Can public radio powerhouse WNYC navigate a crisis of its own making?

“The Troubles.” We’re three months into New York Public Radio’s reckoning with sexual harassment and an organizational culture that allowed for bullying and discriminatory behaviors that have especially hurt women and people of color. (See here, here, and here.) And it’s far from over.

Boris Kachka, writing for New York magazine’s The Cut (where the original John Hockenberry piece by journalist Suki Kim dropped on December 1), published a whopper Monday evening that provides one of the most detailed looks at the station’s troubling history with sexual harassment and where it stands today. There’s a lot packed into it, and the piece performs a wide range of functions, including, among others:

  • Vividly illustrating the toxic nature of the culture that the station has cultivated over the decades;
  • Capturing the historically persistent systematic failures of the station’s human resources infrastructure — along with its weaponization (“regarded by many as the organization’s spy and enforcer”);
  • Providing additional details on the behavior of Hockenberry, Leonard Lopate, and Jonathan Schwartz;
  • Filling in some of the blanks of what has been happening in the station over the past few months.

Kachka was also able to secure an interview CEO Laura Walker last week, and in doing so, creates a partial portrait of a station leader under heavy fire whose future remains deeply, utterly in question.

The piece is sprawling and remarkably dense, but also somewhat strange. I’ve read it a couple of times now, and the piece strikes me as a keyhole-sized window into the chaos gripping the institution in the current moment — there are dangling threads everywhere, and there are places where I’m not sure how they fit together. Anyway, go read the feature, which is illuminating, but here are some details you probably shouldn’t miss:

  • Here’s what Dean Cappello has apparently been up to following his demotion to an advisory role: “While Walker made sure to be omnipresent around the office, Cappello traveled to London. According to two sources, he was negotiating with the BBC on a partnership to build a morning news podcast to rival the current market leader, the Times’ The Daily.” Hmm.
  • Here’s Walker’s view of what happens next: “She described the future as a monumental but exciting challenge, and gave herself a window of roughly a year to produce results. In addition to [former NPR News executive editor Madhulika] Sikka’s work, Proskauer’s investigation, and several ‘working groups’ of employees, there was a forthcoming ‘integrated plan for change,’ based on a dissection of the workplace now being conducted pro bono by the prestigious Boston Consulting Group.” Not for nothing, though, it should be noted that Proskauer Rose, the law firm brought in to investigate the harassment complaint, is known for union-busting at universities and being on the other side of labor in the sports world.
  • And here’s the kicker: “Cappello’s demotion left many relieved, others even more frustrated that both he and Walker are still in the building. But one thing is true, everyone agrees: Walker is trying. ‘I think she wants to save the company and save herself,’ says one WNYC reporter. ‘But my colleagues and I feel like if it doesn’t truly change, we are out of here.'”

Pocket ecosystem. This morning, RadioPublic, the podcast listening platform and PRX spinoff, announced a new revenue initiative primarily aimed at smaller podcasts that haven’t yet developed a big enough audience to secure advertisers. RadioPublic is calling it the Paid Listen program, with a hook that involves the company guaranteeing payments to participating podcast publishers. Here’s how CEO Jake Shapiro describes the basic premise in an introductory blog post:

Podcasters make ad-free episodes available in their feeds, we place ads on our platform that bookend each episode, and we pay participating podcasters $20 for every thousand listens on the RadioPublic apps for iOS and Android.

Those ads will be produced in-house by RadioPublic itself for now — hence, publishers should note that they’ll lose that bit of creative control and experience contiguity, should they indeed be concerned about such things — and producers must first submit their podcasts for screening approval to participate in the program. It’s worth noting that the compensation program is limited to listens that take place on the RadioPublic mobile apps, not its embed players scattered across the internet.

In his blog post, Shapiro situates the Paid Listen program within the broader vision he holds for RadioPublic, one that sees advertising as one-of-many pathways for creator compensation that the platform will ultimately support. “Soon we will support listeners who prefer to pay podcasters directly instead of hearing an ad; brands who pay users to opt-in for more info; podcasters who invite their true fans to become paying members,” he writes. But those alternative models will come some other day; today, we’re given advertising, the tried-and-true and still-sexy business model that still drives the bulk of business in the podcast ecosystem.

Viewed from a distance, the Paid Listen program can be understood as another variation on your standard marketplace-building gambit deployed by advertising-oriented content platforms — see: YouTube, Spotify, Facebook, early Stitcher, etc. — where incentives are created to attract more creators onto the platform, after which their capacity to draw attention and generate sellable impressions are bundled as attention commodities and sold to advertisers. The nexus of content platforms and digital advertising has come under increasing criticism over the years (not to mention the platformization of everything in general, but that’s a whole other story), and so the distinct challenge for RadioPublic here is how the company will integrate its Paid Listen gambit into its orientation as a public benefit corporation and its stated goal to assist smaller publishers. That challenge gives rise to a broader philosophical question: Do differences in the social consequences of digital advertising and its resultant content/platform dynamics come down to details, and RadioPublic’s long-term commitments to those details — or are the outcomes ingrained purely in the structural arrangement, never to be overcome?

Whatever the answer to that question, it’s useful to read this initiative as the latest step in what may well end up being RadioPublic’s endgame: building a pocket ecosystem specifically for small, independent, and upstart creators in anticipation of a future in which that creator class will be pushed out of the current iteration of the podcast ecosystem by bigger, more organized, and typically deeper-pocketed publishers. It’s a pathway towards relevance that I’ve previously suspected we would see from the rising cohort of user-generated content-oriented apps like Anchor and Bumpers, but it seems that RadioPublic is, and has always been, much more aligned with this particular vision of the future.

