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MEASUREMENT BITE. Been a while since we’ve checked back into what is arguably the most important subject in the podcast business. Let’s fix that, shall we?
“The good news for podcasters and buyers is measurement challenges are 97 percent solved,” Midroll Media CRO Lex Friedman said on a podcast panel at the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) Show last week. “What we can report now is more specific than we could before.” You can find the quote in this Inside Radio writeup on the panel.
Be that as it may, there’s still some work left to be done. I reached out to Friedman for his perspective on what constitutes the remaining 3 percent of the challenges left to be solved, and here’s his response (pardon the customary Midroll spin):
In TV today, advertisers would struggle if NBC used Nielsen ratings, and ABC used Nielsen but with a different methodology, and CBS used some other company’s measurement technology.
Today in podcasting, the measurement problem is solved; the remaining 3 percent is getting everyone standardized. It doesn’t happen often, but every once in a while, Midroll loses a show to a competitor. When we sell a show at 450,000 downloads, and the next day the same show and same feed is being sold at 700,000 downloads, that’s a problem.
The IAB’s recommended a 24-hour measurement window, while some folks still advocate for 60 minutes or two hours, and too many vendors continue to sell at 5 minutes, which we universally know is way too liberal a count. That’s unfair and confusing to advertisers, and that’s the piece that needs fixing.
That’s no small 3 percent, in my opinion.
Anyway, if you’re new to the podcast measurement problem, my column from February 2016 — back when a group of public radio stations published a set of guidelines on the best way for podcast companies to measure listenership — still holds up as a solid primer on the topic, if I do say so myself.
Fool’s gold? Something else to note from Inside Radio’s article on the NAB panel: a strong indication, delivered by Triton Digital president of market development John Rosso, that there is increasing demand for programmatic podcast advertising.
Programmatic advertising is a system by which ads are automatically bought and sold through algorithmic processes. In other words, it’s a monetization environment where the facilitation of advertising value exchange is automated away from human interaction. The principal upside that comes with programmatic advertising is efficiency: As an advertiser, you theoretically don’t have to spend a lot of time identifying, contacting, and executing buys, and as a publisher, you theoretically don’t have to spend a lot of time doing those things in the opposite direction. In theory, both sides don’t have to do much more work for a lot more money. But the principal downside is the ensuing experience on listener-side, and all the ramifications that fall from a slide in said experience: Because these transactions are machine-automated, there’s no human consideration governing the aesthetic intentionality of an advertising experience paired with the specific contexts of a given podcast.
Combine this with the core assumptions of what makes podcasting uniquely valuable as a media product — that it engenders deeper experiences of intimacy between creator and listener, that its strength is built on the cultivated simulacra of personal trust between the two parties, that any podcast advertising spot is a heavy act of value extraction from the relationship developed between the two sides — and you have a situation where a digital advertising technology is being considered for a medium to which its value propositions are diametrically opposed.
The underlying problem, put simply: Can you artificially scale up podcasting’s advertising supply without compromising its underlying value proposition? To phrase the problem in another direction: Can you develop a new advertising product that’s able to correspondingly scale up intimacy, trust, and relationship-depth between podcast creator and consumer?
The answer for both things may well be no, and that perhaps the move shouldn’t be to prescribe square pegs for round holes. Or maybe the response we’ll see will sound more like “the way we’re doing things isn’t sustainable, we’re going to have to make more money somehow” with the end result being an identity-collapsing shift in the defining characteristics of this fledgling medium. In which case: Bummer, dude.
Binge-Drop Murphies. Gimlet announced its spring slate last week, and two out of three of them, the audio drama Sandra and the Lynn Levy special The Habitat, will be released in their entirety tomorrow. When asked about the choice to go with the binge-drop, Gimlet president Matt Lieber tells me:
We decided to binge both The Habitat and Sandra because we felt that they were both so engrossing and engaging, so we wanted to give the listener the decision to either power through all the episodes, or sample and consume at their own pace. Sandra is our second scripted fiction series and we know from our first, Homecoming, that a lot of people chose to binge the series after it was out in full. With The Habitat, it’s such a unique and immersive miniseries, and we wanted to give listeners the chance to get lost in the world by listening all at once.
Grab your space suits, fellas.
The beautiful game. The third show in Gimlet’s spring bundle is We Came To Win, the company’s first sports show, which promises to deliver stories on the most memorable soccer matches in history. The press release appears to be playing up the universal angle of the sport: “Soccer is a sport that is about so much more than goals. It’s about continents, countries, characters, and the relationships between them.” (I mean, yeah.)
In an interesting bit of mind-meld, Gimlet’s first foray into sports mirrors WNYC Studios’ own maiden voyage into the world of physical human competition. Sometime this spring, the New York public radio station will roll out its own World Cup-timed narrative podcast, a collaboration with Men in Blazers’ Roger Bennett that will look the U.S. Men’s National Soccer Team’s journey from its triumphant 1994 World cup appearance to its doomed 1998 campaign. (Yikes.)
Public radio genes run deep.
Peabody nominations. The 2017 nominations were announced last week, and interestingly enough, six out of the eight entries in the Radio/Podcast category are either podcast-only or podcast-first. The nominees are: Radiotopia’s Ear Hustle, Minnesota Public Radio’s 74 Seconds, Serial Productions’ S-Town, the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University’s Scene on Radio: Seeing White, Gimlet’s Uncivil, and Louisville Public Media/Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting’s “The Pope’s Long Con.
Notes on The Pope’s Long Con. It was an unbelievable story with unthinkable consequences. Produced by the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting (KyCIR) and Louisville Public Media, The Pope’s Long Con was the product of a seven-month long investigation into Dan Johnson, a controversial bishop-turned-Kentucky state representative shrouded in corruption, deceit, and an allegation of sexual assault. KyCIR’s feature went live on December 11, bringing Johnson’s story — and the allegations against him — into the spotlight. The impact was explosive, leading to immediate calls for Johnson to resign. He denied the allegations at a press conference. Two days later, Johnson committed suicide.
It was “any journalist’s nightmare,” as KyCIR’s managing editor Brendan McCarthy told CJR in an article about how the newsroom grappled with the aftermath of its reporting. (Which, by the way, you should absolutely read.)
In light of those circumstances, the podcast’s Peabody nomination feels especially well-deserved. It’s also a remarkable achievement for a public radio station relatively new to podcasting. “The Pope’s Long Con was the first heavy-lift podcast Louisville Public Media had undertaken,” Sean Cannon, a senior digital strategist at the organization and creative director of the podcast, tells me. “It didn’t start out as one though…Audio was planned, but it was a secondary concern. Once we realized the scope and gravity of it all, we knew everything had to be built around the podcast.”
When I asked Cannon how he feels about the nomination, he replied:
Given the situation surrounding the story, it’s still a confusing mix of emotions to see The Pope’s Long Con reach the heights it has. That said, we’re all immensely proud of the work we did. It’s necessary to hold our elected officials accountable.
In the context of the podcast industry, it taught me a lesson that can be easy to forget. I was worried the hierarchy of publishers had become too calcified, rendering it almost impossible for anyone below the top rungs to make serious waves — without a thick wallet, anyway. It’s a topic that comes up regularly in Hot Pod.
While the industry will never purely be a meritocracy, The Pope’s Long Con shattered that perception. It served as a reminder of something that gets glossed over when you’re caught up in the business of it all: If you can create compelling audio, that trumps everything else.
Tip of the hat, Louisville.
Crooked Media expands into film. According to The Hollywood Reporter, the media (political activism?) company will be co-producing a new feature documentary on Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke’s bid to unseat Senator Ted Cruz in the upcoming midterm elections. This extends on Crooked Media’s previous adventures in video, which already involve a series of HBO specials to be taped across the country amidst the run-up to midterms.
A quick nod to Pod Save America’s roots as The Ringer’s Keepin’ It 1600 here: Crooked Media will likely crib from the playbook The Ringer built around the recent Andre the Giant HBO documentary, which was executive produced by Ringer CEO Bill Simmons, where the latter project received copious promotion through The Ringer website and podcast network. What’s especially interesting about that whole situation is the way it is essentially a wholesale execution of what I took as the principal ideas from the analyst Ben Thompson’s 2015 post “Grantland and the (Surprising) Future of Publishing.”
I’m not sure if I’d personally watch a Beto O’Rourke doc — the dude has been a particularly vibrant entry into the “blue hope in red country” political media subgenre for a long while now, and I’m tapping out — but Pod Save America listeners most definitely would.
Empire on Blood. My latest for Vulture is a review of the new seven-part Panoply podcast, which I thought was interesting enough as a pulpy doc but deeply frustrating in how the show handles its power and positioning. It’s a weird situation: I really liked host Steve Fishman’s writing, and I really liked the tape gathered, but the two things really shouldn’t have been paired up this way.
The state of true crime podcasts. You know you’re neck-deep in something when you can throw out random words and land close to an actual example of that something: White Wine True Crime, Wine & Crime, Up & Vanished, The Vanished, Real Crime Profile, True Crime Garage, Crimetown, Small Town Murders, and so on. (This is a general observation that goes well beyond true crime pods. Cryptocurrencies: Sumokoin, Dogecoin, PotCoin. Food startups: Plated, Pantry, PlateIQ. Names: Kevin.)
Anyway, I’ve said it once, and I’ll say it again: True crime is the bloody, bleeding heart of podcasting, a genre that’s proliferating with a velocity so tremendous it could power a dying sun. And in my view, true crime podcasts are also a solid microcosm of the podcast universe as a whole: What happens there, happens everywhere.
When it comes to thinking about true crime podcasts, there are few people whose opinions I trust more than crime author, podcaster, and New Hampshire Public Radio digital director Rebecca Lavoie. As the cohost of the indispensable weekly conversational podcast Crime Writers On… — which began life as Crime Writers On Serial, a companion piece to the breakout 2014 podcast phenomenon — Lavoie consumes and thinks a lot about true crime and true crime podcasts specifically.
I touched base with Lavoie recently to get the latest on what’s been going on in her neck of the woods:
[conl]Hot Pod: In your view, how has the true crime podcast genre evolved over the past four years or so?[/conl]
[conr]Rebecca Lavoie: It’s evolved in a few directions — some great, some…not so much.
On the one hand (and most wonderfully), we have journalism and media outlets who would never have touched the true crime genre a few years ago making true crime podcasts based on the tenets of great reporting and production. And when it comes to the “never would have touched it” part, I know what I’m talking about. Long before I was a podcaster, I was the coauthor of several mass-market true crime books while also working on a public radio show. Until Criminal was released and enjoyed some success, public radio and true crime never crossed streams, to an extent where I would literally avoid discussing my true crime reporting at work — it was looked down upon, frankly.
Today, though, that kind of journalistic snobbery is almost non-existent, and podcasts (especially Criminal and Serial) can claim 100 percent responsibility for that. Shows that exist today as a result of this change include Accused from the Cincinnati Enquirer, West Cork from Audible, Breakdown from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, In the Dark from APM reports, and the CBC’s recent series Missing & Murdered. (And yes, even the public radio station where I still work — now on the digital side — is developing a true crime podcast!)
Credit is also due to Serial for the way journalism podcasts are being framed as true crime when they wouldn’t have been in a pre-Serial era. Take Slow Burn from Slate, which is the best podcast I’ve heard in the past year or two. While the Watergate story would have been so easy to frame as a straight political scandal, the angles and prose techniques used in Slow Burn have all the hallmarks of a great true crime narrative — and I’m pretty sure the success of that show was, at least in part, a result of that.
Of course, where you have ambitious, high-quality work, you inevitably have ambitious terrible work, right? It’s true, there are very big and very bad true crime podcasts being produced at an astonishing rate right now, and because they have affiliation with established networks, these shows get a lot of promotion. But as much as I might personally love to hate some of these terrible shows (I’m talking to YOU, Atlanta Monster!) I do see some value in their existence.
