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Serial returned with its highly-anticipated third season last Thursday, and what a return it was: each of the first two episodes of Serial’s latest season brought in over 1.4 million global unique downloads within the first fourteen hours of publication. I wrote about the numbers for Vulture, but here are the specific counts: the first episode, “A Bar Fight Walks Into the Justice Center,” saw around 1.46 million unique first-day downloads, according to Podtrac numbers provided to Vulture. The second episode, “You’ve Got Some Gauls,” brought in around 1.43 million unique first-day downloads.
In comparison, the first episode of the second season garnered around 1.34 million unique downloads on its first day, which means that Serial’s third season scored the podcast’s biggest debut yet. (Wanna know something crazy? The very first episode of Serial only brought in 86,000 downloads on day one. Wild.) Anyway, those numbers are verified by Podtrac, which switched over to GMT cutoff times earlier this year — hence the fourteen hour time-frame.
In case you missed it: Serial is coming back for its long-awaited third season later this month. Announced last Wednesday, the news was well-documented by mainstream outlets like Variety, the Hollywood Reporter, Elle, Cleveland Magazine, and the New York Times — I wrote up a preview for Vulture, too — but if you didn’t manage to get to them, here are the basics:
- The season will drop its first two episodes on September 20, before releasing new episodes every Thursday.
- It will dive into the infinitely complex topic of the American justice system by delivering weekly stories from inside the courts of the ordinary, everyday city of Cleveland, Ohio.
- Emmanuel Dzotsi, a This American Life staffer and Ohio native, joins Sarah Koenig as the co-reporter for the season. Word has it that the dude moved to Cleveland for the past year to cover the courts.
- ZipRecruiter will serve as the exclusive sponsor for the season. Public Media Marketing facilitated that deal.
Also: the new season sees Serial continuing its “exclusive streaming partnership” with Pandora. The same partnership was announced with Season Two, and back then, the arrangement caused some confusion: what does it mean to be a Pandora streaming exclusive when you can still download episodes with podcast apps? A rep told me: “According to Pandora, no other audio streaming services will have Serial. Since Pandora is the only streaming partner, Serial 3 won’t be available on Apple Music, Spotify, etc.” (That’s Apple *Music*, by the way, not Apple Podcasts.) This means a little more nowadays than it did back then, I think, as we’ve come to see increasing podcast-related activities from music streaming platforms. Still feels like hair-splitting, though, particularly as we continue to move down a path where everything seems to be converging anyway.
I’ve put together a story about the ZipRecruiter deal, but before we get to that, a quick thought:
It’s remarkable to look back at just how basic the premise behind Serial was when it was first announced in the summer of 2014. “What’s different about Serial is that it’s a story that takes a dozen or so episodes to tell,” This American Life chief Ira Glass wrote in a blog post from the time. “So each new episode brings you the next chapter of this amazing, unfolding story. Serial’s a podcast, not a radio show, because a podcast seems like a better place for a long story that you need to hear from the beginning.”
The pitch wasn’t a What, but a How — not the birth of something new, but an expansion of something that existed. How an emerging technology could contribute to the show’s ever-growing editorial ambitions. This American Life was almost two-decades old by that point, a period throughout which the show had continuously refined itself within the programming logic of linear broadcast radio: producing captivating multi-segmented hours designed to catch earballs foraging through the dial. If you missed a story, you missed it, but it’s okay: there’s another good one in a few minutes. Maybe you’ll bump it into that earlier story some day, if it reruns.
That was, of course, a limitation of the broadcast structure. And to be sure, limitations are productive: there’s that pablum people say about creative constraints, et cetera et cetera. But there’s a limit to the ambitions that every structure can accommodate: there may well remain many more frontiers for narrative storytelling on broadcast radio to discover, but there are some frontiers you just can’t reach with it. You probably can’t, for example, present a deeply complicated, nuanced, and novelistic multipart Southern Gothic about the extraordinariness of an ordinary life over the broadcast airwaves of, say, KOSU. Not efficiently, anyway.
It should be said that the growth, development, and flourishing of podcasting long predated Serial’s debut in the fall of 2014. But the explosive popularity of that first season nonetheless looms over a good deal of what came after: we continue to see it firmly alive in the minds (and hunger) of countless competitors, disciples, imitators to this day. In the end, the true heart of Serial’s intent, and legacy, can perhaps be phrased as such: what if ambition, but more?
Let’s start with the obvious question: is ZipRecruiter’s exclusive sponsorship of Serial’s third season the largest podcast ad deal to date? Let’s also be prudent and invoke a qualifier: is it the largest launch ad deal to date, given the existence of other deal types like recurrings and branded content?
“I don’t believe there has even been a larger podcast sponsorship in audience reach exclusivity term or financial commitment,” said David Raphael, the president of Public Media Marketing, who took the podcast out to marketplace. “Yes, there have been branded content programs contracted by brand sponsors, some of them quite good. That said, I’m confident that to date none have ever reached the size and scale of the Serial audience nor matched the content produced by Sarah Koenig and her team at Serial.”
And to answer the other obvious question: no, he could not provide specific numbers. Alas.
It is hard, of course, to fully verify a claim like this without having omniscient access to everybody’s books, and when dealing with a question like this, one must account for the fact that muscle flexing is part of the point of a given quote. For what it’s worth, I asked around, and though there were some qualifications, there was also a general consensus that this, indeed, is very probably the biggest deal to date.
In case you were wondering, how these things happen is pretty straightforward: Public Media Marketing sits down with the Serial team, discusses revenue goals, puts together a revenue package to sell, and brings it to potential advertisers. They ended up receiving multiple offers, but chose ZipRecruiter because, as Raphael puts it, theirs was “the most interesting.”
“It isn’t just about financial size,” said Raphael, when asked about what “the most interesting” meant. “It’s the ability to put together a mass reach package for a sponsor that wants ownership at a high level.” Kind of like what happened with Mailchimp and the first season, he added, though, admittedly, “as Bob Ross said, that was a happy accident.”
Interesting-ness, it seems, also translates to a willingness around creative collaboration. Though hosts Koenig and Dzotsi will not voice the ads — journalistic ethics and so on — Serial’s creative team will be contributing to the development on those advertising spots, with ZipRecruiter providing a good deal of freedom and additional collaboration around a multi-platform creative campaign.
On Thursday, ZipRecruiter tweeted out a preview of what that ad experience looks like: a show within a show called Road to Hired. The concept sounds reminiscent of the Ford ads Gimlet produced for Startup, though the question here, for me anyway, is tone-control: unlike Startup, Serial often deals with deadly serious material, and the thing to watch is whether the show will be able to toggle between its investigation and ZipRecruiter’s brand messaging without feeling too weird.
Anyway, I’m told that the deal’s exclusivity is based on a combination of time and impressions, and that it applies for every podcast distribution platform except for Pandora, which will have the ability to sell inventory around the show on its own platform to its own sponsors, provided they are not competitive with ZipRecruiter. Raphael expects the ZipRecruiter ads to run on the podcast for at least six months.
Some readers wrote in noting the fact that ZipRecruiter, a long-time direct response advertiser on podcasts, ended up headlining Serial’s highly anticipated third season feels a little underwhelming, especially given the industry’s overarching pursuit of brand dollars. I find the situation curious as well. We’ve seen numerous major brands begin invest in branded podcasts and host-reads — surely those advertisers have warmed up enough to put up numbers for something like Serial by now, right?
