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In case you missed it: Serial is coming back for its long-awaited third season later this month. Announced last Wednesday, the news was well-documented by mainstream outlets like Variety, the Hollywood Reporter, Elle, Cleveland Magazine, and the New York Times — I wrote up a preview for Vulture, too — but if you didn’t manage to get to them, here are the basics:
- The season will drop its first two episodes on September 20, before releasing new episodes every Thursday.
- It will dive into the infinitely complex topic of the American justice system by delivering weekly stories from inside the courts of the ordinary, everyday city of Cleveland, Ohio.
- Emmanuel Dzotsi, a This American Life staffer and Ohio native, joins Sarah Koenig as the co-reporter for the season. Word has it that the dude moved to Cleveland for the past year to cover the courts.
- ZipRecruiter will serve as the exclusive sponsor for the season. Public Media Marketing facilitated that deal.
Also: the new season sees Serial continuing its “exclusive streaming partnership” with Pandora. The same partnership was announced with Season Two, and back then, the arrangement caused some confusion: what does it mean to be a Pandora streaming exclusive when you can still download episodes with podcast apps? A rep told me: “According to Pandora, no other audio streaming services will have Serial. Since Pandora is the only streaming partner, Serial 3 won’t be available on Apple Music, Spotify, etc.” (That’s Apple *Music*, by the way, not Apple Podcasts.) This means a little more nowadays than it did back then, I think, as we’ve come to see increasing podcast-related activities from music streaming platforms. Still feels like hair-splitting, though, particularly as we continue to move down a path where everything seems to be converging anyway.
I’ve put together a story about the ZipRecruiter deal, but before we get to that, a quick thought:
It’s remarkable to look back at just how basic the premise behind Serial was when it was first announced in the summer of 2014. “What’s different about Serial is that it’s a story that takes a dozen or so episodes to tell,” This American Life chief Ira Glass wrote in a blog post from the time. “So each new episode brings you the next chapter of this amazing, unfolding story. Serial’s a podcast, not a radio show, because a podcast seems like a better place for a long story that you need to hear from the beginning.”
The pitch wasn’t a What, but a How — not the birth of something new, but an expansion of something that existed. How an emerging technology could contribute to the show’s ever-growing editorial ambitions. This American Life was almost two-decades old by that point, a period throughout which the show had continuously refined itself within the programming logic of linear broadcast radio: producing captivating multi-segmented hours designed to catch earballs foraging through the dial. If you missed a story, you missed it, but it’s okay: there’s another good one in a few minutes. Maybe you’ll bump it into that earlier story some day, if it reruns.
That was, of course, a limitation of the broadcast structure. And to be sure, limitations are productive: there’s that pablum people say about creative constraints, et cetera et cetera. But there’s a limit to the ambitions that every structure can accommodate: there may well remain many more frontiers for narrative storytelling on broadcast radio to discover, but there are some frontiers you just can’t reach with it. You probably can’t, for example, present a deeply complicated, nuanced, and novelistic multipart Southern Gothic about the extraordinariness of an ordinary life over the broadcast airwaves of, say, KOSU. Not efficiently, anyway.
It should be said that the growth, development, and flourishing of podcasting long predated Serial’s debut in the fall of 2014. But the explosive popularity of that first season nonetheless looms over a good deal of what came after: we continue to see it firmly alive in the minds (and hunger) of countless competitors, disciples, imitators to this day. In the end, the true heart of Serial’s intent, and legacy, can perhaps be phrased as such: what if ambition, but more?
Let’s start with the obvious question: is ZipRecruiter’s exclusive sponsorship of Serial’s third season the largest podcast ad deal to date? Let’s also be prudent and invoke a qualifier: is it the largest launch ad deal to date, given the existence of other deal types like recurrings and branded content?
“I don’t believe there has even been a larger podcast sponsorship in audience reach exclusivity term or financial commitment,” said David Raphael, the president of Public Media Marketing, who took the podcast out to marketplace. “Yes, there have been branded content programs contracted by brand sponsors, some of them quite good. That said, I’m confident that to date none have ever reached the size and scale of the Serial audience nor matched the content produced by Sarah Koenig and her team at Serial.”
And to answer the other obvious question: no, he could not provide specific numbers. Alas.
It is hard, of course, to fully verify a claim like this without having omniscient access to everybody’s books, and when dealing with a question like this, one must account for the fact that muscle flexing is part of the point of a given quote. For what it’s worth, I asked around, and though there were some qualifications, there was also a general consensus that this, indeed, is very probably the biggest deal to date.
In case you were wondering, how these things happen is pretty straightforward: Public Media Marketing sits down with the Serial team, discusses revenue goals, puts together a revenue package to sell, and brings it to potential advertisers. They ended up receiving multiple offers, but chose ZipRecruiter because, as Raphael puts it, theirs was “the most interesting.”
“It isn’t just about financial size,” said Raphael, when asked about what “the most interesting” meant. “It’s the ability to put together a mass reach package for a sponsor that wants ownership at a high level.” Kind of like what happened with Mailchimp and the first season, he added, though, admittedly, “as Bob Ross said, that was a happy accident.”
Interesting-ness, it seems, also translates to a willingness around creative collaboration. Though hosts Koenig and Dzotsi will not voice the ads — journalistic ethics and so on — Serial’s creative team will be contributing to the development on those advertising spots, with ZipRecruiter providing a good deal of freedom and additional collaboration around a multi-platform creative campaign.
On Thursday, ZipRecruiter tweeted out a preview of what that ad experience looks like: a show within a show called Road to Hired. The concept sounds reminiscent of the Ford ads Gimlet produced for Startup, though the question here, for me anyway, is tone-control: unlike Startup, Serial often deals with deadly serious material, and the thing to watch is whether the show will be able to toggle between its investigation and ZipRecruiter’s brand messaging without feeling too weird.
Anyway, I’m told that the deal’s exclusivity is based on a combination of time and impressions, and that it applies for every podcast distribution platform except for Pandora, which will have the ability to sell inventory around the show on its own platform to its own sponsors, provided they are not competitive with ZipRecruiter. Raphael expects the ZipRecruiter ads to run on the podcast for at least six months.
Some readers wrote in noting the fact that ZipRecruiter, a long-time direct response advertiser on podcasts, ended up headlining Serial’s highly anticipated third season feels a little underwhelming, especially given the industry’s overarching pursuit of brand dollars. I find the situation curious as well. We’ve seen numerous major brands begin invest in branded podcasts and host-reads — surely those advertisers have warmed up enough to put up numbers for something like Serial by now, right?
Raphael evoked the sense that we’re still very much in uncharted waters with a package like Serial’s third season, which commits to Big Numbers out of the gate and asks for Big Money in return. “Candidly, when you’re selling a podcast package of this size and scale, it’s a little unprecedented,” said Raphael. The reality, he argues, remains that legacy advertisers are still dipping their toes, and they continue to grapple with prevailing doubts: “One of the issues we face a lot — and this goes back for years — is that large, traditional brand advertisers still think podcasts are not able to reach hundreds of millions of impressions.”
“We can do that [consistently] now,” he said, pointing to the podcast’s first two seasons and its spin-off, S-Town.
In any case, Raphael added, focusing completely on brands is besides the point. “I’m not one of those reps who believe brands are going to be the whole future of this industry,” he said. “Direct response advertisers are still going to be a big part of it — in order to maintain a healthy ecosystem, you need a good mix.”
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Chomping at the bit. “Gimlet is a multimedia storytelling brand, not just a podcast network,” declared Jenny Wall, the company’s newly hired chief marketing officer, in a Fast Company piece in January. That identity refashioning is mostly tethered to Gimlet’s increasingly formalized dealings with Hollywood, but it’s beginning to rear its head in other intriguing ways as well.
Last Thursday, Gimlet announced its first offering for the Amazon Alexa platform: Chompers, a skill that takes the form of a twice-daily toothbrushing companion for young children. To produce the skill, the podcast company partnered with Volley, a San Francisco-based startup that specializes in building entertainment products for voice assistants. They’re also releasing Chompers as a vanilla podcast for those who have yet to join the smart speaker cult.
This is a shrewd piece of business for two reasons. The first is hunger: The kids, they really love those speaking computer tubes. According to Edison Research and NPR’s Smart Audio report, 88 percent of smart speaker owners whose households include children report that said children really, really enjoy Alexa. And while I’m not a fan of anecdotal evidence, I will say I’ve seen this myself and let me tell ya: The level of fervor is genuinely frightening. (Bigger picture: Health experts are apparently warily optimistic about the relationship between kids and smart speakers, though concerns about data privacy seem to be the more prominent thorn.)
The second reason is money: The first season of Chompers, we’re told, is sponsored by Oral-B and Crest Kids. With this move, Gimlet has made the choice to dive headfirst into the ethical hairiness of advertising to children, which is a can of worms commonly tossed about in discussions about kids podcasts. It’s also a notable attempt to grapple with an Alexa development environment that’s ambiguous about how it allows skill developers to monetize their efforts. More on that in a second.
The Wall Street Journal’s Ben Mullin picked up the story, which you should totally check out in full, but there are three nuggets in there you shouldn’t miss:
- Gimlet has hired a voice director to lead further content development for voice assistants: Wilson Standish, formerly the director of innovation at the marketing agency Hearts & Science.
- (Brand) money moves: “In 2017, more than half of Gimlet Media’s ad revenue came from brand advertisers, according to Anna Sullivan, vice president of brand partnerships for the company. Ms. Sullivan added that the company’s brand advertising revenue grew 134 percent in 2017 compared with 2016.”
- Gimlet president Matt Lieber re-emphasized the company’s commitment to audio: “The way I think about Gimlet is that we’re trying to build a new kind of modern media company where everything begins in audio.”
The company continues to sprawl into a myriad of directions, and it occurs to me that Gimlet’s narrative these days has mostly been about its meta-show developments and much less about the actual shows themselves. Anyway, I think they’re due to announce a spring slate soon, so maybe we’ll start getting more of that too.
Okay, back to making money off Alexa. So it’s a complicated situation. Chompers emerges against an Alexa development environment that happens to ban all third-party ads (with some exceptions for music and flash briefing apps). It’s also an environment that seems to encourage advertisers and brands to directly create or commission skills themselves; a sort of Alexa-skill equivalent of the branded podcast. For further consideration of this, I highly recommend this Wired piece, “Amazon’s Alexa Wants You To Talk To Your Ads,” from December.
All of this amounts to a deeply uncertain context for audio publishers thinking about investing time and resources in creating a presence on the platform. Even if the smart speaker category feels really exciting in general, it’s incredibly hard for publishers to figure out a decent way to yield returns — a problem exacerbated by Amazon’s total and often opaque governance of the Alexa platform. It’s a familiar conundrum: You want to be a part of something on the up and up before you miss it, but what are you really getting if the nature of the thing is so capricious and beyond your control?
With Chompers, Gimlet appears to have figured out a loose workaround. Oral-B and Crest Kids are indeed sponsors, but according to Amazon’s rules, the Chompers skill can’t convey the sponsorship of the two brands at all. However, the usual ad spots will be present on the podcast version, which will receive the usual cross-promotion treatment across its show portfolio. A spokesperson further told me:
We are also including P&G in all our marketing materials, including social, promotional boxes/kits with Oral-B and Crest Kids products, an Echo Dot, etc. to pediatric dentists in NY SF LA and Seattle, celebs, press and parenting influencers, etc.
