The New Independents of Los Angeles?

Here’s a refrain I’ve encountered with some regularity: “New York is the heart of the podcast industry.” I’ve been hearing this for years, and I continue to hear it, still, from producers, podcast execs, would-be producers, would-be execs, and even New York City itself. Sure, it’s almost certainly true, given that it’s the home to many of the big companies we tend to talk about here in the newsletter along with a staggering proportion of working freelancers.

One should begin to properly contest the claim, however, and declare sonorously that Los Angeles is increasingly giving the empire city a run for its money. Long the heart of the comedy podcast world (and the birthplace of Earwolf and Midroll Media, pre-merger), the mega-city of Southern California has been rapidly expanding its influence over the industry for a good while now. The bulk of this, of course, comes from the rising involvement of the big talent agencies, which have been steadily reshaping how things typically get done around here, or so I’ve been told. But some attention should also be paid to the entrepreneurial layer of the Los Angeles scene, which is beginning to feature some pretty interesting activity.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been looking at four Los Angeles podcast ventures that strike me as expressions of a trend. All four ventures are independent studios — in the vein of the eastern Transmitter and Pineapple Street — that were founded within the past year or so based on roughly the same impulses. As a collective, they represent a new generation of teams capitalizing on opportunities and taking their fortunes into their own hands.

Jonathan Hirsch’s Neon Hum (link) is one such shop. Hirsch, who made Dear Franklin Jones for Stitcher last year and was once part of The Heard collective, started the company in April after noticing a pattern during his time independently producing shows for several media companies. “I noticed that I was being asked to ‘staff up’ with increasing regularity,” he said. “After a while I began to think it’s make more sense, at least practically, to start a production company.”

According to Hirsch, Los Angeles is home to a vibrant podcast scene that’s been quietly evolving beyond comedy and celebrity-driven fare. That scene has translated into a solid client list for Neon Hum. By the end of this year, the studio would have produced 14 shows for its partner base, which includes Wondery, with whom they worked on Dr. Death; The Ringer, producing the site’s first narrative podcast, Halloween Unmasked; as well as Nike and Uninterrupted Media on a popup podcast pegged to the 30th anniversary on the former’s Just Do It campaign. The studio is also handling production for Rachel Maddow’s new Spiro Agnew documentary series, Bag Man, and the Los Angeles Times’ two nonfiction narrative projects following up Dirty John.

“It seems to me that, as the audience and interest in podcasting continues to grow, there is a need for shops like ours: nimble and experienced storytellers supporting the creative interests of a variety of clients,” Hirsch said.

Ben Adair is a journalist who has done work for WNYC, Wondery, and the Center for Investigative Reporting, with which he helped create Reveal. Adair founded Western Sound (link) earlier this year as a response to frustrations he felt working as a solo producer-for-hire. “Working as a freelancer, I was lonely and often thrown in with teams that were not optimal, [and] being part of a network, you don’t own your stuff.” Adair said. “The main reason I started Western Sound was to create a team that I believe in and then make stories that are awesome and, potentially, have additional value as intellectual property.”

While happy with his new venture, Adair suspects the independent studio model is not for everybody. “The bummer part of having a company is that the business deals get much more complicated when you’re fighting for yourself and for your work as opposed to signing work for hire contacts or just letting others own your IP,” said Adair. “But for me, it’s worth it, especially as I build something I can believe in.”

Adair built Western Sounds with a familiar dual-business model in mind. On the one hand, the studio produces shows for clients, and on the other, it seeks to build its own original programming. The client list includes Stitcher, ESPN, and Hulu, and most of the projects in development are scheduled for release next year. There’s also some expectation of revenue from renting out their production studio, which is currently in its final phase of construction.

Also with a studio for rent: Little Everywhere (link). “Guests have said it’s so cozy they want to move in, and we’re pretty proud of that,” founders Jane Marie and Dana Gallucci told me over email. Alums of This American Life and Bullseye with Jesse Thorn respectively, the duo started the company after observing the lack of production houses with explicit podcast expertise operating in the city.

At the moment, Little Everywhere is perhaps most known for producing The Dream, an investigative documentary on multi-level marketing schemes, and An Oral History of the 1993 Tappan Jr. High School Talent Show, a scripted mockumentary, both published by Stitcher. But their full client list runs the on-demand audio gamut, with contracts from NPR, KCRW, Earwolf, Audible, and HarperCollins.

“For us, right now, being an independent production house gives us the flexibility of a freelancer with the resources of a network,” Marie and Gallucci noted. “Because we aren’t answering to anyone but ourselves, we can be selective about the projects we take on. But we also have a professional studio and partner with networks that offer us support (marketing, PR, distribution, etc.) we wouldn’t otherwise have as a small operation. At the moment, this feels like the best of both worlds.”

Rachael King’s Pod People (link) also seeks to combine two worlds, but of another kind. The venture fashions itself as a “hybrid production company and talent agency,” a mix tailor made for Hollywood. King, who previously ran her own boutique communications firm in the city, started Pod People after noticing an increase of inquiries from clients to help them start their own podcast initiatives.

“I’ve been a podcast fanatic for years so I loved the idea, and at first, I was just going to add podcast production as one of our services and then find some great producers/editors to work with,” King told me. “But when I looked around, I realized there was a larger business opportunity. There are so many talented freelancers looking for clients and projects, and so many companies who are now interested in podcasts — but they have no good way of finding each other.”

The way it works is the way it sounds, more or less: in addition to producing shows for clients, the company also facilitates a marketplace that connects various audio production operatives (producers, hosts, editors, sound designers, and so on) with potential projects that could be a good fit for them. “The client pays a consulting fee for us to help figure out the high-level show format/budget, and then a finders’ fee to match them with the perfect team to make it,” King explained. “It also works the other way — with this talented roster of audio producers, we’ve started packaging their show ideas and pitching them out to brands and networks.” She notes that, since launching in January, the company has drawn in almost 300 freelancers into its roster, and the production side has a client list that includes Medium, Samsung NEXT, Twitter, Brit+Co, and L’Oreal.

In an email to me, King also discussed another element to the opportunity she’s been prospecting: the need for a middle ground. In other words, something to meet a situation where clients have the money to spend, but “can’t afford the Pacific Contents and Gimlet Creatives of the world.” She added: “We appeal to companies who want to dip a toe in the podcast pond, but aren’t ready to spend hundreds of thousands to do it.”

Coastal Differences

Something that I’m generally curious about are the differences of running a podcast venture in Los Angeles as compared to New York. How does the Hollywood industrial-complex affect prospects and creative life at these independent studios? How do these studio proprietors view those differences themselves?

Jonathan Hirsch:

I used to live in New York, and I was very concerned with how my future life in audio would look across the country from the center of the action… but I continue to be surprised. LA has a very strong and vibrant audio community, with many of us out here quietly making a big impact on what people listen to nationally.

For sure the entertainment industry impacts the kinds of projects that are being made, although I wouldn’t say it dominates the work that we do. This is all anecdotal, of course, but I find producers and EP’s out here less concerned with what the more established outlets are doing in New York. This isn’t to suggest that producers here aren’t focused on national issues, quite the contrary. I just think the bullhorn of New York media is more like a distant echo out here.

Rachael King:

I grew up on the east coast and I’m in New York every other month or so, and my impression that NYC is really radio/journalism-heavy, whereas audio folks in LA come from all walks of life — radio and journalism, of course, but also from film production, creative writing, even sound designers or music composers who cross over to audio from the visual world, all of which I think gives us a massive advantage in terms of pulling different perspectives and voices into the medium.

LA has creativity in spades, and we’re never afraid to get a group of talented people together to try something new. I think the industry is starting to see the idea of what a podcast can be open up, and that LA will probably lead the way in terms of creativity (certainly with fiction/scripted, but beyond that too, I hope). That said, I do kind of hate this new trend of podcast to TV/film, and I hope that dies off quickly… otherwise LA will certainly be the home of it.

Ben Adair:

The LA scene is much different than in New York. Today, the entertainment industry is trying to figure out how to make it part of what they do, so, in an extremely short time, it’s evolved from a very grassroots, DIY scene to something with lots of agents, layers, and celebrities involved.

It’s all very strange for someone like me with public radio roots, but I suppose that’s the LA dream. Or something.

Or something, indeed!

Speaking of Hollywood: the television adaptation of Gimlet Media’s Homecoming debuts this Friday. There’s been a ton of press about the show, and with it, a bunch of revived takes on the podcast-to-television trend, but here’s the angle I’d pursue: Will this be the first adaptation that’s actually really good? I’m a huge Sam Esmail fan, so my money’s on a strong “probably.”

And while we’re still here, a quick shout-out to Welcome to LA, which remains one of my favorite listens all year.

The Ringer dives into narrative podcasts with Halloween: Unmasked

After building out an impressive podcast network chiefly comprised of conversational programming, The Ringer is now trying its hand at narrative audio storytelling. Next Monday, the Bill Simmons-founded digital media company will launch Halloween: Unmasked, a serialized podcast documentary that will dig deep into the making, phenomenon, and legacy of John Carpenter’s legendary 1978 horror film, Halloween. Amy Nicholson, the film critic and podcaster (The Canon and Unspooled, both with Earwolf), will host the series, which is set to play out across eight episodes. And since there’s a new Halloween movie around the corner — also titled, conveniently, Halloween — the podcast will also feature a preview of the upcoming film, giving the project a nice timely peg.

“We knew that we needed to challenge ourselves a little bit to evolve some of the podcast stuff we’ve been doing,” said Sean Fennessey, The Ringer’s chief content officer. “We’ve obviously had some success with the conversational, news-driven, enthusiastic-obsession formats, which we love doing and will keep doing them hopefully in perpetuity. We just wanted a new stripe, a new flavor.”

The Ringer’s push into narrative audio had its fits and starts. I’m told that the company had, in fact, explored the possibility of produced a serialized podcast as far back as 2016. Back then, they pursued an idea for a NBA documentary podcast that didn’t end up coming together — they couldn’t get enough principals, they couldn’t crack the story — and later on, when they began to explore the prospect of building a narrative podcast around a film, they encountered similar development hurdles.

“I wanted to do this with a different movie franchise and it fell through (not because of us),” Simmons wrote in a statement. “We were incredibly disappointed. Then Sean had the idea to try Halloween, so I called Jason Blum” — the Blumhouse Productions founder who is producing the upcoming film, and who guested on Simmons’ podcast last October — “and pitched it to him. We needed help getting key people like John Carpenter and Jamie Lee Curtis or else it couldn’t have worked. And Jason is an awesome guy who loves movies — he wanted to listen to this podcast as much as we did. So he promised to help and we were off.”

To produce the series, The Ringer turned to Neon Hum Media, an Los Angeles-based boutique podcast production company founded by Jonathan Hirsch, the creator of Arrvls and, more recently, Stitcher’s Dear Franklin Jones. As for the choice to bring Nicholson in to host the doc: “She was kind of the perfect person for this,” Fennessey said. “I knew she’d written about horror, and she’s also a really good reporter, which is important because there are strong aspects of creative reportage that goes into a show like this… We’re trying to explore something in-depth and get to the bottom of why something became as powerful or resonant as it did.”

The hope is to create a multi-discipline podcast: part traditional making-of documentary, part critical analysis, part historical narrative. Fennessey was reluctant to cite any sources of inspiration that serve as direct models for Halloween: Unmasked — he didn’t work on the day-to-day of the podcast, so he doesn’t want to speak for the producers — but he did point to one potent frame of reference: “One show we did talk a little about, which I think is very different in execution but we have a ton of admiration for, is Karina Longworth’s You Must Remember This,” he said, referring to the popular Hollywood history podcast that blends together deep research, analysis, and performance.

Thinking, again, about the recent developments in the podcast industry, I asked Fennessey about the state of podcasts at The Ringer. The network, I’m told, is profitable. “We feel really lucky that the strategy we’ve deployed has worked so far,” he said. “We’ve been really fortunate to land on a couple of really successful shows, and we feel good about the audiences for even our modestly-sized shows. We just want to keep growing.”

