If your favorite podcast gets a new host, is it still your favorite podcast?

LONGEST SHORTEST WHY. Andrea Silenzi, creator of Panoply cult favorite Why Oh Why, is moving to Midroll to take over as the new host of Hillary Frank’s beloved parenting podcast, The Longest Shortest Time. The change will kick in at the start of next year.

Frank has hosted The Longest Shortest Time since creating the show in 2010; it was housed in WNYC for a good stretch before moving over to Midroll in late 2015. (Following a later Midroll brand reorganization, The Longest Shortest Time would eventually be categorized under the Stitcher banner.) With Silenzi taking over hosting duties, Frank will move on to a new role as the show’s executive producer, where she will continue to work on the production and provide strategic guidance.

This development is the culmination of a long-running creative relationship between Frank and Silenzi. “So much of my work is influenced by Hillary Frank it’s embarrassing,” Silenzi said. “When I created my first online audio portfolio, there’s a telling hand-drawn tomato in the corner. Little plagiarist! After relaunching Why Oh Why with Panoply last year, I was given the incredible opportunity to hire Hillary as our show’s editor. Working with her to host Longest Shortest Time next year feels like the next logical step in our creative collaborations. I can’t wait to hear what we’ll make together.”

For Frank, the move also provides an opportunity to take on a broader view of her work with the show. “In our new roles, we’ll have the chance to invigorate the show with stories and questions and experiences that I’ve already been through, but are fresh and new for her,” she said. “This move will allow me to do many of the things I love — big-picture vision stuff, editing Andrea — and will add room for developing other projects, some that are already in motion (LST’s Weird Parenting Wins book) and some that I’m looking into. I’m really excited about the possibilities ahead and I’ll be sharing more on all of that down the road.”

What happens to Why Oh Why remains unclear. Silenzi first started the show as an independent project prior her to time working at The Slate Group (where she first served as the originating producer for The Gist), and Why Oh Why was formally brought into the Panoply network only last fall. Will Midroll eventually move to acquire the show, or will the podcast stay where it is? “You’ll have to ask Panoply,” replied a Midroll spokesperson. Silenzi declined to provide much clarity on her current employer. “I can only speak for myself, not the plans of Stitcher or Panoply, but even though ‘taking a break’ typically means ‘breaking up’ in relationship-speak, I can completely see myself getting back together with Why Oh Why in the future.”

“After 3.5+ years with The Slate Group, I couldn’t be leaving on better terms with Panoply,” she added. Silenzi will see out the rest of Why Oh Why’s run through the end of the year.

Another thing to consider: Silenzi’s appointment marks a pretty experimental turn for the show. Can The Longest Shortest Time, an affectingly personal parenting podcast, be effectively hosted by someone who isn’t actually a parent? As a childless twenty-something who consumes an inordinate amount of parenting content, I’m especially curious to see how this turns out.

I asked Midroll for more insight into their angle on this whole business. Chris Bannon, the company’s chief content officer, offered: “I’ve loved working with Hillary ever since she landed at WNYC, and one of my greatest pleasures has been watching her enlarge her conception of both the show and her role. With Andrea’s arrival as host, Hillary has a huge opportunity to grow LST (Andrea is a superb reporter and host, and she’ll bring in a bunch of new listeners, I’m betting). Everybody wins, Nick!”

Host–show fluidity. The Silenzi-Frank switcharoo is additionally interesting for prompting  questions about where the power and identity of a production are rooted between a show and its creative lead. This isn’t just a fanciful theoretical inquiry; it presents material challenges for networks that are looking to acquire, invest in, and develop shows over long periods of time. Consider the operational reality that it’s much harder to build a show from the ground up — to figure out its personality in the market, to acquire a core listener base, to establish basic familiarities with advertising partners — than it is to adjust a show mid-flight. Then consider the ever-present threat of talent burnout or growing indifference (one is reminded of this writeup on Jad Abumrad’s sabbatical), which is an element that hasn’t quite made itself known so explicitly in this space so far, given that the stakes have hitherto been pretty low.

But the stakes are picking up, and networks will eventually find themselves in more situations where, should they encounter talent burning out or just wanting to work on something else for a while, they will have to choose either to retire an established show-in-progress, along with its preexisting identity and listener base and advertising relationships, or scout for a new voice to lead the production. On a sheer which-is-less-daunting basis, the choice would clearly be to try for the latter first every time.

Of course, the risk of simply plugging in a new lead is creative abomination, or worse: the over-projection of corporate utilitarianism. There’s something deeply uncanny for long-time listeners to be served the corpse of an old loved thing being animated by a newly installed face. But show host readjustments don’t have to be that morbid. They can, and should, instead be opportunities for excitement! Indeed, imagining a world of different show-host matchups is pretty intoxicating. What would, for example, Sruthi Pinnamaneni’s Love + Radio look like? Or Zoe Chace’s Embedded? Or Anna Sales’ Heavyweight?

Imagining those combinations bring us closer to what I think is the most interesting question of this whole business: when does a show transcend its creator? And how does a show develop an identity separate from the person who created it? Will we ever find out what’s on the dark side of the moon? I’ll come down from my high now.

The Oprah effect? If you compulsively thumb the Apple Podcast charts (as I do), you probably already know that Oprah Winfrey — media mogul, force of nature, subject of what is low-key the best podcast of late 2016 — has a show that’s been consistently floating around the top for a while now.

(You might also know that the podcast is essentially an RSS feed comprised of audio repackages of her Super Soul Sunday TV programming, which, you know, is one way of pumping stuff out for earballs. Side note: the equivalent product would be, say, repackaging selected Terry Gross interviews as transcripts to be bundled together and sold as books. It’s a great additional revenue stream for Terry Gross, her hypothetical book publisher, and her fans, but a flanking competitor for book-native authors. But we’re not here to talk about that.)

Anyway, Adweek published a writeup last week about how the podcast sold out all of its 2017 advertising slots really, really quickly.

In an experiment gone right, Winfrey and the team at the Oprah Winfrey Network decided to transform her Super Soul Sunday TV programming into a podcast called Oprah’s SuperSoul Conversations. The podcast launched on Aug. 7 and had no ads or partners until the show collaborated with Midroll Media in late October…So when Oprah’s SuperSoul Conversations decided to open its doors to advertisers, advertising slots for most of the fourth quarter of 2017 sold out in about 24 hours.

The article goes on to quote Midroll’s head of sales, Korri Kolesa, touting an interpretation of this development’s significance for the medium:

Oprah’s show marks a big, pivotal moment for podcast advertising… On both the content and the advertising side of things, this is a spectacular entry point for brands that were waiting to align with something they’re comfortable with.

A couple of things:

  • Midroll’s flex here is pretty remarkable. That the Oprah pod could only tap advertising dollars after getting hooked up to Midroll’s sales infrastructure — following two months or so of sitting dormant — and then did so in such rapid fashion suggests a few things about podcast advertising in late 2017: (a) there remains considerably high friction for advertisers to test the medium and for publishers to create attractive ad products on their own, (b) sufficient expertise and advertiser trust appears clustered among a small set of companies, and (c) Midroll is a particularly strong member in that set of companies.
  • That said, this success anecdote only tells us something about Midroll’s capacity to secure new ad dollars for products with big-ticket names attached to them. It’s unclear to me, at this point of time, how these focus and incentive impact Midroll’s service to smaller, independent operations — the type of show often thought to be a good chunk of the company’s bread-and-butter before its 2016 acquisition by EW Scripps.
  • It’s worth asking whether this story actually tells us more about Oprah than it does about Midroll. Viewed from that angle, there’s nothing particularly special about what happened here: Oprah, after all, is an unstoppable brand presence, and it may very well be the case that any media product developed with the OWN name would sell out no matter the container when plugged into the right sales infrastructure.
  • If we assume that Kolesa is correct and that this marks some turning point for more big brand advertisers to jump into the medium, it remains to be seen whether those dollars will trickle down and out to the rest of the space. Several  future scenarios are possible: (a) those dollars are kept within Midroll’s podcasts, (b) those dollars are kept within Oprah podcasts, or (c) those dollars are kept within celebrity podcasts.

The past year has seen a considerable influx of celebrity power into podcasting, and while that is most definitely beneficial for the growth of the overall pie, it’s also worth asking: what proportion of podcast industry growth in 2017 is driven by celebrity programming? And to what extent is it driven by talent native to the industry itself?

This, I think, is one of the more pressing lines of inquiry to watch moving forward.

No stranger. Last week, Radiotopia announced that Lea Thau’s Strangers, one of its founding members, is leaving the independent podcast collective at the end of the year to…well, be further independent, I guess? “I’m so deeply grateful for everything Radiotopia has brought me,” Thau wrote in the corresponding announcement post. “I love this network, what it stands for and the people in it. I’m also excited about my new chapter, and I want the fans to feel both of those truths in a real way.”

Taken at face value, it’s a curious development. Radiotopia’s entire reason for being, at least in my read of them, is to develop and maintain a whole new system that’s primarily geared towards supporting independent podcast creators. And from what I’ve heard, this includes, among other things: leaving member talent to fully own their intellectual property (a relatively uncommon stance), providing them with full creative freedom and high-touch access to really deep editorial support (though, by virtue of the network’s size, not a lot of production capital), and setting them up with the standard revenue share system you’d get just about anywhere else. The combination of those three things amounts to a pretty sweet deal for shows already on the up and up that are looking to outsource some processes, like advertising sales and technology support, but on the whole want to maintain firm creative control.

I can’t help but feel that there’s missing from the story here. Or maybe there isn’t, and this is just one of those natural departures that come out from a relationship organically fading away in the way that so many relationships do. In any case, this is Radiotopia’s second departure from the roster this year. In August, Megan Tan’s Millennial came to a close, citing creative burnout.

Radiotopia declined to provide further comment.

I’ll be keeping an eye on this. Something tells me we’re not done with this story yet.

Speaking of which…

Marking reality. Tamar Charney, NPR One’s managing editor, wrote me yesterday to flag something her team is beginning to do with the platform:

I was reading Hot Pod this morning and realized I should have let you know what we are up to in light of the podcasts that blend fiction and nonfiction. This week, we are going to start flagging podcast content that plays in the NPR One flow: if it is fictional or blends fiction and nonfiction. Polybius Conspiracy being the most well-known example and the one the prompted us to do this, but there seem to be more fiction podcasts masquerading behind documentary style storytelling. It’s like War of the Worlds is new again! But we want to make sure we are not adding to false narratives and fake news, by being clear about what is entertainment and what is journalism.

The Hot Pod in question was last week’s issue, which contained an item (“Bait and switch”) where I went over the way The Polybius Conspiracy — the most recent series in Radiotopia’s Showcase initiative — blurred the lines between fiction and nonfiction even in its public presentation, which ultimately caused some listeners and reviewers, including myself, to erroneously approach the show as straightforward documentary.

(It should be further noted that the blurring could be read as not even being that extensive, as Night Vale’s Joseph Fink pointed out to me over Twitter. “I figured out it was fictional after first ep through literally one google search. So if journalists thought non-fiction, that feels like on them for not doing basic research, not on show for having framing device,” he wrote. Whatever the magnitude, I’ll nonetheless continue to cop to the screw-up on my end.)

Anyway. I, for one, greatly welcome the feature. I’m glad for any help I can get keeping a grip on reality.

Certified. Fresh off being (self-)declared the podcast capital of the world, the city of New York is taking another step in tightening its relationship with the industry. The Made in NY Media Center by IFP is launching the city’s first podcast production certification program, one that aims to be helpful in alleviating the industry’s flow of battle-tested talent. You can find more information about the program here. It is set to kick off in the new year.

Pass it on. It seems the fine folks over at Gastropod — who, by the way, I wrote a bit about in my recent Vulture piece on food podcasts — have been experimenting with a nifty audience development gambit.

