Post-election, how do you create a politics podcast for a market (still) flooded with politics podcasts?

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 130, published August 1, 2017.

Strong early feedback for NPR’s Wow in the World. Kids’ podcasts: there are rising arguments for more, and we now have some numbers for those looking into building a strategy. NPR tells me that Wow in the World, the organization’s science podcast for kids, broke the 2 million download mark as of last Wednesday, achieving that feat in slightly over two months and across 17 episodes. These figures are based on internal measurements described as relatively conservative; the actual number is likely somewhat higher. For reference, the show, hosted by TED Radio Hour’s Guy Raz and SiriusXM’s Mindy Thomas, officially launched on May 15. (Also: Between the three shows he hosts for NPR alone, how Raz has any time for his own kids is a mystery to me.)

Listener engagement is also said to be robust. The show features a prominent call-in component, and I’m told that the team has been receiving around 150 voicemails a week through the 800 number that was set up for the production.

Wow in the World, of course, should be read as an anomaly among its peers given its institutional heritage. Indeed, as a learning matter, its success only gives us a glimpse at the highest ends of the genre at this point in time, as the podcast is the beneficiary of factors largely inaccessible by most other kids’ podcasts. Among them: NPR’s built-in brand benefits and marketing infrastructure, along with Raz and Thomas’ long-cultivated followings. But Wow in the World can nonetheless be understood as proof-of-concept for the growing enthusiasm around the potential of podcast programming for kids. There’s value here, its early success seems to say, and there’s more for the taking.

In related news… Gen-Z Media’s The Disappearance of Mars Patel is being adapted for television by Anonymous Content and Paramount TV, Deadline reports. Anonymous Content, by the way, is the production company also responsible for the Homecoming adaptation that we discussed last week. Something else to track from the Deadline report: UTA was the talent agency responsible for brokering the deal on behalf of the Mars Patel team.

The kids’ audio drama, which received a Peabody Award a few weeks ago, recently wrapped up its second season. It is also part of Kids Listen, and partners with Panoply for hosting and ad sales. Gen-Z declined to disclose download numbers when contacted.

A branded podcast, a studio, a playbook. There are curious qualities to note about “Rebellion in Detroit,” a branded podcast that premiered last Friday. To begin with, Midroll Media is the company responsible for that campaign, working with the film studio Annapurna Pictures as a move to promote the latest Kathryn Bigelow project Detroit, about the summer of civil unrest (or rebellion, or uprising) that took place in the titular city in 1967. The branded podcast takes the shape of a three-part series hosted by Courtney B. Vance, who you might remember from FX’s “The People vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story.” It also possessed a rather peculiar rollout strategy: the show debuted as an exclusive on the website of the local Detroit area Scripps-owned TV station, WXYZ, last Friday morning. (Scripps, of course, being Midroll’s parent company.) But the exclusivity window only lasted for a few hours — extremely short, in other words — and the podcast went wide later in the afternoon.

Why, exactly? “Annapurna Pictures wanted to make sure local audiences had the chance to hear this content first,” a spokesperson said. Okay, I guess?

Anyway, here is what’s most interesting to me about the campaign: to produce the branded podcast, Midroll turned to Transmitter Media, the studio recently created by former Midroll executive producer Gretta Cohn. It seems that Cohn and co. have been pretty busy since officially rolling out back in May. In addition to Rebellion in Detroit, Transmitter was also responsible for that Walmart podcast that a reader wrote in to ask about earlier this month, and is currently working with ESPN’s 30 for 30 to produce material for the period between seasons. (Called Off Season, the project is described as “a sound-rich conversation show” that serves as a companion to the documentary series. The second season is scheduled to drop in November.) Cohn also tells me that the company has two “longer-term narrative storytelling projects with really exciting partners” in the works. No details were offered at this time, only that the first of those will launch in November.

As a side note… This might be stating the obvious, but I’ll state it anyway because it’s probably helpful for some reading this: We have, it seems, the beginnings of a launch playbook as far as independent podcast studios are concerned. You begin by hammering down a few branded podcast clients (big companies, preferably), which unlocks strong upfront pay-to-production dollars, after which you then use those dollars to lay down the foundation for creative, personal, or longer-term bets.

Pineapple Street Media’s Jenna Weiss-Berman articulated as much during a recent Third Coast panel in Brooklyn. “We think about things in a few different buckets,” she said. “One of them is ‘lots of money branded stuff’ that you can’t really say no to, and the way we think about that is that stuff can fund a lot of the other stuff we want to do. That stuff allows us to take risks… like we do a few shows pro bono and that was always something we always wanted to do.” (If you’re tuning into the segment, the relevant section starts at around the 30-minute mark.)

One should also pay attention to how the “lots of money branded stuff,” as in Pineapple and Transmitter’s cases, isn’t just limited to advertisers looking to cobble together branded podcasts. The strategy includes working with bigger, deep-pocketed editorial companies interested in a meaningful podcast play, that lack the time or internal means to form an audio team. Pineapple Street did, after all, work with The New York Times and First Look Media to produce straight-up editorial projects — Still Processing and Missing Richard Simmons, respectively, with more presumably on the way — while Transmitter has whatever it has going on with ESPN.

Speaking of ESPN…

ESPN’s 30 for 30 podcast beat 2.1 million downloads in its first month, marking a pretty successful launch for the sports audio documentary series. Those numbers are based on Podtrac measurements, which the organization uses to verify its downloads, and a spokesperson tells me that the show is ESPN’s most popular podcast on a per-episode basis. If you’re doing the math, all five episodes of the show’s first season dropped within that first month period.

