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Nov. 3, 2015, 11:30 a.m.
Mobile & Apps

Hot Pod: How Google, the podcast world’s big new entrant into the field, will approach curation

“I love the concierge format. It’s something that anticipates what you need and then serves it to you. Interviews and podcasts are a big leap into that direction.”

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is Issue Forty-Seven, published November 3, 2015.

Google Pod. Oh boy oh boy oh boy. Last week, Google announced that it was officially — finally — getting into podcasting, putting out a press release indicating that its Google Play service would “soon offer podcasts to listeners” and that the new service would “allow podcasters access to millions of new listeners on Android phones and tablets.”

When exactly the new service will roll out remains a mystery, but for now, Google has set up a portal through which podcast producers can submit their RSS feeds so their podcasts can be included in the Google Play listings once it goes live. The company also indicated that, prior to this announcement, they had been ardently working with a bunch of major podcasting players — including Gimlet, Earwolf, Loud Speakers Network, and Panoply (my lovely shiny day job employer) — as part of a discovery/learning/exploratory process to figure out how the service would actually work.

As you could imagine, this is a long-awaited announcement, particularly from the corners of the podcasting world that often lament the medium’s issues with discoverability and its predominant funneling through the Apple ecosystem. (Recall that a majority of all podcast consumption happens through the native iPhone podcasting app.) “What do you think of this? Could be another inflection point at the level of Apple deciding to bundle the Podcasts app with iOS by default,” a reader wrote to me last week.

Maybe, probably, hopefully. We’ll see. I’m not even being fatalistic or anything — I mean, it’s almost guaranteed that this is going to lead to some sort of bump in overall podcast listenership. But the real question is how much of a sustained bump we will actually see, and the other real question is what are the macro effects this new player will bring, and the other other real question is how will this affect the manner in which podcasters approach publishing, promotion, and audience development priorities. (See thematically-related Digiday piece, “The newest key person at publishers: platform wranglers.”) Also, to be fair, I’m the kind of guy who’s not even sure if my apartment will still be there when I get back from work this evening, so don’t take my level of optimism for anything.

Nevertheless, Google’s foray into podcasting is particularly exciting not only how it may better connect podcasts and Android users, but also for the unique hypothesis it’s hoping to validate: that a curated playlist or “concierge” experience is the ticket to cultivating greater podcast consumption.

To understand Google’s approach, you have catch up on some of the inside baseball here: the person leading Google Play’s efforts in podcasting is one Elias Roman, who used to run a popular “music concierge” web app called Songza that Google acquired in the summer of 2014. Songza sought to provide listeners with context-specific playlists — a series of tracks to prop up your commute, or some tunes to go with fancy steak dinner for one — which, of course, is not a wholly original or novel approach. Spotify, for example, wields their own version of this on their “Browse” section. But the service executed the idea very well, hence its acquisition, and I loved it as a user back in its heyday.

However, to state the blindingly obvious, what works for music doesn’t necessarily work for podcasts/spoken audio. Plus, given that the service will likely serve podcasts under the Google Play Music app, there’s the hitherto untested situation where podcasts may be “flattened” next to music, potentially causing some weirdness in the user experience. (I had raised a similar concern back when Spotify announced they were getting into podcasts as well. Speaking of which, anybody heard any updates on them?)

“We thought about that a lot,” Roman said when we got on the phone last week. “But we figured, if we separate podcasts from music too much, we won’t be serving podcasts to people who aren’t already looking for them.” And that notion — introducing podcasts to non-podcast listeners who aren’t already looking for them — is fundamental to understanding Google’s approach to podcast delivery. Roman emphasized that Android users who are already listening to podcasts are already well catered for; after all, they’ve already actively sought out a third-party podcasting app. “I love the concierge format,” he said. “It’s something that anticipates what you need and then serves it to you. Interviews and podcasts are a big leap into that direction.”

Anyway, couple of other key things you should probably know:

  • The new podcast service will be limited to the U.S. at launch. The idea is to figure out the local market first, because the American podcast consumer experience isn’t necessarily translatable to foreign markets. “We’d want to get the nuances of the local context,” Roman said.
  • The Google Play Podcast experience will likely match what existing podcast listeners have come to expect from their primary consumption environments: There will be podcasting charts, there will be a subscription flow, and so on. Which is to say, users probably won’t have to learn a new language that’s separate from what already exists. The main contribution, as mentioned earlier, would be the curated playlist experience, which extends from the team’s “concierge” vision.
  • Still early days in terms of what analytics we can expect. Roman: “We’ll start with subscribers, downloads, listeners at the episode and show level. And then we’ll evolve that over time.”
  • I still have no idea what “Google-y” means.

