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

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

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

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

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

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

You can check out the show here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[storybreak]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[storybreak]

Bites:

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

“A step in the right direction,” but “I want more…”: The industry reacts to Apple’s podcast changes

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 124, published June 20, 2017.

Industry responses to the Apple analytics news. Last week’s newsletter was super heavy on my own analysis on the matter, and to balance things out, I’m course-correcting this week with a handy-dandy roundup of some of the more interesting (and, in some cases, telling) reactions from various notable industry folk.

Let’s jump in:

(1) “A lot of indie podcasts already speak to a highly targeted audience, so having this better data gives them more ways to pursue advertising,” Call Your Girlfriend’s Gina Delvac tells Wired. “It’s for people who can’t yet afford the middleman.”

(2) “Analytics. Finally. Industry should embrace, not run from this. Podcast tech is exploding: dynamic ads, data, streaming, scale,” tweeted HowStuffWorks’ Jason Hoch. He adds: “Exciting times to be in the podcast space. From a consumer perspective, Podcasts being treated as equal class citizen w Apps & Music.”

(3) From Norm Pattiz, founder of PodcastOne, when I reached out for comment: “We very much look forward to the release of this new data from Apple. I don’t see how it can be anything but beneficial. Much of what has been indicated is that Apple will be able to confirm and inform about audience and consumption patterns. Though most of that information is available on a number of platforms, having Apple provide further insight and confirmation is nothing but good.”

(4) From Rob Walch, of LibSyn, when reached for comment: “In the end, Apple giving this info will be good for podcasting — they were the only one in a position with enough clout to do this.”

(5) From Chris Morrow, of the Loud Speakers Network, when reached for comment: “I don’t doubt the impact is going to be significant, but do think it will be a while before we start to feel it fully. On a network like Loud Speakers, probably close to 90 percent of the ads are still Direct Response, so the attitude for the foreseeable future will be ‘if it’s not broke, don’t fix it.’ But if six months from now a few big agencies make it clear that they’re going to be buying based on Apple’s new metrics, then we’re going to have to pivot quickly.”

(6) Eric Nuzum, SVP of original content at Audible, hit up my inbox to say that conversations about the value of the new data layer should only be focused around two things: ad validation and editorial feedback. “All the rest: it’s trivia. Not actionable. But like most data, people will overuse, over-examine, and over-literalize. It’s human nature to assume data contains answers. It doesn’t,” he wrote.

(7) From Market Enginuity’s Sarah van Mosel: “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… I want to be able to track individual ad campaigns via third party server… on-demand audio ad tags that will work on the Apple Podcast player.”

Of all the responses to the news that I’ve read so far, I find this argument from Tom Webster, he of Edison Research and the Infinite Dial study fame, to be the one that stuck with me the most. Let’s dig into it.

The optimization trap. They say you are what you measure, but what does it mean if you’re not actually in control of what you can measure?

That’s probably the biggest thing I took away from Webster’s post, which he published on Medium over the weekend, though by no means is it the only story here. I highly recommend reading the whole thing to get the full nuance of it, but here’s the basic framework of the argument:

  • The new Apple analytics is a largely positive development for the industry on the whole, even when you account for the various shakeouts, resizing, and resetting of expectations and conduct that it’s going to trigger across the space.
  • However, this development will likely strengthen Apple’s position as the defining metrics-provider for the industry — a state of affairs some have described as a stranglehold, and that should be some cause for concern.
  • Why? Because it doubles down on an ecosystem where publishers will be further incentivized to optimize just for Apple. “Any measurement/ratings system is a game, and the winners aren’t the best operators,” Webster writes. “They are the ones that best play that game, even to the detriment of the medium.” Aside from the garden-variety concerns associated with stacking all your bets on one (opaque, sometimes capricious) horse, there’s a grander downside at play here: while the introduction of Apple’s new analytics might be productive in deepening relationships with a broader set of advertisers, it is nonetheless a development that incentivizes publishers as a class to keep their focus on Apple — therefore constraining the ecosystem very much within Apple’s boundaries.
  • And what do those boundaries mean? As Webster points out, it’s worth keeping in mind that Apple’s consumer base, while very large, is nonetheless still very specific and non-universal in demographic. Which is to say, it isn’t everybody — and deliberately so, to some extent. As such, should the industry be pulled along this dynamic, the podcast industry’s outer boundaries will always be defined (and therefore limited) by those of Apple’s. That, to be sure, is not a good thing.

