Teach Me How To Live

Let me begin by showing my cards here: I’m a sucker for stuff broadly known as “self-help” or “personal betterment,” along with many of its associated sub-genres that carry the prefix “personal” (e.g. personal finance, personal fitness) or the suffix “hacks” (e.g. life hacks, travel hacks). Which is to say, I’m the kind of guy who compulsively reads about budgeting, credit card points maximization, meditation and focus, quick and simple recipes, the best so-and-so to buy for such-and-such. Among my first tabs of every morning: Lifehacker, The New York Times’ Smarter Living, a number of curtly-written personal finance blogs that I’m ashamed of listing. Give me a headline that reads “6 Ways to Work Smarter, Not Harder,” and friend, I’ll happily give you ten minutes of my one wild and precious life.

(Which isn’t to say that I follow through with many of the personal betterment things that I consume. I almost certainly do not. But much of my experience here, I suspect, involves some exercise of fantasy, or a prayer, almost, towards the version of myself that I imagine becoming. Same goes with sports and political horse-race media, of which I’m also an avid consumer. I’m never going to actually work in the NBA, and there is only so much that, say, the electoral strategies of Beto O’Rourke’s failed 2018 senatorial campaign can directly impact my personal political engagements in my community. But anyway, I digress.)

There’s a news hook here, of course, and it’s this: last month, NPR’s podcast universe formally marched into the personal betterment territory with something called Life Kit. The project is described as a “family of podcasts for navigating your life — everything from your finances to diet and exercise to raising your kids.”  What this means, in practice, is a spread of different podcast feeds, each dedicated to a specific guide. At this writing, there are four guides out in the wild: two personal fitness feeds (“Exercise: Learn to Love (or at least Like) it” and “Eat Your Way To A Healthier Life”) and two personal finance feeds (“Secrets of Saving and Investing” and “Secrets of Saving and Investing”). The plan, it seems, is to publish a new guide every month.

Currently, each guide contains about three short episodes, each hosted by a different person and each taking the form of the kind of one-shot story you’d expect from something like Planet Money. The Planet Money comparison is particularly interesting to me, as Life Kit feels, in many ways, like the realization of what Planet Money should have grown into for years: a simple production concept and brand that’s easily applicable to an infinite number of subjects. (Planet Sports, Planet Health, Planet Politics, and so on.)

Anyway, I’ll go out on a limb to say that Life Kit’s perception of the feed as the atomic unit of content is an exceedingly shrewd one for searchability purposes. The approach not only allows the project to tap into popular search pathways — its content is easily encountered by someone who entered “Investing” or “Exercise” as search terms, and who types up “Life Kit,” anyway? — but it also taps into fairly rich preexisting podcast communities. After all, podcast-land is no stranger to personal betterment content. You could even argue that the genre gave podcasting many of its early elders, folks like Tim Ferriss, John Lee Dumas (a la Entrepreneur on Fire), and perhaps even Mignon Fogarty (a.k.a. Grammar Girl), who cultivated the Quick & Dirty Tips network.

For NPR’s podcast unit, Life Kit represents an expansion in internal editorial framework as much as it is an expansion into fertile land. “We’re trying to do a lot of different things,” said Neal Carruth, the organization’s GM of podcasting, when asked about how the initiative fits into their broader programming strategy. Carruth talked about the team’s continuing push into podcasts with daily publishing schedules, which will soon include a new daily science podcast, and about all the narrative stuff that has long served as the division’s calling card. “Shows like Invisibilia and Rough Translation are still really important to us,” he said. “We pride ourselves in being a place that makes shows that are sophisticated, layered, complex, and deeply reported. That’s a thing we’re known for, and we’re going to continue to support that stuff.”

Carruth considers Life Kit to be the expression of a new angle of attack: shows designed to be explicitly useful for the audience, delivering tangible and actionable things that listeners can immediately take into their lives. “That’s different from merely informing them, or just telling them a good story,” said Carruth. “‘Useful’ is the key word.”

Meghan Keane, who previously worked on Invisibilia and TED Radio Hour, leads the Life Kit project as managing producer. “What’s important for me is to make something that isn’t an audio bullet-point list, and instead make something that’s a good mix of takeaways and infused little narratives,” she told me. “The hope is to be motivational and aspirational without being cheesy.”

Life Kit was driven, in some part, by research indicating interest among younger audiences for such content. In the team’s thinking, this finding gives the initiative its longer-term arc. “Ultimately, if Life Kit is a success, we’ll have dozens of these guides addressing challenges across the life span,” Carruth said.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask about Life Kit’s potential relationship with local public radio stations. I was told that there aren’t any formal partnerships with local stations just yet, and that the team is on the lookout for ways to collaborate with them. (So, reach out.) There was, however, mention of a partnership with a public media organization of another kind: Sesame Street, with whom the team is partnering to create a guide on having conversations with kids about heavy topics. For now, local station listeners will probably mostly encounter Life Kit material as occasional segments on the national shows.

Not that local stations can’t take matters into their own hands. Observers should pair NPR’s Life Kit adventures with a similarly-veined effort by the Los Angeles public radio station’s KPCC, which recently launched a podcast called The Big One: Your Survival Guide that’s meant to help inform listeners on what to do when Southern California falls on the bad side of the coin flip chance that it gets hit by a massive earthquake over the next three decades. My personal earthquake obsession-paranoia notwithstanding, I think The Big One is a really compelling listen, integrating speculative fiction elements — reminiscent of Naomi Alderman’s fiction podcast The Walk from early last year — with meat-and-potatoes science reporting. That production makes me wonder about the outer boundaries of where you can take this podcast genre, in terms of presentation and subject matter. May we get guides on, say, how to survive your divorce, or what to do when you realize you’re no longer the person you once were.

I like this trend. I like where this is going. This stuff is compulsively addictive. “Being a person is hard work,” Keane tells me. “Everybody needs a little help and support.” Yes, sure, I’ll take all the help I can get.

Notes from Toronto’s Hot Docs Podcast Festival

I spent much of the past week attending the Hot Docs Podcast Festival in the great city of Toronto, and I brought back a scattered collection of notes and observations on Canadian podcasting that I’m ill-equipped at the moment to string together into some unified clarifying narrative. But I’ll share what I have in the form of scattered notes and collection because there are some ideas to stew over and, all things considered, I really liked what I saw.

