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April 2017

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The Stitcher Brand, “Apple Podcasts,” The Outline’s Daily Pod

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Midroll formalizes the Stitcher editorial brand. When I wrote up the return of First Day Back for last week’s newsletter, I was mostly thinking out loud when discussing its label as a Stitcher show and how that might’ve hinted towards the spinning out of the podcast app as its own editorial brand. It looks like I was a day early on that, asthe company announced last Wednesday that it was indeed firming up the Stitcher branding, and that it was shuffling some Earwolf shows into its purview.

Stitcher will now carry The Longest Shortest Time and the Katie Couric Podcast, both of which were previously categorized as Earwolf shows. The new umbrella will also carry The Sporkful, whose departure from WNYC I covered two weeks ago, and Tell Me Something I Don’t Know, the Stephen Dubner-led game show previously housed in the New York Times’ audio unit.

The reason for all of this shuffling? In a word: #branding.

Speaking over the phone yesterday, Midroll CEO Erik Diehn explained that while he ultimately perceives a network’s brand to not mean very much to a broad audience, he does find that it carries significant weight with its core audience. As such, any programming move has to make sense within the context of that audience’s relationship with the brand. “Every once in awhile, a content brand rises above the fray to stand for something more than the individual shows organized within it,” Diehn said, also pointing to Gimlet Media, Barstool Sports, and The Ringer as examples. “There is value there for a certain core audience.”

The company bumped up against this when it initially attempted to broaden the Earwolf network out from its core comedy and comedy-adjacent sensibility; Diehn told me that Stranglers, a true crime documentary podcast that Midroll published under the Earwolf network, was perceived by some to be a parody in large part due to its association with Earwolf. (It is most certainly not that.) The decision to carve out Stitcher as a separate entity from Earwolf, then, is meant to create a separate audience architecture for the more newsy and serious shows that Midroll hopes to get more involved in.

For what it’s worth, I personally feel that a brand means as much to listeners, audiences, and consumers as it makes itself out to be; which is to say, I tend to believe its effectiveness — and, for that matter, things like bylines and datelines — is chiefly derived from the amount of work put into making it mean something.

Anyway, when I asked about how Stitcher Premium was doing, Diehn noted that it was “doing quite well,” and that it was “hitting all of its forecasts for the year so far.” He declined to share specific numbers when asked.

Speaking of ~brands~…

“Apple Podcasts.” Last week saw a quiet announcement from Apple’s iTunes teams that nonetheless sent ripples throughout the community: the company is rebranding “iTunes Podcasts” as “Apple Podcasts.” Aside from an updated set of marketing guidelines and visual assets for use by publishers — get those badgesand switch up your tags, folks — the announcement was made with little accompanying information that tells us anything substantial about how or even whether Apple is actually fundamentally rethinking its relationship with the growing podcast ecosystem, a possibility that was first hinted back in February’s Recode Media conference when Apple’s SVP of Internet Software and Services Eddy Cuevaguely noted that the company was “working on new features for podcasts.”

Which is to say, we know nothing new about whether the company plans to: revamp the podcast app’s underlying user experience (long criticized as being virtually unchanged since its introduction over a decade ago); provide any further analytics support; allow for external verification of metrics (as in the case of Apple News); increase the sophistication of podcast discovery and publisher promotion on the podcast app; provide additionals pathways for monetization within the Apple podcast ecosystem; or clarifying the editorial and symbolic significance of the podcast charts.

On the flipside, it does maintain a status quo that continues to leave unreconciled the larger question about how the space will continue to play out structurally — that is, it holds in place the tension between podcasts-as-blogs contingent and podcasts-as-future of radio contingent that seemingly came to a public head last summer. (Here’sthe relevant Hot Pod column from that time.) A lot has changed since then; the industry has continued to grow, more hit shows have come to be, more platforms have begun to encroach Apple’s majority share with experiments in windowing and exclusives, and so on.

There’s a legit story in here somewhere… but this isn’t quite it. Looks like we’ll have to keep being on the lookout.

“If a Serial episode was a mountain peak, then S-Town was the Himalayas.” On Friday, PRX Chief Technology Officer Andrew Kuklewicz published a Medium postdiscussing the back-end of hosting the hit podcast — which, as you probably know by now, opted to drop all of its seven episodes at once as opposed to a recurring drop structure. In case you didn’t know, This American Life hosts all of its podcasts on Dovetail, the CMS platform created by PRX (which also distributes the company’s shows to public radio stations).

I’ve briefly written about Dovetail before, but the platform has kept a relatively low profile compared to its more aggressive competitors, like Art19 and Panoply’s Megaphone, and I suppose you could read this post as the company flexing its muscles somewhat. “After S-Town, we are that much more confident in our technology, both in new ways of using it, and under extreme load,” Kuklewicz wrote. “Plus, the next time someone asks me what Dovetail can do, I have a new graph to show them.”

The post is chock-full of interesting stuff — including some fascinating insights into binge-download behavior — but I’d like to draw your attention to something: long-time observers of the podcast industry are probably familiar with the conversation around dynamic ad insertion technology, how its proponents argue that it allows for greater advertising inventory and opportunity (by allowing ads to be dynamically switched out according to who is listening), and how the current generation of professionalizing podcast companies have generally integrated the technology by treating the ad slot as the unit that gets dynamically switched out.

According to Kuklewicz’s post, it appears that the S-Town team made a peculiar request: to treat the entire episode as the dynamic unit. This effectively maintains the baked-in nature of the ad-read while still allowing for the fundamental utility of each individual episode being able to serve different ads to different kinds of people. When I asked Kuklewicz about the logic behind this, he said: “They wanted to maximize the flow between show and spots, and allow for music under the end roll. So I understand it to be an aesthetic motivation, and considering the years of time put into the show, and the way the music is practically a character, I can see now why they wanted it just that way.”

Related. BuzzFeed has a chunky feature up on S-Town that should be interesting to fans on two major levels: first, it sheds some additional light on the narrative threads that the podcast ultimately leaves unresolved — which, as we learn from the piece, is purely by design — and second, it serves as a nice companion to host Brian Reed’s interview on Longform. Also, this from The Awl: “Call it Shit Town, because that is its name.”

Call Your LLC. I highly recommend digging into last week’s episode of Call Your Girlfriend, the well-loved conversational podcast by Ann Friedman and Aminatou Sow (produced by Gina Delvac), which features a pretty substantial look at how the team has built out an independent business around the show. No specific figures were disclosed — other than mention that ad slots cost at least four figures and a solid-sounding revenue range —but there’s a lot going on here: the episode touches on the uncertainties involved in working with a network, the general weirdness of the podcast industry, and figuring out a business model that best fits the values of a production. Check it out.

Missing Richard Simmons on TV? The Hollywood Reporter is apparently reporting that First Look Media, which led the production for the podcast, has “begun meeting with would-be buyers for a small screen narrative adaptation of the investigative show searching for the reclusive fitness guru.” Two things on this:

  • It’s yet another data point in the emerging trend that sees the podcast category as another IP pool for TV and film to trawl in for potential adaptations. (Though, it should be noted that real life — or very recent history — remains the IP pool du jour.)

  • Maybe I lack vision, but I can’t for the life of me see how the adaptation could possibly either (a) a good idea, given the myriad of ethical questions surrounding the podcast, or (b) effective or interesting in the same way, probably as a result of those ethical conundrums surrounding the podcast.

But then again, I am but a humble podcast bard, and not a wheelin’ dealin’ TV exec.

Tracking… Looks like CNN en Español recently rolled out a Spanish-language podcast slate, most of which are repackages of existing shows. There’s one original production in there, however: a culture show called Zona Pop. With this rollout, the company steps into a lane whose primary current occupant appears to be the Revolver Podcast network, which has built out a sizable Spanish-language podcast portfolio in addition to its work with music executive Jason Flom on the Wrongful Conviction podcast.

The Outline, Daily. I suppose I should start looking for another way to describe the daily news podcast space in terms other than “heating up” — if only to avoid ledes defined by a cliche — but it does seem like the experimental genre is certainly growing more active by the week.

The latest of such experiments comes in the form of World Dispatch, a new daily morning podcast by the digital curiosity known as The Outline. John Lagomarsino, The Outline’s audio director, told me that show is meant to be the closest approximate representation of the publisher’s coverage in the audio format. Episodes are between 8 to 12 minutes, and segments will be a mix of stories that draw from material already on the site and stories produced specifically for the podcast. (“We’ll also be leaning on freelancers a fair amount for more reported-out, strictly audio stories — get at me!” he adds.)

I’m told that the show is the result of some internal experiments with social audio that didn’t go very far. (“Turns out audio still is not particularly shareable,” Lagomarsino quipped.) Those experiments eventually shifted to the social audio app Anchor when it re-launched back in March, and the team ultimately decided to move those efforts over to a daily podcast feed as a natural next step. The resulting podcast is an intriguing artifact: strange, compelling, but ultimately a little confusing — which, given the show’s explicitly conscious sense of style, is probably the point.

Lagomarsino notes that the podcast isn’t exactly meant to be newsy. “The podcast is for curious humans who are not looking for a news rundown that barely goes past headlines,” he said. “These are angled stories, often *about* news, but this is not for the listener who wants the ‘what I need to know today’ thing.” Hmm.

World Dispatch debuted yesterday, with new eps dropping Mondays to Thursdays.

Explainer Ambition. In times of confusion, go back to the basics. That was, more or less, the thinking behind Civics 101, the explainer podcast by New Hampshire Public Radio that covers the fundamental institutions, mechanisms, and even concepts that make up the United States. That approach has proven to be pretty successful: since launching on Inauguration Day, Civics 101 has clocked in about 1.88 million listens, with episodes averaging about 75,000 listens per month. (To be clear: that’s per episode per month, suggesting strong back catalog activity.)

The way Civics 101’s editorial director Maureen McMurray tells it, the podcast was the product of a completely organic process. The show came out of an ideas meeting for the station’s daily show, Word of Mouth, shortly after the elections. “Our producer, Logan Shannon, expressed frustration over the endless ‘hot take’ election coverage and said something along the lines of, ‘I don’t want any more analysis. I just want to go six steps back to find out how things work,’” McMurray said. What started out as a segment idea soon broadened out into an accompanying podcast experiment pegged to the first 100 days of the Trump administration. It was all pretty scrappy. “There were some clever titles thrown about, but I insisted on calling it Civics 101,” she said. “Logan made the logo, and we sent a trailer and pilot episode to iTunes.”

