Is the Stitcher deal a step toward a closed podcast ecosystem?

Big moves at Midroll Media and EW Scripps. Okay, two big things from Midroll:

(1) E.W. Scripps, the parent company of Midroll Media, has acquired Stitcher, the podcasting app that’s widely considered to be the most popular alternative to the default Apple podcast app, for $4.5 million in cash. According to the Wall Street Journal report on the move yesterday, Stitcher will now operate under Midroll, with the former’s dozen-or-so employees being transferred onto Midroll’s payroll. Stitcher previously operated under Deezer, the French streaming audio company, after the latter acquired it for an undisclosed sum in October 2014. Stitcher had been quiet in terms of new developments ever since.

Acquisition talks started in earnest in early January, Midroll’s vice president of business development Erik Diehn told me over the phone yesterday. “It’s one of those things where serendipity drove the whole process,” he said, adding that both companies had compelling strategic reasons for the acquisition. In a separate call, Midroll CEO Adam Sachs provided clarity on this point: “Stitcher, as we know it as a podcatcher, is the second most popular podcast player in the world, and there’s a lot of value in there right off the bat,” he said. “But there are a lot of other pieces that are also really valuable, like the fact they come with a strong technology team.” Sachs pointed out how Midroll’s technology team has up until this point been fairly small, a state of affairs that complicates the fact that the company is increasingly pushing deeper into initiatives that require a lot more tech talent, like its premium subscription app Howl.

Speaking of Howl, it remains unclear how Stitcher will affect that particular piece of the company’s business. Diehn told The Wall Street Journal that at some point, the apps will “intersect,” and he told me that any plans for such intersection is TBD. “One thing we don’t want to do is disrupt Stitcher, and we don’t want Stitcher to disrupt Midroll,” Diehn said. He further added that Midroll aims to leave Stitcher’s role as a provider-agnostic platform intact, in that it will continue serving users podcasts regardless of where they come from. “We won’t turn it into a walled garden, we’re leaving ads intact, and you won’t start seeing a giant feed of Comedy Bang Bang and Lauren Lapkus and the occasional Midroll show,” Diehn said.

The acquisition met some criticism, however, particularly from Overcast app creator Marco Arment and prominent tech blogger John Gruber, both of whom are strong voices in the podcasts-as-extension-of-the-open-web contingent of the ecosystem. They highlighted Stitcher’s nature as a proprietary platform, whose possible dominance — combined with some suboptimal elements of the platform’s agreements with creators — will lead to a closed ecosystem that’s bad for both creators and consumers . Both posts are worth the read (you can find them here and here). Midroll’s vice president of sales and development Lex Friedman tweeted his disagreement, of course, and promised a more substantial rebuttal in a blog post to come.

All right, so there’s that, but then there’s also the bombshell that…

(2) Adam Sachs, the company’s CEO, is stepping down. Sachs has been the CEO of Midroll since June 2014, taking over from Jeff Ulrich, one of the company’s original founders. He shepherded the company through its acquisition by Scripps in July 2015 for $50 million. Previously, Sachs was the co-founder of Stepout, a dating app acquired by IAC in September 2013.

Sachs first announced his departure to the company in an email sent out last Tuesday. “The truth is that I’ve been running a startup (Stepout and then Midroll) for nearly a decade and that’s exhausting!”, he wrote. “Still, at my core, I’m an entrepreneur. I still have the fire in my belly to build companies.”

According to the note, he will remain at the company for another week, after which he will spend another month on a consulting basis to aid with the transition. There is no clear successor or succession plan in place, though Diehn and Friedman are expected to take up the brunt of Sach’s managerial responsibilities. Sachs told me that a replacement might not take place any time soon, but added that he believes the company has a strong enough management team to handle the interim.

He has no idea what his next move will be, or so he tells me.

As for The Wolf Den, the company’s podcast about the podcast industry, there is also no clear successor in line. Though, from what I hear, Friedman and chief content officer Chris Bannon are campaigning hard for the role.

Highlights from Hivio. I spent the better part of last week in Los Angeles, checking out a digital audio conference called Hivio. The conference drew a quirky mix of commercial radio, public radio, online audio, podcast, and assorted media types, and though it wasn’t immediately clear who, exactly, the audience was meant to be, I found the dynamics involved in the hodgepodge nonetheless informative. Many of these worlds have thus far kept each other at arms’ length, even as some grow more prominent and others begin to question their foundations, and as all these different digital audio sectors continue down what I’m fairly convinced is a collision course, it was great to get an early preview on how everyone will deal with each other.