I think about it the same way I think about movies: Not every successful big budget blockbuster is a good movie, but ultimately, those films can serve to raise the profile and profitability of the movie industry as a whole, and help audiences discover other, higher-quality content.[/conr]
[conl]Hot Pod: What do you think are the more troubling trends in how true crime podcasts have evolved?[/conl]
[conr]Lavoie: One is what I see as a glut of podcasts that are, quite frankly, building audience by boldly recycling the work of others. Sword & Scale is a much-talked-about example of that, but it’s not even the worst I’ve come across. There was a recent incident in which a listener pointed me to a monetized show in which the host simply read, word for word, articles published in magazines and newspapers — and I can’t help but wonder how pervasive that is. My hope is that at some point, the transcription technologies we’re now seeing emerge can somehow be deployed to scan audio for plagiarism, similar to the way YouTube scans videos for copyright infringement.
But there’s another trend that, for me, is even more troubling. There’s been a recent and massive growth of corporate podcast networks that are building their businesses on what I can only compare to the James Patterson book factory model — basically saying to creators, “Hey, if you think you have a story, partner with us and we’ll help you make, distribute, and monetize your podcast — and we’ll even slap our name on it!”
This, unfortunately, seems to be what’s behind a recent spate of shows that, in the hands of a more caring set of producers, could have (maybe?) been good, but ultimately, the podcasts end up being soulless, flat, “why did they make it at all” experiences.
Why is this the most upsetting trend for me? First, because good journalists are sometimes tied to these factory-made shows, and the podcasts aren’t doing them, or their outlets, or the podcast audience as a whole any favors.
The other part of it is that these networks have a lot of marketing pull with podcast platforms that can make or break shows by featuring them at the top of the apps. These marketing relationships with Apple etc. mean factory networks have a tremendous advantage in getting their shows front and center. But ultimately, many of the true crime podcasts getting pushed on podcast apps are very, very bad, and I can’t imagine a world in which a lot of bad content will end up cultivating a smart and sustainable audience.[/conr]
[conl]Hot Pod: In your opinion, what were the most significant true crime podcasts in recent years?[/conl]
[conr]Lavoie: In the Dark by APM Reports is up there. What I love about that show is that they approached the Jacob Wetterling story with an unusual central question: Why wasn’t this case solved? (Of course, they also caught the incredibly fortunate break of the case actually being solved, but I digress…) Theirs is a FAR more interesting question than, say, “What actually happened to this missing person?” Or “Is this person really guilty?” Of course, In the Dark also had the benefit of access to a talented public media newsroom, and I really enjoyed how they folded data reporting into that story.
I most often tell people that after Serial season one, my favorite true crime podcast of all time is the first season of Accused. Not only do I love that show because it looks at an interesting unsolved case, but I love it because it was made by two women, seasoned newspaper journalists, with no podcasting experience. Amber Hunt is a natural storyteller and did an amazing job injecting a tremendous amount of humanity and badass investigative journalism skills into that story. It’s not perfect, but to me, its imperfections are a big part of what makes it extraordinary.
More recently, I’ve really enjoyed the shows I mentioned above, including West Cork and Missing & Murdered. But when it comes to significance, Slow Burn is the most understated and excellent audio work I’ve heard in a long time. I loved every minute of it. I think that Slate team has raised the bar on telling historical crime stories, and we’re the better for it.[/conr]
[conl]Hot Pod: What do you generally want to see more of from true crime podcasts?[/conl]
[conr]Lavoie: I want to see more new approaches and formal risk-taking, and more integrity, journalistic and otherwise.
One of my favorite podcasts to talk about is Breakdown from the AJC. Bill Rankin is the opposite of a radio reporter — he has a folksy voice and a writing style much more suited to print. But beginning in season one, he’s been very transparent about the challenges he’s faced while making the show. He’s also, as listeners quickly learned, an incredible reporter with incredible values. That show has embraced multiple formats and allowed itself to evolve — and with a couple of exceptions, Bill’s voice and heart have been at the center of it.
I’d also love to see some trends go away, most of all, this idea of podcast host as “Hey, I’m not a podcaster or a journalist or really anyone at all but LET’S DO THIS, GUYS” gung-ho investigator.
Don’t get me wrong, some really good podcasts have started with people without a lot of audio or reporting experience, but they aren’t good because the person making them celebrates sounding like an amateur after making dozens of episodes.[/conr]
Again, you can find Lavoie on Crime Writers On…, where she is joined every week by: Kevin Flynn, her true crime coauthor (and “former TV reporter husband,” she adds); Toby Ball, a fiction writer; and Lara Bricker, a licensed private investigator and fellow true crime writer. Lavoie also produces a number of other podcast projects, including: …These Are Their Stories: The Law & Order Podcast, HGTV & Me, and Married With Podcast for Stitcher Premium.
On a related note: The New York Times’ Jonah Bromwich wrote a quick piece on the Parcast network, described as “one of several new networks saturating the audio market with podcasts whose lurid storylines play out like snackable television.” The article also contains my successful effort at being quoted in ALL CAPS in the Times.
- This year’s Maximum Fun Drive has successfully accrued over 28,000 new and upgrading members. (Twitter) Congrats to the team.
- WBUR is organizing what it’s calling the “first-ever children’s podcast festival” on April 28 and 29. Called “The Mega Awesome Super Huge Wicked Fun Podcast Playdate” — shouts to whoever came up with that — the festival will be held at the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline, Massachusetts and will feature shows like Eleanor Amplified, Story Pirates, But Why, and Circle Round, among others. (Website)
- “Bloomberg expands TicToc to podcasts, newsletters.” For the uninitiated: TicToc is Bloomberg’s live-streaming video news channel that’s principally distributed over Twitter. On the audio side, the expansion appears to include podcast repackages and a smart-speaker experiment. (Axios)
- American Public Media is leaning on Westwood One to handle advertising for the second season of its hit podcast In The Dark. Interesting choice. The new season drops next week. (AdWeek)
- I’m keeping an eye on this: Death in Ice Valley, an intriguing collaboration between the BBC and Norway’s NRK, debuted yesterday. (BBC)
- Anchor rolls out a feature that helps its users find…a cohost? Yet another indication that the platform is in the business of building a whole new social media experience as opposed to something that directly relates to podcasting. (TechCrunch)
- On The New York Times’ marketing campaign for Caliphate: “The Times got some early buzz for the podcast before its launch; 15,000 people have signed up for a newsletter that will notify them when a new episode is ready, twice as many as expected.” (Digiday)
- “Alexa Is a Revelation for the Blind,” writes Ian Bogost in The Atlantic.
[photocredit]Photo of a tape measure by catd_mitchell used under a Creative Commons license.[/photocredit]
Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 137, published October 24, 2017.
WBUR wades into the daily podcast grind…with sports. So, one of the structural advantages of on-demand audio — and of the internet more broadly, with the way it collapses physical space — is how it allows publishers to identify, carve out, and super-serve distinct identity sets, which is a fancy way of saying how the medium excels at activating niches. (This is, of course, an exceptionally sharp blade that cuts in both directions.)
And so it’s to the credit of WBUR, one of Boston’s two public media institutions, that it moved to seize on both this natural advantage of the medium and the emerging genre of the daily podcast to serve a constituency well within their jurisdiction: the Boston sports fan, its own very specific species of human with its own dynamics, traditions, and diaspora.
Season Ticket, as the podcast is called, is off to a reasonable start. In its first two weeks, the show received approximately 200,000 downloads across its first 10 dispatches (a 20,000-per-episode average), which is a workable floor for what is essentially a show that’s not meant for everybody. I’m tempted to use the word “niche” here, but I’ve been told the word comes with the unfair connotation of smallness, which is, of course, an inaccurate notion. A book about Star Wars is “niche,” but Star Wars fans are legion.
Two things to watch with Season Ticket. The first is how much, and how fast, it will grow. Recall that the station’s first major podcast achievement, Modern Love, garnered 1.4 million downloads in its first month, and after four months the podcast was averaging 300,000 downloads a week. The second is how Season Ticket will find its place within the Boston sports fan media diet. This is, after all, a media consumer long super-served by New England’s sprawling network of sports media institutions, talk radio and otherwise, and WBUR’s task will be to tap into a completely new set of previously unserved fans — a younger generation, perhaps, or a diaspora in need — or test the limits of the hypothesis that the Boston sports fan’s hunger for coverage could very well be infinite.
Whatever WBUR finds out, they can definitely add another feather to their cap of respectable partnerships, which the station’s podcasting operations, led by the formidable Jessica Alpert, appears to be turning into a core program strategy. Season Ticket comes out of a collaboration with The Boston Globe — it’s hosted by Chris Gasper, a sports columnist for the paper — and a quick overview of WBUR’s listings on the Apple podcast directory show that Season Ticket is one of three such projects now out in the open. The other two are the aforementioned Modern Love, with The New York Times, and the upcoming Edge of Fame, with The Washington Post. More, I’m told, are on the way.
With this partnership-driven orientation, WBUR finds itself in the position where it could give Panoply — whose content strategy was once premised on such collaborations with media companies — a run for its money. But the challenge, as always, will be whether the station is able to draw talent to Boston as it grows its podcast team commensurate with demand…and, more importantly, whether it can retain them. It’s probably worth recalling, at this point, that Modern Love was originated by Lisa Tobin, who left WBUR last summer to be the executive producer of audio at The New York Times. Talent acquisition and retention is a problem for all in the industry, but one imagines it’s doubly so for any non-New York, non-Los Angeles shop at this point in time — even if Boston is a sub-four-hour train ride north from the self-declared Podcast Capital of the World. That’s a toughie.
Cults! So, I’m keeping an eye on Heaven’s Gate, the 10-part documentary about the cult infamous for perpetrating the largest mass suicide ever to take place in the United States back in the nineties. The podcast, which launched last week, seems pretty spicy, and it happens to double as the sophomore effort for the creative team behind Missing Richard Simmons, the duo of Pineapple Street and Midroll. It’s worth pointing out, as I did with my Vulture writeup, that Midroll is more creatively involved this time around, with the company originating the show’s concept. (That wasn’t the case with Simmons. Dan Taberski, via First Look Media, had that honor. Taberski is listed in the Heaven’s Gate credits, though.)
But of course, the focus here is on Pineapple Street, who leads production. (Ann Heppermann, the cofounder of the Sarah Awards who is now on the company’s payroll, helms the rig.) The primary question here is whether Pineapple can go two-for-two with a hit feature. Which, I imagine, will help us attend to some other interesting questions: Was Missing Richard Simmons a fluke? Can Pineapple reliably stretch beyond its go-to move of extracting value from the star power of larger brands and celebrities, which appears to be its primary strategic angle? Aside from Missing Richard Simmons, the company’s portfolio is made up of shows built around The New York Times’ Jenna Wortham and Wesley Morris, Lena Dunham, Janet Mock, Aminatou Sow, Matt Bellassai, Preet Bharara, and, obviously, Hillary Clinton. (Though, I suppose, you could argue that Missing Richard Simmons’ appeal was principally built on the draw of the titular celebrity, which cast a Godot-like shadow over the proceedings. In which case, there’s an argument to be made about Pineapple’s principal occupation being the interlocution of celebrity. It’s not a particularly strong argument, but it’s workable.)
Aaaanyway. You want to talk benchmarks? Let’s talk benchmarks. Figuring out a true number to beat is a little tough. Looking back at my notes, the clearest baseline for Missing Richard Simmons given was: “On March 28, a little over a month after the show first debuted, First Look Media told me that the podcast had been downloaded on average more than 1 million times a week since its release.” I guess that’ll have to serve our touchpoint for the first month.
The New York Times’ The Daily hits a milestone, outlines its future. Last week, the news industry analyst Ken Doctor pumped out two pieces on The Daily, one for Nieman Lab and one for TheStreet, and they give us a good snapshot of where the Times’ audio team currently sits and where it wants to go.
To begin with, Doctor reports that the morning news podcast has officially surpassed the 100 million download mark. As of the article’s pub date, October 17, The Daily had delivered 186 editions, which means the show has a 530,000~ download per episode average. Add to that two other key data points from Doctor’s piece in The Street — that The Daily was estimated to have hit 3.8 million unique visitors in August, and that the company is able to command ad rates comparable to pivot-inspiring levels of digital video — and you have an editorial product that stretches widely and draws deep dividends, both right now and in the days to come.
