American Podcast Publishers finds some opportunity in international advertising

When considering the global potential for podcasts, the prospects of non-American podcast companies and publishers — like the BBC, Louie Media, the Australian (I guess? what a week for that organization), and so on — only make up half the story. The other half revolves around the relationship between American publishers and their non-American audiences with which they theoretically have easier access, given the physical space-collapsing nature of the internet. It’s very much still early days on this front, but for some publishers, the tangible advertising opportunities provided by international listenership are beginning to make themselves loud and clear.

HowStuffWorks, the veteran Atlanta-based company behind shows like Stuff You Should Know and Atlanta Monster, is one such publisher. Jason Hoch, the company’s Head of New Initiatives, tells me that non-American downloads for its podcasts currently trend within the 15-25% range (the proportions differ from show to show), with the top three international markets being Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia. To put a point on it, Hoch noted that that listenership from those three regions typically amount to over 20 million monthly ad impressions. In its pursuit to not leave money on the table, HowStuffWorks has forged ad sales partnerships with ad sales companies local to those three markets: The Podcast Exchange in Canada, DAX in the UK, and Whooshkaa in Australia.

Other podcast companies are seeing similar numbers. Here are some examples of publishers thinking through the international question:

  • Market Enginuity, which handles ad sales for PRX, tells me that they “do see an incremental revenue opportunity in the international markets.” PRX sees a fairly wide range of non-American audiences across its show portfolio, with most podcasts averaging around a 15% share. The company has not signed any exclusive representation deals in any non-American market just yet, but they have been cultivating relationships with a few key international partners and have lightly engaged in geo-targeting campaigns for the UK, Canada, and Australia.
  • Midroll Media sees an average non-American audience range of about 10-30% across its US-based programming. Again, the proportion differs from show to show based, I’m told, on “the prominence of the brand” and “the portability of the subject.” The company isn’t currently working with any third-party to monetize those audiences, but they are actively examining their options and expect to increase their focus on the revenue channel over the next year.
  • Gimlet Media tells me that international monetization makes up for “a small percentage” of its annual revenue, but they are actively tracking the segment. “Listenership in English-speaking countries is growing year over year, but we haven’t even scratched the surface on bringing content to market in other languages,” said Anna Sullivan, Gimlet’s head of sales. The publisher’s non-American inventory is currently being repped by An Ideas Company, a firm founded by Matt Curtis, the former Director of Global Partnerships at TED.

Meanwhile, back in Atlanta, it’s full steam ahead for HowStuffWorks’ offshore adventures. “The scale at HowStuffWorks is allowing us to take a leadership position in the international market, especially as we’ve learned more about this audience,” said Hoch. Some of these learnings, Hoch tells me, are surprising: like how they’ve been getting premium ad rates in other countries that often outperform what they’ve been seeing in the United States… at least, for now.

Hoch is also closely watching how the recent introduction of Google Podcasts will affect non-American listening, given the product’s theoretical ability to open up greater volumes of podcast consumption on Android. (It’s worth remembering, as always, that Android continues to dominate the global smartphone market, particularly outside of the United States. Here’s a report from the Axel Springer-owned eMarketer reminding us as such.) “Looking at Eastern European countries, we’re seeing Android market share in the 70-80% range. Overlay that with Google’s push for Android adoption of podcasts and we think new audience consuming podcasts overseas will significantly expand in the coming years.”” said Hoch, carrying the thought to its logical end.

This is a pretty interesting — and not to mention exciting! — trend to track, but at this point, two qualifiers should be flagged:

Firstly, keep in mind that this story is largely limited to non-American audiences in Western English-speaking countries. (Well, two Western countries plus an Oceanic one, depending on how you view Australia, I guess.) To state the obvious, the opportunities and challenges for American podcast publishers are substantially different in countries where English isn’t the primary language and where the publishing ecosystem hails from a completely different economic, historical and political context. That said, some publishers, like the New York-based reVolver podcast network which boasts some Spanish-language programming, may well be better positioned than others. I’m curious to see what will happen on the non-English language frontier, if anything will indeed happen at all within the next few years.

And secondly, it’s also worth taking a few steps backwards to view any potential push towards international monetization runs alongside the actual fundamental ongoing challenge of the industry: to better serve American advertisers that still seek more effective and efficient ways of using podcasts to reach American audiences.

The Evolving Role of Independents

One thing I’ve been thinking through lately is what, exactly, does it operationally mean to be an independent network, perhaps in the vein of Radiotopia or RelayFM, and more to the point, how does its responsibilities evolve as the environment around it continues to industrialize? Particularly as we continue to see podcasting perhaps inevitably grow to reflect the structures of every other kind of media industry — or industry in general. (I mean, it happened to tech. And comic books. And punk rock, I guess?)

For some insight into how independent outfits function within an industrialized creative world, I reached out to Alia Almeida, a marketing manager who has held roles across the book publishing world, including a stint at the independent publisher Akashic Books. Almeida went long on the topic, and I thought there were a bunch of ideas in her response that can be directly applied to the podcast world.

So I’m running it in full:

Almeida: The goal of all publishing is to create a book, make it known to society, with a digestible value/price point, and get people to read that same book. The role of independent book publishers, though, is to ensure what they’re putting out is of value to society. Indie books are iconoclasts or disruptors… they’re of higher quality than its more commercial counterparts. These publishers are filling a space on the shelf that we didn’t even know was empty.

It’s funny because what happens is that the Big Five companies like to paint themselves as these better equipped groups who can take chances and acquire these (disruptive) kinds of books. But due to the bureaucratic processes endemic to those companies, what generally follows is a rejection with the explanation of “[x] book is too niche,” or alternatively, those books end up getting smaller marketing and publicity budgets. And so if more is done for a book, it’s because those marketing and publicity people truly believe in the book and love it. Believe me — that is the case in so many instances. To qualify, Big Five companies do get behind different books…but it happens less often since they’re such behemoths.

Since independent publishers are smaller, it’s easier for everyone in-house to pivot on a title. At an independent house, you can acquire a book for less money, and still get that book treated as the Next Big Thing. And it’s lovely to see a book engender so much in-house appeal that they get more resources across marketing, publicity, and sales.

In the grand scheme of book publishing, independent presses are defined by their speed. They can be nimble and timely in ways bigger publishers cannot. As a result, the work of independent book publishers is more oriented around cultural experiences. In order to be timely—in order to make an impact — you must be on top of the media and the culture to ensure a book’s relevance and ability to attract the right audience.

Like the Big Five, some independent publishers have backlists that blew up, allowing them to acquire more experimental manuscripts (such as Abrams and Press Here, Akashic Books and Go The F*ck To Sleep, or Grove Atlantic and A Confederacy of Dunces). Another trend we’re seeing with the bigger independent houses is that they are feeling big to acquire (see the Quarto Group acquiring Harvard Common Press) or they lose the head of their company and are forced to get acquired (see Perseus Books sold to Ingram and Hachette Book Group). Which is typical of an industry, right? When you are a large company the only way to grab new technology or fresh blood is through company acquisition…or to stay in the game, you must merge.

