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Tuesday

13

December 2016

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COMMENTS

Issue 100

Written by , Posted in Hot Pod Weekly

Issue 100. I would be lying if I said I was in any way satisfied with anything I’ve ever done in this newsletter. Which is unhealthy, as my shoulder muscles have constantly told me, and occasionally, I understand that. I certainly did not expect, when I started publishing this newsletter for giggles back in November 2014, that I’d still have readers two years on, let alone be running a business the size of a tiny bodega.

It’s just that I think there is so much to be done: shows can be better, companies can be better, advertising can be better, business models can be smarter, the system can be more accommodating, more people can get more jobs, more producers can get paid better, more people can be listening, we can be more ambitious, we can be braver, and so on.

And that dissatisfaction applies to me too: my writing can be tighter, my blind spots less egregious, my typos less numerous, my stories more interesting, my thinking sharper, my prose more eloquent, my perspectives more inclusive, my vision of the future more balanced, and so on. (I’ve also been told by some readers that they miss the jokes.)

But here we are, 100 issues on, and I just want to thank you so much for being a reader — and especially if you’re a paying supporter. Literally, your support serves as my financial bedrock, and it’s because of you that I’ve been able to build this thing into an independent business the size of a tiny bodega. And if you’re not a paying supporter, please consider becoming one. I hope to do more and build more in the year to come, and I can’t do this without you.

And quick reminder: there’s a happy hour I’m throwing tomorrow to commemorate the #100, if you’re in NYC.

Also: you know who else is hitting #100 this week? The Welcome to Night Vale team. Congrats, fellas.

In 2016, Apple podcast listeners clocked in over 10 billion download and streams globally, according to a press release published by the company. I’m guessing the release is specifically referring to listeners who consumed podcasts on the native iOS Podcast app transmitted over a variety of Apple devices, including the iPhone, iPad, Apple TV, and desktop.

How meaningful is this number? It’s hard to tell without the context of the years before — what we should be watching for is the degree of change between 2016 and 2015 compared to similar time periods before that — and it’s further worth noting that the number is essentially a bulk data point that doesn’t really tell us things like (a) whether there’s a large number in unique listeners or (b) whether we have a small number of highly-engaged listeners that are responsible for consuming a crap ton of podcasts. Knowing either of those things would be super useful.

One thing that the press release is unambiguous about, however: NPR’s Fresh Air is the most downloaded podcast of the year off the Apple infrastructure. Queen Terry Gross reigns supreme.

The Sarah Lawrence College International Audio Fiction Awards is now accepting submissions for its second year. Applicants should note one major difference from last year’s competition: the awards are now accepting full series as part of the entries. The deadline is at 5pm EST on January 27, 2017. Winners will be announced at the awards ceremony to be held on March 28, 2017 at WNYC’s Greene Space. The festivities will be hosted by audio fiction darlings Welcome to Night Vale. There will be four awards — for first, second, and third place, along with a prize to the Best New Artist — with the prize money being worth $3750 in total.

Ann Heppermann, who heads up the awards, tells me that she hopes to see more works from non-English speaking countries and works that are not in English. “There is a robust amount of international audio dramas in the world, and I hope that the outreach I have done in the past year results in more submissions from abroad,” she said.

Speed Listening. Christopher Mele over at the New York Times digs into the practice of speed consumption in the age of #peakcontent. “Consumers face a dizzying array of entertainment choices that include streaming video such as Amazon Prime Instant Video, Hulu and Netflix; cable channels and apps from outlets like HBO and Showtime; YouTube; and as many as 28,000 podcasts,” Mele writes. “With them all offering uncountable hours of addictive programming, how is a listener or viewer supposed to keep up? For some, the answer is speed watching or speed listening — taking in the content at accelerated speeds, sometimes two times as fast as normal.”

For what it’s worth, I’m very much pro-speed listening. Look, I’m not a purist, and I believe that, to a large extent, the burden is placed on shows to teach listeners its ideal terms of consumption, and shows have to further warrant acceptance of those terms.

Diversity, Discovery, and (Parallel) Development.  “As podcasts continue to carve space in mainstream consumption habits… the industry’s infrastructure seems to be perpetuating, rather than resisting, the original sins of the white-favoring context of mainstream American culture,” argues an open letter with the banner #SupportPOCpods, which was published by a group of podcasters of color last week.

The letter (and accompanying Twitter campaign) was spearheaded by Shaun Lau, the co-host of a film and social issues podcast called No, Totally, and the way the letter interprets and diagnoses the podcast ecosystem’s (or perhaps, the emerging professionalizing layer) issues with diversity is structurally and critically ambitious, striving for a certain totality in its argumentation. It culminates in appeals to three groups — distributors (platforms like iTunes and Google Play), media organizations (to the extent they provide coverage on podcasts), and listeners — to be better, in various ways, about their respective support of creators of color.

Reporting on the letter at the New Statesman, Caroline Crampton brings additional clarity to the core argument by (I think very correctly) foregrounding the connection between the medium’s diversity challenges with discovery challenges, stitching the two elements together to reflect how the overarching problem manifests itself as a system:

It’s starting to look like podcasting’s diversity problem and its discovery problem are intertwined. It’s a vicious cycle – with distributors providing a far-from-perfect way of finding new shows, the podcast charts remain dominated by shows from established media organisations with their own diversity problems. Media organisations compiling lists of shows tend to mirror the charts, perpetuating the same issues. It’s time for us all to do better.

