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Thursday

16

March 2017

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COMMENTS

Let’s dig into those Infinite Dial 2017 numbers.

Written by , Posted in Hot Pod Weekly

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

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

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

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

(1) Steady, Unsexy Growth?

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

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

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

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

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

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

(2) The Problem of Programming

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alright, let’s move on.

(3) Depth of Listening

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Miscellaneous Takeaways

  • Active podcast listeners still skews male.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bites. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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:

Friday

22

July 2016

0

COMMENTS

How Does Audible’s Channels Measure Up?

Written by , Posted in Hot Pod Weekly

July 12, 2016 —

Audible Pulls Channels Out of Beta. Well, it’s finally here. The spoken audio entertainment arm of Amazon has officially launched “Channels,” a new “short-form audio”-focused subscription service that will come packaged with the originally audiobook-oriented Audible app. The service has been in beta since April. In case you missed the write-ups by the New York Times and Bloomberg, here’s the low-down: the feature is available to existing Audible members (who already pay $14.95 a month for the service) and will cost $4.95 a month for non-members who want access Channels content without having to deal with those pesky audiobooks. Offerings range from audio digests of publications like Forbes and Harvard Business Review to stand-up comedy recordings to ad-free versions of popular podcasts like WNYC’s Radiolab and Radiotopia’s The Truth.

Oh, and original Audible programming, of course. I mean, that’s the real cause for speculation and excitement, isn’t it? The service launched last week with four original products — an interview show featuring writer Ashley Ford called “Authorized”; a texture-driven documentary series about New York City called “Mortal City” that, quite frankly, is more than a little reminiscent of “Radio Diaries”; a Mary Roach-esque narrative show featuring stories about the human breast by writer Florence Williams called “Breasts Unbound”; and another narrative show that serves quirky stories about American presidents hosted by historian Alexis Coe and comedian Elliott Kalan called “Presidents Are People Too!” — along with the teaser for an upcoming project called “The Butterfly Effect,” which will feature the offbeat stylings of author and occasional This American Life contributor Jon Ronson.

“You’re seeing the first half dozen this week,” said Eric Nuzum, Audible’s SVP of Original Content, in a recent interview with Nieman Lab, referring to the original programming rollout. “But what will surprise people is how often we’re putting out material at the level we’re doing.” According to the write-up, the rate translates to about one new show every one or two weeks, with 40 projects being baked in the pipeline. Seasonal considerations will also impact rollout decisions. When we spoke at the Podcast Movement conference in Chicago last week, Nuzum told me to keep a particular eye out for the launches in September, hinting towards the release of more interesting projects during that period — a choice that was made to reflect generally higher on-demand audio engagements in the fall compared to the generally slower summertime.

So here it is, the long-awaited play from the 500-pound gorilla that’s been creepin’, quietly but surely, at the edges of the podcasting pond. The question is, of course, will Audible convert its infinite pool of potential into some form of tangible dominance over non-music audio? And will it fully change the way we think about, produce, and consume the stuff we used to throw over the airwaves and down RSS feeds?

Time will tell, obviously. But three things for now:

(1) Audible has, to some extent, already won the battle to become the “Netflix for Podcasts,” or “Spoken Audio,” or whatever it is you want to call non-music audio programming. After all, the company has already long beaten the fundamental barrier to entry for any subscription content business: a critical mass of paid customers, which it cultivated and solidified through its years outmaneuvering and outpacing its relatively technologically flat-footed competitors in the book publishing business before sidestepping into podcasts and non-music audio content more broadly. By expanding its understanding of the product it serves and reducing audiobooks into one of many product categories that it will deal with, Audible instantly holds a tremendous structural advantage over any newcomers — including Howl, Midroll’s own attempt at a subscription audio content play that mixes back catalogues with original programming.

(2) That said, Audible’s opening structural advantage can still be undermined in the long run, with the key battleground being the strength of its actual inventory over time. And while we’re literally sitting in Channel’s first month at play, I will say that its initial slate of original programming strikes me as conceptually underwhelming. None of the Audible Originals seem particularly fresh, either in terms of subject matter or sheer structure and form. “Authorized” can be shuffled into a deck made up of “Longform,” “Writers Who Don’t Write,” “The Guardian Books Podcast,” and “Between the Covers.” “Breasts Unbound” can be slotted into a stable made up of “Invisibilia,” “Hidden Brain,” and “Only Human.” And even Jon Ronson’s “The Butterfly Effect” seems to be the product of fairly straightforward strategic thinking (have audio-friendly author, will podcast in an authority fashion); so straightforward, in fact, that Panoply’s already done it, except with Malcolm Gladwell.

Which is not to say that the shows aren’t good, or that I won’t eagerly pay $4.95 for the privilege of consuming most if not some of these projects. I enjoy “Presidents Are People Too!” a hell of a lot, and I will gleefully suck all the marrow out of anything Jon Ronson whips up. It’s just that the slate feels a lot like something you’d call Audiobooks+.

(Alternatively, the goal may well be to produce shows that are structurally familiar to other podcasts but are either best-in-class or good-enough to a point where Audible users are satiated enough to not go looking for shows of similar categories off the Channels platform. Programming is only part of the value proposition; convenience is another.)

