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4

April 2017

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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

28

March 2017

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COMMENTS

Welcome to S-Town, Missing Richard Simmons Post-Game Numbers, Why are #PodcastsSoWhite?

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Sell Underwear, Do the Job. Like man buns and the end of small talk, podcasts got the NYT Styles treatment last week, with a piece up on the somewhat quirky business of host-read endorsements on podcasts. It’s fun, and may prove to be too obvious for some, but there’s some meat on the bone for us here.

Two bits in particular:

(1) There’s the suggestion of a value being undercapitalized here. Note the following:

Podcasts are well suited for companies that otherwise couldn’t afford such a wide range of celebrity endorsements. Blue Apron is a particularly active podcast advertiser, with spots appearing on hundreds of podcasts, including “The West Wing Weekly,” said Jared Cluff, the company’s chief marketing officer. Though Mr. Cluff said the brand didn’t necessarily set out to market its service with celebrities, he agreed that podcasts were providing a comparably inexpensive way to do so.

On the one hand, what value for advertisers! On the other hand, it does feel like someone’s leaving money on the table.

(2) The article gestures towards the very real limitations of the seemingly informal nature of the host-read endorsement. On the one hand, you have an ad format that proves slippery for hosts whose journalistic bona fides might be central to the value proposition of the program. (Katie Couric is the most explicit example of this in the piece.) On the other hand, you have the problem of truly awkward executions and placements, like Malcolm Gladwell setting himself up to draw blood only to slip into a quick host-read commercial.

I’ve gotten the sense throughout various conversations that this has come be to increasingly pressing concern for a good chunk of industry execs, and it does seem like we’ve been privy to some pretty smart policies and solutions to resolve questions of ethics and experience. That includes doing away with host-reads altogether, as NPR does, as well as efforts to simply writer better for segues in and out of ad spots.

But I suspect that there’s an additional unspoken layer in all of this for some: that these underdeveloped grey areas may well be the source of a good deal of what’s appealing to advertisers.

Welcome to S-Town. The Serial spinoff — and first project under the newly formed Serial Productions banner — dropped into RSS feeds in its entirety today. At this writing, I’ve only heard the first four episodes that were previewed to the press, and I thought it was a great listen, built around a rich set of characters and a challenging, fascinating milieu.

Last week, I got to ask executive producer Julie Snyder a couple of questions ahead of the launch. Here are the particularly relevant chunks:

Why tell the story this way — a seven-part series dropped all at once?

Ahhh, I don’t know! [laughs] Let’s see. I knew it was going to be episodic, and I think we even started talking about releasing it all at once pretty early on. For the first season of Serial, I had thought a lot about TV as a model for the structure and aesthetic, but for this one, Brian [Reed, host] and I pretty quickly started talking about novels as being more the model. We looked at The Known World, because we liked the idea of an omniscient narrator, and then we were like, well, they’re not really episodes, they’re chapters. That’s how we saw them. And so we always knew that there would be different chapters, we just didn’t know how many. At one point, there were eleven chapters, and then we changed it all around as we were structuring more and more.

There were logistics as well. You’ll hear this as you go further into the episodes, but there are places where people are just slinging around accusations left and right, and if we were doing something that was weekly, the writing would just be incredibly different because everybody would need to get a chance to address the charges getting thrown against them. Releasing it all at once was also a lot more freeing in a way, you could reflect the reality a lot better while still telling the story in a longer way.

And… it’s also because I just wasn’t feeling it. I can’t totally explain, but doing a weekly thing to me… I just wasn’t feeling it. This just wasn’t what this is, you know? And I did know the fact that it starts with this murder investigation. I mean, you’ve got the stink of Serial on you, and I wanted to make it clear that we’re going somewhere else.

I was just going back over the previews of S-Town and almost every piece had assumed that it would be a true crime story. It sounds like you guys were very aware of that characterization, but were you wary of it? Or was it something you were counting on?

Yeah, we were definitely aware. It’s interesting… I mean, it puts you into sort of a weird position with the true crime stuff, because to be totally honest, I’m sorta disdainful of anything true crime. Like, I find true crime is a lot of times pretty crappy, you know? And it can be kinda gross and prurient. There’s some stuff I’ve really loved over the years, but I’m not that person, and those aren’t my people necessarily. So it’s not true crime, and at the same time, I was, like, but it is, and trust me, you’re going to love it. Because what it is, is a really good story, and it’s not that we do true crime well, it’s that we do stories well.

When asked if S-Town is designed to be a one-off, Snyder indicated that it probably is. “I’m not sure that everyone wants to keep hearing about various different towns where people make arguments why they’re failing,” she laughs. I dunno, I totally would, but either way, it looks like that RSS feed is going to be quiet from here on out. At least, for now.

I also asked Snyder if she could divulge any information about the other two projects in development over at Serial Productions. “I don’t… think so,” she said. “Because then people would ask them about it and they would start freaking out.”

Don’t sleep on this. Tom Webster, VP of Strategy at Edison Research, published a blog post last week drawing attention to what he considers is the most misunderstood data point that was served through the research firm’s Infinite Dial 2017 study from a few weeks ago: the finding of the home as being the most cited location in terms of where podcasts are consumed. Go check it out.

Missing Richard Simmons Post-Game. Let’s close the book on this and round it out with some performance numbers. Here’s what I found:

  • First Look Media tells me that the podcast “has been downloaded on average more than 1 million times a week since its release.” It’s a remarkable stat for a show with that short of a run.

  • The show’s windowing arrangement with Stitcher Premium proved to be a boon for the premium subscription service. I’m told that the move drove 6x the usual number of daily new subscription sign-ups during the show’s run. “We also found that Missing Richard Simmons fans, once signed into the Premium service, were highly engaged with our other content, sampling multiple shows in our growing catalog,” a spokesperson told me. So there’s that.

Also, BuzzFeed’s Kate Arthur notes that it looks like host Dan Taberski hasn’t been doing interviews in the wake of the show’s finale. In a move that’s true to the spirit of the show itself, she published a list of questions she had intended to pose to Taberski, if she had gotten him on the phone.

Stoner and Launching an Interview Show. The Interview Podcast is a tricky gambit: deceptively easy to set up, devilishly hard to do well. And, surveying the swathe of new podcasts from various established media players that have hit the iTunes charts over the past year or so, it does seem like the interview show has come to present newcomers with the quickest, and perhaps more conservative route to market: get a known talent, leverage that person’s pre-existing audience base and rolodex, monetize. Or something like that.

That’s not a knock on the strategy; if it works, it works. And in some cases, it works pretty well. (See: The Axe Files, Katie Couric, The Ezra Klein Show, Recode Decode.) But the recent spate of newborn interview podcasts suggests an inequality within the opportunities of the format; if the value of an interview podcast these days is so embedded in the celebrity of its host, what’s the route-to-market for a non-celebrity interview show?

The latest project for Aaron Lammer, one third of the Longform podcast (itself an interview show), sets him down a path that grapples with this question. Lammer’s latest is called Stoner, an interview podcast that hopes to open up how we think about weed in America. The challenge for him is twofold: first, he’s building the show from scratch, and second, he’s building a show with seemingly niche appeal.

I recently asked Lammer how he’s thinking through the launch. He replied:

I’m not at all concerned with how many people listen to the show in the first week, the first month. I know it’s a topic that a lot of people care about and I know that it will find those people. Honestly, I think the experience of an interview show for the first few episodes is kinda weird, because for listeners it’s like, “Which one of these should I listen to? I don’t really know what it is.” Most interview shows that I’ve come to and have become a regular listener of… I can’t really think of any that I’ve come to before the first twenty episodes. So a lot of what I’m doing is, like, trying to fast forward through the early life of the show.

It’s not important to me for people to start listening immediately. It’s more important to me that the people who it could be the best for, if I do get them, that they would stick around. I want to build an army of loyalists more so than I want to deliver CPM numbers out of the gate. That would be a false pursuit for me.

I want to do a lot of episodes, and I want to get bigger and bigger guests. Which is why I intentionally did not stack the biggest bookings I could get in the first run of the show, because that would be a waste.

To that end, Lammer is plotting the first few bookings to illustrate the different possible sides of Stoner. That multiplicity of substance is key to Lammer’s strategy, and he offers a scenario giving practical shape to that folding out of issues. “If I met somebody at a bar, and I was pitching them the show, I would try to zero in on what kind of a person they were, and aim an episode at them,” Lammer explained, expressing a commitment to a much longer game.

And a long game it appears to be. “I like big bodies of work,” Lammer said. “And I think being part of a podcast that’s hit close to 250 episodes” — referring to Longform — “I think that’s a weird thing to pursue, but I’m attracted to that. Longform’s been great, but it’s a very specific thing. And I wanted to do something that was a lot more freeform.”

Stoner debuted today. Its first episodes will feature Aminatou Sow, of Call Your Girlfriend fame (among many, many other things), and Justin Oullette, a weed technology entrepreneur in Portland, Oregon.

