The true crime show that’s gotten comparisons to Serial is heading for a second season and a new case

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 106, published February 7, 2017.

The Serial team forms a new production company, Serial Productions, and drops details on its latest project. This story got tons of pick-up when it was announced last Wednesday — getting write-ups on Variety, Deadline, EW.com, and Vulture, which I wrote — so you’re probably familiar with the broad strokes: the upcoming project is called S-Town, it’s a limited nonfiction series hosted by veteran This American Life producer Brian Reed, it’s set in a rural Alabama town, and all episodes will be published simultaneously sometime in March. As I pointed out in Vulture, Serial Productions also has two other projects in the works, though it remains a mystery whether they include the latest season of the company’s flagship show, Serial.

Oh, and speaking of mysteries: Starlee Kine appears to be part of the S-Town editorial team, according to the circulated press release. This would be her second podcasting effort following Mystery Show’s surprising departure from the Gimlet portfolio. (The first, some might recall, was her work as a producer on the very strange but very entertaining Election Profit-Makers, a screwball election-related prediction market podcast that wrapped, appropriately, last November.) It should be noted that Kine is a former This American Life producer. The editorial team also includes Ira Glass and Sarah Koenig, and Julie Snyder serves as the project’s executive producer.

So that’s the stuff that’s been well-established elsewhere. But I was also able to dig up the following two details that might be interesting to folks in the biz:

  • I reached out to ask about the relationship between Serial Productions and This American Life, which broke off from WBEZ to form its own standalone organization back in July 2015. Here’s the reply I got:

    Serial Productions is a separate company from This American Life. Serial Productions is headed by Julie Snyder, Sarah Koenig and Ira Glass. This American Life is headed by Ira Glass. Serial Productions is the producer of Serial, S-Town, and future podcasts. Serial Productions will often pull talent from This American Life to host, produce, and edit podcasts. For example, Brian Reed has been on leave from being This American Life’s senior producer in order to make S-Town. And Serial Productions president Julie Snyder is the former senior producer of This American Life.

  • I’m also told that S-Town’s launch sponsorships were sold by Chicago-based Public Media Marketing (PMM), and that the responsibility for subsequent inventory will be split between PMM and Authentic, the ad-sales arm of the podcast measurement company Podtrac.

That’s all I got. Obviously, I’m very excited. I’ve been hankering for a truly juicy longform nonfiction narrative pod, and I haven’t been able to find very much of that lately. That said, “S-Town” is kind of a weird name — it’s almost dad-like in its construction — but I hear it’s short for something. We’ll find out next month.

How is The Ringer’s Podcast Network doing? Really well, it seems. That insight, among others, can be found in a long text interview with The Ringer head honcho Bill Simmons by Recode’s Peter Kafka that dropped last Friday. There’s a lot in there, but here’s the portion of the interview that’s especially relevant to us:

[conl]Kafka: So I’ve had this question since you launched, and I still do: You have some money from HBO. You have money from the podcasts. Can that support a staff that size?[/conl]

[conr]Simmons: Fuck yeah! The one thing that’s not a problem for us is money.[/conr]

[conl]Kafka: You’re generating enough revenue to cover your costs? You’re making money?[/conl]

[conr]Simmons: Yes. I don’t know why people are so surprised by that.[/conr]

[conl]Kafka: Everyone is surprised by that. Because no one believes that there’s that much money in podcasting.[/conl]

[conr]Simmons: Really? Go ask some people. We have really successful podcasts. Not just mine. But The Ringer NBA show is like 140,000, 150,000 listeners per show. Channel 33’s like 125,000 per show. Ringer NFL is like almost 100,000. You go on down the line…[/conr]

[conl]Kafka: It’s not that people don’t believe that people don’t listen to podcasts. It’s that it’s a really young industry.[/conl]

[conr]Simmons: It’s not any more.[/conr]

Those are certainly respectable download numbers, and it’s pretty remarkable that the podcast operation is able to drive a good chunk of The Ringer’s overall business (which, as the interview points out, has 65 full-time staffers). If anything, The Ringer seems to directly validate the model that Stratechery’s Ben Thompson laid out in “Grantland and the (Surprising) Future of Publishing,” which was published after the demise of Grantland, Simmons’ previous digital operation, back in November 2015. (See: writing as lead generation, a media organization structured across multiple surfaces where higher-revenue mediums are able to drive lower-revenue mediums, and so on.)

Anyway, I highly recommend checking out the whole interview (obviously), which is just chock-full of really interesting stuff. Kafka, by the way, was also responsible for the last major Simmons-related podcast revelation: his March 2015 interview with Simmons, which took place during SXSW, was revealing in terms of the way ESPN handled the business end of his podcast operation back at Grantland — and the missed opportunity that entailed.

Oh, and one more thing:

Agreed, my man. Why y’all so cagey? Gimme those numbers, people.

Panoply cancels About Race — or, “Our National Conversation About Conversations About Race,” as the show is known in its entirety. The timing for the cancellation, frankly, is a little poor given, well, the state of the country right now, and that fact seems to be reflected in the official statement on the matter released by Panoply last week:

Panoply has made the difficult decision to not move forward with the podcast “Our National Conversation About Conversations About Race.” We loved working with Baratunde [Thurston], Raquel [Cepeda], Tanner [Colby], and Anna [Holmes] over the last two years, and are proud of their important contributions to the dialog about race in America. However, frequent scheduling issues made it difficult to produce the show that we all wanted to create. Though the cancellation was unrelated to the current political climate, we regret the timing. Ending it now is painful, but a growing company like ours must make hard decisions, and this was one of the hardest. Now more than ever, Panoply recognizes the urgent need for diverse voices and frank conversations, and we’re committed to covering the important topics of race and ethnicity in America. Please stay tuned!

