What Is The Nature of the News Podcast?
Tow Center’s “Why Podcasting Matters.” And so there I was, once again, at The Greene Space, WNYC’s personal live events venue, for yet another podcast-related shindig. I’ve grown fond of the venue over the past year; come to appreciate cozy size, its glossy floors, its neon-shaded walls that never fail to evoke Miami Vice.
The shindig in question was a panel called “Why Podcasting Matters.” It was designed around the publication of a Tow Center Report, prepared by one Vanessa Quirk, that for all intents and purposes serves as a pretty good primer for the podcast industry at the end of 2015. It was a fine gathering, but I was mildly bothered by the name of the panel, as one would imagine, partially because it’s never a particularly encouraging sign for an industry to still explain itself, but mostly because the very premise of the title is remarkably mid-2000s. It’s like being asked to make the case why blogging matters, or why the digitalization of media matters. Like, how many different variations of the same argument must we make?
But I understand, begrudgingly, the continuing need to stick with introductions. After all, I’m told that it’s still very early days for podcasting (eleven years now since it first gained some noticeable amount of traction; that’s one year older than the birth of YouTube). There is still a lot more pie to grow.
Anyway, the panel was made up of Sarah van Mosel (Chief Commercial Officer, Acast), Andy Bowers (Chief Creative Officer, Panoply), Matt Lieber (President, Gimlet Media), and Kerri Hoffman (Chief Operating Officer, PRX), and it was moderated by Paula Szuchman (VP of On-Demand Content, WNYC). The panel was fine and interesting, ranging widely in subject from branded advertising to “where are you finding your next hit?” to children-targeted podcasts and the mortifying guilt of surrendering your child to the television.
But here are the two things that stood out to me as particularly interesting:
(1) What Is The Nature of the News Podcast? There was a point in the panel, somewhere during a discussion about whether podcasts can be seen as a viable supplement to broadcast radio, where the panelists broached the subject of the “news podcast” — what is it, what is its nature within an on-demand context, and where it is headed.
This is fabulous question, and it’s something that I think about quite a lot. For the record, I think anything that’s broadcasted can be adequately adapted to the on-demand format. The only major exception (other than Brian Lehrer, I suppose) is an on-going breaking news scenario, which is typically best served by a live news broadcast. This, I must say, is a grave exception. I felt the limitations of on-demand audio most acutely during the Paris terror attacks; I had spent much of that evening at work glued to my Twitter feed, and when I left for my commute home — a subway trip usually reserved for pre-loaded programming — I chose instead to walk back over the Brooklyn Bridge so I could keep tabs through the news broadcast over the WNYC streaming app. But then again, getting my live updates through the stream was in its own way suboptimal; important information about actual developments was relatively sparse, and the bulk of what I ended up consuming at the end was largely filler, or recycled exposition. (Perhaps that’s the real value of a live news broadcast; not necessarily the advancements in what we know, but merely the ambient knowledge that a news team is observing, that the world is continuing to spin.)
It’s been a few months, and I’ve come to feel that this wasn’t an expression of on-demand audio’s limitations, but rather an example of the distribution channel not being utilized effectively enough with breaking news in mind. That’s because we are already see some really interesting experiments with news distribution using podcast feeds that, in their own ways, are bold attempts to grasp real-time service:
- The most obvious example is the NPR Hourly News Summary. Here we have a really shrewd use of the feed, one that’s pegged to the hour and packaged in bite-sized pieces. You do get the sense that each package is dense with what you absolutely need to know at the top of a given hour. By the way, the feed occasionally pops up in the iTunes Top 200 Podcast Chart, for those interested in such things.
- ICYMI, Serial has been rolling out short daily updates last week tracking the latest court hearing surrounding its season one subject, Adnan Syed. It’s absolutely fascinating, but in its substance and its structure, which is essentially Sarah Koenig giving a quick recap the development of the day.
- The Serial mini-updates is reminiscent on a WBUR podcast that was rolled out last summer, which tracked the trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who was eventually sentenced to death for the Boston Marathon bombing, on an almost day-by-day basis. The podcast was called “Finish Line: Inside the Boston Bombing Marathon,” and it stretched the length of the trial. It was dense, sparsely composed, and utterly captivating in its specificity. These are reporters reporting, and trading notes at the end of the day.
(2) Gimlet’s Mix Week. The other most interesting bit of information that came out of the panel also happens to the one that’s most applicable to your organization, probably: this week, Gimlet is putting normal production operations on hold in favor of an internal exercise they’re calling Mix Week. “We’re breaking apart all the teams, they’re going to reform in new teams, and they’re going to be essentially given assignments for piloting,” Lieber explained. “There’s going to be a bunch of rules: no existing host can be the host of a pilot, pilots can only be hosted by non-hosts, and a bunch of other fun stuff.”
The idea is to create an experimental space to better facilitate creative collaborations across shows, a dynamic that might find difficulty emerging when a workplace — even one developed for creative and editorial purposes — naturally slips into a configuration that feels like an assembly line.
“We feel like we have a lot of ideas burbling in the building, and when you’re in the churn of getting shows out every week, you don’t always have the time to come up and be tested,” said Lieber.
Gimlet’s Mix Week reminds me of stories about an internal competition that WNYC held a few years ago. Described to me as “an internal bake-off,” that event was led by Chris Bannon, formerly WNYC’s VP of Content Development and Production and now Midroll’s Chief Content Officer, with support from a 7-person internal committee. The competition directly resulted in the creation of Death, Sex, and Money (all hail Anna Sale! Did you hear she’s moving to the West Coast?) and indirectly in the creation of TLDR, an “On The Media” spin-off, whose hosts would eventually go on to launch Reply All at Gimlet. A source has told me that WNYC management sent out a note a few weeks ago announcing the return of the bake-off, which will now apparently take place every six months.
