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Subscribe to Hot Pod Insider to read on.
Been quite the week, hasn’t it? In case you missed it: last Wednesday, Panoply announced that it was getting out of the content business and, as a result, would be letting go of its entire editorial division — putting more than a few good products out of a job — in favor of focusing solely on its “podcast hosting and ads services business,” i.e. its Megaphone platform. The company is also getting out of direct ad sales — leaving its client base to shop for new sales partners, seemingly abruptly — in favor of its podcast monetization offering that’s rooted in its partnership with Nielsen’s audience segmentation tool. Which is to say: Panoply is essentially shifting into a direct LibSyn and Art19 competitor with an additional monetization edge.
The Panoply news wasn’t an isolated development. That same day, Slate Group chairman Jacob Weisberg announced that he was leaving to form a new audio company with the author Malcolm Gladwell of contemporary Revisionist History fame. On Thursday, the linear radio giant iHeartMedia acquired HowStuffWorks’ parent company Stuff Media for $55 million (that’s $5 million above what Scripps paid for Midroll, by the way). Capping things off, later that Thursday, the media conglomerate Endeavor began rolling out word of its own podcast division, Endeavor Audio, to the public.
That’s a ton of big news for a two day span. Each story is complicated enough on its own, but the clustering of stories was dramatic enough to inspire questions about what they mean as a collective and what they tell us about the podcast industry. Nieman Lab’s Joshua Benton strung together the news blitz in a blog post on Thursday, which he closed with a useful framing question: “Is this a classic case of legacy media (iHeart) buying into its digital disruptor (podcasting), à la the investments of companies like Comcast, Hearst, Time Warner investing into digital natives like BuzzFeed, Vox Media, and Mic?” he wrote. “Or something less positive, a sign of further shakeouts in an industry that, while far more structured than in its loosey-goosey early days, is still relatively decentralized?”
Both things are probably true at the same time, or somewhere in the middle, and then some. Come, friends. Let’s navel-gaze into oblivion.
In my understanding, the Panoply decision was driven by a cold calculation. Put simply, the company has moved to no longer stretch its resources (and identity) across multiple lines of businesses — content, direct ad sales, technology — and purely restructure itself around the one business that it has identified as having the most differentiation and long-term growth potential in the marketplace. Panoply may have had some high-profile shows over the years, but the business of hit-production is exorbitantly risk-heavy, and when it comes to podcasts, you’re talking about an environment with an infinite competitive horizon that’s already stacked with formidable players. That challenge is further grounded with a more mundane truism: it’s hard to build any business whatsoever, but it’s exponentially harder to build three interrelated businesses from scratch at the same time. Based on the messaging that came out from the restructure, it seems Panoply’s higher-ups determined that it would be more prudent to put all their chips on Megaphone. (It should be noted Steve Lickteig, EP of podcasts at sister company Slate, asserted over Twitter that Panoply’s move has no bearing on their operations. “We are still 100% in the game,” he wrote.)
Some readers wrote in to draw a line between Panoply’s withdrawal from the podcast content business and Audible’s early August move to eliminate a considerable number of roles within its original programming unit, particularly the podcast-style production team led by former NPR exec Eric Nuzum. Some suspected the two stories to be linked by a similar skepticism, perhaps from the company’s respective higher ups, about the prospects of podcasting. I don’t see how that could be the case. If anything, Panoply’s move feels like a doubling down on the industry’s prospects, as the choice to focus on Megaphone is itself a bet that there will be more popular and profitable podcasts to come that would need next-gen technology support.
The Audible situation is a tad messier. As I’ve mentioned previously, I suspect the reshuffling of the company’s original programming division to primarily be linked to the executive turnover that took place last December. A shift in leadership philosophy and internal politics, in other words. In any case, the platform appears to going down its own path on original programming: audiobook-only products, theatrical adaptations, meditation app acquisitions. The Amazon-owned audiobooks giant may not be competing within the infrastructural context of podcasting, but they still very much compete for the relationship with audiences. Those two stories aren’t linked by skepticism about podcasting; rather, they’re linked by a similar move to double-down on their respective ecosystems in pursuit of the same goal: to derive value from capturing the earballs of people everywhere.
Nevertheless, the timing of the Panoply news was suspect, as it took place shortly after the company presented at the IAB Podcast Upfronts where, among other things, it announced a new fiction podcast co-written by The Bright Sessions’ Lauren Shippen and starring Kelly Marie Tran. (The project is still apparently going to roll out in November which… you know, awkward.) I don’t know, exactly, what’s behind the strange timing, but I reckon it has to do at least something with Jacob Weisberg’s decision to head out on his own.
In parallel to the Panoply news on Wednesday, Weisberg announced that, after twenty-two years, he was leaving the Slate Group, which houses both Panoply and sister company Slate, to form a new audio company with Malcolm Gladwell. His departure comes at a moment where Slate, a veteran internet magazine operation, appears to have found some success navigating the choppy digital media waters with the help of a growing podcast business. At the end of 2017, podcasting comprised of 25% of the company’s revenues, up from virtually nothing in 2014. And this year has looked to be a good one so far for Slate Podcasting. Working off the strength of a formidable long-running portfolio that includes the Slate Political Gabfest and The Gist, the company has been rolling out a fleet of new shows, which includes the critically-acclaimed, widely-consumed (its first season reportedly brought in 11 million downloads), and utterly fantastic Slow Burn. More big projects are in the oven: I’ve previously reported that Slate is currently working with another well-known author, Michael Lewis, to develop a podcast series.
Which raises the question: why is Weisberg leaving to form a new audio venture with Gladwell now, instead of keeping things in-house at Slate? I have no special insight into this, and there is likely a ton of backstory we’re not publicly privy to, but I can’t help seeing a possible parallel with the Panoply story here: whatever the overarching circumstances, this could well be a situation where Weisberg and Gladwell want to run where they could previously only walk.
Anyway, specific details about Weisberg and Gladwell’s new venture are still scant, but we do know that it will focus on producing podcasts, audiobooks, and smart speaker content. I find the explicit evocation of audiobooks especially interesting: given Audible’s strategic shift to partnering directly with well-known authors to produce audiobook-only products as means to bypass publishing houses, it’s hard not to imagine the play here. And if Weisberg and Gladwell haven’t already thought about striking up a direct relationship with Audible, they should be.
I’ll admit to not being particularly surprised about iHeartMedia acquiring Stuff Media. I’ve heard rumors about HowStuffWorks slipping on a price tag as far back as June that, when I followed up with the company, were categorically denied. (¯\_(ツ)_/¯). But here we are.
I vibe with Josh Benton’s suggestion that this story is, indeed, one of a legacy media acquiring its way into area knowledge and expertise of its digital disruptor. The move is good for iHeartMedia: up to this point, the liner radio entity had experimented with various ways of interpreting the on-demand audio business, with ambiguous results (as communicated through ambiguous Podtrac ranking analytics) and some minor measurement controversies along the way. In HowStuffWorks, they’ve acquired a humming content factory that already performs well within the context of podcasting. (Endeavor Audio pulled a similar move in its roll-out, striking a partnership with the Parcast network and its lines of genre product.)
On HowStuffWorks’s end, things strike me as a little more mixed.The Atlanta-based podcast giant has been at this for a long time, persisting through early podcast history beneath the umbrella of multiple parent companies before spinning out as an independent entity and raising $15 million in Series A money about a year ago. Since going solo, they’ve made some expansions, struck a few new partnerships, modernized their back-end, and rolled out a few big-swing shows, including Atlanta Monster. That company made the decision to be acquired for $55 million — which feels a little flat, IMHO — instead of staying independent to either (a) further bump that number up or (b) become a bigger business of their own is the sticking point. A year is a really short time for a spin-out and exit, so either they didn’t read their long-term independent prospects positively… or perhaps this was always part of the plan.
Anyway, the Panoply and iHeartMedia-HowStuffWorks stories interact in a really interesting way: prior to the acquisition, HowStuffWorks hosted its podcast portfolio on Megaphone, which I presume is an arrangement that’s pretty lucrative for Panoply. It’s unclear to me whether iHeartMedia will move HowStuffWorks onto another platform — perhaps its own in-house solution? — or whether they’ll keep things as is and build a sales infrastructure to meet it. We’ll see.
So, taken as a collective, what do all these stories mean? Are they data points contributing to some impending cataclysm, or do they point elsewhere — towards something simultaneously better and worse, something just different?
