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21

February 2017

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COMMENTS

Digging Deep on the CPB Story, Barstool Sports, Staff Changes at Slate Inbox x

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The Corporation for Public Broadcasting is now officially on a hit list of programs that the White House might eliminate, according to New York Times article that led the site over the weekend, effectively pushing what was previously speculation — originated by a report from The Hill last month, which claimed that the Trump administration was considering privatizing the CPB — into an unambiguous news development.

I’ve highlighted this story a few times before, and while this specific development seems arguably incremental, it is nonetheless incredibly important to track given the depth of its consequences. Plus, there’s been a bunch of writing and side-stories that have emerged on this topic, which gives us enough material to piece together a clearer picture of what’s happening, why it matters, and why it suuucks.

Now, it should be noted that the public broadcasting system in general — and the CPB in specific, which serves as a key funding layer for NPR, PBS, and various public broadcasting stations across the country — have been consistent targets of cuts and criticism by conservatives. Personally, I’ve always been unclear on the precise reason for this; based on my reading, it appears to be some amalgamation of perceived liberal bias — a characterization that seems to be uttered with increasing synonymity with accountability media — and misuse of taxpayer dollars, never mind the public benefit and the paltry sums of savings such an elimination would entail. (For reference, CPB appropriations in recent years are around $445 million annually. And for further reference, government spending isprojected to be $4 trillion this year.) This Currently Curious article from last November is a pretty good historical guide to the last time the GOP controlled the government, and overat Recode, friend of the newsletter Dan Frommer pointed out how Richard Nixon once proposed halving CPB funding in 1969 — a few years after the CPB was formed. Despite those threats, federal support for the system has never seriously been compromised, and it is in this historical fact that fuels the beliefs of some that this simply won’t happen. But, as I’ve pointed out before, this is very much in an anomalous political environment, one where nothing seems off the table whether it’s a travel ban, or a wall previously thought to be a symbolic piece of campaign bravado, or a defunding of a federally-supported public information system that improves the lives of millions.

If the elimination of federal support were to take place, the consequences for the public broadcasting system would be catastrophic. According to a CPB-commissioned study by Booz Allen, cited by Media Matters and Current’s reporting on the issue, “there is no substitute for federal support of public broadcasting, and that the loss of federal support would mean the end of public broadcasting.”

The defunding of public broadcasting will be an unpopular measure. A survey commissioned by PBS, which was reported by Current, found that the majority of American voters oppose the elimination of federal funding for public television. Specifically, 73% of those surveyed oppose the proposed measure — which breaks down to 83% of Democrats, 82% of independents, and 62% of Republicans — while 76% of respondents want funding levels to be maintained or increased. (The survey made no direct mentions of public radio, but I reckon the study serves as a reasonable proxy for the broader public broadcasting system. And for reference: the survey study was conducted by both Democratic and Republican polling teams.)

The Times report notes that the list of eliminated programs could still yet change, which means that the public broadcasting system still has a bit more time to continue its preparations for cuts and/or lobbying against it — which is something that they’ve already been doing.

This is probably the point of the article where I’m supposed to bring up an opposing, or contrarian, view on the matter. That perspective comes from the libertarian magazine Reason, where Jim Epstein, a former WNET producer, makes the survival-of-the-fittest argument: he argues that government funding actually hurts PBS and NPR, and that the elimination of federal support would shock the system out of its broadcast-oriented dependencies and incentives towards online distribution. Which, you know, is a view that I understand conceptually (even if it’s a little reductive and certainly overly Pollyanna-ish). But the evolution argument always strikes me as hollow and inhumane, as it never really fully reckons with and takes responsibility of the human cost of the resulting layoffs, the organizational complexity attached to structural transitions, and the simple fact that evolution necessarily yields losers — which is, like, totally fine if we’re talking about markets distributing doorknobs, but it’s one that totally sucks for markets distributing public goods like civic-oriented news, emergency signals, and supplementary forms of public education. Look, I’m as critical about the public broadcasting system for its predisposition for inertia and it’s many, many, many problems as much as the next guy, but I’d much rather see a transition to the future that takes place under conditions of strength and volition, not one under unnecessary duress and survival.

A weakened public broadcasting system is bad, bad, bad. It’s bad in ways you already know, and it’s bad in countless ways you don’t. A recent episode in West Virginia is illustrative of the latter category. When West Virginia Governor Jim Justice proposed eliminating state support for West Virginia Public Broadcasting — ostensibly to close a $500 million budget gap (cutting WVPB support would save $4.5 million), but maybe for a whole other reason that NPR’s David Folkenflik hinted at over Twittera statement published by Susan C. Hogan, chair of the Friends of West Virginia Public Broadcasting, and Ted Armbrecht, chair of the West Virginia Public Broadcasting Foundation, went over the various negative impacts of a debilitated WVPB, from the stuff you can probably guess, like the laying off of half their reporters and terminating a well-loved music program (long live Mountain Stage), to stuff you might not immediately consider, like how it compromises the operation of radio towers that facilitate the communication of first responders and how the loss of said music program would hurt tourism to the state. A loss in CPB support would incur the same effect for public broadcasting stations across the country, though the precise effects will vary based on their own specific configurations. Everyone will suffer in their own way, but everyone will suffer.

The West Virginia episode is also indicative of a whole other element to this story: it serves as an example of how the attacks on public broadcasting won’t just be coming from the White House; it can and will come from state leadership as well. The two developments are not unconnected — after all, the former sets the tone for the latter.

Yeah, sure, Epstein may well be right that pulling federal funding might lead to more efficient and innovative outcomes, but gains will be experienced unequally across all actors in the system — the bigger organizations in denser locations will likely thrive, while the smaller ones will likely not — but the system as a whole will almost certainly suffer. (See: the internet and local newspapers.) And it is the integrity of the system, not any individual actor, that is so much more important at the end of the day. (See: modern democracy.)

And lest I forget this is a newsletter about podcasts, I’ll say this: a weaker public radio system is a weaker podcast ecosystem. Regardless of your feelings about public radio unfairly dominating the podcast narrative — and it has been pretty unfair, I’ll admit — it absolutely cannot be denied that the public radio contingent has represented a strong, validating pillar of an industry that often looks and feels like a chaotic mess. The term “wild west” has often been thrown about to describe the podcasting landscape, and while it is usually deployed with positive intent, the reality is that the whole thing largely resembles a “vast wasteland,” to crib from Newt Minow’s description of television back in 1961. (Hat tip to Joseph Lichterman’s spectacular historical account on Carnegie Commission on Educational Television’s 1967 report, which laid the foundation for the public broadcasting system we enjoy today, over at Nieman Lab.)

For all the crap you can understandably give public radio, it has undoubtedly done a lot to increase the medium’s profile (increasing its appeal for both brand advertisers and audiences of all stripes), produce some great shows, and give us some truly great talent (all hail Anna Sale). I, for one, hope the system survives however this plays out.

Anyway, here’s Mr. Rogers.

Okay, that went way too long. On to the news.

iHeartRadio continues to burrow into the podcast space, signing a partnership with AudioBoom that will further expand the streaming audio company’s content catalog. This follows several podcast-related partnerships that iHeartradio has announced in recent months, including LibSyn, Art19, and NPR member stations.

As a reminder, the value proposition that iHeartRadio provides these podcast platform companies is theoretical access to the service’s reportedly large user base. iHeartRadio apparently has over 95 million registered users, but two caveats apply: (1) the exact number of monthly active users — the key metric — is still unclear, and (2) it remains to be seen whether partner podcasts can meaningfully benefit from the iHeartRadio user base. As any public radio member station that has attempted to convert broadcast listeners to podcast listeners can tell you (see the Knight Foundation’s recent podcast report, Point 1), conversion aspirations aren’t all that straightforward.

Related. Audioboom also announced a branded content partnership with SpikeTV to produce a discussion podcast companion for the latter’s upcoming six-part true crime series, “Time: The Kalief Browder Story.”

What’s up with Barstool Sports? I’ve previously not paid much attention to the company — which now sports several podcasts peppering the iTunes charts — and, frankly, I don’t know very much about it beyond the headlines off the trades: its 2016 acquisition by the Chernin Group, its aggressively male character, its largely sports-oriented content focus,its various controversies of the misogynist variety. I thought last week’s Digiday Podcast, which featured an interview with the company’s CEO Erika Nardini, serves as a helpful primer, and if you’re curious and confused about them as I was, do check it out.

Anyway, a press release hit my inbox last week that touted the company as “dominating” the podcast game, making the argument by listing the iTunes chart positions currently occupied by the company’s various podcasts. When asked, the marketing firm that distributed the release claims that the network enjoys 22 million downloads a month across all shows (by my count, it has 18 in the market at the moment).

The number strikes me as conspicuously high, and I’ve requested for more specific details on both downloads and the context of those numbers. (I haven’t heard back yet.) At the moment, it’s not immediately clear where the network hosts its shows — and therefore, how it counts its downloads — and whether it abides by the measurement standardization practices increasingly being adopted by the rest of the industry. For reference: if the numbers are precise and appropriate for actual apple-to-apple comparisons, that would mean the network effectively stacks up against HowStuffWorks, WNYC Studios, and This American Life/Serial as measured by Podtrac, which doesn’t measure the Barstool Sports group of podcasts.

Is that plausible? Sure. Is that the case? Let’s find out. I’ll let you know when I hear back.

Fusion is set to debut its first narrative show next month, Digiday reports. The show, “Containers,” will be hosted by editor-at-large Alexis Madrigal, and it will utilize an Oakland seaport as a prism through which various key issues like crime and immigration will be discussed. In other words, it’s The Wire Season 2, but for non-fiction storytelling podcasts.

Note the mention of Panoply in the article, which is described to have “won out against a field of competitors for Fusion’s business.” I wonder who else was bidding?

Anyway, as the report establishes, “Containers” will be the Fusion Media Group’s first stab at a podcast that goes beyond the conversational gabfest-format that make up its current audio offerings, all of which emerge from the recently acquired Gizmodo Media Group (née Gawker). Interestingly enough, the group had dabbled with story-driven, narrative podcasts before: back in the Gawker era, Gizmodo once distributed “Meanwhile in the Future,” the original iteration of “Flash Forward,” which creator Rose Eveleth now operates independently.

Slate names June Thomas as new managing producer of podcasts, as Thomas announced on social media last week. She is a long-time member of the Slate family, serving as a culture critic for the site and the editor of Outward, its LGBTQ section, and a regular across the Slate podcast universe: she’s a host on Slate’s Double X podcast with Hannah Rosin and Noreen Malone, and a frequent guest on the Slate Culture Gabfest.

The announcement came a few days after news of Slate laying off staffers broke last week. And a bit more detail on that front: according to this pretty brutal CJR article, among those let go was Mike Vuolo, a senior producer with the company and WNYC alum who also, up until last summer, co-hosted the network’s language podcast, Lexicon Valley, with On The Media’s Bob Garfield.

Thomas starts her new role on February 27.

Gimlet loses a producer to the New York Times: Larissa Anderson, who served as a senior producer on Undone, will now work on developing and running narrative podcasts at the Gray Lady. Her title there is “editor and senior audio producer.” And in case you’re tracing the timeline: Gimlet announced that it wasn’t renewing Undone for a second season in mid-January.

Podcast events at SXSW 2017. Is SXSW still cool? I’ll leave that question up to someone more hip than myself, but I just wanted to note that there are a bunch of pod-related sessions scheduled for this year’s Austin festivities, for those interested.

They include:

Anyway, I’ll be moderating the one on advertising. Hit me up if you’re going to be there.

Signaling. One of the more technical questions that’s interesting (to me, anyway) coming out of the recent discussions over “fake news” — which is really a discussion about trust, credibility, and the decentralization of information and power — is one that distinctly strikes me as a problem of design: in the enterprise of cultivating trust, how do you convey positional context, whether an editorial piece has opinion-based elements baked-in or whether it’s meant to be journalistically or somewhere in-between, in a way that’s clear and efficient? (Provided that making such things clear is important to you, of course.)

It’s a hard enough question to answer on the web, print, television or within the endless stream of social media feeds, but it seems a lot trickier within the current culture surrounding audio content, given its primary value proposition of being a unique source of intimacy by way of authenticity.

The problem was raised very briefly at a Yale event last week that featured Scott Blumenthal, the deputy editor at the New York Times’ Interactive News Desk. (One of the benefits of living in New Haven, a university city: access to free student events — and free snacks!) An attendee had brought up The Daily, the Times’ recently launched daily morning news audio brief, and raised concerns over whether the podcast’s breezy conversational nature runs the risk of coming off as editorializing. I don’t personally share this interpretation of the brief, but I can definitely see the concern: host Michael Barbaro is certainly chatty, and I suppose we somewhat find ourselves now living in a cultural environment that increasingly views personality as a direct function of ideology. (Maybe that’s always been the case, and it’s only being recognized as a problem now.)

So, how do you convey your context? I’ll be thinking this through for a while, and I’ve been recalling some approaches to this problem that I’ve seen in the past. Sometimes it’s through the use of an explicit disclaimer delivered through scripting; an example of this can be found in “With Her,” that Hillary Clinton podcast, in which host Max Linsky deliberately establishes the fact he isn’t operating as a journalist — thus contextualizing the show as, essentially, a piece of political advertising. Sometimes it’s done purely through the scripting and tone of the show; Slate’s The Gist is a good example of a news-oriented podcast that largely exists as an op-ed column, while the oft-criticized “public radio voice” pervading public media newscasts are constantly described as a tool to cultivate a sense of journalistic neutrality. And sometimes it’s just a matter of being clear and unified with the branding, as with the conservative Ricochet podcasts. All these approaches are difficult to execute in and of themselves, but I imagine it’s exponentially more difficult to convey differences in context within individual episodes — say, when you switch from a reported segment to an opinion segment.

This problem seems to disproportionately trouble journalistic podcasts above all, which makes sense, as those shows are the ones under the greatest scrutiny and possess the highest burden of responsibility. And it seems to me that the problem most vibrantly expresses itself when straight-news programs seek to derive the benefits of “authenticity” and “intimacy” associated with the on-demand audio medium that more personality-driven programs seem to enjoy without much cost. Then again, I imagine the latter experiences similar difficulties if it aspires to benefit from emulating the former.

I’m curious to hear what y’all think. Hit me up.

Anyway, before I forget: The Daily is so, so good, and so smart in its use of music, tone, and its short length.

Bites. 

  • Overcast, Marco Arment’s podcast app favored by the technology/podcast intelligentsia, releases a major update yesterday which includes design improvements — and the introduction of what can possibly be a visual ad network for podcasts. (Overcast)

  • Hmm. “Trump’s FCC chief wants it to be easier to listen to free FM radio on your smartphone.” (Recode)

  • Looks like Vice, true to form, is trying something weird: the “VICE Magazine Podcast,” which drops once a month. (Vice)

  • Spotify’s first original podcast has a trailer up: “Showstopper,” a show that looks back at important moments in television. It’s hosted by Fader editor-in-chief Naomi Zeichner.

Quick note: Reader Lee Rosevere is making a bunch of music intended for podcasters, and is conducting a survey to figure out what podcasters are looking for. Help Lee out, would’ya? Here’s the survey.

Tuesday

14

February 2017

0

COMMENTS

Missing Richard Simmons, Stitcher Premium, HowStuffWorks and AdsWizz

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“We’re working on new features for podcasts, stay tuned,” Eddy Cue, Apple’s SVP of Internet Software and Services, told Peter Kafka on stage at the Code Media conference last night. Kafka had pressed Cue on whether Apple would get more involved in podcasts — specifically, whether better analytics could be provided. (Thank goodness for Kafka.) Cue, as you would imagine, was reticent to provide more details. We’ll just have to see where this goes.

The discussion on podcasts was very short, and you can hear the rest of the interview when it gets posted on the Recode Replay feed sometime later this week.

Missing Richard Simmons. Here’s an audio documentary with a delicious hook: three years ago, Richard Simmons, the fitness guru who was super popular back in the ’80s (Sweatin’ To The Oldies!), suddenly and inexplicably withdrew from the public eye. The podcast follows Dan Taberski, a documentarian and TV producer who is a friend and former student of Simmons, as he tries to track down and figure out what happened to the man — and in the process, exploring Simmons’ place in the culture.

The podcast has a fair bit of firepower behind it. First Look Media is leading the project, with Adam Pincus, the company’s EVP of Programming and Content, and Leital Molad, who recently left WNYC to head up First Look’s podcast efforts, both holding executive producer credit. The company contracted Pineapple Street Media to produce the show — Max Linsky also serves as executive producer, Henry Molofsky as producer — while partnering with Midroll for sales and distribution.

(Does the executive producer credit mean anything? Not too much functionally-speaking at the moment, but one imagines it’s the kind of value signifier that will be increasingly useful as the industry continues to build bridges with adjacent media industries. In this case, that adjacency is film and television.)

Part of Midroll’s play here involves positioning Stitcher, which it acquired last summer, as an “exclusive launch partner.” What that means essentially amounts to a form of windowing: subscribers to Stitcher Premium will receive new episodes one week in advance. Wait, Stitcher Premium? Doesn’t Midroll have its own premium subscription service? We’ll get to that in a bit.

“Missing Richard Simmons” is First Look Media’s latest foray in what is now a substantial push into podcasting. Its portfolio includes the podcast version of the company’s flagship digital property, The Intercept, which rolled out last month; “Politically Re-Active”; and “Maeve in America.”

Interestingly, “Missing Richard Simmons” is First Look’s first audio project that isn’t handled by Panoply, which is involved in the company’s other three shows.

The podcast drops tomorrow.

A bit of meta-discourse. Frankly, the more I write about the podcast industry, the more I feel like I’m being compelled to mimic trade coverage styles from the television industry. You know, the stuff that makes up the backbone of Variety or The Hollywood Reporter; who’s working with who, who’s attached to what, scuttlebutt.

I suppose a lot of that has to do with some combination of the following two things: (1) the versatility of the medium that allows of different kinds of show constructions within the category — from weekly talk shows to seasonal serialized narratives — and (2) the weight of production politics that seems to be increasing as the industry continues to professionalize and mature.

Related. First Look also announced that Politically Re-Active, its politics show with W. Kamau Bell and Hari Kondabolu, will return for a second season sometime in the early spring. Maeve in America kicked off its second season today.

