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 129, published July 25, 2017.
Hey folks! We’re talking about adaptations, once again.
Gimlet wraps a big week for Homecoming. In the same week that the experimental fiction podcast debuted its second season, Deadline reported that its TV adaptation has received a two-season pickup by Amazon, with Julia Roberts confirmed in the lead role. (Sad times for Catherine Keener fans!) News of the adaptation was first publicized last December, with Mr. Robot creator Sam Esmail attached as director and executive producer.
For those keeping tally: Gimlet currently has three pieces of IP that are being pipelined into the more lucrative world of film and television (that we know of, anyway. You can damn well bet that there are many more in development at various stages of maturity). The other two are: (1) the StartUp podcast, which will be hitting television as ABC’s Alex Inc. starring Zach Braff, and (2) the Reply All episode “Man of the People,” set to be a Richard Linklater film starring Robert Downey Jr.
The company has officially expanded its adaptation pipeline beyond film and television as well. Accompanying Homecoming’s latest season is a companion ebook called The Lost Coast, which follows a storyline that’s separate but related to the narrative playing out in the podcast. (Expanded universe, anybody?) The first chapter of the ebook rolled out alongside the new season’s first episode, and the series will be exclusive to Apple’s iBooks platform. With this, the company walks a path well-trod by earlier pioneers: the Night Vale team, in particular, pulled off a successful crossover to books, publishing an original novel in 2015 along with two episode volumes. (A second original Night Vale novel, It Devours!, will drop in October.)
The podcast-to-TV adaptation trend has been around for a while — for what it’s worth, I first wrote about the trend last April, though activity in this sector long predated that column — but credit to Gimlet here for the pace of its machinations and the depth of its media savvy: from my perch, the company seems to have pretty effectively concentrated the podcast-to-TV adaptation narrative into a discernible and trackable thread that flows straight through it, keeping the focus and attention tight in such a way that I imagine only further builds interest around the podcast category as a whole.
One might argue that Gimlet is taking up too much oxygen in this space, a zero-sum articulation that sees this domination of the narrative as directly taking away from or crowding out other teams working on building out their own IP adaptation pipelines. That might be fair if there is an actual IP-peddling arms race currently taking place across multiple podcast companies at this point in time; as it stands, Gimlet does seem to be working at a noticeably higher level compared to everyone else, and they seem to have established quite a bit of a lead. (As an aside, I’m a little surprised that Midroll hasn’t fleshed out a more robust IP development pipeline, given its Los Angeles heritage. Then again, the company’s programming framework has historically been built on relationships with individual talent as opposed to intellectual property development; one imagines there are rather limited gains made when an Earwolf podcaster goes on to do a movie.)
Anyway, the strategy for Gimlet here is straightforward, in case you’re unfamiliar: As Chris Giliberti, the company’s head of multi-platform who is principally involved in many of these adaptation deals, told Wired: “The potential over the long term is a business that could look a good bit like Marvel…You’re originating worlds and stories in a low-cost, experimental format, and then transitioning high-potential prospects into higher-return formats.” He made the point even more explicitly in a recent StartUp episode: “In my mind, it’s the thing that could turn Gimlet into a unicorn.” You could also appraise the value from an even more basic value-extraction equation: a lot of effort and resources goes into creating, producing, and polishing a podcast — why not squeeze as much juice out of the fruit as you can?
Giliberti’s evoking the Marvel connection is also interesting on another level. Consider the following Variety article, published last week: “Comic book sales fly on the capes of hit movies, TV shows.“
Risk. Intellectual property adaptations can be read as being expressions of risk management. It’s a gambit that’s part of a larger toolkit that also includes, by the way, stacking a project with star power (see the aforementioned Homecoming, also every celebrity podcast ever) or drawing from well-trod genres (see: true crime).
The thought process behind adaptations is easy to grasp: it’s simply less risky to deploy a budget on concepts already proven in a marketplace compared to ones that are not, and particularly when you’re working with a big budget, the incentives are such that you’d want to reduce the potential for failure as much as possible. That said, it should be noted that such cautious thinking isn’t just present in production formats with generally high levels of investment, like film and television. This logic can govern in just about every medium, working at just about every scale, because risk is perceived and managed in relative terms.
