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Announced yesterday, the investment sees the parent of WordPress joins a collection of strategic investors that includes The New York Times, Bose Corporation, WGBH, and American Public Media, and deepens a relationship that started last year when the company made RadioPublic’s embed player available on all WordPress sites, as noted in the corresponding press release.
The investment sum was not publicly disclosed.
This development comes as a few competing next-generation podcast apps announced alternative monetization features for publishing users and partners:
- Last Monday, Breaker, the Y Combinator-accelerated podcast app, rolled out a new monetization feature called “Upstream” that lets its publishing users create paid or “premium” content tiers.
- Last Thursday, Anchor, the Betaworks-backed podcast app, launched a new feature of its own called “Listener Support” that lets its publishing users set up direct recurring payment arrangements with their listeners.
In addition, Patreon, the membership support platform of choice for a number of independent podcast publishers, announced last Wednesday that it has acquired Memberful, a smaller platform specializing in white-label membership services. (Disclaimer: I use Memberful to run my own paid tier, Hot Pod Insider.)
RadioPublic has operated its own alternative monetization play, an advertising marketplace geared towards smaller publishers called “Paid Listens,” since February.
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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]
Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue ninety-three, published October 25, 2016.
“We’re built on top of a foundation that we feel pretty good about,” PRX CEO Kerri Hoffman said. “I’m excited that we’ll never start from zero again.”
We were discussing Radiotopia’s 2016 fall fundraising campaign, which kicked off on October 13 and ends later this week, and Hoffman was telling me how she’s significantly less stressed out this year. Last fall marked the first time the organization switched away from a seasonal Kickstarter strategy to a recurring donor model, an approach whose internal logic bears more than a passing resemblance to public radio’s pledge drive system. The bulk of last year’s work, she explained, involved building out basic fundraising infrastructure: pulling together email lists, developing the beats of their marketing push, testing out the messaging, and so on. A lot of those fundamentals remain in place this year, and they merely had to build upon them.
Accordingly, PRX’s focus is a little different this year: While last November’s campaign had the more precarious goal of building out its donor base for the first time, this year’s drive has the more modest goal of merely expanding that base. Last November’s drive successfully drew support from over 19,500 people, and a blog post PRX published at the time noted that 82 percent of those folks signed on as recurring donors at different contribution levels, which would place the recurring donor number at around 15,990 people. The campaign’s CommitChange page for this cycle indicates that 12,647 recurring donors from that initial drive have stayed on, illustrating a bit of a drop-off in the intervening 12 months. Donors in good standing were gifted a free challenge coin, and their recurring contributions are set to continue unless they decide to adjust their levels. Existing donors were also invited to make additional one-time donations. This year’s campaign is also a little shorter than the previous year’s, taking place across 20 days compared to 2015’s 30.
That said, this campaign has had its challenges. Hoffman tells me that, interestingly enough, this year’s bonkers election cycle has made messaging and marketing a little more difficult, given the oxygen it has sucked up over social media. “We’ve definitely had to work a little harder to keep the momentum going,” she said. “Everyone’s distracted.” And early on, a slight timing hiccup led to the campaign missing its first challenge grant — in which a sponsor pledges a particular amount if certain goals are met — by a little bit.
But even with those bumps, the campaign appears to be going strong, clocking in just over 3,200 new supporters by Monday evening. What’s interesting to me here, though, is the way in which the campaign goal of expanding its recurring donor base — which is a game of attrition, really — lends to a relatively unsexy marketing narrative. It’s one thing to announce the recruitment of over 15,000 supporters and have that be the core of a triumphant story, but it’s another thing altogether to try and drive a narrative about adding on 3,000 more supporters, and one wonders whether this narrative issue will pose a structural problem for Radiotopia’s ability to create a sense of urgency for future fundraising and donor recruitment efforts.
This predicament, I think, is an interesting microcosm of where we are in the larger narrative arc of this second coming of podcasts: the phase of the excitement of the new is coming to a close, and we march steadily on into the more mundane work of adolescence.
In related news: Radiotopia also welcomed a new podcast to the family this week: The Bugle, the popular satire podcast launched back in October 2007 by Andy Zaltzman and John Oliver (who you may know as the host of HBO’s Last Week Tonight). Oliver will no longer host the show, for obvious “there is not enough time in the world”-related reasons, and Zaltzman, who is staying on, will be supplemented with a rotating crew of guests.