“In retrospect, I guess we just did it. There wasn’t a big meeting with executives or anything,” McMurray added.

As the weeks rolled on, the show steadily grew into its own. It consistently dived headfirst into wonky subjects (Emoluments, The Office of Scheduling and Advance, Gerrymandering) while remaining fundamentally accessible, and the podcast eventually adopted an appealing topical edge (Calling Your Congressperson, Impeachment, The Nuclear Codes) that nonetheless retains a broad, evergreen perspective. Almost three months in, Civics 101 has grown in depth and complexity. And, as I found in a recent email correspondence with McMurray, it has certainly grown in ambition. Here’s our chat:

How has the show evolved over the past four months?

Our editorial vision has shifted a lot, and continues to evolve. Civics 101 was intended to be a short-run series. We planned to drop one episode per week for the first 100 days of the Trump administration. In part, we thought “How many governmental agencies and cabinet positions do people really want to know about?”, but I was also concerned about resources. Our production team is responsible for producing a daily magazine program, Outside/In, the 10-Minute Writer’s Workshoppodcast, and a series of live events, among other things.

After iTunes featured Civics 101 in its New and Noteworthy section, everything went to hell in a good way. Our audience numbers shot up and we started to receive unsolicited listener questions. We captured the moment, and began releasing two episodes per week, created a Civics 101 website where listeners could submit questions via Hearken, and started a Civics 101 hotline with Google. A lot of the questions coming in stemmed from current events. For example, when Steve Bannon was appointed to the National Security Council’s principals committee, there was an uptick in National Security Council-related questions. So, Civics 101 became newsier than I anticipated, but editorially, I wrestle with it. It’s easy to be seduced by the latest scandal, and to bump those questions to the top of the list, but I want Civics 101 to be a meaningful resource for future listeners. What’s timely today may sound dated in six months, and it will certainly sound dated by 2020. For the time being, we’re trying to balance the timely issues with the evergreen questions.

Oh, and a shout out to our producer, Logan Shannon, who created the Civics 101 weekly newsletter, Extra Credit. We’ve seen a lot of audience engagement around it, and it has quizzes and gifs.

Does NHPR have any future plans for Civics 101 — and for its podcast operations more generally?

Civics 101 will continue answering listener questions on a biweekly basis. New questions come in everyday, so there’s no shortage of content.  Of course, we want to grow and monetize our podcast audience, and that’s where a distributor will come in handy. We’re planning to repackage the podcast content for different platforms. Specifically, we’d like to become a multimedia resource for educators, and hope to create and distribute supplemental materials to teachers and students. That includes anything from videos to lesson plans.

My real dream, though, is to farm Civics 101 out to other stations/production units in time for midterm elections.  We cover the national stuff well, but member stations are in a unique position to tackle state and local politics. And, as our yet-to-be-created production guide will show, Civics 101 is a scalable, turnkey format, and a fairly easy lift for smaller teams. In 2018 I’d love to see Civics 101: Louisiana, Civics 101: Albany, Civics 101: Michigan. Heck, you could do Civics 101: Canada, Civics 101: Australia, Civics 101: Brazil. Of course, resources are the elephant in the room. We’re currently working out ways to resource this thing. So, check back in with me.

As far as podcast operations go, Civics 101 and Outside/In have been great proofs of concept for NHPR, but weren’t part of a formal, top down strategy. Our first major podcast, Outside/In, was intended to be a weekly, one-hour broadcast. When the show was in development, we found ourselves gravitating to longer stories that involved original reporting, narrative arc, sound design, and (for lack of a better adjective) a “podcasty” tone. Long story short, we put those early experiments into a podcast feed and came to realize those 15-30 minute prototypes were what distinguished Outside/In from other environmental shows and, given the size of our team, producing an hour-long program with those elements would be impossible. At the same time, the Outside/In podcast was developing an audience. So, the question became: is the podcast the show? In a way, our failure to deliver a sustainable, one-hour broadcast model coupled with the success of Outside/In and Civics 101 forced NHPR to consider the value and potential of podcasts. It’s been a learning curve for everyone, from producers to the underwriting department to membership, but we’re starting to develop an infrastructure that supports and leverages podcast creation.

One more really important detail: in order to double down on Civics 101, we had to make an editorial decision to ease up on something. So, we’ve been strategically replaying interviews and stories on our daily magazine program, Fresh Air-Friday style. There are some upcoming changes that will ease our production load, but for the time being, it’s a quick fix.

Bites.

  • Reminder: Edison Research’s Podcast Consumer 2017 report comes out later today. (Edison)

  • The Webby Awards has a pretty broad and interesting set of podcast and digital audio nominations this year. Check it out. (Website)

  • Audible has apparently taken over the billboards at the Rockefeller Center subway stop in New York to promote its original show, Sincerely X, which debuted back in February. (Pictures) Speaking of Audible, it looks like the company has been building another content strategy: creating original programming out of existing IP. (Rolling Stone)

Tuesday

11

April 2017

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COMMENTS

MaxFunDrive Numbers, NYT Podcast Club, Stitcher as an Editorial Brand?

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Maximum Funded. Maximum Fun, the LA-based podcast company led by radio wunderkind Jesse Thorn, recently concluded the latest edition of its aptly named MaxFunDrive, the yearly membership drive it organizes to refresh and expand its recurring support base. The network is home to a sprawling range of programming — including the well-loved My Brother, My Brother, and Me, Magic Lessons with Elizabeth Gilbert, and Pop Rocket — with distinctly community-oriented vibes, and the company has long used the membership support structure as its primary engine.

The campaign, which officially wrapped at the very end of March, was incredibly successful: by the end of its two-week run, the network had gathered 24,181 new and upgrading members, overshadowing its initial goal of 10,000. “We were really nervous,” MaxFun’s Bikram Chatterji told me, with a touch of exhaustion when we spoke over the phone on the Monday after the drive. Chatterji is the network’s relatively new managing director, barely seven months into the role, and he was telling me about losing for sleep for fear of missing even the initial target.

[Insert Casper mattress joke here, set laptop on fire.]

“It was the highest target we ever set for ourselves,” he said, noting that last year’s goal was a comparatively modest 5,000. (The final haul for last year was somewhere over 9,000.) When this year’s campaign kicked off in mid-March, it surpassed its initial 10,000 target within a week.

It’s a significant achievement, especially when you put that number in context. Maximum Fun has six available recurring support tiers ranging from $5 a month to $200 a month, and Chatterji informs me that the network went into this year’s drive with around 20,000 active supporting members. “So within that 24,181, there was obviously a mix of both new members and longer-term members who upgraded,” he explained. “Both of these cohorts are really important to us.” For a quick comparison, Radiotopia — which uses a similar member support structure, though it only shifted to a recurring support model in 2015 — closed its 2016 drive with over 6,200 new supporters, and it went into that campaign with slightly over 12,500 active recurring donors. (According to my number crunching, anyway. My write-up on that campaign can be found here.)

How all of those new, upgrading, and existing MaxFun members translate into the network’s actual revenue picture depends on how you figure the distribution across its various support tiers, and you’re going to have to guess on that: understandably, Chatterji declined to share the specific breakdown. But he was kind enough to oblige when I asked about the broader picture, and how the revenue is typically used within the business.

I’m told that membership funds accounted for about 70% of the company’s revenue in 2016 — that proportion is expected to hold — with the rest being made up of advertising revenue and money from a distribution deal with NPR that revolves around Bullseye, Jesse Thorn’s interview show. “We also do a tiny bit of consulting,” Chatterji added. Almost three-quarters of the money raised from the membership drive goes directly to the shows; it was explained to me that when a new membership is confirmed, listeners are asked to the shows that they listen to, and that impacts the proportion of the money that goes to those programs. “Doing that creates a real sense of connection between the shows and the listeners,” Chatterji explains. “And it also allows us to offer potential shows a very clear value proposition in working with us.” The rest of the funding gets distributed across administration costs, show development, and general office maintenance.

So that’s the broad shape of Maximum Fun’s business, and one could argue that MaxFun’s achievements with this year’s drive further solidifies the value of the membership model for network proprietors that may be anxious over the erraticisms of the advertising business. But it should be noted the MaxFun’s current picture is the product of almost a decade’s worth of work building out a community of fans and getting the company to this point; indeed, this edition of the MaxFunDrive is the latest in a very long line that goes back to 2008. It should also be noted that a membership model is, intuitively speaking, probably better suited for some kinds of shows, and listener communities, compared to others — which is all to say, MaxFun’s real achievement here is having built out a company on the strength of a model that directly channels the spirit of the enterprise.

“Yeah, I don’t know,” Chatterji replied, when I asked if the MaxFun structure is replicable. “I think the evolution of this model is so organic… So much of it from the start has been about Jesse, his vision, his way of doing things, and the community that he’s built around himself.”

Pea-pod. The list of finalists for the 2017 Peabody awards — which recognizes works of broadcasting and the web in service of the public — is out, and the radio/podcast category sports some really interesting entries, including the kids podcast The Unexplainable Disappearance of Mars Patel, Marlo Mack’s wonderfulHow To Be A Girl, APM Reports’ In The Dark, The Heart’s devastating Silent Evidence Series, and interestingly, Homecoming, Gimlet’s experimental fiction project. The full list can be found here, and congrats to all.

Meanwhile, at BuzzFeed. The digital media giant — octopus? — launched a new podcast last week, and it’s a timely one. It’s called Newsfeed with BuzzFeed Ben, an interview show hosted by editor-in-chief Ben Smith that sets its sights on the increasingly perturbing nexus of politics, media, and technology. The inaugural episode features former Obama strategist David Axelrod, and it doubles as the second part of the same conversation that began in last week’s episode of Axelrod’s own interview podcast, The Axe Files, which had featured Smith as the guest. If all these newsy interview podcasts feel like they make up some crowded, conjoined expanded comic book universe, I totally feel you.

And so does Recode’s Peter Kafka, apparently, who wrote up the new BuzzFeed podcast. His piece, by the way, contains a pretty juicy data point for observers: BuzzFeed’s podcasts reportedly generated nine million downloads in 2016, a good chunk of which was apparently driven by Another Round. For reference, the company had five active podcasts throughout the year, and though I can’t seem to find any good numbers on Another Round’s download performance — aside from a Forbes 40 under 40 item published in early 2016 honoring co-host Heben Nigatu that places monthly listener numbers at a vague “hundreds of thousands” — the overall number doesn’t strike me as particularly surprising. (Here’s the link to that 40 under 40 item, beware the usual Forbes ad-avalanche).