Raphael evoked the sense that we’re still very much in uncharted waters with a package like Serial’s third season, which commits to Big Numbers out of the gate and asks for Big Money in return. “Candidly, when you’re selling a podcast package of this size and scale, it’s a little unprecedented,” said Raphael. The reality, he argues, remains that legacy advertisers are still dipping their toes, and they continue to grapple with prevailing doubts: “One of the issues we face a lot — and this goes back for years — is that large, traditional brand advertisers still think podcasts are not able to reach hundreds of millions of impressions.”
“We can do that [consistently] now,” he said, pointing to the podcast’s first two seasons and its spin-off, S-Town.
In any case, Raphael added, focusing completely on brands is besides the point. “I’m not one of those reps who believe brands are going to be the whole future of this industry,” he said. “Direct response advertisers are still going to be a big part of it — in order to maintain a healthy ecosystem, you need a good mix.”
Subscribe to Hot Pod Insider to read on.
Subscribe to Hot Pod Insider to read on.
MEASUREMENT BITE. Been a while since we’ve checked back into what is arguably the most important subject in the podcast business. Let’s fix that, shall we?
“The good news for podcasters and buyers is measurement challenges are 97 percent solved,” Midroll Media CRO Lex Friedman said on a podcast panel at the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) Show last week. “What we can report now is more specific than we could before.” You can find the quote in this Inside Radio writeup on the panel.
Be that as it may, there’s still some work left to be done. I reached out to Friedman for his perspective on what constitutes the remaining 3 percent of the challenges left to be solved, and here’s his response (pardon the customary Midroll spin):
In TV today, advertisers would struggle if NBC used Nielsen ratings, and ABC used Nielsen but with a different methodology, and CBS used some other company’s measurement technology.
Today in podcasting, the measurement problem is solved; the remaining 3 percent is getting everyone standardized. It doesn’t happen often, but every once in a while, Midroll loses a show to a competitor. When we sell a show at 450,000 downloads, and the next day the same show and same feed is being sold at 700,000 downloads, that’s a problem.
The IAB’s recommended a 24-hour measurement window, while some folks still advocate for 60 minutes or two hours, and too many vendors continue to sell at 5 minutes, which we universally know is way too liberal a count. That’s unfair and confusing to advertisers, and that’s the piece that needs fixing.
That’s no small 3 percent, in my opinion.
Anyway, if you’re new to the podcast measurement problem, my column from February 2016 — back when a group of public radio stations published a set of guidelines on the best way for podcast companies to measure listenership — still holds up as a solid primer on the topic, if I do say so myself.
Fool’s gold? Something else to note from Inside Radio’s article on the NAB panel: a strong indication, delivered by Triton Digital president of market development John Rosso, that there is increasing demand for programmatic podcast advertising.
Programmatic advertising is a system by which ads are automatically bought and sold through algorithmic processes. In other words, it’s a monetization environment where the facilitation of advertising value exchange is automated away from human interaction. The principal upside that comes with programmatic advertising is efficiency: As an advertiser, you theoretically don’t have to spend a lot of time identifying, contacting, and executing buys, and as a publisher, you theoretically don’t have to spend a lot of time doing those things in the opposite direction. In theory, both sides don’t have to do much more work for a lot more money. But the principal downside is the ensuing experience on listener-side, and all the ramifications that fall from a slide in said experience: Because these transactions are machine-automated, there’s no human consideration governing the aesthetic intentionality of an advertising experience paired with the specific contexts of a given podcast.
Combine this with the core assumptions of what makes podcasting uniquely valuable as a media product — that it engenders deeper experiences of intimacy between creator and listener, that its strength is built on the cultivated simulacra of personal trust between the two parties, that any podcast advertising spot is a heavy act of value extraction from the relationship developed between the two sides — and you have a situation where a digital advertising technology is being considered for a medium to which its value propositions are diametrically opposed.
The underlying problem, put simply: Can you artificially scale up podcasting’s advertising supply without compromising its underlying value proposition? To phrase the problem in another direction: Can you develop a new advertising product that’s able to correspondingly scale up intimacy, trust, and relationship-depth between podcast creator and consumer?
The answer for both things may well be no, and that perhaps the move shouldn’t be to prescribe square pegs for round holes. Or maybe the response we’ll see will sound more like “the way we’re doing things isn’t sustainable, we’re going to have to make more money somehow” with the end result being an identity-collapsing shift in the defining characteristics of this fledgling medium. In which case: Bummer, dude.
Binge-Drop Murphies. Gimlet announced its spring slate last week, and two out of three of them, the audio drama Sandra and the Lynn Levy special The Habitat, will be released in their entirety tomorrow. When asked about the choice to go with the binge-drop, Gimlet president Matt Lieber tells me:
We decided to binge both The Habitat and Sandra because we felt that they were both so engrossing and engaging, so we wanted to give the listener the decision to either power through all the episodes, or sample and consume at their own pace. Sandra is our second scripted fiction series and we know from our first, Homecoming, that a lot of people chose to binge the series after it was out in full. With The Habitat, it’s such a unique and immersive miniseries, and we wanted to give listeners the chance to get lost in the world by listening all at once.
Grab your space suits, fellas.
The beautiful game. The third show in Gimlet’s spring bundle is We Came To Win, the company’s first sports show, which promises to deliver stories on the most memorable soccer matches in history. The press release appears to be playing up the universal angle of the sport: “Soccer is a sport that is about so much more than goals. It’s about continents, countries, characters, and the relationships between them.” (I mean, yeah.)
In an interesting bit of mind-meld, Gimlet’s first foray into sports mirrors WNYC Studios’ own maiden voyage into the world of physical human competition. Sometime this spring, the New York public radio station will roll out its own World Cup-timed narrative podcast, a collaboration with Men in Blazers’ Roger Bennett that will look the U.S. Men’s National Soccer Team’s journey from its triumphant 1994 World cup appearance to its doomed 1998 campaign. (Yikes.)
Public radio genes run deep.
Peabody nominations. The 2017 nominations were announced last week, and interestingly enough, six out of the eight entries in the Radio/Podcast category are either podcast-only or podcast-first. The nominees are: Radiotopia’s Ear Hustle, Minnesota Public Radio’s 74 Seconds, Serial Productions’ S-Town, the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University’s Scene on Radio: Seeing White, Gimlet’s Uncivil, and Louisville Public Media/Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting’s “The Pope’s Long Con.
Notes on The Pope’s Long Con. It was an unbelievable story with unthinkable consequences. Produced by the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting (KyCIR) and Louisville Public Media, The Pope’s Long Con was the product of a seven-month long investigation into Dan Johnson, a controversial bishop-turned-Kentucky state representative shrouded in corruption, deceit, and an allegation of sexual assault. KyCIR’s feature went live on December 11, bringing Johnson’s story — and the allegations against him — into the spotlight. The impact was explosive, leading to immediate calls for Johnson to resign. He denied the allegations at a press conference. Two days later, Johnson committed suicide.
It was “any journalist’s nightmare,” as KyCIR’s managing editor Brendan McCarthy told CJR in an article about how the newsroom grappled with the aftermath of its reporting. (Which, by the way, you should absolutely read.)
In light of those circumstances, the podcast’s Peabody nomination feels especially well-deserved. It’s also a remarkable achievement for a public radio station relatively new to podcasting. “The Pope’s Long Con was the first heavy-lift podcast Louisville Public Media had undertaken,” Sean Cannon, a senior digital strategist at the organization and creative director of the podcast, tells me. “It didn’t start out as one though…Audio was planned, but it was a secondary concern. Once we realized the scope and gravity of it all, we knew everything had to be built around the podcast.”
When I asked Cannon how he feels about the nomination, he replied:
Given the situation surrounding the story, it’s still a confusing mix of emotions to see The Pope’s Long Con reach the heights it has. That said, we’re all immensely proud of the work we did. It’s necessary to hold our elected officials accountable.