As co-host Nicola Twilley writes me:

Instead of a pledge drive or a fundraising drive, we’re doing a share-athon. It came out of the finding from our listener survey that a really large chunk of our listeners found us from a recommendation from a friend/family. We decided to see whether we could incentivize that with a share-athon: prizes for referring 5 or more listeners. Figuring out how to actually make it work is a whole challenge in itself, but it’s up and running and we’re seeing the early results, tweaking as we go along…

We launched it a couple of weeks ago but it was slow to get off the ground at first — I think because we made it too complicated. We were looking for proof of subscription, which is basically impossible anyway, so we’re doing it on a trust basis now, and people are getting into it. We need to be doing a social media push around it, but it’s just the two of us and we have to get the episodes out too, so ….

I think there are probably all sorts of ways to improve on this — we were initially imagining a podcast Ponzi scheme, where by recruiting people you unlock additional layers of merchandise, etc. etc. — but we decided simplicity was best for this first year.

In some ways, you could read this as a take on The Skimm’s ambassador program, which I hear has proven to be an effective tactic in the past, except with eyes for a potential Ponzi scheme. You could also sketch connections between this and the #TryPod campaign from February, except that that coalition effort didn’t involve a material incentive structure.

People, they want the merch.

I’ll be keeping an eye on this, and will check back once the final numbers are tallied.

Notes from North of the Border, part two. It appears that my timing for this Canadian series was unexpectedly good. Last Tuesday, a more detailed version of the Canadian podcast listener report by Ulster Media/Globe and Mail was publicly released. You can find it here. It gets pretty hairy, and has some stats on smart speaker usage in the country.

Indian & Cowboy. Throughout the conversations I’ve had trying to get a sense of the Canadian scene, one independent operation — outside of Canadaland, which possesses a more complex profile in the country — kept surfacing as a source of hope: Indian & Cowboy, a member-supported media network committed to telling Indigenous stories, of which podcasts are a core part of the operations. Founded in 2014 by Canadian comedian Ryan McMahon, the network produces six in-house podcasts while serving as a distribution point for a few other shows with overlaps in editorial focus. “We are slowly making our transformation from simple podcast network to a media platform,” McMahon said.

The long-term goal, McMahon notes, is to build the company into an incubator for podcasts, journalism, film, and television projects by Indigenous makers. “We’re creating an ‘Indigenous Vice’ that scales and allows Indigenous Peoples around the world to tell their stories, their way, without intervention from Hollywood or other systems that have spoken for us and about us for far too long,” he said. “The truth is, at the top of the game, Indigenous Peoples are NEVER in the room. Look at the newest NPR diversity report — we are virtually invisible in our homelands. This is unconscionable in 2017, that we in North America just don’t bother to consider our perspective, our lives, our experiences.”

The company remains very small, running off shoestring resources and a small team of people. I’m told that it currently receives support from 223 paid members through Patreon, and that its site averages slightly under 17,000 unique visits.

McMahon promises that advances are on the way. Indian & Cowboy started working with an outside public affairs firm, MediaStyle, for assistance with a strategic plan, and it’s pursuing potential investment. “In the new year, people won’t recognize us as we have some very exciting news coming down the pipe,” he said.

Of the Canadian industry, McMahon suspects that the country’s lack of ready foundation support plays a considerable role in the industry’s relative quietness. “I think the Canadian podcasting space is similar to the U.S. space in terms of the goals — tell good, original stories with unique voices,” he said. “[But] at the top of the game, the big U.S. podcast networks have built successful models with the help of places like the Knight Foundation and other support like it. We can’t do that here in Canada — there are laws in place here that prohibit foundations and charities and the types of donations they can make.”

Bites:

  • Politico’s Morning Media newsletter yesterday had a useful juxtaposition of Crooked Media and Ben Shapiro’s podcast presences, working off two separate New York Times profiles: Pod Save America reportedly averages “1.5 million listeners per show,” while the conservative Ben Shapiro Show is downloaded “10 million times every month.” Note how the two data points are working on different scales, and that a unique listener is not the same as a single download.
  • While we’re on the subject of Ben Shapiro, I’d like to re-up Will Sommer’s guest Hot Pod piece that ran while I was off on sabbatical.
  • And while I’m cribbing from Politico’s newsletter, here’s something else they spotted: Cristian Farias, More Perfect’s legal editor, is joining the NAACP’s Thurgood Marshall Institute as a writer-in-residence.
  • Reality TV personality Stassi Schroeder “loses [podcast] advertisers after allegedly criticizing #metoo campaign.” (NY Daily News) If you, like me, were wondering who exactly this person is, fear not: this is why Who? Weekly exists.
  • This is interesting: the latest addition to The Ringer’s podcast network is a show by Philadelphia 76er JJ Redick. He previously had a show with Uninterrupted Media. (The Ringer)
  • Still keeping an eye on the smart speaker beat: “Why Apple’s HomePod is three years behind Amazon’s Echo.” (Bloomberg)

Hot Pod: The three numbers that mark the state of podcasting in 2017

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 102, published January 10, 2016.

Digits to start the year. Is the podcast industry growing, and if so, how? I’m keeping these three numbers taped to the corner of my laptop as benchmarks to keep track:

  • Audience size: 57 million U.S. monthly listeners, according to Edison and Triton Digital’s annual Infinite Dial report, which gives the industry its clearest number to beat. The latest version of the report is expected to come out in early summer.
  • Advertising: More than $200 million projected for 2017, according to media research firm Bridge Ratings, which the industry seems to have coalesced around.
  • iTunes downloads and streams: More than 10 billion in 2016, which was up from more than 8 billion in 2015 and over 7 billion in 2014, according to a writeup by The Huffington Post.

Two quick news updates on Apple: The Apple podcasts team is apparently looking for someone to join their editorial team — also known as the people who looks after the iTunes front page.

In a related note, I’m hearing that Steve Wilson, who managed the editorial and partner relations team at iTunes and who was once described in The New York Times as Apple’s “de facto podcast gatekeeper,” has moved to the iTunes Marketing team to manage the podcast vertical. I believe it’s the first time the company is dedicating any marketing resources for podcasts.

The Keepin’ It 1600 team breaks off from The Ringer to start a new venture: Crooked Media, named after the standard Donald Trump pejorative. Its first product, a twice-a-week politics podcast called Pod Save America, rolled out Monday and quickly hit the top of the iTunes charts. For reference, Crooked Media is made up of former Obama staffers Jon Favreau, Jon Lovett, and Tommy Vietor. Dan Pfeiffer, who launched Keepin’ It 1600 with Favreau when it first debuted on The Ringer last summer, will continue his hosting duties in the new podcast, but he will not hold any stake in the new venture. The venture has plans to add more podcasts, video, editorial content, and “new voices” with a distinct emphasis on activism and political participation, according to its mission statement. There doesn’t appear to be any talk of external investment, with the team fully relying on ad revenues from Pod Save America for now.

DGital Media serves as Crooked Media’s partner in production and ad sales. This extends DGital Media’s already impressive portfolio of partners, which includes Recode, The Vertical’s podcast network, and Tony Kornheiser.

The Ringer CEO Bill Simmons is said to be supportive of the new venture, though one imagines the departure of Keepin’ It 1600, which grew incredibly popular during the 2016 election cycle, will leave quite a dent in monthly download totals for the website’s podcast network. However, given the network’s general culture that allows for continuous, iterative experimentation through its Channel 33 feed, they’re well positioned to fill the gap soon enough.

Here’s the thing that’s interesting to me: Crooked Media appears to be a stab at building out a new progressive counterpoint to conservative media, perhaps specifically its right-wing talk radio ecosystem, which has long been a curiously strong marriage of medium and ideological content with significant influence over American politics. It’s a curious thing that podcasting now offers Favreau & Co., insofar as they represent progressive politics, a potential site to match up against the conservative media-industrial complex; as I’ve noted in the past, the podcast medium does seem to feature an ideological spread that tends to lean liberal — even if it’s sticky business to characterize the politics of individual organizations. The theoretical question that occurred to me then, as it does now, is whether there is something about a medium’s structural traits — and demographic spread, and so on — that uniquely supports certain kinds of ideology. With this venture, we’ll have an opportunity to test the question a little further.

Related: Just re-upping this discussion from mid-November: Did the election podcast glut of 2016 fail its listeners?

Launches and returns for the year ahead. I was recently asked to write a preview of upcoming new podcasts for Vulture, and in the process of my outreach, I had a hard time getting concrete, specific release dates for upcoming launches. This, I think, says a fair bit about how the podcast industry, maturing as it is, still has ways to go in terms of developing a rhythm, cycle, and culture around show and season launches for its audience.

All right, here’s what I got so far beyond the stuff on the Vulture list:

  • Gimlet Media is keeping mum on new shows, but they have confirmed that Science Vs will return for its second season in March, while Heavyweight will drop its second season in September.
  • NPR’s vice president of programming and audience development Anya Grundmann tells me that the public radio mothership will be launching several new podcasts and debuting new seasons of some of its most popular shows, including Embedded and Invisibilia. No specific dates, but Grundmann did mention that a three-episode Embedded miniseries will drop in March.
  • Night Vale Presents has confirmed that Alice Isn’t Dead and Within the Wires will return sometime this year. They also note that the team behind Orbiting Human Circus (of the Air) is working on some new projects, which will be released throughout the year. And, as noted in Vulture, the company will be making its nonfiction debut at some point in the form of a collaboration with indie band The Mountain Goats.
  • The New York Times will roll out its latest podcast, Change Agent with Charles Duhigg — which sounds like a cross between an advice column, Oprah, and Malcolm Gladwell — sometime this spring. It’s also building a new show around Michael Barbaro, who hosts The Run-Up and has since moved into the audio team full-time. According to Politico, the Times is planning to expand its podcast roster from seven up to possibly twelve this year.
  • Radiotopia’s newest addition to its roster, Ear Hustle, is set to debut sometime this summer.
  • First Look Media tells me that they will be launching a weekly podcast for its flagship investigative news site, The Intercept, on January 26. The show will apparently be called “Intercepted.” There’s a joke in here somewhere, but we should move along.

That’s all I got for now. I’m going to keep a page going for this, and will update as more information trickles out. Send me what you have.

Panoply kicked off the year with the launch of its first “imprint”: The Onward Project, a group of self-improvement podcasts curated by author Gretchen Rubin, who hosts the popular Happier podcast under the network’s banner. The imprint is currently made up of three shows: the aforementioned Happier; Radical Candor, a management-oriented show; and Side Hustle School, a daily show made up of bite-sized episodes that describe financially successful side projects. The Onward Project was first announced during last September’s IAB Podcast Upfront.

Call it an imprint, call it a subnetwork, call it whatever you want: The concept seems to be more of an innovation in audience development than anything else. “I’d say success looks like what we’re already seeing — a collection of podcasts in which each show brings in its host’s unique audience, which is then exposed to the other shows through tight cross-promotion,” Panoply chief creative officer Andy Bowers told me over email, when I asked about the thinking around the imprint. “With podcast discovery still such a vexing problem, we think the imprint offers listeners a simple answer to the question they’re always asking Gretchen: ‘I love your show — what else should I listen to?'”

We’re probably going to see Panoply develop more imprints in the near future, further establishing a structure that makes the company look more like a “meta-network” — or a network of networks — which is a form that was only hinted at by its previous strategy, where it partnered with other media organizations to develop multiple podcasts under their brands.

60dB hires Recode reporter, adding to its beefy editorial team. The short-form audio company has hired Liz Gannes, previously a reporter at the tech news site Recode, to join its editorial team. Gannes, a senior hire, rounds out a team that has thus far primarily drawn from public media. It includes: Daisy Rosario, who has worked on NPR’s Latino USA and WNYC’s 2 Dope Queens; Brenda Salinas, formerly at Latino USA and KUT Public Media; Hannah McBride, formerly at the Texas Observer and KUT Public Media; and Michael Simon Johnson, formerly at Latino USA.

So here’s what I’m thinking about: The editorial team apparently exists as an in-house team that works to produce audio stories with partner publications, often discussions about a written article that recently published, for distribution over its platform. (Is it too much of stretch to call it high-touch adaptation aggregation?) It’s a dramatically manual — and not to mention human — content acquisition process, and that’s a structure that does not scale cheaply, which I imagine presents a problem for a founding team mostly made up of former Netflix executives.

Two questions that frame my thinking on the company: Where is 60dB supposed to fall within the spectrum between a Netflix-like platform and an audio-first newsroom with an aggressive aggregation strategy? And to what extent do the partnerships that the company currently pursues make up the long-term content strategy, or do they merely serve as a stepping stone into purely original content?

