“If a Serial episode was a mountain peak, S-Town was the Himalayas”

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 116, published April 18, 2017.

Midroll formalizes the Stitcher editorial brand. When I wrote up the return of First Day Back for last week’s newsletter, I was mostly thinking out loud when discussing its label as a Stitcher show and how that might’ve hinted towards the spinning out of the podcast app as its own editorial brand. It looks like I was a day early on that, as the company announced last Wednesday that it was indeed firming up the Stitcher branding, and that it was shuffling some Earwolf shows into its purview.

Stitcher will now carry The Longest Shortest Time and the Katie Couric Podcast, both of which were previously categorized as Earwolf shows. The new umbrella will also carry The Sporkful, whose departure from WNYC I covered two weeks ago, and Tell Me Something I Don’t Know, the Stephen Dubner-led game show previously housed in The New York Times’ audio unit.

The reason for all of this shuffling? In a word: #branding.

Speaking over the phone yesterday, Midroll CEO Erik Diehn explained that, while he ultimately thinks a network’s brand won’t mean very much to a broad audience, he does find that it carries significant weight with its core audience. As such, any programming move has to make sense within the context of that audience’s relationship with the brand. “Every once in a while, a content brand rises above the fray to stand for something more than the individual shows organized within it,” Diehn said, also pointing to Gimlet Media, Barstool Sports, and The Ringer as examples. “There is value there for a certain core audience.”

The company bumped up against this when it initially attempted to broaden the Earwolf network out from its core comedy and comedy-adjacent sensibility; Diehn told me that Stranglers, a true-crime documentary podcast that Midroll published under the Earwolf network, was perceived by some to be a parody in large part due to its association with Earwolf. (It is most certainly not that.) The decision to carve out Stitcher as a separate entity from Earwolf, then, is meant to create a separate audience architecture for the more newsy and serious shows that Midroll hopes to get more involved in.

For what it’s worth, I personally feel that a brand means as much to listeners, audiences, and consumers as it makes itself out to be — which is to say, I tend to believe its effectiveness — and, for that matter, the effectiveness of things like bylines and datelines — is chiefly derived from the amount of work put into making it mean something.

Anyway, when I asked about how Stitcher Premium was doing, Diehn noted that it was “doing quite well,” and that it was “hitting all of its forecasts for the year so far.” He declined to share specific numbers when asked.

Speaking of brands…

“Apple Podcasts.” Last week saw a quiet announcement from Apple’s iTunes teams that nonetheless sent ripples throughout the community: The company is rebranding “iTunes Podcasts” as “Apple Podcasts.” Aside from an updated set of marketing guidelines and visual assets for use by publishers — get those badges and switch up your tags, folks — the announcement was made with little accompanying information that could tell us anything substantial about how (or even whether) Apple is actually fundamentally rethinking its relationship with the growing podcast ecosystem — a possibility that was first hinted back in February’s Recode Media conference when Apple’s senior vice president of Internet software and services Eddy Cue vaguely noted that the company was “working on new features for podcasts.”

Which is to say, we know nothing new about whether the company plans to: revamp the podcast app’s underlying user experience (long criticized as being virtually unchanged since its introduction over a decade ago); provide any further analytics support; allow for external verification of metrics (as in the case of Apple News); increase the sophistication of podcast discovery and publisher promotion on the podcast app; provide additionals pathways for monetization within the Apple podcast ecosystem; or clarifying the editorial and symbolic significance of the podcast charts.

On the flipside, it does maintain a status quo that continues to leave unreconciled the larger question about how the space will continue to play out structurally — that is, it holds in place the tension between podcasts-as-blogs contingent and podcasts-as-future-of-radio contingent that seemingly came to a public head last summer. (Here’s the relevant Hot Pod column from that time.) A lot has changed since then; the industry has continued to grow, more hit shows have come to be, more platforms have begun to encroach on Apple’s majority share with experiments in windowing and exclusives, and so on.

There’s a legit story in here somewhere…but this isn’t quite it. Looks like we’ll have to keep being on the lookout.

“If a Serial episode was a mountain peak, then S-Town was the Himalayas.” On Friday, PRX chief technology officer Andrew Kuklewicz published a Medium post discussing the backend of hosting the hit podcast — which, as you probably know by now, opted to drop all of its seven episodes at once as opposed to a recurring drop structure. In case you didn’t know, This American Life hosts all of its podcasts on Dovetail, the CMS platform created by PRX (which also distributes the company’s shows to public radio stations).

I’ve briefly written about Dovetail before, but the platform has kept a relatively low profile compared to its more aggressive competitors, like Art19 and Panoply’s Megaphone, and I suppose you could read this post as the company flexing its muscles somewhat. “After S-Town, we are that much more confident in our technology, both in new ways of using it, and under extreme load,” Kuklewicz wrote. “Plus, the next time someone asks me what Dovetail can do, I have a new graph to show them.”

The post is chock-full of interesting stuff — including some fascinating insights into binge-download behavior — but I’d like to draw your attention to something: Long-time observers of the podcast industry are probably familiar with the conversation around dynamic ad insertion technology, how its proponents argue that it allows for greater advertising inventory and opportunity (by allowing ads to be dynamically switched out according to who is listening), and how the current generation of professionalizing podcast companies have generally integrated the technology by treating the ad slot as the unit that gets dynamically switched out.