In the context of the podcast industry, it taught me a lesson that can be easy to forget. I was worried the hierarchy of publishers had become too calcified, rendering it almost impossible for anyone below the top rungs to make serious waves — without a thick wallet, anyway. It’s a topic that comes up regularly in Hot Pod.
While the industry will never purely be a meritocracy, The Pope’s Long Con shattered that perception. It served as a reminder of something that gets glossed over when you’re caught up in the business of it all: If you can create compelling audio, that trumps everything else.
Tip of the hat, Louisville.
Crooked Media expands into film. According to The Hollywood Reporter, the media (political activism?) company will be co-producing a new feature documentary on Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke’s bid to unseat Senator Ted Cruz in the upcoming midterm elections. This extends on Crooked Media’s previous adventures in video, which already involve a series of HBO specials to be taped across the country amidst the run-up to midterms.
A quick nod to Pod Save America’s roots as The Ringer’s Keepin’ It 1600 here: Crooked Media will likely crib from the playbook The Ringer built around the recent Andre the Giant HBO documentary, which was executive produced by Ringer CEO Bill Simmons, where the latter project received copious promotion through The Ringer website and podcast network. What’s especially interesting about that whole situation is the way it is essentially a wholesale execution of what I took as the principal ideas from the analyst Ben Thompson’s 2015 post “Grantland and the (Surprising) Future of Publishing.”
I’m not sure if I’d personally watch a Beto O’Rourke doc — the dude has been a particularly vibrant entry into the “blue hope in red country” political media subgenre for a long while now, and I’m tapping out — but Pod Save America listeners most definitely would.
Empire on Blood. My latest for Vulture is a review of the new seven-part Panoply podcast, which I thought was interesting enough as a pulpy doc but deeply frustrating in how the show handles its power and positioning. It’s a weird situation: I really liked host Steve Fishman’s writing, and I really liked the tape gathered, but the two things really shouldn’t have been paired up this way.
The state of true crime podcasts. You know you’re neck-deep in something when you can throw out random words and land close to an actual example of that something: White Wine True Crime, Wine & Crime, Up & Vanished, The Vanished, Real Crime Profile, True Crime Garage, Crimetown, Small Town Murders, and so on. (This is a general observation that goes well beyond true crime pods. Cryptocurrencies: Sumokoin, Dogecoin, PotCoin. Food startups: Plated, Pantry, PlateIQ. Names: Kevin.)
Anyway, I’ve said it once, and I’ll say it again: True crime is the bloody, bleeding heart of podcasting, a genre that’s proliferating with a velocity so tremendous it could power a dying sun. And in my view, true crime podcasts are also a solid microcosm of the podcast universe as a whole: What happens there, happens everywhere.
When it comes to thinking about true crime podcasts, there are few people whose opinions I trust more than crime author, podcaster, and New Hampshire Public Radio digital director Rebecca Lavoie. As the cohost of the indispensable weekly conversational podcast Crime Writers On… — which began life as Crime Writers On Serial, a companion piece to the breakout 2014 podcast phenomenon — Lavoie consumes and thinks a lot about true crime and true crime podcasts specifically.
I touched base with Lavoie recently to get the latest on what’s been going on in her neck of the woods:
[conl]Hot Pod: In your view, how has the true crime podcast genre evolved over the past four years or so?[/conl]
[conr]Rebecca Lavoie: It’s evolved in a few directions — some great, some…not so much.
On the one hand (and most wonderfully), we have journalism and media outlets who would never have touched the true crime genre a few years ago making true crime podcasts based on the tenets of great reporting and production. And when it comes to the “never would have touched it” part, I know what I’m talking about. Long before I was a podcaster, I was the coauthor of several mass-market true crime books while also working on a public radio show. Until Criminal was released and enjoyed some success, public radio and true crime never crossed streams, to an extent where I would literally avoid discussing my true crime reporting at work — it was looked down upon, frankly.
Today, though, that kind of journalistic snobbery is almost non-existent, and podcasts (especially Criminal and Serial) can claim 100 percent responsibility for that. Shows that exist today as a result of this change include Accused from the Cincinnati Enquirer, West Cork from Audible, Breakdown from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, In the Dark from APM reports, and the CBC’s recent series Missing & Murdered. (And yes, even the public radio station where I still work — now on the digital side — is developing a true crime podcast!)
Credit is also due to Serial for the way journalism podcasts are being framed as true crime when they wouldn’t have been in a pre-Serial era. Take Slow Burn from Slate, which is the best podcast I’ve heard in the past year or two. While the Watergate story would have been so easy to frame as a straight political scandal, the angles and prose techniques used in Slow Burn have all the hallmarks of a great true crime narrative — and I’m pretty sure the success of that show was, at least in part, a result of that.
Of course, where you have ambitious, high-quality work, you inevitably have ambitious terrible work, right? It’s true, there are very big and very bad true crime podcasts being produced at an astonishing rate right now, and because they have affiliation with established networks, these shows get a lot of promotion. But as much as I might personally love to hate some of these terrible shows (I’m talking to YOU, Atlanta Monster!) I do see some value in their existence.
I think about it the same way I think about movies: Not every successful big budget blockbuster is a good movie, but ultimately, those films can serve to raise the profile and profitability of the movie industry as a whole, and help audiences discover other, higher-quality content.[/conr]
[conl]Hot Pod: What do you think are the more troubling trends in how true crime podcasts have evolved?[/conl]
[conr]Lavoie: One is what I see as a glut of podcasts that are, quite frankly, building audience by boldly recycling the work of others. Sword & Scale is a much-talked-about example of that, but it’s not even the worst I’ve come across. There was a recent incident in which a listener pointed me to a monetized show in which the host simply read, word for word, articles published in magazines and newspapers — and I can’t help but wonder how pervasive that is. My hope is that at some point, the transcription technologies we’re now seeing emerge can somehow be deployed to scan audio for plagiarism, similar to the way YouTube scans videos for copyright infringement.
But there’s another trend that, for me, is even more troubling. There’s been a recent and massive growth of corporate podcast networks that are building their businesses on what I can only compare to the James Patterson book factory model — basically saying to creators, “Hey, if you think you have a story, partner with us and we’ll help you make, distribute, and monetize your podcast — and we’ll even slap our name on it!”
This, unfortunately, seems to be what’s behind a recent spate of shows that, in the hands of a more caring set of producers, could have (maybe?) been good, but ultimately, the podcasts end up being soulless, flat, “why did they make it at all” experiences.
Why is this the most upsetting trend for me? First, because good journalists are sometimes tied to these factory-made shows, and the podcasts aren’t doing them, or their outlets, or the podcast audience as a whole any favors.
The other part of it is that these networks have a lot of marketing pull with podcast platforms that can make or break shows by featuring them at the top of the apps. These marketing relationships with Apple etc. mean factory networks have a tremendous advantage in getting their shows front and center. But ultimately, many of the true crime podcasts getting pushed on podcast apps are very, very bad, and I can’t imagine a world in which a lot of bad content will end up cultivating a smart and sustainable audience.[/conr]
[conl]Hot Pod: In your opinion, what were the most significant true crime podcasts in recent years?[/conl]
[conr]Lavoie: In the Dark by APM Reports is up there. What I love about that show is that they approached the Jacob Wetterling story with an unusual central question: Why wasn’t this case solved? (Of course, they also caught the incredibly fortunate break of the case actually being solved, but I digress…) Theirs is a FAR more interesting question than, say, “What actually happened to this missing person?” Or “Is this person really guilty?” Of course, In the Dark also had the benefit of access to a talented public media newsroom, and I really enjoyed how they folded data reporting into that story.
