Hot Pod

News about Podcasts and On-Demand Audio

iTunes Archive

Tuesday

13

December 2016

0

COMMENTS

Issue 100

Written by , Posted in Hot Pod Weekly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What does 2017 hold for your team?

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

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

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

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

Bites:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moves:

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

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

 

Wednesday

30

November 2016

0

COMMENTS

The Role Apple Should Play, and other stuff too

Written by , Posted in Hot Pod Weekly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bites:

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

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

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

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

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

Moves:

Monday

23

May 2016

0

COMMENTS

Monday

23

May 2016

0

COMMENTS

Tuesday

22

March 2016

0

COMMENTS

NPR Memo, PRX’s Podquest, On iTunes Part Tres

Written by , Posted in Hot Pod Weekly

The NPR Memo. “It was intended as a small internal memo for a specific operational purpose,” he said over the phone. “A ready checklist for people to think about when these particular issues came about it was never intended to be an external document, some sort of formal statement from NPR.”

I’m talking to Chris Turpin, NPR’s VP of News Programming and Operations. It was Fridayevening, the last stretch of a long week, and we had gotten in touch over phone to talk about the uproar that took place a day earlier. Given that you’re reading a wonky newsletter about the podcast industry or, alternatively, you’re skimming this off a Harvard-housed journalism innovation blog, you probably already know the broad details, so forgive me for dropping a play-by-play for the uninitiated:

  • Last Thursday, NPR published a memo on its ethics handbook blog noting that on-air talent should avoid promotional language when mentioning NPR podcasts. This would include explicit instructions on where to find, and how to download, podcasts. The memo also contained a second instruction, which stated that “for now, NPR One will not be promoted on the air.”
  • The publication of the memo kicked up what NPR ombudsman Elizabeth Jensen called “a spirited conversation” on Twitter and multiple closed Facebook groups among “public radio insiders and others who closely follow the digital evolution of journalism.” (Current.org has a good round-up.)
  • Later on Thursday, Nieman Lab’s Joshua Benton published a post critical of NPR, where he contextualized the underlying thinking of the memo as one that’s trapped within the institution’s business structure; namely, its being accountable to member stations. Benton further drew a comparison to the way newspapers kept their focus on their print while they were being disrupted digitally; he evoked the concept of the “strategy tax.”
  • On Friday afternoon, the brouhaha found its way into posts by Quartz and The Verge, suggesting that the situation drew broader interest. Benton’s post served as the theoretical anchor to these posts, which also skewed critical.
  • Late Friday, NPR ombudsman Elizabeth Jensen published her findings on the issue. Jensen situated the memo within its literal scope: that it’s meant to guide language specifically within journalistic contexts, and that it doesn’t necessarily outlaw podcast promotion outside of editorial journalism content on broadcast. But she did note that the tension NPR feels navigating its digital future is real.

There’s a lot to unpack here, with many different things bound up in this one incident. But on a broad level, here’s what I think: that memo, written for a specific context, was taken largely out of context, and as a result its significance was blown out of proportion.

But I also think the fact that the underlying questions raised by the uproar — whether NPR takes seriously the notion of digital and podcasts as central to its future, whether it’s strategizing adequately, whether it can reshape relationships with member stations or their priorities, whether it can retain its status as a journalistic stalwart moving into the future— returned to the forefront so easily with this misunderstanding suggests that the organization, up to this point, hasn’t done a very good job giving anybody enough confidence to believe that they’ll be able to adequately address these questions.

And this kerfuffle — an unanticipated breakdown in optics which may well have real ramifications on internal morale — further undermines the faith and confidence of observers (mostly external, but some internal), many of which are emotionally invested in NPR and its ability to grapple with the extremely complex problems that will define the terms of its future.

Sometime later on Friday evening, Turpin sent out another internal note. “Let’s be absolutely crystal clear; NPR is deeply committed to podcasting,” he wrote. Later on in the email: “Our podcasts regularly top the charts, and our leadership in the podcast space is obvious.”

