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January 2017

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The Challenge For Open Podcasting, and An Effort to Strengthen It

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We’re tackling the big, complex, and contentious issue of openness today. It’s going to be a little long, and I’ll try my best to articulate the problem efficiently, though I suspect some may take umbrage on a few points. Come at me, but be civil.

The Challenge for Open Podcasting. Here’s how I’ve been modeling the problem in my head for a while now: an open, decentralized publishing ecosystem like that of podcasting is beneficial, the argument goes, because it is dynamic. Its openness provides a low barrier of entry that allows anybody — big or small, new or old — to publish and ultimately compete on the same playing field governed by rules set by no one party. That dynamism is said to theoretically allow for an ecosystem to be structurally better at allowing for things like diversity, creativity, and expression because its composition isn’t ultimately structurally defined by small, centralized groups of fallible (executive) individuals; rather, it is defined by the competitive chaos generated by countless potential actors interacting with one another and with the body of consumers linked to that open publishing ecosystem.

But the fundamental problem with an open, decentralized ecosystem is precisely linked to its very virtues: it isn’t controlled, which makes focus a challenge. Those who create things for it aren’t necessarily incentivized to speak the same language, causing them to often move in different (and sometimes contradictory) directions, which in turn causes the space to be unnecessarily inaccessible to greater would-be participants — and, perhaps more crucially, to itself. Indeed, a key consequence of this chaos is that the ecosystem doesn’t really end up being motivated to evolve in ways that may benefit itself as a whole.

What follows from this state of affairs, combined with the increasing interest we’ve seen in the space over the past two years, is a growing set of incentives for the development of closed alternatives — which, in turn, threatens the health of the open ecosystem, because the rise of those alternatives would drain it of the reason why anybody would want to publish through it in the first place: potential audiences. Again, the problem with an open, decentralized ecosystem is linked to its very virtue: how do you get it to defend itself?

Well, you try to organize.

An Effort to Strengthen Open Podcasting. Getting the various actors of the open podcast ecosystem to coordinate in their best interest is, more or less, a working group called Syndicated Media is trying to do.

“Podcasting should be decentralized — no one should get to own it,” argued Christopher Kalafarski, when we spoke over the phone last week. Kalafarski is the person responsible for getting Syndicated Media up and running, and when we spoke last week, he was quick to play down his role and context. Even though he’s responsible for the group’s creation, he doesn’t want to make it look like he’s in charge, maintaining instead that the working group is, and should be, community-driven. He also works as a developer at PRX, but insists that the project isn’t officially part of his day job (though the two worlds do necessarily intersect).

While Kalafarski and I agree on podcasting’s open ecosystem generally being in need of some firing up, he possesses a more nuanced (and somewhat ideological) view of the situation. To begin with, he points out how Apple, long a hands-off steward of the space, tweaks the podcast ecosystem’s narrative of being open by virtue of its unique influence, direct and indirect, over collective decision making in the space even today. He also situates the value of podcasting’s openness not in what it offers creators simply looking to publish for an audience — indeed, Kalafarski points out YouTube as a relatively low-barrier publishing environment that nonetheless resides on a closed platform — but rather focusing on how openness sustains the potential for middle-men to continue developing things for the ecosystem, which in turn could well end up continuously improving the ways audiences can experience the ecosystem as a whole.

“For most creators, the openness is a slight advantage over many existing closed system, not a game-changing one. Which is to say, the reason to fight for openness is not for the sake of the creators, it’s for the sake of Openness,” he argued. “If I had to pick any group or party for whom open/decentralized is ‘great’ for, it’s the middlemen — app developers, aggregators, etc. — they get to say exactly what they want to make money on (“pay for my app or you don’t get my app”), and can take full advantage of all the content that’s in the system. They can choose to augment what they get for free to create differentiating value-add experiences if they think the investment will pay off. And they can do that without giving back to the system if they want (because a truly open system allows for that).”

