“The radical act of women making media and owning it, too”: The (podcasting) future is female

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 110, published March 7, 2017.

A quick note of the sausage-making variety: I had originally planned this issue around the theme of platforms, which, in podcasting and just about everywhere else, seems to be the defining problem of our media-consuming era. However, the piece of news on which I had hoped to hang the week got pushed back for some reason or other, and I thought it would be bad form to break the embargo or perform some interpretative dance around the hole it leaves behind while continuing on with the theme. (The news is scheduled to roll out soon enough, though. You’ll know it when you see it.) Anyway, it’s all good, as this week turned out to have a thread of its own. You’ll figure that out soon enough.

That’s probably way more preamble than necessary. Let’s jump into the week.

Midroll executive producer leaves to start her own venture. Gretta Cohn, the company’s New York-based executive producer of show development, is breaking off to form her own production company. Identifying details of the new venture — including a name, focus, and initial client list — will be rolled out in the coming weeks, but Cohn told me last week that the business will be a production company that’s closer to something like Pineapple Street Media than a straightforward podcast network. “We’ll produce shows for a variety of partners and help brands and individuals create highly produced podcasts, from start to finish,” she said, noting that the company will specialize in highly edited and sound design–rich work. The company will also be producing original work.

The venture, whatever it will be called, is expected to officially launch in April.

Cohn enters the market with substantial experience as an operator in the new podcast industry. Her history with Midroll dates back to December 2014, when she was hired as a founding member of the company’s then-nascent New York office. There, Cohn was responsible for building out much of the company’s production staff, and she led development on several high-profile Earwolf projects, including the fantastic Beautiful Stories from Anonymous People with Chris Gethard, the Katie Couric podcast, and the relaunch of The Longest Shortest Time. She also led the initial programming slate within Howl, the premium subscription service that Midroll launched prior to acquiring Stitcher, which included Fruit, the fiction podcast by Issa Rae. Prior to her time at Midroll, Cohn worked at WNYC, where she served as the associate producer on Freakonomics Radio and Soundcheck. In a previous life, Cohn was a cellist in a rock band.

When asked for comment, Midroll CEO Erik Diehn told me: “She’s dead to me. JUST KIDDING. Gretta is a talented producer whose star is rising, and we were lucky to have her dedicated to Midroll full-time for more than two years…She’s done so much for us for so long that I cannot begrudge her the urge to strike out on her own and become the architect of her own destiny for a while.”

Diehn adds, “And while we’ll miss her, we view her new venture as a positive development overall for the industry. Our business depends on the flourishing of a Hollywood-style ecosystem of producers and production companies working with us on individual projects — much as Pineapple Street did with Missing Richard Simmons. The more talent independent production companies with whom we and others can work, the better.”

March 29 will be Cohn’s last day at Midroll. You can find her website here.

Third Coast Festival announces 2017 dates. Mark your calendars, ye bleeding heart audio documentarians: this year, the Chicago-based international audio festival will take place from November 9 to 11 — slightly earlier in the weekend, from Thursday to Saturday, which the festival’s organizers tell me will make it easier for attendees to travel back to their respective lives on Sunday. This latest conference will mark the second edition of Third Coast since the festival shifted to an annual production. It previously took place every two years.

Maya Goldberg-Safir, the festival’s artistic associate, passed me a few details:

  • In addition to the usual run of events, this year’s festival will also feature a three-hour bootcamp for audio production beginners looking for more exposure to the work. That’ll take place on the afternoon of November 9.
  • The festival will take place in the same hotel as last year, and the festival will be capped at 700 people./
  • Ticket prices will go up slightly this year. Keep an eye out for that.
  • Potential session leaders — and sponsors — are encouraged to reach out.

Tickets go on sale August 22.

Anchor 2.0. The Betaworks-incubated social audio app, which caught a fair bit of buzz when it first launched just over year ago, is making another push to establish its value. On Tuesday morning, the app rolled out its second iteration. Among its new features:

  • What appears to be an audio equivalent of the “Stories” feature that we see in visual social platforms like Snapchat and Instagram. (Has anybody coined a term for the phenomenon where, over the long run, everything on the Internet will ultimately be the same exact thing?)
  • New audio creation tools, including the ability to pull in music tracks from Apple Music or Spotify, external audio clips, and pre-made musical fillers. (One imagines that music licensing will be a big part of this conversation.)
  • Distribution over voice-first platforms like Amazon Alexa and Google Home, in addition to the usual places like iOS, Android, and that old thing called the web.

According to the press release, the app will also feature content from established publishers like Gizmodo Media Group, IGN, and WNYC, among others. The nature of the content partnerships between Anchor and those publishers remain unclear to me. Further details can be found in the company’s blog post.

The announcement comes with the revelation of a new $2.8 million funding round. It was led by Accel Partners, and includes The Chernin Group, the Omidyar Network, Mick Batyske, and Eniac Ventures, a previous investor.

