Phew, we’ve apparently solved 97% of the podcast measurement problem — everybody relax

MEASUREMENT BITE. Been a while since we’ve checked back into what is arguably the most important subject in the podcast business. Let’s fix that, shall we?

“The good news for podcasters and buyers is measurement challenges are 97 percent solved,” Midroll Media CRO Lex Friedman said on a podcast panel at the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) Show last week. “What we can report now is more specific than we could before.” You can find the quote in this Inside Radio writeup on the panel.

Be that as it may, there’s still some work left to be done. I reached out to Friedman for his perspective on what constitutes the remaining 3 percent of the challenges left to be solved, and here’s his response (pardon the customary Midroll spin):

In TV today, advertisers would struggle if NBC used Nielsen ratings, and ABC used Nielsen but with a different methodology, and CBS used some other company’s measurement technology.

Today in podcasting, the measurement problem is solved; the remaining 3 percent is getting everyone standardized. It doesn’t happen often, but every once in a while, Midroll loses a show to a competitor. When we sell a show at 450,000 downloads, and the next day the same show and same feed is being sold at 700,000 downloads, that’s a problem.

The IAB’s recommended a 24-hour measurement window, while some folks still advocate for 60 minutes or two hours, and too many vendors continue to sell at 5 minutes, which we universally know is way too liberal a count. That’s unfair and confusing to advertisers, and that’s the piece that needs fixing.

That’s no small 3 percent, in my opinion.

Anyway, if you’re new to the podcast measurement problem, my column from February 2016 — back when a group of public radio stations published a set of guidelines on the best way for podcast companies to measure listenership — still holds up as a solid primer on the topic, if I do say so myself.

Fool’s gold? Something else to note from Inside Radio’s article on the NAB panel: a strong indication, delivered by Triton Digital president of market development John Rosso, that there is increasing demand for programmatic podcast advertising.

Programmatic advertising is a system by which ads are automatically bought and sold through algorithmic processes. In other words, it’s a monetization environment where the facilitation of advertising value exchange is automated away from human interaction. The principal upside that comes with programmatic advertising is efficiency: As an advertiser, you theoretically don’t have to spend a lot of time identifying, contacting, and executing buys, and as a publisher, you theoretically don’t have to spend a lot of time doing those things in the opposite direction. In theory, both sides don’t have to do much more work for a lot more money. But the principal downside is the ensuing experience on listener-side, and all the ramifications that fall from a slide in said experience: Because these transactions are machine-automated, there’s no human consideration governing the aesthetic intentionality of an advertising experience paired with the specific contexts of a given podcast.

Combine this with the core assumptions of what makes podcasting uniquely valuable as a media product — that it engenders deeper experiences of intimacy between creator and listener, that its strength is built on the cultivated simulacra of personal trust between the two parties, that any podcast advertising spot is a heavy act of value extraction from the relationship developed between the two sides — and you have a situation where a digital advertising technology is being considered for a medium to which its value propositions are diametrically opposed.

The underlying problem, put simply: Can you artificially scale up podcasting’s advertising supply without compromising its underlying value proposition? To phrase the problem in another direction: Can you develop a new advertising product that’s able to correspondingly scale up intimacy, trust, and relationship-depth between podcast creator and consumer?

The answer for both things may well be no, and that perhaps the move shouldn’t be to prescribe square pegs for round holes. Or maybe the response we’ll see will sound more like “the way we’re doing things isn’t sustainable, we’re going to have to make more money somehow” with the end result being an identity-collapsing shift in the defining characteristics of this fledgling medium. In which case: Bummer, dude.

Binge-Drop Murphies. Gimlet announced its spring slate last week, and two out of three of them, the audio drama Sandra and the Lynn Levy special The Habitat, will be released in their entirety tomorrow. When asked about the choice to go with the binge-drop, Gimlet president Matt Lieber tells me:

We decided to binge both The Habitat and Sandra because we felt that they were both so engrossing and engaging, so we wanted to give the listener the decision to either power through all the episodes, or sample and consume at their own pace. Sandra is our second scripted fiction series and we know from our first, Homecoming, that a lot of people chose to binge the series after it was out in full. With The Habitat, it’s such a unique and immersive miniseries, and we wanted to give listeners the chance to get lost in the world by listening all at once.

Grab your space suits, fellas.

The beautiful game. The third show in Gimlet’s spring bundle is We Came To Win, the company’s first sports show, which promises to deliver stories on the most memorable soccer matches in history. The press release appears to be playing up the universal angle of the sport: “Soccer is a sport that is about so much more than goals. It’s about continents, countries, characters, and the relationships between them.” (I mean, yeah.)

In an interesting bit of mind-meld, Gimlet’s first foray into sports mirrors WNYC Studios’ own maiden voyage into the world of physical human competition. Sometime this spring, the New York public radio station will roll out its own World Cup-timed narrative podcast, a collaboration with Men in Blazers’ Roger Bennett that will look the U.S. Men’s National Soccer Team’s journey from its triumphant 1994 World cup appearance to its doomed 1998 campaign. (Yikes.)

Public radio genes run deep.

Peabody nominations. The 2017 nominations were announced last week, and interestingly enough, six out of the eight entries in the Radio/Podcast category are either podcast-only or podcast-first. The nominees are: Radiotopia’s Ear Hustle, Minnesota Public Radio’s 74 Seconds, Serial Productions’ S-Town, the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University’s Scene on Radio: Seeing White, Gimlet’s Uncivil, and Louisville Public Media/Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting’s “The Pope’s Long Con.

Notes on The Pope’s Long Con. It was an unbelievable story with unthinkable consequences. Produced by the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting (KyCIR) and Louisville Public Media, The Pope’s Long Con was the product of a seven-month long investigation into Dan Johnson, a controversial bishop-turned-Kentucky state representative shrouded in corruption, deceit, and an allegation of sexual assault. KyCIR’s feature went live on December 11, bringing Johnson’s story — and the allegations against him — into the spotlight. The impact was explosive, leading to immediate calls for Johnson to resign. He denied the allegations at a press conference. Two days later, Johnson committed suicide.

It was “any journalist’s nightmare,” as KyCIR’s managing editor Brendan McCarthy told CJR in an article about how the newsroom grappled with the aftermath of its reporting. (Which, by the way, you should absolutely read.)

In light of those circumstances, the podcast’s Peabody nomination feels especially well-deserved. It’s also a remarkable achievement for a public radio station relatively new to podcasting. “The Pope’s Long Con was the first heavy-lift podcast Louisville Public Media had undertaken,” Sean Cannon, a senior digital strategist at the organization and creative director of the podcast, tells me. “It didn’t start out as one though…Audio was planned, but it was a secondary concern. Once we realized the scope and gravity of it all, we knew everything had to be built around the podcast.”

When I asked Cannon how he feels about the nomination, he replied:

Given the situation surrounding the story, it’s still a confusing mix of emotions to see The Pope’s Long Con reach the heights it has. That said, we’re all immensely proud of the work we did. It’s necessary to hold our elected officials accountable.

In the context of the podcast industry, it taught me a lesson that can be easy to forget. I was worried the hierarchy of publishers had become too calcified, rendering it almost impossible for anyone below the top rungs to make serious waves — without a thick wallet, anyway. It’s a topic that comes up regularly in Hot Pod.

While the industry will never purely be a meritocracy, The Pope’s Long Con shattered that perception. It served as a reminder of something that gets glossed over when you’re caught up in the business of it all: If you can create compelling audio, that trumps everything else.

Tip of the hat, Louisville.

Crooked Media expands into film. According to The Hollywood Reporter, the media (political activism?) company will be co-producing a new feature documentary on Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke’s bid to unseat Senator Ted Cruz in the upcoming midterm elections. This extends on Crooked Media’s previous adventures in video, which already involve a series of HBO specials to be taped across the country amidst the run-up to midterms.

A quick nod to Pod Save America’s roots as The Ringer’s Keepin’ It 1600 here: Crooked Media will likely crib from the playbook The Ringer built around the recent Andre the Giant HBO documentary, which was executive produced by Ringer CEO Bill Simmons, where the latter project received copious promotion through The Ringer website and podcast network. What’s especially interesting about that whole situation is the way it is essentially a wholesale execution of what I took as the principal ideas from the analyst Ben Thompson’s 2015 post “Grantland and the (Surprising) Future of Publishing.”

I’m not sure if I’d personally watch a Beto O’Rourke doc — the dude has been a particularly vibrant entry into the “blue hope in red country” political media subgenre for a long while now, and I’m tapping out — but Pod Save America listeners most definitely would.

Empire on Blood. My latest for Vulture is a review of the new seven-part Panoply podcast, which I thought was interesting enough as a pulpy doc but deeply frustrating in how the show handles its power and positioning. It’s a weird situation: I really liked host Steve Fishman’s writing, and I really liked the tape gathered, but the two things really shouldn’t have been paired up this way.

The state of true crime podcasts. You know you’re neck-deep in something when you can throw out random words and land close to an actual example of that something: White Wine True Crime, Wine & Crime, Up & Vanished, The Vanished, Real Crime Profile, True Crime Garage, Crimetown, Small Town Murders, and so on. (This is a general observation that goes well beyond true crime pods. Cryptocurrencies: Sumokoin, Dogecoin, PotCoin. Food startups: Plated, Pantry, PlateIQ. Names: Kevin.)

Anyway, I’ve said it once, and I’ll say it again: True crime is the bloody, bleeding heart of podcasting, a genre that’s proliferating with a velocity so tremendous it could power a dying sun. And in my view, true crime podcasts are also a solid microcosm of the podcast universe as a whole: What happens there, happens everywhere.

When it comes to thinking about true crime podcasts, there are few people whose opinions I trust more than crime author, podcaster, and New Hampshire Public Radio digital director Rebecca Lavoie. As the cohost of the indispensable weekly conversational podcast Crime Writers On… — which began life as Crime Writers On Serial, a companion piece to the breakout 2014 podcast phenomenon — Lavoie consumes and thinks a lot about true crime and true crime podcasts specifically.

