Your favorite podcasts, coming to a TV screen near you?

Gimlet’s StartUp being adapted for television. My inbox has long bubbled with rumors of Gimlet getting involved in television and L.A. sightings of company co-founder Matt Lieber, and so I wasn’t particularly surprised when a Deadline report dropped Monday night indicating that ABC is bringing the StartUp podcast to linear television.

According to the report, the project will be a comedy with Zach Braff (of Scrubs and Garden State fame) attached to direct the potential pilot and star as its protagonist. ABC has reportedly made a “put pilot commitment” — which, I understand, means the pilot will almost definitely see the light of day. I’m told that this arrangement is relatively uncommon, and indicates something of a vote of confidence in the project.

StartUp is merely the latest in an emerging trend of podcast properties being picked up for adaptation to television. (I published a deep dive on this back in April.) But however this first deal is structured — and whether or not it’s lucrative for Gimlet — I think it’s more interesting to see if the podcast company will be able to use the momentum of this first development to build out a formal adaptation pipeline — à la Epic Magazine, which commissions longform features with a specific eye for Hollywood interest. I think it’s good business: a good way to consistently multiply the value of their output, and an even better way of expanding their sphere of influence. (When I asked the company will be pursuing more adaptation deals, chief of staff Chris Giliberti replied: “Hopefully :)”)

But whether these adaptations will translate into good eye-fodder in the age of Peak TV is a separate matter. As a consumer, and a yuge fan of the podcast’s first season, I’m not wild about this StartUp news. For the uninitiated, the podcast was originally a first-person audio documentary that followed former Planet Money cofounder Alex Blumberg as he set out to form what is now known as Gimlet. And while the show moved away from its innovative diaristic first-person style in future seasons to adopt a more classically documentarian format, that first season was absolutely sublime for the way it was so…well, vulnerable and performatively personal and utterly real.

That the TV adaptation is set to be a fictional comedy broadly described to be “based” on the podcast, revolving around a thirtysomething dude who quits his job to start a business, feels contradictory to the elements that made up the original genius of the podcast, even if the TV show turns out halfway decent. I also wonder why, indeed, did Gimlet’s property need to be picked up to get television project of this subject going in the first place when there are already a number of original television properties that effectively explores in life lived within the paradigm of entrepreneurship. (See HBO’s Silicon Valley and the latter seasons of CBS’s The Good Wife.) A possible argument? Consider the built-in audience of the StartUp podcast, multiplied by whatever Braff’s star power is able to bring in. The question is, then, whether that equation will work for ABC.

Anyway, it’s bad form to moan about something that hasn’t even materialized yet. I’m excited for Gimlet — this is, unmistakably, a coup for the Brooklyn-based podcast studio — and I’m eager to see how the team figures the adaptation. I only pray that the show be a gritty, violent remake.

Relevant: Desus and Mero of The Bodega Boys are making a late night talkshow for Viceland. Now this, this I’m super wild about…too bad I’m too cheap to pay for Sling TV.

On the celebrity strategy. The trade publication Adweek is running a special series on audio this week, with a particular focus on podcasts that readers of this hyper-niche column would probably find interesting. It’s chock full of the fairly platitudinal findings one comes to expect from broad excursions into the subject — sample sentence: “the key, podcast pros say, is to do something that no else is doing, and to do it better than anyone else can” — but there are bits of interesting information (and fun posturing) packed in the quotes.

The series also contains what is perhaps my favorite quotation — which bears my favorite insight — in a long, long time. In the article “Celebrities Are Flocking to Podcasts, but Will They Stick Around?“, a podcast producer named Matthew Passy drops this gem:

Shaquille O’Neal could fart into a microphone for an hour and 100,000 people would download it, while other podcasters are putting out great content advertisers [don’t pick up on], because for advertisers there’s a high threshold…if you don’t have 10 to 50,000 downloads, most advertisers don’t bother.

Passy’s sentiment here addresses the annoying and increasingly prominent spike in the lazy (and cynical) strategy of plopping a known name in front of a mic with little direction or production value with the expectation of committing temporary arbitrage. It also usefully contextualizes it as prudent within the basic advertiser dynamic. It illuminates how the space currently possesses a value universe in which high-quality work is crowded out, and how these relatively slipshod programs, in their capacity to move money before advertisers gain full podcast literacy, leads to their further proliferation. Cheers, mate.

Vox Media on the hunt. Well lookie here: Vox Media posted a job listing earlier this week in search of an executive producer for audio. According to the job description, the EP will be in charge of both refining the existing stable of podcasts as well as launching new shows. It also appears to span across the company’s eight sites (and possibly its in-house creative agency, Vox Creative).

This comes a week after Recode, Vox Media’s tech and business news site, published a job listing for a similar position. Dan Frommer, Recode’s editor-in-chief, had indicated to me that their listing was “an early sign of things to come from Vox on the audio front” — and it seems that this is yet another development within a much larger strategic move. The juxtaposition of these positions suggests the probable reporting structure, with the former overseeing the work of the latter, which itself foretells a probable future where we may see similar roles emerge across Vox Media’s seven remaining sites. (It’s a matryoshka doll of executive producers!)

If you’re a mid-career audio operator looking for a big step up, it’s a good time.

The Washington Post is ramping up its podcast operations, months after testing the waters with the history podcast Presidential, which first dropped in January. To kick off its second wave, the Post recently launched two somewhat straightforward shows: a fantasy football podcast (The Fantasy Football Beat), rolled out in early August, and an interview-driven politics podcast hosted by PostPartisan blogger Jonathan Capehart (Cape UP), which dropped last week.

But it has also two rather interesting projects in the pipeline that should be watched. First, a quiz show named Ciquizza featuring Chris Cillizza — whose blog, The Fix, is already being delivered in audio form through the Amazon Echo. Second, a fascinating collaboration with American Public Media called Historically Black, which will leverage the Post’s reader-driven Tumblr of the same name. A call for submission was put out two weeks ago for Historically Black, which you can find here.

The scaling up comes shortly after the Post hired Carol Alderman to serve as the company’s in-house audio producer in May. Alderman previously worked on podcasts at USA Today. I’m told that Alderman is the only person on staff whose sole focus is on audio works — though the actual production flows involve collaborations from several other people in the newsroom. I’m also told that, as part of the audience team, she reports to Jessica Stahl, who officially holds the lengthy title of “editor for social, search, and communities.” Stahl serves as Alderman’s editor on the audio products. That’s a stark contrast from The New York Times’ approach, which has a much larger team of dedicated operators with at least six full-timers focusing on podcasts, by my count (many of them public radio veterans).

Also worth noting: The Post plans to further experiment with the Amazon Echo’s Alexa platform. I’m personally pretty bullish on the possibilities afforded by voice-based/audio-first computing and the way in which the Echo paves for a whole new way in which information can be transferred digitally, and I’ve been utterly fascinated by the number of news organizations that have begun dabbling with the platform. (A partial list of dabblers: NPR, Slate, The Wall Street Journal, Newsy, Refinery29, Bloomberg, TMZ, and, excitingly, local NBC affiliates.) I had originally planned to dive deeper into what’s been going at this particular nexus, but my friends at Nieman Lab beat me to the punch earlier this week. I highly recommend checking out their writeup on news organizations and Alexa.

