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March 2017

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

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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.

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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.

Friday

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Thursday

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March 2017

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Tuesday

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A New Podcast Production Company, Third Coast 2017 Dates, Unladylike Media

Written by , Posted in Hot Pod Weekly

A quick note of the sausage-making variety: I had originally planned this issue around the theme of platforms which, in podcasting and just about everywhere else, seems to be the defining problem of our media-consuming era. However, the piece of news on which I had hoped to hang the week got pushed back for some reason or other, and I thought it would be bad form to break the embargo or perform some interpretative dance around the hole it leaves behind while continuing on with the theme. (The news is scheduled to roll out soon enough, though. You’ll know it when you see it.) Anyway, it’s all good, as this week turned out to have a thread of its own. You’ll figure that out soon enough.

That’s probably way more preamble than necessary. Let’s jump into the week.

Midroll Executive Producer leaves to start own venture. Gretta Cohn, the company’s New York-based executive producer of show development, is breaking off to form her own production company. Identifying details of the new venture — including a name, focus, and initial client list — will be rolled out in the coming weeks, but Cohn hit me up last week to tell me that the business will be a production company that’s closer to something like Pineapple Street Media than a straightforward podcast network. “We’ll produce shows for a variety of partners, and help brands and individuals create highly produced podcasts, from start to finish,” she said, noting that the company will specialize in highly edited and sound design-rich work. The company will also be producing original work.

The venture, whatever it will be called, is expected to officially launch in April.

Cohn enters the market with substantial experience as an operator in the new podcast industry. Her history with Midroll dates back to December 2014, when she was hired as a founding member of the company’s then-nascent New York office. There, Cohn was responsible for building out much of the company’s production staff, and she led development on several high-profile Earwolf projects including the fantastic Beautiful Stories from Anonymous People with Chris Gethard, the Katie Couric podcast, and the re-launch of the Longest Shortest Time. She also led the initial programming slate within Howl, the premium subscription service that Midroll launched prior to acquiring Stitcher, which included Fruit, the fiction podcast by Issa Rae. Prior to her time at Midroll, Cohn worked at WNYC, where she served as the associate producer on Freakonomics Radio and Soundcheck. In a previous life, Cohn was a cellist in a rock band.

When asked for comment, Midroll CEO Erik Diehn told me: “She’s dead to me. JUST KIDDING. Gretta is a talented producer whose star is rising, and we were lucky to have her dedicated to Midroll full-time for more than two years… She’s done so much for us for so long that I cannot begrudge her the urge to strike out on her own and become the architect of her own destiny for a while.”

Diehn adds, “And while we’ll miss her, we view her new venture as a positive development overall for the industry. Our business depends on the flourishing of a Hollywood-style ecosystem of producers and production companies working with us on individual projects — much as Pineapple Street did with Missing Richard Simmons. The more talent independent production companies with whom we and others can work, the better.”

March 29 will be Cohn’s last day at Midroll. You can find her website here.

Third Coast Festival announces 2017 dates. Mark your calendars, ye bleeding heart audio documentarians: this year, the Chicago-based international audio festival will take place on November 9 to 11 — slightly earlier in the weekend, from Thursday to Saturday, which the festival’s organizers tells me will make it easier for attendees to travel back to their respective lives on Sunday. This latest conference will mark the second edition of Third Coast since the festival shifted to an annual production. It previously took place every two years.

Maya Goldberg-Safir, the festival’s artistic associate, passed me a few details:

  • In addition to the usual run of events, this year’s festival will also feature a three-hour bootcamp for audio production beginners looking for more exposure to the work. That’ll take place on the afternoon of November 9.

  • The festival will take place in the same hotel as last year, and there will be a limited capacity to the festival: capped at 700 people.

  • Ticket prices will go up slightly this year. Keep an eye out for that.

  • Potential session leaders — and sponsors — are encouraged to reach out.

Tickets go live on August 22.

Anchor 2.0. The Betaworks-incubated social audio app, which caught a fair bit of buzzwhen it first launched just over year ago, is making another push to establish its value. This morning, the app rolled out its second iteration. Among its new features are:

  • What appears to be an audio equivalent of the “Stories” feature that we see in visual social platforms like Snapchat and Instagram. (Has anybody coined a term for the phenomenon where, over the long run, everything on the Internet will ultimately be the same exact thing?)

  • New audio creation tools, including the ability to pull in music tracks from Apple Music or Spotify, external audio clips, and pre-made musical fillers. (One imagines that music licensing will be a big part of this conversation.)

  • Distribution over voice-first platforms like Amazon Alexa and Google Home, in addition to the usual places like iOS, Android, and that old thing called the web.

According to the press release, the app will also feature content from established publishers like the Gizmodo Media Group, IGN, and WNYC, among others. The nature of those content partnerships between Anchor and those publishers remain unclear to me. Further details can be found in the company’s blog post.

Also worth noting: the announcement comes with the revelation of a new $2.8 million funding round. It was led by Accel Partners, and includes The Chernin Group, the Omidyar Network, Mick Batyske, and Eniac Ventures, a previous investor.

I try not to make it a habit to write about social audio apps very much, but I do find this news interesting on two levels:

  • Anchor’s announcement this morning seems to pit the app directly against Bumpers, the creation-emphasizing social audio app founded by Twitter alums Ian Ownbey and Jacob Thornton. (Evan Williams, one of Twitter’s many co-founders, is an investor in Bumpers.) While it remains to be seen whether an “Instagram” or “Snapchat” or “Twitter” (or “Yo”) for audio is a digital product category that will actually end up being a thing, it’s nonetheless fascinating to watch this sector of the digital audio space work itself out.

  • In my head, I’ve come to place Anchor and Bumpers in one bucket, given both these app’s focus on serving as the mediating space between users and other users, while establishing another bucket specifically for short-form audio app 60dB and the AI-oriented Otto Radio which seems, to me at least, primarily occupied with developing a firm grasp on the interface between professional publishers and listeners.

This week I’m tracking… Edison Research’s Infinite Dial 2017 Study that’s due to come out this Thursday.

Going Solo. “I dunno if this crossed your radar,” a reader wrote to me last month. “But I would love a Hot Pod interview with the ladies behind Stuff Mom Never Told You.” The reader mentioned that Cristen Conger and Caroline Ervin, the current hosts behind that feminist-oriented HowStuffWorks podcast, had published their last episode at the end of last year, and were moving on to start their own independent media company, Unladylike Media. (Not to be mistaken with the Australian podcast of the same name.) I had heard about the show’s current iteration ending, but I confess I missed the fact that a new venture was coming out of this. So, I reached out to Conger with a few questions, and she obliged with a set of lengthy, fascinating response.

“We’re much more Sisters Doin’ It For Themselves than….a revenge song title that will probably come to me 5 minutes after I send this,” Conger insisted, not wanting the story’s angle to mischaracterize the impetus behind Unladylike Media’s formation, or their relationship with HowStuffWorks. There’s a lot baked into Conger’s responses, so I figured it’s worth running the full Q&A. It runs long, so you might want to save it for later.

Here it is:

Could you walk me through the history of Stuff Mom Never Told You?

Caroline and I were never “supposed” to be podcast hosts. We were both printed word nerds, met at our college newspaper and hadn’t ever regularly kept in touch. HowStuffWorks (HWS) wasn’t even a podcast network when they hired me as a staff writer in 2008. Unbeknownst to me, Caroline was working as an editor at a mid-size newspaper.