With the addition of Halloween: Unmasked, the Ringer Podcast Network will now contain 27 shows that, according to The Hollywood Reporter, collectively brings in more than 32 million downloads a month. That scale appears to be a direct consequence of a fluidity that the company imbues into its podcast operations: at The Ringer, they tend to execute and test on new show ideas really quickly. That fluidity, I’m told, is largely representative of the culture that Simmons has built. “He always pushing us to try new stuff,” Fennessey said. “He’s not afraid to say, ‘I know we’re still piloting this, but I think it’s good enough to put out into the world,’ and if it doesn’t work, that’s okay, it’s not the end of the world.”

Audible, “The Show,” and the Reality of Omni-Directional Trouble

This week, I’m trying something a little different. I’m working to think through and unpack a number of things, including last week’s developments at Audible and Tom Webster’s Growth Manifesto for Podcasting, that I believe speak to each other in interesting ways. The end product is a really long piece — almost 3000 words — and I’ll be frank: I’m not sure it’s completely successful. I don’t have a hard conclusion, but I do have a couple of ideas, insights, and arguments that I’d like to explore and get across. Hopefully, that’s helpful enough for you.

We begin by beginning elsewhere.

I.

Not too long ago, The Ringer, in an emulation of classic magazine form, published one of those massive editorial packages that’s meant to turn heads and paper over conversational lulls for weeks to come: “The 100 Best TV Episodes of the Century.”

Ranking all of television since the turn of the millenium is a ludicrous exercise, of course, for all the reasons that end-of-year “Best Of” lists are ludicrous and arbitrary and subjective and shamefully tethered to the limits of the human individuals composing it. (Sorry for my own contribution to the plague of “Best of” listicles. Also, not sorry at all.)

But The Ringer’s version of exercise also felt utterly refreshing, primarily for the broader enterprise it seemed more interested in carrying out. Aside from actually producing a List and using it to make bold statements — Lost’s “The Constant” swiping the number one spot feels both bizarre… and oh so right — the package was fundamentally about The Process of making the List, which ultimately functioned as a platform to publicly think through what we talk about when we talk about television. Through a series of accompanying posts and podcast episodes, the real delight of the package lay in the meta-discussion that engaged in the search for a common value system that unites a sprawling universe of televisual stuff in the age of Too Much Television: a way to think and talk about the medium that links the sometimes disparate experiences of watching Mad Men, HGTV, and Futurama.

The distinct insight of The List lies in its voracious inclusiveness. It is creatively omnivorous, pitting prestige dramas against talk shows against reality TV against cartoons. It is also structurally omnivorous, pitting linear network television against linear premium cable against various streaming platforms. In mixing different tele-visual cuisines in the same menu, The Ringer’s 100 Best TV Episodes of the Century package underscored two things that feel so obvious as to be easily forgotten: firstly, that all programming providers — from CBS to AMC to PBS to Netflix to Hulu to YouTube Red — compete in the same pool, and secondly, that for audiences, it’s all television, it’s all part of the same conversation.

You can see where I’m going with this.

II.

Earlier this month, SVP of Edison Research and Infinite Dial co-pitchman Tom Webster published a Medium post adapting a keynote he gave at the recent Podcast Movement conference, and as a unit of discourse, it sought to provoke. You should read the 4000~ word piece if you haven’t already, but for those short on time I wrote a quick summary that you can find here. For our purposes today, and at the risk of sanding down the nuances of his argument, I’m going to narrow that summary down even further to just one of several big ideas embedded in the Webster’s post: the fact that exists a lot of people have heard about podcasting but don’t seem to be adequately incentivized to check it out. To Webster, this is a very worrying situation.

This idea is best expressed in this chunk of his post:

The issue isn’t that there are too many  —  the issue is that there isn’t one. Here’s the simple truth  —  Just as it was for HBO, Netflix, Hulu, and any other form of new, online media, the on ramp is the show. And while we need to make listening to the show simpler  —  we also need a SHOW. When people say that “Podcasts just aren’t for them” or that there aren’t topics that they are interested it  —  maybe we should take them at their word? They need a show  —  just one show  —  and we either haven’t led them to it yet, or maybe…just maybe…we haven’t made it yet.

… and this chunk:

There were once was a time when plenty of people didn’t think they had a Netflix app, didn’t know they needed one, and weren’t sure how to watch it without getting discs emailed in those red envelopes. So what did Netflix do? They didn’t spend a bunch of money on a “Got Netflix?” campaign. They spent a lot of money on Orange is the New Black, and House of Cards. What gets people to discover Netflix is curiosity, and what drives curiosity is the show. The killer show.

“The Show” — it’s a great construct. The Show, whose innate draw simplifies, supersedes, or even renders irrelevant the context from which it came. The One Show To Rule Them All. As I noted in last week’s column: technology and gaming enthusiasts can broadly equate this argument with the notion of “killer apps” that move new devices and consoles. In that case, you could boil the sell down to this: you’re going to want this app, and in order to get it you’re going to have to buy into this other, weird, complicated thing. The underlying point remains consistent across those examples: the major barrier to a thing’s adoption is its potential status as a mere curiosity — something you would probably like if only you were the kind of person who likes that kind of stuff. It applies, equally, to podcasting as it does to, say, public radio in its earliest days. (Or even today.)

The solution, as I interpret it from Webster’s post, is to engineer a identity shift away from being a technological curiosity, a niche. And a good chunk of that involves articulating podcasting’s offerings in a way that makes sense within the context of everyday non-podcast literate folks; in part by evoking facsimiles of the things they are already comfortable with — in this case, that facsimile is the product itself, The Show — and in part by aligning the podcast ecosystem’s narrative, as a whole, beneath the banner of one such Show.

There are several possible counter-arguments to deploy here:

  • One could argue, say, that the idea of corralling the marketing identity of the podcast ecosystem behind a single Show is somewhat antithetical to the medium’s open publishing ideal and, in any case, it’s maybe insurmountably hard to fold the narrative of a sprawling and decentralized universe of creation under a single banner.
  • One could also argue, perhaps, that some reference points cited in Webster’s post aren’t natural sources of blueprints for podcasting. Netflix, for example, could rally its narrative behind House of Cards because the streaming service is a closed and tightly-controlled environment whose identity is managed by a singular decision-making executive entity. No such equivalent of an executive body exists for podcasting… nor would that necessarily be a good idea.
  • Finally, one could possibly further argue that there already exists several equivalents of The Show for different kinds of people: This American Life, Serial, Welcome to Night Vale, Pod Save America, WTF with Marc Maron, Bodega Boys, The Bill Simmons Podcast, The Daily, Fresh Air, and so on.

I have time for some of these counter-arguments; others, less so. But none necessarily disputes Webster’s core point: in my reading it, the most important idea he extends is the need for a subtle, but important, shift in emphasis. What should be foregrounded is not the technology, it’s the people. Or more to the point: it’s not the Means of Production, it’s the Product.

That shift in emphasis should open up what we talk about when we talk about podcasting — and, more to the point, the context within which it competes.

III.

It’s been a week since I expanded on NPR’s newscast about the big shakeup at Audible, which saw the audiobook giant eliminate a number of roles within its original programming unit. As a reminder, the role eliminations officially spanned several teams across the unit, but it seemed to have especially struck the team responsible for shorter-form podcast-style programming.

There have been a few updates to that storyline, some of which I’ve already flagged in last Friday’s Insider:

  • On Tuesday, shortly after the newsletter went out, an Audible spokesperson confirmed that The Butterfly Effect with Jon Ronson and Where Should We Begin? with Esther Perel had seasons already in production and that they would, indeed, be released over the Audible platform in the fall. This was in response to a question I raised in this week’s column: “What happens to all the podcast-style Audible Original programs that are still ongoing?”
  • On Thursday, Broadcast, a British weekly magazine covering the radio industry, published an article with the headline: “Amazon’s Audible Plans Podcast Push.” The piece called Audible “Amazon’s audiobook and podcasting arm,” and noted that Kent DePinto, the Director of Content at Audible UK, has “set out her commissioning strategy for the first time, revealing plans to double down on intimate shows such as Where Should We Begin?, which features recordings of couples undergoing counselling with Belgian therapist Esther Perel.” Later in the article, Ronson’s show was also name-checked. “DePinto highlighted Jon Ronson’s porn-inspired seven-parter The Butterfly Effect as an example of the type of podcast that ‘blends creative thinking with data-driven insights,’” the piece wrote.

So, what do we take from this? What, exactly, has become of Audible’s shorter-form podcast-style original programming? And what on earth is up with this business with the UK team?

I sent an inquiry over to Audible, asking whether the “podcast push” was limited to the United Kingdom. “No, it is not limited to the UK,” a spokesperson replied. “We launched a significant podcast program in Germany in the fall that continues to get a lot of attention. In the US, our content focus for Audible originals includes our theater initiative, narrative storytelling ‘written to the form’ (a la Michael Lewis) in addition to short-form programming… shortly we have a big announcement about our fall theater slate.”

A team phased out, and yet a nomenclature retained. I’ll say it: I’m confused as to how Audible’s executive leadership views the internal composition of its original programming unit, but I suspect there may well be a gap between the language being used in the public and the language being used inside. In any case, that’s slightly besides the point now, as I find myself more stuck on the bigger question: how does this restructure — which all but phases out podcast-style content development from the original programming unit within Audible’s Newark headquarters — change the company’s position in the broader audio universe and its relationship with podcasting?

As I’ve written previously, Audible’s original programming machinations have long been a horizontal concern for the podcast industry. When the company first leaned into podcast-style programming, it did so by making a pointed statement: hiring a former NPR executive, Eric Nuzum, to lead the initiative, which ended up building a show portfolio that seemed designed to directly compete with the entire podcast universe. Audible being a closed circuit and all, we’ll probably never truly know what kind of listening numbers those shows are doing, but for what it’s worth, a few of them — like Where Should We Begin?, The Butterfly Effect, and West Cork — have attained some critical acclaim, in case that’s relevant to your estimation of the portfolio’s overall performance.

Now that Nuzum’s team has been phased out, does Audible cease to be a horizontal concern for podcasting? The answer, of course, is no.

Audible is the monopolistic force in audiobooks, and its competitive landscape has long ceased to be limited to other audiobook providers. Today, the platform is best viewed as being up against a full multiverse of Stuff For Your Ears To Enjoyably Pass The Time and tightly situated in digital audio landscape that pits Audible against terrestrial talk radio against public radio against music in all its distributional forms. It’s all audio, right?

What Podcasting brought to this landscape was the introduction of a theoretically infinite horizon of potential competition. Between its relatively low barriers to entry and the sheer abundance of possible podcasting participants that range from basement-amateurs to fully-matured public radio operations to talented experimentalists, the open publishing medium, in theory, vastly complicates the choice matrix for a listener who may have previously defaulted to Audible, Spotify, or just given up and flicked on radio. But as we’ve just discussed in the previous section, podcasting’s category-level advantage has been largely blunted by problems affiliated with non-streamlined onramps: a lack of what Webster calls “The Show,” plus the pervading cage of being perpetually identified as a curiosity meant for other people. (Not to mention all the other fundamental issues it’s grappling with: ensuring that its advertising economy matures, slowly enforcing a trustworthy system of measurements and metric accountability, keeping the lights on, and so on.)

What Audible brings to the party was the fact that its product is, frankly speaking, a derivative, at least initially. Of course, there’s real skill, art, and taste involved in crafting a great audiobook experience — I ride for Jim Dale’s Harry Potter reads — but it’s worth noting that an audiobook company doesn’t initially participate in the difficult business of figuring out how to source, seed, and develop a line of hits or bankable products from scratch. Instead, it leans on the book publishing industry along with its aggregate marketing efforts to run through that wall first. To put it in absurdly reductive terms, Audible was instead in the business of creating the best technical experience that audiobook consumption can be. This isn’t to belittle the achievement, of course. It’s just a different kind of fight, and it also happens to be one that naturally gives the company an orthogonal advantage to everyone else in the audio category.

Perhaps it was always going to be the case that Audible would expand vertically into original audio programming. When the world is fully conquered, where else does one look but to the stars? The question, of course, is how it would do that, and through what advantage?

The company’s gambit with Nuzum and the Direct Podcasting Parallel was always interesting to me for the way it opened up what we could talk about when we talk about Audible. Being an audiobook company inherently pegs your outer limits to the outer limits of the book publishing industry: its talent pool, its infrastructure, its consumer cultures. But by building inroads into the horizontally-located culture of narrative radio, by hiring a person from that world who then brings in creative people just like him into the mix, Audible potentially opened itself up to a whole new set of outer limits. What if Audible wasn’t just the dominant force in audiobooks, but also the dominant force in narrative radio? What if Amazon didn’t just sell books, but also toiletries?

