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May 2016

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Public Podcast Rankings, PRX Spins Out RadioPublic, Acast Launches a New Feature

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Public Podcast Ranking. This just in, and it’s pretty big: Podtrac, a decade-old podcast measurement and advertising company, rolled out what it calls “the first free Podcast Industry Audience Ranking” this morning. The free report, which will be published on a monthly basis, is designed to show how “the top 10 networks” stack up against each other based on a standardized podcast measurement system. The first edition covers April 2016, and you can find it here. Based on the preview sent to me with the press release yesterday, NPR tops the list, followed by This American Life/Serial, WNYC Studios, and How Stuff Works. (Remember to divide the unique downloads with the number of shows! That’s the fun part.)

It’s worth noting that the report measures “90% of the top podcasts, and plans to have close to 100% participation in the weeks ahead,” according to the press release. When I asked for clarity on the sample — specifically, whether publishers needed to opt-in in order to be included in the report — a spokeswoman told me that publishers, indeed, must opt-in for inclusion, which raises the report’s representativeness of the entire podcast system as opposed to a self-selected sample. It remains unclear to me which networks are not included in this first sample, and I’ll be spending the week poking around. (Are you one of those networks? Write me <3)

Still, it’s absolutely thrilling to see a network-oriented apples-to-apples comparison between some of the heavyweights for the first time, even if the sample doesn’t include a few key players. (For what it’s worth, it confirmed a lot of my suspicions.) And it definitely introduces a new dimension — one that’s eminently political, no less — to the knowability of the podcast space in its current configuration, which in turn will undoubtedly affect not only advertising conversations across the industry, but the way download numbers are touted around as well. Everything hinges now on whether Podtrac is able to secure the remaining 10%, which in turn will tell us whether there’s going to be dichotomy between those that are transparent… and those that are less so.

There’s another complication to this story. The company also announced that it would be splitting its measurements and advertising services into two separate brands: Podtrac for the former, “Authentic” for the latter. It is unclear whether the division has any organizational significance; Podtrac and Authentic appear to still be rooted within the same company, and that may raise questions among some podcast companies whether there’s an insurmountable conflict of interest involved when you’re working with a third party measurements vendor that also happens to be competing with you on ad sales. This may introduce a disincentive for the podcast companies in the remaining 10% to join the ranker, which presents a whole other fault line to consider.

Anyway, the press release dropped in my inbox fairly late yesterday so I wasn’t able to do as much as due diligence as I’d like, which is why I’m punting the bulk of the analysis to the members newsletter. I’m due to get on the phone with Mark McCreary, Podtrac’s CEO, later today to talk about the launch, so hit me up if you have any questions.

Reading RadioPublic. May has proven to be a pretty big month for the Public Radio Exchange (PRX), the nonprofit launched back in September 2003 to help usher the American public radio system towards technological modernity. Last week, the nonprofit announced the addition of a new show to Radiotopia, its beloved podcast network/indie label, and shortly before that, the company successfully staged Radiotopia Live, its first network-wide live show, at the Ace Theater in Los Angeles.

The nonprofit rounded out those developments last Thursday with news that it was spinning out a whole new entity: RadioPublic, which it calls a “mobile listening company.” Formed as a public benefit corporation, the new venture has raised more than $1.5M in seed funding and will be headed up by Jake Shapiro, formerly PRX’s CEO. Kerri Hoffman, previously PRX’s COO, will replace Shapiro as the nonprofit’s chief executive. Collectively, PRX and RadioPublic will function as a “hybrid enterprise,” one that shares mission, governance, and partnership structure.

The RadioPublic team currently consists of three people — Shapiro is joined by developers Matt MacDonald and Chris Rhoden, both carryovers from the PRX team — and they’re on the lookout for more talent. The company is based in Boston.

So that’s all cool. But what on earth is a “mobile listening company”?

The company’s first product will be a consumer-facing app for the iOS and Android that’s slated to drop sometime in the fall, but I wouldn’t fixate on that. When I spoke with Shapiro and Hoffman to discuss the launch last week, I found it useful to borrow some ideas from the way we think about something like, say, Facebook. That tech giant can ostensibly be described as a social network, but I think it’s more accurate to picture it as a company that sits atop an ever-growing pile of attention-oriented user behavioral data whose primary touchpoint with people is a visually-oriented app (for web and mobile), which in turn serves as a foundation for the company to build a business around managing the relationship between users, media assets, and advertisers. Take that framework, apply it to user behavior data oriented around audio consumption along with a different set of relationships — users, audio publishers, advertisers — and you get a rough picture of how the long game for RadioPublic is set up. (In my head, anyway.)