I try not to make it a habit to write about social audio apps very much, but I do find this news interesting on two levels:

  • Anchor’s announcement seems to pit the app directly against Bumpers, the creation-emphasizing social audio app founded by Twitter alums Ian Ownbey and Jacob Thornton. (Evan Williams, one of Twitter’s many co-founders, is an investor in Bumpers.) While it remains to be seen whether an “Instagram” or “Snapchat” or “Twitter” (or “Yo”) for audio is a digital product category that will actually end up being a thing, it’s nonetheless fascinating to watch this sector of the digital audio space work itself out.
  • In my head, I’ve come to place Anchor and Bumpers in one bucket, given both these apps’ focus on serving as the mediating space between users and other users, while establishing another bucket specifically for short-form audio app 60dB and the AI-oriented Otto Radio which seems, to me at least, primarily occupied with developing a firm grasp on the interface between professional publishers and listeners.

This week I’m tracking… Edison Research’s Infinite Dial 2017 Study that’s due to come out this Thursday.

Going solo. “I dunno if this crossed your radar,” a reader wrote to me last month. “But I would love a Hot Pod interview with the ladies behind Stuff Mom Never Told You.” The reader mentioned that Cristen Conger and Caroline Ervin, the current hosts behind that feminist-oriented HowStuffWorks podcast, had published their last episode at the end of last year, and were moving on to start their own independent media company, Unladylike Media. (Not to be mistaken with the Australian podcast of the same name.) I had heard about the show’s current iteration ending, but I missed the fact that a new venture was coming out of this. So, I reached out to Conger with a few questions, and she obliged with a set of lengthy, fascinating responses.

“We’re much more ‘Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves’ than…a revenge song title that will probably come to me five minutes after I send this,” Conger insisted, not wanting the story’s angle to mischaracterize the impetus behind Unladylike Media’s formation, or its relationship with HowStuffWorks.

[storybreak]
[conl]Nicholas Quah: Could you walk me through the history of Stuff Mom Never Told You?[/conl]

[conr]Cristen Conger: Caroline and I were never “supposed” to be podcast hosts. We were both printed word nerds, met at our college newspaper and hadn’t ever regularly kept in touch. HowStuffWorks (HSW) wasn’t even a podcast network when they hired me as a staff writer in 2008. Unbeknownst to me, Caroline was working as an editor at a mid-size newspaper.

Not long after I started, HSW began dabbling in podcasts as a way to stretch the deeply researched articles we writers and editors were producing each week. Stuff You Should Know [the network’s flagship show] was such an instant juggernaut, the department essentially held an open call for new hosts and show ideas. That’s how Stuff Mom Never Told You (SMNTY) happened and eventually launched in February 2009 (first episode: Do men and women have different brains?). Also, credit where credit is due to then-HSW editor-in-chief Conal Byrne for getting that idea off the ground — and while knee-deep in a recession.

By happenstance, Caroline had left the newspaper job, moved back to Atlanta, and gotten in touch with me. We met up at a sports pub of all places, and it’s almost like we never stopped talking. We just had conversational chemistry out of the gate. Unlike my typical “friend dating” anxiety, I wasn’t panicking on the inside that I’d run out of interesting things to say and bring our hangout to an awkwardly silent halt.

So when the original co-host [Molly Edmonds] left [in 2011], Caroline hopped on board. Then in December, after 833 episodes, we hung up our Stuff Mom Never Told You headphones.[/conr]

[conl]Quah: What were the factors that led to your new venture?[/conl]

[conr]Conger: The more success we enjoyed with the show, the more Caroline sensed it was only a matter of time. I was a little more precious about, but then I went to Werk It: A Women’s Podcast Festival at WNYC in June and never looked back. If any of those rad women are reading this, thank you!

SMNTY was a tremendous opportunity, and we miss the fan community we built dearly. But we also want to do better by them, and we couldn’t do that and remain at HSW at the same time, both on principle and practicality.

Speaking exclusively to our situation since we aren’t attempting to speak for anyone currently with the company, there was no incentive to growing the show. We tumbled through two acquisitions [HSW’s current owner is the Seattle-based Bluecora, which bought the company from Discovery Communications in 2014] on scrappiness and inertia. But without IP ownership or revenue shares, the pot at the end of the rainbow was starting to look like fool’s gold. Meanwhile, we were producing two podcasts and as many as four videos each week; our content-ing game was fire, no doubt.

Plus, producing a massive library of more than 800 deeply researched episodes was a crash course in efficiency at the cost of creative growth. The medium had evolved so much during the show’s run that Caroline and I were also itching to break it all down and build something better and smarter, more dynamic and inclusive.

Not to mention we wanted to commit the radical act of women making media and owning it, too. It’s refreshing when feminism isn’t side-eyed as a liability.[/conr]

[conl]Quah: You said that “there was no incentive to growing” SMNTY. Could you talk more about that?[/conl]

[conr]Conger: Personally, I’ve thought about that a lot — what shifted my mindset to it no longer being OK to just Make The Thing and not worry so much about whether I was getting back what my time and talent are worth. When I pitched SMNTY in 2008, IP rights and revenue shares were a moot point. I earned a salary as the HSW staff writer I was hired to be, and that was that.