That particular version of the future has been dimmed out, at least for now, given the phasing out of Nuzum’s team and the exporting of their responsibilities to the UK branch. But it seems that Audible has a new tip of the spear as far as its original programming strategy is concerned: doubling down on its long-cultivated book publishing relationships to strike audiobook-only exclusives with known authors, embodied by Michael Lewis’ The Coming Storm and the recently announced audiobook-only Harry Potter project narrated by the actress Natalie Dormer. Again, as in previous weeks, I refer you to this New York Times write-up as a primer on the new strategy, though I would like to additionally highlight this eyebrow-raising line: “[Michael Lewis’] audio originals may be adapted and expanded into print, but Audible will have exclusive rights for several months.”

That business with the rights… it’s eyebrow-raising stuff, I think. For what it’s worth, I really liked The Coming Storm, but as I mentioned in a review for Vulture, I didn’t quite see why it had be an audiobook-only project. There was no interview tape, no archival material, no deployment of music diegetic to the experience that actually used the medium or warrant its immediate lack of a print version. At the end of the day, it felt like a strategy premised on artificial scarcity. (Personally, I find all the theater stuff… a lot more interesting.)

Will that lack of medium-utilization matter to Audible? It depends. Will it matter to current and potential Audible customers, who continue to be flooded with an increasing horizon of audio alternatives? (It’s all audio, it’s all part of the same conversation.) We shall see, but for now, despite the audiobook giant’s reshuffling of its outer limits, it remains in an advantageous position. As podcasting looks for The Show, as broadcast radio squeezes cents out all the reach it has, as the music industry reorganizes its power structure, Audible marches on.

Phew, we’ve apparently solved 97% of the podcast measurement problem — everybody relax

MEASUREMENT BITE. Been a while since we’ve checked back into what is arguably the most important subject in the podcast business. Let’s fix that, shall we?

“The good news for podcasters and buyers is measurement challenges are 97 percent solved,” Midroll Media CRO Lex Friedman said on a podcast panel at the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) Show last week. “What we can report now is more specific than we could before.” You can find the quote in this Inside Radio writeup on the panel.

Be that as it may, there’s still some work left to be done. I reached out to Friedman for his perspective on what constitutes the remaining 3 percent of the challenges left to be solved, and here’s his response (pardon the customary Midroll spin):

In TV today, advertisers would struggle if NBC used Nielsen ratings, and ABC used Nielsen but with a different methodology, and CBS used some other company’s measurement technology.

Today in podcasting, the measurement problem is solved; the remaining 3 percent is getting everyone standardized. It doesn’t happen often, but every once in a while, Midroll loses a show to a competitor. When we sell a show at 450,000 downloads, and the next day the same show and same feed is being sold at 700,000 downloads, that’s a problem.

The IAB’s recommended a 24-hour measurement window, while some folks still advocate for 60 minutes or two hours, and too many vendors continue to sell at 5 minutes, which we universally know is way too liberal a count. That’s unfair and confusing to advertisers, and that’s the piece that needs fixing.

That’s no small 3 percent, in my opinion.

Anyway, if you’re new to the podcast measurement problem, my column from February 2016 — back when a group of public radio stations published a set of guidelines on the best way for podcast companies to measure listenership — still holds up as a solid primer on the topic, if I do say so myself.

Fool’s gold? Something else to note from Inside Radio’s article on the NAB panel: a strong indication, delivered by Triton Digital president of market development John Rosso, that there is increasing demand for programmatic podcast advertising.

Programmatic advertising is a system by which ads are automatically bought and sold through algorithmic processes. In other words, it’s a monetization environment where the facilitation of advertising value exchange is automated away from human interaction. The principal upside that comes with programmatic advertising is efficiency: As an advertiser, you theoretically don’t have to spend a lot of time identifying, contacting, and executing buys, and as a publisher, you theoretically don’t have to spend a lot of time doing those things in the opposite direction. In theory, both sides don’t have to do much more work for a lot more money. But the principal downside is the ensuing experience on listener-side, and all the ramifications that fall from a slide in said experience: Because these transactions are machine-automated, there’s no human consideration governing the aesthetic intentionality of an advertising experience paired with the specific contexts of a given podcast.

Combine this with the core assumptions of what makes podcasting uniquely valuable as a media product — that it engenders deeper experiences of intimacy between creator and listener, that its strength is built on the cultivated simulacra of personal trust between the two parties, that any podcast advertising spot is a heavy act of value extraction from the relationship developed between the two sides — and you have a situation where a digital advertising technology is being considered for a medium to which its value propositions are diametrically opposed.

The underlying problem, put simply: Can you artificially scale up podcasting’s advertising supply without compromising its underlying value proposition? To phrase the problem in another direction: Can you develop a new advertising product that’s able to correspondingly scale up intimacy, trust, and relationship-depth between podcast creator and consumer?

The answer for both things may well be no, and that perhaps the move shouldn’t be to prescribe square pegs for round holes. Or maybe the response we’ll see will sound more like “the way we’re doing things isn’t sustainable, we’re going to have to make more money somehow” with the end result being an identity-collapsing shift in the defining characteristics of this fledgling medium. In which case: Bummer, dude.

Binge-Drop Murphies. Gimlet announced its spring slate last week, and two out of three of them, the audio drama Sandra and the Lynn Levy special The Habitat, will be released in their entirety tomorrow. When asked about the choice to go with the binge-drop, Gimlet president Matt Lieber tells me:

We decided to binge both The Habitat and Sandra because we felt that they were both so engrossing and engaging, so we wanted to give the listener the decision to either power through all the episodes, or sample and consume at their own pace. Sandra is our second scripted fiction series and we know from our first, Homecoming, that a lot of people chose to binge the series after it was out in full. With The Habitat, it’s such a unique and immersive miniseries, and we wanted to give listeners the chance to get lost in the world by listening all at once.

Grab your space suits, fellas.

The beautiful game. The third show in Gimlet’s spring bundle is We Came To Win, the company’s first sports show, which promises to deliver stories on the most memorable soccer matches in history. The press release appears to be playing up the universal angle of the sport: “Soccer is a sport that is about so much more than goals. It’s about continents, countries, characters, and the relationships between them.” (I mean, yeah.)

In an interesting bit of mind-meld, Gimlet’s first foray into sports mirrors WNYC Studios’ own maiden voyage into the world of physical human competition. Sometime this spring, the New York public radio station will roll out its own World Cup-timed narrative podcast, a collaboration with Men in Blazers’ Roger Bennett that will look the U.S. Men’s National Soccer Team’s journey from its triumphant 1994 World cup appearance to its doomed 1998 campaign. (Yikes.)

Public radio genes run deep.

Peabody nominations. The 2017 nominations were announced last week, and interestingly enough, six out of the eight entries in the Radio/Podcast category are either podcast-only or podcast-first. The nominees are: Radiotopia’s Ear Hustle, Minnesota Public Radio’s 74 Seconds, Serial Productions’ S-Town, the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University’s Scene on Radio: Seeing White, Gimlet’s Uncivil, and Louisville Public Media/Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting’s “The Pope’s Long Con.

Notes on The Pope’s Long Con. It was an unbelievable story with unthinkable consequences. Produced by the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting (KyCIR) and Louisville Public Media, The Pope’s Long Con was the product of a seven-month long investigation into Dan Johnson, a controversial bishop-turned-Kentucky state representative shrouded in corruption, deceit, and an allegation of sexual assault. KyCIR’s feature went live on December 11, bringing Johnson’s story — and the allegations against him — into the spotlight. The impact was explosive, leading to immediate calls for Johnson to resign. He denied the allegations at a press conference. Two days later, Johnson committed suicide.

It was “any journalist’s nightmare,” as KyCIR’s managing editor Brendan McCarthy told CJR in an article about how the newsroom grappled with the aftermath of its reporting. (Which, by the way, you should absolutely read.)

In light of those circumstances, the podcast’s Peabody nomination feels especially well-deserved. It’s also a remarkable achievement for a public radio station relatively new to podcasting. “The Pope’s Long Con was the first heavy-lift podcast Louisville Public Media had undertaken,” Sean Cannon, a senior digital strategist at the organization and creative director of the podcast, tells me. “It didn’t start out as one though…Audio was planned, but it was a secondary concern. Once we realized the scope and gravity of it all, we knew everything had to be built around the podcast.”

When I asked Cannon how he feels about the nomination, he replied:

Given the situation surrounding the story, it’s still a confusing mix of emotions to see The Pope’s Long Con reach the heights it has. That said, we’re all immensely proud of the work we did. It’s necessary to hold our elected officials accountable.

In the context of the podcast industry, it taught me a lesson that can be easy to forget. I was worried the hierarchy of publishers had become too calcified, rendering it almost impossible for anyone below the top rungs to make serious waves — without a thick wallet, anyway. It’s a topic that comes up regularly in Hot Pod.

While the industry will never purely be a meritocracy, The Pope’s Long Con shattered that perception. It served as a reminder of something that gets glossed over when you’re caught up in the business of it all: If you can create compelling audio, that trumps everything else.

Tip of the hat, Louisville.

Crooked Media expands into film. According to The Hollywood Reporter, the media (political activism?) company will be co-producing a new feature documentary on Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke’s bid to unseat Senator Ted Cruz in the upcoming midterm elections. This extends on Crooked Media’s previous adventures in video, which already involve a series of HBO specials to be taped across the country amidst the run-up to midterms.

A quick nod to Pod Save America’s roots as The Ringer’s Keepin’ It 1600 here: Crooked Media will likely crib from the playbook The Ringer built around the recent Andre the Giant HBO documentary, which was executive produced by Ringer CEO Bill Simmons, where the latter project received copious promotion through The Ringer website and podcast network. What’s especially interesting about that whole situation is the way it is essentially a wholesale execution of what I took as the principal ideas from the analyst Ben Thompson’s 2015 post “Grantland and the (Surprising) Future of Publishing.”

I’m not sure if I’d personally watch a Beto O’Rourke doc — the dude has been a particularly vibrant entry into the “blue hope in red country” political media subgenre for a long while now, and I’m tapping out — but Pod Save America listeners most definitely would.

Empire on Blood. My latest for Vulture is a review of the new seven-part Panoply podcast, which I thought was interesting enough as a pulpy doc but deeply frustrating in how the show handles its power and positioning. It’s a weird situation: I really liked host Steve Fishman’s writing, and I really liked the tape gathered, but the two things really shouldn’t have been paired up this way.

The state of true crime podcasts. You know you’re neck-deep in something when you can throw out random words and land close to an actual example of that something: White Wine True Crime, Wine & Crime, Up & Vanished, The Vanished, Real Crime Profile, True Crime Garage, Crimetown, Small Town Murders, and so on. (This is a general observation that goes well beyond true crime pods. Cryptocurrencies: Sumokoin, Dogecoin, PotCoin. Food startups: Plated, Pantry, PlateIQ. Names: Kevin.)

Anyway, I’ve said it once, and I’ll say it again: True crime is the bloody, bleeding heart of podcasting, a genre that’s proliferating with a velocity so tremendous it could power a dying sun. And in my view, true crime podcasts are also a solid microcosm of the podcast universe as a whole: What happens there, happens everywhere.

When it comes to thinking about true crime podcasts, there are few people whose opinions I trust more than crime author, podcaster, and New Hampshire Public Radio digital director Rebecca Lavoie. As the cohost of the indispensable weekly conversational podcast Crime Writers On… — which began life as Crime Writers On Serial, a companion piece to the breakout 2014 podcast phenomenon — Lavoie consumes and thinks a lot about true crime and true crime podcasts specifically.

I touched base with Lavoie recently to get the latest on what’s been going on in her neck of the woods:

[storybreak]

[conl]Hot Pod: In your view, how has the true crime podcast genre evolved over the past four years or so?[/conl]

[conr]Rebecca Lavoie: It’s evolved in a few directions — some great, some…not so much.

