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This morning, Graham Holdings announced that Pinna, the kids programming-focused paid listening service that was originally launched in 2017 under the Panoply umbrella, is being spun out into a standalone company. The new entity will be led by CEO Maggie McGuire, a veteran of children-focused media divisions. Previously, McGuire held executive positions at Scholastic, Viacom’s Nickelodeon, and Cablevision. The standalone Pinna will be backed by Graham Holdings.
Back when Pinna first rolled out, I considered the product to be “the first really interesting attempt to get people to pay for podcasts.” (Still do, given my arguments here.) But its fate was left uncertain in the wake of Panoply’s divestment from the content business last fall. I inquired about Pinna back when that went down, and was told by a press contact that “no changes with Pinna.” Well now there is, I suppose.
Some details: the platform will continue to take the form of a mobile app, and will be available for iOS and Android for $7.99 a month or $79.99 a year. (The price point is unchanged from the company’s previous incarnation.) Publishers supplying content to the platform include Gen Z Media (of The Unexplained Disappearance of Mars Patel fame), Scholastic (McGuire’s old haunt), Highlights, and American Public Media, among others. The company is also a member of the kidSAFE Seal Program, an independent, safety certification service designed specifically for child-friendly websites and mobile apps.
For what it’s worth, I like where this is going. A product like this is worth a focused shot on its own terms, and under new and experienced leadership, its business — and what it will say about the broader on-demand audio universe — might turn out to be quite interesting indeed.
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Slate Outlook. This is a tad newsier and more with-the-pack than I generally like to be, but whatever — there’s a bunch of juicy, usable stuff in here.
Slate readers woke up this morning to something big from the 22-year-old online magazine: a total redesign, complete with an overhauled backend to improve the site’s user experience and a new logo to mark its third decade of publication. Accompanying the aesthetic revamp are significant adjustments to the site’s editorial architecture — including, among other things, a reorganization of its content verticals and, of course, a long-overdue push to make its substantial audio output more prominent across its web presence.
“We look at the redesign as a recommitment to the written word and audio,” Julia Turner, Slate’s editor-in-chief, tells me. She also notes that those renewed commitments are, in part, a reaction to the “pivot to video” gambit employed elsewhere in the digital media ecosystem, increasingly lampooned these days either as folly or a cynical ploy to extract dollars from the unstable hype surrounding digital video. “We’re planning to expand editorial spending on podcasts and articles,” she said. “There are good economic models behind both.”
We’ll stick to the audio portion here, of course, and our primary interest is to get a sense of just how strong that podcast business model is for Slate. Turner dished out some numbers to set the scene:
- Slate enjoyed 100 million downloads in 2017 across its entire podcast network, not counting shows under the Slate Extra banner.
- Podcast downloads are said to be up 42 percent from 2016.
- December proved to be Slate’s biggest podcasting month, driven in good part by Slow Burn (more on that show in a bit), with 3.5 million downloads across the period.
- Slate’s podcast advertising revenues were up 36 percent in 2017 over 2016, and the company expects continued growth this year, or so it is said.
(“We like to share when they’re happy numbers,” Turner said, when I expressed marvel over the volume of information being provided.)
But perhaps the most telling data point is this: In 2014, podcasting made up 0 percent of Slate’s revenue portfolio. By the end of 2017, that number has shot up to 25 percent. Whether that number continues to grow over the next few years will be something to watch. Unsurprisingly, the company expects growth in all key revenue areas — including display advertising and membership dollars in addition to podcast advertising — which, if true, would stabilize the growth of Slate’s podcast advertising dependency. But I do find it compelling to contemplate a future in which Slate primarily operates as a podcast publisher with a significant written web engine that functions as an effective lead-generation tool. (Thereby ultimately adhering to the construct sketched out by Stratechery’s Ben Thompson in his November 2015 piece, “Grantland and the (Surprising) Future of Publishing.” Indeed, such a result would create an unexpected homology between Slate and Grantland’s successor, The Ringer, if I’m reading the latter correctly.)
Anyway, depending on how you look at it, one could interpret Slate’s podcasting fortunes either as a product of luck or persistence, maybe both. Slate’s adventures in podcasting began over a decade ago, in 2004, and as Andy Bowers, who joined the company around that time as its OG producer after a twenty-year career in public radio, is fond of telling it, the site’s early audio dabblings involved publishing recordings of him reading articles out loud into a microphone. (Some ideas never really go away.) Those experiments would eventually evolve into shows with more substantial discursive formats, which would then go on to cultivate strong communities over an extended period of time. Digging through the archives and thinking back on that era, one could argue that there was no real reason for the company to continue producing those podcasts beyond simple enjoyment and serving those early communities; hence the notion of luck and persistence. But sticking to the experiment paid off, as that commitment ultimately primed them to be particularly ready for this historical juncture in digital audio publishing.
Nowadays, the Slate podcast network is a sprawling 24-show portfolio that’s spread across various Gabfests (a model that it pioneered across multiple shows and that is widely emulated these days by other online publications dabbling in the medium), some personality-driven shows (The Gist, Dear Prudence, etc.), and an emerging bucket of more ambitious projects. Bowers, after a long tenure as Slate’s EP of podcasts, went on to cofound a podcast-specific sister company, Panoply, in early 2015, and his role has now been passed onto another bald public radio veteran: Steve Lickteig.
2017 proved to be an interesting year for Slate Podcasts. Most prominently, it struck a curious partnership with Studio 360 last summer, taking over coproduction and digital distribution responsibilities from WNYC (where the show had been housed since its launch in 2000) as well as physically bringing the team into its offices. The network also steadily rolled out a suite of new shows, including a Spanish-language Gabfest and a few highly-produced narrative projects.
One such narrative project was Slow Burn, the Leon Neyfakh-led narrative podcast that sought to capture a sense of how it felt to live through Watergate, which I largely enjoyed and reviewed for Vulture last week. It turned out to be a hit for the company — not just as a standalone podcast project, but also as a lead-generation vessel for its membership program, Slate Plus.
Even though the core Slow Burn experience is available for free as a weekly podcast, a Slate Plus membership gives Burn-heads access to bonus episodes and other additional material. The carrot was apparently effective. “We’re seeing conversion at an extraordinary rate,” Turner said, noting that the Slow Burn campaign yielded 2.5× to 3× the daily conversion rates of an average day. “We’re seeing a ton of overlap between audio audiences and Slate Plus,” she adds. Plans are now in place to develop the property further, including an upcoming live event at the Watergate itself and a broader vision to untether the podcast from Watergate and use its conceit as a way to build future seasons around other historical events.
Slow Burn’s success should give Slate some extra confidence for the upcoming shows they’re planning to launch this year. Projects in the development pipeline includes:
- A documentary series led by the author Michael Lewis, of The Big Short and Moneyball fame, about umpires.
- A project built around Slate TV critic Willa Paskin, which I’m told will neither be a chat show nor an interview-show.
One imagines there will be more to come.
The notion of an online magazine entering its third decade is a wild thing to consider. (I’m not too much older than the site itself, which was founded in 1996.) Even wilder is the challenge of continuing to exist — and to fight for relevance — as a digital publication in a notoriously rough industry environment whose narratives are generally oriented around the downswings of the hype cycle these days. In its relative geriatricity, Slate now has the opportunity to contribute to a playbook that few digital publications get the chance to write.
Some odds and ends:
- I’m also told that, as part of the changes surrounding the redesign and internal shifts, Slate will be taking over its own podcast sales from its sister company Panoply, which previously held that responsibility. A spokesperson explained the change as follows: “Since Slate podcasts are separating from the rest of Panoply, the direct response advertisers that Panoply was calling exclusively for the total network — including Slate — will, starting Q2, be called on by Slate sellers for only Slate’s network of shows. Panoply will continue to call on them for Panoply shows. Obviously, Slate very much believes in Panoply. We are creating this structure so that Slate and Panoply can each focus and do what it does best.” This separation is, of course, quite curious for Panoply.
- It is not lost on me that the Slate Political Gabfest, one of the network’s oldest and most prominent shows, is hosted by three people who are no longer full-time Slate employees: David Plotz (now the CEO of Atlas Obscura), Emily Bazelon (now a staff writer for The New York Times Magazine and senior research fellow at Yale Law School), and John Dickerson (installed last week as cohost of CBS This Morning). This is both a testament to the legacy that Slate Podcasts has created across its run, and an indication of a potential vulnerability.
- Speaking of Dickerson, Slate’s podcast chief Steve Lickteig confirmed that Dickerson will continue with the Slate Political Gabfest and Whistlestop.
- As part of the editorial restructure, the Double X vertical is being phased out as its previous responsibilities become absorbed by all other verticals (there are now five: News & Politics, Culture, Technology, Business, and Human Interest). But the Double X Podcast will continue to operate, serving as the living connection to the vertical’s legacy.
Panoply loses its kids chief. I’ve confirmed that Emily Shapiro, the director of children’s programming, has left the company. Shapiro was originally hired in January 2017 to lead the emerging division, which is primarily built around the Pinna platform. I wrote about Pinna when it first rolled out last October.
Panoply declined to comment on Shapiro’s departure, citing a strict policy on discussing personnel matters.
Prior to joining Panoply, Shapiro was the cofounder of the New York International Children’s Film Festival — considered by some critics as one of New York’s best film festivals — where she worked for almost two decades. Her departure comes at a particularly hot time for the kids podcast genre, including recently launched pushes from WNYC Studios and Gimlet Media, along with long-running efforts from the Kids Listen community.
WBEZ is working on a follow-up to Making Oprah. But it won’t be about Oprah. Brendan Banaszak, the station’s interim executive producer of content development, confirmed the project over email, and noted that they’re applying the “Making” conceit to another Chicago figure whose identity will be revealed at a later date. (A move not unlike what Slate is hoping to do with Slow Burn.) Jenn White will host once again.