Not long after I started, HWS began dabbling in podcasts as a way to stretch the deeply researched articles us writers and editors were producing each week. Stuff You Should Know* was such an instant juggernaut, the department essentially held an open call for new hosts and show ideas. That’s how Stuff Mom Never Told You (SMNTY) happened and eventually launched in February 2009 (first episode: Do men and women have different brains?). Also, credit where credit is due to then-HSW editor-in-chief Conal Byrne for getting that idea off the ground – and while knee-deep in a recession.

By happenstance, Caroline had left the newspaper job, moved back to Atlanta and gotten in touch with me. We met up at a sports pub of all places, and it’s almost like we never stopped talking. We just had conversational chemistry out of the gate. Unlike my typical “friend dating” anxiety, I wasn’t panicking on the inside that I’d run out of interesting things to say and bring our hangout to an awkwardly silent halt.

So when the current co-host** left, Caroline hopped on board. Then in December, after 833 episodes, we hung up our Stuff Mom Never Told You headphones.

What were the factors that led to your new venture?

The more success we enjoyed with show, the more Caroline sensed it was only a matter of time. I was a little more precious about, but then I went to Werk It at WNYC in June and never looked back. If any of those rad women are reading this, thank you!

SMNTY was a tremendous opportunity, and we miss the fan community we built dearly. But we also want to do better by them, and we couldn’t do that and remain a HSW at the same time, both on principle and practicality.

Speaking exclusively to our situation since we aren’t attempting to speak for anyone currently with the company, there was no incentive to growing the show. We tumbled through two acquisitions*** on scrappiness and inertia. But without IP ownership or revenue shares, the pot at the end of the rainbow was starting to look like fool’s gold. Meanwhile, we were producing two podcasts and as many as four videos each week; our content-ing game was fire, no doubt.

Plus, producing a massive library of more than 800 deeply researched episodes was a crash course in efficiency at the cost of creative growth. The medium had evolved so much during the show’s run that Caroline and I were also itching to break it all down and build something better and smarter, more dynamic and inclusive.

Not to mention we wanted to commit the radical act of women making media and owning it, too. It’s refreshing when feminism isn’t side-eyed as a liability.

You said that “there was no incentive to growing” SMNTY. Could you talk more about that?

Personally, I’ve thought about that a lot — what shifted my mindset to it no longer being OK to just Make The Thing and not worry so much about whether I was getting back what my time and talent are worth. When I pitched SMNTY in 2008, IP rights and revenue shares were a moot point. I earned a salary as the HWS staff writer I was hired to be, and that was that.

But in the meantime, the value of podcasting began growing inversely to the cheapening of editorial content, which was the HSW bread and butter — not to mention my own as a word nerd. Throw in the company changing hands a couple of times, and it makes sense that the industry outpaced their podcast model. What then shifted for me was not wanting to wait around for course correction while still not owning or profiting from growing the show. Plus, I’d been there since soon out of college and had just turned 30. It was time to bet on myself.

And you mentioned that “it’s refreshing when feminism isn’t side-eyed as a liability.” Was that an issue at HSW?

A feminist podcast about gender, bodies and sexuality was understandably outside of the HSW core brand’s science/tech/trivia wheelhouse from the get-go. So it speaks highly that we even got the green light to launch. Nor were we ever censored. But when you’re 1) inherently off-brand (in a marketing sense) and 2) that brand ethos is feminism and 3) upper management is predominantly male, it can sometimes feel like an elephant in the room.

Tell me more about Unladylike Media. What’s the premise, how does the business work right now, and how does it functionally differ from the arrangement with HowStuffWorks?

At its core, Unladylike is us making the media we want to see in the world and wish existed when we were growing up. It’s also us taking a bet on ourselves, which is re-energizing to remember during this hustle. Neither of us left HSW until we left, so we’ve hit the ground running from the ground floor.

Next spring, Ten Speed Press is publishing Unladylike the book, so we’re currently splitting our time between manuscripting and developing a podcast pilot with Midroll. Women, gender and feminism are still our holy trinity, but it’s a completely different concept from structure and sound to topics and narratives. It’s exactly the creative challenge that we’ve been pining for.

That means the business is still in development, which is a good thing because we’re taking the time to build a quality foundation instead of throwing spaghetti against the wall. Looking ahead, we envision Unladylike as a multi-platform destination for sisters doin’ it for themselves.

Unladylike Media, Congers tells me, which aims to “inform and inspire women, girls and nonbinary folks,” is due to roll out their new website today. And in addition to the Midroll pilot and book deal mentioned in the interview, Conger and Ervin have also been publishing a weekly newsletter.

When reached for comment, HWS Chief Content Officer Jason Hoch said: “We love their work and wish them luck on their new efforts. We respect the confidentiality of our private arrangements with our hosts, although we can say that everyone in our company shares in the company’s success.”

Last week, HowStuffWorks announced their latest podcast, FoodStuff, with Blue Apron as the launch sponsor. It is the network’s thirteenth podcast.

* The network’s flagship show.
** Molly Edmonds was the podcast’s other original co-host. She left the show in 2011.
*** The current owner is the Seattle-based Bluecora, which bought the company from Discovery Communications in 2014.

Bites. 

  • “Uber plans to turn its app into a ‘content marketplace’ during rides.” This provides the bigger picture surrounding a development that I’ve previously highlighted — that of Otto Radio establishing a partnership with Uber last October. (TechCrunch)
  • Missed this last week: Charley Locke’s latest is on the ethical slipperiness of host-read ads — a long-time concern, to be sure. I don’t think I’m as skeptical as Locke appears to be with her analysis, but I am here for this quote from a communications professor: “When hosts do the ads, advertisers are assuming there’s a parasocial relationship between the host and the listener.” (Wired)
  • “Christians Turn To Podcasts To Say Things They Can’t Say In Church.” (NPR)
  • Well this is interesting: “These shiny concept earphones are the latest vessel for Sony’s digital assistant.” (The Verge)

Post Note. Quick housekeeping note: I’ll be traveling later this week to SXSW, so if you’re a Hot Pod Pro subscriber, I might be spotty with Saturday’s newsletter. And if you’ll be at SXSW as well, come check out the panel on podcast advertising that I’ll be moderating! Also, come say hi. I’m probably not going to do very much in Austin, other than hitting up some pod stuff — like the Recode tapings, the 30 for 30 panel, and the PRX live show situation — because I don’t do festivals or huge clumps of people very well. Mostly, I plan to walk around, dip into Barton Springs, and maybe check out some trees.

In other news, I tried the Kevin Nguyen-Tom Hiddleston GQ bolognese recipe last week, and it was 100%.

Friday

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March 2017

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COMMENTS

About Those Original Spotify Podcasts

Written by , Posted in Hot Pod Weekly

This is Issue 109. Published February 28, 2017.

Hey folks — we got a ton of news to sort through. Let’s clip through, pew pew pew.

About Those Original Spotify Podcasts. The music streaming giant announced its initial* slate of original audio programming last week, somewhat validating the Digiday report from the week before about the company being in talks with various podcast companies — including Gimlet, How Stuff Works, and Pineapple Street Media — to partner up for that initiative.

* Initial, that is, if you don’t count Clarify, the tentative first English language original podcast that the company produced with Mic.com and Headcount.org.

