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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Streetwise uncle” sounds about right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related reading: Publishers with TV ambitions are pursuing Netflix.

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Valentine’s Day.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keller continued:

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

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

Yeah, I don’t know, dude.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which reminds me of something…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[storybreak]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[storybreak]

Bites:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One imagines there will be more to come.

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

Some odds and ends:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This week in the revolving door:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Neato.

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

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

But I thought the quote was interesting for three reasons:

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

Bites:

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

Next week, we’re talking crypto-pods.

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

Can sports turn the local podcast business into a green monster?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m noodling on two more thoughts:

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

Three notes on measurement.

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

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

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

[storybreak]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[storybreak]

Bites:

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

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

Post-election, how do you create a politics podcast for a market (still) flooded with politics podcasts?

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 130, published August 1, 2017.

Strong early feedback for NPR’s Wow in the World. Kids’ podcasts: there are rising arguments for more, and we now have some numbers for those looking into building a strategy. NPR tells me that Wow in the World, the organization’s science podcast for kids, broke the 2 million download mark as of last Wednesday, achieving that feat in slightly over two months and across 17 episodes. These figures are based on internal measurements described as relatively conservative; the actual number is likely somewhat higher. For reference, the show, hosted by TED Radio Hour’s Guy Raz and SiriusXM’s Mindy Thomas, officially launched on May 15. (Also: Between the three shows he hosts for NPR alone, how Raz has any time for his own kids is a mystery to me.)

Listener engagement is also said to be robust. The show features a prominent call-in component, and I’m told that the team has been receiving around 150 voicemails a week through the 800 number that was set up for the production.

Wow in the World, of course, should be read as an anomaly among its peers given its institutional heritage. Indeed, as a learning matter, its success only gives us a glimpse at the highest ends of the genre at this point in time, as the podcast is the beneficiary of factors largely inaccessible by most other kids’ podcasts. Among them: NPR’s built-in brand benefits and marketing infrastructure, along with Raz and Thomas’ long-cultivated followings. But Wow in the World can nonetheless be understood as proof-of-concept for the growing enthusiasm around the potential of podcast programming for kids. There’s value here, its early success seems to say, and there’s more for the taking.

In related news… Gen-Z Media’s The Disappearance of Mars Patel is being adapted for television by Anonymous Content and Paramount TV, Deadline reports. Anonymous Content, by the way, is the production company also responsible for the Homecoming adaptation that we discussed last week. Something else to track from the Deadline report: UTA was the talent agency responsible for brokering the deal on behalf of the Mars Patel team.

The kids’ audio drama, which received a Peabody Award a few weeks ago, recently wrapped up its second season. It is also part of Kids Listen, and partners with Panoply for hosting and ad sales. Gen-Z declined to disclose download numbers when contacted.

A branded podcast, a studio, a playbook. There are curious qualities to note about “Rebellion in Detroit,” a branded podcast that premiered last Friday. To begin with, Midroll Media is the company responsible for that campaign, working with the film studio Annapurna Pictures as a move to promote the latest Kathryn Bigelow project Detroit, about the summer of civil unrest (or rebellion, or uprising) that took place in the titular city in 1967. The branded podcast takes the shape of a three-part series hosted by Courtney B. Vance, who you might remember from FX’s “The People vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story.” It also possessed a rather peculiar rollout strategy: the show debuted as an exclusive on the website of the local Detroit area Scripps-owned TV station, WXYZ, last Friday morning. (Scripps, of course, being Midroll’s parent company.) But the exclusivity window only lasted for a few hours — extremely short, in other words — and the podcast went wide later in the afternoon.

Why, exactly? “Annapurna Pictures wanted to make sure local audiences had the chance to hear this content first,” a spokesperson said. Okay, I guess?

Anyway, here is what’s most interesting to me about the campaign: to produce the branded podcast, Midroll turned to Transmitter Media, the studio recently created by former Midroll executive producer Gretta Cohn. It seems that Cohn and co. have been pretty busy since officially rolling out back in May. In addition to Rebellion in Detroit, Transmitter was also responsible for that Walmart podcast that a reader wrote in to ask about earlier this month, and is currently working with ESPN’s 30 for 30 to produce material for the period between seasons. (Called Off Season, the project is described as “a sound-rich conversation show” that serves as a companion to the documentary series. The second season is scheduled to drop in November.) Cohn also tells me that the company has two “longer-term narrative storytelling projects with really exciting partners” in the works. No details were offered at this time, only that the first of those will launch in November.

As a side note… This might be stating the obvious, but I’ll state it anyway because it’s probably helpful for some reading this: We have, it seems, the beginnings of a launch playbook as far as independent podcast studios are concerned. You begin by hammering down a few branded podcast clients (big companies, preferably), which unlocks strong upfront pay-to-production dollars, after which you then use those dollars to lay down the foundation for creative, personal, or longer-term bets.

Pineapple Street Media’s Jenna Weiss-Berman articulated as much during a recent Third Coast panel in Brooklyn. “We think about things in a few different buckets,” she said. “One of them is ‘lots of money branded stuff’ that you can’t really say no to, and the way we think about that is that stuff can fund a lot of the other stuff we want to do. That stuff allows us to take risks… like we do a few shows pro bono and that was always something we always wanted to do.” (If you’re tuning into the segment, the relevant section starts at around the 30-minute mark.)

One should also pay attention to how the “lots of money branded stuff,” as in Pineapple and Transmitter’s cases, isn’t just limited to advertisers looking to cobble together branded podcasts. The strategy includes working with bigger, deep-pocketed editorial companies interested in a meaningful podcast play, that lack the time or internal means to form an audio team. Pineapple Street did, after all, work with The New York Times and First Look Media to produce straight-up editorial projects — Still Processing and Missing Richard Simmons, respectively, with more presumably on the way — while Transmitter has whatever it has going on with ESPN.

Speaking of ESPN…

ESPN’s 30 for 30 podcast beat 2.1 million downloads in its first month, marking a pretty successful launch for the sports audio documentary series. Those numbers are based on Podtrac measurements, which the organization uses to verify its downloads, and a spokesperson tells me that the show is ESPN’s most popular podcast on a per-episode basis. If you’re doing the math, all five episodes of the show’s first season dropped within that first month period.

Gauging the success of podcast launches remains an elusive exercise, of course, given the absence of a third-party measurement that’s able to dole out some form of apples-to-apples paradigm. But we do have the relative performance of other shows to draw from, like Radiotopia’s Ear Hustle, which broke 1.5 million downloads across two episodes in its first month, and Wondery’s Locked Up Abroad, which broke 1 million downloads across three episodes in its first week.

The New York Times’ The Daily launches a limited-run spinoff. The New Washington, which will drop episodes weekly through the fall, is designed to “help listeners make sense of the figures remaking Washington,” according to the press release. While this politics-focused spinoff is being produced by the very same team behind The Daily — even using Michael Barbaro as host — it will use a completely separate RSS feed and visual branding. It is perhaps productive, then, to think about this distribution structure as somewhat akin to an established print magazine rolling out a smaller, special edition that’s sold separately from the main publication within the same magazine stand. (Like what Monocle is doing. Sort of. Kinda?) Of course, there are potential branding, audience education, and listener acquisition complications embedded in this configuration, but if they can figure out the marketing, there’s considerable editorial upside: the move gives the same team considerable room to flex different creative muscles, spread out to a wider surface area, allow for additional emphasis on coverage areas that might warrant more focus, and perhaps most importantly, introduce a marginal evergreen element to an entity principally defined by its ephemeral newsiness.

(A side note: If you’re wondering about The Run-Up — the standalone Times politics podcast that published in the lead-up to the election and Michael Barbaro’s first podcast project — I’m told that The New Washington isn’t meant to be a replacement. “With that said, there are no immediate plans to revive The Run-Up at this time,” a spokesperson said. Just as well, I suppose. What would we be running up to, at this point in time? 2020? Get outta here.)

Anyway, if you’re wondering how The Daily is doing, you’re in luck. A big Vanity Fair feature from the weekend on the great New York Times-Washington Post newspaper wars has a number for us: the podcast phenomenon “averages half a million downloads a day.” A stunning feat. (Ignore the confusion with the Times’ VR product, if it’s still there.)

Here’s the question that I’m thinking about: how do you create a politics podcast for a market already absolutely flooded with politics podcasts? Not only is it a go-to product move for most media organizations dabbling in the medium, it’s also the essential subject focus of one of the fastest-growing new companies in the industry, Crooked Media. Further, where do you go from a design standpoint, when the gamut has been well run from conversational recaps (the Gabfest model along with its many, many children) to subject interviews (Politico’s Off Message) to even historical (WaPo’s Presidential) and legal niches (What Trump Can Teach Us About Con Law)? Combine all of that with a more general concern about news exhaustion — and the unrelenting news pace, which shatters the dreams and dinner plans of producers everywhere — and you have, in the politics podcast, a genre of the highest degree of difficulty.

We’ll see how The New Washington grapples with the genre’s inherent pitfalls, and how the Times will angle the new podcast to lock in a fresh listener base. From the introductory episode, the Big Idea here seems to be keeping a tight focus on the cast of characters in this bonkers soap opera of a political system. Hey man, such a granular, detail-oriented, deep-dive content focus worked for the Game of Thrones Media Industrial Complex. I guess it can work for real world politics too?

Spotify readies another podcast push? Lucas Shaw, the scrappy young entertainment reporter over at Bloomberg, published a mighty interesting piece yesterday with some really juicy details on Spotify’s continued podcast dalliances.

Here’s the money:

Spotify is experimenting in new media to increase the time customers spend with its app — and boost advertising sales. As of now, most consumers looking for music videos or podcasts leave Spotify for Apple and YouTube. In particular, the company wants to assess awareness of its service among avid podcast listeners and could expand the campaign to more providers later this year. Spotify confirmed the details of the effort, but declined to make an executive available for interview.

The company is also funding “a new batch of original podcasts in the coming months, according to people familiar with the matter who asked not to be identified discussing the private plans.” As a reminder, Spotify had worked with Panoply to produce its existing batch of original audio programming. We’ll see if that partnership continues or broadens out.

Shaw also highlighted the streaming music company’s recent advertising collaborations with podcast publishers like Gimlet, Crooked Media, and The Ringer — where Spotify runs both digital (like this) and outdoor ads (the article mentions ads on buses, I’ve also seen them on New York subway station screens while enduring the summer of hell), and in return publishers talk up the platform through host-reads.

Cool. Be sure to give Shaw your click.

Pledge drives, but for podcasts. There are no new ideas… only new combinations, I suppose? Or “rediscoveries,” if you’re feeling frisky. However articulated, that seems to be a trend of note as far as Slate is concerned. About a year after sister company Panoply mashed up War of the Worlds with branded audio content, Slate has found value in repurposing the old public radio gambit of pledge drives through its podcasts to bump up subscriptions for its membership program, Slate Plus.