I don’t know about you, but I’m really into the idea of “Making” as a podcast template for local public radio stations across the country in the vein of the Hearken-powered Curious City franchise expansions. I would love a Making-style show for Idaho. (Aaron Paul??)
Science Friday joins the WNYC Studios portfolio. The move was announced last Friday. Here’s what that means:
- WNYC Studios will lead sponsorship sales for the Science Friday podcast along with its spinoff show Undiscovered.
- Starting April 11, WNYC Studios will take over distribution responsibilities for the Science Friday radio broadcast.
- Science Friday remains an independent nonprofit media organization, and will continue production as usual in their current studios and offices.
- WNYC Studios will also assist in the scaling of Science Friday’s audience, along with fielding opportunities for potential future creative collaborations between the two organizations.
This development bears strong resemblance to the August 2015 Snap Judgment move to enter into a coproduction deal with WNYC, the specifics of which you can read in this Current writeup from the time. In this case, however, Science Friday is breaking away from its distribution ties with PRI, with whom they’ve had a relationship since January 2014.
“We love PRI — they’ve been great partners, and our audience is bigger than its ever been” Christian Skotte, codirector and head of digital at Science Friday told me. “For us, as we look forward into the future, WNYC has shown how to launch and market podcasts, and as we think about what our future looks like, we’re thinking beyond just being a radio show and podcast towards being able to create whole new suites of content.”
Science Friday is currently celebrating its 27th year of production.
This week in the revolving door:
- Eleanor Kagan, the director of audio at BuzzFeed, is leaving the company to join Pineapple Street Media. This move comes almost a month after BuzzFeed announced that it was parting ways with Another Round due to “strategic changes” at the company. Worth noting: Pineapple was cofounded by Jenna Weiss-Berman, who originated the podcast team at BuzzFeed.
- Jessica Stahl, who originated The Washington Post’s current audio operations in her role as deputy editor on the audience team, has been promoted to director of audio. In related news, The Washington Post’s audio operations launched seven new podcasts in 2017, including two specifically for smart speaker devices.
- James Green, cofounder of the Postloudness collective and a former producer at Gimlet Media, is joining The Outline to work on its daily show, World Dispatch.
- John Lagomarsino, audio director at The Outline, is moving to Anchor to serve as head of production. It is a newly created role.
Wait, Anchor has a head of production now? Yep. But the gig is more a product role than anything else. “Ultimately, I’m responsible for making sure content on Anchor is high-quality, well-curated, and relevant for creators and listeners,” Lagomarsino tells me through a rep, before going on to describe a role that liaises between Anchor’s userbase and the company’s product, marketing, and content teams.
For the uninitiated, Anchor is a mobile-oriented app that originally rolled out within the “Twitter, but for audio” construct. That initial orientation was defined by a twin focus: ease of creation and ease of sharing. The company was founded in 2015 and, after picking up some initial buzz at SXSW the year after, has persisted to kick about in pursuit of a place within the marginally iterating podcast technology ecosystem. Last fall, Anchor raised $10 million in a Series A round led by Google Ventures. According to a TechCrunch writeup at the time, the company is still not generating revenue.
The current iteration of Anchor further increases its focus on creating the “easiest path to making a podcast” for the biggest number of people (the bulk of which, one imagines, is relatively inexperienced in audio production). This positioning was expressed last July, when Anchor seized on the reported instabilities at SoundCloud — previously the go-to hosting option for first-time and newer podcast publishers — by offering easy hosting transfers. It was a shrewd move, as the two services map nicely for their target demo given that both platforms are free and relatively simple to use.
How Anchor fits into the broader on-demand audio universe remains to be seen. Will the platform continue to be the lord of its own content universe, or will it meaningfully usurp portions of the technology stack that supports the rest of the podcast ecosystem? The answer hinges on whether CEO Mike Mignano’s thesis on the space pans out.
“The reality of the current landscape is that podcasting has remained an artificially small industry, because it’s so hard to contribute to,” Mignano wrote through a rep. He continued:
Between the friction that exists at nearly every step of the content lifecycle, and the antiquated technology that the industry has relied on for years, creators are left with limited data and limited opportunity for monetization, thus capping the potential of the market. We’re well past the breaking point where innovation across the entire stack is absolutely necessary for growth.
With Anchor, we’re focused on creating technology that strengthens the entire ecosystem and unlocks the true potential of the audio landscape. I expect Anchor to have a lot of competition in the coming years, which we’re excited about, because true innovation is ultimately going to come from technology pushing the boundaries of what’s previously been possible.
I happen to agree with the characterization of podcasting as an “artificially small industry.” The question I’ve kept encountering throughout my years writing this newsletter is whether that’s actually a bad thing.
Billboard outside ATL, Georgia. Atlanta Monster, the new true crime series from Atlanta podcast companies HowStuffWorks and Tenderfoot, appears to be playing around with OOH advertising local to the Atlanta city area:
— Jason Hoch (@starexplorer) January 11, 2018
“Gimlet is a multimedia storytelling brand, not just a podcast network.” So goes the opening argument from Gimlet’s new chief marketing officer, Jenny Wall, which headlined a quick Fast Company piece last week, as she moves to elevate the company’s profile.
This is, of course, no new revelation for Gimlet, which has pretty explicitly highlighted its formalizing intellectual property pipeline — carved out in large part by Chris Giliberti, its young “head of multiplatform” — as both differentiating factor and exceptionally strong potential growth channel. Nor is it a particularly new revelation for the industry as a whole; as I noted in my 2017 year-in-review column, the adaptation pipeline is one that extends widely across the ecosystem (though with particular concentration within the audio drama category) and offers the industry a significant pathway to gain strength independently from the platform dynamics governed, still, by Apple. Nor is Gimlet the only entity that’s been exceptionally active in ushering podcast-first properties into projects for other mediums; Night Vale Presents has proven to be equally prominent, with the added nuance of not potentially burdened by the demands of venture capital.
But I thought the quote was interesting for three reasons:
- It’s super reminiscent of HBO’s “It’s Not TV, It’s HBO” campaign that Wall worked on earlier in her career, which I pointed out last week when writing up her appointment.
- I was wondering when Gimlet would explicitly make the “actually, we’re not just a podcast company” turn in its narrative. It’s a mindset that you could arguably trace back to a point as early as the company’s participation in the summer 2016 Brooklyn NewFronts event, where it sought to gain association with broader digital media brands like Genius, Atlas Obscura, and Lenny Letter. Perhaps you can trace it back even further.
- One potential function for the narrative redraft: to open and grease more paths for acquisition. It’s one thing if you’re a podcast company whose most literal suitors would be a bigger, traditional audio company — see Cadence13 and Entercom — but it’s another thing altogether when your perceived value is non-medium specific. It definitely makes things more interesting for, say, a talent agency, or perhaps even a global advertising agency not unlike the one that chipped in $5 million into Gimlet’s recent investment round.
- Like Slate, This American Life has also undergone a redesign, which includes a new shock-red logo. I think the Washington Post’s Alexandra Petri said it best: “Congrats to @ThisAmerLife on its new job as The Economist.” I myself, er, am not a fan. (Website)
- Last Thursday, ESPN Audio rolled out the first episode of a new podcast from Katie Nolan, who joined the sports media giant from Fox Sports in October.
- The Loud Speakers Network is bringing back its brand collaboration with State Farm, Color Full Lives, with Aminatou Sow and Angela Yee in the hosting seats. Interestingly, this will be the branded podcast’s third season. They’re also set to experiment with an accompanying video component. (Apple Podcasts)
- At CES last week, NPR published a new smart speaker study that has some additional data points for your pitch decks. Check it out.
- This is cool: closing out her third season, Flash Forward’s Rose Eveleth graphed the gender ratio and racial diversity of the guests she brings onto her episodes. (Flash Forward)
- This is also cool: Doree Shafrir, author and senior tech writer at BuzzFeed, is independently publishing a podcast called Forever35, which is focused on serving women in their 30s and 40s. This is her second indie podcast project, following Matt & Doree’s Eggcellent Adventure, which chronicles her and her husband’s experience of conceiving through in-vitro fertilization.
- Meanwhile, on the Beltway: Senator Cory Booker (D-New Jersey) has jumped on the politician podcasting train with one of those shows where he talks to people doing stuff he’s likes. He joins senators Bernie Sanders (D-Vermont) and Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), along with former U.S. Attorney General Preet Bharara, in the style.
- “Pandora CEO Roger Lynch Wants to Create the Podcast Genome Project.” Okay. (Variety)
- “The Opening of the American Mind: How Educational Podcasts Are Making Us Smarter Citizens.” (Pacific Standard)
- “Alexa, We’re Still Trying to Figure Out What to Do With You.” (NY Times)
- PodcastOne announces partnership with the Associated Press around a daily audio news product accompanying the Winter Olympics. (Press Release)
- “Whatever it is, I’m not afraid of what happens after death.” Don’t miss this glorious conversation with Terry Gross by Vulture’s David Marchese.
Next week, we’re talking crypto-pods.
Notes from north of the border. When it comes to the Canadian podcast industry, there seems to be a lot to talk about. At least, that’s what I found after writing up last month’s report from Ulster Media and The Globe and Mail about the country’s podcast listening statistics. That study, which you can find here, provided an independent sizing of the country’s overall podcast listenership: 24 percent of Canadians over the age of 18, or 7 million people, report consuming podcasts at least once a month. (A straightforward comparison with American numbers is tricky; Edison Research’s numbers place monthly podcast listenership in the U.S. at around 24 percent of the American population, or an estimated 67 million people, but its survey pool was of adults over the age of 12, not 18.)
