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Tuesday

4

April 2017

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COMMENTS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ah well, back to Barbaro it is.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two quick things about the Variety article:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

While we’re on the subject of public radio…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Grift dropped its first episode today.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bites. 

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

Tuesday

10

January 2017

0

COMMENTS

Upcoming Show Launches, Crooked Media, Facebook Live Audio

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Digits to Start the Year. Is the podcast industry growing, and if so, how? I’m keeping these three numbers taped to the corner of my laptop as benchmarks to keep track:

  • Audience Size — 57 million US monthly listeners, according to Edison and Triton Digital’s annual Infinite Dial report, which gives the industry its clearest number to beat. The latest version of the report is expected to come out in early summer.

  • Advertising — $200 million+ projected for 2017, according to media research firm Bridge Ratings, which the industry seems to have coalesced around.

  • iTunes Downloads and Streams — 10 billion+ in 2016, which was up from 8 billion+ in 2015 and 7 billion+ in 2014, according to a writeup by the Huffington Post.

Two Quick News on Apple.

  • Breaking my internal policy of separating classifieds content with editorial content, but this is super newsworthy: the Apple Podcasts team is apparently looking for someone to join their editorial team — also known as the team that looks after the iTunes front page.
  • In a related note, I’m hearing that Steve Wilson, who managed the editorial and partner relations team at iTunes and who was once described in the New York Times as Apple’s “de facto podcast gatekeeper,” has moved to the iTunes Marketing team to manage the podcast vertical. I believe it’s the first time the company is dedicating any marketing resources for pods.

The Keepin’ It 1600 team breaks off from The Ringer to start a new venture:Crooked Media,” named after the standard Donald Trump pejorative. Its first product, a twice-a-week politics podcast called Pod Save America, rolled out yesterday, and quickly made the top of the iTunes charts. For reference, Crooked Media is made up of former Obama staffers Jon Favreau, Jon Lovett, and Tommy Vietor. Dan Pfeiffer, who launched Keepin’ It 1600 with Favreau when it first debuted on The Ringer last summer, will continue his hosting duties in the new podcast, but he will not hold any stake in the new venture. The venture has plans to add more podcasts, video, editorial content, and “new voices” with a distinct emphasis on activism and political participation, according to its mission statement. There doesn’t appear to be any talk of external investment, with the team fully relying on ad revenues from Pod Save America for now.

DGital Media serves as Crooked Media’s partner in production and ad sales. This extends DGital Media’s already impressive portfolio of partners, which includes Recode, The Vertical Podcast Network, and Tony Kornheiser.

The Ringer CEO Bill Simmons is said to be supportive of the new venture, though one imagines the departure of Keepin’ It 1600, which grew incredibly popular during the 2016 election cycle, will leave quite a dent in monthly download totals for the website’s podcast network. However, given the network’s general culture that allows for continuous, iterative experimentation through its Channel 33 feed, they’re well positioned to fill the gap soon enough.

Here’s the thing that’s interesting to me: Crooked Media appears to be a stab at building out a new progressive counterpoint to conservative media, perhaps specifically its right-wing talk radio ecosystem, which has long been a curiously strong marriage of medium and ideological content with significant influence over American politics. It’s a curious thing that podcasting now offers Favreau and co., insofar as they represent progressive politics, a potential site to match up against the conservative media-industrial complex; as I’ve noted in the past, the podcast medium does seem to feature an ideological spread that tends to lean liberal — even if it’s sticky business to characterize the politics of individual organizations. The theoretical question that occurred to me then, as it does now, is whether there is something about a medium’s structural traits — and demographic spread, and so on — that uniquely supports certain kinds of ideology. With this venture, we’ll have an opportunity to test the question a little further.

Related: Just re-upping this discussion from mid-November: Did the election podcast glut of 2016 fail its listeners?

Launches and Returns for the Year Ahead. I was recently asked to write a preview of upcoming new podcasts for Vulture, and in the process of my outreach, I had a hard time getting concrete, specific release dates for upcoming launches. This, I think, says a fair bit about how the podcast industry, maturing as it is, still has ways to go in terms of developing a rhythm, cycle, and culture around show and season launches for its audience.