I reached out to ask for concrete details about any projects or plans by the company aimed at meeting that need for, you know, diverse voices, frank conversations, and coverage of topics related to race and ethnicity in America. A spokesperson for the company declined to comment beyond what’s mentioned in the statement.

I’ll be keeping an eye on this, but a note on something that crossed my mind: after initially hearing about this news, I pulled up the Panoply website in an attempt to run a quick tally on the number of shows on the network that are hosted, produced, and/or creatively led by non-white talent. Going through the list, it occurred to me that, theoretically speaking, it’s a little hard to get a precise accounting of that number, given what appears to be the company’s core strategy of partnering with other media organizations and external individuals. (Now, at this point, I should make the disclaimer that I used to work for Panoply, and that I left the company around this time last year. All the analysis here reflects information that’s publicly available and/or based on reporting that I’ve done in the intervening year.)

Further complicating this is the way in which the website blurs the line between shows it actively produces, like Vox.com’s The Weeds and The Ezra Klein Show, and the shows it does not, like the BuzzFeed portfolio that recently moved over to Panoply’s Megaphone platform for hosting. That amorphousness in editorial and production responsibility is curious from a branding perspective, but it’s also curious from an accountability perspective, as the spread makes it somewhat tricky to pin down the actual list of shows that are the product of the company’s direct editorial involvements. (To formulate it as a question: should Panoply be held accountable for — or, conversely, be well-regarded for — the diversity of the podcasts put forward by its publishing partners?) Thinking things through further, it also appears that Panoply isn’t alone in adopting this mixed structure that potentially complicates accountability checks: one could well argue that Acast, which appears to be largely driven as an ad-sales network, appears to adopt a similar hybrid model.

I don’t think there’s a specific argument that I’m making here. I just find all of this interesting, and I’m still mulling over the implications of this setup — whether there’s strategic value on the part of the company, or whether it potentially complicates its identity in the marketplace.

But yeah, about that list I was trying to make: no matter how you cut it, and running based off the website, the Panoply brand is, well, pretty white.

Quick note for fans of My Brother, My Brother, and Me. The full trailer for the comedy “advice” podcast’s TV adaptation dropped last week — following a clip that was circulated in early January — and it looks super fun. The show is set to premiere on February 23 on Seeso, the NBCUniversal-owned over-the-top streaming service that specializes in comedy programming. It will mark the second podcast-to-TV adaptation for Jesse Thorn’s Maximum Fun network in recent weeks, after Throwing Shade debuted its small screen incarnation on TV Land last month.

For more on MBMBaM and its TV project, check out podcast superfan Jaime Green’s profile of the McElroy brothers on Brooklyn Mag.

Two things for those tracking the Corporation for Public Broadcasting story:

  • Current has a story up on public media advocates pre-emptively mobilizing to deal with possible federal budget cuts ahead of the administration’s initial budget, which is expected to roll out sometime this month.
  • The New York Times published a piece this past weekend that examines the broad questions associated with the historically contentious relationship between conservatives and public funding for media and the arts. Note the pretty badass use of periods.

The NPR Training Team rolled out an “ear training guide for audio producers” last week, which focuses on helping producers identify and prevent common problems related to audio production. There’s also a pretty fun quiz that’s attached to the package, titled “Do you have the ears of an audio producer?” (In other news, I should not be an audio producer.)

“We think the guide is a really helpful resource for podcasters,” Rob Byers, of NPR’s Editorial Training team, told me. “We’re doing our best to get it in front of people as we’re also interested in receiving feedback from folks about what would help them.”

The team is also staging a webinar on this subject that will take place on March 22. Interested folks should sign up here.

In The Dark has started work on a second season, according to an update published last week by host Madeleine Baran and senior producer Samara Freemark. This is, by no means, a surprise, given the podcast’s successful run last year. The show bagged 5.5 million downloads across its first season — impressive for a relatively short, defined, and serialized freshman season that isn’t, well, Serial — and the podcast enjoyed further attention when it was repackaged as a five-part broadcast series and distributed over approximately 150 public radio stations across the country. An APM spokesperson informed me that the combined full-week audience for that broadcast run was over 5 million listeners.

Anyway, the second season will focus on a completely new case. The specifics of that haven’t been disclosed, but in the audio update released last week, Baran noted that the sophomore season will adopt pretty much the same investigative reporting structure. “What we really want to do with In The Dark,” Baran said, “is to try to get at some of the questions in this country that we don’t think are being asked often enough.” The description struck me as fairly generic, one that could well embody the premise of just about any other serious investigative endeavor. For what it’s worth, I thought the show was the best podcast series of last year, hands down, and a big part of what made it unique, for me, had to do with how well the show kept its focus on societal systems while being incredibly thoughtful with the gravity of the story — that is, the fact that a young death pervaded the entire journalistic exploration.