“Why Are #PodcastsSoWhite?” asks Steve Friess for the Columbia Journalism Review, the latest in a steadily growing body of writing drawing more attention to a problem long associated with the podcast space: its considerable whiteness and, perhaps more importantly, a dubious absence of any corporate momentum to solve the issue. The piece hits some familiar beats — among other things, there’s a callback to Chenjerai Kumanyika’s now seminal 2014 essay on the whiteness of public radio — but it does well to genuinely draw some fresh blood, including:

  • Highlighting the combined role of gatekeepers both algorithmic, in the case of iTunes, and human, in the case of programming executives, in perpetuating the problem; and

  • Prosecuting specific failures by companies, in particular Panoply, in adequately grappling with issues of executive and front-of-mic diversity.

On the face of it, the article is a welcome read. As longtime readers might know, this issue that I care a lot about. Much of this, of course, has to do with who I am; in case my last name doesn’t make it adequately clear, I’m a person of color — a yellow person, specifically — and so on the one hand, I feel the space’s pervasive whiteness and how that results in a good deal of the ecosystem’s programming repetitiveness, and on the other hand, I feel the absence of people like me. Though, admittedly, that latter problem is harder to solve, given my many stacking identifiers: I am, among other things, a Southeast Asian native, of third culture, a non-Muslim citizen of a majority-Muslim country, politically amorphous, non-white, non-American. Which is all to say that I’m glad for any and all articles that grapple with diversity, because it represents a step forward in — or at least another go at — an important conversation.

So why, then, do I find Friess’ piece so frustrating?

It comes down to the article getting just enough things wrong, or incomplete, in a meaningful way. It’s frustrating not just because these mistakes affects the article’s integrity, but also because they do a disservice to the tangible good the piece is trying to generate: the paradigmatic construction of a shared accountability system.

There isn’t quite enough space to print a comprehensive list — and I reckon that would be counterproductive — but here are the two most representative examples:

(1) There are just enough facts served as absolutes that are wrong enough to be considered provably untrue. For one, it mentions Gimlet having no hosts of color. While, indeed, Gimlet is mad wonder bread across its portfolio, that statement isn’t exactly the case: Lisa Chow, a person of color, is the host of the current iteration of Startup. Which might seem like splitting hairs, until you consider how it might reduces the argument’s credibility particularly in the eyes of the critiqued. To state the obvious, there is strategic value in not being wrong. There’s also mention that 99 Percent Invisible doesn’t feature any editorial staffers who are black or Hispanic, while sidestepping mention of Sharif Youssef, who is neither black or Hispanic (so far that I know) but who is nonetheless a person of color. That construction of the argument exposes it to charges of picking and choosing, and further, its evaluative selectivity suggests a degree of intersectional limitation in the article; race isn’t just about African-Americans and Hispanics just as diversity isn’t only about race, and there really doesn’t seem to be a consistent system at heart of the piece that seems able to support that multiplicity. To be clear: I’m not absolving either of those shows from the critique at hand; after all, Gimlet just has one host of color across its active portfolio (including Gimlet Creative), and Youssef represents the sole person of color on 99PI’s staff. I’m just saying the critique here should have been what the problem of diversity in the creative workplace is really about: a question asked at the nexus of proportion, perspectives, and power.

(2) Perhaps more curiously, Friess positions PodcastOne as an example of a network that’s making an effort at greater programming diversity. Which is perfectly fine on paper, depending on your relationship with an instrumentalist approach to diversity — that is, the utilization of diversity as means to access markets — but any such positive reading of the company in terms of diversity should also square with the fact that this is the same company that gave a platform to provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos, whose frequent associations with hate speech and harassment charges should raise an additional dimension to how we assign value to the company’s performance in this regard. (See also: the Simon and Schuster case.)

All of this might strike you as nitpicking. That’s understandable; I won’t say it isn’t. But the point I’m trying to make is that if we’re going to hold the industry accountable— to push for more inclusive industry and to apply pressure to gatekeepers that might either feel uncomfortable or straightforwardly hostile under scrutiny — it’s important to get the accounting absolutely right. That’s fundamental to moving the conversation towards cultivating a system of dialogue that ensures credibility for the critic while establishing clear terms for advocated outcomes.

Again, I’m laying this out not because the article is misplaced, but because it gets so much broadly right. It’s just a shame that it gets enough wrong to render the whole thing a missed opportunity, or worse: a hollow success. And I mean, look: the reality is that the critical minority position tends to be structurally and subconsciously held to a higher standard than its default power-holding counterpart. Which sucks and is totally unfair, but that’s just the nature of the power dynamic at play here. Minorities, advocates, critics; we’re all stuck in this situation where we have to work twice as hard to get half of anything, and so it’s really important to get the small things as much as the big things right.

Anyway, that’s just my thought process on the matter. It’s a big, complicated, emotional issue — I’m all ears.

Bites. 

  • Newsweek’s Alexander Nazaryan has a lengthy profile of Crooked Media up over the weekend. Do mind the video autoplay, however. (Newsweek) Also, shouts to CNN’s Reliable Sources for the Sunday chyron: “Trump Making Podcasts Great Again?”

  • Shouts to Boise, Idaho’s Treefort Festival running a podcast programming slate, including an appearance by Marketplace’s Lizzy O’Leary and the live FiveThirtyEight show. And shouts to Boise, my second favorite city of all time. (Boise State)

  • The co-founders of Mental Floss, Will Pearson and Mangesh Hattikudur, have joined HowStuffWorks to develop podcasts. (AdWeek)

  • “How to Hook Your Podcast Audience.” (NPR Training)

  • Kyle Chayka has a meaty feature over at The Ringer on the rise of a new faction of liberal media, a group that includes the crew at Chapo Trap House. The piece draws attention to the publicly available audience specs for the podcast’s subscription operation: “The podcast has more than 11,000 subscribers for its paywalled episodes, netting more than $51,000 a month on the crowdfunding platform Patreon.” (The Ringer)

  • Fans of Anna Faris is Unqualified should note: the actress and her co-producer, Sim Sarna, has formed a new podcast company, Unqualified Media. The company launched its first show, Missi & Zach Might Bang!, last week. Public Media Marketing is handling ad sales. (EW.com)

Thursday

16

March 2017

0

COMMENTS

Let’s dig into those Infinite Dial 2017 numbers.

Written by , Posted in Hot Pod Weekly

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

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

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

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

(1) Steady, Unsexy Growth?

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

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

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

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

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

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

(2) The Problem of Programming

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alright, let’s move on.

(3) Depth of Listening

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Miscellaneous Takeaways

  • Active podcast listeners still skews male.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bites. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday

3

March 2017

0

COMMENTS

About Those Original Spotify Podcasts

Written by , Posted in Hot Pod Weekly

This is Issue 109. Published February 28, 2017.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Speaking of Gimlet…

Gimlet announces its spring slate. The returning shows are:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(1) Tobey’s Role and Immediate Priorities.

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

(2) What defines an APM show?

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

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

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

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

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

Two things to note:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bites. 

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

Tuesday

10

January 2017

0

COMMENTS

Upcoming Show Launches, Crooked Media, Facebook Live Audio

Written by , Posted in Hot Pod Weekly

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

25

October 2016

0

COMMENTS

Fun Raising

Written by , Posted in Hot Pod Weekly

“We’re built on top of a foundation that we feel pretty good about,” PRX CEO Kerri Hoffman said. “I’m excited that we’ll never start from zero again.”

We were discussing Radiotopia’s 2016 fall fundraising campaign, which kicked off on October 13 and ends later this week, and Hoffman was telling me how she’s significantly less stressed out this year. Last fall marked the first time the organization switched away from a seasonal Kickstarter strategy to a recurring donor model, an approach whose internal logic bears more than a passing resemblance to public radio’s pledge drive system. The bulk of last year’s work, she explained, involved building out basic fundraising infrastructure: pulling together email lists, developing the beats of their marketing push, testing out the messaging, and so on. A lot of those fundamentals remain in place this year, and they merely had to build upon them.

Accordingly, PRX’s focus is a little different this year: while last November’s campaign had the more precarious goal of building out its donor base for the first time, this year’s drive has the more modest goal of merely expanding that base. Last November’s drive successfully drew support from over 19,500 people, and a blog post PRX published at the time noted that 82% of those folks signed on as recurring donors at different contribution levels, which would place the recurring donor number at around 15,990 people. The campaign’s CommitChange page for this cycle indicates that 12,647 recurring donors from that initial drive have stayed on, illustrating a bit of a drop-off in the intervening 12 months. Donors in good standing were gifted a free challenge coin, and their recurring contributions are set to continue unless they decide to adjust their levels. Existing donors were also invited to make additional one-time donations. This year’s campaign is also a little shorter than the previous year’s, taking place across 20 days compared to 2015’s 30 days.