One way to read this is a story of an industry “maturing.” In the final accounting, we have: a broad multi-purpose podcast company that’s restructured into a pure tech company, one big radio company gobbling up a smaller podcast content company, and one brand new content company. Put another way: you have a company that’s finally decided on what it should be, one big legacy media company buying their way into the medium, and a new audio company built on the foundation of a really popular blue chip podcast (and Broken Record).
Another way to read it: the past few years marked a period of unchecked experimentation on a large scale, where a wide spread of gambits were laid out with ample runway to play. What we’re seeing might now might be the beginning of a turn: the tests have been run, the results have come in, and the time has come to shift resources based on what was found. In other words, as the podcast industry continues down its steady and relatively unsexy path of growth, a collection of players reshuffle their decks in response.
The unfortunate reality, of course, is that the machinations of companies, corporations, and organizations tend to come at the expense (or indifference) of workers. With Panoply’s exit from the content business, a number of talented producers are back out on the job market at the end of the month. I tweeted out earlier that I thought the market for is better now for experienced audio producers that it ever was, given the preponderance of new audio companies and increased need for skilled labor. (Yes, everyone can make a podcast. No, not everyone can make a listenable one.) I do believe this, by the way, but the belief is not without caveat: by a “better” job market, I mean that the current environment is one where producers can more easily get paid gigs compared to, say, five or six years ago. That doesn’t necessarily refer to the ability to get a desirable job at a company that will make good decisions, listen to you, and provide you with a place to grow — that’s a whole other bag of worms. But you can get paid. And that’s the frustrating heart of all this: abundant jobs or no, producers function within a system where the fates of workers are mostly at the relatively unprotected mercy of capital, companies, and their leadership team struggling through their respective problems of identity, vision, and product-market fit.
One last thing. The framework for thinking through all of this remains the same: demand for time-shifted on-demand audio content continues to increase, and demand for good on-demand audio creators and producers are going up accordingly. The central question we’re grappling with here is how money is made; that story is only partly about how the podcast industry/community figures out its arrangements and business model, and it is also partly about how it deals with opportunities, challenges, and interactions with other systems like audiobooks, music streaming platforms, and whatever else lies around the corner.
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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:
— Jason Hoch (@starexplorer) January 11, 2018
“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.
- 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.
LONGEST SHORTEST WHY. Andrea Silenzi, creator of Panoply cult favorite Why Oh Why, is moving to Midroll to take over as the new host of Hillary Frank’s beloved parenting podcast, The Longest Shortest Time. The change will kick in at the start of next year.
Frank has hosted The Longest Shortest Time since creating the show in 2010; it was housed in WNYC for a good stretch before moving over to Midroll in late 2015. (Following a later Midroll brand reorganization, The Longest Shortest Time would eventually be categorized under the Stitcher banner.) With Silenzi taking over hosting duties, Frank will move on to a new role as the show’s executive producer, where she will continue to work on the production and provide strategic guidance.
This development is the culmination of a long-running creative relationship between Frank and Silenzi. “So much of my work is influenced by Hillary Frank it’s embarrassing,” Silenzi said. “When I created my first online audio portfolio, there’s a telling hand-drawn tomato in the corner. Little plagiarist! After relaunching Why Oh Why with Panoply last year, I was given the incredible opportunity to hire Hillary as our show’s editor. Working with her to host Longest Shortest Time next year feels like the next logical step in our creative collaborations. I can’t wait to hear what we’ll make together.”
For Frank, the move also provides an opportunity to take on a broader view of her work with the show. “In our new roles, we’ll have the chance to invigorate the show with stories and questions and experiences that I’ve already been through, but are fresh and new for her,” she said. “This move will allow me to do many of the things I love — big-picture vision stuff, editing Andrea — and will add room for developing other projects, some that are already in motion (LST’s Weird Parenting Wins book) and some that I’m looking into. I’m really excited about the possibilities ahead and I’ll be sharing more on all of that down the road.”
What happens to Why Oh Why remains unclear. Silenzi first started the show as an independent project prior her to time working at The Slate Group (where she first served as the originating producer for The Gist), and Why Oh Why was formally brought into the Panoply network only last fall. Will Midroll eventually move to acquire the show, or will the podcast stay where it is? “You’ll have to ask Panoply,” replied a Midroll spokesperson. Silenzi declined to provide much clarity on her current employer. “I can only speak for myself, not the plans of Stitcher or Panoply, but even though ‘taking a break’ typically means ‘breaking up’ in relationship-speak, I can completely see myself getting back together with Why Oh Why in the future.”
“After 3.5+ years with The Slate Group, I couldn’t be leaving on better terms with Panoply,” she added. Silenzi will see out the rest of Why Oh Why’s run through the end of the year.
Another thing to consider: Silenzi’s appointment marks a pretty experimental turn for the show. Can The Longest Shortest Time, an affectingly personal parenting podcast, be effectively hosted by someone who isn’t actually a parent? As a childless twenty-something who consumes an inordinate amount of parenting content, I’m especially curious to see how this turns out.
I asked Midroll for more insight into their angle on this whole business. Chris Bannon, the company’s chief content officer, offered: “I’ve loved working with Hillary ever since she landed at WNYC, and one of my greatest pleasures has been watching her enlarge her conception of both the show and her role. With Andrea’s arrival as host, Hillary has a huge opportunity to grow LST (Andrea is a superb reporter and host, and she’ll bring in a bunch of new listeners, I’m betting). Everybody wins, Nick!”
Host–show fluidity. The Silenzi-Frank switcharoo is additionally interesting for prompting questions about where the power and identity of a production are rooted between a show and its creative lead. This isn’t just a fanciful theoretical inquiry; it presents material challenges for networks that are looking to acquire, invest in, and develop shows over long periods of time. Consider the operational reality that it’s much harder to build a show from the ground up — to figure out its personality in the market, to acquire a core listener base, to establish basic familiarities with advertising partners — than it is to adjust a show mid-flight. Then consider the ever-present threat of talent burnout or growing indifference (one is reminded of this writeup on Jad Abumrad’s sabbatical), which is an element that hasn’t quite made itself known so explicitly in this space so far, given that the stakes have hitherto been pretty low.
But the stakes are picking up, and networks will eventually find themselves in more situations where, should they encounter talent burning out or just wanting to work on something else for a while, they will have to choose either to retire an established show-in-progress, along with its preexisting identity and listener base and advertising relationships, or scout for a new voice to lead the production. On a sheer which-is-less-daunting basis, the choice would clearly be to try for the latter first every time.
Of course, the risk of simply plugging in a new lead is creative abomination, or worse: the over-projection of corporate utilitarianism. There’s something deeply uncanny for long-time listeners to be served the corpse of an old loved thing being animated by a newly installed face. But show host readjustments don’t have to be that morbid. They can, and should, instead be opportunities for excitement! Indeed, imagining a world of different show-host matchups is pretty intoxicating. What would, for example, Sruthi Pinnamaneni’s Love + Radio look like? Or Zoe Chace’s Embedded? Or Anna Sales’ Heavyweight?
Imagining those combinations bring us closer to what I think is the most interesting question of this whole business: when does a show transcend its creator? And how does a show develop an identity separate from the person who created it? Will we ever find out what’s on the dark side of the moon? I’ll come down from my high now.
The Oprah effect? If you compulsively thumb the Apple Podcast charts (as I do), you probably already know that Oprah Winfrey — media mogul, force of nature, subject of what is low-key the best podcast of late 2016 — has a show that’s been consistently floating around the top for a while now.
(You might also know that the podcast is essentially an RSS feed comprised of audio repackages of her Super Soul Sunday TV programming, which, you know, is one way of pumping stuff out for earballs. Side note: the equivalent product would be, say, repackaging selected Terry Gross interviews as transcripts to be bundled together and sold as books. It’s a great additional revenue stream for Terry Gross, her hypothetical book publisher, and her fans, but a flanking competitor for book-native authors. But we’re not here to talk about that.)
Anyway, Adweek published a writeup last week about how the podcast sold out all of its 2017 advertising slots really, really quickly.
In an experiment gone right, Winfrey and the team at the Oprah Winfrey Network decided to transform her Super Soul Sunday TV programming into a podcast called Oprah’s SuperSoul Conversations. The podcast launched on Aug. 7 and had no ads or partners until the show collaborated with Midroll Media in late October…So when Oprah’s SuperSoul Conversations decided to open its doors to advertisers, advertising slots for most of the fourth quarter of 2017 sold out in about 24 hours.
