Hot Pod: Slate tries a rolling audio mashup to cover Election Day live

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue ninety-five, published November 8, 2016.

Happy Election Day (oh dear god). Three quick stories with that sweet, sweet podcast-angle (#onbrand):

1. Avail yourself with dueling podcast columns on the subject: The New Statesman, “How to use podcasts as U.S. election therapy,” and Wired, “Fed-up, freaked-out Americans find comfort in politics podcasts.”

2. Slate’s trying something new: dynamically reporting on the elections in near real-time through podcasts. According to an internal email by executive producer Steve Lickteig: “Producers will update stories throughout the day, and listeners will get refreshed news whenever they want…The best way to experience this is by opening slate.com/newscast in a browser tab and leave it open all day. At least once per hour (but probably much more often as the day heats up), you can return to that page and hear fresh stories mixed with ones you’ve heard before or, even more likely, an entirely new batch of stories.”

The company is leveraging its in-house audio CMS, Megaphone, to produce the feed, which interestingly enough won’t be available in iTunes or podcast apps. The updates will be hosted by This American Life’s Zoe Chace and PBS Newshour’s Alison Stewart. Updates began at 9 a.m. Eastern.

3. Poynter ran a vote over the weekend on the best political coverage in this election cycle, breaking out a category just for podcasts. Keepin’ It 1600 (considered by some as therapy) was beat out by FiveThirtyEight’s election podcast (considered by some as anti-therapy) for first place, with NPR’s politics podcast bagging third. Full list on the article, near the bottom. I’ll do a postmortem next week on the set of very, very strong shows we’ve seen breaking out in this genre.

GE Podcast Theater announced the followup to its hit branded podcast The Message last week, and it looks like the team is sticking close to the playbook on this one. The new show will be a single-season, short-run science fiction podcast that draws heavy influence from contemporary works (the press-outreach email described it as “Her meets Ex Machina” that will be enjoyed by “lovers of Westworld and Black Mirror” — a title salad) while exhibiting a light touch from the actual brand sponsoring the project. The followup will also continue The Message’s core design conceit of telling a story based on a piece of technology that, of course, GE is interested in. (Image-building by association, in other words.)

The show will be called Life After, and the plot will follow an FBI employee who tries to communicate with his departed wife through digital assets left behind on an all-audio social media platform. It’s not…the most original premise, sporting strong similarities to the Black Mirror episode “Be Right Back” (as well as a Michael Keaton film from the mid-2000s called White Noise, which was kind of criminally bad). But it’s worth noting that The Message wasn’t all that original either, leaning hard on the now cliched “fictional radio reporter” as the framing device and making use of plot points that, again, bore very strong similarities to another project, this time a very early episode of the indie-horror podcast The Black Tapes. Nevertheless, the podcast’s core value was firmly rooted in its polished execution, and we’ll likely see the same with this new project.

(At this point, I’d like to issue a quick disclaimer: I used to work for Panoply.)

Let’s take a few steps back for a second. For the uninitiated, GE Podcast Theater is an experimental partnership in branded podcast production between GE, Panoply, and the advertising agency BBDO. The Message, the team’s first foray into this nexus, debuted last October and pulled off a very, very successful run, with the most recent publicly available audience tally putting the podcast at around 500,000 downloads per episode, according to a Bloomberg article published in June. (Keep the imprecision of the metric in mind here; that number probably refers to downloads per episode since the show’s launch in October 2015, which doesn’t really give us a good sense on download acceleration, growth rate, or the long tail. Alas.) But the campaign’s successes expanded well beyond its downloads: The Message was a minor press hit (The Atlantic: “The Radio-Age Genius of The Message”) and even managed to bag a few Cannes Lions international advertising awards.

Much of that success, I think, comes from a combination of two things: first, the project’s novelty as an unconventional piece of advertising: aside from a small logo on the podcast art, The Message was near-devoid of direct references to its corporate progenitor, and I reckon there was something about this quality that likely drew critical attention from the advertising community; and second, its ability to competently capitalize on a general hunger for genre fiction among podcast consumers by serving a highly produced product in a field that was then dominated by independent works with a more artisanal feel. (Ugh, sorry about the use of “artisanal.”)