According to Kuklewicz’s post, it appears that the S-Town team made a peculiar request: to treat the entire episode as the dynamic unit. This effectively maintains the baked-in nature of the ad-read while still allowing for the fundamental utility of each individual episode being able to serve different ads to different kinds of people. When I asked Kuklewicz about the logic behind this, he said: “They wanted to maximize the flow between show and spots, and allow for music under the end roll. So I understand it to be an aesthetic motivation, and considering the years of time put into the show, and the way the music is practically a character, I can see now why they wanted it just that way.”

Related. BuzzFeed has a chunky feature up on S-Town that should be interesting to fans on two major levels. First, it sheds some additional light on the narrative threads that the podcast ultimately leaves unresolved — which, as we learn from the piece, is purely by design. And second, it serves as a nice companion to host Brian Reed’s interview on Longform. Also, this from The Awl: “Call it Shit Town, because that is its name.”

Call Your LLC. I highly recommend digging into last week’s episode of Call Your Girlfriend, the well-loved conversational podcast by Ann Friedman and Aminatou Sow (produced by Gina Delvac), which features a pretty substantial look at how the team has built out an independent business around the show. No specific figures were disclosed — other than mention that ad slots cost at least four figures and a solid-sounding revenue range — but there’s a lot going on here. The episode touches on the uncertainties involved in working with a network, the general weirdness of the podcast industry, and figuring out a business model that best fits the values of a production. Check it out.

Missing Richard Simmons on TV? The Hollywood Reporter is apparently reporting that First Look Media, which led the production for the podcast, has “begun meeting with would-be buyers for a small screen narrative adaptation of the investigative show searching for the reclusive fitness guru.” Two things on this:

  • It’s yet another data point in the emerging trend that sees the podcast category as another IP pool for TV and film to trawl in for potential adaptations. (Though, it should be noted that real life — or very recent history — remains the IP pool du jour.)
  • Maybe I lack vision, but I can’t for the life of me see how the adaptation could possibly either (a) a good idea, given the myriad of ethical questions surrounding the podcast, or (b) effective or interesting in the same way, probably as a result of those ethical conundrums surrounding the podcast.

But then again, I am but a humble podcast bard, and not a wheelin’ dealin’ TV exec.

Tracking… Looks like CNN en Español recently rolled out a Spanish-language podcast slate, most of which are repackages of existing shows. There’s one original production in there, however: a culture show called Zona Pop. With this rollout, the company steps into a lane whose primary current occupant appears to be the Revolver Podcast network, which has built out a sizable Spanish-language podcast portfolio in addition to its work with music executive Jason Flom on the Wrongful Conviction podcast.

The Outline, daily. I suppose I should start looking for another way to describe the daily news podcast space in terms other than “heating up” — if only to avoid ledes defined by a cliche — but it does seem like the experimental genre is certainly growing more active by the week.
The latest of such experiments comes in the form of World Dispatch, a new daily morning podcast by the digital curiosity known as The Outline. John Lagomarsino, The Outline’s audio director, told me that show is meant to be the closest approximate representation of the publisher’s coverage in the audio format. Episodes are between 8 to 12 minutes, and segments will be a mix of stories that draw from material already on the site and stories produced specifically for the podcast. (“We’ll also be leaning on freelancers a fair amount for more reported-out, strictly audio stories — get at me!” he adds.)

I’m told that the show is the result of some internal experiments with social audio that didn’t go very far. (“Turns out audio still is not particularly shareable,” Lagomarsino quipped.) Those experiments eventually shifted to the social audio app Anchor when it re-launched back in March, and the team ultimately decided to move those efforts over to a daily podcast feed as a natural next step. The resulting podcast is an intriguing artifact: strange, compelling, but ultimately a little confusing — which, given the show’s explicitly conscious sense of style, is probably the point.

Lagomarsino notes that the podcast isn’t exactly meant to be newsy. “The podcast is for curious humans who are not looking for a news rundown that barely goes past headlines,” he said. “These are angled stories, often *about* news, but this is not for the listener who wants the ‘what I need to know today’ thing.” Hmm.

World Dispatch debuted yesterday, with new eps dropping Mondays to Thursdays.

Explainer ambition. In times of confusion, go back to the basics. That was, more or less, the thinking behind Civics 101, the explainer podcast by New Hampshire Public Radio that covers the fundamental institutions, mechanisms, and even concepts that make up the United States. That approach has proven to be pretty successful: Since launching on Inauguration Day, Civics 101 has clocked in about 1.88 million listens, with episodes averaging about 75,000 listens per month. (To be clear: that’s per episode per month, suggesting strong back catalog activity.)

The way Civics 101’s editorial director Maureen McMurray tells it, the podcast was the product of a completely organic process. The show came out of an ideas meeting for the station’s daily show, Word of Mouth, shortly after the elections. “Our producer, Logan Shannon, expressed frustration over the endless ‘hot take’ election coverage and said something along the lines of, ‘I don’t want any more analysis. I just want to go six steps back to find out how things work,'” McMurray said. What started out as a segment idea soon broadened out into an accompanying podcast experiment pegged to the first 100 days of the Trump administration. It was all pretty scrappy. “There were some clever titles thrown about, but I insisted on calling it Civics 101,” she said. “Logan made the logo, and we sent a trailer and pilot episode to iTunes.”

