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November 2016

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COMMENTS

Happy America Day, The Message 2: Electric Boogaloo, Podmass

Written by , Posted in Hot Pod Weekly

Happy Election Day (oh dear god). Three quick stories with that sweet, sweet podcast-angle (#onbrand):

(1) Avail yourself with dueling podcast columns on the subject: The New Statesman, “How to use podcasts as US Election Therapy,” and Wired, “Fed-up, Freaked-out Americans find comfort in Politics Podcasts.”

(2) Slate’s trying something new: to dynamically report on the elections in near real-time through podcasts. According to an internal email by executive producer Steve Lickteig: “Producers will update stories throughout the day, and listeners will get refreshed news whenever they want… The best way to experience this is by opening slate.com/newscastin a browser tab and leave it open all day. At least once per hour (but probably much more often as the day heats up), you can return to that page and hear fresh stories mixed with ones you’ve heard before or, even more likely, an entirely new batch of stories.”

The company is leveraging its in-house audio CMS, Megaphone, to produce the feed, which interestingly enough won’t be available on iTunes or podcatchers. The updates will be hosted by This American Life’s Zoe Chace and PBS Newshour’s Alison Stewart. Updates begin at 9am ET.

(3) Poynter ran a vote over the weekend on the best political coverage in this election cycle, breaking out a category just for podcasts. Keepin’ It 1600 (considered by some as therapy) was beat out by FiveThirtyEight’s Election Podcast (considered by some as anti-therapy) for first place, with NPR’s Politics podcast bagging third, with NPR’s Politics podcast bagging third. Full list on the article, near the bottom. I’ll do a post-mortem next week on the set of very, very strong pods we’ve seen breaking out in this genre.

Also, to the reporters, editors — and producers! — reading this: good luck, and thank you!

GE Podcast Theater announced the follow-up to its hit branded podcast The Message last week, and it looks like the team is sticking close to the playbook on this one: the new show will be a single-season, short-run science fiction podcast that draws heavy influence from contemporary works — the press outreach email described it as “Her meets Ex Machina” that will be enjoyed by “lovers of Westworld and Black Mirror”; a title salad that seems in want to evoke pastiche — while exhibiting a light touch from the actual brand sponsoring the project. The follow-up will also continue The Message’s core design conceit of telling a story based from a piece of technology that, of course, GE is interested in. (Image-building by association, in other words.)

The show will be called Life After, and the plot will follow an FBI employee who tries to communicate with his departed wife through digital assets left behind on an all-audio social media platform. It’s not… the most original premise, sporting strong similarities to the Black Mirror episode “Be Right Back” (as well as a Michael Keaton film from the mid-2000s called White Noise, which was kind of criminally bad). But it’s worth noting that The Message wasn’t all that original either, leaning hard on the now cliched “fictional radio reporter” as the framing device and making use of plot points that, again, bore very strong similarities to another project, this time a very early episode of the indie-horror podcast The Black Tapes. Nevertheless, the podcast’s core value was firmly rooted in its polished execution, and we’ll likely see the same with this new project.

(At this point, I’d like to issue a quick disclaimer: I used to work for Panoply.)

Let’s take a few steps back for a second. For the uninitiated, GE Podcast Theater is an experimental partnership in branded podcast production between GE, Panoply, and the advertising agency BBDO. The Message, the team’s first foray into this nexus, debuted last October and pulled off a very, very successful run, with the most recent publicly available audience tally putting the podcast at around 500,000 downloads per episode, according to a Bloomberg article published in June. (Keep the imprecision of the metric in mind here; that number probably refers to downloads per episode since the show’s launch in October 2015, which doesn’t really give us a good sense on download acceleration, growth rate, or the long tail. Alas.) But the campaign’s successes expanded well beyond its downloads: The Message was a minor press hit (The Atlantic: “The Radio-Age Genius of The Message”) and even managed to bag a few Cannes Lions international advertising awards.