“I call that ‘the optimization trap’: When we optimize to fit the universe we already have, we make a smaller and smaller universe happier and happier,” Webster concludes. “This is why, although access to enhanced Apple statistics is generally good news for now, the industry cannot and must not stop innovating towards a non-platform-specific measure.”

Webster adds that he holds out hope for NPR’s Remote Audio Data initiative. And what is that, exactly?

Remote Audio Data. It’s a technology initiative to carve out that non-platform-specific measure by setting an open industry standard for publishers and third-party distributors in the space. The initiative was originally conceived long before the Apple news, and in its wake, the enterprise takes on additional gravity. In some ways, you could frame the effort as an opportunity for the industry to wrest a little more control over its narrative back from Apple.

The initiative is being led by National Public Media, the sponsorship arm of NPR. They’re working with Triton Digital to develop the measure, which is being piloted on NPR One at the moment. News of project first appeared publicly earlier this month, with appearances in stories by AdExchanger and Inside Radio from early June.

I reached out to Bryan Moffett, the chief operating officer of NPM, for more details, and he was kind enough to oblige with a blog post-length statement.

“Remote Audio Data is a model for improving podcast listening data,” it began. “The premise is that publishers have a right to know what happens to their content when it’s distributed by third-party platforms.” He goes on to explain some of the technical aspects of how the model would be implemented:

There are two parts to RAD. First, a method for publishers to add metadata to audio files that describes important points in the file. These could be quartile markers for the content, markers for where meaningful content starts and end in an episode, or markers for sponsorships or promotional elements of an episode. Part of the encoded data is a URL where playback platforms should send data events. In this way, everything is self-contained in the file.

The second part is a lightweight way for playback platforms to read this metadata and send pings back to the publishers when those key audio events are heard by a human. The current spec is designed to make this anonymous listening data — no personally identifiable information (PII) is passed. We want to know if a human was listening to our content, not which human.

A lot of this, I should also point out, is contingent on NPM being able to effectively build a coalition of publishers and third-party listening platforms to adopt the model. That, in my mind, would’ve been difficult before the Apple news. Interestingly enough, I suspect there’s a lot more incentive to jump on this boat moving forward. Anyway, the statement touched on this later on:

Right now, we’re working on a second pass at the spec after much discussion with industry stakeholders. Once that version reaches consensus, we hope to build support for RAD across the industry, and bring stakeholders like the IAB and others into the discussion to help.

I followed up to ask Moffett if he viewed Apple’s participation as integral to the initiative’s success. “Not at all,” he wrote back. “It’s just as vital whether Apple participates or not. We still need something to measure listening for the third of our audience not on Apple’s platforms, and that ecosystem is very splintered…If they participate we have the benefit of the same apples-to-apples method across the industry (hopefully!). If they don’t, we at least have comparable metrics we could likely amass together to get at listening.”

You can read Moffett’s whole statement here.

Notes on branded podcasts. While the bulk of the discourse around how the new analytics layer will impact podcast advertising focuses on in-episode ad spots (rightfully so), don’t sleep on the question of how it’s going to impact branded podcasts as well. It’s reasonable to presume that the increased ability to understand in-episode performance of branded podcasts will give advertisers a more tangible idea of whether their highly involved form of content marketing is really building a connection with targeted audiences, giving them even more leverage over the agencies they commission in setting rates and ordering follow-ups. On the flip side, the new analytics layer does have the rather productive side effect of more directly aligning the editorial feedback loop with the branded podcast performance feedback loop, which is interesting.

