Turns out people really like podcasts after all (and now we have numbers to prove it)

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 149, published January 30, 2018.

One month in. When Apple rolled out its long-awaited in-episode podcast analytics last month, part of the anxiety (and excitement, really) was finding out whether, essentially, the world would end. Which is to say, whether this whole podcast thing was a bubble, a house of cards; whether perhaps many of the metrics the industry had been using to articulate, extract, and transact its value was nothing more than inflated abstraction, like the hollow vitality of a viral tweet lifted up by a golemnic army of stolen identities.

You can scratch that particular anxiety off the list. Over at Wired, Miranda Katz checked in with a few publishers one month in and wrote:

Though it’s still early days, the numbers podcasters are seeing are highly encouraging. Forget those worries that the podcast bubble would burst the minute anyone actually got a closer look: It seems like podcast listeners really are the hyper-engaged, super-supportive audiences that everyone hoped.

Among those quoted for the piece were reps from Midroll, Headgum, and Panoply.

But of course, whether podcasting was a bubble that better analytics would pop was always only half the question. The other half, whether the new data would lead to a boom, is a whole other bag of nuts. Katz writes:

On the business side, it’s likely that these high engagement rates and low levels of ad skipping will see a flood of new advertisers who have until now been reticent to enter the Wild West of podcasting — welcome news to anyone who feels about ready to throw their phone across the room any time they hear another ad for Squarespace or Casper.

We’ll see! When the analytics were first announced in the summer, Market Enginuity’s Sarah van Mosel told me: “This is certainly a step in the right direction. This is what we asked for and I thank the Apple team for hearing and responding to the podcast community. Now I want more.” More, as in the expected adtech bells and whistles like better targeting capabilities. More, as in anything above table stakes.

But hey, exciting stuff. I suppose this also means that Hot Pod will be somewhat relevant for at least a little while longer. Yay for jobs.

(Side note: I wonder how MailChimp, Squarespace, and Casper feel about their semi-lampooned ubiquity? Probably good, because ubiquity and synonymity with the rise of the medium is a plus, but there’s something about the mocking tone that suggests a more complex linkage.)

Big new clients for PRX. The Cambridge, Mass.-based podcast company announced two eye-catching partnerships yesterday: one with Night Vale Presents, the indie podcast outfit founded by Welcome to Night Vale creators Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor; and one with Gen-Z Media, the kids podcast company founded by the people behind The Disappearance of Mars Patel.

These partnerships will see PRX providing the two companies with marketing, ad sales, and technology support services. That third bit means that both Night Vale Presents and Gen-Z Media will be moving their portfolio of shows onto PRX’s Dovetail platform, which currently serves as the hosting provider for all podcasts in Radiotopia network. (Well, almost. The Allusionist migrates over in April.) Dovetail also hosts podcasts from Serial Productions, most notably handling S-Town’s monster run. (More information on that situation can be found in this column from last April.)

Gen-Z Media’s shows were previously housed on Panoply’s Megaphone platform as a result of a previous partnership struck last January, which saw Panoply supplying production, financing, distribution, and technology support. Gen-Z is also an active partner on Pinna, Panoply’s app-oriented kids programming initiative, for which the podcast company was reportedly developing a suite of new shows.

“Truly, we’re not moving away from Panoply,” replied Ben Strouse, one of Gen-Z’s principals, when asked for clarification on the company’s standing with its previous provider. “Our shows on Pinna will proudly stay there, and we’ll continue collaborating with them on new projects. Our partnership with PRX is all about connecting with new listeners and reaching bigger and bigger audiences for our upcoming shows. We’ve got to diversify our business in 2018 to continue growing, and PRX has a tremendous distribution network and highly respected collection of great podcasts.”

Gen-Z’s move to PRX caps off a complicated month for Panoply, in which the company saw (1) the departure of its kids programming chief, Emily Shapiro; and (2) Slate, its sister company, taking over its podcasts’ sales processes from Panoply.

For Night Vale Presents, the move appears driven by an eye towards scale. Its shows were previously hosted on Libsyn. “We’ve got nothing but positive things to say about Rob Walch and the Libsyn team. They were amazing to work with — we’ve been with them since the beginning of Welcome to Night Vale, and we’ve always been very happy with them,” said Christy Gressman, partner at Night Vale Presents. “That said, we’re really looking forward to working with PRX in a streamlined way, where we’ll get to use their sales team and sponsor management resources and distribution technology (via their proprietary Publish and Dovetail applications), along with sharing other resources.”

Locking down Night Vale Presents and Gen-Z is a pretty big win for PRX, whose operations continue to sprawl out in a myriad of directions. The organization has evolved several times since its founding in 2003, when it was originally built to serve as a technology provider and tool hub for public radio stations looking to take advantage of the internet. (This involved, among other things, the creation of an online marketplace for programming and station-specific app development services.) In its current iteration, PRX has espoused a renewed commitment to independent creators, a stance that has expressed itself through the creation of its “indie podcast label” Radiotopia; the Podcast Garage in Allston, Mass.; and providing end-to-end podcast services for select partners that fit into this indie worldview. The organization is currently led by CEO Kerri Hoffman, who succeeded Jake Shapiro in 2016 when Shapiro moved on to found RadioPublic.

So, what’s the big picture here? One could argue that PRX — with its indie-minded orientation, technology stack, and expanding ad sales capacity supplied by Market Enginuity — makes for a fascinating foil for Midroll, which has long established itself as the dominant full-service provider for a good deal of the emerging podcast ecosystem. It’ll be interesting to see how PRX will further express itself as distinct from its competitors, and what kind of clients it will continue to target and lure away.

On a related note: Radiotopia’s Criminal is working on a spinoff called This Is Love that’s slated for a Valentine’s Day drop. I wrote about the details for Vulture, but I’d also like to say: What the Criminal team is trying out here seems like a good model for creative teams looking to flex their muscles in different creative directions without necessarily compromising the consistent audience interfacing of their core economic/production engines. It sets up an advantage not unlike what you’re getting in the relationship between This American Life and Serial Productions, where talent can flow between the mothership and one-off projects.