You would think as a result that these smaller — what feels like micro-presses because of all these mergers and acquisitions — houses have no chance against growth… but they’re still standing tall! And they’re still publishing the freshest of takes, and they’re doing it in their way.

The smaller presses have the most fleshed out missions. You know the book’s agenda based on the publisher’s agenda. Look at Akashic Books’ quick motto, “Reverse-gentrification of the literary world,” and then look at their backlist. You’ll think “wow, they’re really standing by what they’re saying.” Another excellent example is Melville House, which turns out thoughtful (and usually political) books in response to the American consciousness. See A Citizen’s Guide to Impeachment, which came out in September 2017 in response the 2016 US presidential election. They even sent a copy to every member of the House and Senate. It was such a punk rock move… and honestly, indie publishing is punk. These are the staunch houses and presses that simply won’t go gently into the night.

Thanks, Alia.

So, I’m not going to break this down and spell out the whole “main takeaways” or “what podcasts can learn from indie publishers” thing. You can draw the big adaptable ideas yourselves. Look, I don’t like telling people what to think! I believe in you! You’re great.

The Subscription Problem

There are some questions that we’re fated to circle round and around, over and over again, until someday something sticks. Like, for example, “will people pay for podcasts?”, which is a question the podcast industry has already been grappling with in a bunch of different ways, but still keeps coming back to one way or another.

Last week, the podcast app company CastBox announced that it was launching a “premium subscription tool” designed to make it easier for podcast publishers to build a paywalled audio strategy through its app. If that sounds familiar to you, that’s probably because the Swedish podcast app company Acast, with which CastBox bears a striking resemblance, released a similar product in the summer of 2016. (Recall the infamous “crowdfunding is begging” quote.)

Scott Porch covered the development for Fast Company, where he compared the new feature to Amazon Prime Video’s Channels service and VRV, the Otter Media-owned streaming platform that digitally distributes a number of over-the-top (OTT) video streaming services, including Nerdist’s digital video network, the art-house cinema VOD service Mubi, and the anime-focused provider Crunchyroll. It’s an intriguing picture, but the comparison isn’t all that appropriate. After all, at this writing, there aren’t really enough (or indeed, any) robust OTT-style on-demand audio services to warrant that kind of service structure.

Rather, CastBox’s tool lets partners more easily build out “bonus content” offerings. One such partner happens to be Wondery, which is chiefly using CastBox’s tool to help roll out Wondery+, a service where Wondery superfans, whoever they are, can pay $5 a month to access an ad-free experience, bonus material, and early downloads. In other words, it’s more of a premium membership program, a secondary product akin to Slate Plus or Gimlet Members. (Semantics, semantics.) Wondery+ will be offered as a streamlined in-app purchase on CastBox’s app, but it’s also worth noting that the premium membership program will also be available through all other available podcast distribution points, where Wondery will rely on the traditional method of generating special RSS feeds for members that must be then manually insert into their own podcast apps through a pretty wonky process. You know, the whole pain-in-the-ass workaround user flow that’s been the go-to method for shops trying to build out such membership programs. This is the point where CastBox likely provides some added value.

CastBox is a startup that remains pretty puzzling to me. A China-based startup with offices in California, Castbox has raised $29.5 million in funding to date including a $13.5 million Series B round back in April, per Crunchbase. (Again, Acast is the appropriate comp: the Swedish company has raised a total of $35.2 million to date, including a $19.5 million Series B round last September, again per Crunchbase.) All of its investors appear to be Chinese-owned investments firms (Qiming Ventures, IDG Capital, GSR Ventures, SIG China, and Zhen Fund), though its operational focus seems squarely planted on North America for now. Its core product is a souped-up free listening app, though the company has also begun financing original content in recent months, including shows from the Canadian shop Kelly & Kelly and Studio71, a digital video networks specializing in YouTube stars that’s trying to expand into podcasting, presumably as a form of advertising. It also announced some sort of blockchain project called “ContentBox” back in May, which claims intent to “decentralize the podcast industry.” CastBox does not appear to have any prominent revenue engines that are immediately visible.

When asked about performance, a CastBox representative claims the app has 2 million global daily active users, defined as “users who use the app every day Mon-Fri.” I must admit: that number strikes me as surprisingly — almost comically — large for an app that’s only been making a North American push for less than a year. Though, I could see someone talking me into thinking that number could theoretically make sense given a global context, but still…  ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

All of which is to say that I don’t have a ton of certainty over where the company stands in the space, or how valuable any of its partnerships can eventually be. (Then again, if they’re willing to give you money with no platform-exclusivity requirements for your show, by all means, take the dough.) Sure, there’s the whole tech-boi mantra about how startups are organizations formed to search for a business model, but at some point, some effort should be made to discern between what’s an intentional search process and what’s a strategy made out of Hail Marys. And much of that discernment should probably be made within the context of knowing what, exactly, CastBox’s vision of the future actually turns out to be: is its long-term strategy ultimately based on increasing its profile as the first-choice listening option for an increasing number of people, or is it based on ultimately spreading itself out to meet listeners wherever they are, a la RadioPublic?

In any case, startups come and startups go, so let’s leave CastBox behind and attend to all the things that this development evokes: Amazon Prime Video’s Channels, VRV, OTT distribution services — and, of course, Netflix. To put some alliterative spin of this baby: let’s consider the Promise and Problem of Premium Subscription in Podcasting.

***

The CastBox new tool announcement blurs definitions quite a bit, but I think it’s really important to separate the idea of a genuine subscription-first model — that is, a business truly in the vein of Netflix — from other support constructions that selectively deploy paywalls: memberships, direct support donations, listener-plus services, Patreon, etc. To state the obvious, those latter models are built on a completely different value proposition, one where publishers are working to be paid after delivering value to listeners, and it’s already been proven to be effective many times over as revenue solutions for podcast publishers big and small, independent and otherwise: from Radiotopia to Maximum Fun, Good Christian Fun to Chapo Trap House, RelayFM to Second Captains. It’s an open universe of allegiances, causes, and identity; I think somewhat safe to argue that the success of any such direct support campaigns is a strong proxy for the strength of a given publisher’s brand. (Another stray thought on this: this post-experience payment relationship can be further expressed through other secondary means, like merchandising and live shows. Those things, too, directly reflects the strength of the relationship between a publisher and its audience base.)

