Miscellaneous Bites: December 14, 2018

(1) A quick follow-up on the Remote Audio Data story from Wednesday. A few readers wrote in asking if the initiative would still be successful without the participation of Apple. My sense is that Apple participation would make things significantly easier — or at least less challenging — as far as bringing together an aggregate listens-based data analytics picture that can induce confidence is concerned. But generally speaking, it seems to me that the initiative was designed with the possibility of Apple non-participation, and that the specs were developed to be a common solution for publishers to adopt in order to better enable publishers to lead the shift towards listens-based analytics.

(2) Another follow-up: I very stupidly forgot to name-check another pretty interesting — perhaps super consequential — acquisition from the year in Tuesday’s year in review: Scripps acquiring Triton Digital. Do not sleep on that.

(3) This one’s pretty interesting: Dr. Phil, the very popular daytime talk show host, is now launching his upcoming collection of podcasts with Stitcher. Back at the IAB Podcast Upfronts in September, it was thought that Podcast Media Marketing — formerly Public Media Marketing, which handles ads for shows like Serial and The Joe Rogan Experience — was bringing that project to market.

Two things to note:

  • I haven’t pinned the “how” just yet, but I think you can group this story with Stitcher’s recent release of Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend and iHeartMedia’s recent deal-striking to secure the Anchorman podcast. There’s some sort of trend-line here that’s a little different from the broader celebrity pod shift, and I’d keep an eye on the action here.
  • About that Dr. Phil podcast collection: the dude will apparently roll out four podcast projects over the course of 2019. Two active questions: (1) Will he be able to convert his strong television audience base into a strong podcast audience base? (Also add: newer older audiences? etc. etc. ) and (2) Just how much do you think advertisers will like this inventory? Quite a bit, I imagine.

(4) ESPN announced yesterday that the Miami-based Dan Le Batard, one of its more prominent radio and television hosts, will be launching a podcast-first project in early January. It will be an interview show, and it will be called South Beach Sessions. If you’re watching closely, you should probably know this: according to numbers circulated in a recent press release, the podcast repackage of The Dan Le Batard Show with Stugotz is the leading performer of its podcast portfolio, with 8.3 million downloads in November. But you should also know that the lead could be a function of publishing volume: the repackage breaks down the radio broadcast into separate chunks, and ends up publishing four episodes every weekday.

(5) Shifting gears a bit: over at WBEZ, Jennifer White, the host of a number of the station’s critically acclaimed podcasts (Making Oprah, 16 Shots, etc.), is now the full-time host of The Morning Shift live morning talk show broadcast, replacing veteran Tony Sarabia. She was previously just the Friday host of The Morning Shift. I’m told that she will continue hosting the “Making” podcast series, plus other digital projects that are currently in the oven.

(6) This is interesting to me, as well as very specific slice of the Hot Pod Insider readership I imagine: “Anna Faris Partners With WeWork on New Podcast Studio.” (The Hollywood Reporter) Pair that with this story from last month: “Stitcher partners with Sennheiser to produce state-of-the-art podcast studios,” (Press release)

(7) Finally: Serial‘s Sarah Koenig had a cameo in a Samantha Bee skit this week.

Tracking: November 20, 2018

  • ICYMI: Jacob Weisberg and Malcolm Gladwell’s new audio venture, Pushkin Industries, stepped into the open last week, and the company also announced a new Chief Marketing Officer: Heather Fain, a book publishing veteran.
  • Here’s an interesting personnel move: Jonathan Zenti, the creator of Meat (a finalist for Radiotopia’s PodQuest competition back in 2016), joins the podcast technology company VoxNest as Head of Content.
  • The fine folks at Edison Research and Triton Digital published an addendum to their Infinite Dial 2018 study that contains a breakdown of changes in monthly American podcast listenership by ethnicity between 2008 and 2018. It shows a medium that’s quietly grown in diversity. Here’s the corresponding blog post, and here’s the key slide:

 

  • I continue to be fascinated by the puzzle of smart speakers and news consumption, which doesn’t appear to be a behavior that’s growing proportionally with the rise in device adoption, according to a recent Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism report. Nieman Lab has a great summary. The heart of the problem, it seems, is the black boxes of data: neither Amazon nor Google nor Apple were willing to share data or discuss how news is being consumed on their respective smart speaker devices. A tricky predicament, one that does not bode well for future smart speaker-news publisher relations, and also completely in keeping with tech-media industry dynamics that we’ve seen so far.
  • ESPN will apparently broadcast three hours worth of 30 for 30 Podcasts across its owned-radio stations around the country on Thanksgiving afternoon (1-4pm ET). As Planet Money’s Nick Fountain pointed out, this time-slot sets the sports doc podcast up against The Splendid Table’s live call-in show. A fight to the death, this.
  • WNYC Studios’ 2 Dope Queens ended its run last week with a final episode that featured an interview with Michelle Obama. By closing the podcast, the duo of Jessica Williams and Phoebe Robinson appears to have completed a full transitional arc: from live show to podcast to television.
  • Producers Eleanor McDowall and Heidi Pett are running a survey at the moment to crowdsource a rate card for audio production in the UK “to try and make pay more transparent”. If you work in the industry, fill it out here, and keep an eye on the UK Audio Network page for the results.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grab your space suits, fellas.

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

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

Public radio genes run deep.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tip of the hat, Louisville.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[storybreak]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[storybreak]

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

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

Bites:

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

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

A few important new players are going to change what people think of as a “podcast”

Infinite Dial. The numbers are in, and…well, they’re looking quite good. Last Thursday, Edison Research dropped the latest edition of their annual “Infinite Dial” report, a survey study that looks at consumer adoption of digital media. The report, which is conducted in partnership with Triton Digital, has a particular emphasis on audio, though it also contains pretty fascinating excursions into social media and whatever’s going on in the streaming space more broadly. And, unless I’m committing a massive piece of oversight here, it’s also the biggest reputable independent study that has observed the podcast format almost since the medium’s inception, with survey data going back to 2006. (That’s a long time, guys! A long time!)

Do check out the whole report on Edison Research’s website, but here are the three big things that are stuck in my head:

1. Mainstream. According to the study, an estimated 98 million Americans have listened to a podcast at least once in their lives. Put another way, that’s more than 1 in 3 Americans surveyed by this study. I mean, that measure is pretty dramatic, and it also sounds pretty loose — just because you tried something doesn’t mean that something is meaningful. But then again, it does show that you at least know about the thing enough to actually try it out. But if you contextualize that these two other data points:

  • More than 1 in 5 Americans report having listened to a podcast within the past month; and
  • Podcast consumption skews towards the younger side (the data shows that monthly consumption by respondents in the 12-24 age range is growing at a faster rate and at a higher volume than respondents in 25-54 and 55+ age range)

…you get a picture of a medium trending towards a fairly hopeful future. The study also pretty strongly declared: “Nearly 100 million Americans have ever listened to a podcast — it has made the jump to mainstream.”