“In retrospect, I guess we just did it. There wasn’t a big meeting with executives or anything,” McMurray added.

As the weeks rolled on, the show steadily grew into its own. It consistently dived headfirst into wonky subjects (emoluments, the Office of Scheduling and Advance, gerrymandering) while remaining fundamentally accessible, and the podcast eventually adopted an appealing topical edge (calling your congressperson, impeachment, the nuclear codes) that nonetheless retains a broad, evergreen perspective. Almost three months in, Civics 101 has grown in depth and complexity. And, as I found in a recent email correspondence with McMurray, it has certainly grown in ambition. Here’s our chat:

[storybreak]

[conl]Hot Pod: How has the show evolved over the past four months?[/conl]

[conr]McMurray: Our editorial vision has shifted a lot, and continues to evolve. Civics 101 was intended to be a short-run series. We planned to drop one episode per week for the first 100 days of the Trump administration. In part, we thought “How many governmental agencies and cabinet positions do people really want to know about?”, but I was also concerned about resources. Our production team is responsible for producing a daily magazine program, Outside/In, the 10-Minute Writer’s Workshop podcast, and a series of live events, among other things.

After iTunes featured Civics 101 in its New and Noteworthy section, everything went to hell in a good way. Our audience numbers shot up and we started to receive unsolicited listener questions. We captured the moment, and began releasing two episodes per week, created a Civics 101 website where listeners could submit questions via Hearken, and started a Civics 101 hotline with Google. A lot of the questions coming in stemmed from current events. For example, when Steve Bannon was appointed to the National Security Council’s principals committee, there was an uptick in National Security Council-related questions. So, Civics 101 became newsier than I anticipated, but editorially, I wrestle with it. It’s easy to be seduced by the latest scandal, and to bump those questions to the top of the list, but I want Civics 101 to be a meaningful resource for future listeners. What’s timely today may sound dated in six months, and it will certainly sound dated by 2020. For the time being, we’re trying to balance the timely issues with the evergreen questions.

Oh, and a shout out to our producer, Logan Shannon, who created the Civics 101 weekly newsletter, Extra Credit. We’ve seen a lot of audience engagement around it, and it has quizzes and gifs.[/conr]

[conl]Hot Pod: Does NHPR have any future plans for Civics 101 — and for its podcast operations more generally?[/conl]

[conr]McMurray: Civics 101 will continue answering listener questions on a biweekly basis. New questions come in everyday, so there’s no shortage of content. Of course, we want to grow and monetize our podcast audience, and that’s where a distributor will come in handy. We’re planning to repackage the podcast content for different platforms. Specifically, we’d like to become a multimedia resource for educators, and hope to create and distribute supplemental materials to teachers and students. That includes anything from videos to lesson plans.

My real dream, though, is to farm Civics 101 out to other stations/production units in time for midterm elections. We cover the national stuff well, but member stations are in a unique position to tackle state and local politics. And, as our yet-to-be-created production guide will show, Civics 101 is a scalable, turnkey format, and a fairly easy lift for smaller teams. In 2018, I’d love to see Civics 101: Louisiana, Civics 101: Albany, Civics 101: Michigan. Heck, you could do Civics 101: Canada, Civics 101: Australia, Civics 101: Brazil. Of course, resources are the elephant in the room. We’re currently working out ways to resource this thing. So check back in with me.

As far as podcast operations go, Civics 101 and Outside/In have been great proofs of concept for NHPR, but weren’t part of a formal, top down strategy. Our first major podcast, Outside/In, was intended to be a weekly, one-hour broadcast. When the show was in development, we found ourselves gravitating to longer stories that involved original reporting, narrative arc, sound design, and (for lack of a better adjective) a “podcasty” tone. Long story short, we put those early experiments into a podcast feed and came to realize those 15-30 minute prototypes were what distinguished Outside/In from other environmental shows and, given the size of our team, producing an hour-long program with those elements would be impossible. At the same time, the Outside/In podcast was developing an audience. So, the question became: is the podcast the show? In a way, our failure to deliver a sustainable, one-hour broadcast model coupled with the success of Outside/In and Civics 101 forced NHPR to consider the value and potential of podcasts. It’s been a learning curve for everyone, from producers to the underwriting department to membership, but we’re starting to develop an infrastructure that supports and leverages podcast creation.

One more really important detail: in order to double down on Civics 101, we had to make an editorial decision to ease up on something. So, we’ve been strategically replaying interviews and stories on our daily magazine program, Fresh Air-Friday style. There are some upcoming changes that will ease our production load, but for the time being, it’s a quick fix.[/conr]

[storybreak]

Bites:

  • Reminder: Edison Research’s Podcast Consumer 2017 report comes out later today. (Edison)
  • The Webby Awards has a pretty broad and interesting set of podcast and digital audio nominations this year. Check it out. (Website)
  • Audible has apparently taken over the billboards at the Rockefeller Center subway stop in New York to promote its original show, Sincerely X, which debuted back in February. (Pictures) Speaking of Audible, it looks like the company has been building another content strategy: creating original programming out of existing IP. (Rolling Stone).