According to the write-ups circulating last week, the three projects are: (1) “Showstopper,” a show looking back at key moments in television music supervision hosted by Fader editor-in-chief Naomi Zeichner that premiered last Thursday; (2) “Unpacked,” an interview show set in various music festivals around the United States that will drop on March 14; and (3) a yet-unnamed audio documentary about the life and times of the late music industry executive Chris Lighty, a seminal figure in hip-hop history. That last project will be released sometime April. For those wondering, it appears that Spotify is directly involved in the production of Showstopper and Unpacked, the former of which comes out of a partnership with Panoply. The Chris Lighty project, meanwhile, is produced by the Loud Speakers Network and Gimlet, with Spotify providing distribution and miscellaneous support.

It should also be noted that more Spotify Original projects are, apparently, on the way.

This news was extensively covered, but the integral question — namely, if the shows will live exclusively on Spotify, which one imagines would be central to the platform’s strategy with this — largely went unanswered. I reached out to the various parties involved in the arrangement, and here’s what I learned:

  • Showstopper and Unpacked will be distributed exclusively over Spotify for now, though it remains a possibility that they might be distributed over other platforms in the future. As Dossie McCraw, the company’s head of podcasts, told me over the phone yesterday, the plan is to concentrate effort on raising awareness of original podcast programming on the platform at this point in time. When contacted about Showstopper’s distribution, a Panoply spokesperson seems to corroborate this point. “At this point, we can’t speculate whether it’ll be on iTunes in the future,” she said.

  • The Chris Lighty project enjoys a different arrangement. Gimlet tells me that the podcast will not exclusively live on the Spotify platform, and that Spotify has what essentially amounts to an eight-week first dibs window: episodes will appear on other platforms (like iTunes) eight weeks after they originally appear on Spotify. The show will be released on a weekly basis, regardless of the platform through which they are distributed. Gimlet co-founder Matt Lieber explained the decision: “One of our core goals is to increase the number of podcast listeners, and Spotify has a huge qualified audience that’s interested in this story of hip-hop and Chris Lighty.”

  • In our conversation yesterday, McCraw phrases Spotify’s upside opportunity for podcast publishers as follows: the platform’s user base, which he describes as being “music fans first,” serves as a potential audience pool that’s ripe for publishers to convert into new podcast listeners. (Echoing Lieber’s argument). McCraw further argues that Spotify is able to provide publishers with creative, marketing, and even production support — even to those that produce shows not exclusive to the platform. To illustrate this point, he refers to a recent arrangement with the audio drama Bronzeville which involved, among other things, a live event that the company hosted in New York. “Admittedly, we’re still growing the audience for podcast listening for audiences in the US,” he said, before positioning last week’s announcement as the company’s first big push to draw attention.

So, what does this all mean? How do we perceive this development, and more importantly, how does it connect with the windowing that’s being done with Stitcher Premium? Is this the real start of the so-called “platform wars” in the podcast ecosystem? What, truly, happened at the Oscars on Sunday night? (Was there a third envelope?) I’ll attend to that next week, because we’re not quite done yet with developments on this front. We have one more piece of the puzzle to account for. Watch this space.

Speaking of Gimlet…

Gimlet announces its spring slate. The returning shows are:

Science Vs, which will return for its second season under Gimlet management on March 9 and will stage its first live show on March 23 in Brooklyn;

StartUp, which will return for a ten-episode fifth season on April 14, and will see the show return to a weekly non-serialized format;

Surprisingly Awesome, which will return on April 17 and will feature a new host: Flora Lichtman, formerly of Science Friday and Bill Nye Saves The World. This new season is being described as a “relaunch.”

A coalition of podcast publishers are launching a podcast awareness campaign on March 1. The campaign, called “#TryPod,” is being shepherded by Izzi Smith, NPR’s senior director of promotion and audience development, and the coalition involves over 37 podcast publishers — ranging from WNYC to The Ringer to How Stuff Works.

AdWeek’s write-up has the details: “Hosts of podcasts produced by those participating partners will encourage their listeners to spread the word and get others turned on to podcasts. The campaign is accompanied by a social media component unified under the #trypod hashtag, which is already making the Twitter rounds ahead of the launch.”

The Sarah Lawrence College International Audio Fiction Award announces this year’s winners. Impeccable timing, I’d say. They are:

The actual awards for each of these winners will be announced at this year’s ceremony, which will take place at WNYC’s Greene Space on March 28. An interesting way to do things, but cool nonetheless. Website for tickets and details.

Vox Media hires its first executive producer of audio: Nishat Kurwa, a former senior digital producer at APM’s Marketplace. A spokesperson tells me that Kurwa will be responsible for audio programming and development across all eight of the company’s editorial brands, which includes The Verge, Recode, Polygon, and Vox original recipe. She will move to New York from LA for the job, and will be reporting to Vox Media president Martin Moe.

I’ve written a bunch about Vox Media’s podcast operations before, and the thing that’s always stood out to me is the way in which its audio initiatives are currently spread out across several brands according to considerably different configurations. The production for Vox.com’s podcasts, for example, are being handled by Panoply, with those shows hosted on the Megaphone platform as a result. Meanwhile, Recode’s podcasts are supported by DGital Media with Art19 providing hosting, and that site still appears to be hunting for a dedicated executive producer of audio. The Verge, Polygon, Eater, Curbed and SB Nation — though not Racked, alas — all have various podcast products of their own, but they all appear to be produced, marketed, and distributed individually according to their own specific brand infrastructures.

Kurwa’s hiring suggests a formalization of those efforts across the board. What that will mean, specifically, remains to be seen, but I wouldn’t be particularly surprised if it involves a consolidation of partnerships, infrastructures, and branding. In fact, I’d even go so far as to say that’s necessary.

Midroll announces the second edition of Now Hear This, its live podcast festival, which will take place on September 8-10. This year sees the company shift the festivities from Los Angeles to New York, which I’m told is largely a function of customer experience.

“[New York City] is an easy city for locals to commute in for the event and for out-of-towners to come for the weekend and easily get around. While our fans and performers loved Anaheim, it’s not always the easiest place to get to from the LA area. The fan experience continues to be our top priority,” Lex Friedman, Midroll’s Chief Revenue Officer told me. He also added that it was an opportunity to mitigate impressions of the festival as a west coast event. (And, I imagine, impressions of Midroll as a west coast company.)

Details on venues and performers will be released over the coming weeks. In the meantime, interested folk can reach out to the team over email, or get email alerts from the festival website, which also features peculiar videos of gently laughing people.

What lies ahead for APM’s On-Demand Strategy? Last month, I briefly mentioned APM’s hiring of Nathan Tobey as the organization’s newest director of on-demand and national cultural programming, which involves running the organization’s podcast division and two of its more successful cultural programs: The Dinner Party Download and The Splendid Table. Tobey’s recruitment fills a six-month gap left by Steve Nelson, who left APM to become NPR’s director of programming last summer. It was notable development, particularly for a network that wrapped 2016 with a hit podcast under its belt (In The Dark) and a bundle of new launches (The Hilarious World of Depression; Terrible, Thanks for Asking; Make Me Smart).

I traded emails with Tobey recently to ask about his new gig. Here are three things to know from the exchange:

(1) Tobey’s Role and Immediate Priorities.

“The title is a mouthful,” Tobey told me. “But it really consists of equal parts creativity facilitator, entrepreneur, and audience-development strategist.” He phrases his two immediate priorities as follows: the first is to invest in the future of the organization’s current podcast roster, and the second is to lay the foundation for APM’s on demand future, including content development, business planning, and team building.