P&G, by the way, refers to Procter & Gamble, the multinational consumer goods corporation that owns both Oral-B and Crest. The move with promotional materials leans onto a larger marketing theory: By virtue of its relative monopoly over dental hygiene products, P&G will likely benefit from any broader lift in general toothbrushing practices — which, you know, is both terrifying in its expression of corporate monopoly and also a value-creation hypothesis I’d totally explore if I were said corporate monopoly.
Again, these feel like cobbled-together workarounds, and the larger problem of how one can derive meaningful revenue through voice assistant platforms remains very much up in the air. Two more things to that point:
- I’m tempted to think that what we’ll see over the long run with the Echo is a media ecosystem akin to YouTube: a closed, centralized platform that largely leads to the creation of a content type unique to itself. As such, if you’re a purveyor of fine podcast products, the choice of developing programming for Alexa is ultimately an optional one — but one that requires its own infrastructures, teams, and playbooks. Which is probably why Gimlet hiring a dedicated director of voice makes sense.
- There’s something about the current demographics of smart speaker users that makes me think it’s a good tool for audio publishers to deepen their relationship with superfans. Drawing from the various Smart Audio reports, these users are highly engaged, display increased audio consumption behaviors, and appear inclined to use the device as a mechanism to make purchases. Seems like a ripe constellation of traits for an audio publisher looking to build out a subscription or freemium model.
But yeah, I don’t know. The more I think about it, the more unsettled I get. If I were a podcast publisher, I’d be incredibly wary of dedicating too much of myself to Alexa. I don’t know where this particular road goes, but it certainly reminds me of the many, many roads that have ended badly.
Chaser: Then again, maybe it’s not a good idea to build out a distribution presence on a sentient platform? “Amazon Alexa Devices Are Laughing Spontaneously And It’s ‘Bone Chillingly Creepy'” (BuzzFeed).
While we’re on the subject of kids podcasts: Gen-Z Media, which joined PRX’s portfolio of clients back in January, has announced a new slate of shows for the spring: The Mayan Crystal, Six Minutes, and a game show called Pants on Fire.
Of particular note is Gen-Z’s new website, dubbed Best Robot Ever, which functions as its new consumer-facing online home that also features programming from kids podcast publishers outside its network.
Clustering. Two months after wrapping Heaven’s Gate, Stitcher has rolled out another podcast that sticks with the theme of cults and cult-ish movements. The new show is called Dear Franklin Jones, and it’s by Jonathan Hirsch, most known for creating the independent podcast ARRVLS.
I liked the first episode enough (and loved the tinkly retro theme music), but what’s up with Stitcher and cults? This reminds me of the twin films phenomenon, except, of course, this isn’t an instance of semi-serendipitous cross-industry synchronicity, it’s just one publisher being fixated on a subject. Anyway, shouts to 1997, when Hollywood released both Volcano and Dante’s Peak within two months of each other, and to 1998, which saw Armageddon and Deep Impact come out within a similar chunk of time.
Anyway, I’d just like to flag that Dear Franklin Jones is another example of Stitcher working the windowing angle to drive more Stitcher Premium conversions through its original programming. The podcast debuted last week with new episodes weekly, but Jonesheads can access the whole run of episodes now if they signed up for Stitcher Premium.
For the record: I go back and forth debating the merits of windowing arrangements like this. I mean, I get it. By virtue of being a short-run series, Dear Franklin Jones is considerably harder to monetize than a longer-term recurring production, simply because there’s a much shorter runway to develop an active listenership and monetize the “head” of the production. As such, I completely empathize with the need to break out complementary channels for revenue.
But the tradeoff involves dampening the upside should it become a hit during its original run. The option to let listeners pay up and instantly access the rest of the show potentially diffuses the listenership and attention; you’d get two populations experiencing the show at different speeds, and are therefore less likely to participate in the same kinds of conversations. We see a version of this diffusion in the streaming vs. linear television context: Streaming platforms Netflix and Amazon Prime Video simply haven’t seemed capable of driving conversations with the same fervor and intensity that linear networks like HBO have consistently been able to do. I guess what I’m saying is: Scared money don’t make money, but I get it.
It’s a tough balance to strike, and I don’t envy podcast programming chiefs juggling the twin facts that (a) there seems to be genuine hunger for great, high-quality short-run podcasts and (b) they’re so much harder to monetize within the current system. And I imagine this will come to a head for Stitcher when the network rolls out its collaboration with Marvel, Wolverine: The Long Night. That show will debut exclusively on Stitcher Premium next Monday, before going wide in the fall.
The Big Listen ends. WAMU will cease production on the Lauren Ober-hosted broadcast about podcasts after “the program in its current format didn’t gain the traction with other NPR stations that we required to continue the investment in its weekly production,” the station announced Friday.
Keep an eye on Spotify. The Swedish music streaming service finally filed to go public on the New York Stock Exchange last week, and the big story thread is how it will pursue a relatively unconventional (and consequently riskier) route to do so. Recode has a helpful summary of the move — Theodore Schleifer writes: “There are no bankers that will underwrite the listing, meaning no one is trying to make a market for shares. There are no institutional investors who will get first dibs at their shares who could prop up Spotify’s value. And a lot of the rules that are meant to keep a stock from soaring or crashing are out the window” — and I also found Andrew Flanagan’s writeup over at NPR helpful to grasp the bigger picture.
You should check out Flanagan’s entire piece, but here’s the money:
Let’s take [Spotify CEO Daniel] Ek at his word here and assume he truly, deeply would like to pay creators as much as humanly possible, enough to survive on their creativity, while at the same time continue to operate a globally dominant technology company. To do that, Ek and Spotify may need to remove other players from the equation — or as he puts it, “break free of their medium’s constraints.” Ek isn’t talking about the constraints of human hearing or the constraints of creating beautiful and challenging sounds. He’s talking about the constraints represented by an industry of fiefdoms. It sounds as though he’d like the job of king.
So why should we care about Spotify again? As a reminder, the platform has made various attempts — albeit in the form of tentative minor experiments — to build out programming alternatives to its core music offering, a good chunk of which revolves around podcasts and non-music audio content. These attempts are ongoing, and to this date they have manifested themselves in a few different ways including: basic third-party podcast distribution (both through manual submission and through new partnerships with Anchor and Spreaker), original content creation (some of which are produced by podcast shops like Panoply and Transmitter), exclusive windowing arrangements (e.g. Gimlet Media with Mogul and WNYC Studios with 2 Dope Queens), and a new multimedia initiative called Spotlight.
According to the F-1, the music streaming platform boasts 159 million monthly users and 71 million paid Premium subscribers as of December 31st, 2017. The document also spotlight’s the company’s apparent emphasis on expanding “non-music content and user experience,” listed within the growth strategy section. Note the following disclosure:
There were a total of 348 million podcast listeners across all platforms worldwide at the end of 2016 and the number of podcast listeners increased to an estimated 484 million in 2017 according to Ovum, representing growth of 39% year-over-year. This engagement presents a significant opportunity for Spotify as we believe we have the ability to enhance the podcast User experience with a better product that is focused on discovery.
I’m not sure how Ovum, the business intelligence service referenced here, counts a “podcast listener,” but the growth rate is notable nonetheless. For what it’s worth, I’m a heavy user of Spotify for podcast listening, mostly because it works better with my data plan and I often spend huge chunks of the day without Wifi. Then again, I’m the guy that hits Chipotle before 11 a.m. to beat the lunch rush. Which is to say, I’m no indicator of anybody.
Related story: iHeartMedia is preparing to file for bankruptcy, Bloomberg reports.
Career Spotlight. We’re back at it again. This week, I traded emails with Vanessa Lowe, the creator of Nocturne, an independent podcast that’s part of The Heard collective. She’s based in Berkeley, California, which I hear has a hoppin’ radio scene these days.
[conl]Hot Pod: Tell me about your current situation.[/conl]
[conr]Vanessa Lowe: I produce and host the podcast, Nocturne. I’m also a freelance radio producer and do occasional freelance sound editing for independent films. Most of what I’m doing these days is Nocturne, since it’s largely a one-person show. I do 99 percent of the research, interviewing, writing, music supervision, sound editing, mixing, and promotion.[/conr]
[conl]Hot Pod: How did you get to this point?[/conl]
[conr]Lowe: My career has been less of an arc then a strange, but enjoyable, jagged line. I call myself a “dormant psychologist” because I have a doctorate in clinical psychology but haven’t done any work in that field for a long time. I also spent many years being a performing singer-songwriter-guitarist and released five albums.
In 2008, I produced my first longform radio documentary with no training or experience. That was great fun and the piece was actually aired by several public radio stations around the country. I learned two key things from that experience: I loved making audio stories, and I had a lot to learn. That led me to take a workshop on longform audio documentary production from Claire Schoen, a wonderful veteran radio producer in Berkeley. After the workshop, I became her intern, and eventually an associate producer on her multimedia project about rising sea levels. I worked on that project for two years while producing a couple more docs on my own and with collaborators. I grew more confident making audio, but soon grew tired of working for a year or more on one story. Podcasts were picking up at that point, and I got really excited about the idea of an ongoing project that would have variety and novelty by virtue of being composed of individual episodes. That excitement, combined with my curiosity and complicated relationship with the night, led to Nocturne.
I found learning opportunities everywhere. AIR hooked me up for a mentorship. I did the Transom Travelling Workshop on Catalina Island. Shortly after that, my partner, Kent Sparling, and I entered the KCRW 24-Hour Radio Race and ended up in the top ten (we called ourselves Sleep Mice). I became a founding member of The Heard shortly after starting Nocturne. The Heard is a collective of other indie podcasts, all sharing an ethos of wanting to build things that had unique voices as well as a desire to support and learn from each other.
Having come from the indie music world, I initially felt hesitant to bring on ads to Nocturne. It is first and foremost an artistic project with a distinctive emotional atmosphere. I was concerned that ads would diminish that. I tried to find other ways to support the show, but ultimately came to embrace the advertising model. However, I remain picky about what kinds of ads I do and the tone they take. This shift in mindset came in part from my experience at the first Werk It Festival in New York, where sage female producers spoke convincingly about the importance of placing financial value on your work. At this point, I work with a few different podcast ad companies.[/conr]
[conl]Hot Pod: What does a career mean to you, at this point?[/conl]
[conr]Lowe: For some reason I’ve always had a hard time with the word “career,” maybe because I’ve rarely felt like an “expert.” I’m always acutely aware of everything there is to learn. But when I think about what career means for me, it has always involved doing something — or multiple things — that I love, feels valuable, and connects with other people in a meaningful way. Some of that has to do with lofty ideals, but honestly I think a lot of it has to do with only being able to sustain interest and motivation in things that really absorb me.
I often fall into the trap of undervaluing what I do from a financial perspective, though, because it feels like such a privilege to get to experience such joy. I’ve only just recently started calling Nocturne “my business.” I need to remind myself that work has value even if it’s really, really fun. But there’s always the fear that something that becomes a “business” will cease to be intrinsically pleasurable.[/conr]
[conl]Hot Pod: When you started out, what did you think you wanted to do?[/conl]
[conr]Lowe: When I moved into audio, I wanted to experiment with a different way of communicating ideas from what I’d done before. I didn’t really have a long game. I wanted to do good work in ways that fit who I am, allow for change and play, and hopefully even pay the bills. When I started Nocturne, I told myself I would do it for three years and then evaluate whether I wanted to continue. Nocturne just started it’s fourth year, and I don’t have any plans to stop.[/conr]
- Emilie Aries, cohost of Stuff Your Mom Never Told You, has stepped down from the HowStuffWorks’ podcast after a year-long tenure and launched a new project: Bossed Up, a podcast that comes out of her award-winning career service and training company of the same name. Transmitter Media provided guidance on the project. This is the second instance of SYMNTY hosts leaving the show to start their projects in two years, the other being Cristen Conger and Caroline Ervin, who went on to start Unladylike.