(1) “The Canadian podcast industry here is a few years behind the US.” I heard this idea, and many variations thereof, quite a bit over the past week, and I almost always squirm when I hear it. Sure, I can see the data points and logical route supporting the notion, particularly when the analysis revolves around the subject of money and business creation. But I’m reticent to accept the statement in the way it’s phrased: somewhere in the back of my head, I hold out hope that different countries can, and should, go down their own paths towards ecosystem development — that the Canadian podcast industry isn’t behind anybody, that it’s just early in their own trajectory. (On an unrelated note: I’d be a great soccer dad.)

I was consistently told Canadian podcast advertising remained nascent, still negligible in volume and experimental in budgets, and that there has yet to be clear pathways for upstart podcast companies in the country to reliably progress from idea to operational sustainability (let alone exits). Occasionally, I’d try to rebut the claim by saying the pathways in the US aren’t super clear either, particularly if you’re an independent. The invariable reply from the interlocutor: if I had the choice, I’d still prefer the upsides of the US — more money, more jobs, more potential outcomes.

Fair enough.

(2) Some contextual numbers to set the scene. As always, Edison Research has our backs in this department: their Infinite Dial Canada 2018 report, published earlier this year, found that 61% of Canadians over the age of 18 are familiar with the term “podcasting,” and that 28% of that demographic report having listened to a podcast within the past month.

I know I just burbled something about non-comparisons, but in case you need a yardstick: the Infinite Dial US found that 64% of Americans over 12 report being aware of the term “podcasting,” while 26% of the demographic having listened to a podcast within the past month.

Cross-national comparisons with the US is tricky, of course, in large part due to the intense differences in population sizes and geographical dynamics. Canada has about 36.7 million people, which is slightly below the population of California. To put things some perspective: America, as a whole, has about 325.7 million people, and if you do the rough math, the number of monthly American podcast listeners is about twice the population of Canada. That has implications about the way you could think about advertising returns.

(3) Here’s a cliche about travel: sometimes you need to leave in order to see where you’re from clearly. (A curious device to apply to myself, a newly-minted American immigrant, but applicable nonetheless.) It’s true for podcast stuff as it is for anything else: poking around the Canadian scene made me appreciate the extent to which conversations in the US have been dominated by the podcast-as-IP boom, the increasing involvement of talent agencies, and the venture capital-backed shadow of Gimlet Media. Also: capitalism and anxiety.

Some things, though, are familiar on both sides of the border. One expression of this: the perceived podcast dominance of public radio in both the US and Canada. On the first day of the festival, I moderated a panel with the CBC’s head of podcasts Leslie Merklinger and NPR’s deputy director of programming and new audience N’Jeri Eaton, and there was a query during the Q&A that felt familiar to me. I can’t remember the wording, exactly, but it was something along the lines of: “Do you feel like the CBC’s dominance limits the ability of private podcasters to grow?” The sentiment echoes many emails I’ve received over the years from American readers about NPR, WNYC, and the wider American public radio system.

The perception is perhaps understandable: the CBC, Canada’s public broadcaster and its biggest institutional podcast publisher, is said to bring in around 16 million global podcast downloads per month across a 40+ show-strong portfolio that includes broadcast repackages and original podcast content. In the States, NPR garners around 16 million unique monthly listeners in the US and over 140 million global downloads across a 41 show-strong portfolio. They look big, they feel big, and when you feel like a tugboat around tankers, the natural position to interpret threat.

But of course, life in a tanker is generally harder than you would think. Something that came across from both Merklinger and Eaton during the panel: despite the perception that the CBC and NPR are powerful and all-consuming in their respective countries, both individuals lead development funnels with budgets that are tighter than you would ordinarily imagine. Another cliche: people often look like they’re doing better than they actually are on the outside.

Does the dominance of a podcast-publishing public broadcaster generally inhibit the ability of private podcasters to grow? I tend to reject this notion. That would dominance is an actual thing in the podcast industry, and there’s been little evidence to suggest that at all.

(4) Another similarity of note: it’s always worth paying attention to individuals taking matters in their own hands. There was a panel that caught my eye featuring Vicky Mochama, co-founder of the independent podcast shop Vocal Fry Studios; Annalise Nielsen, a producer who’s trying to start an in-house podcast network at a large publicly-traded Canadian media and entertainment company called eOne; and Ryan McMahon, an Anishinaabe comedian, writer, podcaster, and proprietor of Indian & Cowboy, a listener-supported Indigenous podcast network.

Of particular interest from the discussion was a focus on non-advertising revenue streams, which significantly touched on branded podcasts — a trail well-blazed in the country by Pacific Content, and taken up by Mochama — and crowdfunding, which proved central to the development of a new investigative podcast by McMahon in partnership with CANADALAND, called Thunder Bay. The Ryerson Review of Journalism has a solid write-up on CANADALAND’s crowdfunding effort to raise taht production, which you should check out. The podcast, as well, is very good.

(5) The Hot Docs Podcast Festival is currently in its third year of operation, though the whole thing feels like it’s been around for much longer. The festival was well-executed, thoughtfully composed, and frankly one of the best podcast events I’ve ever attended. This probably has a lot to do with the fact it’s actually a spinoff of the quarter century-old Hot Docs international documentary film festival (no relation to Hot Pod, by the way); which is to say, they’re old hands at putting stuff like this together. But something has to be said about the organization’s general level of care in handling a new community: it’s a rare team that displays awareness and respect for a world not of their own. I’ll be glad to go back.

(6) Miscellaneous Notes:

  • Scribbled in my notepad: “Is there a moral argument for programmatic advertising?” Can’t quite remember when I wrote that, or the context of it. But interesting question, I guess?
  • Another scribble: “there’s a palpable ongoing tension between wanting to build your own thing and wanting to sell that thing off to another organization.”
  • From the panel featuring the New York Times’ Lisa Tobin: the windowing experiment with Caliphate was considered a “successful early experiment.”
  • The Thirst Aid Kit live show was the most fun I’ve had in a very long time. I don’t know what BuzzFeed plans to do with the show given the company’s podcasting wind-down, but somebody should really pick it up.
  • Toronto is probably my favorite city in the world right now. I mean, it’s no Long Island City or Arlington, but still. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Streetwise uncle” sounds about right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related reading: Publishers with TV ambitions are pursuing Netflix.

