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Tuesday

21

March 2017

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COMMENTS

Early MRS Drop, Panoply invests in Fiction, MTV + Rookie Mag

Written by , Posted in Hot Pod Weekly

So Missing Richard Simmons dropped its final episode yesterday, two days before it was originally scheduled for a wide release. Also, the episode was released to Stitcher Premium subscribers on Sunday — Midroll had previously indicated that those subscribers would’ve gotten the episode two days before wide release. Even with the sudden shift, Stitcher was still able to honor the first listen value proposition.

I’m told that the move was intentional. And in the episode, host Dan Taberski provided what was essentially an editorial explanation within the narrative. “What’s important is telling the story about Richard as it happens,” he said. Which is an interesting reason, but I don’t think I buy it. Minor spoilers (maybe?), but there was nothing stated in that last episode — nothing that was particularly pegged to a recent public news development — that warranted such a sudden, complicated reordering of the release windows. So yeah, I’m wondering.

Anyway, my review of the finale will be up on Vulture later today, I think.

Panoply brings on a full-time head of scripted programming. Missed this last week, but it’s definitely worth keeping tabs.

The company has hired John Dryden, a UK-based writer and director for the radio, to lead a “new division dedicated to creating scripted programming of both the comedic and dramatic variety,” according to AdWeek, which first published the news on March 10. To decode that for a second: the term “scripted programming” is kind of a carry-over from established linear media industries, and we’re basically looking at Panoply acting on their ambition to punch harder in the audio fiction genre. It’s a move that’s potentially very lucrative, given the podcast ecosystem’s growing value to other more developed adjacent creative industries, be it film, television, or books. (I’ve written about this a bunch before, start here and here.)

In Dryden, Panoply gains a multi-award winning producer with a substantial body of work. Based on his talent agency’s website, Dryden’s rap sheet includes: “The Seventh Test,” a ten-part audio thriller broadcasted on BBC Radio 4 that’s based on a book by Vikas Swarup, whose debut novel, Q&A, was adapted into the film Slumdog Millionaire; “A Kidnapping,” a three-part radio drama, also first broadcasted on BBC Radio 4, that’s being adapted into a film; and “Tumanbay,” a historical epic set in ancient Egypt which came out in 2015.

(Indeed, it’s all very British.)

Dryden has some history with Panoply: he served as the executive producer and director of LifeAfter, Panoply’s follow-up to The Message, its well-regarded branded fiction podcast borne out of a partnership with GE. It’s unclear to me whether LifeAfter was able to match or beat the success of The Message, and when I reached out to Panoply’s communications team, they declined to comment, noting that they don’t release download numbers and thus can’t comment on the performance of one show relative to another.

To my knowledge, Dryden is only the second person to hold such a role among American podcast companies. The other individual is Eli Horowitz, the “executive producer of scripted content” at Gimlet, who was responsible for the Oscar Isaac and Catherine Keener-led Homecoming.

Dryden will keep his residence in the UK for the job.

Rookie Magazine to launch a podcast next month, courtesy of MTV. In my mind,Rookie Mag is something of a miracle. A well-loved online publishing concern created byblogging prodigy Tavi Gevinson for teenagers (“and their cohorts of any age,” the site adds) all the way back in 2011 — the same year, by the way, that Grantland made its debut — Rookie is part zine, part blogroll; a fascinating, amorphous digital package that’s bound together by a smart and thoughtful commitment to serving in the best interest of its core constituency. It represents a reminder, still, of the original promise that the internet brought to publishing: an environment that allows for the existence of an independent creative operation with a very specific point of view and a very specific role to play.

Anyway, like many other publishing concerns in 2017, Rookie Mag is rolling out a podcast, which will be a weekly magazine show (not unlike, perhaps, the New Yorker Radio Hour). But what’s particularly interesting about the rollout narrative here is the involvement of MTV, with which Rookie has partnered up to produce the show.

It’s an intriguing collaboration, and it brings the MTV Podcasts team back into my view. Frankly, I haven’t been paying much to that crew — which is led by Grantland alum Alex Pappademas — since they rolled out their initial programming slate around this time last year, though on the occasions that I’ve checked in, I do find myself consistently fascinated with the stuff they’re trying out. I wonder how they’re doing. Check back in next week.

The Rookie Podcast will debut on April 4. It will be hosted on the Megaphone platform, as an extension of MTV Podcasts’ technological relationship with Panoply.

Also worth noting: the upcoming podcast received a shout-out in this week’s episode of This American Life, which ran a segment on the magazine’s popular “Ask A Grown Man/Woman” series. (The episode, by the way, is exquisite.)

And speaking of This American Life…

S-Town comes out this time, next week. The hotly-anticipated Serial spinoff, and the first project to be released under the newly created Serial Productions banner, will finally debut next Tuesday, March 28, and I’m taking the day off to dig into it.

As a reminder: all seven episodes of the show will drop in its entirety — I believe the olds call this “Netflix-style” or “binge-style” — when it comes out next week, switching up the typical cadence we’ve come to expect from longform, serialized, and often near-real time storytelling as established by the first season of Serial and, most recently, Missing Richard Simmons. This will mark the first high-profile attempt at employing this format within the podcast space. Previous full-season drop experiments, like ESPN’s Dunkumentaries and Panoply/Parents Magazine’sPregnancy Confidential, were not serialized storytelling endeavors.

For folks keeping tabs on the numbers: Serial’s second season surpassed 50 million going into the final episode, with each episode yielding a 3 million download average during its launch week.

Blue Apron and Squarespace are serving as the show’s exclusive launch sponsors.

Oh man, I’m so excited for this. Also: it’s only been three months, but 2017 already feels like it’s been a damn good year for podcast listeners. Damn. DAMN. *throws laptop out the window*

It’s official — the fight for Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s federal funding is on. The budget blueprint released by the Trump administration last Thursday confirmed what many of us has long suspected: that the decades-old conservative flirtation with the defunding of public broadcasting would be revived once again under the new president, with the CPB’s annual allocation of $445 million on the chopping block. (The CPB is one of many programs, including the National Endowment for the Arts and the Legal Services Corporation, being targeted for cuts.) What makes the stakes of today’s fight all the more towering is the political and economic environment of the fourth estate; the broader news and media ecosystem has been tremendously weakened over the past decade by digital disruption, and they walk into this struggle in an increasingly combative environment between the state and public information as they represent it.

My buddies over at Nieman Lab has already covered the news at some depth (go check out the write-up) but here are the four top-line things you need to know:

  • Obviously, the budget blueprint is just a proposal — it will need to go through Congress. And it already looks like the budget is going to have a hard time with Congressional Republicans. But pushback on the budget on the whole doesn’t necessarily equate with pushback on the specifics; it’s up to the CPB to ensure the cut doesn’t remain in any future iteration of the proposal.

  • And to that end, the CPB and its advocates are executing on a playbook that’s been developed for these budgetary fights. Among these efforts are strong messaging pushes — including a well-timed NPR press push touting all-time high ratings — and public participation campaigns, like the Protect My Public Media petition. CNN’s Brian Stelter has a good piece providing an overview of the fight.

  • As Nieman Lab notes, and as I’ve written about before, defunding the CPB would fundamentally crippled the public broadcasting system. That isn’t the same as saying public media would be dead; as many have pointed out, NPR and the bigger stations like WNYC and WBUR would likely survive in some leaner form, but the real damage would be to smaller stations that often support underserved and information-poor markets — many of which are populated by Republican voters, as the Washington Post points out.

  • And once again: why does this matter to the emerging podcast industry? Well, as I’ve argued before: a weaker public radio system is a weaker podcast ecosystem, as the former has substantially contributed to the space through cultivating a generation of strong talent, supplying a good chunk of solid programming, leveraging its prestige to draw in more advertisers, and generally raising the medium’s profile for a wider swathe of audiences. And then there’s also, you know, the whole issue of a weaker public broadcasting system almost definitely leading to a weaker society, which kinda makes an environment where we all, save for a capital-rich few, ultimately suffer alone together.

So there’s that. And there’s this too:

Some relief for West Virginia Public Broadcasting. Following weeks of staring down a budget blueprint in which West Virginia Governor Jim Justice, a Democrat, had proposed the elimination of the annual $4.6 million support it gets from the state, WVPB is now seeing its state support restored after the governor issued a press release last Friday that the money will be reinstated. State funding accounts for 45% of WVPB’s budget.

However, the press release also noted that Governor Justice “is working on a deal with West Virginia University to allow Public Broadcasting to become a fully integrated part of WVU in the near future.”

It is unclear to me how this shift would affect WVPB operations. I’ve gone ahead and submitted a Currently Curious request to my buddies over at Current, who assure me they’re looking into it. Watch the space.

Meanwhile, in Australia. The continent is set to welcome a new podcast network later this week. The network is called Planet Broadcasting, and it will be launching off the strength of an established YouTube channel, Mr. Sunday Movies, and a podcast,The Weekly Planet, which I’m told enjoys about 250,000 downloads per episode. Planet Broadcasting’s aims are fairly ambitious; according to the circulated press release, the network primarily aims to develop a space for the country’s comedy community to break into the world stage. As an extension of that goal, Planet Broadcasting will launch on March 26 with a variety of comedy offerings, though it will feature some nonfiction documentary fare as well (including the well-regardedHuman/Ordinary).