A Few Notes on Stitcher Premium. The feature quietly rolled out late last year, but I was late to the party, only spotting the “Premium” button on the Stitcher website sometime in mid-January. Todd Pringle, Stitcher’s General Manager and VP of Product, tells me that what we’re seeing is a soft-launch — not a “re-launch” of the service’s previous iteration, Stitcher Plus.

At this time, Stitcher Premium remains separate from Howl, that other premium subscription play under the Midroll banner which the organization been developing internally prior to its acquisition of Stitcher (awkward). Pringle notes that Howl subscribers can continue to use the platform’s web and mobile apps, and that the merge will come later. “We are planning a simple migration path that, over time, will transition Howl users over to the Stitcher Premium product,” he explained.

So, what’s the deal with Stitcher Premium? The “Netflix for Podcasts” tagline was once again evoked in the response sent to me — ahem, ahem — with ad-free exclusivity being the cornerstone of the strategy here: exclusive archives, exclusive sneak previews, and of course, exclusive original content, dubbed “Stitcher Originals.” (Who isn’t doing original material these days?)

Original projects include:

  • The “Seth Morris Radio Project,” which launched last week;

  • A show by comedian Jessie Kahnweiler called “Schmucks”;

  • A new show by the duo behind CBC’s Love Me, Cristal Duhaime and Mira Burt-Wintonick, called “Pen Pals”; and

  • The second season of “The Mysterious Secrets of Uncle Bertie’s Botanarium,” whose first season is currently being distributed over the open infrastructure.

Will this premium exclusive approach to the market pay off? My thinking on this remains the same as the first time I wrote about the model back in August 2015:

Midroll’s choice to play the premium subscription game — with content and a sizable amount of back catalogs placed behind the paywall — and the subsequent positioning of the product as the potential “Netflix for podcasts” exhibits a very specific hypothesis of podcasts as consumable media, one that posits podcasts will be valued by audiences enough where they would pay for it and that enough podcasts have back-catalogues that will be deemed “worth it.”

This is difficult enough to internalize in the present tense. Unlike Netflix and television/movies or Tidal and music, podcast audiences have little-to-no experience with paying for shows in the past, and the hurdle of convincing users to go from an entire experiential history of enduring host-read ads, which they can skip fairly easily, to paying for an ad-free experience is tremendous.

To state the obvious: the success of Stitcher Premium would almost purely come down to a question of programming; will the team be good enough at curating the right kind of paywalled library, and will it be savvy enough to build right incentives for certain creators to put their wares behind that paywall? And barring that, will the company figure out how to further increase the value of the premium service beyond just the content?

A Reply All episode is being adapted into a movie, according to the Hollywood Reporter. The episode in question is “Man of the People,” a shockingly relevant tale of a con-man who built an empire off fake medicine, populism, and radio dominance — and the man who works to take him down. The adaptation will be directed by Richard Linklater (my personal favorite director of all time), with Robert Downey Jr. in the starring role. Linklater and Downey will also serve as producers under their respective production banners, along with Susan Downey, Annapurna’s Megan Ellison, and Gimlet Media’s own PJ Vogt (who reported and hosted the episode), Tim Howard (who edited the episode), and Chris Giliberti (the company’s head of multi-platform).

This is Gimlet’s first announced film adaptation deal. The company currently has two TV adaptations in the pipeline: Startup (recently given a pilot order by ABC) and Homecoming (being developed by Mr. Robot’s Sam Esmail). Giliberti also holds producer credit with those two projects. With this third adaptation, I think it’s safe to say that Gimlet has officially built out a formal adaptation pipeline — a move that introduces a whole new revenue dimension and potential to its content backlog. You can read my previous analyses on the topic here, here, and here.

It is unclear if Vogt will make a cameo in the movie.

“Spotify has been talking to podcast producers about original shows,” according to a new report at Digiday. Those being approached include: Gimlet, HowStuffWorks, and Pineapple Street Media. The article cites “multiple people familiar with the discussions.” What’s unclear: how developed those discussions are, the substance of those plans, and how central original and non-music content currently are in Spotify’s machinations. (Though, recall that original video programming is apparently still a notable part of the company’s vision.)

Spotify has produced original audio programming before… in Germany. That podcast, featuring the talents of German comedians Jan Böhmermann and Olli Schulz, rolled out last May. (Here’s the press release, for all you German speakers in the crowd.)

Here’s another interesting bit from the Digiday write-up: “To date, podcasts have fit awkwardly into Spotify’s product… The number of users that have bothered to look them, thus far, is quite small. For most podcast producers, Spotify accounts for less than 5 percent of their total shows’ listens.”

Hmm. The article frames the development as a “big new front has opened up in the war for exclusive podcasts.” We’ll see, but at this point, I’m not inclined to read too much into it for all the hesitations I outlined earlier about podcasts and exclusivity. I mean, I see the upside for Spotify to hammer out these deals with bigger podcast shops, but I don’t see any upside for those shops other than pocketing upfront cash — which, as we saw with the now-ceased Facebook Live publisher deals, is good enough reason for some, so long as there are excess resources to commit.

HowStuffWorks partners with AdsWizz to make use of the latter’s dynamic advertising tech to expand its ad inventory and monetize its substantial content library. The partnership will apparently also grant the Atlanta-based infotainment podcast network with increased targeting and reporting capacities, according to the press release.

The move will probably lead to a significant revenue increase for HowStuffWorks, given its relatively evergreen structure. Jason Hoch, HowStuffWorks’ Chief Content Officer, tells me that listening across the network in any given week is evenly distributed between the head and the tail — that is, between the latest episode of a given show and the rest of that show’s catalogue.

To Hoch, this partnership with AdsWizz is more a matter of efficiency than it is about unlocking a whole new driver of the business. “The old method of stitching an ad placement directly into the same MP3 file as the episode makes no more sense than hard-coding a banner ad on your website,” he said. Hoch also notes that this doesn’t really change the dynamics of selling campaigns. “We don’t differentiate between new shows and those in our deep library. In 95% of cases, advertisers aren’t buying a specific episode of a show, they are buying that show and the passionate fan base of that show,” he explained.

Quick note on the tech. HowStuffWorks uses its own internal Amazon Web Services’ hosting infrastructure to house its shows, and that it remains the case after this partnership. “Rather than move our entire infrastructure elsewhere to make this happen, the AdsWizz software platform became technology that sat on top of what we already had,” Hoch said. “That’s pretty unique in the industry and was a good fit for our approach.”

Turner Broadcasting now has its own official podcast arm. The new division, called the “Turner Podcast Network,” is headed up by Tyler Moody, who serves as General Manager and VP for the network. Moody was previously the VP of CNN Newsource, the organization’s affiliate video service, and CNN Collection, its video archive library. While in those roles, Moody laid the foundation for CNN’s tentative foray into original podcast content, signing President Obama’s former chief strategist David Axelrod’s podcast “The Axe Files” in late 2015.

“We want to engage with fans of our shows and networks in the podcast space, and do it in a coordinated way across all of Turner,” Moody tells me. “Initially I’ll be ‘on the lookout’ for things internally, meeting with producers at our networks for show ideas and to assess our current capabilities to deliver high quality podcasts. Externally I’ll be looking at industry trends in terms of content, ad delivery, sponsorship models, and potential partnerships with other podcast producers.”

Atlanta, folks. It’s the next big podcast hub. And just as well! The city is, after all, a hub for just about everything else.

Here’s a model that other publishers can emulate: Yesterday, New York Magazine’s entertainment site Vulture rolled out “Good One: A Podcast About Jokes,” a limited-run podcast where comedians are brought on to deconstruct a joke in their repertoire. In other words: “Song Exploder, but for jokes.” Perhaps not unrelatedly, Song Exploder recently partnered with the site for a special run of episodes focusing on notable film scores from last year. That arrangement was timed for awards season, which culminates two weekends from now with the Academy Awards. “Good One” is hosted by Vulture senior editor Jesse David Fox. It kicked off yesterday, and will run weekly for ten episodes.

The podcast was described to me as an extension of the site’s experiments with topically-focused, one-off editorial projects — similar to the string of “pop-up” blogs that Vulture have executed in the past. A spokesperson directed me to a 2014 Poynter write-up of that strategy, which explained the internal process as follows:

The editorial team comes up with a series of topics they think would be a good fit for New York [Magazine], and the advertising staff tries to sell those concepts to advertisers. If the sales team finds a sponsor, the editorial side creates the blog and fleshes out plans for coverage.

“Basically, we have certain editorial projects across platforms that are pitched to advertisers for exclusive sponsorship,” that spokesperson told me. “The editorial is completely independent (though thematically aligned), but only gets created once a sponsor commits.” In this instance, that advertiser is HBO, which is peddling its latest comedy offering, Crashing.

The production of “Good One” is handled by Panoply, similar to NY Mag’s other podcast projects.

And speaking of Panoply, it looks like the network’s sister company, Slate, which also functions as one of the company’s core clients, announced layoffs yesterday. The Huffington Post with the details.

Documentaries, Queued Up. The Bay Area public radio station KQED is testing an intriguing model to distribute short-run, multi-part audio features: a single RSS feed that will serve as a home for serialized investigation projects produced by the station. The feed is framed as being its own weekly show called “Q’ed Up.”

The show kicked off operations last week with the debut of its first investigation, “American Suburb,” an eleven-part feature on gentrification in the Bay Area as told through the story of a single suburb 45 miles east of the Bay. (As a side note, I love titles with the “American” prefix. See: American Governor, American Pastoral, etc. Much gravitas.) At this writing, the station has at least two other features in the pipeline that will immediately follow American Suburb once it concludes, including an investigation into the growing number of homeless college students in the region and another that examines the story of a wrongly accused paroled man.

Holly Kernan, KQED’s VP of News, tells me that “Q’ed Up” emerged as a means to solve an anticipated problem. “[American Suburb] started out as a reporting project that ended up being this really rich documentary, and so we thought, okay, we want to turn this into an on-demand audio experience,” Kernan said. “But when you have a one-off podcast like this, it’s a problem when you don’t have anything else coming down the pipe once you put all this marketing effort into and build up an audience.”

She added: “So we thought, if we’re going to put all this effort into this beautiful production, why not give it an umbrella?”

Kernan aims to grow Q’ed Up to a point where it’s able to function as a break-even proposition for the station, but she’s also keen on ensuring that the show’s investigations will yield local impact. She notes that the primary intended audience for American Suburb are listeners who live in Antioch and the East Bay — areas covered in the story — and that the station has partnered with the San Francisco Foundation (which also serves as the show’s sponsor) to hold community events to discuss issues highlighted in the investigation.

“American Suburb” is reported by Sandhya Dirks and Devin Katayama. Julia McEvoy is editor.

Keep an eye on this: West Virginia Governor’s budget plan proposes to eliminate state funding for West Virginia Public Broadcasting. Tyler Falk at Current with the background, the Charleston Gazette-Mail with the details.

Audible seeks the Jad Abumrad bump. Checked out the Radiolab feed lately? The widely loved WNYC podcast published what was essentially a cross-promo for an Audible Original series, the Bernie Madoff documentary “Ponzi Supernova,” late last week. And it wasn’t an instance of a simple rebroadcast or a straightforward drop-in-the-RSS feed either: the episode was slightly remixed in the Radiolab style, with Abumrad leading segments intros and outros.

This isn’t the first time that Radiolab has published a remixed cross-promo of other another program. Just last month, the podcast ran a similarly repackaged version of the special On The Media series, “Busted, America’s Poverty Myths.” The show also gave the same treatment to its Supreme Court-focused spinoff, “More Perfect,” twice last year, though that’s completely understandable given the heritage. But it is, to my knowledge, the first time the show has provided exposure support to a show outside the WNYC system. That said, “Ponzi Supernova” isn’t a show that’s entirely outside the WNYC family — Ellen Horne, an executive producer at Audible who leads the show’s production, is a Radiolab alum.

It’s often been said within the industry that the most effective podcast marketing channel is other people’s podcasts. I guess that will apply to Audible as well.

Ponzi Supernova wrapped up its six-episode run on Audible earlier this month.

Bites. 

  • The New York Times is looking for a producer for a “New York Times Arts show” — that is, stuff like books, music, film, TV, theater. It’s unclear how this show, and this producer, will be related to the still-running first-gen Times pods Popcast and the Book Review. A fascinating job posting, but certainly not as interesting as news of the organization’s partnership with Spotify. Those youngs, they love the musics. (NYT Co)
  • Looks like Who? Weekly’s Bobby Finger has a new show: “Dirtcast,” which comes out of his day-job at Jezebel. (Jezebel)
  • “How Patreon became a major source of revenue for podcasters.” Some podcasters, at least. (Simon Owens)

By the way, I’m going to be a Knight Visiting Nieman Fellow later this year! I’m going to try developing a guide for newsrooms looking to create local podcast strategies that are audience-focused and financially-sustainable.

Tuesday

31

January 2017

0

COMMENTS

Knight Foundation Report, Gimlet Cancels Undone, NYT Daily News Pod

Written by , Posted in Hot Pod Weekly

The Knight Foundation has a new report out on podcasts, titled “From Airwaves to Earbuds: Lessons from Knight Investments in Digital Audio and Podcasting.” It was published last Thursday, and you can access it as a PDF or read it off Medium.

The report is the product of research done on the learnings gleaned from the various on-demand audio-related investments made by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation — of which there are quite a few. Indeed, the foundation is strikingly ubiquitous as a funder of the space through programmatic grant support, particularly among projects that lie at the nexus of public media and podcasts. Among its beneficiaries are: Gimlet Media, RadioPublic, Radiotopia, and NPR One (originally called Project Carbon).

“It was clear to us that podcasting was beginning to meaningfully gain traction as a way to provide audiences with informative audio content,”  said Sam Gills, the foundation’s VP of Learning and Impact, when we spoke over the phone this week. “I believe that one of the more important things private philanthropy can do is to give risk capital to innovative ventures… We felt that’s the best thing we can do to support the field, and we hope that a lot of what we’ve learned can be useful to others entering the space.”

While the report’s focus on the foundation’s investments renders its scope somewhat limited, the issues that it ends up exploring is nonetheless pretty wide — and fairly comprehensive, I’d argue, as far as the key narratives of the space are concerned.

Longtime Hot Pod readers probably won’t be surprised by much of its findings. Among the salient issues discussed: diversity (still challenged), talent (the brain drain is real), finances (podcasting still doesn’t pay the bills for most independents and freelancers), technological infrastructure (still undercooked), data (still a mish-mash), and of course, talk of a podcasting bubble (yes and no, a respondent notes). But there are some genuine gems to be found in the details — a close read reveals mention of what appears to be WNYC’s mobile podcast discovery play, called Discover (which I’m told was quietly launched on the station’s website two months ago, and they’re laying low for now), among others.

I asked Gill if he was surprised by anything contained in the research. He pointed out two things: (1) the extent to which broadcast publishers seem to genuinely embrace podcasting as a “green field for experimentation,” and perhaps more notably, (2) how self-conscious the industry seems to be in terms of how much more work needs to be done to improve the space overall. To Gill, that self-consciousness is productive.

“There’s no clear way to run a podcast business [at this point in time],” Gill said. “So what we’re seeing is a moment where everyone is very open, and which creates incentives to get really creative.”

For what it’s worth, I think I agree with that.

Art19 strikes up a distribution partnership with iHeartRadio. The partnership will give shows hosted on the Art19 the opportunity to be distributed through the broader iHeartRadio infrastructure, which includes apps for mobile devices, connected car dashboards, and various digital media players. This marks iHeartRadio’s second partnership with a podcast hosting platform in recent months. In July, a similar arrangement was announced between the internet radio company and Libsyn.

It should be noted that shows won’t automatically appear on iHeartRadio’s by virtue of simply being hosted on Art19. They must opt-in for inclusion, the same way shows have to submit their feeds to iTunes to get listed. “I would, however, stress that iHeart is not re-hosting ART19 podcasts nor are they running any audio ads in or around them,” Art19 CEO Sean Carr asserted over email last week. “Essentially, iHeart is operating just like any other podcatcher, except they are shipping much better data to us.”

Of course, the question we should be asking about iHeartRadio isn’t really about the data its players are able to give podcast companies, but about the amount of listenership it’s able to give publishers. iHeartRadio reportedly has over 95 million registered users, though it’s always worth noting that the number of monthly active users — the key metric — remains unclear. Furthermore, it should be remembered that iHeartRadio’s business is largely driven through live-streams, the digital adaptation of the broadcast experience, which leads me to wonder about how much on-demand listening is actually happening off the iHeartRadio infrastructure, and as such the actual value of this partnership. Sure, the iHeartRadio-Libsyn press release back in July noted that podcast listening on the former platform has grown 58% in the past year, but percentages are tricky things without the base number. (A source tells me that “a sizable amount” of iHeartRadio users are listening to podcasts, but that’s not much to go on, even if that’s true.)

Whatever podcast listening may be happening on the platform, iHeartRadio nonetheless continues its steady creep towards the medium. This news comes after the company hired its first SVP for Podcasting back in November (Chris Peterson, formerly a content partnership manager at TuneIn), which is a sign of things to come — and perhaps a new era where iHeartRadio is taking the format seriously with a clear strategy intact. It also comes after a couple of experiments with the format, including a peculiar branded podcast partnership with the co-working space company WeWork. All of this really begs the question: what’s happening here?

Carr offers a clue. When we traded emails last week over this story, he noted: “Their aim is to become a premiere destination for podcast listening, and they want to be both publisher friendly and take a leadership role in propelling the industry forward.”

Don’t we all.

Three more things, quickly:

  • Art19 is a member of Syndicated Media’s partner program. (For more info on that, check out this column.)

  • I asked Carr if he thinks these partnerships with iHeartRadio — which, in my mind, adheres to the likely convergence between on-demand audio and the larger digital audio universe — might ultimately change the value proposition and economics of the podcast industry. “We certainly hope so,” he replied. “In my mind, it’s a simple equation. Better data will increase agency dollars flowing into the space. That will support the creation of more quality content, and that is great for consumers.”

  • I imagine we’re going to see a lot more partnerships like this, from Art19 and competitors like Megaphone and Libsyn, in the very near future.

WNYC announces the third edition of its annual women in podcasting festival, “Werk It.” This year’s festivities will take place at the Ace Hotel in Los Angeles on October 3-5. In addition to standard sessions, the festival will feature a one-day “Podcast Bootcamp” intensive for entry-level or early-career audio producers. The list of presenters include: Anna Sale, of WNYC’s Death, Sex, and Money; Jennifer White, of WBEZ’s Making Oprah; Lisa Chow, of Gimlet’s Startup, and Jessica Williams and Phoebe Robinson, of WNYC’s 2 Dope Queens.

