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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Panoply’s parent company takes a stake in Gimlet Media

Gimlet Media raises $6 million in Series A funding. Last week, I wrote a quick item noting that Gimlet, your friendly neighborhood podcasting company that narrates its own emergence into corporate self-actualization, was pursuing a Series A fundraising round — a move typical of startups oriented toward rapid growth. That round is now closed, with Gimlet raising $6 million for a valuation of $30 million, according to the Financial Times. (Shannon Bond, again, with the sweet beat coverage.)

True to form, Gimlet covered the fundraising decision in an episode of the Startup podcast, where it revealed, among other things, that the round was led by none other than Tim O’Shaughnessy, CEO and president of Graham Holdings. O’Shaughnessy, who became the Graham Holdings CEO after Donald E. Graham stepped down in November, will also serve as a member on Gimlet’s board.

So here’s the Bruce Willis twist, folks: Graham Holdings also happens to be the parent company of Panoply, the podcasting company spun off from Slate under the Slate Group banner (and my day job employer).

It’s a little confusing, and it may seem a little, you know, funny, but a development like this is by no means uncommon. Graham Holdings is doing exactly what conglomerates are made to do — they invest in and own several different properties, many of which are often clumped within the same industry categories depending on the portfolio strategy and the attendant skill set. In Graham Holdings’ case, the portfolio skews largely toward media: TV stations, Slate, and Foreign Policy, along with media-adjacent properties like SocialCode, a social advertising intelligence company, and Kaplan, that company that makes all those blue textbooks you need to plow through if you wanted to go to grad school. *eyes bookshelf, shudders, pours more wine*

A tempting interpretation would be to project some sort of direct line between Panoply and Gimlet: a possible integration, perhaps, or even a merger (gasp!). But such an interpretation is far too forceful — indeed, there may be some sort of future where any of those things can happen, but as it stands, with Gimlet president Matt Lieber telling the Financial Times that Graham Holdings “would keep Panoply separate from its stake in Gimlet,” any such developments down the line would probably be conducted as a (mostly) natural function of the marketplace.

Still, the current configuration is curious, particularly given the podcast industry’s relative immaturity.

“One thing that’s useful to ask is whether there is room in the audio market for multiple large, successful media companies,” Lieber wrote me last night, when I reached out after spinning around in circles for a couple of hours. “My answer would be yes. This isn’t the winner-take-all world of social networks or chip manufacturers.”

He’s right, obviously, but then again, that point was always fairly clear to me. The questions that I’m most drawn to revolve around Tim O’Shaughnessy: what is the nature of his influence as a board member, or of the influence of any board member in a small media company like Gimlet? How do information and experience get transferred across properties in the same portfolio, if that is even something that’s meant to happen at all? That’s some heavy theoretical shit, and I’m ill-equipped and ill-educated to figure that out here in my Gowanus bedroom with my legs propped up on an IKEA table.

I’m additionally drawn to wonder more about the manner in which I, as a Panoply employee, found out about the Graham Holdings investment. Indeed, I recall hearing some rumors here and there way back when, but oh, rumors. I wade through so many rumors everyday running this darn little newsletter. Rumors like, oh I don’t know, Audible sending folks out into playwriting circles to scope for talent — they all sound so far-fetched.

Anyway, according to the Startup episode that dropped last Thursday, Graham Holdings invested $5 million into the $6 million round, with the remainder split between some existing investors upping their commitment and a crowdfunded pool that was mediated through Quire, the equity crowdfunding platform that was launched under the NY-based startup studio Betaworks. A Quire email sent out last Monday also indicated that Betaworks, which was an investor in Gimlet’s seed round, also participated in this Series A raise. According to the Financial Times article, Gimlet will use the cash to scale up from four to 12 shows and from 25 to 75 employees over the next two years. Damn.

In related news, I asked Chris Giliberti, Gimlet’s chief of staff, what it’s like to appear in an episode of Startup. “It was great,” he said. “It feels like I’ve finally been indoctrinated.” He paused. “It’s like they can’t fire me now that I’m public.” Good man, that Giliberti.

