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Tuesday

13

December 2016

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COMMENTS

Issue 100

Written by , Posted in Hot Pod Weekly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What does 2017 hold for your team?

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

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

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

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

Bites:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moves:

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

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

 

Tuesday

25

October 2016

0

COMMENTS

Fun Raising

Written by , Posted in Hot Pod Weekly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Bugle is Radiotopia’s sixteenth show.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bites:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moves

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

Tuesday

2

August 2016

0

COMMENTS

The Ideological Spread of Pods

Written by , Posted in Hot Pod Weekly

The Ideological Spread of Pods. It’s been… an interesting election cycle here in the United States, to say the least, one that’s caused me enough anxiety to burrow deeper into the insular, cord-cutting media cocoon I’ve built for myself — an assemblage of ye old newspapers (the New York Times and the Washington Post, mostly), cable TV (CNN, mostly), broadcast radio (public, mostly), social media (the ideologically self-reinforcing Facebook and Twitter, mostly) and, of course, podcasts — in a bid to find some assurance that everything will… be okay, I suppose, or whatever it is I’m trying to look for when I seek out election news.

Which isn’t a great way of doing things, of course, given that it’s a function of larger problems associated with media fragmentation and “selective exposure” (see: the recent Wall Street Journal interactive feature “Red Feed, Blue Feed”) that’s believed to have exacerbated the country’s political polarization. Frankly, I buy this explanation of the present: the idea that the increasingly abundant, on-demand, and personalized nature of our news media has led to whole swathes of populations creating worlds and realities of their own that don’t have much reason to overlap and interact with each other, until they absolutely must (like, say, during a national election), in which case the result is pure combustion.

There was a Wired article by Charley Locke not too long ago that grabbed my attention, about a five-year-old conservative leaning podcast network called Ricochet, where Locke characterized the podcast space to be disproportionately liberal. (Whether that refers to actual composition or representation is hard to establish; it’s related to all the ways we complain about the medium’s measurement difficulties.) Using the upper echelons of the iTunes charts as her principal data set, Locke wrote: “There’s not much ideological diversity in the conversation… Podcasts have proven a viable platform to reach a liberal audience, just as radio talk shows have for conservative listeners. But what does that mean for the Americans in the middle?”

Of course, characterizing some media organization versus others as liberal is sticky business. Locke’s rubric places organizations like NPR, FiveThirtyEight, Vox.com, and Slate in the liberal bucket, a characterization that might be challenged by some of these institutions more so than others. (Indeed, NPR has had a long history of being accused of liberal biasa charge they constantly challenge — while one imagines FiveThirtyEight and Vox would orient themselves more towards analytical impartiality.) However, given Locke’s other more unambiguous examples — former Obama staffers Jon Favreau and Dan Pfeiffer’s “Keepin’ It 1600”  with The Ringer, and David Axelrod’s “The Axe Files” with CNN, both of which are expressions of that administration’s relative comfort with the medium that was recently covered by the New York Times — her overarching point seems to hold: the podcast charts don’t offer very much in the way ofexplicitly conservative programming, and one could understandably draw a solid hypothesis about the medium’s larger ideological distribution from that.

There are a few noteworthy exceptions: the iTunes top 100 currently charts a podcast featuring Milo Yiannopoulos, the controversial writer and editor for the conservative Breitbart News Network who was recently banned by Twitter for racial harassment, and that show is distributed by PodcastOne. (That company is also home to a few other podcasts hosted by explicitly conservative personalities, like Laura Ingraham and Bill Kristol.) Earlier this year, the similarly conservative Jay Sekulow show broke into the top 3. Sekulow is an attorney and co-founder of the American Center for Law and Justice, a politically conservative activism organization that he co-founded with the often controversial Pat Robertson. But those examples are very few and far between, further reinforcing Locke’s observation.

When I talked to Locke last week, she proposed a theory about the ideological spread: the medium’s liberal-lean is largely the result of its early adopters. As she thinks about it, relatively liberal media outlets (or media organizations perceived to be liberal) were among the firsts to develop content using the medium, laying down the foundation of its identity and eventually establishing themselves as the de facto “old guards” of the space. I’m partial to that theory, but I’m also tempted to wonder: is there something about on-demand audio’s structural traits — and demographic spread, and so on — that uniquely supports liberal programming? (Conversely, do broadcast talk radio’s structural traits uniquely benefit conservative programming?)

“This whole thing ties into something I’ve been wondering about more broadly: why aren’t there a lot more new media organizations oriented to conservative listeners?” Locke continued. I’m personally curious about where young conservative readers are, and where they look to get news.”

“They probably feel pretty isolated,” she added, wistfully.

Local Spaces. This Wednesday, PRX is holding a party to launch their new “Podcast Garage,” a recording facility and community space for Boston podcast creators. The space is part of Zone 3, a Harvard-catalyzed initiative developed to “explore experimental programs, events, and retail” along the city’s Western Avenue, which runs along the Harvard Business School.

“We want to foster a maker culture, create an environment of openness, and support storytelling,” said Kerri Hoffman, PRX CEO, when we spoke yesterday. “What we’re hoping to do with the garage is to bring all of those values right down to the ground at the local level, and create a physical hub for the Boston podcast community.”

The garage is stocked with studio equipment that’ll be available to the community via paidpre-booked rental arrangements and free studio times, which will be offered at certain times of day. Events will also be organized in the garage to brings podcast makers of all skill levels together, the first of which will be held on August 8th featuring a presentation by PRX Remix Curator Josh Swartz.

“We really do think seasoned, local producers will make good use of our service,” Hoffman said. “But our sights are really on people who haven’t made a podcast yet, on the next generation. That’s what I’m really excited about.”

That’s the hook that really catches my eye about this project. Hoffman’s sentiment here echoes ideas that I’ve heard from similar initiatives across the country — ones that are also physically-oriented and locally-minded, like the Chicago Podcast Cooperative, which is run out of the lovely, non-descript Cards Against Humanity offices in the Lincoln Park neighborhood and managed by a great person named Claire Friedman, and the nascent XOXO Audio Studio, which is being developed out of the XOXO Outpost in Portland, Oregon by similarly great person named Tyesha Snow. Both operations involve a sense of bringing more people into the space who otherwise would not have had the opportunity to do so.

“We want to be a place that makes it easy for anyone to grab some studio space and make some magic,” Snow told me. “We believe that creation of the studio will spur all types of connections for the people… I can’t predict exactly what will happen over the coming year but people are ready and waiting. It’s going to be amazing.”

If there’s any force that would pull us away from any possible over-concentration of the podcast industry — and maybe, the production of media, more broadly — in New York and the coasts, I believe it’s going to be made up of local, physically-oriented spaces like these that makes opportunities more accessible in more places across the country. So if you’re working on an initiative like this, do let me know.

