite Why Oh Why, is moving to Midroll to take over as the new host of Hillary Frank’s beloved parenting podcast, The Longest Shortest Time. The change will kick in at the start of next year.

Frank has hosted The Longest Shortest Time since creating the show in 2010; it was housed in WNYC for a good stretch before moving over to Midroll in late 2015. (Following a later Midroll brand reorganization, The Longest Shortest Time would eventually be categorized under the Stitcher banner.) With Silenzi taking over hosting duties, Frank will move on to a new role as the show’s executive producer, where she will continue to work on the production and provide strategic guidance.

This development is the culmination of a long-running creative relationship between Frank and Silenzi. “So much of my work is influenced by Hillary Frank it’s embarrassing,” Silenzi said. “When I created my first online audio portfolio, there’s a telling hand-drawn tomato in the corner. Little plagiarist! After relaunching Why Oh Why with Panoply last year, I was given the incredible opportunity to hire Hillary as our show’s editor. Working with her to host Longest Shortest Time next year feels like the next logical step in our creative collaborations. I can’t wait to hear what we’ll make together.”

For Frank, the move also provides an opportunity to take on a broader view of her work with the show. “In our new roles, we’ll have the chance to invigorate the show with stories and questions and experiences that I’ve already been through, but are fresh and new for her,” she said. “This move will allow me to do many of the things I love — big-picture vision stuff, editing Andrea — and will add room for developing other projects, some that are already in motion (LST’s Weird Parenting Wins book) and some that I’m looking into. I’m really excited about the possibilities ahead and I’ll be sharing more on all of that down the road.”

What happens to Why Oh Why remains unclear. Silenzi first started the show as an independent project prior her to time working at The Slate Group (where she first served as the originating producer for The Gist), and Why Oh Why was formally brought into the Panoply network only last fall. Will Midroll eventually move to acquire the show, or will the podcast stay where it is? “You’ll have to ask Panoply,” replied a Midroll spokesperson. Silenzi declined to provide much clarity on her current employer. “I can only speak for myself, not the plans of Stitcher or Panoply, but even though ‘taking a break’ typically means ‘breaking up’ in relationship-speak, I can completely see myself getting back together with Why Oh Why in the future.”

“After 3.5+ years with The Slate Group, I couldn’t be leaving on better terms with Panoply,” she added. Silenzi will see out the rest of Why Oh Why’s run through the end of the year.

Another thing to consider: Silenzi’s appointment marks a pretty experimental turn for the show. Can The Longest Shortest Time, an affectingly personal parenting podcast, be effectively hosted by someone who isn’t actually a parent? As a childless twenty-something who consumes an inordinate amount of parenting content, I’m especially curious to see how this turns out.

I asked Midroll for more insight into their angle on this whole business. Chris Bannon, the company’s chief content officer, offered: “I’ve loved working with Hillary ever since she landed at WNYC, and one of my greatest pleasures has been watching her enlarge her conception of both the show and her role. With Andrea’s arrival as host, Hillary has a huge opportunity to grow LST (Andrea is a superb reporter and host, and she’ll bring in a bunch of new listeners, I’m betting). Everybody wins, Nick!”

Host–show fluidity. The Silenzi-Frank switcharoo is additionally interesting for prompting  questions about where the power and identity of a production are rooted between a show and its creative lead. This isn’t just a fanciful theoretical inquiry; it presents material challenges for networks that are looking to acquire, invest in, and develop shows over long periods of time. Consider the operational reality that it’s much harder to build a show from the ground up — to figure out its personality in the market, to acquire a core listener base, to establish basic familiarities with advertising partners — than it is to adjust a show mid-flight. Then consider the ever-present threat of talent burnout or growing indifference (one is reminded of this writeup on Jad Abumrad’s sabbatical), which is an element that hasn’t quite made itself known so explicitly in this space so far, given that the stakes have hitherto been pretty low.

But the stakes are picking up, and networks will eventually find themselves in more situations where, should they encounter talent burning out or just wanting to work on something else for a while, they will have to choose either to retire an established show-in-progress, along with its preexisting identity and listener base and advertising relationships, or scout for a new voice to lead the production. On a sheer which-is-less-daunting basis, the choice would clearly be to try for the latter first every time.

Of course, the risk of simply plugging in a new lead is creative abomination, or worse: the over-projection of corporate utilitarianism. There’s something deeply uncanny for long-time listeners to be served the corpse of an old loved thing being animated by a newly installed face. But show host readjustments don’t have to be that morbid. They can, and should, instead be opportunities for excitement! Indeed, imagining a world of different show-host matchups is pretty intoxicating. What would, for example, Sruthi Pinnamaneni’s Love + Radio look like? Or Zoe Chace’s Embedded? Or Anna Sales’ Heavyweight?

Imagining those combinations bring us closer to what I think is the most interesting question of this whole business: when does a show transcend its creator? And how does a show develop an identity separate from the person who created it? Will we ever find out what’s on the dark side of the moon? I’ll come down from my high now.

The Oprah effect? If you compulsively thumb the Apple Podcast charts (as I do), you probably already know that Oprah Winfrey — media mogul, force of nature, subject of what is low-key the best podcast of late 2016 — has a show that’s been consistently floating around the top for a while now.

(You might also know that the podcast is essentially an RSS feed comprised of audio repackages of her Super Soul Sunday TV programming, which, you know, is one way of pumping stuff out for earballs. Side note: the equivalent product would be, say, repackaging selected Terry Gross interviews as transcripts to be bundled together and sold as books. It’s a great additional revenue stream for Terry Gross, her hypothetical book publisher, and her fans, but a flanking competitor for book-native authors. But we’re not here to talk about that.)

Anyway, Adweek published a writeup last week about how the podcast sold out all of its 2017 advertising slots really, really quickly.

In an experiment gone right, Winfrey and the team at the Oprah Winfrey Network decided to transform her Super Soul Sunday TV programming into a podcast called Oprah’s SuperSoul Conversations. The podcast launched on Aug. 7 and had no ads or partners until the show collaborated with Midroll Media in late October…So when Oprah’s SuperSoul Conversations decided to open its doors to advertisers, advertising slots for most of the fourth quarter of 2017 sold out in about 24 hours.

The article goes on to quote Midroll’s head of sales, Korri Kolesa, touting an interpretation of this development’s significance for the medium:

Oprah’s show marks a big, pivotal moment for podcast advertising… On both the content and the advertising side of things, this is a spectacular entry point for brands that were waiting to align with something they’re comfortable with.

A couple of things:

  • Midroll’s flex here is pretty remarkable. That the Oprah pod could only tap advertising dollars after getting hooked up to Midroll’s sales infrastructure — following two months or so of sitting dormant — and then did so in such rapid fashion suggests a few things about podcast advertising in late 2017: (a) there remains considerably high friction for advertisers to test the medium and for publishers to create attractive ad products on their own, (b) sufficient expertise and advertiser trust appears clustered among a small set of companies, and (c) Midroll is a particularly strong member in that set of companies.
  • That said, this success anecdote only tells us something about Midroll’s capacity to secure new ad dollars for products with big-ticket names attached to them. It’s unclear to me, at this point of time, how these focus and incentive impact Midroll’s service to smaller, independent operations — the type of show often thought to be a good chunk of the company’s bread-and-butter before its 2016 acquisition by EW Scripps.
  • It’s worth asking whether this story actually tells us more about Oprah than it does about Midroll. Viewed from that angle, there’s nothing particularly special about what happened here: Oprah, after all, is an unstoppable brand presence, and it may very well be the case that any media product developed with the OWN name would sell out no matter the container when plugged into the right sales infrastructure.
  • If we assume that Kolesa is correct and that this marks some turning point for more big brand advertisers to jump into the medium, it remains to be seen whether those dollars will trickle down and out to the rest of the space. Several  future scenarios are possible: (a) those dollars are kept within Midroll’s podcasts, (b) those dollars are kept within Oprah podcasts, or (c) those dollars are kept within celebrity podcasts.

The past year has seen a considerable influx of celebrity power into podcasting, and while that is most definitely beneficial for the growth of the overall pie, it’s also worth asking: what proportion of podcast industry growth in 2017 is driven by celebrity programming? And to what extent is it driven by talent native to the industry itself?

This, I think, is one of the more pressing lines of inquiry to watch moving forward.

No stranger. Last week, Radiotopia announced that Lea Thau’s Strangers, one of its founding members, is leaving the independent podcast collective at the end of the year to…well, be further independent, I guess? “I’m so deeply grateful for everything Radiotopia has brought me,” Thau wrote in the corresponding announcement post. “I love this network, what it stands for and the people in it. I’m also excited about my new chapter, and I want the fans to feel both of those truths in a real way.”

Taken at face value, it’s a curious development. Radiotopia’s entire reason for being, at least in my read of them, is to develop and maintain a whole new system that’s primarily geared towards supporting independent podcast creators. And from what I’ve heard, this includes, among other things: leaving member talent to fully own their intellectual property (a relatively uncommon stance), providing them with full creative freedom and high-touch access to really deep editorial support (though, by virtue of the network’s size, not a lot of production capital), and setting them up with the standard revenue share system you’d get just about anywhere else. The combination of those three things amounts to a pretty sweet deal for shows already on the up and up that are looking to outsource some processes, like advertising sales and technology support, but on the whole want to maintain firm creative control.

I can’t help but feel that there’s missing from the story here. Or maybe there isn’t, and this is just one of those natural departures that come out from a relationship organically fading away in the way that so many relationships do. In any case, this is Radiotopia’s second departure from the roster this year. In August, Megan Tan’s Millennial came to a close, citing creative burnout.

Radiotopia declined to provide further comment.

I’ll be keeping an eye on this. Something tells me we’re not done with this story yet.

Speaking of which…

Marking reality. Tamar Charney, NPR One’s managing editor, wrote me yesterday to flag something her team is beginning to do with the platform:

I was reading Hot Pod this morning and realized I should have let you know what we are up to in light of the podcasts that blend fiction and nonfiction. This week, we are going to start flagging podcast content that plays in the NPR One flow: if it is fictional or blends fiction and nonfiction. Polybius Conspiracy being the most well-known example and the one the prompted us to do this, but there seem to be more fiction podcasts masquerading behind documentary style storytelling. It’s like War of the Worlds is new again! But we want to make sure we are not adding to false narratives and fake news, by being clear about what is entertainment and what is journalism.

The Hot Pod in question was last week’s issue, which contained an item (“Bait and switch”) where I went over the way The Polybius Conspiracy — the most recent series in Radiotopia’s Showcase initiative — blurred the lines between fiction and nonfiction even in its public presentation, which ultimately caused some listeners and reviewers, including myself, to erroneously approach the show as straightforward documentary.