The Hollywood hustle. A preamble: Last week, a reader wrote me a particularly profane note complaining about all the adaptation, IP-harvesting, and Hollywood/podcast baby-making stories I’ve been publishing for quite some time now. “Why should we care?” the note asked. “It doesn’t apply to 95% of us.” Now, this isn’t the first time I’ve received such a complaint on this subject. But this week, I figure I should just at least acknowledge the question, and make explicit what has been implicit all along: I cover it because it’s happening, and it’s going to keep happening, and it’s likely going to impact the structures of money, power, and leverage that inform relationships throughout the podcast ecosystem. Which means that one way or another, it’s going to impact you, whether you like it or not — and whether you can see it or not, so you should probably be aware about it.

Anyway, here’s the news peg. Last week, Gimlet announced something that should surprise absolutely nobody: the formation of Gimlet Pictures, its official film and television unit. As Deadline emphasized, the new division will be led by Chris Giliberti, the Boston Consulting Group alum (and Forbes 30 Under 30 fella) who formerly held the amorphous “head of multiplatform” title. Giliberti originally joined the company in the summer of 2015 as chief of staff to Gimlet president Matt Lieber. His team includes Eli Horowitz, who initially joined the company as the head of its fiction division in the run-up to the launch of Homecoming, and another development executive who is yet to be hired, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

Do read that THR piece on the matter, by the way, which also contains two noteworthy details:

  • Messaging from Lieber insisting that the company remains committed to being audio-first;
  • IMG Original Content, a division of WME, has hired Moses Soyoola, Panoply’s director business development and strategy, into its ranks.

That Gimlet moved to formalize its film and television unit isn’t particularly surprising; it is, after all, the logical end to much of what the company has been doing on the adaptation front. It’s also worth remembering that Gimlet’s adaptation pipeline — and the commoditization of its shows, episodes, and projects into intellectual property — was explicitly stated as one of its core growth pathways during its $15 million fundraising announcement last fall.

But what does putting up a shingle for a film and television development arm entail? What does having one actually mean? An industry insider tells me:

It’s all about what you do with it. The facade alone won’t open doors. Will you actually build out the resources and team? Will your deals be set up in such a way that you’re actually the production company and receiving real fees for it (a.k.a. will your agency do a good job). There is a layer of deals that are purely options and no real dollars come the way of the rights holders. They may look fancy but there is no serious financial value.

Gimlet’s announcement, together with the premiere of 2 Dope Queens’ standup specials on HBO over the weekend, kicked off a series of writeups formally documenting the ongoing podcast adaptation trend, from USA Today and Variety, along with the aforementioned Deadline and Hollywood Reporter pieces. Over at Vulture, I tried to contextualize this current wave of podcast adaptations within the sporadic podcast-to-TV attempts of the past.

On a related note: Chris Hardwick, the creator of the podcast-centric multimedia network Nerdist Industries, did not renew his contract with Legendary Entertainment, according to The Hollywood Reporter. Legendary acquired the company in 2012. Instead, Hardwick has branched off and rebranded his flagship Nerdist podcast as ID10T, which will be the basis of his new media company of the same name. That said, he remains the CEO of Nerdist Industries, but will not be involved in the day-to-day. Cadence13, formerly known as DGital Media, will support the new show on ad sales, and as such it’ll be hosted in Art19.

A note on last week’s issue. I’d like to revise an element of the writing in last Tuesday’s profile of Macmillan podcasts: in my introductory paragraph that sought to quickly establish the origin myth of the QDT–Macmillan relationship, I regrettably glossed over QDT’s pre-Macmillan history and Mignon Fogarty’s work therein. By the time she struck a licensing deal with Macmillan, Fogarty had already formally founded QDT and developed it into what she describes as a “thriving podcast network” spanning six podcasts. She remains involved in some high-level QDT decision-making to this day. The way the paragraph was originally written implies that QDT did not exist before the Macmillan deal, and that is patently not the case.

On a related note: Tor Teen, a Macmillan imprint, has brokered a three-book publishing deal with Lauren Shippen adapting her fiction podcast, The Bright Sessions. Paste Magazine has the exclusive.

Making your own shots. “If The Wire or Treme were a podcast and all the stories were true, this is what you’d get.” That’s how Robin Amer, the creator, host, and executive producer of The City, described her project in short-hand when she originally developed the concept for WNYC’s 2015 Podcast Accelerator. The City, described nowadays as a serialized longform investigative podcast exploring the “power structures of different American metropolises,” emerged as one of two winners of that accelerator competition, but WNYC Studios ultimately ended up passing on the project.

More than two years have elapsed since, and The City has now found a home in a unique situation: as the core of a big podcasting gambit by the USA Today Network, the Gannett-owned media group uniting USA Today and a wide array of local news operations. And last week, the podcast announced a number of key details: the first season will focus on the city of Chicago, the show is set to debut in the fall, and the project has pulled together a team of veteran journalists and public radio producers to build the show.

And what a team it is. Supporting Amer will be: reporter Wilson Sayre, formerly of WLRN; producer Jenny Casas, formerly of St. Louis Public Radio and City Bureau; consulting composer and sound designer Hannis Brown, formerly of NYPR’s Meet the Composer; story editor Ben Austen, former editor at Harper’s Magazine and current contributor to the New York Times Magazine; and editor Sam Greenspan, formerly the managing producer at 99% Invisible.

The City’s road to the USA Today Network was an unconventional one. After learning that WNYC wouldn’t be picking up the show in August 2016, Amer secured help from a literary agent, Danielle Svetcov, with whom she started shopping the pilot episode around in November 2016. “I knew I needed a large institutional partner to produce the show,” Amer, who is the former deputy editor at the Chicago Reader and a former WBEZ producer, told me over email. “Long-form investigative reporting isn’t the kind of thing you can do by yourself, unfunded, on nights and weekends.”