Here’s a relevant AdWeek article from last week: “Thanks to nearly 8 million downloads, GE remains bullish on branded podcasts.” A key data point from the write-up:

In 2015, GE launched its first branded podcast called The Message under the umbrella of the GE Podcast Theater platform… leading to 4.5 million downloads as of November. After launching a second podcast late last year, the two programs have been downloaded another 3.2 million times in the past seven months and 7.7 million downloads overall.

Hmm. Looks like Life/After didn’t match The Message’s performance after all…

And while we’re on the subject of branded podcasts… Keep an eye on this really interesting piece of execution: On She Goes, a travel podcast for women of color hosted by Call Your Girlfriend’s Aminatou Sow. The show is part of a larger digital platform launched by the ad agency Wieden+Kennedy, and the agency commissioned Pineapple Street Media to produce the podcast.

Gimlet cancels Twice Removed. The celebrity-studded family history podcast hosted by AJ Jacobs will not be coming back for a second season, the company announced in a Facebook post last Friday. “Ultimately, Twice Removed proved too complicated to produce on a consistent basis,” the post read. “As part of our commitment to making the best podcasts possible for our listeners, we decided it was best to sunset Twice Removed, and refocus our efforts on making other great shows.” The podcast only published six episodes during its run. I’m told that all full-time Twice Removed staffers have been reallocated to other projects within the company.

Twice Removed is the fourth Gimlet podcast to be discontinued, following Undone (which cited a tight market for hiring editors as the principle reason), Sampler (which reallocated host Brittany Luse to a new project), and Mystery Show (which was super complicated in a bunch of ways). A fifth, Surprisingly Awesome, was recently restructured and relaunched as a whole new IP, called Every Little Thing. The news comes about two weeks after the company announced it had acquired The Pitch, a Shark Tank-esque business podcast hosted by Josh Muccio. It’s only the second time the company has brought on a show already in the market, the first being Science VS, which Gimlet acquired from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in early 2016.

On Twitter, friend-of-the-newsletter Nick Guy sees this as part of a larger trend for the company that expresses its “seeming willingness to swing for the fences and admit when it doesn’t work.” It’s an entirely plausible read, though I will say my own fixation with this story is one that ties back to my write-up on Gimlet’s acquisition of The Pitch from two weeks ago: what, exactly, constitutes a Gimlet show, and how does that question factor into cancellation decisions? (Apropos of nothing, I’m crossing my fingers for the return of Heavyweight.)

A new resource for Spanish-language producers. This is really cool, and very much needed. Radio Ambulante, the Spanish-language narrative journalism project that recently struck a distribution and marketing deal with NPR, has rolled out a set of online resources in Spanish for aspiring Latin American and Latino producers. Operating under the name “Escuela Radio Ambulante,” the project comes out of a partnership with Transom.org, the beloved online education resource for audio producers, and Hindenburg Systems, the Danish audio editing software company. There will also be paid fellowships associated with the project, offering the opportunity to work with Daniel Alarcon and the Radio Ambulante team to learn the story development process from start-to-end. Applications for that will open up later this year, so keep an eye out.

I’m told that Radio Ambulante CEO Caroline Guerrero developed the project when she was a John S. Knight Fellow at Stanford, and that it’s mostly funded through grants at the moment. You can learn more on the project’s website.

And while we’re on the subject of producer education and support… I hear that applications for AIR’s New Voices Scholarships for 2017 are now open. Go, go, go!

Talent agencies and the podcast industry. It doesn’t take a lot of looking to notice that talent agencies are growing increasingly involved in the podcasting space — not just in brokering deals for the top layer of companies, but also in picking up talent from certain pockets of indie podcast publishers.

But for many producers, indie and otherwise, talent agencies might seem strange and opaque — and that’s even more the case within the context of the budding world of podcasts. So, to get a better sense of what talent agencies do, why they’re increasingly interested in the podcast industry, and what they’re looking for, I traded emails with the very nice Ben Davis, an agent at William Morris Endeavor, one of the largest agencies in the country.