I most often tell people that after Serial season one, my favorite true crime podcast of all time is the first season of Accused. Not only do I love that show because it looks at an interesting unsolved case, but I love it because it was made by two women, seasoned newspaper journalists, with no podcasting experience. Amber Hunt is a natural storyteller and did an amazing job injecting a tremendous amount of humanity and badass investigative journalism skills into that story. It’s not perfect, but to me, its imperfections are a big part of what makes it extraordinary.
More recently, I’ve really enjoyed the shows I mentioned above, including West Cork and Missing & Murdered. But when it comes to significance, Slow Burn is the most understated and excellent audio work I’ve heard in a long time. I loved every minute of it. I think that Slate team has raised the bar on telling historical crime stories, and we’re the better for it.[/conr]
[conl]Hot Pod: What do you generally want to see more of from true crime podcasts?[/conl]
[conr]Lavoie: I want to see more new approaches and formal risk-taking, and more integrity, journalistic and otherwise.
One of my favorite podcasts to talk about is Breakdown from the AJC. Bill Rankin is the opposite of a radio reporter — he has a folksy voice and a writing style much more suited to print. But beginning in season one, he’s been very transparent about the challenges he’s faced while making the show. He’s also, as listeners quickly learned, an incredible reporter with incredible values. That show has embraced multiple formats and allowed itself to evolve — and with a couple of exceptions, Bill’s voice and heart have been at the center of it.
I’d also love to see some trends go away, most of all, this idea of podcast host as “Hey, I’m not a podcaster or a journalist or really anyone at all but LET’S DO THIS, GUYS” gung-ho investigator.
Don’t get me wrong, some really good podcasts have started with people without a lot of audio or reporting experience, but they aren’t good because the person making them celebrates sounding like an amateur after making dozens of episodes.[/conr]
Again, you can find Lavoie on Crime Writers On…, where she is joined every week by: Kevin Flynn, her true crime coauthor (and “former TV reporter husband,” she adds); Toby Ball, a fiction writer; and Lara Bricker, a licensed private investigator and fellow true crime writer. Lavoie also produces a number of other podcast projects, including: …These Are Their Stories: The Law & Order Podcast, HGTV & Me, and Married With Podcast for Stitcher Premium.
On a related note: The New York Times’ Jonah Bromwich wrote a quick piece on the Parcast network, described as “one of several new networks saturating the audio market with podcasts whose lurid storylines play out like snackable television.” The article also contains my successful effort at being quoted in ALL CAPS in the Times.
- This year’s Maximum Fun Drive has successfully accrued over 28,000 new and upgrading members. (Twitter) Congrats to the team.
- WBUR is organizing what it’s calling the “first-ever children’s podcast festival” on April 28 and 29. Called “The Mega Awesome Super Huge Wicked Fun Podcast Playdate” — shouts to whoever came up with that — the festival will be held at the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline, Massachusetts and will feature shows like Eleanor Amplified, Story Pirates, But Why, and Circle Round, among others. (Website)
- “Bloomberg expands TicToc to podcasts, newsletters.” For the uninitiated: TicToc is Bloomberg’s live-streaming video news channel that’s principally distributed over Twitter. On the audio side, the expansion appears to include podcast repackages and a smart-speaker experiment. (Axios)
- American Public Media is leaning on Westwood One to handle advertising for the second season of its hit podcast In The Dark. Interesting choice. The new season drops next week. (AdWeek)
- I’m keeping an eye on this: Death in Ice Valley, an intriguing collaboration between the BBC and Norway’s NRK, debuted yesterday. (BBC)
- Anchor rolls out a feature that helps its users find…a cohost? Yet another indication that the platform is in the business of building a whole new social media experience as opposed to something that directly relates to podcasting. (TechCrunch)
- On The New York Times’ marketing campaign for Caliphate: “The Times got some early buzz for the podcast before its launch; 15,000 people have signed up for a newsletter that will notify them when a new episode is ready, twice as many as expected.” (Digiday)
- “Alexa Is a Revelation for the Blind,” writes Ian Bogost in The Atlantic.
[photocredit]Photo of a tape measure by catd_mitchell used under a Creative Commons license.[/photocredit]
Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 127, published July 11, 2017.
The IAB has announced the lineup for its third-annual podcast upfront, and it boasts some changes. Gimlet, Public Media Marketing, and iHeartRadio are added to the mix, while CBS and AdLarge appear to be sitting this one out. This year’s festivities will take place on September 7 at Time Inc.’s Henry R. Luce Auditorium in New York. As you might recall, I wasn’t much of a fan of last year’s proceedings. Details here.
Gimlet’s diversity report. The company revisited the issue in a recent AMA-style episode of StartUp — after its first dive into the topic back in December 2015 — and the big picture is more or less what you’d expect: still not great, but better than the last time. Poynter has a good summary of the segment, and I’d like to state here that it’s interesting how you can basically evaluate the company based on two public fronts: There are the numbers, and there’s the way Alex Blumberg, as CEO and narrator and one of the producers of the episode (presumably), talks about the numbers. For what it’s worth, I’m still mulling over what both things tell us about how the company thinks about diversity, and the extent to which we can productively regard them as adequate or insufficient. The reality is what it is — imperfect. But more importantly, do we trust the process?
Notably, Gimlet followed up the segment with a more productive move: They posted the hard numbers and statistics on the company website. It gives us specific insight into how the company thinks about diversity in policy and on paper at this point in time. And so we’re able to go a little deeper beyond “still not great, but improving”; indeed, Gimlet’s makeup is still fairly homogenous in that the staff remains heavily white, and though it does appear that the company’s breakdown skews more female, front-of-mic talent still skews white and male. (For a company in the content business, that front-of-mic representation really matters.) The numbers also let us see how they track the metric, and there’s room to take some issue here: personally, I’ve always found that broadly tying the classical demographics — male and female, different census categories of ethnicities, and so on — is incredibly limiting, given the shifting, intersectional, and multi-dimensional nature of power positions and many permutations of diversity that fall from it. For what it’s worth, the company acknowledges that in the segment (and further, when we spoke about it over the phone), and again, the question remains whether you, personally, trust the process.
In any case, credit should be given where due: Thanks to Gimlet, we now have a public baseline for the rest of the private podcast industry. The public posting of the report is good practice for an ecosystem frequently criticized for being overwhelming white and male, and I highly encourage other companies to conduct similar publicly-available reports on their own operations. I will, for what it’s worth, be poking around to check on whether other companies will be doing so.
What happened the last time. Nieman Lab ran this great piece by Gabe Bullard last week: “Here’s what happened the last time audio producers got better data,” which sought to tell the story of broadcast radio when it experienced its own step-up in metrics to say something about what’s going to happen to podcasts. There’s not much in here that hasn’t already been talked through in previous Hot Pod issues (show resizing, over-emphasis on metrics concerns, and so on), but it’s still cool to see the story from the other side.
That said, it’s worth pointing out two governing themes that loom large over these narratives about data. On the one hand, there’s a general feeling of anxiety over the change it brings; on the other hand, there’s a specific concern about opening the system up to being deleteriously gamed. I don’t think much of either theme. Change is a constant, as they say, and the podcast ecosystem in its current state is already well gamed on its own terms. We see this even in something like the widespread presence of the true crime genre and the cottage industry of podcasts about Serial, and in the many ways the Apple podcast charts have been worked. Further, the gaming of systems is a constant through human endeavor, one imagines. We already see that with Spotify and television ratings, though you can’t quite make the argument that it significantly compromises the business of music or television. The bigger story, I think, should be less about the changing systems and more about building structures of collective responsibility around those systems; less about how the system shifts, and more about what we should be doing in response.