The Bugle is Radiotopia’s second addition in recent weeks. In late September, the collective announced its recruitment of the West Wing Weekly, which is cohosted by Hrishikesh Hirway, who is already part of the Radiotopia family with Song Exploder. The Bugle and West Wing Weekly are noticeable departures away from Radiotopia’s usual aesthetic, which tends to favor narrative storytelling. The former can be categorized as a straightforward comedy podcast while the latter is a pretty extensive TV-club podcast. This departure appears to be strategic. In the related press release, executive producer Julie Shapiro noted: “These shows help us expand into new areas of entertainment, political news and satire, which will ultimately build on the existing Radiotopia brand and bring new audiences to all shows within the network.”
The Bugle is Radiotopia’s sixteenth show.
Election podcasts enter the homestretch. Let’s quickly check in on their game plans:
- Starting today (October 25), the NPR Politics Podcast will publish new episodes every day until the election. The podcast also hit a milestone recently; according to a recent press release (which we’ll get back to in a bit), the show enjoyed 1,118,000 downloads during the first week of October and. It had averaged about 450,000 downloads a week over the past three months.
- The FiveThirtyEight Elections podcast will also be publishing new episodes daily until the election starting today. Additionally, the show will continue past November 8 on a weekly schedule “through at least Inauguration Day.”
- I’m told that there is no systematic plan to increase the output of Slate’s Trumpcast, which already publishes on a semi-daily basis. When I asked Steve Lickteig, executive producer of Slate podcasts, if the show will continue past the big day, he told me: “If there is a peaceful transition of power, Trumpcast will do one or two wrap-up shows. If it gets contentious, stay tuned!” The podcast reportedly draws 1 million monthly downloads and considered internally to be one of the most popular podcasts in Slate’s history, according to Digiday.
- The Ringer’s Keepin’ It 1600, consumed by many as therapy, will “likely” continue past November 8. It has already shifted to a twice-a-week publishing schedule.
As always, much love to all the producers of these podcasts that are putting in the extra physical, mental, and emotional energy to stay close to the news cycle. It’ll be over soon, folks. (Or will it?)
A new lab, a podcast strategy? Last Wednesday, NPR announced an expansion and restructuring of its Storytelling Lab, its internal innovation incubator launched last June. Nieman Lab has the full story on the new setup, but at high level, you should know the following:
- The lab has been renamed as “Story Lab,” and its structure has shifted from an incubator to what’s being called a “creative studio.” (Hey, nomenclature is important and words have meaning, folks.) According to the related press release, the studio’s articulated aim is to “support innovation” across the organization, “increase collaboration” with member stations, and better identify talent.
- The initiative will apparently also be “investing in training, audio workshops and meetups,” which is a pretty solid idea, given that the supply chain for talent in the space seems deeply underserved at this point in time.
- The release also noted that the Lab is funding three pilots, which is cool, though the pathway to full seasons and distribution for those pilots remain to be seen.
The Story Lab announcement was followed shortly after by news of NPR’s ratings increase this season which, among other things, drew attention to the breaking of broadcast audience records by Morning Edition and All Things Considered, as well as the fact that NPR One has grown by 124 percent year-over-year.
Cool news from the mothership, but when it comes to NPR and podcasts, I typically approach the situation with the following questions: What is the shape of its podcast strategy, how does it fit into the larger strategy, and what do these developments tell us about both of those things? From that framework, the Story Lab is clearer to me as a way for NPR to better capitalize on its ecosystem of potential talent than it is a focused strategy that says something explicit about how on-demand audio fits into NPR’s grand vision.
It may well be the case that there is a plan — or at least a theory — in place that isn’t being communicated at this point in time. “We don’t have a quota,” an NPR spokesperson said when I asked if the Story Lab had specific output benchmarks for pilot production. “We do have some internal goals about how many shows we want to pilot and launch, but we’re not ready to share those publicly.” What those are, and what they’ll be, is something we’re going to have to wait to find out.
