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October 2016

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Night Vale Presents, Spotify + Soundcloud, Radio/Podcast Criticism

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Night Vale Presents welcomes a new show to the podcast universe: The Orbiting Human Circus (of the Air), an audio drama that will “tell the story of a mysteriously impossible variety show broadcast from the top of the Eiffel Tower”… well, let’s just say it’s appropriately strange, and exactly what you’d expect from the Night Vale team. The show is written by musician Julian Koster, of the band Neutral Milk Hotel, and will feature a really remarkable lineup of voice talent that ranges from Mandy Patinkin to Charlie Day and Mary Elizabeth Ellis of “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” fame.

Orbiting Human Circus is the third project to be released under the Night Vale Presentslabel since its formation in January, after Within the Wires and Alice Isn’t Dead. The show also has the distinction of being the network’s first “independently produced” podcast, meaning that it’s the first project being distributed by the Night Vale Presents team that does not creatively involve Night Vale creators Jeffrey Cranor and Joseph Fink. (For the record: Cranor co-wrote Within the Wires, while Fink wrote Alice Isn’t Dead. Both write Welcome to Night Vale.)

“Julian and his artistic team built the world entirely on their own and approached us with the season one concept and the first three episodes already produced,” Cranor told me, after I reached out last week. “We saw a group of artists making music and theater, and they had devised this brilliant digital audio show, and we wanted to provide them with a financial base and audience base to get this work off the ground.”

Authentic, Podtrac’s advertising arm, is handling sales for the show, as they are for the rest of the Night Vale Present portfolio (including its flagship show, Welcome to Night Vale).

I’ve come to view Night Vale Presents as conceptually equivalent to an indie label and, to some extent, a book publishing imprint — with a strong curatorial commitment to a very specific sensibility, closer in spirit to something like Radiotopia but in structural opposition to more conventional scale-oriented podcast network like Panoply. (That reminds me: I’ve got to come up with a different vocabulary for these companies; the specificities of their details have accumulated enough to become strong differentiators.) Which is really, really interesting given that, for the past year or so, the podcast industry has come to feel like a protracted land-grabbing conflict perpetrated by entities looking to become the foundational arbiter of economic activity in the space. And I have, in recent weeks, come to suspect that much of that fight has already completed its course.

That leaves us, of course, with the question of what frontiers are left for entrepreneurial creators looking to stretch out their arms in this ecosystem. The enterprise of figuring out how to build a fulfilling business in the post-scale-oriented-network stage of this creative economy is certainly a hard one, but I think Night Vale Presents is doing just that — and is providing us a template of a way forward.

“We have a couple of other artists with imaginative ideas/concepts and we are using our experience to help these people enter the world of podcasting,” Cranor writes, when I asked about what’s down the pipeline. “Joseph and I reaching out to provide whatever resources we can to help initiate these good ideas, whether that is professional support, financial support, or just cheerleading. We want more fiction podcasts, more diverse podcasts, more original podcasts.”

Season one of Orbiting Human Circus (of the Air) premieres on October 12, with new episodes dropping every other Wednesday. The first season will run for nine episodes. The podcast will also involve a live tour component, which will start in the fall.

Spotify in “advanced talks” to buy Soundcloud, according to the Financial Times. Do keep an eye on this, given that the latter has long served as a solid podcast hosting platform option for newcomers — and even a few networks — and given the former’s gradual push into becoming a worthwhile podcast distributor. (Worth noting: I’ve been hearing from some publishers that their Spotify listenership appears to be growing steadily over time, though not a rate that particularly pops.)

I’m tempted to speculate how this acquisition may impact podcast publishers hosting on Soundcloud or publishers looking to distribute through Spotify — it remains a closed garden — but I imagine that will all be contingent on the details of whatever deal may emerge from these talks, should there be one.

Some notes on the UK. I was curious, like most, when I heard that Panoply was setting up shop in the UK. When I last wrote about the podcast scene in that region, I was left with the distinct impression that building out an on-demand audio business there would be a tremendously difficult proposition, particularly given the outsized role that the BBC plays in the local non-music audio economy that presumably leaves little oxygen for potential competitors.

Panoply, I figured, are in for a tough fight. But I wondered what someone who has had experience building out a podcast business in the UK would think, and so I reached out to Stuart Last, general manager and SVP of Audioboom, a British on-demand audio company that has, in recent years, made in-roads in the US.

His extensive reply:

The podcast market [in the UK] is really in it’s infancy — there’s been an increasing number of independent podcasts [in the UK], but a noticeable lack of podcast networks compared to the US, so the first stage of consolidation has not really begun. Also, the ad sales market is not hugely established yet, both in the money agencies and brands are dedicating to podcasting, and how sellers are selling.