There is, indeed, quite a lot packed into what the Post’s is trying to kindle on this frontier. To find out more, I asked Jessica Stahl a few questions over email, and I think her responses are pretty useful, so I’ll run them in full here.

Quah: Could you tell me about the scaling up and how Carol Alderman plays a role here — is she quarterbacking projects, or will she be directly involved in tape cutting and such?

Stahl: We’ve spent the past couple of months sending our first batch of projects through the development process and are really proud of what we’ve been working on. Presidentialhas always been almost completely reported, edited and produced by Lily Cunningham in what can only be described as a Herculean effort. Beyond that, Carol is directly producing/editing some of our podcasts, and working with others primarily during the development process to help refine the idea and provide the training they need to eventually edit/produce themselves. So we’re hoping that with those two workflows in place, it we’ll be able to create the high quality output we want while still facilitating as many great ideas as we can. We’ve also been able to start codifying best practices, which helps us be consistent about things like launch process, format for posting to our site, promotion on social media, and so on.

Quah: What are the factors that led to the Post’s decision to do more with podcasts?

Stahl: The first is passion and interest in this type of storytelling. We have people in this newsroom who listen to podcasts as consumers and love the experience they get with that medium. And that’s meant we have people in the newsroom who’ve been wanting to tell stories in audio form, including a couple — like Lily — who figured out they had the skill to go ahead and do it. So there was this enthusiasm for podcasts, and a well of exciting ideas, that was bubbling over. That’s kind of been reflected in the podcasts we’ve launched or are working on so far — they all come from people in our newsroom who were passionate about getting into this space and who were willing to work hard with us to refine pitches, record and re-record demos and basically create something they would be psyched to listen to.

The other major factor was the success of Presidential, which showed that audio can accomplish the type of deep, informative journalism we strive for, and that there are significant audiences for it if you do it right. We announced at the end of March, only about two months after Presidential had launched, that it had already surpassed 1 million downloads.

Quah: What does success look like for the Washington Post’s podcasts?

Stahl: We’ve talked a lot about how we can define different models of success so that something that is building engaged community, for example, or doing really important journalism, or growing slowly but steadily could be considered to be working — just like something that gets tons of listeners right away would be considered to be working. We have several dimensions we use to measure success — similarly to how we might think about whether a written reporting project is a success. Sometimes big numbers tell you something worked, and sometimes you know something worked because it causes real change.

We’re also trying to be very intentional about how we know what’s not working, so we can adjust quickly to try new strategies, or ultimately to decide that we want to move on. Podcasts actually live as part of the Audience team, so figuring out how to benchmark progress and measure success across all sorts of different platforms is kind of just part of our worldview.

Quah: Are you guys trying anything interesting with respect to distribution?

Stahl: Our Historically Black podcast with American Public Media (APM) Reports is definitely something new and different for us. That grew out of a UGC (user-generated content) project on Tumblr and has developed into a cross-platform multimedia effort that’s going to be distributed as a podcast, but also through Tumblr to the audience that’s participated in it, and through The Post website and all our various platforms via a series of articles.

We’re also thinking about podcasts in the context of audio more broadly. It’s still very early for us, but we’ve been having conversations across departments to talk about different ways we can think about audio and audio delivery, and there are a lot of great ideas. A platform we’re currently playing with is Alexa, which powers the Amazon Echo and other devices. We started out there with a daily politics flash briefing written by Chris Cillizza of The Fix that was delivered via text-to-speech. But we all realized that it would be more compelling to have a human voice with some personality deliver that information, so we used the Republican and Democratic National Conventions as an opportunity to launch a recorded, voiced version. I’m anticipating more experiments like that, both on the Alexa and on other platforms.

Quah: Tell me more about the Alexa projects. What’s the potential that you see here?

Stahl: The Alexa politics brief is something that started as a collaboration between the product team and the politics section, and Carol hopped in to help make the leap into recorded audio. It’s not the only thing The Post is doing on the Alexa platform — we’re also experimenting with “skills” that enable users to ask for information about the elections or the Olympics and get answers from us.

There’s a lot of crossover between the platforms our product team is interested in and what the podcast side is interested in, so that was a great opportunity to start the conversation about what we want to experiment with and where it makes sense to work together either on technologies or on content. I think there’s a ton of potential, not only with Alexa but with all the new ways that people are going to consume audio products — from voice systems like Alexa, to music sites like Spotify or Pandora that are opening up to spoken audio, to in-car systems, and things we haven’t thought of yet. Those are going to open up new audiences for podcasts and also demand new forms of audio storytelling. So we want to make sure we’re thinking about it and experimenting with it, and getting out ahead of it with offerings that feel right for the platforms we decide to focus on. And that means we’ll keep collaborating closely with all the teams that are thinking about those platforms from lots of different angles.

Bites:

  • “In the early days of the medium, Podcasting was disproportionately a medium for white males, ages 25-44…but today, the content universe for Podcasts has exploded, and the diversity of programming available rivals any other form of audio,” writes Tom Webster, vice president of strategy at Edison Research, which puts out the ever-helpful annual Infinite Dial study in collaboration with Triton Digital. Webster’s statement comes from new data, and you should check out the full blog post.
  • Art19 announced a new executive vice president of content last week: Roddy Swearngin, who was most recently the director of digital at Levity Entertainment Group.
  • Wondery follows up the successful launch of its first original property, Found, with an audio drama anthology show called Secrets, Crimes & Audiotape. (Spot the reference.) The company is clearly leveraging its roots within the film and television industry, from which its founder Hernan Lopez (formerly of Fox International Channel) hails, and it’ll be interesting to see its efforts will lead to a new model for audio drama outside its current strengths in horror and sci-fi — and whether it’s endeavors will draw in bigger advertisers. (The Hollywood Reporter)
  • Audible partners TED to produce a new show, entitled Sincerely, X. (Fast Company)
  • It looks the podcast components of ESPN’s multimedia initiative Pin/Kings were downloaded “more than 200,000 times” across all episodes as of August 26. The podcast published 17 episodes across its run, plus one teaser. (Digiday)
  • “I’ve already done my first interviews for it last week. And tell your ad readers we’re looking for a sponsor for Season 2,” Malcolm Gladwell tells Adweek, when asked about a follow-up to Revisionist History’s highly successful first season. (Adweek)
  • “U.K. Podcast Listeners Favor Ads over Payment”…and “56% said they didn’t mind ads during podcasts as long as they were relevant to the podcast topic,” according to a new survey. Usual survey-consuming disclaimers apply. (eMarketer)

Can a political podcast avoid being overtaken by events?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This, too, I heartily agree with.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And here’s the concern I trumpeted in July:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bites:

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

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

Not enough advertisers for podcasts, or not enough podcasts worth advertising on?