Anyway, the conference programming drew out a lot of information — and even more rote talking points — and you can check out full recaps elsewhere, but here are a few things that stood out to me:

    • NPR’s vice president of programming and audience development, Anya Grundmann, noted in a presentation that the number of NPR listeners (across all platforms) over the age of 55 is now roughly the same as the number of listeners in the 13-34 age group. That data point comes from an Edison’s Share of Ear study covering the first quarter of 2016.
    • “We’re pleased with the experiment,” says Lizzie Widhelm, Pandora’s senior vice president of ad product sales and strategy, when discussing the company’s partnership with This American Life. Worth noting: Widhelm positioned the partnership as a move to keep its more engaged users from going off-platform in pursuit of spoken word content, something that those users previously couldn’t find on the service before.
    • ESPN’s senior vice president of audio, Traug Keller, dropped a 40 million monthly download number for the company’s on-demand audio content. ESPN, by the way, isn’t a participant in Podtrac’s measurement system, so your mileage may vary.
  • Maximum Fun’s Jesse Thorn notes that the most popular show in his network is Adventure Zone. He also talked about the network’s unique conference/live events business, MaxFunCon, noting that his team is developing a cheaper version in an effort to disrupt itself.

One more thing: It was interesting to see a few commercial radio executives cite ZenithOptimedia’s podcast ad-spend projection — about $36.1 million in 2016 — when discussing the medium’s emergence in relation to their own businesses on-stage. Since that projection was first published some months ago, I’ve heard several podcasting executives vehemently dispute it in private, typically saying something to the effect of “if that’s the number, then my company makes up 30-40 percent of that.” Granted, that retort is totally expected, but I’m inclined to agree just intuiting from the download numbers and CPMs that can be found in publicly available reports. (The Podtrac ranker, for all the caveats involved with its sample, is also very helpful in this regard.)

However, despite these private pushbacks, I haven’t encountered any podcast executive willing to provide a specific alternate estimate…until last Friday, of course, which saw Acast’s chief commercial officer Sarah van Mosel provided an estimated range of $80 to 200 million for 2015 during a presentation — a number she particularly draws from her previous work as WNYC’s vice president of sponsorships.

A glimpse at Future Panoply? Last Friday, the Graham Holdings-owned podcast company (and my former day job employer) announced its latest big-swing project: Revisionist History, a 10-part miniseries by author (and Charlie Kaufman-lookalike) Malcolm Gladwell. The company drew some notable writeups for the announcement, with Fast Company and CNN.com providing coverage on the teaser. Interestingly, the project is positioned as “the thing that Gladwell decided to make instead of a book this season,” which is a pretty solid pitch, I guess.

On stage at Hivio, Panoply chief creative officer Andy Bowers called the podcast a template for future projects. “A lot of podcasts we’ve done so far has followed a simpler, conversational format,” he said, noting that the company will likely be developing more projects with higher production values from here on out. This move makes sense, though I do wonder how this will affect existing Panoply shows, which typically result from partnerships with other publishers.

Revisionist History drops its first full episode on June 16.

Podquest playoffs. Last Thursday, Radiotopia released the list of 10 podcast pitches that have been accepted as semi-finalists into Podquest, its talent search program. From this group of 10, three finalists will be announced in July at the Podcast Movement conference in Chicago, where they will then be made to develop three pilot episodes over the course of four months. The winner, which will be invited into the Radiotopia network, will be announced in November at the Third Coast Festival.

You can find in-depth descriptions of all ten semifinalists on the Podquest site. And if you’re curious, you can find the stat-breakdown of Podquest applicants (1,537 entries! 53 countries! Wah!) on the PRX blog.

Congrats to the crews, and good luck! I’m rootin’ for ya.

Related: “The new audience is really where we are where we want to be — the diverse audience and the young audience, and the young people who haven’t been buying radios. How are they finding content and how do we get in front of them?” Still curious about what’s next for PRX? Check out this Fortune article featuring an interview with PRX’s newly minted CEO Kerri Hoffman by Lauren Schiller, which pairs well with my writeup from two weeks ago.

Towards more pods for kids. A couple of months ago, I wrote a few pieces exploring the relatively quiet genre of kids podcasting, and over the course of my research, I spoke to Lindsay Patterson, one of the creators of Tumble: A Science Podcast for Kids, who proved to be a very, very strong advocate of the space. Now, the Austin-based producer is taking her advocacy to the next level, collaborating with a number of other kid-focused podcast producers to form what they’re calling “a new grassroots organization of podcasters and advocates for high-quality audio content for children.”

“We want to increase visibility for the medium and enable the creation of more great audio shows for kids,” Patterson told me over email. “And since we exist in the children’s space, we think that standards and ethics should be a big part of the conversation.”

The organization will kick off its work with a public survey project that hopes to identify the makeup, behavior, and dynamics of the potential audiences for kids podcasts. “There’s no baseline data for how kids consume (or don’t consume) podcasts,” Patterson wrote. “Our June 2016 survey is a first step toward understanding how our audience values what we do.”