Kafka’s write-up also notes that No One Knows Anything, the company’s politics podcast (which I first wrote about last May), is being rebooted with new talent behind the mic: the show will now be hosted by Kate Nocera, BuzzFeed’s Washington bureau chief, and senior writer Charlie Warzel. No One Knows anything was originally anchored by Evan McMorris-Santoro, who left the company last August to join the Vice News Tonight team.

At the Times, a Podcast Club. Last Wednesday, the New York Times quietly published a fascinating interactive titled “9 Podcast Episodes Worth Discussing,” which served as a tiny door into a much broader enterprise: a digital listening club, one that’s being largely conducted over a moderated Facebook group where new podcast episodes of concern are posted every Monday for members to discuss in long, threaded comments sections. Its open to the public, and at this writing, the group is fast approaching 10k members.

Samantha Henig, the Times’ editorial director for audio, tells me that the club isn’t part of any broader New York Times’ Facebook group strategy; rather, it’s an extension of something that had organically formed within the organization. “When we first announced that we were starting an audio team at The New York Times” —that was last March, by the way — “pretty much everyone I ran into at work started gushing to me about how excited they were and how much they love podcasts,” Henig told me. Some, she said, had even been running their own personal podcast clubs, and so she figured, what if they made a company-wide version of that?

“My main goal was to harness all that energy and enthusiasm in the building around podcasts, and get a bunch of smart and engaged people in a room together,” she said. “And selfishly, I thought it would help me and our growing audio team be smarter about our own programming if we’re in regular discussion about what’s working best or falling flat in other shows.”

And so they did. The club eventually drew a varied mix of attendees from throughout the organization, from reporters to developers to data analysts to whatever you call those people working in business development, and Henig describes a wide age range — she notes a higher representation of young folks than what one might usually expect from the Times, while also singling out Ben Weiser, “a Metro reporter who has been one of the most loyal and enthusiastic members but is very much not a Millennial” — as well as a variety in taste.

When I asked about the decision to bring the club out into the wilds, Henig said: “The Podcast Club has always felt like a very special thing, in part because it scratches an itch that no doubt exists beyond the office. There are lots of people listening to podcasts and eager to discuss what they’re in the middle of or to hear recommendations for what to try next. So [executive producer of audio] Lisa Tobin and I have been thinking for awhile about how to go bigger with it.”

Here’s the Facebook Group, and the supporting RadioPublic playlist.

Weekend at Bernie’s. You might’ve heard over the weekend that Bernie Sanders, the senator from Vermont and rival to Hillary Clinton for the Democratic candidacy in the 2016 presidential campaign (and Larry David muse), now has a podcast.

Sort of.

At the moment, the Bernie Sanders Show’s podcast feed appears to be nothing more than an additional distribution point for the interviews that the senator originally recorded as Facebook Live videos — and that shows in the sound quality, as the available episodes are pretty rough listens. Though, aside from the near inaudible first episode with Rev. William Barber, it’s not all that different from the quality you’d find off the podcast feeds repackaging cable news broadcasts. All of that sound quality stuff doesn’t seem to have affected listeners and Sanders supporters one bit, though: the podcast zipped up the iTunes charts, riding the algorithm that largely privileges novel interaction, where it peaked at the second spot over the weekend, just under S-Town.

There are a myriad of potential threads baked into this. With the podcast’s high chart performance, this might well be a story that reflects on the ideological spread of podcasts as a digital medium and how it can be interpreted as tending to lean somewhat liberal. I’ve written a little bit about this in the past, mostly from the publisher’s side, but the performance of the Bernie feed seems to tell us something about the demand side — or, more likely, perhaps something about the digital savviness of Sanders supporters. In any case, this narrative thread also gestures towards a potential story about the theoretical opportunity podcasts provide political communication: this is a thread whose current history is marked by Hillary Clinton’s Pineapple Street-produced campaign podcast With Her, whose prehistory can be traced back to Democratic Senator John Edwards setting up his own pod in 2005 (with assistance from LibSyn evangelist Rob Walch, no less), and whose various related development includes deputy DNC chairman Keith Ellison’s revival of his own issues podcast and a couple of Democratic legislators in Missouri trying to push a progressive agenda in a red state. Indeed, there is enough nuggets here to suggest the makings of a possible trend, or operational opportunity — but then again, it’s just as likely that all of this simply makes for a protracted digital curiosity. We shall see what the future brings to this.

A Quick Note on Live Pods. Bloomberg published a piece last Friday on the live podcast events business. The article contains some interesting nuggets — Slate’s Steve Lickteig tells the reporters that the company’s live podcast shows “make money” — but it frames the phenomenon as something in its early, budding, perhaps yet-to-be-proven phase. Notably, the article glosses over Welcome to Night Vale’s machinations in this arena, which is unfortunate. As Night Vale co-creator Joseph Fink told me a few weeks ago for Hot Pod, live shows have long drove a good deal of the team’s business, as they sell between 50-60k tickets a year for their shows.

The Night Vale team is currently on their fourth year of touring globally, and their latest production, All Hail, will be hitting cities across North America this spring.

Public Radio Updates. A couple stories here:

  • Looks like the fight for West Virginia Public Broadcasting isn’t over yet: shortly after state governor Jim Justice restored WVPB funding in his budget proposal, the state’s senate finance committee passed a budget bill last Monday zeroing that very funding out. WVBP’s website has more on the story.

  • Big Bird Brass: retired army general Stanley McChrystal penned a New York Times op-ed arguing in defense of public broadcasting.

  • I didn’t cover this when it originally took place, but: in February, a legal scuffle broke out between New Hampshire Public Radio and Outside Magazine when the latter’s owner, Mariah Media Network, sent in cease-and-desist letter over the station’s use of the word “Outside” on one of their podcasts, “Outside/In.” The dispute has now been resolved with a negotiated trademark coexistence agreement, according to Current. If all that sounds ridiculous to you, well… you’re totally right. It’s bananas, b-a-n-a-n-a-s.

Back, but Bigger. First Day Back started out as a quiet, introspective podcast by Tally Abecassis, a Canadian documentarian who moved to craft a small, indie project her personal experience coming back to work after a lengthy maternity leave. The show, which at the time was associated with the podcast collective The Heard, published sporadically throughout 2015 and into mid-2016, and it eventually got the attention of Scripps, the parent company of Midroll. The company reached out to Abecassis in late 2015, and the show was officially picked up last summer.

The podcast’s second season debuts today, and it features several significant changes: to begin with, the scope is now expanded from the personal to focus on other people’s stories, this time focusing on the tale of a woman as she returns home from prison after years of incarceration for accidentally killing her husband. This type of scope-shifting isn’t entirely unprecedented among podcasts; it echoes the trajectory of Millennial, which pointedly widened its viewpoint after being picked up by Radiotopia, and perhaps more directly, of Gimlet’s Startup, which broke from its original season’s personal narrative to build future seasons around other companies. First Day Back’s sophomore effort also sports the trappings of support from a much larger company: Abecassis is no longer producing the story by herself, collaborating with Marc Georges, a Scripps producer, and Dave Shaw, an executive producer at the company. There are now launch sponsors too: Audible and ZipRecruiter.

With corporate trappings, though, come some corporate interests. It’s worth noting that the show is now being positioned as a Stitcher production as opposed to a Scripps production, which was how it was framed to me when I initially wrote about the pick-up. Between this and Missing Richard Simmons, which listed Stitcher as a co-producer, it would seem that Midroll is steadily working to fashion Stitcher out as its own editorial brand. This might raise some eyebrows, given that Stitcher, which was acquired by EW Scripps rolled into the Midroll brand early last summer, is primarily known in the marketplace as a podcast listening app, and Midroll has been looking to build a premium subscription business off the platform. Something’s going on here, and it’s worth keeping an eye on Stitcher.

Anyway, for now, we’re talking about Abecassis’ experience shifting gears. So I sent her a couple of questions:

Why did you decide to partner up with a bigger organization?

Well, making good radio or good films requires resources and there is only so much I can do alone. I think there is a myth that podcasts are easy or inexpensive to make. The kind of work I like doing involves spending a lot of time with a subject, interviewing, investing in the story. Working with a bigger organization means support in doing that — I now have producers and resources that I didn’t have before. It allowed me to tackle a much more ambitious story for S2.

I had never intended to keep telling my own story and it had a natural “end point” — it didn’t make sense to stretch it beyond that. And the whole point of the first season was about getting back to film and TV! But when the series connected with people, I started thinking about doing more podcasting. And deciding to use the idea of a first day back as a framework to tell other stories got me super excited. I made a list of possible ideas — first day back from the army, from a sports injury, from gender reassignment surgery… All I knew what that I wanted the first one I did to be completely different from season 1.

Tell me about your approach to the second season.

The starting point was finding someone who was having a “first day back” from prison and I really wanted to tell a woman’s story. The woman I found had just come out of prison for accidentally killing her husband and her story was so much more complex and layered than I could have anticipated. The whole thing was tailor-made for radio because the woman agreed to being recorded, but did not want her image used. (A TV producer I work with actually asked me if we could do a TV version and the woman would never agree to that).

Structuring a 6-part serialized story is a BEAST. (I bow down to the S-Town producers, I don’t even know how they did what they did). When we started working on this story, we were really taken with this big WTF moment, that our main character did this horrible thing and she claimed to have no memory of having done it. We also wanted to be honest with our listeners that this isn’t your typical whodunnit crime story. She did it. There’s no question about that. What makes it a First Day Back story is what her life is like after and how she tries to come back from it. But there are a lot of challenges: the story still has to build, the sequence of events has to have a context, the themes have to weave in and out, and listeners need to feel invested in this woman’s story knowing she did something terrible…. Marc and I have worked and reworked the whole thing so many different ways. We followed her for over a year, so as you can imagine, there were twists and turns through the course of documenting her story.

First Day Back, despite its Stitcher branding, is available on all platforms.

Bites.

