Homepages may be dead, but are daily news podcasts the new front page?

Paywalls and prospects. I’ve always been curious about Stitcher Premium. There are several reasons for this. The first and most prominent is a matter of my inbox: over the past few months, I’ve seen an uptick in messages from creators asking about the pros and cons of working with the paywalled premium podcast platform. Some, I suspect, were driven to inquire by the presence of opportunity. Others, perhaps, were merely curious.

The second reason has to do with my ever-shifting feelings on the value of paywalls within the context of podcasting. I understand the strategic need for business model and product diversification over the long term. But I’ve always been skeptical about the upside for both listeners and creators. In terms of the former, I can’t get past the feeling that it’s incredibly difficult to get someone to pay for something that they can get free alternatives to. In terms of the latter, I tend to see it as a pathway with a high floor but low ceiling — which is to say, it’s a more stable deal, but the trade-off involves a hard limit in what you can get back.

The third reason is risk as it specifically pertains to Midroll. Indeed, the move to build a complementary non-advertising revenue stream is a smart one for the long term. But the short-term trade-off involves possibly incurring the distaste of Apple. The front editorial page of Apple remains valuable real estate for driving earballs, and it’s an open secret that access to said real estate is still very much a manual affair. It’s also been reported that Apple doesn’t really like it when publishers prioritize their own platforms and engage in acts of “windowing” — as in the case of Missing Richard Simmons, a Stitcher Premium collaboration, in which Apple abandoned marketing plans for that podcast after learning that it would be releasing episodes early on the paywalled Stitcher platform, according to Digiday. In my mind, any move to further expand Stitcher Premium’s power, then, is a move that brings the Stitcher-Apple relationship deeper into complication.

Anyway, back to the matter of my inbox. At some point over the past few months, I made a note to myself: once I get thirty inquiries on Stitcher Premium, I’ll hit up Midroll CEO Erik Diehn to lay out his thinking — and his pitch — on the service. It’s been thirty, so here’s a Q&A with Diehn.

[storybreak]

[conl]Hot Pod: I’ve been hearing that you guys have been more aggressive over the past few months in signing up new shows for Stitcher Premium. Is this true?[/conl]

[conr]Erik Diehn: I’m not sure what that means, exactly, but if investing in more great new original content, hiring staff to help connect with more content creators and more listeners, and ramping up on the product side to make a better experience is more aggressive, then I suppose we are!

In truth, we’ve been working for a while on our premium offering, and as with any product, those investments can take time to pay off. Even though we are ramping up, our efforts have really just been a continuous process of growth and improvement. We’ve been steadily adding users, and as the pool of subscribers has grown, so has the budget for Stitcher Premium content. It’s true that we are now at a point where we can undertake some very substantial content projects — e.g. Wolverine — so I can understand the perception that we’re suddenly upping the game. But the reality is that we’ve been pushing just as hard all along, and we’re finally hitting a scale where that’s becoming evident to a wider audience.[/conr]

[conl]Hot Pod: Could you walk me through what, exactly, shows will be getting out of signing up to be distributed through Stitcher Premium? Let’s say I create a decently sized fiction podcast — what’s the incentive to go behind the paywall?[/conl]

[conr]Diehn: I’d phrase it less as the benefits for “signing up” to be on Stitcher Premium and more like this: what are the benefits that a creator, podcaster or publisher can realize from working with Stitcher to develop a premium offering?

Broadly speaking, one very obvious benefit is adding a new revenue source — subscription revenue — that is both complementary to and reduces reliance on advertising. Diversification of revenue is happening throughout the media landscape, and podcasting is no exception. The boom-and-crash cycles of advertising (digital advertising in particular) make growing a sustainable career or business in media risky, and paid models absolutely help mitigate that risk. Creating a premium offering through us is increasingly a reliable and sustainable paid model for podcast talent.

Beyond that, the premium model enables content types that this industry sometimes struggles to successfully support through ad sales — for example, fiction. Short-run series have a very finite window in which to generate ad revenue, but as a paid product can have a long and venerable life as part of a premium catalog offering. Integrating ads into fiction content effectively can be a struggle; with a paid model, they’re not necessary. As a result, our growing pool of premium revenue actually allows creators to get paid to bring things to life that might have never seen the light of day (or at the very least, never earned a dollar otherwise).

Finally, a premium offering is a great way for shows and creators to deliver something extra to their most devoted fans, deepening engagement and giving fans a way to directly support their favorite shows. We’re not alone in doing this — Kickstarter, Patreon, and even public radio all thrive on this idea — but it’s especially effective in podcasting, where great shows earn outsized fan loyalty and affection.[/conr]

[conl]Hot Pod: Setting aside Wolverine, what would you say are the best examples of successful Stitcher Premium campaigns?[/conl]

[conr]Diehn: This list has grown amazingly long; we have thousands of hours of original content available for Stitcher Premium now, and that’s before even considering the many thousands of hours of back catalog/archive content we have available. But if I had to pick a few:

  • WTF: As a launch partner and a pioneer in the paid archive model, this collaboration remains one of the best we’ve entered in to. We’re also pleased that it’s expanded beyond the untouched back catalog; “Lorne Stories” is a great example of how archive content can be repurposed into an original special in a compelling way that really adds value for listeners.
  • The Mysterious Secrets Of Uncle Bertie’s Botanarium: We took a big chance (at the time) on this epic comedic fiction series from Jemaine Clement, and it paid off fabulously. This show gave us a blueprint for what premium original content could be, and it sent a signal to listeners that we’d be raising the bar with what we do.
  • GWF, Bitch Sesh, and other shows with bonus episodes: We have a growing list of partner shows with highly, highly engaged audiences, and we’ve now demonstrated that an extra episode every couple of weeks can really deliver for both creator and fan. We also love that the exchange of value here isn’t limited to the bonus eps — all these fans get access to the full catalog of Stitcher Premium, so the reward they get for supporting their favorite show just grows in value every month.
  • Comedy albums (Comedy Central and AST Records): Early on, these provided a large chunk of the catalog value for our comedy-centric Howl subscribers, but they remain a valuable staple even as the audience expands into new genres. We wanted to make sure we launched with content that was a good value, so bringing in content that was already only available in a paid model was an excellent way to do this.
  • The Seth Morris Radio Project, The Andy Daly Podcast Pilot Project Season 2, Hollywood Masterclass: We have produced so many really amazing and innovative shows for the Earwolf audience from our best Earwolf talent that it’s hard to list them all. We are at a point with Earwolf and comedy that I think we’re really fulfilling the promise of Premium, which is (as I noted earlier) helping creators get paid to bring amazing things to life that might otherwise have not happened.
  • The BBC: I love that we have the full The Hitchhikers’ Guide To The Galaxy radio drama in Stitcher Premium. It was hard to find for a long time, and now we’re able to bring to a whole new generation of listeners.
  • Today, Explained, ad-free: I know we’re a partner in creating it, but I really enjoy this show. And I know we’re a major seller of advertising, but listening to shows ad-free can be a real joy in a world filled with commercial messages.

[/conr]

[conl]Hot Pod: I’m going to guess that you’re not able to publicly disclose the number of Premium subscribers. Can you gesture toward the broad size?[/conl]

[conr]Diehn: That’s correct, I can’t disclose numbers. I can tell you that we’ve hit or exceeded our growth forecasts for two years now, and we are funding projects like Wolverine because we have an audience that’s grown large enough to support projects of that scope.[/conr]

[conl]Hot Pod: Could you talk about the standard deal that shows get if they sign onto Premium? Or does it differ drastically from show to show?[/conl]

[conr]Diehn: These do indeed differ drastically by show. Some deals have been fixed fee; some are based on a share of subscriber revenue. In some cases we’re acquiring IP; in others, we’re just licensing it. But we think that overall, the deals are fair for all sides and providing real value to creators.[/conr]

[conr]Hot Pod: Anything else you want to add?[/conr]

[conr]Diehn: In a nutshell, Stitcher Premium let us build a direct-to-consumer, paid subscription business that provides real revenue to creators (and, obviously, to Midroll). It provides an increasingly large ad-free offering for those who prefer to go ad-free, and it enables and allows new content types and genres at a higher level of support and production than might be possible otherwise.

In our mission to build the best place for podcasts, it’s important for both audiences and creators to really make this offering work, and we’re very encouraged by what we’ve seen so far.[/conr]

Tuesday morning news drop.

  • The BBC has announced that Jason Phipps, currently the head of audio at The Guardian, will be the organization’s first commissioning editor for podcasts. (Not an American!)
  • WNYC and PRI have announced that Tanzina Vega, reporter and columnist previously at CNN and The New York Times, will be the new host of The Takeaway starting May 7. Vega replaces John Hockenberry, who was accused of sexual harassment last December. Todd Zwillich had been serving as the interim host.

“The Daily is the new front page,” said Sam Dolnick, The New York Times’ assistant managing editor, in a speech last Friday during an event celebrating the podcast’s first year. It was a triumphant and somewhat straightforward affair, featuring a mix of Times folk, Daily superfans, and, of course, a number of podcast executives. The gathering also doubled as the pump-primer for the Times Audio team’s upcoming gamble: Caliphate, the limited-run series on the Islamic State hosted by Rukmini Callimachi, which will further serve as the Times’ first attempt at windowing. Subscribers will get the podcast early through the Times app at some point in April; everyone else will have to wait a few more weeks.

The notion of the daily news podcast as the new front page is an interesting one, especially when considered against the conventional wisdom that “the front page is dead” in the age of the social web, which was an argument beaten into me when I was first starting out in the media business, like, four years ago. (Feels like just yesterday, but also an eternity.) The dominance of the social web resulted in what you could describe as a furious atomization of media organizations to the point of non-identity. Within this environment, it’s hard for media entities to express their will as editors, as it’s hard to put your foot down and call something important when the sound of that foot-stepping is smothered by the editorial priorities of opaque, capricious, and vaguely pernicious social media algorithms.

You could argue that a good deal of the power underlying the daily news podcast, and The Daily in particular, comes from the way its structure reclaims the benefits of a holistic editorial identity. As a self-contained media bundle, the editorial team of any given daily news podcast still has the capacity to express judgment, discretion, direction. Within the relative linearity of a podcast episode, a “top story” is truly a top story, as it is fully backed by a consumption context in which the “top story” label means something. That meaning is derived from an established understanding of finitude and scarcity; there is only one story (or one small set of stories) we’re telling you today, and then it ends, because really it’s the biggest thing you need to know in a given morning, and everything else is rendered into something you have to fish out for yourself.

