Home » 118: The Agency Model

118: The Agency Model

Gretta Cohn officially launches her new podcast studio. About two months after announcing her departure from Midroll, where Cohn most recently served as the company’s executive producer, Cohn’s solo venture now has a name and an initial client list. The studio will be called Transmitter Media, and it will be getting work from the likes of ESPN, the Fusion Media Group, the Los Angeles-based ad agency Omelet, and the Red Bull Music Academy, a global music workshop and festivals business. The studio will also work with 596 Acres, a New York-based advocacy group. The actual substance of any of the shows being produced remains unclear.

Cohn’s offices will be physically located in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Gowanus — where Gimlet Media and Two-Up Productions are also based, by the way, as well as a twenty-five minute-or-so walk away from Panoply and Pineapple Street Media’s offices. (“An industrial cluster” or “liberal east coast bubble”? Both, surely, for good and for bad.) A lot more developments are underway, Cohn tells me; she’s looking to build out a recording studio at the location, and will soon be making contract hires in the months to come.

Transmitter Media is the latest in a quietly growing cohort of agency-style podcast studios. With direct peers and competition being firms like Pineapple Street Media and the Vancouver-based Pacific Content, Transmitter’s business possesses a narrow focus on editorial production and a business model contingent on the ability to continuously cultivate and activate a client list of big, moneyed partners — publishers, advertisers, or any organization with communication needs — looking to outsource their podcast development and creation. Studios like Transmitter also compete directly with the agency arms of much larger, vertically-integrated podcast companies like Gimlet, with Gimlet Creative, and WNYC, with its own budding branded content arm. One could broadly speculate that smaller podcast studios like Transmitter, Pineapple, and Pacific Content benefit from the specificity of their editorial specialization; they have the luxury of focus, after all, and are therefore more nimble than their clunkier, vertically-integrated peers. But that specialization renders it subject to the greater volatilities of the industry and the economy more generally, and their growth narrative is one that’s largely concentrated in their ability to manage client pipelines and continuously drum up in-bound and recurring interest over the long run. That would require the building of a strong infrastructure for interest-generation, and that defines the upper limits of the firm. What are the best outcomes over time? To track alongside the growth of the overall market, to ultimately integrate vertically or even horizontally, and/or position themselves as an acquisition target by either a bigger podcast company or an advertising agency that has deemed the medium a fruitful enough sector. That’s the back of the napkin theory, anyway.

It’s still early days for this layer of the market, obviously, and I will say that it seems to have inherited a verve previously concentrated within podcast companies. (What is new is cool, after all.) I’ll be keeping an eye out for more talented mid-level producers thinking about making this particular version of the entrepreneurial leap — and, on the flipside, if there are any shred operatives from the agency side looking to shepherd such entities along.

In related news…

Midroll Media finds a replacement for the role Cohn left behind: Laura Mayer, who leaves Panoply for the position. She most recently served as Panoply’s Director of Production, a role that sees her managing the company’s day-to-day production operations at the highest level. Mayer was one of Panoply’s first hires when the company started up back in February 2015, and before that, she held various associate producer positions throughout WNYC. At Midroll, she will report to Chief Content Officer Chris Bannon, who overlapped with her at WNYC.

When reached for comment, the company replied: “Laura was an instrumental part of Panoply from day one and a wonderful colleague. We’ll all miss her, and everyone at Panoply wishes her the best of luck in her new role.” No response was given to my query about a potential replacement.

Mayer starts her new role as Midroll’s Executive Producer on May 16.

Congrats to the 2016 Peabody Winners from the Radio and Podcast Category: APM Reports’ In The Dark — “deftly incisive in telling the human tale as it is full and unrelenting in its attention to broader policy implications” — Gen-Z Media’s The Unexplainable Disappearance of Mars Patel — “recaptures the best of golden age radio while also representing fresh and diverse young voices” — This American Life in collaboration with The Marshall Project and ProPublica’s Anatomy of Doubt — “a chilling indictment of doubt, a harrowing picture of the vilification and criminal prosecution that the victim suffered, and a heartfelt reminder to trust what victims say” — and NPR’s investigation into Wells Fargo, described as “thorough reporting that exposed the vulnerability of people on the inside of the scandal and helped lead to further Senate inquiry on bank self-regulation.”