Okay, so, time to put the rampant speculation hat on. Perhaps the most technically interesting thing here is how, exactly, will Google Play go about constructing these playlists, presumably at scale. I imagine some part of it will be built on well trodden processes that involve sophisticated music intelligence and data platforms — stuff like The Echo Nest, which was acquired by Spotify last summer, and the infrastructure that powers Pandora’s Music Genome Project — which break down and taxonomize the component parts that make up a piece of audio content, such that they can be paired and grouped in meaningful ways. Pandora, for example, spells it out for you: so-and-so song involves acoustic strumming, a slow tempo, French teenage ennui, etc., and so the service follows up that song with others that will propel the narrative of a particular listening experience. A playlist, then, has a kind of theoretical narrative-emotional arc that it’s trying to get you to feel.

I don’t personally know of any company that’s applying this particular paradigm to spoken audio, but the opportunity is ripe for the taking. They could raise a team of research interns to apply quantitative codify qualitative experiences, graduate school style. Mystery Show is a podcast that’s deeply narrative, adopts the conventions of journalism, uses music to convey tone and propel plot, involves a female host, and features a Jake Gyllenhaal appearance. Bullseye is an interview podcast that’s biographical, exploratory, and revolves around themes of creativity. The Read is *fire hashtag*. And so on and so on, such that a unitary podcast episode is so effectively broken down in its meta-data such that you’re able to sequence and match pieces of content to produce a more glorious whole.

Okay, that’s enough of that. In other news, when pressed on what podcasts make up his rotation, Roman shouts out The Memory Palace, Stuff You Missed in History Class, Freakonomics, and, of course, Serial.

Deezer. In related news, the Paris-based music streaming company Deezer announced last week that it was adding 20,000 podcasts to its inventory. As you may recall, Deezer was the company that acquired Stitcher, the popular San Francisco-based podcasting app, in the fall of last year. At this point in time, it remains unclear how Stitcher and Deezer are integrated, though it appears that Stitcher retains its autonomy as its own standalone service for now. You can find out more about this over at The Next Web’s writeup, which seems to portray this development as a kind of defensive move to extend its theoretical lead over Google Play.

First Run. Last week, I ran a quick recap on the slate of new shows that Gimlet is set to roll out in the near future. One of those shows was Science Vs, a science podcast (duh) hosted by one Wendy Zuckerman that’s due to come out early next year, according to the iTunes listing. Now, if you checked out the preview, you’d probably notice that Zuckerman has an Australian accent, and that’s probably because she’s Australian, which is convenient because Science Vs is actually a podcast that was developed by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation out of a really, really interesting project called First Run.

According to its website, First Run is “ABC Radio’s series of digital first podcasts, developed specifically for on-demand listening…It’s our chance to trial new programs and ideas and quickly get them to you — whenever and wherever you might be listening.”

If that sounds familiar to you, that’s because you could, if you were as analytically superficial as I am, draw out a loose parallel between First Run and whatever WNYC Studios is doing, but with the two having fairly different approaches (and budgets, probably, because who else is aiming to potentially raise $15 million for audio programming?)

I wrote Angela Stengel, who served as executive producer on First Run’s first season, asking for how First Run worked. She wrote back:

The First Run project kicked off almost a year ago now and, in short, was about applying development techniques we use all the time in digital development — a “lean” approach and human centered design — to content commissioning. Our boss Linda Bracken has been a big advocate of human centered design, the idea that you need to find out what drives the audience, rather than dictating to them what they should like — whether it’s a website, app or radio program.

Curious, I asked Stengel to explain further what she meant by a “lean” approach to content commissioning in the podcast context. Her response was long, comprehensive, and amazing, and I’ve posted the whole response — which includes a breakdown of the entire development process, the major learnings they pulled out of the experience, and more info about Stengel — over in this Google Doc. Quick sample:

This approach is about not stopping at the first good idea, but flipping it around and trying the ideas different ways until you have a few different options, perhaps each better than the last.

She’s the coolest.

Other than Science Vs, First Run’s first season also produced Rum, Rebels, and Ratbags, a history podcast, and Confession Booth, a live storytelling podcast. And speaking of Science Vs, this is fun: an Australian website, Mumbrella, phrased Gimlet’s acquisition of the show as follows: “ABC to lose popular Science Vs podcast as format and presenter snapped up by US outfit.” That Gimlet, wrecking Australian homes. Tsk tsk tsk.

Hat-tip to Hot Pod reader (and native Australian) M. Martignoni for the First Run connection. You da man, Martignoni!

Serial on Pandora. Nieman Lab, my sister from another mother, has the lowdown on Pandora’s super confusing announcement yesterday that it’s secured “exclusive streaming rights” to Serial, which you should read. In short, literally nothing’s changed, except that Pandora listeners can now access Serial through the service, and Spotify/other direct Pandora competitors won’t have the rights to stream.