I’ll be keeping an eye on this. Podcast consumption in Australia is quietly growing, though I’d characterize it as still being pretty underdeveloped relative to the American podcast industry.

According to an audience research report by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation published last October, 36% of surveyed Australians indicate that they are listening to more podcasts compared to year before; though it should be noted that numbers for baseline listenership were not circulated. And as it just so happens that the ABC is the largest podcast publisher in the country, enjoying about 160 million overall downloads in 2016.

Side note. One of the more interesting stories from last year — which is also a story that’s really affected how I view the tradeoffs of the relationship between creators and distribution platforms — was the dust-up between the Indiana public radio station WBAA and This American Life. (This is the third mention of This American Life in this issue. My apologies: that show has been on my mind a lot this week.)

To recap: last summer, the station announced that it had decided to cut the show from its airwaves as a response to its partnership with Pandora, which gave the music streaming service the ability to distribute and sell advertising against both This American Life and Serial. WBAA’s general manager, Mike Savage, argued that Pandora, with its profit-making incentive, posed a fundamental threat to public radio’s broadcast model and that by entering into a relationship with the service, This American Life engaged in an arrangement that places it at odds with the public radio system’s incentives.

Ira Glass, the show’s creator, argued otherwise, noting that the money gained from the partnership was re-invested to further improve on the programming which will continue to appear throughout the public radio system. Glass also went on to make another point, which to me lies at the heart of this item, about reaching more audiences. “Nationally, we’re not losing audience on the radio because people are getting us on other platforms — we’re just adding audience,” Glass said, as printed in Current. “We’re adding to the number of people who are hearing public radio content by offering it on these other platforms.”

Maybe I’m connecting dots in the most tenuous of ways — I’m prone to being worried about that, particularly these days, as conspiracy theorizing seems to have become prominent as a mindset in power — but I can’t help but to see parallels between that incident and the contemporary concern of how the increasing involvement of streaming platforms like Spotify, Google Play Music, iHeartRadio, and Pandora (to the extent they become involved beyond This American Life), many of which are closed, will affect the open podcast system, its value, and the role it plays in the current state of podcast publishing and distribution. At some level, the value proposition that they bring to podcast publishers remain the same: all these platforms, in theory, provide access to an audience that may very well be untouched, and even if podcast listening ultimately doesn’t end up happening on those platforms, at least participating publishers will be able to pocket some extra money that can be reinvested into their shows, which will be nonetheless enjoyed on other platforms and on the open ecosystem.

There are limits to this, of course. For one thing, it’s hard to square the parallel I’m sketching here against what’s happening over the rest of the Internet: the platform dependency that’s growing between publishers and Facebook, between video creators and YouTube, between music artists and, well, Spotify, Pandora, et. al. And for another, This American Life stands as an exception to the broader universe of publishers: it has unparalleled clout to both establish and benefit from this relationship, and it has a strong pre-existing listener base that protects it from any potential development of future dependency on Pandora.

Anyway, just something I’ve been thinking about.

Bites. 

  • Today in Black Mirror: Google Home recently tested out what appears to be an audio ad for the new live action film adaptation of Beauty and the Beast, and when pressed, Google briefly regarded it instead as some sort of content experiment before backing off on that too. It’s weird and confusing, but kind of a great beyond the veil story. (The Register) Also: “Woman Who Shares Name With ‘Alexa’ And ‘Siri’ Says Life Is ‘Waking Nightmare’” (The Huffington Post)

  • Crooked Media continues to reproduce, adding another show to the top of the iTunes charts: Lovett or Leave It. I swear, it’s like watching mitosis.

  • Wondery is pumping out a podcast unpacking the production of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. It’s pretty well timed; the TV adaptation of the movie, A&E’s Bates Motel, is quickly approaching its final season, where the show will catch up with the film. T’would be interesting to see if Wondery is able to capture the spillover from whatever interest is currently being enjoyed by the TV show, and more importantly, whether they can make that argument explicitly if they are able to do so. (iTunes)

  • Looks like the new season of Politically Re-Active, the First Look Media podcast featuring W. Kamau Bell and Hari Kondabolu, is now being sold by Midroll Media instead of Panoply. Interesting. Shouts to Jeff Umbro writing for the Daily Dot for that scooplet.

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

16

August 2016

0

COMMENTS

Clinton Podcast, Convention Bump, Bumpers

Written by , Posted in Hot Pod Weekly

“With her.” Well, this is certainly something. Last Friday saw the launch of “With her,” the official Hillary Clinton presidential campaign podcast, which both marks a milestone for the industry and, I suppose, is a sign of the times. The show also has the distinction of being Pineapple Street Media’s first launch, the podcast company recently founded by former BuzzFeed Director of Audio Jenna Weiss-Berman and Longform podcast co-host Max Linsky. Linsky holds hosting duties on the podcast, which he ostensibly shares with Clinton herself, though one imagines that her extensive campaigning schedule will ultimately have a say in that.

The podcast is an absolute coup for the company, and a strong, attention-getting start to their portfolio. The linkup between Pineapple Street and the Clinton campaign grew out of Weiss-Berman’s previous collaboration with the team, back when she worked on BuzzFeed’s Another Round podcast that booked Clinton on as a guest last October. “I stayed in touch with her digital team,” Weiss-Berman told me over email. “And shortly after Max and I started Pineapple Street, we started talking to them and we all loved the idea of a campaign podcast that focused on day-to-day life on the trail and not policy.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, that last point — the podcast’s focused on campaign trail life and not on policy — ended up being the point of critique for a few media outlets. Politico’s writeup of the podcast bore the headline: “Hillary Clinton finds another way to avoid the press: Her campaign launches a podcast with an on-payroll moderator whose first interview is the nominee herself,” highlighting the show as an extension of a long-running grievances held by the parts of the news media about Clinton’s tightly messaged campaign. That perspective was echoed by Michelle Goldberg over at Slate, who called the show “charming and gutless propaganda” and further argued that “a politician attempting to circumvent the media by creating media of her own sets a bad precedent.”

I don’t buy those critiques. For one thing, media creation — whether through Tweets, a YouTube channel, creating a TV spectacle out of conventions, and so on — is an essential tool for a candidate’s political communication, and it’s one that’s part of a much wider set of tools, with messaging through the news media (either directly, e.g. sit downs with Charlie Rose, or indirectly, i.e. free media) being only one within a larger toolkit. A candidate’s aversion to working directly through the press, as in the case of the Clinton campaign, may well be morally and procedurally frustrating for the press, but a perfectly fine outcome in this scenario is to make the absence of participation mean something as part of the candidate’s larger spectrum of political communication. (Which, indeed, is what is already happening, and we see traces of that in Slate and Politico’s analysis.)

So the media aversion/“propaganda” reading of the podcast isn’t one that really resonates for me, but I think the reason for that lies in an understanding that the podcast shouldn’t be read as anything too dramatically different than it actually is: a political ad.

Consider “With her” as yet another example of a branded podcast — not unlike Gimlet Creative’s “Open for Business” and Pacific Content’s “Slack Variety Pack.” (Indeed, viewed this way, “With her” is quite possibly the first major political ad buy in the history of the podcast medium.)

And because it’s a branded podcast, we should levy onto it the very same questions (of ethics and execution) that we would those projects from Slate, Gimlet, and Pacific Content. Questions like: is the show successful in harnessing the format’s associations with sincerity, authenticity, and intimacy? (I.e: Does the interviews make her feel more real, the way the Longform podcast and Another Round have drawn out people in the past? Also, just how real can a career politician, so hardened by decades of battle, feel?) Is the podcast able to be engaging while nulling the overarching context that the listener has opted to enter a space where the brand is trying to get them to think and feel a certain way? Is the project doing a good job being clear with its targeting — is it focused on deepening the candidate’s relationship with her supporters, or is it more engaged with humanizing Clinton in the face of on-the-fence supporters? And is the podcast, with its opt-in, on-demand, and high-involvement consumption requirements, appropriate for that?

That’s how I’d approach reading the podcast. Which is why I’ll say this: based on the first episode (which runs short, at about 15 minutes), I’m not very sure whether “With her” will challenge these questions very much beyond its novelty as being the first presidential campaign podcast ever. To be sure, it’s a fizzy and fun listen, and longtime Hot Pod readers know, I love, love, love me some Linsky interviews. But as a person who is already predisposed to the Clinton campaign, I didn’t feel like I gained anything particularly new or meaningful that wasn’t already telegraphed at the Democratic National Convention, and considering the broader messaging context, I also don’t think it’s very clear to me yet who the podcast is for and, by extension, how it’s supposed to carry out the aims of the campaign — which, and this isn’t a new thought at all, really struggles with connecting.

That said: it’s only been one episode, and I want to be clear that an assessment like this doesn’t quite honor the immense complexities that go into working with a campaign that aims to win the highest office of the land. (I can’t even begin to imagine the amount of clearances that the production must go through.) The podcast is slated to run up until the elections in November, and I have a good amount of faith that the team will figure out a way to take this powerful, powerful novelty — let us not take away from the fact that this is the first presidential campaign podcast, which is such a milestone for the emerging medium — and fashion it out into a genuine tool of political communication in the future.