Early registration is now open on the event website, and folks interested in pitching a session can do so here. I’m also told that there will be scholarships available.

Gimlet cancels Undone. The podcast revisiting major news events of the past, which was hosted by Radiolab alum Pat Walters, ran for seven episodes across its first and only season. Gimlet confirms that Walters will continue on with the company as an editor, working on both current and upcoming projects. No official word on what will happen to the show’s other two producers, Julia DeWitt (a Snap Judgment alum) and Emanuele Berry, but I presume they will be reallocated within the company as well.

This is the third time that Gimlet has pulled the plug on a project that’s been out in the open. The first, as you might remember, was Starlee Kine’s Mystery Show, which took place under fairly chaotic circumstances and triggered an outcry that risked the company’s scrappy and transparent image, and the second is Sampler, which was cancelled in October. As for the reason, here’s the key section from Gimlet’s official statement on Undone’s cancellation:

Undone was performing well, but the show requires a very particular kind of editorial support, and as we got into the first season, it became clear that as of right now, we don’t have everything we need for it to keep growing and experimenting and finding its way. Gimlet is a start-up. Some things we try are going to continue on for a long time. And some things won’t.

When I followed up, asking if the decision was less about the show itself and more about the current state of the company, a spokesperson replied:

Actually, the decision was more so centered around the talent squeeze we’re seeing in the industry overall. Hiring the particular editorial staff we needed to meet the vision for Undone was tough in this market. Right now, there is a shortage of seasoned audio editors with deep experience making complex narrative stories. By not being able to provide the required editorial support, we were unable to continue the show in a sustainable way.

The explanation here is somewhat resonant with what I’ve been increasingly hearing from other companies and teams: that there is shortage of seasoned talent in general and of seasoned editors in specific. The editor shortage has long been a topic of concern in this newsletter; long-time readers might recall the Poynter column last summer written by NPR editorial specialist (and former Nieman fellow) Alison MacAdam warning of an editor crisis, and the subsequent interview I ran with MacAdam. This problem seems to have only grown more salient over time — my inbox is often filled with requests for talent referrals, and I imagine that the public radio-to-private podcasting brain drain can only go on for so long before the public media pool runs out of bodies.

The need for talent, I think, marks one of the more significant differences between audio and every other medium as they pertain to digital enablement: one could argue that other digital mediums have principally exploded due to those mediums being able to derive strong metric outcomes from relatively low resource investments (which is to say, cheap talent). One could further posit that the quality barrier for acceptable consumption within on-demand audio is high — relative to web text, broadcast radio, digital video — which means that experience and talent are uniquely crucial to moving the needle for any given podcast operation and for the industry as a whole. A lack of experienced talent or even a clustering of them, then, is detrimental to the health of the ecosystem overall.

Anyway, this is all not to say Undone’s fate is purely the product of conditions external to itself. After all, if the show was hitting its marks, it would be a dumb idea to shut it down even with a shortage of editorial talent. Podcast measurements being what they are, it’s hard to precisely tell how well the show performed, but the fact that it didn’t quite traffick in the upper echelons of the iTunes charts as consistently as its cohort peers, Homecoming and Crimetown, is notable. And frankly, even though I enjoyed a good deal of the episodes, I did think the show’s lack of market differentiation was its defining issue. Its premise — revisiting news stories of the past — is a remarkably common conceit deployed among public radio podcasts, whether explicit (like NPR’s Embedded) or otherwise (how many times has that premise driven an episode on Radiolab and This American Life?), and one gets the sense that any of those stories told on Undone could very well be at home in a number of other shows. Stuff like that, I think, really matters, especially as the podcast ecosystem becomes more saturated with new entrants.

On the bright side, from the looks of the Undone Facebook page, the company seems to be managing the cancellation more effectively than the last time.

In other news, ABC has given a pilot order to the TV adaptation of Gimlet’s Startup, according to Deadline. Not huge, but a positive step forward for the project. (For more information about that, check out this Hot Pod from back in September.)

The New York Times set to debut the new Michael Barbaro show tomorrow. Barbaro was previously the host of the organization’s election podcast, The Run Up, in his capacity as a political reporter for the paper. He moved to the audio team full-time in December. As I suspected when the Times first hired former All Things Considered supervising producer Theo Balcomb, this new project will indeed be a daily news show, described to be functionally analogous to morning email briefings. Episodes are described to be 15 to 20 minutes long a piece, each covering 2 to 4 segments. They will drop into feeds at 6am ET on the weekdays. And of course, it will also be distributed over Alexa and Google Home.

The show will be called The Daily, and BMW will serve as the launch sponsor.

There’s also a text message component to the project, where Barbaro will keep subscribers in the news loop via SMS throughout the day. It sounds, uh, pretty intimate, but I suppose you could consider it an example of push notification plus. (“To text with Michael,” the press release wrote, “listeners can sign up here.”)

My buddies over at Nieman Lab have a piece up that gives good background on the project, including the organization’s previous attempt at daily news pod — way back in 2006! — and a good overview of the very thin spread of existing daily news-related pods. Anyway, I’m excited to see how it shapes up, but here are three design questions I’m keeping in mind:

  • How will the show buck or appropriate the conventions of radio shows that trade in daily news? Will it evoke a similar feel to All Things Considered, or will it attempt to consciously challenge that format? And will such attempts to challenge be distracting?

  • How the show handles pacing, given its brief 15-20 minute structure, will be interesting to watch. How will show convey momentum, and how will it balance between moving through stories and pausing for moments?

  • What will the show’s take on the anchor be? That is, how important is Barbaro’s personality to the hosting apparatus, and what is the emotional baseline that the show will try to convey?

I guess I’m also curious about The Daily’s target demo. As Nieman Lab’s tweet on the matter suggested, could this be a swipe at potential public radio audiences? I put the question to the Times, and got a reply from Balcomb that sounds a lot like Matthew McConaughey from those car commercials:

We know there is a giant audience for this show. It’s for anyone who wants to understand the news of the day. For me, I’m making this show for the enthusiastic, news-hungry person who wants to know what’s going on in the world but doesn’t have a way in right now. Because the news isn’t where they want, when they want it.

Listeners will come to rely on this show. It’s the length you want and can handle every morning. And it’s conversational — real people talking to each other as they actually talk — while still featuring the best journalists in the world. This is for people on the go, people who live on their phones. This is for people who want to engage with reporters who actually break stories and live their beats.

Oookay.

True crime pods continues to flourish, even at a small station. Current has a handy profile up of Suspect Convictions, a show developed out of a partnership between independent journalist Scott Reeder and northwestern Illinois-based station WVIK, which covers the Quad Cities. The podcast has reportedly clocked in over 600,000 downloads since launching at the beginning of January, and has been hovering pretty consistently in the upper echelon of the iTunes charts.

Two bits that stood out to me from the article:

  • The station isn’t expecting tons of revenue from the show, according to the station’s general manager, Jay Pearce. “Under the station’s agreement with Reeder, it only has rights to sell local sponsorships for the show.” Fascinating.

  • Pearce “intends to look for other partners in the community to create additional podcasts, especially on local subjects that could interest listeners outside of Northwest Illinois.”

Do check out the whole article.

After the Trump administration’s chaotic first week, I’m reupping my column from last summer: “Can a political podcast avoid being overtaken by events?” At the time, I was trying to think through the bananas 2016 election cycle, which seemed to churn out controversies in a brisk, staccato clip. Those days seem quaint now, as the sheer abundance of the Trump presidency’s first ten days — with its rapid-fire signings of executive orders and ever-expanding number of complex issues involved — further accentuates the core weaknesses of the way political coverage is currently delivered through the podcast format. Back then, I was specifically referring to podcasts that adopt the weekly recap discussion format, but at this point, it really does feel applicable to just about everything else.

I wrote: “With every episode, the discussion produces a model for the listener that helps guide their reading of the news, and like all models, they are forced into iteration by every future development. As a result, the discussion in those episodes — frozen as they are in time — exist with built-in half-lives; their value erodes, organically, as more new things happen.”

At the rate this administration is going, weekly political podcast episodes have a remarkably high chance of being rendered irrelevant even before they hit feeds. Further compounding the problem is the fact that, from the looks of it, the high-octane news environment is only going to worsen in volume and complexity over time — a state of affairs that would likely make it very difficult to communicate the news with appropriate proportionality, focus, and depth.

I’m tempted to think that deploying a cool and sober approach to presentation might be an appropriate way to solve this problem of issue abundance, but I’m not entirely sure about current conditions would necessarily allow for that. The recent years has seen an increasing rebellion against news presented by a voice of authority — presenting a view from nowhere — in favor of more personality-driven, supposedly human conversational styles. Within that latter paradigm, a cool and sober approach would be deficient. However, the problem that arises from this is that the tone and emotional performance becomes an incredibly important editorial variable to convey severity, synonymous with the size of a headline or the text of a chyron.

There is, in my mind, a surreal disconnect when that isn’t fully considered. That informational uncanny valley is pretty present in shows like, say, Pod Save America or the Washington Post’s Can He Do That?, where the political horrors being examined are considerably undercut by off-hand jokes or spritely uses of music. (I haven’t fully figured out where I come down on Pod Save America. It’s been nonetheless fascinating to observe, though; often feeling like it’s balancing talk radio pageantry with being on the verge of a nervous breakdown.)

I’m still working through this idea, but I’ll say one more thing: I can’t think of any show that handles tone in this news environment better than On The Media, whose recent string of episodes conjure an emotional space so sophisticated that it allows for both horror and process.

One more thing: I’m updating the public radio to private podcasting spreadsheet. It was explicitly cited in the Knight report, and I’ve gotten a few requests for an update. This baby hasn’t been edited since January 2016 — a full year — which means there’s a lot of catching up to do, I think?

You can find the spreadsheet here, and you can suggest names here. I’ll add them as soon as I vet them.

Bites. 

  • Heads up, business journalists with audio work: The Society of American Business Editors and Writers’ Best in Business 2016 awards has an audio category, and the deadline is February 7. (SABEW)
  • In case you missed it, First Look Media’s The Intercept has rolled out the first episode of its new podcast, Intercepted. Jeremy Scahill hosts. Its First Look’s third podcast overall, following Politically Re-Active and Maeve in America, and the show continues the organization’s political focus. All three shows are listed in iTunes as resulting from a partnership with Panoply. (iTunes)
  • Meanwhile, in Australia: the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, the country’s national public broadcaster, has launched a TV campaign promoting its podcasts.
  • NPR One has hit half a million “regular listeners,” apparently. (Michael Oreskes’ Twitter)
  • As always, you can find a curated list of upcoming podcasts here. And let me know if you’d like to add to it.

Tuesday

24

January 2017

0

COMMENTS

New Partners for Panoply, CPB Privatization Report, Curious Local Podcasts

Written by , Posted in Hot Pod Weekly

Panoply signs two more partners for its Megaphone platform: WBUR and BuzzFeed Audio. The company also announced a platform feature called Megalink, which purports to “simplify the podcast subscription process.” The feature doesn’t seem to be anything particularly fancy; from the looks of it, a “Megalink” is a fancy link that simply routes the user to the primary podcast app on that device (that is, the Podcast App for iPhones, Google Play Music for Android). This isn’t to downplay its potential usefulness, of course — anything that streamlines the flow from discovery to actual listening is a plus.

Panoply gave the story to RAIN News (thanks, guys), so you can read more detailsthere, but here are three things I’m thinking about:

(1) That Panoply locked down WBUR as a partner is pretty big. The Boston public radio station is one of the stronger publishers in the podcasting space — in December, the station enjoyed 1.2 million monthly listeners across 13 shows,according to Podtrac — and it’s also a fairly dynamic operation that’s prone to cultivating smart partnerships (see: Modern Love, which it produces with the New York Times) and interesting experiments. The partnership isn’t exactly a surprise, however, as the two organizations have some history. WBUR once partnered with Slate, Panoply’s sister company, on a personal health podcast called The Check Up, and interestingly enough, Panoply Chief Content Officer Andy Bowers started out his radio career as a reporter for the station. (Radioland — it’s a small world.)

(2) BuzzFeed Audio moving its podcasts to Megaphone should be quite a blow for Acast. The Swedish company had been hosting BuzzFeed’s podcasts since mid-2015, and the partnership was widely utilized by the company as a hook for their brand development. (A buzzy partner on a slide deck goes a long way when you’re targeting bigger media organizations, after all.) This news comes shortly after the company’s former Chief Revenue Officer, Sarah van Mosel, announced herdeparture to advertising sales firm Market Enginuity after only a year at the job. It also comes after what appears to be a steady trickle of notable podcasts moving away from Acast’s platform to competitors, including: Call Your Girlfriend (now repped by Midroll and hosted on Art19), Switched On Pop (now with Panoply), and Who? Weekly (now with Headgum, hosted on Spreaker). How Acast fares moved forward, and whether it will stick to its strategy of targeting big-name partners, remains to be seen. In any case, the company seems to be doubling down on the US despite these development, recently opening an office in Los Angeles. When contacted, a spokesperson simply noted that the company wishes BuzzFeed the best of luck, and that updates on its 2017 strategy are forthcoming. We’ll see how that goes.

(3) Regardless of what happens with Acast, it seems like the competition between Panoply’s Megaphone and Art19 is the primarily land-grab to watch, with both platforms racking up strong client lists thus far. Megaphone still sports Gimlet as a hosting client, and Panoply has largely followed through on its focus to sign, collaborate with, and represent audio programming produced by media companies (like Vox.com, Politico, and the Wall Street Journal) and authors (like Malcolm Gladwell and Gretchen Rubin). Art19, on the other hand, seems to have built a client list based on a strong coalition of podcast companies — including Midroll Media, Feral Audio, DGital Media, and Wondery —along with big, individual publishers like the New York Times. Which makes sense; podcast networks would likely be wary of establishing a hosting partnership with Panoply, which theoretically competes with them in the advertising marketplace. How Panoply negotiates that awkwardness, and how Art19 capitalizes on it, will be the narrative to watch over time.

The Trump administration is considering privatizing the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), according to a report by The Hill. The write-up also notes plans to eliminate other federal sources of support for the broader public media ecosystem. Really can’t say I’m surprised to hear about this — indeed, in the very first Hot Pod published after November’s elections, I felt it necessary to state that all eyes should be on the CPB, the vessel of federal funding whose operations are essential to the health of the public media system.

There’s already a string of solid writeups that dig into the matter — in particular, check out Current, the Huffington Post, and Media Matters. I highly recommend reading all three pieces in full, especially Media Matter’s, which contains CPB’s full statement on the matter. Two things, though:

(1) All three writeups make reference to the historical on-again, off-again tensions between Republican administrations and the public media system’s perceived relationship with liberal ideological bias. Which is useful context, but it evokes some optimistic suggestion that, despite these conflicts, the public media system has survived to this day, in effect drawing upon the past to inform what might happen in the future. I hold no such optimism. If this election has illustrated anything, it’s that we’re dealing with a dramatically anomalous state of affairs cultivated by an administration that’s unprecedented on numerous levels. It’s also an administration that deeply centralizes the media as a tool of power.

(2) It goes without saying that the stakes for public media are incredibly high. A 2012 report commissioned by the CPB from consulting firm Booz & Company — cited by both Current and Media Matters — is pretty straightforward about the consequences: “There is no substitute for federal support of public broadcasting,” it writes. “And that the loss of federal support would mean the end of public broadcasting.” Unsurprisingly, smaller stations and stations located in more rural areas will be the hardest hit. As the CPB notes in its statement:

The federal investment in public media is vital seed money — especially for stations located in rural America, and those serving underserved populations where the appropriation counts for 40-50% of their budget. The loss of this seed money would have a devastating effect. These stations would have to raise approximately 200 percent more in private donations to replace the federal investment.

Which is to say, while bigger stations like WNYC and WBUR might well be able to make up the gap and survive, a good swathe of the smaller stations across the country — whose well-being have long been under assault between the economic conditions of their respective locations and some amount of digital disruption — will likely be blown out. The consequence of that would the further debilitation of local, civically-minded news and information infrastructures in places that really need them. Much has already been written about the decline of local newspapers, and one can only imagine that this development, with its focus on the broadcast radio end of the local media spectrum that had been relatively insulated, will further accelerate that decline — and deal yet another harsh blow to the health of civic society.

Shit’s bleak, son.

Hearken-Powered Local Podcasts. However the problems of local media will be dealt with at a system-wide level, I nonetheless strongly suspect that the building of tools that encourage a strong sense of community will be big part of the solution.
That’s why I pay close attention to Hearken, the audience engagement platform that works with newsrooms to develop stronger feedback loops with their readers and listeners, which has been responsible for a growing species of really interesting locally-focused podcasts. The company currently collaborates with over 50 public media newsrooms, and a good portion of those collaborations have resulted in various localizations of WBEZ’s Curious City podcast, which are shows designed to answer questions from listeners about the place or community that they live in. Curious City was originally developed by Hearken CEO Jennifer Brandel during her time at the station as part of the 2012 Localore production, and the growing list of Hearken-powered adaptations now include, among others: FDD’s Curious Carolina, WPLN’s Curious Nashville, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Curious Canberra, and KQED’s Bay Curious — which, by the way, recently bought ads in the city’s metro system to advertise the podcast. (Here’s the full list of “Hearken-powered podcasts.”)
“We *do* have some public media partners who just release their broadcast episodes as a ‘podcast’,” Brandel tells me. “But we’ve seen more and more are thinking podcast first for the audio content, or at least making their podcasts different (and I’d say better) from what they broadcast (the clock is a cruel turkey).”
Some of Hearken’s partners are beginning to see encouraging returns. Brandel tells me that a few partners have told them how Hearken-powered stories are already being cited during membership drives as why people give for the first time, or why they increased their donation level. KQED reports that Bay Curious is seeing listenership grow every week, along with a healthy stream of positive feedback.
“People are hungry for a sense of place,” Brandel notes. “The Chipotlization of every town in America (globally?) makes the local, idiosyncratic amazing wonders of every town and city more and more endangered (or at least way less obvious), and answering questions that unearth the fascinating context for how a place came to be, how it changed, and is changing is a great way to get people feeling more local pride, engagement, and will hopefully lead them to action (whether that’s donating to their member station or getting involved civically).”
She adds: “One of the most exciting parts of our model is when the public gets to accompany reporters on the reporting. That shit is hard to do nationally. Locally, it works wonderfully. The public LOVES getting to meet and have an adventure with their pub media heart throb. Hello LIFELONG LOYALTY.”
Lifelong loyalty, indeed. You can learn more about Hearken on their website.
Relevant: Melody Joy Kramer’s latest — “What does a news organization optimized for trust look like?
Jezebel now has a podcast: the delightfully named “Big Time Dicks,” which spins out from the site’s “Big Time Small Dicks” column that keeps a critical eye on politics and policy at the local and federal level. What’s interesting: note the mention of the “Fusion Audio Network” in the iTunes listing — recall that the Gizmodo Media Group is now part of Fusion in its post-Gawker existence — as well as the namedrop of Mandana Mofidi in the announcement post, who serves as the executive producer of audio for the operation.