Talk about a bungled announcement, yikes!

In other fun news, Serial has a new community editor, Kristen Taylor, who was responsible for Serial joining Vine. In less fun news, Taylor had to deal with the aftermath of the confusing announcement. Nieman Lab with the quote:

“The whole goal of the partnership [with Pandora] was to expand our audience,” Taylor said. “But there was a lot of confusion about how you can listen to a podcast, and it was a little bit difficult to make it clear, especially to people who don’t really listen to podcasts.”

Yikes. The release date for Serial season 2 remains mysterious.

Codebreaker. So American Public Media (unfairly) doesn’t get much attention in this newsletter, partly due to my fixation with the new and the close-to-me, but it’s certainly an entity that deserves closer study for the rather unique place it occupies in the radio/podcasting landscape. APM is the second largest producer of public radio programming in the United States (according to good ol’ Wikipedia), and it’s responsible for the Marketplace shows (which occupy a special place in my heart) as well as the Infinite Guest podcast network. That network is totally weird and eclectic and expansive and I absolutely don’t understand it, except that it distributes some really fascinating podcasts like Dinner Party Download, The Frame, and Too Beautiful Too Live (the second longest running in-joke in the world). Infinite Guest was also once home to You Must Remember This before my employer, Panoply, swooped in and picked it up, which gives you a sense that whoever curates the network certainly has taste — offbeat as it is — and I’d just like to eat my hat and apologize for not paying more attention sooner.

BUT ANYWAY, this item is not about American Public Media proper. It’s about a new show project they’re rolling out called Codebreaker. Hosted by Marketplace Tech’s Ben Johnson, Codebreaker is, I’m told, a seasonal podcast set to drop its first season en masse for the purposes of binge consumption, à la Netflix. And if the whole binge-design is not enough to pique your interest for new podcast structures, there’s an additional catch that could well flip your cookie.

Cue Clare Toeniskoetter, the show’s producer:

To binge, you need to *unlock* each new episode with a code that you’ve deciphered from the previous episode. Otherwise, you have to wait and listen every week when episodes are released like a normal podcast. Our codes will get progressively harder over time.

Sound gimmicky? Bizarre? Perhaps reminiscent of Saw? Probably, totally, and yeah maybe, respectively. But props to the team for coming up with something completely whack-a-doodle and interesting, because I’m dying for some novelty in Podland here.

And yeah, sure, the codebreaking conceit might be counterintuitive to the Netflix binge metaphor, which is built on a slightly lean-back relationship between the user and a content portal that’s structured like a rabbit-hole in order to create that omg-how-is-it-evening-already-I-just-said-one-episode experience. Codebreaker’s gimmick sounds like it’s pitching more of an augmented/alternate reality experience (or transmedia storytelling, if we’re using marketing speak) angle, which is actually super cool and has been executed beautifully in the past by larger media properties like, to take the biggest example, Lost.

Oh wait, I should tell you what the show is about, shouldn’t I? Cue Toeniskoetter again:

[The show] takes one fundamental question we have about technology and applies that to one kind of technology in every episode. The first question we’re trying to answer: Is it evil? It’s tongue-in-cheek — we’re not technophobes, but we do want to evaluate the role tech plays in our lives. Think Mr. Robot and Black Mirror meet radio journalism.

I like Mr. Robot. I like Black Mirror. I like radio journalism. Okay, Codebreaker. You have my curiosity.

The Codebreaker team is going to be presenting its podcast at the New York Tech Meetup this week, which is certainly an interesting piece of marketing. The show will launch in proper on November 11, so set your feeds and wait for it wait for it.

NPR’s nifty new podcast discovery tool. Check it!

On fiction podcasts. Some nifty writeups over the week about this bumper crop of fiction-related podcasts that we’re seeing lately. Check out:

Whee!

Podcasts as means to live vicariously through journalists. The Columbia Journalism Review has an interesting argument up by one Brendan Fitzgerald, titled “Serial, Mystery Show, and why listeners want to be in on the investigation.” I’ll let you guess what article’s about, and I’m sure there’s some sort of loose parallel you can draw out with Twitch or Periscope or liveblogging or something. But I’m not going to make it because I’m a bit too lazy right now. Anyway, check it.

Grantland. You probably heard about Grantland. So I don’t know how you mourn, but I spent Sunday night quietly weeping on my fire escape and listening to old Longform interviews with a few choice Grantland writers. Links, for your perusal:

Remember kids: Nothing that’s beautiful is built to last forever.

GREAT JOB, BARANSKI!

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     Nov. 3, 2015, 11:30 a.m.
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