French Podcasts. “Mainstream podcasts almost don’t exist in France,” wrote Charlotte Pudlowski, when we traded emails about the country’s on-demand audio landscape a few weeks ago. Pudlowski is an associate editor at Slate France, the French sister company of the American digital magazine, and is the person overseeing its emerging podcast strategy. She tells me that French podcasting mostly consists of repackaged broadcasts from Radio France, the French public radio equivalent, supplemented by some independent podcasts — “mostly talks,” she wrote, referring to conversational podcasts, a lot of which you can find here — and something called Arte Radio, which is reminiscent of a Third Coast-esque documentary directory.

Pudlowski is hoping to buck that trend by introducing longer-form narrative content to the mix. In mid-June, Slate France launched two shows: “Transfert” and “Titiou, Nadia et les sales gosses (Titiou, Nadia and their brats).” The former features first-person narratives (or “narrative stories, told by the people who experienced them,” as Pudlowski phrased it to me), while the latter is a parenting show hosted by two Slate France writers which will mix formats on each episode.

Pudlowski was able to secure Audible as a launch sponsor, and it remains Slate France’s only audio advertiser for now. “We have made a deal for one year, that corresponds to a number of minutes we have to produce in one year,” she said. “We’ll also look for other advertisers. But the contract with Audible doesn’t give us any fixed number of downloads or impressions we have to achieve, which gives us an amazing freedom of trying new things, taking risks.”

Things are looking pretty good for the two shows since they’ve launched, relatively speaking. Transfert’s first episode garnered 23,000 downloads in its first four weeks, while the second episode saw about 17,000 downloads during the same period. Titiou, Nadia et les sales gosses received about 13,000 downloads for its first episode. “We had not set a precise objective because it’s so new in France we had no possible comparison, but we’re pretty happy about it,” said Pudlowski, further noting that she was pleased with the attention the shows have been getting on social. The shows are hosted on Megaphone, the new CMS by Slate’s other sister company Panoply. (Confusing, ain’t it?)

I was curious about the potential market size for on-demand audio in France — its size, and opportunity. “It’s very hard to know because it is so new,” Pudlowski explained to me, pointing out that podcast listenership in the country isn’t widely measured just yet.

“But what we do know is that French people are really into radio.” Citing a December 2015 report from MediaMetrie, a French audience measurement company, Pudlowski tells me that more than 89% of the population listens to the radio every week and almost 82% every day, with the average French person consuming about 3 hours of radio on a given weekday and more than 2.5 hours on the weekend. That’s a whole lot, and one imagines that the bet here is that a good chunk of that listenership will carry over into on-demand, which is a transition that’s bound to happen just about anywhere in the world.

More on Editors. Last week, I wrote about Planet Money’s hiring of Bryant Urstadt as the team’s new senior editor, contextualizing the hire within a larger conversation about an editing crisis not just in audio, but also in journalism more broadly. Given that editors more or less serves as the gatekeepers of curated, public information, I found the crisis absolutely fascinating, and it turned out to resonate with Hot Pod readers as well. Many wrote in to express their own thoughts on the matter, and many had the same question I had: how do you train to become an editor in the first place?

Curious, I reached out to Alison MacAdam, a senior editorial specialist with NPR’s Editorial Training team and the author of the Poynter column that sparked the conversation around the crisis, to explore the question. MacAdam, who was a senior editor on All Things Considered for almost 7 out of 12 years she worked on the program, obviously spend a lot of time thinking about the issue, operating from a place of having worked long hours in the trenches.

We spoke for a while, and I’ll break our conversation out in chunks here.

Clarifying the problem. “There are actually two separate challenges when we talk about the editor shortage and building a pipeline of editors,” MacAdam laid out. “The first is: how do content organizations train editors and create pathways for people to become editors? If you worked in, for example, WNYC or NPR, is there an explicit pathway if you went to your boss and asked to be an editor? Do they have an answer for you, or not?”

The second challenge has to do with the changing nature of what it takes to be an editor in this age where the fundamental structures of media are being increasingly disrupted (forgive the phrase). “What are the skills that editors need? That answer keeps changing because the industry keeps changing,” she said. “And because editing is a comparatively invisible craft, it’s that much harder to get the motivation to sit down and really think about the role: what they need to know now, and what’s timeless.”

When I asked her what, exactly, remained timeless, she replied: “Solid news judgment. Even if styles change there are some ways we distinguish good writing from bad writing. The ability to communicate is also really, really important.”

Identification. “I also think that, fundamentally, no matter what kind of editor you’re talking about, editors need a track record of making stories better. And that’s the conundrum — that’s really hard to identify,” MacAdam said. “That’s something organizations need to think about. How do you identify people you might think has potential, and what are the ways that we can give chances for them to prove themselves?”

MacAdam credits the emergence of on-demand audio with encouraging more unconventional editing approaches, many of which have increased the chances of identifying potential editors. One such approach is group-editing, a technique favored by teams like This American Life, Planet Money, and Gimlet. “It opens up the editing process so more people can take part and see what goes into shaping a story,” she said.

Independent Opportunities. I was curious: if you’re not already in a newsroom, are there ways to create opportunities to learn? MacAdam seemed skeptical, but offered that the first thing to do would be to edit a friend’s work. “Though,” she was quick to add. “I think it’s worth noting that it’s really hard to qualify as an editor of stories, if you haven’t made stories yourself. I just don’t think anyone will trust that you know what’s good if you haven’t struggled to make what’s good.”

When I asked if being an editor is really something that could be self-taught, MacAdam seemed soft on that possibility as well. “Editing is about relationships,” she said. “It’s 50% story and journalism instincts — how is something structured? What’s the hook? — and the other 50% involves social skills. You can have amazing editorial, journalistic instincts, but if you can’t express your thoughts to people, there’s no real impact being made.”

But MacAdam concedes that there are things you can learn on your own, like listening (and reading and watching) closely to pick up on the micro- and macro- elements of story structure. “The macro stuff involves questions at a broad level: at what point in this story was I bored? Confused? Questions like pacing, and structure,” she said. “And focusing on the micro is the ability to talk about lines and sound and the use of imagery in specific places, things like that.”

Job postings. “This might be interesting for you: it’s not like nobody is defining what an editor is. You can look at job postings to see how organizations are thinking about things,” she said.

And what are good examples of such postings? MacAdam points to an editor opening at Chicago Public Media, in particular. “I was really impressed by that posting, she noted. “It’s no surprise because that organization is run by someone who is really smart editorially, Ben Calhoun.” (Calhoun is the VP of Content and Programming at Chicago Public Media/WBEZ, and is a former producer at This American Life.)

She also singled out the Deputy Managing Editor for News position posted by Vox.com, pointing to a particular job requirement: “Clear, goals-based management style with proven success metrics,” it read. MacAdam expressed fascination over this. “I don’t get the sense that newsrooms prior to ten years ago had many ways of measuring success metrics. It’s a very new idea, or it’s an idea that come about because of technology,” she said. “Imagine a posting in 1985 for an investigative reporter in the Washington Post talking about success metrics. Hmm.”