The Daily is paying off for the New York Times — someone was telling me that, beyond whatever advertising revenue it’s generating, the podcast is furthermore a strong piece of brand advertising for the organization. And sure enough, that’s going to have a ripple effect, in that we’re bound to see other companies to build stuff for the category. We already have a decently long list of other daily news podcast publishers: NPR’s Up First, Vox’s Today, Explained, BuzzFeed’s Reporting To You, The Outline World Dispatch.

But we will almost certainly see more in the months to come. ABC News just announced its own daily news podcast, “Start Here,” which will begin its run tomorrow, and from the sounds of the trailer, it sounds like it’s going to be “The Daily, but with these people instead of those people.” And I’ve heard of at least two more major media companies thinking seriously about commissioning their own takes on the genre.

It makes me wonder: what happens to the value of daily news podcasts when the space becomes saturated? I don’t know the answer to that. What happens when there is an abundance of front pages?

Significant digits. KPCC, the Los Angeles public radio station, closed out its first investigative podcast, Repeat, earlier this month, and as of Friday afternoon, the six-part limited-run series has reportedly brought in over 910,000 downloads. “I think we will be hitting that million download mark soon,” Arwen Nicks, senior producer of on-demand audio, told me.

That strikes me as a fairly successful podcast campaign, though it should be noted that KPCC is one of the biggest public radio stations in the country.

A couple of notes:

  • A decent comparison would probably be Minnesota Public Radio’s 74 Seconds. According to this grantee information sheet, that show has brought in more than 1.2 million downloads since its release, making it “the most successful podcast MPR has produced.” However, this isn’t quite a good apples-to-apples comparison. 74 Seconds is an investigative podcast, conducted in semi-real time, that debuted last May and wrapped production in mid-August after 22 installments (not counting a trailer and “further listening” package that dropped in February).
  • “I don’t feel like I have enough data to know exactly what worked and what didn’t as far as getting the word out,” Nicks said, when asked about major learnings from the project. “But my advice for anyone who is trying to get listeners is to get your show featured on NPR One. That was a huge push for us.”
  • The team is currently working on KPCC’s next podcast project. It’s apparently top secret at this writing, with official details to be announced later.

For now, Nicks is no longer waking up in the middle of the night to check download numbers. She also notes that she’s rewatching ER, which she finds “really holds up.”

Speaking of investigative public radio podcasts…

  • In The Dark, American Public Radio’s really good series from 2015, is back with a different case for its second season on May 1. Mark your calendars.
  • Meanwhile, WHYY is bringing back Cosby Unraveled for its own second season, which will endeavor to “prepare listeners for Bill Cosby’s retrial set against the backdrop of the #MeToo moment.” Cosby’s first trial for sexual assault last summer ended in a retrial. That podcast will kick off tomorrow.

Binge notes.

  • Panoply will release its new serialized nonfiction narrative show, Empire on Blood, tomorrow. They’re doing the all episode-drop thing, which we should talk about at some point.
  • Speaking of binge-dropping: tomorrow also marks one year since the release of S-Town. Cheers to Brian Reed, who can be found most recently discussing North Korean walls on This American Life.

No, Gimlet isn’t actually interested in buying NPR One. Went back and forth on including this one, but I received enough messages on the matter that it warranted at least a mention. Let’s bust this out in bullets:

  • During a session at the RAIN Podcast Business Summit last week, Gimlet CEO Alex Blumberg was interviewed by Laura Correnti and Alexa Christon, hosts of the advertising industry podcast Adlandia.
  • Adlandia has this recurring feature called “Kill, Buy, DIY,” which is pretty much what you think it is: a game where guests are made to name advertising or marketing or media thing they’d…kill, buy, or DIY.
  • Anyway, Blumberg’s “Buy” was NPR One, because, well, the dude likes the app.
  • Of course, this being 2018, context takes a hit when something travels. This tweet led to these tweets, which led to folks texting me on a Thursday afternoon about “this Gimlet-NPR One thing,” which then led to you reading this sentence right now.

To put a lid on it, a spokesperson wrote when contacted: “Literally just a compliment to NPR One for being a great app. We, of course, have zero plans at all. It was a hypothetical game!”

So there’s that. That being said, there are kerfuffles, and then there are the conditions that fertilize the growth of kerfuffles in the first place. You could say that this peculiar incident tells us something about Gimlet’s complicated — some would say polarizing — profile in the podcast ecosystem as the big venture capital-backed demogorgon out for global dominance. But you could also say that it tells us something about the anxieties that pervade certain corners around what’s changing in the ecosystem. It’s a strange episode, though a perfectly telling one as well.

Anyway, I imagine the thing that Gimlet is really focused on this week is the premiere of Alex, Inc on ABC, which marks the first of the company’s adaptations to hit the market. That takes place on tomorrow night.

Also, take a gander at this line from a Washington Post article previewing the TV show: “The network, known for producing shows like Reply All and Crimetown, reports that its podcasts are downloaded more than 12 million times per month, and StartUp has ‘tens of millions’ of downloads on its own.” It’s unclear if that’s global or just within the US, but for comparison’s sake, WNYC Studios pulled in over 42 million global downloads in February across 50 shows, per Podtrac. Gimlet had 13 active shows, 5 dormant.

Demogorgon indeed.

Membership in the age of podcasts. So, there’s this thing called the Membership Puzzle Project, and it’s a research collaboration between the Dutch news site De Correspondent and New York University that’s working to pull together knowledge on how news organizations can best integrate membership strategies into their respective business models.

Last week, the project released a new report on how public radio — a system historically built on the strength of memberships carved out from its broadcast audiences — is grappling with the model as the world shifts towards digital modes of consumption.

The whole report is worth plumbing through, but I wanted to break out this chunk:

Podcasts have been successful partly because they offer a way to build new and deeper relationships with niche audiences. WFMU’s Ken Freedman explains: “I wouldn’t want to have a program about architecture on the air because it would turn off all the political people,” he says. “But if you do a podcast, you can work the Internet and find every last person on the face of the planet who is interested in architecture.” By taking advantage of on-demand behavior, public media organizations can create ongoing relationships with these niche audiences, in a new way.

But in the podcast world, the idea of the pledge drive simply doesn’t fit.

“No one would download it,” says Anne [O’Malley, WNYC’s VP of Membership].

Ken says he’s noticed a difference between loyalty to a podcast and loyalty to his station, although he doesn’t frame that difference as a bad thing. “One thing I started noticing about ten years ago: people would say ‘I love that podcast’ not ‘I love WFMU.’ They know of it [the station] because of a podcast. So there has been a huge upsurge in people who just know of us because of a particular program’s podcast.”

A few things:

    • As my buddies at Nieman Lab pointed out, there exists a counter-example: “Slate has experimented successfully with urging listeners to subscribe to Slate Plus within its own podcasts.” However, it’s worth noting that Slate’s strategy there is largely built around additional podcast content for paid members, which isn’t a move that’s all that present in the way public radio stations operate their membership models.
  • Better counter-examples can be found with the fine folks at Maximum Fun and Radiotopia. The former enjoyed a particularly successful drive last year, which I wrote about. That campaign, which took place over two weeks, led to the conversion of 24,181 new and upgrading members. Which is to say: ways to do it well have been done before.
  • Ken Freedman’s perspective here highlights, in precise terms, the audience relationship challenge that comes with the shift toward on-demand: as a publisher, you are now in a position where you can build niche programming that’s able to connect with people far beyond your geographic bounds and well within the depth of that niche’s community — but among the notable trade-offs here is a situation where the identity of a show supersedes the identity of the publisher. I’d argue that this likely shifts the psychology of the ask involved in any sort of pledge drive.

Bites.

  • New York Media has acquired Splitsider from The Awl Network (RIP). Splitsider has a great “This Week in Comedy Podcasts” column that I frequently skim, and I’m excited to see the feature pop up on Vulture. (Wall Street Journal)
  • Art19 now hosts podcasts from the following TV companies: NBC Sports, NBC News, MSNBC, CNBC, NBC Entertainment, Bravo, Oxygen and SYFY.
  • Speaking of Bravo: Connie Britton has been cast in Bravo’s TV adaptation of the Los Angeles Times and Wondery’s Dirty John. (Vulture)
  • And speaking of Wondery: the Los Angeles-based podcast company has another collaboration with a Tronc-owned newspaper in the pipeline: Felonious Florida, with Broward County-area paper Sun Sentinel.
  • First Look Media has a new podcast out to pair with Intercepted: Deconstructed, with the British political journalist Mehdi Hasan.
  • Spotify has rolled out a voice-control feature. I’m not quite ready to say “Play God’s Plan” out loud in public, so you can keep it.

[photocredit]Photo by Holger Prothmann used under a Creative Commons license.[/photocredit]

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 sports turn the local podcast business into a green monster?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m noodling on two more thoughts:

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

Three notes on measurement.

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

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

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

[storybreak]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[storybreak]

Bites:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t we all.

Three more things, quickly:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oookay.

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

Two bits that stood out to me from the article:

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

Do check out the whole article.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bites:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bites:

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

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

Hot Pod: Smart speakers, TV adaptations, newsier podcasts, and other things to watch for in 2017

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 101, published December 20, 2016.

There’s not a lot of big news this week, but there are some chunky ideas to break into!

Predictions. It’s that most wonderful time of the year, when the annual Nieman Lab Predictions for Journalism series trickles in to fill your holiday stockings with an assortment of the aspirational, the dire, the cautiously hopeful. Say what you want about media navel-gazing, but I’m a huge fan — and a participant! — not least because (a) I happen to believe navel-gazing is a productive exercise, (b) I generally think it’s healthy to talk things out, much like therapy, and (c) in any case, the series as a whole serves as a solid method to broadly evaluate where we stand at the end of this year, long and grueling and bizarre as it was, and how we see our way through the days to come.

Anyway, this year’s batch contains some solid podcast-focused pieces, and there were three dominant themes that stand out to me.

(1) Stratification and resistance

Audible SVP of original content Eric Nuzum has a piece that is probably going to be dead-on, more or less. He speculates that 2017 is going to see a “stratification” of podcasting into hard layers, with the professionalizing companies — Big Podcasting, one might even call it — spinning away from the original iTunes-driven RSS infrastructure into its own (probably closed) ecosystem, due to its incentives for growth and control over its data. Nuzum caps off his piece with this:

With the big publishers slowly evolving out of the space, what happens to the overall iTunes/RSS-centric podcast traffic? My fear is that the ecosystem we have invested in all these years will start to resemble the vanity publishing marketplace or the guy selling CDs out of the trunk of his car after gigs: a place that’s easy to publish into, but rarely yields a significant audience. Which means we’re just making it harder for our industry’s indies to grow into future hitmakers.