Digiday has the report, and here’s the key chunk:

Those interruptions might have been unexpected for readers, but they worked. The program drove “hundreds” of new sign-ups from Wednesday to Sunday, per Slate Group Chairman Jacob Weisberg. That total — the publisher declined to provide a hard number — was four times greater than the average number of sign-ups that Slate Plus typically gets every week, according to a Slate spokesperson. The results were encouraging enough that Slate will launch a pledge drive across all of its podcasts later this fall, though it declined to be more specific about the plans.

It’s all rather preliminary, but nonetheless amusing. That said, a couple of risk factors should be highlighted. Execution matters, of course, and one imagines the best practices you would apply to podcasting advertising should be applied to these neo-pledge drives as well — after all, a pledge drive spot is essentially a house ad, and a pledge drive is essentially the ad campaign equivalent of a napalm drop. And like all advertising formats, both within and between mediums, there are probable diminishing returns over time, especially once the novelty wears off. (Indeed, the fact that the interruptions were unexpected might itself be a reason the campaign worked.)

Some attention should also be paid to the dangers of stacking the ad-load way too much. Slate, I’d say, is already playing a fairly risky game with that Trumpcast drive, with Digiday observing that “in some cases, the interruptions took up as much as 15 percent of every Trumpcast episode.” (Trumpcast editions are already fairly short, often falling between 20 to 30 minutes.)

There’s a more interesting theoretical question here for us to chew on, of course: is this model replicable for other publishers? There are many non-Slate operations that stand to benefit from successful adaptations of the pledge drive, in particular publishers that possess supplementary membership support programs (i.e. Gimlet Members), horizontal subscription businesses (i.e. The New York Times), or direct support models (i.e. Patreon-using podcasts like Chapo Trap House and NPR Podcasts). We’ll just have to hope that someone else tries it out in order to answer to that question. Though I suppose quantity is also a factor that might even affect the outcome over time: if every podcast operation utilizes the pledge drive, would we see pledge drive fatigue?

That’s a question for another future, or another universe.

Meanwhile, in Australia. Earlier this summer, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) consolidated its podcasting efforts into a new internal division that’s dedicated to the medium. The division, called ABC Audio Studios, is the product of a merging between ABC Radio’s long-form Radio Features team and the pre-existing internal podcast team. It is being led by Kellie Riordan, who previously served as a strategist for the organization and has overseen the creation of several new ABC podcasts.

This move was driven in large part by a desire for better podcast development workflows. “Structurally, the creation of ABC Audio Studios means we can all work more collaboratively and maximize everyone’s unique skills in audio delivery. Previously, we had too many places for staff to pitch ideas and too many areas for on-demand content creation whereas now we’ll have one commissioning process for podcasts,” Riordan wrote me in an email. “For audiences, this also means a more streamlined offer where duplication is minimized and we can more readily commission content for market gaps or audience segments we’re not catering to.”

Riordan also checked off various programming areas that her new division is interested in: kids’ podcasts, comedy shows (of which several are in development), solutions-based journalism, and something that she describes as content for working families in general (“busy people who want shortcuts and hack to help them navigate their hectic lives”), among others. She further explained that, on top of the baseline content development work, ABC Audio Studios will also be exploring new storytelling styles and formats through collaborations with external teams — Riordan pointed to a show called Outer Sanctum, which the ABC eventually acquired — and other parts of the sprawling multi-platform organization.

You can find additional information through this ABC Backstory post.

And while we’re on the subject of the ABC and podcasts… The organization’s podcast conference, OzPod, is coming back for its second year on September 8, with WBEZ’s Jenn White serving — of Making Oprah fame, among many other things — as the keynote speaker. If you’re on the continent this fall, check it out.

Bites:

  • Looks like Anchor is positioning itself to pick up podcast publishers hosted on Soundcloud. An interesting TechCrunch spot, to say the least, titled “Sick of SoundCloud? Anchor offers podcast transfer with free hosting.” Sneaky, sneaky. There are a couple of things at play here that are really interesting to me. I’ll write some thoughts up for next week’s newsletter.
  • From NPR One’s Tamar Charney and analytics manager Nick DePrey: “How to make local listeners care about your story.” (NPR Training Blog)
  • Well that’s interesting for a bunch of reasons: “AudioBoom’s revenue increased by 460 percent to £1,843,000 [USD $2,439,145] in the six months to the end of May, ahead of the previous trading update for the period announced on 7 June.” (Press Release)
  • Charley Locke’s latest is a great profile of a fascinating upcoming project from Night Vale Presents called “Conversations with People Who Hate Me.” That show dropped this week. (Wired)
  • Shouts to Kelly Moffitt: “A new newsletter helps listeners discover podcasts produced in flyover country.” (Poynter)
  • Dissect, one of the more interesting takes on the music podcast, is back with its second season today. (Website)
  • Another contender in the “searchable audio” arena: “With its new project Hertz, Prisa Radio wants to make audio more discoverable online.” (Journalism.co.uk)
  • “With vocal fry and upspeak, these podcast hosts parody the policing of women’s voices.” (The Washington Post)

[photocredit]U.S. capitol building photo by Geoff Livingston used under a Creative Commons license.[/photocredit]

So how in the world do you break into a career in podcasting, anyway?

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 119, published May 9, 2017.

S-Town breaks 40 million downloads in its first month. That’s global downloads, by the way. I wrote up the milestone for Vulture, and to conjure a sense of the context, I hope you don’t mind me quoting myself:

It’s the biggest rollout a podcast has ever seen in the medium’s history, solidly beating the previous titleholder, Serial season two, which saw an average of 4 million downloads per episode in its first 30 days, according to the measurement firm Podtrac. (For more context, consider that the This American Life podcast, one of the biggest in the industry, is said to see about 2.5 million downloads a week.)

And in case you’re thinking growth rates, recall that the podcast (which dropped all seven of its episodes at once) enjoyed about 16 million downloads in its first week.

Something to consider: The big thought bubble I tried to inflate in the writeup is this idea that S-Town’s success suggests that the very young industry remains fairly malleable. Which is to say, because the ecosystem is still emergent — that is, comparatively unburdened with an extensive sense of its own creative and financial history — it remains relatively easy for bold, audacious experiments to make their way to market to test the limits of their opportunities, and there exists a sense that the medium’s audiences still have appetites that can tolerate, and maybe even expect, greater unconventionality. (An alternate, but not necessarily oppositional, argument is that a good story is a good story is a good story, and that experimentation imbues the product with a differentiating factor, and that the story of more established creative industries is largely a story of its history and accrued creative conservatism getting in their own ways.)

That said, it’s worth asking if S-Town’s success is unique to the conditions set up by its progenitor, This American Life. Over the decades that it’s been in business, that show has built out a considerable existing audience base across multiple channels, an extensive proven track record of quality across multiple shows (let us not forget Serial), and a strong brand presence that’s able to drive tangible impact should they set out to promote something new and unconventional. S-Town, then, can perhaps be described the beneficiary of long-cultivated advantages, which increased its chances at getting in front of enough people who were willing to try it out — and enjoy it.

Which brings us to an interesting question: Just how much does S-Town’s success actually tell us about the opportunities of the space as a whole? Or is it just a story that only tells us about the strength of This American Life and Serial Productions?

I think it’s pretty hard to parse out, but my instinct is to lean much more on the latter at the moment. There is just so much about that project that’s frankly unreplicable. That said, I will also say that when I’m trying to think through that broader question of the space’s opportunities as a whole, I find myself thinking more about Missing Richard Simmons. That show, in many ways, came out of nowhere, and it’s a particularly strange production at almost every level. It was a real-time mystery but also a biography but also a confessional but also a piece of celebrity media. It was an extravagant exercise in building a boat mid-sail. It held no prominent names on the creative team — both Pineapple Street Media and First Look Media, I’d argue, carry virtually no weight with general audiences — and the marketing push was light-to-moderate, at best. It lay on the subject, the celebrity Richard Simmons, to carry the bulk of the weight as the audience draw, and even then, the actual potential return of that celebrity was probably hard to estimate at the time of release.

But the show ended up being an undeniable hit despite all of that. On March 28, a little over a month after the show first debuted, First Look Media told me that the podcast had been downloaded on average more than 1 million times a week since its release, which a considerable feat that the show achieved with none of the advantages of This American Life that I previously mentioned. Missing Richard Simmons was the show, I think, that properly represented the opportunities of the space’s still-low barriers to entry, more so than S-Town.

Anyway, that’s what I’ve been kicking around in my head. I reckon that this is a question we’ll continue to heavily parse over time.

Summer pre-preview. It’s pretty cold here on the East Coast — too cold — but the Gregorian calendar gonna calendar, which means summer is upon us, which means there’s a summer launch slate assembling on the horizon. I’ve got a summer preview piece coming up later this week that’ll be more comprehensive, but here are two things worth tracking in the meantime:

(1) We’re set to see a fair number of high-profile returns:

  • Most notably, NPR’s Invisibilia — a near overnight success when it first debuted in January 2015 — returns with its third season on June 1.
  • Malcolm Gladwell’s back at the mic. Revisionist History, Panoply’s big-swing project from last summer, will drop its sophomore season sometime in June.
  • Homecoming, Gimlet’s experimental audio drama, will resume its cliffhanger in mid-July.

(2) Kids, kids, kids. NPR’s prepping to launch Wow in The World, which it is billing as the first kids podcast in the organization’s 47-year history. It will be hosted by Guy Raz, who already double-duties for NPR as the host of the TED Radio Hour and How I Built This, together with Mindy Thomas. Raz and Thomas already collaborate on the Breakfast Blast Newscast, a SiriusXM show that’s also aimed at kids. According to the formal press release, the podcast will be produced by Tinkercast, a newly formed production company that focuses on family-friendly content, with NPR acting as distributor. Nieman Lab has a good writeup.

Wow in the World will premiere on May 15.

But NPR isn’t the only the public radio organization getting into the pre-pre-teen game. WNYC is apparently piloting its own kids-focused podcast with a live event at The Greene Space on May 20 and 21 — called “Friends for Now,” the podcast will be a trivia game show for kids hosted by comedian Jo Firestone. (Firestone, by the way, has a beloved WFMU radio program, “Dr. Gameshow,” that’s currently being adapted for podcasts under the Earwolf banner, or so I’m told. That’ll be out sometime this season too.)

Macmillan’s experimental imprint. Earlier this month, Tor Books, one of the largest publishers of scifi novels and a subsidiary of Macmillan, announced something called Tor Labs, which is being positioned a new fiction imprint with a twist.

From The Verge:

The new venture will focus on “experimental approaches to genre publishing, beginning with original dramatic podcasts.” Its first podcast, Steal the Stars, will begin streaming this fall…Tor describes Steal the Stars as a “noir science fiction thriller” about two government employees guarding a crashed UFO.

This new initiative is interesting for two primary reasons:

  • That first project, Steal the Stars, is being written by Mac Rogers, who wrote The Message and LifeAfter, the two branded podcast productions that came out of a partnership between Panoply and GE.
  • After the podcast completes its run, the company will repackage the show as an audiobook and will also produce a printed novelization.