SoundCloud is laying off 40 percent of its workforce, the company announced in a blog post last Thursday. The cuts are apparently a defensive move to maintain its independence in the face of an increasingly difficult online music market, as The New York Times notes. The company provided assurances that it will remain in business, but whether that’s really the case for the platform remains to be seen. In the meantime, it might be a prudent move for publishers using SoundCloud as their primary hosting platform — of which there are many, from small independents to the Loud Speakers Network — to consider contingencies.
Career Spotlight. There are freelancers, and then there are podcast showrunners. This week, I had the pleasure of running this Q&A with Gina Delvac, the L.A.-based producer who quarterbacks the popular Call Your Girlfriend podcast.
[conl]Hot Pod: Tell me about your current situation.[/conl]
[conr]Gina Delvac: I’m a podcast showrunner. Like the creative-meets-editorial-meets-business role that many TV show creators play, I work with brilliant hosts to make podcasts that best showcase their talents and interests.
The two shows I’m most focused on right now are:
- Call Your Girlfriend, the podcast Aminatou Sow, Ann Friedman, and I created in 2014. We explore the news and pop culture and our periods, and Amina and Ann have really intimate, smart, and fun weekly conversations along the way. A podcast for long-distance besties everywhere.
- And Pitch Makeover, a project hosted and conceived by Natalia Oberti Noguera and which launched in May. Styled like a fashion makeover, Natalia offers targeted and insightful feedback to startup founders about their 60-second business pitches. If you love tech but are feeling rightly sick about its culture of discrimination and harassment, you might find a little glimmer of hope between Natalia’s infectious energy and our slate of women and nonbinary founders.
In the day-to-day, that includes a little bit of everything for Call Your Girlfriend: high-level editorial, editing, and mixing, and a bunch of meetings and admin on the business side, too. For Pitch Makeover, I work closely with Natalia to record and edit each episode. (I’ve even co-hosted).[/conr]
[conl]HP: How did you get to this point? What does your career arc look like — where did you start, and how did you end up in this position?[/conl]
[conr]Delvac: It started with bankruptcy. Okay, not mine. I was working as a paralegal at a legal aid clinic in 2008, fresh out of college and watching the economy collapsing. What I was reading in The New York Times didn’t square with what my bankruptcy clients described on a daily basis: thousands of dollars of credit issued to people living on SSI. Utility shutoffs that jeopardized the housing of single moms. The transference of debt from one collector to the next to the next.
When This American Life did their Giant Pool of Money story, I remember I was wandering down Benjamin Franklin Parkway (yes, toward the Rocky steps), listening to this podcast that was finally, finally explaining what the hell was going on. And it did it in a way that connected Wall Streeters to young college grads like me to my clients who were living in poverty. Of course, this essential style of documentary but accessible reporting became Planet Money.
It took me a while to discover who these public radio producer people were and what they actually did, so when I moved home in Los Angeles in 2009, I started interning at KPCC, which I did for 18 months, something I was able to do thanks only to my mom letting me live in her basement (literally) in exchange for paying the gas bill.
Once I had some basic editorial chops and booking experience, I started down the freelance public radio path that so many producers have trodden. Picking up days when I could, taking the longest stints, trying to learn as much as possible and work on different types of shows, including Marketplace, where I really cut my teeth as a journalist and producer.
My first real podcasting job was working with tech investor Jason Calacanis on his long-running show This Week in Startups. There, I learned the startup beat, got to interact with a totally different kind of superfan, and saw the insane drive and energy that so many entrepreneurs have. During that time, Aminatou and Ann and I started talking more seriously about Call Your Girlfriend. Being around founders all the time definitely made it seem like a no-brainer to quit my day job and get way more serious about my passion project.
It would be easy to pretend here that Call Your Girlfriend was an instant success and money-maker. While we found an audience early on, we didn’t turn a profit for over a year and all worked multiple jobs throughout. We love making the show but no one counts on it like a fulltime job. (More on this in our Businesswoman Special episode).[/conr]
[conl]HP: How did you learn to do the job that you do today?[/conl]
[conr]Delvac: After benefiting from the wisdom of so many people at KPCC (notably my bosses Linda Othenin-Girard and Kristen Muller and my then-fellow-interns Lauren Osen and Arwen Nicks) I got a chance to start filling in at Marketplace.
What began as a two week “we’ll try you out, kid” fill-in run, turned into months of steady freelance work. Megan Larson (now at KPCC), Sitara Nieves, and Kai Ryssdal took insane chances on the weird skits I wrote and field production ideas I pitched while I was still so green. They also taught me how to edit with a reliable and steady ear on a fierce deadline.
Later, I got a chance to work on the beginnings of the Wealth and Poverty Desk, and then its first standalone podcast, The Uncertain Hour, hosted by Krissy Clark. As a listener, Krissy is one of my favorite reporters. Getting to explore how welfare gets (de)funded — and who gets those funds — was a major highlight of 2016.
Aminatou and Ann have taught me pretty much everything else I know: how to break the established rules; how being your specific you — IRL and on a podcast — can be a path to personal fulfillment and success; and how to have fun and hold yourself accountable to your ideals and goals at the same time. I truly cannot say enough about my work wives.[/conr]
[conl]HP: When you started out, what did you think wanted to do?[/conl]
[conr]Delvac: I didn’t — and still don’t — know what I want to be when I grow up.[/conr]
Peak Podcast, considered. “How will we know when we hit peak podcast?” tweeted the esteemed Lizzie O’Leary of APM’s Marketplace early last month. Now, I can’t remember what exactly I was doing when I saw the tweet — which is true for most tweets I peruse — but wherever I was, the question, and the concept, stuck with me. Perhaps my interest in the issue went way too far, and maybe I’ve ultimately misjudged the original intent of the question. But regardless, I’ve been mulling over this question for weeks now.
To be sure, the number of podcasts active in the market today is massive, and it continues to balloon every day. The prospect of saturation has crossed my mind more than a few times across this newsletter’s nearly three-year lifespan, as it seems to be with many others in the industry: listeners, observers, critics, producers. Insofar as I understand it, there’s a general anxiety that the ever-increasing abundance of podcast supply may well lead to some fundamental breakdown in the podcast industry’s form and future potential. The idea of “peak podcasts” tastes a little funny on the tongue, but the idea nonetheless holds great theoretical ramifications, and it’s worth attention.
With that in mind, I’m spending this week over-thinking the issue of “Peak Podcast” to death. My thinking is a little scattered, and I have some conclusions scattered about — to which I expect reasonable disagreement — but I believe the thought process is more important than the final assembly.
Grab your helmets. We’re going down a rabbit hole.
We have, thankfully, some numbers to work with. I doubt we’ll ever be able get a hyper-accurate read of the actual number of podcasts that exist — who really knows anything, truly? — but Apple stats are nevertheless a good place to start. A presentation from the PMDMC conference last week contains a solid overview of the numbers; here’s the deck, but these are the two important points:
- Approximately 400,000 podcasts are listed in the Apple Podcasts store, of which only 75 percent are actively publishing. For what it’s worth, that’s up from 250,000 in mid-2013, according to Macworld. (Note the interesting byline.)
- Only an estimated 1 percent of those shows have more than 50,000 downloads per episode, defined within a 30-day window.
Those two data points lets us cut the world in a few different ways. If you accept 50,000 downloads as the threshold for a competitive podcast, then you have a situation where only about 4,000 podcasts are worth accounting for. But if you choose to place more emphasis on the publishing side than the consumption side, then you’re seeing a world in which 300,000 podcasts are actively in the market competing with each other for a slowly but steadily growing pool of ears.