I can’t tell if those were necessarily the elements that resonated with the wider podcast listening audience, which is to say that I’m not sure if it’s moral and intellectual merits that drove In The Dark’s success more than its simply being able to combine a relative high level of quality with the fundamental appeal of the true crime genre. As anybody with working eyeballs and access to the iTunes podcast charts can tell you, true crime is a parodically ubiquitous genre in the industry, so much so that it appears to have been configured as programming policy by networks big and small. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course — aside from the well-established, long-running debate across multiple media over the true crime genre’s moral texture. I’m simply trying to think through whether the team has expressed a clear grasp on its differentiating factors, and whether my interpretation of those factors is legit or simply the idealistic folly of a hopeful fan.

So that’s the shiny APM news. Let’s move over to the one that’s troubling.

On Lewis Wallace and Marketplace. I trust that many of you have already heard about this story by now, but for the benefit of those who have not, I’m going to try and stuff a skeletal recap in one paragraph. However, like everything worth talking about, this predicament is incredibly layered with tons to dig through, and I implore you to actively seek out the details in the stories I’ll link throughout this item to get a better sense of the picture for yourself.

Okay, here goes: Last week, a reporter for APM’s Marketplace, Lewis Wallace, was fired for publishing a personal Medium post — and for doubling down when asked to remove it — that reflected on the meaning, need, and place of objectivity in journalism in the Trump era. The post, titled “Objectivity is dead, and I’m okay with it,” drew heavily from Wallace’s experience as a transgender journalist and, in my read at least, largely played out as a rigorous and thoughtful examination of the issue at hand. Marketplace’s decision to dismiss Wallace was attributed to his “clear violation of the ethics code,” as Deborah Clark, the VP of Marketplace, told the Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan, which prohibits reporters from publicly pronouncing their politics. “He did not agree — and he does not get to make that decision. That left me with no other options,” Clark told Sullivan.

But in Wallace’s telling of the incident, which was laid out in a follow-up Medium post, he points out that the ethics code argument doesn’t really hold up, noting that “they [Marketplace] were concerned about the section of my piece that asserted that we shouldn’t care, as journalists, if we are labeled ‘politically correct’ or even ‘liberal’ for reporting the facts. (I still maintain that we shouldn’t care, and for the record, I am not a liberal.)” It’s a bit of mess, but regardless of who is right or wrong, Wallace is out of a job, and Marketplace has come under tremendous scrutiny for its actions.

I’ll leave the recap there, and again, I’d like to reiterate that you should round out the story yourself in case you’ve completely missed this last week.

Two things should be noted at this point. First, as highlighted in Sullivan’s column, Wallace does not intend for this kerfuffle to just be about his firing from Marketplace; rather, he hopes that this will be held as a prompt for a much bigger conversation about “the core beliefs and practices of mainstream journalism.” Secondly, Marketplace has been comparatively reserved amid the public conversation that has transpired.

And what a conversation it has been, spanning across a good deal of reporting, follow-ups, and responses. Over at Nieman Lab, Laura Hazard Owen provides the most comprehensive overview I’ve seen so far, rooting the event in an examination of what appears to be a glaring contradiction between Marketplace’s decision to dismiss Wallace and its rejection of a “view from nowhere,” which was a narrative that was pushed as part of its recent initiative to rebrand and restructure to reach a broader audience beyond its aging base. Over at Current’s The Pub podcast, host Adam Ragusea does a good job in his interview with Wallace drawing out his larger thinking and parsing out the various tensions, issues, and questions baked into this story. Meanwhile, Margaret Sullivan’s column contains the clearest articulation of the conundrum for organizations that this incident highlights: “Does a news organization really want to send the message that they would prefer their reporters not think, or not care deeply about the very issues their sought-after diversity is supposed to represent? And that the punishment for standing your ground is dismissal?” At Slate, J. Bryan Lowder interprets this as a signal for “the Coming Crisis of Identity-as-Advocacy,” bringing to attention the inescapable factors of the reporter’s identity and how those could well be weaponized against them regardless of an organization’s given policy. On Twitter, United Public Strategies founder Andrew Ramsammy highlights how this incident “underscores the point on why most organizations don’t understand diversity and how to manage it.” The incident was also examined by On The Media and The Daily Beast.

Given the sheer volume of material that’s already been produced on this matter, I don’t think I can contribute very much that would be novel or helpful. I mean, I have a lot of feelings about it — who doesn’t have a lot of feelings all the time, these days? — and, if pressed, I would say that I can see why Marketplace chose to do what they did, even if I can’t quite find it in me to respect the decision.

But perhaps the thing that I find really heartbreaking about the whole matter is how this episode, in some ways, was a lost opportunity for a real moment of humanity from an institution, a system, that’s sort of meant to promote humanity. Instead of bringing up rules and policy, we could have seen a civic-oriented organization make a choice that was a little more thoughtful, perhaps a lot more difficult but certainly a lot more brave. We could have seen a public-oriented organization express a greater attempt, symbolic or substantive, at embodying a braver, keener sense of empathy. We could have seen a little more understanding in a world where folks that just, well, don’t really want to understand seem to be getting louder and louder. We didn’t see any of that, and man, I feel like all those things are so needed right now, as we find ourselves moving deeper into a time when rules and policies feel more arbitrary and weaponizable than ever before.