  • Heads up: Edison Research will be presenting its podcast-specific audience report in a 30-minute webinar on April 18. Registration to view is free, and open. (Edison Research)

  • WNYC launched its latest podcast, Nancy, this week. (iTunes)

  • Jian Ghomeshi, the disgraced former host of CBC’s Q who was embroiled in a long sexual assault scandal that concluded last year, has apparently resurfaced with a new project. (CBC)

  • The Hollywood Reporter covered the latest DGital Media project, a podcast by author James Andrew Miller. I’ll be keeping an eye out for this because I loved the dude’s book on the CAA, but man, this is an… interesting write-up. Anyway, the show, Origins, which will “explore how a single thing — a TV show, album, company or event — came to be,” comes out this summer. (THR)

  • Twenty Thousand Hertz, one of those podcasts that tells stories about sounds, has a write-up by Entrepreneur EIC Jason Feifer that sheds some light on its rough costs: creator Dallas Taylor spent about $50,000 on producing the show last year, and expects spend $100,000. (Entrepreneur)

  • S-Town’s Brian Reed was on the most recent episode of the Longform podcast, and talked at length about process. The interview is fabulous, and Mystery Show fans will appreciate the detail on Starlee Kine’s involvement in the story editing phase. (Longform)

Tuesday

4

April 2017

0

COMMENTS

NPR’s Up First, Apple Freeze, Early S-Town Numbers

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First Things First. NPR announced yesterday that it will be launching something called Up First, its take on the morning news brief podcast that draws from the DNA of Morning Edition, one of NPR’s two tentpole programs. Editions will be published at 6am ET on weekdays, starting tomorrow, and it will feature the same team of David Greene, Rachel Martin and Steve Inskeep on hosting duties.

Nieman Lab, Poynter, and NPR’s own press blog have the assorted details on the project, including the press messaging surrounding this launch (“a way to do it that makes sense for the whole system”), target demographic breakdown (young folk, clearly), and the names involved in its development (note the headlining of Morning Edition EP Sarah Gilbert and NPR GM of Podcasting Neal Carruth).

Let’s talk big picture here. The most meaningful way to read this launch is to think through what it tells us about how NPR is working through its need to innovate in order to set itself up for the future while balancing the delicate politics and incentives strung out across the wide spectrum of local public radio stations that make up its major constituency, whose carrier fees for NPR’s major news programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered make up a sizable chunk of NPR’s revenue. (And, I suppose, whose well-being is sort of among NPR’s main reasons for being.) TheNieman Lab write-up, in particular, examines this dynamic, and it’s telling how Gilbert and Carruth talks up the groundwork that was done to attain political support from stations. “A lot of station managers we have spoken to in preparation for this launch have expressed genuine excitement about the possibility of reaching a new discrete, younger audience, and finding a way to invite them into the public radio system,” Gilbert told Nieman Lab.

But it is the way Up First resembles as a top-of-the-funnel instrument more than anything else that most draws my attention. Each episode is said to be made up of the “A” segment from the 5am ET newscast that’s sandwiched between a preview of the other stories in the edition along with… well, what sounds like marketing material for Public Radio. “We’re also going to have language in the episodes that tells listeners — many of whom will be new to public radio content — about the public radio system, the availability of all kinds of incredible programming on our stations, guiding them in finding ways to donate, if they want to donate to their local stations,” Carruth said later on in the article.

In other words, it sounds like a big, fat Morning Edition podcast promo.

Perhaps another way to look at it is to view Up First as an audio equivalent of the morning news email newsletter digest — though not the beefy, newsletter-first constructions like the Politico Playbook or the Reliable Sources newsletter, but something closer to, say, NY Times’ First Draft, whose existence is designed to pull readers into a core destination.

I suppose all of that is perfectly fine, but it nevertheless disappointing given what appears to be a heating up of a content area that’s long been discussed as fertile land for on-demand audio: the newsy podcast. Up First’s launch comes about two months after The New York Times’ drew first blood with the format — Marketplace’s Morning Report doesn’t count, alas — in the shape of its 10-20 minute weekday morning news brief The Daily. Though, calling The Daily a “news brief” would be somewhat imprecise, as that show functions a lot more like a straightforward news magazine that feels incredibly native to the podcast format, given its impressive dedication (and resource allocation) to structuring each edition around one or two stories that are exclusive to podcast, often providing deeper or additional reporting on the biggest stories from the day before, and executing them in a rich, intimate, non-broadcast-reminiscent style. That design gambit has yielded a unique and compelling package, and though it has certainly made the occasional choice falling from its design commitments that have caused criticism (I’m still mulling over the interview in question from last week, and I do find myself increasingly perturbed), it is absolutely a creature of its own and is cultivated as such.

It’s bad form to sling a full judgment on Up First without actually experiencing it firsthand, so I’ll give it a couple of weeks before piping up conclusively. And I will also say that I’m fully cognizant that this is a podcast execution that’s probably unique to Morning Edition within the context of NPR, given its political complexity within the broader public radio ecosystem. I will also say that NPR’s other podcasting efforts have proven to be more encouraging, between the stuff they’ve been doing with NPR Politics and Embedded as well as whatever they heck they’re cooking up with Sam Sanders. But I’m just inclined to pour one out for a genuine go at building out a full blown NPR News Podcast, which is something I now suspect might never actually happen.

Ah well, back to Barbaro it is.

Apple Freeze? Digiday has an article up on the emerging windowing trend that we’re seeing in the podcast industry — prominent first with Missing Richard Simmons, and then with the Spotify deal with Gimlet over what is now known as “Mogul: The Chris Lighty Story” — and while the write-up mostly touched on developments that shouldn’t be particularly new for Hot Pod readers (relevant issueshere and here), the piece does bring forth a genuinely juicy scooplet that might be worrying, depending on where you stand:

According to multiple people familiar with the matter, Apple was excited about promoting “Missing Richard Simmons” until it heard about the windowing strategy. They subsequently abandoned all the marketing plans for the show, those people said.

If true — full transparency: I’ve heard talk on my end that corresponds with this, but I couldn’t corroborate on-the-record with full confidence — and if we still buy the premise that Apple continues to drive the majority of podcast listening, and if we also continue to buy that the iTunes front page is still a meaningful driver of podcast discovery, then we’re left with what is the clearest example of Apple, previously described as a dominant but hands-off of the podcast ecosystem, actively placing its thumb on the scale when it comes to dictating the shape of the space. That Missing Richard Simmons ended up being a success regardless is interesting, but nonetheless irrelevant; this is a situation that feasibly validates the fears of those who are concerned about the unchecked conduct of Apple as a governing platform.

One imagines this also adds fuel to the fire among the pockets of the community that feel that, at the rate and substance that the podcast industry is growing, the way things are with Apple can’t possibly be sustainable, with its erratic charts system, its user experience, its opacity. But then again, that’s kind of the story of all modern digital publishing.

I reached out to Apple for comment yesterday, but have not heard back.

One more on Windowing… looks like The Ringer will distribute its MLB podcast exclusively on TuneIn Radio for the month of April, a development that might worry some of the more open internet-oriented folks in the industry.

Early S-Town Numbers. It’s a whopper: the Serial spinoff reportedly enjoyed 10 million downloads in four days since launch day, according to Variety. That report came from before the weekend, so it’s possible there’s a bump we can’t account for, though it has traditionally been unclear whether listening happens very much on the weekends. But given S-Town’s unique full-season release structure — which encourages binges — and buzzy profile, it’s feasible to think that the show might’ve enjoyed anomalous weekend listening behavior.

Two quick things about the Variety article:

(1) Worth noting that the 10 million number refers to overall downloads, not unique downloads as a proxy of the actual size of the audience base. Back-of-the-napkin math (10 divided by 7 to spell it out, but I mean come on) places that somewhere north of 1 million unique listeners at the time of publication.

(2) From the piece: “In another data point highlighting the popularity of ‘S-Town,’ the feed for the podcast series already has 1.45 million subscribers since Serial Productions released the trailer a little over two weeks ago. By comparison, the ‘Serial’ feed has 2.4 million, and ‘This American Life’ has 2 million.” I’m told that Serial Productions uses Feedburner to check these numbers, and that the number was up to 1.48 million by Monday morning. It’s also worth noting that feed subscription numbers aren’t exactly a metric that’s in vogue among the industry at this point in time, but that’s besides the point: compared against its own portfolio, S-Town has performed very well within a very short period of time.

Two Curious Developments from WNYC. I haven’t written very much about the station recently — probably my own oversight as opposed to the station genuinely laying low — but two things caught my eye over the past week:

(1) The station announced in an internal email last Wednesday that it will not be renewing its relationship with The Sporkful, the James Beard-award nominated food podcast hosted by Dan Pashman that’s been in the WNYC portfolio since 2013.

“Despite our pride in what we have accomplished, we’ve made the tough decision not to renew The Sporkful and so that means we will be saying farewell to Dan and Anne this week,” WNYC’s Chief Content Officer Dean Cappello wrote. “That’s not a commentary on the show’s growth or the work in any way but rather a recognition of the changes that are inevitable as we continue to grow WNYC Studios.”

I’m told that the decision to part ways actually took place several months ago, with Pashman given ample runway to secure a new home. A new network has indeed moved to pick up The Sporkful, though its identity remains uncertain to me. Details of the arrangement will announced sometime over the next two weeks, ahead of the podcast’s relaunch on April 17.

For anybody keeping a record (and I know there’s a Greek chorus of you): the last show to leave WNYC was Hillary Frank’s The Longest Shortest Time, which ultimately landed at Earwolf.

(2) Several readers also flagged this job posting last week: WNYC is apparently looking for a Branded Content Producer. Here’s the most salient portion of the job description:

You will be part of a little startup agency nested within an established, mission-driven organization populated by the most creative and pioneering audio producers in the country. Your focus will be creating original podcasts and bringing to life other cross-platform productions on behalf of our sponsor partners…

… and so on, and so on. I’m still wrapping my head around this, though it does strike me as genuinely surprising — and more than a little bit strange — that a public radio station, and certainly one as big and prominent as WNYC, is moving to develop what looks like an in-house creative advertising agency. When contacted for comment, a spokesperson simply told me: “For several years now, clients and agencies have been asking us about creating custom content. And like every media organization, we’re trying to meet the needs of our clients who are eager to work with us.” Hm.

While we’re on the subject of public radio…

(1) I’m following the WUTC story, in which the Chattanooga-based NPR affiliate station fired reporter Jacqui Helbert after local lawmakers complained about Helbert’s reporting on a state transgender bathroom bill.

There’s a thick, fat line you could draw between this incident and the Marketplace-Lewis Wallace story from February, and also between this story and the West Virginia Public Broadcasting state defunding crisis from last month, which was only superficially resolved after governor Jim Justice pulled back on defunding and pushed towards on a deal that would see the state’s public broadcasting infrastructure integrated into West Virginia University. The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga owns and operates WUTC, and Helbert’s dismissal is said to have been a decision made by university officials, not newsrooms editors, providing one notable data point for a question I wondered aloud when writing up the West Virginia Public Broadcasting story: how does university ownership affect a public broadcasting system?