An alternate narrative on the connected car dashboard? Two weeks ago, Uber announced an integration with Otto Radio, a commute-oriented audio and podcast curation app, that will serve riders with a talk programming playlist that’s dynamically constructed to fit their trips.PC Magazine has a pretty good description on how the experience enabled by the integration is supposed to work:
The next time you request a ride using the Uber app, a playlist of news stories and podcasts, perfectly timed for your trip’s duration, will be waiting for you in Otto Radio. Once your driver has arrived, you can sit back and enjoy your “personally curated listening experience and arrive at your destination up-to-date about the things you care about most,” the companies said.
Otto Radio is a quirky participant in the much larger fight among audio programming providers and platforms for the dashboard of the connected car — widely considered in the industry to be one of the biggest untapped frontiers — but this integration with Uber brings into the equation a potential wrinkle in that dashboard struggle narrative: What does that fight mean in an environment where Uber looks to (a) contend for transportation primacy over car ownership and (b) push deeper into self-driving cars? In this rather likely version of the future, does the fight for the dashboard dissolve back into the fight for the mobile device?
Splish splash. The Times’ public editor Liz Spayd turned her attention to the organization’s nascent (or rather, re-nascent) podcast operations over the weekend, and her column contained a bunch of pretty interesting nuggets for close watchers of the Gray Lady, along with anybody working at a media organization thinking about podcasts.
Of course, do check out the column, but here are the bits that stood out to me:
- “The politics podcast, called The Run-Up, is attracting the youngest audience of any Times product ever surveyed, and one that spends far more time on it than most readers do on stories.”
- “As the team gears up, it plans to produce a range of shows, from the more conversational to serial-style narratives. It will also scope out opportunities for audio on demand: newsy, gripping sound that could be found directly on the Times website rather than in podcast form.” ← this latter point is really, really interesting.
- The Times’ next podcast, a game show featuring Freakonomics’ Stephen Dubner called Tell Me Something I Don’t Know, is scheduled to launch next month. Dubner, by the way, is hitting the free-agent game pretty hard: Freakonomics is still chugging along at WNYC, and his short Question of the Day podcast, produced under the Earwolf label, is also publishing industriously. Dubner has some history with the Times; Freakonomics was a blog on NYTimes.com between 2007 and 2011, and Dubner was once a story editor at the Times Magazine.
For what it’s worth, I liked Spayd’s analysis a lot. There remain tremendous questions about the promise of audio for digital media and news organizations, and whether it can deliver as a revenue boon in a business environment starved for growth injections and stabilizing pillars. Two core tensions exist in these questions: whether podcasts will offer incremental growth or whether it will be a so-called “magic bullet,” and whether podcasts will be deployed as a kind of top-of-the-funnel — a recruitment tool to reach previously unharvested audiences and pull them down the marketing funnel — or as a fully-fledged outpost all on its own.
Patreon partners with podcast hosting platform Podomatic. The partnership will let Podomatic users easily set up Patreon support buttons on their user profile, according to the press release. If you’re unfamiliar with Patreon, it’s a platform that helps creators receive funding and donations directly from their supporters — or patrons, to use the synonym that makes Patreon’s etymology more obvious.
It’s a nifty service, and I’ve used it before for Hot Pod back before I decided to take the newsletter full-time. And it’s also pretty widely used — separate and apart from Podomatic — by a number of podcasters, like Flash Forward’s Rose Eveleth. A Patreon spokesperson told me that the platform has about 10,000 podcast creators with Patreon accounts, and that the company is actively working to draw more podcasters onto the service. It’s a decent option, I think, for shows way under the audience threshold for advertiser interest but have an ardent, engaged base that may be willing to chip in some cash monthly to sustain the show. Hey, that model works for me.
