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Jan. 19, 2016, 11 a.m.
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Hot Pod: Is the next front in podcast innovation hardware?

Plus, 21st Century Fox invests in a new podcast network, and some thoughts on the second season of Serial.

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is Issue Fifty-Six, published January 19, 2016.

Show business and Art19. The news broke last week that 21st Century Fox, one of the Murdoch empire’s many tentacles, has invested in an upcoming podcast network called Wondery. The network is headed up by one Hernan Lopez, who was the CEO of Fox International Channels until recently, when the corporation’s globally focused programming unit was restructured out of existence.

The size of Fox’s investment is unclear, though you can draw your own conclusions from a Bloomberg report stating the network “has more than $1 million to work with,” a sum that reportedly comes from both the investment and Lopez’s own money. What exactly will make up Wondery’s future content offerings is anybody’s guess, with The Hollywood Reporter offering broad strokes that the network will “create and curate original, scripted, and unscripted programming.” I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that “curate” is roughly a synonym for content acquisition, so if there are any podcasters out in the audience, ready your pitches.

One thing you should note about Wondery is its partnership with California-based tech company Art19, which Variety notes will help the network with “distribution infrastructure and dynamic ad insertion.” Yep, dynamic ad insertion — it’s a direct competitor to Acast, Panoply, and the solutions currently adopted by public radio stations like WNYC and WBEZ that we often discuss in this column.

Long-time podcast watchers will know that Art19 has been around for a while. (There’s a handy Daily Dot article from 2012 that serves as a great snapshot of the company at the time.) Art19 is responsible for powering pods like those coming out of the Feral Audio network — home of Harmontown! — and DGital Media‘s Comedy Voices Network.

The company was founded in 2011, when it envisioned itself as an end-to-end services provider offering everything from ad sales support to distribution. “When we first designed this company, we thought we had to do everything,” Art19 co-founder and CEO Sean Carr told me. This was a function of there simply being not enough players attacking other problems in the space around the same time. It’s hard to focus on a specific problem when there’s no ecosystem of effort to begin with.

In recent years, as more money and more companies flowed into the space, Art19 began to focus on being a technology company. Its core product involves publishing tools akin to Soundcloud and LibSyn, which will allow — as we’ve discussed — for dynamic ad insertion and ad-serving technology reminiscent of AdsWizz.

Eventually, the company plans to take on measurement and discovery. With regard to the former, Carr referred to shifting podcasting out of RSS feeds and into API-connected services, and talked a bit about something his team is calling “Art19DB,” or the IMDB for audio. There’s quite a bit to this, but I’ll let your imagination roam free here for now.

So that’s Art19, a technology that I’ve long overlooked but shouldn’t have. I have a feeling we’re going to hear quite a bit from them in the months to come.

Anyway, back to Wondery: what, exactly, are we seeing here? What’s particularly interesting about Lopez is his background in large-scale entertainment media operations — this is certainly a man oriented toward growth and scale, with considerable history in both departments. But how does that relate to the current podcasting landscape? My gut thinks we’re bound to see something closer to CBS’s Play.it network than a more bespoke operation like Gimlet or Radiotopia: a reliance on public personalities, talk radio formats, and higher content volumes; less a cultivation of new audio aesthetics, and more the adaptation of existing radio programming. That may well be a good thing, as such a genre opens itself up to be an entry point for a different kind of audience.

The Wondery website is scheduled to go live sometime this week. As for its shows, Variety notes that the company’s goal is to roll out its first offering by spring, while Bloomberg pegs those plans closer to summer.

Other fronts in audio innovation. I’ve been thinking a lot more about Amazon lately. Not in relation to Audible, mind you — although I do think a lot about that company, its subscription model, and its already robust audience penetration base — but rather, about the Amazon Echo. In case you’re unfamiliar with the thing, the Echo is a tubular object that’s a sly cross between a wireless speaker and a voice-controlled computer. It’s fairly futuristic in conceit; you can ask the Echo to describe the weather, to play your local public radio station, to make grocery lists. It’s a non-traditional way to interface with the Internet — not through keyboard, mouse, and monitor, but through structured conversation.

Recently, Amazon announced that it’s going to release a portable, smaller, cheaper version of the Echo. It was also revealed that the Echo is now able to read your Kindle books aloud, although navigation and the overall experience are limited for now.

