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Art19 Steps Up, A New Branded Content Model, NYT Elections Pod

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Art19 Steps Into the Spotlight. “We’re not really pulling ourselves out of beta,” said Sean Carr, co-founder and CEO of Art19, a California-based tech startup that’s built a podcast hosting, monetization, and distribution platform. “We’re just ready to make some noise and draw attention to ourselves.”

And you should, indeed, pay attention.

Art19 organized a small press push last week, which comes after a long period of relative quiet for the company. The messaging in the push included a good amount of detail illustrating the company’s technological proposition to the podcast industry: the foundational elements for a shift away from the industry’s download count-oriented RSS feed paradigm towards one that focuses its counts on whether an ad within a download or stream has been initiated, consumed, or skipped by a listener — what Carr refers to as “listener telemetry,” a term he strongly emphasized when we spoke over the phone last week.

And what are the foundational elements that make up that new paradigm? “To start with, we’re offering embeddable players and, more importantly, APIs that are public so that both our partners and third party consumer apps can connect to us,” Carr said, laying out a vision of the future where more data would be flowing with greater freedom throughout the podcast ecosystem. He quickly added: “But to be clear: we won’t be using that data. We’re a SaaS (Software-as-a-Service) company.”

The company’s push towards an API connected listening orientation is, in my mind, more or less what much of the professionalizing layer of the podcast community — from bigger networks to advertisers to agencies — have been asking for when they lament about the medium’s measurability woes: greater means to look into the consumption behavior around an episode, and therefore greater capacity to cultivate trust and buy-in from more advertisers.

(Conversely, it’s also precisely what much of the podcasts-as-extension-of-the-free-web have been arguing against, fearing the platform control that often happens when a piece of technology emerges that potentially grants more power to bigger entities. I’ve always been of the position that technological developments are inevitable occurrences, and that the discourse should always be focused on cultivating better regulation structures and a new system of balance instead of attempting to limit such developments.)

But of course, for Art19’s gambit to work, the company would need to secure the trust and participation of a critical mass of partners — including publishers, agencies, advertisers, and distributors, among others — in order to build a coalition that would work to actually shift the paradigm across the industry. Indeed, while there’s a general hunger to move away from RSS feeds and download counts as the standard, there will always be the problem of inertia (e.g. “we’ve been making buys and allocating budgets this way for a while now”) and, more pressingly, there will always be the problem of politics. One imagines that Art19’s competitors — including but not limited to Libsyn, Panoply’s Megaphone, PRX’s Dovetail, Triton Digital’s Tap, and Acast — would want to be the anchor of any such paradigm shift themselves or, at the very least, for no one to be the anchor, perhaps through some open sourced alternative.

And so it’s crucial to examine the key allies that the company has secured. At this time, Art19’s major clients include: (1) Wondery, the LA-based podcast network recently started by the former CEO and President of Fox International Channels; (2) DGital Media, the network that produces podcasts for Recode, Yahoo’s The Vertical, Fortune, and the UFC, among others; and perhaps most crucially, (3) Midroll Media, which is currently in the process of moving its entire Earwolf network onto the platform and will now be pitching Art19 as its preferred platform to its wide range of ad sales clients. The company is also expected to make a few more major partnership announcements by the end of this month.

The company also appears to have a strong ally in the agency world in the form of Ogilvy & Mather, a well-known advertising agency that’s part of the WPP network. Teddy Lynn, the agency’s Chief Creative Officer for Content and Social, has been involved in Art19’s press push. “I’ve been working with Sean for many, many years,” Lynn told me. “What I can say: for close to a decade, podcasting has been a very rudimentary ad unit that one can buy. And I think Art19 is advancing the medium to a place where media buyers would feel comfortable buying.”  An AdExchanger article further notes that Art19’s platform design was designed with agency input, and that’s something that shouldn’t be discounted.

Art19 will likely be served well by its twin alliances with Midroll and Ogilvy. As one of the bigger players in the space, Midroll now enjoys deeper pockets following its acquisition by Scripps, and its expansionary sensibilities should make them as strong advocate for Art19’s technological vision in the marketplace over the long run. And in Ogilvy, Art19 has an advocate for legitimacy in the agency world, which is key to unlock the next level of advertising dollars for the medium.

But the question is whether that’s enough, and who else Art19 is able to bring into its vision: more publishers, the right podcast distributors and apps, the critical mass of advertisers. And of course, whether the company will be able to ward off coalitions formed by other sectors of the industry, whether it comes from another hosting platform — or from something else entirely.