The one thing the BBC’s dominance of the audio space has created is a really competitive independent production industry. By law, the BBC has to buy a large percentage of its radio programs from the independent sector — which means there’s creative, and well established production companies ready to develop and produce fantastic audio products. So I think the main challenge for them will be how to monetize effectively. But their key opportunity is all about content and being able to tap into the independent production industry for great ideas.

I think it’s great that a 3rd major player is launching there — obviously it’s more competition for ourselves and Acast, but because the industry is so in it’s infancy it’s a chance for all three companies to shape what podcasting becomes in the UK.

Interestingly, Last also wanted to clarify the current state of Audioboom for me: “I know we’re also seen as a British company,” he wrote. “We are — that’s where the company was founded and where our HQ is based — but the majority of global business is out of the U.S and we’re growing here at 10% a month.” Last further notes his company’s position as a dynamic ad-insertion platform competitors to Art19 and Acast (“and at much bigger scale,” he adds. “Over 50 million downloads per month are coming via audioBoom”) and, simultaneously, a podcast advertising sales operation. It currently reps the Undisclosed, Astonishing Legends, and the NBC Sports podcast network, among others.

Meanwhile, in Australia. The great continent down under — sorry folks, I couldn’t find a less cliched nickname — enjoyed its inaugural OzPod conference last week, with WNYC’s Manoush Zomorodi presenting the keynote. The conference, which was organized by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), is the second relatively high-profile conference in the country after the more indie-oriented Audiocraft that took place in March. Anyway, I’d like to draw your attention something that the ABC published ahead of the festivities: an Audience Research research report that covers Australian podcast listenership, put together by the organization’s Audience Insights team.

The report drew from a sample of 1145 surveys, and it should be noted that the majority of respondents had been listening to podcasts for more than five years. (Which, in my mind, presents a pretty engaged — and therefore somewhat irregular — respondent pool, so keep that in mind when you look through the findings.)

You can view the full report here, but here are the points that stood out to me:

  • On average, Australian podcast audiences listen to an average of 5.5 podcasts per week. The report didn’t make it particularly clear, but I believe “podcasts” to be equivalent to “podcast episodes.” The report also found that nearly 1 in 5 (19%) respondents listen up to 11 podcasts per week.

  • The most common location where respondents consume podcasts is apparently at home, with 76% reporting that behavior.

  • This is interesting: 36% of respondents indicated that the are listening to more podcasts compared to previous year. The report further noted that this is a net 14% increase compared to the previous year.

  • Finally: nearly 1 in 2 discover new podcasts by word of mouth and listening to the radio or television.

Cool. And in case you were wondering: ABC Radio is the largest podcast publisher in the country, reporting about 135 million overall downloads and streams in 2015. The company is projected to enjoy about 160 million overall downloads in 2016.

A Writer’s Room? Parcast is a fairly new podcast network that has taken what’s becoming a very conventional route to building out a strong initial audience base: leaning hard into true crime. (Indeed, it’s a strategy so compelling that even some city newspapers, like theCincinnati Enquirer and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, have adopted it… with moderate success, looking at the iTunes charts.) “Unsolved Murders: True Crime Stories,” is a dramatic reenactment-heavy take on the genre, and it comes off as a bit of campy mix between Nightline and an old timey radio drama. I’m told it drew in 1.8 million “listens” in its first three months.

Max Cutler, a co-founder of Parcast, tells me that the company is set up “like an old time movie studio,” in that production is built around a rotating pool of screenwriters and voice actors with different combinations working on a given episode. It’s an intriguing way of structuring your production process, especially if you can make the economics of running a team like that work, and I think it’s a model that other shops should try out in the future — particularly for the audio drama-inclined.

Anyway, the network launched its second show, the salaciously-named “Remarkable Lives, Tragic Deaths,” in early August, and Cutler notes that they intend to launch five to seven more shows over the next year.

Recognition. Something’s wrong, argues Johanna Zorn and the Third Coast Festival team in a manifesto published on Medium last Monday. It’s time for the Fall Arts Preview — an annual tradition, of sorts, where publications across the print and digital spectrum draw attention to upcoming artistic and creative events — but there remains, quite glaringly, an absence of radio and podcast-related coverage. Zorn and co. further characterize this gap as an extension of a greater lack of critical recognition for the medium; a long running state of affairs, to be sure, but one that has grown increasingly incongruous given the medium’s recent burst in attention and popularity. “We seek recognition of the Radio/Podcasting genre through thoughtful reviews, criticism, and a deeper examination of styles and trends,” the manifesto concludes. “We know you can hear us.”