Anyway, I hear that more 60dB news is due next week. Keep your earballs peeled.

Related: In other tech-ish news, it looks like Otto Radio, the car dashboard-oriented podcast curation platform that recently hammered down an integration with Uber, has secured a round of investment from Samsung. Note the language in the press release describing Otto Radio’s distribution targets: “connected and autonomous cars, smart audio devices and appliances, and key integrations with premium content providers.” Appliances? I guess with Amazon’s Alexa platform creeping into everything — which was one of the bigger takeaways from this year’s CES — we’re about that close to a world in which your refrigerator can blast out those sweet, sweet Terry Gross interviews.

Facebook Live Audio. Shortly before Christmas, Facebook announced the rollout of its latest Live-related feature, Live Audio, on its media blog. Key details to note:

  • The feature is in its testing phase, and its broadcasting use is limited to a few publishing partners for now. At launch, those partners include the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), the London-based national talk radio station LBC, book publisher HarperCollins, and authors Adam Grant and Brit Bennett. It remains unclear whether those publishers are being paid for their partnership similar to the way that Facebook has been paying major media organizations like BuzzFeed and The New York Times, along with celebrities, to use the Live video feature.
  • The post notes that the feature will be made “more broadly available to publishers and people” over the next few months.
  • The launch of Live Audio is the latest in Facebook’s efforts to expand its Live initiative, which the company has been banking heavily on for the better part of the past year. It had launched Live 360 just the week before.
  • The pitch, as it has always been, primarily revolves around interactivity — which speaks directly to the “social audio” conversation carried by many in the radio and podcast industry (see This American Life’s Shortcut, WNYC’s Audiogram, and so on). The introductory post writes: “Just as with a live video on Facebook, listeners can discover live audio content in News Feed, ask questions and leave reactions in real time during the broadcast, and easily share with their friends.”

Right, so with all that out of the way: What does this mean for podcast publishers, and maybe even radio broadcasters? I haven’t quite developed a unified theory just yet, but I’ve been breaking the question down into two components.

First, it’s worth asking if Facebook Live Audio is compatible with much of what currently exists in the podcast (or radio) space. Facebook, as a digital environment, has always seemed to be structured such that only certain kinds of publishers — or “content creators” can “win.” More often than not, those are the publishers whose business or impact goals are functionally aligned with that of Facebook’s, and from everything that we’ve seen, read, and heard about the company, it seems pretty clear that Facebook’s primary goal is to drive up user numbers and, more importantly, user engagement, whose quantifiable attention are then sold to advertisers.

But that’s obvious; the question is, of course, how has the company preferred to generate those engagements? It’s one thing if Facebook’s underlying game plan here is to “replace” broadcast, be it television or radio. But it’s a whole other thing if the company is instead trying to build out and further define its own specific media ecosystem with dynamics, incentives, behaviors, and systems unique to itself — which is exactly what appears to be the case here.

So, what kind of audio content is likely to benefit from playing into Facebook Live Audio’s unique dynamics? Probably not the highly produced narrative stuff. Nor anything particularly long. Oddly enough, I have a somewhat strong feeling that many conversational podcasts could be much better suited for Facebook Live Audio than they ever were for the existing podcast infrastructure. But at the end of the day, what appears to be true for Facebook Live Video — and for most new social platforms — will probably be true for Facebook Live Audio: the kind of content it will favor is the type of content that’s native to the form. Everything else is either filler or a means to generate actionable data.

Second: The Facebook Live program displays high levels of volatility, both in terms of the program simply functioning as intended — see: miscalculated audience metrics, surging, lingering questions over Facebook’s role in digital governance and its relationship to the state — and, perhaps more crucially, in terms of the program’s underlying view of publishers and the actors of the wider media ecosystem.

The functional volatility alone should give some thinking about dedicating resources to building out a Facebook Live Audio strategy. But the greater pause should come from the second point on the program’s underlying position. Facebook’s general abstinence from making any concrete statement about its relationship to the media (and its potential identity as a “media company”) suggests a materialistic, neutralizing view that sees all actors on the platform as functionally and morally equal. Another way of putting this: The health of individual publishers, regardless of its size, hopes, dreams, and virtues, is a tertiary concern to the platform, as long as it is able to drive up the primal behavior it wants — its own definition of engagement.

It’s a toughie. On the one hand, you have a platform that theoretically connects you with various segmentations and iterations of the platform’s 1.79 billion monthly active users. But on the other hand, it’s really hard to get around the whole unfeeling, arbitrary-governing-structure thing. It’s up to you — depending on what your goals are, what relationship you want to have with your audience, your stomach for instability and risk — to decide if you want to live that Facebook Live Audio life.

None of this particularly new, by the way. But it’s still worth saying.

Bites:

  • Tamar Charney has been confirmed as NPR One’s managing editor, having assumed the role in an interim basis since Sara Sarasohn left the organization. Emily Barocas joins the team full-time as an associate producer to curate podcasts for the app. Nick DePrey, who has been supporting NPR One in his capacity as an “innovation accountant,” is now the digital programming analytics manager at NPR Digital Services. Elsewhere in the organization, Juleyka Lantigua-Williams has joined as the senior supervising producer and editor for Code Switch.
  • PRX has announced its first cohort for Project Catapult, its podcast training program aimed at local public radio stations. Also note: the organization has hired Enrico Benjamin, an Emmy award-winning producer, as the initiative’s project director. (PRX)
  • “Why branded podcasting could more than double in 2017.” (Digiday)
  • SiriusXM is now distributing WNYC Studios’ podcasts over its Insights channel. This continues an emerging trend that sees SiriusXM mining podcasts for quality inventory to build a content base beyond its Howard Stern-shaped engine: Last August, the company hammered down a partnership with The Vertical’s podcast network, and it has been distributing the Neil DeGrasse Tyson podcast Startalk since January 2015. (SiriusXM)
  • I’m hearing that the first round of judging for this year’s Webby Awards is underway. Several folks have also written me pointing out that the group of judges for the Podcast and Digital Audio category is pretty public-radio heavy — and not to mention, overwhelmingly white. (Webby Awards)
  • This is cool: Norway has become the first country to shut down its nationwide FM radio in favor of digital signals. (NPR)

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: Smart speakers, TV adaptations, newsier podcasts, and other things to watch for in 2017

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 101, published December 20, 2016.

There’s not a lot of big news this week, but there are some chunky ideas to break into!

Predictions. It’s that most wonderful time of the year, when the annual Nieman Lab Predictions for Journalism series trickles in to fill your holiday stockings with an assortment of the aspirational, the dire, the cautiously hopeful. Say what you want about media navel-gazing, but I’m a huge fan — and a participant! — not least because (a) I happen to believe navel-gazing is a productive exercise, (b) I generally think it’s healthy to talk things out, much like therapy, and (c) in any case, the series as a whole serves as a solid method to broadly evaluate where we stand at the end of this year, long and grueling and bizarre as it was, and how we see our way through the days to come.

Anyway, this year’s batch contains some solid podcast-focused pieces, and there were three dominant themes that stand out to me.

(1) Stratification and resistance

Audible SVP of original content Eric Nuzum has a piece that is probably going to be dead-on, more or less. He speculates that 2017 is going to see a “stratification” of podcasting into hard layers, with the professionalizing companies — Big Podcasting, one might even call it — spinning away from the original iTunes-driven RSS infrastructure into its own (probably closed) ecosystem, due to its incentives for growth and control over its data. Nuzum caps off his piece with this:

With the big publishers slowly evolving out of the space, what happens to the overall iTunes/RSS-centric podcast traffic? My fear is that the ecosystem we have invested in all these years will start to resemble the vanity publishing marketplace or the guy selling CDs out of the trunk of his car after gigs: a place that’s easy to publish into, but rarely yields a significant audience. Which means we’re just making it harder for our industry’s indies to grow into future hitmakers.

It’s certainly…interesting that this view should come from an executive of what is perhaps the most explicitly closed-off on-demand audio ecosystem — Channels, like everything else in the growing Bezos media empire, is a gigantic black box for anybody outside the shop, and one wonders what Nuzum is finding, and how he squares all that away with what he’s saying here. It’s also pretty interesting that what Nuzum is describing is a lot like the notion of Silicon Valley breaking off from the union to create its own island super-state, a separation that follows decades of foundational support from the mainland. The principal questions that flow from this are twofold: (1) what is the responsibility of Big Podcasting toward the independents and the original ecosystem? And (2) what can the indies do?

My own entry in the series echoes Nuzum’s realist sensibilities:

Podcasting is going to further formalize at the emerging professionalizing layer, and the bulk of advertising growth will be captured at the top. Value will not trickle down, gains will not be equally spread. The independent community will be pressured into self-organizing. Though the ecosystem will end the year less open than when it started the year, there will at least be formal sites of resistance.

We shall see.

(2) The newsy podcast

This prediction by Asma Khalid, who served as one of the primary panelists on the NPR Politics podcast, about our likelihood of seeing a boom in newsy podcasts next year really resonated with me. Here’s the money:

I predict we’ll see more news-oriented podcasts from traditional outlets, regardless of their fluency with audio. In other words, the sense of a gold rush that’s permeated the podcasting market since Serial will only swell larger, with startup shows, professional media organizations, and one-hit wonders all flooding iTunes and other podcast platforms. In the long run, many will die; the true barometer of success will likely be the quality of the product. And, in my mind, this is twofold: (1) quality audio production that’s easy and comfortable to listen to, and (2) charismatic hosts with dynamic personalities and diverse perspectives.

Much of what Khalid describes has already come to pass. We saw an absolute flood of newsy podcasts from traditional media organizations this year, an overwhelming portion of which were pegged to the recently concluded 2016 presidential election cycle. But that isn’t to dispute Khalid’s point; if anything, it further validates it, and sets the conditions for an even bigger flood ahead. This year’s bumper crop of election-related podcasts left us with a great deal to work with, especially the following two things:

  • The foundation for a production workflow and template that supports the continuous, dynamic creation of news cycle-driven podcasts.
  • A base group of listeners that are primed to consume newsy podcasts in this manner.

Adding to this thread, there’s another piece up in the series by Why Oh Why’s Andrea Silenzi that offers an idea that should be taken very seriously by podcast publishers considering newsier material: the notion that dynamic ad insertion technology can be used to create a regularly updated newscast. (One that doesn’t flood your podcast app, the way the NPR Hourly News Summary feed used to do.) I really, really can’t agree more, and I’ve been arguing for something similar as far back as August, when I briefly wrote about the design challenges of political podcasts. Back then, I argued: “Break the archives, throw the whole frozen-in-time nature of the podcast episode out the damn window, and update older episodes in the archives as further developments take place. Theoretically speaking, this is a feasible option, given the possibilities afforded by dynamic ad insertion.”

Do it, people. Come on. I know you can do it.

(3) Voice-based computing

Steve Henn, the former Planet Money reporter who now serves as the co-founder of short-form audio platform 60dB, argues that speech and audio are the next paradigm for computing. The splash quote:

Today, we’re at the very beginning of the next big change — voice. Amazon’s Echo, Google Home, and Siri are simple, imperfect computers you can talk to. They’re often frustrating, but they’re getting better fast. These new platforms are going to compete for the time in your life when you can’t look at a screen. They are going to be there when your eyes and hands are busy.

Henn then argues that the first killer apps of this new computing (and media-distributing) paradigm is going to look a lot like radio that’s intelligent and driven by user-context, a solution that sounds a lot like the thing he’s trying to build over at 60dB. (Typical.)

I don’t know about that, but for what it’s worth, I do think he’s right about smart speakers (and whatever the hell AirPods are supposed to portend) being the area to watch in the coming year, and that it is, indeed, a considerable opportunity for on-demand audio companies to structurally diversify away from the constraints of RSS feeds on mobile devices. This might end up being a frying pan-into-the-fire situation — Alexa, after all, is yet another platform you don’t quite control — but I suppose we’ll all cross that bridge when we get there. (Relevant factoid: about a third of Amazon Echo users use the thing three times or more every day, according to Backchannel.)

