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March 2017

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Welcome to S-Town, Missing Richard Simmons Post-Game Numbers, Why are #PodcastsSoWhite?

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Sell Underwear, Do the Job. Like man buns and the end of small talk, podcasts got the NYT Styles treatment last week, with a piece up on the somewhat quirky business of host-read endorsements on podcasts. It’s fun, and may prove to be too obvious for some, but there’s some meat on the bone for us here.

Two bits in particular:

(1) There’s the suggestion of a value being undercapitalized here. Note the following:

Podcasts are well suited for companies that otherwise couldn’t afford such a wide range of celebrity endorsements. Blue Apron is a particularly active podcast advertiser, with spots appearing on hundreds of podcasts, including “The West Wing Weekly,” said Jared Cluff, the company’s chief marketing officer. Though Mr. Cluff said the brand didn’t necessarily set out to market its service with celebrities, he agreed that podcasts were providing a comparably inexpensive way to do so.

On the one hand, what value for advertisers! On the other hand, it does feel like someone’s leaving money on the table.

(2) The article gestures towards the very real limitations of the seemingly informal nature of the host-read endorsement. On the one hand, you have an ad format that proves slippery for hosts whose journalistic bona fides might be central to the value proposition of the program. (Katie Couric is the most explicit example of this in the piece.) On the other hand, you have the problem of truly awkward executions and placements, like Malcolm Gladwell setting himself up to draw blood only to slip into a quick host-read commercial.

I’ve gotten the sense throughout various conversations that this has come be to increasingly pressing concern for a good chunk of industry execs, and it does seem like we’ve been privy to some pretty smart policies and solutions to resolve questions of ethics and experience. That includes doing away with host-reads altogether, as NPR does, as well as efforts to simply writer better for segues in and out of ad spots.

But I suspect that there’s an additional unspoken layer in all of this for some: that these underdeveloped grey areas may well be the source of a good deal of what’s appealing to advertisers.

Welcome to S-Town. The Serial spinoff — and first project under the newly formed Serial Productions banner — dropped into RSS feeds in its entirety today. At this writing, I’ve only heard the first four episodes that were previewed to the press, and I thought it was a great listen, built around a rich set of characters and a challenging, fascinating milieu.

Last week, I got to ask executive producer Julie Snyder a couple of questions ahead of the launch. Here are the particularly relevant chunks:

Why tell the story this way — a seven-part series dropped all at once?

Ahhh, I don’t know! [laughs] Let’s see. I knew it was going to be episodic, and I think we even started talking about releasing it all at once pretty early on. For the first season of Serial, I had thought a lot about TV as a model for the structure and aesthetic, but for this one, Brian [Reed, host] and I pretty quickly started talking about novels as being more the model. We looked at The Known World, because we liked the idea of an omniscient narrator, and then we were like, well, they’re not really episodes, they’re chapters. That’s how we saw them. And so we always knew that there would be different chapters, we just didn’t know how many. At one point, there were eleven chapters, and then we changed it all around as we were structuring more and more.

There were logistics as well. You’ll hear this as you go further into the episodes, but there are places where people are just slinging around accusations left and right, and if we were doing something that was weekly, the writing would just be incredibly different because everybody would need to get a chance to address the charges getting thrown against them. Releasing it all at once was also a lot more freeing in a way, you could reflect the reality a lot better while still telling the story in a longer way.

And… it’s also because I just wasn’t feeling it. I can’t totally explain, but doing a weekly thing to me… I just wasn’t feeling it. This just wasn’t what this is, you know? And I did know the fact that it starts with this murder investigation. I mean, you’ve got the stink of Serial on you, and I wanted to make it clear that we’re going somewhere else.

I was just going back over the previews of S-Town and almost every piece had assumed that it would be a true crime story. It sounds like you guys were very aware of that characterization, but were you wary of it? Or was it something you were counting on?

Yeah, we were definitely aware. It’s interesting… I mean, it puts you into sort of a weird position with the true crime stuff, because to be totally honest, I’m sorta disdainful of anything true crime. Like, I find true crime is a lot of times pretty crappy, you know? And it can be kinda gross and prurient. There’s some stuff I’ve really loved over the years, but I’m not that person, and those aren’t my people necessarily. So it’s not true crime, and at the same time, I was, like, but it is, and trust me, you’re going to love it. Because what it is, is a really good story, and it’s not that we do true crime well, it’s that we do stories well.

When asked if S-Town is designed to be a one-off, Snyder indicated that it probably is. “I’m not sure that everyone wants to keep hearing about various different towns where people make arguments why they’re failing,” she laughs. I dunno, I totally would, but either way, it looks like that RSS feed is going to be quiet from here on out. At least, for now.

I also asked Snyder if she could divulge any information about the other two projects in development over at Serial Productions. “I don’t… think so,” she said. “Because then people would ask them about it and they would start freaking out.”

Don’t sleep on this. Tom Webster, VP of Strategy at Edison Research, published a blog post last week drawing attention to what he considers is the most misunderstood data point that was served through the research firm’s Infinite Dial 2017 study from a few weeks ago: the finding of the home as being the most cited location in terms of where podcasts are consumed. Go check it out.

