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Dec. 8, 2015, 10:12 a.m.
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Hot Pod: Panoply’s parent company takes a stake in Gimlet Media

Plus: Scripps wants to expand Earwolf beyond comedy; NPR’s on-demand audience grows, while live-streaming stalls; Modern Love becomes a podcast; and more.

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is Issue Fifty-Two, published December 8, 2015.

Gimlet Media raises $6 million in Series A funding. Last week, I wrote a quick item noting that Gimlet, your friendly neighborhood podcasting company that narrates its own emergence into corporate self-actualization, was pursuing a Series A fundraising round — a move typical of startups oriented toward rapid growth. That round is now closed, with Gimlet raising $6 million for a valuation of $30 million, according to the Financial Times. (Shannon Bond, again, with the sweet beat coverage.)

True to form, Gimlet covered the fundraising decision in an episode of the Startup podcast, where it revealed, among other things, that the round was led by none other than Tim O’Shaughnessy, CEO and president of Graham Holdings. O’Shaughnessy, who became the Graham Holdings CEO after Donald E. Graham stepped down in November, will also serve as a member on Gimlet’s board.

So here’s the Bruce Willis twist, folks: Graham Holdings also happens to be the parent company of Panoply, the podcasting company spun off from Slate under the Slate Group banner (and my day job employer).

It’s a little confusing, and it may seem a little, you know, funny, but a development like this is by no means uncommon. Graham Holdings is doing exactly what conglomerates are made to do — they invest in and own several different properties, many of which are often clumped within the same industry categories depending on the portfolio strategy and the attendant skill set. In Graham Holdings’ case, the portfolio skews largely toward media: TV stations, Slate, and Foreign Policy, along with media-adjacent properties like SocialCode, a social advertising intelligence company, and Kaplan, that company that makes all those blue textbooks you need to plow through if you wanted to go to grad school. *eyes bookshelf, shudders, pours more wine*

A tempting interpretation would be to project some sort of direct line between Panoply and Gimlet: a possible integration, perhaps, or even a merger (gasp!). But such an interpretation is far too forceful — indeed, there may be some sort of future where any of those things can happen, but as it stands, with Gimlet president Matt Lieber telling the Financial Times that Graham Holdings “would keep Panoply separate from its stake in Gimlet,” any such developments down the line would probably be conducted as a (mostly) natural function of the marketplace.

Still, the current configuration is curious, particularly given the podcast industry’s relative immaturity.

“One thing that’s useful to ask is whether there is room in the audio market for multiple large, successful media companies,” Lieber wrote me last night, when I reached out after spinning around in circles for a couple of hours. “My answer would be yes. This isn’t the winner-take-all world of social networks or chip manufacturers.”

He’s right, obviously, but then again, that point was always fairly clear to me. The questions that I’m most drawn to revolve around Tim O’Shaughnessy: what is the nature of his influence as a board member, or of the influence of any board member in a small media company like Gimlet? How do information and experience get transferred across properties in the same portfolio, if that is even something that’s meant to happen at all? That’s some heavy theoretical shit, and I’m ill-equipped and ill-educated to figure that out here in my Gowanus bedroom with my legs propped up on an IKEA table.

I’m additionally drawn to wonder more about the manner in which I, as a Panoply employee, found out about the Graham Holdings investment. Indeed, I recall hearing some rumors here and there way back when, but oh, rumors. I wade through so many rumors everyday running this darn little newsletter. Rumors like, oh I don’t know, Audible sending folks out into playwriting circles to scope for talent — they all sound so far-fetched.

Anyway, according to the Startup episode that dropped last Thursday, Graham Holdings invested $5 million into the $6 million round, with the remainder split between some existing investors upping their commitment and a crowdfunded pool that was mediated through Quire, the equity crowdfunding platform that was launched under the NY-based startup studio Betaworks. A Quire email sent out last Monday also indicated that Betaworks, which was an investor in Gimlet’s seed round, also participated in this Series A raise. According to the Financial Times article, Gimlet will use the cash to scale up from four to 12 shows and from 25 to 75 employees over the next two years. Damn.

