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Friday

3

March 2017

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COMMENTS

About Those Original Spotify Podcasts

Written by , Posted in Hot Pod Weekly

This is Issue 109. Published February 28, 2017.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Speaking of Gimlet…

Gimlet announces its spring slate. The returning shows are:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(1) Tobey’s Role and Immediate Priorities.

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

(2) What defines an APM show?

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

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

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

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

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

Two things to note:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bites. 

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

Tuesday

6

December 2016

0

COMMENTS

A Mess of (Distribution) Options

Written by , Posted in Uncategorized

TLDR
  • Midroll makes a slew of executive hires.
  • The Quick and Dirty Tips network looks forward to a focused 2017, and welcomes a new sister podcast network.
  • NPR One opens up an in-app pathway for direct donations to the public radio mothership from non-American listeners.
  • The Financial Times caps an aggressive year in podcasting with the launch of “Everything Else,” their fifth launch in 2016.
  • The IAB releases a revised Digital Audio Buyers guide. Is grouping podcasts with the rest of digital audio a good thing? *shruggie*
  • Notes on navigating an environment saturated with distribution points.

Midroll’s new executive hires:

  • Korri Kolesa is the new head of sales, replacing Lex Friedman as he settles into his new Chief Revenue Officer role.

  • Eric Spiegelman is the new VP of Business Affairs, taking now-CEO Erik Diehn’s place. I’m being told more information on this hire will be released soon.

  • Peter Clowney is the new executive editor. He was previously the head editor at Gimlet Media.

Of particular interest is Kolesa, who is taking over what is probably Midroll’s biggest revenue engine, its ad sales business. A digital media veteran with ample experience heading up sales teams for digital products not quite yet understood by the advertisers — she led the strategy for sites in the Fox Interactive Media portfolio like MySpace and IGN in the late 2000s, if that means anything to you — Kolesa is being brought in by Midroll to transition its sales operations out of its often patchwork startup configurations towards structures more capable of scaling. She was most recently a Project Director at Spark No. 9, a consultancy aimed at launching new businesses.

“Our team already knows how to sell, so the focus now is going to be, ‘what can we optimize?’” said Lex Friedman, who has headed sales at the company since 2013. Friedman was recently promoted to Chief Revenue Officer following former CEO Adam Sachs’ departure over the summer. Friedman will still be involved in the sales side, but his role will see him spending more time figuring out the next steps for the company’s emerging live events strategy and getting ready for a “significant announcement” regarding its premium subscription business, Howl. That’ll come “pretty soon.” Kolesa started work yesterday.

The Road Ahead for the Quick and Dirty Tips network. The decade-old, 12-podcast strong network recently surpassed its 250 million lifetime download mark, and it’s getting ready for a busy, but focused, 2017. As network head Kathy Doyle told me over email:

We’re focused on continuing to build QDT’s audience and increase distribution for our core shows. We’re always open to testing new talent but, for now, we want to ensure we’re able to tap into the surge we’re all seeing in podcast consumption and make sure we’re reaching new listeners as we work to continue our great growth.

Also on the plate: the launch of a sister network. For those unfamiliar, QDT is a joint venture between MacMillan Publishing and Mignon Fogarty, whose Grammar Girl podcast anchors the network (you can find more details in a recent profile by freelance journalist Simon Owens), and Doyle informs me that the publishing house is getting ready to launch the MacMillan Podcast Network, its own slate of author-centric shows. She writes:

We’re taking our expertise and leveraging relationships with in-house Macmillan authors who are logical fits for the medium. These new shows will come in a variety of formats to help deepen relationships with readers and expand an author’s platform.

This new MacMillan network appears to be the logical conclusion of a long-running trend that sees authors adopting podcasts as a channel to deepen and sustain their relationship with audiences — and not to mention, to build out an alternative revenue stream to book sales. (See: Maximum Fun’s Magic Lessons podcast with Elizabeth Gilbert, Panoply’s Happier with Gretchen Rubin podcast, and so on.) I’d be interested to see if other book publishers will follow suit; though, given that none of them possess an arrangement quite like that between MacMillan and QDT, I kinda doubt it.

Anyway, the nascent MacMillan Podcast Network is kicking things off by releasing a preview of an upcoming author show: Raise My Roof with Cara Brookins, which is meant to accompany Brookins’ memoir that’s scheduled for a January release.

Some non-American NPR One listeners will be able to donate directly to NPR through the app, starting next year. This marks the first time the public radio mothership is establishing a contribution pipeline directly with listeners, according to a Current article on the matter.

If you’re asking, what about Americans? Well, join the club. When I popped the question over to the network, a spokesperson replied: “We are actively working to improve the local-station pledge experience within the app over the coming months… In 2017, we will expand on this by working with a pilot group of stations to explore a more direct connection between their listeners and their payment gateway.”

That likely means direct donations from American listeners to NPR will remain off the table. If that bums you out, considering purchasing 50 Nina Totin’ Bags off the NPR merch site. The effect is probably equivalent, plus some percentage sales tax.

The Financial Times rolls out the latest in its growing line of podcasts last week: Everything Else, a culture magazine show. This marks fifth podcast that the paper has launched in 2016. (Which, y’know, seems kind of aggressive.)

When I asked how the paper evaluates its podcast strategy, a spokesperson replied:

We measure the success of our podcasts in a number of ways. Subscriber numbers are important, of course, but we also gather data on engagement — whether readers favorite or share our podcasts, whether readers write in and interact with our hosts. Shows like FT Management’s Business Book Review and Alphachat have particularly enthusiastic listener responses.”

High engagement is great, but of course, the larger question is whether the organization will be able to translate that into a proportional revenue outcome that would justify the investment. Anyway, when I requested for some stats on the publication’s podcast audience, I was told there were over 3.5 million downloads of FT podcasts in the last 30 days. Cut that up however you will.

Just a side note: the only FT podcast that I consume with any regularity is Alphachat. That show goes deep, really embracing its casual wonkiness — a direct extension of its parent blog, Alphaville, which just celebrated its 10-year anniversary — and that’s generally a winning formula for the specific value proposition that the medium brings to a publication like the Financial Times.

The Outline went live yesterday, with a new podcast in its lineup: “Sound Show.” The publication now has two other shows: Tomorrow, which basically functions as founder Joshua Topolsky’s personal stump, and Out West, a fan theory pod for HBO’s Westworld, which wrapped its first season this past weekend. And for those keeping tabs: the pods are hosted on Megaphone.

Outline audio director John Lagomarsino tells me that he’s totally taking freelance pitches for Sound Show. “We’re not limiting it to just in-house writers, by any means. Multi-story episodes with a mix of writers/producers is totally the vibe we’re gonna arrive at,” he says. Hit it up, buds.

The Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) releases revised Digital Audio Buyers Guide. For those unfamiliar, the IAB is a trade association that functions as a kind of mediating body between various aspects of the digital media ecosystem and the advertising community. The IAB has played a somewhat active role in attempting to attract more advertisers to the podcast industry, in part by trying to get podcast companies to cooperate over a standard ad metric (last I heard, with mixed results), in part by setting the narrative for advertisers. The buyers guide comes out from the latter, and this particular version was prepared by Jennifer Lane, the association’s newly appointed Industry Initiatives Lead for Audio. Lane previously worked at the digital audio trade news site RAIN News.