And that’s all a bit of a shame, considering Audible’s sheer potential to take insane risks without having to worry about conventional audience goals driven by advertising needs. Give me a musical, give me neo-Finnegan’s Wake, give me whatever’s the audio equivalent of Broad City or Terrence Malick. Give me something I’ve never heard before.

(3) But perhaps that was never the direction Audible was meant to go. I’m reminded, briefly, of something Nuzum told me for a Q&A I ran back in April: “It really is not a question of what shows we create. The question we ask is: What do people want to listen to?” And reckoning, for a moment, the fact that the Audible data that informs Nuzum’s thinking is, essentially, data about audiobook consumers, it’s no wonder, then, that we’re seeing these projects: more Jon Ronsons, more Mary Roach-esque compositions, and so on. When people indicate what they want by indicating what they once wanted, there’s only so much you can see beyond the frontier.

Which raises the question: who, then, will bring us to the next, next thing?

A Curious Partnership in Ad Tech. AdsWizz, a digital audio ad tech company, announced the launch of something called “PodWave” last week, which the company bills as “the first ad marketplace specifically created to meet the needs of podcasts.”

What does that mean, exactly? So, the theoretical purpose of a technologically-enabled advertising marketplace like PodWave is to serve as the platform upon which publishers can sell ad spots and marketers can buy ad spots more efficiently. What “efficient” specifically means can play out in a number of ways, including (1) the enablement of transactions at scale, (2) the increase of control among advertisers and marketers over the shape and depth of their campaigns, and (3) a similar increase in expectation and accountability of returns through stronger metrics, improved targeting capacities, and the implementation of best practices and creative executions, among other things. Podcast advertising, in its current form, still remains relatively high-touch and artisanal, with advertisers and agencies working directly with publishers to make bids, process buys, and evaluate campaigns. (Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing — such high-touch advertising workflows are probably desirable for podcast publishers that want full control over their value narrative and sales processes.)

AdsWizz’s press release didn’t get specific on how the platform measures up to those markers of efficiency, but what’s notable is its partnership with National Public Media (NPM), the sponsorship sales arm for NPR and PBS. NPM’s involvement with AdsWizz appears to be significant, with AdAge reporting that NPM will assemble a “special team to sell PodWave and help marketers tailor their messages” in the podcast format — a situation that sees NPM playing a sort of ambassadorial role aimed at recruiting publishers. According to the AdAge write-up, AdsWizz CEO Alexis van de Wyer has stated that “over 500 shows and publishers will participate” in the marketplace, though he declined to provide specific names. We’ll see how the marketplace shapes up, and whether marketers will bite, in the months to come. I imagine that if AdsWizz’s gambit is successful, it could dramatically encourage more advertisers to invest in the medium.

This is the second time in recent months that NPM has thrown its weight and reputation behind another company in an effort to encourage industry-wide formalization. When the podcast measurement company Podtrac announced its industry rankings project back in May — an initiative that could well help more advertisers ease into medium — NPM chipped in on the accompanying press release, with NPM General Manager Bryan Moffett providing the quote: “With Podtrac’s monthly industry rankings and unique audience metrics, advertisers now have a view of not only the combined audience size across NPR’s many podcasts, but can compare our reach to other publishers to more accurately plan their podcast media buys.”

Smooth moves, NPM. Smooth.

High-Level Staffing Changes At NPR. Some personnel changes to note at the public radio mothership, with some major implications for folks shopping around their projects:

  • Steve Nelson is the organization’s new Director of Programming. He was previously American Public Media’s Director of On-Demand Programming, where he led the launch of the Infinite Guest podcast network in August 2014 which distributes on-demand versions of the Dinner Party Download, Too Beautiful To Live, and KPCC’s The Mashup Americans, among others. Nelson will reportedly front NPR’s “new anchor entertainment weekend programming” and assist with new podcast development. He starts in August, and will continue working from his current base in Minnesota.

  • N’Jeri Eaton joins NPR as Senior Manager for Program Acquisition, where she will be in charge of sourcing new external talent and programming to be brought into the organization. She was previously the Content Development and Initiative Manager at the Independent Television Service, an organization principally backed by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting that supports the development of independent filmmaking. According to the press release, Eaton will the organization’s “first point of contact for program idea pitches from outside contributors to NPR,” so keep that in mind, folks!

Also: Israel Smith has been promoted to Senior Director of Promotion and Audience Development. He was previously the organization’s Director of Programming, the role that Steve Nelson now holds.

Well, I just basically regurgitated a press release. Sorry about that.

Two New Distribution Points for Libsyn. Last week, the stalwart podcast hosting platform company announced that podcasts hosted on its platform can now be consumed on iHeartRadio, the digital audio arm of iHeartMedia, the media giant formerly known as ClearChannel. The service reportedly has more than 85 million registered users, though it should be noted that its monthly active user count is unclear. (For comparison: Pandora has 250 million registered users and 78 million monthly active users around the end of 2015, according to Digital Music News.) Still, it’s a new point of access for podcasts, and I suppose it’s also worth noting that iHeartRadio’s app is one of the more stronger brands available on connected cars. Also worth noting: this isn’t iHeartMedia’s first foray into podcasting. The company previously partnered with live streaming-podcast hybrid company Spreaker in 2014 to serve as a distribution point for its content, and back in June, it collaborated with the co-working space company WeWork to produce what appears to be a branded podcast about entrepreneurship. That podcast initiative was part of a much larger project called “Work Radio,” which involves iHeartRadio developing a live radio station for the WeWork network of campuses. Yep, it’s strange, but frankly, so is much of the radio industry.