That second bit is really, really smart. It drastically expands the surface area of the project across multiple platforms (and therefore multiple markets), which further deepens the project’s ability to financially benefit from a single, core creative enterprise. I’m excited to see whether Tor Labs can pull this off — which is contingent, of course, on whether the podcast is actually any good — and if so, whether MacMillan can leverage its position to replicate that model across various other imprints and genres.

By the way, Tor Books’ parent company, Macmillan Publishing, is also the proprietor of the Quick and Dirty Tips podcast network. You can find my writeup on that operation here.

A hotel partnership? PRX has struck up a “co-marketing” partnership with the Freepoint Hotel, a new establishment that just opened in Cambridge, Mass., that sees the company serving guests podcasts with “interesting, localized content.” Naturally, the content will be distributed via the RadioPublic app. The hotel has also commissioned an episode from Radiotopia’s The Memory Palace that will explore the history of the West Cambridge neighborhood. That episode will come out later this summer. (Memory Palace host Nate DiMeo, by the way, has already been doing similar topically-focused work in his recent gig as the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s artist-in-residence.)

It’s a fairly zany marketing initiative, one that definitely draws some influence from Detour, the guided walking tour app by Groupon founder Andrew Mason. But it’s pleasingly zany, the kind of weird that’s interesting to appraise and experience, and I hope to see more unconventional marketing tactics like this from other companies in the future.

Two dispatches from the live show circuit.

(1) HeadGum’s flagship show, the comedy advice show If I Were You hosted by HeadGum founders Jake Hurwitz and Amir Blumenfeld, is currently on its East Coast tour. I’m told that the podcast stages about 25 live shows a year, which accounts for about 10 to 20 percent of the show’s total revenue.

“As a general note for HeadGum’s touring strategy, a number of shows on our network also do live shows, and we don’t take any of the revenue they make from touring,” said Whitney Simon, the company’s business development executive.

(2) Crimetown, the true crime Gimlet Media production hosted by The Jinx’s Marc Smerling and Zac Stuart-Pontier, is rounding out its inaugural season with a live show in Brooklyn this Thursday. The live show will feature some of the subjects documented throughout the season, which trained its focus on the history of organized crime and corruption in Providence, Rhode Island with a particular emphasis on the city’s, uh, “decorated” former mayor, Buddy Cianci.

“There are so many incredible stories we couldn’t include in each episode, and we wanted to give some of the people we interviewed another forum to talk about their experiences,” said Rob Szypko, the show’s digital editor.

When I asked him how Providence has received the show, he notes that it’s been pretty warm. “From January 1 to May 1 of this year, we’ve received the sixth most downloads from Rhode Island listeners out of all 50 states — which is pretty significant considering that Rhode Island is the 44th most populous state in the country,” he said, adding that local residents have also been considerably engaged with the podcast, sending in anonymous tips for the show’s weekly newsletter.

“We’re optimistic that we can take a version of this live show to Providence too,” Szypko adds.

Career spotlight. Over the past year or so, two things have become increasingly apparent to me: First, it feels like there are more young people than ever before trying to break into and build a career in radio and podcasting — which is great, and which is what we need. And second, there remains a dearth of accessible information about what it means to have a career and what, exactly, one looks like. That’s a not-so-great thing, IMHO, and I find myself fixated on this problem because it’s reminiscent of something I face in my own professional life (such as it is): I don’t have that many accessible models of living that could help me shape my own course, and that’s been a problem when it comes to appraising what’s possible. I think that general state is true for this space, and when it comes to the new generation of people trying to bring their potential into the community, that’s a problem for both those people and the community.

So I’m introducing a new recurring feature that’ll try to help in its own way, where I run some basic questions by podcast and radio folk of various stripes about their careers and how they learned to do what they do. I’ll be working to convey as wide a range of experiences and people as possible, and if I’m doing it right, we’ll all get a good sense on just how weird and scrappy and unstructured things can get.

First up: Clare Toeniskoetter, from APM’s Marketplace.

[storybreak]

[conl]Hot Pod: What do you do?[/conl]

[conr]Clare Toeniskoetter: I’m a podcast producer at Marketplace’s New York bureau. I produced two seasons of Codebreaker (check it out, we just won a Webby!), two seasons of Actuality, and now I’m piloting new shows with our growing on-demand team. I also produce Marketplace Tech a few times a month — that’s our daily tech show.

My workload changes, depending on the day: researching and pitching stories, engineering interviews, cutting tape, reporting, booking guests, writing scripts, scoring and sound designing, and recently co-hosting Facebook Live videos. My position was brand new when I started at Marketplace two years ago, so I was able to shape it so it includes a bit of everything.[/conr]

[conl]Hot Pod: Where did you start, and how did you get to this point?[/conl]

[conr]Toeniskoetter: I didn’t grow up listening to any public radio — the Toeniskoetters were more of a ‘today’s hits and yesterday’s favorites’ radio family — but I was always interested in music, so I started hosting a freeform music show with WCBN at the University of Michigan. College radio was a gateway radio drug for me, and I soon started listening to public radio and podcasts. (I actually called my favorite podcasts “hot pods” early on, I have gchats as proof). It wasn’t until I drove through the night from Michigan to New York to volunteer at WFMU’s Radiovision conference that I realized I could have a career in public radio (which I almost didn’t go to — looking back at old emails, I didn’t want to miss a football game that weekend).

Back in Ann Arbor, I started interning for our NPR affiliate, Michigan Radio. I worked on a daily news magazine program, finding stories and booking guests, and eventually pitching and producing a new recurring segment. In 2014, I moved to New York for a part-time Radiolab internship and quickly started another part-time internship at Slate working on The Gist, all while working a bunch of Craigslist odd jobs to pay my rent. From there, I did temp work at WNYC and Panoply, and eventually found myself at Marketplace after replying to a two-line job posting email for a “six-month gig” as “a NY-based producer for two podcasts.” Six-plus-nineteen months later, I’m still at Marketplace producing podcasts.[/conr]

[conl]Hot Pod: How did you learn to do the job?[/conl]

[conr]Toeniskoetter: On the first day of my Michigan Radio internship, my manager lent me a copy of Sound Reporting: The NPR Guide to Audio Journalism and Production. I read it cover to cover, and ordered Reality Radio: Telling True Stories in Sound and Radio: An Illustrated Guide. With my radio encyclopedia in place, I also listened to archived Third Coast conference sessions, read guides from Transom, and talked to other radio reporters and producers at our Detroit-based radio club. Despite all this, the early pieces I made lacked structure, pacing, and purpose, but I kept at it. Case in point, another gem copy-and-pasted from my old emails:

Me, to other Michigan Radio interns: Let’s make a podcast! I’ll borrow some equipment. Come over on Sunday to record.

Co-intern: Hey guys! What’s going on with a podcast? This sounds hilarious!

Me: I don’t think we really have a plan for it, we’re just going to see what we can create with microphones in front of us!

No, no one ever heard that podcast. That said, most of my learning was through doing. One of my internship managers told me to fake it till I make it, which, if you didn’t get from the “see what we can create” podcast, I definitely did. Eventually, the failure becomes adequacy, and the adequacy becomes improvement, and the improvement becomes success. And today I’m still pushing myself outside of my comfort zone and taking on new roles and responsibilities at Marketplace.[/conr]

[storybreak]

You can find Clare on Twitter at @claretoenis.

Bites:

  • WNYC has announced the schedule for the third edition of Werk It, its annual festival for women in podcasting. The lineup looks pretty damn stellar, IMHO. (WNYC)
  • Anybody else notice that First Look Media has switched out the branding of its podcasts? Missing Richard Simmons, Politically Re-Active, and Maeve in America are now all listed as podcasts from Topic, its “entertainment studio” whose actual machinations remains a mystery to me.
  • 60dB, the short-form audio listening app, revamps its design and rolls a new beta app for Android. Here’s the customary Medium post, and you can read my previous analysis on the company here.
  • The Hive, Vanity Fair’s buzzy technology vertical, is launching its own podcast with Nick Bilton serving as host. DGital Media plays support.
  • Science Friday, the long-running weekly science radio show hosted by Ira Flatow, is launching a podcast spinoff: Undiscovered. (Apple Podcasts)
  • This is cool: “Celestial Blood” is a bilingual radionovela produced by Gisele Regatao in partnership with Santa Monica public radio station KCRW, and it launched earlier this month. (Apple Podcasts)

[photocredit]Photo of Careers board game by huppypie used under a Creative Commons license.[/photocredit]

The future of podcasting is strong, but the present needs to catch up

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 111, published March 14, 2017.

Infinite Dial 2017. The latest Edison Research report capturing the size of podcast listening audience is in, and growth continues to look pretty solid. However, just how we should feel about that growth appears to be a debated question among some pockets of the community — there were, to be sure, many observers who were expecting a greater acceleration in listeners following a year of solid media exposure to the medium, and they didn’t quite see that this year.

Before jumping into the numbers, some background: the Infinite Dial report comes from Edison Research in partnership with Triton Digital, and it examines consumer adoption of digital media with particular emphasis on audio. It’s also the most reputable independent study that has researched the state of podcast listenership since the medium’s inception, with data going back to 2006. The study is survey-driven, offering a complementary data source for an industry largely defined by a black box platform and which possibly looks to further fracture across several other black boxes as it moves into the future. Which is all to say, the study presents us with the closest, most trustworthy read of the actual market we’re dealing with.

You can check out the whole report on the Edison Research website, but here are my top-line takeaways:

(1) Steady, unsexy growth?

The share of Americans who report being monthly podcast listeners (the key metric in my mind) is now 24 percent (67 million), up from 21 percent (57 million) the year before. That’s a 14 percent (or 3 percentage point) growth year-over-year. The story is more dramatic if you take a longer view: Over the past two years, monthly podcast listening has grown by 40 percent.

However, the monthly podcast listening growth between 2017 and 2016 (3 percentage points) is a little less compared to the period immediately preceding it (4 percentage points off a smaller base), which has become a source of consternation among some in the podcast community. More than a few people have written me noting the disparity between the hype that we’ve been experiencing — about how 2016 was supposed to be “the year of podcasts” — and the steady, seemingly unsexy growth we’re seeing here.

I think the concern is fair, but I also think it comes from staring a little too closely. Two quick reality checks:

— We’re talking 10 million new Americans actively listening to a medium that (a) is still propped up by a barely evolved technological infrastructure, (b) has only seen a few instances of significant capital investment, and (c) still sees its industry power very much underorganized. That last thing was reflected, somewhat, in something that Tom Webster, Edison Research’s VP of strategy and marketing, said during the Infinite Dial webinar last week: “As I’ve maintained for a number of years now, there’s not really been a concerted industry to define and sell podcasting and talk about what it really means to the general public.”

— We’re also talking about solid, continuous growth following years of marginal gains (and a dip in 2013) in terms of active podcast listeners, and what are essentially years of non-movement in terms of podcast awareness. Between 2010 and 2013, podcast awareness hovered between 45 and 46 percent of Americans.

Which isn’t to say that continuous growth is inevitable in Podcastland, of course. Far from it. The industry has a crap ton of work to do, and the bulk of it should revolve around this next topic.