It’s certainly…interesting that this view should come from an executive of what is perhaps the most explicitly closed-off on-demand audio ecosystem — Channels, like everything else in the growing Bezos media empire, is a gigantic black box for anybody outside the shop, and one wonders what Nuzum is finding, and how he squares all that away with what he’s saying here. It’s also pretty interesting that what Nuzum is describing is a lot like the notion of Silicon Valley breaking off from the union to create its own island super-state, a separation that follows decades of foundational support from the mainland. The principal questions that flow from this are twofold: (1) what is the responsibility of Big Podcasting toward the independents and the original ecosystem? And (2) what can the indies do?

My own entry in the series echoes Nuzum’s realist sensibilities:

Podcasting is going to further formalize at the emerging professionalizing layer, and the bulk of advertising growth will be captured at the top. Value will not trickle down, gains will not be equally spread. The independent community will be pressured into self-organizing. Though the ecosystem will end the year less open than when it started the year, there will at least be formal sites of resistance.

We shall see.

(2) The newsy podcast

This prediction by Asma Khalid, who served as one of the primary panelists on the NPR Politics podcast, about our likelihood of seeing a boom in newsy podcasts next year really resonated with me. Here’s the money:

I predict we’ll see more news-oriented podcasts from traditional outlets, regardless of their fluency with audio. In other words, the sense of a gold rush that’s permeated the podcasting market since Serial will only swell larger, with startup shows, professional media organizations, and one-hit wonders all flooding iTunes and other podcast platforms. In the long run, many will die; the true barometer of success will likely be the quality of the product. And, in my mind, this is twofold: (1) quality audio production that’s easy and comfortable to listen to, and (2) charismatic hosts with dynamic personalities and diverse perspectives.

Much of what Khalid describes has already come to pass. We saw an absolute flood of newsy podcasts from traditional media organizations this year, an overwhelming portion of which were pegged to the recently concluded 2016 presidential election cycle. But that isn’t to dispute Khalid’s point; if anything, it further validates it, and sets the conditions for an even bigger flood ahead. This year’s bumper crop of election-related podcasts left us with a great deal to work with, especially the following two things:

  • The foundation for a production workflow and template that supports the continuous, dynamic creation of news cycle-driven podcasts.
  • A base group of listeners that are primed to consume newsy podcasts in this manner.

Adding to this thread, there’s another piece up in the series by Why Oh Why’s Andrea Silenzi that offers an idea that should be taken very seriously by podcast publishers considering newsier material: the notion that dynamic ad insertion technology can be used to create a regularly updated newscast. (One that doesn’t flood your podcast app, the way the NPR Hourly News Summary feed used to do.) I really, really can’t agree more, and I’ve been arguing for something similar as far back as August, when I briefly wrote about the design challenges of political podcasts. Back then, I argued: “Break the archives, throw the whole frozen-in-time nature of the podcast episode out the damn window, and update older episodes in the archives as further developments take place. Theoretically speaking, this is a feasible option, given the possibilities afforded by dynamic ad insertion.”

Do it, people. Come on. I know you can do it.

(3) Voice-based computing

Steve Henn, the former Planet Money reporter who now serves as the co-founder of short-form audio platform 60dB, argues that speech and audio are the next paradigm for computing. The splash quote:

Today, we’re at the very beginning of the next big change — voice. Amazon’s Echo, Google Home, and Siri are simple, imperfect computers you can talk to. They’re often frustrating, but they’re getting better fast. These new platforms are going to compete for the time in your life when you can’t look at a screen. They are going to be there when your eyes and hands are busy.

Henn then argues that the first killer apps of this new computing (and media-distributing) paradigm is going to look a lot like radio that’s intelligent and driven by user-context, a solution that sounds a lot like the thing he’s trying to build over at 60dB. (Typical.)

I don’t know about that, but for what it’s worth, I do think he’s right about smart speakers (and whatever the hell AirPods are supposed to portend) being the area to watch in the coming year, and that it is, indeed, a considerable opportunity for on-demand audio companies to structurally diversify away from the constraints of RSS feeds on mobile devices. This might end up being a frying pan-into-the-fire situation — Alexa, after all, is yet another platform you don’t quite control — but I suppose we’ll all cross that bridge when we get there. (Relevant factoid: about a third of Amazon Echo users use the thing three times or more every day, according to Backchannel.)

So those are the big ones that stood out to me, but be sure not to miss the other predictions from some familiar faces. Consider the piece by Guy Raz, he of TED Radio Hour and How I Built This fame, in which he argues that “inspiration and hope will matter more than ever.” And you might want to pair that with WNYC president Laura Walker, who sees a year in which journalism tightens its lens on “small” stories — that is, authentic stories of individual lives, grounded in details. Oh, and don’t miss Libby Bawcombe’s call for more kid-focused podcast programming that builds on the work done by some fine places like the Kids Listen project, or Andrew Ramsammy‘s manifesto on the “rise of the rebel journalist.”

And while you’re digging through those, do you stick around for all the other stuff too. Everything discussed — fake news, media business models, local journalism, trust — directly applies to everything we do in the podcast industry, as well as every aspect of how we live outside of it.

Other things I’m watching for in 2017. Those three themes I just pointed out also happen to make up the main things I’m going to be tracking in the new year. Here are four more things I’m going to keep in mind:

  • How much did podcast audiences grow in 2016? We’ll find out in Edison’s Share of Ear study, which will publish in the summer.
  • What will Apple do (if anything), and what will become of our distributor-saturated environment?
  • How will podcast advertising evolve? Will it grow beyond the host-read ads, or will we see better innovations on the format?
  • Will we see a major hit, something we didn’t quite see in 2016?

Gimlet TV, part two. Homecoming, the company’s so-called “experimental fiction” podcast, is being developed for television by Sam Esmail, creator of the highly popular Mr. Robot, according to a Deadline exclusive. The article describes the deal as emerging from a “very competitive situation,” and notes that the project is expected to be shopped around to premium cable networks or platforms like Netflix and Amazon Video early next year. This marks Gimlet’s second television project after the October announcement of a StartUp adaptation getting a strong vote of confidence from ABC.

This development shouldn’t be all that surprising. Back when the Startup-ABC deal was announced, I asked Gimlet’s Chris Giliberti — who was then the company’s chief of staff and has since transitioned into the role of “head of multiplatform” — whether the company would be pursuing more adaptation deals, and he hinted strongly that more deals like this are on the way. (“Hopefully :)” was his exact email reply.)

Furthermore, Homecoming feels like a project that’s tailor-made for adaptation by another (much more lucrative) media industry. Its impressive cast, which includes film stars Oscar Isaac and Catherine Keener along with TV veteran David Schwimmer, certainly makes it easier for film and television executives to imagine the project in their respective mediums, and its impressionistic threadbare plot is largely defined by an abundance of negative space that allows writers to do whatever they want with the intellectual property.

You should probably expect to see a crap-ton more adaptation deals like this in the year to come, as podcasts firm up their status as yet another cavern that film and TV studios can mine for intellectual property, having exhausted young adult novels and comic books.

NPR One data and local listening. Be sure not to miss a post that’s up on Current right now by Tamar Charney, who currently serves as the project’s acting managing director following Sara Sarasohn’s departure back in September. The post expounds upon listening data that her team has been collecting off the app, drawing a few editorial lessons that are not just applicable to local public radio stations, but to podcasts more generally. Here’s the finding that should apply to most of you:

We can’t overstate how important the start of a podcast is. When [NPR innovation accountant] Nick DePrey examined podcast-listening data on NPR One, he found a typical episode loses 20 to 35 percent of the listening audience within the first five minutes. The rate of the dropoff is higher within the first five minutes than at any time until the credits roll.

What does this tell us? Listeners make their decisions to commit to a podcast in those crucial opening moments. A mediocre episode with a good intro will almost always perform better than a great episode with a poor intro. In a world in which we’re increasingly competing for the listener’s attention against so many other entertainment options — audio or otherwise — you need to justify from the very first moment why the audience should choose you. Only established shows with loyal followings can overcome uninteresting or non-engaging beginnings.

Seems like a no-brainer, but it’s always a useful finding to recall and reinforce, and it’s always nice to see all of that backed up by data.

Anyway, I can’t recommend Charney’s post enough, especially if you’re interested in local news and, more specifically, the potential for on-demand audio delivery of local news. That said, keep in mind that, in your own internalization of the learnings, it’s worth continuously interrogating the ways in which NPR One data listening is representative of broader listening behaviors. We don’t, for example, know the overall sample size of unique listeners in this study, nor do we have a good sense of how strong the differences are in the consumption behavior between NPR One users and general public radio listeners, and between NPR One users and listening app users in general.

Nevertheless, I’m really into the extended discussion about local newscast consumption off NPR One and what it tells us about the role they play in the relationship between listeners, the stuff in those newscasts, and the channel through which they are distributed.

“When a listener hears a local newscast, statistically they are more likely to listen to NPR One again and listen longer than listeners who don’t get a local newscast,” Charney writes. She is prompted to then wield the following metaphor: “That makes me wonder if newscasts are like the bread on the table at a restaurant. You probably don’t choose a restaurant because of that bread, but you’d be disappointed if it weren’t there.”

It’s an interesting idea, and I’m tempted to agree. Another way you could cut it, I suppose, is to see newscasts as something that doesn’t get folks through the door, but gets them to stay. Which sounds a lot like one of the major ways you could think through how a print newspaper functions: so-called “hard news” isn’t quite the product that drives the purchase, but a positive (albeit somewhat optional) consequence of the other stuff that makes up the issue.

Cool cool cool.