But in the meantime, the value of podcasting began growing inversely to the cheapening of editorial content, which was the HSW bread and butter — not to mention my own as a word nerd. Throw in the company changing hands a couple of times, and it makes sense that the industry outpaced its podcast model. What then shifted for me was not wanting to wait around for course correction while still not owning or profiting from growing the show. Plus, I’d been there since soon out of college and had just turned 30. It was time to bet on myself.[/conr]

[conl]Quah: And you mentioned that “it’s refreshing when feminism isn’t side-eyed as a liability.” Was that an issue at HSW?[/conl]

[conr]Conger: A feminist podcast about gender, bodies, and sexuality was understandably outside of the HSW core brand’s science/tech/trivia wheelhouse from the get-go. So it speaks highly that we even got the green light to launch. Nor were we ever censored. But when you’re 1) inherently off-brand (in a marketing sense) and 2) that brand ethos is feminism and 3) upper management is predominantly male, it can sometimes feel like an elephant in the room.[/conr]

[conl]Quah: Tell me more about Unladylike Media. What’s the premise, how does the business work right now, and how does it functionally differ from the arrangement with HowStuffWorks?[/conl]

[conr]Conger: At its core, Unladylike is us making the media we want to see in the world and wish existed when we were growing up. It’s also us taking a bet on ourselves, which is re-energizing to remember during this hustle. Neither of us left HSW until we left, so we’ve hit the ground running from the ground floor.

Next spring, Ten Speed Press is publishing Unladylike the book, so we’re currently splitting our time between manuscripting and developing a podcast pilot with Midroll. Women, gender, and feminism are still our holy trinity, but it’s a completely different concept from structure and sound to topics and narratives. It’s exactly the creative challenge that we’ve been pining for.

That means the business is still in development, which is a good thing because we’re taking the time to build a quality foundation instead of throwing spaghetti against the wall. Looking ahead, we envision Unladylike as a multi-platform destination for sisters doin’ it for themselves.[/conr]

[storybreak]

Unladylike Media, Congers tells me, which aims to “inform and inspire women, girls and nonbinary folks,” is due to roll out its new website today. And in addition to the Midroll pilot and book deal mentioned in the interview, Conger and Ervin have also been publishing a weekly newsletter.

When reached for comment, HWS chief content officer Jason Hoch said: “We love their work and wish them luck on their new efforts. We respect the confidentiality of our private arrangements with our hosts, although we can say that everyone in our company shares in the company’s success.”

Last week, HowStuffWorks announced its latest podcast, FoodStuff, with Blue Apron as the launch sponsor. It is the network’s thirteenth podcast.

Bites:

  • “Uber plans to turn its app into a ‘content marketplace’ during rides.” This provides the bigger picture surrounding a development that I’ve previously highlighted — that of Otto Radio establishing a partnership with Uber last October. (TechCrunch)
  • Missed this last week: Charley Locke’s latest is on the ethical slipperiness of host-read ads — a long-time concern, to be sure. I don’t think I’m as skeptical as Locke appears to be in her analysis, but I am here for this quote from a communications professor: “When hosts do the ads, advertisers are assuming there’s a parasocial relationship between the host and the listener.” (Wired)
  • “Christians Turn To Podcasts To Say Things They Can’t Say In Church.” (NPR)
  • Well this is interesting: “These shiny concept earphones are the latest vessel for Sony’s digital assistant.” (The Verge)

Quick housekeeping note: I’ll be traveling later this week to SXSW, and if you’ll be at there as well, come check out the panel on podcast advertising that I’ll be moderating! Also, come say hi.

Is Hillary Clinton’s podcast propaganda or a milestone for political podcast advertising?

With Her. Well, this is certainly something. Last Friday saw the launch of With Her, the official Hillary Clinton presidential campaign podcast, which both marks a milestone for the industry and, I suppose, is a sign of the times. The show also has the distinction of being Pineapple Street Media’s first launch, the podcast company recently founded by former BuzzFeed director of audio Jenna Weiss-Berman and Longform Podcast cohost Max Linsky. Linsky holds hosting duties on the podcast, which he ostensibly shares with Clinton herself, though one imagines that her extensive campaigning schedule will ultimately have a say in that.

The podcast is an absolute coup for the company and a strong, attention-getting start to its portfolio. The linkup between Pineapple Street and the Clinton campaign grew out of Weiss-Berman’s previous collaboration with the team, back when she worked on BuzzFeed’s Another Round podcast that booked Clinton on as a guest last October. “I stayed in touch with her digital team,” Weiss-Berman told me over email. “And shortly after Max and I started Pineapple Street, we started talking to them and we all loved the idea of a campaign podcast that focused on day-to-day life on the trail and not policy.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, that last point — the podcast’s focused on campaign trail life and not on policy — ended up being the point of critique for a few media outlets. Politico’s writeup of the podcast bore the headline: “Hillary Clinton finds another way to avoid the press: Her campaign launches a podcast with an on-payroll moderator whose first interview is the nominee herself,” highlighting the show as an extension of a long-running grievances held by the parts of the news media about Clinton’s tightly messaged campaign. That perspective was echoed by Michelle Goldberg over at Slate, who called the show “charming and gutless propaganda” and further argued that “a politician attempting to circumvent the media by creating media of her own sets a bad precedent.”