Which is why we see — or are beginning to see — the gambit emerge even within podcasts, long said to be on the cheaper end of the production format spectrum: Wondery, for example, recently scored its first placement on the top of the Apple Podcast charts with what is essentially a podcast adaptation of a popular TV show (“Locked Up Abroad,” more on that in a bit). ESPN’s recently launched 30 for 30 podcast, obviously, is also an adaptation, and you can also say that adaptation exists on the episode level in that show as well: “Yankees Suck!,” the podcast’s best episode so far, can itself be described as an adaptation of a successful 2015 Grantland feature by Amor Bashad. (That feature, by the way, is also being turned into a movie.)
The broad line of critique against an increasing reliance on adaptation as a medium-wide strategy is that, on the one hand, it highlights a deficiency in creativity, and on the other hand, it’s a trend that may well detract from the ascendance of original ideas. The former is an underwhelming assertion: adaptations are themselves opportunities for immense originality and creative expression (e.g. HBO’s The Leftovers = GOAT). But the latter is more interesting, because it’s a hypothesis that I think still hasn’t been fully tested: the notion is at least partially predicated on an anxious view of the media ecosystem moving into a future where there are no more low-cost spaces for new and existing creators to play-test new concepts.
More paywalled podcasts trickle out into the open ecosystem. Two recent cases: (1) Audible and TED’s “Sincerely, X,” previously distributed as an Audible Original exclusively on Channels, and (2) “Fruit,” an audio drama by the multi-talented Issa Rae that originally premiered as an exclusive on Midroll’s Howl platform — now integrated into Stitcher Premium — last February. All episodes of the drama’s first season dropped last Monday. A spokesperson for Midroll explained the move to me: “Fruit was an audience favorite for Stitcher Premium listeners and, with the new season of Insecure coming up, we thought it was the perfect time to bring it to a wider audience.”
Insecure, of course, being Rae’s critically acclaimed HBO show that returned this past Sunday. Chalk this up, perhaps, as a pretty interesting piece of marketing on Midroll’s part.
And speaking of Midroll…
Midroll expands its Earwolf lineup, and the list of additions to the comedy-oriented network is pretty chunky. It includes two new shows, Off Book (described as the “first-ever improvised musical podcast”) and the conversational Homophilia, along with several recruitments from other places: Cracked Movie Club and Cracked Gets Personal join the network from the humor website — which is interesting, given that Cracked.com founder recently joined HowStuffWorks to launch its comedy division — while Throwing Shade and James Bonding are being brought in from Maximum Fun and Nerdist, respectively. Meanwhile, Stitcher Premium is also getting new inventory: it will soon be getting episodes of Chickenman, a popular superhero-spoof radio show from the 1960s. (Deep cut, my dudes.)
An interesting and aggressive summer for Earwolf, to say the least.
As a side note: congrats to Comedy Bang! Bang! — née Comedy Death-Ray Radio — for its 500th episode, out this week. The Daily Beast has a great oral history of the podcast, and there’s a Scott Aukerman quote in there that ties pretty well to the earlier parts of this newsletter:
The only reason the podcast has outlasted the TV show is that the TV show cost millions of dollars to make and the podcast costs very little to make. Because of that, the pressure is on to put out a really consistent product. When you’re doing a TV show, you want every episode to be good.
NPR premiered What’s Good with Stretch and Bobbito last week, bringing the legendary pair of New York hip-hop radio DJs into podcast feeds. One way to contextualize this launch: between What’s Good, It’s Been a Minute with Sam Sanders, and to some extent Live from the Poundstone Institute, all of which were rolled out over the past few weeks, it looks as if the public radio mothership is heavily dabbling in personality-driven podcast programming — that is, shows where the principal audience hook isn’t a topic framework (NPR Politics) or story platform (Invisibilia, Embedded), but literally the human at the heart of the program. I might be mistaken, but I think this is genuinely new for the organization on a podcast level.
Adam Ragusea is hanging up his mic as the host of Current’s The Pub. This means that the podcast, which functions as an extension of the publication and covers the goings-on in public media, is looking for a new host. You should totally consider it, especially if you’re young, hungry, and willing to kick the system in the butt. (Hard.)
As for Ragusea, he’s off working on other stuff, including additional podcast criticism at Slate and another podcast project currently in development. He declined to give details on the show, but he did send me some parting words for the role he’s leaving behind:
Public media is in a really weird spot. On the radio side at least, it’s booming bigger than ever, and yet I think it increasingly has no coherent idea about what it wants to be, or what it’s supposed to be. Making this podcast is an opportunity to significantly influence what I see as the inevitable reformation of the public media system. I’ve had my say, now I think it’s someone else’s turn.