Designing Positions for Audio Producers (For First-Timers And Instigators). One of the biggest things that animates my optimism in the podcast industry is its potential to open up more substantial work opportunities for audio producers, particularly as more and more existing media companies and entrepreneurial types get drawn into building whole new ventures and teams around audio programming. That’s the supposed beauty about the internet’s democratizing force: where audio programming was previously monopolized by a few who have power over the limited means of distribution — in audio’s case, radio companies and finite broadcast airwaves — greater numbers new businesses can now be built on top of the infinite horizon of the internet. And the more businesses that can be built, the more producers can get employed. Seems pretty straightforward.

Of course, things are never that simple. The quality of the new jobs being created is always a question, and a big part of that has to do with how these new ventures — some of which will come with significant background in radio, some of which come in fresh — understand the role of audio producers and, perhaps more importantly, the work that goes into creating valuable audio products. A breakdown in this key juncture has the potential to trigger a downward spiral: a misunderstanding of a role leads to misunderstood hire leads to poor product leads to a failed effort leads to an entrenched misunderstanding of the original opportunity, after which everybody leaves the arrangement unhappy.

All of that was in the back of my mind when I spotted veteran audio editor Julia Barton’s reaction to a recent Washington Post job posting for an audio producer a few weeks ago. “Biting my tongue,” she wrote on Facebook, in response to the job description. Barton has been quite vocal in the past about how the work of audio producers are often underestimated. Most recently, she wrote an article for Current where she argued that the widespread use of generic stock mic photos in writeups about audio work reflects and abets a harmful oversimplification of the job. The premise of Barton’s argument might be somewhat mischievous, but the underlying impulse that energizes the piece — that cultural representation has material consequences — is nonetheless important.

Curious, I reached out to Barton to talk more about the thinking behind her reaction.

What, exactly, was it about the job posting that you were responding to?

This is not to drag The Washington Post — I’m thrilled that they’re looking to hire so much talent and expand. I came across this particular audio-producer listing because a WP staffer posted on Twitter about video hiring, and I was curious if they were hiring in audio as well.

I haven’t talked with the Post, and I’d urge you to do that because I’m probably overreacting. But if I were a potential candidate, someone with the “experience crafting rich audio storytelling and great interviews” that they want, I would be wary of some red flags. A big one is in first line of the job description: “Work with hosts and reporters to script, record and edit a variety of Washington Post podcasts.”

That tells me (again, I hope I’m wrong!) this is a shop that views podcast production as a one-man band effort. It carries the assumption that podcasts are easily knocked off, one after another, with a little prep, a recording session, and a couple of hours in front of an audio-editing suite. And that’s just not how it works if your goal is “rich audio storytelling.” People seem to get that it takes a village to run a newsroom or to make a broadcast or produce a studio album, but the fantasy persists that audio storytelling is simple and cheap. That’s just not true.

Could you broadly walk me through the job of the producer?

It really depends on the project. If you’re daily broadcast newsmagazine like All Things Considered or PRI’s The World, and you have to fill a fixed clock? Then you need dozens of people: reporters, planning editors, story editors, show directors, engineers, and segment producers, in addition to the managers and digital teams.

Unfortunately, public radio developed its own nomenclature, one that’s different from film or TV or even European radio terms. In the world I come from, a producer is someone who works with tape, whether recorded in the studio or in the field. They “edit” tape, but they are not editors (I’ll get to that in a minute). They may run recording sessions, but they are not engineers or technical directors. They don’t assign stories or work with freelancers. But in podcasting, especially among folks without a radio background, the term “producer” has inflated to cover all those roles in some shops.

Here’s the essential problem, though: audio production is very time-consuming. I don’t mean because we are divas at a makeup table — I mean it literally consumes time. When you have a chunk of raw tape from the field, you really should listen to it ALL or you’ll miss some half-second of magic. When you edit down a section of an interview, you have to listen to that section to hear if it works. When you edit out a breath, you have to listen to make sure that person doesn’t sound like they’re trapped in an airless vacuum. When you add musical scoring, you have to listen to how that affects a section, and then keep adjusting. When you finish an episode, you have to listen to the whole thing for errors, and before you know it, you’ve started tearing it all up again. And to make matters worse, this level of over-exposure means your brain can’t hear the actual content in a fresh way. You have no idea if it even makes sense after a while because you are so busy moving Lego-chunks of audio around. Afterwards you are dead, and you’re not really up for planning the next episode.

That’s why it’s really important that audio producers have someone outside of this vortex to help them plan, to strategize and talk about the story so they don’t go down wrong paths that waste so much time. This is the story editor, and this cannot be the same person as the producer for the reasons I just explained above. The editor is a bridge between the producer and the listener, and the overall editorial goals of a show, production house or newsroom. This is someone who can hear problems and give precise, actionable feedback that saves time (and lives, I like to think).

Finally when you get to issues of audio quality, levels, gear, studio management, and sound design, you need a dedicated engineer. All these people make so much difference for producer sanity and the listener’s experience, but we almost never hear their voices.

Any final notes for media organizations building out audio teams for the first time?

That audio production is complicated and time-consuming, but you will be rewarded by listeners for giving it the resources it needs. Anyone building a new team needs to sit in on the weekly production cycle of a show they admire. Every person involved in that production is there for an important reason. They’re actually the reason you love that show, so figure out what they do and how you can get people like them. By the way, they don’t all have to work in the same room. Some of the best productions teams I’ve been on have been scattered around the country or world.

I reached out to the Washington Post in a bid to discuss the position, and perhaps to understand the team that they are planning to build. I wasn’t granted a response on the record.

Anyway, I’d like to emphasize, at this point, that this story is purely about on Barton’s thinking and the larger issue of effectively translating the complexity of these jobs. This isn’t — and shouldn’t be — a story about the Washington Post’s audio team or the appropriateness of how they’re hiring for the position; as all of that very much remains to be seen. That said, it’s worth contextualizing Barton’s arguments and the Washington Post’s situation within a dynamic that we’ve seen in other parts of the media industry; namely, that there will always exist a fine line between working to create new workflows within constraints and appropriate work-to-compensation ratios, and within this, there will always be a tension between efforts to create new pathways from the bottom up and negotiating the sanctity of traditional workflows.

In related news, WaPo just released its latest podcast: the Trump-focused “Can He Do That?

Bites. 

  • 60dB is now available as a Skill for the Amazon Echo. Expect more audio programming companies to follow suit, because talking refrigerators. (Company Blog)

  • This morning, DGital Media announced yet another partner: The Players Tribune, which is that media platform for professional athletes.

  • You might have heard that Pod Save America, Crooked Media’s first podcast offering, scored President Obama’s last interview in office. But here’s an interesting tidbit about the venture started by the former Obama staffers: Pod Save America hit over a million listens in its first few weeks of operation, before the Obama interview went live. (Twitter)

  • On a related note, I wrote about the future of political podcasts in the Trump era and how the genre might be ripe for activism. (Vulture)

  • For what it’s worth, I listened to WNYC, MPR News, and The Economist’s Indivisible last night off Facebook. Gotta say: the experience wasn’t bad. (Twitter)

  • Audible’s collaboration with TED, “Sincerely, X,” will come out on February 1. I wrote about the project back in September. As always, you can check out a running list of upcoming releases on this page.

Moves. 

  • American Public Media has hired Nathan Tobey as its new Director of On Demand and National Cultural programming. Tobey most previously worked on podcast projects for WGBH, and was a co-creator of Strangler, which was a collaboration between Midroll Media and Northern Light Productions.
  • Over at Midroll, Jenny Radelet has been promoted to Executive Producer of Stitcher Content, where she will focus on both the original programming behind the Stitcher Premium paywall as well as the free, non-paywalled offerings.

Wednesday

18

January 2017

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COMMENTS

The Challenge For Open Podcasting, and An Effort to Strengthen It

Written by , Posted in Hot Pod Weekly

We’re tackling the big, complex, and contentious issue of openness today. It’s going to be a little long, and I’ll try my best to articulate the problem efficiently, though I suspect some may take umbrage on a few points. Come at me, but be civil.

The Challenge for Open Podcasting. Here’s how I’ve been modeling the problem in my head for a while now: an open, decentralized publishing ecosystem like that of podcasting is beneficial, the argument goes, because it is dynamic. Its openness provides a low barrier of entry that allows anybody — big or small, new or old — to publish and ultimately compete on the same playing field governed by rules set by no one party. That dynamism is said to theoretically allow for an ecosystem to be structurally better at allowing for things like diversity, creativity, and expression because its composition isn’t ultimately structurally defined by small, centralized groups of fallible (executive) individuals; rather, it is defined by the competitive chaos generated by countless potential actors interacting with one another and with the body of consumers linked to that open publishing ecosystem.

But the fundamental problem with an open, decentralized ecosystem is precisely linked to its very virtues: it isn’t controlled, which makes focus a challenge. Those who create things for it aren’t necessarily incentivized to speak the same language, causing them to often move in different (and sometimes contradictory) directions, which in turn causes the space to be unnecessarily inaccessible to greater would-be participants — and, perhaps more crucially, to itself. Indeed, a key consequence of this chaos is that the ecosystem doesn’t really end up being motivated to evolve in ways that may benefit itself as a whole.

What follows from this state of affairs, combined with the increasing interest we’ve seen in the space over the past two years, is a growing set of incentives for the development of closed alternatives — which, in turn, threatens the health of the open ecosystem, because the rise of those alternatives would drain it of the reason why anybody would want to publish through it in the first place: potential audiences. Again, the problem with an open, decentralized ecosystem is linked to its very virtue: how do you get it to defend itself?

Well, you try to organize.

An Effort to Strengthen Open Podcasting. Getting the various actors of the open podcast ecosystem to coordinate in their best interest is, more or less, a working group called Syndicated Media is trying to do.

“Podcasting should be decentralized — no one should get to own it,” argued Christopher Kalafarski, when we spoke over the phone last week. Kalafarski is the person responsible for getting Syndicated Media up and running, and when we spoke last week, he was quick to play down his role and context. Even though he’s responsible for the group’s creation, he doesn’t want to make it look like he’s in charge, maintaining instead that the working group is, and should be, community-driven. He also works as a developer at PRX, but insists that the project isn’t officially part of his day job (though the two worlds do necessarily intersect).

While Kalafarski and I agree on podcasting’s open ecosystem generally being in need of some firing up, he possesses a more nuanced (and somewhat ideological) view of the situation. To begin with, he points out how Apple, long a hands-off steward of the space, tweaks the podcast ecosystem’s narrative of being open by virtue of its unique influence, direct and indirect, over collective decision making in the space even today. He also situates the value of podcasting’s openness not in what it offers creators simply looking to publish for an audience — indeed, Kalafarski points out YouTube as a relatively low-barrier publishing environment that nonetheless resides on a closed platform — but rather focusing on how openness sustains the potential for middle-men to continue developing things for the ecosystem, which in turn could well end up continuously improving the ways audiences can experience the ecosystem as a whole.

“For most creators, the openness is a slight advantage over many existing closed system, not a game-changing one. Which is to say, the reason to fight for openness is not for the sake of the creators, it’s for the sake of Openness,” he argued. “If I had to pick any group or party for whom open/decentralized is ‘great’ for, it’s the middlemen — app developers, aggregators, etc. — they get to say exactly what they want to make money on (“pay for my app or you don’t get my app”), and can take full advantage of all the content that’s in the system. They can choose to augment what they get for free to create differentiating value-add experiences if they think the investment will pay off. And they can do that without giving back to the system if they want (because a truly open system allows for that).”

Kalafarski phrased the broader challenge as follows: consumers are increasingly becoming used to “best case scenarios,” largely facilitated by tightly-design closed proprietary platforms, within their default universe of user experiences (e.g. watching movies off Netflix, listening to music off Spotify). That, in turn, sets us up with situation where the open podcast ecosystem won’t be able to keep pace with the coming rise of proprietary podcast platforms.

But that isn’t the only emerging problem. “The hypothetical future of distinct, closed systems replacing or competing with podcasting is just one reality we’re trying to prevent,” he said. “Another is where several or many companies pull an Apple and try to dictate new rules. That maintains the openness on paper, but it starts to put pressure on things (like duplication, who adopts which things, should Google honor iTunes features, etc).”

The core question, as he sees it, is articulated as follows: “How do we get closer to those proprietary systems without closing up the system?” This, Kalafarski tells me, is where Syndicated Media comes in.

“The hope of Syndicated Media is to bring people together as community and say, ‘We all know there have to be some new rules. Let’s come up with them together and let’s do it now before it’s too late’ before we end up in one of those other realities,” he explained.

The overarching goal behind the working group, or at least the way I read it, is to organize a critical mass of the actors invested in the open podcast ecosystem to engage in a collective enterprise aimed at making the open architecture more attractive for all corners of the growing podcast ecosystem — developers, producers, consumers, perhaps even advertisers — to participate in it. The strategy behind Syndicated Media’s effort to realize this is twofold: (1) make the open infrastructure more accessible, and (2) encourage critical participation from the larger podcast community in that infrastructure.

To those ends, Syndicated Media is being envisioned as a community-driven space to guide discussions and foster decisions on a set of open standards to be adopted by a critical mass of the podcast community. Those standards would decide stuff like, say, a base set of RSS 2.0 extensions for newcomers to the architecture to get started with, or the basic way folks should go about incorporating rich media in their podcast publishing efforts, and so on. Give everyone a common baseline and language to interact with each other, the thinking goes, and that’ll make it easier for more people to get involved.

So that’s the hope. But the working group is still very much in its early days, which means there are many fundamental things that need to be sorted out. One such issue is the question of actually making, implementing, and enforcing decisions, which is still being debated by the working group. “One path to take would be very formal RFC’s” — Request for Comments, a kind of formal protocol used by standards-setting bodies for the Internet — “and technical specifications submitted to major governing bodies like the W3C,” Kalafarski speculates. “The other way is to keep things very loose. Which is to say, create very useful, well thought out, well-defined specs, but avoid the overhead of governing bodies for validation.”

Another is the more crucial problem of recruiting a critical mass of participants. “We’ve reached out to everyone — independent developers as well as the Apples and Googles of the world,” Kalafarski noted. “Some have joined, some haven’t.” And, I would add, the participation of some is more important than others. (Apple doesn’t appear to be involved in the working group just yet.)

It’s a big task, and Kalafarski is hopeful that the working group serves as a solid start. “Syndicated Media is totally open and welcome to anyone who wants to be a part of this conversation,” he said. “We’re trying to fix things, and we’re trying to be inclusive of everyone who is invested in the health of the space. And if we’re going to solve this, we have to start having this conversation out in the open.”

So, if you’re interested in getting involved, here’s your chance. Some practical details to note:

  • The working group concentrates its discussions and organizations in two primary areas: a Github project, which serves as a repository of issues, and a Slack group. Both are open to everybody, but you’d need to request for an invitation to get into the Slack group due to that platform’s processes.

  • For companies, there is a partner program. “It’s totally voluntary,” Kalafarski said. “There are some very loose guidelines around what that means, but basically its signifies a commitment to adhere to the standard.”

  • There is currently a one-day workshop being planned by Syndicated Media in partnership with the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard, PRX, and RadioPublic. Details aren’t confirmed, but it’s probably going to take place sometime this summer.

Cool. There’s a lot baked in this, obvi, and frankly a lot of the issues being discussed here are timeless — or at least, as old as the Internet — but then again, history seems to have a way of repeating and looping back to itself these days.

Anyway, speaking of PRX…

PRX strikes up a sales partnership with Market Enginuity, an Arizona-based sales organization that specializes in public media whose client list includes KCRW, KUT, and WAMU. The deal, which is exclusive, will see Market Enginuity assume responsibility over revenue generation efforts across all PRX programming including the Radiotopia podcast network, while PRX will provide Market Enginuity with its podcast hosting and advertising technology, Dovetail.

The move to partner with Market Enginuity is the culmination of a long learning process for the PRX team. “We’ll be strategic partners, not transactional,” PRX CEO Kerri Hoffman said when we spoke over the phone yesterday. “The key with sales, we’ve come to learn, isn’t to focus on just adding boots on the ground, but on good partnerships with people who have a lot of experience and infrastructure.”

Of Market Enginuity, Hoffman said: “We’ve known them for some time and really like the team. Together, we will build a sales team that leverages their experience and scale with PRX’s investments in content and technology.”

Which brings us to another interesting bit of news:

Sarah Van Mosel joins Market Enginuity as Chief Podcast Sales and Strategy Officer as part of the team being assembled to handle the PRX account, leaving Acast after only a year and two months as Chief Commercial Officer. The Swedish podcasting company had hired Van Mosel in December 2015, away from WNYC where she had been serving as VP of Sponsorship, as part of the company’s initial push into the US.

Van Mosel maintained that her decision to leave was in large part due to being recruited by Harry Clark, an Executive Vice President at Market Enginuity. Clark, like Van Mosel, is a WNYC alum, and he is said to have hired and trained Van Mosel there. (Clark left the public radio station for Market Enginuity in May 2015, about the same time Van Mosel assumed the VP of Sponsorship role there.) This is, then, the reuniting of a battle-tested team. “I was brought in to Acast to assemble a stellar national sales team. I built it, they’re amazing, and they’re off to a strong 2017,” Van Mosel explained, when I reached out over email last week. “It was tough to leave, but Harry Clark called and I couldn’t say no.”

Still, it’s a remarkably short stint for an executive at an international company, raising questions about the hole she leaves behind. A spokesperson for Acast tells me thatRoss Adams, who is based in the company’s London office, will absorb Van Mosel’s duties, a shift that ultimately sees Acast consolidating the management of both its US and UK sales teams under one person. Adams was previously a sales director at Spotify. I’m also told that there are no immediate plans to search for a replacement.