The process involved preliminary conversations with more than a few of, as Amer puts it, “the usual podcasting suspects,” but she was eventually connected with the USA Today Network through John Barth, the managing director of PRX and a mentor of Amer, who introduced her to Liz Nelson, the network’s vice president of strategic content development and one of the people in charge of expanding the organization’s budding podcasting efforts. One thing led to another, and last summer, Gannett ultimately agreed to buy The City, acquiring its intellectual property, and bring Amer on an as employee to build and run the project.

“They completely bought into my vision for the show,” Amer said. “The network comprises 109 local news outlets all across the country in addition to USA Today, and is extremely committed to investigative reporting, so my vision of focusing on a different city every season not only made sense to them but was actually feasible.” When asked about the budget that the network is granting the project, Amer described it as “comparable to others that have been launched by major media organizations,” though no specific details were given. For the USA Today Network, The City represents a big swing in a larger push to expand its on-demand audio operation. The network hopes to grow its podcast portfolio to over 60 shows this year. (Which is, uh, wild.)

I’m told that the team is currently deep in the reporting process. “Now that our staff is on board, we’re resuming the reporting that I’ve been doing on and off for the last two years. We’ll be reporting through May, then in scripting and production mode through the summer,” Amer said. They are also laying the groundwork for the second season, which they hope to roll out in the spring of next year.

With a vision to build out a whole new platform for investigative reporting, The City could well emerge as the latest entry in a growing lineage of substantively journalistic podcasts like Reveal or In The Dark — or, as Amer hopes, the broader tradition of investigative narrative works spanning so many other mediums, like those of Errol Morris, Matthew Desmond, and as alluded to in The City’s original shorthand, David Simon. “If we’re successful, I hope it will be one more piece of proof that you can both tell a gripping story and have meaningful impact,” she said. “And hopefully that will spur other media outlets to invest in this kind of work.”

But for now, Amer has already carved out another kind of legacy: of pushing past closed doors with grit, and realizing new ways to raise a project.

On a vaguely related note, because Chicago: Ellen Mayer, a former engagement consultant at Hearken, has launched a new local podcast project called IlliNoise, which is dedicated to “answering your questions about the Illinois state government, how it works, and how it impacts your community.” Not to be confused with Illinoise, the second album in Sufjan Stevens’ 50 States project — where the musician would’ve made 50 albums, each based on a different state — that he would dismiss in 2009 as “such a joke.” (Alas.)

Now if you excuse me, I’m going to make audio puns out of every state.

Career Spotlight. This week, I traded emails with Jayson De Leon, one of those young, energetic whipper-snappers.

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

[conr]Jayson De Leon: Currently I’m a producer over at Slate where I primarily produce a show called Trumpcast. We started the show back in March 2016 with the idea of it being a short run thing about a fascinating campaign with the promise of doing the podcast until this was over and…well, this is still not over. We describe Trumpcast as being “quasi-daily” and have brought on two more hosts since the election who each bring their own expertise on the administration to the show (Jamelle Bouie and Virginia Heffernan).

In addition, I just finished a stint producing Family Ghosts over at Panoply alongside Sam Dingman (who hosts and created the show), Veralyn Williams (a fellow Slatester), Odelia Rubin (part of the Famoply), and Micaela Blei (The Moth). The show explores those stories you’ve always heard your family talk about, but never quite worked up the courage to look into. I think Sam put it beautifully in the second episode of the series, No Brown Spots: This is a show where “our goal is to turn burdens into talisman.” I love that line and have it pinned to a corkboard in my room. A second season of Family Ghosts is in the works.[/conr]

[conl]Hot Pod: How did you get to this point?[/conl]

[conr]De Leon: I went to the University of Central Florida and received my degree in economics. During my senior year, I had that moment of, “oh crap, I don’t want to work in a bank for the rest of my life,” so I applied for this internship at Planet Money and got it. I started listening to Planet Money back in 2008 during the financial crisis. Orlando was in a lot of ways the epicenter of the housing crisis, and I was looking for a place to answer the questions I had about the unraveling of my family’s real estate business at the time. I was completely hooked by the pace and detail of the stories. And, to some degree, I think the early days of Planet Money have informed how I think about making a show like Trumpcast where the news changes minute to minute.

After my internship, I spent some time working as a freelancer. I was a huge Grantland fan (R.I.P.) and ended up getting connected to one of their contributors, Brian Koppelman, by sheer luck (I sent him a tweet). He had just started his own podcast on their network called The Moment and I helped produce that show for close to two years while working as Brian’s assistant on his Showtime TV series, “Billions,” which he created alongside his partner, David Levien. The Moment ended up moving to Slate in April 2015 and from there I met a ton of people who helped me land a bunch of work. I freelanced for a little over a year and worked on shows like Slate’s Working and Political Gabfest until I ultimately landed in Jacob Weisberg’s office (who runs The Slate Group) throwing around ideas for what Trumpcast could sound like alongside my then co-producer, Henry Molofsky.

TLDR — making a living doing audio feels like it required a bunch of breaks to go my way. As a former poker player, it feels like I’ve just caught a run of good cards and I’m just ecstatic to still be in the game.[/conr]

[conl]Hot Pod: What does a career mean to you, at this point?[/conl]

[conr]De Leon: Great question, Quah! Hmmm…I never get to think about this. I guess to me a career allows you to enrich those parts of your life you’ve always wanted to enrich while at the same time allowing you to build an actual life for yourself. Only recently have I started to think about this as a “career.” Where I work allows me to try all sorts of new things with storytelling and there’s a certain level of relief that comes with knowing you have time to sit and really think about the best way to tell the story you want to tell or make the best version of the show you want to make. I’m finding that the stories come from a more generous rather than desperate place these days. Like anybody engaging in this medium, I’m just looking to make something that’s urgent, compelling, and feels worthwhile to me and the people listening.[/conr]

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

[conr]De Leon: As a kid, I thought I was going to be a professional basketball player. I don’t think I’m more jealous of any other thing on Earth than people who play basketball professionally. Thinking about it is actually making me upset right now. I also thought I was going to be a professional jiu-jitsu fighter after spending four years training full-time. There was also a very good chance that if I didn’t get that Planet Money internship, I would’ve just stayed in Orlando and tried to make my life work over there. So no, when I started out in life, I never thought I wanted to tell stories, but I’m damn happy to find it when I did.