On that front, it’s worth considering just how much the podcast space has changed in the past year, particularly with regard to audio fiction. There are more ambitious audio fiction enterprises now than ever before — see Night Vale Presents, The Paragon Collective, The Sarah Awards, Wondery, Gimlet’s Homecoming, and so on — and one imagines the broad podcast consuming body, which absorbs and evolves as it expands and matures in numbers and demographics, has shifted somewhat in its taste and expectations for something like fiction.

So, with all that in mind, and given just how close they’re sticking to the formula, I wonder if the team expects to receive the same kinds of returns as last year.

Alexa Christon, GE’s head of media innovation, appeared to be keeping a realistic but hopeful view on Life After when we spoke over the phone last week. “We actually never expected The Message to go to No. 1 on iTunes,” Christon explained. “We were just excited about the content and the concept. We felt we had something, but we also knew it was really hard to crack No. 1…We’re hoping that there will be buzz again, but we’ll see.” (When asked how much GE is paying for Life After, Christon declined to spill details. She merely replied: “It’s nothing unusual.”)

Without the novelty, Life After doesn’t quite have the same structural advantage that The Message did. This leaves the team having to tough it out the way all other shows do: executing at a very, very high level. But hey, the trailer, which dropped last week, sounds really good, and I’m curious to hear if the rest of the show will be able to match it.

Life After comes out on November 13 and will run for 10 episodes. It will be distributed through The Message’s RSS feed. Also worth noting: Giant Spoon, a media agency, is involved in the distribution strategy for the project.

Relevant: GE also announced an original podcast for the Australian market last week called Decoding Genius.

Radiotopia names the winner of its Podquest competition: Ear Hustle, a nonfiction narrative podcast that “unveils the hidden stories of life inside prison, told and produced from the perspective of those who live it,” according to the PRX blog post announcing the result. The show’s creative force is made up of Earlonne Woods, Antwan Williams, and Nigel Poor. Woods and Williams are currently sentences in San Quentin State Prison. Poor is an artist and professor at California State University, Sacramento. The team is a remarkable story, one that was most recently told in a California Sunday Magazine profile back in late September.

Ear Hustle beat out nine other semifinalists that were themselves selected out of an applicant pool made up of 1,537 entries from 53 different countries. You can read up on the other semifinalists on the Podquest website — and if you’re a publisher, I highly recommend you consider them for recruitment. (There’s no talent shortage if you look hard enough, folks.)

In winning Podquest, Ear Hustle’s 10-episode first season will be picked up by Radiotopia for a 2017 debut. It will be Radiotopia’s 17th show, the third addition in recent weeks following the pickups of West Wing Weekly and The Bugle, two shows that are somewhat departs from the podcast collective’s story-driven, highly-produced narrative programming. As such, Ear Hustle’s pickup represents a return to Radiotopia’s roots, albeit one that, interestingly enough, itself looks to be a deeper realization of the collective’s sensibilities and aesthetic.

A trailer for the show can be heard here.

How Stuff Works’ Jason Hoch, observing on Twitter Saturday morning: “4 of the top 6 podcasts on iTunes are new and contain only a short promo episode clocking in under 4 minutes…Why do podcast publishers launch promo episodes as ‘episode 1’ of a series? Easy — get subscribers, and therefore, future downloads.” Hoch, by the way, made an appearance on the Digiday podcast last week, where he declared: “There is no podcast bubble.” Dude is full of soundbites that makes my job easier, I swear.

The history, and future, of AV Club’s Podmass column. Long before The Timbre (RIP), Charley Locke’s work at Wired, Caroline Crampton’s New Statesman column, and long, long before Hot Pod, you had The AV Club’s Podmass column. Since 2011, the column has consistently served as one of the few places on the Internet that took podcasts seriously in front of a wide, mainstream audience. But its future appears to be in question now that Becca James, who has edited the column since 2014, is leaving the company.