Indeed, that’s certainly true for today. But of course, what we’re really concerned about istomorrow.

Four takes here.

(1) The key to evaluate NPR’s fate, I believe, lies in the way the institution views radio and digital/podcasts audiences as two separate categories with separate strategies for audience development. Turpin indicated this view when he spoke to Jensen, stating that the two formats “serve different audiences. This isn’t some kind of zero-sum game.”

That thinking makes some sense to me; an entirely plausible strategy to anticipate is one that sees NPR playing something of a care-taking role with broadcast — let them age out, allowing a dignified transition into a niche channel — while increasing its investments, activities, and long-term operational bets on digital and podcasts. But my thinking comes from a firm belief that terrestrial radio will become less dominant over time, a view that Turpin does not seem to share. “This is a win-win. Terrestrial radio has a lot more life in it, and it will continue to have more life in it as young talent comes in,” he told me.

Let’s assume, for argument’s sake, that I’m wrong and that broadcast may well hold strong over time. It still doesn’t explain to me why, frankly, the organization omits even taking the step to educate them on how to download a podcast — I’d argue that education is something theoretically different from promotion. (To anticipate the counter-argument using the book-store analogy: it’s one thing to tell them to go to Barnes and Nobles, it’s another thing altogether to explain how a bookstore works to a population that’s new to the concept of bookstores.)

When I asked this question, I got two answers. The first is the fact that they simply haven’t seen meaningful conversions from broadcast to podcast. The second that, in Turpin’s view, it isn’t that hard for listeners to learn how to consume a podcast they heard about on broadcast. “I think people know where to go and find podcasts,” Turpin said. “Downloading a podcast is not that hard to figure out. They can easily Google it!”

I’ll take the point, but I will say that there’s something about that position that strikes me as distinctly not-user-centric — presumptuous, even, of who makes up NPR’s audience.

(2) I’ve spent the better part of the past three days toiling over this story. Frankly, I started out fairly sympathetic to NPR, and then I swung to being very frustrated, and now I find myself stuck somewhere down an apathetic middle. I don’t believe, not even for a second, that NPR isn’t investing significant resources into digital and podcasts. The substantial success of Invisibilia, the launches of Hidden Brain, the NPR Politics podcast, and the upcoming Embedded (more on that pod next week), and the hiring of Tamar Charney as the local editorial lead for NPR One are all signals to me of considerable investment.

But reviewing my notes and re-reading all the responses, I can’t help but bash my head against… how much it feels like NPR isn’t taking the threat of its digital disruption seriously enough. The spectre of that rather unflattering Politico story from last August still looms over my thinking, and I wonder just how much has changed over the past seven months.

(3) Much has already written about how this all is largely a function of NPR’s being beholden to the desires, interests, and anxieties of its member stations. And much has been said, on the other side, about how public radio as a whole — member stations included — is internalizing the digital disruption that the medium is facing. “Everyone is working out how podcasts fit into their overall long-term strategy,” as Turpin told Jensen.

But I just want to talk, very briefly, about the purpose that NPR is supposed to fulfill. As I interpret it, NPR was created to serve the Public, but through member stations that collectively serve as proxies for the Public. It’s worth asking, then, whether member stations still serve their respective publics at a level as they once did before — and whether the limitations they introduce to NPR’s calculus outweighs, on a net level, the benefits of NPR serving the public directly.

(4) I think it’s important to note that the NPR One issue should be considered separately from the larger podcast promotion issue. Based on my conversation with Turpin, along with some insiders, I’ve come to think that the institution views the app as a work-in-progress. The NPR One portion of the memo, then, is more the result of marketing housekeeping: why push an incomplete product in front of the bulk of your audience? Turpin also told me that they are getting ready for a big marketing push surrounding the app. (“When?” I asked. “In a matter of months,” he replied.) This information is consistent with what I’ve heard about in the past, and I do feel like we haven’t quite seen what’s in store for NPR One.

