Today, Explained, explained: Vox enters the daily news podcast race with a comma-happy, personality-driven show

Quick preamble: I was working on my taxes yesterday when I realized that last Thursday marked the two-year point since I incorporated Hot Pod Media LLC. To celebrate the occasion, I’m hauling an old Hot Pod feature out of retirement just for this issue: the unnecessary deployment of irrelevant GIFs. Thanks for being a reader, and to those who’ve been reading me for a while now, thanks for sticking around. I really don’t know where all that time went.

Every Day, Explained. Rejoice, news nerds: We now have a name, a release date, and a sound palette for Vox Media’s upcoming entry into the daily news podcast genre. The show will be called Today, Explained — props for keeping it #onbrand — and it will begin publishing next Monday, February 19. A trailer for the podcast went up yesterday, and it sounds…well, quite different from what I would expect from Vox.com, but entirely in keeping what I would expect from host Sean Rameswaram, whose various hijinks I’ve followed intermittently over the years.

I wrote a preview of the podcast for Vulture that came out yesterday, and I spent much of that article trying to contextualize Today, Explained within the current state of the emerging daily news podcast genre. Now, “emerging” is a word I tend to use a lot (more on that in a bit), at times way too cavalierly, but in the context of this story, the use of the term is literal: It’s been a blast watching this species of podcast come into being.

Two things I’d like to emphasize from the preview:

  • The choice to target the evening commute is a really, really smart one. I’ve argued this before, but I think it’s safe to assume that there might be considerable overlap between the audiences of The New York Times and Vox.com. As such, a move to complement The Daily is significantly more prudent than engaging it as a direct competitor. In any case, even if the overlap was small, the evening commute remains untapped by the daily news podcast to begin with — aside from Mike Pesca’s The Gist, of course, which isn’t really playing the same game anyway. It’s a safer, and therefore more reliable, base to build from, and besides, Today, Explained could always expand with an a.m. version at some point in the future. (Same goes with The Daily and a p.m. version, a prospect that it has previously explored with breaking news specials.)
  • In case it fully doesn’t come across in the writeup: I think Today, Explained’s success will mostly hinge on Sean Rameswaram’s personality — more so, I’d argue, than how Michael Barbaro fits into The Daily as a presence. Which is, I suppose, kind of the point when you bring in someone with a specific sense of showmanship like Rameswaram to headline a project.

And two more things I’d like to add to the preview:

  • Here’s Vox.com general manager Andrew Golis, responding to an inquiry about how the podcast fits into the company’s overall business goals: “It gives us an opportunity to have an audio daily presence in our audience’s life in the way our website does in text and our YouTube channel does in video. That persistent relationship and trust is a powerful platform for building our business…we believe ‘Today, Explained’ will give us a new way to introduce audiences to a growing network of Vox podcasts as we continue to expand our ambitions and programming.”
  • I’d be remiss if I didn’t discuss Midroll Media’s involvement in the production. The Scripps-owned podcast company serves as the exclusive advertising partner for Today, Explained, but I’m also told that they provided upfront investment to help assemble the team and build out the production. Chris Bannon, Midroll’s chief content officer, was also involved in the development of the show. “Creatively speaking, I spent a day in D.C. with the Vox team, and together we started sourcing host and staff candidates,” explained Bannon over email. “Right now we’re in the fun part, listening to show drafts and sharing notes. They’re alarmingly well-organized, cheerful, and efficient.” Bannon, by the way, worked with Rameswaram back when he was still at WNYC. (He left for Midroll in early 2015.)

When asked about his perspective on the potential of Today, Explained, Bannon offered an analogy. “I think we want Today, Explained to be All Things Considered to the The Daily’s Morning Edition,” he said. “Except that we will be more like All Things Considered’s smart, funny, well-informed, and streetwise uncle.”

“Streetwise uncle” sounds about right.

On a related note: I heard there’s some big news coming later today on The Daily. Keep your eyes peeled.

What comes next for the Fusion Media Group. Last week, The Onion binge-dropped A Very Fatal Murder, the satirical news site’s first stab at a long-form audio project. The show was designed to parody the wildly popular — and eminently bankable! — true-crime podcast genre, which is an appealing premise right off the bat: indeed, there’s no team I’d love to see interpret the phenomenon more than the brains behind The Onion. A Very Fatal Murder turned out to be enjoyable enough, no more and no less, though I did end up thinking it didn’t come anywhere close to realizing its promise as podcast satire.

But there’s a thing, and then there’s everything around the thing. And despite the minor swing and miss of A Very Fatal Murder, I was nonetheless left quite excited about the prospect of future projects from The Onion, and curious about what’s going on with the audio team at The Onion’s parent company, Fusion Media Group (FMG).

So I checked in with Mandana Mofidi, FMG’s executive director of audio. In case you’re unfamiliar, FMG is the sprawling, multi-tentacled corporation best known in some circles — mine, namely — for absorbing the remains of the Gawker empire post-Terry Bollea lawsuit in the form of the Gizmodo Media Group that spans Gizmodo, io9, Jezebel, and others. A television arm factors in somewhere, as does the city of Miami.

Anyway, Mofidi tells me that since her team kicked off operations about a year ago, they’ve been playing around with a couple of ideas and formats to see what would stick. Weekly interview and chat shows made up the early experiments, which apparently ended up working well for Lifehacker (The Upgrade), Kotaku (Splitscreen), and Deadspin (Deadcast). But following the reception they received for A Very Fatal Murder as well as Containers, Alexis Madrigal’s audio documentary about the sexy, sexy world of international shipping from last year, more plans have to been put in place to build out further narrative projects.

Mofidi’s overarching goal this year, it seems, is to ensure that each of FMG’s properties gets a solid podcast of their own. To that end, they have several projects in various stages of development, including:

  • A six-part narrative series from Gizmodo about “a controversial and charismatic spiritual guru who uses the internet to build her obsessive following.” That show is being developed with Pineapple Street Media, which appears to be really carving out a niche around themes of obsession, charismatic leaders, and the followings they spawn, following Missing Richard Simmons and Heaven’s Gate.
  • A show for Jalopnik called Tempest, which will examine “the funny and at times tragic intersectionality of people and cars.”
  • A series that “explores the connectivity of our DNA” — which evokes memories of Gimlet’s Twice Removed — featuring Grammy Award-winning artist René Pérez, a.k.a. Residente. Gretta Cohn’s Transmitter Media is assisting with this project.
  • A collaboration with The California Endowment that’ll produce stories on young activists “who are using their platforms to promote solidarity between different communities and causes.”

Mofidi also talked about an intent to dig deeper into events. “We recently did a live taping of Deadspin’s Deadcast in St. Paul before the Super Bowl. We were expecting to sell about 200 tickets, but ended up with over 360 people,” she said. The smart speaker category is also of interest, along with figuring out ways to collaborate with FMG’s aforementioned television arm.

I asked Mofidi if she had any dream projects that she’d love to produce in her role. “A daily show,” she wrote back. “It would be ambitious, but with so many passionate voices across our sites it feels like something we could do in a way that was distinct.”

Related reading: Publishers with TV ambitions are pursuing Netflix.

We’re back with this nonsense: “Public media again in bull’s-eye in president’s FY19 plans.” Re-upping my column from the last time we were in this mess, on why it’s bad in ways you already know and in more ways you don’t.

And while I’m linking Current, the public media publication just announced the new host for its podcast, The Pub: Annie Russell, currently an editor at WBEZ.

Pod Save America heads to HBO. Surprise, surprise. Crooked Media’s flagship podcast is heading to the premium cable network with a series of hour-long specials that will follow the Obama bros — that’s former Obama aides Jon Favreau, Tommy Vietor, and Jon Lovett, in case you’re unfamiliar with the deep-blue podcast phenomenon — as they host live tapings on the campaign trail for what will most definitely be a spicy midterm election season this fall. This is the latest addition to the newly buzzy trend of podcasts being adapted for film and television, and the deal for this adaptation in particular was handled by WME.

Over at Vulture, I tried to turn a series of dots into a squiggly shape linking this development, the recent debut of 2 Dope Queens’ HBO specials, and HBO’s relationship with Bill Simmons to say something about the premium cable network’s potential strategic opportunities with podcasting. Put simply: Traditional standup comedy programming is getting more expensive due to the pressure of Netflix’s infinitely large war chest, and one could argue that certain types of conversational podcast programming offer HBO an alternative resource to adapt and develop content that can potentially hit the same kind of experience and pleasure beats you’d get from conventional standup TV specials.

But sometimes dots are just dots, and those aren’t really constellations in the sky — just random, meaningless arrangements of stars that are indifferent to your experience of them.

Happy Valentine’s Day.

Meanwhile, in the nonprofit world. This one’s pretty interesting: Tiny Spark, the Amy Costello-led independent nonprofit news outfit that covers the world of philanthropy and nonprofits, has been acquired by Nonprofit Quarterly, which is…well, a much larger independent nonprofit news organization that covers the world of philanthropy and nonprofits. “Amy…has done an exceptional job building the audience for her podcast. We are excited not only to add this new media channel to our organization, but also to collaborate with Amy to expand our reach into public radio,” said Joel Toner, NPQ’s president and chief operating officer.

As part of this arrangement, NPQ owns Tiny Spark’s intellectual property and Amy Costello is brought on as a senior correspondent to lead the organization’s investigative journalism work, podcast development, and public radio outreach. “Tiny Spark’s work fits very well into the topics we cover at NPQ,” said Toner, when asked about the strategic thinking behind the acquisition. “Additionally, our 2017 annual audience survey confirmed that our readers had a significant interest in having us develop a podcast channel.”

I’d like to point out just how much this arrangement reminds me of the one that was struck between USA Today and Robin Amer, which I profiled last week. Speaking of which…

A quick update to last week’s item on The City. In the piece, I talked a little bit about the USA Today Network’s podcast plans for 2018, chiefly drawing information from a summer 2017 press release the organization circulated when they first announced the acquisition of The City. The plans mostly involve launching more podcasts across its properties.

The company reached out to let me know that their thinking has since evolved. “The network already produces dozens of podcasts across its 109-plus sites, but is now focusing on a handful of those shows to support with resources and marketing à la The City,” wrote Liz Nelson, the USA Today Network’s vice president of strategic content development. “At the time [the press release] was written, we did have 60-plus podcasts — most of which bubbled up organically at the local level. We’re closer to 40 now. That number will continue to ebb and flow and we encourage experimentation at the local level, which gives our journalists the space they need to experiment in the medium.”

Nelson added: “But from a network level, we are not putting the same amount of resources we’ve put into The City into every single show. We’re concentrating on a smaller set of shows we believe can have national impact.”

Hold this thought. We’re going to talk about other stuff for a bit, but we’ll get back to this notion of resource focus.

“It amuses me,” wrote Traug Keller, ESPN’s senior vice president of audio, in a corporate blog post touting the sport media giant’s podcasting business, “when I read about podcasting in the media with references to it being ‘new’ or ’emerging.'”

Keller continued:

As ESPN has done with other technologies — be it cable TV in 1979, the Internet in the ’90s, HD television or mobile initiatives more recently — we embraced podcasting as soon as we could and ran with it — even if we didn’t always know where we would end up! We launched our first podcast way back in 2005. A head start is often critical in a competitive business environment.

I also chuckle when people refer to podcasting as some mysterious new format to figure out. I’ve spent a career in audio, and I can tell you the key ingredients for compelling audio are constant…

Yeah, I don’t know, dude.

The borderline condescending tone of the post isn’t exactly something I’d want to hear from a company whose public narrative is one of crisis on multiple fronts — from the disruption of its cable-bundle–reliant business model to layoffs to its uneven handling of social media policies to the uncertain future of a gamble on OTT distribution — let alone a podcast publisher whose Podtrac ranking placement (as always, disclaimers of that service here and here) is powered by what is still largely a spray-and-pray strategy, in which 82 shows are deployed to bring in 35 million global unique monthly downloads. For reference, the infinitely smaller PRX team gets 4 million more with less than half that number of shows (34 podcasts), while NPR bags three times more downloads with just 42 podcasts that don’t at all traffic in naturally addictive sports content.

To be clear, I am, very generally speaking, more appreciative of a world with a strong (and better) ESPN in it than one without. And let me also just say that I really like some of its recent moves in on-demand audio, namely the creation of the 30 for 30 Podcast and having Katie Nolan launch her own show.