Bites:

  • Digiday has a pretty good write-up of Atlas Obscura’s sponsored podcast, “Escape Plan,” along with some interesting detail on the shape of the deal between the publication and the sponsor, ZipCar. (Digiday) And be sure to read this profile on Atlas Obscura (Washingtonian) along with this column on sponsored content more broadly. (New York Times)

  • WNYC is open-sourcing its “audiogram” tool. (Medium, Nieman Lab) FWIW, I’m still pretty meh on the concept of audio clip distribution via social platforms as means of discovery, particularly after reading that 85% of Facebook video is consumed without sound — something I’ve understood to be reflective of more basic social media consumption habits. (Digiday) But hey, the point of these things is to break open paradigms, so my fingers are as crossed as ever.

  • NPR will end production of “Best of Car Talk” (also known as “Zombie Car Talk”) as of September 30, 2017, though the show will live on as a podcast after that date. It is reportedly NPR’s third most–consumed show, with a weekly audience of 2.6 million, though its existence is somewhat controversial among public media insiders. Current has a comprehensive write-up on the development, and you should check it out.

  • “Canadian podcasters are being drowned out by American offerings. Why?” (Metro Toronto)

  • The BBC’s iPlayer Radio app is now available in the US, which lets listeners access the full range of the institution’s radio feeds along with its podcasts and curated selections of past content. (Mac Rumors)

  • Al Jazeera’s Canvas Studio is launching an innovation competition called “the Future of Audio Challenge.” Audio technologists — check it out.

Tuesday

24

May 2016

0

COMMENTS

Public Podcast Rankings, PRX Spins Out RadioPublic, Acast Launches a New Feature

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Public Podcast Ranking. This just in, and it’s pretty big: Podtrac, a decade-old podcast measurement and advertising company, rolled out what it calls “the first free Podcast Industry Audience Ranking” this morning. The free report, which will be published on a monthly basis, is designed to show how “the top 10 networks” stack up against each other based on a standardized podcast measurement system. The first edition covers April 2016, and you can find it here. Based on the preview sent to me with the press release yesterday, NPR tops the list, followed by This American Life/Serial, WNYC Studios, and How Stuff Works. (Remember to divide the unique downloads with the number of shows! That’s the fun part.)

It’s worth noting that the report measures “90% of the top podcasts, and plans to have close to 100% participation in the weeks ahead,” according to the press release. When I asked for clarity on the sample — specifically, whether publishers needed to opt-in in order to be included in the report — a spokeswoman told me that publishers, indeed, must opt-in for inclusion, which raises the report’s representativeness of the entire podcast system as opposed to a self-selected sample. It remains unclear to me which networks are not included in this first sample, and I’ll be spending the week poking around. (Are you one of those networks? Write me <3)

Still, it’s absolutely thrilling to see a network-oriented apples-to-apples comparison between some of the heavyweights for the first time, even if the sample doesn’t include a few key players. (For what it’s worth, it confirmed a lot of my suspicions.) And it definitely introduces a new dimension — one that’s eminently political, no less — to the knowability of the podcast space in its current configuration, which in turn will undoubtedly affect not only advertising conversations across the industry, but the way download numbers are touted around as well. Everything hinges now on whether Podtrac is able to secure the remaining 10%, which in turn will tell us whether there’s going to be dichotomy between those that are transparent… and those that are less so.

There’s another complication to this story. The company also announced that it would be splitting its measurements and advertising services into two separate brands: Podtrac for the former, “Authentic” for the latter. It is unclear whether the division has any organizational significance; Podtrac and Authentic appear to still be rooted within the same company, and that may raise questions among some podcast companies whether there’s an insurmountable conflict of interest involved when you’re working with a third party measurements vendor that also happens to be competing with you on ad sales. This may introduce a disincentive for the podcast companies in the remaining 10% to join the ranker, which presents a whole other fault line to consider.

Anyway, the press release dropped in my inbox fairly late yesterday so I wasn’t able to do as much as due diligence as I’d like, which is why I’m punting the bulk of the analysis to the members newsletter. I’m due to get on the phone with Mark McCreary, Podtrac’s CEO, later today to talk about the launch, so hit me up if you have any questions.

Reading RadioPublic. May has proven to be a pretty big month for the Public Radio Exchange (PRX), the nonprofit launched back in September 2003 to help usher the American public radio system towards technological modernity. Last week, the nonprofit announced the addition of a new show to Radiotopia, its beloved podcast network/indie label, and shortly before that, the company successfully staged Radiotopia Live, its first network-wide live show, at the Ace Theater in Los Angeles.

The nonprofit rounded out those developments last Thursday with news that it was spinning out a whole new entity: RadioPublic, which it calls a “mobile listening company.” Formed as a public benefit corporation, the new venture has raised more than $1.5M in seed funding and will be headed up by Jake Shapiro, formerly PRX’s CEO. Kerri Hoffman, previously PRX’s COO, will replace Shapiro as the nonprofit’s chief executive. Collectively, PRX and RadioPublic will function as a “hybrid enterprise,” one that shares mission, governance, and partnership structure.

The RadioPublic team currently consists of three people — Shapiro is joined by developers Matt MacDonald and Chris Rhoden, both carryovers from the PRX team — and they’re on the lookout for more talent. The company is based in Boston.

So that’s all cool. But what on earth is a “mobile listening company”?

The company’s first product will be a consumer-facing app for the iOS and Android that’s slated to drop sometime in the fall, but I wouldn’t fixate on that. When I spoke with Shapiro and Hoffman to discuss the launch last week, I found it useful to borrow some ideas from the way we think about something like, say, Facebook. That tech giant can ostensibly be described as a social network, but I think it’s more accurate to picture it as a company that sits atop an ever-growing pile of attention-oriented user behavioral data whose primary touchpoint with people is a visually-oriented app (for web and mobile), which in turn serves as a foundation for the company to build a business around managing the relationship between users, media assets, and advertisers. Take that framework, apply it to user behavior data oriented around audio consumption along with a different set of relationships — users, audio publishers, advertisers — and you get a rough picture of how the long game for RadioPublic is set up. (In my head, anyway.)

“You can have a company built on a small development team or a thousand employees where the touchpoint is still an app, but the logic and insight and intelligence and IP and all the things that go into it that goes back into servicing the app,” Shapiro said. “There’s just a huge mountain of things that can be beneath that, and that’s what we need to build off of, and we want to start out with an app that’ll trigger all that.”

The mobile app, then, will be the company’s first effort to close the experience gap on the digital audio consumption side. Shapiro described RadioPublic’s product potential as “radio rethought” to various publications that picked up last week’s announcement, and a big part of that rethinking appears to involve streamlining the experience of consuming different kinds of audio within a single environment. “Some of those things we think we can interweave in an elegant way: retaining the simplicity and serendipity of radio while taking advantage of the control, complexity, and depth of podcasting, which has really been driving the growth in this space,” Shapiro told me. The aspect of simplicity, however, remains the key variable in the whole equation. “Our goal is hopefully simplify it down to just a play button, eventually,” Shapiro told Fast Company.