At this point in time, the podcasts participating in Kids Listen are: Tumble, Ear Snacks, Brains On!, Sparkle Stories, Book Club for Kids, StoryPirates, and Zooglobble. (These names!) Its digital presence consists of a Slack, a website, a hashtag (#kidslisten), and social media. “The beginnings of something great,” Patterson added.

The survey launches today. You can find the Kids Listen website here.

New podcast study from comScore. The report found that podcast advertisements were found to be the least intrusive compared to other kinds of digital advertising formats, according to Adweek. It should be noted that the survey study was commissioned by Wondery, a fairly new podcast network based in Los Angeles, suggesting increased efforts among podcast companies to raise the overall awareness of the space. To my eyes, the study itself isn’t as interesting as the fact that comScore produced it. There’s been an emerging argument among some circles that the big thing holding back more brand advertisers from jumping into the space is not necessarily the medium’s well-known measurements problem, but the absence of a reputable, legacy measurements company like comScore and Nielsen actively participating and vetting the space. This comScore study isn’t quite the active participation that will lead to a so-called legitimization the space is looking for, but I think it’s a good step.

Where to, newsmagazine? Add Steve Lickteig, former executive producer of All Things Considered and current executive producer of Slate podcasts, to the list of public radio emigres publishing essays on the future of audio. Lickteig wrote a Slate piece last Thursday arguing that voice-recognition technology — à la Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana, and Google’s…OK Google thing, which will soon be integrated into car dashboards en masse — will marginalize (or even kill) the straightforward broadcasts, a state of affairs that poses a significant threat to the newsmagazine format.

Central to Lickteig’s argument is the expectation that on-demand consumption behaviors will vastly supersede consumption behavior around linear formats. Here’s the key quote (heads up, the Keith Olbermann reference is related to the lede in Lickteig’s piece):

While listening to the radio remains easier than the alternative, it’s not very satisfying for the generation of people raised in an on-demand culture. People Keith Olbermann’s age (he’s 57) feel an obligation to consume news as it’s served. Tell a bunch of 19-year-olds that it should be up to the professionals to determine what news is most important, and they’ll laugh until their earbuds fall out.

There are a couple of really interesting elements in Lickteig’s argument here that you can spool out, including the notion that us ~millennials~ and post-millennials (whatever you call those people) have in large swathes no love for editorial judgment. But I think the most interesting and pressing element here is the glimpse Lickteig provides at an underlying process that sees the further atomization of audio content and information into discrete units that users can customize, shift, and reorient…not unlike the way we exist as digital consumers of music now. (If I branded myself as some sort of thought leader, this would be the point where I’d regretfully coin the phrase the Spotification of News.)

Here’s my counterpoint to Lickteig’s bullish argument: As a voracious consumer of many, many different types of media, I’d argue that the tyranny of choice and control is totally real. And it’s absolutely crippling. (Consider two things: the gaping abyss that stares back at you from the Netflix menu, and the relief embedded in celebrations of Spotify’s Discover Weekly feature.)

Which isn’t to say, of course, that I disagree with the broad strokes of Lickteig’s forecasts: Indeed, the broadcast newsmagazine format as we know it today will likely become ineffectual, as will all other creations of linearity, like the nightly news, SportsCenter, and the front page. But I’d argue that this isn’t a consequence of the decline of broadcast; rather, it’s a consequence of the relegation of broadcast from being the primary information channel to being one-of-many in a much larger arsenal of information presentation. And yeah, sure, a story of decline always sucks, but there’s that thing about lemonade: When you’re no longer expected to be dominant, you’re liberated from the pressure — and design limitations — of dominance.

That’s no small consolation. In my mind, at least.

Bites:

  • DGital Media announced “league direct partnership” with the UFC to produce a show covering the mixed martial arts league. This will prove to be an interesting addition to the company’s portfolio of partnerships, which includes Recode and Yahoo’s The Vertical. (UFC)
  • Bloomberg News launched the latest in its steadily growing stable of podcast, Material World, a show that will deliver stories on the consumer goods world. I’ll more about Bloomberg podcasts at some point — they’ve got a unique structure going on over there — but for now, keep your eyes on Bloomberg News HQ. (iTunes)
  • Radio Diaries published quite a remarkable episode recently, featuring a young woman in Saudi Arabia, Majd, documenting her life over two years. It aired as a 22-minute segment on All Things Considered, with which the podcast has a partnership, last Tuesday. I listened to it over the weekend, and my goodness, it’s quite lovely. (Radio Diaries)
  • NPR launched Code Switch, its newest podcast, last week. The show will explore issues at the intersection of race and culture, and from the sound of its first episode, it appears to draw heavy influence from the specificity and presentational looseness of the NPR Politics podcast. Nieman Lab has a great interview with principals Shereen Marisol Meraji and Gene Demby, which you should totally check out. (Nieman Lab)
  • Speaking of public radio launches, WNYC rolled out More Perfect, the Radiolab spinoff focusing on the Supreme Court, last week. The podcast is being billed as a mini-series. (Radiolab)
  • Audioboom signs the popular Undisclosed podcast to an “exclusive ad sales deal.” (RAIN News)

What should an on-demand news podcast look like?

