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March 2016

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Industry Moves, WaPo and the Amazon Echo, NPR’s “Embedded”

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Lots of industry moves and inside baseball this week, folks. No flipping!

Movers, Shakers, Candlestick Makers. A string of employment-related stories hit my radar over the past week and a half, and though I try not to read too much narrative in them as a bundle of stories, I do like how they collectively paint a nice picture of dynamism. Anyway, I love this stuff.

(1) Digital NPR. Last week, the public radio mothership announced the appointment of Thomas Hjelm as Chief Digital Officer, a newly created role that will stretch across the content, technology, and revenue sides of the business. The announcement was made last Thursday, a few days after the (inflated, yet symbolically-rich) NPR Memo kerfuffle died down. Hjelm’s hiring was no doubt long in the works, and regardless of whether the timing of his appointment was providential or intentional, it gives the institution quite a nice cap to the memo narrative.

Anyway, Hjelm comes to NPR from WNYC, where he had served for over five years. He was most recently the station’s Executive Vice President and Chief Digital Officer. Hjelm was recently featured in a Digiday article on WNYC’s latest adventures in digital audio, where he was quoted on the subject of podcasting’s measurement challenges, social audio, and the need to maintain a direct relationship with audiences in the age of platforms. At NPR, he will report directly to NPR CEO Jarl Mohn. His employment begins in late April.

In a related development, Zach Brand, NPR’s VP of Digital Media (an equivalent role to Hjelm’s newly created “Chief Digital Officer” title), will be leaving the organization. According to his biography on NPR.org, Brand oversaw “NPR digital technology and product development efforts.” His portfolio also included NPR Digital Services, a responsibility which he inherited in late 2015, which involves the digital education of the organization’s partner member stations. Brand joined NPR in October 2007.

In another related development, there’s apparently a new opening for a temporary job on the NPR One team: podcast curator. Take from that what you will!

(2) Meanwhile, back in New York. Filling the spot left open by Hjelm’s departure, WNYC has hired Nathaniel Landau as the station’s new Chief Digital Officer. Landau comes to WNYC from Univision, where he served as a VP of Product for over two years. Before that, he co-founded Food Republic, a lifestyle publication that was acquired in August 2013 by Zero Point Zero productions (which, among other things, is the company behind Anthony Bourdain’s many television exploits).

“I’ve known for a while that Tom (Hjelm) was talking to NPR,” WNYC CEO Laura Walker told me over the phone last week, further mentioning that she and Hjelm had been talking to several possible replacement candidates for a while now. Landau first came to the station’s attention on the strength of a blog post he had written on the challenges of the podcast consumption and discovery experience. The post, titled “Subscribing to Podcasts is Broken,” was published on his personal blog back in August 2015. “In my view, the post had a wonderful mix of strategic questions and informed product solutions,” Walker said.

(Having an informed, broadcasted opinion: still your best friend.)

Curious, I asked Walker if she had any comment, opinions, or perhaps words of wisdom on the NPR Memo kerfuffle last week. “No,” she replied, unsurprisingly. Well, thought I’d try, y’know?

In related WNYC news:

  • Graham Parker, the general manager of classic music station WQXR (which WNYC owns and operates), will be taking over management of the Greene Space in addition to his existing responsibilities.

  • John Chao, previously a VP of Business Development, has been promoted to Senior Vice President of Business & Strategy.

  • Greg Voynow, previously a VP of Content Business Development at Audible, is now the station’s full-time Director of Business Development. He had joined WNYC on a part-time basis in January.

(3) Wondery Staffs Up. The new podcast network by Hernan Lopez, former CEO of Fox International Channels, announced a round of hires early last week: Jeffrey Glaser, formerly the EVP of current Programming at 20th Century Fox Television, as President of Content, and Cristina Haro, previously of Univision, as Account Executive of Brand Solutions. The latter concept of “Brand Solutions” is probably corporate-speak that signals Wondery’s intent to get into the branded content game, which remains a bubbly frontier for podcast networks and advertisers.

I wrote about the network when it launched back in January, drawing specific attention to its partnership with technology platform Art19. Details on what Wondery will actually be producing remain slim, but the press release on the hires suggests an emphasis on audio drama. When discussing Glaser’s hire, Lopez provided the statement: “We are thrilled to have him join our team and help us attract the most talented writers, producers, and actors to a new form of storytelling.”

(4) Another Producer. BuzzFeed’s well-loved Another Round podcast now sports a second producer working on the show, which doesn’t sound like an interesting bit of news until you note this: that producer, Antonia Cereijido, will be considered an Acast employee and will be on the podcast company’s payroll. She will be partially embedded in BuzzFeed’s newsroom, and will work under the show’s long-running producer, Eleanor Kagan. Acast has had a hosting, monetization and distribution partnership with BuzzFeed since late last year.