Doctor’s reporting also gives us a sense of NYT Audio’s immediate next steps: further expanding its headcount (now 16 full-time employees strong, seven of which hold production duties on The Daily according to Barbaro’s recent Longform interview), slapping on a digital engineering development arm to the team (!), stretching out The Daily to six editions per week, and rolling out more “extensions” of the program (presumably in the vein of The New Washington). He also notes two more things that I think are especially worth tracking: firstly, that the team is working on a “big narrative project” (isn’t everybody, though?), and secondly, that “within the next several weeks, Times readers will be able to access The Daily directly from their apps and browsers without using a separate podcast app.” This is incredibly significant, in that it illustrates a team meaningfully working to bypass the cumber of dedicated podcast apps to deliver its product to consumers. And it just so happens that, in doing so, the company will be able to keep those audiences within the universe of its primary mobile app, which puts them in a better position to spread the value generated by the podcast around the other aspects of the business. Further, it doesn’t take much to imagine the various audience and listening behavior analytics tools that will be layered on that built-in player, which will better aid the Times in carrying out the primary business goals of the podcast: to convert new subscribers, to retain existing subscribers, and to gather even more intelligence that will help them to do both those things.
I’m noodling on two more thoughts:
- This quote provided by Sam Dolnick, the paper’s assistant editor and one of the long-running champions for the audio division, stands out to me: “This is the birth of a franchise for us that can live on and on in many different mediums for a long time.” A bold statement, though it does support any such suspicion that, when it comes to organizing NYT Audio, you have The Daily on one side, and everything that’s not The Daily on the other. Recall that the audio team still ships other non-Daily-related podcasts: Still Processing (with Pineapple Street), Modern Love (with WBUR), Popcast, and The Book Review — none of which were mentioned in either piece by Doctor. Which raises the question: What are the futures of these shows? And what is the future of non-Daily podcast programming? Will that aforementioned “big narrative project” be rolled out under The Daily banner, or not? Question marks!
- I was chatting with a public-radio station operative at ONA a few weeks ago, who shared a sentiment that I’ve taken the liberty to brand on the back of my skull. To liberally paraphrase: Getting your first hit is one thing, what happens after is a whole other bag of bananas.
Three notes on measurement.
- I have a mea culpa for you. Contrary to what I noted in last week’s issue, the Apple in-episode analytics was never pegged to the iOS 11 release, with the upgrade always being slated for a vague “later in the year” target date. That’s a note-taking fumble on my part, and I regret the error. The deployment timeline makes sense, even if I airballed: For there to be workable and reliable in-episode listening analytics, iOS 11 adoption needs to achieve critical mass, and that often takes some time following iOS rollouts. Again, my bad.
- Keep a lookout: I’ve been getting sporadic reports from some publishers and independents that are experiencing rocky metrics readjustments well before this anticipated Apple change. The destabilizing shifts are thought to be tied to two other measurement changes, specifically: (1) Libsyn’s stats overhaul to become more compliant to IAB reporting standards, which took place in mid-September, and (2) Stitcher’s implementation of several changes — including a stats adjustment to fit IAB compliance, along with the presentation of “Front Page Impressions” as a separate metric — that kicked in earlier this month. For at least some publishers, the combination of the two have resulted in serious drops in performance data, though I have also heard of some upward revisions. I wasn’t able to pin down a specific change range that I’d be comfortable printing just yet, though. I’ll be keeping an eye on this.
- I suspect we’re in the midst of a situation in which various podcast platforms are moving to adopt the IAB standard, but are doing so at different rates. While this will ultimately lead to a more cohesive and accountable ecosystem in the long run, the uneven adoptions have immediately cultivated some serious dysfunctions and pitfalls for individual publishers — particularly those that are interested in switching vendors. A publisher recently opined to me about the drastic performance data readjustments it experienced after migrating from Audioboom to Megaphone earlier this year, which fundamentally threw off its revenue projections. That’s bad enough, but the publisher felt that its ordeal was further exacerbated by a lack of vendor transparency. “I have a bunch of theories as to what happened, but the fact that podcast platforms are so cagey about their measurement standards drives me insane, and it impacts the work we do,” that publisher told me. Audioboom tells me that the platform adheres to the first version of IAB standards that was published last year — which is distinct from the newer edition that was circulated last month for public comment — but also notes that podcasts that move away from Audioboom’s platform will no longer have access to additional listenership facilitated through the company’s app. Nevertheless, the larger issue remains: For some, it’s still hard to tell what’s what, and that’s a big problem.
I imagine it would be prudent to anticipate more turbulence to come.
Career Spotlight. I love running this feature, mostly because it’s often a miracle that even a fraction of anything ever happens the way you hope it would. This week, I traded emails with Robin Amer, a Chicago-based journalist, editor, and audio documentarian who is in the midst of leading the development of a long-form investigative podcast, The City, that she sold to the USA Today Network over the summer. Amer’s on the up-and-up, and it’s great to catch her at this point in time.
[conl]Hot Pod: What’s going on right now?[/conl]
[conr]Robin Amer: I’m working to launch my podcast, The City, in 2018. It’s a long-form, investigative show that explores how our cities actually work — I’ve described it as being like The Wire, only true. By that I mean that every season will go deep into one city and one story. And every story will have a gritty sense of place, a memorable, multi-racial ensemble cast, and will be as revealing about the power struggles of all cities as it is about the particulars of the city where it’s set. Season 1 is set in Chicago, where I live. I can’t say much about the story right now except that when I started reporting it I thought, holy moly, this really is like The Wire, only true.
Because I’m the show’s executive producer as well as its the host, I’ve spent the last few months building the foundation for the show on business side as well as on the editorial side: building a whisper room studio in our offices in Chicago; hiring a team of journalists; working with my company’s product and sales teams to design our website and secure sponsorships; that kind of thing. I’m hoping to have most of my reporting and production team in place in the next few weeks, at which point we’ll dive back into the reporting for Season 1.[/conr]
[conl]Hot Pod: How did you get to this point?[/conl]
[conr]Amer: In a narrow sense, I won the WNYC Podcast Accelerator competition in 2015, piloted the show with WNYC Studios last year, then sold the pilot to the USA Today Network in May. USATN was interested in the show because the company wants to be a player in the premium podcast space, and because my vision for the show — to go to a different city every season — fits perfectly with its overall editorial strategy. The company owns 109 local news outlets, and we’re already soliciting pitches from journalists in the network for stories for Season 2.
In a broader sense, I’ve been working up to this project for more than 15 years. I feel in love with public radio-style storytelling à la This American Life when I was in high school, then talked my way into an internship at NPR when I was 18. My senior thesis at Brown was an hour-long radio documentary that aired on several public radio stations in New England and that I premiered as a live performance in front of about 200 people.
That doesn’t mean it’s been a straight trajectory. I moved to Chicago in 2007 to work for Vocalo and then for WBEZ, and truly thought I’d be there forever, because it had always been my dream to work there, and because I loved Chicago, and Chicago was sort of a one-horse town when it came to opportunities in radio. But at a certain point I started to stagnate, and I wasn’t able to do the kind of work I wanted to do most, so I took a risk that not everyone understood, and left my stable job in journalism to go back to journalism school at Medill.
It seemed a little crazy at the time, even to me. But it was totally the right move. I got a full scholarship, and then a fellowship with Medill Watchdog, where I trained with Pulitzer Prize-winner Rick Tulsky on how to be an investigative reporter. That opened a lot of doors for me. After I graduated, I freelanced for a year, which included a stint at the interactive audio walking tour company Detour, before I was hired to be the deputy editor at the alt-weekly Chicago Reader. Then I won the WNYC competition just a few weeks after I started at the Reader. (It was kind of a heady time!)[/conr]
[conl]Hot Pod: What does a career mean to you at this point?[/conl]
[conr]Amer: The most important thing to me is the work, in whatever form it takes, and to keep making it. I think it’s really important to be adaptable and nimble, given both the incredible opportunities in media right now and the incredible instability in the media job market. It’s so boom and bust, feast and famine, that you have to figure out what really drives you, so that you can use that to guide you through various opportunities and challenges.
So for me, I’ve figured out that as a journalist and storyteller I’m incredibly inspired by place. Typically I come across some place that is strange or confusing or surprising or upsetting, and I want to figure out, in a very literal sense, what happened here? How did this place come to be the way it is? And what are the consequences of this place being the way it is for the people who live here?
But I’m very open to and excited by the idea of exploring these kinds of stories across a variety of media and in a variety of contexts. I look at someone like Alex Kotlowitz as a model here. He writes long-form magazine articles and books, produces radio stories, and is involved with making feature films like The Interrupters. But his work always has the unifying themes of poverty, race, and inequality (and often education and/or childhood), so regardless of the “container” it’s in, you can tell it’s his. I’m also newly inspired by Ira Glass right now, because he somehow manages to be deeply involved in the journalism coming out of TAL, Serial, S-Town, etc., while also managing and growing what is essentially a business empire.[/conr]
[conl]Hot Pod: When you started out, what did you think you wanted to do?[/conl]
[conr]Amer: In one sense, I thought I wanted to do more or less what I’m doing now: make long-form audio stories. When I was younger I was in love with old-school, sound-rich European features by people like Peter Leonard Braun and Kaye Mortley, people whose work I had been introduced to by the Third Coast International Audio Festival. But it took me a while to articulate the kind of subject matter I was drawn to, and to realize that what I was doing was journalism, and that the ethics and tools and practices of journalism were an important component of my work. Fifteen years ago I would have self-identified as a radio producer or a radio documentary maker. Now I tend to self-identify as an investigative reporter. More recently it’s been a shock to see myself as somewhat entrepreneurial. I didn’t see that part coming.[/conr]
- Radiotopia has kicked off its annual fundraiser. The campaign runs from October 23 to November 10, and its explicit goal is to increase its donor base to 20,000. (Campaign page)
- ESPN has cancelled Barstool Van Talk, which the company had adapted for its ESPN2 channel from Barstool’s Pardon My Take podcast. Apparently, they got what they thought they were getting, but realized it wasn’t something they actually wanted, I guess? (Variety)
- The Dinner Party Download has parted ways with American Public Media. The show was first launched as a podcast 10 years ago, and spent the last six being syndicated as a public radio weekend show. It will run its last broadcast on December 1. A sad development, but not to worry: details about the podcast future of hosts Brendan Francis Newnam and Rico Gagliano are “forthcoming.” Phew. (Announcement)
- With a $100,000 grant from the Knight Foundation, the Charlotte, N.C. public radio station WFAE has “announced a plan to better connect with its audiences and develop fresh content using NPR One.” The station has hired Joni Deutsch, previously at West Virginia Public Broadcasting, as the on-demand producer to implement these efforts. It’s possible this might end up being the model of how most public radio stations will interface with the NPR One platform being positioned as “the (potential) future of public radio,” but who knows with these things really. (Press release)
- Speaking of NPR One, the platform makes an appearance in this stellar article about news personalization by Adrienne LaFrance. (The Atlantic)
- The CBC’s true crime podcast, Someone Knows Something, returns for a third season on November 7. It has reportedly garnered 32 million downloads across its first two seasons, which is made up of 27 dispatches. (Press release) As an aside, a cry for help.
- The podcast adaptation of the L.A Times’ Dirty John helped drive 21,000 additional signups to the paper’s Essential California newsletter. (Digiday)
- LeVar Burton is now legally cleared to use his catchphrase from Reading Rainbow for his podcast with Midroll. You don’t have to take my word for it — you can find the background for this weird but entertaining story here.
can someone make something that isn’t a true crime podcast at some point please
i already hate people
— “Nick” 🎃 (@nwquah) October 23, 2017
[photocredit]Photo of Fenway Park by John Sonderman used under a Creative Commons license.[/photocredit]
Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 128, published July 18, 2017.
Radiotopia’s Ear Hustle breaks 1.5 million downloads in its first month, qualifying the show as a “runaway hit” for the podcast collective, as the press release puts it. Also interesting from the release: the podcast, which emerged as the winner of Radiotopia’s first Podquest competition that wrapped last November, has doubled the number of advertisers that will be running spots throughout the first season. Chalk that up, perhaps, to the Today Show bump.
(By the way: Ear Hustle is very, very good, in case that’s not already clear.)