Bites:

  • Two developments in the New York Times’ audio team: The Gray Lady has hired Theo Balcomb, currently the supervising producer of NPR’s All Things Considered, as a senior producer. (Giving credence, perhaps, to rumors that the Times might be swinging for a daily news show soon.) The Times also announced that Michael Barbarro, host of The Run-Up, is moving into the audio department full-time, and will be developing an “exciting new project that will launch in early 2017.” Additionally, The Run-Up will continue past the inauguration.
  • Bloomberg Businessweek is launching a new interview podcast, “Debrief,” driven by editor-in-chief Megan Murphy. First up on the guest list: J.P. Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon, with the episode dropping on Thursday.
  • News UK, the British subsidiary of News Corp, is planning to nearly double the podcast output for its tabloid paper, The Sun, and its daily national newspaper, The Times. According to Digiday, the conglomerate hopes to increase the number of shows from six to ten, with each new show focusing on specific verticals to attract advertisers. (Digiday)
  • The latest Caroline Crampton: “Why we like podcasts that break down TV episode by episode.” Personally, I’m more fascinated by the distinction between recap culture and criticism as well as the structural similarities between TV recap podcasts and sports talk radio. (New Statesman)
  • Art19 has hammered down a partnership with Feral Audio, expanding its clientele that includes Midroll Media, The New York Times, DGital Media, and Wondery. (Press Release)
  • Vox.com’s podcast audiences apparently grew by 300 percent in the past year, according to Vox Media’s year in review report. An impressive number, though we don’t quite know the base number. (Vox Media)
  • Radio Atlas, that nifty website with video translations of notable non-English audio documentaries, is being featured at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York. The event description calls the project “a new and unique form of cinema.” Really cool. (Museum of the Moving Image)
  • “NPR & AIR team up on post-election coverage to take public media deep into local.” (MediaShift)
  • “The globalization of local radio.” (New York Magazine)
  • Still processing this critique of the positivism (and “explainerism”) endemic in a certain kind of podcast genre: the “gee whiz,” “hidden forces of everyday things” science storytelling shows prevalent within public radio. Note that the author erroneously conflates all the podcasts he discusses under the NPR umbrella. (The New Inquiry)

Have a great holidays, folks. I’m taking the next two weeks off, and I’ll see you in the new year.

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

Hot Pod: Macmillan’s new network shows how podcasts can be a logical next step for book publishers

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue ninety-nine, published December 6, 2016.

Midroll’s new executive hires:

  • Korri Kolesa is the new head of sales, replacing Lex Friedman as he settles into his new chief revenue officer role.
  • Eric Spiegelman is the new VP of business affairs, taking now-CEO Erik Diehn’s place. I’m told more information on this hire will be released soon.

  • Peter Clowney is the new executive editor. He was previously the head editor at Gimlet Media.

Of particular interest is Kolesa, who is taking over what is probably Midroll’s biggest revenue engine, its ad sales business. A digital media veteran with ample experience heading up sales teams for digital products not yet quite understood by the advertisers — she led the strategy for sites in the Fox Interactive Media portfolio like MySpace and IGN in the late 2000s, if that means anything to you — Midroll is bringing Kolesa in to transition its sales operations out of its often patchwork startup configurations toward structures more capable of scaling. She was most recently a project director at Spark No. 9, a consultancy aimed at launching new businesses.

“Our team already knows how to sell, so the focus now is going to be, ‘What can we optimize?'” said Lex Friedman, who has headed sales at the company since 2013. Friedman was recently promoted to chief revenue officer, following former CEO Adam Sachs’ departure over the summer. Friedman will still be involved on the sales side, but his role will see him spending more time figuring out the next steps for the company’s emerging live events strategy and getting ready for a “significant announcement” regarding its premium subscription business, Howl. That’ll come “pretty soon.” Kolesa started work yesterday.

The road ahead for the Quick and Dirty Tips network. The decade-old, 12-podcast-strong network recently surpassed its 250 million lifetime download, and it’s getting ready for a busy, but focused, 2017. Network head Kathy Doyle told me over email:

We’re focused on continuing to build QDT’s audience and increase distribution for our core shows. We’re always open to testing new talent but, for now, we want to ensure we’re able to tap into the surge we’re all seeing in podcast consumption and make sure we’re reaching new listeners as we work to continue our great growth.

Also on the plate: the launch of a sister network. For those unfamiliar, QDT is a joint venture between Macmillan Publishing and Mignon Fogarty, whose Grammar Girl podcast anchors the network (you can find more details in a recent profile by Simon Owens), and Doyle informs me that the publishing house is getting ready to launch the Macmillan Podcast Network, its own slate of author-centric shows. She writes:

We’re taking our expertise and leveraging relationships with in-house Macmillan authors who are logical fits for the medium. These new shows will come in a variety of formats to help deepen relationships with readers and expand an author’s platform.

This new Macmillan network appears to be the logical conclusion of a long-running trend that sees authors adopting podcasts as a channel to deepen and sustain their relationship with audiences — and build out alternative revenue stream to book sales. (See: Maximum Fun’s podcast with Elizabeth Gilbert, Panoply’s Happier with Gretchen Rubin podcast, and so on.) I’d be interested to see if other book publishers will follow suit, though, given that none of them possess an arrangement quite like that between Macmillan and QDT, I kinda doubt it.

Anyway, the nascent Macmillan Podcast Network is kicking things off by releasing a preview of an upcoming author show: Raise My Roof with Cara Brookins, which is meant to accompany Brookins’ memoir that’s scheduled for a January release.

Some non-American NPR One listeners will be able to donate directly to NPR through the app, starting next year. This marks the first time the public radio mothership is establishing a contribution pipeline directly with listeners, according to Current.

If you’re asking, what about Americans? Well, join the club. When I popped the question over to the network, a spokesperson replied: “We are actively working to improve the local-station pledge experience within the app over the coming months… In 2017, we will expand on this by working with a pilot group of stations to explore a more direct connection between their listeners and their payment gateway.”

That likely means direct donations from American listeners to NPR will remain off the table. If that bums you out, considering purchasing 50 Nina Totin’ Bags off the NPR merch site. The effect is probably equivalent, plus some percentage sales tax.

The Financial Times rolls out the latest in its growing line of podcasts last week: Everything Else, a culture magazine show. This marks the fifth podcast that the paper has launched in 2016. (Which, y’know, seems kind of aggressive.)

When I asked how the paper evaluates its podcast strategy, a spokesperson replied:

We measure the success of our podcasts in a number of ways. Subscriber numbers are important, of course, but we also gather data on engagement — whether readers favorite or share our podcasts, whether readers write in and interact with our hosts. Shows like FT Management’s Business Book Review and Alphachat have particularly enthusiastic listener responses.

High engagement is great, but of course, the larger question is whether the organization will be able to translate that into a proportional revenue outcome that would justify the investment. Anyway, when I requested some stats on the publication’s podcast audience, I was told there were over 3.5 million downloads of FT podcasts in the last 30 days. Cut that up however you will.

Just a side note: the only FT podcast that I consume with any regularity is Alphachat. That show goes deep, really embracing its casual wonkiness — a direct extension of its parent blog, Alphaville, which just celebrated its 10-year anniversary — and that’s generally a winning formula for the specific value proposition that the medium brings to a publication like The Financial Times.

The Outline went live yesterday, with a new podcast in its lineup: Sound Show. The publication also has two other shows: Tomorrow, which basically functions as founder Joshua Topolsky’s personal stump, and Out West, a fan theory pod for HBO’s Westworld, which wrapped its first season this past weekend. And for those keeping tabs: the pods are hosted on Megaphone.

Outline audio director John Lagomarsino tells me that he’s totally taking freelance pitches for Sound Show. “We’re not limiting it to just in-house writers, by any means. Multi-story episodes with a mix of writers/producers is totally the vibe we’re gonna arrive at,” he says. Hit it up, buds.

The Interactive Advertising Bureau releases a revised Digital Audio Buyer’s Guide. For those unfamiliar, the IAB is a trade association that functions as a kind of mediating body between various elements of the digital media ecosystem and the advertising community. The IAB has played a somewhat active role in attempting to attract more advertisers to the podcast industry, in part by trying to get podcast companies to cooperate over a standard ad metric (last I heard, with mixed results), in part by setting the narrative for advertisers. The buyer’s guide comes out from the latter, and this particular version was prepared by Jennifer Lane, the association’s newly appointed Industry Initiatives Lead for Audio. Lane previously worked at the digital audio trade news site RAIN News.

Obviously, check out the guide in full if you work on the advertising side of things, but this is what I’m primarily thinking about:

One has to wonder about the narrative/branding effects of lumping podcasts together with the rest of digital audio, placing the format — and its very specific quirks (as well as potential) — within the same buying conversation as streaming services like Pandora, Spotify, and iHeartMedia. Those latter companies currently function at a much greater scale than podcasts, and the value propositions for the two groups, both in terms of advertising formats and content, are drastically different. That being said, there is some transaction to be made in that consolidation of types, I think; podcasting is able to get some spillover attention from those digital audio platforms whose narratives are already established, while those platforms benefit somewhat from the shiny novelty of podcasting’s (re)surging profile. (It is, after all, something new to talk about, no?) The question is whether or not that transaction is equitable, and that’s up to you to decide. My personal, initial impression is that it isn’t, and that the podcast industry suffers more from experiencing a high likelihood of being subjected to inappropriate one-to-one audience comparisons.

In any case, I’ve previously written about my suspicion that we’re bound for a convergence in platforms and types either way — that at some point, the term “podcasting” will have no functional purpose as the content being developed in the industry becomes more agnostic in how it’s distributed. (We’ve begun to see some of that. Two examples: iHeartMedia’s peculiar creep into the podcast space; Audible’s repackaging of one of its original programs for distribution outside its Channels ecosystem.) I stand by the conclusion I made back when I first wrote about that potential convergence: that the podcast space, as well as the digital audio space more broadly, will begin to be more defined by its content type than by its distribution structure.

Related: iHeartRadio is apparently producing a podcast with Arianna Huffington’s new media venture, Thrive Global. Hm.

A mess of options. The number of potential distribution points for on-demand audio is kinda getting out of hand. Consider the following question in the last month of 2016: if you’re a podcast publisher, which distribution platform should you be keeping a close eye on and investing tangible resources toward?

You have, of course, the de facto stronghold that everybody already knows about and has probably dedicated much of their distribution strategy to wooing: the native iOS Podcast app and its underlying iTunes infrastructure, whose share of ear is roughly upwards of 50 percent. But you also have the wide, wide range of independent third-party podcast apps, from Overcast to Castro, all of which command some small percentage of the overall podcast listenership. And then you have Stitcher, previously one of the biggest of those third-party apps, which was acquired earlier this year by Midroll Media and is therefore likely to see some resurgence in capital and activity.

Now, let’s not forget the slew of new, buzzy contenders, like RadioPublic and 60dB (not to mention the public radio–specific NPR One, which is less new but remains nonetheless part of this category), all jonesing to do some exciting with the consumer-side experience. And then you have the larger music streaming platforms, like Google Play Music and Spotify, which over the past year have added podcasts into their inventory… to so-far little revolutionary effect, it appears. (Which reminds me: best not leave out Pandora’s lone dalliance into the space with This American Life and Serial.)