- The team from CBC Original Podcasts reached out to flag a few updates: Its true crime show Someone Knows Something is now back with its fourth season, On Drugs returns for its second, and they welcomed a new show called Personal Best.
- ESPN has announced its third season of 30 for 30 Podcasts, which will mark a departure from its anthology structure to roll out a serialized story. The season will explore the “complicated world of Bikram Yoga — a community grappling with its own identity and survival in the wake of sexual assault allegations against its charismatic guru and founder.” The story is reported and produced by Julia Lowrie Henderson, who notably worked on the “Yankees Suck!” episode from the first season, and the whole season will drop at the same time on May 22.
- The music label Atlantic Records has launched its own in-house line of podcasts. (Variety) Agreed with Nieman Lab’s Joshua Benton’s take on the matter: “It is interesting to see a record company like Atlantic invest in podcasts, but what they really should do is a regular show with actual Atlantic music on it. Benefit from the fact that other podcasters don’t have a music library at their disposal!”
- The New York Times welcomes a new show: Charles Duhigg’s Change Agent. (Apple Podcasts)
- Sort of adaptation in the opposite direction: The Osbournes now have a podcast. (Apple Podcasts)
- “Branded Podcasts Are The Ads People Actually Want To Listen To.” (Fast Company)
- Wild: “An Artificial Intelligence is Generating an ‘Infinite’ Podcast.” (Motherboard)
- “Florida teacher ‘removed from classroom’ after alleged white-nationalist podcast.” (ABC News)
- Marc Maron is moving garages, marking an end of an era. The New York Times produced a lovely package memorializing the storied production space.
- Goodness, Sunday’s This American Life was stunning.
[photocredit]Photo by Sean Donohue used under a Creative Commons license.[/photocredit]
Slate Outlook. This is a tad newsier and more with-the-pack than I generally like to be, but whatever — there’s a bunch of juicy, usable stuff in here.
Slate readers woke up this morning to something big from the 22-year-old online magazine: a total redesign, complete with an overhauled backend to improve the site’s user experience and a new logo to mark its third decade of publication. Accompanying the aesthetic revamp are significant adjustments to the site’s editorial architecture — including, among other things, a reorganization of its content verticals and, of course, a long-overdue push to make its substantial audio output more prominent across its web presence.
“We look at the redesign as a recommitment to the written word and audio,” Julia Turner, Slate’s editor-in-chief, tells me. She also notes that those renewed commitments are, in part, a reaction to the “pivot to video” gambit employed elsewhere in the digital media ecosystem, increasingly lampooned these days either as folly or a cynical ploy to extract dollars from the unstable hype surrounding digital video. “We’re planning to expand editorial spending on podcasts and articles,” she said. “There are good economic models behind both.”
We’ll stick to the audio portion here, of course, and our primary interest is to get a sense of just how strong that podcast business model is for Slate. Turner dished out some numbers to set the scene:
- Slate enjoyed 100 million downloads in 2017 across its entire podcast network, not counting shows under the Slate Extra banner.
- Podcast downloads are said to be up 42 percent from 2016.
- December proved to be Slate’s biggest podcasting month, driven in good part by Slow Burn (more on that show in a bit), with 3.5 million downloads across the period.
- Slate’s podcast advertising revenues were up 36 percent in 2017 over 2016, and the company expects continued growth this year, or so it is said.
(“We like to share when they’re happy numbers,” Turner said, when I expressed marvel over the volume of information being provided.)
But perhaps the most telling data point is this: In 2014, podcasting made up 0 percent of Slate’s revenue portfolio. By the end of 2017, that number has shot up to 25 percent. Whether that number continues to grow over the next few years will be something to watch. Unsurprisingly, the company expects growth in all key revenue areas — including display advertising and membership dollars in addition to podcast advertising — which, if true, would stabilize the growth of Slate’s podcast advertising dependency. But I do find it compelling to contemplate a future in which Slate primarily operates as a podcast publisher with a significant written web engine that functions as an effective lead-generation tool. (Thereby ultimately adhering to the construct sketched out by Stratechery’s Ben Thompson in his November 2015 piece, “Grantland and the (Surprising) Future of Publishing.” Indeed, such a result would create an unexpected homology between Slate and Grantland’s successor, The Ringer, if I’m reading the latter correctly.)
Anyway, depending on how you look at it, one could interpret Slate’s podcasting fortunes either as a product of luck or persistence, maybe both. Slate’s adventures in podcasting began over a decade ago, in 2004, and as Andy Bowers, who joined the company around that time as its OG producer after a twenty-year career in public radio, is fond of telling it, the site’s early audio dabblings involved publishing recordings of him reading articles out loud into a microphone. (Some ideas never really go away.) Those experiments would eventually evolve into shows with more substantial discursive formats, which would then go on to cultivate strong communities over an extended period of time. Digging through the archives and thinking back on that era, one could argue that there was no real reason for the company to continue producing those podcasts beyond simple enjoyment and serving those early communities; hence the notion of luck and persistence. But sticking to the experiment paid off, as that commitment ultimately primed them to be particularly ready for this historical juncture in digital audio publishing.
Nowadays, the Slate podcast network is a sprawling 24-show portfolio that’s spread across various Gabfests (a model that it pioneered across multiple shows and that is widely emulated these days by other online publications dabbling in the medium), some personality-driven shows (The Gist, Dear Prudence, etc.), and an emerging bucket of more ambitious projects. Bowers, after a long tenure as Slate’s EP of podcasts, went on to cofound a podcast-specific sister company, Panoply, in early 2015, and his role has now been passed onto another bald public radio veteran: Steve Lickteig.
2017 proved to be an interesting year for Slate Podcasts. Most prominently, it struck a curious partnership with Studio 360 last summer, taking over coproduction and digital distribution responsibilities from WNYC (where the show had been housed since its launch in 2000) as well as physically bringing the team into its offices. The network also steadily rolled out a suite of new shows, including a Spanish-language Gabfest and a few highly-produced narrative projects.
One such narrative project was Slow Burn, the Leon Neyfakh-led narrative podcast that sought to capture a sense of how it felt to live through Watergate, which I largely enjoyed and reviewed for Vulture last week. It turned out to be a hit for the company — not just as a standalone podcast project, but also as a lead-generation vessel for its membership program, Slate Plus.
Even though the core Slow Burn experience is available for free as a weekly podcast, a Slate Plus membership gives Burn-heads access to bonus episodes and other additional material. The carrot was apparently effective. “We’re seeing conversion at an extraordinary rate,” Turner said, noting that the Slow Burn campaign yielded 2.5× to 3× the daily conversion rates of an average day. “We’re seeing a ton of overlap between audio audiences and Slate Plus,” she adds. Plans are now in place to develop the property further, including an upcoming live event at the Watergate itself and a broader vision to untether the podcast from Watergate and use its conceit as a way to build future seasons around other historical events.
Slow Burn’s success should give Slate some extra confidence for the upcoming shows they’re planning to launch this year. Projects in the development pipeline includes:
- A documentary series led by the author Michael Lewis, of The Big Short and Moneyball fame, about umpires.
- A project built around Slate TV critic Willa Paskin, which I’m told will neither be a chat show nor an interview-show.
One imagines there will be more to come.
The notion of an online magazine entering its third decade is a wild thing to consider. (I’m not too much older than the site itself, which was founded in 1996.) Even wilder is the challenge of continuing to exist — and to fight for relevance — as a digital publication in a notoriously rough industry environment whose narratives are generally oriented around the downswings of the hype cycle these days. In its relative geriatricity, Slate now has the opportunity to contribute to a playbook that few digital publications get the chance to write.
Some odds and ends:
- I’m also told that, as part of the changes surrounding the redesign and internal shifts, Slate will be taking over its own podcast sales from its sister company Panoply, which previously held that responsibility. A spokesperson explained the change as follows: “Since Slate podcasts are separating from the rest of Panoply, the direct response advertisers that Panoply was calling exclusively for the total network — including Slate — will, starting Q2, be called on by Slate sellers for only Slate’s network of shows. Panoply will continue to call on them for Panoply shows. Obviously, Slate very much believes in Panoply. We are creating this structure so that Slate and Panoply can each focus and do what it does best.” This separation is, of course, quite curious for Panoply.
- It is not lost on me that the Slate Political Gabfest, one of the network’s oldest and most prominent shows, is hosted by three people who are no longer full-time Slate employees: David Plotz (now the CEO of Atlas Obscura), Emily Bazelon (now a staff writer for The New York Times Magazine and senior research fellow at Yale Law School), and John Dickerson (installed last week as cohost of CBS This Morning). This is both a testament to the legacy that Slate Podcasts has created across its run, and an indication of a potential vulnerability.
- Speaking of Dickerson, Slate’s podcast chief Steve Lickteig confirmed that Dickerson will continue with the Slate Political Gabfest and Whistlestop.
- As part of the editorial restructure, the Double X vertical is being phased out as its previous responsibilities become absorbed by all other verticals (there are now five: News & Politics, Culture, Technology, Business, and Human Interest). But the Double X Podcast will continue to operate, serving as the living connection to the vertical’s legacy.
Panoply loses its kids chief. I’ve confirmed that Emily Shapiro, the director of children’s programming, has left the company. Shapiro was originally hired in January 2017 to lead the emerging division, which is primarily built around the Pinna platform. I wrote about Pinna when it first rolled out last October.
Panoply declined to comment on Shapiro’s departure, citing a strict policy on discussing personnel matters.
Prior to joining Panoply, Shapiro was the cofounder of the New York International Children’s Film Festival — considered by some critics as one of New York’s best film festivals — where she worked for almost two decades. Her departure comes at a particularly hot time for the kids podcast genre, including recently launched pushes from WNYC Studios and Gimlet Media, along with long-running efforts from the Kids Listen community.
WBEZ is working on a follow-up to Making Oprah. But it won’t be about Oprah. Brendan Banaszak, the station’s interim executive producer of content development, confirmed the project over email, and noted that they’re applying the “Making” conceit to another Chicago figure whose identity will be revealed at a later date. (A move not unlike what Slate is hoping to do with Slow Burn.) Jenn White will host once again.
I don’t know about you, but I’m really into the idea of “Making” as a podcast template for local public radio stations across the country in the vein of the Hearken-powered Curious City franchise expansions. I would love a Making-style show for Idaho. (Aaron Paul??)
Science Friday joins the WNYC Studios portfolio. The move was announced last Friday. Here’s what that means:
- WNYC Studios will lead sponsorship sales for the Science Friday podcast along with its spinoff show Undiscovered.
- Starting April 11, WNYC Studios will take over distribution responsibilities for the Science Friday radio broadcast.
- Science Friday remains an independent nonprofit media organization, and will continue production as usual in their current studios and offices.
- WNYC Studios will also assist in the scaling of Science Friday’s audience, along with fielding opportunities for potential future creative collaborations between the two organizations.