Gauging the success of podcast launches remains an elusive exercise, of course, given the absence of a third-party measurement that’s able to dole out some form of apples-to-apples paradigm. But we do have the relative performance of other shows to draw from, like Radiotopia’s Ear Hustle, which broke 1.5 million downloads across two episodes in its first month, and Wondery’s Locked Up Abroad, which broke 1 million downloads across three episodes in its first week.

The New York Times’ The Daily launches a limited-run spinoff. The New Washington, which will drop episodes weekly through the fall, is designed to “help listeners make sense of the figures remaking Washington,” according to the press release. While this politics-focused spinoff is being produced by the very same team behind The Daily — even using Michael Barbaro as host — it will use a completely separate RSS feed and visual branding. It is perhaps productive, then, to think about this distribution structure as somewhat akin to an established print magazine rolling out a smaller, special edition that’s sold separately from the main publication within the same magazine stand. (Like what Monocle is doing. Sort of. Kinda?) Of course, there are potential branding, audience education, and listener acquisition complications embedded in this configuration, but if they can figure out the marketing, there’s considerable editorial upside: the move gives the same team considerable room to flex different creative muscles, spread out to a wider surface area, allow for additional emphasis on coverage areas that might warrant more focus, and perhaps most importantly, introduce a marginal evergreen element to an entity principally defined by its ephemeral newsiness.

(A side note: If you’re wondering about The Run-Up — the standalone Times politics podcast that published in the lead-up to the election and Michael Barbaro’s first podcast project — I’m told that The New Washington isn’t meant to be a replacement. “With that said, there are no immediate plans to revive The Run-Up at this time,” a spokesperson said. Just as well, I suppose. What would we be running up to, at this point in time? 2020? Get outta here.)

Anyway, if you’re wondering how The Daily is doing, you’re in luck. A big Vanity Fair feature from the weekend on the great New York Times-Washington Post newspaper wars has a number for us: the podcast phenomenon “averages half a million downloads a day.” A stunning feat. (Ignore the confusion with the Times’ VR product, if it’s still there.)

Here’s the question that I’m thinking about: how do you create a politics podcast for a market already absolutely flooded with politics podcasts? Not only is it a go-to product move for most media organizations dabbling in the medium, it’s also the essential subject focus of one of the fastest-growing new companies in the industry, Crooked Media. Further, where do you go from a design standpoint, when the gamut has been well run from conversational recaps (the Gabfest model along with its many, many children) to subject interviews (Politico’s Off Message) to even historical (WaPo’s Presidential) and legal niches (What Trump Can Teach Us About Con Law)? Combine all of that with a more general concern about news exhaustion — and the unrelenting news pace, which shatters the dreams and dinner plans of producers everywhere — and you have, in the politics podcast, a genre of the highest degree of difficulty.

We’ll see how The New Washington grapples with the genre’s inherent pitfalls, and how the Times will angle the new podcast to lock in a fresh listener base. From the introductory episode, the Big Idea here seems to be keeping a tight focus on the cast of characters in this bonkers soap opera of a political system. Hey man, such a granular, detail-oriented, deep-dive content focus worked for the Game of Thrones Media Industrial Complex. I guess it can work for real world politics too?

Spotify readies another podcast push? Lucas Shaw, the scrappy young entertainment reporter over at Bloomberg, published a mighty interesting piece yesterday with some really juicy details on Spotify’s continued podcast dalliances.

Here’s the money:

Spotify is experimenting in new media to increase the time customers spend with its app — and boost advertising sales. As of now, most consumers looking for music videos or podcasts leave Spotify for Apple and YouTube. In particular, the company wants to assess awareness of its service among avid podcast listeners and could expand the campaign to more providers later this year. Spotify confirmed the details of the effort, but declined to make an executive available for interview.

The company is also funding “a new batch of original podcasts in the coming months, according to people familiar with the matter who asked not to be identified discussing the private plans.” As a reminder, Spotify had worked with Panoply to produce its existing batch of original audio programming. We’ll see if that partnership continues or broadens out.

Shaw also highlighted the streaming music company’s recent advertising collaborations with podcast publishers like Gimlet, Crooked Media, and The Ringer — where Spotify runs both digital (like this) and outdoor ads (the article mentions ads on buses, I’ve also seen them on New York subway station screens while enduring the summer of hell), and in return publishers talk up the platform through host-reads.

Cool. Be sure to give Shaw your click.

Pledge drives, but for podcasts. There are no new ideas… only new combinations, I suppose? Or “rediscoveries,” if you’re feeling frisky. However articulated, that seems to be a trend of note as far as Slate is concerned. About a year after sister company Panoply mashed up War of the Worlds with branded audio content, Slate has found value in repurposing the old public radio gambit of pledge drives through its podcasts to bump up subscriptions for its membership program, Slate Plus.

Digiday has the report, and here’s the key chunk:

Those interruptions might have been unexpected for readers, but they worked. The program drove “hundreds” of new sign-ups from Wednesday to Sunday, per Slate Group Chairman Jacob Weisberg. That total — the publisher declined to provide a hard number — was four times greater than the average number of sign-ups that Slate Plus typically gets every week, according to a Slate spokesperson. The results were encouraging enough that Slate will launch a pledge drive across all of its podcasts later this fall, though it declined to be more specific about the plans.

It’s all rather preliminary, but nonetheless amusing. That said, a couple of risk factors should be highlighted. Execution matters, of course, and one imagines the best practices you would apply to podcasting advertising should be applied to these neo-pledge drives as well — after all, a pledge drive spot is essentially a house ad, and a pledge drive is essentially the ad campaign equivalent of a napalm drop. And like all advertising formats, both within and between mediums, there are probable diminishing returns over time, especially once the novelty wears off. (Indeed, the fact that the interruptions were unexpected might itself be a reason the campaign worked.)