Kalafarski phrased the broader challenge as follows: consumers are increasingly becoming used to “best case scenarios,” largely facilitated by tightly-design closed proprietary platforms, within their default universe of user experiences (e.g. watching movies off Netflix, listening to music off Spotify). That, in turn, sets us up with situation where the open podcast ecosystem won’t be able to keep pace with the coming rise of proprietary podcast platforms.

But that isn’t the only emerging problem. “The hypothetical future of distinct, closed systems replacing or competing with podcasting is just one reality we’re trying to prevent,” he said. “Another is where several or many companies pull an Apple and try to dictate new rules. That maintains the openness on paper, but it starts to put pressure on things (like duplication, who adopts which things, should Google honor iTunes features, etc).”

The core question, as he sees it, is articulated as follows: “How do we get closer to those proprietary systems without closing up the system?” This, Kalafarski tells me, is where Syndicated Media comes in.

“The hope of Syndicated Media is to bring people together as community and say, ‘We all know there have to be some new rules. Let’s come up with them together and let’s do it now before it’s too late’ before we end up in one of those other realities,” he explained.

The overarching goal behind the working group, or at least the way I read it, is to organize a critical mass of the actors invested in the open podcast ecosystem to engage in a collective enterprise aimed at making the open architecture more attractive for all corners of the growing podcast ecosystem — developers, producers, consumers, perhaps even advertisers — to participate in it. The strategy behind Syndicated Media’s effort to realize this is twofold: (1) make the open infrastructure more accessible, and (2) encourage critical participation from the larger podcast community in that infrastructure.

To those ends, Syndicated Media is being envisioned as a community-driven space to guide discussions and foster decisions on a set of open standards to be adopted by a critical mass of the podcast community. Those standards would decide stuff like, say, a base set of RSS 2.0 extensions for newcomers to the architecture to get started with, or the basic way folks should go about incorporating rich media in their podcast publishing efforts, and so on. Give everyone a common baseline and language to interact with each other, the thinking goes, and that’ll make it easier for more people to get involved.

So that’s the hope. But the working group is still very much in its early days, which means there are many fundamental things that need to be sorted out. One such issue is the question of actually making, implementing, and enforcing decisions, which is still being debated by the working group. “One path to take would be very formal RFC’s” — Request for Comments, a kind of formal protocol used by standards-setting bodies for the Internet — “and technical specifications submitted to major governing bodies like the W3C,” Kalafarski speculates. “The other way is to keep things very loose. Which is to say, create very useful, well thought out, well-defined specs, but avoid the overhead of governing bodies for validation.”

Another is the more crucial problem of recruiting a critical mass of participants. “We’ve reached out to everyone — independent developers as well as the Apples and Googles of the world,” Kalafarski noted. “Some have joined, some haven’t.” And, I would add, the participation of some is more important than others. (Apple doesn’t appear to be involved in the working group just yet.)

It’s a big task, and Kalafarski is hopeful that the working group serves as a solid start. “Syndicated Media is totally open and welcome to anyone who wants to be a part of this conversation,” he said. “We’re trying to fix things, and we’re trying to be inclusive of everyone who is invested in the health of the space. And if we’re going to solve this, we have to start having this conversation out in the open.”

So, if you’re interested in getting involved, here’s your chance. Some practical details to note:

  • The working group concentrates its discussions and organizations in two primary areas: a Github project, which serves as a repository of issues, and a Slack group. Both are open to everybody, but you’d need to request for an invitation to get into the Slack group due to that platform’s processes.

  • For companies, there is a partner program. “It’s totally voluntary,” Kalafarski said. “There are some very loose guidelines around what that means, but basically its signifies a commitment to adhere to the standard.”

  • There is currently a one-day workshop being planned by Syndicated Media in partnership with the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard, PRX, and RadioPublic. Details aren’t confirmed, but it’s probably going to take place sometime this summer.

Cool. There’s a lot baked in this, obvi, and frankly a lot of the issues being discussed here are timeless — or at least, as old as the Internet — but then again, history seems to have a way of repeating and looping back to itself these days.