The podcast advertising hurdle. Podcastland received a fair bit of attention last week with The Wall Street Journal and The Information (a tech business news site largely read by technology insiders) both publishing stories revolving around the same theme: Advertising remains the defining problem for the medium’s professionalization into an industry, as many brands still appear unwilling to pour money into the space. The articles contain nothing longtime observers don’t already know — data scarcity remains a huge issue for bigger advertisers, ad tech solutions are still unsophisticated and held back by walled gardens, podcast companies want brand advertisers but it’s a tragic love unreciprocated — but seeing the two articles come out in tandem, on the same day no less, is a lovely dose of real talk, especially after all the frothy conversations that dominated the medium’s narrative in the latter half of last year. (I alluded to such frothiness in my entry for Nieman Lab’s Predictions for Journalism 2016 series, by the way.)

Comparatively speaking, podcast ad spending is minuscule. The advertising spend for podcasts in the United States is projected to be $36.1 million this year, according to ZenithOptimedia, as cited in the Journal piece. In contrast, the U.S. radio ad spend was $17.6 billion in 2015, according to the same source. Perhaps comparing broadcast numbers to podcast numbers at this point isn’t categorically appropriate, given the immense historical size and weight behind the former. But the ad spend for digital video, which one could possibly describe as a closer cousin, is projected to be $9.59 billion in the United States this year, according to eMarketer. So even when you cut it that way, the gulf is still huge.

But maybe that isn’t a bad thing. I’m partial towards this perspective from Recode senior media editor Peter Kafka, which was offered when I contacted his people for another story (more on that in a bit). Through his personal body double Eric Scott Johnson, Kafka wrote:

Like every other new format, it’s going to take a while for the ad business to catch up to the audience shift, but like I’ve said before, I think that’s not a terrible thing — it gives us all some time to play around and figure out what works. (One thing that does work — the excellent sockwear line made by the good people at Mack Weldon.)

In fact, taking the time to “play around and figure out what works” is quite possibly the most important thing to do right now. The last thing the industry should want is to unthinkingly push for growth — if there’s anything that the short history of the Internet advertising has taught me, it’s that the unthoughtful push for growth is the stuff that probably leads to the development and proliferation of poor advertising conventions and ad fraud. (See: the pop-up ad.)

Anyway, definitely check out the writeups from the Journal and The Information. Especially the latter, which is a really, really fine publication and I’ll be crying when my free one month trial is over and I have to decide whether to start shelling out $39.99 a month for it.

But before moving on, I just want to briefly bring up two more things:

The question for independents. The Information’s version of events makes a brief reference to a dynamic that may worry some: Podcast companies are all fighting for advertising dollars, sure, but when dollars are given, it’s distributed unequally — with the lion’s share going to a few shows, either based on performance or prestige. That state of affairs captured best by this line in The Information’s piece:

…without more data on listenership and an ad tech infrastructure, the gap between podcasting’s haves and have-nots might widen, podcast executives say.

You can look at it one of two ways: On the one hand, this is perfectly reasonable — the market wants what it wants. On the other, that this is a terrible situation for niche, quirky, and perhaps innovative independent podcasts. I’m reminded, in particular, of something that was said by Welcome to Night Vale’s Joseph Fink, which I highlighted in an issue earlier this month:

I worry about big money pouring into podcasting…I really, really hope that all the money pouring into podcasting won’t bury tiny, weird independent podcasts.

Both things can simultaneously be true. Even if we lived in a world where ad money flows freely into the podcasting space, that isn’t a guarantee that the wealth will be distributed equally between all shows. And that’s fine; it just means that these indie podcasts would have to find some other way to monetize, which itself is a market opportunity that someone can step into. (Hint, hint, wink, wink, nudge, nudge.)

In other words, it’s the story of the creative economy, modern and historical.

An alternate theory. So here’s a theory that I’m also partial to: It’s entirely possible that podcasting’s advertising problem also comes, at least in some small part, from the fact that there simply isn’t enough quality content that justifies the attention and respect of big advertisers. Think about this way: How many shows do you think actually warrant advertising from brands like Ford, in terms of either download numbers or prestige?

Not a lot, I’d wager.

From that perspective, there literally aren’t enough valuable ad slots to accommodate a $1 billion ad spend, even if we factor in dynamic ad insertion. This refines the familiar axiom that podcast discovery is broken in an interesting way. We may be right in complaining that we lack adequate solutions that help podcasts find their appropriate audiences — or to help niche podcasts find niche audiences, to put it another way. But it’s entirely possible that the bigger problem is that we lack discovery solutions to adequately filter out podcasts below a certain quality threshold — thus beating back the problem of saturation.

Modern Love’s strong first month. The podcast, which comes out of a partnership between The New York Times and WBUR, enjoyed 1.4 million downloads across the whole show since launching in mid-January. That number was confirmed to me by Jessica Alpert, WBUR’s managing producer for program development, when we spoke on the phone yesterday afternoon. It includes downloads off the podcast feed and listens on the web players found on both WBUR.org and NYTimes.com.

You can do the math yourself, but keep in mind: At this writing, the show has 6 full episodes, along with a short episode (which I like to call “Shordios”) and a trailer that was released in December. That’s a remarkable number for something that Ira Glass didn’t bump on his show.

People just love Love, man.

Recode Media. I’ve already written a fair bit about my admiration for Recode’s podcast suite in the past, so I’d like to take a quick second to highlight their new show, Recode Media with Peter Kafka. It features interviews with, well, notable media-types, so it’s fun fodder for anyone who nerds out about the decline/death/resurgence/time-is-a-flat-circle of the digital media and publishing industry (like me).

The new podcast kicked off last Thursday, with its first episode featuring New Yorker editor David Remnick on the hot seat. Recode Media was given a soft launch off the flagship Recode podcast feed, being published as standalone episodes on Thursdays as opposed to being piloted as a segment on the main show — which was the route the Recode team took with their other recently launched show, Too Embarrassed To Ask.

In a note sent by proxy to me, Kafka wrote:

I’ve been a professional podcast listener since Bill Simmons got me hooked, back in 2007 or 2008, and I’ve gotten the chance to write about the boomlet a few times as well. In 2013, for about 30 seconds, I had both Bill and Marc Maron signed on to appear together at one our media conferences, which would have been at the top of my professional highlight reel. Alas, things fall apart.

Alas, indeed.

Designing a podcast for kids. Why isn’t there more audio programming for kids? I’ve heard that question come up a lot more lately among radio types, the overarching query of which was neatly articulated by Lindsay Patterson, who produces the Tumble science podcast, in a piece for Current. That very question was also the subject of an amusing tangent at a recent podcast panel. (“The guilt of a parent who puts the television on to pacify their children is one of the most powerful emotional forces in existence,” said Gimlet’s Matt Lieber. Mild laughter ensued; stern heads nod gravely in agreement.)

I don’t have any strong theories explaining the scarcity of kids-focused audio programming. When I asked Marc Sanchez, who produces a kids’ podcast called Brains On under the American Public Media (APM) umbrella, he couldn’t come up with any theories either. “Honestly, I don’t know why it’s not more common. It seems like a great audience from a public radio perspective,” Sanchez said. “From a cynical marketing perspective, these are future listeners — why not engage them?”

