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)

Hot Pod: What will happen to the election podcast boom on Nov. 9?

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue ninety-three, published October 25, 2016.

“We’re built on top of a foundation that we feel pretty good about,” PRX CEO Kerri Hoffman said. “I’m excited that we’ll never start from zero again.”

We were discussing Radiotopia’s 2016 fall fundraising campaign, which kicked off on October 13 and ends later this week, and Hoffman was telling me how she’s significantly less stressed out this year. Last fall marked the first time the organization switched away from a seasonal Kickstarter strategy to a recurring donor model, an approach whose internal logic bears more than a passing resemblance to public radio’s pledge drive system. The bulk of last year’s work, she explained, involved building out basic fundraising infrastructure: pulling together email lists, developing the beats of their marketing push, testing out the messaging, and so on. A lot of those fundamentals remain in place this year, and they merely had to build upon them.

Accordingly, PRX’s focus is a little different this year: While last November’s campaign had the more precarious goal of building out its donor base for the first time, this year’s drive has the more modest goal of merely expanding that base. Last November’s drive successfully drew support from over 19,500 people, and a blog post PRX published at the time noted that 82 percent of those folks signed on as recurring donors at different contribution levels, which would place the recurring donor number at around 15,990 people. The campaign’s CommitChange page for this cycle indicates that 12,647 recurring donors from that initial drive have stayed on, illustrating a bit of a drop-off in the intervening 12 months. Donors in good standing were gifted a free challenge coin, and their recurring contributions are set to continue unless they decide to adjust their levels. Existing donors were also invited to make additional one-time donations. This year’s campaign is also a little shorter than the previous year’s, taking place across 20 days compared to 2015’s 30.

That said, this campaign has had its challenges. Hoffman tells me that, interestingly enough, this year’s bonkers election cycle has made messaging and marketing a little more difficult, given the oxygen it has sucked up over social media. “We’ve definitely had to work a little harder to keep the momentum going,” she said. “Everyone’s distracted.” And early on, a slight timing hiccup led to the campaign missing its first challenge grant — in which a sponsor pledges a particular amount if certain goals are met — by a little bit.

But even with those bumps, the campaign appears to be going strong, clocking in just over 3,200 new supporters by Monday evening. What’s interesting to me here, though, is the way in which the campaign goal of expanding its recurring donor base — which is a game of attrition, really — lends to a relatively unsexy marketing narrative. It’s one thing to announce the recruitment of over 15,000 supporters and have that be the core of a triumphant story, but it’s another thing altogether to try and drive a narrative about adding on 3,000 more supporters, and one wonders whether this narrative issue will pose a structural problem for Radiotopia’s ability to create a sense of urgency for future fundraising and donor recruitment efforts.

This predicament, I think, is an interesting microcosm of where we are in the larger narrative arc of this second coming of podcasts: the phase of the excitement of the new is coming to a close, and we march steadily on into the more mundane work of adolescence.

In related news: Radiotopia also welcomed a new podcast to the family this week: The Bugle, the popular satire podcast launched back in October 2007 by Andy Zaltzman and John Oliver (who you may know as the host of HBO’s Last Week Tonight). Oliver will no longer host the show, for obvious “there is not enough time in the world”-related reasons, and Zaltzman, who is staying on, will be supplemented with a rotating crew of guests.

The Bugle is Radiotopia’s second addition in recent weeks. In late September, the collective announced its recruitment of the West Wing Weekly, which is cohosted by Hrishikesh Hirway, who is already part of the Radiotopia family with Song Exploder. The Bugle and West Wing Weekly are noticeable departures away from Radiotopia’s usual aesthetic, which tends to favor narrative storytelling. The former can be categorized as a straightforward comedy podcast while the latter is a pretty extensive TV-club podcast. This departure appears to be strategic. In the related press release, executive producer Julie Shapiro noted: “These shows help us expand into new areas of entertainment, political news and satire, which will ultimately build on the existing Radiotopia brand and bring new audiences to all shows within the network.”

The Bugle is Radiotopia’s sixteenth show.

Election podcasts enter the homestretch. Let’s quickly check in on their game plans:

  • Starting today (October 25), the NPR Politics Podcast will publish new episodes every day until the election. The podcast also hit a milestone recently; according to a recent press release (which we’ll get back to in a bit), the show enjoyed 1,118,000 downloads during the first week of October and. It had averaged about 450,000 downloads a week over the past three months.
  • The FiveThirtyEight Elections podcast will also be publishing new episodes daily until the election starting today. Additionally, the show will continue past November 8 on a weekly schedule “through at least Inauguration Day.”
  • I’m told that there is no systematic plan to increase the output of Slate’s Trumpcast, which already publishes on a semi-daily basis. When I asked Steve Lickteig, executive producer of Slate podcasts, if the show will continue past the big day, he told me: “If there is a peaceful transition of power, Trumpcast will do one or two wrap-up shows. If it gets contentious, stay tuned!” The podcast reportedly draws 1 million monthly downloads and considered internally to be one of the most popular podcasts in Slate’s history, according to Digiday.
  • The Ringer’s Keepin’ It 1600, consumed by many as therapy, will “likely” continue past November 8. It has already shifted to a twice-a-week publishing schedule.

As always, much love to all the producers of these podcasts that are putting in the extra physical, mental, and emotional energy to stay close to the news cycle. It’ll be over soon, folks. (Or will it?)

A new lab, a podcast strategy? Last Wednesday, NPR announced an expansion and restructuring of its Storytelling Lab, its internal innovation incubator launched last June. Nieman Lab has the full story on the new setup, but at high level, you should know the following:

  • The lab has been renamed as “Story Lab,” and its structure has shifted from an incubator to what’s being called a “creative studio.” (Hey, nomenclature is important and words have meaning, folks.) According to the related press release, the studio’s articulated aim is to “support innovation” across the organization, “increase collaboration” with member stations, and better identify talent.
  • The initiative will apparently also be “investing in training, audio workshops and meetups,” which is a pretty solid idea, given that the supply chain for talent in the space seems deeply underserved at this point in time.
  • The release also noted that the Lab is funding three pilots, which is cool, though the pathway to full seasons and distribution for those pilots remain to be seen.

The Story Lab announcement was followed shortly after by news of NPR’s ratings increase this season which, among other things, drew attention to the breaking of broadcast audience records by Morning Edition and All Things Considered, as well as the fact that NPR One has grown by 124 percent year-over-year.