This week in public radio:

1. Last Friday, WNYC announced an executive reshuffle that sees Dean Cappello — the station’s chief content officer and CEO Laura Walker’s righthand man throughout her two-decade-plus tenure at the station — demoted into an advisory role with no direct reports. Cappello was previously responsible for overseeing WNYC News and WNYC Studios, the station’s on-demand audio division. The shift comes almost two months after New York Magazine’s The Cut published a piece from the journalist Suki Kim detailing sexual harassment complaints and allegations made against The Takeaway’s John Hockenberry during his hosting tenure at the show. Kim’s story has since catalyzed a broader reckoning about the station’s management, which was deemed to have inadequately handled the Hockenberry complaints and, more broadly, manifested a culture that allowed for bullying, harassment, and discriminatory behaviors that have especially hurt women and people of color.

However, in a statement to Splinter, a WNYC spokesperson clarified that Cappello’s demotion was part of a strategic shift and unrelated to The Takeaway controversies. (Cappello directly oversaw The Takeaway and worked closely with Hockenberry for years, as a recent New York Times piece noted.)

It’s a peculiar clarification. But then again, if Cappello’s demotion was indeed meant to be the official response to the overarching concerns about the station’s culture, then it would have been an insufficient act of accountability. As it stands then, the station still hasn’t outwardly — or inwardly, as far as I can tell — indicated what it will concretely be doing to seriously address its systemic issues.

We may well still see…something from the station. In the WNYC News piece on the matter, it was noted that station management has brought in the law firm Proskauer Rose to investigate workplace conduct and former NPR executive editor Madhulika Sikka to review editorial content and structure. But for now, it feels like the impetus for change remains more centered in the hands of the station’s supporting member base, and how that constituency will collectively choose to alter the cost of reinforcing the status quo.

2. Minnesota Public Radio’s Garrison Keillor problem continues to be a flaming mess. A quick list of recent developments:

  • Last Tuesday, MPR News published an investigation going deep into Keillor’s troubling history of inappropriate workplace behavior around women. “An investigation by MPR News…has learned of a years-long pattern of behavior that left several women who worked for Keillor feeling mistreated, sexualized or belittled,” the piece wrote. “None of those incidents figure in the ‘inappropriate behavior’ cited by MPR when it severed business ties.”
  • That same day, MPR CEO Jon McTaggart published a note responding to several questions that have been sent in by listeners about the controversy. “The irony is that while MPR has been careful to protect Garrison’s privacy and not hurry any decisions, others have rushed to judge and criticize MPR’s actions without knowing the facts,” he wrote in response to one query.
  • A few days later, Keillor pushed back against MPR, MPR News, and an accuser through a statement published on his website and sent to HuffPost. “If I am guilty of harassment, then every employee who stole a pencil is guilty of embezzlement,” he wrote.

There remains a standoff between MPR management and Keillor, with the fate of the Prairie Home Companion archives — considered “historically valuable” by a curator at the University of Maryland, and to which Keillor holds many of the rights — at stake, as the Star Tribune reports.

3. NPR published the 2017 edition of its staff diversity numbers last week, which shows virtually no progress from the year before. Ombudsman Elizabeth Jensen with the details:

The overall racial and ethnic diversity of the news and information division remained virtually unchanged as of Oct. 31, 2017, when compared with the year earlier. Figures supplied by NPR’s human resources department showed the division of 377 people to be 75.10 percent non-Hispanic white (as self-identified). That compared to 75.4 percent the year earlier, when there were 350 newsroom employees. I’ll repeat what I said of the 2016 numbers, which showed only incremental change over the last five years: this was a disappointing showing.

Year-to-year, there were some small changes in the makeup of the remaining 25 percent of the newsroom. The percentage of employees who reported they were Latino or black rose slightly; Asian employees as a percentage dropped slightly.

Jensen’s piece unpacks a number of elements embedded in the station’s problem with employment diversity that’s worth thinking about, including a “trickle down” dynamic as well as the indirect impact of the broader public radio ecosystem’s lack of diversity as a potentially relevant factor in the station’s failure to adequately solve the problem. (One thing I’m personally wondering about, though, because I’m a yellow person: Why did the percentage of Asian employees drop slightly? Are we just, like, not talking more about that?)

But there is absolutely nothing new to be said about this issue that hasn’t already been said, not that doesn’t it have to be said repeatedly, ad infinitum, until the light of the sun snuffs out or the percentages actually change: This needs to be fixed, like now, and it’s ridiculous that the needle has barely moved, maybe even regressed.

In other news: Marjorie Powell, vice president of human resources, has left the organization. Current has some noteworthy background on the development.

Nope, not a good week for public radio.

Personnel notes:

  • Dave Shaw, the executive producer of podcasts at E.W. Scripps, has moved to Politico to lead the podcast team there. He started work today. Also at Politico: Bridget Mulcahy has been promoted to senior producer, and Micaela Rodríguez joins full time as assistant producer.
  • Vox Media now has a dedicated podcast marketing manager: Zach Kahn, who previously worked in the brand marketing and sponsorship division.

Dirty John in the age of Peak TV. The multimedia true-crime project from the Los Angeles Times is in the process of being adapted into two different series for two different networks, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

Bravo, home of the Real Housewives Expanded Universe, is reportedly “near a deal” for an anthology series based on the Times’ Christopher Goffard’s reporting and accompanying podcast (produced in collaboration with Wondery). It will be a two-season order; first season of that show will be based on the Dirty John story, while the second will focus on a new tale altogether.

The Oxygen network is the other suitor, having ordered a companion unscripted series focused on the subject of Goffard’s feature, John Meehan.

