Editor’s note: Hot Pod is a weekly newsletter on the podcasting industry written by Nick Quah; we happily share it with Nieman Lab readers each Tuesday.
Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 121, published May 30, 2017.
Back from vacation, folks. We’re talking conventions, independent media, The Daily v. Up First, and careers. Let’s get to it.
PodCon. The crop of live podcasting programming — or festivals or conferences or whatever you’d like to call it — has grown fairly robust over the past few years. A rough list, by no means comprehensive: WNYC’s Werk It, Midroll’s Now Hear This, the LA Podcast Festival, DC Podfest, the Mid-Atlantic Podcast conference, Third Coast, Podcast Movement, the Hot Docs Podcast Festival…and so on, and so on.
There’s a new addition on the horizon, one that sports a notable heritage: this December will see the inaugural edition of PodCon, a podcast convention by Hank Green, the largely internet-based personality who is also responsible for, among many other things, the YouTube series vlogbrothers, the podcast Dear Hank & John, the Internet Creators Guild, and, most pertinently, VidCon, the popular online video conference. The convention will take place in Seattle. The lineup of attending shows thus far includes Lore, Radiotopia’s Criminal, the McElroy brothers, and Night Vale Presents. Green is bringing in his team of experienced convention producers to organize PodCon, and Night Vale’s Joseph Fink is playing an active role in curating the lineup.
PodCon is meant to be distinctly fan-oriented, Fink told me. “Podcast conventions and festivals have mostly either focused on a specific kind of podcasting (comedy, documentary, etc.) or focused on the technical or business side (essentially the podcaster side of podcasting, rather than the listener),” he said. “We really want to create convention that treats podcasting as a broad and diverse art form, and that is primarily for fans, whether those fans are also podcast makers or not.”
Green concurred, describing a convention that threads both sides of the creator-audience relationship. “We think the people who love podcasts deserve and want to be included in conversations about issues the field is facing, from diversity to monetization. We think the wall between professional discussion and community celebration is not real,” he said.
According to Green, the convention will chiefly be funded through ticket sales, both through an Indiegogo campaign that currently serves as the event’s primary web presence — as of Monday morning, it has raised about $81,000 of a $300,000 goal — and ticket sales that happen afterward. (The campaign features several contribution tiers, but backers need to provide a minimum of $90 for admission to the actual convention. For reference, the standard admission pricing for VidCon is at $150 for fans, and $200 for creators.) The Indiegogo campaign was deployed mostly to get a sense of the event’s scope; I’m told that the convention will proceed regardless of what happens with the campaign. The organizing team holds out some hope that there will be sponsors, noting that it’s very hard for first-year events to wrangle in sponsorship. (Though given the fact that VidCon eventually locked down YouTube as an advertiser for that convention, I suspect they’ll be fine.)
So, why Seattle? It’s podcast country, Fink told me. “People in the Northwest really love podcasts. Night Vale has done some huge shows in New York and London, but by far the biggest show we’ve done was in Seattle. We consistently see the most excitement for our events in the Bay Area, Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver. In my mind, that’s podcast country,” he said.
You can find out more about PodCon on its Indiegogo page.
On podcasting and independent media. Given Green’s extensive history with independent internet media and YouTube — with all its opportunities and travails over time — I was curious about Green’s take on the current state of the ecosystem. He was kind enough to oblige:
It’s a mixed bag, like any media. I like that it’s harder to control and consolidate because the technology underneath it is so simple, but it’s also gotten extremely hard to break into. Production costs can be the lowest of any media, but if you want to get noticed these days, it’s much easier if you’ve got money and experience (or a pre-existing audience). Because it can be so cheap to produce, we’ve seen an influx of people with existing audiences moving into podcasting (like me, for example), which I have mixed feelings about — obviously not so mixed that I don’t do it, because I love it, but I do see it as making the medium less meritocratic. Monetization is pretty sustainable if you can put together a fairly large audience, but unavailable to smaller podcasts, which is a shame. But ad rates are fairly high and competition for podcast ad slots seems to be getting more heated, which is good.
