Who are podcast “super listeners,” what do they do, and how do we build podcasts for them?

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 140, published November 14, 2017.

Hello from Chicago, where I’m writing this in the lovely Hearken offices. Much thanks to the team for letting me in from the Midwestern cold.

The voice of Vox. We now know who is going to host the upcoming Vox daily news podcast: the Canadian-born Sean Rameswaram. A veteran WNYC staffer, his tenure includes work on the Kurt Andersen-led Studio 360 while the show was still at the station and, more recently, as a reporter on Radiolab’s More Perfect. Rameswaram has long exhibited considerable ambition to lead his own program: he hosted the Studio 360 spin-off podcast Sideshow, served as a guest host on a season of the CBC’s Podcast Playlist, and put himself in the running to take over the popular Canadian culture program Q in the post-Ghomeshi era. (He would eventually be beaten out by the rapper Shadrach Kabango.)

Rameswaram now finds himself at the front of Vox’s latest, and splashiest, foray into audio with a daily news podcast at a time when the genre is truly heating up. Some things to watch: How will the show differentiate itself from the New York Times’ The Daily? How will Vox carve out its own piece of the daily news podcast listening audience? And how will Rameswaram fare as the Barbaro alternative? Will we ever find the time to Feel. All. This. News?

He will move to DC for the gig, where he will be stationed in Vox’s core newsroom. The press release notes that he will eventually be joined by a staff of five. The show, whatever it will be called, is scheduled to launch early next year.

The most engaged. This morning, the Knight Foundation published a report — conducted by Edison Research — that identifies a specific subset within the podcast listening population: what it’s calling “super listeners,” referring to exceptionally engaged consumers of informative digital audio content.

Among the observed characteristics include:

  • Super listeners consume twice the amount of podcast content compared to generic listeners. “The average number of shows listened to per week was much higher with Knight respondents (13) than with weekly podcast listeners from the Infinite Dial (5),” the report notes.
  • They are loyal evangelists of the medium. The report notes that 96 percent of surveyed super listeners had recommended a podcast to a friend.
  • These listeners prefer in-depth content, and increasingly prefer digital consumption over broadcast.

The report also explores the relationship between this listener subset and public media. The findings are intriguing, with the study finding that: “Despite the fact that self-reported radio listening is down with these respondents as a result of podcast listening, two-thirds indicated that they have listened to their local public radio station in the last month… Nearly one-third indicated that they had donated money in the last year to their local public radio station, and 28% had donated to a podcast or radio program directly.” But the study also discovered that there isn’t necessarily a universal “halo effect” for public media podcasts: 51 percent said they like public and nonpublic media podcasts “equally,” and another 15 percent indicated that they “couldn’t tell the difference.” From this, the report suggests that while this listening group has strong loyalty to public media at this point in time, it does not say very much about how that relationship will hold over time.

The report doesn’t quite explore how big or prevalent the “super listener” demographic is in relation to the general listening population, and it should be further noted that the report has a distinct public media focus in its framing and methodology. (Which is to say, as much as this might be identification of a subset within the overall listening population, we might also be looking at a subset that may well be specific to the publishers involved in the study.) I reached out to the Knight Foundation for its take on just how big this group might be, and this is what Sam Gill, the VP of communities and impact, wrote back:

Good question, however it’s outside the scope of the study. The study focused on survey data from more than 28,000 listeners in order to paint a compelling picture of this audience. Respondents were identified through audio callouts (solicitations typically done by the hosts) on podcasts created by six networks: NPR, PRI, APM, WBUR, PRX, and Gimlet. The on-air promotion and the fact that these organizations shared their data, makes the study particularly unique.

The rest of the methodology is explained in further depth in the report’s appendix. Anyway, do check out the whole thing, as one imagines that this is a specific consumer type that publishers can identify, build for, and activate differently.  Speaking of which, the report actually pairs pretty well with this next item…

Podfasting. And we’re back onto the Great Speed-Listening Debate. (See the Chicago Tribune, Slate, the Wall Street Journal, The Ringer, and for older takes, The Atlantic and The Verge.)

BuzzFeed’s Doree Shafrir pubbed a piece over the weekend about people who listen to podcasts at 2x speed (and beyond). It’s a fantastic, fascinating read, not least for the coining of the term “podfaster.” Article skimmers — a species genealogically related to the podfaster, really — should catch two things:

(1) The question of how speed-listening may affect advertising impressions was touched upon, with Midroll’s Lex Friedman providing what seems to be an expected answer. To quote the chunk:

Podfasters could potentially be more valuable to advertisers because they may be less likely to skip ads… ‘I think people like me are less likely to skip ads because they’re wasting less time when they’re listening,’ [Friedman] said. He added that he’s never heard an advertiser complain about podfasters. ‘I really do genuinely believe that if it’s having any effect on ads, it’s making them more likely to be heard. Now they’ll pay attention to the ads. I don’t think it harms the ads’ efficacy.’

We’ll see.

(2) In much the way that the Knight report identifies the subset of podcast “super listeners,” Shafrir’s piece sheds some light on what might be an even more granular sub-group: podcast completists, for whom the ability to speed-listen is essential, and whose relationship to a given show is perhaps the most profound.

So, the thing I’ve always found interesting about this debate is how it highlights this tension in the relationship between producer intent and listener autonomy, between sender and receiver. We’ve seen different iterations of this struggle play out in other mediums, like the notion of watching feature films on smartphones (“Get real,” says David Lynch), or reading novels by having sentences be flashed rapidly before your eyeballs. Shafrir’s piece underscores, to me anyway, just how little direct power producers have over the listening experience. Perhaps it’s a situation where, much like how producers had to develop tricks to catch radio listeners to stop turning the dial, they’ll have to now figure out ways to get them to slow down.

As a side note, I guess we have a partial answer to that old New Yorker cartoon nut: “I feel like everybody’s podcasting and nobody’s podlistening.”

A test case. So you know that whole “convergence of audio media” idea that I’ve been yammering on about since last year? I think we have our first major test case, with some pretty interesting theoretical questions to boot.

Here’s the news: IHeartMedia has broken into the second spot of the Podtrac ranker for the month of October, but the development comes with a rather interesting caveat: its portfolio apparently contains over five hundred shows. The platform — or “platisher,” if I may bring the term back up, given its voluminous original audio programming — reached slightly under 9 million monthly unique US listeners and over 33.5 million unique global downloads over a whopping 525 shows.

IHeartMedia ranks second to NPR, which reaches over 16 million monthly unique U.S. users but on the strength of only 41 programs. (The company with the next largest show portfolio is ESPN, with 79 programs that reach over 4.8 million unique U.S. users.) IHeartMedia’s stats are reminiscent of the Podtrac adventures of another traditional radio-originated podcast publisher: CBS, which last listed on the Podtrac ranker on the ninth spot back in June by reaching over 1.7 million unique US listeners across a whopping 417 shows.

Over Twitter, iHeartRadio SVP of podcasting Chris Peterson informed me that the platisher expects to add more active shows to the Podtrac ranker — therefore further pumping up the numbers — and that they will be looking to launch more in the months to come. When asked to clarify the shape of the portfolio, he explained that the 500-plus show number includes both programs that were created specifically as podcasts along with programs that were radio shows later repurposed for on-demand. It should be further clarified that iHeartMedia’s Podtrac numbers do not include counts of third-party podcasts that are consumed off its platform. As a reminder, NPR is an example of a publisher that also distributes its podcasts on iHeartMedia.

So, what’s the big thought bubble here? We have a situation where a traditionally linear-oriented company has leveraged the sheer scale of its inventory — largely pulled from its sprawling broadcast infrastructure that’s been developed over the years — to produce a performance measure that sends it up to the second spot of the only public-facing podcast ranker that exists at this point in time.

Here’s the key question to ask: are we looking at a truly apples-to-apples situation here? Which is to say, can iHeartMedia’s on-demand audio inventory be meaningfully evaluated within the same value system as every other publisher on that list, from NPR to HowStuffWorks to The New York Times?

From one angle, you could very well argue in the affirmative: that a listener is a listener is a listener, no matter how they are accessed, touched, or engaged with. On the other hand, it could be equally posited that not all listening experiences are the same or should be evaluated in the same manner. That a huge part of the value narrative around podcasts in the first place is based on a certain idea of the relationship between the listener and the show, and on a given podcast company’s ability to produce shows of depth and scale. The findings from the Knight Foundation report, and the further identification of the podcast completist, gives more weight to this latter position.