Obviously, check out the guide in full if you work on the advertising side of things, but this is what I’m primarily thinking about:

One has to wonder about the narrative/branding effects of lumping podcasts together with the rest of digital audio, placing the format — and its very specific quirks (as well as potential) — within the same buying conversation as streaming services like Pandora, Spotify, and iHeartMedia. Those latter companies currently function at a much greater scale than podcasts, and the value propositions for the two groups, both in terms of advertising formats and content, are drastically different. That being said, there is some transaction to be made in that consolidation of types, I think; podcasting is able to get some spillover attention from those digital audio platforms whose narratives are already established, while those platforms benefit somewhat from the shiny novelty of podcasting’s (re)surging profile. (It is, after all, something new to talk about, no?) The question is whether or not that transaction is equitable, and that’s up to you to decide. My personal, initial impression is that it isn’t, and that the podcast industry suffers more from experiencing a high likelihood of being subjected to inappropriate one-to-one audience comparisons.

In any case, I’ve previously written about my suspicion that we’re bound for a convergence in platforms and types either way — that at some point, the term “podcasting” would have no functional purpose as the content being developed in the industry becomes more agnostic in how its being distributed. (We’ve begun to see some of that. Two examples: iHeartMedia’s peculiar creep into the podcast space, Audible’s repackaging of one of its original programs for distribution outside its Channels ecosystem.) I stand by the conclusion I made back when I first wrote about that potential convergence: that the podcast space, as well as the digital audio space more broadly, would begin to be more defined by its content type than by its distribution structure.

Related: iHeartRadio is apparently producing a podcast with Arianna Huffington’s new media venture, Thrive Global. Hm.

A Mess of Options. The number of potential distribution points for on-demand audio is kinda getting out of hand. Consider the following question on this date, the last month of 2016: if you’re a podcast publisher, which distribution platform should you be keeping a close eye on and investing tangible resources towards?

You have, of course, the de facto stronghold that everybody already knows about and has probably dedicated much of their distribution strategy to wooing: the native iOS Podcast app and its underlying iTunes infrastructure, whose share of ear is roughly upwards of 50%. But you also have the wide, wide range of independent third party podcast apps, from Overcast to Castro, all of which command some small percentage of the overall podcast listenership. And then you have Stitcher, previously one of the biggest of those third party apps, which was acquired earlier this year by Midroll Media and is therefore likely to see some resurgence in capital and activity. Now, let’s not forget the slew of new, buzzy contenders, like RadioPublic and 60dB (and not to mention the public radio-specific NPR One, which is less new but remains nonetheless part of this category), all jonesing to do some exciting with the consumer-side experience. And then you have the larger music streaming platforms, like Google Play Music and Spotify, which over the past year have added podcasts into their inventory… to so-far little revolutionary effect, it appears. (Which reminds me: best not leave out Pandora’s lone dalliance into the space with This American Life and Serial.) And then we have the more unconventional routes to market — things like Otto Radio, with its car-specific integrations and recently announced partnership with Uber, and the Amazon Alexa platform, which is pulling in a steady stream of short content publishers. And what about the spread of older audio streaming platforms in the space, like iHeartMedia and TuneIn, which are agitating their way into podcasts, whatever that means for those companies that come from drastically different structural interpretations of digital audio? Oh, and what about the connected car dashboard? (What ABOUT the dashboard?)

It’s a mercilessly long list, and from the whispers I’ve been hearing, it’s only going to get a whole lot longer as we move into the new year. Which is theoretically interesting; while I don’t completely buy the oft-uttered refrain that podcast discovery and distribution is broken — even now at the very end of 2016 (garbage, garbage 2016) — it remains well below par, and what’s theoretically exciting about all of this is how this reflects a high level of competition in approaches on how to improve listening experiences and growing the overall pie, which I view is a good thing.

But at this point in time, all those approaches are yet-to-fully-realized potentials, and a good chunk of them are requesting support — or at least, cooperation and participation — from publishers. This presents a problem for the perpetually resource-constrained podcast publisher, which I articulated at the top of this item: which nascent distribution platform should I be keeping a close eye on and investing tangible resources towards? I can’t tell you what to do, but here are three quick thoughts on the matter:

  • The basics: keep in mind that any such partnership is a transaction, and just the math of figuring out of whether any such arrangement you strike up equitably benefits both sides. After all, both publisher and platform are targeting the same thing: more listeners/users, and at the end of the day one imagines there would be some eventual tension in how both parties are competing for listener/user loyalty.

  • It’s quite possible that we end up in a situation where each app commands very specific kinds of users. Consider the possibility that a user who ends up primarily listening to podcasts over Spotify isn’t possess the same demographic or psychographic profile as a user who favors RadioPublic. These differences, then, should be the basis of a publisher’s strategy in the way it chooses which distribution partnership to invest more time, energy, and resources in. This also suggests a way every distributor can illustrate its value proposition in attempts to cultivate greater cooperation or participation with a given publishing partner.

  • This point should be obvious, but I’ll say it anyway: if you’re a resource-constrained publisher, don’t overextend yourself across all possible partnership options. Pick your battles, and your partners, wisely.

Anyway, that’s all I’ll say about that.

Bites:

  • Sam Sanders is leaving the NPR Politics Podcast roster at the end of January, though he’s staying at the public radio mothership and will be launching a new show. (Twitter) Sanders’ co-panelist, Asma Khalid, is leaving NPR to work the biz/tech beat at WBUR. She will also be launching a new podcast. (Twitter)
  • DGital Media is reportedly seeing revenue “in the high seven figures.” (LA Biz Journal)
  • “Hearst Is Launching a 10-Person Team Tasked With Building Voice-Activated Experiences.” (AdWeek)
  • “Using podcasts to capture stories: Gardner Pilot Academy sixth-graders push their writing and technical skills.” (Harvard Gazette)
  • “Here’s the climate change podcast you didn’t know you were looking for.” (The Verge)

Moves:

  • Bryan Moffett has been named the Chief Operating Officer at National Public Media, the entity that handles ad sales, underwriting, and sponsorship for NPR and PBS. He previously held the role of General Manager. Smart move.
  • Brendan Baker has left Love + Radio to spend some time exploring new projects and creative directions. “Basically I want to take what I’ve been doing on L+R and apply it in new contexts. So I’m open to collaborating with other shows or producers on special projects, but I also consult and teach workshops on sound design and would like to do more of that, too,” he told me over email. “I think we need producers need to start to thinking more like film directors. So I’d really love to talk to people who are in a position to fund audio projects that take a more cinematic approach toward direction and production.”
  • I’m being told that Leital Molad, who had helped launched WNYC’s health show Only Human and served as executive producer on that project, is the new Executive Producer for Podcasts at First Look Media. This development apparently took place back in October. Not sure what’s going on over there, will let y’all know soon.

