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April 2017

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COMMENTS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ah well, back to Barbaro it is.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two quick things about the Variety article:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

While we’re on the subject of public radio…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Grift dropped its first episode today.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bites. 

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

Friday

3

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

29

March 2016

0

COMMENTS

Industry Moves, WaPo and the Amazon Echo, NPR’s “Embedded”

Written by , Posted in Hot Pod Weekly

Lots of industry moves and inside baseball this week, folks. No flipping!

Movers, Shakers, Candlestick Makers. A string of employment-related stories hit my radar over the past week and a half, and though I try not to read too much narrative in them as a bundle of stories, I do like how they collectively paint a nice picture of dynamism. Anyway, I love this stuff.

(1) Digital NPR. Last week, the public radio mothership announced the appointment of Thomas Hjelm as Chief Digital Officer, a newly created role that will stretch across the content, technology, and revenue sides of the business. The announcement was made last Thursday, a few days after the (inflated, yet symbolically-rich) NPR Memo kerfuffle died down. Hjelm’s hiring was no doubt long in the works, and regardless of whether the timing of his appointment was providential or intentional, it gives the institution quite a nice cap to the memo narrative.

Anyway, Hjelm comes to NPR from WNYC, where he had served for over five years. He was most recently the station’s Executive Vice President and Chief Digital Officer. Hjelm was recently featured in a Digiday article on WNYC’s latest adventures in digital audio, where he was quoted on the subject of podcasting’s measurement challenges, social audio, and the need to maintain a direct relationship with audiences in the age of platforms. At NPR, he will report directly to NPR CEO Jarl Mohn. His employment begins in late April.

In a related development, Zach Brand, NPR’s VP of Digital Media (an equivalent role to Hjelm’s newly created “Chief Digital Officer” title), will be leaving the organization. According to his biography on NPR.org, Brand oversaw “NPR digital technology and product development efforts.” His portfolio also included NPR Digital Services, a responsibility which he inherited in late 2015, which involves the digital education of the organization’s partner member stations. Brand joined NPR in October 2007.

In another related development, there’s apparently a new opening for a temporary job on the NPR One team: podcast curator. Take from that what you will!

(2) Meanwhile, back in New York. Filling the spot left open by Hjelm’s departure, WNYC has hired Nathaniel Landau as the station’s new Chief Digital Officer. Landau comes to WNYC from Univision, where he served as a VP of Product for over two years. Before that, he co-founded Food Republic, a lifestyle publication that was acquired in August 2013 by Zero Point Zero productions (which, among other things, is the company behind Anthony Bourdain’s many television exploits).

“I’ve known for a while that Tom (Hjelm) was talking to NPR,” WNYC CEO Laura Walker told me over the phone last week, further mentioning that she and Hjelm had been talking to several possible replacement candidates for a while now. Landau first came to the station’s attention on the strength of a blog post he had written on the challenges of the podcast consumption and discovery experience. The post, titled “Subscribing to Podcasts is Broken,” was published on his personal blog back in August 2015. “In my view, the post had a wonderful mix of strategic questions and informed product solutions,” Walker said.

(Having an informed, broadcasted opinion: still your best friend.)

Curious, I asked Walker if she had any comment, opinions, or perhaps words of wisdom on the NPR Memo kerfuffle last week. “No,” she replied, unsurprisingly. Well, thought I’d try, y’know?

In related WNYC news:

  • Graham Parker, the general manager of classic music station WQXR (which WNYC owns and operates), will be taking over management of the Greene Space in addition to his existing responsibilities.

  • John Chao, previously a VP of Business Development, has been promoted to Senior Vice President of Business & Strategy.

  • Greg Voynow, previously a VP of Content Business Development at Audible, is now the station’s full-time Director of Business Development. He had joined WNYC on a part-time basis in January.

(3) Wondery Staffs Up. The new podcast network by Hernan Lopez, former CEO of Fox International Channels, announced a round of hires early last week: Jeffrey Glaser, formerly the EVP of current Programming at 20th Century Fox Television, as President of Content, and Cristina Haro, previously of Univision, as Account Executive of Brand Solutions. The latter concept of “Brand Solutions” is probably corporate-speak that signals Wondery’s intent to get into the branded content game, which remains a bubbly frontier for podcast networks and advertisers.

I wrote about the network when it launched back in January, drawing specific attention to its partnership with technology platform Art19. Details on what Wondery will actually be producing remain slim, but the press release on the hires suggests an emphasis on audio drama. When discussing Glaser’s hire, Lopez provided the statement: “We are thrilled to have him join our team and help us attract the most talented writers, producers, and actors to a new form of storytelling.”