So those are the big ones that stood out to me, but be sure not to miss the other predictions from some familiar faces. Consider the piece by Guy Raz, he of TED Radio Hour and How I Built This fame, in which he argues that “inspiration and hope will matter more than ever.” And you might want to pair that with WNYC president Laura Walker, who sees a year in which journalism tightens its lens on “small” stories — that is, authentic stories of individual lives, grounded in details. Oh, and don’t miss Libby Bawcombe’s call for more kid-focused podcast programming that builds on the work done by some fine places like the Kids Listen project, or Andrew Ramsammy‘s manifesto on the “rise of the rebel journalist.”

And while you’re digging through those, do you stick around for all the other stuff too. Everything discussed — fake news, media business models, local journalism, trust — directly applies to everything we do in the podcast industry, as well as every aspect of how we live outside of it.

Other things I’m watching for in 2017. Those three themes I just pointed out also happen to make up the main things I’m going to be tracking in the new year. Here are four more things I’m going to keep in mind:

  • How much did podcast audiences grow in 2016? We’ll find out in Edison’s Share of Ear study, which will publish in the summer.
  • What will Apple do (if anything), and what will become of our distributor-saturated environment?
  • How will podcast advertising evolve? Will it grow beyond the host-read ads, or will we see better innovations on the format?
  • Will we see a major hit, something we didn’t quite see in 2016?

Gimlet TV, part two. Homecoming, the company’s so-called “experimental fiction” podcast, is being developed for television by Sam Esmail, creator of the highly popular Mr. Robot, according to a Deadline exclusive. The article describes the deal as emerging from a “very competitive situation,” and notes that the project is expected to be shopped around to premium cable networks or platforms like Netflix and Amazon Video early next year. This marks Gimlet’s second television project after the October announcement of a StartUp adaptation getting a strong vote of confidence from ABC.

This development shouldn’t be all that surprising. Back when the Startup-ABC deal was announced, I asked Gimlet’s Chris Giliberti — who was then the company’s chief of staff and has since transitioned into the role of “head of multiplatform” — whether the company would be pursuing more adaptation deals, and he hinted strongly that more deals like this are on the way. (“Hopefully :)” was his exact email reply.)

Furthermore, Homecoming feels like a project that’s tailor-made for adaptation by another (much more lucrative) media industry. Its impressive cast, which includes film stars Oscar Isaac and Catherine Keener along with TV veteran David Schwimmer, certainly makes it easier for film and television executives to imagine the project in their respective mediums, and its impressionistic threadbare plot is largely defined by an abundance of negative space that allows writers to do whatever they want with the intellectual property.

You should probably expect to see a crap-ton more adaptation deals like this in the year to come, as podcasts firm up their status as yet another cavern that film and TV studios can mine for intellectual property, having exhausted young adult novels and comic books.

NPR One data and local listening. Be sure not to miss a post that’s up on Current right now by Tamar Charney, who currently serves as the project’s acting managing director following Sara Sarasohn’s departure back in September. The post expounds upon listening data that her team has been collecting off the app, drawing a few editorial lessons that are not just applicable to local public radio stations, but to podcasts more generally. Here’s the finding that should apply to most of you:

We can’t overstate how important the start of a podcast is. When [NPR innovation accountant] Nick DePrey examined podcast-listening data on NPR One, he found a typical episode loses 20 to 35 percent of the listening audience within the first five minutes. The rate of the dropoff is higher within the first five minutes than at any time until the credits roll.

What does this tell us? Listeners make their decisions to commit to a podcast in those crucial opening moments. A mediocre episode with a good intro will almost always perform better than a great episode with a poor intro. In a world in which we’re increasingly competing for the listener’s attention against so many other entertainment options — audio or otherwise — you need to justify from the very first moment why the audience should choose you. Only established shows with loyal followings can overcome uninteresting or non-engaging beginnings.

Seems like a no-brainer, but it’s always a useful finding to recall and reinforce, and it’s always nice to see all of that backed up by data.

Anyway, I can’t recommend Charney’s post enough, especially if you’re interested in local news and, more specifically, the potential for on-demand audio delivery of local news. That said, keep in mind that, in your own internalization of the learnings, it’s worth continuously interrogating the ways in which NPR One data listening is representative of broader listening behaviors. We don’t, for example, know the overall sample size of unique listeners in this study, nor do we have a good sense of how strong the differences are in the consumption behavior between NPR One users and general public radio listeners, and between NPR One users and listening app users in general.

Nevertheless, I’m really into the extended discussion about local newscast consumption off NPR One and what it tells us about the role they play in the relationship between listeners, the stuff in those newscasts, and the channel through which they are distributed.

“When a listener hears a local newscast, statistically they are more likely to listen to NPR One again and listen longer than listeners who don’t get a local newscast,” Charney writes. She is prompted to then wield the following metaphor: “That makes me wonder if newscasts are like the bread on the table at a restaurant. You probably don’t choose a restaurant because of that bread, but you’d be disappointed if it weren’t there.”

It’s an interesting idea, and I’m tempted to agree. Another way you could cut it, I suppose, is to see newscasts as something that doesn’t get folks through the door, but gets them to stay. Which sounds a lot like one of the major ways you could think through how a print newspaper functions: so-called “hard news” isn’t quite the product that drives the purchase, but a positive (albeit somewhat optional) consequence of the other stuff that makes up the issue.

Cool cool cool.

Bites:

  • Two developments in the New York Times’ audio team: The Gray Lady has hired Theo Balcomb, currently the supervising producer of NPR’s All Things Considered, as a senior producer. (Giving credence, perhaps, to rumors that the Times might be swinging for a daily news show soon.) The Times also announced that Michael Barbarro, host of The Run-Up, is moving into the audio department full-time, and will be developing an “exciting new project that will launch in early 2017.” Additionally, The Run-Up will continue past the inauguration.
  • Bloomberg Businessweek is launching a new interview podcast, “Debrief,” driven by editor-in-chief Megan Murphy. First up on the guest list: J.P. Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon, with the episode dropping on Thursday.
  • News UK, the British subsidiary of News Corp, is planning to nearly double the podcast output for its tabloid paper, The Sun, and its daily national newspaper, The Times. According to Digiday, the conglomerate hopes to increase the number of shows from six to ten, with each new show focusing on specific verticals to attract advertisers. (Digiday)
  • The latest Caroline Crampton: “Why we like podcasts that break down TV episode by episode.” Personally, I’m more fascinated by the distinction between recap culture and criticism as well as the structural similarities between TV recap podcasts and sports talk radio. (New Statesman)
  • Art19 has hammered down a partnership with Feral Audio, expanding its clientele that includes Midroll Media, The New York Times, DGital Media, and Wondery. (Press Release)
  • Vox.com’s podcast audiences apparently grew by 300 percent in the past year, according to Vox Media’s year in review report. An impressive number, though we don’t quite know the base number. (Vox Media)
  • Radio Atlas, that nifty website with video translations of notable non-English audio documentaries, is being featured at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York. The event description calls the project “a new and unique form of cinema.” Really cool. (Museum of the Moving Image)
  • “NPR & AIR team up on post-election coverage to take public media deep into local.” (MediaShift)
  • “The globalization of local radio.” (New York Magazine)
  • Still processing this critique of the positivism (and “explainerism”) endemic in a certain kind of podcast genre: the “gee whiz,” “hidden forces of everyday things” science storytelling shows prevalent within public radio. Note that the author erroneously conflates all the podcasts he discusses under the NPR umbrella. (The New Inquiry)

Have a great holidays, folks. I’m taking the next two weeks off, and I’ll see you in the new year.

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: There’s a new (and problematic) way to measure which podcasts are the most popular

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue eighty-eight, published September 20, 2016.

Another public-facing podcast ranker. It’s troublesome, though if you’re a podcast publisher you best pay close attention nonetheless. This one’s going to be long, so either skip it or strap in.

Here’s the deal: Podtrac, the decade-old podcast measurement (and until its recent restructure, advertising) company, announced a new podcast ranker yesterday, one that aspires to display the top 20 podcasts in the industry based on monthly downloads. This is the second such public-facing ranking that the company has released in recent months; In May, Podtrac pumped out a chart that ranked podcast publishers against each other based on network-wide monthly downloads.

That initial ranker suffered from two glaring flaws. First, it can’t be considered adequately representative of the podcast industry because of its incomplete sampling. (The original report purports to cover of “90 percent of the top podcasts.”) And second, there’s a general lack of transparency around its sampling methodology. (Said “top podcasts” category isn’t clearly defined, and it isn’t clear who is and isn’t included.) The publisher ranker’s initial May 2016 sample did not include important publishers like Panoply, Gimlet, Earwolf, The Ringer, and Wondery. That’s not to say that they would all show up in the top 10 if they were included, mind you; I’m just making a point about representation, and many of them remain excluded at this writing.

This new show ranker, which was reportedly assembled due to advertiser demand, suffers from those same fundamental issues, plus some new complexities that further interrupt itss capacity to serve as a trustworthy conveyor of value in the podcast industry.

Let’s break this down:

1. Yesterday’s new chart ranks individual podcasts based on “Unique Monthly Audience” (as determined by Podtrac’s internal measurement rules), but the chart itself does not explicitly display actual download numbers. I view this as an incredibly odd — and even counterproductive — choice. The omission strips the chart of important granular analytical value, and patrons of the chart are placed in a position where they wouldn’t even be able to, say, discern the scale of the difference between two consecutively-ranked podcasts, which can go a long way in properly conveying the shape and form of the competitive landscape.

Interestingly enough, Velvet Beard, Podtrac’s VP of podcast analytics, tells me that this omission came out of a compromise with certain publishers who are reticent to disclose their show numbers.

2. That reticence is further reflected in the eighth ranking on the new chart, which awkwardly reads: “Publisher declined to list show.” This state of affairs comes out from a crucial distinction between the two Podtrac rankers: While the original podcast publisher ranker lists publishers that explicitly measure their podcasts with Podtrac (an arrangement understood by Podtrac as permission for inclusion into their ranker), this new show-oriented ranker does not require explicit publisher participation in the company’s measurement services for inclusion.

It was explained to me that part of the ranker’s methodology involves some internal modeling that doesn’t actually require publishers to opt into their measurement system for download size assessment. Which, you know, the more I think about it, is a choice that would creep me out if I was a publisher, because not only are we left with a situation where an external body has taken upon itself to tell the story of my audience for me — without my explicit acknowledgment and consent — it’s also a story based on their terms, the foundations of which may well be different from my own. And that means something in an industry that lacks a universally standardized and enforced measurement paradigm.

That mystery eighth podcast (whose identity was included in the initial press release sent to me, and was scrubbed in a followup version after I attempted to verify) isn’t the only show that was included in the ranker without given permission; the Joe Rogan Experience, which came in on the eleventh slot, appears to be a non-participant as well.

3. Beard tells me that the company has been consistently trying to reach out to publishers to get them involved with the ranker. “We send out emails, but not everybody writes us back,” she said.

I suppose there are strong strategic reasons why some publishers would not want to get involved in Podtrac’s ranking system. To begin with, you have the table stakes concern that a publisher who chooses to be listed would be ceding its monopoly over how it tells the story of its own downloads. Which would be fine for some…and less so for others, particularly those who make it a practice of fluffing their numbers, a very real problem in this industry that lacks mature measurement standards and an independent third-party that can serve as a check against bad practices.

But even for those whose goods are sound, there’s simply too much of a perceived risk to anoint Podtrac as that third-party due to the company’s current relationship with Authentic, its ad sales arm that was spun off as a sister company earlier this summer. The two companies still share leadership and infrastructure, which presents a strong disincentive for some publishers who would be understandably uneasy ceding parts of their narrative to company that’s structurally connected to a potential competitor. The golden rule applies: It’s not the actual conflicts of interest, it’s the perception of potential conflicts of interest that matters.

For what it’s worth, Beard tells me that the company’s long-term hope is to effectively decouple Podtrac from Authentic to mitigate such concerns. However, she also notes that the team has to first figure out how to make its business — which currently doesn’t make any money off these rankings — financially independent before any significant decoupling can happen.