Tuesday

23

August 2016

0

COMMENTS

The Limitation of Weekly News Podcasts

Written by , Posted in Hot Pod Weekly

A design challenge for political podcasts. I’ve spilt a fair bit of ink on election-related podcasts over the past few weeks here on Hot Pod, and perhaps just as well: for any serious news media endeavor, the US presidential elections is a fundamental reason for being, and for the professionalizing layer of the emerging podcast industry — so inclined to be taken seriously — the elections present an opportunity to step up and prove its worth. (Particularly given this exceptionally bonkers cycle, lord help us.)

But I had been planning to give it a rest today, because… oh I don’t know. I figured some variety in the A-slot is a good thing, and besides, there are always other summer concerns in Podcastland. Maybe I felt I needed a break, for fear of running out things to say. (The eternal dread of the columnist.) Maybe I did run out of things to say.

So thank goodness for Mother Jones editor-in-chief Clara Jeffery, who dropped a tweet last week that inspired a bout of head-nodding so hard I needed a neck-brace, and gave me my A-slot:

Political podcasts, particularly those of the conversational genre that publish on a weekly schedule, possess a peculiar kind of disposable value. Typically tethered to the state of the news cycle at the time of recording, they are often serve as a recap of the week: a place to catch up on the events of that specific 7 day stretch, and a space to reflect on their significance in the context of what has happened and what may happen in the days to come. With every episode, the discussion produces a model for the listener that helps guide their reading of the news, and like all models, they are forced into iteration by every future development. As a result, the discussion in those episodes — frozen as they are in time — exist with built-in half-lives; their value erodes, organically, as more new things happen.

It isn’t too difficult, then, to see how the breakneck rate of the developments coming out of the Trump campaign have exponentially decreased the half-life of this podcast genre and strains their value propositions. (Say what you want about the Clinton campaign’s controversies, at least they adhere to classic media tempos.)

What we’re left with are episodes that get way too stale, way too quickly. Given that the weekly gabfest format is a staple among podcasts, that’s not great, and the extremes of this anomalous cycle have drawn more attention to the limitations of the on-demand audio channel — or, more accurately, the way on-demand audio is wielded at this point in time. (I felt those limitations most acutely last week, when both the Ringer’s Keepin’ It 1600 and the Slate Political Gabfest dedicated segments on former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort’s ties to Russia, only to have the issue rendered moot when Manafort announced his resignation the next day. I ended up skipping them and spent the next two hours hitting the blogroll.)

There are, I think, pretty clear pathways to solving this problem:

(1) Per Jeffery’s tweet, the most straightforward way would be to increase the frequency of the output, so that rapid developments can be addressed at a faster rate and iterations can be made more aggressively. In other words, the move would be to make each episode more disposable but more responsive to the news. We’ve seen this executed before in the way several political podcasts tackled the conventions by pushing out special daily episodes (I highlighted some of them in last week’s write-up), and some, like the NPR Politics podcast, have additionally made good use of shorter update episodes published throughout the week. We also see this play out in choices made by some podcasts — The Pollsters is a good example of this — to go twice-a-week by design.

(2) An alternative would be the opposite route: adjust the approach to handle topics more thematically and render each episode less disposable (that is, more evergreen) than its competitors. This isn’t a practical option at all for many of these shows — as it would mean fundamentally altering their long-established value propositions — but I’d still argue it’s something to consider. We see executions of these in the many shows that are primarily interview-driven, like First Look Media’s Politically Re-Active, and idea-driven, like the New York Times’ The Run-Up podcast, which also has the distinction of taking a more blended approach. You could also go full Dickerson and pull a Whistlestop, but that’s taking it way too far.

(3) Here’s something left-field for ya’: break the archives, throw the whole frozen-in-time nature of the podcast episode out the damn window, and update older episodes in the archives as further developments take place. Theoretically speaking, this is a feasible option, given the possibilities afforded by dynamic ad insertion. Since we live in a world where podcast ads can be pretty easily swapped out of audio files to prevent them from getting stale and valueless, can’t we apply similar principles to the actual show itself? (Imagine if you could take all the energy and innovation focused on ads in the world, and apply it elsewhere.) Anyway, just a thought.

Jeffery also served up one more request that producers should consider: “More weekly podcasts should drop at beginning or middle of week. They bunch up!”

This, too, I heartily agree with.

Recode on the hunt. Recode, the tech industry news arm of Vox Media, is on the lookout for an executive producer for podcasts and audio. Dan Frommer, the site’s editor-in-chief, tells me that Recode has been “editorially and financially successful” with their early podcasting efforts — stretched out across four shows — and that this hire is a move to formalize audio as a key part of their product offering. Frommer expects to launch at least two new shows, including one “that will feature significantly more-ambitious, original audio journalism.”

I’ve expressed my admiration for the site’s podcast operations in the past, but I’ve always had a sense that they were starting gambits — both for the team and their parent company, Vox Media. Frommer suggests that this is very much case, noting that this move is “an early sign of things to come from Vox on the audio front.” Fascinating.

For reference, keep in mind that Vox Media’s other properties also have podcast experiments of their own, including: Vox.com’s partnership with Panoply to produce “The Weeds” and “The Ezra Klein Show,” The Verge’s “Ctrl+Walt+Delete” and “What’s Tech?” (among others), Eater’s “Upsell,” and Polygon’s eclectic suite of podcasts from the daily update show “Minimap” to the voiced features experiment “Polygon Longform.” It’s a bit of an unruly empire, and I suspect some sort of consolidation — whatever that means — might be in order if Vox Media is going to formalize its audio efforts across the board.

If that were to happen, and I’m just spit-balling here, the question would be the role that podcast networks will continue to play in that future configuration. To my knowledge, Vox Media works with two networks, DGital Media for Recode and Panoply for Vox.com, and in a podcast interview with Digiday’s Brian Morrissey back in June, Vox Media president Marty Moe explained the company’s relationship with networks as follows:

We’re using [podcast networks] but we’re selling directly, and that’s in part having to educate our sales teams about the advantages of podcasting and how to reach consumers best with brand messages, how to create the best kind of advertising. But we also work with networks because there’s just not enough direct selling right now to fill all of the opportunity.

Depending on how things look on the sales side at this point in time, I imagine these network partnerships may persist for a while. But given that no one has much of a handle over podcast distribution (just yet), one imagines that the value of these largely ad sales-driven network partnerships may well be drawn into question over time, particularly as Vox Media gets savvier handling podcast ad sales themselves.

Anyway, parties interested in the Recode job should check out the job posting, or hit up EIC Frommer himself at this email.

A Broadcast Partnership. Missed this earlier, but it’s worth tracking: last week, the satellite radio company SiriusXM announced that it will now broadcast the Yahoo Sports-affiliated Vertical Podcast Network, a stable of three personality-driven shows that are all produced by New York-based DGital Media. The podcasts will air every weekday in a 3pm ET slot (that’ll rotate between the three shows) on a few SiriusXM channels along with the SiriusXM app. Broadcast began last Monday.

This is the point in the write-up where I draw upon some historical context and note that this isn’t the first podcast property to find distribution over SiriusXM. Indeed, you can find another example in Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s popular Star Talk podcast, which was picked up last January for distribution over SiriusXM Insight, the channel within the satellite radio company’s offerings that focuses on “entertaining informative talk.” (A category that, interestingly enough, includes The Takeaway, which is a public radio program produced by PRI, WGBH, and WNYC. (I did not know about this partnership earlier, and finding this out brings new weight to the This American Life-WBAA dispute over the former’s Pandora partnership back in May.)