Bites:

  • The Guestlist with Sean Cannon, a music interview show produced by Louisville Public Media, has partnered with music label Kill Rock Stars for a new podcast series celebrating the 20th anniversary of Elliott Smith’s Either/Or. The project, called “Say Yes: An Elliott Smith Podcast,” appears to be a marketing initiative designed to lead up to the release of an expanded edition reissue of the record in early March. The episode of Say Yes was previewed on Pitchfork. (Pitchfork)
  • Hey, guess what? The amazing Hollywood history podcast You Must Remember This is back with a new season, titled “Dead Blondes.” Rolling Stone has a great interview up with creator Karina Longworth, which you totally check out. (Rolling Stone)
  • CNN announced a new podcast last Wednesday, “Boss Files with Poppy Harlow,” slowly and quietly expanding its roster of original podcasts. What’s going on down in Atlanta? Curious. (iTunes)
  • Charley Locke’s latest in Wired looks at the limited run WNYC-The Economist-Let’s Save America call-in show, Indivisible. (Wired)

[photocredit]Still taken from the final home video of Jacob Wetterling, subject of the first season of In the Dark.[/photocredit]

Hot Pod: What will happen to the election podcast boom on Nov. 9?

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue ninety-three, published October 25, 2016.

“We’re built on top of a foundation that we feel pretty good about,” PRX CEO Kerri Hoffman said. “I’m excited that we’ll never start from zero again.”

We were discussing Radiotopia’s 2016 fall fundraising campaign, which kicked off on October 13 and ends later this week, and Hoffman was telling me how she’s significantly less stressed out this year. Last fall marked the first time the organization switched away from a seasonal Kickstarter strategy to a recurring donor model, an approach whose internal logic bears more than a passing resemblance to public radio’s pledge drive system. The bulk of last year’s work, she explained, involved building out basic fundraising infrastructure: pulling together email lists, developing the beats of their marketing push, testing out the messaging, and so on. A lot of those fundamentals remain in place this year, and they merely had to build upon them.

Accordingly, PRX’s focus is a little different this year: While last November’s campaign had the more precarious goal of building out its donor base for the first time, this year’s drive has the more modest goal of merely expanding that base. Last November’s drive successfully drew support from over 19,500 people, and a blog post PRX published at the time noted that 82 percent of those folks signed on as recurring donors at different contribution levels, which would place the recurring donor number at around 15,990 people. The campaign’s CommitChange page for this cycle indicates that 12,647 recurring donors from that initial drive have stayed on, illustrating a bit of a drop-off in the intervening 12 months. Donors in good standing were gifted a free challenge coin, and their recurring contributions are set to continue unless they decide to adjust their levels. Existing donors were also invited to make additional one-time donations. This year’s campaign is also a little shorter than the previous year’s, taking place across 20 days compared to 2015’s 30.

That said, this campaign has had its challenges. Hoffman tells me that, interestingly enough, this year’s bonkers election cycle has made messaging and marketing a little more difficult, given the oxygen it has sucked up over social media. “We’ve definitely had to work a little harder to keep the momentum going,” she said. “Everyone’s distracted.” And early on, a slight timing hiccup led to the campaign missing its first challenge grant — in which a sponsor pledges a particular amount if certain goals are met — by a little bit.

But even with those bumps, the campaign appears to be going strong, clocking in just over 3,200 new supporters by Monday evening. What’s interesting to me here, though, is the way in which the campaign goal of expanding its recurring donor base — which is a game of attrition, really — lends to a relatively unsexy marketing narrative. It’s one thing to announce the recruitment of over 15,000 supporters and have that be the core of a triumphant story, but it’s another thing altogether to try and drive a narrative about adding on 3,000 more supporters, and one wonders whether this narrative issue will pose a structural problem for Radiotopia’s ability to create a sense of urgency for future fundraising and donor recruitment efforts.

This predicament, I think, is an interesting microcosm of where we are in the larger narrative arc of this second coming of podcasts: the phase of the excitement of the new is coming to a close, and we march steadily on into the more mundane work of adolescence.

In related news: Radiotopia also welcomed a new podcast to the family this week: The Bugle, the popular satire podcast launched back in October 2007 by Andy Zaltzman and John Oliver (who you may know as the host of HBO’s Last Week Tonight). Oliver will no longer host the show, for obvious “there is not enough time in the world”-related reasons, and Zaltzman, who is staying on, will be supplemented with a rotating crew of guests.

The Bugle is Radiotopia’s second addition in recent weeks. In late September, the collective announced its recruitment of the West Wing Weekly, which is cohosted by Hrishikesh Hirway, who is already part of the Radiotopia family with Song Exploder. The Bugle and West Wing Weekly are noticeable departures away from Radiotopia’s usual aesthetic, which tends to favor narrative storytelling. The former can be categorized as a straightforward comedy podcast while the latter is a pretty extensive TV-club podcast. This departure appears to be strategic. In the related press release, executive producer Julie Shapiro noted: “These shows help us expand into new areas of entertainment, political news and satire, which will ultimately build on the existing Radiotopia brand and bring new audiences to all shows within the network.”

The Bugle is Radiotopia’s sixteenth show.

Election podcasts enter the homestretch. Let’s quickly check in on their game plans:

  • Starting today (October 25), the NPR Politics Podcast will publish new episodes every day until the election. The podcast also hit a milestone recently; according to a recent press release (which we’ll get back to in a bit), the show enjoyed 1,118,000 downloads during the first week of October and. It had averaged about 450,000 downloads a week over the past three months.
  • The FiveThirtyEight Elections podcast will also be publishing new episodes daily until the election starting today. Additionally, the show will continue past November 8 on a weekly schedule “through at least Inauguration Day.”
  • I’m told that there is no systematic plan to increase the output of Slate’s Trumpcast, which already publishes on a semi-daily basis. When I asked Steve Lickteig, executive producer of Slate podcasts, if the show will continue past the big day, he told me: “If there is a peaceful transition of power, Trumpcast will do one or two wrap-up shows. If it gets contentious, stay tuned!” The podcast reportedly draws 1 million monthly downloads and considered internally to be one of the most popular podcasts in Slate’s history, according to Digiday.
  • The Ringer’s Keepin’ It 1600, consumed by many as therapy, will “likely” continue past November 8. It has already shifted to a twice-a-week publishing schedule.

