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Dec. 15, 2015, 11:20 a.m.
Mobile & Apps

Hot Pod: A few important things about the new season of Serial

The first episode of the second season of Serial debuted last week. Plus: Third Coast International Audio Festival is running its first fundraising campaign, and Howard Stern re-ups with Sirius XM.

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is Issue Fifty-Three, published December 15, 2015.

So, yeah, that big thing happened last week. We’re going to stick to that, for the most part.

Serial returns. On Thursday, shortly after 6 a.m. ET, Serial’s second season quietly went live. Over RSS feeds, and whatever metaphor you use to visualize the arterial veins of the Internet, the episode trickled into position on native and third-party podcasting apps, on streaming services, and on the Serial website.

The rollout wasn’t perfect. There were reports on Twitter of the show’s website being unresponsive. There were also mentions that, for a time after the episode drop, downloads were not successfully being facilitated on numerous podcasting apps. (For the record, I had no such trouble using Overcast, but I did find that my native Apple podcasting app refused to budge all the way until 7:30 a.m. or so.) The podcast delivery infrastructure, ten years old and not significantly evolved since the day it was born, appeared to be bending at the seams. Not quite bursting, but most definitely challenged, and challenged hard.

However, as wobbly as all that may have been, one thing was for certain: Serial is back, and all eyes were on it.

Serial is probably the most written-about podcast in the world. The New Yorker had a deep cut. The New York Times was on it. So was Slate. And Mashable. Also, the new new paper of record, The Washington Post. And of course Nieman Lab had an angle on it. All of that coverage, combined with the fact that I have no real access to the team, means that there is only so much that I can bring to the already crowded conversation. And so, with all that in mind, I’ve opted to play a tighter game. In lieu of a comprehensive take, here are four things that I think all you podcast-watchers should keep an eye on:

Pandora Serial InterfacePandora. After the streaming music company’s slightly confusing announcement about becoming the podcast’s exclusive streaming partner back in November, I was a little dubious about the significance of this development. But, as it turns out, Pandora proved to be an interesting distribution point. The podcast may have been damn near impossible to find on the app’s search engine — I found it, oddly enough, under the “Stations You Might Like” section — but once it’s loaded, you are greeted by an interface showing that Pandora has segmented the episode so that you can, if you want, jump to different parts of the episode, the way you might with a DVD using the “Choose a Scene” feature. It is an attempt at making spoken audio skimmable, and one suspects that a big research question for the Pandora team is whether a significant portion of users end up interacting with this feature at all. That answer, unfortunately, is contingent on another question: whether people will use Pandora to listen to the podcast in the first place.

Community and marketing. Here’s someone you should pay close attention to over the course of the season: Serial’s community editor Kristen Taylor. She appears to be the point person who will mediate the team’s relationship with the rest of the world — over social, press releases, news reports. She’s the meta-narrative carrying forward the direction of the podcast’s Tumblr blog, the voice pushing back against reports containing inaccuracies about the show, and most likely the person who will closely observe conversations around the show and its central investigation (a task that will probably lead to the depths of Reddit).

Other things to note: Serial now boasts a Vine account (though it didn’t seem to be working as of Tuesday morning), and the show is also the first test user of what appears to be Facebook’s new audio unit. The unit plays a pre-recorded promo by Sarah Koenig introducing the show, and the player is accompanied by a call to action that either leads you to the podcast’s website (if you’re on desktop) or the iTunes app (if you’re on mobile). There are a crap ton of questions here, but I’m sure answers will be revealed over time — with Facebook’s blessing or otherwise. In the meantime, check out Nieman Lab’s write-up of the Facebook experiment here.

Advertising. Fans who downloaded the podcast early Thursday morning were happy to find that the notorious Mailkimp ad survived the transition to the second season. (Man, I hope that kid gets royalties.) That pre-roll was accompanied by a spot from another familiar advertiser, Squarespace, thus revealing that the two original advertisers from the first season returned for this second serving. Which is great, of course, but this state of affairs did spark a bit of disappointment among some close observers. There had been a belief that, given all the insane fervor around Serial’s first season — which included a visit to Cannes — the podcast’s second season would have been a solid way for big, name-brand advertisers to get into the game for the first time. After all, if you were to place a bet on any podcast doing solid returns, that podcast would probably be Serial, right? And so the lack of brand advertisers on the new season’s first episode was a sign of limited confidence in the medium, or so the argument goes in this piece by the International Business Times.

That may well be the case, except for the fact that there are more advertisers in play than just MailChimp and Squarespace. At this writing, the pre-rolls on the first episode now include CVS Health and Audible, suggesting the use of dynamic ad insertion technology to swap out ads around. That isn’t a new development, necessarily; over the past few months, listeners who downloaded episodes from the first season would find that the Mailchimp advertisements were no longer present — they had been swapped out for newer ads. But what’s particularly interesting here is the fact that the episode isn’t even a week old and it’s already been cycled out. I’m keeping a close eye on the back catalog, and making a list of the many campaigns that are taking place on the podcast across the season.

If CVS Health doesn’t strike you as a big brand advertiser, then try listening to the podcast on Pandora. In what appears to be a campaign built specifically for Pandora and the podcast’s launch, the first episode came with an ad for a new Warner Brothers film, In the Heart of the Sea. The spot involved Sarah Koenig tag-teaming with Ron Howard, that Happy Days guy who also directed a bunch of movies you may or may not have seen, to do a host-read plugging the movie. It’s surreal enough to hear Sarah Koenig doing a podcast ad host-read with Howard, but it’s doubly surreal to hear them plug a movie about a giant fish. Well, a giant whale. (That’s what the movie’s about, by the way: Chris Hemsworth goes on the hunt for a big whale, and Moby Dick is apparently inspired by the supposed true exploits of his character.)