(2) What defines an APM show?

“The basic traits are similar to some of our big public media peers — production craft and editorial standards you can count on, creative ambition to spare, plus a steady focus on addressing unmet needs, from making science fun for kids (Brains On!) to de-stigmatizing depression (The Hilarious World of Depression),” he said. “But really, the new shows we’ll be make will define what we stand for more than any slogan ever could – so I think the answer to your question will be a lot clearer in a year or two.”

(3) Potential collaborators are encouraged to pitch, regardless of where you are.

“Hot Pod readers: send me your pitches and ideas, and reach out anytime – with a collaborative possibility, or just to say hi. I’ll be in New York a lot in the coming years, and we’ve got an office in LA too, so don’t think you need to be out here in the Twin Cities (though you should totally come visit),” Tobey said. “We’ll be looking for podcast-focused talent of all kinds in the years to come – from producing to sponsorship to marketing – so be sure to check our job listings.

I dunno, man. Minneapolis and St. Paul are pretty great.

NPR’s Embedded returns with a three-episode mini-season. Dubbed a “special assignment,” all three episodes will all focus on a single,topic: police encounters caught on video, investigated from all sides.

Two things to note:

  • Embedded will enjoy some formal cross-channel promotion between podcast and broadcast. Shortened versions of the show’s reporting will be aired as segments on All Things Considered, and NPR is also partnering with WBUR’s morning news program On Point with Tom Ashbrook to produce on-air discussions of the episodes.

  • NPR seems to be building live event pushes for the show: host Kelly McEvers presented an excerpt from the upcoming mini-season at a Pop-Up Magazine showing in Los Angeles last week, and she is due to present a full episode at a live show on March 30, which will be held under the NPR Presents banner. Investigative journalism-as-live show, folks. I suppose it’s officially a thing.

I’m super excited about this — I thought the first season of Embedded was wonderful, and I’m in awe at McEvers’ capacity to lead the podcast in addition to her work as the co-host of NPR’s flagship news program, All Things Considered. (Personally, I can barely write a newsletter without passing out from exhaustion.)

Episodes of the mini-season will drop on March 9, 16, and 23.

Related: “NPR, WNYC, and Slate Explain Why They Are Betting on Live Events” (Mediafile)

RadioPublic formally pushes its playlist feature, which serves as one of its fundamental theses improving the ecosystem’s problems with discovery. The company’s playlist gambit is largely editorially driven and built on collaborations with publishers, with those collaborators serving as the primary manufacturers of playlists. A blog post notes that the company has been “working with industry leaders like the New York Times, Salon, The Huffington Post and PRX’s Radiotopia network.” (RadioPublic CEO Jake Shapiro, by the way, was formerly the CEO of PRX.)

We’ll see if the feature ends up being a meaningful driver of discovery on the platform — provided the platform is able to accrue a critical mass of users, of course — but I do find the discovery-by-playlist idea is intriguing. The moment immediately after an episode ends is a sphere of user experience that’s ripe for reconstruction, and I suspect that a playlist approach, which takes the search and choice burden off the listener to some extent, could serve that really well. Again, it all depends on RadioPublic’s ability to siphon users into that mode of consumption, so I reckon the only real way the playlist approach is able to be properly tested.

Following up last week’s item on Barstool Sports. It looks like the company’s podcast portfolio is being hosted on PodcastOne’s infrastructure, which isn’t measured by Podtrac. As such, it’s hard to accessible contextualize the company’s claims of 22 million monthly downloads against how other networks — particularly those measured by Podtrac, like NPR, This American Life, and HowStuffWorks — and therefore how it fares in comparison. Nonetheless, it’s a useful piece of information to have in your back pocket.

Related. After last week’s implosion of Milo Yiannopoulos, the now-former Breitbart editor and ostensibly conservative provocateur, PodcastOne appears to have terminated his podcast — which the network produced in partnership with Breitbart — and scrubbed any trace of it from iTunes and the network’s website.

DGital Media announces a partnership with Bill Bennett, a conservative pundit and Trump advisor, in the form of a weekly interview podcast that promises to take listeners “inside the Trump administration and explain what’s really going in Washington DC without the hysteria or the fake news in the mainstream media.” (Oy.) The first episode, which features Vice President Mike Pence, dropped last Thursday.

Interestingly enough, Bill Bennett now shares a podcast production partner with Recode and, perhaps most notably, Crooked Media, the decidedly progressive political media startup helmed by former Obama staffers Jon Favreau, Tommy Vietor, and Jon Lovett.

Related: Crooked Media continues to expand its podcast portfolio with its third show, “With Friends Like These,” an interview-driven podcast by political columnist Ana Marie Cox.

Bites. 

  • Hmm: “As it defines relationship with stations, NPR gains board approval for price hike.” Consider this a gradual shift in system incentives, one that anticipates potential decreases in federal support and further shifts in power relations between the public radio mothership and the vast, structurally-diverse universe of member stations. (Current)
  • And sticking with NPR for a second: their experiments with social audio off Facebook doesn’t seem to have yielded very much. (Curios)
  • This is interesting: “Progressive legislators turn to podcasts to spread message.” (The Missouri Times) It does seem to speak directly to the stuff I highlighted in my column about the ideological spread of podcasts from last summer, along with my piece for Vulture about the future of political podcasts.

Tuesday

21

February 2017

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COMMENTS

Digging Deep on the CPB Story, Barstool Sports, Staff Changes at Slate Inbox x

Written by , Posted in Hot Pod Weekly

The Corporation for Public Broadcasting is now officially on a hit list of programs that the White House might eliminate, according to New York Times article that led the site over the weekend, effectively pushing what was previously speculation — originated by a report from The Hill last month, which claimed that the Trump administration was considering privatizing the CPB — into an unambiguous news development.

I’ve highlighted this story a few times before, and while this specific development seems arguably incremental, it is nonetheless incredibly important to track given the depth of its consequences. Plus, there’s been a bunch of writing and side-stories that have emerged on this topic, which gives us enough material to piece together a clearer picture of what’s happening, why it matters, and why it suuucks.

Now, it should be noted that the public broadcasting system in general — and the CPB in specific, which serves as a key funding layer for NPR, PBS, and various public broadcasting stations across the country — have been consistent targets of cuts and criticism by conservatives. Personally, I’ve always been unclear on the precise reason for this; based on my reading, it appears to be some amalgamation of perceived liberal bias — a characterization that seems to be uttered with increasing synonymity with accountability media — and misuse of taxpayer dollars, never mind the public benefit and the paltry sums of savings such an elimination would entail. (For reference, CPB appropriations in recent years are around $445 million annually. And for further reference, government spending isprojected to be $4 trillion this year.) This Currently Curious article from last November is a pretty good historical guide to the last time the GOP controlled the government, and overat Recode, friend of the newsletter Dan Frommer pointed out how Richard Nixon once proposed halving CPB funding in 1969 — a few years after the CPB was formed. Despite those threats, federal support for the system has never seriously been compromised, and it is in this historical fact that fuels the beliefs of some that this simply won’t happen. But, as I’ve pointed out before, this is very much in an anomalous political environment, one where nothing seems off the table whether it’s a travel ban, or a wall previously thought to be a symbolic piece of campaign bravado, or a defunding of a federally-supported public information system that improves the lives of millions.

