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]

Alexa, can you get my kid to brush his teeth? (Oh, and Alexa? How exactly can I make money with you?)

Chomping at the bit. “Gimlet is a multimedia storytelling brand, not just a podcast network,” declared Jenny Wall, the company’s newly hired chief marketing officer, in a Fast Company piece in January. That identity refashioning is mostly tethered to Gimlet’s increasingly formalized dealings with Hollywood, but it’s beginning to rear its head in other intriguing ways as well.

Last Thursday, Gimlet announced its first offering for the Amazon Alexa platform: Chompers, a skill that takes the form of a twice-daily toothbrushing companion for young children. To produce the skill, the podcast company partnered with Volley, a San Francisco-based startup that specializes in building entertainment products for voice assistants. They’re also releasing Chompers as a vanilla podcast for those who have yet to join the smart speaker cult.

This is a shrewd piece of business for two reasons. The first is hunger: The kids, they really love those speaking computer tubes. According to Edison Research and NPR’s Smart Audio report, 88 percent of smart speaker owners whose households include children report that said children really, really enjoy Alexa. And while I’m not a fan of anecdotal evidence, I will say I’ve seen this myself and let me tell ya: The level of fervor is genuinely frightening. (Bigger picture: Health experts are apparently warily optimistic about the relationship between kids and smart speakers, though concerns about data privacy seem to be the more prominent thorn.)

The second reason is money: The first season of Chompers, we’re told, is sponsored by Oral-B and Crest Kids. With this move, Gimlet has made the choice to dive headfirst into the ethical hairiness of advertising to children, which is a can of worms commonly tossed about in discussions about kids podcasts. It’s also a notable attempt to grapple with an Alexa development environment that’s ambiguous about how it allows skill developers to monetize their efforts. More on that in a second.

The Wall Street Journal’s Ben Mullin picked up the story, which you should totally check out in full, but there are three nuggets in there you shouldn’t miss:

  • Gimlet has hired a voice director to lead further content development for voice assistants: Wilson Standish, formerly the director of innovation at the marketing agency Hearts & Science.
  • (Brand) money moves: “In 2017, more than half of Gimlet Media’s ad revenue came from brand advertisers, according to Anna Sullivan, vice president of brand partnerships for the company. Ms. Sullivan added that the company’s brand advertising revenue grew 134 percent in 2017 compared with 2016.”
  • Gimlet president Matt Lieber re-emphasized the company’s commitment to audio: “The way I think about Gimlet is that we’re trying to build a new kind of modern media company where everything begins in audio.”

The company continues to sprawl into a myriad of directions, and it occurs to me that Gimlet’s narrative these days has mostly been about its meta-show developments and much less about the actual shows themselves. Anyway, I think they’re due to announce a spring slate soon, so maybe we’ll start getting more of that too.

Okay, back to making money off Alexa. So it’s a complicated situation. Chompers emerges against an Alexa development environment that happens to ban all third-party ads (with some exceptions for music and flash briefing apps). It’s also an environment that seems to encourage advertisers and brands to directly create or commission skills themselves; a sort of Alexa-skill equivalent of the branded podcast. For further consideration of this, I highly recommend this Wired piece, “Amazon’s Alexa Wants You To Talk To Your Ads,” from December.

All of this amounts to a deeply uncertain context for audio publishers thinking about investing time and resources in creating a presence on the platform. Even if the smart speaker category feels really exciting in general, it’s incredibly hard for publishers to figure out a decent way to yield returns — a problem exacerbated by Amazon’s total and often opaque governance of the Alexa platform. It’s a familiar conundrum: You want to be a part of something on the up and up before you miss it, but what are you really getting if the nature of the thing is so capricious and beyond your control?

With Chompers, Gimlet appears to have figured out a loose workaround. Oral-B and Crest Kids are indeed sponsors, but according to Amazon’s rules, the Chompers skill can’t convey the sponsorship of the two brands at all. However, the usual ad spots will be present on the podcast version, which will receive the usual cross-promotion treatment across its show portfolio. A spokesperson further told me:

We are also including P&G in all our marketing materials, including social, promotional boxes/kits with Oral-B and Crest Kids products, an Echo Dot, etc. to pediatric dentists in NY SF LA and Seattle, celebs, press and parenting influencers, etc.

P&G, by the way, refers to Procter & Gamble, the multinational consumer goods corporation that owns both Oral-B and Crest. The move with promotional materials leans onto a larger marketing theory: By virtue of its relative monopoly over dental hygiene products, P&G will likely benefit from any broader lift in general toothbrushing practices — which, you know, is both terrifying in its expression of corporate monopoly and also a value-creation hypothesis I’d totally explore if I were said corporate monopoly.

Again, these feel like cobbled-together workarounds, and the larger problem of how one can derive meaningful revenue through voice assistant platforms remains very much up in the air. Two more things to that point:

  • I’m tempted to think that what we’ll see over the long run with the Echo is a media ecosystem akin to YouTube: a closed, centralized platform that largely leads to the creation of a content type unique to itself. As such, if you’re a purveyor of fine podcast products, the choice of developing programming for Alexa is ultimately an optional one — but one that requires its own infrastructures, teams, and playbooks. Which is probably why Gimlet hiring a dedicated director of voice makes sense.
  • There’s something about the current demographics of smart speaker users that makes me think it’s a good tool for audio publishers to deepen their relationship with superfans. Drawing from the various Smart Audio reports, these users are highly engaged, display increased audio consumption behaviors, and appear inclined to use the device as a mechanism to make purchases. Seems like a ripe constellation of traits for an audio publisher looking to build out a subscription or freemium model.

But yeah, I don’t know. The more I think about it, the more unsettled I get. If I were a podcast publisher, I’d be incredibly wary of dedicating too much of myself to Alexa. I don’t know where this particular road goes, but it certainly reminds me of the many, many roads that have ended badly.

Chaser: Then again, maybe it’s not a good idea to build out a distribution presence on a sentient platform? “Amazon Alexa Devices Are Laughing Spontaneously And It’s ‘Bone Chillingly Creepy'” (BuzzFeed).

While we’re on the subject of kids podcasts: Gen-Z Media, which joined PRX’s portfolio of clients back in January, has announced a new slate of shows for the spring: The Mayan Crystal, Six Minutes, and a game show called Pants on Fire.

Of particular note is Gen-Z’s new website, dubbed Best Robot Ever, which functions as its new consumer-facing online home that also features programming from kids podcast publishers outside its network.

Clustering. Two months after wrapping Heaven’s Gate, Stitcher has rolled out another podcast that sticks with the theme of cults and cult-ish movements. The new show is called Dear Franklin Jones, and it’s by Jonathan Hirsch, most known for creating the independent podcast ARRVLS.

I liked the first episode enough (and loved the tinkly retro theme music), but what’s up with Stitcher and cults? This reminds me of the twin films phenomenon, except, of course, this isn’t an instance of semi-serendipitous cross-industry synchronicity, it’s just one publisher being fixated on a subject. Anyway, shouts to 1997, when Hollywood released both Volcano and Dante’s Peak within two months of each other, and to 1998, which saw Armageddon and Deep Impact come out within a similar chunk of time.

Anyway, I’d just like to flag that Dear Franklin Jones is another example of Stitcher working the windowing angle to drive more Stitcher Premium conversions through its original programming. The podcast debuted last week with new episodes weekly, but Jonesheads can access the whole run of episodes now if they signed up for Stitcher Premium.

For the record: I go back and forth debating the merits of windowing arrangements like this. I mean, I get it. By virtue of being a short-run series, Dear Franklin Jones is considerably harder to monetize than a longer-term recurring production, simply because there’s a much shorter runway to develop an active listenership and monetize the “head” of the production. As such, I completely empathize with the need to break out complementary channels for revenue.

But the tradeoff involves dampening the upside should it become a hit during its original run. The option to let listeners pay up and instantly access the rest of the show potentially diffuses the listenership and attention; you’d get two populations experiencing the show at different speeds, and are therefore less likely to participate in the same kinds of conversations. We see a version of this diffusion in the streaming vs. linear television context: Streaming platforms Netflix and Amazon Prime Video simply haven’t seemed capable of driving conversations with the same fervor and intensity that linear networks like HBO have consistently been able to do. I guess what I’m saying is: Scared money don’t make money, but I get it.

It’s a tough balance to strike, and I don’t envy podcast programming chiefs juggling the twin facts that (a) there seems to be genuine hunger for great, high-quality short-run podcasts and (b) they’re so much harder to monetize within the current system. And I imagine this will come to a head for Stitcher when the network rolls out its collaboration with Marvel, Wolverine: The Long Night. That show will debut exclusively on Stitcher Premium next Monday, before going wide in the fall.

The Big Listen ends. WAMU will cease production on the Lauren Ober-hosted broadcast about podcasts after “the program in its current format didn’t gain the traction with other NPR stations that we required to continue the investment in its weekly production,” the station announced Friday.

Keep an eye on Spotify. The Swedish music streaming service finally filed to go public on the New York Stock Exchange last week, and the big story thread is how it will pursue a relatively unconventional (and consequently riskier) route to do so. Recode has a helpful summary of the move — Theodore Schleifer writes: “There are no bankers that will underwrite the listing, meaning no one is trying to make a market for shares. There are no institutional investors who will get first dibs at their shares who could prop up Spotify’s value. And a lot of the rules that are meant to keep a stock from soaring or crashing are out the window” — and I also found Andrew Flanagan’s writeup over at NPR helpful to grasp the bigger picture.

