Google wants to do for podcasts on Android what Apple did for podcasts on iOS

GOOGLY EYED. You might have already heard about Google’s new strategy around podcast servicing on Android devices — I briefly linked to it last week after my whole spiel on the Apple HomePod — that the search giant announced through the content marketing blog of Pacific Content, the Canadian branded podcast studio. The announcement was broken out into five parts, and if you haven’t read them already, you absolutely should. You can find the first entry here, and then work outward from there.

But if you need a TLDR: Google’s apparent mission statement is “to help double the amount of podcast listening in the world over the next couple years,” and by that they mean to do to the untapped masses of potential podcast-consuming Android users what Apple did to potential podcast-consuming iOS users back in 2015 when it started distributing the stuff through iTunes. Of course, Google will try to do so via the strength of its specific Googlean skill-sets. (Also worth noting: this is separate and apart from the podcast stuff on Google Play Music, which didn’t really seem like it amounted to much?)

FWIW, my gut reaction to the news is about the same as when I heard about Pandora wanting to “double down on podcasts,” which is “cool, cool, let me know how that goes.” Because, really, I could say something like “man, this is (maybe) totally going to change everything!”, but that wouldn’t be particularly useful, and by all means, whether everything changes or not, it’s still worth adhering to Google’s inclusion guidelines to gain whatever listenership will be driven by this initiative.

Anyway, there are a fair few elements to Google’s podcast strategy, but I’ve come to view its heartbeat according to these building blocks:

(1) Capture. The most immediate development is how Google has already begun listing podcast and audio episodes in search results at a level similar to text, video, and images within the Google app on Android devices. This is being referred to as an effort to make podcasts a “first-class citizen” within Google’s search architecture, and it’s also a move that widely expands Google’s presence as the top-of-the-funnel option for all future podcast/audio discovery pathways among potential casual listeners noodling around on their Android devices.

(2) Contain. But here’s the most notable development, IMHO: Podcast consumption and management can now be handled directly on the Android Google app, through a user experience that’s baked into the app environment itself called “Homebase.” Based on the posts, it’s sort of an app within the app, and the significance here is that listeners can theoretically discover, listen, and subscribe to podcasts within the same app experience.

This would presumably reduce the number of steps that many assume are major pain points preventing adoption. Previously, an Android user bumping into, say, Wooden Overcoats for the first time while tumbling down a search rabbit hole would have to figure out which third-party podcast app to download on the Google Play Store — or head over to Spotify, I guess — learn how to use that product, and then start habituating with said third-party app in order to formalize their relationship with the show. By sliding in as the listening layer itself, Google theoretically collapses the distance between the point of discovery and the point of listening. (Speaking of which: pour one out for third-party podcast apps that primarily made a living serving the previously underserved Android market. Godspeed, fellas.)

Interestingly, some of the write-ups around the announcement seem to possess an expectation that the podcast experience will likely be broken out into its own standalone app at some point in the future. I don’t know about whether that’s actually the case, but…isn’t the point to reduce the number of steps to begin with?

(3) Cover. And then there’s all the stuff about connecting and syncing all these podcast consuming experiences between Google’s Android app and the Google Assistant, the company’s Alexa competitor. If you’ve been reading this newsletter for any period of time, you probably know what I’m going to say at this point: I think the potential here should be viewed less as a smart speaker thing and more as a voice-first computing thing, as the Google Assistant is likely going to be spread wide across a wide expanse of interfacing surface areas (cars, smart homes, dog collars, public restrooms, etc.)

I’ll show my bias here and say that the podcasting stuff here is a little less interesting to me than the notion of Google beginning to dabble with realizing a search engine for atomic units of audio experiences on an aurally-represented internet. Sure, we’re talking about podcasts now, but are we really only talking about podcasts with the kind of infrastructure that’s being built here? Come on, are you really going to use all that fire just to heat cans of soup? Get outta here.

A couple of other thoughts specific to podcast stuff:

(1) When I first started outlining this item, I had this whole bit reheating my skepticism about good search functionality being the answer to podcast discovery: I’m just iffy on the notion of a significant discovery pathway into podcasts that runs through subject- or topic-oriented searches.