That said, this campaign has had its challenges. Hoffman tells me that, interestingly enough, this year’s bonkers election cycle has made messaging and marketing a little more difficult, given the oxygen it has sucked up over social media. “We’ve definitely had to work a little harder to keep the momentum going,” she said. “Everyone’s distracted.” And early on, a slight timing hiccup led to the campaign missing its first challenge grant — in which a sponsor pledges a particular amount if certain goals are met — by a little bit.

But even with those bumps, the campaign appears to be going strong, clocking in just over 3,200 new supporters by Monday evening. What’s interesting to me here, though, is the way in which the campaign goal of expanding its recurring donor base — which is a game of attrition, really — lends to a relatively unsexy marketing narrative. It’s one thing to announce the recruitment of over 15,000 supporters and have that be the core of a triumphant story, but it’s another thing altogether to try and drive a narrative about adding on 3,000 more supporters, and one wonders whether this narrative issue will pose a structural problem for Radiotopia’s ability to create a sense of urgency for future fundraising and donor recruitment efforts.

This predicament, I think, is an interesting microcosm of where we are in the larger narrative arc of this second coming of podcasts: the phase of the excitement of the new is coming to a close, and we march steadily on into the more mundane work of adolescence.

In related news: Radiotopia also welcomed a new podcast to the family this week: The Bugle, the popular satire podcast launched back in October 2007 by Andy Zaltzman and John Oliver (who you may know as the host of HBO’s Last Week Tonight). Oliver will no longer host the show, for obvious “there is not enough time in the world”-related reasons, and Zaltzman, who is staying on, will be supplemented with a rotating crew of guests.

The Bugle is Radiotopia’s second addition in recent weeks. In late September, the collective announced its recruitment of the West Wing Weekly, which is co-hosted by Hrishikesh Hirway, who is already part of the Radiotopia family with Song Exploder. The Bugle and West Wing Weekly are noticeable departures away from Radiotopia’s usual aesthetic that tends to favor narrative storytelling. The former can be categorized as a straightforward comedy podcast while the latter is a pretty extensive TV club podcast. This departure appears to be strategic. In the related press release, executive producer Julie Shapiro noted: “These shows help us expand into new areas of entertainment, political news and satire, which will ultimately build on the existing Radiotopia brand and bring new audiences to all shows within the network.”

The Bugle is Radiotopia’s sixteenth show.

Election Podcasts enter the homestretch. Let’s quickly check in on their game plans:

  • Starting today (October 25), the NPR Politics Podcast will publish new episodes every day until the election. The podcast also hit a milestone recently; according to a recent press release (which we’ll get back to in a bit), the show enjoyed 1,118,000 downloads during the first week of October and. It had averaged about 450,000 downloads a week over the last three months.

  • The FiveThirtyEight Elections podcast will also be publishing new episodes daily until the election starting today. Additionally, the show will continue past November 8 on a weekly schedule “through at least Inauguration Day.”

  • I’m told that there is no systematic plan to increase the output of Slate’s Trumpcast, which already publishes on a semi-daily basis. When I asked Steve Lickteig, executive producer of Slate podcasts if the show will continue past the big day, he told me: “If there is a peaceful transition of power, Trumpcast will do one or two wrap-up shows. If it gets contentious, stay tuned!” The podcast reportedly draws one million monthly downloads and considered internally to be one of the most popular podcasts in Slate’s history, according to Digiday.

  • The Ringer’s Keepin’ It 1600, consumed by many as therapy, will “likely” continue past November 8. It has already shifted to a twice-a-week publishing schedule.

As always, much love to all the producers of these podcasts that are putting in the extra physical, mental, and emotional energy to stay close to the news cycle. It’ll be over soon, folks. (Or will it?)

A New Lab, A Podcast Strategy? Last Wednesday, NPR announced an expansion and restructuring of its Storytelling Lab, its internal innovation incubator launched last June. Nieman Lab has the full story on the new lab, of course, you should totally check out. But at high level, you should know the following:

  • The lab has been renamed as “Story Lab,” and its structure has shifted from an incubator to what’s being called a “creative studio” — hey, nomenclature is important and words have meaning, folks. According to the related press release, the studio’s articulated aim is to “support innovation” across the organization, “increase collaboration” with member stations, and better identify talent.

  • The initiative will apparently also be “investing in training, audio workshops and meetups,” which is a pretty solid idea, given that the supply chain for talent in the space seems deeply underserved at this point in time.

  • The release also noted that the Lab is funding three pilots, which is cool, though the pathway to full seasons and distribution for those pilots remain to be seen.

The Story Lab announcement was followed shortly after by news of NPR’s ratings increase this season which, among other things, drew attention to the breaking of broadcast audience records by Morning Edition and All Things Considered as well as the fact that NPR One has grown by 124% year-over-year.

Cool news from the mothership, but when it comes to NPR and podcasts, I typically approach the situation with the following questions: what is the shape of its podcast strategy, how does it fit into the larger strategy, and what do these developments tell us about both of those things? From that framework, the Story Lab is clearer to me as a way for NPR to better capitalize on its ecosystem of potential talent than it is a focused strategy that says something explicit about how on-demand audio fits into NPR’s grand vision.

It may well be the case that there is a plan — or at least a theory — in place that isn’t being communicated at this point in time. “We don’t have a quota,” an NPR spokesperson said when I asked if the Story Lab had specific output benchmarks for pilot production. “We do have some internal goals about how many shows we want to pilot and launch, but we’re not ready to share those publicly.” What those are, and what they’ll be, is something we’re going to have to wait to find out.

An alternate narrative on the connected car dashboard? Two weeks ago, Uber announced an integration with Otto Radio, a commute-oriented audio and podcast curation app, that will serve riders with a talk programming playlist that’s dynamically constructed to fit their trips. PC Magazine has a pretty good description on how the experience enabled by the integration is supposed to work:

The next time you request a ride using the Uber app, a playlist of news stories and podcasts, perfectly timed for your trip’s duration, will be waiting for you in Otto Radio. Once your driver has arrived, you can sit back and enjoy your “personally curated listening experience and arrive at your destination up-to-date about the things you care about most,” the companies said.

Otto Radio is a quirky participant in the much larger fight among audio programming providers and platforms for the dashboard of the connected car — widely considered in the industry to be one of the biggest untapped frontiers — but this integration with Uber brings into the equation a potential transformation wrinkle in that dashboard struggle narrative: what does that fight mean in an environment where Uber looks to (a) contend for transportation primacy over car ownership and (b) push deeper into self-driving cars? In this rather likely version of the future, does the fight for the dashboard dissolve back into the fight for the mobile device?

Splish splash. The Times’ public editor Liz Spayd turned her attention to the organization’s nascent (or rather, re-nascent) podcast operations over the weekend, and her column contained a bunch of pretty interesting nuggets for close watchers of the Gray Lady, along with anybody working at a media organization thinking about podcasts.

Of course, do check out the column, but here are the bits that stand out to me:

  • “The politics podcast, called “The Run-Up,” is attracting the youngest audience of any Times product ever surveyed, and one that spends far more time on it than most readers do on stories.”

  • “As the team gears up, it plans to produce a range of shows, from the more conversational to serial-style narratives. It will also scope out opportunities for audio on demand: newsy, gripping sound that could be found directly on the Times website rather than in podcast form.” ←- this latter point is really, really interesting.

  • The Times’ next podcast, a game show featuring Freakonomics’ Stephen Dubner called “Tell Me Something I Don’t Know,” is scheduled to launch next month. Dubner, by the way, is hitting the free agent game pretty hard: Freakonomics is still chugging along at WNYC, and his short Question of the Day podcast, produced under the Earwolf label, is also publishing industriously. Dubner has some history with the Times; Freakonomics was also once a blog on NYTimes.com between 2007-2011, and Dubner was once a story editor at NYT Magazine.

For what it’s worth, I liked Spayd’s analysis a lot. There remains tremendous questions about the promise of audio for digital media and news organizations, and whether it can deliver as a revenue boon in a business environment starved for growth injections and stabilizing pillars. Two core tensions exist in these questions: whether podcasts will offer incremental growth or whether it will be a so-called “magic bullet,” and whether podcasts will be deployed as a kind of top-of-the-funnel — a recruitment tool to reach previously unharvested audiences and pull them down the marketing funnel — or as a fully-fledged outpost all on its own.

Patreon partners with podcast hosting platform Podomatic. The partnership will let Podomatic users easily set up Patreon support buttons on their user profile, according to the press release. If you’re unfamiliar with Patreon, it’s a platform that helps creators receive funding and donations directly from their supporters — or patrons, to use the synonym that makes Patreon’s etymology more obvious.

It’s a nifty service, and I’ve used it before for Hot Pod back before I decided to take the newsletter full-time. And I know it’s also pretty widely used — separate and apart from Podomatic — by a number of podcasters, like Flash Forward’s Rose Eveleth. A Patreon spokesperson told me that the platform has “about 10k podcast creators” with Patreon accounts, and that the company is actively working to draw more podcasters onto the service. It’s a decent option, I think, for shows way under the audience threshold for advertiser interest but have an ardent, engaged base that may be willing to chip in some cash monthly to sustain the show. Hey, that model works for me.