Though I find some technical components of the letter’s argumentation less persuasive than others, I do very much agree with the way the letter captures the state of the problem, and, of course, I agree that we must all do better. Interestingly enough, I think what’s being articulated here is itself a specific variation of the overarching tension between the professionalizing and the independent; the letter is most persuasive, in my mind, when it suggests the increasing formalization of/investment in the space is (a) reducing the accessibility of the space granted to non-white creators and (b) not equally spread out to include minority talent. But I also think that the specific proposals made at the end of the letter — the appeal it makes to the larger power structure – aren’t really the ones that would get us where we want to go.

I suppose I should note that, at this writing, my thinking has been considerably guided by my consumption of another open letter, one published early yesterday morning. This one is by the journalist Jay Caspian Kang and addressed to minority journalists, and if I’m interpreting it correctly, it sketches out the withdrawals he thinks will likely happen in the broader news media’s existing (unsatisfying) attempts at bringing progressive diversification into their structures. Frustrated with this likely outcome, Kang concludes: “We, the like-minded who believe that there is value in the cliché of speaking truth to power and value a progressive coalition over careerism, have to start building our own shit.” Which is all to say: appeals to existing power structures for relief is always conditional. Building your own is not.

Anyway, I’d love to know what you think. Find me in all the usual places.

Is investigative reporting well-served by podcasts? I’ve been wondering about that for a while now, and it was on my mind when Kerri Hoffman, the CEO of PRX, pitched me a story over email about the Center for Investigative Reporting, whose radio show and podcast, Reveal, has enjoyed a stellar 2016 — the podcast hit 1.2 million downloads in November, far surpassing its goal 600,000 monthly downloads — despite a media landscape that’s seen structural withdrawals in investigative reporting. (CIR co-produces the show with PRX, hence the connection.)

“As you know, the podcast landscape is filled with lighter fare, and we have been hopeful that longer form investigative journalism can find a place and survive in the digital landscape,” Hoffman wrote. “We have been scratching our heads about how to position Reveal — it is strong in public radio where broccoli is served often. How do we encourage people to eat vegetables at an ice cream party?”

One can debate the characterization of the podcast ecosystem’s favoring lighter fare — I don’t particularly think that’s true — or the merits of framing the situation in terms of broccoli vs. ice cream, but Reveal’s strong year is definitely fascinating, and I have a sense it says something, though I’m not sure what, about the way in which investigative journalism is finding its way in the much-fractured digital media landscape.

So I took the pitch, and sent a couple of questions over email to Christa Scharfenberg, who serves as the Head of Studio at CIR. Here’s the Q&A:

I’ve often felt that investigative journalism functions in a lot of ways as a very niche product — a kind of specialized good consumed by a very specific kind of person. And that, in my mind, has significant ramifications over the way investigative reports function as a public good. Do you think that’s the case?

I agree that investigative reporting has traditionally been niche. But that has evolved dramatically in the last 5-10 years, as the journalism industry has had to respond (not always effectively, as we all know) to the seismic shifts in how people get and consume news. Additionally, there has been tremendous growth of the nonprofit investigative reporting field, of which CIR is part (we are the oldest in this country — next year is our 40th anniversary). To attract an audience, to deeply engage them in the journalism, and to raise the philanthropic funding necessary to keep doing our work, we have had to turn the old format of plodding 5,000 word text stories on its head. The emphasis now is on deep audience engagement and a more deliberate focus on impact. This requires us to appeal to a broader audience with more accessible storytelling while adhering to the core principles of watchdog, public service journalism. We partnered with PRX on Reveal precisely to expand the niche and connect audiences with stories of local and national relevance.

How do you think the structural traits of podcasts — being a kind of siloed experience, being itself quite niche at the moment, being somewhat challenging to consume — affects the potential impact of investigative journalism delivered through the medium?

Podcasts are a perfect medium for investigative reporting. And it is also true that to ensure impact, podcasts cannot be the only delivery vehicle for investigations. Most investigative stories, even in public radio, appear once as part of a news cycle. We create deeper content with a longer shelf life. When we set out with PRX to create Reveal, we didn’t just ask — how do we make a good radio show? We conceived of Reveal as a platform from the beginning, not just a show.

The goal of Reveal is to take complex stories and turn them into interesting narratives that people will actually want to listen to. The audio versions of our stories don’t contain all the facts and findings unearthed in the reporting process. So the backbone of every investigation still is an in-depth text story, often accompanied by data apps and video. The multi-platform approach allows us to tell the human stories AND lay out all the detail, serving our different audiences and holding the powerful accountable.

Our newsroom is constantly balancing what’s investigative with what’s interesting to the average person. And that creative tension is exactly where we need to be. It is investigative reporting’s mission to be of public service, but we also need to tell the stories in a creative and compelling way, so people will actually pay attention. We make Reveal as “ice-creamy” as possible  — with Al Letson as the host, with a strong sense of character and place, with humor and irony when appropriate, with original music and rich sound design, and with reporting on possible solutions to the problems we uncover.

Another reason the medium is great for investigative reporting is because, unlike digital news, people expect to spend time with podcasts and to learn everything there is to know about an issue, a topic, a person, a story. Listening for a half hour, an hour, even two hours for some podcasts, is expected. By contrast, people devote a few minutes to text stories. If we’re lucky.

What does 2017 hold for your team?