(2) The problem of programming

Eric Nuzum, Audible’s SVP of original content — who often seeks to dissociate his work with the term “podcasting,” but we’ll sidestep that for now — sent me a few thoughts he had about the report over the weekend, and this point stood out to me in particular:

[One thing] I find significant, that no one is discussing — and is podcasting’s massive opportunity — is the disconnect between occasional users and regular users. To me, the fact that 40 percent of U.S. adults have tried podcasting, yet only half of them listen regularly, that’s astounding. Show me any other medium that has that gap. None. When people sample and don’t habituate, it speaks to interest that isn’t being met by the content that’s available today. There either isn’t enough variety of things for people to listen to — or there isn’t enough of what they like to meet their appetite. With 350,000 podcasts, that seems like a strange thing to say, but the simple truth is that potential listeners aren’t sticking with it — and there are only two potential reasons: not enough good stuff — or they simply can’t find it. Solving this could go as far as doubling the audience for podcasting.

In all, I see this year’s report as clear evidence that there is a lot of headroom left to go, but I think it’s time to stop blaming awareness as a core problem.

For reference, here are the data points that Nuzum was responding to:

  • 40 percent of Americans [112 million] report having ever tried listening to a podcast, up from 36 percent the year before.
  • Again, 24 percent of Americans report sticking around to becoming monthly podcast listeners.

Between the two potential reasons that Nuzum laid out to account for this disparity — programming and discovery — it does appear to me that the latter seems to get the bulk of the attention as the principal problem that the space needs to solve in order to realize this potential. The phrase “discovery is broken” certainly functions as the value proposition for a lot of innovation and strategic movement in the space: the initial entrances of Spotify and Google Play Music, the creation of apps like RadioPublic, the proliferation of various independent podcast curation newsletters floating in the ether, etc. (The phrase also serves as a go-to complaint from many publishers, but let’s ignore that for now.)

Frankly — and maybe it’s no act of bravery on my part now to express this when someone else has gone and said it — but I’ve never put much stock in the discovery thesis. It’s always occurred to me that discovery functions in the podcasting space along the same dynamics as the rest of the Internet: There is simply so much stuff out there that the problem isn’t the discovering an experience in and of itself — it’s discovering a worthwhile or meaningful experience within a universe of deeply suboptimal experiences. (Which isn’t unlike the experience of being alive.)

Thus, to speak personally for a second, my discovery of the things that I tend to stick with, both on the Internet and in podcasts, come from the same three broad avenues: (a) the thing earns its place in my attention sphere by bubbling up across my existing circuits, (b) I personally go out and dig for a specific thing through various search pathways, and (c) somebody personally recommended that thing to me. And all of those processes of discovery are driven, anchored, and defined by the nature of those things and whether they are actually things that I would sort into my life based on my consumptive predispositions. (Sorry for the many uses of the word “thing.”) Which is to say: No matter how much you try to fix discovery processes, the act of discovery necessarily breaks down when the things that people want don’t exist.

The problem of programming, then, should necessarily supersede the problem of discovery among any and all media entities that fundamentally struggle with the boundaries of their potential.

We see this idea express itself in another data point, and observation, raised during the Infinite Dial webinar last week. The presentation had highlighted the fact that podcast consumption among the oldest demographic (55-plus) is pretty low — making up only 12 percent of the American monthly podcast listening population, up from 11 percent last year — which is a finding that, as Edison Research’s Tom Webster pointed out during the presentation, is a little strange given the talk radio format’s general popularity among that age demographic. “Now, certainly, one growth area for podcasting is to continue developing content and to market to older Americans,” Webster said.

(That said, I suppose there’s a limitation to the depth of that theory, particularly when we examine an entity like, say, NPR, which is working hard to indoctrinate a generation of younger audiences into its listening universe while simultaneously functioning as a formidable power in podcasting.)

But that’s not to dispute Webster’s argument here, because its core idea is true, crucial, and worth fighting for at every turn. We need to be developing more types of programming for more types of people, shows that are of and for: more women, more people of color, more older people, more different kinds of communities, more nationalities, and so on.

All right, let’s move on.

(3) Depth of listening

This year’s report further underscores the idea that if you like podcasts, you probably really, really like podcasts. The key data points:

  • Podcast consumers listen to an average of five podcasts per week. And to break that out further: More than half of all podcast consumers listen to three or more podcasts per week, and over a fifth of podcast listeners listen to six or more per week.
  • The average number of podcasts that listeners subscribe to: 6.
  • Perhaps the most notable finding: 85 percent of podcast listeners say they tend to consume the majority or the entirety of the episode.

As Izzi Smith, NPR’s senior director of promotion and audience development, pointed out to me over Twitter, these are self-reported numbers and should therefore be taken with a grain of salt.

The move here, then, would be to compare that against the internal analytics findings of various podcast publishers who have the means of measuring the behaviors of their own listeners — and of course, mentally accounting for potential differences between the specific quirks of those publishers’ audiences and the more general aggregate behaviors of all audiences combined.

Of course, doing that comprehensively would take more time than I have right now, so I’ll leave you with two cases:

  • HowStuffWorks chief content officer Jason Hoch tells me that the Infinite Dial numbers were consistent with data pulled from a streaming partner. “We see ~50% do ‘half’ and 35-40% do all of an episode,” he tweeted.
  • Nick DePrey, NPR’s analytics manager, tells me that “NPR One data shows 65 percent of listeners hear more than half the audio and 46 percent hear the whole thing, but that’s only half the story. These broad averages conceal the most important factor: Length is everything in determining completion rates.” He went on to discuss the specific findings, which you can find on the Twitter thread.

Miscellaneous takeaways

  • Active podcast listeners still skew male.
  • The home is still the most common place for podcast listening.
  • It’s still early days for in-car podcast listening.

That’s all I got for now. The future looks strong, though it looks as if the present still needs to catch up. Again, you can find the whole Infinite Dial 2017 report on the Edison Research website — there is a ton of good stuff I didn’t touch here, so go check it out. The research team is scheduled to publish a report that digs even deeper into the podcast data sometime in May, so watch out for that.

Quick note on Missing Richard Simmons. The smash-hit, massively popular, [insert maximal adjective here] podcast is wrapping up its six-episode run next Wednesday, and soon, we’ll find out whether we’ll actually hear from the titular subject himself. But I was also curious about the show’s windowing arrangement with Stitcher, in which episodes were released a week early on Stitcher Premium, and whether it would still apply to the final episode, which I imagine would significantly deflate the momentum leading up to the big reveal.

Midroll, which owns Stitcher, tells me that the final episode will indeed be released early on Stitcher Premium, but instead of publishing tomorrow, the episode will come out next Monday — two days before everybody else gets it.

Cool. I’ll be listening. Also, it occurs to me that, among other accolades, Missing Richard Simmons stands out as being a podcast that has achieved considerable success — it has sat at the top of the iTunes charts for several weeks now (caveats on the significance of iTunes podcast chart placement applies) — without any promotional placement from iTunes itself. I can’t quite recall another example of a podcast for which this has been the case, and that’s super interesting, to say the least.

Two platforms, two pieces of news. So the first was the development I was referring to in the preamble of last week’s newsletter, and the second threw me for a loop.

(1) Google Play Music rolls out its own original podcast. City Soundtracks features biographical interviews with musicians about the elements — in particular, places — that shaped their aesthetic lives. The podcast is hosted, appropriately, by Song Exploder’s Hrishikesh Hirway, and Google Play Music contracted Pineapple Street Media to handle production. The show’s distribution isn’t exclusively limited to the Google Play Music app; it can also be found just about everywhere else, including iTunes. It is not, however, available on Spotify. The first three episodes were released last Wednesday, when the show was first officially announced.

(2) More windowing: WNYC will release the new season of 2 Dope Queens two weeks earlier on Spotify. This development comes on top of a more general partnership that’ll see more shows from WNYC Studios made available on the platform. Here’s the relevant portion of the press release:

Spotify and WNYC Studios, the premiere podcast and audio producer, today announced a partnership to showcase many of WNYC Studios’ top podcasts on the platform. The partnership includes a special two-week exclusive on Season 3 of WNYC Studios’ hit podcast 2 Dope Queens, premiering on March 21,  before it becomes available on other platforms.  All podcasts will be available to both free and premium users.

I’m still mulling over just what, exactly, these two developments tell us about the growing dynamic between the rise of various platforms and how content will flow through the podcast ecosystem in the near future, but I will admit that this move from Spotify — that is, carving out a windowing arrangement with a non-music oriented show — seemed a little confusing to me. I had originally interpreted the programming strategy for both Spotify and Google Play Music as instances in which these platforms were integrating shows that would vibe with their music-oriented user base. To me, that’s the focused, albeit more narrow, play. But this arrangement with 2 Dope Questions opens up that strategy a little bit, and gives the entire enterprise a little less definition than before. Will it pay off? Obviously, that’s the question everyone and their second cousin is asking.

Quick note from SXSW: ESPN’s 30 for 30 podcast. The Jody Avirgan-led team produced a panel on Sunday about the upcoming audio iteration of ESPN’s (and Bill Simmons’) beloved sports documentary brand. A couple of details for those, like myself, keeping a close eye on the project: The podcast will be released in short batches, with the first five-episode season dropping sometime in June and another five-episode season dropping later in the fall. Episodes are within the classic 30-40 minute range, and the podcast will follow the film’s anthology format in that no two episodes cover the same story. The panel revealed two out of the five subjects from the podcast’s upcoming first season: One will tackle the first all-women relay trek to the North Pole that took place in 1997, and another will examine the curious case of Dan & Dave, the 1992 Reebok advertising campaign rolled out in the runup to the 1992 Olympics that focused on two decathletes. Rose Eveleth is leading the former story, while Andrew Mambo leads the latter.

And here’s a second mention of Hrishikesh Hirway in today’s newsletter: He’s handling the theme music. (Hirway has worked on the theme music for FiveThirtyEight’s podcast.) Ryan Ross Smith is scoring the individual episodes.

I’m super excited about this — the panel played two short clips from those episodes, and they sound really, really good. That’s a hopeful sign, as the team has a lot to push through. Beyond the basic requirements of producing a good show, the team has to balance between meeting the brand expectations while ensuring the episodes have standalone value for non-30 for 30 fans, weaving together stories that are appealing to both the sports literate and non-sports literate, and finding ways to push certain conventions of the audio documentary format without entirely losing the core audio documentary consumer.

Still tracking that West Virginia Public Broadcasting story…and it looks like the station is anticipating having to lay off 15 full-time staffers — more than 20 percent of its workforce — in preparation for cuts to its state funding as proposed by West Virginia Governor Jim Justice, as Current reports. WVPB GM Scott Finn told the West Virginia House Finance Committee last Wednesday that, should the state funding cuts go through, it places West Virginia at risk of being the first state in the country to lose public broadcasting, according to West Virginia Metro News.

Gov. Justice’s proposition to eliminate state support for West Virginia Public Broadcasting was ostensibly to close a $500 million budget gap. Cutting WVPB from the budget would save a mere $4.5 million, and some have hinted at an alternative motivation for Justice to strike the state-supported journalism operation from the budget.