[storybreak]

[conl]Hot Pod: Could you briefly walk me through what you do as an agent at WME?[/conl]

[conr]Ben Davis: An agent’s job is to represent the interests of talent and properties across media — this includes strategizing, sourcing and negotiating deals on a client’s behalf. Through the representation of talent an agent packages projects together, then manages the project’s market to find the best home for it.

I’m an agent in the Digital department at WME. Digital covers several emerging areas within the media industry, and podcasts are a fast (very fast) growing piece of that.[/conr]

[conl]HP: Which podcasts have you worked with?[/conl]

[conr]Davis: Some of the podcasts I’ve worked with are:

Freakonomics Radio; Tell Me Something I Don’t Know; Pod Save America (and the Crooked Media network); Limetown; 36 Questions; Crimetown; Missing Richard Simmons; Revisionist History; Lebron James’ Uninterrupted Network; Under the Skin with Russell Brand; The Tony Kornheiser Show (with our sister company IMG producing); Unsolved Murders.

While the role I played in each of these podcasts is different, I typically negotiate the terms of a show’s deal with its respective distribution partner or network. When applicable, we also sell podcast IP into TV, film and other media.

For example, with Pod Save America/Crooked Media, we connected the team to DGital and structured the terms of their relationship.

In the case of Limetown, we signed creators Skip Bronkie and Zack Akers after it hit — and helped explore derivative opportunities for the IP. They are now developing Limetown for television (with IMG serving as the studio), sold the prequel to Simon and Schuster, and received a separate film script deal at Warner Brothers. We’re currently helping them with distribution and casting of their upcoming podcast musical, 36 Questions.[/conr]

[conl]HP: Could you describe what drives WME’s interest in the podcast space?[/conl]

[conr]Davis: WME’s is interested in any creative medium that drives culture, and podcasting’s impact on culture is undeniable.

Podcasts are a source of compelling new voices and properties. Not only has this created an exciting business in it of itself, but also one that feeds into other areas that we work in. For example, WME has been involved with crossing podcast properties such as a StarTalk and Men In Blazers into television.

At the same time, podcasting is a new medium for our clients from other areas, whether it is Malcolm Gladwell or Amblin, to create and experiment in. Clients can also own their distribution in a way that is not traditionally possible in other areas of the entertainment business.[/conr]

[conl]HP: My understanding is that talent agencies — WME, of course, but also CAA (Creative Artists Agency) and UTA (United Talent Agencies) — are playing an increasing role in (some layers of) the podcasting industry, though podcasting itself as a sector might not necessarily be growing as quickly within talent agency portfolios. Is that accurate, and what is your view on where we are now with talent agencies and the podcast industry?[/conl]

[conr]Davis: I can’t speak for the other agencies, but podcasting is growing very quickly within WME.

Agents are most useful with shows that have added complexities within their agreements. Is there a guarantee or advance? Who controls the RSS feed? Could this become the next hit TV show? This only applies to a segment of the market, typically higher budgeted or otherwise premium shows.[/conr]

[conl]HP: Where do you think this relationship between talent agencies and the podcast industry is going?[/conl]

[conr]Davis: I think talent agencies will play an increasingly important role in the ecosystem by:

— Helping podcast creators cross IP over into other media (whether that is audiovisual, live or written).
— Pairing creators with the right distribution partners, and negotiating the terms of the relationship.
— Packaging creative elements (i.e. talent and writer) to create turnkey audio productions for distributors.

The space is changing so quickly, though, and my answer would have been different 6 months ago. So really, who knows?[/conr]

[conl]HP: What are the most important things that you think podcast publishers should know about talent agencies, if they don’t already know?[/conl]

[conr]Davis: It’s amazing to me how podcasts have emerged as a longer-form medium with insanely engaged audiences, in a world where traditional media is fighting for the attention of distracted and fragmented consumers. In this current environment and in the future, those with an engaged audience have an enormous opportunity. Talent agencies provide a platform to maximize the impact and value of that opportunity.[/conr]

[storybreak]

You can find Ben on Twitter at @benjamin_davis, though it doesn’t look like he tweets much. I guess you can hit up his LinkedIn instead.