I touched base with Lavoie recently to get the latest on what’s been going on in her neck of the woods:

[storybreak]

[conl]Hot Pod: In your view, how has the true crime podcast genre evolved over the past four years or so?[/conl]

[conr]Rebecca Lavoie: It’s evolved in a few directions — some great, some…not so much.

On the one hand (and most wonderfully), we have journalism and media outlets who would never have touched the true crime genre a few years ago making true crime podcasts based on the tenets of great reporting and production. And when it comes to the “never would have touched it” part, I know what I’m talking about. Long before I was a podcaster, I was the coauthor of several mass-market true crime books while also working on a public radio show. Until Criminal was released and enjoyed some success, public radio and true crime never crossed streams, to an extent where I would literally avoid discussing my true crime reporting at work — it was looked down upon, frankly.

Today, though, that kind of journalistic snobbery is almost non-existent, and podcasts (especially Criminal and Serial) can claim 100 percent responsibility for that. Shows that exist today as a result of this change include Accused from the Cincinnati Enquirer, West Cork from Audible, Breakdown from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, In the Dark from APM reports, and the CBC’s recent series Missing & Murdered. (And yes, even the public radio station where I still work — now on the digital side — is developing a true crime podcast!)

Credit is also due to Serial for the way journalism podcasts are being framed as true crime when they wouldn’t have been in a pre-Serial era. Take Slow Burn from Slate, which is the best podcast I’ve heard in the past year or two. While the Watergate story would have been so easy to frame as a straight political scandal, the angles and prose techniques used in Slow Burn have all the hallmarks of a great true crime narrative — and I’m pretty sure the success of that show was, at least in part, a result of that.

Of course, where you have ambitious, high-quality work, you inevitably have ambitious terrible work, right? It’s true, there are very big and very bad true crime podcasts being produced at an astonishing rate right now, and because they have affiliation with established networks, these shows get a lot of promotion. But as much as I might personally love to hate some of these terrible shows (I’m talking to YOU, Atlanta Monster!) I do see some value in their existence.

I think about it the same way I think about movies: Not every successful big budget blockbuster is a good movie, but ultimately, those films can serve to raise the profile and profitability of the movie industry as a whole, and help audiences discover other, higher-quality content.[/conr]

[conl]Hot Pod: What do you think are the more troubling trends in how true crime podcasts have evolved?[/conl]

[conr]Lavoie: One is what I see as a glut of podcasts that are, quite frankly, building audience by boldly recycling the work of others. Sword & Scale is a much-talked-about example of that, but it’s not even the worst I’ve come across. There was a recent incident in which a listener pointed me to a monetized show in which the host simply read, word for word, articles published in magazines and newspapers — and I can’t help but wonder how pervasive that is. My hope is that at some point, the transcription technologies we’re now seeing emerge can somehow be deployed to scan audio for plagiarism, similar to the way YouTube scans videos for copyright infringement.

But there’s another trend that, for me, is even more troubling. There’s been a recent and massive growth of corporate podcast networks that are building their businesses on what I can only compare to the James Patterson book factory model — basically saying to creators, “Hey, if you think you have a story, partner with us and we’ll help you make, distribute, and monetize your podcast — and we’ll even slap our name on it!”

This, unfortunately, seems to be what’s behind a recent spate of shows that, in the hands of a more caring set of producers, could have (maybe?) been good, but ultimately, the podcasts end up being soulless, flat, “why did they make it at all” experiences.

Why is this the most upsetting trend for me? First, because good journalists are sometimes tied to these factory-made shows, and the podcasts aren’t doing them, or their outlets, or the podcast audience as a whole any favors.

The other part of it is that these networks have a lot of marketing pull with podcast platforms that can make or break shows by featuring them at the top of the apps. These marketing relationships with Apple etc. mean factory networks have a tremendous advantage in getting their shows front and center. But ultimately, many of the true crime podcasts getting pushed on podcast apps are very, very bad, and I can’t imagine a world in which a lot of bad content will end up cultivating a smart and sustainable audience.[/conr]

[conl]Hot Pod: In your opinion, what were the most significant true crime podcasts in recent years?[/conl]

[conr]Lavoie: In the Dark by APM Reports is up there. What I love about that show is that they approached the Jacob Wetterling story with an unusual central question: Why wasn’t this case solved? (Of course, they also caught the incredibly fortunate break of the case actually being solved, but I digress…) Theirs is a FAR more interesting question than, say, “What actually happened to this missing person?” Or “Is this person really guilty?” Of course, In the Dark also had the benefit of access to a talented public media newsroom, and I really enjoyed how they folded data reporting into that story.

I most often tell people that after Serial season one, my favorite true crime podcast of all time is the first season of Accused. Not only do I love that show because it looks at an interesting unsolved case, but I love it because it was made by two women, seasoned newspaper journalists, with no podcasting experience. Amber Hunt is a natural storyteller and did an amazing job injecting a tremendous amount of humanity and badass investigative journalism skills into that story. It’s not perfect, but to me, its imperfections are a big part of what makes it extraordinary.

More recently, I’ve really enjoyed the shows I mentioned above, including West Cork and Missing & Murdered. But when it comes to significance, Slow Burn is the most understated and excellent audio work I’ve heard in a long time. I loved every minute of it. I think that Slate team has raised the bar on telling historical crime stories, and we’re the better for it.[/conr]

[conl]Hot Pod: What do you generally want to see more of from true crime podcasts?[/conl]

[conr]Lavoie: I want to see more new approaches and formal risk-taking, and more integrity, journalistic and otherwise.

One of my favorite podcasts to talk about is Breakdown from the AJC. Bill Rankin is the opposite of a radio reporter — he has a folksy voice and a writing style much more suited to print. But beginning in season one, he’s been very transparent about the challenges he’s faced while making the show. He’s also, as listeners quickly learned, an incredible reporter with incredible values. That show has embraced multiple formats and allowed itself to evolve — and with a couple of exceptions, Bill’s voice and heart have been at the center of it.

I’d also love to see some trends go away, most of all, this idea of podcast host as “Hey, I’m not a podcaster or a journalist or really anyone at all but LET’S DO THIS, GUYS” gung-ho investigator.

Don’t get me wrong, some really good podcasts have started with people without a lot of audio or reporting experience, but they aren’t good because the person making them celebrates sounding like an amateur after making dozens of episodes.[/conr]

[storybreak]

Again, you can find Lavoie on Crime Writers On…, where she is joined every week by: Kevin Flynn, her true crime coauthor (and “former TV reporter husband,” she adds); Toby Ball, a fiction writer; and Lara Bricker, a licensed private investigator and fellow true crime writer. Lavoie also produces a number of other podcast projects, including: …These Are Their Stories: The Law & Order Podcast, HGTV & Me, and Married With Podcast for Stitcher Premium.

On a related note: The New York Times’ Jonah Bromwich wrote a quick piece on the Parcast network, described as “one of several new networks saturating the audio market with podcasts whose lurid storylines play out like snackable television.” The article also contains my successful effort at being quoted in ALL CAPS in the Times.

Bites:

  • This year’s Maximum Fun Drive has successfully accrued over 28,000 new and upgrading members. (Twitter) Congrats to the team.
  • WBUR is organizing what it’s calling the “first-ever children’s podcast festival” on April 28 and 29. Called “The Mega Awesome Super Huge Wicked Fun Podcast Playdate” — shouts to whoever came up with that — the festival will be held at the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline, Massachusetts and will feature shows like Eleanor Amplified, Story Pirates, But Why, and Circle Round, among others. (Website)
  • “Bloomberg expands TicToc to podcasts, newsletters.” For the uninitiated: TicToc is Bloomberg’s live-streaming video news channel that’s principally distributed over Twitter. On the audio side, the expansion appears to include podcast repackages and a smart-speaker experiment. (Axios)
  • American Public Media is leaning on Westwood One to handle advertising for the second season of its hit podcast In The Dark. Interesting choice. The new season drops next week. (AdWeek)
  • I’m keeping an eye on this: Death in Ice Valley, an intriguing collaboration between the BBC and Norway’s NRK, debuted yesterday. (BBC)
  • Anchor rolls out a feature that helps its users find…a cohost? Yet another indication that the platform is in the business of building a whole new social media experience as opposed to something that directly relates to podcasting. (TechCrunch)
  • On The New York Times’ marketing campaign for Caliphate: “The Times got some early buzz for the podcast before its launch; 15,000 people have signed up for a newsletter that will notify them when a new episode is ready, twice as many as expected.” (Digiday)
  • “Alexa Is a Revelation for the Blind,” writes Ian Bogost in The Atlantic.

[photocredit]Photo of a tape measure by catd_mitchell used under a Creative Commons license.[/photocredit]

Which is the bigger morning news podcast, The Daily or NPR’s Up First? And does it matter?

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 134, published August 29, 2017.

Art19 closes out a busy August. Last week, the California-based technology company announced a $7.5 million Series A funding round led by Bertelsmann Digital Media Investments and DCM Ventures. This makes Art19 the third podcast venture to issue such a pronouncement this month, after Gimlet Media and DGital Media (which now goes by a whole different name, by the way — more on that in a bit).

Sean Carr, Art19’s CEO, tells me that the new funds will primarily be used to increase its headcount and reach. “We’re going to accelerate product development by hiring more designers and developers,” he said. “And we’re going to expand our business team so that we can continue offering high touch support to our U.S. customers and start expanding into international markets.”

I asked if Art19 was going to maintain its focus on bigger clients (its customer list includes Wondery, the New York Times, and DGital Media, among others, and it’s also the default hosting choice for Midroll Media’s network) or whether there were plans to open up its platform for the broader self-serve, plug-and-play market that’s primarily cornered by older companies like Libsyn, which continues to grow. (Libsyn’s revenues grew 22 percent between 2015 and 2016, up to about $8.8 million, while its number of hosted podcasts grew 24 percent in that same time period, according to its 10-K.)

“We work with some smaller shows and individual users now,” Carr tells me. “It’s not our focus now, because we want to offer white glove support to our customers and that’s tough to do with a lot of volume. But as we scale our business, we will definitely broaden our product offering and our target market.”

That’s one way to do it, I guess.