The New York Times adds a new show to its portfolio: “Dear Sugars,” formerly known as “Dear Sugar Radio,” the advice column-turned-advice podcast featuring Cheryl Strayed and Steve Almond from WBUR. This deepens the Times’ relationship with WBUR; the two organizations already collaborate on the Modern Love podcast, which itself is another column-turned-podcast initiative, and long-time observers already know that Lisa Tobin, formerly the managing producer of program development at WBUR, currently serves as the Times’ executive producer of audio.
In case you didn’t know… Lauren Osen, a former senior producer at KPCC’s AirTalk, is the new editorial lead for the Americas for the Apple Podcasts team. Which is to say, she’s the new Steve Wilson. Say hello.
NPR reaches tentative agreement with SAG-AFTRA, avoiding a strike. If you’re reading this newsletter about podcasts that’s fairly heavy on public radio-oriented coverage, you’re probably familiar with what happened here — in broad strokes, at the very least. But if you missed it, this Poynter column should suffice. (Shouts to Poynter’s Al Tompkins for hitting the beat.)
I don’t think there’s much to say that hasn’t already been said. There’s only so much you can draw from a situation that saw NPR’s leadership put forward a contract proposal largely described as “odious” and “the single worst labor proposal in NPR history” during a time when, somewhat paradoxically, the organization has been hitting all-time high ratings and news service brand awards. A proposal that, among other things, pushed for lower pay for newer employees (which will almost definitely worsen the organization’s already lacking state of diversity), rollbacks in benefits, and the eroding of union protections, creating an environment where newsroom morale was “in the dumps” and that triggered a very public fallout. There’s only so much that can be inferred about the substance of leadership here, one whose goal is to be “economically sustainable for the long-term” but at the same time is seemingly dubious in its acceptance of a world that’s rapidly shifting toward digital — remember the NPR Memo kerfuffle? Fun fact: that has now been semi-resolved, over a year later — and, really, one that allowed a public showing of disrespect to its journalists in a time when the very profession feels under siege, when questions linger over federal support in this presidential administration, and when the industry remains ever so volatile.
What else can be said? Other than the obvious: what a damn shame.
Three storylines to track moving forward:
(1) Obviously, a tentative agreement is still tentative. Eyes peeled till the ink dries.
(2) As Poynter notes: “The union had concerns about how a proposed ‘hub’ system would work and whether it would allow non-union local journalists from NPR affiliated stations to do more work now performed by union members.” That hub system in question is the one that NPR news chief Michael Oreskes announced during PRNDI last month, where he envisioned each regional hub being staffed by “experienced managers who could help identify regional stories while making it easier for local stations in those regions to share expertise and resources around investigative work and digital content.” It is in these union negotiations with NPR newsroom staffers, and how they reconceptualize its structure moving forward, where we’ll see the fulcrum upon which the initiative will turn.
(3) Someone pointed this out to me: NPR CEO Jarl Mohn’s five-year contract takes him to 2019, and the tentative agreement runs for three years — expiring in 2020.
A case study in audience targeting. Last Tuesday, Panoply announced that it was partnering with Nielsen to give advertisers the opportunity to buy targeted ads through its Megaphone hosting platform using the latter’s Data Management Platform, an audience segmentation tool built on the company’s various audience intelligence and databases (which is broken out within Nielsen’s platform as audience “personas,” of which it boasts having over 60,000).
AdWeek has a pretty good overview of the story, but here’s the most important thing to know: looking to gain an edge among advertisers, Panoply is now in the business of building out a new podcast advertising marketplace for brands looking for more specificity beyond the broad spray of buying into a given podcast. Panoply isn’t the first to create such a targeting-oriented podcast advertising marketplace; last January, Triton Digital rolled out its Tap Podcast platform, later signing on NPR as a client. (And Panoply isn’t the first audio-related company to gain access to Nielsen’s DMP, either; the measurement giant hammered down a similar-looking partnership with Westwood One last summer.) But where the Tap Podcast partnership was specific to one organization, NPR, this Panoply arrangement theoretically give advertisers a broader, qualified catalog to choose to buy from.
That said, news of this partnership with Nielsen has caused what is now a familiar wave of concerns about how the changes such platforms brings to the advertiser’s power in the ecosystem might affect marketplace dynamics to the detriment of publishers: fears of plummeting CPMs, publishers losing leverage, and so on. To think through these concerns, I thought it might be useful to figure just how the technology and arrangement of how one of these partnerships work — and how it might affect the market — and so I reached out to Panoply to get more insight into its situation. They obliged.
[conl]Hot Pod: Here’s how I comprehend the arrangement: Nielsen has a big data-driven platform that collects a bunch of aggregate user behaviors and then classes them out to 50,000 different kinds of user profiles, with those profiles being built on multi-channel behavior from stuff that they do when they’re watching videos online or surfing on their browsers. And it’s my understanding of this Nielsen data makes up a firehose that will be piped into your platform to inform the way Megaphone dynamically targets and inserts ads based on those audiences.
My initial question is: how does the Nielsen data translate specifically to podcast users? I don’t quite see how the base Nielsen data could be applicable to podcast users if there isn’t the same kind of tracking happening. And I’m curious to hear how you’re able to tell if a certain podcast listener fits within a certain profile.[/conl]
[conr]Jason Cox: That’s pretty much most of it in a nutshell. So, Nielsen tracks demographic segments against these individual user profiles they’ve got from around 9.5 billion unique devices that they’re tracking. They ingest all of that data, they anonymize it, they turn it into a hashed-out idea of the user that has a profile attached, and then they port that data over to our platform. It’s just a huge amount of data that’s constantly flowing in — they have no concept of whether the the user is a podcast listener or not. And so what we do is ingest all of that data, and at the same time we’re building profiles against the activity we’re seeing in our platform: server-side stuff, behaviors, metadata, all of those things allow us to tie user profiles together.[/conr]
[conl]HP: So you guys are trying to translate and connect the profiles they have with what you’re seeing from the podcast user-side, and you’re making those sort of interpretations and connections yourselves?[/conl]
[conl]HP: Does that identification happen on the server side, and not on the listening side?[/conl]
[conr]Cox: Yep, as long as the content isn’t cached and the request is coming through the Megaphone server, which is what usually happens with the podcast apps, then we can perform the targeting.[/conr]
[conl]HP: What are the data points that you use to identify an anonymous user? Is it stuff like geography, IP addresses, consistency of listening…how does that work?[/conl]
[conr]Cox: So it’s all of that: geolocation, the content they’re requesting, the device they’re on as well as behavior we’ve tracked in the past, and so on.[/conr]
[conl]HP: How does this affect things like the podcast advertising marketplace?[/conl]
[conr]Joel Withrow: The way we envision this rolling out to our publishing partners is that you would have the option to participate in the marketplace. So, if you’re participating as a publisher, your inventory goes into the marketplace and it becomes eligible for ads that are targeted as part of this marketplace. Advertisers can choose demographic characteristics, behavioral characteristics, etc., and if you have unsold impressions that match those types of listeners, you would be eligible for these ads’ revenue from the marketplace.
We’re keeping it consolidated right now to participating publishers only. We’re not going to allow advertisers to target shows as well as applying this more granular targeting. The idea there is that we’re not trying to create any sort of channel conflict or competing demand out there for publisher’s brand: if you still want to reach Malcolm Gladwell or Gimlet’s audience and you really want to connect with the brand, then you’re going to work with that publisher and that publisher’s sales team directly and they’re going to buy into their entire audience rather than sort of drilling into, like, “I want to buy Malcolm, and I also want to do males 13 to 35 with a household income of X percentage.”[/conr]
[conr]Andy Bowers: From a producer’s point of view, we will also be getting a much clearer picture of who’s actually listening to the show. With listener surveys, even if they have great responses, you’re still getting some tiny, self-selected fraction of the listenership. Now, even for people who are using Megaphone who are not using the marketplace, they have much more data in real-time whenever they want it about who is listening to each show — and I imagine that would help on an individual level when they’re selling their shows.[/conr]
[conl]HP: If I’m a buyer working through the marketplace, what does that look like? Do I start providing generic ad experiences that’ll go into a bunch of different shows?[/conl]
[conr]Withrow: The ads themselves will be show-specific, because we won’t be enabling that kind of targeting. We’re looking to build a really premium marketplace and will be reaching out to all the usual suspects that we work with to get their opt-in and participation, and part of that is really high standards of content. In the early days of this, we’ll be doing very careful vetting of advertisers and partners that come onto the platform — so, there will be generic ads, but we will be doing our best to educate advertisers on what really works in [podcast] advertising.[/conr]
[conl]HP: More than a few folks are worried this will drive CPM rates down. What’s your take on that?[/conl]
[conr]Bowers: I think the opposite is true. I think this will enable advertisers to much more clearly identify whom they are reaching in a way that we’ve only been able to guess at until now, and that’s much more valuable, especially for a premium podcast that reaches what we all suspect is a very desirable audience. But now we can prove it.[/conr]
[conr]Withrow: The other thing to note is that we’re building this with full hindsight of mature programmatic marketplaces and video-on-display and we’ve seen the dynamics that have taken place over the last decade-plus. There’s a lot of hard-earned wisdom that’s come from that that can inform the way we roll this out. And, as you know, Panoply started out just as a podcast publisher dealing with CPMs, and so we’re not just an ad tech company trying to squeeze every cent out of every impression. We’re heavily invested in keeping CPM rates high. That’s part of the motivation of not opening up this capability far and wide — we’re trying to start out with the context of a marketplace where you know where there’s premium inventory that’s in high demand.[/conr]
[conr]Bowers: Yes, we do not intend to shoot ourselves in the foot.[/conr]
[conl]HP: Finally, and I’m just curious: Panoply is still both a content and technology company, right?[/conl]
[conr]Bowers: Well, I’m not going anywhere.
I’m really excited to see this data for our shows and to see how it can shape how we think about who’s listening to us. I think it will bring in advertisers who can now see exactly who they’re reaching. Everything we do, we do from the point of view of podcast producers first. And so, when Jason first conceived of this idea, we asked ourselves: will this help us? Will this help our shows? Will this help our partners? We wouldn’t have proceeded if we didn’t think it would.[/conr]
[conl]HP: Anything else to add?[/conl]
[conr]Bowers: One thing I’d point out is that I think this works — and not by design, because we didn’t know what Apple was planning — but I think it dovetails very well with what Apple has or will do [with the introduction of in-episode analytics] soon, because we’re all expecting that, inevitably, we will see people skipping over ads.
I mean, the number of ads being heard is not going to go up in the new Apple metric. It’s inevitably going to go down or at the very best stay flat, but probably go down a little bit. So it’s going to be more important than ever that advertisers know, of those remaining people who are listening, who they are. That’s one reason we’re confident about the CPMs with this model, and we think that the two hand-in-hand are going to become the gold standard of what advertisers expect that they can get from podcasts.[/conr]
How touring agencies work the podcast scene. Live shows are shaping up to be an increasingly meaningful component of your standard podcast business (to the extent there is such a thing as “standard”), and if you’re looking to set that up, you probably need the help of touring professionals.
The Billions Corporation — a 28-year-old touring agency with offices in Chicago, Los Angeles, Seattle, Toronto, and Nashville — has been working with podcasts for a while now, representing shows like Welcome to Night Vale, Criminal, and The Flop House. I recently traded emails with Josh Lindgren, an agent at the company’s Seattle office, to get some insight into what a touring agency does and what it’s doing in the podcast space.
[conl]Hot Pod: Could you walk me through what the Billions Corporation does?[/conl]
[conr]Josh Lindgren: We’re an agency that books live performances for a select roster of artists. This includes tours, one-offs, festivals, conferences, etc. As an artist’s chosen representative, we provide an experienced partner in the live entertainment industry that can advocate for the artist’s interests, participate in long-term planning, and help them build a live career that fits into their broader goals.
We were founded in the late 80s as a music agency and have had some pretty big successes in that medium, such as Mumford & Sons, Death Cab for Cutie, Arcade Fire, Sufjan Stevens, The Mountain Goats, and many more. Several years ago, we decided to start applying our established model and relationships to the newly emerging industry of live podcasts. We quickly discovered that there was a great need for our services and have built up the podcast side of our business quickly but thoughtfully. Our goal in the podcast industry is the same as our goal in the music industry — to make touring as artist-centric as possible.