Missing Richard Simmons Post-Game. Let’s close the book on this and round it out with some performance numbers. Here’s what I found:

  • First Look Media tells me that the podcast “has been downloaded on average more than 1 million times a week since its release.” It’s a remarkable stat for a show with that short of a run.

  • The show’s windowing arrangement with Stitcher Premium proved to be a boon for the premium subscription service. I’m told that the move drove 6x the usual number of daily new subscription sign-ups during the show’s run. “We also found that Missing Richard Simmons fans, once signed into the Premium service, were highly engaged with our other content, sampling multiple shows in our growing catalog,” a spokesperson told me. So there’s that.

Also, BuzzFeed’s Kate Arthur notes that it looks like host Dan Taberski hasn’t been doing interviews in the wake of the show’s finale. In a move that’s true to the spirit of the show itself, she published a list of questions she had intended to pose to Taberski, if she had gotten him on the phone.

Stoner and Launching an Interview Show. The Interview Podcast is a tricky gambit: deceptively easy to set up, devilishly hard to do well. And, surveying the swathe of new podcasts from various established media players that have hit the iTunes charts over the past year or so, it does seem like the interview show has come to present newcomers with the quickest, and perhaps more conservative route to market: get a known talent, leverage that person’s pre-existing audience base and rolodex, monetize. Or something like that.

That’s not a knock on the strategy; if it works, it works. And in some cases, it works pretty well. (See: The Axe Files, Katie Couric, The Ezra Klein Show, Recode Decode.) But the recent spate of newborn interview podcasts suggests an inequality within the opportunities of the format; if the value of an interview podcast these days is so embedded in the celebrity of its host, what’s the route-to-market for a non-celebrity interview show?

The latest project for Aaron Lammer, one third of the Longform podcast (itself an interview show), sets him down a path that grapples with this question. Lammer’s latest is called Stoner, an interview podcast that hopes to open up how we think about weed in America. The challenge for him is twofold: first, he’s building the show from scratch, and second, he’s building a show with seemingly niche appeal.

I recently asked Lammer how he’s thinking through the launch. He replied:

I’m not at all concerned with how many people listen to the show in the first week, the first month. I know it’s a topic that a lot of people care about and I know that it will find those people. Honestly, I think the experience of an interview show for the first few episodes is kinda weird, because for listeners it’s like, “Which one of these should I listen to? I don’t really know what it is.” Most interview shows that I’ve come to and have become a regular listener of… I can’t really think of any that I’ve come to before the first twenty episodes. So a lot of what I’m doing is, like, trying to fast forward through the early life of the show.

It’s not important to me for people to start listening immediately. It’s more important to me that the people who it could be the best for, if I do get them, that they would stick around. I want to build an army of loyalists more so than I want to deliver CPM numbers out of the gate. That would be a false pursuit for me.

I want to do a lot of episodes, and I want to get bigger and bigger guests. Which is why I intentionally did not stack the biggest bookings I could get in the first run of the show, because that would be a waste.

To that end, Lammer is plotting the first few bookings to illustrate the different possible sides of Stoner. That multiplicity of substance is key to Lammer’s strategy, and he offers a scenario giving practical shape to that folding out of issues. “If I met somebody at a bar, and I was pitching them the show, I would try to zero in on what kind of a person they were, and aim an episode at them,” Lammer explained, expressing a commitment to a much longer game.

And a long game it appears to be. “I like big bodies of work,” Lammer said. “And I think being part of a podcast that’s hit close to 250 episodes” — referring to Longform — “I think that’s a weird thing to pursue, but I’m attracted to that. Longform’s been great, but it’s a very specific thing. And I wanted to do something that was a lot more freeform.”

Stoner debuted today. Its first episodes will feature Aminatou Sow, of Call Your Girlfriend fame (among many, many other things), and Justin Oullette, a weed technology entrepreneur in Portland, Oregon.

“Why Are #PodcastsSoWhite?” asks Steve Friess for the Columbia Journalism Review, the latest in a steadily growing body of writing drawing more attention to a problem long associated with the podcast space: its considerable whiteness and, perhaps more importantly, a dubious absence of any corporate momentum to solve the issue. The piece hits some familiar beats — among other things, there’s a callback to Chenjerai Kumanyika’s now seminal 2014 essay on the whiteness of public radio — but it does well to genuinely draw some fresh blood, including:

  • Highlighting the combined role of gatekeepers both algorithmic, in the case of iTunes, and human, in the case of programming executives, in perpetuating the problem; and

  • Prosecuting specific failures by companies, in particular Panoply, in adequately grappling with issues of executive and front-of-mic diversity.

On the face of it, the article is a welcome read. As longtime readers might know, this issue that I care a lot about. Much of this, of course, has to do with who I am; in case my last name doesn’t make it adequately clear, I’m a person of color — a yellow person, specifically — and so on the one hand, I feel the space’s pervasive whiteness and how that results in a good deal of the ecosystem’s programming repetitiveness, and on the other hand, I feel the absence of people like me. Though, admittedly, that latter problem is harder to solve, given my many stacking identifiers: I am, among other things, a Southeast Asian native, of third culture, a non-Muslim citizen of a majority-Muslim country, politically amorphous, non-white, non-American. Which is all to say that I’m glad for any and all articles that grapple with diversity, because it represents a step forward in — or at least another go at — an important conversation.

