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Hot Pod Pro: How Gimlet Handles New Show Development

Written by , Posted in Member Content

Dateline: May 26, 2016

Follow-Up on Podtrac.

Still researching this, but three very quick updates to help your reading of the situation:

(1) I’m compiling a list of publishers that aren’t part of the Podtrac sample, and this is a partial list of on-the-record confirmations so far: Gimlet, Panoply, Midroll, Maximum Fun, CNN, and The Ringer. I’m still asking around.

(2) Why is “Roman Mars” listed and not “Radiotopia”? This has to do with Radiotopia choosing to have each show handle their own Podtrac accounts, which leads to shows being identified at an individual level. (Which is in line with its indie label/collective ethos.) As Julie Shapiro noted to me over email, “this is why Roman and the Moth show up on the list, but not Radiotopia or PRX.”

(3) In Hot Pod earlier this week, I noted that publishers must “opt in” to be included as part of the Podtrac sample. Looks like that was too strong a description; I’ve been receiving reports that the ranker came as a surprise to some who are on the Top 10 list. This suggests two things: firstly, not every publisher was given adequate warning that they were going to be included in the list — and that their audience numbers were going to be made public — and secondly, the notion of being “opted in” was based on some clause within any user agreement that was signed when a given publisher starts using Podtrac to verify their data.

For the record: I’m increasingly of the opinion that the Podtrac ranker — or any consumer-facing podcast chart based on audience size, rather — is a very positive thing for the industry as a whole. But the nature of the rollout and the execution matters, especially when it comes to sampling and the transparency of the representativeness of that sampling. Yesterday, Adweek published a report on NPR’s expectations that it would “more than double” its podcast revenue this year. The article cited the Podtrac charts, noting that “to be included in the rankings, publishers must have at least 30 days’ worth of data that can be analyzed”… but not noting that you needed to opt into the sample in the first place, thus equating the chart as broadly representative of the actual ten largest podcast publishers in the industry with little caveat. This, of course, isn’t cool, and we’re probably going to see a lot of that loss in nuance crop up over time.

Anyway, I’m going to refine and regurgitate all of this in next Tuesday’s free newsletter so the narrative exists more openly on the internet. Hit me up if you have additional input. And there’s been some pretty strong discussion on the issue going on in the forums — you should check it out.

How Gimlet Handles New Show Development

I had the great fortune of being asked to host a conversation about podcasts recently at the opening of a brand spankin’ new co-working space for freelance journalists down here in Gowanus. (The space is called Study Hall, and it will also be my new professional home from June onwards. Until I run out of money to keep Hot Pod going, of course. Which is to say, I’m going to miss my kitchen-office.)

The first person I thought to ask to be my conversation was someone I’ve never met before, but who I’ve heard a lot about in the past: Caitlin Kenney, currently the head of new show development at Gimlet Media. An Emerson graduate, Kenney had stints at WBUR, WNYC, and NPR’s now-defunct Bryant Park Project before moving on to be one of the founding producers of the highly popular, historically notable Planet Money. She spent over six years at the show, before taking a job as Head of Content at Gimlet. (A connection to note: Alex Blumberg, who co-founded Gimlet, was a co-founder of Planet Money.)

The following interview is an excerpt, edited down for clarity and flow.

***

So, right now you hold what I think is an unprecedented role in the podcast industry. I guess it depends on how you want to define it — it’s not unprecedented in radio, but you’re developing new shows for a relatively new medium that has recently been on an upswing. Which is to say, I get the sense that you’re in charge of resources of a significant greater measure than most other places. What do you do on a day-to-day basis?

It’s everything from like… from the moment someone is pitching something to us, and from the point we say yes, it’s my job to get the pitch to a point where we can start listening to it as a show. The first show that launched after I started was Surprisingly Awesome, and they (hosts Adam Davidson and Adam McKay) originally had a kind of a working pilot of the show with the specific concept in place. So I had to go out and assemble new episodes with the team.

One of the really interesting things about development is that you get to figure out what’s working and what’s not. So with Surprisingly Awesome, it’s a situation where one person is trying to convince another person that something which seems boring is actually super awesome. Which works when people actually feel that way, but there’s only a number of topics that people tend to feel that way about. And one thing about radio that I think is different from TV is that it’s really hard to fake things, and when someone fakes something you can just tell. And there’s definitely a performance aspect when you’re doing an interview where you’re trying to bring an energy to it because you want that other person to match you, but it’s harder than, say, in TV, because there’s something in that medium where you’re able to get away with that more.