This development bears strong resemblance to the August 2015 Snap Judgment move to enter into a coproduction deal with WNYC, the specifics of which you can read in this Current writeup from the time. In this case, however, Science Friday is breaking away from its distribution ties with PRI, with whom they’ve had a relationship since January 2014.
“We love PRI — they’ve been great partners, and our audience is bigger than its ever been” Christian Skotte, codirector and head of digital at Science Friday told me. “For us, as we look forward into the future, WNYC has shown how to launch and market podcasts, and as we think about what our future looks like, we’re thinking beyond just being a radio show and podcast towards being able to create whole new suites of content.”
Science Friday is currently celebrating its 27th year of production.
This week in the revolving door:
- Eleanor Kagan, the director of audio at BuzzFeed, is leaving the company to join Pineapple Street Media. This move comes almost a month after BuzzFeed announced that it was parting ways with Another Round due to “strategic changes” at the company. Worth noting: Pineapple was cofounded by Jenna Weiss-Berman, who originated the podcast team at BuzzFeed.
- Jessica Stahl, who originated The Washington Post’s current audio operations in her role as deputy editor on the audience team, has been promoted to director of audio. In related news, The Washington Post’s audio operations launched seven new podcasts in 2017, including two specifically for smart speaker devices.
- James Green, cofounder of the Postloudness collective and a former producer at Gimlet Media, is joining The Outline to work on its daily show, World Dispatch.
- John Lagomarsino, audio director at The Outline, is moving to Anchor to serve as head of production. It is a newly created role.
Wait, Anchor has a head of production now? Yep. But the gig is more a product role than anything else. “Ultimately, I’m responsible for making sure content on Anchor is high-quality, well-curated, and relevant for creators and listeners,” Lagomarsino tells me through a rep, before going on to describe a role that liaises between Anchor’s userbase and the company’s product, marketing, and content teams.
For the uninitiated, Anchor is a mobile-oriented app that originally rolled out within the “Twitter, but for audio” construct. That initial orientation was defined by a twin focus: ease of creation and ease of sharing. The company was founded in 2015 and, after picking up some initial buzz at SXSW the year after, has persisted to kick about in pursuit of a place within the marginally iterating podcast technology ecosystem. Last fall, Anchor raised $10 million in a Series A round led by Google Ventures. According to a TechCrunch writeup at the time, the company is still not generating revenue.
The current iteration of Anchor further increases its focus on creating the “easiest path to making a podcast” for the biggest number of people (the bulk of which, one imagines, is relatively inexperienced in audio production). This positioning was expressed last July, when Anchor seized on the reported instabilities at SoundCloud — previously the go-to hosting option for first-time and newer podcast publishers — by offering easy hosting transfers. It was a shrewd move, as the two services map nicely for their target demo given that both platforms are free and relatively simple to use.
How Anchor fits into the broader on-demand audio universe remains to be seen. Will the platform continue to be the lord of its own content universe, or will it meaningfully usurp portions of the technology stack that supports the rest of the podcast ecosystem? The answer hinges on whether CEO Mike Mignano’s thesis on the space pans out.
“The reality of the current landscape is that podcasting has remained an artificially small industry, because it’s so hard to contribute to,” Mignano wrote through a rep. He continued:
Between the friction that exists at nearly every step of the content lifecycle, and the antiquated technology that the industry has relied on for years, creators are left with limited data and limited opportunity for monetization, thus capping the potential of the market. We’re well past the breaking point where innovation across the entire stack is absolutely necessary for growth.
With Anchor, we’re focused on creating technology that strengthens the entire ecosystem and unlocks the true potential of the audio landscape. I expect Anchor to have a lot of competition in the coming years, which we’re excited about, because true innovation is ultimately going to come from technology pushing the boundaries of what’s previously been possible.
I happen to agree with the characterization of podcasting as an “artificially small industry.” The question I’ve kept encountering throughout my years writing this newsletter is whether that’s actually a bad thing.
Billboard outside ATL, Georgia. Atlanta Monster, the new true crime series from Atlanta podcast companies HowStuffWorks and Tenderfoot, appears to be playing around with OOH advertising local to the Atlanta city area:
— Jason Hoch (@starexplorer) January 11, 2018
“Gimlet is a multimedia storytelling brand, not just a podcast network.” So goes the opening argument from Gimlet’s new chief marketing officer, Jenny Wall, which headlined a quick Fast Company piece last week, as she moves to elevate the company’s profile.
This is, of course, no new revelation for Gimlet, which has pretty explicitly highlighted its formalizing intellectual property pipeline — carved out in large part by Chris Giliberti, its young “head of multiplatform” — as both differentiating factor and exceptionally strong potential growth channel. Nor is it a particularly new revelation for the industry as a whole; as I noted in my 2017 year-in-review column, the adaptation pipeline is one that extends widely across the ecosystem (though with particular concentration within the audio drama category) and offers the industry a significant pathway to gain strength independently from the platform dynamics governed, still, by Apple. Nor is Gimlet the only entity that’s been exceptionally active in ushering podcast-first properties into projects for other mediums; Night Vale Presents has proven to be equally prominent, with the added nuance of not potentially burdened by the demands of venture capital.
But I thought the quote was interesting for three reasons:
- It’s super reminiscent of HBO’s “It’s Not TV, It’s HBO” campaign that Wall worked on earlier in her career, which I pointed out last week when writing up her appointment.
- I was wondering when Gimlet would explicitly make the “actually, we’re not just a podcast company” turn in its narrative. It’s a mindset that you could arguably trace back to a point as early as the company’s participation in the summer 2016 Brooklyn NewFronts event, where it sought to gain association with broader digital media brands like Genius, Atlas Obscura, and Lenny Letter. Perhaps you can trace it back even further.
- One potential function for the narrative redraft: to open and grease more paths for acquisition. It’s one thing if you’re a podcast company whose most literal suitors would be a bigger, traditional audio company — see Cadence13 and Entercom — but it’s another thing altogether when your perceived value is non-medium specific. It definitely makes things more interesting for, say, a talent agency, or perhaps even a global advertising agency not unlike the one that chipped in $5 million into Gimlet’s recent investment round.
- Like Slate, This American Life has also undergone a redesign, which includes a new shock-red logo. I think the Washington Post’s Alexandra Petri said it best: “Congrats to @ThisAmerLife on its new job as The Economist.” I myself, er, am not a fan. (Website)
- Last Thursday, ESPN Audio rolled out the first episode of a new podcast from Katie Nolan, who joined the sports media giant from Fox Sports in October.
- The Loud Speakers Network is bringing back its brand collaboration with State Farm, Color Full Lives, with Aminatou Sow and Angela Yee in the hosting seats. Interestingly, this will be the branded podcast’s third season. They’re also set to experiment with an accompanying video component. (Apple Podcasts)
- At CES last week, NPR published a new smart speaker study that has some additional data points for your pitch decks. Check it out.
- This is cool: closing out her third season, Flash Forward’s Rose Eveleth graphed the gender ratio and racial diversity of the guests she brings onto her episodes. (Flash Forward)
- This is also cool: Doree Shafrir, author and senior tech writer at BuzzFeed, is independently publishing a podcast called Forever35, which is focused on serving women in their 30s and 40s. This is her second indie podcast project, following Matt & Doree’s Eggcellent Adventure, which chronicles her and her husband’s experience of conceiving through in-vitro fertilization.
- Meanwhile, on the Beltway: Senator Cory Booker (D-New Jersey) has jumped on the politician podcasting train with one of those shows where he talks to people doing stuff he’s likes. He joins senators Bernie Sanders (D-Vermont) and Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), along with former U.S. Attorney General Preet Bharara, in the style.
- “Pandora CEO Roger Lynch Wants to Create the Podcast Genome Project.” Okay. (Variety)
- “The Opening of the American Mind: How Educational Podcasts Are Making Us Smarter Citizens.” (Pacific Standard)
- “Alexa, We’re Still Trying to Figure Out What to Do With You.” (NY Times)
- PodcastOne announces partnership with the Associated Press around a daily audio news product accompanying the Winter Olympics. (Press Release)
- “Whatever it is, I’m not afraid of what happens after death.” Don’t miss this glorious conversation with Terry Gross by Vulture’s David Marchese.
Next week, we’re talking crypto-pods.
Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 139, published November 7, 2017.
Charla de Cóctel. Slate Podcasts is now bilingual. Last week, the network leveraged its hefty experience with conversational programming — which birthed the style known as the “gabfest” — to launch what it bills as its first-ever Spanish language product, El Gabfest en Español. The lineup includes León Krauze, the main anchor at Univision’s KMEX station in Los Angeles and the Wallis Annenberg Chair in Journalism at USC; Fernando Pizarro, a political reporter for Univision’s local TV stations; and Ariel Moutsatsos, the Washington bureau chief for Noticieros Televisa. (A fourth panelist will be added at a later date.) The podcast comes out of a collaboration with Univision Noticias, the Spanish-language American news source, but I’m told that Slate has full editorial control over the project. Paulina Velasco, who is based in Los Angeles, serves as the show’s producer.
When I asked the managing producer of Slate Podcasts, June Thomas, about the motivation behind the project, she systematically ticked off the drivers: demographic opportunity (“We know the stats about the growth of Spanish and bilingualism in America,” Thomas said: “37 million Latinos speak Spanish at home; the U.S. Latino population is set to reach 107 million by 2065, etc.”); a largely untapped market (“Everyone working on English-language podcasts worries about market saturation…There are a few U.S.-produced Spanish-language podcasts out there — Radio Ambulante is especially great — but the market is the opposite of saturated”); and Slate’s general intent to seek new audiences to bring into the fold.
That last bit is as much opportunity as it is challenge for Slate Podcasts. “Although lots of bilingual Spanish speakers read Slate, it isn’t an obvious place for people to come to seek out Spanish-language content,” Thomas notes. “So we have to go out and find them.” Thus the Univision Noticias partnership, given the channel’s deep knowledge of the market, its sustained relationship with the demographic, and its growing interest in podcasting as a channel.
Another challenge that Thomas’ team is finding: advertisers. “The direct-response companies that advertise on podcasts work by driving listeners to a site that touts the product’s benefits; many have told us they don’t yet have a Spanish-language website,” Thomas explained. “I don’t want to be too much of a downer, though, some of our brand advertisers are specifically looking for a sophisticated Spanish-speaking audience as they launch new products, and we expect to see more of that business.”
You can check out the show here.
Side note: In my estimation, and do let me know what I’m missing, there seem to be few formal entities explicitly working to serve and build a business around Spanish-speaking podcast listeners. (Granted, I’m a non-Hispanic immigrant who doesn’t speak Spanish, so my natural grasp of that ecosystem is limited.) Among the ones I’m familiar with: Caroline Guerrero and Daniel Alarcón’s aforementioned Radio Ambulante, CNN en Español, and Revolver Podcasts, the network founded by former Univision executive Jack Hobbs. Speaking of which, Hobbs tells me that the network sees about 2.3 million monthly downloads across its 47 shows, and that they, too, enjoy a partnership with Univision.
More podcasts on Pandora? Facing third-quarter declines across a slate of key metrics — monthly listeners, listening hours, and sold ads — the music streaming platform indicated in a recent earnings call that it will be shaking some things up to get things back on track. Among the moves articulated: expanding the platform’s non-music programming, like podcasts and spoken-word content, according to Variety.
