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March 2017

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Let’s dig into those Infinite Dial 2017 numbers.

Written by , Posted in Hot Pod Weekly

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

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

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

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

(1) Steady, Unsexy Growth?

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

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

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

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

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

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

(2) The Problem of Programming

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alright, let’s move on.

(3) Depth of Listening

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Miscellaneous Takeaways

  • Active podcast listeners still skews male.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bites. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday

10

March 2017

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COMMENTS

Friday

3

March 2017

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COMMENTS

About Those Original Spotify Podcasts

Written by , Posted in Hot Pod Weekly

This is Issue 109. Published February 28, 2017.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Speaking of Gimlet…

Gimlet announces its spring slate. The returning shows are:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(1) Tobey’s Role and Immediate Priorities.

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

(2) What defines an APM show?

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

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

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

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

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

Two things to note:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bites. 

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

Tuesday

4

October 2016

0

COMMENTS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His extensive reply:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A few things here:

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

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

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

And that is no small thing.

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

Bites:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday

23

May 2016

0

COMMENTS

Tuesday

5

April 2016

0

COMMENTS

The New York Times, On Strategy, Digg Gets Into Pods

Written by , Posted in Uncategorized

The New York Times Builds A Pod Squad. Nieman Lab covered this pretty comprehensively last week, and you should definitely check out their write-up for the full skinny, but here are the highlights as I see it:

  • The paper of record is assembling a new audio unit to develop a slate of “news and opinion” shows. It hopes to roll out throughout the rest of the year and into 2017. The exact number of shows to be launched is unclear.
  • Some staff details for this new unit: Samantha Henig is editorial director, Kelly Alfieri is executive director of special editorial projects, and Diantha Parker is editor and senior audio producer. Pedro Rosado and Catrin Einhorn will also be audio producers in the unit. Local pod rabble-rouser Adam Davidson, who is also a columnist for the New York Times Magazine, will serve as an adviser.
  • Some info on the long-term strategy, from an internal NYT memo about the new unit: “The plan is to pursue a two-fold strategy: to launch a handful of shows with outside partners which, like Modern Love, have a strong prospect of quickly attracting a wide audience; and then use those shows as a platform from which we can build audience for shows produced within The Times that are as integral to our coverage as our live events and visual journalism efforts.” Delicious.

So, what is the significance of this development? My fine handlers at Nieman do well to answer this with the following observation: “While many newspapers have experimented with podcasts and even launched several, the Times appears to be the first paper to launch a separate podcast-focused audio unit that is focused on pulling in revenue and attracting listeners at broad scale.” In my mind, the distinction lies in the scale (and gumption, frankly) surrounding the design of the Times’ new audio unit: its staff size and density, show rollout expectations, intent on meaningful revenue, and scope of ambition in terms of aesthetic and goals.

As anybody shouting “bubble!” will tell you, many publications are currently dabbling in podcasts; some successfully, others less so. A big part of the strategy for networks like Panoply and DGital Media involves them serving as intermediaries for publishers, shouldering significant chunks of the creative, production, strategic, and monetization burden for partners. And for many of these arrangements, it’s not exactly “plug and play,” but it’s fairly close.

Such partnerships provide publishers with relatively less risk, as startup costs are relatively low and they don’t have to personally invest much resources into infrastructure and talent that may be difficult to shed should their audio strategy burst into flames. It’s a solid conservative strategy, but the tradeoff here is that there’s a ceiling to what publishers can achieve in these arrangements — creatively (given the limitation on dedicated resources), monetarily (given that the responsibilities are largely shouldered by the partner network), and even from a brand-perspective (given that there’s a limit to how unique you can sound when you share a network’s production infrastructure, sensibility, and possibly template with other publishing competitors).