When a new show is out in the marketplace, what are the primary metrics that you’re looking at and thinking about?

We have audience targets that we expect from shows. We want to see a level of audience size, but what we’re looking at is growth. And we’re also looking at the feedback. Like for Surprisingly Awesome, it used to be called Awesome Boring, and we used to have some “this is boring” parts in the early episodes. And one of the overwhelming feedback we got through email and Twitter from people is “cut the boring crap, I get it.”

And that’s really great, because when I went through the process of Planet Money, it really taught me that even when a show is out it can continue to evolve and grow, and that’s something we hope that our shows do as well.

Do you have different audience expectations for different shows?

Yes.

Do you have an internal formula of evaluating those benchmarks? Or is it more like, oh it’s an interview show, I’m going to cap that at 70k, and that show has a crazy story no one’s heard before, that’s going to be 200k.

I wish we had some secret algorithm I could tell you, but it’s kind of like that. It’s kind of like, “oh, that’s a really sexy story!” And that we know the person who is going to do it has a really good following, so we think it’s going to hit so and so size. You know, a lot of times it’s just us benchmarking from shows that we came from. I know what the size of Planet Money is, Alex knows the size of This American Life, so we’re just doing deductions based on places where we came from.

What do you look for when you’re pitched a show?

A couple things. One of the things we love about audio is that it’s super intimate, and it’s really important that you can feel like you know the host and that you can be friends with them. One of the most fun things I saw at my time in Planet Money was how excited people would be to meet Adam (Davidson) and Alex and Chana (Joffe-Walt). Just that enthusiasm is amazing. I mean, you’re whispering into someone’s ear, it’s very very intimate.

So we really want a host who can connect with an audience and has that level of engagement. And the show want to make… we want the story ideas to come from the people are actually going to be telling them. We don’t really want to just slot talent into existing projects.

We also want the shows to teach you something. There’s a thing about hearing something that makes you feel like you can talk with your friends at a cocktail party about it, or it makes you see the world a little differently. We don’t want them to feel educational in a way that feels lame or lecture-y or preachy, but we want them to be engaging.

Audio also makes you see people in a different way. We do this thing at Gimlet called Radio Class, where every Friday people give a lecture, they give a talk about their work. And we invite authors, like, all different kinds of people. Alex did one recently talking about the difference between TV and radio, and he played a story from the time when This American Life had a TV show and a different version of that same story when it was on the radio. And it’s so fascinating because in both stories there was a mother character who had some substance abuse issues and some traumas with the son. And what was so amazing was that the version you saw on video… you just disliked the mom. There were all these visual clues about the way she was and the way she reacted to her son that made you feel like you hated her. And then you heard her on audio, and she’s suddenly feels so likable. It’s just different.

Do you think any one of those presentations is more true than the other?

I don’t know… it’s hard. I mean, I think in the case of audio, you have to like the person to a certain degree to go along with her in the story….

So that’s really interesting to me. I think the whole personality driven structure to shows… I think it’s really good for certain podcasts like The Mystery Show or something, where there’s a central anchor and side characters that happen along the way. But for something, like, audio drama, that gets really really hard, because there’s the whole modulation of the actor where I find hard to like someone who I can’t particularly feel like I can trust the actor, trust the performance. Are you guys thinking about stuff before anchor/personality-driven shows?

Yeah, we’re definitely interested in the fiction space, absolutely. It just feels like ripe for opportunity.

How are you taking that Gimlet template and applying it to fiction?

So, for one thing, we’re working with a guy who is a pretty established, well-known fiction writer to do just that. Alex has jokingly been calling his title “Head of Make Believe,” because coming from the journalism documentary side of things, I don’t know how to do that stuff. So that’s one way to do: hire someone who is an expert on that thing, and get them to do it well.

The other thing is… I think audio drama, at its worst, feels 1950s cheesy.

Unless you’re really leaning into that.

Absolutely. So we’re thinking a lot about, okay, what can we do about the sound design, what can you do about the scoring, how can it feel immersive and not fake in the way you’re talking about. But it’s going to be a challenge. It’s going to be something we’re going to experiment in.

A common critique I’m starting to hear when I’m talking to folks about podcasts is that the concept for a lot of new shows sound pretty much the same. You got interview shows, you got conversationals, you got a certain kind of narrative storytelling. It feels like they’re fitting into an “Uber for X” model. In your mind, what frontiers should we be grasping more towards? Have you seen any new concepts that have enthralled you recently? What are you thinking about?

