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Sept. 1, 2015, 9:30 a.m.
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Hot Pod: The podcast collective Radiotopia has a new leader

“I keep hearing stories about her being a great mentor to many a young fledgling producer. To me, that willingness to actively think about the next generation of producers is shorthand for proper leadership.”

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is Issue Thirty-Nine, published September 1, 2015.

The new steward of Radiotopia. PRX has hired Julie Shapiro as the new executive producer of Radiotopia, the podcast ~collective~ that was formed in early February out of a partnership between the company and 99% Invisible’s Roman Mars.

Shapiro comes into the job with a tremendous street cred. In 2000, she cofounded the Third Coast Festival which, in case you didn’t know, is a big independent radio conference/summit/party in Chicago (“Third Coast,” get it?) where really talented and smart radio producers get really drunk together, play some really amazing stories, and have a really good time. She spent 13 years as Third Coast’s artistic director, where she firmly established herself as an incredibly influential figure in the independent radio community and beyond. She left the role in 2013, and has been spending the past couple of years kickin’ it with the wallabies down in Australia, where she served as the executive producer of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Creative Audio Unit.

Oh, and fun fact about Shapiro from the press release: “Julie originally coined the term ‘Radiotopia’ in a speech at the Third Coast Festival, describing it as a place where awesome stories live.” It was meant to be.

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What will Shapiro do as Radiotopia’s new executive producer? A heck of a lot, PRX COO Kerri Hoffman told me over the phone last week. On a show level, she’s tasked with upping the game of every podcast under the Radiotopia banner, which will include (but will not be limited to): working with talent to raise and maintain the level of editorial quality, figuring out how to increase revenues, finding ways to foster deeper engagement with audiences, and developing robust strategies to help shows grow in general. On a network level, Shapiro will help define Radiotopia’s long-term strategic vision and articulate its narrative to the larger market, which, in my opinion, hasn’t always been very clear.1 She will also, I presume, play a huge role in sourcing new shows to add to the group, along with improving metrics, measurements, and standards both qualitative and quantitative.

That is, indeed, a crap ton of things to do, but Hoffman is confident she’s up to the challenge. And you know what? There’s nothing to suggest otherwise. Everything I’ve heard about Shapiro paints her as nothing less than a swashbuckling badass, and furthermore, ever since I started poking my nose around the radio world, I keep hearing stories about her being a great mentor to many a young fledgling producer. To me, that willingness to actively think about the next generation of producers is shorthand for proper leadership.

Also: “It’s super important to me that Radiotopia’s executive producer be a woman,” Hoffman said at some point during our conversation. You know what? It is important, particularly after seeing a parade of white dudes absolutely dominating executive-level positions in the blossoming for-profit on-demand audio industry. This is certainly encouraging stuff.

Also also: PRX CEO Jake Shapiro wrote me yesterday to clarify that, in fact, he is not related to Julie Shapiro. “However we do feel we’re part of a Shapiro mafia in public radio that includes Ben Shapiro and two Ari Shapiros (Ari Daniel and Ari at NPR),” he added. That is some Highlander business right there.

Shapiro starts work in November.

Anyway, let’s talk more about Radiotopia! It’s such a weird thing, and it’s in my top 10 of favorite things to think about.

So, in my mind, Radiotopia is the closest thing to the platonic ideal of a podcast network. Deeply committed to quality, the collective is also uniquely far-reaching in its thinking about genre, conventions, ideas. No two shows under the Radiotopia umbrella sound alike; in some ways, each show feels like a distinctly differentiated thesis, or some sort of gambit, like each show is placing a different bet on the way things should sound. There is boldness to the range of shows that are in Radiotopia: a range of voice, tone, genre, idea, ideal, vision, hope, limitations, trajectory. (Abstaining from using the word “diversity” here, lest I mishandle the political context of that word.)

Many folks have described Radiotopia as a hippie commune, no doubt due to its nonprofit, public media-minded origins and relative looseness with the concept of maximizing revenue. Being the raging, conniving capitalist that I am, I tend to agree with this characterization. And there’s something about the way it’s structured that compels me to be curious: I’m going to guess that not all shows perform equally — in fact, I’m going to rampantly speculate that the range of those performances are huge — and looking at how, well, spotty some of the show’s episode release schedules are, I wonder about financial resources are distributed across all the shows, and I wonder if there are any hangups when it comes to feelings of equity within the collective. But this is just me thinking out loud; there’s probably nothing to that.

Besides, I’m actually more partial to a metaphor given to me by an actual Radiotopian: that the collective is best thought of as an “indie record label” — where a tastemaking entity validates many autonomous visions by providing financial and technical backing. That’s a pretty cool way of looking at it.

Anyway, for the record: My all-time favorite Radiotopia show is most definitely Criminal. That show is so RIDICULOUSLY good it literally makes me angry. Like absolutely pissed. I punched a wall once I was so pissed. It’s crazy. (Song Exploder comes in as a tight No. 2, but docked points because Hrishikesh Hirway wasn’t able to bag the Bieber before The New York Times got their grubby hands on him.)

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Gimlet president: We need a reliable third party to “set an industry standard.” Gimlet president and tallest-man-in-the-world Matt Lieber has that and plenty more things to say in this interview with the Tow Center at Columbia.