Conversely, an actual “Netflix for Podcasting” venture is built on the premise that it’s able to build a product strong enough for listeners to cough up cash before they are delivered value. It’s a more classically transactional relationship, and within the context of the current podcast ecosystem, I’d argue such a venture is basically in the business of extending the promise that it can consistently and perpetually beat the entire universe of free alternatives. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the venture needs to provide better programming than all available alternatives in the open ecosystem — that is, to be entrenched in the highly-volatile hits-making business. It can also mean that venture can simply opt for providing a better overall experience when it comes to interacting with on-demand audio in general. Consider one of the fundamental issues for new listeners trying out podcasts: they are made to navigate the full spectrum of options that spans millions and find content that means something to their given tastes.

CastBox’s paid subscription tool launch comes a few weeks after the public unveiling of a more interesting company: Luminary Media, a new venture aiming to build a subscription service that’ll serve a “portfolio of premium podcasts” that has raised $40 million in a funding round led by New Enterprise Associates. In my head, that company is a cleaner test for the promise of a premium podcast subscription platform, and with $40 million in the bank, it’s got a fair bit of ammunition to go out and see where this goes. But its early machinations — the Wall Street Journal reported back in May that the company has approached Wondery, PRX, HowStuffWorks, and Cadence13 to strike content deals, and one imagines that they’ve initiated talks with many more — doesn’t seem particularly convincing for this reason: it isn’t especially hard for any potential new listeners to discover and access programming from those publishers under the current context of the open podcast ecosystem, and it seems like unnecessary burden for existing fans if they were made to cough up additional dollars per month in order to further the relationships they already have with those publishers.

In theory, I understand the ideal behind all of this. A prominent premium podcast platform is a more reliable source of money than advertising dollars to fund projects in the space. A strong subscription player can cultivate a better environment for creatively and structurally riskier projects. Its existence ensures the continuity of the podcast economy regardless of what happens on the advertising side of the ecosystem. And to be clear: I am very, very in favor of a strong subscription-first player in podcast-land somewhere down the line.

I just don’t think a strategy primarily focused with “premium publishers” is a productive place to start, unless you’re able to successfully convince a hefty critical mass of publishers to sign on and effective shift the status quo of the podcast ecosystem in one fell swoop… and even then it seems like you’d be creating value by intentionally increasing friction on the part of the user. That just ain’t good karma.

The thing that’s always annoyed me about the “Netflix for Podcasting” shorthand is how it’s much too focused on what that company looks like right now. It almost always skips the fact that Netflix, in its original iteration, started out by building a business around a more specific problem that’s a little less sexy — to improve upon the video rental market — before moving upmarket. Which is to say, it almost always overlooks the humble beginnings in search of glorious ends.

***

Inspiration should instead to be taken from elsewhere. This is going to be something of a crazy leap, but bear with me: I think there’s a lot that subscription on-demand audio gambits can learn from the increasingly formidable world of mindfulness apps.

Two recent stories of relevance:

  • “Meditation app Calm hits a $250M valuation amid an explosion of interest in mindfulness apps,” reports TechCrunch.
  • Headspace, arguably the more prominent meditation app, recently announced the launch of a new division: Headspace Health, reportedly the first “prescription meditation app.” Here’s the CBS News write-up on the matter.

Calm and Headspace are, in purpose and presentation, meditation apps. But strip it down to its technical components, and you’ll see that they’re effectively on-demand audio platforms built on strong subscription-first business models. Indeed, I’d argue they’re the most successful on-demand audio apps in the marketplace right now.

Consider the product composition of Headspace: for $12.99 a month or $95.88 a year (or, in a fascinating muscle flex, $399.99 for a lifetime), users buy into a substantial content archive — ostensibly rooted in the practical wellness category — that’s chopped up a bunch of different ways for different audience sets: beginners, intermediates, sufferers of specific anxieties (flying, say), and sufferers of more elemental ones (self-esteem, for example). The full spread of the archive functions as the main draw for subscribers, but there’s a layer of regularly updated material that goes a long way in entrenching the habit. It’s a straight-up editorial product, complete with a team that makes discerning content judgments about what to create next in order to keep bringing listeners back.

The on-demand wellness audio platform just works, and it does so because, at a fundamental level, the product is a specific service that fulfills a specific need for specific group of people. And it just so happens that its audience set is not only clearly defined but also potentially massive, because the need it fulfills is expansive and deep as life itself. (Wild.)

Yeah, this argument might be a bit of a stretch, and one could push back with the differences between a wellness activity like meditation and something that feels more frivolous like a piece of entertainment media. But I don’t think that’s the right way to look at it, because it downplays the role of entertainment and media in everyday life. A comedy podcast isn’t just a time-filler; it’s a space of communion. A horror movie isn’t just a shot glass of cheap thrills; it’s a potent space to tackle primal emotions and ideas without physical risk or consequences. (Hell, I’d rather watch Hereditary than base-jump.)

When it comes to the problem of starting up a paid podcast platform, the key, I think, doesn’t really lie in the nature of the content. Instead, it’s grounded in a focus on a specific engagement of an audience need, and from there, it’s about how to grow and scale in accordance with that engagement of need. I’m curious to see how a venture like Luminary Media plays its initial hand, and I’m excited to interpret it through that idea of specific need.

Also, I guess what I’m additionally saying is: Pinna, Panoply’s on-demand audio platform for kids podcasts, should be a bigger deal than it is.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grab your space suits, fellas.

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

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

Public radio genes run deep.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tip of the hat, Louisville.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[storybreak]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[storybreak]

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

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

Bites:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Streetwise uncle” sounds about right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related reading: Publishers with TV ambitions are pursuing Netflix.

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Valentine’s Day.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keller continued:

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

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

Yeah, I don’t know, dude.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which reminds me of something…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[storybreak]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[storybreak]

Bites:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This week in public radio:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nope, not a good week for public radio.

Personnel notes:

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

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

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

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

Three things:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bites:

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

If your favorite podcast gets a new host, is it still your favorite podcast?

LONGEST SHORTEST WHY. Andrea Silenzi, creator of Panoply cult favorite Why Oh Why, is moving to Midroll to take over as the new host of Hillary Frank’s beloved parenting podcast, The Longest Shortest Time. The change will kick in at the start of next year.

Frank has hosted The Longest Shortest Time since creating the show in 2010; it was housed in WNYC for a good stretch before moving over to Midroll in late 2015. (Following a later Midroll brand reorganization, The Longest Shortest Time would eventually be categorized under the Stitcher banner.) With Silenzi taking over hosting duties, Frank will move on to a new role as the show’s executive producer, where she will continue to work on the production and provide strategic guidance.

This development is the culmination of a long-running creative relationship between Frank and Silenzi. “So much of my work is influenced by Hillary Frank it’s embarrassing,” Silenzi said. “When I created my first online audio portfolio, there’s a telling hand-drawn tomato in the corner. Little plagiarist! After relaunching Why Oh Why with Panoply last year, I was given the incredible opportunity to hire Hillary as our show’s editor. Working with her to host Longest Shortest Time next year feels like the next logical step in our creative collaborations. I can’t wait to hear what we’ll make together.”