But I just don’t think very highly of this whole “oh we’ve been doing this for a long time/we were doing this first therefore we are super wise” mindset that either mistakes early sandbox dabblings for meaningful first-mover value creation or simply being first for being noteworthy. To be fair, this isn’t a knock that exclusively applies to Keller’s blog post; that thinking governs an alarming share of press releases and huffy emails that hit my inbox. But here’s the thing: I really don’t think it matters whether you did first. What mostly matters is if you did it right. Which is to say: If you invented Facebook, dammit, you’d have invented Facebook. Furthermore, as it stands, if there’s anything I’m acutely aware of writing this newsletter every week, it’s that, much like everywhere else, nobody really knows anything. It’s just a bunch of people working really hard, trying to figure this whole podcast thing out.

Anyway. I normally try not to be too worked up about anything, but this stuff really bugs me, and goodness, there’s nothing I would love more than to take this mindset, strap it onto the next Falcon Heavy rocket, and launch it straight into the dying sun.

Still, credit should be given where’s credit due: The post goes on to discuss what I think is a really positive development for ESPN’s podcast business:

To get there, we pared our lineup — once numbering in triple digits — to about 35, focusing on the most popular offerings (NFL, MLB, and NBA) and other niche topics where we can “own” the category. It’s a “less is more” strategy, where we can better produce and promote a smaller lineup.

Which reminds me of something…

After spray-and-pray. ESPN’s move to pare down and focus its overflowing podcast portfolio reminds me of another podcast publisher that’s been pretty active since the first podcast boom: NPR.

NPR’s podcast inventory, too, once numbered in the triple digits. In August 2005, its directory housed around 174 programs, 17 of which were NPR originals while others were shows from member stations that the public radio mothership were distributing on their behalf. (That practice has since been terminated.) The show number peaked around 2009, when the directory supported about 390 podcasts.

“Back in those days, podcasts were hard to access and only the really digitally savvy listeners could find and download them,” an NPR spokesperson told me. “We were experimenting and we were excited with the possibility of putting out NPR content on-demand, repackaging content that had aired about specific topics, seeing what the audience would like…It also allowed for additional creativity in programming, podcasts could be a sandbox for piloting new ideas.” Some of those ideas eventually grew into segments and radio shows of their own, but these podcasts mostly ended up being an unruly system of small, quiet, under-the-radar projects.

All that changed with this most recent podcasting boom, which started in the latter half of 2014. Around that time, a focused effort was made to identify and retain shows that fit a certain set of criteria that included having a native podcast experience (and not just recycled segments from existing shows), strong listener communities, an alignment with the organization’s business needs, and so on. The rest were culled. By the end, NPR was left with 25 shows. “Our thinking was that by having a smaller portfolio, we could draw more attention to them, serve them better, cross-promote, bring sponsorship support, create significant reach,” the spokesperson said.

The move felt like a gamble at the time, but it paid off. “While everyone expected our downloads to go down, within two months, downloads were somewhere near 50 million a month,” remembered Audible’s Eric Nuzum, then vice president of programming at NPR. “Within a year, it was over 80.”

That number is now 110 million. The point of this little parable is…well, I don’t think I have to spell it out. You get the picture.

Call Your 2018. There are few teams I admire more than the trio behind Call Your Girlfriend, the podcast for long-distance besties everywhere: journalist Ann Friedman, international woman of mystery Aminatou Sow, and radio producer Gina Delvac. The show has, over its nearly four years of existence, evolved from a fun side project to stay connected into something so much more than that. It is, in equal parts, a platform, a community, and an ever-growing resource. And if the enthusiasm of some friends of mine who consider themselves devout CYG fans are any indicator, Call Your Girlfriend is also damn close to being a full-fledged movement.

Last year was a difficult one for the team, given the political environment, but it was also a call to arms to which they responded with vigor. “Despite the trash-fire that was 2017 in America,” they wrote me, “Better yet, because of it, we wanted CYG to function as a place of refuge for our listeners, and for ourselves.” This translated into an interview schedule that was dense with guests that spoke directly to the moment — including but not limited to Hillary Rodham Clinton, Kirsten Gillibrand, Margaret Atwood, and Ellen Pao — as well as a multipart series on women running for office that featured sit-downs with first-time candidates and organizations that support women seeking political office. The team also worked to push the show creatively, producing a special episode on pelvic pain and trauma and occasionally handing the mic over to other podcasting teams, like Who? Weekly’s Lindsey Weber and Bobby Finger along with Good Muslim Bad Muslim’s Tanzila Ahmed and Zahra Noorkbakhsh.

The year was also fruitful for Call Your Girlfriend’s business. Though specific numbers were not disclosed, I’m told that the show’s revenues — which come from a combination of ad sales, live events, and a healthy merchandising arm — far exceeded their original targets. More ambitious goals were set for the new year.

We’re neck-deep into the second month of 2018, so I thought it was a good a time as any to check in with the team about their plans for the coming months, their thoughts on how the industry has changed, and their commitment to being independent. They were kind enough to oblige:

[storybreak]

[conl]Hot Pod: What are y’all hoping to do this year?[/conl]

[conr]Call Your Girlfriend: One of our first interviews of the year was with Cameron Esposito, and we loved her answer to everyone who’s told her she’s too loud or too gay: She’s simply getting gayer and louder. Likewise here at CYG, we’re getting more political, more feminist, and more obsessed with the transformative power of friendship.

Editorially, we’re both digging in and branching out. We’ll be featuring more of our sheroes as well as women whose stories you haven’t heard yet. We’re deepening our work with political candidates who will (hopefully) be running our country soon, and the writers, critics, and artists whose interpretive work helps us endure. We have a number of themed episodes in the works.

We’re also each taking on more as individuals: Amina is sharing more of her personal experience with illness and grief, Ann is bringing more of her stellar reporting and editorial strategy evident in her many bylines and newsletter to the podcast, and Gina is stepping in front of the mic to host an upcoming episode about sex.

We’re also hiring our first ever associate producer! Applications just closed, so we’ll be excited to announce the newest member of our coven in the coming weeks.[/conr]

[conl]Hot Pod: How has it grown over the years?[/conl]

[conr]Call Your Girlfriend: We are very happy that we’ve stayed independent, and we’re working on some more official/structured ways of helping newer, like-minded independent podcasts find their footing as well. We’re also working on ways to leverage our listeners’ incredible political engagement. Our audience — primarily millenial women — drives book sales, ticket sales, merch sales, charitable donations in the tens of thousands and more. Folks on our mailing list are even volunteering to donate their blood for a national drive we’ll be announcing soon.

Part of how we’ve stayed independently owned is through the ads Midroll sells on our behalf. We’ve heard from the partnerships team that our sell-through rates are excellent, and our audience is a highly prized demographic segment. From a pure capitalistic standpoint, there are more advertisers recognizing the buying power in our demo than available ad inventory. We’d like to see more women behind the mic for myriad reasons, including getting paid. We’d also like to see more and better products and services that our audience will enjoy. We’re looking into ways to carve open more space, to bring revenue to great projects and better ads to fit women’s outsized purchasing power. (Weight-loss products need not apply. We love women of all sizes.)[/conr]

[conl]Hot Pod: How do you see Call Your Girlfriend right now, and how has the vision for the show changed over time?[/conl]

[conr]Call Your Girlfriend: When we started, this was a project to stay connected to one another and have fun. We still do that, but we’ve added a number of elements outside the podcast itself along the way. Like the music touring model, that’s mainly meant live events and selling merch. Now and looking into the future, we see Call Your Girlfriend as a great clearinghouse for authentic content for ladies who get it. We’re always thinking about bigger projects in audio, as well as TV, digital, political action, and more.

We’ve talked about engagement, but on a qualitative level our fans respond and show up the way that close friends do. The live shows are a great example. We see friends in cahoots who seem like lifelong besties — and then discover they’ve just met. The number of friends who’ve planned road trips or flown in to be with their long-distance BFF for our shows is astonishing. The community around what we do is really positive and powerful. So we’re interested in adding to that experience as much as possible, that sense of pride and belonging, whether it’s on stage, in your earbuds, on a t-shirt or, perhaps, a screen.[/conr]

[conl]Hot Pod: What’s worrying you guys?[/conl]

[conr]Call Your Girlfriend: As exciting as it’s been to see the emergence of so many new shows and projects, it seems harder than ever for new self-funded shows to find their footing. In an ad-centric model, it takes a lot of work to build a sizeable audience. Audience support has practical challenges. And while we’re excited about the energy around podcasting from media companies, not everyone has the production and marketing budget to invest to help insure a smash hit.

Discoverability remains a challenge. We’re also interested to see whether the proliferation of connected cars, smart home devices, and other access points to audio make it easier to entice brand new listeners.

Finally, for us and shows like ours, hosted by women who are overtly political, we worry about being overlooked or diminished, particularly when compared with similar endeavors that feature men. We specialize in conversations among politically-savvy women who are running things or will be soon. We blend serious discussion of the policies that dramatically impact women’s lives with a good dose of banter. We hope that audiences and industry watchers see that our delight in friendship is completely in line with the seriousness of our analysis and aims. We’re here for every facet of women’s humanity.[/conr]

[conl]Hot Pod: What have you been seeing with the rollout of Apple’s new podcast analytics?[/conl]

[conr]Call Your Girlfriend: It’s been really interesting to run a weekly show with the emergence of so many serialized and/or seasonal programming, watching which episodes really pop and which ones less so. It’s causing us to think critically about re-engagement, promotion, and leaning into vs expanding our style of content.[/conr]

[conl]Hot Pod: Has it been difficult staying independent?[/conl]

[conr]Call Your Girlfriend: It hasn’t been hard for us to stay independent — that’s remained one of our core values — but as we each advise fellow podcasters we recognize that these are very different waters to wade into. Listeners are getting really sophisticated, which is great. But, that makes it harder to learn as you go. There’s much less room to fudge things like your show’s editorial framing, ill-considered artwork, or audio quality. And kind of like your inner circle of friends, once you have core besties, you limit how many new intimates you take on, by necessity.[/conr]

[conl]Hot Pod: Finally, is there anything else you’d like to talk about?[/conl]

[conr]Call Your Girlfriend: Anyone who has money to burn, talk to us. You’re a fool not to talk to us. We’re killing it.[/conr]

[storybreak]

Bites:

    • This is Love, the limited-run spinoff series from the team behind Radiotopia’s Criminal, is rolling out this week just in time for Valentine’s Day. Should be perfect for those who enjoy a steaming plate of romance with a side of spiders. (Website)
    • WBEZ debuted Making Obama, the Chicago public radio station’s followup to Making Oprah, last week. As previously mentioned, I’m personally psyched for the entire “Making” model, and its Hearken-like potential for local radio stations across the country. Snazzy landing page, too. (Said landing page)
    • FiveThirtyEight’s whiz kid Harry Enten has left the Nate Silver-led statistical analysis site to join CNN. Enten was a fixture on the site’s politics podcast, which I’ve always thought is one of the more entertaining and informative in the genre. Just as a reminder: There’s been some hubbub about FiveThirtyEight possibly being sold off. It’s currently owned by ESPN.
    • However unclear the path forward might be for a reputable public radio station mired in controversy, the show must go on. Last week, WNYC launched Trump, Inc., a collaboration with ProPublica that endeavors to answer basic questions on how the president’s business works — a set of facts that remain quite murky. The fine folks at Nieman Lab have some deets.
    • Speaking of Trump content, NPR’s Embedded is back with another season on the current presidential administration. (Show listing)
    • “Podcasting Is the New Soft Diplomacy.” The underlying premise here isn’t particularly novel, but there are some nice ideas in this Bryan Curtis piece that help illustrate soft power in the age of digitally distributed media intimacy. (The Ringer)
  • TheSkimm, that popular media company whose morning newsletter product reaches more than 6 million largely female readers, has launched its first podcast. (Though, it’s not the company’s first audio product. That would be the Skimm Notes feature that’s packaged into its app.) The show is called Skimm’d from The Couch, and it takes the shape of a career advice vessel in the minor key of Guy Raz’s How I Built This. (Official blog)

[photocredit]Photo of Sean Rameswaram by James Bareham/Vox Media.[/photocredit]

Subcast wants to bring podcast publishers and smart-speaker users together

First-tinkerer advantage. There should be little doubt over who will set the terms for voice-first computing in its early going, whether via smart speaker or whatever comes immediately after that. Barring the apocalypse (in which case, we’ll be doubting a great many other things), it’ll be some combination of Amazon, Google, and/or Apple, though it does seem Amazon’s formidable lead might render the latter two irrelevant for quite some while. There is, however, a followup question to ponder: Who will end up governing and facilitating the media pipes within that voice-first environment? Will it be Amazon itself, or some high-profile serf like Spotify or Pandora? Or will it be a whole new team altogether?