A New Model for Branded Content? Slate launched a new podcast last week, “Placemakers,” that’s a bit of a complicated beast to explain. On the surface, it’s a show about urban revitalization, with host Rebecca Sheir traveling across the country reporting out city-specific stories on the subject. Sheir is a public radio veteran who has served at NPR, WAMU, and the Alaska Public Radio Network.

But the podcast is also the product of a branded content partnership with JPMorgan Chase, the multinational banking organization. The bank is underwriting the show’s eighteen editorial episodes — which, I’m told, are completely produced by the Slate editorial team — and is directly involved with three additional sponsored episodes, which will tell JPMorgan Chase-centered stories about urban revitalization in Detroit, Seattle, and New Orleans. Those three branded episodes are produced by the Panoply Custom team, the unit within Panoply, Slate’s sister podcasting company, that’s in charge of building out branded podcasts for clients. That team’s portfolio includes Purina’s “DogSmarts,” Umpqua Bank’s “Open Account,” and most notably, the audio sci-fi drama “The Message,” which came out of a collaboration with GE.

“The project came about from both the editorial and advertising sides having a shared passion about the revitalization of urban cities,” said Keith Hernandez, president of Slate, when we spoke last week. “[Slate editor-in-chief] Julia Turner was really excited about the subject, and when we brought it to the JPMorgan Chase team  we figured out that they were really excited about it too.”

Serendipitous as it may be, the long-running concern of a show like this — one where it’s not all that easy, on the whole, to tell at what point the Slate voice ends and the JPMorgan Chase begins, given how complicatedly blended the two actors are within the larger project — is how the line between editorial and advertorial is established and communicated. This concern reared its voluminous head again just last week, when the Online Trust Association released a report that found that 71% of native ads that appeared on the home pages of the top 100 news websites were providing inadequate disclosures and transparencies that help audience make the distinction between an ad and an editorial content. (The report also instigated a fascinating, and feisty, Twitter joust between Current’s Adam Ragusea and On The Media’s Bob Garfield.) No such report has been conducted yet for on-demand audio, but it goes without saying that this issue stretches across all mediums that are involved in the possible production of journalistic content.

Which raised to me the question: how exactly will Placemakers illustrate that line for listeners?

“There’s going to be a different host for the three sponsored episodes,” Hernandez replied. “We want this to be clear and evident that these are special episodes. There are also going to be, ahead of time, mid roll and post-roll announcements within the episodes that custom episodes are coming.”

Hernandez also suggested that “Placemakers” is an early prototype of a new branded content model: one that involves the production of branded spin-offs from a pre-existing show. “Brands are moving away from an idea of themselves as a bland corporate entity… they want something deeper than a brand logo. I think this is just the beginning of a longer trends, of brands digging deeper into ideas and building relationships with the publishing community,” Hernandez said. And I think this Placemakers model is scalable: how do we take existing shows and find an interesting spin-off that could be dedicated to a brand and leverage the sensibility of those shows?”

Of course, the “pre-existing” show in this case had to be made contemporaneously with the branded campaign, but the proposition here stands. (Also worth noting: this notion of a branded spin-off shares some structural similarity to the My Brother, My Brother, and Me’s bonus episode sponsored by Totino’s Pizza Rolls, which I wrote about back in May.)

When I asked about the size of the deal — whether it was larger than previous Custom partnerships — Hernandez declined to comment, understandably. But he did answer my question about JPMorgan Chase’s expectation for the campaign, calling it an “evolving conversation” and one that respects the experimental nature of the project. Hernandez also tells me that the campaign will be playing around with on-site and off-site promotion, including a pop-up website, native ad units on the Slate website, and paid units on social (not unlike what they’ve been running with Malcolm Gladwell’s “Revisionist History”).

Before signing off, I asked Hernandez how Panoply was doing on the whole. Understandably, again, he express immense optimism around the company’s position, and in particular, the potential of Megaphone, its CMS platform.

“Megaphone is going to be a game-changer,” he said.

(Disclaimer: Panoply used to be my day-job employer, way back when.)