A rose by any other name. DGital Media, the podcast company that provides production and ad sales support to organizations like Crooked Media and individual talent like Tony Kornheiser, is undergoing a substantial rebranding. It will now go by the name of Cadence13, and the company accompanied this announcement with news of several additions to its leadership team. You can find the full list of those people in the press release. Nothing really stands out to me in particular, other than the detail concerning the company’s intent to cultivate more logistics-related capabilities throughout the country.

They’ve also moved their offices to midtown Manhattan, in case anybody cares about the significance of corporate real estate. (FWIW, I totally do.)

Anyway, this development comes shortly after the announcement earlier this month that the company has received investment from (and is entering a strategic partnership with) the corporate broadcast radio giant Entercom. Specifically, Entercom paid $9.7 million for a 45 percent stake in Cadence13, and the former will also provide “‘significant’ annual marketing and promotion” across its broadcast infrastructure for the latter. I wrote about that situation, and provided some long-term analysis for the company, here. My thinking on the matter remains largely the same.

Also interesting, I suppose: The company’s client list now includes Girlboss Media, which recently relaunched its podcast. That podcast was once part of the Panoply network, curiously enough.

Can I get a topic, any topic? Podcasting has long been good shelter for the comedy world, consistently proving itself able in taking on many parts of that ecosystem. It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that (really longform) improvisational comedy would make its way into podcasting and germinate into a budding sub-genre of its own. Hello from the Magic Tavern, a child of the Chicago Podcast Collective and now a fully grown teenager under the auspices of Earwolf, is perhaps the first prominent example of (excessively longform) improvisational comedy distributed through RSS feeds, and it appears that its success is breeding successors.

Described as an “improvised sci-fi sitcom,” Mission to Zyxx is an upcoming podcast project that seeks to blend the instant world-building tasks inherent to improv with aggressive editing and creative sound design. It’s being spearheaded by one Alden Ford, a New York-based comedian, who currently serves as the show’s executive producer, and the podcast is staffed by a team principally drafted from the New York comedy scene — the press release makes some hay about its distinction from the more prominent Los Angeles scene — including Jeremy Bent, Allie Kokesh, Winston Noel, Moujan Zolfaghari, and Seth Lind (who, by the way, also serves as This American Life’s director of operations).

Somewhat more germane to our interests is the fact that the project is part of Audioboom’s initial foray into original programming, whose rollout is well underway. That slate also includes: another podcast from the Undisclosed team called The 45th, which is another Trump analysis show, and a new upcoming project by the team behind Up and Vanished, called Fork, among others.

What does being part of Audioboom’s network mean for the Zyxx team, exactly? I’m told that the deal involves Audioboom paying an advance to offset production costs, along with generally being responsible for a substantial marketing push around the show’s launch. (Which is table-stakes stuff, as far as such arrangements go these days.) And in case you’re wondering, the Mission to Zyxx team is compensated based on a revenue split, as is customary.

Facts and figures and trust. Last week saw the publication of two documents — one from the research firm Nielsen, one from the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) — that are both meant, in their own ways, to increase trust, familiarity, and the general level of knowability in podcasting among advertisers. (They’re also meant to increase the profiles of their respective publishers within their respective functions; for Nielsen, it’s to serve as a prime provider of business intelligence for the industry, and for the IAB, it’s to serve as a reliable advocate for the industry, in so far that it can.)

Nielsen’s document, “Podcast Insights Report,” is the first podcast-related inquiry for the research firm, and it attempts to say something about the shopping habits of the average podcast consumer in relation to particular item categories. Specifically, it examines the preferred brands and spending volumes of podcast listeners in bottled water, beer, and baby food categories (a curiously alliterative mix). It’s a useful tool for sellers to add to their kit, but it’s also fairly interesting to skim through if you’re a civilian — there are tidbits like “the podcast audience influences over $2.8 billion of bottled water sales annually,” and “popular beer brands among podcast consumers include Sam Adams and Coors,” stuff like that.

Also interesting in the report: a more general demographic finding that non-white podcast listenership has increased over the past six years, from 30 percent in 2010 to 36 percent in 2016.

Published ahead of its third annual podcast upfronts, the IAB’s document is a “playbook” designed to introduce potential brands, advertisers, and marketers to the basics of buying into the medium. In other words, it’s another primer for the space, albeit one with the officiating stamp of a fairly well-known trade association.

I wouldn’t underestimate the marketing value that these documents provide the podcast space as a whole. The world is big and complex and made up of many, many little bubbles, and such badges of honor go a long way in opening up the podcast industry’s relationships with new companies in previously untouched sectors.

On a related note: While we’re talking about intelligence reports, you might be interested in a recent study conducted by NuVoodoo, a research and marketing firm, and Amplifi Media on podcast discovery and consumption that was presented in last week’s Podcast Movement conference. InsideRadio has a full rundown of the findings, but remember: Take the study as one piece of a much larger mosaic. (Or, you know, one of those color dots that collectively make up like a more tangible image. Or TV pixels. Whatever. You know what I mean.)

Speaking of the IAB, just got this info from a Midroll Media rep last night:

In October, Stitcher will be making changes to align its downloading definitions with some of the emerging standards put forth by the IAB. This will give podcasters more standardized, accurate, and granular data about their shows…As part of this change, some podcasters may see an increase or decrease in the downloads attributed in Stitcher. Ultimately, the data podcasters receive from Stitcher will be more accurate and more useful for shows looking to grow, work with advertisers and gain insight into their performance.

Take note.

Preamble: All right, before I move on to the next story, which is about the way we read metrics, impute success, and orient shows in relation to one another — a story that somewhat continues last week’s discussion on daily news podcasts, The New York Times’ The Daily and NPR’s Up First — I have to first establish the following:

The New York Times’ The Daily averaged more than 750,000 downloads every weekday in August, a spokesperson from the organization told me. Which, you know, is pretty remarkable growth from the 500,000 number that was listed in the Vanity Fair feature from last month.

And as a reminder, last week NPR informed me that “Up First currently reaches a weekly unique audience of almost a million users,” with “97 percent of Up First listeners say that the podcast is part of their morning routine and 80 percent say that they listen every day.”

With that out of the way…

Safety in numbers. I’m going to preface all this by saying the following discussion may come off as a tremendous bit of navel-gazing — even by the standards of this newsletter — but I nonetheless think this story has a lot to say about measurements, milestones, and the way we think about “success” in an emerging industry still in need of public serious arbiters of value.

So, for last week’s issue of Hot Pod, I wrote up this whole thing about Vox Media’s upcoming daily news podcast, the strategic openings in that product genre, and drew pretty heavily from the adventures of NPR and The New York Times in that arena. It was, I thought, a wide-ranging and interesting discussion that examined the question of how best to design your way into a field that’s competitive and, in some ways, already pretty well defined.

But it seems that readers were most compelled to the off-handed statement I made pitting Up First against The Daily — which, of course, is a tricky proposition given that each uses different metrics to publicly indicate performance and therefore lacks a fundamental baseline of comparison. The Daily has been using the download to convey its size, while Up First has been using a “unique weekly audience” metric that they gleaned off an in-house analytics tool from an outside company called Splunk, a move that falls from NPR’s broader commitment to move beyond the download. “The differences in metric might make an apples-to-apples comparison complicated for those interesting in doing so,” I wrote. “But I think the victor is pretty clear.”

The reader reaction to that off-handed sentence was exceptionally voluminous, and that indicated two things to me: (a) I was quite wrong in thinking that the victor was all that clear, and (b) people really, really wanted to know who won.

I quickly grew doubtful of my original assessment on the matter, so I felt it appropriate to dig more deeply into the question and explore the shape of its context a little further. And to do that, I traded emails Velvet Beard, the vice president of podcast analytics at Podtrac, which verifies audience sizes and download performance (using its own “unique monthly audience” metric) for a lot of major podcast providers — including both NPR and The New York Times.

You might know Podtrac from the public-facing industry ranker they publish every month — which I have some issues with as an exclusive conveyor of value for the podcast space as a whole due to its somewhat incomplete participant pool, as I wrote about when the ranker originally rolled out last year, but which I have eventually come to accept the ranker as a useful reference sheet for generally assessing what’s up with the market. In my correspondence with Beard, I wanted to learn two things: What should be the right metric to make evaluative comparisons between shows, and what was her opinion on the matter of Up First vs. The Daily?

To begin with, Beard dismissed the notion of ranking one over the other, arguing that the emphasis shouldn’t really about who “won” but rather about how there’s room in the market for two large competitive shows. (An overwhelmingly reasonable point.) And with respect to the question of the appropriate comparative metric, she expounded upon Podtrac’s choice to go with a “unique monthly audience” paradigm as opposed to, say, downloads: it better controls for varying publishing schedules, because you can’t meaningfully compare a daily show with a weekly show with a weekly show that’s deploys more than a few bonus episodes. In her reply, Beard also brought up a range of other valuable points, including how an open conversation about relative successes might disincentivize publishers from verifying their measurements and the differing definitions of “success” in the industry. (It’s a really interesting discussion, and I’ll run the full Q&A after this.)

Beard is, of course, absolutely correct in her assertion that the notion of who “won” shouldn’t be all that important, because it’s not like we exist in some zero-sum, winner-takes-all market. (Nor would we want to. Good lord no.) But I do think it’s somewhat useful to make direct comparisons between shows and to determine who’s serving more audiences (and how deeply) — particularly when you’re able to appropriately match up the two editorial products as exactly as we can with The Daily and Up First. From matchups like these, we can say something about the efficacy of each player’s choices and their capacities to make choices, and we can further draw other actionable lessons like:

  • Did NPR’s straightforward adaptation of Morning Edition pay off better than the more experimental machinations of the Times’ audio team? Or did they pay off equally, and if so, what’s the significance of that?
  • Which type of design gambit better resonated with the current composition of overall podcast listenership, the answer to which could be useful for future show development?
  • Was NPR able to maintain its various competitive advantages as the incumbent in the audio medium, and what we can say about its decision-making and creative leadership as follows from that question?