Look, Podtrac’s industry rankers need a lot of work before they can be considered a genuine representation of the emerging podcast industry, and for what it’s worth, I do think the Podtrac team is operating with civil intent. (And to some extent, I really do hope they pull it off.)

But let’s be real here. In a medium whose defining problem is its lack of measurability — which therefore generates an advertising environment starved for every little bit of information — Podtrac’s good-enough rankers are bound to gain some traction among advertisers either way.

And it looks like things may be panning out in that direction: ahead of the IAB Podcast Upfronts a few weeks ago, I was speaking with Jason Hoch, the chief content officer of HowStuffWorks, which uses Podtrac for analytics verification and is listed on the industry ranker, and he noted that the original ranker drew a tremendous amount of new advertising attention to his network. “The in-bounds we got from that were amazing,” he told me.

So I’ll say this: It appears increasingly imperative that podcast publishers start engaging with Podtrac in order to win back their audience narrative (and the narrative of the industry). I’m not the biggest fan of how Podtrac has gone about doing things — their lack of methodological transparency remains troubling, and the whole including-podcasts-without-explicit-permission thing feels kinda dirty — but they are, regardless, materially contributing to the publisher-advertising relationship.

Alternatively, publishers could, oh I don’t know, develop their own data-driven public counter-narratives. That’ll be cool too.

And in case you’s still interested: According to Podtrac, the top three podcasts in August 2016 are, in downward order, This American Life, Radiolab, and Stuff You Should Know.

A leadership change at NPR One. The public radio mothership’s buzzy listening app, NPR One, is losing Sara Sarasohn, its managing editor, who is leaving the organization after 24 years of service.

Tamar Charney will reportedly step in as interim editorial lead. Charney was hired back in January to serve as the app’s “local editorial lead,” a role that involves connecting the app with local public radio stations across the country. While she will take over many of Sarasohn’s duties, she will continue focusing on her original responsibilities as well. The team remains rounded out by content programmer Viet Le, along with an NPR One-specific product team led by product manager Tejas Mistry and content strategist/analytics manager Nick DePrey.

Sarasohn, who has worked multiple positions on All Things Considered and the NPR arts desk throughout her lengthy career, is leaving public media for a position at a Silicon Valley startup, and though she declined to provide specifics, she noted that her new gig isn’t involved in the audio world.

An internal staff note announcing Sarasohn’s departure indicates that she leaves NPR One in a strong position. According to the memo, “NPR One’s audience reaches record highs with each new month, more than 80 stations are contributing content to it, and the typical listener uses the app up to 12 times per month.”

It also noted that the organization will relay more information about the app’s future in the coming days.

The NPR One app — which flirts with aspirations of being “the Netflix for podcasts” and is marketed as “the Pandora of podcasts” — is reportedly considered to be “the most exciting thing to have happened at NPR in years.” I’m broadly a fan of it myself, but I do struggle to view the app itself as somehow central to NPR’s digital future. The ecosystem of content and technology that’s being built beneath the app, however, is another story. (Side note: Between you and me, my main consumption modality with public radio nowadays is my Amazon Echo, which has come dangerously close to being my only source of verbal interaction on most days.)

Sarasohn’s last day is September 25.

Relevant: In what is probably a yuge coincidence, news of Sarasohn’s departure comes about a week after NPR announced that it was picking DC-based WAMU’s The Big Listen, a broadcast about podcasts, for national distribution. Hosted by Lauren Ober, the show is one of several audio programs currently floating about podcastland that seeks to alleviate the medium’s discoverability problem through linear, performative curation. That list includes the CBC’s Podcast Playlist and Gimlet’s Sampler.

Tangentially relevant: WNYC Studios now has a third VP of on-demand content: Tony Phillips, a former BBC veteran of 27 years. (My whole life, basically.) His most recent role at the British radio mothership was “Editor, Commissioner, and Producer.” Phillips will expand the leadership layer, which also includes Paula Szuchman and Emily Botein, into a trifecta.

Mid-October will mark WNYC Studio’s first full year of operation.

Cable podcasts. CNN, the cable news heavyweight and source of all my anxieties, is pushing deeper into podcasts with the announcement of two new podcasts:

1. The Daily DC, a daily morning political news digest show featuring CNN political director David Chalian; and

2. Party People, described as a “look at the 2016 race from a rightward perspective.” The show is hosted by two CNN contributors, Republican communications strategist Kevin Madden and The Federalist editor Mary Katharine Ham.

Both shows begin their runs today.

These additions will complement The Axe Files, the (quite excellent) David Axelrod interview show that has thus far been the media company’s only original podcast. CNN has also made it a practice of repackaging and distributing a select list of its television programming — like Fareed Zakaria GPS, State of the Union with Jake Tapper, and Reliable Sources with Brian Stelter — in podcast form.

Curious observers might be interested to know that CNN’s foray into original podcasting is largely orchestrated by one Tyler Moody, a VP at the company, and that the podcasts are being hosted — and represented in the ad sales market — by New York-based podcast CMS company Palegroove.

And speaking of right-leaning politics podcasts: Fox News is making a weekly television show out of I’ll Tell You What, an elections podcast hosted by The Five cohost Dana Perino and Fox News digital politics editor Chris Stirewalt. The show will be limited-run, airing Sunday evenings until the elections in November. According to The Washington Post, the podcast’s conversion into the television format “represents Fox News’s first new programming initiative since longtime network chairman Roger Ailes resigned in July.”

Side note. A few weeks ago, I wrote a column observing what appears to be a dearth of explicitly conservative political and election-related podcasts, which briefly led me to consider this state of affairs being a function of early adopter demographics. Since then, I’ve regularly received recommendations from readers of more conservative-oriented shows, and while I believe my original observation still holds, I will say that one podcast in particular has found its way into my primary rotation: Radio Free GOP with Mike Murphy. It’s really polished, and really, really engaging, and it’s worth a try regardless of where you are on the spectrum.

Did you read Ken Doctor’s columns? You really should. The five-part series published on Nieman Lab all throughout last week did an amazing job laying out the current state and potential future(s) of the professionalizing layer of podcasts from the 30,000-feet view more than I ever could.

The series contained a bunch of novel findings that are incredibly useful for incremental observers like myself — for example, the fact that digital native Gimlet currently scores 5 million downloads monthly across its 6 shows (many of which are off-season at the moment) and now has a 55-person headcount (damn!); that NPR, Midroll, and PodcastOne each account for $10 million in sales; that 50 percent of WNYC’s sponsorship revenue now comes from digital as opposed to terrestrial sources, a good chunk of which is driven by podcasts.

But Doctor’s columns also laid out an analogy that connects what many podcast publishers/networks are doing these days to the long-established digital media strategy of aggregation. It’s a connection that hasn’t previously occurred to me, but it has become to me an essential framework in gaming out the probable trajectory — and potential pitfalls — of many of these emerging podcast companies.

Anyway, hit ’em up.

“You can’t compare it to anything else that exists in the industry right now,” said Rena Unger, the IAB’s director of industry initiatives, in the latest episode of The Wolf Den. “Podcasts took one of the boldest moves. You’re not doing your own individual upfronts, you were sharing one stage. You have 12 competitive companies that take off their competitive hats and say, ‘Let’s work together to elevate the space and increase our pie together.'”

Unger was responding to my, uh, critique of the recent Podcast Upfronts, which largely comes out of anxieties that were pinpointed almost perfectly by Chris Bannon, Midroll’s chief creative officer and co-host of The Wolf Den, who replied to Unger: “Yeah, it’s funny. There’s a great spirit of collaboration, but I think what Nick fears in his writing is that will disappear. That it will become some sort of commercial shark-tank in which where we race to the bottom in some way together.”

Or borrow a passage from Doctor’s final entry in his podcast series: “The phrase of the moment, both from some in the trade and from many of the millions of listeners who’ve become podcast addicts, seems to be: Don’t screw it up.

I’m getting that tattooed.

Bites:

  • There’s a budding audio/podcast platform company floating about the Bay Area called Tiny Garage Labs that’s founded by former Netflix operatives and a former Planet Money correspondent. I’d keep an eye out on their blog — word on the street something’s coming real soon. (Tiny Garage Labs)
  • Made a quick mention of this two Hot Pods ago, but it’s more or less confirmed now: Panoply now reps MTV Podcasts, which joins the network with two new shows — Lady Problems and Videohead.
  • “A lot of sports podcasting simply reuses talk-radio formats. From the way you sound, this is clearly going to be something different.” “Yeah, I am hoping we can pull it off.” ESPN Films and FiveThirtyEight senior producer Jody Avirgan talks to Adweek about the upcoming 30 for 30 podcast documentaries. Lots of interesting nuggets in there. (Adweek)
  • “The web is built on hyperlinks, with each link a pathway to discovery, an endorsement, a reference. Podcasts could be like that too.” Jake Shapiro, CEO of RadioPublic, published what appears to be a manifesto for the upcoming listening app that will make up his team’s first independent foray into the podcasting marketplace. (RadioPublic blog)
  • The lovely Hollywood history podcast, You Must Remember This, is going on hiatus. But KQED was able to score a pretty great Q&A with creator Karina Longworth in the meantime. (KQED Arts)
  • If you haven’t been keeping up with APM’s new investigative podcast, In The Dark — along with everything that’s been happening with the actual case it’s examining — you really should. Vulture has a great interview here with Madeleine Baran, the investigative journalist who drives the show. (Vulture)
  • At the Online News Association 2016 conference in Denver last week, WNYC’s Delaney Simmons and NPR’s Mathilde Piard gave a presentation on their respective organizations’ attempts to wield social media tools as a points of audio distribution. (Journalism.co.uk)

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.

Is This American Life violating the public radio mission by straying to platforms like Pandora?

Radiotopia lets a snake person in. The beloved Cambridge-based podcast indie label (or network or collective or whatchamacallit) is welcoming a new show to its ranks today: the bildungsroman-extraordinaire Millennial, produced by 25-year-old Megan Tan out of Portland, Maine. It’s the network’s 14th show overall, and the first addition since Julie Shapiro assumed the executive producer throne at the network last September.

In case you haven’t checked it out before, Millennial is…a bit of tricky podcast to explain. First gracing podcast feeds in January 2015, it’s a thoughtfully-crafted narrative podcast about a woman navigating her 20s. Principally written in the first person, the show is constructed on a complex machine of identity choreography where the documentarian is the central character and an unreliable narrator, one actively choosing the points in which the real world and the narrative intersects.

(In this sense, the show is incredibly reminiscent of the first season of StartUp, albeit with the enterprise of constructing a self instead of a business. Well, at first, anyway. Like I said, it’s complicated. Of course, StartUp has since moved away from complex structure to feature more straightforward stories about, uhm, startups I guess, and here I am mourning the loss of Alex Blumberg The Character.)

But Millennial is also a show overtly engaged in a certain kind of self-awareness. You can feel the show thinking about itself even as it unfolds (creating an interesting stiltedness); you can hear it in the way it’s uneasy with its own sincerity (even as the show wades forward with its heart fully on its sleeve), and you can even see it in its very title design (the word “Millennial” emblazoned with the colors of the rainbow, as if sashaying past the cultural agita — and reductiveness — that the concept evokes).

It’s a bizarre, intriguing, playful podcast. And so it’s a no-brainer to me, then, that Radiotopia, whose roster also includes the similarly hard-to describe Love+Radio and Benjemen Walker’s Theory of Everything, would embrace the show.

“I just felt like she ticked so many boxes for us: having the right content, having a vision, having done so much of it by herself,” Shapiro explained when I asked about the addition. “It’s equal part quality of the work, part spirit of the producer — a sense of determination and wanting to be independent, but also having that creative spark…She’s also, you know, a young woman of color doing it on her own. One of the Radiotopia goals is to get different voices in here, to support people who don’t have traditional training but have that moxie.”

Millennial’s recruitment into the network comes shortly after Tan left her job at New Hampshire Public Radio to pursue the show full-time earlier this year. When we spoke last week, she talked about the decision coming out of a desire for something close to creative freedom, or a space to learn and explore and develop on her own terms. But the effort to do so was grounded, it turned out, in a grappling with her economic chances. “I crunched the numbers, and I figured I could be making more money doing Millennial if I started putting out two episodes a month,” she said. Prior to joining Radiotopia, the show enjoyed an average of 27,000 downloads per episode. (That’s the number reported to advertisers, by the way. Keep in mind, in thinking through the number, that the show did not support dynamic ad insertion at the time.)