For those hoping to keep a close eye on the situation, WVPB has assembled a Facebook Page with updates and call-to-actions. (Hat tip to Joni Deutsch.)

One more thing. Just wanted to quickly shout-out The New York Times’ latest audio project, The EP. The podcast was produced in partnership with The New York Times Magazine for the latter’s second annual Music issue, which came out earlier this week, and the show is fascinating on a bunch of different levels: Its structure mimics the feel of a digital music album, each episode is bite-sized, each features a very tiny snippet of conversation with a critic about a specific song that nonetheless feels like the perfect capsule from a much longer discussion, and if you look down the feed’s release date column, you can see evidence of some sneaky CMS hijinks to create the track sequence.

And most importantly: The podcast is really, really good. It’s one of those projects that’s so good, so smart, and so…new that it makes me very, very angry. It’s gorgeous. Go listen to it. The EP was produced by the internal NYT audio team, which is led by Samantha Henig and Lisa Tobin.

Bites:

  • Essence magazine has its own podcast now, called Yes, Girl! The show debuted on March 9, and it appears that DGital Media is responsible for production. (Essence)
  • Sleep with Me, the sleeper-hit — heh, sorry — avant garde podcast by San Francisco-based Drew Ackerman designed to, well, amusingly help listeners drift off to bed, has been snagged up by the Feral Audio podcast network. (Press release)
  • BuzzFeed’s See Something Say Something, a show about being Muslim in America, is back with its second season. (BuzzFeed)
  • This is interesting: Detroit-based producer Zak Rosen has an independent project up that tells the story of a couple deciding whether or not to have children. Teaser’s up, the first ep drops Friday. (iTunes)
  • “Why the podcast boom has yet to hit Mexico — and why it needs to.” (Current)
  • I hear podcasting was a category on Jeopardy last night. Answers (questions?) included Keepin’ It 1600, Alec Baldwin, and Reply All.

[photocredit]Obligatory photo of a microphone by TVZ Design used under a Creative Commons license.[/photocredit]

“The radical act of women making media and owning it, too”: The (podcasting) future is female

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 110, published March 7, 2017.

A quick note of the sausage-making variety: I had originally planned this issue around the theme of platforms, which, in podcasting and just about everywhere else, seems to be the defining problem of our media-consuming era. However, the piece of news on which I had hoped to hang the week got pushed back for some reason or other, and I thought it would be bad form to break the embargo or perform some interpretative dance around the hole it leaves behind while continuing on with the theme. (The news is scheduled to roll out soon enough, though. You’ll know it when you see it.) Anyway, it’s all good, as this week turned out to have a thread of its own. You’ll figure that out soon enough.

That’s probably way more preamble than necessary. Let’s jump into the week.

Midroll executive producer leaves to start her own venture. Gretta Cohn, the company’s New York-based executive producer of show development, is breaking off to form her own production company. Identifying details of the new venture — including a name, focus, and initial client list — will be rolled out in the coming weeks, but Cohn told me last week that the business will be a production company that’s closer to something like Pineapple Street Media than a straightforward podcast network. “We’ll produce shows for a variety of partners and help brands and individuals create highly produced podcasts, from start to finish,” she said, noting that the company will specialize in highly edited and sound design–rich work. The company will also be producing original work.

The venture, whatever it will be called, is expected to officially launch in April.

Cohn enters the market with substantial experience as an operator in the new podcast industry. Her history with Midroll dates back to December 2014, when she was hired as a founding member of the company’s then-nascent New York office. There, Cohn was responsible for building out much of the company’s production staff, and she led development on several high-profile Earwolf projects, including the fantastic Beautiful Stories from Anonymous People with Chris Gethard, the Katie Couric podcast, and the relaunch of The Longest Shortest Time. She also led the initial programming slate within Howl, the premium subscription service that Midroll launched prior to acquiring Stitcher, which included Fruit, the fiction podcast by Issa Rae. Prior to her time at Midroll, Cohn worked at WNYC, where she served as the associate producer on Freakonomics Radio and Soundcheck. In a previous life, Cohn was a cellist in a rock band.

When asked for comment, Midroll CEO Erik Diehn told me: “She’s dead to me. JUST KIDDING. Gretta is a talented producer whose star is rising, and we were lucky to have her dedicated to Midroll full-time for more than two years…She’s done so much for us for so long that I cannot begrudge her the urge to strike out on her own and become the architect of her own destiny for a while.”

Diehn adds, “And while we’ll miss her, we view her new venture as a positive development overall for the industry. Our business depends on the flourishing of a Hollywood-style ecosystem of producers and production companies working with us on individual projects — much as Pineapple Street did with Missing Richard Simmons. The more talent independent production companies with whom we and others can work, the better.”

March 29 will be Cohn’s last day at Midroll. You can find her website here.

Third Coast Festival announces 2017 dates. Mark your calendars, ye bleeding heart audio documentarians: this year, the Chicago-based international audio festival will take place from November 9 to 11 — slightly earlier in the weekend, from Thursday to Saturday, which the festival’s organizers tell me will make it easier for attendees to travel back to their respective lives on Sunday. This latest conference will mark the second edition of Third Coast since the festival shifted to an annual production. It previously took place every two years.

Maya Goldberg-Safir, the festival’s artistic associate, passed me a few details:

  • In addition to the usual run of events, this year’s festival will also feature a three-hour bootcamp for audio production beginners looking for more exposure to the work. That’ll take place on the afternoon of November 9.
  • The festival will take place in the same hotel as last year, and the festival will be capped at 700 people./
  • Ticket prices will go up slightly this year. Keep an eye out for that.
  • Potential session leaders — and sponsors — are encouraged to reach out.

Tickets go on sale August 22.

Anchor 2.0. The Betaworks-incubated social audio app, which caught a fair bit of buzz when it first launched just over year ago, is making another push to establish its value. On Tuesday morning, the app rolled out its second iteration. Among its new features:

  • What appears to be an audio equivalent of the “Stories” feature that we see in visual social platforms like Snapchat and Instagram. (Has anybody coined a term for the phenomenon where, over the long run, everything on the Internet will ultimately be the same exact thing?)
  • New audio creation tools, including the ability to pull in music tracks from Apple Music or Spotify, external audio clips, and pre-made musical fillers. (One imagines that music licensing will be a big part of this conversation.)
  • Distribution over voice-first platforms like Amazon Alexa and Google Home, in addition to the usual places like iOS, Android, and that old thing called the web.

According to the press release, the app will also feature content from established publishers like Gizmodo Media Group, IGN, and WNYC, among others. The nature of the content partnerships between Anchor and those publishers remain unclear to me. Further details can be found in the company’s blog post.

The announcement comes with the revelation of a new $2.8 million funding round. It was led by Accel Partners, and includes The Chernin Group, the Omidyar Network, Mick Batyske, and Eniac Ventures, a previous investor.

I try not to make it a habit to write about social audio apps very much, but I do find this news interesting on two levels:

  • Anchor’s announcement seems to pit the app directly against Bumpers, the creation-emphasizing social audio app founded by Twitter alums Ian Ownbey and Jacob Thornton. (Evan Williams, one of Twitter’s many co-founders, is an investor in Bumpers.) While it remains to be seen whether an “Instagram” or “Snapchat” or “Twitter” (or “Yo”) for audio is a digital product category that will actually end up being a thing, it’s nonetheless fascinating to watch this sector of the digital audio space work itself out.
  • In my head, I’ve come to place Anchor and Bumpers in one bucket, given both these apps’ focus on serving as the mediating space between users and other users, while establishing another bucket specifically for short-form audio app 60dB and the AI-oriented Otto Radio which seems, to me at least, primarily occupied with developing a firm grasp on the interface between professional publishers and listeners.

This week I’m tracking… Edison Research’s Infinite Dial 2017 Study that’s due to come out this Thursday.

Going solo. “I dunno if this crossed your radar,” a reader wrote to me last month. “But I would love a Hot Pod interview with the ladies behind Stuff Mom Never Told You.” The reader mentioned that Cristen Conger and Caroline Ervin, the current hosts behind that feminist-oriented HowStuffWorks podcast, had published their last episode at the end of last year, and were moving on to start their own independent media company, Unladylike Media. (Not to be mistaken with the Australian podcast of the same name.) I had heard about the show’s current iteration ending, but I missed the fact that a new venture was coming out of this. So, I reached out to Conger with a few questions, and she obliged with a set of lengthy, fascinating responses.

“We’re much more ‘Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves’ than…a revenge song title that will probably come to me five minutes after I send this,” Conger insisted, not wanting the story’s angle to mischaracterize the impetus behind Unladylike Media’s formation, or its relationship with HowStuffWorks.

[storybreak]
[conl]Nicholas Quah: Could you walk me through the history of Stuff Mom Never Told You?[/conl]

[conr]Cristen Conger: Caroline and I were never “supposed” to be podcast hosts. We were both printed word nerds, met at our college newspaper and hadn’t ever regularly kept in touch. HowStuffWorks (HSW) wasn’t even a podcast network when they hired me as a staff writer in 2008. Unbeknownst to me, Caroline was working as an editor at a mid-size newspaper.

Not long after I started, HSW began dabbling in podcasts as a way to stretch the deeply researched articles we writers and editors were producing each week. Stuff You Should Know [the network’s flagship show] was such an instant juggernaut, the department essentially held an open call for new hosts and show ideas. That’s how Stuff Mom Never Told You (SMNTY) happened and eventually launched in February 2009 (first episode: Do men and women have different brains?). Also, credit where credit is due to then-HSW editor-in-chief Conal Byrne for getting that idea off the ground — and while knee-deep in a recession.

By happenstance, Caroline had left the newspaper job, moved back to Atlanta, and gotten in touch with me. We met up at a sports pub of all places, and it’s almost like we never stopped talking. We just had conversational chemistry out of the gate. Unlike my typical “friend dating” anxiety, I wasn’t panicking on the inside that I’d run out of interesting things to say and bring our hangout to an awkwardly silent halt.

So when the original co-host [Molly Edmonds] left [in 2011], Caroline hopped on board. Then in December, after 833 episodes, we hung up our Stuff Mom Never Told You headphones.[/conr]

[conl]Quah: What were the factors that led to your new venture?[/conl]

[conr]Conger: The more success we enjoyed with the show, the more Caroline sensed it was only a matter of time. I was a little more precious about, but then I went to Werk It: A Women’s Podcast Festival at WNYC in June and never looked back. If any of those rad women are reading this, thank you!

SMNTY was a tremendous opportunity, and we miss the fan community we built dearly. But we also want to do better by them, and we couldn’t do that and remain at HSW at the same time, both on principle and practicality.

Speaking exclusively to our situation since we aren’t attempting to speak for anyone currently with the company, there was no incentive to growing the show. We tumbled through two acquisitions [HSW’s current owner is the Seattle-based Bluecora, which bought the company from Discovery Communications in 2014] on scrappiness and inertia. But without IP ownership or revenue shares, the pot at the end of the rainbow was starting to look like fool’s gold. Meanwhile, we were producing two podcasts and as many as four videos each week; our content-ing game was fire, no doubt.