(It should be further noted that the blurring could be read as not even being that extensive, as Night Vale’s Joseph Fink pointed out to me over Twitter. “I figured out it was fictional after first ep through literally one google search. So if journalists thought non-fiction, that feels like on them for not doing basic research, not on show for having framing device,” he wrote. Whatever the magnitude, I’ll nonetheless continue to cop to the screw-up on my end.)

Anyway. I, for one, greatly welcome the feature. I’m glad for any help I can get keeping a grip on reality.

Certified. Fresh off being (self-)declared the podcast capital of the world, the city of New York is taking another step in tightening its relationship with the industry. The Made in NY Media Center by IFP is launching the city’s first podcast production certification program, one that aims to be helpful in alleviating the industry’s flow of battle-tested talent. You can find more information about the program here. It is set to kick off in the new year.

Pass it on. It seems the fine folks over at Gastropod — who, by the way, I wrote a bit about in my recent Vulture piece on food podcasts — have been experimenting with a nifty audience development gambit.

As co-host Nicola Twilley writes me:

Instead of a pledge drive or a fundraising drive, we’re doing a share-athon. It came out of the finding from our listener survey that a really large chunk of our listeners found us from a recommendation from a friend/family. We decided to see whether we could incentivize that with a share-athon: prizes for referring 5 or more listeners. Figuring out how to actually make it work is a whole challenge in itself, but it’s up and running and we’re seeing the early results, tweaking as we go along…

We launched it a couple of weeks ago but it was slow to get off the ground at first — I think because we made it too complicated. We were looking for proof of subscription, which is basically impossible anyway, so we’re doing it on a trust basis now, and people are getting into it. We need to be doing a social media push around it, but it’s just the two of us and we have to get the episodes out too, so ….

I think there are probably all sorts of ways to improve on this — we were initially imagining a podcast Ponzi scheme, where by recruiting people you unlock additional layers of merchandise, etc. etc. — but we decided simplicity was best for this first year.

In some ways, you could read this as a take on The Skimm’s ambassador program, which I hear has proven to be an effective tactic in the past, except with eyes for a potential Ponzi scheme. You could also sketch connections between this and the #TryPod campaign from February, except that that coalition effort didn’t involve a material incentive structure.

People, they want the merch.

I’ll be keeping an eye on this, and will check back once the final numbers are tallied.

Notes from North of the Border, part two. It appears that my timing for this Canadian series was unexpectedly good. Last Tuesday, a more detailed version of the Canadian podcast listener report by Ulster Media/Globe and Mail was publicly released. You can find it here. It gets pretty hairy, and has some stats on smart speaker usage in the country.

Indian & Cowboy. Throughout the conversations I’ve had trying to get a sense of the Canadian scene, one independent operation — outside of Canadaland, which possesses a more complex profile in the country — kept surfacing as a source of hope: Indian & Cowboy, a member-supported media network committed to telling Indigenous stories, of which podcasts are a core part of the operations. Founded in 2014 by Canadian comedian Ryan McMahon, the network produces six in-house podcasts while serving as a distribution point for a few other shows with overlaps in editorial focus. “We are slowly making our transformation from simple podcast network to a media platform,” McMahon said.

The long-term goal, McMahon notes, is to build the company into an incubator for podcasts, journalism, film, and television projects by Indigenous makers. “We’re creating an ‘Indigenous Vice’ that scales and allows Indigenous Peoples around the world to tell their stories, their way, without intervention from Hollywood or other systems that have spoken for us and about us for far too long,” he said. “The truth is, at the top of the game, Indigenous Peoples are NEVER in the room. Look at the newest NPR diversity report — we are virtually invisible in our homelands. This is unconscionable in 2017, that we in North America just don’t bother to consider our perspective, our lives, our experiences.”

The company remains very small, running off shoestring resources and a small team of people. I’m told that it currently receives support from 223 paid members through Patreon, and that its site averages slightly under 17,000 unique visits.

McMahon promises that advances are on the way. Indian & Cowboy started working with an outside public affairs firm, MediaStyle, for assistance with a strategic plan, and it’s pursuing potential investment. “In the new year, people won’t recognize us as we have some very exciting news coming down the pipe,” he said.

Of the Canadian industry, McMahon suspects that the country’s lack of ready foundation support plays a considerable role in the industry’s relative quietness. “I think the Canadian podcasting space is similar to the U.S. space in terms of the goals — tell good, original stories with unique voices,” he said. “[But] at the top of the game, the big U.S. podcast networks have built successful models with the help of places like the Knight Foundation and other support like it. We can’t do that here in Canada — there are laws in place here that prohibit foundations and charities and the types of donations they can make.”

Bites:

  • Politico’s Morning Media newsletter yesterday had a useful juxtaposition of Crooked Media and Ben Shapiro’s podcast presences, working off two separate New York Times profiles: Pod Save America reportedly averages “1.5 million listeners per show,” while the conservative Ben Shapiro Show is downloaded “10 million times every month.” Note how the two data points are working on different scales, and that a unique listener is not the same as a single download.
  • While we’re on the subject of Ben Shapiro, I’d like to re-up Will Sommer’s guest Hot Pod piece that ran while I was off on sabbatical.
  • And while I’m cribbing from Politico’s newsletter, here’s something else they spotted: Cristian Farias, More Perfect’s legal editor, is joining the NAACP’s Thurgood Marshall Institute as a writer-in-residence.
  • Reality TV personality Stassi Schroeder “loses [podcast] advertisers after allegedly criticizing #metoo campaign.” (NY Daily News) If you, like me, were wondering who exactly this person is, fear not: this is why Who? Weekly exists.
  • This is interesting: the latest addition to The Ringer’s podcast network is a show by Philadelphia 76er JJ Redick. He previously had a show with Uninterrupted Media. (The Ringer)
  • Still keeping an eye on the smart speaker beat: “Why Apple’s HomePod is three years behind Amazon’s Echo.” (Bloomberg)

Can Canada build its own independent podcast industry in the True North strong and free?

Notes from north of the border. When it comes to the Canadian podcast industry, there seems to be a lot to talk about. At least, that’s what I found after writing up last month’s report from Ulster Media and The Globe and Mail about the country’s podcast listening statistics. That study, which you can find here, provided an independent sizing of the country’s overall podcast listenership: 24 percent of Canadians over the age of 18, or 7 million people, report consuming podcasts at least once a month. (A straightforward comparison with American numbers is tricky; Edison Research’s numbers place monthly podcast listenership in the U.S. at around 24 percent of the American population, or an estimated 67 million people, but its survey pool was of adults over the age of 12, not 18.)

My writeup of the study was meant to be a quick one: I saw the report, pulled the most salient data points, and ran it with some broad contextualizing details. But response to the item was considerable. Canadian readers and podcasters made themselves known in my inbox, and non-Canadian readers wrote in wanting to know more; the country’s podcast industry, as one reader expressed, often feels “like a black box, more or less.”

And so I spent some time over the past few weeks emailing around, trying to dig up information and additional insight into what’s going on in the great white north — even if I’m well aware of the follies embedded in any attempt to adequately capture the complexities of a country’s industry in newsletter dispatches. (Hell, I’ve been writing about the American podcast industry for three years now, and I’m still haunted by the acute sense that I only ever really see a fraction of what’s truly going on.)

Over the next few newsletters, I’ll be publishing a few stories that hopefully, as a collective, serves as a workable entry-point into the Canadian podcast industry. This week, I’ll be kicking things off with the independent news organization Canadaland. Next Tuesday, I’ll spend some ink on the Quebec region and on the machinations of an indigenous media company called Indian & Cowboys. Finally, in the week after that, I’ll round things up with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, along with some more general observations.

So, why start with Canadaland? Simple: because it’s interesting.

Scrappy. “There are no major players. There is no industry,” said Jesse Brown, founder of Canadaland, the independent news organization and podcast network. “Canada is five years behind the U.S. with professional podcasting, at least.”

Brown, of course, was one of the first people I wanted to trade emails with about Canadian podcasting, given his prominence as a media critic in the country and the fact that he’s a close observer of local industry dynamics out of necessity. Further, Canadaland has consistently popped up across conversations I’ve had about the country, looked upon as both symbol and test case for a longstanding question: Can an independent news organization exist in Canada? Can an independent podcast network? (Those questions, as you could imagine, are equally deployable with respect to the United States.)

At this point in time, the case continues to be tested. “So, Canadaland sells our own ads to brands like Casper and Hello Fresh, and we work with Midroll to sell to Squarespace and other familiar podcast advertisers,” Brown wrote, when asked about his adventures in podcast advertising. “Our founding sponsor was Freshbooks, a Canadian company. But one or two Canadian brands does not a industry or ecosystem make.” Canada has unique problem with advertising, in Brown’s formulation, as its smaller population means that advertising alone won’t be enough to sustain podcasting at a professional level. Which is why Canadaland is structured as a hybrid business built on both ad sales and crowdfunding, with the latter engine being positioned as the primary driver of the business. At this writing, the company’s Patreon account enjoys over 4,500 supporters and brings in over $22,000 a month.

Brown believes the crowdfunding model is replicable throughout the country — “nobody really knew who I was before Canadaland, so I don’t think I had any special powers in that respect,” he claimed — but he seems ultimately dubious on whether that opportunity will be capitalized upon anytime soon. “The usual Canadian dynamics are at work,” he said. “It’s far more attractive to young talent to try to break into American podcasting than to try to build our own industry from scratch. The Heart and Heavyweight are touch points, and people like Chris Berube and Drew Nelles have shown that they have marketable skills, if they are willing to move. Entrepreneurial efforts are sadly scarce. It’s sad that Canada is a laggard in this, given that the CBC has an amazing history of pioneering audio storytelling.”

Whether he’s right on the crowdfunding model’s replicability remains to be seen. Some observers I’ve spoken with are hopeful about the company’s position, but hold some reservation about its emphasis on news, an editorial focus that’s notoriously difficult to scale. They point to the fact that the company’s biggest successes (and presumed bumps in direct support) have been fundamentally tethered to its ability to break news — as it did with its scoops on Jian Ghomeshi, Peter Mansbridge, and Rebel Media — and how that offers an extremely high bar to clear for growth and sustainability.

Still, I imagine this might be a contestable point, and that some might believe this to be a more direct alignment between mission and business model as far as a journalistic organization is concerned. Other sources have also insisted in pointing out Brown’s recent attainment of wealth as the cofounder of Bitstrips, the maker of Bitmoji that sold to Snapchat for an estimated $100 million or so in March 2016, and how that development may render any external reading of Canadaland’s financial health a little more complicated. (I can barely wrap my own head around it.)

But Brown’s observation on the country’s entrepreneurial chutzpah might prove to be the question that’s more fundamental to whatever the future of podcasting in Canada looks like. And that’s much more complicated to parse out; it has, I think, everything to do with factors like the availability of capital, being around potential partners and acquirers, and miscellaneous elements of social and cultural support.

More next week.

