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October 2016

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Eat with your ears

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Gimlet ends Sampler. The company announced the end of the podcast about podcasts at the top of its last episode, which was published late yesterday evening. In the pre-show note, Gimlet CEO Alex Blumberg explained that the move was to “basically clear the deck” to give room to a new project that will be built around Sampler host Brittany Luse. It is unclear what this new show will be about or when it will be ready for launch, but listeners were told to remain subscribed to the Sampler feed for further information that will be released at a later date.

This move comes about a week and a half after the Mystery Show rumpus, and I suppose it’s also worth noting that the Startup episode released that week, which focused on Gimlet and its current stresses related to growth, brought up the fact that some of its shows — Sampler included — had essentially plateaued in audience growth. However, one should also keep in mind that podcast consumption tends to slow down during the summertime, and that may well be what we are seeing in that situation. Whether Sampler’s audience numbers directly influenced the decision to end its run or not (I doubt we’ll know for sure), it nonetheless comes at an interesting time between the company’s brush with controversy and the recent NPR pickup of WAMU’s The Big Listen, also a podcast about podcasts, which began publishing its latest season earlier this month.

Luse joined Gimlet in September 2014 largely off the strength of her independently produced podcast For Colored Nerds, which has continued publishing to this day.

This is, technically speaking, the first time Gimlet has winded down a show.

Science Friday is launching a new show. The long-running public radio show that serves weekly scooping of delicious science news is birthing a spin-off: Undiscovered, which I’m being told is about the “left turns and lucky breaks that make science really happen.” I’m guessing it’s sort of like How I Built This, but for science! The new show will be hosted by veteran science producers Annie Minnoff and Elah Feder, and it’s scheduled to roll out sometime early 2017.

By the way, Science Friday just celebrated its 25th year of operations with a gala at the Intrepid Sea, Air, and Space Museum in New York this past Saturday. Congrats, folks!

Community-Driven Discovery. “People get really hyped when they find me,” said Danielle Sykes, the creator of Podcasts in Color, an individually-driven digital project that’s working hard to build out an online space for people of color who produce and consume podcasts. I had asked Sykes, who goes by Berry, if she felt like the podcast ecosystem had been adequately accommodating for different voices and communities; that is, for demographics other than “the white guys with mics” stereotype the space has become saddled with. “There’s room for improvement,” she said, by way of explaining why people get excited when encountering Podcasts in Color. “But I believe it’s coming.”

And it may well come from efforts like hers. Berry’s work with Podcasts in Color is remarkable for a number of reasons — its push to diversify podcasting’s identity, its intent to push more podcasts made by people of color into the mainstream, its scrappiness — but her most interesting contribution, I think, is how she is laying down a framework for a community-driven approach to podcast discovery, which has almost universally been described as broken and whose articulated solutions tend to revolve around technological approaches: a better platform, a better app, a better curation system built on top of existing distributors, and so on. (Another approach that has popped up in recent weeks: greater critical embrace, as embodied by the Third Coast Festival’s recent call for inclusion among Fall Arts Previews.)

Podcasts in Color functions on two mechanics. Firstly, Berry cultivates and maintains an active community of interested participants over a collection of social media accounts, though the bulk of the interactions appear on Twitter, where she makes rigorous use of hashtags (like #PodIn and #PodsInColor) under the nom de plume “Mystery Berry.” Over Twitter, Berry maintains a near-continuous stream of engaged and enthusiastic interactions, pulling people into public conversation and constantly surfacing new shows and episodes. While the effect can sometimes be overwhelming, it is nonetheless effective in its pursuit. I have personally found more than a few shows off Berry’s conversational blast radius that I have come to appreciate, and it always strikes me how I probably wouldn’t have been able to learn about those shows anywhere else.

The second mechanic lies in an attempt to document the universe of podcasts created by people of color, which Berry does by maintaining a directory of such shows that lives on the Podcasts in Color website. She tells me that new submissions to the directory are added daily, and the product is a comprehensive, if somewhat unwieldy, database whose existence should strip away the logic from arguments asserting that it’s hard to find podcasters of color.

