Panoply’s Pinna might just be the first really interesting attempt to get people to pay for podcasts

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 136, published October 17, 2017.

60dB → Google. Google has acqui-hired the team behind 60dB, the personalized short-form audio app. The team, which goes by the name of Tiny Garage Labs, announced the move last Tuesday, and a Google representative confirmed the development to Business Insider. As part of this arrangement, the app will shut down on November 10.

The development originally surfaced in an unlisted Medium post that appeared to be prematurely published back on September 16. That post was eventually taken down, but you can check out screenshots of the draft here. Note the details that didn’t make it to the final announcement copy.

The acquisition sum was not publicly disclosed, and it is unclear from last week’s announcement where, exactly, the 60dB team will be situated within Google. (That unlisted Medium post, however, holds a clue, though no guarantees on its ultimate validity.) That said, I’m told that the editorial team — made up of three full-time staffers in Austin, San Francisco, and London, whose duties include production and the management of a network of freelancers — will indeed follow the rest of the company to the Googleplex.

Tiny Garage Labs’ pickup by Google takes place two years after its founding, and about a year after 60dB went live. The company was founded by two former Netflix executives, John Ciancutti and Steve McLendon, along with former Planet Money reporter Stephen Henn, who vociferously outlined his reasons for leaving the public radio system in a Medium post (what else?) published early 2016. “The biggest threat to NPR  —  and the 900+ member stations that are the life-blood of the public radio system  —  is that this big beautiful crazy system may not get its act together to make the jump into the digital age,” Henn wrote. “I want to help.”

60dB’s original premise broadly echoes ideas of platforms past. Its aim is some combination of solving the inefficiencies ingrained in the traditional broadcast radio experience — if you’re hearing something that you don’t want, your moves are either to switch across a relatively limited selection of channels or wait for time to pass within the confines of a specific station — and the newer inefficiencies that have emerged from the theoretically infinite choice horizon introduced by the Internet, including breakdowns in discovery and curation. The nature of the solution is twofold: (1) to usher in an audio creation environment in which the atomic unit of content is not an individual episode (whose lengths, as any podcast listener can tell you, range widely) but a short, individual story piece; and (2) to match listeners with appropriate stories through “algorithmic personalization.” (Which reminds me: best to keep abreast of the various recent discussions, debates, and diatribes about the intersection of news and algorithms.) The theoretical upside for publishers is also familiar: in theory, these short-form audio pieces, should publishers choose to produce them, will (presumably) be consumed by more listeners as a result of these solved inefficiencies. As far as monetization goes, who knows. “Right now, we’re working on nailing the experience,” cofounder Ciancutti told me last November. “Monetization will come next.” Okay.

60dB poses a strikingly specific interpretation of the digital audio consumption future, one that doesn’t naturally follow from the current configuration of the on-demand audio ecosystem and requires the development of whole new systems and environments. Which, I suppose, is why Tiny Garage Labs ended up at Google two years in as opposed to sticking it out alone; it’s a big vision that requires big investment in big manual constructions, which I imagine isn’t very attractive to VC money. A considerable portion of the company’s content value proposition involve a hands-on, sprawling production of individual story units — led by the aforementioned three-person editorial team — by an array of manually facilitated publishing partners, ranging from Wired to The Atlantic, which is a workable but not terribly scalable system without either building out an internal editorial headcount or cultivating a client culture in which publishers shell out for their own internal short-form audio teams. Now that the team is heading to Google (nobody’s idea of an organization that’s accepting of manual labor) I’m hard pressed to think that the manual production portion of the process will last very long. (Perhaps it’s time to pay close attention to the text-to-speech category.)

In any case, all of this discussion is moot unless we know just how Tiny Garage Labs — with its short-form, algorithm thesis — will fit into Google’s apparatus. (If it gets slotted meaningfully into somewhere, of course. Google acqui-hires all the time, and sometimes those absorptions grow into something, like Songza becoming the template for Google Play Music, and sometimes they amount to not very much at all, like FeedBurner.) One emerging theory: 60dB seems like a good entry point for news distribution via the tech giant’s recently announced foray in the emerging smart speaker category, the vaguely IKEA-reminiscent Google Home line. Indeed, the Amazon Echo has been getting a lot of love from publishers playing around with daily briefing Alexa skills. In 60dB, Google now has their means to play catch-up, if indeed they want to catch up at all.

So, what does this acquisition mean for anybody other than Google and everybody who held equity in Tiny Garage Labs? Really, what does this mean for publishers? As always, it comes down to how you feel about dominant platforms, and in particular, how you feel about Google’s position as one of the two corporate octopi that make up the so-called duopoly. It also depends on your feelings about Google’s ever-evolving relationship with the media industry, which nowadays is being funneled through its various Google News divisions, and whether you’d be comfortable operating in an environment largely defined by a much larger entity whose motives are never quite aligned with yours, whose processes of learning might be destructive as much as (perhaps even more so than) it is constructive. This isn’t a moral calculus, mind you. It is a calculus of practicality.

Tiny Garage Labs starts work at Google this week.

Will people pay for podcasts? Maybe. How about children? “We were waiting until we had a project that really made sense for the business model,” Panoply chief content officer Andy Bowers said, reflecting on a long-standing interest in the potential of paid podcasts. “The idea here, as with Netflix, is to sell something that simply couldn’t be found anywhere else.”

In this instance, that something is audio programming for children, which is the substance of the new paid listening service that Panoply announced a few weeks ago. The service is called Pinna, and for $7.99 a month (or $79.99 a year), parents can blanket their offspring with a variety of kid-oriented audio products, including podcasts and audiobooks. The service was first officially announced through a New York Times write-up in early October.

Pinna emerges as a fairly elegant solution to a key problem in the kids’ podcast category: that of its monetization. Under the current industry environment in which podcasts are principally ad-driven, the prospect of children’s programming has been limited by a general uneasiness about letting kids be an advertising target in the so-called intimate medium of podcasts. (The very nature of its effectiveness is also its downside). Interest in children’s podcast programming has surged over the past few months, with the industry seeing the emergence of a few notable initiatives to capitalize on it, including the formation of a loose collective known as Kids Listen and a foray into the genre by NPR, called Wow in the World, which is really an initiative driven by hosts Guy Raz (of TED Radio Hour and How I Built This fame, and a former Nieman fellow) and SiriusXM’s Mindy Thomas working through their own production company, Tinkercast. These efforts were great signals of intent and ambition, but these initiatives never quite appeared to meaningfully grapple with alternatives beyond assailing children (and their parents) with mattress ads.

Building a paid subscription service has always been an option on the table for anybody game to take it, of course. But that route requires not only significant resources but also a willingness to attend to an even bigger question, one constantly uttered around the industry: can you actually get people to pay for podcasts? Which is to say, can you start selling a media product that’s largely available to consumers for free, whose very origins are tethered in a tradition of free-ness? (Which is separate from the original question of Audible, as a culture and expectation of payment around audiobooks has been established since the very beginning.) And so here we are, with Panoply’s attempt to answer the twin questions of paid and children’s podcasting, which comes in the form of a service called Pinna, named after that weird dip in the outline of your ear. (Cute! Also, gross.)

Bowers pegged the origins of the project to a panel at WNYC Greene Space last February, when an attendee asked about the prospect of children’s programming. But the project only meaningfully began development about a year ago, when Panoply was able to get its parent company, Graham Holdings, on board with the idea. In January, the company hired Emily Shapiro, a veteran in children’s programming and the cofounder of the New York International Children’s Film Festival, to lead the project, which was then almost entirely produced in-house. The hire was not made public. “We didn’t want to tip our hand,” Bowers said. (Classic.)

Pinna’s inventory is built on a mixture of licensed material, like stories from Rabbit Ears Entertainment (Panoply serves as its exclusive online distributor), and original content, like the new Gen-Z Media show The Ghost of Jessica Majors. I’m told that there’s no hard and fast ratio between licensed and original content, but the composition naturally favors acquired content at the moment. To describe the platform’s trajectory, Bowers once again evoked Netflix, pointing out how that service’s offerings started out with licensed content, before the data gathered — through the app’s own in-episode listening analytics capabilities, which Pinna will boast — allowed it to start making focused choices with original program development. (By the way, it’s probably worth noting that most of Pinna’s resources are allocated to original programming.)

It should be noted that Pinna content won’t exclusively live behind its paywall. If you were to wander around your nearest podcast app listings, you would find the Pinna podcast feed, which features many of Pinna’s original content for free, without ads, but those episodes won’t be available indefinitely. (Which is to say, it will be an ever-evolving feed.) The feed exists in part to serve as a customer acquisition funnel, but Bowers maintains that it’s also driven by a civic orientation. “The hope is to have the content be accessible to children from across the socioeconomic spectrum,” he explained. “This is something I wanted from the very beginning.”

Let’s see where this goes. It’s only been a few weeks, and I’ll swing back after a month or so — preferably having commandeered someone’s App Annie account — to check in on the early stages of the gambit.

Some miscellaneous thoughts:

(1) So, Pinna isn’t the first example of an attempt to answer the question “Will people actually pay for podcasts?” (Which is a claim I’ve seen floating around, weirdly enough.) We have Audible, obviously, which still endeavors to build out an original content business on top of its primary audiobook-driven engine. And we also have Midroll’s own forays with the service formerly known as Howl, now genetically melded with Stitcher after Midroll’s parent company Scripps acquired the app from Deezer last summer. Midroll still seeks to build out a premium layer to that app configuration, primarily with its own adventures in windowing (as we saw with Missing Richard Simmons). With that in mind, I will say that Pinna strikes me as the first attempt at paid podcasting that’s strategically interesting. Audible and the Stitcher-Howl frankenstein both compete in the marketplace with inventory that’s virtually undifferentiated from much of what’s available for free over the open ecosystem. Pinna, for all that it is, is a reach toward an audience segment that hasn’t been properly cultivated among podcasts just yet, and offers products that still haven’t been “priced” as free within the ecosystem’s context. With that value prop in place, I think they have a good chance to extract at least some value.

(2) Speaking of which: why hasn’t Audible original content division made a play for the kids category? David Markowitz, a Hot Pod reader and audiobook production veteran, laid out a theory: “Audiobooks are the piece that gives [Audible] its value. Which is exactly why Audible doesn’t want to go there…they don’t want to fracture their audience,” the reader wrote in. “Kids audiobooks have never done well in Audible, though they do great in libraries. Parents love them. BUT within the Audible token system, a 15-minute kids’ book costs the same as a 14 hour sci-fi epic. So within that market, they’re stupidly overpriced.”

I asked Bowers for his thoughts. True to form, he avoided speculating much. “I’m surprised that they haven’t done it,” Bowers replied. “But I’m glad we got there first.” Sassy man.

(3) Additionally, Pinna is a notable example of a genre-specific listening app, a category that mirrors some of what we’re seeing in the OTT video sector (see AMC’s Shudder and the now-defunct Seeso.) Of course, Pinna isn’t the only effort in this category. Curious observers should check out an independent app called VSporto, which focuses on sports, and Laughable, which focuses on comedy content that more or less plays within Earwolf’s lane.

(4) One more: Pinna is the latest in what appears to be an increasingly sprawling set of businesses conducted under the Panoply banner, adding to a list that includes original content creation, ad sales, branded content production, and technology solutions (in the form of Megaphone). At what point is it diversification, and at what point is it madness?

No Pain is Novel. Ben Johnson, the former host of APM’s Marketplace Tech who recently moved over to WBUR, tweeted this at me a few days ago, probably in a moment of frustration as he develops a new show:

*flashes of domain-squatting trauma*

Holding position for new Apple analytics. The iOS 11 update kicked in while I was away, and while listeners have received a brand new re-designed Podcasts app (complete with new episode listing formats), the long-awaited in-episode analytics layer — previously pegged to the update — is still nowhere to be seen. I’m told that it will come later this year, even though there isn’t much year left.

Publishers, it seems, will have to keep holding their breath. “It’s like Waiting for Godot,” one executive said to me recently. In the meantime, you can check out (or re-read) my previous coverage on the matter here and here.

In other blasphemous news, I do find myself missing the Old Podcast App.

The Third Coast Festival announces its award winners. They include: Stitcher’s The Longest Shortest Time, Love+Radio, Youth Radio, Gimlet’s Heavyweight, Radio Ambulante, Radio Diaries, Serial Production’s S-Town, the Center for Investigative Reporting’s Reveal, independent producer Laura Irving, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s PocketDocs, and  Minnesota Public Radio’s 74 Seconds. Full descriptions here. Congrats to all!

The numbers. I’ve got some download numbers, and we’ll keep running them like baseball stats until the download paradigm stops being relevant.

  • Dirty John, the salacious true crime collaboration between LA Times and Wondery, has picked up some heat since launching in early October. It started the week with 4.4 million downloads across its six episode run (~733k per episode average). Bolstered in part by a big Apple Podcast feature banner splash, the show has held the top spot of the charts over the past two weeks.
  • Elsewhere, the Snap Judgment spin-off Spooked, broke a million downloads across five episodes (~200k per episode average) in its first month.
  • The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s successful regional true crime podcast, Breakdown, will soon welcome its fifth season, and it celebrates the new cycle by sending out a press release in which the paper claims the podcast has received over 8 million downloads across 36 episodes, four seasons, and two years

The last five weeks. A month and a week is both a lot of time and not a lot of time at all. It follows, then, that a lot can happen without very much actually happening at all. Such is the feeling of the past few days, a good portion of which I spent scanning my inbox, Pocket archives, and various source pools to get a sense of a macro-story that’s emerged over the Hot Pod Hiatus of Fall 2017. Alas, I could find no such organizing narrative, so forgive my lack of comprehensiveness as I list out a couple of narrative threads that stood out during the hiatus:

(1) The industry wasn’t done with fundraising. Both Acast and Anchor drummed up new pots of money in September ($19.5 million in Series B and $10 million in Series A, respectively). Meanwhile, Gimlet Media secured an additional $5 million from WPP, the global advertising giant, for its recent $15 million Series B round, which is being principally positioned as a sign of confidence from a major player in the advertising community.

(2) HowStuffWorks has officially spun off from its parent company, a digital advertising company called System1. Now operating as an independent entity, it will weather its newfound freedom with a $15 million Series A fundraising round led by the Raine Group (background here). This development comes shortly after the nearly two decade-old Atlanta podcast company noticeably dedicated some investment to building out a West Coast operation, one oriented around the stalwart comedy podcast genre. That Western Conference — it’s still very competitive.

(3) Crooked Media, the new-age progressive digital media company founded by former Obama staffers that’s been primarily operating as a podcast network, has officially expanded into blogging. Or digital text. Or whatever you wanna call it. In any case, the budding media empire has begun its inventory diversification, taking on a distinctly Ringer-esque quality. My buddies at Nieman Lab published a pretty good interview with the company’s new text editor-in-chief, Brian Beutler, who was swiped away from the New Republic.

(4) I’ve never received more texts, emails, messages — from podcast execs all the way to casual Hot Pod readers — for a single podcast news story than I did for that TMZ story on the controversy hitting PodcastOne founder and chairman Norm Pattiz, which came with the headline: “PodcastOne Founder Sued: ‘He Pulled a Gun to Intimidate Me Into Fudging Podcast Data.'” Tabloid headlines being tabloid headlines, it’s always worth clicking through and assessing the details, and it’s worth noting that Pattiz has publicly disputed the claims. I’ve mentioned this previously, but whatever the actual end result of this suit, this is ultimately the first public major numbers fudging scandal of the modern podcast era.

(5) WNYC recently staged the third edition of its annual women in podcasting festival, Werk It, at the Ace Hotel in Los Angeles. This year’s festivities marked the first time the event was held outside of New York. And from the wave of press coverage, it seems to have gone well. Vanity Fair’s write-up, in particular, is comprehensive and well worth your time.

