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Oct. 20, 2015, 11:52 a.m.
Mobile & Apps

Hot Pod: Why is WNYC making such a big bet on podcasts?

“We see HBO going into the podcast business, but we should also look at HBO. We should be focusing on making shows that huge chunks of America will entertain themselves with.”

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is Issue Forty-Five, published October 20, 2015.

WNYC Studios, part two: In case you missed it, last week saw big public radio mothership WNYC announce the launch of its new podcast division, called WNYC Studios. The new unit ostensibly serves two purposes: first, to formally house the operations of the station’s existing digitally oriented shows, and second, to carry out the development of future programming with an eye to expanding the station’s digital revenue stream. As WNYC chief content officer Dean Cappello succinctly put it: “This is the way we will become a much, much bigger content company, period.”

You can review the launch details on the New York Times piece on the matter, and you can also check out my initial reactions on the last issue of Hot Pod, where I was particularly hung up by the division’s requirement ambition to raise all dat cash. As I wrote then: “To what extent will WNYC Studios allow the station to raise money outside the traditional nonprofit model? And is this part of a larger narrative that sees WNYC angling to enter a flexible relationship with its public broadcasting responsibilities?” Wow I can’t believe I just quoted myself I need to take a walk around the block now.

Anyway, I was able to get on the phone with Cappello and WNYC president/CEO Laura Walker to ask some questions about the launch. Here are the high-level takeaways:

Why. “This is about having enough heft in the business…We’re not boutique any more,” Cappello said. “The place where the huge growth is happening has to do with mobile and audio…We don’t want to cede that territory to anybody else.” He went on to maintain two things: (1) The formalization of WNYC Studios as an organizational structure is meant to recognize that there’s been an uptake in digital audio, and (2) the development is also, in part, a way to respect the fact that audiences for broadcast programming and audiences for on-demand audio want distinctly separate things. The division, then, can be read a move to better position the station to optimize programming for both platform categories.

But there’s a tension at play, the very same that’s at the heart of a bunch of other content companies that have been compelled to accommodate the Internet. Cappello: “When podcasting hit, there was a moment where Laura [Walker] and I looked at each other and said, ‘We’re producing content. It’s not about producing for platforms.'”

When. I had been curious about the decision-making process and the timeline that went into the division’s creation. Walker mentioned that the idea of doubling down on podcasts — that is, to build out a structure within the station that would facilitate the management and expansion of its on-demand audio assets — was presented during the last strategy meeting involving the station’s board. Cappello offered a more granular timeline of “two or three strategic plans ago,” which probably pegs the presentation to either early 2015 or late 2014.

“We came to ask ourselves a couple of questions,” Walker told me. “What would it mean to take a lead role in building this space? To be a stronger talent magnet? What would it mean to inspire new voices and diversity? And how do we figure out a way to do this in a nimble way that’s both entrepreneurial and funded with philanthropy?” (More on that last part in a bit.)

According to Cappello and Walker, WNYC Studios is largely a formalization of several initiatives that have been taking place over a longer period of time in piece-meal fashion. Consider: the steady launch of new podcast-first projects like Only Human and Death, Sex & Money, the move to self-distribute successful shows like Radiolab and On The Media, the partnership to coproduce and provide ad-sales support for Oakland-based Snap Judgment. The executive-level restructuring back in July was an explicit move to prepare for the new division, and the internally-circulated memo that announced those changes contains, perhaps, the first public sighting of the name “WNYC Studios.”

Anyway, assuming the broad strokes are right, this timeline is super interesting to me. It strikes me as relatively brisk, especially for a public institution — according to a common groan I hear in the industry, any decision-making process around a project of this scale tends to be slow. Furthermore, one could also probably infer the emotional context of the room: November 2014, the earliest possible date that plan could’ve been unveiled to the board, was the month that saw Serial entering the middle chunk of its narrative…and steadily approaching the peak of public obsession. (Coincidentally, November 2014 was also the month when Hot Pod was born.)