For Frank, the move also provides an opportunity to take on a broader view of her work with the show. “In our new roles, we’ll have the chance to invigorate the show with stories and questions and experiences that I’ve already been through, but are fresh and new for her,” she said. “This move will allow me to do many of the things I love — big-picture vision stuff, editing Andrea — and will add room for developing other projects, some that are already in motion (LST’s Weird Parenting Wins book) and some that I’m looking into. I’m really excited about the possibilities ahead and I’ll be sharing more on all of that down the road.”

What happens to Why Oh Why remains unclear. Silenzi first started the show as an independent project prior her to time working at The Slate Group (where she first served as the originating producer for The Gist), and Why Oh Why was formally brought into the Panoply network only last fall. Will Midroll eventually move to acquire the show, or will the podcast stay where it is? “You’ll have to ask Panoply,” replied a Midroll spokesperson. Silenzi declined to provide much clarity on her current employer. “I can only speak for myself, not the plans of Stitcher or Panoply, but even though ‘taking a break’ typically means ‘breaking up’ in relationship-speak, I can completely see myself getting back together with Why Oh Why in the future.”

“After 3.5+ years with The Slate Group, I couldn’t be leaving on better terms with Panoply,” she added. Silenzi will see out the rest of Why Oh Why’s run through the end of the year.

Another thing to consider: Silenzi’s appointment marks a pretty experimental turn for the show. Can The Longest Shortest Time, an affectingly personal parenting podcast, be effectively hosted by someone who isn’t actually a parent? As a childless twenty-something who consumes an inordinate amount of parenting content, I’m especially curious to see how this turns out.

I asked Midroll for more insight into their angle on this whole business. Chris Bannon, the company’s chief content officer, offered: “I’ve loved working with Hillary ever since she landed at WNYC, and one of my greatest pleasures has been watching her enlarge her conception of both the show and her role. With Andrea’s arrival as host, Hillary has a huge opportunity to grow LST (Andrea is a superb reporter and host, and she’ll bring in a bunch of new listeners, I’m betting). Everybody wins, Nick!”

Host–show fluidity. The Silenzi-Frank switcharoo is additionally interesting for prompting  questions about where the power and identity of a production are rooted between a show and its creative lead. This isn’t just a fanciful theoretical inquiry; it presents material challenges for networks that are looking to acquire, invest in, and develop shows over long periods of time. Consider the operational reality that it’s much harder to build a show from the ground up — to figure out its personality in the market, to acquire a core listener base, to establish basic familiarities with advertising partners — than it is to adjust a show mid-flight. Then consider the ever-present threat of talent burnout or growing indifference (one is reminded of this writeup on Jad Abumrad’s sabbatical), which is an element that hasn’t quite made itself known so explicitly in this space so far, given that the stakes have hitherto been pretty low.

But the stakes are picking up, and networks will eventually find themselves in more situations where, should they encounter talent burning out or just wanting to work on something else for a while, they will have to choose either to retire an established show-in-progress, along with its preexisting identity and listener base and advertising relationships, or scout for a new voice to lead the production. On a sheer which-is-less-daunting basis, the choice would clearly be to try for the latter first every time.

Of course, the risk of simply plugging in a new lead is creative abomination, or worse: the over-projection of corporate utilitarianism. There’s something deeply uncanny for long-time listeners to be served the corpse of an old loved thing being animated by a newly installed face. But show host readjustments don’t have to be that morbid. They can, and should, instead be opportunities for excitement! Indeed, imagining a world of different show-host matchups is pretty intoxicating. What would, for example, Sruthi Pinnamaneni’s Love + Radio look like? Or Zoe Chace’s Embedded? Or Anna Sales’ Heavyweight?

Imagining those combinations bring us closer to what I think is the most interesting question of this whole business: when does a show transcend its creator? And how does a show develop an identity separate from the person who created it? Will we ever find out what’s on the dark side of the moon? I’ll come down from my high now.

The Oprah effect? If you compulsively thumb the Apple Podcast charts (as I do), you probably already know that Oprah Winfrey — media mogul, force of nature, subject of what is low-key the best podcast of late 2016 — has a show that’s been consistently floating around the top for a while now.

(You might also know that the podcast is essentially an RSS feed comprised of audio repackages of her Super Soul Sunday TV programming, which, you know, is one way of pumping stuff out for earballs. Side note: the equivalent product would be, say, repackaging selected Terry Gross interviews as transcripts to be bundled together and sold as books. It’s a great additional revenue stream for Terry Gross, her hypothetical book publisher, and her fans, but a flanking competitor for book-native authors. But we’re not here to talk about that.)

Anyway, Adweek published a writeup last week about how the podcast sold out all of its 2017 advertising slots really, really quickly.

In an experiment gone right, Winfrey and the team at the Oprah Winfrey Network decided to transform her Super Soul Sunday TV programming into a podcast called Oprah’s SuperSoul Conversations. The podcast launched on Aug. 7 and had no ads or partners until the show collaborated with Midroll Media in late October…So when Oprah’s SuperSoul Conversations decided to open its doors to advertisers, advertising slots for most of the fourth quarter of 2017 sold out in about 24 hours.

The article goes on to quote Midroll’s head of sales, Korri Kolesa, touting an interpretation of this development’s significance for the medium:

Oprah’s show marks a big, pivotal moment for podcast advertising… On both the content and the advertising side of things, this is a spectacular entry point for brands that were waiting to align with something they’re comfortable with.

A couple of things:

  • Midroll’s flex here is pretty remarkable. That the Oprah pod could only tap advertising dollars after getting hooked up to Midroll’s sales infrastructure — following two months or so of sitting dormant — and then did so in such rapid fashion suggests a few things about podcast advertising in late 2017: (a) there remains considerably high friction for advertisers to test the medium and for publishers to create attractive ad products on their own, (b) sufficient expertise and advertiser trust appears clustered among a small set of companies, and (c) Midroll is a particularly strong member in that set of companies.
  • That said, this success anecdote only tells us something about Midroll’s capacity to secure new ad dollars for products with big-ticket names attached to them. It’s unclear to me, at this point of time, how these focus and incentive impact Midroll’s service to smaller, independent operations — the type of show often thought to be a good chunk of the company’s bread-and-butter before its 2016 acquisition by EW Scripps.
  • It’s worth asking whether this story actually tells us more about Oprah than it does about Midroll. Viewed from that angle, there’s nothing particularly special about what happened here: Oprah, after all, is an unstoppable brand presence, and it may very well be the case that any media product developed with the OWN name would sell out no matter the container when plugged into the right sales infrastructure.
  • If we assume that Kolesa is correct and that this marks some turning point for more big brand advertisers to jump into the medium, it remains to be seen whether those dollars will trickle down and out to the rest of the space. Several  future scenarios are possible: (a) those dollars are kept within Midroll’s podcasts, (b) those dollars are kept within Oprah podcasts, or (c) those dollars are kept within celebrity podcasts.