2. Gender. According to the study, the number of women consuming podcasts has effectively doubled since 2013. Specifically, 18 percent of women surveyed report having listened to a podcast within the past month, up from 9 percent in 2013. Data still confirms that podcasting is a predominantly white male thing, but I’m fairly confident that this trend of gender diversification will continue, if only for the reason that enough people making stuff for the market are going to figure out that gender and race-inclusive programming is a positive value differentiator.

3. The continuing shift toward mobile. 64 percent of respondents who consume podcasts report doing so primarily on their mobile devices, up from 55 percent in 2015. Though some may well find it strange that a significant chunk of people consume podcasts on desktop in the first place, it’s actually a fairly established consumption behavior, especially when you think back to how difficult it was to catch a podcast on your phone before the great gods of Apple decided to bundle the native Podcasts app, which is widely understood to drive roughly 70 percent of podcast consumption, into iOS by default. (FWIW, a ton of my listening happens on desktop, both on headphones and through my Bluetooth speaker, which I also happen to take into the shower with me. Probably too much information, but I’m just sketching out, you know, multiple use cases and such.)

Related to this desktop situation is whether significant podcast consumption happens on YouTube, which is a fair inquiry because, according to the Infinite Dial study, a sizable portion of music consumption takes place there (14 percent of respondents report using YouTube most often to keep up-to-date with music, to be exact), and we can presumably suggest that the behavior might map onto podcasts. I personally haven’t found any reliable sources concretely proving this behavior on a wide scale, though I have seen some successful case studies of YouTube-as-podcast-consumption-source. Most notably, Welcome to Night Vale and some shows under the Loud Speakers Network tend to drive tens of thousands of listens through their YouTube channels, and podcasts with strong video components — like KindaFunny and some of the old Grantland shows — also tend to post strong numbers on the platform.

So that’s the big stuff from the study that I wanted to talk about. But there is one more thing that I want to riff on, if you’d be so kind to indulge me:

What’s in a word? Right now, the Infinite Dial report’s definition of a podcast is pegged to a classic description: the consumption of non-music audio content through an on-demand delivery channel, typically in the shape of the Apple podcasting app and its myriad of smaller, direct competitors (Overcast, Stitcher, and so on). But as we move deeper into the year, we’re going to see several developments that will significantly challenge the clarity of that definition. Namely:

  • The rolling out of Audible’s original content, which will likely be distributed through an infrastructure that bears little resemblance to the way we currently consume podcasts — and how we create podcasts, for that matter;
  • The scaling up of Spotify’s “Audio/Video Shows” offerings, whenever that happens. They’re still buried pretty deep in the Spotify UI, and it’s worth noting that the use of the word “show” over “podcast” is noteworthy;
  • The launch of Google Play Music’s podcast feature. Again, whenever that happens. Early rumors pegged that the feature was supposed to be live by now, and that the “podcast” wording would be maintained. But as of this writing, the fate of both things remain unclear. In any case, with Google Play (and Spotify) podcasts are delivered through what is largely perceived as a streaming music, and if it feels like we’re splitting hairs with the nomenclature here, I’d say that the words are important — because how these words play out among mass audiences and popular culture will directly influence how respondents are going to react the surveys like Infinite Dial moving forward.

Here, then, we begin to be able to see how the long established parallels between podcasts and blogs — sketched out perfectly by Nieman Lab’s Joshua Benton not too long ago — will come to play out its predictive accuracy and teleology. Audio content produced for the Internet and distributed through the Internet will soon no longer be identified based on a singular technological method (the aforementioned “podcatcher”), but to the #content itself. And when that happens, what we’ll see is a narrative that’s less of a clash between an insurgent and an incumbent (“the future of radio”), but rather, a clash between content factions defined by generations, communities, and cultures (“a type/genre/kind of radio”).

For what it’s worth, I’m fairly certain that, with its liberation from an infra-structurally imposed definition, the word “podcast” will lose all of its original meaning by the end of the calendar year. My sense is that it will likely become an identifier for a certain corner of a reconstituted landscape of all non-music audio content that’s created and distributed digitally. It’s a scope that will not only include the new podcasting companies of the last year or so, public radio, and digital media companies developing new audience development channels in the audio space (which have been my topical biases, in case you haven’t already noticed), but also commercial radio powers, streaming and Internet radio companies like iHeartMedia and SiriusXM, and community radio infrastructures.

It’s a kind of convergence; or, if you’d allow me some drama, a kind of collision.

As you can imagine, this poses an editorial challenge for me. I’ve never pretended to be comprehensive in scope with Hot Pod, but I’ve always been focused on a certain narrative of change — and power — when I sit down and choose stories to pursue every week. So, with this expected shift, I’m still not quite sure how I’ll adapt my terms and coverage, but I should figure it out and whip out, like, a mission statement pretty soon, I imagine.

The value-add of a podcast network. Slate president Keith Hernandez was on the Digiday podcast last week, and in addition to talking about the larger developments on the business and advertising fronts of the 20-year-old publication, he also got the chance to talk a bit about the company’s sister podcasting business, Panoply — which I used to work for, by the way, in case you’re new to this column. I never got to work directly with Hernandez back when I was bumming around the Slate offices, so it’s interesting to me to hear how he articulates the company’s value proposition.

Anyway, there’s a bit in the conversation that stood out to me where Digiday’s Brian Morrissey astutely points out the fundamental challenge of podcast networks, or any network in general for that matter:

Morrissey: Is it one of those things when someone becomes…It’s like ad networks always have this problem, their clients always wanted to fire them because they wanted to become self-sufficient so they wouldn’t have to share [revenue]. Is that a thing where people get to a certain size, they sort of leave behind the network?

Hernandez: I don’t think anybody wants to be a logo on a slide, you know? What we care about on that end, when working with big partners and big publishers, is how can we be more than just a network, that logo on a slide? How can we provide help on the production end, how can we provide insights, the right music supervisor and producers for their shows? It’s more a partnership on the creation side than it is a partnership on the monetization side.

You can check out the whole conversation on Digiday. The section on Panoply begins at the 17:00 mark.

In tangentially related news, two partner shows on the Panoply network have lost significant talent over the past two weeks.

  • Margaret Lyons, of the very good Vulture TV podcast, has left Vulture to join The New York Times’ Watching site.
  • Allison Davis, of New York’s Sex Lives podcast, is heading to The Ringer.

This brings to light a tension, one that’s logistical but also creative, that lies at the heart of podcasts created by publications: what are listeners responding to — the publication’s brand, or the personality on the show?

On the flip side, Slate launched a pop-up podcast yesterday called Trumpcast, which features short (~15 minute) near daily audio reporting by (the very boss) Jacob Weisberg, Slate Group’s editor-in-chief and chairman, on all things Trump. This thing is great, guys; it’s such a smart, swift way to leverage newsroom resources to create something that speaks directly to the present moment. Gah, it makes me so angry how good and specific and focused it is.

On iTunes, part two. Last week, I went deep into what, exactly, makes the iTunes charts tick. There were two takeaways: First, the charts act as a sort of “trending” measure based on iTunes interactions — chiefly, new subscriptions — and second, the iTunes charts being the only major consumer-facing value signifier of podcasts distorts the medium’s ability to understand itself.

