“If a Serial episode was a mountain peak, S-Town was the Himalayas”

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 116, published April 18, 2017.

Midroll formalizes the Stitcher editorial brand. When I wrote up the return of First Day Back for last week’s newsletter, I was mostly thinking out loud when discussing its label as a Stitcher show and how that might’ve hinted towards the spinning out of the podcast app as its own editorial brand. It looks like I was a day early on that, as the company announced last Wednesday that it was indeed firming up the Stitcher branding, and that it was shuffling some Earwolf shows into its purview.

Stitcher will now carry The Longest Shortest Time and the Katie Couric Podcast, both of which were previously categorized as Earwolf shows. The new umbrella will also carry The Sporkful, whose departure from WNYC I covered two weeks ago, and Tell Me Something I Don’t Know, the Stephen Dubner-led game show previously housed in The New York Times’ audio unit.

The reason for all of this shuffling? In a word: #branding.

Speaking over the phone yesterday, Midroll CEO Erik Diehn explained that, while he ultimately thinks a network’s brand won’t mean very much to a broad audience, he does find that it carries significant weight with its core audience. As such, any programming move has to make sense within the context of that audience’s relationship with the brand. “Every once in a while, a content brand rises above the fray to stand for something more than the individual shows organized within it,” Diehn said, also pointing to Gimlet Media, Barstool Sports, and The Ringer as examples. “There is value there for a certain core audience.”

The company bumped up against this when it initially attempted to broaden the Earwolf network out from its core comedy and comedy-adjacent sensibility; Diehn told me that Stranglers, a true-crime documentary podcast that Midroll published under the Earwolf network, was perceived by some to be a parody in large part due to its association with Earwolf. (It is most certainly not that.) The decision to carve out Stitcher as a separate entity from Earwolf, then, is meant to create a separate audience architecture for the more newsy and serious shows that Midroll hopes to get more involved in.

For what it’s worth, I personally feel that a brand means as much to listeners, audiences, and consumers as it makes itself out to be — which is to say, I tend to believe its effectiveness — and, for that matter, the effectiveness of things like bylines and datelines — is chiefly derived from the amount of work put into making it mean something.

Anyway, when I asked about how Stitcher Premium was doing, Diehn noted that it was “doing quite well,” and that it was “hitting all of its forecasts for the year so far.” He declined to share specific numbers when asked.

Speaking of brands…

“Apple Podcasts.” Last week saw a quiet announcement from Apple’s iTunes teams that nonetheless sent ripples throughout the community: The company is rebranding “iTunes Podcasts” as “Apple Podcasts.” Aside from an updated set of marketing guidelines and visual assets for use by publishers — get those badges and switch up your tags, folks — the announcement was made with little accompanying information that could tell us anything substantial about how (or even whether) Apple is actually fundamentally rethinking its relationship with the growing podcast ecosystem — a possibility that was first hinted back in February’s Recode Media conference when Apple’s senior vice president of Internet software and services Eddy Cue vaguely noted that the company was “working on new features for podcasts.”

Which is to say, we know nothing new about whether the company plans to: revamp the podcast app’s underlying user experience (long criticized as being virtually unchanged since its introduction over a decade ago); provide any further analytics support; allow for external verification of metrics (as in the case of Apple News); increase the sophistication of podcast discovery and publisher promotion on the podcast app; provide additionals pathways for monetization within the Apple podcast ecosystem; or clarifying the editorial and symbolic significance of the podcast charts.

On the flipside, it does maintain a status quo that continues to leave unreconciled the larger question about how the space will continue to play out structurally — that is, it holds in place the tension between podcasts-as-blogs contingent and podcasts-as-future-of-radio contingent that seemingly came to a public head last summer. (Here’s the relevant Hot Pod column from that time.) A lot has changed since then; the industry has continued to grow, more hit shows have come to be, more platforms have begun to encroach on Apple’s majority share with experiments in windowing and exclusives, and so on.

There’s a legit story in here somewhere…but this isn’t quite it. Looks like we’ll have to keep being on the lookout.