So, that’s my broader thinking about the premise of this inquiry. But, returning to the original inquiry itself, was I able to come up with a clear victor between the two shows? Let’s break it down:

  • As mentioned earlier, The Daily received at least 750,000 downloads every weekday in August. That’s tremendous, indicating some measure of high engagement.
  • We don’t have a way to figure out The Daily’s listenership on a weekly unique audience paradigm, but we can work from the other direction. Up First reports having “a weekly unique audience of almost a million users,” and that “80 percent say that they listen every day.” If we’re being fairly conservative and peg the weekly uniques to, say, 950,000, we’re talking about a volume of at least 760,000 every weekday — comparable to the level The Daily topped each weekday in August.

It’s close! You could theoretically call this close to a neck-and-neck draw, or even a slight advantage to Up First despite launching three months after its competitor. But then again, you could also say that it sure is something that a relative newcomer to the audio space — admittedly, one with the resources and pedigree of the Times — has been able to pretty effectively match the public radio mothership, whose incumbency is built on decades and decades of experience in audio news. Further, you could say that there’s a sense that the terms and outcome of this matchup are far from being finished; as previously established, The Daily’s growth in recent months, from a daily average of 500,000 in June/July or so up to a daily minimum of 750,000 in August, suggests a show that’s coming further into its own and increasingly reaping the benefits of self-discovery.

As always, I’ll be keeping my eye on this.

Q&A with Velvet Beard. As I mentioned, here it is in full:

[storybreak]

[conl]Hot Pod: The Podtrac industry ranker is built on a “unique monthly audience” paradigm, which stands separate and apart from the general “downloads” metric that’s generally used to discuss show performance. Let me start by asking why you guys decided to focus on the “unique monthly” metric.[/conl]

[conr]Velvet Beard: As you know, Podtrac began in 2005 providing free podcast measurement and demographic services to publishers with the aim of gathering the information on podcast audiences that advertisers needed to make ad buys. By late 2015, when the podcast renaissance was in full swing, we began to hear consistently from advertisers that they were interested in podcasting but confused about download metrics. It was clear to advertisers that even the definition of a download was different from publisher to publisher and this kept some advertisers on the sidelines which was frustrating to the publishers we work with.

Here’s how one podcast advertiser put it to Digiday:

The way that some of these tools piece together these download numbers can be bizarre, confusing, and not necessarily the most accurate representation of what’s actually happening…You’d be surprised how many podcasts don’t even have analytics on their downloads.

We knew that unique monthly audience is an important metric used in other types of digital media because it enables planners to consider monthly audience reach regardless of potential impressions served. Given Podtrac’s 10-plus years of measurement data and experience, we realized we were in a unique position to create an audience/reach metric that would be consistent across publishers and shows whether episodes post daily, twice a week, weekly, or even less frequently.[/conr]

[conl]HP: When we were emailing, you mentioned that the choice between the metrics depends on “how the industry wants to ultimately define success.” What do you mean by that, and can you walk me through the thinking?[/conl]

[conr]Beard: We didn’t create the audience metric to “define success,” but to help advertisers understand what they are buying (audience reach) and publishers understand how many unique people their content reaches. But out of that did come a ranking which does lead to comparisons and implications of success.

Given that, what I was trying to say in regard to choosing a metric for success is that it depends on what the objective is. So again, while setting a success metric was not our intention, I do think this is super interesting to think about. If the publisher/advertiser/industry most values reach/influence, then having the largest unique audience would make you the most successful. If ad revenue is most valued, then having the most impressions to sell (unique downloads) would make you the most successful (though I guess you would have to sell the inventory to capitalize and seal the deal on this success).

And maybe it isn’t how the industry “ultimately defines success,” but maybe there are multiple potential metrics used for different purposes and so there could be multiple winners depending on how you look at it although right now at the publisher level I would say these two metrics track. That is, NPR has by far the largest unique audience and I would venture to say generates the most ad revenue.[/conr]

[conl]HP: From your vantage point, could you walk me through the advantages of using “weekly uniques” over “downloads”? And, if you could flip that on its head for a moment, what are the advantages of using “downloads” over “weekly uniques”?[/conl]

[conr]Beard: I’m going to assume you are asking about the advantages of unique audience over unique downloads as a metric to determine a show/publisher’s success/ranking, since I think both numbers are valuable and have their uses and I don’t think we should throw either of them out.

(We don’t actually publish a weekly unique number right now, although we do have publishers asking. Right now we are calculating monthly audience.)

This is a bit in the weeds, but for a weekly podcast, the weekly unique download number for an episode is the unique audience number for that episode. So we don’t calculate unique audience at the episode level but at the show level and at the publisher level.

What the unique audience number lets us do is understand the overlap in listeners to a show across episodes or overlap in listeners across all shows for a publisher during a specific period of time — which right now is monthly.

The general advantage I see to a unique audience number versus a download number is that it controls for number of episodes/impressions served and measures more accurately how many people are actually listening to a show or a publisher’s shows. So if we looked at only download numbers to compare shows, then, daily shows will have a huge advantage over weekly shows in their ability to generate downloads (5-7 times more opportunities), but that doesn’t mean they are reaching any more people. So this advantage holds if what you want to understand is your audience = how many individual people you are reaching, which is something that advertisers are interested in. Audience numbers also fluctuate less than download numbers as downloads are influenced a lot by adding a bonus episode, doing a promotion of an episode or other one-off activities which may or may not bring in new audience members but usually always increase downloads.

The “advantages” of using downloads to compare shows/publishers are probably that it is easier for the general public and less sophisticated publishers to understand and that the numbers are always larger — which makes everyone feel better. :-)[/conr]

[conl]HP: So, I’m personally of the opinion that it’s valuable and productive to be able to pit two comparable shows — say, a daily news podcast vs. another daily news podcast — against each other and be able to tell who has come out on top. I think you disagree with me on this. What’s your perspective on this issue?[/conl]

[conr]Beard: If two shows are in our top 20, it means they are highly successful in gaining audience. So you could say which has more than the other, but it might be more interesting/productive to ask why these two are more popular than others in their category.

I’d be interested to understand what value you see coming out of the pitting of two shows against one another, unless it is for an advertiser to choose where to put their money? In that case I think that already happens everyday on media plans — just not publicly. We really did create the rankings to help raise the visibility of podcasts and try to help advertisers be more comfortable with podcast metrics in an effort to grow the pie for everyone. Publishers like NPR and HowStuffWorks saw the value in this and were eager to participate.

To my mind, “pitting” one show against another at this point in the industry’s development could be counterproductive in that “losers” will not want to share data and could then become even further incentivized to create their own numbers. I think we already see this at the publisher level. Maybe once the industry has stabilized around success metrics this type of public comparison becomes more useful, however, I still say pitting of shows against one another based on just one metric (audience or downloads) seems overly simplistic as it doesn’t consider demographics, distribution and access points, audience-host connection, etc. It seems more useful for multiple publishers to consider their shows successful and then be able to differentiate them to audiences and advertisers based on those factors.

The feedback from publishers and advertisers in regard to the rankings using unique U.S. audience has been very positive, and having most top podcast publishers embrace transparency in this way is helping more and more brands understand the space and build confidence in their podcast advertising decisions.[/conr]

[storybreak]

Bites

  • Gimlet Media has announced its latest podcast: Uncivil, which seeks to “brings you stories that were left out of the official history of the Civil War, ransacks America’s past, and takes on the history you grew up with.” It will be hosted by Chenjerai Kumanyika and Jack Hitt. You might remember Kumanyika from the great Scene on the Radio series Seeing White, and Hitt is a longtime journalist whose works have appeared on This American Life and in The New York Times Magazine. Launches October 4. (Uncivil)
  • ESPN has makes two additions to its podcast portfolio ahead of football season: one new college football show and one new weekday NFL show. They’re also rolling out “bonus” conversation episodes in the 30 for 30 feed. (Press release)
  • For some reason, I’ve been asked multiple times this week whether I had any intel on when WNYC’s More Perfect will return for a second season. I don’t know much beyond what’s publicly available, which is that it’ll be back sometime in fall. That team takes its time, y’know? (Twitter)
  • Hmm. “Leela Kids opens up the world of podcasts to children.” (TechCrunch)
  • This is fascinating: “Love it or hate it, truckers say they can’t stop listening to public radio.” (Current) As an aside, while reading this I couldn’t stop thinking about the coming effects of automation on those jobs. (Quartz, The Atlantic)
  • Remember, the Channels initiative isn’t Audible’s only foray into original content. “Mother Go is an audio-first novel that harkens back to the golden-age of sci-fi.” (The Verge)
  • Reveal’s Al Letson is an American treasure. (Reveal)

[photocredit]Photo by kokotron bcm used under a Creative Commons license.[/photocredit]

Hot Pod: There’s a new (and problematic) way to measure which podcasts are the most popular

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue eighty-eight, published September 20, 2016.

Another public-facing podcast ranker. It’s troublesome, though if you’re a podcast publisher you best pay close attention nonetheless. This one’s going to be long, so either skip it or strap in.

Here’s the deal: Podtrac, the decade-old podcast measurement (and until its recent restructure, advertising) company, announced a new podcast ranker yesterday, one that aspires to display the top 20 podcasts in the industry based on monthly downloads. This is the second such public-facing ranking that the company has released in recent months; In May, Podtrac pumped out a chart that ranked podcast publishers against each other based on network-wide monthly downloads.

That initial ranker suffered from two glaring flaws. First, it can’t be considered adequately representative of the podcast industry because of its incomplete sampling. (The original report purports to cover of “90 percent of the top podcasts.”) And second, there’s a general lack of transparency around its sampling methodology. (Said “top podcasts” category isn’t clearly defined, and it isn’t clear who is and isn’t included.) The publisher ranker’s initial May 2016 sample did not include important publishers like Panoply, Gimlet, Earwolf, The Ringer, and Wondery. That’s not to say that they would all show up in the top 10 if they were included, mind you; I’m just making a point about representation, and many of them remain excluded at this writing.

This new show ranker, which was reportedly assembled due to advertiser demand, suffers from those same fundamental issues, plus some new complexities that further interrupt itss capacity to serve as a trustworthy conveyor of value in the podcast industry.