If you checked out the iTunes Podcast charts this weekend and wonder what the hell just happened, rest assured: you’re not the only one, and this certainly isn’t the first time. This is probably a good time to re-up an old column of mine that examines the quirks and oddities of the iTunes chart — how it can be gamed, how it breaks down as a reliable attributor of value, and so on.

Bites:

  • Politico’s hallmark newsletter product, the Politico Playbook, is now available in 90-second audio format, distributed both through the Amazon Echo and as a podcast. The birthdays, alas, will not be carried over. (Politico)

  • “Midroll Media did ‘in the ballpark’ of $20 million in sales last year, and is on pace to bring in more than $30 million this year,” AdAge reports, using a source “with knowledge of the company.” (AdAge)

  • WNYC Studios will launch its next podcast, Nancy, early next year. Nancy, formerly known as Gaydio, was one of the winners of the station’s podcast accelerator initiative that took place back in September 2015. (MediaVillage)

  • In The Dark, APM Reports’ limited run podcast that investigates the 1989 child abduction of Jacob Wetterling in rural Minnesota, will be broadcasted on the radio as a 4-hour roundup special. The show, by the way, is amazing, and I think it’s probably the most thoughtful true crime podcast I’ve ever heard. The last episode is set to drop today. (Twitter)

  • Bumpers, an audio-creation app that I wrote about back in August, has raised $1 million in seed funding. (TechCrunch)

  • The first Chicago Podcast Festival, scheduled to take place after the Third Coast Festival from Nov. 17 to 19, has posted its lineup. (Chicago Podcast Festival)

  • Like many media nerds, I’ve been watching Verge co-founder Joshua Topolsky’s latest venture, The Outline, with much interest, given its maybe-kinda-sorta “The New Yorker but for snake people” pitch. So consider me interested, and a little bemused, that their first public project is a podcast that discusses fan theories around HBO’s Westworld, called Out West.

  • Julia Barton, a veteran audio editor, has long been frustrated with the use of microphone stock photos in podcast write-ups, believing it to be a considerable reduction and misrepresentation of the culture, work, and medium. (Current)

  • FWIW, I’m told that Starlee Kine is going to make an appearance at the Now Hear This festival this Saturday, doing a guest spot on the live Found show.

Moves

  • James Green, co-founder and chief digital officer of the Chicago-based Postloudness podcast collective, is now a producer for MTV News. Postloudness will continue operating with Green’s involvement. Congrats, buddy.

Tuesday

23

August 2016

0

COMMENTS

The Limitation of Weekly News Podcasts

Written by , Posted in Hot Pod Weekly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This, too, I heartily agree with.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And here’s the concern I trumpeted in July:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bites:

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

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

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

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

Get Rec’d

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

Tuesday

26

July 2016

0

COMMENTS

Do you skip podcast ads? Do you feel bad? I sure do.

Written by , Posted in Hot Pod Weekly

Ad-Skipping. I wasn’t able to cover this last week, but it’s a topic you shouldn’t sleep on:the Wall Street Journal declared two weeks ago that “Podcasting has an Ad-Skipping Problem, Too,” and though I didn’t find the evidence provided by the article substantial enough to justify its strong headline — it drew upon an anecdote, a marginally representative Spotify data pool for a single Reply All episode, and the ubiquity of the skip button feature across podcast apps — I did appreciate how the article is drawing more attention to a potential problem that the industry will have to deal with one way or another. (I myself have found this issue to clearly be on the minds of several folks from the agency and advertising worlds, based on conversations I’ve had over the past several months.)

Two things on this:

  • Though I personally want to know the real magnitude to which ad-skipping is a problem, the actual severity of the problem is much less important compared to the perception that there could theoretically be a problem. As a relatively new medium with a fairly messy and opaque past, the podcast industry has to work twice as hard to win the trust of advertisers who are inclined to avoid spending money outside channels that more aggressively provide satiating feedback loops (like, say, Facebook) or channels that possess more buzz (like, say, Snapchat) and prestige (like television). And so articles like this from the Wall Street Journal serve as a very good signal of the trust gap that the industry as a whole needs to beat in order to meaningfully grow the size of its advertising spend year-over-year.

  • In a lot of ways, the focus on ad-skipping — which is tied to larger concerns about meaningful impressions and potential count inflation — is a proxy in and of itself, because the real goal for any company spending advertising money to market its goods and services is conversion, either in the short-term or in the very long-term (as in the case of brand advertisers). Which is to say, you could beat this trust gap by hacking away at the ad-skipping fear, but you could render that fear moot by strengthening the narrative around and belief in conversions, broadly defined.

Cool? Cool.

Another Upfront. The Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) is holding its second annual podcast upfronts on September 7 at Time Inc.’s Henry R. Luce Auditorium in New York. All eight presenters from last year — NPR, WNYC, ESPN, CBS, AdLarge, Panoply, Midroll, and Authentic (Podtrac’s advertising arm, now rebranded) — are returning, with four new additions in the mix: Time Inc., HowStuffWorks, PodcastOne, and Wondery.

I found last year’s proceedings to be somewhat chaotic but more or less successful in what it was trying to achieve, which was some combination of familiarizing advertisers with the podcast medium and providing a space for stronger relationships between advertisers and podcast publishers to develop.

But despite the table-setting achievements of last year’s festivities, I’ve always found the general idea of podcasts — and new media formats, more generally — appropriating the ritual of upfronts… well, a little cute. The upfront model, which seeks to artificially create an acute and hyped-up advertising marketplace for upcoming content, is a carryover from the broadcast television industry, and the entire value proposition, structure, calendar schedule, and general lavish feel of the modern upfront is structured and optimized around the television industry’s particular traits, financial context, and history. I found this Adweek feature, written by Anthony Crupi and published in May 2011, about the television upfronts’ early years very instructive, particularly in this discussion on how the modern upfront was conceived:

At the time (1948), the network schedules were unfixed; rather than running on a September-to-May calendar, programs premiered at various times throughout the year. Upfront negotiations were synched to the studio development cycle; as such, upfronts would begin the week after Washington’s Birthday, wrapping up by month’s end. Then, in 1962, ABC forever altered the advertising landscape: In a bid to create a showcase for American automakers, the network shifted its entire programming lineup, setting its premieres for a single week in the fall. In so doing, ABC not only invented the broadcast TV season as we know it, but also ushered in the era of the modern upfront.

This passage illustrates an intentionality and aggression within the television industry to create and augment demand. (Man, those folks knew how to sell.) And back then, television had the clout, buzz, and resources to throw its weight around and do just that.

The podcast industry, on the other hand, is starting out on the back foot. It’s a relatively quiet offshoot of digital audio that’s finding its legs in an era of increasing uncertainty around the value provided by media and publishing industries. And so it’s interesting, to me anyway, to see how podcast companies adopting the upfront model — aside from the IAB’s event, we’ve seen one organized by a consortium of public radio stations and a “Newfront” that mixed Gimlet with other digital media companies — actually reflects a more conservative stance: one that operates off the sense that you win trust by performing the rituals they do and by the looking the way they look, as opposed to creating new rituals, spaces, and market expectations of their own.

Planet Money Has A New Senior Editor. And his name is Bryant Urstadt, formerly a features editor at Bloomberg Businessweek. At Businessweek, Urstadt worked with several of the magazine’s most prominent writers including Megan McArdle and Brad Stone (whose book on Amazon, “The Everything Store,” is one of my all-time favorite reads). His editorship also produced writer and developer Paul Ford’s “What is Code?” issue-length essay for the magazine’s June 11, 2016 edition — a thoroughly enjoyable package that remains one of the most clarifying and anxiety-inducing things I’ve ever read. To put it another way, Ford’s piece was perfect Planet Money material.

When I spoke with Neal Carruth, NPR Business Desk supervising senior editor, and Alex Goldmark, Planet Money’s supervising producer, about the hire, they strongly expressed admiration over Urstadt’s body of work. “We looked really far and wide — we looked in longform radio, we looked at TV, we looked at the magazine world,” Carruth said. “And what we found in Bryant was strength in two things: the first is smarts about business and economics, and the other is just really great longform editing skills.” Carruth further pointed out that, under Urstadt’s influence, Businessweek consistently produced stories that the Planet Money team wished they did first — always a good sign of compatible sensibilities.

Urstadt isn’t unique in his transition as an editor from magazine features into longform narrative audio. The same arc can be found in This American Life’s Joel Lovell, who joined the team from the New York Times Magazine in late 2014. One could also argue that Hannah Rosin, currently the third co-host on the second season of NPR’s Invisibilia, followed a similar trajectory. Rosin is a veteran magazine journalist who has written for the New Yorker, the Atlantic, and the Washington Post.