The big thing we’re thinking about is bringing in and working with people who don’t come from the same public radio traditions that most of us came from. My biggest fear is that I will recreate the same show twelve times over in twelve different subject matters, which I think would be easy to do because I know how to do that thing pretty well.

So we bring in people who are specialists in other worlds, and they bring their skills and their methods of storytelling and we help them translate it into audio. I think that’s the best way we can do it.

I really think of my team in development as support for the people who want to execute. We’ll teach you how to use a microphone, we’ll help you with the script, we’ll help you make the thing happen. That’s the way, I think, we can avoid repetition.

How big is your team?

There are four permanent producers on my team, and any new show that’s under development is part of my team until we launch them.

How many shows are you overseeing right now?

We have a lot of stuff in development. I’m not going to give, like, a set number, but we’ve been joking that we’ve been very pregnant at the moment.

Double digits, single digits?

Single digits. But a lot of stuff we’re going to launch in the fall.

In the fall? So we’re shit out of luck for the summer?

We’re going to be putting out a science show in the summer. We acquired this show from Australia called Science Versus that we’re really excited about.

Would you say that you guys move quicker than public radio?

I don’t know, I mean it depends. I think it depends on the show too, because some things you can produce quicker than others. The thing about doing the documentary work that we do, you don’t know when that person is going to call you back, you don’t know if that phone call is going to lead you to another phone call, you don’t know if that one person is going to change the story entirely. And even when you have the framework of a story, then you’re just going a lot of polishing.

We’re also trying to launch our shows with more than one episode ready to go, to try and satisfy that binge demand we all have now, and that of course takes more time.

How many pilots have you killed?

We’ve killed about… 3? (Caitlin would later clarify that the number was more around 6.)

I’m surprised you gave an actual number.

But we’ve said no a lot of pitches even before they got to the pilot stage.

What advice would you give to someone who is starting out? They might not come from radio, they might not have much experience… but the barriers to entry are low. But I guess even when the barriers to entry are low, barriers to quality and scale are high. What advice would you give to an independent who is looking to see where the limit of that person’s ability to achieve may be?

One of the first things I will say is: buy good equipment. A decent-sounding microphone is expensive, but not that expensive. If your number one thing is that you have bad audio quality, you’re just out. It almost doesn’t matter that what you’re saying is the most beautiful thing in the world, if I can’t hear you, I turn it off. That’s a really basic starting place.

The other thing is using your network, the people in your lives. I know a lot of people in this room are writers, and are part of writers groups, you talk to writers. Just playing other people your stuff and asking, “Did you like it? Are you bored?” We talk a lot at Gimlet about paying attention to when you’re bored. We do group edits with about 6 or 7 people in the room. And we look around at people and see if they’re getting distracted, they’re checking their watch, you know something is wrong. Whether it’s an interview, whether you’re trying to tell a story, playing something for the people in your life and asking them honestly what they thought, and taking their feedback, is the way to do it.

Another thing that I even do now is listening to things you like and deconstruct them. Try to figure out what worked about them. I’ve gone back and listened to the first season of Serial a bunch of times, and make weird little notes about things that they did that I loved. And I try to do that all the time when I’m hearing a really good story.

Did you listen to the second season?

I did.

Did you like it?

I liked it a lot! I felt really nervous for them, because the first season was so good. But I thought to move to a story that was so different from what they had done in the first season was really smart.

I feel like I enjoyed the second a lot more than the first season.

Really?

Yeah. It’s a situation where, like, you got to admire the balls, and you really got to admire the attempt at complexity. That complexity is, like, something that’s really hard to get across in radio; I mean, to achieve that complexity, you need audiences to also meet you in the middle, and I think the medium — as far as audience vocabulary goes — is still very much young in that sense. But then again, I also thought True Detective season two wasn’t that bad.

I think what’s really interesting too is that the story was about a whole… maybe subculture isn’t the right word, but the whole culture around the military is really fascinating to me. At times it’s insular, it has its own rules, its own societal norms. One of the things that I found so fascinating about that season was really feeling like I was in that world, understanding why they looked at the actions of this individuals so differently than the way I did.

Caitlin, thanks so much.

Post note: At one point during the audience Q&A, someone asked whether The Mystery Show would be getting a second season. Kenney replied, “It’s coming.”