But then I recalled that search is only part of the picture when it comes to Google these days, which now appears to hang on the twin principles of going “from search to suggest” and being “AI-first” as illustrated in this essay by Andre Saltz, which has been pretty helpful for me to think through these things. I’ve evoked it before in this column.

(2) As a veteran digital media executive recently told me: “There’s one fact of life that has remained constant — that someone is trying to game the system.” That person was talking to me for another story about another situation that I’ll publish next week, but it’s applicable here with whatever the audio SEO framework is going to look like, of course. On a related note, I’m looking forward to “What time is the Super Bowl?”, but for audio.

(3) Related to this idea of “gaming the system” is the heady, navel-gazing, but actually really interesting question of how platforms impact publishers and vice versa. Having a new system from which to extract value always offers new opportunities, but I think it’s an open question whether Google’s moves with search here will actually lead to better outcomes for the existing spread of publishers.

What’s less of an open question is the probability that we’ll see new kinds of publishers playing to the new system that Google’s endeavors here open up. Look, if I were an enterprising young person who wasn’t particularly romantic about the Way Audio Should Be Made, I’d be working hard to game the shit out of the system with new forms of content that’s sticky to its rules. (We already see versions of this enterprising spirit in the Apple Podcast charts with the spread of true crime podcasts.)

(4) Speaking of whether Google’s podcast endeavors will actually lead to better outcomes for existing podcast publishers, I’ve been hearing that the search giant has been in contact with some publishers over the past few months as it builds out its podcast features. Like many other configurations of such interfacing in the past (publishers and Facebook, publishers and Apple News, etc. etc.), I wouldn’t put too much stock in the…proposed symmetry of that relationship.

Alrighty, let’s move along.

Meanwhile, over on iOS. “Apple’s podcasts just topped 50 billion all-time downloads and streams,” reported Fast Company last week, highlighting a milestone for Apple’s long-documented history of intimacy with podcast-land.

In the piece, the benchmark came accompanied by data points that Apple has publicly provided in previous years:

  • In 2014, there were 7 billion podcast downloads.
  • In 2016, that number jumped to 10.5 billion.
  • In 2017, it jumped to 13.7 billion episode downloads and streams, across Podcasts and iTunes.
  • In March 2018, Apple Podcasts passed 50 billion all-time episode downloads and streams.

Note that the numbers for 2014, 2016, and 2017 all refer to downloads and streams that took place in that year, while the March 2018 data point refers to all-time numbers — which is to say, downloads and streams that took place since Apple began serving podcasts in 2005. (A pretty straightforward switch in framing, but one that tripped me up the first time I scanned the article. Which reminds me: I should schedule my annual vision exam soon.)

Strung together, these numbers paint a vivid picture of accelerating podcast activity across Apple platforms. But here’s what I find even more interesting: consider just how much of Apple’s all-time podcast download and streaming activity apparently took place between 2014 and now.

Now, we don’t have 2015 numbers, but let’s assume it’s somewhere in the midpoint between the 7 billion in 2014 and 10.5 billion in 2016: say, a conservative 8.5 billion. What we have, then, is a situation where 39.7 billion (7 + 8.5 + 10.5 + 13.7) out of Apple’s all-time 50 billion podcast downloads and streams took place between January 2014 and March 2018.

Which is to say, from these numbers, it seems that almost 80 percent of all podcast downloads and streams on Apple platforms took place over the past four years.

Let’s hold our horses for a hot second, run that statement back, and think this through. Shouts to RadioPublic’s Jake Shapiro for helping me kick up some much-needed caveats:

  • These numbers should not be taken to suggest that almost 80 percent of all podcast listening on Apple platforms took place over the past four years. As always, keep in mind that a podcast download is no direct indicator of actual listening; after all, an episode can be delivered but not literally consumed.
  • It’s also worth asking, in general, whether we can take Apple’s tracking of all-time podcast downloads and streams to be consistent all the way across time back to 2005 — that is, whether measurement of earlier numbers were processed with the same rigor as measurement of more contemporary numbers — and consider the possibility of earlier activity going untracked. I see no particular reason to suspect inconsistency, but the potential bears keeping in mind nonetheless. One can never be too careful.
  • Also, we don’t have much of a clear picture of actual Apple podcast activity for any of the years before 2014.