(4) Another Producer. BuzzFeed’s well-loved Another Round podcast now sports a second producer working on the show, which doesn’t sound like an interesting bit of news until you note this: that producer, Antonia Cereijido, will be considered an Acast employee and will be on the podcast company’s payroll. She will be partially embedded in BuzzFeed’s newsroom, and will work under the show’s long-running producer, Eleanor Kagan. Acast has had a hosting, monetization and distribution partnership with BuzzFeed since late last year.

“We’re delighted to welcome Antonia Cereijido to the Acast team,” Caitlin Thompson, the company’s director of content, said in a statement over email. “She comes to us from the storied Latino USA and other independent audio projects, and she shares — and also embodies — the Acast vision of growing new audiences in the podcast landscape.”

When asked if other Acast partner shows should expect similar arrangements, or if Cereijido will be tasked to work on other Acast partner podcasts in addition to her work with Buzzfeed, Thompson mentioned that she had no further comments on the matter at this time.

WaPo’s “The Fix” Comes To Amazon Echo. In an experiment that further divorces on-demand audio from the word “podcast,” the Washington Post announced last week that its political blog by reporter Chris Cillizza, The Fix, can now be consumed in the form of short audio briefs delivered through Amazon Echo, the tubular audio-based computing device that seems to be enjoying a swell of positive attention in recent weeks.

These briefs, which are made up of pre-recorded segments written by Cillizza, are made available once a day at around 3pm ET on weekdays. They are expected to grow in frequency over time, according to Mediapost.

Worth highlighting the obvious corporate connection here: the Washington Post is owned by Jeff Bezos, who is CEO of Amazon. If this strikes you as a particularly compelling spin on news delivery, then you’d probably find some chunks of Fortune’s recent Bezos profile interesting.

Speaking of Amazon…

Range Roving. The Amazon-owned audiobook company quietly launched a small blog last week that seeks to, and I’m quoting from the site here, “explore the world of listening and voice, literature and technology with original reporting, personal stories, playlists, and more.” The blog is called “Audible Range,” a piece of branded content marketing in the aesthetic of a lifestyle magazine that’s meant to do what pieces of branded content marketing are supposed to do: project a certain image, signal a company’s purported values, and also carve out a specific vocabulary that the company wants to be associated with. (It reminds me, interestingly enough, of Uber’s Momentum and AirBnb’s PineappleWest Coast toast-chic magazines.) In this case, that vocabulary involves somewhat clunky synonyms for non-music audio — see: “listening and voice” — but synonyms, nonetheless, that would help the company retrain focus away from the word “podcast.”

The launch of Audible Range comes about a week after the company rolled out “Clip,” an audio clip sharing feature attached to the audiobook app. All of which makes for a fair bit of activity coming out of the audio content giant which has yet to roll out the full weight of its original programming, though the tin-foil hat-wearing part of my temporal lobe is wont to view all of this as some sort of picking up of speed, like birds fluttering before an earthquake or the air standing still before your toast pops heavenward.

For the record, if I were to make a lifestyle mags about pods, it would contain nothing but pictures of lugubrious Scandinavian men in headphones frolicking about all manner of flora.

Field Reporting. “I’m not Hunter Thompson,” said Kelly McEvers to me over the phone, a few weeks ago. I was speaking to McEvers about her new podcast with NPR, “Embedded,” and we were discussing the show’s seeming emphasis on allowing the journalist’s subjectivities to be a part of the reporting. I was wondering where the show landed in the spectrum with gonzo on the one end and straight-up robo-journalism on the other.

“Embedded,” you see, is described to be a kind of magazine-style investigative show which will apply field reporting techniques — typically practiced by foreign correspondents, as McEvers has done for years — to other kinds of stories. Upcoming episodes will include a look into drug addiction in Indiana, the making of negative political ad, and what happened in Waco, Texas; McEvers is host, and the show will feature several NPR reporters.

“It’s about raising the curtain a little bit more on the process. With a lot of these long-form projects out there, people are responding to the idea that reporters are human beings,” McEvers continued. “Especially when you’re ten thousand miles away from where listeners are, it makes sense to be able to react. It makes me a stand-in for the listener.”

Embedded” is scheduled to premiere this Thursday.

Seats at a Table. This is super interesting: Chava Gourarie, a writer-reporter-Delacorte Fellow at the Columbia Journalism Review, put together a spreadsheet yesterdaytabulating the names and frequencies of underwriters on all the Marketplace programs — Morning Report, Marketplace Tech, and Marketplace Weekend — the business news audio briefs produced by American Public Media (APM), some of which are syndicated across the country. Gourarie used APM’s underwriting database, which is free and open to the public.

“The immediate reason was I wanted to see how far back Koch Industries has been a sponsor for Marketplace,” Gourarie told me over email. She had gotten the initial idea based on a discussion about the Koch brothers’ underwriting of public media programming — a topic of consternation for some — that had been going on in a listserv in which she’s a participant. “I thought it would be an interesting data point for the discussion on taking money from Koch when it’s been documented that they’re in middle of a rebranding effort. Then I got interested in the APM sponsor dataset as a whole. Could make for some interesting analysis.”