As the consumption of podcasts has become a more understood and normal thing, and a path to revenue has gotten more clear, a huge diverse range of genres and styles have emerged. Some of that has happened under the umbrella of networks that, from my perspective thus far, have been pretty up front and fair. And some of it has happened independently. I think that’s all part of a pretty healthy ecosystem.
Radiotopia readies Ear Hustle for launch. The podcast indie label’s latest addition, which features stories of life in prison produced by the people who live them, is set to roll out its first episode on June 14. To mark the occasion and to promote the show, Radiotopia has prepared a unique launch strategy: between June 1 and 15, all other 16 Radiotopia shows (!) will drop episodes around the theme of “doing time.” A preview of Ear Hustle is already up in its feed.
Notes on the morning news front. When on vacation, I try to stay unplugged. I make an effort to keep away from the news (I tried), to avoid Twitter (I really tried), and to not do too much work (ha) in favor of more immediate experiences, like actually being present for human conversation, or savoring details (the smell of flowers, the ashy taste of Claritin). I also established a moratorium on podcasts for a bit, though I, eventually, made an exception for two shows: NYT’s The Daily and NPR’s Up First. I suppose I couldn’t stay away all that much.
Which podcast do you prefer?
— Third Coast Festival (@ThirdCoastFest) May 23, 2017
Third Coast Festival tweet-polled its followers on which show they preferred, and while the poll shouldn’t be taken to say anything other than the preferences of TCF’s Twitter followers, it does present us with a good opportunity to take stock of their efforts in relation to each other so far. The question about which production is better is, as always, a super fun one, but as polite argument goes, such a paradigm may well be educationally limited. Both podcasts, after all, represent different approaches to the morning podcast news — Up First favors breadth and speed, exhibiting a purpose parallel to A.M. email news digests, while The Daily favors depth and experience, building a space that often feels remarkably close to magazine features — and even if you could construct the argument for one’s superiority, there is always the natural (though somewhat frustrating) meta-counter-argument that both models provide different kinds of value to different kinds of people’s needs and preferences. From here, the move should instead be to think of what they tell us as a collection; of what they tell us about where the genre is.
Fair enough, but I do think that The Daily is unambiguously superior to NPR’s offering on a number of levels where it counts — particularly in terms of the way it achieves what it has set out to do, and the way it has definitively furthered the experience of news consumption in the podcast format. To begin with, The Daily possesses a greater degree of inventiveness and generally makes much better use of the podcast format, resulting in a freshness that makes the prospect of listening to the news more attractive. It does this by being emotionally ambitious, which feels both rare and miles apart from another, more commonly deployed strategy to increase the appeal of news: by dumbing it down. Its choice to focus on a small number of deeply executed stories per day has allowed it to extract tremendous narrative value from depth, and it gives the show greater versatility in its ability to traffic both in headlines and features that seem to exist out of time; there is no greater example of this than last Friday’s gorgeous episode adapting a feature on assisted suicide in Canada.
Nevertheless, the places where The Daily is most dynamic also happen to be its sources of risk and potential weaknesses. And, interestingly enough, where Up First has chosen to be comparatively more conservative — only marginally innovating on the core sound or formula of NPR — also happens to be where it is at its most orthogonally competitive with The Daily. In its pursuit of emotional depth, The Daily is in a position that consistently runs the risk of stacking the deck too far in one direction, which may well open it up to critiques of myopia and manipulation. This manifests itself in the podcast’s use of music as something more than window dressing; it is, to use a cliché, a character of its own in the show that interacts with and augments the narrative, and it has the capacity to emotionally condition listeners in a way that some might consider ethically dubious. (No different, it could be argued, from the choice of photographs deployed within articles.)
It also manifests itself in the show’s choice to heavily tether its perspective on its host, Michael Barbaro, a move that highlights the trickiness of that emotional ambition (see that one episode about the coal miner, where your mileage may vary, or even roll backward). There also exists the question of how The Daily might function, or whether it can remain as strong, should Barbaro need to take a week off or, oh I don’t know, decide to work for WaPo or something. It’s a classic question of high-level media production: the choice between the vessel or the talent, and it is here that Up First’s more conservative choice to lean on the voice of the institution feels more solid. (Don’t believe in the king, NPR’s gambit seems to say, believe in the kingdom.)
