Your favorite podcasts, coming to a TV screen near you?

Gimlet’s StartUp being adapted for television. My inbox has long bubbled with rumors of Gimlet getting involved in television and L.A. sightings of company co-founder Matt Lieber, and so I wasn’t particularly surprised when a Deadline report dropped Monday night indicating that ABC is bringing the StartUp podcast to linear television.

According to the report, the project will be a comedy with Zach Braff (of Scrubs and Garden State fame) attached to direct the potential pilot and star as its protagonist. ABC has reportedly made a “put pilot commitment” — which, I understand, means the pilot will almost definitely see the light of day. I’m told that this arrangement is relatively uncommon, and indicates something of a vote of confidence in the project.

StartUp is merely the latest in an emerging trend of podcast properties being picked up for adaptation to television. (I published a deep dive on this back in April.) But however this first deal is structured — and whether or not it’s lucrative for Gimlet — I think it’s more interesting to see if the podcast company will be able to use the momentum of this first development to build out a formal adaptation pipeline — à la Epic Magazine, which commissions longform features with a specific eye for Hollywood interest. I think it’s good business: a good way to consistently multiply the value of their output, and an even better way of expanding their sphere of influence. (When I asked the company will be pursuing more adaptation deals, chief of staff Chris Giliberti replied: “Hopefully :)”)

But whether these adaptations will translate into good eye-fodder in the age of Peak TV is a separate matter. As a consumer, and a yuge fan of the podcast’s first season, I’m not wild about this StartUp news. For the uninitiated, the podcast was originally a first-person audio documentary that followed former Planet Money cofounder Alex Blumberg as he set out to form what is now known as Gimlet. And while the show moved away from its innovative diaristic first-person style in future seasons to adopt a more classically documentarian format, that first season was absolutely sublime for the way it was so…well, vulnerable and performatively personal and utterly real.

That the TV adaptation is set to be a fictional comedy broadly described to be “based” on the podcast, revolving around a thirtysomething dude who quits his job to start a business, feels contradictory to the elements that made up the original genius of the podcast, even if the TV show turns out halfway decent. I also wonder why, indeed, did Gimlet’s property need to be picked up to get television project of this subject going in the first place when there are already a number of original television properties that effectively explores in life lived within the paradigm of entrepreneurship. (See HBO’s Silicon Valley and the latter seasons of CBS’s The Good Wife.) A possible argument? Consider the built-in audience of the StartUp podcast, multiplied by whatever Braff’s star power is able to bring in. The question is, then, whether that equation will work for ABC.

Anyway, it’s bad form to moan about something that hasn’t even materialized yet. I’m excited for Gimlet — this is, unmistakably, a coup for the Brooklyn-based podcast studio — and I’m eager to see how the team figures the adaptation. I only pray that the show be a gritty, violent remake.

Relevant: Desus and Mero of The Bodega Boys are making a late night talkshow for Viceland. Now this, this I’m super wild about…too bad I’m too cheap to pay for Sling TV.

On the celebrity strategy. The trade publication Adweek is running a special series on audio this week, with a particular focus on podcasts that readers of this hyper-niche column would probably find interesting. It’s chock full of the fairly platitudinal findings one comes to expect from broad excursions into the subject — sample sentence: “the key, podcast pros say, is to do something that no else is doing, and to do it better than anyone else can” — but there are bits of interesting information (and fun posturing) packed in the quotes.

The series also contains what is perhaps my favorite quotation — which bears my favorite insight — in a long, long time. In the article “Celebrities Are Flocking to Podcasts, but Will They Stick Around?“, a podcast producer named Matthew Passy drops this gem:

Shaquille O’Neal could fart into a microphone for an hour and 100,000 people would download it, while other podcasters are putting out great content advertisers [don’t pick up on], because for advertisers there’s a high threshold…if you don’t have 10 to 50,000 downloads, most advertisers don’t bother.

Passy’s sentiment here addresses the annoying and increasingly prominent spike in the lazy (and cynical) strategy of plopping a known name in front of a mic with little direction or production value with the expectation of committing temporary arbitrage. It also usefully contextualizes it as prudent within the basic advertiser dynamic. It illuminates how the space currently possesses a value universe in which high-quality work is crowded out, and how these relatively slipshod programs, in their capacity to move money before advertisers gain full podcast literacy, leads to their further proliferation. Cheers, mate.

Vox Media on the hunt. Well lookie here: Vox Media posted a job listing earlier this week in search of an executive producer for audio. According to the job description, the EP will be in charge of both refining the existing stable of podcasts as well as launching new shows. It also appears to span across the company’s eight sites (and possibly its in-house creative agency, Vox Creative).

This comes a week after Recode, Vox Media’s tech and business news site, published a job listing for a similar position. Dan Frommer, Recode’s editor-in-chief, had indicated to me that their listing was “an early sign of things to come from Vox on the audio front” — and it seems that this is yet another development within a much larger strategic move. The juxtaposition of these positions suggests the probable reporting structure, with the former overseeing the work of the latter, which itself foretells a probable future where we may see similar roles emerge across Vox Media’s seven remaining sites. (It’s a matryoshka doll of executive producers!)