Given its ambiguous capacity to adequately convey value, I was curious about the extent to which the charts reflect value outwards. Specifically, I wanted to know how it influences the thinking of advertisers, and whether it creates informational inefficiencies that makes it difficult for advertisers to find decent campaign opportunities, for ad buyers to buy ads, and for creators to create sustainable revenue streams. I asked around, and found that podcast advertisers and media buyers do, indeed, rely on the charts for information, but only to a point. (Thankfully.)

“Advertisers mostly care about whether a show drives results for them,” said Lex Friedman, Midroll Media’s EVP of sales and development. “But certainly, there’s a core group of advertisers I hear from anytime they notice a new show catapult into the Top 10. They don’t mind if a show that’s already working doesn’t rank there; they know the numbers and are happy regardless. But when a new show jumps into the iTunes charts, advertisers are definitely curious about whether we represent it, or know who does, and can help them get on it.”

Karo Chakhlasyan, a media buyer with Los Angeles-based ad agency Oxford Road, agrees with this perspective. “As a buyer, it doesn’t really matter to me where a podcast is on the charts,” he told me over the phone last week. “But it does play a role in outreach. Every Tuesday, I get together with one of our media coordinators and go through the list to see if a podcast broke into the Top 200 or got featured. And then we get the podcast on the phone and try to get a general idea of whether we’re able to buy.”

But the charts’ particularities often generate poor leads for advertisers. Chakhlasyan describes often finding himself on calls with small podcasts that have short shelf-lives. “Usually, those calls don’t pan out too well because it usually turns out that they’re not really serious about the show. Maybe they’re on the charts by luck, or some lucky marketing push that gets them featured,” he explained.

At the same time, however, the charts have been helpful for advertisers to check against…let’s call it improprieties. “Advertisers have also used the iTunes charts (in part) to get wise when a show touts numbers that don’t add up,” said Friedman. “For example, if you hear a show is doing 1.5 million downloads per episode, and it doesn’t rank anywhere in the iTunes Top 200, you know that what you’re hearing is hooey.”

Next week, I close out this mini-series on iTunes with some notes on what the future might look like with respect to podcast charts. Cool? Cool.

Relevant bits:

  • “Dear Data And FiveThirtyEight Want You To Visualize Your Podcast Habits.” This is a pretty cool project where participants keep track of all their podcast listening habits and mail the results in the form of a podcast. I’ll probably get on this, once I figure out how to cash in my Stamps.com promo code. (FiveThirtyEight)
  • Triton Digital bags a second partner for its TAP audio advertising platform: Whooshkaa, an Audioboom/Acast-like end-to-end podcast company out of Australia. This comes weeks after Triton signed a deal with NPR to power their podcast ads. (RAIN News)
  • Interestingly, Midroll is now selling a portion of podcast ads for APM’s Marketplace. (Twitter)
  • Chicago radio personality Garry Meier, formerly of WGN Radio, launched an individual-oriented premium subscription podcast service over the weekend. Howard Stern is slated to be one of his first guests. (RobertFeder.com)
  • The Maximum Fun Drive is currently underway! And while you’re checking it out, be sure to hit up Jonah Keri’s interview with Jesse Thorn, allfather of Maximum Fun. (MaximumFun.org, Nerdist)
  • “Debatable,” the most recent Radiolab episode, is a truly, truly remarkable thing to behold. (Radiolab)
  • I’ll just leave this here. (I-Kid-A-Pod)
  • Oh, and this too. I’ll dig into this a future issue. (The Future of Listening Hackathon) [h/t LG]

Is this your first time reading Hot Pod? You can subscribe to the newsletter here. It’s got more stuff, and then a couple more things, but really I’m just happy you’re here with me.

Decoding what makes a podcast a hit on the iTunes charts

Edison Research: Monthly podcast consumption surges. More than 1 in 5 Americans report having listened to a podcast within the past month, according to data teased in a new blog post by Edison Research. Specifically, 21 percent of Americans (an estimated 57 million) report having done so, representing a pretty significant jump from 2015, which saw 17 percent of surveyed Americans reporting that behavior. In 2014, that number was 15 percent, so growth seems to be accelerating.

Another sweet way to cut it: Monthly American podcast consumption grew about 24 percent between 2015 and 2016. Don’t you just love stats?

It’s certainly an encouraging data point for all who are enthusiastic about podcasts as the future of radio/audio/blogging. And I’m certainly tempted to think that we’re finally seeing evidence of tangible widescale conversions from all the buzz and hype that podcasting enjoyed last year.

A plausible counterargument is as follows: Is this number a true reflection of solid, genuine, sustainable consumer acquisition (and retention) across the medium, or does it more represent a period where listeners are merely testing out the format? That question, to some extent, is irrelevant for two reasons. First, it’s a question with no meaningful immediate answer, because the process is still playing itself out. And second, the number itself is an influencing factor — as a positive public indicator that fuels for the industry’s vision and presentation of itself, one imagines that countless folks out to build new businesses within the medium will use this statistic in a pitch deck, playing out a fulfillment of their own prophecy.

Which is all to say: This data point is very good, and I’m going to call my mum and tell her I didn’t screw up my life joining this industry. Cool? Cool.

Anyway, Edison’s data point here is excerpted from the much larger Infinite Dial 2016 study, scheduled to be released later this week. The study comes out a partnership between Edison Research and Triton Digital, a digital audio technology and advertising company. I’ll write it up on next week’s Hot Pod.

Midroll tightens its brand. Scripps-owned Midroll Media is sunsetting its Wolfpop podcast network this week. Wolfpop was previously branded as Midroll’s pop culture-oriented owned-and-operated content arm curated by comedian Paul Scheer — as opposed the company’s flagship comedy-oriented Earwolf brand. (Yeah, it’s a little confusing, which is probably why we’re seeing this consolidation, I imagine).

Ten out of Wolfpop’s 13 podcasts will now live under the Earwolf umbrella. The three shows that will not continue their relationships with Midroll are Rotten Tomatoes, Picking Favorites, and Off Camera with Sam Jones. The company also announced that Hello From the Magic Tavern, a well loved and utterly weird podcast previously supported by the Chicago Podcast Cooperative, is joining the network.

Midroll chief content officer Chris Bannon made these announcements on the Earwolf forums yesterday, citing that “this change is a way for us to make Earwolf a bigger, better, and more inclusive network.”

I reached out to Bannon, who previously served as WNYC’s vice president of content development and production, and asked whether we’d be seeing any news programming coming out of Earwolf anytime soon. “I’ll certainly be taking a hard look at what we can contribute to our listeners’ needs for smart news programming,” he wrote back. “Right now, it feels as though many of the newsmakers are venturing pretty deeply into the comedy space, though. We will have announcements on the news front soon.”

Coy, Bannon. Very coy.

This development was foreshadowed by a job posting that the company put up last week, which contained the following self-description:

This group, led by our VP of Business Development, identifies and brings aboard great new podcasts and creators for all three of our major lines of business: Midroll, the leader in podcast ad sales; Earwolf, our owned & operated podcast network; and Howl, our premium audio subscription service.

In related Midroll news: the company has also hired Jenny Radelet, who previously served as executive media producer for the launch of Apple’s Beats 1 service, as the managing editor for Howl, the company’s subscription service. She started work yesterday.