You should check out Flanagan’s entire piece, but here’s the money:

Let’s take [Spotify CEO Daniel] Ek at his word here and assume he truly, deeply would like to pay creators as much as humanly possible, enough to survive on their creativity, while at the same time continue to operate a globally dominant technology company. To do that, Ek and Spotify may need to remove other players from the equation — or as he puts it, “break free of their medium’s constraints.” Ek isn’t talking about the constraints of human hearing or the constraints of creating beautiful and challenging sounds. He’s talking about the constraints represented by an industry of fiefdoms. It sounds as though he’d like the job of king.

So why should we care about Spotify again? As a reminder, the platform has made various attempts — albeit in the form of tentative minor experiments — to build out programming alternatives to its core music offering, a good chunk of which revolves around podcasts and non-music audio content. These attempts are ongoing, and to this date they have manifested themselves in a few different ways including: basic third-party podcast distribution (both through manual submission and through new partnerships with Anchor and Spreaker), original content creation (some of which are produced by podcast shops like Panoply and Transmitter), exclusive windowing arrangements (e.g. Gimlet Media with Mogul and WNYC Studios with 2 Dope Queens), and a new multimedia initiative called Spotlight.

According to the F-1, the music streaming platform boasts 159 million monthly users and 71 million paid Premium subscribers as of December 31st, 2017. The document also spotlight’s the company’s apparent emphasis on expanding “non-music content and user experience,” listed within the growth strategy section. Note the following disclosure:

There were a total of 348 million podcast listeners across all platforms worldwide at the end of 2016 and the number of podcast listeners increased to an estimated 484 million in 2017 according to Ovum, representing growth of 39% year-over-year. This engagement presents a significant opportunity for Spotify as we believe we have the ability to enhance the podcast User experience with a better product that is focused on discovery.

I’m not sure how Ovum, the business intelligence service referenced here, counts a “podcast listener,” but the growth rate is notable nonetheless. For what it’s worth, I’m a heavy user of Spotify for podcast listening, mostly because it works better with my data plan and I often spend huge chunks of the day without Wifi. Then again, I’m the guy that hits Chipotle before 11 a.m. to beat the lunch rush. Which is to say, I’m no indicator of anybody.

Related story: iHeartMedia is preparing to file for bankruptcy, Bloomberg reports.

Career Spotlight. We’re back at it again. This week, I traded emails with Vanessa Lowe, the creator of Nocturne, an independent podcast that’s part of The Heard collective. She’s based in Berkeley, California, which I hear has a hoppin’ radio scene these days.

[storybreak]

[conl]Hot Pod: Tell me about your current situation.[/conl]

[conr]Vanessa Lowe: I produce and host the podcast, Nocturne. I’m also a freelance radio producer and do occasional freelance sound editing for independent films. Most of what I’m doing these days is Nocturne, since it’s largely a one-person show. I do 99 percent of the research, interviewing, writing, music supervision, sound editing, mixing, and promotion.[/conr]

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

[conr]Lowe: My career has been less of an arc then a strange, but enjoyable, jagged line. I call myself a “dormant psychologist” because I have a doctorate in clinical psychology but haven’t done any work in that field for a long time. I also spent many years being a performing singer-songwriter-guitarist and released five albums.

In 2008, I produced my first longform radio documentary with no training or experience. That was great fun and the piece was actually aired by several public radio stations around the country. I learned two key things from that experience: I loved making audio stories, and I had a lot to learn. That led me to take a workshop on longform audio documentary production from Claire Schoen, a wonderful veteran radio producer in Berkeley. After the workshop, I became her intern, and eventually an associate producer on her multimedia project about rising sea levels. I worked on that project for two years while producing a couple more docs on my own and with collaborators. I grew more confident making audio, but soon grew tired of working for a year or more on one story. Podcasts were picking up at that point, and I got really excited about the idea of an ongoing project that would have variety and novelty by virtue of being composed of individual episodes. That excitement, combined with my curiosity and complicated relationship with the night, led to Nocturne.

I found learning opportunities everywhere. AIR hooked me up for a mentorship. I did the Transom Travelling Workshop on Catalina Island. Shortly after that, my partner, Kent Sparling, and I entered the KCRW 24-Hour Radio Race and ended up in the top ten (we called ourselves Sleep Mice). I became a founding member of The Heard shortly after starting Nocturne. The Heard is a collective of other indie podcasts, all sharing an ethos of wanting to build things that had unique voices as well as a desire to support and learn from each other.

Having come from the indie music world, I initially felt hesitant to bring on ads to Nocturne. It is first and foremost an artistic project with a distinctive emotional atmosphere. I was concerned that ads would diminish that. I tried to find other ways to support the show, but ultimately came to embrace the advertising model. However, I remain picky about what kinds of ads I do and the tone they take. This shift in mindset came in part from my experience at the first Werk It Festival in New York, where sage female producers spoke convincingly about the importance of placing financial value on your work. At this point, I work with a few different podcast ad companies.[/conr]

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

[conr]Lowe: For some reason I’ve always had a hard time with the word “career,” maybe because I’ve rarely felt like an “expert.” I’m always acutely aware of everything there is to learn. But when I think about what career means for me, it has always involved doing something — or multiple things — that I love, feels valuable, and connects with other people in a meaningful way. Some of that has to do with lofty ideals, but honestly I think a lot of it has to do with only being able to sustain interest and motivation in things that really absorb me.

I often fall into the trap of undervaluing what I do from a financial perspective, though, because it feels like such a privilege to get to experience such joy. I’ve only just recently started calling Nocturne “my business.” I need to remind myself that work has value even if it’s really, really fun. But there’s always the fear that something that becomes a “business” will cease to be intrinsically pleasurable.[/conr]

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

[conr]Lowe: When I moved into audio, I wanted to experiment with a different way of communicating ideas from what I’d done before. I didn’t really have a long game. I wanted to do good work in ways that fit who I am, allow for change and play, and hopefully even pay the bills. When I started Nocturne, I told myself I would do it for three years and then evaluate whether I wanted to continue. Nocturne just started it’s fourth year, and I don’t have any plans to stop.[/conr]

[storybreak]

Bites:

  • Emilie Aries, cohost of Stuff Your Mom Never Told You, has stepped down from the HowStuffWorks’ podcast after a year-long tenure and launched a new project: Bossed Up, a podcast that comes out of her award-winning career service and training company of the same name. Transmitter Media provided guidance on the project. This is the second instance of SYMNTY hosts leaving the show to start their projects in two years, the other being Cristen Conger and Caroline Ervin, who went on to start Unladylike.
  • The team from CBC Original Podcasts reached out to flag a few updates: Its true crime show Someone Knows Something is now back with its fourth season, On Drugs returns for its second, and they welcomed a new show called Personal Best.
  • ESPN has announced its third season of 30 for 30 Podcasts, which will mark a departure from its anthology structure to roll out a serialized story. The season will explore the “complicated world of Bikram Yoga — a community grappling with its own identity and survival in the wake of sexual assault allegations against its charismatic guru and founder.” The story is reported and produced by Julia Lowrie Henderson, who notably worked on the “Yankees Suck!” episode from the first season, and the whole season will drop at the same time on May 22.
  • The music label Atlantic Records has launched its own in-house line of podcasts. (Variety) Agreed with Nieman Lab’s Joshua Benton’s take on the matter: “It is interesting to see a record company like Atlantic invest in podcasts, but what they really should do is a regular show with actual Atlantic music on it. Benefit from the fact that other podcasters don’t have a music library at their disposal!”
  • The New York Times welcomes a new show: Charles Duhigg’s Change Agent. (Apple Podcasts)
  • Sort of adaptation in the opposite direction: The Osbournes now have a podcast. (Apple Podcasts)
  • “Branded Podcasts Are The Ads People Actually Want To Listen To.” (Fast Company)
  • Wild: “An Artificial Intelligence is Generating an ‘Infinite’ Podcast.” (Motherboard)
  • “Florida teacher ‘removed from classroom’ after alleged white-nationalist podcast.” (ABC News)
  • Marc Maron is moving garages, marking an end of an era. The New York Times produced a lovely package memorializing the storied production space.
  • Goodness, Sunday’s This American Life was stunning.

[photocredit]Photo by Sean Donohue used under a Creative Commons license.[/photocredit]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Streetwise uncle” sounds about right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related reading: Publishers with TV ambitions are pursuing Netflix.

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Valentine’s Day.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keller continued:

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

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

Yeah, I don’t know, dude.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which reminds me of something…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[storybreak]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[storybreak]

Bites:

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

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

Can public radio powerhouse WNYC navigate a crisis of its own making?

“The Troubles.” We’re three months into New York Public Radio’s reckoning with sexual harassment and an organizational culture that allowed for bullying and discriminatory behaviors that have especially hurt women and people of color. (See here, here, and here.) And it’s far from over.

Boris Kachka, writing for New York magazine’s The Cut (where the original John Hockenberry piece by journalist Suki Kim dropped on December 1), published a whopper Monday evening that provides one of the most detailed looks at the station’s troubling history with sexual harassment and where it stands today. There’s a lot packed into it, and the piece performs a wide range of functions, including, among others:

  • Vividly illustrating the toxic nature of the culture that the station has cultivated over the decades;
  • Capturing the historically persistent systematic failures of the station’s human resources infrastructure — along with its weaponization (“regarded by many as the organization’s spy and enforcer”);
  • Providing additional details on the behavior of Hockenberry, Leonard Lopate, and Jonathan Schwartz;
  • Filling in some of the blanks of what has been happening in the station over the past few months.

Kachka was also able to secure an interview CEO Laura Walker last week, and in doing so, creates a partial portrait of a station leader under heavy fire whose future remains deeply, utterly in question.