The article goes on to quote Midroll’s head of sales, Korri Kolesa, touting an interpretation of this development’s significance for the medium:
Oprah’s show marks a big, pivotal moment for podcast advertising… On both the content and the advertising side of things, this is a spectacular entry point for brands that were waiting to align with something they’re comfortable with.
A couple of things:
- Midroll’s flex here is pretty remarkable. That the Oprah pod could only tap advertising dollars after getting hooked up to Midroll’s sales infrastructure — following two months or so of sitting dormant — and then did so in such rapid fashion suggests a few things about podcast advertising in late 2017: (a) there remains considerably high friction for advertisers to test the medium and for publishers to create attractive ad products on their own, (b) sufficient expertise and advertiser trust appears clustered among a small set of companies, and (c) Midroll is a particularly strong member in that set of companies.
- That said, this success anecdote only tells us something about Midroll’s capacity to secure new ad dollars for products with big-ticket names attached to them. It’s unclear to me, at this point of time, how these focus and incentive impact Midroll’s service to smaller, independent operations — the type of show often thought to be a good chunk of the company’s bread-and-butter before its 2016 acquisition by EW Scripps.
- It’s worth asking whether this story actually tells us more about Oprah than it does about Midroll. Viewed from that angle, there’s nothing particularly special about what happened here: Oprah, after all, is an unstoppable brand presence, and it may very well be the case that any media product developed with the OWN name would sell out no matter the container when plugged into the right sales infrastructure.
- If we assume that Kolesa is correct and that this marks some turning point for more big brand advertisers to jump into the medium, it remains to be seen whether those dollars will trickle down and out to the rest of the space. Several future scenarios are possible: (a) those dollars are kept within Midroll’s podcasts, (b) those dollars are kept within Oprah podcasts, or (c) those dollars are kept within celebrity podcasts.
The past year has seen a considerable influx of celebrity power into podcasting, and while that is most definitely beneficial for the growth of the overall pie, it’s also worth asking: what proportion of podcast industry growth in 2017 is driven by celebrity programming? And to what extent is it driven by talent native to the industry itself?
This, I think, is one of the more pressing lines of inquiry to watch moving forward.
No stranger. Last week, Radiotopia announced that Lea Thau’s Strangers, one of its founding members, is leaving the independent podcast collective at the end of the year to…well, be further independent, I guess? “I’m so deeply grateful for everything Radiotopia has brought me,” Thau wrote in the corresponding announcement post. “I love this network, what it stands for and the people in it. I’m also excited about my new chapter, and I want the fans to feel both of those truths in a real way.”
Taken at face value, it’s a curious development. Radiotopia’s entire reason for being, at least in my read of them, is to develop and maintain a whole new system that’s primarily geared towards supporting independent podcast creators. And from what I’ve heard, this includes, among other things: leaving member talent to fully own their intellectual property (a relatively uncommon stance), providing them with full creative freedom and high-touch access to really deep editorial support (though, by virtue of the network’s size, not a lot of production capital), and setting them up with the standard revenue share system you’d get just about anywhere else. The combination of those three things amounts to a pretty sweet deal for shows already on the up and up that are looking to outsource some processes, like advertising sales and technology support, but on the whole want to maintain firm creative control.
I can’t help but feel that there’s missing from the story here. Or maybe there isn’t, and this is just one of those natural departures that come out from a relationship organically fading away in the way that so many relationships do. In any case, this is Radiotopia’s second departure from the roster this year. In August, Megan Tan’s Millennial came to a close, citing creative burnout.
Radiotopia declined to provide further comment.
I’ll be keeping an eye on this. Something tells me we’re not done with this story yet.
Speaking of which…
Marking reality. Tamar Charney, NPR One’s managing editor, wrote me yesterday to flag something her team is beginning to do with the platform:
I was reading Hot Pod this morning and realized I should have let you know what we are up to in light of the podcasts that blend fiction and nonfiction. This week, we are going to start flagging podcast content that plays in the NPR One flow: if it is fictional or blends fiction and nonfiction. Polybius Conspiracy being the most well-known example and the one the prompted us to do this, but there seem to be more fiction podcasts masquerading behind documentary style storytelling. It’s like War of the Worlds is new again! But we want to make sure we are not adding to false narratives and fake news, by being clear about what is entertainment and what is journalism.
The Hot Pod in question was last week’s issue, which contained an item (“Bait and switch”) where I went over the way The Polybius Conspiracy — the most recent series in Radiotopia’s Showcase initiative — blurred the lines between fiction and nonfiction even in its public presentation, which ultimately caused some listeners and reviewers, including myself, to erroneously approach the show as straightforward documentary.
(It should be further noted that the blurring could be read as not even being that extensive, as Night Vale’s Joseph Fink pointed out to me over Twitter. “I figured out it was fictional after first ep through literally one google search. So if journalists thought non-fiction, that feels like on them for not doing basic research, not on show for having framing device,” he wrote. Whatever the magnitude, I’ll nonetheless continue to cop to the screw-up on my end.)
Anyway. I, for one, greatly welcome the feature. I’m glad for any help I can get keeping a grip on reality.
Certified. Fresh off being (self-)declared the podcast capital of the world, the city of New York is taking another step in tightening its relationship with the industry. The Made in NY Media Center by IFP is launching the city’s first podcast production certification program, one that aims to be helpful in alleviating the industry’s flow of battle-tested talent. You can find more information about the program here. It is set to kick off in the new year.
Pass it on. It seems the fine folks over at Gastropod — who, by the way, I wrote a bit about in my recent Vulture piece on food podcasts — have been experimenting with a nifty audience development gambit.
As co-host Nicola Twilley writes me:
Instead of a pledge drive or a fundraising drive, we’re doing a share-athon. It came out of the finding from our listener survey that a really large chunk of our listeners found us from a recommendation from a friend/family. We decided to see whether we could incentivize that with a share-athon: prizes for referring 5 or more listeners. Figuring out how to actually make it work is a whole challenge in itself, but it’s up and running and we’re seeing the early results, tweaking as we go along…
We launched it a couple of weeks ago but it was slow to get off the ground at first — I think because we made it too complicated. We were looking for proof of subscription, which is basically impossible anyway, so we’re doing it on a trust basis now, and people are getting into it. We need to be doing a social media push around it, but it’s just the two of us and we have to get the episodes out too, so ….
I think there are probably all sorts of ways to improve on this — we were initially imagining a podcast Ponzi scheme, where by recruiting people you unlock additional layers of merchandise, etc. etc. — but we decided simplicity was best for this first year.
In some ways, you could read this as a take on The Skimm’s ambassador program, which I hear has proven to be an effective tactic in the past, except with eyes for a potential Ponzi scheme. You could also sketch connections between this and the #TryPod campaign from February, except that that coalition effort didn’t involve a material incentive structure.
People, they want the merch.
I’ll be keeping an eye on this, and will check back once the final numbers are tallied.
Notes from North of the Border, part two. It appears that my timing for this Canadian series was unexpectedly good. Last Tuesday, a more detailed version of the Canadian podcast listener report by Ulster Media/Globe and Mail was publicly released. You can find it here. It gets pretty hairy, and has some stats on smart speaker usage in the country.
Indian & Cowboy. Throughout the conversations I’ve had trying to get a sense of the Canadian scene, one independent operation — outside of Canadaland, which possesses a more complex profile in the country — kept surfacing as a source of hope: Indian & Cowboy, a member-supported media network committed to telling Indigenous stories, of which podcasts are a core part of the operations. Founded in 2014 by Canadian comedian Ryan McMahon, the network produces six in-house podcasts while serving as a distribution point for a few other shows with overlaps in editorial focus. “We are slowly making our transformation from simple podcast network to a media platform,” McMahon said.
The long-term goal, McMahon notes, is to build the company into an incubator for podcasts, journalism, film, and television projects by Indigenous makers. “We’re creating an ‘Indigenous Vice’ that scales and allows Indigenous Peoples around the world to tell their stories, their way, without intervention from Hollywood or other systems that have spoken for us and about us for far too long,” he said. “The truth is, at the top of the game, Indigenous Peoples are NEVER in the room. Look at the newest NPR diversity report — we are virtually invisible in our homelands. This is unconscionable in 2017, that we in North America just don’t bother to consider our perspective, our lives, our experiences.”