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Valentine’s Day.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keller continued:

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

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

Yeah, I don’t know, dude.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which reminds me of something…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[storybreak]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[storybreak]

Bites:

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

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

Turns out people really like podcasts after all (and now we have numbers to prove it)

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 149, published January 30, 2018.

One month in. When Apple rolled out its long-awaited in-episode podcast analytics last month, part of the anxiety (and excitement, really) was finding out whether, essentially, the world would end. Which is to say, whether this whole podcast thing was a bubble, a house of cards; whether perhaps many of the metrics the industry had been using to articulate, extract, and transact its value was nothing more than inflated abstraction, like the hollow vitality of a viral tweet lifted up by a golemnic army of stolen identities.

You can scratch that particular anxiety off the list. Over at Wired, Miranda Katz checked in with a few publishers one month in and wrote:

Though it’s still early days, the numbers podcasters are seeing are highly encouraging. Forget those worries that the podcast bubble would burst the minute anyone actually got a closer look: It seems like podcast listeners really are the hyper-engaged, super-supportive audiences that everyone hoped.

Among those quoted for the piece were reps from Midroll, Headgum, and Panoply.

But of course, whether podcasting was a bubble that better analytics would pop was always only half the question. The other half, whether the new data would lead to a boom, is a whole other bag of nuts. Katz writes:

On the business side, it’s likely that these high engagement rates and low levels of ad skipping will see a flood of new advertisers who have until now been reticent to enter the Wild West of podcasting — welcome news to anyone who feels about ready to throw their phone across the room any time they hear another ad for Squarespace or Casper.

We’ll see! When the analytics were first announced in the summer, Market Enginuity’s Sarah van Mosel told me: “This is certainly a step in the right direction. This is what we asked for and I thank the Apple team for hearing and responding to the podcast community. Now I want more.” More, as in the expected adtech bells and whistles like better targeting capabilities. More, as in anything above table stakes.

But hey, exciting stuff. I suppose this also means that Hot Pod will be somewhat relevant for at least a little while longer. Yay for jobs.

(Side note: I wonder how MailChimp, Squarespace, and Casper feel about their semi-lampooned ubiquity? Probably good, because ubiquity and synonymity with the rise of the medium is a plus, but there’s something about the mocking tone that suggests a more complex linkage.)

Big new clients for PRX. The Cambridge, Mass.-based podcast company announced two eye-catching partnerships yesterday: one with Night Vale Presents, the indie podcast outfit founded by Welcome to Night Vale creators Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor; and one with Gen-Z Media, the kids podcast company founded by the people behind The Disappearance of Mars Patel.

These partnerships will see PRX providing the two companies with marketing, ad sales, and technology support services. That third bit means that both Night Vale Presents and Gen-Z Media will be moving their portfolio of shows onto PRX’s Dovetail platform, which currently serves as the hosting provider for all podcasts in Radiotopia network. (Well, almost. The Allusionist migrates over in April.) Dovetail also hosts podcasts from Serial Productions, most notably handling S-Town’s monster run. (More information on that situation can be found in this column from last April.)

Gen-Z Media’s shows were previously housed on Panoply’s Megaphone platform as a result of a previous partnership struck last January, which saw Panoply supplying production, financing, distribution, and technology support. Gen-Z is also an active partner on Pinna, Panoply’s app-oriented kids programming initiative, for which the podcast company was reportedly developing a suite of new shows.

“Truly, we’re not moving away from Panoply,” replied Ben Strouse, one of Gen-Z’s principals, when asked for clarification on the company’s standing with its previous provider. “Our shows on Pinna will proudly stay there, and we’ll continue collaborating with them on new projects. Our partnership with PRX is all about connecting with new listeners and reaching bigger and bigger audiences for our upcoming shows. We’ve got to diversify our business in 2018 to continue growing, and PRX has a tremendous distribution network and highly respected collection of great podcasts.”

Gen-Z’s move to PRX caps off a complicated month for Panoply, in which the company saw (1) the departure of its kids programming chief, Emily Shapiro; and (2) Slate, its sister company, taking over its podcasts’ sales processes from Panoply.

For Night Vale Presents, the move appears driven by an eye towards scale. Its shows were previously hosted on Libsyn. “We’ve got nothing but positive things to say about Rob Walch and the Libsyn team. They were amazing to work with — we’ve been with them since the beginning of Welcome to Night Vale, and we’ve always been very happy with them,” said Christy Gressman, partner at Night Vale Presents. “That said, we’re really looking forward to working with PRX in a streamlined way, where we’ll get to use their sales team and sponsor management resources and distribution technology (via their proprietary Publish and Dovetail applications), along with sharing other resources.”

Locking down Night Vale Presents and Gen-Z is a pretty big win for PRX, whose operations continue to sprawl out in a myriad of directions. The organization has evolved several times since its founding in 2003, when it was originally built to serve as a technology provider and tool hub for public radio stations looking to take advantage of the internet. (This involved, among other things, the creation of an online marketplace for programming and station-specific app development services.) In its current iteration, PRX has espoused a renewed commitment to independent creators, a stance that has expressed itself through the creation of its “indie podcast label” Radiotopia; the Podcast Garage in Allston, Mass.; and providing end-to-end podcast services for select partners that fit into this indie worldview. The organization is currently led by CEO Kerri Hoffman, who succeeded Jake Shapiro in 2016 when Shapiro moved on to found RadioPublic.

So, what’s the big picture here? One could argue that PRX — with its indie-minded orientation, technology stack, and expanding ad sales capacity supplied by Market Enginuity — makes for a fascinating foil for Midroll, which has long established itself as the dominant full-service provider for a good deal of the emerging podcast ecosystem. It’ll be interesting to see how PRX will further express itself as distinct from its competitors, and what kind of clients it will continue to target and lure away.

On a related note: Radiotopia’s Criminal is working on a spinoff called This Is Love that’s slated for a Valentine’s Day drop. I wrote about the details for Vulture, but I’d also like to say: What the Criminal team is trying out here seems like a good model for creative teams looking to flex their muscles in different creative directions without necessarily compromising the consistent audience interfacing of their core economic/production engines. It sets up an advantage not unlike what you’re getting in the relationship between This American Life and Serial Productions, where talent can flow between the mothership and one-off projects.