The Tow Center’s “Why Podcasting Matters.” And so there I was, once again, at The Greene Space, WNYC’s live events venue, for yet another podcast-related shindig. I’ve grown fond of the venue over the past year, come to appreciate cozy size, its glossy floors, its neon-shaded walls that never fail to evoke Miami Vice.

The shindig in question was a panel called “Why Podcasting Matters.” It was designed around the publication of a Tow Center Report, prepared by Vanessa Quirk, that serves as a pretty good primer for the podcast industry at the end of 2015. It was a fine gathering, but I was mildly bothered by the name of the panel, as one would imagine. Partially because it’s never a particularly encouraging sign for an industry to still have to explain itself, but mostly because its premise is remarkably mid-2000s. It’s like being asked to make the case why blogging matters, or why the digitalization of media matters. Like, how many different variations of the same argument must we make?

But I understand, begrudgingly, the continuing need to stick with introductions. After all, I’m told that it’s still very early days for podcasting (11 years now since it first gained some noticeable amount of traction; that’s one year older than the birth of YouTube). There is still a lot more pie to grow.

Anyway, the panel was made up of Sarah van Mosel (chief commercial officer, Acast), Andy Bowers (chief creative officer, Panoply), Matt Lieber (president, Gimlet Media), and Kerri Hoffman (chief operating officer, PRX), and it was moderated by Paula Szuchman (VP of on-demand content, WNYC). The panel was fine and interesting, ranging widely in subject from branded advertising to “where are you finding your next hit?” to children-targeted podcasts and the mortifying guilt of surrendering your child to the television.

You can find a recording of the event here, and you can read Quirk’s Tow Center report here.

But here are the two things that stood out to me as particularly interesting:

1. What is the nature of the news podcast? There was a point in the panel, somewhere during a discussion about whether podcasts can be seen as a viable supplement to broadcast radio, where the panelists broached the subject of the “news podcast” — what is it, what is its nature within an on-demand context, and where is it headed.

This is a fabulous question, and it’s something that I think about quite a lot. For the record, I think anything that’s broadcasted can be adequately adapted to the on-demand format. The only major exception (other than Brian Lehrer, I suppose) is an ongoing breaking news scenario, which is typically best served by a live news broadcast. This, I must say, is a grave exception. I felt the limitations of on-demand audio most acutely during the Paris terror attacks; I had spent much of that evening at work glued to my Twitter feed, and when I left for my commute home — a subway trip usually reserved for pre-loaded programming — I chose instead to walk back over the Brooklyn Bridge so I could keep tabs on the news broadcast over the WNYC streaming app. But then again, getting my live updates through the stream was in its own way suboptimal; important information about actual developments was relatively sparse, and the bulk of what I ended up consuming at the end was largely filler or recycled exposition. (Perhaps that’s the real value of a live news broadcast; not necessarily the advancements in what we know, but merely the ambient knowledge that a news team is observing, that the world is continuing to spin.)

It’s been a few months, and I’ve come to feel that this wasn’t an expression of on-demand audio’s limitations, but rather an example of the distribution channel not being utilized effectively enough with breaking news in mind. That’s because we are already seeing some really interesting experiments with news distribution using podcast feeds that, in their own ways, are bold attempts to grasp real-time service:

  • The most obvious example is the NPR Hourly News Summary. Here we have a really shrewd use of the feed, one that’s pegged to the hour and packaged in bite-sized pieces. You do get the sense that each package is dense with what you absolutely need to know at the top of a given hour. By the way, the feed occasionally pops up in the iTunes Top 200 Podcast Chart, for those interested in such things.
  • ICYMI, Serial has been rolling out short daily updates tracking the latest court hearing surrounding its season one subject, Adnan Syed. It’s absolutely fascinating, both in its substance and its structure, which is essentially Sarah Koenig giving a quick recap the development of the day.
  • The Serial mini-updates are reminiscent of a WBUR podcast that was rolled out last summer (with The Boston Globe) which tracked the trial of Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on an almost day-by-day basis. The podcast was called Finish Line: Inside the Boston Bombing Marathon, and it stretched the length of the trial. It was dense, sparsely composed, and utterly captivating in its specificities. These are reporters reporting, trading notes at the end of the day.