What is EW Scripps up to?mysterious job listing popped up from the Scripps Washington Bureau a couple of days ago indicating that the company, which had acquired Midroll Media over the summer, was looking for a Washington, D.C.–based senior producer to work on future podcast projects. What struck me as particularly curious was the following line from the job description:

The senior producer will work closely with the larger Midroll network and will be a key part of extending that very successful model into journalism and ideas.

I had assumed, following the acquisition, that podcasting operations for both Midroll and Scripps would be one and the same. The way the sentence was phrased suggested the rise of a parallel podcasting structure within Scripps that would collaborate with, but ultimately exist autonomously from, Midroll Media.

“Midroll and Scripps are one entity,” Ellen Weiss, VP and bureau chief of Scripps DC, who is overseeing the recruitment of the position, told me right off the bat.

“The idea behind what we’re doing is to sort of take this really successful model with comedy and pop culture and extend it into the nonfiction space,” she said, referring to the success carved out by Midroll’s Earwolf network, which made a name for itself launching deeply loved comedy podcasts that ultimately gave rise to the comedy podcast subculture. “Everything from aspirational journalism to thinking and ideas to sort of social trends … things like that.” She talked about working closely with Midroll’s chief content officer Chris Bannon, senior producer Gretta Cohn, and the rest of the Midroll team, ultimately painting a picture of a fairly cohesive team that appears to be in lockstep when it comes to potential talent or property acquisition.

I asked Weiss about what extending the comedy and pop culture model into the non-fiction space actually meant, and she referred to Question of the Day, a three-days-a-week, bite-sized podcast that Midroll launched in August, as an example. That, she pointed out, is an Earwolf show. As it turns out, the move being adopted here is to expand the Earwolf network beyond comedy-oriented offerings, as opposed to launching a separate network focusing on nonfiction properties.

This was a challenge to a theory I’ve had about the value of podcast networks as a curatorial unit. “Won’t the Earwolf brand dilute if you expand it beyond comedy?” I asked.

Weiss waved off the suggestion, offering instead that being saturated with a multiplicity of brands was a worse fate. “I don’t think so,” she said. “The same people who listen to All Things Considered also listen to Car Talk. Listeners check out a variety of content; what they’re looking for is a specific set of core values.” And what are those core values? She pointed to two things: the belief that people want to learn something, and the belief that people want to be entertained.

“I’m hoping to get great candidates for this job,” she said when we whipped back to the original matter at hand. She emphasized the need for proper audio production experience. So, you know, if you’re that kind of person, you should maybe check it out.

Weiss also intimated that Bannon and co. have some major announcements in the pipeline. I’ll keep my eyes peeled for that.

NPR on-demand audience grows, but livestreaming stalls. This big tidbit comes from Current.org’s Tyler Falk, who published a fine write-up recently of a data presentation shared last month at the Public Radio Super Regional conference. (What a fabulous name!)

You should check out the whole article, obviously, but here are two stand-out stats to me:

  • “The audience for NPR podcasts grew 21 percent from fall 2014 to fall 2015, and the total hours of NPR podcasts downloaded rose 45 percent over the same time frame.”
  • “Meanwhile, listening to live streams, once a growing part of public radio’s online listening, was flat from August 2013 to August 2015.”

Note that there is a distinction in the article between stats for NPR versus stats for the public radio stations that NPR is tracking — a development in one is by no means equivalent to a development in the other, as NPR is both an entity of its own as well as an entity that supports and is fueled by member stations.

What do all these stats indicate? It’s hard to tell, particularly given the “total hours downloaded” metric which, without proper context as to the episode length distribution in the bundle of podcasts being measured, stands to convey vastly different, possibly conflicting things. Demand more from your metrics, people!

“Guide to the Business of Podcasting.” The Tow Center of Digital Journalism over at Columbia University dropped a really fantastic report on the emerging pod business yesterday. The report was prepared by Vanessa Quirk, who had served as a fellow at the center over the past year, and it’s a solid primer for both newcomers and people who are more stuck in the weeds like me. It’s also a really nice way to refresh my memory on the fundamental questions at hand that have yet to be adequately answered, like “will I have a job in like six months oh boy oh boy I really hope so.”