Edison Research and Triton Digital’s Infinite Dial 2017 report is coming out onMarch 9 at 2pm ET… and not later in the summer, as I had previously thought. A senior exec at Edison Research confirmed the date with me over email last Tuesday, and the company posted a Save the Date notice on its blog the next day. As usual, the report will be premiered over a live webinar, which requires registration if you’re planning to participate.

Bridge Ratings revises 2017 podcast ad projections upwards, but not by much.The research firm now estimates that podcast ad spending this year will amount to $243 million, according to RAIN News. That’s up from its previous projection of $207 million. As I mentioned last week, the industry seems to have coalesced around Bridge Ratings’ projections, though your guess is as good as mine as to how the firm went about its analysis.

WNYC, Minnesota Public Radio News, and The Economist are collaborating on a call-in radio show. The program, called “Indivisible” (not to be confused with theIndivisible Guide), aims to serve as a platform to bring Americans together — or at least, the kind of Americans who call into public radio shows — for conversation and debate across the first 100 days of the incoming Trump administration. It will debut on January 23 at 8pm ET, and will air Mondays through Thursdays for fourteen weeks.

Each night will be anchored by a different host. Here’s the lineup:

  • Mondays — Journalist Kai Wright, who previously helmed WNYC’s There Goes the Neighborhood and The United States of Anxiety podcasts, will host alongside The Economist’s John Prideaux and Anne McElvoy, with an explicit focus on global reactions to the new presidency.

  • Tuesdays — WNYC morning staple Brian Lehrer will anchor Tuesdays, primarily focusing on changing American norms.

  • Wednesdays — The prominent Wisconsin-based conservative radio host Charlie Sykes will take the mid-week point, and will build his night around interviews and discussions on how the new administration’s opening day weigh against “American values and conservative principles.”

  • Thursday — Minnesota Public Radio’s Kerri Miller closes the week, and her night will focus on American identity.

A growing list of public radio stations across the country has picked up Indivisible for broadcast, and the show will also be available as a podcast. A quick staffing note: Kai Wright, who had been collaborating with WNYC in his capacity as an editor at the progressive magazine The Nation, has joined the New York public radio station full-time.

A few thoughts on this:

  • The fact that this project strings a line between two public radio stations and a magazine is interesting to me, and I’m curious to see if the Economist will reproduce any Indivisible content on their web or print presences in the weeks to come. In any case, I’m personally hoping to see more collaborations like this that potentially cultivates stronger relationships between magazines and radio, digital and broadcast, media consumption network A and media consumption network B. It’s been a pretty tough few weeks, between the increasingly loud accusations of fake news from all directions, the growing anxiety of life within filter bubbles, and the president-elect’s press conference last Wednesday. All of those things underscore an increasing need not for just solidarity, but functional cooperation between different corners of the journalism ecosystem. Indivisible strikes me as a pretty cool, and very encouraging, project that explicitly seeks to cut across not just ideological lines, but structural ones as well. (Though, I suppose the appropriate question here is: are the lines being cut across sufficiently long enough.)

  • There’s something about call-in radio shows that makes the format so much more effective than, say, quotes in a news article or person-on-the-street interviews in representing the feel and complexity of people. Part of it, perhaps, has to do with the fact there isn’t the specter of viewing the subject through the lens of the writer — though callers are, more often than not, screened by producers before they’re let on the air. And the raw, relatively unedited (though probably tape-delayed) nature of the caller’s participation allows for a better projection of the more fundamental components of human interaction beyond the actual points that the participants are attempting to put across: the pauses, the tones, the doubt, the on-the-fly self-editing. (Weirdly, this aspect of call-in shows is perhaps most underscored and explored in comedian Chris Gethard’s “Beautiful Stories from Anonymous People.”)

  • In my mind, live programming is the one significant structural advantage that broadcast radio has over on-demand audio. (And to pre-empt the rebuttal: the scale it currently enjoys isn’t an advantage; it’s a product of historical conditions.) News radio would be wise to double down on live programming in the years to come; though, as cable news has consistently shown us, simply being live isn’t good enough. What’s truly valuable are live programming efforts that seek to tighten the gap of representation between listeners and the world around them. (Which, I suppose, is the premise behind the recent surge of live broadcasting features within the social media ecosystem.)

Bites. 

  • Paste Magazine launches its equivalent of AV Club’s Podmass: The Pod People. It’s being edited by Massachusetts-based freelancer Muira McCammon, and it’s set to be a weekly feature. Also: did you hear that Paste is bringing back its print quarterly? Very cool. (Paste Magazine)

  • Former HLN host Nancy Grace, known for her… robust coverage of issues related to crime, has launched a new digital venture dedicated to, well, crime news. The venture is called Crime Online, and among its initial offerings is true crime podcast that adds to the very, very big pile of true crime pods. (Business Insider)

  • “Marketplace unveiled plans for a major expansion intended to sharpen its coverage and the media it produces around the goal of ‘raising the economic intelligence of the country.’” Juicy detail: “…As the strategy rolls out, Marketplace could hire as many as 35 additional employees, building on its current workforce of 85.” (Current)

  • “Podcasts and Literary Criticism.” (The Millions)

  • “The Microculture Is Coming: The New Podcast Trend That Obsessive Fandom Spawned” (The Ringer)

  • Maybe it’s just me, but there’s something fairly dissonant about a recent Wired headline categorizing Radiotopia’s upcoming Ear Hustle as a “crime podcast,” given the hefty connotations associated with that genre. (Wired)

  • Upcoming show launches: the independent audio drama Archive 81 will return with its second season on January 18, while Food52’s Burnt Toast will return on March 9. A growing list of show launches can be found on this page.

Tuesday

10

January 2017

0

COMMENTS

Upcoming Show Launches, Crooked Media, Facebook Live Audio

Written by , Posted in Hot Pod Weekly

Digits to Start the Year. Is the podcast industry growing, and if so, how? I’m keeping these three numbers taped to the corner of my laptop as benchmarks to keep track:

  • Audience Size — 57 million US monthly listeners, according to Edison and Triton Digital’s annual Infinite Dial report, which gives the industry its clearest number to beat. The latest version of the report is expected to come out in early summer.

  • Advertising — $200 million+ projected for 2017, according to media research firm Bridge Ratings, which the industry seems to have coalesced around.

  • iTunes Downloads and Streams — 10 billion+ in 2016, which was up from 8 billion+ in 2015 and 7 billion+ in 2014, according to a writeup by the Huffington Post.

Two Quick News on Apple.

  • Breaking my internal policy of separating classifieds content with editorial content, but this is super newsworthy: the Apple Podcasts team is apparently looking for someone to join their editorial team — also known as the team that looks after the iTunes front page.
  • In a related note, I’m hearing that Steve Wilson, who managed the editorial and partner relations team at iTunes and who was once described in the New York Times as Apple’s “de facto podcast gatekeeper,” has moved to the iTunes Marketing team to manage the podcast vertical. I believe it’s the first time the company is dedicating any marketing resources for pods.

The Keepin’ It 1600 team breaks off from The Ringer to start a new venture:Crooked Media,” named after the standard Donald Trump pejorative. Its first product, a twice-a-week politics podcast called Pod Save America, rolled out yesterday, and quickly made the top of the iTunes charts. For reference, Crooked Media is made up of former Obama staffers Jon Favreau, Jon Lovett, and Tommy Vietor. Dan Pfeiffer, who launched Keepin’ It 1600 with Favreau when it first debuted on The Ringer last summer, will continue his hosting duties in the new podcast, but he will not hold any stake in the new venture. The venture has plans to add more podcasts, video, editorial content, and “new voices” with a distinct emphasis on activism and political participation, according to its mission statement. There doesn’t appear to be any talk of external investment, with the team fully relying on ad revenues from Pod Save America for now.

DGital Media serves as Crooked Media’s partner in production and ad sales. This extends DGital Media’s already impressive portfolio of partners, which includes Recode, The Vertical Podcast Network, and Tony Kornheiser.

The Ringer CEO Bill Simmons is said to be supportive of the new venture, though one imagines the departure of Keepin’ It 1600, which grew incredibly popular during the 2016 election cycle, will leave quite a dent in monthly download totals for the website’s podcast network. However, given the network’s general culture that allows for continuous, iterative experimentation through its Channel 33 feed, they’re well positioned to fill the gap soon enough.

Here’s the thing that’s interesting to me: Crooked Media appears to be a stab at building out a new progressive counterpoint to conservative media, perhaps specifically its right-wing talk radio ecosystem, which has long been a curiously strong marriage of medium and ideological content with significant influence over American politics. It’s a curious thing that podcasting now offers Favreau and co., insofar as they represent progressive politics, a potential site to match up against the conservative media-industrial complex; as I’ve noted in the past, the podcast medium does seem to feature an ideological spread that tends to lean liberal — even if it’s sticky business to characterize the politics of individual organizations. The theoretical question that occurred to me then, as it does now, is whether there is something about a medium’s structural traits — and demographic spread, and so on — that uniquely supports certain kinds of ideology. With this venture, we’ll have an opportunity to test the question a little further.

Related: Just re-upping this discussion from mid-November: Did the election podcast glut of 2016 fail its listeners?

Launches and Returns for the Year Ahead. I was recently asked to write a preview of upcoming new podcasts for Vulture, and in the process of my outreach, I had a hard time getting concrete, specific release dates for upcoming launches. This, I think, says a fair bit about how the podcast industry, maturing as it is, still has ways to go in terms of developing a rhythm, cycle, and culture around show and season launches for its audience.

Alright, here’s what I got so far beyond the stuff on the Vulture list:

  • Gimlet Media is keeping mum on new shows, but they have confirmed that Science Vs will return for its second season in March, while Heavyweight will drop its second season in September.

  • NPR’s VP of Programming and Audience Development Anya Grundmann tells me that the public radio mothership will be launching several new podcasts and debuting new seasons of some of its most popular shows, including Embedded and Invisibilia. No specific dates, but Grundmann did mention that a three-episode Embedded miniseries will drop in March.

  • Night Vale Presents has confirmed that Alice Isn’t Dead and Within the Wires will return sometime this year. They also note that the team behind Orbiting Human Circus (of the Air) is working on some new projects, which will be released throughout the year. And, as noted in Vulture, the company will be making its nonfiction debut at some point in the form of a collaboration with indie band The Mountain Goats.

  • The New York Times will roll out its latest podcast, “Change Agent” with Charles Duhigg that sounds like a cross between an advice column, Oprah, and Malcolm Gladwell, sometime this spring. It’s also building a new show around Michael Barbaro, who hosts The Run-Up and has since moved into the audio team full-time. According to Politico Media, the Times is planning to expand its podcast roster from seven up to possibly twelve this year.

  • Radiotopia’s newest addition to its roster, Ear Hustle, is set to debut sometime this summer.

  • First Look Media tells me that they will be launching a weekly podcast for its flagship investigative news site, The Intercept, on January 26. The show will apparently be called “Intercepted.” There’s a joke in here somewhere, but we should move along.

That’s all I got for now. I’m going to keep a page going for this, and will update as more information trickles out. Send me what you have.

Panoply kicked off the year with the launch of its first “imprint”: The Onward Project, a group of self-improvement podcasts curated by author Gretchen Rubin, who hosts the popular Happier podcast under the network. The imprint is currently made up of three shows: the aforementioned Happier; Radical Candor, a management-oriented show; and Side Hustle School, a daily show made up of bite-sized episodes that describes financially successful side projects. The Onward Project was first announced during last September’s IAB Podcast Upfront.

Call it an imprint, call it a subnetwork, call it whatever you want: the concept seems to be more of an innovation in audience development than anything else. “I’d say success looks like what we’re already seeing — a collection of podcasts in which each show brings in its host’s unique audience, which is then exposed to the other shows through tight cross promotion,” Panoply Chief Creative Officer Andy Bowers told me over email, when I asked about the thinking around the imprint. “With podcast discovery still such a vexing problem, we think the imprint offers listeners a simple answer to the question they’re always asking Gretchen: ‘I love your show —what else should I listen to?’”

We’re probably going to see Panoply develop more imprints in the near future, further establishing a structure that makes the company look more like a “meta-network” — or a network of networks — which is a form that was only hinted at by its previous strategy, where it partnered with other media organizations to develop multiple podcasts under their brand.

60dB Hires Recode Reporter, Adding To Its Beefy Editorial Team. The short-form audio company has hired Liz Gannes, previously a reporter at the tech news site Recode, to join its editorial team. Gannes, a senior hire, rounds out a team that has thus far primarily drawn from public media. It includes: Daisy Rosario, who has worked on NPR’s Latino USA and WNYC’s 2 Dope Queens; Brenda Salinas, formerly at Latino USA and KUT Public Media; Hannah McBride, formerly at the Texas Observer and KUT Public Media; and Michael Simon Johnson, formerly at Latino USA.

So here’s what I’m thinking about: the editorial team apparently exists as an in-house team that works to produce audio stories with partner publications, often discussions about a written article that recently published, for distribution over its platform. (Is it too much of stretch to call it high-touch adaptation aggregation?) It’s a dramatically manual — and not to mention human — content acquisition process, and that’s a structure that does not scale cheaply, which I imagine presents a problem for a founding team mostly made up of former Netflix executives.

Two questions that frame my thinking on the company: Where is 60dB supposed to fall within the spectrum between Netflix-like platform and an audio-first newsroom with an aggressive aggregation strategy? And to what extent do the partnerships that the company currently pursues make up the long-term content strategy, or do they merely serve as a stepping stone into purely original content?

Anyway, I hear that more 60dB news is due next week. Keep your earballs peeled.

Related: In other tech-ish news, it looks like Otto Radio, the car dashboard-oriented podcast curation platform that recently hammered down an integration with Uber, has secured a round of investment from Samsung. Note the language in the press release describing Otto Radio’s distribution targets: “connected and autonomous cars, smart audio devices and appliances, and key integrations with premium content providers.” Appliances? I guess with Amazon’s Alexa platform creeping into everything — which was one of the bigger takeaways from this year’s CES— we’re about that close to a world in which your refrigerator can blast out those sweet, sweet Terry Gross interviews.

Facebook Live Audio. Shortly before Christmas, Facebook announced the rollout of its latest Live-related feature, Live Audio, on its media blog. Key details to note:

  • The feature is in its testing phase, and its broadcasting use is limited to a few publishing partners for now. At launch, those partners include: the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), the London-based national talk radio station LBC, book publisher Harper Collins, and authors Adam Grant and Brit Bennett. It remains unclear whether those publishers are being paid for their partnership similar to the way that Facebook has been paying major media organizations like BuzzFeed and the New York Times, along with celebrities, to use the Live Video feature.

  • The post notes that the feature will be made “more broadly available to publishers and people” over the next few months.

  • The launch of Live Audio is the latest in Facebook’s efforts to expand its Live initiative, which the company has been banking heavily on for the better part of last year. It had launched Live 360 just the week before.

  • The pitch, as it has always been, primarily revolves around interactivity — which speaks directly to the “social audio” conversation carried by many in the radio and podcast industry (see TAL’s Short Cut, WNYC’s Audiogram, and so on). The introductory post writes, “Just as with a live video on Facebook, listeners can discover live audio content in News Feed, ask questions and leave reactions in real time during the broadcast, and easily share with their friends.”

Right, so with all that out of the way: what does this mean for podcast publishers, and maybe even radio broadcasters? I haven’t quite developed a unified theory just yet, but I’ve been breaking the question down to two components.

(1) It’s worth asking, I think, if Facebook Live Audio is compatible with much of what currently exists in the podcast (or radio) space. Facebook, as a digital environment, has always seemed to be structured such that only certain kinds of publishers — or “content creators” can “win.” More often than not, those are the publishers whose business or impact goals are functionally aligned with that of Facebook’s, and from everything that we’ve seen, read, and heard about the company, it seems pretty clear that Facebook’s primary goal is to drive up user numbers and, more importantly, user engagement, whose quantifiable attention are then sold to advertisers.

But that’s obvious; the question is, of course, how has the company preferred to generate those engagements? It’s one thing if Facebook’s underlying game plan here is to “replace” broadcast, be it television or radio. But it’s a whole other thing if the company is instead trying to build out and further define its own specific media ecosystem with dynamics, incentives, behaviors, and systems unique to itself — which is exactly what appears to be the case here.

So, what kind of audio content is likely to benefit from playing into Facebook Live Audio’s unique dynamics? Probably not the highly-produced narrative stuff. Nor anything particularly long. Oddly enough, I have somewhat strong feeling that many conversational podcasts could be much better suited for Facebook Live Audio than they ever were for the existing podcast infrastructure. But at the end of the day, what appears to be true for Facebook Live Video — and for most new social platforms — will probably be true for Facebook Live Audio: the kind of content it will favor is the type of content that’s native to the form. Everything else is either filler, or means to generate actionable data.

(2) The Facebook Live program displays high levels of volatility, both in terms of the program simply functioning as intended — see: miscalculated audience metrics, surging, lingering questions over Facebook’s role in digital governance and its relationship to the State — and, perhaps more crucially, in terms of the program’s underlying view of publishers and the actors of the wider media ecosystem.

The functional volatility alone should give some thinking about dedicating resources to building out a Facebook Live Audio strategy. But the greater pause should come from the second point on the program’s underlying position. Facebook’s general abstinence from making any concrete statement about its relationship to the media (and its potential identity as a “media company”) suggests a materialistic, neutralizing view that sees all actors on the platform as functionally and morally equal. Another way of putting this: the health of individual publishers, regardless of its size, hopes, dreams, and virtues, is a tertiary concern to the platform, as long as it is able to drive up the primal behavior it wants: its own definition of engagement.

It’s a toughie. On the one hand, you have a platform that theoretically connects you with various segmentations and iterations of the platform’s 1.79 billion monthly active users. But on the other hand, it’s really hard to get around the whole unfeeling, arbitrary governing structure thing. It’s up to you — depending on what your goals are, what relationship you want to have with your audience, your stomach for instability and risk — to decide if you want to live that Facebook Live Audio life.

None of this particularly new, by the way. But it’s still worth saying.