This idea of centralizing the listening experience situates RadioPublic within a trend that I’ve been noticing in the space for a while now, which I wrote about not too long ago in the context of Audible Originals and Spotify/Google Play Music picking up podcasts. It’s a trend that sees something of a structural redefinition of how audio content is understood on the internet. Forgive me for quoting myself: “Audio content produced for the Internet and distributed through the Internet will soon no longer be identified based on a singular technological method… but on the content itself.” But what I didn’t really pick up on then, and what’s becoming increasingly apparent to me now, is how that redefinition may introduce a new pressure on ad rates within the podcast ecosystem given that, at this point anyway, has largely resulted from certain stories we tell about podcasts as engaged, on-demand experiences, which are fundamentally tied to its quirks as a distribution channel.

Shapiro is fairly confident that any shift in the value narrative can happen smoothly. He told me that the aim for RadioPublic is to simultaneously support how podcast creators currently make money while building the bridge towards new kinds of monetization that will emerge out of whatever new consumption environment RadioPublic may usher in. “Our goal is also to do so in a way that benefits creators and make better listening experiences,” he added.

But that’s all pie-in-the-sky, meanwhile-in-the-future stuff. For now, the upcoming RadioPublic app will start out supplying PRX’s full catalogue, and will unfold from there. A few observers have already noted how the company’s theoretical app would put it in competition with Stitcher, Overcast — and, perhaps most notably, NPR One.

“We’ve reached out [to NPR One], and we certainly hope to collaborate with them,” Shapiro said. “Our general stance is that we want to have an open door policy for potential collaboration. We don’t think this is a zero sum game at all, especially at this stage of growth in the field.”

Cool.

Whereto PRX. Spinning out RadioPublic allows PRX to “somewhat resolve a tension” inherent in the nonprofit’s machinations up to this point, according to Hoffman, one that saw the organization being pulled to focus on producers and the public radio system on the one hand, and directly on audiences on the other. By breaking off RadioPublic into its own for-profit venture, PRX is able to offload some of those pressures onto its sibling company.

“PRX will continue to be a champion inside public radio in pushing for diversity, in pushing for better programming, in pushing for more digital access to programming and growing an audience — as we have all along,” Hoffman told me. “And with spinning out RadioPublic, that company is now able to really get the scale needed to bring new listeners into the fold.”

Under the Hoffman era, PRX will continue doubling down on several initiatives already in play: further growing Radiotopia, carrying out its talent-search program Podquest, working on the second version of its own dynamic ad insertion platform called Dovetail (which currently powers Radiotopia along with a few outside partners like Serial; it will also be integrated with RadioPublic’s platform), and continuing its overall efforts in working with public radio stations.

Funding Sources. A detail that stood out to me in RadioPublic’s launch announcement: its fairly hefty list of seed round investors, which includes the New York Times, American Public Media, Homebrew (home of venture capitalist Hunter Walk, who has written a fair bit about podcasts in the past), Matter Ventures (which PRX helped develop) — and, perhaps most notably, Graham Holdings.

As Planet Money’s Jacob Goldstein pointed out on Twitter, Graham Holdings has become fairly ubiquitous across the stable of emerging podcast companies. The corporation — which once owned the Washington Post and Newsweek — is the parent company of Panoply (my former day job employer, by the way), and it is also a major investor in Gimlet, leading the Brooklyn-based startup’s Series A round and pouring $5M out of the $6M amount that was raised at the tail end of last year.

Keep an eye on ‘em.

Acast Launches Premium Subscription Feature. The Swedish podcast platform company rolled out a new service yesterday that will allow podcasters to adopt premium paywall strategies, according to the Wall Street Journal. The service, called “Acast+”, will be available to podcasters who host their episodes on the platform. Creators will have a fair bit of control over the paywall — they can set their own prices and tailor the spread of content on both sides of the paywall however they want — and Acast will be compensated by taking a cut of the revenue. About “15 to 20 podcasts” will be adopting the new feature off the bat, according to the report.

We’ve seen premium subscription efforts in podcasts before, of course. There’s Howl, Midroll’s premium podcast play that adopts Netflix’s internal, multiple-entry content universe approach. And then there were various podcasts that developed makeshift ways to monetize their back catalogues. (Examples include This American Life and WTF With Marc Maron, which both developed apps that lets users access their archives for a price. The latter has since moved its back-catalogue to Howl.) You could also argue that Slate adopts this approach with its Slate Plus program, which provides Slate Plus members additional content — including podcast extras. But I’m wont to group them in a completely separate category, because podcasts account for a relatively small fraction of what members receive, so it’s hard to draw comparisons with the kind of dynamics that are at play with something like Howl and premium show-specific back catalogs.

If you’re wondering whether a premium subscription model is right for you, I find it helpful to place Acast’s new offering right next to Medium’s recently launched membership feature set for small-to-mid-sized publishers. Both are positioned to solve a lot of the same kind of problems: both solutions shoulder the costs and effort involved in building the technical infrastructure to support memberships, both handle upkeep for that infrastructure, both open up an alternate revenue stream that would help diversify independent podcast businesses away from the potential volatile ad market, and both free up creators so that they may focus on content. But the drawbacks are similar as well: in particular, creators cede some control and independence to a middleman, and the rev share — depending on what it is and how it scales — may well be a sticking point for some podcasters below a certain size or monetization strength.

Add to this calculation the fact that the success of a premium subscription model — and a membership strategy — is contingent on several extraneous factors. I’ll provide some analysis on that for Thursday’s members newsletter. I’ll also add some notes on what this means for how Acast strategically stacks up against other platforms in the space. (Oh would you look at that?)

Anyway, speaking of Acast: it looks like they’ve been poking around Asia evaluating its feasibility as a potential market. I wonder how its American business is doing?

WBAA Reverses Decision on This American Life. About a week after announcing it would stop carrying This American Life — and sparking yet another rigorous discussion over the public radio system, the way it handles its digital future, and all the tensions packed within it — the West Lafayette, Indiana public radio station WBAA has decided that it won’t be terminating its relationship with the popular show after all. According to the station’s website, the decision was motivated, in part at least, by “considerable listener feedback.”

Current has a good write-up if you need a refresher on how that all went down last week (you could also check out my microwavable take on it), but for everybody already clued in, here’s something interesting: the original LinkedIn post by WBAA general manager Mike Savage making the initial announcement to break the relationship — which contained fantastic, sprawling discussions over the matter — is no longer active. But! Some good samaritan took screenshots and posted it on Tumblr. Power of a good archive, folks.

For Your Benchmarks. Over the weekend, The Ringer chief and media personality Bill Simmons noted on Twitter that his podcast, which serves as the flagship show for the Ringer podcast network, will exceed 50 million downloads by the end of the week. I’m assuming, of course, that the number refers to aggregate downloads across the show’s whole run since launch. (As of this writing, the show is up to 101 episodes.) Simmons also mentioned that the network is planning to launch five more shows “soon.”

