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April 2016

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The New York Times, On Strategy, Digg Gets Into Pods

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The New York Times Builds A Pod Squad. Nieman Lab covered this pretty comprehensively last week, and you should definitely check out their write-up for the full skinny, but here are the highlights as I see it:

  • The paper of record is assembling a new audio unit to develop a slate of “news and opinion” shows. It hopes to roll out throughout the rest of the year and into 2017. The exact number of shows to be launched is unclear.
  • Some staff details for this new unit: Samantha Henig is editorial director, Kelly Alfieri is executive director of special editorial projects, and Diantha Parker is editor and senior audio producer. Pedro Rosado and Catrin Einhorn will also be audio producers in the unit. Local pod rabble-rouser Adam Davidson, who is also a columnist for the New York Times Magazine, will serve as an adviser.
  • Some info on the long-term strategy, from an internal NYT memo about the new unit: “The plan is to pursue a two-fold strategy: to launch a handful of shows with outside partners which, like Modern Love, have a strong prospect of quickly attracting a wide audience; and then use those shows as a platform from which we can build audience for shows produced within The Times that are as integral to our coverage as our live events and visual journalism efforts.” Delicious.

So, what is the significance of this development? My fine handlers at Nieman do well to answer this with the following observation: “While many newspapers have experimented with podcasts and even launched several, the Times appears to be the first paper to launch a separate podcast-focused audio unit that is focused on pulling in revenue and attracting listeners at broad scale.” In my mind, the distinction lies in the scale (and gumption, frankly) surrounding the design of the Times’ new audio unit: its staff size and density, show rollout expectations, intent on meaningful revenue, and scope of ambition in terms of aesthetic and goals.

As anybody shouting “bubble!” will tell you, many publications are currently dabbling in podcasts; some successfully, others less so. A big part of the strategy for networks like Panoply and DGital Media involves them serving as intermediaries for publishers, shouldering significant chunks of the creative, production, strategic, and monetization burden for partners. And for many of these arrangements, it’s not exactly “plug and play,” but it’s fairly close.

Such partnerships provide publishers with relatively less risk, as startup costs are relatively low and they don’t have to personally invest much resources into infrastructure and talent that may be difficult to shed should their audio strategy burst into flames. It’s a solid conservative strategy, but the tradeoff here is that there’s a ceiling to what publishers can achieve in these arrangements — creatively (given the limitation on dedicated resources), monetarily (given that the responsibilities are largely shouldered by the partner network), and even from a brand-perspective (given that there’s a limit to how unique you can sound when you share a network’s production infrastructure, sensibility, and possibly template with other publishing competitors).

By choosing to build a team in-house and diving face-first into audio (which wouldn’t be its first time doing so), the Times is eschewing that relatively conservative route for a more aggressive and robust podcast strategy, one that sees the paper essentially doubling down on its ability to determine an aural aesthetic that will result in a better payoff. As the internal memo indicates, that strategy does not necessarily preclude partnerships; it just suggests that they demand more from those partnerships. In these arrangements, networks (or public radio stations) would be required to serve more as collaborator than intermediary, more partner-in-crime than outsource factory. We saw the fundamentals of this with the company’s enormously successful Modern Love podcast — which launched in January, currently draws over 300,000 downloads a week, and comes out of an involved partnership with WBUR.

This is all a reflection of the basic dynamics of risk and reward: the more you’re willing to risk by pouring more resources into the strategy, the more control you’re going to have over shaping the outcome of that strategy and the more reward — from all corners — you stand to gain from it. As the adage goes, you don’t get a win unless you play in the game.

One more thing: the announcement of the new unit was accompanied by a pretty gorgeous job posting for an executive producer. From the looks of the job description, they’re looking for a veteran to quarterback the team both creatively and operationally.

I’ll be taking bets on who they end up hiring, and what shows they end up rolling out. HMU.

Related — Shooting up a flare just hours after the NYT job posting went live, the other paper of record The Washington Post announced on its PR blog that its “Presidential” podcast has beaten 1 million downloads on iTunes since launching in January. The post further mentioned that “more than 100,000 listeners download the podcast each week,” not including folks who listen right off the Post’s site.

I’m all about that Gray Lady-WaPo rivalry, and I’m psyched it’ll play out on the audio front too.