- Politico’s hallmark newsletter product, the Politico Playbook, is now available in 90-second audio format, distributed both through the Amazon Echo and as a podcast. The birthdays, alas, will not be carried over. (Politico)
- “Midroll Media did ‘in the ballpark’ of $20 million in sales last year, and is on pace to bring in more than $30 million this year,” Ad Age reports, using a source “with knowledge of the company.” (Ad Age)
- WNYC Studios will launch its next podcast, Nancy, early next year. Nancy, formerly known as Gaydio, was one of the winners of the station’s podcast accelerator initiative that took place back in September 2015. (MediaVillage)
- In The Dark, APM Reports’ limited-run podcast that investigates the 1989 child abduction of Jacob Wetterling in rural Minnesota, will be broadcast on the radio as a 4-hour roundup special. The show, by the way, is amazing, and I think it’s probably the most thoughtful true-crime podcast I’ve ever heard. The last episode dropped today. (Twitter)
- Bumpers, an audio-creation app that I wrote about back in August, has raised $1 million in seed funding. (TechCrunch)
- The first Chicago Podcast Festival, scheduled to take place after the Third Coast Festival from Nov. 17 to 19, has posted its lineup. (Chicago Podcast Festival)
- Like many media nerds, I’ve been watching The Verge cofounder Joshua Topolsky’s latest venture, The Outline, with much interest, given its maybe-kinda-sorta “The New Yorker but for snake people” pitch. So consider me interested, and a little bemused, that their first public project is a podcast that recaps HBO’s Westworld, called Out West.
- Julia Barton, a veteran audio editor, has long been frustrated with the use of microphone stock photos in podcast write-ups, believing it to be a considerable reduction and misrepresentation of the culture, work, and medium. (Current)
- FWIW, I’m told that Starlee Kine is going to make an appearance at the Now Hear This festival this Saturday, doing a guest spot on the live Found show.
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Just out this morning: Audible Channels now comes bundled with the Amazon Prime membership. The new offering is only available for U.S. members.
Three quick things:
- While Amazon doesn’t publicly disclose exact numbers of Prime memberships, analysts at Piper Jaffray estimate the number to be around 57 to 61 million people, according to a CNET writeup. A CNN Money report from earlier this year noted that Prime memberships were estimated to have jumped 35 percent across 2015 alone, citing numbers from a Consumer Intelligence Research Partners report.
- Obviously, this greatly — and automatically — expands the reach of potential listeners with easy access to Audible’s original programming. This development is consistent with, and weirdly expands upon, a speculation I made to Bloomberg’s Lucas Shaw in a January article: “Amazon is doing to Audible what it’s done to Prime Video.” This has become the defining lens for the way I read the company.
- Also worth keeping in mind: Audible’s insistence on not calling their original programming “podcasts.”
And in case you missed it, I wrote about Audible’s first batch of original shows earlier this summer. I wasn’t particularly enthused, but I suppose it was a launch set. Audible Channels costs $4.95 a month for non-members; normal full Audible memberships cost $14.95 a month.
Ken Doctor is putting me out of business. If you’re reading this, you’ll probably be very interested to check out his ongoing five-part series on the podcasting business that Nieman Lab is running this week. The first entry, which came out yesterday, is a fantastic primer to the industry, and holds some ideas that I find are incredibly useful.
Doctor closed his first post with a wonderful series of guiding questions, to which I’d like to add one more: Is it possible for podcasting to grow rapidly while maintaining its openness for independents?
I should’ve taken a vacation this week. But we’ve got some guidelines to talk about.
Your handy guide to the IAB’s guidelines. This is going to be a long one, and a poor sequel to some of what I’ve written before.
Ahead of its second annual podcast upfront event last week, the Interactive Advertising Bureau Tech Lab published its Podcast Ad Metrics Guidelines, a document seeking to assist in the resolution of what has commonly been asserted as the medium’s defining problem: measurability. Given that these guidelines were issued from an ostensibly independent third-party like the IAB, they were much anticipated. In some circles, it’s thought to be just the kind of stuff the industry needs to get its house in order.
Time will tell, of course, whether the document will have some sort of impact. But for what it’s worth, I’m bearish.
Let’s consider the problem. The real issue here is less about podcast measurability than it is about the verification of podcast ad impressions. Specifically, advertisers want to effectively track the delivery of the spots they’re paying for.
And to be even more specific, this issue principally pertains to brand advertisers. The space has long operated on a healthy stream of direct advertisers (your MailChimps, your Audibles, your Blue Aprons, and so on) whose ad buying operations are primarily driven by a focus on promo-code conversions. Their assessments would definitely benefit from better ad verification, but they’re ultimately not dependent on them, because direct advertisers can bypass the black-box nature ((In case you’re not familiar: By “black box,” I mean that, for the majority of downloads, it remains relatively unknowable what happens to a podcast ad once it’s stitched into an episode file and shipped off to a listener.)) of current podcast tracking practices by making their own return-on-investment calculations, based on how many listeners end up using a promo code. In contrast, brand advertisers need to know how many people they are reaching as a way to justify their ad buys, because their advertising initiatives are driven by intangible concepts like mindshare, influence, and brand identity — more fluid factors meant to influence buying decisions over the long term.