You might remember that Pandora had previously struck up an arrangement with This American Life to bring the show, along with the two Serial seasons, onto the platform last April, where the podcasts were chapterized, given their own station, and packaged with a Pandora-specific ad unit. (You might also remember that this arrangement led to the WBAA-TAL kerfuffle, which raised the question of whether such partnerships with explicitly for-profit platform companies compromised This American Life’s commitment to the public media mission, and whether TAL should therefore be penalized by the system as a result.) In any case, despite indications at the Hivio conference in Los Angeles last summer that Pandora was “pleased with the experiment,” it hasn’t looked like the platform was moving to scale up the initiative anytime soon…until now.
What does this mean for publishers? Probably that one should expect Pandora to go knocking around for potential partnerships — I presume we’re going to see more instances of exclusives and windowing — and that the first teams to get contacted are the ones you’d expect. (The big get bigger, etc.)
Two more things to note. The first is how this tosses Pandora into the pit with Spotify, TuneIn, iHeartMedia, Stitcher, and Audible in the hunt for content partnerships that would give any one of them an edge over the others. The second is Pandora’s strategic assumptions in its pursuit of such arrangements; new Pandora CEO Roger Lynch “signaled that such a move would also make economic sense since royalties will be lower than for music programing,” as the Variety writeup notes. Remember to squeeze, folks.
What does this mean for every other type of publisher — the independents, the small shops, the niches, the locals, the ones that advocate for the medium’s openness? Nothing particularly comforting, I reckon.
Crisis at NPR. The story can be told in a series of headlines: “NPR’s top editor placed on leave after accusations of sexual harassment,” “Top NPR News Executive Mike Oreskes Resigns Amid Allegations Of Sexual Harassment,” “NPR bosses knew about harassment allegations, but kept top editor on job,” “At NPR, Oreskes harassment scandal leaves deep wounds,” “NPR retains law firm to review how Oreskes allegations were handled,” “NPR CEO to staff: ‘I let you down’,” “NPR Management Under Fire Over Sexual Harassment Scandal.”
It’s been an exceedingly dispiriting week for the public radio mothership. The question now is what happens next to NPR’s leadership, and in particular CEO Jarl Mohn, given his handling of newsroom concerns in the wake of the scandal — and his management of the actual allegations in the years before they were publicly revealed by The Washington Post. Parallel to this, and perhaps more importantly, is the longer-term question of how, and how vigorously, the organization will build systems to combat sexual harassment and support a better workplace culture. This latter question involves a process, constant and attentive, as the organization moves to repair a culture that has systematically affected the women in its ranks.
None of this should be viewed strictly as an internal affair. The health and internal culture of any news organization is directly relevant to our relationship with them, and this is ever more true for NPR, which is fundamentally supposed to be more than a news organization. It is a civic institution, a symbol that this society — from its government down to its people — can continuously collaborate to maintain a system meant to elevate the whole. It is also an operation financed in this spirit. NPR is not a news organization that sells you the news; it’s an entity in which you invest to improve public knowledge. You’re invited to be directly responsible for the thing — for its achievements, its character, its moral authority. Indeed, that responsibility is core to the strength of its identity and brand, if we’re allowed to use the term. That’s why any scandal, and particularly one of this nature, within NPR cuts deeper. That’s why, as both its consumers and its constituents, what troubles the institution should trouble us too.
The string of stories about sexual harassment in the media and beyond has raised a great number of questions that should be grappled with long after this moment — about its painful pervasiveness and complexities, about the way it has shaped public narratives, and so on. The NPR case clarifies an additional layer, refining a question about the role of the audience. There is a tension, it seems, when it comes to figuring out how to support the general while protesting the specific as consumers with the voting power of a listen or a download or some contribution to the AQH (now at an all-time high, we’re told). How does one express solidarity with Mary Louise Kelly & Co., while signaling displeasure or ambivalence with the leadership? How does one do these things in a way that matters?
Read also: “Reporting on Journalist-on-Journalist Sexual Harassment is a Proxy for Dealing With the Trust Problem (and can make it worse),” by Nikki Usher.
WNYC boomerangs? The station circulated an internal memo last Tuesday that Pat Walters, most recently of Gimlet Media, has returned to the Radiolab team that gave him his start. Walters left Radiolab in 2014 to join Pop-Up Magazine, the beloved “live magazine” operation, as senior editor. He later moved to Gimlet to launch and host the Undone podcast, which was ultimately canceled after one season. He was subsequently involved in the launch of Uncivil, a Civil War history podcast with journalists Chenjerai Kumanyika and Jack Hitt. At Radiolab, Walters will assume the role of “senior editor of the special projects unit.”
Walters marks the second return to WNYC in recent weeks. Joel Meyer, who was an executive producer at the station before leaving for Slate in 2014, kicked off his return engagement as an executive producer for WNYC Studios last Monday. Is this the beginning of a trend for the station?
Keep an eye on WNYC. I hear something else is afoot.
And while we’re on the subject of personnel: American Public Media’s Marketplace announced a few executive hires last week, the most relevant of which is Sitara Nieves, who will now serve as executive director of on-demand audio. Nieves was previously the interim executive producer of Marketplace, and before joining the organization in 2012, she worked on WNYC and PRI’s The Takeaway. The news comes as APM sees off the retirement of Dinner Party Download, and not too long after losing its former Marketplace Tech host, Ben Johnson, to WBUR’s budding podcast division.
Search to suggest. Look, this is going to get pretty woo-woo head-in-the-clouds in, like, a hot second, but this is my newsletter and I’ll cry if I want to, so strap in and bear with me for a bit.
So I was talking to this guy, Dan Sacher, who heads up content partnership in the United States for this Tel Aviv-based company called Audioburst, which according to Crunchbase endeavors to create a “screen-free, speech-based technology that enables search and interaction with audio.” The premise is basically “Google, but for audio,” which isn’t an entirely new gambit all by itself, if you’ve been looking around long enough. Among other tools, there’s Pop-Up Archive’s Audiosearch (which ceased public operations two weeks ago), and more recently there’s this service called Listen Notes, which got itself billed as “the Best Podcast Search Engine” by Lifehacker back in September.
But I’m not talking to Audiosearch or Listen Notes; I’m talking to Sacher, and the dude is describing how Audioburst works. As explained to a lay person (i.e. me), the mechanics feel straightforward and familiar: The technology ingests on-demand audio files and linear broadcast streams to create transcripts, which it then scans for keywords to be broken out as searchable tags for listeners — and eventually advertisers, I suppose — to look up. As with all things artificially intelligent and machine-learning–related, Audioburst’s abilities theoretically improve over time as more raw material is fed into it, and this is presumably where choices are made pertaining to the substance of the algorithm. (Here’s also where conversations about the “editorial character” of algorithms should be located, I guess.)
There is an apparent ambition to use that data to build personalized matches for individual consumers, constructed around personas or listener profiles. (This portion would not be unprecedented in this space; think Panoply’s partnership with Nielsen Data.) To this date, Audioburst has rolled out a few products built off its core indexing capability, including two smart device integrations (one for Google Assistant, one for Amazon Alexa), a developer API, and most recently, a consumer-facing search engine. One assumes there are more to come.
TechCrunch has a more in-depth explanation of the company, if any of this tickles your fancy, and the piece contains some detail on Audioburst’s strategic machinations. Among them:
The company is largely focused on partnership deals with radio stations, radio programs, and podcasters. It’s also starting to venture into the TV space, with plans to index TV news, and is chatting with a small handful of auto manufacturers about integrating Audioburst into their own in-car entertainment systems.
All right, so. This is all super interesting, but what’s the bigger thought bubble here? What’s this got to do with you?
Well, as you might’ve noticed, I’ve spent some time in this newsletter keeping tabs on the emerging smart-speaker category, and that attention is driven by a sense that some conflict and conciliation is on the horizon between the way we currently consume podcasts — as well as radio and music, for that matter — and how we will eventually consume all audio should voice-first computing further broaden itself out in the mainstream. (This is directly related to the probable convergence among different publisher types that I’ve been yammering on about since last March; the notion is that as the nature of distribution changes, so do the structural groupings of different kinds of spoken-audio content, which drains the fundamental meaning from a word like “radio” as much as it does “podcast.”)
I think the way Audioburst is setting itself up in the market, and how it views the field in the years to come, is worth mentally working through if you plan to continue playing in this space five to ten years from now. Currently, the company appears to be building out a search portal for audio content, but it’s really laying a foundation for a more linear — and to some extent, more opaque, even than Apple’s podcast editorial pages and chart algorithms — form of discovery and distribution: personalized suggestion. Audioburst’s “search to suggest” thesis comes as an anticipation of how the internet, represented visually and aurally, might next shift paradigmatically. And as this one dude Andre Staltz pointed out in a recent blog post about the Internet and Everything Else, “search to suggest” is precisely the thesis currently being operationalized by Google.
(It’s worth reading Staltz’s whole piece, by the way, which essentially walks us through the end of the seb and the rise of what he calls the Google-Facebook-Amazon “Trinet.” This all has the capacity to make you feel so very small in the face of the conflicts and tensions of structures way bigger and way more powerful than you, and that may well be true for most of us normal human individuals. But much like matters of foreign relations, we will nonetheless be recipients of the process and outcomes of those conflicts. Side note: The thing about optimism is that given a long enough time horizon, all optimism turns into tragedy. Moving on.)
Assuming you’re the kind of podcast publisher that likes to worry — or just think through — hypothetical futures, it’s worth applying some imagination in pursuit of a few workable questions around this scenario. What I’m personally trying to grasp, and where I think new knowledge is to be created, revolves around the question of how consumer power can meaningfully express itself within the “Suggest” paradigm, if consumer power will continue to exist at all. If the Amazon Echo, Google Home, or whatever else that comes down the pike becomes the primary way of consuming podcasts, the radio, or music, what does the user pathway of selecting what to listen look like? How are those user journeys structured, how can they be designed to push you in certain ways? (The “Power of the Default,” by the way, is a very real thing.) How would discovery work? Which is to say, how does the market look like? Where and how does the consumer make choices? What would choice even mean?
All right, I’ll come down from La La Land now.
Career spotlight. This week I traded emails with James Kim, a Los Angeles-based producer who primarily works at KPCC, and who probably represents the strongest argument for us needing to have some sort of IMDb situation going on. Kim’s rap sheet is a steady stream of weird, interesting shows, both broadcast and podcast, and it suggests a consistency in aesthetic as much as a professional progression.
[conl]Hot Pod: Tell me about your current situation.[/conl]
[conr]James Kim: I’m an associate producer at KPCC making podcasts with my boss/work wife Arwen Champion-Nicks. Side note: She’s so damn good at what she does and is constantly inspiring me in many ways. We’re working on some new projects that I can’t talk about at the moment (I feel like I’m in the CIA), but you’ll hear about it pretty soon!
I’m also working on the audio drama podcast Deadly Manners. It’s been a nice shift from the projects and podcasts that I normally do.[/conr]
[conl]Hot Pod: How did you get to this point?[/conl]
[conr]Kim: I grew up on Korean talk radio and Top 40 music, and I had no idea what NPR was until I got to college. I was studying music and making documentaries and I somehow found This American Life on iTunes. That show told everyday stories in an interesting way and each episode sounded like an indie film. After becoming obsessed with it, I realized that I wanted to make audio documentaries as a career.
My first job in public radio was actually at KPCC. I started as an intern a few years back for the weekend show Off-Ramp and I did an internship with The Dinner Party Download (R.I.P., fam) shortly after. After finishing those internships, I couldn’t find a job or even freelance work in radio for about a year.