Anyway, the WUTC story is far from over. Since Helbert’s dismissal, NPR hascondemned the decision, and the reporter has filed a lawsuit against the university.

(2) Missed this last week, but Ben Calhoun, the VP of Content and Programming at WBEZ, is leaving the station, according to Robert Feder (the all-powerful source of Chicago media news). Calhoun is expected to return to This American Life, where he had served as a producer between 2010 and 2014. It is unclear who is up to take over the position.

(3) On Current: “CPB board members excoriate colleague for publicly backing defunding.” ~Feisty~

Alice Isn’t Dead returns for its second season today, as Night Vale Presents pushes forward in its intriguing attempt to build out a predominantly fiction-oriented podcast network — it has one non-fiction project, a documentary collaboration with indie band The Mountain Goats, in the pipeline — off the long-running momentum cultivated with Welcome to Night Vale. I’m told that the first season’s ten episodes collectively garnered over five million downloads, as of last week. That season ran from March to July 2016. I’ll be keeping an eye on this.

Panoply readies its follow-up to Revisionist History. The project is called The Grift, a podcast on the world of con artists hosted by New Yorker contributor, psychologist, and author Maria Konnikova. Konnikova is a regular on Slate’s The Gist, and I suppose you could call The Grift a podcast adaptation of the work Konnikova has built out for her book, The Confidence Game, which was published early last year.

The Grift appears to represent Panoply’s next step in a strategy that originated with Revisionist History, where the network partners with a known author — in that case Malcolm Gladwell, whose value in the marketplace has long been proven — to create a highly-produced, non-linear podcast that more or less resembles the composition of your basic nonfiction New York Times bestseller. This also seems to be the programming zone within which Panoply feels most comfortable developing their big swing projects.

Coming up with benchmark numbers to evaluate The Grift is a little tricky. When asked about Revisionist History’s numbers, a Panoply spokesperson told me the company doesn’t share download or subscriber numbers for any of their shows at this time. I was told the same thing when I reached out a few weeks ago for numbers on Life After, the network’s most recent fiction project. The best I can come up with is a number pulled from a rosy Bloomberg profile of Panoply published ahead of its launch last summer, where Chief Revenue Officer Matt Turck was quoted saying that Revisionist History “could draw over 500,000 downloads per episode” — citing Apple marketing support and Gladwell’s #personalbrand as factors in his prediction — which the article also notes would match the best performance of The Message.

The Grift dropped its first episode today.

Audio Fiction, over the past year. Last Tuesday saw the second annual Sarah Lawrence College International Audio Fiction Awards, and it comes at the tail end of what’s been an increasingly active year in the fiction podcast space between all the stuff that’s happening: the higher-profile projects, growing interest in adaptation deals, the rising ambition both in terms of quality and quantity. I checked in with Ann Heppermann, the awards’ founder, to get her view on what has changed in the genre over the past year or so.

From where you sit, how has audio fiction changed over the past year?

Over the past year, it feels as though there have been seismic changes as well as a continuation of certain trends. This year, The Sarah Awards saw many more submissions from audio networks — and nearly, if not all, of the major podcasting networks entered this year from Panoply to Gimlet to Wondery to Radiotopia to many others. To me, that’s a good sign. It says that those who are in the business of making money from audio believe that audio fiction is something that’s both a worthwhile creative endeavor and a profitable one. It also says to me that there is a possible future for students, like mine, who are learning and want to create fiction. Not that long ago, I would encourage young producers who wanted to create audio fiction that if they wanted to make any money at it they should look into creating works for audiences outside the United States, primarily for the BBC and Australian markets. Now, gasp, I think that there might actually be some jobs they could apply for in the near future. It’s awesome.

Creatively, I feel like we are seeing more series as well as more high-budget productions. Thrillers and science fiction seem to continue to dominate the audio fiction world — or at least, in the submissions we received from this year and last — but for this year I would say that the Sarah Awards judges chose pieces representing the vast array of work that is being created. Yes, there were thrillers and science fiction pieces amongst the winners but there were also musicals, political fiction, and whatever unique category needs to be made up for Andrea Silenzi and Randy. Maybe next year an audio sitcom or an audio telenovela or some S-Town Faulkner-esque piece will win a Sarah Award. In my mind, it feels like the possibilities are endless.

What are the challenges that are still holding audio fiction back, in your opinion?

Even though I’m extremely excited about how large networks are getting more involved and that Hollywood stars signing up for audio fiction projects, I worry that it could become more difficult for creative people with lower budgets to have their works made and find audiences. I also worry that those who are putting a lot of money in these projects will be less willing to take creative risks because they, rightfully so, have to worry about the return on their investments. So the thing that excites me, increased professionalization, also scares me a little bit.

Another challenge is that there is a lot of fantastic audio fiction happening behind paywalls that I don’t think people are finding. Audio fiction can be incredibly expensive and so paywalls do make sense, but it’s just that currently most people don’t want to pay for it. I’m sure that will change, and I know that people are working on ways to mix up their fiction offerings so that their programming consists of free as well as paywall content, but I just hope they can figure it out soon because there’s some awesome stuff behind the paywall that I personally wish had larger audiences.

Oh, and diversity. The field, as with all things podcasting, needs a lot more of it—from creators to writers to producers to actors to works in languages other an English. Diversity, diversity, diversity.

You can read about the winners of this year’s Sarah Awards, and more about audio fiction more generally, on the website.

Bites. 

  • Shannon Bond’s latest: “Marketers aren’t waiting for the arrival of ads on voice-powered devices – they’re already there.” (FT)
  • A couple of podcast-related honorees at the Gracie Awards, an awards ceremony presented by the Alliance for Women in Media Foundation to celebrate women in the media and media about women: Nora McInerny was named Best Podcast Host for her work on APM’s Terrible, Thanks for Asking, and the fourth season of Gimlet’s Startup, where host Lisa Chow and team covered former American Apparel CEO Dov Charney, won Best Podcast. (Website)
  • Did you know that Keith Ellison, congressman and recently named Deputy Chair of the Democratic National Committee, has a podcast? Well he does, it’s called We The Podcast (yep), and he just started it back up. (Vanity Fair)

Tuesday

28

March 2017

0

COMMENTS

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)

Tuesday

21

March 2017

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COMMENTS

Early MRS Drop, Panoply invests in Fiction, MTV + Rookie Mag

Written by , Posted in Hot Pod Weekly

So Missing Richard Simmons dropped its final episode yesterday, two days before it was originally scheduled for a wide release. Also, the episode was released to Stitcher Premium subscribers on Sunday — Midroll had previously indicated that those subscribers would’ve gotten the episode two days before wide release. Even with the sudden shift, Stitcher was still able to honor the first listen value proposition.

I’m told that the move was intentional. And in the episode, host Dan Taberski provided what was essentially an editorial explanation within the narrative. “What’s important is telling the story about Richard as it happens,” he said. Which is an interesting reason, but I don’t think I buy it. Minor spoilers (maybe?), but there was nothing stated in that last episode — nothing that was particularly pegged to a recent public news development — that warranted such a sudden, complicated reordering of the release windows. So yeah, I’m wondering.

Anyway, my review of the finale will be up on Vulture later today, I think.

Panoply brings on a full-time head of scripted programming. Missed this last week, but it’s definitely worth keeping tabs.

The company has hired John Dryden, a UK-based writer and director for the radio, to lead a “new division dedicated to creating scripted programming of both the comedic and dramatic variety,” according to AdWeek, which first published the news on March 10. To decode that for a second: the term “scripted programming” is kind of a carry-over from established linear media industries, and we’re basically looking at Panoply acting on their ambition to punch harder in the audio fiction genre. It’s a move that’s potentially very lucrative, given the podcast ecosystem’s growing value to other more developed adjacent creative industries, be it film, television, or books. (I’ve written about this a bunch before, start here and here.)

In Dryden, Panoply gains a multi-award winning producer with a substantial body of work. Based on his talent agency’s website, Dryden’s rap sheet includes: “The Seventh Test,” a ten-part audio thriller broadcasted on BBC Radio 4 that’s based on a book by Vikas Swarup, whose debut novel, Q&A, was adapted into the film Slumdog Millionaire; “A Kidnapping,” a three-part radio drama, also first broadcasted on BBC Radio 4, that’s being adapted into a film; and “Tumanbay,” a historical epic set in ancient Egypt which came out in 2015.

(Indeed, it’s all very British.)

Dryden has some history with Panoply: he served as the executive producer and director of LifeAfter, Panoply’s follow-up to The Message, its well-regarded branded fiction podcast borne out of a partnership with GE. It’s unclear to me whether LifeAfter was able to match or beat the success of The Message, and when I reached out to Panoply’s communications team, they declined to comment, noting that they don’t release download numbers and thus can’t comment on the performance of one show relative to another.

To my knowledge, Dryden is only the second person to hold such a role among American podcast companies. The other individual is Eli Horowitz, the “executive producer of scripted content” at Gimlet, who was responsible for the Oscar Isaac and Catherine Keener-led Homecoming.

Dryden will keep his residence in the UK for the job.

Rookie Magazine to launch a podcast next month, courtesy of MTV. In my mind,Rookie Mag is something of a miracle. A well-loved online publishing concern created byblogging prodigy Tavi Gevinson for teenagers (“and their cohorts of any age,” the site adds) all the way back in 2011 — the same year, by the way, that Grantland made its debut — Rookie is part zine, part blogroll; a fascinating, amorphous digital package that’s bound together by a smart and thoughtful commitment to serving in the best interest of its core constituency. It represents a reminder, still, of the original promise that the internet brought to publishing: an environment that allows for the existence of an independent creative operation with a very specific point of view and a very specific role to play.

Anyway, like many other publishing concerns in 2017, Rookie Mag is rolling out a podcast, which will be a weekly magazine show (not unlike, perhaps, the New Yorker Radio Hour). But what’s particularly interesting about the rollout narrative here is the involvement of MTV, with which Rookie has partnered up to produce the show.

It’s an intriguing collaboration, and it brings the MTV Podcasts team back into my view. Frankly, I haven’t been paying much to that crew — which is led by Grantland alum Alex Pappademas — since they rolled out their initial programming slate around this time last year, though on the occasions that I’ve checked in, I do find myself consistently fascinated with the stuff they’re trying out. I wonder how they’re doing. Check back in next week.