The company remains very small, running off shoestring resources and a small team of people. I’m told that it currently receives support from 223 paid members through Patreon, and that its site averages slightly under 17,000 unique visits.
McMahon promises that advances are on the way. Indian & Cowboy started working with an outside public affairs firm, MediaStyle, for assistance with a strategic plan, and it’s pursuing potential investment. “In the new year, people won’t recognize us as we have some very exciting news coming down the pipe,” he said.
Of the Canadian industry, McMahon suspects that the country’s lack of ready foundation support plays a considerable role in the industry’s relative quietness. “I think the Canadian podcasting space is similar to the U.S. space in terms of the goals — tell good, original stories with unique voices,” he said. “[But] at the top of the game, the big U.S. podcast networks have built successful models with the help of places like the Knight Foundation and other support like it. We can’t do that here in Canada — there are laws in place here that prohibit foundations and charities and the types of donations they can make.”
- Politico’s Morning Media newsletter yesterday had a useful juxtaposition of Crooked Media and Ben Shapiro’s podcast presences, working off two separate New York Times profiles: Pod Save America reportedly averages “1.5 million listeners per show,” while the conservative Ben Shapiro Show is downloaded “10 million times every month.” Note how the two data points are working on different scales, and that a unique listener is not the same as a single download.
- While we’re on the subject of Ben Shapiro, I’d like to re-up Will Sommer’s guest Hot Pod piece that ran while I was off on sabbatical.
- And while I’m cribbing from Politico’s newsletter, here’s something else they spotted: Cristian Farias, More Perfect’s legal editor, is joining the NAACP’s Thurgood Marshall Institute as a writer-in-residence.
- Reality TV personality Stassi Schroeder “loses [podcast] advertisers after allegedly criticizing #metoo campaign.” (NY Daily News) If you, like me, were wondering who exactly this person is, fear not: this is why Who? Weekly exists.
- This is interesting: the latest addition to The Ringer’s podcast network is a show by Philadelphia 76er JJ Redick. He previously had a show with Uninterrupted Media. (The Ringer)
- Still keeping an eye on the smart speaker beat: “Why Apple’s HomePod is three years behind Amazon’s Echo.” (Bloomberg)
Notes from north of the border. When it comes to the Canadian podcast industry, there seems to be a lot to talk about. At least, that’s what I found after writing up last month’s report from Ulster Media and The Globe and Mail about the country’s podcast listening statistics. That study, which you can find here, provided an independent sizing of the country’s overall podcast listenership: 24 percent of Canadians over the age of 18, or 7 million people, report consuming podcasts at least once a month. (A straightforward comparison with American numbers is tricky; Edison Research’s numbers place monthly podcast listenership in the U.S. at around 24 percent of the American population, or an estimated 67 million people, but its survey pool was of adults over the age of 12, not 18.)
My writeup of the study was meant to be a quick one: I saw the report, pulled the most salient data points, and ran it with some broad contextualizing details. But response to the item was considerable. Canadian readers and podcasters made themselves known in my inbox, and non-Canadian readers wrote in wanting to know more; the country’s podcast industry, as one reader expressed, often feels “like a black box, more or less.”
And so I spent some time over the past few weeks emailing around, trying to dig up information and additional insight into what’s going on in the great white north — even if I’m well aware of the follies embedded in any attempt to adequately capture the complexities of a country’s industry in newsletter dispatches. (Hell, I’ve been writing about the American podcast industry for three years now, and I’m still haunted by the acute sense that I only ever really see a fraction of what’s truly going on.)
Over the next few newsletters, I’ll be publishing a few stories that hopefully, as a collective, serves as a workable entry-point into the Canadian podcast industry. This week, I’ll be kicking things off with the independent news organization Canadaland. Next Tuesday, I’ll spend some ink on the Quebec region and on the machinations of an indigenous media company called Indian & Cowboys. Finally, in the week after that, I’ll round things up with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, along with some more general observations.
So, why start with Canadaland? Simple: because it’s interesting.
Scrappy. “There are no major players. There is no industry,” said Jesse Brown, founder of Canadaland, the independent news organization and podcast network. “Canada is five years behind the U.S. with professional podcasting, at least.”
Brown, of course, was one of the first people I wanted to trade emails with about Canadian podcasting, given his prominence as a media critic in the country and the fact that he’s a close observer of local industry dynamics out of necessity. Further, Canadaland has consistently popped up across conversations I’ve had about the country, looked upon as both symbol and test case for a longstanding question: Can an independent news organization exist in Canada? Can an independent podcast network? (Those questions, as you could imagine, are equally deployable with respect to the United States.)
At this point in time, the case continues to be tested. “So, Canadaland sells our own ads to brands like Casper and Hello Fresh, and we work with Midroll to sell to Squarespace and other familiar podcast advertisers,” Brown wrote, when asked about his adventures in podcast advertising. “Our founding sponsor was Freshbooks, a Canadian company. But one or two Canadian brands does not a industry or ecosystem make.” Canada has unique problem with advertising, in Brown’s formulation, as its smaller population means that advertising alone won’t be enough to sustain podcasting at a professional level. Which is why Canadaland is structured as a hybrid business built on both ad sales and crowdfunding, with the latter engine being positioned as the primary driver of the business. At this writing, the company’s Patreon account enjoys over 4,500 supporters and brings in over $22,000 a month.
Brown believes the crowdfunding model is replicable throughout the country — “nobody really knew who I was before Canadaland, so I don’t think I had any special powers in that respect,” he claimed — but he seems ultimately dubious on whether that opportunity will be capitalized upon anytime soon. “The usual Canadian dynamics are at work,” he said. “It’s far more attractive to young talent to try to break into American podcasting than to try to build our own industry from scratch. The Heart and Heavyweight are touch points, and people like Chris Berube and Drew Nelles have shown that they have marketable skills, if they are willing to move. Entrepreneurial efforts are sadly scarce. It’s sad that Canada is a laggard in this, given that the CBC has an amazing history of pioneering audio storytelling.”
Whether he’s right on the crowdfunding model’s replicability remains to be seen. Some observers I’ve spoken with are hopeful about the company’s position, but hold some reservation about its emphasis on news, an editorial focus that’s notoriously difficult to scale. They point to the fact that the company’s biggest successes (and presumed bumps in direct support) have been fundamentally tethered to its ability to break news — as it did with its scoops on Jian Ghomeshi, Peter Mansbridge, and Rebel Media — and how that offers an extremely high bar to clear for growth and sustainability.
Still, I imagine this might be a contestable point, and that some might believe this to be a more direct alignment between mission and business model as far as a journalistic organization is concerned. Other sources have also insisted in pointing out Brown’s recent attainment of wealth as the cofounder of Bitstrips, the maker of Bitmoji that sold to Snapchat for an estimated $100 million or so in March 2016, and how that development may render any external reading of Canadaland’s financial health a little more complicated. (I can barely wrap my own head around it.)
But Brown’s observation on the country’s entrepreneurial chutzpah might prove to be the question that’s more fundamental to whatever the future of podcasting in Canada looks like. And that’s much more complicated to parse out; it has, I think, everything to do with factors like the availability of capital, being around potential partners and acquirers, and miscellaneous elements of social and cultural support.
More next week.
Additional material. The CBC’s Lindsay Michael was kind enough to point me to two fantastic resources when researching the scene: this overview of the Canadian industry by Erica Ngao for the Ryerson Review of Journalism, and the Podcast Playlist’s Canadian Podcast Database.
Swipe. So this is interesting: An independent podcast, Food 4 Thot, has formed a publishing relationship with Grindr, in which potential fans can now discover the show right off the latter’s app. The partnership also sees the podcast featured on Grindr’s recently launched digital magazine, INTO. Here’s the announcement post on how the arrangement will work:
When you open your lovely Grindr app (we know you have it) the show will pop down with a quick summary of what this week has in store for you from topics to guests to tea — with sometimes even a quick audio preview of the episode if you ask nicely — before being brought to INTO where you can subscribe and listen. Cute, right?