From the perspective of advertisers, the problem is that “downloads” don’t mean the same thing across different podcast publishers. Sarah van Mosel, Acast’s chief commercial officer, once phrased the problem to me this way: “Buyers just need to know that when they’re spending $100K on one podcast, they’re getting the same amount of ‘stuff’ as if they spend $100K on another podcast.” The IAB’s goal with this report, then, is to provide a publicly available technical framework that the industry can use as a common language, so that brand advertisers can engage with podcast publishers off a baseline layer of trust. (Implicit in this idea is that the actual accuracy of the technical specs is besides the point — so long as everyone is incorrect in the exact same way.)
If this all sounds extremely familiar to you, it’s because we’ve been here before. Back in February, a consortium of public radio organizations banded together to publish their own set of guidelines on podcast metric measurements. My analysis then (which you can read here) saw the publication of that document as a political move by that consortium to accelerate the IAB’s production of its own report. I was also skeptical about the report’s capacity for impact, and a lot of my thinking then can be directly applied to this situation.
Two chunks on why I’m bearish on the new report:
1. The IAB’s guidelines merely serve as a best practices document — there is no formal enforcement of these standards. To state the obvious, best practices are only as strong as the number of people who adopt them, and as a result, we’re left in a situation where, for the standards to be useful, a critical mass of industry participants must be achieved on their own accord.
But the reason podcast downloads have historically been fluffy is that various players in the space aren’t incentivized right now to speak to advertisers in the same language…or to challenge the narrative of their current reporting systems. Why? A relevant quote in an Observer article from Midroll’s now-CEO Erik Diehn, responding to the public radio guidelines in February: “If everybody adopted these standards today, some shows might come down a little bit in size and some might come down pretty dramatically.” It’s an irrational, but understandable, collective psychology: Though measurement standards in some form or another will benefit companies in the long-term, some are hesitant to suffer in the short-term, and as a consequence, the lesser status quo is favored.
There are few possible paths to a future where the IAB’s guidelines can mean something. For one thing, we could see a future in which a critical mass of podcast publishers — all occupying a solid enough position to sustain whatever corrections the guidelines may bring onto their reporting structures — voluntarily bite the metaphorical bullet, adopt the standards, and collusively enforce those standards by convention. And for another, it’s also possible to see a future in which advertisers would use the mere existence of these guidelines as a “cudgel” (to quote a source) to pressure publishers into being more aggressive about refining their measurement capabilities.
Either outcome would be constructive, but they would be so in spite of the IAB’s guidelines — because the document itself isn’t very good in the first place.
2. Put simply: The IAB’s guidelines appear to be a compromised product. Compared to February’s public radio guidelines document, the IAB’s report is significantly less technically rigorous, with key fundamental definitions still half-heartedly defined. One of several red-flags: a “partial download” is still defined as “a unique file request that was less that 100% downloaded” — which means that a podcast file that’s, say, 1 percent downloaded is still valued as equal to a podcast file that’s, say, 99 percent downloaded.
The report’s lack of a punch might well have something to do with its long drafting process, which stretched well beyond a year. (I’ve been hearing gossip about it since Q2 of 2015, and a lot of that involved talk about internal tensions.) And looking at the eclectic list of volunteer participants involved the process — 23 strong, including representation from new and old podcast companies, public radio institutions, tech companies, legacy media types, and Nielsen — one imagines, given everyone’s possibly clashing incentives, that the fact we even saw a report at all is itself a miracle. One presumes that the process was agonized.
But in the scale of things, I don’t think the report’s miss — or any future fumbles — is going to matter very much. Indeed, I suspect it’s entirely possible that individual companies can secure the interest and trust brand advertisers on their own, converting them for the rest of the industry’s benefit. In Ken Doctor’s Hot Pod-beating column yesterday, National Public Media’s Bryan Moffett cited getting business from Fortune 100 brands brands like Wells Fargo, Dell, and Target. Doctor would further note that “six-figure ad buys, rare until recently, are now more commonplace.”