Most podcasters and networks don’t have the time, resources, or experience to book live shows on a large scale. That’s our specialty. We book live podcasts every day year round, so we’re constantly maintaining up-to-date knowledge and relationship with venues big and small around the world.[/conr]
[conl]HP: What does being an agent typically entail?[/conl]
[conr]Lindgren: I work with artists to develop a touring strategy and execute it. This involves selecting venues, negotiating deals, pitching to festivals, making sure any special needs like recording or video projection are being provided, and making sure the artists are paid appropriately for their work. I also manage a team that tracks all of the day-to-day details of any given show, from door times to ticket sales. They take care of things like issuing contracts on the artist’s behalf and preparing documents for immigration. It’s also my job to find new talent and build new relationships, so I’m always listening to new podcasts and going to conferences and events.[/conr]
[conl]HP: Who do you work with?[/conl]
[conr]Lindgren: We represent Stuff You Should Know, Welcome to Night Vale, Criminal, Last Podcast on the Left, RISK!, Throwing Shade, The Greatest Generation, The Memory Palace, Hello from the Magic Tavern, FiveThirtyEight Elections Podcast, Bullseye with Jesse Thorn, The Flop House, Song Exploder, Mystery Show, West Wing Weekly, Scharpling & Wurster, One Bad Mother, and Garrison Keillor. We also book Maximum Fun’s touring festival, Very Very Fun Day, and we’ve done work for NPR on a per-tour basis.[/conr]
[conl]HP: Why do you think podcasts are interested in live touring? Do live podcast shows make money?[/conl]
[conr]Lindgren: The motivation to tour really varies from one artist to the next. It can be establishing a new revenue source, connecting with fans in person, getting in front of sponsors, recording live episodes, raising money for charity, or really anything you can think of. The wife of one of my artists asked me to book him more live shows so that they’d have an excuse to do some traveling together — I loved that!
Live shows are definitely a source of income for the podcasts I work with. The proportion of an artist’s income that’s made from live shows really varies depending on a lot of factors, like number of shows, size of venues, typical ticket prices, etc., as well as, of course, what their other revenue streams are. Unlike advertising, live revenue is not as directly related to download numbers as you might think. I know podcasts that can outsell artists with ten times their download numbers. It all comes down to your relationship with the audience that you have, and establishing a reputation for delivering great live shows.[/conr]
[conl]HP: What are the most important things that you think podcast publishers should know about live shows and agencies like yours, if they don’t already know?[/conl]
[conr]Lindgren: Working with an agency allows podcast publishers to focus on what they do best — making great audio. We focus on what we do best, which is booking great live shows. It’s really a very cost-effective model, too. We take a 10 percent commission on what the artist actually earns from live shows. No retainer fees, no percentages of merch or advertising. We just get paid for the work we do. It’s a classic agency model, just like in music or comedy. Our 10 percent is pretty much always going to be a lot cheaper than staffing a team of experienced show bookers, not to mention our accountant, marketing manager, or in-house attorney. We work with podcasts produced by massive companies and podcasts that are entirely created and operated by one person. What we do is very scalable.[/conr]
You can find Josh on Twitter at @joshtown.
- The IAB released revised podcast measurement guidelines, and it’s opening the doc up to public comment through August 11. (IAB)
- Remember Radio Atlas, the super-cool audio documentary translation and localization initiative by Eleanor McDowall that uses subtitled video? Well, it’s a podcast now, one that’s hoping to serve as “an English-language home for subtitled audio from around the world.” A fantastic idea. (Apple Podcasts)
- Shouts to WNYC’s Manoush Zomorodi, whose Bored and Brilliant series off her Note to Self podcast is being adapted into a book. (Twitter)
- “Philly podcast fest turns five, celebrates big growth.” Those McElroys, they’re everywhere. (Philly.com)
- KCRW’s 24-hour Radio Race is back. Nifty website! (KCRW)
[photocredit]Photo of curtains by AnToonz used under a Creative Commons license.[/photocredit]
Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 122, published June 6, 2017.
I sunk a lot of hours this weekend trying to write a column on “Peak Podcasting,” following some inspiration from a tweet by the esteemed Lizzie O’Leary — which speaks to a broad feeling that I’ve been seeing a lot of — but I’m going to postpone that discussion to next week. For now, let’s talk WWDC, Gimlet, and JSON.
How will we know when we hit peak podcast?— Lizzie O'Leary (@lizzieohreally) June 2, 2017
WWDC. The big Apple developer’s conference — which serves as a periodic hub for major product and upgrade announcements from the tech colossus — started in San Jose yesterday, and there are two big things you probably need to know.
(1) We’re getting a redesigned Podcasts app that’ll come with the announced iOS 11 update. Official details are scant at the moment, and while your mileage may vary with sourcing Reddit, there are a couple of screenshots of the new app floating about from this thread, which also hint at potential upcoming livestreaming tool support. Meanwhile, on the WWDC schedule, there’s an Apple Podcasts session due to take place on Friday, and it notes in the description: “iOS 11 upgrades the Apple Podcasts app to support to new feed structures for serialized shows.” From screenshots coming out of Twitter, it looks as if this in part means bundling by season, and providing a little more control over how episodes are presented to listeners over the feed. (It’s the small stuff that goes a really long way.)
As a sidenote, it’s notable that these changes seem to be particularly focused on better serving serialized shows, to the point it even shows up in the official language. Such shows — like Serial, S-Town, Missing Richard Simmons, and so on — do tend to be the medium’s breakout hits, though they are merely one of many show structures that exist in the space. Anyway, there’s probably a lot more to come on this; I’ll be on the lookout.
The iOS 11 update is scheduled to drop sometime this fall, alongside the new iPhone.
(2) You might already be aware of this, given that it was the closer: Apple finally unveiled its own foray into smart speakers, which comes in the form of a bulbous appliance rather awkwardly called the HomePod. (Apropos of nothing, it might time to rename this newsletter. I’m taking suggestions.)
It goes without saying that Apple finally breaking into the smart speaker category — and bringing with it the full body of its media ecosystem — is a big, chunky story with a lot to parse out. Now, I’m no technology journalist, but I will say that I’m deeply curious to see how Apple’s move here will add competition to the market currently dominated by the Amazon Echo. Some indicators suggest that Amazon has built a pretty far lead in this category with its line of fairly affordable smart speakers, and given the fact that Apple’s HomePod is priced at $349 to start (for reference, the Echo Dot goes for about $50), it seems as if Apple will be sliding into the market on the luxury end and will at least initially play more toward its moneyed base, which was more or less what it did with the smartphone. While it’s understandable to replicate that move, it does mean that whatever improvements the smart speaker brings to the podcast listening experience — and whatever listening gains for publishers and podcasters might come from it — we’re probably not going to be seeing much of a substantial broadening of the active listening base from a demographic perspective, at least not initially. Indeed, if anything, we’re probably going to see a deepening within the category of audiences already predisposed to podcasts.
Nevertheless, it’s worthwhile to think through the big picture here: The higher aspirational register for this emerging set of products is the seeding of an audio-first computing experience, one of the alternative beachfronts for the “ambient computing” version of the consumer tech future highlighted in Walt Mossberg’s final column. To play this out further, the long-term structural value that this potential shift brings is one that ultimately liberates the growth trajectory of on-demand audio content from being principally tethered to the mobile device toward a trajectory that extends across whatever vessels audio-first computing is going to be channeled through in the future.
All right, that’s a whole lot of horizon-staring chin-stroking, so let’s kick it back a notch and talk present-day industry scuttlebutt. (Read the Nieman Lab writeup if you’re looking for more keynote takeaways for publishers.)
Gimlet makes a curious acquisition. In what is probably a sign of the times, Gimlet announced this week that it’s bringing on a new show from outside its trendy Gowanus walls: The Pitch, which is basically Shark Tank but a podcast. The show is made and hosted by Josh Muccio, a Florida-based entrepreneur.
The Pitch was first published in 2015, when Muccio developed the show in partnership with Silicon Valley venture capitalist Sheel Mohnot. The show was able to carve out a niche audience during its initial run, and as the story goes, after the first season, Muccio decided to take it in a different direction, redeveloping the concept and raising a small production team around the enterprise that included, among others, Devon Taylor, a freelancer who worked on Radiotopia’s Millennial.
Muccio shopped the second season around different networks — a common practice these days, in case you weren’t aware — before Gimlet ultimately moved to pick it up. That happened earlier this year, and I’m told that the acquisition process took about three weeks after Gimlet officially expressed interest in the project. As part of the deal, Muccio joined the company full time in early March, and Taylor, who by the way cofounded the now defunct podcast review site The Timbre (R.I.P.), was brought in full time as well.
The Pitch marks the first independent podcast that Gimlet has absorbed into its ranks, though it isn’t the company’s first acquisition. (The network brought over Science Vs, along with host Wendy Zukerman, from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation last year.) In many ways, it’s a bit of an unexpected addition for the nearly three-year-old company, which has thus far built a strong reputation off a portfolio of highly produced, narrative-driven programming — you know, the kind of stuff you’d lump into a pile with This American Life and 99% Invisible. The Pitch feels considerably different from the rest of Gimlet’s portfolio…though, if pressed, I’m not quite sure what I mean by that. I quite enjoy the podcast, but I have a bit of trouble seeing how it fits into the Gimlet brand and house sound. And as I dig deeper into my gut reaction to the news, I can’t quite tell whether my response says more about my prejudices about reality programming — which I have a distinct palate for, by the way, one that I keep separate from the rest of my entertainment diet — or my own conceptions of what the Gimlet house style is supposed to be.
Matt Lieber, president of Gimlet, appears to hold a broader definition of that house style than I do. “I think it’s pretty consistent with our strategy,” he said when we spoke by phone Monday. Gimlet shows, according to Lieber, are largely defined by, among other things, a sense of curiosity, high production quality, and a strong point of view — all things, he argues, that The Pitch shares. Plus, the ambition of the whole reality programming dimension, and how it mingles with these core Gimlet principles, is a big part of what drew Gimlet to the project. “It combines the best of reality TV — that tension and excitement — and the best of narrative storytelling,” Lieber said. “Reality has always been a category we’ve been intrigued by. If you think about it, the first season of StartUp had some of those qualities.”
That StartUp connection, I think, is pretty meaningful. One way of reading the company’s history is to see it as having built an initial core audience off a show, StartUp, that appeals to those who are drawn to stories about entrepreneurship and technology. From this position, The Pitch, then, is an expansion of that genre offering within Gimlet’s portfolio, one that deepens the available product range for the entrepreneurship-oriented audience — and, subsequently, its extractable value for advertisers. Think about the kinds of people who listen to StartUp and podcasts about entrepreneurship, and then think about the types of advertisers who value that set of ears, and then think about capitalism and the resulting CPM rate. (Speaking of which, I’d love to tie NPR’s How I Built This into this somehow.)
One more thing before I move on. I was curious as to why Muccio decided to move onto a network, why he eschewed independence. Here’s his response:
1. The #1 way people find out about podcasts is on other podcasts. So the right network presents an opportunity for audience growth that would take years to build as an independent.
2. Advertising. Some networks have horrible CPMs and are known for really bad ads. But Gimlet is not one of them. They’re one of the best in the biz. If not the best. We sold our own ads for The Pitch. It’s really REALLY hard to do well. This wasn’t an area I was willing to compromise so I’m lucky to be joining a network that is really crushing it on the advertising front. Bottom line? Ads on The Pitch are higher quality and more profitable.
3. Focus and specialization. I wore all the hats as an independent producer. I did pretty damn well considering, but still you can only be so good at any one thing when you have 50 other things you also need to be good at. Joining a network has allowed me to focus on building a great show, refining my skills as a host and building a team that can carry the vision of the show with me. Ultimately building something with a team of amazing people is more fulfilling to me than building something in a silo.
The Pitch debuts under new management on June 14. There will also be a crossover episode with the StartUp podcast on that day.