On the one hand (and most wonderfully), we have journalism and media outlets who would never have touched the true crime genre a few years ago making true crime podcasts based on the tenets of great reporting and production. And when it comes to the “never would have touched it” part, I know what I’m talking about. Long before I was a podcaster, I was the coauthor of several mass-market true crime books while also working on a public radio show. Until Criminal was released and enjoyed some success, public radio and true crime never crossed streams, to an extent where I would literally avoid discussing my true crime reporting at work — it was looked down upon, frankly.

Today, though, that kind of journalistic snobbery is almost non-existent, and podcasts (especially Criminal and Serial) can claim 100 percent responsibility for that. Shows that exist today as a result of this change include Accused from the Cincinnati Enquirer, West Cork from Audible, Breakdown from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, In the Dark from APM reports, and the CBC’s recent series Missing & Murdered. (And yes, even the public radio station where I still work — now on the digital side — is developing a true crime podcast!)

Credit is also due to Serial for the way journalism podcasts are being framed as true crime when they wouldn’t have been in a pre-Serial era. Take Slow Burn from Slate, which is the best podcast I’ve heard in the past year or two. While the Watergate story would have been so easy to frame as a straight political scandal, the angles and prose techniques used in Slow Burn have all the hallmarks of a great true crime narrative — and I’m pretty sure the success of that show was, at least in part, a result of that.

Of course, where you have ambitious, high-quality work, you inevitably have ambitious terrible work, right? It’s true, there are very big and very bad true crime podcasts being produced at an astonishing rate right now, and because they have affiliation with established networks, these shows get a lot of promotion. But as much as I might personally love to hate some of these terrible shows (I’m talking to YOU, Atlanta Monster!) I do see some value in their existence.

I think about it the same way I think about movies: Not every successful big budget blockbuster is a good movie, but ultimately, those films can serve to raise the profile and profitability of the movie industry as a whole, and help audiences discover other, higher-quality content.[/conr]

[conl]Hot Pod: What do you think are the more troubling trends in how true crime podcasts have evolved?[/conl]

[conr]Lavoie: One is what I see as a glut of podcasts that are, quite frankly, building audience by boldly recycling the work of others. Sword & Scale is a much-talked-about example of that, but it’s not even the worst I’ve come across. There was a recent incident in which a listener pointed me to a monetized show in which the host simply read, word for word, articles published in magazines and newspapers — and I can’t help but wonder how pervasive that is. My hope is that at some point, the transcription technologies we’re now seeing emerge can somehow be deployed to scan audio for plagiarism, similar to the way YouTube scans videos for copyright infringement.

But there’s another trend that, for me, is even more troubling. There’s been a recent and massive growth of corporate podcast networks that are building their businesses on what I can only compare to the James Patterson book factory model — basically saying to creators, “Hey, if you think you have a story, partner with us and we’ll help you make, distribute, and monetize your podcast — and we’ll even slap our name on it!”

This, unfortunately, seems to be what’s behind a recent spate of shows that, in the hands of a more caring set of producers, could have (maybe?) been good, but ultimately, the podcasts end up being soulless, flat, “why did they make it at all” experiences.

Why is this the most upsetting trend for me? First, because good journalists are sometimes tied to these factory-made shows, and the podcasts aren’t doing them, or their outlets, or the podcast audience as a whole any favors.

The other part of it is that these networks have a lot of marketing pull with podcast platforms that can make or break shows by featuring them at the top of the apps. These marketing relationships with Apple etc. mean factory networks have a tremendous advantage in getting their shows front and center. But ultimately, many of the true crime podcasts getting pushed on podcast apps are very, very bad, and I can’t imagine a world in which a lot of bad content will end up cultivating a smart and sustainable audience.[/conr]

[conl]Hot Pod: In your opinion, what were the most significant true crime podcasts in recent years?[/conl]

[conr]Lavoie: In the Dark by APM Reports is up there. What I love about that show is that they approached the Jacob Wetterling story with an unusual central question: Why wasn’t this case solved? (Of course, they also caught the incredibly fortunate break of the case actually being solved, but I digress…) Theirs is a FAR more interesting question than, say, “What actually happened to this missing person?” Or “Is this person really guilty?” Of course, In the Dark also had the benefit of access to a talented public media newsroom, and I really enjoyed how they folded data reporting into that story.

I most often tell people that after Serial season one, my favorite true crime podcast of all time is the first season of Accused. Not only do I love that show because it looks at an interesting unsolved case, but I love it because it was made by two women, seasoned newspaper journalists, with no podcasting experience. Amber Hunt is a natural storyteller and did an amazing job injecting a tremendous amount of humanity and badass investigative journalism skills into that story. It’s not perfect, but to me, its imperfections are a big part of what makes it extraordinary.

More recently, I’ve really enjoyed the shows I mentioned above, including West Cork and Missing & Murdered. But when it comes to significance, Slow Burn is the most understated and excellent audio work I’ve heard in a long time. I loved every minute of it. I think that Slate team has raised the bar on telling historical crime stories, and we’re the better for it.[/conr]

[conl]Hot Pod: What do you generally want to see more of from true crime podcasts?[/conl]

[conr]Lavoie: I want to see more new approaches and formal risk-taking, and more integrity, journalistic and otherwise.

One of my favorite podcasts to talk about is Breakdown from the AJC. Bill Rankin is the opposite of a radio reporter — he has a folksy voice and a writing style much more suited to print. But beginning in season one, he’s been very transparent about the challenges he’s faced while making the show. He’s also, as listeners quickly learned, an incredible reporter with incredible values. That show has embraced multiple formats and allowed itself to evolve — and with a couple of exceptions, Bill’s voice and heart have been at the center of it.

I’d also love to see some trends go away, most of all, this idea of podcast host as “Hey, I’m not a podcaster or a journalist or really anyone at all but LET’S DO THIS, GUYS” gung-ho investigator.

Don’t get me wrong, some really good podcasts have started with people without a lot of audio or reporting experience, but they aren’t good because the person making them celebrates sounding like an amateur after making dozens of episodes.[/conr]

[storybreak]

Again, you can find Lavoie on Crime Writers On…, where she is joined every week by: Kevin Flynn, her true crime coauthor (and “former TV reporter husband,” she adds); Toby Ball, a fiction writer; and Lara Bricker, a licensed private investigator and fellow true crime writer. Lavoie also produces a number of other podcast projects, including: …These Are Their Stories: The Law & Order Podcast, HGTV & Me, and Married With Podcast for Stitcher Premium.

On a related note: The New York Times’ Jonah Bromwich wrote a quick piece on the Parcast network, described as “one of several new networks saturating the audio market with podcasts whose lurid storylines play out like snackable television.” The article also contains my successful effort at being quoted in ALL CAPS in the Times.

Bites:

  • This year’s Maximum Fun Drive has successfully accrued over 28,000 new and upgrading members. (Twitter) Congrats to the team.
  • WBUR is organizing what it’s calling the “first-ever children’s podcast festival” on April 28 and 29. Called “The Mega Awesome Super Huge Wicked Fun Podcast Playdate” — shouts to whoever came up with that — the festival will be held at the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline, Massachusetts and will feature shows like Eleanor Amplified, Story Pirates, But Why, and Circle Round, among others. (Website)
  • “Bloomberg expands TicToc to podcasts, newsletters.” For the uninitiated: TicToc is Bloomberg’s live-streaming video news channel that’s principally distributed over Twitter. On the audio side, the expansion appears to include podcast repackages and a smart-speaker experiment. (Axios)
  • American Public Media is leaning on Westwood One to handle advertising for the second season of its hit podcast In The Dark. Interesting choice. The new season drops next week. (AdWeek)
  • I’m keeping an eye on this: Death in Ice Valley, an intriguing collaboration between the BBC and Norway’s NRK, debuted yesterday. (BBC)
  • Anchor rolls out a feature that helps its users find…a cohost? Yet another indication that the platform is in the business of building a whole new social media experience as opposed to something that directly relates to podcasting. (TechCrunch)
  • On The New York Times’ marketing campaign for Caliphate: “The Times got some early buzz for the podcast before its launch; 15,000 people have signed up for a newsletter that will notify them when a new episode is ready, twice as many as expected.” (Digiday)
  • “Alexa Is a Revelation for the Blind,” writes Ian Bogost in The Atlantic.

[photocredit]Photo of a tape measure by catd_mitchell used under a Creative Commons license.[/photocredit]

Who needs video? Slate is pivoting to audio, and making real money doing it

Slate Outlook. This is a tad newsier and more with-the-pack than I generally like to be, but whatever — there’s a bunch of juicy, usable stuff in here.

Slate readers woke up this morning to something big from the 22-year-old online magazine: a total redesign, complete with an overhauled backend to improve the site’s user experience and a new logo to mark its third decade of publication. Accompanying the aesthetic revamp are significant adjustments to the site’s editorial architecture — including, among other things, a reorganization of its content verticals and, of course, a long-overdue push to make its substantial audio output more prominent across its web presence.

“We look at the redesign as a recommitment to the written word and audio,” Julia Turner, Slate’s editor-in-chief, tells me. She also notes that those renewed commitments are, in part, a reaction to the “pivot to video” gambit employed elsewhere in the digital media ecosystem, increasingly lampooned these days either as folly or a cynical ploy to extract dollars from the unstable hype surrounding digital video. “We’re planning to expand editorial spending on podcasts and articles,” she said. “There are good economic models behind both.”

We’ll stick to the audio portion here, of course, and our primary interest is to get a sense of just how strong that podcast business model is for Slate. Turner dished out some numbers to set the scene:

  • Slate enjoyed 100 million downloads in 2017 across its entire podcast network, not counting shows under the Slate Extra banner.
  • Podcast downloads are said to be up 42 percent from 2016.
  • December proved to be Slate’s biggest podcasting month, driven in good part by Slow Burn (more on that show in a bit), with 3.5 million downloads across the period.
  • Slate’s podcast advertising revenues were up 36 percent in 2017 over 2016, and the company expects continued growth this year, or so it is said.

(“We like to share when they’re happy numbers,” Turner said, when I expressed marvel over the volume of information being provided.)

But perhaps the most telling data point is this: In 2014, podcasting made up 0 percent of Slate’s revenue portfolio. By the end of 2017, that number has shot up to 25 percent. Whether that number continues to grow over the next few years will be something to watch. Unsurprisingly, the company expects growth in all key revenue areas — including display advertising and membership dollars in addition to podcast advertising — which, if true, would stabilize the growth of Slate’s podcast advertising dependency. But I do find it compelling to contemplate a future in which Slate primarily operates as a podcast publisher with a significant written web engine that functions as an effective lead-generation tool. (Thereby ultimately adhering to the construct sketched out by Stratechery’s Ben Thompson in his November 2015 piece, “Grantland and the (Surprising) Future of Publishing.” Indeed, such a result would create an unexpected homology between Slate and Grantland’s successor, The Ringer, if I’m reading the latter correctly.)

Anyway, depending on how you look at it, one could interpret Slate’s podcasting fortunes either as a product of luck or persistence, maybe both. Slate’s adventures in podcasting began over a decade ago, in 2004, and as Andy Bowers, who joined the company around that time as its OG producer after a twenty-year career in public radio, is fond of telling it, the site’s early audio dabblings involved publishing recordings of him reading articles out loud into a microphone. (Some ideas never really go away.) Those experiments would eventually evolve into shows with more substantial discursive formats, which would then go on to cultivate strong communities over an extended period of time. Digging through the archives and thinking back on that era, one could argue that there was no real reason for the company to continue producing those podcasts beyond simple enjoyment and serving those early communities; hence the notion of luck and persistence. But sticking to the experiment paid off, as that commitment ultimately primed them to be particularly ready for this historical juncture in digital audio publishing.

Nowadays, the Slate podcast network is a sprawling 24-show portfolio that’s spread across various Gabfests (a model that it pioneered across multiple shows and that is widely emulated these days by other online publications dabbling in the medium), some personality-driven shows (The Gist, Dear Prudence, etc.), and an emerging bucket of more ambitious projects. Bowers, after a long tenure as Slate’s EP of podcasts, went on to cofound a podcast-specific sister company, Panoply, in early 2015, and his role has now been passed onto another bald public radio veteran: Steve Lickteig.

2017 proved to be an interesting year for Slate Podcasts. Most prominently, it struck a curious partnership with Studio 360 last summer, taking over coproduction and digital distribution responsibilities from WNYC (where the show had been housed since its launch in 2000) as well as physically bringing the team into its offices. The network also steadily rolled out a suite of new shows, including a Spanish-language Gabfest and a few highly-produced narrative projects.