One such team hoping to claim the mantle is Subcast, a company founded by a group of former Medium operatives — Cara Meverden, CEO; Saul Carlin, president; and Daniel McCartney, CTO — who worked at the platisher back when it was still jonesing to build ever-lasting partnerships with premium publishers. Sensing opportunity, they’re now focused on developing listening experiences that bridge podcast publishers and the smart-speaker user base. The company officially launched in December, but the team has been working away at the problem since last April. They found the time to raise a seed round in-between.

So what, exactly, is that gap-bridging experience? The way Subcast sees it, the game is to figure out the sweet spot that lies somewhere between the on-demand (and active) nature of podcasts and the linear (and passive) nature of ye’ old radio — and, to some extent, reconcile the two paradigms. “We’ve historically seen this artificial split between podcasts and radio,” Carlin said. “What happens when those two modes of listening converge with voice?”

For now, Subcast has constructed its initial hypothesis around something that looks like a playlist as the atomic unit of the smart speaker audio experience — though, of course, it’s a playlist with some technical complexities. Each playlist, which they’re calling “stations,” is an automatically generated composition that pulls the latest episodes from curated podcast feeds. I’m told that stations pull directly from RSS feeds in a manner roughly indistinguishable from a podcatcher, which means downloads are counted and ad experiences are left intact. Subcast is manually curating feeds for now, often informing podcasts they’ve been selected only after they’ve been included.

Currently, each station exists as its own skill in the Alexa marketplace, and this configuration has the convenient advantage of making them somewhat easier for new Echo owners to bump into and try out. “Most people are finding them simply by going through the Alexa skill portal,” Meverden said. For now, stations are built around different topical focuses. There’s “Conservative Talk Radio,” “Bachelor Nation Radio,” and so on. One imagines that there are more station composition styles to discover beyond topicality, and Carlin tells me there are some designs to try out curatorial efforts from the Subcast-using community in the future. All of this is bolstered by an overarching enterprise to create a multi-modal listening experience; that is, a setup in which users can seamlessly transition their podcast consumption as they move between their smart speaker, car, and phone. Subcast is doing this primarily by producing companion apps for those other contexts — available now for iPhone and Android! etc. etc. — that are all linked by unique user IDs.

So, yeah, it’s all pretty nifty, though nothing particularly revolutionary, but that isn’t really the point. At least, not right now. Subcast’s fundamental gambit revolves around early rapid experimentation for the Alexa platform and the broader voice-first contexts, which are still prehistoric. It’s a shrewd way to get in front of the curve and to tether fortunes on the long-term growth of the smart-speaker category. For what it’s worth, the Subcast team is bullish on the prospect, and further emboldened by Amazon’s machinations at the recent Consumer Electronics Show. “They’re hiring like crazy — it goes well beyond Amazon products,” Carlin said. “It’s an Alexa Everywhere strategy that puts the platform into third-party hardware. They want people to see that it goes beyond smart speakers. Not just in the Echo, but also cars. Not just private spaces, but public.”

“It’s also the case with Google,” Meverden added. “They’re very much a part of this land grab.” And so, it seems, is Subcast.

Three more things:

  • “One of the primary attributes of radio is that it’s everywhere,” Carlin asserted when we spoke over the phone last week. I’ve always been fascinated by that characterization, which is not uncommonly held. Indeed, it’s a strategic assumption commonly espoused and wielded by NPR, since perhaps forever. Carlin went on to connect the notion with the probable teleology of smart speakers — or voice-first computing, or whatever we’re calling these days — that they, too, will one day be everywhere. It is at that point that I’m struck by just how the asserted everywhere-ness of radio (and soon, voice) lays pretty well onto the insistent everything-ness of Amazon. It’s a techno-capitalist match made in heaven, and further suggestion that, indeed, at the end of the day, the Bezos comes for us all.
  • This whole Subcast “linear vs. on-demand: what’s voice got to do with it” line of inquiry has got me thinking, somewhat tangentially, about the relative arbitrariness of delineating Podcastland based on its technical nature of being on-demand. The way the podcast ecosystem is hosted, delivered, and consumed will inevitably change at some point in the near future, evolving away from its RSS-oriented, smartphone-driven, and download-defined composition toward a future composition made up of god knows what. How then will we consider, appraise, and apply valuation onto it? It’s also worth noting the very same question can and should be applied to how the podcast industry today relates to the digital audio world that came before. In many ways, you could say that what the past ten years of podcast evolution have wrought is less a whole new category of media product, but a whole new community of media creators. To rephrase this paragraph as a clarifying question: What defines the industry/ecosystem — its structural characteristics, or the community that has identified into it?
  • So I’m pretty certain this smart speaker business is going to be a thing. But I’ll admit that I personally have a complicated relationship with my own Echo device. To begin with, my wife makes me unplug it when I’m not being actively using it, because security anxieties, and it’s come to a point where I’m using it when I’m alone in the apartment working. Which is to say, it’s been more trouble than it’s worth. (Despite being relatively young, I am ruined by constant crouching over to plug/unplug.) Now, I’m not going to pretend that I’m a normal, representative human being, but I imagine this whole security bugaboo is actually going to become really, loudly prominent at some point…more so than it has up until now, anyway.

Let’s get out of my apartment and back to the news.

This week in platforms. Meanwhile, back in the contemporary media ecosystem…

(1) Two for Spotify:

  • Last week, it announced the impending rollout of something called Spotlight, a new media format that layers minor visual elements on top of talk audio programming from partner publishers. Seems pretty Snapchat Stories-esque in structural positioning, early-Acast-esque in format experimentation. Initial publishers will include Gimlet Media (a pre-existing homie), BuzzFeed (“strategic changes“), Crooked Media, Refinery29, and Cheddar, among others. For what it’s worth, I don’t quite buy into the “Spotify v. Apple” or the “Spotify’s gambit to listeners away from Apple” narrative just yet. For one thing, there’s a whole universe of value in defining your own media format. For another, the overall pie could always get bigger.
  • AdExchanger recently published an interview with the company’s global head of ads monetization Brian Benedik, who disclosed that it’s begun monetizing its original podcasts — though it’s selling direct for now — and that it’s seeing incoming interest from agencies and brands to play with its podcast inventory. Also: It’s working on “applying the recommendation engines” it has for music to podcasts. Which sounds vaguely similar to Pandora CEO Roger Lynch wanting to create the “Podcast Genome Project.” If you’ve got a hammer…

(2) And two for Apple:

  • Cupertino is hiring a content producer for its Siri Audio News team, who will “be responsible for the health of the podcast and audio news catalogs and act as our front-line point of provider support.” The job position has the glamorous title of “digital supply chain, technical producer.” Here’s the relevant context, and here’s that job posting.
  • This is interesting: “Today Apple launches Apple Music for Artists, a dashboard designed to provide acts with hundreds of data points giving deep analytical insight into their fans’ listening and buying habits.” Billboard has the exclusive.

Winter-bound. I’m not personally a Winter Olympics stan, but I do love me some athlete profile #content. NBC Sports, anticipating the voluminous needs of many sports-hungry Americans, has been prepping for battle to satisfy the masses across a wide variety of platforms. This year, those preparations will include podcasts, as NBC Sports announced this morning that it has partnered with Vox Media to produce “the official NBC Olympics Podcast” to cover the festivities. Called The Podium, the podcast will be published daily throughout the event starting February 8. A few things to note: The show will be recorded on-site in the South Korean city of Pyeongchang and will be executive produced by Vox Media audio head Nishat Kurwa.

I asked Vox Media whether it had any updates on the Sean Rameswaram daily explainer show, but no dice.

Relay FM outlook. The independent podcast network, led by the transatlantic duo Myke Hurley and Stephen Hackett, had a pretty stellar 2017 that saw formidable gains across its portfolio of technology- and niche-oriented conversational programming. I’ve been tracking the network pretty closely since profiling them in the summer of 2016, and I recently thought to check in with Hurley, who was more than happy to discuss the past twelve months and share some numbers.

“In the past we have been pretty secretive with sharing too many hard numbers about the company,” he said. “But we are really proud of what we achieved in 2017, so we’re ready to open up a little more than we have before.” (An echo of Slate editor-in-chief Julia Turner’s “happy numbers” quip from last week.)

Here are those digits:

  • In 2017, Relay FM saw its revenue grow by 23 percent compared to the year before, beating its goal.
  • The network enjoyed an average of 2 million downloads a month, which bundles up to about 24 million downloads for the whole year. That’s up from 18.3 million in 2016, and 12.4 million in 2015 (which was Relay FM’s first full calendar year of operation).
  • If you’re crunching the numbers, it’s worth noting that RelayFM ended the year with 25 shows in active operation. The network launched four shows last year, three of which did not carry any advertising — they had planned for that — which means the revenue growth largely comes from increases in price and sell-throughs of existing inventory. For further context, the network launched in the summer of 2014 with five shows.

Hurley notes that Relay FM is sticking to a 20 percent revenue growth target for 2018, and that the network is already on track to beat it. New show launches are also on the docket, and I’m told the team intends to play around with new formats, configurations, and topic areas. To branch out, in other words, from the playbook that has served it so well.

“We feel pretty good about where we are, and we have a good runway to the year ahead,” Hurley said, when I asked about his perspective on the year ahead. “Of course, there’s always a worry that the bottom could fall out of the advertising market, but this doesn’t seem very likely, considering trends of the last few years. And we could lose our audiences somehow, but as long as we stay the course we’re on, that doesn’t seem likely either.” Relay FM will turn four years old in 2018 — a lifetime, in some circles — and across its existence, it’s established a strong operational foundation, figured out a formula that’s worked well for it, and slinked into each successive phase with confidence.

You could largely pin that confidence on the bullishness Hurley and Hackett feel about how podcast advertising has grown up to this point — and how they expect it change in the months to come. Hurley writes:

We have seen increased advertiser interest so far this year, and this is something that’s been scaling over time. I expect that in 2018 we will start to see even bigger companies try their hand at some branding campaigns, but I expect (especially for Relay FM) that our bread and butter will remain in the type of direct response advertising we are seeing right now.

I also expect to see a rise in more agencies trying to represent brands, attempting to sell spots to multiple podcast networks. We are seeing more and more companies that are trying to do this, but mostly they are attempting to represent the same advertisers we already work with. Podcasting is a hot commodity right now, and I don’t expect that to change any time soon, and if new agencies want to get off the ground, they need to branch out and try to convince more brands to give this a try.

I asked Hurley how he feels the industry has changed since he quit his job in 2014 to start the network, and more pointedly, whether it’s harder for independent podcast outfits to exist today. “There’s more of a focus on this industry than there has ever been,” Hurley said. This is, he goes on to note, a double-edged sword, and in his thinking, the increased attention has translated to more advertiser dollars and potential returns, but also a situation where the barriers to starting a sustainable podcast production business are greater than ever. “Trying to carve out your piece of that pie is getting harder as there are more people trying to grab it,” he said.

Hurley added: “We are established at this point, and luckily our path has ensured that we were there at just the right time…if we were starting out today I expect it would be harder for us.”

Joe Frank, the legendary radio producer-personality-artist, died last Monday at the age of 79. His considerable body of work — mind-bending, line-blurring, often surreal, always alluringly dark — deeply influenced a significant portion of the creative generations that currently define, challenge, and reshape radio aesthetics in this podcasting era. A small sample of those he influenced: Ira Glass, Jad Abumrad, Jonathan Goldstein, Glynn Washington, Kaitlin Prest, Andrea Silenzi, Joe Richman, and Scott Carrier, among so many others. Frank may have no heirs, as the writer Mark Oppenheimer observed in a recent profile, but his disciples are legion.