Those numbers seem huge, but are they harmfully huge? Comparisons with other media formats might be useful for perspective, though such comparisons need to be structurally appropriate. Further, there’s room to debate over how you’d structurally categorize podcasts. To what extent is it a deep-dive activity, similar to a movie, or an in-between activity, similar to music or magazines?
In any case, some numbers to consider: In 2016, there were an estimated 729 movies released in theaters, while there were an estimated 455 scripted shows aired on TV — just scripted, not including news, live sports, and some reality programming. If you trust numbers from Statista, you can consider that there were over 7,000 magazine titles in circulation in 2015, and if you want to really get way out there, there is a measure noting that there are over 1.2 billion websites currently in existence. Indeed, such comparisons are tricky, and it’s little hard to see what specific lesson can be drawn from the perspective here.
Nevertheless, we still have 300,000 — or 4,000, depending on how you want to cut it — podcasts competing for your patronage: while you’re in the subway, doing laundry, driving your car, preparing dinner, walking the dog. It’s also worth recognizing that the number refers to actively publishing podcasts; which is to say, we’re framing our analysis here around the medium’s “head,” looking at the potential of consumers taking in new episodes being published in a given week, or a moment in time. It behooves us to additionally reckon with the vastly abundant backlog of listening that make up long-tail of the medium as a whole.
Now, if you take all of those pieces of information, it does start feeling like a medium that’s bursting at the seams.
But to what extent is this a bad thing?
I reckon the answer differs depending on who’s asking. More competition might feel bad for some publishers — it’s harder to jockey into a listener’s rotation and for the attention of advertisers — but it’s generally good for audiences, medium fatigue aside. That said, it’s complicated for ad buyers, because on one hand, you have better potential for targeting specific audiences based on show specificities, but on the other hand, it’s more difficult to efficiently survey the landscape and make appropriate buying choices. It opens up possibilities for developers, who might pursue attempts to develop solutions for discovery or programmatic advertising, but be wary: Successes in those pursuits might yield overarching negative effects: a victorious discovery platform might end up consolidating too much power, and poorly regulated programmatic podcast advertising might compromise CPM rates.
(Alas, the world is complex, and hard.)
But in my mind, that’s all peaceful conduct; preoccupations and expressions of a functioning system at work. And at this point in time, I’m inclined to see a state of abundant supply — and ever-increasing competition — as something that’s good in the long run. What we should be watching for are specific conditions, or events, accompanying these supply increases that could lead to meaningful system-wide failures. Off the top of my head, here are two such possibilities:
- If the listening audience does not grow commensurate with the supply — or, specifically, if the growing supply does not effectively drive more audience growth for the system as a whole. (Recall the Edison Research numbers: 67 million monthly active listeners in 2016, up 40 percent over the last two years.)
- If investment into the supply growth drastically outpaces the growth in audiences. It’s hard to tell the spread at this point in time, but I think it’s still fair to think that a good deal of supply growth is probably made up of relatively low-cost operations, keeping the ratio within reasonable bounds.
A quick aside: I think it’s also worth noting that a state of overabundance is inherent to the technology. Overabundance is podcasting’s state of nature, as it were. The entire notion behind podcasting is based on the medium’s democratization audio publishing and distribution. Everybody can make a show, and that’s the point. (That’s a little different from the idea that “everybody can get an audience” — and even more different from the notion “everybody should get an audience” — which are things I’ve seen conflated from time to time.)
Which is all to say the following: I don’t think we’re currently in a situation where the increasing abundance of podcasts is fundamentally compromising the structural integrity of the space. (Yet. Check back in a year. Maybe a month.) But Peak Podcasting or not, the space will continue to get more and more packed, and that will yield its own noteworthy market effects. What will we see there?
A few thoughts on what happens:
- I think it’s just as likely that the more crowding that happens, the more granular reorganization we’ll see. Which is to say, we’ll start seeing real discernment and differences: less a conversation about “podcasts,” but conversations about “narrative podcasts” and “talk podcasts” and “dudes-around-mics-in-a-basement podcasts,” all of which contain their own individual concerns about maturing and saturating their respective audiences.
- The ongoing crowding will force changes in the usual way of doing things. The most prominent example would be in any reliances on Apple for marketing support. As the number of new podcasts continues to balloon, one imagines that particular channel will become even more difficult to explore.
- The minimum bar for quality and/or differentiation will continue to rise, which is probably good for audiences.
- Abundance generally makes it harder to stand out. A few things will likely fall from this: Branding become even more important, marketing costs will go up (therefore reducing the accessibility of the space to some extent), and established names will disproportionately benefit. We already see all of these dynamics, to some extent.
- Will people grow tired of podcasts? That’s a misleading question. Podcasts, like film and television and books, are merely vessels for stories: Should they grow tired, what’s actually driving the exhaustion would be a sameness in the kinds of stories being told, the types of people telling the stories, and the ways the stories and experiences are constructed.
All right, that’s enough of that.
- “With Echo, Amazon is emerging as a friend to publishers.” (Digiday)
- WNYC’s More Perfect finally returns this fall. (Twitter)
- A reader writes in to ask: who’s producing the Walmart podcast? No idea, but it’s hosted on Megaphone. That should give you a clue.
- Nieman Lab had two other great podcast stories over the past week: one on Podchaser, an “IMDb for podcasts” that sounds a lot like Podsearch, and one on 36 Questions, the new joint from the Limetown guys. I wrote about 36Qs as well for Vulture.
- Plugging myself a little bit: I was on Recode Media and the Bumpers podcast, talking about the Apple in-episode analytics, and on the Third Coast Pocket Festival as part of a broader panel.
[photocredit]Original photo of Nevado Ojos del Salado on the Argentina-Chile border by Mariano Mantel used under a Creative Commons license.[/photocredit]
Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 122, published June 6, 2017.
I sunk a lot of hours this weekend trying to write a column on “Peak Podcasting,” following some inspiration from a tweet by the esteemed Lizzie O’Leary — which speaks to a broad feeling that I’ve been seeing a lot of — but I’m going to postpone that discussion to next week. For now, let’s talk WWDC, Gimlet, and JSON.
How will we know when we hit peak podcast?— Lizzie O'Leary (@lizzieohreally) June 2, 2017
WWDC. The big Apple developer’s conference — which serves as a periodic hub for major product and upgrade announcements from the tech colossus — started in San Jose yesterday, and there are two big things you probably need to know.
(1) We’re getting a redesigned Podcasts app that’ll come with the announced iOS 11 update. Official details are scant at the moment, and while your mileage may vary with sourcing Reddit, there are a couple of screenshots of the new app floating about from this thread, which also hint at potential upcoming livestreaming tool support. Meanwhile, on the WWDC schedule, there’s an Apple Podcasts session due to take place on Friday, and it notes in the description: “iOS 11 upgrades the Apple Podcasts app to support to new feed structures for serialized shows.” From screenshots coming out of Twitter, it looks as if this in part means bundling by season, and providing a little more control over how episodes are presented to listeners over the feed. (It’s the small stuff that goes a really long way.)
As a sidenote, it’s notable that these changes seem to be particularly focused on better serving serialized shows, to the point it even shows up in the official language. Such shows — like Serial, S-Town, Missing Richard Simmons, and so on — do tend to be the medium’s breakout hits, though they are merely one of many show structures that exist in the space. Anyway, there’s probably a lot more to come on this; I’ll be on the lookout.
The iOS 11 update is scheduled to drop sometime this fall, alongside the new iPhone.