Cool news from the mothership, but when it comes to NPR and podcasts, I typically approach the situation with the following questions: What is the shape of its podcast strategy, how does it fit into the larger strategy, and what do these developments tell us about both of those things? From that framework, the Story Lab is clearer to me as a way for NPR to better capitalize on its ecosystem of potential talent than it is a focused strategy that says something explicit about how on-demand audio fits into NPR’s grand vision.

It may well be the case that there is a plan — or at least a theory — in place that isn’t being communicated at this point in time. “We don’t have a quota,” an NPR spokesperson said when I asked if the Story Lab had specific output benchmarks for pilot production. “We do have some internal goals about how many shows we want to pilot and launch, but we’re not ready to share those publicly.” What those are, and what they’ll be, is something we’re going to have to wait to find out.

An alternate narrative on the connected car dashboard? Two weeks ago, Uber announced an integration with Otto Radio, a commute-oriented audio and podcast curation app, that will serve riders with a talk programming playlist that’s dynamically constructed to fit their trips.PC Magazine has a pretty good description on how the experience enabled by the integration is supposed to work:

The next time you request a ride using the Uber app, a playlist of news stories and podcasts, perfectly timed for your trip’s duration, will be waiting for you in Otto Radio. Once your driver has arrived, you can sit back and enjoy your “personally curated listening experience and arrive at your destination up-to-date about the things you care about most,” the companies said.

Otto Radio is a quirky participant in the much larger fight among audio programming providers and platforms for the dashboard of the connected car — widely considered in the industry to be one of the biggest untapped frontiers — but this integration with Uber brings into the equation a potential wrinkle in that dashboard struggle narrative: What does that fight mean in an environment where Uber looks to (a) contend for transportation primacy over car ownership and (b) push deeper into self-driving cars? In this rather likely version of the future, does the fight for the dashboard dissolve back into the fight for the mobile device?

Splish splash. The Times’ public editor Liz Spayd turned her attention to the organization’s nascent (or rather, re-nascent) podcast operations over the weekend, and her column contained a bunch of pretty interesting nuggets for close watchers of the Gray Lady, along with anybody working at a media organization thinking about podcasts.

Of course, do check out the column, but here are the bits that stood out to me:

  • “The politics podcast, called The Run-Up, is attracting the youngest audience of any Times product ever surveyed, and one that spends far more time on it than most readers do on stories.”
  • “As the team gears up, it plans to produce a range of shows, from the more conversational to serial-style narratives. It will also scope out opportunities for audio on demand: newsy, gripping sound that could be found directly on the Times website rather than in podcast form.” ← this latter point is really, really interesting.
  • The Times’ next podcast, a game show featuring Freakonomics’ Stephen Dubner called Tell Me Something I Don’t Know, is scheduled to launch next month. Dubner, by the way, is hitting the free-agent game pretty hard: Freakonomics is still chugging along at WNYC, and his short Question of the Day podcast, produced under the Earwolf label, is also publishing industriously. Dubner has some history with the Times; Freakonomics was a blog on NYTimes.com between 2007 and 2011, and Dubner was once a story editor at the Times Magazine.

For what it’s worth, I liked Spayd’s analysis a lot. There remain tremendous questions about the promise of audio for digital media and news organizations, and whether it can deliver as a revenue boon in a business environment starved for growth injections and stabilizing pillars. Two core tensions exist in these questions: whether podcasts will offer incremental growth or whether it will be a so-called “magic bullet,” and whether podcasts will be deployed as a kind of top-of-the-funnel — a recruitment tool to reach previously unharvested audiences and pull them down the marketing funnel — or as a fully-fledged outpost all on its own.

Patreon partners with podcast hosting platform Podomatic. The partnership will let Podomatic users easily set up Patreon support buttons on their user profile, according to the press release. If you’re unfamiliar with Patreon, it’s a platform that helps creators receive funding and donations directly from their supporters — or patrons, to use the synonym that makes Patreon’s etymology more obvious.

It’s a nifty service, and I’ve used it before for Hot Pod back before I decided to take the newsletter full-time. And it’s also pretty widely used — separate and apart from Podomatic — by a number of podcasters, like Flash Forward’s Rose Eveleth. A Patreon spokesperson told me that the platform has about 10,000 podcast creators with Patreon accounts, and that the company is actively working to draw more podcasters onto the service. It’s a decent option, I think, for shows way under the audience threshold for advertiser interest but have an ardent, engaged base that may be willing to chip in some cash monthly to sustain the show. Hey, that model works for me.

Bites:

  • Politico’s hallmark newsletter product, the Politico Playbook, is now available in 90-second audio format, distributed both through the Amazon Echo and as a podcast. The birthdays, alas, will not be carried over. (Politico)
  • “Midroll Media did ‘in the ballpark’ of $20 million in sales last year, and is on pace to bring in more than $30 million this year,” Ad Age reports, using a source “with knowledge of the company.” (Ad Age)
  • WNYC Studios will launch its next podcast, Nancy, early next year. Nancy, formerly known as Gaydio, was one of the winners of the station’s podcast accelerator initiative that took place back in September 2015. (MediaVillage)
  • In The Dark, APM Reports’ limited-run podcast that investigates the 1989 child abduction of Jacob Wetterling in rural Minnesota, will be broadcast on the radio as a 4-hour roundup special. The show, by the way, is amazing, and I think it’s probably the most thoughtful true-crime podcast I’ve ever heard. The last episode dropped today. (Twitter)
  • Bumpers, an audio-creation app that I wrote about back in August, has raised $1 million in seed funding. (TechCrunch)
  • The first Chicago Podcast Festival, scheduled to take place after the Third Coast Festival from Nov. 17 to 19, has posted its lineup. (Chicago Podcast Festival)
  • Like many media nerds, I’ve been watching The Verge cofounder Joshua Topolsky’s latest venture, The Outline, with much interest, given its maybe-kinda-sorta “The New Yorker but for snake people” pitch. So consider me interested, and a little bemused, that their first public project is a podcast that recaps HBO’s Westworld, called Out West.
  • Julia Barton, a veteran audio editor, has long been frustrated with the use of microphone stock photos in podcast write-ups, believing it to be a considerable reduction and misrepresentation of the culture, work, and medium. (Current)
  • FWIW, I’m told that Starlee Kine is going to make an appearance at the Now Hear This festival this Saturday, doing a guest spot on the live Found show.