During that time, I almost gave up in finding a career in public radio entirely. But I decided to give it one last shot and I moved to a 2,000-person town in Texas to do another internship. I told myself, “You better make this one count, girl.”
I spent every waking hour making a podcast at Marfa Public Radio called There’s Something Out There. It was an audio documentary series about the supernatural activity in West Texas. Right before I ended my internship, I got offers to work on a couple shows and eventually got a job as a producer on KPCC’s The Frame.
Even though I finally got a full-time job, I didn’t stop making podcasts. After clocking out at The Frame I was creating a podcast called The Hiss. The show is about people holding onto memories that they want to forget. I then took a producer job with The Dinner Party Download and I continued to work on my passion projects outside of work. This time, it was a podcast called The Competition with Elyssa Dudley and Cameron Kell. The first season followed the most prestigious piano competition in the world from beginning to end, and it was inspired by my love for reality TV competition shows such as Top Chef and RuPaul’s Drag Race (anyone ready for All-Stars 3?)
I haven’t had many free weekends because of my various side hustles, but I’m sure that’s the case with a lot of producers in this field. I’m young and I got the energy to sleep 4 hours a day. So why not put that energy to good use, right?[/conr]
[conl]Hot Pod: What does a career mean to you, at this point?[/conl]
[conr]Kim: At first, it meant health benefits and enough money to move out of my parent’s house. Now it’s a way for me to practice my craft every day and get better at what I do.[/conr]
[conl]Hot Pod: When you started out, what did you think wanted to do?[/conl]
[conr]Kim: This is so embarrassing, but I wanted to be the next Ira Glass. Admit it! You’ve had that goal, too![/conr]
- Two-Up Production’s Limetown will return in early 2018, almost two full years after wrapping its first season. (Apple Podcasts) The team has had quite an adventure in the intervening period, including a novelization in process, a TV adaptation potentially on the cards, and a three-act podcast musical starring Jonathan Groff and Jessie Shelton.
- 30 for 30 Podcasts will return for its second season later this month, thereby executing a shockingly short turnover time between seasons (under four months). Turns out that those early speculations appeared to be true: For this coming five-episode bundle, ESPN relied on outside partners to produce three of them. Those partners: NFL Films, Long Haul Productions, and Pineapple Street. This structure makes the podcast series more closely mirror its parent film operation. (Press release)
- Cardiff Garcia, the editor of the Financial Times’ flagship financial and economics blog Alphaville, is moving to NPR’s Planet Money, where he’s attached to a “new project to be revealed soon.” Garcia, of whom I’m a fan, starts work next Monday. Also: Planet Money spinoff? (Talking Biz News)
- Just a periodic reminder that Podcasts in Color is an invaluable resource. (Twitter)
- Al Jazeera has launched its own podcast network, called Jetty. One thing to watch: the network will apparently be experimenting with Facebook Watch as a potential audience driving channel. Mark that up as another test on social podcast discovery — even if we’re talking about digital video on a social platform, which seems to be all the rage these days. (Nieman Lab)
- Steal the Stars, MacMillan Publishing’s first foray into the audio drama category with its Tor Labs division, wrapped its first season last week. (Website)
- “Podcast patent troll’s fight might finally be over.” This story, geez. (Engadget)
Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 119, published May 9, 2017.
S-Town breaks 40 million downloads in its first month. That’s global downloads, by the way. I wrote up the milestone for Vulture, and to conjure a sense of the context, I hope you don’t mind me quoting myself:
It’s the biggest rollout a podcast has ever seen in the medium’s history, solidly beating the previous titleholder, Serial season two, which saw an average of 4 million downloads per episode in its first 30 days, according to the measurement firm Podtrac. (For more context, consider that the This American Life podcast, one of the biggest in the industry, is said to see about 2.5 million downloads a week.)
And in case you’re thinking growth rates, recall that the podcast (which dropped all seven of its episodes at once) enjoyed about 16 million downloads in its first week.
Something to consider: The big thought bubble I tried to inflate in the writeup is this idea that S-Town’s success suggests that the very young industry remains fairly malleable. Which is to say, because the ecosystem is still emergent — that is, comparatively unburdened with an extensive sense of its own creative and financial history — it remains relatively easy for bold, audacious experiments to make their way to market to test the limits of their opportunities, and there exists a sense that the medium’s audiences still have appetites that can tolerate, and maybe even expect, greater unconventionality. (An alternate, but not necessarily oppositional, argument is that a good story is a good story is a good story, and that experimentation imbues the product with a differentiating factor, and that the story of more established creative industries is largely a story of its history and accrued creative conservatism getting in their own ways.)
That said, it’s worth asking if S-Town’s success is unique to the conditions set up by its progenitor, This American Life. Over the decades that it’s been in business, that show has built out a considerable existing audience base across multiple channels, an extensive proven track record of quality across multiple shows (let us not forget Serial), and a strong brand presence that’s able to drive tangible impact should they set out to promote something new and unconventional. S-Town, then, can perhaps be described the beneficiary of long-cultivated advantages, which increased its chances at getting in front of enough people who were willing to try it out — and enjoy it.
Which brings us to an interesting question: Just how much does S-Town’s success actually tell us about the opportunities of the space as a whole? Or is it just a story that only tells us about the strength of This American Life and Serial Productions?
I think it’s pretty hard to parse out, but my instinct is to lean much more on the latter at the moment. There is just so much about that project that’s frankly unreplicable. That said, I will also say that when I’m trying to think through that broader question of the space’s opportunities as a whole, I find myself thinking more about Missing Richard Simmons. That show, in many ways, came out of nowhere, and it’s a particularly strange production at almost every level. It was a real-time mystery but also a biography but also a confessional but also a piece of celebrity media. It was an extravagant exercise in building a boat mid-sail. It held no prominent names on the creative team — both Pineapple Street Media and First Look Media, I’d argue, carry virtually no weight with general audiences — and the marketing push was light-to-moderate, at best. It lay on the subject, the celebrity Richard Simmons, to carry the bulk of the weight as the audience draw, and even then, the actual potential return of that celebrity was probably hard to estimate at the time of release.
But the show ended up being an undeniable hit despite all of that. On March 28, a little over a month after the show first debuted, First Look Media told me that the podcast had been downloaded on average more than 1 million times a week since its release, which a considerable feat that the show achieved with none of the advantages of This American Life that I previously mentioned. Missing Richard Simmons was the show, I think, that properly represented the opportunities of the space’s still-low barriers to entry, more so than S-Town.
Anyway, that’s what I’ve been kicking around in my head. I reckon that this is a question we’ll continue to heavily parse over time.
Summer pre-preview. It’s pretty cold here on the East Coast — too cold — but the Gregorian calendar gonna calendar, which means summer is upon us, which means there’s a summer launch slate assembling on the horizon. I’ve got a summer preview piece coming up later this week that’ll be more comprehensive, but here are two things worth tracking in the meantime:
(1) We’re set to see a fair number of high-profile returns:
- Most notably, NPR’s Invisibilia — a near overnight success when it first debuted in January 2015 — returns with its third season on June 1.
- Malcolm Gladwell’s back at the mic. Revisionist History, Panoply’s big-swing project from last summer, will drop its sophomore season sometime in June.
- Homecoming, Gimlet’s experimental audio drama, will resume its cliffhanger in mid-July.
(2) Kids, kids, kids. NPR’s prepping to launch Wow in The World, which it is billing as the first kids podcast in the organization’s 47-year history. It will be hosted by Guy Raz, who already double-duties for NPR as the host of the TED Radio Hour and How I Built This, together with Mindy Thomas. Raz and Thomas already collaborate on the Breakfast Blast Newscast, a SiriusXM show that’s also aimed at kids. According to the formal press release, the podcast will be produced by Tinkercast, a newly formed production company that focuses on family-friendly content, with NPR acting as distributor. Nieman Lab has a good writeup.
Wow in the World will premiere on May 15.
But NPR isn’t the only the public radio organization getting into the pre-pre-teen game. WNYC is apparently piloting its own kids-focused podcast with a live event at The Greene Space on May 20 and 21 — called “Friends for Now,” the podcast will be a trivia game show for kids hosted by comedian Jo Firestone. (Firestone, by the way, has a beloved WFMU radio program, “Dr. Gameshow,” that’s currently being adapted for podcasts under the Earwolf banner, or so I’m told. That’ll be out sometime this season too.)
Macmillan’s experimental imprint. Earlier this month, Tor Books, one of the largest publishers of scifi novels and a subsidiary of Macmillan, announced something called Tor Labs, which is being positioned a new fiction imprint with a twist.
The new venture will focus on “experimental approaches to genre publishing, beginning with original dramatic podcasts.” Its first podcast, Steal the Stars, will begin streaming this fall…Tor describes Steal the Stars as a “noir science fiction thriller” about two government employees guarding a crashed UFO.
This new initiative is interesting for two primary reasons:
- That first project, Steal the Stars, is being written by Mac Rogers, who wrote The Message and LifeAfter, the two branded podcast productions that came out of a partnership between Panoply and GE.
- After the podcast completes its run, the company will repackage the show as an audiobook and will also produce a printed novelization.
That second bit is really, really smart. It drastically expands the surface area of the project across multiple platforms (and therefore multiple markets), which further deepens the project’s ability to financially benefit from a single, core creative enterprise. I’m excited to see whether Tor Labs can pull this off — which is contingent, of course, on whether the podcast is actually any good — and if so, whether MacMillan can leverage its position to replicate that model across various other imprints and genres.
By the way, Tor Books’ parent company, Macmillan Publishing, is also the proprietor of the Quick and Dirty Tips podcast network. You can find my writeup on that operation here.
A hotel partnership? PRX has struck up a “co-marketing” partnership with the Freepoint Hotel, a new establishment that just opened in Cambridge, Mass., that sees the company serving guests podcasts with “interesting, localized content.” Naturally, the content will be distributed via the RadioPublic app. The hotel has also commissioned an episode from Radiotopia’s The Memory Palace that will explore the history of the West Cambridge neighborhood. That episode will come out later this summer. (Memory Palace host Nate DiMeo, by the way, has already been doing similar topically-focused work in his recent gig as the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s artist-in-residence.)
It’s a fairly zany marketing initiative, one that definitely draws some influence from Detour, the guided walking tour app by Groupon founder Andrew Mason. But it’s pleasingly zany, the kind of weird that’s interesting to appraise and experience, and I hope to see more unconventional marketing tactics like this from other companies in the future.
Two dispatches from the live show circuit.
(1) HeadGum’s flagship show, the comedy advice show If I Were You hosted by HeadGum founders Jake Hurwitz and Amir Blumenfeld, is currently on its East Coast tour. I’m told that the podcast stages about 25 live shows a year, which accounts for about 10 to 20 percent of the show’s total revenue.
“As a general note for HeadGum’s touring strategy, a number of shows on our network also do live shows, and we don’t take any of the revenue they make from touring,” said Whitney Simon, the company’s business development executive.
(2) Crimetown, the true crime Gimlet Media production hosted by The Jinx’s Marc Smerling and Zac Stuart-Pontier, is rounding out its inaugural season with a live show in Brooklyn this Thursday. The live show will feature some of the subjects documented throughout the season, which trained its focus on the history of organized crime and corruption in Providence, Rhode Island with a particular emphasis on the city’s, uh, “decorated” former mayor, Buddy Cianci.