If the elimination of federal support were to take place, the consequences for the public broadcasting system would be catastrophic. According to a CPB-commissioned study by Booz Allen, cited by Media Matters and Current’s reporting on the issue, “there is no substitute for federal support of public broadcasting, and that the loss of federal support would mean the end of public broadcasting.”

The defunding of public broadcasting will be an unpopular measure. A survey commissioned by PBS, which was reported by Current, found that the majority of American voters oppose the elimination of federal funding for public television. Specifically, 73% of those surveyed oppose the proposed measure — which breaks down to 83% of Democrats, 82% of independents, and 62% of Republicans — while 76% of respondents want funding levels to be maintained or increased. (The survey made no direct mentions of public radio, but I reckon the study serves as a reasonable proxy for the broader public broadcasting system. And for reference: the survey study was conducted by both Democratic and Republican polling teams.)

The Times report notes that the list of eliminated programs could still yet change, which means that the public broadcasting system still has a bit more time to continue its preparations for cuts and/or lobbying against it — which is something that they’ve already been doing.

This is probably the point of the article where I’m supposed to bring up an opposing, or contrarian, view on the matter. That perspective comes from the libertarian magazine Reason, where Jim Epstein, a former WNET producer, makes the survival-of-the-fittest argument: he argues that government funding actually hurts PBS and NPR, and that the elimination of federal support would shock the system out of its broadcast-oriented dependencies and incentives towards online distribution. Which, you know, is a view that I understand conceptually (even if it’s a little reductive and certainly overly Pollyanna-ish). But the evolution argument always strikes me as hollow and inhumane, as it never really fully reckons with and takes responsibility of the human cost of the resulting layoffs, the organizational complexity attached to structural transitions, and the simple fact that evolution necessarily yields losers — which is, like, totally fine if we’re talking about markets distributing doorknobs, but it’s one that totally sucks for markets distributing public goods like civic-oriented news, emergency signals, and supplementary forms of public education. Look, I’m as critical about the public broadcasting system for its predisposition for inertia and it’s many, many, many problems as much as the next guy, but I’d much rather see a transition to the future that takes place under conditions of strength and volition, not one under unnecessary duress and survival.

A weakened public broadcasting system is bad, bad, bad. It’s bad in ways you already know, and it’s bad in countless ways you don’t. A recent episode in West Virginia is illustrative of the latter category. When West Virginia Governor Jim Justice proposed eliminating state support for West Virginia Public Broadcasting — ostensibly to close a $500 million budget gap (cutting WVPB support would save $4.5 million), but maybe for a whole other reason that NPR’s David Folkenflik hinted at over Twittera statement published by Susan C. Hogan, chair of the Friends of West Virginia Public Broadcasting, and Ted Armbrecht, chair of the West Virginia Public Broadcasting Foundation, went over the various negative impacts of a debilitated WVPB, from the stuff you can probably guess, like the laying off of half their reporters and terminating a well-loved music program (long live Mountain Stage), to stuff you might not immediately consider, like how it compromises the operation of radio towers that facilitate the communication of first responders and how the loss of said music program would hurt tourism to the state. A loss in CPB support would incur the same effect for public broadcasting stations across the country, though the precise effects will vary based on their own specific configurations. Everyone will suffer in their own way, but everyone will suffer.

The West Virginia episode is also indicative of a whole other element to this story: it serves as an example of how the attacks on public broadcasting won’t just be coming from the White House; it can and will come from state leadership as well. The two developments are not unconnected — after all, the former sets the tone for the latter.

Yeah, sure, Epstein may well be right that pulling federal funding might lead to more efficient and innovative outcomes, but gains will be experienced unequally across all actors in the system — the bigger organizations in denser locations will likely thrive, while the smaller ones will likely not — but the system as a whole will almost certainly suffer. (See: the internet and local newspapers.) And it is the integrity of the system, not any individual actor, that is so much more important at the end of the day. (See: modern democracy.)

And lest I forget this is a newsletter about podcasts, I’ll say this: a weaker public radio system is a weaker podcast ecosystem. Regardless of your feelings about public radio unfairly dominating the podcast narrative — and it has been pretty unfair, I’ll admit — it absolutely cannot be denied that the public radio contingent has represented a strong, validating pillar of an industry that often looks and feels like a chaotic mess. The term “wild west” has often been thrown about to describe the podcasting landscape, and while it is usually deployed with positive intent, the reality is that the whole thing largely resembles a “vast wasteland,” to crib from Newt Minow’s description of television back in 1961. (Hat tip to Joseph Lichterman’s spectacular historical account on Carnegie Commission on Educational Television’s 1967 report, which laid the foundation for the public broadcasting system we enjoy today, over at Nieman Lab.)

For all the crap you can understandably give public radio, it has undoubtedly done a lot to increase the medium’s profile (increasing its appeal for both brand advertisers and audiences of all stripes), produce some great shows, and give us some truly great talent (all hail Anna Sale). I, for one, hope the system survives however this plays out.

Anyway, here’s Mr. Rogers.

Okay, that went way too long. On to the news.

iHeartRadio continues to burrow into the podcast space, signing a partnership with AudioBoom that will further expand the streaming audio company’s content catalog. This follows several podcast-related partnerships that iHeartradio has announced in recent months, including LibSyn, Art19, and NPR member stations.

As a reminder, the value proposition that iHeartRadio provides these podcast platform companies is theoretical access to the service’s reportedly large user base. iHeartRadio apparently has over 95 million registered users, but two caveats apply: (1) the exact number of monthly active users — the key metric — is still unclear, and (2) it remains to be seen whether partner podcasts can meaningfully benefit from the iHeartRadio user base. As any public radio member station that has attempted to convert broadcast listeners to podcast listeners can tell you (see the Knight Foundation’s recent podcast report, Point 1), conversion aspirations aren’t all that straightforward.

Related. Audioboom also announced a branded content partnership with SpikeTV to produce a discussion podcast companion for the latter’s upcoming six-part true crime series, “Time: The Kalief Browder Story.”

What’s up with Barstool Sports? I’ve previously not paid much attention to the company — which now sports several podcasts peppering the iTunes charts — and, frankly, I don’t know very much about it beyond the headlines off the trades: its 2016 acquisition by the Chernin Group, its aggressively male character, its largely sports-oriented content focus,its various controversies of the misogynist variety. I thought last week’s Digiday Podcast, which featured an interview with the company’s CEO Erika Nardini, serves as a helpful primer, and if you’re curious and confused about them as I was, do check it out.

Anyway, a press release hit my inbox last week that touted the company as “dominating” the podcast game, making the argument by listing the iTunes chart positions currently occupied by the company’s various podcasts. When asked, the marketing firm that distributed the release claims that the network enjoys 22 million downloads a month across all shows (by my count, it has 18 in the market at the moment).

The number strikes me as conspicuously high, and I’ve requested for more specific details on both downloads and the context of those numbers. (I haven’t heard back yet.) At the moment, it’s not immediately clear where the network hosts its shows — and therefore, how it counts its downloads — and whether it abides by the measurement standardization practices increasingly being adopted by the rest of the industry. For reference: if the numbers are precise and appropriate for actual apple-to-apple comparisons, that would mean the network effectively stacks up against HowStuffWorks, WNYC Studios, and This American Life/Serial as measured by Podtrac, which doesn’t measure the Barstool Sports group of podcasts.

Is that plausible? Sure. Is that the case? Let’s find out. I’ll let you know when I hear back.