Some attention should also be paid to the dangers of stacking the ad-load way too much. Slate, I’d say, is already playing a fairly risky game with that Trumpcast drive, with Digiday observing that “in some cases, the interruptions took up as much as 15 percent of every Trumpcast episode.” (Trumpcast editions are already fairly short, often falling between 20 to 30 minutes.)

There’s a more interesting theoretical question here for us to chew on, of course: is this model replicable for other publishers? There are many non-Slate operations that stand to benefit from successful adaptations of the pledge drive, in particular publishers that possess supplementary membership support programs (i.e. Gimlet Members), horizontal subscription businesses (i.e. The New York Times), or direct support models (i.e. Patreon-using podcasts like Chapo Trap House and NPR Podcasts). We’ll just have to hope that someone else tries it out in order to answer to that question. Though I suppose quantity is also a factor that might even affect the outcome over time: if every podcast operation utilizes the pledge drive, would we see pledge drive fatigue?

That’s a question for another future, or another universe.

Meanwhile, in Australia. Earlier this summer, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) consolidated its podcasting efforts into a new internal division that’s dedicated to the medium. The division, called ABC Audio Studios, is the product of a merging between ABC Radio’s long-form Radio Features team and the pre-existing internal podcast team. It is being led by Kellie Riordan, who previously served as a strategist for the organization and has overseen the creation of several new ABC podcasts.

This move was driven in large part by a desire for better podcast development workflows. “Structurally, the creation of ABC Audio Studios means we can all work more collaboratively and maximize everyone’s unique skills in audio delivery. Previously, we had too many places for staff to pitch ideas and too many areas for on-demand content creation whereas now we’ll have one commissioning process for podcasts,” Riordan wrote me in an email. “For audiences, this also means a more streamlined offer where duplication is minimized and we can more readily commission content for market gaps or audience segments we’re not catering to.”

Riordan also checked off various programming areas that her new division is interested in: kids’ podcasts, comedy shows (of which several are in development), solutions-based journalism, and something that she describes as content for working families in general (“busy people who want shortcuts and hack to help them navigate their hectic lives”), among others. She further explained that, on top of the baseline content development work, ABC Audio Studios will also be exploring new storytelling styles and formats through collaborations with external teams — Riordan pointed to a show called Outer Sanctum, which the ABC eventually acquired — and other parts of the sprawling multi-platform organization.

You can find additional information through this ABC Backstory post.

And while we’re on the subject of the ABC and podcasts… The organization’s podcast conference, OzPod, is coming back for its second year on September 8, with WBEZ’s Jenn White serving — of Making Oprah fame, among many other things — as the keynote speaker. If you’re on the continent this fall, check it out.

Bites:

  • Looks like Anchor is positioning itself to pick up podcast publishers hosted on Soundcloud. An interesting TechCrunch spot, to say the least, titled “Sick of SoundCloud? Anchor offers podcast transfer with free hosting.” Sneaky, sneaky. There are a couple of things at play here that are really interesting to me. I’ll write some thoughts up for next week’s newsletter.
  • From NPR One’s Tamar Charney and analytics manager Nick DePrey: “How to make local listeners care about your story.” (NPR Training Blog)
  • Well that’s interesting for a bunch of reasons: “AudioBoom’s revenue increased by 460 percent to £1,843,000 [USD $2,439,145] in the six months to the end of May, ahead of the previous trading update for the period announced on 7 June.” (Press Release)
  • Charley Locke’s latest is a great profile of a fascinating upcoming project from Night Vale Presents called “Conversations with People Who Hate Me.” That show dropped this week. (Wired)
  • Shouts to Kelly Moffitt: “A new newsletter helps listeners discover podcasts produced in flyover country.” (Poynter)
  • Dissect, one of the more interesting takes on the music podcast, is back with its second season today. (Website)
  • Another contender in the “searchable audio” arena: “With its new project Hertz, Prisa Radio wants to make audio more discoverable online.” (Journalism.co.uk)
  • “With vocal fry and upspeak, these podcast hosts parody the policing of women’s voices.” (The Washington Post)

[photocredit]U.S. capitol building photo by Geoff Livingston used under a Creative Commons license.[/photocredit]

Can a political podcast avoid being overtaken by events?

A design challenge for political podcasts. I’ve spilt a fair bit of ink on election-related podcasts over the past few weeks here on Hot Pod, and perhaps just as well: For any serious news media endeavor, the U.S. presidential elections is a fundamental reason for being, and for the professionalizing layer of the emerging podcast industry — desiring so much to be taken seriously — the elections present an opportunity to step up and prove its worth. (Particularly given this exceptionally bonkers cycle, lord help us.)

But I’d been planning to give it a rest today, because…oh I don’t know. I figured some variety in the A-slot is a good thing, and besides, there are always other summer concerns in Podcastland. Maybe I felt I needed a break, for fear of running out things to say. (The eternal dread of the columnist.) Maybe I did run out of things to say.

So thank goodness for Mother Jones editor-in-chief Clara Jeffery, who dropped a tweet last week that inspired a bout of head-nodding so hard I needed a neck brace and gave me my A-slot:

Political podcasts, particularly those of the conversational genre that publish on a weekly schedule, possess a peculiar kind of disposable value. Typically tethered to the state of the news cycle at the time of recording, they are often serve as a recap of the week: a place to catch up on the events of that specific seven-day stretch, and a space to reflect on their significance in the context of what has happened and what may happen in the days to come. With every episode, the discussion produces a model for the listener that helps guide their reading of the news, and like all models, they are forced into iteration by every future development. As a result, the discussion in those episodes — frozen as they are in time — exist with built-in half-lives; their value erodes, organically, as more new things happen.