By choosing to build a team in-house and diving face-first into audio (which wouldn’t be its first time doing so), the Times is eschewing that relatively conservative route for a more aggressive and robust podcast strategy, one that sees the paper essentially doubling down on its ability to determine an aural aesthetic that will result in a better payoff. As the internal memo indicates, that strategy does not necessarily preclude partnerships; it just suggests that they demand more from those partnerships. In these arrangements, networks (or public radio stations) would be required to serve more as collaborator than intermediary, more partner-in-crime than outsource factory. We saw the fundamentals of this with the company’s enormously successful Modern Love podcast — which launched in January, currently draws over 300,000 downloads a week, and comes out of an involved partnership with WBUR.

This is all a reflection of the basic dynamics of risk and reward: the more you’re willing to risk by pouring more resources into the strategy, the more control you’re going to have over shaping the outcome of that strategy and the more reward — from all corners — you stand to gain from it. As the adage goes, you don’t get a win unless you play in the game.

One more thing: the announcement of the new unit was accompanied by a pretty gorgeous job posting for an executive producer. From the looks of the job description, they’re looking for a veteran to quarterback the team both creatively and operationally.

I’ll be taking bets on who they end up hiring, and what shows they end up rolling out. HMU.

Related — Shooting up a flare just hours after the NYT job posting went live, the other paper of record The Washington Post announced on its PR blog that its “Presidential” podcast has beaten 1 million downloads on iTunes since launching in January. The post further mentioned that “more than 100,000 listeners download the podcast each week,” not including folks who listen right off the Post’s site.

I’m all about that Gray Lady-WaPo rivalry, and I’m psyched it’ll play out on the audio front too.

On Strategy. Speaking of podcast strategy, you should totally check out Adam Davidson’s recent Medium post that refined and expanded his critique on that very subject as it pertains to NPR. There’s quite a bit to absorb from it, but I’d like to note two quick things:

  • Davidson’s post contains a bunch of specific prescriptions, but I find the foundational ideas of his critique compelling: that the organization’s process of developing podcasts is more chaotic than not, that the pace of new podcast launches is way too slow, and that both of these things come out from an ecosystem-wide podcast strategy that’s lacking in coherence, vision, scale, enthusiasm, and intent.
  • A constructive question, at this point: what, exactly, makes a podcast strategy? Seems like a simple question with an obvious answer, but I think it’s actually pretty complex. I find it helpful to think about it, above all things, in terms of goals and intent: what do we want to achieve with podcasts a year from now, and what should we do to get there? Within this framework, you can sort of begin to see the source of Davidson’s frustration: it’s probably unclear to him what NPR wants its podcast operation to look like a year from now, and when you contextualize that against the larger trends in the industry — trends that distinctly flow towards digital — you can reasonably expect why the NPR alum is unnerved. For the record, the organization’s goal on that front is pretty unclear to me too, and I spend a lot time staring into the transom. Also worth noting the fact that it’s entirely possible there is a coherent internal strategy, and that’s it not being well communicated. In which case, the possible counter-argument is: what’s the point of communicating what we’re doing right as long as we’re doing it right? To that I say: positive messaging is important for internal morale, external recruitment, and the faith of the public radio random!

By the way: the first episode of Embedded was great! It felt really raw and illustrative, and it projected a sense of place really, really well. Gonna hold my judgment ‘til we’re a couple more episodes in, so stay tuned.

Related — NPR has finally revamped its audio player, eschewing the pop-up player route for a snazzier, smoother in-browser experience. The player, which now rests persistently on the right side of the site, is designed to allow users to flow seamlessly between local member station streams and NPR’s own content made available on-demand.

The revamp also affords new digital sponsorship formats, including podcast-specific matchups and multimedia mobile slots. Cool stuff.

Serial Closes Second Season. And just like that, it’s over. Last Thursday, the wildly popular This American Life spin-off published the final episode of its ambitious second season, which throughout its run had unambiguously moved beyond the first season’s local true crime scope and took on the subject of Bowe Bergdahl.

The season drew strong numbers. Entertainment Weekly reported that the second season had surpassed 50 million downloads going into Thursday’s final episode. Kristen Taylor, Serial’s community editor, confirmed those numbers, further noting that each episode had consistently enjoyed around 3 million downloads on its launch week throughout the season.