The piece is sprawling and remarkably dense, but also somewhat strange. I’ve read it a couple of times now, and the piece strikes me as a keyhole-sized window into the chaos gripping the institution in the current moment — there are dangling threads everywhere, and there are places where I’m not sure how they fit together. Anyway, go read the feature, which is illuminating, but here are some details you probably shouldn’t miss:

  • Here’s what Dean Cappello has apparently been up to following his demotion to an advisory role: “While Walker made sure to be omnipresent around the office, Cappello traveled to London. According to two sources, he was negotiating with the BBC on a partnership to build a morning news podcast to rival the current market leader, the Times’ The Daily.” Hmm.
  • Here’s Walker’s view of what happens next: “She described the future as a monumental but exciting challenge, and gave herself a window of roughly a year to produce results. In addition to [former NPR News executive editor Madhulika] Sikka’s work, Proskauer’s investigation, and several ‘working groups’ of employees, there was a forthcoming ‘integrated plan for change,’ based on a dissection of the workplace now being conducted pro bono by the prestigious Boston Consulting Group.” Not for nothing, though, it should be noted that Proskauer Rose, the law firm brought in to investigate the harassment complaint, is known for union-busting at universities and being on the other side of labor in the sports world.
  • And here’s the kicker: “Cappello’s demotion left many relieved, others even more frustrated that both he and Walker are still in the building. But one thing is true, everyone agrees: Walker is trying. ‘I think she wants to save the company and save herself,’ says one WNYC reporter. ‘But my colleagues and I feel like if it doesn’t truly change, we are out of here.'”

Pocket ecosystem. This morning, RadioPublic, the podcast listening platform and PRX spinoff, announced a new revenue initiative primarily aimed at smaller podcasts that haven’t yet developed a big enough audience to secure advertisers. RadioPublic is calling it the Paid Listen program, with a hook that involves the company guaranteeing payments to participating podcast publishers. Here’s how CEO Jake Shapiro describes the basic premise in an introductory blog post:

Podcasters make ad-free episodes available in their feeds, we place ads on our platform that bookend each episode, and we pay participating podcasters $20 for every thousand listens on the RadioPublic apps for iOS and Android.

Those ads will be produced in-house by RadioPublic itself for now — hence, publishers should note that they’ll lose that bit of creative control and experience contiguity, should they indeed be concerned about such things — and producers must first submit their podcasts for screening approval to participate in the program. It’s worth noting that the compensation program is limited to listens that take place on the RadioPublic mobile apps, not its embed players scattered across the internet.

In his blog post, Shapiro situates the Paid Listen program within the broader vision he holds for RadioPublic, one that sees advertising as one-of-many pathways for creator compensation that the platform will ultimately support. “Soon we will support listeners who prefer to pay podcasters directly instead of hearing an ad; brands who pay users to opt-in for more info; podcasters who invite their true fans to become paying members,” he writes. But those alternative models will come some other day; today, we’re given advertising, the tried-and-true and still-sexy business model that still drives the bulk of business in the podcast ecosystem.

Viewed from a distance, the Paid Listen program can be understood as another variation on your standard marketplace-building gambit deployed by advertising-oriented content platforms — see: YouTube, Spotify, Facebook, early Stitcher, etc. — where incentives are created to attract more creators onto the platform, after which their capacity to draw attention and generate sellable impressions are bundled as attention commodities and sold to advertisers. The nexus of content platforms and digital advertising has come under increasing criticism over the years (not to mention the platformization of everything in general, but that’s a whole other story), and so the distinct challenge for RadioPublic here is how the company will integrate its Paid Listen gambit into its orientation as a public benefit corporation and its stated goal to assist smaller publishers. That challenge gives rise to a broader philosophical question: Do differences in the social consequences of digital advertising and its resultant content/platform dynamics come down to details, and RadioPublic’s long-term commitments to those details — or are the outcomes ingrained purely in the structural arrangement, never to be overcome?

Whatever the answer to that question, it’s useful to read this initiative as the latest step in what may well end up being RadioPublic’s endgame: building a pocket ecosystem specifically for small, independent, and upstart creators in anticipation of a future in which that creator class will be pushed out of the current iteration of the podcast ecosystem by bigger, more organized, and typically deeper-pocketed publishers. It’s a pathway towards relevance that I’ve previously suspected we would see from the rising cohort of user-generated content-oriented apps like Anchor and Bumpers, but it seems that RadioPublic is, and has always been, much more aligned with this particular vision of the future.

The Hollywood hustle. A preamble: Last week, a reader wrote me a particularly profane note complaining about all the adaptation, IP-harvesting, and Hollywood/podcast baby-making stories I’ve been publishing for quite some time now. “Why should we care?” the note asked. “It doesn’t apply to 95% of us.” Now, this isn’t the first time I’ve received such a complaint on this subject. But this week, I figure I should just at least acknowledge the question, and make explicit what has been implicit all along: I cover it because it’s happening, and it’s going to keep happening, and it’s likely going to impact the structures of money, power, and leverage that inform relationships throughout the podcast ecosystem. Which means that one way or another, it’s going to impact you, whether you like it or not — and whether you can see it or not, so you should probably be aware about it.

Anyway, here’s the news peg. Last week, Gimlet announced something that should surprise absolutely nobody: the formation of Gimlet Pictures, its official film and television unit. As Deadline emphasized, the new division will be led by Chris Giliberti, the Boston Consulting Group alum (and Forbes 30 Under 30 fella) who formerly held the amorphous “head of multiplatform” title. Giliberti originally joined the company in the summer of 2015 as chief of staff to Gimlet president Matt Lieber. His team includes Eli Horowitz, who initially joined the company as the head of its fiction division in the run-up to the launch of Homecoming, and another development executive who is yet to be hired, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

Do read that THR piece on the matter, by the way, which also contains two noteworthy details:

  • Messaging from Lieber insisting that the company remains committed to being audio-first;
  • IMG Original Content, a division of WME, has hired Moses Soyoola, Panoply’s director business development and strategy, into its ranks.

That Gimlet moved to formalize its film and television unit isn’t particularly surprising; it is, after all, the logical end to much of what the company has been doing on the adaptation front. It’s also worth remembering that Gimlet’s adaptation pipeline — and the commoditization of its shows, episodes, and projects into intellectual property — was explicitly stated as one of its core growth pathways during its $15 million fundraising announcement last fall.

But what does putting up a shingle for a film and television development arm entail? What does having one actually mean? An industry insider tells me:

It’s all about what you do with it. The facade alone won’t open doors. Will you actually build out the resources and team? Will your deals be set up in such a way that you’re actually the production company and receiving real fees for it (a.k.a. will your agency do a good job). There is a layer of deals that are purely options and no real dollars come the way of the rights holders. They may look fancy but there is no serious financial value.

Gimlet’s announcement, together with the premiere of 2 Dope Queens’ standup specials on HBO over the weekend, kicked off a series of writeups formally documenting the ongoing podcast adaptation trend, from USA Today and Variety, along with the aforementioned Deadline and Hollywood Reporter pieces. Over at Vulture, I tried to contextualize this current wave of podcast adaptations within the sporadic podcast-to-TV attempts of the past.

On a related note: Chris Hardwick, the creator of the podcast-centric multimedia network Nerdist Industries, did not renew his contract with Legendary Entertainment, according to The Hollywood Reporter. Legendary acquired the company in 2012. Instead, Hardwick has branched off and rebranded his flagship Nerdist podcast as ID10T, which will be the basis of his new media company of the same name. That said, he remains the CEO of Nerdist Industries, but will not be involved in the day-to-day. Cadence13, formerly known as DGital Media, will support the new show on ad sales, and as such it’ll be hosted in Art19.

A note on last week’s issue. I’d like to revise an element of the writing in last Tuesday’s profile of Macmillan podcasts: in my introductory paragraph that sought to quickly establish the origin myth of the QDT–Macmillan relationship, I regrettably glossed over QDT’s pre-Macmillan history and Mignon Fogarty’s work therein. By the time she struck a licensing deal with Macmillan, Fogarty had already formally founded QDT and developed it into what she describes as a “thriving podcast network” spanning six podcasts. She remains involved in some high-level QDT decision-making to this day. The way the paragraph was originally written implies that QDT did not exist before the Macmillan deal, and that is patently not the case.

On a related note: Tor Teen, a Macmillan imprint, has brokered a three-book publishing deal with Lauren Shippen adapting her fiction podcast, The Bright Sessions. Paste Magazine has the exclusive.

Making your own shots. “If The Wire or Treme were a podcast and all the stories were true, this is what you’d get.” That’s how Robin Amer, the creator, host, and executive producer of The City, described her project in short-hand when she originally developed the concept for WNYC’s 2015 Podcast Accelerator. The City, described nowadays as a serialized longform investigative podcast exploring the “power structures of different American metropolises,” emerged as one of two winners of that accelerator competition, but WNYC Studios ultimately ended up passing on the project.

More than two years have elapsed since, and The City has now found a home in a unique situation: as the core of a big podcasting gambit by the USA Today Network, the Gannett-owned media group uniting USA Today and a wide array of local news operations. And last week, the podcast announced a number of key details: the first season will focus on the city of Chicago, the show is set to debut in the fall, and the project has pulled together a team of veteran journalists and public radio producers to build the show.

And what a team it is. Supporting Amer will be: reporter Wilson Sayre, formerly of WLRN; producer Jenny Casas, formerly of St. Louis Public Radio and City Bureau; consulting composer and sound designer Hannis Brown, formerly of NYPR’s Meet the Composer; story editor Ben Austen, former editor at Harper’s Magazine and current contributor to the New York Times Magazine; and editor Sam Greenspan, formerly the managing producer at 99% Invisible.