My writeup of the study was meant to be a quick one: I saw the report, pulled the most salient data points, and ran it with some broad contextualizing details. But response to the item was considerable. Canadian readers and podcasters made themselves known in my inbox, and non-Canadian readers wrote in wanting to know more; the country’s podcast industry, as one reader expressed, often feels “like a black box, more or less.”
And so I spent some time over the past few weeks emailing around, trying to dig up information and additional insight into what’s going on in the great white north — even if I’m well aware of the follies embedded in any attempt to adequately capture the complexities of a country’s industry in newsletter dispatches. (Hell, I’ve been writing about the American podcast industry for three years now, and I’m still haunted by the acute sense that I only ever really see a fraction of what’s truly going on.)
Over the next few newsletters, I’ll be publishing a few stories that hopefully, as a collective, serves as a workable entry-point into the Canadian podcast industry. This week, I’ll be kicking things off with the independent news organization Canadaland. Next Tuesday, I’ll spend some ink on the Quebec region and on the machinations of an indigenous media company called Indian & Cowboys. Finally, in the week after that, I’ll round things up with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, along with some more general observations.
So, why start with Canadaland? Simple: because it’s interesting.
Scrappy. “There are no major players. There is no industry,” said Jesse Brown, founder of Canadaland, the independent news organization and podcast network. “Canada is five years behind the U.S. with professional podcasting, at least.”
Brown, of course, was one of the first people I wanted to trade emails with about Canadian podcasting, given his prominence as a media critic in the country and the fact that he’s a close observer of local industry dynamics out of necessity. Further, Canadaland has consistently popped up across conversations I’ve had about the country, looked upon as both symbol and test case for a longstanding question: Can an independent news organization exist in Canada? Can an independent podcast network? (Those questions, as you could imagine, are equally deployable with respect to the United States.)
At this point in time, the case continues to be tested. “So, Canadaland sells our own ads to brands like Casper and Hello Fresh, and we work with Midroll to sell to Squarespace and other familiar podcast advertisers,” Brown wrote, when asked about his adventures in podcast advertising. “Our founding sponsor was Freshbooks, a Canadian company. But one or two Canadian brands does not a industry or ecosystem make.” Canada has unique problem with advertising, in Brown’s formulation, as its smaller population means that advertising alone won’t be enough to sustain podcasting at a professional level. Which is why Canadaland is structured as a hybrid business built on both ad sales and crowdfunding, with the latter engine being positioned as the primary driver of the business. At this writing, the company’s Patreon account enjoys over 4,500 supporters and brings in over $22,000 a month.
Brown believes the crowdfunding model is replicable throughout the country — “nobody really knew who I was before Canadaland, so I don’t think I had any special powers in that respect,” he claimed — but he seems ultimately dubious on whether that opportunity will be capitalized upon anytime soon. “The usual Canadian dynamics are at work,” he said. “It’s far more attractive to young talent to try to break into American podcasting than to try to build our own industry from scratch. The Heart and Heavyweight are touch points, and people like Chris Berube and Drew Nelles have shown that they have marketable skills, if they are willing to move. Entrepreneurial efforts are sadly scarce. It’s sad that Canada is a laggard in this, given that the CBC has an amazing history of pioneering audio storytelling.”
Whether he’s right on the crowdfunding model’s replicability remains to be seen. Some observers I’ve spoken with are hopeful about the company’s position, but hold some reservation about its emphasis on news, an editorial focus that’s notoriously difficult to scale. They point to the fact that the company’s biggest successes (and presumed bumps in direct support) have been fundamentally tethered to its ability to break news — as it did with its scoops on Jian Ghomeshi, Peter Mansbridge, and Rebel Media — and how that offers an extremely high bar to clear for growth and sustainability.
Still, I imagine this might be a contestable point, and that some might believe this to be a more direct alignment between mission and business model as far as a journalistic organization is concerned. Other sources have also insisted in pointing out Brown’s recent attainment of wealth as the cofounder of Bitstrips, the maker of Bitmoji that sold to Snapchat for an estimated $100 million or so in March 2016, and how that development may render any external reading of Canadaland’s financial health a little more complicated. (I can barely wrap my own head around it.)
But Brown’s observation on the country’s entrepreneurial chutzpah might prove to be the question that’s more fundamental to whatever the future of podcasting in Canada looks like. And that’s much more complicated to parse out; it has, I think, everything to do with factors like the availability of capital, being around potential partners and acquirers, and miscellaneous elements of social and cultural support.
More next week.
Additional material. The CBC’s Lindsay Michael was kind enough to point me to two fantastic resources when researching the scene: this overview of the Canadian industry by Erica Ngao for the Ryerson Review of Journalism, and the Podcast Playlist’s Canadian Podcast Database.
Swipe. So this is interesting: An independent podcast, Food 4 Thot, has formed a publishing relationship with Grindr, in which potential fans can now discover the show right off the latter’s app. The partnership also sees the podcast featured on Grindr’s recently launched digital magazine, INTO. Here’s the announcement post on how the arrangement will work:
When you open your lovely Grindr app (we know you have it) the show will pop down with a quick summary of what this week has in store for you from topics to guests to tea — with sometimes even a quick audio preview of the episode if you ask nicely — before being brought to INTO where you can subscribe and listen. Cute, right?
With the placement, the podcast is in a position where it can potentially be exposed to Grindr’s user base — roughly 3 million daily users, according to this AdExchanger report, though it’s worth controlling the relevant number in your head for English-speakers — through what is essentially an in-app house ad. This setup also evokes the ouroboros-esque inquiry of: Just how big is the Venn overlap between being a “platform” and a “media entity” for such companies these days? Or is it more appropriate to think of these operations as one and the same? What is a publisher, anyway?
In case you’re not in the know, Food 4 Thot is an energetic indie roundtable podcast featuring: Tommy Pico, a critically acclaimed indigenous American poet and author; Dennis Norris II, a writer and MacDowell Fellow; Joseph Osmundson, a scientist and memoirist, and Fran Tirado, the executive editor of Hello Mr.
“Right now, our audience is small for a podcast, but big for one that has been 100 percent independently funded and distributed up to this point,” Tirado tells me. “Our eps get anywhere from 12,000 to 20,000 downloads.” The show’s current goal is to grow the listening base up to six figures.
When asked about dream guests, Tirado replied: “Tracee Ellis Ross. With Sasha Velour, Janet Mock, & Cardi B in close seconds.”
Coloring book. “I’m super excited about this project — I’ve been wanting to do something like this for a while,” said Matt Lieber, Gimlet’s president and local dad.
Lieber’s talking about Gimlet’s latest show, a kids podcast, which it’s launching hot on the heels of Panoply’s Pinna initiative and NPR’s Wow in the World. The move comes with an interesting angle: The podcast is a collaboration with Story Pirates, a kids-centric media company and arts-education advocacy group primarily known for letting kids be the ones that tell stories themselves — a commitment to the belief that kids are more original and wildly more creative than anything adults can ever impose on them.
Season 2 of the Story Pirates podcast debuted yesterday under the Gimlet brand, and upcoming episodes will feature appearances from prominent celebrity performers like Kristen Schaal, Billy Eichner, and Conan O’Brien, among others. To accompany the release, they’re publishing a coloring book with stuff for kids to color alongside each episode that parents can download and print out for free. “It’s part of an effort to create a social experience around the show,” Lieber adds.
This marks Gimlet’s latest creative partnership with an external organization, after producing Mogul with Loud Speakers Network. (One could theoretically make the argument that Crimetown also qualifies as a collaboration, given the involvement of The Jinx’s Zac Stuart-Pontier and Marc Smerling. But I’m told it is considered more of an in-house affair.) Is this an increasing part of the company’s strategy? “I wouldn’t say that,” said Lieber. “But our doors are open to partnership, especially if it’s a story or category we haven’t done before.”
I inquired about the podcast’s approach to ads, reflecting upon Panoply and Sparkle Stories’ choice to bypass the advertising-to-kids conundrum altogether with a paid subscription model. Lieber notes that they’re pretty sensitive about being exceedingly clear that the ads are targeted towards parents, and not the children. “We’re working that out right now,” he said, when I asked about the design choices to reflect that. “You won’t be seeing ads for sugar or candy.”
Gotcha. By the way, how was Gimlet’s 2017?
“It’s been a great year,” Lieber said, flashing his trademark confidence. He tells me that business has doubled, and that the company is working on things that will blow people away in the coming months, and that Gimlet Creative, too, has had a strong year, growing into “the defining agency in the digital audio world.”
He also points to what I think is the company’s defining thread of 2017: its very loud success in building out an intellectual property pipeline into the lucrative film and television business. “This is a year where Homecoming went from an audio project to something that will become one of the tentpole projects for Amazon next year starring Julia Roberts,” he said. (Also worth noting: Last week saw the announcement that Crimetown, too, will be heading to television with FX. No surprises there, frankly, given the creative team’s television roots.)
“We’ve set the stage for next year,” he concluded.
On a related note: Perhaps sensing something in the winds, a WNYC spokesperson reached out unannounced yesterday evening to remind me of the existence of their own upcoming forays into the kids podcasting space: This Podcast Has Fleas, which comes out of a partnership with Koyalee Chanda and Adam Peltzman, and Pickle, a co-production with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Both shows are set to launch sometime in December. The station has also produced a standalone website for its kids programming.