As always, much love to all the producers of these podcasts that are putting in the extra physical, mental, and emotional energy to stay close to the news cycle. It’ll be over soon, folks. (Or will it?)

A new lab, a podcast strategy? Last Wednesday, NPR announced an expansion and restructuring of its Storytelling Lab, its internal innovation incubator launched last June. Nieman Lab has the full story on the new setup, but at high level, you should know the following:

  • The lab has been renamed as “Story Lab,” and its structure has shifted from an incubator to what’s being called a “creative studio.” (Hey, nomenclature is important and words have meaning, folks.) According to the related press release, the studio’s articulated aim is to “support innovation” across the organization, “increase collaboration” with member stations, and better identify talent.
  • The initiative will apparently also be “investing in training, audio workshops and meetups,” which is a pretty solid idea, given that the supply chain for talent in the space seems deeply underserved at this point in time.
  • The release also noted that the Lab is funding three pilots, which is cool, though the pathway to full seasons and distribution for those pilots remain to be seen.

The Story Lab announcement was followed shortly after by news of NPR’s ratings increase this season which, among other things, drew attention to the breaking of broadcast audience records by Morning Edition and All Things Considered, as well as the fact that NPR One has grown by 124 percent year-over-year.

Cool news from the mothership, but when it comes to NPR and podcasts, I typically approach the situation with the following questions: What is the shape of its podcast strategy, how does it fit into the larger strategy, and what do these developments tell us about both of those things? From that framework, the Story Lab is clearer to me as a way for NPR to better capitalize on its ecosystem of potential talent than it is a focused strategy that says something explicit about how on-demand audio fits into NPR’s grand vision.

It may well be the case that there is a plan — or at least a theory — in place that isn’t being communicated at this point in time. “We don’t have a quota,” an NPR spokesperson said when I asked if the Story Lab had specific output benchmarks for pilot production. “We do have some internal goals about how many shows we want to pilot and launch, but we’re not ready to share those publicly.” What those are, and what they’ll be, is something we’re going to have to wait to find out.

An alternate narrative on the connected car dashboard? Two weeks ago, Uber announced an integration with Otto Radio, a commute-oriented audio and podcast curation app, that will serve riders with a talk programming playlist that’s dynamically constructed to fit their trips.PC Magazine has a pretty good description on how the experience enabled by the integration is supposed to work:

The next time you request a ride using the Uber app, a playlist of news stories and podcasts, perfectly timed for your trip’s duration, will be waiting for you in Otto Radio. Once your driver has arrived, you can sit back and enjoy your “personally curated listening experience and arrive at your destination up-to-date about the things you care about most,” the companies said.

Otto Radio is a quirky participant in the much larger fight among audio programming providers and platforms for the dashboard of the connected car — widely considered in the industry to be one of the biggest untapped frontiers — but this integration with Uber brings into the equation a potential wrinkle in that dashboard struggle narrative: What does that fight mean in an environment where Uber looks to (a) contend for transportation primacy over car ownership and (b) push deeper into self-driving cars? In this rather likely version of the future, does the fight for the dashboard dissolve back into the fight for the mobile device?

Splish splash. The Times’ public editor Liz Spayd turned her attention to the organization’s nascent (or rather, re-nascent) podcast operations over the weekend, and her column contained a bunch of pretty interesting nuggets for close watchers of the Gray Lady, along with anybody working at a media organization thinking about podcasts.

Of course, do check out the column, but here are the bits that stood out to me:

  • “The politics podcast, called The Run-Up, is attracting the youngest audience of any Times product ever surveyed, and one that spends far more time on it than most readers do on stories.”
  • “As the team gears up, it plans to produce a range of shows, from the more conversational to serial-style narratives. It will also scope out opportunities for audio on demand: newsy, gripping sound that could be found directly on the Times website rather than in podcast form.” ← this latter point is really, really interesting.
  • The Times’ next podcast, a game show featuring Freakonomics’ Stephen Dubner called Tell Me Something I Don’t Know, is scheduled to launch next month. Dubner, by the way, is hitting the free-agent game pretty hard: Freakonomics is still chugging along at WNYC, and his short Question of the Day podcast, produced under the Earwolf label, is also publishing industriously. Dubner has some history with the Times; Freakonomics was a blog on NYTimes.com between 2007 and 2011, and Dubner was once a story editor at the Times Magazine.

For what it’s worth, I liked Spayd’s analysis a lot. There remain tremendous questions about the promise of audio for digital media and news organizations, and whether it can deliver as a revenue boon in a business environment starved for growth injections and stabilizing pillars. Two core tensions exist in these questions: whether podcasts will offer incremental growth or whether it will be a so-called “magic bullet,” and whether podcasts will be deployed as a kind of top-of-the-funnel — a recruitment tool to reach previously unharvested audiences and pull them down the marketing funnel — or as a fully-fledged outpost all on its own.

