Issue 171,  published July 31, 2018

Where does the daily podcast go next?

Once again, we return to an old hobby horse of mine. What can I say? I find the genre endlessly fascinating. It’s filled with so much land to find, so many things that haven’t been done yet. After all, that’s why I’m still here.

We begin with a news hook: last Wednesday, the Washington Post posted a job opening that reveals the legendary newsroom to be in the hunt for an “accomplished journalist” to “be the voice and personality of a daily podcast.” It is, in many ways, a completely unsurprising development. Since Jeff Bezos bought the news organization in 2013, the Post has been especially aggressive and nimble in building stuff out across all sorts of platforms: Reddit, YouTube, the Amazon-owned Twitch. Audio too, of course. Now under the leadership of Jessica Stahl, the Post has built out a modest portfolio of podcasts that generally adheres to a playbook containing moves commonly practiced elsewhere. There’s a news-hooky Trump podcast (Can He Do That?), there are more evergreen material that plays towards the strength of its newsroom (Presidential, Constitutional), there are a few interesting collaborations with audio-native organizations (Historically Black with APM Reports, Edge of Fame with WBUR). They even have a daily podcast already, The Daily 202’s Big Idea, which is a sprightly audio adaptation of the Daily 202 newsletter produced specifically for smart speakers.

(Fun fact: those podcast and smart speaker experiences aren’t the Washington Post’s first experiments in audio. In the mid-2000s, the news organization once collaborated with Bonneville International to launch Washington Post Radio, a network of news radio stations covering the DC area. The venture, which was then touted as “NPR on Caffeine,” was short-lived, but it did briefly house The Tony Kornheiser Show. You know what, if I were the Post, I’d try it again.)

So, the Post’s pursuit of a daily news podcast is a move I’d expect the organization to make. Certainly, it’s a bet worth taking, but it’s also worth remembering that a bet is a bet is a bet: there is the potential for high upside, and there is always a chance it could be a bust.

Last week saw two pieces that shed a ton of new light into life at both ends of the spectrum.

First, on Wednesday, the house of Vanity Fair dropped a Joe Pompeo special in the form of a brief profile on The Daily’s meteoric rise. If you’ve been reading this newsletter for a while, you probably know the broad historical details of the production already, but here are some data points that are new:

  • Audience. “The Daily was the most-downloaded new show on Apple Podcasts last year, with 5 million listeners a month at the latest count, more than 1 million of whom tune in every day.” Note that qualifier “new” — meaning that there are bigger shows on the platform in 2017, and they were all already established.
  • Revenue. “Chief Operating Officer Meredith Kopit Levien wouldn’t discuss how much money The Daily is making so far, but a sales proposal that I got my hands on for June sought $290,000-per-month to be part of the show’s monthly sponsorship rotation, which generally includes several advertisers. A person with knowledge of The Daily’s finances told me the show will book ad revenue in the low eight figures this year.” For what it’s worth, that’s waaay above I was conservatively estimating for the year.
  • Possible Expansions. “The Times, in fact, is already thinking about what a California Daily would look like, or a New York Daily, a Global Daily, and related products that focus on tech or culture, and so on.” Sam Dolnick, the Times’ assistant managing editor, also noted the possibility of future spin-offs in the vein of Caliphate, which has reportedly bagged over 18 million downloads to date. That limited series debuted in mid-April, ran across ten chapters, and wrapped mid-June.

So that’s what you stand to gain. Now, inverse to Pompeo’s glowing look at The Daily is the Lenfest Institute’s solid post-mortem on the death of Season Ticket, WBUR and the Boston Globe’s daily sports podcast, which simply never returned after wrapping its pilot season in early February. (I previously wrote about the production when it first launched last Fall.) Written by Joseph Lichterman, it’s a fascinating breakdown that’s well worth the read both as a look into how a daily podcast can fail as well as a lesson in how, sometimes, you just have to know when to call it quits.

Some findings from the write-up that stood out to me, and some things it made me think about:

  • WBUR and the Globe cancelled Season Ticket for a simple reason: the podcast never hit the listenership goal it set out for itself. WBUR’s Iris Adler told Lichterman they had identified that the podcast needed to hit more than 1 million downloads per months to be considered sustainable. While actual numbers were not disclosed, the audience was described to be “not huge.”
  • The most notable difference between Season Ticket and comparable productions: the size and operational focus of the team. According to the Lenfest write-up, the podcast was produced by three WBUR staffers, with The Globe’s Christopher Gasper and Scott Thurston working on the show in addition to many other responsibilities. In contrast, most of WBUR’s daily radio shows are staffed by six to twelve people, and as Lichterman also pointed out, The Daily‘s has eight full-time staffers working on the podcast. It’s also worth pointing out that The Daily is host Michael Barbaro’s full-time responsibility.
  • One thing that wasn’t really discussed in the write-up that’s pretty important: the marketing plan. This isn’t limited to the budget — interestingly enough, one thing I’ve consistently found in podcast-land is that everybody seems to think that everybody else has a bigger marketing budget than them  — but rather, it’s more about the plan to get the word out on the show that goes beyond promotion on the Apple Podcast carousel. I imagine that’s a huge differentiator for the momentum of shows like The Daily and Vox’s Today Explained.
  • Finally, there’s the matter of the product itself. Season Ticket was developed to be “a more thoughtful alternative to Boston’s hot take-driven sports talk radio stations.” Part of the theory behind the show’s lack of traction seem tethered to its nature as a local podcast. “By definition, if it’s a local podcast you’re going to have a smallish audience,” Adler told Lichterman. I totally get the argument, but I’m personally not convinced that’s true… yet. Especially when it’s a piece of sports media. But that’s for another column.