This is all a fine reminder of a simple fact: magical things happen when you give the talented people you hire the opportunity stretch their muscles, try different things, and prove themselves.
The Hosting Platform Holding Up Serial. So I was surprised to learn last week that Serial, the biggest and most downloaded podcast at this point in time — unless that’s changed over the past month, which I highly doubt — is not being hosted on Podtrac, which proudly put the show forward as a key client during the IAB’s Podcast Upfronts last year. Instead, ever since the start of the second season, the show has been hosted on an experimental new platform developed by PRX, the friendly neighborhood public media company that’s also responsible for Radiotopia, your friendly neighborhood hippie podcast commune.
The platform, which is called “Dovetail” and also supports the Radiotopia podcast family, is supposedly designed for podcasts with extremely large audiences in mind, as PRX Chief Technology Officer Andrew Kuklewicz told me over email. Interestingly, the platform is built to distribute both podcasts and broadcasts, a curious distinction that firmly differentiates it from the bevvy of other hosting platforms that I’ve covered so far. There’s a lot more to Dovetail, I’m told, and you can read the totality of Kuklewicz’s extremely enthusiastic (and understandably pluggy) email in this Google Doc.
Public Radio Guidelines on Podcast Measurements. Last week, a group of North American public radio stations published a set of podcast measurement guidelines in a move to spur the industry to voluntarily adopt a standard. The publication was picked up by several publications — including Nieman Lab, of course — and on Friday, I put out my own two cents in an extra Hot Pod newsletter. In a nutshell: the guidelines were published as part of a move to inject more life into conversation happening within the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB), a non-profit business association focused on digital media, which many major podcasting companies are hoping will serve as a reliable third-party arbiter of advertising standards in the emerging podcast industry.
You can read the extra newsletter, along with some pertinent reader responses, in this public Google Doc.
Google Play Pods, They’re Coming. Looks like you can’t have one streaming audio service without the other. Two weeks ago, Spotify indicated that it would finally be rolling out its long-awaited podcast feature (which, by the way, ended up being bundled together with video under an ecosystem labelled as “Shows”). According to its reported timeline, that rollout would have been completed across both iOS and Android platforms by the end of the last week. And now we’re hearing, perhaps accidentally, that Google Play Music’s own podcast rollout will take place by the end of February.
Here’s what we know, and how we know it:
- Bill Simmons, the sports media personality and proprietor of the Bill Simmons Podcast Network (BSPN), tweeted out last Tuesday that his podcast “will be available on Google Play when GP launches its podcast platform later this month.” Simmons deleted the tweet shortly after, suggesting that the information wasn’t all that public just yet. The tweet was captured via screenshot by Droid-Life, an Android-specific news site.
- Parallel to this, several outlets — including Engadget, Ars Technica, and 9 to 5 Google — have noted that some Google Play Music users are already seeing the podcast feature being supported on their app.
- TechCrunch has confirmed that Google Play Music still has not officially launched podcast support, despite these podspottings.
That some Google Play Music users are seeing podcast support ahead of an official launch is not unusual; feature-testing among a small sample of live users is common practice, especially for big platforms that need initial data from the wild before a wider rollout.
Anyway, three things to consider:
- The various write-ups describing the app’s intended podcast features — which note the inclusion of, among other things, podcast charts, a “featured” section, and an open inclusion policy — Google Play Music sounds strikingly similar in both policy and practice to the native iOS Podcast app. From this, I suspect that the thinking is to do precisely for podcasts in the Android ecosystem what the native iOS Podcast app does for podcasts in the Apple ecosystem, which has so far been a relatively untapped market. This leaves open the question of what Spotify’s strategy will adopt to approach the space. They presumably shouldn’t play in the same lane as the iOS Podcast app or Google Play Music, but what options are they left with?
- That Google Play Music will have its own podcast charts is exciting. The iTunes podcast charts have long been obsessed over by podcast producers everywhere, given its status as one of the sole public determinants of a podcast’s value in relation to other podcasts for both creators and, unfortunately, the uninitiated press. However, the nature of how the iTunes charts evaluates podcasts, both individually and in relation to each other, has long been mysterious, and the inclusion of a Google alternative would theoretically help producers better approximate the relative value of their podcasts and, secondarily, challenge Apple’s passive dominance as the main value-attributor in the podcasting space. As of this writing, it doesn’t look like Spotify has its own charts feature.
- The central question when it comes to these audio streaming services remains: will their entrance into the podcast space actually move the needle? While it’s still extremely early, a few podcasters I’ve spoken with suggest that they’ve seen some encouraging signs. (No specific details were provided, unfortunately.)
- I’ve really been digging Tumanbay, an extravagantly produced 10-part audio drama published by BBC Radio 4. Reminiscent of Game of Thrones — in terms of subject matter and political allegory, but not in adult-oriented excesses (how would you do that in audio anyway? The market remains open!) — it’s utterly fun and almost completely not cringe-worthy, which I largely attribute to a finely-tune modulation to the vocal performances. Highly recommended. Also, hat tip to Slate’s June Thomas, a native Britisher of fine Britishisms, for the fabulous hashtag #TotallyTumanbay. (BBC)
- WNYC and Radiolab partner with a new social audio app, which launched today. (Anchor/Medium)
- Have you seen the Art19 embeddable player? It looks pretty good. Two examples: one on Recode, one on Yahoo Sports.
- “How CNN and Washington Post are experimenting with voicemail for audio storytelling.” (Journalism.co.uk)
- “Torey Malatia, CEO of RIPR, explains split with WBEZ.” (Brown Daily Herald)
- “Don’t ‘radiosplain’ and other ways to report on communities that aren’t your own.” (NPR Editorial Training)