The past year has seen a considerable influx of celebrity power into podcasting, and while that is most definitely beneficial for the growth of the overall pie, it’s also worth asking: what proportion of podcast industry growth in 2017 is driven by celebrity programming? And to what extent is it driven by talent native to the industry itself?

This, I think, is one of the more pressing lines of inquiry to watch moving forward.

No stranger. Last week, Radiotopia announced that Lea Thau’s Strangers, one of its founding members, is leaving the independent podcast collective at the end of the year to…well, be further independent, I guess? “I’m so deeply grateful for everything Radiotopia has brought me,” Thau wrote in the corresponding announcement post. “I love this network, what it stands for and the people in it. I’m also excited about my new chapter, and I want the fans to feel both of those truths in a real way.”

Taken at face value, it’s a curious development. Radiotopia’s entire reason for being, at least in my read of them, is to develop and maintain a whole new system that’s primarily geared towards supporting independent podcast creators. And from what I’ve heard, this includes, among other things: leaving member talent to fully own their intellectual property (a relatively uncommon stance), providing them with full creative freedom and high-touch access to really deep editorial support (though, by virtue of the network’s size, not a lot of production capital), and setting them up with the standard revenue share system you’d get just about anywhere else. The combination of those three things amounts to a pretty sweet deal for shows already on the up and up that are looking to outsource some processes, like advertising sales and technology support, but on the whole want to maintain firm creative control.

I can’t help but feel that there’s missing from the story here. Or maybe there isn’t, and this is just one of those natural departures that come out from a relationship organically fading away in the way that so many relationships do. In any case, this is Radiotopia’s second departure from the roster this year. In August, Megan Tan’s Millennial came to a close, citing creative burnout.

Radiotopia declined to provide further comment.

I’ll be keeping an eye on this. Something tells me we’re not done with this story yet.

Speaking of which…

Marking reality. Tamar Charney, NPR One’s managing editor, wrote me yesterday to flag something her team is beginning to do with the platform:

I was reading Hot Pod this morning and realized I should have let you know what we are up to in light of the podcasts that blend fiction and nonfiction. This week, we are going to start flagging podcast content that plays in the NPR One flow: if it is fictional or blends fiction and nonfiction. Polybius Conspiracy being the most well-known example and the one the prompted us to do this, but there seem to be more fiction podcasts masquerading behind documentary style storytelling. It’s like War of the Worlds is new again! But we want to make sure we are not adding to false narratives and fake news, by being clear about what is entertainment and what is journalism.

The Hot Pod in question was last week’s issue, which contained an item (“Bait and switch”) where I went over the way The Polybius Conspiracy — the most recent series in Radiotopia’s Showcase initiative — blurred the lines between fiction and nonfiction even in its public presentation, which ultimately caused some listeners and reviewers, including myself, to erroneously approach the show as straightforward documentary.

(It should be further noted that the blurring could be read as not even being that extensive, as Night Vale’s Joseph Fink pointed out to me over Twitter. “I figured out it was fictional after first ep through literally one google search. So if journalists thought non-fiction, that feels like on them for not doing basic research, not on show for having framing device,” he wrote. Whatever the magnitude, I’ll nonetheless continue to cop to the screw-up on my end.)

Anyway. I, for one, greatly welcome the feature. I’m glad for any help I can get keeping a grip on reality.

Certified. Fresh off being (self-)declared the podcast capital of the world, the city of New York is taking another step in tightening its relationship with the industry. The Made in NY Media Center by IFP is launching the city’s first podcast production certification program, one that aims to be helpful in alleviating the industry’s flow of battle-tested talent. You can find more information about the program here. It is set to kick off in the new year.

Pass it on. It seems the fine folks over at Gastropod — who, by the way, I wrote a bit about in my recent Vulture piece on food podcasts — have been experimenting with a nifty audience development gambit.

As co-host Nicola Twilley writes me:

Instead of a pledge drive or a fundraising drive, we’re doing a share-athon. It came out of the finding from our listener survey that a really large chunk of our listeners found us from a recommendation from a friend/family. We decided to see whether we could incentivize that with a share-athon: prizes for referring 5 or more listeners. Figuring out how to actually make it work is a whole challenge in itself, but it’s up and running and we’re seeing the early results, tweaking as we go along…

We launched it a couple of weeks ago but it was slow to get off the ground at first — I think because we made it too complicated. We were looking for proof of subscription, which is basically impossible anyway, so we’re doing it on a trust basis now, and people are getting into it. We need to be doing a social media push around it, but it’s just the two of us and we have to get the episodes out too, so ….

I think there are probably all sorts of ways to improve on this — we were initially imagining a podcast Ponzi scheme, where by recruiting people you unlock additional layers of merchandise, etc. etc. — but we decided simplicity was best for this first year.

In some ways, you could read this as a take on The Skimm’s ambassador program, which I hear has proven to be an effective tactic in the past, except with eyes for a potential Ponzi scheme. You could also sketch connections between this and the #TryPod campaign from February, except that that coalition effort didn’t involve a material incentive structure.

People, they want the merch.

I’ll be keeping an eye on this, and will check back once the final numbers are tallied.

Notes from North of the Border, part two. It appears that my timing for this Canadian series was unexpectedly good. Last Tuesday, a more detailed version of the Canadian podcast listener report by Ulster Media/Globe and Mail was publicly released. You can find it here. It gets pretty hairy, and has some stats on smart speaker usage in the country.

Indian & Cowboy. Throughout the conversations I’ve had trying to get a sense of the Canadian scene, one independent operation — outside of Canadaland, which possesses a more complex profile in the country — kept surfacing as a source of hope: Indian & Cowboy, a member-supported media network committed to telling Indigenous stories, of which podcasts are a core part of the operations. Founded in 2014 by Canadian comedian Ryan McMahon, the network produces six in-house podcasts while serving as a distribution point for a few other shows with overlaps in editorial focus. “We are slowly making our transformation from simple podcast network to a media platform,” McMahon said.

The long-term goal, McMahon notes, is to build the company into an incubator for podcasts, journalism, film, and television projects by Indigenous makers. “We’re creating an ‘Indigenous Vice’ that scales and allows Indigenous Peoples around the world to tell their stories, their way, without intervention from Hollywood or other systems that have spoken for us and about us for far too long,” he said. “The truth is, at the top of the game, Indigenous Peoples are NEVER in the room. Look at the newest NPR diversity report — we are virtually invisible in our homelands. This is unconscionable in 2017, that we in North America just don’t bother to consider our perspective, our lives, our experiences.”