When I first started out playing in the audio space at Planet Money, I was a complete mess. I had no idea what I wanted to do so I tried to do everything. I went on a reporting trip with Zoe Chace which opened my eyes to speaking with people out in the world. Who knew you could do that for living? I pitched stories basically every week at the Planet Money edit meeting. Mainly because I’m very competitive, but also because it was kind of fun to hear why things don’t work.

Phia Bennin, who was producing over at Planet Money then, helped me with basically everything else while I was there — learning to track, edit, mix, etc., and I can’t thank her enough for that. I think I ultimately ended up producing out of necessity, because I really wanted to stay in New York and keep playing my hand in audio, but it’s just in the last year or so that it feels like I’ve been able to tell myself that this is probably what I’ll be doing with my days for years to come.[/conr]

Bites:

  • Pandora is reorganizing its business — which is to say, it’s downsizing and engaging in cost-saving measures while placing bets on new gambles, like ad tech and further expanding into non-music content. The music streaming company is also working to grow its Atlanta office, situated in “a region with lower costs than the company’s headquarters in Oakland.” What finagling! (Press release)
  • “Audible’s pursuit of more audiobook publishing rights could squeeze traditional book publishers in the fastest-growing segment of the market.” (The Wall Street Journal)
  • Amazon has acquired Pulse Labs, a startup that aims to help voice app developers “test out new apps on a target audience before publicly launching.” (Recode)
  • The Modern Love podcast celebrated its 100th episode last week. I asked the team to list out their favorite entries. (Vulture)
  • The Onion binge-dropped a six-part true-crime spoof yesterday, titled “A Very Fatal Murder.” (Website)
  • The ever-funny, always-delightful Glen Weldon with “The 6 Eminently Disprovable Rules For Roundtable Podcasting.” (NPR Monkey See)
  • Are you reading Caroline Crampton? You absolutely should.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Bugle is Radiotopia’s sixteenth show.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bites:

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

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

How big are Audible’s ambitions in changing short-form audio? Really, really big

Audible launches Channels. If you’re reading this column at Nieman Lab, you probably already know the basics: Over the course of last week, Audible initiated the staggered rollout of a new feature called Channels, a portal through which the company now delivers what it’s calling “short-form listening experiences.” Right now, such short-form content on offer appears fairly limited, and a little strange: narrated reads of articles from newspapers like The Washington Post (natch) and The New York Times, some standup comedy recordings, and even a couple of meditation guides for the Headspace-inclined. (Nieman Lab, as usual, has a good breakdown on the details.)

There’s no mistaking what we’re seeing here: Audible has effectively changed its definition, almost overnight — it is no longer an audiobook company, but an audio content company, broadly speaking.

What we don’t see, however, is original podcast content. Which isn’t to say that there aren’t any podcasts in there right now — some digging through the Channels library reveals episodes from established podcast brands like APM’s Marketplace and Risk! — but there doesn’t appear to be anything that’s specially commissioned or developed by the original content team over at Audible’s baroque New Jersey campus, anything that feels like the podcast-equivalent of Amazon Prime Video’s Transparent or Mozart in the Jungle. (More on that in a second.)

Channels has been a long time coming. Whispers of Audible developing their own content — along with a more general portent towards aggressively stretching beyond its audiobook offerings — first hit my radar when the company hired Eric Nuzum away from NPR, where he was vice president of programming, to serve as the company’s senior vice president of original content. That happened last May. Since then, the company has been steadily packing its original content team with a long line of strong producers with solid public radio lineages: Jesse Baker, Ellen Horne, Martha Little, Lina Misitzis, and John L. Myers, among others.

But with the new feature rolling out in what appears to be in restrained fashion, it appears that I’ll have to wait a little more to see how Audible really takes a swing at the podcast market — and what, exactly, the rest of us are in for.

Or, you know, I could lob some questions over at Nuzum himself.

Q&A with Eric Nuzum, Audible’s SVP of original content. Shortly after news of the rollout began to trickle out, I managed to corner Nuzum in the kitchen of a Flatiron District office building to ask a few questions. Here’s the interview, lightly edited and condensed.

Quah: There’s probably not much you can say, so let’s start with this: What can you tell me on the record?

Nuzum: It’s really exciting for people to see Channels, which is something that was being worked on for a long time way before I got to Audible. I would describe it as if you’ve just shown a house that’s empty — it doesn’t have any furniture, there’s nobody living in it — and it’s the very, very elemental foundation of what we plan to do. There are things there right now that we’re very proud of, but it’s a fraction of what we expect to be in that place over the next couple of months.

People will find some narrated licensed material, some comedy material — which is an area we’re going to go much larger in — some drama, some literature. There is very little original stuff in there right now, almost none…

Quah: And when can we expect the originals?

Nuzum: Later.

As we get into the summer, things will get clearer both in terms of what we’ve been working on and the scale of our ambition. And I will say that “scale of our ambition” has two possible meanings, both of which are correct. So, scale of ambition as in how many things we’re working on, and also in terms of what we’re doing.

Look, when I left NPR, everybody came up to me and said, “I want to see what shows you’re going to build, what podcasts you’re going at Audible.” And that’s the completely wrong question, and it never has been the question.

I’m not at Audible to build podcasts. I’m at Audible to start a revolution. In the way audio is produced, and in the way audio is distributed.