Even with these caveats in mind, I’m still comfortable with the original takeaway: that a considerable majority of Apple podcast activity took place over the past four years.

What is the significance of this? For one thing, it further solidifies 2014’s status as the crucial pivot point for the podcast ecosystem, resulting from a combination of Apple bundling the Podcast app into iOS by default and the catalyzing awareness-raising effects of Serial as a cultural phenomenon. For another, it gives us a sense of the pivot point’s scale.

Other than that…I dunno. Purely an academic observation, and it’s one I’m squirreling away if I ever get to write the Big Book on Podcasting.

The BBC partners with Acast for international monetization. The deal, announced Tuesday morning, will see the Swedish podcast technology company take the lead on generating revenue off the downloads that BBC podcasts are currently enjoying outside of the UK.

According to the press release, podcast episodes from the BBC are downloaded over 30 million times a month outside the UK. It’s unclear how much of that is within the United States, where podcast advertising is significantly more mature. The podcast portfolio for the big U.K. public service broadcast includes Radio 4’s In Our Time, repackages of the BBC World Service, The Assassination, and the recently released Death in Ice Valley, a true crime collaboration with Norwegian public broadcaster NRK.

The deal doesn’t cover every BBC podcast, however. A spokesperson told me that it only covers “most” of the organization’s English-language podcasts. Some will be excluded for either rights-related or specific editorial reasons. One example: the historical audio fiction epic Tumanbay. In September 2017, the BBC forged a deal with Panoply to bring Tumanbay to American earballs where the latter also serves as a co-producer of the project. That relationship still stands.

The BBC does not monetize its podcasts within the U.K.

On a related note: just a reminder that the BBC recently tapped Jason Phipps, previously head of audio at The Guardian, to be the organization’s podcast commissioner.

This week in #Brands. Squarespace, the ubiquitous podcast advertiser, is launching an extended campaign with Gimlet in the form of an American Idol/Project Greenlight-esque competition, Casting Call, a national talent-seeking endeavor in which the winner gets their own show on Gimlet. The process will be documented as a podcast (what else?) that will be released in September. Judges include Gimlet’s Nazanin Rafsanjani, the great Aminatou Sow, and Squarespace founder/CEO Anthony Casalena. Submissions are open starting today.

A little hokey, but I’ve always thought there should be more things like Radiotopia’s PodQuest and WNYC’s Podcast Accelerator. In any case, shrewd move from Gimlet to take lessons from those initiatives and build a whole revenue engine around it.

On a related note: Should the day come when artificial intelligence becomes self-aware, pray it does not look like a brand.

The latest on WNYC’s inappropriate conduct imbroglio: An investigation by the law firm Proskauer Rose has apparently found “no evidence of systemic discrimination at the organization,” which is…peculiar. Here’s the WNYC News piece on the development, and further observations and analysis can be found in this 22-minute segment on the Brian Lehrer Show. Some of those observations can be found in this Twitter thread by WNYC reporter Ilya Marritz. You can read the actual report here.

WME adds PRX to its podcast client list. According to the Hollywood Reporter, the major talent agency will “work to expand the audio media nonprofit’s business in all areas, including film, television and books.” For the record, WME’s podcast clients include Crooked Media, Panoply Media, Freakonomics Radio’s Stephen Dubner, and Two Up Productions, among others. The agency was also involved in the negotiations around the Dirty John TV adaptations and, given the tentacular fortitude of its clientele reach, will likely continue to be involved in many, many more negotiations to come.

In case you need further context on how a talent agency like WME views the podcast space as a potential pool of assets, let me refer you back to my June 2017 interview with Ben Davis, an agent with the digital department at WME. A pertinent excerpt:

[storybreak]

[conl]Hot Pod: Where do you think this relationship between talent agencies and the podcast industry is going?[/conl]

[conr]Ben Davis: I think talent agencies will play an increasingly important role in the ecosystem by:

  • Helping podcast creators cross IP over into other media (whether that is audiovisual, live or written).
  • Pairing creators with the right distribution partners, and negotiating the terms of the relationship.
  • Packaging creative elements (i.e. talent and writer) to create turnkey audio productions for distributors.