At its core, I think the underlying story here is really one about experimentation in and the risk-reward profiles of large institutions. It’s been remarkable to watch these moves play out from these organizations, and I’m excited to see what happens next. Anyway, to state the blindingly obvious, this is merely my take on the matter — I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Public radio watch. (1) As expected, the Trump administration’s proposed budget for the 2018 fiscal year pushes for the closure of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the body that serves as a key layer of financial support for the country’s public broadcasting infrastructure. According to the draft, the CPB will receive about $30 million to “conduct an orderly closeout of federal funding.” Current has a good (paywalled) writeup on this, and for more information on the significance of such a closure, check out this Hot Pod issue from February. Keep in mind that this is merely a budget proposal — it requires congressional approval.
(2) From a piece about WAMU, the Washington D.C.–based public radio station, by Washingtonian: “In 2014, about 45,000 weekly listeners were African-American and 49,000 Latino. By early this year, those audiences had leapt to about 106,000 apiece, almost a quarter of listeners. That’s far from reflecting the region as a whole, where blacks and Latinos account for about 40 percent of the population, but for a public radio station it’s unusual.” What accounts for the growth? NPR’s Sam Sanders:
— Sam Sanders (@samsanders) May 25, 2017
The Washingtonian piece also contains an overview of the hires that contributed to the diversification of WAMU’s staff. (Hell yeah.)
(3) David Eads, the outgoing senior supervising editor for NPR’s visuals team, posted a farewell note that’s equal parts critique, warning, and message of hope. He writes: “This is a historic moment for us. Huge swaths of print journalism are on life support. TV journalism is saturated with spectacle. A few dominant national news outlets continue to grow and attract investment along with a gaggle of digital newcomers who understand the power of the screen. Public media is actually doing OK. But history is going to catch up with us any minute if we don’t reinterpret the model with both care and speed.”
- Speaking of WAMU, Daisy Rosario joins the station as the new managing producer of The Big Listen. Rosario most recently served as the creative director for the short-form audio platform 60dB (under NPR emigre Steve Henn), and was previously a senior producer at Latino USA.
- Youth Radio, the Peabody Award–winning youth-driven news organization, is apparently looking for a podcast producer.
Career spotlight. Time for another chat about careers! If you need a quick reminder on the thinking behind this feature, go here. This week, I talked with Jonathan Mena of the Loud Speakers Network, who just wrapped up production on Mogul. The dude is super interesting, and his story is both remarkable and remarkably representative of a lot of career arcs I’ve seen in the space.
[conl]Hot Pod: What do you do?[/conl]
[conr]Jonathan Mena: I work for the Loud Speakers Network as a producer for the Combat Jack Show, Tax Season, TK Kirkland Show, and Mogul: The Life and Death of Chris Lighty, which is our first collaboration with Gimlet Media. My day for LSN always starts off looking at the analytics. It’s not just about the plays but also the demographics and locations of our listeners that helps us better strategize. Our network is very young so a lot of us at LSN wear many hats.
For the shows I produce, my philosophy is always to have the host focus solely on the interview. I never want the host to worry about the production side. So if I have to write questions, book a guest or studio, edit audio, or even make a drink for a guest, I’m going to do it all so we have the best show possible. I also sometimes have to wrangle ornery hosts and guests, so I guess I also have the title of podcast whisperer at LSN. As we’ve grown in the almost four years since the start of the network, I’ve expanded into developing podcasts and creating video content. To sum it up, my job is to create great content.[/conr]
[conl]HP: Where did you start, and how did you get to this point?[/conl]
[conr]Mena: I started podcasting in 2006 around the time when iPods first started getting color screens and Twitter had just launched. I was in college editing lectures for the German department, which we would upload on iTunes University. I don’t speak any German so the professor would go through her lecture and tell me in English when to cut and start again. Around this time I was going to school for journalism and production and had a great professor and mentor named Gregg Morris. Morris made podcasting part of the curriculum and pushed us to produce our own shows. He’s really the first one who showed me there was more to journalism than being in front of a mic or camera. Back then, I never thought podcasting would be what it is now. Can you imagine a time before the podcast app where you had to physically download the podcast on your computer and transfer the file via cable to your device?