Do spend some time to sit down with that profile, by the way. The piece by Oppenheimer, who is also the host of Tablet’s Unorthodox podcast, went up on Slate last Friday, and it’s rich, fascinating, and lovely. It also doubles as the man’s final interviews before his death:

Frank was chagrined, even a little embarrassed, that he hadn’t made radio for the last couple of years. He knew that the podcast revolution is a big feast at a table he set. “There is something about all these podcasts, the kind of thing I think is, ‘They don’t even know that I started it! They don’t even know where this came from!'”

Again, don’t miss it. And when you’re done with the profile, here are some other things remembering Frank that you should check out:

And then check out his website, where a good deal of his work can be found behind a paywall.

Career spotlight. This week, I traded emails with Whitney Simon, who covers business development — among many other responsibilities, I imagine — for the Los Angeles-based podcast network Headgum. I don’t think I’ve done one of these career spotlights with someone who’s working on the business side before. Given the general scope of interests in this newsletter, that’s pretty surprising to me. As an aside, I love spreadsheets.

Tell me about your current situation.

I’m currently the Business Development Executive at Headgum. Headgum was founded in 2015 by Jake Hurwitz, Amir Blumenfeld, and Marty Michael. I’ve been with them nearly two years now and was our first full-time employee.

In the big picture, Marty and I handle the business side of things. I spend most of my day selling advertisements against our show roster and investing in the client relations and brand partnerships that come along with that. I’m also responsible for our revenue tracking and financial analysis, running the invoicing and billing systems, and thinking strategically about our growth as a company. I transitioned into the biz dev role about a year ago and now manage our ad ops coordinator and any business interns we might have.

In addition, we’re constantly retooling the workflows and systems we use to better serve us, as Marty and I built them out ourselves. I’m grateful that the guys give me the freedom to really run with their vision in that sense. Because our staff is also still small, I get to dabble in a whole host of other things: UI design, talent acquisition, hiring practices, etc.

How did you get to this point? What does your career arc thus far look like?

When I was in college, I went through the admissions process for Green Corps (the field school for community organizing). The process is fairly intensive because they, and more than 100 other environmental and social justice organizations in the US, are part of one umbrella organization: The Public Interest Network (TPIN). Many of those organizations attract attention from opposition research firms, so TPIN has built out a great internal recommendation program. As a result, my application landed on the desk of the team that manages the grants operations for the entire organization. They offered me a position post-graduation and, after spending a summer working in Montana, I moved to Los Angeles in the fall of 2015 to join TPIN’s central staff.

In my role at TPIN, I was managing the (c)(3) and (c)(4) grants operations for Environment America and Green Corps and then consulting on writing and edits for a number of other organizations. The job was fascinating and intensely stressful. No matter if you made a mistake or did your job perfectly, kids’ school lunches or statewide environmental protections were always on the line. We were working 14-hour days at the office and to combat the risk of burn-out, I started listening to podcasts on my commute to give me a jolt of energy and inspiration. A few months in, I ran into a health issue, which led me to then decide to leave the position.

I gave myself three weeks to apply to any job in LA that had ever interested me, and it was during this time I shot off an email to Headgum. After not getting a response, I tracked down Marty’s assistant at the time and cold-emailed her. It turned out they had no open positions, but she called me two weeks later when she left for a different job and brought me in to meet the team. And that’s how I quickly transitioned from a large bureaucratic and historic organization to an incredibly fast-paced, relatively new one.

What does a career mean to you, at this point?

Thinking of a career today, I’d like to be useful in the world. When I look at people whose careers really impress me, they tend to be those who pull others up with them, are generous with their time and resources, and are genuinely excited by and curious about their work. We live in a time of such political, economic, and environmental uncertainty and that certainly affects people’s professional lives by the day. I’m always blown away by people who choose to bring attention or comfort to those who feel alone, oppressed, and/or unseen in the world. It’s going to be fascinating, and hopefully only mildly horrifying, in fifty years to look back on this time in America’s history. I’ve also been inspired by the #MeToo movement, because it’s helping us start to contextualize career paths and professional success in a way we haven’t before, and I hope the push to complicate the notion of a good career continues. I’d be remiss not to mention the people of color, and women of color in particular, who’ve led the movement to drive these conversations powerfully forward and into the open for years.

Not to be too trite but a good friend of mine was killed while we were in college — he was in Egypt teaching English to little kids and was one of those people with the potential to change the world. When work gets really stressful, I try to keep in mind that life is short and work is work. I want to do something with my life that I’m proud of and hopefully make life better for some people along the way.

When you started out, what did you think you wanted to do?

I found out fairly quickly that I like to be in a production role within a creative environment. On top of that, I love being able to think creatively within traditionally strict problems or environments. While my college was anti-vocational training, I’m grateful to professors who pushed me in the direction of applied studies. In general, I’ve always been fascinated by the way in which people move through the world. I toyed with going into architecture and urban design for a while, as well as into epidemiology or midwifery. I hope to always be able to draw a connection back to that sort of user-centered approach.

Bites:

  • Pineapple Street Media has hired away Jonathan Menjivar from This American Life. (Twitter)
  • This week sees a special series from Death, Sex & Money in partnership with BuzzFeed News called Opportunity Cost, about tradeoffs and choices when it comes to money, status, and class. This is the shit DSM was made to do! Damn, I’m excited. (WNYC Studios)
  • WBEZ unveiled the subject of its post-Oprah “Making” season: former President Barack Obama. Which is cool! They should’ve retained the “O” in the podcast art, though. #JustWhatIBeThinking. (WBEZ)
  • Mozilla, which has been producing a pretty solid podcast for a piece of #brandedcontent with IRL, is currently two episodes deep into its second season. (Mozilla Blog)
  • Too Beautiful To Live, the cult Seattle-based daily podcast now distributed by American Public Media, is turning 10 this year, and it celebrated by doing “a 24-hour, live-stream episode recorded on a party bus driving around the state of Washington” last Saturday. In other news, the line between genius and insanity is thin, and hinges on fuel efficiency. (APM Podcasts)
  • I reviewed Tenderfoot and HowStuffWorks’ Atlanta Monster last week. (Vulture) Something I forgot to mention: The show has near minimal transitions into ad breaks, and the result is smack dab at the bottom of the uncanny valley, folks.

Who are podcast “super listeners,” what do they do, and how do we build podcasts for them?

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 140, published November 14, 2017.

Hello from Chicago, where I’m writing this in the lovely Hearken offices. Much thanks to the team for letting me in from the Midwestern cold.

The voice of Vox. We now know who is going to host the upcoming Vox daily news podcast: the Canadian-born Sean Rameswaram. A veteran WNYC staffer, his tenure includes work on the Kurt Andersen-led Studio 360 while the show was still at the station and, more recently, as a reporter on Radiolab’s More Perfect. Rameswaram has long exhibited considerable ambition to lead his own program: he hosted the Studio 360 spin-off podcast Sideshow, served as a guest host on a season of the CBC’s Podcast Playlist, and put himself in the running to take over the popular Canadian culture program Q in the post-Ghomeshi era. (He would eventually be beaten out by the rapper Shadrach Kabango.)

Rameswaram now finds himself at the front of Vox’s latest, and splashiest, foray into audio with a daily news podcast at a time when the genre is truly heating up. Some things to watch: How will the show differentiate itself from the New York Times’ The Daily? How will Vox carve out its own piece of the daily news podcast listening audience? And how will Rameswaram fare as the Barbaro alternative? Will we ever find the time to Feel. All. This. News?

He will move to DC for the gig, where he will be stationed in Vox’s core newsroom. The press release notes that he will eventually be joined by a staff of five. The show, whatever it will be called, is scheduled to launch early next year.

The most engaged. This morning, the Knight Foundation published a report — conducted by Edison Research — that identifies a specific subset within the podcast listening population: what it’s calling “super listeners,” referring to exceptionally engaged consumers of informative digital audio content.

Among the observed characteristics include:

  • Super listeners consume twice the amount of podcast content compared to generic listeners. “The average number of shows listened to per week was much higher with Knight respondents (13) than with weekly podcast listeners from the Infinite Dial (5),” the report notes.
  • They are loyal evangelists of the medium. The report notes that 96 percent of surveyed super listeners had recommended a podcast to a friend.
  • These listeners prefer in-depth content, and increasingly prefer digital consumption over broadcast.

The report also explores the relationship between this listener subset and public media. The findings are intriguing, with the study finding that: “Despite the fact that self-reported radio listening is down with these respondents as a result of podcast listening, two-thirds indicated that they have listened to their local public radio station in the last month… Nearly one-third indicated that they had donated money in the last year to their local public radio station, and 28% had donated to a podcast or radio program directly.” But the study also discovered that there isn’t necessarily a universal “halo effect” for public media podcasts: 51 percent said they like public and nonpublic media podcasts “equally,” and another 15 percent indicated that they “couldn’t tell the difference.” From this, the report suggests that while this listening group has strong loyalty to public media at this point in time, it does not say very much about how that relationship will hold over time.

The report doesn’t quite explore how big or prevalent the “super listener” demographic is in relation to the general listening population, and it should be further noted that the report has a distinct public media focus in its framing and methodology. (Which is to say, as much as this might be identification of a subset within the overall listening population, we might also be looking at a subset that may well be specific to the publishers involved in the study.) I reached out to the Knight Foundation for its take on just how big this group might be, and this is what Sam Gill, the VP of communities and impact, wrote back:

Good question, however it’s outside the scope of the study. The study focused on survey data from more than 28,000 listeners in order to paint a compelling picture of this audience. Respondents were identified through audio callouts (solicitations typically done by the hosts) on podcasts created by six networks: NPR, PRI, APM, WBUR, PRX, and Gimlet. The on-air promotion and the fact that these organizations shared their data, makes the study particularly unique.

The rest of the methodology is explained in further depth in the report’s appendix. Anyway, do check out the whole thing, as one imagines that this is a specific consumer type that publishers can identify, build for, and activate differently.  Speaking of which, the report actually pairs pretty well with this next item…

Podfasting. And we’re back onto the Great Speed-Listening Debate. (See the Chicago Tribune, Slate, the Wall Street Journal, The Ringer, and for older takes, The Atlantic and The Verge.)

BuzzFeed’s Doree Shafrir pubbed a piece over the weekend about people who listen to podcasts at 2x speed (and beyond). It’s a fantastic, fascinating read, not least for the coining of the term “podfaster.” Article skimmers — a species genealogically related to the podfaster, really — should catch two things:

(1) The question of how speed-listening may affect advertising impressions was touched upon, with Midroll’s Lex Friedman providing what seems to be an expected answer. To quote the chunk:

Podfasters could potentially be more valuable to advertisers because they may be less likely to skip ads… ‘I think people like me are less likely to skip ads because they’re wasting less time when they’re listening,’ [Friedman] said. He added that he’s never heard an advertiser complain about podfasters. ‘I really do genuinely believe that if it’s having any effect on ads, it’s making them more likely to be heard. Now they’ll pay attention to the ads. I don’t think it harms the ads’ efficacy.’

We’ll see.

(2) In much the way that the Knight report identifies the subset of podcast “super listeners,” Shafrir’s piece sheds some light on what might be an even more granular sub-group: podcast completists, for whom the ability to speed-listen is essential, and whose relationship to a given show is perhaps the most profound.

So, the thing I’ve always found interesting about this debate is how it highlights this tension in the relationship between producer intent and listener autonomy, between sender and receiver. We’ve seen different iterations of this struggle play out in other mediums, like the notion of watching feature films on smartphones (“Get real,” says David Lynch), or reading novels by having sentences be flashed rapidly before your eyeballs. Shafrir’s piece underscores, to me anyway, just how little direct power producers have over the listening experience. Perhaps it’s a situation where, much like how producers had to develop tricks to catch radio listeners to stop turning the dial, they’ll have to now figure out ways to get them to slow down.

As a side note, I guess we have a partial answer to that old New Yorker cartoon nut: “I feel like everybody’s podcasting and nobody’s podlistening.”

A test case. So you know that whole “convergence of audio media” idea that I’ve been yammering on about since last year? I think we have our first major test case, with some pretty interesting theoretical questions to boot.