As you can imagine, I’m sympathetic to the issue that Zorn and co. raise here, but reading the manifesto, I found myself wondering: what, exactly, does “recognition” mean here?

When I spoke to the Third Coast team last week, Zorn told me: “It’s like we’re fighting for equality here… We talk about novels, dance, and movies, but we don’t talk about radio and it doesn’t feel like it’s being treated as art.” Maya Goldberg-Safir, the team’s social media strategist, presented a more practical line of argument: “People are still using the New York Times or the Chicago Tribune for event listings. I think those outlets are crucial for us to get visibility as an art form that we deserve at this point.”

A few things here:

(1) It’s worth decoupling those two arguments: so, I really resonate with Goldberg-Safir’s argument for greater discoverability — which can yield material economic impact — but I find Zorn’s appeal for greater cultural positioning much trickier. In my mind, it conveys a sense that the team is appealing to stable of elite cultural gatekeepers to open their doors and let them in. I’m generally skeptical of any impulse that ties recognition to an acceptance from an elite class, although I understand that feeling.

(2) Now, I generally believe in cultivating radio/podcast criticism to realize their functional utility as a consumer guide of sorts and increase their influence over the economic outcomes of podcast projects. To that end, I’m hopeful about the way things are shaping out: podcast recommendation lists appear to be more common these days, there’s a growing class of young and independent online operatives taking up the task (like the Bello Collective and Podcasts in Color), and there’s been a slow but steady rise in write-ups within strong publications (a very recent example: the New York Times’ recent profile of You Must Remember This’ Karina Longworth in the Style section, which comes mere weeks after a similar write-up of The West Wing Weekly in the Arts section.)

(3) I also happen to absolutely love consuming criticism as an editorial product that stands alone. (Hell, I love producing them too.) And as an editorial product, criticism has been subject to all the structural brouhahas that the rest of the media industry is suffering through, including the bifurcation into commodifying plays for scale and narrowing plays for niches. And therein lies the problem: radio/podcast criticism of the former kind may be well-served by all we’re seeing already — the lists, the occasional write-ups by big publications (many of which have been downsizing form-specific critics for years), and so on — the deeper and more thoughtful stuff, the stuff that the Third Coast team advocates for, requires the development of whole new, probably niche, businesses, either within an existing organization or as an entirely new venture.

And that is no small thing.

Heads up. The Reply All team is trying out something weird next week: a 48-hour live show where they will take every phone call they get for 48 hours — all day, all night. “We want to see what happens when you open a line to the internet and invite anyone to use it,” wrote Alex Goldman in an email to me. “I have no doubt that will include abuse, pranks, insanity, and very little sleep.” Phone lines open on Monday at 10am. Watch their Twitterand Facebook accounts for the number after that time if you want to participate.

Bites:

  • iHeartMedia dips its toe a little deeper into podcasts with “Taglines,” a show that comes out of a partnership with Advertising Age. This comes a few months after iHeartMedia rolled out a similar programming partnership with the co-working space company WeWork. It also follows LibSyn announcing that it would be now distributing podcasts through iHeartMedia’s listening platforms. (AdAge)

  • I’ve been enjoying the different ways that publications are taking to the Amazon Echo. Here, the Guardian announces its own Alexa skill for the Echo, splitting its flash content pipeline between three categories: news and opinion, reviews, and podcasts. I’m looking forward to seeing how other publications handle design taxonomy. (The Guardian)

  • WNYC’s Note to Self continues its experimentation with audience engagement and service journalism through digital research projects: the show is collaborating with Pro Publica on a Chrome-extension driven study to figure out what, exactly, Facebook knows about you through your data. (Pro Publica)

  • Panoply works to even out its political programming with the inclusion of two gabfest-style podcasts from Ricochet, a conservative website, into its network. I’ve written a little bit about Ricochet and the spread of conservative podcasts before, and if that strikes your fancy be sure to check out this recent article by Wired’s Charley Locke.

  • Quick shout-out to the political podcast producers working overtime to pump out post-debate episodes mere hours after the actual event: Jocelyn Frank and Jayson DeLeon of Panoply’s Slate Political Gabfest and Trumpcast mash-up, Brent Baughman of NPR Politics, Galen Druke of FiveThirtyEight, and whoever pulled the super late hours on the New York Times’ Run-Up team.

  • Dropping this here, due to the company’s relative ubiquity as a podcast advertiser: BuzzFeed’s investigation into Blue Apron’s not-so-wholesome supply practices. (BuzzFeed)