Side note. Deadline reported a new development on the upcoming Homecoming TV adaptation: Julia Roberts is currently in talks for the lead role, which was played by Catherine Keener in the podcast. The project looks like it’s still in its pretty early stages, so fans shouldn’t get too attached to the prospect of an adaptation just yet.
A directory, a list, a market. “Podcast discovery is broken,” goes the familiar critique, the opening gambit of most product pitches that hit my inbox. And it was as true two or three years ago as it is now — though as longtime readers might know, I’m wont to think of it mostly as a secondary issue, not one that’s fatally prohibitive to the long-term fate of the space. I imagine some will disagree. In any case, I still read every email that hits my inbox on the matter.
The latest of such gambits is something called PodSearch, and there is some reason to pay attention here. A project of Patty and Dave Newmark, proprietors of Newmark Advertising and longtime audio advertising operatives with strong relationships on the advertising side of the industry, PodSearch boasts a premise that’s so straightforward as to be blunt: It’s the Yellow Pages, but for podcasts.
There isn’t a ton about PodSearch that’s interesting from a design perspective, particularly on the business-to-consumer side. A lot of its touted features — search, personalization, top-show categorizations — are table stakes as far as digital products in 2017 are concerned, and there are some things about the interface that create an unnecessarily high level of friction for potential users, like requiring visitors to make an account before being to actually use the platform.
I see the theoretical value of the product for consumers, of course. Having a consolidated point of reference for the whole space that’s marginally more organized than Apple Podcasts (née iTunes) is nice, though perhaps not quite the drop of water in the desert it’s made out to be, and I’m partial to the view that more competition on the directory and search portal-level is always good for podcast discovery. However, execution matters more than ideas, as the old adage goes, and there’s a long road ahead for PodSearch to make a good first impression. (And second, and third, and fourteenth.)
That said, here are two things to consider:
(1) PodSearch has potential to create genuine value for advertisers. In researching this story, a few people brought up the way in which it might quietly solve a discovery problem of another kind: Advertisers and agencies, I’m told, currently have to do a fair bit of manual digging around to generate a list of podcasts (and their respective contact information for sponsorship inquiries) to potentially buy spots off, and so a directory that’s able to provide an easily digestible serving of the menu on offer, with the relevant contact information, would be useful for this community. And given the Newmarks’ expertise and history, I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re able to create a decent market on the advertiser side of the equation.
(2) One way that PodSearch is interesting to me is how it can serve as a vessel to get the most utility out of search engines for its listed podcasts writ large. When I spoke with Dave last week, he spoke of a meaningful volume search queries for terms relating to podcasts on a general level — “What is a podcast?”, “How do I listen to one?”, and so on — and how there isn’t much incentive for individual publishers to aggressively capitalize on those generic paid search terms. And so, by assuming the position of a wholesale podcast directory, PodSearch is able to make those spends on behalf of publishers and extract value from those broad queries for its listing participants. There’s a lot of juice in this fruit, and I’m compelled to see if the utility here can be appropriately realized.
In sum, I really do think there’s a lot more value for PodSearch to pursue a more explicit business-to-business path than one that also tacks on a business-to-consumer dimension. Solving discovery for everyday users is a tough and deeply nuanced problem in 2017, and as far as digital media categories are concerned, we live in a world with high thresholds for user experience expectations — and it’s only going to get higher.
Two more things to mull over in your own assessment about the service:
- There’s a cost associated with listing on the directory ($9.99 a month, which might feel steep for most that are already paying comparable amounts for hosting), and a small cost for advertisers to access the aforementioned point-of-contact information ($19.99 a year). I’m told that the costs are to qualify leads on both sides, and I imagine it also generates revenue for the platform to keep the lights on, which is fair.
- The Newmarks are kicking off PodSearch with some major publisher partnerships already in the bag; in the press outreach email, I was informed that the company is fielding sales chiefs from National Public Media, Public Media Marketing, Midroll, and Panoply to talk on the record about the initiative. We’re talking institutional support here; let’s see how that shakes out.
Developments over at HowStuffWorks. Back in March, it was reported that Will Pearson and Mangesh Hattikudur, who founded the online curiosity Mental Floss back in 2001, were leaving the company to develop a new podcast for HowStuffWorks. That project is now public: it’s called Part Time Genius, and it appears to be some combination of game show and a piece of education media. In other words, the show sounds a lot like Stephen Dubner’s Tell Me Something I Don’t Know, and it fits into HowStuffWorks’ wheelhouse pretty neatly.
Part Time Genius will launch with four full episodes in the feed. That happens on June 7.
Meanwhile, HowStuffWorks has also relaunched its popular Stuff Your Mom Never Told You podcast, almost half a year after the show’s previous hosts, Cristen Conger and Caroline Ervin, left the show to launch their own independent media company, Unladylike Media. (You can find my story on that, which touches on questions of ownership and network arrangements, can be found here.) The new setup features Emilie Aries and Bridget Todd in the hosting seat, and they will be based in Washington, DC.
“Replacing a host or hosts is not easy, especially when you consider that so much of what makes podcasting great is the personal connection between listeners and the hosts,” wrote Jason Hoch, the chief content officer of HowStuffWorks, through a PR rep about the transition. “We really wanted to take our time finding new hosts that could continue on with the show’s message, but we also wanted to make sure we were pushing ourselves to continue to evolve the show. We felt from the get-go that it was better to take our time finding the absolute best hosts for the show instead of rushing into this.”
Hoch added: “For any podcast, it does take some time to settle into a rhythm and build chemistry between co-hosts, producers and listeners. But this is also what makes podcasting so special — it’s analogous to finding a new friend. It builds over time.”
An uptick in support for a new podcast delivery format. I don’t spend a ton of time digging into the technical and infrastructural end of podcasts, and I’d like to be clear here that I only have a pedestrian understanding of the issues. But a recent string of announcements have caught my eye: Over the past week or so, a few third-party podcast apps, including Breaker, Fireside, and Cast, have all added support for the JSON Feed format. JSON is a data-interchange format, a way in which computers exchange information with one another, and JSON Feed is an RSS-like feed format built on top of it. The trend was written up by noted technology writer John Gruber at his site Daring Fireball, which is how I initially bumped into the story.
As far as I can tell, there’s some philosophical significance here among technologists who are developing tools for the podcast space. But I wanted to get a broad sense of what it means for those outside that category of people, and so I reached out to Leah Culver and Erik Michaels-Ober of Breaker to help explain some things to me.
The main takeaway? It’s largely a matter of efficiency, as the argument goes.
“JSON is generally more compact than XML,” the team wrote back. (XML is the format that provides the foundation for RSS which, as you might know, is currently the primary format of the podcast space.) “All things being equal, the JSON Feed could be transferred between two computers 27% faster and the transmission costs would be 27% lower. In a competitive marketplace, these types of cost savings are typically distributed in one or more of three ways: (1) returned to consumers, in the form of lower prices, (2), returned to shareholders, in the form of a dividend, and (3) reinvested in the business. Each of these has either direct or indirect benefits to consumers and podcasters. Essentially, the argument here is that efficiency is an end in itself. There no reason for computers to communicate more verbosely when they could communicate more concisely.”
They added: “Beyond efficiency, there are no new capabilities unlocked by JSON Feed. If all goes according to plan for JSON Feed, consumers and podcasters won’t notice that anything has changed—other than the podcast services they use have become cheaper or better, due to improved resource utilization.”
So, what’s listed here is actually an abbreviated version of a much longer Q&A with Michaels-Ober and Culver, which gets fairly wonky and technical. You can find the full discussion in this Google Doc.
- NPR’s Invisibilia returned for its third season last week, and this time around it boasts a unifying season-wide structure: playfully tethered to the idea of a “concept album,” this chunk of episodes will all revolve around the theme of concepts. (NPR)
- Feral Audio, home of Harmontown, recently launched a comedy podcast focused entirely on stories and the happenings that go on in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Los Feliz. It’s a curious take on the whole locally-minded media thread; we’ll see if they actually harvest anything interesting out of the conceit. (Feral Audio)
- Kids Listen, the loose collective that advocates for children’s programming in the podcast space, has a website now. Watch the space for upcoming initiatives and roster expansions by the group. (Kids Listen)
- AudioBoom recently commissioned a study with Edison Research on listener demographics. It’s worth checking out in full, but here’s a data point that caught my eye: Only 22 percent of respondents reported that they currently have mail-order subscriptions to companies like Blue Apron, Birchbox, and Barkbox. That’s a lot lower than I would ordinarily think. (LinkedIn)
- Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has a podcast now…and, uh, I didn’t think much of it. (WBEZ)
- Not directly podcast-related, but I loved reading this: “In well-mannered public radio, an airwaves war,” a story about WBUR and WGBH, which have struck up a fascinating coexistence in the public radio-friendly city of Boston. (The Boston Globe)
Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 104, published January 24, 2017.
Panoply signs two more partners for its Megaphone platform: WBUR and BuzzFeed Audio. The company also announced a platform feature called Megalink, which purports to “simplify the podcast subscription process.” The feature doesn’t seem to be anything particularly fancy; from the looks of it, a “Megalink” is a fancy link that simply routes the user to the primary podcast app on that device (that is, the Podcasts app for iPhones, Google Play Music for Android). This isn’t to downplay its potential usefulness, of course — anything that streamlines the flow from discovery to actual listening is a plus.
Panoply gave the story to RAIN News, so you can read more details there, but here are three things I’m thinking about:
1. That Panoply locked down WBUR as a partner is a pretty big deal. The Boston public radio station is one of the stronger publishers in the podcasting space — in December, the station enjoyed 1.2 million monthly listeners across 13 shows, according to Podtrac — and it’s also a fairly dynamic operation that’s prone to cultivating smart partnerships (see: Modern Love, which it produces with The New York Times) and interesting experiments. The partnership isn’t exactly a surprise, however, as the two organizations have some history. WBUR once partnered with Slate, Panoply’s sister company, on a personal health podcast called The Checkup, and interestingly enough, Panoply chief content officer Andy Bowers started out his radio career as a reporter for the station. (Radioland — it’s a small world.)
2. BuzzFeed Audio moving its podcasts to Megaphone should be quite a blow for Acast. The Swedish company had been hosting BuzzFeed’s podcasts since late 2015, and the partnership was widely utilized by the company as a hook for its brand development. (A buzzy partner on a slide deck goes a long way when you’re targeting bigger media organizations, after all.) This news comes shortly after the company’s former chief revenue officer, Sarah van Mosel, announced her departure to advertising sales firm Market Enginuity after only a year at the job. It also comes after what appears to be a steady trickle of notable podcasts moving away from Acast’s platform to competitors, including Call Your Girlfriend (now repped by Midroll and hosted on Art19), Switched On Pop (now with Panoply), and Who? Weekly (now with Headgum, also hosted on Spreaker). Acast’s future, and whether it will stick to its strategy of targeting big-name partners, remains to be seen. In any case, the company seems to be doubling down on the U.S. despite its losses, recently opening an office in Los Angeles. When contacted, a spokesperson simply noted that the company wishes BuzzFeed the best of luck, and that updates on its 2017 strategy are forthcoming. We’ll see how it goes.
3. Regardless of what happens with Acast, it seems like the competition between Panoply’s Megaphone and Art19 is the primary land-grab to watch, with both platforms racking up strong client lists thus far. Megaphone still sports Gimlet as a hosting client, and Panoply has largely followed through on its focus to sign, collaborate with, and represent audio programming produced by media companies (like Vox, Politico, and The Wall Street Journal) and authors (like Malcolm Gladwell and Gretchen Rubin). Art19, on the other hand, seems to have built a client list based on a strong coalition of podcast companies — including Midroll Media, Feral Audio, DGital Media, and Wondery — along with big, individual publishers like The New York Times. Which makes sense; podcast networks would likely be wary of establishing a hosting partnership with Panoply, which theoretically competes with them in the advertising marketplace. How Panoply negotiates that awkwardness, and how Art19 capitalizes on it, will be the narrative to watch over time.
The Trump administration is considering privatizing the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), according to a report in The Hill. The writeup also notes plans to eliminate other federal sources of support for the broader public media ecosystem. Really can’t say I’m surprised to hear about this — indeed, in the very first Hot Pod published after November’s elections, I felt it necessary to state that all eyes should be on the CPB, the vessel of federal funding whose operations are essential to the health of the public media system.