The spreadsheet, which is broken out by month going back to January 2015, paints a fascinating picture; the very same one, I’m sure, that haunts the dreams of media planners everywhere.

You can find the spreadsheet in this public Google Doc. Check it out, draw your own conclusions. You can look up Gourarie’s work on the CJR website.

Follow-up From Last Week. I capped last week’s NPR Memo item with a link to a Facebook post by Adam Davidson, the Planet Money co-founder who now hosts of Gimlet’s Surprisingly Awesome, where he articulated his fear that NPR was allowing itself to grow irrelevant. Little did I know when I dropped the link that the post would go on to grow into a vigorous and deeply respectful multi-directional comment thread, full of gorgeous specks of insight and rebuttals and intellectual confessions. Truly, a Sumatran Rhino of the modern Internet, a thing thought to be long extinct.

If you very much enjoy/are invested in the whole “future of NPR and pods” conversation, I can’t recommend digging through the thread highly enough, as it bring significant light to some juicy questions that these larger disruptive trends in audio — from broadcast to podcast, from legacy to new — have yet to answer, or even begin to confront.

The dominant theme that strings through those questions is one that’s embodied by the following line coming out of a comment from that the FB thread: “What saddens me about the podcast sphere… is the lack of journalistic ambition.”

It isn’t so much there aren’t any or many podcasts consistently trying to commit acts of journalism. On the contrary: between the gabfests and the election-related podcasts, it’s practically a staple of the medium.

Rather, the point embedded in that statement is the sense that there simply aren’t many emerging for-profit entities that explicitly endeavor to break new ground as podcast- or audio-first journalistic institutions; indeed, I can’t think of any new organization that’s trying to rethink audio news delivery for the 21st century, or reconstructing the talent funnel, or building some alternative or continuation to radio stations as local or international sources of news.

It does, indeed, feel like the new major for-profit podcasting companies tend to cluster around entertainment programming. And when there is news-oriented programming involved, those tend to fall within the tradition of magazine journalism — which operates in its own kind of pace and lies more along the lines, I think, of “infotainment.” Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course, but my point is that it’s still adjacent to the ebb and flow of news. Or it falls within the domain of talking head-rich gabfests, which has its place in the news and information economy, but still doesn’t engage directly with the problem of digital-first audio news. I will say, though: Panoply (my former day job employer), specifically Slate, comes the closest at playing with this fire with Trumpcast, which was swiftly operationalized to address a particular political moment and seems to feel, in some small way, temporally alive (which is key). But the question remains whether you could build a whole news operation around this model, or if the demands (and economics) of podcasting companies is such that these shows are the exceptions; anomalies built on top of a bed of more timed-out fare.

Which raises the question, then, of whether the podcast format can ever represent the whole future of audio, news and all.

And that, I think, is the defining tension not just between on-demand audio and broadcast organizations, but between these new podcasting companies and legacy radio institutions like NPR and its member stations. These new companies, entering the content market by embracing a new technological channel and impetus, may be well positioned to solve a business problem, but they’re not working to solve the journalistic problem that a legacy organization like NPR fights to negotiate.

It’s a problem that stretches all the way down to the hiring and development of new blood. It’s one stretches sideways into the unfortunate fact that, despite all the newness, we have yet to see any real new opportunities for reporters, both the ones who are experienced and the ones who are fresh. And indeed, it’s a problem that we — not all of us surely, but enough of us — need so dearly to grapple with as we move further and further into a world of greater media fragmentation, declining news literacy, the evaporation of local journalism, and polarized politics.

Bites

  • “How Mack Weldon doubled underwear sales through podcast advertising.” Notable data point: pod advertising now represents 25% of the retailer’s overall ad budget per month. (Digiday)

  • “This Local Podcast Network Wants to Find Producers Where Others Aren’t Looking.” (Washingtonian)

  • “Soccer podcasts are booming in popularity.” The Guardian’s Football Weekly podcast was downloaded over 15 million times in 2015. (The Guardian)

  • Heads up: WNYC’s invite-only women in podcasting conference, dubbed “Werk It,” will be coming back for a second edition this year. More details to come from the station very soon.

  • Another for observers of kids pods (there’s a lot of you in the HP readership): the Australian Broadcasting Corporation launched a new one of their own last week — “Short and Curly,” an ethics podcast for children. (Soundcloud)

  • Here’s another election pod to track: former Obama administration staffers Dan Pfeiffer and Jon Favreau’s “Playing Politics,” produced by The Ringer and distributed through their Channel 33 podcast feed. (Soundcloud)

  • Learned recently that the headcount at Gimlet is currently 45, including 3 interns. Pretty crazy when you think about the number of shows they have live in the market.