(6) I enjoyed this report on “Voice AI” assembled and published by the BBC’s Trushar Barot, which gets us a little closer to systematically thinking about wherever the emerging smart speaker category — which is effectively a bridge — is apparently leading us toward. And speaking of the BBC and smart speakers, the British public broadcaster has been experimenting with an audio drama delivered through the Amazon Echo and Google Home. Meanwhile, the wireless speaker company (and prominent podcast advertiser) Sonos has decided to play ball with the Amazon Echo and Google Home in a most interesting manner: by playing the role of platform.

(7) Three public radio operatives — KPCC’s Kristen Muller, KQED’s Umbreen Bhatti, and NPR’s Liz Danzico — have been researching the potential effects of self-driving cars on public radio listenership, which you could reasonably extrapolate and apply to other kinds of non-music audio products. “It feels distant for people,” Muller told Nieman Lab on the issue. “But for Umbreen and me, it felt very much like a now question.” I tweeted the article out, and summarily received emails from a few readers arguing that optimism over self-driving cars is overblown, that the timeline for adoption is nowhere close to being “sooner than you think” in the way that Nieman Lab’s headline suggested. I’d argue the timeline isn’t the point. Much like the Really Big One, it doesn’t matter whether it’s the next five years or the next fifty; planning for large-scale impacts should start as soon as possible.

So those are seven stories that stood out to me. Two quick ones before I toss to the Bites: apparently Terry Gross is a Twitter lurker operating under a pseudonym (I KNEW IT), and I recently wrote a brief overview of the short history of podcasting for Wired.

Bites

  • Joel Meyer, one of the smartest and funniest operators in the industry, is heading to WNYC Studios, where he will serve as an executive producer. In doing so, he leaves WBEZ, where he held the title of Executive Producer of Talk Programming and Podcasts. Meyer is also a former Panoply staffer. He will work remotely from Chicago, and begins his tenure later this month.
  • Looks like Barstool Sports has broken into Podtrac’s Top Ten rankings, both on a network and show level. (As always, disclaimers apply.) On a related note, ESPN is apparently bringing Barstool’s Pardon My Take, itself a kind of ESPN spoof, to television. An ouroboros, a flat circle.
  • The Paragon Collective, the network behind the NoSleep podcast, gets a Fast Company profile. “I’m a TV writer so I’m very used to just writing for visuals. And so writing for an audio podcast, there’s no subtlety.” (Fast Company)
  • The television adaptation of Aaron Mahnke’s Lore has premiered on Amazon Prime Video. This isn’t the first podcast-to-TV launch ever, but I perceive Lore as the first in this buzzy wave of narrative television adaptations. Reviews are still coming in, trending positive, and I imagine I’ll get to it at some point despite the current state of Peak TV.
  • Bumped into this recently, and was impressed/amused: did you know that NPR has a branded podcast with Digiday’s native advertising team called The Podcast Payoff, which seeks to educate marketers about podcasts?
  • Radio Ambulante is holding a live storytelling event in New York on October 26, with proceeds being to support ongoing relief efforts in Puerto Rico. (Event link)
  • “The unlikely role of true crime podcasts in criminal justice reform.” (Quartz)
  • Not directly podcast-related, but measurement-related: “TV Industry Leaders Developing Purchase Measurement Plan for Advertisers.” Value narratives around established forms of advertising — it’s all socially constructed, y’know? (Variety)

The daily podcaster’s choice: Try to fit in listeners’ crowded mornings or tackle the evening commute?

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 133, published August 22, 2017.

The daily show. If The New York Times’ The Daily and NPR’s Up First — taken collectively as, like, an index fund of the daily news podcast construct writ large — have taught us anything, it’s that there’s a market for such an audio product — at least for one that’s done smartly, thoroughly, and in a way that brings the weight of legendary newsrooms to bear.

The successes of these two operations have been nothing short of impressive. As you might remember from this Vanity Fair feature that dropped last month, The Daily is now averaging half a million downloads per day, a feat made even more remarkable given that the thing launched in February. As for Up First, NPR tells me that it’s reaching a weekly unique audience of almost a million users; that show launched in April. (The differences in metric might make an apples-to-apples comparison complicated for those interesting in doing so — but I think the victor is pretty clear.) Between the two shows — three if you count the offbeat entry from The Outline, but you shouldn’t, because it’s doing something completely different — you could argue that the daily news podcast space is more or less defined now, with the broad major players set well in place.

We’ll soon find out the extent to which that is true with a new entrant, one significantly different from the two incumbents in many key ways. Last week, I led the newsletter with word that Vox Media is working with Midroll Media to create a daily news podcast. That show will be supported by a six-person team, housed under the Vox.com banner, and will hopefully launch in early 2018. The search for the host and executive producer is on, with the job postings going up shortly after the initial news drop. (Here and here, if you’re wondering.)

I can’t say I’m surprised by the news. Vox Media has long exhibited a deep interest in the on-demand audio space, and the organization has proven to be consistently effective in its experimentation and increasingly formalized in its machinations: initially developing working relationships with multiple companies across the industry, deploying different arrangements for different podcasts between brands, eventually hiring an executive producer to oversee the entire operation, and finally inching towards consolidation. (Vox.com’s The Weeds and The Ezra Klein Show, whose productions were once handled by Panoply, were recently moved in-house.) This move to get into the daily news podcast fight seems a logical next step in Vox Media’s ambitions, even more so given the genre’s newfound prestige and rising prominence as the place to blaze some trails.

Where the Times and NPR are legacy entities with the weights and advantages of history behind them, Vox Media is young, emergent, and digitally native. Which, you know, kinda makes it unclear whether the latter will have any weight to bear or if this will be a pure deadlift. But then again, the critique against legacy entities has always been that they’re comparatively slow and lumbering. In any case, there’s a lot to consider with this bubbling development, and me, I’m mostly thinking about two things: time and talent.

Time. There’s something that the job description doesn’t note that I find eminently interesting: whether the podcast will cater to the morning or evening commute. This, in my mind, is the most interesting, if not the biggest, strategic question. My gut (which is by no means a reputable or scientific source) tells me that there’s some meaningful overlap in audience between The New York Times and Vox.com, and so I imagine if Vox were to pursue the morning news route they would be putting a good portion of their target audience in the position of having to choose between The Daily and its new audio product. Whether that outcome is suboptimal is worth weighing; on the one hand, Vox’s product starts off in a position of working to cull from the former’s base, and on the other hand, you might have a situation where Vox’s new product rubs up against the work of having to interrupt a habit that’s been cultivated as far back as possibly February.

One could assume the position that the daily-news-podcast-consuming audience — with its voracious appetite for news — would want more than one daily news podcast in their morning routine. But to play to that base is to set hard ceilings off the bat. Such a news consumer is a highly specific creature, the theoretical opposite of a general consumer — which is fine if that’s the intention, but there’s only so far you can go unless the broader strategy is to foster a new, bigger generation of news obsessive. (Again, if that’s the plan, fantastic.) Further, as a matter of programming, aiming to be the second in a morning rotation means having to prevent a sense of repetition.

But let’s say the strategic premise of developing another daily morning news podcast is to carve out a new audience, separate and apart from what’s already been built with The Daily and Up First. What competitive traits do you need to guarantee? You would, at the very least, require that your brand means something distinct (and perhaps meaningfully separate) from those of The New York Times and NPR, such that the brands do not overlap. (Is that possible, or even desirable? The question is worth entertaining.) You would also have to develop a mastery over podcast audience development channels that aren’t already over-exploited; would plastering house ads over Vox Media’s various brands be enough in forming a new base audience for the podcast?

Anyway, this is all a longwinded way of saying: At this moment, there’s more upside than downside to making a move for the evening commute. It’s a different kind of game, sure, but the end-of-the-work-day news roundup (the All Things Considered slot, essentially) is still unclaimed territory in podcast-land. (Though, I suppose, you’d still have to account for Slate’s The Gist, which can technically be sorted as a news podcast but is truly more of a magazine.)

Before I move on, there’s something else I’m wondering: Will the competitive environment of the daily morning news podcast function more like the morning TV arena — in that program-audience relationships are more or less exclusive and fixed — or will it be a little more fluid, like how multiple physical newspapers can fit into a morning media diet? I hope it’s more the former, and if so, someone better get moving on writing Top of the Morning, but for podcasts.

Talent. From the official job listing:

As we envision it, the host of this show will be the audience’s guide and champion — asking the questions they would ask, having the conversations they want to have, channeling the curiosity they feel. You are their smart, enthusiastic, skeptical friend — not their boring professor. To that end, we are relying on the host to have a strong point of view on the world, to see unusual angles and interesting stories everywhere, and to be genuinely, joyously interested in pretty much everything.

Big job, big ask, eh? My queries, right off the bat: Will Vox.com bring in a relatively experienced talent, perhaps from an established radio or podcast team, or will they elevate someone from in-house that may be less proven in front of the mic? (Or will they perhaps bring in an untested outsider with some measure of celebrity? Totally valid option, let’s be real.) Who will be the non-Ezra Klein sound of Vox.com, which is essentially what this amounts to?

Also, side question: How will they test the hire? The Daily’s Michael Barbaro, after all, was able to cut his teeth with the comparatively low stakes The Run-Up, and NPR never really had to deal with that question — after all, Up First was basically just a straightforward adaptation of the built-in Morning Edition operation, no talent testing required.

There’s so much potential here, and there’s a whole lot of room to assemble a really cool voice and vision with this gig. (And the opportunity for host-producer superteams! Man.) Anyway, I’m excited, obviously, I’ll be tracking this story closely. Who will be the anti-Barbaro? Send me your ideas, let’s place some bets, I’m all ears. (Speaking of which, the dude now has, like, two published appreciations: The New Yorker and BuzzFeed. This is getting out of control.)

More on Up First. In their response to my queries for the previous item, NPR also shared the following data points: A survey of Up First’s audience shows that 61 percent of its listeners are under 35, which is said to be younger than NPR’s overall podcast audience, and that 44 percent of the podcast’s listeners have never listened to Morning Edition. Further, 97 percent of the audience report that the podcast is “part of their morning routine” and 80 percent report that “they listen every day.”

Fun times.

Radiotopia’s Millennial has come to an end, creator Megan Tan announced in a final dispatch that dropped last Wednesday. The reason, we’re told, has to do a lot with the difficulty of sustainably maintaining the show’s unique diaristic format — Millennial is, was, for a long time, the first-person account of a life — and grappling with the podcast’s shifting identity when Tan made the decision to open the show up in scope after it was picked up by Radiotopia last May.

“Maintaining a memoir-style show is difficult,” she explained to me over email. “Even as Millennial transitioned from Season One’s linear narrative of my life to other people’s stories, we still had to tie each episode back to me personally. Finding ways to create a personal throughline to each episode with an emotional tie became taxing and wasn’t always possible…at a certain point, the more we problem-solved the production of the show, the more it felt like Millennial’s identity started to blur. When those two factors started to come to a head, it made sense for me to end the show.”

Millennial is the first Radiotopia show to officially cease production since the podcast collective’s launch in February 2014. The show’s closure also technically means that Tan is no longer with Radiotopia, though the possibility for future collaborations exists. As for what comes next, she tells me: “Being an independent podcaster in many ways is extremely lonely. My next steps are to find a team of people to work with and help contribute to a show. Right now, I’m casting a wide net and exploring a lot of different opportunities.”

Third Coast adds a new component to its programming. Tomorrow, the organization will announce a new public-facing live event series that will accompany its usual producer-focused conference. “The Fest,” as it’s called, will take place in Chicago, of course, and the programming slate will span across a two-week period in November. Its inaugural lineup will include live shows from Love+Radio, Re:sound, Reveal, and Longform, with more to come.

“To us, it’s the perfect scenario: A conference that hones producers’ talent alongside a public festival of live events, together making Chicago the epicenter of the audio storytelling world for two weeks in November,” the team tells me. “We’re excited to flex our Third Coast curatorial muscles to gather audiences for story-based podcasts that were nurtured over the years at our very own conference.”

The Fest’s website will launch tomorrow, so watch for that, and by the way, registration for this year’s conference opens today.

Alice Isn’t Dead gets adaptation deals. The Night Vale team is no stranger to book publishing, with two novels (Welcome to Night Vale: A Novel, It Devours) and one episode collection (Mostly Void, Partially Stars) under their belt. Last week, they announced a new addition to their list of book projects: Alice Isn’t Dead, Joseph Fink’s creepy road-trip audio drama about a truck driver in search of her wife, will now be a novel as well. Fink notes that the book will feature a new story “built on the same bones,” and it’s scheduled to drop next fall. The audio drama is also getting a TV adaptation, which will be Night Vale Presents’ first. That project is being developed by Universal Cable Productions for USA Network, though no specific dates are attached to it just yet.

The steady drumbeat of podcast-to-TV adaptations rumbles on.

Gatekeepers, demographics, a production studio. “It’s not a democratic process at all,” wrote Juleyka Lantigua-Williams, CEO of the newly formed production company Lantigua Williams & Co., when I asked for her thoughts on whether the podcast industry has gatekeepers. “The major distributors make themselves de facto gatekeepers by selecting what they distribute…Big media companies with deep pockets also crowd the field by using their megaphones to promote passable content and drowns out new voices in the process.”

She continued: “So much of what is being created now is still geared to the standard media audience: a middle-class white person living in a suburb. That is the media consumer from the past, and creators — especially Latino and other people of color — must orient their work towards the audience of the future: an educated middle-class woman of color living in a midsize city. She’s the future.”

Lantigua-Williams is a 17-year media veteran, having operated as an editor, writer, and syndicated columnist for various organizations including The Atlantic and National Journal. Most recently, she served as the lead producer and editor on NPR’s Code Switch team, roles she held until June when she decided to leave and start her own venture. She describes Lantigua Williams & Co. as a production company, one that’s dedicated to “partner with people and organizations to produce work that has a clear social justice thread using radio, digital, and visual media.” Since launch, the company has assembled a solid initial string of clients, including: Latino USA, a project called Protégé Podcast (which examines people of color in corporate America), and various independent film projects.

I originally got in touch with Lantigua-Williams when she sent me a pitch arguing that “podcasts are the perfect medium for Latinos to truly break into media and forego the traditional loops associated with establishment media.” When I followed up, she provided a response worth running in full:

As with most worthwhile endeavors, a good podcast starts off as a good idea that sprouts at the intersection of knowledge and storytelling. You have to figure out something that is worth knowing and worth sharing and find the most compelling way to bring it to an audience that has too many choices.

Latinos, because of our long history in the U.S.; because of how vociferous we have been about asserting our right to belong here; because of the continuous flow of Latinos and our ideas into and throughout the country; because we are the youngest population cohort in the country (60,000 of us turn 18 every single month); and because we will constitute the largest group in the ascending brown majority, are largely defining what it will mean to be American in the next century and beyond. What we eat, the sports we love, how we worship, how we spend our trillion-dollar portion of the economy, and ultimately how we define our hyphenated identity creates the most fertile ground for creatives with vision to amplify their version of life as in the U.S. now.

And podcasts are among the most cost-efficient media forms right now. With less than $1,000 in equipment and some savvy social media marketing, a good idea can flourish, and an original voice can be amplified by the masses.

For too long, Latinos have followed a very traditional path to success, the original formula dictated by the myth of the American Dream: We go to school, get a job, and wait to be promoted. That formula is outdated and outmoded. Billenials (as bilingual Latino millennials have been dubbed by Univision) can leapfrog the usual gatekeepers by using their natural high tech-adoption rates, advanced social media skills, and cross-cultural knowledge to tell rich and necessary stories beyond the fight at the border.

For more information, you can hit up the Lantigua Williams & Co. website here.

Career Spotlight. Let’s say you’re a young person looking for professional purpose, some idea of a future, so what do you do? You move cities, get closer to the action, grab some people, take whatever opportunities cross you by: internships, fellowships, freelance jobs here, there, anywhere. You cobble together whatever you can into the shape of a thing that could hopefully pass as a career. If you’re lucky, you don’t have to work a third or fourth gig to pay the bills. But that’s only if you’re lucky. And you wonder: Where is this all going? What does this all lead to? The answer, maybe, is always the same: Who knows, we’ll see.