Libsyn also debuted a new feature last week that lets its users publish podcasts on YouTube more easily, according to a MediaShift write-up. The measure and depth to which audio-only podcasts (as opposed to video-audio podcast hybrids) are consumed on YouTube remains unclear on the aggregate, but certain networks — like Night Vale Presents and the Loud Speakers Network — have seen considerable engagement on the platform in the past when they’ve repackage their episodes as videos with static images. (Depending on the show, both networks enjoy YouTube views in the tens of thousands. Examples can be found here and here.)

Cool.

Bites:

  • From a panel at the recent Podcast Movement conference: the IAB will be releasing a standards guideline for podcasting metrics sometime across the next quarter.

  • The nascent LA-based Wondery network picks up the increasingly popular true crime podcast “Sword and Scale,” expanding its true crime and audio drama-heavy line-up to ten shows overall. This development comes shortly after the announcement of the network’s first original production, “Found,” which is set to premiere on July 13.

  • A couple of ESPN job postings have been kicking about indicating the organization’s intent to develop an audio-version of its insanely popular “30 for 30” documentary brand. Having just burned through much of the series’ 8-hour doc on OJ Simpson, I’m incredibly psyched for this. (Disney Careers)

  • John Sheehan, a producer on WHYY’s Fresh Air, has a new podcast for kids called “The Radio Adventures of Eleanor Amplified,” and it’s oodles of fun. It also appears to be the product of an internal station competition — one of those bake-offs I keep hearing about — according to a write-up on Current. Terry Gross previewed it on the Fresh Air podcast feed last week, and you can find out more about the show on its webpage. (WHYY)

  • And while we’re on the subject of kids pods, here’s a related read: “Who says kids don’t have podcasts? Here are 18 choices from public radio” by Melody Joy Kramer. (Poynter)

Tuesday

12

April 2016

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Audible Rolls Out Channels, NPR (Again)

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Audible Launches “Channels.” If you’re reading this column off Nieman Lab or, indeed, if you’re one of those weirdos who subscribes to a newsletter about podcasts written by some rando snake person, you probably already know the basics: over the course of last week, Audible initiated the staggered rollout of a new feature called “Channels,” a portal through which the company now delivers what it’s calling “short-form listening experiences.” Right now, such short-form content on offer appears fairly limited, and a little strange: narrated reads of articles from newspapers like the Washington Post (natch) and the New York Times, some stand-up recordings, and even a couple of meditation guides for the Headspace-inclined. (Nieman Lab, as usual, has a good breakdown on the details.)

There’s no mistaking what we’re seeing here: Audible has effectively changed its definition almost overnight — it is no longer an audiobook company, but an audio content company, broadly speaking.

What we don’t see, however, is original podcast content. Which isn’t to say that there aren’t any podcasts in there right now — some digging through the Channels library reveals episodes from established podcast brands like APM’s Marketplace and Risk! — but there doesn’t appear to be anything that’s specially commissioned or developed by the original content team over in Audible’s baroque New Jersey campus, anything that feels like the podcast-equivalent of Amazon Video’s Transparent or Mozart in the Jungle. (More on that in a second.)

Channels has been a long time coming. Whispers of Audible developing their own content — along with a more general portent towards aggressively stretching beyond its audiobook offerings — first hit my radar when the company hired Eric Nuzum away from NPR, where he was vice president of programming, to serve as the company’s senior vice president of original content. That happened last May. Since then, the company has been steadily packing its original content team with a long line of strong producers with solid public radio lineages: Jesse Baker, Ellen Horne, Martha Little, Lina Misitzis, and John L. Myers, among others.

But with the new feature rolling out in what appears to be in restrained fashion, it appears that I’ll have to wait a little more to see how Audible really takes a swing at the podcast market  — and what, exactly, the rest of us are in for.

Or, you know, I could lob some questions over at Nuzum himself.

Q&A With Eric Nuzum. Shortly after news of the rollout began to trickle out, I managed to corner Nuzum in the kitchen of an unmark Flatiron District office building to ask a few questions.

Here’s the interview, lightly edited and condensed:

There’s probably not much you can say, so let’s start with this: what can you tell me on the record?

“It’s really exciting for people to see “Channels,” which is something that was being worked on for a long time way before I got to Audible. I would describe it as if you’ve just shown a house that’s empty — it doesn’t have any furniture, there’s nobody living in it — and it’s the very, very elemental foundation of what we plan to do. There are things there right now that we’re very proud of, but it’s a fraction of what we expect to be in that place over the next couple of months.

“People will find some narrated licensed material, some comedy material — which is an area we’re going to go much larger in — some drama, some literature. There is very little original stuff in there right now, almost none…”

And when can we expect the originals?

“Later.

“As we get into the summer, things will get clearer both in terms of what we’ve been working on and the scale of our ambition. And I will say that “scale of our ambition” has two possible meanings, both of which are correct. So, scale of ambition as in how many things we’re working on, and also in terms of what we’re doing.

“Look, when I left NPR, everybody came up to me and said, ‘I want to see what shows you’re going to build, what podcasts you’re going at Audible.’ And that’s the completely wrong question, and it never has been the question.