The company remains very small, running off shoestring resources and a small team of people. I’m told that it currently receives support from 223 paid members through Patreon, and that its site averages slightly under 17,000 unique visits.

McMahon promises that advances are on the way. Indian & Cowboy started working with an outside public affairs firm, MediaStyle, for assistance with a strategic plan, and it’s pursuing potential investment. “In the new year, people won’t recognize us as we have some very exciting news coming down the pipe,” he said.

Of the Canadian industry, McMahon suspects that the country’s lack of ready foundation support plays a considerable role in the industry’s relative quietness. “I think the Canadian podcasting space is similar to the U.S. space in terms of the goals — tell good, original stories with unique voices,” he said. “[But] at the top of the game, the big U.S. podcast networks have built successful models with the help of places like the Knight Foundation and other support like it. We can’t do that here in Canada — there are laws in place here that prohibit foundations and charities and the types of donations they can make.”

Bites:

  • Politico’s Morning Media newsletter yesterday had a useful juxtaposition of Crooked Media and Ben Shapiro’s podcast presences, working off two separate New York Times profiles: Pod Save America reportedly averages “1.5 million listeners per show,” while the conservative Ben Shapiro Show is downloaded “10 million times every month.” Note how the two data points are working on different scales, and that a unique listener is not the same as a single download.
  • While we’re on the subject of Ben Shapiro, I’d like to re-up Will Sommer’s guest Hot Pod piece that ran while I was off on sabbatical.
  • And while I’m cribbing from Politico’s newsletter, here’s something else they spotted: Cristian Farias, More Perfect’s legal editor, is joining the NAACP’s Thurgood Marshall Institute as a writer-in-residence.
  • Reality TV personality Stassi Schroeder “loses [podcast] advertisers after allegedly criticizing #metoo campaign.” (NY Daily News) If you, like me, were wondering who exactly this person is, fear not: this is why Who? Weekly exists.
  • This is interesting: the latest addition to The Ringer’s podcast network is a show by Philadelphia 76er JJ Redick. He previously had a show with Uninterrupted Media. (The Ringer)
  • Still keeping an eye on the smart speaker beat: “Why Apple’s HomePod is three years behind Amazon’s Echo.” (Bloomberg)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m noodling on two more thoughts:

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

Three notes on measurement.

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

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

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

[storybreak]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[storybreak]

Bites:

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

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

The daily podcaster’s choice: Try to fit in listeners’ crowded mornings or tackle the evening commute?

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 133, published August 22, 2017.

The daily show. If The New York Times’ The Daily and NPR’s Up First — taken collectively as, like, an index fund of the daily news podcast construct writ large — have taught us anything, it’s that there’s a market for such an audio product — at least for one that’s done smartly, thoroughly, and in a way that brings the weight of legendary newsrooms to bear.

The successes of these two operations have been nothing short of impressive. As you might remember from this Vanity Fair feature that dropped last month, The Daily is now averaging half a million downloads per day, a feat made even more remarkable given that the thing launched in February. As for Up First, NPR tells me that it’s reaching a weekly unique audience of almost a million users; that show launched in April. (The differences in metric might make an apples-to-apples comparison complicated for those interesting in doing so — but I think the victor is pretty clear.) Between the two shows — three if you count the offbeat entry from The Outline, but you shouldn’t, because it’s doing something completely different — you could argue that the daily news podcast space is more or less defined now, with the broad major players set well in place.

We’ll soon find out the extent to which that is true with a new entrant, one significantly different from the two incumbents in many key ways. Last week, I led the newsletter with word that Vox Media is working with Midroll Media to create a daily news podcast. That show will be supported by a six-person team, housed under the Vox.com banner, and will hopefully launch in early 2018. The search for the host and executive producer is on, with the job postings going up shortly after the initial news drop. (Here and here, if you’re wondering.)

I can’t say I’m surprised by the news. Vox Media has long exhibited a deep interest in the on-demand audio space, and the organization has proven to be consistently effective in its experimentation and increasingly formalized in its machinations: initially developing working relationships with multiple companies across the industry, deploying different arrangements for different podcasts between brands, eventually hiring an executive producer to oversee the entire operation, and finally inching towards consolidation. (Vox.com’s The Weeds and The Ezra Klein Show, whose productions were once handled by Panoply, were recently moved in-house.) This move to get into the daily news podcast fight seems a logical next step in Vox Media’s ambitions, even more so given the genre’s newfound prestige and rising prominence as the place to blaze some trails.

Where the Times and NPR are legacy entities with the weights and advantages of history behind them, Vox Media is young, emergent, and digitally native. Which, you know, kinda makes it unclear whether the latter will have any weight to bear or if this will be a pure deadlift. But then again, the critique against legacy entities has always been that they’re comparatively slow and lumbering. In any case, there’s a lot to consider with this bubbling development, and me, I’m mostly thinking about two things: time and talent.

Time. There’s something that the job description doesn’t note that I find eminently interesting: whether the podcast will cater to the morning or evening commute. This, in my mind, is the most interesting, if not the biggest, strategic question. My gut (which is by no means a reputable or scientific source) tells me that there’s some meaningful overlap in audience between The New York Times and Vox.com, and so I imagine if Vox were to pursue the morning news route they would be putting a good portion of their target audience in the position of having to choose between The Daily and its new audio product. Whether that outcome is suboptimal is worth weighing; on the one hand, Vox’s product starts off in a position of working to cull from the former’s base, and on the other hand, you might have a situation where Vox’s new product rubs up against the work of having to interrupt a habit that’s been cultivated as far back as possibly February.

One could assume the position that the daily-news-podcast-consuming audience — with its voracious appetite for news — would want more than one daily news podcast in their morning routine. But to play to that base is to set hard ceilings off the bat. Such a news consumer is a highly specific creature, the theoretical opposite of a general consumer — which is fine if that’s the intention, but there’s only so far you can go unless the broader strategy is to foster a new, bigger generation of news obsessive. (Again, if that’s the plan, fantastic.) Further, as a matter of programming, aiming to be the second in a morning rotation means having to prevent a sense of repetition.

But let’s say the strategic premise of developing another daily morning news podcast is to carve out a new audience, separate and apart from what’s already been built with The Daily and Up First. What competitive traits do you need to guarantee? You would, at the very least, require that your brand means something distinct (and perhaps meaningfully separate) from those of The New York Times and NPR, such that the brands do not overlap. (Is that possible, or even desirable? The question is worth entertaining.) You would also have to develop a mastery over podcast audience development channels that aren’t already over-exploited; would plastering house ads over Vox Media’s various brands be enough in forming a new base audience for the podcast?