“We’re delighted to welcome Antonia Cereijido to the Acast team,” Caitlin Thompson, the company’s director of content, said in a statement over email. “She comes to us from the storied Latino USA and other independent audio projects, and she shares — and also embodies — the Acast vision of growing new audiences in the podcast landscape.”

When asked if other Acast partner shows should expect similar arrangements, or if Cereijido will be tasked to work on other Acast partner podcasts in addition to her work with Buzzfeed, Thompson mentioned that she had no further comments on the matter at this time.

WaPo’s “The Fix” Comes To Amazon Echo. In an experiment that further divorces on-demand audio from the word “podcast,” the Washington Post announced last week that its political blog by reporter Chris Cillizza, The Fix, can now be consumed in the form of short audio briefs delivered through Amazon Echo, the tubular audio-based computing device that seems to be enjoying a swell of positive attention in recent weeks.

These briefs, which are made up of pre-recorded segments written by Cillizza, are made available once a day at around 3pm ET on weekdays. They are expected to grow in frequency over time, according to Mediapost.

Worth highlighting the obvious corporate connection here: the Washington Post is owned by Jeff Bezos, who is CEO of Amazon. If this strikes you as a particularly compelling spin on news delivery, then you’d probably find some chunks of Fortune’s recent Bezos profile interesting.

Speaking of Amazon…

Range Roving. The Amazon-owned audiobook company quietly launched a small blog last week that seeks to, and I’m quoting from the site here, “explore the world of listening and voice, literature and technology with original reporting, personal stories, playlists, and more.” The blog is called “Audible Range,” a piece of branded content marketing in the aesthetic of a lifestyle magazine that’s meant to do what pieces of branded content marketing are supposed to do: project a certain image, signal a company’s purported values, and also carve out a specific vocabulary that the company wants to be associated with. (It reminds me, interestingly enough, of Uber’s Momentum and AirBnb’s PineappleWest Coast toast-chic magazines.) In this case, that vocabulary involves somewhat clunky synonyms for non-music audio — see: “listening and voice” — but synonyms, nonetheless, that would help the company retrain focus away from the word “podcast.”

The launch of Audible Range comes about a week after the company rolled out “Clip,” an audio clip sharing feature attached to the audiobook app. All of which makes for a fair bit of activity coming out of the audio content giant which has yet to roll out the full weight of its original programming, though the tin-foil hat-wearing part of my temporal lobe is wont to view all of this as some sort of picking up of speed, like birds fluttering before an earthquake or the air standing still before your toast pops heavenward.

For the record, if I were to make a lifestyle mags about pods, it would contain nothing but pictures of lugubrious Scandinavian men in headphones frolicking about all manner of flora.

Field Reporting. “I’m not Hunter Thompson,” said Kelly McEvers to me over the phone, a few weeks ago. I was speaking to McEvers about her new podcast with NPR, “Embedded,” and we were discussing the show’s seeming emphasis on allowing the journalist’s subjectivities to be a part of the reporting. I was wondering where the show landed in the spectrum with gonzo on the one end and straight-up robo-journalism on the other.

“Embedded,” you see, is described to be a kind of magazine-style investigative show which will apply field reporting techniques — typically practiced by foreign correspondents, as McEvers has done for years — to other kinds of stories. Upcoming episodes will include a look into drug addiction in Indiana, the making of negative political ad, and what happened in Waco, Texas; McEvers is host, and the show will feature several NPR reporters.

“It’s about raising the curtain a little bit more on the process. With a lot of these long-form projects out there, people are responding to the idea that reporters are human beings,” McEvers continued. “Especially when you’re ten thousand miles away from where listeners are, it makes sense to be able to react. It makes me a stand-in for the listener.”

Embedded” is scheduled to premiere this Thursday.

Seats at a Table. This is super interesting: Chava Gourarie, a writer-reporter-Delacorte Fellow at the Columbia Journalism Review, put together a spreadsheet yesterdaytabulating the names and frequencies of underwriters on all the Marketplace programs — Morning Report, Marketplace Tech, and Marketplace Weekend — the business news audio briefs produced by American Public Media (APM), some of which are syndicated across the country. Gourarie used APM’s underwriting database, which is free and open to the public.

“The immediate reason was I wanted to see how far back Koch Industries has been a sponsor for Marketplace,” Gourarie told me over email. She had gotten the initial idea based on a discussion about the Koch brothers’ underwriting of public media programming — a topic of consternation for some — that had been going on in a listserv in which she’s a participant. “I thought it would be an interesting data point for the discussion on taking money from Koch when it’s been documented that they’re in middle of a rebranding effort. Then I got interested in the APM sponsor dataset as a whole. Could make for some interesting analysis.”