I asked how a magazine background like Urstadt’s (and Lovell’s and Rosin’s) would inform the aesthetics, sensibilities, and structures of future Planet Money stories, and how that would differ if the team had recruited an editor from, say, the television world instead. “I think a worthwhile question to ask is: which is closer to longform audio — short-form audio, like what you get from station reporters, or print magazines?” Goldmark responded, going broader. “Which two sets have more in common, and which show greater differences? I’m curious what people think.”

Remembering a recent Poynter column, which raised concerns about a systemic editor shortage, I asked Carruth and Goldmark whether they feel such a shortage exists. “I think it’s fair to say there is,” Carruth said. “I don’t see how it can be otherwise, given the explosive growth in the industry. There’s so much hiring happening, but there isn’t very much training up of editors… and even if we’ve been good about building an editor pipeline in the past, the rapid growth automatically makes great editors more scarce.”

“It’s not that there aren’t great editors out there,” Goldmark said. “They just aren’t in podcasts yet. It’s also not a question about where they are, it’s about how we find them — in magazines, in television, in documentary film — and make that transition into audio as smooth as possible.” Carruth concurs, adding: “It’s likely that a lot of them are already in audio, but it’s incumbent on us to make it a more attractive role. A lot of people want to be the voice of something, but we need to convey that there’s a lot of pleasure in being off-mic as well.”

Urstadt started work yesterday.

Gimlet’s Slack Experiment. It’s been about a year since Gimlet first launched its membership program, and that span of time has seen early members (who either pay $5 a month or $60 a year) being treated to an eclectic string of benefits: sneak previews of upcoming shows, t-shirts for annual subscribers, a few live Q&As, and even some bizarre yet enjoyable bonus content like the pilot of the reality TV-esque “The Hunt,” a project that came out from the company’s Mix Week. However, despite those deliveries, the program never felt particularly endowed with substance or intend. As a paying member myself, the returns struck me as afterthoughts, the releases way too sporadic to integrate into my (admittedly extensive) consumption calendar.

But ultimately, that never really mattered. Perhaps it is the organization’s roots in public radio — a heritage that expresses itself on so many levels, from aesthetics to sound to the spirit of its marketing material — but at some point my brain just automatically filed my Gimlet membership expense away into the same cabinet as my annual pledges to WNYC, WBEZ, and Radiotopia. I’ve come to perceive it to be part of a larger act of “paying it back,” an indication of support for a service well-provided and hope for more service to come. Of course, understanding my Gimlet membership in this way is a little troublesome, given the company’s activities with fundraising through venture capital. (Deep down inside, my capitalistic fairness calculus convulses.)

Anyway, that’s all a long preamble to talk about the new experiment that the company is rolling out for the membership program: a Slack group that connects members with each other and, to some extent, the Gimlet team itself.

“There’s a large precedent of media companies trying to engage [its communities] in a forum format, but the thing that feels so fresh from our standpoint is that, because Slack’s tech is so flat and because our team is basically already on Slack all day, it’s easier for us to mesh with the community,” explained Chris Giliberti, Gimlet’s chief of staff who was recently put in charge of the membership program, when we spoke over the phone last week. “It feels like we’ve invited them into our newsroom. That’s what I think is so special.”

The Slack group is certainly a kick, with flurries of conversation spontaneously erupting throughout the day across its 35 (and growing) channels — which greatly range in topic, from episode discussions to local meetup planning to breaking news observation. Frankly, it’s a little exhausting,  but it’s a fascinating community to lurk around and watch nonetheless.

“Weirdly, it feels like Second Life,” Giliberti said. “People are making their own spaces and architecting their own program.” But of course, the experience isn’t meant to be entirely user-driven. The Reply All team has already tried crafting an interactive “call-in” episode off the Slack group, and an advice show is in the works using the platform. Giliberti expressed hope that the Slack will continue generating future opportunities for projects, both for the community and the company.

When I asked about how much the membership program is generating in revenue, Giliberti declined to discuss specifics. (Totally fair.) But he did point out that the Slack group displays about 1300 registered members, and that this number represents merely a portion of the membership. (If you wanted to eyeball, you’d find that the program is generating at least $78,000 a year.) “It’s a small part of our business compared to advertising, but it’s a really meaningful part,” he said. “I think there’s a thought that it could be a much bigger part of the business in the future, but in the meantime, it’s a way for us to really connect with our audience.”

We’ll see how the Slack group will fare over time, and whether it’ll eventually become the core that gives the membership program its shape, substance, and heft — a sort of center for its universe. But for now, it feels to me like a step in the right direction, and I’m really hoping the team figures it out as a viable alternative revenue stream, given the media industry’s dependency on an increasingly wacky advertising ecosystem.

“We fronted the costs of producing the show,” said Jacob Weisberg, chairman and editor-in-chief of the Slate Group, responding to a question about Malcolm Gladwell’sRevisionist History during a recent episode of Recode Media. “Which, for something like his show that’s highly produced, are not insignificant.”

The Slate Group is the publishing entity of Graham Holdings, and it is the corporate entity that houses Panoply, which produces and distributes the hit podcast, which has been sitting pretty at the top of the iTunes hotness charts for almost two months now (at time of publication, the podcast has been on the charts for 52 days). According to the interview, Gladwell was not given a big advance to make the show — which, one expects, is a deviation from his deals in the publishing world — and is instead operating on a revenue share basis, which is how Panoply works with most of its publishing partners. File that away in your notes, folks.

NPR partners with iHeartRadio for distribution. The agreement would let the public radio mothership and its wide network of member stations distribute its live News Talk programming over the iHeartRadio platform, according to the press release. This comes weeks after iHeartRadio announced a similar partnership with Libsyn, one that sees iHeartRadio being a distribution point for the podcast hosted on the Libsyn platform. At this point, I’d like to re-up a point I made back in March about an impending structural convergence and reorientation of on-demand audio conceptualizations:

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

And to remind you on what I think the landscape will look like beyond that point:

Audio content produced for the Internet and distributed through the Internet will soon no longer be identified based on a singular technological method (the aforementioned “podcatcher”), but to the #content itself. And when that happens, what we’ll see is a narrative that’s less of a clash between an insurgent and an incumbent (“the future of radio”), but rather, a clash between content factions defined by generations, communities, and cultures (“a type/genre/kind of radio”).

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

Bites:

  • Podcast collective The Heard adds two new projects to its lineup: Erica Heilman’s “Rumble Strip Vermont” and Sara Brooke Curtis’ “Today’s Special.” The collective, which also home to Jonathan Hirsch’s “Arrvls” and the wonderful “How To Be A Girl,” recently saw its first show graduation with Tally Abecassis’ “First Day Back”being picked up by Scripps. Keep an eye on this crew. (The Heard)
  • Speaking of Scripps: Katie Couric, the former television journalist and Yahoo!’s current global news anchor, now has a podcast of her own with Earwolf, and she popped up as a guest on the Longest Shortest Time, another show on the network, which one presumes is a concerted marketing effort. (Earwolf)
  • Current.org is running a special coverage series on diversity in public media. Check it out, won’t you? (Current)
  • The grand opening of PRX’s Podcast Garage, billed as “a recording studio and educational hub dedicated to supporting to supporting audio makers at all levels,” will take place next Wednesday at Aeronaut Allston in Boston. (Boston.com)

Friday

22

July 2016

0

COMMENTS

Scenes from Podcasts in the UK

Written by , Posted in Hot Pod Weekly

June 28, 2016 — 

The View On The Other Side. “I think the corporate heart of the BBC currently undervalues radio and may well be about to undermine it,” wrote Gillian Reynolds, the radio critic at The Telegraph, in a column published two weeks ago. (Radio critic! I want that job!)

Reynolds noted that “a 20 percent portion of [the BBC’s licence fee] is spent on radio but accounts for 40 per cent of total BBC consumption,” and that the BBC’s radio properties — along with its digital audio relatives — provides its public with an unmatched programming value. She is concerned, then, with the institution’s recent move to merge its radio commissioning division with its television unit. “There really is nothing like BBC radio anywhere else in the world. Dilute it and it will vanish,” she argued.

It’s a fascinating argument, and one that feels more than a little familiar with respect to certain conversations about the American public radio system (see: the WBAA-This American Life-Pandora narrative that largely revolves around concepts of diluting the public radio mission) — though, of course, the dynamics and actual questions at play are drastically different. At the heart of it all lies the question about what gives public media its “public-ness” and quality, and how these things will survive in the face of increasing economic crunch.

Reynold’s column also grants us some really interesting numbers on the UK’s podcast sector, which appears to be an opportunity that hasn’t been properly capitalize upon just yet, both on the consumption and creation end. Here are the numbers:

The BBC offers 450 podcasts from across its networks: Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time gets 2.3 million downloads every month, The Archers 2.2 million. That’s about 25 million a year, each.