I’ll be honest, when I founded the show with Current almost three years ago, I had the fantasy that it would pass every few years from one host/producer to the next — like an ombudsmanship, but for people who haven’t yet penetrated the power circle. The Pub has a robust audience for such a niche product; it includes high-powered people like Terry Gross and, more importantly I think, it includes scores of people in their first or second public media jobs who are trying to get oriented. The show is a labor of love to be sure, but I’ve been able to see it directly influence events, and it’s certainly raised my profile in a way that has brought me a flood of new opportunities, which is part of what’s now pulling me away from the show. It’s a great side gig for the right person, and I hope we find her.
Wondery’s Locked Up Abroad breaks 1 million downloads in slightly over a week, CEO Hernan Lopez tells me, based on its internal Art19 hosting numbers. He also disclosed the show’s Podtrac numbers, which measures unique monthly audiences: that number is 373,000. (Those two numbers contextualized against each other makes for some juicy extrapolation. I’ll leave it up to you to do the math.) Worth noting: the podcast premiered on July 11, dropping three episodes in its first day and hitting the top spot on the Apple Podcast charts not too long after, presumably off the strength of its brand name. It has since trickled down to a lower position, as life on the Apple Podcast charts is a fickle, transient thing.
The podcast is an adaptation of the popular National Geographic TV show, and there’s a personnel connection to be noted here: Lopez, a former television executive, once ran National Geographic Channels outside the United States, where he had an inside look at the considerable viewership for the property. “The whole process took nearly nine months from beginning to end, since once we secured the rights, we had to select the stories most suited for the ear, replace the music, and re-edit for clarity. We’re really pleased with the result,” he said.
The company also recently welcomed another new show to its portfolio: Tides of History, which debuted last Thursday with two episodes in the bank. According to Podtrac’s industry listings, Wondery is bringing in over 2.6 million unique monthly audiences across 38 podcasts.
And speaking of Wondery…
Career spotlight. Thus far, I’ve mostly focused this feature on producers and the creative side: staffers, freelancers, veterans, rookies. But producers alone don’t make up the industry. This week, I spoke with Karo Chakhlasyan, the director of audience acquisition at Wondery, who came into the industry through the media buying side.
[conl]Hot Pod: Tell me about your current situation.[/conl]
[conr]Karo Chakhlasyan: I am currently the director of audience aquisition at Wondery. My responsibility is to ensure our shows are heard by the right people. I use different marketing techniques to make that happen. Right now, I’m working to get our latest release, Tides of History, into Apple Podcast’s top 10. I think a screenshot of Tides right next to Locked Up Abroad, our last release, in the top 10 really shows the progression of our network and it’ll be a cool little picture to have.[/conr]
[conl]HP: How did you get to this point? What does your career arc look like — where did you start, and how did you end up in this position?[/conl]
[conr]Chakhlasyan: My local NPR affiliate station, KCRW, was a constant go-to for me in high school and KPCC became another go-to in college. That motivated me to take all the radio courses I could find in college. During that time I loved this show called Comedy Death-Ray that aired on a now defunct station called Indie 103.1. I started to stream Indie 103.1 on my desktop and eventually mobile. Then I discovered this company called Earwolf and loved everything about it. I emailed their first CEO asking if they had any job I could do. He said no, and that I should go listen to every episode of The Wolf Den. I emailed him back to thank him and I never heard back.
In 2013, right after college, I lived abroad and my obsession with podcasts grew. I tried to listen to everything I could download. I couldn’t stop listening to the 2007–2010 archives of the BBC’s The Documentary, The Story, Milt Rosenberg, Notebook on Cities and Culture, and The Sinica Podcast. Sometime while abroad it clicked that people will eventually stop listening to the radio, listen to more podcasts and podcasts can make money with ads!
When I came back to the States, I promised myself that I would only take a podcast-oriented job. I emailed every Los Angeles based podcast or radio company I could find and having a year of teaching experience abroad didn’t really wow any of the companies. I then searched for “podcast” on Craigslist and found Oxford Road, an agency that bought ads on podcasts. In fact, the managing director of Oxford Road at that time was an intervewee on The Wolf Den!
I mentioned how I heard him there, got hired to work in their mailroom, and confused everyone with my podcast obsession. Luckily, I had two generous coworkers who taught me how to cut podcast deals and what to do to make them profitable for our clients while keeping the shows and networks happy — I thank them quite often.
A couple of Excel sheets later, I realized how profitable podcast ads could be for our clients. It took a few dozen phone calls and meetings, but we grew podcast billings over 100 percent in a year. That was fun.