It isn’t too difficult, then, to see how the breakneck rate of developments coming out of the Trump campaign has exponentially strained the value propositions of this podcast genre. (Say what you want about the Clinton campaign’s controversies — at least they adhere to classic media tempos.)

What we’re left with are episodes that get way too stale, way too quickly. Given that the weekly gabfest format is a staple among podcasts, that’s not great, and the extremes of this anomalous cycle have drawn more attention to the limitations of the on-demand audio channel — or, more accurately, the way on-demand audio is wielded at this point in time. (I felt those limitations most acutely last week, when both The Ringer’s Keepin’ It 1600 and the Slate Political Gabfest dedicated segments on former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort’s ties to Russia, only to have the issue rendered somewhat moot when Manafort announced his resignation the next day. I ended up skipping them and spent the next two hours hitting the blogroll.)

There are, I think, pretty clear pathways to solving this problem:

(1) Per Jeffery’s tweet, the most straightforward way would be to increase the frequency of the output, so rapid developments can be addressed at a faster rate and iterations can be made more aggressively. In other words, the move would be to make each episode more disposable but also more responsive to the news. We’ve seen this executed before in the way several political podcasts tackled the conventions by pushing out special daily episodes (I highlighted some of them in last week’s writeup), and some, like the NPR Politics podcast, have also made good use of shorter update episodes published throughout the week. We also see this play out in choices made by some podcasts — The Pollsters is a good example of this — to go twice-a-week by design.

(2) An alternative would be the opposite route: adjust the approach to handle topics more thematically and render each episode less disposable (that is, more evergreen) than its competitors. This isn’t a practical option at all for many of these shows — as it would mean fundamentally altering their long-established value propositions — but I’d still argue it’s something to consider. We see executions of these in the many shows that are primarily interview-driven, like First Look Media’s Politically Re-Active, and idea-driven, like The New York Times’ The Run-Up podcast, which also has the distinction of taking a more blended approach. You could also go Full Dickerson and pull a Whistlestop, but that’s taking it way too far.

(3) Here’s something more left-field for ya: Break the archives, throw the whole frozen-in-time nature of the podcast episode out the damn window, and update older episodes in the archives as further developments take place. Theoretically speaking, this is a feasible option, given the possibilities afforded by dynamic ad insertion. Since we live in a world where podcast ads can be pretty easily swapped out of audio files to prevent them from getting stale and valueless, can’t we apply similar principles to the actual show itself? (Imagine if you could take all the energy and innovation focused on ads in the world, and apply it elsewhere.) Anyway, just a thought.

Jeffery also served up one more request that producers should consider: “More weekly podcasts should drop at beginning or middle of week. They bunch up!”

This, too, I heartily agree with.

Recode on the hunt. Recode, the tech-industry news arm of Vox Media, is on the lookout for an executive producer for podcasts and audio. Dan Frommer, the site’s editor-in-chief, tells me that Recode has been “editorially and financially successful” with their early podcasting efforts — stretched out across four shows — and that this hire is a move to formalize audio as a key part of their product offering. Frommer expects to launch at least two new shows, including one “that will feature significantly more ambitious, original audio journalism.”

I’ve expressed my admiration for the site’s podcast operations in the past, but I’ve always had a sense that they were starting gambits — both for the team and their parent company, Vox Media. Frommer suggests that this is very much case, noting that this move is “an early sign of things to come from Vox on the audio front.” Fascinating.

For reference, keep in mind that Vox Media’s other properties also have podcast experiments of their own, including: Vox.com’s partnership with Panoply to produce The Weeds and The Ezra Klein Show, The Verge’s Ctrl+Walt+Delete and What’s Tech? (among others), Eater’s Upsell, and Polygon’s eclectic suite of podcasts from the daily update show Minimap to the voiced features experiment Polygon Longform. It’s a bit of an unruly empire, and I suspect some sort of consolidation — whatever that means — might be in order if Vox Media is going to formalize its audio efforts across the board.

If that were to happen, and I’m just spit-balling here, the question would be the role that podcast networks will continue to play in that future configuration. To my knowledge, Vox Media works with two networks, DGital Media for Recode and Panoply for Vox.com, and in a podcast interview with Digiday’s Brian Morrissey back in June, Vox Media president Marty Moe explained the company’s relationship with networks as follows:

We’re using [podcast networks], but we’re selling directly, and that’s in part having to educate our sales teams about the advantages of podcasting and how to reach consumers best with brand messages, how to create the best kind of advertising. But we also work with networks because there’s just not enough direct selling right now to fill all of the opportunity.

Depending on how things look on the sales side at this point in time, I imagine these network partnerships may persist for a while. But given that no one has much of a handle over podcast distribution (just yet), one imagines that the value of these largely ad-sales-driven network partnerships may well be drawn into question over time — particularly as Vox Media gets savvier handling podcast ad sales themselves.

Anyway, parties interested in the Recode job should check out the job posting, or hit up Frommer himself.

A broadcast partnership. Missed this earlier, but it’s worth tracking: Last week, the satellite radio company SiriusXM announced that it will now broadcast the Yahoo Sports-affiliated Vertical Podcast Network, a stable of three personality-driven shows that are produced by New York-based DGital Media. The podcasts will air every weekday in a 3 p.m. ET slot (that’ll rotate between the three shows) on a few SiriusXM channels, along with in the SiriusXM app. Broadcast began last Monday.