If you’re a mid-career audio operator looking for a big step up, it’s a good time.

The Washington Post is ramping up its podcast operations, months after testing the waters with the history podcast Presidential, which first dropped in January. To kick off its second wave, the Post recently launched two somewhat straightforward shows: a fantasy football podcast (The Fantasy Football Beat), rolled out in early August, and an interview-driven politics podcast hosted by PostPartisan blogger Jonathan Capehart (Cape UP), which dropped last week.

But it has also two rather interesting projects in the pipeline that should be watched. First, a quiz show named Ciquizza featuring Chris Cillizza — whose blog, The Fix, is already being delivered in audio form through the Amazon Echo. Second, a fascinating collaboration with American Public Media called Historically Black, which will leverage the Post’s reader-driven Tumblr of the same name. A call for submission was put out two weeks ago for Historically Black, which you can find here.

The scaling up comes shortly after the Post hired Carol Alderman to serve as the company’s in-house audio producer in May. Alderman previously worked on podcasts at USA Today. I’m told that Alderman is the only person on staff whose sole focus is on audio works — though the actual production flows involve collaborations from several other people in the newsroom. I’m also told that, as part of the audience team, she reports to Jessica Stahl, who officially holds the lengthy title of “editor for social, search, and communities.” Stahl serves as Alderman’s editor on the audio products. That’s a stark contrast from The New York Times’ approach, which has a much larger team of dedicated operators with at least six full-timers focusing on podcasts, by my count (many of them public radio veterans).

Also worth noting: The Post plans to further experiment with the Amazon Echo’s Alexa platform. I’m personally pretty bullish on the possibilities afforded by voice-based/audio-first computing and the way in which the Echo paves for a whole new way in which information can be transferred digitally, and I’ve been utterly fascinated by the number of news organizations that have begun dabbling with the platform. (A partial list of dabblers: NPR, Slate, The Wall Street Journal, Newsy, Refinery29, Bloomberg, TMZ, and, excitingly, local NBC affiliates.) I had originally planned to dive deeper into what’s been going at this particular nexus, but my friends at Nieman Lab beat me to the punch earlier this week. I highly recommend checking out their writeup on news organizations and Alexa.

There is, indeed, quite a lot packed into what the Post’s is trying to kindle on this frontier. To find out more, I asked Jessica Stahl a few questions over email, and I think her responses are pretty useful, so I’ll run them in full here.

Quah: Could you tell me about the scaling up and how Carol Alderman plays a role here — is she quarterbacking projects, or will she be directly involved in tape cutting and such?

Stahl: We’ve spent the past couple of months sending our first batch of projects through the development process and are really proud of what we’ve been working on. Presidentialhas always been almost completely reported, edited and produced by Lily Cunningham in what can only be described as a Herculean effort. Beyond that, Carol is directly producing/editing some of our podcasts, and working with others primarily during the development process to help refine the idea and provide the training they need to eventually edit/produce themselves. So we’re hoping that with those two workflows in place, it we’ll be able to create the high quality output we want while still facilitating as many great ideas as we can. We’ve also been able to start codifying best practices, which helps us be consistent about things like launch process, format for posting to our site, promotion on social media, and so on.

Quah: What are the factors that led to the Post’s decision to do more with podcasts?

Stahl: The first is passion and interest in this type of storytelling. We have people in this newsroom who listen to podcasts as consumers and love the experience they get with that medium. And that’s meant we have people in the newsroom who’ve been wanting to tell stories in audio form, including a couple — like Lily — who figured out they had the skill to go ahead and do it. So there was this enthusiasm for podcasts, and a well of exciting ideas, that was bubbling over. That’s kind of been reflected in the podcasts we’ve launched or are working on so far — they all come from people in our newsroom who were passionate about getting into this space and who were willing to work hard with us to refine pitches, record and re-record demos and basically create something they would be psyched to listen to.

The other major factor was the success of Presidential, which showed that audio can accomplish the type of deep, informative journalism we strive for, and that there are significant audiences for it if you do it right. We announced at the end of March, only about two months after Presidential had launched, that it had already surpassed 1 million downloads.

Quah: What does success look like for the Washington Post’s podcasts?

Stahl: We’ve talked a lot about how we can define different models of success so that something that is building engaged community, for example, or doing really important journalism, or growing slowly but steadily could be considered to be working — just like something that gets tons of listeners right away would be considered to be working. We have several dimensions we use to measure success — similarly to how we might think about whether a written reporting project is a success. Sometimes big numbers tell you something worked, and sometimes you know something worked because it causes real change.

We’re also trying to be very intentional about how we know what’s not working, so we can adjust quickly to try new strategies, or ultimately to decide that we want to move on. Podcasts actually live as part of the Audience team, so figuring out how to benchmark progress and measure success across all sorts of different platforms is kind of just part of our worldview.

Quah: Are you guys trying anything interesting with respect to distribution?

Stahl: Our Historically Black podcast with American Public Media (APM) Reports is definitely something new and different for us. That grew out of a UGC (user-generated content) project on Tumblr and has developed into a cross-platform multimedia effort that’s going to be distributed as a podcast, but also through Tumblr to the audience that’s participated in it, and through The Post website and all our various platforms via a series of articles.