Fusion is set to debut its first narrative show next month, Digiday reports. The show, “Containers,” will be hosted by editor-at-large Alexis Madrigal, and it will utilize an Oakland seaport as a prism through which various key issues like crime and immigration will be discussed. In other words, it’s The Wire Season 2, but for non-fiction storytelling podcasts.

Note the mention of Panoply in the article, which is described to have “won out against a field of competitors for Fusion’s business.” I wonder who else was bidding?

Anyway, as the report establishes, “Containers” will be the Fusion Media Group’s first stab at a podcast that goes beyond the conversational gabfest-format that make up its current audio offerings, all of which emerge from the recently acquired Gizmodo Media Group (née Gawker). Interestingly enough, the group had dabbled with story-driven, narrative podcasts before: back in the Gawker era, Gizmodo once distributed “Meanwhile in the Future,” the original iteration of “Flash Forward,” which creator Rose Eveleth now operates independently.

Slate names June Thomas as new managing producer of podcasts, as Thomas announced on social media last week. She is a long-time member of the Slate family, serving as a culture critic for the site and the editor of Outward, its LGBTQ section, and a regular across the Slate podcast universe: she’s a host on Slate’s Double X podcast with Hannah Rosin and Noreen Malone, and a frequent guest on the Slate Culture Gabfest.

The announcement came a few days after news of Slate laying off staffers broke last week. And a bit more detail on that front: according to this pretty brutal CJR article, among those let go was Mike Vuolo, a senior producer with the company and WNYC alum who also, up until last summer, co-hosted the network’s language podcast, Lexicon Valley, with On The Media’s Bob Garfield.

Thomas starts her new role on February 27.

Gimlet loses a producer to the New York Times: Larissa Anderson, who served as a senior producer on Undone, will now work on developing and running narrative podcasts at the Gray Lady. Her title there is “editor and senior audio producer.” And in case you’re tracing the timeline: Gimlet announced that it wasn’t renewing Undone for a second season in mid-January.

Podcast events at SXSW 2017. Is SXSW still cool? I’ll leave that question up to someone more hip than myself, but I just wanted to note that there are a bunch of pod-related sessions scheduled for this year’s Austin festivities, for those interested.

They include:

Anyway, I’ll be moderating the one on advertising. Hit me up if you’re going to be there.

Signaling. One of the more technical questions that’s interesting (to me, anyway) coming out of the recent discussions over “fake news” — which is really a discussion about trust, credibility, and the decentralization of information and power — is one that distinctly strikes me as a problem of design: in the enterprise of cultivating trust, how do you convey positional context, whether an editorial piece has opinion-based elements baked-in or whether it’s meant to be journalistically or somewhere in-between, in a way that’s clear and efficient? (Provided that making such things clear is important to you, of course.)

It’s a hard enough question to answer on the web, print, television or within the endless stream of social media feeds, but it seems a lot trickier within the current culture surrounding audio content, given its primary value proposition of being a unique source of intimacy by way of authenticity.

The problem was raised very briefly at a Yale event last week that featured Scott Blumenthal, the deputy editor at the New York Times’ Interactive News Desk. (One of the benefits of living in New Haven, a university city: access to free student events — and free snacks!) An attendee had brought up The Daily, the Times’ recently launched daily morning news audio brief, and raised concerns over whether the podcast’s breezy conversational nature runs the risk of coming off as editorializing. I don’t personally share this interpretation of the brief, but I can definitely see the concern: host Michael Barbaro is certainly chatty, and I suppose we somewhat find ourselves now living in a cultural environment that increasingly views personality as a direct function of ideology. (Maybe that’s always been the case, and it’s only being recognized as a problem now.)

So, how do you convey your context? I’ll be thinking this through for a while, and I’ve been recalling some approaches to this problem that I’ve seen in the past. Sometimes it’s through the use of an explicit disclaimer delivered through scripting; an example of this can be found in “With Her,” that Hillary Clinton podcast, in which host Max Linsky deliberately establishes the fact he isn’t operating as a journalist — thus contextualizing the show as, essentially, a piece of political advertising. Sometimes it’s done purely through the scripting and tone of the show; Slate’s The Gist is a good example of a news-oriented podcast that largely exists as an op-ed column, while the oft-criticized “public radio voice” pervading public media newscasts are constantly described as a tool to cultivate a sense of journalistic neutrality. And sometimes it’s just a matter of being clear and unified with the branding, as with the conservative Ricochet podcasts. All these approaches are difficult to execute in and of themselves, but I imagine it’s exponentially more difficult to convey differences in context within individual episodes — say, when you switch from a reported segment to an opinion segment.

This problem seems to disproportionately trouble journalistic podcasts above all, which makes sense, as those shows are the ones under the greatest scrutiny and possess the highest burden of responsibility. And it seems to me that the problem most vibrantly expresses itself when straight-news programs seek to derive the benefits of “authenticity” and “intimacy” associated with the on-demand audio medium that more personality-driven programs seem to enjoy without much cost. Then again, I imagine the latter experiences similar difficulties if it aspires to benefit from emulating the former.

I’m curious to hear what y’all think. Hit me up.

Anyway, before I forget: The Daily is so, so good, and so smart in its use of music, tone, and its short length.

Bites. 

  • Overcast, Marco Arment’s podcast app favored by the technology/podcast intelligentsia, releases a major update yesterday which includes design improvements — and the introduction of what can possibly be a visual ad network for podcasts. (Overcast)

  • Hmm. “Trump’s FCC chief wants it to be easier to listen to free FM radio on your smartphone.” (Recode)

  • Looks like Vice, true to form, is trying something weird: the “VICE Magazine Podcast,” which drops once a month. (Vice)

  • Spotify’s first original podcast has a trailer up: “Showstopper,” a show that looks back at important moments in television. It’s hosted by Fader editor-in-chief Naomi Zeichner.

Quick note: Reader Lee Rosevere is making a bunch of music intended for podcasters, and is conducting a survey to figure out what podcasters are looking for. Help Lee out, would’ya? Here’s the survey.

Tuesday

14

February 2017

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COMMENTS

Missing Richard Simmons, Stitcher Premium, HowStuffWorks and AdsWizz

Written by , Posted in Hot Pod Weekly

“We’re working on new features for podcasts, stay tuned,” Eddy Cue, Apple’s SVP of Internet Software and Services, told Peter Kafka on stage at the Code Media conference last night. Kafka had pressed Cue on whether Apple would get more involved in podcasts — specifically, whether better analytics could be provided. (Thank goodness for Kafka.) Cue, as you would imagine, was reticent to provide more details. We’ll just have to see where this goes.

The discussion on podcasts was very short, and you can hear the rest of the interview when it gets posted on the Recode Replay feed sometime later this week.

Missing Richard Simmons. Here’s an audio documentary with a delicious hook: three years ago, Richard Simmons, the fitness guru who was super popular back in the ’80s (Sweatin’ To The Oldies!), suddenly and inexplicably withdrew from the public eye. The podcast follows Dan Taberski, a documentarian and TV producer who is a friend and former student of Simmons, as he tries to track down and figure out what happened to the man — and in the process, exploring Simmons’ place in the culture.

The podcast has a fair bit of firepower behind it. First Look Media is leading the project, with Adam Pincus, the company’s EVP of Programming and Content, and Leital Molad, who recently left WNYC to head up First Look’s podcast efforts, both holding executive producer credit. The company contracted Pineapple Street Media to produce the show — Max Linsky also serves as executive producer, Henry Molofsky as producer — while partnering with Midroll for sales and distribution.