With the placement, the podcast is in a position where it can potentially be exposed to Grindr’s user base — roughly 3 million daily users, according to this AdExchanger report, though it’s worth controlling the relevant number in your head for English-speakers — through what is essentially an in-app house ad. This setup also evokes the ouroboros-esque inquiry of: Just how big is the Venn overlap between being a “platform” and a “media entity” for such companies these days? Or is it more appropriate to think of these operations as one and the same? What is a publisher, anyway?
In case you’re not in the know, Food 4 Thot is an energetic indie roundtable podcast featuring: Tommy Pico, a critically acclaimed indigenous American poet and author; Dennis Norris II, a writer and MacDowell Fellow; Joseph Osmundson, a scientist and memoirist, and Fran Tirado, the executive editor of Hello Mr.
“Right now, our audience is small for a podcast, but big for one that has been 100 percent independently funded and distributed up to this point,” Tirado tells me. “Our eps get anywhere from 12,000 to 20,000 downloads.” The show’s current goal is to grow the listening base up to six figures.
When asked about dream guests, Tirado replied: “Tracee Ellis Ross. With Sasha Velour, Janet Mock, & Cardi B in close seconds.”
Coloring book. “I’m super excited about this project — I’ve been wanting to do something like this for a while,” said Matt Lieber, Gimlet’s president and local dad.
Lieber’s talking about Gimlet’s latest show, a kids podcast, which it’s launching hot on the heels of Panoply’s Pinna initiative and NPR’s Wow in the World. The move comes with an interesting angle: The podcast is a collaboration with Story Pirates, a kids-centric media company and arts-education advocacy group primarily known for letting kids be the ones that tell stories themselves — a commitment to the belief that kids are more original and wildly more creative than anything adults can ever impose on them.
Season 2 of the Story Pirates podcast debuted yesterday under the Gimlet brand, and upcoming episodes will feature appearances from prominent celebrity performers like Kristen Schaal, Billy Eichner, and Conan O’Brien, among others. To accompany the release, they’re publishing a coloring book with stuff for kids to color alongside each episode that parents can download and print out for free. “It’s part of an effort to create a social experience around the show,” Lieber adds.
This marks Gimlet’s latest creative partnership with an external organization, after producing Mogul with Loud Speakers Network. (One could theoretically make the argument that Crimetown also qualifies as a collaboration, given the involvement of The Jinx’s Zac Stuart-Pontier and Marc Smerling. But I’m told it is considered more of an in-house affair.) Is this an increasing part of the company’s strategy? “I wouldn’t say that,” said Lieber. “But our doors are open to partnership, especially if it’s a story or category we haven’t done before.”
I inquired about the podcast’s approach to ads, reflecting upon Panoply and Sparkle Stories’ choice to bypass the advertising-to-kids conundrum altogether with a paid subscription model. Lieber notes that they’re pretty sensitive about being exceedingly clear that the ads are targeted towards parents, and not the children. “We’re working that out right now,” he said, when I asked about the design choices to reflect that. “You won’t be seeing ads for sugar or candy.”
Gotcha. By the way, how was Gimlet’s 2017?
“It’s been a great year,” Lieber said, flashing his trademark confidence. He tells me that business has doubled, and that the company is working on things that will blow people away in the coming months, and that Gimlet Creative, too, has had a strong year, growing into “the defining agency in the digital audio world.”
He also points to what I think is the company’s defining thread of 2017: its very loud success in building out an intellectual property pipeline into the lucrative film and television business. “This is a year where Homecoming went from an audio project to something that will become one of the tentpole projects for Amazon next year starring Julia Roberts,” he said. (Also worth noting: Last week saw the announcement that Crimetown, too, will be heading to television with FX. No surprises there, frankly, given the creative team’s television roots.)
“We’ve set the stage for next year,” he concluded.
On a related note: Perhaps sensing something in the winds, a WNYC spokesperson reached out unannounced yesterday evening to remind me of the existence of their own upcoming forays into the kids podcasting space: This Podcast Has Fleas, which comes out of a partnership with Koyalee Chanda and Adam Peltzman, and Pickle, a co-production with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Both shows are set to launch sometime in December. The station has also produced a standalone website for its kids programming.
Binders full of editors. I’ve previously written about editor scarcity and its discontents in podcast-land, something that continues to plague a lot of teams even today. (If you missed it, here’s the link to the column, which features a solid discussion with NPR’s Alison MacAdam.) I haven’t spotted much formal development on the matter in the intervening year, save for this one: Megan Tan, the host and creator of the now-retired Millennial, has assembled a spreadsheet of narratively-oriented audio editors who are available for work. She describes the type of editors that she’s included into the document as follows:
People who act as a bird’s eye over your house as you build it, by hand, from the ground up. They would provide feedback on drafts and maybe some written line suggestions here and there, but they don’t touch the tape at all. They would provide feedback on structure, help you hone in on universal themes, driving questions, plot points, character development, get rid of shitty tape, and emphasize great tape, etc.
Or, in other words, “the people you call when you can’t hear your piece anymore because you’ve heard it too many times.”
Tan’s impulse to create the speadsheet rose after her former editor on Millennial transitioned to work at a network full-time, putting her in the search for a suitable replacement. “All of a sudden, I had to find an editor who could speak the same story-structure language, who understood character development, archetypes, thresholds, and who I trusted to help me define the edges of my episodes and strip the fat off a piece when I was immersed in the weeds…AND who also fit my budget,” she said.
The resulting process left her with some pressing takeaways. Among them: “More than anything, I wanted to find someone who ‘got it,'” Tan explained. “When you’re first starting out, you don’t really understand the number of genres, styles, and approaches to radio that exist. Hiring ‘an editor’ doesn’t mean that editor is the best fit for your show.”
With a particular focus on that kind of matchmaking, she hopes the spreadsheet can set producers up with good pairings — and surface this species of editors often thought to be “hard to find,” despite their high demand. “Ideally, this Google Sheet becomes the telephone book for those people,” she said.
You can find the spreadsheet here.
Bait and switch. This is a tricky one, and it involves a mea culpa on my part. Last week saw the conclusion of the latest series in Radiotopia’s Showcase initiative, called The Polybius Conspiracy, which saw the “audio documentary” reveal itself to be — spoiler alert, I guess — in large part fictional. This comes after a run in which the show mostly carried itself as a work of nonfiction, though it never said as much outright. (For what it’s worth, the inverse was also true: The show never explicitly identified itself as a piece of fiction either.) Many reviewers, including myself, approached the show off its conduct (and initial press signaling) as a piece of nonfiction, and I would ultimately write a review for Vulture off the first three episodes to that effect. “A seven-part audio documentary,” was how I described it, working from the press release and various assumptions I internally made about the Showcase initiative.
The podcast sought to explore an Oregonian urban legend and conspiracy theory of a mysterious arcade cabinet that started bubbling up around the ’80s, one in which the myth describes a game so addictive that it caused weird things to happen to people when they stopped playing. Polybius, the podcast, was narratively structured around a main subject who claimed to have been the victim of a traumatic incident as a result of the arcade cabinet, and a good deal of the resulting drama falls from the tension about whether that the incident actually happened or not. The show essentially uses the narrative conceit as a way to explore the shape and textures of urban legends — and, to some extent, the way a person deals with trauma. Of course, by the end of the show’s run, we learn that the central character was a fictional invention, and that much of the stakes involved weren’t as high, or as meaningful, as one would initially think it was.
Slate’s Jacob Brogan was the first, I believe, to raise the question about the show’s claim to documentary, and he rightfully called me — along with other reviewers — out for taking the bait. And it seemed Radiotopia eventually received enough pushback to address the matter in a blog post. Here’s the most relevant portion:
The Polybius Conspiracy itself takes on the form of the urban mythology it interrogates, wrapping layers of conjecture and invention around elements of truth and nostalgia. As a network, we value the overall ideas and cultural critique built into the series. We do apologize to listeners who were disappointed to discover that the story isn’t completely true, and felt we intentionally misled them by not stating outright, from the beginning, that the story was a blend of fact and fiction.
Thinking through the whole situation a little more, I will say I’ve come to find myself pretty annoyed by the ordeal. Annoyed, partly for what felt like a completely unnecessary embellishment on the creative team’s part, particularly these days when the notion of reality, digital and otherwise, seems especially politically fraught and sensitive. Maybe there’s a version of this show, interrogating this idea, that earns this sleight of hand; this podcast, however, wasn’t that.