Anyway, this is all a longwinded way of saying: At this moment, there’s more upside than downside to making a move for the evening commute. It’s a different kind of game, sure, but the end-of-the-work-day news roundup (the All Things Considered slot, essentially) is still unclaimed territory in podcast-land. (Though, I suppose, you’d still have to account for Slate’s The Gist, which can technically be sorted as a news podcast but is truly more of a magazine.)

Before I move on, there’s something else I’m wondering: Will the competitive environment of the daily morning news podcast function more like the morning TV arena — in that program-audience relationships are more or less exclusive and fixed — or will it be a little more fluid, like how multiple physical newspapers can fit into a morning media diet? I hope it’s more the former, and if so, someone better get moving on writing Top of the Morning, but for podcasts.

Talent. From the official job listing:

As we envision it, the host of this show will be the audience’s guide and champion — asking the questions they would ask, having the conversations they want to have, channeling the curiosity they feel. You are their smart, enthusiastic, skeptical friend — not their boring professor. To that end, we are relying on the host to have a strong point of view on the world, to see unusual angles and interesting stories everywhere, and to be genuinely, joyously interested in pretty much everything.

Big job, big ask, eh? My queries, right off the bat: Will Vox.com bring in a relatively experienced talent, perhaps from an established radio or podcast team, or will they elevate someone from in-house that may be less proven in front of the mic? (Or will they perhaps bring in an untested outsider with some measure of celebrity? Totally valid option, let’s be real.) Who will be the non-Ezra Klein sound of Vox.com, which is essentially what this amounts to?

Also, side question: How will they test the hire? The Daily’s Michael Barbaro, after all, was able to cut his teeth with the comparatively low stakes The Run-Up, and NPR never really had to deal with that question — after all, Up First was basically just a straightforward adaptation of the built-in Morning Edition operation, no talent testing required.

There’s so much potential here, and there’s a whole lot of room to assemble a really cool voice and vision with this gig. (And the opportunity for host-producer superteams! Man.) Anyway, I’m excited, obviously, I’ll be tracking this story closely. Who will be the anti-Barbaro? Send me your ideas, let’s place some bets, I’m all ears. (Speaking of which, the dude now has, like, two published appreciations: The New Yorker and BuzzFeed. This is getting out of control.)

More on Up First. In their response to my queries for the previous item, NPR also shared the following data points: A survey of Up First’s audience shows that 61 percent of its listeners are under 35, which is said to be younger than NPR’s overall podcast audience, and that 44 percent of the podcast’s listeners have never listened to Morning Edition. Further, 97 percent of the audience report that the podcast is “part of their morning routine” and 80 percent report that “they listen every day.”

Fun times.

Radiotopia’s Millennial has come to an end, creator Megan Tan announced in a final dispatch that dropped last Wednesday. The reason, we’re told, has to do a lot with the difficulty of sustainably maintaining the show’s unique diaristic format — Millennial is, was, for a long time, the first-person account of a life — and grappling with the podcast’s shifting identity when Tan made the decision to open the show up in scope after it was picked up by Radiotopia last May.

“Maintaining a memoir-style show is difficult,” she explained to me over email. “Even as Millennial transitioned from Season One’s linear narrative of my life to other people’s stories, we still had to tie each episode back to me personally. Finding ways to create a personal throughline to each episode with an emotional tie became taxing and wasn’t always possible…at a certain point, the more we problem-solved the production of the show, the more it felt like Millennial’s identity started to blur. When those two factors started to come to a head, it made sense for me to end the show.”

Millennial is the first Radiotopia show to officially cease production since the podcast collective’s launch in February 2014. The show’s closure also technically means that Tan is no longer with Radiotopia, though the possibility for future collaborations exists. As for what comes next, she tells me: “Being an independent podcaster in many ways is extremely lonely. My next steps are to find a team of people to work with and help contribute to a show. Right now, I’m casting a wide net and exploring a lot of different opportunities.”

Third Coast adds a new component to its programming. Tomorrow, the organization will announce a new public-facing live event series that will accompany its usual producer-focused conference. “The Fest,” as it’s called, will take place in Chicago, of course, and the programming slate will span across a two-week period in November. Its inaugural lineup will include live shows from Love+Radio, Re:sound, Reveal, and Longform, with more to come.

“To us, it’s the perfect scenario: A conference that hones producers’ talent alongside a public festival of live events, together making Chicago the epicenter of the audio storytelling world for two weeks in November,” the team tells me. “We’re excited to flex our Third Coast curatorial muscles to gather audiences for story-based podcasts that were nurtured over the years at our very own conference.”

The Fest’s website will launch tomorrow, so watch for that, and by the way, registration for this year’s conference opens today.

Alice Isn’t Dead gets adaptation deals. The Night Vale team is no stranger to book publishing, with two novels (Welcome to Night Vale: A Novel, It Devours) and one episode collection (Mostly Void, Partially Stars) under their belt. Last week, they announced a new addition to their list of book projects: Alice Isn’t Dead, Joseph Fink’s creepy road-trip audio drama about a truck driver in search of her wife, will now be a novel as well. Fink notes that the book will feature a new story “built on the same bones,” and it’s scheduled to drop next fall. The audio drama is also getting a TV adaptation, which will be Night Vale Presents’ first. That project is being developed by Universal Cable Productions for USA Network, though no specific dates are attached to it just yet.

The steady drumbeat of podcast-to-TV adaptations rumbles on.

Gatekeepers, demographics, a production studio. “It’s not a democratic process at all,” wrote Juleyka Lantigua-Williams, CEO of the newly formed production company Lantigua Williams & Co., when I asked for her thoughts on whether the podcast industry has gatekeepers. “The major distributors make themselves de facto gatekeepers by selecting what they distribute…Big media companies with deep pockets also crowd the field by using their megaphones to promote passable content and drowns out new voices in the process.”

She continued: “So much of what is being created now is still geared to the standard media audience: a middle-class white person living in a suburb. That is the media consumer from the past, and creators — especially Latino and other people of color — must orient their work towards the audience of the future: an educated middle-class woman of color living in a midsize city. She’s the future.”

Lantigua-Williams is a 17-year media veteran, having operated as an editor, writer, and syndicated columnist for various organizations including The Atlantic and National Journal. Most recently, she served as the lead producer and editor on NPR’s Code Switch team, roles she held until June when she decided to leave and start her own venture. She describes Lantigua Williams & Co. as a production company, one that’s dedicated to “partner with people and organizations to produce work that has a clear social justice thread using radio, digital, and visual media.” Since launch, the company has assembled a solid initial string of clients, including: Latino USA, a project called Protégé Podcast (which examines people of color in corporate America), and various independent film projects.

I originally got in touch with Lantigua-Williams when she sent me a pitch arguing that “podcasts are the perfect medium for Latinos to truly break into media and forego the traditional loops associated with establishment media.” When I followed up, she provided a response worth running in full:

As with most worthwhile endeavors, a good podcast starts off as a good idea that sprouts at the intersection of knowledge and storytelling. You have to figure out something that is worth knowing and worth sharing and find the most compelling way to bring it to an audience that has too many choices.