We will continue to focus on developing the voice of the show. Everyone in podcasting and public radio told us it would take at least the first year to figure out who we are and that work definitely continues.

For this next year, we’re planning for more episodes that bring original, in-depth reporting and context to issues already in the news cycle. This fall, we produced a number of election-related shows, covering voting rights, internet voting and the secret Trump voter. We also released an extended interview with Richard Spencer, the white supremacist, which got lots of attention. [Ed. note: Current’s The Pub podcast, by the way, had an interesting discussion about this episode.] We saw a bump in listeners to those shows, which all hit a perfect balance of being deeply reported and unique, bringing something to audiences that they wouldn’t get elsewhere, while also being timely and relevant. Other examples of that this past year were our show about Trump supporters back in February, before most news outlets were taking them seriously, and our hour long episode about the Orlando nightclub shooting which we pulled together in a few days (compared to the 3-4 months we normally spend on shows).

We’re also thinking about building on the positive response to the Richard Spencer interview, by releasing more full-length, deep dive interviews as a supplement to the regular weekly show.

Lastly, we plan to experiment with bringing documentaries to Reveal, adapting films produced by our own filmmakers (we launched a female documentary initiative this fall with significant funding from the Helen Gurley Brown Foundation) and partnering with independent producers.

Bites:

  • Pop Up Archive launches an audio clipmaker off its podcast search and intelligence engine, Audiosearch. Between this, This American Life’s Shortcut, and all the open source audiogram stuff that WNYC is whipping up, the social audio nut should be well on its way to getting itself cracked — unless, of course, clipping isn’t the way to get podcasts to travel over existing social graphs. Maybe the smart speaker is the way to go here? (Audiosearch)

  • I’m being told that the AV Club’s podcast review column, Podmass, will live on after its current editor, Becca James, leaves the organization at the end of the year. “Not sure how much I can say right now, but we should still be up and running after the holidays,” she wrote me in an email last week. Sweet.

  • Earwolf and Chris Gethard’s Beautiful Stories from Anonymous People has a strange ad integration with Casper going on right now. It’s hard to explain pithily, but it’s something you’d expect from a mattress company. (Earwolf)

  • More than 40% of NPR’s broadcast sponsors also backs its podcasts, apparently. (Variety)

  • Barstool Sports, the controversial site with a fairly strong podcast presence, is launching a daily broadcast on SiriusXM. It will kick off on January 3. (Hollywood Reporter)

  • Veritone Media, a California-based advertising agency whose dabblings in podcasts have increasingly crossed my attention, is now called “Veritone One.” (Press Release)

  • Detour, the GPS audio walking tour app, is opening up its platform. It’s a really, really cool product that’s been allowing some fantastic producers to do some really, really cool work. Check it. (Detour) [h/t MJ]

Moves:

  • Here’s something interesting: WNYC has hired Eurry Kim, who served as the Director of Fundraising/Digital Analytics on Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, to build out the station’s research and audience data efforts.

By the way, my top 10 podcasts of 2016 came out on Vulture yesterday. I mentioned this on Twitter, but I’ll say it here too: for what it’s worth, I had a really hard time putting this list together, and I’ll cop to the fact it’s a little conservative, but my top three picks were, personally, no-brainers. I’ll also say that, though I’m cognizant of the critiques made against the premise of top 10 lists — from its arbitrariness to the way it is structurally embedded with problems of representation — I’m of the position that the answer is always more, not less. (Speaking of which: do read the list in the context of other top tens, like those from NYT, Entertainment Weekly, and the AV Club.) Also, another writer is going to do top 10 comedy pods for Vulture at some point, and a top 10 episode list from me will be out soon.

 

Wednesday

30

November 2016

0

COMMENTS

The Role Apple Should Play, and other stuff too

Written by , Posted in Hot Pod Weekly

Slowly climbing back onto the saddle after the American Turkey weekend. Oof.

But first: does anybody know any examples of local podcasts — from public radio and otherwise, about news and otherwise — that been successful revenue-wise? And by that, I mean podcasts that are not only able to justify its cost, but routinely draws in profit. I’m working on something related to this, and I’d love to hear from you if you’ve got examples.

Ken Doctor on the role Apple should play. The media analyst made an appearance on the latest episode of The Wolf Den, Midroll’s pretty handy content marketing podcast-slash-guide to the industry, to discuss his spectacular series on the podcasting boom that recently ran on Nieman Lab.

Of particular note is his take on Apple, which came up at around the 16:45 mark:

What I would like to see is [Apple] not get into the middle of things where they actually overwhelm all the smaller companies that are in it… The money looks like it’s going to be mainly advertising and less listener payment, and that’s not a field they’re very good at.They’ve proven that they’re not a very good advertising company. And that’s a good reason for them not to get into it: [there’s] not a lot of money in it right now, and they’d need big hits…

… If their role could be the providing of information and data in a Switzerland-kind of way for the industry, given that 60% or so of all the listening comes through Apple devices, and maybe get paid a little to do that — but to do that in a way that is non-competitive — that might be their best role for the industry. It will support their core businesses, which is selling hardware and software, but not put them in direct competition and snuff out the creativity and imagination that’s in the industry.