Indeed, why not! After all, everybody makes babies, and everybody wants to limit how much time kids spend burning their eyeballs staring at screens, and after all, kids are the potential lifetime value consumer, if you really think about. Do it for the brand advertisers, people!

Brains On, by the way, is a great show. Similar to other science shows — early Radiolab, say, or Science Versus — the show is Q&A-based, with each episode featuring a string of interviews that look to answer a query presented at the very start. The twist here being, of course, that questions come from kid reporters, while answers come from very adult scientists. That the experts are attempting to communicate complexity to a child is something quite pleasant to experience; the adult voice lilts, introducing a gentleness to the proceedings, which ends up being soothing even to my childless mid-20s ears.

I asked Sanchez a couple of questions about how his team designed the show, and here are the highlights:

  • The team writes the show with kids between the ages of 6 and 12 in mind.
  • Like all good children’s shows, they try to make it bearable — even enjoyable! — for the adults. “We really keep in mind that parents are going to be listening to the show as well, because a lot of these kids don’t have first-hand access to listen,” Sanchez said.
  • They don’t dumb down the language. “It’s funny, because if you listen to our first few episodes, we were consciously trying to use words and concepts that we thought kids could understand,” he said. “The more feedback we got, the more we realized that kids are waaaaaaaaaay smarter than most of us give them credit. We found out pretty fast that we don’t have to talk down to kids. Think back to when you were a kid…you probably emulated older kids.”

When asked about the health of the show, Sanchez notes that it gets a “significant” number of monthly downloads. “We’re not Marketplace, but we’re in the top tier of APM,” he said. But enough downloads, it seems, to score some unique sponsorship/underwriting opportunities. Sanchez mentioned running spots for a kids magazine and even Harvey Mudd College, the science-oriented liberal arts college out in California.

Education and podcasts: Gotta start ’em young, folks. Anyway, I’m going to do some more thinking on podcasts for kids, so I’ll come back next week with another item.

Apple’s Podcasts Connect. So it looks like Apple, the precondition of the podcast universe as it currently exists, has made a small change to its podcast infrastructure: On iTunes, podcast submissions now go through a new spiffy-looking page. Dubbed Podcasts Connect, the new page looks like a step up from the early-2000s chic of the previous system, and is presumably part of the larger iTunes Connect ecosystem.

For now, the upgrade seems purely cosmetic, but it appears to portend a more significant shift towards a consolidated inventory management experience across all other iTunes verticals, like books and TV shows. (In my mind, this development is par for the course, given Apple’s penchant towards keeping users integrated with its ecosystem.)

Relevant bits:

  • Didn’t catch this last month, but: The Memory Palace’s Nate DiMeo is now developing podcasts for MTV. He works under former Grantland editorial director Dan Fierman, who’s been building an eye-catching team that includes talent with solid podcast cred under their belt, like Amy Nicholson and Molly Lambert. DiMeo will continue making The Memory Palace. (Current)
  • NPR’s newscasts now include language calling out the fact that they are live. NPR public editor Elizabeth Jensen digs into the rationale for the change, along with the complications it brings. (NPR)
  • Third Coast Festival, everybody’s favorite hippie indie audio commune, has launched a residency program for underrepresented producers in public radio. Send your proposals! (TCF)
  • PRX is getting ready to introduce something called Podquest in mid-March. More details here.
  • Bill Simmons’ upcoming publication, The Ringer, will almost certainly feature more podcasts. (Sports Illustrated)
  • Nerdist Industries’ Chris Hardwick joins Art19 as investor and advisor. (Art19 blog)
  • I played around with Anchor yesterday, and asked co-founder Michael Mignano a bunch of rambling questions. (Anchor)
  • We finally learn the fate of NPR Chicken. (Current)

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Spotify is finally ready to bring podcasting to a new audience

How Recode approaches podcasts. There was a time in my very short and very not-good attempt at a tech journalism career where all I ever wanted was to be Kara Swisher. What’s not to like? The no-nonsense persona, the scoops, the Aviators, the well cultivated network of spies all across the tech industry — in a press that’s thick with fresh blood, Swisher was a north star as far as solid tech reporting goes.

Which is all a roundabout way to say that I’m a big fan of the podcasts she’s been doing with Recode, the tech news site she started with Walt Mossberg and sold to Vox Media last summer.

The publication currently has three podcasts on offer: (1) Recode Decode, a podcast where Swisher and senior editor Peter Kafka trade off on conducting close interviews with tech and media bigwigs; (2) Recode Replay, which is essentially an archive of the on-stage interviews that take place during the publication’s (highly lucrative) conferences; and, now, (3) Too Embarrassed To Ask, a recently launched show where Swisher and The Verge’s Lauren Goode answer listener questions about technology. Too Embarrassed To Ask, currently in its third episode, was initially developed as a “reviews” segment that was attached as a tail-end segment to Recode Decode, but was ultimately spun out into its own show following positive internal response.

Decode, as one would imagine, is what I want to talk about right now. The show works extremely well because it feels like a direct extension of the team’s reporting — it’s voicey, it’s interrogatory, and it’s deeply fixated on individuals. Much like the better pieces of reporting that come out of the site, and very much like the Recode’s live conferences that have become roughly synonymous with the concept of “live journalism.” For these reasons, Recode Decode is the best expression of what happens when you match journalism with the podcast medium, and while I understand it to be one of many ways in which a publication can effectively utilize the medium, it is certainly the configuration that makes the best use of a publication’s existing talent assets. (As opposed to something like The New Yorker Radio Hour, which, while perfectly enjoyable, clearly puts its editorial staffers in a position where they audibly struggle against the medium.)

“Of course, any revenue add is great for any company,” Recode podcast producer Eric Johnson wrote to me when I asked about the Recode team’s expectations with the podcast. “But our goal was to give our existing audience a new place to connect with the news through us — and to build a new audience. Podcasts are a great medium for reaching people who are on the go and may not always have the time to sit and read.” Johnson, who cohosts a podcast on the side called Giant Geek vs. Mega n00b, also highlighted the significance of Recode’s voice being unified across all platforms. “It works on Recode.net, and it works on stage; the voice is one of the things that helps make those more than ordinary interviews, and something we knew our readers would love to listen to,” he wrote.

All right, so that’s all the high level stuff. Here’s the meaty minutiae: For production, sales, and distribution support, Recode teamed up with DGital Media, something of an on-demand audio services company with a leadership team that’s made of former Westwood One and NBC Sports Radio folks. For hosting (and presumably monetization) technology, the site went with Art19, which I talked about last week.

And here’s a detail that’s super interesting, at least to me: As mentioned earlier, Recode was sold to Vox Media last summer. Vox Media also operates the Ezra Klein-led Vox.com, which produces a podcast with Panoply (my day job employer, by the way) called The Weeds, which is or will presumably be hosted on Panoply’s new CMS platform. (We’ll talk about that in a bit.)