This week, I traded emails with Alice Wilder, a young producer from the South in her early 20s.

[storybreak]

[conl]Hot Pod: Tell me about your current situation.[/conl]

[conr]Alice Wilder: Currently I’m the podcast/video intern for FiveThirtyEight. Really, I’m the podcast intern. Right now, my manager Galen Druke is working on a miniseries for the site, so I’ve been focusing mostly on that (transcribing tape, assembling sessions, scheduling interviews etc). I also work on the weekly politics podcast.

In my spare time I run a newsletter called Cult of the Month with my best friend Kelsey Weekman. It’s our passion project (and a way to justify spending hours researching the Breatharians).[/conr]

[conl]HP: How did you get to this point? What does your career arc thus far look like?[/conl]

[conr]Wilder: I would not have any type of “career arc” if it wasn’t for Lauren Spohrer and Phoebe Judge, who let some random college girl transcribe tape for Criminal. People think I’m bullshitting when I say that I actually enjoyed transcribing tape, but listening to Phoebe interview is a masterclass and it gave me a deeper understanding of each story we did. I still miss logging tape for Criminal.

Then I asked if I could be an intern, and made a promise to myself that I would not say no to anything they asked of me. Lauren, Phoebe, and Nadia Wilson (our new producer!) are the best people to work for, they did not restrict me to typical intern tasks and took my thoughts (and pitches!) seriously, which means a lot when you’re an intern.

I stayed at Criminal for two years (I did not spend much time on homework for those years). When I graduated from UNC (Go Heels!) I moved to New York to start my internship at FiveThirtyEight. I’ll be here until early September, when I’ll start interning for Planet Money. I’m also starting a weekly(ish) newsletter for interns in the media industry. We don’t have access to much institutional power and I want to help build a network for jobs and career resources.[/conr]

[conl]HP: Being pretty early on in your work life, how do you think about your next steps? What does a career mean to you, at this point?[/conl]

[conr]Wilder: To me, a career means having health insurance. I really, really want health insurance. My initial thought going into my senior year of college was that I want to make radio in the South. I have roots in North Carolina and Louisiana and want to hear stories that come from those regions. I’m in New York right now because that’s where podcast jobs are. Eventually I’ll find a way to move back south.[/conr]

[conl]HP: When you started out, what did you think wanted to do?[/conl]

[conr]Wilder: LOL. I thought I was going to be a social worker. For all of high school and the first two years of college I was very involved in local activism and centered my identity around being a Teen Feminist. My 15-year-old self would be horrified that I didn’t participate in the Women’s March. But I couldn’t, because doing so violated my employer’s policies on political action. Instead I spent that time dogsitting for a family that was going to the march.

I wrote columns for my college paper for two years, and that involved writing about myself a lot. Right after I had a bad experience (intense street harassment, reporting sexual assault, etc) I would turn around and publish it for thousands of people to read. I (finally) realized that writing about something and sharing it with the world is not the same as actually processing it. So I stopped the column, did that processing, and used the platform I had built at the newspaper to tell other people’s stories.

The best lesson I learned about having a career in this field, I learned from Phoebe Judge. She gave a workshop at The Daily Tar Heel and told us that there’s not just one route to having a fulfilling career. You don’t have to major in journalism, intern for The Washington Post or NPR, and go straight to a big name publication after college. At the time, it felt like all my peers were taking that route and I felt like it was already too late for me. It was such a relief to hear that there are so many paths that can lead to a great career, and they don’t always involve having The New York Times on your resume by the time you turn 22.[/conr]

[storybreak]

You can find Wilder on Twitter at @Alice_Wilder.

Bites:

  • “How public radio is using Amazon’s smart speakers.” (Current) Note that none of the three stations profiled in this piece “has had more than a few hundred unique listeners on the platform” and “St. Louis Public Radio saw about 6,000 plays on Alexa devices from some 500 unique customers from late January to mid-June.” Also, do pair this article with: “Why The Amazon Echo Show Won’t Bring Up Charlottesville (Or Bad News In General).” (Fast Company)
  • TuneIn has raised $50 million to expand its programming portfolio, Bloomberg reports. “TuneIn will use the money to pay for rights to live sporting events and original programming like podcasts and music shows, which will help the company sign up more customers for a two-year-old subscription service.” (Bloomberg)
  • This is curious, and generally consistent with RadioPublic’s principal thesis: the podcast playing platform is now “the only universal embed whitelisted on WordPress and Medium that works with any podcast hosting solution,” as CEO Jake Shapiro tells me. (WordPress Blog)
  • Apple is moving its iTunes U collection, its audio-visual repository of free educational content, into the Podcasts ecosystem with the upcoming iTunes 12.7 update that will drop in September. A bit crowded in there, huh? Here’s the official statement on the matter, and here’s some analysis from MacStories. Fun fact: iTunes U is the old haunt of Steve Wilson, the former editorial gatekeeper for Apple Podcasts (now the division’s first marketing lead).

[photocredit]Photo of evening commute on Highway 85 in San Jose, California by Travis Wise used under a Creative Commons license.[/photocredit]

“The radical act of women making media and owning it, too”: The (podcasting) future is female

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 110, published March 7, 2017.

A quick note of the sausage-making variety: I had originally planned this issue around the theme of platforms, which, in podcasting and just about everywhere else, seems to be the defining problem of our media-consuming era. However, the piece of news on which I had hoped to hang the week got pushed back for some reason or other, and I thought it would be bad form to break the embargo or perform some interpretative dance around the hole it leaves behind while continuing on with the theme. (The news is scheduled to roll out soon enough, though. You’ll know it when you see it.) Anyway, it’s all good, as this week turned out to have a thread of its own. You’ll figure that out soon enough.

That’s probably way more preamble than necessary. Let’s jump into the week.

Midroll executive producer leaves to start her own venture. Gretta Cohn, the company’s New York-based executive producer of show development, is breaking off to form her own production company. Identifying details of the new venture — including a name, focus, and initial client list — will be rolled out in the coming weeks, but Cohn told me last week that the business will be a production company that’s closer to something like Pineapple Street Media than a straightforward podcast network. “We’ll produce shows for a variety of partners and help brands and individuals create highly produced podcasts, from start to finish,” she said, noting that the company will specialize in highly edited and sound design–rich work. The company will also be producing original work.

The venture, whatever it will be called, is expected to officially launch in April.

Cohn enters the market with substantial experience as an operator in the new podcast industry. Her history with Midroll dates back to December 2014, when she was hired as a founding member of the company’s then-nascent New York office. There, Cohn was responsible for building out much of the company’s production staff, and she led development on several high-profile Earwolf projects, including the fantastic Beautiful Stories from Anonymous People with Chris Gethard, the Katie Couric podcast, and the relaunch of The Longest Shortest Time. She also led the initial programming slate within Howl, the premium subscription service that Midroll launched prior to acquiring Stitcher, which included Fruit, the fiction podcast by Issa Rae. Prior to her time at Midroll, Cohn worked at WNYC, where she served as the associate producer on Freakonomics Radio and Soundcheck. In a previous life, Cohn was a cellist in a rock band.

When asked for comment, Midroll CEO Erik Diehn told me: “She’s dead to me. JUST KIDDING. Gretta is a talented producer whose star is rising, and we were lucky to have her dedicated to Midroll full-time for more than two years…She’s done so much for us for so long that I cannot begrudge her the urge to strike out on her own and become the architect of her own destiny for a while.”

Diehn adds, “And while we’ll miss her, we view her new venture as a positive development overall for the industry. Our business depends on the flourishing of a Hollywood-style ecosystem of producers and production companies working with us on individual projects — much as Pineapple Street did with Missing Richard Simmons. The more talent independent production companies with whom we and others can work, the better.”

March 29 will be Cohn’s last day at Midroll. You can find her website here.

Third Coast Festival announces 2017 dates. Mark your calendars, ye bleeding heart audio documentarians: this year, the Chicago-based international audio festival will take place from November 9 to 11 — slightly earlier in the weekend, from Thursday to Saturday, which the festival’s organizers tell me will make it easier for attendees to travel back to their respective lives on Sunday. This latest conference will mark the second edition of Third Coast since the festival shifted to an annual production. It previously took place every two years.

Maya Goldberg-Safir, the festival’s artistic associate, passed me a few details:

  • In addition to the usual run of events, this year’s festival will also feature a three-hour bootcamp for audio production beginners looking for more exposure to the work. That’ll take place on the afternoon of November 9.
  • The festival will take place in the same hotel as last year, and the festival will be capped at 700 people./
  • Ticket prices will go up slightly this year. Keep an eye out for that.
  • Potential session leaders — and sponsors — are encouraged to reach out.

Tickets go on sale August 22.

Anchor 2.0. The Betaworks-incubated social audio app, which caught a fair bit of buzz when it first launched just over year ago, is making another push to establish its value. On Tuesday morning, the app rolled out its second iteration. Among its new features:

  • What appears to be an audio equivalent of the “Stories” feature that we see in visual social platforms like Snapchat and Instagram. (Has anybody coined a term for the phenomenon where, over the long run, everything on the Internet will ultimately be the same exact thing?)
  • New audio creation tools, including the ability to pull in music tracks from Apple Music or Spotify, external audio clips, and pre-made musical fillers. (One imagines that music licensing will be a big part of this conversation.)
  • Distribution over voice-first platforms like Amazon Alexa and Google Home, in addition to the usual places like iOS, Android, and that old thing called the web.

According to the press release, the app will also feature content from established publishers like Gizmodo Media Group, IGN, and WNYC, among others. The nature of the content partnerships between Anchor and those publishers remain unclear to me. Further details can be found in the company’s blog post.

The announcement comes with the revelation of a new $2.8 million funding round. It was led by Accel Partners, and includes The Chernin Group, the Omidyar Network, Mick Batyske, and Eniac Ventures, a previous investor.

I try not to make it a habit to write about social audio apps very much, but I do find this news interesting on two levels:

  • Anchor’s announcement seems to pit the app directly against Bumpers, the creation-emphasizing social audio app founded by Twitter alums Ian Ownbey and Jacob Thornton. (Evan Williams, one of Twitter’s many co-founders, is an investor in Bumpers.) While it remains to be seen whether an “Instagram” or “Snapchat” or “Twitter” (or “Yo”) for audio is a digital product category that will actually end up being a thing, it’s nonetheless fascinating to watch this sector of the digital audio space work itself out.
  • In my head, I’ve come to place Anchor and Bumpers in one bucket, given both these apps’ focus on serving as the mediating space between users and other users, while establishing another bucket specifically for short-form audio app 60dB and the AI-oriented Otto Radio which seems, to me at least, primarily occupied with developing a firm grasp on the interface between professional publishers and listeners.

This week I’m tracking… Edison Research’s Infinite Dial 2017 Study that’s due to come out this Thursday.

Going solo. “I dunno if this crossed your radar,” a reader wrote to me last month. “But I would love a Hot Pod interview with the ladies behind Stuff Mom Never Told You.” The reader mentioned that Cristen Conger and Caroline Ervin, the current hosts behind that feminist-oriented HowStuffWorks podcast, had published their last episode at the end of last year, and were moving on to start their own independent media company, Unladylike Media. (Not to be mistaken with the Australian podcast of the same name.) I had heard about the show’s current iteration ending, but I missed the fact that a new venture was coming out of this. So, I reached out to Conger with a few questions, and she obliged with a set of lengthy, fascinating responses.

“We’re much more ‘Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves’ than…a revenge song title that will probably come to me five minutes after I send this,” Conger insisted, not wanting the story’s angle to mischaracterize the impetus behind Unladylike Media’s formation, or its relationship with HowStuffWorks.

[storybreak]
[conl]Nicholas Quah: Could you walk me through the history of Stuff Mom Never Told You?[/conl]

[conr]Cristen Conger: Caroline and I were never “supposed” to be podcast hosts. We were both printed word nerds, met at our college newspaper and hadn’t ever regularly kept in touch. HowStuffWorks (HSW) wasn’t even a podcast network when they hired me as a staff writer in 2008. Unbeknownst to me, Caroline was working as an editor at a mid-size newspaper.

Not long after I started, HSW began dabbling in podcasts as a way to stretch the deeply researched articles we writers and editors were producing each week. Stuff You Should Know [the network’s flagship show] was such an instant juggernaut, the department essentially held an open call for new hosts and show ideas. That’s how Stuff Mom Never Told You (SMNTY) happened and eventually launched in February 2009 (first episode: Do men and women have different brains?). Also, credit where credit is due to then-HSW editor-in-chief Conal Byrne for getting that idea off the ground — and while knee-deep in a recession.

By happenstance, Caroline had left the newspaper job, moved back to Atlanta, and gotten in touch with me. We met up at a sports pub of all places, and it’s almost like we never stopped talking. We just had conversational chemistry out of the gate. Unlike my typical “friend dating” anxiety, I wasn’t panicking on the inside that I’d run out of interesting things to say and bring our hangout to an awkwardly silent halt.

So when the original co-host [Molly Edmonds] left [in 2011], Caroline hopped on board. Then in December, after 833 episodes, we hung up our Stuff Mom Never Told You headphones.[/conr]

[conl]Quah: What were the factors that led to your new venture?[/conl]

[conr]Conger: The more success we enjoyed with the show, the more Caroline sensed it was only a matter of time. I was a little more precious about, but then I went to Werk It: A Women’s Podcast Festival at WNYC in June and never looked back. If any of those rad women are reading this, thank you!

SMNTY was a tremendous opportunity, and we miss the fan community we built dearly. But we also want to do better by them, and we couldn’t do that and remain at HSW at the same time, both on principle and practicality.

Speaking exclusively to our situation since we aren’t attempting to speak for anyone currently with the company, there was no incentive to growing the show. We tumbled through two acquisitions [HSW’s current owner is the Seattle-based Bluecora, which bought the company from Discovery Communications in 2014] on scrappiness and inertia. But without IP ownership or revenue shares, the pot at the end of the rainbow was starting to look like fool’s gold. Meanwhile, we were producing two podcasts and as many as four videos each week; our content-ing game was fire, no doubt.

Plus, producing a massive library of more than 800 deeply researched episodes was a crash course in efficiency at the cost of creative growth. The medium had evolved so much during the show’s run that Caroline and I were also itching to break it all down and build something better and smarter, more dynamic and inclusive.

Not to mention we wanted to commit the radical act of women making media and owning it, too. It’s refreshing when feminism isn’t side-eyed as a liability.[/conr]

[conl]Quah: You said that “there was no incentive to growing” SMNTY. Could you talk more about that?[/conl]

[conr]Conger: Personally, I’ve thought about that a lot — what shifted my mindset to it no longer being OK to just Make The Thing and not worry so much about whether I was getting back what my time and talent are worth. When I pitched SMNTY in 2008, IP rights and revenue shares were a moot point. I earned a salary as the HSW staff writer I was hired to be, and that was that.

But in the meantime, the value of podcasting began growing inversely to the cheapening of editorial content, which was the HSW bread and butter — not to mention my own as a word nerd. Throw in the company changing hands a couple of times, and it makes sense that the industry outpaced its podcast model. What then shifted for me was not wanting to wait around for course correction while still not owning or profiting from growing the show. Plus, I’d been there since soon out of college and had just turned 30. It was time to bet on myself.[/conr]

[conl]Quah: And you mentioned that “it’s refreshing when feminism isn’t side-eyed as a liability.” Was that an issue at HSW?[/conl]

[conr]Conger: A feminist podcast about gender, bodies, and sexuality was understandably outside of the HSW core brand’s science/tech/trivia wheelhouse from the get-go. So it speaks highly that we even got the green light to launch. Nor were we ever censored. But when you’re 1) inherently off-brand (in a marketing sense) and 2) that brand ethos is feminism and 3) upper management is predominantly male, it can sometimes feel like an elephant in the room.[/conr]

[conl]Quah: Tell me more about Unladylike Media. What’s the premise, how does the business work right now, and how does it functionally differ from the arrangement with HowStuffWorks?[/conl]

[conr]Conger: At its core, Unladylike is us making the media we want to see in the world and wish existed when we were growing up. It’s also us taking a bet on ourselves, which is re-energizing to remember during this hustle. Neither of us left HSW until we left, so we’ve hit the ground running from the ground floor.