“I’m trying to create the podcast world that I see in my head,” Berry told me, adding that her general distance from the coasts — she lives in Denver, where she works part-time at a travel company — informs her work. “I see everything from a ‘middle America’ perspective, so I love to think of ways someone living in Denver could connect and find podcasts easily.”

Podcasts in Color remains relatively small in reach. By Berry’s count, Podcasts in Color currently reaches over 4500 followers across its social media accounts, and the directory sports only about a thousand visitors a week. But while its numbers may be fledgling, Berry’s work is rising to meet a need that continues to persist in the space. And besides, speaking as a person who started a newsletter out of nothing, everybody starts out small.

Find the Podcasts in Color community on Twitter, and the directory on its website.

This American Life’s New Tool. This American Life publicly rolled out its new audio clipping and sharing tool, called “Shortcut,” last week. Nieman Lab has a great write-up of the tool discussing its origins at last September’s This American Life audio hackathon (which I covered at the time) and contextualizing it within the broader spectrum of similar audio sharing efforts like WNYC’s Audiograms initiative and the Clammr app.

It’s worth noting that Shortcut will be open-sourced, and that the team plans to release the code for the app soon. Stephanie Foo, Shortcut’s project lead (and This American Life staff producer) told me that she encourages people to use the tool in a variety of ways. “I like to see this idea be taken and shared,” she said. Foo added that she invites companies like Apple and Stitcher, distribution platforms that generate tons of valuable user behavior data, to take notice and consider ways to facilitate sharing experiences for listeners.

She also mentioned that her team is looking create a “database of interest” of people and team who want to start using the tool on their own. “We want to see how much effort we need to put into hand-holding,” she said. Such teams should send a note toweb@thislife.org.

Whetting appetites through your earballs. “I think food podcasts in general have a ton of room for growth,” said Dan Pashman, who hosts WNYC Studio’s The Sporkful, when we traded emails recently.

I had written to ask a few questions about his show and, more generally, about the scope of opportunities for food podcasts. Pashman pointed out that millennials (née snake people) spend over $90 billion per year on food, using that number to illustrate the scale of potential interest among the prime podcast consuming demographic. That kinda makes sense, though I figure that number is probably always meant to be big given the fact that we all kind of have to eat to live, unless you’re one of those Soylent people, but I suppose the very existence of those varied approaches and subsequent rebuttals to the subject further underscores Pashman’s point about food being such vibrant point of concern, interest, and thought in human life.

“As a general matter, I’d say food media roughly breaks down into three categories: tips/hacks/recipes, news/journalism, and storytelling,” Pashman said. “I think the second and third categories are as well-suited to audio as any other medium, perhaps better-suited. As for the first category, there are some food podcasts that do tips and recipes very well, but I do wonder how that content will fare long term. People seem to want their cooking tips in shorter formats each year… Listening to a podcast isn’t the most efficient way to learn how to sear a steak or eat durian.”

And it would seem that all three categories are more or less well served by the crop of food podcasts currently on the market, from The Sporkful and APM’s The Splendid Table toGastropod and Food52’s Burnt Toast to Gravy and all those lovely works by the Kitchen Sisters. (Let’s not even talk about the subgenre of food podcasts that specifically focuses on drink. That’s a doozy.)

But I’ve always had a sense that there is a fundamental difference between “food media” and media about food, both of which sport very different kinds of market opportunities. Almost all food podcasts, I think, cleanly fall within that second bucket, leaning deep into narrative-first designs that doesn’t really draw all much from the viscerality that the idea and experience of food often promote. Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve generally viewed “food media” to be the kind driven by a certain viscerality — I think about the gauzy close-ups in cooking shows, the gorgeous glossy photos in print magazines, and all of those other borderline pornographic editorial units that tap into that lizard-brain feeling of want — which I think is somewhat structurally in opposition to what we traditionally think about when we think about storytelling narrative, and as a function of that is a genre that tends to favor visual approaches. The platonic ideal for this media species is probably something likeBuzzFeed’s Tasty social food video empire circa summer 2016, and I guess I’m having a hard time finding audio projects that attempts to purely execute on those mechanics. To some extent, I wonder if that’s even possible, but if it is, and if there emerges strong attempts to capitalize on those same mechanics, I do believe there’s a really interesting business in here somewhere, or at least a technique that can greatly increase the hook of existing food podcasts.