One such narrative project was Slow Burn, the Leon Neyfakh-led narrative podcast that sought to capture a sense of how it felt to live through Watergate, which I largely enjoyed and reviewed for Vulture last week. It turned out to be a hit for the company — not just as a standalone podcast project, but also as a lead-generation vessel for its membership program, Slate Plus.

Even though the core Slow Burn experience is available for free as a weekly podcast, a Slate Plus membership gives Burn-heads access to bonus episodes and other additional material. The carrot was apparently effective. “We’re seeing conversion at an extraordinary rate,” Turner said, noting that the Slow Burn campaign yielded 2.5× to 3× the daily conversion rates of an average day. “We’re seeing a ton of overlap between audio audiences and Slate Plus,” she adds. Plans are now in place to develop the property further, including an upcoming live event at the Watergate itself and a broader vision to untether the podcast from Watergate and use its conceit as a way to build future seasons around other historical events.

Slow Burn’s success should give Slate some extra confidence for the upcoming shows they’re planning to launch this year. Projects in the development pipeline includes:

  • A documentary series led by the author Michael Lewis, of The Big Short and Moneyball fame, about umpires.
  • A project built around Slate TV critic Willa Paskin, which I’m told will neither be a chat show nor an interview-show.

One imagines there will be more to come.

The notion of an online magazine entering its third decade is a wild thing to consider. (I’m not too much older than the site itself, which was founded in 1996.) Even wilder is the challenge of continuing to exist — and to fight for relevance — as a digital publication in a notoriously rough industry environment whose narratives are generally oriented around the downswings of the hype cycle these days. In its relative geriatricity, Slate now has the opportunity to contribute to a playbook that few digital publications get the chance to write.

Some odds and ends:

  • I’m also told that, as part of the changes surrounding the redesign and internal shifts, Slate will be taking over its own podcast sales from its sister company Panoply, which previously held that responsibility. A spokesperson explained the change as follows: “Since Slate podcasts are separating from the rest of Panoply, the direct response advertisers that Panoply was calling exclusively for the total network — including Slate — will, starting Q2, be called on by Slate sellers for only Slate’s network of shows. Panoply will continue to call on them for Panoply shows. Obviously, Slate very much believes in Panoply. We are creating this structure so that Slate and Panoply can each focus and do what it does best.” This separation is, of course, quite curious for Panoply.
  • It is not lost on me that the Slate Political Gabfest, one of the network’s oldest and most prominent shows, is hosted by three people who are no longer full-time Slate employees: David Plotz (now the CEO of Atlas Obscura), Emily Bazelon (now a staff writer for The New York Times Magazine and senior research fellow at Yale Law School), and John Dickerson (installed last week as cohost of CBS This Morning). This is both a testament to the legacy that Slate Podcasts has created across its run, and an indication of a potential vulnerability.
  • Speaking of Dickerson, Slate’s podcast chief Steve Lickteig confirmed that Dickerson will continue with the Slate Political Gabfest and Whistlestop.
  • As part of the editorial restructure, the Double X vertical is being phased out as its previous responsibilities become absorbed by all other verticals (there are now five: News & Politics, Culture, Technology, Business, and Human Interest). But the Double X Podcast will continue to operate, serving as the living connection to the vertical’s legacy.

Panoply loses its kids chief. I’ve confirmed that Emily Shapiro, the director of children’s programming, has left the company. Shapiro was originally hired in January 2017 to lead the emerging division, which is primarily built around the Pinna platform. I wrote about Pinna when it first rolled out last October.

Panoply declined to comment on Shapiro’s departure, citing a strict policy on discussing personnel matters.

Prior to joining Panoply, Shapiro was the cofounder of the New York International Children’s Film Festival — considered by some critics as one of New York’s best film festivals — where she worked for almost two decades. Her departure comes at a particularly hot time for the kids podcast genre, including recently launched pushes from WNYC Studios and Gimlet Media, along with long-running efforts from the Kids Listen community.

WBEZ is working on a follow-up to Making Oprah. But it won’t be about Oprah. Brendan Banaszak, the station’s interim executive producer of content development, confirmed the project over email, and noted that they’re applying the “Making” conceit to another Chicago figure whose identity will be revealed at a later date. (A move not unlike what Slate is hoping to do with Slow Burn.) Jenn White will host once again.

I don’t know about you, but I’m really into the idea of “Making” as a podcast template for local public radio stations across the country in the vein of the Hearken-powered Curious City franchise expansions. I would love a Making-style show for Idaho. (Aaron Paul??)

Science Friday joins the WNYC Studios portfolio. The move was announced last Friday. Here’s what that means:

  • WNYC Studios will lead sponsorship sales for the Science Friday podcast along with its spinoff show Undiscovered.
  • Starting April 11, WNYC Studios will take over distribution responsibilities for the Science Friday radio broadcast.
  • Science Friday remains an independent nonprofit media organization, and will continue production as usual in their current studios and offices.
  • WNYC Studios will also assist in the scaling of Science Friday’s audience, along with fielding opportunities for potential future creative collaborations between the two organizations.

This development bears strong resemblance to the August 2015 Snap Judgment move to enter into a coproduction deal with WNYC, the specifics of which you can read in this Current writeup from the time. In this case, however, Science Friday is breaking away from its distribution ties with PRI, with whom they’ve had a relationship since January 2014.

“We love PRI — they’ve been great partners, and our audience is bigger than its ever been” Christian Skotte, codirector and head of digital at Science Friday told me. “For us, as we look forward into the future, WNYC has shown how to launch and market podcasts, and as we think about what our future looks like, we’re thinking beyond just being a radio show and podcast towards being able to create whole new suites of content.”

Science Friday is currently celebrating its 27th year of production.

This week in the revolving door:

  • Eleanor Kagan, the director of audio at BuzzFeed, is leaving the company to join Pineapple Street Media. This move comes almost a month after BuzzFeed announced that it was parting ways with Another Round due to “strategic changes” at the company. Worth noting: Pineapple was cofounded by Jenna Weiss-Berman, who originated the podcast team at BuzzFeed.
  • Jessica Stahl, who originated The Washington Post’s current audio operations in her role as deputy editor on the audience team, has been promoted to director of audio. In related news, The Washington Post’s audio operations launched seven new podcasts in 2017, including two specifically for smart speaker devices.
  • James Green, cofounder of the Postloudness collective and a former producer at Gimlet Media, is joining The Outline to work on its daily show, World Dispatch.
  • John Lagomarsino, audio director at The Outline, is moving to Anchor to serve as head of production. It is a newly created role.

Wait, Anchor has a head of production now? Yep. But the gig is more a product role than anything else. “Ultimately, I’m responsible for making sure content on Anchor is high-quality, well-curated, and relevant for creators and listeners,” Lagomarsino tells me through a rep, before going on to describe a role that liaises between Anchor’s userbase and the company’s product, marketing, and content teams.

For the uninitiated, Anchor is a mobile-oriented app that originally rolled out within the “Twitter, but for audio” construct. That initial orientation was defined by a twin focus: ease of creation and ease of sharing. The company was founded in 2015 and, after picking up some initial buzz at SXSW the year after, has persisted to kick about in pursuit of a place within the marginally iterating podcast technology ecosystem. Last fall, Anchor raised $10 million in a Series A round led by Google Ventures. According to a TechCrunch writeup at the time, the company is still not generating revenue.

The current iteration of Anchor further increases its focus on creating the “easiest path to making a podcast” for the biggest number of people (the bulk of which, one imagines, is relatively inexperienced in audio production). This positioning was expressed last July, when Anchor seized on the reported instabilities at SoundCloud — previously the go-to hosting option for first-time and newer podcast publishers — by offering easy hosting transfers. It was a shrewd move, as the two services map nicely for their target demo given that both platforms are free and relatively simple to use.

How Anchor fits into the broader on-demand audio universe remains to be seen. Will the platform continue to be the lord of its own content universe, or will it meaningfully usurp portions of the technology stack that supports the rest of the podcast ecosystem? The answer hinges on whether CEO Mike Mignano’s thesis on the space pans out.

“The reality of the current landscape is that podcasting has remained an artificially small industry, because it’s so hard to contribute to,” Mignano wrote through a rep. He continued:

Between the friction that exists at nearly every step of the content lifecycle, and the antiquated technology that the industry has relied on for years, creators are left with limited data and limited opportunity for monetization, thus capping the potential of the market. We’re well past the breaking point where innovation across the entire stack is absolutely necessary for growth.

With Anchor, we’re focused on creating technology that strengthens the entire ecosystem and unlocks the true potential of the audio landscape. I expect Anchor to have a lot of competition in the coming years, which we’re excited about, because true innovation is ultimately going to come from technology pushing the boundaries of what’s previously been possible.

I happen to agree with the characterization of podcasting as an “artificially small industry.” The question I’ve kept encountering throughout my years writing this newsletter is whether that’s actually a bad thing.

Billboard outside ATL, Georgia. Atlanta Monster, the new true crime series from Atlanta podcast companies HowStuffWorks and Tenderfoot, appears to be playing around with OOH advertising local to the Atlanta city area:

Neato.

“Gimlet is a multimedia storytelling brand, not just a podcast network.” So goes the opening argument from Gimlet’s new chief marketing officer, Jenny Wall, which headlined a quick Fast Company piece last week, as she moves to elevate the company’s profile.

This is, of course, no new revelation for Gimlet, which has pretty explicitly highlighted its formalizing intellectual property pipeline — carved out in large part by Chris Giliberti, its young “head of multiplatform” — as both differentiating factor and exceptionally strong potential growth channel. Nor is it a particularly new revelation for the industry as a whole; as I noted in my 2017 year-in-review column, the adaptation pipeline is one that extends widely across the ecosystem (though with particular concentration within the audio drama category) and offers the industry a significant pathway to gain strength independently from the platform dynamics governed, still, by Apple. Nor is Gimlet the only entity that’s been exceptionally active in ushering podcast-first properties into projects for other mediums; Night Vale Presents has proven to be equally prominent, with the added nuance of not potentially burdened by the demands of venture capital.

But I thought the quote was interesting for three reasons:

  • It’s super reminiscent of HBO’s “It’s Not TV, It’s HBO” campaign that Wall worked on earlier in her career, which I pointed out last week when writing up her appointment.
  • I was wondering when Gimlet would explicitly make the “actually, we’re not just a podcast company” turn in its narrative. It’s a mindset that you could arguably trace back to a point as early as the company’s participation in the summer 2016 Brooklyn NewFronts event, where it sought to gain association with broader digital media brands like Genius, Atlas Obscura, and Lenny Letter. Perhaps you can trace it back even further.
  • One potential function for the narrative redraft: to open and grease more paths for acquisition. It’s one thing if you’re a podcast company whose most literal suitors would be a bigger, traditional audio company — see Cadence13 and Entercom — but it’s another thing altogether when your perceived value is non-medium specific. It definitely makes things more interesting for, say, a talent agency, or perhaps even a global advertising agency not unlike the one that chipped in $5 million into Gimlet’s recent investment round.

Bites:

  • Like Slate, This American Life has also undergone a redesign, which includes a new shock-red logo. I think the Washington Post’s Alexandra Petri said it best: “Congrats to @ThisAmerLife on its new job as The Economist.” I myself, er, am not a fan. (Website)
  • Last Thursday, ESPN Audio rolled out the first episode of a new podcast from Katie Nolan, who joined the sports media giant from Fox Sports in October.
  • The Loud Speakers Network is bringing back its brand collaboration with State Farm, Color Full Lives, with Aminatou Sow and Angela Yee in the hosting seats. Interestingly, this will be the branded podcast’s third season. They’re also set to experiment with an accompanying video component. (Apple Podcasts)
  • At CES last week, NPR published a new smart speaker study that has some additional data points for your pitch decks. Check it out.
  • This is cool: closing out her third season, Flash Forward’s Rose Eveleth graphed the gender ratio and racial diversity of the guests she brings onto her episodes. (Flash Forward)
  • This is also cool: Doree Shafrir, author and senior tech writer at BuzzFeed, is independently publishing a podcast called Forever35, which is focused on serving women in their 30s and 40s. This is her second indie podcast project, following Matt & Doree’s Eggcellent Adventure, which chronicles her and her husband’s experience of conceiving through in-vitro fertilization.
  • Meanwhile, on the Beltway: Senator Cory Booker (D-New Jersey) has jumped on the politician podcasting train with one of those shows where he talks to people doing stuff he’s likes. He joins senators Bernie Sanders (D-Vermont) and Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), along with former U.S. Attorney General Preet Bharara, in the style.
  • “Pandora CEO Roger Lynch Wants to Create the Podcast Genome Project.” Okay. (Variety)
  • “The Opening of the American Mind: How Educational Podcasts Are Making Us Smarter Citizens.” (Pacific Standard)
  • “Alexa, We’re Still Trying to Figure Out What to Do With You.” (NY Times)
  • PodcastOne announces partnership with the Associated Press around a daily audio news product accompanying the Winter Olympics. (Press Release)
  • “Whatever it is, I’m not afraid of what happens after death.” Don’t miss this glorious conversation with Terry Gross by Vulture’s David Marchese.