Here’s the news: IHeartMedia has broken into the second spot of the Podtrac ranker for the month of October, but the development comes with a rather interesting caveat: its portfolio apparently contains over five hundred shows. The platform — or “platisher,” if I may bring the term back up, given its voluminous original audio programming — reached slightly under 9 million monthly unique US listeners and over 33.5 million unique global downloads over a whopping 525 shows.

IHeartMedia ranks second to NPR, which reaches over 16 million monthly unique U.S. users but on the strength of only 41 programs. (The company with the next largest show portfolio is ESPN, with 79 programs that reach over 4.8 million unique U.S. users.) IHeartMedia’s stats are reminiscent of the Podtrac adventures of another traditional radio-originated podcast publisher: CBS, which last listed on the Podtrac ranker on the ninth spot back in June by reaching over 1.7 million unique US listeners across a whopping 417 shows.

Over Twitter, iHeartRadio SVP of podcasting Chris Peterson informed me that the platisher expects to add more active shows to the Podtrac ranker — therefore further pumping up the numbers — and that they will be looking to launch more in the months to come. When asked to clarify the shape of the portfolio, he explained that the 500-plus show number includes both programs that were created specifically as podcasts along with programs that were radio shows later repurposed for on-demand. It should be further clarified that iHeartMedia’s Podtrac numbers do not include counts of third-party podcasts that are consumed off its platform. As a reminder, NPR is an example of a publisher that also distributes its podcasts on iHeartMedia.

So, what’s the big thought bubble here? We have a situation where a traditionally linear-oriented company has leveraged the sheer scale of its inventory — largely pulled from its sprawling broadcast infrastructure that’s been developed over the years — to produce a performance measure that sends it up to the second spot of the only public-facing podcast ranker that exists at this point in time.

Here’s the key question to ask: are we looking at a truly apples-to-apples situation here? Which is to say, can iHeartMedia’s on-demand audio inventory be meaningfully evaluated within the same value system as every other publisher on that list, from NPR to HowStuffWorks to The New York Times?

From one angle, you could very well argue in the affirmative: that a listener is a listener is a listener, no matter how they are accessed, touched, or engaged with. On the other hand, it could be equally posited that not all listening experiences are the same or should be evaluated in the same manner. That a huge part of the value narrative around podcasts in the first place is based on a certain idea of the relationship between the listener and the show, and on a given podcast company’s ability to produce shows of depth and scale. The findings from the Knight Foundation report, and the further identification of the podcast completist, gives more weight to this latter position.

We should ask if a publisher — sorry, a “platisher” — like iHeartMedia is even playing the same game as everybody else on the ranker. Does it merely represents one strategy out of many within the podcast industry — that is, the move to accrue the largest amount of ad inventory through the aggressive bundling of small shows in order to unlock podcast advertising dollars, as opposed to producing a much smaller portfolio of big shows with big communities around each individual operation? (To phrase this line of inquiry in another way: what, exactly, is the product being sold, and are they the same?)

I’m pretty Switzerland on this, and besides, it’s not as if it’s going to come down to me to figure it out. That kind of taxonomical work should come down to the publishers themselves, working out the terms of the market that they’re playing. Or perhaps it comes down more to Podtrac itself, functioning as a value arbiter in the space.

In any case, we’re looking at a minor clash in context with big-time ramifications. “We are thrilled to be leading the industry in terms of podcast content creation, joining the ranks of NPR for top podcast publishers, and proving that broadcast radio is a major driver for the podcast space,” according to the press release announcing the achievement. Indeed, I suppose that’s one way to skin a cat.

Full service. “I see the industry as something that’s going to stratify in the next five years,” said Rose Reid, the cofounder of a new podcast agency that I’m going to tell you about after I land this opening quote. “When we get analytics, when we see more money going to the top ten percent of producers — and I’m thinking about how to position producers within those changes.”

Reid is telling me about just one of the roles that ARC, a new agency she launched earlier this month with the independent producer Alex Kapelman (Pitch, The Decision), is meant to play in the industry. They bill ARC as a “full-service creative podcast agency,” and when I asked them what that meant, they broke it down into three component parts.

“We’re at this intersection of being a production company, much like Pineapple Street and Transmitter Media, but also an advertising and talent management agency,” Kapelman explained. Which is to say, they make podcasts for other networks, they produce branded content for podcast advertisers, and they work with producers to improve their lot in the market. That said, they’re keeping an open mind. “We don’t want to limit ourselves in the services that we provide.”

It’s a fairly broad value proposition, but I suppose it affords a flexibility to better maneuver within an emerging podcast studio-agency that’s particularly dense as it pertains to shops that focus on editorial production, whether for brands or for bigger podcast companies like Midroll; think Pacific Content, Gimlet Creative, Panoply Custom, Pineapple Street, and so on. Within this bucket, the primary differentiating factor tends to be a given team’s core creative value, but the ARC duo attempts to articulate a more strategy and planning-oriented value-add. “Take what Gimlet Creative did with Tinder, for example,” Reid said, by way of explaining their approach. “They made a podcast for them, and I think that’s great, but it’s just one thing to do. For us, we’d would look at how to take a narrative episodic series and make it part of a bigger integrated campaign. Maybe the Tinder show was launched as part of a bigger campaign, with live events or something, but I didn’t see it.”

(I checked in with Gimlet Creative, and a spokesperson noted that some of their branded podcasts have indeed been integrated into broader campaigns. Their Gatorade podcast, for example, was part of a larger initiative that included TV spots, digital ad buys, and a PR campaign.)

ARC’s success on that front will come down to the duo’s ability to compete for advertising clients, but it is their interest in talent management that stands out to me as especially compelling. Freelancing and independent operation makes up a big portion of life within the podcast industry, and it seems to me that much of the pedagogy around contracts and negotiations tends to happen informally between independents who’ve been there and independents who haven’t. That talent agencies like WME and UTA have been bringing their expertise into the space is a noteworthy development on this front, but I imagine you could make the argument that their focus necessarily tends to be on the top end of talent, and that those agencies have as much to learn from the ground as the other way around.

Reid was most recently a Gimlet producer, where she worked on Sampler, but she spent four years before that working at the advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather. “At Ogilvy, I worked on contracts all the time, between talents and brands, and between subcontractors and Ogilvy,” she said. “I feel like my entire professional experience has been one huge wakeup call for how to advocate for creators.”

She describes the need for that kind of advocacy as acute. “A lot of podcasters… they’re not business people. They’re creators, and so when they get signed, they often don’t know what they’re getting themselves into,” Reid explained. “I’ve seen people get totally screwed over, mostly women. It’s very hard to negotiate for yourself when you’re operating in a vacuum, when you don’t know what your value is and what the market value is.”

I asked when we should expect operations to kick off in earnest. Reid and Kapelman tell me that they will be announcing their initial client list in the months to come. When pressed for specific names, they declined, but made a slight muscle flex. “Big brands,” Reid said. “As big as it gets.”

On a related note… Spotify rolls out a new original podcast series, The United States of Music, produced with Transmitter Media. It’s a six-part music storytelling series hosted by Sasheer Zamata.

Agency. Ever heard the phrase “nobody knows anything”? It’s an old nugget from the screenwriter William Goldman in his book about the movie business, and over the years the sentiment has been evoked to describe the state of so many things, from predictive modeling to the economy to, of course, politics. (In fact, a version of the phrase, “No One Knows Anything,” was the title of BuzzFeed’s now-defunct politics podcast.) But the notion is a little imprecise, I think. It seems more precise to say that some people know some things, and that they do so operating within a general environment where nobody knows everything.

Opportunity falls from the space between those two notions, and I think that best describes the layer of free-floating podcast studios and agencies that has been emerging steadily over the past two years. My sense is that we’re going to see more of such businesses in the coming years, as some individual talent double down on their respective skill-sets — subject expertise, say, or creative edge, or process knowledge — and depart from larger institutions, having understood from working on the inside that no one has truly built an insurmountable amount of control or edge yet, to build a business that focuses on a specific problem or gap in the space. This theoretically offers some competition to bigger and more traditionally structured organizations that publish podcasts while working to build a business at scale, as these smaller and nimbler entities can front meaningful challenges for clients with greater focus (and lower prices).

I’m tempted to think this sense of opportunity is particularly true for the podcast industry at this specific point in time, while everything is still young with no such mythology around how things work or who knows what having calcified just yet — and while the feeling that no one (or two, or three) has full control or power in the ecosystem just yet is still palpable.

Two quick expansionsStories. Crooked Media welcomes three new shows to its mix: Majority 54 with Democratic politician Jason Kander, Girls Just Wanna Have Pod with The Daily Beast’s Erin Gloria Ryan, and Keep It with The Daily Beast’s Ira Madison. The left-wing talk podcast movement continues to grow.

Secondly, the New York Times will begin testing out a special version of The Daily meant for children to listen with their parents later this month. The effort is part of a larger project to further experiment with building out news experiences targeting kids. Nieman Lab has the write-up.

In other news:

Bites

  • Sara Sarasohn, the former managing editor of NPR One, has joined Gimlet as an editor. (LinkedIn
  • Shortcut, the audio clipping app that lets listeners easily select and share moments from a podcast episode, is now open source. The project was developed by This American Life and feel train with support from the Knight Foundation. (Announcement)
  • Stitcher has rolled out a redesign update. (Stitcher Blog) The podcast player also launched an accompanying Alexa skill, and I’m just going to re-up my whole discussion about consumer choice and voice-first interfaces from last week’s newsletter.
  • The Daily Beast profiled Mike Duncan, creator of the long-running History of Rome and Revolutions podcasts, who also serves as another data point in the emerging trend of podcasters being hit up by book agents, and his book, The Storm Before the Storm, debuted on the New York Times bestseller list last week. (The Daily Beast)
  • Marc Maron addresses the Louis CK sexual assault allegations on the latest episode of his podcast. (Vulture) The NY Times’ Sopan Deb transcribed the segment and posted the text on Twitter.
  • Audible has launched a new Chinese audiobook offering. (VentureBeat)
  • The Skimm adds an audio product to their paid app. (Nieman Lab)
  • “It’s surprising that people are into this nerdy shit. We’re surprised, too, to be honest.” Bloomberg profiles the super-niche NBA podcast Dunc’d On. (Bloomberg)
  • The BBC is rolling out a single podcast sampler feed to improve the discoverability of all the on-demand shows throughout the institution, called Podcasting House. The British radio mothership also noted that they are commissioning more podcast-first works, and that they enjoyed around 240 million podcast downloads in 2016, which is apparently an improvement from the year before. (BBC)

  • So it turns out Rick Rubin and Malcolm Gladwell have a podcast together now. And their first guest is Eminem. Where am I? (Pitchfork)
  • Last week, I helped shepherd the last segment of the last broadcast of KCRW’s To The Point as it transitions into a weekly podcast. (KCRW

[photocredit]Illustration from Knight’s super-listener report.[/photocredit]

Is Hillary Clinton’s podcast propaganda or a milestone for political podcast advertising?

With Her. Well, this is certainly something. Last Friday saw the launch of With Her, the official Hillary Clinton presidential campaign podcast, which both marks a milestone for the industry and, I suppose, is a sign of the times. The show also has the distinction of being Pineapple Street Media’s first launch, the podcast company recently founded by former BuzzFeed director of audio Jenna Weiss-Berman and Longform Podcast cohost Max Linsky. Linsky holds hosting duties on the podcast, which he ostensibly shares with Clinton herself, though one imagines that her extensive campaigning schedule will ultimately have a say in that.

The podcast is an absolute coup for the company and a strong, attention-getting start to its portfolio. The linkup between Pineapple Street and the Clinton campaign grew out of Weiss-Berman’s previous collaboration with the team, back when she worked on BuzzFeed’s Another Round podcast that booked Clinton on as a guest last October. “I stayed in touch with her digital team,” Weiss-Berman told me over email. “And shortly after Max and I started Pineapple Street, we started talking to them and we all loved the idea of a campaign podcast that focused on day-to-day life on the trail and not policy.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, that last point — the podcast’s focused on campaign trail life and not on policy — ended up being the point of critique for a few media outlets. Politico’s writeup of the podcast bore the headline: “Hillary Clinton finds another way to avoid the press: Her campaign launches a podcast with an on-payroll moderator whose first interview is the nominee herself,” highlighting the show as an extension of a long-running grievances held by the parts of the news media about Clinton’s tightly messaged campaign. That perspective was echoed by Michelle Goldberg over at Slate, who called the show “charming and gutless propaganda” and further argued that “a politician attempting to circumvent the media by creating media of her own sets a bad precedent.”