“I’m not at Audible to build podcasts. I’m at Audible to start a revolution. In the way audio is produced, and in the way audio is distributed.

“I look at some of things that frustrate people in the podcasting space, and I’m trying to solve them both for creators and for listeners. So, it really is not a question of what shows we create. The question we ask is: ‘what do people want to listen to?’ That gets into a whole broader category of types of content than what you typically hear from podcasts.

“I’m actually of the belief that one of the reasons many people don’t listen to podcasts is because there aren’t podcasts people want to listen to. There’s no audio content that matches a broader section of interests. And so we’re trying to figure out some of that other space.”

Are we going to see non-American audio programming in Channels soon?

“We’re trying to get this right here [in the United States] first.

“But one thing that we’ve learnt — which surprised me — is how un-parochial people are in content interest. There are people in other territories, countries, and areas of the world…. There isn’t a linear line we see where American people are interested in American content and British people are interested in British content.

“It’s always been about: “Is this relevant and good to me?” And if you hit that relevant bit and be good, the boundaries and borders completely open up. That’s caused us to take a much broader look at the world of content sourcing as well as who we’re working with and who we’re offering it to.”

Do you look for pitches?

“Yeah, we do. But I think that… so, one of the things that a lot of people have been confused by is what are our aspirations are. If you draw a Venn diagram between podcast and public radio and what Audible is doing, there’s a lot of crossover. But we’re doing a lot of stuff outside the crossover. There’s a lot of things that will feel and sound like podcasts, but there will be a lot of things that sound very different. We’ll make some big mistakes, but we’re trying to expand out the realm of what people think of when think of what short-form listening experiences can be.

“It’s an intoxicating thing to say to people that we have the appetite and aspiration to do things that other people can’t do. One of the things that I always tell producers pitching me is that if you can imagine something being a podcast, it’s probably not a big enough idea for us. I think our risk tolerance is very high.

“We’re at the point now where things are starting to come in, and we’re finishing things and stacking things up. And we’re rejecting a large number of things because they sound like they can be on NPR, because they sound like a podcast. It would be very easy just have everything sound like what you’d expect. We’re always pushing to go further — and sometimes we’ll get there, and sometimes we won’t.

“If you’re giving us the same pitch that you’re giving to Gimlet or Midroll or whatever, we pass on almost all of those. But if someone has a crazy idea, or an amazing story, and they just don’t know how to get someone to back them… It’s got to be a big idea. We want big ideas.”

So that’s that.

Mind you: it’s all sheer potential right now for Audible, and it remains to be seen how the company will ultimately change things up for the rest of us. We don’t know yet how it will affect the podcast industry, opportunities for creators, the producer labor market, and overall non-music audio consumption (what a clunky word! I wonder how Edison Research is going to deal with measurements). And we have yet to see whether it’ll result in a net positive for all digital audio businesses or in a familiar eating of the industry, whether it’ll become the center of the universe or break up the ecosystem into a multiverse. And whether it will truly pull from the obvious advantages enjoyed by the company on paper: instant access to a large existing pool of subscribers, along with gobs and gobs of money and resources from a terrifyingly dominant company with tentacles that stretch into a murderer’s row of parallel industries.

It’s all potential right now. Which is fine; I’ll just leave my tin foil hat on.

By the way, if you’re wondering: Audible members get full access to the new content libraries, while non-members are only provided with 30 minutes of free listening. Basic memberships go for $14.95 a month.

NPR, One More Time. So here we are again. Sunday night treated us with a Slate cover story that rang ye old “what’s the future of NPR?” bell, extending the conversation recently instigated by the NPR Memo kerfuffle well into its fourth week.

The article didn’t bring us anything particularly new, but it does do a pretty good job neatly summing up all the future of NPR talk. In case you’re short on time, here’s the back-of-the-flap version: young pub radio listeners are shifting towards digital! NPR is still dependent on broadcast, because member stations! The podcasts are coming! Critics are all like “the NPR C-suite is too slow to innovate!” Jarl Mohn, NPR CEO, is all like “y’all don’t do news”! And so on, and so on.

All that stuff is still true. But as I enter the fourth week of watching the discussion play out around the ol’ social media watering hole and gossiping on this subject with many, many people — what else can I do? — I’m beginning to feel something of a tension. Eh, maybe I should’ve felt it a long time ago, but it hit me really hard this week.

It’s interesting, I think, to consider that much of the critique that we’re seeing — particularly those from Adam Davidson, whose writings and quotations powers much of the skepticism that appears in these Future of NPR pieces, including Slate’s — appears to be grounded in an outsized optimism for the swathe of new podcast companies that have emerged outside the public radio system.

But the fact of the matter is: we still don’t know how it’s all going to shake out. We don’t know if Gimlet, or Panoply, or Acast is going to grow, thrive, and blossom into influential businesses. Right now, they’re all oodles of potential, and as most of us know from decent first dates, potential is intoxicating. I guess my point is: it’s a little premature to turn the heat up on NPR from the outside with such vigor and optimism in the rise of the new. They still have a lot of work that they to do to justify all that chest-pumping.

Also: to critique NPR, and to be anxious about the fate of NPR, is to be invested in the outcome of high quality public interest journalism delivered in the audio format. Which makes it further interesting that, given the intensity of some of these critiques, none of these buzzy, new audio-oriented organizations seem to be substantially investing in the production and delivery of news for the public interest, at least not at this point in time.