We should ask if a publisher — sorry, a “platisher” — like iHeartMedia is even playing the same game as everybody else on the ranker. Does it merely represents one strategy out of many within the podcast industry — that is, the move to accrue the largest amount of ad inventory through the aggressive bundling of small shows in order to unlock podcast advertising dollars, as opposed to producing a much smaller portfolio of big shows with big communities around each individual operation? (To phrase this line of inquiry in another way: what, exactly, is the product being sold, and are they the same?)

I’m pretty Switzerland on this, and besides, it’s not as if it’s going to come down to me to figure it out. That kind of taxonomical work should come down to the publishers themselves, working out the terms of the market that they’re playing. Or perhaps it comes down more to Podtrac itself, functioning as a value arbiter in the space.

In any case, we’re looking at a minor clash in context with big-time ramifications. “We are thrilled to be leading the industry in terms of podcast content creation, joining the ranks of NPR for top podcast publishers, and proving that broadcast radio is a major driver for the podcast space,” according to the press release announcing the achievement. Indeed, I suppose that’s one way to skin a cat.

Full service. “I see the industry as something that’s going to stratify in the next five years,” said Rose Reid, the cofounder of a new podcast agency that I’m going to tell you about after I land this opening quote. “When we get analytics, when we see more money going to the top ten percent of producers — and I’m thinking about how to position producers within those changes.”

Reid is telling me about just one of the roles that ARC, a new agency she launched earlier this month with the independent producer Alex Kapelman (Pitch, The Decision), is meant to play in the industry. They bill ARC as a “full-service creative podcast agency,” and when I asked them what that meant, they broke it down into three component parts.

“We’re at this intersection of being a production company, much like Pineapple Street and Transmitter Media, but also an advertising and talent management agency,” Kapelman explained. Which is to say, they make podcasts for other networks, they produce branded content for podcast advertisers, and they work with producers to improve their lot in the market. That said, they’re keeping an open mind. “We don’t want to limit ourselves in the services that we provide.”

It’s a fairly broad value proposition, but I suppose it affords a flexibility to better maneuver within an emerging podcast studio-agency that’s particularly dense as it pertains to shops that focus on editorial production, whether for brands or for bigger podcast companies like Midroll; think Pacific Content, Gimlet Creative, Panoply Custom, Pineapple Street, and so on. Within this bucket, the primary differentiating factor tends to be a given team’s core creative value, but the ARC duo attempts to articulate a more strategy and planning-oriented value-add. “Take what Gimlet Creative did with Tinder, for example,” Reid said, by way of explaining their approach. “They made a podcast for them, and I think that’s great, but it’s just one thing to do. For us, we’d would look at how to take a narrative episodic series and make it part of a bigger integrated campaign. Maybe the Tinder show was launched as part of a bigger campaign, with live events or something, but I didn’t see it.”

(I checked in with Gimlet Creative, and a spokesperson noted that some of their branded podcasts have indeed been integrated into broader campaigns. Their Gatorade podcast, for example, was part of a larger initiative that included TV spots, digital ad buys, and a PR campaign.)

ARC’s success on that front will come down to the duo’s ability to compete for advertising clients, but it is their interest in talent management that stands out to me as especially compelling. Freelancing and independent operation makes up a big portion of life within the podcast industry, and it seems to me that much of the pedagogy around contracts and negotiations tends to happen informally between independents who’ve been there and independents who haven’t. That talent agencies like WME and UTA have been bringing their expertise into the space is a noteworthy development on this front, but I imagine you could make the argument that their focus necessarily tends to be on the top end of talent, and that those agencies have as much to learn from the ground as the other way around.

Reid was most recently a Gimlet producer, where she worked on Sampler, but she spent four years before that working at the advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather. “At Ogilvy, I worked on contracts all the time, between talents and brands, and between subcontractors and Ogilvy,” she said. “I feel like my entire professional experience has been one huge wakeup call for how to advocate for creators.”

She describes the need for that kind of advocacy as acute. “A lot of podcasters… they’re not business people. They’re creators, and so when they get signed, they often don’t know what they’re getting themselves into,” Reid explained. “I’ve seen people get totally screwed over, mostly women. It’s very hard to negotiate for yourself when you’re operating in a vacuum, when you don’t know what your value is and what the market value is.”

I asked when we should expect operations to kick off in earnest. Reid and Kapelman tell me that they will be announcing their initial client list in the months to come. When pressed for specific names, they declined, but made a slight muscle flex. “Big brands,” Reid said. “As big as it gets.”

On a related note… Spotify rolls out a new original podcast series, The United States of Music, produced with Transmitter Media. It’s a six-part music storytelling series hosted by Sasheer Zamata.

Agency. Ever heard the phrase “nobody knows anything”? It’s an old nugget from the screenwriter William Goldman in his book about the movie business, and over the years the sentiment has been evoked to describe the state of so many things, from predictive modeling to the economy to, of course, politics. (In fact, a version of the phrase, “No One Knows Anything,” was the title of BuzzFeed’s now-defunct politics podcast.) But the notion is a little imprecise, I think. It seems more precise to say that some people know some things, and that they do so operating within a general environment where nobody knows everything.

Opportunity falls from the space between those two notions, and I think that best describes the layer of free-floating podcast studios and agencies that has been emerging steadily over the past two years. My sense is that we’re going to see more of such businesses in the coming years, as some individual talent double down on their respective skill-sets — subject expertise, say, or creative edge, or process knowledge — and depart from larger institutions, having understood from working on the inside that no one has truly built an insurmountable amount of control or edge yet, to build a business that focuses on a specific problem or gap in the space. This theoretically offers some competition to bigger and more traditionally structured organizations that publish podcasts while working to build a business at scale, as these smaller and nimbler entities can front meaningful challenges for clients with greater focus (and lower prices).

I’m tempted to think this sense of opportunity is particularly true for the podcast industry at this specific point in time, while everything is still young with no such mythology around how things work or who knows what having calcified just yet — and while the feeling that no one (or two, or three) has full control or power in the ecosystem just yet is still palpable.

Two quick expansionsStories. Crooked Media welcomes three new shows to its mix: Majority 54 with Democratic politician Jason Kander, Girls Just Wanna Have Pod with The Daily Beast’s Erin Gloria Ryan, and Keep It with The Daily Beast’s Ira Madison. The left-wing talk podcast movement continues to grow.

Secondly, the New York Times will begin testing out a special version of The Daily meant for children to listen with their parents later this month. The effort is part of a larger project to further experiment with building out news experiences targeting kids. Nieman Lab has the write-up.

In other news:

Bites

  • Sara Sarasohn, the former managing editor of NPR One, has joined Gimlet as an editor. (LinkedIn
  • Shortcut, the audio clipping app that lets listeners easily select and share moments from a podcast episode, is now open source. The project was developed by This American Life and feel train with support from the Knight Foundation. (Announcement)
  • Stitcher has rolled out a redesign update. (Stitcher Blog) The podcast player also launched an accompanying Alexa skill, and I’m just going to re-up my whole discussion about consumer choice and voice-first interfaces from last week’s newsletter.
  • The Daily Beast profiled Mike Duncan, creator of the long-running History of Rome and Revolutions podcasts, who also serves as another data point in the emerging trend of podcasters being hit up by book agents, and his book, The Storm Before the Storm, debuted on the New York Times bestseller list last week. (The Daily Beast)
  • Marc Maron addresses the Louis CK sexual assault allegations on the latest episode of his podcast. (Vulture) The NY Times’ Sopan Deb transcribed the segment and posted the text on Twitter.
  • Audible has launched a new Chinese audiobook offering. (VentureBeat)
  • The Skimm adds an audio product to their paid app. (Nieman Lab)
  • “It’s surprising that people are into this nerdy shit. We’re surprised, too, to be honest.” Bloomberg profiles the super-niche NBA podcast Dunc’d On. (Bloomberg)
  • The BBC is rolling out a single podcast sampler feed to improve the discoverability of all the on-demand shows throughout the institution, called Podcasting House. The British radio mothership also noted that they are commissioning more podcast-first works, and that they enjoyed around 240 million podcast downloads in 2016, which is apparently an improvement from the year before. (BBC)

  • So it turns out Rick Rubin and Malcolm Gladwell have a podcast together now. And their first guest is Eminem. Where am I? (Pitchfork)
  • Last week, I helped shepherd the last segment of the last broadcast of KCRW’s To The Point as it transitions into a weekly podcast. (KCRW

[photocredit]Illustration from Knight’s super-listener report.[/photocredit]

Hot Pod: The three numbers that mark the state of podcasting in 2017

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 102, published January 10, 2016.