The Rookie Podcast will debut on April 4. It will be hosted on the Megaphone platform, as an extension of MTV Podcasts’ technological relationship with Panoply.

Also worth noting: the upcoming podcast received a shout-out in this week’s episode of This American Life, which ran a segment on the magazine’s popular “Ask A Grown Man/Woman” series. (The episode, by the way, is exquisite.)

And speaking of This American Life…

S-Town comes out this time, next week. The hotly-anticipated Serial spinoff, and the first project to be released under the newly created Serial Productions banner, will finally debut next Tuesday, March 28, and I’m taking the day off to dig into it.

As a reminder: all seven episodes of the show will drop in its entirety — I believe the olds call this “Netflix-style” or “binge-style” — when it comes out next week, switching up the typical cadence we’ve come to expect from longform, serialized, and often near-real time storytelling as established by the first season of Serial and, most recently, Missing Richard Simmons. This will mark the first high-profile attempt at employing this format within the podcast space. Previous full-season drop experiments, like ESPN’s Dunkumentaries and Panoply/Parents Magazine’sPregnancy Confidential, were not serialized storytelling endeavors.

For folks keeping tabs on the numbers: Serial’s second season surpassed 50 million going into the final episode, with each episode yielding a 3 million download average during its launch week.

Blue Apron and Squarespace are serving as the show’s exclusive launch sponsors.

Oh man, I’m so excited for this. Also: it’s only been three months, but 2017 already feels like it’s been a damn good year for podcast listeners. Damn. DAMN. *throws laptop out the window*

It’s official — the fight for Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s federal funding is on. The budget blueprint released by the Trump administration last Thursday confirmed what many of us has long suspected: that the decades-old conservative flirtation with the defunding of public broadcasting would be revived once again under the new president, with the CPB’s annual allocation of $445 million on the chopping block. (The CPB is one of many programs, including the National Endowment for the Arts and the Legal Services Corporation, being targeted for cuts.) What makes the stakes of today’s fight all the more towering is the political and economic environment of the fourth estate; the broader news and media ecosystem has been tremendously weakened over the past decade by digital disruption, and they walk into this struggle in an increasingly combative environment between the state and public information as they represent it.

My buddies over at Nieman Lab has already covered the news at some depth (go check out the write-up) but here are the four top-line things you need to know:

  • Obviously, the budget blueprint is just a proposal — it will need to go through Congress. And it already looks like the budget is going to have a hard time with Congressional Republicans. But pushback on the budget on the whole doesn’t necessarily equate with pushback on the specifics; it’s up to the CPB to ensure the cut doesn’t remain in any future iteration of the proposal.

  • And to that end, the CPB and its advocates are executing on a playbook that’s been developed for these budgetary fights. Among these efforts are strong messaging pushes — including a well-timed NPR press push touting all-time high ratings — and public participation campaigns, like the Protect My Public Media petition. CNN’s Brian Stelter has a good piece providing an overview of the fight.

  • As Nieman Lab notes, and as I’ve written about before, defunding the CPB would fundamentally crippled the public broadcasting system. That isn’t the same as saying public media would be dead; as many have pointed out, NPR and the bigger stations like WNYC and WBUR would likely survive in some leaner form, but the real damage would be to smaller stations that often support underserved and information-poor markets — many of which are populated by Republican voters, as the Washington Post points out.

  • And once again: why does this matter to the emerging podcast industry? Well, as I’ve argued before: a weaker public radio system is a weaker podcast ecosystem, as the former has substantially contributed to the space through cultivating a generation of strong talent, supplying a good chunk of solid programming, leveraging its prestige to draw in more advertisers, and generally raising the medium’s profile for a wider swathe of audiences. And then there’s also, you know, the whole issue of a weaker public broadcasting system almost definitely leading to a weaker society, which kinda makes an environment where we all, save for a capital-rich few, ultimately suffer alone together.

So there’s that. And there’s this too:

Some relief for West Virginia Public Broadcasting. Following weeks of staring down a budget blueprint in which West Virginia Governor Jim Justice, a Democrat, had proposed the elimination of the annual $4.6 million support it gets from the state, WVPB is now seeing its state support restored after the governor issued a press release last Friday that the money will be reinstated. State funding accounts for 45% of WVPB’s budget.

However, the press release also noted that Governor Justice “is working on a deal with West Virginia University to allow Public Broadcasting to become a fully integrated part of WVU in the near future.”

It is unclear to me how this shift would affect WVPB operations. I’ve gone ahead and submitted a Currently Curious request to my buddies over at Current, who assure me they’re looking into it. Watch the space.

Meanwhile, in Australia. The continent is set to welcome a new podcast network later this week. The network is called Planet Broadcasting, and it will be launching off the strength of an established YouTube channel, Mr. Sunday Movies, and a podcast,The Weekly Planet, which I’m told enjoys about 250,000 downloads per episode. Planet Broadcasting’s aims are fairly ambitious; according to the circulated press release, the network primarily aims to develop a space for the country’s comedy community to break into the world stage. As an extension of that goal, Planet Broadcasting will launch on March 26 with a variety of comedy offerings, though it will feature some nonfiction documentary fare as well (including the well-regardedHuman/Ordinary).

I’ll be keeping an eye on this. Podcast consumption in Australia is quietly growing, though I’d characterize it as still being pretty underdeveloped relative to the American podcast industry.

According to an audience research report by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation published last October, 36% of surveyed Australians indicate that they are listening to more podcasts compared to year before; though it should be noted that numbers for baseline listenership were not circulated. And as it just so happens that the ABC is the largest podcast publisher in the country, enjoying about 160 million overall downloads in 2016.

Side note. One of the more interesting stories from last year — which is also a story that’s really affected how I view the tradeoffs of the relationship between creators and distribution platforms — was the dust-up between the Indiana public radio station WBAA and This American Life. (This is the third mention of This American Life in this issue. My apologies: that show has been on my mind a lot this week.)

To recap: last summer, the station announced that it had decided to cut the show from its airwaves as a response to its partnership with Pandora, which gave the music streaming service the ability to distribute and sell advertising against both This American Life and Serial. WBAA’s general manager, Mike Savage, argued that Pandora, with its profit-making incentive, posed a fundamental threat to public radio’s broadcast model and that by entering into a relationship with the service, This American Life engaged in an arrangement that places it at odds with the public radio system’s incentives.

Ira Glass, the show’s creator, argued otherwise, noting that the money gained from the partnership was re-invested to further improve on the programming which will continue to appear throughout the public radio system. Glass also went on to make another point, which to me lies at the heart of this item, about reaching more audiences. “Nationally, we’re not losing audience on the radio because people are getting us on other platforms — we’re just adding audience,” Glass said, as printed in Current. “We’re adding to the number of people who are hearing public radio content by offering it on these other platforms.”

Maybe I’m connecting dots in the most tenuous of ways — I’m prone to being worried about that, particularly these days, as conspiracy theorizing seems to have become prominent as a mindset in power — but I can’t help but to see parallels between that incident and the contemporary concern of how the increasing involvement of streaming platforms like Spotify, Google Play Music, iHeartRadio, and Pandora (to the extent they become involved beyond This American Life), many of which are closed, will affect the open podcast system, its value, and the role it plays in the current state of podcast publishing and distribution. At some level, the value proposition that they bring to podcast publishers remain the same: all these platforms, in theory, provide access to an audience that may very well be untouched, and even if podcast listening ultimately doesn’t end up happening on those platforms, at least participating publishers will be able to pocket some extra money that can be reinvested into their shows, which will be nonetheless enjoyed on other platforms and on the open ecosystem.

There are limits to this, of course. For one thing, it’s hard to square the parallel I’m sketching here against what’s happening over the rest of the Internet: the platform dependency that’s growing between publishers and Facebook, between video creators and YouTube, between music artists and, well, Spotify, Pandora, et. al. And for another, This American Life stands as an exception to the broader universe of publishers: it has unparalleled clout to both establish and benefit from this relationship, and it has a strong pre-existing listener base that protects it from any potential development of future dependency on Pandora.

Anyway, just something I’ve been thinking about.

Bites. 

  • Today in Black Mirror: Google Home recently tested out what appears to be an audio ad for the new live action film adaptation of Beauty and the Beast, and when pressed, Google briefly regarded it instead as some sort of content experiment before backing off on that too. It’s weird and confusing, but kind of a great beyond the veil story. (The Register) Also: “Woman Who Shares Name With ‘Alexa’ And ‘Siri’ Says Life Is ‘Waking Nightmare’” (The Huffington Post)

  • Crooked Media continues to reproduce, adding another show to the top of the iTunes charts: Lovett or Leave It. I swear, it’s like watching mitosis.

  • Wondery is pumping out a podcast unpacking the production of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. It’s pretty well timed; the TV adaptation of the movie, A&E’s Bates Motel, is quickly approaching its final season, where the show will catch up with the film. T’would be interesting to see if Wondery is able to capture the spillover from whatever interest is currently being enjoyed by the TV show, and more importantly, whether they can make that argument explicitly if they are able to do so. (iTunes)

  • Looks like the new season of Politically Re-Active, the First Look Media podcast featuring W. Kamau Bell and Hari Kondabolu, is now being sold by Midroll Media instead of Panoply. Interesting. Shouts to Jeff Umbro writing for the Daily Dot for that scooplet.

Saturday

18

March 2017

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COMMENTS

Hot Pod Pro: SXSW Notebook, NYT Breaks into Podtrac’s Top Ten

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SXSW Notebook

I’ve never been to SX before — which is just as well, since I’m not particularly great with festivals, large crowds of people, and loud noises; I am, after all, a grumpy old man trapped in the body of a twig — so I can’t speak to how this year’s festivities stacked up against its previous iterations through any specific angle. I can’t say with any certainty whether the podcast industry, and podcasting, had a greater presence in Austin this year compared to the years before, and whether that means anything. But I can say there were certainly tons of podcast stuff all over Austin this year — tons of live shows (Headgum had a line-up, PRX/iHeartradio had a line-up, TuneIn had their own stage, Dropbox had something set up, Vox Media did a bunch of live tapings, etc.) and, or so I’m told by some of the more regular festival goers, a ton of panels and interest in panels about podcasts compared to last year. So if that shift indicates anything to you — that is, whether the increase in podcast-related programming suggests some increasing “validation” by the SXSW organizers operating as so-called cultural gatekeepers, or some similar Bowling Alone-style argument — there you have it.