Let’s break this down:

1. Yesterday’s new chart ranks individual podcasts based on “Unique Monthly Audience” (as determined by Podtrac’s internal measurement rules), but the chart itself does not explicitly display actual download numbers. I view this as an incredibly odd — and even counterproductive — choice. The omission strips the chart of important granular analytical value, and patrons of the chart are placed in a position where they wouldn’t even be able to, say, discern the scale of the difference between two consecutively-ranked podcasts, which can go a long way in properly conveying the shape and form of the competitive landscape.

Interestingly enough, Velvet Beard, Podtrac’s VP of podcast analytics, tells me that this omission came out of a compromise with certain publishers who are reticent to disclose their show numbers.

2. That reticence is further reflected in the eighth ranking on the new chart, which awkwardly reads: “Publisher declined to list show.” This state of affairs comes out from a crucial distinction between the two Podtrac rankers: While the original podcast publisher ranker lists publishers that explicitly measure their podcasts with Podtrac (an arrangement understood by Podtrac as permission for inclusion into their ranker), this new show-oriented ranker does not require explicit publisher participation in the company’s measurement services for inclusion.

It was explained to me that part of the ranker’s methodology involves some internal modeling that doesn’t actually require publishers to opt into their measurement system for download size assessment. Which, you know, the more I think about it, is a choice that would creep me out if I was a publisher, because not only are we left with a situation where an external body has taken upon itself to tell the story of my audience for me — without my explicit acknowledgment and consent — it’s also a story based on their terms, the foundations of which may well be different from my own. And that means something in an industry that lacks a universally standardized and enforced measurement paradigm.

That mystery eighth podcast (whose identity was included in the initial press release sent to me, and was scrubbed in a followup version after I attempted to verify) isn’t the only show that was included in the ranker without given permission; the Joe Rogan Experience, which came in on the eleventh slot, appears to be a non-participant as well.

3. Beard tells me that the company has been consistently trying to reach out to publishers to get them involved with the ranker. “We send out emails, but not everybody writes us back,” she said.

I suppose there are strong strategic reasons why some publishers would not want to get involved in Podtrac’s ranking system. To begin with, you have the table stakes concern that a publisher who chooses to be listed would be ceding its monopoly over how it tells the story of its own downloads. Which would be fine for some…and less so for others, particularly those who make it a practice of fluffing their numbers, a very real problem in this industry that lacks mature measurement standards and an independent third-party that can serve as a check against bad practices.

But even for those whose goods are sound, there’s simply too much of a perceived risk to anoint Podtrac as that third-party due to the company’s current relationship with Authentic, its ad sales arm that was spun off as a sister company earlier this summer. The two companies still share leadership and infrastructure, which presents a strong disincentive for some publishers who would be understandably uneasy ceding parts of their narrative to company that’s structurally connected to a potential competitor. The golden rule applies: It’s not the actual conflicts of interest, it’s the perception of potential conflicts of interest that matters.

For what it’s worth, Beard tells me that the company’s long-term hope is to effectively decouple Podtrac from Authentic to mitigate such concerns. However, she also notes that the team has to first figure out how to make its business — which currently doesn’t make any money off these rankings — financially independent before any significant decoupling can happen.

Look, Podtrac’s industry rankers need a lot of work before they can be considered a genuine representation of the emerging podcast industry, and for what it’s worth, I do think the Podtrac team is operating with civil intent. (And to some extent, I really do hope they pull it off.)

But let’s be real here. In a medium whose defining problem is its lack of measurability — which therefore generates an advertising environment starved for every little bit of information — Podtrac’s good-enough rankers are bound to gain some traction among advertisers either way.

And it looks like things may be panning out in that direction: ahead of the IAB Podcast Upfronts a few weeks ago, I was speaking with Jason Hoch, the chief content officer of HowStuffWorks, which uses Podtrac for analytics verification and is listed on the industry ranker, and he noted that the original ranker drew a tremendous amount of new advertising attention to his network. “The in-bounds we got from that were amazing,” he told me.

So I’ll say this: It appears increasingly imperative that podcast publishers start engaging with Podtrac in order to win back their audience narrative (and the narrative of the industry). I’m not the biggest fan of how Podtrac has gone about doing things — their lack of methodological transparency remains troubling, and the whole including-podcasts-without-explicit-permission thing feels kinda dirty — but they are, regardless, materially contributing to the publisher-advertising relationship.

Alternatively, publishers could, oh I don’t know, develop their own data-driven public counter-narratives. That’ll be cool too.

And in case you’s still interested: According to Podtrac, the top three podcasts in August 2016 are, in downward order, This American Life, Radiolab, and Stuff You Should Know.

A leadership change at NPR One. The public radio mothership’s buzzy listening app, NPR One, is losing Sara Sarasohn, its managing editor, who is leaving the organization after 24 years of service.

Tamar Charney will reportedly step in as interim editorial lead. Charney was hired back in January to serve as the app’s “local editorial lead,” a role that involves connecting the app with local public radio stations across the country. While she will take over many of Sarasohn’s duties, she will continue focusing on her original responsibilities as well. The team remains rounded out by content programmer Viet Le, along with an NPR One-specific product team led by product manager Tejas Mistry and content strategist/analytics manager Nick DePrey.

Sarasohn, who has worked multiple positions on All Things Considered and the NPR arts desk throughout her lengthy career, is leaving public media for a position at a Silicon Valley startup, and though she declined to provide specifics, she noted that her new gig isn’t involved in the audio world.

An internal staff note announcing Sarasohn’s departure indicates that she leaves NPR One in a strong position. According to the memo, “NPR One’s audience reaches record highs with each new month, more than 80 stations are contributing content to it, and the typical listener uses the app up to 12 times per month.”

It also noted that the organization will relay more information about the app’s future in the coming days.

The NPR One app — which flirts with aspirations of being “the Netflix for podcasts” and is marketed as “the Pandora of podcasts” — is reportedly considered to be “the most exciting thing to have happened at NPR in years.” I’m broadly a fan of it myself, but I do struggle to view the app itself as somehow central to NPR’s digital future. The ecosystem of content and technology that’s being built beneath the app, however, is another story. (Side note: Between you and me, my main consumption modality with public radio nowadays is my Amazon Echo, which has come dangerously close to being my only source of verbal interaction on most days.)

Sarasohn’s last day is September 25.

Relevant: In what is probably a yuge coincidence, news of Sarasohn’s departure comes about a week after NPR announced that it was picking DC-based WAMU’s The Big Listen, a broadcast about podcasts, for national distribution. Hosted by Lauren Ober, the show is one of several audio programs currently floating about podcastland that seeks to alleviate the medium’s discoverability problem through linear, performative curation. That list includes the CBC’s Podcast Playlist and Gimlet’s Sampler.

Tangentially relevant: WNYC Studios now has a third VP of on-demand content: Tony Phillips, a former BBC veteran of 27 years. (My whole life, basically.) His most recent role at the British radio mothership was “Editor, Commissioner, and Producer.” Phillips will expand the leadership layer, which also includes Paula Szuchman and Emily Botein, into a trifecta.

Mid-October will mark WNYC Studio’s first full year of operation.

Cable podcasts. CNN, the cable news heavyweight and source of all my anxieties, is pushing deeper into podcasts with the announcement of two new podcasts:

1. The Daily DC, a daily morning political news digest show featuring CNN political director David Chalian; and

2. Party People, described as a “look at the 2016 race from a rightward perspective.” The show is hosted by two CNN contributors, Republican communications strategist Kevin Madden and The Federalist editor Mary Katharine Ham.

Both shows begin their runs today.

These additions will complement The Axe Files, the (quite excellent) David Axelrod interview show that has thus far been the media company’s only original podcast. CNN has also made it a practice of repackaging and distributing a select list of its television programming — like Fareed Zakaria GPS, State of the Union with Jake Tapper, and Reliable Sources with Brian Stelter — in podcast form.

Curious observers might be interested to know that CNN’s foray into original podcasting is largely orchestrated by one Tyler Moody, a VP at the company, and that the podcasts are being hosted — and represented in the ad sales market — by New York-based podcast CMS company Palegroove.

And speaking of right-leaning politics podcasts: Fox News is making a weekly television show out of I’ll Tell You What, an elections podcast hosted by The Five cohost Dana Perino and Fox News digital politics editor Chris Stirewalt. The show will be limited-run, airing Sunday evenings until the elections in November. According to The Washington Post, the podcast’s conversion into the television format “represents Fox News’s first new programming initiative since longtime network chairman Roger Ailes resigned in July.”

Side note. A few weeks ago, I wrote a column observing what appears to be a dearth of explicitly conservative political and election-related podcasts, which briefly led me to consider this state of affairs being a function of early adopter demographics. Since then, I’ve regularly received recommendations from readers of more conservative-oriented shows, and while I believe my original observation still holds, I will say that one podcast in particular has found its way into my primary rotation: Radio Free GOP with Mike Murphy. It’s really polished, and really, really engaging, and it’s worth a try regardless of where you are on the spectrum.

Did you read Ken Doctor’s columns? You really should. The five-part series published on Nieman Lab all throughout last week did an amazing job laying out the current state and potential future(s) of the professionalizing layer of podcasts from the 30,000-feet view more than I ever could.

The series contained a bunch of novel findings that are incredibly useful for incremental observers like myself — for example, the fact that digital native Gimlet currently scores 5 million downloads monthly across its 6 shows (many of which are off-season at the moment) and now has a 55-person headcount (damn!); that NPR, Midroll, and PodcastOne each account for $10 million in sales; that 50 percent of WNYC’s sponsorship revenue now comes from digital as opposed to terrestrial sources, a good chunk of which is driven by podcasts.

But Doctor’s columns also laid out an analogy that connects what many podcast publishers/networks are doing these days to the long-established digital media strategy of aggregation. It’s a connection that hasn’t previously occurred to me, but it has become to me an essential framework in gaming out the probable trajectory — and potential pitfalls — of many of these emerging podcast companies.

Anyway, hit ’em up.

“You can’t compare it to anything else that exists in the industry right now,” said Rena Unger, the IAB’s director of industry initiatives, in the latest episode of The Wolf Den. “Podcasts took one of the boldest moves. You’re not doing your own individual upfronts, you were sharing one stage. You have 12 competitive companies that take off their competitive hats and say, ‘Let’s work together to elevate the space and increase our pie together.'”