Okay, that’s way too much ink spilt on NPR takes. I just really care, y’know? I’m not even from this country. When all this was going down the writer/tech person Paul Ford tweeted out, “Why do so many people have opinions about how NPR promotes podcasts?” And I was like, good question, man, also don’t question my feelings I have strong deep-rooted irrational feelings right now.

Anyway, let’s move on.

Additional reading: Adam Davidson, co-founder of NPR’s Planet Money who now writes for the New York Times Magazine and hosts of Gimlet’s “Surprisingly Awesome,” on his fear that NPR is allowing itself to grow irrelevant. (Facebook)

A Hunt For New Sounds. PRX’s Radiotopia launched a new talent-seeking competition called Podquest last week, a campaign that will ultimately resulting in a brand new show joining the network-label-collective’s current roster of 13 shows. The competition will select ten semi-finalists, and from them, three finalists will each receive $10,000 along with creative, entrepreneurial, and technological support from PRX throughout the entire process.

Calls for submissions are open until April 17, and the competition will conclude in November.

Diversity and the diversification of sound is top of mind for the PRX team. “We’re looking for shows not yet represented by Radiotopia’s roster — both in the ‘who’ and the ‘what’ behind each proposal,” wrote Julie Shapiro, PRX’s Executive Producer, in an email to me. “Intentional use of sound and an innovative weaving of story are hallmarks of all Radiotopia shows… but we also want to support someone(s) new on the podcasting scene, who might have a different background and approach to creative storytelling in mind, and the ambition and drive to do the hard work to get there.”

To ensure a more diverse pool of applicants, the company has also been reaching out to organizations, Facebook groups, and university programs to increase awareness of the competition in communities beyond their existing networks.

I’ve been struggling to come up with a good analogy for Podquest, particularly after spotting Fast Company equating the competition to “American Idol” and a press release evoking “Project Greenlight.” Podquest strikes me as more in the style of a tech accelerator/incubator model, or some sort of expedited MFA for Podcasts. Shapiro is sympathetic to this perspective. “I actually don’t feel a tension between the tech-style start-up approach and simultaneous creative-editorial guidance; rather the bundling of ALL of it seems necessary right now to help any new podcast succeed,” she wrote.

Anyway, I’m excited for this! With this initiative, Radiotopia is providing a spin on what a podcast network-label-collective should be doing: identifying talent and material that listeners will find valuable. And they seem to be particularly committed to finding and developing fresh, original, sui generis talent — as opposed to adapting another celebrities, brands, or another logo on a slide — which I’m thankful for.

If you’re interested to learn more, head over the Podquest page. And good luck!

And while we’re on the subject of pod competitions (pod-petitions?): I hear that the winners of WNYC’s podcast accelerator are still chugging away. Developments, and possibly launches, are expected to come soon.

On iTunes, Part Three. ICYMI, I’ve been going pretty deep into the subject of the iTunes charts over the past few weeks. First, I sketched out a theory on how the iTunes charts works and how it fits into the industry’s larger ecosystem of values, and then I took a look at how podcast advertisers perceive, understand, and utilize those charts. I’d like to conclude this mini-series now by unbundling the three major functions that iTunes has come to play in Podcast Land, and discuss the various companies (that I know about, anyway) trying to fulfill those functions:

(1) Discovery. Above all things, the iTunes charts is the principal driver of podcast discovery — a position that’s no doubt closely tied to the fact that an estimated 70% of consumption takes place on the platform. There are several companies currently looking to stake claim in this space: as we’ve discussed previously, Google Play and Spotify are potential competitors, though it increasingly appears that their entry has been slow and muted. We also have relatively older solutions like Stitcher, though its activity has been dimmed down since its acquisition by Deezer. The challenges for both kinds of solutions are associated with their existence as apps; the task comes down to user acquisition, management, and engagement in a mobile experience space that’s incredibly congested.