And then we have the more unconventional routes to market — things like Otto Radio, with its car-specific integrations and recently announced partnership with Uber, and the Amazon Alexa platform, which is pulling in a steady stream of short content publishers. And what about the spread of older audio streaming platforms in the space, like iHeartMedia and TuneIn, which are agitating their way into podcasts, whatever that means for those companies that come from drastically different structural interpretations of digital audio? Oh, and what about the connected car dashboard? (What ABOUT the dashboard?)

It’s a mercilessly long list, and from the whispers I’ve been hearing, it’s only going to get a whole lot longer as we move into the new year. Which is theoretically interesting; while I don’t completely buy the oft-uttered refrain that podcast discovery and distribution is broken — even now at the very end of 2016 (garbage, garbage 2016) — it remains well below par, and what’s theoretically exciting about all of this is how this reflects a high level of competition in approaches for how to improve listening experiences and growing the overall pie, which I view as a good thing.

But at this point in time, all those approaches are yet-to-be-fully-realized potentials, and a good chunk of them are requesting support — or at least, cooperation and participation — from publishers. This presents a problem for the perpetually resource-constrained podcast publisher, which I articulated at the top of this item: which nascent distribution platform should I be keeping a close eye on and investing tangible resources toward? I can’t tell you what to do, but here are three quick thoughts on the matter:

  • The basics: keep in mind that any such partnership is a transaction, and just the math of figuring out of whether any such arrangement you strike up equitably benefits both sides. After all, both publisher and platform are targeting the same thing: more listeners/users, and at the end of the day one imagines there would be some eventual tension in how both parties are competing for listener/user loyalty.
  • It’s quite possible that we end up in a situation where each app commands very specific kinds of users. Consider the possibility that a user who ends up primarily listening to podcasts over Spotify doesn’t possess the same demographic or psychographic profile as a user who favors RadioPublic. These differences, then, should be the basis of a publisher’s strategy in the way it chooses which distribution partnership to invest more time, energy, and resources in. This also suggests a way every distributor can illustrate its value proposition in attempts to cultivate greater cooperation or participation with a given publishing partner.
  • This point should be obvious, but I’ll say it anyway: if you’re a resource-constrained publisher, don’t overextend yourself across all possible partnership options. Pick your battles, and your partners, wisely.

Anyway, that’s all I’ll say about that.

Bites:

  • Gimlet Creative, the company’s branded content division, has a launched a show for Tinder, the dating app/cultural shorthand for “oh you know what a world we live in now.” It’s called… well, DTR. (Wall Street Journal)
  • Sam Sanders is leaving the NPR Politics Podcast roster at the end of January, though he’s staying at the public radio mothership and will be launching a new show (Twitter). Sanders’ co-panelist, Asma Khalid, is leaving NPR to work the biz/tech beat at WBUR. She will also be launching a new podcast ((Twitter).
  • DGital Media is reportedly seeing revenue “in the high seven figures.” (LA Biz Journal)
  • “Hearst is launching a 10-person team tasked with building voice-activated experiences.” (AdWeek)
  • “Using podcasts to capture stories: Gardner Pilot Academy sixth graders push their writing and technical skills.” (Harvard Gazette)
  • “Here’s the climate change podcast you didn’t know you were looking for.” (The Verge)

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

Hot Pod: Will 60dB’s algorithms and user experience give it a lead over other audio platforms?

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue ninety-four, published November 1, 2016.

Tiny Garage Labs pushed its short-form audio platform 60dB out into the public last week and bagged itself a bit of press, with writeups from Fast Company, Lifehacker, TechCrunch, and Nieman Lab. A few weeks ago, I briefly wrote about 60dB and the Silicon Valley-based team, which is made up of Netflix veterans John Ciancutti and Steve McLendon together with NPR alum Steve Henn. Back then, it was still in beta, and I made a point to draw attention to its focus on individual segments as the atomic unit of content.

Now that 60dB is out in the wild, I’m still not particularly sure what to make of it. But here are two things I’m thinking about:

1. It would be imprecise to view 60dB, as Fast Company’s headline suggests, as intending to solve the structural problems of podcasts. (Though, from the looks of the app’s current content offerings, it does not mind getting involved with them for now.) Rather, the app is best interpreted as attending to the larger listener experience problems associated with broadcast radio, whose distribution structure is deeply inefficient.

Ciancutti explained the problem when we spoke last week: As a radio listener, you essentially have two options when you encounter something you don’t want — you can either change the station or wait for time to pass within the confines of a specific station. (On the supply side, the problem can be viewed this way: At any given point of time, a station only has one interface point with which to work on its relationship with a listener.) 60dB’s gambit, as a platform, is to solve the efficiencies on both the listener and publisher side: Listeners are freed from the slog of unwanted experiences and having to make the bulk of choices, through a largely automated consumptive experience driven by shorter content chunks strung together by “algorithmic personalization.” And publishers will enjoy larger volumes of listeners efficiently sorted from multiple directions into their show portfolios.

Sound familiar? It’s basically the premise of almost every digital content platform from Facebook to Spotify to, well, Netflix. Which means that the attendant considerations and calculations for publishers should be the same, as they’ve lived through this story multiple times before — and are living through versions of it now.

Considerations like: Who will ultimately own the audience, 60dB or the publisher? Would the benefit of developing for the platform outweigh the potential lack of direct audience ownership in the future? What is the likelihood of a mutually beneficial audience development for both the publisher and the platform? And so on and so on.

Which is not to say that publishers are destined to play out any particular future here, or that there isn’t substantial benefit in collaborating with Tiny Garage Labs at this moment. 60dB stands to build out a new audience development arm for publishers that they are unable to explore for themselves, and publishers stand to provide 60dB with some compelling, structurally optimized content. What I’m merely saying is: At the end of the day, the devil will be in the details of the deal.

“We’re closing deals with specific partners,” Ciancutto told me. “We’re helping partners to tell and make these kinds of audio stories.” When I asked about the monetization end of the deal for publishers, he replied: “It’s stuff we still have to work on and figure out. Right now, we’re working on nailing the experience. Monetization will come next.”

2. There’s also the more fundamental question about whether 60dB’s gambit is a winning one. Two out of the three founders are Netflix veterans, and the team leans on that connection pretty hard. One imagines the shape of its strategy is appropriately Netflix-like. What does that mean? It’s helpful to refer to analyst Ben Thompson’s Stratechery newsletter this week, which spells out that strategy:

Netflix has built leverage and monopsony power over the premium video industry not by controlling distribution, at least not at the beginning, but by delivering a superior customer experience that creates a virtuous cycle: Netflix earns the users, which increases its power over suppliers, which brings in more users, which increases its power even more.

But the success of a strategy lies not just on its shape, but on the strength of its variables as well. And so the relevant question here is: Will 60dB’s interpretation of “superior customer experience” — shorter content units, largely algorithmically driven experiences — pay off?

A potential clue can perhaps be found in examinations of another media platform type whose dynamics function similarly: ad exchanges. In a piece published last week at The New York Review of Books, Slate group chairman Jacob Weisberg made the following observation: “Ad exchanges…have made digital advertising more efficient without necessarily making it more effective in increasing sales.” Which is to say, time will tell whether 60dB’s gambit of equating content efficiency with effective experiences will amount to anything, and I’m very curious to see where this goes.

Gimlet officially announced its fall launch slate this morning, and in doing so, offers a look into what appears to be a new phase for the company. Close observers probably know many of these new shows already — they were unveiled during the Brooklyn Upfronts event over the summer — but this morning’s press release revealed a previously unannounced audio drama project with a high profile cast.

Here’s the lineup:

  • Undone, a show hosted by former Radiolab producer Pat Walters that revisits big events from the past. It’s a familiar premise, one most recently utilized to great effect by Malcolm Gladwell and Panoply with Revisionist History. Launches November 14.
  • Homecoming, an original audio drama project that’ll feature Oscar Isaac, Catherine Keener, and David Schwimmer on the talent roster. Launches November 16.
  • Crimetown, which will mark Gimlet’s first foray into the ever-dependable true crime genre. The podcast is driven by part of the team behind HBO’s The Jinx — whose bubbling popularity back in early 2015 compelled critical associations with Serial — and it will examine organized crime in Providence, Rhode Island. Launches November 20.

Additionally, the company’s flagship StartUp podcast will kick off its latest full season this Thursday. This fourth season follows Dov Charney, the controversial former American Apparel CEO who was forced out of the fashion giant in 2014 following numerous reports of misconduct — including sexual harassment — as he pursues a new venture. (Frankly, I’m morbidly interested in hearing how the StartUp team handles this. The push from their end would be for reporting, the push from his end is likely image rehabilitation, and how that dynamic plays out will be the thing to watch.)

Two things:

1. The close proximity of all the launches really stands out to me here. We’re talking three launches in seven days, with each project having its own distinct press hook. Clumping is a smart strategy, I think, one that focuses attention is a way that presents Gimlet with a clear run of opportunities to firmly shape its narrative. The staggered launches of the company’s previous shows (Heavyweight in mid-September, Science Vs in late July) led to a pretty diffuse sense of momentum, and when it comes to a hits-based business — which Gimlet most definitely is — launch momentum is a crucial kind of capital.

2. Also interesting: the strategic conservatism in these bets. You can see the math at work in all three projects: the combination of a legacy radio talent with a classic premise (Undone), stacking an experimental deck with Hollywood talent (Homecoming), and tapping into a battle-tested genre that is a staple on the iTunes charts (Crimetown). Not knocking the choices here; given Gimlet’s high-value-per-project business model and a growing need for its next big hit, these are understandable moves.

The company marches into November following a few optically rough weeks between the Mystery Show controversy and the subsequent winding down of Sampler, two developments that were even dissonant within the context of the most recent StartUp mini-season, which kicked off a few hours after the Mystery Show announcement with an anxiety narrative that seemed to further split its private and public narrative. This November launch week presents a much-needed break from the past, and a chance for the company to reset its bearings.

Planet Money’s Neal Carruth is NPR’s new general manager for podcasts, a brand new position. According to the announcement memo, Carruth “will support the teams working on those shows, strengthen connections between our podcast portfolio and the newsroom and member stations, and support innovation and new program development across NPR as a key member of the newly expanded NPR Story Lab.” He will report to Anya Grundmann, VP of programming and audience development.