For the New York Times, a politics podcast of its own. Called “The Run Up,” the show is hosted by Times national political reporter Michael Barbaro and will cover this long, painful, brain-melting American presidential election cycle as its trundles through its final three months. (Hence, the name.) According to the PR email I received about the launch, the podcast will release new episodes twice a week and will serve listeners with “engaging conversations around the 2016 election and keep them up to speed about what happened (and what might happen),” with some key interviews thrown in here and there. From that description, it doesn’t seem like The Run Up will differ very much from other elections podcasts as far as structure is concerned, which suggests that the major differentiator between podcasts within this genre lies purely within the nexus of the analysis, the access to key interviews, and the discussion quality more broadly.

But thinking this through a little further, I’m wont to wonder: just how much can you stretch this particular genre in terms of form and structure? And how much of that stretching is actually necessary to create a strong enough hook, or develop a genuinely novel value proposition, for new audiences? I’m tempted to credit BuzzFeed’s “No One Knows Anything” with legitimately attempting a new hook — that is, by trying to keep a distance from the horse-race coverage and working to tell broader stories about the election, while aiming at a demographic that’s less bought into the cycle — but twenty-three episodes in, the show as a whole does seem to feel very much a part of the larger plethora of elections podcasts that we’ve seen to date, at least to my ears. (Though, if I’m pressed to identify a show that’s done a good job providing a genuinely novel value proposition, I’d point to the tight set of election-related episodes in Scott Carrier’s “Home of the Brave,” which has been stringing together on-the-ground missives that’s just been furiously visceral, constantly surprising, and often terrifying.)

Anyway, I’m reminded that this is the Times’ first podcast rollout since bringing on WBUR’s Lisa Tobin as the organization’s new executive producer for audio, who started work just last month. I was also able to find out that this podcast is being produced completely in-house, and not as the product of an external partnership like “Modern Love,” which is a collaboration with WBUR, and the now-defunct “Ethicists” podcast, which was produced with Panoply. For those keeping tabs at home, the organization is slated toproduce a show with Pineapple Street Media, which we’ll probably be treated to sometime in the near future.

Multi-Story. This is interesting: ESPN is currently in the middle of a new multi-platform initiative that “could be a model for future storytelling at the sports network,” according tothe Hollywood Reporter. The initiative, called “Pin/Kings,” is a documentary narrative that follows the story of two former high school wrestling teammates that go on to be on different sides of the East Coast drug war.

The first phase of the initiative is a 16-episode podcast miniseries that drops new episodes every weekday. At this writing, we’re on episode 7, and the narrative is being unfolded through a mixture of host narrations — which are done by Brett Forest, the reporter who has been working on this story for over a year, and producer Jon Fish — and subject interviews. The podcast will lead up to a one-hour primetime television special that’ll broadcast on ESPN2 on August 22, which will then be followed by a big print feature on the August 26th issue of the ESPN Magazine.

Personally, I’m curious as to how all the platforms complement each other in terms of audience development and management: how will audiences be aggregated across the different platforms, and how will they be monetized? Which leads us to a broader question: what level of monetization would make a podcast-involved multiplatform initiative like this worth it for ESPN, a massive and principally TV-driven operation (though not for long, possibly)? That’s a question, I believe, that’s a perfectly relevant query for all other major media organizations dabbling in podcast-land.

Bites:

  • “SoundCloud owners said to mull $1 billion sale of music service.” Pretty speculative article, but it’s worth monitoring this potential development if you’ve been relying on the service for revenue in any way. (Bloomberg)

  • “How NPR marketed the second season of its hit podcast ‘Invisibilia’.” Number to watch: the podcast has currently achieved 10 million downloads, according to the report, which is lower than the first season’s tally of 50 million downloads. Of course, these numbers are difficult to discern without an apples-to-apples time period, which we’re not given, and the report further notes that NPR has changed how it counts downloads in order to minimize the possibility of duplicate counts. (Digiday)

  • Podtrac’s July podcast publisher ranking report shows a lineup that’s virtually unchanged since June, with NPR holding the top spot ahead of WNYC Studios and This American Life. Though, as RAIN News notes, the report observed a 5% increase in unique streams and downloads this month compared to last. As usual,the usual disclaimers about the ranker apply. (Podtrac, RAIN News)

  • The Guardian’s new interactive for the Rio Olympics: Pokemon Go meets Detour/walking tours. You knew it had to happen. (The Guardian)

  • “When will YouTube deal with its audiobook and podcast piracy problem?” Yeah, YouTube. When are you gonna do dat. (Observer)

  • The Selected Shorts podcast has launched a spin-off — Selected Shorts: Too Hot For Radio. Tragically, it was not Selected Shorts: Miami. (iTunes)