(Does the executive producer credit mean anything? Not too much functionally-speaking at the moment, but one imagines it’s the kind of value signifier that will be increasingly useful as the industry continues to build bridges with adjacent media industries. In this case, that adjacency is film and television.)

Part of Midroll’s play here involves positioning Stitcher, which it acquired last summer, as an “exclusive launch partner.” What that means essentially amounts to a form of windowing: subscribers to Stitcher Premium will receive new episodes one week in advance. Wait, Stitcher Premium? Doesn’t Midroll have its own premium subscription service? We’ll get to that in a bit.

“Missing Richard Simmons” is First Look Media’s latest foray in what is now a substantial push into podcasting. Its portfolio includes the podcast version of the company’s flagship digital property, The Intercept, which rolled out last month; “Politically Re-Active”; and “Maeve in America.”

Interestingly, “Missing Richard Simmons” is First Look’s first audio project that isn’t handled by Panoply, which is involved in the company’s other three shows.

The podcast drops tomorrow.

A bit of meta-discourse. Frankly, the more I write about the podcast industry, the more I feel like I’m being compelled to mimic trade coverage styles from the television industry. You know, the stuff that makes up the backbone of Variety or The Hollywood Reporter; who’s working with who, who’s attached to what, scuttlebutt.

I suppose a lot of that has to do with some combination of the following two things: (1) the versatility of the medium that allows of different kinds of show constructions within the category — from weekly talk shows to seasonal serialized narratives — and (2) the weight of production politics that seems to be increasing as the industry continues to professionalize and mature.

Related. First Look also announced that Politically Re-Active, its politics show with W. Kamau Bell and Hari Kondabolu, will return for a second season sometime in the early spring. Maeve in America kicked off its second season today.

A Few Notes on Stitcher Premium. The feature quietly rolled out late last year, but I was late to the party, only spotting the “Premium” button on the Stitcher website sometime in mid-January. Todd Pringle, Stitcher’s General Manager and VP of Product, tells me that what we’re seeing is a soft-launch — not a “re-launch” of the service’s previous iteration, Stitcher Plus.

At this time, Stitcher Premium remains separate from Howl, that other premium subscription play under the Midroll banner which the organization been developing internally prior to its acquisition of Stitcher (awkward). Pringle notes that Howl subscribers can continue to use the platform’s web and mobile apps, and that the merge will come later. “We are planning a simple migration path that, over time, will transition Howl users over to the Stitcher Premium product,” he explained.

So, what’s the deal with Stitcher Premium? The “Netflix for Podcasts” tagline was once again evoked in the response sent to me — ahem, ahem — with ad-free exclusivity being the cornerstone of the strategy here: exclusive archives, exclusive sneak previews, and of course, exclusive original content, dubbed “Stitcher Originals.” (Who isn’t doing original material these days?)

Original projects include:

  • The “Seth Morris Radio Project,” which launched last week;

  • A show by comedian Jessie Kahnweiler called “Schmucks”;

  • A new show by the duo behind CBC’s Love Me, Cristal Duhaime and Mira Burt-Wintonick, called “Pen Pals”; and

  • The second season of “The Mysterious Secrets of Uncle Bertie’s Botanarium,” whose first season is currently being distributed over the open infrastructure.

Will this premium exclusive approach to the market pay off? My thinking on this remains the same as the first time I wrote about the model back in August 2015:

Midroll’s choice to play the premium subscription game — with content and a sizable amount of back catalogs placed behind the paywall — and the subsequent positioning of the product as the potential “Netflix for podcasts” exhibits a very specific hypothesis of podcasts as consumable media, one that posits podcasts will be valued by audiences enough where they would pay for it and that enough podcasts have back-catalogues that will be deemed “worth it.”

This is difficult enough to internalize in the present tense. Unlike Netflix and television/movies or Tidal and music, podcast audiences have little-to-no experience with paying for shows in the past, and the hurdle of convincing users to go from an entire experiential history of enduring host-read ads, which they can skip fairly easily, to paying for an ad-free experience is tremendous.

To state the obvious: the success of Stitcher Premium would almost purely come down to a question of programming; will the team be good enough at curating the right kind of paywalled library, and will it be savvy enough to build right incentives for certain creators to put their wares behind that paywall? And barring that, will the company figure out how to further increase the value of the premium service beyond just the content?

A Reply All episode is being adapted into a movie, according to the Hollywood Reporter. The episode in question is “Man of the People,” a shockingly relevant tale of a con-man who built an empire off fake medicine, populism, and radio dominance — and the man who works to take him down. The adaptation will be directed by Richard Linklater (my personal favorite director of all time), with Robert Downey Jr. in the starring role. Linklater and Downey will also serve as producers under their respective production banners, along with Susan Downey, Annapurna’s Megan Ellison, and Gimlet Media’s own PJ Vogt (who reported and hosted the episode), Tim Howard (who edited the episode), and Chris Giliberti (the company’s head of multi-platform).

This is Gimlet’s first announced film adaptation deal. The company currently has two TV adaptations in the pipeline: Startup (recently given a pilot order by ABC) and Homecoming (being developed by Mr. Robot’s Sam Esmail). Giliberti also holds producer credit with those two projects. With this third adaptation, I think it’s safe to say that Gimlet has officially built out a formal adaptation pipeline — a move that introduces a whole new revenue dimension and potential to its content backlog. You can read my previous analyses on the topic here, here, and here.

It is unclear if Vogt will make a cameo in the movie.

“Spotify has been talking to podcast producers about original shows,” according to a new report at Digiday. Those being approached include: Gimlet, HowStuffWorks, and Pineapple Street Media. The article cites “multiple people familiar with the discussions.” What’s unclear: how developed those discussions are, the substance of those plans, and how central original and non-music content currently are in Spotify’s machinations. (Though, recall that original video programming is apparently still a notable part of the company’s vision.)

Spotify has produced original audio programming before… in Germany. That podcast, featuring the talents of German comedians Jan Böhmermann and Olli Schulz, rolled out last May. (Here’s the press release, for all you German speakers in the crowd.)

Here’s another interesting bit from the Digiday write-up: “To date, podcasts have fit awkwardly into Spotify’s product… The number of users that have bothered to look them, thus far, is quite small. For most podcast producers, Spotify accounts for less than 5 percent of their total shows’ listens.”

Hmm. The article frames the development as a “big new front has opened up in the war for exclusive podcasts.” We’ll see, but at this point, I’m not inclined to read too much into it for all the hesitations I outlined earlier about podcasts and exclusivity. I mean, I see the upside for Spotify to hammer out these deals with bigger podcast shops, but I don’t see any upside for those shops other than pocketing upfront cash — which, as we saw with the now-ceased Facebook Live publisher deals, is good enough reason for some, so long as there are excess resources to commit.

HowStuffWorks partners with AdsWizz to make use of the latter’s dynamic advertising tech to expand its ad inventory and monetize its substantial content library. The partnership will apparently also grant the Atlanta-based infotainment podcast network with increased targeting and reporting capacities, according to the press release.

The move will probably lead to a significant revenue increase for HowStuffWorks, given its relatively evergreen structure. Jason Hoch, HowStuffWorks’ Chief Content Officer, tells me that listening across the network in any given week is evenly distributed between the head and the tail — that is, between the latest episode of a given show and the rest of that show’s catalogue.