Unger was responding to my, uh, critique of the recent Podcast Upfronts, which largely comes out of anxieties that were pinpointed almost perfectly by Chris Bannon, Midroll’s chief creative officer and co-host of The Wolf Den, who replied to Unger: “Yeah, it’s funny. There’s a great spirit of collaboration, but I think what Nick fears in his writing is that will disappear. That it will become some sort of commercial shark-tank in which where we race to the bottom in some way together.”

Or borrow a passage from Doctor’s final entry in his podcast series: “The phrase of the moment, both from some in the trade and from many of the millions of listeners who’ve become podcast addicts, seems to be: Don’t screw it up.

I’m getting that tattooed.

Bites:

  • There’s a budding audio/podcast platform company floating about the Bay Area called Tiny Garage Labs that’s founded by former Netflix operatives and a former Planet Money correspondent. I’d keep an eye out on their blog — word on the street something’s coming real soon. (Tiny Garage Labs)
  • Made a quick mention of this two Hot Pods ago, but it’s more or less confirmed now: Panoply now reps MTV Podcasts, which joins the network with two new shows — Lady Problems and Videohead.
  • “A lot of sports podcasting simply reuses talk-radio formats. From the way you sound, this is clearly going to be something different.” “Yeah, I am hoping we can pull it off.” ESPN Films and FiveThirtyEight senior producer Jody Avirgan talks to Adweek about the upcoming 30 for 30 podcast documentaries. Lots of interesting nuggets in there. (Adweek)
  • “The web is built on hyperlinks, with each link a pathway to discovery, an endorsement, a reference. Podcasts could be like that too.” Jake Shapiro, CEO of RadioPublic, published what appears to be a manifesto for the upcoming listening app that will make up his team’s first independent foray into the podcasting marketplace. (RadioPublic blog)
  • The lovely Hollywood history podcast, You Must Remember This, is going on hiatus. But KQED was able to score a pretty great Q&A with creator Karina Longworth in the meantime. (KQED Arts)
  • If you haven’t been keeping up with APM’s new investigative podcast, In The Dark — along with everything that’s been happening with the actual case it’s examining — you really should. Vulture has a great interview here with Madeleine Baran, the investigative journalist who drives the show. (Vulture)
  • At the Online News Association 2016 conference in Denver last week, WNYC’s Delaney Simmons and NPR’s Mathilde Piard gave a presentation on their respective organizations’ attempts to wield social media tools as a points of audio distribution. (Journalism.co.uk)

This version of Hot Pod has been adapted for Nieman Lab, where it appears each Tuesday. You can subscribe to the full newsletter here. You can also support Hot Pod by becoming a member, which gets you more news, deeper analysis, and exclusive interviews; more information on the website.

A podcast ranking that misses a lot, new listenership data, and funny Australians

The podcast consumer. Last Thursday, Edison Research and Triton Digital released the Podcast Consumer 2016 report, an extension of the Infinite Dial 2016 study that was dropped back in March that specifically focuses on U.S. consumer demographics and some aspects of user behavior — data points that will, no doubt, find their way into many, many investment and advertising decks in the coming months. (Charts! Charts! Charts!) The report touches on a nice range of aspects, and I think I’d be doing the depth of the report a disservice if I regurgitated and butchered them in whole here, but here are the three high-level points that most caught my eye:

(1) A pop in awareness. Awareness of the term “podcasting” significantly jumped between 2015 and 2016. According to the study, an estimated 150 million Americans are now familiar with the term “podcasting.” Put it another way, that’s 55 percent of Americans, up 6 percentage points from 49 percent the year before. That’s a noticeably huge bump, compared to the mere 1 percentage point increase between 2014 (48 percent) and 2015.

Tom Webster, the VP of strategy at Edison Research who presented the report on a webinar last week, made a point to note the lag between any so-called “Serial effect” — recall that the podcast’s explosive first season dropped in late 2014 — and this rise in term-awareness. What accounts for the lag? Your guess is as good as mine, but I’m partial to viewing the jump as the result of Serial and the torrent of activity that took place around the same time and shortly after: the creation of new companies, the wave of new content driven by non-podcast native publishers that built some awareness conversion among their built-in audiences, and, perhaps more significantly, increased media attention that further carried forward usage of the term “podcasts.”

But before we get ahead of ourselves here: It remains useful to contextualize the awareness level against actual listenership: an estimated 98 million Americans (or 36 percent of the country) have listened to a podcast at least once in their lives, and an estimated 57 million Americans (21 percent) can be counted as monthly active listeners.

(2) Immediacy in consumption. This one’s my favorite. 55 percent of respondents reported consuming podcasts within 24 hours of downloading the episode, following by 18 percent reporting consumption within 48 hours and 15 percent reporting consumption within a week. That 24-hour data point is considerably made more rich when combined with the additional finding that 59 percent of respondents report immediate consumption behavior — marked in the survey as “click and listen immediately” — as opposed to save-for-later options.

(3) An insulated audience. The report made a point to sketch out the connection between podcast listeners and a general affinity towards on-demand video services. Webster observes that this reflects a highly technologically-oriented demographic that is increasingly insulated from ads. They are, thus, highly valuable targets for advertisers — not only because their cable-cutting orientations signify a certain kind of high-value demographic, but also because they can’t otherwise be reached through conventional advertising channels like television, broadcast radio, and so on. (It would be extremely interesting if a future report inquires about ad-blocking use among this sample; that would be a dead giveaway.)

It’s important to note that this demographic’s advertising insulation should probably be viewed an expression of its desire for control over their exposure to advertising more generally. Podcast advertising experiences, then, need to be maintained at a very, very high level to prevent an undermining of their trust — not just in any given podcast, but in the medium as a whole. Yeah, yeah, I’m basically repeating myself on this idea at this point, but it’s a flag I’m going to keep waving for as long as there appears to be the threat of quality dilution in the podcast advertising experience, which, let’s face it, is going be there forever.

There are so, so, so many other findings in the report — including, but not limited to overall demographic shifts that suggest a strong break away from the podcast listenership’s once core wealthy male cluster, rough parity in device usage between iOS and Android, and some flashes of growing influence in the car — but I’ll leave that up for you to explore.

You can find the report here.

Additional reading: Nielsen, the global measurements company, put out a blog post highlighting podcast consumer demographic data points of their own last Monday. It doesn’t surface anything particularly novel or surprising — and it’s stuck with an unfortunate “gee whiz!” tone — but there’s some fairly interesting data in there about the financial life of the podcast listenership, in case you’re looking for something like that.

Contextualizing the Podtrac ranker. “I’ve asked Comscore and Nielsen over the years to do this, and they haven’t for various reasons…And here we are, Podtrac, with data on 7 billion unique downloads over 10 years, and we’re not putting it out for the industry? We would be remiss if we continue to sit on the data, versus putting out there to add a certain amount of legitimacy to podcasting for the advertising community.”

Mark McCreary, CEO of Podtrac, speaks in a slow, deliberate manner. His speech is filled with pauses that indicate, perhaps, a strong internal filter, which in turn suggests a certain degree of thoughtfulness…and caution. And so when he becomes animated over the phone, you can tell that it ain’t bullshit. When he believes something, it shows. Which is to say, when the guy says he’s genuinely trying to help, I’m inclined to believe it.

But that isn’t to say I believe in the ranker itself. At least, not at this point in time.

Let’s back up a second. In case you missed it: Podtrac, a decade-old podcast measurement and advertising company, rolled out a consumer-facing chart that supposedly ranks the “top ten podcast publishers” in the industry last Tuesday. Utilizing a “unique monthly U.S. audience” as the anchor metric charted against the number of active podcasts within that month — an unprecedented bundle of markers, to my knowledge, one whose nuances are somewhat underappreciated — the ranker placed NPR at the very top with 7.2 million monthly uniques in the U.S., followed by This American Life/Serial (5.6 million) and WNYC Studios (5.5 million).

As you could probably imagine, Podtrac’s chart caused no small amount of consternation among different parts of the podcast community, which grappled over the chart’s actual representation of the industry, what are legitimate metrics and what are not, and the politics involved in Podtrac’s assumption of this value-arbitrating role.

The issue at the heart of the whole hubbub is, of course, the chart’s claim towards an accurate representation of the industry as a whole. And, as I touched on a little in my original writeup last week, there are some very real questions about this. The report argues that it measures “90 percent of the top podcasts,” and the press release that was published with the ranker noted that “it plans to have close to 100 percent participation in the weeks ahead.” The significance and depth of the remaining 10 percent is absolutely crucial to understanding the strength of the chart, and over the past week, I was able to confirm that the following publishers are not part of Podtrac’s sample: Panoply, Gimlet, Earwolf, The Ringer, Maximum Fun, CNN, and Wondery.

(Not that all of these networks would make it into the top 10 if they were part of the sample, of course. I’m just saying I’m confident some of these publishers — not all — are probably big enough to displace a few publishers in the top ten; the very possibility of that cuts into the ranker’s representative utility. Also, if you’re curious as to which podcasts in the iTunes charts’ Top 200 are using Podtrac for measurement, check out this invaluable spreadsheet assembled by friend-of-the-show Dan Misener.)

This makes it abundantly clear to me, at this point in time, the ranker simply isn’t fully representative of the podcast industry. But I don’t think that automatically invalidates its value as a marker of the space — whatever your misgivings about its representativeness, it still provides utility for the space by conveying the relative shape of a certain slice of the industry at the publisher level (more on that in a second), which in turn serves as a starting point for a broader, possibly multi-sourced picture to be drawn out. That’s something we never had before, and that’s something we really need now.

Podtrac’s fundamental problem comes purely down to communication, and this plays out — quite unfortunately — in two ways.

The first is the manner in which the ranker outwardly portrays itself in somewhat grandiose terms that glides over the nuances of its rollout sample. This runs the risk of being misinterpreted by other media sources that may automatically assume complete representativeness of the ranker; and in fact, one such example can be found in a recent Adweek article on NPR’s expectations that it will double its podcast revenue this year. (Congrats!) It’s up to you to decide whether this comes as the result of a language oversight, or something else entirely.