In related news, I asked Chris Giliberti, Gimlet’s chief of staff, what it’s like to appear in an episode of Startup. “It was great,” he said. “It feels like I’ve finally been indoctrinated.” He paused. “It’s like they can’t fire me now that I’m public.” Good man, that Giliberti.

What is EW Scripps up to?mysterious job listing popped up from the Scripps Washington Bureau a couple of days ago indicating that the company, which had acquired Midroll Media over the summer, was looking for a Washington, D.C.–based senior producer to work on future podcast projects. What struck me as particularly curious was the following line from the job description:

The senior producer will work closely with the larger Midroll network and will be a key part of extending that very successful model into journalism and ideas.

I had assumed, following the acquisition, that podcasting operations for both Midroll and Scripps would be one and the same. The way the sentence was phrased suggested the rise of a parallel podcasting structure within Scripps that would collaborate with, but ultimately exist autonomously from, Midroll Media.

“Midroll and Scripps are one entity,” Ellen Weiss, VP and bureau chief of Scripps DC, who is overseeing the recruitment of the position, told me right off the bat.

“The idea behind what we’re doing is to sort of take this really successful model with comedy and pop culture and extend it into the nonfiction space,” she said, referring to the success carved out by Midroll’s Earwolf network, which made a name for itself launching deeply loved comedy podcasts that ultimately gave rise to the comedy podcast subculture. “Everything from aspirational journalism to thinking and ideas to sort of social trends … things like that.” She talked about working closely with Midroll’s chief content officer Chris Bannon, senior producer Gretta Cohn, and the rest of the Midroll team, ultimately painting a picture of a fairly cohesive team that appears to be in lockstep when it comes to potential talent or property acquisition.

I asked Weiss about what extending the comedy and pop culture model into the non-fiction space actually meant, and she referred to Question of the Day, a three-days-a-week, bite-sized podcast that Midroll launched in August, as an example. That, she pointed out, is an Earwolf show. As it turns out, the move being adopted here is to expand the Earwolf network beyond comedy-oriented offerings, as opposed to launching a separate network focusing on nonfiction properties.

This was a challenge to a theory I’ve had about the value of podcast networks as a curatorial unit. “Won’t the Earwolf brand dilute if you expand it beyond comedy?” I asked.

Weiss waved off the suggestion, offering instead that being saturated with a multiplicity of brands was a worse fate. “I don’t think so,” she said. “The same people who listen to All Things Considered also listen to Car Talk. Listeners check out a variety of content; what they’re looking for is a specific set of core values.” And what are those core values? She pointed to two things: the belief that people want to learn something, and the belief that people want to be entertained.

“I’m hoping to get great candidates for this job,” she said when we whipped back to the original matter at hand. She emphasized the need for proper audio production experience. So, you know, if you’re that kind of person, you should maybe check it out.

Weiss also intimated that Bannon and co. have some major announcements in the pipeline. I’ll keep my eyes peeled for that.

NPR on-demand audience grows, but livestreaming stalls. This big tidbit comes from Current.org’s Tyler Falk, who published a fine write-up recently of a data presentation shared last month at the Public Radio Super Regional conference. (What a fabulous name!)

You should check out the whole article, obviously, but here are two stand-out stats to me:

  • “The audience for NPR podcasts grew 21 percent from fall 2014 to fall 2015, and the total hours of NPR podcasts downloaded rose 45 percent over the same time frame.”
  • “Meanwhile, listening to live streams, once a growing part of public radio’s online listening, was flat from August 2013 to August 2015.”

Note that there is a distinction in the article between stats for NPR versus stats for the public radio stations that NPR is tracking — a development in one is by no means equivalent to a development in the other, as NPR is both an entity of its own as well as an entity that supports and is fueled by member stations.

