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Sept. 15, 2015, 9:30 a.m.
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Hot Pod: Podcast upfronts, 99% Invisible goes dynamic, and Freakonomics goes broadcast

“The variety of companies that were brought on-stage collectively offered a broad range of content types — thus broadening the narrative of what podcasts are and what podcasts can be.”

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is Issue Forty-One, published September 15, 2015.

Okay. Last week’s issue was a little crazy with that whole bit about shareable audio and all that nonsense, so I’m buttoning up my shirt and putting on a tie for this one. Lots to get through; hopefully everything makes sense.

The IAB podcast upfronts. WNYC’s Jerome L. Greene Space is a fun-sized studio at the bottom of the station’s building that has served as the home of many podcasting firsts. Located on an assuming corner somewhere south of West Village, the past few months alone has seen the space used for first WNYC Women’s Podcast Festival, the first live taping of BuzzFeed’s Another Round, and the first live meeting between NPR newscaster Lakshmi Singh and the infamous, and possibly cursed, “I Am Lakshmi Singh” hat.

So perhaps it’s appropriate that the space served as the site for the Interactive Advertising Bureau’s first podcast upfront, which offered Big Advertising its first look at a relatively broad cross-section of what the sum of the nascent industry had to offer. (Side note: It’s important to note that this wasn’t the first podcast upfront ever — that honor goes to an April 2015 event held in the slightly more glamorous (Le) Poisson Rouge, a bar and concert hall located not too far away from the Greene Space, which was a more public radio-centric affair featuring presentations from WNYC, WBEZ, and NPR. That event principally extended the narrative of podcasting-as-nonfiction storytelling content.)

The IAB upfront last Thursday was a bit of chaotic affair. Within the span of three hours-plus-plus, the event juxtaposed presentations that didn’t really fit very well immediately next to each other. Companies like Panoply1 (with its talky content offerings aesthetically pegged to what one might call decorum) and Midroll (with its pop culture-driven content that gives rise to podcasting as an alternate-node for American comedy) against companies with broader plays like CBS’ Play.it network (which cultivates sounds reminiscent of traditional talk radio) and AdLarge (which offers Associated Press content in audio form and…something about EDM concerts that I’m still trying to grapple in my head). It closed with WNYC and NPR fielding the teams behind Invisibilia and Radiolab, who essentially performed a reprise of their presentation from the April 2015 upfront.

But while the event was a little whiplash-inducing, I thought it was a highly successful event for the community as a whole. The variety of companies that were brought on-stage collectively offered a broad range of content types — thus broadening the narrative of what podcasts are and what podcasts can be. As much as I absolutely enjoyed the original April upfront, I was bothered by how that event (and its importance of being the first of its kind) extended the view of the podcasting as principally the domain of highly-produced, narrative storytelling. (The overwhelming legacy of Serial, which is almost universally present in the first paragraph of just about every general-audience article written about podcasting, already skews the medium’s identity in this regard.)

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, of course, because those are damn good shows that exhibit the best of what the format uniquely provides at this point in time. And of course, I completely understand what these public radio institutions are doing: They’re pushing their wares, building towards their own core competencies, and they also just happen to be the best game in town at the moment.

But it does set a tone for expectations among Big Advertising, especially now when the industry is in its formative stages. It cultivates certain norms, standards, and structures that could raise the barrier for other types or genres of podcasts to thrive.

So in that respect, I was really glad to see the almost anarchistic range of content offerings I saw on stage last week. And while not everything felt…particularly high-quality (to put it bluntly), it felt like a much needed correction to the industry’s larger narrative, which honestly makes me feel relieved.

Anyway. Here are some other tidbits from the event that struck me as interesting:

  • Midroll Media is now the company selling ads for Bill Simmons’ new podcast, which he’s making as part of his larger multimedia arrangement with HBO.
  • NPR reports having 77.6 million podcast downloads a month across all its shows.
  • This American Life sees 9.5 million podcast downloads a month, per PodTrac, which now pushes its identity as the company selling ads for This American Life and Serial.
  • Money quote from Radiolab’s Jad Abumrad during the presentation re: podcast advertising: “It is not yet a saturated space.”

Cool. Now here are some professional writeups of the event, from professional reporters:

  • “Here’s Why the IAB’s First Podcast Upfront Was Such a Hot Event for Marketers” (AdWeek)
  • “We Don’t Have to Follow Public-Radio Rules! Podcasters Play for Keeps at an Upfront” (Ad Age)
  • “Inside the first ever ‘Podcast Upfront'” (Fortune)

99% Invisible applies dynamic ad insertion on older episodes in iTunes. The highly popular design, architecture, and holy-shit-the-physical-human-built-world-is-awesome show has opened up its full catalog on iTunes for renewed consumption, with episodes older than 8 weeks apparently monetized by dynamic ad insertion. You can hear the new ad at the top of those older episodes. The execution didn’t go off without a hitch, however; for some 99PI subscribers, the opening up triggered a mass download of episodes. (So if you’re a podcaster going down that road in the future, or if you’re working on a platform designed to allow dynamic ad insertion, watch out for that.)

(And, unfortunately, 99PI head honcho Roman Mars also noted that posting the archives “cause[d] our iTunes ranking to plummet.”)

He talked about the move in a Facebook post, writing “it allows for the catalog to continue to generate revenue over time and keeps everything available and free for all…It’s dynamic. Wave of the future. I really want the first thing you hear to be “This is 99% Invisible…” so for all the diehard fans, that’s exactly what you’ll get.”