This is the point in the writeup where I draw upon some historical context and note that this isn’t the first podcast property to find distribution over SiriusXM. You can find another example in Neil deGrasse Tyson’s popular Star Talk podcast, which was picked up last January for distribution over SiriusXM Insight, the channel within the satellite radio company’s offerings that focuses on “entertaining informative talk.” (A category that, interestingly enough, includes The Takeaway, the public radio program produced by PRI, WGBH, and WNYC. (I did not know about this partnership earlier, and finding this out brings new weight to the This American Life-WBAA dispute over the former’s Pandora partnership back in May.)

Similarly, this is also the point in the story where I’d raise examples of parallel partnerships between podcast shops and other more broadcast-esque platforms, like the aforementioned one between This American Life and Pandora, or one that saw iHeartRadio, the Internet radio streaming platform company, forming distribution partnerships with Libsyn and NPR.

And I happily bring up both those threads because they tug at a trend that I’ve been tracking for a while: an impending structural convergence and reorientation of what we talk about when we talk about on-demand audio. I last revisited that idea as recently as last month, and I’m going to re-up the same passage from my original analysis in March that I recycled for that July column:

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

And here’s the concern I trumpeted in July:

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

Anyway, this SiriusXM business also sees the Vertical Podcast Network becoming the first partner within the DGital Media portfolio, which also includes the Recode and UFC podcasts, to have its distribution expanded to include broadcast on top of its on-demand audio channel.

I asked Chris Corcoran, the company’s chief content officer, whether broadcast distribution will be a standard value proposition brought to the other clients within DGital Media’s portfolio. “What I will say is that we have wonderful partners who are always aligned in thinking the same way, which is finding new ways to grow the audience,” Corcoran said. “From there, we figure out what makes since with each partner, respectively.” Cool.

Relevant: Missed this last month but keep tabs on this: “Pandora wants to add more podcasts to grow listening hours.” (Variety) In June, Lizzie Wilhelm, Pandora’s SVP of ad product sales and strategy, told the Hivio conference that the company was “pleased” with their partnership with This American Life.

Sound design, explained to me. While the past two years have yielded an absolute bumper crop of podcasts, it doesn’t quite feel like there has been a proportional increase in the specific kind of podcast that leans heavily on sound design to shape narrative experiences — which, quite frankly, is what drew me, and I suspect many others, to the iTunes page in the first place.

But what, exactly, do I mean when I say sound design? ((Note: When I refer to “sound design,” I don’t mean it to be synonymous with “high production value.” One thing does not automatically lead to the other, I’m fully aware, no more than using black-and-white in student film theses. (Hours I will never get back.) Nor do I necessarily equate narrative podcasts with high production values either, or orient them in my head such that they outranks conversational podcasts in quality or value. Though I suffer from many illusions, I don’t suffer from that one in particular.)) My own understanding of the concept is fuzzy, despite my irresponsible, sweeping characterization here. I mean, I have some idea of how it feels — a sense of atmosphere, some gestures toward the “cinematic” — but what does actually it entail, and how does it tangibly differ from the skill-set exercised by your standard audio producer? I asked around.

“A sound designer is responsible for creating the sonic world of a piece, the space the story inhabits,” said Mira Burt-Wintonick, a sound artist who most recently worked on CBC’s Love Me podcast. (Her credits also include Wiretap). “A good producer and music supervisor will think about sound elements as well, of course, but a sound designer’s role is to make sure all those elements are all working together to create a unique aural space that envelops the listener and evokes the desired moods…Sound design is the difference between a two-dimensional image and a three-dimensional world.”

But sound design doesn’t have to be allocated to a specific role within the production process — more often than not, it’s another task to be handled by the assigned producer. “I like to think that being a sound designer is partly just a frame of mind,” notes Brendan Baker, who produces and sound designs Love + Radio. (His freelance credits include The Message and Invisibilia.) “Producers already are sound designers in some sense, it’s just a matter of how much time and attention you spend thinking about how your editorial and sonic choices have emotional or cognitive effects on your listeners.”

Both Baker and Burt-Wintonick draw great emphasis to sound design as an integral layer to the entire production process, as opposed to an add-on that happens in post-production. Baker tells me that, from his experience, he feels like way too many folks in the space consider scoring and sound design at the end of the entire production process. “I always encourage people to involve sound designers as early in the process as possible (ideally from the very start) to make the most effective work,” he said. “If I can replace the words with sound, it usually make the overall piece feel more streamlined and poetic.”

Burt-Wintonick presses the point more bluntly. “Sound design is what gives your podcast a reason to exist,” she said. “If you’re not thinking about sound design, why isn’t the story just a print piece?”

Bites:

  • A few weeks ago, I wrote briefly about ESPN’s new multi-platform project, Pin/Kings, which kicks off its run as a podcast. CJR has a neat writeup digging deeper into the multiplatform approach, and contextualizes it within a broader spectrum of previous attempts at journalistic multiplatform approaches — including a collaboration between Mother Jones and the Reveal podcast. (CJR)
  • Gimlet expects to “exceed its 2015 revenue of $2.2 million by ‘multiples’ this year,” according to Digiday’s Max Willens. I’d take their word for it, given that Gimlet has been consistently good at articulating their performance in a way that doesn’t fluff the numbers — a trait that isn’t all that common in the space, quite frankly. (Digiday)
  • Earwolf does the obviously-smart-thing-to-do-in-2016 and launches a Hamilton-related podcast. The Room Where It’s Happening, hosted by comedy writers Travon Free and Mike Drucker, takes listeners on a “song-by-song journey through the biggest musical of all time.” This isn’t the first Hamilton-related podcast in existence, of course; I mean, how can it be? Other entries in the genre include: The Incomparable’s Pod4Ham and The Hamilcast. (iTunes)
  • WNYC Studio’s Freakonomics Radio has a spinoff in the works: Tell Me Something I Don’t Know, a new live event and podcast that comes out of a partnership with The New York Times. (Freakonomics)

Quick note: Next week’s Hot Pod will be published on Thursday, September 1, and not in its usual Tuesday slot. See you then!