So far, the bulk of conversation about technological solutions to podcast discovery and expansion have largely revolved around conversations about social: audio virality (or lack thereof), Facebook’s experiments with NPR, clipping and shareability (which seemed to dominate the This American Life audio hackathon last year). But what if audio shareability, a concern about the dynamics of how audio moves through the digital media ecosystem, is absolute peanuts compared to concerns about structures, availabilities/accessibilities, and hardware? After all, as we’ve discussed in the past, one of podcasting’s major and unambiguous tipping points was Apple’s decision to include the native Podcast app on the iPhone by default in the iOS8 update.

I’m not advocating that we pull back from further explorations in social audio. Rather, I think there are other, perhaps even better, fronts to pursue: re-examining the way in which we control and interface with audio in our mobile devices, expanding access points, thinking beyond headphones.

One more thing: in mid-2015, Amazon announced the creation of a $100 million fund to support innovations in artificial intelligence for the Echo. It’s called the “Alexa Fund” (Alexa, by the way, is the Echo’s version of the Apple AI avatar Siri), and the fund is principally concerned with natural language recognition.

Serial changes its publication schedule. Okay, you probably’ve heard this one already. But let’s go through the motions: last Tuesday, the Serial team announced that “new episodes of Season Two will come out every other week, instead of once a week.” In other words, it’s switching to a bi-weekly schedule, unless, of course, like Roman Mars, you take issue with the term “bi-weekly,” given its imprecision. Me, I’m partial to sheer Germanic literalism: “new episode of Season Two to be released every 14 days.”

When I first heard this news — initially through a rumor, then through the email from the Serial team — I wasn’t really sure what I was looking at. Was this an expression of extreme confidence in the audience’s capacity for patience, or some sort of editorial miscalculation?

The second season of Serial has so far struck me as more than a little frustrating. That’s not so much due to the reporting — indeed, the show’s performance remains technically impeccable, and perhaps my frustration is a result of me missing some sort of point. But there’s something about this season that feels as if the show is taking its audience, and all the goodwill it gained (perhaps accidentally) rolling off the first season, for granted. Perhaps it’s the almost leisurely pace of the early episodes — despite the intense and painful pictures they paint — or perhaps it’s the absence of a clear central gambit that goes beyond psychological exploration.

The show’s creators have signaled that the stakes, and the scope, will greatly expand at some point, and I’m looking forward to that, but the decision to further stretch out the release schedule (for good journalistic reason, I’m sure) suggests an assumption that we will return, that we will continue caring over the long-term.

This is where I’m going to walk back on my own critique. I haven’t fully processed my feelings on the show, and I’m very open to the possibility that my response may well be petty — perhaps overly, oh I don’t know, consumeristic. So I’m going to come back to this in a few weeks with a longer, more thought-out reflection. In the meantime, let me know what you think, and I also highly recommend you check out the New York Times’ write-up on the change — it touches briefly on the second season’s lack of buzz, and gives a few numbers. (Five million streams on Pandora! What!)

More presidential election podcasts. In the last edition of Hot Pod, I talked a bit about a suite of relatively new journalistic podcasts that are topically pegged to the current 2016 presidential election cycle. I guess I was on to something, because the past week saw the Huffington Post and Bloomberg Politics launch election-related — or election-adjacent — shows of their own. The new HuffPo show is called “Candidate Confessional,” and it will feature interviews with politicians who’ve run for office, presidential and otherwise, but ultimately lost. (Among the interviewed: one Michelle Bachmann, in case you’re somehow nostalgic for 2012.) For more information about the podcast, here’s Poynter with a write-up.

The two new Bloomberg Politics podcasts are called “Masters in Politics” and “Culture Caucus,” and they’re due to be published on a bi-weekly basis. Interestingly, they extend Bloomberg’s already long list of existing podcasts, which I never knew existed until I started digging into this item a few days ago. Where did these come from? I have no idea how much of a listenership all those podcasts have, but as with most things related to Bloomberg Media, I’ve stopped trying to understand how any of it works because there’s too much money and sometimes the media business makes no sense (#NYValues). In any case, the official Bloomberg announcement post mentioned that the podcasts are available on the Bloomberg Terminal in addition to iTunes and Soundcloud, which I guess is as exclusive a distribution point as you’re ever going to get.

Other news this week:

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     Jan. 19, 2016, 11 a.m.
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