But the problem of discovery doesn’t have be solved from this one channel of the mobile device. An app called Otto Radio, for example, is a lean-back curatorial solution that appears specifically designed in anticipation for increased usage on a car dashboard.

Another angle is what I’d call supplementary media, for lack of better term. Think about it this way: reviews, recaps, and write-ups are central to both TV culture on the Internet and the TV industry’s marketing and  discovery initiatives. It’s perfectly plausible that podcasts — and audio programming more generally — can engage in mutually beneficial relationships with culture and entertainment-oriented sites. The AV Club, by the way, has been on this for ages with its Podmass column. (Also something to keep tabs on: the way streaming video content is being serviced by Vulture’s Streaming guide and soon, the New York Times’ new “Watching” sub-site).

(2) Measure of Value. A chart theoretically serves the purpose of representation. A big part of understanding the health of a show is knowing how it stacks up against other shows, and as I’ve discussed previously, the iTunes chart displays how well shows are driving iTunes interactions relative to other shows — which, as a proxy, is workable, but it provides creators, advertisers, and listeners a distorted picture.

A solution on this front is intimately bound up with the industry’s larger issue concerning standardized, transparent measurements, which will remain a roadblock for the length of this problem. However, at this point in time, it’s worth speculating that a number of podcast networks will not view themselves as being incentivized to adopt measurements standards and open themselves up to transparent rankings. As I mentioned in an issue way back when:

“It’s very possible that we would open the black box only to realize that most people don’t actually listen past the 10th minute for most shows… and we consequently lose whatever clout, bargaining chip, or basis of reasoning in our dealings with the advertising community.

“And I also suspect, with no proof yet again, that the bulk of us are ill prepared to rapidly rebuild that collective fiction to a workable place once it’s broken.”

One could hypothesize, then, that the reason we haven’t seen an actual Billboard chart-style alternative comes from a hurdle the industry has imposed upon itself. Which is to say, some companies don’t really want to know how their shows are actually doing, or they don’t really want to reveal how they stack up to other shows. But as the medium experiences further increases in broad consumer adoption, and as more and more advertisers spend time coming into contact with more and more podcast companies and creators — in other words, a knowledge is generally increased across the board — the benefits of being opaque will eventually be completely eroded.

So far, the only major play I’ve heard coming down the pipeline is the Software Development Kit (SDK) that the fine folks at Nielsen are cooking up. I’ve also heard rumors of another podcast hosting/measurement platform knocking on some doors, but I’ll confirm that when I can get something on-record.

(3) Directory. Pretty straightforward here, so I’ll be quick: on a very basic level, iTunes functions as the de facto podcast search engine. A pod not listed on iTunes is, in a lot of ways, a pod that doesn’t really exist. (Like the tree falling in the woods. Or whatever that metaphor is supposed to be). Each podcast listing on iTunes contains key identifying information — show description, creator information, cover art, and so on — that can be grouped and linked together to build a more robust knowledge base for listeners, creators, advertisers, and producers, each looking to perform very different information-gathering tasks.

Last week, something called Podcat made rounds around the Internet and the pod community. The site dubbed itself the “IMDb for Podcasts,” and its the most recent incarnation of this idea. The speech-to-text company Pop-Up Archive has a similar product in its Audiosear.ch platform, which compiles and organizes sets of identiying information that draws from its transcriptions. The challenge here is informational fidelity, accuracy, and timeliness, and from the looks of it, both solutions are still in their very early days. But it’s a glimpse of what could be, and that glimpse is pretty cool.

In related news, the iTunes charts has jumbled up again. It was brought to my this weekend that it experienced yet another one of these re-shufflings: this time, the top bracket favored hitherto unheard-of finance podcasts. Right now, the unstoppable Mouse Chat sits pretty on the top slot once again. I suppose it’s worth noting, at this point, that the underlying mechanics of iTunes charts are subject to internal change — that can’t be adequately documented externally, by the way — as well as periodic anomalies, such as the chart’s tendency to occasionally reshuffle the deck. Maybe I should’ve said that at the beginning.