To Hoch, this partnership with AdsWizz is more a matter of efficiency than it is about unlocking a whole new driver of the business. “The old method of stitching an ad placement directly into the same MP3 file as the episode makes no more sense than hard-coding a banner ad on your website,” he said. Hoch also notes that this doesn’t really change the dynamics of selling campaigns. “We don’t differentiate between new shows and those in our deep library. In 95% of cases, advertisers aren’t buying a specific episode of a show, they are buying that show and the passionate fan base of that show,” he explained.

Quick note on the tech. HowStuffWorks uses its own internal Amazon Web Services’ hosting infrastructure to house its shows, and that it remains the case after this partnership. “Rather than move our entire infrastructure elsewhere to make this happen, the AdsWizz software platform became technology that sat on top of what we already had,” Hoch said. “That’s pretty unique in the industry and was a good fit for our approach.”

Turner Broadcasting now has its own official podcast arm. The new division, called the “Turner Podcast Network,” is headed up by Tyler Moody, who serves as General Manager and VP for the network. Moody was previously the VP of CNN Newsource, the organization’s affiliate video service, and CNN Collection, its video archive library. While in those roles, Moody laid the foundation for CNN’s tentative foray into original podcast content, signing President Obama’s former chief strategist David Axelrod’s podcast “The Axe Files” in late 2015.

“We want to engage with fans of our shows and networks in the podcast space, and do it in a coordinated way across all of Turner,” Moody tells me. “Initially I’ll be ‘on the lookout’ for things internally, meeting with producers at our networks for show ideas and to assess our current capabilities to deliver high quality podcasts. Externally I’ll be looking at industry trends in terms of content, ad delivery, sponsorship models, and potential partnerships with other podcast producers.”

Atlanta, folks. It’s the next big podcast hub. And just as well! The city is, after all, a hub for just about everything else.

Here’s a model that other publishers can emulate: Yesterday, New York Magazine’s entertainment site Vulture rolled out “Good One: A Podcast About Jokes,” a limited-run podcast where comedians are brought on to deconstruct a joke in their repertoire. In other words: “Song Exploder, but for jokes.” Perhaps not unrelatedly, Song Exploder recently partnered with the site for a special run of episodes focusing on notable film scores from last year. That arrangement was timed for awards season, which culminates two weekends from now with the Academy Awards. “Good One” is hosted by Vulture senior editor Jesse David Fox. It kicked off yesterday, and will run weekly for ten episodes.

The podcast was described to me as an extension of the site’s experiments with topically-focused, one-off editorial projects — similar to the string of “pop-up” blogs that Vulture have executed in the past. A spokesperson directed me to a 2014 Poynter write-up of that strategy, which explained the internal process as follows:

The editorial team comes up with a series of topics they think would be a good fit for New York [Magazine], and the advertising staff tries to sell those concepts to advertisers. If the sales team finds a sponsor, the editorial side creates the blog and fleshes out plans for coverage.

“Basically, we have certain editorial projects across platforms that are pitched to advertisers for exclusive sponsorship,” that spokesperson told me. “The editorial is completely independent (though thematically aligned), but only gets created once a sponsor commits.” In this instance, that advertiser is HBO, which is peddling its latest comedy offering, Crashing.

The production of “Good One” is handled by Panoply, similar to NY Mag’s other podcast projects.

And speaking of Panoply, it looks like the network’s sister company, Slate, which also functions as one of the company’s core clients, announced layoffs yesterday. The Huffington Post with the details.

Documentaries, Queued Up. The Bay Area public radio station KQED is testing an intriguing model to distribute short-run, multi-part audio features: a single RSS feed that will serve as a home for serialized investigation projects produced by the station. The feed is framed as being its own weekly show called “Q’ed Up.”

The show kicked off operations last week with the debut of its first investigation, “American Suburb,” an eleven-part feature on gentrification in the Bay Area as told through the story of a single suburb 45 miles east of the Bay. (As a side note, I love titles with the “American” prefix. See: American Governor, American Pastoral, etc. Much gravitas.) At this writing, the station has at least two other features in the pipeline that will immediately follow American Suburb once it concludes, including an investigation into the growing number of homeless college students in the region and another that examines the story of a wrongly accused paroled man.

Holly Kernan, KQED’s VP of News, tells me that “Q’ed Up” emerged as a means to solve an anticipated problem. “[American Suburb] started out as a reporting project that ended up being this really rich documentary, and so we thought, okay, we want to turn this into an on-demand audio experience,” Kernan said. “But when you have a one-off podcast like this, it’s a problem when you don’t have anything else coming down the pipe once you put all this marketing effort into and build up an audience.”

She added: “So we thought, if we’re going to put all this effort into this beautiful production, why not give it an umbrella?”

Kernan aims to grow Q’ed Up to a point where it’s able to function as a break-even proposition for the station, but she’s also keen on ensuring that the show’s investigations will yield local impact. She notes that the primary intended audience for American Suburb are listeners who live in Antioch and the East Bay — areas covered in the story — and that the station has partnered with the San Francisco Foundation (which also serves as the show’s sponsor) to hold community events to discuss issues highlighted in the investigation.

“American Suburb” is reported by Sandhya Dirks and Devin Katayama. Julia McEvoy is editor.

Keep an eye on this: West Virginia Governor’s budget plan proposes to eliminate state funding for West Virginia Public Broadcasting. Tyler Falk at Current with the background, the Charleston Gazette-Mail with the details.

Audible seeks the Jad Abumrad bump. Checked out the Radiolab feed lately? The widely loved WNYC podcast published what was essentially a cross-promo for an Audible Original series, the Bernie Madoff documentary “Ponzi Supernova,” late last week. And it wasn’t an instance of a simple rebroadcast or a straightforward drop-in-the-RSS feed either: the episode was slightly remixed in the Radiolab style, with Abumrad leading segments intros and outros.

This isn’t the first time that Radiolab has published a remixed cross-promo of other another program. Just last month, the podcast ran a similarly repackaged version of the special On The Media series, “Busted, America’s Poverty Myths.” The show also gave the same treatment to its Supreme Court-focused spinoff, “More Perfect,” twice last year, though that’s completely understandable given the heritage. But it is, to my knowledge, the first time the show has provided exposure support to a show outside the WNYC system. That said, “Ponzi Supernova” isn’t a show that’s entirely outside the WNYC family — Ellen Horne, an executive producer at Audible who leads the show’s production, is a Radiolab alum.

It’s often been said within the industry that the most effective podcast marketing channel is other people’s podcasts. I guess that will apply to Audible as well.

Ponzi Supernova wrapped up its six-episode run on Audible earlier this month.

Bites. 

  • The New York Times is looking for a producer for a “New York Times Arts show” — that is, stuff like books, music, film, TV, theater. It’s unclear how this show, and this producer, will be related to the still-running first-gen Times pods Popcast and the Book Review. A fascinating job posting, but certainly not as interesting as news of the organization’s partnership with Spotify. Those youngs, they love the musics. (NYT Co)
  • Looks like Who? Weekly’s Bobby Finger has a new show: “Dirtcast,” which comes out of his day-job at Jezebel. (Jezebel)
  • “How Patreon became a major source of revenue for podcasters.” Some podcasters, at least. (Simon Owens)

By the way, I’m going to be a Knight Visiting Nieman Fellow later this year! I’m going to try developing a guide for newsrooms looking to create local podcast strategies that are audience-focused and financially-sustainable.