Three things:

    • Dirty John is the latest in a growing line of podcast-to-television adaptations, which you can read more about here, here, and here. At some point, I’ll put together a spreadsheet or something tracking the pipeline so we can figure out the split between fiction and nonfiction projects, true crime and non-true crime, so on and so forth.
    • The fact that Dirty John is being adapted into both scripted and unscripted forms is super interesting. How much juice can you squeeze out of a fruit? Depends on the fruit, I guess. Or maybe not?
  • This bit of news comes as the L.A. Times is increasingly engulfed by managerial maelstroms, including dramatic reshuffles in its management, sexual harassment allegations levied against publisher and CEO Ross Levinsohn, and a comically capitalistic parent company called Tronc that’s engaged in questionable business strategies to the detriment of its talented newsrooms. The situation remains fluid; I recommend following Ken Doctor and David Folkenflik if you’re tracking the story.

Macmillan outlook. The podcasting adventures of Macmillan, the international book publishing giant, can be traced back to the closing weeks of 2006 when John Sterling, then the publisher and president of the Henry Holt imprint, called up a science writer named Mignon Fogarty after reading about her rapidly growing podcast, Grammar Girl, in The Wall Street Journal. A phone call about a potential book deal turned into the mutual identification of a unique opportunity, which in turn led to the creation of the Quick & Dirty Tips Podcast Network, one of the earliest podcast publishing experiments by a non-audio native company. (Simon Owens has a great recent history of QDT on his website.)

The network has since grown into a robust and well-oiled machine. It is now over 275 million podcast downloads strong, having added 25 million episode downloads across 2017 to the 250 million in lifetime downloads the network had accumulated by the end of 2016. Fogarty continues to publish Grammar Girl, the network’s flagship program now flanked by an array of spinoffs, and she has published several books that direct extend from her work on the podcast. Meanwhile, Sterling, who continued to oversee QDT even as he ascended to the role of executive vice president at Macmillan proper in 2008, recently announced that he was stepping back from full-time work at the publisher to get into politics. The news comes shortly after he completed work as the editor of Michael Wolff’s Fire & Fury.

With delicious lore to spare, Macmillan is a fascinating figure in podcasting: an early adopter, a persistent player, and a singular operation. And last year proved to be no different for the publisher as it continued to work the on-demand audio angle.

At the tail end of 2016, I wrote about Macmillan’s ambitions to further scale up its on-demand audio operations with the formation of Macmillan Podcasts, a new internal venture that seeks to explore more systematic ways of bridging authors and podcasts. Led by Kathy Doyle, the company’s vice president of podcasts, the newly formed division spent the year setting the table — “We tripled the size of our team and put together a workflow that enables us to be nimble and responsive to requests from our publishers, as well as authors and talent, as we grow our catalog,” she said — and establishing their presence within the organization. This work was mostly tied in the development and rollout of new projects, of which there were five in the latter half of 2017 (Raise My Roof, Dig If You Will, Feminasty, Rossen to the Rescue, and Steal the Stars), but it also revolved around an internal awareness-raising campaign. “We did a road show introducing the potential inherent in podcasts to all our publishers and showcasing the ways we can help contribute to their success — no topic or narrative style is off limits,” she explained.

Steal the Stars, in particular, emerged as the standout project for the division. I first wrote about the podcast last summer, when Tor Books, a science fiction and fantasy-focused Macmillan subsidiary, announced the formation of Tor Labs, an experimental imprint “emphasizing experimental approaches to genre publishing,” which developed Steal the Stars as its first project. I loved the idea of Tor Labs; here you have a new internal venture that’s working to cultivate publishing projects that are meant to contemporaneously span across multiple platforms such that value can be simultaneously extracted from the different markets of different mediums. Such a setup vastly expands the surface area of a single project, dramatically increasing the work’s exposure and further allowing for the possibility of ushering more audiences to cross over between mediums. Sure, much like Subcast from last week, the whole thing isn’t particularly revolutionary — we do live in an age where just about everything gets adapted into any given direction, from podcasts-to-television to documentaries-to-podcasts — but the real innovation is the efficiency and contiguity of the arrangement. Every element is plugged in together from the outset, and that seems new to me.

Steal the Stars was indicative of what the bleeding edge for Macmillan Podcasts could look like. It involved close coordination between Gideon Media (which created and produced the podcast), Tor and Tor Labs, Macmillan Podcasts, and Macmillan Audio (which oversees its audiobooks operations), all collectively working together to ensure that every format of the show was set up to perform well within their respective markets.

Doyle considers the experiment a success. The podcast ended up clocking in a solid performance with listeners; I’m told that the 14-part run surpassed 1 million downloads and continues to perform well in the postseason. “Our strategy included taking the podcast content and adapting it into a trade paperback and ebook and just last week we released an audiobook with bonus content — we even did a prequel live event that sold out — all of which continues to drive interest in the podcast,” she explained. “We’ll be leveraging this model again.”

As far as the product itself goes, I thought it was a really fun listen. A sci-fi audio drama written by Gideon Media’s Mac Rogers, who also wrote The Message and Life After for Panoply, Steal the Stars was a comparatively straightforward narrative romp involving aliens, secret government hijinks, and romance.

So, what does the year ahead hold for Macmillan Podcasts? As you would expect, they’ve got a pile of projects in the pipeline. The division recently released a few trailers teasing two February launches: the first is called One True Pairing, which will be hosted by two St. Martin Press staffers — “Think My Favorite Murder for people who read US Weekly,” Doyle said, a description that sounds a lot like a Who? Weekly competitor — and the second is called But That’s Another Story, which “looks at how books and reading change and shape our lives” and will be hosted by best-selling author Will Schwalbe. More are on the way.

Doyle also notes that the year will be spent further building out key relationships, distribution points, and co-marketing opportunities within the industry. “We’re spending a lot of time thinking about ways we can collaborate with our partners in support of our authors and continue to innovate with new audio-first formats,” she said. You can already see some of that with Macmillan Podcasts’ participation in the marketing of Launch, a new podcast about writing a novel developed by Wondery.

Like most other podcast operatives, Doyle is thinking about the discovery gap — and where the closing of that gap will come from — as well as the longevity of the advertising model, which is the primary revenue channel for their show portfolio. That latter concern is pushing her to explore alternatives. “We’re open to additional models, perhaps working with distributors on a windowing relationship or developing exclusive content,” Doyle added. “It’s a case-by-case basis.”