Next spring, Ten Speed Press is publishing Unladylike the book, so we’re currently splitting our time between manuscripting and developing a podcast pilot with Midroll. Women, gender, and feminism are still our holy trinity, but it’s a completely different concept from structure and sound to topics and narratives. It’s exactly the creative challenge that we’ve been pining for.

That means the business is still in development, which is a good thing because we’re taking the time to build a quality foundation instead of throwing spaghetti against the wall. Looking ahead, we envision Unladylike as a multi-platform destination for sisters doin’ it for themselves.[/conr]

[storybreak]

Unladylike Media, Congers tells me, which aims to “inform and inspire women, girls and nonbinary folks,” is due to roll out its new website today. And in addition to the Midroll pilot and book deal mentioned in the interview, Conger and Ervin have also been publishing a weekly newsletter.

When reached for comment, HWS chief content officer Jason Hoch said: “We love their work and wish them luck on their new efforts. We respect the confidentiality of our private arrangements with our hosts, although we can say that everyone in our company shares in the company’s success.”

Last week, HowStuffWorks announced its latest podcast, FoodStuff, with Blue Apron as the launch sponsor. It is the network’s thirteenth podcast.

Bites:

  • “Uber plans to turn its app into a ‘content marketplace’ during rides.” This provides the bigger picture surrounding a development that I’ve previously highlighted — that of Otto Radio establishing a partnership with Uber last October. (TechCrunch)
  • Missed this last week: Charley Locke’s latest is on the ethical slipperiness of host-read ads — a long-time concern, to be sure. I don’t think I’m as skeptical as Locke appears to be in her analysis, but I am here for this quote from a communications professor: “When hosts do the ads, advertisers are assuming there’s a parasocial relationship between the host and the listener.” (Wired)
  • “Christians Turn To Podcasts To Say Things They Can’t Say In Church.” (NPR)
  • Well this is interesting: “These shiny concept earphones are the latest vessel for Sony’s digital assistant.” (The Verge)

Quick housekeeping note: I’ll be traveling later this week to SXSW, and if you’ll be at there as well, come check out the panel on podcast advertising that I’ll be moderating! Also, come say hi.

Hot Pod: Did the election podcast glut of 2016 fail its listeners?

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue ninety-six, published November 15, 2016.

Outlook. Last Tuesday’s shocking electoral conclusion has severe ramifications not just for the media generally — print and digital, legacy and new, mainstream and alternative — but also for podcasting specifically, whose position as an emerging industry would historically render it more susceptible to the fallout of uncertain economic and media environments. And make no mistake: We are marching straight into a thick fog of uncertainty.

Keep your eyes peeled for two things. First, a potential slowdown in advertising spending. Second, the significant possibility of an economic recession over the next few years, something that was already being predicted prior to this election and that some economists believe could be exacerbated by the proposed policies of the incoming administration. From The Wall Street Journal last Wednesday:

“Uncertainty is bad for ad spending growth,” said Jonathan Barnard, head of forecasting for Zenith, an ad buying and research arm of Publicis Groupe. Still, he said there will not be an “apocalyptic pullback” and just how much contraction occurs depends largely on how the economy performs and what specific moves the new administration makes.

And what of public radio? Keep your eye on the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), the federally funded organization whose financial support is essential to the health of the public media system. Familiarize yourself with two things:

1. The breakdown of NPR’s revenue sources, articulated best in this blog post from 2013 that highlights public radio’s dependence on CPB funding:

These station programming fees comprise a significant portion of NPR’s largest source of revenue. The loss of federal funding would undermine the stations’ ability to pay NPR for programming, thereby weakening the institution

2. The historical string of on-again, off-again tensions surrounding the system’s perceived relationships with ideological bias.

Executives at podcast publishers are generally adopting a wait-and-see stance on the days to come. At least, that’s what I’ve found based on my email interactions with several over the past week. Many are bracing for impact — one phrased the situation this way: “I am placing higher probabilities on the downside cases in all of our financial models” — though there are a few that believe such concerns to be overblown. (“I wouldn’t worry about it,” one person said.)

“We’ve seen no signs of any slowdown,” Matt Lieber, president and cofounder of Gimlet Media, told me. “Obviously, if a recession happens, then ad budgets will get cut. But to be honest, we’re seeing so much growth in podcast spending right now that, even in recession, I would expect slowing growth, yes, but not negative growth.”

Hernan Lopez, founder of Wondery, submitted a more positive view: “I’ve never seen ad spend decline in a growing economy. In times of general market-driven anxiety, ad budgets may shift from a quarter to the next, or between different kinds of media, and if anything podcasting has more to gain than to lose.”

National Public Media’s Bryan Moffett noted that he remains “cautiously optimistic,” pointing out the strength of 2017 upfront buys and the medium’s steady quarter-over-quarter gains. “Niche media do tend to get cut faster in turbulent times, but I also wonder if podcasting will weather any storm better than history would predict,” he wrote. “We all know how effective podcasting can be in terms of marketers reaching the right audience with the right message. So, I think we’d need a pretty significant economic pullback before any real cuts come, and they’d probably come in line with everything else.”

An executive of an independent podcast network expressed some general concern, but pointed out that even if there is to be an ad-spending cooldown, direct response advertisers would likely stay within the medium, as they’ve already figured out how to assess and achieve the return-on-investments they want. Another person I spoke to posited a similar outcome — there will always be companies looking for people to sell things to, that person said — but did say to watch how companies engaged in direct response podcast marketing will fare moving forward.

We need to move on, but I’ll just quickly note three more things:

  • This climate of uncertainty will be felt by every aspect of the podcast ecosystem, but it will be felt hardest by the community of independent producers and freelancers that provide labor, efficiency, and creativity to the space, these proprietors of small boats in a sea that thrashes from the movement of bigger ships.
  • Given everything that we’re currently seeing in the nexus of media and politics, it seems imperative, now more so than ever, that podcasting remains open.
  • Remember to donate to your local public radio station, people.

Okay, let’s go.

Radio Ambulante inks distribution deal with NPR. The public radio mothership will distribute, market, and promote the show across all of its platforms, including NPR.org and the NPR One app. I’m told to expect collaborations between Radio Ambulante and a number of other podcasts from the NPR newsroom like Code Switch, Latino USA, and Embedded. I’m also told that the show will have a presence on the weekend newsmagazines. The deal came out of conversations that started about a year ago, when NPR approached the Radio Ambulante team.

For the uninitiated, Radio Ambulante is a fully Spanish language narrative journalism project — in the vein of This American Life and Snap Judgment — focusing on stories from Latin America and Latino communities in the United States. The show was founded in 2011 by Daniel Alarcón, Carolina Guerrero, Martina Castro, and Annie Correal. (Castro and Correal have since left the team.) Radio Ambulante is widely loved and critically acclaimed, and received the Gabriel García Marquez Prize for Innovation in Journalism in 2014.

Alarcón told me that the team intends to expand in the near future. “We have to see where we stand early next year, but I think we have to grow in order to fulfill our mission,” he said. “This deal will help us get there.”

The show will roll out its latest season on November 22. The news was formally announced early on Tuesday, but the gossip trickled out at the Third Coast Festival in Chicago this past weekend.

A Serial spinoff? Speaking of Third Coast, I wasn’t able to be there myself this year, but I wish I had been, because this bit of news was apparently announced at a presentation by Serial’s executive producer Julie Snyder. The details, cobbled together from tweets by attendees: A Serial spinoff will debut in March. It will be hosted by This American Life producer Brian Reed, and it will be an “artsy” and “novelistic” seven-part series set in Alabama, following “a man who despises the town he’s lived in all his life and decides to do something about it.” Cool.

Audible expands comedy offerings on its Channels lineup, stacking its deck with audio shows from comedians like Will Arnett, Nick Offerman, and Eugene Mirman. The new slate also features something called “Audible Comedy Specials,” a programming channel that bears strong structural similarities to the comedy special blocks you’d find on television networks like HBO and Comedy Central. It’s kind of a shrewd move, efficiently tapping into the well-established sub-community of comedy podcasts and, on the supply side, offering comedy producers yet another platform to monetize a given performance.

This expansion likely draws from a supply and production infrastructure established by Rooftop Media, the company’s West Coast-based, comedy-focused arm. Audible acquired Rooftop Media back in October 2014.

Meanwhile, in Canada: The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) isn’t cool with third-party podcast apps distributing its programming with in-app ads served on top, according to a report by Canadaland. Specifically, the CBC “has sent legal threats to at least one third-party podcast app developer for serving ads without a prior agreement with the broadcaster.” The corporation is also blocking the presence of its programming on those apps. The exact apps that are affected are not confirmed, though the article highlights the Podcast Republic app and also points out the other apps that adopt the in-app ad practice, like Stitcher, Overcast, and Podcast Addict. Hit up Canadaland for more details on this story.

“The wrong format for the moment?” Josh Nathan-Kazis, a staff writer at The Forward, published a string of tweets (a tweetstorm, as the kids call it) that mounted an intriguing critique of the political roundtable podcast format in the wake of last Tuesday’s election. Reproduced here, with some streamlining:

An item for the media post-mortem: The political roundtable podcast turns out to have been exactly the wrong format for the moment…They’re cheap to produce, and fun to half-listen to while doing the dishes.

And there was a lot to talk about. It felt like you could understand the election through the roundtables. Everyone was so smart. Knew what they were talking about. The intimacy inherent to podcasting made them addictive: Hang out with the smart kids each week and they’ll tell you all you need to know.

On Tuesday, it turned out the smart kids were wrong. Some were flagrantly, smugly, obnoxiously wrong. Others were a bit wrong. They weren’t uniquely wrong. But there’s something about that intimacy that makes their particular wrongness feel almost like a betrayal. I wonder how much we really learned from these podcasts. They were closed loops; arguments among friends, played for entertainment.

And were we really trying to learn? Did anyone go to Keepin’ It 1600 or Slate’s Political Gabfest for anything but affirmation? And if that was just 2016’s “unskewing,” then maybe these shows were more harmful than we realized. Ear candy. If we’d spent a bit less time listening to our radio buddies joke about “bedwetters,” maybe we wouldn’t have been so surprised this week. (To be fair, Keepin’ It 1600’s post-election mea culpa episode on Wednesday was really good.)

Put simply: did the political roundtable podcast glut of the 2016 election cycle fail us?

There is a lot to think through here, and I’ll start by saying that the strokes being painted here are way too broad. (And Nathan-Kazis qualified them as such in follow-ups.) At the heart of this critique, I think, are two central ideas: The first is the explicit notion that the insular space created by the roundtable podcast either leads to or creates a greater probability of confirmation bias, and the second is an implicit sense that the media product supplied by these shows exacerbates a potential negative tendency among consumers to use these media products, some journalism and some not so much, as a crutch as opposed to one of many tools of news and information.

The first idea can be straightforwardly interrogated: My immediate reaction is to argue that the risk of confirmation bias here is less linked to the format itself than it is to the participants of the roundtable. Which is to say, it’s not the tool, it’s the wielder; failures, where they existed, were specific to the show, not general to the form. We were awash with election podcasts this cycle, but there were definable differences between shows that were explicitly journalistic in intent (like the NPR Politics Podcast) and shows that were rooted more in a classical sense of punditry (like Keepin’ It 1600, which was consumed by many as therapy and which, interestingly enough, now appears to be the mirror image of conservative talk radio). Those are two very separate product types with very different relationships to the journalistic position, and speaking personally, my experience of what I now recognize to be confirmation bias between the two shows was dramatically different.

The second idea is harder to parse. Essentially, it attends to what appears to be a causal question: does the sense of comfortable insularity conjured by these podcasts somehow discourage listeners from seeking out additional or competing viewpoints? Attempts to unpack the question only leads to further inquiries: is it even possible to prove a causal relationship? Is there a certain condescension in this causal hypothesis — one that suggests news consumers to be anything other than perfectly intelligent adults who will take the time to fully read complex pieces, verify sources, balance out their information intake, and check their biases on their own? To whom does the responsibility of information fall: those who produce the information, or those who consume information? These are fundamental questions akin to those pertaining to corporate social responsibility on the part of the information producers; I am tempted to think that governance is required, but government often seems antithetical to the productive creation and free flow of information.

Nathan-Kazis’ point on the medium’s intimacy triggering a stronger feeling of betrayal hits closer to home, as it highlights the previously unrealized problem that emerges from the design premise of many of these roundtable podcasts, particularly those produced by journalistic institutions like Slate and FiveThirtyEight. The conceit of such shows is to give listeners a sense of what journalists or experts are talking about in spaces separate from the performed professionalism of the public platform; after all, what is said on the front page is far from what was debated in editorial discussions leading up to an article’s final construction or what was discussed on a human level at the bar afterwards. The basic idea in these setups is to engender trust in the people and the process, not just the product. But when the people and the process fail, the cut feels so much deeper, and it is incredibly hard to win that trust — that sense of comfort and safety (which is perhaps the problem?) — back.

That intimacy and sense of process, however, proved essential to how several non-political roundtable podcasts played the role of therapy for many with their post-election episodes. And it is perhaps here that the roundtable conventions are unambiguously valuable. Shows like Call Your Girlfriend, Still Processing, Nerdette, and The Read all provided listeners with personal spaces of communion — spaces to be alone but together, to feel and process the scope of the night’s events, to emotionally prepare for the days to come.

So, did the political roundtable podcast fail us in 2016? Some did, some didn’t; but the problem listeners face is the fact of living in a world where both successes and failures — emerging from both journalistic and non-journalistic sources — exist, flatly, within the same platform, the same space, the same context.

A media format is a tool; it is only as strong, and only as right, as its practitioners. Whether we screw it up or not, podcasting’s core value proposition is always going to be there for us all: a distinct ability to create a space to talk things through, to feel things out, to let doubt grip you. If anything, maybe the lesson here is that we should have leaned more into conveying doubt. A scene from On The Media’s bonus episode, dropped the day after the elections:

Bob Garfield: “What I most hope… is that we are not all passengers on the ship of fools.”
Brooke Gladstone: “What the fuck does that mean?”

Relevant: Melody Joy Kramer on Poynter — “Spread your masthead across the country, and other ideas to prevent groupthink”

Bites:

  • For those keeping tally, add the following companies to the list of brands making their own podcasts: InterContinental Hotel, Avion Tequila, State Farm Insurance. (AdWeek)
  • Refinery29 is launching what appears to be a combined podcast-newsletter product, called “UnStyled.” The last example I heard of such a product combination was WBUR’s “The Magic Pill” project. (Refinery29)
  • “The story so far: Fiction podcasts take their next steps” (New York Times)
  • “Where political talk radio is driven by a sense of community, not partisanship” (CJR)
  • DGital Media launches the latest show under its new partnership with Sports Illustrated, “The Seth Davis Podcast.” (SI.com)
  • Meanwhile, in Australia: The Wheeler Center and the Audiocraft conference are collaborating to launch “The Australian Audio Guide,” “an online companion to the best Australian podcasts and radio features.” (Link)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Bugle is Radiotopia’s sixteenth show.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bites:

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

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

Hot Pod: Is there an opening for budding U.K. podcast businesses to challenge the BBC?

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue ninety, published October 4, 2016.

Night Vale Presents welcomes a new show to the podcast universe: The Orbiting Human Circus (of the Air), an audio drama that will “tell the story of a mysteriously impossible variety show broadcast from the top of the Eiffel Tower”…well, let’s just say it’s appropriately strange, and exactly what you’d expect from the Night Vale team. The show is written by musician Julian Koster of the band Neutral Milk Hotel, and will feature a really remarkable lineup of voice talent that ranges from Mandy Patinkin to Charlie Day and Mary Elizabeth Ellis of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia fame.