Spotify finally introduces a long-awaited feature. The Swedish streaming company will finally be rolling out its video offerings over the next two weeks — about seven months after first announcing that they would be adding videos and podcasts to their library, according to The Wall Street Journal (paywall). Android users will get the updated offerings first by the end of this week, while iOS users will receive full roll-out by the end of next week. Podcasts will likely be rolled out alongside videos, as both media types are being served within the same framework within Spotify’s new UI, which bundles them together under a category called “Shows.” That’s a little hard to confirm, given that the bulk of the reporting keeps the language almost exclusively to video, with only Time, Billboard, and the original Wall Street Journal article providing allusions to a parallel podcast roll-out.

When Spotify announced they were expanding into video and podcasts last May, it rocked a few heads. The move ultimately shifts Spotify away from being a mere streaming service towards something more of a multi-media entertainment environment — which may or may not be an act of over-extension. After all, it’s one thing to fight a war against music labels; it’s another thing altogether to simultaneously fight wars with YouTube, Netflix, MCNs, and whatnot.

Anyway, this development particularly excited podcasters back when it was announced, not only because Spotify presents a whole new distribution point into a bought-in audience rich with fresh new souls to convert into the podcasting medium, but also for the potential for better analytics — or any new metric for that matter, given that we’re pretty starved for anything more than a mere download at this point.

But, as we know now, the actual rollout had been considerably slow, and news of developments had been few and far between. From the Journal article, it appears the gap between the announcement and this week’s rollout principally involved partner on-boarding and performance testing. It’s probably the same process that’s going on with Google Play, which announced that it, too, would be getting into podcasts (but not video) last October and has been fairly quiet about it since then.

In any case, these next two weeks mark the beginning of what may possibly be a new stage for podcast consumption, one of greater accessibility through existing streaming media services. And let’s not forget what this logistically means for podcasters: With an increase in the number of platforms trafficking in podcasts, there also comes an increase in the need to manage platform relationships for distribution and marketing purposes. Spotify may be a whole new access point to a whole new mass of audiences, but they’re also a whole new gatekeeper to figure out.

One more thing on Spotify: The company recently acquired two companies, Sound Wave and Cord Project. The former is a social tool that would enhance Spotify’s sharing and discussion features, which isn’t all that surprising. The latter, however, is a little more eye-catching. According to a Wired article, Cord Project’s product is a “sort-of walkie-talkie for the smartphone age,” but the piece specifically highlights that the company has distinct interest in designing “audio experiences.” And here’s the money quote:

The Cord crew is the start of a new team at Spotify dedicated to turning that data into entirely new kinds of auditory experiences…the long-term plan for Spotify involves podcasts, news, even video. ‘The place to innovate is on the consumption side,” [Cord Project co-founder Jeff] Baxter says. “So we’re still working on that.”

Cool.

Panoply publicly announces a new CMS named Megaphone. More platform news! Last week, my day job employer, Panoply, sister company of Slate and formerly third cousins of The Washington Post, announced the public launch of its new hosting, publishing, and advertising platform, which it’s calling Megaphone. The company also highlighted the fact that Gimlet Media, ostensibly a competitor in terms of content, has licensed use of the platform. The Financial Times (paywall) and Ad Age has the story, with the latter going fairly granular on features:

It allows for one-click insertion of ads into podcasts, geo-targeting of ads to specific podcast consumers, and A/B testing to see what’s working best. Its dynamic ad insertion capabilities also let podcast publishers place new ads in back episodes.

So, I gotta say: Despite thinking a whole lot about these podcast platforms — Art19, Acast, and now Megaphone — and spilling tons of ink about these platforms, and even working for a company that’s cranking out one of these platforms, I’m still personally a little unclear on the specific variables that actually differentiate one offering from the next.

We’ll go deep into that very question next week, for reasons that’ll become clear in a hot second. Stick with me here.

The Nerdette podcast returns, is now officially a WBEZ production. What’s going on over at WBEZ, the Chicago area’s public radio station of choice? A lot of interesting stuff, clearly. The station is officially producing Nerdette, a podcast that was previously a side project by two of its employees.

Tricia Bobeda, one of the two Nerdette hosts, writes in with some clarification:

Up to this point, Nerdette was produced mostly by me and Greta, outside of our day jobs at WBEZ. (I’m the Senior Editor of Digital. Greta is the Weekend Anchor and Reporter.) We produced 50 episodes a year for the first two years. It was super fun. We learned a lot, and are so grateful for the community that sprang up around our show. But everyone here agreed that to make the best possible version of Nerdette, we needed to bolster the time and resources dedicated to it…So now, WBEZ has, shall we say, put a ring on it. (Cue Beyoncé) Nerdette is now a WBEZ original production, led by the indelible Joel Meyer, our new EP. Production of the podcast has also been integrated into our WBEZ day jobs.

The podcast is gearing up for its second season, which will drop later this week. For more information, go here.

NPR’s head of news on the “public radio brain drain.” It’s a strange day when NPR’s ombudsman, the esteemed Elizabeth Jensen, links to an item you wrote on a whim about the scale of people leaving public radio, and it’s an even stranger day when said ombudsman uses it to generate a comment from NPR’s head of news, the similarly-esteemed Michael Oreskes, about said public radio departures.

Anyway, here’s the response from Oreskes, excerpted from a much longer piece detailing his preview of 2016:

Welcome to the real world. NPR is in an extremely competitive environment. People skilled in audio, people strong in journalism, people talented at storytelling: They are all in great demand. That’s a new experience for NPR,” [Oreskes] said, adding, “Once we get used to it and learn how to let it energize us, it’s a good thing. Not everybody should stay in a place for their whole lives. I’m always sorry to see good people leave but we’re not going to hang on to every single good person. We’re going to lose some good people and hire some other good people.

Chill answer, dawg.

Relevant bits this week:

  • The New York Times officially launched the Modern Love podcast in partnership with WBUR last week. It dropped with two episodes in the can, ready for your earballs. (The New York Times, Nieman Lab)
  • Midroll publishes the latest version of its annual audience survey results. (Midroll)
  • Deezer raises $110 million in new funding. The French streaming audio company is the owner of Stitcher, the notable podcast app, which it acquired in October 2014. (Recode)
  • Branded podcast agency Pacific Content hires Chris Boyce, former executive director of radio and audio for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. (Yahoo Finance)
  • “A new podcast from Wyoming is turning hosting on its head.” (Poynter)
  • “Kids love listening to stories. So why aren’t public media podcasts telling them any?” (Current)
  • More elections podcasts! FiveThirtyEight has one, and so does the Futuro Media Group, also known as the producers of NPR’s Latino USA. (FiveThirtyEight, Medium)
  • “Easy on the Ears: Podcasts Are Gaining Audiences, But Have Yet To Attract The Biggest Advertisers” (The Economist)
  • “The Digital Music Industry: New and Interesting Music is Harder to Find Than Ever” (The Economist)

And one more thing. So, quick announcement: I’m leaving Panoply, which has so far been referred to in this column as my “day job employer.” This is my last week as the company’s audience development person, broadly speaking, which has been a strange, difficult, amorphous, confusing, and often thoroughly enjoyable job, and I’m glad to be the first person I know who has such a position in a podcasting company.

