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The 11th and the Intent to Experiment

The reason why certain media products are shaped the way they are often comes down to a smashing together of different factors: the incentives of the distribution point; a mix of audience behavior, limitations, and expectations; the creative culture of the core production community; the nature of the business model; and so on. It is within this constellation of things that people who make stuff often try to find the right balance between their creative needs and the needs of the system. Television can reach all sorts of post-modern highs these days, but they still generally conform to a half-hour or hour-long construction. Films average around two and a half hours these days, presumably in part because paying inflated ticket prices for an hour-and-a-half film might feel a little weird in 2021. (Though, with simultaneous streaming releases, who knows.) These days, in an increasing number of digital contexts, the distributing platform exercises opaque power over all factors, but even under those conditions, those other factors nevertheless remain salient. There’s a reason YouTube thumbnails look the way they do, and why there’s a sameness to many of them. This is a long-winded way of saying: There are interlocking reasons for these things.

But what if you had a team dedicated to messing around with the force of those interlocking factors? That seems to be the central premise of The 11th, a new team at Pineapple Street focused on developing projects that don’t fit into what might be called “conventional podcast formats.” The team is composed of Joel Lovell, Leila Day, Jenelle Pifer, Eric Mennel, and Kristen Torres, all of whom were reallocated within the company to work on this idea full time.

Launching sometime in August, The 11th will principally take the form of a podcast feed that drops new projects every month (on the 11th, obviously). Each project will be headlined by a different contributor, and the works will vary vastly in structure, length, style, and aesthetic.

The emphasis, in other words, is on experimentation. “We’re thinking about it as a space to imagine what it’s like if there weren’t any rules,” said Leila Day, who listed out a few things they’re interested in exploring: the role of the host, blurring the lines between music and narrative, the episodic framework. The team wasn’t willing to give much detail about how those experiments will come across in the actual projects currently being developed, but they did disclose the broad strokes about two: The first is a “concept album” with the writer, critic, and poet Hanif Abdurraqib — of Lost Notes: 1980 and Object Of Sound fame, at least here in the podcast world, though he is of course much, much more known for his books and essays — and the second is a multi-part series with the writer Sarah Viren, who was nominated in this year’s National Magazine Awards.

I’m told that, like the shape of media products, the idea for The 11th itself came out of a cluster of interlocking factors: equal parts creative experiment, problem solving, and process limitations. To begin with, Joel Lovell, who joined Pineapple after a lengthy career as a magazine editor, had long harbored an interest in the question of figuring out what a magazine show — as opposed to a “magazine-style” show — could sound like. Meanwhile, the company had also been wondering what to do with many of the pitches they’d been receiving, particularly the ones that seem interesting and worth exploring but are probably not compatible with being blown out as a full eight-to-ten-part series.

On that note, there was also the notion of trying to explore both those things within the core business constraints that all profit-seeking podcast publishers have to deal with. “[Creating The 11th] had a ton to do with the current limited-run-series model, which seems… well, kinda limited,” Max Linsky, Pineapple’s co-founder, told me. “The economics on anything less than a six-to-eight-episode series just don’t work right now.” This state of affairs, he suspects, has resulted in more than a few serialized narrative podcasts being stretched out longer than they should be. “I think you’re starting to hear shows that feel a little fat, because they’re getting stretched to that length to make the math work,” Linsky said.

A constant refrain from the team is that, with The 11th, stories will only be as long as they need to be, and their focus is to help artists tell their stories in the most supportive way possible. “A lot of creators don’t have the capacity or financial backing to produce an eight-episode series,” said Jenelle Pifer, another team member on The 11th. “We’re leaning into this idea that we’re more aligned with the creator’s vision.” A veteran of The Moth’s production team, Pifer also spoke about a hope to form a tribe around the show. “I would really love to see it become this real community of creative people contributing to this like a common space,” she said.

Collaborators are paid a set fee, and they will own a split of the derivative rights for their project. The podcast will be monetized, seemingly by the classic ad-driven engine, and it’s likely we’ll see some experimentation on this front as well. “By changing the format month to month, I think we can often change the style of ads, too,” said Linsky. “I think The 11th will also be a place where we can potentially try other revenue models, but we won’t license it — the show will be available everywhere.”

This is probably an appropriate point in this column to note a broader point of context. The 11th isn’t quite alone in its pursuits to experiment with different forms and structures within a consolidated show architecture. Radiotopia’s Showcase, recently rebranded as Radiotopia Presents, follows almost the same logic, using the same feed and show branding to distribute differently shaped projects from different collaborators. Gimlet’s Crime Show seems to be mounting a similar project, but contained within the subject area of true crime (and its discontents).

Beyond overtly anthological productions, you could also argue that certain franchise-sized podcasts occasionally open up their feed to differently shaped miniseries in accordance to similar creative pursuits: Think of how The New York Times’ Odessa (four parts) and Day X (five parts) are published both as standalone feeds and through The Daily’s juggernaut feed, a dual-pronged distribution approach that undoubtedly de-risks any sell-side uncertainties with creative experiments.

It’s also worth noting that Pineapple’s thinking around The 11th is premised within a specific for-profit framework, which is to say: What the team is trying to work through with this project is the tension between creative experimentation and the needs of a traditional ad-supported business model. There is a decent number of podcasts out there — typically smaller, independent, and operating outside of the pure advertising-driven structure, maybe Patreon driven but not always — that routinely experiment with form, style, and aesthetics. The fiction scratchpad Imaginary Advice comes to mind, among others, and if you’ll allow me an esoteric example, the indie video-game podcast Into the Aether once put out an almost nine-hour long episode, which I hear remains the show’s most downloaded episode and which, frankly, totally works within the bounds of what that show’s creators were trying to do with that installment.

Of course, part of The 11th’s intent here is to cultivate a space that guarantees financial support for the creative experiments, and that, to me, stands as perhaps the most interesting differentiator here that renders the project an intriguing touch point in this growing experimental impulse on the part of certain podcast producers, one that embodies the community’s ongoing efforts to balance industrial and creative needs. I’m eager to see what this team ultimately makes and how far they’ll take this concept of breaking the rules.

Oh, they’re also seeking contributors for future projects, so if you’re interested, go here.