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

Hot Pod: Will the next wave of audio advertising make podcasts sound like (yuck) commercial radio?

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue eighty-nine, published September 27, 2016.

Panoply opens a London office. The Slate Group’s audio arm announced yesterday that it was expanding into the good ol’ United Kingdom. Specifically, the company is opening a new production office in London that will “facilitate closer collaboration with U.K.-based audio talent.” Ryan Dilley, a BBC veteran, has been hired to lead the new operation.

Here’s the most straightforward way to think about this: Panoply intends to do in the U.K. whatever it does here, including original and partner programming, the cultivation of a U.K.-based network of talent, and the recruitment/aggregation of local podcasts into its network.

This move also puts Panoply in a good position to do two things: first, to grow a bigger advertising presence that would allow them to monetize U.K. listeners on their existing American shows (up until this point, it’s basically money that’s been left on the table), and second, to challenge digital audio companies with British operations that have spent the past few years making in-roads into the more lucrative U.S. market, like Audioboom and Acast.

Andy Bowers, Panoply’s chief content officer (and my old boss, by the way), told me that U.K. ad sales aren’t the primary motivation for this expansion. “This is about talent,” he wrote, adding that they have already been engaged with targeted U.K.-only ad sales using their new Megaphone platform. I was also told to expect Panoply’s first slate of U.K. programming to roll out early next year.

Speaking of which, I should consider opening up a Euro Hot Pod bureau.

Keep an eye on this: Nielsen is working on a software development kit (SDK) that will, among other things, cater to the measurement of podcasts, according to a report by Radio Ink. They’ve been testing the kits with ESPN, and the company is “working towards having a syndicated service out there in the marketplace sometime in 2017.”

An SDK-approach is one of a few ways to deal with the industry’s measurement gap. But Nielsen will face similar political problems of adoption that plague companies like Podtrac — although it is a neutral third party. For what it’s worth, I’ve heard skepticism over an SDK-approach from a number of execs in the space, so we’ll see where this goes.

Midroll’s live intent. The end of October will see the inaugural Now Hear This festival in Anaheim, Calif., which will mark Midroll’s first foray into Lollapalooza-style multi-partner live programming. Now Hear This is set to feature shows from both within the Midroll ecosystem — that is, the Earwolf network and its universe of third-party ad sales clients — and without, boasting shows like Radiotopia’s Criminal and NPR’s How I Built This on the lineup. (I’m told that most of these external partners are paid an upfront fee for participation; no revenue shares are involved.)

Midroll is not the first podcast company to organize such an event. Indeed, this past weekend saw the L.A. Podcast Festival, and the Vulture Festival this past May also included a solid block of live podcast tapings. But Now Hear This is notable in how it reflects Midroll’s ambitions to diversify its revenue base. When the company announced Lex Friedman as its new chief revenue officer earlier this month, an explicit mention of a deeper focus on live events in the press release caught my eye.

“We don’t expect that, in the near term, live events will be as big as ads or subscription,” Friedman said when we spoke over the phone yesterday. “But it’s another way for us to diversify, and it’s the closest thing we have to kick off a network effect.” Friedman tells me that a festival like Now Hear This not only brings in ticket sales and sponsorship revenue, but the live tapings create additional material that can be served in Howl, the company’s premium subscription play. (Speaking of sponsorship: Casper and Mack Weldon, both veteran podcast buyers, are sponsoring the festival, with live show ad-integrations that will go beyond on-stage host-reads. More sponsors are expected to be announced soon.)

Midroll intends to produce more live shows of individual Earwolf podcasts in 2017, and Friedman hopes to collaborate with his third-party ad sales clients on live events as well. It’s an ambitious vision, one that I assume is backed by a long E.W. Scripps runway.

“We’re building a media empire, Nick,” he said, before bursting into terrifying laughter.

There’s been a misunderstanding, asserted Art19 cofounder Sean Carr when we spoke over the phone last week. He tells me that too many people have been conflating dynamic ad insertion technology with an automatic flood of programmatic radio-style prerecorded ads. One doesn’t necessarily lead to the other, he argues, pointing out that many of today’s production conventions — the ones that contribute to the medium’s identity of “intimacy” — don’t actually have to change. “Most host-read ads are recorded separately from the conversation anyway, and edited in after the fact,” he added.

For the record, I’ve come to agree with Carr’s position. (That view has been fleshed out across previous Hot Pods.) But I’d say that the anxiety that drives this conflation remains very real, and that Carr felt the need to reach out on this suggests it remains top-of-mind among many emotionally invested the space. There is now, after all, very little that would structurally prevent the inflow of eardrum-assaulting radio-style ads — a state of affairs that could spoil the medium’s identity for listeners trying it out for the first time.

“That anxiety will probably go away with better data,” Carr said. I’m inclined to agree, though there will always be a gap between where we are right now and a place where we’re have that abundance of appropriate, agreed-upon data. Not for nothing, but transition periods almost always suck — whether we acknowledge that or not.

Anyway, Carr also tells me that his team is working on some research that he hopes will increase advertiser confidence. Watch out for them.

Some notes on the border between publishers and podcasts. Last week saw news that Actuality, the podcast collaboration between Quartz and APM’s Marketplace, is coming to a close. The show first launched last summer and ran for two seasons. According to a joint blog post, the podcast was cancelled due to a lack of sufficient interest. “We’d rather hit pause now and move on to other experiments,” wrote Quartz editor-in-chief Kevin Delaney and Marketplace VP/executive producer Deborah Clark. The podcast averaged 100,000 monthly downloads across the last three months of the show.

“After two seasons, we learned a great deal about what works and what doesn’t in podcasting, and produced some strong episodes,” Delaney told me over email last week. He added: “I doubt this will be the last podcast product that Quartz develops.”

APM, for their part, will continue their efforts in these cross-platform partnerships. “Though not all our new podcasts at either Marketplace or APM overall will be in partnership with others, I think many will,” Clark told me. “Our guiding principle is how do we serve our audience better and sometimes that’s best done with other strong partners.”

One such example is Codebreaker, its collaboration with Business Insider, which will drop its second season later this fall. Another project to watch: Historically Black, which is a collaboration between The Washington Post and APM Reports (American Public Media’s documentary unit), which dropped its first episode last Monday.