Hot Pod: The three numbers that mark the state of podcasting in 2017

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 102, published January 10, 2016.

Digits to start the year. Is the podcast industry growing, and if so, how? I’m keeping these three numbers taped to the corner of my laptop as benchmarks to keep track:

  • Audience size: 57 million U.S. monthly listeners, according to Edison and Triton Digital’s annual Infinite Dial report, which gives the industry its clearest number to beat. The latest version of the report is expected to come out in early summer.
  • Advertising: More than $200 million projected for 2017, according to media research firm Bridge Ratings, which the industry seems to have coalesced around.
  • iTunes downloads and streams: More than 10 billion in 2016, which was up from more than 8 billion in 2015 and over 7 billion in 2014, according to a writeup by The Huffington Post.

Two quick news updates on Apple: The Apple podcasts team is apparently looking for someone to join their editorial team — also known as the people who looks after the iTunes front page.

In a related note, I’m hearing that Steve Wilson, who managed the editorial and partner relations team at iTunes and who was once described in The New York Times as Apple’s “de facto podcast gatekeeper,” has moved to the iTunes Marketing team to manage the podcast vertical. I believe it’s the first time the company is dedicating any marketing resources for podcasts.

The Keepin’ It 1600 team breaks off from The Ringer to start a new venture: Crooked Media, named after the standard Donald Trump pejorative. Its first product, a twice-a-week politics podcast called Pod Save America, rolled out Monday and quickly hit the top of the iTunes charts. For reference, Crooked Media is made up of former Obama staffers Jon Favreau, Jon Lovett, and Tommy Vietor. Dan Pfeiffer, who launched Keepin’ It 1600 with Favreau when it first debuted on The Ringer last summer, will continue his hosting duties in the new podcast, but he will not hold any stake in the new venture. The venture has plans to add more podcasts, video, editorial content, and “new voices” with a distinct emphasis on activism and political participation, according to its mission statement. There doesn’t appear to be any talk of external investment, with the team fully relying on ad revenues from Pod Save America for now.

DGital Media serves as Crooked Media’s partner in production and ad sales. This extends DGital Media’s already impressive portfolio of partners, which includes Recode, The Vertical’s podcast network, and Tony Kornheiser.

The Ringer CEO Bill Simmons is said to be supportive of the new venture, though one imagines the departure of Keepin’ It 1600, which grew incredibly popular during the 2016 election cycle, will leave quite a dent in monthly download totals for the website’s podcast network. However, given the network’s general culture that allows for continuous, iterative experimentation through its Channel 33 feed, they’re well positioned to fill the gap soon enough.

Here’s the thing that’s interesting to me: Crooked Media appears to be a stab at building out a new progressive counterpoint to conservative media, perhaps specifically its right-wing talk radio ecosystem, which has long been a curiously strong marriage of medium and ideological content with significant influence over American politics. It’s a curious thing that podcasting now offers Favreau & Co., insofar as they represent progressive politics, a potential site to match up against the conservative media-industrial complex; as I’ve noted in the past, the podcast medium does seem to feature an ideological spread that tends to lean liberal — even if it’s sticky business to characterize the politics of individual organizations. The theoretical question that occurred to me then, as it does now, is whether there is something about a medium’s structural traits — and demographic spread, and so on — that uniquely supports certain kinds of ideology. With this venture, we’ll have an opportunity to test the question a little further.

Related: Just re-upping this discussion from mid-November: Did the election podcast glut of 2016 fail its listeners?

Launches and returns for the year ahead. I was recently asked to write a preview of upcoming new podcasts for Vulture, and in the process of my outreach, I had a hard time getting concrete, specific release dates for upcoming launches. This, I think, says a fair bit about how the podcast industry, maturing as it is, still has ways to go in terms of developing a rhythm, cycle, and culture around show and season launches for its audience.

All right, here’s what I got so far beyond the stuff on the Vulture list:

  • Gimlet Media is keeping mum on new shows, but they have confirmed that Science Vs will return for its second season in March, while Heavyweight will drop its second season in September.
  • NPR’s vice president of programming and audience development Anya Grundmann tells me that the public radio mothership will be launching several new podcasts and debuting new seasons of some of its most popular shows, including Embedded and Invisibilia. No specific dates, but Grundmann did mention that a three-episode Embedded miniseries will drop in March.
  • Night Vale Presents has confirmed that Alice Isn’t Dead and Within the Wires will return sometime this year. They also note that the team behind Orbiting Human Circus (of the Air) is working on some new projects, which will be released throughout the year. And, as noted in Vulture, the company will be making its nonfiction debut at some point in the form of a collaboration with indie band The Mountain Goats.
  • The New York Times will roll out its latest podcast, Change Agent with Charles Duhigg — which sounds like a cross between an advice column, Oprah, and Malcolm Gladwell — sometime this spring. It’s also building a new show around Michael Barbaro, who hosts The Run-Up and has since moved into the audio team full-time. According to Politico, the Times is planning to expand its podcast roster from seven up to possibly twelve this year.
  • Radiotopia’s newest addition to its roster, Ear Hustle, is set to debut sometime this summer.
  • First Look Media tells me that they will be launching a weekly podcast for its flagship investigative news site, The Intercept, on January 26. The show will apparently be called “Intercepted.” There’s a joke in here somewhere, but we should move along.