The spreadsheet, which is broken out by month going back to January 2015, paints a fascinating picture; the very same one, I’m sure, that haunts the dreams of media planners everywhere.

You can find the spreadsheet in this public Google Doc. Check it out, draw your own conclusions. You can look up Gourarie’s work on the CJR website.

Follow-up From Last Week. I capped last week’s NPR Memo item with a link to a Facebook post by Adam Davidson, the Planet Money co-founder who now hosts of Gimlet’s Surprisingly Awesome, where he articulated his fear that NPR was allowing itself to grow irrelevant. Little did I know when I dropped the link that the post would go on to grow into a vigorous and deeply respectful multi-directional comment thread, full of gorgeous specks of insight and rebuttals and intellectual confessions. Truly, a Sumatran Rhino of the modern Internet, a thing thought to be long extinct.

If you very much enjoy/are invested in the whole “future of NPR and pods” conversation, I can’t recommend digging through the thread highly enough, as it bring significant light to some juicy questions that these larger disruptive trends in audio — from broadcast to podcast, from legacy to new — have yet to answer, or even begin to confront.

The dominant theme that strings through those questions is one that’s embodied by the following line coming out of a comment from that the FB thread: “What saddens me about the podcast sphere… is the lack of journalistic ambition.”

It isn’t so much there aren’t any or many podcasts consistently trying to commit acts of journalism. On the contrary: between the gabfests and the election-related podcasts, it’s practically a staple of the medium.

Rather, the point embedded in that statement is the sense that there simply aren’t many emerging for-profit entities that explicitly endeavor to break new ground as podcast- or audio-first journalistic institutions; indeed, I can’t think of any new organization that’s trying to rethink audio news delivery for the 21st century, or reconstructing the talent funnel, or building some alternative or continuation to radio stations as local or international sources of news.

It does, indeed, feel like the new major for-profit podcasting companies tend to cluster around entertainment programming. And when there is news-oriented programming involved, those tend to fall within the tradition of magazine journalism — which operates in its own kind of pace and lies more along the lines, I think, of “infotainment.” Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course, but my point is that it’s still adjacent to the ebb and flow of news. Or it falls within the domain of talking head-rich gabfests, which has its place in the news and information economy, but still doesn’t engage directly with the problem of digital-first audio news. I will say, though: Panoply (my former day job employer), specifically Slate, comes the closest at playing with this fire with Trumpcast, which was swiftly operationalized to address a particular political moment and seems to feel, in some small way, temporally alive (which is key). But the question remains whether you could build a whole news operation around this model, or if the demands (and economics) of podcasting companies is such that these shows are the exceptions; anomalies built on top of a bed of more timed-out fare.

Which raises the question, then, of whether the podcast format can ever represent the whole future of audio, news and all.

And that, I think, is the defining tension not just between on-demand audio and broadcast organizations, but between these new podcasting companies and legacy radio institutions like NPR and its member stations. These new companies, entering the content market by embracing a new technological channel and impetus, may be well positioned to solve a business problem, but they’re not working to solve the journalistic problem that a legacy organization like NPR fights to negotiate.

It’s a problem that stretches all the way down to the hiring and development of new blood. It’s one stretches sideways into the unfortunate fact that, despite all the newness, we have yet to see any real new opportunities for reporters, both the ones who are experienced and the ones who are fresh. And indeed, it’s a problem that we — not all of us surely, but enough of us — need so dearly to grapple with as we move further and further into a world of greater media fragmentation, declining news literacy, the evaporation of local journalism, and polarized politics.

Bites

  • “How Mack Weldon doubled underwear sales through podcast advertising.” Notable data point: pod advertising now represents 25% of the retailer’s overall ad budget per month. (Digiday)

  • “This Local Podcast Network Wants to Find Producers Where Others Aren’t Looking.” (Washingtonian)

  • “Soccer podcasts are booming in popularity.” The Guardian’s Football Weekly podcast was downloaded over 15 million times in 2015. (The Guardian)

  • Heads up: WNYC’s invite-only women in podcasting conference, dubbed “Werk It,” will be coming back for a second edition this year. More details to come from the station very soon.

  • Another for observers of kids pods (there’s a lot of you in the HP readership): the Australian Broadcasting Corporation launched a new one of their own last week — “Short and Curly,” an ethics podcast for children. (Soundcloud)

  • Here’s another election pod to track: former Obama administration staffers Dan Pfeiffer and Jon Favreau’s “Playing Politics,” produced by The Ringer and distributed through their Channel 33 podcast feed. (Soundcloud)

  • Learned recently that the headcount at Gimlet is currently 45, including 3 interns. Pretty crazy when you think about the number of shows they have live in the market.