Digits to start the year. Is the podcast industry growing, and if so, how? I’m keeping these three numbers taped to the corner of my laptop as benchmarks to keep track:

  • Audience size: 57 million U.S. monthly listeners, according to Edison and Triton Digital’s annual Infinite Dial report, which gives the industry its clearest number to beat. The latest version of the report is expected to come out in early summer.
  • Advertising: More than $200 million projected for 2017, according to media research firm Bridge Ratings, which the industry seems to have coalesced around.
  • iTunes downloads and streams: More than 10 billion in 2016, which was up from more than 8 billion in 2015 and over 7 billion in 2014, according to a writeup by The Huffington Post.

Two quick news updates on Apple: The Apple podcasts team is apparently looking for someone to join their editorial team — also known as the people who looks after the iTunes front page.

In a related note, I’m hearing that Steve Wilson, who managed the editorial and partner relations team at iTunes and who was once described in The New York Times as Apple’s “de facto podcast gatekeeper,” has moved to the iTunes Marketing team to manage the podcast vertical. I believe it’s the first time the company is dedicating any marketing resources for podcasts.

The Keepin’ It 1600 team breaks off from The Ringer to start a new venture: Crooked Media, named after the standard Donald Trump pejorative. Its first product, a twice-a-week politics podcast called Pod Save America, rolled out Monday and quickly hit the top of the iTunes charts. For reference, Crooked Media is made up of former Obama staffers Jon Favreau, Jon Lovett, and Tommy Vietor. Dan Pfeiffer, who launched Keepin’ It 1600 with Favreau when it first debuted on The Ringer last summer, will continue his hosting duties in the new podcast, but he will not hold any stake in the new venture. The venture has plans to add more podcasts, video, editorial content, and “new voices” with a distinct emphasis on activism and political participation, according to its mission statement. There doesn’t appear to be any talk of external investment, with the team fully relying on ad revenues from Pod Save America for now.

DGital Media serves as Crooked Media’s partner in production and ad sales. This extends DGital Media’s already impressive portfolio of partners, which includes Recode, The Vertical’s podcast network, and Tony Kornheiser.

The Ringer CEO Bill Simmons is said to be supportive of the new venture, though one imagines the departure of Keepin’ It 1600, which grew incredibly popular during the 2016 election cycle, will leave quite a dent in monthly download totals for the website’s podcast network. However, given the network’s general culture that allows for continuous, iterative experimentation through its Channel 33 feed, they’re well positioned to fill the gap soon enough.

Here’s the thing that’s interesting to me: Crooked Media appears to be a stab at building out a new progressive counterpoint to conservative media, perhaps specifically its right-wing talk radio ecosystem, which has long been a curiously strong marriage of medium and ideological content with significant influence over American politics. It’s a curious thing that podcasting now offers Favreau & Co., insofar as they represent progressive politics, a potential site to match up against the conservative media-industrial complex; as I’ve noted in the past, the podcast medium does seem to feature an ideological spread that tends to lean liberal — even if it’s sticky business to characterize the politics of individual organizations. The theoretical question that occurred to me then, as it does now, is whether there is something about a medium’s structural traits — and demographic spread, and so on — that uniquely supports certain kinds of ideology. With this venture, we’ll have an opportunity to test the question a little further.

Related: Just re-upping this discussion from mid-November: Did the election podcast glut of 2016 fail its listeners?

Launches and returns for the year ahead. I was recently asked to write a preview of upcoming new podcasts for Vulture, and in the process of my outreach, I had a hard time getting concrete, specific release dates for upcoming launches. This, I think, says a fair bit about how the podcast industry, maturing as it is, still has ways to go in terms of developing a rhythm, cycle, and culture around show and season launches for its audience.

All right, here’s what I got so far beyond the stuff on the Vulture list:

  • Gimlet Media is keeping mum on new shows, but they have confirmed that Science Vs will return for its second season in March, while Heavyweight will drop its second season in September.
  • NPR’s vice president of programming and audience development Anya Grundmann tells me that the public radio mothership will be launching several new podcasts and debuting new seasons of some of its most popular shows, including Embedded and Invisibilia. No specific dates, but Grundmann did mention that a three-episode Embedded miniseries will drop in March.
  • Night Vale Presents has confirmed that Alice Isn’t Dead and Within the Wires will return sometime this year. They also note that the team behind Orbiting Human Circus (of the Air) is working on some new projects, which will be released throughout the year. And, as noted in Vulture, the company will be making its nonfiction debut at some point in the form of a collaboration with indie band The Mountain Goats.
  • The New York Times will roll out its latest podcast, Change Agent with Charles Duhigg — which sounds like a cross between an advice column, Oprah, and Malcolm Gladwell — sometime this spring. It’s also building a new show around Michael Barbaro, who hosts The Run-Up and has since moved into the audio team full-time. According to Politico, the Times is planning to expand its podcast roster from seven up to possibly twelve this year.
  • Radiotopia’s newest addition to its roster, Ear Hustle, is set to debut sometime this summer.
  • First Look Media tells me that they will be launching a weekly podcast for its flagship investigative news site, The Intercept, on January 26. The show will apparently be called “Intercepted.” There’s a joke in here somewhere, but we should move along.

That’s all I got for now. I’m going to keep a page going for this, and will update as more information trickles out. Send me what you have.

Panoply kicked off the year with the launch of its first “imprint”: The Onward Project, a group of self-improvement podcasts curated by author Gretchen Rubin, who hosts the popular Happier podcast under the network’s banner. The imprint is currently made up of three shows: the aforementioned Happier; Radical Candor, a management-oriented show; and Side Hustle School, a daily show made up of bite-sized episodes that describe financially successful side projects. The Onward Project was first announced during last September’s IAB Podcast Upfront.

Call it an imprint, call it a subnetwork, call it whatever you want: The concept seems to be more of an innovation in audience development than anything else. “I’d say success looks like what we’re already seeing — a collection of podcasts in which each show brings in its host’s unique audience, which is then exposed to the other shows through tight cross-promotion,” Panoply chief creative officer Andy Bowers told me over email, when I asked about the thinking around the imprint. “With podcast discovery still such a vexing problem, we think the imprint offers listeners a simple answer to the question they’re always asking Gretchen: ‘I love your show — what else should I listen to?'”

We’re probably going to see Panoply develop more imprints in the near future, further establishing a structure that makes the company look more like a “meta-network” — or a network of networks — which is a form that was only hinted at by its previous strategy, where it partnered with other media organizations to develop multiple podcasts under their brands.

60dB hires Recode reporter, adding to its beefy editorial team. The short-form audio company has hired Liz Gannes, previously a reporter at the tech news site Recode, to join its editorial team. Gannes, a senior hire, rounds out a team that has thus far primarily drawn from public media. It includes: Daisy Rosario, who has worked on NPR’s Latino USA and WNYC’s 2 Dope Queens; Brenda Salinas, formerly at Latino USA and KUT Public Media; Hannah McBride, formerly at the Texas Observer and KUT Public Media; and Michael Simon Johnson, formerly at Latino USA.

So here’s what I’m thinking about: The editorial team apparently exists as an in-house team that works to produce audio stories with partner publications, often discussions about a written article that recently published, for distribution over its platform. (Is it too much of stretch to call it high-touch adaptation aggregation?) It’s a dramatically manual — and not to mention human — content acquisition process, and that’s a structure that does not scale cheaply, which I imagine presents a problem for a founding team mostly made up of former Netflix executives.

Two questions that frame my thinking on the company: Where is 60dB supposed to fall within the spectrum between a Netflix-like platform and an audio-first newsroom with an aggressive aggregation strategy? And to what extent do the partnerships that the company currently pursues make up the long-term content strategy, or do they merely serve as a stepping stone into purely original content?

Anyway, I hear that more 60dB news is due next week. Keep your earballs peeled.

Related: In other tech-ish news, it looks like Otto Radio, the car dashboard-oriented podcast curation platform that recently hammered down an integration with Uber, has secured a round of investment from Samsung. Note the language in the press release describing Otto Radio’s distribution targets: “connected and autonomous cars, smart audio devices and appliances, and key integrations with premium content providers.” Appliances? I guess with Amazon’s Alexa platform creeping into everything — which was one of the bigger takeaways from this year’s CES — we’re about that close to a world in which your refrigerator can blast out those sweet, sweet Terry Gross interviews.