Bites

  • Song Exploder’s Hrishikesh Hirway is launching “The West Wing Weekly,” a new pod with actor Joshua Malina (who starred on the show’s later seasons) that will cover the show’s run. They got decent press, including an NPR segment which probably got them in front of their best possible target demo. The first ep will drop tomorrow, or at least that’s what Hirway told me. (iTunes | NPR)
  • Audible rolled out a fully functional audio clip-sharing feature last week. Called “Clip,” the feature lets users can share about 30 seconds of audio with another person using a link. (Wired)
  • For anyone else keeping tabs: This American Life “currently draws 10.7 million downloads for every episode,” with CPMs sometimes reaching $50 to $60. Also, another TAL spinoff is due to drop sometime later this year. It’s probably not the only spinoff in development. (Adweek | Baltimore Sun)
  • “The Financial Times racked up 45 million podcast downloads last year.” I see you, Shannon. These numbers tho — rather surpising! (Digiday)
  • Pretty intense to hear Uber and Viceland advertising on The Ringer’s Channel 33 podcast feed. (Soundcloud)
  • “Why you should consider shutting down your newsroom…temporarily.” Lessons from Gimlet’s Mix Week. (Poynter)
  • A star is born off the New York Radio Listserv, who made this track after sparking a whip-storm on the subject of free labor, unpaid internships, and what it takes to start out in this industry. And let us keep in mind: despite all the developments and shifts in the radio/pod industry over the past year, entry-level opportunities are still garbage. Anyway, give this kid a job. (Soundcloud)

Friday

11

March 2016

0

COMMENTS

Hot Pod Pro: Infinite Dial 2016

Written by , Posted in Member Content

Edison Research and Triton Digital dropped the 2016 edition of their annual Infinite Dial study yesterday. On my count, the study is the biggest reputable independent survey on consumer adoption of digital that involves podcasts as an active category — and it has observed the medium almost since its inception.

This article is only for members of The Thing.

Tuesday

8

March 2016

0

COMMENTS

Pod Consumption Surges, Midroll Makeover, iTunes

Written by , Posted in Hot Pod Weekly

Edison Research: Monthly Pod Consumption Surges. More than one in five Americans report having listened to a podcast within the past month, according to data teased in a new blog post by Edison Research. Specifically, 21% of Americans (or an estimated 57 million) report having done so, representing a pretty significant jump from 2015, which saw 17% of surveyed Americans reporting that behavior. In 2014, that number was 15%, so we’re talking about a doubling in percentage point growth.

Another sweet way to cut it: monthly American podcast consumption grew about 24% between 2015 and 2016. Don’t you just love stats?

It’s certainly an encouraging data point for all who are enthusiastic about podcasts as the future of radio/audio/blogging. And I’m certainly tempted to think that we’re finally seeing evidence of tangible wide-scale conversions from all the buzz and hype that podcasting enjoyed last year.

A plausible counter-argument is as follows: is this number a true reflection of solid, genuine, and sustainable consumer acquisition (and retention) across the medium, or does it more represent a period where listeners are merely testing out the format? That question, to some extent, is irrelevant for two reasons. Firstly, it’s a question with no meaningful immediate answer, because the process is still playing itself out. And secondly, the number itself is an influencing factor — as a positive public indicator that fuels for the industry’s vision and presentation of itself, one imagines that countless folks out to build new businesses within the medium will use this statistic in a pitch deck, playing out a fulfillment of their own prophecy.

Which is all to say: this data point is very good, and I’m going to call my mum and tell her I didn’t screw up my life joining this industry. Cool? Cool.

Anyway, Edison’s data point here is excerpted from the much larger Infinite Dial 2016 study, which is scheduled to be released later this week. The study comes out a partnership between Edison Research and Triton Digital, a digital audio technology and advertising company.