Bites:

  • Not content with its business-to-business position in the market, AudioBoom — best known, perhaps, for repping the popular Undisclosed podcast — is getting into the original programming game. This comes after some restructuring and what appears to be a rigorous PR push, with the company pumping out a few studies about the podcast industry into the public sphere. (Press release)
  • Heads up, Jesse Thorn fans: the Maximum Fun proprietor has a new ~summertime~ project where the famed interviewer interviews interviewers about interviewing. The guest lineup includes Terry Gross, Larry King, Werner Herzog (!!), and Audie Cornish, among others. And interestingly enough, it’s being distributed in partnership with the Columbia Journalism Review. (website)
  • The first advertising network for the Amazon Echo’s Alexa Skill ecosystem has shut down in the wake of an Amazon policy change that bans advertising for third-party products and services. (TechCrunch)
  • The New York Times’ The Daily is going to test a guest host as Michael Barbaro heads off for a summer vacation: Caitlin Dickerson takes over the mic. (Twitter)
  • BuzzFeed audio fellow Alex Laughlin is conducting a survey on audio producer salaries. Go take it. She posted some preliminary findings on Twitter yesterday.
  • NPR is funding two pilots off its Story Lab program: “Midnight Oil” from Alaska Public Media and “Inter(Nation)al” by an independent production team. Cheers, folks! (Press Release)
  • One of these days, I’m going to build out a bracket for Podcasts by Major Media Companies. We’re going to have to add some upcoming stuff from The Atlantic to the list now, which is currently on the lookout for its very own (short-term) podcast producer, it seems. (The Atlantic)
  • Poynter owning the “McClatchy getting into podcasts” beat. Kristen Hare’s latest is on Biloxi’s Sun Herald and its podcast about LGBT issues, Out Here in America. It follows Ben Mullin’s write-up on Majority Minority and Beyond the Bubble, two politics podcasts from McClatchy DC. No specific download numbers were present in either write-up, unfortunately.
  • Rooster Teeth, the Austin, Texas-based digital media production company focused on gaming content, has launched a new business unit focused on podcast creators. “The company is hoping to gather between 30 and 50 creators for its network, and it’s already peeled a couple rising stars away from its bigger competitors,” Max Willens reports. (Digiday)
  • Signl.fm, a platform focused on making podcasts more searchable, is part of the latest Matter.vc class. (Nieman Lab)

Hot Pod: Did the election podcast glut of 2016 fail its listeners?

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue ninety-six, published November 15, 2016.

Outlook. Last Tuesday’s shocking electoral conclusion has severe ramifications not just for the media generally — print and digital, legacy and new, mainstream and alternative — but also for podcasting specifically, whose position as an emerging industry would historically render it more susceptible to the fallout of uncertain economic and media environments. And make no mistake: We are marching straight into a thick fog of uncertainty.

Keep your eyes peeled for two things. First, a potential slowdown in advertising spending. Second, the significant possibility of an economic recession over the next few years, something that was already being predicted prior to this election and that some economists believe could be exacerbated by the proposed policies of the incoming administration. From The Wall Street Journal last Wednesday:

“Uncertainty is bad for ad spending growth,” said Jonathan Barnard, head of forecasting for Zenith, an ad buying and research arm of Publicis Groupe. Still, he said there will not be an “apocalyptic pullback” and just how much contraction occurs depends largely on how the economy performs and what specific moves the new administration makes.

And what of public radio? Keep your eye on the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), the federally funded organization whose financial support is essential to the health of the public media system. Familiarize yourself with two things:

1. The breakdown of NPR’s revenue sources, articulated best in this blog post from 2013 that highlights public radio’s dependence on CPB funding:

These station programming fees comprise a significant portion of NPR’s largest source of revenue. The loss of federal funding would undermine the stations’ ability to pay NPR for programming, thereby weakening the institution

2. The historical string of on-again, off-again tensions surrounding the system’s perceived relationships with ideological bias.