Facebook Live Audio. Shortly before Christmas, Facebook announced the rollout of its latest Live-related feature, Live Audio, on its media blog. Key details to note:

  • The feature is in its testing phase, and its broadcasting use is limited to a few publishing partners for now. At launch, those partners include the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), the London-based national talk radio station LBC, book publisher HarperCollins, and authors Adam Grant and Brit Bennett. It remains unclear whether those publishers are being paid for their partnership similar to the way that Facebook has been paying major media organizations like BuzzFeed and The New York Times, along with celebrities, to use the Live video feature.
  • The post notes that the feature will be made “more broadly available to publishers and people” over the next few months.
  • The launch of Live Audio is the latest in Facebook’s efforts to expand its Live initiative, which the company has been banking heavily on for the better part of the past year. It had launched Live 360 just the week before.
  • The pitch, as it has always been, primarily revolves around interactivity — which speaks directly to the “social audio” conversation carried by many in the radio and podcast industry (see This American Life’s Shortcut, WNYC’s Audiogram, and so on). The introductory post writes: “Just as with a live video on Facebook, listeners can discover live audio content in News Feed, ask questions and leave reactions in real time during the broadcast, and easily share with their friends.”

Right, so with all that out of the way: What does this mean for podcast publishers, and maybe even radio broadcasters? I haven’t quite developed a unified theory just yet, but I’ve been breaking the question down into two components.

First, it’s worth asking if Facebook Live Audio is compatible with much of what currently exists in the podcast (or radio) space. Facebook, as a digital environment, has always seemed to be structured such that only certain kinds of publishers — or “content creators” can “win.” More often than not, those are the publishers whose business or impact goals are functionally aligned with that of Facebook’s, and from everything that we’ve seen, read, and heard about the company, it seems pretty clear that Facebook’s primary goal is to drive up user numbers and, more importantly, user engagement, whose quantifiable attention are then sold to advertisers.

But that’s obvious; the question is, of course, how has the company preferred to generate those engagements? It’s one thing if Facebook’s underlying game plan here is to “replace” broadcast, be it television or radio. But it’s a whole other thing if the company is instead trying to build out and further define its own specific media ecosystem with dynamics, incentives, behaviors, and systems unique to itself — which is exactly what appears to be the case here.

So, what kind of audio content is likely to benefit from playing into Facebook Live Audio’s unique dynamics? Probably not the highly produced narrative stuff. Nor anything particularly long. Oddly enough, I have a somewhat strong feeling that many conversational podcasts could be much better suited for Facebook Live Audio than they ever were for the existing podcast infrastructure. But at the end of the day, what appears to be true for Facebook Live Video — and for most new social platforms — will probably be true for Facebook Live Audio: the kind of content it will favor is the type of content that’s native to the form. Everything else is either filler or a means to generate actionable data.

Second: The Facebook Live program displays high levels of volatility, both in terms of the program simply functioning as intended — see: miscalculated audience metrics, surging, lingering questions over Facebook’s role in digital governance and its relationship to the state — and, perhaps more crucially, in terms of the program’s underlying view of publishers and the actors of the wider media ecosystem.

The functional volatility alone should give some thinking about dedicating resources to building out a Facebook Live Audio strategy. But the greater pause should come from the second point on the program’s underlying position. Facebook’s general abstinence from making any concrete statement about its relationship to the media (and its potential identity as a “media company”) suggests a materialistic, neutralizing view that sees all actors on the platform as functionally and morally equal. Another way of putting this: The health of individual publishers, regardless of its size, hopes, dreams, and virtues, is a tertiary concern to the platform, as long as it is able to drive up the primal behavior it wants — its own definition of engagement.

It’s a toughie. On the one hand, you have a platform that theoretically connects you with various segmentations and iterations of the platform’s 1.79 billion monthly active users. But on the other hand, it’s really hard to get around the whole unfeeling, arbitrary-governing-structure thing. It’s up to you — depending on what your goals are, what relationship you want to have with your audience, your stomach for instability and risk — to decide if you want to live that Facebook Live Audio life.

None of this particularly new, by the way. But it’s still worth saying.

Bites:

  • Tamar Charney has been confirmed as NPR One’s managing editor, having assumed the role in an interim basis since Sara Sarasohn left the organization. Emily Barocas joins the team full-time as an associate producer to curate podcasts for the app. Nick DePrey, who has been supporting NPR One in his capacity as an “innovation accountant,” is now the digital programming analytics manager at NPR Digital Services. Elsewhere in the organization, Juleyka Lantigua-Williams has joined as the senior supervising producer and editor for Code Switch.
  • PRX has announced its first cohort for Project Catapult, its podcast training program aimed at local public radio stations. Also note: the organization has hired Enrico Benjamin, an Emmy award-winning producer, as the initiative’s project director. (PRX)
  • “Why branded podcasting could more than double in 2017.” (Digiday)
  • SiriusXM is now distributing WNYC Studios’ podcasts over its Insights channel. This continues an emerging trend that sees SiriusXM mining podcasts for quality inventory to build a content base beyond its Howard Stern-shaped engine: Last August, the company hammered down a partnership with The Vertical’s podcast network, and it has been distributing the Neil DeGrasse Tyson podcast Startalk since January 2015. (SiriusXM)
  • I’m hearing that the first round of judging for this year’s Webby Awards is underway. Several folks have also written me pointing out that the group of judges for the Podcast and Digital Audio category is pretty public-radio heavy — and not to mention, overwhelmingly white. (Webby Awards)
  • This is cool: Norway has become the first country to shut down its nationwide FM radio in favor of digital signals. (NPR)

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

Hot Pod: Will 60dB’s algorithms and user experience give it a lead over other audio platforms?

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue ninety-four, published November 1, 2016.

Tiny Garage Labs pushed its short-form audio platform 60dB out into the public last week and bagged itself a bit of press, with writeups from Fast Company, Lifehacker, TechCrunch, and Nieman Lab. A few weeks ago, I briefly wrote about 60dB and the Silicon Valley-based team, which is made up of Netflix veterans John Ciancutti and Steve McLendon together with NPR alum Steve Henn. Back then, it was still in beta, and I made a point to draw attention to its focus on individual segments as the atomic unit of content.

Now that 60dB is out in the wild, I’m still not particularly sure what to make of it. But here are two things I’m thinking about:

1. It would be imprecise to view 60dB, as Fast Company’s headline suggests, as intending to solve the structural problems of podcasts. (Though, from the looks of the app’s current content offerings, it does not mind getting involved with them for now.) Rather, the app is best interpreted as attending to the larger listener experience problems associated with broadcast radio, whose distribution structure is deeply inefficient.

Ciancutti explained the problem when we spoke last week: As a radio listener, you essentially have two options when you encounter something you don’t want — you can either change the station or wait for time to pass within the confines of a specific station. (On the supply side, the problem can be viewed this way: At any given point of time, a station only has one interface point with which to work on its relationship with a listener.) 60dB’s gambit, as a platform, is to solve the efficiencies on both the listener and publisher side: Listeners are freed from the slog of unwanted experiences and having to make the bulk of choices, through a largely automated consumptive experience driven by shorter content chunks strung together by “algorithmic personalization.” And publishers will enjoy larger volumes of listeners efficiently sorted from multiple directions into their show portfolios.

Sound familiar? It’s basically the premise of almost every digital content platform from Facebook to Spotify to, well, Netflix. Which means that the attendant considerations and calculations for publishers should be the same, as they’ve lived through this story multiple times before — and are living through versions of it now.

Considerations like: Who will ultimately own the audience, 60dB or the publisher? Would the benefit of developing for the platform outweigh the potential lack of direct audience ownership in the future? What is the likelihood of a mutually beneficial audience development for both the publisher and the platform? And so on and so on.

Which is not to say that publishers are destined to play out any particular future here, or that there isn’t substantial benefit in collaborating with Tiny Garage Labs at this moment. 60dB stands to build out a new audience development arm for publishers that they are unable to explore for themselves, and publishers stand to provide 60dB with some compelling, structurally optimized content. What I’m merely saying is: At the end of the day, the devil will be in the details of the deal.

“We’re closing deals with specific partners,” Ciancutto told me. “We’re helping partners to tell and make these kinds of audio stories.” When I asked about the monetization end of the deal for publishers, he replied: “It’s stuff we still have to work on and figure out. Right now, we’re working on nailing the experience. Monetization will come next.”

2. There’s also the more fundamental question about whether 60dB’s gambit is a winning one. Two out of the three founders are Netflix veterans, and the team leans on that connection pretty hard. One imagines the shape of its strategy is appropriately Netflix-like. What does that mean? It’s helpful to refer to analyst Ben Thompson’s Stratechery newsletter this week, which spells out that strategy:

Netflix has built leverage and monopsony power over the premium video industry not by controlling distribution, at least not at the beginning, but by delivering a superior customer experience that creates a virtuous cycle: Netflix earns the users, which increases its power over suppliers, which brings in more users, which increases its power even more.

But the success of a strategy lies not just on its shape, but on the strength of its variables as well. And so the relevant question here is: Will 60dB’s interpretation of “superior customer experience” — shorter content units, largely algorithmically driven experiences — pay off?