“There are so many incredible stories we couldn’t include in each episode, and we wanted to give some of the people we interviewed another forum to talk about their experiences,” said Rob Szypko, the show’s digital editor.
When I asked him how Providence has received the show, he notes that it’s been pretty warm. “From January 1 to May 1 of this year, we’ve received the sixth most downloads from Rhode Island listeners out of all 50 states — which is pretty significant considering that Rhode Island is the 44th most populous state in the country,” he said, adding that local residents have also been considerably engaged with the podcast, sending in anonymous tips for the show’s weekly newsletter.
“We’re optimistic that we can take a version of this live show to Providence too,” Szypko adds.
Career spotlight. Over the past year or so, two things have become increasingly apparent to me: First, it feels like there are more young people than ever before trying to break into and build a career in radio and podcasting — which is great, and which is what we need. And second, there remains a dearth of accessible information about what it means to have a career and what, exactly, one looks like. That’s a not-so-great thing, IMHO, and I find myself fixated on this problem because it’s reminiscent of something I face in my own professional life (such as it is): I don’t have that many accessible models of living that could help me shape my own course, and that’s been a problem when it comes to appraising what’s possible. I think that general state is true for this space, and when it comes to the new generation of people trying to bring their potential into the community, that’s a problem for both those people and the community.
So I’m introducing a new recurring feature that’ll try to help in its own way, where I run some basic questions by podcast and radio folk of various stripes about their careers and how they learned to do what they do. I’ll be working to convey as wide a range of experiences and people as possible, and if I’m doing it right, we’ll all get a good sense on just how weird and scrappy and unstructured things can get.
First up: Clare Toeniskoetter, from APM’s Marketplace.
[conl]Hot Pod: What do you do?[/conl]
[conr]Clare Toeniskoetter: I’m a podcast producer at Marketplace’s New York bureau. I produced two seasons of Codebreaker (check it out, we just won a Webby!), two seasons of Actuality, and now I’m piloting new shows with our growing on-demand team. I also produce Marketplace Tech a few times a month — that’s our daily tech show.
My workload changes, depending on the day: researching and pitching stories, engineering interviews, cutting tape, reporting, booking guests, writing scripts, scoring and sound designing, and recently co-hosting Facebook Live videos. My position was brand new when I started at Marketplace two years ago, so I was able to shape it so it includes a bit of everything.[/conr]
[conl]Hot Pod: Where did you start, and how did you get to this point?[/conl]
[conr]Toeniskoetter: I didn’t grow up listening to any public radio — the Toeniskoetters were more of a ‘today’s hits and yesterday’s favorites’ radio family — but I was always interested in music, so I started hosting a freeform music show with WCBN at the University of Michigan. College radio was a gateway radio drug for me, and I soon started listening to public radio and podcasts. (I actually called my favorite podcasts “hot pods” early on, I have gchats as proof). It wasn’t until I drove through the night from Michigan to New York to volunteer at WFMU’s Radiovision conference that I realized I could have a career in public radio (which I almost didn’t go to — looking back at old emails, I didn’t want to miss a football game that weekend).
Back in Ann Arbor, I started interning for our NPR affiliate, Michigan Radio. I worked on a daily news magazine program, finding stories and booking guests, and eventually pitching and producing a new recurring segment. In 2014, I moved to New York for a part-time Radiolab internship and quickly started another part-time internship at Slate working on The Gist, all while working a bunch of Craigslist odd jobs to pay my rent. From there, I did temp work at WNYC and Panoply, and eventually found myself at Marketplace after replying to a two-line job posting email for a “six-month gig” as “a NY-based producer for two podcasts.” Six-plus-nineteen months later, I’m still at Marketplace producing podcasts.[/conr]
[conl]Hot Pod: How did you learn to do the job?[/conl]
[conr]Toeniskoetter: On the first day of my Michigan Radio internship, my manager lent me a copy of Sound Reporting: The NPR Guide to Audio Journalism and Production. I read it cover to cover, and ordered Reality Radio: Telling True Stories in Sound and Radio: An Illustrated Guide. With my radio encyclopedia in place, I also listened to archived Third Coast conference sessions, read guides from Transom, and talked to other radio reporters and producers at our Detroit-based radio club. Despite all this, the early pieces I made lacked structure, pacing, and purpose, but I kept at it. Case in point, another gem copy-and-pasted from my old emails:
Me, to other Michigan Radio interns: Let’s make a podcast! I’ll borrow some equipment. Come over on Sunday to record.
Co-intern: Hey guys! What’s going on with a podcast? This sounds hilarious!
Me: I don’t think we really have a plan for it, we’re just going to see what we can create with microphones in front of us!
No, no one ever heard that podcast. That said, most of my learning was through doing. One of my internship managers told me to fake it till I make it, which, if you didn’t get from the “see what we can create” podcast, I definitely did. Eventually, the failure becomes adequacy, and the adequacy becomes improvement, and the improvement becomes success. And today I’m still pushing myself outside of my comfort zone and taking on new roles and responsibilities at Marketplace.[/conr]
You can find Clare on Twitter at @claretoenis.
- WNYC has announced the schedule for the third edition of Werk It, its annual festival for women in podcasting. The lineup looks pretty damn stellar, IMHO. (WNYC)
- Anybody else notice that First Look Media has switched out the branding of its podcasts? Missing Richard Simmons, Politically Re-Active, and Maeve in America are now all listed as podcasts from Topic, its “entertainment studio” whose actual machinations remains a mystery to me.
- 60dB, the short-form audio listening app, revamps its design and rolls a new beta app for Android. Here’s the customary Medium post, and you can read my previous analysis on the company here.
- The Hive, Vanity Fair’s buzzy technology vertical, is launching its own podcast with Nick Bilton serving as host. DGital Media plays support.
- Science Friday, the long-running weekly science radio show hosted by Ira Flatow, is launching a podcast spinoff: Undiscovered. (Apple Podcasts)
- This is cool: “Celestial Blood” is a bilingual radionovela produced by Gisele Regatao in partnership with Santa Monica public radio station KCRW, and it launched earlier this month. (Apple Podcasts)
[photocredit]Photo of Careers board game by huppypie used under a Creative Commons license.[/photocredit]
Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 106, published February 7, 2017.
The Serial team forms a new production company, Serial Productions, and drops details on its latest project. This story got tons of pick-up when it was announced last Wednesday — getting write-ups on Variety, Deadline, EW.com, and Vulture, which I wrote — so you’re probably familiar with the broad strokes: the upcoming project is called S-Town, it’s a limited nonfiction series hosted by veteran This American Life producer Brian Reed, it’s set in a rural Alabama town, and all episodes will be published simultaneously sometime in March. As I pointed out in Vulture, Serial Productions also has two other projects in the works, though it remains a mystery whether they include the latest season of the company’s flagship show, Serial.
Oh, and speaking of mysteries: Starlee Kine appears to be part of the S-Town editorial team, according to the circulated press release. This would be her second podcasting effort following Mystery Show’s surprising departure from the Gimlet portfolio. (The first, some might recall, was her work as a producer on the very strange but very entertaining Election Profit-Makers, a screwball election-related prediction market podcast that wrapped, appropriately, last November.) It should be noted that Kine is a former This American Life producer. The editorial team also includes Ira Glass and Sarah Koenig, and Julie Snyder serves as the project’s executive producer.
So that’s the stuff that’s been well-established elsewhere. But I was also able to dig up the following two details that might be interesting to folks in the biz:
- I reached out to ask about the relationship between Serial Productions and This American Life, which broke off from WBEZ to form its own standalone organization back in July 2015. Here’s the reply I got:
Serial Productions is a separate company from This American Life. Serial Productions is headed by Julie Snyder, Sarah Koenig and Ira Glass. This American Life is headed by Ira Glass. Serial Productions is the producer of Serial, S-Town, and future podcasts. Serial Productions will often pull talent from This American Life to host, produce, and edit podcasts. For example, Brian Reed has been on leave from being This American Life’s senior producer in order to make S-Town. And Serial Productions president Julie Snyder is the former senior producer of This American Life.
- I’m also told that S-Town’s launch sponsorships were sold by Chicago-based Public Media Marketing (PMM), and that the responsibility for subsequent inventory will be split between PMM and Authentic, the ad-sales arm of the podcast measurement company Podtrac.
That’s all I got. Obviously, I’m very excited. I’ve been hankering for a truly juicy longform nonfiction narrative pod, and I haven’t been able to find very much of that lately. That said, “S-Town” is kind of a weird name — it’s almost dad-like in its construction — but I hear it’s short for something. We’ll find out next month.
How is The Ringer’s Podcast Network doing? Really well, it seems. That insight, among others, can be found in a long text interview with The Ringer head honcho Bill Simmons by Recode’s Peter Kafka that dropped last Friday. There’s a lot in there, but here’s the portion of the interview that’s especially relevant to us:
[conl]Kafka: So I’ve had this question since you launched, and I still do: You have some money from HBO. You have money from the podcasts. Can that support a staff that size?[/conl]
[conr]Simmons: Fuck yeah! The one thing that’s not a problem for us is money.[/conr]
[conl]Kafka: You’re generating enough revenue to cover your costs? You’re making money?[/conl]
[conr]Simmons: Yes. I don’t know why people are so surprised by that.[/conr]
[conl]Kafka: Everyone is surprised by that. Because no one believes that there’s that much money in podcasting.[/conl]
[conr]Simmons: Really? Go ask some people. We have really successful podcasts. Not just mine. But The Ringer NBA show is like 140,000, 150,000 listeners per show. Channel 33’s like 125,000 per show. Ringer NFL is like almost 100,000. You go on down the line…[/conr]
[conl]Kafka: It’s not that people don’t believe that people don’t listen to podcasts. It’s that it’s a really young industry.[/conl]
[conr]Simmons: It’s not any more.[/conr]
Those are certainly respectable download numbers, and it’s pretty remarkable that the podcast operation is able to drive a good chunk of The Ringer’s overall business (which, as the interview points out, has 65 full-time staffers). If anything, The Ringer seems to directly validate the model that Stratechery’s Ben Thompson laid out in “Grantland and the (Surprising) Future of Publishing,” which was published after the demise of Grantland, Simmons’ previous digital operation, back in November 2015. (See: writing as lead generation, a media organization structured across multiple surfaces where higher-revenue mediums are able to drive lower-revenue mediums, and so on.)
Anyway, I highly recommend checking out the whole interview (obviously), which is just chock-full of really interesting stuff. Kafka, by the way, was also responsible for the last major Simmons-related podcast revelation: his March 2015 interview with Simmons, which took place during SXSW, was revealing in terms of the way ESPN handled the business end of his podcast operation back at Grantland — and the missed opportunity that entailed.
Oh, and one more thing:
.@nwquah props to Bill Simmons for blurting out the download numbers for a few of his pods when the entire rest of the industry is so cagey.
— Jody Avirgan (@jodyavirgan) February 3, 2017
Agreed, my man. Why y’all so cagey? Gimme those numbers, people.
Panoply cancels About Race — or, “Our National Conversation About Conversations About Race,” as the show is known in its entirety. The timing for the cancellation, frankly, is a little poor given, well, the state of the country right now, and that fact seems to be reflected in the official statement on the matter released by Panoply last week:
Panoply has made the difficult decision to not move forward with the podcast “Our National Conversation About Conversations About Race.” We loved working with Baratunde [Thurston], Raquel [Cepeda], Tanner [Colby], and Anna [Holmes] over the last two years, and are proud of their important contributions to the dialog about race in America. However, frequent scheduling issues made it difficult to produce the show that we all wanted to create. Though the cancellation was unrelated to the current political climate, we regret the timing. Ending it now is painful, but a growing company like ours must make hard decisions, and this was one of the hardest. Now more than ever, Panoply recognizes the urgent need for diverse voices and frank conversations, and we’re committed to covering the important topics of race and ethnicity in America. Please stay tuned!