Orbiting Human Circus is the third project to be released under the Night Vale Presents label since its formation in January, after Within the Wires and Alice Isn’t Dead. The show also has the distinction of being the network’s first “independently produced” podcast, meaning that it’s the first project being distributed by the Night Vale Presents team that does not creatively involve Night Vale creators Jeffrey Cranor and Joseph Fink. (Cranor cowrote Within the Wires, while Fink wrote Alice Isn’t Dead. Both write Welcome to Night Vale.)

“Julian and his artistic team built the world entirely on their own and approached us with the season one concept and the first three episodes already produced,” Cranor told me when I reached out last week. “We saw a group of artists making music and theater, and they had devised this brilliant digital audio show, and we wanted to provide them with a financial base and audience base to get this work off the ground.”

Authentic, Podtrac’s advertising arm, is handling sales for the show, as they are for the rest of the Night Vale Present portfolio (including the flagship Welcome to Night Vale).

I’ve come to view Night Vale Presents as conceptually equivalent to an indie label and, to some extent, a book publishing imprint — with a strong curatorial commitment to a very specific sensibility, closer in spirit to something like Radiotopia but in structural opposition to more conventional, scale-oriented podcast network like Panoply. (That reminds me: I’ve got to come up with a different vocabulary for these companies; the specificities of their details have accumulated enough to become strong differentiators.) Which is really, really interesting given that, for the past year or so, the podcast industry has come to feel like a protracted land-grabbing conflict perpetrated by entities looking to become the foundational arbiter of economic activity in the space. And I have, in recent weeks, come to suspect that much of that fight has already completed its course.

That leaves us, of course, with the question of what frontiers are left for entrepreneurial creators looking to stretch out their arms in this ecosystem. The enterprise of figuring out how to build a fulfilling business in the post-scale-oriented-network stage of this creative economy is certainly a hard one, but I think Night Vale Presents is doing just that — and providing us with a template of one way forward.

“We have a couple of other artists with imaginative ideas/concepts and we are using our experience to help these people enter the world of podcasting,” Cranor wrote when I asked about what’s down the pipeline. “Joseph and I reaching out to provide whatever resources we can to help initiate these good ideas, whether that is professional support, financial support, or just cheerleading. We want more fiction podcasts, more diverse podcasts, more original podcasts.”

Season one of Orbiting Human Circus (of the Air) premieres on October 12, with new episodes dropping every other Wednesday. The first season will run for nine episodes. The podcast will also involve a live tour component, which will start this fall.

Spotify in “advanced talks” to buy SoundCloud, according to the Financial Times. Do keep an eye on this, given that the latter has long served as a solid podcast hosting platform option for newcomers — and even a few networks — and given the former’s gradual push into becoming a worthwhile podcast distributor. (Worth noting: I’ve been hearing from some publishers that their Spotify listenership appears to be growing steadily over time, though not a rate that particularly pops.)

I’m tempted to speculate how this acquisition may impact podcast publishers hosting on SoundCloud or publishers looking to distribute through Spotify — it remains a closed garden — but I imagine that will all be contingent on the details of whatever deal may emerge, should there be one.

Some notes on the U.K. I was curious, like most, when I heard that Panoply was setting up shop in the U.K. When I last wrote about the podcast scene in that region, I was left with the impression that building out an on-demand audio business there would be a tremendously difficult proposition, particularly given the outsized role that the BBC plays in the local non-music audio economy, presumably leaving little oxygen for potential competitors.

Panoply, I figured, is in for a tough fight. But I wondered what someone who has had experience building out a podcast business in the U.K. would think, and so I reached out to Stuart Last, general manager and SVP of audioBoom, a British on-demand audio company that has, in recent years, made inroads in the U.S. His extensive reply:

The podcast market [in the U.K.] is really in its infancy — there’s been an increasing number of independent podcasts, but a noticeable lack of podcast networks compared to the U.S., so the first stage of consolidation has not really begun. Also, the ad sales market is not hugely established yet, both in the money agencies and brands are dedicating to podcasting, and how sellers are selling.

The one thing the BBC’s dominance of the audio space has created is a really competitive independent production industry. By law, the BBC has to buy a large percentage of its radio programs from the independent sector — which means there’s creative, and well established production companies ready to develop and produce fantastic audio products. So I think the main challenge for them will be how to monetize effectively. But their key opportunity is all about content and being able to tap into the independent production industry for great ideas.

I think it’s great that a third major player is launching there — obviously it’s more competition for ourselves and Acast, but because the industry is so in its infancy, it’s a chance for all three companies to shape what podcasting becomes in the U.K.

Interestingly, Last also wanted to clarify the current state of audioBoom for me: “I know we’re also seen as a British company,” he wrote. “We are — that’s where the company was founded and where our HQ is based — but the majority of global business is out of the U.S and we’re growing here at 10 percent a month.” Last further notes his company’s position as a dynamic ad-insertion platform competitor to Art19 and Acast (“and at much bigger scale,” he adds; “over 50 million downloads per month are coming via audioBoom”) and, simultaneously, a podcast advertising sales operation. It currently reps Undisclosed, Astonishing Legends, and the NBC Sports podcast network, among others.

Meanwhile, in Australia. The great continent down under — sorry folks, I couldn’t find a less cliched nickname — enjoyed its inaugural OzPod conference last week, with WNYC’s Manoush Zomorodi presenting the keynote. The conference, which was organized by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), is the second relatively high-profile conference in the country after the more indie-oriented Audiocraft that took place in March. Anyway, I’d like to draw your attention something that the ABC published ahead of the festivities: an audience research report that covers Australian podcast listenership, put together by the organization’s audience insights team.

The report drew from a sample of 1,145 surveys, and it should be noted that the majority of respondents had been listening to podcasts for more than five years. (Which, in my mind, presents a pretty engaged — and therefore somewhat irregular — respondent pool, so keep that in mind when you look through the findings.)

You can view the full report here, but here are the points that stood out to me:

  • Australian podcast consumers listen to an average of 5.5 podcasts per week. The report didn’t make it particularly clear, but I believe “podcasts” is equivalent to “podcast episodes” here. The report also found that nearly 1 in 5 respondents listen up to 11 podcasts per week.
  • The most common location where respondents consume podcasts is apparently at home, with 76 percent reporting that behavior.
  • This is interesting: 36 percent of respondents indicated that they are listening to more podcasts compared to previous year. The report further noted that this is a net 14 percent increase compared to the previous year.
  • Finally, nearly 1 in 2 discover new podcasts by word of mouth and listening to the radio or television.

Cool. And in case you were wondering: ABC Radio is the largest podcast publisher in the country, reporting about 135 million overall downloads and streams in 2015. The company is projected to enjoy about 160 million overall downloads in 2016.

A writer’s room? Parcast is a fairly new podcast network that has taken what’s becoming a conventional route to building out its initial audience base: leaning hard into true crime. (Indeed, it’s a strategy so compelling that even some city newspapers, like the Cincinnati Enquirer and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, have adopted it…with moderate success, looking at the iTunes charts.) Unsolved Murders: True Crime Stories is a dramatic, reenactment-heavy take on the genre, and it comes off as a bit of campy mix between Nightline and an old-timey radio drama. I’m told it drew 1.8 million “listens” in its first three months.

Max Cutler, a cofounder of Parcast, tells me that the company is set up “like an old-time movie studio,” in that production is built around a rotating pool of screenwriters and voice actors, with different combinations working on a given episode. It’s an intriguing way of structuring your production process, especially if you can make the economics of running a team like that work, and I think it’s a model that other shops should try out in the future — particularly the drama-inclined.

Anyway, the network launched its second show, the salaciously-named Remarkable Lives, Tragic Deaths, in early August, and Cutler notes that they intend to launch five to seven more shows over the next year.

Recognition. Something’s wrong, argues Johanna Zorn and the Third Coast Festival team in a manifesto published on Medium last Monday. It’s time for the Fall Arts Previews — an annual tradition of sorts where publications across the print and digital spectrum draw attention to upcoming artistic and creative events — but there remains, quite glaringly, an absence of radio and podcast-related coverage. Zorn & Co. further characterize this gap as an extension of a greater lack of critical recognition for the medium — a long running state of affairs, to be sure, but one that’s grown increasingly incongruous given the medium’s recent burst in attention and popularity. “We seek recognition of the Radio/Podcasting genre through thoughtful reviews, criticism, and a deeper examination of styles and trends,” the manifesto concludes. “We know you can hear us.”

As you can imagine, I’m sympathetic to the issue that Zorn & Co. raise here, but reading the manifesto, I found myself wondering: What, exactly, does “recognition” mean here?

When I spoke to the Third Coast team last week, Zorn told me: “It’s like we’re fighting for equality here…We talk about novels, dance, and movies, but we don’t talk about radio and it doesn’t feel like it’s being treated as art.” Maya Goldberg-Safir, the team’s social media strategist, presented a more practical line of argument: “People are still using The New York Times or the Chicago Tribune for event listings. I think those outlets are crucial for us to get visibility as an art form that we deserve at this point.”

A few things here:

1. It’s worth decoupling those two arguments. So, Goldberg-Safir’s argument for greater discoverability — which can yield material economic impact — really resonates with me, but I find Zorn’s appeal for greater cultural positioning much trickier. In my mind, it conveys a sense that the team is appealing to a stable of elite cultural gatekeepers to open their doors and let them in. I’m generally skeptical of any impulse that ties recognition to an acceptance from an elite class, although I understand that feeling.

2. I generally believe in cultivating radio/podcast criticism in order to realize their functional utility as a consumer guide of sorts and to increase their influence over the economic outcomes of podcast projects. To that end, I’m hopeful about the way things are shaping out: Podcast recommendation lists appear to be more common these days, there’s a growing class of young and independent online operatives taking up the task (like the Bello Collective and Podcasts in Color), and there’s been a slow but steady rise in writeups within strong publications (a very recent example: The New York Times’ recent profile of You Must Remember This’ Karina Longworth in the Style section, mere weeks after a similar writeup of The West Wing Weekly in the Arts section.)

3. I also happen to absolutely love consuming criticism as a standalone editorial product. (Hell, I love producing it too.) And as an editorial product, criticism has been subject to all the structural brouhahas that the rest of the media industry is suffering through, including the bifurcation into commodifying plays for scale and narrowing plays for niches. And therein lies the problem: Rdio/podcast criticism of the former kind may be well served by all we’re seeing already — the lists, the occasional writeups by big publications (many of which have been downsizing form-specific critics for years), and so on. The deeper and more thoughtful stuff, the stuff that the Third Coast team advocates for, requires the development of whole new, probably niche, businesses, either within an existing organization or as an entirely new venture. And that is no small thing.

Heads up. The Reply All team is trying out something weird next week: a 48-hour live show where they will take every phone call they get for 48 hours — all day, all night. “We want to see what happens when you open a line to the internet and invite anyone to use it,” wrote Alex Goldman in an email to me. “I have no doubt that will include abuse, pranks, insanity, and very little sleep.” Phone lines open on Monday at 10 a.m. Watch their Twitter and Facebook accounts for the number after that time if you want to participate.

Bites:

  • iHeartMedia dips its toe a little deeper into podcasts with Taglines, a show that comes out of a partnership with Advertising Age. This comes a few months after iHeartMedia rolled out a similar programming partnership with the coworking-space company WeWork. It also follows Libsyn announcing that it would be now distributing podcasts through iHeartMedia’s listening platforms. (Ad Age)
  • I’ve been enjoying the different ways that publications are taking to the Amazon Echo. Here, The Guardian announces its own Alexa skill for the Echo, splitting its flash content pipeline between three categories: news and opinion, reviews, and podcasts. I’m looking forward to seeing how other publications handle design taxonomy. (The Guardian)
  • WNYC’s Note to Self continues its experimentation with audience engagement and service journalism through digital research projects: the show is collaborating with ProPublica on a Chrome-extension-driven study to figure out what, exactly, Facebook knows about you (or thinks it knows about you). (ProPublica)
  • Panoply works to even out its political programming with the inclusion of two gabfest-style podcasts from Ricochet, a conservative website, into its network. I’ve written a little bit about Ricochet and the spread of conservative podcasts before, and if that strikes your fancy be sure to check out this recent article by Wired’s Charley Locke.
  • (Panoply)

  • Quick shoutout to the political podcast producers working overtime to pump out post-debate episodes mere hours after the actual event: Jocelyn Frank and Jayson DeLeon of Panoply’s Slate Political Gabfest and Trumpcast mashup, Brent Baughman of NPR Politics, Galen Druke of FiveThirtyEight, and whoever pulled the super late hours on The New York Times’ Run-Up team.
  • Dropping this here, due to the company’s relative ubiquity as a podcast advertiser: BuzzFeed’s investigation [by former Nieman Lab staffer Caroline O’Donovan —ed.] into Blue Apron’s not-so-wholesome supply practices. (BuzzFeed)

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

A podcast ranking that misses a lot, new listenership data, and funny Australians

The podcast consumer. Last Thursday, Edison Research and Triton Digital released the Podcast Consumer 2016 report, an extension of the Infinite Dial 2016 study that was dropped back in March that specifically focuses on U.S. consumer demographics and some aspects of user behavior — data points that will, no doubt, find their way into many, many investment and advertising decks in the coming months. (Charts! Charts! Charts!) The report touches on a nice range of aspects, and I think I’d be doing the depth of the report a disservice if I regurgitated and butchered them in whole here, but here are the three high-level points that most caught my eye:

(1) A pop in awareness. Awareness of the term “podcasting” significantly jumped between 2015 and 2016. According to the study, an estimated 150 million Americans are now familiar with the term “podcasting.” Put it another way, that’s 55 percent of Americans, up 6 percentage points from 49 percent the year before. That’s a noticeably huge bump, compared to the mere 1 percentage point increase between 2014 (48 percent) and 2015.

Tom Webster, the VP of strategy at Edison Research who presented the report on a webinar last week, made a point to note the lag between any so-called “Serial effect” — recall that the podcast’s explosive first season dropped in late 2014 — and this rise in term-awareness. What accounts for the lag? Your guess is as good as mine, but I’m partial to viewing the jump as the result of Serial and the torrent of activity that took place around the same time and shortly after: the creation of new companies, the wave of new content driven by non-podcast native publishers that built some awareness conversion among their built-in audiences, and, perhaps more significantly, increased media attention that further carried forward usage of the term “podcasts.”

But before we get ahead of ourselves here: It remains useful to contextualize the awareness level against actual listenership: an estimated 98 million Americans (or 36 percent of the country) have listened to a podcast at least once in their lives, and an estimated 57 million Americans (21 percent) can be counted as monthly active listeners.

(2) Immediacy in consumption. This one’s my favorite. 55 percent of respondents reported consuming podcasts within 24 hours of downloading the episode, following by 18 percent reporting consumption within 48 hours and 15 percent reporting consumption within a week. That 24-hour data point is considerably made more rich when combined with the additional finding that 59 percent of respondents report immediate consumption behavior — marked in the survey as “click and listen immediately” — as opposed to save-for-later options.

(3) An insulated audience. The report made a point to sketch out the connection between podcast listeners and a general affinity towards on-demand video services. Webster observes that this reflects a highly technologically-oriented demographic that is increasingly insulated from ads. They are, thus, highly valuable targets for advertisers — not only because their cable-cutting orientations signify a certain kind of high-value demographic, but also because they can’t otherwise be reached through conventional advertising channels like television, broadcast radio, and so on. (It would be extremely interesting if a future report inquires about ad-blocking use among this sample; that would be a dead giveaway.)