Doctor’s position here — for Apple to become more involved as an information and data provider, and not as some sort of involved content distribution funnel — is more or less the position favored by most in the industry at this point in time. It’s a highly specific vision of Apple’s role in the podcast space that requires a delicate balance, one that was largely reflected in the agitation aggregately portrayed in that semi-controversial New York Times article from back in May. (A controversy, by the way, that now seems driven by fears that drawing attention to the problem would trigger an unpredictable action from Apple, and not based on any vision of the future articulated by anybody interviewed.)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I completely second Doctor’s position here, both for the positives — yes, it would be very nice for all of us to get better access to actionable data that could yield greater audience insight (preferably in such a way that isn’t particularly invasive) and foster greater intangible confidence in the medium from the advertising community — as well as for the severity of its negatives.

The Darkest Timeline. Now, I’m not an Apple Kremlinologist — I’ll leave that to the vast blog ecosystem dedicated to Apple coverage — and so I can’t, of course, personally predict with any confidence how the company is thinking about its podcast strategy (or even whether it’s thinking about it with any seriousness at all). My gut reaction, and I know I’m not the only person who suspects this, is that podcast money is still very much chump change, and that any attempt to step in as a layer that takes off a percentage of the entire space would still amount to what is essentially a rounding error for the company. (Recall that the current valuation of the podcast industry’s ad spend is only so much — for 2016,ZenithOptimedia projected $35.1 million back in March, while others have so far estimated it to be as high as $167 million — while digital music revenue is pegged to be about $2.66 billion this year, radio ad spend was $17.5 billion in 2015, and Apple’s app store revenue was estimated to be about $6.4 billion in 2015.)

However, if I were to endeavor to imagine a possible world in which they’d try to do something at this specific point in time, I’d figure that the guiding incentive would not be to capitalize on peeling a layer off revenues in the space as it is, but to instead become an underlying condition of how future business is conducted in the space. Which is to say that, in such a scenario, Apple would want to position itself in a way that’s similar to how, say, Art19 or Panoply would want their respective platforms to be the de facto podcast hosting solution, or how Stripe is becoming increasingly synonymous with internet payments.

What does that mean, precisely? Whatever it is, it’ll probably feature the company offering podcasters — and in particular, big podcast publishers, who are incentivized to persist in the long term — solutions, expertise, and/or access to something those podcasters themselves do not have and experience high barriers of entry to obtain. As Doctor noted, that probably isn’t going to be ad sales, since the company has historically proven themselves to not be great at that. What does that leave us with? Audience development, maybe payments? And where does that leave Apple: a strategy of exclusives, like their pursuits with Apple Music, or maybe direct payment-patronage tools, coopting the role that Patreon would play?

Anyway, that’s what I’m batting around in my head. In any case, at this point I’ll say that if Apple were ever to make a move, I suspect the very first people outside of Palo Alto to find out are probably the bigger podcast publishers, so keep an eye on them. In the meantime, consider investing in building out a promotion strategy and infrastructure where iTunes — and maybe even a network — isn’t at the center, but one channel of many. Hey, it can be done. I mean, look at Chapo Trap House. (I guess?)

Two more things from the Ken Doctor interview. Do check out that Wolf Den episodewith Ken Doctor — the full conversation is really, really good — but there are two additional topics that you should keep in mind:

(1) On the potential of FCC regulation over podcasts (something that the medium has, up until this point, not experienced), which Doctor discusses at about the 33:00 mark:

I think there will probably be efforts, and now, given different kinds of politicization, there may be more efforts. What I’ve seen over 20 years is that essentially the law and regulatory practice has been absolutely flummoxed by digital media… The FCC and the FTC have not figured out how to deal with this. Even antitrust law has not figured out how to deal with it. I don’t think that’s going to change.

I would hope that your industry… will take that lead and make your own rules that are ethical and that are transparent to the public. And to get ahead of it, and try to avoid government regulation which is as likely to be misguided as it is to be well-guided.

(2) The role podcasts can play for local media and local news was also discussed, and you can hear that chunk of the discussion at around the 38:30 mark.

“Efficiency trumps all things, in general,” said Erik Diehn, CEO of Midroll, when we spoke over the phone recently. “There are many more advertisers in the space relative to a few years ago, and they’re increasingly looking for scale. If you’re an advertiser, you can cobble a few shows together, or you can choose instead to buy one big show… That’s just where we’re at. It’s the same thing on YouTube, ditto a few years ago with blogs. We’re at a point of bifurcation: you’re going to see many more larger shows absorbing a lot more dollars, including brand dollars, that weren’t there before.”

Diehn notes that there is a very specific form of exception to this, pointing to the podcast Spilled Milk as a case study. “They aren’t huge, but they sell out because they’ve been around for a while, they have a good audience, and they do food,” he explains. “Some people will buy even at that smaller scale. If you’re going to be a commercially successful podcast at this point, you got to have a differentiated or notable product.”

I spoke with Diehn, by the way, to balance out the interviews I did for last week’s item on independent podcasts. More in the members newsletter.

Digiday has a pretty interesting snapshot on the UK digital audio landscape, drawing from a report by UK-based Radio Joint Audience Research that groups together streaming platforms, digital radio, and podcasts. Expected findings apply: a preference by younger demographics, a steady growth rate (a reported double-digit growth every six months), and persisting fragmentation when it comes to centralized measurement.

As with my own reporting, the article notes that there exists a general sense that digital audio in the UK still “lags” behind the US, though I should note that, among podcast companies specifically, there are a few entities putting in a fair bit of effort developing a connected presence on both fronts. (See: Audioboom and Acast’s long-running incursion into the US, Panoply’s recently-established outpost in the UK.)

