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Will podcast playlists elevate the microcast?

While digging through my Spotify profile this past weekend, I came across an intriguing discovery: Gimlet had been republishing five- to seven-minute excerpts of its podcast Science Vs as new, standalone episodes, made specifically to fit into the algorithmic playlist Your Daily Drive on Spotify. These shorter episodes are set aside as an entirely different show on the platform titled Shots of Science Vs, with the caption “Science Vs for Your Daily Drive.”

It was an intriguing move — one that, I think, may well be an indication of where a certain kind of podcasting could go.

Spotify officially launched Your Daily Drive back in June. For the uninitiated, the feature is a hybrid music-slash-podcast playlist designed to be consumed within the context of a commute. And more importantly, it’s meant to be algorithmically personalized for each individual user. The flow of a standard Daily Drive playlist typically consists of one brief podcast episode lasting around five minutes on average, followed by four musical tracks, then that same sequence repeated six times with different episodes and songs. Featured podcasts range from news updates from NPR, the New York Times and the BBC to evergreen true-crime, science and culture stories.

The Swedish audio platform had been experimenting with weaving music and other forms of audio into a single playlist since 2016, the year the company launched the music-centric hybrid playlist franchises AM/PM and Secret Genius. Both of those playlists alternated contextual, podcast-esque commentary from artists and songwriters with tracks that they wrote, performed and/or curated.

AM/PM stopped production in 2017, and Secret Genius hasn’t updated its podcast since November 2018 (likely in part due to ongoing legal conflicts with songwriters and publishers). But the hybrid music/podcast playlist lives on through channels like Your Daily Drive, and more recently, through the more open podcast playlist creation tool that Spotify announced in September 2019, which allows any user to curate songs and podcasts side-by-side. The feature isn’t even a month old yet, but we’re already seeing audio and music production companies modifying their output to fit podcast playlists.

Science Vs presents an illustrative case study. On average, original episodes of Science Vs tend to last between 20 to 40 minutes each. That’s arguably too long in the context of a playlist, especially one like Your Daily Drive, where users expect tracks to flow quickly and smoothly from one to the next, given the limited amount of time they have to listen.

So what does Gimlet, nowadays organized under the Spotify Studios label, do? They cut out and feed the most interesting soundbites from its shows into Your Daily Drive, rather than entire episodes, for a more music-like user experience. The original length of the episode “Heartbreak: Why does it hurt so bad?” is around 17 minutes, but the version fed into the algorithmic playlist lasts under 6 minutes.

Podcast studios making their episodes shorter for podcast playlists is reminiscent of record labels releasing truncated “radio edits” of songs to make them more suitable for FM airplay. In fact, it’s nothing new that media & entertainment companies will mold their output to fit the technological formats of the time. The podcast playlist format in particular will likely institutionalize the “microcast” — i.e. an episode lasting around five minutes or less — as a mainstream entertainment format, not to mention a production requirement for studios.

While microcasts have been around just as long as the podcast format itself, one could argue that it hasn’t taken off much in the podcast industry. Interestingly, before Spotify-owned Anchor became a full-fledged platform for creating, distributing and monetizing podcasts, the first version of its app specialized in micro-podcasting, whereby users could post and curate audio snippets lasting up to a few minutes long in a social, Snapchat Stories-style feed. But longer-form podcasts like Serial, Freakonomics Radio, and The Joe Rogan Experience remain the dominant construct for podcasting.

Microcasts could well be a necessity, however, for capturing and retaining attention in the context of a playlist with dozens of other tracks. And in fact, speaking of labels and radio edits, you could say that some of the more proactive proponents of microcasts today come from the music industry.

Last Thursday, Lars Murray — partner at audio podcast production company PopCult Worldwide and former SVP of strategic partnerships at Pandora — penned an op-ed for Variety titled “What is A Microcast, and Why Do You Need One?” For the past several months, Murray has been working with the musician K.Flay and Interscope Records on a weekly microcast titled What Am I Doing Here?, consisting of roughly 10-minute episodes recorded by the artist wherever she happens to be in the moment.

What’s particularly interesting about this show is that it’s built for smart speakers. “Every Wednesday, there is a new release exclusively on Alexa and Google Home,” describes Murray. “Viewers say ‘Open K.Flay show’ and hear K.Flay talk to them each week. It’s available on YouTube a week later, and we will be releasing the series as a conventional podcast later this year.” For Murray, investing in microcasts is a highly practical matter: as more people listen to music regularly on smart speakers and voice-enabled devices, artists need to think about how they can engage with fans in a way that’s low-friction and doesn’t rely on screens.

Some execs at record labels are also thinking more about how to use microcasts to tell interesting stories that cater specifically to artists’ superfan audiences, especially looking beyond boilerplate promotional fodder.

“In the context of a podcast playlist, the episodes don’t just have to be interviews with the artists,” Tom Mullen, VP of marketing catalog at Atlantic Records, tells me. “You could also interweave a custom, scripted storyline featuring fictional or nonfictional characters throughout the songs. Those are like the spoken interludes you already hear in a lot of albums.” (For examples of such interludes and skits in action, check out Sylvan LaCue’s Apologies in Advance, YBN Cordae’s The Lost Boy, or Kanye West’s The College Dropout.)

This use possibility of microcasting in podcast playlists gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “concept album,” and could potentially give artists the creative freedom to flesh out the storylines in their songs without disrupting the flow of their original, musical project. Indeed, Spotify has already been experimenting with a version of this approach in one-off, multimedia playlist campaigns, including “enhanced albums” (e.g. for Taylor Swift’s Lover and Post Malone’s Hollywood’s Bleeding) and branded playlist “experiences” (e.g. Billie Eilish Experience, The Beatles Abbey Road Experience and Ken Burns Country Music Experience) that combine audio and visual content into a single playlist. The podcast playlist capability democratizes that native storytelling capability to any artist with a microphone.

It remains to be seen whether internal teams at Spotify will be invested in creative cross-pollination of music and podcasts as much as external companies are. “The music and podcast teams don’t talk much to each other at Spotify and Apple Music,” Mullen claims. “It’ll be important to watch whether that will change now that podcast playlists are out there.” But the moves and histories of the music divisions in these companies offer their podcast counterparts a ton of value if the latter hopes to make a meaningful dent in the three billion user-generated playlists that already exist on Spotify — and the aforementioned experiments from the likes of Gimlet and Interscope Records have only scratched the surface of what’s possible.