Additional material. The CBC’s Lindsay Michael was kind enough to point me to two fantastic resources when researching the scene: this overview of the Canadian industry by Erica Ngao for the Ryerson Review of Journalism, and the Podcast Playlist’s Canadian Podcast Database.

Swipe. So this is interesting: An independent podcast, Food 4 Thot, has formed a publishing relationship with Grindr, in which potential fans can now discover the show right off the latter’s app. The partnership also sees the podcast featured on Grindr’s recently launched digital magazine, INTO. Here’s the announcement post on how the arrangement will work:

When you open your lovely Grindr app (we know you have it) the show will pop down with a quick summary of what this week has in store for you from topics to guests to tea — with sometimes even a quick audio preview of the episode if you ask nicely — before being brought to INTO where you can subscribe and listen. Cute, right?

With the placement, the podcast is in a position where it can potentially be exposed to Grindr’s user base — roughly 3 million daily users, according to this AdExchanger report, though it’s worth controlling the relevant number in your head for English-speakers — through what is essentially an in-app house ad. This setup also evokes the ouroboros-esque inquiry of: Just how big is the Venn overlap between being a “platform” and a “media entity” for such companies these days? Or is it more appropriate to think of these operations as one and the same? What is a publisher, anyway?

In case you’re not in the know, Food 4 Thot is an energetic indie roundtable podcast featuring: Tommy Pico, a critically acclaimed indigenous American poet and author; Dennis Norris II, a writer and MacDowell Fellow; Joseph Osmundson, a scientist and memoirist, and Fran Tirado, the executive editor of Hello Mr.

“Right now, our audience is small for a podcast, but big for one that has been 100 percent independently funded and distributed up to this point,” Tirado tells me. “Our eps get anywhere from 12,000 to 20,000 downloads.” The show’s current goal is to grow the listening base up to six figures.

When asked about dream guests, Tirado replied: “Tracee Ellis Ross. With Sasha Velour, Janet Mock, & Cardi B in close seconds.”

Coloring book. “I’m super excited about this project — I’ve been wanting to do something like this for a while,” said Matt Lieber, Gimlet’s president and local dad.

Lieber’s talking about Gimlet’s latest show, a kids podcast, which it’s launching hot on the heels of Panoply’s Pinna initiative and NPR’s Wow in the World. The move comes with an interesting angle: The podcast is a collaboration with Story Pirates, a kids-centric media company and arts-education advocacy group primarily known for letting kids be the ones that tell stories themselves — a commitment to the belief that kids are more original and wildly more creative than anything adults can ever impose on them.

Season 2 of the Story Pirates podcast debuted yesterday under the Gimlet brand, and upcoming episodes will feature appearances from prominent celebrity performers like Kristen Schaal, Billy Eichner, and Conan O’Brien, among others. To accompany the release, they’re publishing a coloring book with stuff for kids to color alongside each episode that parents can download and print out for free. “It’s part of an effort to create a social experience around the show,” Lieber adds.

This marks Gimlet’s latest creative partnership with an external organization, after producing Mogul with Loud Speakers Network. (One could theoretically make the argument that Crimetown also qualifies as a collaboration, given the involvement of The Jinx’s Zac Stuart-Pontier and Marc Smerling. But I’m told it is considered more of an in-house affair.) Is this an increasing part of the company’s strategy? “I wouldn’t say that,” said Lieber. “But our doors are open to partnership, especially if it’s a story or category we haven’t done before.”

I inquired about the podcast’s approach to ads, reflecting upon Panoply and Sparkle Stories’ choice to bypass the advertising-to-kids conundrum altogether with a paid subscription model. Lieber notes that they’re pretty sensitive about being exceedingly clear that the ads are targeted towards parents, and not the children. “We’re working that out right now,” he said, when I asked about the design choices to reflect that. “You won’t be seeing ads for sugar or candy.”

Gotcha. By the way, how was Gimlet’s 2017?

“It’s been a great year,” Lieber said, flashing his trademark confidence. He tells me that business has doubled, and that the company is working on things that will blow people away in the coming months, and that Gimlet Creative, too, has had a strong year, growing into “the defining agency in the digital audio world.”

He also points to what I think is the company’s defining thread of 2017: its very loud success in building out an intellectual property pipeline into the lucrative film and television business. “This is a year where Homecoming went from an audio project to something that will become one of the tentpole projects for Amazon next year starring Julia Roberts,” he said. (Also worth noting: Last week saw the announcement that Crimetown, too, will be heading to television with FX. No surprises there, frankly, given the creative team’s television roots.)

“We’ve set the stage for next year,” he concluded.

On a related note: Perhaps sensing something in the winds, a WNYC spokesperson reached out unannounced yesterday evening to remind me of the existence of their own upcoming forays into the kids podcasting space: This Podcast Has Fleas, which comes out of a partnership with Koyalee Chanda and Adam Peltzman, and Pickle, a co-production with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Both shows are set to launch sometime in December. The station has also produced a standalone website for its kids programming.

Binders full of editors. I’ve previously written about editor scarcity and its discontents in podcast-land, something that continues to plague a lot of teams even today. (If you missed it, here’s the link to the column, which features a solid discussion with NPR’s Alison MacAdam.) I haven’t spotted much formal development on the matter in the intervening year, save for this one: Megan Tan, the host and creator of the now-retired Millennial, has assembled a spreadsheet of narratively-oriented audio editors who are available for work. She describes the type of editors that she’s included into the document as follows:

People who act as a bird’s eye over your house as you build it, by hand, from the ground up. They would provide feedback on drafts and maybe some written line suggestions here and there, but they don’t touch the tape at all. They would provide feedback on structure, help you hone in on universal themes, driving questions, plot points, character development, get rid of shitty tape, and emphasize great tape, etc.

Or, in other words, “the people you call when you can’t hear your piece anymore because you’ve heard it too many times.”

Tan’s impulse to create the speadsheet rose after her former editor on Millennial transitioned to work at a network full-time, putting her in the search for a suitable replacement. “All of a sudden, I had to find an editor who could speak the same story-structure language, who understood character development, archetypes, thresholds, and who I trusted to help me define the edges of my episodes and strip the fat off a piece when I was immersed in the weeds…AND who also fit my budget,” she said.

The resulting process left her with some pressing takeaways. Among them: “More than anything, I wanted to find someone who ‘got it,'” Tan explained. “When you’re first starting out, you don’t really understand the number of genres, styles, and approaches to radio that exist. Hiring ‘an editor’ doesn’t mean that editor is the best fit for your show.”

With a particular focus on that kind of matchmaking, she hopes the spreadsheet can set producers up with good pairings — and surface this species of editors often thought to be “hard to find,” despite their high demand. “Ideally, this Google Sheet becomes the telephone book for those people,” she said.

You can find the spreadsheet here.

Bait and switch. This is a tricky one, and it involves a mea culpa on my part. Last week saw the conclusion of the latest series in Radiotopia’s Showcase initiative, called The Polybius Conspiracy, which saw the “audio documentary” reveal itself to be — spoiler alert, I guess — in large part fictional. This comes after a run in which the show mostly carried itself as a work of nonfiction, though it never said as much outright. (For what it’s worth, the inverse was also true: The show never explicitly identified itself as a piece of fiction either.) Many reviewers, including myself, approached the show off its conduct (and initial press signaling) as a piece of nonfiction, and I would ultimately write a review for Vulture off the first three episodes to that effect. “A seven-part audio documentary,” was how I described it, working from the press release and various assumptions I internally made about the Showcase initiative.

The podcast sought to explore an Oregonian urban legend and conspiracy theory of a mysterious arcade cabinet that started bubbling up around the ’80s, one in which the myth describes a game so addictive that it caused weird things to happen to people when they stopped playing. Polybius, the podcast, was narratively structured around a main subject who claimed to have been the victim of a traumatic incident as a result of the arcade cabinet, and a good deal of the resulting drama falls from the tension about whether that the incident actually happened or not. The show essentially uses the narrative conceit as a way to explore the shape and textures of urban legends — and, to some extent, the way a person deals with trauma. Of course, by the end of the show’s run, we learn that the central character was a fictional invention, and that much of the stakes involved weren’t as high, or as meaningful, as one would initially think it was.

Slate’s Jacob Brogan was the first, I believe, to raise the question about the show’s claim to documentary, and he rightfully called me — along with other reviewers — out for taking the bait. And it seemed Radiotopia eventually received enough pushback to address the matter in a blog post. Here’s the most relevant portion:

The Polybius Conspiracy itself takes on the form of the urban mythology it interrogates, wrapping layers of conjecture and invention around elements of truth and nostalgia. As a network, we value the overall ideas and cultural critique built into the series. We do apologize to listeners who were disappointed to discover that the story isn’t completely true, and felt we intentionally misled them by not stating outright, from the beginning, that the story was a blend of fact and fiction.

Thinking through the whole situation a little more, I will say I’ve come to find myself pretty annoyed by the ordeal. Annoyed, partly for what felt like a completely unnecessary embellishment on the creative team’s part, particularly these days when the notion of reality, digital and otherwise, seems especially politically fraught and sensitive. Maybe there’s a version of this show, interrogating this idea, that earns this sleight of hand; this podcast, however, wasn’t that.

But mostly, I’m annoyed by the fact that I let the ball fly right by me, that I was played a fool, that I wasn’t skeptical of the show enough to double down on a double check. To some extent, perhaps I’m still operating with kid’s gloves as an observer and critic of the space, working off an internal assumption that the space is still small and young and should still constantly be given the benefit of the doubt due to its youth. But at the end of day, I shouldn’t be automatically taking things as face value, as there are potential negative ramifications to overlooking something like this on my part. So, I’ll be taking the L on this one.

Over the weekend, a few readers wrote me inquiring as to whether this incident raises some larger questions about norms and ethics in the space — if we’re seeing some editorial crisis in what appears to be a tendency among certain corners of the podcast ecosystem to aggressively flirt with evoking journalistic or documentary tropes to build fictional spaces. (One reader pointed to the constant use of the technique by another Radiotopia show, by way of example.) I’m not quite sure if we’re in such a “crisis” just yet, though I’m tempted to agree with the broader critical focus on the community’s norms: one thing that I do constantly find myself perturbed by is the relatively unchecked nature of certain true crime podcasts and their interaction with real, physical lives and communities, which is itself a direct extension of transgressions we’re seeing elsewhere in digital media.

But I’ll hold my tongue — and my pen — on that one for now, lest I succumb to hypocrisy. I did, after all, just fall for The Polybius Conspiracy’s ruse.

Career Spotlight. I’m a casual fan of The Black Tapes and its associated “Pacific Northwest Stories” fiction podcasts — there’s something about its public access feel that gets me — but I’ve long admired the team for just how far they’ve come. (Tanis, one of their projects, is currently being developed for television.) This week, I traded emails with Paul Bae, one of the show’s creators who recently rolled out a new show called The Big Loop, to get a sense of where he is with himself these days.