This week in public radio:

1. Last Friday, WNYC announced an executive reshuffle that sees Dean Cappello — the station’s chief content officer and CEO Laura Walker’s righthand man throughout her two-decade-plus tenure at the station — demoted into an advisory role with no direct reports. Cappello was previously responsible for overseeing WNYC News and WNYC Studios, the station’s on-demand audio division. The shift comes almost two months after New York Magazine’s The Cut published a piece from the journalist Suki Kim detailing sexual harassment complaints and allegations made against The Takeaway’s John Hockenberry during his hosting tenure at the show. Kim’s story has since catalyzed a broader reckoning about the station’s management, which was deemed to have inadequately handled the Hockenberry complaints and, more broadly, manifested a culture that allowed for bullying, harassment, and discriminatory behaviors that have especially hurt women and people of color.

However, in a statement to Splinter, a WNYC spokesperson clarified that Cappello’s demotion was part of a strategic shift and unrelated to The Takeaway controversies. (Cappello directly oversaw The Takeaway and worked closely with Hockenberry for years, as a recent New York Times piece noted.)

It’s a peculiar clarification. But then again, if Cappello’s demotion was indeed meant to be the official response to the overarching concerns about the station’s culture, then it would have been an insufficient act of accountability. As it stands then, the station still hasn’t outwardly — or inwardly, as far as I can tell — indicated what it will concretely be doing to seriously address its systemic issues.

We may well still see…something from the station. In the WNYC News piece on the matter, it was noted that station management has brought in the law firm Proskauer Rose to investigate workplace conduct and former NPR executive editor Madhulika Sikka to review editorial content and structure. But for now, it feels like the impetus for change remains more centered in the hands of the station’s supporting member base, and how that constituency will collectively choose to alter the cost of reinforcing the status quo.

2. Minnesota Public Radio’s Garrison Keillor problem continues to be a flaming mess. A quick list of recent developments:

  • Last Tuesday, MPR News published an investigation going deep into Keillor’s troubling history of inappropriate workplace behavior around women. “An investigation by MPR News…has learned of a years-long pattern of behavior that left several women who worked for Keillor feeling mistreated, sexualized or belittled,” the piece wrote. “None of those incidents figure in the ‘inappropriate behavior’ cited by MPR when it severed business ties.”
  • That same day, MPR CEO Jon McTaggart published a note responding to several questions that have been sent in by listeners about the controversy. “The irony is that while MPR has been careful to protect Garrison’s privacy and not hurry any decisions, others have rushed to judge and criticize MPR’s actions without knowing the facts,” he wrote in response to one query.
  • A few days later, Keillor pushed back against MPR, MPR News, and an accuser through a statement published on his website and sent to HuffPost. “If I am guilty of harassment, then every employee who stole a pencil is guilty of embezzlement,” he wrote.

There remains a standoff between MPR management and Keillor, with the fate of the Prairie Home Companion archives — considered “historically valuable” by a curator at the University of Maryland, and to which Keillor holds many of the rights — at stake, as the Star Tribune reports.

3. NPR published the 2017 edition of its staff diversity numbers last week, which shows virtually no progress from the year before. Ombudsman Elizabeth Jensen with the details:

The overall racial and ethnic diversity of the news and information division remained virtually unchanged as of Oct. 31, 2017, when compared with the year earlier. Figures supplied by NPR’s human resources department showed the division of 377 people to be 75.10 percent non-Hispanic white (as self-identified). That compared to 75.4 percent the year earlier, when there were 350 newsroom employees. I’ll repeat what I said of the 2016 numbers, which showed only incremental change over the last five years: this was a disappointing showing.

Year-to-year, there were some small changes in the makeup of the remaining 25 percent of the newsroom. The percentage of employees who reported they were Latino or black rose slightly; Asian employees as a percentage dropped slightly.

Jensen’s piece unpacks a number of elements embedded in the station’s problem with employment diversity that’s worth thinking about, including a “trickle down” dynamic as well as the indirect impact of the broader public radio ecosystem’s lack of diversity as a potentially relevant factor in the station’s failure to adequately solve the problem. (One thing I’m personally wondering about, though, because I’m a yellow person: Why did the percentage of Asian employees drop slightly? Are we just, like, not talking more about that?)

But there is absolutely nothing new to be said about this issue that hasn’t already been said, not that doesn’t it have to be said repeatedly, ad infinitum, until the light of the sun snuffs out or the percentages actually change: This needs to be fixed, like now, and it’s ridiculous that the needle has barely moved, maybe even regressed.

In other news: Marjorie Powell, vice president of human resources, has left the organization. Current has some noteworthy background on the development.

Nope, not a good week for public radio.

Personnel notes:

  • Dave Shaw, the executive producer of podcasts at E.W. Scripps, has moved to Politico to lead the podcast team there. He started work today. Also at Politico: Bridget Mulcahy has been promoted to senior producer, and Micaela Rodríguez joins full time as assistant producer.
  • Vox Media now has a dedicated podcast marketing manager: Zach Kahn, who previously worked in the brand marketing and sponsorship division.

Dirty John in the age of Peak TV. The multimedia true-crime project from the Los Angeles Times is in the process of being adapted into two different series for two different networks, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

Bravo, home of the Real Housewives Expanded Universe, is reportedly “near a deal” for an anthology series based on the Times’ Christopher Goffard’s reporting and accompanying podcast (produced in collaboration with Wondery). It will be a two-season order; first season of that show will be based on the Dirty John story, while the second will focus on a new tale altogether.

The Oxygen network is the other suitor, having ordered a companion unscripted series focused on the subject of Goffard’s feature, John Meehan.

Three things:

    • Dirty John is the latest in a growing line of podcast-to-television adaptations, which you can read more about here, here, and here. At some point, I’ll put together a spreadsheet or something tracking the pipeline so we can figure out the split between fiction and nonfiction projects, true crime and non-true crime, so on and so forth.
    • The fact that Dirty John is being adapted into both scripted and unscripted forms is super interesting. How much juice can you squeeze out of a fruit? Depends on the fruit, I guess. Or maybe not?
  • This bit of news comes as the L.A. Times is increasingly engulfed by managerial maelstroms, including dramatic reshuffles in its management, sexual harassment allegations levied against publisher and CEO Ross Levinsohn, and a comically capitalistic parent company called Tronc that’s engaged in questionable business strategies to the detriment of its talented newsrooms. The situation remains fluid; I recommend following Ken Doctor and David Folkenflik if you’re tracking the story.