Patreon partners with podcast hosting platform Podomatic. The partnership will let Podomatic users easily set up Patreon support buttons on their user profile, according to the press release. If you’re unfamiliar with Patreon, it’s a platform that helps creators receive funding and donations directly from their supporters — or patrons, to use the synonym that makes Patreon’s etymology more obvious.

It’s a nifty service, and I’ve used it before for Hot Pod back before I decided to take the newsletter full-time. And it’s also pretty widely used — separate and apart from Podomatic — by a number of podcasters, like Flash Forward’s Rose Eveleth. A Patreon spokesperson told me that the platform has about 10,000 podcast creators with Patreon accounts, and that the company is actively working to draw more podcasters onto the service. It’s a decent option, I think, for shows way under the audience threshold for advertiser interest but have an ardent, engaged base that may be willing to chip in some cash monthly to sustain the show. Hey, that model works for me.

Bites:

  • Politico’s hallmark newsletter product, the Politico Playbook, is now available in 90-second audio format, distributed both through the Amazon Echo and as a podcast. The birthdays, alas, will not be carried over. (Politico)
  • “Midroll Media did ‘in the ballpark’ of $20 million in sales last year, and is on pace to bring in more than $30 million this year,” Ad Age reports, using a source “with knowledge of the company.” (Ad Age)
  • WNYC Studios will launch its next podcast, Nancy, early next year. Nancy, formerly known as Gaydio, was one of the winners of the station’s podcast accelerator initiative that took place back in September 2015. (MediaVillage)
  • In The Dark, APM Reports’ limited-run podcast that investigates the 1989 child abduction of Jacob Wetterling in rural Minnesota, will be broadcast on the radio as a 4-hour roundup special. The show, by the way, is amazing, and I think it’s probably the most thoughtful true-crime podcast I’ve ever heard. The last episode dropped today. (Twitter)
  • Bumpers, an audio-creation app that I wrote about back in August, has raised $1 million in seed funding. (TechCrunch)
  • The first Chicago Podcast Festival, scheduled to take place after the Third Coast Festival from Nov. 17 to 19, has posted its lineup. (Chicago Podcast Festival)
  • Like many media nerds, I’ve been watching The Verge cofounder Joshua Topolsky’s latest venture, The Outline, with much interest, given its maybe-kinda-sorta “The New Yorker but for snake people” pitch. So consider me interested, and a little bemused, that their first public project is a podcast that recaps HBO’s Westworld, called Out West.
  • Julia Barton, a veteran audio editor, has long been frustrated with the use of microphone stock photos in podcast write-ups, believing it to be a considerable reduction and misrepresentation of the culture, work, and medium. (Current)
  • FWIW, I’m told that Starlee Kine is going to make an appearance at the Now Hear This festival this Saturday, doing a guest spot on the live Found show.

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

Hot Pod: Gimlet risks its image as scrappy and transparent by mishandling a show cancellation

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue ninety-one, published October 11, 2016.

Growing Up Gimlet. Okay, there’s a lot baked into this story and I’m still processing, so this isn’t an argument so much as me thinking through this. Let’s get to it.

Podcastland was lit aflame last Thursday when Starlee Kine, the creative force behind the highly popular Gimlet podcast Mystery Show, published a note explaining the show’s extended silence since wrapping up its first season last July. Kine explained that she had been let go “without warning” by Gimlet in April and spent the past few months figuring out a way forward. “I’d been having trouble figuring out the new season — second seasons can be tricky — and so I’d gone away, to work on an episode,” she wrote. “The day I returned, Alex told me the show was unsustainable.” (The note was published both on Kine’s personal Medium account and on the Mystery Show Facebook page, which has since been deleted.)

Gimlet published a statement of its own shortly after. The statement was vague, but it confirmed that the company was no longer participating in Mystery Show’s development. “Mystery Show is an ambitious production and Starlee has an uncompromising vision for the show, which is what makes it so great,” the statement read. “However, these factors combined make Mystery Show unsustainable to produce and publish on a consistent basis.” The company noted that it’s still in discussions with Kine on how she may proceed to produce the show independently. In a recording appended to the StartUp episode released later Thursday evening, Gimlet cofounder Alex Blumberg declined to discuss the issue further, maintaining that some things “need to remain private.”

Pretty scandalous stuff for this still-small podcast industry — so much so that it was written up by more general publications like Vulture, Vox, and Wired. And there’s a lot about this announcement that’s publicly unclear: why Kine’s announcement came out last Thursday, what happened in April, what the actual situation is, and so on. Public response to the news has been fairly negative towards Gimlet for the most part, and in the intervening days, two dominant narratives have come to define the story: (1) Kine was shortchanged by Gimlet, and (2) letting go of the show is a strategic misstep for the budding media giant.

That second narrative is, frankly, more interesting to deconstruct here compared to the first, which has significant potential to devolve into analytically unproductive schoolyard gossip. Whatever happened between Kine and the company is theirs to internally litigate; for what it’s worth, I reached out to Kine for comment, but she declined to extend the issue beyond her statement, and while I was able to discuss the situation with several people familiar with the matter, both inside and outside the company, none were willing to speak on the record. So no, I’m not going to be the one who presents the tick-tock here, but if you’re into that, there appear to be a few other publications pursuing the story — based on some inquiries that hit my inbox yesterday — so you might still be in luck.

The more significant question for me is: What does this mean for Gimlet as a business?