Plus, producing a massive library of more than 800 deeply researched episodes was a crash course in efficiency at the cost of creative growth. The medium had evolved so much during the show’s run that Caroline and I were also itching to break it all down and build something better and smarter, more dynamic and inclusive.

Not to mention we wanted to commit the radical act of women making media and owning it, too. It’s refreshing when feminism isn’t side-eyed as a liability.[/conr]

[conl]Quah: You said that “there was no incentive to growing” SMNTY. Could you talk more about that?[/conl]

[conr]Conger: Personally, I’ve thought about that a lot — what shifted my mindset to it no longer being OK to just Make The Thing and not worry so much about whether I was getting back what my time and talent are worth. When I pitched SMNTY in 2008, IP rights and revenue shares were a moot point. I earned a salary as the HSW staff writer I was hired to be, and that was that.

But in the meantime, the value of podcasting began growing inversely to the cheapening of editorial content, which was the HSW bread and butter — not to mention my own as a word nerd. Throw in the company changing hands a couple of times, and it makes sense that the industry outpaced its podcast model. What then shifted for me was not wanting to wait around for course correction while still not owning or profiting from growing the show. Plus, I’d been there since soon out of college and had just turned 30. It was time to bet on myself.[/conr]

[conl]Quah: And you mentioned that “it’s refreshing when feminism isn’t side-eyed as a liability.” Was that an issue at HSW?[/conl]

[conr]Conger: A feminist podcast about gender, bodies, and sexuality was understandably outside of the HSW core brand’s science/tech/trivia wheelhouse from the get-go. So it speaks highly that we even got the green light to launch. Nor were we ever censored. But when you’re 1) inherently off-brand (in a marketing sense) and 2) that brand ethos is feminism and 3) upper management is predominantly male, it can sometimes feel like an elephant in the room.[/conr]

[conl]Quah: Tell me more about Unladylike Media. What’s the premise, how does the business work right now, and how does it functionally differ from the arrangement with HowStuffWorks?[/conl]

[conr]Conger: At its core, Unladylike is us making the media we want to see in the world and wish existed when we were growing up. It’s also us taking a bet on ourselves, which is re-energizing to remember during this hustle. Neither of us left HSW until we left, so we’ve hit the ground running from the ground floor.

Next spring, Ten Speed Press is publishing Unladylike the book, so we’re currently splitting our time between manuscripting and developing a podcast pilot with Midroll. Women, gender, and feminism are still our holy trinity, but it’s a completely different concept from structure and sound to topics and narratives. It’s exactly the creative challenge that we’ve been pining for.

That means the business is still in development, which is a good thing because we’re taking the time to build a quality foundation instead of throwing spaghetti against the wall. Looking ahead, we envision Unladylike as a multi-platform destination for sisters doin’ it for themselves.[/conr]

[storybreak]

Unladylike Media, Congers tells me, which aims to “inform and inspire women, girls and nonbinary folks,” is due to roll out its new website today. And in addition to the Midroll pilot and book deal mentioned in the interview, Conger and Ervin have also been publishing a weekly newsletter.

When reached for comment, HWS chief content officer Jason Hoch said: “We love their work and wish them luck on their new efforts. We respect the confidentiality of our private arrangements with our hosts, although we can say that everyone in our company shares in the company’s success.”

Last week, HowStuffWorks announced its latest podcast, FoodStuff, with Blue Apron as the launch sponsor. It is the network’s thirteenth podcast.

Bites:

  • “Uber plans to turn its app into a ‘content marketplace’ during rides.” This provides the bigger picture surrounding a development that I’ve previously highlighted — that of Otto Radio establishing a partnership with Uber last October. (TechCrunch)
  • Missed this last week: Charley Locke’s latest is on the ethical slipperiness of host-read ads — a long-time concern, to be sure. I don’t think I’m as skeptical as Locke appears to be in her analysis, but I am here for this quote from a communications professor: “When hosts do the ads, advertisers are assuming there’s a parasocial relationship between the host and the listener.” (Wired)
  • “Christians Turn To Podcasts To Say Things They Can’t Say In Church.” (NPR)
  • Well this is interesting: “These shiny concept earphones are the latest vessel for Sony’s digital assistant.” (The Verge)

Quick housekeeping note: I’ll be traveling later this week to SXSW, and if you’ll be at there as well, come check out the panel on podcast advertising that I’ll be moderating! Also, come say hi.

Is Spotify’s move into original podcasts a pure platform play or something more open?

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 109, published February 28, 2017.

Hey folks — we got a ton of news to sort through. Let’s clip through, pew pew pew.

About those original Spotify podcasts. The music streaming giant announced its initial ((Initial, that is, if you don’t count Clarify, the tentative first English-language original podcast that the company produced with Mic.com and Headcount.org back in 2013.)) slate of original audio programming last week, somewhat validating the Digiday report from the week before about the company talking with various podcast companies — including Gimlet, HowStuffWorks, and Pineapple Street Media — to partner up for that initiative.

According to the writeups circulating last week, the three projects are: (1) Showstopper, a show looking back at key moments in television music supervision hosted by Fader editor-in-chief Naomi Zeichner that premiered last Thursday; (2) Unpacked, an interview show set in various music festivals around the United States that will drop on March 14; and (3) a yet-unnamed audio documentary about the life and times of the late music industry executive Chris Lighty, a seminal figure in hip-hop history. That last project will be released sometime April. For those wondering, it appears that Spotify is directly involved in the production of Showstopper and Unpacked, the former of which comes out of a partnership with Panoply. The Chris Lighty project, meanwhile, is produced by the Loud Speakers Network and Gimlet, with Spotify providing distribution and miscellaneous support.

It should also be noted that more Spotify Original projects are, apparently, on the way.

This news was extensively covered, but the integral question — namely, if the shows will live exclusively on Spotify, which one imagines would be central to the platform’s strategy with this — went largely unanswered. I reached out to the various parties involved in the arrangement, and here’s what I learned:

  • Showstopper and Unpacked will be distributed exclusively over Spotify for now, though it remains a possibility that they might be distributed over other platforms in the future. As Dossie McCraw, the company’s head of podcasts, told me over the phone yesterday, the plan is to concentrate effort on raising awareness of original podcast programming on the platform at this point in time. When contacted about Showstopper’s distribution, a Panoply spokesperson seems to corroborate this point. “At this point, we can’t speculate whether it’ll be on iTunes in the future,” she said.
  • The Chris Lighty project enjoys a different arrangement. Gimlet tells me that the podcast will not exclusively live on the Spotify platform, and that Spotify has what essentially amounts to an eight-week first-dibs window; episodes will appear on other platforms (like iTunes) eight weeks after they originally appear on Spotify. The show will be released on a weekly basis, regardless of the platform through which they are distributed. Gimlet cofounder Matt Lieber explained the decision: “One of our core goals is to increase the number of podcast listeners, and Spotify has a huge qualified audience that’s interested in this story of hip-hop and Chris Lighty.”
  • In our conversation yesterday, McCraw puts Spotify’s upside opportunity for podcast publishers as follows: The platform’s user base, which he describes as being “music fans first,” serves as a potential audience pool that’s ripe for publishers to convert into new podcast listeners. (Echoing Lieber’s argument.) McCraw further argues that Spotify is able to provide publishers with creative, marketing, and even production support — even to those that produce shows not exclusive to the platform. To illustrate this point, he refers to a recent arrangement with the audio drama Bronzeville which involved, among other things, a live event that the company hosted in New York. “Admittedly, we’re still growing the audience for podcast listening for audiences in the U.S.,” he said, before positioning last week’s announcement as the company’s first big push to draw attention.

So what does this all mean? How do we perceive this development, and more importantly, how does it connect with the windowing that’s being done with Stitcher Premium? Is this the real start of the so-called “platform wars” in the podcast ecosystem? What, truly, happened at the Oscars on Sunday night? (Was there a third envelope?) I’ll attend to that next week, because we’re not quite done yet with developments on this front. We have one more piece of the puzzle to account for. Watch this space.

Speaking of Gimlet…

Gimlet announces its spring slate. The returning shows are:

  • Science Vs, which will return for its second season under Gimlet management on March 9 and will stage its first live show on March 23 in Brooklyn;
  • StartUp, which will return for a 10-episode fifth season on April 14 and will see the show go back to a weekly non-serialized format;
  • Surprisingly Awesome, which will return on April 17 and will feature a new host: Flora Lichtman, formerly of Science Friday and Bill Nye Saves The World. This new season is being described as a “relaunch.”

A coalition of podcast publishers are launching a podcast awareness campaign on March 1. The campaign, called #TryPod, is being shepherded by Izzi Smith, NPR’s senior director of promotion and audience development, and the coalition involves over 37 podcast publishers — ranging from WNYC to The Ringer to How Stuff Works.

AdWeek’s writeup has the details: “Hosts of podcasts produced by those participating partners will encourage their listeners to spread the word and get others turned on to podcasts. The campaign is accompanied by a social media component unified under the #TryPod hashtag, which is already making the Twitter rounds ahead of the launch.”

The Sarah Lawrence College International Audio Fiction Award announces this year’s winners. Impeccable timing, I’d say. They are:

The actual awards for each of these winners will be announced at this year’s ceremony, which will take place at WNYC’s Greene Space on March 28. An interesting way to do things, but cool nonetheless. Website for tickets and details.

Vox Media hires its first executive producer of audio: Nishat Kurwa, a former senior digital producer at APM’s Marketplace. A spokesperson tells me that Kurwa will be responsible for audio programming and development across all eight of the company’s editorial brands, which includes The Verge, Recode, Polygon, and Vox original recipe. She will move to New York from L.A. for the job, and will be reporting to Vox Media president Marty Moe.

I’ve written a bunch about Vox Media’s podcast operations before, and the thing that’s always stood out to me is the way in which its audio initiatives are currently spread out across several brands according to considerably different configurations. The production for Vox.com’s podcasts, for example, is being handled by Panoply, with those shows hosted on its Megaphone platform as a result. Meanwhile, Recode’s podcasts are supported by DGital Media with Art19 providing hosting, and that site still appears to be hunting for a dedicated executive producer of audio. The Verge, Polygon, Eater, Curbed, and SB Nation — though not Racked, alas — all have various podcast products of their own, but they all appear to be produced, marketed, and distributed individually according to their own specific brand infrastructures.

Kurwa’s hiring suggests a formalization of those efforts across the board. What that will mean, specifically, remains to be seen, but I wouldn’t be particularly surprised if it involves a consolidation of partnerships, infrastructures, and branding. In fact, I’d even go so far as to say that’s necessary.

Midroll announces the second edition of Now Hear This, its live podcast festival, which will take place on September 8-10. This year sees the company shift the festivities from Los Angeles to New York, which I’m told is largely a function of customer experience.