I traded emails with James last week, asking a few questions about her time at Podmass and what happens next. Here’s the Q&A in full:

Can you tell me about the history of Podmass?

Podmass technically started in 2010 when Kyle Ryan ((Ryan is currently an editor-at-large for the AV Club and the VP of development at Onion Inc., the AV Club’s parent company. He had left in April 2014 to briefly serve as Entertainment Weekly’s online editor, returning to the AV Club a year later.)) included a best podcasts roundup in the site’s year-end coverage. When everyone returned from holiday break in 2011, Kyle suggested they review podcasts each week, recommending which ones to listen to and which ones to skip on a weekly basis, which gave rise to the “The Best” and “The Rest” format that you see in the February 2011 debut of Podmass. The coverage treated podcasts as episodic entities, reviewing the same shows each week and was based on the original lineup from the 2010 article, which writers added and subtracted to at will. The concept was new then, as podcasts weren’t getting much coverage other than occasional stories about specific shows and the first podcast boom had already ended. As Kyle explained to me, “This was a way to write about the medium but also be a utility because even back then it felt like there were too many podcasts to keep track of.” I was hired in 2013 and started compiling Podmass when Kyle was on vacation or otherwise busy. Eventually, he left to pursue a career with EW, and Podmass was handed down to me in the spring of 2014. By that fall I had changed the format to highlight 10-15 of the previous week’s best episodes. I felt this was a better way to introduce a larger group of people to podcasts, as opposed to the more inside-baseball, labor-intensive former version of Podmass, which covered the same 30 or so shows each week. The new format was really about showcasing the medium of podcasting as something for everyone, with The A.V. Club ready and willing to help readers find their niche in this world.

What kind of work goes into producing the column?

I have a staff of writers that come from all walks of life — designers, comedians, artists — but that are steeped in the world of podcasting. They pitch episodes to me by EOD on Thursday each week. Once I have everyone’s pitches, I go through and curate a list of 10-15 based on a number of things I extract from the writers’ pitches. Then I send out assignments. The writers come back with 200 words and some quotes from the episode by noon the next day. I spend Friday compiling the reviews in our CMS before adding a feature image and a headline. Often throughout the week, I will email suggestions to the group and ask if anyone would like to cover that episode. These can come from emailed tips, Twitter, Hot Pod, etc.

There’s an argument floating about — most recently articulated by the Third Coast Festival folks — that there isn’t enough mainstream coverage of podcasts. What do you think of that argument, and where do you think we are in the state of cultural conversation about podcasts?

Podcasts are tricky because statistics still show that they are not as widely consumed as, say, TV. I remember making this argument when changing the Podmass format, saying that Podmass should be doing its part to draw more people toward this form of entertainment, which is why we should have more expansive, welcoming coverage. That is all to say that I agree with the Third Coast folks that there isn’t enough coverage of podcasts. People often comment on the enormous amount of podcasts, naming it as a hurdle in the quest to provide adequate coverage, but I think the stuff worth listening to rises to the top.

How has Podmass performed?

Podmass does well in my opinion. It is by far not the most-read feature on our site, but it often makes it into the top 10 most-read articles the day it publishes. It has its diehard fans, which I greatly appreciate and wish I had more time to shoot the shit with in the comments section, which is where you’ll find a lot of them hanging out.

What happens to Podmass now?

I worry Podmass won’t make it into 2017 once I’m no longer around to wrangle it. It’s difficult to articulate how melancholy that makes me feel, as I really see this feature as a service to the readers, as true journalism. It’s a numbers game though, and without a salaried employee willing to take on the feature, it’s hard to justify it’s existence financially. As for me, I have a dear friend that spends a lot of time daydreaming about keeping the Podmass dream alive. After all, the spirit of podcasting is that anyone can do it, so it seems fair to say that anyone could create podcast reviews and share them online.