While the show’s numbers were not altogether surprising given the now-legendary response to the first season, it did strike me as incongruous with what feels like a relatively tepid critical response. I asked Taylor how the team has felt about the reception this season, and whether I’m erroneously reading my conception of hype or buzz as some approximation of critical response. “The second season is a really different type of story, and of course the field is in a different place than last year – what you’re seeing in the number is the dark social, the growing audience listening and writing to us and talking to each other privately,” said Taylor.

“The team is damn proud of the season,” she added.

Details are slim on the show’s third season, though a follow-up EW interview with Sarah Koenig and Julie Snyder suggests that we shouldn’t expect it anytime soon. The two also mentioned that they were “also looking into other projects, and other shows that are not Serial, but Serial-adjacent.”

ESPN Does “Long-form” Audio. The Disney-owned sports media empire flexed its audio muscles today, launching a five-part audio documentary series called “Dunkumentaries.” In case the word “dunk” means nothing to you or if you’re one of those people who ducks behind the word “sports ball,” the series is a collection of stories all about the sport of basketball.

Radiotopia fans might find the project familiar: back in February, ESPN and the 99% Invisible team collaborated for an episode called “The Yin and Yang of Basketball,” about the sport’s invention and the design problem that came out from its initial conception. The Dunkumentaries podcast feed went live around the same time that episode was published, back in February.

Dunkumentaries comes out of ESPN Audio, and its being billed as the unit’s “first long-form podcast” — signaling a trendy expansion in offerings for an operation that’s long favored talk radio fare like Jalen & Jacoby and audio-only versions of television broadcasts like Pardon the Interruption. The documentary will feature a rather unconventional ad integration with Seatgeek (a growing staple in sport pod advertising), according to the Hollywood Reporter. Instead of a conventional host read, the campaign will involve a serialized story spread out across the five episodes’ pre-rolls.

The series was published in its entirety this morning, using a tactic last adopted by Panoply with its “Pregnancy Confidential” podcast. (The so-called binge method was also partially adopted by American Public Media’s “Codebreaker” podcast, albeit as part of a larger transmedia project.)

Each episode is on the short-side, ranging between 12 to 20 minutes.

Digg Dabbles In Pods. The social curation site (and erstwhile Reddit competitor) launched a podcast project yesterday, and it’s part of a fascinating piece of multimedia journalism. “What The Hell Happened In East New York?” is a four-part podcast series, hosted by Sports Illustrated’s Alexander Abnos, that follows award-winning journalist Kevin Heldman as he investigates East New York’s status as one of the worst neighborhoods in the country. It’s… a little hard to provide a more substantial explanation of the podcast without diminishing one of its core hooks, but I will say that it’s vaguely Sherlock Holmesian in the sense that it presents Heldman as a character in a larger narrative.

Much like Dunkumentaries, the whole series was published simultaneously (noticing a trend, anyone?), and the project culminates this Friday with the publication of Heldman’s investigation as a feature on the Digg website. The project is a co-production with The Big Roundtable, the narrative nonfiction site founded by Columbia Journalism School professor Michael Shapiro.

This isn’t Digg’s first involvement with podcasts. In the past, the site has partnered with podcasts like Reply All and The Sporkful to package their episodes with rather lovely visuals and extensive write-ups before serving them to the Digg readership through its various channels. But this is Digg’s first direct editorial involvement with an audio project, expanding on the original editorial work they’ve previously done for text features and video.

“I couldn’t be more pleased with how the project came out,” Anna Dubenko, Digg’s editorial director, told me over email. “There were moments where we were all nervous about how it would come together — there were so many moving parts… that we wondered if it would be too confusing for our readers.  But, as we’re seeing in this first day of promotion, people get what the project is about and, I think, like the fact that we’re trying something with multimedia approach. More than anything, I think people appreciate that we’re not trying to do something gimmicky with audio, but really trying to honor the medium.”