(2) You might already be aware of this, given that it was the closer: Apple finally unveiled its own foray into smart speakers, which comes in the form of a bulbous appliance rather awkwardly called the HomePod. (Apropos of nothing, it might time to rename this newsletter. I’m taking suggestions.)
It goes without saying that Apple finally breaking into the smart speaker category — and bringing with it the full body of its media ecosystem — is a big, chunky story with a lot to parse out. Now, I’m no technology journalist, but I will say that I’m deeply curious to see how Apple’s move here will add competition to the market currently dominated by the Amazon Echo. Some indicators suggest that Amazon has built a pretty far lead in this category with its line of fairly affordable smart speakers, and given the fact that Apple’s HomePod is priced at $349 to start (for reference, the Echo Dot goes for about $50), it seems as if Apple will be sliding into the market on the luxury end and will at least initially play more toward its moneyed base, which was more or less what it did with the smartphone. While it’s understandable to replicate that move, it does mean that whatever improvements the smart speaker brings to the podcast listening experience — and whatever listening gains for publishers and podcasters might come from it — we’re probably not going to be seeing much of a substantial broadening of the active listening base from a demographic perspective, at least not initially. Indeed, if anything, we’re probably going to see a deepening within the category of audiences already predisposed to podcasts.
Nevertheless, it’s worthwhile to think through the big picture here: The higher aspirational register for this emerging set of products is the seeding of an audio-first computing experience, one of the alternative beachfronts for the “ambient computing” version of the consumer tech future highlighted in Walt Mossberg’s final column. To play this out further, the long-term structural value that this potential shift brings is one that ultimately liberates the growth trajectory of on-demand audio content from being principally tethered to the mobile device toward a trajectory that extends across whatever vessels audio-first computing is going to be channeled through in the future.
All right, that’s a whole lot of horizon-staring chin-stroking, so let’s kick it back a notch and talk present-day industry scuttlebutt. (Read the Nieman Lab writeup if you’re looking for more keynote takeaways for publishers.)
Gimlet makes a curious acquisition. In what is probably a sign of the times, Gimlet announced this week that it’s bringing on a new show from outside its trendy Gowanus walls: The Pitch, which is basically Shark Tank but a podcast. The show is made and hosted by Josh Muccio, a Florida-based entrepreneur.
The Pitch was first published in 2015, when Muccio developed the show in partnership with Silicon Valley venture capitalist Sheel Mohnot. The show was able to carve out a niche audience during its initial run, and as the story goes, after the first season, Muccio decided to take it in a different direction, redeveloping the concept and raising a small production team around the enterprise that included, among others, Devon Taylor, a freelancer who worked on Radiotopia’s Millennial.
Muccio shopped the second season around different networks — a common practice these days, in case you weren’t aware — before Gimlet ultimately moved to pick it up. That happened earlier this year, and I’m told that the acquisition process took about three weeks after Gimlet officially expressed interest in the project. As part of the deal, Muccio joined the company full time in early March, and Taylor, who by the way cofounded the now defunct podcast review site The Timbre (R.I.P.), was brought in full time as well.
The Pitch marks the first independent podcast that Gimlet has absorbed into its ranks, though it isn’t the company’s first acquisition. (The network brought over Science Vs, along with host Wendy Zukerman, from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation last year.) In many ways, it’s a bit of an unexpected addition for the nearly three-year-old company, which has thus far built a strong reputation off a portfolio of highly produced, narrative-driven programming — you know, the kind of stuff you’d lump into a pile with This American Life and 99% Invisible. The Pitch feels considerably different from the rest of Gimlet’s portfolio…though, if pressed, I’m not quite sure what I mean by that. I quite enjoy the podcast, but I have a bit of trouble seeing how it fits into the Gimlet brand and house sound. And as I dig deeper into my gut reaction to the news, I can’t quite tell whether my response says more about my prejudices about reality programming — which I have a distinct palate for, by the way, one that I keep separate from the rest of my entertainment diet — or my own conceptions of what the Gimlet house style is supposed to be.
Matt Lieber, president of Gimlet, appears to hold a broader definition of that house style than I do. “I think it’s pretty consistent with our strategy,” he said when we spoke by phone Monday. Gimlet shows, according to Lieber, are largely defined by, among other things, a sense of curiosity, high production quality, and a strong point of view — all things, he argues, that The Pitch shares. Plus, the ambition of the whole reality programming dimension, and how it mingles with these core Gimlet principles, is a big part of what drew Gimlet to the project. “It combines the best of reality TV — that tension and excitement — and the best of narrative storytelling,” Lieber said. “Reality has always been a category we’ve been intrigued by. If you think about it, the first season of StartUp had some of those qualities.”
That StartUp connection, I think, is pretty meaningful. One way of reading the company’s history is to see it as having built an initial core audience off a show, StartUp, that appeals to those who are drawn to stories about entrepreneurship and technology. From this position, The Pitch, then, is an expansion of that genre offering within Gimlet’s portfolio, one that deepens the available product range for the entrepreneurship-oriented audience — and, subsequently, its extractable value for advertisers. Think about the kinds of people who listen to StartUp and podcasts about entrepreneurship, and then think about the types of advertisers who value that set of ears, and then think about capitalism and the resulting CPM rate. (Speaking of which, I’d love to tie NPR’s How I Built This into this somehow.)
One more thing before I move on. I was curious as to why Muccio decided to move onto a network, why he eschewed independence. Here’s his response:
1. The #1 way people find out about podcasts is on other podcasts. So the right network presents an opportunity for audience growth that would take years to build as an independent.
2. Advertising. Some networks have horrible CPMs and are known for really bad ads. But Gimlet is not one of them. They’re one of the best in the biz. If not the best. We sold our own ads for The Pitch. It’s really REALLY hard to do well. This wasn’t an area I was willing to compromise so I’m lucky to be joining a network that is really crushing it on the advertising front. Bottom line? Ads on The Pitch are higher quality and more profitable.
3. Focus and specialization. I wore all the hats as an independent producer. I did pretty damn well considering, but still you can only be so good at any one thing when you have 50 other things you also need to be good at. Joining a network has allowed me to focus on building a great show, refining my skills as a host and building a team that can carry the vision of the show with me. Ultimately building something with a team of amazing people is more fulfilling to me than building something in a silo.
The Pitch debuts under new management on June 14. There will also be a crossover episode with the StartUp podcast on that day.
Side note. Deadline reported a new development on the upcoming Homecoming TV adaptation: Julia Roberts is currently in talks for the lead role, which was played by Catherine Keener in the podcast. The project looks like it’s still in its pretty early stages, so fans shouldn’t get too attached to the prospect of an adaptation just yet.
A directory, a list, a market. “Podcast discovery is broken,” goes the familiar critique, the opening gambit of most product pitches that hit my inbox. And it was as true two or three years ago as it is now — though as longtime readers might know, I’m wont to think of it mostly as a secondary issue, not one that’s fatally prohibitive to the long-term fate of the space. I imagine some will disagree. In any case, I still read every email that hits my inbox on the matter.
The latest of such gambits is something called PodSearch, and there is some reason to pay attention here. A project of Patty and Dave Newmark, proprietors of Newmark Advertising and longtime audio advertising operatives with strong relationships on the advertising side of the industry, PodSearch boasts a premise that’s so straightforward as to be blunt: It’s the Yellow Pages, but for podcasts.
There isn’t a ton about PodSearch that’s interesting from a design perspective, particularly on the business-to-consumer side. A lot of its touted features — search, personalization, top-show categorizations — are table stakes as far as digital products in 2017 are concerned, and there are some things about the interface that create an unnecessarily high level of friction for potential users, like requiring visitors to make an account before being to actually use the platform.