A potential clue can perhaps be found in examinations of another media platform type whose dynamics function similarly: ad exchanges. In a piece published last week at The New York Review of Books, Slate group chairman Jacob Weisberg made the following observation: “Ad exchanges…have made digital advertising more efficient without necessarily making it more effective in increasing sales.” Which is to say, time will tell whether 60dB’s gambit of equating content efficiency with effective experiences will amount to anything, and I’m very curious to see where this goes.

Gimlet officially announced its fall launch slate this morning, and in doing so, offers a look into what appears to be a new phase for the company. Close observers probably know many of these new shows already — they were unveiled during the Brooklyn Upfronts event over the summer — but this morning’s press release revealed a previously unannounced audio drama project with a high profile cast.

Here’s the lineup:

  • Undone, a show hosted by former Radiolab producer Pat Walters that revisits big events from the past. It’s a familiar premise, one most recently utilized to great effect by Malcolm Gladwell and Panoply with Revisionist History. Launches November 14.
  • Homecoming, an original audio drama project that’ll feature Oscar Isaac, Catherine Keener, and David Schwimmer on the talent roster. Launches November 16.
  • Crimetown, which will mark Gimlet’s first foray into the ever-dependable true crime genre. The podcast is driven by part of the team behind HBO’s The Jinx — whose bubbling popularity back in early 2015 compelled critical associations with Serial — and it will examine organized crime in Providence, Rhode Island. Launches November 20.

Additionally, the company’s flagship StartUp podcast will kick off its latest full season this Thursday. This fourth season follows Dov Charney, the controversial former American Apparel CEO who was forced out of the fashion giant in 2014 following numerous reports of misconduct — including sexual harassment — as he pursues a new venture. (Frankly, I’m morbidly interested in hearing how the StartUp team handles this. The push from their end would be for reporting, the push from his end is likely image rehabilitation, and how that dynamic plays out will be the thing to watch.)

Two things:

1. The close proximity of all the launches really stands out to me here. We’re talking three launches in seven days, with each project having its own distinct press hook. Clumping is a smart strategy, I think, one that focuses attention is a way that presents Gimlet with a clear run of opportunities to firmly shape its narrative. The staggered launches of the company’s previous shows (Heavyweight in mid-September, Science Vs in late July) led to a pretty diffuse sense of momentum, and when it comes to a hits-based business — which Gimlet most definitely is — launch momentum is a crucial kind of capital.

2. Also interesting: the strategic conservatism in these bets. You can see the math at work in all three projects: the combination of a legacy radio talent with a classic premise (Undone), stacking an experimental deck with Hollywood talent (Homecoming), and tapping into a battle-tested genre that is a staple on the iTunes charts (Crimetown). Not knocking the choices here; given Gimlet’s high-value-per-project business model and a growing need for its next big hit, these are understandable moves.

The company marches into November following a few optically rough weeks between the Mystery Show controversy and the subsequent winding down of Sampler, two developments that were even dissonant within the context of the most recent StartUp mini-season, which kicked off a few hours after the Mystery Show announcement with an anxiety narrative that seemed to further split its private and public narrative. This November launch week presents a much-needed break from the past, and a chance for the company to reset its bearings.

Planet Money’s Neal Carruth is NPR’s new general manager for podcasts, a brand new position. According to the announcement memo, Carruth “will support the teams working on those shows, strengthen connections between our podcast portfolio and the newsroom and member stations, and support innovation and new program development across NPR as a key member of the newly expanded NPR Story Lab.” He will report to Anya Grundmann, VP of programming and audience development.

“I think we could probably have much richer conversations about NPR’s strategy in a few months, but what I can say is this reflects the seriousness of NPR’s commitment to podcasting,” Carruth said, when I asked about his strategy. “A big part of this for me is talent development — leveraging the incredible talent we have in our newsroom and inside the public radio system. I want to make sure NPR is a great place for creative people.”

He added: “And we want to make sure that member stations are part of this too.” (Poynter ran a longer interview with Carruth, if you’re interested.)

The hiring process for the position took place over a five-month period, with the job posted back in June. This news emerges from the shadow of the NPR podcast promotion kerfuffle (which raised questions over the organization’s relationship to podcasts) back in March, the WBAA-This American Life brouhaha (which raised questions over the broader public radio system’s relationship to podcasts and digital audio) back in May, and NPR One managing editor Sara Sarasohn’s departure from the organization in early September. NPR has been driving a positive wave of announcements lately, unveiling its restructured Story Lab initiative and drawing attention to a strong ratings increase (though, as Current’s Adam Ragusea reported, it’s unclear how to read that apart from a tweak in measurement methodology and the bump from a bonkers election year).

Carruth, a 17-year NPR veteran who most recently ran the business desk and oversaw the Planet Money podcast, will start his new role after Thanksgiving. (He’s also a super chill dude.) David Sweeney will temporarily take over the business desk.

Travel Pod. There’s huge overlap between food media and travel media: a trading in the currency of desire, an editorial choice or balance between dispensing information and peddling fantasy, an indexing towards the visual. Also worth noting to the list of shared traits is the tension I wrote about a few weeks ago within food media — between food media and media about food — which applies, I think, just as well to the travel vertical, though I do struggle to think of strong contemporary examples of viscerally driven travel media beyond the heyday of the Travel Channel circa early 2000s. (I had cable once, as a child, and it was beautiful.)

Roads and Kingdoms, a Brooklyn-based digital media concern, is one such example of a media company about travel, in the sense that it plays with the symbols of globetrotting fantasy while running longform magazine-y pieces. (A chilled-out person’s Vice, one would say.) There is much I find fascinating about R+K: its magazine gloss, its malleable niche, its acceptance of investment by media personality Anthony Bourdain. This is the kind of boutiquey media company that counts among its leaders a guy, one Nathan Thornburgh, who says stuff like: “A great listicle about seven cabanas and seven beaches is still going to kill on the Internet and power glossy magazines, but there are lots of people who think about travel as losing yourself in someone else’s life.”

The company, of course, is pursuing a podcast project, which will be called The Trip. Hosted by Thornburgh and executive editor Kara Parks, the show will showcase the kinds of stories that you’d expect from the site — a mix of travelogue, foreign journalism, cultural anthropology, scenes, and places pieces — and will be backed by sound-rich production values. Bourdain will feature in some pieces. I’m curious.

Production is led by Josie Holtzman, a Brooklyn-based producer on NPR Music’s Jazz Night in America. Philadelphia-based Alex Lewis is handling the ad creative, a set of short midroll profiles on chefs working in New York City’s Lower East Side. The first season, which will run for six episodes, is sponsored in full by Tiger Beer, and Panoply will play a supporting role with distribution and promotion, whatever that means. It will tentatively launch in the first week of March 2017.

Governmental advertising on U.K. podcasts? Caroline Crampton, an assistant editor at the left-of-center British publication the New Statesman (which has a healthy podcast roster), writes in to let me know about a string of governmental ad buys that have been taking place on UK podcasts. Over email, she explained:

We’ve had two major government-sponsor campaigns on our shows. The first ran in spring this year, and was about the benefits to UK companies of exporting their goods to other countries (part of this initiative) and the other is from the Department of Work and Pensions and encourages small business owners to sign up for the new government Workplace Pensions Scheme (this one is due to run from 7 November). Both were sponsor reads, rather than externally-recorded ads, so we were sent a brief containing the facts and figures and then our hosts worked with it to create the final audio. Both campaigns appeared on the New Statesman Podcast, which is our biggest show and focuses on UK politics, and were mostly about spreading information — the action listeners was asked to take was just to read a website for more details.

I asked Crampton if she had heard of anything beyond governmental ads. She replied:

We haven’t yet seen any non-government political ads in the UK as far as I’m aware — at the New Statesman we haven’t yet been approached by a candidate or political campaign, and I haven’t heard such an ad anywhere else. My sense is that government media buyers have bigger budgets than everyone else in the political sphere, and are thus able to be a bit more forward-thinking and experimental with how they spend their cash. They seem to be trying out podcasts as a new platform for citizen informational campaigns beyond the more traditional posters and radio/TV spots. I don’t know of any political party or union that is yet choosing to spend money with podcasts as a way of reaching voters or members, although given that the 2015 general election was the first time the UK really saw parties spending big money on targeted social media ads (dominating the so-called “cyber war” is considered to be a big part of why the Conservatives won a surprise victory) I don’t think party political podcast campaigns can be that far off here.

Fascinating. Crampton, by the way, recently launched a new podcast criticism column in the New Statesman, and you should check it out.