Anyway, check out the Digiday article in full. There’s some additional findings on specific company strategies that are also pretty cool.

An unexpected pleasure. I was catching up on Life After, GE Podcast Theater’s follow-up to The Message, over the weekend, and I was struck by just how positively I reacted to the show’s complete lack of advertising breaks. No pre-roll, no mid-roll, no clunky sponsorship messaging; there were simply no disruptions in the show’s contiguous experience that added onto the suspension of disbelief already being demanded by the story. The show felt more immersive as a result, washing over my earballs so much more smoothly. Heck, I swear it made me like the show more than I naturally would have, and frankly, I can’t tell if the season is any good or whether I’m just happy there are no ads. (For what it’s worth, I quite like the season.)

And yes, the irony of Life After being one gigantic piece of advertising isn’t lost on me.

Also not lost on me: the fact that my overwhelmingly positive response says a whole lot more about the state of normal podcasts than it does about branded podcasts as a, uhm, thing (genre?). Advertising is a tax, the price we pay for a piece of media that we didn’t pay for out of our pockets. The role of publishers, by and large, is to mitigate the burden of that tax as it is suffered by audiences; in an ideal world, publishers could even turn that tax into an additional value.

The experience of Life After brings into acute focus just how much that tax has accumulated over the past year, and just how much they’ve congealed into fatigue. (For me, at least.) Granted, I’m an edge case — I spend inhumane chunks of my days consuming podcasts, and perhaps it was only a matter of time that I’d grow blind (deaf?) to advertising in my exorbitantly high levels of podcast consumption. But I’m struck, at this moment, by the extent to which I’ve been bearing with podcast ads, and I’m saying this as a person who actually believes in advertising. The flip-side to this is just how little podcast advertising I actually notice, how rarely I encounter host-reads that fill me with any memorable feelings at all.

There is, of course, a limit to which my personal experience says anything about everything else, but all of this does make me wonder how, in the midst of an expanding in-flow of advertising money into the space, the podcast industry en masse is readying itself to figure out how to preserve the medium’s intimacy — to capitalize on the fresh start it offers for digital media — while scaling up its advertising infrastructure to accommodate that money.

Anyway, I’d love to know what you think. Especially if you disagree.

Related: A reader recently pointed out to me that Life After is being directed by John Dryden, who helmed the very good Tumanbay which the BBC published last year. (Sadly, it’s no longer available for consumption at this writing. Come on, BBC! Ugh.)

For those keeping close watch on Audible Channels: The number of Amazon Prime members is now estimated to be 49.5 million across the US, up 23% from last year, according to a report by financial services firm Cowen & Co as cited by Barron’s.

Recall that Audible’s parent company Amazon started bundling Channels content with its Prime membership program back in September. Previously, Channels was only available to paying Audible subscribers and as a standalone paid subscription feature, priced at $4.96 per month or $60 per year. Also recall the larger strategy for Amazon with Channels: its existence theoretically increases the value of the Prime and Audible memberships, thus increasing the friction for cancellation for current members and increasing the pull for new subscribers. That allows for a programming strategy that favors hyper-targeting, which means that Audible doesn’t have to always program for the broadest possible audience. This should be nothing new for longtime Hot Pod readers, but I’d going to keep hammering on it because I believe it’s key to reading that company.

Been thinking a lot about the podcast review formats, and I quite like the way The Guardian formats theirs — grouped, brisk, efficient, conclusive. Also: have I mentioned that I love the way Caroline Crampton is building out the beat over at the New Statesman? (Is it a coincidence that both publications are British? Probably not.) The more the merrier, and I’m looking forward to more entrants in this department.

Bites:

  • Hot Pod reader Charles Wiltgen has made pretty handy tool: the Podcast Validator, which helps assess whether your RSS feed is good to go. A little bit goes a long way for that additional piece of mind. (Podbase)

  • If you’re keeping an eye on what comes next for the CBC’s role in Canada, do yourself a favor and check out the latest episode of Canadaland. (Canadaland)

  • “A Podcast of Their Own for Women in Music.” (The Atlantic)

  • “On the Need for Queer Podcasts.” (LA Review of Books)

  • Not directly podcast-related, but I’m reading: “How Silicon Valley Passed on Conservative Media” (The Information, paywall)

Moves:

Monday

23

May 2016

0

COMMENTS

Tuesday

10

May 2016

0

COMMENTS

Apple, No One Knows Anything, Dynamic Ad Insertion Concerns

Written by , Posted in Hot Pod Weekly

“This isn’t about arguing who’s right or wrong,” writes Federico Viticci, a technology blogger who publishes on his own independently-operated site, Mac Stories. “It’s about recognizing the divergence of needs and opinions in an industry that, in many ways, is still in its formative years.”

That, in a nutshell, sums up where we are right this second in the podcast community. On the one hand, you have a set of professionalizing, ambitious podcast companies pushing for better data analytics, discovery, and revenue opportunities — gripes that should be familiar if you read this column with any frequency — in their pursuit for maturity and considerable growth. And on the other hand, you have a grassroots population which has thus far enjoyed a version of the open internet, one that results from a delicate balance of power facilitated by the medium’s relative niche status up until this point. At stake in the tension between these two camps is, frankly, the fate of the medium’s future. (How dramatic! How lovely.)

It’s a story as old as content. But let’s start from the beginning.