Binders full of editors. I’ve previously written about editor scarcity and its discontents in podcast-land, something that continues to plague a lot of teams even today. (If you missed it, here’s the link to the column, which features a solid discussion with NPR’s Alison MacAdam.) I haven’t spotted much formal development on the matter in the intervening year, save for this one: Megan Tan, the host and creator of the now-retired Millennial, has assembled a spreadsheet of narratively-oriented audio editors who are available for work. She describes the type of editors that she’s included into the document as follows:
People who act as a bird’s eye over your house as you build it, by hand, from the ground up. They would provide feedback on drafts and maybe some written line suggestions here and there, but they don’t touch the tape at all. They would provide feedback on structure, help you hone in on universal themes, driving questions, plot points, character development, get rid of shitty tape, and emphasize great tape, etc.
Or, in other words, “the people you call when you can’t hear your piece anymore because you’ve heard it too many times.”
Tan’s impulse to create the speadsheet rose after her former editor on Millennial transitioned to work at a network full-time, putting her in the search for a suitable replacement. “All of a sudden, I had to find an editor who could speak the same story-structure language, who understood character development, archetypes, thresholds, and who I trusted to help me define the edges of my episodes and strip the fat off a piece when I was immersed in the weeds…AND who also fit my budget,” she said.
The resulting process left her with some pressing takeaways. Among them: “More than anything, I wanted to find someone who ‘got it,'” Tan explained. “When you’re first starting out, you don’t really understand the number of genres, styles, and approaches to radio that exist. Hiring ‘an editor’ doesn’t mean that editor is the best fit for your show.”
With a particular focus on that kind of matchmaking, she hopes the spreadsheet can set producers up with good pairings — and surface this species of editors often thought to be “hard to find,” despite their high demand. “Ideally, this Google Sheet becomes the telephone book for those people,” she said.
You can find the spreadsheet here.
Bait and switch. This is a tricky one, and it involves a mea culpa on my part. Last week saw the conclusion of the latest series in Radiotopia’s Showcase initiative, called The Polybius Conspiracy, which saw the “audio documentary” reveal itself to be — spoiler alert, I guess — in large part fictional. This comes after a run in which the show mostly carried itself as a work of nonfiction, though it never said as much outright. (For what it’s worth, the inverse was also true: The show never explicitly identified itself as a piece of fiction either.) Many reviewers, including myself, approached the show off its conduct (and initial press signaling) as a piece of nonfiction, and I would ultimately write a review for Vulture off the first three episodes to that effect. “A seven-part audio documentary,” was how I described it, working from the press release and various assumptions I internally made about the Showcase initiative.
The podcast sought to explore an Oregonian urban legend and conspiracy theory of a mysterious arcade cabinet that started bubbling up around the ’80s, one in which the myth describes a game so addictive that it caused weird things to happen to people when they stopped playing. Polybius, the podcast, was narratively structured around a main subject who claimed to have been the victim of a traumatic incident as a result of the arcade cabinet, and a good deal of the resulting drama falls from the tension about whether that the incident actually happened or not. The show essentially uses the narrative conceit as a way to explore the shape and textures of urban legends — and, to some extent, the way a person deals with trauma. Of course, by the end of the show’s run, we learn that the central character was a fictional invention, and that much of the stakes involved weren’t as high, or as meaningful, as one would initially think it was.
Slate’s Jacob Brogan was the first, I believe, to raise the question about the show’s claim to documentary, and he rightfully called me — along with other reviewers — out for taking the bait. And it seemed Radiotopia eventually received enough pushback to address the matter in a blog post. Here’s the most relevant portion:
The Polybius Conspiracy itself takes on the form of the urban mythology it interrogates, wrapping layers of conjecture and invention around elements of truth and nostalgia. As a network, we value the overall ideas and cultural critique built into the series. We do apologize to listeners who were disappointed to discover that the story isn’t completely true, and felt we intentionally misled them by not stating outright, from the beginning, that the story was a blend of fact and fiction.
Thinking through the whole situation a little more, I will say I’ve come to find myself pretty annoyed by the ordeal. Annoyed, partly for what felt like a completely unnecessary embellishment on the creative team’s part, particularly these days when the notion of reality, digital and otherwise, seems especially politically fraught and sensitive. Maybe there’s a version of this show, interrogating this idea, that earns this sleight of hand; this podcast, however, wasn’t that.
But mostly, I’m annoyed by the fact that I let the ball fly right by me, that I was played a fool, that I wasn’t skeptical of the show enough to double down on a double check. To some extent, perhaps I’m still operating with kid’s gloves as an observer and critic of the space, working off an internal assumption that the space is still small and young and should still constantly be given the benefit of the doubt due to its youth. But at the end of day, I shouldn’t be automatically taking things as face value, as there are potential negative ramifications to overlooking something like this on my part. So, I’ll be taking the L on this one.
Over the weekend, a few readers wrote me inquiring as to whether this incident raises some larger questions about norms and ethics in the space — if we’re seeing some editorial crisis in what appears to be a tendency among certain corners of the podcast ecosystem to aggressively flirt with evoking journalistic or documentary tropes to build fictional spaces. (One reader pointed to the constant use of the technique by another Radiotopia show, by way of example.) I’m not quite sure if we’re in such a “crisis” just yet, though I’m tempted to agree with the broader critical focus on the community’s norms: one thing that I do constantly find myself perturbed by is the relatively unchecked nature of certain true crime podcasts and their interaction with real, physical lives and communities, which is itself a direct extension of transgressions we’re seeing elsewhere in digital media.
But I’ll hold my tongue — and my pen — on that one for now, lest I succumb to hypocrisy. I did, after all, just fall for The Polybius Conspiracy’s ruse.
Career Spotlight. I’m a casual fan of The Black Tapes and its associated “Pacific Northwest Stories” fiction podcasts — there’s something about its public access feel that gets me — but I’ve long admired the team for just how far they’ve come. (Tanis, one of their projects, is currently being developed for television.) This week, I traded emails with Paul Bae, one of the show’s creators who recently rolled out a new show called The Big Loop, to get a sense of where he is with himself these days.
[conl]Hot Pod: Tell me about your current situation.[/conl]
[conr]Paul Bae: I live and work out of my home in Vancouver, B.C., writing and producing the audio drama anthology series The Big Loop. I also walk the dogs my girlfriend adopts. So far, we’re sticking to an intake limit of three.[/conr]
[conl]Hot Pod: How did you get to this point? What does your career arc thus far look like?[/conl]
[conr]Bae: I used to be an evangelical youth pastor back in the early 90s. When I lost my faith in the mid-’90s, Jesus and my wife walked out the door. (Black Tapes fans: “Is that why Dr. Richard Strand is such a bitter atheist with a missing wife complex?” Hmmm.)
I then turned to teaching high school English for the next seven years. But my parents always hated the idea. They — my very Korean parents — initially wanted me to be a stand-up comedian. They were casual fans of Johnny Carson and David Letterman and they somehow got it into their heads that I could do that. (If you’re wondering where I get the confidence to ditch everything to attempt to scratch out a living making podcasts, this is it.)
So I started doing stand-up comedy in 2000, and eventually landed a TV gig hosting a small, daily news-comedy show in Vancouver. When that folded a year later in 2010, I found myself tired of touring the standup circuit. So I returned to teaching.
That’s when my friend Terry Miles approached me about making a podcast together. And that led to The Black Tapes, which was a lot of fun and a tremendous learning experience.
With The Big Loop, I have a chance to turn everything I’ve learned into a more intimate listening experience with stories that are more personal to me.[/conr]
[conl]Hot Pod: What does a career mean to you, at this point?[/conl]
[conr]Bae: I’ve been writing my whole adult life. That has been the one constant for me. The part I love most about this career is knowing that whatever I write is now going to have an audience almost immediately. If I can make a living out of this, that would mean the world to me. Since I’ve made this foray into podcasting, my girlfriend has had to do all the heavy lifting regarding our finances. I’m hoping I can take that over and let her have a turn resting at home with our dogs.[/conr]
[conl]Hot Pod: When you started out, what did you think you wanted to do?[/conl]
[conr]Bae: When Terry hit “publish” on the first two episodes of The Black Tapes in 2015, I had no idea what was going to happen. I don’t think I even fully understood what podcasting was at the time. To me, it was This American Life and 99% Invisible. That’s it. But I knew we had a potential hit. Personally, I had hoped to gain a good audience and open some doors for my fiction writing. Making a career of podcasting didn’t even enter my mind.
Then, one day in early 2016, I listened to Love + Radio for the first time and it stopped me in my tracks. I thought, “This is what podcasting can do. It’s way more than I thought it was.” And it changed everything for me. And I hope people recognize that influence in The Big Loop.[/conr]
- Sarah Larson penned a great — and more importantly, holistic — snapshot piece on Third Coast Festival that came out over the weekend, and you shouldn’t miss it. (The New Yorker) Feel free to pair that with my own notes from last week, which I’ve broken out into a separate post here.
- High-level turmoil at NPR continues: Roger LaMay, NPR Board chairman and general manager of Philadelphia public radio music station WXPN, announced last week that he was stepping down at the end of his second one-year term. But NPR also reports that “LaMay is the subject of a complaint filed with NPR alleging past inappropriate behavior.” (NPR)
- Slate is launching a series about what it was like to live through the days of Watergate, called Slow Burn. It’s hosted by Leon Neyfakh, produced with Andrew Parsons, and slated to launch on November 28. (Apple Podcasts)
- Speaking of Slate, sister company Panoply worked off a news hook this week, repackaging You Must Remember This’ stellar Charles Manson season into its own standalone podcast after news of Manson’s passing hit the newsreels. This is the second Manson-related podcast to emerge in recent weeks; Wondery currently has its own take on the subject in the podcast charts as well. One day, we’ll see such energy for something other than true crime and morbidity. But this is not that day.
- “I’m that dude from the ad about background checks where I put a rifle together blindfolded.” Celeste Katz writes up the latest Crooked Media podcast, Majority 54, that comes with a Q&A with host Jason Kander. (Newsweek)
- The Death, Sex & Money team has rounded up some podcast recs from some famous friends for Turkey Day. (Medium)
Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 138, published October 31, 2017.