Full list on the Peabody website.

“We learned that roughly 80 percent of families surveyed said their kids listen to a single episode multiple times,” claims Kids Listen, an organization that advocates for higher-quality podcast content for children. That finding comes off a survey study conducted by the organization that Kids Listen co-founder Lindsay Patterson published on Current early last week. The theme of repetitive engagement recurs throughout the findings — and it shouldn’t be particularly surprising to anybody reading this with children and/or baby-sitting experience (present company included) — though I should note that one should cognizant of the study’s methodology: it surveyed 436 families that already report being active listeners of podcasts, and the actual method of questioning remains unclear to me.

Anyway, the prospect of building out a business around high-quality children-oriented podcast programming is a good one. More than a few people from within and without the podcast industry have expressed to me in the past how audio programming presents a strong alternative to screen time — televisions, mobile devices, and so on — with ample concerns about the early erosion of little, developing eyeballs. We’re all in agreement here, I think, though my sense is that there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done for this budding line of business beyond the building of political will, including, among other things, the development of standards around advertising to children within podcasting, which is largely self-regulated at the moment, or perhaps the testing of non-advertising methods to monetize such programming.

Keep an eye on this space, more to come very soon. In the meantime, I’m still working through the ecological and moral arguments of having kids.

The New York Times’ The Daily will expand into the weekend, the publisher announced during its NewFronts presentation yesterday. The “narrative news: show can now also be found on Spotify, and the publisher also noted that it has some documentaries in the pipeline. Nieman Lab has a great write-up that contains this fun fact: the company originally guaranteed BMW, its launch sponsor, 750k listens. We now know the show garnered over 20 million listens within the first two months.

Here’s hoping that the Sunday edition will be extra beefy, contains a hopelessly unattainable real estate section, and weirdly stilted Vows segment. And let’s pour one out for the team’s sleep schedule.

“Mogul” kicked off its exclusive run on Spotify last Thursday, and it’s worth tracking how the joint editorial venture between the Loud Speakers Network and Gimlet Media will perform behind the platform window over its five week run. The show drops new episodes on Thursdays, and they can only be consumed on Spotify’s mobile app at this point in time.

Here are three lines of questioning that I’ll be keeping in mind:

  • The big one: how will Mogul perform on Spotify, relative to a generic wide launch? How will premiering first on a specific platform affect coverage and conversation?

  • Spotify’s dashboard affords more granular data on listening behavior: assuming that the podcast gets a sizable audience on the platform, what will the creative team learn about how the show is consumed?

  • Will Spotify actually be able to activate its user base of music listeners? Will Gimlet and the Loud Speakers Network actually tap into a fresh, non-podcast specific audience? Will the show bring in more people to the platform, and will it deepen the engagement that happens on the platform? And how will Spotify promote the show on its platform to help achieve these goals?

The six-part Mogul will get a wider release on June 16th.

The Ricochet Network picks up podcasts from the Washington Examiner and the Weekly Standard. I’ve long been fascinated by Ricochet ever since I read about the company in a Wired article from last year. The company appears to be building a community-driven conservative media business with what can only be described as a dual-engine: a network of podcasts that function as a marketing channel and advertising revenue generator on the one hand, and what looks like a souped up message board-meets-blogroll hybrid that substantiates its multi-tiered membership model on the other.

Anyway, that’s all not particularly germane to the news here: starting yesterday, the company’s podcast network has brought on the Examining Politics Daily, Daily Standard, and Daily Sub-Standard podcasts onto the network. Is the podcast universe making room for more conservative programming — and a perhaps new demographic? I’ll be keeping an eye on the iTunes charts.

Nashville Public Radio throws a “Podcast Party.” The Tennessee NPR affiliate station is putting together a big, fun community stage event on May 11 that will feature, among other things, good times, live podcast tapings, puppets, and Vanessa Carlton. (Yep, that one.)

I asked Emily Siner, the assistant news director and host of the Movers & Thinkers podcast at the station, some questions about the event and how it factors in the station’s larger operation:

What is Podcast Party, and why is the station putting it together?