Bites:

  • Oh, NPR’s Story Lab Pitch Portal is now live! (NPR)
  • Audible crawls out into the wild west: One of its original shows, Presidents Are People Too, is now available for free in podcatchers everywhere. “It’s been our plan since the beginning to try other platforms as a way to introduce listeners to the great series we have available at Audible,” Audible SVP of original content Eric Nuzum tells me. (iTunes)
  • Stephen Dubner writes in to correct a detail I ran last week: His Midroll show with James Altucher, Question of the Day, is actually not running any more, having wrapped publication in early September. Sorry about that!
  • The Memory Palace’s Nate DiMeo, currently the artist-in-residence at the Met, releases his first few episodes from that stint. (The Memory Palace)
  • BuzzFeed’s latest podcast: See Something Say Something, a show hosted by Ahmed Ali Akbar about being Muslim in America. (iTunes)
  • “How To Cope With 2016: Start An Election-Gambling Podcast.” (FiveThirtyEight)
  • Midroll’s inaugural Now Hear This festival took place over the weekend, and from what I’ve heard from a few attendees, it seemed to have been a successful first run. If you were there, let me know what you think! I’d love to run a reaction roundup.
  • The great Linda Holmes of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour has a fun theory that sorts the different podcast communities according to a Hogwarts-like taxonomy, but her concluding point is cash money: “My point is mostly that when you’re trying to serve podcast audiences OR creators, many in these houses are UTTERLY indifferent to others.” (Twitter)

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

Hot Pod: There’s a new (and problematic) way to measure which podcasts are the most popular

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue eighty-eight, published September 20, 2016.

Another public-facing podcast ranker. It’s troublesome, though if you’re a podcast publisher you best pay close attention nonetheless. This one’s going to be long, so either skip it or strap in.

Here’s the deal: Podtrac, the decade-old podcast measurement (and until its recent restructure, advertising) company, announced a new podcast ranker yesterday, one that aspires to display the top 20 podcasts in the industry based on monthly downloads. This is the second such public-facing ranking that the company has released in recent months; In May, Podtrac pumped out a chart that ranked podcast publishers against each other based on network-wide monthly downloads.

That initial ranker suffered from two glaring flaws. First, it can’t be considered adequately representative of the podcast industry because of its incomplete sampling. (The original report purports to cover of “90 percent of the top podcasts.”) And second, there’s a general lack of transparency around its sampling methodology. (Said “top podcasts” category isn’t clearly defined, and it isn’t clear who is and isn’t included.) The publisher ranker’s initial May 2016 sample did not include important publishers like Panoply, Gimlet, Earwolf, The Ringer, and Wondery. That’s not to say that they would all show up in the top 10 if they were included, mind you; I’m just making a point about representation, and many of them remain excluded at this writing.

This new show ranker, which was reportedly assembled due to advertiser demand, suffers from those same fundamental issues, plus some new complexities that further interrupt itss capacity to serve as a trustworthy conveyor of value in the podcast industry.

Let’s break this down:

1. Yesterday’s new chart ranks individual podcasts based on “Unique Monthly Audience” (as determined by Podtrac’s internal measurement rules), but the chart itself does not explicitly display actual download numbers. I view this as an incredibly odd — and even counterproductive — choice. The omission strips the chart of important granular analytical value, and patrons of the chart are placed in a position where they wouldn’t even be able to, say, discern the scale of the difference between two consecutively-ranked podcasts, which can go a long way in properly conveying the shape and form of the competitive landscape.

Interestingly enough, Velvet Beard, Podtrac’s VP of podcast analytics, tells me that this omission came out of a compromise with certain publishers who are reticent to disclose their show numbers.

2. That reticence is further reflected in the eighth ranking on the new chart, which awkwardly reads: “Publisher declined to list show.” This state of affairs comes out from a crucial distinction between the two Podtrac rankers: While the original podcast publisher ranker lists publishers that explicitly measure their podcasts with Podtrac (an arrangement understood by Podtrac as permission for inclusion into their ranker), this new show-oriented ranker does not require explicit publisher participation in the company’s measurement services for inclusion.

It was explained to me that part of the ranker’s methodology involves some internal modeling that doesn’t actually require publishers to opt into their measurement system for download size assessment. Which, you know, the more I think about it, is a choice that would creep me out if I was a publisher, because not only are we left with a situation where an external body has taken upon itself to tell the story of my audience for me — without my explicit acknowledgment and consent — it’s also a story based on their terms, the foundations of which may well be different from my own. And that means something in an industry that lacks a universally standardized and enforced measurement paradigm.

That mystery eighth podcast (whose identity was included in the initial press release sent to me, and was scrubbed in a followup version after I attempted to verify) isn’t the only show that was included in the ranker without given permission; the Joe Rogan Experience, which came in on the eleventh slot, appears to be a non-participant as well.

3. Beard tells me that the company has been consistently trying to reach out to publishers to get them involved with the ranker. “We send out emails, but not everybody writes us back,” she said.

I suppose there are strong strategic reasons why some publishers would not want to get involved in Podtrac’s ranking system. To begin with, you have the table stakes concern that a publisher who chooses to be listed would be ceding its monopoly over how it tells the story of its own downloads. Which would be fine for some…and less so for others, particularly those who make it a practice of fluffing their numbers, a very real problem in this industry that lacks mature measurement standards and an independent third-party that can serve as a check against bad practices.

But even for those whose goods are sound, there’s simply too much of a perceived risk to anoint Podtrac as that third-party due to the company’s current relationship with Authentic, its ad sales arm that was spun off as a sister company earlier this summer. The two companies still share leadership and infrastructure, which presents a strong disincentive for some publishers who would be understandably uneasy ceding parts of their narrative to company that’s structurally connected to a potential competitor. The golden rule applies: It’s not the actual conflicts of interest, it’s the perception of potential conflicts of interest that matters.

For what it’s worth, Beard tells me that the company’s long-term hope is to effectively decouple Podtrac from Authentic to mitigate such concerns. However, she also notes that the team has to first figure out how to make its business — which currently doesn’t make any money off these rankings — financially independent before any significant decoupling can happen.

Look, Podtrac’s industry rankers need a lot of work before they can be considered a genuine representation of the emerging podcast industry, and for what it’s worth, I do think the Podtrac team is operating with civil intent. (And to some extent, I really do hope they pull it off.)

But let’s be real here. In a medium whose defining problem is its lack of measurability — which therefore generates an advertising environment starved for every little bit of information — Podtrac’s good-enough rankers are bound to gain some traction among advertisers either way.

And it looks like things may be panning out in that direction: ahead of the IAB Podcast Upfronts a few weeks ago, I was speaking with Jason Hoch, the chief content officer of HowStuffWorks, which uses Podtrac for analytics verification and is listed on the industry ranker, and he noted that the original ranker drew a tremendous amount of new advertising attention to his network. “The in-bounds we got from that were amazing,” he told me.

So I’ll say this: It appears increasingly imperative that podcast publishers start engaging with Podtrac in order to win back their audience narrative (and the narrative of the industry). I’m not the biggest fan of how Podtrac has gone about doing things — their lack of methodological transparency remains troubling, and the whole including-podcasts-without-explicit-permission thing feels kinda dirty — but they are, regardless, materially contributing to the publisher-advertising relationship.

Alternatively, publishers could, oh I don’t know, develop their own data-driven public counter-narratives. That’ll be cool too.

And in case you’s still interested: According to Podtrac, the top three podcasts in August 2016 are, in downward order, This American Life, Radiolab, and Stuff You Should Know.

A leadership change at NPR One. The public radio mothership’s buzzy listening app, NPR One, is losing Sara Sarasohn, its managing editor, who is leaving the organization after 24 years of service.

Tamar Charney will reportedly step in as interim editorial lead. Charney was hired back in January to serve as the app’s “local editorial lead,” a role that involves connecting the app with local public radio stations across the country. While she will take over many of Sarasohn’s duties, she will continue focusing on her original responsibilities as well. The team remains rounded out by content programmer Viet Le, along with an NPR One-specific product team led by product manager Tejas Mistry and content strategist/analytics manager Nick DePrey.

Sarasohn, who has worked multiple positions on All Things Considered and the NPR arts desk throughout her lengthy career, is leaving public media for a position at a Silicon Valley startup, and though she declined to provide specifics, she noted that her new gig isn’t involved in the audio world.

An internal staff note announcing Sarasohn’s departure indicates that she leaves NPR One in a strong position. According to the memo, “NPR One’s audience reaches record highs with each new month, more than 80 stations are contributing content to it, and the typical listener uses the app up to 12 times per month.”

It also noted that the organization will relay more information about the app’s future in the coming days.