I finished school and got a day job in IT but was still freelancing for a local blog covering the crime beat. It was around this time that Reggie Osse (aka Combat Jack) was doing internet radio and getting some big guests for a show only a few hundred people were listening to in New York. We all started following each other on Twitter and would see each other at events around the city. A year or so later they announced they were thinking of starting a podcast network. They didn’t even have a name at the time. I reached out to Chris Morrow, who eventually became a cofounder of LSN, to see if they needed any help. Morrow offered me a shot at editing a new podcast they were launching about sneakers. The show wound up having a short run of only a few months.
A few weeks later out of the blue, I get an email from Reggie asking to edit a Combat Jack Show episode. He needed the episode turned around as soon as possible. Now I knew that email wasn’t for me and he had sent it by mistake, but I answered it anyway. I turned that episode around as fast as I could — two hours later he had the completed episode ready for posting. The next day Reggie invited me for coffee to talk about coming on the show as a producer, but never gave me a time or location. Two weeks go by and I never hear back from him or got any response from my follow up emails. Then one day he calls me and says, “We have Russell Simmons in the studio today, can you come by so we can talk about you joining the team?” Reggie later admitted he sent the email to me by mistake, but said it was meant to be.[/conr]
[conl]HP: How did you learn to do the job?[/conl]
[conr]Mena: Necessity truly is the mother of invention. There was a time when I couldn’t afford editing software so I taught myself how to use Audacity. In college when we didn’t have the equipment we needed, we would duct tape and bubble gum something together. I come from a DIY generation that has used the internet to our advantage. I still look at tutorials on YouTube and use Twitter to network or find talent for our shows. I also have the luxury of having a close relationship with the co-founders of the Loud Speakers Network, Chris Morrow and Reggie Osse. The two of them have taken me under their wing and allowed me to grow as a producer. Working at LSN has been like going to podcasting school.[/conr]
[conl]HP: When you started out, what did you think wanted to do?[/conl]
[conr]Mena: As a kid, I was always fascinated with radio and how it was created. I would record the Angie Martinez show on a cassette and listen back to it at night. I vividly remember listening to 1010 WINS as a kid in the car. Getting on the radio always seemed like something so abstract and unattainable. That’s why I think podcasting came at the right time for me. I’m a first-generation American and the first in my family to go to college, so it was expected I either become a lawyer or a doctor. I did well in my science classes but after a year switched majors and focused on journalism and media production. I never told my parents but I guess they figured it out by now. They just got smartphones and my mom just learned how to text, so when I tried to describe podcasting it was a little abstract for them. They tell their friends I work in TV, which is hilarious, but at least I don’t have uncles asking me if I’m a doctor yet.[/conr]
You can find Mena on Twitter at @jonathanmena.
- Audible broke the Top 5 of the Apple Podcast charts for the first time with its upcoming show, “Where Should We Begin? With Esther Perel,” charting near the top over the past few days — another example, some have pointed out, of the coveted Ira Glass bump. This American Life had featured the Audible original as a segment on its May 22 episode. Interestingly enough, the trailer that currently occupies the Esther Perel Apple Podcast feed points listeners to Audible Originals, where the full series is already available. It will enjoy a wider release in October.
- Not quite sure I agree with this piece, but it’s worth pondering: “Podcasting Is the New Talk Radio.” (The Atlantic)
- Atlanta welcomes a new podcast network: Zero Mile Media, which begins life with three projects including a serialized fiction podcast (out June 1), an interview show focused on the growing film industry in Atlanta (out mid-June), and a podcast developed with the Decatur Book Festival (out July).