Next week, we’re talking crypto-pods.

Correction: In the January 2, 2018 edition, I mentioned that Mary Wilson, current producer of Slate’s The Gist, was a former WNYC staffer. She is not. I regret the error!

These are the most important developments in the podcast business so far in 2017

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 135, published September 5, 2017.

Programming note! Ah yes, so we are in September! As you might already know, I’m taking a five-issue break from writing Hot Pod, starting next week and back on October 17, to do the Knight Visiting Nieman Fellowship in Cambridge (very on-brand, I’d say). But that doesn’t necessarily mean the Hot Pod #content will stop flowing, as I’ll be serving up bonus goodies here and there to those who read Hot Pod as a newsletter. (You can sign up to that here.)

But even as the newsletter churns out extra, the Hot Pod column as you know it will be on ice for a while. So, before the break and ahead of the third annual IAB Podcast Upfront happening later this week (also the NowHearThis Festival, I suppose), I figured this is probably a good time to take stock of the year in podcasting so far, which is, you know, quite a lot. In this issue, you’ll find top-level numbers, the six big things/trends/developments that stood out to me, thoughts about the three most interesting podcast companies, and some news hits before we break for a month and a half.

Let’s jump in.

The year so far. We begin by asking: Just how much has the industry grown over the past year? And do we have a better understanding of the space than we did before? I’ve been keeping these two digits pinned to my notebook:

  • Audience size: 67 million U.S. monthly listeners, according to Edison and Triton Digital’s annual Infinite Dial report, up 21 percent from 57 million from the year before. The volume of growth between 2017 and 2016 is slightly less than the period immediately preceding it (4 percentage points off a smaller base), which was a source of consternation among some in the podcast community at the time. But as I wrote back when the report first dropped: “We’re still talking 10 million new Americans actively listening to a medium that (a) is still propped up by a barely evolved technological infrastructure, (b) has only seen a few instances of significant capital investment, and (c) still sees its industry power very much under-organized.” Those three things, by the way, have changed a little since I wrote that line. More on that in a bit.
  • Advertising: The industry is expected to top $220 million in podcast advertising revenue by the end of 2017, according to an Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) study. The study is the first of its kind, a long-awaited official research effort into a pool of the biggest players in the space — which gives us a floor, at the very least — that’s a marked a step up from that methodologically-fuzzy Bridge Ratings report that’s been floating about the past few years. (Yeah, it’s all totally weird.) The IAB study was also able to give us some valuable historical context: 2016’s podcast ad revenue came in at $119 million, while 2015 came in at $69 million.

I’ll be thinking about how the industry moves forward based on three dimensions:

  • Growth — whether audiences and revenues will continue to grow, obviously;
  • Sustainability — whether companies will meaningfully diversify their revenue streams and whether the industry will see its activities and fortunes spread out across a wide number of companies; and
  • Refinement — whether the ecosystem will improve upon its various inefficiencies, from discovery to measurement to monetization.

Cool. So, with all that out of the way, let’s talk about six big things that’ve stood out to me since January.

[storybreak]

(1) Fundraising uptick. The summer closed with what might have been the loudest month in terms of significant investments in the podcast industry since…well, since I’ve started writing this newsletter in November 2014. August saw a total of four big investments in all (that were publicly disclosed, of course):

  • August 1: Gimlet Media announced a $15 million Series B funding round led by the New York-based Stripes Group, whose portfolio also includes Refinery29, eMarketer, and Blue Apron. Participants in the round also included Laurene Powell Jobs’ Emerson Collective, Graham Holdings, Cross Culture Ventures, and Betaworks. Variety had the first writeup.
  • August 3: DGital Media (which would later rebrand as Cadence13) announced that Entercom, the fourth-largest radio broadcaster in the U.S., paid $9.7 million to buy 45 percent of the company. The arrangement was described as an “investment and a strategic partnership” in the press release, and Entercom also signed a “multi-year services agreement under which DGital will dedicate ‘significant resources’ to create on-demand audio content leveraging the broadcaster’s roster of local talent and relationships.”
  • August 23: Art19, the California-based podcast technology company, announced a $7.5 million Series A round led by Bertelsmann Digital Media Investments (BDMI) and DCM Ventures. Other investors in the round included United Talent Agency (!), Gallo Digital, angel investor Zach Coelius, and Array Ventures, according to the press release.
  • August 31: HowStuffWorks, the Atlanta-based veteran podcast company that’s been publishing for almost a decade across multiple parent corporations, announced that it will be spinning out as a new independent company with a $15 million Series A fund led by the Raine Group. Here’s TechCrunch with a writeup, which also includes a look at an executive reshuffle and marginal insight into expansion plans. The spinoff news comes not too long after the company announced a West Coast expansion, one that explicitly targets the comedy category.

First of all, mazel tov to all! But also: Why did all these investments come in at the same month? Also, why did it all come out in the time of year when many a venture capitalist is thought to be on vacation? Conal Byrne, HowStuffWork’s new incoming president, was game to put a positive spin on it, though he doesn’t quite answer the question. “The industry has finally hit the tipping point that investors have been waiting for,” he wrote, through a rep. “Validation of a big market opportunity.” That feeling is generally shared across other sources that I reached out to, though the timing thing remains a puzzle. (Herd mentality? An actual tipping point? Maybe a bit of both?) Nevertheless, there were several private expressions of relief that dollars are finally flowing.

One thing to observe from all this: These four investments are substantially different from the kinds of investments we’ve often seen in (and adjacent to) the podcast space up until this point. Much of the attention over the past few years has generally been on consumer-focused audio app and platform plays — Anchor, Bumpers, Otto Radio, 60dB, RadioPublic, and so on — which are, in other words, stuff that’s more conventionally known within the broader tech industry. But these recent investments — three straight-up media companies, one podcast technology infrastructure company — are specific to the needs, textures, and idiosyncrasies of the podcast ecosystem.

I like where this is going.

(2) Apple analytics. While the summer closed out with news of investments, the season kicked off with an Apple bombshell. During its WWDC conference back in June, the company’s podcast team announced that publishers will soon be provided with in-episode analytics — which is to say, publishers will soon be able to systematically go beyond the download and tell just how much of their episodes are actually being listened to on the aggregate. This is undeniably the most significant development to hit the podcast industry since…well, since Apple consolidated the disparate ecosystem by featuring podcasts in the iTunes architecture, breaking it out as a standalone app, and then eventually packaging the app with iOS by default.

My coverage on the matter was spread across three separate issues:

Nieman Lab also ran a useful piece from WAMU’s Gabe Bullard, who sought to project what might happen to podcasts by examining what happened to the radio industry when its ratings became more precise ten years ago. To sum: A fragmented world was revealed, genres died off, accuracy disputes emerged, and some who were thought to be big turned out not to be all that big after all. We’ll likely see the same kinds of effects ripple across the podcast industry, and as a result, we’ll probably see some recalibration of power and standing. We’re due for a moment of disruption, which is as much a period of potential as it is pitfall. (Chaos is a ladder, after all, as some dude once said.)

(3) More and more adaptations. To illustrate the prevalence of this trend, here’s a sample of just a few of noteworthy developments in this area over the past few months:

  • Gimlet Media articulating its intellectual property pipeline as a prominent talking point for press coverage around its recent fundraise, building on a steadily increasing track record of adaptations that include Homecoming and StartUp being adapted for television, along with the “Man of the People” episode on Reply All being adapted for film.
  • In August, HBO announced that it will be adapting WNYC’s 2 Dope Queens into a series of four hour-long specials.
  • Also in August, Universal Cable Productions announced that it was adapting Night Vale Presents’ Alice Isn’t Dead for the USA Network. Accompanying the news was word of a novel based on the podcast, to be published by Harper Perennial in 2018.
  • The TV adaptation of Aaron Mahnke’s Lore, picked up by Amazon Studios, has an October release date and now, a trailer. A book adaptation is also in the works.
  • There remains scuttlebutt that First Look Media was shopping Missing Richard Simmons around as “potential source material for a TV series,” per a Hollywood Reporter article from April.

The prospect of adaptation is valuable for publishers in three key ways: (1) obviously, it represents a whole new potential revenue stream, (2) they’re good expressions of recognition by more established systems of media and publishing, and (3) each successfully executed adaptation is an audience development and marketing vessel for the original podcast as much as it is a standalone product.

That said, some attention should be paid as to whether these adaptations actually pay off. Remember, it took a while for comic books to rev up as hot sources of intellectual property for the more lucrative film industry, especially after an uneven string of performances in the ’90s and early 2000s. (But then again, the film industry did have a…challenging summer. But maybe that doesn’t really tell us anything?)

(4) On programming. It’s been kind of a strange year, at least for me. We’ve seen a heckuva lot more podcasts of increasing ambition, and we’ve seen some tremendous successes that have taken the medium to new heights. But I can’t seem to shake the feeling that the pace of successes has been somewhat uneven. Like there isn’t much certainty that the space as a whole can hold the public conversation for a sustained period of time.

In any case, the year in #content so far has been defined in my mind by two things:

  • Two unambiguous hits from early in the year that broke into the mainstream, First Look Media’s Missing Richard Simmons (debuted in February) and Serial Productions’ S-Town (debuted in March).
  • The rise of the daily news podcast, about which I’ve written a frightful amount over the past few months. But frankly, between The New York Times’ The Daily (debuted in February) and NPR’s Up First (debuted in April), I think it’s the most exciting front in the space in a long time. The category represents a whole bunch of things: Innovation! Ambition! Serious consideration of the medium that breaks from podcasting’s still governing skeuomorphisms with radio! And with Vox Media throwing its hat into the ring soon, I’m excited to see how the genre continues to heat up.

Two questions moving forward: (a) Where will the next hit come from? (b) Does my thesis from May — where I argued that the success of Missing Richard Simmons, taken in context of the success of S-Town, indicates that podcasting remains fairly accessible and meritocratic, which is to say that a good thing can stand out no matter of pedigree — still stand?

(5) More and more windowing. There’s been a noticeable increase in such shenanigans between publishers and non-Apple platforms, particularly in terms of promotional partnerships that sees the former giving “exclusive early drop” opportunities to the latter. Examples include:

  • First Look Media’s Missing Richard Simmons releasing episodes early (along with some bonus material) on Midroll Media’s Stitcher platform. Of course, that flow was ultimately interrupted due to some, uh, “extraneous circumstances” related to the meta-elements of the podcast by the end of the show’s run, but I heard the experiment paid off quite a bit for Stitcher. A Midroll rep told me that the partnership drove six times the usual number of daily new subscription signups during the show’s run.
  • Gimlet Media debuted its collaboration with the Loud Speakers Network, Mogul, on Spotify weeks before the podcast would eventually be distributed through the open ecosystem. The Brooklyn-based company later announced that its upcoming history podcast, Uncivil, will be windowed on TuneIn.
  • Speaking of TuneIn, the platform had previously tested out an exclusive distribution arrangement with The Ringer’s MLB Show at the start of baseball season.
  • And speaking of Spotify, the music streaming platform also developed a windowing relationship with WNYC, where the public radio station debuted the latest season of 2 Dope Queens earlier on Spotify.

Aside from Stitcher, it’s unclear to me whether such arrangements are paying off enough to establish this as a worthwhile strategy to be commonly implemented across the space. What is clear, however, is that such moves have not gone unnoticed by Apple, the long-time steward of the space.