What’s next for PSM? Weiss-Berman: “We’re working on lots of great stuff and something I’m really excited about is that we’re trying many different styles. So we’re doing a very heavily produced short-run serialized mystery show, a really fun chat show with the New York Times, Women of the Hour season two with Lena Dunham, and we’re developing a bunch of original shows. And so much more! And all the shows are really different, with amazingly diverse hosts, so I’m hoping they bring in audiences that are new to podcasting.”

The Convention Bump. The Republican and Democratic National Conventions were such dramatic and often confusing affairs, and it seems like a significant number of folks turned to political podcasts to figure some stuff out. Indeed, several political podcasts enjoyed noticeable jumps in downloads across the two week period.

Some highlights:

  • The NPR Politics Podcast saw more than a 50% increase in weekly unique downloaders. (That metric tracks the number of individual listeners based on measurements of IP addresses.) The podcast dropped episodes every morning across the convention weeks, with each edition covering the goings-on of the night before.

  • Panoply reportedly experienced a 35% increase in weekly downloads (over the average of the previous four weeks) among their set of political podcasts: the Slate Political Gabfest, the Gist, and Vox’s The Weeds. The Gist, which is already a daily podcast, opted to drop short review episodes every morning in addition to its normal episodes across the period. The other two shows maintained their weekly schedules.

  • The FiveThirtyEight Elections podcast also saw “a big rise in downloads and rankings,” according to producer Jody Avirgan. A spokesperson later added that over the convention period, the team “saw consumption of the Elections podcast increase nearly 300% compared to daily consumption before the conventions.” The podcast also dropped episodes daily across the two events.

  • The Ringer’s “Keepin’ It 1600,” which features former Obama administration staffers Jon Favreau and Dan Pfeiffer, saw a bump of about 15%. Before the conventions, the podcast had steadily grown up to an average of over 200,000 downloads per episode, and went up to about 230,000 downloads per episode through the two events.

  • BuzzFeed’s “No One Knows Anything” saw a “171% increase in downloads during the two weeks of the conventions, compared to the two weeks before the conventions,” said Meg Cramer, who produces the show. “But, it’s hard to make comparisons, because our convention coverage was different from our weekly show. (Several topical mini-episodes, vs. one big show.)”

These event-based growth bursts are extremely valuable, but the real question is whether the shows will be able to retain the influx of new listeners. Brent Baughman, who produces the NPR Politics Podcast, informs me that while it’s still a little too early to tell, he estimates that about three-quarters of the podcast’s new listeners have stuck around since the conventions. He also notes that the podcast now enjoys an audience of over 560,000 weekly unique downloaders.

It should be noted that the bumps didn’t come from organic discovery alone. Around the convention period, FiveThirtyEight carried out aggressive cross-promotion efforts that hoped to draw in audiences that exist on its other platforms and on platforms controlled by its company, ESPN. Those efforts included: a refocus on embedding the podcast in FiveThirtyEight articles, adding language that welcomed new listeners to the show, featuring the podcast in the ESPN app, and working with ESPN Radio to run a spot on terrestrial stations promoting the podcast. “That’s going to start working into the rotation soon, I hope,” Avirgan added. “It’s not going to be a huge push, but frankly I imagine a lot of the kinds of folks who are just tuning in to the election are the types of folks who are listening to ESPN radio, etc. So, we’re trying to be smart about targeting that group.”

NPR marshalled similar efforts of their own. On July 14, Gimlet’s Reply All dropped an episode containing a guest dispatch by NPR reporter and Politics Podcast co-host Sam Sanders (who, by the way, is an absolute star) that focused on the shooting in Dallas. And in the following two weeks, NPR Director of Programming Israel Smith coordinated a strong cross-promotion push across the organization’s other podcasts, acutely focusing attention onto the Politics Podcast and its presence on the convention floors.

Key national events like these conventions are essential opportunities for podcasts — or any new medium, really — to prove their worth as possible additions to the world’s wider information architecture, and the onus is on them to make themselves known in times when collective reality feels increasingly distorted.

“I think you build news consumption habits in a year like this,” Baughman said. “It’s a time when you generally want to be more informed than you are.”

An Audio Newsletter. It’s always a wonder to find a place that’s doing strange and wonderful things.

One such place is Boston public radio station WBUR, which will be launching an experimental 21-day fitness podcast project called “The Magic Pill” next month. Here’s how it works: people who sign up for the project will receive daily Magic Pill newsletters, with each missive — that can be consumed right off their inbox — containing a short podcast episode that contains exercise tips, stories about fitness, and even some music to get that body movin’. Participants move through three-week-long sequence on their own, as they’re given the ability to initiate the challenge cycle at any time, and their relationship with the podcast will be tightly managed through their interactions with the newsletter.

“In a way, you could call this an audio newsletter,” said Lisa Williams, who holds the title of ‘Engagement Director’ at the station. “It’s a real hybrid.”

The challenge is one of the many projects being developed in WBUR’s Public Radio BizLab, a Knight Foundation-funded initiative that seeks to explore possible new business models that can help sustain public radio stations in the future through rigorous experimentation and design. (And let me tell ya’, some of these experiments are fascinating, including a blockchain technology-powered emerging music library.) The lab is a smart, deeply needed enterprise and, quite frankly, I’m amazed that such a thing exists in the first place.

Like all other BizLab projects, “The Magic Pill” was designed to answer very specific, testable questions: Could you create a tightly-design podcast experience that plays out within a subscriber’s inbox (as opposed to, say, an RSS feed)? Can the process of creating that experience increase the level of data literacy among the operators at WBUR? And, perhaps most importantly, are listeners who take part in an on-going experience more likely to donate or become members?

That last question, which focuses on discovering new fundraising avenue within the public radio system, is a crucial pillar for the BizLab initiative. And much of the project designs are guided by tangible, and often frustrating, past experiences. “We did this great project once on Whitey Bulger,” Williams said. “It was just such amazing work, but we didn’t do anything to package it in a way that would get people to support the station more. But when we packaged and sold it as an ebook, about 11,000 people bought it. We left money on the table.” (Interestingly, the ebook, “Whitey on Trial,” is generally available for free, but it’s priced at $1.99 on the Amazon Store — the lowest possible rate — because ebooks can’t be listed there for free.)

When I asked Williams what conversion rates she would consider a success, she guided me to focus more on the balance between outcome and effort. She noted that relatively low conversion rates would still be considered fine, given that the amount of work that goes into making The Magic Pill is significantly less than the huge fundraising efforts that involve heavy participation across the whole station. In Williams’ mind, the emphasis is on the tightness of workflow, and a rigor in pushing specific sets of audiences down the fundraising funnel. It is a refreshing prospect, and I’m curious to see where this goes.

You can sign up for the newsletter here. The Magic Pill project goes live on September 1.

Bumpers. I believe I’ve been on-record before for not being the most enthusiastic about social audio apps, and any relevant enterprise seeks to make podcasts more shareable on social platforms like Twitter and Facebook more broadly. For me, the arguments largely takes two forms: (1) a sense that the rendering of a piece of media into something more shareable threatens to deconstruct, atomize, and commoditize that piece of media for a whole other purpose — and for podcasts, that fundamentally means a stripping it of its original value proposition, and (2) a general feeling that social platforms are universes upon themselves whose activities should be native the very structures of those platforms. Plus, there’s a whole square peg-round hole to such enterprises, and I just find that all rather inelegant.

That said, I’ve still made it a point to keep an eye on new social audio apps like Anchor (my write up here) and Rolltape (RIP, my write up here) because, I figured, there’s always something to learn from such experiments.

Which is why I’ve been tracking a new app called Bumpers for some time now, and I have to say, it’s perhaps the first audio-oriented app that comes the closest at deconstructing and replicating the original value proposition of a podcast. Where apps like Anchor and Rolltape focused on communication, Bumpers firmly trains its eye on creation and expression — and that, I think, is where it gets the association right.

Here’s how it works: users record a session through the app, which then automatically segments the recording based on sentences that users can stitch together into a “podcast” (referred to as “Bumper” within the app’s universe, for obvious reasons) by selecting and sequencing those sentence units into a whole through the app’s rather intuitive mobile audio editing interface (which, goodness, is key to the whole experience). There’s a library of preset sounds that you can throw into the mix, the additions of which greatly influences the feel of the Bumper — not unlike, say, how an Instagram filter alters the feel of a picture.

That evocation of Instagram is not coincidental. “I think a good analogy is Instagram for podcasts,” said Ian Ownbey, one of Bumpers’ creators, when I asked him to describe the app, which I had trouble articulating. “Instagram’s goal wasn’t to replace professional photographers — it was to let everyone else easily take and share high quality photos.”

Ownbey, who was an early engineer at Twitter and is also responsible for the OneShot app (which I’ve written about in relation to the theory behind screenshorting audio), has been paying close attention to the dynamics of the podcast space to build Bumpers, and thus is privy the complexities associated with the distribution and listener-end of the ecosystem. A lot of those considerations inform the development of the app.