But for now, though, Macmillan Podcasts is settling into itself. They remain occupants of a unique corner in the broader podcast ecosystem, hard at work figuring out how to add more layers to its niche.

Bites:

  • ESPN is reportedly exploring a sale of FiveThirtyEight. Should FiveThirtyEight break off from Disney — which owns ESPN, among so many other things — there would be considerable ramifications for the FiveThirtyEight Politics podcast and ESPN’s 30 for 30 podcast, as both shows share Jody Avirgan as a principal producer. (The Big Lead)
  • Gimlet is producing a live festival for itself. Called Gimlet Fest, it is scheduled to take place on June 16-17, not too far from their new 27,000-square-foot downtown Brooklyn offices.
  • A documentarian is developing a project about Joe Frank, and is raising funds on Indiegogo.
  • WBUR is launching its collaboration with The Washington Post, Edge of Fame, next month. The show is fronted by WaPo national arts reporter Geoff Edgers, and each episode will profile artists, actors, musicians, and comedians — including Ava DuVernay, Jimmy Kimmel, and Norm Macdonald — through a blend of interview and field recordings. Debuts on February 15.
  • Two shows to track on the local podcasting front: Nashville Public Radio’s The Promise, a limited-run series on public housing in the city, out now; and KPCC’s Repeat, which investigates the story of an L.A. County sheriff’s deputy who shot at four people in seven months. It starts February 7.
  • Variety has a big feature up on Spotify as the music streaming company sets off towards going public, titled “With 70 Million Subscribers and a Risky IPO Strategy, Is Spotify Too Big to Fail?” The piece is super useful to get a sense of what’s going on (and what’s at stake) for the company and its relationship to the broader music industry. Once you’re done with that, pair it with this Financial Times bit: “Songwriters’ court victory deals a blow to Spotify.
  • Not directly podcast-related, but maybe it can be: “A Bunch of TV Writers Are Building a Salary-Transparency Database.” (Vulture)
  • Because true crime is arguably the pulping heart of podcasts in 2018…”Hunt a Killer, One Subscription Box of Clues at a Time.” (The Ringer)

How can news organizations better prepare the next generation of editors?

The ideological spread of podcasts. It’s been…an interesting election cycle here in the United States, to say the least, one that’s caused me enough anxiety to burrow deeper into the insular, cord-cutting media cocoon I’ve built for myself — an assemblage of ye old newspapers (The New York Times and The Washington Post, mostly), cable TV (CNN, mostly), broadcast radio (public, mostly), social media (the ideologically self-reinforcing Facebook and Twitter, mostly) and, of course, podcasts — in a bid to find some assurance that everything will…be okay, I suppose, or whatever it is I’m trying to look for when I seek out election news.

Which isn’t a great way of doing things, of course, given that it’s a function of larger problems associated with media fragmentation and selective exposure (see the recent Wall Street Journal interactive feature “Red Feed, Blue Feed”) that’s believed to have exacerbated the country’s political polarization. Frankly, I buy this explanation of the present: the idea that the increasingly abundant, on-demand, and personalized nature of our news media has led to whole swathes of populations creating worlds and realities of their own that don’t have much reason to overlap and interact with each other, until they absolutely must (like, say, during a national election), in which case the result is pure combustion.

There was a Wired article by Charley Locke not too long ago that grabbed my attention — about a five-year-old conservative leaning podcast network called Ricochet — in which Locke characterized the podcast space to be disproportionately liberal. (Whether that refers to actual composition or representation is hard to establish; it’s related to all the ways we complain about the medium’s measurement difficulties.) Using the upper echelons of the iTunes charts as her principal dataset, Locke wrote: “There’s not much ideological diversity in the conversation…Podcasts have proven a viable platform to reach a liberal audience, just as radio talk shows have for conservative listeners. But what does that mean for the Americans in the middle?”

Of course, characterizing some media organization versus others as liberal is sticky business. Locke’s rubric places organizations like NPR, FiveThirtyEight, Vox.com, and Slate in the liberal bucket, a characterization that might be challenged by some of these institutions more so than others. (Indeed, NPR has had a long history of being accused of liberal biasa charge they constantly challenge — while one imagines FiveThirtyEight and Vox would orient themselves more towards analytical impartiality.) However, given Locke’s other more unambiguous examples — former Obama staffers Jon Favreau and Dan Pfeiffer’s Keepin’ It 1600 with The Ringer, and David Axelrod’s The Axe Files with CNN, both of which are expressions of that administration’s relative comfort with the medium , recently covered by the Times — her overarching point seems to hold: The podcast charts don’t offer very much in the way ofexplicitly conservative programming, and one could understandably draw a hypothesis about the medium’s larger ideological distribution from that.

There are a few noteworthy exceptions: The iTunes top 100 currently charts a podcast featuring Milo Yiannopoulos, the controversial writer and editor for the conservative Breitbart News Network who was recently banned by Twitter for racial harassment, and that show is distributed by PodcastOne. (That company is also home to a few other podcasts hosted by explicitly conservative personalities, like Laura Ingraham and Bill Kristol.) Earlier this year, the similarly conservative Jay Sekulow show broke into the top 3. Sekulow is an attorney and cofounder of the American Center for Law and Justice, a politically conservative activism organization that he cofounded with the often controversial Pat Robertson. But those examples are very few and far between, reinforcing Locke’s observation.

When I talked to Locke last week, she proposed a theory about the ideological spread: The medium’s liberal-lean is largely the result of its early adopters. As she thinks about it, relatively liberal media outlets (or media organizations perceived to be liberal) were among the firsts to develop content using the medium, laying down the foundation of its identity and eventually establishing themselves as the de facto “old guards” of the space. I’m partial to that theory, but I’m also tempted to wonder: Is there something about on-demand audio’s structural traits — and demographic spread, and so on — that uniquely supports liberal programming? (Conversely, do broadcast talk radio’s structural traits uniquely benefit conservative programming?)