Alright, here’s what I got so far beyond the stuff on the Vulture list:

  • Gimlet Media is keeping mum on new shows, but they have confirmed that Science Vs will return for its second season in March, while Heavyweight will drop its second season in September.

  • NPR’s VP of Programming and Audience Development Anya Grundmann tells me that the public radio mothership will be launching several new podcasts and debuting new seasons of some of its most popular shows, including Embedded and Invisibilia. No specific dates, but Grundmann did mention that a three-episode Embedded miniseries will drop in March.

  • Night Vale Presents has confirmed that Alice Isn’t Dead and Within the Wires will return sometime this year. They also note that the team behind Orbiting Human Circus (of the Air) is working on some new projects, which will be released throughout the year. And, as noted in Vulture, the company will be making its nonfiction debut at some point in the form of a collaboration with indie band The Mountain Goats.

  • The New York Times will roll out its latest podcast, “Change Agent” with Charles Duhigg that sounds like a cross between an advice column, Oprah, and Malcolm Gladwell, sometime this spring. It’s also building a new show around Michael Barbaro, who hosts The Run-Up and has since moved into the audio team full-time. According to Politico Media, the Times is planning to expand its podcast roster from seven up to possibly twelve this year.

  • Radiotopia’s newest addition to its roster, Ear Hustle, is set to debut sometime this summer.

  • First Look Media tells me that they will be launching a weekly podcast for its flagship investigative news site, The Intercept, on January 26. The show will apparently be called “Intercepted.” There’s a joke in here somewhere, but we should move along.

That’s all I got for now. I’m going to keep a page going for this, and will update as more information trickles out. Send me what you have.

Panoply kicked off the year with the launch of its first “imprint”: The Onward Project, a group of self-improvement podcasts curated by author Gretchen Rubin, who hosts the popular Happier podcast under the network. The imprint is currently made up of three shows: the aforementioned Happier; Radical Candor, a management-oriented show; and Side Hustle School, a daily show made up of bite-sized episodes that describes financially successful side projects. The Onward Project was first announced during last September’s IAB Podcast Upfront.

Call it an imprint, call it a subnetwork, call it whatever you want: the concept seems to be more of an innovation in audience development than anything else. “I’d say success looks like what we’re already seeing — a collection of podcasts in which each show brings in its host’s unique audience, which is then exposed to the other shows through tight cross promotion,” Panoply Chief Creative Officer Andy Bowers told me over email, when I asked about the thinking around the imprint. “With podcast discovery still such a vexing problem, we think the imprint offers listeners a simple answer to the question they’re always asking Gretchen: ‘I love your show —what else should I listen to?’”

We’re probably going to see Panoply develop more imprints in the near future, further establishing a structure that makes the company look more like a “meta-network” — or a network of networks — which is a form that was only hinted at by its previous strategy, where it partnered with other media organizations to develop multiple podcasts under their brand.

60dB Hires Recode Reporter, Adding To Its Beefy Editorial Team. The short-form audio company has hired Liz Gannes, previously a reporter at the tech news site Recode, to join its editorial team. Gannes, a senior hire, rounds out a team that has thus far primarily drawn from public media. It includes: Daisy Rosario, who has worked on NPR’s Latino USA and WNYC’s 2 Dope Queens; Brenda Salinas, formerly at Latino USA and KUT Public Media; Hannah McBride, formerly at the Texas Observer and KUT Public Media; and Michael Simon Johnson, formerly at Latino USA.

So here’s what I’m thinking about: the editorial team apparently exists as an in-house team that works to produce audio stories with partner publications, often discussions about a written article that recently published, for distribution over its platform. (Is it too much of stretch to call it high-touch adaptation aggregation?) It’s a dramatically manual — and not to mention human — content acquisition process, and that’s a structure that does not scale cheaply, which I imagine presents a problem for a founding team mostly made up of former Netflix executives.

Two questions that frame my thinking on the company: Where is 60dB supposed to fall within the spectrum between Netflix-like platform and an audio-first newsroom with an aggressive aggregation strategy? And to what extent do the partnerships that the company currently pursues make up the long-term content strategy, or do they merely serve as a stepping stone into purely original content?