When I asked if we should more audio stuff coming out of Digg in the future, Dubenko replied: “YES to more projects! Specifically with The Big Roundtable.”

Fabulous.

The Sarah Awards. Friends, I’m here to eat my words. Also, my shoe. They will be boiled, seasoned with paprika and anise, and consumed heartily with a fine pinot grigio. Longtime Hot Pod readers are familiar with my estranged relationship with audio fiction — in the past (specifically, in the foetal days of the Hot), I’ve griped about how the audio fiction performances tend to bug me with their larger-than-the-room modularities; how many of the stuff I’ve tried out had the patness of a certain kind of quirky North American short story; and how I felt that intimacy afforded by the medium often excessively draws out the artificiality of the performances to my pampered, pampered earballs. Though these feelings largely dwindled over the months with greater exposure to just — thank ye, Unfictional and The Truth — a small hard shell of those gripes remained, even as the genre enjoyed more popularity and attention by Limetown, the corporate-overlord sponsored The Message, the really charming Black Tapes Pod, and, of course, the increasing ambition of the incredibly talented Night Vale crew.

But consider me finally won over now, having sat through a rather lovely coronation last Friday, when WNYC’s Greene Space served as home to the first ever Sarahs, an international audio fiction awards ceremony organized by Ann Heppermann and Martin Johnson. The hourlong event, hosted by Snap Judgment’s Glynn Washington, was charming, fun, and tight — and it brought to light the fact that the people behind these works were every bit as rich, bizarre, and fascinating as the work themselves.

The awards received over 200 entries from all over the world, and here were the winners:

First Place
Almost Flamboyant” by Lea Redfern and Rijn Collin.

Second Place
Can You Help Me Find My Mom?” by Jonathan Mitchell and Diana McCorry.

Third Place
Our Time Is Up” by Erin Anderson.

Best New Artist
Quadraturin” by Jon Earle and Emma Wiseman.

“It felt like a turning point,” Heppermann told me when we spoke over the phone yesterday. “Hopefully people were inspired and excited to really celebrate fiction, and make more of it in ways they want to.”

In the immediate future, the winning stories will be published on Serendipity, the official podcast that comes out of the Sarahs. They will be aired as part of a special hour-long broadcast of the winners on KCRW some time in the next three months or so.

“It starts all over again,” said Heppermann, when I asked what comes next.

“But bigger, and better.”

Wonk. I spoke with Atlantic Media Strategies’ Jim Walsh the other day about the state of the podcast industry and where it’s going, and Walsh published a cleaned up transcript of our conversation over on the AMS’ Digital Index blog. It should be stated that Walsh’ efforts to transcribe and string together my chaotic, unstructured rambles that are made up almost exclusively of run-in sentences are nothing less than heroic, and that upon reading the article for the first time, I have swiftly concluded that I am, indeed, an insane person.

Relevant Bits:

  • Here’s a sweet spin-off coming out of the HBO-Bill Simmons partnership: The Watch’s Chris Ryan and Andy Greenwald will host a weekly Game of Thrones recap show on  Mondays which will be distributed through HBO Now, HBO Go, and HBO On-Demand. WATCH THE THRONES. (The Ringer)
  • Soundcloud rolled out its new subscription streaming product, dubbed “Soundcloud Go,” last Tuesday. The new feature pushes the company towards a direction that places it more directly in competition with existing streaming companies like Spotify and Apple Music. The future of its status as the go-to free audio hosting platform, which has made it popular with budding podcasters, remains unclear. (The Verge)
  • Speaking of Spotify, the Swedish streaming company raises a billion in debt financing. (Wall Street Journal, paywall)
  • PodcastOne, the Adam Carolla-centered network led by Norm Pattiz, launched its own premium subscription play. From the press release, it appears that much of the network’s archives will be stored behind the paywall. Priced at $7.99 a month. (All Access)
  • Distribution responsibilities for “On Being” to shift from American Public Media to PRX. (Current)