Limited-run local journalism. This week, WNYC will kick off There Goes the Neighborhood, a limited-series podcast that’ll explore the topic of gentrification in Brooklyn. I personally get all my New York-related gentrification news from The Awl, but I’m intrigued to see that the show is produced in partnership with The Nation — another example of the swell of collaborations between audio companies and existing publications (see WBUR’s Modern Love, WNYC’s New Yorker Radio Hour, KPCC’s recently concluded The Awards Show Show, and the majority of Panoply’s operating model). The show will run for eight episodes and is hosted by Kai Wright, The Nation’s features editor.

There Goes the Neighborhood is notable to me for two reasons. First, it looks to be a strong piece of local journalism, something I don’t get to see very much of in Podcastland. Sure, it’s local to New York, perhaps the most saturated media market in the world, but still. Secondly, it’s the first major audio project that features the involvement of Rebecca Carroll, who joined WNYC last October as a producer of special projects about race in New York City.

“I’m here to generate ideas,” Carroll told me last Friday, when I asked about her role within the station. “We’re experiencing a moment right now in American culture where our most famous public intellectual is Ta-Nehisi Coates, where we have the #BlackLivesMatters movement, Black Twitter, and an election that comes down to the black vote. It’s a moment where blackness and black culture is being listened to, and my aim is to wrest that moment and harness it in a way that can be fanned back out into the most creative, innovative, interesting life-changing way.”

There Goes The Neighborhood is scheduled to debut tomorrow, March 9. A teaser for the show is up already.

An indie label comes alive. Night Vale Presents, the new indie podcast label — that’s what I’m calling it, guys, just roll with it, come on — founded by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, the creators of the wildly popular Welcome to Night Vale podcast, is publishing its first title today. The show, Alice Isn’t Dead, is an audio drama written by Fink, and it’s scheduled to play out across 10 biweekly episodes.

Alice is, in a lot of ways, quintessential Night Vale. It shares its predecessor’s particular brand of creepiness — that is, juxtaposing the banal with thick, slabs of horror — and, like Night Vale, Alice displays Fink’s fascination with Americana. Where Night Vale is a love letter to small-town America, Alice is a meditation on the expansive, desolate imagery of the desert highways that make up the vast middle of the country. I’ve heard cuts of the first two episodes, and I really, really like ’em.

Night Vale Presents was conceived out a logistical necessity. Fink and Cranor had wanted to develop more projects beyond their core show, and built Night Vale Presents to be a framework that supports them. “We don’t have any plans to try to grow it into an empire or start taking tech funding or any of that,” Fink told me over email. “What we do hope to do is keep making new podcasts, both our own and works by other artists who haven’t worked in the podcast space before.”

On iTunes, part one. So, the most common inquiry I get from Hot Pod readers overwhelmingly comes in the form of a gripe: How, exactly, do the iTunes charts work? (The second most common inquiry, for the curious: How much does so-and-so make? That’s…I don’t know what to say about that. Leaving that for another day.)

It’s a question I try to stay away from, for a simple reason: I don’t think it’s something that should be fixated upon. Sure, 70 percent of podcast listening happens through iTunes or the native iOS Podcasts app (or so we’re told — it’s impossible to verify, frankly, given the immature state of podcast measurement). But there are many, many other avenues for podcast creators to reach potential new audiences that haven’t been adequately utilized, including basic stuff like search and social. And it benefits the medium as a whole if more creators leaned harder into non-iTunes avenues. Think about it: Attempts to convert audiences through the iTunes platform is a play to win already well worn, probably maxed-out podcast audiences, and if every podcast creator assumes a strategy with iTunes — the platform in general, the charts in specific — at the core, then every podcast creator is essentially competing for the very same pool of ears.

So that’s where my head was at. But the more I thought about it, the more I felt that there may something to be gained by really thinking through the theory and context of the iTunes charts, and asking the question: How do the charts shape the space? But in order to do that, I’d first have to try to understand how they work in the first place.

Which is exactly what I’ve been trying to do over the past couple of weeks.

At this point, I’m going to lay down two core hypotheses, and I’m going to argue for their theoretical fidelity by disclosing that they’re informed by a combination of these things: a survey I recently ran among Hot Pod newsletter subscribers (I pulled 18 representative responses that you can view here), conversations with many, many, many podcast creators, stuff published by other podcast folks who have conferred with iTunes reps in the past, and drawing from my own experience with my old day-job employer. iTunes reps, understandably, declined to publicly comment.

My hypotheses are as follows:

1. The charts are particularly biased towards new subscriptions, and to some extent interactions with the iTunes link and engagements through reviews. Which makes sense: iTunes, like Facebook and every other platform that actively benefits from keeping users within its ecosystem, is incentivized to maximize engagements. Thus, achieving half a million downloads outside iTunes won’t reward a show as much as getting that same number in iTunes — and so on.

2. The charts are designed chiefly as a discovery tool, and it performs its duty by identifying and rewarding podcasts with a sense of momentum. Thus, what’s rewarded is relative positive change — getting an additional 1,000 interactions on top of a 10,000 interaction base (say, subscriptions) will send you up quicker than an additional 1,000 on top of 100,000. Again, this makes sense: If the charts were designed to display a power ranking of the most successful shows, then the Top 10 placements would simply never change, with the biggest shows standing to just keep getting bigger. And because iTunes is fully incentivized to provide a chart that, well, actually provides value to users to keep them on the platform, they’d need to rely on a discovery mechanism that allows for the top chart placements to constantly change. In a lot of ways, the charts are actually pretty democratic.

These two hypotheses don’t explain the charts in totality (nothing could, really, other than the algorithm-turned-sentient), but I believe them to be strong starting points to understand the charts. In sum: The charts are designed for discovery, but the engine they are built upon are iTunes interactions — and so podcasts move up because they engender more iTunes-driven subscriptions and downloads, because moving up is a form of reward. Once you settle into that, some things begin to make sense. It’s how you get a Disney enthusiast podcast in the top 5 between Serial and Alice Isn’t Dead — as it was positioned at 4 p.m. ET on March 4. It’s also how you get a parodic sports talk radio podcast sitting on the top spot in that same time period, even though it’s only loaded with a preview. (The prescriptive here is fairly clear: if you wanna play the charts game, optimize your marketing for iTunes interactions. Didn’t want to point it out, but what the hell I’ve already gone this far.)

And here’s where we get back to my original query: What effect does this particular chart system have on the podcasting space?

As my inbox suggests, it generates a lot of angst. I’d argue that feeling comes out of an interpretation that the iTunes podcast charts should serve as a mechanism that adequately signals or communicates a podcast’s value or worth. Which is an understandable interpretation to hold because (and here’s where I make a sweeping overgeneralization) charts are typically designed as tools to signal value.

And that’s the thing: That’s not what the iTunes charts is designed to do. It was designed to optimize for engagement on its platform, and not to provide a direct and clear representation of what’s valuable. (Although the rocketing up of a podcast on the charts does indicate a kind of value — it’s just we’re getting a proxy value.) But there’s a strong tendency to read iTunes as a prime arbiter of value because, well, we don’t have anything else.