Content development. Glancing at the slate of shows announced with the division’s launch, it appears that a big chunk of WNYC Studio’s initial development adopts a model that significantly targets partnerships with media organizations and personalities. The first new show to premiere under the WNYC Studios banner (after the launch announcement, at least) is the long-talked-about New Yorker Radio Hour. Other projects in development include shows with Vice News, author Roxane Gay, and comedian Sara Schaefer. That model, interestingly enough, put WNYC Studios in roughly the same category as Panoply (disclaimer: my day-job employer), which pursues projects of similar vein. Of course, the key difference being that WNYC Studios is rolling off a rich history of successful broadcast-oriented programming.

When talking to Cappello about WNYC Studios’ content development process, an obvious analogy emerged: that of a film production company. However, that analogy turned out to be a lot more literal than initially anticipated. “I think it’s a two-way street,” he said. “We see HBO going into the podcast business, but we should also look at HBO. We should be focusing on making shows that huge chunks of America will entertain themselves with.” He brought up the notion of experimenting with different genres and new formats — noting that WNYC Studios is currently working on a scripted series project — along with the idea of targeting talent from other industries (say, film or television) that haven’t been able to get their projects off the ground: “What if there are ways we could produce them in the audio format?”

Fundraising and revenue sources. According to Walker, the station seeks to raise $15 million fund for WNYC Studios. “Our initial request are going to individuals, philanthropic-oriented individuals, and foundations,” she said. The fundraising process is still very much active and in its early stages as of our conversation last week. These funds will be used to pilot projects and to expand revenue streams: to raise sponsorships, up their membership numbers, and develop robust Kickstarter campaigns. “It’s a mixed model,” Walker said.

Partnerships are also expected to bring in additional resources to the table that will aid in content development, though those resources won’t be included as part of the $15 million fund.

Walker also mentioned that she’s seen interest from the venture capital community. However, she isn’t sure how that could work, given that WNYC is a non-profit, public institution. (Side note: I found this to be crux of WNYC’s biggest issue. It’s a media company currently grappling with the structural transformation afforded by the digital shift, and it clearly has…let’s call it private-industry-oriented ambitions. But its capacity to reorient and accelerate is clearly bounded by its public commitments. These commitments are not just formal, but also cultural; one recalls the slight brouhaha that accompanied Ira Glass’ statements that “public radio is ready for capitalism.” That’s the sound that wind makes when it flows between a rock and a hard place.)

Internal talent development. One hopes that the launch of WNYC Studios means that there’ll be a lot more opportunities for the station’s existing talent — from the newsroom grunts all the way up to the senior producers — to get their shot. Time will tell whether this is the case. In the meantime, the station has been conducting the initial phases of an internal fellowship program that sounds like it would encourage rotations of earlier-stage talent between shows and divisions. This program is currently led by Suzie Lechtenberg, the former executive producer of Freakonomics Radio. If you’re a young WNYC staffer and you’re reading this, hopefully you know this already. If not, you know what to do.

Anyway, you can find out more brochure-level information about WNYC Studios on the division’s new landing page, which appears to have been constructed using Squarespace. (An on-brand move if I’ve ever seen one, given that Squarespace, like Mailchimp and Audible, is synonymous with the podcast format as a result of their generous contributions to the industry’s initial ad market.)

One more thing on WNYC. On diversity. It appears that WNYC has appointed Brenda Williams-Butts, formerly the senior director of community engagement and audience development, as the station’s new VP of recruitment, diversity, and inclusion. She joins the station’s HR team and will aim to up the game in both staff recruitment and program development. I imagine the press release is floating around on the Internet somewhere.