“I think we could probably have much richer conversations about NPR’s strategy in a few months, but what I can say is this reflects the seriousness of NPR’s commitment to podcasting,” Carruth said, when I asked about his strategy. “A big part of this for me is talent development — leveraging the incredible talent we have in our newsroom and inside the public radio system. I want to make sure NPR is a great place for creative people.”

He added: “And we want to make sure that member stations are part of this too.” (Poynter ran a longer interview with Carruth, if you’re interested.)

The hiring process for the position took place over a five-month period, with the job posted back in June. This news emerges from the shadow of the NPR podcast promotion kerfuffle (which raised questions over the organization’s relationship to podcasts) back in March, the WBAA-This American Life brouhaha (which raised questions over the broader public radio system’s relationship to podcasts and digital audio) back in May, and NPR One managing editor Sara Sarasohn’s departure from the organization in early September. NPR has been driving a positive wave of announcements lately, unveiling its restructured Story Lab initiative and drawing attention to a strong ratings increase (though, as Current’s Adam Ragusea reported, it’s unclear how to read that apart from a tweak in measurement methodology and the bump from a bonkers election year).

Carruth, a 17-year NPR veteran who most recently ran the business desk and oversaw the Planet Money podcast, will start his new role after Thanksgiving. (He’s also a super chill dude.) David Sweeney will temporarily take over the business desk.

Travel Pod. There’s huge overlap between food media and travel media: a trading in the currency of desire, an editorial choice or balance between dispensing information and peddling fantasy, an indexing towards the visual. Also worth noting to the list of shared traits is the tension I wrote about a few weeks ago within food media — between food media and media about food — which applies, I think, just as well to the travel vertical, though I do struggle to think of strong contemporary examples of viscerally driven travel media beyond the heyday of the Travel Channel circa early 2000s. (I had cable once, as a child, and it was beautiful.)

Roads and Kingdoms, a Brooklyn-based digital media concern, is one such example of a media company about travel, in the sense that it plays with the symbols of globetrotting fantasy while running longform magazine-y pieces. (A chilled-out person’s Vice, one would say.) There is much I find fascinating about R+K: its magazine gloss, its malleable niche, its acceptance of investment by media personality Anthony Bourdain. This is the kind of boutiquey media company that counts among its leaders a guy, one Nathan Thornburgh, who says stuff like: “A great listicle about seven cabanas and seven beaches is still going to kill on the Internet and power glossy magazines, but there are lots of people who think about travel as losing yourself in someone else’s life.”

The company, of course, is pursuing a podcast project, which will be called The Trip. Hosted by Thornburgh and executive editor Kara Parks, the show will showcase the kinds of stories that you’d expect from the site — a mix of travelogue, foreign journalism, cultural anthropology, scenes, and places pieces — and will be backed by sound-rich production values. Bourdain will feature in some pieces. I’m curious.

Production is led by Josie Holtzman, a Brooklyn-based producer on NPR Music’s Jazz Night in America. Philadelphia-based Alex Lewis is handling the ad creative, a set of short midroll profiles on chefs working in New York City’s Lower East Side. The first season, which will run for six episodes, is sponsored in full by Tiger Beer, and Panoply will play a supporting role with distribution and promotion, whatever that means. It will tentatively launch in the first week of March 2017.

Governmental advertising on U.K. podcasts? Caroline Crampton, an assistant editor at the left-of-center British publication the New Statesman (which has a healthy podcast roster), writes in to let me know about a string of governmental ad buys that have been taking place on UK podcasts. Over email, she explained:

We’ve had two major government-sponsor campaigns on our shows. The first ran in spring this year, and was about the benefits to UK companies of exporting their goods to other countries (part of this initiative) and the other is from the Department of Work and Pensions and encourages small business owners to sign up for the new government Workplace Pensions Scheme (this one is due to run from 7 November). Both were sponsor reads, rather than externally-recorded ads, so we were sent a brief containing the facts and figures and then our hosts worked with it to create the final audio. Both campaigns appeared on the New Statesman Podcast, which is our biggest show and focuses on UK politics, and were mostly about spreading information — the action listeners was asked to take was just to read a website for more details.

I asked Crampton if she had heard of anything beyond governmental ads. She replied:

We haven’t yet seen any non-government political ads in the UK as far as I’m aware — at the New Statesman we haven’t yet been approached by a candidate or political campaign, and I haven’t heard such an ad anywhere else. My sense is that government media buyers have bigger budgets than everyone else in the political sphere, and are thus able to be a bit more forward-thinking and experimental with how they spend their cash. They seem to be trying out podcasts as a new platform for citizen informational campaigns beyond the more traditional posters and radio/TV spots. I don’t know of any political party or union that is yet choosing to spend money with podcasts as a way of reaching voters or members, although given that the 2015 general election was the first time the UK really saw parties spending big money on targeted social media ads (dominating the so-called “cyber war” is considered to be a big part of why the Conservatives won a surprise victory) I don’t think party political podcast campaigns can be that far off here.

Fascinating. Crampton, by the way, recently launched a new podcast criticism column in the New Statesman, and you should check it out.

Bites:

  • Oh, NPR’s Story Lab Pitch Portal is now live! (NPR)
  • Audible crawls out into the wild west: One of its original shows, Presidents Are People Too, is now available for free in podcatchers everywhere. “It’s been our plan since the beginning to try other platforms as a way to introduce listeners to the great series we have available at Audible,” Audible SVP of original content Eric Nuzum tells me. (iTunes)
  • Stephen Dubner writes in to correct a detail I ran last week: His Midroll show with James Altucher, Question of the Day, is actually not running any more, having wrapped publication in early September. Sorry about that!
  • The Memory Palace’s Nate DiMeo, currently the artist-in-residence at the Met, releases his first few episodes from that stint. (The Memory Palace)
  • BuzzFeed’s latest podcast: See Something Say Something, a show hosted by Ahmed Ali Akbar about being Muslim in America. (iTunes)
  • “How To Cope With 2016: Start An Election-Gambling Podcast.” (FiveThirtyEight)
  • Midroll’s inaugural Now Hear This festival took place over the weekend, and from what I’ve heard from a few attendees, it seemed to have been a successful first run. If you were there, let me know what you think! I’d love to run a reaction roundup.
  • The great Linda Holmes of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour has a fun theory that sorts the different podcast communities according to a Hogwarts-like taxonomy, but her concluding point is cash money: “My point is mostly that when you’re trying to serve podcast audiences OR creators, many in these houses are UTTERLY indifferent to others.” (Twitter)

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

Hot Pod: There’s a new (and problematic) way to measure which podcasts are the most popular

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue eighty-eight, published September 20, 2016.

Another public-facing podcast ranker. It’s troublesome, though if you’re a podcast publisher you best pay close attention nonetheless. This one’s going to be long, so either skip it or strap in.

Here’s the deal: Podtrac, the decade-old podcast measurement (and until its recent restructure, advertising) company, announced a new podcast ranker yesterday, one that aspires to display the top 20 podcasts in the industry based on monthly downloads. This is the second such public-facing ranking that the company has released in recent months; In May, Podtrac pumped out a chart that ranked podcast publishers against each other based on network-wide monthly downloads.

That initial ranker suffered from two glaring flaws. First, it can’t be considered adequately representative of the podcast industry because of its incomplete sampling. (The original report purports to cover of “90 percent of the top podcasts.”) And second, there’s a general lack of transparency around its sampling methodology. (Said “top podcasts” category isn’t clearly defined, and it isn’t clear who is and isn’t included.) The publisher ranker’s initial May 2016 sample did not include important publishers like Panoply, Gimlet, Earwolf, The Ringer, and Wondery. That’s not to say that they would all show up in the top 10 if they were included, mind you; I’m just making a point about representation, and many of them remain excluded at this writing.

This new show ranker, which was reportedly assembled due to advertiser demand, suffers from those same fundamental issues, plus some new complexities that further interrupt itss capacity to serve as a trustworthy conveyor of value in the podcast industry.

Let’s break this down:

1. Yesterday’s new chart ranks individual podcasts based on “Unique Monthly Audience” (as determined by Podtrac’s internal measurement rules), but the chart itself does not explicitly display actual download numbers. I view this as an incredibly odd — and even counterproductive — choice. The omission strips the chart of important granular analytical value, and patrons of the chart are placed in a position where they wouldn’t even be able to, say, discern the scale of the difference between two consecutively-ranked podcasts, which can go a long way in properly conveying the shape and form of the competitive landscape.

Interestingly enough, Velvet Beard, Podtrac’s VP of podcast analytics, tells me that this omission came out of a compromise with certain publishers who are reticent to disclose their show numbers.

2. That reticence is further reflected in the eighth ranking on the new chart, which awkwardly reads: “Publisher declined to list show.” This state of affairs comes out from a crucial distinction between the two Podtrac rankers: While the original podcast publisher ranker lists publishers that explicitly measure their podcasts with Podtrac (an arrangement understood by Podtrac as permission for inclusion into their ranker), this new show-oriented ranker does not require explicit publisher participation in the company’s measurement services for inclusion.

It was explained to me that part of the ranker’s methodology involves some internal modeling that doesn’t actually require publishers to opt into their measurement system for download size assessment. Which, you know, the more I think about it, is a choice that would creep me out if I was a publisher, because not only are we left with a situation where an external body has taken upon itself to tell the story of my audience for me — without my explicit acknowledgment and consent — it’s also a story based on their terms, the foundations of which may well be different from my own. And that means something in an industry that lacks a universally standardized and enforced measurement paradigm.

That mystery eighth podcast (whose identity was included in the initial press release sent to me, and was scrubbed in a followup version after I attempted to verify) isn’t the only show that was included in the ranker without given permission; the Joe Rogan Experience, which came in on the eleventh slot, appears to be a non-participant as well.

3. Beard tells me that the company has been consistently trying to reach out to publishers to get them involved with the ranker. “We send out emails, but not everybody writes us back,” she said.

I suppose there are strong strategic reasons why some publishers would not want to get involved in Podtrac’s ranking system. To begin with, you have the table stakes concern that a publisher who chooses to be listed would be ceding its monopoly over how it tells the story of its own downloads. Which would be fine for some…and less so for others, particularly those who make it a practice of fluffing their numbers, a very real problem in this industry that lacks mature measurement standards and an independent third-party that can serve as a check against bad practices.