(The BBC, of course, being the primary publisher of podcast content in the region.) The UK’s underdeveloped podcast consumption levels also appear to be matched by a similarly immature podcast advertising market.

“In my experience the big players are still Squarespace and Audible, so the money is really coming from the US,” observed UK-based Helen Zaltzman, of the “Answer Me This” and “The Allusionist” podcasts, when I reached out to her over email for some insight. “Generally the whole of podcasting is undercooked here. The UK is years behind the US in all aspects of the business. I don’t know anyone else here in the same position as me, making a living from their own podcasts (i.e. not counting producers for hire).”

Zaltzman noted that this lack of financially-viable independent podcasts in the UK — along with an overall lack of podcasts — can possibly be attributed to the region’s large and varied radio industry. Two dynamics are suggested to be at play here: on the one hand, the general structure of work opportunities provided by that industry incentivizes talent away from starting and running their own ships, and on the other hand, that talent is further deterred from doubling down on their own projects due to an immature business environment.

It’s a tough situation for stalwarts like Zaltzman, who is one of the very few UK podcast creators able to lean a fair bit on the US for a revenue stream that grants her sustainability. It also raises the question, then, of what kind of value is actually being created by companies that portend to support podcasters that currently operate in the UK.

[Hat tip to Tiger Webb, who flagged this column in the Hot Pod columns. I believe that is actually his name.]

So-called Begging. A very, very frustrating quote coming out of Acast co-founder Måns Ulvestam, who said the following in a recent Nieman Lab write-up about their new paid subscription feature:

If you look at the Spotifys of the world, they started with advertising, then turned to subscriptions. If you look at the history of podcasting, you’ve got Patreon, you’ve got crowdfunding efforts. But for me that’s not a business model, that’s just begging.

The emphasis, by the way, is mine.

Ulvestam’s comments here are not only ignorant of models that have proven to be incredibly successful in the past — see the entire public radio system, Radiotopia, Maximum Fun, Kinda Funny, Welcome to Night Vale, and so on — but also deeply ignorant of the realities of contemporary digital media, which are increasingly reflecting the notions that: (1) different business models must be adopted by different businesses based on its specific traits, public profile, and configuration, and (2) Patreon and crowdfunding efforts are part and parcel of larger development efforts to cultivate a direct relationship between publishers and consumers in a way that generates trust, collaboration, and community.

His comment is also deeply arrogant and incredibly disrespectful of the way a sizable chunk of independent creators need to function on the Internet in order to build out sustainable businesses. Independent creators, by the way, that also happen to be one of their target clienteles — like Flash Forward, which is distributed by Acast and is listed as an example on that Nieman Lab piece, but whose creator, Rose Eveleth, also relies on Patreon for a sizable chunk of her revenue.

Note:

Ugh.

Oh by the way: consider this me begging you to become a Hot Pod member for $7 a month and to support my pathetic attempt to bring you news and information about the podcast space. FFS.

A Long-Running Podcast Ends Its Run. Vox Tablet, an award-winning weekly podcast by Tablet Magazine, is shutting down after 11 years and 500 episodes, marking the end of one of the oldest podcasts maintained by a publication. The team behind Vox Tablet, host Sara Ivry and producer Julie Subrin, cited changing economics and shifting priorities within Tablet Magazine as the primary reasons for the closure, when I reached out for comment.

The show’s archives will be digitally maintained, and listeners can access them in all the usual places. Ivry and Subrin are on the hunt for their next gigs — with Ivry indicating an intent to find more work within the audio space (“In fact, I have some podcast ideas I want to pitch,” she noted), and Subrin hoping to help alleviate the impending editor shortage crisis.

I asked them if they would be willing to share any learnings they might have gleaned from their eleven years making the podcast. They responded —

Ivry: “To follow your curiosity as an interviewer, trust that you have this job on account of your imagination, willingness, and ability to have a good conversation. Another way to put that is as the interviewer, you are the proxy listener who may know nothing about the topic and so never assume foreknowledge and don’t talk over/condescend to your audience. That makes it alienating and unwelcoming to listeners.”

Subrin: “I’ve come to appreciate a the pleasures of a good two-way (or three-way, or…). I still love listening to (and making) carefully crafted, well-produced pieces, but I find my ears really prick up when I’m listening to something and I can hear that there’s a real conversation underway – unscripted, lively, thoughtful, engaged.”

Good luck, Sara and Julie!

First Day Backed. June has been eventful for the Cincinnati-based media octopus EW Scripps, which announced its acquisition of podcast app Stitcher (and the app’s impending absorption into the Midroll brand) a few weeks ago. But the corporation is also making some moves on the programming front.

Scripps has officially picked up First Day Back, a small independent podcast affiliated withThe Heard podcast collective, for its second season. Produced by film documentarianTally Abecassis, the podcast’s first season followed Abecassis as she attempted to resume her filmmaking career after a long, long maternity leave. The narrative plays out in the diaristic first person, with Abecassis switching constantly between audio journaling and field recordings (the “field” often being places within her home, as she interacts with her family). The form and tone may be familiar to you; it’s reminiscent of Millennial, along with the pilots of Only Human and Death, Sex, and Money. There are special standalone episodes featuring a memory, or listener feedback. It’s raw, and it’s really good.

The second season of the show will pivot away from Abecassis and the theme of work-life balance in motherhood. She did not clarify what the new season will focus on — only that it will focus on another person, that it’ll be a whole different storyline, and that it’ll adopt a more traditionally documentary-like feel.

Conversations for a possible pickup began when Scripps approached Abecassis late last year, after the show caught the attention of Scripps producer Marc Georges. “We loved what she did and felt it fit really well with the company’s desire to develop podcasts that blend journalism and storytelling in new ways and to be a destination for people who have great ideas,” explained Ellen Weiss, the VP and DC Bureau Chief for the Scripps Howard News Service who also oversees the organization’s podcast initiatives, when I reached out over email last week.

To be clear: First Day Back will be a Scripps-supported show, not an Earwolf show — unlike the former WNYC podcast Longest Shortest Time, which appears to be very much branded as an Earwolf property — and it’ll play out with an arrangement that’s different than DecodeDC, which is a podcast that Scripps fully owns, produces, and distributes. Furthermore, the fact that Scripps supports the show doesn’t necessarily translate into the inception of some sort of “Scripps Podcast Network,” as Weiss assures me. It’s a little confusing, but I think it’s more or less consistent with the view of Scripps as some sort of Berkshire Hathaway-esque holdings group as opposed to a straightforward media company.

The podcast will receive editorial support from the organization. The two entities are still figuring out how the distribution portion of the partnership would work, but advertising on First Day Back will be sold through Midroll — which is the case for all other shows that Scripps supports.

Weiss was unwilling to be more specific on the arrangements. “We really don’t discuss the details of our partnerships,” she wrote.

First Day Back will continue its affiliation with The Heard.

The Radiotopia Podquest Finalists. The talent hunt initiative announced its slate of finalists this morning — and surprise! There’s going to be a final four, instead of a final three. They are:

  • Ear Hustle, by Nigel Poor, Antwan Williams, and Earlonne Woods. This podcast will bring you “the hidden stories of life inside prison, told and produced from the perspective of those who live it.”

  • Meat, by Jonathan Zenti This is a show about “bodies and the lives we live because of them.” (Fantastic name, by the way.)

  • The Difference Between, by Jericho Saria and Hadrian Santos. This show will explore “the world of ‘information doppelgängers’ — the stuff you always confuse for that other thing — to find out what makes them truly unique.”

  • And Villain-ish, by Vivian Le. It’s a show about “gaining new perspectives on dubious figures we’ve been taught to revile, and exploring the hidden details we may have never considered.” (Which, I suppose, places it pretty thematically close to Revisionist History and that new history-oriented show that Gimlet hopes to put out later this year. And growing sub-genre, perhaps?)

All four finalists will receive $10,000, along with additional editorial and technical support to create three pilot episodes. The finalists will be introduced on-stage at the Podcast Movement conference in Chicago next week. Only one will be selected to join the Radiotopia collective at the end of this process — that’ll happen at the Third Coast Conference in November.

You can read the bios of the finalists — and the six semi-finalists — on the Podquest website.

Podcast networks, pay attention: after November, there will be nine show teams and concepts up for grabs.

A Curious Quote. AdWeek interviewed PodcastOne founder and executive chairman Norm Pattiz at Cannes last week, and that conversation drew an interesting comment out of Pattiz:

Do you think the NPR podcasts and tremendous popularity around them (podcasts) is the turning point for the medium maybe?

I think there’s two turning points. I think it’s the popularity of shows like Serial and other NPR podcasts, which, by the way, are on our platform.

What exactly does Pattiz mean about Serial and NPR podcasts being on the company’s platform? (And in case you didn’t know: Serial isn’t an NPR property — that show belongs to This American Life.)