There’s already a string of solid writeups that dig into the matter — in particular, check out Current, The Huffington Post, and Media Matters. I highly recommend reading all three pieces in full, especially Media Matters’, which contains CPB’s full statement on the matter. Two things, though:
1. All three writeups make reference to the historical on-again, off-again tensions between Republican administrations and the public media system’s perceived relationship with liberal ideological bias. Which is useful context, but it also evokes some optimistic suggestion that, despite these conflicts, the public media system has survived to this day, in effect drawing upon the past to inform what might happen in the future. I hold no such optimism. If this election has illustrated anything, it’s that we’re dealing with a dramatically anomalous state of affairs cultivated by an administration that’s unprecedented on numerous levels. It’s also an administration that deeply centralizes the media as a tool of power.
2. It goes without saying that the stakes for public media are incredibly high. A 2012 report commissioned by the CPB from consulting firm Booz & Company — cited by both Current and Media Matters — is pretty straightforward about the consequences: “This report concludes that there is no substitute for federal support of public broadcasting, and that the loss of federal support would mean the end of public broadcasting.” Unsurprisingly, smaller stations and stations located in more rural areas will be the hardest hit. As the CPB notes in its statement:
The federal investment in public media is vital seed money — especially for stations located in rural America, and those serving underserved populations where the appropriation counts for 40-50% of their budget. The loss of this seed money would have a devastating effect. These stations would have to raise approximately 200 percent more in private donations to replace the federal investment.
Which is to say, while bigger stations like WNYC and WBUR might well be able to make up the gap and survive, a good swath of the smaller stations across the country — whose well-being have long been under assault between the economic conditions of their respective locations and some amount of digital disruption — will likely be blown out. The consequence of that would the further debilitation of local, civically-minded news and information infrastructures in places that really need them. Much has already been written about the decline of local newspapers, and one can only imagine that this development, with its focus on the broadcast radio end of the local media spectrum that had been relatively insulated, will further accelerate that decline — and deal yet another harsh blow to the health of civic society.
Hearken-powered local podcasts. However the problems of local media will be dealt with at a system-wide level, I nonetheless strongly suspect that the building of tools that encourage a strong sense of community will be a big part of the solution.
That’s why I pay close attention to Hearken, the audience engagement platform that works with newsrooms to develop stronger feedback loops with their readers and listeners, which has been responsible for a growing species of really interesting locally-focused podcasts. The company currently collaborates with over 50 public media newsrooms, and a good portion of those collaborations have resulted in various localizations of WBEZ’s Curious City podcast, which are shows designed to answer questions from listeners about the place or community that they live in. Curious City was originally developed by Hearken CEO Jennifer Brandel during her time as a contract worker at the station, and the growing list of Hearken-powered adaptations now include, among others: FDD’s Curious Carolina, WPLN’s Curious Nashville, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Curious Canberra, and KQED’s Bay Curious — which, by the way, recently bought ads in the city’s metro system to advertise the podcast. (Here’s the full list of “Hearken-powered podcasts.”)
“We do have some public media partners who just release their broadcast episodes as a ‘podcast,'” Brandel tells me. “But we’ve seen more and more are thinking podcast-first for the audio content, or at least making their podcasts different (and I’d say better) from what they broadcast (the clock is a cruel turkey).”
Some of Hearken’s partners are beginning to see encouraging returns. Brandel tells me that a few partners have told them how Hearken-powered stories are already being cited during membership drives as why people give for the first time, or why they increased their donation level. KQED reports that Bay Curious is seeing listenership grow every week, along with a healthy stream of positive feedback.
“People are hungry for a sense of place,” Brandel notes. “The Chipotlization of every town in America (globally?) makes the local, idiosyncratic amazing wonders of every town and city more and more endangered (or at least way less obvious), and answering questions that unearth the fascinating context for how a place came to be, how it changed, and is changing is a great way to get people feeling more local pride, engagement, and will hopefully lead them to action (whether that’s donating to their member station or getting involved civically).”
She adds: “One of the most exciting parts of our model is when the public gets to accompany reporters on the reporting. That shit is hard to do nationally. Locally, it works wonderfully. The public loves getting to meet and have an adventure with their pub media heartthrob. Hello lifelong loyalty.”
Lifelong loyalty, indeed. You can learn more about Hearken on their website.
Relevant: Melody Joy Kramer’s latest — “What does a news organization optimized for trust look like?”
Jezebel now has a podcast, the delightfully named Big Time Dicks, which spins out from the site’s Big Time Small-Time Dicks column that keeps a critical eye on politics and policy at the local and federal level. What’s interesting: note the mention of the “Fusion Audio Network” in the iTunes listing — recall that the Gizmodo Media Group is now part of Fusion in its post-Gawker existence — as well as the namedrop of Mandana Mofidi in the announcement post, who serves as the executive producer of audio for the operation.
Designing positions for audio producers (for first-timers and instigators). One of the biggest things that animates my optimism in the podcast industry is its potential to open up more substantial work opportunities for audio producers, particularly as more existing media companies and entrepreneurial types get drawn into building whole new ventures and teams around audio programming. That’s the supposed beauty of the Internet’s democratizing force: Where audio programming was previously monopolized by a few who have power over the limited means of distribution — in audio’s case, radio companies and finite broadcast airwaves — greater numbers of new businesses can now be built on top of the infinite horizon of the Internet. And the more businesses that are built, the more producers can get employed. Seems pretty straightforward.
Of course, things are never that simple. The quality of the new jobs being created is always a question, and a big part of that has to do with how these new ventures — some of which will come with significant background in radio, some of which come in fresh — understand the role of audio producers and, perhaps more importantly, the work that goes into creating valuable audio products. A breakdown in this key juncture has the potential to trigger a downward spiral; a misunderstanding of a role leads to misunderstood hires leads to poor products leads to failed efforts leads to an entrenched misunderstanding of the original opportunity, after which everybody leaves the arrangement unhappy.
All of that was in the back of my mind when I spotted veteran audio editor Julia Barton’s reaction to a recent Washington Post job posting for an audio producer a few weeks ago. “Biting my tongue,” she wrote on Facebook, in response to the job description. Barton has been quite vocal in the past about how the work of audio producers are often underestimated. Most recently, she wrote an article for Current where she argued that the widespread use of generic stock mic photos in writeups about audio work reflects and abets a harmful oversimplification of the job. The premise of Barton’s argument might be somewhat mischievous, but the underlying impulse that energizes the piece — that cultural representation has material consequences — is nonetheless important.
Curious, I reached out to Barton to talk more about the thinking behind her reaction.
[conl]Quah: What, exactly, was it about the job posting that you were responding to?[/conl]
[conr]Barton: This is not to drag The Washington Post — I’m thrilled that they’re looking to hire so much talent and expand. I came across this particular audio-producer listing because a WP staffer posted on Twitter about video hiring, and I was curious if they were hiring in audio as well.
I haven’t talked with the Post, and I’d urge you to do that because I’m probably overreacting. But if I were a potential candidate, someone with the “experience crafting rich audio storytelling and great interviews” that they want, I would be wary of some red flags. A big one is in the first line of the job description: “Work with hosts and reporters to script, record and edit a variety of Washington Post podcasts.”
That tells me (again, I hope I’m wrong!) this is a shop that views podcast production as a one-man-band effort. It carries the assumption that podcasts are easily knocked off, one after another, with a little prep, a recording session, and a couple of hours in front of an audio-editing suite. And that’s just not how it works if your goal is “rich audio storytelling.” People seem to get that it takes a village to run a newsroom or to make a broadcast or produce a studio album, but the fantasy persists that audio storytelling is simple and cheap. That’s just not true.[/conr]
[conl]Nicholas Quah: Could you broadly walk me through the job of the producer?[/conl]
[conr]Julia Barton: It really depends on the project. If you’re a daily broadcast newsmagazine like All Things Considered or PRI’s The World, and you have to fill a fixed clock? Then you need dozens of people: reporters, planning editors, story editors, show directors, engineers, and segment producers, in addition to the managers and digital teams.
Unfortunately, public radio developed its own nomenclature, one that’s different from film or TV or even European radio terms. In the world I come from, a producer is someone who works with tape, whether recorded in the studio or in the field. They “edit” tape, but they are not editors (I’ll get to that in a minute). They may run recording sessions, but they are not engineers or technical directors. They don’t assign stories or work with freelancers. But in podcasting, especially among folks without a radio background, the term “producer” has inflated to cover all those roles in some shops.
Here’s the essential problem, though: Audio production is very time-consuming. I don’t mean because we are divas at a makeup table — I mean it literally consumes time. When you have a chunk of raw tape from the field, you really should listen to it all or you’ll miss some half-second of magic. When you edit down a section of an interview, you have to listen to that section to hear if it works. When you edit out a breath, you have to listen to make sure that person doesn’t sound like they’re trapped in an airless vacuum. When you add musical scoring, you have to listen to how that affects a section, and then keep adjusting. When you finish an episode, you have to listen to the whole thing for errors, and before you know it, you’ve started tearing it all up again. And to make matters worse, this level of over-exposure means your brain can’t hear the actual content in a fresh way. You have no idea if it even makes sense after a while because you are so busy moving Lego-chunks of audio around. Afterward you are dead, and you’re not really up for planning the next episode.
That’s why it’s really important that audio producers have someone outside of this vortex to help them plan, to strategize and talk about the story so they don’t go down wrong paths that waste so much time. This is the story editor, and this cannot be the same person as the producer for the reasons I just explained above. The editor is a bridge between the producer and the listener, and the overall editorial goals of a show, production house, or newsroom. This is someone who can hear problems and give precise, actionable feedback that saves time (and lives, I like to think).
Finally, when you get to issues of audio quality, levels, gear, studio management, and sound design, you need a dedicated engineer. All these people make so much difference for producer sanity and the listener’s experience, but we almost never hear their voices.[/conr]
[conl]Quah: Any final notes for media organizations building out audio teams for the first time?[/conl]
[conr]Barton: That audio production is complicated and time-consuming, but you will be rewarded by listeners for giving it the resources it needs. Anyone building a new team needs to sit in on the weekly production cycle of a show they admire. Every person involved in that production is there for an important reason. They’re actually the reason you love that show, so figure out what they do and how you can get people like them. By the way, they don’t all have to work in the same room. Some of the best productions teams I’ve been on have been scattered around the country or world.[/conr]
I reached out to the Post in a bid to discuss the position, and perhaps to understand the team that they are planning to build. I wasn’t given a response on the record.
Anyway, I’d like to emphasize, at this point, that this story is purely about on Barton’s thinking and the larger issue of effectively translating the complexity of these jobs. This isn’t — and shouldn’t be — a story about The Washington Post’s audio team or the appropriateness of how they’re hiring for the position, as all of that very much remains to be seen. That said, it’s worth contextualizing Barton’s arguments and the Post’s situation within a dynamic that we’ve seen in other parts of the media industry — namely, that there will always exist a fine line between working to create new workflows within constraints and appropriate work-to-compensation ratios, and within this, there will always be a tension between efforts to create new pathways from the bottom up and negotiating the sanctity of traditional workflows.
In related news, the Post just released its latest podcast: the Trump-focused Can He Do That?
- 60dB is now available as a skill for the Amazon Echo. Expect more audio programming companies to follow suit, because talking refrigerators. (Company Blog)
- This morning, DGital Media announced yet another partner: The Players’ Tribune, which is that media platform for professional athletes.
- American Public Media has hired Nathan Tobey as its new director of on-demand and national cultural programming. Tobey most previously worked on podcast projects for WGBH, and was a co-creator of Strangler, which was a collaboration between Midroll Media and Northern Light Productions.