He also tweeted something about how motherships are overrated (a clear shot at ESPN, his former employer with whom he parted unamicably) and how good quality stuff on the Internet will always find an audience “no matter who you are or where you are” — which, I mean, is a perfectly fine sentiment, but one that totally oversimplifies contemporary internet economics, platform politics, and resource accessibility; and not to mention a significant discounting of Simmons’ own historical opportunities to develop celebrity and grow an audience through traditional media structures.

Now don’t get me wrong: I’m a huge fan and I love everything that’s happening over at The Ringer (“The Watch” is my desert island pod, hands down), but still: man, it’s never that simple.

Bites:

  • Heads up: Edison Research is dropping the 2016 edition of its Podcast Consumer report soon. There’s a webinar on Thursday. I’m on it, of course.

  • The Tape Festival is back. (TapeFest)

  • Not podcast specific, but I love this ode to Zach Lowe, the prolific sports (well, mostly basketball) writer and podcaster, courtesy of Slate’s Josh Levin. (Slate)

  • “How Empire magazine came to reign over podcasts, too.” (Digiday)

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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)

Friday

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COMMENTS

Tuesday

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COMMENTS

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

Written by , Posted in Hot Pod Weekly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Four takes here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anyway, let’s move on.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bites

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

Tuesday

1

March 2016

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COMMENTS

The Fight For The Dashboard, Australia, More on Kid Pods

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The Fight For The Dashboard. On February 20, The New York Times ran a piece about how SiriusXM, the popular subscription-based US satellite radio network, is grappling with the prospect of increased competition generated by the growing ubiquity of connected cars, whose Internet-enabled infotainment systems will make it easier for drivers to use apps like Spotify, Deezer, and Pandora during their commutes. (Many of which, by the way, are becoming podcast providers themselves in addition to their music streaming functions, bringing them closer to SiriusXM in terms of conceptual product offering.)

If this is the first time you’re encountering the connected car issue and how it pertains to radio and pods, here are two things to get you started: firstly, the “connected car” is a rather broad umbrella term for cars that feature better and near-persistent internet access that’s primarily channelled to the driver through the vehicle’s dashboard interface. Its connectivity affords significant gains in the driver experience, like quicker GPS navigation (through, say, Google Maps or Waze) or better safeguards facilitated by automated car-to-car communication, but of course the thing we really want to talk about here in a column about podcasts are the gains in the driver’s media consumption, which has up until this point been largely restricted to AM/FM radio and satellite radio. In the US, the satellite option has been dominated by the aforementioned SiriusXM, which currently boasts almost 30 million subscribers at the end of last year, while AM/FM radio still owns the majority of the American listening population, at 91% of folks over 12.

The second thing you need to know is how SiriusXM was able to develop a unique competitive advantage, which I’d argue is how the company has been singularly able to carve out a life for itself thus far. The key is in the company’s intense structural reach, which derives from the company’s cultivation of strong relationships with car manufacturers. Wooing car manufacturers grants the company default placement on their (largely pre-connected car, but not always) in-vehicle infotainment systems. From the NYT article:

“SiriusXM pays about $1 billion a year in subsidies and revenue splits to automakers, and according to the company, 75 percent of all new vehicles sold in the United States come with satellite radio installed. (It works with every major carmaker.) Of the 29.6 million subscribers to SiriusXM at the end of last year, 24.2 million paid the $11 to $20 monthly fee themselves, with the rest covered through promotions by car companies.”

With the connected car and its new infotainment ecosystems becoming increasingly in focus — Android Auto and CarPlay, I believe, are favored by many to become the operating systems of choice in the future — SiriusXM’s mastery of the dashboard as a distribution channel is potentially loosened.

It has also become increasingly apparent that the dashboard is central to the focus of everybody else in the radio and, indeed, podcasting space. Last year’s DASH conference (amusingly subtitled “Radio & The Connected Car: A Survival Guide For Radio Broadcasters” — oh the drama, ohhhh how I love the drama) featured such radio and pod operators as Midroll, NPR, Audible, Podcast One, Westwood One, and Adam Carolla.

Of course, just because streaming apps are now a lot more accessible in-car doesn’t mean drivers will automatically integrate them into their commutes. (Although, it does help: recall that the last across-the-board bump in podcast listenership is widely attributed to Apple’s decision to automatically bundle the native podcast app with iOS8.) Furthermore, the only problem that we can be certain that such increased availability will solve is the one faced by the particularly plugged-in user that’s wont to rely on a cumbersome bluetooth solution to hook up their phone’s stream to the car stereo system. But these industrious consumers are never the prime demo; that demo is the passive, I’ll-listen-to-whatever’s-easiest, choice-is-a-burden commuter. If this user demographic can be converted at scale, the thinking goes, the game is basically won.

So, the billion dollar question for the streaming apps — and the podcast companies who place their hope on them as the gateway between drivers and their content — is whether they’ll able to jockey to become the default or go-to listening option on the dashboard. Which will already be difficult in and of itself, of course, as they would have to compete with each other in addition to AM/FM and SiriusXM radio in terms of dealing with whoever governs the on-board operating system (be it car manufacturers and/or CarPlay/Android Auto). Those apps would also have to play the usual game of leading individual listeners down the marketing funnel, in essence fighting the same fight on the dashboard as they are on the mobile phone. (After all, what is your car if not a giant mobile device? Crappy pun, but if you stare at it long enough, it becomes so true, yo.)

Definitely check out the whole NYT article, which touches upon multitudes of SiriusXM’s other flash-points. But four last things before we move on:

  • I’m utterly fascinated by SiriusXM’s explanation for their value proposition that successfully moves folks down the subscription funnel, which essentially amounts to “a less crappy advertising load.” It can’t be that simple, can it? CAN IT? *rips hair out*

  • It’s entirely possible that some podcasting networks — particularly the ones that wrangle upwards of 25 pods — would consider developing an Over-The-Top solution that they can take directly to these operating systems. That, I think, would be an insanely difficult route to take, and I’d only recommend it if you have an asset as big and native to the form as, well, Howard Stern (who is locked in at Sirius with a new five-year deal, by the way, in case you missed that). But good on you if that’s your game, man.

  • Here’s a useful number I like to keep in my back pocket: 75% of the 92 million cars expected to ship globally in 2020 will be internet-enabled,according to estimates by BI Intelligence.

  • How much will this all matter once self-driving cars kick in? I have no idea. I have as little idea about that as I do about how virtual reality will completely reconfigure aggregate media consumption behaviors. In the long run, we’re all self-driving cars in virtual reality, as Keynes once said.

Why Isn’t There More Audio Programming For Kids? Revisited. I asked this question last week, but only as a way to kick off an item about design points for kid-oriented podcasts. But it stuck with me — specifically in the context of public radio, but also radio and pods more broadly — so I spent a bit time last time asking around for theories.