We’re also thinking about podcasts in the context of audio more broadly. It’s still very early for us, but we’ve been having conversations across departments to talk about different ways we can think about audio and audio delivery, and there are a lot of great ideas. A platform we’re currently playing with is Alexa, which powers the Amazon Echo and other devices. We started out there with a daily politics flash briefing written by Chris Cillizza of The Fix that was delivered via text-to-speech. But we all realized that it would be more compelling to have a human voice with some personality deliver that information, so we used the Republican and Democratic National Conventions as an opportunity to launch a recorded, voiced version. I’m anticipating more experiments like that, both on the Alexa and on other platforms.

Quah: Tell me more about the Alexa projects. What’s the potential that you see here?

Stahl: The Alexa politics brief is something that started as a collaboration between the product team and the politics section, and Carol hopped in to help make the leap into recorded audio. It’s not the only thing The Post is doing on the Alexa platform — we’re also experimenting with “skills” that enable users to ask for information about the elections or the Olympics and get answers from us.

There’s a lot of crossover between the platforms our product team is interested in and what the podcast side is interested in, so that was a great opportunity to start the conversation about what we want to experiment with and where it makes sense to work together either on technologies or on content. I think there’s a ton of potential, not only with Alexa but with all the new ways that people are going to consume audio products — from voice systems like Alexa, to music sites like Spotify or Pandora that are opening up to spoken audio, to in-car systems, and things we haven’t thought of yet. Those are going to open up new audiences for podcasts and also demand new forms of audio storytelling. So we want to make sure we’re thinking about it and experimenting with it, and getting out ahead of it with offerings that feel right for the platforms we decide to focus on. And that means we’ll keep collaborating closely with all the teams that are thinking about those platforms from lots of different angles.

Bites:

  • “In the early days of the medium, Podcasting was disproportionately a medium for white males, ages 25-44…but today, the content universe for Podcasts has exploded, and the diversity of programming available rivals any other form of audio,” writes Tom Webster, vice president of strategy at Edison Research, which puts out the ever-helpful annual Infinite Dial study in collaboration with Triton Digital. Webster’s statement comes from new data, and you should check out the full blog post.
  • Art19 announced a new executive vice president of content last week: Roddy Swearngin, who was most recently the director of digital at Levity Entertainment Group.
  • Wondery follows up the successful launch of its first original property, Found, with an audio drama anthology show called Secrets, Crimes & Audiotape. (Spot the reference.) The company is clearly leveraging its roots within the film and television industry, from which its founder Hernan Lopez (formerly of Fox International Channel) hails, and it’ll be interesting to see its efforts will lead to a new model for audio drama outside its current strengths in horror and sci-fi — and whether it’s endeavors will draw in bigger advertisers. (The Hollywood Reporter)
  • Audible partners TED to produce a new show, entitled Sincerely, X. (Fast Company)
  • It looks the podcast components of ESPN’s multimedia initiative Pin/Kings were downloaded “more than 200,000 times” across all episodes as of August 26. The podcast published 17 episodes across its run, plus one teaser. (Digiday)
  • “I’ve already done my first interviews for it last week. And tell your ad readers we’re looking for a sponsor for Season 2,” Malcolm Gladwell tells Adweek, when asked about a follow-up to Revisionist History’s highly successful first season. (Adweek)
  • “U.K. Podcast Listeners Favor Ads over Payment”…and “56% said they didn’t mind ads during podcasts as long as they were relevant to the podcast topic,” according to a new survey. Usual survey-consuming disclaimers apply. (eMarketer)

Can a political podcast avoid being overtaken by events?

A design challenge for political podcasts. I’ve spilt a fair bit of ink on election-related podcasts over the past few weeks here on Hot Pod, and perhaps just as well: For any serious news media endeavor, the U.S. presidential elections is a fundamental reason for being, and for the professionalizing layer of the emerging podcast industry — desiring so much to be taken seriously — the elections present an opportunity to step up and prove its worth. (Particularly given this exceptionally bonkers cycle, lord help us.)

But I’d been planning to give it a rest today, because…oh I don’t know. I figured some variety in the A-slot is a good thing, and besides, there are always other summer concerns in Podcastland. Maybe I felt I needed a break, for fear of running out things to say. (The eternal dread of the columnist.) Maybe I did run out of things to say.

So thank goodness for Mother Jones editor-in-chief Clara Jeffery, who dropped a tweet last week that inspired a bout of head-nodding so hard I needed a neck brace and gave me my A-slot:

Political podcasts, particularly those of the conversational genre that publish on a weekly schedule, possess a peculiar kind of disposable value. Typically tethered to the state of the news cycle at the time of recording, they are often serve as a recap of the week: a place to catch up on the events of that specific seven-day stretch, and a space to reflect on their significance in the context of what has happened and what may happen in the days to come. With every episode, the discussion produces a model for the listener that helps guide their reading of the news, and like all models, they are forced into iteration by every future development. As a result, the discussion in those episodes — frozen as they are in time — exist with built-in half-lives; their value erodes, organically, as more new things happen.