It’s important to note that this demographic’s advertising insulation should probably be viewed an expression of its desire for control over their exposure to advertising more generally. Podcast advertising experiences, then, need to be maintained at a very, very high level to prevent an undermining of their trust — not just in any given podcast, but in the medium as a whole. Yeah, yeah, I’m basically repeating myself on this idea at this point, but it’s a flag I’m going to keep waving for as long as there appears to be the threat of quality dilution in the podcast advertising experience, which, let’s face it, is going be there forever.

There are so, so, so many other findings in the report — including, but not limited to overall demographic shifts that suggest a strong break away from the podcast listenership’s once core wealthy male cluster, rough parity in device usage between iOS and Android, and some flashes of growing influence in the car — but I’ll leave that up for you to explore.

You can find the report here.

Additional reading: Nielsen, the global measurements company, put out a blog post highlighting podcast consumer demographic data points of their own last Monday. It doesn’t surface anything particularly novel or surprising — and it’s stuck with an unfortunate “gee whiz!” tone — but there’s some fairly interesting data in there about the financial life of the podcast listenership, in case you’re looking for something like that.

Contextualizing the Podtrac ranker. “I’ve asked Comscore and Nielsen over the years to do this, and they haven’t for various reasons…And here we are, Podtrac, with data on 7 billion unique downloads over 10 years, and we’re not putting it out for the industry? We would be remiss if we continue to sit on the data, versus putting out there to add a certain amount of legitimacy to podcasting for the advertising community.”

Mark McCreary, CEO of Podtrac, speaks in a slow, deliberate manner. His speech is filled with pauses that indicate, perhaps, a strong internal filter, which in turn suggests a certain degree of thoughtfulness…and caution. And so when he becomes animated over the phone, you can tell that it ain’t bullshit. When he believes something, it shows. Which is to say, when the guy says he’s genuinely trying to help, I’m inclined to believe it.

But that isn’t to say I believe in the ranker itself. At least, not at this point in time.

Let’s back up a second. In case you missed it: Podtrac, a decade-old podcast measurement and advertising company, rolled out a consumer-facing chart that supposedly ranks the “top ten podcast publishers” in the industry last Tuesday. Utilizing a “unique monthly U.S. audience” as the anchor metric charted against the number of active podcasts within that month — an unprecedented bundle of markers, to my knowledge, one whose nuances are somewhat underappreciated — the ranker placed NPR at the very top with 7.2 million monthly uniques in the U.S., followed by This American Life/Serial (5.6 million) and WNYC Studios (5.5 million).

As you could probably imagine, Podtrac’s chart caused no small amount of consternation among different parts of the podcast community, which grappled over the chart’s actual representation of the industry, what are legitimate metrics and what are not, and the politics involved in Podtrac’s assumption of this value-arbitrating role.

The issue at the heart of the whole hubbub is, of course, the chart’s claim towards an accurate representation of the industry as a whole. And, as I touched on a little in my original writeup last week, there are some very real questions about this. The report argues that it measures “90 percent of the top podcasts,” and the press release that was published with the ranker noted that “it plans to have close to 100 percent participation in the weeks ahead.” The significance and depth of the remaining 10 percent is absolutely crucial to understanding the strength of the chart, and over the past week, I was able to confirm that the following publishers are not part of Podtrac’s sample: Panoply, Gimlet, Earwolf, The Ringer, Maximum Fun, CNN, and Wondery.

(Not that all of these networks would make it into the top 10 if they were part of the sample, of course. I’m just saying I’m confident some of these publishers — not all — are probably big enough to displace a few publishers in the top ten; the very possibility of that cuts into the ranker’s representative utility. Also, if you’re curious as to which podcasts in the iTunes charts’ Top 200 are using Podtrac for measurement, check out this invaluable spreadsheet assembled by friend-of-the-show Dan Misener.)

This makes it abundantly clear to me, at this point in time, the ranker simply isn’t fully representative of the podcast industry. But I don’t think that automatically invalidates its value as a marker of the space — whatever your misgivings about its representativeness, it still provides utility for the space by conveying the relative shape of a certain slice of the industry at the publisher level (more on that in a second), which in turn serves as a starting point for a broader, possibly multi-sourced picture to be drawn out. That’s something we never had before, and that’s something we really need now.

Podtrac’s fundamental problem comes purely down to communication, and this plays out — quite unfortunately — in two ways.

The first is the manner in which the ranker outwardly portrays itself in somewhat grandiose terms that glides over the nuances of its rollout sample. This runs the risk of being misinterpreted by other media sources that may automatically assume complete representativeness of the ranker; and in fact, one such example can be found in a recent Adweek article on NPR’s expectations that it will double its podcast revenue this year. (Congrats!) It’s up to you to decide whether this comes as the result of a language oversight, or something else entirely.

The second is the company’s communication level with actual publishers. As I noted last week, I was informed that publishers needed to opt into Podtrac’s sample in order to be considered for the ranker. What was revealed to me later on was that inclusion is automatically assumed when a publisher adopts Podtrac as a measurement tool — which struck me as not only a rather questionable practice, but also puts certain participating publishers at risk of having its data shared without its prior knowledge. (Appearance in the ranker came as a surprise to at least one publisher. I asked McCreary whether Podtrac-using publishers can opt out of inclusion in the ranker. He said it is, indeed, possible.) Furthermore, there were also situations in which the company did not adequately reach out to publishers that believe they could’ve been ranked.

When I spoke with McCreary — along with Podtrac’s VP of product Velvet Beard and VP of business development Julia Price — last week, they assured me that the initial rollout was made with the assumption that it would trigger conversations with publishers that could eventually lead to the filling out of that last 10 percent. That’s an understandable argument to make, but it remains troubling that the company has not been better at adequately communicating what it’s trying to do, and what it has actually done…to the detriment of some publishers.

You have every right to question Podtrac’s intent, or the substance of its decade-long experience, or its supposed objectivity — as I noted last week, Podtrac also has an ad sales arm that it recently spun out into a different division of the company, a fact that may or may not assuage the discomfort of other publishers — or whatever. But in my mind, whether Podtrac will ultimately become representative of the industry or be successful in its handling of the space’s larger politics is a relatively secondary question. For me, it is unambiguous that its ranker, however messy the rollout, is nothing but productive in the way it’s pushing the medium — every single quirky corner of it — out of the comforts of its previous opacity. It’s drawing attention, generating conversation, and will ultimately provoke the kind of counter-initiatives that will move the industry towards a greater accountability.

As McCreary told me, “All the people who put effort into podcasts every single day, they deserve to have a media that the advertising industry thinks is legitimate. And you need an objective advertising company to provide that, and so that’s what we built here. Also, publishers who choose not to participate are still going to benefit, because the industry now has a ranker.”

Representation. Between this Podtrac ranker story and the recent debates spurred by that New York Times article a few weeks ago, a key tension of the space has steadily shifted from being implicit to explicit. It’s been growing since the space found its moment for a second time, and it’s one that’s grounded in questions over the industry’s identity: What constitutes the podcast space? What defines the “Big Companies,” and what differentiates from everybody else? Who gets to speak for and represent the industry?

These questions, in turn, are built on several clear dichotomies: between independent podcasts and a class of professionalizing podcast companies, between an older generation of podcast companies that believe they remain relevant and an emerging generation that wants relevance, between those who view podcasts as an extension of blogs and the free web and those who view podcasts as the next phase for digital radio and audio content, and between companies that aspire to be big and companies that hope its scale-chasing brethren won’t screw everything up for the rest of them.

As I’m observing more and more these days, it’s a tale as old as content. But at the same time, I’m having less and less of an idea how this is all going to shake out.

Same pigeon, new paint. Great news, producers! The Third Coast International Audio Festival, the Chicago-based nonprofit focused on the development of storytelling audio and independent producers (and whose mascot is, inexplicably, a pigeon), rolled out a brand-spanking new design for its website last week. And while the news of the updated design is fantastic in and of itself, I want to highlight a specific element of that redesign: the greatly improved user experience for the site’s Producer Index, which can — and should — be utilized as an IMDd for Audio Producers of sorts. If you’re on the hunt for talent, be sure to give it a look-see.

The redesign comes months after a fundraising campaign that sees the nonprofit looking to grow and expand its reach for the first time since it was founded in 2000. “We’ve been a small group for a long time — three full-timers, two part-timers — and we’ve been able to do what we do and really work hard at it,” Johanna Zorn, the organization’s executive director, told me when we spoke last December. “We want more people at our conference” — the organization’s flagship event — “but we need more than just me and one other person to make that happen.”

This November will mark the latest edition of the Third Coast Festival. The conference takes place in Chicago every two years.

“I don’t think there’s such a thing as too many podcasts.” Pineapple Street Media’s Jenna Weiss-Berman tells Marketplace’s Kai Ryssdal that in a segment produced the day after the Gracies, an award ceremony honoring the work of women in media. (BuzzFeed’s Women of the Hour podcast, which Weiss-Berman produced, was among the winners.)

“In order for a podcast to be successful, they don’t have to have massive listenerships,” she continues. “So there might be someone who wants to do a podcast about crocheting and they might be able to find sponsorship from a company that sells yarn, for example. And they might have 20,000 extremely devoted listeners who listen to the podcast and then go buy that yarn.”

Obviously, I cosign this opinion. Check out the whole segment.

Funny Down Under. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation is getting involved in the country’s emerging comedy podcast scene. The public service broadcaster has a new initiative called Radio Comedy — housed under the First Run banner, the corporation’s pod-oriented skunkworks which I’ve covered before — that will be commissioning a set of original comedy podcasts sourced from local talent.

“We’re attempting to use podcasting in the way that radio was once used, as a test space for TV comedy series,” Tom Wright, a development producer on the initiative, explained to me over email. “This was the model at the BBC in the U.K., which led to comedy hits like The Mighty Boosh and Little Britain.”

I’m fairly unfamiliar with the Australian podcast scene, so I asked Wright to describe the country’s culture of podcasts (and comedy podcasts more specifically). “Comedy is huge here — the Melbourne International Comedy Festival is the second biggest festival of its kind in the world. Podcasting less so…it’s less a part of the listening culture in Australia than in the U.S.A. and to a lesser extent the U.K., but it is catching up fast,” Wright wrote. “Like NPR and the BBC, the ABC has been editing some of its most popular radio shows and publishing them as podcasts, and have dominated things a bit. But ABC’s First Run is really [an example of] the organization recognizing that podcasts are different in form from radio shows, and that we can contribute to an already established scene.”

The first Radio Comedy podcast, Burn Your Passport, launched last month. You can find it in all the usual places. Radio Comedy is also looking for pitches, so Australian Hot Pod readers — here’s your shot.

Bites:

  • Friend-of-the-show Joel Leeman brought this to my attention over Twitter this weekend: An ad for Prince Street, a branded podcast promoting luxury grocery store Dean & DeLuca, made an appearance on CBS during Sunday’s broadcast of the PGA tour. Prince Street is part of Panoply Custom’s portfolio.
  • Quick clarification for last week’s RadioPublic item: some biographies! The team currently consists of three people: Jake Shapiro, who serves as CEO; Matt MacDonald, who was a software engineer at PRX before moving into product management and now serves as RadioPublic’s chief product officer; and Chris Rhoden, who serves as the company’s chief architect, where he will lead technical direction.

Is $12-a-day a fair wage for New York’s many radio interns?

A living wage. Last week, a Change.org petition cycled around the Facebook feeds of public radio types asking New York Public Radio — the entity that runs WNYC, classical music station WQXR, and the events-oriented Greene Space — to pay its interns a living wage. The station currently pays interns a stipend of $12 a day, with the expectation of 2-5 days of work during the week. The petition hinges its argument on the station’s 2015 Diversity Statement, highlighting a contradiction: It’s harder to increase opportunities for training, education, and possible employment by communities that are traditionally underrepresented due to lack of means when compensation is that low in one of the most expensive cities in the world.

[Looks out apartment window, weeps softly.]

The petition was spearheaded by one Mickey Capper, a freelance radio producer based in D.C. Capper was most recently a production assistant on the Invisibilia team at NPR. He also cohosts the Tape podcast and is responsible for the Sidewalks audio experiment.

“I count a number of WNYC staffers as some of the most inspiring people I’ve met and worked with in radio. I know these are people who can teach interns a lot,” Capper said in a statement. “I hope New York Public Radio can pay their interns a living wage to make that valuable entry-level experience accessible to a wider range of people.”

NYPR has responded to the petition, with a spokesperson writing to Current: “We are currently engaged in a process of assessing how a paid internship might be structured and funded. NYPR is also fully invested in diversifying its workforce, and is in the process of creating a three-year Diversity and Inclusion strategic plan, of which paid internships would be one element.”

An internal email sent out by the organization’s HR department maintains that the issue is top of mind for the senior team as part of 2017 budget process, acknowledging that the challenge now is to locate the necessary funds to pay those wages.

Capper is due to present the petition at the next NYPR board of directors meeting, which will take place tomorrow. At this writing, the petition has gathered over 450 signatures.

Two things before moving on:

  • Full disclaimer: I signed the petition, and I’m unambiguously in support of raising the rate of compensation, for whatever that’s worth. Given WNYC’s outsized influence over labor opportunities for younger people in the radio space, the fact that I’ve consistently been told by former staffers that the station “practically runs on interns,” and that the newer podcast companies are still quite a bit away from being able to provide internships and learning opportunities at scale, this wage level feels incredibly absurd.
  • I had originally intended to spend some time this week writing about the current state of employment opportunities in the podcasting space. This took precedence.

Download literacy. Let’s talk download numbers — which is to say, let’s bash our heads against a wall! USA Today’s podcast network reportedly drummed up about 52.3 million “downloads or streams” in 2015, according to Digiday. As the lore goes, the network was only started 18 months ago, and today it boasts a whopping 22 shows on its roster. Some shows are super short daily digests, like 5 Things and Capital Download; some shows are more traditionally structured topical fare like Dad Rock (which I really like, by the way) and Tech Roundtable. The Digiday article goes on to say that the network’s podcasts average about 7 million listens per month, and that it’s on track to net about 84 million by the end of the year.

That’s a sizable number dump, and I think it’s important to go through the motions and state that those numbers mean very little by themselves. Given what we know about the industry’s problem with measurements (it’s all over the place), reporting across different platforms and recording methodologies (a “listen” on different platform means very different things), and metric standardization (there’s little to none/it’s complicated), it’s hard to tell whether:

  • All of USA Today’s reported downloads mean the same thing with respect to each other, or
  • Those reported downloads mean the same thing compared to the reporting provided by other podcasts, or
  • How the network distinguishes between downloads, listens, streams, or whatever.

But boy, 84 million listens by the end of the year sure does sound like a whopper, doesn’t it?

Now, I’m not writing this story to merely complain and wiggle my arms — although I am complaining — but to identify and articulate the three red flags that stood out to me here. Maybe you’ll find them useful in your reading of the data, or maybe I’m just being grumpy. Whatever, I think download literacy is important.

  • USA Today’s network reportedly averages about 7 million listens (however defined) per month. Let’s think that through. The network is 22 podcasts strong, so if we break it down to how many “listens” an individual USA Today pod nets on a weekly basis, we’re talking about an average of about 79,500 listens per show per week. In contrast, the most recent episode of Earwolf’s new podcast Beautiful/Anonymous (which is absolutely fabulous, by the way) bagged 128,000 downloads within its first week — and that’s after an all-powerful bump from This American Life. Beyond that recent episode, the show appears to average around 95,000 downloads per episode within its first four weeks. That the average download volumes between the USA Today shows and Beautiful/Anonymous are within the same general area seems…oh I don’t know, it seems a little off to me. That’s not to say that it’s impossible — who knows, maybe there’s a monster hit show in there that carries the whole network on its back — it’s just really hard to tell what I’m looking at.
  • The Digiday article cited that the strength of the download numbers comes in spite of the fact that none of those podcasts has ever broken into the iTunes charts. Now, I’m the last person that would ever argue for the charts being any adequate indicator of download volume (see here, here, and here), and it might well be the case that USA Today’s podcasts were able to significant listenership outside iTunes and the podcasting app. But it’s a little hard to believe that when you square the network’s reported 7 million monthly listens against the fact that Apple platforms drive the majority of podcast listenership.
  • The purpose of focusing so much on download volume — aside from estimating the reach of your reporting/editorial so you may prognosticate about the impact your journalism/content is making — is, from a business perspective, to signal the advertiser-worthiness of a show or a network. So there’s something that should be said about the fact that only two of USA Today’s podcasts have featured sponsors. The podcast advertising market might still be relatively immature, but between the (now comically) routine patronage performed by Audible, Mailchimp, and Squarespace, good voluminous podcast inventory simply doesn’t just go unfilled.