As one media company shelves its audio ambitions (for now), another finds its runway. Bloomberg Media, the business news behemoth, has found some joy in its on-demand audio operations over its past year of experimentation. Michael Shane, a Bloomberg operative who was recently promoted to the position of global head of digital innovation, told me last week that the company’s young podcast arm is now a seven-figure business.

Bloomberg’s on-demand audio offerings are chiefly made up of subject-specific shows built around key reporters in the newsroom. Examples include, but are not limited to: Odd Lots (finance, featuring Joe Weisenthal and Tracy Alloway), Material World (retail broadly speaking, featuring Jenny Kaplan and Lindsey Rupp), and Game Plan (the workplace, featuring Rebecca Greenfield and Francesca Levy). The company is adding a tech podcast to its network next month, and is on the hunt for a San Francisco-based producer to handle duties on that show. (It’s worth noting that, shockingly, the team has only been composed of four producers up to this point. “It’s a lean team,” Shane said. “Which is great, because we like to do things profitably around here.”)

Shane’s team is also investigating potential collaborations with the company’s long-running 24-hour broadcast radio division. The most prominent example of this is Bloomberg Surveillance, a typically three-hour broadcast program that is being repackaged as highlights to serve podcast listeners. “It would be crazy of us to build a digital audio strategy that didn’t involve Bloomberg Radio,” Shane said. He also noted that Surveillance currently hits six-figure audiences per month, and that the show’s ad inventory has been sold out through 2017, with Bank of America as the sponsor.

When I asked about CPMs, Shane informs me that company sells at premium rates across all platforms — and that audio, certainly, is no exception. He also did pontificate, briefly, on the industry’s expectations of fallings CPMs as the basic ad formats get commoditized over the long run. “I spend a lot of time wondering: What’s next? What can Bloomberg offer [advertisers] around digital audio that’s more than an ad read?” Shane said.

“I heard someone say once that the business model for podcasts is to be beloved,” he continued. “As long as we can keep being audience-first and not squander that goodwill, this can be a great business for us over the long term.”

A sneak peek at RadioPublic. Jake Shapiro and the RadioPublic team have been keeping busy. After the crew of PRX alums announced their new venture earlier this summer, they’ve been hard at work on the listening app that will mark their first foray into product market. Shapiro was kind enough to invite me to take a look at a very basic prototype of the app. Some notes from our conversation:

  • The team intends to preserve and advance the medium’s open nature — which is to say, it will eschew a YouTube or Spotify-style closed ecosystem. “We just don’t think that’s the right way to do things,” Shapiro said, adding that the app’s experience will be built on top of open RSS feeds while being focused on serving listeners with a much better user experience than what exists now. That user experience is driven by a goal of “helping listeners make a more informed choice,” as Shapiro puts it.
  • While those ideas were understandable in the abstract, I had trouble visualizing the significance of the product even with the prototype in front of me. Shapiro provided an analogy to Flipboard, the social magazine app that, in many ways, serves as a user-friendly portal through which mobile users could manage their experience navigating the unruly web while respecting its open quality.
  • When I asked Shapiro about publisher outreach, he told me that, while the app is being built to provide value autonomously from any required publisher participation, the rise of dynamic ad insertion technology across an emerging class of hosting platforms necessitates some “technical handshakes” in order for both parties to properly benefit from the experience. Publishers are encouraged to get in touch.

Meanwhile, on the West Coast, the small team known as Tiny Garage Labs — founded by Planet Money alum Steve Henn along with former longtime Netflix operatives Steve McLendon and John Ciancutti — has been kicking up some noise as well. Last Thursday, Henn published a semi-manifesto and call-for-collaborators on Medium, and the team also scored a chunky Nieman Lab mini-profile that fleshes out their general product direction with 60dB, Tiny Garage Labs’ first market offering.

Here’s my read in a nutshell: It would be a mistake, in my opinion, to lump 60dB in with either your basic podcatcher play or a “Netflix for audio”-minded play like Midroll’s Howl. (In this case, it is prudent to not read too much into the team’s Netflix lineage.) Rather, given Tiny Garage Lab’s outsized focus on short-form audio — a perspective that views individual segments as the atomic unit of content, as opposed to the episode — 60dB would best be categorized against something like the Amazon Echo’s Flash Briefing experiments — which is to say, it is a wholly new, and entirely separate, product category.

ESPN Audio’s 30 for 30 team. Senior producer Jody Avirgan has announced the team that will take on the brand’s well-loved 30 for 30 adaptation into audio. They are: Rose Eveleth, of Flash Forward; Julia Henderson, formerly of WNYC’s Studio 360; Andrew Mambo, formerly of WNYC’s great Radio Rookies project; Katie McAuliffe, formerly of WNPR and a former ESPN music assistant; and Marcus Anderson, who comes in without a radio background (which is fantastic, IMHO).

Another quick ESPN-related tidbit, for those interested: According to an Awful Announcing blog post, “FiveThirtyEight podcasts across the board were downloaded over 7.8 million times in August alone, a 422 percent increase from February.”

Bites:

  • WNYC has had a busy week: it rolled out The United States of Anxiety, their second collaboration with The Nation (the first being the excellent There Goes the Neighborhood). The station also welcomed the second season of 2 Dope Queens. I’m told season one drew “millions of listens.”
  • Wondery CEO Hernan Lopez writes in to let me know that the network expects to hit 8 million downloads by the end of the month. The network is currently spread across 14 shows, with two originals. They’re hosted on the Art19 platform.
  • Radiotopia recruits The West Wing Weekly. The addition is said to allow the collective to “explore a new content direction, and evolve as a network.” (PRX)
  • Speaking of PRX, the company announced a new initiative last week called Project Catapult, where it will work with five chosen stations over a 20-week program to develop a sustainable local podcast strategy. (Current)
  • Have you checked out Audible’s Channels recently? The lineup now features what appears to be several new additions. Note, also, how the presentation flattens different content types, from original shows to comedy to article readouts. (Audible)
  • Speaking of article readouts, iTunes apparently is getting ready to promote a similar type of articles-read-aloud content. This is probably a nothingburger in terms of the larger questions of what this means for the podcast industry, a good chunk of which are crossing their fingers for access to their listening data, but hey, if you’re into Apple Kremlinology, this is a data point just for you. (TechCrunch)
  • An adapted version of the Politico Playbook, the political news website’s flagship newsletter, is now being distributed in audio form over the Amazon Echo’s Alexa platform. The audio version adopts the “90-second flash briefing” model, and drops daily starting yesterday. (Washingtonian)
  • Two reads for the public radio-oriented: “Great journalism alone won’t guarantee public radio’s survival” (Current) and “This American Fight” (Fast Company)

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

Decoding what makes a podcast a hit on the iTunes charts

Edison Research: Monthly podcast consumption surges. More than 1 in 5 Americans report having listened to a podcast within the past month, according to data teased in a new blog post by Edison Research. Specifically, 21 percent of Americans (an estimated 57 million) report having done so, representing a pretty significant jump from 2015, which saw 17 percent of surveyed Americans reporting that behavior. In 2014, that number was 15 percent, so growth seems to be accelerating.