James will be done with Podmass by the end of the year. She currently holds interest in going back into teaching, and expects to be freelancing for a few places — including the AV Club — on the side.

Bites:

  • Adobe has apparently prototyped a “Photoshop for Audio.” Called Project VoCo, the program “can produce the sound of someone saying something they didn’t actually say with unsettling realism.” Oh dear god. (Pitchfork)
  • The New York Times’ Amanda Hess has a fascinating story on an expansive digital community of female Star Wars fans made up of metacriticism, fan art, fan fiction, and a “podcast sorority that includes Scavengers Hoard, Rebel Grrrl, Lattes With Leia, and Rebels Chat.” Cool reminder of how communities benefits of an open medium. That’s what I took from this, anyway. (The New York Times)
  • Speaking of the Times, its latest podcast is out: Tell Me Something I Don’t Know, its collaboration with Freakonomics’ Stephen Dubner working under an LLC called Dubner Productions. (The New York Times)
  • “‘I felt like Morse tapping his first code’ — the man who invented the podcast.” (The Guardian)
  • Looks like WBEZ is going to pump out a three-part special series on the rise of Oprah Winfrey, starting Thursday. Personally, I’m psyched. It’s a great time for audio documentaries, folks. (WBEZ)
  • NPR comms director Isabel Lara tells me that Planet Money’s recent reporting on the Wells Fargo fraudulent account debacle (here and here) was cited in a formal letter by senators Elizabeth Warren and Robert Menendez. Very cool.
  • Also: Goodbye to NPR’s How To Do Everything, which will post its final episode on November 18. Don’t tell anybody, but you were my favorite NPR podcast.

Happy America, every one. Godspeed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s the lineup:

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

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

Two things:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bites:

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

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

Hot Pod: 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.

Podcast upfronts, 99% Invisible goes dynamic, and Freakonomics goes broadcast

The IAB podcast upfronts. WNYC’s Jerome L. Greene Space is a fun-sized studio at the bottom of the station’s building that has served as the home of many podcasting firsts. Located on an assuming corner somewhere south of West Village, the past few months alone has seen the space used for first WNYC Women’s Podcast Festival, the first live taping of BuzzFeed’s Another Round, and the first live meeting between NPR newscaster Lakshmi Singh and the infamous, and possibly cursed, “I Am Lakshmi Singh” hat.

So perhaps it’s appropriate that the space served as the site for the Interactive Advertising Bureau’s first podcast upfront, which offered Big Advertising its first look at a relatively broad cross-section of what the sum of the nascent industry had to offer. (Side note: It’s important to note that this wasn’t the first podcast upfront ever — that honor goes to an April 2015 event held in the slightly more glamorous (Le) Poisson Rouge, a bar and concert hall located not too far away from the Greene Space, which was a more public radio-centric affair featuring presentations from WNYC, WBEZ, and NPR. That event principally extended the narrative of podcasting-as-nonfiction storytelling content.)

The IAB upfront last Thursday was a bit of chaotic affair. Within the span of three hours-plus-plus, the event juxtaposed presentations that didn’t really fit very well immediately next to each other. Companies like Panoply ((My benevolent employers, by the way — see my first Nieman Lab post for disclaimers.)) (with its talky content offerings aesthetically pegged to what one might call decorum) and Midroll (with its pop culture-driven content that gives rise to podcasting as an alternate-node for American comedy) against companies with broader plays like CBS’ Play.it network (which cultivates sounds reminiscent of traditional talk radio) and AdLarge (which offers Associated Press content in audio form and…something about EDM concerts that I’m still trying to grapple in my head). It closed with WNYC and NPR fielding the teams behind Invisibilia and Radiolab, who essentially performed a reprise of their presentation from the April 2015 upfront.