What do all these stats indicate? It’s hard to tell, particularly given the “total hours downloaded” metric which, without proper context as to the episode length distribution in the bundle of podcasts being measured, stands to convey vastly different, possibly conflicting things. Demand more from your metrics, people!

“Guide to the Business of Podcasting.” The Tow Center of Digital Journalism over at Columbia University dropped a really fantastic report on the emerging pod business yesterday. The report was prepared by Vanessa Quirk, who had served as a fellow at the center over the past year, and it’s a solid primer for both newcomers and people who are more stuck in the weeds like me. It’s also a really nice way to refresh my memory on the fundamental questions at hand that have yet to be adequately answered, like “will I have a job in like six months oh boy oh boy I really hope so.”

You can download the report for free here. Mild disclaimer: I contributed to the report as an interviewee, where I said a number of regrettable sassy things that I demanded be taken off-record. You can also check out the sweet Nieman Lab writeup of the report here, and a nifty timeline of the podcasting industry that Quirk built here.

The New York Times’ Modern Love column is being adapted into a podcast. In what is both my greatest dream and my worst nightmare, the New York Times is collaborating with WBUR to adapt its popular Modern Love column, which features essays by (typically) ordinary people who have extraordinary romantic experiences, into a podcast. The Hollywood Reporter had first dibs in writing it up yesterday, and describes the podcast as follows:

The podcast will start with the reading of a Modern Love essay complete with music, sound effects and a familiar voice — Judd Apatow, Jason Alexander, January Jones and Emmy Rossum are among the narrators who will read entries during the first batch of episodes… During the second half of the episode, host Meghna Chakrabarti (Here & Now) and Modern Love editor Daniel Jones will conduct a follow-up conversation about the column.

The concept sounds like a cross between the Esquire Classic podcast, Selected Shorts, and The Gist’s Dear Prudie prospectus segments. Which is all to say, it sounds very quaint! But also, not all that groundbreaking. That said, as a fan of the column, I’ll come for the celebrity readings, and maybe stay for potential romanticisms/salacities. *raised hands emoji*

Also worth noting is the line in the THR piece that states: “Alice Ting, VP brand development licensing and syndication at The Times, says that podcasting is something that the publication ‘continues to evaluate,'” which is probably representative of the general temperature among larger media orgs when it comes to the medium. Cautiously optimistic, one would say, which is understandable, given the combination of what happened the first time around back in the mid-2000s and the heightened embattled environment that the media industry is currently experiencing.

You can find the official WBUR announcement, along with the trailer for the podcast, here.

WBEZ launches Podcast Passport. In case you didn’t hear when I said it numerous times in previous newsletters, you should know that I’m super bullish on live shows as a formal extension of a podcasting operation. One of my many long-term hopes (aside from adopting a slack-jawed bulldog) is for the notion of a live podcasting circuit to become as common and customary as a live show circuit for musical acts or stand-up comedians — as means to earn a greater following, to build a momentum of hype.

Welcome to Night Vale is the best example of a podcast that is carrying out a pure version of this idea; its live events page currently features a robust circuit that includes New Zealand and Australia among its next stops. (I recall, as well, spotting a notice for an upcoming show in Boise, Idaho, when I was there this past summer. That’s some extensive community building right there.)

Anyway, that’s all a particularly rambling lead-up to this news hook: WBEZ, home of This American Life and Filmspotting, is launching a live podcast series in January 2016. According to the press release, “The Podcast Passport will feature live-audience tapings of five favorite WBEZ podcasts which will take place in various Chicago neighborhoods at different popular venues.” Beer tour!

The line-up includes the Nerdette podcast (which is great!), Curious City, and the aforementioned Filmspotting, among others. Also, the press release features a sound bite from my old Panoply colleague, Joel Meyer, who is now WBEZ’s executive producer of talk programming. Quote:

“Like season tickets or a local theater subscription, Podcast Passport will expose listeners to new ideas, special guests and different points of view inside this boundary-free medium.”

Pretty cool. Hey Joel! *waves*

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. 8, 2015, 10:12 a.m.
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