Macmillan outlook. The podcasting adventures of Macmillan, the international book publishing giant, can be traced back to the closing weeks of 2006 when John Sterling, then the publisher and president of the Henry Holt imprint, called up a science writer named Mignon Fogarty after reading about her rapidly growing podcast, Grammar Girl, in The Wall Street Journal. A phone call about a potential book deal turned into the mutual identification of a unique opportunity, which in turn led to the creation of the Quick & Dirty Tips Podcast Network, one of the earliest podcast publishing experiments by a non-audio native company. (Simon Owens has a great recent history of QDT on his website.)

The network has since grown into a robust and well-oiled machine. It is now over 275 million podcast downloads strong, having added 25 million episode downloads across 2017 to the 250 million in lifetime downloads the network had accumulated by the end of 2016. Fogarty continues to publish Grammar Girl, the network’s flagship program now flanked by an array of spinoffs, and she has published several books that direct extend from her work on the podcast. Meanwhile, Sterling, who continued to oversee QDT even as he ascended to the role of executive vice president at Macmillan proper in 2008, recently announced that he was stepping back from full-time work at the publisher to get into politics. The news comes shortly after he completed work as the editor of Michael Wolff’s Fire & Fury.

With delicious lore to spare, Macmillan is a fascinating figure in podcasting: an early adopter, a persistent player, and a singular operation. And last year proved to be no different for the publisher as it continued to work the on-demand audio angle.

At the tail end of 2016, I wrote about Macmillan’s ambitions to further scale up its on-demand audio operations with the formation of Macmillan Podcasts, a new internal venture that seeks to explore more systematic ways of bridging authors and podcasts. Led by Kathy Doyle, the company’s vice president of podcasts, the newly formed division spent the year setting the table — “We tripled the size of our team and put together a workflow that enables us to be nimble and responsive to requests from our publishers, as well as authors and talent, as we grow our catalog,” she said — and establishing their presence within the organization. This work was mostly tied in the development and rollout of new projects, of which there were five in the latter half of 2017 (Raise My Roof, Dig If You Will, Feminasty, Rossen to the Rescue, and Steal the Stars), but it also revolved around an internal awareness-raising campaign. “We did a road show introducing the potential inherent in podcasts to all our publishers and showcasing the ways we can help contribute to their success — no topic or narrative style is off limits,” she explained.

Steal the Stars, in particular, emerged as the standout project for the division. I first wrote about the podcast last summer, when Tor Books, a science fiction and fantasy-focused Macmillan subsidiary, announced the formation of Tor Labs, an experimental imprint “emphasizing experimental approaches to genre publishing,” which developed Steal the Stars as its first project. I loved the idea of Tor Labs; here you have a new internal venture that’s working to cultivate publishing projects that are meant to contemporaneously span across multiple platforms such that value can be simultaneously extracted from the different markets of different mediums. Such a setup vastly expands the surface area of a single project, dramatically increasing the work’s exposure and further allowing for the possibility of ushering more audiences to cross over between mediums. Sure, much like Subcast from last week, the whole thing isn’t particularly revolutionary — we do live in an age where just about everything gets adapted into any given direction, from podcasts-to-television to documentaries-to-podcasts — but the real innovation is the efficiency and contiguity of the arrangement. Every element is plugged in together from the outset, and that seems new to me.

Steal the Stars was indicative of what the bleeding edge for Macmillan Podcasts could look like. It involved close coordination between Gideon Media (which created and produced the podcast), Tor and Tor Labs, Macmillan Podcasts, and Macmillan Audio (which oversees its audiobooks operations), all collectively working together to ensure that every format of the show was set up to perform well within their respective markets.

Doyle considers the experiment a success. The podcast ended up clocking in a solid performance with listeners; I’m told that the 14-part run surpassed 1 million downloads and continues to perform well in the postseason. “Our strategy included taking the podcast content and adapting it into a trade paperback and ebook and just last week we released an audiobook with bonus content — we even did a prequel live event that sold out — all of which continues to drive interest in the podcast,” she explained. “We’ll be leveraging this model again.”

As far as the product itself goes, I thought it was a really fun listen. A sci-fi audio drama written by Gideon Media’s Mac Rogers, who also wrote The Message and Life After for Panoply, Steal the Stars was a comparatively straightforward narrative romp involving aliens, secret government hijinks, and romance.

So, what does the year ahead hold for Macmillan Podcasts? As you would expect, they’ve got a pile of projects in the pipeline. The division recently released a few trailers teasing two February launches: the first is called One True Pairing, which will be hosted by two St. Martin Press staffers — “Think My Favorite Murder for people who read US Weekly,” Doyle said, a description that sounds a lot like a Who? Weekly competitor — and the second is called But That’s Another Story, which “looks at how books and reading change and shape our lives” and will be hosted by best-selling author Will Schwalbe. More are on the way.

Doyle also notes that the year will be spent further building out key relationships, distribution points, and co-marketing opportunities within the industry. “We’re spending a lot of time thinking about ways we can collaborate with our partners in support of our authors and continue to innovate with new audio-first formats,” she said. You can already see some of that with Macmillan Podcasts’ participation in the marketing of Launch, a new podcast about writing a novel developed by Wondery.

Like most other podcast operatives, Doyle is thinking about the discovery gap — and where the closing of that gap will come from — as well as the longevity of the advertising model, which is the primary revenue channel for their show portfolio. That latter concern is pushing her to explore alternatives. “We’re open to additional models, perhaps working with distributors on a windowing relationship or developing exclusive content,” Doyle added. “It’s a case-by-case basis.”

But for now, though, Macmillan Podcasts is settling into itself. They remain occupants of a unique corner in the broader podcast ecosystem, hard at work figuring out how to add more layers to its niche.