Let’s back-track a bit: why am we comparing a daily news podcast to a daily sports podcast? Is it appropriate to analytically connect the two things? Obviously, I’m going to argue yes, because I believe that the core challenge of the daily news podcast doesn’t lie in the fact that it’s news, it lies in the fact that it’s daily. Besides, both sides perform many of the same functions: delivering information, supplying analysis, sustaining attention, providing an experiential space to digest the material, and so on. (Then again, you could also argue that there has been a lot of not-so-great learnings that have flowed between the two sides. One need only look towards the talking head similarities between First Take and certain CNN segments to get a feel for this.)

Anyway, back to the point. What, exactly, should the Washington Post keep in mind when moving forward with its daily news podcast adventures? Some of this we’ve already discussed: make sure the team is adequately staffed and purely focused on the task, be sure to market, and know when to call it quits, should it come to that. But I also think that there is another crucial dimension to consider: what hasn’t been done that needs to be done already?

***

So there’s this moment from a This American Life episode back in mid-June, called “It’s My Party and I’ll Try If I Want To,” that I find myself coming back to over and over again. If you haven’t listened to it, here’s the context: a good chunk of the episode follows this one contender for the Democratic nomination to go after the 19th congressional district in New York, which is said to be up for grabs in the midterms. The contender’s name is Jeff Beals, and he’s a Bernie Sanders-style progressive who is portrayed to be largely under-supported by the party infrastructure. But no matter, because at one point in the story, Beals starts to get some momentum. And that’s when he drops this bit of personal philosophy: “You realize that a campaign is not a thing you run. It’s a thing you unleash.”

Now, Beals didn’t end up winning the nomination during the late June primaries. But just because you failed doesn’t mean you’re wrong. More to the point, just because Beals didn’t win the primaries doesn’t render the framework he brought into the campaign any less true. (See also: Billy Beane in Moneyball).

This is the point of the column where I make an absurd leap to connect two seemingly disparate dots. Much of the issue with… oh, I don’t know, establishment party politics, I suppose, is the fact that it has the tendency to serve its ostensible target audience the same things over and over again, even if it’s literally a different candidate altogether. There’s a lot of “This Is What We Stand For” that’s broadly consistent with ideas and arguments from the past, albeit with some incremental iterations over time, and there’s relatively little “Wait, You’ve Heard This Already?” or “Well What Do You Want?” happening.

I feel similarly about a lot of new news products, from new publications to new newsletters to, of course, new podcasts. And there’s just this prevailing, unshakeable feeling that everybody’s drilling for oil in the same spot because some other guy found oil there already. On several occasions over the past year, upon hearing news or a rumor of a daily news podcast in the works by a new team, my near-inevitable response has been: “Haven’t we done this already?”

When considering the prospect of assembling a new contribution to the growing daily news podcast genre, you essentially have two initial moves: (1) you build something that directly competes with Up First or The Daily at the level of being the new “front page” of the day — in which case, you better bring it — or (b) you capitalize on some under-exploited edge. Or to put it another way: you identify and pursue a pocket of pent-up demand that has yet to be, in Beals’ terms, “unleashed.”

There are many directions to take when considering edges. For example, you could think of them in terms of subject matter, like how there has been a steadily growing cohort of daily finance and business news podcasts, which includes Axios’ Pro Rata, MarketSnacks, and The Indicator from Planet Money. The interesting thing about this spread here is how each show seems oriented towards a different audience segment within the spectrum of financial expertise: professionals, casual audiences, and somewhere in-between. There is a ton of room there to horizontally move between industries and vertically between assumed level of listener expertise.

But there is, I think, still quite a bit of frontier left to explore in terms of time. There is a small segment of the daily news podcast universe that’s testing the opportunities and limits of “day-parting”: a concept carried-over from broadcast radio that understands audiences to have different needs and consumption preferences at different times of the day. I think it’s fair to say that  the bulk of daily news podcasts seem particularly oriented towards the morning commute, with drop times centered around the early morning on the east coast so that listeners are able to wake up to a freshly baked pod waiting for them in their feeds before they jump into their car or submit to the New York subway system. Vox’s Today, Explained and Techmeme Ride Home are both explicitly designed to target the evening commute.

But even the targeting of different commutes still seems, in various ways, an imprecise handling of two very real challenges that compound one another: the fact that an episode’s newsy material can be rendered irrelevant shortly after publication, and the fact different time zones are subject to different relationships with temporal perspective of the episode: I’ve spent the past month or so living on the West Coast, and I’ve generally come to accept that my daily news dispatches will be somewhat stale by the time I listen to them. It’s simply… a different experience compared to my listening experience on the east coast.

That The Daily is considering a California edition — a geographic avenue, in a reflection of its newsletter strategy — is an intriguing one, but the trickiness lies in the multiplication of labor and the potential splitting of audiences. Take a few steps back, and one begins to see a harrowing conundrum: do you increase the quantity of the product output to better meet specific needs, or do you turn inwards, leaning into the evergreen, and betting harder on the power of the host’s appeal? In a way, it’s a first-world problem for The Daily. Then again, it’s also a potential opportunity for a budding competitor.