The City’s road to the USA Today Network was an unconventional one. After learning that WNYC wouldn’t be picking up the show in August 2016, Amer secured help from a literary agent, Danielle Svetcov, with whom she started shopping the pilot episode around in November 2016. “I knew I needed a large institutional partner to produce the show,” Amer, who is the former deputy editor at the Chicago Reader and a former WBEZ producer, told me over email. “Long-form investigative reporting isn’t the kind of thing you can do by yourself, unfunded, on nights and weekends.”

The process involved preliminary conversations with more than a few of, as Amer puts it, “the usual podcasting suspects,” but she was eventually connected with the USA Today Network through John Barth, the managing director of PRX and a mentor of Amer, who introduced her to Liz Nelson, the network’s vice president of strategic content development and one of the people in charge of expanding the organization’s budding podcasting efforts. One thing led to another, and last summer, Gannett ultimately agreed to buy The City, acquiring its intellectual property, and bring Amer on an as employee to build and run the project.

“They completely bought into my vision for the show,” Amer said. “The network comprises 109 local news outlets all across the country in addition to USA Today, and is extremely committed to investigative reporting, so my vision of focusing on a different city every season not only made sense to them but was actually feasible.” When asked about the budget that the network is granting the project, Amer described it as “comparable to others that have been launched by major media organizations,” though no specific details were given. For the USA Today Network, The City represents a big swing in a larger push to expand its on-demand audio operation. The network hopes to grow its podcast portfolio to over 60 shows this year. (Which is, uh, wild.)

I’m told that the team is currently deep in the reporting process. “Now that our staff is on board, we’re resuming the reporting that I’ve been doing on and off for the last two years. We’ll be reporting through May, then in scripting and production mode through the summer,” Amer said. They are also laying the groundwork for the second season, which they hope to roll out in the spring of next year.

With a vision to build out a whole new platform for investigative reporting, The City could well emerge as the latest entry in a growing lineage of substantively journalistic podcasts like Reveal or In The Dark — or, as Amer hopes, the broader tradition of investigative narrative works spanning so many other mediums, like those of Errol Morris, Matthew Desmond, and as alluded to in The City’s original shorthand, David Simon. “If we’re successful, I hope it will be one more piece of proof that you can both tell a gripping story and have meaningful impact,” she said. “And hopefully that will spur other media outlets to invest in this kind of work.”

But for now, Amer has already carved out another kind of legacy: of pushing past closed doors with grit, and realizing new ways to raise a project.

On a vaguely related note, because Chicago: Ellen Mayer, a former engagement consultant at Hearken, has launched a new local podcast project called IlliNoise, which is dedicated to “answering your questions about the Illinois state government, how it works, and how it impacts your community.” Not to be confused with Illinoise, the second album in Sufjan Stevens’ 50 States project — where the musician would’ve made 50 albums, each based on a different state — that he would dismiss in 2009 as “such a joke.” (Alas.)

Now if you excuse me, I’m going to make audio puns out of every state.

Career Spotlight. This week, I traded emails with Jayson De Leon, one of those young, energetic whipper-snappers.

[conl]Hot Pod: Tell me about your current situation.[/conl]

[conr]Jayson De Leon: Currently I’m a producer over at Slate where I primarily produce a show called Trumpcast. We started the show back in March 2016 with the idea of it being a short run thing about a fascinating campaign with the promise of doing the podcast until this was over and…well, this is still not over. We describe Trumpcast as being “quasi-daily” and have brought on two more hosts since the election who each bring their own expertise on the administration to the show (Jamelle Bouie and Virginia Heffernan).

In addition, I just finished a stint producing Family Ghosts over at Panoply alongside Sam Dingman (who hosts and created the show), Veralyn Williams (a fellow Slatester), Odelia Rubin (part of the Famoply), and Micaela Blei (The Moth). The show explores those stories you’ve always heard your family talk about, but never quite worked up the courage to look into. I think Sam put it beautifully in the second episode of the series, No Brown Spots: This is a show where “our goal is to turn burdens into talisman.” I love that line and have it pinned to a corkboard in my room. A second season of Family Ghosts is in the works.[/conr]

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

[conr]De Leon: I went to the University of Central Florida and received my degree in economics. During my senior year, I had that moment of, “oh crap, I don’t want to work in a bank for the rest of my life,” so I applied for this internship at Planet Money and got it. I started listening to Planet Money back in 2008 during the financial crisis. Orlando was in a lot of ways the epicenter of the housing crisis, and I was looking for a place to answer the questions I had about the unraveling of my family’s real estate business at the time. I was completely hooked by the pace and detail of the stories. And, to some degree, I think the early days of Planet Money have informed how I think about making a show like Trumpcast where the news changes minute to minute.

After my internship, I spent some time working as a freelancer. I was a huge Grantland fan (R.I.P.) and ended up getting connected to one of their contributors, Brian Koppelman, by sheer luck (I sent him a tweet). He had just started his own podcast on their network called The Moment and I helped produce that show for close to two years while working as Brian’s assistant on his Showtime TV series, “Billions,” which he created alongside his partner, David Levien. The Moment ended up moving to Slate in April 2015 and from there I met a ton of people who helped me land a bunch of work. I freelanced for a little over a year and worked on shows like Slate’s Working and Political Gabfest until I ultimately landed in Jacob Weisberg’s office (who runs The Slate Group) throwing around ideas for what Trumpcast could sound like alongside my then co-producer, Henry Molofsky.

TLDR — making a living doing audio feels like it required a bunch of breaks to go my way. As a former poker player, it feels like I’ve just caught a run of good cards and I’m just ecstatic to still be in the game.[/conr]

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

[conr]De Leon: Great question, Quah! Hmmm…I never get to think about this. I guess to me a career allows you to enrich those parts of your life you’ve always wanted to enrich while at the same time allowing you to build an actual life for yourself. Only recently have I started to think about this as a “career.” Where I work allows me to try all sorts of new things with storytelling and there’s a certain level of relief that comes with knowing you have time to sit and really think about the best way to tell the story you want to tell or make the best version of the show you want to make. I’m finding that the stories come from a more generous rather than desperate place these days. Like anybody engaging in this medium, I’m just looking to make something that’s urgent, compelling, and feels worthwhile to me and the people listening.[/conr]

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

[conr]De Leon: As a kid, I thought I was going to be a professional basketball player. I don’t think I’m more jealous of any other thing on Earth than people who play basketball professionally. Thinking about it is actually making me upset right now. I also thought I was going to be a professional jiu-jitsu fighter after spending four years training full-time. There was also a very good chance that if I didn’t get that Planet Money internship, I would’ve just stayed in Orlando and tried to make my life work over there. So no, when I started out in life, I never thought I wanted to tell stories, but I’m damn happy to find it when I did.

When I first started out playing in the audio space at Planet Money, I was a complete mess. I had no idea what I wanted to do so I tried to do everything. I went on a reporting trip with Zoe Chace which opened my eyes to speaking with people out in the world. Who knew you could do that for living? I pitched stories basically every week at the Planet Money edit meeting. Mainly because I’m very competitive, but also because it was kind of fun to hear why things don’t work.

Phia Bennin, who was producing over at Planet Money then, helped me with basically everything else while I was there — learning to track, edit, mix, etc., and I can’t thank her enough for that. I think I ultimately ended up producing out of necessity, because I really wanted to stay in New York and keep playing my hand in audio, but it’s just in the last year or so that it feels like I’ve been able to tell myself that this is probably what I’ll be doing with my days for years to come.[/conr]

Bites:

  • Pandora is reorganizing its business — which is to say, it’s downsizing and engaging in cost-saving measures while placing bets on new gambles, like ad tech and further expanding into non-music content. The music streaming company is also working to grow its Atlanta office, situated in “a region with lower costs than the company’s headquarters in Oakland.” What finagling! (Press release)
  • “Audible’s pursuit of more audiobook publishing rights could squeeze traditional book publishers in the fastest-growing segment of the market.” (The Wall Street Journal)
  • Amazon has acquired Pulse Labs, a startup that aims to help voice app developers “test out new apps on a target audience before publicly launching.” (Recode)
  • The Modern Love podcast celebrated its 100th episode last week. I asked the team to list out their favorite entries. (Vulture)
  • The Onion binge-dropped a six-part true-crime spoof yesterday, titled “A Very Fatal Murder.” (Website)
  • The ever-funny, always-delightful Glen Weldon with “The 6 Eminently Disprovable Rules For Roundtable Podcasting.” (NPR Monkey See)
  • Are you reading Caroline Crampton? You absolutely should.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This week in public radio:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nope, not a good week for public radio.

Personnel notes:

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

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

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

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

Three things:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bites:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One imagines there will be more to come.

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

Some odds and ends:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This week in the revolving door:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Neato.

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

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

But I thought the quote was interesting for three reasons:

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

Bites:

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

Next week, we’re talking crypto-pods.

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

If podcasts and radio move to smart speakers, who will be directing us what to listen to?

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 139, published November 7, 2017.

Charla de Cóctel. Slate Podcasts is now bilingual. Last week, the network leveraged its hefty experience with conversational programming — which birthed the style known as the “gabfest” — to launch what it bills as its first-ever Spanish language product, El Gabfest en Español. The lineup includes León Krauze, the main anchor at Univision’s KMEX station in Los Angeles and the Wallis Annenberg Chair in Journalism at USC; Fernando Pizarro, a political reporter for Univision’s local TV stations; and Ariel Moutsatsos, the Washington bureau chief for Noticieros Televisa. (A fourth panelist will be added at a later date.) The podcast comes out of a collaboration with Univision Noticias, the Spanish-language American news source, but I’m told that Slate has full editorial control over the project. Paulina Velasco, who is based in Los Angeles, serves as the show’s producer.