I don’t buy those critiques. For one thing, media creation — whether through tweets, a YouTube channel, creating a TV spectacle out of a convention, and so on — is an essential tool for a candidate’s political communication, and it’s one that’s part of a much wider set of tools, with messaging through the news media (either directly, e.g. sitdowns with Charlie Rose, or indirectly, i.e. free media) being only one within a larger toolkit. A candidate’s aversion to working directly through the press, as in the case of the Clinton campaign, may well be morally and procedurally frustrating for the press, but a perfectly fine outcome in this scenario is to make the absence of participation mean something as part of the candidate’s larger spectrum of political communication. (Which, indeed, is what is already happening, and we see traces of that in Slate and Politico’s analysis.)

So the media aversion/”propaganda” reading of the podcast isn’t one that really resonates with me, but I think the reason for that lies in an understanding that the podcast shouldn’t be read as anything too dramatically different from it actually is: a political ad.

Consider With Her as yet another example of a branded podcast — not unlike Gimlet Creative’s Open for Business or Pacific Content’s Slack Variety Pack. (Indeed, viewed this way, With Her is quite possibly the first major political ad buy in the history of the podcast medium.)

And because it’s a branded podcast, we should levy onto it the very same questions (of ethics and execution) that we would those projects from Gimlet, and Pacific Content. Questions like: Is the show successful in harnessing the format’s associations with sincerity, authenticity, and intimacy? (I.e: Do the interviews make her feel more real, the way the Longform Podcast and Another Round have drawn out people in the past? Also, just how real can a career politician, so hardened by decades of battle, feel?) Is the podcast able to be engaging while nulling the overarching context that the listener has opted to enter a space where the brand is trying to get them to think and feel a certain way? Is the project doing a good job being clear with its targeting — is it focused on deepening the candidate’s relationship with her supporters, or is it more engaged with humanizing Clinton in the face of on-the-fence supporters? And is the podcast, with its opt-in, on-demand, and high-involvement consumption requirements, appropriate for that?

That’s how I’d approach reading the podcast. Which is why I’ll say this: Based on the first episode (which runs short, at about 15 minutes), I’m not very sure whether With Her will answer these questions much beyond its novelty as the first presidential campaign podcast ever. To be sure, it’s a fizzy and fun listen, and longtime Hot Pod readers know I love love love me some Linsky interviews. But as a person already predisposed to the Clinton campaign, I didn’t feel like I gained anything particularly new or meaningful that wasn’t already telegraphed at the Democratic National Convention. And considering the broader messaging context, I also don’t think it’s clear yet who the podcast is for — and, by extension, how it’s supposed to carry out the aims of the campaign, which (and this isn’t a new thought at all) really struggles with connecting.

That said: It’s only been one episode, and I want to be clear that an assessment like this doesn’t quite honor the immense complexities that go into working with a campaign that aims to win the highest office of the land. (I can’t even begin to imagine the number of clearances that the production must go through.) The podcast is slated to run up until the election in November, and I have a good amount of faith that the team will figure out a way to take this powerful, powerful novelty — let’s not forget the fact that the first presidential campaign podcast is a major milestone for the emerging medium — and fashion it out into a genuine tool of political communication in the future.

What’s next for PSM? Weiss-Berman: “We’re working on lots of great stuff and something I’m really excited about is that we’re trying many different styles. So we’re doing a very heavily produced short-run serialized mystery show, a really fun chat show with The New York Times, Women of the Hour season two with Lena Dunham, and we’re developing a bunch of original shows. And so much more! And all the shows are really different, with amazingly diverse hosts, so I’m hoping they bring in audiences that are new to podcasting.”

giphy (2)

The convention bump. The Republican and Democratic conventions were dramatic and often confusing affairs, and it seems like a significant number of folks turned to political podcasts to figure some stuff out. Indeed, several enjoyed noticeable jumps in downloads across the two-week period. Some highlights:

  • The NPR Politics Podcast saw more than a 50 percent increase in weekly unique downloaders. (That metric tracks the number of individual listeners based on measurements of IP addresses.) The podcast dropped episodes every morning across the conventions, with each edition covering the goings-on of the night before.
  • Panoply reportedly experienced a 35 percent increase in weekly downloads (over the average of the previous four weeks) among their set of political podcasts: the Slate Political Gabfest, The Gist, and Vox’s The Weeds. The Gist, which is already a daily podcast, opted to drop short review episodes every morning in addition to its normal episodes across the period. The other two shows maintained their weekly schedules.
  • The FiveThirtyEight Elections podcast also saw “a big rise in downloads and rankings,” according to producer Jody Avirgan. A spokesperson later added that over the convention period, the team “saw consumption of the Elections podcast increase nearly 300 percent compared to daily consumption before the conventions.” The podcast also dropped episodes daily across the two events.
  • The Ringer’s Keepin’ It 1600, which features former Obama administration staffers Jon Favreau and Dan Pfeiffer, saw a bump of about 15 percent. Before the conventions, the podcast had steadily grown up to an average of over 200,000 downloads per episode, and went up to about 230,000 downloads per episode through the two events.
  • BuzzFeed’s No One Knows Anything saw a “171 percent increase in downloads during the two weeks of the conventions, compared to the two weeks before the conventions,” said Meg Cramer, who produces the show. “But, it’s hard to make comparisons, because our convention coverage was different from our weekly show. (Several topical mini-episodes, vs. one big show.)”