Happy Halloween folks!
Subscriptions at a personal level. When I wrote about Panoply’s paid kids-oriented listening service, Pinna, earlier this month, I was drawn to a question that didn’t end up being articulated in the piece: Does a subscription-first audio product need to be big? Pinna’s explicit goal, as I understand it, is to become the “premiere kids listening service,” pushed forward with a long-term strategy of building the first and last stop for any parent looking for stuff to swap out screen time with an aural alternative. But is it possible just to build a self-contained audio subscription business that isn’t premised on an expansive content acquisition strategy?
Shortly after the Pinna write-up went out, Lindsay Patterson, the cofounder of children’s podcast advocacy group Kids Listen, reached out, flagging the existence of a small Austin, Texas–based operation called Sparkle Stories. Founded by Lisabeth and David Sewell McCann, Sparkle Stories is an independent media company that serves customers with over a thousand original audio stories for children. There are two things about Sparkle Stories that are noteworthy: first, all of the stories are produced and performed by David, a former elementary school educator adept at telling pedagogical stories, and second, the service charges $15 a month…and, from what Lisabeth tells me, business seems to be good.
While the two declined to provide hard numbers, they did disclose having “thousands of subscribers” from around the world, enough to sustain as a business. The two are the only people who work on the company full-time — David since the beginning, Lisabeth transitioning out of her day job after about a year — and the company brings in enough revenue to compensate eight part-time employees who also work on other projects. Sparkle Stories is completely bootstrapped, with one successful Kickstarter excursion in 2015 to fund the development of a listening app. (That campaign brought in over $48,000 from 1,174 backers.)
Sparkle Stories was formed in 2010 when, as Lisabeth put it, “mom blogs were big and getting bigger.” Mr. Rogers is cited as a major source of inspiration (interestingly enough, David enunciates a lot like the sweatered public media icon himself), and it’s reflected in the team’s goals. “Our mission is to make stuff that’s nurturing, and slow, for kids,” Lisabeth said. “We’re all about bringing media back to a simple, sweet place.”
Simplicity might be the editorial north star, but it’s supported by a robust operational structure. Though the Sparkle Stories inventory is primarily stored and distributed behind a paywall, the company also makes use of a podcast feed that serves five free episodes to prospective paid customers — or consumers of more modest means. The inventory itself is managed through a website that further supplements the audio stories with a host of related digital material that broadens out topical experiences: recipes, craft lessons, parent education. “The podcast is only the beginning,” David explained. “It brings people to the next step, which is a website full of child development information. The story is only the beginning, and then you continue on. And that’s what people are willing pay for.”
Sparkle Stories has a bunch of things planned for the future. The team hopes to continue making the website experience as easy as possible for children and families, such that, in David’s words, “a child can look for a story about a wombat, or about Idaho, and then suddenly there are three stories about that, and then they can put the device down and listen.” An Android app is somewhere on the horizon, to complement the existing iOS app. There are further ambitions to figure out ways to integrate with smart speaker devices, which seems to be catching on among “millennial parents and their kids,” as AdWeek points out. (Though data privacy concerns remain an issue.) However, despite these plans, Lisabeth and David are comfortable taking on a slow, organic approach to growing the operation. “We tried a lot of the traditional ways to market and build our business, and they just didn’t work,” they explained. “Sponsored content, traditional advertising, Facebook and Google stuff…but the thing that really ended up working more than anything is for us to help somebody love what we’re doing.”
That approach, it seems, is partly driven by a sense of caring for their customers, whose parenting lives the McCanns feel partially responsible for. “It’s that Seth Godin thing of just taking care of your tribe,” David said. “We took that to heart. And so we create, create, create, we’re on schedule for three or four stories a week. Offer a lot, and if people want more, they’ll be more than happy to pay for it.”
You can find more about Sparkle Stories on their website.
Two extraneous threads:
(1) One question that stands out to me: assuming that all goes as intended for this sector of the on-demand audio universe, can there be a paid kids’ podcasting ecosystem that be equally occupied by a primary dominant one-size-fits-all service and a constellation of personally driven, independent, and presumably niche players? I imagine there’s something to be gleaned from looking at the makeup of the digitally distributed audiobook world, now dominated by Audible and a host of much smaller alternatives — Scribd, Overdrive, Kobo, and so on — even though the latter group in this composition isn’t terribly differentiated from the former, at least on my read.
(2) Not directly related but still thematically appropriate, I guess: Patreon, the creator support platform that raised $60 million last month, recently announced a new platform initiative that lets its users better integrate with other tools and platforms that they’ve been using to manage the membership process. Quite a few podcast publishers use Patreon to tap into direct listener support, including and especially the “dirtbag left” podcast Chapo Trap House, which still reigns as the biggest Patreon campaign that brings in over $86,000 a month from slightly over 19,500 backers. Crazy.
Acast aims to go public on the Stockholm Stock Exchange. The news comes about a month after the company raised $19.5 million in Series B funding from a group of Swedish investors, with the apparent intent to use that money to build its presence in the United States, the UK, and Australia. With this exit, they’ll have access to further capital for those attempts. Di Digital, a Swedish news site, has a write-up that I, uh, had to run by some Swedish-speaking friends and readers (thanks, fellas). Here are the bits that stood out to me:
- The company’s valuation is pegged at around SEK 1.1 billion (Swedish kroner), which comes to around $131 million USD.
- Last year, Acast drew SEK 49.8 million (slightly under $6 million USD) in revenue, but ran at a loss of SEK 52.5 million (slightly over $6 million USD).
- As part of the Swedish IPO, founders Måns Ulvestam and Karl Rosander are leaving their operational roles in the company and, having done their jobs, will leave Ross Adams, a former Sales Director at Spotify, in the CEO spot.
This brings the number of publicly listed, podcast-specific companies up to three — that I know of, I guess — the other two being LibSyn (trading on the Nasdaq as LSYN) and, somewhat arguably, Audioboom (trading on the London Stock Exchange as BOOM), which also deals with digital audio more broadly. I think it might be useful to skim through Audioboom’s annual report to get a sense of how Acast will be positioning its growth metrics, given the similarities in structure, levers, and function in the market.
Meanwhile, in the Great North. There’s apparently a new research report floating around that focuses on Canadian podcast consumption, conducted by Audience Insights, a Canadian audience research firm, and Ulster Media, a podcast consulting company started by former CBC director of digital talk content Jeff Ulster. It was produced with support from The Globe and Mail.
The full report isn’t available at this point in time, it seems, only a summary report with some initial findings that you can view in this link. Nonetheless, there are a couple of data points that are worth unspooling in your head, in case you’re up to something in that neck of the woods:
- Twenty-four percent of Canadians over the age of 18, or 7 million people, report listening to podcasts at least once a month. (Comparable stats: 17 percent of the Australian population over 12, 24 percent of the American population over 12.)
- The demographic is pretty much what you’d hink it would be: trends younger, more affluent, and more educated, also leans male. That’s more or less in the same bucket as Australia and the U.S.
- Here’s one that really stands out to me: “47 percent of (Canadian) podcast listeners say they would like to hear more about what Canadian podcasts are available.”
My knowledge of Canada and podcasting is relatively limited. In my estimation, the institutions to watch are: the CBC, obviously, but also the branded podcast shop Pacific Content and Jesse Brown’s Canadaland. Also: there is a sneakily abundant number of Canadians all throughout the American podcast industry — I see you Berube — and Montreal is still pretty sweet for radio producers, given the manageable rent prices. (Note to self: abscond to Montreal.)
In transition. This isn’t a new phenomenon by any means, but there have been three podcast-to-broadcast developments that’ve hit my inbox over the past month:
(1) NPR’s “It’s Been a Minute with Sam Sanders” started rolling out to a bunch of stations earlier this month (list can be found on this here Twitter thread), in some ways to plug the big Car Talk–sized hole that seems to popping up here and there.
(2) Politico’s Morning Media newsletter ran this mini-profile a few weeks ago: The Takeout is a podcast hosted CBS News’ Chief White House Correspondent Major Garrett and political director Steve Chaggari. It originally launched just before President Trump’s inauguration as a side project, and eventually cultivated a fairly small following (about 80,000 monthly downloads on a roughly weekly publishing schedule). But it gained enough listeners to get it repurposed as a TV show on CBS’s streaming network and re-distributed over several terrestrial stations owned and operated by CBS.
I’m pretty fascinated by this use of podcasts as testing ground for potential broadcast material, though I’ll be interested to see what emerges in the Venn Diagram overlap of what works on both broadcast and podcast. (The inverse would also be intriguing to unspool: shows starting in broadcast that would later find more heat as a podcast. Radiolab, I think, is a good example of this.)
(3) iHeartMedia aired Wondery and Mark Ramsey’s Inside Psycho, which was originally published as a six-episode podcast, as a one-hour broadcast Halloween special over the weekend on select iHeartRadio News/Talk radio stations across the country. Curiously, the press release calls the arrangement “the first time a made-for-podcast show will air across broadcast radio”…which isn’t exactly true. Between 2012 and 2014, Slate had a program called Gabfest Radio, which condensed the Political and Culture Gabfests into a one-hour broadcast, that aired as a weekly show on WNYC. NPR, as well, began packaging a joint hour of Planet Money and How I Built This for broadcast over the summer. (And not to mention the various times a public radio podcast story was re-formatted for All Things Considered.)
Finally, there’s also the recently departed Dinner Party Download, which originally launched as a podcast in 2008 before being picked up a few years later by American Public Media for broadcast as a radio hour. So, technically, DPD might have more claim over being the first time ever that a made-for-podcast show was picked up for terrestrial radio. But who’s checking, y’know?