I reached out to ask for concrete details about any projects or plans by the company aimed at meeting that need for, you know, diverse voices, frank conversations, and coverage of topics related to race and ethnicity in America. A spokesperson for the company declined to comment beyond what’s mentioned in the statement.
I’ll be keeping an eye on this, but a note on something that crossed my mind: after initially hearing about this news, I pulled up the Panoply website in an attempt to run a quick tally on the number of shows on the network that are hosted, produced, and/or creatively led by non-white talent. Going through the list, it occurred to me that, theoretically speaking, it’s a little hard to get a precise accounting of that number, given what appears to be the company’s core strategy of partnering with other media organizations and external individuals. (Now, at this point, I should make the disclaimer that I used to work for Panoply, and that I left the company around this time last year. All the analysis here reflects information that’s publicly available and/or based on reporting that I’ve done in the intervening year.)
Further complicating this is the way in which the website blurs the line between shows it actively produces, like Vox.com’s The Weeds and The Ezra Klein Show, and the shows it does not, like the BuzzFeed portfolio that recently moved over to Panoply’s Megaphone platform for hosting. That amorphousness in editorial and production responsibility is curious from a branding perspective, but it’s also curious from an accountability perspective, as the spread makes it somewhat tricky to pin down the actual list of shows that are the product of the company’s direct editorial involvements. (To formulate it as a question: should Panoply be held accountable for — or, conversely, be well-regarded for — the diversity of the podcasts put forward by its publishing partners?) Thinking things through further, it also appears that Panoply isn’t alone in adopting this mixed structure that potentially complicates accountability checks: one could well argue that Acast, which appears to be largely driven as an ad-sales network, appears to adopt a similar hybrid model.
I don’t think there’s a specific argument that I’m making here. I just find all of this interesting, and I’m still mulling over the implications of this setup — whether there’s strategic value on the part of the company, or whether it potentially complicates its identity in the marketplace.
But yeah, about that list I was trying to make: no matter how you cut it, and running based off the website, the Panoply brand is, well, pretty white.
Quick note for fans of My Brother, My Brother, and Me. The full trailer for the comedy “advice” podcast’s TV adaptation dropped last week — following a clip that was circulated in early January — and it looks super fun. The show is set to premiere on February 23 on Seeso, the NBCUniversal-owned over-the-top streaming service that specializes in comedy programming. It will mark the second podcast-to-TV adaptation for Jesse Thorn’s Maximum Fun network in recent weeks, after Throwing Shade debuted its small screen incarnation on TV Land last month.
For more on MBMBaM and its TV project, check out podcast superfan Jaime Green’s profile of the McElroy brothers on Brooklyn Mag.
Two things for those tracking the Corporation for Public Broadcasting story:
- Current has a story up on public media advocates pre-emptively mobilizing to deal with possible federal budget cuts ahead of the administration’s initial budget, which is expected to roll out sometime this month.
- The New York Times published a piece this past weekend that examines the broad questions associated with the historically contentious relationship between conservatives and public funding for media and the arts. Note the pretty badass use of periods.
The NPR Training Team rolled out an “ear training guide for audio producers” last week, which focuses on helping producers identify and prevent common problems related to audio production. There’s also a pretty fun quiz that’s attached to the package, titled “Do you have the ears of an audio producer?” (In other news, I should not be an audio producer.)
“We think the guide is a really helpful resource for podcasters,” Rob Byers, of NPR’s Editorial Training team, told me. “We’re doing our best to get it in front of people as we’re also interested in receiving feedback from folks about what would help them.”
The team is also staging a webinar on this subject that will take place on March 22. Interested folks should sign up here.
In The Dark has started work on a second season, according to an update published last week by host Madeleine Baran and senior producer Samara Freemark. This is, by no means, a surprise, given the podcast’s successful run last year. The show bagged 5.5 million downloads across its first season — impressive for a relatively short, defined, and serialized freshman season that isn’t, well, Serial — and the podcast enjoyed further attention when it was repackaged as a five-part broadcast series and distributed over approximately 150 public radio stations across the country. An APM spokesperson informed me that the combined full-week audience for that broadcast run was over 5 million listeners.
Anyway, the second season will focus on a completely new case. The specifics of that haven’t been disclosed, but in the audio update released last week, Baran noted that the sophomore season will adopt pretty much the same investigative reporting structure. “What we really want to do with In The Dark,” Baran said, “is to try to get at some of the questions in this country that we don’t think are being asked often enough.” The description struck me as fairly generic, one that could well embody the premise of just about any other serious investigative endeavor. For what it’s worth, I thought the show was the best podcast series of last year, hands down, and a big part of what made it unique, for me, had to do with how well the show kept its focus on societal systems while being incredibly thoughtful with the gravity of the story — that is, the fact that a young death pervaded the entire journalistic exploration.
I can’t tell if those were necessarily the elements that resonated with the wider podcast listening audience, which is to say that I’m not sure if it’s moral and intellectual merits that drove In The Dark’s success more than its simply being able to combine a relative high level of quality with the fundamental appeal of the true crime genre. As anybody with working eyeballs and access to the iTunes podcast charts can tell you, true crime is a parodically ubiquitous genre in the industry, so much so that it appears to have been configured as programming policy by networks big and small. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course — aside from the well-established, long-running debate across multiple media over the true crime genre’s moral texture. I’m simply trying to think through whether the team has expressed a clear grasp on its differentiating factors, and whether my interpretation of those factors is legit or simply the idealistic folly of a hopeful fan.
So that’s the shiny APM news. Let’s move over to the one that’s troubling.
On Lewis Wallace and Marketplace. I trust that many of you have already heard about this story by now, but for the benefit of those who have not, I’m going to try and stuff a skeletal recap in one paragraph. However, like everything worth talking about, this predicament is incredibly layered with tons to dig through, and I implore you to actively seek out the details in the stories I’ll link throughout this item to get a better sense of the picture for yourself.
Okay, here goes: Last week, a reporter for APM’s Marketplace, Lewis Wallace, was fired for publishing a personal Medium post — and for doubling down when asked to remove it — that reflected on the meaning, need, and place of objectivity in journalism in the Trump era. The post, titled “Objectivity is dead, and I’m okay with it,” drew heavily from Wallace’s experience as a transgender journalist and, in my read at least, largely played out as a rigorous and thoughtful examination of the issue at hand. Marketplace’s decision to dismiss Wallace was attributed to his “clear violation of the ethics code,” as Deborah Clark, the VP of Marketplace, told the Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan, which prohibits reporters from publicly pronouncing their politics. “He did not agree — and he does not get to make that decision. That left me with no other options,” Clark told Sullivan.
But in Wallace’s telling of the incident, which was laid out in a follow-up Medium post, he points out that the ethics code argument doesn’t really hold up, noting that “they [Marketplace] were concerned about the section of my piece that asserted that we shouldn’t care, as journalists, if we are labeled ‘politically correct’ or even ‘liberal’ for reporting the facts. (I still maintain that we shouldn’t care, and for the record, I am not a liberal.)” It’s a bit of mess, but regardless of who is right or wrong, Wallace is out of a job, and Marketplace has come under tremendous scrutiny for its actions.
I’ll leave the recap there, and again, I’d like to reiterate that you should round out the story yourself in case you’ve completely missed this last week.
Two things should be noted at this point. First, as highlighted in Sullivan’s column, Wallace does not intend for this kerfuffle to just be about his firing from Marketplace; rather, he hopes that this will be held as a prompt for a much bigger conversation about “the core beliefs and practices of mainstream journalism.” Secondly, Marketplace has been comparatively reserved amid the public conversation that has transpired.
And what a conversation it has been, spanning across a good deal of reporting, follow-ups, and responses. Over at Nieman Lab, Laura Hazard Owen provides the most comprehensive overview I’ve seen so far, rooting the event in an examination of what appears to be a glaring contradiction between Marketplace’s decision to dismiss Wallace and its rejection of a “view from nowhere,” which was a narrative that was pushed as part of its recent initiative to rebrand and restructure to reach a broader audience beyond its aging base. Over at Current’s The Pub podcast, host Adam Ragusea does a good job in his interview with Wallace drawing out his larger thinking and parsing out the various tensions, issues, and questions baked into this story. Meanwhile, Margaret Sullivan’s column contains the clearest articulation of the conundrum for organizations that this incident highlights: “Does a news organization really want to send the message that they would prefer their reporters not think, or not care deeply about the very issues their sought-after diversity is supposed to represent? And that the punishment for standing your ground is dismissal?” At Slate, J. Bryan Lowder interprets this as a signal for “the Coming Crisis of Identity-as-Advocacy,” bringing to attention the inescapable factors of the reporter’s identity and how those could well be weaponized against them regardless of an organization’s given policy. On Twitter, United Public Strategies founder Andrew Ramsammy highlights how this incident “underscores the point on why most organizations don’t understand diversity and how to manage it.” The incident was also examined by On The Media and The Daily Beast.
Given the sheer volume of material that’s already been produced on this matter, I don’t think I can contribute very much that would be novel or helpful. I mean, I have a lot of feelings about it — who doesn’t have a lot of feelings all the time, these days? — and, if pressed, I would say that I can see why Marketplace chose to do what they did, even if I can’t quite find it in me to respect the decision.
But perhaps the thing that I find really heartbreaking about the whole matter is how this episode, in some ways, was a lost opportunity for a real moment of humanity from an institution, a system, that’s sort of meant to promote humanity. Instead of bringing up rules and policy, we could have seen a civic-oriented organization make a choice that was a little more thoughtful, perhaps a lot more difficult but certainly a lot more brave. We could have seen a public-oriented organization express a greater attempt, symbolic or substantive, at embodying a braver, keener sense of empathy. We could have seen a little more understanding in a world where folks that just, well, don’t really want to understand seem to be getting louder and louder. We didn’t see any of that, and man, I feel like all those things are so needed right now, as we find ourselves moving deeper into a time when rules and policies feel more arbitrary and weaponizable than ever before.
- The Guestlist with Sean Cannon, a music interview show produced by Louisville Public Media, has partnered with music label Kill Rock Stars for a new podcast series celebrating the 20th anniversary of Elliott Smith’s Either/Or. The project, called “Say Yes: An Elliott Smith Podcast,” appears to be a marketing initiative designed to lead up to the release of an expanded edition reissue of the record in early March. The episode of Say Yes was previewed on Pitchfork. (Pitchfork)
- Hey, guess what? The amazing Hollywood history podcast You Must Remember This is back with a new season, titled “Dead Blondes.” Rolling Stone has a great interview up with creator Karina Longworth, which you totally check out. (Rolling Stone)
- CNN announced a new podcast last Wednesday, “Boss Files with Poppy Harlow,” slowly and quietly expanding its roster of original podcasts. What’s going on down in Atlanta? Curious. (iTunes)
- Charley Locke’s latest in Wired looks at the limited run WNYC-The Economist-Let’s Save America call-in show, Indivisible. (Wired)
[photocredit]Still taken from the final home video of Jacob Wetterling, subject of the first season of In the Dark.[/photocredit]