[storybreak]

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

[conr]Paul Bae: I live and work out of my home in Vancouver, B.C., writing and producing the audio drama anthology series The Big Loop. I also walk the dogs my girlfriend adopts. So far, we’re sticking to an intake limit of three.[/conr]

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

[conr]Bae: I used to be an evangelical youth pastor back in the early 90s. When I lost my faith in the mid-’90s, Jesus and my wife walked out the door. (Black Tapes fans: “Is that why Dr. Richard Strand is such a bitter atheist with a missing wife complex?” Hmmm.)

I then turned to teaching high school English for the next seven years. But my parents always hated the idea. They — my very Korean parents — initially wanted me to be a stand-up comedian. They were casual fans of Johnny Carson and David Letterman and they somehow got it into their heads that I could do that. (If you’re wondering where I get the confidence to ditch everything to attempt to scratch out a living making podcasts, this is it.)

So I started doing stand-up comedy in 2000, and eventually landed a TV gig hosting a small, daily news-comedy show in Vancouver. When that folded a year later in 2010, I found myself tired of touring the standup circuit. So I returned to teaching.

That’s when my friend Terry Miles approached me about making a podcast together. And that led to The Black Tapes, which was a lot of fun and a tremendous learning experience.

With The Big Loop, I have a chance to turn everything I’ve learned into a more intimate listening experience with stories that are more personal to me.[/conr]

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

[conr]Bae: I’ve been writing my whole adult life. That has been the one constant for me. The part I love most about this career is knowing that whatever I write is now going to have an audience almost immediately. If I can make a living out of this, that would mean the world to me. Since I’ve made this foray into podcasting, my girlfriend has had to do all the heavy lifting regarding our finances. I’m hoping I can take that over and let her have a turn resting at home with our dogs.[/conr]

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

[conr]Bae: When Terry hit “publish” on the first two episodes of The Black Tapes in 2015, I had no idea what was going to happen. I don’t think I even fully understood what podcasting was at the time. To me, it was This American Life and 99% Invisible. That’s it. But I knew we had a potential hit. Personally, I had hoped to gain a good audience and open some doors for my fiction writing. Making a career of podcasting didn’t even enter my mind.

Then, one day in early 2016, I listened to Love + Radio for the first time and it stopped me in my tracks. I thought, “This is what podcasting can do. It’s way more than I thought it was.” And it changed everything for me. And I hope people recognize that influence in The Big Loop.[/conr]

[storybreak]

Bites:

  • Sarah Larson penned a great — and more importantly, holistic — snapshot piece on Third Coast Festival that came out over the weekend, and you shouldn’t miss it. (The New Yorker) Feel free to pair that with my own notes from last week, which I’ve broken out into a separate post here.
  • High-level turmoil at NPR continues: Roger LaMay, NPR Board chairman and general manager of Philadelphia public radio music station WXPN, announced last week that he was stepping down at the end of his second one-year term. But NPR also reports that “LaMay is the subject of a complaint filed with NPR alleging past inappropriate behavior.” (NPR)
  • Slate is launching a series about what it was like to live through the days of Watergate, called Slow Burn. It’s hosted by Leon Neyfakh, produced with Andrew Parsons, and slated to launch on November 28. (Apple Podcasts)
  • Speaking of Slate, sister company Panoply worked off a news hook this week, repackaging You Must Remember This’ stellar Charles Manson season into its own standalone podcast after news of Manson’s passing hit the newsreels. This is the second Manson-related podcast to emerge in recent weeks; Wondery currently has its own take on the subject in the podcast charts as well. One day, we’ll see such energy for something other than true crime and morbidity. But this is not that day.
  • “I’m that dude from the ad about background checks where I put a rifle together blindfolded.” Celeste Katz writes up the latest Crooked Media podcast, Majority 54, that comes with a Q&A with host Jason Kander. (Newsweek)
  • The Death, Sex & Money team has rounded up some podcast recs from some famous friends for Turkey Day. (Medium)

Who are podcast “super listeners,” what do they do, and how do we build podcasts for them?

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 140, published November 14, 2017.

Hello from Chicago, where I’m writing this in the lovely Hearken offices. Much thanks to the team for letting me in from the Midwestern cold.

The voice of Vox. We now know who is going to host the upcoming Vox daily news podcast: the Canadian-born Sean Rameswaram. A veteran WNYC staffer, his tenure includes work on the Kurt Andersen-led Studio 360 while the show was still at the station and, more recently, as a reporter on Radiolab’s More Perfect. Rameswaram has long exhibited considerable ambition to lead his own program: he hosted the Studio 360 spin-off podcast Sideshow, served as a guest host on a season of the CBC’s Podcast Playlist, and put himself in the running to take over the popular Canadian culture program Q in the post-Ghomeshi era. (He would eventually be beaten out by the rapper Shadrach Kabango.)

Rameswaram now finds himself at the front of Vox’s latest, and splashiest, foray into audio with a daily news podcast at a time when the genre is truly heating up. Some things to watch: How will the show differentiate itself from the New York Times’ The Daily? How will Vox carve out its own piece of the daily news podcast listening audience? And how will Rameswaram fare as the Barbaro alternative? Will we ever find the time to Feel. All. This. News?

He will move to DC for the gig, where he will be stationed in Vox’s core newsroom. The press release notes that he will eventually be joined by a staff of five. The show, whatever it will be called, is scheduled to launch early next year.

The most engaged. This morning, the Knight Foundation published a report — conducted by Edison Research — that identifies a specific subset within the podcast listening population: what it’s calling “super listeners,” referring to exceptionally engaged consumers of informative digital audio content.

Among the observed characteristics include:

  • Super listeners consume twice the amount of podcast content compared to generic listeners. “The average number of shows listened to per week was much higher with Knight respondents (13) than with weekly podcast listeners from the Infinite Dial (5),” the report notes.
  • They are loyal evangelists of the medium. The report notes that 96 percent of surveyed super listeners had recommended a podcast to a friend.
  • These listeners prefer in-depth content, and increasingly prefer digital consumption over broadcast.

The report also explores the relationship between this listener subset and public media. The findings are intriguing, with the study finding that: “Despite the fact that self-reported radio listening is down with these respondents as a result of podcast listening, two-thirds indicated that they have listened to their local public radio station in the last month… Nearly one-third indicated that they had donated money in the last year to their local public radio station, and 28% had donated to a podcast or radio program directly.” But the study also discovered that there isn’t necessarily a universal “halo effect” for public media podcasts: 51 percent said they like public and nonpublic media podcasts “equally,” and another 15 percent indicated that they “couldn’t tell the difference.” From this, the report suggests that while this listening group has strong loyalty to public media at this point in time, it does not say very much about how that relationship will hold over time.

The report doesn’t quite explore how big or prevalent the “super listener” demographic is in relation to the general listening population, and it should be further noted that the report has a distinct public media focus in its framing and methodology. (Which is to say, as much as this might be identification of a subset within the overall listening population, we might also be looking at a subset that may well be specific to the publishers involved in the study.) I reached out to the Knight Foundation for its take on just how big this group might be, and this is what Sam Gill, the VP of communities and impact, wrote back:

Good question, however it’s outside the scope of the study. The study focused on survey data from more than 28,000 listeners in order to paint a compelling picture of this audience. Respondents were identified through audio callouts (solicitations typically done by the hosts) on podcasts created by six networks: NPR, PRI, APM, WBUR, PRX, and Gimlet. The on-air promotion and the fact that these organizations shared their data, makes the study particularly unique.

The rest of the methodology is explained in further depth in the report’s appendix. Anyway, do check out the whole thing, as one imagines that this is a specific consumer type that publishers can identify, build for, and activate differently.  Speaking of which, the report actually pairs pretty well with this next item…

Podfasting. And we’re back onto the Great Speed-Listening Debate. (See the Chicago Tribune, Slate, the Wall Street Journal, The Ringer, and for older takes, The Atlantic and The Verge.)

BuzzFeed’s Doree Shafrir pubbed a piece over the weekend about people who listen to podcasts at 2x speed (and beyond). It’s a fantastic, fascinating read, not least for the coining of the term “podfaster.” Article skimmers — a species genealogically related to the podfaster, really — should catch two things:

(1) The question of how speed-listening may affect advertising impressions was touched upon, with Midroll’s Lex Friedman providing what seems to be an expected answer. To quote the chunk:

Podfasters could potentially be more valuable to advertisers because they may be less likely to skip ads… ‘I think people like me are less likely to skip ads because they’re wasting less time when they’re listening,’ [Friedman] said. He added that he’s never heard an advertiser complain about podfasters. ‘I really do genuinely believe that if it’s having any effect on ads, it’s making them more likely to be heard. Now they’ll pay attention to the ads. I don’t think it harms the ads’ efficacy.’

We’ll see.

(2) In much the way that the Knight report identifies the subset of podcast “super listeners,” Shafrir’s piece sheds some light on what might be an even more granular sub-group: podcast completists, for whom the ability to speed-listen is essential, and whose relationship to a given show is perhaps the most profound.

So, the thing I’ve always found interesting about this debate is how it highlights this tension in the relationship between producer intent and listener autonomy, between sender and receiver. We’ve seen different iterations of this struggle play out in other mediums, like the notion of watching feature films on smartphones (“Get real,” says David Lynch), or reading novels by having sentences be flashed rapidly before your eyeballs. Shafrir’s piece underscores, to me anyway, just how little direct power producers have over the listening experience. Perhaps it’s a situation where, much like how producers had to develop tricks to catch radio listeners to stop turning the dial, they’ll have to now figure out ways to get them to slow down.

As a side note, I guess we have a partial answer to that old New Yorker cartoon nut: “I feel like everybody’s podcasting and nobody’s podlistening.”

A test case. So you know that whole “convergence of audio media” idea that I’ve been yammering on about since last year? I think we have our first major test case, with some pretty interesting theoretical questions to boot.

Here’s the news: IHeartMedia has broken into the second spot of the Podtrac ranker for the month of October, but the development comes with a rather interesting caveat: its portfolio apparently contains over five hundred shows. The platform — or “platisher,” if I may bring the term back up, given its voluminous original audio programming — reached slightly under 9 million monthly unique US listeners and over 33.5 million unique global downloads over a whopping 525 shows.

IHeartMedia ranks second to NPR, which reaches over 16 million monthly unique U.S. users but on the strength of only 41 programs. (The company with the next largest show portfolio is ESPN, with 79 programs that reach over 4.8 million unique U.S. users.) IHeartMedia’s stats are reminiscent of the Podtrac adventures of another traditional radio-originated podcast publisher: CBS, which last listed on the Podtrac ranker on the ninth spot back in June by reaching over 1.7 million unique US listeners across a whopping 417 shows.