When I asked the managing producer of Slate Podcasts, June Thomas, about the motivation behind the project, she systematically ticked off the drivers: demographic opportunity (“We know the stats about the growth of Spanish and bilingualism in America,” Thomas said: “37 million Latinos speak Spanish at home; the U.S. Latino population is set to reach 107 million by 2065, etc.”); a largely untapped market (“Everyone working on English-language podcasts worries about market saturation…There are a few U.S.-produced Spanish-language podcasts out there — Radio Ambulante is especially great — but the market is the opposite of saturated”); and Slate’s general intent to seek new audiences to bring into the fold.

That last bit is as much opportunity as it is challenge for Slate Podcasts. “Although lots of bilingual Spanish speakers read Slate, it isn’t an obvious place for people to come to seek out Spanish-language content,” Thomas notes. “So we have to go out and find them.” Thus the Univision Noticias partnership, given the channel’s deep knowledge of the market, its sustained relationship with the demographic, and its growing interest in podcasting as a channel.

Another challenge that Thomas’ team is finding: advertisers. “The direct-response companies that advertise on podcasts work by driving listeners to a site that touts the product’s benefits; many have told us they don’t yet have a Spanish-language website,” Thomas explained. “I don’t want to be too much of a downer, though, some of our brand advertisers are specifically looking for a sophisticated Spanish-speaking audience as they launch new products, and we expect to see more of that business.”

You can check out the show here.

Side note: In my estimation, and do let me know what I’m missing, there seem to be few formal entities explicitly working to serve and build a business around Spanish-speaking podcast listeners. (Granted, I’m a non-Hispanic immigrant who doesn’t speak Spanish, so my natural grasp of that ecosystem is limited.) Among the ones I’m familiar with: Caroline Guerrero and Daniel Alarcón’s aforementioned Radio Ambulante, CNN en Español, and Revolver Podcasts, the network founded by former Univision executive Jack Hobbs. Speaking of which, Hobbs tells me that the network sees about 2.3 million monthly downloads across its 47 shows, and that they, too, enjoy a partnership with Univision.

More podcasts on Pandora? Facing third-quarter declines across a slate of key metrics — monthly listeners, listening hours, and sold ads — the music streaming platform indicated in a recent earnings call that it will be shaking some things up to get things back on track. Among the moves articulated: expanding the platform’s non-music programming, like podcasts and spoken-word content, according to Variety.

You might remember that Pandora had previously struck up an arrangement with This American Life to bring the show, along with the two Serial seasons, onto the platform last April, where the podcasts were chapterized, given their own station, and packaged with a Pandora-specific ad unit. (You might also remember that this arrangement led to the WBAA-TAL kerfuffle, which raised the question of whether such partnerships with explicitly for-profit platform companies compromised This American Life’s commitment to the public media mission, and whether TAL should therefore be penalized by the system as a result.) In any case, despite indications at the Hivio conference in Los Angeles last summer that Pandora was “pleased with the experiment,” it hasn’t looked like the platform was moving to scale up the initiative anytime soon…until now.

What does this mean for publishers? Probably that one should expect Pandora to go knocking around for potential partnerships — I presume we’re going to see more instances of exclusives and windowing — and that the first teams to get contacted are the ones you’d expect. (The big get bigger, etc.)

Two more things to note. The first is how this tosses Pandora into the pit with Spotify, TuneIn, iHeartMedia, Stitcher, and Audible in the hunt for content partnerships that would give any one of them an edge over the others. The second is Pandora’s strategic assumptions in its pursuit of such arrangements; new Pandora CEO Roger Lynch “signaled that such a move would also make economic sense since royalties will be lower than for music programing,” as the Variety writeup notes. Remember to squeeze, folks.

What does this mean for every other type of publisher — the independents, the small shops, the niches, the locals, the ones that advocate for the medium’s openness? Nothing particularly comforting, I reckon.

Crisis at NPR. The story can be told in a series of headlines: “NPR’s top editor placed on leave after accusations of sexual harassment,” “Top NPR News Executive Mike Oreskes Resigns Amid Allegations Of Sexual Harassment,” “NPR bosses knew about harassment allegations, but kept top editor on job,” “At NPR, Oreskes harassment scandal leaves deep wounds,” “NPR retains law firm to review how Oreskes allegations were handled,” “NPR CEO to staff: ‘I let you down’,” “NPR Management Under Fire Over Sexual Harassment Scandal.”

It’s been an exceedingly dispiriting week for the public radio mothership. The question now is what happens next to NPR’s leadership, and in particular CEO Jarl Mohn, given his handling of newsroom concerns in the wake of the scandal — and his management of the actual allegations in the years before they were publicly revealed by The Washington Post. Parallel to this, and perhaps more importantly, is the longer-term question of how, and how vigorously, the organization will build systems to combat sexual harassment and support a better workplace culture. This latter question involves a process, constant and attentive, as the organization moves to repair a culture that has systematically affected the women in its ranks.

None of this should be viewed strictly as an internal affair. The health and internal culture of any news organization is directly relevant to our relationship with them, and this is ever more true for NPR, which is fundamentally supposed to be more than a news organization. It is a civic institution, a symbol that this society — from its government down to its people — can continuously collaborate to maintain a system meant to elevate the whole. It is also an operation financed in this spirit. NPR is not a news organization that sells you the news; it’s an entity in which you invest to improve public knowledge. You’re invited to be directly responsible for the thing — for its achievements, its character, its moral authority. Indeed, that responsibility is core to the strength of its identity and brand, if we’re allowed to use the term. That’s why any scandal, and particularly one of this nature, within NPR cuts deeper. That’s why, as both its consumers and its constituents, what troubles the institution should trouble us too.

The string of stories about sexual harassment in the media and beyond has raised a great number of questions that should be grappled with long after this moment — about its painful pervasiveness and complexities, about the way it has shaped public narratives, and so on. The NPR case clarifies an additional layer, refining a question about the role of the audience. There is a tension, it seems, when it comes to figuring out how to support the general while protesting the specific as consumers with the voting power of a listen or a download or some contribution to the AQH (now at an all-time high, we’re told). How does one express solidarity with Mary Louise Kelly & Co., while signaling displeasure or ambivalence with the leadership? How does one do these things in a way that matters?

Read also: “Reporting on Journalist-on-Journalist Sexual Harassment is a Proxy for Dealing With the Trust Problem (and can make it worse),” by Nikki Usher.

WNYC boomerangs? The station circulated an internal memo last Tuesday that Pat Walters, most recently of Gimlet Media, has returned to the Radiolab team that gave him his start. Walters left Radiolab in 2014 to join Pop-Up Magazine, the beloved “live magazine” operation, as senior editor. He later moved to Gimlet to launch and host the Undone podcast, which was ultimately canceled after one season. He was subsequently involved in the launch of Uncivil, a Civil War history podcast with journalists Chenjerai Kumanyika and Jack Hitt. At Radiolab, Walters will assume the role of “senior editor of the special projects unit.”

Walters marks the second return to WNYC in recent weeks. Joel Meyer, who was an executive producer at the station before leaving for Slate in 2014, kicked off his return engagement as an executive producer for WNYC Studios last Monday. Is this the beginning of a trend for the station?

Keep an eye on WNYC. I hear something else is afoot.

And while we’re on the subject of personnel: American Public Media’s Marketplace announced a few executive hires last week, the most relevant of which is Sitara Nieves, who will now serve as executive director of on-demand audio. Nieves was previously the interim executive producer of Marketplace, and before joining the organization in 2012, she worked on WNYC and PRI’s The Takeaway. The news comes as APM sees off the retirement of Dinner Party Download, and not too long after losing its former Marketplace Tech host, Ben Johnson, to WBUR’s budding podcast division.

Search to suggest. Look, this is going to get pretty woo-woo head-in-the-clouds in, like, a hot second, but this is my newsletter and I’ll cry if I want to, so strap in and bear with me for a bit.

So I was talking to this guy, Dan Sacher, who heads up content partnership in the United States for this Tel Aviv-based company called Audioburst, which according to Crunchbase endeavors to create a “screen-free, speech-based technology that enables search and interaction with audio.” The premise is basically “Google, but for audio,” which isn’t an entirely new gambit all by itself, if you’ve been looking around long enough. Among other tools, there’s Pop-Up Archive’s Audiosearch (which ceased public operations two weeks ago), and more recently there’s this service called Listen Notes, which got itself billed as “the Best Podcast Search Engine” by Lifehacker back in September.

But I’m not talking to Audiosearch or Listen Notes; I’m talking to Sacher, and the dude is describing how Audioburst works. As explained to a lay person (i.e. me), the mechanics feel straightforward and familiar: The technology ingests on-demand audio files and linear broadcast streams to create transcripts, which it then scans for keywords to be broken out as searchable tags for listeners — and eventually advertisers, I suppose — to look up. As with all things artificially intelligent and machine-learning–related, Audioburst’s abilities theoretically improve over time as more raw material is fed into it, and this is presumably where choices are made pertaining to the substance of the algorithm. (Here’s also where conversations about the “editorial character” of algorithms should be located, I guess.)

There is an apparent ambition to use that data to build personalized matches for individual consumers, constructed around personas or listener profiles. (This portion would not be unprecedented in this space; think Panoply’s partnership with Nielsen Data.) To this date, Audioburst has rolled out a few products built off its core indexing capability, including two smart device integrations (one for Google Assistant, one for Amazon Alexa), a developer API, and most recently, a consumer-facing search engine. One assumes there are more to come.