A few quick things:

  • Do check out Kara Swisher’s interview with the Crooked Media guys over atthe Recode Decode feed. The standout quote, which is written up in the accompanying article package: “They were paying us enough for what was a part-time hobby… We wanted to do a full-time thing. And I said to Bill right after the election, ‘We want to start our own thing because we want to not just be partisan, but also activists, and I don’t think you want all this activism under the banner of The Ringer.’ He was like, ‘Yeah, I totally understand.’”
  • Something that was mentioned by Market Enginuity’s Sarah van Mosel from the panel I moderated on Tuesday has stuck with me since: “We’ve been living in a premium world for podcast advertising and sponsorship, but we’re thinking about how that will scale.” And more importantly, how that scale will impact the listener’s experience, which has long been associated with high-touch, thoughtful executions.
  • Related: I had conversations with a couple of teams during my time in Austin expressing interest in building out podcast ad marketplaces. So that’s a thing that’s happening.
  • Also something I noticed: a lot more sass among podcast operatives about each other! I guess things are getting more competitive?

Anyway, let’s move on.

NY Times breaks into Podtrac’s top ten publishers list.

Podtrac pubbed their industry rankings for February 2017 a few days ago — as always, read them with full knowledge of all caveats involved, do be a good data consumer — and it features the introduction of the New York Times in the top ten publishers by unique downloads list (taking the seventh slot), bumping off the technology news network TWiT in the process.

The NY Times’ entrance into the list is presumably driven by The Daily, with its intensive daily publishing schedule, which of course raises the question: just how big is that podcast per episode, with the show sitting near the very top of the iTunes charts for a while now?

If you’re crunching the numbers, you might find these data points useful:

  • For reference, NYT Audio has eight shows in the roster, and published a total of 43 episodes in February.
  • The Daily published 19 episodes in February.
  • Four other podcasts in the NYT Audio network — Modern Love, the Music Popcast, Still Processing, and the Book Review — published 4 episodes last month.
  • It’s unclear to me whether Modern Love is counted both for WBUR and NYT; I suspect they are. Interestingly, Apple’s NYT page doesn’t include Modern Love at this writing. For what it’s worth, Modern Love was reportedly bringing in 300,000 downloads a week when I last reported on the show last April. It has presumably grown since then.
  • Inside the Times posted 3 episodes in February.
  • The Run Up is off-season, but pubbed a trailer for The Daily in early February.
  • The EP, with its unique drop structure, makes the count pretty complicated — to achieve its sequential track list, five episodes were formatted to have published in February.

Obviously, the move isn’t to cleanly divide downloads across the number of episodes. (But for fun: 6,187,000 global downloads divided across 43 episodes published across February yields a 143,883 global download average per episode.)

The move, of course, is to guess-timate the weight of each show. So, I don’t have any personal insight into the performance of any of these shows, so your guesses are as good as mine. However, I will say that I’m not personally weighting all that high an episode download number for Inside the Times, The Book Review, and the Music Popcast — as much as I’m a fan of the Popcast —and the lack of The EP’s presence on the iTunes charts suggest a relatively low uptake since that project launched last week.

Anyway, my own back of the napkin calculation suggests that The Daily is a monster, which I suppose isn’t a surprise. Also: kind of a funny thing to see NYT and CBS’ numbers matched up next to each other. Oy.

Hmm…

This Forbes article on the music industry’s growing dalliances with the podcast ecosystem doesn’t tread much ground that hasn’t already been covered here — and it makes the classic annoying “all you need is a microphone to be a podcaster!” argument — but there are bits of information that’s interesting to me: (1) it links to a short-audio experiment by Sony Music Entertainment that’s being distributed over 60dB, and (2) it makes mention of a platform called Pippa, which was accepted into the music program of Techstars, a startup accelerator.

I’m always interested in reading up on new platform companies — the Megaphone-Art19 landgrab fight is interesting and all, but it’ll be nice to see more entrants make that struggle more dynamic — and there’s a line in the company’s FAQ that stands out to me: “In a few months we will launch our ad marketplace, which will allow podcasters to sell ad spots to advertisers, if they choose.” Second mention of ad marketplaces in today’s newsletter.

Let’s see how this shakes out. (Why is a podcast hosting platform in a music startup program? *shruggie*)

The Hill and Techcrunch launch their own podcasts.

History-Cast” and “Equity,” respectively. If I ever get bored one of these days, I’ll sit down and build out a March Madness bracket for all these media company podcasts. (Hat tip to friend of the newsletter Noah Chestnut for the sweet idea.)

Over in the forums: Project Orange.

In the Water Cooler, long-time Hot Pod member and co-host of the really great food podcast Gastropod Nicky notes that her podcast has signed up for inclusion into the beta of something called Project Orange, believed to be a “social audio” tech platform by SiriusXM. “Any thoughts for or against?” she asks. Nicky also writes: “We took the plunge yesterday, so I’ll update this space as we go…”

Keep an eye out.

Thursday

16

March 2017

0

COMMENTS

Thursday

16

March 2017

0

COMMENTS

Let’s dig into those Infinite Dial 2017 numbers.

Written by , Posted in Hot Pod Weekly

Hello from SXSW! And to all you new subscribers who found me through that Fast Company article: welcome! And I assure you — I’m less grumpy/miserable than I seem. To everyone else, welcome back. We’ve got a lot to talk about.

Infinite Dial 2017. The latest Edison Research report capturing the size of podcast listening audience are in, and growth continues to look pretty solid. However, just how we should feel about that growth appears to be a debated question among some pockets of the community — there were, to be sure, many observers that were expecting a greater acceleration in listeners following a year of solid media exposure to the medium, and they didn’t quite see that this year.

Before jumping into the numbers, some background: the Infinite Dial report comes from Edison Research in partnership with Triton Digital, and it examines consumer adoption of digital media with particular emphasis on audio. It’s also the most reputable independent study that has research the state of podcast listenership since the medium’s inception, with survey data going back to 2006. The study is survey-driven, offering a complementary data source for an industry largely defined by a black box platform and which possibly looks to further fracture across several other black boxes as it moves into the future. Which is all to say, the study presents us with the closest, most trustworthy read of the actual market we’re dealing with.

You can check out the whole report on the Edison Research website, but here are my top-line takeaways:

(1) Steady, Unsexy Growth?

The share of Americans that report being monthly podcast listeners, which is the key metric is my mind, now 24% of Americans (67 million), up from 21% (57 million) the year before. That’s a 14% (or 3 percentage point) growth year-over-year. The story is more dramatic if you take a longer view: over the past two years, monthly podcast listening has grown by 40%.

However, the monthly podcast listening growth between 2017 and 2016 (3 percentage points) is a little less compared to the period immediately preceding it (4 percentage points), which has become a source of consternation among some in the podcast community. More than a few people have written me noting the disparity between the hype that we’ve been experiencing — about how 2016 was supposed to be “the year of podcasts” — and the steady, seemingly unsexy growth we’re seeing here.

I think the concern is fair, but I also think it comes from staring a little too close. Two quick reality checks:

  • We’re still talking 10 million new Americans actively listening to a medium that is (a) still propped up by a barely evolved technological infrastructure, (b) has only seen few instances of significant capital investment, and (c) still sees its industry power very much under-organized. That last thing was reflected, somewhat, in something that was said by Tom Webster, Edison Research’s VP of Strategy and Marketing, during the Infinite Dial webinar last week: “As I’ve maintained for a number of years now, there’s not really been a concerted industry to define and sell podcasting and talk about what it really means to the general public.”

  • We’re also talking about solid, continuous growth following years of marginal gains (and a dip in 2013) in terms of active podcast listeners, and what are essentially years of non-movement in terms of podcast awareness. Between 2010 and 2013, podcast awareness hovered between 45% and 46% of Americans.

Which isn’t to say that continuous growth is inevitable in Podcastland, of course. Far from it. The industry has a crap ton of work to do, and the bulk of it should revolve around this next topic.

(2) The Problem of Programming

Eric Nuzum, Audible’s SVP of Original Content — who often seeks to dissociate his work with the term “podcasting,” but we’ll sidestep that for now — sent me a few thoughts he had about the report over the weekend, and this point stood out to me in particular:

[One thing] I find significant, that no one is discussing — and is podcasting’s massive opportunity — is the disconnect between occasional users and regular users. To me, the fact that 40% of US adults have tried podcasting, yet only half of them listen regularly, that’s astounding. Show me any other medium that has that gap. None. When people sample and don’t habituate, it speaks to interest that isn’t being met by the content that’s available today. There either isn’t enough variety of things for people to listen to —or there isn’t enough of what they like to meet their appetite. With 350,000 podcasts, that seems like a strange thing to say, but the simple truth is that potential listeners aren’t sticking with it — and there are only two potential reasons: not enough good stuff — or they simply can’t find it. Solving this could go as far as doubling the audience for podcasting.

In all, I see this year’s report as clear evidence that there is a lot of headroom left to go, but I think it’s time to stop blaming awareness as a core problem.

For reference, here are the data points that Nuzum was responding to:

  • 40% of Americans [112 million] report having ever tried listening to a podcast, up from 36% the year before.

  • Again, 24% of Americans report sticking around to becoming monthly podcast listeners.

Between the two potential reasons that Nuzum laid out to account for this disparity — programming and discovery — it does appear to me that the latter seems to get the bulk of the attention as the principal problem that the space needs to solve in order to realize this potential. The phrase “discovery is broken” certainly functions as the value proposition for a lot of innovation and strategic movement in the space, like: the initial entrance of Spotify and Google Play Music, the creation of apps like RadioPublic, the proliferation of various independent podcast curation newsletters floating in the ether, et. cetera et. cetera. (The phrase also serves as a go-to complaint from many publishers, but let’s ignore that for now.)

Frankly, and maybe it’s no act of bravery on my part now to express this when someone else has gone and said it, but I’ve never quite put much stock in the discovery thesis. It has always occurred to me that discovery functions in the podcasting space along the same dynamics as the rest of the internet; there is simply so much stuff out there, and so the problem isn’t the discovering an experience in and of itself — it’s discovering a worthwhile or meaningful experience within a universe of deeply suboptimal experiences. (Which isn’t unlike the experience of being alive.)

Thus, to speak personally for a second, my discovery of the things that I tend to stick both on the internet and in podcasts come from the same three broad avenues: (a) the thing earns its place in my attention sphere by bubbling up across my existing circuit, (b) I personally go out and dig for a specific thing through various search pathways, and (c) somebody personally recommended that thing to me. And all of those processes of discovery are driven, anchored, and defined by the nature of those things, and whether those things are actually things that I would sort into my life based on my consumptive predispositions. (Sorry for the many uses of the word “thing.”) Which is to say: no matter how much you can try to fix discovery processes, the act of discovery necessarily break down when the things that people want simply don’t exist.