“I feel like there’s just a window of time when I can do this,” Tan said. “It feels like, well, nobody’s going to be talking about Millennial a year from now, and I can’t wait that long until I decide that this is what I want to do. There’s a lot of urgency in myself to just, sort of, buy the ticket and take the ride.”

(Boy, don’t I know that feeling.)

It’s worth noting, commensurate with a recent column by Current’s Adam Ragusea about the podcast industry’s trend towards clustering in New York, that Tan’s being able to make this professional leap can largely be attributed to her financial realities being based in Portland, Maine — where housing costs are roughly 58 percent lower than in Brooklyn, according to this nifty CNN Money calculator that sources its data from C2ER.

Speaking of New York, Tan mentioned that she was considering interest from a few other New York-based networks, which would’ve possibly led to her moving to the city. But her choice to go with Radiotopia came from multiple alignments — structural, creative, ideological — that she couldn’t ignore. “They feel like a family, and I feel like they have a similar intention for what they want stories to sound and be like that I have,” she said. “And there’s this freedom with them that’s almost unheard of in the industry…I mean, you get to own your own show! I don’t need someone to hold my hand through everything. I want to feel like I have as much stake in my show as somebody else. And I think, when you get to some of these other institutions, that’s not necessarily true.”

“Plus: When I think about Radiotopia, I just think about the fact it’s run by these badass women like [chief operating officer] Kerri Hoffman and Julie Shapiro,” she added. “And I’m like, yeah, I want to be on your team, and I want you to be on my team!”

With Radiotopia’s backing, Tan is looking to expand the scope of the show. “I want Millennial to be the show that people go to about coming-of-age,” she said. “And the best thing about that topic is that it’s narrow enough to be focused but it’s still big enough to encompass everything. You don’t stop coming of age when you get out of your 20s.”

You can find the podcast here. I imagine, given the podcast’s affinity for meta-narrative, that Tan will producer her own narrative on the show being picked up by Radiotopia. In which case, that episode is probably already out by the time you read this. [It is:]

How Radiotopia works. I figured this was a good opportunity to try and figure out what, exactly, a partnership with Radiotopia looks like. So I posed the question to Shapiro, and she was kind enough to walk me through it — even if my brain had a hard time grappling with it.

Radiotopia shows are supported by a collection of three different revenue streams. There’s advertising revenue (Radiotopia takes a 20 percent cut of the advertising revenue; they handle some sponsorships, but shows are incentivized to bring in more by themselves); there’s money that comes in from listener donations that are open persistently throughout the year (which are then distributed evenly across shows); and there are the annual pledge-drive fundraisers we’ve become familiar with (which are then distributed based on performance on top of an evenly split base amount). The way this works out, then, is that all shows get a baseline financial support but are still able to benefit in proportion to how well they perform both with advertisers and listeners.

Also worth noting: Ownership of the shows remain with the creators, not Radiotopia.

It’s a balanced, equitable approach; one that lets shows enjoy a relatively small cushion of comfort but places them in a position where they’re incentivized to hustle, because they stand to directly benefit from their own inputs.

And the network systems are designed such that the growth of each show will directly and indirectly benefit the wider family — a kind of virtuous cycle that encourages network cohesion. As Shapiro explains: “The shows make a nice chunk from the fundraiser, but that means everybody has to jump in and help fundraise. And the more we raise, the more they make from that. Then over the course of the year, as the shows get stronger and as the listeners get deeper and more loyal, listeners give more randomly and then the shows get more from that, and that means the networks get greater visibility for sponsors so they pay more. There’s a symbiotic relationship.”

It’s a fascinating system, but it’s certainly not for everybody. “There are other networks doing interesting, great work with business models that are in some ways more stable for producers,” Shapiro said. “I mean, if you work for a company, you get a steady paycheck.”

And boy, steady paychecks are sexy.

Mission vs. economics vs. a false dichotomy. Okay, let’s think through this one:

Last Thursday, Mike Savage, the general manager of WBAA, a public radio station operating out of West Lafayette, Indiana, announced in a LinkedIn post that the station will no longer carry This American Life come August. Several factors reportedly informed the decision, but Savage singled out TAL’s recent move to partner with the streaming service Pandora for distribution as the prime reason.

His argument is built on two key concepts:

  • Pandora poses a fundamental threat to public radio’s broadcast model. “Pandora is not complementary nor friendly to public radio,” Savage wrote. “Just go for a test drive in a new car and you will see their aggressive presentation…In fact, I believe it’s one of Pandora’s main goals to put traditional radio out of business.”
  • This American Life’s partnership with Pandora, then, represents a misalignment in interests, and given that WBAA pays TAL in order to serve its programming to the station’s listeners, the station would rather not fund an entity that is indirectly contributing to its demise.

This is, of course, an incredibly complex issue. It touches upon the disparity in resources between bigger and smaller stations, questions about how stations (and to extrapolate, publications and media companies) can hold their own, grow, and perhaps thrive in smaller markets, and of course, the structural tensions between emerging digital platforms and traditional broadcast. Add to that Savage’s claim that TAL wasn’t actually performing well for the station, and you have what looks to be a performative gesture with little immediate sacrifice for the station itself, which further complicates the way we read this. All of that is at play here, yes, and those things deserve discussion. And discussions are happening across Twitter, in Facebook groups, in forums, and most importantly, in the comments section of Savage’s LinkedIn post, where a substantial, multi-threaded conversation has been playing out, which even includes Glass mounting several responses.

But there a few parts of Savage’s decision — and more importantly, his rationale and argumentation — that I find especially troubling apart from those discussions. I’ll point out two in particular.

The first is an axiom that seems to drive Savage’s thinking: the sense that any programmatic attempt at aggressively growing an audience is somehow antithetical to the public radio mission. “At what cost do we grow the audience?” Savage writes at one point, in a response to a comment. “That’s the great thing about public broadcasting — we put mission first as opposed to shareholder value or audience size,” he writes at another.

There is, I think, a fundamental difference between the intention to aggressively grow your audience to maximize profits and the responsibility to aggressively grow your audience because they make up the Public you are meant to serve. Furthermore, such audience and revenue growth initiative should be a concern only if such initiatives directly contribute to a decrease in the quality of work being produced or service being provided. (Conversely: To impede initiatives that would generate greater audiences that wouldn’t dilute editorial quality should be read, then, as being counter-productive to the public good. I mean, what’s the point of producing work of quality if nobody’s listening to it?) Quality dilution obviously isn’t a problem that This American Life faces, which has demonstrably increased its capacity for public service journalism since incorporating as a public benefit corporation and has gotten more financially ambitious (a sample list of stellar reporting from the past four months alone: “My Damn Mind,” “I Thought I Knew You,” “Anatomy of Doubt“). Savage seems to almost automatically equate a drive towards revenue or audience growth with an immediate straying away from the public good — which is a viewpoint that’s not only simplistic, but also counterintuitive to the entire enterprise of helping to build a more informed public.

The second part is considerably more troubling. The thing that’s most striking to me about Savage’s whole deal is this: Here we have a public radio station that seems to not only fail to recognize who its natural friends are, but one that is lashing out at potential allies — a state of affairs that isn’t great for a system that thrives on cohesion and solidarity.

This whole business would be one thing if all we’re seeing is a brash decision made by a small public radio station — operating with few resources within the 236th-largest market size in the country, as Savage himself noted in the comments — even though, yes, the station represents a view held by a number of other, similarly under-resourced public radio station. But it’s incredibly important to note that Savage is a member of NPR’s board of directors, and that he actively brings this thinking into those meetings and could well complicate efforts to strengthen the core over there.

Let’s pause a second. It’s important to note that Savage’s decision comes chiefly out of fear — a concern for its own existence, for whether the shifting conditions will leave it to wither and die. I understand that. And that fear is especially acute when you’re small; indeed, when you’re small, a lot of things seem scary. But the way to survive isn’t to shrink inwards and struggle for the status quo. The way to survive is the same as it has always been: to continuously embrace new ways of doing things, new political realities, new balances of power.

I’m trying to be sympathetic here, but it’s really hard not to read this as anything but a scenario where a station is making a principled stand for its own existence at the expense of the mission it purports to serve. Perhaps, as I’ve done in the past, it’s worth asking whether many of the stations that make up the public radio system — all of which were created at a very different point in history with very different technological realities — are still the right entities to carry out its mission.

Meanwhile, Nieman Lab has a great interview with NPR One’s Tamar Charney on what’s been up with the app. (Spoiler alert: There are hamsters.) Also, this week’s Frederic Filloux column over at Monday Note seems particularly pertinent to this hullabaloo: “Fossilized culture, not lack of funding, put news media on deathwatch.”

To everyone reading this who isn’t really into the whole public radio thing: Sorry about that.

Responses to dynamic ad insertion concerns. Last week, I published a few concerns held by Collin Willardson, who heads up marketing over at Mack Weldon, about the changes that dynamic ad insertion brings to podcast advertising. Joel Withrow, director of product over at Panoply (my old day job employer), was kind enough to address some of those issues.

His reply was pretty long, so I posted it in full over in this Google Doc, but here’s the essential paragraph:

Podcast ad sales are undergoing a big change — one of steadily increased scale, better technology, and professionalization. Our growing pains focus on ad insertion because the technology behind it should be held to a higher standard, so that we don’t mess things up for listeners or advertisers. While giving podcasters access to the best reporting and sales opportunities out there, the best platforms will keep ceding total creative control over every minute of the episode, ads included, to the creators. If we do that, any given show’s migration to ad insertion should be inaudible.

Cool.

Bites:

  • In other Radiotopia news, the 10 finalists for their Podquest competition have been locked in. They were informed last week. Watch out for more developments on this front as the weeks roll on.
  • Wondery, the new L.A.-based podcast network launched by former Fox executives Hernan Lopez and Jeffrey Glaser, announced three additions to its roster last week: Radio Drama Revival, The Cleansed, and Ruby: Adventures of A Galactic Gumshoe. That last show comes out of ZBS, an audio drama-oriented nonprofit founded by Thomas Lopez, who was recently profiled on All Things Considered.
  • Two weeks after publicly announcing its arrival, Pineapple Street Media makes its first hire: Bari Finkel, who has previously worked on Radiolab, the upcoming Radiolab spinoff, and the Panoply Custom team.
  • “Apple updates iTunes with a ‘simpler’ design that doesn’t really help.” (The Verge)
  • “How Monocle found money in radio.” (Digiday)

Is the NPR podcast promotion kerfuffle overblown or a sign of something real?

The NPR memo. “It was intended as a small internal memo for a specific operational purpose,” he said over the phone. “A ready checklist for people to think about when these particular issues came about it was never intended to be an external document, some sort of formal statement from NPR.”

I’m talking to Chris Turpin, NPR’s vice president of news programming and operations. It was Friday evening, the last stretch of a long week, and we had gotten in touch over phone to talk about the uproar that took place a day earlier. Given that you’re reading a wonky newsletter about the podcast industry or, alternatively, you’re skimming this off a Harvard-housed journalism innovation blog, you probably already know the broad details, so forgive me for dropping a play-by-play for the uninitiated:

  • Last Thursday, NPR published a memo on its Ethics Handbook blog noting that on-air talent should avoid promotional language when mentioning NPR podcasts. This would include explicit instructions on where to find, and how to download, podcasts. The memo also contained a second instruction, which stated that “for now, NPR One will not be promoted on the air.”
  • The publication of the memo kicked up what NPR ombudsman Elizabeth Jensen called “a spirited conversation” on Twitter and multiple closed Facebook groups among “public radio insiders and others who closely follow the digital evolution of journalism.” (Current.org has a good roundup.)
  • Later on Thursday, Nieman Lab’s Joshua Benton published a post critical of NPR, where he contextualized the underlying thinking of the memo as one that’s trapped within the institution’s business structure — namely, its being accountable to member stations. Benton further drew a comparison to the way newspapers kept their focus on their print while they were being disrupted digitally; he evoked the concept of the “strategy tax.”
  • On Friday afternoon, the brouhaha found its way into posts by Quartz and The Verge, suggesting that the situation drew broader interest. Benton’s post served as the theoretical anchor to these posts, which also skewed critical.
  • Late Friday, NPR ombudsman Elizabeth Jensen published her findings on the issue. Jensen situated the memo within its literal scope: that it’s meant to guide language specifically within journalistic contexts, and that it doesn’t necessarily outlaw podcast promotion outside of editorial journalism content on broadcast. But she did note that the tension NPR feels navigating its digital future is real.