I look at some of things that frustrate people in the podcasting space, and I’m trying to solve them both for creators and for listeners. So it really is not a question of what shows we create. The question we ask is: What do people want to listen to? That gets into a whole broader category of types of content than what you typically hear from podcasts.

I’m actually of the belief that one of the reasons many people don’t listen to podcasts is because there aren’t podcasts people want to listen to. There’s no audio content that matches a broader section of interests. And so we’re trying to figure out some of that other space.

Quah: Are we going to see non-American audio programming in Channels soon?

Nuzum: We’re trying to get this right here [in the United States] first.

But one thing that we’ve learnt — which surprised me — is how un-parochial people are in content interest. There are people in other territories, countries, and areas of the world…There isn’t a linear line we see where American people are interested in American content and British people are interested in British content.

It’s always been about: Is this relevant and good to me? And if you hit that relevant bit and be good, the boundaries and borders completely open up. That’s caused us to take a much broader look at the world of content sourcing as well as who we’re working with and who we’re offering it to.

Quah: Do you look for pitches?

Nuzum: Yeah, we do. But I think that…so, one of the things that a lot of people have been confused by is what are our aspirations are. If you draw a Venn diagram between podcast and public radio and what Audible is doing, there’s a lot of crossover. But we’re doing a lot of stuff outside the crossover. There’s a lot of things that will feel and sound like podcasts, but there will be a lot of things that sound very different. We’ll make some big mistakes, but we’re trying to expand out the realm of what people think of when think of what short-form listening experiences can be.

It’s an intoxicating thing to say to people that we have the appetite and aspiration to do things that other people can’t do. One of the things that I always tell producers pitching me is that if you can imagine something being a podcast, it’s probably not a big enough idea for us. I think our risk tolerance is very high.

We’re at the point now where things are starting to come in, and we’re finishing things and stacking things up. And we’re rejecting a large number of things because they sound like they can be on NPR, because they sound like a podcast. It would be very easy just have everything sound like what you’d expect. We’re always pushing to go further — and sometimes we’ll get there, and sometimes we won’t.

If you’re giving us the same pitch that you’re giving to Gimlet or Midroll or whatever, we pass on almost all of those. But if someone has a crazy idea, or an amazing story, and they just don’t know how to get someone to back them…It’s got to be a big idea. We want big ideas.

So that’s that.

Mind you: It’s all sheer potential right now for Audible, and it remains to be seen how the company will ultimately change things up for the rest of us. We don’t know yet how it will affect the podcast industry, opportunities for creators, the producer labor market, and overall non-music audio consumption (what a clunky phrase! I wonder how Edison Research is going to deal with measurements). And we have yet to see whether it’ll result in a net positive for all digital audio businesses or, in a familiar eating of the industry, whether it’ll become the center of the universe or break up the ecosystem into a multiverse. And whether it will truly pull from the obvious advantages enjoyed by the company on paper: instant access to a large existing pool of subscribers, along with gobs and gobs of money and resources from a terrifyingly dominant company with tentacles that stretch into a murderer’s row of parallel industries.

It’s all potential right now. Which is fine; I’ll just leave my tinfoil hat on.

By the way, if you’re wondering: Audible members get full access to the new content libraries, while non-members are only provided with 30 minutes of free listening a week. Basic memberships go for $14.95 a month.

NPR, one more time. So here we are again. Sunday night treated us with a Slate cover story that rang ye olde “What’s the future of NPR?” bell, extending the conversation recently instigated by the NPR Memo kerfuffle well into its fourth week.

The article didn’t bring us anything particularly new, but it does do a pretty good job neatly summing up all the future of NPR talk. In case you’re short on time, here’s the back-of-the-flap version: Young pub radio listeners are shifting towards digital! NPR is still dependent on broadcast, because member stations! The podcasts are coming! Critics are all like “the NPR C-suite is too slow to innovate!” Jarl Mohn, NPR CEO, is all like “y’all don’t do news”! And so on, and so on.

All that stuff is still true. But as I enter the fourth week of watching the discussion play out around the ol’ social media watering hole and gossiping on this subject with many, many people — what else can I do? — I’m beginning to feel something of a tension. Eh, maybe I should’ve felt it a long time ago, but it hit me really hard this week.

It’s interesting, I think, to consider that much of the critique that we’re seeing — particularly those from Adam Davidson, whose writings and quotations powers much of the skepticism that appears in these Future of NPR pieces, including Slate’s — appears to be grounded in an outsized optimism for the swathe of new podcast companies that have emerged outside the public radio system.

But the fact of the matter is: We still don’t know how it’s all going to shake out. We don’t know if Gimlet or Panoply or Acast will grow, thrive, and blossom into influential businesses. Right now, they’re all oodles of potential, and as most of us know from decent first dates, potential is intoxicating. I guess my point is: It’s a little premature to turn the heat up on NPR from the outside with such vigor and optimism in the rise of the new. They still have a lot of work that they to do to justify all that chest-thumping.

Also: To critique NPR, and to be anxious about the fate of NPR, is to be invested in the outcome of high quality public-interest journalism delivered in the audio format. Which makes it further interesting that, given the intensity of some of these critiques, none of these buzzy, new audio-oriented organizations seem to be substantially investing in the production and delivery of news for the public interest — at least not at this point in time.

To be fair, it makes some strategic logic for these new audio companies to not deal in hard news. I was once told by a very smart person that if you’re looking to enter a market with strong incumbents, you probably want to compete orthogonally — which is to say, don’t take them head on, and own the spaces they’re not touching. For Gimlet, it’s a steady stream of highly-produced narrative podcasts that are not the bread and butter of NPR and public radio stations. And for Panoply (conjoined twin-company of Slate, and my former day-job employer — hi guys!), it’s a web of talking heads programming that prizes analysis driven by personality, a currency public radio doesn’t ordinarily trade in. Those strategies has given those companies a solid foothold in their respective businesses.