But I always wanted to be on the publisher side of things so when I met this guy named Hernan Lopez who had a new podcast company, and found out they had an interesting position open, I applied.[/conr]
[conl]HP: How did you learn to do the job that you do today?[/conl]
[conr]Chakhlasyan: I didn’t really know what to do at first (sorry, Hernan!) so I just applied the same playbook I used at Oxford Road. Buy podcast ads, measure, optimize and scale. And I lucked out again by having such amazing and generous coworkers and friends to learn from. I’m happy to say my playbook has grown. I still rewrite and add to that playbook every day. So much to learn![/conr]
[conl]HP: When you started out, what did you think wanted to do?[/conl]
[conr]Chakhlasyan: I really wanted to produce comedy podcasts. I think I still do! It’ll be about a person who quits their day job to start their own podcast network. I’ll call it Jim and The Podcast Factory. Oh wait.[/conr]
You can find Karo at @birdscanttweet.
Speed-listening. The topic gained a bit of conversational steam last week, principally triggered, it seems, by a write-up from The Wall Street Journal’s Ben Cohen (“How do podcast nuts find the time? They listen at chipmunk speed,” mind the paywall) with a few follow-ons, including pieces from The Guardian, the Chicago Tribune, and WNYC (#MyWrongOpinion).
I’m tempted to point out that this particular thread was already taken up as recently as last December by Christopher Mele at the Times, but even a rudimentary Google search reveals that the speed-listening debate is one that recurs in cycles. A sample list of ghosts from cycles past: The Verge in February 2015, The Atlantic in June 2015, Slate in October 2016. It seems that when it comes to matters of taste and culture, we are doomed to live the same moment, again and again, until the end of time or civilization, whichever comes first.
I don’t have a ton to say on the matter, other than this: Speed-listening is a god-given right and haters gonna hate.
Well, maybe I do have something to say. Principally, I view this debate as yet another expression of the classic tension between creators and audiences — one that falls from a misalignment between creator intent and consumer preference. It’s not too far removed, I think, from various similarly flavored arguments that’ve emerged across media formats since the beginning of time: people should be reading more features and not listicles, or that films should be watched in theaters and not on iPhones, or that print > digital > mobile. And in many ways, this debate (and all other debates of this kind) are somewhat irrelevant. The longer arc of the power relationship between creators and audiences seems to generally bend toward the latter, as the decentralization of media structures and progression of consumption technology seem to strip more and more producer control — over the consumption environment, over distribution strength, over context in general — while broadly expanding audience consumption (more choices, more control, more agency). That’s a tide that’s hard to stop.
But then again, what’s truly new here? Radio producers have long been compelled to develop design conventions to prevent listeners from switching stations, and if 1x listening is core to the entire point of a given episode’s experience, one presumes there to be a pathway of design R&D to keep listeners at the original speed. Of course, such design work is hard as nuts, but then again, so is the entire enterprise of making good stuff with a microphone, marketing said stuff effectively, and getting people to pay money for it.
And for what it’s worth: I have a very close relationship with the speed-listen feature across the several podcast apps that I use. I generally keep things at 1.5x unless it’s clear to me that the pacing, mood, or feel is central to the point of the experience as opposed to keeping things smooth or I get to a place where the space of a show becomes a little more important to me than the information being piped into my earballs. Of course, I’m completely unrepresentative, given that I’m professionally obliged to swim through as much material as possible, but still. #PeakPodcasts.
- This is great: “Ten lessons from West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s near-death experience.” (Current)
- If you’re interested in the Australian podcast scene, Edison Research recently released additional consumer information. (Radio Today)
- And speaking of public media: The Corporation for Public Broadcasting has hired PRI’s Kathy Merritt as SVP for journalism and radio. (CPB)
- Larry Wilmore’s conversation with Malcolm Gladwell about Revisionist History is really, really interesting. (Black on the Air)
- “BuzzFeed’s new audio morning briefing was made for Amazon Alexa.” (Poynter)
- The Atlantic rolls out Radio Atlantic, while The Washington Post launches its follow-up to Presidential: Constitutional.
- “J.J. Redick takes his podcast from The Vertical to Uninterrupted.” Which is to say, from Yahoo and DGital Media to that LeBron James media company, which has a partnership with reVolver podcasts. (Clutchpoints)
- Speaking of sports, I reviewed ESPN’s 30 for 30 podcast. (Vulture)
- Coverage on Two-Up Productions’ podcast musical, 36 Questions: “This podcast is a love story, for your ears only” from the New York Times, and my own write-up for Vulture from earlier this month.
[photocredit]Photo of food chain mural by Dan Nguyen used under a Creative Commons license.[/photocredit]