The space is changing so quickly, though, and my answer would have been different 6 months ago. So really, who knows?[/conr]

[storybreak]

Who knows, indeed. As a reminder, PRX is a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based nonprofit that runs the indie podcast collective Radiotopia and provides various podcast support services to teams like The Moth and Night Vale Presents.

Bites

  • The New York Times is reportedly considering adapting The Daily and the Modern Love column for television. At the NewFronts presentation yesterday, COO Meredith Kopit Levien said “The Daily has more listeners than the weekday newspaper has ever had.” You sell those ads, people! (AdWeek)
  • ICYMI: Freakonomics Radio moves from WNYC Studios to Stitcher. (Press release)
  • Slate’s podcast project with its fantastic TV critic Willa Paskin, called Decoder Ring, is now live. (Slate)
  • Also live now: TED en Español. (Apple Podcasts)
  • The wave of Westworld podcasts is now back upon us. Let it consume you.
  • Heads up, antipodal Hot Pod readers: The third Audiocraft Podcast Festival will take place in Sydney in early June. (Media release)
  • Reese Witherspoon’s media company Hello Sunshine, not content with adapting a true crime podcast-centric novel for television, has launched an original podcast of its own, which is not a true crime podcast. (EW)

What should an on-demand news podcast look like?

The Tow Center’s “Why Podcasting Matters.” And so there I was, once again, at The Greene Space, WNYC’s live events venue, for yet another podcast-related shindig. I’ve grown fond of the venue over the past year, come to appreciate cozy size, its glossy floors, its neon-shaded walls that never fail to evoke Miami Vice.

The shindig in question was a panel called “Why Podcasting Matters.” It was designed around the publication of a Tow Center Report, prepared by Vanessa Quirk, that serves as a pretty good primer for the podcast industry at the end of 2015. It was a fine gathering, but I was mildly bothered by the name of the panel, as one would imagine. Partially because it’s never a particularly encouraging sign for an industry to still have to explain itself, but mostly because its premise is remarkably mid-2000s. It’s like being asked to make the case why blogging matters, or why the digitalization of media matters. Like, how many different variations of the same argument must we make?

But I understand, begrudgingly, the continuing need to stick with introductions. After all, I’m told that it’s still very early days for podcasting (11 years now since it first gained some noticeable amount of traction; that’s one year older than the birth of YouTube). There is still a lot more pie to grow.

Anyway, the panel was made up of Sarah van Mosel (chief commercial officer, Acast), Andy Bowers (chief creative officer, Panoply), Matt Lieber (president, Gimlet Media), and Kerri Hoffman (chief operating officer, PRX), and it was moderated by Paula Szuchman (VP of on-demand content, WNYC). The panel was fine and interesting, ranging widely in subject from branded advertising to “where are you finding your next hit?” to children-targeted podcasts and the mortifying guilt of surrendering your child to the television.

You can find a recording of the event here, and you can read Quirk’s Tow Center report here.

But here are the two things that stood out to me as particularly interesting:

1. What is the nature of the news podcast? There was a point in the panel, somewhere during a discussion about whether podcasts can be seen as a viable supplement to broadcast radio, where the panelists broached the subject of the “news podcast” — what is it, what is its nature within an on-demand context, and where is it headed.

This is a fabulous question, and it’s something that I think about quite a lot. For the record, I think anything that’s broadcasted can be adequately adapted to the on-demand format. The only major exception (other than Brian Lehrer, I suppose) is an ongoing breaking news scenario, which is typically best served by a live news broadcast. This, I must say, is a grave exception. I felt the limitations of on-demand audio most acutely during the Paris terror attacks; I had spent much of that evening at work glued to my Twitter feed, and when I left for my commute home — a subway trip usually reserved for pre-loaded programming — I chose instead to walk back over the Brooklyn Bridge so I could keep tabs on the news broadcast over the WNYC streaming app. But then again, getting my live updates through the stream was in its own way suboptimal; important information about actual developments was relatively sparse, and the bulk of what I ended up consuming at the end was largely filler or recycled exposition. (Perhaps that’s the real value of a live news broadcast; not necessarily the advancements in what we know, but merely the ambient knowledge that a news team is observing, that the world is continuing to spin.)

