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July 2016

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Do you skip podcast ads? Do you feel bad? I sure do.

Written by , Posted in Hot Pod Weekly

Ad-Skipping. I wasn’t able to cover this last week, but it’s a topic you shouldn’t sleep on:the Wall Street Journal declared two weeks ago that “Podcasting has an Ad-Skipping Problem, Too,” and though I didn’t find the evidence provided by the article substantial enough to justify its strong headline — it drew upon an anecdote, a marginally representative Spotify data pool for a single Reply All episode, and the ubiquity of the skip button feature across podcast apps — I did appreciate how the article is drawing more attention to a potential problem that the industry will have to deal with one way or another. (I myself have found this issue to clearly be on the minds of several folks from the agency and advertising worlds, based on conversations I’ve had over the past several months.)

Two things on this:

  • Though I personally want to know the real magnitude to which ad-skipping is a problem, the actual severity of the problem is much less important compared to the perception that there could theoretically be a problem. As a relatively new medium with a fairly messy and opaque past, the podcast industry has to work twice as hard to win the trust of advertisers who are inclined to avoid spending money outside channels that more aggressively provide satiating feedback loops (like, say, Facebook) or channels that possess more buzz (like, say, Snapchat) and prestige (like television). And so articles like this from the Wall Street Journal serve as a very good signal of the trust gap that the industry as a whole needs to beat in order to meaningfully grow the size of its advertising spend year-over-year.

  • In a lot of ways, the focus on ad-skipping — which is tied to larger concerns about meaningful impressions and potential count inflation — is a proxy in and of itself, because the real goal for any company spending advertising money to market its goods and services is conversion, either in the short-term or in the very long-term (as in the case of brand advertisers). Which is to say, you could beat this trust gap by hacking away at the ad-skipping fear, but you could render that fear moot by strengthening the narrative around and belief in conversions, broadly defined.

Cool? Cool.

Another Upfront. The Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) is holding its second annual podcast upfronts on September 7 at Time Inc.’s Henry R. Luce Auditorium in New York. All eight presenters from last year — NPR, WNYC, ESPN, CBS, AdLarge, Panoply, Midroll, and Authentic (Podtrac’s advertising arm, now rebranded) — are returning, with four new additions in the mix: Time Inc., HowStuffWorks, PodcastOne, and Wondery.

I found last year’s proceedings to be somewhat chaotic but more or less successful in what it was trying to achieve, which was some combination of familiarizing advertisers with the podcast medium and providing a space for stronger relationships between advertisers and podcast publishers to develop.

But despite the table-setting achievements of last year’s festivities, I’ve always found the general idea of podcasts — and new media formats, more generally — appropriating the ritual of upfronts… well, a little cute. The upfront model, which seeks to artificially create an acute and hyped-up advertising marketplace for upcoming content, is a carryover from the broadcast television industry, and the entire value proposition, structure, calendar schedule, and general lavish feel of the modern upfront is structured and optimized around the television industry’s particular traits, financial context, and history. I found this Adweek feature, written by Anthony Crupi and published in May 2011, about the television upfronts’ early years very instructive, particularly in this discussion on how the modern upfront was conceived:

At the time (1948), the network schedules were unfixed; rather than running on a September-to-May calendar, programs premiered at various times throughout the year. Upfront negotiations were synched to the studio development cycle; as such, upfronts would begin the week after Washington’s Birthday, wrapping up by month’s end. Then, in 1962, ABC forever altered the advertising landscape: In a bid to create a showcase for American automakers, the network shifted its entire programming lineup, setting its premieres for a single week in the fall. In so doing, ABC not only invented the broadcast TV season as we know it, but also ushered in the era of the modern upfront.

This passage illustrates an intentionality and aggression within the television industry to create and augment demand. (Man, those folks knew how to sell.) And back then, television had the clout, buzz, and resources to throw its weight around and do just that.

The podcast industry, on the other hand, is starting out on the back foot. It’s a relatively quiet offshoot of digital audio that’s finding its legs in an era of increasing uncertainty around the value provided by media and publishing industries. And so it’s interesting, to me anyway, to see how podcast companies adopting the upfront model — aside from the IAB’s event, we’ve seen one organized by a consortium of public radio stations and a “Newfront” that mixed Gimlet with other digital media companies — actually reflects a more conservative stance: one that operates off the sense that you win trust by performing the rituals they do and by the looking the way they look, as opposed to creating new rituals, spaces, and market expectations of their own.

Planet Money Has A New Senior Editor. And his name is Bryant Urstadt, formerly a features editor at Bloomberg Businessweek. At Businessweek, Urstadt worked with several of the magazine’s most prominent writers including Megan McArdle and Brad Stone (whose book on Amazon, “The Everything Store,” is one of my all-time favorite reads). His editorship also produced writer and developer Paul Ford’s “What is Code?” issue-length essay for the magazine’s June 11, 2016 edition — a thoroughly enjoyable package that remains one of the most clarifying and anxiety-inducing things I’ve ever read. To put it another way, Ford’s piece was perfect Planet Money material.