2. Gimlet’s Mix Week. The other most interesting bit of information that came out of the panel also happens to the one that’s most applicable to your organization, probably: This week, Gimlet is putting normal production operations on hold in favor of an internal exercise they’re calling Mix Week. “We’re breaking apart all the teams, they’re going to reform in new teams, and they’re going to be essentially given assignments for piloting,” Lieber explained. “There’s going to be a bunch of rules: No existing host can be the host of a pilot, pilots can only be hosted by non-hosts, and a bunch of other fun stuff.”

The idea is to create an experimental space to better facilitate creative collaborations across shows, a dynamic that might find difficulty emerging when a workplace — even one developed for creative and editorial purposes — naturally slips into a configuration that feels like an assembly line.

“We feel like we have a lot of ideas burbling in the building, and when you’re in the churn of getting shows out every week, you don’t always have the time to come up and be tested,” said Lieber.

Gimlet’s Mix Week reminds me of stories about an internal competition that WNYC held a few years ago. Described to me as “an internal bake-off,” that event was led by Chris Bannon, formerly WNYC’s VP of content development and production and now Midroll’s chief content officer, with support from a seven-person internal committee. The competition directly resulted in the creation of Death, Sex, and Money (all hail Anna Sale! Did you hear she’s moving to the West Coast?) and indirectly in the creation of TLDR, the On The Media spinoff whose hosts would eventually go on to launch Reply All at Gimlet. A source has told me that WNYC management sent out a note a few weeks ago announcing the return of the bake-off, which will now apparently take place every six months.

This is all a fine reminder of a simple fact: Magical things happen when you give the talented people you hire the opportunity to stretch their muscles, try different things, and prove themselves.

The hosting platform holding up Serial. So I was surprised to learn last week that Serial, the biggest and most downloaded podcast today — unless that’s changed over the past month, which I highly doubt — is not being hosted on Podtrac, which proudly put the show forward as a key client during the IAB’s Podcast Upfronts last year. Instead, ever since the start of the second season, the show has been hosted on an experimental new platform developed by PRX, the friendly neighborhood public media company that’s also responsible for Radiotopia, your friendly neighborhood hippie podcast commune.

The platform, which is called Dovetail and also supports the Radiotopia podcast family, is supposedly designed for podcasts with extremely large audiences in mind, as PRX chief technology officer Andrew Kuklewicz told me over email. Interestingly, the platform is built to distribute both podcasts and broadcasts, a curious distinction that firmly differentiates it from the bevy of other hosting platforms that I’ve covered so far. There’s a lot more to Dovetail, I’m told, and you can read the totality of Kuklewicz’s extremely enthusiastic (and understandably pluggy) email in this Google Doc.

Public radio guidelines on podcast measurements. Last week, a group of North American public radio stations published a set of podcast measurement guidelines in a move to spur the industry to voluntarily adopt a standard. The publication was picked up by several publications — including Nieman Lab, of course — and on Friday, I put out my own two cents in an extra Hot Pod newsletter. In a nutshell: the guidelines were published as part of a move to inject more life into conversation happening within the Interactive Advertising Bureau, the industry association focused on digital media, which many major podcasting companies are hoping will serve as a reliable third-party arbiter of advertising standards in the emerging podcast industry.

You can read the extra newsletter, along with some pertinent reader responses, in this public Google Doc.

Google Play podcasts: They’re coming. Looks like you can’t have one streaming audio service without the other. Two weeks ago, Spotify indicated that it would finally be rolling out its long-awaited podcast feature (which, by the way, ended up being bundled together with video under an ecosystem labelled as “Shows”). According to its reported timeline, that rollout would have been completed across both iOS and Android platforms by the end of the last week. And now we’re hearing, perhaps accidentally, that Google Play Music’s own podcast rollout will take place by the end of February.

Here’s what we know, and how we know it:

  • Bill Simmons, the sports media personality and proprietor of the Bill Simmons Podcast Network (BSPN), tweeted out last Tuesday that his podcast “will be available on Google Play when GP launches its podcast platform later this month.” Simmons deleted the tweet shortly after, suggesting that the information wasn’t all that public just yet. The tweet was captured via screenshot by Droid-Life, an Android news site.
  • Parallel to this, several outlets — including Engadget, Ars Technica, and 9to5Google — have noted that some Google Play Music users are already seeing the podcast feature being supported on their app.
  • TechCrunch has confirmed that Google Play Music still has not officially launched podcast support, despite these podspottings.

That some Google Play Music users are seeing podcast support ahead of an official launch is not unusual; feature-testing among a small sample of live users is common practice, especially for big platforms that need initial data from the wild before a wider rollout.