It isn’t too difficult, then, to see how the breakneck rate of developments coming out of the Trump campaign has exponentially strained the value propositions of this podcast genre. (Say what you want about the Clinton campaign’s controversies — at least they adhere to classic media tempos.)

What we’re left with are episodes that get way too stale, way too quickly. Given that the weekly gabfest format is a staple among podcasts, that’s not great, and the extremes of this anomalous cycle have drawn more attention to the limitations of the on-demand audio channel — or, more accurately, the way on-demand audio is wielded at this point in time. (I felt those limitations most acutely last week, when both The Ringer’s Keepin’ It 1600 and the Slate Political Gabfest dedicated segments on former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort’s ties to Russia, only to have the issue rendered somewhat moot when Manafort announced his resignation the next day. I ended up skipping them and spent the next two hours hitting the blogroll.)

There are, I think, pretty clear pathways to solving this problem:

(1) Per Jeffery’s tweet, the most straightforward way would be to increase the frequency of the output, so rapid developments can be addressed at a faster rate and iterations can be made more aggressively. In other words, the move would be to make each episode more disposable but also more responsive to the news. We’ve seen this executed before in the way several political podcasts tackled the conventions by pushing out special daily episodes (I highlighted some of them in last week’s writeup), and some, like the NPR Politics podcast, have also made good use of shorter update episodes published throughout the week. We also see this play out in choices made by some podcasts — The Pollsters is a good example of this — to go twice-a-week by design.

(2) An alternative would be the opposite route: adjust the approach to handle topics more thematically and render each episode less disposable (that is, more evergreen) than its competitors. This isn’t a practical option at all for many of these shows — as it would mean fundamentally altering their long-established value propositions — but I’d still argue it’s something to consider. We see executions of these in the many shows that are primarily interview-driven, like First Look Media’s Politically Re-Active, and idea-driven, like The New York Times’ The Run-Up podcast, which also has the distinction of taking a more blended approach. You could also go Full Dickerson and pull a Whistlestop, but that’s taking it way too far.

(3) Here’s something more left-field for ya: Break the archives, throw the whole frozen-in-time nature of the podcast episode out the damn window, and update older episodes in the archives as further developments take place. Theoretically speaking, this is a feasible option, given the possibilities afforded by dynamic ad insertion. Since we live in a world where podcast ads can be pretty easily swapped out of audio files to prevent them from getting stale and valueless, can’t we apply similar principles to the actual show itself? (Imagine if you could take all the energy and innovation focused on ads in the world, and apply it elsewhere.) Anyway, just a thought.

Jeffery also served up one more request that producers should consider: “More weekly podcasts should drop at beginning or middle of week. They bunch up!”

This, too, I heartily agree with.

Recode on the hunt. Recode, the tech-industry news arm of Vox Media, is on the lookout for an executive producer for podcasts and audio. Dan Frommer, the site’s editor-in-chief, tells me that Recode has been “editorially and financially successful” with their early podcasting efforts — stretched out across four shows — and that this hire is a move to formalize audio as a key part of their product offering. Frommer expects to launch at least two new shows, including one “that will feature significantly more ambitious, original audio journalism.”

I’ve expressed my admiration for the site’s podcast operations in the past, but I’ve always had a sense that they were starting gambits — both for the team and their parent company, Vox Media. Frommer suggests that this is very much case, noting that this move is “an early sign of things to come from Vox on the audio front.” Fascinating.

For reference, keep in mind that Vox Media’s other properties also have podcast experiments of their own, including: Vox.com’s partnership with Panoply to produce The Weeds and The Ezra Klein Show, The Verge’s Ctrl+Walt+Delete and What’s Tech? (among others), Eater’s Upsell, and Polygon’s eclectic suite of podcasts from the daily update show Minimap to the voiced features experiment Polygon Longform. It’s a bit of an unruly empire, and I suspect some sort of consolidation — whatever that means — might be in order if Vox Media is going to formalize its audio efforts across the board.

If that were to happen, and I’m just spit-balling here, the question would be the role that podcast networks will continue to play in that future configuration. To my knowledge, Vox Media works with two networks, DGital Media for Recode and Panoply for Vox.com, and in a podcast interview with Digiday’s Brian Morrissey back in June, Vox Media president Marty Moe explained the company’s relationship with networks as follows:

We’re using [podcast networks], but we’re selling directly, and that’s in part having to educate our sales teams about the advantages of podcasting and how to reach consumers best with brand messages, how to create the best kind of advertising. But we also work with networks because there’s just not enough direct selling right now to fill all of the opportunity.

Depending on how things look on the sales side at this point in time, I imagine these network partnerships may persist for a while. But given that no one has much of a handle over podcast distribution (just yet), one imagines that the value of these largely ad-sales-driven network partnerships may well be drawn into question over time — particularly as Vox Media gets savvier handling podcast ad sales themselves.

Anyway, parties interested in the Recode job should check out the job posting, or hit up Frommer himself.