That’s all I got for now. I’m going to keep a page going for this, and will update as more information trickles out. Send me what you have.

Panoply kicked off the year with the launch of its first “imprint”: The Onward Project, a group of self-improvement podcasts curated by author Gretchen Rubin, who hosts the popular Happier podcast under the network’s banner. The imprint is currently made up of three shows: the aforementioned Happier; Radical Candor, a management-oriented show; and Side Hustle School, a daily show made up of bite-sized episodes that describe financially successful side projects. The Onward Project was first announced during last September’s IAB Podcast Upfront.

Call it an imprint, call it a subnetwork, call it whatever you want: The concept seems to be more of an innovation in audience development than anything else. “I’d say success looks like what we’re already seeing — a collection of podcasts in which each show brings in its host’s unique audience, which is then exposed to the other shows through tight cross-promotion,” Panoply chief creative officer Andy Bowers told me over email, when I asked about the thinking around the imprint. “With podcast discovery still such a vexing problem, we think the imprint offers listeners a simple answer to the question they’re always asking Gretchen: ‘I love your show — what else should I listen to?'”

We’re probably going to see Panoply develop more imprints in the near future, further establishing a structure that makes the company look more like a “meta-network” — or a network of networks — which is a form that was only hinted at by its previous strategy, where it partnered with other media organizations to develop multiple podcasts under their brands.

60dB hires Recode reporter, adding to its beefy editorial team. The short-form audio company has hired Liz Gannes, previously a reporter at the tech news site Recode, to join its editorial team. Gannes, a senior hire, rounds out a team that has thus far primarily drawn from public media. It includes: Daisy Rosario, who has worked on NPR’s Latino USA and WNYC’s 2 Dope Queens; Brenda Salinas, formerly at Latino USA and KUT Public Media; Hannah McBride, formerly at the Texas Observer and KUT Public Media; and Michael Simon Johnson, formerly at Latino USA.

So here’s what I’m thinking about: The editorial team apparently exists as an in-house team that works to produce audio stories with partner publications, often discussions about a written article that recently published, for distribution over its platform. (Is it too much of stretch to call it high-touch adaptation aggregation?) It’s a dramatically manual — and not to mention human — content acquisition process, and that’s a structure that does not scale cheaply, which I imagine presents a problem for a founding team mostly made up of former Netflix executives.

Two questions that frame my thinking on the company: Where is 60dB supposed to fall within the spectrum between a Netflix-like platform and an audio-first newsroom with an aggressive aggregation strategy? And to what extent do the partnerships that the company currently pursues make up the long-term content strategy, or do they merely serve as a stepping stone into purely original content?

Anyway, I hear that more 60dB news is due next week. Keep your earballs peeled.

Related: In other tech-ish news, it looks like Otto Radio, the car dashboard-oriented podcast curation platform that recently hammered down an integration with Uber, has secured a round of investment from Samsung. Note the language in the press release describing Otto Radio’s distribution targets: “connected and autonomous cars, smart audio devices and appliances, and key integrations with premium content providers.” Appliances? I guess with Amazon’s Alexa platform creeping into everything — which was one of the bigger takeaways from this year’s CES — we’re about that close to a world in which your refrigerator can blast out those sweet, sweet Terry Gross interviews.

Facebook Live Audio. Shortly before Christmas, Facebook announced the rollout of its latest Live-related feature, Live Audio, on its media blog. Key details to note:

  • The feature is in its testing phase, and its broadcasting use is limited to a few publishing partners for now. At launch, those partners include the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), the London-based national talk radio station LBC, book publisher HarperCollins, and authors Adam Grant and Brit Bennett. It remains unclear whether those publishers are being paid for their partnership similar to the way that Facebook has been paying major media organizations like BuzzFeed and The New York Times, along with celebrities, to use the Live video feature.
  • The post notes that the feature will be made “more broadly available to publishers and people” over the next few months.
  • The launch of Live Audio is the latest in Facebook’s efforts to expand its Live initiative, which the company has been banking heavily on for the better part of the past year. It had launched Live 360 just the week before.
  • The pitch, as it has always been, primarily revolves around interactivity — which speaks directly to the “social audio” conversation carried by many in the radio and podcast industry (see This American Life’s Shortcut, WNYC’s Audiogram, and so on). The introductory post writes: “Just as with a live video on Facebook, listeners can discover live audio content in News Feed, ask questions and leave reactions in real time during the broadcast, and easily share with their friends.”

Right, so with all that out of the way: What does this mean for podcast publishers, and maybe even radio broadcasters? I haven’t quite developed a unified theory just yet, but I’ve been breaking the question down into two components.

First, it’s worth asking if Facebook Live Audio is compatible with much of what currently exists in the podcast (or radio) space. Facebook, as a digital environment, has always seemed to be structured such that only certain kinds of publishers — or “content creators” can “win.” More often than not, those are the publishers whose business or impact goals are functionally aligned with that of Facebook’s, and from everything that we’ve seen, read, and heard about the company, it seems pretty clear that Facebook’s primary goal is to drive up user numbers and, more importantly, user engagement, whose quantifiable attention are then sold to advertisers.