Over the weekend, the New York Times published a spicy article by John Herrman — a media critic-savant partially known for the excellent “Content Wars” column when he was a staffer the Awl —  about the relationship between the emerging podcast industry and Apple, which at this point still commands an outsized measure of influence over the space, and how those relationship-dynamics defines the current state that the professionalizing podcast industry finds itself in.

I highly recommend reading the whole thing, obviously, and there are so, so, so many nuances baked into the report, but the two key elements I want to focus on to get to the heart of this narrative are the following:

(1) The article paints a picture of a professionalizing and ambitious industry frustrated by the limits of its dependencies on Apple’s infrastructure, which still maintains its outsized influence over the space. The article interprets Apple as an indifferent steward of a podcast ecosystem that exists at the fringes of their operational focus — a state of affairs that may be shifting for the company as a whole, by the way, following reports that suggest an increasing shift in focus for the company towards services (see this Wall Street Journal article, and also this Bloomberg article on Apple Music) — and it chiefly illustrates this by exploring how the team that curates the iTunes promotions page, one of the very few reliable drivers for discovery and marketing in the space, is remarkably small and largely managed by one individual. (Hey Steve!)

(2) The heart of the piece is as follows: “The question for podcasters — and for Apple — is about what comes next,” Herrman wrote. “Apple has at least two obvious choices: to rush to accommodate an industry that is quickly outgrowing its origins, or to let podcasting be, at the risk of losing its claim over a medium that owes its very name to the company.”

The piece is, by and large, consistent with my own reading of the space, and I say this with full awareness that my coverage and focus has always been on the podcast companies, entities, and individuals that are agitating against the status quo for the purposes of growth.

That distinction is notable, because the article also drew a strong line of criticism that emerges from the grassroots layer of the ecosystem. The critique principally comes from Marco Arment, the creator of relatively well-known podcasting app called Overcast who is also something of an elder statesman for the older end of the podcast ecosystem. (Arment is also an angel investor in Gimlet, curiously enough.)

Writing on his blog, Arment expressed a deep skepticism of podcast entities advocating for more data and involvement from Apple. He argues that, in their endeavors to further grow its businesses, these agitating companies is will end up compelling changes that fundamentally compromise the open nature of the medium — that it would lead to Apple stepping into control over a previously open ecosystem, that all of this would lead to the creation of a “data economy” that deleteriously commoditizes the entire space, that the medium would naturally shift to a state that would shut out independent creators forever. Arment’s critique is, essentially, an argument of the slippery slope variety.

“Podcasting has been growing steadily for over a decade and extends far beyond the top handful of public-radio shows,” Arment argues. “Their needs are not everyone’s needs, they don’t represent everyone, and many podcasters would not consider their goals an ‘advancement’ of the medium.”

I’ve been tracking this entire conversation since the very second that the Times’ piece dropped, and I’m still struggling to find my own position on this. (It’s hard to form a take in such a short period of time, and I imagine my feelings will go through several iterations.)

But frankly, I’m torn.

On the one hand, I am thoroughly invested in seeing podcasts grow, mature, and further professionalize into a Big, Big Industry. I’d like this industry to grow to a point where it can command high and reliable revenue margins, generate high volumes of employment opportunities for creative audio professionals (not everybody can be self-employed and run a small, independent shop), boast an audience reach of hundreds of millions all over the world, that wields cultural influence and is capable of tremendous impact. And I simply don’t believe any of that is possible — or at least, it’s all incredibly difficult, a factor that I’d argue influences the industry’s financial accessibility — without much of what professionalizing podcast entities are pushing for. And I just don’t buy the notion of retaining the podcast’s RSS 2.0 roots and the black box nature of its knowability… like, I get the romance and nostalgia of it, I just think that’s really regressive.

But at the same time, I also have my own background concerns over whether the podcast companies that will grow to constitute Big Podcasting — the Gimlets, the Panoplies, the Midrolls — won’t collectively drive the ecosystem to a state that reductively commoditizes the form and freezes out independents. (Those ad loads, they keep getting heavier and heavier. I see you.) And I do very much want to retain a relatively open podcast environment (no matter how conditional that openness is) where crazy shit like The Worst Idea Of All Time can still have a shot at an audience, no matter how small the chance of discovery.

Indeed, the tension between the two communities with very separate needs and beliefs that share the same infrastructure is very real. It’s podcasts-as-blogs versus podcasts-as-future of radio, it’s the independents versus the corporate. But whatever happens with Apple, we’re going to have to confront this question — the push towards professionalization is fully underway. As Herrman put it quite succinctly in a series of tweets: “Whether or not Apple encourages it, online audio will develop beyond current infrastructure… Anyway, I understand horror at the industrialization of a creative medium. Participants I talked to think it’s coming one way or another. So the question *right now* is: by apple’s hand, or someone else’s. These conversations should sound familiar!”

The question is, then: can we cultivate a media universe that can effectively and simultaneously support two very, very different kinds of communities without compromising the integrity and efforts of each other? Can we, as the meme goes, get you an ecosystem that can do both?

In other words, it’s not a matter of whether we will see audio float into the Content Wars, it’s a matter of how we navigate that fight. Yes, the way forward opens up a universe of potential horrors: atrocious advertising ad experiences, advertising fraud (which already happens, by the way), excessively invasive tracking mechanisms that grossly compromise personal privacy, and so on.