TechCrunch has a more in-depth explanation of the company, if any of this tickles your fancy, and the piece contains some detail on Audioburst’s strategic machinations. Among them:

The company is largely focused on partnership deals with radio stations, radio programs, and podcasters. It’s also starting to venture into the TV space, with plans to index TV news, and is chatting with a small handful of auto manufacturers about integrating Audioburst into their own in-car entertainment systems.

All right, so. This is all super interesting, but what’s the bigger thought bubble here? What’s this got to do with you?

Well, as you might’ve noticed, I’ve spent some time in this newsletter keeping tabs on the emerging smart-speaker category, and that attention is driven by a sense that some conflict and conciliation is on the horizon between the way we currently consume podcasts — as well as radio and music, for that matter — and how we will eventually consume all audio should voice-first computing further broaden itself out in the mainstream. (This is directly related to the probable convergence among different publisher types that I’ve been yammering on about since last March; the notion is that as the nature of distribution changes, so do the structural groupings of different kinds of spoken-audio content, which drains the fundamental meaning from a word like “radio” as much as it does “podcast.”)

I think the way Audioburst is setting itself up in the market, and how it views the field in the years to come, is worth mentally working through if you plan to continue playing in this space five to ten years from now. Currently, the company appears to be building out a search portal for audio content, but it’s really laying a foundation for a more linear — and to some extent, more opaque, even than Apple’s podcast editorial pages and chart algorithms — form of discovery and distribution: personalized suggestion. Audioburst’s “search to suggest” thesis comes as an anticipation of how the internet, represented visually and aurally, might next shift paradigmatically. And as this one dude Andre Staltz pointed out in a recent blog post about the Internet and Everything Else, “search to suggest” is precisely the thesis currently being operationalized by Google.

(It’s worth reading Staltz’s whole piece, by the way, which essentially walks us through the end of the seb and the rise of what he calls the Google-Facebook-Amazon “Trinet.” This all has the capacity to make you feel so very small in the face of the conflicts and tensions of structures way bigger and way more powerful than you, and that may well be true for most of us normal human individuals. But much like matters of foreign relations, we will nonetheless be recipients of the process and outcomes of those conflicts. Side note: The thing about optimism is that given a long enough time horizon, all optimism turns into tragedy. Moving on.)

Assuming you’re the kind of podcast publisher that likes to worry — or just think through — hypothetical futures, it’s worth applying some imagination in pursuit of a few workable questions around this scenario. What I’m personally trying to grasp, and where I think new knowledge is to be created, revolves around the question of how consumer power can meaningfully express itself within the “Suggest” paradigm, if consumer power will continue to exist at all. If the Amazon Echo, Google Home, or whatever else that comes down the pike becomes the primary way of consuming podcasts, the radio, or music, what does the user pathway of selecting what to listen look like? How are those user journeys structured, how can they be designed to push you in certain ways? (The “Power of the Default,” by the way, is a very real thing.) How would discovery work? Which is to say, how does the market look like? Where and how does the consumer make choices? What would choice even mean?

All right, I’ll come down from La La Land now.

Career spotlight. This week I traded emails with James Kim, a Los Angeles-based producer who primarily works at KPCC, and who probably represents the strongest argument for us needing to have some sort of IMDb situation going on. Kim’s rap sheet is a steady stream of weird, interesting shows, both broadcast and podcast, and it suggests a consistency in aesthetic as much as a professional progression.

[storybreak]

[conl]Hot Pod: Tell me about your current situation.[/conl]

[conr]James Kim: I’m an associate producer at KPCC making podcasts with my boss/work wife Arwen Champion-Nicks. Side note: She’s so damn good at what she does and is constantly inspiring me in many ways. We’re working on some new projects that I can’t talk about at the moment (I feel like I’m in the CIA), but you’ll hear about it pretty soon!

I’m also working on the audio drama podcast Deadly Manners. It’s been a nice shift from the projects and podcasts that I normally do.[/conr]

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

[conr]Kim: I grew up on Korean talk radio and Top 40 music, and I had no idea what NPR was until I got to college. I was studying music and making documentaries and I somehow found This American Life on iTunes. That show told everyday stories in an interesting way and each episode sounded like an indie film. After becoming obsessed with it, I realized that I wanted to make audio documentaries as a career.

My first job in public radio was actually at KPCC. I started as an intern a few years back for the weekend show Off-Ramp and I did an internship with The Dinner Party Download (R.I.P., fam) shortly after. After finishing those internships, I couldn’t find a job or even freelance work in radio for about a year.

During that time, I almost gave up in finding a career in public radio entirely. But I decided to give it one last shot and I moved to a 2,000-person town in Texas to do another internship. I told myself, “You better make this one count, girl.”

I spent every waking hour making a podcast at Marfa Public Radio called There’s Something Out There. It was an audio documentary series about the supernatural activity in West Texas. Right before I ended my internship, I got offers to work on a couple shows and eventually got a job as a producer on KPCC’s The Frame.

Even though I finally got a full-time job, I didn’t stop making podcasts. After clocking out at The Frame I was creating a podcast called The Hiss. The show is about people holding onto memories that they want to forget. I then took a producer job with The Dinner Party Download and I continued to work on my passion projects outside of work. This time, it was a podcast called The Competition with Elyssa Dudley and Cameron Kell. The first season followed the most prestigious piano competition in the world from beginning to end, and it was inspired by my love for reality TV competition shows such as Top Chef and RuPaul’s Drag Race (anyone ready for All-Stars 3?)

I haven’t had many free weekends because of my various side hustles, but I’m sure that’s the case with a lot of producers in this field. I’m young and I got the energy to sleep 4 hours a day. So why not put that energy to good use, right?[/conr]

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

[conr]Kim: At first, it meant health benefits and enough money to move out of my parent’s house. Now it’s a way for me to practice my craft every day and get better at what I do.[/conr]

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

[conr]Kim: This is so embarrassing, but I wanted to be the next Ira Glass. Admit it! You’ve had that goal, too![/conr]

[storybreak]

Bites:

  • Two-Up Production’s Limetown will return in early 2018, almost two full years after wrapping its first season. (Apple Podcasts) The team has had quite an adventure in the intervening period, including a novelization in process, a TV adaptation potentially on the cards, and a three-act podcast musical starring Jonathan Groff and Jessie Shelton.
  • 30 for 30 Podcasts will return for its second season later this month, thereby executing a shockingly short turnover time between seasons (under four months). Turns out that those early speculations appeared to be true: For this coming five-episode bundle, ESPN relied on outside partners to produce three of them. Those partners: NFL Films, Long Haul Productions, and Pineapple Street. This structure makes the podcast series more closely mirror its parent film operation. (Press release)
  • Cardiff Garcia, the editor of the Financial Times’ flagship financial and economics blog Alphaville, is moving to NPR’s Planet Money, where he’s attached to a “new project to be revealed soon.” Garcia, of whom I’m a fan, starts work next Monday. Also: Planet Money spinoff? (Talking Biz News)
  • Just a periodic reminder that Podcasts in Color is an invaluable resource. (Twitter)
  • Al Jazeera has launched its own podcast network, called Jetty. One thing to watch: the network will apparently be experimenting with Facebook Watch as a potential audience driving channel. Mark that up as another test on social podcast discovery — even if we’re talking about digital video on a social platform, which seems to be all the rage these days. (Nieman Lab)
  • Steal the Stars, MacMillan Publishing’s first foray into the audio drama category with its Tor Labs division, wrapped its first season last week. (Website)
  • “Podcast patent troll’s fight might finally be over.” This story, geez. (Engadget)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m noodling on two more thoughts:

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

Three notes on measurement.

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

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

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

[storybreak]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[storybreak]

Bites:

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

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

These are the most important developments in the podcast business so far in 2017

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 135, published September 5, 2017.

Programming note! Ah yes, so we are in September! As you might already know, I’m taking a five-issue break from writing Hot Pod, starting next week and back on October 17, to do the Knight Visiting Nieman Fellowship in Cambridge (very on-brand, I’d say). But that doesn’t necessarily mean the Hot Pod #content will stop flowing, as I’ll be serving up bonus goodies here and there to those who read Hot Pod as a newsletter. (You can sign up to that here.)

But even as the newsletter churns out extra, the Hot Pod column as you know it will be on ice for a while. So, before the break and ahead of the third annual IAB Podcast Upfront happening later this week (also the NowHearThis Festival, I suppose), I figured this is probably a good time to take stock of the year in podcasting so far, which is, you know, quite a lot. In this issue, you’ll find top-level numbers, the six big things/trends/developments that stood out to me, thoughts about the three most interesting podcast companies, and some news hits before we break for a month and a half.

Let’s jump in.

The year so far. We begin by asking: Just how much has the industry grown over the past year? And do we have a better understanding of the space than we did before? I’ve been keeping these two digits pinned to my notebook:

  • Audience size: 67 million U.S. monthly listeners, according to Edison and Triton Digital’s annual Infinite Dial report, up 21 percent from 57 million from the year before. The volume of growth between 2017 and 2016 is slightly less than the period immediately preceding it (4 percentage points off a smaller base), which was a source of consternation among some in the podcast community at the time. But as I wrote back when the report first dropped: “We’re still talking 10 million new Americans actively listening to a medium that (a) is still propped up by a barely evolved technological infrastructure, (b) has only seen a few instances of significant capital investment, and (c) still sees its industry power very much under-organized.” Those three things, by the way, have changed a little since I wrote that line. More on that in a bit.
  • Advertising: The industry is expected to top $220 million in podcast advertising revenue by the end of 2017, according to an Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) study. The study is the first of its kind, a long-awaited official research effort into a pool of the biggest players in the space — which gives us a floor, at the very least — that’s a marked a step up from that methodologically-fuzzy Bridge Ratings report that’s been floating about the past few years. (Yeah, it’s all totally weird.) The IAB study was also able to give us some valuable historical context: 2016’s podcast ad revenue came in at $119 million, while 2015 came in at $69 million.