“You can have a company built on a small development team or a thousand employees where the touchpoint is still an app, but the logic and insight and intelligence and IP and all the things that go into it that goes back into servicing the app,” Shapiro said. “There’s just a huge mountain of things that can be beneath that, and that’s what we need to build off of, and we want to start out with an app that’ll trigger all that.”

The mobile app, then, will be the company’s first effort to close the experience gap on the digital audio consumption side. Shapiro described RadioPublic’s product potential as “radio rethought” to various publications that picked up last week’s announcement, and a big part of that rethinking appears to involve streamlining the experience of consuming different kinds of audio within a single environment. “Some of those things we think we can interweave in an elegant way: retaining the simplicity and serendipity of radio while taking advantage of the control, complexity, and depth of podcasting, which has really been driving the growth in this space,” Shapiro told me. The aspect of simplicity, however, remains the key variable in the whole equation. “Our goal is hopefully simplify it down to just a play button, eventually,” Shapiro told Fast Company.

This idea of centralizing the listening experience situates RadioPublic within a trend that I’ve been noticing in the space for a while now, which I wrote about not too long ago in the context of Audible Originals and Spotify/Google Play Music picking up podcasts. It’s a trend that sees something of a structural redefinition of how audio content is understood on the internet. Forgive me for quoting myself: “Audio content produced for the Internet and distributed through the Internet will soon no longer be identified based on a singular technological method… but on the content itself.” But what I didn’t really pick up on then, and what’s becoming increasingly apparent to me now, is how that redefinition may introduce a new pressure on ad rates within the podcast ecosystem given that, at this point anyway, has largely resulted from certain stories we tell about podcasts as engaged, on-demand experiences, which are fundamentally tied to its quirks as a distribution channel.

Shapiro is fairly confident that any shift in the value narrative can happen smoothly. He told me that the aim for RadioPublic is to simultaneously support how podcast creators currently make money while building the bridge towards new kinds of monetization that will emerge out of whatever new consumption environment RadioPublic may usher in. “Our goal is also to do so in a way that benefits creators and make better listening experiences,” he added.

But that’s all pie-in-the-sky, meanwhile-in-the-future stuff. For now, the upcoming RadioPublic app will start out supplying PRX’s full catalogue, and will unfold from there. A few observers have already noted how the company’s theoretical app would put it in competition with Stitcher, Overcast — and, perhaps most notably, NPR One.

“We’ve reached out [to NPR One], and we certainly hope to collaborate with them,” Shapiro said. “Our general stance is that we want to have an open door policy for potential collaboration. We don’t think this is a zero sum game at all, especially at this stage of growth in the field.”

Cool.

Whereto PRX. Spinning out RadioPublic allows PRX to “somewhat resolve a tension” inherent in the nonprofit’s machinations up to this point, according to Hoffman, one that saw the organization being pulled to focus on producers and the public radio system on the one hand, and directly on audiences on the other. By breaking off RadioPublic into its own for-profit venture, PRX is able to offload some of those pressures onto its sibling company.

“PRX will continue to be a champion inside public radio in pushing for diversity, in pushing for better programming, in pushing for more digital access to programming and growing an audience — as we have all along,” Hoffman told me. “And with spinning out RadioPublic, that company is now able to really get the scale needed to bring new listeners into the fold.”

Under the Hoffman era, PRX will continue doubling down on several initiatives already in play: further growing Radiotopia, carrying out its talent-search program Podquest, working on the second version of its own dynamic ad insertion platform called Dovetail (which currently powers Radiotopia along with a few outside partners like Serial; it will also be integrated with RadioPublic’s platform), and continuing its overall efforts in working with public radio stations.

Funding Sources. A detail that stood out to me in RadioPublic’s launch announcement: its fairly hefty list of seed round investors, which includes the New York Times, American Public Media, Homebrew (home of venture capitalist Hunter Walk, who has written a fair bit about podcasts in the past), Matter Ventures (which PRX helped develop) — and, perhaps most notably, Graham Holdings.

As Planet Money’s Jacob Goldstein pointed out on Twitter, Graham Holdings has become fairly ubiquitous across the stable of emerging podcast companies. The corporation — which once owned the Washington Post and Newsweek — is the parent company of Panoply (my former day job employer, by the way), and it is also a major investor in Gimlet, leading the Brooklyn-based startup’s Series A round and pouring $5M out of the $6M amount that was raised at the tail end of last year.

Keep an eye on ‘em.