Another sweet way to cut it: Monthly American podcast consumption grew about 24 percent between 2015 and 2016. Don’t you just love stats?

It’s certainly an encouraging data point for all who are enthusiastic about podcasts as the future of radio/audio/blogging. And I’m certainly tempted to think that we’re finally seeing evidence of tangible widescale conversions from all the buzz and hype that podcasting enjoyed last year.

A plausible counterargument is as follows: Is this number a true reflection of solid, genuine, sustainable consumer acquisition (and retention) across the medium, or does it more represent a period where listeners are merely testing out the format? That question, to some extent, is irrelevant for two reasons. First, it’s a question with no meaningful immediate answer, because the process is still playing itself out. And second, the number itself is an influencing factor — as a positive public indicator that fuels for the industry’s vision and presentation of itself, one imagines that countless folks out to build new businesses within the medium will use this statistic in a pitch deck, playing out a fulfillment of their own prophecy.

Which is all to say: This data point is very good, and I’m going to call my mum and tell her I didn’t screw up my life joining this industry. Cool? Cool.

Anyway, Edison’s data point here is excerpted from the much larger Infinite Dial 2016 study, scheduled to be released later this week. The study comes out a partnership between Edison Research and Triton Digital, a digital audio technology and advertising company. I’ll write it up on next week’s Hot Pod.

Midroll tightens its brand. Scripps-owned Midroll Media is sunsetting its Wolfpop podcast network this week. Wolfpop was previously branded as Midroll’s pop culture-oriented owned-and-operated content arm curated by comedian Paul Scheer — as opposed the company’s flagship comedy-oriented Earwolf brand. (Yeah, it’s a little confusing, which is probably why we’re seeing this consolidation, I imagine).

Ten out of Wolfpop’s 13 podcasts will now live under the Earwolf umbrella. The three shows that will not continue their relationships with Midroll are Rotten Tomatoes, Picking Favorites, and Off Camera with Sam Jones. The company also announced that Hello From the Magic Tavern, a well loved and utterly weird podcast previously supported by the Chicago Podcast Cooperative, is joining the network.

Midroll chief content officer Chris Bannon made these announcements on the Earwolf forums yesterday, citing that “this change is a way for us to make Earwolf a bigger, better, and more inclusive network.”

I reached out to Bannon, who previously served as WNYC’s vice president of content development and production, and asked whether we’d be seeing any news programming coming out of Earwolf anytime soon. “I’ll certainly be taking a hard look at what we can contribute to our listeners’ needs for smart news programming,” he wrote back. “Right now, it feels as though many of the newsmakers are venturing pretty deeply into the comedy space, though. We will have announcements on the news front soon.”

Coy, Bannon. Very coy.

This development was foreshadowed by a job posting that the company put up last week, which contained the following self-description:

This group, led by our VP of Business Development, identifies and brings aboard great new podcasts and creators for all three of our major lines of business: Midroll, the leader in podcast ad sales; Earwolf, our owned & operated podcast network; and Howl, our premium audio subscription service.

In related Midroll news: the company has also hired Jenny Radelet, who previously served as executive media producer for the launch of Apple’s Beats 1 service, as the managing editor for Howl, the company’s subscription service. She started work yesterday.

Limited-run local journalism. This week, WNYC will kick off There Goes the Neighborhood, a limited-series podcast that’ll explore the topic of gentrification in Brooklyn. I personally get all my New York-related gentrification news from The Awl, but I’m intrigued to see that the show is produced in partnership with The Nation — another example of the swell of collaborations between audio companies and existing publications (see WBUR’s Modern Love, WNYC’s New Yorker Radio Hour, KPCC’s recently concluded The Awards Show Show, and the majority of Panoply’s operating model). The show will run for eight episodes and is hosted by Kai Wright, The Nation’s features editor.

There Goes the Neighborhood is notable to me for two reasons. First, it looks to be a strong piece of local journalism, something I don’t get to see very much of in Podcastland. Sure, it’s local to New York, perhaps the most saturated media market in the world, but still. Secondly, it’s the first major audio project that features the involvement of Rebecca Carroll, who joined WNYC last October as a producer of special projects about race in New York City.

“I’m here to generate ideas,” Carroll told me last Friday, when I asked about her role within the station. “We’re experiencing a moment right now in American culture where our most famous public intellectual is Ta-Nehisi Coates, where we have the #BlackLivesMatters movement, Black Twitter, and an election that comes down to the black vote. It’s a moment where blackness and black culture is being listened to, and my aim is to wrest that moment and harness it in a way that can be fanned back out into the most creative, innovative, interesting life-changing way.”

There Goes The Neighborhood is scheduled to debut tomorrow, March 9. A teaser for the show is up already.

An indie label comes alive. Night Vale Presents, the new indie podcast label — that’s what I’m calling it, guys, just roll with it, come on — founded by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, the creators of the wildly popular Welcome to Night Vale podcast, is publishing its first title today. The show, Alice Isn’t Dead, is an audio drama written by Fink, and it’s scheduled to play out across 10 biweekly episodes.

Alice is, in a lot of ways, quintessential Night Vale. It shares its predecessor’s particular brand of creepiness — that is, juxtaposing the banal with thick, slabs of horror — and, like Night Vale, Alice displays Fink’s fascination with Americana. Where Night Vale is a love letter to small-town America, Alice is a meditation on the expansive, desolate imagery of the desert highways that make up the vast middle of the country. I’ve heard cuts of the first two episodes, and I really, really like ’em.