Here are the two that vibrated with me the most:

(1) Sponsorship Uneasiness

This one comes from Guy Raz, editorial director and host of NPR’s “Ted Radio Hour,” who wrote me over email after last week’s newsletter went out. Lightly edited for clarity and stuff:

“It’s all about sponsorship. This is a longstanding problem with quality kids programming. Parents don’t want their kids to be exposed to ads (for good reason) and so it would have to be the kind of show that has (a) foundation support or (b) sponsorship from brands that are aligned with the mission of the show (similar to what PBS Kids does with the underwriting between shows).

“There is a (c) option, and that would be very clearly delineated spots — even more so than we do on the Ted Radio Hour or Alex [Blumberg] does on Start Up — but in a way where parents could skip through it. But I’m not sure advertisers would like that unless the right companies got involved — companies who understood the value of great kids shows and could accept less in-your-face ads in exchange for the so-called “halo effect” of association with the podcast.”

There’s a juicy bit of refraction that we can draw out from the problem as expressed by Raz here: one would imagine that whatever ends up working the best for kids programming — following the terms laid down in option (c) — would, in design and in theory, also work equally well for podcast advertising more broadly: that is, a set of advertising conventions built upon thoughtfulness, a sensitivity to the listener’s context, alignment between brand and show, and the utmost care for the boundary between the editorial and the advertorial.

An additional problem to consider here, of course, is how to apply those precepts to executions that come out of dynamic ad insertion and, whenever it happens, programmatic audio advertising. (Pairing the question of programmatic with this appeal towards thoughtful advertising, I offer, portends a much larger rabbit hole: can automated matching solutions be efficient, effective, and data-rich enough as to be empathetically intelligent? Merp). But that’s a whole other can of worms, and we’ll deal with it when we get there.

Raz, by the way, also moonlights for something called the “Breakfast Blast Newscast,” which he produces with Mindy Thomas, the program director and on-air host for SiriusXM’s Kids Place Live. “Breakfast Blast” features kids doing news round-ups and discussing material from peer-reviewed journal articles, which honestly is something that could’ve made my grad school life a lot better. You can find it on Soundcloud.

(2) Historical Precedent, Or Lack Thereof

This one comes from Lindsay Patterson, one of the folks behind a science podcast for kids called “Tumble.” (She also wrote a manifesto of sorts on the topic, which you can find on Current.)

Patterson believes the sponsorship argument has limited explanatory power. “The answer may be as simple as it just never really occurring to people to make things for kids,” she said to me when we spoke over the phone last week, specifically referring to the context of public radio.

I was a little resistant to that point — there are just too many reasonably intelligent people, and too many people in power who have, well, kids, for the idea to not have come up before. Patterson gestured to the way things generally get moving within large institutions: every project that gets developed draws, in some part, from notable past projects that serve as strong enough templates. As her argument goes: there simply hasn’t been a notable enough show or experiment in the past that’s spurred enough confidence leading to more resources being poured into more kids programming. (But enough templates, in my mind, to fuel more podcasts about the mysteries of everyday life.)

In other words, it’s the story of how anything new ever gets made in large, legacy, or relatively conservative institutions. Which says a lot about the state of pods, to be honest.

An Australian Third Coast. Attention, Ozzies! Audiocraft is a one-day Australian-focused audio conference that’s taking place in Sydney this Saturday. If the premise of Audiocraft sounds familiar to you, that’s because it draws inspiration from the Third Coast Festival, which I’ve talked about a fair bit before. In fact, the organizers came up with Audiocraft during the last Third Coast Festival back in 2014 (amidst a pre-Serial and pre-Trump America).

According to Kate Montague, the executive director of the conference, Audiocraft was conceived out of a belief that there weren’t many opportunities for the various parts of the Australian radio community — the public sector, the community radio sector, the independents, even the commercial — to come together and discuss the “state of the Australian sound.”

You can learn more about Audiocraft on their site. They’re also set to announce a short features competition soon, so watch out for that if you’re hanging out in Oceania.

I originally put this item together as a way to talk about the state of Australian radio, but damn, there’s a lot to get into and I need to do more digging.

Standalone Spinoffs. Last week, I ran a quick item on Modern Love, the WBUR-NY Times podcast collaboration, bagging 1.4 million downloads across the whole show in its first month. For the few of you in my readership who are in charge of program development in your respective institutions, and who might probably benefit (or gain anxiety) from looking into somebody else’s bowl, here are three interesting details from my conversation last Monday with Jessica Alpert, WBUR’s managing producer for program development:

  • From first conversation to negotiation to production to launch, the entire process took a year and a half.
  • Actual show development started on October 15. Given that the show launched on January 20, that’s a pretty quick turnaround: a little over three months.
  • Launch sponsors included: Living Proof and Squarespace.

Okay, so with that out of the way, I want to talk about two things:

  • Modern Love” is the latest in a relatively long line of really interesting partnerships that WBUR has cultivated over the years. Currently, they have “Dear Sugar Radio,” another adaptation of a well-known column, out on the market, and past collaborations include “Finish Line” with the Boston Globe and “The Checkup” with Slate. Now, striking up partnerships to create shows aren’t all that novel — in fact, the business model of my former day job employer, Panoply, was initially built upon that premise — but there’s something scrappy and vivacious about the way WBUR, which is basically a traditional public radio station, has been trying out partnerships, including developing a show that really should’ve belonged to WNYC if only for geographic reasons. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but I’m pretty curious to see what they come up with next.

  • So, real talk for a second: I’m the kind of guy that reads the Modern Love column, uh, ironically. But I’m utterly enthralled by the execution of the show; particularly how, to my ears at least, effectively it can be consumed as a piece of media that can stand apart from the New York Times’ brand. This suggests a specific way that we look for potential podcast projects to spin out of papers and magazines: what editorial elements can you adapt that could lead to shows that are able to be their own independent brand?

Bites

  • “Podcasting Makes Strides In Advertising, Still Room To Improve In Measurement.” Some juicy numbers in here, including the fact that PRX sells spots on “The Memory Palace” for $6,000 a pop. (AdExchanger)
  • The Knight Foundation’s Prototype Fund pubbed a list of eleven media projects that it’s funding in its latest round, and there are two audio-centric products you should pay close attention to: This American Life’s Audioshare Tool and something called Satchel, a pod distribution platform with a local emphasis. (Nieman Lab)
  • 99% Invisible collaborated with Vox.com on a short video piece which came out last Friday. At 12pm ET on Monday, the podcast was placing at #9 on the iTunes charts, with the video having clocked about 1.1 million views. (Roman Mars’ glorious Twitter feed, here’s the video on Vox.com)
  • Gimlet previews the pilot for “The Hunt,” a reality TV-style pod created out of the company’s recent “Mix Week,” behind their membership paywall. They also wrote up one of those spiffy Medium posts discussing the mix week process. (Medium)
  • Panoply dropped a 32-episode podcast about pregnancy, which they developed with Parents magazine, last week. The full series was released simultaneously — you know, “Netflix”-style, or whatever you want to call it. I’ll follow up in a few weeks to see how this distribution method takes, and whether it actually turns out to be a good match with the editorial need. (RAIN News)
  • “Flash Forward,” a podcast made by independent producer Rose Eveleth and distributed by the former zine/now quirky website Boing Boing, surged into the top ten of the iTunes podcast charts after its collaboration with Planet Money published last week. At 12pm ET on Monday, the podcast was placed at #7. When asked for comment, Eveleth said: “SO MANY EMOTIONS.” (iTunes)
  • “Craig Windham, NPR Newscaster, Dies.” RIP. (NPR)