You can download the report for free here. Mild disclaimer: I contributed to the report as an interviewee, where I said a number of regrettable sassy things that I demanded be taken off-record. You can also check out the sweet Nieman Lab writeup of the report here, and a nifty timeline of the podcasting industry that Quirk built here.

The New York Times’ Modern Love column is being adapted into a podcast. In what is both my greatest dream and my worst nightmare, the New York Times is collaborating with WBUR to adapt its popular Modern Love column, which features essays by (typically) ordinary people who have extraordinary romantic experiences, into a podcast. The Hollywood Reporter had first dibs in writing it up yesterday, and describes the podcast as follows:

The podcast will start with the reading of a Modern Love essay complete with music, sound effects and a familiar voice — Judd Apatow, Jason Alexander, January Jones and Emmy Rossum are among the narrators who will read entries during the first batch of episodes… During the second half of the episode, host Meghna Chakrabarti (Here & Now) and Modern Love editor Daniel Jones will conduct a follow-up conversation about the column.

The concept sounds like a cross between the Esquire Classic podcast, Selected Shorts, and The Gist’s Dear Prudie prospectus segments. Which is all to say, it sounds very quaint! But also, not all that groundbreaking. That said, as a fan of the column, I’ll come for the celebrity readings, and maybe stay for potential romanticisms/salacities. *raised hands emoji*

Also worth noting is the line in the THR piece that states: “Alice Ting, VP brand development licensing and syndication at The Times, says that podcasting is something that the publication ‘continues to evaluate,'” which is probably representative of the general temperature among larger media orgs when it comes to the medium. Cautiously optimistic, one would say, which is understandable, given the combination of what happened the first time around back in the mid-2000s and the heightened embattled environment that the media industry is currently experiencing.

You can find the official WBUR announcement, along with the trailer for the podcast, here.

WBEZ launches Podcast Passport. In case you didn’t hear when I said it numerous times in previous newsletters, you should know that I’m super bullish on live shows as a formal extension of a podcasting operation. One of my many long-term hopes (aside from adopting a slack-jawed bulldog) is for the notion of a live podcasting circuit to become as common and customary as a live show circuit for musical acts or stand-up comedians — as means to earn a greater following, to build a momentum of hype.

Welcome to Night Vale is the best example of a podcast that is carrying out a pure version of this idea; its live events page currently features a robust circuit that includes New Zealand and Australia among its next stops. (I recall, as well, spotting a notice for an upcoming show in Boise, Idaho, when I was there this past summer. That’s some extensive community building right there.)

Anyway, that’s all a particularly rambling lead-up to this news hook: WBEZ, home of This American Life and Filmspotting, is launching a live podcast series in January 2016. According to the press release, “The Podcast Passport will feature live-audience tapings of five favorite WBEZ podcasts which will take place in various Chicago neighborhoods at different popular venues.” Beer tour!

The line-up includes the Nerdette podcast (which is great!), Curious City, and the aforementioned Filmspotting, among others. Also, the press release features a sound bite from my old Panoply colleague, Joel Meyer, who is now WBEZ’s executive producer of talk programming. Quote:

“Like season tickets or a local theater subscription, Podcast Passport will expose listeners to new ideas, special guests and different points of view inside this boundary-free medium.”

Pretty cool. Hey Joel! *waves*

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Decoding the secret histories of podcasting

The secret histories of podcasting. Another year. I reckon it’s going to take another year or so before one of two things happen: (1) we get enough space from this so-called “podcast moment” in order to fully assess how deep this medium will be able to etch itself into the average person’s media consumption diet over the long term, or (2) some major market event hits, in which case we’ll see a reactive shrinking of the ad market in general and the drying up of podcasting ad dollars in specific, which’ll leave us with a good look at the real backbone of the industry.

In other words, I reckon it’ll take us another year to figure out whether this podcast thing is actually a bubble. Whether the medium really presents us with the digital future of radio; whether the industry can validate and justify, with evidence, its higher-than-average CPM rates; whether the companies currently making up the landscape can get their shit together and formalize both the way the industry understands itself as well as the way it presents to the external parties (advertisers, consumers, potential cross-media partners); whether the form can truly bring us to greater frontiers of creativity, art, and, perhaps, journalism.