And there were hints of blowback from Cupertino. As Digiday reported during the Missing Richard Simmons run:

According to multiple people familiar with the matter, Apple was excited about promoting Missing Richard Simmons until it heard about the windowing strategy. They subsequently abandoned all the marketing plans for the show, those people said.

Awkward! Also, perturbing.

(6) Platform fluidity. Last March, reacting to the launch of Audible’s original programming slate, the introduction of Google Play Music’s podcast feature, and the continued rollout of Spotify’s video and podcast offerings, I argued that the word “podcast” will lose all of its original meaning by the end of that year. Which is to say, the concept will no longer be too tethered to its initial infrastructural connotations — RSS feeds, podcatchers, and so on — and that arguments over what’s a “podcast” and what’s not will be fully relegated into a game of pure semantics and ideological identities. Instead, the way we talk about all of this — the content, the technology, the audiences — will have shifted from a narrative about the clash between an incumbent and an insurgent (“the future of radio”) towards a clash between publishing factions defined by different formations of publishing communities (“a type/genre/kind of audio”).

(Man, I was so much less literal back then.)

I think there’s been a fair bit of evidence that precisely this has played out over the intervening year and a half, contributing to a space that feels a lot more…fluid, conceptually, than it once was.

Consider the following developments:

  • Spotify is producing original podcasts in addition to their overarching efforts to establish their platform as a meaningful alternative to Apple. (Or, internally, to establish podcasts as a meaningful addition to their raison d’etre of being a music consumption platform.) The company seems to be getting ready for another round of original podcast programming, according to Bloomberg, though it’s unclear how that’s been affected by the dismissal of Tom Calderone, its head of video and podcasting operations.
  • Audible and Stitcher Premium, both of which possess value propositions that are defined by a sense of exclusivity, have begun trickling shows out beyond their paywalls and into the open ecosystem.
  • Meanwhile, Google Play Music is making its own quiet excursion into original podcast programming.
  • iHeartRadio, a native of Internet radio (and progeny of old radio), is increasingly agitating to claim some portion of the podcast space. In the past year, the platform has established distribution relationships with Art19, Libsyn, and NPR member stations. It, too, dabbles with some original programming, branded and otherwise.
  • SiriusXM is quietly developing a podcast platform of their own by the name of Spoke.
  • And while we’re on the subject of apps, we’ve also seen increasing activity within the social audio app front. In particular, the Betaworks-backed Anchor — a contemporary of Bumpers — is increasingly deploying podcast nomenclature (and getting involved in the concerns of podcasts writ large) to describe itself, its machinations, and by extension, its value proposition. A prime example of this can be found in its latest audio-to-social video feature, which adapts the broader Audiogram initiative into its infrastructure.

One way to thread all of these developments together is to frame it all as the story of several non-Apple platforms slowly (and clumsily) encroaching on Apple’s position as a steward of the space with a relatively hands-off stance, maybe to one day capitalize on the various inefficiencies that have resulted from that stance.

Have we seen a meaningful alternative platform to Apple yet? It doesn’t seem like it, based on what I’ve seen. As it stands, Apple remains the primary firehose, and everyone else is still a tiny spigot by comparison. Nevertheless, the encroachment marches on.

(A quick side thought on the fate of user generated content-oriented apps: While it’s unclear what their precise value propositions are to bigger publishers, you could argue that they could collectively serve as a good next step for the species of smaller solo independent publishers that find themselves being pushed out by bigger, more organized, and typically moneyed publishers. I haven’t really thought this through just yet, but should Apple change its hands-off stance — and should Apple Podcasts’ facilitation of the space be diluted beyond some proportional tipping point — small and upstart creators would need a place to go.)

[storybreak]

So those are the six trends that’ve stood out to me. As a collective, I think they describe a space that has made meaningful gains where it counts (size, revenue, legitimacy, prestige, awareness, and so on), but as a result has become increasingly complex. That complexity can be destabilizing, and this story has a bigger potential curveball coming its way with the introduction of the new analytics layer in November. Rest assured: I’ll be back by then to cover all of that.

Before I move on to some quick news hits, I also want to quickly talk about the three companies in the industry that have most stood out to me over the past eight months. They aren’t necessarily the most successful or the biggest — though they are quite successful and big — but rather, they’re the most interesting, and they’ve been the most fun to think and/or talk about.

The three most interesting podcast companies

HowStuffWorks. HWS is officially almost two decades old; its podcast business, headlined by Stuff You Should Know, is about half that. And yet the Atlanta-based company has, over the past year, operated with a verve of a much younger venture. It has aggressively hired new talent (working from a playbook that seems to be revolved around drafting established Internet media pioneers from the mid-aughts, including Cracked.com founder Jack O’Brien and Mental Floss’ Will Pearson and Mangesh Hattikudur), expanded the geography of its operations, and spun out as a whole new independent entity with new funds. Can an older hand successfully retool itself for the future?

The Ringer. I happen to love The Ringer as a publication, but I also think the stuff that they’re doing with their podcast network is low-key revolutionary. It features rigorous experimentation (Binge Mode, of all things, is a triumph in concept and execution), a fluid use of their writers as valuable audio assets, and an approach that seems to have meaningfully integrated their audio division with the rest of the business. The Ringer isn’t for everybody, but when it’s yours, it’s really, really yours, and its podcast division is the purest expression of that fact.

That said, the fact that its ownership structure is a mystery makes the enterprise tricky to fully trust. We can’t quite know for sure how the company is doing, and as a result, we can’t assess for sure whether the model is financially successful — and therefore replicable — or not. Then again, The Ringer head Bill Simmons told Recode’s Peter Kafka back in February that they’re doing well, and the organization seems to be valuable enough for Vox Media to establish a technology and advertising relationship with in May, so hey, maybe something’s there.

The New York Times. When the Gray Lady originally announced that it was assembling a new podcast team last year, I imagined an outcome not unlike what we’ve seen with, say, Slate: a portfolio of subject-specific shows that export the feel and sensibility of its parent publisher, only tighter and more pristine. What ended up emerging was something more drastic, the creation of a whole new…let’s call it a franchise. (Or, heaven forbid, a #brand.) By the end of summer 2017, it’s not inaccurate to say as far as the Times’ audio machinations are concerned, you have The Daily, and you have everything else that orbits The Daily.

On the one hand, this is incredibly exciting. That team has built a powerful machine, one that has equal capacity to break stories, deepen impact, and serve as a platform to launch complementary projects. But on the other hand, the problem with building a basketball team around a single player is the implosion that happens when that player gets injured, gets tangled up in controversy, or just gets old. This is a privileged problem, of course, but it’s a problem nonetheless. What happens next will be fascinating to watch.

[storybreak]

Two stories on political podcasts.

(1) The genre is strong! Which is not entirely surprising, of course, given the current spirit of the times where politics and the media have definitively fused into one giant, amorphous, Jeff Goldblum-in-The Fly-like blob. The Hollywood Reporter’s Jeremy Barr (formerly of Ad Age) has a piece up checking in on the growing category, and it contains two nifty data points for us: First, that the twelve-year-old Slate Political Gabfest “brought in about $1 million in revenue last year at a $25 CPM and an average download of a few hundred thousand per episode,” and second, that revenue for the political podcasts in Midroll Media’s portfolio “has doubled this year compared to 2016.”

(2) Vice News is the latest media org to engage with the “podcasts as left-wing political talk radio” angle, providing a broad accounting of the emerging phenomenon. Do pair that with the “alternative left wing media infrastructure” by The Atlantic’s McKay Coppins from July, titled “How the Left Lost Its Mind.”

Kids podcasts make a marketing push. Drawing some inspiration from February’s #TryPod audience building campaign, a coalition of kids-oriented podcasts are attempting a similar cross-promotion scheme to spread their audiences around and generally bring more attention to the category. Participating shows include Brains On (APM), Wow in the World (NPR), Eleanor Amplified (WHYY), But Why (Vermont Public Radio), Tumble Science (Wondery), Circle Round (WBUR), Story Pirates, and The Longest Shortest Time (Stitcher).

I’m told that the coalition was formed organically, with NPR running point on the outreach to potential participants. This campaign is said not to be directly related to the Kids Listen collective, of which all of these podcasts are members.

As part of the effort, Brain On’s Molly Bloom will be producing a “bonus preview” episode that will feature highlights from participating shows. The preview will be distributed throughout the coalition’s podcast feeds in early October.

The campaign kicked off yesterday, and will run for 13 weeks.

Bites:

  • BlogTalkRadio and Spreaker have announced a merger. Note: “Shareholders from each of Spreaker and BlogTalkRadio will be making investments in support of the combined company’s growth plan, which will be rolled out over the next several months,” the press release states. Terms were not disclosed. (Press release)
  • Ben Johnson, host of APM’s Marketplace Tech and Codebreaker, is moving to WBUR to start a new project on “the vast/complex/rich community of the Interwebs.” Congrats on the move! (Twitter)
  • This is cool: “Welcome to Night Vale’s Cecil Baldwin on Finding the Queerness in His Character.” (Slate)
  • KCRW is ending the broadcast run of its weekday talk show, “To The Point,” and will repackage it as a weekly podcast. Anomaly or trend? Let’s hope that we stick around long enough to find out. (Current)
  • Frontline, the investigative documentary series from PBS and WGBH, is rolling out a podcast with the legendary Jay Allison serving as senior editor and creative director. PRX serves as distributor. The show officially launches on September 14.
  • Now, I don’t usually derive much value from content marketing pieces, but this audioBoom writeup sees the digital advertising agency Ad Results claiming to “own” 40 percent of the podcast industry’s revenues. This isn’t too far-fetched, from what I’ve heard. (audioBoom)
  • Keep an eye on this: “Traditional Radio Faces a Grim Future, New Study Says.” (Variety)

Cool! Thanks for reading. See you in six weeks.

[photocredit]Photo by Gauthier Delecroix used under a Creative Commons license.[/photocredit]

“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).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, and one more thing:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bites:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bites:

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

How can news organizations better prepare the next generation of editors?

The ideological spread of podcasts. It’s been…an interesting election cycle here in the United States, to say the least, one that’s caused me enough anxiety to burrow deeper into the insular, cord-cutting media cocoon I’ve built for myself — an assemblage of ye old newspapers (The New York Times and The Washington Post, mostly), cable TV (CNN, mostly), broadcast radio (public, mostly), social media (the ideologically self-reinforcing Facebook and Twitter, mostly) and, of course, podcasts — in a bid to find some assurance that everything will…be okay, I suppose, or whatever it is I’m trying to look for when I seek out election news.

Which isn’t a great way of doing things, of course, given that it’s a function of larger problems associated with media fragmentation and selective exposure (see the recent Wall Street Journal interactive feature “Red Feed, Blue Feed”) that’s believed to have exacerbated the country’s political polarization. Frankly, I buy this explanation of the present: the idea that the increasingly abundant, on-demand, and personalized nature of our news media has led to whole swathes of populations creating worlds and realities of their own that don’t have much reason to overlap and interact with each other, until they absolutely must (like, say, during a national election), in which case the result is pure combustion.

There was a Wired article by Charley Locke not too long ago that grabbed my attention — about a five-year-old conservative leaning podcast network called Ricochet — in which Locke characterized the podcast space to be disproportionately liberal. (Whether that refers to actual composition or representation is hard to establish; it’s related to all the ways we complain about the medium’s measurement difficulties.) Using the upper echelons of the iTunes charts as her principal dataset, Locke wrote: “There’s not much ideological diversity in the conversation…Podcasts have proven a viable platform to reach a liberal audience, just as radio talk shows have for conservative listeners. But what does that mean for the Americans in the middle?”

Of course, characterizing some media organization versus others as liberal is sticky business. Locke’s rubric places organizations like NPR, FiveThirtyEight, Vox.com, and Slate in the liberal bucket, a characterization that might be challenged by some of these institutions more so than others. (Indeed, NPR has had a long history of being accused of liberal biasa charge they constantly challenge — while one imagines FiveThirtyEight and Vox would orient themselves more towards analytical impartiality.) However, given Locke’s other more unambiguous examples — former Obama staffers Jon Favreau and Dan Pfeiffer’s Keepin’ It 1600 with The Ringer, and David Axelrod’s The Axe Files with CNN, both of which are expressions of that administration’s relative comfort with the medium , recently covered by the Times — her overarching point seems to hold: The podcast charts don’t offer very much in the way ofexplicitly conservative programming, and one could understandably draw a hypothesis about the medium’s larger ideological distribution from that.