Similarly, this is also the point in the story where I’d raise examples of parallel partnerships between podcast shops and other more broadcast-esque platforms, like the aforementioned one between This American Life and Pandora, or one that saw iHeartRadio, the Internet radio streaming platform company, forming distribution partnerships with Libsyn and NPR.

And I happily bring up both those threads because they tug at a trend that I’ve been tracking for a while: an impending structural convergence and reorientation of what we talk about when we talk about on-demand audio. I last revisited that idea as recently as last month, and I’m going to re-up the same passage from my original analysis in March that I recycled for that July column:

For what it’s worth, I’m fairly certain that, with its liberation from an infra-structurally 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 … but also commercial radio powers, streaming and Internet radio companies like iHeartMedia and SiriusXM, and community radio infrastructures.

And here’s the concern I trumpeted in July:

Implicit in these hypotheses is an understanding that the core assumptions that make up the economics of the industry — the high CPMs relative to other audio and digital formats, the “intimate,” “opt-in,” and “highly engaged” narrative points in podcasting’s value propositions, and so on — will be fundamentally altered, and the onus should be on podcasting companies to both craft a new, evolved narrative as well as develop more involved methods of ad verification and impact assessments.

Anyway, this SiriusXM business also sees the Vertical Podcast Network becoming the first partner within the DGital Media portfolio, which also includes the Recode and UFC podcasts, to have its distribution expanded to include broadcast on top of its on-demand audio channel.

I asked Chris Corcoran, the company’s Chief Content Officer, whether broadcast distribution will be a standard value proposition brought to the other clients within DGital Media’s portfolio. “What I will say is that we have wonderful partners who are always aligned in thinking the same way, which is finding new ways to grow the audience,” Corcoran said. “From there, we figure out what makes since with each partner, respectively.” Cool.

Relevant: Missed this last month but keep tabs on this: “Pandora wants to add more podcasts to grow listening hours.” (Variety) In June, Lizzie Wilhelm Pandora’s SVP of Ad Product Sales and Strategy Lizzie, told the Hivio conference that the company was “pleased” with their partnership with “This American Life.”

Sound design, explained to me. While the past two years have yielded an absolute bumper crop of podcasts, it doesn’t quite feel like there has been a proportional increase in the specific kind of podcast that leans heavily on sound design to shape narrative experiences — which, quite frankly, is what drew me, and I suspect many others, to the iTunes page in the first place.

But what, exactly, do I mean when I say sound design*? My own understanding of the concept is fuzzy, despite my irresponsible, sweeping characterization here. I mean, I have some idea of how it feels — a sense of atmosphere, some gestures toward the “cinematic” — but what does actually it entail, and how does it tangibly differ from the skill-set exercised by your standard audio producer? I asked around.

“A sound designer is responsible for creating the sonic world of a piece, the space the story inhabits,” said Mira Burt-Wintonick, a sound artist who most recently worked on CBC’s Love Me podcast. (Her credits also include Wiretap). “A good producer and music supervisor will think about sound elements as well, of course, but a sound designer’s role is to make sure all those elements are all working together to create a unique aural space that envelops the listener and evokes the desired moods… Sound design is the difference between a two-dimensional image and a three-dimensional world.”

But sound design doesn’t have to be allocated to a specific role within the production process — more often than not, it’s another task to be handled by the assigned producer. “I like to think that being a sound designer is partly just a frame of mind,” notes Brendan Baker, who produces and sound designs Love + Radio. (His freelance credits include The Message and Invisibilia.) “Producers already ARE sound designers in some sense, it’s just a matter of how much time and attention you spend thinking about how your editorial and sonic choices have emotional or cognitive effects on your listeners.”

Both Baker and Burt-Wintonick draw great emphasis to sound design as an integral layer to the entire production process, as opposed to an add-on that happens in post-production. Baker tells me that, from his experience, he feels like way too many folks in the space consider scoring and sound design at the end of the entire production process. “I always encourage people to involve sound designers as early in the process as possible (ideally from the very start) to make the most effective work,” he said. “If I can replace the words with sound, it usually make the overall piece feel more streamlined and poetic.”

Burt-Wintonick presses the point more bluntly. “Sound design is what gives your podcast a reason to exist,” she said. “If you’re not thinking about sound design, why isn’t the story just a print piece?”

* Note: when I refer to “sound design,” I do not mean it to be synonymous with “high production value.” One thing does not automatically lead to the other, I’m fully aware, no more than black-and-white on student film theses. (Hours I will never get back.) Nor do I necessarily equate narrative podcasts with high production values either, or orient it in my head such that it outranks conversational podcasts in quality or value — though I suffer from many illusions, I don’t suffer from that one in particular.

Bites:

  • A few weeks ago, I wrote briefly about ESPN’s new multi-platform project, “Pin/Kings,” which kicks off its run as a podcast. CJR has a neat write-up digging deeper into the multi-platform approach, and contextualizes it within a broader spectrum of previous attempts at journalistic multi-platform approaches — including a collaboration between Mother Jones and the Reveal podcast. (CJR)

  • Gimlet expects to “exceed its 2015 revenue of $2.2 million by ‘multiples’ this year,” according to Digiday’s Max Willens. I’d take their word for it, given that Gimlet has been consistently good at articulating their performance in a way that doesn’t fluff the numbers — a trait that isn’t all that common in the space, quite frankly. (Digiday)

  • Earwolf does the obviously-smart-thing-to-do-in-2016 and launches a Hamilton-related podcast. “The Room Where It’s Happening,” hosted by comedy writers Travon Free and Mike Drucker, takes listeners on a “song-by-song journey through the biggest musical of all time.” This isn’t the first Hamilton-related podcast in existence, of course; I mean, how can it be? Other entries in the genre include: The Incomparable’s “Pod4Ham” and The Hamilcast. (iTunes)

  • WNYC Studio’s Freakonomics Radio has a spin-off in the works: “Tell Me Something I Don’t Know,” a new live-event and podcast that comes out of a partnership with the New York Times. (Freakonomics)

Get Rec’d

Here’s a rec from friend-of-the-show and Third Coast operator Maya Goldberg-Safir: this ep from Criminal. “This is maybe too basic, but it’s just unexpected and engrossing and totally gripping and like so odd in that could-be tabloid/TMX way but treated with thoughtfulness. Also I listened to this while watching that ‘OJ Simpson: Made in America’ doc so that’s all I really care about right now.”

Tuesday

7

June 2016

0

COMMENTS

Scripps Acquires Stitcher, Midroll CEO Steps Down, Hivio 2016

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Big Moves at Midroll Media and EW Scripps. Okay, two big things from Midroll:

(1) EW Scripps, the parent company of Midroll Media, has acquired Stitcher, the podcasting app that’s widely considered to be the popular alternative to the default Apple podcast app, for $4.5 million in cash. According to the Wall Street Journal report on the move yesterday, Stitcher will now operate under Midroll, with the former’s dozen or so employees being transferred onto Midroll’s payroll. Stitcher previously operated under Deezer, the French streaming audio company, after the latter acquired it for an undisclosed sum in October 2014. Stitcher had been quiet in terms of new developments ever since.