So why, then, do I find Friess’ piece so frustrating?

It comes down to the article getting just enough things wrong, or incomplete, in a meaningful way. It’s frustrating not just because these mistakes affects the article’s integrity, but also because they do a disservice to the tangible good the piece is trying to generate: the paradigmatic construction of a shared accountability system.

There isn’t quite enough space to print a comprehensive list — and I reckon that would be counterproductive — but here are the two most representative examples:

(1) There are just enough facts served as absolutes that are wrong enough to be considered provably untrue. For one, it mentions Gimlet having no hosts of color. While, indeed, Gimlet is mad wonder bread across its portfolio, that statement isn’t exactly the case: Lisa Chow, a person of color, is the host of the current iteration of Startup. Which might seem like splitting hairs, until you consider how it might reduces the argument’s credibility particularly in the eyes of the critiqued. To state the obvious, there is strategic value in not being wrong. There’s also mention that 99 Percent Invisible doesn’t feature any editorial staffers who are black or Hispanic, while sidestepping mention of Sharif Youssef, who is neither black or Hispanic (so far that I know) but who is nonetheless a person of color. That construction of the argument exposes it to charges of picking and choosing, and further, its evaluative selectivity suggests a degree of intersectional limitation in the article; race isn’t just about African-Americans and Hispanics just as diversity isn’t only about race, and there really doesn’t seem to be a consistent system at heart of the piece that seems able to support that multiplicity. To be clear: I’m not absolving either of those shows from the critique at hand; after all, Gimlet just has one host of color across its active portfolio (including Gimlet Creative), and Youssef represents the sole person of color on 99PI’s staff. I’m just saying the critique here should have been what the problem of diversity in the creative workplace is really about: a question asked at the nexus of proportion, perspectives, and power.

(2) Perhaps more curiously, Friess positions PodcastOne as an example of a network that’s making an effort at greater programming diversity. Which is perfectly fine on paper, depending on your relationship with an instrumentalist approach to diversity — that is, the utilization of diversity as means to access markets — but any such positive reading of the company in terms of diversity should also square with the fact that this is the same company that gave a platform to provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos, whose frequent associations with hate speech and harassment charges should raise an additional dimension to how we assign value to the company’s performance in this regard. (See also: the Simon and Schuster case.)

All of this might strike you as nitpicking. That’s understandable; I won’t say it isn’t. But the point I’m trying to make is that if we’re going to hold the industry accountable— to push for more inclusive industry and to apply pressure to gatekeepers that might either feel uncomfortable or straightforwardly hostile under scrutiny — it’s important to get the accounting absolutely right. That’s fundamental to moving the conversation towards cultivating a system of dialogue that ensures credibility for the critic while establishing clear terms for advocated outcomes.

Again, I’m laying this out not because the article is misplaced, but because it gets so much broadly right. It’s just a shame that it gets enough wrong to render the whole thing a missed opportunity, or worse: a hollow success. And I mean, look: the reality is that the critical minority position tends to be structurally and subconsciously held to a higher standard than its default power-holding counterpart. Which sucks and is totally unfair, but that’s just the nature of the power dynamic at play here. Minorities, advocates, critics; we’re all stuck in this situation where we have to work twice as hard to get half of anything, and so it’s really important to get the small things as much as the big things right.

Anyway, that’s just my thought process on the matter. It’s a big, complicated, emotional issue — I’m all ears.

Bites. 

  • Newsweek’s Alexander Nazaryan has a lengthy profile of Crooked Media up over the weekend. Do mind the video autoplay, however. (Newsweek) Also, shouts to CNN’s Reliable Sources for the Sunday chyron: “Trump Making Podcasts Great Again?”

  • Shouts to Boise, Idaho’s Treefort Festival running a podcast programming slate, including an appearance by Marketplace’s Lizzy O’Leary and the live FiveThirtyEight show. And shouts to Boise, my second favorite city of all time. (Boise State)

  • The co-founders of Mental Floss, Will Pearson and Mangesh Hattikudur, have joined HowStuffWorks to develop podcasts. (AdWeek)

  • “How to Hook Your Podcast Audience.” (NPR Training)

  • Kyle Chayka has a meaty feature over at The Ringer on the rise of a new faction of liberal media, a group that includes the crew at Chapo Trap House. The piece draws attention to the publicly available audience specs for the podcast’s subscription operation: “The podcast has more than 11,000 subscribers for its paywalled episodes, netting more than $51,000 a month on the crowdfunding platform Patreon.” (The Ringer)

  • Fans of Anna Faris is Unqualified should note: the actress and her co-producer, Sim Sarna, has formed a new podcast company, Unqualified Media. The company launched its first show, Missi & Zach Might Bang!, last week. Public Media Marketing is handling ad sales. (EW.com)