But that’s obvious; the question is, of course, how has the company preferred to generate those engagements? It’s one thing if Facebook’s underlying game plan here is to “replace” broadcast, be it television or radio. But it’s a whole other thing if the company is instead trying to build out and further define its own specific media ecosystem with dynamics, incentives, behaviors, and systems unique to itself — which is exactly what appears to be the case here.

So, what kind of audio content is likely to benefit from playing into Facebook Live Audio’s unique dynamics? Probably not the highly produced narrative stuff. Nor anything particularly long. Oddly enough, I have a somewhat strong feeling that many conversational podcasts could be much better suited for Facebook Live Audio than they ever were for the existing podcast infrastructure. But at the end of the day, what appears to be true for Facebook Live Video — and for most new social platforms — will probably be true for Facebook Live Audio: the kind of content it will favor is the type of content that’s native to the form. Everything else is either filler or a means to generate actionable data.

Second: The Facebook Live program displays high levels of volatility, both in terms of the program simply functioning as intended — see: miscalculated audience metrics, surging, lingering questions over Facebook’s role in digital governance and its relationship to the state — and, perhaps more crucially, in terms of the program’s underlying view of publishers and the actors of the wider media ecosystem.

The functional volatility alone should give some thinking about dedicating resources to building out a Facebook Live Audio strategy. But the greater pause should come from the second point on the program’s underlying position. Facebook’s general abstinence from making any concrete statement about its relationship to the media (and its potential identity as a “media company”) suggests a materialistic, neutralizing view that sees all actors on the platform as functionally and morally equal. Another way of putting this: The health of individual publishers, regardless of its size, hopes, dreams, and virtues, is a tertiary concern to the platform, as long as it is able to drive up the primal behavior it wants — its own definition of engagement.

It’s a toughie. On the one hand, you have a platform that theoretically connects you with various segmentations and iterations of the platform’s 1.79 billion monthly active users. But on the other hand, it’s really hard to get around the whole unfeeling, arbitrary-governing-structure thing. It’s up to you — depending on what your goals are, what relationship you want to have with your audience, your stomach for instability and risk — to decide if you want to live that Facebook Live Audio life.

None of this particularly new, by the way. But it’s still worth saying.

Bites:

  • Tamar Charney has been confirmed as NPR One’s managing editor, having assumed the role in an interim basis since Sara Sarasohn left the organization. Emily Barocas joins the team full-time as an associate producer to curate podcasts for the app. Nick DePrey, who has been supporting NPR One in his capacity as an “innovation accountant,” is now the digital programming analytics manager at NPR Digital Services. Elsewhere in the organization, Juleyka Lantigua-Williams has joined as the senior supervising producer and editor for Code Switch.
  • PRX has announced its first cohort for Project Catapult, its podcast training program aimed at local public radio stations. Also note: the organization has hired Enrico Benjamin, an Emmy award-winning producer, as the initiative’s project director. (PRX)
  • “Why branded podcasting could more than double in 2017.” (Digiday)
  • SiriusXM is now distributing WNYC Studios’ podcasts over its Insights channel. This continues an emerging trend that sees SiriusXM mining podcasts for quality inventory to build a content base beyond its Howard Stern-shaped engine: Last August, the company hammered down a partnership with The Vertical’s podcast network, and it has been distributing the Neil DeGrasse Tyson podcast Startalk since January 2015. (SiriusXM)
  • I’m hearing that the first round of judging for this year’s Webby Awards is underway. Several folks have also written me pointing out that the group of judges for the Podcast and Digital Audio category is pretty public-radio heavy — and not to mention, overwhelmingly white. (Webby Awards)
  • This is cool: Norway has become the first country to shut down its nationwide FM radio in favor of digital signals. (NPR)

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

Hot Pod: Is podcasting about food the new dancing about architecture?

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue ninety-two, published October 18, 2016.

Gimlet ends Sampler. The company announced the end of its podcast about podcasts at the top of its last episode, which was published late Monday evening. In the preshow note, Gimlet CEO Alex Blumberg explained that the move was to “basically clear the deck” to give room to a new project that will be built around Sampler host Brittany Luse. It is unclear what this new show will be about or when it will be ready for launch, but listeners were told to remain subscribed to the Sampler feed for further information that will be released at a later date.

This move comes about a week and a half after the Mystery Show rumpus, and I suppose it’s also worth noting that the StartUp episode released that week, which focused on Gimlet and its current stresses related to growth, brought up the fact that some of its shows — Sampler included — had essentially plateaued in audience growth. However, one should also keep in mind that podcast consumption tends to slow down during the summertime, and that may well be what we’re seeing. Whether Sampler’s audience numbers directly influenced the decision to end its run or not (I doubt we’ll know for sure), it nonetheless comes at an interesting time between the company’s brush with controversy and the recent NPR pickup of WAMU’s The Big Listen, also a podcast about podcasts, which began publishing its latest season earlier this month.

Luse joined Gimlet in September 2014 largely off the strength of her independently produced podcast For Colored Nerds, which has continued publishing to this day. This is, technically speaking, the first time Gimlet has winded down a show.