(For the record, I’m bullish on the future of the medium. Obviously. I mean, I work for a podcast company and write a weekly newsletter about podcasts; OF COURSE I believe that there’s no question whether spoken audio will migrate to digital on-demand — it’s only a question of when. Geez.)

Which is all to say I’m looking forward to a point far enough in the future where I can actually try to figure out the historical processes pushing forward this whole thing. Because that, to me, is the really, really fun part. In the meantime, however, I’m going to have to rely on other sources for my historiographical needs.

Take Benjamen Walker, for example. His Radiotopia show Theory of Everything recently took a stab at presenting a version of events in the episode it published last week, titled “The Secret History of Podcasting.” An adaptation of a presentation he gave in a class on podcasting he’s been teaching at the New School this fall, his narrative revolves around the highly successful Kickstarter campaign that Roman Mars launched in October 2012 for his podcast 99% Invisible. At the time, it was the most funded Kickstarter campaign in the journalism category (and the second most funded in the publishing category), raising $175,000 from 5,661 backers. Walker pegs it as the inflection point fueling everything that we’re seeing today. It’s a theory of revolution rooted in business models.

Definitely check out the whole episode — taking, in particular, Walker’s point on the Rashomon quality of how the story’s being told — but what you really want is around the 16:56 mark, where Walker takes the stand: “This Kickstarter, I believe, is the inflection point for the Secret History of Podcasting. It’s really the beginning of everything that’s going on today with podcasts, because that $175,000 came from Roman’s listeners. Not from advertisers, not from investors.”

I love that kind of talk. And of course, if you take it as a way to look at the macro-trends we’re seeing and the direction the larger market appears to be gravitating towards, the claim he’s making might not actually be accurate. (For one thing, a wide swath of non-Radiotopia podcasting companies are definitely throwing their weight behind advertising as the principal growth factor, with relatively less attention being paid to membership-driven revenue diversification, as far as I can tell anyway.) But I like to think that what he’s offering here is both a documentation of that particular corner of the podcasting universe, which is many-fold and diverse in form and content, as well as a kind of historical assertion: In Walker’s ideal future, this is the principal catalyst of all things.

You could also just reject all that and go with the more conventional theory of revolution, which revolves around technology. A version of this was articulated on a recent Recode Decode episode featuring John Borthwick, CEO and cofounder of Betaworks (a “startup studio” here in New York). At around the 28:00 mark, Borthwick pegs the tipping point to an iPhone feature update that came with iOS 8 — the point in which Apple allowed the iPhone to leave Bluetooth turned on by default, which makes podcast consumption in car commutes more seamless and accessible. (There is, of course, a more conventional answer that’s also attached to an Apple development: the company’s decision to include the native Podcasts app on the iPhone by default, also in iOS 8.)

Borthwick also points to a secondary tipping point: Serial, clearly, which brought quick and sudden attention to the pile of quality audio content that has been quietly and slowly accumulating for almost a decade. As he put it: “The pump was primed, but Serial was the show that pushed it forward.”

Anyway, I’m not laying this stuff out to make any point in particular. I just like laying it out. It’s fun, like knitting and Legos.

Speaking of that John Borthwick interview. This was perhaps my favorite segment from the whole chat:

Peter Kafka, Recode: And do you think…these things will just coalesce into a handful of podcast channels dominated by a handful of big players, or just a world where there’s gonna be podcasts that have 10 listeners and someone makes them? The old blog construct, where people originally thought that, ‘Oh, I’m going to blog about my cat’ and someone’ll want to read it, and that went away after time. It turned out that blogging worked much better as a scale business. Do you think podcasting ends up that same way?

Borthwick: Yeah, look, I mean we’re sitting here doing this podcast right now in a studio. And so I think you can see that studio-produced podcasts are significantly better than doing it on your phone. Yes, you can do it on your phone, which is awesome and gives it a degree of accessibility to this medium, but I do think that aggregators will have a role here. I also think that social platforms will have a role here.