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Tuesday

23

February 2016

0

COMMENTS

Podcast Advertising Hurdles, Modern Love Numbers, Kids’ Podcasts

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The Podcast Advertising Hurdle. Podcast-land received a fair bit of attention last week with the Wall Street Journal and The Information, a tech business news site largely read by technology insiders, both publishing stories that essentially revolve around the same theme: advertising remains the defining problem for the medium’s actual professionalization into an industry, as they still appear unwilling to pour money into the space. The articles contain nothing long-time observers don’t already know — that data scarcity remains a huge issue for bigger advertisers, that ad tech solutions are still unsophisticated and held back by walled gardens, that pod companies want brand advertisers but it’s a tragic love unreciprocated — but seeing the two articles come out in tandem, on the same day no less, is a lovely dose of real talk, especially after all the frothy conversations that dominated the medium’s narrative in the latter half of last year. (I alluded to such frothiness in my entry for Nieman Lab’s Predictions for Journalism 2016 series, by the way.)

Comparatively speaking, podcast ad spending is miniscule. The advertising spend for podcasts in the United States is projected to be $36.1 million this year, according to ZenithOptimedia as cited by the Wall Street Journal piece. In contrast, the US radio ad spend was $17.6 billion in 2015, according to the same source. But perhaps comparing broadcast to podcast numbers at this point of time isn’t categorically appropriate, given the immense historical size and weight behind the former. But the ad spend for digital video, which one could possibly describe as a closer cousin, is projected to be $9.59 billion in the United States this year, according to eMarketer. So even when you cut it that way, the gulf is still huge.

But maybe that isn’t a bad thing. I’m partial towards this perspective from Recode senior media editor Peter Kafka, which was offered when I contacted his people for another story (more on that in a bit). Through his personal body double Eric Scott Johnson, Kafka wrote:

Like every other new format, it’s going to take a while for the ad business to catch up to the audience shift, but like I’ve said before, I think that’s not a terrible thing — it gives us all some time to play around and figure out what works. (One thing that does work – the excellent sockwear line made by the good people at Mack Weldon.)

In fact, taking the time to “play around and figure out what works” is quite possibly the most important thing to do right now. The last thing the industry should do at the moment is to unthinkingly push for growth — if there’s anything that the short history of the Internet advertising has taught me, it’s that the unthoughtful push for growth is the stuff that probably leads to the development and proliferation of poor advertising conventions and ad fraud. (See: the pop-up ad.)

Anyway, check out the write-ups from the Wall Street Journal and The Information. Especially the latter, which is a really, really fine publication and I’ll be crying when my free one month trial is over and I have to decide whether to start shelling out $39.99 a month for it.

But before moving on, I just want to briefly bring up two more things:

(i) The Question For Independents.

The Information’s version of events makes a brief reference to a dynamic that may worry some: podcast companies are all fighting for advertising dollars, sure, but when dollars are given, it’s distributed unequally — with the lion’s share going to a few shows, either based on performance or prestige. That state of affairs captured best by this line in The Information’s piece:

… without more data on listenership and an ad tech infrastructure, the gap between podcasting’s haves and have-nots might widen, podcast executives say.

You can look at it one of two ways: on the one hand, that this is perfectly reasonable because the market wants what it wants, and on the other, that this is a terrible situation for niche, quirky, and perhaps innovative independent podcasts. I’m reminded, in particular, of something that was said by Welcome to Night Vale’s Joseph Fink, which I highlighted in an issue earlier this month:

I worry about big money pouring into podcasting…I really, really hope that all the money pouring into podcasting won’t bury tiny, weird independent podcasts.

Both things can simultaneously be true. Even if we lived in a world where ad money flows freely into the podcasting space, that isn’t a prerequisite to the wealth being distributed equally between all shows. And that’s fine — it just means that these indie podcasts would have to find some other way to monetize, which itself is a market opportunity that someone can step into. (Hint, hint, wink, wink, nudge, nudge.)

In other words, it’s the story of the creative economy, modern and historical.

(ii) An Alternate Theory

So here’s a theory that I’m also partial to: it’s entirely possible that podcasting’s advertising problem also comes, at least in some small part, from the fact that there simply isn’t enough quality content that justifies the attention and respect of big advertisers. Think about this way — how many shows do you think actually warrants advertising from brands like Ford, in terms of either download numbers or prestige?

Not a lot, I’d wager.

From that perspective, there literally isn’t enough valuable ad slots to accommodate a $1 billion ad spend, even if we factor in dynamic ad insertion. This refines the now-axiom of podcast discovery being broken in an interesting way: we may be right in complaining that we lack adequate solutions that help podcasts find their appropriate audiences — or to help niche podcasts find niche audiences, to put it another way — but it’s entirely possible that the bigger problem is that we lack discovery solutions that adequately filter out podcasts below a certain quality threshold, thus beating back the problem of saturation.

Modern Love’s Strong First Month. The podcast, which comes out of a partnership between the New York Times and WBUR, enjoyed 1.4 million downloads across the whole show since launching in mid-January. That number was confirmed to me by Jessica Alpert, WBUR’s Managing Producer for Program Development, when we spoke on the phone yesterday afternoon. It includes downloads off the podcast feed and listens on the web players found on both WBUR.org and the Times’ website.

You can do the math yourself, but keep in mind: at this writing, the show has 6 full episodes, along with a short episode (which I like to call “Shordios”) and a trailer that was released in December. That’s remarkable number for something that Ira Glass didn’t bump on his show.

People just love Love, man.

Recode Media. I’ve already written a fair bit about my admiration for Recode’s podcast suite in the past, so I’d like to take a quick second to highlight their new podcast, “Recode Media with Peter Kafka.” It features interviews with, well, notable media-types, so it’s fun fodder for anyone who nerds out about the decline/death/resurgence/time-is-a-flat-circle of the digital media and publishing industry (like me).

The new pod kicked off last Thursday, with its first episode featuring New Yorker editor David Remnick on the hot seat. Recode Media was given a soft launch off the flagship Recode podcast feed, being published as standalone episodes on Thursdays as opposed to being piloted as a segment on the main show, which was the route the Recode team took with their other recently launched show, “Too Embarrassed To Ask.”

In a note sent by proxy to me, Kafka wrote:

I’ve been a professional podcast listener since Bill Simmons got me hooked, back in 2007 or 2008, and I’ve gotten the chance to write about the boomlet a few times as well. (In 2013, for about 30 seconds, I had both Bill and Marc Maron signed on to appear together at one our media conferences, which would have been at the top of my professional highlight reel. Alas, things fall apart.)

Alas, indeed.