When I spoke with Neal Carruth, NPR Business Desk supervising senior editor, and Alex Goldmark, Planet Money’s supervising producer, about the hire, they strongly expressed admiration over Urstadt’s body of work. “We looked really far and wide — we looked in longform radio, we looked at TV, we looked at the magazine world,” Carruth said. “And what we found in Bryant was strength in two things: the first is smarts about business and economics, and the other is just really great longform editing skills.” Carruth further pointed out that, under Urstadt’s influence, Businessweek consistently produced stories that the Planet Money team wished they did first — always a good sign of compatible sensibilities.

Urstadt isn’t unique in his transition as an editor from magazine features into longform narrative audio. The same arc can be found in This American Life’s Joel Lovell, who joined the team from the New York Times Magazine in late 2014. One could also argue that Hannah Rosin, currently the third co-host on the second season of NPR’s Invisibilia, followed a similar trajectory. Rosin is a veteran magazine journalist who has written for the New Yorker, the Atlantic, and the Washington Post.

I asked how a magazine background like Urstadt’s (and Lovell’s and Rosin’s) would inform the aesthetics, sensibilities, and structures of future Planet Money stories, and how that would differ if the team had recruited an editor from, say, the television world instead. “I think a worthwhile question to ask is: which is closer to longform audio — short-form audio, like what you get from station reporters, or print magazines?” Goldmark responded, going broader. “Which two sets have more in common, and which show greater differences? I’m curious what people think.”

Remembering a recent Poynter column, which raised concerns about a systemic editor shortage, I asked Carruth and Goldmark whether they feel such a shortage exists. “I think it’s fair to say there is,” Carruth said. “I don’t see how it can be otherwise, given the explosive growth in the industry. There’s so much hiring happening, but there isn’t very much training up of editors… and even if we’ve been good about building an editor pipeline in the past, the rapid growth automatically makes great editors more scarce.”

“It’s not that there aren’t great editors out there,” Goldmark said. “They just aren’t in podcasts yet. It’s also not a question about where they are, it’s about how we find them — in magazines, in television, in documentary film — and make that transition into audio as smooth as possible.” Carruth concurs, adding: “It’s likely that a lot of them are already in audio, but it’s incumbent on us to make it a more attractive role. A lot of people want to be the voice of something, but we need to convey that there’s a lot of pleasure in being off-mic as well.”

Urstadt started work yesterday.

Gimlet’s Slack Experiment. It’s been about a year since Gimlet first launched its membership program, and that span of time has seen early members (who either pay $5 a month or $60 a year) being treated to an eclectic string of benefits: sneak previews of upcoming shows, t-shirts for annual subscribers, a few live Q&As, and even some bizarre yet enjoyable bonus content like the pilot of the reality TV-esque “The Hunt,” a project that came out from the company’s Mix Week. However, despite those deliveries, the program never felt particularly endowed with substance or intend. As a paying member myself, the returns struck me as afterthoughts, the releases way too sporadic to integrate into my (admittedly extensive) consumption calendar.

But ultimately, that never really mattered. Perhaps it is the organization’s roots in public radio — a heritage that expresses itself on so many levels, from aesthetics to sound to the spirit of its marketing material — but at some point my brain just automatically filed my Gimlet membership expense away into the same cabinet as my annual pledges to WNYC, WBEZ, and Radiotopia. I’ve come to perceive it to be part of a larger act of “paying it back,” an indication of support for a service well-provided and hope for more service to come. Of course, understanding my Gimlet membership in this way is a little troublesome, given the company’s activities with fundraising through venture capital. (Deep down inside, my capitalistic fairness calculus convulses.)

Anyway, that’s all a long preamble to talk about the new experiment that the company is rolling out for the membership program: a Slack group that connects members with each other and, to some extent, the Gimlet team itself.

“There’s a large precedent of media companies trying to engage [its communities] in a forum format, but the thing that feels so fresh from our standpoint is that, because Slack’s tech is so flat and because our team is basically already on Slack all day, it’s easier for us to mesh with the community,” explained Chris Giliberti, Gimlet’s chief of staff who was recently put in charge of the membership program, when we spoke over the phone last week. “It feels like we’ve invited them into our newsroom. That’s what I think is so special.”

The Slack group is certainly a kick, with flurries of conversation spontaneously erupting throughout the day across its 35 (and growing) channels — which greatly range in topic, from episode discussions to local meetup planning to breaking news observation. Frankly, it’s a little exhausting,  but it’s a fascinating community to lurk around and watch nonetheless.