These event-based growth bursts are extremely valuable, but the real question is whether the shows will be able to retain the influx of new listeners. Brent Baughman, who produces the NPR Politics Podcast, tells me that, while it’s still a little too early to tell, he estimates that about three-quarters of the podcast’s new listeners have stuck around since the conventions. He also notes that the podcast now enjoys an audience of over 560,000 weekly unique downloaders.

It should be noted that the bumps didn’t come from organic discovery alone. Around the convention period, FiveThirtyEight carried out aggressive cross-promotion efforts that hoped to draw in audiences that exist on its other platforms and on platforms controlled by parent ESPN. Those efforts included a refocus on embedding the podcast in FiveThirtyEight articles, adding language that welcomed new listeners to the show, featuring the podcast in the ESPN app, and working with ESPN Radio to run a spot on terrestrial stations promoting the podcast. “That’s going to start working into the rotation soon, I hope,” Avirgan added. “It’s not going to be a huge push, but frankly I imagine a lot of the kinds of folks who are just tuning in to the election are the types of folks who are listening to ESPN Radio, etc. So, we’re trying to be smart about targeting that group.”

NPR marshalled similar efforts of their own. On July 14, Gimlet’s Reply All dropped an episode containing a guest dispatch by NPR reporter and Politics Podcast cohost Sam Sanders (who, by the way, is an absolute star) that focused on the shooting in Dallas. And in the following two weeks, NPR director of programming Israel Smith coordinated a strong cross-promotion push across the organization’s other podcasts, acutely focusing attention onto the Politics Podcast and its presence on the convention floors.

Key national events like these conventions are essential opportunities for podcasts — or any new medium, really — to prove their worth as possible additions to the world’s wider information architecture, and the onus is on them to make themselves known in times when collective reality feels increasingly distorted.

“I think you build news consumption habits in a year like this,” Baughman said. “It’s a time when you generally want to be more informed than you are.”

An audio newsletter. It’s always a wonder to find a place that’s doing strange and wonderful things.

One such place is Boston public radio station WBUR, which will be launching an experimental 21-day fitness podcast project called The Magic Pill next month. Here’s how it works: People who sign up will receive daily Magic Pill newsletters, with each missive — that can be consumed right off their inbox — containing a short podcast episode that contains exercise tips, stories about fitness, and even some music to get that body movin’. Participants move through three-week-long sequence on their own, as they’re given the ability to initiate the challenge cycle at any time, and their relationship with the podcast will be tightly managed through their interactions with the newsletter.

“In a way, you could call this an audio newsletter,” said Lisa Williams, who holds the title of engagement director at the station. “It’s a real hybrid.”

The challenge is one of the many projects being developed in WBUR’s Public Radio BizLab, a Knight Foundation-funded initiative that seeks to explore possible new business models that can help sustain public radio stations in the future through rigorous experimentation and design. (And let me tell ya’, some of these experiments are fascinating, including a blockchain-powered emerging music library.) The lab is a smart, deeply needed enterprise and, quite frankly, I’m amazed that such a thing exists in the first place.

Like all other BizLab projects, The Magic Pill was designed to answer very specific, testable questions: Could you create a tightly-design podcast experience that plays out within a subscriber’s inbox (as opposed to, say, an RSS feed)? Can the process of creating that experience increase the level of data literacy among the operators at WBUR? And, perhaps most importantly, are listeners who take part in an ongoing experience more likely to donate or become members?

That last question, which focuses on discovering new fundraising avenue within the public radio system, is a crucial pillar for the BizLab initiative. And much of the project designs are guided by tangible, and often frustrating, past experiences. “We did this great project once on Whitey Bulger,” Williams said. “It was just such amazing work, but we didn’t do anything to package it in a way that would get people to support the station more. But when we packaged and sold it as an ebook, about 11,000 people bought it. We left money on the table.” (Interestingly, the ebook, “Whitey on Trial,” is generally available for free, but it’s priced at $1.99 on the Amazon Store — the lowest possible rate — because ebooks can’t be listed there for free.)

When I asked Williams what conversion rates she would consider a success, she guided me to focus more on the balance between outcome and effort. She noted that relatively low conversion rates would still be considered fine, given that the amount of work that goes into making The Magic Pill is significantly less than the huge fundraising efforts that involve heavy participation across the whole station. In Williams’ mind, the emphasis is on the tightness of workflow and a rigor in pushing specific sets of audiences down the fundraising funnel. It is a valiant, refreshing prospect, and I’m curious to see where this goes.