But what the hell: you can’t make an omelette without cracking open a few skulls, and you can’t get the great without running the risk of getting the very, very bad. Things will change — things always change — but there will be new balances of power to find. And maybe it’s naive, but I believe there absolutely can be a future that’s better for every one of us.

Two quick things:

  • The Times article had a particularly interesting news hook: late last month, seven “leading podcast professionals” were reportedly invited to Apple to air their grievances for a collection of employees. According to a source who was present, that seven consisted of a mix between newer, enterprising Big Podcast companies and folks from what can only be described as the “older guard.” My source also mentioned that there were no representatives from public radio.
  • Some perspective from friend-of-the-newsletter Joseph Fink, who tweeted me the following earlier in the weekend “I was interviewed for that article, but guess my response of ‘yeah I dunno, it’s all pretty much fine’ wasn’t interesting.”

And two related readings floating in my mind that’s connected to all of this, but I couldn’t work ’em in: “Podcasting in 2015 feels a lot like blogging circa 2004: exciting, evolving, and trouble for incumbents” and “No garbage fires here: Medium advances its quest to gentrify the world of Internet publishing,” both from Nieman Lab. (What a great site.)

Measured. Time now for someone much smarter than me to weigh in. I recently asked Andrew Kuklewicz, Chief Technology Officer at PRX, to talk a bit about his vision for some sort of middle ground in requests for increased data granularity. He writes:

There’s data, and there’s creepy data. I want to know what anonymous people actually play and hopefully hear. We don’t need to fall down the creepy, slippery, slope and get names, blood types, or shoe sizes. We can survive without this, but it’s easier to sell new sponsors on audience numbers that resemble reality rather than shared fictions.

Personally, I’m more concerned with growing audiences, providing better ways for listeners to find shows they love, and likewise for producers to find their true fans. The more that happens, the more it supports shows and creators, and we all benefit as they create more of their best work.

I don’t know what others are asking for, but I’m not looking for Apple to extend their store model to podcasts. Even if they did, I expect and hope it would be one option among many built on podcasting. I also value the openness of podcasting, with its underlying standards, but standards progress when there is competition fueling innovation. As web browsers got better with competition, and so did their standards. I want podcasting to do the same – progress made with competition on products and content, but cooperation on open standards, platforms, and measures.

It will be messy, messier than a benevolent monopoly, but I also agree with keeping independence over ceding control to buy simplicity.

One important footnote on data and listening metrics: Doc Searls, the furthest thing from a sell out when it comes to privacy and people owning their data, has pushed for an idea where people should own their own listening data, and share with whom they choose. Most great ideas are tried a few times before they take off (e.g. six degrees before facebook), maybe 6 years later we should give Listen Log another go.

Sweet.

Designing A Elections Podcast For The Non-Wonk. If you’re launching an elections podcast, man, I don’t envy you. It’s one of the most saturated podcast genres in the market right now, a state of affairs not unrelated to the fact that there’s a US presidential election going on at the moment and it’s all been absolute bonkers.

A sample list of elections pods, which has considerably grown since the last time I discussed political pods: the “NPR Politics” podcast, the “FiveThirtyEight Elections” podcast, Politico’s “2016 Nerdcast,” Mic and the Economist’s “Special Relationship,” Slate’s longtime stalwart “Political Gabfest” and the topically-driven “Trumpcast,” MTV News’ “The Stakes,” the New Republic’s “Primary Concerns,” Vox’s “The Weeds” (occasionally, the show largely sticks to policy), The Ringer’s “Keepin’ It 1600” (featuring former Obama staffers Jon Favreau and Dan Pfeiffer, no less), The Huffington Post’s “Candidate Confessional,” Futuro Media Group’s “In the Thick,” “The Pollsters,” and so on.

(For the record: I listen to a bunch of these, largely because… well, it’s my job, but also because I’m just a very curious foreign person despite my inability to actually vote. But man, I can’t even begin to imagine how any discerning voter should choose from this pile.)

Into the fray walks No One Knows Anything, a new political podcast from BuzzFeed. No One Knows Anything is the company’s sixth podcast overall, and the last show launched before Jenna Weiss-Berman, BuzzFeed’s Director of Audio, left the company to launch her own podcast venture. It also has the distinction of being the first in BuzzFeed’s pod roster that actively draws from talent and material from its news desk. Anchored by BuzzFeed politics reporter Evan McMorris-Santoro, the show aims to distinguish itself from the gabfest-style horse race roundup pod formats of its competitors, choosing instead to tell larger stories about the election.

I recently talked to the very awesome Meg Cramer, who produces the show (and who previously worked at APM’s Marketplace), and asked her a bunch of questions about the show’s design, podcast structures more broadly, and miscellaneous production-related things. Here are excerpts from our chat:

On process. “We’re on a weekly production schedule. We do it a little differently every time. We don’t script the show… we have very, very light scripting, and what we do instead is, like, we have a loose structure, we go into the studio, Evan and his guest host will move through the structure and hit every point, riff if they want to, usually beforehand we have the ‘found sound’ audio planned out. So, if we know that we have a supercut of people saying “Trump will never get elected,” I’ll be in the studio cuing that up and they’ll react to the cut in real time. And then we, like, put the tracking together with all the interviews in whatever order they happen in, listen to a rough cut of the episode, and then do an edit altogether, and then go back and do pickups.”