Podcast Party is a variety show where we’re reimagining each of our four podcasts for the stage. We’re retelling an episode of Curious Nashvilleas a puppet show. (We’re collaborating with an awesome Nashville puppeteer.) Our soon-to-launch podcast Versify follows these writers who turn people’s stories into poetry, so we’re doing a poetry reading with musical accompaniment by an avant-garde violinist. The host of our show Neighbors is reading an episode live, also with accompaniment. And the interview podcast I host, Movers & Thinkers, is always taped in front of a live audience in our studio, so it’s the same thing, just with a much larger audience in a real theater.

This is the two-year anniversary taping of Movers & Thinkers, so that was the original impetus: We wanted to experiment with going into a larger space and giving more people a chance to see the show live. But when I was in the early planning stages, I thought, if we were going to put all this work into finding a venue and going off-site, we might as well make it bigger than just Movers & Thinkers. And I thought about Cast Party and Radiotopia Live, how those events were so fun to watch and get me feeling really excited about those shows, and I was like, “We could totally do that here.”

Fortunately, the station’s audio engineers didn’t veto the idea immediately.

The intended audience is twofold. One: people who like our podcasts but don’t feel connected yet to the station that produces them. And two, just as importantly, the people who love the station but don’t listen to podcasts yet. We want everyone to get excited about the shows and Nashville Public Radio.

Is this the first time you’re doing this?

It’s certainly the first time we’ve done anything of this magnitude. Every taping of Movers & Thinkers is also a live event, and after two years, we kind of have that down to a science. But developing the “acts” for the four different podcasts, plus going offsite, plus having a much more ambitious budget — it’s just so many more moving pieces. There are going to be 17 people on stage throughout the evening. Our classical music director has volunteered to be the stage manager and is keeping everyone sane. Bless her.

How does Podcast Party fit into the station’s larger operations?

The station is at a really interesting point right now. The newsroom is still a pretty small staff, and most of us are working on podcasts in addition to a bunch of other things, like daily news coverage. But we’re also starting to get more support outside the newsroom for podcasts, as people realize they have potential to reach new audiences and generate revenue. I think of this show as a coming-out party of sorts — showing the world that we are indeed ready to embrace our podcasting side.

If we can get two event sponsors and sell 250 tickets, we should, should, be able to make money. If we don’t, we might not. We’ll call it a success if we break even. Ultimately, it is more about community engagement than revenue.

Tell me more about Nashville Public Radio’s podcast operations.

In the past two years, we’ve grown from one to four. Neighbors, a narrative storytelling show about human connection produced by Jakob Lewis, is the most nationally successful: His new season, which launched this month, has gotten more than 400,000 downloads. For Movers & Thinkers, where I interview three people who have a common theme in front of a live audience, we’ve been aiming that nationally too — recent episodes have gotten about 80,000 downloads each.

Curious Nashville is part of the Hearken model. It has the lowest download numbers but, interestingly, the greatest name recognition among our radio listeners. That’s because it’s definitely local, and it’s more than just a podcast — it’s also a web and radio series. The newest member of our family, Versify, is part of PRX’s Project Catapult and won’t officially launch until late summer. It’s a collaboration with a local literary nonprofit that sends poets into the community to collect stories. Fun fact: Versify is a real word that means “to turn into poetry.”

Bites.

  • “NPR, the AP and local newspapers are beginning to experiment with Amazon Echo.” (Poynter) From a recent Digiday article on The Telegraph’s experimentation with an audio show delivered through the Google Home: “We’re at a point of inflection. In-home devices will make a difference to bespoke audio content. We’re about to see a sea change where more people listen to audio off the iPhone.” Check out the article, apply the usual skepticism in reading the download numbers. (Digiday)

  • Chris Sacca — well-known venture capitalist, Shark Tank host, and an investor in Gimlet — is retiring from startup investing, and will be launching a podcast as part of his retirement plan. That podcast will add to the somewhat large sub-community of podcasts by startup moneymen and their formers, which is perhaps an expression of the medium’s early tech adopter roots. Fortune’s Erin Griffith has a quick list of such programming.

  • I hear that WHYY’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross will be celebrating its 30th anniversary on May 11. Mazel tov!

  • Robert Siegel is retiring from All Things Considered. Pour another one out. (NPR)

  • “Residents of So-called ‘Shit Town’ Are Conflicted Over S-Town.” (Vulture) Also, Brian Reed was on Jimmy Fallon last night.