Night Vale Presents was conceived out a logistical necessity. Fink and Cranor had wanted to develop more projects beyond their core show, and built Night Vale Presents to be a framework that supports them. “We don’t have any plans to try to grow it into an empire or start taking tech funding or any of that,” Fink told me over email. “What we do hope to do is keep making new podcasts, both our own and works by other artists who haven’t worked in the podcast space before.”

On iTunes, part one. So, the most common inquiry I get from Hot Pod readers overwhelmingly comes in the form of a gripe: How, exactly, do the iTunes charts work? (The second most common inquiry, for the curious: How much does so-and-so make? That’s…I don’t know what to say about that. Leaving that for another day.)

It’s a question I try to stay away from, for a simple reason: I don’t think it’s something that should be fixated upon. Sure, 70 percent of podcast listening happens through iTunes or the native iOS Podcasts app (or so we’re told — it’s impossible to verify, frankly, given the immature state of podcast measurement). But there are many, many other avenues for podcast creators to reach potential new audiences that haven’t been adequately utilized, including basic stuff like search and social. And it benefits the medium as a whole if more creators leaned harder into non-iTunes avenues. Think about it: Attempts to convert audiences through the iTunes platform is a play to win already well worn, probably maxed-out podcast audiences, and if every podcast creator assumes a strategy with iTunes — the platform in general, the charts in specific — at the core, then every podcast creator is essentially competing for the very same pool of ears.

So that’s where my head was at. But the more I thought about it, the more I felt that there may something to be gained by really thinking through the theory and context of the iTunes charts, and asking the question: How do the charts shape the space? But in order to do that, I’d first have to try to understand how they work in the first place.

Which is exactly what I’ve been trying to do over the past couple of weeks.

At this point, I’m going to lay down two core hypotheses, and I’m going to argue for their theoretical fidelity by disclosing that they’re informed by a combination of these things: a survey I recently ran among Hot Pod newsletter subscribers (I pulled 18 representative responses that you can view here), conversations with many, many, many podcast creators, stuff published by other podcast folks who have conferred with iTunes reps in the past, and drawing from my own experience with my old day-job employer. iTunes reps, understandably, declined to publicly comment.

My hypotheses are as follows:

1. The charts are particularly biased towards new subscriptions, and to some extent interactions with the iTunes link and engagements through reviews. Which makes sense: iTunes, like Facebook and every other platform that actively benefits from keeping users within its ecosystem, is incentivized to maximize engagements. Thus, achieving half a million downloads outside iTunes won’t reward a show as much as getting that same number in iTunes — and so on.

2. The charts are designed chiefly as a discovery tool, and it performs its duty by identifying and rewarding podcasts with a sense of momentum. Thus, what’s rewarded is relative positive change — getting an additional 1,000 interactions on top of a 10,000 interaction base (say, subscriptions) will send you up quicker than an additional 1,000 on top of 100,000. Again, this makes sense: If the charts were designed to display a power ranking of the most successful shows, then the Top 10 placements would simply never change, with the biggest shows standing to just keep getting bigger. And because iTunes is fully incentivized to provide a chart that, well, actually provides value to users to keep them on the platform, they’d need to rely on a discovery mechanism that allows for the top chart placements to constantly change. In a lot of ways, the charts are actually pretty democratic.

These two hypotheses don’t explain the charts in totality (nothing could, really, other than the algorithm-turned-sentient), but I believe them to be strong starting points to understand the charts. In sum: The charts are designed for discovery, but the engine they are built upon are iTunes interactions — and so podcasts move up because they engender more iTunes-driven subscriptions and downloads, because moving up is a form of reward. Once you settle into that, some things begin to make sense. It’s how you get a Disney enthusiast podcast in the top 5 between Serial and Alice Isn’t Dead — as it was positioned at 4 p.m. ET on March 4. It’s also how you get a parodic sports talk radio podcast sitting on the top spot in that same time period, even though it’s only loaded with a preview. (The prescriptive here is fairly clear: if you wanna play the charts game, optimize your marketing for iTunes interactions. Didn’t want to point it out, but what the hell I’ve already gone this far.)

And here’s where we get back to my original query: What effect does this particular chart system have on the podcasting space?

As my inbox suggests, it generates a lot of angst. I’d argue that feeling comes out of an interpretation that the iTunes podcast charts should serve as a mechanism that adequately signals or communicates a podcast’s value or worth. Which is an understandable interpretation to hold because (and here’s where I make a sweeping overgeneralization) charts are typically designed as tools to signal value.

And that’s the thing: That’s not what the iTunes charts is designed to do. It was designed to optimize for engagement on its platform, and not to provide a direct and clear representation of what’s valuable. (Although the rocketing up of a podcast on the charts does indicate a kind of value — it’s just we’re getting a proxy value.) But there’s a strong tendency to read iTunes as a prime arbiter of value because, well, we don’t have anything else.

Absent other means of context or evaluation, a singular chart of this nature leads to a muddled representation of the podcasting landscape, as it renders any act of interpreting relative value between podcasts almost impossible. And this provides a poor feedback loop for podcast creators, because a big part of understanding the health of your show is knowing how it stacks against other shows.

But here’s the other thing: I don’t perceive this as a story about the problem with iTunes — as far as I’m concerned, there is no problem with iTunes, because iTunes gotta iTunes. Rather, it’s a story about the medium’s larger problem of being to know itself, and the fact that the main way the industry does is dependent on a single, and incredible incomplete, point of view.

Okay, so I’m running out of space right now, and I wanted to talk about two more things: how the iTunes charts impact the relationship between podcast creators and advertisers, and what market opportunities are baked into situation. We’ll start with the former next week.

Relevant bits:

  • “How Politico’s ‘Off Message’ Podcast Is Rising Above Site’s Staff Departures.” A winning combination of strong booking…and loose lips. (The Wrap)
  • “No More Car Talk as WBEZ Turns More Airtime over to Podcasts.” Something’s going on at Ben Calhoun’s Navy Pier operation. (Chicago Magazine)
  • And while we’re on the subject of Nick Quah hobby horses: Recode is probably going to continue expanding their podcast offerings. I buzz with excitement. (CNN Money)
  • “Facebook Messenger Adds Music, Starting With Spotify’s Song Sharing.” All the potential around messaging that you’re already excited about, now with more audio! (TechCrunch)
  • Amazon rolls out two alternate versions of their Echo product, including a puck-sized model designed to latch onto non-Amazon speakers and turn them into voice-based gateways to the Internet. In case you’re new to this column, I’m personally very pro-Amazon Echo as far as its potential for non-visual — read: audio-oriented — computing. As a person who’s morbidly afraid of losing his eyesight, I’m all about that. (The Verge)

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Podcasts about podcasts, a new player in sports audio, and a crowded election-podcast space

FiveThirtyEight enters the elections podcast race. Let’s start with an item thematically related to what went down in Iowa last night.