But mostly, I’m annoyed by the fact that I let the ball fly right by me, that I was played a fool, that I wasn’t skeptical of the show enough to double down on a double check. To some extent, perhaps I’m still operating with kid’s gloves as an observer and critic of the space, working off an internal assumption that the space is still small and young and should still constantly be given the benefit of the doubt due to its youth. But at the end of day, I shouldn’t be automatically taking things as face value, as there are potential negative ramifications to overlooking something like this on my part. So, I’ll be taking the L on this one.
Over the weekend, a few readers wrote me inquiring as to whether this incident raises some larger questions about norms and ethics in the space — if we’re seeing some editorial crisis in what appears to be a tendency among certain corners of the podcast ecosystem to aggressively flirt with evoking journalistic or documentary tropes to build fictional spaces. (One reader pointed to the constant use of the technique by another Radiotopia show, by way of example.) I’m not quite sure if we’re in such a “crisis” just yet, though I’m tempted to agree with the broader critical focus on the community’s norms: one thing that I do constantly find myself perturbed by is the relatively unchecked nature of certain true crime podcasts and their interaction with real, physical lives and communities, which is itself a direct extension of transgressions we’re seeing elsewhere in digital media.
But I’ll hold my tongue — and my pen — on that one for now, lest I succumb to hypocrisy. I did, after all, just fall for The Polybius Conspiracy’s ruse.
Career Spotlight. I’m a casual fan of The Black Tapes and its associated “Pacific Northwest Stories” fiction podcasts — there’s something about its public access feel that gets me — but I’ve long admired the team for just how far they’ve come. (Tanis, one of their projects, is currently being developed for television.) This week, I traded emails with Paul Bae, one of the show’s creators who recently rolled out a new show called The Big Loop, to get a sense of where he is with himself these days.
[conl]Hot Pod: Tell me about your current situation.[/conl]
[conr]Paul Bae: I live and work out of my home in Vancouver, B.C., writing and producing the audio drama anthology series The Big Loop. I also walk the dogs my girlfriend adopts. So far, we’re sticking to an intake limit of three.[/conr]
[conl]Hot Pod: How did you get to this point? What does your career arc thus far look like?[/conl]
[conr]Bae: I used to be an evangelical youth pastor back in the early 90s. When I lost my faith in the mid-’90s, Jesus and my wife walked out the door. (Black Tapes fans: “Is that why Dr. Richard Strand is such a bitter atheist with a missing wife complex?” Hmmm.)
I then turned to teaching high school English for the next seven years. But my parents always hated the idea. They — my very Korean parents — initially wanted me to be a stand-up comedian. They were casual fans of Johnny Carson and David Letterman and they somehow got it into their heads that I could do that. (If you’re wondering where I get the confidence to ditch everything to attempt to scratch out a living making podcasts, this is it.)
So I started doing stand-up comedy in 2000, and eventually landed a TV gig hosting a small, daily news-comedy show in Vancouver. When that folded a year later in 2010, I found myself tired of touring the standup circuit. So I returned to teaching.
That’s when my friend Terry Miles approached me about making a podcast together. And that led to The Black Tapes, which was a lot of fun and a tremendous learning experience.
With The Big Loop, I have a chance to turn everything I’ve learned into a more intimate listening experience with stories that are more personal to me.[/conr]
[conl]Hot Pod: What does a career mean to you, at this point?[/conl]
[conr]Bae: I’ve been writing my whole adult life. That has been the one constant for me. The part I love most about this career is knowing that whatever I write is now going to have an audience almost immediately. If I can make a living out of this, that would mean the world to me. Since I’ve made this foray into podcasting, my girlfriend has had to do all the heavy lifting regarding our finances. I’m hoping I can take that over and let her have a turn resting at home with our dogs.[/conr]
[conl]Hot Pod: When you started out, what did you think you wanted to do?[/conl]
[conr]Bae: When Terry hit “publish” on the first two episodes of The Black Tapes in 2015, I had no idea what was going to happen. I don’t think I even fully understood what podcasting was at the time. To me, it was This American Life and 99% Invisible. That’s it. But I knew we had a potential hit. Personally, I had hoped to gain a good audience and open some doors for my fiction writing. Making a career of podcasting didn’t even enter my mind.
Then, one day in early 2016, I listened to Love + Radio for the first time and it stopped me in my tracks. I thought, “This is what podcasting can do. It’s way more than I thought it was.” And it changed everything for me. And I hope people recognize that influence in The Big Loop.[/conr]
- Sarah Larson penned a great — and more importantly, holistic — snapshot piece on Third Coast Festival that came out over the weekend, and you shouldn’t miss it. (The New Yorker) Feel free to pair that with my own notes from last week, which I’ve broken out into a separate post here.
- High-level turmoil at NPR continues: Roger LaMay, NPR Board chairman and general manager of Philadelphia public radio music station WXPN, announced last week that he was stepping down at the end of his second one-year term. But NPR also reports that “LaMay is the subject of a complaint filed with NPR alleging past inappropriate behavior.” (NPR)
- Slate is launching a series about what it was like to live through the days of Watergate, called Slow Burn. It’s hosted by Leon Neyfakh, produced with Andrew Parsons, and slated to launch on November 28. (Apple Podcasts)
- Speaking of Slate, sister company Panoply worked off a news hook this week, repackaging You Must Remember This’ stellar Charles Manson season into its own standalone podcast after news of Manson’s passing hit the newsreels. This is the second Manson-related podcast to emerge in recent weeks; Wondery currently has its own take on the subject in the podcast charts as well. One day, we’ll see such energy for something other than true crime and morbidity. But this is not that day.
- “I’m that dude from the ad about background checks where I put a rifle together blindfolded.” Celeste Katz writes up the latest Crooked Media podcast, Majority 54, that comes with a Q&A with host Jason Kander. (Newsweek)
- The Death, Sex & Money team has rounded up some podcast recs from some famous friends for Turkey Day. (Medium)
Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 138, published October 31, 2017.
Happy Halloween folks!
Subscriptions at a personal level. When I wrote about Panoply’s paid kids-oriented listening service, Pinna, earlier this month, I was drawn to a question that didn’t end up being articulated in the piece: Does a subscription-first audio product need to be big? Pinna’s explicit goal, as I understand it, is to become the “premiere kids listening service,” pushed forward with a long-term strategy of building the first and last stop for any parent looking for stuff to swap out screen time with an aural alternative. But is it possible just to build a self-contained audio subscription business that isn’t premised on an expansive content acquisition strategy?
Shortly after the Pinna write-up went out, Lindsay Patterson, the cofounder of children’s podcast advocacy group Kids Listen, reached out, flagging the existence of a small Austin, Texas–based operation called Sparkle Stories. Founded by Lisabeth and David Sewell McCann, Sparkle Stories is an independent media company that serves customers with over a thousand original audio stories for children. There are two things about Sparkle Stories that are noteworthy: first, all of the stories are produced and performed by David, a former elementary school educator adept at telling pedagogical stories, and second, the service charges $15 a month…and, from what Lisabeth tells me, business seems to be good.
While the two declined to provide hard numbers, they did disclose having “thousands of subscribers” from around the world, enough to sustain as a business. The two are the only people who work on the company full-time — David since the beginning, Lisabeth transitioning out of her day job after about a year — and the company brings in enough revenue to compensate eight part-time employees who also work on other projects. Sparkle Stories is completely bootstrapped, with one successful Kickstarter excursion in 2015 to fund the development of a listening app. (That campaign brought in over $48,000 from 1,174 backers.)
Sparkle Stories was formed in 2010 when, as Lisabeth put it, “mom blogs were big and getting bigger.” Mr. Rogers is cited as a major source of inspiration (interestingly enough, David enunciates a lot like the sweatered public media icon himself), and it’s reflected in the team’s goals. “Our mission is to make stuff that’s nurturing, and slow, for kids,” Lisabeth said. “We’re all about bringing media back to a simple, sweet place.”
Simplicity might be the editorial north star, but it’s supported by a robust operational structure. Though the Sparkle Stories inventory is primarily stored and distributed behind a paywall, the company also makes use of a podcast feed that serves five free episodes to prospective paid customers — or consumers of more modest means. The inventory itself is managed through a website that further supplements the audio stories with a host of related digital material that broadens out topical experiences: recipes, craft lessons, parent education. “The podcast is only the beginning,” David explained. “It brings people to the next step, which is a website full of child development information. The story is only the beginning, and then you continue on. And that’s what people are willing pay for.”