“The problem isn’t solvable as long as the community is fractured over all these different consumption mediums,” he said, reflecting on the distribution question. “Even if I went out and created a consumption client that had the best discoverability in the whole world it would be impossible to get adoption high enough that it was useful… If all the listening happens in Bumpers itself (or in an embed from bumpers), we can start to solve these problems.”

For now, though, it’s still early days for Bumpers, and so tackling the distribution angle will have to be a future preoccupation. “Creation is our entire focus right now,” Ownbey said.

Bites:

  • A little more on the NPR Politics Podcast: producer Brent Baughman believes the experience producing the daily convention episodes have given them a roadmap for possible breaking or morning news podcast projects in the future. “Someone’s going to plant the flag on the morning news podcast, and I think it can be us,” he said.
  • I am super, super psyched over Castro 2, a new podcasting app that shifts the user experience paradigm in such smart, wonderful ways. (Supertop)
  • After the Cleveland Browns, another NFL team has launched their own official podcast: the 2012-championship winning Baltimore Ravens. (Ravens website)
  • “The (Future) Queens of Podcasting.” (The Ringer)

Get Rec’d

This week’s recommendations come from Mira Burt-Wintonick and Cristal Duhaime, who produce CBC’s lovely Love Me podcast.

Mira: “I’m obsessed with Imaginary Advice by Ross Sutherland. It’s the most one-of-a-kind thing I’ve ever heard.” (NQ: “Alas, AC Valdez already rec’d that last week.”) “Oh shoot!Short Cuts?” Short Cuts it is.

Cristal: “I’m kind of out of it when it comes to newer ones but I really enjoyed Leave a Message After the Tone from Melanie the Third Coast intern! short and sweet. solid idea. (only 2 eps out so far).”

Tuesday

9

August 2016

0

COMMENTS

Art19 Steps Up, A New Branded Content Model, NYT Elections Pod

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Art19 Steps Into the Spotlight. “We’re not really pulling ourselves out of beta,” said Sean Carr, co-founder and CEO of Art19, a California-based tech startup that’s built a podcast hosting, monetization, and distribution platform. “We’re just ready to make some noise and draw attention to ourselves.”

And you should, indeed, pay attention.

Art19 organized a small press push last week, which comes after a long period of relative quiet for the company. The messaging in the push included a good amount of detail illustrating the company’s technological proposition to the podcast industry: the foundational elements for a shift away from the industry’s download count-oriented RSS feed paradigm towards one that focuses its counts on whether an ad within a download or stream has been initiated, consumed, or skipped by a listener — what Carr refers to as “listener telemetry,” a term he strongly emphasized when we spoke over the phone last week.

And what are the foundational elements that make up that new paradigm? “To start with, we’re offering embeddable players and, more importantly, APIs that are public so that both our partners and third party consumer apps can connect to us,” Carr said, laying out a vision of the future where more data would be flowing with greater freedom throughout the podcast ecosystem. He quickly added: “But to be clear: we won’t be using that data. We’re a SaaS (Software-as-a-Service) company.”

The company’s push towards an API connected listening orientation is, in my mind, more or less what much of the professionalizing layer of the podcast community — from bigger networks to advertisers to agencies — have been asking for when they lament about the medium’s measurability woes: greater means to look into the consumption behavior around an episode, and therefore greater capacity to cultivate trust and buy-in from more advertisers.

(Conversely, it’s also precisely what much of the podcasts-as-extension-of-the-free-web have been arguing against, fearing the platform control that often happens when a piece of technology emerges that potentially grants more power to bigger entities. I’ve always been of the position that technological developments are inevitable occurrences, and that the discourse should always be focused on cultivating better regulation structures and a new system of balance instead of attempting to limit such developments.)

But of course, for Art19’s gambit to work, the company would need to secure the trust and participation of a critical mass of partners — including publishers, agencies, advertisers, and distributors, among others — in order to build a coalition that would work to actually shift the paradigm across the industry. Indeed, while there’s a general hunger to move away from RSS feeds and download counts as the standard, there will always be the problem of inertia (e.g. “we’ve been making buys and allocating budgets this way for a while now”) and, more pressingly, there will always be the problem of politics. One imagines that Art19’s competitors — including but not limited to Libsyn, Panoply’s Megaphone, PRX’s Dovetail, Triton Digital’s Tap, and Acast — would want to be the anchor of any such paradigm shift themselves or, at the very least, for no one to be the anchor, perhaps through some open sourced alternative.

And so it’s crucial to examine the key allies that the company has secured. At this time, Art19’s major clients include: (1) Wondery, the LA-based podcast network recently started by the former CEO and President of Fox International Channels; (2) DGital Media, the network that produces podcasts for Recode, Yahoo’s The Vertical, Fortune, and the UFC, among others; and perhaps most crucially, (3) Midroll Media, which is currently in the process of moving its entire Earwolf network onto the platform and will now be pitching Art19 as its preferred platform to its wide range of ad sales clients. The company is also expected to make a few more major partnership announcements by the end of this month.

The company also appears to have a strong ally in the agency world in the form of Ogilvy & Mather, a well-known advertising agency that’s part of the WPP network. Teddy Lynn, the agency’s Chief Creative Officer for Content and Social, has been involved in Art19’s press push. “I’ve been working with Sean for many, many years,” Lynn told me. “What I can say: for close to a decade, podcasting has been a very rudimentary ad unit that one can buy. And I think Art19 is advancing the medium to a place where media buyers would feel comfortable buying.”  An AdExchanger article further notes that Art19’s platform design was designed with agency input, and that’s something that shouldn’t be discounted.

Art19 will likely be served well by its twin alliances with Midroll and Ogilvy. As one of the bigger players in the space, Midroll now enjoys deeper pockets following its acquisition by Scripps, and its expansionary sensibilities should make them as strong advocate for Art19’s technological vision in the marketplace over the long run. And in Ogilvy, Art19 has an advocate for legitimacy in the agency world, which is key to unlock the next level of advertising dollars for the medium.

But the question is whether that’s enough, and who else Art19 is able to bring into its vision: more publishers, the right podcast distributors and apps, the critical mass of advertisers. And of course, whether the company will be able to ward off coalitions formed by other sectors of the industry, whether it comes from another hosting platform — or from something else entirely.

A New Model for Branded Content? Slate launched a new podcast last week, “Placemakers,” that’s a bit of a complicated beast to explain. On the surface, it’s a show about urban revitalization, with host Rebecca Sheir traveling across the country reporting out city-specific stories on the subject. Sheir is a public radio veteran who has served at NPR, WAMU, and the Alaska Public Radio Network.

But the podcast is also the product of a branded content partnership with JPMorgan Chase, the multinational banking organization. The bank is underwriting the show’s eighteen editorial episodes — which, I’m told, are completely produced by the Slate editorial team — and is directly involved with three additional sponsored episodes, which will tell JPMorgan Chase-centered stories about urban revitalization in Detroit, Seattle, and New Orleans. Those three branded episodes are produced by the Panoply Custom team, the unit within Panoply, Slate’s sister podcasting company, that’s in charge of building out branded podcasts for clients. That team’s portfolio includes Purina’s “DogSmarts,” Umpqua Bank’s “Open Account,” and most notably, the audio sci-fi drama “The Message,” which came out of a collaboration with GE.

“The project came about from both the editorial and advertising sides having a shared passion about the revitalization of urban cities,” said Keith Hernandez, president of Slate, when we spoke last week. “[Slate editor-in-chief] Julia Turner was really excited about the subject, and when we brought it to the JPMorgan Chase team  we figured out that they were really excited about it too.”

Serendipitous as it may be, the long-running concern of a show like this — one where it’s not all that easy, on the whole, to tell at what point the Slate voice ends and the JPMorgan Chase begins, given how complicatedly blended the two actors are within the larger project — is how the line between editorial and advertorial is established and communicated. This concern reared its voluminous head again just last week, when the Online Trust Association released a report that found that 71% of native ads that appeared on the home pages of the top 100 news websites were providing inadequate disclosures and transparencies that help audience make the distinction between an ad and an editorial content. (The report also instigated a fascinating, and feisty, Twitter joust between Current’s Adam Ragusea and On The Media’s Bob Garfield.) No such report has been conducted yet for on-demand audio, but it goes without saying that this issue stretches across all mediums that are involved in the possible production of journalistic content.

Which raised to me the question: how exactly will Placemakers illustrate that line for listeners?

“There’s going to be a different host for the three sponsored episodes,” Hernandez replied. “We want this to be clear and evident that these are special episodes. There are also going to be, ahead of time, mid roll and post-roll announcements within the episodes that custom episodes are coming.”

Hernandez also suggested that “Placemakers” is an early prototype of a new branded content model: one that involves the production of branded spin-offs from a pre-existing show. “Brands are moving away from an idea of themselves as a bland corporate entity… they want something deeper than a brand logo. I think this is just the beginning of a longer trends, of brands digging deeper into ideas and building relationships with the publishing community,” Hernandez said. And I think this Placemakers model is scalable: how do we take existing shows and find an interesting spin-off that could be dedicated to a brand and leverage the sensibility of those shows?”