I’ll be thinking about how the industry moves forward based on three dimensions:

  • Growth — whether audiences and revenues will continue to grow, obviously;
  • Sustainability — whether companies will meaningfully diversify their revenue streams and whether the industry will see its activities and fortunes spread out across a wide number of companies; and
  • Refinement — whether the ecosystem will improve upon its various inefficiencies, from discovery to measurement to monetization.

Cool. So, with all that out of the way, let’s talk about six big things that’ve stood out to me since January.

[storybreak]

(1) Fundraising uptick. The summer closed with what might have been the loudest month in terms of significant investments in the podcast industry since…well, since I’ve started writing this newsletter in November 2014. August saw a total of four big investments in all (that were publicly disclosed, of course):

  • August 1: Gimlet Media announced a $15 million Series B funding round led by the New York-based Stripes Group, whose portfolio also includes Refinery29, eMarketer, and Blue Apron. Participants in the round also included Laurene Powell Jobs’ Emerson Collective, Graham Holdings, Cross Culture Ventures, and Betaworks. Variety had the first writeup.
  • August 3: DGital Media (which would later rebrand as Cadence13) announced that Entercom, the fourth-largest radio broadcaster in the U.S., paid $9.7 million to buy 45 percent of the company. The arrangement was described as an “investment and a strategic partnership” in the press release, and Entercom also signed a “multi-year services agreement under which DGital will dedicate ‘significant resources’ to create on-demand audio content leveraging the broadcaster’s roster of local talent and relationships.”
  • August 23: Art19, the California-based podcast technology company, announced a $7.5 million Series A round led by Bertelsmann Digital Media Investments (BDMI) and DCM Ventures. Other investors in the round included United Talent Agency (!), Gallo Digital, angel investor Zach Coelius, and Array Ventures, according to the press release.
  • August 31: HowStuffWorks, the Atlanta-based veteran podcast company that’s been publishing for almost a decade across multiple parent corporations, announced that it will be spinning out as a new independent company with a $15 million Series A fund led by the Raine Group. Here’s TechCrunch with a writeup, which also includes a look at an executive reshuffle and marginal insight into expansion plans. The spinoff news comes not too long after the company announced a West Coast expansion, one that explicitly targets the comedy category.

First of all, mazel tov to all! But also: Why did all these investments come in at the same month? Also, why did it all come out in the time of year when many a venture capitalist is thought to be on vacation? Conal Byrne, HowStuffWork’s new incoming president, was game to put a positive spin on it, though he doesn’t quite answer the question. “The industry has finally hit the tipping point that investors have been waiting for,” he wrote, through a rep. “Validation of a big market opportunity.” That feeling is generally shared across other sources that I reached out to, though the timing thing remains a puzzle. (Herd mentality? An actual tipping point? Maybe a bit of both?) Nevertheless, there were several private expressions of relief that dollars are finally flowing.

One thing to observe from all this: These four investments are substantially different from the kinds of investments we’ve often seen in (and adjacent to) the podcast space up until this point. Much of the attention over the past few years has generally been on consumer-focused audio app and platform plays — Anchor, Bumpers, Otto Radio, 60dB, RadioPublic, and so on — which are, in other words, stuff that’s more conventionally known within the broader tech industry. But these recent investments — three straight-up media companies, one podcast technology infrastructure company — are specific to the needs, textures, and idiosyncrasies of the podcast ecosystem.

I like where this is going.

(2) Apple analytics. While the summer closed out with news of investments, the season kicked off with an Apple bombshell. During its WWDC conference back in June, the company’s podcast team announced that publishers will soon be provided with in-episode analytics — which is to say, publishers will soon be able to systematically go beyond the download and tell just how much of their episodes are actually being listened to on the aggregate. This is undeniably the most significant development to hit the podcast industry since…well, since Apple consolidated the disparate ecosystem by featuring podcasts in the iTunes architecture, breaking it out as a standalone app, and then eventually packaging the app with iOS by default.

My coverage on the matter was spread across three separate issues:

Nieman Lab also ran a useful piece from WAMU’s Gabe Bullard, who sought to project what might happen to podcasts by examining what happened to the radio industry when its ratings became more precise ten years ago. To sum: A fragmented world was revealed, genres died off, accuracy disputes emerged, and some who were thought to be big turned out not to be all that big after all. We’ll likely see the same kinds of effects ripple across the podcast industry, and as a result, we’ll probably see some recalibration of power and standing. We’re due for a moment of disruption, which is as much a period of potential as it is pitfall. (Chaos is a ladder, after all, as some dude once said.)

(3) More and more adaptations. To illustrate the prevalence of this trend, here’s a sample of just a few of noteworthy developments in this area over the past few months:

  • Gimlet Media articulating its intellectual property pipeline as a prominent talking point for press coverage around its recent fundraise, building on a steadily increasing track record of adaptations that include Homecoming and StartUp being adapted for television, along with the “Man of the People” episode on Reply All being adapted for film.
  • In August, HBO announced that it will be adapting WNYC’s 2 Dope Queens into a series of four hour-long specials.
  • Also in August, Universal Cable Productions announced that it was adapting Night Vale Presents’ Alice Isn’t Dead for the USA Network. Accompanying the news was word of a novel based on the podcast, to be published by Harper Perennial in 2018.
  • The TV adaptation of Aaron Mahnke’s Lore, picked up by Amazon Studios, has an October release date and now, a trailer. A book adaptation is also in the works.
  • There remains scuttlebutt that First Look Media was shopping Missing Richard Simmons around as “potential source material for a TV series,” per a Hollywood Reporter article from April.

The prospect of adaptation is valuable for publishers in three key ways: (1) obviously, it represents a whole new potential revenue stream, (2) they’re good expressions of recognition by more established systems of media and publishing, and (3) each successfully executed adaptation is an audience development and marketing vessel for the original podcast as much as it is a standalone product.

That said, some attention should be paid as to whether these adaptations actually pay off. Remember, it took a while for comic books to rev up as hot sources of intellectual property for the more lucrative film industry, especially after an uneven string of performances in the ’90s and early 2000s. (But then again, the film industry did have a…challenging summer. But maybe that doesn’t really tell us anything?)

(4) On programming. It’s been kind of a strange year, at least for me. We’ve seen a heckuva lot more podcasts of increasing ambition, and we’ve seen some tremendous successes that have taken the medium to new heights. But I can’t seem to shake the feeling that the pace of successes has been somewhat uneven. Like there isn’t much certainty that the space as a whole can hold the public conversation for a sustained period of time.

In any case, the year in #content so far has been defined in my mind by two things:

  • Two unambiguous hits from early in the year that broke into the mainstream, First Look Media’s Missing Richard Simmons (debuted in February) and Serial Productions’ S-Town (debuted in March).
  • The rise of the daily news podcast, about which I’ve written a frightful amount over the past few months. But frankly, between The New York Times’ The Daily (debuted in February) and NPR’s Up First (debuted in April), I think it’s the most exciting front in the space in a long time. The category represents a whole bunch of things: Innovation! Ambition! Serious consideration of the medium that breaks from podcasting’s still governing skeuomorphisms with radio! And with Vox Media throwing its hat into the ring soon, I’m excited to see how the genre continues to heat up.

Two questions moving forward: (a) Where will the next hit come from? (b) Does my thesis from May — where I argued that the success of Missing Richard Simmons, taken in context of the success of S-Town, indicates that podcasting remains fairly accessible and meritocratic, which is to say that a good thing can stand out no matter of pedigree — still stand?

(5) More and more windowing. There’s been a noticeable increase in such shenanigans between publishers and non-Apple platforms, particularly in terms of promotional partnerships that sees the former giving “exclusive early drop” opportunities to the latter. Examples include:

  • First Look Media’s Missing Richard Simmons releasing episodes early (along with some bonus material) on Midroll Media’s Stitcher platform. Of course, that flow was ultimately interrupted due to some, uh, “extraneous circumstances” related to the meta-elements of the podcast by the end of the show’s run, but I heard the experiment paid off quite a bit for Stitcher. A Midroll rep told me that the partnership drove six times the usual number of daily new subscription signups during the show’s run.
  • Gimlet Media debuted its collaboration with the Loud Speakers Network, Mogul, on Spotify weeks before the podcast would eventually be distributed through the open ecosystem. The Brooklyn-based company later announced that its upcoming history podcast, Uncivil, will be windowed on TuneIn.
  • Speaking of TuneIn, the platform had previously tested out an exclusive distribution arrangement with The Ringer’s MLB Show at the start of baseball season.
  • And speaking of Spotify, the music streaming platform also developed a windowing relationship with WNYC, where the public radio station debuted the latest season of 2 Dope Queens earlier on Spotify.

Aside from Stitcher, it’s unclear to me whether such arrangements are paying off enough to establish this as a worthwhile strategy to be commonly implemented across the space. What is clear, however, is that such moves have not gone unnoticed by Apple, the long-time steward of the space.

And there were hints of blowback from Cupertino. As Digiday reported during the Missing Richard Simmons run:

According to multiple people familiar with the matter, Apple was excited about promoting Missing Richard Simmons until it heard about the windowing strategy. They subsequently abandoned all the marketing plans for the show, those people said.