“If a Serial episode was a mountain peak, then S-Town was the Himalayas.” On Friday, PRX chief technology officer Andrew Kuklewicz published a Medium post discussing the backend of hosting the hit podcast — which, as you probably know by now, opted to drop all of its seven episodes at once as opposed to a recurring drop structure. In case you didn’t know, This American Life hosts all of its podcasts on Dovetail, the CMS platform created by PRX (which also distributes the company’s shows to public radio stations).

I’ve briefly written about Dovetail before, but the platform has kept a relatively low profile compared to its more aggressive competitors, like Art19 and Panoply’s Megaphone, and I suppose you could read this post as the company flexing its muscles somewhat. “After S-Town, we are that much more confident in our technology, both in new ways of using it, and under extreme load,” Kuklewicz wrote. “Plus, the next time someone asks me what Dovetail can do, I have a new graph to show them.”

The post is chock-full of interesting stuff — including some fascinating insights into binge-download behavior — but I’d like to draw your attention to something: Long-time observers of the podcast industry are probably familiar with the conversation around dynamic ad insertion technology, how its proponents argue that it allows for greater advertising inventory and opportunity (by allowing ads to be dynamically switched out according to who is listening), and how the current generation of professionalizing podcast companies have generally integrated the technology by treating the ad slot as the unit that gets dynamically switched out.

According to Kuklewicz’s post, it appears that the S-Town team made a peculiar request: to treat the entire episode as the dynamic unit. This effectively maintains the baked-in nature of the ad-read while still allowing for the fundamental utility of each individual episode being able to serve different ads to different kinds of people. When I asked Kuklewicz about the logic behind this, he said: “They wanted to maximize the flow between show and spots, and allow for music under the end roll. So I understand it to be an aesthetic motivation, and considering the years of time put into the show, and the way the music is practically a character, I can see now why they wanted it just that way.”

Related. BuzzFeed has a chunky feature up on S-Town that should be interesting to fans on two major levels. First, it sheds some additional light on the narrative threads that the podcast ultimately leaves unresolved — which, as we learn from the piece, is purely by design. And second, it serves as a nice companion to host Brian Reed’s interview on Longform. Also, this from The Awl: “Call it Shit Town, because that is its name.”

Call Your LLC. I highly recommend digging into last week’s episode of Call Your Girlfriend, the well-loved conversational podcast by Ann Friedman and Aminatou Sow (produced by Gina Delvac), which features a pretty substantial look at how the team has built out an independent business around the show. No specific figures were disclosed — other than mention that ad slots cost at least four figures and a solid-sounding revenue range — but there’s a lot going on here. The episode touches on the uncertainties involved in working with a network, the general weirdness of the podcast industry, and figuring out a business model that best fits the values of a production. Check it out.

Missing Richard Simmons on TV? The Hollywood Reporter is apparently reporting that First Look Media, which led the production for the podcast, has “begun meeting with would-be buyers for a small screen narrative adaptation of the investigative show searching for the reclusive fitness guru.” Two things on this:

  • It’s yet another data point in the emerging trend that sees the podcast category as another IP pool for TV and film to trawl in for potential adaptations. (Though, it should be noted that real life — or very recent history — remains the IP pool du jour.)
  • Maybe I lack vision, but I can’t for the life of me see how the adaptation could possibly either (a) a good idea, given the myriad of ethical questions surrounding the podcast, or (b) effective or interesting in the same way, probably as a result of those ethical conundrums surrounding the podcast.

But then again, I am but a humble podcast bard, and not a wheelin’ dealin’ TV exec.

Tracking… Looks like CNN en Español recently rolled out a Spanish-language podcast slate, most of which are repackages of existing shows. There’s one original production in there, however: a culture show called Zona Pop. With this rollout, the company steps into a lane whose primary current occupant appears to be the Revolver Podcast network, which has built out a sizable Spanish-language podcast portfolio in addition to its work with music executive Jason Flom on the Wrongful Conviction podcast.