Over Twitter, iHeartRadio SVP of podcasting Chris Peterson informed me that the platisher expects to add more active shows to the Podtrac ranker — therefore further pumping up the numbers — and that they will be looking to launch more in the months to come. When asked to clarify the shape of the portfolio, he explained that the 500-plus show number includes both programs that were created specifically as podcasts along with programs that were radio shows later repurposed for on-demand. It should be further clarified that iHeartMedia’s Podtrac numbers do not include counts of third-party podcasts that are consumed off its platform. As a reminder, NPR is an example of a publisher that also distributes its podcasts on iHeartMedia.

So, what’s the big thought bubble here? We have a situation where a traditionally linear-oriented company has leveraged the sheer scale of its inventory — largely pulled from its sprawling broadcast infrastructure that’s been developed over the years — to produce a performance measure that sends it up to the second spot of the only public-facing podcast ranker that exists at this point in time.

Here’s the key question to ask: are we looking at a truly apples-to-apples situation here? Which is to say, can iHeartMedia’s on-demand audio inventory be meaningfully evaluated within the same value system as every other publisher on that list, from NPR to HowStuffWorks to The New York Times?

From one angle, you could very well argue in the affirmative: that a listener is a listener is a listener, no matter how they are accessed, touched, or engaged with. On the other hand, it could be equally posited that not all listening experiences are the same or should be evaluated in the same manner. That a huge part of the value narrative around podcasts in the first place is based on a certain idea of the relationship between the listener and the show, and on a given podcast company’s ability to produce shows of depth and scale. The findings from the Knight Foundation report, and the further identification of the podcast completist, gives more weight to this latter position.

We should ask if a publisher — sorry, a “platisher” — like iHeartMedia is even playing the same game as everybody else on the ranker. Does it merely represents one strategy out of many within the podcast industry — that is, the move to accrue the largest amount of ad inventory through the aggressive bundling of small shows in order to unlock podcast advertising dollars, as opposed to producing a much smaller portfolio of big shows with big communities around each individual operation? (To phrase this line of inquiry in another way: what, exactly, is the product being sold, and are they the same?)

I’m pretty Switzerland on this, and besides, it’s not as if it’s going to come down to me to figure it out. That kind of taxonomical work should come down to the publishers themselves, working out the terms of the market that they’re playing. Or perhaps it comes down more to Podtrac itself, functioning as a value arbiter in the space.

In any case, we’re looking at a minor clash in context with big-time ramifications. “We are thrilled to be leading the industry in terms of podcast content creation, joining the ranks of NPR for top podcast publishers, and proving that broadcast radio is a major driver for the podcast space,” according to the press release announcing the achievement. Indeed, I suppose that’s one way to skin a cat.

Full service. “I see the industry as something that’s going to stratify in the next five years,” said Rose Reid, the cofounder of a new podcast agency that I’m going to tell you about after I land this opening quote. “When we get analytics, when we see more money going to the top ten percent of producers — and I’m thinking about how to position producers within those changes.”

Reid is telling me about just one of the roles that ARC, a new agency she launched earlier this month with the independent producer Alex Kapelman (Pitch, The Decision), is meant to play in the industry. They bill ARC as a “full-service creative podcast agency,” and when I asked them what that meant, they broke it down into three component parts.

“We’re at this intersection of being a production company, much like Pineapple Street and Transmitter Media, but also an advertising and talent management agency,” Kapelman explained. Which is to say, they make podcasts for other networks, they produce branded content for podcast advertisers, and they work with producers to improve their lot in the market. That said, they’re keeping an open mind. “We don’t want to limit ourselves in the services that we provide.”

It’s a fairly broad value proposition, but I suppose it affords a flexibility to better maneuver within an emerging podcast studio-agency that’s particularly dense as it pertains to shops that focus on editorial production, whether for brands or for bigger podcast companies like Midroll; think Pacific Content, Gimlet Creative, Panoply Custom, Pineapple Street, and so on. Within this bucket, the primary differentiating factor tends to be a given team’s core creative value, but the ARC duo attempts to articulate a more strategy and planning-oriented value-add. “Take what Gimlet Creative did with Tinder, for example,” Reid said, by way of explaining their approach. “They made a podcast for them, and I think that’s great, but it’s just one thing to do. For us, we’d would look at how to take a narrative episodic series and make it part of a bigger integrated campaign. Maybe the Tinder show was launched as part of a bigger campaign, with live events or something, but I didn’t see it.”

(I checked in with Gimlet Creative, and a spokesperson noted that some of their branded podcasts have indeed been integrated into broader campaigns. Their Gatorade podcast, for example, was part of a larger initiative that included TV spots, digital ad buys, and a PR campaign.)

ARC’s success on that front will come down to the duo’s ability to compete for advertising clients, but it is their interest in talent management that stands out to me as especially compelling. Freelancing and independent operation makes up a big portion of life within the podcast industry, and it seems to me that much of the pedagogy around contracts and negotiations tends to happen informally between independents who’ve been there and independents who haven’t. That talent agencies like WME and UTA have been bringing their expertise into the space is a noteworthy development on this front, but I imagine you could make the argument that their focus necessarily tends to be on the top end of talent, and that those agencies have as much to learn from the ground as the other way around.

Reid was most recently a Gimlet producer, where she worked on Sampler, but she spent four years before that working at the advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather. “At Ogilvy, I worked on contracts all the time, between talents and brands, and between subcontractors and Ogilvy,” she said. “I feel like my entire professional experience has been one huge wakeup call for how to advocate for creators.”

She describes the need for that kind of advocacy as acute. “A lot of podcasters… they’re not business people. They’re creators, and so when they get signed, they often don’t know what they’re getting themselves into,” Reid explained. “I’ve seen people get totally screwed over, mostly women. It’s very hard to negotiate for yourself when you’re operating in a vacuum, when you don’t know what your value is and what the market value is.”

I asked when we should expect operations to kick off in earnest. Reid and Kapelman tell me that they will be announcing their initial client list in the months to come. When pressed for specific names, they declined, but made a slight muscle flex. “Big brands,” Reid said. “As big as it gets.”

On a related note… Spotify rolls out a new original podcast series, The United States of Music, produced with Transmitter Media. It’s a six-part music storytelling series hosted by Sasheer Zamata.

Agency. Ever heard the phrase “nobody knows anything”? It’s an old nugget from the screenwriter William Goldman in his book about the movie business, and over the years the sentiment has been evoked to describe the state of so many things, from predictive modeling to the economy to, of course, politics. (In fact, a version of the phrase, “No One Knows Anything,” was the title of BuzzFeed’s now-defunct politics podcast.) But the notion is a little imprecise, I think. It seems more precise to say that some people know some things, and that they do so operating within a general environment where nobody knows everything.

Opportunity falls from the space between those two notions, and I think that best describes the layer of free-floating podcast studios and agencies that has been emerging steadily over the past two years. My sense is that we’re going to see more of such businesses in the coming years, as some individual talent double down on their respective skill-sets — subject expertise, say, or creative edge, or process knowledge — and depart from larger institutions, having understood from working on the inside that no one has truly built an insurmountable amount of control or edge yet, to build a business that focuses on a specific problem or gap in the space. This theoretically offers some competition to bigger and more traditionally structured organizations that publish podcasts while working to build a business at scale, as these smaller and nimbler entities can front meaningful challenges for clients with greater focus (and lower prices).

I’m tempted to think this sense of opportunity is particularly true for the podcast industry at this specific point in time, while everything is still young with no such mythology around how things work or who knows what having calcified just yet — and while the feeling that no one (or two, or three) has full control or power in the ecosystem just yet is still palpable.

Two quick expansionsStories. Crooked Media welcomes three new shows to its mix: Majority 54 with Democratic politician Jason Kander, Girls Just Wanna Have Pod with The Daily Beast’s Erin Gloria Ryan, and Keep It with The Daily Beast’s Ira Madison. The left-wing talk podcast movement continues to grow.

Secondly, the New York Times will begin testing out a special version of The Daily meant for children to listen with their parents later this month. The effort is part of a larger project to further experiment with building out news experiences targeting kids. Nieman Lab has the write-up.

In other news:

Bites

  • Sara Sarasohn, the former managing editor of NPR One, has joined Gimlet as an editor. (LinkedIn
  • Shortcut, the audio clipping app that lets listeners easily select and share moments from a podcast episode, is now open source. The project was developed by This American Life and feel train with support from the Knight Foundation. (Announcement)
  • Stitcher has rolled out a redesign update. (Stitcher Blog) The podcast player also launched an accompanying Alexa skill, and I’m just going to re-up my whole discussion about consumer choice and voice-first interfaces from last week’s newsletter.
  • The Daily Beast profiled Mike Duncan, creator of the long-running History of Rome and Revolutions podcasts, who also serves as another data point in the emerging trend of podcasters being hit up by book agents, and his book, The Storm Before the Storm, debuted on the New York Times bestseller list last week. (The Daily Beast)
  • Marc Maron addresses the Louis CK sexual assault allegations on the latest episode of his podcast. (Vulture) The NY Times’ Sopan Deb transcribed the segment and posted the text on Twitter.
  • Audible has launched a new Chinese audiobook offering. (VentureBeat)
  • The Skimm adds an audio product to their paid app. (Nieman Lab)
  • “It’s surprising that people are into this nerdy shit. We’re surprised, too, to be honest.” Bloomberg profiles the super-niche NBA podcast Dunc’d On. (Bloomberg)
  • The BBC is rolling out a single podcast sampler feed to improve the discoverability of all the on-demand shows throughout the institution, called Podcasting House. The British radio mothership also noted that they are commissioning more podcast-first works, and that they enjoyed around 240 million podcast downloads in 2016, which is apparently an improvement from the year before. (BBC)

  • So it turns out Rick Rubin and Malcolm Gladwell have a podcast together now. And their first guest is Eminem. Where am I? (Pitchfork)
  • Last week, I helped shepherd the last segment of the last broadcast of KCRW’s To The Point as it transitions into a weekly podcast. (KCRW

[photocredit]Illustration from Knight’s super-listener report.[/photocredit]

New York City makes the claim that it’s the podcast capital of the world (but is that a good thing?)

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 132, published August 15, 2017.

Another daily news podcast TK. Got this email yesterday:

Vox Media and Midroll just inked a deal to launch a daily news podcast under the news brand Vox banner. The show will have a full time staff of 6 working inside the Vox newsroom. Midroll is providing creative consultation and is the exclusive advertising partner for the show. The two companies have launched an ambitious talent search to find the right up-and-coming audio talent to host and EP the show, which is targeted to launch in early 2018.

The show, whatever it will be named, will join The New York Times’ The Daily, NPR’s Up First, and The Outline’s World Dispatch as high-profile entries in the podcast-first daily news genre.