Acast Launches Premium Subscription Feature. The Swedish podcast platform company rolled out a new service yesterday that will allow podcasters to adopt premium paywall strategies, according to the Wall Street Journal. The service, called “Acast+”, will be available to podcasters who host their episodes on the platform. Creators will have a fair bit of control over the paywall — they can set their own prices and tailor the spread of content on both sides of the paywall however they want — and Acast will be compensated by taking a cut of the revenue. About “15 to 20 podcasts” will be adopting the new feature off the bat, according to the report.

We’ve seen premium subscription efforts in podcasts before, of course. There’s Howl, Midroll’s premium podcast play that adopts Netflix’s internal, multiple-entry content universe approach. And then there were various podcasts that developed makeshift ways to monetize their back catalogues. (Examples include This American Life and WTF With Marc Maron, which both developed apps that lets users access their archives for a price. The latter has since moved its back-catalogue to Howl.) You could also argue that Slate adopts this approach with its Slate Plus program, which provides Slate Plus members additional content — including podcast extras. But I’m wont to group them in a completely separate category, because podcasts account for a relatively small fraction of what members receive, so it’s hard to draw comparisons with the kind of dynamics that are at play with something like Howl and premium show-specific back catalogs.

If you’re wondering whether a premium subscription model is right for you, I find it helpful to place Acast’s new offering right next to Medium’s recently launched membership feature set for small-to-mid-sized publishers. Both are positioned to solve a lot of the same kind of problems: both solutions shoulder the costs and effort involved in building the technical infrastructure to support memberships, both handle upkeep for that infrastructure, both open up an alternate revenue stream that would help diversify independent podcast businesses away from the potential volatile ad market, and both free up creators so that they may focus on content. But the drawbacks are similar as well: in particular, creators cede some control and independence to a middleman, and the rev share — depending on what it is and how it scales — may well be a sticking point for some podcasters below a certain size or monetization strength.

Add to this calculation the fact that the success of a premium subscription model — and a membership strategy — is contingent on several extraneous factors. I’ll provide some analysis on that for Thursday’s members newsletter. I’ll also add some notes on what this means for how Acast strategically stacks up against other platforms in the space. (Oh would you look at that?)

Anyway, speaking of Acast: it looks like they’ve been poking around Asia evaluating its feasibility as a potential market. I wonder how its American business is doing?

WBAA Reverses Decision on This American Life. About a week after announcing it would stop carrying This American Life — and sparking yet another rigorous discussion over the public radio system, the way it handles its digital future, and all the tensions packed within it — the West Lafayette, Indiana public radio station WBAA has decided that it won’t be terminating its relationship with the popular show after all. According to the station’s website, the decision was motivated, in part at least, by “considerable listener feedback.”

Current has a good write-up if you need a refresher on how that all went down last week (you could also check out my microwavable take on it), but for everybody already clued in, here’s something interesting: the original LinkedIn post by WBAA general manager Mike Savage making the initial announcement to break the relationship — which contained fantastic, sprawling discussions over the matter — is no longer active. But! Some good samaritan took screenshots and posted it on Tumblr. Power of a good archive, folks.

For Your Benchmarks. Over the weekend, The Ringer chief and media personality Bill Simmons noted on Twitter that his podcast, which serves as the flagship show for the Ringer podcast network, will exceed 50 million downloads by the end of the week. I’m assuming, of course, that the number refers to aggregate downloads across the show’s whole run since launch. (As of this writing, the show is up to 101 episodes.) Simmons also mentioned that the network is planning to launch five more shows “soon.”

He also tweeted something about how motherships are overrated (a clear shot at ESPN, his former employer with whom he parted unamicably) and how good quality stuff on the Internet will always find an audience “no matter who you are or where you are” — which, I mean, is a perfectly fine sentiment, but one that totally oversimplifies contemporary internet economics, platform politics, and resource accessibility; and not to mention a significant discounting of Simmons’ own historical opportunities to develop celebrity and grow an audience through traditional media structures.

Now don’t get me wrong: I’m a huge fan and I love everything that’s happening over at The Ringer (“The Watch” is my desert island pod, hands down), but still: man, it’s never that simple.

Bites:

  • Heads up: Edison Research is dropping the 2016 edition of its Podcast Consumer report soon. There’s a webinar on Thursday. I’m on it, of course.

  • The Tape Festival is back. (TapeFest)

  • Not podcast specific, but I love this ode to Zach Lowe, the prolific sports (well, mostly basketball) writer and podcaster, courtesy of Slate’s Josh Levin. (Slate)

  • “How Empire magazine came to reign over podcasts, too.” (Digiday)

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