What, exactly, is going on here? I think what we’re seeing is USA Today possibly interpreting downloads in a way that’s significantly more liberal than other podcasters and podcast networks. Which isn’t to say that there is any intent to mislead — I’m not in any position to accuse anybody of ad fraud or inflated numbers at this point in time. Rather, it just may well be the case that this is a situation of misinterpretation. Or maybe, indeed, the team over at USA Today has figured out some novel way of obtaining audiences, perhaps through another platform that portends a different kind of listening relationship. The fact of the matter is: We don’t know, and we’re presented with downloads that look the same as any other kind of download.

In any case, I’m just pushing for more clarity and specificity to what we talk about when we talk about podcast listenership data; to clearly articulate the value provided, to embrace whatever nuance may exist. We’re about a year and a half into this podcast-renaissance racket, but even with all this talk, a download still doesn’t necessarily mean a download, and an impression still doesn’t necessarily mean an impression.

(By the way, did you hear? There are no gods in digital media.)

Remember, folks: Ask more of your data, your platforms, your reporting, and your networks.

Anyway, I’ve sent USA Today a request asking whether we could go through those download numbers through their submission form, but at this writing, they haven’t gotten back to me yet.

Google Play Music finally launches its podcast feature. Five months after first announcing that it would be frolicking with the pods — and a solid month after a Bill Simmons-induced false alarm — Google Play Music now serves listeners podcasts on top of its core music offering, echoing a similar rollout that took place over at Spotify back in January. The feature, which went live yesterday, aims to “connect you with podcasts based on what you’re doing, how you’re feeling and what you’re interested in,” according to a post on the official Android blog.

That description of intent matches what Elias Roman, a product manager on the Google Play team, told me when we spoke back in November. Roman, who previously ran the music concierge app Songza before it was acquired by Google in the summer of 2014, explained Google Play Music’s approach as being built on the notion of introducing podcasts to non-podcast listeners who aren’t already looking for them. “I love the concierge format,” he told me. “It’s something that anticipates what you need and then serves it to you. Interviews and podcasts are a big leap into that direction.”

Is this an inflection point for podcasts? A premature question, truly. (Why did I even ask it?) I’ll be keeping my eye on this, which reminds me: Perhaps it’s about time I check in with how Spotify is doing.

“We are a huge part of the story”: Q&A with Night Vale’s Joseph Fink on independent podcasts. Here in Hot Pod, I pay a disproportionate amount of attention on the bigger institutions — the public radio stations, the Gimlets, the Midrolls — and I do that, I’d argue, for a fairly simple reason: The narrative hook I often seek when sourcing out stories is the measure in which a given entity or development may potentially influence the configuration of the larger podcast ecosystem. And more often than not, companies that command more money and labor and scale tend to fit that bill.

(I also have some quirks that dictate my coverage: I’m particularly emotionally invested in journalistically oriented media companies, for example. Also: The Ringer.)

But I am cognizant that there are tremendous limits to this approach, for placing too much attention on the bigger institutions runs the risk of unconsciously internalizing them — and, by extension, representing them — as proxies for that larger ecosystem, when in fact that’s not always the case. And for podcasting, this is particularly not the case, given the combination of the relative immaturity of the space and the formally organized companies within it.

Furthermore, as Welcome To Night Vale co-creator Joseph Fink argues, independent podcasts (which is to say, podcasts produced outside the bigger companies) wield considerable influence over the aesthetics, current and future, of the medium.

Over email, Fink was kind enough to clue me in on his thinking about the state of indie pods.

Quah: So, I’m definitely guilty of spending a disproportionate amount of ink covering the bigger podcasting companies. Can you tell me how this affects the way we think about podcasts?

Fink: I think one of the defining features of podcasting as a medium currently is that it is still a remarkably open medium. The cost barrier to entry for decent sounding production is low and for the most part distribution is free and equal (more on that in a moment) to everyone. With Night Vale, we started out with a $65 USB mic and free audio editing software, and we were immediately playing in the same space and being distributed on the same channels as This American Life and the Adam Carolla Show. This makes podcasting remarkable in that it is possible to just have a really good idea and have that sometimes be enough. Obviously, there’s a lot of luck involved, but it still is a lot more open than any other form of media I can think of.

There is also the fact that podcasting is young enough that it is still possible to do something new with the format. It’s hard to find something to do with, say, a novel, that someone hasn’t done something at least pretty similar to. But with podcasting, it’s still possible to put out a show that is totally different than any other show out there. That’s a really exciting and rare position to be in as an artist.

But having the coverage focus in on big companies and especially existing large radio organizations, you are only looking at the podcasts that still work exactly like radio, and that almost entirely sound like radio. Which is to say, I think, that you are ignoring everything that makes podcasting interesting and different.

Quah: What are the major challenges that independent podcasts face?

Fink: While distribution is equal, obviously promotion and attention aren’t. Those of us making independent podcasts aren’t going to have our first episode placed as a segment of This American Life. We don’t have the name recognition where we can just name our show The [name of host] Show and make the icon a picture of our face.

We rely much more on the luck of word of mouth. The only thing you can do as an independent podcaster is consistently put out episodes you’re proud of, and hope that other people start enjoying them too.

We also have way less sway on the business side of things obviously. We don’t set CPM rates; we can’t bring new brands into the advertising side of things. We have to let the bigger players do that and then play by the rules they’re setting.

There is also just the frustration of trying to be part of the conversation. It’s easier to not cover independent podcasts, because we’re diverse and messy and there’s a lot of us, and NPR is happy to send you a press release. And so a lot of media just doesn’t talk about us. But we are a huge part of this story too.

Recently Alex Goldman of Reply All talked on twitter about how he sees what he does as “radio” because he thinks there’s no difference between podcasting and radio, and he hates the term “podcasting” anyway. I would say that’s (a) the point of view of someone who’s never stepped outside of the radio ecosystem and (b) someone who is failing to understand and respect the medium he’s working in. Podcasting is not radio, and the difference between the two lies with the indie podcasters and what we’re doing.

Quah: Tell me about the strengths of indies.

Fink: While we don’t have much say in the direction of how advertising will be sold and formatted, and we aren’t invited to the panel discussions about the future of the industry where people who have worked in radio their whole lives talk about what podcasting is, I think that on an artistic level, big podcast companies are more often chasing independents than the other way around.

Independent podcasting is more willing to try something completely new, and if it takes off, then the bigger companies swerve to try to catch up to that.

Which is to say that big media organization act a lot out of risk management. Independent podcasters have nothing to lose, so we’re willing to try anything.

I think along with pushing the big organizations forward artistically, we also show them there is business in places they wouldn’t necessarily have been willing to look on their own. I think it’s very likely that the huge success of The Read showed bigger podcast organizations that there was a huge market for podcasts in which black hosts talked about black issues in a funny, conversational way. I don’t know if BuzzFeed would have been willing to produce Another Round, or WNYC would have been willing to produce 2 Dope Queens without The Read having happened.

I don’t necessarily agree with all the points that Fink makes here — I believe our biggest disagreement would be over the magnitude of influence — but I think his overarching point is absolutely right: Independent podcasts do play a significant role in the aesthetic innovation we see in the space, and a lack of representation would be a disservice. And while the big institutions will never stop making up a considerable portion of what Hot Pod covers, I’ll be hustling to close the gap in my own coverage.

Bites:

  • For all you producers looking to kick butt, take names, make your mark: Third Coast Festival’s 2016 ShortDoc Challenge is now open! Deadline is May 17. (Third Coast)
  • “Left on the dial: With young people trading AM/FM for streaming, will radio find a home in your next car?” Nieman Lab’s Laura Hazard Owen considers where the relationship between the car and the radio will go. (Nieman Lab)
  • TV Land is adapting the Throwing Shade podcast into a late night TV show. (Entertainment Weekly)
  • “To Make Real Money, The Podcast Industry Needs to Stop Calling Them Podcasts.” (Hunter Walk)
  • “The Missing Piece in the ‘Podcast Revolution.'” (Postloudness, on Medium)
  • “How ‘Pistol Shrimps Radio’ Turned Calling Recreational Women’s Basketball Games Into an Essential Podcast.” (Splitsider)

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The battle for your car’s dashboard — and for your ears during your commute — is on

The fight for the dashboard. On February 20, The New York Times ran a piece about how SiriusXM, the popular subscription-based U.S. satellite radio network, is grappling with the prospect of increased competition generated by the growing ubiquity of connected cars, whose Internet-enabled infotainment systems will make it easier for drivers to use apps like Spotify, Deezer, and Pandora during their commutes. (Many of which, by the way, are becoming podcast providers themselves in addition to their music streaming functions — thus bringing them closer to SiriusXM’s product offering in concept.)

If this is the first time you’re encountering the connected car issue and how it pertains to radio and podcasts, here are two things to get you started. First, the “connected car” is a rather broad umbrella term for cars that feature better and near-persistent Internet access that’s primarily channelled to the driver through the vehicle’s dashboard interface. Its connectivity affords significant gains in the driver experience, like quicker GPS navigation (through, say, Google Maps or Waze) or better safeguards facilitated by automated car-to-car communication — but of course the thing we really want to talk about here in a column about podcasts is the benefit for the driver’s media consumption, which has up until this point been largely restricted to AM/FM and satellite radio. In the U.S., the satellite option has been dominated by the aforementioned SiriusXM, which currently boasts almost 30 million subscribers, while AM/FM radio still owns the majority of the American listening population, at 91 percent of folks over 12.

The second thing you need to know is how SiriusXM was able to develop a unique competitive advantage, which I’d argue is how the company has been able to carve out a life for itself thus far. The key is in the company’s intense structural reach, derived from the company’s successful cultivation of relationships with car manufacturers. Wooing car manufacturers grants the company default placement on their (largely pre-connected car, but not always) in-vehicle infotainment systems. Per the Times:

SiriusXM pays about $1 billion a year in subsidies and revenue splits to automakers, and according to the company, 75 percent of all new vehicles sold in the United States come with satellite radio installed. (It works with every major carmaker.) Of the 29.6 million subscribers to SiriusXM at the end of last year, 24.2 million paid the $11 to $20 monthly fee themselves, with the rest covered through promotions by car companies.

With the connected car and its new ecosystems becoming increasingly in focus — Android Auto and CarPlay are favored by many to become the operating systems of choice in the future — SiriusXM’s mastery of the dashboard as a distribution channel is potentially loosened.

It’s also become increasingly apparent that the dashboard is central to the focus of a bunch of hungry folks in the podcasting space. Last year’s DASH conference (amusingly subtitled “Radio & The Connected Car: A Survival Guide For Radio Broadcasters” — ohhhh how I love the drama) featured such radio and podcast operators as Midroll, NPR, Audible, Podcast One, Westwood One, and Adam Carolla.

Of course, just because streaming apps are more available doesn’t automatically means drivers will flock to them. (Although, it does help: Recall that the last across-the-board bump in podcast listenership is widely attributed to Apple’s decision to automatically bundle the native Podcasts app with iOS 8.) Further, the only problem we can be certain increased availability will solve is the one faced by the particularly plugged-in user who relies on a cumbersome Bluetooth solution to hook up their phone’s stream to the car stereo system. But these industrious consumers are never the prime target demo — that would be the passive, I’ll-listen-to-whatever’s-easiest, choice-is-a-burden commuter. If that user demographic can be converted at scale, the thinking goes, the game is basically won.

So, the billion-dollar question for the streaming apps — and the podcast companies who place their hope on them as the gateway between drivers and their content — is whether they’ll able to jockey their way into being the default or go-to listening option on the dashboard. Which will be difficult, of course, given that they’ll be competing with each other in addition to AM/FM and SiriusXM in dealing with whoever governs the on-board operating system (be it car manufacturers or CarPlay/Android Auto). Those apps would also to have to see if they’ll be able to successfully convert individual listeners down the marketing funnel — in essence fighting the same fight on the dashboard that they already are on the phone. After all, what is your car if not a giant mobile device? Crappy pun, but stare at it long enough and it becomes so true, yo.

Definitely check out the whole Times article, which touches upon multitudes of SiriusXM’s other flashpoints. But four more things before we move on:

  • I’m utterly fascinated by SiriusXM’s explanation for their value proposition that successfully moves folks down the subscription funnel, which essentially amounts to “a less crappy advertising load.” It can’t be that simple, can it? CAN IT? *rips hair out*
  • It’s entirely possible that some podcasting networks — particularly the ones that wrangle upwards of 25 podcasts — would consider developing an over-the-top solution that they can take directly to these operating systems. That, I think, would be an insanely difficult route to take, and I’d only recommend it if you have an asset as big and native to the form as, well, Howard Stern (who is locked in at SiriusXM, by the way, in case you missed that). But good on you if that’s your game, man.
  • Here’s a useful number I like to keep in my back pocket: 75 percent of the 92 million cars expected to ship globally in 2020 will be Internet-enabled, according to estimates by BI Intelligence.
  • How much will this all matter once self-driving cars kick in? I have no idea. I have as little idea about that as I do about how virtual reality will completely reconfigure aggregate media consumption behaviors. In the long run, we’re all self-driving cars in virtual reality, as Keynes once said.

Why isn’t there more audio programming for kids? Revisited. I asked this question last week, but only as a way to kick off an item about design points for kid-oriented podcasts. But it stuck with me — specifically in the context of public radio, but also radio and podcasts more broadly — so I spent a bit time last time asking around for theories, ideas, histories.

Here are the two that vibrated with me the most:

(1) Sponsorship uneasiness. This one comes from Guy Raz, editorial director and host of NPR’s TED Radio Hour, who emailed me after last week’s newsletter went out. Lightly edited for clarity and stuff:

It’s all about sponsorship. This is a longstanding problem with quality kids programming. Parents don’t want their kids to be exposed to ads (for good reason) and so it would have to be the kind of show that has (a) foundation support or (b) sponsorship from brands that are aligned with the mission of the show (similar to what PBS Kids does with the underwriting between shows).

There is a (c) option, and that would be very clearly delineated spots — even more so than we do on the TED Radio Hour or Alex [Blumberg] does on StartUp — but in a way where parents could skip through it. But I’m not sure advertisers would like that unless the right companies got involved — companies who understood the value of great kids shows and could accept less in-your-face ads in exchange for the so-called “halo effect” of association with the podcast.

There’s a juicy refraction that we can draw out from the problem as expressed by Raz here: One would imagine that whatever ends up working the best for kids programming — following the terms laid down in option (c) — would, in design and in theory, also work equally well for podcast advertising more broadly: that is, a set of advertising conventions built upon thoughtfulness, sensitivity to the listener’s context, alignment between brand and show, and the utmost care for the boundary between editorial and advertorial.

An additional problem to consider here, of course, is how to apply those precepts to executions that come out of dynamic ad insertion and, whenever it happens, programmatic audio advertising. (Pairing the question of programmatic with this appeal towards thoughtful advertising, I offer, portends a much larger rabbit hole: Can automated matching solutions be efficient, effective, and data-rich enough as to be empathetically intelligent? Merp.) But that’s a whole other can of worms, and we’ll deal with it when we get there.

Raz, by the way, also moonlights for something called the Breakfast Blast Newscast, which he produces with Mindy Thomas, the program director and on-air host for SiriusXM’s Kids Place Live. Breakfast Blast features kids doing news roundups and discussing material from peer-reviewed journal articles, which honestly is something that could’ve made my grad school life a lot better. You can find it on SoundCloud.