Science Friday is launching a new show. The long-running public radio program that serves weekly scoops of delicious science news is birthing a spinoff: Undiscovered, which I’m being told is about the “left turns and lucky breaks that make science really happen.” I’m guessing it’s sort of like How I Built This, but for science! The new show will be hosted by veteran science producers Annie Minoff and Elah Feder, and it’s scheduled to roll out sometime early 2017.

By the way, Science Friday just celebrated its 25th year of operations with a gala at the Intrepid Sea, Air, and Space Museum in New York this past Saturday. Congrats, folks!

Community-driven discovery. “People get really hyped when they find me,” said Danielle Sykes, the creator of Podcasts in Color, an individually driven digital project that’s working hard to build out an online space for people of color who produce and consume podcasts. I had asked Sykes, who goes by Berry, if she felt like the podcast ecosystem had been adequately accommodating of different voices and communities — that is, for demographics other than “the white guys with mics” stereotype the space has become saddled with.

“There’s room for improvement,” she said, by way of explaining why people get excited when encountering Podcasts in Color. “But I believe it’s coming.”

And it may well come from efforts like hers. Berry’s work with Podcasts in Color is remarkable for a number of reasons — its push to diversify podcasting’s identity, its intent to push more podcasts made by people of color into the mainstream, its scrappiness. But her most interesting contribution, I think, is how she’s laying down a framework for a community-driven approach to podcast discovery, which has almost universally been described as broken and whose articulated solutions tend to revolve around technological approaches: a better platform, a better app, a better curation system built on top of existing distributors, and so on. (Another approach that has popped up in recent weeks: greater critical embrace, as embodied by the Third Coast Festival’s recent call for inclusion among fall arts previews.)

Podcasts in Color functions on two mechanics. First, Berry cultivates and maintains an active community of interested participants over a collection of social media accounts, though the bulk of the interactions appear on Twitter, where she makes rigorous use of hashtags (like #PodIn and #PodsInColor) under the nom de plume Mystery Berry. Over Twitter, Berry maintains a near-continuous stream of engaged and enthusiastic interactions, pulling people into public conversation and constantly surfacing new shows and episodes. While the effect can sometimes be overwhelming, it’s nonetheless effective: I have personally found more than a few shows off Berry’s conversational blast radius that I’ve come to appreciate, and it always strikes me how I probably wouldn’t have been able to learn about those shows anywhere else.

The second mechanic lies in an attempt to document the universe of podcasts created by people of color, which Berry does by maintaining a directory of such shows that lives on the Podcasts in Color website. She tells me that new submissions to the directory are added daily, and the product is a comprehensive, if somewhat unwieldy, database whose existence should strip away the logic from arguments asserting that it’s hard to find podcasters of color.

“I’m trying to create the podcast world that I see in my head,” Berry told me, adding that her general distance from the coasts — she lives in Denver, where she works part-time at a travel company — informs her work. “I see everything from a ‘middle America’ perspective, so I love to think of ways someone living in Denver could connect and find podcasts easily.”

Podcasts in Color remains relatively small in reach. By Berry’s count, Podcasts in Color currently reaches over 4,500 followers across its social media accounts, and the directory sports only about a thousand visitors a week. But while its numbers may be fledgling, Berry’s work is rising to meet a need that continues to persist in the space. And besides, speaking as a person who started a newsletter out of nothing, everybody starts out small.

Find the Podcasts in Color community on Twitter, and the directory on its website.

This American Life’s new tool. This American Life publicly rolled out its new audio clipping and sharing tool, called Shortcut, last week. Nieman Lab has a great writeup of the tool discussing its origins at last September’s This American Life audio hackathon (which I covered at the time) and contextualizing it within the broader spectrum of similar audio sharing efforts like WNYC’s Audiograms initiative and the Clammr app.

It’s worth noting that Shortcut will be open-sourced; the team plans to release the code soon. Stephanie Foo, Shortcut’s project lead (and This American Life staff producer) told me that she encourages people to use the tool in a variety of ways. “I like to see this idea be taken and shared,” she said. Foo added that she invites companies like Apple and Stitcher — distribution platforms that generate tons of valuable user behavior data — to take notice and consider ways to facilitate sharing experiences for listeners.

She also mentioned that her team is looking create a “database of interest” of people and team who want to start using the tool on their own. “We want to see how much effort we need to put into hand-holding,” she said. Such teams should send a note to web@thislife.org.

Whetting appetites through your earballs. “I think food podcasts in general have a ton of room for growth,” said Dan Pashman, who hosts WNYC Studio’s The Sporkful, when we traded emails recently.

I had written to ask a few questions about his show and, more generally, about the scope of opportunities for food podcasts. Pashman pointed out that millennials (née snake people) spend over $90 billion per year on food, using that number to illustrate the scale of potential interest among the prime podcast-consuming demographic. That kinda makes sense, though I figure that number is probably always meant to be big given the fact that we all kind of have to eat to live (unless you’re one of those Soylent people). But I suppose the very existence of those varied approaches and subsequent rebuttals to the subject further underscores Pashman’s point about food being such vibrant point of concern, interest, and thought in human life.

“As a general matter, I’d say food media roughly breaks down into three categories: tips/hacks/recipes, news/journalism, and storytelling,” Pashman said. “I think the second and third categories are as well suited to audio as any other medium, perhaps better suited. As for the first category, there are some food podcasts that do tips and recipes very well, but I do wonder how that content will fare long term. People seem to want their cooking tips in shorter formats each year…Listening to a podcast isn’t the most efficient way to learn how to sear a steak or eat durian.”