The NPR One app — which flirts with aspirations of being “the Netflix for podcasts” and is marketed as “the Pandora of podcasts” — is reportedly considered to be “the most exciting thing to have happened at NPR in years.” I’m broadly a fan of it myself, but I do struggle to view the app itself as somehow central to NPR’s digital future. The ecosystem of content and technology that’s being built beneath the app, however, is another story. (Side note: Between you and me, my main consumption modality with public radio nowadays is my Amazon Echo, which has come dangerously close to being my only source of verbal interaction on most days.)

Sarasohn’s last day is September 25.

Relevant: In what is probably a yuge coincidence, news of Sarasohn’s departure comes about a week after NPR announced that it was picking DC-based WAMU’s The Big Listen, a broadcast about podcasts, for national distribution. Hosted by Lauren Ober, the show is one of several audio programs currently floating about podcastland that seeks to alleviate the medium’s discoverability problem through linear, performative curation. That list includes the CBC’s Podcast Playlist and Gimlet’s Sampler.

Tangentially relevant: WNYC Studios now has a third VP of on-demand content: Tony Phillips, a former BBC veteran of 27 years. (My whole life, basically.) His most recent role at the British radio mothership was “Editor, Commissioner, and Producer.” Phillips will expand the leadership layer, which also includes Paula Szuchman and Emily Botein, into a trifecta.

Mid-October will mark WNYC Studio’s first full year of operation.

Cable podcasts. CNN, the cable news heavyweight and source of all my anxieties, is pushing deeper into podcasts with the announcement of two new podcasts:

1. The Daily DC, a daily morning political news digest show featuring CNN political director David Chalian; and

2. Party People, described as a “look at the 2016 race from a rightward perspective.” The show is hosted by two CNN contributors, Republican communications strategist Kevin Madden and The Federalist editor Mary Katharine Ham.

Both shows begin their runs today.

These additions will complement The Axe Files, the (quite excellent) David Axelrod interview show that has thus far been the media company’s only original podcast. CNN has also made it a practice of repackaging and distributing a select list of its television programming — like Fareed Zakaria GPS, State of the Union with Jake Tapper, and Reliable Sources with Brian Stelter — in podcast form.

Curious observers might be interested to know that CNN’s foray into original podcasting is largely orchestrated by one Tyler Moody, a VP at the company, and that the podcasts are being hosted — and represented in the ad sales market — by New York-based podcast CMS company Palegroove.

And speaking of right-leaning politics podcasts: Fox News is making a weekly television show out of I’ll Tell You What, an elections podcast hosted by The Five cohost Dana Perino and Fox News digital politics editor Chris Stirewalt. The show will be limited-run, airing Sunday evenings until the elections in November. According to The Washington Post, the podcast’s conversion into the television format “represents Fox News’s first new programming initiative since longtime network chairman Roger Ailes resigned in July.”

Side note. A few weeks ago, I wrote a column observing what appears to be a dearth of explicitly conservative political and election-related podcasts, which briefly led me to consider this state of affairs being a function of early adopter demographics. Since then, I’ve regularly received recommendations from readers of more conservative-oriented shows, and while I believe my original observation still holds, I will say that one podcast in particular has found its way into my primary rotation: Radio Free GOP with Mike Murphy. It’s really polished, and really, really engaging, and it’s worth a try regardless of where you are on the spectrum.

Did you read Ken Doctor’s columns? You really should. The five-part series published on Nieman Lab all throughout last week did an amazing job laying out the current state and potential future(s) of the professionalizing layer of podcasts from the 30,000-feet view more than I ever could.

The series contained a bunch of novel findings that are incredibly useful for incremental observers like myself — for example, the fact that digital native Gimlet currently scores 5 million downloads monthly across its 6 shows (many of which are off-season at the moment) and now has a 55-person headcount (damn!); that NPR, Midroll, and PodcastOne each account for $10 million in sales; that 50 percent of WNYC’s sponsorship revenue now comes from digital as opposed to terrestrial sources, a good chunk of which is driven by podcasts.

But Doctor’s columns also laid out an analogy that connects what many podcast publishers/networks are doing these days to the long-established digital media strategy of aggregation. It’s a connection that hasn’t previously occurred to me, but it has become to me an essential framework in gaming out the probable trajectory — and potential pitfalls — of many of these emerging podcast companies.

Anyway, hit ’em up.

“You can’t compare it to anything else that exists in the industry right now,” said Rena Unger, the IAB’s director of industry initiatives, in the latest episode of The Wolf Den. “Podcasts took one of the boldest moves. You’re not doing your own individual upfronts, you were sharing one stage. You have 12 competitive companies that take off their competitive hats and say, ‘Let’s work together to elevate the space and increase our pie together.'”

Unger was responding to my, uh, critique of the recent Podcast Upfronts, which largely comes out of anxieties that were pinpointed almost perfectly by Chris Bannon, Midroll’s chief creative officer and co-host of The Wolf Den, who replied to Unger: “Yeah, it’s funny. There’s a great spirit of collaboration, but I think what Nick fears in his writing is that will disappear. That it will become some sort of commercial shark-tank in which where we race to the bottom in some way together.”

Or borrow a passage from Doctor’s final entry in his podcast series: “The phrase of the moment, both from some in the trade and from many of the millions of listeners who’ve become podcast addicts, seems to be: Don’t screw it up.

I’m getting that tattooed.

Bites:

  • There’s a budding audio/podcast platform company floating about the Bay Area called Tiny Garage Labs that’s founded by former Netflix operatives and a former Planet Money correspondent. I’d keep an eye out on their blog — word on the street something’s coming real soon. (Tiny Garage Labs)
  • Made a quick mention of this two Hot Pods ago, but it’s more or less confirmed now: Panoply now reps MTV Podcasts, which joins the network with two new shows — Lady Problems and Videohead.
  • “A lot of sports podcasting simply reuses talk-radio formats. From the way you sound, this is clearly going to be something different.” “Yeah, I am hoping we can pull it off.” ESPN Films and FiveThirtyEight senior producer Jody Avirgan talks to Adweek about the upcoming 30 for 30 podcast documentaries. Lots of interesting nuggets in there. (Adweek)
  • “The web is built on hyperlinks, with each link a pathway to discovery, an endorsement, a reference. Podcasts could be like that too.” Jake Shapiro, CEO of RadioPublic, published what appears to be a manifesto for the upcoming listening app that will make up his team’s first independent foray into the podcasting marketplace. (RadioPublic blog)
  • The lovely Hollywood history podcast, You Must Remember This, is going on hiatus. But KQED was able to score a pretty great Q&A with creator Karina Longworth in the meantime. (KQED Arts)
  • If you haven’t been keeping up with APM’s new investigative podcast, In The Dark — along with everything that’s been happening with the actual case it’s examining — you really should. Vulture has a great interview here with Madeleine Baran, the investigative journalist who drives the show. (Vulture)
  • At the Online News Association 2016 conference in Denver last week, WNYC’s Delaney Simmons and NPR’s Mathilde Piard gave a presentation on their respective organizations’ attempts to wield social media tools as a points of audio distribution. (Journalism.co.uk)

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

Charting the outflow of public radio talent to the new for-profit podcast industry

Pods for all seasons. Lately I’ve been noticing something of a small trend: podcasts that were launched to accompany a big, seasonal event. Specifically, there have been two big clusters: podcasts that have been launched to cover the 2016 presidential election cycle and podcasts that are designed to accompany the Oscar race.

The list of election podcasts is fairly substantial. You’ve got the NPR Politics podcast (which I’ve written about before), along with Panoply’s Podcast for America and an upcoming show by Scripps called Trail Mix 2016. All three shows seem to be designed to track the campaign trail, and all three shows appear to take the premise of being informal very, very seriously. They also uniformly seem to serve the function, at least in theory, of giving journos the space to openly react to the news cycle, something that they presumably can’t do in their usual reporting platforms.

On top of these podcasts, you also have a new show from The Washington Post called Presidential, which takes a more evergreen approach by providing thematically associated material: Each episode will focus on a different U.S. president, guaranteeing us 44 episodes worth of content (if they give Grover Cleveland two episodes). Oh, and FiveThirtyEight is coming up with its own elections podcast too. That crew has been workshopping off the feed for their What’s The Point podcast. (What a fine way to soft launch, by the way.)