Like it or not, audio is entering the Content Wars. How do we navigate that fight?

“This isn’t about arguing who’s right or wrong,” writes Federico Viticci, a technology blogger who publishes on his own independently operated site, Mac Stories. “It’s about recognizing the divergence of needs and opinions in an industry that, in many ways, is still in its formative years.”

That, in a nutshell, sums up where we are right this second in the podcast community. On the one hand, you have a set of professionalizing, ambitious podcast companies pushing for better data analytics, discovery, and revenue opportunities — gripes that should be familiar if you read this column with any frequency — in their pursuit for maturity and considerable growth. And on the other hand, you have a grassroots population which has thus far enjoyed a version of the open internet, one that results from a delicate balance of power facilitated by the medium’s relative niche status up until this point.

At stake in the tension between these two camps is, frankly, the fate of the medium’s future. (How dramatic! How lovely.)

It’s a story as old as content. But let’s start from the beginning.

Over the weekend, The New York Times published a spicy article by John Herrman — a media critic-savant who wrote the excellent “Content Wars” column when he was a staffer at The Awl —  about the relationship between the emerging podcast industry and Apple, which at this point still commands an outsized measure of influence over the space, and how those relationship dynamics define the current state that the professionalizing podcast industry finds itself in.

I highly recommend reading the whole thing, obviously, and there are so many nuances baked into the report, but the two key elements I want to focus on to get to the heart of this narrative are the following:

(1) The article paints a picture of a professionalizing and ambitious industry frustrated by the limits of its dependencies on Apple’s infrastructure, which still maintains its outsized influence on the space. The article interprets Apple as an indifferent steward of a podcast ecosystem that exists at the fringes of the company’s operational focus — a state of affairs that may be shifting, by the way, following reports that suggest an increasing shift in focus toward services (see this Wall Street Journal article, and also this Bloomberg article on Apple Music) — and it chiefly illustrates this by exploring how the team that curates the iTunes promotions page, one of the very few reliable drivers for discovery and marketing in the space, is remarkably small and largely managed by one individual. (Hey Steve!)

(2) The heart of the piece is as follows: “The question for podcasters — and for Apple — is about what comes next,” Herrman writes. “Apple has at least two obvious choices: to rush to accommodate an industry that is quickly outgrowing its origins, or to let podcasting be, at the risk of losing its claim over a medium that owes its very name to the company.”

The piece is, by and large, consistent with my own reading of the space, and I say this with full awareness that my coverage and focus has always been on the podcast companies, entities, and individuals that are agitating against the status quo for the purposes of growth.

That distinction is notable, because the article drew criticism from the grassroots layer of the ecosystem. The critique principally came from Marco Arment, the creator of the relatively well-known podcasting app Overcast and something of an elder statesman for the older end of the podcast ecosystem. (Arment is also an angel investor in Gimlet, curiously enough.)

Writing on his blog, Arment expresses a deep skepticism of podcast entities advocating for more data and involvement from Apple. He argues that, in their endeavors to further grow their businesses, these agitating companies will end up compelling changes that fundamentally compromise the open nature of the medium. Apple would take control over a previously open ecosystem, and all of this would lead to the creation of a “data economy” that deleteriously commoditizes the entire space. The medium would naturally shift to a state that shuts out independent creators forever. Arment’s critique is, essentially, an argument of the slippery slope variety.

“Podcasting has been growing steadily for over a decade and extends far beyond the top handful of public-radio shows,” Arment argues. “Their needs are not everyone’s needs, they don’t represent everyone, and many podcasters would not consider their goals an ‘advancement’ of the medium.”

I’ve been tracking this entire conversation since the very second that the Times piece dropped, and I’m still struggling to find my own position on this. (It’s hard to form a take in such a short period of time, and I imagine my feelings will go through several iterations.)

But frankly, I’m torn.

On the one hand, I am thoroughly invested in seeing podcasts grow, mature, and further professionalize into a Big, Big Industry. I’d like this industry to grow to a point where it can command high and reliable revenue margins and generate high volumes of employment opportunities for creative audio professionals (not everybody can be self-employed and run a small, independent shop). I’d like the industry to wield cultural influence and become capable of tremendous impact. And I simply don’t believe any of that is possible — at least, it’s incredibly difficult, a factor that I’d argue influences the industry’s financial accessibility — without much of what the professionalizing podcast entities are pushing for.

I just don’t buy the notion of retaining the podcast’s RSS 2.0 roots and the black box nature of its knowability… like, I get the romance and nostalgia of it, I just think that’s really regressive.

At the same time, I have my own background concerns over whether the podcast companies that will grow to constitute Big Podcasting — Gimlet, Panoply, Midroll — will collectively drive the ecosystem to a state that reductively commoditizes the form and freezes out independents. (Those ad loads, they keep getting heavier and heavier. I see you.) And I do very much want to retain a relatively open podcast environment (no matter how conditional that openness is) where crazy shit like The Worst Idea Of All Time can still have a shot at an audience, no matter how small the chance of discovery.