Politician-speak. As you might expect, I deeply enjoyed this critique of podcasting politicians by Amanda Hess over at the New York Times. Hess’s central barb, which comes around the middle of the piece, is a dual-pronged affair that gives shape to something that I’ve been feeling for while now: “The lawmaker podcast boom is just another way that our political news is becoming less accountable to the public and more personality driven. But that’s not the only thing wrong with it. The podcasts are also boring.”
That dual point on accountability and actual listenability illustrates the vaguely lose-lose proposition that the politician podcasting genre poses to the public. On the one hand, if the show is literally hard and pointless to consume, then it really sucks to be littered with them. But on the other hand, if the show turns out to be an experience worth sitting down with, then you’re grappling with the much hairier prospect of a more undefined (and unregulated) form of political communication, with all the spin, worldview expression, and image management that it entails.
Not that political communication is a thing inherently worth balking at, of course. Political figures and candidates need spaces to reach their constituents and sites to flesh out their philosophies, policy positions, and reasons for politically being. (Provided they have those things, of course.) It’s just that Hess’s point on accountability — that the general structural arc of these political figures going direct and fully controlling the terms of their messaging, that the power of the personality is the mechanism disproportionately empowered by everything we’ve seen in digital media so far — is the shadow that looms large here, and it brings up the question of whether the larger opportunity that these structural shifts gives to hermetically sealed political communication is a tide that can be stopped. We’re starting to see statements by politicians made in podcast appearances being written up, though not necessarily mediated, by political news sites — by way of example, here are three instances in The Hill — yet one can’t but ask whether any of that will ever be enough. Indeed, one wonders that the thing that’s really been blunting the edge of this political opportunity, of the continued empowerment of the Personality, so far is the fact that the overwhelming majority of politicians as a class don’t or still haven’t figured out the personality part of the equation.
This parallel has probably already been made many times before, but it bears bumping: a lot can be learned from what’s long been playing out in the sports world, where celebrity athletes have, perhaps not categorically but certainly in more than a few specific paradigm-altering instances, been able to utilize various digitally enabled media channels to amp up the power of the personality and dis-intermediate the gatekeeping/filtering capacities of the sports press. In the NBA alone, you have a variety of examples ranging from the Players Tribune to Joel Embiid’s surely-contract-padding social media prowess to LeBron James’ budding Uninterrupted media empire, whose premise hinges on players directly communicating with fans (and whose machinations involves several podcasts which were briefly profiled back in June by the Wall Street Journal). All of this amounts to a considerable challenge to the power, purpose, and intermediating role of the press, and while the actual details, terms, and broader implications of that dynamic change can be argued, the fact of the matter remains: the press is arguable.
(By the way, here’s my favorite story illustrating the fight between press and Personality: Grantland’s “Distant Thunder: What Did Oklahoma City’s Media Do to Piss Off Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant?”)
Anyway, that’s enough of that. But one more thing about Hess’s piece: her point on boring-ness — and on folks probably needing to put effort into something full-time, or at least meaningfully so, to make anybody worth anybody’s time — is probably a lesson that should be applied up and down the podcast directory, from celebrities to journalists to news organizations to independents.
From the mailbag. Eh, why not?
I’d be curious to know your take on podcasts doing live performances. I feel like EVERY podcast I listen to has done one of these. Why? I can only guess that the ticket sales for these events make a ton of money for them? More than ads? Crooked Media has done a ton of these. RadioLab, WTF, Gimlet Media, hell even the NPR Politics podcast is doing one soon. NPR! What is driving this??
— Nevin, from Iowa
Someone I knew once described seeing The Read live as a religious experience. This was a few years back, and while I don’t recall much else about her description of the show, I do remember this: I don’t believe I’ve ever been as enthusiastic about anything as she was talking about witnessing Crissle and Kid Fury on stage.
Anyway, point is: Live podcast shows are great. Provided they don’t suck, of course. (Which is the simple truth of everything that’s ever existed.)
Though the observation you make is actually a pretty tricky one to appraise. I think you’re right in there being a noticeable uptick in podcast creators building out a live events circuit — I feel like the stuff I’ve been seeing in my inbox alone can reflect this — but it’s also worth noting that live podcast shows have long been a practice in vogue. Radiolab and WTF with Marc Maron have been staging live shows going way back (really good ones, too!), and one shouldn’t forget about the podcasts that are actually live shows first and are later repackaged and redistributed over RSS feeds, like The Dollop, RISK!, and The Moth. (Of those, you could ask an inverse question: “Why record your live shows and distribute them as on-demand audio content?” Any one thing looks a little funny from a different angle.)
What’s driving the uptick? You can point to a few different things. Most straightforwardly, there is the core motivation of wanting to fashion out an additional revenue stream to not be completely dependent on advertising, to create some sort of ballast against volatilities to come. (Analytics shenanigans, agency chicanery, bumps in the economy, so on and so forth.) I think that incentive has been bubbling up to the forefront over the past few months, maybe. You can also point your finger at the bumper crop of new podcast festivals that have popped up over the past year-plus (NowHearThis, PodCon, WBEZ’s Podcast Passport, Third Coast’s The Fest, and the LA Podcast Festival, among so many others), which I imagine functions as an additional structural incentive for publishers to develop live performance capabilities. You can further consider the ongoing involvement of touring companies (like the Billions Corporation, which I interviewed back in July) and talent agencies (WME reps Crooked Media, by the way, among many other teams), which continue to bring live events expertise into the ecosystem that, in and of itself, is a pretty good motivator to keep playing within the channel.
Personally, I’m a big fan of publishers building out a live show presence. There are tons of benefits to glean. Physically communing with your audience is tight, as it deepens the relationship and sense of community. Visiting different cities, towns, and venues is super fun, if you don’t mind the travel, and it also provides good opportunities to peel off qualitative audience data. Merch can be sold. And also, some teams like doing live shows because they like doing live shows! Live shows are fun! Stage adrenaline is a drug! Damn!
The question, of course, is whether possible to make decent money off live shows. And I think the answer is yes, most definitely, provided you can pull off the logistics, manage the budget, and serve an actual experience people want to pay for. (You know, not unlike everything else in a goods-and-services-based economy.) A good example of a team that’s figured it out is Welcome to Night Vale, which has long used live shows as its primary revenue stream. (The team would only begin truly taking up advertising once it formed Night Vale Presents, its indie podcast label.) Now in its fourth year of touring, the show sells anywhere between 50,000 to 60,000 tickets a year, and they’ve staged over 200 shows across 16 countries in the past three years. You can figure the math out from there.
The Night Vale team has roots in the theater scene — creators Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor are alums of the Neo-Futurists — and that expertise really shows in their live shows. (Slight non-sequitur: in what was probably a formative pre-Hot Pod podcast experience, I checked out a Night Vale show at New York’s Town Hall venue back in the summer of 2014, and man was I not prepared to stand amidst that much cosplay and teenage enthusiasm.) That brings me to another, earlier evoked, and perhaps bigger, point: producing a live show involves a whole other skillset that’s completely separate and apart from producing a podcast. Which is why, even as a fan of the entire idea of testing live shows as a diversifying business channel, I also think that it’s not a great fit for most publishers.
But the idea of a “good fit” between the two forms doesn’t always fall out the way you think it would. One doesn’t necessarily need to have theater or stage chops to effectively adapt a podcast to a live show. I went to a live Slate Political Gabfest show once, and I couldn’t quite get over how strange it felt to stand among a bunch of political and legal nerds — I’m guessing from the number of cardigans — giggling at David Plotz wisecracks. But at the same time, the effectiveness of the whole thing made a great deal of sense: much of podcast consumption involves forging an intimate connection with personalities and a conversation that’s taking place separate and apart from you. There is, then, a familiar appeal to live shows of coming close to celebrity. There is also the broader appeal of not being alone in having a beloved experience.
That said, I hear ya, Nevin: there’s something way weird about the prospect in concept. I mean, political reporters as celebrities? NPR political reporters as celebrities? Bizarro! Then again, if I was NPR, I’d totally lean into it. Look, if we’re living in a media environment where it’s all being summed up to fight between personalities, then yes, I’d lather makeup onto Scott Detrow and send him out on stage too. Happy viewing.
- Pop-Up Archive, the transcription platform that also runs the podcast search engine Audiosearch, will be winding down public operations on November 28, 2017. (Company email)
- Dirty John, from the LA Times and Wondery, has reportedly garnered over 7 million downloads across six episodes since debuting at the top of the month. (CJR) The show is hosted on Art19. I’m personally pretty meh on the show, but hey, other critics seem to like it. All about that critical plurality.
- True crime shows Sword and Scale and Up and Vanished are the next two podcasts headed to television. Between these guys and Lore, it seems like genre fare is having a field day. (Variety)
- NPR’s monthly podcast audience hits 15.5 million unique users, and the organization typically garners 82 million monthly downloads. For reference, the organization uses Splunk to generate those numbers, and for further reference, Podrac pegs NPR’s unique U.S. monthly listeners at 13.3 million and global monthly streams/downloads at 99 million. (Press Release)
- So, Spotify looked into the behavior of podcast listeners on its platform, and according to Fast Company, it found that “podcast listening peaked during the middle of the day. Interestingly, when they looked at weekday numbers versus the weekend, people listened to fewer podcasts on the weekend. In fact, the drop off is pretty significant, 45% to be exact.” Recall that these are listeners who choose to consume off Spotify, which is rather specific indeed. (Fast Company)
[photocredit]Photo of curtains by AnToonz used under a Creative Commons license.[/photocredit]
Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 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.
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.