Acquisition talks started in earnest in early January, Midroll’s VP of Business Development Erik Diehn told me over the phone yesterday. “It’s one of those things where serendipity drove the whole process,” he said, further mentioning that both companies had compelling strategic reasons for the acquisition. In a separate call, Midroll CEO Adam Sachs provided clarity on this point: “Stitcher, as we know it as a podcatcher, is the second most popular podcast player in the world, and there’s a lot of value in there right off the bat,” he said. “But there are a lot of other pieces that are also really valuable, like the fact they come with a strong technology team.” Sachs pointed out how Midroll’s technology team has up until this point been fairly small, a state of affairs that complicates the fact that the company is increasingly pushing deeper into initiatives that require a lot more tech talent, like its premium subscription app Howl.

Speaking of Howl, it remains unclear how Stitcher will affect that particular technological piece of the company’s business. Diehn told the Wall Street Journal that at some point, the apps will “intersect,” and he told me that any plans for such intersection is TBD. “One thing we don’t want to do is disrupt Stitcher, and we don’t want Stitcher to disrupt Midroll,” Diehn said. He further added that Midroll aims to leave Stitcher’s role as a provider agnostic platform intact, in that it will continue serving users podcasts regardless of where they come from. “We won’t turn it into a walled garden, we’re leaving ads intact, and you won’t start seeing a giant feed of Comedy Bang Bang and Lauren Lapkus and the occasional Midroll show,” Diehn said.

The acquisition met some criticism, however, particularly from Overcast app creator Marco Arment and prominent tech blogger John Gruber, both of which represent strong voices in the podcasts-as-open-web-extension contingent of the ecosystem. They highlighted Stitcher’s nature as a proprietary platform, whose possible dominance — combined with some suboptimal elements of the platform’s agreements with creators — will lead not only to a closed ecosystem that’s bad for both creators and consumers . Both posts are worth the read (you can find them here and here). Midroll’s VP of Sales and Development Lex Friedman tweeted his disagreement, of course, and promised a more substantial rebuttal in a blog post to come.

Alright, so there’s that, but then there’s also the bombshell that…

(2) Adam Sachs, the company’s CEO, is stepping down. Sachs has been the CEO of Midroll since June 2014, taking over from Jeff Ulrich, one of the company’s original founders. He shepherded the company through its $50 million acquisition by Scripps in July 2015. Previously, Sachs was the co-founder of Stepout, a dating app that was acquired by IAC in September 2013.

Sachs first announced his departure to the company in an email sent out last Tuesday. “The truth is that I’ve been running a startup (Stepout and then Midroll) for nearly a decade and that’s exhausting!”, he wrote. “Still, at my core, I’m an entrepreneur. I still have the fire in my belly to build companies.”

According to the note, he will remain at the company for another week, after which he will spend another month on a consulting basis to aid with the transition. There is no clear successor or succession plan in place, though Diehn and Friedman are expected to take up the brunt of Sach’s managerial responsibilities. Sachs told me that a replacement might not take place any time soon, but added that he believes the company has a strong enough management team to handle the interim.

He has no idea what his next move will be, or so he tells me.

As for The Wolf Den, the company’s podcast about the podcast industry, there is also no clear successor in line. Though, from what I hear, Friedman and Chief Content Officer Chris Bannon are campaigning hard for the role.

Highlights from Hivio. I spent the better part of last week in Los Angeles, checking out a digital audio conference called Hivio. The conference drew a quirky mix of commercial radio, public radio, online audio, podcast, and assorted media types, and though it wasn’t immediately clear who, exactly, the intended audience was meant to be, I found the dynamics involved in the hodgepodge nonetheless informative. Many of these worlds have thus far kept each other at arms’ length, even as some grow more prominent and others begin to question their foundations, and as all these different digital audio sectors continue down what I’m fairly convinced is a collision course, it was great to get an early preview on how everyone will deal with each other.

Anyway, the conference programming drew out a lot of information — and even more rote talking points — and you can check out full recaps elsewhere, but here are a few things that stood out to me:

  • NPR’s VP of Programming and Audience Development, Anya Grundmann, noted in a presentation that the number of NPR listeners (across all platforms) over the age of 55 is now roughly the same as the number of listeners in the 13-34 age group. That data point comes from an Edison’s Share of Ear study covering the first quarter of 2016.

  • “We’re pleased with the experiment,” says Lizzie Widhelm, Pandora’s SVP of Ad Product Sales and Strategy, when discussing the company’s partnership with This American Life. Worth noting: Widhelm positioned the partnership as a move to keep its more engaged users from going off-platform in pursuit of spoken word content, something that those users previously couldn’t find on the service before.

  • ESPN’s SVP of Audio, Traug Keller, dropped a 40 million monthly download number for the company’s on-demand audio content. ESPN, by the way, isn’t a participant in Podtrac’s measurement system, so your mileage may vary.

  • Maximum Fun’s Jesse Thorn notes that the most popular show in his network is “Adventure Zone.” He also talked about the network’s unique conference/live events business, the “MaxFunCon,” noting that his team is developing a cheaper version in an effort to disrupt itself.

One more thing: it was interesting to see a few commercial radio executives citeZenithOptimedia’s podcast ad spend projection (paywall) — about $36.1 million in 2016 — when discussing the medium’s emergence in relation to their own businesses on-stage. Since that projection was first published some months ago, I’ve heard several podcasting executives vehemently dispute it in private, typically saying something to the effect of “if that’s the number, then my company makes up 30-40% of that.” Granted, that retort is totally expected, but I’m inclined to agree just intuiting from the download numbers and CPMs that can be found in publicly available reports. (The Podtrac ranker, for all the caveats involved with its sample, is also very helpful in this regard.)

However, despite these private push-backs, I haven’t encountered any podcast executive willing to provide a specific alternate estimate… until last Friday, of course, which saw Acast’s Chief Commercial Officer Sarah van Mosel provided an estimated range of $80-200 million for 2015 during a presentation — a number she particularly draws from her previous work as WNYC’s VP of Sponsorships.

A Glimpse at Future Panoply? Last Friday, the Graham Holdings-owned podcast company (and my former day job employer) announced its latest big-swing project: “Revisionist History,” a ten-part miniseries by author (and Charlie Kaufman-lookalike) Malcolm Gladwell. The company drew some notable write-ups for the announcement, withFast Company and CNN.com providing coverage on the teaser. Interestingly, the project is positioned as “the thing that Gladwell decided to make instead of a book this season,” which is a pretty solid pitch I guess.

On stage at Hivio, Panoply Chief Creative Officer Andy Bowers called the podcast a template for future projects. “A lot of podcasts we’ve done so far has followed a simpler, conversational format,” he said, noting that the company will likely be developing more projects with higher production values from here on out. This move makes sense, though I do wonder how this will affect existing Panoply shows, which typically result from partnerships with other publishers.

Revisionist History” drops its first episode on June 16.

Podquest Playoffs. Last Thursday, Radiotopia released the list of ten podcast pitches that have been accepted as semi-finalists into Podquest, its talent search program. From this group of ten, three finalists will be announced in July at the Podcast Movement conference in Chicago, where they will then be made to develop three pilot episodes over the course of four months. The winner, which will be invited into the Radiotopia network, will be announced in November at the Third Coast Festival.