“Weirdly, it feels like Second Life,” Giliberti said. “People are making their own spaces and architecting their own program.” But of course, the experience isn’t meant to be entirely user-driven. The Reply All team has already tried crafting an interactive “call-in” episode off the Slack group, and an advice show is in the works using the platform. Giliberti expressed hope that the Slack will continue generating future opportunities for projects, both for the community and the company.

When I asked about how much the membership program is generating in revenue, Giliberti declined to discuss specifics. (Totally fair.) But he did point out that the Slack group displays about 1300 registered members, and that this number represents merely a portion of the membership. (If you wanted to eyeball, you’d find that the program is generating at least $78,000 a year.) “It’s a small part of our business compared to advertising, but it’s a really meaningful part,” he said. “I think there’s a thought that it could be a much bigger part of the business in the future, but in the meantime, it’s a way for us to really connect with our audience.”

We’ll see how the Slack group will fare over time, and whether it’ll eventually become the core that gives the membership program its shape, substance, and heft — a sort of center for its universe. But for now, it feels to me like a step in the right direction, and I’m really hoping the team figures it out as a viable alternative revenue stream, given the media industry’s dependency on an increasingly wacky advertising ecosystem.

“We fronted the costs of producing the show,” said Jacob Weisberg, chairman and editor-in-chief of the Slate Group, responding to a question about Malcolm Gladwell’sRevisionist History during a recent episode of Recode Media. “Which, for something like his show that’s highly produced, are not insignificant.”

The Slate Group is the publishing entity of Graham Holdings, and it is the corporate entity that houses Panoply, which produces and distributes the hit podcast, which has been sitting pretty at the top of the iTunes hotness charts for almost two months now (at time of publication, the podcast has been on the charts for 52 days). According to the interview, Gladwell was not given a big advance to make the show — which, one expects, is a deviation from his deals in the publishing world — and is instead operating on a revenue share basis, which is how Panoply works with most of its publishing partners. File that away in your notes, folks.

NPR partners with iHeartRadio for distribution. The agreement would let the public radio mothership and its wide network of member stations distribute its live News Talk programming over the iHeartRadio platform, according to the press release. This comes weeks after iHeartRadio announced a similar partnership with Libsyn, one that sees iHeartRadio being a distribution point for the podcast hosted on the Libsyn platform. At this point, I’d like to re-up a point I made back in March about an impending structural convergence and reorientation of on-demand audio conceptualizations:

For what it’s worth, I’m fairly certain that, with its liberation from an infra-structurally imposed definition, the word “podcast” will lose all of its original meaning by the end of the calendar year. My sense is that it will likely become an identifier for a certain corner of a reconstituted landscape of all non-music audio content that’s created and distributed digitally. It’s a scope that will not only include the new podcasting companies of the last year or so, public radio, and digital media companies developing new audience development channels in the audio space (which have been my topical biases, in case you haven’t already noticed), but also commercial radio powers, streaming and Internet radio companies like iHeartMedia and SiriusXM, and community radio infrastructures.

And to remind you on what I think the landscape will look like beyond that point:

Audio content produced for the Internet and distributed through the Internet will soon no longer be identified based on a singular technological method (the aforementioned “podcatcher”), but to the #content itself. And when that happens, what we’ll see is a narrative that’s less of a clash between an insurgent and an incumbent (“the future of radio”), but rather, a clash between content factions defined by generations, communities, and cultures (“a type/genre/kind of radio”).

Implicit in these hypotheses is an understanding that the core assumptions that make up the economics of the industry — the high CPMs relative to other audio and digital formats, the “intimate,” “opt-in,” and “highly engaged” narrative points in podcasting’s value propositions, and so on — will be fundamentally altered, and the onus should be on podcasting companies to both craft a new, evolved narrative as well as develop more involved methods of ad verification and impact assessments.

Bites:

  • Podcast collective The Heard adds two new projects to its lineup: Erica Heilman’s “Rumble Strip Vermont” and Sara Brooke Curtis’ “Today’s Special.” The collective, which also home to Jonathan Hirsch’s “Arrvls” and the wonderful “How To Be A Girl,” recently saw its first show graduation with Tally Abecassis’ “First Day Back”being picked up by Scripps. Keep an eye on this crew. (The Heard)
  • Speaking of Scripps: Katie Couric, the former television journalist and Yahoo!’s current global news anchor, now has a podcast of her own with Earwolf, and she popped up as a guest on the Longest Shortest Time, another show on the network, which one presumes is a concerted marketing effort. (Earwolf)
  • Current.org is running a special coverage series on diversity in public media. Check it out, won’t you? (Current)
  • The grand opening of PRX’s Podcast Garage, billed as “a recording studio and educational hub dedicated to supporting to supporting audio makers at all levels,” will take place next Wednesday at Aeronaut Allston in Boston. (Boston.com)