When I reached out to NPR for comment, a spokesperson replied: “NPR is not part of the PodcastOne platform, other public radio podcasts might be. As you know, Serial isn’t an NPR podcast, maybe there’s confusion between NPR and public radio podcasts in general?” Pattiz’ comment is made even more curious by a listing displayed at the bottom of the PodcastOne website, which lists public radio stations WNYC and KCRW under its “Networks” section in addition to NPR.

Here’s a screenshot, taken on Sunday evening:


I reached out to PodcastOne for comment, but they haven’t replied at this writing.

You can read a transcript of the interview on the AdWeek website.

Bites:

  • This is fantastic: “Obama White House Veterans Gleefully Enter the Podcast World.” (The New York Times)

  • Night Vale Presents has rolled out a second show, after “Alice Isn’t Dead.” Written by Welcome to Night Vale co-creator Jeffrey Cranor and author Janina Matthewson (“Of Things Gone Astray”), “Within The Wires” is a ten-part podcast that’s told through a series of relaxation cassettes. Given that this is the Night Vale team, the cassettes are expectedly creepy in the classic left-of-center way. (iTunes)

  • WNYC CEO Laura Walker responds to the growing narrative on public radio’s existential crisis: “Radio’s Next Incarnation: Join the Creative Disruption.” (Medium)

  • Why Oh Why?, an excellent and super trippy show by Andrea Silenzi, is now officially a Panoply show — and it’s on the hunt for a producer. (Panoply)

  • NPR One data point: “The largest age group listening to NPR One is 25- to 34-year-olds, according to NPR, with 40 percent of listeners under 35. More than a third of users who answered NPR surveys said they never or only occasionally listen to broadcast radio.” (Current)

  • “Seven ways public can attract a more diverse workforce.” Current recaps a panel moderated by Andrew Ramsammy at the recent Public Radio News Directors Inc. conference in St. Louis. (Current)

  • Ramsammy, by the way, is a former Public Radio International operative who is leaving the organization to start something called UnitedPublic Strategies, which comes with the tagline “Taking public media beyond broadcast.” Not much is known about it at this point in time, but expect more details when it launches sometime in July. (UPStrategies)

Tuesday

21

June 2016

0

COMMENTS

The Brooklyn NewFronts, Revisionist History, More on Branded Pods

Written by , Posted in Hot Pod Weekly

Oh geez. So much happened while I was out. This week’s column will be more of a rundown than usual. Let’s get to it.

Fact Sheet. I’m all about those 30,000 feet views. Last week, the Pew Research Center published its much-respected State of the News Media 2016 report, a dependable resource of material for media nerds to geek out over. Like previous versions, this year’s report comes with a dedicated Podcasting section, and for the most part it does a pretty good job of providing a snapshot of the industry at this point in time. Interested podcast-oriented readers should also pay attention to the section on Public Broadcasting, which digs into NPR’s current dynamics pretty well and digs up some handy data points to boot.

I highly recommend checking both sections out, but I just wanted to make a quick note: this is presumably the report that many newcomers and unfamiliar media analysts will turn to — and the one that future podcast entrepreneurs will cite in pitch decks — for a clean, clear description of the state of the podcast industry in the months to come. It is important, then, to note the many quirks of the report, including its utilization of Libsyn data to chart out the scale of podcast hosting and downloads — which does not account for the volumes of hosting and downloads that take place on premium platforms like Art19, Megaphone, and whatever public radio stations use — as well as its perpetuation of the ZenithOptimedia $34 million dollar estimated ad spend for the medium in 2015, the problem of which I discussed in my last column.

Anyway, the Pew report wasn’t the only high-level overview of the podcast industry that came out over the past few weeks. The independent tech analyst Ben Thompson also recently published a very, very solid assessment on his Stratechery blog, which you should absolutely peruse if you haven’t already. His reading of the medium’s history is consistent with my own, and it even comes with an interesting — and possibly very complicated — alternate path for the industry to go down in the months to come.

The New, New Front. “We wanted to make it feel scrappy,” said Chris Giliberti, Gimlet’s Chief of Staff, when we spoke over the phone last week. “There are companies in the digital media world that aren’t just focused on scale — some are also focused on building deep connections with their audiences, some concentrate on making their artisanal media more premium.”

Giliberti is describing the impetus behind the Brooklyn NewFronts, a new digital media industry event that took place for the first time last Tuesday. This inaugural edition saw Gimlet present its upcoming slate of programming alongside a few other up-and-coming digital media companies: the Lena Dunham-branded publication Lenny, the travel curiosity site Atlas Obscura, the annotation platform Genius, and the Hearst-powered Snapchat channel Sweet. (All five companies contributed to the organization of the event.)

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to attend the event despite the fact it took place in Genius’ offices — a mere ten minute walk from my apartment/kitchen office — as I’m unexpectedly West Coast-based for the summer, but I’m told that it was a fairly stripped down, focused affair. Politico Media described it as “a sort of lower-budget, smaller-scale, cool-kid version of the Digital Content NewFronts,” which I guess squares with the whispers I’ve been getting. (Interestingly enough, the Digital Content Newfronts can probably also be described as a smaller-scale, cool-kid version of the traditional TV upfronts — though, given the fact that the scale and spectacle of that NewFront seem to be growing year over year, one could expect the prestige hierarchies to flip soon enough.) An upfront, for the uninitiated, is best described as an industry event that typically features publishers presenting their upcoming wares in a move to drum up interest among ad buyers.

It should be noted that Tuesday’s alt-Front isn’t the first upfront event to feature podcast programming. The past twelve months have already seen two other podcast-oriented upfronts: one organized by the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB), and another put together by a consortium of public radio organizations (involving NPR, WNYC, and WBEZ).

But what Gimlet’s doing here is interesting. Train your focus on what the company is trying to do by grouping itself within Lenny, Atlas Obscura, Genius, and Sweet. By lumping themselves in with these digital media companies working within relatively trusted mediums, Gimlet is effectively taking advantage of a halo effect generated by companies those buzz and narratives are tied almost solely to its editorial brand and substance as opposed to their distribution technologies — which is, unfortunately, a narrative burden that still handicaps much of the conversation around most other podcast companies. Instead of drawing overtly attention to its nature as a podcast company, Gimlet appears to be focusing  the conversation purely on its programming and brand, two clear areas of focus where the company knows it can win.

It’s a smart move. Hopefully, it pays off.

The New Gimlet Shows. So what new pods did Gimlet trot out at the dog and pony show? Some we already know, others we don’t. Here’s the lineup:

  1. A true crime show developed with the creators of HBO’s “The Jinx”;
  2. “Twice Removed,” a genealogy-oriented show by author AJ Jacobs — known for his books documenting his life experiments, like “The Year of Living Biblically” — which will explore connections between two disparate people;
  3. “Heavyweight,” the latest project by Wiretap’s Jonathan Goldstein, which will presumably feature his trademark use of autobiography and literary writing;
  4. “Afterwards” (working title), a show that will take a fresh look at the events of the past (not unlike, perhaps, Panoply’s newly launched project with Malcolm Gladwell; and
  5. Science Vs,” the science pod that Gimlet acquired from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Full Court Press. Last week was a busy one for Panoply, which rolled out the first episode of “Revisionist History,” its big-swing project with author (and general man-about-town) Malcolm Gladwell. The Graham Holdings-owned podcast company appeared to lean hard on Gladwell’s celebrity to establish a strong promotional circuit involving spots on “CBS This Morning,” CBC’s “Q with Shadrach Kabango,” and the Recode Media podcast. The buzz around Gladwell’s podcast, which pushed it up to the number one spot on the iTunes hotness chart (where it remains at this writing), also scored Panoply a Bloomberg profile.

(Disclaimer: Panoply was once my day-job employer.)

That Bloomberg profile, by the way, provides some meaty details on Panoply’s internal expectations around the podcast. Note the following quote:

[Matt] Turck [Panoply’s Chief Revenue Officer] predicts that Revisionist History could draw over 500,000 downloads per episode, with Gladwell providing star power and Apple giving support. That would match the best performance of The Message… “I don’t know if there will ever be another Serial, anything that explosive,” said Turck. “But boy we’ve stacked the deck to give it a run for the money.”

Panoply’ll have to set their sights a little further if they really intend to give Serial a run for its money, of course. 500,000 downloads per episode, as either projected goal or realized performance, simply won’t put Revisionist History anywhere close to being “the next Serial.” When Serial’s second season was closing up its final week, the team’s community editor Kirsten Taylor told me that each episode had consistently enjoyed around 3 million downloads on its launch week throughout the season.

Speaking of Panoply... It look like they’re developing a podcast project with First Look Media, the Pierre Omidyar-backed news organization. The project, “Politically Re-active,” which features comedians W. Kamau Bell and Hari Kondabolu — regulars on the public radio circuit and its podcast descendents — will explore basic, fundamental questions pertaining to the 2016 US presidential elections.