Bites:

  • ESPN is reportedly exploring a sale of FiveThirtyEight. Should FiveThirtyEight break off from Disney — which owns ESPN, among so many other things — there would be considerable ramifications for the FiveThirtyEight Politics podcast and ESPN’s 30 for 30 podcast, as both shows share Jody Avirgan as a principal producer. (The Big Lead)
  • Gimlet is producing a live festival for itself. Called Gimlet Fest, it is scheduled to take place on June 16-17, not too far from their new 27,000-square-foot downtown Brooklyn offices.
  • A documentarian is developing a project about Joe Frank, and is raising funds on Indiegogo.
  • WBUR is launching its collaboration with The Washington Post, Edge of Fame, next month. The show is fronted by WaPo national arts reporter Geoff Edgers, and each episode will profile artists, actors, musicians, and comedians — including Ava DuVernay, Jimmy Kimmel, and Norm Macdonald — through a blend of interview and field recordings. Debuts on February 15.
  • Two shows to track on the local podcasting front: Nashville Public Radio’s The Promise, a limited-run series on public housing in the city, out now; and KPCC’s Repeat, which investigates the story of an L.A. County sheriff’s deputy who shot at four people in seven months. It starts February 7.
  • Variety has a big feature up on Spotify as the music streaming company sets off towards going public, titled “With 70 Million Subscribers and a Risky IPO Strategy, Is Spotify Too Big to Fail?” The piece is super useful to get a sense of what’s going on (and what’s at stake) for the company and its relationship to the broader music industry. Once you’re done with that, pair it with this Financial Times bit: “Songwriters’ court victory deals a blow to Spotify.
  • Not directly podcast-related, but maybe it can be: “A Bunch of TV Writers Are Building a Salary-Transparency Database.” (Vulture)
  • Because true crime is arguably the pulping heart of podcasts in 2018…”Hunt a Killer, One Subscription Box of Clues at a Time.” (The Ringer)

Who needs video? Slate is pivoting to audio, and making real money doing it

Slate Outlook. This is a tad newsier and more with-the-pack than I generally like to be, but whatever — there’s a bunch of juicy, usable stuff in here.

Slate readers woke up this morning to something big from the 22-year-old online magazine: a total redesign, complete with an overhauled backend to improve the site’s user experience and a new logo to mark its third decade of publication. Accompanying the aesthetic revamp are significant adjustments to the site’s editorial architecture — including, among other things, a reorganization of its content verticals and, of course, a long-overdue push to make its substantial audio output more prominent across its web presence.

“We look at the redesign as a recommitment to the written word and audio,” Julia Turner, Slate’s editor-in-chief, tells me. She also notes that those renewed commitments are, in part, a reaction to the “pivot to video” gambit employed elsewhere in the digital media ecosystem, increasingly lampooned these days either as folly or a cynical ploy to extract dollars from the unstable hype surrounding digital video. “We’re planning to expand editorial spending on podcasts and articles,” she said. “There are good economic models behind both.”

We’ll stick to the audio portion here, of course, and our primary interest is to get a sense of just how strong that podcast business model is for Slate. Turner dished out some numbers to set the scene:

  • Slate enjoyed 100 million downloads in 2017 across its entire podcast network, not counting shows under the Slate Extra banner.
  • Podcast downloads are said to be up 42 percent from 2016.
  • December proved to be Slate’s biggest podcasting month, driven in good part by Slow Burn (more on that show in a bit), with 3.5 million downloads across the period.
  • Slate’s podcast advertising revenues were up 36 percent in 2017 over 2016, and the company expects continued growth this year, or so it is said.

(“We like to share when they’re happy numbers,” Turner said, when I expressed marvel over the volume of information being provided.)

But perhaps the most telling data point is this: In 2014, podcasting made up 0 percent of Slate’s revenue portfolio. By the end of 2017, that number has shot up to 25 percent. Whether that number continues to grow over the next few years will be something to watch. Unsurprisingly, the company expects growth in all key revenue areas — including display advertising and membership dollars in addition to podcast advertising — which, if true, would stabilize the growth of Slate’s podcast advertising dependency. But I do find it compelling to contemplate a future in which Slate primarily operates as a podcast publisher with a significant written web engine that functions as an effective lead-generation tool. (Thereby ultimately adhering to the construct sketched out by Stratechery’s Ben Thompson in his November 2015 piece, “Grantland and the (Surprising) Future of Publishing.” Indeed, such a result would create an unexpected homology between Slate and Grantland’s successor, The Ringer, if I’m reading the latter correctly.)

Anyway, depending on how you look at it, one could interpret Slate’s podcasting fortunes either as a product of luck or persistence, maybe both. Slate’s adventures in podcasting began over a decade ago, in 2004, and as Andy Bowers, who joined the company around that time as its OG producer after a twenty-year career in public radio, is fond of telling it, the site’s early audio dabblings involved publishing recordings of him reading articles out loud into a microphone. (Some ideas never really go away.) Those experiments would eventually evolve into shows with more substantial discursive formats, which would then go on to cultivate strong communities over an extended period of time. Digging through the archives and thinking back on that era, one could argue that there was no real reason for the company to continue producing those podcasts beyond simple enjoyment and serving those early communities; hence the notion of luck and persistence. But sticking to the experiment paid off, as that commitment ultimately primed them to be particularly ready for this historical juncture in digital audio publishing.

Nowadays, the Slate podcast network is a sprawling 24-show portfolio that’s spread across various Gabfests (a model that it pioneered across multiple shows and that is widely emulated these days by other online publications dabbling in the medium), some personality-driven shows (The Gist, Dear Prudence, etc.), and an emerging bucket of more ambitious projects. Bowers, after a long tenure as Slate’s EP of podcasts, went on to cofound a podcast-specific sister company, Panoply, in early 2015, and his role has now been passed onto another bald public radio veteran: Steve Lickteig.

2017 proved to be an interesting year for Slate Podcasts. Most prominently, it struck a curious partnership with Studio 360 last summer, taking over coproduction and digital distribution responsibilities from WNYC (where the show had been housed since its launch in 2000) as well as physically bringing the team into its offices. The network also steadily rolled out a suite of new shows, including a Spanish-language Gabfest and a few highly-produced narrative projects.

One such narrative project was Slow Burn, the Leon Neyfakh-led narrative podcast that sought to capture a sense of how it felt to live through Watergate, which I largely enjoyed and reviewed for Vulture last week. It turned out to be a hit for the company — not just as a standalone podcast project, but also as a lead-generation vessel for its membership program, Slate Plus.

Even though the core Slow Burn experience is available for free as a weekly podcast, a Slate Plus membership gives Burn-heads access to bonus episodes and other additional material. The carrot was apparently effective. “We’re seeing conversion at an extraordinary rate,” Turner said, noting that the Slow Burn campaign yielded 2.5× to 3× the daily conversion rates of an average day. “We’re seeing a ton of overlap between audio audiences and Slate Plus,” she adds. Plans are now in place to develop the property further, including an upcoming live event at the Watergate itself and a broader vision to untether the podcast from Watergate and use its conceit as a way to build future seasons around other historical events.