On Strategy. Speaking of podcast strategy, you should totally check out Adam Davidson’s recent Medium post that refined and expanded his critique on that very subject as it pertains to NPR. There’s quite a bit to absorb from it, but I’d like to note two quick things:

  • Davidson’s post contains a bunch of specific prescriptions, but I find the foundational ideas of his critique compelling: that the organization’s process of developing podcasts is more chaotic than not, that the pace of new podcast launches is way too slow, and that both of these things come out from an ecosystem-wide podcast strategy that’s lacking in coherence, vision, scale, enthusiasm, and intent.
  • A constructive question, at this point: what, exactly, makes a podcast strategy? Seems like a simple question with an obvious answer, but I think it’s actually pretty complex. I find it helpful to think about it, above all things, in terms of goals and intent: what do we want to achieve with podcasts a year from now, and what should we do to get there? Within this framework, you can sort of begin to see the source of Davidson’s frustration: it’s probably unclear to him what NPR wants its podcast operation to look like a year from now, and when you contextualize that against the larger trends in the industry — trends that distinctly flow towards digital — you can reasonably expect why the NPR alum is unnerved. For the record, the organization’s goal on that front is pretty unclear to me too, and I spend a lot time staring into the transom. Also worth noting the fact that it’s entirely possible there is a coherent internal strategy, and that’s it not being well communicated. In which case, the possible counter-argument is: what’s the point of communicating what we’re doing right as long as we’re doing it right? To that I say: positive messaging is important for internal morale, external recruitment, and the faith of the public radio random!

By the way: the first episode of Embedded was great! It felt really raw and illustrative, and it projected a sense of place really, really well. Gonna hold my judgment ‘til we’re a couple more episodes in, so stay tuned.

Related — NPR has finally revamped its audio player, eschewing the pop-up player route for a snazzier, smoother in-browser experience. The player, which now rests persistently on the right side of the site, is designed to allow users to flow seamlessly between local member station streams and NPR’s own content made available on-demand.

The revamp also affords new digital sponsorship formats, including podcast-specific matchups and multimedia mobile slots. Cool stuff.

Serial Closes Second Season. And just like that, it’s over. Last Thursday, the wildly popular This American Life spin-off published the final episode of its ambitious second season, which throughout its run had unambiguously moved beyond the first season’s local true crime scope and took on the subject of Bowe Bergdahl.

The season drew strong numbers. Entertainment Weekly reported that the second season had surpassed 50 million downloads going into Thursday’s final episode. Kristen Taylor, Serial’s community editor, confirmed those numbers, further noting that each episode had consistently enjoyed around 3 million downloads on its launch week throughout the season.

While the show’s numbers were not altogether surprising given the now-legendary response to the first season, it did strike me as incongruous with what feels like a relatively tepid critical response. I asked Taylor how the team has felt about the reception this season, and whether I’m erroneously reading my conception of hype or buzz as some approximation of critical response. “The second season is a really different type of story, and of course the field is in a different place than last year – what you’re seeing in the number is the dark social, the growing audience listening and writing to us and talking to each other privately,” said Taylor.

“The team is damn proud of the season,” she added.

Details are slim on the show’s third season, though a follow-up EW interview with Sarah Koenig and Julie Snyder suggests that we shouldn’t expect it anytime soon. The two also mentioned that they were “also looking into other projects, and other shows that are not Serial, but Serial-adjacent.”

ESPN Does “Long-form” Audio. The Disney-owned sports media empire flexed its audio muscles today, launching a five-part audio documentary series called “Dunkumentaries.” In case the word “dunk” means nothing to you or if you’re one of those people who ducks behind the word “sports ball,” the series is a collection of stories all about the sport of basketball.

Radiotopia fans might find the project familiar: back in February, ESPN and the 99% Invisible team collaborated for an episode called “The Yin and Yang of Basketball,” about the sport’s invention and the design problem that came out from its initial conception. The Dunkumentaries podcast feed went live around the same time that episode was published, back in February.

Dunkumentaries comes out of ESPN Audio, and its being billed as the unit’s “first long-form podcast” — signaling a trendy expansion in offerings for an operation that’s long favored talk radio fare like Jalen & Jacoby and audio-only versions of television broadcasts like Pardon the Interruption. The documentary will feature a rather unconventional ad integration with Seatgeek (a growing staple in sport pod advertising), according to the Hollywood Reporter. Instead of a conventional host read, the campaign will involve a serialized story spread out across the five episodes’ pre-rolls.

The series was published in its entirety this morning, using a tactic last adopted by Panoply with its “Pregnancy Confidential” podcast. (The so-called binge method was also partially adopted by American Public Media’s “Codebreaker” podcast, albeit as part of a larger transmedia project.)

Each episode is on the short-side, ranging between 12 to 20 minutes.

Digg Dabbles In Pods. The social curation site (and erstwhile Reddit competitor) launched a podcast project yesterday, and it’s part of a fascinating piece of multimedia journalism. “What The Hell Happened In East New York?” is a four-part podcast series, hosted by Sports Illustrated’s Alexander Abnos, that follows award-winning journalist Kevin Heldman as he investigates East New York’s status as one of the worst neighborhoods in the country. It’s… a little hard to provide a more substantial explanation of the podcast without diminishing one of its core hooks, but I will say that it’s vaguely Sherlock Holmesian in the sense that it presents Heldman as a character in a larger narrative.