What a dawg. I’ll hopefully have more on this next week.

The Los Angeles Podcast Festival. So I’ve never been to L.A. — home of Hollywood, Snapchat, and animal fries (or so I’m told) — and I imagine it’s every inch the way it’s represented in BoJack Horseman, Karina Longworth’s You Must Remember This, and the nightmares of Scriptnotes’ Craig Mazin and John August. But you’re in L.A., you should check out the fourth annual L.A. Podcast Festival that’s due to take place between September 18 and 20. By festival, the organizers primarily mean a “series of live shows,” with a lineup that includes Aisha Tyler’s Girl on Guy, the very useful Dinner Party Download, the excellent Mental Illness Happy Hour, the raucous My Brother, My Brother, and Me, and of course, WTF with Marc Maron.

Perhaps the most interesting thing with the way the festival is laid out has to with the sponsors. Audible has top billing here, securing an “Audible Presents” mention, while Squarespace has its name attached to something called a Podcast Lab. Familiar friends.

WNYC’s Freakonomics goes broadcast. The highly popular “let’s take this one way of thinking about things and apply the crap out of it to everything and make a show about it” podcast is no longer just a podcast. It’s now an hour-long weekly radio show to be aired on weekends beginning in October. Per the press release, Freakonomics “will join Radiolab, On the Media, and WNYC’s forthcoming collaboration with The New Yorker as national programs that WNYC will distribute independently to stations beginning this fall.”

“DISTRIBUTE INDEPENDENTLY.” Exciting times, fellow nerds. Exciting times.

Freakonomics is hosted by Stephen Dubner with Robert Krulwich-style constant appearances by Steven Levitt, an economist at the University of Chicago (a.k.a. the place where fun goes to die). Dubner, by the way, has a new show distributed by Midroll called Question of the Day, a three-times-a-week affair where he spitballs with Notable Podcaster James Altucher about, ah, stuff. That show shot up to the No. 1 spot on the iTunes chart (for whatever that’s worth) upon its debut, and now has settled around No. 20 to 30 spot after three weeks. (Are you happy with the mention now, Lex Friedman? Are you happy?)

CJR’s “So You Want To Start A Podcast.” This article by the Columbia Journalism Review, about different strategies of podcast market entry, doubles as a rough rubric for podcasting business models. It isn’t comprehensive, as pointed out by the ensemble known as The Heard, who make the argument for a fifth model where smaller, disparate shows band together as a collective to pool resources.

What’s the difference between a network and a collective? Beats me. I tend to think of the split as divided by professionalism as well as formal, legal, and business structures. But that’s just me.

Kernel Magazine. The latest issue of Kernel Magazine, an “online tabloid magazine about technology” acquired by The Daily Dot last year, is centered on podcasts, and the spread of its articles touches upon a bunch of elements that I don’t typically cover in this newsletter. Definitely check out the whole issue, but the three that I’d single out are:

  • “How the growing Austin comedy scene is turning to podcasts” (Audra Schroeder)
  • “Why Howl could be much more than the ‘Netflix for podcasts'” (Patrick Caldwell)
  • “The unfortunate truth about the podcasting industry” (Joey Keeton)

Matt Lieber is everything. Submitted without comment.

Out on the Wire. Hey, podcast and radio fans. I highly recommend that y’all check out cartoonist and remarkable human being Jessica Abel’s Out on the Wire: The Storytelling Secrets of the New Masters of Radio. It’s a lovely book that happens to be two things: (1) an educational and engaging dive into the creative process of the amazing teams behind shows like This American Life, Radiolab, 99% Invisible, and Snap Judgment, among others, and (2) a cultural artifact that documents and honors a set of players at the heart of this remarkable creative movement that’s giving radio/podcasting/on-demand audio/whatever the heck we’re going to call it its time in the mass spotlight. As much as I grumble about most of the attention going to this specific breed of audio creator, they truly are the people who drew me into this art form and industry in the first place — and to whom I owe a lot of my waking life.

Abel is also doubling down on her work with her own podcast, which seeks to extend the inquiry of her book by interviewing BAMF radio producers. Check it out.

“There’s a transaction cost associated with podcasts for every listener. It’s a commitment, a choice.” In case you missed this delicious Nieman Lab interview with Erik Diehn, Midroll Media’s chief biz dev guy, do yourself a favor and jump on it right now. By all means read the whole thing, but here are some choice morsels that stood out to me:

  • “Everyone would love to have YouTube-style metrics. But the measurement of podcasting is really not that much worse than any other medium; we just don’t have a single source that everyone endows with some sort of holy status.”
  • “So when people say, ‘We don’t know how many people listened all the way through to the last minute of this podcast,’ my feeling is, yeah, but we know a lot more than we did 20 years ago, when radio was based on the whims of a handful of people. We’re certainly getting better.”
  • “I’d also like to see the audiences grow and diversify. I think they already have, a lot. We’re getting a broadening of content and audience, but it needs to continue to grow.”

It makes so angry how good this Q&A is, it really does. Ugghhhhhhh.

Nicholas Quah heads audience development at Panoply. Hot Pod is his weekly newsletter on the state of the podcast world; it appears on Nieman Lab on Tuesdays.

Notes
  1. My benevolent employers, by the way — see my first Nieman Lab post for disclaimers.
POSTED     Sept. 15, 2015, 9:30 a.m.
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