A broadcast partnership. Missed this earlier, but it’s worth tracking: Last week, the satellite radio company SiriusXM announced that it will now broadcast the Yahoo Sports-affiliated Vertical Podcast Network, a stable of three personality-driven shows that are produced by New York-based DGital Media. The podcasts will air every weekday in a 3 p.m. ET slot (that’ll rotate between the three shows) on a few SiriusXM channels, along with in the SiriusXM app. Broadcast began last Monday.

This is the point in the writeup where I draw upon some historical context and note that this isn’t the first podcast property to find distribution over SiriusXM. You can find another example in Neil deGrasse Tyson’s popular Star Talk podcast, which was picked up last January for distribution over SiriusXM Insight, the channel within the satellite radio company’s offerings that focuses on “entertaining informative talk.” (A category that, interestingly enough, includes The Takeaway, the public radio program produced by PRI, WGBH, and WNYC. (I did not know about this partnership earlier, and finding this out brings new weight to the This American Life-WBAA dispute over the former’s Pandora partnership back in May.)

Similarly, this is also the point in the story where I’d raise examples of parallel partnerships between podcast shops and other more broadcast-esque platforms, like the aforementioned one between This American Life and Pandora, or one that saw iHeartRadio, the Internet radio streaming platform company, forming distribution partnerships with Libsyn and NPR.

And I happily bring up both those threads because they tug at a trend that I’ve been tracking for a while: an impending structural convergence and reorientation of what we talk about when we talk about on-demand audio. I last revisited that idea as recently as last month, and I’m going to re-up the same passage from my original analysis in March that I recycled for that July column:

For what it’s worth, I’m fairly certain that, with its liberation from an infra-structurally imposed definition, the word “podcast” will lose all of its original meaning by the end of the calendar year. My sense is that it will likely become an identifier for a certain corner of a reconstituted landscape of all non-music audio content that’s created and distributed digitally. It’s a scope that will not only include the new podcasting companies of the last year or so, public radio, and digital media companies developing new audience development channels in the audio space…but also commercial radio powers, streaming and Internet radio companies like iHeartMedia and SiriusXM, and community radio infrastructures.

And here’s the concern I trumpeted in July:

Implicit in these hypotheses is an understanding that the core assumptions that make up the economics of the industry — the high CPMs relative to other audio and digital formats, the “intimate,” “opt-in,” and “highly engaged” narrative points in podcasting’s value propositions, and so on — will be fundamentally altered, and the onus should be on podcasting companies to both craft a new, evolved narrative as well as develop more involved methods of ad verification and impact assessments.

Anyway, this SiriusXM business also sees the Vertical Podcast Network becoming the first partner within the DGital Media portfolio, which also includes the Recode and UFC podcasts, to have its distribution expanded to include broadcast on top of its on-demand audio channel.

I asked Chris Corcoran, the company’s chief content officer, whether broadcast distribution will be a standard value proposition brought to the other clients within DGital Media’s portfolio. “What I will say is that we have wonderful partners who are always aligned in thinking the same way, which is finding new ways to grow the audience,” Corcoran said. “From there, we figure out what makes since with each partner, respectively.” Cool.

Relevant: Missed this last month but keep tabs on this: “Pandora wants to add more podcasts to grow listening hours.” (Variety) In June, Lizzie Wilhelm, Pandora’s SVP of ad product sales and strategy, told the Hivio conference that the company was “pleased” with their partnership with This American Life.

Sound design, explained to me. While the past two years have yielded an absolute bumper crop of podcasts, it doesn’t quite feel like there has been a proportional increase in the specific kind of podcast that leans heavily on sound design to shape narrative experiences — which, quite frankly, is what drew me, and I suspect many others, to the iTunes page in the first place.

But what, exactly, do I mean when I say sound design? ((Note: When I refer to “sound design,” I don’t mean it to be synonymous with “high production value.” One thing does not automatically lead to the other, I’m fully aware, no more than using black-and-white in student film theses. (Hours I will never get back.) Nor do I necessarily equate narrative podcasts with high production values either, or orient them in my head such that they outranks conversational podcasts in quality or value. Though I suffer from many illusions, I don’t suffer from that one in particular.)) My own understanding of the concept is fuzzy, despite my irresponsible, sweeping characterization here. I mean, I have some idea of how it feels — a sense of atmosphere, some gestures toward the “cinematic” — but what does actually it entail, and how does it tangibly differ from the skill-set exercised by your standard audio producer? I asked around.

“A sound designer is responsible for creating the sonic world of a piece, the space the story inhabits,” said Mira Burt-Wintonick, a sound artist who most recently worked on CBC’s Love Me podcast. (Her credits also include Wiretap). “A good producer and music supervisor will think about sound elements as well, of course, but a sound designer’s role is to make sure all those elements are all working together to create a unique aural space that envelops the listener and evokes the desired moods…Sound design is the difference between a two-dimensional image and a three-dimensional world.”

But sound design doesn’t have to be allocated to a specific role within the production process — more often than not, it’s another task to be handled by the assigned producer. “I like to think that being a sound designer is partly just a frame of mind,” notes Brendan Baker, who produces and sound designs Love + Radio. (His freelance credits include The Message and Invisibilia.) “Producers already are sound designers in some sense, it’s just a matter of how much time and attention you spend thinking about how your editorial and sonic choices have emotional or cognitive effects on your listeners.”