Of course, the “pre-existing” show in this case had to be made contemporaneously with the branded campaign, but the proposition here stands. (Also worth noting: this notion of a branded spin-off shares some structural similarity to the My Brother, My Brother, and Me’s bonus episode sponsored by Totino’s Pizza Rolls, which I wrote about back in May.)

When I asked about the size of the deal — whether it was larger than previous Custom partnerships — Hernandez declined to comment, understandably. But he did answer my question about JPMorgan Chase’s expectation for the campaign, calling it an “evolving conversation” and one that respects the experimental nature of the project. Hernandez also tells me that the campaign will be playing around with on-site and off-site promotion, including a pop-up website, native ad units on the Slate website, and paid units on social (not unlike what they’ve been running with Malcolm Gladwell’s “Revisionist History”).

Before signing off, I asked Hernandez how Panoply was doing on the whole. Understandably, again, he express immense optimism around the company’s position, and in particular, the potential of Megaphone, its CMS platform.

“Megaphone is going to be a game-changer,” he said.

(Disclaimer: Panoply used to be my day-job employer, way back when.)

For the New York Times, a politics podcast of its own. Called “The Run Up,” the show is hosted by Times national political reporter Michael Barbaro and will cover this long, painful, brain-melting American presidential election cycle as its trundles through its final three months. (Hence, the name.) According to the PR email I received about the launch, the podcast will release new episodes twice a week and will serve listeners with “engaging conversations around the 2016 election and keep them up to speed about what happened (and what might happen),” with some key interviews thrown in here and there. From that description, it doesn’t seem like The Run Up will differ very much from other elections podcasts as far as structure is concerned, which suggests that the major differentiator between podcasts within this genre lies purely within the nexus of the analysis, the access to key interviews, and the discussion quality more broadly.

But thinking this through a little further, I’m wont to wonder: just how much can you stretch this particular genre in terms of form and structure? And how much of that stretching is actually necessary to create a strong enough hook, or develop a genuinely novel value proposition, for new audiences? I’m tempted to credit BuzzFeed’s “No One Knows Anything” with legitimately attempting a new hook — that is, by trying to keep a distance from the horse-race coverage and working to tell broader stories about the election, while aiming at a demographic that’s less bought into the cycle — but twenty-three episodes in, the show as a whole does seem to feel very much a part of the larger plethora of elections podcasts that we’ve seen to date, at least to my ears. (Though, if I’m pressed to identify a show that’s done a good job providing a genuinely novel value proposition, I’d point to the tight set of election-related episodes in Scott Carrier’s “Home of the Brave,” which has been stringing together on-the-ground missives that’s just been furiously visceral, constantly surprising, and often terrifying.)

Anyway, I’m reminded that this is the Times’ first podcast rollout since bringing on WBUR’s Lisa Tobin as the organization’s new executive producer for audio, who started work just last month. I was also able to find out that this podcast is being produced completely in-house, and not as the product of an external partnership like “Modern Love,” which is a collaboration with WBUR, and the now-defunct “Ethicists” podcast, which was produced with Panoply. For those keeping tabs at home, the organization is slated toproduce a show with Pineapple Street Media, which we’ll probably be treated to sometime in the near future.

Multi-Story. This is interesting: ESPN is currently in the middle of a new multi-platform initiative that “could be a model for future storytelling at the sports network,” according tothe Hollywood Reporter. The initiative, called “Pin/Kings,” is a documentary narrative that follows the story of two former high school wrestling teammates that go on to be on different sides of the East Coast drug war.

The first phase of the initiative is a 16-episode podcast miniseries that drops new episodes every weekday. At this writing, we’re on episode 7, and the narrative is being unfolded through a mixture of host narrations — which are done by Brett Forest, the reporter who has been working on this story for over a year, and producer Jon Fish — and subject interviews. The podcast will lead up to a one-hour primetime television special that’ll broadcast on ESPN2 on August 22, which will then be followed by a big print feature on the August 26th issue of the ESPN Magazine.

Personally, I’m curious as to how all the platforms complement each other in terms of audience development and management: how will audiences be aggregated across the different platforms, and how will they be monetized? Which leads us to a broader question: what level of monetization would make a podcast-involved multiplatform initiative like this worth it for ESPN, a massive and principally TV-driven operation (though not for long, possibly)? That’s a question, I believe, that’s a perfectly relevant query for all other major media organizations dabbling in podcast-land.

Bites:

  • “SoundCloud owners said to mull $1 billion sale of music service.” Pretty speculative article, but it’s worth monitoring this potential development if you’ve been relying on the service for revenue in any way. (Bloomberg)

  • “How NPR marketed the second season of its hit podcast ‘Invisibilia’.” Number to watch: the podcast has currently achieved 10 million downloads, according to the report, which is lower than the first season’s tally of 50 million downloads. Of course, these numbers are difficult to discern without an apples-to-apples time period, which we’re not given, and the report further notes that NPR has changed how it counts downloads in order to minimize the possibility of duplicate counts. (Digiday)

  • Podtrac’s July podcast publisher ranking report shows a lineup that’s virtually unchanged since June, with NPR holding the top spot ahead of WNYC Studios and This American Life. Though, as RAIN News notes, the report observed a 5% increase in unique streams and downloads this month compared to last. As usual,the usual disclaimers about the ranker apply. (Podtrac, RAIN News)

  • The Guardian’s new interactive for the Rio Olympics: Pokemon Go meets Detour/walking tours. You knew it had to happen. (The Guardian)

  • “When will YouTube deal with its audiobook and podcast piracy problem?” Yeah, YouTube. When are you gonna do dat. (Observer)

  • The Selected Shorts podcast has launched a spin-off — Selected Shorts: Too Hot For Radio. Tragically, it was not Selected Shorts: Miami. (iTunes)

Tuesday

21

June 2016

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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)

Tuesday

17

May 2016

0

COMMENTS

Millennial Joins Radiotopia, WBAA vs. TAL, Dynamic Ad Insertion Rebuttals

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Radiotopia Lets A Snake Person In. The beloved Boston-based podcast indie label (or network or collective or whatchamacallit)  is welcoming a new show to its ranks today: thebildungsroman-extraordinaire “Millennial,” produced by 25-year-old Megan Tan out of Portland, Maine. It’s the network’s fourteenth show overall, and the first addition since Julie Shapiro assumed the executive producer throne at the network last September.

In case you haven’t checked it out before, Millennial is… a bit of tricky podcast to explain. First gracing podcast feeds in January 2015, it’s a thoughtfully-crafted narrative podcast about a woman navigating her twenties. Principally written in the first person, the show is constructed on a complex machine of identity choreography where the documentarian is the central character is an unreliable narrator, one that is actively choosing the points in which the real world and the narrative intersects.

(In this sense, the show is incredibly reminiscent of the first season of Startup, albeit with the enterprise of constructing a self instead of a business. Well, at first, anyway. Like I said, it’s complicated. Of course, Startup has since moved away from complex structure to feature more straightforward stories about, uhm, startups I guess, and here I am mourning the loss of Alex Blumberg The Character.)

But Millennial is also a show that very overtly engages in a certain kind of self-awareness. You can feel the show thinking about itself even as it unfolds (creating an interesting stiltedness), you can hear it in the way it’s uneasy with its own sincerity (even as the show wades forward with its heart fully on its sleeve), and you can even see it in its very title design (the word “Millennial” emblazoned with the colors of the rainbow, as if sashaying past the cultural agita — and reductiveness — that the concept evokes).

It’s a bizarre, intriguing, playful podcast. And so it’s a no-brainer to me, then, that Radiotopia, whose roster also includes the similarly-hard-to describe Love+Radio and Theory of Everything (what the hell is Benjamen Walker doing?), would embrace the show.

“I just felt like she ticked so many boxes for us: having the right content, having a vision, having done so much of it by herself,” Julie Shapiro explained, when I asked about the addition. “It’s equal part quality of the work, part spirit of the producer — a sense of determination and wanting to be independent, but also having that creative spark… She’s also, you know, a young woman of color doing it on her own. One of the Radiotopia goals is to get different voices in here, to support people who don’t have traditional training but have that moxie.”

Millennial’s recruitment into the network comes shortly after Tan left her job at New Hampshire Public Radio to pursue the show full-time earlier this year. When we spoke over the phone last week, she talked about the decision coming out of a desire for something close to creative freedom, or a space to learn and explore and develop on her own terms. But the effort to do so was grounded, it turned out, in a grappling of her economic chances. “I crunched the numbers, and I figured I could be making more money doing Millennial if I started putting out two episodes a month,” she said. Prior to joining Radiotopia, the show enjoyed an average of 27,000 downloads per episode. (That’s the number reported to advertisers, by the way. Keep in mind, in thinking through the number, that the show did not support dynamic ad insertion at the time.)

“I feel like there’s just a window of time when I can do this,” Tan said. “It feels like, well, nobody’s going to be talking about Millennial a year from now, and I can’t wait that long until I decide that this is what I want to do. There’s a lot of urgency in myself to just, sort of, buy the ticket and take the ride.”

(Boy, don’t I know that feeling. Which reminds me: support Hot Pod by becoming a member!)