This partnership with Panoply marks First Look Media’s first foray into audio, serving as a continuation of its multi-brand, multi-platform strategy that’s included The Intercept, the Glenn Greenwald-fronted national security journalism site, and Reported.ly, its socially-distributed news organization focused on human rights and social justice. First Look Media has also started dabbling in film, acting as a producing partner on the Academy Award-winning Spotlight.

Crisis Narrative. Add yet another thread to public radio’s growing existential crisis narrative: the fact that a generation of established talent is steadily aging out, which The Wall Street Journal’s Ellen Gamerman observes using the retirement of Prairie Home Companion’s Garrison Keillor as the hook.

“Some of the biggest radio stars of a generation are exiting the scene while public-radio executives attempt to stem the loss of younger listeners on traditional radio,” Gamerman wrote, before describing how NPR is grappling with slowing the loss of younger listeners over the radio and how its member station-reliant business model is under threat from the competition generated by emerging podcast companies that complicate its attempts to transition into digital.

If you’re keeping tabs on the growing body of public radio existential crisis literature, here’s a quick list of the other incidents that have inspired this narrative: (1) NPR CEO’s Jarl Mohn summer 2015 incident during his visit to the organization’s New York bureau, which served as the catalyzing event for Politico’s “Can NPR seize its moment?” article, the first of this genre; (2) the NPR Memo kerfuffle; and (3) WBAA’s decision to stop syndicating This American Life citing mission-based disagreement over the latter’s partnership with Pandora, later reversed.

And speaking of that NPR Memo kerfuffle, Gamerman’s piece contains a detail that sheds a little more light on the thinking behind the policy, highlighted by the infamous memo to hold on promoting NPR One over broadcast: according to an NPR spokeswoman, VP of News Programming and Operations Chris Turpin “doesn’t want hosts to promote NPR One until all local stations are represented on the app.” Interesting! (Update: NPR’s senior director of media relations Isabel Lara reached out to say that the Journal had misquoted her when she relayed Turpin’s point. “He never said that ‘ALL stations’ needed to be part of NPR One before we could promote it on the air,” she wrote. “The point that I was trying to make… is that we are encouraging stations to participate because our goal is to make the national/local listener experience better and better.” I’ll follow up next week.)

Meanwhile, NPR appears to be looking for a new product manager to work on podcasts and social. (I had initially thought that this hire would work alongside Mathilde Piard, who had been the organization’s product manager working podcasts but has since evolved into a more general programming role. Fascinating!) And last week also saw the start of the second season of Invisibilia, NPR’s record-breaking podcast that reportedly broke 10 million downloads within its first four weeks of launching last year.

Balance that out however you’d like.

More on Branded Podcasts. Gamerman’s Garrison Keillor article wasn’t the Wall Street Journal’s only piece on pods last week. One of the paper’s media reporters, Steven Perlberg, pubbed an update on the trend of brand-sponsored podcasts following the launch of eBay’s “Open for Business,” the first podcast put out by Gimlet Creative, that company’s branded podcast unit.

The juiciest tidbit from that article does not have to do with Gimlet, however. It has to do to with its counterpart over at Panoply. From Perlberg’s article:

The ruling metric of the podcast industry is the “unique download” of an episode. Podcasters are often unclear on how many actually listen after downloading an episode, how long they listened and their demographic makeup.

To deal with that issue, Panoply created landing webpages for each podcast, which it distributes across its social channels and buys ads on places like Facebook. Mr. Hernandez said Panoply guarantees marketers a certain amount of engagement on those webpages, as opposed to being able to guarantee a certain number of listeners.

That’s certainly an interesting way to handle the metrics issue. At the end of the day, brand advertising effectiveness is grounded in however brands can be convinced that their making an impression over their target demographics. Panoply, then, has an advantage here, given that it has control over a platform through which they have the potential to gain some control over the way brands have conversation about advertising efficacy — through the development of new ad measurement features, through potentially partnering with third party measurement arbiters, and so on.

Also relevant here is the following detail from the previously mentioned Bloomberg profile of Panoply from a few items up:

At the low end, Panoply charges a brand $150,000 to produce and promote a podcast. The biggest productions reach into the seven digits.

Seven digits, eh?

WNYC Interns get fair wage assurances. But will the station follow through? A few weeks ago, I wrote about a petition initiative that’s been floating about urging New York Public Radio to pay its interns more than the $12 a day stipend they currently get. It looks like the initiative is making some headway.

Mickey Capper, the freelance radio producer who headed up the petition effort, wrote me in an email:

Jennifer Houlihan Roussel [head of the station’s comms team] confirmed that NYPR would start paying interns in fiscal year 2017..  Exact wage tbd and most details tbd, but she said that all internships would be paid and they’re currently working on it. It seems Brenda Williams-Butts has been championing this and spearheading it on the inside and deserves oodles of credit.

Williams-Butts, by the way, is NYPL’s VP of Recruitment, Diversity, and Inclusion. I asked Capper if he thinks whether the organization will follow through. He seemed optimistic. “I believe WNYC will follow through as they’ve been very careful to commit to anything beyond vague statements of intention up to this point,” Capper wrote back.

I’ll be keeping a close eye on this. And speaking of WNYC…

Werk It, Part Two. The station held the second edition of its annual women in podcasting festival, “Werk It,” late last week. The three day long event, which took place in WNYC’s Greene Space, featured a stellar schedule of panels and presentation from some truly remarkable talent and operators, including PRX’s Julie Shapiro, Another Round’s Tracy Clayton, NPR’s Kelly McEvers, and Radiolab’s Molly Webster, among many, many others. If you didn’t get to attend, don’t worry! You can check out a recording of the festival on its website.

That List. Collisions Media, the nascent podcasting arm of Connecticut-based radio marketing company CRN International, sparked controversy last week when it published one of the “most influential people” lists for the podcast industry which included only two women and only two people of color (I’m one of those two, and really, at least 50 other women and people of color should’ve been on that list before me). The company has since taken down the list following significant online pushback, later following up with an apology.

There’s a lot baked into this incident: that the visibility of women as principals in the podcast space still isn’t a given despite the fact that the professionalizing thread of the industry is substantially built on the strength of women as talent and operators (this is unambiguous); that this is very much a reflection on the lack of diversity among leadership teams in podcast companies, and in the people that podcast companies choose as public representatives; that the community is moved to push back against a small and largely inconsequential podcast entity, and rightly so, as the industry’s narrative is still so underdeveloped and malleable and largely known to the mainstream, so even small things like this count. When a world is this small, everything counts.

I generally hold a distaste for “most influential people” lists. They often strike me frustratingly hagiographic, myopic, and reductive — painfully uninterested in the realities of how many people and how much it takes to simply do anything. Which is to say, I find them distasteful largely because the spirit that informs such enterprises will never quite be done justice; such lists are intents to honor individuals, but its political nature — which is inherent despite its pageantry — ultimately dishonors the context around those individuals. To put it simply: it’s impossible to make a list that’ll properly do right by the community.

Shortly before Collisions took down its list, the Washington Post’s Alex Laughlin published a counter-list of her own: “The 22 Most Influential Women in Podcasting,” and even that contained a slight contentious choice: it considered Pineapple Street Media’s Jenna Weiss-Berman as the only female owner of a podcasting company. In the comments section, some folks have pointed to Mignon Fogarty, who started the Quick and Dirty Tips network, as an example to the contrary, while others debated the nature of what it means to exert “influence.”

But, thinking through this, the counterargument would be that such lists are nonetheless elements that facilitate the industry’s identity-building. One could argue that the story of the industry is a battlefield that should constantly engage in a process of negotiation anchored in persistent dissatisfaction, because we should never let such collective narratives ossify. When we stop iterating on the stories we tell about ourselves, our worlds, and our communities, we stop trying.

The fact that I’m rambling here should indicate to you that these are nothing more than half-baked ideas at this point, and that I don’t really know how to cap off this item. Which is why I’ll cut it abruptly here. Throw me your thoughts, I’m always listening.

Meanwhile, on the West Coast. PodcastOne has named Jim Berk as the company’s new CEO, according to the Wall Street Journal, replacing founder Norm Pattiz in the position. Pattiz, who also has the distinction of founding American radio network Westwood One, will retain his title as the company’s executive chairman.

Bites:

  • Be sure not to miss this interview with EW Scripps’ Chief Digital Officer Adam Symson for some insight into how the corporation views podcasting and how it may further its investments in the space in the months to come. (Nieman Lab)

  • Curious about public benefit corporations, the corporate structure of choice for This American Life and RadioPublic? This recent Current column is a pretty good overview. (Current)

  • WBUR is piloting a new, fascinating podcast experiment: “The Magic Pill,” a 21-day health podcast challenge with each day featuring 10-minute episodes of “new science, big ideas, human stories, quick tips.” The challenge starts September 1, but the pilot episode’s out now. (WBUR)

  • The Amazon Echo slides its tentacles into local news distribution. (Information Week)

  • “’The British Serial’: Podcast on mysterious murder of Daniel Morgan tops (the UK’s) iTunes chart.” (Evening Standard)