But even for those whose goods are sound, there’s simply too much of a perceived risk to anoint Podtrac as that third-party due to the company’s current relationship with Authentic, its ad sales arm that was spun off as a sister company earlier this summer. The two companies still share leadership and infrastructure, which presents a strong disincentive for some publishers who would be understandably uneasy ceding parts of their narrative to company that’s structurally connected to a potential competitor. The golden rule applies: It’s not the actual conflicts of interest, it’s the perception of potential conflicts of interest that matters.

For what it’s worth, Beard tells me that the company’s long-term hope is to effectively decouple Podtrac from Authentic to mitigate such concerns. However, she also notes that the team has to first figure out how to make its business — which currently doesn’t make any money off these rankings — financially independent before any significant decoupling can happen.

Look, Podtrac’s industry rankers need a lot of work before they can be considered a genuine representation of the emerging podcast industry, and for what it’s worth, I do think the Podtrac team is operating with civil intent. (And to some extent, I really do hope they pull it off.)

But let’s be real here. In a medium whose defining problem is its lack of measurability — which therefore generates an advertising environment starved for every little bit of information — Podtrac’s good-enough rankers are bound to gain some traction among advertisers either way.

And it looks like things may be panning out in that direction: ahead of the IAB Podcast Upfronts a few weeks ago, I was speaking with Jason Hoch, the chief content officer of HowStuffWorks, which uses Podtrac for analytics verification and is listed on the industry ranker, and he noted that the original ranker drew a tremendous amount of new advertising attention to his network. “The in-bounds we got from that were amazing,” he told me.

So I’ll say this: It appears increasingly imperative that podcast publishers start engaging with Podtrac in order to win back their audience narrative (and the narrative of the industry). I’m not the biggest fan of how Podtrac has gone about doing things — their lack of methodological transparency remains troubling, and the whole including-podcasts-without-explicit-permission thing feels kinda dirty — but they are, regardless, materially contributing to the publisher-advertising relationship.

Alternatively, publishers could, oh I don’t know, develop their own data-driven public counter-narratives. That’ll be cool too.

And in case you’s still interested: According to Podtrac, the top three podcasts in August 2016 are, in downward order, This American Life, Radiolab, and Stuff You Should Know.

A leadership change at NPR One. The public radio mothership’s buzzy listening app, NPR One, is losing Sara Sarasohn, its managing editor, who is leaving the organization after 24 years of service.

Tamar Charney will reportedly step in as interim editorial lead. Charney was hired back in January to serve as the app’s “local editorial lead,” a role that involves connecting the app with local public radio stations across the country. While she will take over many of Sarasohn’s duties, she will continue focusing on her original responsibilities as well. The team remains rounded out by content programmer Viet Le, along with an NPR One-specific product team led by product manager Tejas Mistry and content strategist/analytics manager Nick DePrey.

Sarasohn, who has worked multiple positions on All Things Considered and the NPR arts desk throughout her lengthy career, is leaving public media for a position at a Silicon Valley startup, and though she declined to provide specifics, she noted that her new gig isn’t involved in the audio world.

An internal staff note announcing Sarasohn’s departure indicates that she leaves NPR One in a strong position. According to the memo, “NPR One’s audience reaches record highs with each new month, more than 80 stations are contributing content to it, and the typical listener uses the app up to 12 times per month.”

It also noted that the organization will relay more information about the app’s future in the coming days.

The NPR One app — which flirts with aspirations of being “the Netflix for podcasts” and is marketed as “the Pandora of podcasts” — is reportedly considered to be “the most exciting thing to have happened at NPR in years.” I’m broadly a fan of it myself, but I do struggle to view the app itself as somehow central to NPR’s digital future. The ecosystem of content and technology that’s being built beneath the app, however, is another story. (Side note: Between you and me, my main consumption modality with public radio nowadays is my Amazon Echo, which has come dangerously close to being my only source of verbal interaction on most days.)

Sarasohn’s last day is September 25.

Relevant: In what is probably a yuge coincidence, news of Sarasohn’s departure comes about a week after NPR announced that it was picking DC-based WAMU’s The Big Listen, a broadcast about podcasts, for national distribution. Hosted by Lauren Ober, the show is one of several audio programs currently floating about podcastland that seeks to alleviate the medium’s discoverability problem through linear, performative curation. That list includes the CBC’s Podcast Playlist and Gimlet’s Sampler.

Tangentially relevant: WNYC Studios now has a third VP of on-demand content: Tony Phillips, a former BBC veteran of 27 years. (My whole life, basically.) His most recent role at the British radio mothership was “Editor, Commissioner, and Producer.” Phillips will expand the leadership layer, which also includes Paula Szuchman and Emily Botein, into a trifecta.

Mid-October will mark WNYC Studio’s first full year of operation.

Cable podcasts. CNN, the cable news heavyweight and source of all my anxieties, is pushing deeper into podcasts with the announcement of two new podcasts:

1. The Daily DC, a daily morning political news digest show featuring CNN political director David Chalian; and

2. Party People, described as a “look at the 2016 race from a rightward perspective.” The show is hosted by two CNN contributors, Republican communications strategist Kevin Madden and The Federalist editor Mary Katharine Ham.

Both shows begin their runs today.

These additions will complement The Axe Files, the (quite excellent) David Axelrod interview show that has thus far been the media company’s only original podcast. CNN has also made it a practice of repackaging and distributing a select list of its television programming — like Fareed Zakaria GPS, State of the Union with Jake Tapper, and Reliable Sources with Brian Stelter — in podcast form.

Curious observers might be interested to know that CNN’s foray into original podcasting is largely orchestrated by one Tyler Moody, a VP at the company, and that the podcasts are being hosted — and represented in the ad sales market — by New York-based podcast CMS company Palegroove.

And speaking of right-leaning politics podcasts: Fox News is making a weekly television show out of I’ll Tell You What, an elections podcast hosted by The Five cohost Dana Perino and Fox News digital politics editor Chris Stirewalt. The show will be limited-run, airing Sunday evenings until the elections in November. According to The Washington Post, the podcast’s conversion into the television format “represents Fox News’s first new programming initiative since longtime network chairman Roger Ailes resigned in July.”

Side note. A few weeks ago, I wrote a column observing what appears to be a dearth of explicitly conservative political and election-related podcasts, which briefly led me to consider this state of affairs being a function of early adopter demographics. Since then, I’ve regularly received recommendations from readers of more conservative-oriented shows, and while I believe my original observation still holds, I will say that one podcast in particular has found its way into my primary rotation: Radio Free GOP with Mike Murphy. It’s really polished, and really, really engaging, and it’s worth a try regardless of where you are on the spectrum.

Did you read Ken Doctor’s columns? You really should. The five-part series published on Nieman Lab all throughout last week did an amazing job laying out the current state and potential future(s) of the professionalizing layer of podcasts from the 30,000-feet view more than I ever could.

The series contained a bunch of novel findings that are incredibly useful for incremental observers like myself — for example, the fact that digital native Gimlet currently scores 5 million downloads monthly across its 6 shows (many of which are off-season at the moment) and now has a 55-person headcount (damn!); that NPR, Midroll, and PodcastOne each account for $10 million in sales; that 50 percent of WNYC’s sponsorship revenue now comes from digital as opposed to terrestrial sources, a good chunk of which is driven by podcasts.

But Doctor’s columns also laid out an analogy that connects what many podcast publishers/networks are doing these days to the long-established digital media strategy of aggregation. It’s a connection that hasn’t previously occurred to me, but it has become to me an essential framework in gaming out the probable trajectory — and potential pitfalls — of many of these emerging podcast companies.

Anyway, hit ’em up.

“You can’t compare it to anything else that exists in the industry right now,” said Rena Unger, the IAB’s director of industry initiatives, in the latest episode of The Wolf Den. “Podcasts took one of the boldest moves. You’re not doing your own individual upfronts, you were sharing one stage. You have 12 competitive companies that take off their competitive hats and say, ‘Let’s work together to elevate the space and increase our pie together.'”

Unger was responding to my, uh, critique of the recent Podcast Upfronts, which largely comes out of anxieties that were pinpointed almost perfectly by Chris Bannon, Midroll’s chief creative officer and co-host of The Wolf Den, who replied to Unger: “Yeah, it’s funny. There’s a great spirit of collaboration, but I think what Nick fears in his writing is that will disappear. That it will become some sort of commercial shark-tank in which where we race to the bottom in some way together.”

Or borrow a passage from Doctor’s final entry in his podcast series: “The phrase of the moment, both from some in the trade and from many of the millions of listeners who’ve become podcast addicts, seems to be: Don’t screw it up.

I’m getting that tattooed.

Bites:

  • There’s a budding audio/podcast platform company floating about the Bay Area called Tiny Garage Labs that’s founded by former Netflix operatives and a former Planet Money correspondent. I’d keep an eye out on their blog — word on the street something’s coming real soon. (Tiny Garage Labs)
  • Made a quick mention of this two Hot Pods ago, but it’s more or less confirmed now: Panoply now reps MTV Podcasts, which joins the network with two new shows — Lady Problems and Videohead.
  • “A lot of sports podcasting simply reuses talk-radio formats. From the way you sound, this is clearly going to be something different.” “Yeah, I am hoping we can pull it off.” ESPN Films and FiveThirtyEight senior producer Jody Avirgan talks to Adweek about the upcoming 30 for 30 podcast documentaries. Lots of interesting nuggets in there. (Adweek)
  • “The web is built on hyperlinks, with each link a pathway to discovery, an endorsement, a reference. Podcasts could be like that too.” Jake Shapiro, CEO of RadioPublic, published what appears to be a manifesto for the upcoming listening app that will make up his team’s first independent foray into the podcasting marketplace. (RadioPublic blog)
  • The lovely Hollywood history podcast, You Must Remember This, is going on hiatus. But KQED was able to score a pretty great Q&A with creator Karina Longworth in the meantime. (KQED Arts)
  • If you haven’t been keeping up with APM’s new investigative podcast, In The Dark — along with everything that’s been happening with the actual case it’s examining — you really should. Vulture has a great interview here with Madeleine Baran, the investigative journalist who drives the show. (Vulture)
  • At the Online News Association 2016 conference in Denver last week, WNYC’s Delaney Simmons and NPR’s Mathilde Piard gave a presentation on their respective organizations’ attempts to wield social media tools as a points of audio distribution. (Journalism.co.uk)

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

Is the BBC’s power to blame for the U.K. podcasting scene’s underdevelopment?

The view on the other side. “I think the corporate heart of the BBC currently undervalues radio and may well be about to undermine it,” wrote Gillian Reynolds, the radio critic at The Telegraph, in a column published two weeks ago. (Radio critic! I want that job!)