Absent other means of context or evaluation, a singular chart of this nature leads to a muddled representation of the podcasting landscape, as it renders any act of interpreting relative value between podcasts almost impossible. And this provides a poor feedback loop for podcast creators, because a big part of understanding the health of your show is knowing how it stacks against other shows.

But here’s the other thing: I don’t perceive this as a story about the problem with iTunes — as far as I’m concerned, there is no problem with iTunes, because iTunes gotta iTunes. Rather, it’s a story about the medium’s larger problem of being to know itself, and the fact that the main way the industry does is dependent on a single, and incredible incomplete, point of view.

Okay, so I’m running out of space right now, and I wanted to talk about two more things: how the iTunes charts impact the relationship between podcast creators and advertisers, and what market opportunities are baked into situation. We’ll start with the former next week.

Relevant bits:

  • “How Politico’s ‘Off Message’ Podcast Is Rising Above Site’s Staff Departures.” A winning combination of strong booking…and loose lips. (The Wrap)
  • “No More Car Talk as WBEZ Turns More Airtime over to Podcasts.” Something’s going on at Ben Calhoun’s Navy Pier operation. (Chicago Magazine)
  • And while we’re on the subject of Nick Quah hobby horses: Recode is probably going to continue expanding their podcast offerings. I buzz with excitement. (CNN Money)
  • “Facebook Messenger Adds Music, Starting With Spotify’s Song Sharing.” All the potential around messaging that you’re already excited about, now with more audio! (TechCrunch)
  • Amazon rolls out two alternate versions of their Echo product, including a puck-sized model designed to latch onto non-Amazon speakers and turn them into voice-based gateways to the Internet. In case you’re new to this column, I’m personally very pro-Amazon Echo as far as its potential for non-visual — read: audio-oriented — computing. As a person who’s morbidly afraid of losing his eyesight, I’m all about that. (The Verge)

Is this your first time reading Hot Pod? You can subscribe to the newsletter here, which now features exclusive content! More podcast news items! Also, a new membership model! Much excite!

Podcasts about podcasts, a new player in sports audio, and a crowded election-podcast space

FiveThirtyEight enters the elections podcast race. Let’s start with an item thematically related to what went down in Iowa last night.

FiveThirtyEight, the data journalism site led by stats dude Nate Silver, officially launched its Elections podcast last Monday. And let me be the first to say: Finally! Predictive modeling for presidential elections is basically the only reason I keep FiveThirtyEight in my bookmarks, though I must say their culture stuff gets a click or two out of me. Anyway, this launch expands the site’s podcast offering to a healthy number of three, with the elections pods joining a sports punditry show called Hot Takedown and a more general show about data and society called What’s The Point. Its launch comes after four weeks of piloting through the What’s The Point feed, where test episodes were delivered to listeners in the form of bonus content. Which is certainly an interesting method of both workshopping a show and cultivating interest in an existing user base.

So here’s the most interesting thing about FiveThirtyEight’s Elections podcast: It’s made up of different kinds of shows. The podcast’s anchor will be a Slate Political Gabfest-style panel show that will be released on Mondays, with additional episodes — which may or may not adopt the panel discussion format — dropping on other days depending on the news cycle and depending on whether the podcast team has something else they want to cover. Some of these non-Monday episodes could be a documentary; some could feature interviews.

This diversification of content was top of mind for Jody Avirgan, the former WNYC producer that the site tapped last year to head up its podcast operations. (Avirgan is also the host of What’s The Point.) “From the beginning, I wanted our election audio coverage to be a bunch of different things. I wanted it to be a home for reported stories, documentaries, etc.,” he told me over the phone. “I think a lot of people are hung up on the idea of ‘a show,’ and that you would have to do the same thing week after week after week just because you have ‘a show.'”

In this view, the podcast feed is structurally utilized in a manner reminiscent to linear TV news or radio broadcast channels, but without the need to plug gaps with filler content or reruns. For Avirgan, it’s a mark of confidence in the pull of the larger media operation, and not a specific show. “Let’s just have a home for the audio content we make, and people will follow us to wherever we create,” Avirgan continued. “I think Grantland has been a good model all along — the way they created one feed, and put all their shows all in one feed. People who like Grantland really like Grantland, and they don’t care where they get it. They just want to get it.”

FiveThirtyEight is not the first to play around with release conventions through a podcast feed. NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour, for example, is particularly good with experimentation, consistently using its feed to drop alternate programming like its sporadically-released sports show (The Giant Foam Finger!!) as well as special interviews (J.K. Rowling!!). Another interesting practitioner is the Bill Simmons Podcast Network’s “Channel 33” feed, which essentially serves as an omnibus home for Simmons’ frequent collaborators and former Grantland soldiers to play around with their own shows (The Watch and Sources Say are fabulous, by the way). But I’m a little surprised more podcast creators don’t experiment more with the RSS feed. We’ve seen some interesting, playful uses over among fiction podcasts; for example, the recent fictional podcast hit Limetown occasionally dropped mini-sode checkins to conjure the illusion of “real-time” programming. Maybe I’m just talking out of an armchair, but it doesn’t seem like it would take too much of an effort for an actual campaign trail reporter to experiment by using a feed to sporadically drop 5 minute verbal sketches of scene and space. (See: Audio Twitter.)

Anyway, back to talking about the actual podcast: the Elections podcast’s launch comes up against what appears to be an increasingly crowded field. As I’ve noted recently, it seems like there’s been another election-related pod being launched every other day, with new offerings being rolled by both podcast stalwarts and newcomers (sample list: NPR’s Politics Podcast, The Washington Post’s Presidential, Politico’s Off Message, The Huffington Post’s Candidate Confessional, Futuro Media Group’s In the Thick, The Pollsters, and many others.) I asked Avirgan what he thought about this flood of audio election programming. His response was a dry one: “There’s this perfect storm of people who think that podcasting is an easy money thing, and there’s big news cycle event coming, and so they just put the two things together,” Avirgan said. “I’m sure if this was Brazil and the World Cup was coming up, you’d see a lot of World Cup podcasts.”

But will the abundance of these podcasts prove a hurdle for FiveThirtyEight, whose mass-market raison d’être, for all intents and purposes, is elections-focused data journalism? Avirgan doesn’t think so, citing operational nimbleness, close fidelity to its audience, and a keen awareness of the space as differentiating factors. “There’s a reason our show is on Monday versus other days,” Avirgan notes. “We’re separated [from other podcasts] on the calendar…We’re not going to pull off what the [Slate Political] Gabfest does. We have our own people. We’re going to do what we’re good at.”

You can find FiveThirtyEight’s Election Podcast here.

Podcasts, but for podcasts. Or broadcasts, but for podcasts. Or broadcasts, but for podcasts that are also later distributed as podcasts.

A common refrain among those who are involved in or follow podcasts is that discovery is broken, and its broken-ness is one of the many primary structural impediments that prevents podcasts from growing, maturing, and becoming mainstream, which is arguably what everybody wants. So far, all we really have is iTunes, and even that audience development pipeline is being further corroded by the recent podcast rush that has undoubtedly led to increased competition for real estate on iTunes. It is perhaps inevitable, then, that this unfortunate state of affairs would lead to a situation where we see a bunch of launches involving podcasts dedicated to the curation of high-quality podcasts for the pleasure of mass earballs.