Anyway, three things to consider:

  • The various write-ups describing the app’s intended podcast features — which note the inclusion of, among other things, podcast charts, a “featured” section, and an open inclusion policy — Google Play Music sounds strikingly similar in both policy and practice to the native iOS Podcasts app. From this, I suspect that the thinking is to do precisely for the Android ecosystem what the native iOS Podcasts app does in the Apple ecosystem, which has so far been a relatively untapped market. This leaves open the question of what Spotify’s strategy will adopt to approach the space. They presumably shouldn’t play in the same lane as the iOS Podcasts app or Google Play Music, but what options are they left with?
  • That Google Play Music will have its own podcast charts is exciting. The iTunes podcast charts have long been obsessed over by podcast producers everywhere, given its status as one of the sole public determinants of a podcast’s success in relation to others, for both creators and, unfortunately, the uninitiated press. However, how exactly the iTunes charts evaluate podcasts, both individually and in relation to each other, has long been mysterious, and the inclusion of a Google alternative would theoretically help producers better approximate the relative value of their podcasts — and, secondarily, challenge Apple’s passive dominance as the main value-attributor in the podcasting space. As of this writing, it doesn’t look like Spotify has its own charts feature.
  • The central question when it comes to these audio streaming services remains: Will their entrance into the podcast space actually move the needle? While it’s still extremely early, a few podcasters I’ve spoken with suggest that they’ve seen some encouraging signs. (No specific details were provided, unfortunately.)

Related bits:

  • I’ve really been digging Tumanbay, an extravagantly produced 10-part audio drama published by BBC Radio 4. Reminiscent of Game of Thrones — in terms of subject matter and political allegory, but not in adult-oriented excesses (how would you do that in audio anyway? that market remains open!) — it’s utterly fun and almost completely not cringeworthy, which I largely attribute to a finely-tuned modulation of the vocal performances. Highly recommended. Also, hat tip to Slate’s June Thomas, a native Britisher of fine Britishisms, for the fabulous hashtag #TotallyTumanbay. (BBC)
  • Have you seen the Art19 embeddable player? It looks pretty good. Two examples: one on Recode, one on Yahoo Sports.
  • How CNN and Washington Post are experimenting with voicemail for audio storytelling. (Journalism.co.uk)
  • Torey Malatia, CEO of Rhode Island Public Radio, explains his split with WBEZ. (Brown Daily Herald)
  • “Don’t ‘radiosplain’ and other ways to report on communities that aren’t your own.” (NPR Editorial Training)

Budweiser. Papa John’s. Gatorade. What a Sunday.

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Is “Why doesn’t audio go viral?” the wrong question to ask?

Acast hires WNYC’s Sarah van Mosel to head up revenue efforts. It’s been a while since I’ve heard something official coming out of Acast, the Swedish podcasting company looking to move into the American market. But when news comes, it comes with force, and often with the unfortunate side-effect of leaving my inbox in flames.

Here are the facts: Acast has hired Sarah van Mosel, currently WNYC’s vice president of sponsorships, to serve as the company’s chief commercial officer. She will lead up efforts to build company’s emerging U.S. business, which will likely involve some combination of figuring out revenue generators, partnerships to bolster audience growth, and strategies to increase the adoption rate of the company’s platform offering.

Which is all fine and dandy, but the role may sound somewhat generic at face value, so here’s the necessary context. Acast is probably best described as an end-to-end podcasting company with three core parts of the business: a platform for hosting and content consumption, a content network, and a programmatic ad sales service. Crucial to understanding the platform are two facts: First, the platform supports dynamic ad insertion, which gives rise to the possibility of programmatic advertising in spoken audio (thus placing it directly in competition with Panoply, my day-job employer, and its current technology play, which is due to feature a similar offering); and second, the platform further emphasizes accompanying non-audio assets meant to elevate the audio consumption experience — pictures, graphics, that sort of thing — that can only be viewed if you download the app. The precise value-add there is a little counterintuitive to me, but then again, I only started really understanding Snapchat, like, last month, so give this aging millennial a break.

van Mosel, then, appears to be taking a role where she has to:

  • configure the company’s opportunities for monetization such that they make equal sense to both advertisers and consumers;
  • convince as many potential content-creating partners to adopt the platform and the experimental hypotheses it’s placing bets on in the market (which will be translated into inventory for advertisers and content offering for listeners); and
  • squeeze out as much of that sweet, sweet cashola as possible.

It’s a pretty big job, to say the least.

Van Mosel jumped on the phone with me yesterday, and we talked about what she thinks are the primary points of opportunity. She singled out the value of dynamic ad insertion/programmatic advertising, which probably means pre-recorded spots separate from the core listening experience (and thus separate from the novel value that host-read ads brings to advertisers). She also talked about the potential for native integration and custom content. “All those things are on the table,” she said.