Reynolds noted that “a 20 percent portion of [the BBC’s license fee] is spent on radio but [radio] accounts for 40 per cent of total BBC consumption,” and that the BBC’s radio properties — along with its digital audio relatives — provides its public with an unmatched programming value. She is concerned, then, with the institution’s recent move to merge its radio commissioning division with its television unit. “There really is nothing like BBC radio anywhere else in the world. Dilute it and it will vanish,” she argued.

It’s a fascinating argument, and one that feels more than a little familiar with respect to certain conversations about the American public radio system (see: the WBAA-This American Life-Pandora narrative that largely revolves around concepts of diluting the public radio mission) — though, of course, the dynamics and actual questions at play are drastically different. At the heart of it all lies the question about what gives public media its “public-ness” and quality, and how these things will survive in the face of increasing economic crunch.

Reynolds’ column also grants us some really interesting numbers on the U.K.’s podcast sector, which appears to be an opportunity that hasn’t been properly capitalizes upon just yet, on both the consumption and creation ends. Here are the numbers:

The BBC offers 450 podcasts from across its networks: Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time gets 2.3 million downloads every month, The Archers 2.2 million. That’s about 25 million a year, each.

The UK’s underdeveloped podcast consumption levels also appear to be matched by a similarly immature podcast advertising market.

“In my experience, the big players are still Squarespace and Audible, so the money is really coming from the U.S.,” observed U.K.-based Helen Zaltzman, of the Answer Me This and The Allusionist podcasts, when I reached out to her over email for some insight. “Generally, the whole of podcasting is undercooked here. The U.K. is years behind the U.S. in all aspects of the business. I don’t know anyone else here in the same position as me, making a living from their own podcasts (i.e., not counting producers for hire).”

Zaltzman noted that this lack of financially viable independent podcasts in the U.K. — along with an overall lack of podcasts — can possibly be attributed to the region’s large and varied radio industry. Two dynamics are suggested to be at play here: On one hand, the general structure of work opportunities provided by that industry incentivizes talent away from starting and running their own ships, and on the other, that talent is further deterred from doubling down on their own projects due to an immature business environment.

It’s a tough situation for stalwarts like Zaltzman, who is one of the very few U.K. podcast creators able to lean on the U.S. for a revenue stream that grants her sustainability. It also raises the question, then, of what kind of value is actually being created by companies that portend to support podcasters that currently operate in the U.K.

So-called begging. A very, very frustrating quote coming out of Acast cofounder Måns Ulvestam, who said the following in a recent Nieman Lab writeup about their new paid subscription feature:

If you look at the Spotifys of the world, they started with advertising, then turned to subscriptions. If you look at the history of podcasting, you’ve got Patreon, you’ve got crowdfunding efforts. But for me that’s not a business model, that’s just begging.

Ulvestam’s comments here are not only ignorant of models that have proven to be incredibly successful in the past — see the entire public radio system (including WNYC), Radiotopia, Maximum Fun, and so on — but also deeply ignorant of the realities of contemporary digital media, which are increasingly reflecting the notions that: (1) different business models must be adopted by different businesses based on their specific traits, public profile, and configuration, and (2) Patreon and crowdfunding efforts are part and parcel of larger development efforts to cultivate a direct relationship between publishers and consumers in a way that generates trust, collaboration, and community.

His comment is also deeply arrogant and incredibly disrespectful of the way a sizable chunk of independent creators need to function on the Internet in order to build out sustainable businesses. Independent creators, by the way, that also happen to be one of their target clienteles — like Flash Forward, which is distributed by Acast and is listed as an example on that Nieman Lab piece, but whose creator, Rose Eveleth, also relies on Patreon for a sizable chunk of her revenue.

Note:

Ugh.

A long-running podcast ends its run. Vox Tablet, an award-winning weekly podcast by Tablet Magazine, is shutting down after 11 years and 500 episodes, marking the end of one of the oldest podcasts maintained by a publication. When I reached out for comment, the team behind Vox Tablet, host Sara Ivry and producer Julie Subrin, cited changing economics and shifting priorities within Tablet as the primary reasons for the closure.

The show’s archives will be digitally maintained, and listeners can access them in all the usual places. Ivry and Subrin are on the hunt for their next gigs — with Ivry indicating an intent to find more work within the audio space (“In fact, I have some podcast ideas I want to pitch,” she noted), and Subrin hoping to help alleviate the impending editor shortage crisis.

I asked them if they would be willing to share what they’ve learned from their 11 years making the show. They responded:

Ivry: “To follow your curiosity as an interviewer, trust that you have this job on account of your imagination, willingness, and ability to have a good conversation. Another way to put that is, as the interviewer, you are the proxy listener who may know nothing about the topic, and so never assume foreknowledge and don’t talk over/condescend to your audience. That makes it alienating and unwelcoming to listeners.”

Subrin: “I’ve come to appreciate a the pleasures of a good two-way (or three-way, or…). I still love listening to (and making) carefully crafted, well-produced pieces, but I find my ears really prick up when I’m listening to something and I can hear that there’s a real conversation underway — unscripted, lively, thoughtful, engaged.”

Good luck, Sara and Julie!

First Day Backed. June has been eventful for the Cincinnati-based media octopus E.W. Scripps, which announced its acquisition of podcast app Stitcher (and the app’s impending absorption into the Midroll brand) a few weeks ago. But the corporation is also making some moves on the programming front.

Scripps has officially picked up First Day Back, a small independent podcast affiliated withThe Heard podcast collective, for its second season. Produced by film documentarian Tally Abecassis, the podcast’s first season followed Abecassis as she attempted to resume her filmmaking career after a long, long maternity leave. The narrative plays out in the diaristic first person, with Abecassis switching constantly between audio journaling and field recordings (the “field” often being places within her home, as she interacts with her family). The form and tone may be familiar to you; it’s reminiscent of Millennial, along with the pilots of Only Human and Death, Sex & Money. There are special standalone episodes featuring a memory, or listener feedback. It’s raw, and it’s really good.

The second season of the show will pivot away from Abecassis and the theme of work/life balance in motherhood. She did not clarify what the new season will focus on — only that it will focus on another person, that it’ll be a whole different storyline, and that it’ll adopt a more traditionally documentary-like feel.

Conversations for a possible pickup began when Scripps approached Abecassis late last year, after the show caught the attention of Scripps producer Marc Georges. “We loved what she did and felt it fit really well with the company’s desire to develop podcasts that blend journalism and storytelling in new ways and to be a destination for people who have great ideas,” explained Ellen Weiss, chief of the Scripps Washington Bureau who also oversees the organization’s podcast initiatives, when I reached out over email last week.

To be clear: First Day Back will be a Scripps-supported show, not an Earwolf show — unlike the former WNYC podcast Longest Shortest Time, which appears to be very much branded as an Earwolf property — and it’ll play out with an arrangement that’s different than DecodeDC, which is a podcast that Scripps fully owns, produces, and distributes. Furthermore, the fact that Scripps supports the show doesn’t necessarily translate into the inception of some sort of “Scripps Podcast Network,” as Weiss assures me. It’s a little confusing, but I think it’s more or less consistent with the view of Scripps as some sort of Berkshire Hathaway-esque holdings group as opposed to a straightforward media company.

The podcast will receive editorial support from the organization. The two entities are still figuring out how the distribution portion of the partnership would work, but advertising on First Day Back will be sold through Midroll — which is the case for all other shows that Scripps supports.

Weiss was unwilling to be more specific on the arrangements. “We really don’t discuss the details of our partnerships,” she wrote.

First Day Back will also continue its affiliation with The Heard.

The Radiotopia Podquest finalists. The talent-hunt initiative announced its slate of finalists this morning — and surprise! There’s going to be a final four, instead of a final three. They are:

  • Ear Hustle, by Nigel Poor, Antwan Williams, and Earlonne Woods. This podcast will bring you “the hidden stories of life inside prison, told and produced from the perspective of those who live it.”
  • Meat, by Jonathan Zenti. This is a show about “bodies and the lives we live because of them.” (Fantastic name, by the way.)
  • The Difference Between, by Jericho Saria and Hadrian Santos. This show will explore “the world of ‘information doppelgängers’ — the stuff you always confuse for that other thing — to find out what makes them truly unique.”
  • And Villain-ish, by Vivian Le. It’s a show about “gaining new perspectives on dubious figures we’ve been taught to revile, and exploring the hidden details we may have never considered.” (Which, I suppose, places it pretty thematically close to Revisionist History and that new history-oriented show that Gimlet hopes to put out later this year. A growing subgenre, perhaps?)

All four finalists will receive $10,000, along with additional editorial and technical support to create three pilot episodes. The finalists will be introduced onstage at the Podcast Movement conference in Chicago next week. Only one will be selected to join the Radiotopia collective at the end of this process — that’ll happen at the Third Coast Conference in November.

You can read the bios of the finalists — and the six semi-finalists — on the Podquest website.

Podcast networks, pay attention: After November, there will be some good show teams and concepts up for grabs.

Bites:

  • This is fantastic: “Obama White House Veterans Gleefully Enter the Podcast World.” (The New York Times)
  • Night Vale Presents has rolled out a second show, after Alice Isn’t Dead. Written by Welcome to Night Vale cocreator Jeffrey Cranor and author Janina Matthewson (Of Things Gone Astray), Within The Wires is a 10-part podcast that’s told through a series of relaxation cassettes. Given that this is the Night Vale team, the cassettes are expectedly creepy in the classic left-of-center way. (iTunes)
  • WNYC CEO Laura Walker responds to the growing narrative on public radio’s existential crisis: “Radio’s Next Incarnation: Join the Creative Disruption.” (Medium)
  • Why Oh Why?, an excellent and super trippy show by Andrea Silenzi, is now officially a Panoply show — and it’s on the hunt for a producer. (Panoply)
  • NPR One data point: “The largest age group listening to NPR One is 25- to 34-year-olds, according to NPR, with 40 percent of listeners under 35. More than a third of users who answered NPR surveys said they never or only occasionally listen to broadcast radio.” (Current)
  • “Seven ways public can attract a more diverse workforce.” Current recaps a panel moderated by Andrew Ramsammy at the recent Public Radio News Directors conference in St. Louis. (Current)
  • Ramsammy, by the way, is a former Public Radio International operative who is leaving the organization to start something called UnitedPublic Strategies, which comes with the tagline “Taking public media beyond broadcast.” Not much is known about it at this point in time, but expect more details when it launches sometime in July. (UPStrategies)