Awkward! Also, perturbing.

(6) Platform fluidity. Last March, reacting to the launch of Audible’s original programming slate, the introduction of Google Play Music’s podcast feature, and the continued rollout of Spotify’s video and podcast offerings, I argued that the word “podcast” will lose all of its original meaning by the end of that year. Which is to say, the concept will no longer be too tethered to its initial infrastructural connotations — RSS feeds, podcatchers, and so on — and that arguments over what’s a “podcast” and what’s not will be fully relegated into a game of pure semantics and ideological identities. Instead, the way we talk about all of this — the content, the technology, the audiences — will have shifted from a narrative about the clash between an incumbent and an insurgent (“the future of radio”) towards a clash between publishing factions defined by different formations of publishing communities (“a type/genre/kind of audio”).

(Man, I was so much less literal back then.)

I think there’s been a fair bit of evidence that precisely this has played out over the intervening year and a half, contributing to a space that feels a lot more…fluid, conceptually, than it once was.

Consider the following developments:

  • Spotify is producing original podcasts in addition to their overarching efforts to establish their platform as a meaningful alternative to Apple. (Or, internally, to establish podcasts as a meaningful addition to their raison d’etre of being a music consumption platform.) The company seems to be getting ready for another round of original podcast programming, according to Bloomberg, though it’s unclear how that’s been affected by the dismissal of Tom Calderone, its head of video and podcasting operations.
  • Audible and Stitcher Premium, both of which possess value propositions that are defined by a sense of exclusivity, have begun trickling shows out beyond their paywalls and into the open ecosystem.
  • Meanwhile, Google Play Music is making its own quiet excursion into original podcast programming.
  • iHeartRadio, a native of Internet radio (and progeny of old radio), is increasingly agitating to claim some portion of the podcast space. In the past year, the platform has established distribution relationships with Art19, Libsyn, and NPR member stations. It, too, dabbles with some original programming, branded and otherwise.
  • SiriusXM is quietly developing a podcast platform of their own by the name of Spoke.
  • And while we’re on the subject of apps, we’ve also seen increasing activity within the social audio app front. In particular, the Betaworks-backed Anchor — a contemporary of Bumpers — is increasingly deploying podcast nomenclature (and getting involved in the concerns of podcasts writ large) to describe itself, its machinations, and by extension, its value proposition. A prime example of this can be found in its latest audio-to-social video feature, which adapts the broader Audiogram initiative into its infrastructure.

One way to thread all of these developments together is to frame it all as the story of several non-Apple platforms slowly (and clumsily) encroaching on Apple’s position as a steward of the space with a relatively hands-off stance, maybe to one day capitalize on the various inefficiencies that have resulted from that stance.

Have we seen a meaningful alternative platform to Apple yet? It doesn’t seem like it, based on what I’ve seen. As it stands, Apple remains the primary firehose, and everyone else is still a tiny spigot by comparison. Nevertheless, the encroachment marches on.

(A quick side thought on the fate of user generated content-oriented apps: While it’s unclear what their precise value propositions are to bigger publishers, you could argue that they could collectively serve as a good next step for the species of smaller solo independent publishers that find themselves being pushed out by bigger, more organized, and typically moneyed publishers. I haven’t really thought this through just yet, but should Apple change its hands-off stance — and should Apple Podcasts’ facilitation of the space be diluted beyond some proportional tipping point — small and upstart creators would need a place to go.)

[storybreak]

So those are the six trends that’ve stood out to me. As a collective, I think they describe a space that has made meaningful gains where it counts (size, revenue, legitimacy, prestige, awareness, and so on), but as a result has become increasingly complex. That complexity can be destabilizing, and this story has a bigger potential curveball coming its way with the introduction of the new analytics layer in November. Rest assured: I’ll be back by then to cover all of that.

Before I move on to some quick news hits, I also want to quickly talk about the three companies in the industry that have most stood out to me over the past eight months. They aren’t necessarily the most successful or the biggest — though they are quite successful and big — but rather, they’re the most interesting, and they’ve been the most fun to think and/or talk about.

The three most interesting podcast companies

HowStuffWorks. HWS is officially almost two decades old; its podcast business, headlined by Stuff You Should Know, is about half that. And yet the Atlanta-based company has, over the past year, operated with a verve of a much younger venture. It has aggressively hired new talent (working from a playbook that seems to be revolved around drafting established Internet media pioneers from the mid-aughts, including Cracked.com founder Jack O’Brien and Mental Floss’ Will Pearson and Mangesh Hattikudur), expanded the geography of its operations, and spun out as a whole new independent entity with new funds. Can an older hand successfully retool itself for the future?

The Ringer. I happen to love The Ringer as a publication, but I also think the stuff that they’re doing with their podcast network is low-key revolutionary. It features rigorous experimentation (Binge Mode, of all things, is a triumph in concept and execution), a fluid use of their writers as valuable audio assets, and an approach that seems to have meaningfully integrated their audio division with the rest of the business. The Ringer isn’t for everybody, but when it’s yours, it’s really, really yours, and its podcast division is the purest expression of that fact.

That said, the fact that its ownership structure is a mystery makes the enterprise tricky to fully trust. We can’t quite know for sure how the company is doing, and as a result, we can’t assess for sure whether the model is financially successful — and therefore replicable — or not. Then again, The Ringer head Bill Simmons told Recode’s Peter Kafka back in February that they’re doing well, and the organization seems to be valuable enough for Vox Media to establish a technology and advertising relationship with in May, so hey, maybe something’s there.

The New York Times. When the Gray Lady originally announced that it was assembling a new podcast team last year, I imagined an outcome not unlike what we’ve seen with, say, Slate: a portfolio of subject-specific shows that export the feel and sensibility of its parent publisher, only tighter and more pristine. What ended up emerging was something more drastic, the creation of a whole new…let’s call it a franchise. (Or, heaven forbid, a #brand.) By the end of summer 2017, it’s not inaccurate to say as far as the Times’ audio machinations are concerned, you have The Daily, and you have everything else that orbits The Daily.

On the one hand, this is incredibly exciting. That team has built a powerful machine, one that has equal capacity to break stories, deepen impact, and serve as a platform to launch complementary projects. But on the other hand, the problem with building a basketball team around a single player is the implosion that happens when that player gets injured, gets tangled up in controversy, or just gets old. This is a privileged problem, of course, but it’s a problem nonetheless. What happens next will be fascinating to watch.

[storybreak]

Two stories on political podcasts.

(1) The genre is strong! Which is not entirely surprising, of course, given the current spirit of the times where politics and the media have definitively fused into one giant, amorphous, Jeff Goldblum-in-The Fly-like blob. The Hollywood Reporter’s Jeremy Barr (formerly of Ad Age) has a piece up checking in on the growing category, and it contains two nifty data points for us: First, that the twelve-year-old Slate Political Gabfest “brought in about $1 million in revenue last year at a $25 CPM and an average download of a few hundred thousand per episode,” and second, that revenue for the political podcasts in Midroll Media’s portfolio “has doubled this year compared to 2016.”

(2) Vice News is the latest media org to engage with the “podcasts as left-wing political talk radio” angle, providing a broad accounting of the emerging phenomenon. Do pair that with the “alternative left wing media infrastructure” by The Atlantic’s McKay Coppins from July, titled “How the Left Lost Its Mind.”

Kids podcasts make a marketing push. Drawing some inspiration from February’s #TryPod audience building campaign, a coalition of kids-oriented podcasts are attempting a similar cross-promotion scheme to spread their audiences around and generally bring more attention to the category. Participating shows include Brains On (APM), Wow in the World (NPR), Eleanor Amplified (WHYY), But Why (Vermont Public Radio), Tumble Science (Wondery), Circle Round (WBUR), Story Pirates, and The Longest Shortest Time (Stitcher).

I’m told that the coalition was formed organically, with NPR running point on the outreach to potential participants. This campaign is said not to be directly related to the Kids Listen collective, of which all of these podcasts are members.

As part of the effort, Brain On’s Molly Bloom will be producing a “bonus preview” episode that will feature highlights from participating shows. The preview will be distributed throughout the coalition’s podcast feeds in early October.

The campaign kicked off yesterday, and will run for 13 weeks.

Bites:

  • BlogTalkRadio and Spreaker have announced a merger. Note: “Shareholders from each of Spreaker and BlogTalkRadio will be making investments in support of the combined company’s growth plan, which will be rolled out over the next several months,” the press release states. Terms were not disclosed. (Press release)
  • Ben Johnson, host of APM’s Marketplace Tech and Codebreaker, is moving to WBUR to start a new project on “the vast/complex/rich community of the Interwebs.” Congrats on the move! (Twitter)
  • This is cool: “Welcome to Night Vale’s Cecil Baldwin on Finding the Queerness in His Character.” (Slate)
  • KCRW is ending the broadcast run of its weekday talk show, “To The Point,” and will repackage it as a weekly podcast. Anomaly or trend? Let’s hope that we stick around long enough to find out. (Current)
  • Frontline, the investigative documentary series from PBS and WGBH, is rolling out a podcast with the legendary Jay Allison serving as senior editor and creative director. PRX serves as distributor. The show officially launches on September 14.
  • Now, I don’t usually derive much value from content marketing pieces, but this audioBoom writeup sees the digital advertising agency Ad Results claiming to “own” 40 percent of the podcast industry’s revenues. This isn’t too far-fetched, from what I’ve heard. (audioBoom)
  • Keep an eye on this: “Traditional Radio Faces a Grim Future, New Study Says.” (Variety)

Cool! Thanks for reading. See you in six weeks.

[photocredit]Photo by Gauthier Delecroix 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]