“This whole thing ties into something I’ve been wondering about more broadly: Why aren’t there a lot more new media organizations oriented to conservative listeners?” Locke continued. I’m personally curious about where young conservative readers are, and where they look to get news.”

“They probably feel pretty isolated,” she added, wistfully.

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Local spaces. This Wednesday, PRX is holding a party to launch their new Podcast Garage, a recording facility and community space for Boston podcast creators. The space is part of Zone 3, a Harvard-catalyzed initiative developed to “explore experimental programs, events, and retail” along the city’s Western Avenue, which runs alongside the Harvard Business School.

“We want to foster a maker culture, create an environment of openness, and support storytelling,” said Kerri Hoffman, PRX CEO, when we spoke yesterday. “What we’re hoping to do with the garage is to bring all of those values right down to the ground at the local level, and create a physical hub for the Boston podcast community.”

The garage is stocked with studio equipment that’ll be available to the community via paid pre-booked rental arrangements and free studio times, which will be offered at certain times of day. Events will also be organized in the garage to brings podcast makers of all skill levels together, the first of which will be held on August 8 featuring a presentation by PRX Remix curator Josh Swartz.

“We really do think seasoned, local producers will make good use of our service,” Hoffman said. “But our sights are really on people who haven’t made a podcast yet, on the next generation. That’s what I’m really excited about.”

That’s the hook that really catches my eye about this project. Hoffman’s sentiment here echoes ideas that I’ve heard from similar initiatives across the country — ones that are also physically-oriented and locally-minded, like the Chicago Podcast Cooperative, which is run out of the lovely, non-descript Cards Against Humanity offices in the Lincoln Park neighborhood and managed by a great person named Claire Friedman, and the nascent XOXO Audio Studio, which is being developed out of the XOXO Outpost in Portland, Oregon by similarly great person named Tyesha Snow. Both operations involve a sense of bringing more people into the space who otherwise would not have had the opportunity to do so.

“We want to be a place that makes it easy for anyone to grab some studio space and make some magic,” Snow told me. “We believe that creation of the studio will spur all types of connections for the people…I can’t predict exactly what will happen over the coming year but people are ready and waiting. It’s going to be amazing.”

If there’s any force that would pull us away from any possible over-concentration of the podcast industry — and maybe, the production of media, more broadly — in New York and the coasts, I believe it’s going to be made up of local, physically-oriented spaces like these that makes opportunities more accessible in more places across the country. So if you’re working on an initiative like this, do let me know.

French podcasts. “Mainstream podcasts almost don’t exist in France,” wrote Charlotte Pudlowski, when we traded emails about the country’s on-demand audio landscape a few weeks ago. Pudlowski is an associate editor at Slate France, the French sister company of the American digital magazine, and is the person overseeing its emerging podcast strategy. She tells me that French podcasting mostly consists of repackaged broadcasts from Radio France, the French public radio equivalent, supplemented by some independent podcasts — “mostly talks,” she wrote, referring to conversational podcasts, a lot of which you can find here — and something called Arte Radio, which is reminiscent of a Third Coast-esque documentary directory.

Pudlowski is hoping to buck that trend by introducing longer-form narrative content to the mix. In mid-June, Slate France launched two shows: Transfert and Titiou, Nadia et les sales gosses (Titiou, Nadia, and their brats). The former features first-person narratives (or “narrative stories, told by the people who experienced them,” as Pudlowski phrased it to me), while the latter is a parenting show hosted by two Slate France writers which will mix formats on each episode.

Pudlowski was able to secure Audible as a launch sponsor, and it remains Slate France’s only audio advertiser for now. “We have made a deal for one year that corresponds to a number of minutes we have to produce in one year,” she said. “We’ll also look for other advertisers. But the contract with Audible doesn’t give us any fixed number of downloads or impressions we have to achieve, which gives us an amazing freedom of trying new things, taking risks.”

Things are looking pretty good for the two shows since they’ve launched, relatively speaking. Transfert’s first episode garnered 23,000 downloads in its first four weeks, while the second episode saw about 17,000 downloads during the same period. Titiou, Nadia et les sales gosses received about 13,000 downloads for its first episode. “We had not set a precise objective because it’s so new in France we had no possible comparison, but we’re pretty happy about it,” said Pudlowski, further noting that she was pleased with the attention the shows have been getting on social. The shows are hosted on Megaphone, the new CMS by Slate’s other sister company Panoply. (Confusing, ain’t it?)

I was curious about the potential market size for on-demand audio in France — its size, and opportunity. “It’s very hard to know because it is so new,” Pudlowski explained to me, pointing out that podcast listenership in the country isn’t widely measured just yet. “But what we do know is that French people are really into radio.”

Citing a December 2015 report from MediaMetrie, a French audience measurement company, Pudlowski tells me that more than 89 percent of the population listens to the radio every week and almost 82 percent every day, with the average French person consuming about 3 hours of radio on a given weekday and more than 2.5 hours on the weekend. That’s a whole lot, and one imagines that the bet here is that a good chunk of that listenership will carry over into on-demand, which is a transition bound to happen just about anywhere in the world.

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More on editors. Last week, I wrote about Planet Money’s hiring of Bryant Urstadt as the team’s new senior editor, contextualizing the hire within a larger conversation about an editing crisis not just in audio, but also in journalism more broadly. Given that editors more or less serves as the gatekeepers of curated, public information, I found the crisis absolutely fascinating, and it turned out to resonate with Hot Pod readers as well. Many wrote in to express their own thoughts on the matter, and many had the same question I had: how do you train to become an editor in the first place?

Curious, I reached out to Alison MacAdam, a senior editorial specialist with NPR’s editorial training team and the author of the Poynter column that sparked the conversation around the crisis, to explore the question. MacAdam, who was a senior editor on All Things Considered for almost 7 out of 12 years she worked on the program (and a former Nieman Fellow), obviously spend a lot of time thinking about the issue, operating from a place of having worked long hours in the trenches.

We spoke for a while, and I’ll break our conversation out in chunks here.