I see the theoretical value of the product for consumers, of course. Having a consolidated point of reference for the whole space that’s marginally more organized than Apple Podcasts (née iTunes) is nice, though perhaps not quite the drop of water in the desert it’s made out to be, and I’m partial to the view that more competition on the directory and search portal-level is always good for podcast discovery. However, execution matters more than ideas, as the old adage goes, and there’s a long road ahead for PodSearch to make a good first impression. (And second, and third, and fourteenth.)
That said, here are two things to consider:
(1) PodSearch has potential to create genuine value for advertisers. In researching this story, a few people brought up the way in which it might quietly solve a discovery problem of another kind: Advertisers and agencies, I’m told, currently have to do a fair bit of manual digging around to generate a list of podcasts (and their respective contact information for sponsorship inquiries) to potentially buy spots off, and so a directory that’s able to provide an easily digestible serving of the menu on offer, with the relevant contact information, would be useful for this community. And given the Newmarks’ expertise and history, I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re able to create a decent market on the advertiser side of the equation.
(2) One way that PodSearch is interesting to me is how it can serve as a vessel to get the most utility out of search engines for its listed podcasts writ large. When I spoke with Dave last week, he spoke of a meaningful volume search queries for terms relating to podcasts on a general level — “What is a podcast?”, “How do I listen to one?”, and so on — and how there isn’t much incentive for individual publishers to aggressively capitalize on those generic paid search terms. And so, by assuming the position of a wholesale podcast directory, PodSearch is able to make those spends on behalf of publishers and extract value from those broad queries for its listing participants. There’s a lot of juice in this fruit, and I’m compelled to see if the utility here can be appropriately realized.
In sum, I really do think there’s a lot more value for PodSearch to pursue a more explicit business-to-business path than one that also tacks on a business-to-consumer dimension. Solving discovery for everyday users is a tough and deeply nuanced problem in 2017, and as far as digital media categories are concerned, we live in a world with high thresholds for user experience expectations — and it’s only going to get higher.
Two more things to mull over in your own assessment about the service:
- There’s a cost associated with listing on the directory ($9.99 a month, which might feel steep for most that are already paying comparable amounts for hosting), and a small cost for advertisers to access the aforementioned point-of-contact information ($19.99 a year). I’m told that the costs are to qualify leads on both sides, and I imagine it also generates revenue for the platform to keep the lights on, which is fair.
- The Newmarks are kicking off PodSearch with some major publisher partnerships already in the bag; in the press outreach email, I was informed that the company is fielding sales chiefs from National Public Media, Public Media Marketing, Midroll, and Panoply to talk on the record about the initiative. We’re talking institutional support here; let’s see how that shakes out.
Developments over at HowStuffWorks. Back in March, it was reported that Will Pearson and Mangesh Hattikudur, who founded the online curiosity Mental Floss back in 2001, were leaving the company to develop a new podcast for HowStuffWorks. That project is now public: it’s called Part Time Genius, and it appears to be some combination of game show and a piece of education media. In other words, the show sounds a lot like Stephen Dubner’s Tell Me Something I Don’t Know, and it fits into HowStuffWorks’ wheelhouse pretty neatly.
Part Time Genius will launch with four full episodes in the feed. That happens on June 7.
Meanwhile, HowStuffWorks has also relaunched its popular Stuff Your Mom Never Told You podcast, almost half a year after the show’s previous hosts, Cristen Conger and Caroline Ervin, left the show to launch their own independent media company, Unladylike Media. (You can find my story on that, which touches on questions of ownership and network arrangements, can be found here.) The new setup features Emilie Aries and Bridget Todd in the hosting seat, and they will be based in Washington, DC.
“Replacing a host or hosts is not easy, especially when you consider that so much of what makes podcasting great is the personal connection between listeners and the hosts,” wrote Jason Hoch, the chief content officer of HowStuffWorks, through a PR rep about the transition. “We really wanted to take our time finding new hosts that could continue on with the show’s message, but we also wanted to make sure we were pushing ourselves to continue to evolve the show. We felt from the get-go that it was better to take our time finding the absolute best hosts for the show instead of rushing into this.”
Hoch added: “For any podcast, it does take some time to settle into a rhythm and build chemistry between co-hosts, producers and listeners. But this is also what makes podcasting so special — it’s analogous to finding a new friend. It builds over time.”
An uptick in support for a new podcast delivery format. I don’t spend a ton of time digging into the technical and infrastructural end of podcasts, and I’d like to be clear here that I only have a pedestrian understanding of the issues. But a recent string of announcements have caught my eye: Over the past week or so, a few third-party podcast apps, including Breaker, Fireside, and Cast, have all added support for the JSON Feed format. JSON is a data-interchange format, a way in which computers exchange information with one another, and JSON Feed is an RSS-like feed format built on top of it. The trend was written up by noted technology writer John Gruber at his site Daring Fireball, which is how I initially bumped into the story.
As far as I can tell, there’s some philosophical significance here among technologists who are developing tools for the podcast space. But I wanted to get a broad sense of what it means for those outside that category of people, and so I reached out to Leah Culver and Erik Michaels-Ober of Breaker to help explain some things to me.
The main takeaway? It’s largely a matter of efficiency, as the argument goes.
“JSON is generally more compact than XML,” the team wrote back. (XML is the format that provides the foundation for RSS which, as you might know, is currently the primary format of the podcast space.) “All things being equal, the JSON Feed could be transferred between two computers 27% faster and the transmission costs would be 27% lower. In a competitive marketplace, these types of cost savings are typically distributed in one or more of three ways: (1) returned to consumers, in the form of lower prices, (2), returned to shareholders, in the form of a dividend, and (3) reinvested in the business. Each of these has either direct or indirect benefits to consumers and podcasters. Essentially, the argument here is that efficiency is an end in itself. There no reason for computers to communicate more verbosely when they could communicate more concisely.”
They added: “Beyond efficiency, there are no new capabilities unlocked by JSON Feed. If all goes according to plan for JSON Feed, consumers and podcasters won’t notice that anything has changed—other than the podcast services they use have become cheaper or better, due to improved resource utilization.”
So, what’s listed here is actually an abbreviated version of a much longer Q&A with Michaels-Ober and Culver, which gets fairly wonky and technical. You can find the full discussion in this Google Doc.
- NPR’s Invisibilia returned for its third season last week, and this time around it boasts a unifying season-wide structure: playfully tethered to the idea of a “concept album,” this chunk of episodes will all revolve around the theme of concepts. (NPR)
- Feral Audio, home of Harmontown, recently launched a comedy podcast focused entirely on stories and the happenings that go on in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Los Feliz. It’s a curious take on the whole locally-minded media thread; we’ll see if they actually harvest anything interesting out of the conceit. (Feral Audio)
- Kids Listen, the loose collective that advocates for children’s programming in the podcast space, has a website now. Watch the space for upcoming initiatives and roster expansions by the group. (Kids Listen)
- AudioBoom recently commissioned a study with Edison Research on listener demographics. It’s worth checking out in full, but here’s a data point that caught my eye: Only 22 percent of respondents reported that they currently have mail-order subscriptions to companies like Blue Apron, Birchbox, and Barkbox. That’s a lot lower than I would ordinarily think. (LinkedIn)
- Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has a podcast now…and, uh, I didn’t think much of it. (WBEZ)
- Not directly podcast-related, but I loved reading this: “In well-mannered public radio, an airwaves war,” a story about WBUR and WGBH, which have struck up a fascinating coexistence in the public radio-friendly city of Boston. (The Boston Globe)