Podcast Central. Yesterday, the New York City Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment (MOME) published a fairly celebratory report on the city’s vibrant podcast scene, one that declares its centrality to the nascent but buzzy industry. “New York City, The Podcast Capital,” goes the report’s title, which has the further entertaining effect of rebuffing potential claims made by other cities — most notably Los Angeles — to the throne.

In developing and publishing this report, MOME effectively serves as a official source of validation for an industry that’s hungry for some and often takes what it can get. This is, above all, a great piece of PR for the community.

As a historical document and an industry primer for the unfamiliar, however, the report is an interesting document to consider. Much of the information contained within shouldn’t be a surprise to longtime operators in the space (or, alternatively, long-time readers of this newsletter), but it contains just enough quirks warranting critical appraisal to suggest keeping the report at a remove.

For example, the report makes the decision to illustrate the industry’s growth primarily through the growth of its advertising revenue, and it does so by drawing exclusively from that Bridge Ratings study that’s been floating about for a while now — a report that remains, to this day, somewhat controversial among many in the industry based on several sources who I’ve spoken with in the past, and whose specific methodology remains opaque to all. The report does not include the recently published PwC study, which was conducted with the explicit participation of what can be considered a critical mass of major podcast publishers, and which serves as a more substantive benchmark of the industry’s current strength and projections. Of course, that shouldn’t invalidate the report’s overall value. This is all just to say that, as with anything, the specifics of this laudatory document should be taken with more than a few grains of salt.

But credit should be given where credit’s due, and it should be noted that the report has some novel contributions. The most important of these, in my opinion, can be found in its findings on the industry’s employment numbers in the city:

Employment at the top New York City podcast networks has increased over the past several years, to about 600 people engaged in podcast creation, distribution, and management as of February 2017 from over 450 people in 2014-2015. That number is expected to grow further, say the podcast networks, perhaps by as much as 50 percent by the end of 2017.

That 600-plus number comes directly from data provided to the Mayor’s Office by the podcast companies discussed in the report. This means that the data point is both the most well-sourced number I’ve seen on the matter and one that’s probably undercounting, as even a cursory glance at the list of companies researched for this report reveals a rather limited cohort.

Anyway, despite that quirk, this employment number business is perhaps the strongest claim in the report’s bid to portray New York City as the podcast capital of the country, as it conjures an industry narrative of being a force for employment and the local economy. Indeed, you can cut the short history of podcasting in more than few frameworks: as a story of a new but familiar democratizing publishing technology, as a story of a new uncertain creative industry finding its feet, as a story of classic technological disruption carried out in slow motion, as a story of a new frontier for advertising, as a story of conflict between different communities motivated by different things. But framing it as a story of an industry, accidentally conceived, that’s now a meaningful source of employment and wages for a species of creative worker that previously had fewer opportunities is a powerful one that should center our attention on where the real value of this industry lies.

But let’s not paint too rosy a picture here. That New York City has emerged as an exceptionally strong power center for the industry (as capital or otherwise) isn’t particularly surprising given its incumbent strengths. This is, after all, the city where the more mature and storied industries of media and advertising are already clustered, and it’s generally the case that new companies — and nascent industries — structurally benefit more from being in close proximity of established power clusters with which they can develop instantly lucrative relationships than from being in places where no such appropriate clusters exist. (See: companies like Pineapple Street and Transmitter cashing in big accounts off the bat.) Which is to say, of course New York would be a power center for this emerging creative industry; it would be strange if the case was otherwise.

The question, of course, is whether New York City being the podcast capital is a productive thing. On that matter, I’ll say this: I’ve never been able to get this seminal argument by Nieman Lab’s Joshua Benton on the cost of a geographically concentrating media industry out of my head — how physical context and concentration impacts an industry’s fundamental nature, and how those impacts may foster deficiencies that yield negative consequences. In that piece, Benton specifically trains his focus on the news business, but I think it’s perfectly applicable to every other part of the media as well, given the ecosystem’s fundamental trade in the projection of ideas, identity, and information.

Benton writes:

So if the news business is becoming even more centered in New York, what sort of impacts would that have on our news?

For one thing, you’d expect it to make the media more liberal — culturally and politically. Journalists don’t like it when conservatives point out that they, as a group, lean farther left than the country as a whole. But you don’t need to be a conspiracy theorist to believe it: College-educated liberal arts grads who live in cities — a group most American journalists fit into — are more liberal as a group than the American median. And those who live in New York or San Francisco are going to be more liberal as a group than those in Cincinnati or Knoxville.

You can argue about whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing. But one element of Donald Trump’s rise is a backlash against the sort of cultural cosmopolitanism that lots of people who’ve never taken the Acela feel is on the rise. When trust in the media is at an all-time low, this shift could make it harder to bridge those divides.

There are also negative implications for the podcast worker. I’ll turn what I just positively said about the industry as a force of employment slightly askew: New York City, among other things, is a punishingly expensive place to live and work and exist, even if you’re the beneficiary of various degrees of privilege, and the further concentration of the industry in New York will only continue to ensure that only certain kinds of people get to join the industry. That, of course, is counterproductive for reasons social, political, and economic; it imposes a hard limit on the actual contributions of the podcast community as an industry.

Or, oh I don’t know, maybe podcasting will turn out to be largely a city-specific industry, the way the movie business is generally clustered in Los Angeles, or the way high technology is clustered in Silicon Valley. (Both of which have cultivated conditions that are to the cultural detriment, by the way.) Maybe that’s just the way things work. In any case, it’s something to consider, and let’s now also pay some lip service to the other podcast nodes in the country: Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago, Atlanta, the Bay Area. Did I miss any? Am I reading this the wrong way? Hit me up.

Again, you can find the MOME report here.

On compensation. Not unrelated to this question about podcast centers is the question of wages and compensation. Alex Laughlin, an audio fellow at BuzzFeed, has been putting together a side project in the form of a salary study meant to inject some initial industry compensation data into the public sphere where there previously were very little. Last Monday saw that study culminate with Laughlin publishing a Medium post on the matter titled “How much are audio producers making?

It should be noted that the study isn’t all that robust — the sample size is exceedingly small and too demographically limited to be in any way comfortably representative — and for some, there are enough flaws in the methodology (question framing, job position conflations, etc.) might be too much, but I think the meta-conversation around the study is nonetheless interesting. You can go over the findings and qualifications yourself in the post, but in case a click is too much of a commitment, I spoke to Laughlin to get at the bigger ideas.

[storybreak]

[conl]Hot Pod: What do you think was the most important thing you took away from the study?[/conl]

[conr]Alex Laughlin: One of the biggest takeaways from my survey was how much more podcast companies like Gimlet and Panoply are paying producers than public media is. [The study found that] the average podcast company salary was $78,519, while the average public media salary was $56,931.[/conr]

[conl]HP: Talk to me about the significance of the sample size.[/conl]

[conr]Laughlin: The sample size was very small, very white, and very female. I think this is partially indicative of the industry, but there was also an element of confirmation bias in terms of who decided to even submit. So I say it in the blog post, but this analysis shouldn’t be used to diagnose or dismiss any gender or racial wage gap in the industry. All of the numbers should be taken with a big ole grain of salt, but I hope that my findings can be useful to people (especially underrepresented minorities) who find themselves in the position where they need to put a number on their skills and experiences.

We didn’t have a wide enough racial diversity in our sample size to responsibly publish an analysis, but I really wish we could have. I would love to see these numbers replicated either by a company or by a larger sample size, and analyzed across race and gender.[/conr]

[conl]HP: Was there anything in the study that especially surprised you?[/conl]

[conr]Laughlin: It’s not so much a surprise as an affirmation: People are really, really hungry for this data. It’s tricky talking about salaries and you have to make sure to do it right. But I hope this is the beginning of more quantitative analysis of the ways we hire, compensate, and promote in this industry. I’ve already heard people talking about replicating the analysis in different countries, as well as production vs. hosts.[/conr]

You can find Laughlin on Twitter at @alexlaughs, and once again, here’s the Medium post.

I want to personally second Laughlin’s point that folks are really hungry for this data. And, I should add, the lack of such data has material consequences for the space: up until this point, audio producers — both in radio and podcast, I believe — possessed few public resources that could provide them with formal reference points for salary negotiations and context for how much they’re supposed to be making at any given point in their careers. This state of affairs isn’t great for producers (though it is great for employers, but let’s leave that for now), because it hampers their ability to confidently advocate for appropriate compensation and, more precariously, it also likely has the further effect of hurting their ability to conceptualize a long-term career in the industry.

While employers benefit from having such informational leverage over potential employees, you could argue that the bit on not being able to imagine a sustainable career is bad for podcast companies and the broader industry in the long-term, because an environment that de-contextualizes and therefore demoralizes talent is one that cannot retain talent, and your mileage on whether that’s detrimental to the long-term outcome of the podcast ecosystem is probably dependent on whether you believe the industry is sexy enough to continue attracting new people. And I think the jury is still out on whether that will be the case.

Anyway, just a thought.

2 Dope Queens goes to TV. HBO is bringing the Phoebe Robinson and Jessica Williams-fronted comedy podcast to television, marking the latest in a long line of podcast-to-television adaptations. There are two things about this development that strikes me as really interesting, though: first, his is the first show in the WNYC Studios portfolio to receive the television treatment, and second, the podcast is being adapted as a series of hour-long specials. That latter bit is a great thing to observe; adaptations aren’t just about getting the thing to fit television, but to get television to fit the thing as well.

You can find more details about the adaptation in my Vulture writeup.

Vanity projects?  Lauren Ober, who hosts the WAMU meta-podcast The Big Listen, had a skeptical reaction to last week’s news about the upcoming Preet Bharara project by WNYC/Pineapple Street, and she pegs it to a larger trend that she finds concerning. “I feel like podcasting is becoming a vehicle for people w/ name recognition to extend their personal brands w/o adding anything new,” she tweeted me. She later joked on her public feed: “I’m starting a podcast about people starting podcasts to extend their ‘brand.’ It’ll be called Vanity Project. Thus extending my own brand.”

For what it’s worth, I’m somewhat less perturbed by this trend — which I believe to be very real — than Ober, largely accepting this to be the natural consequence of any lucrative market. But Ober’s remarks appears to have resonated with a great deal of people, so I reached out to Ober for further comment, asking what she’d like to see more of instead.

“I’d like to see news organizations invest more heavily in specific investigative projects rather than providing another platform for their stars (from whom we are hearing the same things in podcast form that they’re either saying on TV or writing in print),” she wrote. “However, I understand that providing stars with a podcast platform makes for an easy win for media companies. And thus it seems like a no-brainer, but I’m not entirely certain it’s serving the marketplace.”