On the shows’ relationship to the news cycle. “There will be times where we have to speak to the news that’s happening that week, but for the most part, I don’t think that’s what we’re going to do. Because for the most part, that’s what a lot of other political shows do. And we’re trying not to be like a wrap-up show, and we’re trying to tell stories about things have already happened because we want as much information as we can get when we tell those stories. We don’t want to predict — this is like an anti-prediction show.”

On the show’s target audience. “We’re trying to serve a general news audience with a show about politics, because there are lots of things that serve the political news audience and we’re trying to reach a broader group of people than that,” she tells me. “People who are not necessarily political junkies, but who care about their vote. They’re probably going to vote, but they really care about who the next president is going to be and they want to be thoughtful about how they cast their vote.”

On the theory of show structures. “There are lots of things that you can refer to when you talk about structure. You can say, “every episode we will have this kind of segment, or every episode we will do a certain thing,” And I try really hard to resist that because I think it can be very tempting to give yourself a superstructure when you start a project, and you also learn that your superstructure was maybe a cool idea or a cool concept but it turns out to be very restricting and it doesn’t let you tell certain stories. It winds up being a situation where you’re working for the structure rather than have it work for you.”

On newsroom integration. “I’m interested to learn what it’s like to get a lot of people in a newsroom involved in podcasting. I think places like Slate has their flagships shows where people get to try out being on a show — being a panelist, being a guest — and they get to see if they’re good at it. I think that one thing that I’m really excited about this project, it’s not going to just be about me and Evan. I’m excited that other people in the newsroom get to try out having a big voice on this platform.”

You can check out the pod here.

Reservations Over Dynamic Ad Insertion. I haven’t written about dynamic ad insertion in a while, and I really should, because it’s one of the bigger narratives that’s been driving the technology piece of the space for the past year or so.

In case you’re unfamiliar with the concept, podcast hosting platforms (like Panoply’s Megaphone, Acast, Art19, Triton Tap, and so on) that support dynamic ad insertion would allow publishers to easily swap out ad spots within a given podcast episode. This structurally breaks podcasts away from having “baked-in” ads — where they are one with the episode for the rest of time (or the internet, or until somebody replaces the file) — and drives them to a state where the ad inventory of a given episode is dramatically deepened and the friction of ad serving is drastically reduced. It also sets the conditions for tailored advertising experiences like geo-targeting and a programmatic audio advertising business to be built somewhere down the line.

To put it another way: money, money, money for publishers. If they can swing it, of course.

It’s a vision of the future that’s renders the podcast space drastically different in its monetization potential compared to whatever’s come before, one that would make podcasts function like the rest of the internet — for good or for bad, we don’t know yet (see the newsletter’s headline item). I imagine it’s being pitched as a win-win situation; advertisers get to more specifically target listeners, and publishers get to squeeze more value out of a given ad slot.

But some advertisers are not without reservations. Advertisers like Mack Weldon, the fancy bright-colored underwear startup, which now dedicates about a quarter of its monthly ad spend to podcast buys.

I recently traded emails with Collin Willardson, the company’s marketing manager, about some of his concerns. He listed out three in particular:

  • Firstly, Willardson argued that the imposition of format requirements for dynamic ad insertion support would end up putting a cap on the creative vitality that can go into the ad read. “Our biggest reservation with dynamic ads is that the ad is capped at 30 seconds,” he wrote. “We have found success when the host is allowed to do the read however long they feel best. They’ll know if they get the message across to their listeners, and sometimes they aren’t able to do that in just 30 seconds or less.” (I imagine the 30 second cap may differ from platform-to-platform and from show-to-show depending on how campaigns are sold, but I take his overall point.)

  • Secondly, Willardson also touched upon the value being lost when ads are no longer permanent — a feature that was appealing for some buyers. “Another reservation is knowing that our ad will not be there forever,” he argued. “We want to be associated with the show we have chosen carefully, even if you listen to it 5 years from now. There is something special about being a part of a show that you can listen to and be entertained by 5 years later, and we want to be a part of that experience.”

  • Finally, Willardson brings up what may well be the fundamental hurdle presented by the technology: the dissolution of the “intimacy” so associated with the media format. “Dynamic ad insertion disassociates the host from the advertiser, so they care less about the actual product or brand they’re trying to sell. Audiences pick up on that, and quickly tune out. On a medium with a built-in 15 sec skip button, a 30-second ad is too easily never heard,” he wrote.

I’ve been hearing variations of these concerns from a few advertisers — all of which are direct response advertisers relatively new to the medium — over the past few weeks. For what it’s worth, I don’t think these reservations are particularly insurmountable or fundamentally detracts from the value of dynamic ad insertion technology; rather, my sense that Willardson’s arguments stem from a frustration with the pitches currently being made by podcast publishers.

Bites:

  • The worst kept NPR pod secret is finally out: the Code Switch podcast will launch May 31. In case you’re unfamiliar, Code Switch is NPR’s FABULOUS blog that covers stories on race, ethnicity and culture. The pod is going to be hosted by Gene Demby (who also hosts the Post-Bourgie pod) and Shereen Marisol Meraji. I, for one, am extremely excited about this. (NPR Extra)
  • Eleanor Kagan has been announced as BuzzFeed’s new Director of Audio. She produces Another Round, and will continue doing in addition to developing new projects. (Twitter)
  • Katelyn Bogucki, who has until this point headed up the Huffington Post’s podcast operation, is heading over to Gimlet, where she joins the company’s Creative team.
  • “From out of nowhere, the US Energy Department launches a great podcast.” (The Verge)