I don’t buy those critiques. For one thing, media creation — whether through tweets, a YouTube channel, creating a TV spectacle out of a convention, and so on — is an essential tool for a candidate’s political communication, and it’s one that’s part of a much wider set of tools, with messaging through the news media (either directly, e.g. sitdowns with Charlie Rose, or indirectly, i.e. free media) being only one within a larger toolkit. A candidate’s aversion to working directly through the press, as in the case of the Clinton campaign, may well be morally and procedurally frustrating for the press, but a perfectly fine outcome in this scenario is to make the absence of participation mean something as part of the candidate’s larger spectrum of political communication. (Which, indeed, is what is already happening, and we see traces of that in Slate and Politico’s analysis.)

So the media aversion/”propaganda” reading of the podcast isn’t one that really resonates with me, but I think the reason for that lies in an understanding that the podcast shouldn’t be read as anything too dramatically different from it actually is: a political ad.

Consider With Her as yet another example of a branded podcast — not unlike Gimlet Creative’s Open for Business or Pacific Content’s Slack Variety Pack. (Indeed, viewed this way, With Her is quite possibly the first major political ad buy in the history of the podcast medium.)

And because it’s a branded podcast, we should levy onto it the very same questions (of ethics and execution) that we would those projects from Gimlet, and Pacific Content. Questions like: Is the show successful in harnessing the format’s associations with sincerity, authenticity, and intimacy? (I.e: Do the interviews make her feel more real, the way the Longform Podcast and Another Round have drawn out people in the past? Also, just how real can a career politician, so hardened by decades of battle, feel?) Is the podcast able to be engaging while nulling the overarching context that the listener has opted to enter a space where the brand is trying to get them to think and feel a certain way? Is the project doing a good job being clear with its targeting — is it focused on deepening the candidate’s relationship with her supporters, or is it more engaged with humanizing Clinton in the face of on-the-fence supporters? And is the podcast, with its opt-in, on-demand, and high-involvement consumption requirements, appropriate for that?

That’s how I’d approach reading the podcast. Which is why I’ll say this: Based on the first episode (which runs short, at about 15 minutes), I’m not very sure whether With Her will answer these questions much beyond its novelty as the first presidential campaign podcast ever. To be sure, it’s a fizzy and fun listen, and longtime Hot Pod readers know I love love love me some Linsky interviews. But as a person already predisposed to the Clinton campaign, I didn’t feel like I gained anything particularly new or meaningful that wasn’t already telegraphed at the Democratic National Convention. And considering the broader messaging context, I also don’t think it’s clear yet who the podcast is for — and, by extension, how it’s supposed to carry out the aims of the campaign, which (and this isn’t a new thought at all) really struggles with connecting.

That said: It’s only been one episode, and I want to be clear that an assessment like this doesn’t quite honor the immense complexities that go into working with a campaign that aims to win the highest office of the land. (I can’t even begin to imagine the number of clearances that the production must go through.) The podcast is slated to run up until the election in November, and I have a good amount of faith that the team will figure out a way to take this powerful, powerful novelty — let’s not forget the fact that the first presidential campaign podcast is a major milestone for the emerging medium — and fashion it out into a genuine tool of political communication in the future.

What’s next for PSM? Weiss-Berman: “We’re working on lots of great stuff and something I’m really excited about is that we’re trying many different styles. So we’re doing a very heavily produced short-run serialized mystery show, a really fun chat show with The New York Times, Women of the Hour season two with Lena Dunham, and we’re developing a bunch of original shows. And so much more! And all the shows are really different, with amazingly diverse hosts, so I’m hoping they bring in audiences that are new to podcasting.”

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The convention bump. The Republican and Democratic conventions were dramatic and often confusing affairs, and it seems like a significant number of folks turned to political podcasts to figure some stuff out. Indeed, several enjoyed noticeable jumps in downloads across the two-week period. Some highlights:

  • The NPR Politics Podcast saw more than a 50 percent increase in weekly unique downloaders. (That metric tracks the number of individual listeners based on measurements of IP addresses.) The podcast dropped episodes every morning across the conventions, with each edition covering the goings-on of the night before.
  • Panoply reportedly experienced a 35 percent increase in weekly downloads (over the average of the previous four weeks) among their set of political podcasts: the Slate Political Gabfest, The Gist, and Vox’s The Weeds. The Gist, which is already a daily podcast, opted to drop short review episodes every morning in addition to its normal episodes across the period. The other two shows maintained their weekly schedules.
  • The FiveThirtyEight Elections podcast also saw “a big rise in downloads and rankings,” according to producer Jody Avirgan. A spokesperson later added that over the convention period, the team “saw consumption of the Elections podcast increase nearly 300 percent compared to daily consumption before the conventions.” The podcast also dropped episodes daily across the two events.
  • The Ringer’s Keepin’ It 1600, which features former Obama administration staffers Jon Favreau and Dan Pfeiffer, saw a bump of about 15 percent. Before the conventions, the podcast had steadily grown up to an average of over 200,000 downloads per episode, and went up to about 230,000 downloads per episode through the two events.
  • BuzzFeed’s No One Knows Anything saw a “171 percent increase in downloads during the two weeks of the conventions, compared to the two weeks before the conventions,” said Meg Cramer, who produces the show. “But, it’s hard to make comparisons, because our convention coverage was different from our weekly show. (Several topical mini-episodes, vs. one big show.)”

These event-based growth bursts are extremely valuable, but the real question is whether the shows will be able to retain the influx of new listeners. Brent Baughman, who produces the NPR Politics Podcast, tells me that, while it’s still a little too early to tell, he estimates that about three-quarters of the podcast’s new listeners have stuck around since the conventions. He also notes that the podcast now enjoys an audience of over 560,000 weekly unique downloaders.

It should be noted that the bumps didn’t come from organic discovery alone. Around the convention period, FiveThirtyEight carried out aggressive cross-promotion efforts that hoped to draw in audiences that exist on its other platforms and on platforms controlled by parent ESPN. Those efforts included a refocus on embedding the podcast in FiveThirtyEight articles, adding language that welcomed new listeners to the show, featuring the podcast in the ESPN app, and working with ESPN Radio to run a spot on terrestrial stations promoting the podcast. “That’s going to start working into the rotation soon, I hope,” Avirgan added. “It’s not going to be a huge push, but frankly I imagine a lot of the kinds of folks who are just tuning in to the election are the types of folks who are listening to ESPN Radio, etc. So, we’re trying to be smart about targeting that group.”

NPR marshalled similar efforts of their own. On July 14, Gimlet’s Reply All dropped an episode containing a guest dispatch by NPR reporter and Politics Podcast cohost Sam Sanders (who, by the way, is an absolute star) that focused on the shooting in Dallas. And in the following two weeks, NPR director of programming Israel Smith coordinated a strong cross-promotion push across the organization’s other podcasts, acutely focusing attention onto the Politics Podcast and its presence on the convention floors.

Key national events like these conventions are essential opportunities for podcasts — or any new medium, really — to prove their worth as possible additions to the world’s wider information architecture, and the onus is on them to make themselves known in times when collective reality feels increasingly distorted.

“I think you build news consumption habits in a year like this,” Baughman said. “It’s a time when you generally want to be more informed than you are.”

An audio newsletter. It’s always a wonder to find a place that’s doing strange and wonderful things.

One such place is Boston public radio station WBUR, which will be launching an experimental 21-day fitness podcast project called The Magic Pill next month. Here’s how it works: People who sign up will receive daily Magic Pill newsletters, with each missive — that can be consumed right off their inbox — containing a short podcast episode that contains exercise tips, stories about fitness, and even some music to get that body movin’. Participants move through three-week-long sequence on their own, as they’re given the ability to initiate the challenge cycle at any time, and their relationship with the podcast will be tightly managed through their interactions with the newsletter.

“In a way, you could call this an audio newsletter,” said Lisa Williams, who holds the title of engagement director at the station. “It’s a real hybrid.”

The challenge is one of the many projects being developed in WBUR’s Public Radio BizLab, a Knight Foundation-funded initiative that seeks to explore possible new business models that can help sustain public radio stations in the future through rigorous experimentation and design. (And let me tell ya’, some of these experiments are fascinating, including a blockchain-powered emerging music library.) The lab is a smart, deeply needed enterprise and, quite frankly, I’m amazed that such a thing exists in the first place.

Like all other BizLab projects, The Magic Pill was designed to answer very specific, testable questions: Could you create a tightly-design podcast experience that plays out within a subscriber’s inbox (as opposed to, say, an RSS feed)? Can the process of creating that experience increase the level of data literacy among the operators at WBUR? And, perhaps most importantly, are listeners who take part in an ongoing experience more likely to donate or become members?

That last question, which focuses on discovering new fundraising avenue within the public radio system, is a crucial pillar for the BizLab initiative. And much of the project designs are guided by tangible, and often frustrating, past experiences. “We did this great project once on Whitey Bulger,” Williams said. “It was just such amazing work, but we didn’t do anything to package it in a way that would get people to support the station more. But when we packaged and sold it as an ebook, about 11,000 people bought it. We left money on the table.” (Interestingly, the ebook, “Whitey on Trial,” is generally available for free, but it’s priced at $1.99 on the Amazon Store — the lowest possible rate — because ebooks can’t be listed there for free.)

When I asked Williams what conversion rates she would consider a success, she guided me to focus more on the balance between outcome and effort. She noted that relatively low conversion rates would still be considered fine, given that the amount of work that goes into making The Magic Pill is significantly less than the huge fundraising efforts that involve heavy participation across the whole station. In Williams’ mind, the emphasis is on the tightness of workflow and a rigor in pushing specific sets of audiences down the fundraising funnel. It is a valiant, refreshing prospect, and I’m curious to see where this goes.

You can sign up for the newsletter here. The Magic Pill project goes live on September 1.

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Bumpers. I believe I’ve been on the record before as not particularly enthusiastic about social audio apps and any relevant enterprise that seeks to make podcasts more shareable on social platforms like Twitter and Facebook more broadly. For me, the arguments largely takes two forms: (1) a sense that the rendering of a piece of media into something more shareable threatens to deconstruct, atomize, and commoditize that piece of media for a whole other purpose — and for podcasts, that fundamentally means a stripping it of its original value proposition, and (2) a general feeling that social platforms are universes upon themselves whose activities should be native to the very structures of those platforms. Plus, there’s a whole square peg/round hole bit to such efforts, and I just find it all rather inelegant.

That said, I’ve still made it a point to keep an eye on new social audio apps like Anchor (my write up here) and Rolltape (R.I.P., my write up here) because I figured there’s always something to learn from such experiments.

Which is why I’ve been tracking a new app called Bumpers for some time now and, I have to say, it’s perhaps the audio-oriented app that comes closest to deconstructing and replicating the original value proposition of a podcast. Where apps like Anchor and Rolltape focused on communication, Bumpers firmly trains its eye on creation and expression — and that, I think, is where it gets the association right.

Here’s how it works: Users record a session through the app, which then automatically segments the recording based on sentences that users can stitch together into a podcast (referred to as a bumper within the app’s universe, for obvious reasons) by selecting and sequencing those sentence units into a whole through the app’s rather intuitive mobile audio editing interface (which, goodness, is key to the whole experience). There’s a library of preset sounds that you can throw into the mix, the additions of which greatly influences the feel of the bumper — not unlike, say, how an Instagram filter alters the feel of a picture.

That evocation of Instagram is not accidental. “I think a good analogy is Instagram for podcasts,” said Ian Ownbey, one of Bumpers’ creators, when I asked him to describe the app, which I had trouble articulating. “Instagram’s goal wasn’t to replace professional photographers — it was to let everyone else easily take and share high quality photos.”

Ownbey, who was an early engineer at Twitter and is also responsible for the OneShot app (which I’ve written about in relation to the theory behind screenshorting audio), has been paying close attention to the dynamics of the podcast space to build Bumpers, and thus is privy the complexities associated with the distribution and listener-end of the ecosystem. A lot of those considerations inform the development of the app.