Clarifying the problem. “There are actually two separate challenges when we talk about the editor shortage and building a pipeline of editors,” MacAdam laid out. “The first is: How do content organizations train editors and create pathways for people to become editors? If you worked in, for example, WNYC or NPR, is there an explicit pathway if you went to your boss and asked to be an editor? Do they have an answer for you, or not?”

The second challenge has to do with the changing nature of what it takes to be an editor in this age where the fundamental structures of media are being increasingly disrupted (forgive the phrase). “What are the skills that editors need? That answer keeps changing because the industry keeps changing,” she said. “And because editing is a comparatively invisible craft, it’s that much harder to get the motivation to sit down and really think about the role: what they need to know now, and what’s timeless.”

When I asked her what, exactly, remained timeless, she replied: “Solid news judgment. Even if styles change there are some ways we distinguish good writing from bad writing. The ability to communicate is also really, really important.”

Identification. “I also think that, fundamentally, no matter what kind of editor you’re talking about, editors need a track record of making stories better. And that’s the conundrum — that’s really hard to identify,” MacAdam said. “That’s something organizations need to think about. How do you identify people you might think has potential, and what are the ways that we can give chances for them to prove themselves?”

MacAdam credits the emergence of on-demand audio with encouraging more unconventional editing approaches, many of which have increased the chances of identifying potential editors. One such approach is group-editing, a technique favored by teams like This American Life, Planet Money, and Gimlet. “It opens up the editing process so more people can take part and see what goes into shaping a story,” she said.

Independent opportunities. I was curious: if you’re not already in a newsroom, are there ways to create opportunities to learn? MacAdam seemed skeptical, but offered that the first thing to do would be to edit a friend’s work. “Though,” she was quick to add. “I think it’s worth noting that it’s really hard to qualify as an editor of stories, if you haven’t made stories yourself. I just don’t think anyone will trust that you know what’s good if you haven’t struggled to make what’s good.”

When I asked if being an editor is really something that could be self-taught, MacAdam seemed soft on that possibility as well. “Editing is about relationships,” she said. “It’s 50 percent story and journalism instincts — how is something structured? what’s the hook? — and the other 50 percent involves social skills. You can have amazing editorial, journalistic instincts, but if you can’t express your thoughts to people, there’s no real impact being made.”

But MacAdam concedes that there are things you can learn on your own, like listening (and reading and watching) closely to pick up on the micro- and macro- elements of story structure. “The macro stuff involves questions at a broad level: At what point in this story was I bored? Confused? Questions like pacing and structure,” she said. “And focusing on the micro is the ability to talk about lines and sound and the use of imagery in specific places, things like that.”

Job postings. “This might be interesting for you: It’s not like nobody is defining what an editor is. You can look at job postings to see how organizations are thinking about things,” she said.

And what are good examples of such postings? MacAdam points to an editor opening at Chicago Public Media, in particular. “I was really impressed by that posting,” she said. “It’s no surprise because that organization is run by someone who is really smart editorially, Ben Calhoun.” (Calhoun is the VP of content and programming at Chicago Public Media/WBEZ and is a former producer at This American Life.)

She also singled out the deputy managing editor for news position posted by Vox.com, pointing to a particular job requirement: “Clear, goals-based management style with proven success metrics,” it read. MacAdam expressed fascination over this. “I don’t get the sense that newsrooms prior to ten years ago had many ways of measuring success metrics. It’s a very new idea, or it’s an idea that come about because of technology,” she said. “Imagine a posting in 1985 for an investigative reporter in The Washington Post talking about success metrics. Hmm.”

  • Digiday has a pretty good writeup of Atlas Obscura’s sponsored podcast, Escape Plan, along with some interesting detail on the shape of the deal between the publication and the sponsor, ZipCar. (Digiday) And be sure to read this profile on Atlas Obscura (Washingtonian) along with this column on sponsored content more broadly. (The New York Times)
  • WNYC is open-sourcing its “audiogram” tool. (Medium, Nieman Lab) FWIW, I’m still pretty meh on the concept of audio clip distribution via social platforms as means of discovery, particularly after reading that 85 percent of Facebook video is consumed without sound — something I’ve understood to be reflective of more basic social media consumption habits. (Digiday) But hey, the point of these things is to break open paradigms, so my fingers are as crossed as ever.
  • NPR will end production of Best of Car Talk show (also known as Zombie Car Talk) as of September 30, 2017, though the show will live on as a podcast after that date. It is reportedly NPR’s third most consumed show, with a weekly audience of 2.6 million, though its existence is somewhat controversial among public media insiders. Current has a comprehensive write-up on the development, and you should check it out.
  • “Canadian podcasters are being drowned out by American offerings. Why?” (Metro Toronto)
  • The BBC’s iPlayer Radio app is now available in the U.S., which lets listeners access the full range of the institution’s radio feeds along with its podcasts and curated selections of past content. (Mac Rumors)
  • Al Jazeera’s Canvas Studio is launching an innovation competition called the “Future of Audio Challenge.” Audio technologists — check it out.

Are too many people skipping the ads in podcasts?

Ad-skipping. I wasn’t able to cover this last week, but it’s a topic you shouldn’t sleep on: The Wall Street Journal declared two weeks ago that “Podcasting has an Ad-Skipping Problem, Too,” and though I didn’t find the evidence provided by the article substantial enough to justify its strong headline — it drew upon an anecdote, a marginally representative Spotify data pool for a single Reply All episode, and the ubiquity of the skip-button feature across podcast apps — I did appreciate how the article is drawing more attention to a potential problem that the industry will have to deal with one way or another. (I myself have found this issue to be on the minds of several folks in the agency and advertising worlds, based on conversations I’ve had over the past several months.)