There’s a lot to unpack here, with many different things bound up in this one incident. But on a broad level, here’s what I think: That memo, written for a specific context, was taken largely out of context, and as a result its significance was blown out of proportion.

But I also think the fact that the underlying questions raised by the uproar — whether NPR takes seriously the notion of digital and podcasts as central to its future, whether it’s strategizing adequately, whether it can reshape relationships with member stations or their priorities, whether it can retain its status as a journalistic stalwart moving into the future — returned to the forefront so easily with this misunderstanding suggests that the organization, up to this point, hasn’t done a very good job giving anybody enough confidence to believe that they’ll be able to adequately address these questions.

And this kerfuffle — an unanticipated breakdown in optics which may well have real ramifications on internal morale — further undermines the faith and confidence of observers (mostly external, but some internal), many of which are emotionally invested in NPR and its ability to grapple with the extremely complex problems that will define the terms of its future.

Sometime later on Friday evening, Turpin sent out an internal followup. “Let’s be absolutely crystal clear; NPR is deeply committed to podcasting,” he wrote. Later on in the email: “Our podcasts regularly top the charts, and our leadership in the podcast space is obvious.”

Indeed, that’s certainly true for today. But of course, what we’re really concerned about is tomorrow.

Four takes here.

1. The key to evaluate NPR’s fate, I believe, lies in the way the institution views radio and digital/podcast audiences as two separate categories with separate strategies for audience development. Turpin indicated this view when he spoke to Jensen, stating that the two formats “serve different audiences. This isn’t some kind of zero-sum game.”

That thinking makes some sense to me; an entirely plausible strategy to anticipate is one that sees NPR playing something of a caretaking role with broadcast — let them age out, allowing a dignified transition into a niche channel — while increasing its investments, activities, and long-term operational bets on digital and podcasts. But my thinking comes from a firm belief that terrestrial radio will become less dominant over time, a view that Turpin does not seem to share. “This is a win-win. Terrestrial radio has a lot more life in it, and it will continue to have more life in it as young talent comes in,” he told me.

Let’s assume, for argument’s sake, that I’m wrong and that broadcast may well hold strong over time. It still doesn’t explain to me why, frankly, the organization omits even taking the step to educate them on how to download a podcast — I’d argue that education is something theoretically different from promotion. (To anticipate the counterargument using the bookstore analogy: it’s one thing to tell them to go to Barnes & Noble, it’s another thing altogether to explain how a bookstore works to a population that’s new to the concept of bookstores.)

When I asked this question, I got two answers. The first is the fact that they simply haven’t seen meaningful conversions from broadcast to podcast. The second that, in Turpin’s view, it isn’t that hard for listeners to learn how to consume a podcast they heard about on broadcast. “I think people know where to go and find podcasts,” Turpin said. “Downloading a podcast is not that hard to figure out. They can easily Google it!”

I’ll take the point, but I will say that there’s something about that position that strikes me as distinctly not-user-centric — presumptuous, even, of who makes up NPR’s audience.

2. I’ve spent the better part of the past three days toiling over this story. Frankly, I started out fairly sympathetic to NPR, and then I swung to being very frustrated, and now I find myself stuck somewhere down an apathetic middle. I don’t believe, not even for a second, that NPR isn’t investing significant resources into digital and podcasts. The substantial success of Invisibilia, the launches of Hidden Brain, the NPR Politics podcast, and the upcoming Embedded (more on that next week), and the hiring of Tamar Charney as the local editorial lead for NPR One are all signals to me of considerable investment.

But reviewing my notes and re-reading all the responses, I can’t help but bash my head against…how much it feels like NPR isn’t taking the threat of its digital disruption seriously enough. The spectre of that rather unflattering Politico story from last August still looms over my thinking, and I wonder just how much has changed over the past seven months.

3. Much has already written about how this all is largely a function of NPR’s being beholden to the desires, interests, and anxieties of its member stations. And much has been said, on the other side, about how public radio as a whole — member stations included — is internalizing the digital disruption that the medium is facing. “Everyone is working out how podcasts fit into their overall long-term strategy,” as Turpin told Jensen.

But I just want to talk, very briefly, about the purpose that NPR is supposed to fulfill. As I interpret it, NPR was created to serve the public, but through member stations that collectively serve as proxies for the public. It’s worth asking, then, whether member stations still serve their respective publics at the level they once did before — and whether the limitations they introduce to NPR’s calculus outweighs, on a net level, the benefits of NPR serving the public directly.

4. I think it’s important to note that the NPR One issue should be considered separately from the larger podcast promotion issue. Based on my conversation with Turpin, along with some insiders, I’ve come to think that the institution views the app as a work-in-progress. The NPR One portion of the memo, then, is more the result of marketing housekeeping: Why push an incomplete product in front of the bulk of your audience? Turpin also told me that they are getting ready for a big marketing push surrounding the app. (“When?” I asked. “In a matter of months,” he replied.) This information is consistent with what I’ve heard about in the past, and I do feel like we haven’t quite seen what’s in store for NPR One.

Okay, that’s way too much ink spilt on NPR takes, and my head’s spinning. Let’s move on.

Additional reading: Adam Davidson, co-founder of NPR’s Planet Money who now writes for The New York Times Magazine and hosts of Gimlet’s Surprisingly Awesome, on his fear that NPR is allowing itself to grow irrelevant. (Facebook)

A hunt for new sounds. PRX’s Radiotopia launched a new talent-seeking competition called Podquest last week, a campaign that will ultimately resulting in a brand new show joining the network/label/collective’s current roster of 13 shows. The competition will select 10 semifinalists; from among them, three finalists will each receive $10,000 along with creative, entrepreneurial, and technological support from PRX throughout the entire process.

Calls for submissions are open until April 17, and the competition will conclude in November.

Diversity is top of mind for the PRX team. “We’re looking for shows not yet represented by Radiotopia’s roster — both in the ‘who’ and the ‘what’ behind each proposal,” wrote Julie Shapiro, PRX’s executive producer, in an email to me. “Intentional use of sound and an innovative weaving of story are hallmarks of all Radiotopia shows…but we also want to support someone(s) new on the podcasting scene, who might have a different background and approach to creative storytelling in mind, and the ambition and drive to do the hard work to get there.”

To ensure a more diverse pool of applicants, the company has also been reaching out to organizations, Facebook groups, and university programs to increase awareness of the competition in communities beyond their existing networks.

I’ve been struggling to come up with a good analogy for Podquest, particularly after spotting Fast Company equating the competition to American Idol and a press release evoking Project Greenlight. Podquest strikes me as more in the style of the tech accelerator/incubator model, or maybe some sort of expedited MFA for podcasts. Shapiro is sympathetic to this perspective. “I actually don’t feel a tension between the tech-style startup approach and simultaneous creative-editorial guidance; rather the bundling of ALL of it seems necessary right now to help any new podcast succeed,” she wrote.

Anyway, I’m excited for this! With this initiative, Radiotopia is providing a spin on what a podcast network-label-collective should be doing: identifying talent and material that listeners will find valuable. And they seem to be particularly committed to finding and developing fresh, original, sui generis talent — as opposed to adapting another celebrities, brands, or another logo on a slide — which I’m thankful for.

If you’re interested to learn more, head over the Podquest page. And good luck!

And while we’re on the subject of pod competitions (pod-petitions?): I hear that the winners of WNYC’s podcast accelerator are still chugging away. Developments, and possibly launches, are expected to come soon.

On iTunes, part three. ICYMI, I’ve been going pretty deep into the subject of the iTunes charts over the past few weeks. First, I sketched out a theory on how the iTunes charts work and how they fit into the industry’s larger ecosystem of values. Then I took a look at how podcast advertisers perceive, understand, and utilize those charts. I’d like to conclude this miniseries now by unbundling the three major functions that iTunes has come to play in Podcastland, and discuss the various companies (that I know about, anyway) trying to fulfill those functions:

1. Discovery. Above all things, the iTunes charts is the principal driver of podcast discovery — a position that’s no doubt closely tied to the fact that an estimated 70 percent of consumption takes place on the platform. There are several companies currently looking to stake claim in this space: As we’ve discussed previously, Google Play and Spotify are potential competitors, though it increasingly appears that their entry has been slow and muted. We also have relatively older solutions like Stitcher, though its activity has been dimmed down since its acquisition by Deezer. The challenges for both kinds of solutions are associated with their existence as apps; the task comes down to user acquisition, management, and engagement in a mobile space that’s incredibly congested.

But the problem of discovery doesn’t have be solved from this one channel of the mobile device. An app called Otto Radio, for example, is a lean-back curatorial solution that appears specifically designed in anticipation for increased usage on a car dashboard. Another angle comes from pre-existing media infrastructures. Think about it this way: Reviews, recaps, and writeups are central to both TV culture on the Internet and the TV industry’s marketing and discovery initiatives. It’s perfectly plausible that podcasts — and audio programming more generally — can engage in mutually beneficial relationships with culture and entertainment-oriented sites. The AV Club, by the way, has been on this for ages with its Podmass column. (Also something to keep tabs on: the way streaming video content is being serviced by Vulture’s Streaming guide and soon, The New York Times’ new Watching subsite).

2. Measure of value. A chart theoretically serves the purpose of representation. A big part of understanding the health of a show is knowing how it stacks up against other shows, and as I’ve discussed previously, the iTunes chart displays how well shows are driving iTunes interactions relative to other shows — which, as a proxy, is workable, but it provides creators, advertisers, and listeners a distorted picture.

A solution on this front is intimately bound up with the industry’s larger issue concerning standardized, transparent measurements, which will remain a roadblock for the length of this problem. However, at this point in time, it’s worth speculating that a number of podcast networks will not view themselves as being incentivized to adopt measurements standards and open themselves up to transparent rankings. As I mentioned in an issue way back when:

It’s very possible that we would open the black box only to realize that most people don’t actually listen past the 10th minute for most shows…and we consequently lose whatever clout, bargaining chip, or basis of reasoning in our dealings with the advertising community.

And I also suspect, with no proof yet again, that the bulk of us are ill prepared to rapidly rebuild that collective fiction to a workable place once it’s broken.

One could hypothesize, then, that the reason we haven’t seen an actual Billboard-style chart alternative is a hurdle the industry has imposed upon itself. Which is to say, some companies don’t really want to know how their shows are actually doing, or they don’t really want to reveal how they stack up to other shows. But as the medium experiences further increases in broad consumer adoption, and as more and more advertisers spend time coming into contact with more and more podcast companies and creators — in other words, as knowledge is generally increased across the board — the benefits of being opaque will eventually be completely eroded.

So far, the only major play I’ve heard coming down the pipeline is the software development kit (SDK) that the fine folks at Nielsen are cooking up. I’ve also heard rumors of another podcast hosting/measurement platform knocking on some doors, but I’ll confirm that when I can get something on the record.

3. Directory. Pretty straightforward here, so I’ll be quick: On a very basic level, iTunes functions as the de facto podcast search engine. A podcast not listed on iTunes is, in a lot of ways, a podcast that doesn’t really exist. (Like the tree falling in the woods. Or whatever that metaphor is supposed to be). Each podcast listing on iTunes contains key identifying information — show description, creator information, cover art, and so on — that can be grouped and linked together to build a more robust knowledge base for listeners, creators, advertisers, and producers, each looking to perform very different information-gathering tasks.