More FT on pods. The Financial Times has been pretty great on covering the business of the emerging podcasting space — a whole lot more than The Wall Street Journal, anyway. That’s probably in no small part due to Shannon Bond, the paper’s U.S. media and marketing correspondent, who follows up on her previous reporting on the space with a pod interview featuring tallest-man-in-the-world and Gimlet cofounder Matt Lieber. You should check out the interview in full on the FT Alphachat podcast here, but here are two things that stood out to me:

  • Gimlet generated $2 million in revenue from its first year. For context, it has raised $1.5 million in venture capital so far. From what I understand off the gossip mill, most, if not all, of that revenue is being reinvested into the company to further fuel expansion — as should be the case.
  • Some updates on upcoming Gimlet projects: (1) the Adam Davidson-Adam McKay two-way show Awesome Boring, the pilot of which was available to Gimlet members, is now called Secretly Awesome and still aims for release by the end of the year. (2) Lieber also drops some details on the new show they’re working on that’ll essentially be a podcast spotlighting other podcasts that chart in the less-visible echelons of iTunes.

A dent in the (NPR) universe. New data shared by NPR last week gave further shape and form to a trend we’ve all long suspected — that its audiences are getting progressively older and older, and that its overall audience pie is getting smaller and smaller. Current reported out the data and provided a great overview of the situation, and you should definitely check out the piece in full, but here are a couple of details that stood out to me:

  • “Morning Edition has seen a 20 percent drop among listeners under 55 since 2010.”
  • “Stations are losing listeners 12–44 years of age. NPR projects that by 2020, its stations’ audience of 44-year-olds and younger will be around 30 percent, half that demographic’s audience share in 1985.”
  • Digital audiences are growing, but that growth is deemed to be inadequate. Gwynne Villota, a senior research manager at NPR, with a fascinating quote: “At this point, we don’t think that digital listening is making up for the lost broadcast listening.”

It’s a tough situation, to say the very least. Strategically, the organization appears to essentially have three choices:

  • As suggested in the Current article’s wider narrative, NPR could opt to fully double down on radio and aggressively push to grow radio listenership. It’s a tough bet, given the increasing digitization of car entertainment systems — and not to mention a society-wide shift to mobile, let alone, uh, digital. (But wait, what the hell are we even talking about here? The report appears to categorize online radio streaming as a separate category from traditional radio. It’s reasonable to assume that at some point in the near future, all linear radio consumption will be streaming-based. I’m probably getting something wrong here. Someone disabuse me of this.)
  • To go the opposite direction, take the risk, and double down on digital — either streaming or on-demand. Of course, this is an unlikely outcome, given NPR’s composition in both revenue stream and governing interests.
  • To attempt some sort of middle ground — that is, to watch the markets on both ends and split its efforts to grow both pies at agreeable rates.

In other words, NPR stations either have to make a bet on one of the two markets, or they have to make bet on themselves that they’re able to balance the two very different, possibly conflicting distribution categories.

Alternatively, a perfectly valid choice is for NPR to bite the bullet and aim for a niche market: that of the old, radio-loving sophisticate. Not unlike, perhaps, what we think about when we think about New Yorker readers. But that’s super sad so let’s not think about that.

Small is beautiful. Digiday here with a fascinating piece on Goat Rodeo DC, a podcast collective that hopes to go the hyperlocal route by matching smaller, more region-oriented shows with local advertisers. Money quote: “The Goat Rodeo’s pitch to advertisers is built around the idea that podcast listeners, however limited in number, are highly engaged and hence attractive targets for local businesses looking to be a part of the conversation.”

Think of it as a companion piece to Nieman Lab’s earlier report on the Chicago Podcast Collective, which is also cited in the Digiday article.

Dating Ring. Podcasts are the new pickup line, apparently. I’ve heard about folks building out the “Tinder for podcasts,” but really the money’s in flipping it around and making the podcasts for Tinder. Wait, what? Anyway, the Washington Post with a fascinating coda on StartUp Season 2.

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.

POSTED     Oct. 20, 2015, 11:52 a.m.
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