Bites. PRX has announced its first cohort for Project Catapult, its podcast training program aimed at local public radio stations. Also note: the organization has hiredEnrico Benjamin, an Emmy award-winning producer, as the initiative’s project director. (PRX) —— SiriusXM is now distributing WNYC Studio’s podcasts over its Insights channel. This continues an emerging trend that sees SiriusXM mining podcasts for quality inventory to build a content base beyond its Howard Stern-shaped engine: last August, the company hammered down a partnership with the Vertical Podcast Network, and it has been distributing the Neil DeGrasse Tyson podcast Startalk since January 2015. (SiriusXM) —— I’m hearing that the first round of judging for this year’s Webby Awards is underway. Several folks have also written me pointing out that the group of judges for the Podcast and Digital Audio category is pretty public radio heavy… and not to mention, overwhelmingly white. (Webby Awards) —— This is cool: Norway has become the first country to shut down its nationwide FM radio in favor of digital signals. (NPR)

Moves. Several developments at Midroll: Gretta Cohn is now the Executive Producer of the company’s program development team in New York. Colin Anderson, previously a senior producer at Maximum Fun, replaces her as Earwolf’s Executive Producer. Cohn’s team also enjoys the addition of Casey Holford as an audio engineer/sound designer/composer and Clare Rawlinson as a new producer —— Meanwhile, at NPR: Tamar Charney has been confirmed as NPR One’s Managing Editor, having assumed the role in an interim basis since Sara Sarasohn left the organization. Emily Barocas joins the team full-time as an associate producer to curate pods for the app. Nick DePrey, who has been supporting NPR One in his capacity as an “Innovation Accountant,” is now the digital programming analytics manager at NPR Digital Services. Elsewhere in the organization, Juleyka Lantigua-Williams has joined as the Senior Supervising Producer and Editor for Code Switch. —— Anshuman Iddamsetty has joined the e-commerce platform company Shopify as a podcast producer. Iddamsetty previously served as the art director and an audiovisual producer for publishing curiosity Hazlitt.

Tuesday

13

December 2016

0

COMMENTS

Issue 100

Written by , Posted in Hot Pod Weekly

Issue 100. I would be lying if I said I was in any way satisfied with anything I’ve ever done in this newsletter. Which is unhealthy, as my shoulder muscles have constantly told me, and occasionally, I understand that. I certainly did not expect, when I started publishing this newsletter for giggles back in November 2014, that I’d still have readers two years on, let alone be running a business the size of a tiny bodega.

It’s just that I think there is so much to be done: shows can be better, companies can be better, advertising can be better, business models can be smarter, the system can be more accommodating, more people can get more jobs, more producers can get paid better, more people can be listening, we can be more ambitious, we can be braver, and so on.

And that dissatisfaction applies to me too: my writing can be tighter, my blind spots less egregious, my typos less numerous, my stories more interesting, my thinking sharper, my prose more eloquent, my perspectives more inclusive, my vision of the future more balanced, and so on. (I’ve also been told by some readers that they miss the jokes.)

But here we are, 100 issues on, and I just want to thank you so much for being a reader — and especially if you’re a paying supporter. Literally, your support serves as my financial bedrock, and it’s because of you that I’ve been able to build this thing into an independent business the size of a tiny bodega. And if you’re not a paying supporter, please consider becoming one. I hope to do more and build more in the year to come, and I can’t do this without you.

And quick reminder: there’s a happy hour I’m throwing tomorrow to commemorate the #100, if you’re in NYC.

Also: you know who else is hitting #100 this week? The Welcome to Night Vale team. Congrats, fellas.

In 2016, Apple podcast listeners clocked in over 10 billion download and streams globally, according to a press release published by the company. I’m guessing the release is specifically referring to listeners who consumed podcasts on the native iOS Podcast app transmitted over a variety of Apple devices, including the iPhone, iPad, Apple TV, and desktop.

How meaningful is this number? It’s hard to tell without the context of the years before — what we should be watching for is the degree of change between 2016 and 2015 compared to similar time periods before that — and it’s further worth noting that the number is essentially a bulk data point that doesn’t really tell us things like (a) whether there’s a large number in unique listeners or (b) whether we have a small number of highly-engaged listeners that are responsible for consuming a crap ton of podcasts. Knowing either of those things would be super useful.

One thing that the press release is unambiguous about, however: NPR’s Fresh Air is the most downloaded podcast of the year off the Apple infrastructure. Queen Terry Gross reigns supreme.

The Sarah Lawrence College International Audio Fiction Awards is now accepting submissions for its second year. Applicants should note one major difference from last year’s competition: the awards are now accepting full series as part of the entries. The deadline is at 5pm EST on January 27, 2017. Winners will be announced at the awards ceremony to be held on March 28, 2017 at WNYC’s Greene Space. The festivities will be hosted by audio fiction darlings Welcome to Night Vale. There will be four awards — for first, second, and third place, along with a prize to the Best New Artist — with the prize money being worth $3750 in total.

Ann Heppermann, who heads up the awards, tells me that she hopes to see more works from non-English speaking countries and works that are not in English. “There is a robust amount of international audio dramas in the world, and I hope that the outreach I have done in the past year results in more submissions from abroad,” she said.

Speed Listening. Christopher Mele over at the New York Times digs into the practice of speed consumption in the age of #peakcontent. “Consumers face a dizzying array of entertainment choices that include streaming video such as Amazon Prime Instant Video, Hulu and Netflix; cable channels and apps from outlets like HBO and Showtime; YouTube; and as many as 28,000 podcasts,” Mele writes. “With them all offering uncountable hours of addictive programming, how is a listener or viewer supposed to keep up? For some, the answer is speed watching or speed listening — taking in the content at accelerated speeds, sometimes two times as fast as normal.”

For what it’s worth, I’m very much pro-speed listening. Look, I’m not a purist, and I believe that, to a large extent, the burden is placed on shows to teach listeners its ideal terms of consumption, and shows have to further warrant acceptance of those terms.

Diversity, Discovery, and (Parallel) Development.  “As podcasts continue to carve space in mainstream consumption habits… the industry’s infrastructure seems to be perpetuating, rather than resisting, the original sins of the white-favoring context of mainstream American culture,” argues an open letter with the banner #SupportPOCpods, which was published by a group of podcasters of color last week.

The letter (and accompanying Twitter campaign) was spearheaded by Shaun Lau, the co-host of a film and social issues podcast called No, Totally, and the way the letter interprets and diagnoses the podcast ecosystem’s (or perhaps, the emerging professionalizing layer) issues with diversity is structurally and critically ambitious, striving for a certain totality in its argumentation. It culminates in appeals to three groups — distributors (platforms like iTunes and Google Play), media organizations (to the extent they provide coverage on podcasts), and listeners — to be better, in various ways, about their respective support of creators of color.

Reporting on the letter at the New Statesman, Caroline Crampton brings additional clarity to the core argument by (I think very correctly) foregrounding the connection between the medium’s diversity challenges with discovery challenges, stitching the two elements together to reflect how the overarching problem manifests itself as a system:

It’s starting to look like podcasting’s diversity problem and its discovery problem are intertwined. It’s a vicious cycle – with distributors providing a far-from-perfect way of finding new shows, the podcast charts remain dominated by shows from established media organisations with their own diversity problems. Media organisations compiling lists of shows tend to mirror the charts, perpetuating the same issues. It’s time for us all to do better.

Though I find some technical components of the letter’s argumentation less persuasive than others, I do very much agree with the way the letter captures the state of the problem, and, of course, I agree that we must all do better. Interestingly enough, I think what’s being articulated here is itself a specific variation of the overarching tension between the professionalizing and the independent; the letter is most persuasive, in my mind, when it suggests the increasing formalization of/investment in the space is (a) reducing the accessibility of the space granted to non-white creators and (b) not equally spread out to include minority talent. But I also think that the specific proposals made at the end of the letter — the appeal it makes to the larger power structure – aren’t really the ones that would get us where we want to go.

I suppose I should note that, at this writing, my thinking has been considerably guided by my consumption of another open letter, one published early yesterday morning. This one is by the journalist Jay Caspian Kang and addressed to minority journalists, and if I’m interpreting it correctly, it sketches out the withdrawals he thinks will likely happen in the broader news media’s existing (unsatisfying) attempts at bringing progressive diversification into their structures. Frustrated with this likely outcome, Kang concludes: “We, the like-minded who believe that there is value in the cliché of speaking truth to power and value a progressive coalition over careerism, have to start building our own shit.” Which is all to say: appeals to existing power structures for relief is always conditional. Building your own is not.

Anyway, I’d love to know what you think. Find me in all the usual places.

Is investigative reporting well-served by podcasts? I’ve been wondering about that for a while now, and it was on my mind when Kerri Hoffman, the CEO of PRX, pitched me a story over email about the Center for Investigative Reporting, whose radio show and podcast, Reveal, has enjoyed a stellar 2016 — the podcast hit 1.2 million downloads in November, far surpassing its goal 600,000 monthly downloads — despite a media landscape that’s seen structural withdrawals in investigative reporting. (CIR co-produces the show with PRX, hence the connection.)

“As you know, the podcast landscape is filled with lighter fare, and we have been hopeful that longer form investigative journalism can find a place and survive in the digital landscape,” Hoffman wrote. “We have been scratching our heads about how to position Reveal — it is strong in public radio where broccoli is served often. How do we encourage people to eat vegetables at an ice cream party?”

One can debate the characterization of the podcast ecosystem’s favoring lighter fare — I don’t particularly think that’s true — or the merits of framing the situation in terms of broccoli vs. ice cream, but Reveal’s strong year is definitely fascinating, and I have a sense it says something, though I’m not sure what, about the way in which investigative journalism is finding its way in the much-fractured digital media landscape.

So I took the pitch, and sent a couple of questions over email to Christa Scharfenberg, who serves as the Head of Studio at CIR. Here’s the Q&A:

I’ve often felt that investigative journalism functions in a lot of ways as a very niche product — a kind of specialized good consumed by a very specific kind of person. And that, in my mind, has significant ramifications over the way investigative reports function as a public good. Do you think that’s the case?

I agree that investigative reporting has traditionally been niche. But that has evolved dramatically in the last 5-10 years, as the journalism industry has had to respond (not always effectively, as we all know) to the seismic shifts in how people get and consume news. Additionally, there has been tremendous growth of the nonprofit investigative reporting field, of which CIR is part (we are the oldest in this country — next year is our 40th anniversary). To attract an audience, to deeply engage them in the journalism, and to raise the philanthropic funding necessary to keep doing our work, we have had to turn the old format of plodding 5,000 word text stories on its head. The emphasis now is on deep audience engagement and a more deliberate focus on impact. This requires us to appeal to a broader audience with more accessible storytelling while adhering to the core principles of watchdog, public service journalism. We partnered with PRX on Reveal precisely to expand the niche and connect audiences with stories of local and national relevance.

How do you think the structural traits of podcasts — being a kind of siloed experience, being itself quite niche at the moment, being somewhat challenging to consume — affects the potential impact of investigative journalism delivered through the medium?

Podcasts are a perfect medium for investigative reporting. And it is also true that to ensure impact, podcasts cannot be the only delivery vehicle for investigations. Most investigative stories, even in public radio, appear once as part of a news cycle. We create deeper content with a longer shelf life. When we set out with PRX to create Reveal, we didn’t just ask — how do we make a good radio show? We conceived of Reveal as a platform from the beginning, not just a show.

The goal of Reveal is to take complex stories and turn them into interesting narratives that people will actually want to listen to. The audio versions of our stories don’t contain all the facts and findings unearthed in the reporting process. So the backbone of every investigation still is an in-depth text story, often accompanied by data apps and video. The multi-platform approach allows us to tell the human stories AND lay out all the detail, serving our different audiences and holding the powerful accountable.

Our newsroom is constantly balancing what’s investigative with what’s interesting to the average person. And that creative tension is exactly where we need to be. It is investigative reporting’s mission to be of public service, but we also need to tell the stories in a creative and compelling way, so people will actually pay attention. We make Reveal as “ice-creamy” as possible  — with Al Letson as the host, with a strong sense of character and place, with humor and irony when appropriate, with original music and rich sound design, and with reporting on possible solutions to the problems we uncover.

Another reason the medium is great for investigative reporting is because, unlike digital news, people expect to spend time with podcasts and to learn everything there is to know about an issue, a topic, a person, a story. Listening for a half hour, an hour, even two hours for some podcasts, is expected. By contrast, people devote a few minutes to text stories. If we’re lucky.

What does 2017 hold for your team?

We will continue to focus on developing the voice of the show. Everyone in podcasting and public radio told us it would take at least the first year to figure out who we are and that work definitely continues.

For this next year, we’re planning for more episodes that bring original, in-depth reporting and context to issues already in the news cycle. This fall, we produced a number of election-related shows, covering voting rights, internet voting and the secret Trump voter. We also released an extended interview with Richard Spencer, the white supremacist, which got lots of attention. [Ed. note: Current’s The Pub podcast, by the way, had an interesting discussion about this episode.] We saw a bump in listeners to those shows, which all hit a perfect balance of being deeply reported and unique, bringing something to audiences that they wouldn’t get elsewhere, while also being timely and relevant. Other examples of that this past year were our show about Trump supporters back in February, before most news outlets were taking them seriously, and our hour long episode about the Orlando nightclub shooting which we pulled together in a few days (compared to the 3-4 months we normally spend on shows).

We’re also thinking about building on the positive response to the Richard Spencer interview, by releasing more full-length, deep dive interviews as a supplement to the regular weekly show.

Lastly, we plan to experiment with bringing documentaries to Reveal, adapting films produced by our own filmmakers (we launched a female documentary initiative this fall with significant funding from the Helen Gurley Brown Foundation) and partnering with independent producers.

Bites:

  • Pop Up Archive launches an audio clipmaker off its podcast search and intelligence engine, Audiosearch. Between this, This American Life’s Shortcut, and all the open source audiogram stuff that WNYC is whipping up, the social audio nut should be well on its way to getting itself cracked — unless, of course, clipping isn’t the way to get podcasts to travel over existing social graphs. Maybe the smart speaker is the way to go here? (Audiosearch)

  • I’m being told that the AV Club’s podcast review column, Podmass, will live on after its current editor, Becca James, leaves the organization at the end of the year. “Not sure how much I can say right now, but we should still be up and running after the holidays,” she wrote me in an email last week. Sweet.

  • Earwolf and Chris Gethard’s Beautiful Stories from Anonymous People has a strange ad integration with Casper going on right now. It’s hard to explain pithily, but it’s something you’d expect from a mattress company. (Earwolf)

  • More than 40% of NPR’s broadcast sponsors also backs its podcasts, apparently. (Variety)

  • Barstool Sports, the controversial site with a fairly strong podcast presence, is launching a daily broadcast on SiriusXM. It will kick off on January 3. (Hollywood Reporter)

  • Veritone Media, a California-based advertising agency whose dabblings in podcasts have increasingly crossed my attention, is now called “Veritone One.” (Press Release)

  • Detour, the GPS audio walking tour app, is opening up its platform. It’s a really, really cool product that’s been allowing some fantastic producers to do some really, really cool work. Check it. (Detour) [h/t MJ]

Moves:

  • Here’s something interesting: WNYC has hired Eurry Kim, who served as the Director of Fundraising/Digital Analytics on Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, to build out the station’s research and audience data efforts.

By the way, my top 10 podcasts of 2016 came out on Vulture yesterday. I mentioned this on Twitter, but I’ll say it here too: for what it’s worth, I had a really hard time putting this list together, and I’ll cop to the fact it’s a little conservative, but my top three picks were, personally, no-brainers. I’ll also say that, though I’m cognizant of the critiques made against the premise of top 10 lists — from its arbitrariness to the way it is structurally embedded with problems of representation — I’m of the position that the answer is always more, not less. (Speaking of which: do read the list in the context of other top tens, like those from NYT, Entertainment Weekly, and the AV Club.) Also, another writer is going to do top 10 comedy pods for Vulture at some point, and a top 10 episode list from me will be out soon.

 

Tuesday

6

December 2016

0

COMMENTS

A Mess of (Distribution) Options

Written by , Posted in Uncategorized

TLDR
  • Midroll makes a slew of executive hires.
  • The Quick and Dirty Tips network looks forward to a focused 2017, and welcomes a new sister podcast network.
  • NPR One opens up an in-app pathway for direct donations to the public radio mothership from non-American listeners.
  • The Financial Times caps an aggressive year in podcasting with the launch of “Everything Else,” their fifth launch in 2016.
  • The IAB releases a revised Digital Audio Buyers guide. Is grouping podcasts with the rest of digital audio a good thing? *shruggie*
  • Notes on navigating an environment saturated with distribution points.

Midroll’s new executive hires:

  • Korri Kolesa is the new head of sales, replacing Lex Friedman as he settles into his new Chief Revenue Officer role.

  • Eric Spiegelman is the new VP of Business Affairs, taking now-CEO Erik Diehn’s place. I’m being told more information on this hire will be released soon.

  • Peter Clowney is the new executive editor. He was previously the head editor at Gimlet Media.

Of particular interest is Kolesa, who is taking over what is probably Midroll’s biggest revenue engine, its ad sales business. A digital media veteran with ample experience heading up sales teams for digital products not quite yet understood by the advertisers — she led the strategy for sites in the Fox Interactive Media portfolio like MySpace and IGN in the late 2000s, if that means anything to you — Kolesa is being brought in by Midroll to transition its sales operations out of its often patchwork startup configurations towards structures more capable of scaling. She was most recently a Project Director at Spark No. 9, a consultancy aimed at launching new businesses.

“Our team already knows how to sell, so the focus now is going to be, ‘what can we optimize?’” said Lex Friedman, who has headed sales at the company since 2013. Friedman was recently promoted to Chief Revenue Officer following former CEO Adam Sachs’ departure over the summer. Friedman will still be involved in the sales side, but his role will see him spending more time figuring out the next steps for the company’s emerging live events strategy and getting ready for a “significant announcement” regarding its premium subscription business, Howl. That’ll come “pretty soon.” Kolesa started work yesterday.

The Road Ahead for the Quick and Dirty Tips network. The decade-old, 12-podcast strong network recently surpassed its 250 million lifetime download mark, and it’s getting ready for a busy, but focused, 2017. As network head Kathy Doyle told me over email:

We’re focused on continuing to build QDT’s audience and increase distribution for our core shows. We’re always open to testing new talent but, for now, we want to ensure we’re able to tap into the surge we’re all seeing in podcast consumption and make sure we’re reaching new listeners as we work to continue our great growth.

Also on the plate: the launch of a sister network. For those unfamiliar, QDT is a joint venture between MacMillan Publishing and Mignon Fogarty, whose Grammar Girl podcast anchors the network (you can find more details in a recent profile by freelance journalist Simon Owens), and Doyle informs me that the publishing house is getting ready to launch the MacMillan Podcast Network, its own slate of author-centric shows. She writes:

We’re taking our expertise and leveraging relationships with in-house Macmillan authors who are logical fits for the medium. These new shows will come in a variety of formats to help deepen relationships with readers and expand an author’s platform.