Tuesday

15

March 2016

0

COMMENTS

Infinite Dial 2016, Trumpcast, iTunes and Advertisers

Written by , Posted in Hot Pod Weekly

Infinite Dial. The numbers are in, and… well, they’re looking quite good. Last Thursday, Edison Research dropped the latest edition of their annual “Infinite Dial” report, a survey study that looks at consumer adoption of digital media. The report, which is conducted in partnership with Triton Digital, holds a particular emphasis on audio, though it also contains pretty fascinating excursions into social media and whatever’s going on in the streaming space more broadly. And, unless I’m committing a massive piece of oversight here, it’s also the biggest reputable independent study that has observed the podcast format almost since the medium’s inception, with survey data going back to 2006. (That’s a long time, guys! A long time!)

Do check out the whole report on Edison Research’s website, but here are the three big things that are stuck in my head:

(1) Mainstream. According to the study, an estimated 98 million Americans have listened to a podcast at least once in their lives. Put another way, that’s more than 1 in 3 Americans surveyed by this study. I mean, that measure is pretty dramatic, and it also sounds pretty loose — just because you tried something doesn’t mean that something is meaningful, but then again it does show that you at least know about the thing enough to actually try it out. But if you contextualize that these two other data points:

  • More than 1 in 5 Americans report having listened to a podcast within the past month; and

  • Podcast consumption skews towards the younger side. (The data shows that monthly consumption by respondents in the 12-24 age range is growing at a faster rate and at a higher volume than respondents in 25-54 and 55+ age range.)

… you get a picture of the medium trending towards a fairly hopeful future. The study also pretty strongly declared: “Nearly 100 million Americans have ever listened to a podcast — it has made the jump to mainstream.”

(2) Gender. According to the study, the number of women consuming podcasts has effectively doubled since 2013. Specifically, 18% of women surveyed report having listened to a podcast within the past month, up from 9% in 2013. Data still confirms that podcasting is a predominantly white male thing, but I’m fairly confident that this trend of gender diversification will continue, if only for the reason that enough people making stuff for the market is going to figure out that gender and race-inclusive programming is a positive value differentiator.

(3) Continuing Shift Towards Mobile. 64% of respondents who consume podcasts report doing so primarily on their mobile devices, up from 55% in 2015. Though, some may well find it strange that a significant chunk of people consume podcasts on desktop in the first place, although it’s actually a fairly established consumption behavior especially when you think back to how difficult it was to catch a pod on your phone before the great gods of Apple decided to bundle the native Podcast app, which is widely understood to drive roughly 70% of pod consumption, into iOS by default. (FWIW, a ton of my listening happens on desktop, both as  headphones and through my Bluetooth speaker, which I also happen to take into the shower with me. Probably too much information, but I’m just sketching out, you know, multiple use cases and such.)

Related to this desktop situation is whether significant podcast consumption happens on YouTube, which is a fair inquiry because, according to the Infinite Dial study, a sizable portion of music consumption takes place on YouTube (14% of respondents report using YouTube most often to keep up-to-date with music, to be exact). I personally haven’t found any reliable sources concretely proving this behavior on a wide scale, though I have seen some successful case studies of YouTube-as-podcast-consumption-source. Most notably,Welcome to Night Vale and some shows under the Loud Speakers Network tend to drive tens of thousands of listens through their YouTube channels, and podcasts with strong video components — like KindaFunny and some of the old Grantland shows — also tend to post strong numbers on the platform.

So that’s the big stuff from the study that I wanted to talk about. But there is one more thing that I want to riff on, if you’d be so kind to indulge me:

What’s In A Word? Right now, the Infinite Dial report’s definition of a podcast is one that’s pegged to a classic description: the consumption of non-music audio content through a specific kind of on-demand delivery channel, i.e. the Apple podcasting app — once widely described as a “podcatcher” — and its myriad of smaller competitors that deliver audio content in the exact same way (Overcast, Stitcher, and so on). But as we move deeper into the year, we’re going to see several developments that will directly challenge the clarity of that definition. Namely:

  • The rolling out of Audible’s original content, which will likely be distributed through an infrastructure that bears little resemblance to the way we currently consume podcasts — and how we create podcasts, for that matter;

  • The scaling up of Spotify’s “Audio/Video shows” offerings, whenever that happens. They’re still buried pretty deep in the Spotify UI, and it’s worth noting that the use of the word “show” over “podcast” is noteworthy;

  • The launch of Google Play Music’s Podcast feature. Again, whenever that happens. Early rumors pegged that the feature was supposed to be live by now, and that the “podcast” wording would be maintained. But as of this writing, the fate of both things remain unclear. In any case, with Google Play (and Spotify) podcasts are delivered through what is largely perceived as a streaming music, and if it feels like we’re splitting hairs with the nomenclature here, I’d say that the words are important, because how these words play out among mass audiences and popular culture will directly influence how respondents are going to react the surveys like Infinite Dial moving forward.

Here, then, we begin to be able to see how the long established parallels between podcasts and blogs — sketched out perfectly by Nieman Lab’s Joshua Benton not too long ago — will come to play out its predictive accuracy and teleology. Audio content produced for the Internet and distributed through the Internet will soon no longer be identified based on a singular technological method (the aforementioned “podcatcher”), but to the #content itself. And when that happens, what we’ll see is a narrative that’s less of a clash between an insurgent and an incumbent (“the future of radio”), but rather, a clash between content factions defined by generations, communities, and cultures (“a type/genre/kind of radio”).

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

It’s a kind of convergence; or, if you’d allow me some drama, a kind of collision.

As you can imagine, this poses an editorial challenge for me. I’ve never pretended to be comprehensive in scope with Hot Pod, but I’ve always been focused on a certain narrative of change — and power — when I sit down and choose stories to pursue every week. So, with this expected shift, I’m still not quite sure how I’ll adapt my terms and coverage, but I should figure it out and whip out, like, a mission statement pretty soon, I imagine.

The Value-Add of a Podcast Network. Slate President Keith Hernandez was on the Digiday podcast last week, and in addition to talking about the larger developments on the business and advertising fronts of the 20-year-old publication, he also got the chance to talk a bit about the company’s sister podcasting business, Panoply — which I used to work for, by the way, in case you’re new to this column. I never got to work directly with Hernandez back when I was bumming around the Slate offices, so it’s interesting to me to hear how he articulates the company’s value proposition.

Anyway, there’s a bit in the conversation that stood out to me where Digiday’s Brian Morrissey astutely points out the fundamental challenge of podcast networks, or any network in general for that matter:

BM: “Is it one of those things when someone becomes… It’s like ad networks always have this problem, their clients always wanted to fire them because they wanted to become self-sufficient so they wouldn’t have to share [revenue]. Is that a thing where people get to a certain size, they sort of leave behind the network?”

KH: “I don’t think anybody wants to be a logo on a slide, you know? What we care about on that end, when working with big partners and big publishers, is how can we be more than just a network, that logo on a slide? How can we provide help on the production end, how can we provide insights, the right music supervisor and producers for their shows. It’s more a partnership on the creation side than it is a partnership on the monetization side.”

You can check out the whole conversation on Digiday. The section on Panoply begins at the 17:00 mark.

In tangentially-related news, Slate launched a pop-up podcast yesterday called “Trumpcast,” which features short (~15 minute) near daily audio reporting by (the very boss) Jacob Weisberg, Slate Group’s Editor in Chief and Chairman, on all things Trump. This thing is great, guys; it’s such a smart way to swiftly leverage newsroom resources to create something that speaks directly to the present moment. Gah, it makes me so angry how good and specific and focused it is. *punches wall, throws over table* #@%$%@%@

“They might not understand it, but they’ll put it out.” I’m talking to Shannon Cason, the Detroit-based creator of Homemade Stories. We were discussing his show, which is distributed by WBEZ, and I was asking about the importance of a distribution partner fully “getting” his work and all its layers — which flow back and forth through race, class, masculinity, and all the complexities that come in the many overlaps — in order to work with it. Cason had a pragmatist’s approach to the question; when it happens, it’s great, but it doesn’t really matter.