Slow Burn’s success should give Slate some extra confidence for the upcoming shows they’re planning to launch this year. Projects in the development pipeline includes:

  • A documentary series led by the author Michael Lewis, of The Big Short and Moneyball fame, about umpires.
  • A project built around Slate TV critic Willa Paskin, which I’m told will neither be a chat show nor an interview-show.

One imagines there will be more to come.

The notion of an online magazine entering its third decade is a wild thing to consider. (I’m not too much older than the site itself, which was founded in 1996.) Even wilder is the challenge of continuing to exist — and to fight for relevance — as a digital publication in a notoriously rough industry environment whose narratives are generally oriented around the downswings of the hype cycle these days. In its relative geriatricity, Slate now has the opportunity to contribute to a playbook that few digital publications get the chance to write.

Some odds and ends:

  • I’m also told that, as part of the changes surrounding the redesign and internal shifts, Slate will be taking over its own podcast sales from its sister company Panoply, which previously held that responsibility. A spokesperson explained the change as follows: “Since Slate podcasts are separating from the rest of Panoply, the direct response advertisers that Panoply was calling exclusively for the total network — including Slate — will, starting Q2, be called on by Slate sellers for only Slate’s network of shows. Panoply will continue to call on them for Panoply shows. Obviously, Slate very much believes in Panoply. We are creating this structure so that Slate and Panoply can each focus and do what it does best.” This separation is, of course, quite curious for Panoply.
  • It is not lost on me that the Slate Political Gabfest, one of the network’s oldest and most prominent shows, is hosted by three people who are no longer full-time Slate employees: David Plotz (now the CEO of Atlas Obscura), Emily Bazelon (now a staff writer for The New York Times Magazine and senior research fellow at Yale Law School), and John Dickerson (installed last week as cohost of CBS This Morning). This is both a testament to the legacy that Slate Podcasts has created across its run, and an indication of a potential vulnerability.
  • Speaking of Dickerson, Slate’s podcast chief Steve Lickteig confirmed that Dickerson will continue with the Slate Political Gabfest and Whistlestop.
  • As part of the editorial restructure, the Double X vertical is being phased out as its previous responsibilities become absorbed by all other verticals (there are now five: News & Politics, Culture, Technology, Business, and Human Interest). But the Double X Podcast will continue to operate, serving as the living connection to the vertical’s legacy.

Panoply loses its kids chief. I’ve confirmed that Emily Shapiro, the director of children’s programming, has left the company. Shapiro was originally hired in January 2017 to lead the emerging division, which is primarily built around the Pinna platform. I wrote about Pinna when it first rolled out last October.

Panoply declined to comment on Shapiro’s departure, citing a strict policy on discussing personnel matters.

Prior to joining Panoply, Shapiro was the cofounder of the New York International Children’s Film Festival — considered by some critics as one of New York’s best film festivals — where she worked for almost two decades. Her departure comes at a particularly hot time for the kids podcast genre, including recently launched pushes from WNYC Studios and Gimlet Media, along with long-running efforts from the Kids Listen community.

WBEZ is working on a follow-up to Making Oprah. But it won’t be about Oprah. Brendan Banaszak, the station’s interim executive producer of content development, confirmed the project over email, and noted that they’re applying the “Making” conceit to another Chicago figure whose identity will be revealed at a later date. (A move not unlike what Slate is hoping to do with Slow Burn.) Jenn White will host once again.

I don’t know about you, but I’m really into the idea of “Making” as a podcast template for local public radio stations across the country in the vein of the Hearken-powered Curious City franchise expansions. I would love a Making-style show for Idaho. (Aaron Paul??)

Science Friday joins the WNYC Studios portfolio. The move was announced last Friday. Here’s what that means:

  • WNYC Studios will lead sponsorship sales for the Science Friday podcast along with its spinoff show Undiscovered.
  • Starting April 11, WNYC Studios will take over distribution responsibilities for the Science Friday radio broadcast.
  • Science Friday remains an independent nonprofit media organization, and will continue production as usual in their current studios and offices.
  • WNYC Studios will also assist in the scaling of Science Friday’s audience, along with fielding opportunities for potential future creative collaborations between the two organizations.

This development bears strong resemblance to the August 2015 Snap Judgment move to enter into a coproduction deal with WNYC, the specifics of which you can read in this Current writeup from the time. In this case, however, Science Friday is breaking away from its distribution ties with PRI, with whom they’ve had a relationship since January 2014.

“We love PRI — they’ve been great partners, and our audience is bigger than its ever been” Christian Skotte, codirector and head of digital at Science Friday told me. “For us, as we look forward into the future, WNYC has shown how to launch and market podcasts, and as we think about what our future looks like, we’re thinking beyond just being a radio show and podcast towards being able to create whole new suites of content.”

Science Friday is currently celebrating its 27th year of production.

This week in the revolving door:

  • Eleanor Kagan, the director of audio at BuzzFeed, is leaving the company to join Pineapple Street Media. This move comes almost a month after BuzzFeed announced that it was parting ways with Another Round due to “strategic changes” at the company. Worth noting: Pineapple was cofounded by Jenna Weiss-Berman, who originated the podcast team at BuzzFeed.
  • Jessica Stahl, who originated The Washington Post’s current audio operations in her role as deputy editor on the audience team, has been promoted to director of audio. In related news, The Washington Post’s audio operations launched seven new podcasts in 2017, including two specifically for smart speaker devices.
  • James Green, cofounder of the Postloudness collective and a former producer at Gimlet Media, is joining The Outline to work on its daily show, World Dispatch.
  • John Lagomarsino, audio director at The Outline, is moving to Anchor to serve as head of production. It is a newly created role.

Wait, Anchor has a head of production now? Yep. But the gig is more a product role than anything else. “Ultimately, I’m responsible for making sure content on Anchor is high-quality, well-curated, and relevant for creators and listeners,” Lagomarsino tells me through a rep, before going on to describe a role that liaises between Anchor’s userbase and the company’s product, marketing, and content teams.

For the uninitiated, Anchor is a mobile-oriented app that originally rolled out within the “Twitter, but for audio” construct. That initial orientation was defined by a twin focus: ease of creation and ease of sharing. The company was founded in 2015 and, after picking up some initial buzz at SXSW the year after, has persisted to kick about in pursuit of a place within the marginally iterating podcast technology ecosystem. Last fall, Anchor raised $10 million in a Series A round led by Google Ventures. According to a TechCrunch writeup at the time, the company is still not generating revenue.