I’ll post some initial thoughts on Friday’s members newsletter, and I’ll write up a complete item on next week’s Hot Pod.

Midroll Tightens Its Brand. Scripps-owned Midroll Media is sunsetting its Wolfpop podcast network this week. Wolfpop was previously branded as Midroll’s pop culture-oriented owned and operated content arm curated by comedian Paul Scheer — as opposed the company’s flagship comedy-oriented Earwolf brand (yeah, it’s a little confusing, which is probably why we’re seeing this consolidation, I imagine).

Ten out of Wolfpop’s thirteen podcasts will now live under the Earwolf umbrella. The three shows that will not continue its relationship with Midroll are: Rotten Tomatoes, Picking Favorites, and Off Camera with Sam Jones. The company also announced that Hello From Magic Tavern, a well-loved and utterly weird podcast previously supported by theChicago Podcast Cooperative, is joining the network.

Midroll Chief Content Officer Chris Bannon made these announcements on the Earwolf forums yesterday, citing that “this change is a way for us to make Earwolf a bigger, better and more inclusive network.”

I reached out to Bannon, who previously served as WNYC’s VP of Content Development and Production, and asked whether we’d be seeing any news programming coming out of Earwolf anytime soon. “I’ll certainly be taking a hard look at what we can contribute to our listeners’ needs for smart news programming,” he wrote back. “Right now, it feels as though many of the newsmakers are venturing pretty deeply into the comedy space, though. We will have announcements on the news front soon.”

Coy, Bannon. Very Coy.

This development was foreshadowed by a job posting that the company put up last week, which contained the following self-description:

“This group, led by our VP of Business Development, identifies and brings aboard great new podcasts and creators for all three of our major lines of business: Midroll, the leader in podcast ad sales; Earwolf, our owned & operated podcast network; and Howl, our premium audio subscription service.”

In related Midroll news: the company has also hired Jenny Radelet, who previously served as Executive Media Producer for the launch of Apple’s Beats 1 service, as the Managing Editor for Howl, the company’s subscription service. She started work yesterday.

Limited-Run Local Journalism. This week, WNYC will kick off “There Goes The Neighborhood,” a limited-series podcast that’ll explore the topic of gentrification in Brooklyn. I personally get all my New York-related gentrification news from The Awl, but I’m intrigued to see that the show is produced in partnership with The Nation — another example in a swell of collaborations between audio companies and existing publications (see WBUR’s Modern Love, WNYC’s the New Yorker Radio Hour, KPCC’s recently concluded The Awards Show Show, and the majority of Panoply’s operating model). The show will run for eight episodes and is hosted by Kai Wright, The Nation’s Features Editor.

“Neighborhood” is notable to me for two reasons: firstly, it looks to be a strong piece of local journalism, something I don’t get to see very much of in podcastland. Granted, it’s local to New York, perhaps the most saturated media market in the world, but still. Secondly, it’s the first major audio project that features the involvement of Rebecca Carroll, who joined WNYC last October as a producer of special projects about race in New York City.

“I’m here to generate ideas,” Carroll said to me over the phone last Friday, when I asked about her role within the station. “We’re experiencing a moment right now in American culture where our most famous public intellectual is Ta-Nehisi Coates, where we have the Black Live Matters movement, Black Twitter, and an election that comes down to the Black vote. It’s a moment where blackness and black culture is being listened to, and my aim is to wrest that moment and harness it in a way that can be fanned back out into the most creative, innovative, interesting life-changing way.”

There Goes The Neighborhood” is scheduled to debut tomorrow, March 9. A teaser for the show is up already.

An Indie Label Comes Alive. Night Vale Presents, the new indie podcast label — that’s what I’m calling it, guys, just roll with it come on —  founded by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, the creators of the wildly popular “Welcome to Night Vale” podcast,  published its first title today. The show, “Alice Isn’t Dead,” is an audio drama written by Fink, and it’s scheduled to play out across 10 bi-weekly episodes.