Indeed, the tension between the two communities with very separate needs and beliefs that share the same infrastructure is very real. It’s podcasts-as-blogs versus podcasts-as-future of radio, it’s the independents versus the corporate. But whatever happens with Apple, we’re going to have to confront this question. The push toward professionalization is fully underway. As Herrman put it succinctly in a series of tweets: “Whether or not Apple encourages it, online audio will develop beyond current infrastructure… Anyway, I understand horror at the industrialization of a creative medium. Participants I talked to think it’s coming one way or another. So the question *right now* is: by apple’s hand, or someone else’s. These conversations should sound familiar!”

The question is, then: Can we cultivate a media universe that can effectively and simultaneously support two very, very different kinds of communities without compromising the integrity and efforts of each?

It’s not a matter of whether we will see audio float into the Content Wars, it’s a matter of how we navigate that fight. Yes, the way forward opens up a universe of potential horrors: atrocious advertising ad experiences, advertising fraud (which already happens, by the way), excessively invasive tracking mechanisms that grossly compromise personal privacy, and so on.

But what the hell: you can’t make an omelet without cracking open a few skulls, and you can’t get the great without running the risk of getting the very, very bad. Things will change — things always change — but there will be new balances of power to find. And maybe it’s naive, but I believe there absolutely can be a future that’s better for every one of us.

Two more quick things:

  • The Times article had a particularly interesting news hook: Late last month, seven “leading podcast professionals” were reportedly invited to Apple to air their grievances for a collection of employees. According to a source who was present, that group was a mix between newer, enterprising Big Podcast companies and folks from what can only be described as the “older guard.” My source also mentioned that there were no representatives from public radio.
  • Some perspective from friend-of-the-newsletter Joseph Fink, who tweeted me the following: “I was interviewed for that article, but guess my response of ‘Yeah I dunno, it’s all pretty much fine’ wasn’t interesting.”

Measured. Time now for someone much smarter than me to weigh in. I recently asked Andrew Kuklewicz, chief technology officer at PRX, to talk a bit about his vision for some sort of middle ground in requests for increased data granularity. He writes:

There’s data, and there’s creepy data. I want to know what anonymous people actually play and hopefully hear. We don’t need to fall down the creepy, slippery, slope and get names, blood types, or shoe sizes. We can survive without this, but it’s easier to sell new sponsors on audience numbers that resemble reality rather than shared fictions.

I don’t know what others are asking for, but I’m not looking for Apple to extend their store model to podcasts. Even if they did, I expect and hope it would be one option among many built on podcasting. I also value the openness of podcasting, with its underlying standards, but standards progress when there is competition fueling innovation. As web browsers got better with competition, so did their standards. I want podcasting to do the same — progress made with competition on products and content, but cooperation on open standards, platforms, and measures.

It will be messy, messier than a benevolent monopoly, but I also agree with keeping independence over ceding control to buy simplicity.

One important footnote on data and listening metrics: Doc Searls, the furthest thing from a sell-out when it comes to privacy and people owning their data, has pushed for an idea where people should own their own listening data, and share with whom they choose. Most great ideas are tried a few times before they take off (e.g., “six degrees” before Facebook), maybe six years later we should give Listen Log another go.

Sweet.

Designing an elections podcast for the non-wonk. If you’re launching an elections podcast, man, I don’t envy you. It’s one of the most saturated podcast genres in the market right now, a state of affairs not unrelated to the fact that there’s a U.S. presidential election going on and it’s all been absolute bonkers.

A sample list of elections pods, which has considerably grown since the last time I discussed political pods: the NPR Politics podcast, the FiveThirtyEight Elections podcast, Politico’s 2016 Nerdcast, Mic and The Economist’s Special Relationship, Slate’s longtime stalwart Political Gabfest and the topically driven Trumpcast, MTV News’ The Stakes, The New Republic’s “Primary Concerns, Vox’s The Weeds (occasionally; the show largely sticks to policy), The Ringer’s Keepin’ It 1600 (featuring former Obama staffers Jon Favreau and Dan Pfeiffer, no less), The Huffington Post’s Candidate Confessional, Futuro Media Group’s In the Thick, The Pollsters, and so on.

(For the record: I listen to a bunch of these, largely because…well, it’s my job, for one thing, and also because I’m just a very curious foreign person despite my inability to actually vote. But man, I can’t even begin to imagine how any discerning voter should choose from this pile.)

Into the fray walks No One Knows Anything, a new political podcast from BuzzFeed. No One Knows Anything is the company’s sixth podcast overall, and the last show launched before Jenna Weiss-Berman, BuzzFeed’s director of audio, left the company to launch her own podcast venture. It also has the distinction of being the first in BuzzFeed’s pod roster that actively draws from talent and material from its news desk. Anchored by BuzzFeed politics reporter Evan McMorris-Santoro, the show aims to distinguish itself from the gabfest-style horse race roundup pod formats of its competitors, choosing instead to tell larger stories about the election.

I recently talked to Meg Cramer, who produces the show (and who previously worked at APM’s Marketplace), and asked her a bunch of questions about the show’s design, podcast structures more broadly, and miscellaneous production-related things. Here are excerpts from our chat:

On process. “We’re on a weekly production schedule. We do it a little differently every time. We don’t script the show…we have very, very light scripting, and what we do instead is, like, we have a loose structure, we go into the studio, Evan and his guest host will move through the structure and hit every point, riff if they want to, usually beforehand we have the ‘found sound’ audio planned out. So if we know that we have a supercut of people saying “Trump will never get elected,” I’ll be in the studio cuing that up and they’ll react to the cut in real time. And then we put the tracking together with all the interviews in whatever order they happen in, listen to a rough cut of the episode, and then do an edit altogether, and then go back and do pickups.”

