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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

10

January 2017

0

COMMENTS

Upcoming Show Launches, Crooked Media, Facebook Live Audio

Written by , Posted in Hot Pod Weekly

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

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

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

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

Two Quick News on Apple.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday

16

August 2016

0

COMMENTS

Clinton Podcast, Convention Bump, Bumpers

Written by , Posted in Hot Pod Weekly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some highlights:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bites:

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

Get Rec’d

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

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

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

Friday

5

August 2016

0

COMMENTS

Political Communication, or the Politics of Communication, in Podcasts

Written by , Posted in Member Content

I don’t know about you, but the Republican National Convention and the Democratic National Convention have put me waaaaaay behind on my prestige TV. (Shows I need to catch up: Stranger Things, Mr. Robot, Bojack Horseman, The Night Of, Friday Night Lights full series rewatch round 3). Which is cool, of course, because I’m a fairly rigorous spectator of American politics — I have, after all, an immigrant’s love of this country, given that I am, in fact, a recent immigrant — and, by extension, American political news media.

And so you can imagine that I’m relying pretty heavily on political on-demand audio programming as part of my media diet, and I’m wont to try and understand how, exactly, that genre fits in with the logic of my media consumption needs in contrast to, say, the New York Times op-ed section and Andrew Sullivan’s amazing live-blogs over at New York Magazine.

(The rest of this post is for Hot Pod Members)

Tuesday

24

May 2016

0

COMMENTS

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

Written by , Posted in Hot Pod Weekly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cool.

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

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

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

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

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

Keep an eye on ‘em.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bites:

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

  • The Tape Festival is back. (TapeFest)

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

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

Do you find the work done on Hot Pod useful? Consider supporting by becoming a member — get more analysis, be part of a community.

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Monday

23

May 2016

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COMMENTS

Tuesday

22

March 2016

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COMMENTS

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

Written by , Posted in Hot Pod Weekly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Four takes here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anyway, let’s move on.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bites

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

Tuesday

23

February 2016

0

COMMENTS

Podcast Advertising Hurdles, Modern Love Numbers, Kids’ Podcasts

Written by , Posted in Uncategorized

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(i) The Question For Independents.

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

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

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

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

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

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

(ii) An Alternate Theory

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

Not a lot, I’d wager.

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

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

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

People just love Love, man.

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

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

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

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

Alas, indeed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s the link to the Google Form.

Relevant Bits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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