FiveThirtyEight, the data journalism site led by stats dude Nate Silver, officially launched its Elections podcast last Monday. And let me be the first to say: Finally! Predictive modeling for presidential elections is basically the only reason I keep FiveThirtyEight in my bookmarks, though I must say their culture stuff gets a click or two out of me. Anyway, this launch expands the site’s podcast offering to a healthy number of three, with the elections pods joining a sports punditry show called Hot Takedown and a more general show about data and society called What’s The Point. Its launch comes after four weeks of piloting through the What’s The Point feed, where test episodes were delivered to listeners in the form of bonus content. Which is certainly an interesting method of both workshopping a show and cultivating interest in an existing user base.

So here’s the most interesting thing about FiveThirtyEight’s Elections podcast: It’s made up of different kinds of shows. The podcast’s anchor will be a Slate Political Gabfest-style panel show that will be released on Mondays, with additional episodes — which may or may not adopt the panel discussion format — dropping on other days depending on the news cycle and depending on whether the podcast team has something else they want to cover. Some of these non-Monday episodes could be a documentary; some could feature interviews.

This diversification of content was top of mind for Jody Avirgan, the former WNYC producer that the site tapped last year to head up its podcast operations. (Avirgan is also the host of What’s The Point.) “From the beginning, I wanted our election audio coverage to be a bunch of different things. I wanted it to be a home for reported stories, documentaries, etc.,” he told me over the phone. “I think a lot of people are hung up on the idea of ‘a show,’ and that you would have to do the same thing week after week after week just because you have ‘a show.'”

In this view, the podcast feed is structurally utilized in a manner reminiscent to linear TV news or radio broadcast channels, but without the need to plug gaps with filler content or reruns. For Avirgan, it’s a mark of confidence in the pull of the larger media operation, and not a specific show. “Let’s just have a home for the audio content we make, and people will follow us to wherever we create,” Avirgan continued. “I think Grantland has been a good model all along — the way they created one feed, and put all their shows all in one feed. People who like Grantland really like Grantland, and they don’t care where they get it. They just want to get it.”

FiveThirtyEight is not the first to play around with release conventions through a podcast feed. NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour, for example, is particularly good with experimentation, consistently using its feed to drop alternate programming like its sporadically-released sports show (The Giant Foam Finger!!) as well as special interviews (J.K. Rowling!!). Another interesting practitioner is the Bill Simmons Podcast Network’s “Channel 33” feed, which essentially serves as an omnibus home for Simmons’ frequent collaborators and former Grantland soldiers to play around with their own shows (The Watch and Sources Say are fabulous, by the way). But I’m a little surprised more podcast creators don’t experiment more with the RSS feed. We’ve seen some interesting, playful uses over among fiction podcasts; for example, the recent fictional podcast hit Limetown occasionally dropped mini-sode checkins to conjure the illusion of “real-time” programming. Maybe I’m just talking out of an armchair, but it doesn’t seem like it would take too much of an effort for an actual campaign trail reporter to experiment by using a feed to sporadically drop 5 minute verbal sketches of scene and space. (See: Audio Twitter.)

Anyway, back to talking about the actual podcast: the Elections podcast’s launch comes up against what appears to be an increasingly crowded field. As I’ve noted recently, it seems like there’s been another election-related pod being launched every other day, with new offerings being rolled by both podcast stalwarts and newcomers (sample list: NPR’s Politics Podcast, The Washington Post’s Presidential, Politico’s Off Message, The Huffington Post’s Candidate Confessional, Futuro Media Group’s In the Thick, The Pollsters, and many others.) I asked Avirgan what he thought about this flood of audio election programming. His response was a dry one: “There’s this perfect storm of people who think that podcasting is an easy money thing, and there’s big news cycle event coming, and so they just put the two things together,” Avirgan said. “I’m sure if this was Brazil and the World Cup was coming up, you’d see a lot of World Cup podcasts.”

But will the abundance of these podcasts prove a hurdle for FiveThirtyEight, whose mass-market raison d’être, for all intents and purposes, is elections-focused data journalism? Avirgan doesn’t think so, citing operational nimbleness, close fidelity to its audience, and a keen awareness of the space as differentiating factors. “There’s a reason our show is on Monday versus other days,” Avirgan notes. “We’re separated [from other podcasts] on the calendar…We’re not going to pull off what the [Slate Political] Gabfest does. We have our own people. We’re going to do what we’re good at.”

You can find FiveThirtyEight’s Election Podcast here.

Podcasts, but for podcasts. Or broadcasts, but for podcasts. Or broadcasts, but for podcasts that are also later distributed as podcasts.

A common refrain among those who are involved in or follow podcasts is that discovery is broken, and its broken-ness is one of the many primary structural impediments that prevents podcasts from growing, maturing, and becoming mainstream, which is arguably what everybody wants. So far, all we really have is iTunes, and even that audience development pipeline is being further corroded by the recent podcast rush that has undoubtedly led to increased competition for real estate on iTunes. It is perhaps inevitable, then, that this unfortunate state of affairs would lead to a situation where we see a bunch of launches involving podcasts dedicated to the curation of high-quality podcasts for the pleasure of mass earballs.

In recent weeks, we saw the birth of Gimlet’s Sampler and Washington public radio station WAMU’s The Big Listen, two shows from different sides of the public/private podcasting divide. They join the Canadian Broadcasting Company’s Podcast Playlist, which was the first high-profile attempt to execute on this particular idea. (Disclaimer: I’ve been a guest on the podcast before.) Playlist was first launched in the summer of 2015 with WNYC’s Sean Rameswaram (who is actually Canadian, by the way) performing sole host and curation duties. Its current iteration features in-house hosts Lindsay Michael and Matt Galloway, presumably because Rameswaram had to go back to his home station to develop whatever secret project he is no doubt developing at this very second.