[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]
- 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.
can someone make something that isn’t a true crime podcast at some point please
i already hate people
— “Nick” 🎃 (@nwquah) October 23, 2017
[photocredit]Photo of Fenway Park by John Sonderman used under a Creative Commons license.[/photocredit]
Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 136, published October 17, 2017.
60dB → Google. Google has acqui-hired the team behind 60dB, the personalized short-form audio app. The team, which goes by the name of Tiny Garage Labs, announced the move last Tuesday, and a Google representative confirmed the development to Business Insider. As part of this arrangement, the app will shut down on November 10.
The development originally surfaced in an unlisted Medium post that appeared to be prematurely published back on September 16. That post was eventually taken down, but you can check out screenshots of the draft here. Note the details that didn’t make it to the final announcement copy.
The acquisition sum was not publicly disclosed, and it is unclear from last week’s announcement where, exactly, the 60dB team will be situated within Google. (That unlisted Medium post, however, holds a clue, though no guarantees on its ultimate validity.) That said, I’m told that the editorial team — made up of three full-time staffers in Austin, San Francisco, and London, whose duties include production and the management of a network of freelancers — will indeed follow the rest of the company to the Googleplex.
Tiny Garage Labs’ pickup by Google takes place two years after its founding, and about a year after 60dB went live. The company was founded by two former Netflix executives, John Ciancutti and Steve McLendon, along with former Planet Money reporter Stephen Henn, who vociferously outlined his reasons for leaving the public radio system in a Medium post (what else?) published early 2016. “The biggest threat to NPR — and the 900+ member stations that are the life-blood of the public radio system — is that this big beautiful crazy system may not get its act together to make the jump into the digital age,” Henn wrote. “I want to help.”
60dB’s original premise broadly echoes ideas of platforms past. Its aim is some combination of solving the inefficiencies ingrained in the traditional broadcast radio experience — if you’re hearing something that you don’t want, your moves are either to switch across a relatively limited selection of channels or wait for time to pass within the confines of a specific station — and the newer inefficiencies that have emerged from the theoretically infinite choice horizon introduced by the Internet, including breakdowns in discovery and curation. The nature of the solution is twofold: (1) to usher in an audio creation environment in which the atomic unit of content is not an individual episode (whose lengths, as any podcast listener can tell you, range widely) but a short, individual story piece; and (2) to match listeners with appropriate stories through “algorithmic personalization.” (Which reminds me: best to keep abreast of the various recent discussions, debates, and diatribes about the intersection of news and algorithms.) The theoretical upside for publishers is also familiar: in theory, these short-form audio pieces, should publishers choose to produce them, will (presumably) be consumed by more listeners as a result of these solved inefficiencies. As far as monetization goes, who knows. “Right now, we’re working on nailing the experience,” cofounder Ciancutti told me last November. “Monetization will come next.” Okay.
60dB poses a strikingly specific interpretation of the digital audio consumption future, one that doesn’t naturally follow from the current configuration of the on-demand audio ecosystem and requires the development of whole new systems and environments. Which, I suppose, is why Tiny Garage Labs ended up at Google two years in as opposed to sticking it out alone; it’s a big vision that requires big investment in big manual constructions, which I imagine isn’t very attractive to VC money. A considerable portion of the company’s content value proposition involve a hands-on, sprawling production of individual story units — led by the aforementioned three-person editorial team — by an array of manually facilitated publishing partners, ranging from Wired to The Atlantic, which is a workable but not terribly scalable system without either building out an internal editorial headcount or cultivating a client culture in which publishers shell out for their own internal short-form audio teams. Now that the team is heading to Google (nobody’s idea of an organization that’s accepting of manual labor) I’m hard pressed to think that the manual production portion of the process will last very long. (Perhaps it’s time to pay close attention to the text-to-speech category.)
In any case, all of this discussion is moot unless we know just how Tiny Garage Labs — with its short-form, algorithm thesis — will fit into Google’s apparatus. (If it gets slotted meaningfully into somewhere, of course. Google acqui-hires all the time, and sometimes those absorptions grow into something, like Songza becoming the template for Google Play Music, and sometimes they amount to not very much at all, like FeedBurner.) One emerging theory: 60dB seems like a good entry point for news distribution via the tech giant’s recently announced foray in the emerging smart speaker category, the vaguely IKEA-reminiscent Google Home line. Indeed, the Amazon Echo has been getting a lot of love from publishers playing around with daily briefing Alexa skills. In 60dB, Google now has their means to play catch-up, if indeed they want to catch up at all.
So, what does this acquisition mean for anybody other than Google and everybody who held equity in Tiny Garage Labs? Really, what does this mean for publishers? As always, it comes down to how you feel about dominant platforms, and in particular, how you feel about Google’s position as one of the two corporate octopi that make up the so-called duopoly. It also depends on your feelings about Google’s ever-evolving relationship with the media industry, which nowadays is being funneled through its various Google News divisions, and whether you’d be comfortable operating in an environment largely defined by a much larger entity whose motives are never quite aligned with yours, whose processes of learning might be destructive as much as (perhaps even more so than) it is constructive. This isn’t a moral calculus, mind you. It is a calculus of practicality.
Tiny Garage Labs starts work at Google this week.
Will people pay for podcasts? Maybe. How about children? “We were waiting until we had a project that really made sense for the business model,” Panoply chief content officer Andy Bowers said, reflecting on a long-standing interest in the potential of paid podcasts. “The idea here, as with Netflix, is to sell something that simply couldn’t be found anywhere else.”
In this instance, that something is audio programming for children, which is the substance of the new paid listening service that Panoply announced a few weeks ago. The service is called Pinna, and for $7.99 a month (or $79.99 a year), parents can blanket their offspring with a variety of kid-oriented audio products, including podcasts and audiobooks. The service was first officially announced through a New York Times write-up in early October.
Pinna emerges as a fairly elegant solution to a key problem in the kids’ podcast category: that of its monetization. Under the current industry environment in which podcasts are principally ad-driven, the prospect of children’s programming has been limited by a general uneasiness about letting kids be an advertising target in the so-called intimate medium of podcasts. (The very nature of its effectiveness is also its downside). Interest in children’s podcast programming has surged over the past few months, with the industry seeing the emergence of a few notable initiatives to capitalize on it, including the formation of a loose collective known as Kids Listen and a foray into the genre by NPR, called Wow in the World, which is really an initiative driven by hosts Guy Raz (of TED Radio Hour and How I Built This fame, and a former Nieman fellow) and SiriusXM’s Mindy Thomas working through their own production company, Tinkercast. These efforts were great signals of intent and ambition, but these initiatives never quite appeared to meaningfully grapple with alternatives beyond assailing children (and their parents) with mattress ads.
Building a paid subscription service has always been an option on the table for anybody game to take it, of course. But that route requires not only significant resources but also a willingness to attend to an even bigger question, one constantly uttered around the industry: can you actually get people to pay for podcasts? Which is to say, can you start selling a media product that’s largely available to consumers for free, whose very origins are tethered in a tradition of free-ness? (Which is separate from the original question of Audible, as a culture and expectation of payment around audiobooks has been established since the very beginning.) And so here we are, with Panoply’s attempt to answer the twin questions of paid and children’s podcasting, which comes in the form of a service called Pinna, named after that weird dip in the outline of your ear. (Cute! Also, gross.)
Bowers pegged the origins of the project to a panel at WNYC Greene Space last February, when an attendee asked about the prospect of children’s programming. But the project only meaningfully began development about a year ago, when Panoply was able to get its parent company, Graham Holdings, on board with the idea. In January, the company hired Emily Shapiro, a veteran in children’s programming and the cofounder of the New York International Children’s Film Festival, to lead the project, which was then almost entirely produced in-house. The hire was not made public. “We didn’t want to tip our hand,” Bowers said. (Classic.)
Pinna’s inventory is built on a mixture of licensed material, like stories from Rabbit Ears Entertainment (Panoply serves as its exclusive online distributor), and original content, like the new Gen-Z Media show The Ghost of Jessica Majors. I’m told that there’s no hard and fast ratio between licensed and original content, but the composition naturally favors acquired content at the moment. To describe the platform’s trajectory, Bowers once again evoked Netflix, pointing out how that service’s offerings started out with licensed content, before the data gathered — through the app’s own in-episode listening analytics capabilities, which Pinna will boast — allowed it to start making focused choices with original program development. (By the way, it’s probably worth noting that most of Pinna’s resources are allocated to original programming.)
It should be noted that Pinna content won’t exclusively live behind its paywall. If you were to wander around your nearest podcast app listings, you would find the Pinna podcast feed, which features many of Pinna’s original content for free, without ads, but those episodes won’t be available indefinitely. (Which is to say, it will be an ever-evolving feed.) The feed exists in part to serve as a customer acquisition funnel, but Bowers maintains that it’s also driven by a civic orientation. “The hope is to have the content be accessible to children from across the socioeconomic spectrum,” he explained. “This is something I wanted from the very beginning.”
Let’s see where this goes. It’s only been a few weeks, and I’ll swing back after a month or so — preferably having commandeered someone’s App Annie account — to check in on the early stages of the gambit.
Some miscellaneous thoughts:
(1) So, Pinna isn’t the first example of an attempt to answer the question “Will people actually pay for podcasts?” (Which is a claim I’ve seen floating around, weirdly enough.) We have Audible, obviously, which still endeavors to build out an original content business on top of its primary audiobook-driven engine. And we also have Midroll’s own forays with the service formerly known as Howl, now genetically melded with Stitcher after Midroll’s parent company Scripps acquired the app from Deezer last summer. Midroll still seeks to build out a premium layer to that app configuration, primarily with its own adventures in windowing (as we saw with Missing Richard Simmons). With that in mind, I will say that Pinna strikes me as the first attempt at paid podcasting that’s strategically interesting. Audible and the Stitcher-Howl frankenstein both compete in the marketplace with inventory that’s virtually undifferentiated from much of what’s available for free over the open ecosystem. Pinna, for all that it is, is a reach toward an audience segment that hasn’t been properly cultivated among podcasts just yet, and offers products that still haven’t been “priced” as free within the ecosystem’s context. With that value prop in place, I think they have a good chance to extract at least some value.