Anyway, I hear that more 60dB news is due next week. Keep your earballs peeled.

Related: In other tech-ish news, it looks like Otto Radio, the car dashboard-oriented podcast curation platform that recently hammered down an integration with Uber, has secured a round of investment from Samsung. Note the language in the press release describing Otto Radio’s distribution targets: “connected and autonomous cars, smart audio devices and appliances, and key integrations with premium content providers.” Appliances? I guess with Amazon’s Alexa platform creeping into everything — which was one of the bigger takeaways from this year’s CES— we’re about that close to a world in which your refrigerator can blast out those sweet, sweet Terry Gross interviews.

Facebook Live Audio. Shortly before Christmas, Facebook announced the rollout of its latest Live-related feature, Live Audio, on its media blog. Key details to note:

  • The feature is in its testing phase, and its broadcasting use is limited to a few publishing partners for now. At launch, those partners include: the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), the London-based national talk radio station LBC, book publisher Harper Collins, and authors Adam Grant and Brit Bennett. It remains unclear whether those publishers are being paid for their partnership similar to the way that Facebook has been paying major media organizations like BuzzFeed and the New York Times, along with celebrities, to use the Live Video feature.

  • The post notes that the feature will be made “more broadly available to publishers and people” over the next few months.

  • The launch of Live Audio is the latest in Facebook’s efforts to expand its Live initiative, which the company has been banking heavily on for the better part of last year. It had launched Live 360 just the week before.

  • The pitch, as it has always been, primarily revolves around interactivity — which speaks directly to the “social audio” conversation carried by many in the radio and podcast industry (see TAL’s Short Cut, WNYC’s Audiogram, and so on). The introductory post writes, “Just as with a live video on Facebook, listeners can discover live audio content in News Feed, ask questions and leave reactions in real time during the broadcast, and easily share with their friends.”

Right, so with all that out of the way: what does this mean for podcast publishers, and maybe even radio broadcasters? I haven’t quite developed a unified theory just yet, but I’ve been breaking the question down to two components.

(1) It’s worth asking, I think, if Facebook Live Audio is compatible with much of what currently exists in the podcast (or radio) space. Facebook, as a digital environment, has always seemed to be structured such that only certain kinds of publishers — or “content creators” can “win.” More often than not, those are the publishers whose business or impact goals are functionally aligned with that of Facebook’s, and from everything that we’ve seen, read, and heard about the company, it seems pretty clear that Facebook’s primary goal is to drive up user numbers and, more importantly, user engagement, whose quantifiable attention are then sold to advertisers.

But that’s obvious; the question is, of course, how has the company preferred to generate those engagements? It’s one thing if Facebook’s underlying game plan here is to “replace” broadcast, be it television or radio. But it’s a whole other thing if the company is instead trying to build out and further define its own specific media ecosystem with dynamics, incentives, behaviors, and systems unique to itself — which is exactly what appears to be the case here.

So, what kind of audio content is likely to benefit from playing into Facebook Live Audio’s unique dynamics? Probably not the highly-produced narrative stuff. Nor anything particularly long. Oddly enough, I have somewhat strong feeling that many conversational podcasts could be much better suited for Facebook Live Audio than they ever were for the existing podcast infrastructure. But at the end of the day, what appears to be true for Facebook Live Video — and for most new social platforms — will probably be true for Facebook Live Audio: the kind of content it will favor is the type of content that’s native to the form. Everything else is either filler, or means to generate actionable data.

(2) The Facebook Live program displays high levels of volatility, both in terms of the program simply functioning as intended — see: miscalculated audience metrics, surging, lingering questions over Facebook’s role in digital governance and its relationship to the State — and, perhaps more crucially, in terms of the program’s underlying view of publishers and the actors of the wider media ecosystem.

The functional volatility alone should give some thinking about dedicating resources to building out a Facebook Live Audio strategy. But the greater pause should come from the second point on the program’s underlying position. Facebook’s general abstinence from making any concrete statement about its relationship to the media (and its potential identity as a “media company”) suggests a materialistic, neutralizing view that sees all actors on the platform as functionally and morally equal. Another way of putting this: the health of individual publishers, regardless of its size, hopes, dreams, and virtues, is a tertiary concern to the platform, as long as it is able to drive up the primal behavior it wants: its own definition of engagement.