“I do think you can tap into that want without visuals,” Pashman said, when I spiralled off on this ramble. “In some ways perhaps it’s even more visceral because as people listen, they picture their own personal platonic ideal of a food.”

Hmm.

Tangentially relevant but interesting nonetheless: Found out that the Food Network hauled in $891.6 million in revenues last year, though a 2014 Quartz article observed the channel’s programming trend to have shifted its focus away from food and more towards competitions.

A Series on Food and Race. Pashman, by the way, is currently publishing a Sporkful special series on race and food called Who Is This Restaurant For? “The basic premise is that every time you walk into a restaurant, you’re bombarded with signals that tell you what kind of place it is and whether it’s for you,” Pashman explained. “We’re hoping that by exploring these signals from the perspective of both restaurateurs and customers, we can reveal something about the judgments we all make, our perceptions of race and culture, and how the world looks to different people.”

This mini-series marks Pashman’s second project in the past year that examines the intersection of food and race, following his set of reports called Other People’s Food that originally came out back in March. (It was re-published earlier this month as a lead up to the new series. Which is an interesting marketing initiative, if you asked me.)

I asked Pashman, who is white, about his growing focus on this topic. “If you’re living in America right now, how can you not be interested in exploring questions of race, culture and identity?” he replied. “I was optimistic that food could offer an entry point, some kind of common experience where a meaningful conversation could begin.”

I’m told WNYC Studios doesn’t share audience numbers (a shame!), but Pashman says the series has gotten a “huge response.”

“In a certain way, podcasts are to public radio as public radio was to commercial radio,” said Studio 360’s Kurt Andersen on a recent episode of Recode Media, sketching out the parallel between public radio’s oppositional nature to its incumbents back in its day and podcasting’s own stylistic rubbing up against public radio today. “It’s all part of the great circle of life,” he trailed off.

Check out the super fun interview, and this specific section begins at the 27:30 mark.

Once again, until November: Godspeed, all you producers working on political podcasts this election cycle. May you get the biggest of raises once this is all over. (If it actually ends, of course.)

Bites:

  • I’m not personally clear about the cultural significance of the Webby Awards, but it’s taking entries for Podcasts and Digital Audio, so do keep tabs on that if it’s interesting to ya. (The Webby Awards)

  • Acast announced last week that it is granting its clients access to music library Epidemic Sound and the Hindenburg Journalist Pro editing software. It’s probably a move to sweeten the deal for podcast publishers and producers considering the Swedish podcast company as a potential ad sales provider, though those perks do feel like add-ons as opposed to core demands. (RAIN News)

  • Missed this last week, but really worth your attention: BackStory with the American History Guys, a popular Charlottesville-based radio show, is restructuring to become digital-first. As part of this shift, it will no longer offer an hour-long version for broadcast starting February 3, 2017, opting for primary distribution through a weekly podcast publishing format. The show had previously found distribution over 173 stations across 31 states and Washington DC,according to their website. Check out the Current write-up for more details.

  • Podcast upstart Paragon Collective dropped a trailer for its upcoming horror fiction series “Darkest Night.” What’s interesting here: the show’s first season is being sponsored by AMC Network’s new horror streaming service, Shudder.

  • “Is your podcast being held hostage by iTunes?” asks Forbes contributor Sarah Rhea Warner. (Forbes) Pair this with a recent take by a Goldman Sachs analyst: “It’s Time for Apple to Go Big in Content and Launch ‘Apple Prime’” (StreetInsider.com)

  • Two Amazon Echo related reads: “How 3 publishers are staffing for Amazon Echo” (Digiday) and “Yelling at Amazon Echo” (New Yorker)

Moves

  • Zach Brand, NPR’s VP of Digital Media & Services, is moving to The Guardian, where he replaces Aron Pilhofer as Chief Digital Officer.
  • Meg Cramer has been promoted; she is now BuzzFeed’s new deputy director of audio. Cramer has principally worked on the company’s political podcast, “No One Knows Anything.”
  • Podcast advertising platform CastPlus hires Jenni Skaug as VP of Business Development. Skaug previously held the same role at Ad Results.