Check it out.

Podcast timeline. Vanessa Quirk, a fellow at Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism, whipped a nifty history of podcasting timeline using the Knight Lab’s TimelineJS tool. Look it over, and let her know if there are any additions she should make/consider.

What the hell happened to The Longest Shortest Time? So over the past two weeks, I spilt a lot of digital ink on WNYC Studios, the highly optimistic podcast development initiative that well serves as a signal for a new phase of creativity and opportunity for the station. But a couple of hours after last week’s newsletter dropped, I learned about the cancellation of The Longest Shortest Time, a beloved parenting show that the station had been producing. The cancellation was surprising, abrupt, and confusing; the announcement came out through a post on the show’s Facebook page, and practically no information came out from official WNYC channels.

When I sent an inquiry to the station’s PR team, I received this reply:

We continually review our projects and sometimes wind down partnerships as we look at other projects. We’re proud of the work we’ve done with Hillary, and think The Longest, Shortest Time is valuable content. The episodes we created together will continue to be available to listeners in the WNYC app.

Many readers wrote me asking about the fate of the show, and what went into the station’s decision to let it go. Most of them could not reconcile this news with the launch of WNYC Studios which, in their minds, institutionally served to create more opportunities for shows like The Longest Shortest Time to not only exist, but to thrive.

And I gotta say, I can’t reconcile it for myself either.

“What I can say on the record for now is what I’ve been saying here and there in social media,” Hillary Frank, the host and creator of The Longest Shortest Time, wrote to me when I sent her a note. “This came as a surprise to me, as the show has been the top Kids & Family podcast in iTunes for over a year.” And it came as a surprise to just about everybody I’ve spoken to about this — from the outside, the show had looked like it was going well, and it enjoyed a level of engagement with its audience that other podcasts would presumably kill for. Plus, it felt like the station had been providing the show with adequate resources. Not too long ago, Nieman Lab published an article covering an app that the show created to meaningfully connect with its listeners. WNYC had provided the development support, which was requested when the show first signed on to join the station last year.

The whole thing is a mystery, and a mess. Furthermore, it’s indicative of a problem that WNYC needs to negotiate if it’s going to weather this new digitally-enabled environment, with an increasing number of hungry competitors threatening to steal its talent: The institution needs to be a lot more transparent. And it needs to give people like me, who are trying to understand its side of the story, more material to work with.

(And it needs to pay its producers more. That’s, like, number one.)

“I feel optimistic about finding a new home soon,” Frank tells me. She says that she’s been getting a lot of inquiries from possible new homes, some of which were from interesting and unexpected places. The last I heard, she’s still shopping around — so if you’re a company thinking about investing in some pretty rockin’ podcasting talent, you’d best reach out soon. You can find Hillary on Twitter and on her website.

Gimlet’s upcoming slate of shows. My earballs are happy again. Supporting the notion that there is, indeed, a summer slump and that fall is the true starting point of programming season even in Podcastland, Gimlet rolled out the first episode of a new Startup mini-season on Thursday. For this short run, the show turned the focus back on itself, and the episode is fantastic…okay, wait. It’s more than fantastic.

I think I might’ve already expressed this, but I didn’t really enjoy the second season all that much. Which is not to say that I thought it was bad, necessarily — the season was solid, and the larger ideas the show sought to tackle then were good and ambitious and worth spending so much time unpacking. But the season never really hit the heights of the first, which suggested a kind of misunderstanding of what made that first season so special. A good friend of mine articulated the difference well: The first season was really a bildungsroman, a diaristic coming-of-age story that conveyed impossible stakes through authentic confession. In contrast, the second season tracked like a Wired article — perfectly fine on its own terms, but which gave up a sense of connection because the predominant mode was a subtle negotiation between reporter and subject, as opposed to confessional confidence. The end result just wasn’t…special, which is perhaps an unfair thing to keep asking for, but hey a boy can dream. Last Thursday’s episode was an unambiguous return to form, and tugged my black ol’ heart in ways I haven’t felt in a while. It felt, distinctly, like I had come home.