We talked about how he viewed his relationship to being identified as a “black writer.” He pointed out a recent New York Times piece on podcasts that cited his show and made his race an explicit descriptor. Based on my read, it appeared that the piece brought it up to delve into the way Cason’s show brings out his experience as a black man, but Cason wondered why racial label and framing weren’t applied to the other shows mentioned in the article, namely Startup and Serial. “I don’t mind it… but I don’t approach stories as black stories,” he said. “I purposely don’t mention race in my stories; I let people fill in the blanks. It’s a pretty smart audience. They’ll get it.”

“I don’t ever push away being a black man, that’s an obvious fact of life,” he wrote me later. “But the stories on my podcast are universal and for any and everyone…and just honest entertaining storytelling.”

Homemade Stories, by the way, is a great listen. It’s firmly rooted within the storytelling genre in the vein of The Moth, Mortified, and True Story, but it’s also written diaristically, almost confessionally, to a point where it shares elements of the casual monologue preferred by comedy podcasters. Bill Burr, in particular, comes to mind with his rambling, inward-facing, and often terribly personal extended monologues on his Monday Morning Podcast. (Cason professes to being a fan). But where Monday Morning is shaggy and loose, Homemade is tightly written, serving up something that’s thoughtful, fun, and often gorgeous.

On iTunes, Part Two. Last week, I went deep into what, exactly, makes the iTunes charts tick. There were two takeaways: firstly, the charts act as a sort of “trending” measure based on iTunes interactions — chiefly, new subscriptions — and secondly, the iTunes charts being the only major consumer-facing value signifier of podcasts distorts the medium’s ability to understand itself.

Given its ambiguous capacity to adequately convey value, I was curious about the extent to which the charts reflect value outwards. Specifically, I wanted to know how it influences the thinking of advertisers, and whether it creates informational inefficiencies that makes it difficult for advertisers to find decent campaign opportunities, for ad buyers to buy ads, and for creators to create sustainable revenue streams. I asked around, and found that podcast advertisers and media buyers do, indeed, rely on the charts for information, but only to a point. (Thankfully.)

“Advertisers mostly care about whether a show drives results for them,” said Lex Friedman, Midroll Media’s EVP of sales and development. “But certainly, there’s a core group of advertisers I hear from anytime they notice a new show catapult into the top ten. They don’t mind if a show that’s already working doesn’t rank there; they know the numbers and are happy regardless. But when a new show jumps into the iTunes charts, advertisers are definitely curious about whether we represent it, or know who does, and can help them get on it.

Karo Chakhlasyan, a media buyer with Los Angeles-based ad agency Oxford Road, agrees with this perspective. “As a buyer, it doesn’t really matter to me where a podcast is on the charts,” he told me over the phone last week. “But it does play a role in outreach. Every Tuesday, I get together with one of our media coordinators and go through the list to see if a podcast broke into the Top 200 or get featured. And then we get the podcast on the phone and try to get a general idea of whether we’re able to buy.”

But the charts’ particularities often generate poor leads for advertisers. Chakhlasyan describes often finding himself on calls with small podcasts that have short shelf-lives. “Usually, those calls don’t pan out too well because it usually turns out that they’re not really serious about the show. Maybe they’re on the charts by luck, or some lucky marketing push that gets them featured,” he explained.

At the same time, however, the charts have been helpful for advertisers to check against… let’s call it improprieties. “Advertisers have also used the iTunes charts (in part) to get wise when a show touts numbers that don’t add up,” said Friedman. “For example, if you hear a show is doing 1.5M downloads per episode, and it doesn’t rank anywhere in the iTunes Top 200, you know that what you’re hearing is hooey.”

Next week, I close out this mini-series on iTunes with some notes on what the future might look like with respect to podcast charts. Cool? Cool.