There are a few noteworthy exceptions: The iTunes top 100 currently charts a podcast featuring Milo Yiannopoulos, the controversial writer and editor for the conservative Breitbart News Network who was recently banned by Twitter for racial harassment, and that show is distributed by PodcastOne. (That company is also home to a few other podcasts hosted by explicitly conservative personalities, like Laura Ingraham and Bill Kristol.) Earlier this year, the similarly conservative Jay Sekulow show broke into the top 3. Sekulow is an attorney and cofounder of the American Center for Law and Justice, a politically conservative activism organization that he cofounded with the often controversial Pat Robertson. But those examples are very few and far between, reinforcing Locke’s observation.

When I talked to Locke last week, she proposed a theory about the ideological spread: The medium’s liberal-lean is largely the result of its early adopters. As she thinks about it, relatively liberal media outlets (or media organizations perceived to be liberal) were among the firsts to develop content using the medium, laying down the foundation of its identity and eventually establishing themselves as the de facto “old guards” of the space. I’m partial to that theory, but I’m also tempted to wonder: Is there something about on-demand audio’s structural traits — and demographic spread, and so on — that uniquely supports liberal programming? (Conversely, do broadcast talk radio’s structural traits uniquely benefit conservative programming?)

“This whole thing ties into something I’ve been wondering about more broadly: Why aren’t there a lot more new media organizations oriented to conservative listeners?” Locke continued. I’m personally curious about where young conservative readers are, and where they look to get news.”

“They probably feel pretty isolated,” she added, wistfully.

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Local spaces. This Wednesday, PRX is holding a party to launch their new Podcast Garage, a recording facility and community space for Boston podcast creators. The space is part of Zone 3, a Harvard-catalyzed initiative developed to “explore experimental programs, events, and retail” along the city’s Western Avenue, which runs alongside the Harvard Business School.

“We want to foster a maker culture, create an environment of openness, and support storytelling,” said Kerri Hoffman, PRX CEO, when we spoke yesterday. “What we’re hoping to do with the garage is to bring all of those values right down to the ground at the local level, and create a physical hub for the Boston podcast community.”

The garage is stocked with studio equipment that’ll be available to the community via paid pre-booked rental arrangements and free studio times, which will be offered at certain times of day. Events will also be organized in the garage to brings podcast makers of all skill levels together, the first of which will be held on August 8 featuring a presentation by PRX Remix curator Josh Swartz.

“We really do think seasoned, local producers will make good use of our service,” Hoffman said. “But our sights are really on people who haven’t made a podcast yet, on the next generation. That’s what I’m really excited about.”

That’s the hook that really catches my eye about this project. Hoffman’s sentiment here echoes ideas that I’ve heard from similar initiatives across the country — ones that are also physically-oriented and locally-minded, like the Chicago Podcast Cooperative, which is run out of the lovely, non-descript Cards Against Humanity offices in the Lincoln Park neighborhood and managed by a great person named Claire Friedman, and the nascent XOXO Audio Studio, which is being developed out of the XOXO Outpost in Portland, Oregon by similarly great person named Tyesha Snow. Both operations involve a sense of bringing more people into the space who otherwise would not have had the opportunity to do so.

“We want to be a place that makes it easy for anyone to grab some studio space and make some magic,” Snow told me. “We believe that creation of the studio will spur all types of connections for the people…I can’t predict exactly what will happen over the coming year but people are ready and waiting. It’s going to be amazing.”

If there’s any force that would pull us away from any possible over-concentration of the podcast industry — and maybe, the production of media, more broadly — in New York and the coasts, I believe it’s going to be made up of local, physically-oriented spaces like these that makes opportunities more accessible in more places across the country. So if you’re working on an initiative like this, do let me know.

French podcasts. “Mainstream podcasts almost don’t exist in France,” wrote Charlotte Pudlowski, when we traded emails about the country’s on-demand audio landscape a few weeks ago. Pudlowski is an associate editor at Slate France, the French sister company of the American digital magazine, and is the person overseeing its emerging podcast strategy. She tells me that French podcasting mostly consists of repackaged broadcasts from Radio France, the French public radio equivalent, supplemented by some independent podcasts — “mostly talks,” she wrote, referring to conversational podcasts, a lot of which you can find here — and something called Arte Radio, which is reminiscent of a Third Coast-esque documentary directory.

Pudlowski is hoping to buck that trend by introducing longer-form narrative content to the mix. In mid-June, Slate France launched two shows: Transfert and Titiou, Nadia et les sales gosses (Titiou, Nadia, and their brats). The former features first-person narratives (or “narrative stories, told by the people who experienced them,” as Pudlowski phrased it to me), while the latter is a parenting show hosted by two Slate France writers which will mix formats on each episode.

Pudlowski was able to secure Audible as a launch sponsor, and it remains Slate France’s only audio advertiser for now. “We have made a deal for one year that corresponds to a number of minutes we have to produce in one year,” she said. “We’ll also look for other advertisers. But the contract with Audible doesn’t give us any fixed number of downloads or impressions we have to achieve, which gives us an amazing freedom of trying new things, taking risks.”

Things are looking pretty good for the two shows since they’ve launched, relatively speaking. Transfert’s first episode garnered 23,000 downloads in its first four weeks, while the second episode saw about 17,000 downloads during the same period. Titiou, Nadia et les sales gosses received about 13,000 downloads for its first episode. “We had not set a precise objective because it’s so new in France we had no possible comparison, but we’re pretty happy about it,” said Pudlowski, further noting that she was pleased with the attention the shows have been getting on social. The shows are hosted on Megaphone, the new CMS by Slate’s other sister company Panoply. (Confusing, ain’t it?)

I was curious about the potential market size for on-demand audio in France — its size, and opportunity. “It’s very hard to know because it is so new,” Pudlowski explained to me, pointing out that podcast listenership in the country isn’t widely measured just yet. “But what we do know is that French people are really into radio.”

Citing a December 2015 report from MediaMetrie, a French audience measurement company, Pudlowski tells me that more than 89 percent of the population listens to the radio every week and almost 82 percent every day, with the average French person consuming about 3 hours of radio on a given weekday and more than 2.5 hours on the weekend. That’s a whole lot, and one imagines that the bet here is that a good chunk of that listenership will carry over into on-demand, which is a transition bound to happen just about anywhere in the world.

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More on editors. Last week, I wrote about Planet Money’s hiring of Bryant Urstadt as the team’s new senior editor, contextualizing the hire within a larger conversation about an editing crisis not just in audio, but also in journalism more broadly. Given that editors more or less serves as the gatekeepers of curated, public information, I found the crisis absolutely fascinating, and it turned out to resonate with Hot Pod readers as well. Many wrote in to express their own thoughts on the matter, and many had the same question I had: how do you train to become an editor in the first place?

Curious, I reached out to Alison MacAdam, a senior editorial specialist with NPR’s editorial training team and the author of the Poynter column that sparked the conversation around the crisis, to explore the question. MacAdam, who was a senior editor on All Things Considered for almost 7 out of 12 years she worked on the program (and a former Nieman Fellow), obviously spend a lot of time thinking about the issue, operating from a place of having worked long hours in the trenches.

We spoke for a while, and I’ll break our conversation out in chunks here.

Clarifying the problem. “There are actually two separate challenges when we talk about the editor shortage and building a pipeline of editors,” MacAdam laid out. “The first is: How do content organizations train editors and create pathways for people to become editors? If you worked in, for example, WNYC or NPR, is there an explicit pathway if you went to your boss and asked to be an editor? Do they have an answer for you, or not?”

The second challenge has to do with the changing nature of what it takes to be an editor in this age where the fundamental structures of media are being increasingly disrupted (forgive the phrase). “What are the skills that editors need? That answer keeps changing because the industry keeps changing,” she said. “And because editing is a comparatively invisible craft, it’s that much harder to get the motivation to sit down and really think about the role: what they need to know now, and what’s timeless.”

When I asked her what, exactly, remained timeless, she replied: “Solid news judgment. Even if styles change there are some ways we distinguish good writing from bad writing. The ability to communicate is also really, really important.”

Identification. “I also think that, fundamentally, no matter what kind of editor you’re talking about, editors need a track record of making stories better. And that’s the conundrum — that’s really hard to identify,” MacAdam said. “That’s something organizations need to think about. How do you identify people you might think has potential, and what are the ways that we can give chances for them to prove themselves?”

MacAdam credits the emergence of on-demand audio with encouraging more unconventional editing approaches, many of which have increased the chances of identifying potential editors. One such approach is group-editing, a technique favored by teams like This American Life, Planet Money, and Gimlet. “It opens up the editing process so more people can take part and see what goes into shaping a story,” she said.

Independent opportunities. I was curious: if you’re not already in a newsroom, are there ways to create opportunities to learn? MacAdam seemed skeptical, but offered that the first thing to do would be to edit a friend’s work. “Though,” she was quick to add. “I think it’s worth noting that it’s really hard to qualify as an editor of stories, if you haven’t made stories yourself. I just don’t think anyone will trust that you know what’s good if you haven’t struggled to make what’s good.”

When I asked if being an editor is really something that could be self-taught, MacAdam seemed soft on that possibility as well. “Editing is about relationships,” she said. “It’s 50 percent story and journalism instincts — how is something structured? what’s the hook? — and the other 50 percent involves social skills. You can have amazing editorial, journalistic instincts, but if you can’t express your thoughts to people, there’s no real impact being made.”

But MacAdam concedes that there are things you can learn on your own, like listening (and reading and watching) closely to pick up on the micro- and macro- elements of story structure. “The macro stuff involves questions at a broad level: At what point in this story was I bored? Confused? Questions like pacing and structure,” she said. “And focusing on the micro is the ability to talk about lines and sound and the use of imagery in specific places, things like that.”

Job postings. “This might be interesting for you: It’s not like nobody is defining what an editor is. You can look at job postings to see how organizations are thinking about things,” she said.

And what are good examples of such postings? MacAdam points to an editor opening at Chicago Public Media, in particular. “I was really impressed by that posting,” she said. “It’s no surprise because that organization is run by someone who is really smart editorially, Ben Calhoun.” (Calhoun is the VP of content and programming at Chicago Public Media/WBEZ and is a former producer at This American Life.)

She also singled out the deputy managing editor for news position posted by Vox.com, pointing to a particular job requirement: “Clear, goals-based management style with proven success metrics,” it read. MacAdam expressed fascination over this. “I don’t get the sense that newsrooms prior to ten years ago had many ways of measuring success metrics. It’s a very new idea, or it’s an idea that come about because of technology,” she said. “Imagine a posting in 1985 for an investigative reporter in The Washington Post talking about success metrics. Hmm.”

  • Digiday has a pretty good writeup of Atlas Obscura’s sponsored podcast, Escape Plan, along with some interesting detail on the shape of the deal between the publication and the sponsor, ZipCar. (Digiday) And be sure to read this profile on Atlas Obscura (Washingtonian) along with this column on sponsored content more broadly. (The New York Times)
  • WNYC is open-sourcing its “audiogram” tool. (Medium, Nieman Lab) FWIW, I’m still pretty meh on the concept of audio clip distribution via social platforms as means of discovery, particularly after reading that 85 percent of Facebook video is consumed without sound — something I’ve understood to be reflective of more basic social media consumption habits. (Digiday) But hey, the point of these things is to break open paradigms, so my fingers are as crossed as ever.
  • NPR will end production of Best of Car Talk show (also known as Zombie Car Talk) as of September 30, 2017, though the show will live on as a podcast after that date. It is reportedly NPR’s third most consumed show, with a weekly audience of 2.6 million, though its existence is somewhat controversial among public media insiders. Current has a comprehensive write-up on the development, and you should check it out.
  • “Canadian podcasters are being drowned out by American offerings. Why?” (Metro Toronto)
  • The BBC’s iPlayer Radio app is now available in the U.S., which lets listeners access the full range of the institution’s radio feeds along with its podcasts and curated selections of past content. (Mac Rumors)
  • Al Jazeera’s Canvas Studio is launching an innovation competition called the “Future of Audio Challenge.” Audio technologists — check it out.