The Outline, daily. I suppose I should start looking for another way to describe the daily news podcast space in terms other than “heating up” — if only to avoid ledes defined by a cliche — but it does seem like the experimental genre is certainly growing more active by the week.
The latest of such experiments comes in the form of World Dispatch, a new daily morning podcast by the digital curiosity known as The Outline. John Lagomarsino, The Outline’s audio director, told me that show is meant to be the closest approximate representation of the publisher’s coverage in the audio format. Episodes are between 8 to 12 minutes, and segments will be a mix of stories that draw from material already on the site and stories produced specifically for the podcast. (“We’ll also be leaning on freelancers a fair amount for more reported-out, strictly audio stories — get at me!” he adds.)

I’m told that the show is the result of some internal experiments with social audio that didn’t go very far. (“Turns out audio still is not particularly shareable,” Lagomarsino quipped.) Those experiments eventually shifted to the social audio app Anchor when it re-launched back in March, and the team ultimately decided to move those efforts over to a daily podcast feed as a natural next step. The resulting podcast is an intriguing artifact: strange, compelling, but ultimately a little confusing — which, given the show’s explicitly conscious sense of style, is probably the point.

Lagomarsino notes that the podcast isn’t exactly meant to be newsy. “The podcast is for curious humans who are not looking for a news rundown that barely goes past headlines,” he said. “These are angled stories, often *about* news, but this is not for the listener who wants the ‘what I need to know today’ thing.” Hmm.

World Dispatch debuted yesterday, with new eps dropping Mondays to Thursdays.

Explainer ambition. In times of confusion, go back to the basics. That was, more or less, the thinking behind Civics 101, the explainer podcast by New Hampshire Public Radio that covers the fundamental institutions, mechanisms, and even concepts that make up the United States. That approach has proven to be pretty successful: Since launching on Inauguration Day, Civics 101 has clocked in about 1.88 million listens, with episodes averaging about 75,000 listens per month. (To be clear: that’s per episode per month, suggesting strong back catalog activity.)

The way Civics 101’s editorial director Maureen McMurray tells it, the podcast was the product of a completely organic process. The show came out of an ideas meeting for the station’s daily show, Word of Mouth, shortly after the elections. “Our producer, Logan Shannon, expressed frustration over the endless ‘hot take’ election coverage and said something along the lines of, ‘I don’t want any more analysis. I just want to go six steps back to find out how things work,'” McMurray said. What started out as a segment idea soon broadened out into an accompanying podcast experiment pegged to the first 100 days of the Trump administration. It was all pretty scrappy. “There were some clever titles thrown about, but I insisted on calling it Civics 101,” she said. “Logan made the logo, and we sent a trailer and pilot episode to iTunes.”

“In retrospect, I guess we just did it. There wasn’t a big meeting with executives or anything,” McMurray added.

As the weeks rolled on, the show steadily grew into its own. It consistently dived headfirst into wonky subjects (emoluments, the Office of Scheduling and Advance, gerrymandering) while remaining fundamentally accessible, and the podcast eventually adopted an appealing topical edge (calling your congressperson, impeachment, the nuclear codes) that nonetheless retains a broad, evergreen perspective. Almost three months in, Civics 101 has grown in depth and complexity. And, as I found in a recent email correspondence with McMurray, it has certainly grown in ambition. Here’s our chat:

[storybreak]

[conl]Hot Pod: How has the show evolved over the past four months?[/conl]

[conr]McMurray: Our editorial vision has shifted a lot, and continues to evolve. Civics 101 was intended to be a short-run series. We planned to drop one episode per week for the first 100 days of the Trump administration. In part, we thought “How many governmental agencies and cabinet positions do people really want to know about?”, but I was also concerned about resources. Our production team is responsible for producing a daily magazine program, Outside/In, the 10-Minute Writer’s Workshop podcast, and a series of live events, among other things.