I don’t think the company will suffer much — or indeed, at all — from a revenue perspective. Just looking at the structure of the show, it’s highly unlikely that Mystery Show was ever much of a moneymaker for the company. The first season was made up of six episodes that ran sporadically across a two-month period, and even if you account for an exceptionally strong download rate during its initial run, a fairly strong long tail in the succeeding months, and a comparatively high CPM (set before the show actually premiered, I might add), the show’s very short run automatically keeps its overall revenue potential fairly low. As part of a larger portfolio, Mystery Show would likely have been less financially important compared to the company’s other continuously-publishing properties like StartUp, whose seasonal releases are probably balanced against super-premium CPMs justified by a high-value audience segment, and Reply All, which operates on an industrious publishing schedule and was revealed in a recent StartUp episode to have enjoyed consistent audience growth since launching in November 2014.

Mystery Show’s main contribution to Gimlet was the fact it was deeply loved. It drew critical praise, a star-studded following, and tremendous buzz. The show, after all, scored Kine an appearance on Conan, and it accumulated an exceptionally strong, ardent, and loud fanbase.

And that goodwill, I imagine, is understood to provide a halo effect for the rest of the company’s brand. But Gimlet’s core advertising-driven business model, whose financial health depends on consistent and continuous publishing, values all listeners as equal, and given that Gimlet has no current way to further monetize its audience beyond advertising — and no, I don’t consider the company’s membership play to be an effective secondary channel just yet — Mystery Show’s intense fandom doesn’t translate into a real business case in the company. And while the success of the first season may well have sown the conditions for greater revenue potential for its second season (by virtue of a higher earned CPM), the show still has to be produced on time in a way that make sense within the context of the production costs, which continues to grow as more time is spent on its production. As we know now, the project ultimately suffered from high production volatility, which some companies would probably still consider slogging through if they perceived the potential of, at least, a proportional return on the other side of the investment.

But Mystery Show, as an investment, never really had a shot of generating a strong enough revenue return given its structure, which raises the further question: Why take the risk in the first place? And why continue supporting the show until April — bearing the costs of keeping Kine on payroll, even as the company began to feel that it may not meet its production timeline (which must be enforced due to advertiser commitments)?

The most plausible reason, in my mind, is that the company, well, believed in the art. If we believe this to be the case, then what we have is a company that made an artistic choice that initially paid off but eventually backfired. Which may look naive now, given the circumstances, and perhaps a little irresponsible, given its larger reality as a venture-backed media company that’s accountable for revenue and audience growth, but I’d personally defend it in the overall scheme of things, because I’d much rather media companies — venture-backed and otherwise — take risks occasionally in the service of art (or the public, as in the case of journalistic operations). What I find much less defensible is the way the company deeply mishandled communications in the aftermath of last Thursday’s events, which is a mistake that potentially compromised its core brand dynamics and value.

No two ways about this: Gimlet should have done a better job getting in front of this story and managing the fallout that this incident has brought upon its relationship with its audience. At this writing, the company still has not adequately addressed the concerns that linger on the minds of a good chunk of its audience and fans or even make them anything beyond being blocked out. By skipping that step, the company has drawn into question one of its biggest appeals to its community: a sense of radical, authentic transparency.

There’s a very strong possibility that the company is fully aware of all this and decided to endure that tradeoff anyway. I really have no idea whether this is the case, but if so, it makes the entire situation ever more interesting — and tragic — and it is here, I’d say, that I’m most intrigued about what actually happened behind the scenes. (Though I’m not that intrigued.)

Nevertheless, last Thursday illustrated this breakdown to its fullest extent: Kine’s post dropped hours before Gimlet was set to publish its latest season of its flagship show StartUp. The brilliance of that podcast, which earned Gimlet its initial acclaim when it debuted in late 2014, was premised on a spirit of confessional authenticity, which really shined when it kept the focus on itself. As a listener, you felt like you were friends with these people; you felt like you were glimpsing at the truth; you felt like you were involved in their lives. Gimlet’s blanket unwillingness to attend to this very visible fallout rendered last Thursday’s episode hollow, and perhaps irrevocably undermined the polite suspension of belief that has long distracted you from the actual truth: that even as pieces of nonfiction, these people are still characters on a show, and as much as it feels like you know them, you never truly will.

Perhaps more crucially, this incident also highlighted a fundamental tension within Gimlet as a company that it has never properly resolved: the company actively cultivates a feeling of goodwill associated with being small, scrappy, and independent — a carryover, one would imagine, from its public radio DNA — while at the same time enjoying the advantages of being an empire-building, venture-backed, for-profit business. The company has, in a lot of ways, never really had to publicly confront the burdens, traps, and responsibilities that come with being big and venture-backed, and now it’s doing just that.

Mystery Show’s conscious uncoupling with Gimlet probably won’t matter much in the larger scale of how podcasting plays out in the years to come. But it does mark a public loss of innocence for Gimlet. The company now shuffles out of adolescence, grappling not just with growing pains, but with all the changes those pains bring to its identity. It can no longer be what it once was, and must now fully reckon with whatever it is it wants to be.

Meanwhile, the rest of us in the industry will have to digest how, I guess, we’re all kinda sorta growing up too. *shudders*

The Sarah Awards, part deux. Ann Heppermann, head honcho of the Sarah Lawrence College International Audio Fiction Awards that saw its inaugural prize ceremony take place back in April, informs me that preparations for the second ceremony are currently underway and, more importantly, that its website has been redesigned. Among its improvements and additions, the site now also sports reviews of and essays about audio dramas, which is a piece of news that, I suppose, should count as good timing after my whole warble-garble last week about podcast criticism requiring the development of whole new business models.