(2) Historical precedent, or lack thereof. This one comes from Lindsay Patterson, one of the folks behind a science podcast for kids called Tumble. (She also wrote a manifesto of sorts on the issue, which you can find on Current.)

Patterson believes the sponsorship argument has limited explanatory power. “The answer may be as simple as it just never really occurring to people to make things for kids,” she said to me when we spoke over the phone last week, specifically referring to the context of public radio.

I was a little resistant to that point — there are just too many reasonably intelligent people, and too many people in power who have, well, kids, for the idea to not have come up before. Patterson gestured to the way things generally get moving within large institutions: Every project that gets developed draws, in some part, from notable past projects that serve as strong enough templates. As her argument goes: There simply hasn’t been a notable enough show or experiment in the past that’s spurred enough confidence leading to more resources being poured into more kids programming. (But enough templates, in my mind, to fuel more podcasts about the mysteries of everyday life.)

In other words, it’s the story of how anything new ever gets made in large, legacy, or relatively conservative institutions. Which says a lot about the state of podcasts, to be honest.

An Australian Third Coast. Attention, Ozzies! Audiocraft is a one-day Australian-focused audio conference that’s taking place in Sydney this Saturday. If the premise of Audiocraft sounds familiar to you, that’s because it draws inspiration from the Third Coast Festival, which I’ve talked about a fair bit before. In fact, the organizers came up with Audiocraft during the last Third Coast Festival back in 2014 (in a pre-Serial and pre-Trump America).

According to Kate Montague, the executive director of the conference, Audiocraft was conceived out of a belief that there weren’t many opportunities for the various parts of the Australian radio community — the public sector, the community radio sector, the independents, even the commercial — to come together and discuss the “state of the Australian sound.”

You can learn more about Audiocraft on their site. They’re also set to announce a short features competition soon, so watch out for that if you’re hanging out in Oceania.

Standalone spinoffs. Last week, I ran a quick item on Modern Love, the podcast that comes out of a partnership between WBUR and The New York Times, bagging 1.4 million downloads across the whole show in its first month. For the few of you in my readership who are in charge of program development in your respective institutions, and who might probably benefit (or gain anxiety) from looking into somebody else’s bowl, here are three interesting details from my conversation last Monday with Jessica Alpert, WBUR’s managing producer for program development:

  • From first conversation to negotiation to production to launch, the entire process took a year and a half.
  • Actual show development started on October 15. Given that the show launched on January 20, that’s a pretty quick turnaround: a little over three months.
  • Launch sponsors included Living Proof and Squarespace.

Okay, with that out of the way, I want to briefly talk about two things:

  • Modern Love is the latest in a relatively long line of interesting partnerships that WBUR has cultivated over the years. Currently, they have Dear Sugar Radio, another adaptation of a well known column, out on the market, and past collaborations include Finish Line with The Boston Globe and The Checkup with Slate. Now, striking up partnerships to create shows isn’t all that novel — in fact, the business model of my former day job employer, Panoply, was initially built upon that premise — but there’s something scrappy and vivacious about the way WBUR, which is basically a traditional public radio station, has been trying out partnerships. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but I’m pretty curious to see what they come up with next.
  • So, real talk for a second: I’m the kind of guy that reads the Modern Love column, uh, ironically. But I’m utterly enthralled by the execution of the show — particularly how effectively, to my ears at least, it can be consumed as a piece of media that stands apart from The New York Times’ brand. This suggests a specific way that we look for potential podcast projects to spin out of papers and magazines: What editorial elements can you adapt that could lead to shows that are able to be their own independent brand?

Relevant bits:

  • The Knight Foundation’s Prototype Fund published a list of 11 media projects that it’s funding in its latest round, and there are two audio-centric products you should pay close attention to: This American Life’s audio-sharing tool and something called Satchel, a podcast distribution platform with a local emphasis. (Nieman Lab)
  • 99% Invisible collaborated with Vox on a short video piece which came out last Friday. At 12 p.m. ET on Monday, the podcast was placing at No. 9 on the iTunes charts, with the video having clocked about 1.1 million views. (Roman Mars’ glorious Twitter feed, here’s the video on Vox.com)
  • Gimlet previews the pilot for The Hunt, a reality TV-style podcast created out of the company’s recent “Mix Week,” behind their membership paywall. They also wrote up one of those spiffy Medium posts discussing the mix-week process. (Medium)
  • Panoply dropped a 32-episode podcast about pregnancy, which they developed with Parents magazine, last week. The full series was released simultaneously — you know, Netflix-style, or whatever you want to call it. I’ll follow up in a few weeks to see how this distribution method takes, and whether it actually turns out to be a good match with the editorial need. (RAIN News)
  • Flash Forward, a podcast made by independent producer Rose Eveleth and distributed by the former zine/now quirky website Boing Boing, surged into the Top 10 of the iTunes podcast charts after its collaboration with Planet Money published last week. At 12 p.m. ET on Monday, the podcast was placed at No. 7. When asked for comment, Eveleth said: “SO MANY EMOTIONS.” (iTunes)
  • “Craig Windham, NPR Newscaster, Dies.” R.I.P. (NPR)

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Not enough advertisers for podcasts, or not enough podcasts worth advertising on?

The podcast advertising hurdle. Podcastland received a fair bit of attention last week with The Wall Street Journal and The Information (a tech business news site largely read by technology insiders) both publishing stories revolving around the same theme: Advertising remains the defining problem for the medium’s professionalization into an industry, as many brands still appear unwilling to pour money into the space. The articles contain nothing longtime observers don’t already know — data scarcity remains a huge issue for bigger advertisers, ad tech solutions are still unsophisticated and held back by walled gardens, podcast companies want brand advertisers but it’s a tragic love unreciprocated — but seeing the two articles come out in tandem, on the same day no less, is a lovely dose of real talk, especially after all the frothy conversations that dominated the medium’s narrative in the latter half of last year. (I alluded to such frothiness in my entry for Nieman Lab’s Predictions for Journalism 2016 series, by the way.)

Comparatively speaking, podcast ad spending is minuscule. The advertising spend for podcasts in the United States is projected to be $36.1 million this year, according to ZenithOptimedia, as cited in the Journal piece. In contrast, the U.S. radio ad spend was $17.6 billion in 2015, according to the same source. Perhaps comparing broadcast numbers to podcast numbers at this point isn’t categorically appropriate, given the immense historical size and weight behind the former. But the ad spend for digital video, which one could possibly describe as a closer cousin, is projected to be $9.59 billion in the United States this year, according to eMarketer. So even when you cut it that way, the gulf is still huge.

But maybe that isn’t a bad thing. I’m partial towards this perspective from Recode senior media editor Peter Kafka, which was offered when I contacted his people for another story (more on that in a bit). Through his personal body double Eric Scott Johnson, Kafka wrote:

Like every other new format, it’s going to take a while for the ad business to catch up to the audience shift, but like I’ve said before, I think that’s not a terrible thing — it gives us all some time to play around and figure out what works. (One thing that does work — the excellent sockwear line made by the good people at Mack Weldon.)

In fact, taking the time to “play around and figure out what works” is quite possibly the most important thing to do right now. The last thing the industry should want is to unthinkingly push for growth — if there’s anything that the short history of the Internet advertising has taught me, it’s that the unthoughtful push for growth is the stuff that probably leads to the development and proliferation of poor advertising conventions and ad fraud. (See: the pop-up ad.)

Anyway, definitely check out the writeups from the Journal and The Information. Especially the latter, which is a really, really fine publication and I’ll be crying when my free one month trial is over and I have to decide whether to start shelling out $39.99 a month for it.

But before moving on, I just want to briefly bring up two more things:

The question for independents. The Information’s version of events makes a brief reference to a dynamic that may worry some: Podcast companies are all fighting for advertising dollars, sure, but when dollars are given, it’s distributed unequally — with the lion’s share going to a few shows, either based on performance or prestige. That state of affairs captured best by this line in The Information’s piece:

…without more data on listenership and an ad tech infrastructure, the gap between podcasting’s haves and have-nots might widen, podcast executives say.

You can look at it one of two ways: On the one hand, this is perfectly reasonable — the market wants what it wants. On the other, that this is a terrible situation for niche, quirky, and perhaps innovative independent podcasts. I’m reminded, in particular, of something that was said by Welcome to Night Vale’s Joseph Fink, which I highlighted in an issue earlier this month:

I worry about big money pouring into podcasting…I really, really hope that all the money pouring into podcasting won’t bury tiny, weird independent podcasts.

Both things can simultaneously be true. Even if we lived in a world where ad money flows freely into the podcasting space, that isn’t a guarantee that the wealth will be distributed equally between all shows. And that’s fine; it just means that these indie podcasts would have to find some other way to monetize, which itself is a market opportunity that someone can step into. (Hint, hint, wink, wink, nudge, nudge.)

In other words, it’s the story of the creative economy, modern and historical.

An alternate theory. So here’s a theory that I’m also partial to: It’s entirely possible that podcasting’s advertising problem also comes, at least in some small part, from the fact that there simply isn’t enough quality content that justifies the attention and respect of big advertisers. Think about this way: How many shows do you think actually warrant advertising from brands like Ford, in terms of either download numbers or prestige?

Not a lot, I’d wager.

From that perspective, there literally aren’t enough valuable ad slots to accommodate a $1 billion ad spend, even if we factor in dynamic ad insertion. This refines the familiar axiom that podcast discovery is broken in an interesting way. We may be right in complaining that we lack adequate solutions that help podcasts find their appropriate audiences — or to help niche podcasts find niche audiences, to put it another way. But it’s entirely possible that the bigger problem is that we lack discovery solutions to adequately filter out podcasts below a certain quality threshold — thus beating back the problem of saturation.

Modern Love’s strong first month. The podcast, which comes out of a partnership between The New York Times and WBUR, enjoyed 1.4 million downloads across the whole show since launching in mid-January. That number was confirmed to me by Jessica Alpert, WBUR’s managing producer for program development, when we spoke on the phone yesterday afternoon. It includes downloads off the podcast feed and listens on the web players found on both WBUR.org and NYTimes.com.

You can do the math yourself, but keep in mind: At this writing, the show has 6 full episodes, along with a short episode (which I like to call “Shordios”) and a trailer that was released in December. That’s a remarkable number for something that Ira Glass didn’t bump on his show.

People just love Love, man.

Recode Media. I’ve already written a fair bit about my admiration for Recode’s podcast suite in the past, so I’d like to take a quick second to highlight their new show, Recode Media with Peter Kafka. It features interviews with, well, notable media-types, so it’s fun fodder for anyone who nerds out about the decline/death/resurgence/time-is-a-flat-circle of the digital media and publishing industry (like me).

The new podcast kicked off last Thursday, with its first episode featuring New Yorker editor David Remnick on the hot seat. Recode Media was given a soft launch off the flagship Recode podcast feed, being published as standalone episodes on Thursdays as opposed to being piloted as a segment on the main show — which was the route the Recode team took with their other recently launched show, Too Embarrassed To Ask.

In a note sent by proxy to me, Kafka wrote:

I’ve been a professional podcast listener since Bill Simmons got me hooked, back in 2007 or 2008, and I’ve gotten the chance to write about the boomlet a few times as well. In 2013, for about 30 seconds, I had both Bill and Marc Maron signed on to appear together at one our media conferences, which would have been at the top of my professional highlight reel. Alas, things fall apart.

Alas, indeed.

Designing a podcast for kids. Why isn’t there more audio programming for kids? I’ve heard that question come up a lot more lately among radio types, the overarching query of which was neatly articulated by Lindsay Patterson, who produces the Tumble science podcast, in a piece for Current. That very question was also the subject of an amusing tangent at a recent podcast panel. (“The guilt of a parent who puts the television on to pacify their children is one of the most powerful emotional forces in existence,” said Gimlet’s Matt Lieber. Mild laughter ensued; stern heads nod gravely in agreement.)

I don’t have any strong theories explaining the scarcity of kids-focused audio programming. When I asked Marc Sanchez, who produces a kids’ podcast called Brains On under the American Public Media (APM) umbrella, he couldn’t come up with any theories either. “Honestly, I don’t know why it’s not more common. It seems like a great audience from a public radio perspective,” Sanchez said. “From a cynical marketing perspective, these are future listeners — why not engage them?”

Indeed, why not! After all, everybody makes babies, and everybody wants to limit how much time kids spend burning their eyeballs staring at screens, and after all, kids are the potential lifetime value consumer, if you really think about. Do it for the brand advertisers, people!

Brains On, by the way, is a great show. Similar to other science shows — early Radiolab, say, or Science Versus — the show is Q&A-based, with each episode featuring a string of interviews that look to answer a query presented at the very start. The twist here being, of course, that questions come from kid reporters, while answers come from very adult scientists. That the experts are attempting to communicate complexity to a child is something quite pleasant to experience; the adult voice lilts, introducing a gentleness to the proceedings, which ends up being soothing even to my childless mid-20s ears.

I asked Sanchez a couple of questions about how his team designed the show, and here are the highlights:

  • The team writes the show with kids between the ages of 6 and 12 in mind.
  • Like all good children’s shows, they try to make it bearable — even enjoyable! — for the adults. “We really keep in mind that parents are going to be listening to the show as well, because a lot of these kids don’t have first-hand access to listen,” Sanchez said.
  • They don’t dumb down the language. “It’s funny, because if you listen to our first few episodes, we were consciously trying to use words and concepts that we thought kids could understand,” he said. “The more feedback we got, the more we realized that kids are waaaaaaaaaay smarter than most of us give them credit. We found out pretty fast that we don’t have to talk down to kids. Think back to when you were a kid…you probably emulated older kids.”

When asked about the health of the show, Sanchez notes that it gets a “significant” number of monthly downloads. “We’re not Marketplace, but we’re in the top tier of APM,” he said. But enough downloads, it seems, to score some unique sponsorship/underwriting opportunities. Sanchez mentioned running spots for a kids magazine and even Harvey Mudd College, the science-oriented liberal arts college out in California.

Education and podcasts: Gotta start ’em young, folks. Anyway, I’m going to do some more thinking on podcasts for kids, so I’ll come back next week with another item.

Apple’s Podcasts Connect. So it looks like Apple, the precondition of the podcast universe as it currently exists, has made a small change to its podcast infrastructure: On iTunes, podcast submissions now go through a new spiffy-looking page. Dubbed Podcasts Connect, the new page looks like a step up from the early-2000s chic of the previous system, and is presumably part of the larger iTunes Connect ecosystem.

For now, the upgrade seems purely cosmetic, but it appears to portend a more significant shift towards a consolidated inventory management experience across all other iTunes verticals, like books and TV shows. (In my mind, this development is par for the course, given Apple’s penchant towards keeping users integrated with its ecosystem.)

Relevant bits:

  • Didn’t catch this last month, but: The Memory Palace’s Nate DiMeo is now developing podcasts for MTV. He works under former Grantland editorial director Dan Fierman, who’s been building an eye-catching team that includes talent with solid podcast cred under their belt, like Amy Nicholson and Molly Lambert. DiMeo will continue making The Memory Palace. (Current)
  • NPR’s newscasts now include language calling out the fact that they are live. NPR public editor Elizabeth Jensen digs into the rationale for the change, along with the complications it brings. (NPR)
  • Third Coast Festival, everybody’s favorite hippie indie audio commune, has launched a residency program for underrepresented producers in public radio. Send your proposals! (TCF)
  • PRX is getting ready to introduce something called Podquest in mid-March. More details here.
  • Bill Simmons’ upcoming publication, The Ringer, will almost certainly feature more podcasts. (Sports Illustrated)
  • Nerdist Industries’ Chris Hardwick joins Art19 as investor and advisor. (Art19 blog)
  • I played around with Anchor yesterday, and asked co-founder Michael Mignano a bunch of rambling questions. (Anchor)
  • We finally learn the fate of NPR Chicken. (Current)

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