Sparkle Stories has a bunch of things planned for the future. The team hopes to continue making the website experience as easy as possible for children and families, such that, in David’s words, “a child can look for a story about a wombat, or about Idaho, and then suddenly there are three stories about that, and then they can put the device down and listen.” An Android app is somewhere on the horizon, to complement the existing iOS app. There are further ambitions to figure out ways to integrate with smart speaker devices, which seems to be catching on among “millennial parents and their kids,” as AdWeek points out. (Though data privacy concerns remain an issue.) However, despite these plans, Lisabeth and David are comfortable taking on a slow, organic approach to growing the operation. “We tried a lot of the traditional ways to market and build our business, and they just didn’t work,” they explained. “Sponsored content, traditional advertising, Facebook and Google stuff…but the thing that really ended up working more than anything is for us to help somebody love what we’re doing.”
That approach, it seems, is partly driven by a sense of caring for their customers, whose parenting lives the McCanns feel partially responsible for. “It’s that Seth Godin thing of just taking care of your tribe,” David said. “We took that to heart. And so we create, create, create, we’re on schedule for three or four stories a week. Offer a lot, and if people want more, they’ll be more than happy to pay for it.”
You can find more about Sparkle Stories on their website.
Two extraneous threads:
(1) One question that stands out to me: assuming that all goes as intended for this sector of the on-demand audio universe, can there be a paid kids’ podcasting ecosystem that be equally occupied by a primary dominant one-size-fits-all service and a constellation of personally driven, independent, and presumably niche players? I imagine there’s something to be gleaned from looking at the makeup of the digitally distributed audiobook world, now dominated by Audible and a host of much smaller alternatives — Scribd, Overdrive, Kobo, and so on — even though the latter group in this composition isn’t terribly differentiated from the former, at least on my read.
(2) Not directly related but still thematically appropriate, I guess: Patreon, the creator support platform that raised $60 million last month, recently announced a new platform initiative that lets its users better integrate with other tools and platforms that they’ve been using to manage the membership process. Quite a few podcast publishers use Patreon to tap into direct listener support, including and especially the “dirtbag left” podcast Chapo Trap House, which still reigns as the biggest Patreon campaign that brings in over $86,000 a month from slightly over 19,500 backers. Crazy.
Acast aims to go public on the Stockholm Stock Exchange. The news comes about a month after the company raised $19.5 million in Series B funding from a group of Swedish investors, with the apparent intent to use that money to build its presence in the United States, the UK, and Australia. With this exit, they’ll have access to further capital for those attempts. Di Digital, a Swedish news site, has a write-up that I, uh, had to run by some Swedish-speaking friends and readers (thanks, fellas). Here are the bits that stood out to me:
- The company’s valuation is pegged at around SEK 1.1 billion (Swedish kroner), which comes to around $131 million USD.
- Last year, Acast drew SEK 49.8 million (slightly under $6 million USD) in revenue, but ran at a loss of SEK 52.5 million (slightly over $6 million USD).
- As part of the Swedish IPO, founders Måns Ulvestam and Karl Rosander are leaving their operational roles in the company and, having done their jobs, will leave Ross Adams, a former Sales Director at Spotify, in the CEO spot.
This brings the number of publicly listed, podcast-specific companies up to three — that I know of, I guess — the other two being LibSyn (trading on the Nasdaq as LSYN) and, somewhat arguably, Audioboom (trading on the London Stock Exchange as BOOM), which also deals with digital audio more broadly. I think it might be useful to skim through Audioboom’s annual report to get a sense of how Acast will be positioning its growth metrics, given the similarities in structure, levers, and function in the market.
Meanwhile, in the Great North. There’s apparently a new research report floating around that focuses on Canadian podcast consumption, conducted by Audience Insights, a Canadian audience research firm, and Ulster Media, a podcast consulting company started by former CBC director of digital talk content Jeff Ulster. It was produced with support from The Globe and Mail.
The full report isn’t available at this point in time, it seems, only a summary report with some initial findings that you can view in this link. Nonetheless, there are a couple of data points that are worth unspooling in your head, in case you’re up to something in that neck of the woods:
- Twenty-four percent of Canadians over the age of 18, or 7 million people, report listening to podcasts at least once a month. (Comparable stats: 17 percent of the Australian population over 12, 24 percent of the American population over 12.)
- The demographic is pretty much what you’d hink it would be: trends younger, more affluent, and more educated, also leans male. That’s more or less in the same bucket as Australia and the U.S.
- Here’s one that really stands out to me: “47 percent of (Canadian) podcast listeners say they would like to hear more about what Canadian podcasts are available.”
My knowledge of Canada and podcasting is relatively limited. In my estimation, the institutions to watch are: the CBC, obviously, but also the branded podcast shop Pacific Content and Jesse Brown’s Canadaland. Also: there is a sneakily abundant number of Canadians all throughout the American podcast industry — I see you Berube — and Montreal is still pretty sweet for radio producers, given the manageable rent prices. (Note to self: abscond to Montreal.)
In transition. This isn’t a new phenomenon by any means, but there have been three podcast-to-broadcast developments that’ve hit my inbox over the past month:
(1) NPR’s “It’s Been a Minute with Sam Sanders” started rolling out to a bunch of stations earlier this month (list can be found on this here Twitter thread), in some ways to plug the big Car Talk–sized hole that seems to popping up here and there.
(2) Politico’s Morning Media newsletter ran this mini-profile a few weeks ago: The Takeout is a podcast hosted CBS News’ Chief White House Correspondent Major Garrett and political director Steve Chaggari. It originally launched just before President Trump’s inauguration as a side project, and eventually cultivated a fairly small following (about 80,000 monthly downloads on a roughly weekly publishing schedule). But it gained enough listeners to get it repurposed as a TV show on CBS’s streaming network and re-distributed over several terrestrial stations owned and operated by CBS.
I’m pretty fascinated by this use of podcasts as testing ground for potential broadcast material, though I’ll be interested to see what emerges in the Venn Diagram overlap of what works on both broadcast and podcast. (The inverse would also be intriguing to unspool: shows starting in broadcast that would later find more heat as a podcast. Radiolab, I think, is a good example of this.)
(3) iHeartMedia aired Wondery and Mark Ramsey’s Inside Psycho, which was originally published as a six-episode podcast, as a one-hour broadcast Halloween special over the weekend on select iHeartRadio News/Talk radio stations across the country. Curiously, the press release calls the arrangement “the first time a made-for-podcast show will air across broadcast radio”…which isn’t exactly true. Between 2012 and 2014, Slate had a program called Gabfest Radio, which condensed the Political and Culture Gabfests into a one-hour broadcast, that aired as a weekly show on WNYC. NPR, as well, began packaging a joint hour of Planet Money and How I Built This for broadcast over the summer. (And not to mention the various times a public radio podcast story was re-formatted for All Things Considered.)
Finally, there’s also the recently departed Dinner Party Download, which originally launched as a podcast in 2008 before being picked up a few years later by American Public Media for broadcast as a radio hour. So, technically, DPD might have more claim over being the first time ever that a made-for-podcast show was picked up for terrestrial radio. But who’s checking, y’know?
Politician-speak. As you might expect, I deeply enjoyed this critique of podcasting politicians by Amanda Hess over at the New York Times. Hess’s central barb, which comes around the middle of the piece, is a dual-pronged affair that gives shape to something that I’ve been feeling for while now: “The lawmaker podcast boom is just another way that our political news is becoming less accountable to the public and more personality driven. But that’s not the only thing wrong with it. The podcasts are also boring.”
That dual point on accountability and actual listenability illustrates the vaguely lose-lose proposition that the politician podcasting genre poses to the public. On the one hand, if the show is literally hard and pointless to consume, then it really sucks to be littered with them. But on the other hand, if the show turns out to be an experience worth sitting down with, then you’re grappling with the much hairier prospect of a more undefined (and unregulated) form of political communication, with all the spin, worldview expression, and image management that it entails.