This new MacMillan network appears to be the logical conclusion of a long-running trend that sees authors adopting podcasts as a channel to deepen and sustain their relationship with audiences — and not to mention, to build out an alternative revenue stream to book sales. (See: Maximum Fun’s Magic Lessons podcast with Elizabeth Gilbert, Panoply’s Happier with Gretchen Rubin podcast, and so on.) I’d be interested to see if other book publishers will follow suit; though, given that none of them possess an arrangement quite like that between MacMillan and QDT, I kinda doubt it.

Anyway, the nascent MacMillan Podcast Network is kicking things off by releasing a preview of an upcoming author show: Raise My Roof with Cara Brookins, which is meant to accompany Brookins’ memoir that’s scheduled for a January release.

Some non-American NPR One listeners will be able to donate directly to NPR through the app, starting next year. This marks the first time the public radio mothership is establishing a contribution pipeline directly with listeners, according to a Current article on the matter.

If you’re asking, what about Americans? Well, join the club. When I popped the question over to the network, a spokesperson replied: “We are actively working to improve the local-station pledge experience within the app over the coming months… In 2017, we will expand on this by working with a pilot group of stations to explore a more direct connection between their listeners and their payment gateway.”

That likely means direct donations from American listeners to NPR will remain off the table. If that bums you out, considering purchasing 50 Nina Totin’ Bags off the NPR merch site. The effect is probably equivalent, plus some percentage sales tax.

The Financial Times rolls out the latest in its growing line of podcasts last week: Everything Else, a culture magazine show. This marks fifth podcast that the paper has launched in 2016. (Which, y’know, seems kind of aggressive.)

When I asked how the paper evaluates its podcast strategy, a spokesperson replied:

We measure the success of our podcasts in a number of ways. Subscriber numbers are important, of course, but we also gather data on engagement — whether readers favorite or share our podcasts, whether readers write in and interact with our hosts. Shows like FT Management’s Business Book Review and Alphachat have particularly enthusiastic listener responses.”

High engagement is great, but of course, the larger question is whether the organization will be able to translate that into a proportional revenue outcome that would justify the investment. Anyway, when I requested for some stats on the publication’s podcast audience, I was told there were over 3.5 million downloads of FT podcasts in the last 30 days. Cut that up however you will.

Just a side note: the only FT podcast that I consume with any regularity is Alphachat. That show goes deep, really embracing its casual wonkiness — a direct extension of its parent blog, Alphaville, which just celebrated its 10-year anniversary — and that’s generally a winning formula for the specific value proposition that the medium brings to a publication like the Financial Times.

The Outline went live yesterday, with a new podcast in its lineup: “Sound Show.” The publication now has two other shows: Tomorrow, which basically functions as founder Joshua Topolsky’s personal stump, and Out West, a fan theory pod for HBO’s Westworld, which wrapped its first season this past weekend. And for those keeping tabs: the pods are hosted on Megaphone.

Outline audio director John Lagomarsino tells me that he’s totally taking freelance pitches for Sound Show. “We’re not limiting it to just in-house writers, by any means. Multi-story episodes with a mix of writers/producers is totally the vibe we’re gonna arrive at,” he says. Hit it up, buds.

The Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) releases revised Digital Audio Buyers Guide. For those unfamiliar, the IAB is a trade association that functions as a kind of mediating body between various aspects of the digital media ecosystem and the advertising community. The IAB has played a somewhat active role in attempting to attract more advertisers to the podcast industry, in part by trying to get podcast companies to cooperate over a standard ad metric (last I heard, with mixed results), in part by setting the narrative for advertisers. The buyers guide comes out from the latter, and this particular version was prepared by Jennifer Lane, the association’s newly appointed Industry Initiatives Lead for Audio. Lane previously worked at the digital audio trade news site RAIN News.

Obviously, check out the guide in full if you work on the advertising side of things, but this is what I’m primarily thinking about:

One has to wonder about the narrative/branding effects of lumping podcasts together with the rest of digital audio, placing the format — and its very specific quirks (as well as potential) — within the same buying conversation as streaming services like Pandora, Spotify, and iHeartMedia. Those latter companies currently function at a much greater scale than podcasts, and the value propositions for the two groups, both in terms of advertising formats and content, are drastically different. That being said, there is some transaction to be made in that consolidation of types, I think; podcasting is able to get some spillover attention from those digital audio platforms whose narratives are already established, while those platforms benefit somewhat from the shiny novelty of podcasting’s (re)surging profile. (It is, after all, something new to talk about, no?) The question is whether or not that transaction is equitable, and that’s up to you to decide. My personal, initial impression is that it isn’t, and that the podcast industry suffers more from experiencing a high likelihood of being subjected to inappropriate one-to-one audience comparisons.

In any case, I’ve previously written about my suspicion that we’re bound for a convergence in platforms and types either way — that at some point, the term “podcasting” would have no functional purpose as the content being developed in the industry becomes more agnostic in how its being distributed. (We’ve begun to see some of that. Two examples: iHeartMedia’s peculiar creep into the podcast space, Audible’s repackaging of one of its original programs for distribution outside its Channels ecosystem.) I stand by the conclusion I made back when I first wrote about that potential convergence: that the podcast space, as well as the digital audio space more broadly, would begin to be more defined by its content type than by its distribution structure.

Related: iHeartRadio is apparently producing a podcast with Arianna Huffington’s new media venture, Thrive Global. Hm.

A Mess of Options. The number of potential distribution points for on-demand audio is kinda getting out of hand. Consider the following question on this date, the last month of 2016: if you’re a podcast publisher, which distribution platform should you be keeping a close eye on and investing tangible resources towards?

You have, of course, the de facto stronghold that everybody already knows about and has probably dedicated much of their distribution strategy to wooing: the native iOS Podcast app and its underlying iTunes infrastructure, whose share of ear is roughly upwards of 50%. But you also have the wide, wide range of independent third party podcast apps, from Overcast to Castro, all of which command some small percentage of the overall podcast listenership. And then you have Stitcher, previously one of the biggest of those third party apps, which was acquired earlier this year by Midroll Media and is therefore likely to see some resurgence in capital and activity. Now, let’s not forget the slew of new, buzzy contenders, like RadioPublic and 60dB (and not to mention the public radio-specific NPR One, which is less new but remains nonetheless part of this category), all jonesing to do some exciting with the consumer-side experience. And then you have the larger music streaming platforms, like Google Play Music and Spotify, which over the past year have added podcasts into their inventory… to so-far little revolutionary effect, it appears. (Which reminds me: best not leave out Pandora’s lone dalliance into the space with This American Life and Serial.) And then we have the more unconventional routes to market — things like Otto Radio, with its car-specific integrations and recently announced partnership with Uber, and the Amazon Alexa platform, which is pulling in a steady stream of short content publishers. And what about the spread of older audio streaming platforms in the space, like iHeartMedia and TuneIn, which are agitating their way into podcasts, whatever that means for those companies that come from drastically different structural interpretations of digital audio? Oh, and what about the connected car dashboard? (What ABOUT the dashboard?)

It’s a mercilessly long list, and from the whispers I’ve been hearing, it’s only going to get a whole lot longer as we move into the new year. Which is theoretically interesting; while I don’t completely buy the oft-uttered refrain that podcast discovery and distribution is broken — even now at the very end of 2016 (garbage, garbage 2016) — it remains well below par, and what’s theoretically exciting about all of this is how this reflects a high level of competition in approaches on how to improve listening experiences and growing the overall pie, which I view is a good thing.

But at this point in time, all those approaches are yet-to-fully-realized potentials, and a good chunk of them are requesting support — or at least, cooperation and participation — from publishers. This presents a problem for the perpetually resource-constrained podcast publisher, which I articulated at the top of this item: which nascent distribution platform should I be keeping a close eye on and investing tangible resources towards? I can’t tell you what to do, but here are three quick thoughts on the matter:

  • The basics: keep in mind that any such partnership is a transaction, and just the math of figuring out of whether any such arrangement you strike up equitably benefits both sides. After all, both publisher and platform are targeting the same thing: more listeners/users, and at the end of the day one imagines there would be some eventual tension in how both parties are competing for listener/user loyalty.

  • It’s quite possible that we end up in a situation where each app commands very specific kinds of users. Consider the possibility that a user who ends up primarily listening to podcasts over Spotify isn’t possess the same demographic or psychographic profile as a user who favors RadioPublic. These differences, then, should be the basis of a publisher’s strategy in the way it chooses which distribution partnership to invest more time, energy, and resources in. This also suggests a way every distributor can illustrate its value proposition in attempts to cultivate greater cooperation or participation with a given publishing partner.

  • This point should be obvious, but I’ll say it anyway: if you’re a resource-constrained publisher, don’t overextend yourself across all possible partnership options. Pick your battles, and your partners, wisely.

Anyway, that’s all I’ll say about that.

Bites:

  • Sam Sanders is leaving the NPR Politics Podcast roster at the end of January, though he’s staying at the public radio mothership and will be launching a new show. (Twitter) Sanders’ co-panelist, Asma Khalid, is leaving NPR to work the biz/tech beat at WBUR. She will also be launching a new podcast. (Twitter)
  • DGital Media is reportedly seeing revenue “in the high seven figures.” (LA Biz Journal)
  • “Hearst Is Launching a 10-Person Team Tasked With Building Voice-Activated Experiences.” (AdWeek)
  • “Using podcasts to capture stories: Gardner Pilot Academy sixth-graders push their writing and technical skills.” (Harvard Gazette)
  • “Here’s the climate change podcast you didn’t know you were looking for.” (The Verge)

Moves:

  • Bryan Moffett has been named the Chief Operating Officer at National Public Media, the entity that handles ad sales, underwriting, and sponsorship for NPR and PBS. He previously held the role of General Manager. Smart move.
  • Brendan Baker has left Love + Radio to spend some time exploring new projects and creative directions. “Basically I want to take what I’ve been doing on L+R and apply it in new contexts. So I’m open to collaborating with other shows or producers on special projects, but I also consult and teach workshops on sound design and would like to do more of that, too,” he told me over email. “I think we need producers need to start to thinking more like film directors. So I’d really love to talk to people who are in a position to fund audio projects that take a more cinematic approach toward direction and production.”
  • I’m being told that Leital Molad, who had helped launched WNYC’s health show Only Human and served as executive producer on that project, is the new Executive Producer for Podcasts at First Look Media. This development apparently took place back in October. Not sure what’s going on over there, will let y’all know soon.

Wednesday

30

November 2016

0

COMMENTS

The Role Apple Should Play, and other stuff too

Written by , Posted in Hot Pod Weekly

Slowly climbing back onto the saddle after the American Turkey weekend. Oof.

But first: does anybody know any examples of local podcasts — from public radio and otherwise, about news and otherwise — that been successful revenue-wise? And by that, I mean podcasts that are not only able to justify its cost, but routinely draws in profit. I’m working on something related to this, and I’d love to hear from you if you’ve got examples.

Ken Doctor on the role Apple should play. The media analyst made an appearance on the latest episode of The Wolf Den, Midroll’s pretty handy content marketing podcast-slash-guide to the industry, to discuss his spectacular series on the podcasting boom that recently ran on Nieman Lab.

Of particular note is his take on Apple, which came up at around the 16:45 mark:

What I would like to see is [Apple] not get into the middle of things where they actually overwhelm all the smaller companies that are in it… The money looks like it’s going to be mainly advertising and less listener payment, and that’s not a field they’re very good at.They’ve proven that they’re not a very good advertising company. And that’s a good reason for them not to get into it: [there’s] not a lot of money in it right now, and they’d need big hits…

… If their role could be the providing of information and data in a Switzerland-kind of way for the industry, given that 60% or so of all the listening comes through Apple devices, and maybe get paid a little to do that — but to do that in a way that is non-competitive — that might be their best role for the industry. It will support their core businesses, which is selling hardware and software, but not put them in direct competition and snuff out the creativity and imagination that’s in the industry.

Doctor’s position here — for Apple to become more involved as an information and data provider, and not as some sort of involved content distribution funnel — is more or less the position favored by most in the industry at this point in time. It’s a highly specific vision of Apple’s role in the podcast space that requires a delicate balance, one that was largely reflected in the agitation aggregately portrayed in that semi-controversial New York Times article from back in May. (A controversy, by the way, that now seems driven by fears that drawing attention to the problem would trigger an unpredictable action from Apple, and not based on any vision of the future articulated by anybody interviewed.)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I completely second Doctor’s position here, both for the positives — yes, it would be very nice for all of us to get better access to actionable data that could yield greater audience insight (preferably in such a way that isn’t particularly invasive) and foster greater intangible confidence in the medium from the advertising community — as well as for the severity of its negatives.

The Darkest Timeline. Now, I’m not an Apple Kremlinologist — I’ll leave that to the vast blog ecosystem dedicated to Apple coverage — and so I can’t, of course, personally predict with any confidence how the company is thinking about its podcast strategy (or even whether it’s thinking about it with any seriousness at all). My gut reaction, and I know I’m not the only person who suspects this, is that podcast money is still very much chump change, and that any attempt to step in as a layer that takes off a percentage of the entire space would still amount to what is essentially a rounding error for the company. (Recall that the current valuation of the podcast industry’s ad spend is only so much — for 2016,ZenithOptimedia projected $35.1 million back in March, while others have so far estimated it to be as high as $167 million — while digital music revenue is pegged to be about $2.66 billion this year, radio ad spend was $17.5 billion in 2015, and Apple’s app store revenue was estimated to be about $6.4 billion in 2015.)

However, if I were to endeavor to imagine a possible world in which they’d try to do something at this specific point in time, I’d figure that the guiding incentive would not be to capitalize on peeling a layer off revenues in the space as it is, but to instead become an underlying condition of how future business is conducted in the space. Which is to say that, in such a scenario, Apple would want to position itself in a way that’s similar to how, say, Art19 or Panoply would want their respective platforms to be the de facto podcast hosting solution, or how Stripe is becoming increasingly synonymous with internet payments.

What does that mean, precisely? Whatever it is, it’ll probably feature the company offering podcasters — and in particular, big podcast publishers, who are incentivized to persist in the long term — solutions, expertise, and/or access to something those podcasters themselves do not have and experience high barriers of entry to obtain. As Doctor noted, that probably isn’t going to be ad sales, since the company has historically proven themselves to not be great at that. What does that leave us with? Audience development, maybe payments? And where does that leave Apple: a strategy of exclusives, like their pursuits with Apple Music, or maybe direct payment-patronage tools, coopting the role that Patreon would play?

Anyway, that’s what I’m batting around in my head. In any case, at this point I’ll say that if Apple were ever to make a move, I suspect the very first people outside of Palo Alto to find out are probably the bigger podcast publishers, so keep an eye on them. In the meantime, consider investing in building out a promotion strategy and infrastructure where iTunes — and maybe even a network — isn’t at the center, but one channel of many. Hey, it can be done. I mean, look at Chapo Trap House. (I guess?)

Two more things from the Ken Doctor interview. Do check out that Wolf Den episodewith Ken Doctor — the full conversation is really, really good — but there are two additional topics that you should keep in mind:

(1) On the potential of FCC regulation over podcasts (something that the medium has, up until this point, not experienced), which Doctor discusses at about the 33:00 mark:

I think there will probably be efforts, and now, given different kinds of politicization, there may be more efforts. What I’ve seen over 20 years is that essentially the law and regulatory practice has been absolutely flummoxed by digital media… The FCC and the FTC have not figured out how to deal with this. Even antitrust law has not figured out how to deal with it. I don’t think that’s going to change.

I would hope that your industry… will take that lead and make your own rules that are ethical and that are transparent to the public. And to get ahead of it, and try to avoid government regulation which is as likely to be misguided as it is to be well-guided.

(2) The role podcasts can play for local media and local news was also discussed, and you can hear that chunk of the discussion at around the 38:30 mark.

“Efficiency trumps all things, in general,” said Erik Diehn, CEO of Midroll, when we spoke over the phone recently. “There are many more advertisers in the space relative to a few years ago, and they’re increasingly looking for scale. If you’re an advertiser, you can cobble a few shows together, or you can choose instead to buy one big show… That’s just where we’re at. It’s the same thing on YouTube, ditto a few years ago with blogs. We’re at a point of bifurcation: you’re going to see many more larger shows absorbing a lot more dollars, including brand dollars, that weren’t there before.”

Diehn notes that there is a very specific form of exception to this, pointing to the podcast Spilled Milk as a case study. “They aren’t huge, but they sell out because they’ve been around for a while, they have a good audience, and they do food,” he explains. “Some people will buy even at that smaller scale. If you’re going to be a commercially successful podcast at this point, you got to have a differentiated or notable product.”

I spoke with Diehn, by the way, to balance out the interviews I did for last week’s item on independent podcasts. More in the members newsletter.

Digiday has a pretty interesting snapshot on the UK digital audio landscape, drawing from a report by UK-based Radio Joint Audience Research that groups together streaming platforms, digital radio, and podcasts. Expected findings apply: a preference by younger demographics, a steady growth rate (a reported double-digit growth every six months), and persisting fragmentation when it comes to centralized measurement.

As with my own reporting, the article notes that there exists a general sense that digital audio in the UK still “lags” behind the US, though I should note that, among podcast companies specifically, there are a few entities putting in a fair bit of effort developing a connected presence on both fronts. (See: Audioboom and Acast’s long-running incursion into the US, Panoply’s recently-established outpost in the UK.)

Anyway, check out the Digiday article in full. There’s some additional findings on specific company strategies that are also pretty cool.

An unexpected pleasure. I was catching up on Life After, GE Podcast Theater’s follow-up to The Message, over the weekend, and I was struck by just how positively I reacted to the show’s complete lack of advertising breaks. No pre-roll, no mid-roll, no clunky sponsorship messaging; there were simply no disruptions in the show’s contiguous experience that added onto the suspension of disbelief already being demanded by the story. The show felt more immersive as a result, washing over my earballs so much more smoothly. Heck, I swear it made me like the show more than I naturally would have, and frankly, I can’t tell if the season is any good or whether I’m just happy there are no ads. (For what it’s worth, I quite like the season.)

And yes, the irony of Life After being one gigantic piece of advertising isn’t lost on me.