It’s been a few months, and I’ve come to feel that this wasn’t an expression of on-demand audio’s limitations, but rather an example of the distribution channel not being utilized effectively enough with breaking news in mind. That’s because we are already seeing some really interesting experiments with news distribution using podcast feeds that, in their own ways, are bold attempts to grasp real-time service:

  • The most obvious example is the NPR Hourly News Summary. Here we have a really shrewd use of the feed, one that’s pegged to the hour and packaged in bite-sized pieces. You do get the sense that each package is dense with what you absolutely need to know at the top of a given hour. By the way, the feed occasionally pops up in the iTunes Top 200 Podcast Chart, for those interested in such things.
  • ICYMI, Serial has been rolling out short daily updates tracking the latest court hearing surrounding its season one subject, Adnan Syed. It’s absolutely fascinating, both in its substance and its structure, which is essentially Sarah Koenig giving a quick recap the development of the day.
  • The Serial mini-updates are reminiscent of a WBUR podcast that was rolled out last summer (with The Boston Globe) which tracked the trial of Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on an almost day-by-day basis. The podcast was called Finish Line: Inside the Boston Bombing Marathon, and it stretched the length of the trial. It was dense, sparsely composed, and utterly captivating in its specificities. These are reporters reporting, trading notes at the end of the day.

2. Gimlet’s Mix Week. The other most interesting bit of information that came out of the panel also happens to the one that’s most applicable to your organization, probably: This week, Gimlet is putting normal production operations on hold in favor of an internal exercise they’re calling Mix Week. “We’re breaking apart all the teams, they’re going to reform in new teams, and they’re going to be essentially given assignments for piloting,” Lieber explained. “There’s going to be a bunch of rules: No existing host can be the host of a pilot, pilots can only be hosted by non-hosts, and a bunch of other fun stuff.”

The idea is to create an experimental space to better facilitate creative collaborations across shows, a dynamic that might find difficulty emerging when a workplace — even one developed for creative and editorial purposes — naturally slips into a configuration that feels like an assembly line.

“We feel like we have a lot of ideas burbling in the building, and when you’re in the churn of getting shows out every week, you don’t always have the time to come up and be tested,” said Lieber.

Gimlet’s Mix Week reminds me of stories about an internal competition that WNYC held a few years ago. Described to me as “an internal bake-off,” that event was led by Chris Bannon, formerly WNYC’s VP of content development and production and now Midroll’s chief content officer, with support from a seven-person internal committee. The competition directly resulted in the creation of Death, Sex, and Money (all hail Anna Sale! Did you hear she’s moving to the West Coast?) and indirectly in the creation of TLDR, the On The Media spinoff whose hosts would eventually go on to launch Reply All at Gimlet. A source has told me that WNYC management sent out a note a few weeks ago announcing the return of the bake-off, which will now apparently take place every six months.

This is all a fine reminder of a simple fact: Magical things happen when you give the talented people you hire the opportunity to stretch their muscles, try different things, and prove themselves.

The hosting platform holding up Serial. So I was surprised to learn last week that Serial, the biggest and most downloaded podcast today — unless that’s changed over the past month, which I highly doubt — is not being hosted on Podtrac, which proudly put the show forward as a key client during the IAB’s Podcast Upfronts last year. Instead, ever since the start of the second season, the show has been hosted on an experimental new platform developed by PRX, the friendly neighborhood public media company that’s also responsible for Radiotopia, your friendly neighborhood hippie podcast commune.

The platform, which is called Dovetail and also supports the Radiotopia podcast family, is supposedly designed for podcasts with extremely large audiences in mind, as PRX chief technology officer Andrew Kuklewicz told me over email. Interestingly, the platform is built to distribute both podcasts and broadcasts, a curious distinction that firmly differentiates it from the bevy of other hosting platforms that I’ve covered so far. There’s a lot more to Dovetail, I’m told, and you can read the totality of Kuklewicz’s extremely enthusiastic (and understandably pluggy) email in this Google Doc.

Public radio guidelines on podcast measurements. Last week, a group of North American public radio stations published a set of podcast measurement guidelines in a move to spur the industry to voluntarily adopt a standard. The publication was picked up by several publications — including Nieman Lab, of course — and on Friday, I put out my own two cents in an extra Hot Pod newsletter. In a nutshell: the guidelines were published as part of a move to inject more life into conversation happening within the Interactive Advertising Bureau, the industry association focused on digital media, which many major podcasting companies are hoping will serve as a reliable third-party arbiter of advertising standards in the emerging podcast industry.