It’s worth noting, commensurate with a recent column by Current’s Adam Raguseaabout the podcast industry’s trend towards clustering in New York, that Tan’s being able to make this professional leap can largely be attributed to her financial realities being based in Portland, Maine — where housing costs are roughly 58% less compared to Brooklyn, according to this nifty CNN Money calculator that sources its data from C2ER.

Speaking of New York, Tan mentioned that she was considering interest from a few other New York-based networks, which would’ve possibly led to her moving to the city. But her choice to go with Radiotopia came from multiple alignments — structurally, creatively, ideologically — that she couldn’t ignored. “They feel like a family, and I feel like they have a similar intention for what they want stories to sound and be like that I have,” she said. “And there’s this freedom with them that’s almost unheard of in the industry… I mean, you get to own your own show! I don’t need someone to hold my hand through everything. I want to feel like I have as much stake in my show as somebody else. And I think, when you get to some of these other institutions, that’s not necessarily true.”

“Plus: when I think about Radiotopia, I just think about the fact it’s run by these badass women like (chief operating officer) Kerri Hoffman and Julie Shapiro,” she added. “And I’m like, yeah, I want to be on your team, and I want you to be on my team!”

With Radiotopia’s backing, Tan is looking to expand the scope of the show. “I want Millennial to be the show that people to go about coming-of-age,” she said. “And the best thing about that topic is that it’s narrow enough to be focused but it’s still big enough to encompass everything. You don’t stop coming of age when you get out of your twenties.”

You can find the podcast here. I imagine, given the podcast’s affinity for meta-narrative, that Tan will producer her own narrative on the show being picked up by Radiotopia. In which case, that episode is probably already out by the time you read this.

How Radiotopia Works. I figured this was a good opportunity to try and figure out how, exactly, a partnership with Radiotopia looks like. So I posed the question to Shapiro, and she was kind enough to walk me through it — even my brain did have a hard time grappling with it.

Radiotopia shows are supported by a collection of three different revenue streams: there’s advertising revenue (Radiotopia takes a 20% cut of the advertising revenue; they handle some sponsorships, but shows are incentivized to bring in more by themselves), there’s money that comes in from listener donations that are open persistently throughout the year (which are then distributed evenly across shows), and the annual pledge-drive fundraisers we have come to be familiar with (which are then distributed based on performance on top of an evenly split base amount). The way this works out, then, is that all shows get a baseline financial support but are still able to benefit in proportion to how well they perform both with advertisers and listeners.

Also worth noting: ownership of the shows remain with the creators, not Radiotopia.

It’s a balanced, equitable approach; one that lets shows enjoy a relatively small cushion of comfort but places them in a position where they are incentivized to hustle, because they stand to directly benefit from their own inputs.

And the network systems are designed such that the growth of each show will directly and indirectly benefit the wider family — a kind of virtuous cycle that encourages network cohesion. As Shapiro explains: “The shows make a nice chunk from the fundraiser, but that means everybody has to jump in and help fundraise. And the more we raise, the more they make from that. Then over the course of the year, as the shows get stronger and as the listeners get deeper and more loyal, listeners give more randomly and then the shows get more from that, and that means the networks get greater visibility for sponsors so they pay more. There’s a symbiotic relationship.”

It’s a fascinating system, but it’s certainly not for everybody. “There are other networks doing interesting, great work with business models that are in some ways more stable for producers,” Shapiro said. “I mean, if you work for a company, you get a steady paycheck.”

And boy, steady paychecks are sexy.

Mission vs. Economics vs. A False Dichotomy. Okay, let’s think through this:

Last Thursday, Mike Savage, the general manager of WBAA, a public radio station operating out of West Lafayette, Indiana, announced in a LinkedIn post that the station will no longer carry This American Life come August. Several factors reportedly informed the decision, but Savage singled out TAL’s recent move to partner with the streaming service Pandora for distribution as the prime reason.

His argument is built on two key concepts:

  • Pandora poses a fundamental threat to public radio’s broadcast model. “Pandora is not complementary nor friendly to public radio,” Savage wrote. “Just go for a test drive in a new car and you will see their aggressive presentation is. In fact, I believe it’s one of Pandora’s main goals to put traditional radio out of business.”

  • This American Life’s partnership with Pandora, then, represents an existential misalignment in interests, and given that WBAA pays TAL in order to serve its programming to the station’s listeners, the station would rather not fund an entity that is indirectly contributing to its demise.

This is, of course, an incredibly complex issue. It touches upon the disparity in resources between bigger and smaller stations, questions about how stations (and to extrapolate, publications and media companies) can hold their own, grow, and perhaps thrive in smaller markets, and of course, the structural tensions between emerging digital platforms and traditional broadcast. Add to that Savage’s claim that TAL wasn’t actually performing well for the station, and you have what looks to be a performative gesture with little immediate sacrifice for the station itself, which further complicates the way we read this. All of that is at play here, yes, and those things deserve discussion. And discussions are happening across Twitter, in Facebook groups, in forums, and most importantly, in the comments section of Savage’s LinkedIn post, where a substantial, multi-threaded conversation has been playing out, which even includes Glass mounting several responses.

You should, of course, sit and marinade in the whole discussion if you’re in any way invested in public radio. But there a few parts of Savage’s decision — and more importantly, his rationale and argumentation — that I find especially troubling apart from those discussions. I’ll point out two in particular.

The first is an axiom that seems to drive Savage’s thinking: the sense that any programmatic attempt at aggressively growing an audience is somehow antithetical to the public radio mission. “At what cost do we grow the audience?” Savage writes at one point, in a response to a comment. “That’s the great thing about public broadcasting — we put mission first as opposed to shareholder value or audience size,” he writes at another. There is, I think, a fundamental difference between the intention to aggressively grow your audience to maximize profits and the responsibility to aggressively grow your audience because they make up the Public you are meant to serve. Furthermore, such audience and revenue growth initiative should only be a concern only if such initiatives directly contribute to a decrease in the quality of work being produced or service being provided (conversely: to impede initiatives that would generate greater audiences that wouldn’t dilute editorial quality should be read, then, as being counter-productive to the public good — I mean, what’s the point of producing work of quality if nobody’s listening to it?). Quality dilution obviously isn’t a problem that This American Life faces, which has demonstrably increased its capacity for public service journalism since incorporating a public benefit corporation and has gotten more financially ambitious (a sample list of stellar reporting from the past four months alone: “My Damn Mind,” “I Thought I Knew You,” “Anatomy of Doubt”). Savage seems to almost automatically equate a drive towards revenue or audience growth with an immediate straying away from the public good; which is a viewpoint that’s not only simplistic, but also counterintuitive to the entire enterprise of helping to build a more informed public.

The second part is considerably more troubling. The thing that’s most striking to me about Savage’s whole deal is this: here we have a public radio station that seems to not only fails to recognize who its natural friends are, but one that is lashing out at potential allies. This is a tragic state of affairs all on its own, but even more so within the context of an increasingly embattled public radio system.

This whole business would be one thing if all that we’re seeing is a brash decision made by a small public radio station — operating with few resources within the 236th-largest market size in the country, as Savage himself noted in the comments — even though, yes, the station represents a view held by a number of other, similarly under-resourced public radio stations. But it’s incredibly important to note that Savage is a member of National Public Radio’s board of directors, and that he actively brings this thinking into those meetings and could well complicate efforts to strengthen the core over there.

Let’s pause a second. It’s important to note that Savage’s decision comes chiefly out of fear — a concern for its own existence, for whether the shifting conditions will leave it to wither and die. I understand that. And that fear is especially acute when you’re small; indeed, when you’re small, a lot of things seem scary. But the way to survive isn’t to shrink inwards and struggle for the status quo. The way to survive is the same as it has always been: to continuously embrace new ways of doing things, new political realities, new balances of power.

I’m trying to be sympathetic here, but it’s really hard not to read this as anything but a scenario where a station is making a principled stand for its own existence at the expense of the mission it purports to serve. Perhaps, as I’ve done in the past, it’s worth asking whether many of the stations that make up the public radio system — all of which were created at a very different point in history with very different technological realities — are still the right entities to carry out its mission.

Meanwhile, Nieman Lab has a great interview with NPR One’s Tamar Charney on what’s been up with the app. (Spoiler alert: there are hamsters.) Also, this week’s Frederic Filloux column over at Monday Note seems particularly pertinent to this hullabaloo: “Fossilized culture, not lack of funding, put news media on deathwatch.”

To everyone reading this who isn’t really into the whole public radio thing: sorry about that.

Responses to Dynamic Ad Insertion Concerns. Last week, I published a few concerns held by Collin Willardson, who heads up marketing over at Mack Weldon, about the changes that dynamic ad insertion brings to podcast advertising. Joel Withrow, director of product over at Panoply (my old day job employer), was kind enough to address some of those issues.

His reply was pretty long, so I posted it in full over in this Google Doc, but here’s the essential paragraph:

“Podcast ad sales are undergoing a big change — one of steadily increased scale, better technology, and professionalization. Our growing pains focus on ad insertion because the technology behind it should be held to a higher standard, so that we don’t mess things up for listeners or advertisers. While giving podcasters access to the best reporting and sales opportunities out there, the best platforms will keep ceding total creative control over every minute of the episode, ads included, to the creators. If we do that, any given show’s migration to ad insertion should be inaudible.”