The Serial industrial complex. Speaking of whales: The podcast’s first season was so popular, so successful, and so frenzy-inducing that it gave rise to a veritable cottage industry of Serial-related podcasts that may, from a distance, look to some like barnacles stuck to the bottom of a much bigger thing. (Wow, that was a terrible segue. I’m so sorry.) To name a few: Slate’s Serial Spoiler Specials, AV Club’s The Serial Serial, Undisclosed: The State vs. Adnan Syed, Crime Writers on Serial, and so on.

With the second season, though, the podcast appears to have executed a relatively clean genre shift — from true crime to, for lack of better term, a political thriller. This change leaves a lot of these ancillary podcasts, particularly the ones stuck on the true crime angle, out in the cold, and it should be interesting to see if those podcasters end up being able to extend the conversation.

So, was the first episode of the second season any good? In a word, yes. Very much so. Despite all the podcast-related developments in the year since the first season ended, both in terms of aesthetics and economic infrastructure, “DUSTWUN” was perhaps the best sounding piece of tape I’ve heard all year. It is such a step above everything else on the market. Cinematic, beautifully written, tightly produced, deeply reported (or at least seeming so), and so incredibly well thought through — every single scene and line feels so purposeful — the episode definitely feels like a step upwards, a shift away from the semi-artisanal feel of the first season toward something more aggressively formal, professional, serious.

This is reflected, I believe, in the reduced reliance on Sarah Koenig as character-narrator, where the specificities of who she is as a person is given less of the spotlight. There are still moments of this, of course. “Oh, flies, yeah,” she says at one point, in a piece of tape that is suggestive of the first season’s informality but, in this context, feels a lot more like an unintentional breaking of the fourth wall. And I suppose the shift comes with the change in genre, from true crime to political thriller/documentary, which in turn comes with a similar shift in scope from local to global, from a specific community to an entire international system.

The episode ended with a strong, funny, and jaw-dropping sort-of cliffhanger, but as whiplash-inducing as that moment was, it’s still very hard to tell where this season will go and whether it will maintain its very high quality to the end. But, as critic Matt Zoller Seitz notes (he was talking about TV shows, but the same applies to podcasts), it’s the second season of a show that defines the mettle of the production team behind it. Indeed, it is the second season — or the second article, or the second album — that proves the success of a first was not a fluke, but was truly a consequence of internal production design, composition, and structure. I suspect that Serial’s second season will determine whether it will go on to become an institution and whether this medium is able to justify all the conversation it has enjoyed thus far.

Third Coast. There are few institutions more beloved in the American radio community than the Third Coast International Audio Festival, a Chicago-based nonprofit that focuses on the development and support of audio documentary producers. (The Salt Institute is also pretty up there in the beloved radio institution power rankings. See also: the state of Vermont, probably.) Founded in 2000, first under the jurisdiction of WBEZ and then as an independent organization in 2009, the organization is responsible for a major biennial conference that draws radio and audio documentary lovers into one big space, where they meet and cavort and sow the seeds of future. It was also once the home of Julie Shapiro, now the executive producer over at the Radiotopia podcast network/indie label.

The organization is currently in the midst of a fundraising campaign — its first in what has turned out to be a remarkable year for audio. “The field has changed so much in the past year, and so many more people are rushing into it,” said Johanna Zorn, executive director of Third Coast, when we spoke over the phone recently. She sounded wistful, happy, perhaps a little amused. Like she was a little surprised about everything that’s been happening, about the fact that a lot more people now suddenly give a damn. Or maybe I was just projecting.

“We’re not here to take credit, but we’ve been here from the beginning and we want to take stock of how Third Coast has impacted the community,” she said. And it’s hard to overstate the impact it’s had on the space, even if it’s hard to quantify. Local lore has it that Lulu Miller and Alix Spiegel, the duo behind NPR’s wildly popular Invisibilia podcast, first met each other at one of these festivals. The New York Radio Club, an informal monthly gathering of young radio folk in the city, was created by a group of people who met at the festival and wanted to keep the community going on a local level.

With this year’s campaign, Third Coast is looking to grow and expand its reach for the first time in fifteen years. “We’ve been a small group for a long time — three full-timers, two part-timers — and we’ve been able to do what we do and really work hard at it,” Zorn said. “We want more people at our conference, but we need more than just me and one other person to make that happen.”

The campaign is scheduled to run through to the end of the month. Hit up this link for more information, if you’re so inclined.

Howard Stern re-signs with Sirius XM. The legendary shock jock has reportedly signed on to keep his show at satellite radio company Sirius XM for another five years. Details are still trickling in, and at this writing, it’s unclear how much the new deal is worth. Stern’s contract was due to expire this week, and there had been some speculation that he might ultimately opt to go solo and distribute his wildly popular show through other means. Some fans, according to AdAge, speculated a possible route through Google, Pandora, or Spotify — after all, all three music streaming platforms are now involved in spoken audio. Others, like tech investor (and founder of Inside.com) Jason Calacanis, made the argument for Stern to distribute his show as over-the-top content. Stern had a wide variety of options on the table, with one significant exception: he appeared to have no intention of pursuing podcasting, declaring earlier this year that “podcasts are for losers.” (You can find a pretty interesting analysis of Sirius XM’s chances of survival without Stern in this Bloomberg piece.)

Stern’s last contract with Sirius XM was signed in 2010 and paid him an estimated $80 million a year, according to Variety. In other news, I should reconsider my career choices.

Some housekeeping: I’m taking the next two weeks off Nieman Lab. But I’ll be sporadically publishing the newsletter, depending on what goes on with Serial. You can subscribe using the link below. Cool? Cool. Happy holidays, folks. Keep safe.

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     Dec. 15, 2015, 11:20 a.m.
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