You can find in-depth descriptions of all ten semifinalists on the Podquest site. And if you’re curious, you can find the stat-breakdown of Podquest applicants (1537 entries! 53 countries! Wah!) on the PRX blog.

Congrats to the crews, and good luck! I’m rootin’ for ya.

Related: “The new audience is really where we are where we want to be — the diverse audience and the young audience, and the young people who haven’t been buying radios. How are they finding content and how do we get in front of them?” Still curious about what’s next for PRX? Check out this Fortune article featuring an interview with PRX’s newly minted CEO Kerri Hoffman by Lauren Schiller, which pairs well with my write-up from two weeks ago.

Towards More Pods For Kids. A couple of months ago, I wrote a few pieces exploring the relatively quiet genre of kids podcasting, and over the course of my research, I spoke to Lindsay Patterson, one of the creators of “Tumble: A Science Podcast for Kids,” who proved to be a very, very strong advocate of the space. Now, the Austin-based producer is taking her advocacy to the next level, collaborating with a number of other kid-focused podcast producers to form what they’re calling “a new grassroots organization of podcasters and advocates for high-quality audio content for children.”

“We want to increase visibility for the medium and enable the creation of more great audio shows for kids,” Patterson told me over email. “And since we exist in the children’s space, we think that standards and ethics should be a big part of the conversation.”

The organization will kick off its work with a public survey project that hopes to identify the makeup, behavior, and dynamics of the potential audiences for kids podcasts. “There’s no baseline data for how kids consume (or don’t consume) podcasts,” Patterson wrote. “Our June 2016 survey is a first step toward understanding how our audience values what we do.”

At this point in time, the podcasts participating in Kids Listen are: Tumble, Ear Snacks,Brains On!, Sparkle Stories, Book Club for Kids, StoryPirates, and Zooglobble. (These names!) Its digital presence consists of a Slack, a website, a hashtag (#kidslisten), and social media. “The beginnings of something great,” Patterson added.

The survey launches today. You can find the Kids Listen website here.

New Podcast Study from comScore. The report found that podcast advertisements were found to be the least intrusive compared to other kinds of digital advertising formats,according to Adweek. It should be noted that the survey study was commissioned by Wondery, a fairly new podcast network based in Los Angeles, suggesting increased efforts among podcast companies to raise the overall awareness of the space. To my eyes, the study itself isn’t as interesting as the fact that comScore produced it. There’s been an emerging argument among some circles that the big thing holding back more brand advertisers from jumping into the space is not necessarily the medium’s well-known measurements problem, but the absence of a reputable, legacy measurements company like comScore and Nielsen actively participating and vetting the space. This comScore study isn’t quite the active participation that will lead to a so-called legitimization the space is looking for, but I think it’s a good step.

Where to, newsmagazine? Add Steve Lickteig, former executive producer of All Things Considered and current executive producer of Slate podcasts, to the list of public radio emigres publishing essays on the future of audio. Lickteig wrote a Slate piece last Thursday arguing that voice-recognition technology — a la Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana, and Google’s… Ok Google thing, which will soon be integrated into car dashboards en masse — will marginalize (or even kill) the straightforward broadcasts, a state of affairs that poses a significant threat to the newsmagazine format.

Central to Lickteig’s argument is the expectation that on-demand consumption behaviors will vastly supersede consumption behavior around linear formats. Here’s the key quote (heads up, the Keith Olbermann reference is related to the lede in Lickteig’s piece):

While listening to the radio remains easier than the alternative, it’s not very satisfying for the generation of people raised in an on-demand culture. People Keith Olbermann’s age (he’s 57) feel an obligation to consume news as it’s served. Tell a bunch of 19-year-olds that it should be up to the professionals to determine what news is most important, and they’ll laugh until their earbuds fall out.

There are a couple of really interesting elements in Lickteig’s argument here that you can spool out, including the notion that us ~millennials~ and post-millennials (whatever you call those people) have in large swathes no love for editorial judgment, but I think the most interesting and pressing element here is the glimpses Lickteig provides at an underlying process that sees the further atomization of audio content and information into discrete units that users can customize, shift, and reorient… not unlike the way we exist as digital consumers of music now. (If I branded myself as some sort of thought leader, this would be the point where I’d regretfully coin the phrase “the Spotification of News.”)

Here’s my counterpoint to Lickteig’s bullish argument: as a voracious consumer of many, many different types of media, I’d argue that the tyranny of choice and control is totally real. And it’s absolutely crippling. (Consider two things: the gaping abyss that stares back at you from the Netflix menu, and the relief embedded in celebrations of Spotify’s Discover Weekly feature. Also: most meal hunting experiences with Yelp.)

Which isn’t to say, of course, that I disagree with the broad strokes of Lickteig’s forecasts: indeed, the broadcast newsmagazine format as we know it today will likely become ineffectual -as will all other creations of linearity, like the nightly news, SportsCenter, and the front page. But I’d argue that this isn’t a consequence of the decline of broadcast; rather, it’s a consequence of the relegation of broadcast from being the primary information channel to being one-of-many in a much larger arsenal of information presentation. And yeah, sure, a story of decline is always one that sucks, but there’s that thing about lemonade: when you’re no longer expected to be dominant, you’re liberated from the pressure — and design limitations — of dominance.

That’s no small consolation. In my mind, at least.

Bites:

  • DGital Media announced “league direct partnership” with the UFC to produce a show covering the mixed martial arts league. This will prove to be an interesting addition to the company’s portfolio of partnerships, which includes Recode and Yahoo’s The Vertical. (UFC)

  • Bloomberg News launched the latest in its steadily growing stable of podcast, “Material World,” a show that will deliver stories on the consumer goods world. I’ll more about Bloomberg pods at some point — they’ve got a unique structure going on over there — but for now, keep your eyes on Bloomberg News HQ. (iTunes)

  • Radio Diaries published quite a remarkable episode recently, featuring a young woman in Saudi Arabia, Majd, documenting her life over two years. It aired as a 22 minute segment on All Things Considered, with which the podcast has a partnership, last Tuesday. I listened to it over the weekend, and my goodness, it’s quite lovely. (Radio Diaries)

  • NPR launched “Code Switch,” its newest podcast, last week. The show will explore issues at the intersection of race and culture, and from the sound of its first episode, it appears to draw heavy influence from the specificity and presentational looseness of the NPR Politics podcast. Nieman Lab has a great interview with principals Shereen Marisol Meraji and Gene Demby, which you should totally check out. (Nieman Lab)

  • Speaking of public radio launches, WNYC rolled out “More Perfect,” the Radiolab spin-off focusing on the Supreme Court, last week. The podcast is being billed as a mini-series. (Radiolab)

  • Audioboom signs the popular “Undisclosed” podcast to an “exclusive ad sales deal.” (RAIN News)

Tuesday

5

April 2016

0

COMMENTS

The New York Times, On Strategy, Digg Gets Into Pods

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The New York Times Builds A Pod Squad. Nieman Lab covered this pretty comprehensively last week, and you should definitely check out their write-up for the full skinny, but here are the highlights as I see it:

  • The paper of record is assembling a new audio unit to develop a slate of “news and opinion” shows. It hopes to roll out throughout the rest of the year and into 2017. The exact number of shows to be launched is unclear.
  • Some staff details for this new unit: Samantha Henig is editorial director, Kelly Alfieri is executive director of special editorial projects, and Diantha Parker is editor and senior audio producer. Pedro Rosado and Catrin Einhorn will also be audio producers in the unit. Local pod rabble-rouser Adam Davidson, who is also a columnist for the New York Times Magazine, will serve as an adviser.
  • Some info on the long-term strategy, from an internal NYT memo about the new unit: “The plan is to pursue a two-fold strategy: to launch a handful of shows with outside partners which, like Modern Love, have a strong prospect of quickly attracting a wide audience; and then use those shows as a platform from which we can build audience for shows produced within The Times that are as integral to our coverage as our live events and visual journalism efforts.” Delicious.