It’s a toughie. On the one hand, you have a platform that theoretically connects you with various segmentations and iterations of the platform’s 1.79 billion monthly active users. But on the other hand, it’s really hard to get around the whole unfeeling, arbitrary governing structure thing. It’s up to you — depending on what your goals are, what relationship you want to have with your audience, your stomach for instability and risk — to decide if you want to live that Facebook Live Audio life.

None of this particularly new, by the way. But it’s still worth saying.

Bites. PRX has announced its first cohort for Project Catapult, its podcast training program aimed at local public radio stations. Also note: the organization has hiredEnrico Benjamin, an Emmy award-winning producer, as the initiative’s project director. (PRX) —— SiriusXM is now distributing WNYC Studio’s podcasts over its Insights channel. This continues an emerging trend that sees SiriusXM mining podcasts for quality inventory to build a content base beyond its Howard Stern-shaped engine: last August, the company hammered down a partnership with the Vertical Podcast Network, and it has been distributing the Neil DeGrasse Tyson podcast Startalk since January 2015. (SiriusXM) —— I’m hearing that the first round of judging for this year’s Webby Awards is underway. Several folks have also written me pointing out that the group of judges for the Podcast and Digital Audio category is pretty public radio heavy… and not to mention, overwhelmingly white. (Webby Awards) —— This is cool: Norway has become the first country to shut down its nationwide FM radio in favor of digital signals. (NPR)

Moves. Several developments at Midroll: Gretta Cohn is now the Executive Producer of the company’s program development team in New York. Colin Anderson, previously a senior producer at Maximum Fun, replaces her as Earwolf’s Executive Producer. Cohn’s team also enjoys the addition of Casey Holford as an audio engineer/sound designer/composer and Clare Rawlinson as a new producer —— Meanwhile, at NPR: Tamar Charney has been confirmed as NPR One’s Managing Editor, having assumed the role in an interim basis since Sara Sarasohn left the organization. Emily Barocas joins the team full-time as an associate producer to curate pods for the app. Nick DePrey, who has been supporting NPR One in his capacity as an “Innovation Accountant,” is now the digital programming analytics manager at NPR Digital Services. Elsewhere in the organization, Juleyka Lantigua-Williams has joined as the Senior Supervising Producer and Editor for Code Switch. —— Anshuman Iddamsetty has joined the e-commerce platform company Shopify as a podcast producer. Iddamsetty previously served as the art director and an audiovisual producer for publishing curiosity Hazlitt.

Tuesday

4

October 2016

0

COMMENTS

Night Vale Presents, Spotify + Soundcloud, Radio/Podcast Criticism

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Night Vale Presents welcomes a new show to the podcast universe: The Orbiting Human Circus (of the Air), an audio drama that will “tell the story of a mysteriously impossible variety show broadcast from the top of the Eiffel Tower”… well, let’s just say it’s appropriately strange, and exactly what you’d expect from the Night Vale team. The show is written by musician Julian Koster, of the band Neutral Milk Hotel, and will feature a really remarkable lineup of voice talent that ranges from Mandy Patinkin to Charlie Day and Mary Elizabeth Ellis of “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” fame.

Orbiting Human Circus is the third project to be released under the Night Vale Presentslabel since its formation in January, after Within the Wires and Alice Isn’t Dead. The show also has the distinction of being the network’s first “independently produced” podcast, meaning that it’s the first project being distributed by the Night Vale Presents team that does not creatively involve Night Vale creators Jeffrey Cranor and Joseph Fink. (For the record: Cranor co-wrote Within the Wires, while Fink wrote Alice Isn’t Dead. Both write Welcome to Night Vale.)

“Julian and his artistic team built the world entirely on their own and approached us with the season one concept and the first three episodes already produced,” Cranor told me, after I reached out last week. “We saw a group of artists making music and theater, and they had devised this brilliant digital audio show, and we wanted to provide them with a financial base and audience base to get this work off the ground.”