Two things on this:

  • Though I personally want to know the real magnitude to which ad-skipping is a problem, the actual severity of the problem is much less important than the perception that there could be a problem. As a relatively new medium with a fairly messy and opaque past, the podcast industry has to work twice as hard to win the trust of advertisers inclined to avoid spending money outside channels that more aggressively provide satiating feedback loops (like, say, Facebook) or that possess more buzz (like, say, Snapchat) or prestige (like television). And so articles like this from the Journal serve as a very good signal of the trust gap that the industry as a whole needs to beat in order to meaningfully grow the size of its advertising spend year-over-year.
  • In a lot of ways, the focus on ad-skipping — which is tied to larger concerns about meaningful impressions and potential count inflation — is a proxy in and of itself, because the real goal for any company spending advertising money to market its goods and services is conversion, either in the short-term or in the very long-term (as in the case of brand advertisers). Which is to say: You could beat this trust gap by hacking away at the ad-skipping fear, but you could also render that fear moot by strengthening the narrative around and belief in conversions, broadly defined.

Cool? Cool.

Another Upfront. The Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) is holding its second annual podcast upfronts on September 7 at Time Inc.’s Henry R. Luce Auditorium in New York. All eight presenters from last year — NPR, WNYC, ESPN, CBS, AdLarge, Panoply, Midroll, and Authentic (Podtrac’s advertising arm, now rebranded) — are returning, with four new additions in the mix: Time Inc., HowStuffWorks, PodcastOne, and Wondery.

I found last year’s proceedings to be somewhat chaotic but more or less successful in what it was trying to achieve, which was to familiarize advertisers with the podcast medium and a selection of its companies.

But despite the table-setting achievements of last year’s festivities, I’ve always found the general idea of podcasts — and new media formats, more generally — appropriating the ritual of upfronts…well, a little cute. The upfront model, which seeks to artificially create an acute and hyped-up advertising marketplace for upcoming content, is a carryover from the broadcast television industry, and the entire value proposition, structure, calendar schedule, and general lavish feel of the modern upfront is structured and optimized around the television industry’s particular traits, financial context, and history. I found this Adweek feature, written by Anthony Crupi and published in May 2011, about the television upfronts’ early years very instructive, particularly in this discussion on how the modern upfront was conceived:

At the time (1948), the network schedules were unfixed; rather than running on a September-to-May calendar, programs premiered at various times throughout the year. Upfront negotiations were synched to the studio development cycle; as such, upfronts would begin the week after Washington’s Birthday, wrapping up by month’s end. Then, in 1962, ABC forever altered the advertising landscape: In a bid to create a showcase for American automakers, the network shifted its entire programming lineup, setting its premieres for a single week in the fall. In so doing, ABC not only invented the broadcast TV season as we know it, but also ushered in the era of the modern upfront.

This passage illustrates an intentionality — and a tad bit of aggression — within the television industry to create and augment demand among advertisers where previously there might have been none. (Man, those folks knew how to sell.) And back then, television had the clout, cultural buzz, and resources to throw its weight around and do just that.

The podcast industry, on the other hand, is starting out on its back foot. It’s a relatively modest offshoot of digital audio that’s finding its legs in an era of increasing uncertainty in the value provided by media and publishing industries. And so it’s interesting, to me anyway, to see how podcast companies adopting the upfront model — aside from the IAB’s event, we’ve seen one organized by a consortium of public radio stations and a “NewFront” that mixed Gimlet with other digital media companies — actually reflects a more conservative stance: one that operates off the sense that you win trust by performing the rituals they do and by the looking the way they look, as opposed to creating new rituals, spaces, and market expectations of their own.

Planet Money has a new senior editor. And his name is Bryant Urstadt, formerly a features editor at Bloomberg Businessweek. Urstadt worked with several of the magazine’s most prominent writers, including Megan McArdle and Brad Stone (whose book on Amazon The Everything Store is one of my all-time favorite reads). His editorship also produced writer and developer Paul Ford’s “What is Code?” issue-length essay for the magazine’s June 11, 2016 edition — a thoroughly enjoyable package that remains one of the most clarifying and anxiety-inducing things I’ve ever read. To put it another way, Ford’s piece was perfect Planet Money material.

When I spoke with Neal Carruth, NPR business desk supervising senior editor, and Alex Goldmark, Planet Money’s supervising producer, about the hire, they expressed admiration over Urstadt’s body of work. “We looked really far and wide — we looked in longform radio, we looked at TV, we looked at the magazine world,” Carruth said. “And what we found in Bryant was strength in two things: the first is smarts about business and economics, and the other is just really great longform editing skills.” Carruth further pointed out that, under Urstadt’s influence, Businessweek consistently produced stories that the Planet Money team wished they did first — always a good sign of compatible sensibilities.

Urstadt isn’t unique in his transition as an editor from magazine features into longform narrative audio. The same arc can be found in This American Life’s Joel Lovell, who joined the team from The New York Times Magazine in late 2014. One could also argue that Hanna Rosin, currently the third cohost on the second season of NPR’s Invisibilia, followed a similar trajectory; Rosin is a veteran magazine journalist who has written for The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and The Washington Post.

I asked how a magazine background like Urstadt’s (and Lovell’s and Rosin’s) would inform the aesthetics, sensibilities, and structures of future Planet Money stories, and how that would differ if the team had recruited an editor from, say, the television world instead. “I think a worthwhile question to ask is: Which is closer to longform audio — short-form audio, like what you get from station reporters, or print magazines?” Goldmark responded, going broader. “Which two sets have more in common, and which show greater differences? I’m curious what people think.”

Remembering a recent Poynter column by Alison MacAdam of NPR’s editorial training team, which raised concerns about a systemic editor shortage, I asked Carruth and Goldmark whether they feel such a shortage exists. “I think it’s fair to say there is,” Carruth said. “I don’t see how it can be otherwise, given the explosive growth in the industry. There’s so much hiring happening, but there isn’t very much training up of editors…and even if we’ve been good about building an editor pipeline in the past, the rapid growth automatically makes great editors more scarce.”

“It’s not that there aren’t great editors out there,” Goldmark said. “They just aren’t in podcasts yet. It’s also not a question about where they are, it’s about how we find them — in magazines, in television, in documentary film — and make that transition into audio as smooth as possible.” Carruth concurs, adding: “It’s likely that a lot of them are already in audio, but it’s incumbent on us to make it a more attractive role. A lot of people want to be the voice of something, but we need to convey that there’s a lot of pleasure in being off-mic as well.”