- You might have heard that Pod Save America, Crooked Media’s first podcast offering, scored President Obama’s last interview in office. But here’s an interesting tidbit about the venture started by the former Obama staffers: Pod Save America hit over a million listens in its first week-plus of operation, before the Obama interview went live. (Twitter)
- On a related note, I wrote about the future of political podcasts in the Trump era and how the genre might be ripe for activism. (Vulture)
- For what it’s worth, I listened to WNYC, MPR News, and The Economist’s Indivisible last night off Facebook. Gotta say: The experience wasn’t bad. (Twitter)
- Audible’s collaboration with TED, “Sincerely, X,” will come out on February 1. I wrote about the project back in September. As always, you can check out a running list of upcoming releases on this page.
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The anatomy of an independent podcast network. I’ve always been aware of Relay FM, the two-year-old podcast outfit that churns out shows often marked with vaguely mysterious titles (Isometric, Cortex) and spiffy, flat cover art. But it has always existed at the edges of my attention, and I’ll be the first to say that the reason for this is completely indefensible. Relay FM is a network that largely (though not completely) revolves around the delights and concerns of developers and tech enthusiasts, and while this places the network firmly within a long tradition of such programming in the medium’s history (making it an essential primary source for any attempt to document the space), I had subtly cultivated the idea in my head that the network was inaccessible to me. That I lacked sufficient vocabulary to meaningfully engage with Relay FM’s material in order to form an opinion. And so, for a long time, I abstained from doing so.
Again, indefensible. Even if Relay FM’s shows were inaccessible to me, it doesn’t mean I shouldn’t engage with it. So I did, and after spending several hours sifting through various podcasts on the network, I can safely say that, with some exceptions, this is totally a thing that was made for someone else. And perhaps that’s totally the point; Relay FM is very much a niche, independent media business. A thing that some people made for communities of their own kind, a thing that’s less concerned with a certain aggressive idea of scale — though, yes, scale would be nice — than it is with a particular sense to build a place for dense spaces.
I can damn well engage with that, and so here we are.
Myke Hurley, a U.K.-based podcaster who runs the network with his Tennessee-based friend Stephen Hackett, was kind enough to answer my questions on how things work. I’m going to lay it out across a few chunks.
Structure. The network currently supports 21 active shows, a portfolio that’s made up of a hairy, eclectic mix of podcasts that go deep on various technology and tech-adjacent topics. There’s a show about independent app development (Under the Radar), there’s one about something called mobile productivity (Canvas), there’s another about design (Presentable), and even one that celebrates people who face inequalities in their respective industries (Less Than or Equal). But there are a few shows that stray from the technology focus but nonetheless carry the network’s overall geeky ethos, like the stationery-enthusiast podcast The Pen Addicts (which claims Slate’s June Thomas as a huge fan).
“We like to think of ourselves as a collection of shows for creative, curious, and obsessive people,” Hurley noted. “All of our shows are made by people that have a real love for the thing they are talking about.”
All the podcasts on the network tend to follow the same conversational format that has driven the medium’s structural associations with the early days of blogging. Indeed, when I have previously talked about the podcast-as-extension-of-blogging side of the equation, this is pretty much the apotheosis of what I had in mind — a bunch of people sitting around and talking, more or less preserving the original torch held by Odeo, that thing that would later spawn Twitter.
This all makes it somewhat unsurprising, then, that among Relay FM’s extensive list of hosts and contributors — which includes Mashable’s Christina Warren, notable indie game developer Brianna Wu, and former Macworld editor Jason Snell — you’d also find Marco Arment and Federico Viticci, two of the stronger voices that have pushed back against the sense that the space is industrializing in a way that would hurt its openness.
Scale and monetization. Hurley tells me that the business is sustainable, and that the company is “growing quite nicely.” The network is reportedly approaching 2 million downloads a month across all shows, a scale that’s been able to pull in enough advertising revenue to support both Hurley and Hackett, both of which now work full-time on Relay FM. (The network is hosted on Libsyn, so presumably the download numbers follow the standards of that platform, if you’re looking for a point of reference.) Hurley declined to provide specific revenue numbers (understandably, but hey, thought I’d ask, y’know?). All shows utilize host-read ads.
“Both Stephen and myself manage the actual relationships, both with individual advertisers and also with advertising agencies,” he explained when I asked him about the ad sales process. “As it stands we have no dedicated sales person, and we don’t have any plans for that either.”
Although Hurley is based in the U.K. and both founders equally split duties, the company is incorporated in Tennessee. At this point in time, 60 percent of the network’s audience is in the U.S., which means that Hurley sees more interest coming in from American advertisers.
“I have companies from outside the U.S. contact me, and if they are a company that delivers software products or web services, we can work with them easily,” he tells me. “[But] when it comes to physical products it can be trickier. If a company can only ship to a local market, it gets harder for them to commit to a budget, when a smaller percentage of our audience base is in the location they want to sell to.”
Hurley expects that the U.S. will remain Relay FM’s biggest market. “But for shows that have larger audiences in other countries, I totally see a world in which more local advertisement will come forward,” he told me. “I don’t need to tell you that podcasting is seeing another boom, but this time it does feel like the tide is shifting on the money side also.”
View of the future. I was curious about Hurley’s take on the recent developments in the space — the entrance of bigger companies with deeper pockets, the consolidations and acquisitions, the push for more data — given his position as an independent, whose feasts and famines are often dictated by the whims of much larger entities.
“It’s interesting to see how many platforms are appearing right now,” he replied. “We currently work with a selection of the big players, and we are keeping an eye on what’s working and what isn’t. My background in podcasting comes from the ‘indie tech show’ scene, so I am much more focused on the idea of keeping podcasting open, and centered around the RSS feed that can be played in any player. Our audiences like the choice of the apps they want, and there remains a vibrant community of people building apps and tools for that space. As more companies pop up that are trying to own the distribution, it’s going to be interesting to see where things lie.”
(Related reading on this point: The “Third Way” section on Ben Thompson’s recent column, “The Future of Podcasting.”)
Hurley doesn’t believe that the ecosystem will progress to a point where it would support a wide variety of different distribution platforms operating in some sort of equilibrium, as that would be deeply inefficient for podcast producers. I’d agree with that; not only would they have have to constantly manage an overwhelming number of vendors, they would also have to put up with the thousands of paper-cuts imposed by the various terms that go into working with each vendor.
“Honestly, I do not see a world where we have something akin to YouTube,” Hurley concludes. “I think many people will try to do that, but I think the ship has sailed on that one.
I had originally intended for this item to be an extension of the brief look I carried out last week on the state of podcast businesses in the U.K. That writeup was the thing that drove Hurley to reach out to me in the first place: to let me know that there was another person in that part of the world that was making a living from podcasting.
But over the course of writing this out, it became apparent to me that Relay FM was a much better case study of another deeply interesting dimension of the podcast ecosystem: the archetypal independent network model that those who argue for podcasts as an extension of the open web are trying to protect — and, to extrapolate from that, the very kind of business that those advocates fear is being threatened by the expansionary sensibilities of some professionalizing podcast companies.
Another related reading: I’m just going to throw Joshua Benton’s “Podcasting in 2015 feels a lot like blogging circa 2004” here once again, which really has become absolutely seminal.
And The New York Times’ new executive producer for audio is… Lisa Tobin! She will head to the Gray Lady from Boston public radio station WBUR, where she most recently served as a senior producer. Tobin’s rap sheet at the station reflects quite a remarkable fit for the kind of work that the Times would likely pursue, with a resume that includes work on Finish Line, the amazing collaboration with The Boston Globe covering the trial of Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev; Dear Sugar Radio, the podcast adaptation of the popular Cheryl Strayed advice column; and of course, Modern Love, the other adaptation of a wildly popular column — this one belonging to the Times itself, indicating a prior relationship between Tobin and the company.
Tobin’s hire comes a little over four months since the Times announced that it was building out a new in-house audio team as part of a hard push into the medium. Here’s a quick look at the Times’ stated strategy, courtesy of a memo that was circulated back in March by EVP for product and technology Kinsey Wilson and senior editor Sam Dolnick:
The plan is to pursue a two-fold strategy: to launch a handful of shows with outside partners which, like Modern Love, have a strong prospect of quickly attracting a wide audience; and then use those shows as a platform from which we can build audience for shows produced within The Times that are as integral to our coverage as our live events and visual journalism efforts.
Aside from WBUR on Modern Love, that list of outside partners also includes Pineapple Street Media, the new audio agency formed by former BuzzFeed director of audio Jenna Weiss-Berman and Longform.org cofounder Max Linsky.
Tobin will report to Samantha Henig, who serves as the unit’s editorial director. The in-house team includes Kelly Alfieri, executive director of special editorial projects; Diantha Parker, editor and senior audio producer; Pedro Rosado, an audio producer; and Catrin Einhorn, another audio producer. Adam Davidson, host of Gimlet’s Surprisingly Awesome and a columnist for The New York Times Magazine, is reportedly serving as an adviser.
One quick thing before moving on. As I’ve previously mentioned, I’m pretty bullish on the manner in which the Times is doubling down on audio — that is, by focusing on developing reasonably-staffed, highly-produced shows in-house and augmenting those projects with expertise brought in through smart partnerships. That’s undoubtedly going to help the company stand out in an increasingly dense field of media organizations currently dabbling in podcasts. And man, that field has become absolutely bonkers.
(A sample list: BuzzFeed, The New Yorker, CNN, The Ringer, ESPN, The Economist, Vox Media, MTV, CBS, Bloomberg News, Politico, Mic, The Wall Street Journal, Time Inc., New York Magazine, Vulture, Entertainment Weekly, The Dallas Morning News, Atlanta Constitution-Journal, The Washington Post, Esquire, Outdoor Magazine, Runner’s World…and so on. Oy.)
I’m excited to see what comes out of it.
Open Audio Weekend. The New York Public Library and The Moth teamed up at the end of June to produce a hackathon where participants were nudged to “make audio accessible for the public good.” The event is an extension of something called Together We Listen, an ongoing crowdsourcing effort that specifically focuses on making it easier to build searchable archives for large quantities of spoken audio files.
Here are three projects that stood out to me:
- Crowdscribe. “A Chrome extension prototype for public requesting and gathering transcriptions.” There’s a cottage industry for freelance project-based transcribing, so this project might encounter some resistance.
- Instaburns. “An experiment in auto-generating common terms and their frequency from transcripts in order to explore the relationship of terms within and across audio files.” In other words, auto-tagging.
- Storynode. “Wouldn’t it be great if we could see all the locations mentioned in an oral history on a map?” Detour would love this.
You can find them, and all the other projects, on the hackathon’s GitHub page.
Australia gets another podcast conference. The radio arm of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation is putting together a podcast-focused conference called OzPod. This will be the second relatively high-profile Australian conference for the year, after the more independent and creative process-minded Audiocraft back in March. It will take place in Sydney at the end of September, and is set to cover the more grittier topics of distribution, marketing, revenue, and so on.
“Podcasting is growing enormously in Australia, but we felt the lack of a nationwide industry conversation about its potential and future,” Louise Alley, a spokesperson for the ABC, told me over email last week. “We wanted to bring together radio networks, tech companies, independent podcasters and startups to share ideas, opportunities and best practice as we enter the new golden age of audio.
ABC Radio is the largest podcast publisher in the country, reporting about 135 million overall downloads and streams in 2015. According to Alley, it has currently clocked in 64.6 million download and streams since the beginning of the year.
Quick note at this point: I’m scheduled to do the international keynote for the conference, which means I’m due to get on a plane for about 20 hours in the very near future. And I don’t know if I’ve ever told you this, but I’m terrified of flying. Time to stock up on meds. Oh boy.
- New York Public Radio announced a string of additions to its board of trustees last week, including: artist, producer, and entrepreneur Questlove, tech investor David Tisch, and entertainment lawyer Marc Chaplin. The organization also announced that Billie Tisch, a longtime board member, has been elected to its honorary board. (Variety)
- NPR CEO Jarl Mohn: “Great local journalism mixed with our national and international journalism — you don’t go to a podcast for that. We think that’s the way to compete for the future.” (L.A. Times)
- The Week is the latest in a long line of magazines dipping their toes in podcasts — and they’re betting on shorter formats. (The Week)
- Been thinking a lot about the recent Nieman Lab post that ran with the headline “Sure, people like online video, but that doesn’t mean they want to watch your hard news videos” and how much that, well, may well apply to every other media format — including, and perhaps especially, audio. (Nieman Lab)