Not that political communication is a thing inherently worth balking at, of course. Political figures and candidates need spaces to reach their constituents and sites to flesh out their philosophies, policy positions, and reasons for politically being. (Provided they have those things, of course.) It’s just that Hess’s point on accountability — that the general structural arc of these political figures going direct and fully controlling the terms of their messaging, that the power of the personality is the mechanism disproportionately empowered by everything we’ve seen in digital media so far — is the shadow that looms large here, and it brings up the question of whether the larger opportunity that these structural shifts gives to hermetically sealed political communication is a tide that can be stopped. We’re starting to see statements by politicians made in podcast appearances being written up, though not necessarily mediated, by political news sites — by way of example, here are three instances in The Hill — yet one can’t but ask whether any of that will ever be enough. Indeed, one wonders that the thing that’s really been blunting the edge of this political opportunity, of the continued empowerment of the Personality, so far is the fact that the overwhelming majority of politicians as a class don’t or still haven’t figured out the personality part of the equation.
This parallel has probably already been made many times before, but it bears bumping: a lot can be learned from what’s long been playing out in the sports world, where celebrity athletes have, perhaps not categorically but certainly in more than a few specific paradigm-altering instances, been able to utilize various digitally enabled media channels to amp up the power of the personality and dis-intermediate the gatekeeping/filtering capacities of the sports press. In the NBA alone, you have a variety of examples ranging from the Players Tribune to Joel Embiid’s surely-contract-padding social media prowess to LeBron James’ budding Uninterrupted media empire, whose premise hinges on players directly communicating with fans (and whose machinations involves several podcasts which were briefly profiled back in June by the Wall Street Journal). All of this amounts to a considerable challenge to the power, purpose, and intermediating role of the press, and while the actual details, terms, and broader implications of that dynamic change can be argued, the fact of the matter remains: the press is arguable.
(By the way, here’s my favorite story illustrating the fight between press and Personality: Grantland’s “Distant Thunder: What Did Oklahoma City’s Media Do to Piss Off Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant?”)
Anyway, that’s enough of that. But one more thing about Hess’s piece: her point on boring-ness — and on folks probably needing to put effort into something full-time, or at least meaningfully so, to make anybody worth anybody’s time — is probably a lesson that should be applied up and down the podcast directory, from celebrities to journalists to news organizations to independents.
From the mailbag. Eh, why not?
I’d be curious to know your take on podcasts doing live performances. I feel like EVERY podcast I listen to has done one of these. Why? I can only guess that the ticket sales for these events make a ton of money for them? More than ads? Crooked Media has done a ton of these. RadioLab, WTF, Gimlet Media, hell even the NPR Politics podcast is doing one soon. NPR! What is driving this??
— Nevin, from Iowa
Someone I knew once described seeing The Read live as a religious experience. This was a few years back, and while I don’t recall much else about her description of the show, I do remember this: I don’t believe I’ve ever been as enthusiastic about anything as she was talking about witnessing Crissle and Kid Fury on stage.
Anyway, point is: Live podcast shows are great. Provided they don’t suck, of course. (Which is the simple truth of everything that’s ever existed.)
Though the observation you make is actually a pretty tricky one to appraise. I think you’re right in there being a noticeable uptick in podcast creators building out a live events circuit — I feel like the stuff I’ve been seeing in my inbox alone can reflect this — but it’s also worth noting that live podcast shows have long been a practice in vogue. Radiolab and WTF with Marc Maron have been staging live shows going way back (really good ones, too!), and one shouldn’t forget about the podcasts that are actually live shows first and are later repackaged and redistributed over RSS feeds, like The Dollop, RISK!, and The Moth. (Of those, you could ask an inverse question: “Why record your live shows and distribute them as on-demand audio content?” Any one thing looks a little funny from a different angle.)
What’s driving the uptick? You can point to a few different things. Most straightforwardly, there is the core motivation of wanting to fashion out an additional revenue stream to not be completely dependent on advertising, to create some sort of ballast against volatilities to come. (Analytics shenanigans, agency chicanery, bumps in the economy, so on and so forth.) I think that incentive has been bubbling up to the forefront over the past few months, maybe. You can also point your finger at the bumper crop of new podcast festivals that have popped up over the past year-plus (NowHearThis, PodCon, WBEZ’s Podcast Passport, Third Coast’s The Fest, and the LA Podcast Festival, among so many others), which I imagine functions as an additional structural incentive for publishers to develop live performance capabilities. You can further consider the ongoing involvement of touring companies (like the Billions Corporation, which I interviewed back in July) and talent agencies (WME reps Crooked Media, by the way, among many other teams), which continue to bring live events expertise into the ecosystem that, in and of itself, is a pretty good motivator to keep playing within the channel.
Personally, I’m a big fan of publishers building out a live show presence. There are tons of benefits to glean. Physically communing with your audience is tight, as it deepens the relationship and sense of community. Visiting different cities, towns, and venues is super fun, if you don’t mind the travel, and it also provides good opportunities to peel off qualitative audience data. Merch can be sold. And also, some teams like doing live shows because they like doing live shows! Live shows are fun! Stage adrenaline is a drug! Damn!
The question, of course, is whether possible to make decent money off live shows. And I think the answer is yes, most definitely, provided you can pull off the logistics, manage the budget, and serve an actual experience people want to pay for. (You know, not unlike everything else in a goods-and-services-based economy.) A good example of a team that’s figured it out is Welcome to Night Vale, which has long used live shows as its primary revenue stream. (The team would only begin truly taking up advertising once it formed Night Vale Presents, its indie podcast label.) Now in its fourth year of touring, the show sells anywhere between 50,000 to 60,000 tickets a year, and they’ve staged over 200 shows across 16 countries in the past three years. You can figure the math out from there.
The Night Vale team has roots in the theater scene — creators Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor are alums of the Neo-Futurists — and that expertise really shows in their live shows. (Slight non-sequitur: in what was probably a formative pre-Hot Pod podcast experience, I checked out a Night Vale show at New York’s Town Hall venue back in the summer of 2014, and man was I not prepared to stand amidst that much cosplay and teenage enthusiasm.) That brings me to another, earlier evoked, and perhaps bigger, point: producing a live show involves a whole other skillset that’s completely separate and apart from producing a podcast. Which is why, even as a fan of the entire idea of testing live shows as a diversifying business channel, I also think that it’s not a great fit for most publishers.
But the idea of a “good fit” between the two forms doesn’t always fall out the way you think it would. One doesn’t necessarily need to have theater or stage chops to effectively adapt a podcast to a live show. I went to a live Slate Political Gabfest show once, and I couldn’t quite get over how strange it felt to stand among a bunch of political and legal nerds — I’m guessing from the number of cardigans — giggling at David Plotz wisecracks. But at the same time, the effectiveness of the whole thing made a great deal of sense: much of podcast consumption involves forging an intimate connection with personalities and a conversation that’s taking place separate and apart from you. There is, then, a familiar appeal to live shows of coming close to celebrity. There is also the broader appeal of not being alone in having a beloved experience.
That said, I hear ya, Nevin: there’s something way weird about the prospect in concept. I mean, political reporters as celebrities? NPR political reporters as celebrities? Bizarro! Then again, if I was NPR, I’d totally lean into it. Look, if we’re living in a media environment where it’s all being summed up to fight between personalities, then yes, I’d lather makeup onto Scott Detrow and send him out on stage too. Happy viewing.
- Pop-Up Archive, the transcription platform that also runs the podcast search engine Audiosearch, will be winding down public operations on November 28, 2017. (Company email)
- Dirty John, from the LA Times and Wondery, has reportedly garnered over 7 million downloads across six episodes since debuting at the top of the month. (CJR) The show is hosted on Art19. I’m personally pretty meh on the show, but hey, other critics seem to like it. All about that critical plurality.
- True crime shows Sword and Scale and Up and Vanished are the next two podcasts headed to television. Between these guys and Lore, it seems like genre fare is having a field day. (Variety)
- NPR’s monthly podcast audience hits 15.5 million unique users, and the organization typically garners 82 million monthly downloads. For reference, the organization uses Splunk to generate those numbers, and for further reference, Podrac pegs NPR’s unique U.S. monthly listeners at 13.3 million and global monthly streams/downloads at 99 million. (Press Release)
- So, Spotify looked into the behavior of podcast listeners on its platform, and according to Fast Company, it found that “podcast listening peaked during the middle of the day. Interestingly, when they looked at weekday numbers versus the weekend, people listened to fewer podcasts on the weekend. In fact, the drop off is pretty significant, 45% to be exact.” Recall that these are listeners who choose to consume off Spotify, which is rather specific indeed. (Fast Company)
[photocredit]Photo of curtains by AnToonz used under a Creative Commons license.[/photocredit]