Authentic, Podtrac’s advertising arm, is handling sales for the show, as they are for the rest of the Night Vale Present portfolio (including its flagship show, Welcome to Night Vale).

I’ve come to view Night Vale Presents as conceptually equivalent to an indie label and, to some extent, a book publishing imprint — with a strong curatorial commitment to a very specific sensibility, closer in spirit to something like Radiotopia but in structural opposition to more conventional scale-oriented podcast network like Panoply. (That reminds me: I’ve got to come up with a different vocabulary for these companies; the specificities of their details have accumulated enough to become strong differentiators.) Which is really, really interesting given that, for the past year or so, the podcast industry has come to feel like a protracted land-grabbing conflict perpetrated by entities looking to become the foundational arbiter of economic activity in the space. And I have, in recent weeks, come to suspect that much of that fight has already completed its course.

That leaves us, of course, with the question of what frontiers are left for entrepreneurial creators looking to stretch out their arms in this ecosystem. The enterprise of figuring out how to build a fulfilling business in the post-scale-oriented-network stage of this creative economy is certainly a hard one, but I think Night Vale Presents is doing just that — and is providing us a template of a way forward.

“We have a couple of other artists with imaginative ideas/concepts and we are using our experience to help these people enter the world of podcasting,” Cranor writes, when I asked about what’s down the pipeline. “Joseph and I reaching out to provide whatever resources we can to help initiate these good ideas, whether that is professional support, financial support, or just cheerleading. We want more fiction podcasts, more diverse podcasts, more original podcasts.”

Season one of Orbiting Human Circus (of the Air) premieres on October 12, with new episodes dropping every other Wednesday. The first season will run for nine episodes. The podcast will also involve a live tour component, which will start in the fall.

Spotify in “advanced talks” to buy Soundcloud, according to the Financial Times. Do keep an eye on this, given that the latter has long served as a solid podcast hosting platform option for newcomers — and even a few networks — and given the former’s gradual push into becoming a worthwhile podcast distributor. (Worth noting: I’ve been hearing from some publishers that their Spotify listenership appears to be growing steadily over time, though not a rate that particularly pops.)

I’m tempted to speculate how this acquisition may impact podcast publishers hosting on Soundcloud or publishers looking to distribute through Spotify — it remains a closed garden — but I imagine that will all be contingent on the details of whatever deal may emerge from these talks, should there be one.

Some notes on the UK. I was curious, like most, when I heard that Panoply was setting up shop in the UK. When I last wrote about the podcast scene in that region, I was left with the distinct impression that building out an on-demand audio business there would be a tremendously difficult proposition, particularly given the outsized role that the BBC plays in the local non-music audio economy that presumably leaves little oxygen for potential competitors.

Panoply, I figured, are in for a tough fight. But I wondered what someone who has had experience building out a podcast business in the UK would think, and so I reached out to Stuart Last, general manager and SVP of Audioboom, a British on-demand audio company that has, in recent years, made in-roads in the US.

His extensive reply:

The podcast market [in the UK] is really in it’s infancy — there’s been an increasing number of independent podcasts [in the UK], but a noticeable lack of podcast networks compared to the US, so the first stage of consolidation has not really begun. Also, the ad sales market is not hugely established yet, both in the money agencies and brands are dedicating to podcasting, and how sellers are selling.

The one thing the BBC’s dominance of the audio space has created is a really competitive independent production industry. By law, the BBC has to buy a large percentage of its radio programs from the independent sector — which means there’s creative, and well established production companies ready to develop and produce fantastic audio products. So I think the main challenge for them will be how to monetize effectively. But their key opportunity is all about content and being able to tap into the independent production industry for great ideas.

I think it’s great that a 3rd major player is launching there — obviously it’s more competition for ourselves and Acast, but because the industry is so in it’s infancy it’s a chance for all three companies to shape what podcasting becomes in the UK.

Interestingly, Last also wanted to clarify the current state of Audioboom for me: “I know we’re also seen as a British company,” he wrote. “We are — that’s where the company was founded and where our HQ is based — but the majority of global business is out of the U.S and we’re growing here at 10% a month.” Last further notes his company’s position as a dynamic ad-insertion platform competitors to Art19 and Acast (“and at much bigger scale,” he adds. “Over 50 million downloads per month are coming via audioBoom”) and, simultaneously, a podcast advertising sales operation. It currently reps the Undisclosed, Astonishing Legends, and the NBC Sports podcast network, among others.