Much of that success, I think, comes from a combination of two things: (1) the project’s novelty as an unconventional piece of advertising — aside from a small logo on the podcast art, The Message was near-devoid of direct references to its corporate progenitor, and I reckon there was something about this quality that likely drew critical attention from the advertising community — and (2) its ability to competently capitalize on a general hunger for genre fiction among podcast consumers by serving a highly-produced product in a field that was then-dominated by independent works with a more artisanal feel. (Ugh, sorry about the use of “artisanal.”)

On that front, it’s worth considering just how much the podcast space has changed in the past year, particularly with regard to audio fiction. There are more ambitious audio fiction enterprises now than ever before — see Night Vale Presents, The Paragon Collective, The Sarah Awards, Wondery, Gimlet’s Homecoming, and so on — and one imagines the broad podcast consuming body, which absorbs and evolves as it expands and matures in numbers and demographics, has shifted somewhat in its taste and expectations for something like fiction.

So, with all that in mind, and given just how close they’re sticking to the formula, I wonder if the team expects to receive the same kinds of returns as last year.

Alexa Christon, GE’s Head of Media Innovation, appears to be keeping a realistic but hopeful view on Life After when we spoke over the phone last week. “We actually never expected The Message to go to number one on iTunes,” Christon explained. “We were just excited about the content and the concept. We felt we had something, but we also knew it was really hard to crack #1… We’re hoping that there will be buzz again, but we’ll see.” (When asked how much GE is paying for Life After, Christon declined to spill details. She merely replied: “It’s nothing unusual.”)

Without the novelty, Life After doesn’t quite have the same structural advantage that it had with The Message. This leaves the team with having to tough it out the way all other shows do: executing the show at a very, very high level. But hey, the trailer, which dropped last week, sounds really good, and I’m curious to hear if the rest of the show will be able to match it.

Life After comes out on November 13, 2016, and will run for ten episodes. It will be distributed through The Message’s RSS feed. Also worth noting: Giant Spoon, a media agency, is involved in the distribution strategy for the project.

Relevant: GE also announced an original podcast for the Australian market last week, called Decoding Genius.

Radiotopia names the winner of its Podquest competition: Ear Hustle, a nonfiction narrative podcast that “unveils the hidden stories of life inside prison, told and produced from the perspective of those who live it,” according to the PRX blog post announcing the result. The show’s creative force is made up of Earlonne Woods, Antwan Williams, and Nigel Poor. Woods and Williams are currently sentences in San Quentin State Prison. Poor is an artist and professor at California State University, Sacramento. The team is a remarkable story, one that was most recently told in a California Sunday Magazine profile back in late September.

Ear Hustle beat out nine other semifinalists that were themselves selected out of an applicant pool made up of 1537 entries from 53 different countries. You can read up on the other semifinalists on the Podquest website — and if you’re a publisher, I highly recommend you consider them for recruitment. (There is no talent shortage if you look hard enough, folks.)

In winning Podquest, Ear Hustle’s 10-episode first season will be picked up by Radiotopia for a 2017 debut. It will be Radiotopia’s seventeenth show, the third addition in recent weeks following the pickups of West Wing Weekly and The Bugle, two shows that are somewhat departs from the podcast collective’s story-driven, highly-produced narrative programming. As such, Ear Hustle’s pickup represents a return to Radiotopia’s roots, albeit one that, interestingly enough, itself looks to be a deeper realization of the collective’s sensibilities and aesthetic.

A trailer for the show can be heard here.

How Stuff Works’ Jason Hoch, observing on Twitter Saturday morning: “4 of the top 6 podcasts on iTunes are new and contain only a short promo episode clocking in under 4 minutes… Why do podcast publishers launch promo episodes as ‘episode 1’ of a series? Easy — get subscribers, and therefore, future downloads.” Hoch, by the way, made an appearance on the Digiday podcast last week, where he declared: “There is no podcast bubble.” Dude is full of soundbites that make my job easier, I swear.