So, what is the significance of this development? My fine handlers at Nieman do well to answer this with the following observation: “While many newspapers have experimented with podcasts and even launched several, the Times appears to be the first paper to launch a separate podcast-focused audio unit that is focused on pulling in revenue and attracting listeners at broad scale.” In my mind, the distinction lies in the scale (and gumption, frankly) surrounding the design of the Times’ new audio unit: its staff size and density, show rollout expectations, intent on meaningful revenue, and scope of ambition in terms of aesthetic and goals.

As anybody shouting “bubble!” will tell you, many publications are currently dabbling in podcasts; some successfully, others less so. A big part of the strategy for networks like Panoply and DGital Media involves them serving as intermediaries for publishers, shouldering significant chunks of the creative, production, strategic, and monetization burden for partners. And for many of these arrangements, it’s not exactly “plug and play,” but it’s fairly close.

Such partnerships provide publishers with relatively less risk, as startup costs are relatively low and they don’t have to personally invest much resources into infrastructure and talent that may be difficult to shed should their audio strategy burst into flames. It’s a solid conservative strategy, but the tradeoff here is that there’s a ceiling to what publishers can achieve in these arrangements — creatively (given the limitation on dedicated resources), monetarily (given that the responsibilities are largely shouldered by the partner network), and even from a brand-perspective (given that there’s a limit to how unique you can sound when you share a network’s production infrastructure, sensibility, and possibly template with other publishing competitors).

By choosing to build a team in-house and diving face-first into audio (which wouldn’t be its first time doing so), the Times is eschewing that relatively conservative route for a more aggressive and robust podcast strategy, one that sees the paper essentially doubling down on its ability to determine an aural aesthetic that will result in a better payoff. As the internal memo indicates, that strategy does not necessarily preclude partnerships; it just suggests that they demand more from those partnerships. In these arrangements, networks (or public radio stations) would be required to serve more as collaborator than intermediary, more partner-in-crime than outsource factory. We saw the fundamentals of this with the company’s enormously successful Modern Love podcast — which launched in January, currently draws over 300,000 downloads a week, and comes out of an involved partnership with WBUR.

This is all a reflection of the basic dynamics of risk and reward: the more you’re willing to risk by pouring more resources into the strategy, the more control you’re going to have over shaping the outcome of that strategy and the more reward — from all corners — you stand to gain from it. As the adage goes, you don’t get a win unless you play in the game.

One more thing: the announcement of the new unit was accompanied by a pretty gorgeous job posting for an executive producer. From the looks of the job description, they’re looking for a veteran to quarterback the team both creatively and operationally.

I’ll be taking bets on who they end up hiring, and what shows they end up rolling out. HMU.

Related — Shooting up a flare just hours after the NYT job posting went live, the other paper of record The Washington Post announced on its PR blog that its “Presidential” podcast has beaten 1 million downloads on iTunes since launching in January. The post further mentioned that “more than 100,000 listeners download the podcast each week,” not including folks who listen right off the Post’s site.

I’m all about that Gray Lady-WaPo rivalry, and I’m psyched it’ll play out on the audio front too.

On Strategy. Speaking of podcast strategy, you should totally check out Adam Davidson’s recent Medium post that refined and expanded his critique on that very subject as it pertains to NPR. There’s quite a bit to absorb from it, but I’d like to note two quick things:

  • Davidson’s post contains a bunch of specific prescriptions, but I find the foundational ideas of his critique compelling: that the organization’s process of developing podcasts is more chaotic than not, that the pace of new podcast launches is way too slow, and that both of these things come out from an ecosystem-wide podcast strategy that’s lacking in coherence, vision, scale, enthusiasm, and intent.
  • A constructive question, at this point: what, exactly, makes a podcast strategy? Seems like a simple question with an obvious answer, but I think it’s actually pretty complex. I find it helpful to think about it, above all things, in terms of goals and intent: what do we want to achieve with podcasts a year from now, and what should we do to get there? Within this framework, you can sort of begin to see the source of Davidson’s frustration: it’s probably unclear to him what NPR wants its podcast operation to look like a year from now, and when you contextualize that against the larger trends in the industry — trends that distinctly flow towards digital — you can reasonably expect why the NPR alum is unnerved. For the record, the organization’s goal on that front is pretty unclear to me too, and I spend a lot time staring into the transom. Also worth noting the fact that it’s entirely possible there is a coherent internal strategy, and that’s it not being well communicated. In which case, the possible counter-argument is: what’s the point of communicating what we’re doing right as long as we’re doing it right? To that I say: positive messaging is important for internal morale, external recruitment, and the faith of the public radio random!

By the way: the first episode of Embedded was great! It felt really raw and illustrative, and it projected a sense of place really, really well. Gonna hold my judgment ‘til we’re a couple more episodes in, so stay tuned.

Related — NPR has finally revamped its audio player, eschewing the pop-up player route for a snazzier, smoother in-browser experience. The player, which now rests persistently on the right side of the site, is designed to allow users to flow seamlessly between local member station streams and NPR’s own content made available on-demand.

The revamp also affords new digital sponsorship formats, including podcast-specific matchups and multimedia mobile slots. Cool stuff.

Serial Closes Second Season. And just like that, it’s over. Last Thursday, the wildly popular This American Life spin-off published the final episode of its ambitious second season, which throughout its run had unambiguously moved beyond the first season’s local true crime scope and took on the subject of Bowe Bergdahl.

The season drew strong numbers. Entertainment Weekly reported that the second season had surpassed 50 million downloads going into Thursday’s final episode. Kristen Taylor, Serial’s community editor, confirmed those numbers, further noting that each episode had consistently enjoyed around 3 million downloads on its launch week throughout the season.

While the show’s numbers were not altogether surprising given the now-legendary response to the first season, it did strike me as incongruous with what feels like a relatively tepid critical response. I asked Taylor how the team has felt about the reception this season, and whether I’m erroneously reading my conception of hype or buzz as some approximation of critical response. “The second season is a really different type of story, and of course the field is in a different place than last year – what you’re seeing in the number is the dark social, the growing audience listening and writing to us and talking to each other privately,” said Taylor.

“The team is damn proud of the season,” she added.