In recent weeks, we saw the birth of Gimlet’s Sampler and Washington public radio station WAMU’s The Big Listen, two shows from different sides of the public/private podcasting divide. They join the Canadian Broadcasting Company’s Podcast Playlist, which was the first high-profile attempt to execute on this particular idea. (Disclaimer: I’ve been a guest on the podcast before.) Playlist was first launched in the summer of 2015 with WNYC’s Sean Rameswaram (who is actually Canadian, by the way) performing sole host and curation duties. Its current iteration features in-house hosts Lindsay Michael and Matt Galloway, presumably because Rameswaram had to go back to his home station to develop whatever secret project he is no doubt developing at this very second.

Let’s take a second to think about the bigger idea at play here. These shows ostensibly exist to perform a specific structural function for their respective audiences, which is to provide guidance through the hyper-abundant, anarchic, and desperately overwhelming offerings of the wider podcast ecosystem whose low barriers to entry and democratic promise, while much lauded, are ultimately counterintuitive to actual consumption.

In my mind, the emergence of these podcasts about podcasts could well be thought of as an echo to what happened with the rise of aggregation among the blogosphere back in the mid-2000s. Wiser folks than I have already written about the structural and developmental similarities between blogs and podcasting, but I’d like to go further here and draw a straight line between these podcasts about podcasts and blog aggregators. The latter plays the very same role as the former: to streamline the reader’s experience of the rest of the Internet’s “Wild West” within the same medium. And though the value-add for the aggregated is the potential of a clickthrough, a retention, and a conversion, there’s an opportunity for the aggregator to leverage any attention gained for its curatorial prowess to further establish power and authority in the space.

But before any of these podcasts about podcasts can become authorities, they must first figure out how to differentiate themselves from each other. The three shows actually do a pretty good job of being compositionally different from one another — Playlist opts to play a bunch of segments straight with bits of set-up here and there, Sampler is much swifter with its clips, and The Big Listen, at least with the one episode that’s out so far, seems to really favor interviews with creators — but all three shows sound strikingly similar. This might be a function, perhaps, of CBC’s and WAMU’s public radio stature, and of Gimlet’s overall public radio roots, even though Sampler host Brittany Luse herself is not of the public radio world. (Luce comes to Gimlet from the very good For Colored Nerds podcast, which sounds nothing like her work on Sampler — which may itself be an expression of the issue at hand.) And all three shows also seem to use the same type of narrative tools (creator interviews, play and response, etc.) within the episode-level to perform the same duties and that, in turn, leads to a relative homogeneity in sound.

Which raises the question: What tools do these podcasts have to differentiate themselves? Seems obvious to say, but aside from basic standards of audio quality (and sometimes, not even that), the differentiation ultimately comes down to a mix between the strength of the curator’s personality — podcasts and radio shows are principally personality-driven, after all — and, well, the curator’s taste, which itself is a function of her or his personality. Which is all to say this: These podcasts should really lean harder into the specificities of its hosts.

Will big money squeeze out independent podcasting? Here’s a quote that’s pertinent to the independent podcasters out in the audience:

I worry about big money pouring into podcasting. Not so much for ourselves — I think we’ve carved out our little space and we’ll be okay. But I worry about people being able to do what we did. “I have a weird idea and I have a $60 USB microphone, and I’m going to just make this thing and maybe someone will listen to it.” I think that is what appealed to me about podcasting from the very start, and I really, really hope that all the money pouring into podcasting won’t bury tiny, weird independent podcasts like that.

That nugget comes from Welcome to Night Vale’s Joseph Fink, who was being interviewed along with cocreator Jeffrey Cranor, on-stage in D.C. last November. The interview recording was published last week as part of the Pop Culture Happy Hour (that’s two mentions in one newsletter, oy!) Blizzard Special, and you should definitely check out the whole conversation.

For context, Fink was expressing concern of how money flowing into the podcasting space may well suppress opportunities for the new, the small, the different, and the weird. First acknowledging that the podcasting space is generally a lot more exciting now than it was five years ago, Fink then highlighted the entry of bigger players with bigger wallets into the podcasting space, like Bill Simmons setting up his own podcast network, GE funding a big weird fiction project in The Message, and WNYC rolling $15 million into a podcast studio.

Again, I highly recommend you check out the whole interview — which touches upon Night Vale’s business model, the team’s favorite podcasts, and more — but for reference, this segment begins at the 31:56 mark.

NPR signs with Triton Digital’s Tap Podcast platform For advertising. More CMS news!

NPR, everybody’s favorite public radio mothership, announced yesterday that it has signed a deal with Triton Digital’s audio advertising platform for podcast monetization and distribution purposes, according to MediaPost. That’s a big get for Triton, who initially announced the launch of platform early last month, so you could probably imagine that this deal has been on the stove for a while.

Okay, real talk for a sec: The past few weeks have seen an uptick of podcast-CMS-related developments from several key players — Acast, Panoply (my former day job employer), Art19, now Triton Digital — many of which are relatively new. What we’re seeing now is some sort of land grab, with each of these players hitting the market in a rush to sign as many podcasts that are still being hosted on LibSyn or SoundCloud — which those podcasts probably chose because, well, those two were probably perceived to be the only options. (And SoundCloud is basically free, so that’s a big plus for them.) At some point, I’ll make a living comparative spreadsheet of who powers who, because most (though not all) of that information is made publicly available by these companies and because that’ll probably make a useful consumer guide for somebody.

Anyway, if you’re one of these podcasts that’s still figuring out your CMS situation, I gotta say: it’s a great and speculative time! Remember to ask questions, shop around, and consult your loved ones.

Nerdist Sports. Jonah Keri, the former ESPN/Grantland sports writer and podcaster, has found a new home for his podcast in Chris Hardwick’s Nerdist Industries, which also happens to be the home of some really amazing podcasts like James Bonding and The Thrilling Adventure Hour. It might not sound like the most obvious of hits, but that’s because Keri’s podcast will serve the flagship show of what will eventually become the network’s new sports vertical — a subject matter that the network has previously never ventured into. According to Keri’s preamble on the first episode of the relaunched show (which features an interview with the notoriously giggly Hardwick himself), he’s going to be fairly involved with whatever comes out of this new vertical — on Twitter, he described his plans as “copious” — even though he’s unsure of the exact details at this point in time.

In related news, Variety reports that Nerdist Industries is greatly expanding its network, and now boasts a total of nearly 50 podcasts. And that’s not even taking its video offerings into consideration. Yikes!

Relevant bits this week:

  • Looks like Spotify finally rolled out its podcast and video content feature. In this piece on The Verge, Chris Welch implores: “Spotify, please don’t turn into iTunes.” (The Verge)
  • And speaking of Spotify, rumor has it that they’re looking to raise funds again. (The New York Times)
  • All the news that’s fit to pod! (Nieman Lab)
  • NPR One is now available on CarPlay (Current)
  • “Why public radio stations need to claim the podcast space” (Current)
  • A little bit on Amazon’s audio push (Bloomberg)

Phew. That was exhausting!