And it would seem that all three categories are more or less well served by the crop of food podcasts currently on the market, from The Sporkful and APM’s The Splendid Table to Gastropod and Food52’s Burnt Toast to Gravy and all those lovely works by the Kitchen Sisters. (Let’s not even talk about the subgenre of food podcasts that specifically focuses on drink. That’s a doozy.)

But I’ve always had a sense that there is a fundamental difference between “food media” and media about food, which sport very different kinds of market opportunities. Almost all food podcasts, I think, cleanly fall within that second bucket, leaning deep into narrative-first designs that don’t really draw all much from the viscerality that the idea and experience of food often promote. Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve generally viewed “food media” to be the kind driven by that viscerality; I think about the gauzy closeups in cooking shows, the gorgeous glossy photos in print magazines, and all of those other borderline pornographic editorial units that tap into that lizard-brain feeling of want — which I think is somewhat structurally in opposition to what we traditionally think about when we think about storytelling narrative, and as a function of that is a genre that tends to favor visual approaches. The platonic ideal for this media species is probably something like BuzzFeed’s Tasty social food video empire circa summer 2016, and I guess I’m having a hard time finding audio projects that attempts to execute purely on those mechanics. To some extent, I wonder if that’s even possible — but if it is, and if there emerge strong attempts to capitalize on those same mechanics, I do believe there’s a really interesting business in here somewhere, or at least a technique that can greatly increase the hook of existing food podcasts.

“I do think you can tap into that want without visuals,” Pashman said, when I spiralled off on this ramble. “In some ways, perhaps, it’s even more visceral because as people listen, they picture their own personal platonic ideal of a food.”

Hmm.

Tangentially relevant but interesting nonetheless: Found out that the Food Network hauled in $891.6 million in revenues last year, though a 2014 Quartz article observed the channel’s programming trend to have shifted its focus away from food and more towards competitions.

A series on food and race. Pashman, by the way, is currently publishing a Sporkful special series on race and food called Who Is This Restaurant For? “The basic premise is that every time you walk into a restaurant, you’re bombarded with signals that tell you what kind of place it is and whether it’s for you,” Pashman explained. “We’re hoping that by exploring these signals from the perspective of both restaurateurs and customers, we can reveal something about the judgments we all make, our perceptions of race and culture, and how the world looks to different people.”

This miniseries marks Pashman’s second project in the past year that examines the intersection of food and race, following his set of reports called Other People’s Food that originally came out back in March. (It was republished earlier this month as a lead up to the new series. Which is an interesting marketing initiative, if you ask me.)

I asked Pashman, who is white, about his growing focus on this topic. “If you’re living in America right now, how can you not be interested in exploring questions of race, culture, and identity?” he replied. “I was optimistic that food could offer an entry point, some kind of common experience where a meaningful conversation could begin.”

I’m told WNYC Studios doesn’t share audience numbers (a shame!), but Pashman says the series has gotten a “huge response.”

“In a certain way, podcasts are to public radio as public radio was to commercial radio,” said Studio 360’s Kurt Andersen on a recent episode of Recode Media, sketching out the parallel between public radio’s oppositional nature to its incumbents back in its day and podcasting’s own stylistic rubbing up against public radio today. “It’s all part of the great circle of life,” he trailed off.

Check out the superfun interview — this specific section begins at the 27:30 mark.

Bites:

  • Zach Brand, NPR’s VP of digital media and services, is moving to The Guardian, where he replaces Aron Pilhofer as chief digital officer. (The Guardian)
  • I’m not personally clear about the cultural significance of the Webby Awards, but it’s taking entries for podcasts and digital audio, so do keep tabs on that if it’s interesting to ya. (The Webby Awards)
  • Acast announced last week that it is granting its clients access to music library Epidemic Sound and the Hindenburg Journalist Pro editing software. It’s probably a move to sweeten the deal for podcast publishers and producers considering the Swedish podcast company as a potential ad sales provider, though those perks do feel like add-ons as opposed to core demands. (RAIN News)
  • Missed this last week, but really worth your attention: BackStory with the American History Guys, a popular Charlottesville-based radio show, is restructuring to become digital-first. As part of this shift, it will no longer offer an hour-long version for broadcast starting February 3, 2017, opting for primary distribution through a weekly podcast publishing format. The show had previously found distribution over 173 stations across 31 states and Washington, D.C., according to their website. Check out the Current writeup for more details.
  • Podcast upstart Paragon Collective dropped a trailer for its upcoming horror fiction series Darkest Night. What’s interesting here: The show’s first season is being sponsored by AMC Network’s new horror streaming service, Shudder.
  • “Is your podcast being held hostage by iTunes?” asks Forbes contributor Sarah Rhea Warner. (Forbes) Pair this with a recent take by a Goldman Sachs analyst: “It’s Time for Apple to Go Big in Content and Launch ‘Apple Prime'” (StreetInsider.com)
  • Two Amazon Echo related reads: “How 3 publishers are staffing for Amazon Echo” (Digiday) and “Yelling at Amazon Echo” (The New Yorker)

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