“The problem isn’t solvable as long as the community is fractured over all these different consumption mediums,” he said, reflecting on the distribution question. “Even if I went out and created a consumption client that had the best discoverability in the whole world, it would be impossible to get adoption high enough that it was useful…If all the listening happens in Bumpers itself (or in an embed from bumpers), we can start to solve these problems.”

For now, though, it’s still early days for Bumpers, and so tackling the distribution angle will have to be a future preoccupation. “Creation is our entire focus right now,” Ownbey said.

Bites:

  • A little more on the NPR Politics Podcast: Producer Brent Baughman believes the experience producing the daily convention episodes have given them a roadmap for possible breaking or morning news podcast projects in the future. “Someone’s going to plant the flag on the morning news podcast, and I think it can be us,” he said.
  • I am super, super psyched over Castro 2, a new podcasting app that shifts the user experience paradigm in such smart, wonderful ways. (Supertop)
  • After the Cleveland Browns, another NFL team has launched their own official podcast: the Baltimore Ravens. (Official Ravens website)
  • According to Current, “the audience for NPR’s newsmagazines and its member stations has been growing,” bucking a recent trend. The organization credits the rise to a bunch of different factors — much of them internally driven, but also one that involves a change in how Nielsen collects listening data — but as Tape’s Mickey Capper tweets out, “wouldn’t the main factor be the election?” Be sure to check out the ensuing thread.
  • “The (Future) Queens of Podcasting.” (The Ringer)
  • This is super cool: “Introducing 1,000 Words, a podcast that describes internet pictures in binaural audio.” (The Verge)

The battle for your car’s dashboard — and for your ears during your commute — is on

The fight for the dashboard. On February 20, The New York Times ran a piece about how SiriusXM, the popular subscription-based U.S. satellite radio network, is grappling with the prospect of increased competition generated by the growing ubiquity of connected cars, whose Internet-enabled infotainment systems will make it easier for drivers to use apps like Spotify, Deezer, and Pandora during their commutes. (Many of which, by the way, are becoming podcast providers themselves in addition to their music streaming functions — thus bringing them closer to SiriusXM’s product offering in concept.)

If this is the first time you’re encountering the connected car issue and how it pertains to radio and podcasts, here are two things to get you started. First, the “connected car” is a rather broad umbrella term for cars that feature better and near-persistent Internet access that’s primarily channelled to the driver through the vehicle’s dashboard interface. Its connectivity affords significant gains in the driver experience, like quicker GPS navigation (through, say, Google Maps or Waze) or better safeguards facilitated by automated car-to-car communication — but of course the thing we really want to talk about here in a column about podcasts is the benefit for the driver’s media consumption, which has up until this point been largely restricted to AM/FM and satellite radio. In the U.S., the satellite option has been dominated by the aforementioned SiriusXM, which currently boasts almost 30 million subscribers, while AM/FM radio still owns the majority of the American listening population, at 91 percent of folks over 12.

The second thing you need to know is how SiriusXM was able to develop a unique competitive advantage, which I’d argue is how the company has been able to carve out a life for itself thus far. The key is in the company’s intense structural reach, derived from the company’s successful cultivation of relationships with car manufacturers. Wooing car manufacturers grants the company default placement on their (largely pre-connected car, but not always) in-vehicle infotainment systems. Per the Times:

SiriusXM pays about $1 billion a year in subsidies and revenue splits to automakers, and according to the company, 75 percent of all new vehicles sold in the United States come with satellite radio installed. (It works with every major carmaker.) Of the 29.6 million subscribers to SiriusXM at the end of last year, 24.2 million paid the $11 to $20 monthly fee themselves, with the rest covered through promotions by car companies.

With the connected car and its new ecosystems becoming increasingly in focus — Android Auto and CarPlay are favored by many to become the operating systems of choice in the future — SiriusXM’s mastery of the dashboard as a distribution channel is potentially loosened.

It’s also become increasingly apparent that the dashboard is central to the focus of a bunch of hungry folks in the podcasting space. Last year’s DASH conference (amusingly subtitled “Radio & The Connected Car: A Survival Guide For Radio Broadcasters” — ohhhh how I love the drama) featured such radio and podcast operators as Midroll, NPR, Audible, Podcast One, Westwood One, and Adam Carolla.

Of course, just because streaming apps are more available doesn’t automatically means drivers will flock to them. (Although, it does help: Recall that the last across-the-board bump in podcast listenership is widely attributed to Apple’s decision to automatically bundle the native Podcasts app with iOS 8.) Further, the only problem we can be certain increased availability will solve is the one faced by the particularly plugged-in user who relies on a cumbersome Bluetooth solution to hook up their phone’s stream to the car stereo system. But these industrious consumers are never the prime target demo — that would be the passive, I’ll-listen-to-whatever’s-easiest, choice-is-a-burden commuter. If that user demographic can be converted at scale, the thinking goes, the game is basically won.

So, the billion-dollar question for the streaming apps — and the podcast companies who place their hope on them as the gateway between drivers and their content — is whether they’ll able to jockey their way into being the default or go-to listening option on the dashboard. Which will be difficult, of course, given that they’ll be competing with each other in addition to AM/FM and SiriusXM in dealing with whoever governs the on-board operating system (be it car manufacturers or CarPlay/Android Auto). Those apps would also to have to see if they’ll be able to successfully convert individual listeners down the marketing funnel — in essence fighting the same fight on the dashboard that they already are on the phone. After all, what is your car if not a giant mobile device? Crappy pun, but stare at it long enough and it becomes so true, yo.

Definitely check out the whole Times article, which touches upon multitudes of SiriusXM’s other flashpoints. But four more things before we move on:

  • I’m utterly fascinated by SiriusXM’s explanation for their value proposition that successfully moves folks down the subscription funnel, which essentially amounts to “a less crappy advertising load.” It can’t be that simple, can it? CAN IT? *rips hair out*
  • It’s entirely possible that some podcasting networks — particularly the ones that wrangle upwards of 25 podcasts — would consider developing an over-the-top solution that they can take directly to these operating systems. That, I think, would be an insanely difficult route to take, and I’d only recommend it if you have an asset as big and native to the form as, well, Howard Stern (who is locked in at SiriusXM, by the way, in case you missed that). But good on you if that’s your game, man.
  • Here’s a useful number I like to keep in my back pocket: 75 percent of the 92 million cars expected to ship globally in 2020 will be Internet-enabled, according to estimates by BI Intelligence.
  • How much will this all matter once self-driving cars kick in? I have no idea. I have as little idea about that as I do about how virtual reality will completely reconfigure aggregate media consumption behaviors. In the long run, we’re all self-driving cars in virtual reality, as Keynes once said.

Why isn’t there more audio programming for kids? Revisited. I asked this question last week, but only as a way to kick off an item about design points for kid-oriented podcasts. But it stuck with me — specifically in the context of public radio, but also radio and podcasts more broadly — so I spent a bit time last time asking around for theories, ideas, histories.

Here are the two that vibrated with me the most:

(1) Sponsorship uneasiness. This one comes from Guy Raz, editorial director and host of NPR’s TED Radio Hour, who emailed me after last week’s newsletter went out. Lightly edited for clarity and stuff:

It’s all about sponsorship. This is a longstanding problem with quality kids programming. Parents don’t want their kids to be exposed to ads (for good reason) and so it would have to be the kind of show that has (a) foundation support or (b) sponsorship from brands that are aligned with the mission of the show (similar to what PBS Kids does with the underwriting between shows).

There is a (c) option, and that would be very clearly delineated spots — even more so than we do on the TED Radio Hour or Alex [Blumberg] does on StartUp — but in a way where parents could skip through it. But I’m not sure advertisers would like that unless the right companies got involved — companies who understood the value of great kids shows and could accept less in-your-face ads in exchange for the so-called “halo effect” of association with the podcast.

There’s a juicy refraction that we can draw out from the problem as expressed by Raz here: One would imagine that whatever ends up working the best for kids programming — following the terms laid down in option (c) — would, in design and in theory, also work equally well for podcast advertising more broadly: that is, a set of advertising conventions built upon thoughtfulness, sensitivity to the listener’s context, alignment between brand and show, and the utmost care for the boundary between editorial and advertorial.

An additional problem to consider here, of course, is how to apply those precepts to executions that come out of dynamic ad insertion and, whenever it happens, programmatic audio advertising. (Pairing the question of programmatic with this appeal towards thoughtful advertising, I offer, portends a much larger rabbit hole: Can automated matching solutions be efficient, effective, and data-rich enough as to be empathetically intelligent? Merp.) But that’s a whole other can of worms, and we’ll deal with it when we get there.

Raz, by the way, also moonlights for something called the Breakfast Blast Newscast, which he produces with Mindy Thomas, the program director and on-air host for SiriusXM’s Kids Place Live. Breakfast Blast features kids doing news roundups and discussing material from peer-reviewed journal articles, which honestly is something that could’ve made my grad school life a lot better. You can find it on SoundCloud.

(2) Historical precedent, or lack thereof. This one comes from Lindsay Patterson, one of the folks behind a science podcast for kids called Tumble. (She also wrote a manifesto of sorts on the issue, which you can find on Current.)

Patterson believes the sponsorship argument has limited explanatory power. “The answer may be as simple as it just never really occurring to people to make things for kids,” she said to me when we spoke over the phone last week, specifically referring to the context of public radio.

I was a little resistant to that point — there are just too many reasonably intelligent people, and too many people in power who have, well, kids, for the idea to not have come up before. Patterson gestured to the way things generally get moving within large institutions: Every project that gets developed draws, in some part, from notable past projects that serve as strong enough templates. As her argument goes: There simply hasn’t been a notable enough show or experiment in the past that’s spurred enough confidence leading to more resources being poured into more kids programming. (But enough templates, in my mind, to fuel more podcasts about the mysteries of everyday life.)

In other words, it’s the story of how anything new ever gets made in large, legacy, or relatively conservative institutions. Which says a lot about the state of podcasts, to be honest.

An Australian Third Coast. Attention, Ozzies! Audiocraft is a one-day Australian-focused audio conference that’s taking place in Sydney this Saturday. If the premise of Audiocraft sounds familiar to you, that’s because it draws inspiration from the Third Coast Festival, which I’ve talked about a fair bit before. In fact, the organizers came up with Audiocraft during the last Third Coast Festival back in 2014 (in a pre-Serial and pre-Trump America).

According to Kate Montague, the executive director of the conference, Audiocraft was conceived out of a belief that there weren’t many opportunities for the various parts of the Australian radio community — the public sector, the community radio sector, the independents, even the commercial — to come together and discuss the “state of the Australian sound.”

You can learn more about Audiocraft on their site. They’re also set to announce a short features competition soon, so watch out for that if you’re hanging out in Oceania.

Standalone spinoffs. Last week, I ran a quick item on Modern Love, the podcast that comes out of a partnership between WBUR and The New York Times, bagging 1.4 million downloads across the whole show in its first month. For the few of you in my readership who are in charge of program development in your respective institutions, and who might probably benefit (or gain anxiety) from looking into somebody else’s bowl, here are three interesting details from my conversation last Monday with Jessica Alpert, WBUR’s managing producer for program development:

  • From first conversation to negotiation to production to launch, the entire process took a year and a half.
  • Actual show development started on October 15. Given that the show launched on January 20, that’s a pretty quick turnaround: a little over three months.
  • Launch sponsors included Living Proof and Squarespace.

Okay, with that out of the way, I want to briefly talk about two things:

  • Modern Love is the latest in a relatively long line of interesting partnerships that WBUR has cultivated over the years. Currently, they have Dear Sugar Radio, another adaptation of a well known column, out on the market, and past collaborations include Finish Line with The Boston Globe and The Checkup with Slate. Now, striking up partnerships to create shows isn’t all that novel — in fact, the business model of my former day job employer, Panoply, was initially built upon that premise — but there’s something scrappy and vivacious about the way WBUR, which is basically a traditional public radio station, has been trying out partnerships. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but I’m pretty curious to see what they come up with next.
  • So, real talk for a second: I’m the kind of guy that reads the Modern Love column, uh, ironically. But I’m utterly enthralled by the execution of the show — particularly how effectively, to my ears at least, it can be consumed as a piece of media that stands apart from The New York Times’ brand. This suggests a specific way that we look for potential podcast projects to spin out of papers and magazines: What editorial elements can you adapt that could lead to shows that are able to be their own independent brand?