But we’re still stuck with the reality that none of those companies, or any of the new audio companies for that matter, are explicitly engaged in the extra hard business of hard news. And as a result, none of them will either cause direct competition for NPR, which may spur them into readjustment, or lay the foundation for themselves to become the proper replacement should the public radio mothership match these apocalyptical prognostications.

So the critique has bit of a…I don’t want to call it hypocrisy necessarily, because it’s not as simple or straightforward as that, but a misalignment. A fundamental weirdness.

Again, I want to be clear that NPR’s C-suite still has to take its shifting fundamentals seriously. The quotes coming out of Jarl Mohn so starkly echo the stuff legacy publications said of digital media companies two or three years ago — I mean, damn. But I’m just saying that if we’re going to play that game, the knife should cut both ways.

If we take a few steps back, what do we see? New companies aren’t investing in news, and old companies aren’t investing in digital. And there’s a story here that’s really worth some attention, one that’s illustrated quite well in the Slate piece:

We are, after all, bombarded by news constantly — on our computers, on our phones, on TV, from newspapers, from cable news networks, from our friends on social media. Against that backdrop, it seems like there’s a very real possibility that the medium in which NPR’s reporters work — not just terrestrial radio, but audio full stop — could simply lose its place as a news source in people’s lives.

To sum it all up, with prescriptions: On the one hand, sure, NPR and its wider network of member stations need to really move and get wise on life after broadcast. But on the other hand, critics from the side of the upstarts should really dial it down and start showing us something. Which is all to say: Y’all should to stop throwing so much shade at each other and start fighting the real battles that need to be fought.

Don’t cha know that the Bezos is coming for us all?

One more thing. I’ve increasingly gotten the sense that this entire discussion — interesting as it is — has a certain generational quality. So, I think it’s worth us keeping in mind that is, in a lot of ways, is a privileged discussion. A lot of this debate seems to be driven among men of a certain age, race, and class, and there are tons and tons of young producers, reporters, and upstarts who are just looking for a place to catch a break and hone their craft, and the fact of the matter is the constellation of career opportunities afforded by these new audio companies haven’t actually touched the bottom, most-needed rung that will determine the fate of the craft, at least based on the increasing number of conversations I’m having. (More on that next week.)

So, to all you young producers reading this: I see you.

All right, that’s all I got. I can’t squeeze out anything more — I need to preserve some brain juice to come up with some scheme to pay next month’s rent. Moving on.

Additional reading: Jay Rosen’s tweet string on the ideological dimension of this discussion. BuzzFeed’s Tracy Clayton taking the Slate article’s writer, Leon Neyfakh, up to task on his characterization of “low-touch productions.” Former public radio operative-turned-public digital intellectual Melody Kramer’s “Public media is not content or platform. It’s more than that.”

WNYC Studios rolls out a new launch. 2 Dope Queens, a new show from WNYC Studios featuring Phoebe Robinson and Jessica Williams, debuted last week to a good amount of press, scoring writeups in Mashable, the Huffington Post, Tech Insider, and NBCNews.com. The show boasted strong positioning on the iTunes charts over the weekend, consistently occupying the top spot ahead of another newly launched public radio podcast, NPR’s Embedded — reflecting, perhaps, the two institutions’ mastery over iTunes as a marketing channel.

The release of 2 Dope Queens comes shortly after the launch of another WNYC Studios project, There Goes The Neighborhood, the limited-run series about gentrification in Brooklyn which premiered in early March. That we’ve been treated with two WNYC Studios launches within the span of a month suggests that we’re finally entering the first wave of projects coming out of the public radio station’s new podcast division since it was announced last October.

So what other shows should we be keeping an eye out for? According to the New York Times article covering the division’s launch back when it happened, we’re still due for a show with author Roxane Gay, a scripted fiction series with comedian Sara Schaefer, a Radiolab-spinoff that will focus on the Supreme Court, and a show that will come out of a partnership with Vice News.

Bits:

  • The second season of NPR’s highly successful Invisibilia podcast will drop in June. For those keeping tabs, last November the show added Hanna Rosin — of the Slate DoubleX Gabfest, and who you can also find in a recent Trumpcast episode — as the third cohost. (Twitter)
  • The lovely Radio Diaries, which is now a podcast distributed beneath the Radiotopia banner but was once a wee audio experiment, turned 20 years old last Friday. The team will be doing a bunch of things to celebrate the occasion over the next month, including releasing a story that’s been in development for over two years. So watch out for that. (Radio Diaries)
  • “Hear the Fear: The Rise of the Horror Podcast.” Couple of juicy numbers from this: the independent Lore podcast reportedly averages 385,000 downloads a week, while the beloved Black Tapes podcast scores about 200,000 a month. (The Atlantic)

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Can podcasts move beyond talking heads to produce digital-first audio news?

Movers, shakers, candlestick makers. A string of employment and talent-related stories hit my radar over the past week and a half, and though I try very hard not to read too much narrative into them as a bundle of stories, I like how they collectively paint a nice picture of dynamism. Anyway, I love this stuff.

Digital NPR. Last week, the public radio mothership announced the appointment of Thomas Hjelm as chief digital officer, a newly conceived role that will stretch across the content, technology, and revenue sides of the business. The announcement was made on Thursday, a few days after the whole (inflated, yet symbolically rich) NPR memo kerfuffle died down. Hjelm’s hiring was no doubt long in the works, and regardless of whether the timing of his appointment was providential or intentional, it gives the institution quite a nice cap to that particular narrative.

Anyway, Hjelm comes to NPR from WNYC, where he had served for over five years. He was most recently the station’s executive vice president and chief digital officer. Hjelm was recently featured in a Digiday article on WNYC’s recent adventures in digital audio, where he was quoted on the subjects of podcasting’s measurement challenges, social audio, and the need to maintain a direct relationship with audiences in the age of platforms. At NPR, he will report directly to NPR CEO Jarl Mohn. His employment begins in late April.