The second is the company’s communication level with actual publishers. As I noted last week, I was informed that publishers needed to opt into Podtrac’s sample in order to be considered for the ranker. What was revealed to me later on was that inclusion is automatically assumed when a publisher adopts Podtrac as a measurement tool — which struck me as not only a rather questionable practice, but also puts certain participating publishers at risk of having its data shared without its prior knowledge. (Appearance in the ranker came as a surprise to at least one publisher. I asked McCreary whether Podtrac-using publishers can opt out of inclusion in the ranker. He said it is, indeed, possible.) Furthermore, there were also situations in which the company did not adequately reach out to publishers that believe they could’ve been ranked.

When I spoke with McCreary — along with Podtrac’s VP of product Velvet Beard and VP of business development Julia Price — last week, they assured me that the initial rollout was made with the assumption that it would trigger conversations with publishers that could eventually lead to the filling out of that last 10 percent. That’s an understandable argument to make, but it remains troubling that the company has not been better at adequately communicating what it’s trying to do, and what it has actually done…to the detriment of some publishers.

You have every right to question Podtrac’s intent, or the substance of its decade-long experience, or its supposed objectivity — as I noted last week, Podtrac also has an ad sales arm that it recently spun out into a different division of the company, a fact that may or may not assuage the discomfort of other publishers — or whatever. But in my mind, whether Podtrac will ultimately become representative of the industry or be successful in its handling of the space’s larger politics is a relatively secondary question. For me, it is unambiguous that its ranker, however messy the rollout, is nothing but productive in the way it’s pushing the medium — every single quirky corner of it — out of the comforts of its previous opacity. It’s drawing attention, generating conversation, and will ultimately provoke the kind of counter-initiatives that will move the industry towards a greater accountability.

As McCreary told me, “All the people who put effort into podcasts every single day, they deserve to have a media that the advertising industry thinks is legitimate. And you need an objective advertising company to provide that, and so that’s what we built here. Also, publishers who choose not to participate are still going to benefit, because the industry now has a ranker.”

Representation. Between this Podtrac ranker story and the recent debates spurred by that New York Times article a few weeks ago, a key tension of the space has steadily shifted from being implicit to explicit. It’s been growing since the space found its moment for a second time, and it’s one that’s grounded in questions over the industry’s identity: What constitutes the podcast space? What defines the “Big Companies,” and what differentiates from everybody else? Who gets to speak for and represent the industry?

These questions, in turn, are built on several clear dichotomies: between independent podcasts and a class of professionalizing podcast companies, between an older generation of podcast companies that believe they remain relevant and an emerging generation that wants relevance, between those who view podcasts as an extension of blogs and the free web and those who view podcasts as the next phase for digital radio and audio content, and between companies that aspire to be big and companies that hope its scale-chasing brethren won’t screw everything up for the rest of them.

As I’m observing more and more these days, it’s a tale as old as content. But at the same time, I’m having less and less of an idea how this is all going to shake out.

Same pigeon, new paint. Great news, producers! The Third Coast International Audio Festival, the Chicago-based nonprofit focused on the development of storytelling audio and independent producers (and whose mascot is, inexplicably, a pigeon), rolled out a brand-spanking new design for its website last week. And while the news of the updated design is fantastic in and of itself, I want to highlight a specific element of that redesign: the greatly improved user experience for the site’s Producer Index, which can — and should — be utilized as an IMDd for Audio Producers of sorts. If you’re on the hunt for talent, be sure to give it a look-see.

The redesign comes months after a fundraising campaign that sees the nonprofit looking to grow and expand its reach for the first time since it was founded in 2000. “We’ve been a small group for a long time — three full-timers, two part-timers — and we’ve been able to do what we do and really work hard at it,” Johanna Zorn, the organization’s executive director, told me when we spoke last December. “We want more people at our conference” — the organization’s flagship event — “but we need more than just me and one other person to make that happen.”

This November will mark the latest edition of the Third Coast Festival. The conference takes place in Chicago every two years.

“I don’t think there’s such a thing as too many podcasts.” Pineapple Street Media’s Jenna Weiss-Berman tells Marketplace’s Kai Ryssdal that in a segment produced the day after the Gracies, an award ceremony honoring the work of women in media. (BuzzFeed’s Women of the Hour podcast, which Weiss-Berman produced, was among the winners.)

“In order for a podcast to be successful, they don’t have to have massive listenerships,” she continues. “So there might be someone who wants to do a podcast about crocheting and they might be able to find sponsorship from a company that sells yarn, for example. And they might have 20,000 extremely devoted listeners who listen to the podcast and then go buy that yarn.”

Obviously, I cosign this opinion. Check out the whole segment.

Funny Down Under. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation is getting involved in the country’s emerging comedy podcast scene. The public service broadcaster has a new initiative called Radio Comedy — housed under the First Run banner, the corporation’s pod-oriented skunkworks which I’ve covered before — that will be commissioning a set of original comedy podcasts sourced from local talent.

“We’re attempting to use podcasting in the way that radio was once used, as a test space for TV comedy series,” Tom Wright, a development producer on the initiative, explained to me over email. “This was the model at the BBC in the U.K., which led to comedy hits like The Mighty Boosh and Little Britain.”

I’m fairly unfamiliar with the Australian podcast scene, so I asked Wright to describe the country’s culture of podcasts (and comedy podcasts more specifically). “Comedy is huge here — the Melbourne International Comedy Festival is the second biggest festival of its kind in the world. Podcasting less so…it’s less a part of the listening culture in Australia than in the U.S.A. and to a lesser extent the U.K., but it is catching up fast,” Wright wrote. “Like NPR and the BBC, the ABC has been editing some of its most popular radio shows and publishing them as podcasts, and have dominated things a bit. But ABC’s First Run is really [an example of] the organization recognizing that podcasts are different in form from radio shows, and that we can contribute to an already established scene.”

The first Radio Comedy podcast, Burn Your Passport, launched last month. You can find it in all the usual places. Radio Comedy is also looking for pitches, so Australian Hot Pod readers — here’s your shot.

Bites:

  • Friend-of-the-show Joel Leeman brought this to my attention over Twitter this weekend: An ad for Prince Street, a branded podcast promoting luxury grocery store Dean & DeLuca, made an appearance on CBS during Sunday’s broadcast of the PGA tour. Prince Street is part of Panoply Custom’s portfolio.
  • Quick clarification for last week’s RadioPublic item: some biographies! The team currently consists of three people: Jake Shapiro, who serves as CEO; Matt MacDonald, who was a software engineer at PRX before moving into product management and now serves as RadioPublic’s chief product officer; and Chris Rhoden, who serves as the company’s chief architect, where he will lead technical direction.

Is $12-a-day a fair wage for New York’s many radio interns?

A living wage. Last week, a Change.org petition cycled around the Facebook feeds of public radio types asking New York Public Radio — the entity that runs WNYC, classical music station WQXR, and the events-oriented Greene Space — to pay its interns a living wage. The station currently pays interns a stipend of $12 a day, with the expectation of 2-5 days of work during the week. The petition hinges its argument on the station’s 2015 Diversity Statement, highlighting a contradiction: It’s harder to increase opportunities for training, education, and possible employment by communities that are traditionally underrepresented due to lack of means when compensation is that low in one of the most expensive cities in the world.

[Looks out apartment window, weeps softly.]

The petition was spearheaded by one Mickey Capper, a freelance radio producer based in D.C. Capper was most recently a production assistant on the Invisibilia team at NPR. He also cohosts the Tape podcast and is responsible for the Sidewalks audio experiment.

“I count a number of WNYC staffers as some of the most inspiring people I’ve met and worked with in radio. I know these are people who can teach interns a lot,” Capper said in a statement. “I hope New York Public Radio can pay their interns a living wage to make that valuable entry-level experience accessible to a wider range of people.”

NYPR has responded to the petition, with a spokesperson writing to Current: “We are currently engaged in a process of assessing how a paid internship might be structured and funded. NYPR is also fully invested in diversifying its workforce, and is in the process of creating a three-year Diversity and Inclusion strategic plan, of which paid internships would be one element.”

An internal email sent out by the organization’s HR department maintains that the issue is top of mind for the senior team as part of 2017 budget process, acknowledging that the challenge now is to locate the necessary funds to pay those wages.

Capper is due to present the petition at the next NYPR board of directors meeting, which will take place tomorrow. At this writing, the petition has gathered over 450 signatures.

Two things before moving on:

  • Full disclaimer: I signed the petition, and I’m unambiguously in support of raising the rate of compensation, for whatever that’s worth. Given WNYC’s outsized influence over labor opportunities for younger people in the radio space, the fact that I’ve consistently been told by former staffers that the station “practically runs on interns,” and that the newer podcast companies are still quite a bit away from being able to provide internships and learning opportunities at scale, this wage level feels incredibly absurd.
  • I had originally intended to spend some time this week writing about the current state of employment opportunities in the podcasting space. This took precedence.

Download literacy. Let’s talk download numbers — which is to say, let’s bash our heads against a wall! USA Today’s podcast network reportedly drummed up about 52.3 million “downloads or streams” in 2015, according to Digiday. As the lore goes, the network was only started 18 months ago, and today it boasts a whopping 22 shows on its roster. Some shows are super short daily digests, like 5 Things and Capital Download; some shows are more traditionally structured topical fare like Dad Rock (which I really like, by the way) and Tech Roundtable. The Digiday article goes on to say that the network’s podcasts average about 7 million listens per month, and that it’s on track to net about 84 million by the end of the year.

That’s a sizable number dump, and I think it’s important to go through the motions and state that those numbers mean very little by themselves. Given what we know about the industry’s problem with measurements (it’s all over the place), reporting across different platforms and recording methodologies (a “listen” on different platform means very different things), and metric standardization (there’s little to none/it’s complicated), it’s hard to tell whether:

  • All of USA Today’s reported downloads mean the same thing with respect to each other, or
  • Those reported downloads mean the same thing compared to the reporting provided by other podcasts, or
  • How the network distinguishes between downloads, listens, streams, or whatever.

But boy, 84 million listens by the end of the year sure does sound like a whopper, doesn’t it?