Cool.

Bites:

  • In other Radiotopia news, the ten finalists for their PodQuest competition have been locked in. They were informed last week. Watch out for more developments on this front as the weeks roll on.

  • Wondery, the new LA-based podcast network launched by former Fox executives Hernan Lopez and Jeffrey Glaser, announced three additions to its roster last week: Radio Drama Revival, The Cleansed and Ruby: Adventures of A Galactic Gumshoe. That last show comes out of ZBS, an audio drama-oriented non-profit founded by Thomas Lopez, who was recently profiled on All Things Considered.

  • Two weeks after publicly announcing its arrival, Pineapple Street Media makes its first hire: Bari Finkel, who has previously worked on Radiolab, the upcoming Radiolab spinoff, and the Panoply Custom team.

  • “Apple updates iTunes with a ‘simpler’ design that doesn’t really help.” (The Verge)

  • “How Monocle found money in radio.” (Digiday)

Tuesday

10

May 2016

0

COMMENTS

Apple, No One Knows Anything, Dynamic Ad Insertion Concerns

Written by , Posted in Hot Pod Weekly

“This isn’t about arguing who’s right or wrong,” writes Federico Viticci, a technology blogger who publishes on his own independently-operated site, Mac Stories. “It’s about recognizing the divergence of needs and opinions in an industry that, in many ways, is still in its formative years.”

That, in a nutshell, sums up where we are right this second in the podcast community. On the one hand, you have a set of professionalizing, ambitious podcast companies pushing for better data analytics, discovery, and revenue opportunities — gripes that should be familiar if you read this column with any frequency — in their pursuit for maturity and considerable growth. And on the other hand, you have a grassroots population which has thus far enjoyed a version of the open internet, one that results from a delicate balance of power facilitated by the medium’s relative niche status up until this point. At stake in the tension between these two camps is, frankly, the fate of the medium’s future. (How dramatic! How lovely.)

It’s a story as old as content. But let’s start from the beginning.

Over the weekend, the New York Times published a spicy article by John Herrman — a media critic-savant partially known for the excellent “Content Wars” column when he was a staffer the Awl —  about the relationship between the emerging podcast industry and Apple, which at this point still commands an outsized measure of influence over the space, and how those relationship-dynamics defines the current state that the professionalizing podcast industry finds itself in.

I highly recommend reading the whole thing, obviously, and there are so, so, so many nuances baked into the report, but the two key elements I want to focus on to get to the heart of this narrative are the following:

(1) The article paints a picture of a professionalizing and ambitious industry frustrated by the limits of its dependencies on Apple’s infrastructure, which still maintains its outsized influence over the space. The article interprets Apple as an indifferent steward of a podcast ecosystem that exists at the fringes of their operational focus — a state of affairs that may be shifting for the company as a whole, by the way, following reports that suggest an increasing shift in focus for the company towards services (see this Wall Street Journal article, and also this Bloomberg article on Apple Music) — and it chiefly illustrates this by exploring how the team that curates the iTunes promotions page, one of the very few reliable drivers for discovery and marketing in the space, is remarkably small and largely managed by one individual. (Hey Steve!)

(2) The heart of the piece is as follows: “The question for podcasters — and for Apple — is about what comes next,” Herrman wrote. “Apple has at least two obvious choices: to rush to accommodate an industry that is quickly outgrowing its origins, or to let podcasting be, at the risk of losing its claim over a medium that owes its very name to the company.”

The piece is, by and large, consistent with my own reading of the space, and I say this with full awareness that my coverage and focus has always been on the podcast companies, entities, and individuals that are agitating against the status quo for the purposes of growth.

That distinction is notable, because the article also drew a strong line of criticism that emerges from the grassroots layer of the ecosystem. The critique principally comes from Marco Arment, the creator of relatively well-known podcasting app called Overcast who is also something of an elder statesman for the older end of the podcast ecosystem. (Arment is also an angel investor in Gimlet, curiously enough.)

Writing on his blog, Arment expressed a deep skepticism of podcast entities advocating for more data and involvement from Apple. He argues that, in their endeavors to further grow its businesses, these agitating companies is will end up compelling changes that fundamentally compromise the open nature of the medium — that it would lead to Apple stepping into control over a previously open ecosystem, that all of this would lead to the creation of a “data economy” that deleteriously commoditizes the entire space, that the medium would naturally shift to a state that would shut out independent creators forever. Arment’s critique is, essentially, an argument of the slippery slope variety.

“Podcasting has been growing steadily for over a decade and extends far beyond the top handful of public-radio shows,” Arment argues. “Their needs are not everyone’s needs, they don’t represent everyone, and many podcasters would not consider their goals an ‘advancement’ of the medium.”

I’ve been tracking this entire conversation since the very second that the Times’ piece dropped, and I’m still struggling to find my own position on this. (It’s hard to form a take in such a short period of time, and I imagine my feelings will go through several iterations.)

But frankly, I’m torn.

On the one hand, I am thoroughly invested in seeing podcasts grow, mature, and further professionalize into a Big, Big Industry. I’d like this industry to grow to a point where it can command high and reliable revenue margins, generate high volumes of employment opportunities for creative audio professionals (not everybody can be self-employed and run a small, independent shop), boast an audience reach of hundreds of millions all over the world, that wields cultural influence and is capable of tremendous impact. And I simply don’t believe any of that is possible — or at least, it’s all incredibly difficult, a factor that I’d argue influences the industry’s financial accessibility — without much of what professionalizing podcast entities are pushing for. And I just don’t buy the notion of retaining the podcast’s RSS 2.0 roots and the black box nature of its knowability… like, I get the romance and nostalgia of it, I just think that’s really regressive.

But at the same time, I also have my own background concerns over whether the podcast companies that will grow to constitute Big Podcasting — the Gimlets, the Panoplies, the Midrolls — won’t collectively drive the ecosystem to a state that reductively commoditizes the form and freezes out independents. (Those ad loads, they keep getting heavier and heavier. I see you.) And I do very much want to retain a relatively open podcast environment (no matter how conditional that openness is) where crazy shit like The Worst Idea Of All Time can still have a shot at an audience, no matter how small the chance of discovery.

Indeed, the tension between the two communities with very separate needs and beliefs that share the same infrastructure is very real. It’s podcasts-as-blogs versus podcasts-as-future of radio, it’s the independents versus the corporate. But whatever happens with Apple, we’re going to have to confront this question — the push towards professionalization is fully underway. As Herrman put it quite succinctly in a series of tweets: “Whether or not Apple encourages it, online audio will develop beyond current infrastructure… Anyway, I understand horror at the industrialization of a creative medium. Participants I talked to think it’s coming one way or another. So the question *right now* is: by apple’s hand, or someone else’s. These conversations should sound familiar!”

The question is, then: can we cultivate a media universe that can effectively and simultaneously support two very, very different kinds of communities without compromising the integrity and efforts of each other? Can we, as the meme goes, get you an ecosystem that can do both?

In other words, it’s not a matter of whether we will see audio float into the Content Wars, it’s a matter of how we navigate that fight. Yes, the way forward opens up a universe of potential horrors: atrocious advertising ad experiences, advertising fraud (which already happens, by the way), excessively invasive tracking mechanisms that grossly compromise personal privacy, and so on.

But what the hell: you can’t make an omelette without cracking open a few skulls, and you can’t get the great without running the risk of getting the very, very bad. Things will change — things always change — but there will be new balances of power to find. And maybe it’s naive, but I believe there absolutely can be a future that’s better for every one of us.

Two quick things:

  • The Times article had a particularly interesting news hook: late last month, seven “leading podcast professionals” were reportedly invited to Apple to air their grievances for a collection of employees. According to a source who was present, that seven consisted of a mix between newer, enterprising Big Podcast companies and folks from what can only be described as the “older guard.” My source also mentioned that there were no representatives from public radio.
  • Some perspective from friend-of-the-newsletter Joseph Fink, who tweeted me the following earlier in the weekend “I was interviewed for that article, but guess my response of ‘yeah I dunno, it’s all pretty much fine’ wasn’t interesting.”

And two related readings floating in my mind that’s connected to all of this, but I couldn’t work ’em in: “Podcasting in 2015 feels a lot like blogging circa 2004: exciting, evolving, and trouble for incumbents” and “No garbage fires here: Medium advances its quest to gentrify the world of Internet publishing,” both from Nieman Lab. (What a great site.)

Measured. Time now for someone much smarter than me to weigh in. I recently asked Andrew Kuklewicz, Chief Technology Officer at PRX, to talk a bit about his vision for some sort of middle ground in requests for increased data granularity. He writes:

There’s data, and there’s creepy data. I want to know what anonymous people actually play and hopefully hear. We don’t need to fall down the creepy, slippery, slope and get names, blood types, or shoe sizes. We can survive without this, but it’s easier to sell new sponsors on audience numbers that resemble reality rather than shared fictions.

Personally, I’m more concerned with growing audiences, providing better ways for listeners to find shows they love, and likewise for producers to find their true fans. The more that happens, the more it supports shows and creators, and we all benefit as they create more of their best work.