The History, and Future, of AV Club’s Podmass column. Long before The Timbre (RIP), Charley Locke’s work at Wired, Caroline Crampton’s New Statesman column, and long, long before Hot Pod, you had The AV Club’s Podmass column. Since 2011, the column has consistently served as one of the few places on the internet that took podcasts seriously in front of a wide, mainstream audience. But its future appears to be in question now that Becca James, who has edited the column since 2014, is leaving the company.

I traded emails with James last week, asking a few questions about her time at Podmass and what happens next. Here’s the Q&A in full:

Can you tell me about the history of Podmass?

Podmass technically started in 2010 when Kyle Ryan* included a best podcasts round-up in the site’s year-end coverage. When everyone returned from holiday break in 2011, Kyle suggested they review podcasts each week, recommending which ones to listen to and which ones to skip on a weekly basis, which gave rise to the “The Best” and “The Rest” format that you see in the February 2011 debut of Podmass. The coverage treated podcasts as episodic entities, reviewing the same shows each week and was based on the original lineup from the 2010 article, which writers added and subtracted to at will. The concept was new then, as podcasts weren’t getting much coverage other than occasional stories about specific shows and the first podcast boom had already ended. As Kyle explained to me, “This was a way to write about the medium but also be a utility because even back then it felt like there were too many podcasts to keep track of.” I was hired in 2013 and started compiling Podmass when Kyle was on vacation or otherwise busy. Eventually, he left to pursue a career with EW, and Podmass was handed down to me in the spring of 2014. By that fall I had changed the format to highlight 10-15 of the previous week’s best episodes. I felt this was a better way to introduce a larger group of people to podcasts, as opposed to the more inside-baseball, labor-intensive former version of Podmass, which covered the same 30 or so shows each week. The new format was really about showcasing the medium of podcasting as something for everyone, with The A.V. Club ready and willing to help readers find their niche in this world.

* Ryan is currently an editor-at-large for the AV Club and the VP of Development at Onion Inc., the AV Club’s parent company. He had left in April 2014 to briefly serve as Entertainment Weekly’s online editor, returning to the AV Club a year later.

What kind of work goes into producing the column?

I have a staff of writers that come from all walks of life—designers, comedians, artists—but that are steeped in the world of podcasting. They pitch episodes to me by EOD on Thursday each week. Once I have everyone’s pitches, I go through and curate a list of 10-15 based on a number of things I extract from the writers’ pitches. Then I send out assignments. The writers come back with 200 words and some quotes from the episode by noonthe next day. I spend Friday compiling the reviews in our CMS before adding a feature image and a headline. Often throughout the week, I will email suggestions to the group and ask if anyone would like to cover that episode. These can come from emailed tips, Twitter, Hot Pod, etc.

There’s an argument floating about — most recently articulated by the Third Coast Festival folks — that there isn’t enough mainstream coverage of podcasts. What do you think of that argument, and where do you think we are in the state of cultural conversation about podcasts?

Podcasts are tricky because statistics still show that they are not as widely consumed as say TV. I remember making this argument when changing the Podmass format, saying that Podmass should be doing its part to draw more people toward this form of entertainment, which is why we should have more expansive, welcoming coverage. That is all to say that I agree with the Third Coast folks that there isn’t enough coverage of podcasts. People often comment on the enormous amount of podcasts, naming it as a hurdle in the quest to provide adequate coverage, but I think the stuff worth listening to rises to the top.

How has Podmass performed?

Podmass does well in my opinion. It is by far not the most read feature on our site, but it often makes it into the top 10 most-read articles the day it publishes. It has its diehard fans, which I greatly appreciate and wish I had more time to shoot the shit with in the comments section, which is where you’ll find a lot of them hanging out.

What happens to Podmass now?