Anyway, speaking of PRX…

PRX strikes up a sales partnership with Market Enginuity, an Arizona-based sales organization that specializes in public media whose client list includes KCRW, KUT, and WAMU. The deal, which is exclusive, will see Market Enginuity assume responsibility over revenue generation efforts across all PRX programming including the Radiotopia podcast network, while PRX will provide Market Enginuity with its podcast hosting and advertising technology, Dovetail.

The move to partner with Market Enginuity is the culmination of a long learning process for the PRX team. “We’ll be strategic partners, not transactional,” PRX CEO Kerri Hoffman said when we spoke over the phone yesterday. “The key with sales, we’ve come to learn, isn’t to focus on just adding boots on the ground, but on good partnerships with people who have a lot of experience and infrastructure.”

Of Market Enginuity, Hoffman said: “We’ve known them for some time and really like the team. Together, we will build a sales team that leverages their experience and scale with PRX’s investments in content and technology.”

Which brings us to another interesting bit of news:

Sarah Van Mosel joins Market Enginuity as Chief Podcast Sales and Strategy Officer as part of the team being assembled to handle the PRX account, leaving Acast after only a year and two months as Chief Commercial Officer. The Swedish podcasting company had hired Van Mosel in December 2015, away from WNYC where she had been serving as VP of Sponsorship, as part of the company’s initial push into the US.

Van Mosel maintained that her decision to leave was in large part due to being recruited by Harry Clark, an Executive Vice President at Market Enginuity. Clark, like Van Mosel, is a WNYC alum, and he is said to have hired and trained Van Mosel there. (Clark left the public radio station for Market Enginuity in May 2015, about the same time Van Mosel assumed the VP of Sponsorship role there.) This is, then, the reuniting of a battle-tested team. “I was brought in to Acast to assemble a stellar national sales team. I built it, they’re amazing, and they’re off to a strong 2017,” Van Mosel explained, when I reached out over email last week. “It was tough to leave, but Harry Clark called and I couldn’t say no.”

Still, it’s a remarkably short stint for an executive at an international company, raising questions about the hole she leaves behind. A spokesperson for Acast tells me thatRoss Adams, who is based in the company’s London office, will absorb Van Mosel’s duties, a shift that ultimately sees Acast consolidating the management of both its US and UK sales teams under one person. Adams was previously a sales director at Spotify. I’m also told that there are no immediate plans to search for a replacement.

Edison Research and Triton Digital’s Infinite Dial 2017 report is coming out onMarch 9 at 2pm ET… and not later in the summer, as I had previously thought. A senior exec at Edison Research confirmed the date with me over email last Tuesday, and the company posted a Save the Date notice on its blog the next day. As usual, the report will be premiered over a live webinar, which requires registration if you’re planning to participate.

Bridge Ratings revises 2017 podcast ad projections upwards, but not by much.The research firm now estimates that podcast ad spending this year will amount to $243 million, according to RAIN News. That’s up from its previous projection of $207 million. As I mentioned last week, the industry seems to have coalesced around Bridge Ratings’ projections, though your guess is as good as mine as to how the firm went about its analysis.

WNYC, Minnesota Public Radio News, and The Economist are collaborating on a call-in radio show. The program, called “Indivisible” (not to be confused with theIndivisible Guide), aims to serve as a platform to bring Americans together — or at least, the kind of Americans who call into public radio shows — for conversation and debate across the first 100 days of the incoming Trump administration. It will debut on January 23 at 8pm ET, and will air Mondays through Thursdays for fourteen weeks.

Each night will be anchored by a different host. Here’s the lineup:

  • Mondays — Journalist Kai Wright, who previously helmed WNYC’s There Goes the Neighborhood and The United States of Anxiety podcasts, will host alongside The Economist’s John Prideaux and Anne McElvoy, with an explicit focus on global reactions to the new presidency.

  • Tuesdays — WNYC morning staple Brian Lehrer will anchor Tuesdays, primarily focusing on changing American norms.

  • Wednesdays — The prominent Wisconsin-based conservative radio host Charlie Sykes will take the mid-week point, and will build his night around interviews and discussions on how the new administration’s opening day weigh against “American values and conservative principles.”