On the other side of serious, but with no less pomp and circumstance, you’ve got a slightly smaller stack of 2016 Oscar podcasts. There’s the Awards Show Show, a coproduction of New York’s Vulture and KPCC’s The Frame, which adopts the structure of a classic two-person you-go-now-you-go reporting outfit. And then there’s the Awards Chatter podcast by The Hollywood Reporter, which features a long list of interviews with award-hungry actors and directors currently doing the good ol’ publicity circuit. That podcast recently made rounds on the entertainment blogosphere with its fairly dry J.J. Abrams interview, which gave us an official answer to the much asked question about why The Force Awakens felt so gosh darn familiar. And finally, you have the Little Gold Men podcast from Vanity Fair, which is basically the Slate Gabfest for Hollywood gossipmongers and those who go all Ezra Klein on film and the Academy Awards (so, nerds like me, basically).

These podcasts are, in my mind, journalistic cousins of a certain podcast subgenre that’s been around for a long time: the TV recap podcast, long formalized by entities like the AfterBuzz TV Network. These shows are companion pieces, accompaniments, instruments for listeners to further critique, pore over, or generally spend more time with these narratively propulsive events — the morbidly fascinating Academy Awards race and the fascinatingly morbid American presidential elections — which, let’s face it, for the right kind of person, is a rabbit hole that keeps going down and down and down.

NPR One and retooling the concept of local. So here’s a big, juicy development coming out of the public radio mothership: NPR has hired Tamar Charney, the program director at Michigan Radio, to be the new local editorial lead for NPR One, its buzzy streaming audio app experiment. Some, like myself, might remember Charney from the piece she wrote for Current last July, where she pushed back against the podcast rush that, at the time, was taking place among some public radio stations that had been afflicted by some sense of FOMO. “I worry we are putting too much of our creative energies into this one platform,” Charney wrote. “As I see them, podcasts are just a distribution technology. Listeners sought out Serial because it was great content, not because it was a podcast per se.”

For the record, I think Charney’s absolutely right. It’s an argument that evokes discussions happening elsewhere in the media space, particularly in the war of attrition that TV and film streaming services like Netflix seem to be slowly and quietly winning against traditional broadcasting companies. At this point in time, the medium may well be the message, but as we move forward into the future, it will be the thing that the medium was built to carry that will ultimately determine the fate of these institutions.

Anyway, back to NPR One: Nieman Lab, my powerful enablers, published a really great article digging into Charney’s hire and how she fits into the larger goal that the institution is trying to achieve with the app. Essentially, NPR One is less a move to digitize and replicate the “radio” part of public radio than an initiative to digitize the concept of “local.” Which is to say, the goal isn’t to better connect the listener with quality content generated by NPR and local member stations in general — the goal is really to better connect the listener within an existing local public radio ecosystem. This is expressed in the very first question that the app asks you when you first boot it up: What’s your home station? You may well be living in Nashville, but if your real yearning is to be connected with your New Jersey roots, the NPR One experience is meant to serve you news and information from that local public radio ecosystem.

This approach is designed to meet NPR’s unique challenge when it comes to digital. Unlike WNYC — what with its pushes deeper into podcasting, self-distribution, and self-actualization as an entity unto itself — NPR has the distinct challenge of balancing a member-driven organizational structure against an imperative to establish a sustainable avenue for digital growth. Remember that dues from member stations make up NPR’s principal revenue stream. And remember as well that, theoretically speaking, if NPR were to push hard into digital by upping its ability to serve its content directly to listeners across America, that would be bypassing their member stations, which both challenges its core revenue stream and undermines what is created to do. This initiative to modernize the concept of “local,” then, is a smart move to balance its shift towards digital and stay true to its commitments.

Anyway, back to Charney: what exactly does the role of “local editorial lead” entail? What will Charney’s day-to-day look like? “Oh man, I have no idea,” Sara Sarasohn, the app’s editorial lead, told me. “Nick, you gotta realize: Our jobs are totally made up. I have some ideas as to what her job is going to be, but I have no idea what the day-to-day is going to be.” But broadly speaking, Charney is meant to be something of ambassador — among other things, she will be principally in charge of figuring out the needs of local public radio stations and ensuring that the app is able to match those needs as best as possible. Which will be hard, of course; as with everything else in America, nothing is equal, least of all needs.

Before we move on, here’s a fun factoid in the Nieman Lab piece that may be interesting to some of you: “App usage ‘has been growing at a steady pace of 9 percent month over month’ — that works out to about 280 percent growth per year — since launch, with the average listening session over half an hour long.” Juicy.

More on ESPN, Grantland, and podcasts. Brian Koppelman, a screenwriter and the creator of The Moment podcast, went on the Wolf Den podcast last week to talk podcasts and the podcast business, and his conversation with Midroll CEO Adam Sachs pleasantly shed more light on the way podcasts were handled at ESPN and Grantland — which proved to be a source of frustration (among many, presumably) for high-profile talent Bill Simmons, who would later be dismissed by ESPN and who eventually launched his own podcast network while signing onto a multi-platform deal with HBO.

Koppelman, whose podcast was originally housed at Grantland before he moved it over to Slate, told Sachs:

Grantland understood and valued podcasts tremendously. But I felt that ESPN did not…and one of the ways in which that manifested is that I did the podcast for free and at a loss for the first year and a half.

And when the show began to develop an audience, ESPN began running commercials on the show — and still not giving me any of it. And then that just felt weird! At a certain point, I’m happy to run a commercial-free show and then somehow break even — that would’ve been fine. So that was in my head. And then I feel like they weren’t going to grow it at all.

He also talked about his interest in pursuing non-advertising supported podcasts. “A part of me always thinks, ‘Is there another way to do this whole thing where people don’t have to listen to advertising? Is there a subscription model that works, that I can have a smaller audience in the beginning that would contribute? There’s an appeal to that,” Koppelman said.

Well, Brian, according to this Splitsider interview, the comedian Artie Lange apparently draws in about $400,000 a year for his paywalled podcast (which goes for $7 a month). So there’s that.

A Canadian mag re-enters the podcasting space. I was a huge, huge fan of The Arcade, a literary interview podcast by the Portlandia-esque folks over at Hazlitt Magazine — back when the podcast was a thing before it suddenly ceased operations eight months ago. When I asked Anshuman Iddamsetty, the magazine’s art director and podcast quarterback, what’s up with the whole peacing-out thing, he was coy in his response and vague with the details, choosing to reply only in haikus. Of course, I’d expect nothing less of a person whose Twitter handle blares out BOARLORD and whose brain is capable of such personal essay gems like “Swole without Goal.” But still, the cessation, and the lack of details, stung.

Well, it looked like the mag pulled another fast one on me, as it launched a new podcast under the nose last November: It’s called Cavern of Secrets and it bills itself as a “show about extraordinary women.” It’s hosted by Toronto-based comedian Lauren Mitchell, and it’s three episodes deep, with guest spots by Carrie Brownstein and Tavi Gevinson.

I sent a quick note to Iddamsetty demanding more details — about goals, about strategy, about what the heck is up. His reply was swift and comprehensive:

Cavern is a departure from our previous podcasting efforts, which were more literary in scope. At Hazlitt, we’re not too concerned with chasing clicks and that gives us the freedom to experiment and focus on what I think is our core competency: giving impossibly talented voices a platform. Also paying them on time. I mean, it doesn’t seem that far off from what Canadian publishing should be doing anyway, and that means taking risks with developing voices, with mediums outside of the written word.

We recently finished the construction of a studio just for our multimedia efforts, and Cavern is the first salvo in a battery of audio products we hope to launch later this year. We’ve started development on our second show, but we’re always open to pitches, especially in the categories of religion, sports, and technology. So! If you’re a woman or person of colour or trans person interested in Canadian podcasting, drop us a line!

What a mensch. Anyway: What on earth is Hazlitt Magazine? It’s so quirky, so weird, and so utterly gorgeous that I can’t believe the forces of capitalism allowed this thing to exist. Apparently I’m not the first person to ask that question.

Moves from public radio to private, in spreadsheet form. So I finally sat down to actually begin building out this spreadsheet of radio/podcast folks who’ve jumped off the public radio ship into the private sector. This is just a very small start, and I’ll build and update it over time, but from what little there is, one can already spot some pretty clear dynamics right off the bat. Namely, that only a handful of institutions are providing the supply, and everybody’s white.

You can find the list here, and you can suggest names here. I’ll add them as soon as I vet them.

Related reads this week:

  • “To Attract New Listeners, Podcasts Need To Move Beyond Sound.” (Wired)
  • “Beyond ‘Mail-Kimp’: The Future of Podcast Advertising” (Fast Company)
  • “So, Like, Why Are We So Obsessed With Podcasts Right Now?” (Vanity Fair)
  • SoundCloud, which serves as a hosting platform for a bunch of podcasters, has reportedly secured $35 million in debt funding. (Original report by Digital, a Swedish site; TechCrunch for the English report)

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