What am I going to do next? Well, I think I’m going to try and build this Hot Pod thing into an actual sustainable publication. You know, because building a company is sooooo easy. Because the media business is sooooo lucrative right now. And because the market is sooooo not going to crater in, like, two years due to an overdue economic downturn. Haaa haaa haaa haaa.

Oh boy. What am I doing. What have I done.

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Decoding the secret histories of podcasting

The secret histories of podcasting. Another year. I reckon it’s going to take another year or so before one of two things happen: (1) we get enough space from this so-called “podcast moment” in order to fully assess how deep this medium will be able to etch itself into the average person’s media consumption diet over the long term, or (2) some major market event hits, in which case we’ll see a reactive shrinking of the ad market in general and the drying up of podcasting ad dollars in specific, which’ll leave us with a good look at the real backbone of the industry.

In other words, I reckon it’ll take us another year to figure out whether this podcast thing is actually a bubble. Whether the medium really presents us with the digital future of radio; whether the industry can validate and justify, with evidence, its higher-than-average CPM rates; whether the companies currently making up the landscape can get their shit together and formalize both the way the industry understands itself as well as the way it presents to the external parties (advertisers, consumers, potential cross-media partners); whether the form can truly bring us to greater frontiers of creativity, art, and, perhaps, journalism.

(For the record, I’m bullish on the future of the medium. Obviously. I mean, I work for a podcast company and write a weekly newsletter about podcasts; OF COURSE I believe that there’s no question whether spoken audio will migrate to digital on-demand — it’s only a question of when. Geez.)

Which is all to say I’m looking forward to a point far enough in the future where I can actually try to figure out the historical processes pushing forward this whole thing. Because that, to me, is the really, really fun part. In the meantime, however, I’m going to have to rely on other sources for my historiographical needs.

Take Benjamen Walker, for example. His Radiotopia show Theory of Everything recently took a stab at presenting a version of events in the episode it published last week, titled “The Secret History of Podcasting.” An adaptation of a presentation he gave in a class on podcasting he’s been teaching at the New School this fall, his narrative revolves around the highly successful Kickstarter campaign that Roman Mars launched in October 2012 for his podcast 99% Invisible. At the time, it was the most funded Kickstarter campaign in the journalism category (and the second most funded in the publishing category), raising $175,000 from 5,661 backers. Walker pegs it as the inflection point fueling everything that we’re seeing today. It’s a theory of revolution rooted in business models.

Definitely check out the whole episode — taking, in particular, Walker’s point on the Rashomon quality of how the story’s being told — but what you really want is around the 16:56 mark, where Walker takes the stand: “This Kickstarter, I believe, is the inflection point for the Secret History of Podcasting. It’s really the beginning of everything that’s going on today with podcasts, because that $175,000 came from Roman’s listeners. Not from advertisers, not from investors.”

I love that kind of talk. And of course, if you take it as a way to look at the macro-trends we’re seeing and the direction the larger market appears to be gravitating towards, the claim he’s making might not actually be accurate. (For one thing, a wide swath of non-Radiotopia podcasting companies are definitely throwing their weight behind advertising as the principal growth factor, with relatively less attention being paid to membership-driven revenue diversification, as far as I can tell anyway.) But I like to think that what he’s offering here is both a documentation of that particular corner of the podcasting universe, which is many-fold and diverse in form and content, as well as a kind of historical assertion: In Walker’s ideal future, this is the principal catalyst of all things.

You could also just reject all that and go with the more conventional theory of revolution, which revolves around technology. A version of this was articulated on a recent Recode Decode episode featuring John Borthwick, CEO and cofounder of Betaworks (a “startup studio” here in New York). At around the 28:00 mark, Borthwick pegs the tipping point to an iPhone feature update that came with iOS 8 — the point in which Apple allowed the iPhone to leave Bluetooth turned on by default, which makes podcast consumption in car commutes more seamless and accessible. (There is, of course, a more conventional answer that’s also attached to an Apple development: the company’s decision to include the native Podcasts app on the iPhone by default, also in iOS 8.)

Borthwick also points to a secondary tipping point: Serial, clearly, which brought quick and sudden attention to the pile of quality audio content that has been quietly and slowly accumulating for almost a decade. As he put it: “The pump was primed, but Serial was the show that pushed it forward.”

Anyway, I’m not laying this stuff out to make any point in particular. I just like laying it out. It’s fun, like knitting and Legos.

Speaking of that John Borthwick interview. This was perhaps my favorite segment from the whole chat:

Peter Kafka, Recode: And do you think…these things will just coalesce into a handful of podcast channels dominated by a handful of big players, or just a world where there’s gonna be podcasts that have 10 listeners and someone makes them? The old blog construct, where people originally thought that, ‘Oh, I’m going to blog about my cat’ and someone’ll want to read it, and that went away after time. It turned out that blogging worked much better as a scale business. Do you think podcasting ends up that same way?

Borthwick: Yeah, look, I mean we’re sitting here doing this podcast right now in a studio. And so I think you can see that studio-produced podcasts are significantly better than doing it on your phone. Yes, you can do it on your phone, which is awesome and gives it a degree of accessibility to this medium, but I do think that aggregators will have a role here. I also think that social platforms will have a role here.

Check it out.

Podcast timeline. Vanessa Quirk, a fellow at Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism, whipped a nifty history of podcasting timeline using the Knight Lab’s TimelineJS tool. Look it over, and let her know if there are any additions she should make/consider.

What the hell happened to The Longest Shortest Time? So over the past two weeks, I spilt a lot of digital ink on WNYC Studios, the highly optimistic podcast development initiative that well serves as a signal for a new phase of creativity and opportunity for the station. But a couple of hours after last week’s newsletter dropped, I learned about the cancellation of The Longest Shortest Time, a beloved parenting show that the station had been producing. The cancellation was surprising, abrupt, and confusing; the announcement came out through a post on the show’s Facebook page, and practically no information came out from official WNYC channels.

When I sent an inquiry to the station’s PR team, I received this reply:

We continually review our projects and sometimes wind down partnerships as we look at other projects. We’re proud of the work we’ve done with Hillary, and think The Longest, Shortest Time is valuable content. The episodes we created together will continue to be available to listeners in the WNYC app.

Many readers wrote me asking about the fate of the show, and what went into the station’s decision to let it go. Most of them could not reconcile this news with the launch of WNYC Studios which, in their minds, institutionally served to create more opportunities for shows like The Longest Shortest Time to not only exist, but to thrive.

And I gotta say, I can’t reconcile it for myself either.

“What I can say on the record for now is what I’ve been saying here and there in social media,” Hillary Frank, the host and creator of The Longest Shortest Time, wrote to me when I sent her a note. “This came as a surprise to me, as the show has been the top Kids & Family podcast in iTunes for over a year.” And it came as a surprise to just about everybody I’ve spoken to about this — from the outside, the show had looked like it was going well, and it enjoyed a level of engagement with its audience that other podcasts would presumably kill for. Plus, it felt like the station had been providing the show with adequate resources. Not too long ago, Nieman Lab published an article covering an app that the show created to meaningfully connect with its listeners. WNYC had provided the development support, which was requested when the show first signed on to join the station last year.