On the structure of the show. “There are lots of things that you can refer to when you talk about structure. You can say, ‘every episode we will have this kind of segment,’ or ‘every episode we will do a certain thing.’ And I try really hard to resist that because I think it can be very tempting to give yourself a superstructure when you start a project, and you also learn that your superstructure was maybe a cool idea or a cool concept but it turns out to be very restricting and it doesn’t let you tell certain stories. It winds up being a situation where you’re working for the structure rather than have it work for you.”

On the relationship to the news cycle. “There will be times where we have to speak to the news that’s happening that week, but for the most part, I don’t think that’s what we’re going to do. Because for the most part, that’s what a lot of other political shows do. And we’re trying not to be like a wrap-up show, and we’re trying to tell stories about things that have already happened because we want as much information as we can get when we tell those stories. We don’t want to predict — this is like an anti-prediction show.”

On the show’s target audience. “We’re trying to serve a general news audience with a show about politics, because there are lots of things that serve the political news audience and we’re trying to reach a broader group of people than that. People who are not necessarily political junkies, but who care about their vote. They’re probably going to vote, but they really care about who the next president is going to be and they want to be thoughtful about how they cast their vote.”

On newsroom integration. “I’m interested to learn what it’s like to get a lot of people in a newsroom involved in podcasting. I think places like Slate have their flagships shows where people get to try out being on a show — being a panelist, being a guest — and they get to see if they’re good at it. I think that one thing that I’m really excited about this project is that it’s not going to just be about me and Evan. I’m excited that other people in the newsroom get to try out having a big voice on this platform.”

You can find the pod here.

Reservations over dynamic ad insertion. I haven’t written about dynamic ad insertion in a while, and I really should, because it’s one of the bigger narratives that’s been driving the technology piece of the space for the past year or so.

In case you’re unfamiliar with the concept, podcast hosting platforms that support dynamic ad insertion would allow publishers to easily swap out ad spots within a given podcast episode. This structurally breaks podcasts away from having “baked-in” ads — where they are one with the episode for the rest of time (or the internet, or until somebody replaces the file) — and drives them to a state where the ad inventory of a given episode is dramatically deepened and the friction of ad serving is drastically reduced. It also sets the conditions for tailored advertising experiences like geotargeting and a programmatic audio advertising business to be built somewhere down the line.

To put it another way: money, money, money for publishers. If they can swing it, of course.

It’s a vision of the future that’s renders the podcast space drastically different in its monetization potential compared to whatever’s come before, one that would make podcasts function like the rest of the internet — for good or for bad, we don’t know yet (see the newsletter’s headline item). I imagine it’s being pitched as a win-win situation; advertisers get to more specifically target listeners, and publishers get to squeeze more value out of a given ad slot.

But some advertisers are not without reservations. Advertisers like Mack Weldon, the fancy bright-colored underwear startup, which now dedicates about a quarter of its monthly ad spend to podcast buys.

I recently traded emails with Collin Willardson, Mack Weldon’s marketing manager, about some of his concerns. He listed out three in particular:

  • Firstly, Willardson argued that the imposition of format requirements for dynamic ad insertion support would end up putting a cap on the creative vitality that can go into the ad read. “Our biggest reservation with dynamic ads is that the ad is capped at thirty seconds,” he wrote. “We have found success when the host is allowed to do the read however long they feel best. They’ll know if they get the message across to their listeners, and sometimes they aren’t able to do that in just thirty seconds or less.” (I imagine the thirty-second cap may differ from platform to platform and from show to show depending on how campaigns are sold, but I take his overall point.)
  • Secondly, Willardson touched upon the arbitrage value being lost when ads are no longer permanent — an appealing feature for some buyers. “Another reservation is knowing that our ad will not be there forever,” he argued. “We want to be associated with the show we have chosen carefully, even if you listen to it five years from now. There is something special about being a part of a show that you can listen to and be entertained by five years later, and we want to be a part of that experience.”
  • Finally, Willardson brings up what may well be the fundamental hurdle presented by the technology: the dissolution of the “intimacy” so associated with the media format. “Dynamic ad insertion disassociates the host from the advertiser, so they care less about the actual product or brand they’re trying to sell. Audiences pick up on that, and quickly tune out. On a medium with a built-in fifteen-second skip button, a thirty-second ad is too easily never heard,” he wrote.

I’ve been hearing variations of these concerns from a few advertisers — all of which are direct response advertisers relatively new to the medium — over the past few weeks. For what it’s worth, I don’t think these reservations are particularly insurmountable or fundamentally detract from the value of dynamic ad insertion technology; rather, my sense that Willardson’s arguments stem from a frustration with the pitches currently being made by podcast publishers.

Bites:

  • The worst kept NPR pod secret is finally out: the Code Switch podcast will launch May 31. In case you’re unfamiliar, Code Switch is NPR’s FABULOUS blog that covers stories on race, ethnicity, and culture. The pod is going to be hosted by Gene Demby (who also hosts the Post-Bourgie pod) and Shereen Marisol Meraji. I, for one, am extremely excited about this.
  • Eleanor Kagan is BuzzFeed’s new director of audio. She produces Another Round, and will continue doing in addition to developing new projects. (Twitter)
  • Katelyn Bogucki, who has until this point headed up the Huffington Post’s podcast operation, is heading over to Gimlet, where she joins the company’s creative team.
  • “From out of nowhere, the U.S. Energy Department launches a great podcast.” (The Verge)

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