After iTunes featured Civics 101 in its New and Noteworthy section, everything went to hell in a good way. Our audience numbers shot up and we started to receive unsolicited listener questions. We captured the moment, and began releasing two episodes per week, created a Civics 101 website where listeners could submit questions via Hearken, and started a Civics 101 hotline with Google. A lot of the questions coming in stemmed from current events. For example, when Steve Bannon was appointed to the National Security Council’s principals committee, there was an uptick in National Security Council-related questions. So, Civics 101 became newsier than I anticipated, but editorially, I wrestle with it. It’s easy to be seduced by the latest scandal, and to bump those questions to the top of the list, but I want Civics 101 to be a meaningful resource for future listeners. What’s timely today may sound dated in six months, and it will certainly sound dated by 2020. For the time being, we’re trying to balance the timely issues with the evergreen questions.

Oh, and a shout out to our producer, Logan Shannon, who created the Civics 101 weekly newsletter, Extra Credit. We’ve seen a lot of audience engagement around it, and it has quizzes and gifs.[/conr]

[conl]Hot Pod: Does NHPR have any future plans for Civics 101 — and for its podcast operations more generally?[/conl]

[conr]McMurray: Civics 101 will continue answering listener questions on a biweekly basis. New questions come in everyday, so there’s no shortage of content. Of course, we want to grow and monetize our podcast audience, and that’s where a distributor will come in handy. We’re planning to repackage the podcast content for different platforms. Specifically, we’d like to become a multimedia resource for educators, and hope to create and distribute supplemental materials to teachers and students. That includes anything from videos to lesson plans.

My real dream, though, is to farm Civics 101 out to other stations/production units in time for midterm elections. We cover the national stuff well, but member stations are in a unique position to tackle state and local politics. And, as our yet-to-be-created production guide will show, Civics 101 is a scalable, turnkey format, and a fairly easy lift for smaller teams. In 2018, I’d love to see Civics 101: Louisiana, Civics 101: Albany, Civics 101: Michigan. Heck, you could do Civics 101: Canada, Civics 101: Australia, Civics 101: Brazil. Of course, resources are the elephant in the room. We’re currently working out ways to resource this thing. So check back in with me.

As far as podcast operations go, Civics 101 and Outside/In have been great proofs of concept for NHPR, but weren’t part of a formal, top down strategy. Our first major podcast, Outside/In, was intended to be a weekly, one-hour broadcast. When the show was in development, we found ourselves gravitating to longer stories that involved original reporting, narrative arc, sound design, and (for lack of a better adjective) a “podcasty” tone. Long story short, we put those early experiments into a podcast feed and came to realize those 15-30 minute prototypes were what distinguished Outside/In from other environmental shows and, given the size of our team, producing an hour-long program with those elements would be impossible. At the same time, the Outside/In podcast was developing an audience. So, the question became: is the podcast the show? In a way, our failure to deliver a sustainable, one-hour broadcast model coupled with the success of Outside/In and Civics 101 forced NHPR to consider the value and potential of podcasts. It’s been a learning curve for everyone, from producers to the underwriting department to membership, but we’re starting to develop an infrastructure that supports and leverages podcast creation.

One more really important detail: in order to double down on Civics 101, we had to make an editorial decision to ease up on something. So, we’ve been strategically replaying interviews and stories on our daily magazine program, Fresh Air-Friday style. There are some upcoming changes that will ease our production load, but for the time being, it’s a quick fix.[/conr]

[storybreak]

Bites:

  • Reminder: Edison Research’s Podcast Consumer 2017 report comes out later today. (Edison)
  • The Webby Awards has a pretty broad and interesting set of podcast and digital audio nominations this year. Check it out. (Website)
  • Audible has apparently taken over the billboards at the Rockefeller Center subway stop in New York to promote its original show, Sincerely X, which debuted back in February. (Pictures) Speaking of Audible, it looks like the company has been building another content strategy: creating original programming out of existing IP. (Rolling Stone).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A trailer for the show can be heard here.

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

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

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

Can you tell me about the history of Podmass?

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

What kind of work goes into producing the column?

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

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

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

How has Podmass performed?

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

What happens to Podmass now?

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

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

Bites:

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

Happy America, every one. Godspeed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Bugle is Radiotopia’s sixteenth show.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bites:

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

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