You can read the extra newsletter, along with some pertinent reader responses, in this public Google Doc.

Google Play podcasts: They’re coming. Looks like you can’t have one streaming audio service without the other. Two weeks ago, Spotify indicated that it would finally be rolling out its long-awaited podcast feature (which, by the way, ended up being bundled together with video under an ecosystem labelled as “Shows”). According to its reported timeline, that rollout would have been completed across both iOS and Android platforms by the end of the last week. And now we’re hearing, perhaps accidentally, that Google Play Music’s own podcast rollout will take place by the end of February.

Here’s what we know, and how we know it:

  • Bill Simmons, the sports media personality and proprietor of the Bill Simmons Podcast Network (BSPN), tweeted out last Tuesday that his podcast “will be available on Google Play when GP launches its podcast platform later this month.” Simmons deleted the tweet shortly after, suggesting that the information wasn’t all that public just yet. The tweet was captured via screenshot by Droid-Life, an Android news site.
  • Parallel to this, several outlets — including Engadget, Ars Technica, and 9to5Google — have noted that some Google Play Music users are already seeing the podcast feature being supported on their app.
  • TechCrunch has confirmed that Google Play Music still has not officially launched podcast support, despite these podspottings.

That some Google Play Music users are seeing podcast support ahead of an official launch is not unusual; feature-testing among a small sample of live users is common practice, especially for big platforms that need initial data from the wild before a wider rollout.

Anyway, three things to consider:

  • The various write-ups describing the app’s intended podcast features — which note the inclusion of, among other things, podcast charts, a “featured” section, and an open inclusion policy — Google Play Music sounds strikingly similar in both policy and practice to the native iOS Podcasts app. From this, I suspect that the thinking is to do precisely for the Android ecosystem what the native iOS Podcasts app does in the Apple ecosystem, which has so far been a relatively untapped market. This leaves open the question of what Spotify’s strategy will adopt to approach the space. They presumably shouldn’t play in the same lane as the iOS Podcasts app or Google Play Music, but what options are they left with?
  • That Google Play Music will have its own podcast charts is exciting. The iTunes podcast charts have long been obsessed over by podcast producers everywhere, given its status as one of the sole public determinants of a podcast’s success in relation to others, for both creators and, unfortunately, the uninitiated press. However, how exactly the iTunes charts evaluate podcasts, both individually and in relation to each other, has long been mysterious, and the inclusion of a Google alternative would theoretically help producers better approximate the relative value of their podcasts — and, secondarily, challenge Apple’s passive dominance as the main value-attributor in the podcasting space. As of this writing, it doesn’t look like Spotify has its own charts feature.
  • The central question when it comes to these audio streaming services remains: Will their entrance into the podcast space actually move the needle? While it’s still extremely early, a few podcasters I’ve spoken with suggest that they’ve seen some encouraging signs. (No specific details were provided, unfortunately.)

Related bits:

  • I’ve really been digging Tumanbay, an extravagantly produced 10-part audio drama published by BBC Radio 4. Reminiscent of Game of Thrones — in terms of subject matter and political allegory, but not in adult-oriented excesses (how would you do that in audio anyway? that market remains open!) — it’s utterly fun and almost completely not cringeworthy, which I largely attribute to a finely-tuned modulation of the vocal performances. Highly recommended. Also, hat tip to Slate’s June Thomas, a native Britisher of fine Britishisms, for the fabulous hashtag #TotallyTumanbay. (BBC)
  • Have you seen the Art19 embeddable player? It looks pretty good. Two examples: one on Recode, one on Yahoo Sports.
  • How CNN and Washington Post are experimenting with voicemail for audio storytelling. (Journalism.co.uk)
  • Torey Malatia, CEO of Rhode Island Public Radio, explains his split with WBEZ. (Brown Daily Herald)
  • “Don’t ‘radiosplain’ and other ways to report on communities that aren’t your own.” (NPR Editorial Training)

Budweiser. Papa John’s. Gatorade. What a Sunday.

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