To be fair, it makes some strategic logic for these new audio companies to not deal in hard news. I was once told by a very smart person that if you’re looking to enter a market with strong incumbents, you probably want to compete orthogonally — which is to say, don’t take them head on, and own the spaces they’re not touching. For Gimlet, it’s a steady stream of highly-produced narrative podcasts that are not the bread and butter of NPR and public radio stations. And for Panoply (conjoined twin-company of Slate, and my former day job employer — hi guys!), it’s a web of talking heads programming that prizes analysis driven by personality, a currency public radio doesn’t ordinarily trade in. Those strategies has given those companies a solid foothold in their respective businesses.

But we’re still stuck with the reality that none of those companies, or any of the new audio companies for that matter, are explicitly engaged in the extra hard business of hard news. And as a result, none of them will either cause direct competition for NPR, which may spur them into readjustment, or lay the foundation for themselves to become the proper replacement should the public radio mothership match these apocalyptical prognostications.

So the critique has bit of a … I don’t want to call it hypocrisy necessarily, because it’s not as simple or straightforward as that, but a misalignment. A fundamental weirdness.

Again, I want to be clear that NPR’s C-suite still has to take its shifting fundamentals seriously. The quotes coming out of Jarl Mohn so starkly echoes the stuff legacy publications have said of digital media companies two or three years ago — I mean, damn. But I’m just saying that if we’re going to play that game, the knife should cut both ways.

If we take a few steps back, what do we see? New companies aren’t investing in news, and old companies aren’t investing in digital. And there’s a story here that’s really worth some attention, one that’s illustrated quite well in the Slate piece: “We are, after all, bombarded by news constantly—on our computers, on our phones, on TV, from newspapers, from cable news networks, from our friends on social media. Against that backdrop, it seems like there’s a very real possibility that the medium in which NPR’s reporters work—not just terrestrial radio, but audio full stop—could simply lose its place as a news source in people’s lives.”

To sum it all up, with prescriptions: on the one hand, sure, NPR and its wider network of member stations need to really move and get wise on life after broadcast. But on the other hand, critics from the side of the upstarts should really dial it down and start showing us something. Which is all to say: y’all should to stop throwing so much shade at each other, and start fighting the real battles that need to be fought.

Don’t cha know that the Bezos is coming for us all?

Okay, so I’ve rewritten this item like fifty times in the past four hours, and I’ve fallen into a rabbit hole so deep I’m not sure if I’ve inadvertently constructed a straw man. Did I get it wrong? Hit me up. I’m here for you.

One more thing. I’ve increasingly gotten the sense that this entire discussion — interesting as it is — has a certain generational quality. So, I think it’s worth us keeping in mind that is, in a lot of ways, is a privileged discussion. A lot of this debate seems to be driven among men of a certain age, race, and class, and there are tons and tons of young producers, reporters, and upstarts who are just looking for a place to catch a break and hone their craft, and the fact of the matter is the constellation of career opportunities afforded by these new audio companies haven’t actually touched the bottom, most-needed rung that will determine the fate of the craft, at least based on the increasing number of conversations I’m having. (More on that next week.)

So, to all you young producers reading this: I see you.

Alright, that’s all I got. I can’t squeeze out anything more — I need to preserve some brain juice to come up with some scheme to pay next month’s rent. Moving on.

Additional reading: Jay Rosen’s tweet string on the ideological dimension of this discussion. BuzzFeed’s Tracy Clayton taking the Slate article’s writer, Leon Neyfakh, up to task on his characterization of “low-touch productions.” Former public radio operative-turned-public digital intellectual Melody Joy Kramer’s “Public media is not content or platform. It’s more than that.”

WNYC Studios rolls out another launch.2 Dope Queens,” a new show from WNYC Studios featuring Phoebe Robinson and Jessica Williams, debuted last week to a good amount of press, scoring write-ups in Mashable, the Huffington Post, Tech Insider, andNBCNews.com. The show boasted strong positioning on the iTunes charts over the weekend, consistently occupying the top spot ahead of another newly launched public radio podcast, NPR’s Embedded — reflecting, perhaps, the two institutions’ mastery over iTunes as a marketing channel.

The release of 2 Dope Queens comes shortly after the launch of another WNYC Studios project, “There Goes The Neighborhood,” the limited-run series about gentrification in Brooklyn which premiered in early March. That we’ve been treated with two WNYC Studios launches within the span of a month suggests that we’re finally entering the first wave of projects coming out of the public radio station’s new podcast division since it was announced last October.

So what other shows should we be keeping an eye out for? According to the New York Times’ article covering the division’s launch back when it happened, we’re still due for a show with author Roxane Gay, a scripted fiction series with comedian Sara Schaefer, a Radiolab-spinoff that will focus on the Supreme Court, and a show that will come out of a partnership with Vice News.