Meanwhile, in Australia. The great continent down under — sorry folks, I couldn’t find a less cliched nickname — enjoyed its inaugural OzPod conference last week, with WNYC’s Manoush Zomorodi presenting the keynote. The conference, which was organized by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), is the second relatively high-profile conference in the country after the more indie-oriented Audiocraft that took place in March. Anyway, I’d like to draw your attention something that the ABC published ahead of the festivities: an Audience Research research report that covers Australian podcast listenership, put together by the organization’s Audience Insights team.

The report drew from a sample of 1145 surveys, and it should be noted that the majority of respondents had been listening to podcasts for more than five years. (Which, in my mind, presents a pretty engaged — and therefore somewhat irregular — respondent pool, so keep that in mind when you look through the findings.)

You can view the full report here, but here are the points that stood out to me:

  • On average, Australian podcast audiences listen to an average of 5.5 podcasts per week. The report didn’t make it particularly clear, but I believe “podcasts” to be equivalent to “podcast episodes.” The report also found that nearly 1 in 5 (19%) respondents listen up to 11 podcasts per week.

  • The most common location where respondents consume podcasts is apparently at home, with 76% reporting that behavior.

  • This is interesting: 36% of respondents indicated that the are listening to more podcasts compared to previous year. The report further noted that this is a net 14% increase compared to the previous year.

  • Finally: nearly 1 in 2 discover new podcasts by word of mouth and listening to the radio or television.

Cool. And in case you were wondering: ABC Radio is the largest podcast publisher in the country, reporting about 135 million overall downloads and streams in 2015. The company is projected to enjoy about 160 million overall downloads in 2016.

A Writer’s Room? Parcast is a fairly new podcast network that has taken what’s becoming a very conventional route to building out a strong initial audience base: leaning hard into true crime. (Indeed, it’s a strategy so compelling that even some city newspapers, like theCincinnati Enquirer and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, have adopted it… with moderate success, looking at the iTunes charts.) “Unsolved Murders: True Crime Stories,” is a dramatic reenactment-heavy take on the genre, and it comes off as a bit of campy mix between Nightline and an old timey radio drama. I’m told it drew in 1.8 million “listens” in its first three months.

Max Cutler, a co-founder of Parcast, tells me that the company is set up “like an old time movie studio,” in that production is built around a rotating pool of screenwriters and voice actors with different combinations working on a given episode. It’s an intriguing way of structuring your production process, especially if you can make the economics of running a team like that work, and I think it’s a model that other shops should try out in the future — particularly for the audio drama-inclined.

Anyway, the network launched its second show, the salaciously-named “Remarkable Lives, Tragic Deaths,” in early August, and Cutler notes that they intend to launch five to seven more shows over the next year.

Recognition. Something’s wrong, argues Johanna Zorn and the Third Coast Festival team in a manifesto published on Medium last Monday. It’s time for the Fall Arts Preview — an annual tradition, of sorts, where publications across the print and digital spectrum draw attention to upcoming artistic and creative events — but there remains, quite glaringly, an absence of radio and podcast-related coverage. Zorn and co. further characterize this gap as an extension of a greater lack of critical recognition for the medium; a long running state of affairs, to be sure, but one that has grown increasingly incongruous given the medium’s recent burst in attention and popularity. “We seek recognition of the Radio/Podcasting genre through thoughtful reviews, criticism, and a deeper examination of styles and trends,” the manifesto concludes. “We know you can hear us.”

As you can imagine, I’m sympathetic to the issue that Zorn and co. raise here, but reading the manifesto, I found myself wondering: what, exactly, does “recognition” mean here?

When I spoke to the Third Coast team last week, Zorn told me: “It’s like we’re fighting for equality here… We talk about novels, dance, and movies, but we don’t talk about radio and it doesn’t feel like it’s being treated as art.” Maya Goldberg-Safir, the team’s social media strategist, presented a more practical line of argument: “People are still using the New York Times or the Chicago Tribune for event listings. I think those outlets are crucial for us to get visibility as an art form that we deserve at this point.”