Relevant bits:

  • The Knight Foundation’s Prototype Fund published a list of 11 media projects that it’s funding in its latest round, and there are two audio-centric products you should pay close attention to: This American Life’s audio-sharing tool and something called Satchel, a podcast distribution platform with a local emphasis. (Nieman Lab)
  • 99% Invisible collaborated with Vox on a short video piece which came out last Friday. At 12 p.m. ET on Monday, the podcast was placing at No. 9 on the iTunes charts, with the video having clocked about 1.1 million views. (Roman Mars’ glorious Twitter feed, here’s the video on Vox.com)
  • Gimlet previews the pilot for The Hunt, a reality TV-style podcast created out of the company’s recent “Mix Week,” behind their membership paywall. They also wrote up one of those spiffy Medium posts discussing the mix-week process. (Medium)
  • Panoply dropped a 32-episode podcast about pregnancy, which they developed with Parents magazine, last week. The full series was released simultaneously — you know, Netflix-style, or whatever you want to call it. I’ll follow up in a few weeks to see how this distribution method takes, and whether it actually turns out to be a good match with the editorial need. (RAIN News)
  • Flash Forward, a podcast made by independent producer Rose Eveleth and distributed by the former zine/now quirky website Boing Boing, surged into the Top 10 of the iTunes podcast charts after its collaboration with Planet Money published last week. At 12 p.m. ET on Monday, the podcast was placed at No. 7. When asked for comment, Eveleth said: “SO MANY EMOTIONS.” (iTunes)
  • “Craig Windham, NPR Newscaster, Dies.” R.I.P. (NPR)

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Spotify is finally ready to bring podcasting to a new audience

How Recode approaches podcasts. There was a time in my very short and very not-good attempt at a tech journalism career where all I ever wanted was to be Kara Swisher. What’s not to like? The no-nonsense persona, the scoops, the Aviators, the well cultivated network of spies all across the tech industry — in a press that’s thick with fresh blood, Swisher was a north star as far as solid tech reporting goes.

Which is all a roundabout way to say that I’m a big fan of the podcasts she’s been doing with Recode, the tech news site she started with Walt Mossberg and sold to Vox Media last summer.

The publication currently has three podcasts on offer: (1) Recode Decode, a podcast where Swisher and senior editor Peter Kafka trade off on conducting close interviews with tech and media bigwigs; (2) Recode Replay, which is essentially an archive of the on-stage interviews that take place during the publication’s (highly lucrative) conferences; and, now, (3) Too Embarrassed To Ask, a recently launched show where Swisher and The Verge’s Lauren Goode answer listener questions about technology. Too Embarrassed To Ask, currently in its third episode, was initially developed as a “reviews” segment that was attached as a tail-end segment to Recode Decode, but was ultimately spun out into its own show following positive internal response.

Decode, as one would imagine, is what I want to talk about right now. The show works extremely well because it feels like a direct extension of the team’s reporting — it’s voicey, it’s interrogatory, and it’s deeply fixated on individuals. Much like the better pieces of reporting that come out of the site, and very much like the Recode’s live conferences that have become roughly synonymous with the concept of “live journalism.” For these reasons, Recode Decode is the best expression of what happens when you match journalism with the podcast medium, and while I understand it to be one of many ways in which a publication can effectively utilize the medium, it is certainly the configuration that makes the best use of a publication’s existing talent assets. (As opposed to something like The New Yorker Radio Hour, which, while perfectly enjoyable, clearly puts its editorial staffers in a position where they audibly struggle against the medium.)

“Of course, any revenue add is great for any company,” Recode podcast producer Eric Johnson wrote to me when I asked about the Recode team’s expectations with the podcast. “But our goal was to give our existing audience a new place to connect with the news through us — and to build a new audience. Podcasts are a great medium for reaching people who are on the go and may not always have the time to sit and read.” Johnson, who cohosts a podcast on the side called Giant Geek vs. Mega n00b, also highlighted the significance of Recode’s voice being unified across all platforms. “It works on Recode.net, and it works on stage; the voice is one of the things that helps make those more than ordinary interviews, and something we knew our readers would love to listen to,” he wrote.

All right, so that’s all the high level stuff. Here’s the meaty minutiae: For production, sales, and distribution support, Recode teamed up with DGital Media, something of an on-demand audio services company with a leadership team that’s made of former Westwood One and NBC Sports Radio folks. For hosting (and presumably monetization) technology, the site went with Art19, which I talked about last week.

And here’s a detail that’s super interesting, at least to me: As mentioned earlier, Recode was sold to Vox Media last summer. Vox Media also operates the Ezra Klein-led Vox.com, which produces a podcast with Panoply (my day job employer, by the way) called The Weeds, which is or will presumably be hosted on Panoply’s new CMS platform. (We’ll talk about that in a bit.)

Spotify finally introduces a long-awaited feature. The Swedish streaming company will finally be rolling out its video offerings over the next two weeks — about seven months after first announcing that they would be adding videos and podcasts to their library, according to The Wall Street Journal (paywall). Android users will get the updated offerings first by the end of this week, while iOS users will receive full roll-out by the end of next week. Podcasts will likely be rolled out alongside videos, as both media types are being served within the same framework within Spotify’s new UI, which bundles them together under a category called “Shows.” That’s a little hard to confirm, given that the bulk of the reporting keeps the language almost exclusively to video, with only Time, Billboard, and the original Wall Street Journal article providing allusions to a parallel podcast roll-out.

When Spotify announced they were expanding into video and podcasts last May, it rocked a few heads. The move ultimately shifts Spotify away from being a mere streaming service towards something more of a multi-media entertainment environment — which may or may not be an act of over-extension. After all, it’s one thing to fight a war against music labels; it’s another thing altogether to simultaneously fight wars with YouTube, Netflix, MCNs, and whatnot.

Anyway, this development particularly excited podcasters back when it was announced, not only because Spotify presents a whole new distribution point into a bought-in audience rich with fresh new souls to convert into the podcasting medium, but also for the potential for better analytics — or any new metric for that matter, given that we’re pretty starved for anything more than a mere download at this point.

But, as we know now, the actual rollout had been considerably slow, and news of developments had been few and far between. From the Journal article, it appears the gap between the announcement and this week’s rollout principally involved partner on-boarding and performance testing. It’s probably the same process that’s going on with Google Play, which announced that it, too, would be getting into podcasts (but not video) last October and has been fairly quiet about it since then.

In any case, these next two weeks mark the beginning of what may possibly be a new stage for podcast consumption, one of greater accessibility through existing streaming media services. And let’s not forget what this logistically means for podcasters: With an increase in the number of platforms trafficking in podcasts, there also comes an increase in the need to manage platform relationships for distribution and marketing purposes. Spotify may be a whole new access point to a whole new mass of audiences, but they’re also a whole new gatekeeper to figure out.

One more thing on Spotify: The company recently acquired two companies, Sound Wave and Cord Project. The former is a social tool that would enhance Spotify’s sharing and discussion features, which isn’t all that surprising. The latter, however, is a little more eye-catching. According to a Wired article, Cord Project’s product is a “sort-of walkie-talkie for the smartphone age,” but the piece specifically highlights that the company has distinct interest in designing “audio experiences.” And here’s the money quote:

The Cord crew is the start of a new team at Spotify dedicated to turning that data into entirely new kinds of auditory experiences…the long-term plan for Spotify involves podcasts, news, even video. ‘The place to innovate is on the consumption side,” [Cord Project co-founder Jeff] Baxter says. “So we’re still working on that.”

Cool.

Panoply publicly announces a new CMS named Megaphone. More platform news! Last week, my day job employer, Panoply, sister company of Slate and formerly third cousins of The Washington Post, announced the public launch of its new hosting, publishing, and advertising platform, which it’s calling Megaphone. The company also highlighted the fact that Gimlet Media, ostensibly a competitor in terms of content, has licensed use of the platform. The Financial Times (paywall) and Ad Age has the story, with the latter going fairly granular on features:

It allows for one-click insertion of ads into podcasts, geo-targeting of ads to specific podcast consumers, and A/B testing to see what’s working best. Its dynamic ad insertion capabilities also let podcast publishers place new ads in back episodes.

So, I gotta say: Despite thinking a whole lot about these podcast platforms — Art19, Acast, and now Megaphone — and spilling tons of ink about these platforms, and even working for a company that’s cranking out one of these platforms, I’m still personally a little unclear on the specific variables that actually differentiate one offering from the next.

We’ll go deep into that very question next week, for reasons that’ll become clear in a hot second. Stick with me here.

The Nerdette podcast returns, is now officially a WBEZ production. What’s going on over at WBEZ, the Chicago area’s public radio station of choice? A lot of interesting stuff, clearly. The station is officially producing Nerdette, a podcast that was previously a side project by two of its employees.

Tricia Bobeda, one of the two Nerdette hosts, writes in with some clarification:

Up to this point, Nerdette was produced mostly by me and Greta, outside of our day jobs at WBEZ. (I’m the Senior Editor of Digital. Greta is the Weekend Anchor and Reporter.) We produced 50 episodes a year for the first two years. It was super fun. We learned a lot, and are so grateful for the community that sprang up around our show. But everyone here agreed that to make the best possible version of Nerdette, we needed to bolster the time and resources dedicated to it…So now, WBEZ has, shall we say, put a ring on it. (Cue Beyoncé) Nerdette is now a WBEZ original production, led by the indelible Joel Meyer, our new EP. Production of the podcast has also been integrated into our WBEZ day jobs.

The podcast is gearing up for its second season, which will drop later this week. For more information, go here.

NPR’s head of news on the “public radio brain drain.” It’s a strange day when NPR’s ombudsman, the esteemed Elizabeth Jensen, links to an item you wrote on a whim about the scale of people leaving public radio, and it’s an even stranger day when said ombudsman uses it to generate a comment from NPR’s head of news, the similarly-esteemed Michael Oreskes, about said public radio departures.

Anyway, here’s the response from Oreskes, excerpted from a much longer piece detailing his preview of 2016:

Welcome to the real world. NPR is in an extremely competitive environment. People skilled in audio, people strong in journalism, people talented at storytelling: They are all in great demand. That’s a new experience for NPR,” [Oreskes] said, adding, “Once we get used to it and learn how to let it energize us, it’s a good thing. Not everybody should stay in a place for their whole lives. I’m always sorry to see good people leave but we’re not going to hang on to every single good person. We’re going to lose some good people and hire some other good people.

Chill answer, dawg.

Relevant bits this week:

  • The New York Times officially launched the Modern Love podcast in partnership with WBUR last week. It dropped with two episodes in the can, ready for your earballs. (The New York Times, Nieman Lab)
  • Midroll publishes the latest version of its annual audience survey results. (Midroll)
  • Deezer raises $110 million in new funding. The French streaming audio company is the owner of Stitcher, the notable podcast app, which it acquired in October 2014. (Recode)
  • Branded podcast agency Pacific Content hires Chris Boyce, former executive director of radio and audio for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. (Yahoo Finance)
  • “A new podcast from Wyoming is turning hosting on its head.” (Poynter)
  • “Kids love listening to stories. So why aren’t public media podcasts telling them any?” (Current)
  • More elections podcasts! FiveThirtyEight has one, and so does the Futuro Media Group, also known as the producers of NPR’s Latino USA. (FiveThirtyEight, Medium)
  • “Easy on the Ears: Podcasts Are Gaining Audiences, But Have Yet To Attract The Biggest Advertisers” (The Economist)
  • “The Digital Music Industry: New and Interesting Music is Harder to Find Than Ever” (The Economist)

And one more thing. So, quick announcement: I’m leaving Panoply, which has so far been referred to in this column as my “day job employer.” This is my last week as the company’s audience development person, broadly speaking, which has been a strange, difficult, amorphous, confusing, and often thoroughly enjoyable job, and I’m glad to be the first person I know who has such a position in a podcasting company.

What am I going to do next? Well, I think I’m going to try and build this Hot Pod thing into an actual sustainable publication. You know, because building a company is sooooo easy. Because the media business is sooooo lucrative right now. And because the market is sooooo not going to crater in, like, two years due to an overdue economic downturn. Haaa haaa haaa haaa.

Oh boy. What am I doing. What have I done.

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