“Alice” is, in a lot of ways, quintessential Night Vale. It shares its predecessor’s particular brand of creepiness — American Gothic, but everything’s twisted slightly to the left — and, like Night Vale, “Alice” displays Fink’s fascination with Americana. Where Night Vale is a love letter to small town America, “Alive” is a meditation of the expansive, desolate imagery of the desert highways that make up the vast middle of the country. I’ve heard cuts of the first two episodes, and I really, really like ‘em. (The Times in on it, by the way).

“Night Vale Presents” was conceived out of a logistical necessity. Fink and Cranor had wanted to develop more projects beyond their core show, and built Night Vale Presents to be a framework that supports them. “We don’t have any plans to try to grow it into an empire or start taking tech funding or any of that,” Fink told me over email. “What we do hope to do is keep making new podcasts, both our own and works by other artists who haven’t worked in the podcast space before.

I’ll run the full email Q&A I had with Fink in Friday’s members newsletter. Seeing a trend here? I’m told it’s called a ~marketing funnel~

On iTunes, Part One. So, the most common inquiry I get from Hot Pod readers tends to involve the same subject and overwhelmingly comes in the form of a gripe: how, exactly, does the iTunes charts work? (The second most common inquiry, for the curious: how much so-and-so makes. That’s… I don’t know what to say about that. Leaving that for another day.)

It’s a question I try to stay away from, for a simple reason: I don’t think it’s something that should be fixated upon. Sure, 70% of podcast listening happens through iTunes and the native iOS podcast app, or so we’re told, and regardless of whether that’s true or not — it’s impossible to verify, frankly, given the immature state of podcast measurement — it remains the case that there are many, many other avenues for podcast creators to reach potential new audiences that have not been adequately utilized, including basic stuff like search and social. And it benefits the medium as a whole if more creators leaned harder into non-iTunes avenues. Think about it: attempts to convert audiences through the iTunes platform is a play to win already well-worn, probably maxed out podcast audiences, and if every podcast creator assumes a strategy with iTunes — the platform in general, the charts in specific — at the core, then every podcast creator is essentially competing for the very same pool of ears.

So that’s where my head was at. But the more I thought about it, the more I felt that there may something to be gained by really thinking through the theory and context of the iTunes charts, and asking the question: how does the charts shape the space? However, in order to do that, I would first have to try and understand how the charts work in the first place.

Which is exactly what I’ve been trying to do over the past couple of weeks.

At this point, I’m going to lay down two core hypotheses, and I’m going to argue for their theoretical fidelity by disclosing that they are informed by a combination of these things: a survey I recently ran among Hot Pod newsletter subscribers (I pulled 18 representative responses that you can view here), conversations with many, many, many podcast creators, stuff published by other podcast folks who have conferred with iTunes reps in the past, and drawing from my own experience with my old day job employer. iTunes reps, understandably, declined to publicly comment.

My hypotheses are as follows:

(1) The charts are particularly biased towards new subscriptions, and to some extent interactions with the iTunes link and engagements through reviews. Which makes sense: iTunes, like Facebook and every other platform that actively benefit from keeping users within their ecosystems, are incentivized to maximize engagements. Thus, achieving half a million downloads outside iTunes won’t reward a show as much as getting that same number of downloads on iTunes, and so on.

(2) The charts are designed chiefly as a discovery tool, and it performs its duty by identifying and rewarding podcasts with a sense of momentum. Thus, what’s privileged is relative positive change; getting an additional 1,000 interactions on top of a 10,000 interaction base (say, subscriptions) will send you up quicker than an additional 1,000 on top of 100,000. Again, this makes sense: if the charts were designed to display a power ranking of the most successful shows, then the top ten placements would simply never change, with the biggest shows standing to just keep getting bigger. And because iTunes is fully incentivized to provide a chart that, well, actually provides value to users to keep them on the platform, they’d need to rely on a discovery mechanism that allows for the top chart placements to constantly change. In a lot of ways, the charts are actually pretty democratic.