In a related development, Zach Brand, NPR’s VP of digital media (a roughly equivalent role to Hjelm’s newly created “chief digital officer” title), will be leaving the organization. According to his biography on NPR.org, Brand oversaw “NPR digital technology and product development efforts.” His portfolio also included NPR Digital Services, a responsibility that he inherited in late 2015, which involves the digital education of the organization’s partner member stations. Brand joined NPR in October 2007.

In another related development, there’s apparently a new opening for a temporary job on the NPR One team: podcast curator. Take from that what you will!

Meanwhile, back in New York. Filling the spot left open by Hjelm’s departure, WNYC has hired Nathaniel Landau as the station’s new chief digital officer. Landau comes to WNYC from Univision, where he served as a VP of product for over two years. Before that, he cofounded Food Republic, a lifestyle publication that was acquired in August 2013 by Zero Point Zero productions (which, among other things, is the company behind Anthony Bourdain’s television exploits).

“I’ve known for a while that Tom [Hjelm] was talking to NPR,” WNYC CEO Laura Walker told me over the phone last week, mentioning that she and Hjelm had been talking to several possible replacement candidates for a while. Landau first came to the station’s attention on the strength of a blog post he wrote on the challenges of the podcast consumption and discovery experience. The post, “Subscribing to podcasts is broken,” was published on his personal blog back in August. “The post was a wonderful mix of strategic questions and informed product solutions,” Walker said.

(Side note: Having an informed, broadcasted opinion — still your best friend.)

I asked Walker if she had any comment, opinions, or perhaps words of wisdom on the NPR Memo kerfuffle last week. “No,” she said, unsurprisingly. Well, thought I’d try, y’know?

In related WNYC news:

  • Graham Parker, the general manager of classic music station WQXR (which WNYC owns and operates), will be taking over management of performance space The Greene Space in addition to his existing responsibilities.
  • John Chao, previously a VP of business development, has been promoted to SVP of business and strategy.
  • Greg Voynow, previously a VP of content business development at Audible, is now the station’s full-time director of business development. He had joined WNYC on a part-time basis in January.

Wondery staffs up. The new podcast network by Hernan Lopez, former CEO of Fox International Channels, announced a round of hires early last week: Jeffrey Glaser, formerly the EVP of current programming at 20th Century Fox Television, as president of content, and Cristina Haro, previously of Univision, as account executive of brand solutions. The concept of “brand solutions” is probably corporate-speak that signals Wondery’s intent to get into the branded content game, which remains a bubbly frontier for podcast networks and advertisers.

I wrote about the network when it launched back in January, drawing specific attention to its partnership with technology platform Art19. Details on what Wondery will actually be producing remain slim, but the press release on the hires suggests an emphasis on audio drama. When discussing Glaser’s hire, Lopez provided the statement: “We are thrilled to have him join our team and help us attract the most talented writers, producers, and actors to a new form of storytelling.”

Another Producer. BuzzFeed’s well-loved Another Round podcast now sports a second producer working on the show, which doesn’t sound like an interesting bit of news until you note this: that producer, Antonia Cereijido, will be an Acast employee, on the podcast company’s payroll. She will be partially embedded in BuzzFeed’s newsroom, and will work under the show’s long-running producer, Eleanor Kagan. Acast has had a hosting, monetization, and distribution partnership with BuzzFeed since late last year.

“We’re delighted to welcome Antonia Cereijido to the Acast team,” Caitlin Thompson, the company’s director of content, said in an an emailed statement. “She comes to us from the storied Latino USA and other independent audio projects, and she shares — and also embodies — the Acast vision of growing new audiences in the podcast landscape.”

When asked if other Acast partner shows should expect similar arrangements, or if Cereijido will be tasked to work on other Acast partner podcasts in addition to her work with Buzzfeed, Thompson said she had no further comments.

Follow-up from last week. I capped off last week’s NPR Memo item with a link to a Facebook post by Adam Davidson, the Planet Money co-founder who now hosts Gimlet’s Surprisingly Awesome, where he articulated his fear that NPR is allowing itself to grow irrelevant. Little did I know when I dropped the link that the post would go on to grow into a vigorous and deeply respectful multi-directional comment thread, full of gorgeous specks of insight and rebuttals and intellectual confessions. Truly, a Sumatran rhino of the modern Internet, thought to be long extinct.

If you very much enjoy/are invested in the whole “future of NPR and podcasts” conversation, I can’t recommend digging through the thread highly enough, as it brings significant light to some juicy questions that these larger disruptive trends in audio — from broadcast to podcast, from legacy to new — have yet to answer, or even begin to confront.

The dominant theme through those questions is embodied by the following line coming out of a comment from that Facebook thread: “What saddens me about the podcast sphere…is the lack of journalistic ambition.”

It isn’t so much there aren’t any or many podcasts consistently trying to commit acts of journalism. On the contrary: Between the gabfests and the election-related podcasts, it’s practically a staple of the medium.

Rather, the point embedded in that statement is the sense that there simply aren’t many emerging for-profit entities that explicitly endeavor to break new ground as podcast- or audio-first journalistic institutions; indeed, I can’t think of any new organization that’s trying to rethink audio news delivery for the 21st century, or reconstructing the talent funnel, or building some alternative or continuation to radio stations as local or international sources of news.

It feels as if the new major for-profit podcasting companies tend to cluster around entertainment programming. When there is news-oriented programming involved, it tends to fall within the tradition of magazine journalism — which operates in its own kind of pace and lies more along the lines, I think of “infotainment.”