“[New York City] is an easy city for locals to commute in for the event and for out-of-towners to come for the weekend and easily get around. While our fans and performers loved Anaheim, it’s not always the easiest place to get to from the LA area. The fan experience continues to be our top priority,” Lex Friedman, Midroll’s chief revenue officer, told me. He also added that it was an opportunity to mitigate impressions of the festival as a West Coast event. (And, I imagine, impressions of Midroll as a West Coast company.)

Details on venues and performers will be released over the coming weeks. In the meantime, interested folk can reach out to the team over email, or get email alerts from the festival website, which also features peculiar videos of gently laughing people.

What lies ahead for APM’s on-demand strategy? Last month, I briefly mentioned APM’s hiring of Nathan Tobey as the organization’s newest director of on-demand and national cultural programming, which involves running the organization’s podcast division and two of its more successful cultural programs: The Dinner Party Download and The Splendid Table. Tobey’s recruitment fills a six-month gap left by Steve Nelson, who left APM to become NPR’s director of programming last summer. It was notable development, particularly for a network that wrapped 2016 with a hit podcast under its belt (In The Dark) and a bundle of new launches (The Hilarious World of Depression; Terrible, Thanks for Asking; Make Me Smart).

I traded emails with Tobey recently to ask about his new gig. Here are three things to know from the exchange:

Tobey’s role and immediate priorities:

The title is a mouthful. But it really consists of equal parts creativity facilitator, entrepreneur, and audience-development strategist.

He phrases his two immediate priorities as follows: the first is to invest in the future of the organization’s current podcast roster, and the second is to lay the foundation for APM’s on-demand future, including content development, business planning, and team building.

What defines an APM show?

The basic traits are similar to some of our big public media peers — production craft and editorial standards you can count on, creative ambition to spare, plus a steady focus on addressing unmet needs, from making science fun for kids (Brains On!) to de-stigmatizing depression (The Hilarious World of Depression). But really, the new shows we’ll be making will define what we stand for more than any slogan ever could – so I think the answer to your question will be a lot clearer in a year or two.

Potential collaborators are encouraged to pitch, regardless of where you are:

Hot Pod readers: send me your pitches and ideas, and reach out anytime – with a collaborative possibility, or just to say hi. I’ll be in New York a lot in the coming years, and we’ve got an office in L.A. too, so don’t think you need to be out here in the Twin Cities (though you should totally come visit). We’ll be looking for podcast-focused talent of all kinds in the years to come — from producing to sponsorship to marketing — so be sure to check our job listings.

I dunno, man. Minneapolis and St. Paul are pretty great.

NPR’s Embedded returns with a three-episode mini-season. Dubbed a “special assignment,” all three episodes will all focus on a single topic: police encounters caught on video, investigated from all sides. Two things to note:

  • Embedded will enjoy some formal cross-channel promotion between podcast and broadcast. Shortened versions of the show’s reporting will be aired as segments on All Things Considered, and NPR is also partnering with WBUR’s morning talk program On Point with Tom Ashbrook to produce on-air discussions of the episodes.
  • NPR seems to be building live event pushes for the show: Host Kelly McEvers presented an excerpt from the upcoming mini-season at a Pop-Up Magazine showing in Los Angeles last week, and she’s due to present a full episode at a live show on March 30, which will be held under the NPR Presents banner. Investigative journalism-as-live show, folks. I suppose it’s officially a thing.

I’m super excited about this — I thought the first season of Embedded was wonderful, and I’m in awe at McEvers’ capacity to lead the podcast in addition to her work as the cohost of NPR’s flagship news program, All Things Considered. (Personally, I can barely write a newsletter without passing out from exhaustion.)

Episodes of the mini-season will drop on March 9, 16, and 23.

Related: “NPR, WNYC, and Slate Explain Why They Are Betting on Live Events” (Mediafile)

RadioPublic formally pushes its playlist feature, which serves as one of its fundamental theses on how to improve the ecosystem’s problems with discovery. The company’s playlist gambit is largely editorially driven and built on collaborations with publishers, with those collaborators serving as the primary manufacturers of playlists. A blog post notes that the company has been “working with industry leaders like The New York Times, Salon, The Huffington Post and PRX’s Radiotopia network.” (RadioPublic CEO Jake Shapiro was formerly the CEO of PRX.)

We’ll see if the feature ends up being a meaningful driver of discovery on the platform — provided the platform is able to accrue a critical mass of users, of course — but I do find the discovery-by-playlist idea is intriguing. The moment immediately after an episode ends is a sphere of user experience that’s ripe for reconstruction, and I suspect that a playlist approach, which takes the search and choice burden off the listener to some extent, could serve that really well. Again, it all depends on RadioPublic’s ability to siphon users into that mode of consumption, so I reckon it’s the only real way the playlist approach is able to be properly tested.

Following up last week’s item on Barstool Sports. So it looks like the company’s podcast portfolio is being hosted on PodcastOne’s infrastructure, which isn’t measured by Podtrac. As such, it’s hard to accessibly contextualize the company’s claims of 22 million monthly downloads against how other networks — particularly those measured by Podtrac, like NPR, This American Life, and HowStuffWorks — and therefore how it fares in comparison. Nonetheless, it’s a useful piece of information to have in your back pocket.

Related: After last week’s implosion of Milo Yiannopoulos, the now-former Breitbart editor and ostensibly conservative provocateur, PodcastOne appears to have terminated his podcast — which the network produced in partnership with Breitbart — and scrubbed any trace of it from iTunes and the network’s website.

DGital Media announces a partnership with Bill Bennett, the conservative pundit and Trump advisor, in the form of a weekly interview podcast that promises to take listeners “inside the Trump administration and explain what’s really going in Washington, D.C. without the hysteria or the fake news in the mainstream media.” (Oy.) The first episode, which features Vice President Mike Pence, dropped last Thursday.

Interestingly enough, Bennett now shares a podcast production partner with Recode and, perhaps most notably, Crooked Media, the decidedly progressive political media startup helmed by former Obama staffers Jon Favreau, Tommy Vietor, and Jon Lovett.

Related: Crooked Media continues to expand its podcast portfolio with its third show, With Friends Like These, an interview-driven podcast by political columnist Ana Marie Cox.

Bites:

  • Hmm: “As it defines relationship with stations, NPR gains board approval for price hike.” Consider this a gradual shift in system incentives, one that anticipates potential decreases in federal support and further shifts in power relations between the public radio mothership and the vast, structurally diverse universe of member stations. (Current)
  • And sticking with NPR for a second: Their experiments with social audio off Facebook doesn’t seem to have yielded very much. (Curios)
  • This is interesting: “Progressive legislators turn to podcasts to spread message.” (The Missouri Times) It does seem to speak directly to the stuff I highlighted in my column about the ideological spread of podcasts from last summer, along with my piece for Vulture about the future of political podcasts.

[photocredit]Photo of someone listening to Spotify with a vaguely Spotify-colored mug by Sunil Soundarapandian used under a Creative Commons license.[/photocredit]

Reply All gets a movie deal (with Robert Downey Jr.), and Spotify is on the hunt for original shows

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 107, published February 14, 2017.

“We’re working on new features for podcasts, stay tuned,” Eddy Cue, Apple’s SVP of internet software and services, told Recode’s Peter Kafka on stage at the Code Media conference last night. Kafka had pressed Cue on whether Apple would get more involved in podcasts — specifically, whether better analytics could be provided. (Thank goodness for Kafka.) Cue, as you would imagine, was reticent to provide more details. We’ll just have to see where this goes.

The discussion on podcasts was very short, and you can hear the rest of the interview when it gets posted on the Recode Replay feed sometime later this week.

Missing Richard Simmons. Here’s an audio documentary with a delicious hook: three years ago, Richard Simmons, the fitness guru who was super popular in the eighties (Sweatin’ To The Oldies!), suddenly and inexplicably withdrew from the public eye. The podcast follows Dan Taberski, a documentarian and TV producer who is a friend and former student of Simmons, as he tries to track down and figure out what happened to the man — and in the process, explores Simmons’ place in the culture.

The podcast has a fair bit of firepower behind it. First Look Media is leading the project, with Adam Pincus, the company’s EVP of programming and content, and Leital Molad, who recently left WNYC to head up First Look’s podcast efforts, both holding executive producer credit. The company contracted Pineapple Street Media to produce the show — Max Linsky also serves as executive producer, Henry Molofsky as producer — while partnering with Midroll for sales and distribution.

Part of Midroll’s play here involves positioning Stitcher, which it acquired last summer, as an “exclusive launch partner.” That essentially amounts to a form of windowing: subscribers to Stitcher Premium will receive new episodes a week in advance. Wait, Stitcher Premium — doesn’t Midroll have its own premium subscription service? We’ll get to that in a bit.

Missing Richard Simmons is First Look Media’s latest foray in what is now a substantial push into podcasting. Its portfolio includes the podcast version of the company’s flagship digital property, The Intercept, which rolled out last month; Politically Re-Active; and Maeve in America.

Interestingly, Missing Richard Simmons is First Look’s first audio project that isn’t handled by Panoply, which is involved in the company’s other three shows.

The podcast drops tomorrow.

Related: First Look also announced that Politically Re-Active, its politics show with W. Kamau Bell and Hari Kondabolu, will return for a second season sometime in the early spring. Maeve in America kicked off its second season today.

A few notes on Stitcher Premium. The feature quietly rolled out late last year, but I was late to the party, only spotting the “Premium” button on the Stitcher website sometime in mid-January. Todd Pringle, Stitcher’s GM and VP of product, tells me that what we’re seeing is a soft launch — not a “relaunch” of the service’s previous iteration, Stitcher Plus.

At this time, Stitcher Premium remains separate from Howl, that other premium subscription play under the Midroll banner that the organization had been developing internally prior to its acquisition of Stitcher (awkward). Pringle notes that Howl subscribers can continue to use the platform’s web and mobile apps, and that the merge will come later. “We are planning a simple migration path that, over time, will transition Howl users over to the Stitcher Premium product,” he explained.

So, what’s the deal with Stitcher Premium? The “Netflix for Podcasts” tagline was once again evoked in the response sent to me — ahem, ahem — with ad-free exclusivity being the cornerstone of the strategy here: exclusive archives, exclusive sneak previews, and of course, exclusive original content, dubbed “Stitcher Originals.” (Who isn’t doing original material these days?)

Original projects include:

  • The Seth Morris Radio Project, which launched last week;
  • A show by comedian Jessie Kahnweiler called Schmucks;
  • A new show by the duo behind CBC’s Love Me, Cristal Duhaime and Mira Burt-Wintonick, called Pen Pals; and
  • The second season of The Mysterious Secrets of Uncle Bertie’s Botanarium, whose first season is currently being distributed over the open infrastructure.

Will this premium exclusive approach to the market pay off? My thinking on this remains the same as the first time I wrote about the model back in August 2015:

Midroll’s choice to play the premium subscription game — with content and a sizable amount of back catalogs placed behind the paywall — and the subsequent positioning of the product as the potential “Netflix for podcasts” exhibits a very specific hypothesis of podcasts as consumable media, one that posits podcasts will be valued by audiences enough where they would pay for it and that enough podcasts have back-catalogues that will be deemed “worth it.”