These two hypotheses don’t explain the charts in totality (nothing can, really, other than the algorithm-turned-sentient), but I believe them to be strong starting points to understand the charts. In sum: the charts are designed for discovery, but the engine they are built upon are iTunes interactions — and so podcasts move up because they engender more iTunes-driven subscriptions and downloads, because moving up is a form of reward. Once you settle into that, some things begin to make sense. It’s how you get a Disney enthusiast podcast in the top 5 between Serial and Alice Isn’t Dead — as it was positioned at 4pm ET on March 4. It’s also how you get a parodic sports talk radio podcast sitting on the top spot in that same time period, even though it’s only loaded with a preview. (The prescriptive here is fairly clear: if you wanna play the charts game, optimize your marketing for iTunes interactions. Didn’t want to point it out, but what the hell I’ve already gone this far.)

And here’s where we get back to my original query: what effect does this particular chart system have on the podcasting space?

As my inbox suggests, it generates a lot of angst. I’d argue that feeling comes out of an interpretation that the iTunes podcast charts should serve as a mechanism that adequately signals or communicates a podcast’s value or worth. Which is an understandable interpretation to hold because, and here’s where I make a sweeping overgeneralization, charts are typically designed to serve as tools to signal value.

And that’s the thing: that’s not what the iTunes charts is designed to do. It was designed to optimize for engagement on its platform, and not to provide a direct and clear representation of what’s valuable. (Although, the rocketing up of a podcast on the charts does indicate a kind of value — it’s just we’re getting a proxy-value.) But there is a strong tendency to read iTunes as a prime arbiter of value because, well, we don’t have anything else.

Absent of other means of context or evaluation, a singular chart of this nature leads to a muddled representation of the podcasting landscape, as it renders any act of interpreting relative value between podcasts almost impossible. And this provides a poor feedback loop for podcast creators, because a big part of understanding the health of your show is knowing how it stacks against other shows.

But here’s the other thing: I don’t perceive this as a story about the problem with iTunes — as far as I’m concerned, there is no problem with iTunes, because iTunes gotta iTunes. Rather, it’s a story about the medium’s larger problem of being to know itself, and the fact that the main way the industry does is dependent on a single, and incredible incomplete, point of view.

Okay, so I’m running out of space right now, and I wanted to talk about two more things: how the iTunes charts impact the relationship between podcast creators and advertisers, and what market opportunities are baked into the situation. The former will come in next week’s letter, but I’ll drop it in the member newsletter as well, which you get if you support Hot Pod by signing up for The Thing. Which, you know, I’d argue that you should if you find any of this work valuable at all, because it’s the only way I’ll be able to keep doing it.

Bites

  • “How Politico’s ‘Off Message’ Podcast Is Rising Above Site’s Staff Departures.” A winning combination of strong booking…  and loose lips. (The Wrap)

  • “No More Car Talk as WBEZ Turns More Airtime over to Podcasts.” Something’s going on at Ben Calhoun’s Navy Pier operation. (Chicago Mag)

  • And while we’re on the subject of Nick Quah hobby horses: Recode is probably going to continue expanding their podcast offerings. I buzz with excitement. (CNN Money)

  • “Facebook Messenger Adds Music, Starting With Spotify’s Song Sharing.” All the potential around messaging that you’re already excited about, now with more audio! (TechCrunch)

  • Amazon rolls out two alternate versions of their Echo product, including a puck-sized model designed to latch onto non-Amazon speakers and turn them into voice-based gateways to the Internet. In case you’re new to this column, I’m personally very pro-Amazon Echo as far as its potential for non-visual — read: audio-oriented — computing. As a person who’s morbidly afraid of losing his eyesight, I’m all about that. (The Verge)