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Tracking: March 14, 2019

Selling out, RadioPublic Updates, Digiday on Guardian Pods

(1) Have podcasts sold out? A provocative question asked by this piece in the Guardian, which isn’t then really answered in the article itself (which also, I note, fails rather spectacularly when it comes to the diversity of those interviewed). The argument, for what it’s worth, is this: podcasting used to be “an inherently amateur, democratised means of communication” where the vast majority of shows were completely free. I think there are several flaws in this. I mean, some of the longest-running and most successful podcasts were also early pioneers of host-read sponsorship spots or operated on a membership or public radio pledge model, and as I keep pointing out, that idea that it’s ever been true that anyone can just record a voice memo on their phone and then suddenly become the Next Big Thing in audio is pretty bogus.

Yet despite that, I do think this is a question that has some relevance right now. The “sold out” idea is coming up in lots of places beyond just this one article. As Nick has said before, the awareness of podcasting among the population at large, the acquisition of Gimlet and Anchor by Spotify, and the arrival of Luminary does seem to mark a tipping point for the podcast industry. In addition, the sheer force of the negative feelings directed towards Luminary in the last couple of weeks shows that this question of the medium “selling out” via the creation of paywalls and closed-off ecosystems is an emotive and contentious one.

I would add two things to what’s already been said about this. Firstly, I don’t think the reality is as binary as the question makes it seem. There wasn’t a time when podcasting was an utterly pure, non-commercial activity, which then switched in a single moment (the point of “selling out”) to an entirely capitalism-governed reality. You can make the case for lots of sell out moments: the arrival of big ad spends from huge brands; the advent of ad injection; the potential for programmatic ads; and many more. Lots of small shifts in different areas and at different times have lead us to this current point, and — for better or for worse — the arrival of really big money in the space will only touch a small number of podcasters (although the ripple effects will be bigger than that, of course).

Then secondly, over a decade in, we’re still debating what a “podcast” is, anyway. RadioPublic co-founder Matt MacDonald pointed this out in a recent Twitter thread, making the argument that audio held solely behind a paywall on a single platform isn’t really a podcast at all, because open distribution via RSS is integral to the term (see also: Steven Spielberg’s crusade against Netflix films being considered “films”). I think the “sell out” narrative is predicated on a lot of uninterrogated value judgements in this area, which I look forward to unpacking as the whole thing plays out. But whatever else it will do, the existence of Luminary is not going to stop amateurs recording audio and distributing it via RSS feeds. They might not become global hits, but then how many of them were going to do that anyway.

(2) RadioPublic, the listener-focused B-Corp spun out of PRX in May 2016, has launched a new version of its eponymous podcast listening app. According to the intro on their own site, the redesign was governed by the desire to ramp up web-to-app integration, encourage podcast discovery and “improve distributed publishing.”

One of the new features debuting in support of these aims is “HearMarks”, a tool that allows listeners to select short clips from episodes and save them for later listening or sharing. It’s a not dissimilar feature to “Shortcut” from This American Life, which coincidentally announced a further open source element for the tool last week.

(3) The Guardian’s podcasts get a profile in Digiday, and there are a few interesting nuggets to highlight. No specific numbers for their new daily podcast made in London, “Today in Focus”, were forthcoming, but apparently it has “grown fivefold” since its launch in November, so make of that what you will. They have eight people working on the show, and Christian Bennett, executive editor of visual journalism, is quoted in the piece as saying that the hope is that the daily podcast will be “eventually as important as paper” for the Guardian.

They have ten of active podcasts in total and handle ad injection and sponsorships through Acast, although they are now pursuing “a mix of revenue streams”, apparently. It was this last point that surprised me most here — the Guardian has pretty visibly bet on their membership programme in other elements of their output, with banners and popups all over their site and articles. Yet it’s only in the last few weeks that they’ve been running ads in the podcasts aimed at converting listeners into members. Given the success of premium tiers elsewhere in audio, I would have thought this would be a central plank of the membership approach, rather than a recent afterthought. Anyway, apparently now that it’s underway, “it’s working, but it’s too early to share results”.

(4) ‘The Case Against Adnan Syed’, the new four-part HBO documentary about the case brought to prominence by the first season of Serial, has begun airing. It’s attracted some critical attention for its stylish use of photographs and animation, and also generated interest in the way that it reckons with the true crime form itself, since it includes excerpts from the podcast and footage of Sarah Koenig winning a Peabody Award for her work on it. Amy Berg, the director, has faced some of the same obstacles as Koenig in terms of balance, though, since the family of victim Hae Min Lee also declined to comment for the film. Syed remains incarcerated and has just been denied a request for a new trial by Maryland’s highest court. His lawyers say they will now review “other avenues of relief.”