I worry Podmass won’t make it into 2017 once I’m no longer around to wrangle it. It’s difficult to articulate how melancholy that makes me feel, as I really see this feature as a service to the readers, as true journalism. It’s a numbers game though, and without a salaried employee willing to take on the feature, it’s hard to justify it’s existence financially. As for me, I have a dear friend that spends a lot of time daydreaming about keeping the Podmass dream alive. After all, the spirit of podcasting is that anyone can do it, so it seems fair to say that anyone could create podcast reviews and share them online.

James will be done with Podmass by the end of the year. She currently holds interest in going back into teaching, and expects to be freelancing for a few places — including the AV Club — on the side.

Coming up over the next few weeks: One of the more consistent themes that I’ve been tracking in this newsletter is the tension that seems to exist between what I’ve been calling the “professionalizing layer of podcasts” and the ecosystem of independent podcasts that long predated those companies. On the one hand, you have a set of companies trying to push the industry into a more mature, and lucrative, stage. With the latter, you have a wide swathe of independent producers and artists taking advantage of the medium’s open and relatively unregulated ecosystem to create really interesting, wondrous things while enjoying the possibility of connecting with the right audiences without having to go through a middleman.

As one would imagine, the machinations of the former has frequently lead to the anxieties of the latter: has the growth of these companies necessarily led to the boxing out of independents? As the industry grows, does the bulk of the gains go to these professionalizing companies, or does it spread somewhat equally between the two categories? What does an equal spread even mean in this context?

I’ve been digging into this question over the past few days, and my digging will likely continue over the next few weeks. As such, I’ll be breaking this story out over the next two to three issues.

Bites

  • Adobe has apparently prototyped a “Photoshop for Audio.” Called Project VoCo, the program that “can produce the sound of someone saying something they didn’t actually say with unsettling realism.” Oh dear god. (Pitchfork)

  • The New York Times’ Amanda Hess has a fascinating story on an expansive digital community of female Star Wars fans made up of metacriticism, fan art, fan fiction, and a “podcast sorority that includes ‘Scavengers Hoard,’ ‘Rebel Grrrl,’ ‘Lattes With Leia’ and ‘Rebels Chat.’” Cool reminder of how communities benefits of an open medium. That’s what I took from this, anyway. (New York Times)

  • Speaking of the Times, its latest podcast is out: “Tell Me Something I Don’t Know,” its collaboration with Freakonomics’ Stephen Dubner working under an LLC called Dubner Productions. (New York Times)

  • Looks like WBEZ is going to pump out a three-part special series on the rise of Oprah Winfrey, starting Thursday. Personally, I’m PSYCHED. It’s a great time for audio documentaries, folks. (WBEZ)

  • “’I felt like Morse tapping his first code’ – the man who invented the podcast.” (The Guardian)

  • Following last week’s item on a sexual harassment allegation against PodcastOne CEO Norm Pattiz, the LA Times ran a story that included a few more accusations by people who did not want to be identified “to avoid retaliation.” (LA Times)

  • Quick correction to last week’s newsletter: in the Neal Carruth story, I wrote that Dave Sweeney will temporarily look after Planet Money. Sweeney will actually take over the business desk. This mistake did not appear in the Nieman Lab version.

  • Speaking of Planet Money: NPR comms head Isabel Lara tells me that the team’s recent reporting on the Wells Fargo fraudulent account debacle (here and here) was cited in a formal letter by Senators Elizabeth Warren and Robert Menendez. Cool.

  • Also: goodbye to NPR’s How To Do Everything, which will post its final episode on November 18. Don’t tell anybody, but you were my favorite NPR podcast.

Moves

  • Wondery has a new SVP of Brand Partnerships: Laurie Pracher, who comes from WNYC where she served as Senior Director of Sponsorships.
  • WNYC has named Jennifer Houlihan Roussel as VP, Corporate Communications.
  • Over at Midroll, Gretta Cohn is now Executive Producer for New Show Development. The company has also brought on Stephanie Kariuki as Production Assistant and Dan O’Donnell as Producer.
  • Gimlet Chief of Staff Chris Giliberti has a new title: Head of Multiplatform.