You can sign up for the newsletter here. The Magic Pill project goes live on September 1.

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Bumpers. I believe I’ve been on the record before as not particularly enthusiastic about social audio apps and any relevant enterprise that seeks to make podcasts more shareable on social platforms like Twitter and Facebook more broadly. For me, the arguments largely takes two forms: (1) a sense that the rendering of a piece of media into something more shareable threatens to deconstruct, atomize, and commoditize that piece of media for a whole other purpose — and for podcasts, that fundamentally means a stripping it of its original value proposition, and (2) a general feeling that social platforms are universes upon themselves whose activities should be native to the very structures of those platforms. Plus, there’s a whole square peg/round hole bit to such efforts, and I just find it all rather inelegant.

That said, I’ve still made it a point to keep an eye on new social audio apps like Anchor (my write up here) and Rolltape (R.I.P., my write up here) because I figured there’s always something to learn from such experiments.

Which is why I’ve been tracking a new app called Bumpers for some time now and, I have to say, it’s perhaps the audio-oriented app that comes closest to deconstructing and replicating the original value proposition of a podcast. Where apps like Anchor and Rolltape focused on communication, Bumpers firmly trains its eye on creation and expression — and that, I think, is where it gets the association right.

Here’s how it works: Users record a session through the app, which then automatically segments the recording based on sentences that users can stitch together into a podcast (referred to as a bumper within the app’s universe, for obvious reasons) by selecting and sequencing those sentence units into a whole through the app’s rather intuitive mobile audio editing interface (which, goodness, is key to the whole experience). There’s a library of preset sounds that you can throw into the mix, the additions of which greatly influences the feel of the bumper — not unlike, say, how an Instagram filter alters the feel of a picture.

That evocation of Instagram is not accidental. “I think a good analogy is Instagram for podcasts,” said Ian Ownbey, one of Bumpers’ creators, when I asked him to describe the app, which I had trouble articulating. “Instagram’s goal wasn’t to replace professional photographers — it was to let everyone else easily take and share high quality photos.”

Ownbey, who was an early engineer at Twitter and is also responsible for the OneShot app (which I’ve written about in relation to the theory behind screenshorting audio), has been paying close attention to the dynamics of the podcast space to build Bumpers, and thus is privy the complexities associated with the distribution and listener-end of the ecosystem. A lot of those considerations inform the development of the app.

“The problem isn’t solvable as long as the community is fractured over all these different consumption mediums,” he said, reflecting on the distribution question. “Even if I went out and created a consumption client that had the best discoverability in the whole world, it would be impossible to get adoption high enough that it was useful…If all the listening happens in Bumpers itself (or in an embed from bumpers), we can start to solve these problems.”

For now, though, it’s still early days for Bumpers, and so tackling the distribution angle will have to be a future preoccupation. “Creation is our entire focus right now,” Ownbey said.

Bites:

  • A little more on the NPR Politics Podcast: Producer Brent Baughman believes the experience producing the daily convention episodes have given them a roadmap for possible breaking or morning news podcast projects in the future. “Someone’s going to plant the flag on the morning news podcast, and I think it can be us,” he said.
  • I am super, super psyched over Castro 2, a new podcasting app that shifts the user experience paradigm in such smart, wonderful ways. (Supertop)
  • After the Cleveland Browns, another NFL team has launched their own official podcast: the Baltimore Ravens. (Official Ravens website)
  • According to Current, “the audience for NPR’s newsmagazines and its member stations has been growing,” bucking a recent trend. The organization credits the rise to a bunch of different factors — much of them internally driven, but also one that involves a change in how Nielsen collects listening data — but as Tape’s Mickey Capper tweets out, “wouldn’t the main factor be the election?” Be sure to check out the ensuing thread.
  • “The (Future) Queens of Podcasting.” (The Ringer)
  • This is super cool: “Introducing 1,000 Words, a podcast that describes internet pictures in binaural audio.” (The Verge)

This American Life is plotting new shows to join Serial

Why did Google Play partner with AudioBoom? RAIN News ran a piece last week citing that AudioBoom, the U.K.-based talk audio platform, will apparently be “one of the content providers for Google Play’s upcoming podcast section.” By the way, AudioBoom, once a consumer-facing player reminiscent of Stitcher, now bills itself as a “business-to-business” platform, placing it closer to a Panoply-like podcast network. It currently hosts and helps produce shows like the Adnan Syed podcast Undisclosed and is the distribution partner for radio syndication company Westwood One.

The partnership struck me as a little confusing, given what little we know so far about Google Play Music’s upcoming podcast support. When Google first announced the feature, the app appeared to openly accept podcast feeds from just about anybody for inclusion into its directory.

Curious, I sent a note to the company and was shortly connected to Stuart Last, the company’s general manager of the Americas. (What a title!)