Both Baker and Burt-Wintonick draw great emphasis to sound design as an integral layer to the entire production process, as opposed to an add-on that happens in post-production. Baker tells me that, from his experience, he feels like way too many folks in the space consider scoring and sound design at the end of the entire production process. “I always encourage people to involve sound designers as early in the process as possible (ideally from the very start) to make the most effective work,” he said. “If I can replace the words with sound, it usually make the overall piece feel more streamlined and poetic.”

Burt-Wintonick presses the point more bluntly. “Sound design is what gives your podcast a reason to exist,” she said. “If you’re not thinking about sound design, why isn’t the story just a print piece?”

Bites:

  • A few weeks ago, I wrote briefly about ESPN’s new multi-platform project, Pin/Kings, which kicks off its run as a podcast. CJR has a neat writeup digging deeper into the multiplatform approach, and contextualizes it within a broader spectrum of previous attempts at journalistic multiplatform approaches — including a collaboration between Mother Jones and the Reveal podcast. (CJR)
  • Gimlet expects to “exceed its 2015 revenue of $2.2 million by ‘multiples’ this year,” according to Digiday’s Max Willens. I’d take their word for it, given that Gimlet has been consistently good at articulating their performance in a way that doesn’t fluff the numbers — a trait that isn’t all that common in the space, quite frankly. (Digiday)
  • Earwolf does the obviously-smart-thing-to-do-in-2016 and launches a Hamilton-related podcast. The Room Where It’s Happening, hosted by comedy writers Travon Free and Mike Drucker, takes listeners on a “song-by-song journey through the biggest musical of all time.” This isn’t the first Hamilton-related podcast in existence, of course; I mean, how can it be? Other entries in the genre include: The Incomparable’s Pod4Ham and The Hamilcast. (iTunes)
  • WNYC Studio’s Freakonomics Radio has a spinoff in the works: Tell Me Something I Don’t Know, a new live event and podcast that comes out of a partnership with The New York Times. (Freakonomics)

Quick note: Next week’s Hot Pod will be published on Thursday, September 1, and not in its usual Tuesday slot. See you then!

A new player aims to bring the podcast advertising analytics some want (and others fear)

Art19 steps into the spotlight. “We’re not really pulling ourselves out of beta,” said Sean Carr, cofounder and CEO of Art19, a California-based tech startup that’s built a podcast hosting, monetization, and distribution platform. “We’re just ready to make some noise and draw attention to ourselves.”

And you should, indeed, pay attention.

Art19 organized a small press push last week, which comes after a long period of relative quiet for the company. The messaging in the push included a good amount of detail illustrating the company’s technological proposition to the podcast industry: the foundational elements for a shift away from the industry’s download count-oriented, RSS feed-driven paradigm towards one that focuses its counts on whether an ad within a download or stream has been initiated, consumed, or skipped by a listener — what Carr refers to as listener telemetry, a term he emphasized when we spoke over the phone last week.

And what are the foundational elements that make up that new paradigm? “To start with, we’re offering embeddable players and, more importantly, APIs that are public so that both our partners and third-party consumer apps can connect to us,” Carr said, laying out a vision of the future where more data would be flowing with greater freedom throughout the podcast ecosystem. He quickly added: “But to be clear: We won’t be using that data. We’re a SaaS [software as a service] company.”

The company’s push towards an API-connected listening orientation is, in my mind, more or less what much of the professionalizing layer of the podcast community — from bigger networks to advertisers to agencies — have been asking for when they lament about the medium’s measurability woes: greater means to look into the consumption behavior around an episode, and therefore greater capacity to cultivate trust and buy-in from more advertisers.

(Conversely, it’s also precisely what much of the podcasts-as-extension-of-the-free-web have been arguing against, fearing the platform control that often happens when a piece of technology emerges that potentially grants more power to bigger entities. I’ve always been of the position that technological developments are inevitable, and that the discourse should always be focused on cultivating better regulation structures and a new system of balance instead of attempting to limit such developments.)

But of course, for Art19’s gambit to work, the company would need to secure the trust and participation of a critical mass of partners — including publishers, agencies, advertisers, and distributors, among others — in order to build a coalition that would work to actually shift the paradigm across the industry. Indeed, while there’s a general hunger to move away from RSS feeds and download counts as the standard, there will always be the problem of inertia (e.g. “we’ve been making buys and allocating budgets this way for a while now”) and, more pressingly, there will always be the problem of politics. One imagines that Art19’s competitors — including but not limited to Libsyn, Panoply’s Megaphone, PRX’s Dovetail, Triton Digital’s Tap, and Acast — would want to be the anchor of any such paradigm shift themselves — or, at the very least, for no one to be the anchor, perhaps through some open-sourced alternative.