Executives at podcast publishers are generally adopting a wait-and-see stance on the days to come. At least, that’s what I’ve found based on my email interactions with several over the past week. Many are bracing for impact — one phrased the situation this way: “I am placing higher probabilities on the downside cases in all of our financial models” — though there are a few that believe such concerns to be overblown. (“I wouldn’t worry about it,” one person said.)

“We’ve seen no signs of any slowdown,” Matt Lieber, president and cofounder of Gimlet Media, told me. “Obviously, if a recession happens, then ad budgets will get cut. But to be honest, we’re seeing so much growth in podcast spending right now that, even in recession, I would expect slowing growth, yes, but not negative growth.”

Hernan Lopez, founder of Wondery, submitted a more positive view: “I’ve never seen ad spend decline in a growing economy. In times of general market-driven anxiety, ad budgets may shift from a quarter to the next, or between different kinds of media, and if anything podcasting has more to gain than to lose.”

National Public Media’s Bryan Moffett noted that he remains “cautiously optimistic,” pointing out the strength of 2017 upfront buys and the medium’s steady quarter-over-quarter gains. “Niche media do tend to get cut faster in turbulent times, but I also wonder if podcasting will weather any storm better than history would predict,” he wrote. “We all know how effective podcasting can be in terms of marketers reaching the right audience with the right message. So, I think we’d need a pretty significant economic pullback before any real cuts come, and they’d probably come in line with everything else.”

An executive of an independent podcast network expressed some general concern, but pointed out that even if there is to be an ad-spending cooldown, direct response advertisers would likely stay within the medium, as they’ve already figured out how to assess and achieve the return-on-investments they want. Another person I spoke to posited a similar outcome — there will always be companies looking for people to sell things to, that person said — but did say to watch how companies engaged in direct response podcast marketing will fare moving forward.

We need to move on, but I’ll just quickly note three more things:

  • This climate of uncertainty will be felt by every aspect of the podcast ecosystem, but it will be felt hardest by the community of independent producers and freelancers that provide labor, efficiency, and creativity to the space, these proprietors of small boats in a sea that thrashes from the movement of bigger ships.
  • Given everything that we’re currently seeing in the nexus of media and politics, it seems imperative, now more so than ever, that podcasting remains open.
  • Remember to donate to your local public radio station, people.

Okay, let’s go.

Radio Ambulante inks distribution deal with NPR. The public radio mothership will distribute, market, and promote the show across all of its platforms, including NPR.org and the NPR One app. I’m told to expect collaborations between Radio Ambulante and a number of other podcasts from the NPR newsroom like Code Switch, Latino USA, and Embedded. I’m also told that the show will have a presence on the weekend newsmagazines. The deal came out of conversations that started about a year ago, when NPR approached the Radio Ambulante team.

For the uninitiated, Radio Ambulante is a fully Spanish language narrative journalism project — in the vein of This American Life and Snap Judgment — focusing on stories from Latin America and Latino communities in the United States. The show was founded in 2011 by Daniel Alarcón, Carolina Guerrero, Martina Castro, and Annie Correal. (Castro and Correal have since left the team.) Radio Ambulante is widely loved and critically acclaimed, and received the Gabriel García Marquez Prize for Innovation in Journalism in 2014.

Alarcón told me that the team intends to expand in the near future. “We have to see where we stand early next year, but I think we have to grow in order to fulfill our mission,” he said. “This deal will help us get there.”

The show will roll out its latest season on November 22. The news was formally announced early on Tuesday, but the gossip trickled out at the Third Coast Festival in Chicago this past weekend.