The question, of course, is whether those dollars, six figures and all, will stay in the industry over time.
Broader considerations. When I’ve written about this topic previously, I’ve often been asked: Why do podcast companies want brand advertisers in the first place? Generally speaking, brand advertising dollars tend to be much bigger and more reliably scheduled across a longer period in time than direct advertising dollars. That kind of money stabilizes — and catalyzes — advertising-driven media businesses. There’s also an element of prestige involved here, and the professionalizing layer of podcast companies are principally driven at this point in time to be accepted as part of the upper echelons of the media industry.
A followup question/thought experiment: Does the podcast ecosystem actually need brand advertisers to function as a legit industry? It’s worth some debate, but I’d argue they aren’t that essential. There’s an entirely plausible future where the podcast ecosystem runs on a rich marketplace of direct and local advertisers powered by dynamic ad insertion technology. That’s provided, of course, that more efficient ad marketplaces will develop somewhere down the line in order to facilitate greater transaction volumes. (And that don’t fully corrupt the advertising experience, preferably.)
There will always be products, services, and people looking for attention, and as such, there will likely always be potential (if hard-fought) dollars for podcast ad slots, whose unique value proposition in the advertising marketplace is that intimacy thing everybody talks about. (Unless, of course, Facebook continues to grow its power and scale as the attention-monster it is beyond all counterargument, in which case we should all just give up and go to welding school.)
But I will say that I think brand advertising dollars would make it substantially easier for podcast companies who aspire to be massive triple-A upper echelon institutions — equivalent to the Big Three labels in the music industry and the major studios in the film industry. Which we should probably follow by asking whether we actually want podcast companies that big in the first place — which is a fair question.
Talking Points Memo now has a podcast offering of its own. The influential left-leaning political news website is attempting the paywalled podcast method. Episodes of the interview-based podcast, called The Josh Marshall Show (named for the site’s founder), are automatically available to the site’s paying TPM Prime members; non-paying readers can buy individual episodes for $1 each off Podbean. A free version, which will feature highlights from the full interviews, will be available to non-members.
Earlier this summer, Marshall told Nieman Lab that its paid subscription arm stabilized the site’s overall business, citing a number of roughly 11,000 paying subscribers.
I’m personally not that much of a TPM consumer, but the rollout strategy is one that I think fits well with the way the site’s system of offerings is already set up: It increases the value of the membership system in a way that matches the podcast format’s capacity for depth with the paying subscriber’s demand for depth. Square peg, meet square hole.
A financial snapshot of an independent podcast. “I’d always heard that new restaurants take five years to show a profit. I have no idea if that’s true, but this was kind of the attitude we went into it with,” said Scott Philbrook. “From day one, we approached it like a business and not a hobby, but we had absolutely zero information on whether or not a podcast that wasn’t backed by a major network or some other corporation could be a viable business model.”
Philbrook is cohost of Astonishing Legends, a California-based podcast that bills itself as the “Click and Clack of esoterica,” its programming focus being strange historical events. Extensively researched, lovingly produced, and presented with the requisite amount of kitsch, the two-year-old show comes out of a rich tradition of podcasts — and media in general, I suppose — that trade in creepiness and pulp, finding kindred spirits in the Pacific Northwest Stories programs and Lore, plus whatever’s going on over at SyFy and the History channel.
It’s also an independent creative operation figuring out its terms of existence. Philbrook and Forrest Burgess, his creative partner and cohost, took some time in a recent episode to discuss the current state of their business:
We’re so grateful to have several hundred patrons pledging amounts from $1 a month all the way to $25, and we’re currently bringing in around $1,500 monthly from that. We’ve also managed to attract the attention of several sponsors and they are testing the waters with us to see if we’re a good investment for their advertising dollars. When you guys support them, they feel good about sponsoring the show. So with three to a max of four sponsors per episode and at the support we have from you on Patreon, our gross income has currently become roughly equivalent to a single person working an entry-level part-time job.
At a time when the more well-financed elements of the industry seek to earn legitimacy and scale from the top-down, Philbrook and Burgess’ discussion provides a window into the conditions of operators on the ground level. Curious, I reached out for more details, and Philbrook was kind enough to spent some time discussing the show’s approach and current financial makeup.