Bites

  • “Dear Data And FiveThirtyEight Want You To Visualize Your Podcast Habits.” (FiveThirtyEight)

  • Triton Digital bags a second partner for its TAP audio advertising platform: Whooshkaa, an Audioboom/Acast-like end-to-end podcast company out of Australia. This comes weeks after Triton signed a deal with NPR to power their podcast ads. (Rainnews)

  • Interestingly, Midroll is now selling a portion of podcast ads for APM’s Marketplace. (Twitter)

  • Chicago radio personality Garry Meier, formerly of WGN Radio, launched an individual-oriented premium subscription podcast service over the weekend. Howard Stern is slated to be one of his first guests. (RobertFeder.com)

  • The Maximum Fun Drive is currently underway! And while you’re checking it out, be sure to hit up Jonah Keri’s interview with Jesse Thorn, all-father of Maximum Fun. (MaximumFun.org / Nerdist)

  • “Debatable,” the most recent Radiolab episode, is a truly, truly remarkable thing to behold. (Radiolab)

  • I’ll just leave this here. (I-Kid-A-Pod)

  • Oh, and this too. (The Future of Listening Hackathon) [h/t LG]

  • Looking for a job in radio? My man Sam Greenspan, who you can find lurking around Oakland with 99% Invisible, has got your back. (YSLTF)

Post Notes

Alright folks, three housekeeping items:

  • As you can probably see, I’m scrapping the break-out diversity column in favor of incorporating straight into the main body of information. Much like how native advertising wants to sneak into your eyeline/subconscious, the subject of inclusiveness will follow the same route.
  • After three weeks of testing, I’ve come to believe that The Thing Friday member newsletters should be deep dives on topics as opposed to (a) shorter but more news items or (b) continuations of Tuesday’s topics. It’s going to be a challenge to put out something decent every week on top of Tuesday’s stuff, but what the hell, I already got out of bed. Let’s do this.
  • I’ve decided to get back to writing short podcast reviews. I mean, what the hell, I’ve already come this far, and I’ve bought all these 5-hour energy bottles. Can’t let them go to waste. You can find them on Wednesdays on the website, HotPodNews.com. They’re going to about 200-400 words, and it’s going to be one a week, and I can’t promise they’ll be any good.

Cool? Cool. Last night, I dreamt that I was walking around JFK for hours looking to buy a bottle of water. Which is miserable purgatory enough, I imagine, but so is waking up to a cold, wet, rainy morning, finding that you’re out of grounds, and figuring that you can get by with whatever zing you can suck out of a decaffeinated green tea packet. See you next week, folks.

Tuesday

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February 2016

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COMMENTS

A Curious Partnership, Soundcloud Woes, Anchor

Written by , Posted in Hot Pod Weekly

Why did Google Play partner with AudioBoom? RAIN News ran a piece last week citing that AudioBoom, the UK-based talk audio platform, will apparently be “one of the content providers for Google Play’s upcoming podcast section.” By the way, AudioBoom, once a consumer-facing player reminiscent of Stitcher, now bills itself as a “business-to-business” platform, placing it closer to a Panoply-like podcast network. It currently hosts and helps produce pods like Undisclosed, and is the distribution partner for radio syndication company Westwood One.

The partnership struck me as a little confusing, given what little we know so far about Google Play Music’s upcoming podcast support. When Google first announced the feature, the app appeared to openly accept podcast feeds from just about anybody for inclusion into its directory.

Curious, I sent a note to the company and was shortly connected to Stuart Last, the company’s General Manager of the Americas. (What a title!)

“Google want to help their users find new exciting podcasts in a more simple, more thought-out way. To help them do that they are building strong relationships with partners like AudioBoom,” Last wrote back in an email. “My content team will be working with them closely to highlight great content across all verticals and categories. For AudioBoom’s content partners, this is a great win, as they are using a platform which has a direct relationship with the Google editorial and curation team.”

Which suggests that either not enough podcasters have been submitting their feeds, or Google has been receiving feeds that they’re not that happy with.

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Tuesday

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February 2016

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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?

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