A Serial spinoff? Speaking of Third Coast, I wasn’t able to be there myself this year, but I wish I had been, because this bit of news was apparently announced at a presentation by Serial’s executive producer Julie Snyder. The details, cobbled together from tweets by attendees: A Serial spinoff will debut in March. It will be hosted by This American Life producer Brian Reed, and it will be an “artsy” and “novelistic” seven-part series set in Alabama, following “a man who despises the town he’s lived in all his life and decides to do something about it.” Cool.

Audible expands comedy offerings on its Channels lineup, stacking its deck with audio shows from comedians like Will Arnett, Nick Offerman, and Eugene Mirman. The new slate also features something called “Audible Comedy Specials,” a programming channel that bears strong structural similarities to the comedy special blocks you’d find on television networks like HBO and Comedy Central. It’s kind of a shrewd move, efficiently tapping into the well-established sub-community of comedy podcasts and, on the supply side, offering comedy producers yet another platform to monetize a given performance.

This expansion likely draws from a supply and production infrastructure established by Rooftop Media, the company’s West Coast-based, comedy-focused arm. Audible acquired Rooftop Media back in October 2014.

Meanwhile, in Canada: The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) isn’t cool with third-party podcast apps distributing its programming with in-app ads served on top, according to a report by Canadaland. Specifically, the CBC “has sent legal threats to at least one third-party podcast app developer for serving ads without a prior agreement with the broadcaster.” The corporation is also blocking the presence of its programming on those apps. The exact apps that are affected are not confirmed, though the article highlights the Podcast Republic app and also points out the other apps that adopt the in-app ad practice, like Stitcher, Overcast, and Podcast Addict. Hit up Canadaland for more details on this story.

“The wrong format for the moment?” Josh Nathan-Kazis, a staff writer at The Forward, published a string of tweets (a tweetstorm, as the kids call it) that mounted an intriguing critique of the political roundtable podcast format in the wake of last Tuesday’s election. Reproduced here, with some streamlining:

An item for the media post-mortem: The political roundtable podcast turns out to have been exactly the wrong format for the moment…They’re cheap to produce, and fun to half-listen to while doing the dishes.

And there was a lot to talk about. It felt like you could understand the election through the roundtables. Everyone was so smart. Knew what they were talking about. The intimacy inherent to podcasting made them addictive: Hang out with the smart kids each week and they’ll tell you all you need to know.

On Tuesday, it turned out the smart kids were wrong. Some were flagrantly, smugly, obnoxiously wrong. Others were a bit wrong. They weren’t uniquely wrong. But there’s something about that intimacy that makes their particular wrongness feel almost like a betrayal. I wonder how much we really learned from these podcasts. They were closed loops; arguments among friends, played for entertainment.

And were we really trying to learn? Did anyone go to Keepin’ It 1600 or Slate’s Political Gabfest for anything but affirmation? And if that was just 2016’s “unskewing,” then maybe these shows were more harmful than we realized. Ear candy. If we’d spent a bit less time listening to our radio buddies joke about “bedwetters,” maybe we wouldn’t have been so surprised this week. (To be fair, Keepin’ It 1600’s post-election mea culpa episode on Wednesday was really good.)

Put simply: did the political roundtable podcast glut of the 2016 election cycle fail us?

There is a lot to think through here, and I’ll start by saying that the strokes being painted here are way too broad. (And Nathan-Kazis qualified them as such in follow-ups.) At the heart of this critique, I think, are two central ideas: The first is the explicit notion that the insular space created by the roundtable podcast either leads to or creates a greater probability of confirmation bias, and the second is an implicit sense that the media product supplied by these shows exacerbates a potential negative tendency among consumers to use these media products, some journalism and some not so much, as a crutch as opposed to one of many tools of news and information.

The first idea can be straightforwardly interrogated: My immediate reaction is to argue that the risk of confirmation bias here is less linked to the format itself than it is to the participants of the roundtable. Which is to say, it’s not the tool, it’s the wielder; failures, where they existed, were specific to the show, not general to the form. We were awash with election podcasts this cycle, but there were definable differences between shows that were explicitly journalistic in intent (like the NPR Politics Podcast) and shows that were rooted more in a classical sense of punditry (like Keepin’ It 1600, which was consumed by many as therapy and which, interestingly enough, now appears to be the mirror image of conservative talk radio). Those are two very separate product types with very different relationships to the journalistic position, and speaking personally, my experience of what I now recognize to be confirmation bias between the two shows was dramatically different.