“Google want to help their users find new exciting podcasts in a more simple, more thought-out way. To help them do that they are building strong relationships with partners like AudioBoom,” Last wrote back in an email. “My content team will be working with them closely to highlight great content across all verticals and categories. For AudioBoom’s content partners, this is a great win, as they are using a platform which has a direct relationship with the Google editorial and curation team.”

Which seems to suggest that either not enough podcasters have been submitting their feeds, or Google has been receiving feeds that they’re not that happy with.

Last’s quote illustrates something else I’ve been hearing about lately: Google Play working directly with entities in the podcast ecosystem to flesh out its podcast experience. With a partner like AudioBoom, that collaboration appears to be for the purpose of packing its directory with a critical mass of active content. (After all, scraping iTunes wouldn’t be productive; there are too many dead or inconsistently updated podcasts.) I’ve also heard, from several sources now, that Google Play Music’s podcast experience will include a promotion channel similar to that of iTunes, right down to the relatively manual workflow of communication and delivery of assets required for promotional material.

What we’re seeing here, I think, is another way that podcast networks can strengthen their position as middlemen. In this distribution of power, podcast networks manage relationships with a wide range of podcasts, which allows them to serve as a sorting solution for entrant streaming platforms like Google Play and Spotify hoping to identify batches of content that would draw out activity from a meaningful numbers of users. Meanwhile, these streaming platforms own sizable, possibly untapped pools of audiences, which are desired by podcast networks for their ad $$$-generating capabilities (schwing!). At this point, both sides are dependent on each other for access to and efficient management of what they don’t have, and a partnership at such this level would be mutually beneficial.

But keep in mind that this arrangement can only be balanced for so long, as it’s in the long-term interest for either side to gain further control in the other direction. Networks would need to work on plans to better own the audiences found on Google Play and Spotify (that is, to break their dependence), while these streaming services, if they’re interested and have the capacity to do so, would want to consider owning the relationships with the content creators. (Also remember: They already have advertising relationships of their own.)

Also note how all this leaves out the plight of the independent podcaster who chooses not to align with a network. They would have to labor to strike up a relationship with platforms like Google Play and Spotify on their own if they wanted access to those audience pools — but they would also have to somehow give these platforms adequate reason to pay attention to them. Which, you know, suggests a couple of things about the future of the medium’s much-lauded accessibility.

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Tag-team. This past weekend, The New York Times collaborated with the crack team over at This American Life on an enterprise story about the shooting of a Texas college student at a hospital where he sought treatment for a psychotic episode. I wrote about it at Nieman Lab, but I wanted to flesh two things out here:

  • This is a fine example of how a newspaper can effectively make use of audio — the format, its unique characteristics, and most importantly, its expert practitioners — without having to fully commit to building out a straight-up podcast strategy. The one-off collaboration helps further the depth, reach, and impact of that particular piece of reporting; in This American Life, the paper had access to a whole other audience pool, a whole new set of eyes and ears, and a whole other dimension to the story.
  • This American Life is, indeed, working on “some new shows.” I’ve been hearing rumors for months — months! — now about this, with whispers ranging from an audio drama podcast to another TAL-style show with a new host. But whispers are whispers, and I’m just excited that the team’s reincorporation as a public benefit corporation is leading to, well, more stuff. As a sidenote, my guess is that those new shows will probably be hosted on PRX’s semi-secret Dovetail platform, which currently powers Serial, that one TAL spin-off I hear is pretty famous.

Anchor. I’ve promised myself to abstain from covering social audio apps for the time being, because honestly I think I’ve said everything I can about this topic at this point in time. And besides, podcast companies and digital audio-producing radio stations should really just be concentrating on more important things, like standardizing metrics, developing better shows, and firming up their relationships with the advertising community.

But Anchor, a Betaworks-incubated social audio app that launched last week, stood out for me for two reasons: firstly, because it rolled out with WNYC as some sort of launch partner, and secondly, because a bunch of folks wrote me asking for an opinion, which probably says a lot about my corner of the Internet than anything else.

So here my opinion: It’s way too early to say anything! Being a social network, Anchor is only going to be as interesting or useful or important as the user base it cultivates, and it’s only like, what, Week 2? But while we’re here, these are the two things you should be thinking about: How does the app derive value, and how does it provide value?

Being a social network, not only does the app now need to cultivate a critical mass of active users — either by direct customer acquisition or by seamlessly integrating with an existing social platform — it also needs to give users a good enough reason to stay. And because the Anchor experience is essentially premised on user-generated content (and content that’s recorded on the spot, at that), this means the app would require that its users to be, well, as interesting or useful as possible so that it can attract more users.

Of course, that’s an insanely difficult proposition, because here’s the thing: Not everybody is great on tape! And if the idea is that, at some point, Anchor users will become better at producing audio for Anchor, then the game is to keep folks using the app until a critical mass of users can develop a language, a set of customs, and a sense of value gained within the app.