Last week, something called Podcat made rounds around the Internet and the podcast community. The site dubbed itself the “IMDb for Podcasts,” and it’s the most recent incarnation of this idea. The speech-to-text company Pop-Up Archive has a similar product in its Audiosear.ch platform, which compiles and organizes sets of identiying information that draws from its transcriptions. The challenge here is informational fidelity, accuracy, and timeliness, and from the looks of it, both solutions are still in their very early days. But it’s a glimpse of what could be, and that glimpse is pretty cool.

In related news, the iTunes charts has jumbled up again. It was brought to my attention this weekend that it experienced yet another one of these re-shufflings: This time, the top bracket favored hitherto unheard-of finance podcasts. Right now, the unstoppable MouseChat sits pretty on the top slot once again. I suppose it’s worth noting, at this point, that the underlying mechanics of iTunes charts are subject to internal change — that can’t be adequately documented externally, by the way — as well as periodic anomalies, such as the chart’s tendency to occasionally reshuffle the deck. Maybe I should’ve said that at the beginning.

Relevant bits:

  • Song Exploder’s Hrishikesh Hirway is launching The West Wing Weekly, a new pod with Joshua Malina that will cover the show’s run. They got decent press, including an NPR segment which got them in front of their best possible target demo. The first ep will drop tomorrow, or at least that’s what Hirway told me. (iTunes, NPR)
  • Audible rolled out a fully functional audio clip-sharing feature last week. Called Clip, the feature lets users can share about 30 seconds of audio with another person using a link. (Wired)
  • For anyone else keeping tabs: This American Life “currently draws 10.7 million downloads for every episode,” with CPMs sometimes reaching $50 to $60. Also, another TAL spinoff is due to drop sometime later this year. It’s probably not the only spinoff in development. (Adweek, Baltimore Sun)
  • Pretty intense to hear Uber and Viceland advertising on The Ringer’s Channel 33 podcast feed. (Soundcloud)
  • “The value of using podcasts in class — ironically, they can encourage students to read more.” (The Atlantic)
  • “DeepGram lets you search through lectures and podcasts for your favorite quotes.” (The Next Web)
  • “Why you should consider shutting down your newsroom…temporarily.” Lessons from Gimlet’s Mix Week. (Poynter)
  • “Spotify’s lack of music exclusives isn’t turning people away.” (Tech Insider)

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Charting the outflow of public radio talent to the new for-profit podcast industry

Pods for all seasons. Lately I’ve been noticing something of a small trend: podcasts that were launched to accompany a big, seasonal event. Specifically, there have been two big clusters: podcasts that have been launched to cover the 2016 presidential election cycle and podcasts that are designed to accompany the Oscar race.

The list of election podcasts is fairly substantial. You’ve got the NPR Politics podcast (which I’ve written about before), along with Panoply’s Podcast for America and an upcoming show by Scripps called Trail Mix 2016. All three shows seem to be designed to track the campaign trail, and all three shows appear to take the premise of being informal very, very seriously. They also uniformly seem to serve the function, at least in theory, of giving journos the space to openly react to the news cycle, something that they presumably can’t do in their usual reporting platforms.

On top of these podcasts, you also have a new show from The Washington Post called Presidential, which takes a more evergreen approach by providing thematically associated material: Each episode will focus on a different U.S. president, guaranteeing us 44 episodes worth of content (if they give Grover Cleveland two episodes). Oh, and FiveThirtyEight is coming up with its own elections podcast too. That crew has been workshopping off the feed for their What’s The Point podcast. (What a fine way to soft launch, by the way.)

On the other side of serious, but with no less pomp and circumstance, you’ve got a slightly smaller stack of 2016 Oscar podcasts. There’s the Awards Show Show, a coproduction of New York’s Vulture and KPCC’s The Frame, which adopts the structure of a classic two-person you-go-now-you-go reporting outfit. And then there’s the Awards Chatter podcast by The Hollywood Reporter, which features a long list of interviews with award-hungry actors and directors currently doing the good ol’ publicity circuit. That podcast recently made rounds on the entertainment blogosphere with its fairly dry J.J. Abrams interview, which gave us an official answer to the much asked question about why The Force Awakens felt so gosh darn familiar. And finally, you have the Little Gold Men podcast from Vanity Fair, which is basically the Slate Gabfest for Hollywood gossipmongers and those who go all Ezra Klein on film and the Academy Awards (so, nerds like me, basically).

These podcasts are, in my mind, journalistic cousins of a certain podcast subgenre that’s been around for a long time: the TV recap podcast, long formalized by entities like the AfterBuzz TV Network. These shows are companion pieces, accompaniments, instruments for listeners to further critique, pore over, or generally spend more time with these narratively propulsive events — the morbidly fascinating Academy Awards race and the fascinatingly morbid American presidential elections — which, let’s face it, for the right kind of person, is a rabbit hole that keeps going down and down and down.

NPR One and retooling the concept of local. So here’s a big, juicy development coming out of the public radio mothership: NPR has hired Tamar Charney, the program director at Michigan Radio, to be the new local editorial lead for NPR One, its buzzy streaming audio app experiment. Some, like myself, might remember Charney from the piece she wrote for Current last July, where she pushed back against the podcast rush that, at the time, was taking place among some public radio stations that had been afflicted by some sense of FOMO. “I worry we are putting too much of our creative energies into this one platform,” Charney wrote. “As I see them, podcasts are just a distribution technology. Listeners sought out Serial because it was great content, not because it was a podcast per se.”

For the record, I think Charney’s absolutely right. It’s an argument that evokes discussions happening elsewhere in the media space, particularly in the war of attrition that TV and film streaming services like Netflix seem to be slowly and quietly winning against traditional broadcasting companies. At this point in time, the medium may well be the message, but as we move forward into the future, it will be the thing that the medium was built to carry that will ultimately determine the fate of these institutions.

Anyway, back to NPR One: Nieman Lab, my powerful enablers, published a really great article digging into Charney’s hire and how she fits into the larger goal that the institution is trying to achieve with the app. Essentially, NPR One is less a move to digitize and replicate the “radio” part of public radio than an initiative to digitize the concept of “local.” Which is to say, the goal isn’t to better connect the listener with quality content generated by NPR and local member stations in general — the goal is really to better connect the listener within an existing local public radio ecosystem. This is expressed in the very first question that the app asks you when you first boot it up: What’s your home station? You may well be living in Nashville, but if your real yearning is to be connected with your New Jersey roots, the NPR One experience is meant to serve you news and information from that local public radio ecosystem.

This approach is designed to meet NPR’s unique challenge when it comes to digital. Unlike WNYC — what with its pushes deeper into podcasting, self-distribution, and self-actualization as an entity unto itself — NPR has the distinct challenge of balancing a member-driven organizational structure against an imperative to establish a sustainable avenue for digital growth. Remember that dues from member stations make up NPR’s principal revenue stream. And remember as well that, theoretically speaking, if NPR were to push hard into digital by upping its ability to serve its content directly to listeners across America, that would be bypassing their member stations, which both challenges its core revenue stream and undermines what is created to do. This initiative to modernize the concept of “local,” then, is a smart move to balance its shift towards digital and stay true to its commitments.

Anyway, back to Charney: what exactly does the role of “local editorial lead” entail? What will Charney’s day-to-day look like? “Oh man, I have no idea,” Sara Sarasohn, the app’s editorial lead, told me. “Nick, you gotta realize: Our jobs are totally made up. I have some ideas as to what her job is going to be, but I have no idea what the day-to-day is going to be.” But broadly speaking, Charney is meant to be something of ambassador — among other things, she will be principally in charge of figuring out the needs of local public radio stations and ensuring that the app is able to match those needs as best as possible. Which will be hard, of course; as with everything else in America, nothing is equal, least of all needs.

Before we move on, here’s a fun factoid in the Nieman Lab piece that may be interesting to some of you: “App usage ‘has been growing at a steady pace of 9 percent month over month’ — that works out to about 280 percent growth per year — since launch, with the average listening session over half an hour long.” Juicy.

More on ESPN, Grantland, and podcasts. Brian Koppelman, a screenwriter and the creator of The Moment podcast, went on the Wolf Den podcast last week to talk podcasts and the podcast business, and his conversation with Midroll CEO Adam Sachs pleasantly shed more light on the way podcasts were handled at ESPN and Grantland — which proved to be a source of frustration (among many, presumably) for high-profile talent Bill Simmons, who would later be dismissed by ESPN and who eventually launched his own podcast network while signing onto a multi-platform deal with HBO.

Koppelman, whose podcast was originally housed at Grantland before he moved it over to Slate, told Sachs:

Grantland understood and valued podcasts tremendously. But I felt that ESPN did not…and one of the ways in which that manifested is that I did the podcast for free and at a loss for the first year and a half.

And when the show began to develop an audience, ESPN began running commercials on the show — and still not giving me any of it. And then that just felt weird! At a certain point, I’m happy to run a commercial-free show and then somehow break even — that would’ve been fine. So that was in my head. And then I feel like they weren’t going to grow it at all.

He also talked about his interest in pursuing non-advertising supported podcasts. “A part of me always thinks, ‘Is there another way to do this whole thing where people don’t have to listen to advertising? Is there a subscription model that works, that I can have a smaller audience in the beginning that would contribute? There’s an appeal to that,” Koppelman said.

Well, Brian, according to this Splitsider interview, the comedian Artie Lange apparently draws in about $400,000 a year for his paywalled podcast (which goes for $7 a month). So there’s that.

A Canadian mag re-enters the podcasting space. I was a huge, huge fan of The Arcade, a literary interview podcast by the Portlandia-esque folks over at Hazlitt Magazine — back when the podcast was a thing before it suddenly ceased operations eight months ago. When I asked Anshuman Iddamsetty, the magazine’s art director and podcast quarterback, what’s up with the whole peacing-out thing, he was coy in his response and vague with the details, choosing to reply only in haikus. Of course, I’d expect nothing less of a person whose Twitter handle blares out BOARLORD and whose brain is capable of such personal essay gems like “Swole without Goal.” But still, the cessation, and the lack of details, stung.

Well, it looked like the mag pulled another fast one on me, as it launched a new podcast under the nose last November: It’s called Cavern of Secrets and it bills itself as a “show about extraordinary women.” It’s hosted by Toronto-based comedian Lauren Mitchell, and it’s three episodes deep, with guest spots by Carrie Brownstein and Tavi Gevinson.

I sent a quick note to Iddamsetty demanding more details — about goals, about strategy, about what the heck is up. His reply was swift and comprehensive:

Cavern is a departure from our previous podcasting efforts, which were more literary in scope. At Hazlitt, we’re not too concerned with chasing clicks and that gives us the freedom to experiment and focus on what I think is our core competency: giving impossibly talented voices a platform. Also paying them on time. I mean, it doesn’t seem that far off from what Canadian publishing should be doing anyway, and that means taking risks with developing voices, with mediums outside of the written word.

We recently finished the construction of a studio just for our multimedia efforts, and Cavern is the first salvo in a battery of audio products we hope to launch later this year. We’ve started development on our second show, but we’re always open to pitches, especially in the categories of religion, sports, and technology. So! If you’re a woman or person of colour or trans person interested in Canadian podcasting, drop us a line!

What a mensch. Anyway: What on earth is Hazlitt Magazine? It’s so quirky, so weird, and so utterly gorgeous that I can’t believe the forces of capitalism allowed this thing to exist. Apparently I’m not the first person to ask that question.

Moves from public radio to private, in spreadsheet form. So I finally sat down to actually begin building out this spreadsheet of radio/podcast folks who’ve jumped off the public radio ship into the private sector. This is just a very small start, and I’ll build and update it over time, but from what little there is, one can already spot some pretty clear dynamics right off the bat. Namely, that only a handful of institutions are providing the supply, and everybody’s white.

You can find the list here, and you can suggest names here. I’ll add them as soon as I vet them.

Related reads this week:

  • “To Attract New Listeners, Podcasts Need To Move Beyond Sound.” (Wired)
  • “Beyond ‘Mail-Kimp’: The Future of Podcast Advertising” (Fast Company)
  • “So, Like, Why Are We So Obsessed With Podcasts Right Now?” (Vanity Fair)
  • SoundCloud, which serves as a hosting platform for a bunch of podcasters, has reportedly secured $35 million in debt funding. (Original report by Digital, a Swedish site; TechCrunch for the English report)

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