Designing A Podcast for Kids. Why isn’t there more audio programming for kids? I’ve heard that question come up a lot more lately among radio types, the overarching query of which was neatly articulated by Lindsay Patterson, who produces the Tumble science podcast, in a piece for Current. That very question was also the subject of an amusing tangent at a recent podcast panel. (“The guilt of a parent who puts the television on to pacify their children is one of the most powerful emotional forces in existence,” said Gimlet’s Matt Lieber. Mild laughter ensued; stern heads nod gravely in agreement.)

I don’t have any strong theories explaining the scarcity of kids-focused audio programming. When I asked Marc Sanchez, who produces a kids’ podcast called “Brains On” under the American Public Media (APM) umbrella, he couldn’t come up with any theories either. “Honestly, I don’t know why it’s not more common. It seems like a great audience from a public radio perspective,” Sanchez said. “From a cynical marketing perspective, these are future listeners, why not engage them?”

Indeed, why not! After all, everybody makes babies, and everybody wants to limit how much time kids spend burning their eyeballs staring at screens, and after all, kids are the potential lifetime value consumer, if you really think about it. Do it for the brand advertisers, people!

Brains On, by the way, is a great show. Similar to other science shows — early Radiolab, say, or Science Versus — the show is Q&A-based, with each episode featuring a string of interviews that look to answer a query presented at the very start. The twist here being, of course, that questions come from kid reporters, while answers come from very adult scientists. That the experts are attempting to communicate complexity to a child is something quite pleasant to experience; the adult voice lilts, introducing a gentleness to the proceedings, which ends up being soothing even to my childless mid-twenties ears.

I asked Sanchez a couple of questions about how his team designed the show, and here are the highlights:

  • The team writes the show with kids between the ages of 6 and 12 in mind.
  • Like all good children’s shows, they try to make it bearable — even enjoyable! — for the adults. “We really keep in mind that parents are going to be listening to the show as well, because a lot of these kids don’t have first-hand access to listen,” Sanchez said.
  • They don’t dumb down the language. “It’s funny, because if you listen to our first few episodes, we were consciously trying to use words and concepts that we thought kids could understand,” he said. “The more feedback we got, the more we realized that kids are waaaaaaaaaay smarter than most of us give them credit. We found out pretty fast that we don’t have to talk down to kids. Think back to when you were a kid… you probably emulated older kids.”

When asked about the health of the pod, Sanchez notes that the show gets a “significant” number of monthly downloads. “We’re not Marketplace, but we’re in the top tier of APM,” he specified. But enough downloads, it seems, to score some unique sponsorship/underwriting opportunities. Sanchez mentioned running spots for a kids magazine and even Harvey Mudd College, a science-oriented liberal arts college out in California.

Education and pods: gotta start ‘em young, folks. Anyway, I’m going to do some more thinking on podcasts for kids, so I’ll come back next week with another item.

iTunes PodcastConnect. So it looks like Apple, the precondition of the podcast universe as it currently exists, has made a small change to its podcast infrastructure: on iTunes, podcast submissions now go through a new spiffy-looking page. Dubbed “PodcastConnect,” the new page looks like a step up from the early-2000s chic of the previous system, and is presumably part of the larger iTunesConnect ecosystem.

For now, the upgrade seems purely cosmetic, and it appears to portend a more significant shift towards a consolidated inventory management experience across all other iTunes verticals, like books and TV shows. (In my mind, this development is par for the course, given Apple’s penchant towards keeping users integrated with its ecosystem).

Speaking of iTunes. Been getting more reports in recent weeks that the iTunes podcast charts have been behaving more… erratic lately. Which, you know, isn’t all that surprising to hear, because if you’ve worked in this business before and have spent hours fixating on the iTunes charts, you see curious and unexpected things happening all the time. Like a few weeks ago, for example, when the charts were suddenly densely peppered with Disney enthusiast pods. Or when the charts something feel like they’ve scrambled up and old pods you haven’t seen for a while are now distributed above the #100 spot.

But given that a significant portion of content discovery for the whole industryprobably takes place on the iTunes charts and front page, these erraticisms aren’t insignificant. This, of course, is a problem of transparency, and I get it to some extent: if everybody knew how the weighting formula worked, chances are someone’s going to try and game it. Still, it’s incredibly frustrating; the charts represent one of the industry’s very few public signifier of values, and it just feels a little weird if it comes off as arbitrary, y’know?

Given that Apple is huge and famously guarded and has its hands in, well, more important things almost always, we’ll probably never really get a straight answer from the company on how the charts work. So let’s do the next best thing: let’s speculate. Let me know what factors you think drive the iTunes charts, and I’ll compile the answers to see if we’re guessing the same thing, or dreaming the same dream.

Here’s the link to the Google Form.

Relevant Bits

  • Didn’t catch this last month, but: The Memory Palace’s Nate DiMeo is now developing podcasts for MTV. He works under former Grantland Editorial Director Dan Fierman, who’s been building an eye-catching team that includes talent with solid pod cred under their belt, like Amy Nicholson and Molly Lambert. DiMeo will continue making The Memory Palace. (Current)

  • NPR’s newscasts now include language calling out the fact that they are live. NPR public editor Elizabeth Jensen digs into the rationale for the change, along with the complications it brings. (NPR)

  • Third Coast Festival, everybody’s favorite hippie indie audio commune, has launched a residency program for underrepresented producers in public radio. Send your proposals! (TCF)

  • PRX is getting ready to introduce something called “PodQuest” in mid-March. Basically, a talent quest but for pods. More details, whenever they emerge.

  • Bill Simmons’ upcoming publication, The Ringer, will almost certainly feature more podcasts. (Sports Illustrated)

  • Nerdist Industries’ Chris Hardwick joins Art19 as investor and advisor. (Art19 blog)

  • “‘Radio Atlas’ transports podcast listeners around the globe.” (Poynter)

  • I played around with Anchor yesterday, and asked co-founder Michael Mignano a bunch of rambling questions. (Anchor)

  • We finally learn the fate of NPR chicken. (Current)

Tuesday

16

February 2016

0

COMMENTS

What Is The Nature of the News Podcast?

Written by , Posted in Hot Pod Weekly

Tow Center’s “Why Podcasting Matters.” And so there I was, once again, at The Greene Space, WNYC’s personal live events venue, for yet another podcast-related shindig. I’ve grown fond of the venue over the past year; come to appreciate cozy size, its glossy floors, its neon-shaded walls that never fail to evoke Miami Vice.

The shindig in question was a panel called “Why Podcasting Matters.” It was designed around the publication of a Tow Center Report, prepared by one Vanessa Quirk, that for all intents and purposes serves as a pretty good primer for the podcast industry at the end of 2015. It was a fine gathering, but I was mildly bothered by the name of the panel, as one would imagine, partially because it’s never a particularly encouraging sign for an industry to still explain itself, but mostly because the very premise of the title is remarkably mid-2000s. It’s like being asked to make the case why blogging matters, or why the digitalization of media matters. Like, how many different variations of the same argument must we make?

(more…)