Bites

  • The second season of NPR’s highly successful Invisibilia podcast will drop in June. For those keeping tabs, last November the show added Hannah Rosin — of the Slate Double X Gabfest, and who you can also find in a recent Trumpcast episode — as the third co-host. (Twitter)
  • The lovely Radio Diaries, which is now a podcast distributed beneath the Radiotopia banner but was once a wee audio experiment, turned 20 years old last Friday. The team will be doing a bunch of things to celebrate the occasion over the next month, including releasing a story that’s been in development for over two years. So watch out for that. (Radio Diaries)
  • “Hear the Fear: The Rise of the Horror Podcast.” Couple of juicy numbers from this: the independent Lore podcast reportedly averages 385,000 downloads a week, while the beloved Black Tapes podcast scores about 200,000 a month. (The Atlantic)
  • It’s come to my attention that WNYC’s Women in Podcasting festival won’t be invite-only this year, and that interested participants can apply on the website. Applications are due on April 15. (WNYC)
  • “More than 200 free ideas for your next podcast.” (Medium)

Friday

18

March 2016

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Hot Pod Pro: Audible — About That Sharing Feature

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It’s been awhile since we’ve heard from our good friends at Audible, son of Amazon, and I don’t know about you, but when you function in an ecosystem with a giant elephant in the room, it’s hard not to think about the futility of all that you’re doing when you’re fully aware that the elephant, in full possession of nuclear launch codes, hasn’t made a sound for a few weeks running. I’m doing a terrible job with the metaphors here, but you get what I’m saying.

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Tuesday

15

March 2016

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Infinite Dial 2016, Trumpcast, iTunes and Advertisers

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Infinite Dial. The numbers are in, and… well, they’re looking quite good. Last Thursday, Edison Research dropped the latest edition of their annual “Infinite Dial” report, a survey study that looks at consumer adoption of digital media. The report, which is conducted in partnership with Triton Digital, holds a particular emphasis on audio, though it also contains pretty fascinating excursions into social media and whatever’s going on in the streaming space more broadly. And, unless I’m committing a massive piece of oversight here, it’s also the biggest reputable independent study that has observed the podcast format almost since the medium’s inception, with survey data going back to 2006. (That’s a long time, guys! A long time!)

Do check out the whole report on Edison Research’s website, but here are the three big things that are stuck in my head:

(1) Mainstream. According to the study, an estimated 98 million Americans have listened to a podcast at least once in their lives. Put another way, that’s more than 1 in 3 Americans surveyed by this study. I mean, that measure is pretty dramatic, and it also sounds pretty loose — just because you tried something doesn’t mean that something is meaningful, but then again it does show that you at least know about the thing enough to actually try it out. But if you contextualize that these two other data points:

  • More than 1 in 5 Americans report having listened to a podcast within the past month; and

  • Podcast consumption skews towards the younger side. (The data shows that monthly consumption by respondents in the 12-24 age range is growing at a faster rate and at a higher volume than respondents in 25-54 and 55+ age range.)

… you get a picture of the medium trending towards a fairly hopeful future. The study also pretty strongly declared: “Nearly 100 million Americans have ever listened to a podcast — it has made the jump to mainstream.”

(2) Gender. According to the study, the number of women consuming podcasts has effectively doubled since 2013. Specifically, 18% of women surveyed report having listened to a podcast within the past month, up from 9% in 2013. Data still confirms that podcasting is a predominantly white male thing, but I’m fairly confident that this trend of gender diversification will continue, if only for the reason that enough people making stuff for the market is going to figure out that gender and race-inclusive programming is a positive value differentiator.

(3) Continuing Shift Towards Mobile. 64% of respondents who consume podcasts report doing so primarily on their mobile devices, up from 55% in 2015. Though, some may well find it strange that a significant chunk of people consume podcasts on desktop in the first place, although it’s actually a fairly established consumption behavior especially when you think back to how difficult it was to catch a pod on your phone before the great gods of Apple decided to bundle the native Podcast app, which is widely understood to drive roughly 70% of pod consumption, into iOS by default. (FWIW, a ton of my listening happens on desktop, both as  headphones and through my Bluetooth speaker, which I also happen to take into the shower with me. Probably too much information, but I’m just sketching out, you know, multiple use cases and such.)

Related to this desktop situation is whether significant podcast consumption happens on YouTube, which is a fair inquiry because, according to the Infinite Dial study, a sizable portion of music consumption takes place on YouTube (14% of respondents report using YouTube most often to keep up-to-date with music, to be exact). I personally haven’t found any reliable sources concretely proving this behavior on a wide scale, though I have seen some successful case studies of YouTube-as-podcast-consumption-source. Most notably,Welcome to Night Vale and some shows under the Loud Speakers Network tend to drive tens of thousands of listens through their YouTube channels, and podcasts with strong video components — like KindaFunny and some of the old Grantland shows — also tend to post strong numbers on the platform.

So that’s the big stuff from the study that I wanted to talk about. But there is one more thing that I want to riff on, if you’d be so kind to indulge me:

What’s In A Word? Right now, the Infinite Dial report’s definition of a podcast is one that’s pegged to a classic description: the consumption of non-music audio content through a specific kind of on-demand delivery channel, i.e. the Apple podcasting app — once widely described as a “podcatcher” — and its myriad of smaller competitors that deliver audio content in the exact same way (Overcast, Stitcher, and so on). But as we move deeper into the year, we’re going to see several developments that will directly challenge the clarity of that definition. Namely:

  • The rolling out of Audible’s original content, which will likely be distributed through an infrastructure that bears little resemblance to the way we currently consume podcasts — and how we create podcasts, for that matter;

  • The scaling up of Spotify’s “Audio/Video shows” offerings, whenever that happens. They’re still buried pretty deep in the Spotify UI, and it’s worth noting that the use of the word “show” over “podcast” is noteworthy;

  • The launch of Google Play Music’s Podcast feature. Again, whenever that happens. Early rumors pegged that the feature was supposed to be live by now, and that the “podcast” wording would be maintained. But as of this writing, the fate of both things remain unclear. In any case, with Google Play (and Spotify) podcasts are delivered through what is largely perceived as a streaming music, and if it feels like we’re splitting hairs with the nomenclature here, I’d say that the words are important, because how these words play out among mass audiences and popular culture will directly influence how respondents are going to react the surveys like Infinite Dial moving forward.