And so it’s crucial to examine the key allies that the company has secured. At this time, Art19’s major clients include: (1) Wondery, the L.A.-based podcast network recently started by the former CEO and president of Fox International Channels; (2) DGital Media, the network that produces podcasts for Recode, Yahoo’s The Vertical, Fortune, and the UFC, among others; and perhaps most crucially, (3) Midroll Media, which is currently in the process of moving its entire Earwolf network onto the platform and will now be pitching Art19 as its preferred platform to its wide range of ad sales clients. The company is also expected to make a few more major partnership announcements by the end of this month.

The company also appears to have a strong ally in the agency world in the form of Ogilvy & Mather, the well-known advertising agency that’s part of the WPP network. Teddy Lynn, the agency’s chief creative officer for content and social, has been involved in Art19’s press push. “I’ve been working with Sean for many, many years,” Lynn told me. “What I can say: For close to a decade, podcasting has been a very rudimentary ad unit that one can buy. And I think Art19 is advancing the medium to a place where media buyers would feel comfortable buying.” An AdExchanger article further notes that Art19’s platform design was designed with agency input, and that’s something that shouldn’t be discounted.

Art19 will likely be served well by its twin alliances with Midroll and Ogilvy. As one of the bigger players in the space, Midroll has deeper pockets following its acquisition by Scripps, and its expansionist sensibilities should make them as strong advocate for Art19’s technological vision in the marketplace over the long run. And in Ogilvy, Art19 has an advocate for legitimacy in the agency world, which is key to unlock the next level of advertising dollars for the medium.

But the question is whether that’s enough, and who else Art19 is able to bring into its vision: more publishers, the right podcast distributors and apps, the critical mass of advertisers. And of course, whether the company will be able to ward off coalitions formed by other sectors of the industry, whether it comes from another hosting platform — or from something else entirely.

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A new model for branded content? Slate launched a new podcast last week, Placemakers, that’s a bit of a complicated beast to explain. On the surface, it’s a show about urban revitalization, with host Rebecca Sheir traveling across the country, reporting out city-specific stories on the subject. Sheir is a public radio veteran who has served at NPR, WAMU, and the Alaska Public Radio Network.

But the podcast is also the product of a branded content partnership with JPMorgan Chase, the multinational banking organization. The bank is underwriting the show’s 18 editorial episodes — which, I’m told, are completely produced by the Slate editorial team — and is directly involved with three additional sponsored episodes, which will tell JPMorgan Chase-centered stories about urban revitalization in Detroit, Seattle, and New Orleans. Those three branded episodes are produced by the Panoply Custom team, the unit within Panoply, Slate’s sister podcasting company, that’s in charge of building out branded podcasts for clients. That team’s portfolio includes Purina’s DogSmarts, Umpqua Bank’s Open Account, and most notably, the audio sci-fi drama The Message, which came out of a collaboration with GE.

“The project came about from both the editorial and advertising sides having a shared passion about the revitalization of urban cities,” said Keith Hernandez, president of Slate, when we spoke last week. “[Slate editor-in-chief] Julia Turner was really excited about the subject, and when we brought it to the JPMorgan Chase team we figured out that they were really excited about it too.”

Serendipitous as it may be, the long-running concern of a show like this — one where it’s not all that easy to tell at what point the Slate voice ends and the JPMorgan Chase one begins, given how complicatedly blended the two actors are within the larger project — is how the line between editorial and advertorial is established and communicated. This concern reared its voluminous head again just last week, when the Online Trust Association released a report that found that 71 percent of native ads that appeared on the homepages of the top 100 news websites were providing inadequate disclosures and transparencies that help audience make the distinction between an ad and an editorial content. (The report also instigated a fascinating and feisty Twitter joust between Current’s Adam Ragusea and On The Media’s Bob Garfield.) No such report has been conducted yet for on-demand audio, but it goes without saying that this issue stretches across all mediums that are involved in the possible production of journalistic content.

Which raised to me the question: How exactly will Placemakers illustrate that line for listeners?

“There’s going to be a different host for the three sponsored episodes,” Hernandez replied. “We want this to be clear and evident that these are special episodes. There are also going to be, ahead of time, midroll and post-roll announcements within the episodes that custom episodes are coming.”

Hernandez also suggested that Placemakers is an early prototype of a new branded content model: one that involves the production of branded spinoffs from a pre-existing show. “Brands are moving away from an idea of themselves as a bland corporate entity…they want something deeper than a brand logo. I think this is just the beginning of a longer trend, of brands digging deeper into ideas and building relationships with the publishing community,” Hernandez said. “And I think this Placemakers model is scalable: How do we take existing shows and find an interesting spinoff that could be dedicated to a brand and leverage the sensibility of those shows?”

Of course, the “pre-existing” show in this case had to be made contemporaneously with the branded campaign, but the proposition here stands. (Also worth noting: This notion of a branded spinoff shares some structural similarity to the My Brother, My Brother and Me’s bonus episode sponsored by Totino’s Pizza Rolls, which I wrote about back in May.)

When I asked about the size of the deal — whether it was larger than previous Custom partnerships — Hernandez declined to comment, understandably. But he did answer my question about JPMorgan Chase’s expectation for the campaign, calling it an “evolving conversation” and one that respects the experimental nature of the project. Hernandez also tells me that the campaign will be playing around with on-site and off-site promotion, including a popup website, native ad units on the Slate website, and paid units on social (not unlike what they’ve been running with Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History).