This is difficult enough to internalize in the present tense. Unlike Netflix and television/movies or Tidal and music, podcast audiences have little-to-no experience with paying for shows in the past, and the hurdle of convincing users to go from an entire experiential history of enduring host-read ads, which they can skip fairly easily, to paying for an ad-free experience is tremendous.

To state the obvious: the success of Stitcher Premium would almost purely come down to a question of programming: Will the team be good enough at curating the right kind of paywalled library, and will it be savvy enough to build right incentives for certain creators to put their wares behind that paywall? And barring that, will the company figure out how to further increase the value of the premium service beyond just the content?

A Reply All episode is being adapted into a movie, according to The Hollywood Reporter. The episode in question is “Man of the People,” a shockingly relevant tale of a con-man who built an empire off fake medicine, populism, and radio dominance — and the man who works to take him down. The adaptation will be directed by Richard Linklater, with Robert Downey Jr. in the starring role. Linklater and Downey will also serve as producers under their respective production banners, along with Susan Downey, Annapurna’s Megan Ellison, and Gimlet Media’s own PJ Vogt (who reported and hosted the episode), Tim Howard (who edited the episode), and Chris Giliberti (the company’s head of multi-platform).

This is Gimlet’s first announced film adaptation deal. The company currently has two TV adaptations in the pipeline: StartUp (recently given a pilot order by ABC) and Homecoming (being developed by Mr. Robot’s Sam Esmail). Giliberti also holds producer credit with those two projects. With this third adaptation, I think it’s safe to say that Gimlet has officially built out a formal adaptation pipeline — a move that introduces a whole new revenue dimension and potential to its content backlog. You can read my previous analyses on the topic here, here, and here.

“Spotify has been talking to podcast producers about original shows,” according to a new report at Digiday. Those being approached include: Gimlet, HowStuffWorks, and Pineapple Street Media. The article cites “multiple people familiar with the discussions.” What’s unclear: how developed those discussions are, the substance of those plans, and how central original and non-music content currently are in Spotify’s machinations. (Though, recall that original video programming is apparently still a notable part of the company’s vision.)

Spotify has produced original audio programming before…in Germany. That podcast, featuring the talents of German comedians Jan Böhmermann and Olli Schulz, rolled out last May. (Here’s the press release, for all you German speakers in the crowd.)

Here’s another interesting bit from the Digiday writeup: “To date, podcasts have fit awkwardly into Spotify’s product…The number of users that have bothered to look them, thus far, is quite small. For most podcast producers, Spotify accounts for less than 5 percent of their total shows’ listens.”

Hmm. The article frames the development as a “big new front has opened up in the war for exclusive podcasts.” We’ll see, but at this point, I’m not inclined to read too much into it for all the hesitations I outlined earlier about podcasts and exclusivity. I mean, I see the upside for Spotify to hammer out these deals with bigger podcast shops, but I don’t see any upside for those shops other than pocketing upfront cash — which, as we saw with the now-ceased Facebook Live publisher deals, is good enough reason for some, so long as there are excess resources to commit.

HowStuffWorks partners with AdsWizz to make use of the latter’s dynamic advertising tech to expand its ad inventory and monetize its substantial content library. The partnership will apparently also grant the Atlanta-based infotainment podcast network with increased targeting and reporting capacities, according to the press release.

The move will probably lead to a significant revenue increase for HowStuffWorks, given its relatively evergreen structure. Jason Hoch, HowStuffWorks’ chief content officer, tells me that listening across the network in any given week is evenly distributed between the head and the tail — that is, between the latest episode of a given show and the rest of that show’s catalogue.

To Hoch, this partnership with AdsWizz is more a matter of efficiency than it is about unlocking a whole new driver of the business. “The old method of stitching an ad placement directly into the same MP3 file as the episode makes no more sense than hard-coding a banner ad on your website,” he said. Hoch also notes that this doesn’t really change the dynamics of selling campaigns. “We don’t differentiate between new shows and those in our deep library. In 95% of cases, advertisers aren’t buying a specific episode of a show, they are buying that show and the passionate fan base of that show,” he explained.

Quick note on the tech. HowStuffWorks uses its own internal Amazon Web Services’ hosting infrastructure to house its shows, and that it remains the case after this partnership. “Rather than move our entire infrastructure elsewhere to make this happen, the AdsWizz software platform became technology that sat on top of what we already had,” Hoch said. “That’s pretty unique in the industry and was a good fit for our approach.”

Turner Broadcasting now has its own official podcast arm. The new division, called the Turner Podcast Network, is headed up by Tyler Moody, who serves as GM and VP for the network. Moody was previously the VP of CNN Newsource, the organization’s affiliate video service, and CNN Collection, its video archive library. While in those roles, Moody laid the foundation for CNN’s tentative foray into original podcast content, signing President Obama’s former chief strategist David Axelrod’s podcast The Axe Files in late 2015.

“We want to engage with fans of our shows and networks in the podcast space, and do it in a coordinated way across all of Turner,” Moody tells me. “Initially I’ll be on the lookout for things internally, meeting with producers at our networks for show ideas and to assess our current capabilities to deliver high quality podcasts. Externally I’ll be looking at industry trends in terms of content, ad delivery, sponsorship models, and potential partnerships with other podcast producers.”

Here’s a model that other publishers can emulate: Yesterday, New York Magazine’s entertainment site Vulture rolled out Good One: A Podcast About Jokes, a limited-run podcast where comedians are brought on to deconstruct a joke in their repertoire. In other words: “Song Exploder, but for jokes.” Perhaps not unrelatedly, Song Exploder recently partnered with the site for a special run of episodes focusing on notable film scores from last year. That arrangement was timed for awards season, which culminates two weekends from now with the Academy Awards. Good One is hosted by Vulture senior editor Jesse David Fox. It kicked off yesterday, and will run weekly for ten episodes.

The podcast was described to me as an extension of the site’s experiments with topically-focused, one-off editorial projects — similar to the string of “pop-up” blogs that Vulture has executed in the past. A spokesperson directed me to a 2014 Poynter write-up of that strategy, which explained the internal process as follows:

The editorial team comes up with a series of topics they think would be a good fit for New York [Magazine], and the advertising staff tries to sell those concepts to advertisers. If the sales team finds a sponsor, the editorial side creates the blog and fleshes out plans for coverage.

“Basically, we have certain editorial projects across platforms that are pitched to advertisers for exclusive sponsorship,” that spokesperson told me. “The editorial is completely independent (though thematically aligned), but only gets created once a sponsor commits.” In this instance, that advertiser is HBO, which is peddling its latest comedy offering, Crashing.

The production of Good One is handled by Panoply, similar to NY Mag’s other podcast projects.

And speaking of Panoply, it looks as if the network’s sister company, Slate, which also functions as one of the company’s core clients, announced layoffs yesterday. The Huffington Post with the details.

Documentaries, queued up. The Bay Area public radio station KQED is testing an intriguing model to distribute short-run, multi-part audio features: a single RSS feed that will serve as a home for serialized investigation projects produced by the station. The feed is framed as being its own weekly show called Q’ed Up.

The show kicked off operations last week with the debut of its first investigation, American Suburb, an eleven-part feature on gentrification in the Bay Area as told through the story of a single suburb 45 miles east of the Bay. (As a side note, I love titles with the “American” prefix. See: American Governor, American Pastoral, etc. Much gravitas.) At this writing, the station has at least two other features in the pipeline that will immediately follow American Suburb once it concludes, including an investigation into the growing number of homeless college students in the region and another that examines the story of a wrongly accused paroled man.

Holly Kernan, KQED’s VP of news, tells me that Q’ed Up emerged as a means to solve an anticipated problem. “[American Suburb] started out as a reporting project that ended up being this really rich documentary, and so we thought, okay, we want to turn this into an on-demand audio experience,” Kernan said. “But when you have a one-off podcast like this, it’s a problem when you don’t have anything else coming down the pipe once you put all this marketing effort into and build up an audience.”

She added: “So we thought, if we’re going to put all this effort into this beautiful production, why not give it an umbrella?”

Kernan aims to grow Q’ed Up to a point where it’s able to function as a break-even proposition for the station, but she’s also keen on ensuring that the show’s investigations will yield local impact. She notes that the primary intended audience for American Suburb is listeners who live in Antioch and the East Bay — areas covered in the story — and that the station has partnered with the San Francisco Foundation (which also serves as the show’s sponsor) to hold community events to discuss issues highlighted in the investigation.

“American Suburb” is reported by Sandhya Dirks and Devin Katayama. Julia McEvoy is editor.

Keep an eye on this: West Virginia governor’s budget plan proposes to eliminate state funding for West Virginia Public Broadcasting. Tyler Falk at Current with background, The Charleston Gazette-Mail with detail.

Audible seeks the Jad Abumrad bump. Checked out the Radiolab feed lately? The widely loved WNYC podcast published what was essentially a cross-promo for an Audible Original series, the Bernie Madoff documentary Ponzi Supernova, late last week. And it wasn’t an instance of a simple rebroadcast or a straightforward drop-in-the-RSS feed either: the episode was slightly remixed in the Radiolab style, with Abumrad leading segments intros and outros.

This isn’t the first time that Radiolab has published a remixed cross-promo of other another program. Just last month, the podcast ran a similarly repackaged version of the special On The Media series “Busted: America’s Poverty Myths.” The show also gave the same treatment to its Supreme Court-focused spinoff, More Perfect, twice last year, though that’s completely understandable given the heritage. But it is, to my knowledge, the first time the show has provided exposure support to a show outside the WNYC system. That said, Ponzi Supernova isn’t a show that’s entirely outside the WNYC family — Ellen Horne, an executive producer at Audible who leads the show’s production, is a Radiolab alum.

It’s often been said within the industry that the most effective podcast marketing channel is other people’s podcasts. I guess that will apply to Audible as well.

Ponzi Supernova wrapped up its six-episode run on Audible earlier this month.

Bites:

  • The New York Times is looking for a producer for a “New York Times Arts show” — that is, stuff like books, music, film, TV, theater. It’s unclear how this show, and this producer, will be related to the still-running first-gen Times pods Popcast and the Book Review. A fascinating job posting, but certainly not as interesting as news of the organization’s partnership with Spotify. Those youngs, they love the musics. (The New York Times)
  • Looks like Who? Weekly’s Bobby Finger has a new show: “Dirtcast,” which comes out of his day-job at Jezebel. (Jezebel)
  • “How Patreon became a major source of revenue for podcasters.” Some podcasters, at least. (Simon Owens)
  • On the more strictly technology front: Betaworks, the “startup studio” responsible for (among other things) Tweetdeck, Chartbeat, and the Digg relaunch, has announced an accelerator for teams working on voice-driven interfaces. Venturebeat’s coverage has more background, and here’s the link to the application.

[photocredit]Photo by Roey Ahram used under a Creative Commons license.[/photocredit]

Amazon’s next move is giving its Audible original programming to all Prime members

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.)

Bites:

  • 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)
  • 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)