Urstadt started work yesterday.

Gimlet’s Slack experiment. It’s been about a year since Gimlet first launched its membership program, and that span of time has seen early members (who pay $5 a month or $60 a year) being treated to an eclectic string of benefits: sneak previews of upcoming shows, t-shirts for annual subscribers, a few live Q&As, and even some bizarre yet enjoyable bonus content like the pilot of the reality TV-esque The Hunt, a project that came out from the company’s Mix Week. However, despite those deliveries, the program never felt particularly endowed with substance or intent. As a paying member myself, the returns struck me as afterthoughts, the releases way too sporadic to integrate into my (admittedly extensive) consumption calendar.

But ultimately, that never really mattered. Perhaps it’s the organization’s roots in public radio — a heritage that expresses itself on so many levels, from aesthetics to sound to the spirit of its marketing material — but at some point my brain just automatically filed my Gimlet membership expense away into the same cabinet as my annual pledges to WNYC, WBEZ, and Radiotopia. I’ve come to perceive it to be part of a larger act of “paying it back,” an indication of support for a service well provided and hope for more service to come. Of course, understanding my Gimlet membership in this way is a little troublesome, given the company’s activities with fundraising through venture capital. (Deep down inside, my capitalistic fairness calculus convulses.)

Anyway, that’s all a long preamble to talk about the new experiment that the company is rolling out for the membership program: a Slack group that connects members with each other and, to some extent, the Gimlet team itself.

“There’s a large precedent of media companies trying to engage [its communities] in a forum format, but the thing that feels so fresh from our standpoint is that, because Slack’s tech is so flat and because our team is basically already on Slack all day, it’s easier for us to mesh with the community,” explained Chris Giliberti, Gimlet’s chief of staff who was recently put in charge of the membership program, when we spoke over the phone last week. “It feels like we’ve invited them into our newsroom. That’s what I think is so special.”

The Slack group is certainly a kick, with flurries of conversation spontaneously erupting throughout the day across its 35 (and growing) channels — which greatly range in topic, from episode discussions to local meetup planning to breaking news observation. Frankly, it’s a little exhausting, but it’s a fascinating community to lurk around and watch nonetheless.

“Weirdly, it feels like Second Life,” Giliberti said. “People are making their own spaces and architecting their own program.” But of course, the experience isn’t meant to be entirely user-driven. The Reply All team has already tried crafting an interactive “call-in” episode off the Slack group, and an advice show is in the works using the platform. Giliberti expressed hope that the Slack will continue generating future opportunities for projects, both for the community and the company.

When I asked about how much the membership program is generating in revenue, Giliberti declined to discuss specifics. (Totally fair.) But he did point out that the Slack group displays about 1,300 registered members, and that this number represents merely a portion of the membership. (If you wanted to eyeball, you’d find that the program is generating at least $78,000 a year.) “It’s a small part of our business compared to advertising, but it’s a really meaningful part,” he said. “I think there’s a thought that it could be a much bigger part of the business in the future, but in the meantime, it’s a way for us to really connect with our audience.”

We’ll see how the Slack group fares over time, and whether it’ll eventually become the core that gives the membership program its shape, substance, and heft — a sort of center for its universe. But for now, it feels to me like a step in the right direction, and I’m really hoping the team figures it out as a viable alternative revenue stream — given that it isn’t entirely healthy for media companies to be overly dependent on advertising and it’s always important to diversify your business model, y’know?

“We fronted the costs of producing the show,” said Jacob Weisberg, chairman and editor-in-chief of the Slate Group, responding to a question about Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History during a recent episode of Recode Media. “Which, for something like his show that’s highly produced, are not insignificant.”

The Slate Group is the publishing entity of Graham Holdings, and it is the corporate entity that houses Panoply, which produces and distributes the hit podcast, which has been sitting pretty at the top of the iTunes hotness charts for almost two months now (at time of publication, the podcast has been on the charts for 52 days). According to the interview, Gladwell was not given a big advance to make the show — which, one expects, is a deviation from his deals in the publishing world — and is instead operating on a revenue share basis, which is how Panoply works with most of its publishing partners. File that away in your notes, folks.

NPR partners with iHeartRadio for distribution. The agreement would let the public radio mothership and its wide network of member stations distribute its live news/talk programming over the iHeartRadio platform, according to the press release. This comes weeks after iHeartRadio announced a similar partnership with Libsyn, one that sees iHeartRadio being a distribution point for the podcast hosted on the Libsyn platform. At this point, I’d like to re-up a point I made back in March about an impending structural convergence and reorientation of on-demand audio conceptualizations:

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

And to remind you on what I think the landscape will look like beyond that point:

Audio content produced for the Internet and distributed through the Internet will soon no longer be identified based on a singular technological method (the aforementioned “podcatcher”), but to the #content itself. And when that happens, what we’ll see is a narrative that’s less of a clash between an insurgent and an incumbent (“the future of radio”), but rather, a clash between content factions defined by generations, communities, and cultures (“a type/genre/kind of radio”).

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

Bites:

  • Podcast collective The Heard adds two new projects to its lineup: Erica Heilman’s Rumble Strip Vermont and Sara Brooke Curtis’ Today’s Special. The collective, which also home to Jonathan Hirsch’s ARRVLS and the wonderful How To Be A Girl, recently saw its first show graduation with Tally Abecassis’ First Day Back being picked up by Scripps. Keep an eye on this crew. (The Heard)
  • Speaking of Scripps: Katie Couric, the former television journalist and Yahoo’s current global news anchor, now has a podcast of her own with Earwolf, and she popped up as a guest on The Longest Shortest Time, another show on the network, which one presumes is a concerted marketing effort. (Earwolf)
  • Current.org is running a special coverage series on diversity in public media. Check it out, won’t you? (Current)
  • The grand opening of PRX’s Podcast Garage, billed as “a recording studio and educational hub dedicated to supporting to supporting audio makers at all levels,” will take place next Wednesday at Aeronaut Allston in Boston. (Boston.com)