You should give the article your click, but two things to note:

  • Really enjoyed his response to the “Why would a successful show stick around a podcast network?” question. Money quote: “He hopes that by ‘super-serving’ the creators with editorial support and a sense of community they will be incentivized to remain within the network for the long term.” Of course, that works for some setups and not others, but that’s definitely one way to skin a cat.
  • Lieber’s point on initiating direct relationships with brands is absolutely essential to understanding the unique value-add that podcasting brings to advertisers. It’s also really interesting to think about the way host-read ads are typically baked into episodes in the context of the larger ad-blocking scare looming over the rest of digital media. (Assuming ad-blocking is a problem: Recode’s Peter Kafka remains skeptical, unless I’m reading him wrong.) Though, if you really think about it, once this whole dynamic ad-insertion thing kicks in, the race is theoretically on for ad-blocking tech to impact audio, perhaps even before the tech hits scale. Hmm.

Anyway, moving on.

BuzzFeed director of audio Jenna Weiss-Berman on Nieman Lab’s Press Publish podcast. This is good Weiss-Berman material. Probably not that user-friendly to link to an entire podcast episode, but the whole thing is most definitely worth a listen.

Highlights:

  • Young people listen more straight from SoundCloud, eh? Interesting.
  • “Co-optition.” Cute, but I totally dig it.
  • Note Jenna’s thinking that situates Another Round within a much larger multimedia — specifically, television — context. Question is not whether it will be successful (oh you know it probably will) but how the heck do you create that workflow?

NPR’s 10 years of podcasting. Tasty NPR Extra article here on the institution’s history with podcasting, complete with a timeline and a quick anecdote that sees National Public Media general manager Bryan Moffett, then a marketing analyst, crossing paths with the men who would go on to create (and fight over) Twitter. Anyway, check out the whole article, but here are some delicious numbers to take away:

  • “Between NPR and all of the public radio stations who contributed shows to those first collections in the directory, it took about a year and a half to reach 80 million downloads.” I’m guessing that’s total downloads across the whole network.
  • “Last month, we had 76 million downloads for just those programs NPR produces or distributes.” Daaayum.

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“Wanting to be heard.” The Toast ran this article on podcasting and representation last week, and it’s a great read. Give the whole thing your attention, but here are some quotes that really stuck with me:

  • Nia King, host of We Want The Airwaves: “If I can self-publish a book and sell 1,000 copies, what is the incentive for me to have a press that’s not going to help me with touring? It’s just unclear whether I’m better off working within the system or without. Because at least now I have complete creative control.”
  • Stephanie Foo, This American Life: “I think that as the content has started to change, the listenership has started to change. We finally have podcasts that are made for younger people now.”

Audio fiction. So, uh, I’ve been working on an item about audio fiction for about, well, four weeks now, and I’m having a lot of trouble hammering down what I really think about the genre. Now, if you’ve been following this newsletter for a while, you’re probably acquainted with my largely negative feelings about most audio fiction that can be found on the market right now.

But here’s the thing: I actually believe that audio fiction is the growth market in on-demand audio. I just think that the genre hasn’t been done right, or has been done in a way that can compel non-partisan listeners to legitimately think that it’s up to par with most other forms of mainstream entertainment. (In fact, if I ever did work up the gastrointestinal fortitude to go solo and run my own ship — or marry rich and live off a spousal bonus, either way — a big part of what I’d do would be bankrolling very specific audio fiction projects.) I think about it quite a lot, and because I’ve been thinking about it quite a lot, I haven’t been able to settle on what I want to say.

Anyway, while I’ve been sitting here and twiddling my thumbs, these two things dropped and I really think that you should check them out ASAP:

  • Nieman Lab’s writeup of the Limetown podcast. Money quote: “They’re not purposely trying to fool anyone, but their background in film has given them a refreshing view on podcasts: Why can’t they be more like movies?”
  • The Pub podcast: Ann Heppermann on the rebirth of audio fiction.

Cool? Cool. I’m going to go back and work on this audio fiction item a little more, which is now about 2,500 words long and looks suspiciously like the Little Red Book, which is why I’m probably going to junk it and just do a 500-word rant instead.

Maybe next week.

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An update on that SXSW panel I’m working on. So last week I mentioned that I’m trying to organize a panel at SXSW about podcast audience growth — strategies, philosophies, challenges, and so on. That’s still happening, but there’s been a change: the great Gretchen Rubin can’t do the panel, because she’s double-booked, so the third panelist will be Midroll’s vice president of business development Erik Diehn.

Before going to Midroll, Diehn was the senior director of business development at WNYC, and before that, he had stints at Bloomberg and the Boston Consulting Group. (You know who else did time at BCG? Matt Lieber. Small world.) Which is all to say, compared to the other two panelists — BuzzFeed’s Weiss-Berman and Longform’s Max Linsky — Diehn’s bringin’ the corporate game.

Should be fun, if we get enough votes, of course.

You can vote for the panel here. Please note that you’d have to create some sort of login to vote, which kinda sucks and I’m so sorry.

Oh man, that was a long one. All right, have a great week, see you next Tuesday!

Is this your first time reading Hot Pod? You can subscribe to the newsletter here, which mostly features irrelevant exclusive content (mostly different GIFs and stuff about what I had for lunch but whatever that’s the newsletter strategy I’m rolling with).

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. In fact, I’ve always wondered: What, exactly, is Radiotopia? Why the heck is it a “collective”? What makes a show Radiotopia-worthy? What does the network stand for? Who does it target? Does it dream of electric sheep?
POSTED     Sept. 1, 2015, 9:30 a.m.
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