  • Thursday — Minnesota Public Radio’s Kerri Miller closes the week, and her night will focus on American identity.

A growing list of public radio stations across the country has picked up Indivisible for broadcast, and the show will also be available as a podcast. A quick staffing note: Kai Wright, who had been collaborating with WNYC in his capacity as an editor at the progressive magazine The Nation, has joined the New York public radio station full-time.

A few thoughts on this:

  • The fact that this project strings a line between two public radio stations and a magazine is interesting to me, and I’m curious to see if the Economist will reproduce any Indivisible content on their web or print presences in the weeks to come. In any case, I’m personally hoping to see more collaborations like this that potentially cultivates stronger relationships between magazines and radio, digital and broadcast, media consumption network A and media consumption network B. It’s been a pretty tough few weeks, between the increasingly loud accusations of fake news from all directions, the growing anxiety of life within filter bubbles, and the president-elect’s press conference last Wednesday. All of those things underscore an increasing need not for just solidarity, but functional cooperation between different corners of the journalism ecosystem. Indivisible strikes me as a pretty cool, and very encouraging, project that explicitly seeks to cut across not just ideological lines, but structural ones as well. (Though, I suppose the appropriate question here is: are the lines being cut across sufficiently long enough.)

  • There’s something about call-in radio shows that makes the format so much more effective than, say, quotes in a news article or person-on-the-street interviews in representing the feel and complexity of people. Part of it, perhaps, has to do with the fact there isn’t the specter of viewing the subject through the lens of the writer — though callers are, more often than not, screened by producers before they’re let on the air. And the raw, relatively unedited (though probably tape-delayed) nature of the caller’s participation allows for a better projection of the more fundamental components of human interaction beyond the actual points that the participants are attempting to put across: the pauses, the tones, the doubt, the on-the-fly self-editing. (Weirdly, this aspect of call-in shows is perhaps most underscored and explored in comedian Chris Gethard’s “Beautiful Stories from Anonymous People.”)

  • In my mind, live programming is the one significant structural advantage that broadcast radio has over on-demand audio. (And to pre-empt the rebuttal: the scale it currently enjoys isn’t an advantage; it’s a product of historical conditions.) News radio would be wise to double down on live programming in the years to come; though, as cable news has consistently shown us, simply being live isn’t good enough. What’s truly valuable are live programming efforts that seek to tighten the gap of representation between listeners and the world around them. (Which, I suppose, is the premise behind the recent surge of live broadcasting features within the social media ecosystem.)

Bites. 

  • Paste Magazine launches its equivalent of AV Club’s Podmass: The Pod People. It’s being edited by Massachusetts-based freelancer Muira McCammon, and it’s set to be a weekly feature. Also: did you hear that Paste is bringing back its print quarterly? Very cool. (Paste Magazine)

  • Former HLN host Nancy Grace, known for her… robust coverage of issues related to crime, has launched a new digital venture dedicated to, well, crime news. The venture is called Crime Online, and among its initial offerings is true crime podcast that adds to the very, very big pile of true crime pods. (Business Insider)

  • “Marketplace unveiled plans for a major expansion intended to sharpen its coverage and the media it produces around the goal of ‘raising the economic intelligence of the country.’” Juicy detail: “…As the strategy rolls out, Marketplace could hire as many as 35 additional employees, building on its current workforce of 85.” (Current)

  • “Podcasts and Literary Criticism.” (The Millions)

  • “The Microculture Is Coming: The New Podcast Trend That Obsessive Fandom Spawned” (The Ringer)

  • Maybe it’s just me, but there’s something fairly dissonant about a recent Wired headline categorizing Radiotopia’s upcoming Ear Hustle as a “crime podcast,” given the hefty connotations associated with that genre. (Wired)

  • Upcoming show launches: the independent audio drama Archive 81 will return with its second season on January 18, while Food52’s Burnt Toast will return on March 9. A growing list of show launches can be found on this page.