But while the event was a little whiplash-inducing, I thought it was a highly successful event for the community as a whole. The variety of companies that were brought on-stage collectively offered a broad range of content types — thus broadening the narrative of what podcasts are and what podcasts can be. As much as I absolutely enjoyed the original April upfront, I was bothered by how that event (and its importance of being the first of its kind) extended the view of the podcasting as principally the domain of highly-produced, narrative storytelling. (The overwhelming legacy of Serial, which is almost universally present in the first paragraph of just about every general-audience article written about podcasting, already skews the medium’s identity in this regard.)

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, of course, because those are damn good shows that exhibit the best of what the format uniquely provides at this point in time. And of course, I completely understand what these public radio institutions are doing: They’re pushing their wares, building towards their own core competencies, and they also just happen to be the best game in town at the moment.

But it does set a tone for expectations among Big Advertising, especially now when the industry is in its formative stages. It cultivates certain norms, standards, and structures that could raise the barrier for other types or genres of podcasts to thrive.

So in that respect, I was really glad to see the almost anarchistic range of content offerings I saw on stage last week. And while not everything felt…particularly high-quality (to put it bluntly), it felt like a much needed correction to the industry’s larger narrative, which honestly makes me feel relieved.

Anyway. Here are some other tidbits from the event that struck me as interesting:

  • Midroll Media is now the company selling ads for Bill Simmons’ new podcast, which he’s making as part of his larger multimedia arrangement with HBO.
  • NPR reports having 77.6 million podcast downloads a month across all its shows.
  • This American Life sees 9.5 million podcast downloads a month, per PodTrac, which now pushes its identity as the company selling ads for This American Life and Serial.
  • Money quote from Radiolab’s Jad Abumrad during the presentation re: podcast advertising: “It is not yet a saturated space.”

Cool. Now here are some professional writeups of the event, from professional reporters:

  • “Here’s Why the IAB’s First Podcast Upfront Was Such a Hot Event for Marketers” (AdWeek)
  • “We Don’t Have to Follow Public-Radio Rules! Podcasters Play for Keeps at an Upfront” (Ad Age)
  • “Inside the first ever ‘Podcast Upfront'” (Fortune)

99% Invisible applies dynamic ad insertion on older episodes in iTunes. The highly popular design, architecture, and holy-shit-the-physical-human-built-world-is-awesome show has opened up its full catalog on iTunes for renewed consumption, with episodes older than 8 weeks apparently monetized by dynamic ad insertion. You can hear the new ad at the top of those older episodes. The execution didn’t go off without a hitch, however; for some 99PI subscribers, the opening up triggered a mass download of episodes. (So if you’re a podcaster going down that road in the future, or if you’re working on a platform designed to allow dynamic ad insertion, watch out for that.)

(And, unfortunately, 99PI head honcho Roman Mars also noted that posting the archives “cause[d] our iTunes ranking to plummet.”)

He talked about the move in a Facebook post, writing “it allows for the catalog to continue to generate revenue over time and keeps everything available and free for all…It’s dynamic. Wave of the future. I really want the first thing you hear to be “This is 99% Invisible…” so for all the diehard fans, that’s exactly what you’ll get.”

What a dawg. I’ll hopefully have more on this next week.

The Los Angeles Podcast Festival. So I’ve never been to L.A. — home of Hollywood, Snapchat, and animal fries (or so I’m told) — and I imagine it’s every inch the way it’s represented in BoJack Horseman, Karina Longworth’s You Must Remember This, and the nightmares of Scriptnotes’ Craig Mazin and John August. But you’re in L.A., you should check out the fourth annual L.A. Podcast Festival that’s due to take place between September 18 and 20. By festival, the organizers primarily mean a “series of live shows,” with a lineup that includes Aisha Tyler’s Girl on Guy, the very useful Dinner Party Download, the excellent Mental Illness Happy Hour, the raucous My Brother, My Brother, and Me, and of course, WTF with Marc Maron.

Perhaps the most interesting thing with the way the festival is laid out has to with the sponsors. Audible has top billing here, securing an “Audible Presents” mention, while Squarespace has its name attached to something called a Podcast Lab. Familiar friends.