Also not lost on me: the fact that my overwhelmingly positive response says a whole lot more about the state of normal podcasts than it does about branded podcasts as a, uhm, thing (genre?). Advertising is a tax, the price we pay for a piece of media that we didn’t pay for out of our pockets. The role of publishers, by and large, is to mitigate the burden of that tax as it is suffered by audiences; in an ideal world, publishers could even turn that tax into an additional value.

The experience of Life After brings into acute focus just how much that tax has accumulated over the past year, and just how much they’ve congealed into fatigue. (For me, at least.) Granted, I’m an edge case — I spend inhumane chunks of my days consuming podcasts, and perhaps it was only a matter of time that I’d grow blind (deaf?) to advertising in my exorbitantly high levels of podcast consumption. But I’m struck, at this moment, by the extent to which I’ve been bearing with podcast ads, and I’m saying this as a person who actually believes in advertising. The flip-side to this is just how little podcast advertising I actually notice, how rarely I encounter host-reads that fill me with any memorable feelings at all.

There is, of course, a limit to which my personal experience says anything about everything else, but all of this does make me wonder how, in the midst of an expanding in-flow of advertising money into the space, the podcast industry en masse is readying itself to figure out how to preserve the medium’s intimacy — to capitalize on the fresh start it offers for digital media — while scaling up its advertising infrastructure to accommodate that money.

Anyway, I’d love to know what you think. Especially if you disagree.

Related: A reader recently pointed out to me that Life After is being directed by John Dryden, who helmed the very good Tumanbay which the BBC published last year. (Sadly, it’s no longer available for consumption at this writing. Come on, BBC! Ugh.)

For those keeping close watch on Audible Channels: The number of Amazon Prime members is now estimated to be 49.5 million across the US, up 23% from last year, according to a report by financial services firm Cowen & Co as cited by Barron’s.

Recall that Audible’s parent company Amazon started bundling Channels content with its Prime membership program back in September. Previously, Channels was only available to paying Audible subscribers and as a standalone paid subscription feature, priced at $4.96 per month or $60 per year. Also recall the larger strategy for Amazon with Channels: its existence theoretically increases the value of the Prime and Audible memberships, thus increasing the friction for cancellation for current members and increasing the pull for new subscribers. That allows for a programming strategy that favors hyper-targeting, which means that Audible doesn’t have to always program for the broadest possible audience. This should be nothing new for longtime Hot Pod readers, but I’d going to keep hammering on it because I believe it’s key to reading that company.

Been thinking a lot about the podcast review formats, and I quite like the way The Guardian formats theirs — grouped, brisk, efficient, conclusive. Also: have I mentioned that I love the way Caroline Crampton is building out the beat over at the New Statesman? (Is it a coincidence that both publications are British? Probably not.) The more the merrier, and I’m looking forward to more entrants in this department.

Bites:

  • Hot Pod reader Charles Wiltgen has made pretty handy tool: the Podcast Validator, which helps assess whether your RSS feed is good to go. A little bit goes a long way for that additional piece of mind. (Podbase)

  • If you’re keeping an eye on what comes next for the CBC’s role in Canada, do yourself a favor and check out the latest episode of Canadaland. (Canadaland)

  • “A Podcast of Their Own for Women in Music.” (The Atlantic)

  • “On the Need for Queer Podcasts.” (LA Review of Books)

  • Not directly podcast-related, but I’m reading: “How Silicon Valley Passed on Conservative Media” (The Information, paywall)

Moves:

Tuesday

22

November 2016

0

COMMENTS

Five Perspectives on Indie Pods, Third Coast Debrief, Translation

Written by , Posted in Hot Pod Weekly

Five Perspectives from Independent Podcasts. We’re doing something a little different this week. One of the fundamental narratives driving the podcast space, I think, is the consequences of formalization. Much of this newsletter focuses on the exploits of a professionalizing layer of companies agitating to build a more formalized industry on top of a vibrant open ecosystem that had thus far been fueled by an expansive community of independent creators. A tension exists in the attempted cohabitation between the two; the prevailing concern that emerges from this is whether the developments of the past two years have mutually benefited both parties or whether it has largely privileged the professionalizing layer.

That tension is challenging to study, given the severe deficiencies in publicly available data on podcast in the aggregate and the general amorphousness of what we’re talking about when we talking about “independent podcasts” — a category encompasses a wide variety of different content, scales, business models, and ambitions. Comprehensive representation, then, is improbable, so keep that in mind as you read this. Anyway, I spoke with five independent podcast operations about how they’re processing the exploits of the bigger fish, and I’m running chunky excerpts from their responses here. Here we go.

(1) Rose Eveleth, of the Flash Forward podcast, on the challenges of crowding:

I think that the gains in podcasting-as-a-business is both great and terrible for indies. The increased attention and money is largely directed at the top of the food chain shows that come from legacy radio. Even the companies that have spun out like Gimlet have that same DNA. They sound like the conventional audio storytelling shows and, crucially, they employ people whose job it is to get more listeners and better advertisers and make money. That’s not bad! It makes them safe business propositions for advertisers. You’ve had success advertising with NPR, This American Life, Radiolab? Great, you see Startup and Reply All as safe bets. They’re shows with an infrastructure and sales team that looks really similar to an advertiser to traditional bets they might have made on radio or big name podcasts.

With that money comes an increase in attention to podcasts in general. Which means more podcasts. Which means more competition from teams that have an infrastructure and budget like Gimlet. I think that’s great. But it also changes how viable it is for an indie show to build an audience.

Let’s take science podcasts for example. It used to be that if you were a science nerd, you would discover Radiolab. And then you’d be like “wow how do I get more podcasts like this?” You’d go to iTunes and click on “Science & Medicine” and you’d get Radiolab, and then the rest of the shows on there were indie: Star Talk, You Are Not So Smart, Inquiring Minds, The Naked Scientist etc.

Now, you go to iTunes and you click Science & Medicine and you get: Hidden Brain (NPR), Radiolab (WNYC), Invisibilia (NPR), How to do Everything (NPR), Science Vs (Gimlet), Science Friday, Only Human (WNYC) and THEN you start to get indies. The average person isn’t going to listen to more than a couple of science podcasts, probably. So, the competition is getting tougher, the top is crowded by podcasts that have teams and systems behind them.

This is good in some ways! It means that in order to get ahead you have to make something that’s good, and surprising and high-quality. I don’t want to overstate the quality of those pre-big-business-podcast shows, many of them were not good. But it was true that by simply making something about science/medicine you could find yourself in the top 50 on iTunes without needing a marketing team. Now, that’s much much harder, in my opinion, even if you ARE making something really great.

All of this isn’t unique to podcasts, right? This is a thing that happens to small industries that get an influx of cash. Capitalism!

(2) Gina Delvac, who produces Call Your Girlfriend, on the dynamics of attention:

I have a public radio background like so many podcasters, and really cut my teeth at the national show Marketplace. So from my business journo perspective, I think it makes sense to watch the people who are generating the largest volumes of venture capital, acquisitions, revenue, and driving new fundraising models. That’s going to impact all podcasters, whether or not we are affiliated with any of those companies because they push the boundaries of what is economically possible. (I’m talking about creators getting ~paid~ for these weird, difficult, fulfilling and/or transformative little gems we make). We’re all watching to see how this nascent industry develops. I say “nascent” because I think there are possibilities for disruptions far beyond what we’ve seen since mid-2014 when CYG started.

At CYG, in addition to having two incredibly brilliant and delightful hosts, Aminatou [Sow] and Ann [Friedman] have their own platforms and friends in media circles, who were big boosters for us. Early writeups in Entertainment Weekly and the Guardian, and regular features on iTunes helped us find an audience in a big way early on. We’ve benefited from a lot of additional press since then. I don’t say that to brag, but to acknowledge that many indie podcasters do not have quite the same bullhorn that we do outside of the podcast itself. A lack of attention paid to smaller shows is a genuine problem for those individuals to be able to continue on, and obviously for the rest of us looking to have our ears challenged by new creative approaches and the viewpoints of people who can’t afford to work for free.

(3) Paul Bae and Terry Miles, of Pacific Northwest Stories, on whether growth at the professionalizing layer has cannibalized independents:

Not at all. If you look at who rules the top of the iTunes charts, you’ll consistently see independent players like Aaron Mahnke and Dan Carlin up there with the Gimlet and Radiotopia shows. So when it comes to podcasting success, exposure is important, but, at the moment, content would still seem to be king.

What we hope doesn’t happen is a glut of mediocre celebrity-driven podcasts, people dipping their toes into the podcasting water for a couple of episodes here and there, doesn’t color the new listener’s impression of what the medium of podcasting is capable of delivering. It’s great that everybody can make a podcast, and there’s room for everyone, but we hope that, when it comes to exposure, the media covering the form continues to reward and trumpet high quality well thought out audio productions rather than simply looking at a name or brand and chasing that association.

It’s one thing to draw significant media attention away from the plethora of amazing content being created by those of us dedicated to podcasting for a different high quality audio experience, it’s another to turn people off of the medium because their introduction to the form wasn’t compelling.

(4) Lauren Shippen, of The Bright Sessions, on podcast coverage:

I do think that most of the attention is paid to the big networks, but I also understand the necessity of that. There are so many podcasts out there that, for someone who is writing about podcasts, it makes sense to start with the proven, known entities and work your way down. Things do break through this if they get enough listens or chatter but there are still a lot of hidden gems. But this is like any other industry — there are a lot of good musicians that no one’s ever heard of because they don’t have the machine of a label behind them.

It will be interesting to see what happens to podcasts like ours in the next 6 months as these bigger networks start to get into the audio drama game. My only concern is that some listeners will enjoy the “name brand” audio drama and yet still be reluctant to try “unbranded” audio drama. We’re right up there on the charts with the recognizable names, but we don’t have the cachet of a large company behind us. I think audio drama becoming mainstream is inevitable and ultimately a good thing, but there’s always the fear that we’ll be swallowed up by bigger, shinier fish. Only time will tell!

(5) Claire Friedman, of Cards Against Humanity’s Chicago Podcast Cooperative, on pathways and the clustering of interest at the top:

Sometimes [podcast networks] are going to see an indie show and reach down and pull them up. Other times, they’ll miss something truly great. And that’s alright too! They’re not perfect. The *benefit* for indies is that there’s even a path now. There’s somewhere to go. And they may take that path and they may not, but having it changes your mentality.

There might be people who listen to fewer indie shows now because they’re listening to ones produced on networks, there may be people who just can’t get a break where they may have previously been able to, but I truly don’t think that’s hurt indies as a whole. It’s done work to familiarize more people with the medium and more companies with the potential, and I think that’s made indies more able to communicate why they’re doing something different and cool.

Alright. I’ll cap it there. More thoughts in the member’s letter this weekend.

Third Coast Debrief. The beloved Chicago-based audio conference wrapped up its eleventh edition two weekends ago, and while I wasn’t able to attend in person — and thus, disappointingly, was unable to experience the fireworks at the contentious post-election panel (Current has a solid play-by-play) — I heard it went swimmingly, with record attendance amidst what is essentially a boomtime for audio. I managed to get Third Coast’s Sarah Geis, the conference’s artistic director, and Maya Goldberg-Safir, the conference’s communications strategist, on the phone yesterday for a debrief. Some selected notes:

  • “The conference was bigger than ever before,” Geis noted. “There were about 750 people this year, up from under 600 when we last held the festival two years ago.”

  • Geis and Goldberg-Safir told me that one of the major differences from the last conference was an increased presence of organizations recruiting for talent. “That was reflected both in the attending companies as well as the sponsorships,” they said.

  • “I was grateful that it didn’t feel like a trade show at all,” Goldberg-Safir said, bringing up the festival’s emphasis on maintaining a sense of intimacy and approachability. This will be a continued point of focus as the team accommodates for likely increases in attendees in the years to come.

  • Finally, the team is setting up a podcast feed that will serve listeners audio recordings of the sessions from the 2016 conference as well as selected sessions from previous years. It will also contain some educational material. The feed will be published over the next few days; keep an eye on the website for details.

Geis, by the way, is leaving Third Coast at the end of the year. The organization is restructuring as a result, and will be posting job listings for an artistic associate and a manager of operations soon. As for Geis, she’ll be looking to leverage her three years developing her skills as an editor in pursuit of other opportunities.

Approaches to Translation. I don’t speak many languages — truthfully, all I have is English, the mother tongue of the country I come from, and a bits of obscenities scattered across various Romance languages — which means that I am largely at a loss when I cover stuff like Slate France’s early podcasting efforts, which I wrote about back in August, and the Spanish-language narrative show Radio Ambulante’s distribution deal with NPR, which I discussed last week. Ideally, I would have loved to actually experience those shows before writing about their developments, structures, and business contexts; after all, a core belief driving this newsletter is the ways in which product impacts business models and vice versa.

Anyway, my frustrations with covering stories like that led me to wonder about the set of moves currently available for podcast translation and localization, which subsequently led me to UK-based radio producer Eleanor McDowall whose site, Radio Atlas, seeks to bridge the language gap by converting non-English-language radio pieces into video packages that layers visual subtitles over original recordings. I first heard of Radio Atlas from a Poynter column published back in February (when the site originally launched), and at the time, I felt that the choice to essentially shift the experience from audio-first to video-first was one I ultimately didn’t want to follow as a consumer. I still feel that way, but I figured McDowall had nonetheless worked through the alternatives of approaching translation when developing the site, so I asked her to walk me through her choices.

Over email, she outlined the three approaches she considered:

(1) Transcripting, where listeners are encouraged to either read a script online or as a print-out while consuming an episode. “This happens a lot at European conferences and competitions like the IFC and the Prix Europa,” McDowall pointed out, referring to two well-known international radio competitions. “My issues with the transcript method are that you completely lose the timing. If you’re a quick reader you’re going to leap ahead and spoil everyone’s punchlines, you might miss the musicality of the edit or the pause mid-sentence as an interviewee becomes overcome with emotion.”

(2) Audio Reversioning, where a captioning voice is integrated into the piece itself in a way that flows over parts of that piece, often extending the listening experience well beyond its original design and runtime. “There have been some really creative approaches to audio reversioning where sometimes the translation voice might offer a new dimension, act as a new interviewee or play with the form of a doc to a certain extent,” she explained. “I think audio reversioning is really interesting but for me — although every act of translation is obviously a transformation — it’s a tool that changes the character of the original documentary into something else. As with the transcript method, having the presence of a translating voice might mean that you miss the music of the original delivery… Should audio translation be neutral? Or should the speaker try and capture the tone in which lines are delivered? And if we’re listening to a ‘performed’ translation, are we diluting the authenticity of the documentary to a certain extent?”

(3) Subtitling, which is the method McDowall employs at Radio Atlas, a move that structurally reconstructs the experience from being purely aural to primarily visual. “[Subtitling] controls when you get the translation so you can get a much better sense of timing and delivery and it’s not disrupting the audio world of the original,” she said. “Radio Atlas is designed with the hope that you think as little as possible about the act of reading. I’m keen that words only appear as you need them and, where possible, I leave the screen blank so that you’re focused on the act of listening rather than looking.”

Thinking this through, it’s also entirely possible to consider a fourth option: direct translation, where the script is rewritten and reperformed in English. Of course, this wouldn’t be feasible for much non-fiction shows, which are typically structured around primary recordings of source or guest interviews, but one imagines that this could work well for non-English audio dramas — and for attempts to export English audio dramas to non-English-speaking countries as well, of course.

Aside from running Radio Atlas, McDowall is a senior producer at Falling Tree Productions, an independent production company, and the series producer of Short Cuts, a BBC Radio 4 documentary show and podcast.

Here’s an editorial partnership to watch: Song Exploder is teaming up with Vulture for “a series of episodes on the most interesting film scores of the year.” The series kicked off last week with an episode covering the score for the movie “Arrival,” composed by Jóhann Jóhannsson. It’s a very smart non-zero sum collaboration, with obvious upsides for both parties: Song Exploder gets itself in front of the Vulture audience (many of which may be new potential listeners), and Vulture gets a piece of compelling, resonant #content that’ll engage and further monetize its readership. (#Synergy, baby.) Other podcasts, and other digital publications, would be wise to replicate this move.

And props to Song Exploder creator Hrishikesh Hirway for his entrepreneurial efforts to participate in a collaboration like this. This partnership with Vulture isn’t his first; between May 2015 and March 2016, Song Exploder was presented almost weekly on Wired.comas what appears to be a syndicated package.

Codebreaker returns for season two. Interesting and curious, gimmicky but somewhat pleasantly so, I thought Codebreaker’s first season was an uneven but admirable attempt to go beyond your standard podcast publication format. The show sought to build an interactive experience on top of the show, hiding codes throughout the episodes — which were ordinarily scheduled to publish weekly — that would unlock the rest of the season for the more involved audiences. You could call it a tiered community management structure, one that’s designed to identify, segment, and reward the more engaged listeners (a data point that could undoubtedly prove useful to the Codebreaker team).

The podcast, which comes out of a partnership between American Public Media and Business Insider, kicked off its second season last week, which seeks to explore the question: Can technology save us? Host Ben Johnson tells me that this new season is more ambitious than the first, both in terms of the storytelling and the code design. He seems very excited. You can check out the website for more information.

Bites:

  • RadioPublic is now publicly available on iOS and Android. (Nieman Lab)
  • “Podcasts’ strong ad sales help NPR reach second year of budget surplus.” According to National Public Media CEO Gina Garrubbo, “Podcast income drove the growth in digital… with advertisers renewing at an “extremely high” rate.” (Current)
  • Digiday reports that The Ringer’s podcast network apparently brings in 5 million downloads per month, citing “people familiar with the matter.” (Digiday)
  • How a local news nonprofit is experimenting with audio to build new revenue streams. Gotta hand it to those Vermonters. (Nieman Lab)
  • Add this to the list of podcasts-to-TV jumps: “‘Drink Champs’ Podcast Coming to Diddy’s Revolt TV Network.” Though, one imagines a celebrity-driven podcast strategy — like the one practiced by Drink Champs’ parent podcast network, CBS Play.it — is set up to more efficiently, but perhaps not necessarily more effectively, cultivate conversions like these. (Variety)
  • Radio journalist Joshua Johnson will succeed Diane Rehm as host of WAMU’s long-running public-affairs discussion program. The new show will be called “1A.” Not directly podcast related, but I’ve been a long-time listener of Rehm’s show, so I’m just dropping this here because I find it super exciting. (Washington Post)

Moves:

  • Gimlet’s head editor, Peter Clowney, is leaving the company. His next move remain a mystery. Will let you know what I dig up soon.