Is this your first time reading Hot Pod? You can subscribe to the newsletter here, which now features exclusive content! More pod news items! Also, stuff about what I had for lunch. Whatever, that’s the newsletter strategy I’m rolling with.

The Netflix-YouTube-Twitter-Starbucks of podcasting

Three Big Things. It’s been a long ten days, folks. You’d think the summertime would be chill and everything with folks spending time with their families and whatever but no, not a chance, nuh-uh, that’s not happening. I haven’t seen my own children in weeks. Let’s get the major updates out right off the bat:

  • Midroll Media rolled out its premium streaming service for podcasts, dubbed “Howl Premium.” Financial Times (watch the paywall) and Fast Company with the sweet, sweet write-ups.
  • Panoply acquires Audiometric, a podcast publishing and advertising platform. RAIN News here with the brief.
  • ACast joined a programmatic advertising platform called a2x. The platform belongs to Triton Digital, a large media group that owns radio stations and operates audio advertising marketplaces. RAIN News, again, with the report.

So Midroll’s Howl Premium service, which is channeled through its Howl app released earlier this year, is so incredibly fascinating on a couple of levels:

  • The content offerings suggest a move to “flatten” — or “open up,” depending on the metaphor you’d like to use — the concept of a podcast as a spoken audio product. Where a podcast is typically associated with programming that are aesthetically/formally akin to radio shows, Howl Premium also includes whole standup comedy albums as part of its inventory. That might seem like a small inclusion, but things like these may go a long way in reconstructing perceptions of what one means when one talks about “podcasts,” especially at this point when the medium is still niche. Midroll’s placing of premium content behind a paywall would also give them more affordances to further pull apart the concept; free from the game of managing advertiser expectations, the company is now a better position to commission works that could drastically play with the format. Which is to say, they can really break the form without breaking their backbones; they could experiment more with audio fiction, anthologies, and different ways of cutting a limited-run series, and perhaps even go the distance and take advantage of the fact that audio is mainly consumed not as the focal point of one’s attention, but as an additional layer on one’s moving through the world.Midroll’s flattening of the podcast format with other kinds of spoken audio media is reminiscent to Spotify’s possible flattening of podcasts against music content. It remains to be seen how Spotify will ultimately choose to organize and present podcasts within its UI/UX, but given that Spotify’s home base lies in music content, it’s not a stretch to imagine that the company could choose to bundle podcasts along with music in one of its “Moments” playlists. Sure, that sounds absurd, but so does EDM, so what of it?

  • Midroll’s choice to play the premium subscription game — with content and a sizable amount of back catalogs placed behind the paywall — and the subsequent positioning of the product as the potential “Netflix for podcasts” exhibits a very specific hypothesis of podcasts as consumable media, one that posits podcasts will be valued by audiences enough where they would pay for it and that enough podcasts have back-catalogues that will be deemed “worth it.”This is difficult enough to internalize in the present tense. Unlike Netflix and television/movies or Tidal and music, podcast audiences have little-to-no experience with paying for shows in the past, and the hurdle of convincing users to go from an entire experiential history of enduring host-read ads, which they can skip fairly easily, to paying for an ad-free experience is tremendous. For color: The reaction among Midroll’s community base, represented here on their forums and this subreddit, has been fairly mixed.And on the point of back catalogs, that’s a tactic that would work for some genres and not others — WTF with Marc Maron makes sense given the evergreen nature of much that show’s content, but I have trouble imagining it would apply well for something like, say, the Political Gabfest, which is topical and pegged to the news cycle. I also have trouble imagining that it would apply well to looser content like, oh I don’t know, Idle Thumbs or something.

Now, why am I talking about the Political Gabfest and Idle Thumbs when we’re talking about Midroll, a company which has its own content properties strewn across two podcast networks that are anchored in the West Coast/comedy sensibility? Because their long game seems to be a play to become the biggest — perhaps the only — point of attention for podcast audiences, as suggested in the following quote off the Fast Company article:

For now, Howl will only include its own networks’ podcasts plus the licensed content from WTF and Comedy Central—but concrete plans are in the works to make the platform a true all-in-one listening app for content of all kinds. “We want to be the place where you go and listen to Freakonomics, if you like Freakonomics or you listen to Radiolab, if you like Radiolab, because the listener experience is that much better than any other player out there,” says [Midroll CEO Adam] Sachs.

Let’s assume that Midroll is actually planning to push forward with a play to become the one-stop-shop for all podcast audiences. In that case, the company will have to commit to the struggle of trying to convince other content providers — some possibly with their own consumer-facing competitors. That would be an incredibly hard fight, where it will win only on some fronts and lose others. “It’s a street fight,” a really smart person remarked to me when trying to make sense of where we’re all going. In such a situation, we’ll probably see a Balkanization of the landscape, leading to a state of affairs not unlike…oh I don’t know, the Netflix vs. Amazon Prime vs. Hulu conflict we see today. (And if we were so bold to think in the long, long run, we’ll probably see all podcasting firms under one giant corporate banner — because in the long run, we’re all dead in more ways than one anyway.)

And speaking of other content providers with their own consumer-facing competitors, let’s talk about Panoply and ACast. Panoply announced last week that it had acquired a publishing and advertising platform — essentially, a robust podcast CMS that seeks to be an end-to-end solution with ad-insertion capabilities to enable that an programmatic ad environment. It’s early days, and there’s so much potential to be tapped here. ((Again, just as a reminder, I’m an employee at Panoply, and my uppers have been nice enough to let me run my mouth freely, and much of what I write is based on a personal attempt to understand and visualize the larger state of play. I swear, some day this is going to bite me in the…well, you know.)) Where Midroll has tilled its soil in the premium streaming service model and Gimlet has gone full-out production company (with the added flourish of a Slate Plus-style insider membership model…for now), Panoply is in a relatively privileged position where it still has yet to fully define what it can and wants to be, which is both incredibly exciting and utterly terrifying (not unlike, say, one’s early twenties).

A similar story can be told about ACast, I believe. The Swedish podcasting company, which is manned by a couple of Spotify veterans and currently controls a sizable chunk of the European podcasting market, has so far made its name as being an all-in-one, one-size-fits-all solution in those foreign markets. Their principal offering is an end-to-end platform that hosts, manages, packages, and delivers podcasts through an app. It, too, strikes me as a company that’s aggressively feeling out its position and potential, and with its entry into a2x, I think we’re seeing ACast committing itself to a theory of the podcasting that’s parallel to Panoply’s.

Regardless of their pubescence, both companies are putting their faiths in platforms that support a vision of the podcast ecosystem that’s mostly ad-supported. This vision that’s supported by a parallel faith in programmatic audio advertising which, one would imagine, foretells future CPM standards that would possibly look a lot different from the ones we’re seeing today.

Midroll, Panoply, ACast — the way things are going suggests a pretty exciting narrative: one where these companies are racing to define and claim the center of the podcast universe, or even better, to flat out become the podcast universe.

Man. It’s all so dramatic. I love it.