Now, I’m not writing this story to merely complain and wiggle my arms — although I am complaining — but to identify and articulate the three red flags that stood out to me here. Maybe you’ll find them useful in your reading of the data, or maybe I’m just being grumpy. Whatever, I think download literacy is important.

  • USA Today’s network reportedly averages about 7 million listens (however defined) per month. Let’s think that through. The network is 22 podcasts strong, so if we break it down to how many “listens” an individual USA Today pod nets on a weekly basis, we’re talking about an average of about 79,500 listens per show per week. In contrast, the most recent episode of Earwolf’s new podcast Beautiful/Anonymous (which is absolutely fabulous, by the way) bagged 128,000 downloads within its first week — and that’s after an all-powerful bump from This American Life. Beyond that recent episode, the show appears to average around 95,000 downloads per episode within its first four weeks. That the average download volumes between the USA Today shows and Beautiful/Anonymous are within the same general area seems…oh I don’t know, it seems a little off to me. That’s not to say that it’s impossible — who knows, maybe there’s a monster hit show in there that carries the whole network on its back — it’s just really hard to tell what I’m looking at.
  • The Digiday article cited that the strength of the download numbers comes in spite of the fact that none of those podcasts has ever broken into the iTunes charts. Now, I’m the last person that would ever argue for the charts being any adequate indicator of download volume (see here, here, and here), and it might well be the case that USA Today’s podcasts were able to significant listenership outside iTunes and the podcasting app. But it’s a little hard to believe that when you square the network’s reported 7 million monthly listens against the fact that Apple platforms drive the majority of podcast listenership.
  • The purpose of focusing so much on download volume — aside from estimating the reach of your reporting/editorial so you may prognosticate about the impact your journalism/content is making — is, from a business perspective, to signal the advertiser-worthiness of a show or a network. So there’s something that should be said about the fact that only two of USA Today’s podcasts have featured sponsors. The podcast advertising market might still be relatively immature, but between the (now comically) routine patronage performed by Audible, Mailchimp, and Squarespace, good voluminous podcast inventory simply doesn’t just go unfilled.

What, exactly, is going on here? I think what we’re seeing is USA Today possibly interpreting downloads in a way that’s significantly more liberal than other podcasters and podcast networks. Which isn’t to say that there is any intent to mislead — I’m not in any position to accuse anybody of ad fraud or inflated numbers at this point in time. Rather, it just may well be the case that this is a situation of misinterpretation. Or maybe, indeed, the team over at USA Today has figured out some novel way of obtaining audiences, perhaps through another platform that portends a different kind of listening relationship. The fact of the matter is: We don’t know, and we’re presented with downloads that look the same as any other kind of download.

In any case, I’m just pushing for more clarity and specificity to what we talk about when we talk about podcast listenership data; to clearly articulate the value provided, to embrace whatever nuance may exist. We’re about a year and a half into this podcast-renaissance racket, but even with all this talk, a download still doesn’t necessarily mean a download, and an impression still doesn’t necessarily mean an impression.

(By the way, did you hear? There are no gods in digital media.)

Remember, folks: Ask more of your data, your platforms, your reporting, and your networks.

Anyway, I’ve sent USA Today a request asking whether we could go through those download numbers through their submission form, but at this writing, they haven’t gotten back to me yet.

Google Play Music finally launches its podcast feature. Five months after first announcing that it would be frolicking with the pods — and a solid month after a Bill Simmons-induced false alarm — Google Play Music now serves listeners podcasts on top of its core music offering, echoing a similar rollout that took place over at Spotify back in January. The feature, which went live yesterday, aims to “connect you with podcasts based on what you’re doing, how you’re feeling and what you’re interested in,” according to a post on the official Android blog.

That description of intent matches what Elias Roman, a product manager on the Google Play team, told me when we spoke back in November. Roman, who previously ran the music concierge app Songza before it was acquired by Google in the summer of 2014, explained Google Play Music’s approach as being built on the notion of introducing podcasts to non-podcast listeners who aren’t already looking for them. “I love the concierge format,” he told me. “It’s something that anticipates what you need and then serves it to you. Interviews and podcasts are a big leap into that direction.”

Is this an inflection point for podcasts? A premature question, truly. (Why did I even ask it?) I’ll be keeping my eye on this, which reminds me: Perhaps it’s about time I check in with how Spotify is doing.

“We are a huge part of the story”: Q&A with Night Vale’s Joseph Fink on independent podcasts. Here in Hot Pod, I pay a disproportionate amount of attention on the bigger institutions — the public radio stations, the Gimlets, the Midrolls — and I do that, I’d argue, for a fairly simple reason: The narrative hook I often seek when sourcing out stories is the measure in which a given entity or development may potentially influence the configuration of the larger podcast ecosystem. And more often than not, companies that command more money and labor and scale tend to fit that bill.

(I also have some quirks that dictate my coverage: I’m particularly emotionally invested in journalistically oriented media companies, for example. Also: The Ringer.)

But I am cognizant that there are tremendous limits to this approach, for placing too much attention on the bigger institutions runs the risk of unconsciously internalizing them — and, by extension, representing them — as proxies for that larger ecosystem, when in fact that’s not always the case. And for podcasting, this is particularly not the case, given the combination of the relative immaturity of the space and the formally organized companies within it.

Furthermore, as Welcome To Night Vale co-creator Joseph Fink argues, independent podcasts (which is to say, podcasts produced outside the bigger companies) wield considerable influence over the aesthetics, current and future, of the medium.

Over email, Fink was kind enough to clue me in on his thinking about the state of indie pods.

Quah: So, I’m definitely guilty of spending a disproportionate amount of ink covering the bigger podcasting companies. Can you tell me how this affects the way we think about podcasts?

Fink: I think one of the defining features of podcasting as a medium currently is that it is still a remarkably open medium. The cost barrier to entry for decent sounding production is low and for the most part distribution is free and equal (more on that in a moment) to everyone. With Night Vale, we started out with a $65 USB mic and free audio editing software, and we were immediately playing in the same space and being distributed on the same channels as This American Life and the Adam Carolla Show. This makes podcasting remarkable in that it is possible to just have a really good idea and have that sometimes be enough. Obviously, there’s a lot of luck involved, but it still is a lot more open than any other form of media I can think of.

There is also the fact that podcasting is young enough that it is still possible to do something new with the format. It’s hard to find something to do with, say, a novel, that someone hasn’t done something at least pretty similar to. But with podcasting, it’s still possible to put out a show that is totally different than any other show out there. That’s a really exciting and rare position to be in as an artist.

But having the coverage focus in on big companies and especially existing large radio organizations, you are only looking at the podcasts that still work exactly like radio, and that almost entirely sound like radio. Which is to say, I think, that you are ignoring everything that makes podcasting interesting and different.

Quah: What are the major challenges that independent podcasts face?

Fink: While distribution is equal, obviously promotion and attention aren’t. Those of us making independent podcasts aren’t going to have our first episode placed as a segment of This American Life. We don’t have the name recognition where we can just name our show The [name of host] Show and make the icon a picture of our face.

We rely much more on the luck of word of mouth. The only thing you can do as an independent podcaster is consistently put out episodes you’re proud of, and hope that other people start enjoying them too.

We also have way less sway on the business side of things obviously. We don’t set CPM rates; we can’t bring new brands into the advertising side of things. We have to let the bigger players do that and then play by the rules they’re setting.

There is also just the frustration of trying to be part of the conversation. It’s easier to not cover independent podcasts, because we’re diverse and messy and there’s a lot of us, and NPR is happy to send you a press release. And so a lot of media just doesn’t talk about us. But we are a huge part of this story too.

Recently Alex Goldman of Reply All talked on twitter about how he sees what he does as “radio” because he thinks there’s no difference between podcasting and radio, and he hates the term “podcasting” anyway. I would say that’s (a) the point of view of someone who’s never stepped outside of the radio ecosystem and (b) someone who is failing to understand and respect the medium he’s working in. Podcasting is not radio, and the difference between the two lies with the indie podcasters and what we’re doing.

Quah: Tell me about the strengths of indies.

Fink: While we don’t have much say in the direction of how advertising will be sold and formatted, and we aren’t invited to the panel discussions about the future of the industry where people who have worked in radio their whole lives talk about what podcasting is, I think that on an artistic level, big podcast companies are more often chasing independents than the other way around.

Independent podcasting is more willing to try something completely new, and if it takes off, then the bigger companies swerve to try to catch up to that.

Which is to say that big media organization act a lot out of risk management. Independent podcasters have nothing to lose, so we’re willing to try anything.

I think along with pushing the big organizations forward artistically, we also show them there is business in places they wouldn’t necessarily have been willing to look on their own. I think it’s very likely that the huge success of The Read showed bigger podcast organizations that there was a huge market for podcasts in which black hosts talked about black issues in a funny, conversational way. I don’t know if BuzzFeed would have been willing to produce Another Round, or WNYC would have been willing to produce 2 Dope Queens without The Read having happened.

I don’t necessarily agree with all the points that Fink makes here — I believe our biggest disagreement would be over the magnitude of influence — but I think his overarching point is absolutely right: Independent podcasts do play a significant role in the aesthetic innovation we see in the space, and a lack of representation would be a disservice. And while the big institutions will never stop making up a considerable portion of what Hot Pod covers, I’ll be hustling to close the gap in my own coverage.

Bites:

  • For all you producers looking to kick butt, take names, make your mark: Third Coast Festival’s 2016 ShortDoc Challenge is now open! Deadline is May 17. (Third Coast)
  • “Left on the dial: With young people trading AM/FM for streaming, will radio find a home in your next car?” Nieman Lab’s Laura Hazard Owen considers where the relationship between the car and the radio will go. (Nieman Lab)
  • TV Land is adapting the Throwing Shade podcast into a late night TV show. (Entertainment Weekly)
  • “To Make Real Money, The Podcast Industry Needs to Stop Calling Them Podcasts.” (Hunter Walk)
  • “The Missing Piece in the ‘Podcast Revolution.'” (Postloudness, on Medium)
  • “How ‘Pistol Shrimps Radio’ Turned Calling Recreational Women’s Basketball Games Into an Essential Podcast.” (Splitsider)

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