The note Philbrook sent was long and rich with detail, but this newsletter has some serious space constraints (ha), so I’m going to break this out into chunks focusing on the stuff that you can most tangibly use.
1. While the show is currently testing advertising possibilities (more on that in a bit), Patreon plays a huge role in the business. “It’s such a great way to connect with listeners and a lot of listeners really want to help the show out and that’s a way that’s convenient for them,” Philbrook said. All of that Patreon money, which adds up to about $1,500 a month, goes to paying their editor and sound designer. Their editor, Sarah Vorhees, is hired on a per-episode basis, and she charges the team an hourly rate.
“And we’re finally start getting some funds out to our sound designer as well, who’s been working for free from the beginning,” he added. “The money we’ve paid both of them is insulting, but they continue to be available for us for their own reasons. We are within striking distance of getting them their full rates, however.”
2. The show currently has an exclusive sponsorship representation deal with Audioboom, the U.K.-based podcast services company, to cover ad sales. Philbrook noted that they initially attempted to handle advertising directly by themselves, but eventually decided to outsource it, given their production workload. They’ve been represented by Audioboom for almost exactly a year now, and they also host their episodes on Audioboom’s platform.
While Philbrook declined to disclose specifics, he tells me that the show’s advertising revenue outpaces its Patreon haul. But he maintains that their advertising arrangements have been largely experimental, illustrating the difficulty of longer-term planning at this point in time. “We are so grateful to have advertisers, but the thing is when you start out, they are all testing their return on investment, so the sponsorship fees you’re collecting are not necessarily commensurate with your downloads or listens,” he said. “The idea is that if your sponsors see people responding to the live reads you’re doing on your show, and it proves to be a good investment for them, then they come back and you get closer to appropriate rates.”
3. The show currently averages 115,000 downloads per episode across its initial 45 days, the standard Audioboom uses to negotiate advertising. They report having over 4.8 million downloads across the whole catalog since moving over to Audioboom, with an additional 600,000 back when they were hosted on Libsyn.
4. The team also deals with a little merchandising, but they view it more as a way to connect with their listeners than an actual profit center. For one thing, Philbrook tells me, they’re not trading in high volumes, and what little profit they’re able to accrue is often canceled out by the amount of time they put into fulfillment.
5. Philbrook, a former editor of TV commercials, is the only person working on the show full-time, while his cohost Burgess still works a day-job. The production also involves work from a volunteer research group that involves over two dozen people and which formed organically out of the show’s fanbase.
“Our overall experience so far with podcasting has been absolutely amazing,” Philbrook said. “Will we survive indefinitely? It’s hard to know. We’re currently netting about 10 percent of what we think we’d need to be making to both be full time employees of Astonishing Legends and be able to pay members of our team fair rates for what they do for us. Can we get the other 90 percent? I guess we’ll find out.” (Hat tip to Erin M. for inspiring this segment.)
- Last week, I threw a good deal of reflexive shade on Apple’s AirPods announcement. I still think the name is ridiculous — though perhaps no more ridiculous than the word “podcast,” goodness — but I’m totally sold on the argument put forward by Slate’s Will Oremus that Apple’s new tech is an early iteration of an “ear computer,” which functions on a voice-to-cloud computing paradigm not unlike that of the Amazon Echo. (Slate)
- “With a show that has a celebrity host that companies want to associate their brand with, you can get between $100 and $200 [CPM], which is amazing,” Pineapple Street Media’s Jenna Weiss-Berman tells Fast Company. However, a marketing executive at SeatGeek expressed some skepticism over the rates to me on Twitter. (Fast Company)
— Will Flaherty (@flahertyiv) September 10, 2016
- DGital Media, continuing its sports programming bent, is partnering with “collegiate marketing” company Learfield to produce a suite of college sports-related podcasts. (Press release)
- NPR will nationally distribute WAMU’s The Big Listen, its podcast-curation radio show. That description was complicated to write. (Current)
- Overcast, Marco Arment’s bespoke podcast app, tries out display advertising. (Marco.org)
- Sound designer Shani Aviram and ARRVLS’ Jonathan Hirsch collaborated to make Liminal, a “small-batch” sound library and production house. (Liminal Audio)