The second idea is harder to parse. Essentially, it attends to what appears to be a causal question: does the sense of comfortable insularity conjured by these podcasts somehow discourage listeners from seeking out additional or competing viewpoints? Attempts to unpack the question only leads to further inquiries: is it even possible to prove a causal relationship? Is there a certain condescension in this causal hypothesis — one that suggests news consumers to be anything other than perfectly intelligent adults who will take the time to fully read complex pieces, verify sources, balance out their information intake, and check their biases on their own? To whom does the responsibility of information fall: those who produce the information, or those who consume information? These are fundamental questions akin to those pertaining to corporate social responsibility on the part of the information producers; I am tempted to think that governance is required, but government often seems antithetical to the productive creation and free flow of information.

Nathan-Kazis’ point on the medium’s intimacy triggering a stronger feeling of betrayal hits closer to home, as it highlights the previously unrealized problem that emerges from the design premise of many of these roundtable podcasts, particularly those produced by journalistic institutions like Slate and FiveThirtyEight. The conceit of such shows is to give listeners a sense of what journalists or experts are talking about in spaces separate from the performed professionalism of the public platform; after all, what is said on the front page is far from what was debated in editorial discussions leading up to an article’s final construction or what was discussed on a human level at the bar afterwards. The basic idea in these setups is to engender trust in the people and the process, not just the product. But when the people and the process fail, the cut feels so much deeper, and it is incredibly hard to win that trust — that sense of comfort and safety (which is perhaps the problem?) — back.

That intimacy and sense of process, however, proved essential to how several non-political roundtable podcasts played the role of therapy for many with their post-election episodes. And it is perhaps here that the roundtable conventions are unambiguously valuable. Shows like Call Your Girlfriend, Still Processing, Nerdette, and The Read all provided listeners with personal spaces of communion — spaces to be alone but together, to feel and process the scope of the night’s events, to emotionally prepare for the days to come.

So, did the political roundtable podcast fail us in 2016? Some did, some didn’t; but the problem listeners face is the fact of living in a world where both successes and failures — emerging from both journalistic and non-journalistic sources — exist, flatly, within the same platform, the same space, the same context.

A media format is a tool; it is only as strong, and only as right, as its practitioners. Whether we screw it up or not, podcasting’s core value proposition is always going to be there for us all: a distinct ability to create a space to talk things through, to feel things out, to let doubt grip you. If anything, maybe the lesson here is that we should have leaned more into conveying doubt. A scene from On The Media’s bonus episode, dropped the day after the elections:

Bob Garfield: “What I most hope… is that we are not all passengers on the ship of fools.”
Brooke Gladstone: “What the fuck does that mean?”

Relevant: Melody Joy Kramer on Poynter — “Spread your masthead across the country, and other ideas to prevent groupthink”

Bites:

  • For those keeping tally, add the following companies to the list of brands making their own podcasts: InterContinental Hotel, Avion Tequila, State Farm Insurance. (AdWeek)
  • Refinery29 is launching what appears to be a combined podcast-newsletter product, called “UnStyled.” The last example I heard of such a product combination was WBUR’s “The Magic Pill” project. (Refinery29)
  • “The story so far: Fiction podcasts take their next steps” (New York Times)
  • “Where political talk radio is driven by a sense of community, not partisanship” (CJR)
  • DGital Media launches the latest show under its new partnership with Sports Illustrated, “The Seth Davis Podcast.” (SI.com)
  • Meanwhile, in Australia: The Wheeler Center and the Audiocraft conference are collaborating to launch “The Australian Audio Guide,” “an online companion to the best Australian podcasts and radio features.” (Link)

This shortened 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.