The whole thing is a mystery, and a mess. Furthermore, it’s indicative of a problem that WNYC needs to negotiate if it’s going to weather this new digitally-enabled environment, with an increasing number of hungry competitors threatening to steal its talent: The institution needs to be a lot more transparent. And it needs to give people like me, who are trying to understand its side of the story, more material to work with.

(And it needs to pay its producers more. That’s, like, number one.)

“I feel optimistic about finding a new home soon,” Frank tells me. She says that she’s been getting a lot of inquiries from possible new homes, some of which were from interesting and unexpected places. The last I heard, she’s still shopping around — so if you’re a company thinking about investing in some pretty rockin’ podcasting talent, you’d best reach out soon. You can find Hillary on Twitter and on her website.

Gimlet’s upcoming slate of shows. My earballs are happy again. Supporting the notion that there is, indeed, a summer slump and that fall is the true starting point of programming season even in Podcastland, Gimlet rolled out the first episode of a new Startup mini-season on Thursday. For this short run, the show turned the focus back on itself, and the episode is fantastic…okay, wait. It’s more than fantastic.

I think I might’ve already expressed this, but I didn’t really enjoy the second season all that much. Which is not to say that I thought it was bad, necessarily — the season was solid, and the larger ideas the show sought to tackle then were good and ambitious and worth spending so much time unpacking. But the season never really hit the heights of the first, which suggested a kind of misunderstanding of what made that first season so special. A good friend of mine articulated the difference well: The first season was really a bildungsroman, a diaristic coming-of-age story that conveyed impossible stakes through authentic confession. In contrast, the second season tracked like a Wired article — perfectly fine on its own terms, but which gave up a sense of connection because the predominant mode was a subtle negotiation between reporter and subject, as opposed to confessional confidence. The end result just wasn’t…special, which is perhaps an unfair thing to keep asking for, but hey a boy can dream. Last Thursday’s episode was an unambiguous return to form, and tugged my black ol’ heart in ways I haven’t felt in a while. It felt, distinctly, like I had come home.

Anyway, ’nuff of this sappy crap. I’m writing this item because Hot Pod Senior Midwestern Correspondent Joel Leeman reupped the question to me recently.

  • Science Vs (due to launch in 2016, but the iTunes listing is up!)
  • Awesome Boring, now known as Secretly Awesome (though I think it now has another name)
  • A podcast about other podcasts (probably a clip show of some sort)
  • A show probably called Encounters, also known as the new Jonathan Goldstein joint

I also vaguely recall an early job listing for a show that would be an offshoot of an existing media product. Not sure how that project’s going, but the company certainly has a lot in the works.

Radiotopia forever. PRX’s Radiotopia. everybody’s favorite podcast indie label/hippie commune/sound collective, is kicking off its fall fundraising effort, and things are going to work a little differently this time compared to last year’s Kickstarter campaign. Committing to the collective’s vision of mixing up business models to avoid a dependency on advertising, Radiotopia’s fall campaign now allows for a Patreon-like monthly repeated contributions in addition to its one-time donation asks. It’s using a platform called CommitChange to power the campaign.

I haphazardly sent the team a set of questions over email. The awesome Kerri Hoffman, PRX’s chief operating officer, obliged with answers:

How have the developments of the past year affected the design of this campaign, compared to last year’s?

This campaign is about sustained monthly support from loyal listeners who feel they are getting something remarkable with every episode, and want to show their appreciation by donating on an ongoing basis. Radiotopia is a network not just of shows and producers, but a community of listeners. We want to engage our listeners directly. We also are using this opportunity to build our infrastructure of donation processing, record keeping, and communication with our fans.

We propelled Radiotopia forward with Kickstarter and now we are investing in ourselves to keep it going strong.

What are your main goals with the money that y’all will raise?

This campaign is about supporting the shows so they can experiment, continue to push the boundaries and expand with production support, interns, and other things that help them as entrepreneurs. We are committed to free quality shows to the widest possible audience. We are also supporting our corporate partners — this time around with a challenge from Slack. We use Slack as a primary communication tool for Radiotopia and are thrilled to have their support.

A big fundraiser is hard to pull off — it is a lot of communication, planning, data gathering and nimble reaction. The connection to our fans and seeing the way they connect to us — as individual shows and as a network — is worth it in every way.

As for our future plans, Radiotopia will be launching a pilot fund project in early 2016 — more on that soon!

Tell me: Do you feel that future podcasting companies — or media companies in general — should adopt this mixed model of ad sales and fundraising campaigns?

We see support for our shows as a three-legged stool. Listener support, philanthropic, and corporate support are all important pillars for us. We want our funding base to be diversified and strong.

You can check out and/or contribute to the campaign here.

The Bill Simmons Podcast: Early performance. Digiday with the useful writeup recapping the launch of the new Simmons pod. Big plot points for me:

  • “The show’s 10 episodes had been downloaded nearly 4 million times, according to Simmons.”
  • “…advertisers have not only included direct response podcast mainstays such as Squarespace, Stamps.com and ticket site SeatGeek, but also Universal Studios, which ran a brand awareness campaign for Steve Jobs.”

And on a podcast growth note, I particularly enjoyed this piece of insight:

Simmons stands to earn more with his current deal than he did while working with ESPN, where he was paid a salary, not based on how much revenue his podcast made. Simmons, then, has even more reason to attract as many new listeners as possible. He regularly promotes the new show on Twitter, where he has 4.7 million followers, and is likely to promote it further once the HBO show he is slated to host airs next year.

“This system works because all the parties are incentivized in the right way,” said Adam Sachs, CEO of podcast network Midroll Media.

Highly recommend that you check out the article in full, which also includes a stab at what Simmons might have made off the show so far assuming standard CPM rates.

Serial. We’re creeping ever so closer to Season 2. Since this newsletter is dropping on a Tuesday, and I pre-write these things, hey, it could have already dropped by the time you’re reading this, but there’s really no way to know, ‘cuz that crew has kept a. tight. lid. on details.

Two small developments to tide you by:

Rock on, Garth.

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What will we find out from the deeper podcast metrics everyone says they want?

“I always get kind of confused by the talk of how podcasts don’t have good data.” So says Roman Mars, steward of the great 99% Invisible and Radiotopia, on this week’s episode of Big Venture Capital Firm Andreessen Horowitz’s a16z podcast, which discusses the surge we’re currently seeing in podcasts. Mars’ point, which is well taken, is that podcast measurements via downloads are way better and significantly more precise than broadcast radio measurements and that, besides, the metrics we use to conduct transactions with advertisers come from a kind of shared fiction (a “lie”) anyway. Metrics, much like gender and time and the basis of life in liberal arts colleges, are a social construct.