Here, then, we begin to be able to see how the long established parallels between podcasts and blogs — sketched out perfectly by Nieman Lab’s Joshua Benton not too long ago — will come to play out its predictive accuracy and teleology. Audio content produced for the Internet and distributed through the Internet will soon no longer be identified based on a singular technological method (the aforementioned “podcatcher”), but to the #content itself. And when that happens, what we’ll see is a narrative that’s less of a clash between an insurgent and an incumbent (“the future of radio”), but rather, a clash between content factions defined by generations, communities, and cultures (“a type/genre/kind of radio”).

For what it’s worth, I’m fairly certain that, with its liberation from an infrastructurally-imposed definition, the word “podcast” will lose all of its original meaning by the end of the calendar year. My sense is that it will likely become an identifier for a certain corner of a reconstituted landscape of all non-music audio content that’s created and distributed digitally. It’s a scope that will not only include the new podcasting companies of the last year or so, public radio, and digital media companies developing new audience development channels in the audio space (which have been my topical biases, in case you haven’t already noticed), but also commercial radio powers, streaming and Internet radio companies like iHeartMedia and SiriusXM, and community radio infrastructures.

It’s a kind of convergence; or, if you’d allow me some drama, a kind of collision.

As you can imagine, this poses an editorial challenge for me. I’ve never pretended to be comprehensive in scope with Hot Pod, but I’ve always been focused on a certain narrative of change — and power — when I sit down and choose stories to pursue every week. So, with this expected shift, I’m still not quite sure how I’ll adapt my terms and coverage, but I should figure it out and whip out, like, a mission statement pretty soon, I imagine.

The Value-Add of a Podcast Network. Slate President Keith Hernandez was on the Digiday podcast last week, and in addition to talking about the larger developments on the business and advertising fronts of the 20-year-old publication, he also got the chance to talk a bit about the company’s sister podcasting business, Panoply — which I used to work for, by the way, in case you’re new to this column. I never got to work directly with Hernandez back when I was bumming around the Slate offices, so it’s interesting to me to hear how he articulates the company’s value proposition.

Anyway, there’s a bit in the conversation that stood out to me where Digiday’s Brian Morrissey astutely points out the fundamental challenge of podcast networks, or any network in general for that matter:

BM: “Is it one of those things when someone becomes… It’s like ad networks always have this problem, their clients always wanted to fire them because they wanted to become self-sufficient so they wouldn’t have to share [revenue]. Is that a thing where people get to a certain size, they sort of leave behind the network?”

KH: “I don’t think anybody wants to be a logo on a slide, you know? What we care about on that end, when working with big partners and big publishers, is how can we be more than just a network, that logo on a slide? How can we provide help on the production end, how can we provide insights, the right music supervisor and producers for their shows. It’s more a partnership on the creation side than it is a partnership on the monetization side.”

You can check out the whole conversation on Digiday. The section on Panoply begins at the 17:00 mark.

In tangentially-related news, Slate launched a pop-up podcast yesterday called “Trumpcast,” which features short (~15 minute) near daily audio reporting by (the very boss) Jacob Weisberg, Slate Group’s Editor in Chief and Chairman, on all things Trump. This thing is great, guys; it’s such a smart way to swiftly leverage newsroom resources to create something that speaks directly to the present moment. Gah, it makes me so angry how good and specific and focused it is. *punches wall, throws over table* #@%$%@%@

“They might not understand it, but they’ll put it out.” I’m talking to Shannon Cason, the Detroit-based creator of Homemade Stories. We were discussing his show, which is distributed by WBEZ, and I was asking about the importance of a distribution partner fully “getting” his work and all its layers — which flow back and forth through race, class, masculinity, and all the complexities that come in the many overlaps — in order to work with it. Cason had a pragmatist’s approach to the question; when it happens, it’s great, but it doesn’t really matter.

We talked about how he viewed his relationship to being identified as a “black writer.” He pointed out a recent New York Times piece on podcasts that cited his show and made his race an explicit descriptor. Based on my read, it appeared that the piece brought it up to delve into the way Cason’s show brings out his experience as a black man, but Cason wondered why racial label and framing weren’t applied to the other shows mentioned in the article, namely Startup and Serial. “I don’t mind it… but I don’t approach stories as black stories,” he said. “I purposely don’t mention race in my stories; I let people fill in the blanks. It’s a pretty smart audience. They’ll get it.”

“I don’t ever push away being a black man, that’s an obvious fact of life,” he wrote me later. “But the stories on my podcast are universal and for any and everyone…and just honest entertaining storytelling.”