Ober is particularly skeptical of the celebrity interview podcast. Her argument is worth quoting in full:

There seems to be an overabundance of them featuring tastemakers like Tavi Gevinson, Janet Mock, Larry Wilmore, Lena Dunham, Amber Rose, Pauly Shore, and any number of YouTube celebrities. At times, it feels like an infinite feedback loop with so much guest overlap in these shows. Also, what differentiates these shows, besides the actual voice of the person behind the mic? I suppose. again. it’s a vehicle to speak to your existing fan base. Your fans are clamoring for a podcast so they can hear more from you. But for me as a general listener, I’d like to hear these celebrities move beyond the standard two-way format and give me something more.

All of that said, the market prevails, I guess. If no one was interested in these name-brand showpieces, then they wouldn’t exist. Someone is listening to them. I have no issue with celeb (I’m using that term v broadly) podcast projects, assuming there’s some creativity, innovation and value-add for the listener.

When asked for examples of such projects that she finds are successful, Ober pointed to WNYC’s A Piece of Work with Broad City’s Abbi Jacobson, LeVar Burton Reads, and Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History. “All these folks have some expertise or interest in an area that gives their shows some specificity instead of just being a general talker,” Ober argued.

In other news: did you hear that Oprah Winfrey has a podcast now? Sort of. The feed drops a selection of her interviews from her show, Super Soul Sunday.

The Radiolab controversy. So, this is a sticky one. Over the weekend, Radiolab, the celebrated WNYC podcast, decided to take down “Truth Trolls,” a story it recently published about 4chan, the deeply controversial online community (hivemind? phenomenon?) and its recent campaign to disrupt actor Shia LaBeouf’s art installation protesting the Trump presidency. The team’s decision came after receiving listener backlash over, among other things, the segment’s framing, which is argued to have lacked broad chunks of meaningful context about the subject, and tone, which could be construed as somewhat… impressed.

When reached for comment, a WNYC spokesperson said:

WNYC Studios supports Radiolab’s decision to remove the “Truth Trolls” episode this past weekend after listeners pointed out that the way the story was told left Radiolab’s position on the ideology and behavior they were covering too open to interpretation. Radiolab unambiguously rejects the beliefs and actions of the trolls, and deeply regrets doing anything that would imply differently.

As you can imagine, this is an incredibly complicated situation with a lot baked into it, including: the proper amount of contextualization required to adequately discuss something like 4chan, the push and pull of listener uproar, the politics of retraction and removal, and so on.

As a matter of editorial judgment, what happened seems pretty straightforward: here we have a situation where the Radiolab team inadvertently took on an endlessly volatile topic — one that defines an increasingly strong facet of this current socio-political moment, i.e. the relationship between certain chaotic corners of the Internet and the modern socio-political environment, which feed off each other in ways that remain under-appreciated even to this day — and utterly misread its baggage, weight, and significance. As a result, they did not show the complex and sensitive subject matter the respect it required, and that ultimately led them to miss what’s fundamentally important about the subject in their search for a fluffier conclusion. (Put it this way: it’s as if they decided to do a segment on gerrymandering and ended up making it about just how clever some politicians can get, while skipping past things like historical context and social consequences and ideology and so on.)

It was an unambiguously explosive mistake for Radiolab to make, but I’m further perturbed by the team’s decision to take down the segment completely as a response to the pushback. In an environment where taking back something is every bit as political — and politically charged — as putting something out in the first place, this may well be a case where Radiolab’s effort to limit its contribution to a damaging situation is one that fuels it even further.

There may be some value to following in the footsteps of This American Life, when that team faced a retraction in 2012 with “Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory,” which turned out to be the work of fabrication. You can still easily find the original radio story online, most prominently in the Internet Archive, and This American Life keeps the original episode’s transcript hosted on its website. There, the move was to re-report and re-contextualize, and to produce an entirely new episode around the correction. That move remains, to my mind, the gold standard to fixing an error in judgment in any form for two reasons: it does not shirk from ownership over the mistake, and it repurposes the breakdown into an even more valuable opportunity to more aggressively contain the damage while delivering a sense of justice where it can. That said, there are some potentially meaningful differences: most notably, where This American Life’s retraction was spurred by errors of fact, Radiolab’s segment removal was spurred by errors of framing. That’s a big difference that might not change very much about the proposed solution, but it’s a difference to consider nonetheless.

It should be noted that some critics have connected this instance of misjudgment to an earlier controversy: the infamous Yellow Rain episode from 2012, where co-host Robert Krulwich was criticized for the way he handled an interview of a Hmong veteran for a story about the possible presence of a chemical weapon during the Vietnam War. (Krulwich eventually apologized through a blog post and in an addendum to the podcast.) Minnesota Public Radio has a good breakdown of the matter, with the key critique being the very same one you could level on the “Truth Trolls” incident: in the episode’s pursuit of a specific thing (in this case, the “truth” of whether a chemical weapon was actually deployed), the show missed a larger and more important emotional reality (the Hmong interviewee’s experience of genocide), and the end result was a story with a chilling, dissonant myopia. The similarity between these two incidents is stark, almost consistent; one wonders if a more fundamental dysfunction lies beneath the surface.

Anyway, if you want to judge the matter for yourself, you’re going to have to do some digging. (Though, like with anything else on the Internet, it shouldn’t be that hard to find.) The segment’s take-down also resulted in the removal of the public comments on the show posting, which I’m told was worth peering through. You can find screenshots of some of those comments in this blog post by the prolific podcaster Dave Chen, and you can get an additional sense of what happened, and the significance of it all, from this thread on the New York Times’ Podcast Club.

Bites:

  • The highly popular My Favourite Murder has moved to Midroll from Feral Audio. (Twitter) Also, the show is doing two crossover episodes with Anna Faris is Unqualified starting this week, in case that’s interesting to you. #murderinos
  • The Los Angeles Times is partnering up with Wondery in search of its own, uh, “Serial Moment.” (Adweek)
  • DGital Media has released details for its upcoming show with James Andrew Miller, the award-winning journalist who is most recognized for his oral histories of ESPN, Saturday Night Live, and CAA. The podcast, called Origins, will begin its run with an oral history of Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm. It debuts September 6. (Vanity Fair) Cue tuba.
  • Indivisible, the live call-in show produced by WNYC and Minnesota Public Radio, lives on, sort of, with one of the hosts, MPR’s Kerri Miller, leading the upcoming show Flyover, which will serve to continue a lot of the threads developed in its spiritual predecessor. (Current)

[photocredit]Photo of New York City by Mikel used under a Creative Commons license.[/photocredit]

Post-election, how do you create a politics podcast for a market (still) flooded with politics podcasts?

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 130, published August 1, 2017.

Strong early feedback for NPR’s Wow in the World. Kids’ podcasts: there are rising arguments for more, and we now have some numbers for those looking into building a strategy. NPR tells me that Wow in the World, the organization’s science podcast for kids, broke the 2 million download mark as of last Wednesday, achieving that feat in slightly over two months and across 17 episodes. These figures are based on internal measurements described as relatively conservative; the actual number is likely somewhat higher. For reference, the show, hosted by TED Radio Hour’s Guy Raz and SiriusXM’s Mindy Thomas, officially launched on May 15. (Also: Between the three shows he hosts for NPR alone, how Raz has any time for his own kids is a mystery to me.)

Listener engagement is also said to be robust. The show features a prominent call-in component, and I’m told that the team has been receiving around 150 voicemails a week through the 800 number that was set up for the production.

Wow in the World, of course, should be read as an anomaly among its peers given its institutional heritage. Indeed, as a learning matter, its success only gives us a glimpse at the highest ends of the genre at this point in time, as the podcast is the beneficiary of factors largely inaccessible by most other kids’ podcasts. Among them: NPR’s built-in brand benefits and marketing infrastructure, along with Raz and Thomas’ long-cultivated followings. But Wow in the World can nonetheless be understood as proof-of-concept for the growing enthusiasm around the potential of podcast programming for kids. There’s value here, its early success seems to say, and there’s more for the taking.

In related news… Gen-Z Media’s The Disappearance of Mars Patel is being adapted for television by Anonymous Content and Paramount TV, Deadline reports. Anonymous Content, by the way, is the production company also responsible for the Homecoming adaptation that we discussed last week. Something else to track from the Deadline report: UTA was the talent agency responsible for brokering the deal on behalf of the Mars Patel team.

The kids’ audio drama, which received a Peabody Award a few weeks ago, recently wrapped up its second season. It is also part of Kids Listen, and partners with Panoply for hosting and ad sales. Gen-Z declined to disclose download numbers when contacted.

A branded podcast, a studio, a playbook. There are curious qualities to note about “Rebellion in Detroit,” a branded podcast that premiered last Friday. To begin with, Midroll Media is the company responsible for that campaign, working with the film studio Annapurna Pictures as a move to promote the latest Kathryn Bigelow project Detroit, about the summer of civil unrest (or rebellion, or uprising) that took place in the titular city in 1967. The branded podcast takes the shape of a three-part series hosted by Courtney B. Vance, who you might remember from FX’s “The People vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story.” It also possessed a rather peculiar rollout strategy: the show debuted as an exclusive on the website of the local Detroit area Scripps-owned TV station, WXYZ, last Friday morning. (Scripps, of course, being Midroll’s parent company.) But the exclusivity window only lasted for a few hours — extremely short, in other words — and the podcast went wide later in the afternoon.

Why, exactly? “Annapurna Pictures wanted to make sure local audiences had the chance to hear this content first,” a spokesperson said. Okay, I guess?

Anyway, here is what’s most interesting to me about the campaign: to produce the branded podcast, Midroll turned to Transmitter Media, the studio recently created by former Midroll executive producer Gretta Cohn. It seems that Cohn and co. have been pretty busy since officially rolling out back in May. In addition to Rebellion in Detroit, Transmitter was also responsible for that Walmart podcast that a reader wrote in to ask about earlier this month, and is currently working with ESPN’s 30 for 30 to produce material for the period between seasons. (Called Off Season, the project is described as “a sound-rich conversation show” that serves as a companion to the documentary series. The second season is scheduled to drop in November.) Cohn also tells me that the company has two “longer-term narrative storytelling projects with really exciting partners” in the works. No details were offered at this time, only that the first of those will launch in November.

As a side note… This might be stating the obvious, but I’ll state it anyway because it’s probably helpful for some reading this: We have, it seems, the beginnings of a launch playbook as far as independent podcast studios are concerned. You begin by hammering down a few branded podcast clients (big companies, preferably), which unlocks strong upfront pay-to-production dollars, after which you then use those dollars to lay down the foundation for creative, personal, or longer-term bets.

Pineapple Street Media’s Jenna Weiss-Berman articulated as much during a recent Third Coast panel in Brooklyn. “We think about things in a few different buckets,” she said. “One of them is ‘lots of money branded stuff’ that you can’t really say no to, and the way we think about that is that stuff can fund a lot of the other stuff we want to do. That stuff allows us to take risks… like we do a few shows pro bono and that was always something we always wanted to do.” (If you’re tuning into the segment, the relevant section starts at around the 30-minute mark.)