But still, when asked where she thought all of this podcasting business is going in the coming months, she said “dynamic ad insertion is where it’s going to be for anybody who has skin in the game”:

It’s going to be enormous. I think the thing that’s going to push it along is a unification of how we count our metrics, and how we come to an agreed upon a way to make an apples to apples to apples comparison. And the public radio community is extremely close to figuring it out themselves, and when that happens it’s going to trickle out to the other sectors.

Note to close podcast industry watchers: Watch the point about metric unification very closely. It’s a really big issue that’s holding the industry back a great deal, and my stomach has a distinct feeling something official and big is on the way on this front.

Van Mosel’s move to Acast was most likely catalyzed and facilitated by Caitlin Thompson, the company’s U.S. director of content, who had served as an executive editor at WNYC before leaving back in July. This is yet another notable management-level departure in recent months for the New York public radio giant, with van Mosel joining the ranks of folks like Chris Bannon (former vice president of content development and production, now at Midroll) and Ellen Horne (former Radiolab executive producer, now at Audible).

For their part, WNYC appears to have been hiring robustly — the station reached out to me yesterday with a partial list of recent hires, emphasizing that the list doesn’t even include all the “new people in the all the non-programming divisions such as The Greene Space, Sponsorship, Development, Board Relations, Finance, PR, Marketing and all the other functions that create an infrastructure that enables creative people to do what they do best.”

“[van Mosel’s move] might be a win-win for everybody,” said Margaret Hunt, WNYC’s VP of development, the nonprofit equivalent of chief revenue officer, who was also put in touch with me. Hunt mentioned that they were sad to see van Mosel go, but that they “have an opportunity now to bring in a real leader to oversee all the sponsorship revenue for both broadcast and digital.” I asked Hunt what, exactly, will they be looking for in a candidate. “Someone who’s experienced phases of high growth,” she said. “Someone who can be a real talent magnet.” They will be seeking candidates both internally and from the outside.

When asked why she decided to leave WNYC, van Mosel took her time before responding. “I’m incredibly passionate about podcasts,” she said. “And I know that I can, in this role, really take what I’ve learned over the past six years, take the best of it, and focus on what I’ve learned from the marketing community, the ad ops community, and burn away all the fat, keep the lean, and keep the best combination of things moving forward.”

“I have nothing but respect and esteem for the people in WNYC,” she continued. “I know they are going to continue to do great work, and they’re going to keep pushing the market forward.”

van Mosel’s last day at WNYC is December 17. She starts her role at Acast the very next day.

Another round for Gimlet. Whoaaaaaaaaaa. Gimlet Media, the HBO-AMC-Showtime of podcasting, sent an email out to its community last night announcing that the company will be raising an additional round of investment. This will be designated as a Series A round. Gimlet is also once again taking to Quire (formerly Alphaworks), an online investing platform, to open up investment opportunities to more people. Do note: To invest, there’s a minimum of $3,000, and you need to be an U.S. accredited investor.

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What’s a U.S. accredited investor, you ask? According to the Quire FAQ, the SEC defines the individual as “a person who has an individual net worth, or joint net worth with the person’s spouse, exceeding $1 million, excluding the value of their primary residence.” One can also be designated an accredited investor if her annual income exceeds $200,000 in each of the two most recent years.

*looks at my dinner of reheated pizza rolls* Nope. Not me.

More information about the round can be found in this week’s StartUp episode, which will drop on Thursday.

Towards a more intimate share. “The only way to grow social audio is slowly,” said Jessica Taylor, cofounder of an app called Rolltape, when we spoke over the phone recently. “And that’s not something most VCs want to hear.”

Rolltape is a peculiar and highly particular thing. Essentially, it’s an app that lets you send jazzed up voice messages to another person or a small group of people. (“It’s not broadcast, it’s not one-to-one. It’s one-to-few,” said Taylor. “We might go into broadcast at some point, if that makes sense.”) Voice messages on Rolltape are capped at five minutes, but users can elevate recordings using small design additions that are conceived to modify and enhance the experience of the message — a largely decorative color to accompany the file that suggests mood and emotional context, and a musical theme that’s automatically laid down in the background of the recording that introduces and then supports the clip throughout. It’s a little hard to explain, like the mechanics of a baseball pitch or a try of cricket, and yeah, well, it’s one of those things where you can only properly understand by trying it out yourself.

The app is not particularly unique in its take on audio as a social, mobile experience. Over the past few months, I’ve seen a couple of prototypes that take this bite-sized, augmented-by-other-media approach. Most have not been publicly rolled out yet. But the experience of listening to a Rolltape message as it is intended — sincerely, thoughtfully, slowly — is, to be perfectly honest, an astounding, almost transporting experience.