Homemade Stories, by the way, is a great listen. It’s firmly rooted within the storytelling genre in the vein of The Moth, Mortified, and True Story, but it’s also written diaristically, almost confessionally, to a point where it shares elements of the casual monologue preferred by comedy podcasters. Bill Burr, in particular, comes to mind with his rambling, inward-facing, and often terribly personal extended monologues on his Monday Morning Podcast. (Cason professes to being a fan). But where Monday Morning is shaggy and loose, Homemade is tightly written, serving up something that’s thoughtful, fun, and often gorgeous.

On iTunes, Part Two. Last week, I went deep into what, exactly, makes the iTunes charts tick. There were two takeaways: firstly, the charts act as a sort of “trending” measure based on iTunes interactions — chiefly, new subscriptions — and secondly, the iTunes charts being the only major consumer-facing value signifier of podcasts distorts the medium’s ability to understand itself.

Given its ambiguous capacity to adequately convey value, I was curious about the extent to which the charts reflect value outwards. Specifically, I wanted to know how it influences the thinking of advertisers, and whether it creates informational inefficiencies that makes it difficult for advertisers to find decent campaign opportunities, for ad buyers to buy ads, and for creators to create sustainable revenue streams. I asked around, and found that podcast advertisers and media buyers do, indeed, rely on the charts for information, but only to a point. (Thankfully.)

“Advertisers mostly care about whether a show drives results for them,” said Lex Friedman, Midroll Media’s EVP of sales and development. “But certainly, there’s a core group of advertisers I hear from anytime they notice a new show catapult into the top ten. They don’t mind if a show that’s already working doesn’t rank there; they know the numbers and are happy regardless. But when a new show jumps into the iTunes charts, advertisers are definitely curious about whether we represent it, or know who does, and can help them get on it.

Karo Chakhlasyan, a media buyer with Los Angeles-based ad agency Oxford Road, agrees with this perspective. “As a buyer, it doesn’t really matter to me where a podcast is on the charts,” he told me over the phone last week. “But it does play a role in outreach. Every Tuesday, I get together with one of our media coordinators and go through the list to see if a podcast broke into the Top 200 or get featured. And then we get the podcast on the phone and try to get a general idea of whether we’re able to buy.”

But the charts’ particularities often generate poor leads for advertisers. Chakhlasyan describes often finding himself on calls with small podcasts that have short shelf-lives. “Usually, those calls don’t pan out too well because it usually turns out that they’re not really serious about the show. Maybe they’re on the charts by luck, or some lucky marketing push that gets them featured,” he explained.

At the same time, however, the charts have been helpful for advertisers to check against… let’s call it improprieties. “Advertisers have also used the iTunes charts (in part) to get wise when a show touts numbers that don’t add up,” said Friedman. “For example, if you hear a show is doing 1.5M downloads per episode, and it doesn’t rank anywhere in the iTunes Top 200, you know that what you’re hearing is hooey.”

Next week, I close out this mini-series on iTunes with some notes on what the future might look like with respect to podcast charts. Cool? Cool.

Bites

  • “Dear Data And FiveThirtyEight Want You To Visualize Your Podcast Habits.” (FiveThirtyEight)

  • Triton Digital bags a second partner for its TAP audio advertising platform: Whooshkaa, an Audioboom/Acast-like end-to-end podcast company out of Australia. This comes weeks after Triton signed a deal with NPR to power their podcast ads. (Rainnews)

  • Interestingly, Midroll is now selling a portion of podcast ads for APM’s Marketplace. (Twitter)

  • Chicago radio personality Garry Meier, formerly of WGN Radio, launched an individual-oriented premium subscription podcast service over the weekend. Howard Stern is slated to be one of his first guests. (RobertFeder.com)

  • The Maximum Fun Drive is currently underway! And while you’re checking it out, be sure to hit up Jonah Keri’s interview with Jesse Thorn, all-father of Maximum Fun. (MaximumFun.org / Nerdist)

  • “Debatable,” the most recent Radiolab episode, is a truly, truly remarkable thing to behold. (Radiolab)

  • I’ll just leave this here. (I-Kid-A-Pod)

  • Oh, and this too. (The Future of Listening Hackathon) [h/t LG]

  • Looking for a job in radio? My man Sam Greenspan, who you can find lurking around Oakland with 99% Invisible, has got your back. (YSLTF)

Post Notes

Alright folks, three housekeeping items:

  • As you can probably see, I’m scrapping the break-out diversity column in favor of incorporating straight into the main body of information. Much like how native advertising wants to sneak into your eyeline/subconscious, the subject of inclusiveness will follow the same route.
  • After three weeks of testing, I’ve come to believe that The Thing Friday member newsletters should be deep dives on topics as opposed to (a) shorter but more news items or (b) continuations of Tuesday’s topics. It’s going to be a challenge to put out something decent every week on top of Tuesday’s stuff, but what the hell, I already got out of bed. Let’s do this.
  • I’ve decided to get back to writing short podcast reviews. I mean, what the hell, I’ve already come this far, and I’ve bought all these 5-hour energy bottles. Can’t let them go to waste. You can find them on Wednesdays on the website, HotPodNews.com. They’re going to about 200-400 words, and it’s going to be one a week, and I can’t promise they’ll be any good.

Cool? Cool. Last night, I dreamt that I was walking around JFK for hours looking to buy a bottle of water. Which is miserable purgatory enough, I imagine, but so is waking up to a cold, wet, rainy morning, finding that you’re out of grounds, and figuring that you can get by with whatever zing you can suck out of a decaffeinated green tea packet. See you next week, folks.