It looks like the model Heppermann is using for her commissions essentially amounts to patronage. According to her re-welcome note on the Sarah Awards website, those critical essays and reviews are funded by a “generous contribution” from Panoply — which would probably provoke some sort of conflict of interest concern if the reviews were meant to play a kind of consumer-guide role, except that it doesn’t seem like it. The Sarahs, above all, assumes an advocacy role in the podcast ecosystem — something closer in spirit to a trade lobbying or consumer awareness group, perhaps — which is an interpretation that compels me to further wonder what, exactly, is the business of criticism in the first place.

Anyhoo, the next Sarah Awards ceremony is set to take place on March 28, 2017. Submissions for the awards will open sometime this fall, so keep your eye on the website. Until then, occupy yourself with the site’s Very, Very, Short, Short Stories Contest, which is now taking entries.

Radiotopia Fundraiser No. 2. I’m being told that the podcast collective is kicking off its second annual fundraiser this morning. Recall that this whole direct-listener-support thing is fundamental to the collective’s hypothesis. Check out their website for more information.

Quick and Dirty origins. D.C.-based reporter and friend-of-the-newsletter Simon Owens published a great profile of the Quick and the Dirty Tips podcast network, an on-demand audio operation that first came to life ten years ago when Mignon Fogarty launched its flagship show, Grammar Girl, in June 2006.

The network is really interesting for a number of reasons: It has a distinct focus on educational programming that’s baked into a broad adoption of the advice format. It’s an example of a diversified, multi-platform business built around audio as an anchor of sorts. And it has a unique partnership with Macmillan Publishers — one that sees the former play a talent incubation/marketing role for the latter, and the latter play a business development role for the former. The network reportedly generates about 2 million downloads per month with 18 shows in its portfolio, according to the profile.

A couple of thoughts:

  • Might be just me, but I see a really strong parallel between Quick and Dirty Tips and the Atlanta-based HowStuffWorks network (which I profiled last month, by the way). Both are networks that were born relatively early on in the podcast format’s history, and both pursued growth and self-sustainability through the late 2000s. That the two networks ended up adopting a multi-platform strategy as a way to diversify their revenue bases and further build out their brands is probably not coincidental. But what does appear coincidental to me is a common focus on educational programming between the two networks. I’m still trying to wrap my head around what this tells us about the relationship between form and content, but I think there’s a broader story here about “sexy growth” (for lack of better term, my deepest apologies) and not-so sexy growth.”
  • If there’s a huge lesson to draw from Quick and Dirty Tips as a case study, I think it’s this: Your list of potential allies is always bigger than you think it is, especially if you look in non-obvious places. So, if you’re an independent operator starting your show or a network — or indeed, if you run a smaller public radio station somewhere — it’s worth considering partnerships with companies beyond the audio vertical.

Anyway, check out Owens’ writeup, and do subscribe to his Tinyletter if you’re into media analysis stuff, which I’m pretty sure you are.

Lore is successfully heading to television. Amazon has picked up the podcast, whose development was first announced back in April, with a mid-2017 debut schedule, according to Deadline. Other podcast-to-television projects still on my personal watchlist: Limetown, StartUp, and My Brother, My Brother, and Me.

Meanwhile, in Brooklyn. Chris Morrow, head of the Loud Speakers Network (which is the home of, among other fine shows, The Read and Tax Season), writes in to tell me that they’re launching a new show this week: InsecuriTea, a show that recaps the Issa Rae HBO show “Insecurity.” The recap podcast is a co-production with HBO.

Morrow continues: “[This] comes on the heels of some additional branded content: Rich Friend, a fashion and music show with Avion Tequila featuring The New Yorker’s Matthew Trammell and GQ’s Style Guy Mark Anthony Green, and Colorful Lives, featuring career advice for African-American women sponsored by State Farm featuring Lip Service’s Angela Yee, Friend Zone’s Fran and Tatiana King from Fan Bros.”

Bites:

  • WNYC begins rolling out internships that now pay $11.50/hour as opposed its previous $12/day rate. This comes after a successful petition campaign from a group called Fair Trade Radio that took place in April. (WNYC Careers)
  • “…a core user expectation [of podcasts] is one of interoperability, where as a listener I know that I can listen to my favorite shows in whichever podcast app I choose, whether that’s the latest paid app or the Podcasts app pre-installed on my iPhone. And right now, the best way to enable that is to follow the rules and publish RSS.” RadioPublic’s chief architect makes the case for RSS, along with some helpful code. (Medium)
  • On the kids’ podcast front: NPR is playing around with an experimental podcast for kids and is looking for feedback. And upstart Blobfish Radio launched a “serialized mystery podcast for kids” called The Unexplainable Disappearance of Mars Patel.
  • Remember that tech podcast Bloomberg’s Michael Shane was talking about when I profiled the company’s audio strategy recently? It’s out now. (Bloomberg)
  • Mashable has a profile up on “Jason Flom’s Wrongful Conviction,” a show that comes out of the budding Revolver network. (Mashable)
  • “As accuracy of speech recognition goes from 95% to 99%, all of us…will go from barely using it to using it all the time.” The Economist snapshots the market opportunity in “smart speakers” or audio-first computing. (The Economist)
  • This is a fascinating read: “Podcasting from Prison.” (California Sunday Magazine)

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