WNYC’s Freakonomics goes broadcast. The highly popular “let’s take this one way of thinking about things and apply the crap out of it to everything and make a show about it” podcast is no longer just a podcast. It’s now an hour-long weekly radio show to be aired on weekends beginning in October. Per the press release, Freakonomics “will join Radiolab, On the Media, and WNYC’s forthcoming collaboration with The New Yorker as national programs that WNYC will distribute independently to stations beginning this fall.”

“DISTRIBUTE INDEPENDENTLY.” Exciting times, fellow nerds. Exciting times.

Freakonomics is hosted by Stephen Dubner with Robert Krulwich-style constant appearances by Steven Levitt, an economist at the University of Chicago (a.k.a. the place where fun goes to die). Dubner, by the way, has a new show distributed by Midroll called Question of the Day, a three-times-a-week affair where he spitballs with Notable Podcaster James Altucher about, ah, stuff. That show shot up to the No. 1 spot on the iTunes chart (for whatever that’s worth) upon its debut, and now has settled around No. 20 to 30 spot after three weeks. (Are you happy with the mention now, Lex Friedman? Are you happy?)

CJR’s “So You Want To Start A Podcast.” This article by the Columbia Journalism Review, about different strategies of podcast market entry, doubles as a rough rubric for podcasting business models. It isn’t comprehensive, as pointed out by the ensemble known as The Heard, who make the argument for a fifth model where smaller, disparate shows band together as a collective to pool resources.

What’s the difference between a network and a collective? Beats me. I tend to think of the split as divided by professionalism as well as formal, legal, and business structures. But that’s just me.

Kernel Magazine. The latest issue of Kernel Magazine, an “online tabloid magazine about technology” acquired by The Daily Dot last year, is centered on podcasts, and the spread of its articles touches upon a bunch of elements that I don’t typically cover in this newsletter. Definitely check out the whole issue, but the three that I’d single out are:

  • “How the growing Austin comedy scene is turning to podcasts” (Audra Schroeder)
  • “Why Howl could be much more than the ‘Netflix for podcasts'” (Patrick Caldwell)
  • “The unfortunate truth about the podcasting industry” (Joey Keeton)

Matt Lieber is everything. Submitted without comment.

Out on the Wire. Hey, podcast and radio fans. I highly recommend that y’all check out cartoonist and remarkable human being Jessica Abel’s Out on the Wire: The Storytelling Secrets of the New Masters of Radio. It’s a lovely book that happens to be two things: (1) an educational and engaging dive into the creative process of the amazing teams behind shows like This American Life, Radiolab, 99% Invisible, and Snap Judgment, among others, and (2) a cultural artifact that documents and honors a set of players at the heart of this remarkable creative movement that’s giving radio/podcasting/on-demand audio/whatever the heck we’re going to call it its time in the mass spotlight. As much as I grumble about most of the attention going to this specific breed of audio creator, they truly are the people who drew me into this art form and industry in the first place — and to whom I owe a lot of my waking life.

Abel is also doubling down on her work with her own podcast, which seeks to extend the inquiry of her book by interviewing BAMF radio producers. Check it out.

“There’s a transaction cost associated with podcasts for every listener. It’s a commitment, a choice.” In case you missed this delicious Nieman Lab interview with Erik Diehn, Midroll Media’s chief biz dev guy, do yourself a favor and jump on it right now. By all means read the whole thing, but here are some choice morsels that stood out to me:

  • “Everyone would love to have YouTube-style metrics. But the measurement of podcasting is really not that much worse than any other medium; we just don’t have a single source that everyone endows with some sort of holy status.”
  • “So when people say, ‘We don’t know how many people listened all the way through to the last minute of this podcast,’ my feeling is, yeah, but we know a lot more than we did 20 years ago, when radio was based on the whims of a handful of people. We’re certainly getting better.”
  • “I’d also like to see the audiences grow and diversify. I think they already have, a lot. We’re getting a broadening of content and audience, but it needs to continue to grow.”

It makes so angry how good this Q&A is, it really does. Ugghhhhhhh.