Much like Dunkumentaries, the whole series was published simultaneously (noticing a trend, anyone?), and the project culminates this Friday with the publication of Heldman’s investigation as a feature on the Digg website. The project is a co-production with The Big Roundtable, the narrative nonfiction site founded by Columbia Journalism School professor Michael Shapiro.

This isn’t Digg’s first involvement with podcasts. In the past, the site has partnered with podcasts like Reply All and The Sporkful to package their episodes with rather lovely visuals and extensive write-ups before serving them to the Digg readership through its various channels. But this is Digg’s first direct editorial involvement with an audio project, expanding on the original editorial work they’ve previously done for text features and video.

“I couldn’t be more pleased with how the project came out,” Anna Dubenko, Digg’s editorial director, told me over email. “There were moments where we were all nervous about how it would come together — there were so many moving parts… that we wondered if it would be too confusing for our readers.  But, as we’re seeing in this first day of promotion, people get what the project is about and, I think, like the fact that we’re trying something with multimedia approach. More than anything, I think people appreciate that we’re not trying to do something gimmicky with audio, but really trying to honor the medium.”

When I asked if we should more audio stuff coming out of Digg in the future, Dubenko replied: “YES to more projects! Specifically with The Big Roundtable.”

Fabulous.

The Sarah Awards. Friends, I’m here to eat my words. Also, my shoe. They will be boiled, seasoned with paprika and anise, and consumed heartily with a fine pinot grigio. Longtime Hot Pod readers are familiar with my estranged relationship with audio fiction — in the past (specifically, in the foetal days of the Hot), I’ve griped about how the audio fiction performances tend to bug me with their larger-than-the-room modularities; how many of the stuff I’ve tried out had the patness of a certain kind of quirky North American short story; and how I felt that intimacy afforded by the medium often excessively draws out the artificiality of the performances to my pampered, pampered earballs. Though these feelings largely dwindled over the months with greater exposure to just — thank ye, Unfictional and The Truth — a small hard shell of those gripes remained, even as the genre enjoyed more popularity and attention by Limetown, the corporate-overlord sponsored The Message, the really charming Black Tapes Pod, and, of course, the increasing ambition of the incredibly talented Night Vale crew.

But consider me finally won over now, having sat through a rather lovely coronation last Friday, when WNYC’s Greene Space served as home to the first ever Sarahs, an international audio fiction awards ceremony organized by Ann Heppermann and Martin Johnson. The hourlong event, hosted by Snap Judgment’s Glynn Washington, was charming, fun, and tight — and it brought to light the fact that the people behind these works were every bit as rich, bizarre, and fascinating as the work themselves.

The awards received over 200 entries from all over the world, and here were the winners:

First Place
Almost Flamboyant” by Lea Redfern and Rijn Collin.

Second Place
Can You Help Me Find My Mom?” by Jonathan Mitchell and Diana McCorry.

Third Place
Our Time Is Up” by Erin Anderson.

Best New Artist
Quadraturin” by Jon Earle and Emma Wiseman.

“It felt like a turning point,” Heppermann told me when we spoke over the phone yesterday. “Hopefully people were inspired and excited to really celebrate fiction, and make more of it in ways they want to.”

In the immediate future, the winning stories will be published on Serendipity, the official podcast that comes out of the Sarahs. They will be aired as part of a special hour-long broadcast of the winners on KCRW some time in the next three months or so.

“It starts all over again,” said Heppermann, when I asked what comes next.

“But bigger, and better.”

Wonk. I spoke with Atlantic Media Strategies’ Jim Walsh the other day about the state of the podcast industry and where it’s going, and Walsh published a cleaned up transcript of our conversation over on the AMS’ Digital Index blog. It should be stated that Walsh’ efforts to transcribe and string together my chaotic, unstructured rambles that are made up almost exclusively of run-in sentences are nothing less than heroic, and that upon reading the article for the first time, I have swiftly concluded that I am, indeed, an insane person.

Relevant Bits:

  • Here’s a sweet spin-off coming out of the HBO-Bill Simmons partnership: The Watch’s Chris Ryan and Andy Greenwald will host a weekly Game of Thrones recap show on  Mondays which will be distributed through HBO Now, HBO Go, and HBO On-Demand. WATCH THE THRONES. (The Ringer)
  • Soundcloud rolled out its new subscription streaming product, dubbed “Soundcloud Go,” last Tuesday. The new feature pushes the company towards a direction that places it more directly in competition with existing streaming companies like Spotify and Apple Music. The future of its status as the go-to free audio hosting platform, which has made it popular with budding podcasters, remains unclear. (The Verge)
  • Speaking of Spotify, the Swedish streaming company raises a billion in debt financing. (Wall Street Journal, paywall)
  • PodcastOne, the Adam Carolla-centered network led by Norm Pattiz, launched its own premium subscription play. From the press release, it appears that much of the network’s archives will be stored behind the paywall. Priced at $7.99 a month. (All Access)
  • Distribution responsibilities for “On Being” to shift from American Public Media to PRX. (Current)