Which brings us to a classic chicken-egg problem. Fundamentally, the app needs to figure out how to make sure the content generated on its platform is compelling enough to draw in new users, but it can’t begin doing that unless it already has enough users to both creatively experiment and provide user-driven validation/refutations of those experiments. An inorganic power move, which is the one employed by Anchor with the recruitment of WNYC as a launch partner here, is to bring in partners presumed to be better than the average user at generating compelling stuff. But said partners would need a reason to keep expending effort and resources into producing more content; that reason would be an audience, which is the very thing that the app recruited said partner to help generate.

And on and on we go, spiraling into endless loop of what, wait, who’s there?

I might sound down on the app, but really I’m not! I think it’s thoroughly interesting, I’m fascinated by the prospect of talking back, and I’ll probably use it a couple of times to perfect my yodeling. I’m just saying: If we’re going to seriously consider it as something worth paying attention to — something that’s going to really take audio off the chain — the app’s got to figure out the dynamics of how to rope me in for good.

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What’s going on with SoundCloud? The Berlin-based audio social network — and playground for independent musical transgressions like Breakmaster Cylinder and the fleeting miracle that was Death Cab for Yeezy — provoked some gloom last week after it published financial reports that painted a seemingly unsettling picture. In short, the reports show a company that’s spending a heck of a lot more than it’s bringing in; according to Billboard, SoundCloud spent $63.8 million to generate $19.7 million in 2014, and the company expects to continue losing money over the next three years as it invests more into its operation. This state of affairs brought about end-times language, most notably by FACT Magazine, which published an article last week with the headline “SoundCloud could be forced to close after $44m losses.”

This development sparked a flurry of activity in my feeds and private podcast-related Slacks, which is a small way of showing how SoundCloud matters, interestingly enough, to the podcast community. Over the years, the platform has unexpectedly become the go-to option for producers in need of an embeddable player and a free-to-cheap hosting option.

Over at the New York Radio listserv, Jim Colgan, who served as SoundCloud’s head of audio for almost three years, argued that these headlines were “overstating things.” He asserted:

No well-funded startup is making a profit, and if they’re not spending their money, there’s something wrong. The “revelation” is a quirk of UK financing rules that make private companies disclose their accounting. So I really wouldn’t worry about SoundCloud “going away” any time soon. They just signed a deal with UMG, which removed the real thing threatening them — that they’d be sued out of existence (that’s 2 out of the 3 big major music labels).

That other major label is Warner Music, which signed a deal with SoundCloud in November 2014. The remaining holdout is Sony Music, which also happens to be the world’s largest music publisher. These label deals are essential to the company’s survival and future, as they allow SoundCloud to do a few basic things — including simply generating revenue and building new products like its recent Charts feature — without fear of being sued into oblivion.

According to a source knowledgeable in these matters, these deals make the company a much better target for acquisition, which is a more likely outcome given what’s described as a “tepid IPO market.” A parallel can be drawn with YouTube’s 2006 acquisition by Google, which is said to have come about shortly after similar deals were made with these labels.

So, that’s the probable play for SoundCloud. However, even if SoundCloud does sort its legal house out and end up a juicy acquisition, it remains an open question whether podcasts and non-music audio will have anything to do with the company’s future. Manolo Espinosa, a vice president described as having been involved with the spoken-audio side of operations, is no longer part of the company, having moved on at the beginning of 2016 to advisory roles at a number of other startups. Add to that Colgan’s own departure last year (he’s now the executive producer at Rooftop Media, also known as Audible West), along with the fact that much of the company’s strategy, in the future as it was in past, is (understandably) music-oriented, and you get a vision of the future that leaves little room for anything other than music.

Given this, though the writing may not necessarily be on the wall for SoundCloud, it still probably behooves SoundCloud-using podcasters to start backing up their assets and looking for a home elsewhere. As Klint Finley argues in Wired, “as music has become more durable, it has — paradoxically — also become more ephemeral,” and whether SoundCloud goes under or gets acquired, you can’t be sure that those audio files will be adequately preserved over the long run — and that’s especially true if your file type is an afterthought in relation to the company’s core business.

Relevant bits:

  • The WFMT Radio Network in Chicago is building the Studs Terkel Radio Archive with a vision that podcasters can mine the archive as a giant source of voices and sounds for future reuse. And they need your help! (Kickstarter)
  • Clammr is working with Entrepreneur magazine to pilot something called a Native Audience Growth service. More information when I get it at a later date.
  • Stitcher, the Deezer-owned podcasting app that a relatively small but vocal set of listeners absolutely love, was down this past weekend. The platform’s downtime was apparently due to “maintenance,” and on early Monday morning, the company posted some follow-up notes on its Facebook page. (Facebook)
  • NPR’s board of directors is considering a change to the formula that determines certain public radio station fees. Which, you know, has implications for NPR’s incentives and relative power. (Current)
  • “Seeking to cut costs, the BBC will reportedly merge its radio and TV divisions.” (Poynter)
  • Here’s a case study sketching out how KUOW, the NPR member station in Seattle, adapted Esquire’s podcast for broadcast. That episode, by the way, is fab. (PRX Blog)
  • A quick follow-up from the MailChimp product placement piece not too long ago: “Podcast network Midroll and MailChimp try out product placement.” (Ad Age)

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