Latinos, because of our long history in the U.S.; because of how vociferous we have been about asserting our right to belong here; because of the continuous flow of Latinos and our ideas into and throughout the country; because we are the youngest population cohort in the country (60,000 of us turn 18 every single month); and because we will constitute the largest group in the ascending brown majority, are largely defining what it will mean to be American in the next century and beyond. What we eat, the sports we love, how we worship, how we spend our trillion-dollar portion of the economy, and ultimately how we define our hyphenated identity creates the most fertile ground for creatives with vision to amplify their version of life as in the U.S. now.

And podcasts are among the most cost-efficient media forms right now. With less than $1,000 in equipment and some savvy social media marketing, a good idea can flourish, and an original voice can be amplified by the masses.

For too long, Latinos have followed a very traditional path to success, the original formula dictated by the myth of the American Dream: We go to school, get a job, and wait to be promoted. That formula is outdated and outmoded. Billenials (as bilingual Latino millennials have been dubbed by Univision) can leapfrog the usual gatekeepers by using their natural high tech-adoption rates, advanced social media skills, and cross-cultural knowledge to tell rich and necessary stories beyond the fight at the border.

For more information, you can hit up the Lantigua Williams & Co. website here.

Career Spotlight. Let’s say you’re a young person looking for professional purpose, some idea of a future, so what do you do? You move cities, get closer to the action, grab some people, take whatever opportunities cross you by: internships, fellowships, freelance jobs here, there, anywhere. You cobble together whatever you can into the shape of a thing that could hopefully pass as a career. If you’re lucky, you don’t have to work a third or fourth gig to pay the bills. But that’s only if you’re lucky. And you wonder: Where is this all going? What does this all lead to? The answer, maybe, is always the same: Who knows, we’ll see.

This week, I traded emails with Alice Wilder, a young producer from the South in her early 20s.

[storybreak]

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

[conr]Alice Wilder: Currently I’m the podcast/video intern for FiveThirtyEight. Really, I’m the podcast intern. Right now, my manager Galen Druke is working on a miniseries for the site, so I’ve been focusing mostly on that (transcribing tape, assembling sessions, scheduling interviews etc). I also work on the weekly politics podcast.

In my spare time I run a newsletter called Cult of the Month with my best friend Kelsey Weekman. It’s our passion project (and a way to justify spending hours researching the Breatharians).[/conr]

[conl]HP: How did you get to this point? What does your career arc thus far look like?[/conl]

[conr]Wilder: I would not have any type of “career arc” if it wasn’t for Lauren Spohrer and Phoebe Judge, who let some random college girl transcribe tape for Criminal. People think I’m bullshitting when I say that I actually enjoyed transcribing tape, but listening to Phoebe interview is a masterclass and it gave me a deeper understanding of each story we did. I still miss logging tape for Criminal.

Then I asked if I could be an intern, and made a promise to myself that I would not say no to anything they asked of me. Lauren, Phoebe, and Nadia Wilson (our new producer!) are the best people to work for, they did not restrict me to typical intern tasks and took my thoughts (and pitches!) seriously, which means a lot when you’re an intern.

I stayed at Criminal for two years (I did not spend much time on homework for those years). When I graduated from UNC (Go Heels!) I moved to New York to start my internship at FiveThirtyEight. I’ll be here until early September, when I’ll start interning for Planet Money. I’m also starting a weekly(ish) newsletter for interns in the media industry. We don’t have access to much institutional power and I want to help build a network for jobs and career resources.[/conr]

[conl]HP: Being pretty early on in your work life, how do you think about your next steps? What does a career mean to you, at this point?[/conl]

[conr]Wilder: To me, a career means having health insurance. I really, really want health insurance. My initial thought going into my senior year of college was that I want to make radio in the South. I have roots in North Carolina and Louisiana and want to hear stories that come from those regions. I’m in New York right now because that’s where podcast jobs are. Eventually I’ll find a way to move back south.[/conr]

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

[conr]Wilder: LOL. I thought I was going to be a social worker. For all of high school and the first two years of college I was very involved in local activism and centered my identity around being a Teen Feminist. My 15-year-old self would be horrified that I didn’t participate in the Women’s March. But I couldn’t, because doing so violated my employer’s policies on political action. Instead I spent that time dogsitting for a family that was going to the march.

I wrote columns for my college paper for two years, and that involved writing about myself a lot. Right after I had a bad experience (intense street harassment, reporting sexual assault, etc) I would turn around and publish it for thousands of people to read. I (finally) realized that writing about something and sharing it with the world is not the same as actually processing it. So I stopped the column, did that processing, and used the platform I had built at the newspaper to tell other people’s stories.

The best lesson I learned about having a career in this field, I learned from Phoebe Judge. She gave a workshop at The Daily Tar Heel and told us that there’s not just one route to having a fulfilling career. You don’t have to major in journalism, intern for The Washington Post or NPR, and go straight to a big name publication after college. At the time, it felt like all my peers were taking that route and I felt like it was already too late for me. It was such a relief to hear that there are so many paths that can lead to a great career, and they don’t always involve having The New York Times on your resume by the time you turn 22.[/conr]

[storybreak]

You can find Wilder on Twitter at @Alice_Wilder.

Bites:

  • “How public radio is using Amazon’s smart speakers.” (Current) Note that none of the three stations profiled in this piece “has had more than a few hundred unique listeners on the platform” and “St. Louis Public Radio saw about 6,000 plays on Alexa devices from some 500 unique customers from late January to mid-June.” Also, do pair this article with: “Why The Amazon Echo Show Won’t Bring Up Charlottesville (Or Bad News In General).” (Fast Company)
  • TuneIn has raised $50 million to expand its programming portfolio, Bloomberg reports. “TuneIn will use the money to pay for rights to live sporting events and original programming like podcasts and music shows, which will help the company sign up more customers for a two-year-old subscription service.” (Bloomberg)
  • This is curious, and generally consistent with RadioPublic’s principal thesis: the podcast playing platform is now “the only universal embed whitelisted on WordPress and Medium that works with any podcast hosting solution,” as CEO Jake Shapiro tells me. (WordPress Blog)
  • Apple is moving its iTunes U collection, its audio-visual repository of free educational content, into the Podcasts ecosystem with the upcoming iTunes 12.7 update that will drop in September. A bit crowded in there, huh? Here’s the official statement on the matter, and here’s some analysis from MacStories. Fun fact: iTunes U is the old haunt of Steve Wilson, the former editorial gatekeeper for Apple Podcasts (now the division’s first marketing lead).

[photocredit]Photo of evening commute on Highway 85 in San Jose, California by Travis Wise used under a Creative Commons license.[/photocredit]

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]