There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s still adjacent to the ebb and flow of news. Or it falls within the domain of talking head–rich gabfests, which has its place in the news and information economy but still doesn’t engage directly with the problem of digital-first audio news. I will say, though: Panoply (my former day job employer), specifically Slate, comes the closest at playing with this fire with Trumpcast, which was swiftly operationalized to address a particular political moment and seems to feel, in some small way, temporally alive (which is key).

But the question remains whether you can build a whole news operation around this model, or if the demands (and economics) of podcasting companies is such that these shows are the exceptions — anomalies built on top of a bed of more timed-out fare. Which raises the question, then, of whether the podcast format can ever represent the whole future of audio, news and all.

That, I think, is the defining tension not just between on-demand audio and broadcast organizations, but between these new podcasting companies and legacy radio institutions like NPR and its member stations. These new companies, entering the content market by embracing a new technological channel and impetus, may be well-positioned to solve a business problem, but they’re not working to solve the journalistic problem that a legacy organization like NPR fights to negotiate.

It’s a problem that stretches all the way down to the hiring and development of new blood. It’s one that stretches sideways into the unfortunate fact that, despite all the newness, we have yet to see any real new opportunities for reporters, both the ones who are experienced and the ones who are fresh. And indeed, it’s a problem that we — not all of us surely, but enough of us — need to grapple with as we move further and further into a world of greater media fragmentation, declining news literacy, the evaporation of local journalism, and polarized politics.

WaPo’s The Fix comes to Amazon Echo. In an experiment that further divorces on-demand audio from the word “podcast,” The Washington Post announced last week that The Fix, its political blog by reporter Chris Cillizza, can now be consumed in the form of short daily audio briefs delivered through Amazon Echo, the tubular audio-based computing device that’s enjoyed a swell of positive attention in recent weeks.

These briefs, which are made up of pre-recorded segments written by Cillizza, are made available at around 3 p.m. ET on weekdays. They are expected to grow in frequency over time, according to Mediapost.

Obvious corporate connection here: The Post is owned by Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon. If this strikes you as a particularly compelling spin on news delivery, then you’d probably find some chunks of Fortune’s recent Bezos profile interesting.

Speaking of Amazon…

Range roving. The Amazon-owned audiobook company Audible quietly launched a small blog last week that seeks to, and I’m quoting from the site here, “explore the world of listening and voice, literature and technology with original reporting, personal stories, playlists, and more.” The blog is called Audible Range, and it’s a piece of branded content marketing in the aesthetic of a lifestyle magazine that’s meant to do what pieces of branded content marketing are supposed to do: project a certain image, signal a company’s purported values, and carve out a specific vocabulary that the company wants to be associated with. (It reminds me of Uber’s Momentum and AirBnb’s Pineapple West Coast toast-chic magazines.) In this case, that vocabulary involves somewhat clunky synonyms for non-music audio — see: “listening and voice” — but synonyms, nonetheless, that would help the company retrain focus away from the word “podcast.”

The launch of Audible Range comes about a week after the company rolled out Clip, an audio-clip sharing feature attached to the audiobook app. All of this makes for a fair bit of activity coming out of the audio content giant that has yet to roll out the full weight of its original programming, though the tinfoil hat–wearing part of my temporal lobe is wont to view all of this as some sort of picking-up of speed, like birds fluttering before an earthquake or the air standing still before your toast pops heavenward.

For the record, if I were to make a lifestyle mag about pods, it would contain nothing but pictures of lugubrious Scandinavian men in headphones frolicking about all manner of flora.

Seats at a table. This is super interesting: Chava Gourarie, a writer-reporter-Delacorte Fellow at the Columbia Journalism Review, put together a spreadsheet yesterday tabulating the names and frequencies of underwriters of all the Marketplace programs — Morning Report, Marketplace Tech, and Marketplace Weekend — the business news audio briefs produced by American Public Media (APM), some of which are syndicated across the country. Gourarie used APM’s underwriting database, which is open to the public.

“The immediate reason was I wanted to see how far back Koch Industries has been a sponsor for Marketplace,” Gourarie told me in an email. She got the initial idea based on a discussion about the Koch brothers’ underwriting of public media programming — a topic of consternation for some — that had been going on in a listserv in which she’s a participant. “I thought it would be an interesting data point for the discussion on taking money from Koch when it’s been documented that they’re in middle of a rebranding effort. Then I got interested in the APM sponsor dataset as a whole. Could make for some interesting analysis.”

The spreadsheet, which is broken out by month going back to January 2015, paints a fascinating picture (the very same one, I’m sure, that haunts the dreams of media planners everywhere).

You can find the spreadsheet in this public Google Doc. Check it out, draw your own conclusions. And look up Gourarie’s work on the CJR website.

Bites:

  • “How Mack Weldon doubled underwear sales through podcast advertising.” Notable data point: Podcast advertising now represents 25 percent of the retailer’s overall ad budget per month. (Digiday)
  • “This local podcast network wants to find producers where others aren’t looking.” (Washingtonian)
  • “Soccer podcasts are booming in popularity.” The Guardian’s Football Weekly podcast was downloaded more than 15 million times in 2015. (The Guardian)
  • Heads up: WNYC’s invite-only women in podcasting conference, dubbed “Werk It,” will be coming back for a second edition this year. More details to come from the station very soon.
  • Another for observers of kids’ podcasts (there’s a lot of you in the HP readership): the Australian Broadcasting Corporation launched a new one of its own last week — Short and Curly, an ethics podcast for children. (Soundcloud)
  • Here’s another election podcast to track: Former Obama administration staffers Dan Pfeiffer and Jon Favreau’s Playing Politics, produced by The Ringer and distributed through their Channel 33 podcast feed. (Soundcloud)
  • Learned recently that the headcount at Gimlet is currently 45, including three interns. Pretty crazy when you think about the number of shows they have live on the market.

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.

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.