I don’t know what others are asking for, but I’m not looking for Apple to extend their store model to podcasts. Even if they did, I expect and hope it would be one option among many built on podcasting. I also value the openness of podcasting, with its underlying standards, but standards progress when there is competition fueling innovation. As web browsers got better with competition, and so did their standards. I want podcasting to do the same – progress made with competition on products and content, but cooperation on open standards, platforms, and measures.

It will be messy, messier than a benevolent monopoly, but I also agree with keeping independence over ceding control to buy simplicity.

One important footnote on data and listening metrics: Doc Searls, the furthest thing from a sell out when it comes to privacy and people owning their data, has pushed for an idea where people should own their own listening data, and share with whom they choose. Most great ideas are tried a few times before they take off (e.g. six degrees before facebook), maybe 6 years later we should give Listen Log another go.

Sweet.

Designing A Elections Podcast For The Non-Wonk. If you’re launching an elections podcast, man, I don’t envy you. It’s one of the most saturated podcast genres in the market right now, a state of affairs not unrelated to the fact that there’s a US presidential election going on at the moment and it’s all been absolute bonkers.

A sample list of elections pods, which has considerably grown since the last time I discussed political pods: the “NPR Politics” podcast, the “FiveThirtyEight Elections” podcast, Politico’s “2016 Nerdcast,” Mic and the Economist’s “Special Relationship,” Slate’s longtime stalwart “Political Gabfest” and the topically-driven “Trumpcast,” MTV News’ “The Stakes,” the New Republic’s “Primary Concerns,” Vox’s “The Weeds” (occasionally, the show largely sticks to policy), The Ringer’s “Keepin’ It 1600” (featuring former Obama staffers Jon Favreau and Dan Pfeiffer, no less), The Huffington Post’s “Candidate Confessional,” Futuro Media Group’s “In the Thick,” “The Pollsters,” and so on.

(For the record: I listen to a bunch of these, largely because… well, it’s my job, but also because I’m just a very curious foreign person despite my inability to actually vote. But man, I can’t even begin to imagine how any discerning voter should choose from this pile.)

Into the fray walks No One Knows Anything, a new political podcast from BuzzFeed. No One Knows Anything is the company’s sixth podcast overall, and the last show launched before Jenna Weiss-Berman, BuzzFeed’s Director of Audio, left the company to launch her own podcast venture. It also has the distinction of being the first in BuzzFeed’s pod roster that actively draws from talent and material from its news desk. Anchored by BuzzFeed politics reporter Evan McMorris-Santoro, the show aims to distinguish itself from the gabfest-style horse race roundup pod formats of its competitors, choosing instead to tell larger stories about the election.

I recently talked to the very awesome Meg Cramer, who produces the show (and who previously worked at APM’s Marketplace), and asked her a bunch of questions about the show’s design, podcast structures more broadly, and miscellaneous production-related things. Here are excerpts from our chat:

On process. “We’re on a weekly production schedule. We do it a little differently every time. We don’t script the show… we have very, very light scripting, and what we do instead is, like, we have a loose structure, we go into the studio, Evan and his guest host will move through the structure and hit every point, riff if they want to, usually beforehand we have the ‘found sound’ audio planned out. So, if we know that we have a supercut of people saying “Trump will never get elected,” I’ll be in the studio cuing that up and they’ll react to the cut in real time. And then we, like, put the tracking together with all the interviews in whatever order they happen in, listen to a rough cut of the episode, and then do an edit altogether, and then go back and do pickups.”

On the shows’ relationship to the news cycle. “There will be times where we have to speak to the news that’s happening that week, but for the most part, I don’t think that’s what we’re going to do. Because for the most part, that’s what a lot of other political shows do. And we’re trying not to be like a wrap-up show, and we’re trying to tell stories about things have already happened because we want as much information as we can get when we tell those stories. We don’t want to predict — this is like an anti-prediction show.”

On the show’s target audience. “We’re trying to serve a general news audience with a show about politics, because there are lots of things that serve the political news audience and we’re trying to reach a broader group of people than that,” she tells me. “People who are not necessarily political junkies, but who care about their vote. They’re probably going to vote, but they really care about who the next president is going to be and they want to be thoughtful about how they cast their vote.”

On the theory of show structures. “There are lots of things that you can refer to when you talk about structure. You can say, “every episode we will have this kind of segment, or every episode we will do a certain thing,” And I try really hard to resist that because I think it can be very tempting to give yourself a superstructure when you start a project, and you also learn that your superstructure was maybe a cool idea or a cool concept but it turns out to be very restricting and it doesn’t let you tell certain stories. It winds up being a situation where you’re working for the structure rather than have it work for you.”

On newsroom integration. “I’m interested to learn what it’s like to get a lot of people in a newsroom involved in podcasting. I think places like Slate has their flagships shows where people get to try out being on a show — being a panelist, being a guest — and they get to see if they’re good at it. I think that one thing that I’m really excited about this project, it’s not going to just be about me and Evan. I’m excited that other people in the newsroom get to try out having a big voice on this platform.”

You can check out the pod here.

Reservations Over Dynamic Ad Insertion. I haven’t written about dynamic ad insertion in a while, and I really should, because it’s one of the bigger narratives that’s been driving the technology piece of the space for the past year or so.

In case you’re unfamiliar with the concept, podcast hosting platforms (like Panoply’s Megaphone, Acast, Art19, Triton Tap, and so on) that support dynamic ad insertion would allow publishers to easily swap out ad spots within a given podcast episode. This structurally breaks podcasts away from having “baked-in” ads — where they are one with the episode for the rest of time (or the internet, or until somebody replaces the file) — and drives them to a state where the ad inventory of a given episode is dramatically deepened and the friction of ad serving is drastically reduced. It also sets the conditions for tailored advertising experiences like geo-targeting and a programmatic audio advertising business to be built somewhere down the line.

To put it another way: money, money, money for publishers. If they can swing it, of course.

It’s a vision of the future that’s renders the podcast space drastically different in its monetization potential compared to whatever’s come before, one that would make podcasts function like the rest of the internet — for good or for bad, we don’t know yet (see the newsletter’s headline item). I imagine it’s being pitched as a win-win situation; advertisers get to more specifically target listeners, and publishers get to squeeze more value out of a given ad slot.

But some advertisers are not without reservations. Advertisers like Mack Weldon, the fancy bright-colored underwear startup, which now dedicates about a quarter of its monthly ad spend to podcast buys.

I recently traded emails with Collin Willardson, the company’s marketing manager, about some of his concerns. He listed out three in particular:

  • Firstly, Willardson argued that the imposition of format requirements for dynamic ad insertion support would end up putting a cap on the creative vitality that can go into the ad read. “Our biggest reservation with dynamic ads is that the ad is capped at 30 seconds,” he wrote. “We have found success when the host is allowed to do the read however long they feel best. They’ll know if they get the message across to their listeners, and sometimes they aren’t able to do that in just 30 seconds or less.” (I imagine the 30 second cap may differ from platform-to-platform and from show-to-show depending on how campaigns are sold, but I take his overall point.)

  • Secondly, Willardson also touched upon the value being lost when ads are no longer permanent — a feature that was appealing for some buyers. “Another reservation is knowing that our ad will not be there forever,” he argued. “We want to be associated with the show we have chosen carefully, even if you listen to it 5 years from now. There is something special about being a part of a show that you can listen to and be entertained by 5 years later, and we want to be a part of that experience.”

  • Finally, Willardson brings up what may well be the fundamental hurdle presented by the technology: the dissolution of the “intimacy” so associated with the media format. “Dynamic ad insertion disassociates the host from the advertiser, so they care less about the actual product or brand they’re trying to sell. Audiences pick up on that, and quickly tune out. On a medium with a built-in 15 sec skip button, a 30-second ad is too easily never heard,” he wrote.

I’ve been hearing variations of these concerns from a few advertisers — all of which are direct response advertisers relatively new to the medium — over the past few weeks. For what it’s worth, I don’t think these reservations are particularly insurmountable or fundamentally detracts from the value of dynamic ad insertion technology; rather, my sense that Willardson’s arguments stem from a frustration with the pitches currently being made by podcast publishers.

Bites:

  • The worst kept NPR pod secret is finally out: the Code Switch podcast will launch May 31. In case you’re unfamiliar, Code Switch is NPR’s FABULOUS blog that covers stories on race, ethnicity and culture. The pod is going to be hosted by Gene Demby (who also hosts the Post-Bourgie pod) and Shereen Marisol Meraji. I, for one, am extremely excited about this. (NPR Extra)
  • Eleanor Kagan has been announced as BuzzFeed’s new Director of Audio. She produces Another Round, and will continue doing in addition to developing new projects. (Twitter)
  • Katelyn Bogucki, who has until this point headed up the Huffington Post’s podcast operation, is heading over to Gimlet, where she joins the company’s Creative team.
  • “From out of nowhere, the US Energy Department launches a great podcast.” (The Verge)

Friday

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March 2016

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Hot Pod Pro: Audible — About That Sharing Feature

Written by , Posted in Member Content

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

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