But what does this all have to do with podcasts, or audio more generally?

Like many in the podcast community, I’ve been thinking a lot about the notion of social audio; about questions of its ability to be shared or effectively transmitted, along with, of course, its potential for virality. The lead item of last week’s newsletter, “Why audio doesn’t go viral, revisited,” was a fortuitous happenstance, as the catalyzing incident — a Digg Dialog on an old inquiry into the matter — drummed up conversations that kickstarted my brain.

The conversation there left me compelled, in particular, by the logic and assumptions beneath what we’re talking about when we talk about sharing audio. Which is to say, I believe the question we’re really asking is: “Why can’t audio benefit from the social Internet the same way as video, images, or text?”

One of the big takeaways from the Digg discussion is that the Internet is principally visual. Extrapolating this thinking further, one could say that social platforms in particular participate in this extended privileging of the visual. (That video is now the principal growth medium, and the topic of frenzy for both publishers and Facebook alike, is indicative of this fact.) So in order to make audio more shareable, one would have to make audio more acceptable by the demands of these platforms: shorter, more visual, more skimmable, and so on.

One might say that these demands directly contradict what makes successful shows like Radiolab and This American Life so powerful and popular among listeners, what with their patience and conversational slack. One might also say that these digital realities are themselves opportunities for new types of audio content designed for the social landscape; there’s a reason, after all, that most Facebook video content produced by publishers borrow the same visual vocabulary, which is a vocabulary drastically different from film and television.

What Rolltape represents to me is an attempt to carve out a whole new digital space that requests a completely different kind of social interaction: again, sincerely, thoughtfully, slowly. If you don’t like the way the game is played, why not make your own?

Taylor interprets the current state of the social internet in…shall we say, sociological terms. Think about who created these social platforms, she said. “Text was created by white men. Twitter was created by white men. Facebook was created by white men. There is no coincidence that men created more of these transactional form of communications,” she continues. And this has shaped media consumption behaviors. “In the industry, everyone assumes that everyone wants quicker, shorter, faster.” Rolltape, then, is an expression of the other side of a dialectic.

I’m not sure what I think about that, but I can’t help feeling like I’m slightly convinced. (I’m also partially a Beyoncé baby truther, so I’m not the best reader of reality.) And I’m not sure whether Rolltape will ultimately be a thing — it is, in my opinion, still very early days for that company.

But I’m drawn to Taylor’s ultimate premise: the notion of resisting the pull of social, the notion of leaning deeper into the demand of audio to just take it slow. Now it’s just a matter of seeing whether I can make a living off this kind of thinking.

The Sarah Awards: the latest on the audio fiction front. It would seem that not even a domestic calamity can stop Ann Heppermann, a Brooklyn-based radio producer (and friend of Hot Pod) who is organizing the Sarah Lawrence College International Audio Fiction Awards that’s set to take place next year at WNYC’s Greene Space here in New York. The competition, by the way, is now officially open to submissions. Heppermann writes in:

Don’t know if this counts as an an official press release, but despite my apartment burning down The Sarah Awards is now accepting submissions! I didn’t even miss the deadline. Here’s the information.

F*CK YEAH! Glynn Washington agreed to host. I’ll have more details for you later but it’s going to be an epic, weird and amazing award ceremony on April 1.

We also announced our winner for the first Very, Very, Short, Short Story Contest, Ellie Gorden Moershel.

Check it out, folks!

Some fine numbers from Radiotopia’s latest crowdfunding campaign. I’m late to this (yikes!), but November 19 saw the conclusion of PRX’s second major fundraiser for Radiotopia, its beloved podcast network/indie label/hippie commune. This year’s campaign saw over 19,612 contributors on the CommitChange platform, which is a little less than the 21,808 backers that contributed to last year’s record-breaking Kickstarter campaign. It’s hard to do an apples-to-apples comparison, given that CommitChange emphasizes recurring donations while Kickstarter is structured more for dense one-time donation campaign runs. But observers may be intrigued to learn from a PRX blog post that 82 percent of contributors signed on as recurring donors. Yowza.

The co-opting of the public radio pledge drive model lives on!

You should check out the blog post in full, as it contains an assortment of lessons that the PRX team learned over the course of this year’s campaign.

Nieman Lab on GE and Panoply’s branded content play. Laura Hazard Owen with that sweet, sweet coverage. Check out the whole article, but here’s the money:

If sponsored content is now considered old news in the world of text-based online media, it’s still a fairly new prospect when it comes to big brands funding podcasts. But it’s likely that this model will come to coexist alongside other podcast business models, like host-read advertisements, programmatic advertising, and reader donations or paywalls.

Cooool beans.

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