About that NPR situation. Yikes. I tell ya, if I were writing this entry on Saturday, or if this whole Howl Premium thing was actually announced on Wednesday, this story would’ve taken up a whole two-thirds. But them’s the shakes, and these Nieman Lab folks have standards, so I’m going to keep the lukewarm take here fairly brief. First, some essential reading and listening for context:

  • “Can NPR seize its moment?” (Politico Media)
  • The Pub Podcast, #31: Adam Davidson on the economics of public radio in the podcasting era (Current)

If you’re one of those TL;DR folks (like me, I only read in tweet-length chunks, I’m such a ~~millennial~~), here are the main points on the specific thread I want to talk about:

  • During an informal meeting at NPR’s New York bureau back in December, NPR CEO Jarl Mohn — who had been at the job for half a year and is the institution’s eighth CEO in eight years — got into a heated exchange with a young Planet Money staffer who had raised questions about the organization’s perceived lack of urgency in terms of adopting digital formats, specifically podcasts.
  • The incident was largely interpreted as an expression of Mohn’s commitment to broadcast (a conservative stance, if ever there was one). The Politico Media piece underscored this commitment by highlighting a quote Mohn gave Current.org back in February: “Broadcast radio is the cockroach of media…You can’t kill it. You can’t make it go away, it just gets stronger and more resilient.”
  • On last week’s episode of The Pub, host Adam Ragusea argued that while we can choose to read Mohn’s outburst as a kind of technological backwardness, that would be ignoring a fundamental truth that lies at the heart of NPR’s organizational imperative: that its primary customers aren’t actually listeners, it’s broadcast-native and broadcast-dependent member stations. His guest, Planet Money cofounder and current New York Times Magazine columnist Adam Davidson, rounded this narrative out by describing Mohn as having a deeply unenviable position: of having to please member stations while preparing for the digital disruption that’s due to come.

Cool. Cool cool cool. Now here are a couple of more things to add to the mix, while you’re chewing on all that:

  • Using numbers from NPR’s 2014 financial statements, almost 40 percent of the organization’s revenues come from member stations that pay for the rights to air NPR-created programming, among other things. NPR also a satellite system (because, you know, broadcast), for which they charge member stations, and that make up for a little over 10 percent of revenues. The remaining revenues come from a mixture of corporate sponsorships, grants, investments, and, amusingly, “other sources” that includes NPR-branded consumer products — SO BUY THOSE TOTE BAGS, DAMMIT. This effectively means that NPR is dependent on member stations for roughly more than half of its revenue, which means it certainly can’t up and embrace a digital distribution model like podcasting because to do so would mean bypassing member stations and serving content to audience directly.
  • Ultimately, NPR is a victim of its big bundle of interests and commitments. When organizations get as big as NPR, they become less nimble, dynamic, and able to take on large-scale shifts in conditions — which is perfectly natural and totally something to be expected.
  • Worth asking, no matter how it pains me to do so: Is it really that bad to let NPR struggle? Is it really that bad that they take some revenue hits over time, pegged to whatever’s bound to happen to broadcast-dependent member stations, and that they can shrivel and shake off their commitments for a bit? Maybe…that could be a good thing in the long run?
  • One could suggest that a prudent strategy would involve pitting one rate of change against another: that Mohn could perhaps roll up his sleeves, grit his teeth, and rip up the floor boards and try to grow direct-to-consumer digital revenues at a rate that outpaces a falling of member station-generated revenue (if it all doesn’t get pulled in one fell swoop). Is it possible? Sure. Is it plausible? Probably not. Mohn is only human, and human beings are wont to be ground to dust by structures and organizational imperatives. One could also ask: Why don’t member stations just get off their broadcasting butts, go digital themselves, and back off from NPR’s case? Fair question. Probably because not all member stations are created equal, just as how not all cities, counties, districts, and states are not created equal.
  • Slightly unrelated but still worth mentioning: member stations are so much better positioned than NPR is to embrace podcasting. See WNYC.

An industry-wide upfront. It is typically the case that a young, outside entity must partake in the rituals and ceremonies of the older, more established entities to be fully accepted into — and perhaps trusted by — the community. That’s why we have proms. Debutante balls. Bar mitzvahs, even.

And so now we have a bar mitzvah for podcasting which, in seeking validation from the ad agencies of yore, will have its first industry-wide upfront showcase on September 10 in New York. It will involve both public radio players, like NPR and WNYC, and private players, like Panoply, Podtrac, Midroll, and AdLarge. (For a good write-up, hit up this Wall Street Journal piece). The upfront is organized by the IAB, or Interactive Advertising Bureau, which is a trade association that does swell things like push for cooperation among organizations around things like standards, ethics, and research. The upfront is an extension of their work with podcasts — which is to say, this isn’t coming out of nowhere — which has chiefly revolved around two working groups that they’ve been holding. (One business-related, one technology-related. Pretty fascinating list of players, and if you look super closely, you can see the fault lines of where the politics/struggles lie.)

Of course, this isn’t the first podcast upfront ever — in fact, it’s not even the first podcast upfront this year. (And, depending on your definition of summer, it’s not even the first podcast upfront this summer. When does summer begin, anyway? I tend to think of summer as beginning when it gets really hot. But then again, I sweat easily.) Back in April, New York’s (Le) Poisson Rouge saw a podcast upfront organized by a public radio coalition that includes NPR, WNYC, and WBEZ. That dog-and-pony show revolved around nonfiction narrative audio content, which the public radio players pushed as the defining edge of the medium, and as a result the showcase played out a narrative that largely served as an education of and an argument for that specific kind of spoken audio content.

With the IAB’s podcast upfront, we’re probably going to see an expansion of that narrative. Not just in terms of content-type — though, rest assured, we’re going to be seeing a lot more talk about conversationals and semi-/unscripted content — but also in terms of the non-content aspects of podcasting: technology, ad formats, and so on. Which would be refreshing, because the podcasting universe is a many splendid thing.

Anyway, I’m told that I’m going to be at this thing. So if you’re there, come say hi!

Makin’ moves. I recommend paying close attention to Audible over the next few weeks. Ever since former NPR VP of programming Eric Nuzum took up reigns as the company’s SVP of original content earlier this summer, you can bet that’s he been working the rolodex — and the first waves of those hires are coming very soon. Word on the street involves a long-time WNYC staffer for a powerful, managerial position. It’s all quite exciting, and I look forward to Audible moping the floor with our faces. I mean, we can run and fight all we want, but at the end of the day, the Bezos comes for us all.

In related news, I hear that Invisibilia team over at NPR has picked up a new producer, which means they’ve finally gotten the budget they’ve been pushing for — which was apparently being held up by management. The insanely successful podcast, which had the distinctions of being public radio’s biggest program launch ever and achieving 10 million downloads in under a month, is probably the centerpiece that anchors much of NPR’s internal struggle over what to do with this whole digital thing.

Fun fact: Did you know that the marketing dude at MailChimp responsible for propping up, like, the bulk of the podcast industry has the last name Shakespeare? Crazy. CRAZY.

Woof. Cool. That’s it from me this week. See you next Tuesday, I guess?