Let’s take a second to think about the bigger idea at play here. These shows ostensibly exist to perform a specific structural function for their respective audiences, which is to provide guidance through the hyper-abundant, anarchic, and desperately overwhelming offerings of the wider podcast ecosystem whose low barriers to entry and democratic promise, while much lauded, are ultimately counterintuitive to actual consumption.

In my mind, the emergence of these podcasts about podcasts could well be thought of as an echo to what happened with the rise of aggregation among the blogosphere back in the mid-2000s. Wiser folks than I have already written about the structural and developmental similarities between blogs and podcasting, but I’d like to go further here and draw a straight line between these podcasts about podcasts and blog aggregators. The latter plays the very same role as the former: to streamline the reader’s experience of the rest of the Internet’s “Wild West” within the same medium. And though the value-add for the aggregated is the potential of a clickthrough, a retention, and a conversion, there’s an opportunity for the aggregator to leverage any attention gained for its curatorial prowess to further establish power and authority in the space.

But before any of these podcasts about podcasts can become authorities, they must first figure out how to differentiate themselves from each other. The three shows actually do a pretty good job of being compositionally different from one another — Playlist opts to play a bunch of segments straight with bits of set-up here and there, Sampler is much swifter with its clips, and The Big Listen, at least with the one episode that’s out so far, seems to really favor interviews with creators — but all three shows sound strikingly similar. This might be a function, perhaps, of CBC’s and WAMU’s public radio stature, and of Gimlet’s overall public radio roots, even though Sampler host Brittany Luse herself is not of the public radio world. (Luce comes to Gimlet from the very good For Colored Nerds podcast, which sounds nothing like her work on Sampler — which may itself be an expression of the issue at hand.) And all three shows also seem to use the same type of narrative tools (creator interviews, play and response, etc.) within the episode-level to perform the same duties and that, in turn, leads to a relative homogeneity in sound.

Which raises the question: What tools do these podcasts have to differentiate themselves? Seems obvious to say, but aside from basic standards of audio quality (and sometimes, not even that), the differentiation ultimately comes down to a mix between the strength of the curator’s personality — podcasts and radio shows are principally personality-driven, after all — and, well, the curator’s taste, which itself is a function of her or his personality. Which is all to say this: These podcasts should really lean harder into the specificities of its hosts.

Will big money squeeze out independent podcasting? Here’s a quote that’s pertinent to the independent podcasters out in the audience:

I worry about big money pouring into podcasting. Not so much for ourselves — I think we’ve carved out our little space and we’ll be okay. But I worry about people being able to do what we did. “I have a weird idea and I have a $60 USB microphone, and I’m going to just make this thing and maybe someone will listen to it.” I think that is what appealed to me about podcasting from the very start, and I really, really hope that all the money pouring into podcasting won’t bury tiny, weird independent podcasts like that.

That nugget comes from Welcome to Night Vale’s Joseph Fink, who was being interviewed along with cocreator Jeffrey Cranor, on-stage in D.C. last November. The interview recording was published last week as part of the Pop Culture Happy Hour (that’s two mentions in one newsletter, oy!) Blizzard Special, and you should definitely check out the whole conversation.

For context, Fink was expressing concern of how money flowing into the podcasting space may well suppress opportunities for the new, the small, the different, and the weird. First acknowledging that the podcasting space is generally a lot more exciting now than it was five years ago, Fink then highlighted the entry of bigger players with bigger wallets into the podcasting space, like Bill Simmons setting up his own podcast network, GE funding a big weird fiction project in The Message, and WNYC rolling $15 million into a podcast studio.

Again, I highly recommend you check out the whole interview — which touches upon Night Vale’s business model, the team’s favorite podcasts, and more — but for reference, this segment begins at the 31:56 mark.

NPR signs with Triton Digital’s Tap Podcast platform For advertising. More CMS news!

NPR, everybody’s favorite public radio mothership, announced yesterday that it has signed a deal with Triton Digital’s audio advertising platform for podcast monetization and distribution purposes, according to MediaPost. That’s a big get for Triton, who initially announced the launch of platform early last month, so you could probably imagine that this deal has been on the stove for a while.

Okay, real talk for a sec: The past few weeks have seen an uptick of podcast-CMS-related developments from several key players — Acast, Panoply (my former day job employer), Art19, now Triton Digital — many of which are relatively new. What we’re seeing now is some sort of land grab, with each of these players hitting the market in a rush to sign as many podcasts that are still being hosted on LibSyn or SoundCloud — which those podcasts probably chose because, well, those two were probably perceived to be the only options. (And SoundCloud is basically free, so that’s a big plus for them.) At some point, I’ll make a living comparative spreadsheet of who powers who, because most (though not all) of that information is made publicly available by these companies and because that’ll probably make a useful consumer guide for somebody.

Anyway, if you’re one of these podcasts that’s still figuring out your CMS situation, I gotta say: it’s a great and speculative time! Remember to ask questions, shop around, and consult your loved ones.

Nerdist Sports. Jonah Keri, the former ESPN/Grantland sports writer and podcaster, has found a new home for his podcast in Chris Hardwick’s Nerdist Industries, which also happens to be the home of some really amazing podcasts like James Bonding and The Thrilling Adventure Hour. It might not sound like the most obvious of hits, but that’s because Keri’s podcast will serve the flagship show of what will eventually become the network’s new sports vertical — a subject matter that the network has previously never ventured into. According to Keri’s preamble on the first episode of the relaunched show (which features an interview with the notoriously giggly Hardwick himself), he’s going to be fairly involved with whatever comes out of this new vertical — on Twitter, he described his plans as “copious” — even though he’s unsure of the exact details at this point in time.

In related news, Variety reports that Nerdist Industries is greatly expanding its network, and now boasts a total of nearly 50 podcasts. And that’s not even taking its video offerings into consideration. Yikes!

Relevant bits this week:

  • Looks like Spotify finally rolled out its podcast and video content feature. In this piece on The Verge, Chris Welch implores: “Spotify, please don’t turn into iTunes.” (The Verge)
  • And speaking of Spotify, rumor has it that they’re looking to raise funds again. (The New York Times)
  • All the news that’s fit to pod! (Nieman Lab)
  • NPR One is now available on CarPlay (Current)
  • “Why public radio stations need to claim the podcast space” (Current)
  • A little bit on Amazon’s audio push (Bloomberg)

Phew. That was exhausting!

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