Before signing off, I asked Hernandez how Panoply was doing on the whole. Understandably, again, he express immense optimism around the company’s position, and in particular, the potential of Megaphone, its CMS platform. “Megaphone is going to be a game-changer,” he said.

(Disclaimer: Panoply used to be my day-job employer, way back when.)

For The New York Times, a politics podcast of its own. Called The Run Up, the show is hosted by Times national political reporter Michael Barbaro and will cover this long, painful, brain-melting American presidential election cycle as its trundles through its final three months. (Hence, the name.) According to the PR email I received about the launch, the podcast will release new episodes twice a week and will serve listeners with “engaging conversations around the 2016 election and keep them up to speed about what happened (and what might happen),” with some key interviews thrown in here and there. From that description, it doesn’t seem like The Run Up will differ very much from other elections podcasts as far as structure is concerned, which suggests that the major differentiator between podcasts in this genre lies within the nexus of the analysis, access to key interviews, and discussion quality more broadly.

But thinking this through a little further, I’m wont to wonder: Just how much can you stretch this particular genre in terms of form and structure? And how much of that stretching is actually necessary to create a strong enough hook, or develop a genuinely novel value proposition, for new audiences? I’m tempted to credit BuzzFeed’s No One Knows Anything with legitimately attempting a new hook — that is, trying to keep a distance from the horse-race coverage and working to tell broader stories about the election, while aiming at a demographic that’s less bought into the cycle — but 23 episodes in, the show as a whole does seem to feel very much a part of the larger plethora of elections podcasts that we’ve seen to date, at least to my ears. (Though if I’m pressed to identify a show that’s done a good job providing a genuinely novel value proposition, I’d point to the tight set of election-related episodes in Scott Carrier’s Home of the Brave, which has been stringing together on-the-ground missives that have been furiously visceral, constantly surprising, and often terrifying.)

Anyway, I’m reminded that this is the Times’ first podcast rollout since bringing on WBUR’s Lisa Tobin as the organization’s new executive producer for audio; she started work just last month. I was also able to find out that this podcast is being produced completely in-house, and not as the product of an external partnership like Modern Love, which is a collaboration with WBUR, and the now-defunct Ethicists podcast, which was produced with Panoply. For those keeping tabs at home, the organization is slated to produce a show with Pineapple Street Media, which we’ll probably be treated to sometime in the near future.

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Multi-story. This is interesting: ESPN is currently in the middle of a new multi-platform initiative that “could be a model for future storytelling at the sports network,” according to The Hollywood Reporter. The initiative, called Pin Kings, is a documentary narrative that follows the story of two former high school wrestling teammates that go on to be on different sides of the East Coast drug war.

The first phase of the initiative is a 16-episode podcast miniseries that drops new episodes every weekday. At this writing, we’re on episode 7, and the narrative is being unfolded through a mixture of host narrations — which are done by Brett Forrest, the reporter who has been working on this story for over a year, and producer Jon Fish — and subject interviews. The podcast will lead up to a one-hour primetime television special that’ll broadcast on ESPN2 August 22, which will then be followed by a big print feature on the August 26 issue of ESPN the Magazine.

Personally, I’m curious how all the platforms will complement one another in terms of audience development and management: How will audiences be aggregated across the different platforms, and how will they be monetized? Which leads us to a broader question: What level of monetization would make a podcast-involved multiplatform initiative like this worth it for ESPN, a massive and principally TV-driven operation (though not for long, possibly)? That’s a question, I believe, that’s a perfectly relevant query for all other major media organizations dabbling in podcast-land.

Bites:

    • “SoundCloud owners said to mull $1 billion sale of music service.” Pretty speculative article, but it’s worth monitoring this potential development if you’ve been relying on the service for revenue in any way. (Bloomberg)
  • “How NPR marketed the second season of its hit podcast Invisibilia.” Number to watch: The podcast has currently achieved 10 million downloads, according to the report, which is lower than the first season’s tally of 50 million downloads. Of course, these numbers are difficult to discern without an apples-to-apples time period, which we’re not given, and the report further notes that NPR has changed how it counts downloads in order to minimize the possibility of duplicate counts. (Digiday)
  • Podtrac’s July podcast publisher ranking report shows a lineup that’s virtually unchanged since June, with NPR holding the top spot ahead of WNYC Studios and This American Life. Though, as RAIN News notes, the report observed a 5 percent increase in unique streams and downloads this month compared to last. As always, the usual disclaimers about the ranker apply. (Podtrac, RAIN News)
  • The Guardian’s new interactive for the Rio Olympics: Pokémon Go meets Detour/walking tours. You knew it had to happen. (The Guardian)
  • Saavn, a New York-based digital distributor of primarily Bollywood and Indian regional audio entertainment, announced a new set of original spoken word programming last week. Keep an eye on this company, and keep an eye on India. (Yahoo Finance)
  • “When will YouTube deal with its audiobook and podcast piracy problem?” Yeah, YouTube. When are you gonna do dat. (Observer)

Yay Olympics.