A few things here:

(1) It’s worth decoupling those two arguments: so, I really resonate with Goldberg-Safir’s argument for greater discoverability — which can yield material economic impact — but I find Zorn’s appeal for greater cultural positioning much trickier. In my mind, it conveys a sense that the team is appealing to stable of elite cultural gatekeepers to open their doors and let them in. I’m generally skeptical of any impulse that ties recognition to an acceptance from an elite class, although I understand that feeling.

(2) Now, I generally believe in cultivating radio/podcast criticism to realize their functional utility as a consumer guide of sorts and increase their influence over the economic outcomes of podcast projects. To that end, I’m hopeful about the way things are shaping out: podcast recommendation lists appear to be more common these days, there’s a growing class of young and independent online operatives taking up the task (like the Bello Collective and Podcasts in Color), and there’s been a slow but steady rise in write-ups within strong publications (a very recent example: the New York Times’ recent profile of You Must Remember This’ Karina Longworth in the Style section, which comes mere weeks after a similar write-up of The West Wing Weekly in the Arts section.)

(3) I also happen to absolutely love consuming criticism as an editorial product that stands alone. (Hell, I love producing them too.) And as an editorial product, criticism has been subject to all the structural brouhahas that the rest of the media industry is suffering through, including the bifurcation into commodifying plays for scale and narrowing plays for niches. And therein lies the problem: radio/podcast criticism of the former kind may be well-served by all we’re seeing already — the lists, the occasional write-ups by big publications (many of which have been downsizing form-specific critics for years), and so on — the deeper and more thoughtful stuff, the stuff that the Third Coast team advocates for, requires the development of whole new, probably niche, businesses, either within an existing organization or as an entirely new venture.

And that is no small thing.

Heads up. The Reply All team is trying out something weird next week: a 48-hour live show where they will take every phone call they get for 48 hours — all day, all night. “We want to see what happens when you open a line to the internet and invite anyone to use it,” wrote Alex Goldman in an email to me. “I have no doubt that will include abuse, pranks, insanity, and very little sleep.” Phone lines open on Monday at 10am. Watch their Twitterand Facebook accounts for the number after that time if you want to participate.

Bites:

  • iHeartMedia dips its toe a little deeper into podcasts with “Taglines,” a show that comes out of a partnership with Advertising Age. This comes a few months after iHeartMedia rolled out a similar programming partnership with the co-working space company WeWork. It also follows LibSyn announcing that it would be now distributing podcasts through iHeartMedia’s listening platforms. (AdAge)

  • I’ve been enjoying the different ways that publications are taking to the Amazon Echo. Here, the Guardian announces its own Alexa skill for the Echo, splitting its flash content pipeline between three categories: news and opinion, reviews, and podcasts. I’m looking forward to seeing how other publications handle design taxonomy. (The Guardian)

  • WNYC’s Note to Self continues its experimentation with audience engagement and service journalism through digital research projects: the show is collaborating with Pro Publica on a Chrome-extension driven study to figure out what, exactly, Facebook knows about you through your data. (Pro Publica)

  • Panoply works to even out its political programming with the inclusion of two gabfest-style podcasts from Ricochet, a conservative website, into its network. I’ve written a little bit about Ricochet and the spread of conservative podcasts before, and if that strikes your fancy be sure to check out this recent article by Wired’s Charley Locke.

  • Quick shout-out to the political podcast producers working overtime to pump out post-debate episodes mere hours after the actual event: Jocelyn Frank and Jayson DeLeon of Panoply’s Slate Political Gabfest and Trumpcast mash-up, Brent Baughman of NPR Politics, Galen Druke of FiveThirtyEight, and whoever pulled the super late hours on the New York Times’ Run-Up team.

  • Dropping this here, due to the company’s relative ubiquity as a podcast advertiser: BuzzFeed’s investigation into Blue Apron’s not-so-wholesome supply practices. (BuzzFeed)

Tuesday

8

March 2016

0

COMMENTS

Pod Consumption Surges, Midroll Makeover, iTunes

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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)