The problem of programming, then, should necessarily supersede the problem of discovery among any and all media entities that fundamentally struggle with the boundaries of their potential.

We see this idea express itself in another data point, and observation, raised during the Infinite Dial webinar last week. The presentation had highlighted the fact that podcast consumption among the oldest demographic (55+) is pretty low — making up only 12% of the American monthly podcast listening population, up from 11% last year — which is a finding that, as Edison Research’s Tom Webster pointed out during the presentation, is a little strange given the talk radio format’s general popularity among that age demographic. “Now, certainly, one growth area for podcasting is to continue developing content and to market to older Americans,” Webster said.

(That said, I suppose there’s a limitation to the depth of that theory, particularly when we examine an entity like, say, NPR, which is working hard to indoctrinate a generation of younger audiences into its listening universe while simultaneously functioning as a formidable power in podcasting.)

But that’s not to dispute Webster’s argument here, because its core idea is nonetheless true, crucial, and worth fighting for at every turn. We need to be developing more types of programming for more types people, shows that are of and for: more women, more people of color, more older people, more different kinds of communities, more nationalities, and so on.

Alright, let’s move on.

(3) Depth of Listening

This year’s report further underscores the idea that if you like podcasts, you probably really, really like podcasts. The key data points:

  • Podcast consumers listen to an average of five podcasts per week. And to break that out further: more than half of all podcast consumers listen to three or more podcasts per week, and over a fifth of podcast listeners listen to six or more per week.

  • The average number of podcasts that listeners subscribe to: 6.

  • And this perhaps the most notable finding: 85% of podcast listeners report the behavior of tending to consume the majority or the entirety of the episode.

Now, as NPR’s Senior Director of Promotion and Audience Development Izzi Smith pointed out to me over Twitter, these are self-reported numbers and should therefore be taken with a grain of salt.

The move here, then, would be to compare that against the internal analytics findings of various podcast publishers with the means of measuring the behaviors of their own listeners — and of course, mentally accounting for potential differences between the specific quirks of those publishers’ audiences and the more general aggregate behaviors of all audiences combined.

Of course, doing that comprehensively would take more time than I have right now, so I’ll leave you with two cases:

  • HowStuffWorks Chief Content Officer Jason Hoch tells me that the Infinite Dial numbers were consistent with data pulled from a streaming partner. “We see ~50% do ‘half’ and 35-40% do all of an episode,” he tweeted.

  • Nick DePrey, NPR’s Analytics Manager (nee “Innovation Accountant”), tells me that “NPR One data shows 65% of listeners hear more than half the audio and 46% hear the whole thing, but that’s only half the story. These broad averages conceal the most important factor: Length is everything in determining completion rates.” He went on to discuss the specific findings, which you can find on the Twitter thread.

Miscellaneous Takeaways

  • Active podcast listeners still skews male.

  • The home is still the most prominent site of podcast listening.

  • It’s still early days for in-car podcast listening.

So that’s all I got for now. The future looks strong, though the present still looks like it needs to catch up. Again, you can find the whole Infinite Dial 2017 report on the Edison Research website — there is a crap ton of good stuff I didn’t touch here, so go check it out. Also: the research team is scheduled to publish a report that digs even deeper into the podcast data sometime in May, so watch out for that.

Quick note on Missing Richard Simmons. The smash hit-massively popular-[insert maximal adjective here] podcast is wrapping up its six-episode run next Wednesday, and soon, we’ll find out whether we’ll actually hear from the titular subject himself. But I was also curious about the show’s windowing arrangement with Stitcher, in which episodes were released a week early on Stitcher Premium, and whether it would still apply to the final episode, which I imagine would significantly deflate the momentum leading up to the big reveal.

Midroll, which owns Stitcher, tells me that the final episode will indeed be released early on Stitcher Premium, but instead of publishing tomorrow, the episode will come out next Monday —   two days before everybody else gets it.

Cool. I’ll be listening. Also, it occurs to me that, among other accolades, Missing Richard Simmons stands out as being a podcast that has achieved considerable success — it’s sat at the top of the iTunes charts for several weeks now (caveats on the significance of iTunes podcast chart placement applies) — without any promotional placement from iTunes itself. I can’t quite recall another example of a podcast for which this has been the case, and that’s super interesting, to say the least.

Two Platforms, Two Pieces of News. So the first was the development I was referring to in the preamble of last week’s newsletter, and the second threw me for a loop.

(1) Google Play Music rolls out its own original podcast. “City Soundtracks” features biographical interviews with musicians about the elements — in particular, places — that shaped their aesthetic lives. The podcast is hosted, appropriately, by Song Exploder’s Hrishikesh Hirway, and Google Play Music contracted Pineapple Street Media to handle production. The show’s distribution isn’t exclusively limited to the Google Play Music app; it can also be found just about everywhere else, including iTunes. It is not, however, available on Spotify. The first three episodes were released last Wednesday, when the show was first officially announced.

(2) More windowing: WNYC will release the new season of 2 Dope Queens two weeks earlier on Spotify. This development comes on top of a more general partnership that’ll see more shows from WNYC Studios made available on the platform. Here’s the relevant portion of the press release:

Spotify and WNYC Studios, the premiere podcast and audio producer, today announced a partnership to showcase many of WNYC Studios’ top podcasts on the platform. The partnership includes a special two week exclusive on Season 3 of WNYC Studios’ hit podcast 2 Dope Queens, premiering onMarch 21,  before it becomes available on other platforms.  All podcasts will be available to both free and premium users.

I’m still mulling over just what, exactly, these two developments tells us about the growing dynamic between the rise of various platforms and how content will flow through the podcast ecosystem in the near future, but I will admit that this move from Spotify — that is, carving out a windowing arrangement with a non-music oriented show — seemed a little confusing to me. I had originally interpreted the programming strategy for both Spotify and Google Play Music as instances in which these platforms were integrating shows that would vibe with their music-oriented user base. To me, that’s the focused, albeit more narrow play. But this arrangement with 2 Dope Questions opens up that strategy a little bit, and gives the entire enterprise a little less definition than before. Will it pay off? Obviously, that’s the question everyone and their second cousin is asking. I’ll be keeping an eye.

Quick note from SXSW: ESPN’s 30 for 30 podcast. The Jody Avirgan-led team produced a panel on Sunday about the upcoming audio iteration of ESPN (and Bill Simmons)’s beloved sports documentary brand. A couple of details for those, like myself, are keeping a close eye on the project: the podcast will be released in short batches, with the first five-episode season dropping sometime in June and another five-episode season dropping later in the fall. Episodes are within the classic 30-40 minute range, and the podcast will follow the film’s anthology format in that no two episodes cover the same story. The panel revealed two out of the five subjects from the podcast’s upcoming first season: one will tackle the first all-women relay trek to the North Pole which took place in 1997, and another will examine the curious case of Dan & Dave, the 1992 Reebok advertising campaign rolled out in the run-up to the 1992 Olympics that focused on two decathletes. Rose Eveleth is leading the former story, while Andrew Mambo leads the latter.

And here’s a second mention of Hrishikesh Hirway in today’s newsletter: he’s handling the music. (Hirway has worked on the theme music for FiveThirtyEight’s podcast.)

I’m super excited about this — the panel played two short clips from those episodes, and they sound really, really good. Which is hopeful, as the team has a lot to push through. Beyond the basic requirements of producing a good show, the team has to balance between: meeting the brand expectations while ensuring the episodes have standalone value for non-30 for 30 fans, weaving together stories that are appealing to both the sports literate and non-sports literate, and finding ways to push certain conventions of the audio documentary format without entirely losing the core audio documentary consumer. Cool.

Still tracking that West Virginia Public Broadcasting story… and it looks like the station is anticipating having to lay off 15 full-time staffers — which would amount to more than 20 percent of WVPB’s workforce — in preparation for cuts to its state funding as proposed by West Virginia Jim Justice, as Current reports. WVPB GM Scott Finn told the West Virginia House Finance Committee last Wednesday that should the state funding cuts go through, it places West Virginia at risk of being the first state in the country to lose public broadcasting, according to West Virginia Metro News.

Governor Justice’s proposition to eliminate state support for West Virginia Public Broadcasting was ostensibly to close a $500 million budget gap. Cutting WVPB from the budget would save a mere $4.5 million, and some have hinted at an alternative motivationfor Justice to strike the state-supported journalism operation from the budget.

For those hoping to keep a close eye on the situation, WVPB has assembled a Facebook Page with updates and call-to-actions. (Hat tip to Joni Deutsch.)

One more thing. Just wanted to quickly shout-out the New York Times latest audio project,The EP. The podcast was produced in partnership with The New York Times Magazine for the latter’s second annual Music issue, which came out earlier this week, and the show is fascinating on a bunch of different levels: its structure mimics the feel of a digital music album, each episode is bite-sized, each episode features a very tiny snippet of conversation with a critic about a specific song that nonetheless feels like the perfect capsule from a much longer discussion, and if you look down the feed’s release date column, you can see evidence of some sneaky CMS hijinks to create the track sequence.

And most importantly: the podcast is really, really good. It’s one of those projects that’s so good, so smart, and so… new that it makes me very, very angry. It’s gorgeous. Go listen to it. The EP was produced by the internal NYT audio team, which is led by Samantha Henig and Lisa Tobin.

Bites. 

  • Essence magazine has its own podcast now, called “Yes, Girl!” The show debuted on March 9, and it appears that DGital Media is responsible for production. (Essence)

  • Sleep with Me, the sleeper-hit — heh, sorry — avant garde podcast by San Francisco-based Drew Ackerman designed to, well, amusingly help listeners drift off to bed, has been snagged up by the Feral Audio podcast network. (Press Release)

  • BuzzFeed’s See Something Say Something, a show about being Muslim in America, is back with its second season. (BuzzFeed)

  • This is interesting: Detroit-based producer Zak Rosen has an independent project up that tells the story about that tells the story about a couple deciding whether or not to have children. Teaser’s up, the first ep drops Friday. (iTunes)

  • “Why the podcast boom has yet to hit Mexico — and why it needs to.” (Current)

  • I hear podcasting was a category on Jeopardy last night. Answers included: Keepin’ It 1600, Alec Baldwin, and Reply All. Heh.

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Thursday

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March 2017

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