The current iteration of Anchor further increases its focus on creating the “easiest path to making a podcast” for the biggest number of people (the bulk of which, one imagines, is relatively inexperienced in audio production). This positioning was expressed last July, when Anchor seized on the reported instabilities at SoundCloud — previously the go-to hosting option for first-time and newer podcast publishers — by offering easy hosting transfers. It was a shrewd move, as the two services map nicely for their target demo given that both platforms are free and relatively simple to use.

How Anchor fits into the broader on-demand audio universe remains to be seen. Will the platform continue to be the lord of its own content universe, or will it meaningfully usurp portions of the technology stack that supports the rest of the podcast ecosystem? The answer hinges on whether CEO Mike Mignano’s thesis on the space pans out.

“The reality of the current landscape is that podcasting has remained an artificially small industry, because it’s so hard to contribute to,” Mignano wrote through a rep. He continued:

Between the friction that exists at nearly every step of the content lifecycle, and the antiquated technology that the industry has relied on for years, creators are left with limited data and limited opportunity for monetization, thus capping the potential of the market. We’re well past the breaking point where innovation across the entire stack is absolutely necessary for growth.

With Anchor, we’re focused on creating technology that strengthens the entire ecosystem and unlocks the true potential of the audio landscape. I expect Anchor to have a lot of competition in the coming years, which we’re excited about, because true innovation is ultimately going to come from technology pushing the boundaries of what’s previously been possible.

I happen to agree with the characterization of podcasting as an “artificially small industry.” The question I’ve kept encountering throughout my years writing this newsletter is whether that’s actually a bad thing.

Billboard outside ATL, Georgia. Atlanta Monster, the new true crime series from Atlanta podcast companies HowStuffWorks and Tenderfoot, appears to be playing around with OOH advertising local to the Atlanta city area:

Neato.

“Gimlet is a multimedia storytelling brand, not just a podcast network.” So goes the opening argument from Gimlet’s new chief marketing officer, Jenny Wall, which headlined a quick Fast Company piece last week, as she moves to elevate the company’s profile.

This is, of course, no new revelation for Gimlet, which has pretty explicitly highlighted its formalizing intellectual property pipeline — carved out in large part by Chris Giliberti, its young “head of multiplatform” — as both differentiating factor and exceptionally strong potential growth channel. Nor is it a particularly new revelation for the industry as a whole; as I noted in my 2017 year-in-review column, the adaptation pipeline is one that extends widely across the ecosystem (though with particular concentration within the audio drama category) and offers the industry a significant pathway to gain strength independently from the platform dynamics governed, still, by Apple. Nor is Gimlet the only entity that’s been exceptionally active in ushering podcast-first properties into projects for other mediums; Night Vale Presents has proven to be equally prominent, with the added nuance of not potentially burdened by the demands of venture capital.

But I thought the quote was interesting for three reasons:

  • It’s super reminiscent of HBO’s “It’s Not TV, It’s HBO” campaign that Wall worked on earlier in her career, which I pointed out last week when writing up her appointment.
  • I was wondering when Gimlet would explicitly make the “actually, we’re not just a podcast company” turn in its narrative. It’s a mindset that you could arguably trace back to a point as early as the company’s participation in the summer 2016 Brooklyn NewFronts event, where it sought to gain association with broader digital media brands like Genius, Atlas Obscura, and Lenny Letter. Perhaps you can trace it back even further.
  • One potential function for the narrative redraft: to open and grease more paths for acquisition. It’s one thing if you’re a podcast company whose most literal suitors would be a bigger, traditional audio company — see Cadence13 and Entercom — but it’s another thing altogether when your perceived value is non-medium specific. It definitely makes things more interesting for, say, a talent agency, or perhaps even a global advertising agency not unlike the one that chipped in $5 million into Gimlet’s recent investment round.

Bites:

  • Like Slate, This American Life has also undergone a redesign, which includes a new shock-red logo. I think the Washington Post’s Alexandra Petri said it best: “Congrats to @ThisAmerLife on its new job as The Economist.” I myself, er, am not a fan. (Website)
  • Last Thursday, ESPN Audio rolled out the first episode of a new podcast from Katie Nolan, who joined the sports media giant from Fox Sports in October.
  • The Loud Speakers Network is bringing back its brand collaboration with State Farm, Color Full Lives, with Aminatou Sow and Angela Yee in the hosting seats. Interestingly, this will be the branded podcast’s third season. They’re also set to experiment with an accompanying video component. (Apple Podcasts)
  • At CES last week, NPR published a new smart speaker study that has some additional data points for your pitch decks. Check it out.
  • This is cool: closing out her third season, Flash Forward’s Rose Eveleth graphed the gender ratio and racial diversity of the guests she brings onto her episodes. (Flash Forward)
  • This is also cool: Doree Shafrir, author and senior tech writer at BuzzFeed, is independently publishing a podcast called Forever35, which is focused on serving women in their 30s and 40s. This is her second indie podcast project, following Matt & Doree’s Eggcellent Adventure, which chronicles her and her husband’s experience of conceiving through in-vitro fertilization.
  • Meanwhile, on the Beltway: Senator Cory Booker (D-New Jersey) has jumped on the politician podcasting train with one of those shows where he talks to people doing stuff he’s likes. He joins senators Bernie Sanders (D-Vermont) and Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), along with former U.S. Attorney General Preet Bharara, in the style.
  • “Pandora CEO Roger Lynch Wants to Create the Podcast Genome Project.” Okay. (Variety)
  • “The Opening of the American Mind: How Educational Podcasts Are Making Us Smarter Citizens.” (Pacific Standard)
  • “Alexa, We’re Still Trying to Figure Out What to Do With You.” (NY Times)
  • PodcastOne announces partnership with the Associated Press around a daily audio news product accompanying the Winter Olympics. (Press Release)
  • “Whatever it is, I’m not afraid of what happens after death.” Don’t miss this glorious conversation with Terry Gross by Vulture’s David Marchese.

Next week, we’re talking crypto-pods.

Correction: In the January 2, 2018 edition, I mentioned that Mary Wilson, current producer of Slate’s The Gist, was a former WNYC staffer. She is not. I regret the error!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[insert super casual segue here]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anyway: Mazel tov, Planet Money!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A couple of things on this:

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

Bites:

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