One should also pay attention to how the “lots of money branded stuff,” as in Pineapple and Transmitter’s cases, isn’t just limited to advertisers looking to cobble together branded podcasts. The strategy includes working with bigger, deep-pocketed editorial companies interested in a meaningful podcast play, that lack the time or internal means to form an audio team. Pineapple Street did, after all, work with The New York Times and First Look Media to produce straight-up editorial projects — Still Processing and Missing Richard Simmons, respectively, with more presumably on the way — while Transmitter has whatever it has going on with ESPN.

Speaking of ESPN…

ESPN’s 30 for 30 podcast beat 2.1 million downloads in its first month, marking a pretty successful launch for the sports audio documentary series. Those numbers are based on Podtrac measurements, which the organization uses to verify its downloads, and a spokesperson tells me that the show is ESPN’s most popular podcast on a per-episode basis. If you’re doing the math, all five episodes of the show’s first season dropped within that first month period.

Gauging the success of podcast launches remains an elusive exercise, of course, given the absence of a third-party measurement that’s able to dole out some form of apples-to-apples paradigm. But we do have the relative performance of other shows to draw from, like Radiotopia’s Ear Hustle, which broke 1.5 million downloads across two episodes in its first month, and Wondery’s Locked Up Abroad, which broke 1 million downloads across three episodes in its first week.

The New York Times’ The Daily launches a limited-run spinoff. The New Washington, which will drop episodes weekly through the fall, is designed to “help listeners make sense of the figures remaking Washington,” according to the press release. While this politics-focused spinoff is being produced by the very same team behind The Daily — even using Michael Barbaro as host — it will use a completely separate RSS feed and visual branding. It is perhaps productive, then, to think about this distribution structure as somewhat akin to an established print magazine rolling out a smaller, special edition that’s sold separately from the main publication within the same magazine stand. (Like what Monocle is doing. Sort of. Kinda?) Of course, there are potential branding, audience education, and listener acquisition complications embedded in this configuration, but if they can figure out the marketing, there’s considerable editorial upside: the move gives the same team considerable room to flex different creative muscles, spread out to a wider surface area, allow for additional emphasis on coverage areas that might warrant more focus, and perhaps most importantly, introduce a marginal evergreen element to an entity principally defined by its ephemeral newsiness.

(A side note: If you’re wondering about The Run-Up — the standalone Times politics podcast that published in the lead-up to the election and Michael Barbaro’s first podcast project — I’m told that The New Washington isn’t meant to be a replacement. “With that said, there are no immediate plans to revive The Run-Up at this time,” a spokesperson said. Just as well, I suppose. What would we be running up to, at this point in time? 2020? Get outta here.)

Anyway, if you’re wondering how The Daily is doing, you’re in luck. A big Vanity Fair feature from the weekend on the great New York Times-Washington Post newspaper wars has a number for us: the podcast phenomenon “averages half a million downloads a day.” A stunning feat. (Ignore the confusion with the Times’ VR product, if it’s still there.)

Here’s the question that I’m thinking about: how do you create a politics podcast for a market already absolutely flooded with politics podcasts? Not only is it a go-to product move for most media organizations dabbling in the medium, it’s also the essential subject focus of one of the fastest-growing new companies in the industry, Crooked Media. Further, where do you go from a design standpoint, when the gamut has been well run from conversational recaps (the Gabfest model along with its many, many children) to subject interviews (Politico’s Off Message) to even historical (WaPo’s Presidential) and legal niches (What Trump Can Teach Us About Con Law)? Combine all of that with a more general concern about news exhaustion — and the unrelenting news pace, which shatters the dreams and dinner plans of producers everywhere — and you have, in the politics podcast, a genre of the highest degree of difficulty.

We’ll see how The New Washington grapples with the genre’s inherent pitfalls, and how the Times will angle the new podcast to lock in a fresh listener base. From the introductory episode, the Big Idea here seems to be keeping a tight focus on the cast of characters in this bonkers soap opera of a political system. Hey man, such a granular, detail-oriented, deep-dive content focus worked for the Game of Thrones Media Industrial Complex. I guess it can work for real world politics too?

Spotify readies another podcast push? Lucas Shaw, the scrappy young entertainment reporter over at Bloomberg, published a mighty interesting piece yesterday with some really juicy details on Spotify’s continued podcast dalliances.

Here’s the money:

Spotify is experimenting in new media to increase the time customers spend with its app — and boost advertising sales. As of now, most consumers looking for music videos or podcasts leave Spotify for Apple and YouTube. In particular, the company wants to assess awareness of its service among avid podcast listeners and could expand the campaign to more providers later this year. Spotify confirmed the details of the effort, but declined to make an executive available for interview.

The company is also funding “a new batch of original podcasts in the coming months, according to people familiar with the matter who asked not to be identified discussing the private plans.” As a reminder, Spotify had worked with Panoply to produce its existing batch of original audio programming. We’ll see if that partnership continues or broadens out.

Shaw also highlighted the streaming music company’s recent advertising collaborations with podcast publishers like Gimlet, Crooked Media, and The Ringer — where Spotify runs both digital (like this) and outdoor ads (the article mentions ads on buses, I’ve also seen them on New York subway station screens while enduring the summer of hell), and in return publishers talk up the platform through host-reads.

Cool. Be sure to give Shaw your click.

Pledge drives, but for podcasts. There are no new ideas… only new combinations, I suppose? Or “rediscoveries,” if you’re feeling frisky. However articulated, that seems to be a trend of note as far as Slate is concerned. About a year after sister company Panoply mashed up War of the Worlds with branded audio content, Slate has found value in repurposing the old public radio gambit of pledge drives through its podcasts to bump up subscriptions for its membership program, Slate Plus.

Digiday has the report, and here’s the key chunk:

Those interruptions might have been unexpected for readers, but they worked. The program drove “hundreds” of new sign-ups from Wednesday to Sunday, per Slate Group Chairman Jacob Weisberg. That total — the publisher declined to provide a hard number — was four times greater than the average number of sign-ups that Slate Plus typically gets every week, according to a Slate spokesperson. The results were encouraging enough that Slate will launch a pledge drive across all of its podcasts later this fall, though it declined to be more specific about the plans.

It’s all rather preliminary, but nonetheless amusing. That said, a couple of risk factors should be highlighted. Execution matters, of course, and one imagines the best practices you would apply to podcasting advertising should be applied to these neo-pledge drives as well — after all, a pledge drive spot is essentially a house ad, and a pledge drive is essentially the ad campaign equivalent of a napalm drop. And like all advertising formats, both within and between mediums, there are probable diminishing returns over time, especially once the novelty wears off. (Indeed, the fact that the interruptions were unexpected might itself be a reason the campaign worked.)

Some attention should also be paid to the dangers of stacking the ad-load way too much. Slate, I’d say, is already playing a fairly risky game with that Trumpcast drive, with Digiday observing that “in some cases, the interruptions took up as much as 15 percent of every Trumpcast episode.” (Trumpcast editions are already fairly short, often falling between 20 to 30 minutes.)

There’s a more interesting theoretical question here for us to chew on, of course: is this model replicable for other publishers? There are many non-Slate operations that stand to benefit from successful adaptations of the pledge drive, in particular publishers that possess supplementary membership support programs (i.e. Gimlet Members), horizontal subscription businesses (i.e. The New York Times), or direct support models (i.e. Patreon-using podcasts like Chapo Trap House and NPR Podcasts). We’ll just have to hope that someone else tries it out in order to answer to that question. Though I suppose quantity is also a factor that might even affect the outcome over time: if every podcast operation utilizes the pledge drive, would we see pledge drive fatigue?

That’s a question for another future, or another universe.

Meanwhile, in Australia. Earlier this summer, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) consolidated its podcasting efforts into a new internal division that’s dedicated to the medium. The division, called ABC Audio Studios, is the product of a merging between ABC Radio’s long-form Radio Features team and the pre-existing internal podcast team. It is being led by Kellie Riordan, who previously served as a strategist for the organization and has overseen the creation of several new ABC podcasts.

This move was driven in large part by a desire for better podcast development workflows. “Structurally, the creation of ABC Audio Studios means we can all work more collaboratively and maximize everyone’s unique skills in audio delivery. Previously, we had too many places for staff to pitch ideas and too many areas for on-demand content creation whereas now we’ll have one commissioning process for podcasts,” Riordan wrote me in an email. “For audiences, this also means a more streamlined offer where duplication is minimized and we can more readily commission content for market gaps or audience segments we’re not catering to.”

Riordan also checked off various programming areas that her new division is interested in: kids’ podcasts, comedy shows (of which several are in development), solutions-based journalism, and something that she describes as content for working families in general (“busy people who want shortcuts and hack to help them navigate their hectic lives”), among others. She further explained that, on top of the baseline content development work, ABC Audio Studios will also be exploring new storytelling styles and formats through collaborations with external teams — Riordan pointed to a show called Outer Sanctum, which the ABC eventually acquired — and other parts of the sprawling multi-platform organization.

You can find additional information through this ABC Backstory post.

And while we’re on the subject of the ABC and podcasts… The organization’s podcast conference, OzPod, is coming back for its second year on September 8, with WBEZ’s Jenn White serving — of Making Oprah fame, among many other things — as the keynote speaker. If you’re on the continent this fall, check it out.

Bites:

  • Looks like Anchor is positioning itself to pick up podcast publishers hosted on Soundcloud. An interesting TechCrunch spot, to say the least, titled “Sick of SoundCloud? Anchor offers podcast transfer with free hosting.” Sneaky, sneaky. There are a couple of things at play here that are really interesting to me. I’ll write some thoughts up for next week’s newsletter.
  • From NPR One’s Tamar Charney and analytics manager Nick DePrey: “How to make local listeners care about your story.” (NPR Training Blog)
  • Well that’s interesting for a bunch of reasons: “AudioBoom’s revenue increased by 460 percent to £1,843,000 [USD $2,439,145] in the six months to the end of May, ahead of the previous trading update for the period announced on 7 June.” (Press Release)
  • Charley Locke’s latest is a great profile of a fascinating upcoming project from Night Vale Presents called “Conversations with People Who Hate Me.” That show dropped this week. (Wired)
  • Shouts to Kelly Moffitt: “A new newsletter helps listeners discover podcasts produced in flyover country.” (Poynter)
  • Dissect, one of the more interesting takes on the music podcast, is back with its second season today. (Website)
  • Another contender in the “searchable audio” arena: “With its new project Hertz, Prisa Radio wants to make audio more discoverable online.” (Journalism.co.uk)
  • “With vocal fry and upspeak, these podcast hosts parody the policing of women’s voices.” (The Washington Post)

[photocredit]U.S. capitol building photo by Geoff Livingston used under a Creative Commons license.[/photocredit]