Broadly, I absolutely agree with these points. And I suspect (though I have no way to prove this, so let’s just call this a strawman right out of the gate) that this perspective comes from a very legitimate skepticism (or perhaps fear) that our various pursuits to generate better, more granular data reporting on the way people listen to audio on the Internet are ill informed. It’s very possible that we would open the black box only to realize that most people don’t actually listen past the 10th minute for most shows — much like how most people don’t actually scroll past the first two paragraphs of meaty investigative long-form pieces, you know, the kind that takes down presidents and wins Pulitzers and gets synecdoched — and we consequently lose whatever clout, bargaining chip, or basis of reasoning in our dealings with the advertising community.

And I also suspect, with no proof yet again, that the bulk of us are ill prepared to rapidly rebuild that collective fiction to a workable place once it’s broken. If that’s the case, it must explain why it feels like everybody is squeezing as much juice as they can out of their oranges before the frost. (Holy crap, what a pretentious metaphor.) Many businesses, both good and not-so-good-but-still-businesses, have been built on the rudimentary metrics that podcasting as a medium has been able to provide so far. Much of that building must have taken a lot of hard, hard work, the kind of labor that I simply can’t begin to understand. It’s hard to truly understand the entrepreneur — particularly, the creative entrepreneur — unless you do it yourself, and so it’s hard to know the true emotional impact of such, er, disruption.

But on a conceptual level, I still believe that increasing the knowability of podcast consumption is an essential and worthwhile pursuit. Maybe it’s a function of my youth, arrogance, and/or relative lack of structural power in the space, but I believe that breaking apart the makeshift fundamentals of today’s podcasting business models will lead to better creative and revenue environments in the future. More granular data will lead to better editorial decisions and better, perhaps more meaningful advertising practices. It could perhaps even lead to better alternatives to advertising.

Right. That’s enough of me saying a lot without providing any evidence. Other things to note from the podcast (which you should listen to in full!):

  • The other guests were Ryan Hoover and Erik Torenberg of Product Hunt, the buzzy hot app-curating startup, which recently launched its podcast discovery vertical.
  • Super interesting tidbit: At around the 7:50 mark, Hoover made reference to a new Gimlet show in the pipeline that’s due to drop sometime by the end of this year: a podcast that recommends new podcasts. The jockeying for the center of the podcast universe continues. Of course, there have been attempts at a podcast (or radio show) like this in the recent past, but I’d be damned if I didn’t admit to being super excited.
  • Also interesting: The age-old question of “What’s the atomic unit of podcasts?” Mars appears to take the position that the unit is the show, while Product Hunt has clearly sided with the episode as the discrete unit. I can’t remember what I sided with back when I asked that question myself in this newsletter, but I’ve recently come to suspect that maybe we’re asking the wrong question.
  • The episode also gave reference to a framework that I’ve long loved when it comes to thinking about the current landscape of podcasting: that it’s remarkably analogous to the early days of blogging. Waiting for that Breitbart equivalent.

Sideways to “live journalism.” Bill Simmons made some news last week when he dished out some insight into the brouhaha behind his dismissal from ESPN, openly discussing the issue with guest Wesley Morris (formerly Simmons’ employee back at Grantland, and who recently left the site to be The New York Times’ critic-at-large — R.I.P., the great “Do You Like Prince Movies?” podcast). His comments proved to be harvestable material for the digital media mill, with organizations ranging from The Washington Post to Business Insider ((Congratulations on the acquisition! I think?)) crunching out posts delivering their own highlights, recaps, and takes on the podcast episode.

So the highlight I want to highlight in this state of affairs is not anything Simmons-related, but rather the fact that the podcast episode catalyzed several other pieces of media into existence. It underlined the fact that podcasts, or certain kinds of podcasts, at least, are themselves raw material for further reporting — a primary resource that seems underutilized by media institutions that actually have their own podcasts.

Let me put it this way: This Simmons situation highlights a manner in which podcasts can be more directly linked with more established digital media output that has yet to be adequately exploited. When wielded as an extension of journalistic institutions, podcasts (and live events) can themselves serve as raw material for use by reporters who focus on shortform blog posts and actively participate in instant recap culture. I think we saw a close-to-decent example of this with a recent episode of Recode Decode featuring an interview with BuzzFeed founder Jonah Peretti, who disclosed some truly juicy numbers about the media company’s traffic proportions. Recode did a really good job getting more mileage out of that bit of news by reporting further and publishing an addendum on the actual post that originally housed the podcast episode, and we saw Business Insider doing its thing where it basically published a partial transcript of that moment in the interview.

It’s a win on a lot of levels. First, a good interview or audio report is an easy source for writers and reporters to report on, reflect on, and put up to feed the beast. Second, such posts increase the attention paid to the podcast — thus increasing the likelihood that the show would be tried out by a reader who wouldn’t typically dabble in the medium. And finally, moves like these help close the gap between audio and other kinds of digital output; they further extend the utility of the podcast as part of the institution’s overall reportage, as opposed to being a placid digest-as-distribution-play, brand-extension effort, or some wackadoo accessory to the larger operation.

Perhaps the parallel that comes closest to evoking what I’m trying to say with this is the curious manner in which The New York Times’ Charles Duhigg describes the paper’s conference initiatives. “It’s live journalism,” Duhigg has been quoted as saying.

All right. I think I’ve met my quote for ~~thought leadership~~ this week. Let’s get to some juicy announcements!

Serial to be adapted for TV. Right. So I remember reading this last week and immediately putting down my laptop and going straight to bed. But here are two things that makes this situation really interesting, per reporting over at Deadline and The Hollywood Reporter:

  • The people responsible for the adaptation are Phil Lord and Chris Miller, the insane duo that’s fashioned a fascinating and incredible career out of pulling off highly unlikely adaptations with verve. For reference, they were behind The Lego Movie and 21 Jump Street, both of which were not only box office hits but critically praised as well. (Their most recent project, the TV show The Last Man on Earth, didn’t quite reach the heights of their cinematic output, but you gotta give it to them for handling a really high concept.)
  • The adaptation concept positions it well for television. According to Deadline, “Miller and Lord will develop a cable series that would follow the making of the podcast as it follows a case.” Which makes it sound less like a miniseries adaptation and more like a straight-up season-long procedural.

Eh, why the hell not. Count me in the bag for this.

Speaking of Serial. Old news now, but in case you missed it, Maxim magazine put out the first report a few weeks ago that one of the new seasons in the podcast’s pipeline will revolve around Bowe Bergdahl, the American soldier who mysteriously went missing from his base when on duty in Afghanistan back in 2009. He was eventually found to be held captive by the Taliban, and was freed in a prisoner exchange in 2014. The Serial team has not confirmed this.

Not going to spend too much time on this, but I’ll just say: If it’s true, this is the best possible go at round two. The team at This American Life are often lauded for its capacity at storytelling, but it should never, ever be forgotten that they are also first-class journalists and documentarians — and they’re perhaps the best team to take on this subject with proper sensitivity and insight.

The release date for the next season has not been confirmed, but it could well drop as soon as a few weeks from now. For a better overview, check out the New York Times writeup.

Two new shows to check out:

Last Wednesday was International Podcast Day, apparently. And The New York Times wrote a little about it, with me and Gimlet’s Matt Lieber throwing out a couple of podcast recs. All hail Anna Sale, as usual.

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