(2) Speaking of which: why hasn’t Audible original content division made a play for the kids category? David Markowitz, a Hot Pod reader and audiobook production veteran, laid out a theory: “Audiobooks are the piece that gives [Audible] its value. Which is exactly why Audible doesn’t want to go there…they don’t want to fracture their audience,” the reader wrote in. “Kids audiobooks have never done well in Audible, though they do great in libraries. Parents love them. BUT within the Audible token system, a 15-minute kids’ book costs the same as a 14 hour sci-fi epic. So within that market, they’re stupidly overpriced.”
I asked Bowers for his thoughts. True to form, he avoided speculating much. “I’m surprised that they haven’t done it,” Bowers replied. “But I’m glad we got there first.” Sassy man.
(3) Additionally, Pinna is a notable example of a genre-specific listening app, a category that mirrors some of what we’re seeing in the OTT video sector (see AMC’s Shudder and the now-defunct Seeso.) Of course, Pinna isn’t the only effort in this category. Curious observers should check out an independent app called VSporto, which focuses on sports, and Laughable, which focuses on comedy content that more or less plays within Earwolf’s lane.
(4) One more: Pinna is the latest in what appears to be an increasingly sprawling set of businesses conducted under the Panoply banner, adding to a list that includes original content creation, ad sales, branded content production, and technology solutions (in the form of Megaphone). At what point is it diversification, and at what point is it madness?
No Pain is Novel. Ben Johnson, the former host of APM’s Marketplace Tech who recently moved over to WBUR, tweeted this at me a few days ago, probably in a moment of frustration as he develops a new show:
Dear @nwquah can you investigate the podcast name gold rush that has created a world in which no name hasn't been taken.
— Boo Brock Johnson (@TheBrockJohnson) October 13, 2017
*flashes of domain-squatting trauma*
Holding position for new Apple analytics. The iOS 11 update kicked in while I was away, and while listeners have received a brand new re-designed Podcasts app (complete with new episode listing formats), the long-awaited in-episode analytics layer — previously pegged to the update — is still nowhere to be seen. I’m told that it will come later this year, even though there isn’t much year left.
Publishers, it seems, will have to keep holding their breath. “It’s like Waiting for Godot,” one executive said to me recently. In the meantime, you can check out (or re-read) my previous coverage on the matter here and here.
In other blasphemous news, I do find myself missing the Old Podcast App.
The Third Coast Festival announces its award winners. They include: Stitcher’s The Longest Shortest Time, Love+Radio, Youth Radio, Gimlet’s Heavyweight, Radio Ambulante, Radio Diaries, Serial Production’s S-Town, the Center for Investigative Reporting’s Reveal, independent producer Laura Irving, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s PocketDocs, and Minnesota Public Radio’s 74 Seconds. Full descriptions here. Congrats to all!
The numbers. I’ve got some download numbers, and we’ll keep running them like baseball stats until the download paradigm stops being relevant.
- Dirty John, the salacious true crime collaboration between LA Times and Wondery, has picked up some heat since launching in early October. It started the week with 4.4 million downloads across its six episode run (~733k per episode average). Bolstered in part by a big Apple Podcast feature banner splash, the show has held the top spot of the charts over the past two weeks.
- Elsewhere, the Snap Judgment spin-off Spooked, broke a million downloads across five episodes (~200k per episode average) in its first month.
- The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s successful regional true crime podcast, Breakdown, will soon welcome its fifth season, and it celebrates the new cycle by sending out a press release in which the paper claims the podcast has received over 8 million downloads across 36 episodes, four seasons, and two years
The last five weeks. A month and a week is both a lot of time and not a lot of time at all. It follows, then, that a lot can happen without very much actually happening at all. Such is the feeling of the past few days, a good portion of which I spent scanning my inbox, Pocket archives, and various source pools to get a sense of a macro-story that’s emerged over the Hot Pod Hiatus of Fall 2017. Alas, I could find no such organizing narrative, so forgive my lack of comprehensiveness as I list out a couple of narrative threads that stood out during the hiatus:
(1) The industry wasn’t done with fundraising. Both Acast and Anchor drummed up new pots of money in September ($19.5 million in Series B and $10 million in Series A, respectively). Meanwhile, Gimlet Media secured an additional $5 million from WPP, the global advertising giant, for its recent $15 million Series B round, which is being principally positioned as a sign of confidence from a major player in the advertising community.
(2) HowStuffWorks has officially spun off from its parent company, a digital advertising company called System1. Now operating as an independent entity, it will weather its newfound freedom with a $15 million Series A fundraising round led by the Raine Group (background here). This development comes shortly after the nearly two decade-old Atlanta podcast company noticeably dedicated some investment to building out a West Coast operation, one oriented around the stalwart comedy podcast genre. That Western Conference — it’s still very competitive.
(3) Crooked Media, the new-age progressive digital media company founded by former Obama staffers that’s been primarily operating as a podcast network, has officially expanded into blogging. Or digital text. Or whatever you wanna call it. In any case, the budding media empire has begun its inventory diversification, taking on a distinctly Ringer-esque quality. My buddies at Nieman Lab published a pretty good interview with the company’s new text editor-in-chief, Brian Beutler, who was swiped away from the New Republic.
(4) I’ve never received more texts, emails, messages — from podcast execs all the way to casual Hot Pod readers — for a single podcast news story than I did for that TMZ story on the controversy hitting PodcastOne founder and chairman Norm Pattiz, which came with the headline: “PodcastOne Founder Sued: ‘He Pulled a Gun to Intimidate Me Into Fudging Podcast Data.'” Tabloid headlines being tabloid headlines, it’s always worth clicking through and assessing the details, and it’s worth noting that Pattiz has publicly disputed the claims. I’ve mentioned this previously, but whatever the actual end result of this suit, this is ultimately the first public major numbers fudging scandal of the modern podcast era.
(5) WNYC recently staged the third edition of its annual women in podcasting festival, Werk It, at the Ace Hotel in Los Angeles. This year’s festivities marked the first time the event was held outside of New York. And from the wave of press coverage, it seems to have gone well. Vanity Fair’s write-up, in particular, is comprehensive and well worth your time.
(6) I enjoyed this report on “Voice AI” assembled and published by the BBC’s Trushar Barot, which gets us a little closer to systematically thinking about wherever the emerging smart speaker category — which is effectively a bridge — is apparently leading us toward. And speaking of the BBC and smart speakers, the British public broadcaster has been experimenting with an audio drama delivered through the Amazon Echo and Google Home. Meanwhile, the wireless speaker company (and prominent podcast advertiser) Sonos has decided to play ball with the Amazon Echo and Google Home in a most interesting manner: by playing the role of platform.
(7) Three public radio operatives — KPCC’s Kristen Muller, KQED’s Umbreen Bhatti, and NPR’s Liz Danzico — have been researching the potential effects of self-driving cars on public radio listenership, which you could reasonably extrapolate and apply to other kinds of non-music audio products. “It feels distant for people,” Muller told Nieman Lab on the issue. “But for Umbreen and me, it felt very much like a now question.” I tweeted the article out, and summarily received emails from a few readers arguing that optimism over self-driving cars is overblown, that the timeline for adoption is nowhere close to being “sooner than you think” in the way that Nieman Lab’s headline suggested. I’d argue the timeline isn’t the point. Much like the Really Big One, it doesn’t matter whether it’s the next five years or the next fifty; planning for large-scale impacts should start as soon as possible.
So those are seven stories that stood out to me. Two quick ones before I toss to the Bites: apparently Terry Gross is a Twitter lurker operating under a pseudonym (I KNEW IT), and I recently wrote a brief overview of the short history of podcasting for Wired.
- Joel Meyer, one of the smartest and funniest operators in the industry, is heading to WNYC Studios, where he will serve as an executive producer. In doing so, he leaves WBEZ, where he held the title of Executive Producer of Talk Programming and Podcasts. Meyer is also a former Panoply staffer. He will work remotely from Chicago, and begins his tenure later this month.
- Looks like Barstool Sports has broken into Podtrac’s Top Ten rankings, both on a network and show level. (As always, disclaimers apply.) On a related note, ESPN is apparently bringing Barstool’s Pardon My Take, itself a kind of ESPN spoof, to television. An ouroboros, a flat circle.
- The Paragon Collective, the network behind the NoSleep podcast, gets a Fast Company profile. “I’m a TV writer so I’m very used to just writing for visuals. And so writing for an audio podcast, there’s no subtlety.” (Fast Company)
- The television adaptation of Aaron Mahnke’s Lore has premiered on Amazon Prime Video. This isn’t the first podcast-to-TV launch ever, but I perceive Lore as the first in this buzzy wave of narrative television adaptations. Reviews are still coming in, trending positive, and I imagine I’ll get to it at some point despite the current state of Peak TV.
- Bumped into this recently, and was impressed/amused: did you know that NPR has a branded podcast with Digiday’s native advertising team called The Podcast Payoff, which seeks to educate marketers about podcasts?
- Radio Ambulante is holding a live storytelling event in New York on October 26, with proceeds being to support ongoing relief efforts in Puerto Rico. (Event link)
- “The unlikely role of true crime podcasts in criminal justice reform.” (Quartz)
- Not directly podcast-related, but measurement-related: “TV Industry Leaders Developing Purchase Measurement Plan for Advertisers.” Value narratives around established forms of advertising — it’s all socially constructed, y’know? (Variety)