Anyway, ’nuff of this sappy crap. I’m writing this item because Hot Pod Senior Midwestern Correspondent Joel Leeman reupped the question to me recently.

  • Science Vs (due to launch in 2016, but the iTunes listing is up!)
  • Awesome Boring, now known as Secretly Awesome (though I think it now has another name)
  • A podcast about other podcasts (probably a clip show of some sort)
  • A show probably called Encounters, also known as the new Jonathan Goldstein joint

I also vaguely recall an early job listing for a show that would be an offshoot of an existing media product. Not sure how that project’s going, but the company certainly has a lot in the works.

Radiotopia forever. PRX’s Radiotopia. everybody’s favorite podcast indie label/hippie commune/sound collective, is kicking off its fall fundraising effort, and things are going to work a little differently this time compared to last year’s Kickstarter campaign. Committing to the collective’s vision of mixing up business models to avoid a dependency on advertising, Radiotopia’s fall campaign now allows for a Patreon-like monthly repeated contributions in addition to its one-time donation asks. It’s using a platform called CommitChange to power the campaign.

I haphazardly sent the team a set of questions over email. The awesome Kerri Hoffman, PRX’s chief operating officer, obliged with answers:

How have the developments of the past year affected the design of this campaign, compared to last year’s?

This campaign is about sustained monthly support from loyal listeners who feel they are getting something remarkable with every episode, and want to show their appreciation by donating on an ongoing basis. Radiotopia is a network not just of shows and producers, but a community of listeners. We want to engage our listeners directly. We also are using this opportunity to build our infrastructure of donation processing, record keeping, and communication with our fans.

We propelled Radiotopia forward with Kickstarter and now we are investing in ourselves to keep it going strong.

What are your main goals with the money that y’all will raise?

This campaign is about supporting the shows so they can experiment, continue to push the boundaries and expand with production support, interns, and other things that help them as entrepreneurs. We are committed to free quality shows to the widest possible audience. We are also supporting our corporate partners — this time around with a challenge from Slack. We use Slack as a primary communication tool for Radiotopia and are thrilled to have their support.

A big fundraiser is hard to pull off — it is a lot of communication, planning, data gathering and nimble reaction. The connection to our fans and seeing the way they connect to us — as individual shows and as a network — is worth it in every way.

As for our future plans, Radiotopia will be launching a pilot fund project in early 2016 — more on that soon!

Tell me: Do you feel that future podcasting companies — or media companies in general — should adopt this mixed model of ad sales and fundraising campaigns?

We see support for our shows as a three-legged stool. Listener support, philanthropic, and corporate support are all important pillars for us. We want our funding base to be diversified and strong.

You can check out and/or contribute to the campaign here.

The Bill Simmons Podcast: Early performance. Digiday with the useful writeup recapping the launch of the new Simmons pod. Big plot points for me:

  • “The show’s 10 episodes had been downloaded nearly 4 million times, according to Simmons.”
  • “…advertisers have not only included direct response podcast mainstays such as Squarespace, Stamps.com and ticket site SeatGeek, but also Universal Studios, which ran a brand awareness campaign for Steve Jobs.”

And on a podcast growth note, I particularly enjoyed this piece of insight:

Simmons stands to earn more with his current deal than he did while working with ESPN, where he was paid a salary, not based on how much revenue his podcast made. Simmons, then, has even more reason to attract as many new listeners as possible. He regularly promotes the new show on Twitter, where he has 4.7 million followers, and is likely to promote it further once the HBO show he is slated to host airs next year.

“This system works because all the parties are incentivized in the right way,” said Adam Sachs, CEO of podcast network Midroll Media.

Highly recommend that you check out the article in full, which also includes a stab at what Simmons might have made off the show so far assuming standard CPM rates.

Serial. We’re creeping ever so closer to Season 2. Since this newsletter is dropping on a Tuesday, and I pre-write these things, hey, it could have already dropped by the time you’re reading this, but there’s really no way to know, ‘cuz that crew has kept a. tight. lid. on details.

Two small developments to tide you by:

Rock on, Garth.

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