Details are slim on the show’s third season, though a follow-up EW interview with Sarah Koenig and Julie Snyder suggests that we shouldn’t expect it anytime soon. The two also mentioned that they were “also looking into other projects, and other shows that are not Serial, but Serial-adjacent.”

ESPN Does “Long-form” Audio. The Disney-owned sports media empire flexed its audio muscles today, launching a five-part audio documentary series called “Dunkumentaries.” In case the word “dunk” means nothing to you or if you’re one of those people who ducks behind the word “sports ball,” the series is a collection of stories all about the sport of basketball.

Radiotopia fans might find the project familiar: back in February, ESPN and the 99% Invisible team collaborated for an episode called “The Yin and Yang of Basketball,” about the sport’s invention and the design problem that came out from its initial conception. The Dunkumentaries podcast feed went live around the same time that episode was published, back in February.

Dunkumentaries comes out of ESPN Audio, and its being billed as the unit’s “first long-form podcast” — signaling a trendy expansion in offerings for an operation that’s long favored talk radio fare like Jalen & Jacoby and audio-only versions of television broadcasts like Pardon the Interruption. The documentary will feature a rather unconventional ad integration with Seatgeek (a growing staple in sport pod advertising), according to the Hollywood Reporter. Instead of a conventional host read, the campaign will involve a serialized story spread out across the five episodes’ pre-rolls.

The series was published in its entirety this morning, using a tactic last adopted by Panoply with its “Pregnancy Confidential” podcast. (The so-called binge method was also partially adopted by American Public Media’s “Codebreaker” podcast, albeit as part of a larger transmedia project.)

Each episode is on the short-side, ranging between 12 to 20 minutes.

Digg Dabbles In Pods. The social curation site (and erstwhile Reddit competitor) launched a podcast project yesterday, and it’s part of a fascinating piece of multimedia journalism. “What The Hell Happened In East New York?” is a four-part podcast series, hosted by Sports Illustrated’s Alexander Abnos, that follows award-winning journalist Kevin Heldman as he investigates East New York’s status as one of the worst neighborhoods in the country. It’s… a little hard to provide a more substantial explanation of the podcast without diminishing one of its core hooks, but I will say that it’s vaguely Sherlock Holmesian in the sense that it presents Heldman as a character in a larger narrative.

Much like Dunkumentaries, the whole series was published simultaneously (noticing a trend, anyone?), and the project culminates this Friday with the publication of Heldman’s investigation as a feature on the Digg website. The project is a co-production with The Big Roundtable, the narrative nonfiction site founded by Columbia Journalism School professor Michael Shapiro.

This isn’t Digg’s first involvement with podcasts. In the past, the site has partnered with podcasts like Reply All and The Sporkful to package their episodes with rather lovely visuals and extensive write-ups before serving them to the Digg readership through its various channels. But this is Digg’s first direct editorial involvement with an audio project, expanding on the original editorial work they’ve previously done for text features and video.

“I couldn’t be more pleased with how the project came out,” Anna Dubenko, Digg’s editorial director, told me over email. “There were moments where we were all nervous about how it would come together — there were so many moving parts… that we wondered if it would be too confusing for our readers.  But, as we’re seeing in this first day of promotion, people get what the project is about and, I think, like the fact that we’re trying something with multimedia approach. More than anything, I think people appreciate that we’re not trying to do something gimmicky with audio, but really trying to honor the medium.”

When I asked if we should more audio stuff coming out of Digg in the future, Dubenko replied: “YES to more projects! Specifically with The Big Roundtable.”

Fabulous.

The Sarah Awards. Friends, I’m here to eat my words. Also, my shoe. They will be boiled, seasoned with paprika and anise, and consumed heartily with a fine pinot grigio. Longtime Hot Pod readers are familiar with my estranged relationship with audio fiction — in the past (specifically, in the foetal days of the Hot), I’ve griped about how the audio fiction performances tend to bug me with their larger-than-the-room modularities; how many of the stuff I’ve tried out had the patness of a certain kind of quirky North American short story; and how I felt that intimacy afforded by the medium often excessively draws out the artificiality of the performances to my pampered, pampered earballs. Though these feelings largely dwindled over the months with greater exposure to just — thank ye, Unfictional and The Truth — a small hard shell of those gripes remained, even as the genre enjoyed more popularity and attention by Limetown, the corporate-overlord sponsored The Message, the really charming Black Tapes Pod, and, of course, the increasing ambition of the incredibly talented Night Vale crew.

But consider me finally won over now, having sat through a rather lovely coronation last Friday, when WNYC’s Greene Space served as home to the first ever Sarahs, an international audio fiction awards ceremony organized by Ann Heppermann and Martin Johnson. The hourlong event, hosted by Snap Judgment’s Glynn Washington, was charming, fun, and tight — and it brought to light the fact that the people behind these works were every bit as rich, bizarre, and fascinating as the work themselves.

The awards received over 200 entries from all over the world, and here were the winners:

First Place
Almost Flamboyant” by Lea Redfern and Rijn Collin.

Second Place
Can You Help Me Find My Mom?” by Jonathan Mitchell and Diana McCorry.

Third Place
Our Time Is Up” by Erin Anderson.

Best New Artist
Quadraturin” by Jon Earle and Emma Wiseman.

“It felt like a turning point,” Heppermann told me when we spoke over the phone yesterday. “Hopefully people were inspired and excited to really celebrate fiction, and make more of it in ways they want to.”

In the immediate future, the winning stories will be published on Serendipity, the official podcast that comes out of the Sarahs. They will be aired as part of a special hour-long broadcast of the winners on KCRW some time in the next three months or so.

“It starts all over again,” said Heppermann, when I asked what comes next.

“But bigger, and better.”

Wonk. I spoke with Atlantic Media Strategies’ Jim Walsh the other day about the state of the podcast industry and where it’s going, and Walsh published a cleaned up transcript of our conversation over on the AMS’ Digital Index blog. It should be stated that Walsh’ efforts to transcribe and string together my chaotic, unstructured rambles that are made up almost exclusively of run-in sentences are nothing less than heroic, and that upon reading the article for the first time, I have swiftly concluded that I am, indeed, an insane person.

Relevant Bits:

  • Here’s a sweet spin-off coming out of the HBO-Bill Simmons partnership: The Watch’s Chris Ryan and Andy Greenwald will host a weekly Game of Thrones recap show on  Mondays which will be distributed through HBO Now, HBO Go, and HBO On-Demand. WATCH THE THRONES. (The Ringer)
  • Soundcloud rolled out its new subscription streaming product, dubbed “Soundcloud Go,” last Tuesday. The new feature pushes the company towards a direction that places it more directly in competition with existing streaming companies like Spotify and Apple Music. The future of its status as the go-to free audio hosting platform, which has made it popular with budding podcasters, remains unclear. (The Verge)
  • Speaking of Spotify, the Swedish streaming company raises a billion in debt financing. (Wall Street Journal, paywall)
  • PodcastOne, the Adam Carolla-centered network led by Norm Pattiz, launched its own premium subscription play. From the press release, it appears that much of the network’s archives will be stored behind the paywall. Priced at $7.99 a month. (All Access)
  • Distribution responsibilities for “On Being” to shift from American Public Media to PRX. (Current)