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Feb. 23, 2016, 9:30 a.m.
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Hot Pod: Not enough advertisers for podcasts, or not enough podcasts worth advertising on?

Plus: Strong early numbers for Modern Love, NPR emphasizes being live, and why there aren’t more podcasts for kids.

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is Issue Sixty-One, published February 23, 2016.

*cracks knuckles*

The podcast advertising hurdle. Podcastland received a fair bit of attention last week with The Wall Street Journal and The Information (a tech business news site largely read by technology insiders) both publishing stories revolving around the same theme: Advertising remains the defining problem for the medium’s professionalization into an industry, as many brands still appear unwilling to pour money into the space. The articles contain nothing longtime observers don’t already know — data scarcity remains a huge issue for bigger advertisers, ad tech solutions are still unsophisticated and held back by walled gardens, podcast companies want brand advertisers but it’s a tragic love unreciprocated — but seeing the two articles come out in tandem, on the same day no less, is a lovely dose of real talk, especially after all the frothy conversations that dominated the medium’s narrative in the latter half of last year. (I alluded to such frothiness in my entry for Nieman Lab’s Predictions for Journalism 2016 series, by the way.)

Comparatively speaking, podcast ad spending is minuscule. The advertising spend for podcasts in the United States is projected to be $36.1 million this year, according to ZenithOptimedia, as cited in the Journal piece. In contrast, the U.S. radio ad spend was $17.6 billion in 2015, according to the same source. Perhaps comparing broadcast numbers to podcast numbers at this point isn’t categorically appropriate, given the immense historical size and weight behind the former. But the ad spend for digital video, which one could possibly describe as a closer cousin, is projected to be $9.59 billion in the United States this year, according to eMarketer. So even when you cut it that way, the gulf is still huge.

But maybe that isn’t a bad thing. I’m partial towards this perspective from Recode senior media editor Peter Kafka, which was offered when I contacted his people for another story (more on that in a bit). Through his personal body double Eric Scott Johnson, Kafka wrote:

Like every other new format, it’s going to take a while for the ad business to catch up to the audience shift, but like I’ve said before, I think that’s not a terrible thing — it gives us all some time to play around and figure out what works. (One thing that does work — the excellent sockwear line made by the good people at Mack Weldon.)

In fact, taking the time to “play around and figure out what works” is quite possibly the most important thing to do right now. The last thing the industry should want is to unthinkingly push for growth — if there’s anything that the short history of the Internet advertising has taught me, it’s that the unthoughtful push for growth is the stuff that probably leads to the development and proliferation of poor advertising conventions and ad fraud. (See: the pop-up ad.)

Anyway, definitely check out the writeups from the Journal and The Information. Especially the latter, which is a really, really fine publication and I’ll be crying when my free one month trial is over and I have to decide whether to start shelling out $39.99 a month for it.

But before moving on, I just want to briefly bring up two more things:

The question for independents. The Information’s version of events makes a brief reference to a dynamic that may worry some: Podcast companies are all fighting for advertising dollars, sure, but when dollars are given, it’s distributed unequally — with the lion’s share going to a few shows, either based on performance or prestige. That state of affairs captured best by this line in The Information’s piece:

…without more data on listenership and an ad tech infrastructure, the gap between podcasting’s haves and have-nots might widen, podcast executives say.

You can look at it one of two ways: On the one hand, this is perfectly reasonable — the market wants what it wants. On the other, that this is a terrible situation for niche, quirky, and perhaps innovative independent podcasts. I’m reminded, in particular, of something that was said by Welcome to Night Vale’s Joseph Fink, which I highlighted in an issue earlier this month:

I worry about big money pouring into podcasting…I really, really hope that all the money pouring into podcasting won’t bury tiny, weird independent podcasts.

Both things can simultaneously be true. Even if we lived in a world where ad money flows freely into the podcasting space, that isn’t a guarantee that the wealth will be distributed equally between all shows. And that’s fine; it just means that these indie podcasts would have to find some other way to monetize, which itself is a market opportunity that someone can step into. (Hint, hint, wink, wink, nudge, nudge.)

In other words, it’s the story of the creative economy, modern and historical.

An alternate theory. So here’s a theory that I’m also partial to: It’s entirely possible that podcasting’s advertising problem also comes, at least in some small part, from the fact that there simply isn’t enough quality content that justifies the attention and respect of big advertisers. Think about this way: How many shows do you think actually warrant advertising from brands like Ford, in terms of either download numbers or prestige?

Not a lot, I’d wager.

From that perspective, there literally aren’t enough valuable ad slots to accommodate a $1 billion ad spend, even if we factor in dynamic ad insertion. This refines the familiar axiom that podcast discovery is broken in an interesting way. We may be right in complaining that we lack adequate solutions that help podcasts find their appropriate audiences — or to help niche podcasts find niche audiences, to put it another way. But it’s entirely possible that the bigger problem is that we lack discovery solutions to adequately filter out podcasts below a certain quality threshold — thus beating back the problem of saturation.

Modern Love’s strong first month. The podcast, which comes out of a partnership between The New York Times and WBUR, enjoyed 1.4 million downloads across the whole show since launching in mid-January. That number was confirmed to me by Jessica Alpert, WBUR’s managing producer for program development, when we spoke on the phone yesterday afternoon. It includes downloads off the podcast feed and listens on the web players found on both WBUR.org and NYTimes.com.

You can do the math yourself, but keep in mind: At this writing, the show has 6 full episodes, along with a short episode (which I like to call “Shordios”) and a trailer that was released in December. That’s a remarkable number for something that Ira Glass didn’t bump on his show.

People just love Love, man.

Recode Media. I’ve already written a fair bit about my admiration for Recode’s podcast suite in the past, so I’d like to take a quick second to highlight their new show, Recode Media with Peter Kafka. It features interviews with, well, notable media-types, so it’s fun fodder for anyone who nerds out about the decline/death/resurgence/time-is-a-flat-circle of the digital media and publishing industry (like me).

The new podcast kicked off last Thursday, with its first episode featuring New Yorker editor David Remnick on the hot seat. Recode Media was given a soft launch off the flagship Recode podcast feed, being published as standalone episodes on Thursdays as opposed to being piloted as a segment on the main show — which was the route the Recode team took with their other recently launched show, Too Embarrassed To Ask.

In a note sent by proxy to me, Kafka wrote:

I’ve been a professional podcast listener since Bill Simmons got me hooked, back in 2007 or 2008, and I’ve gotten the chance to write about the boomlet a few times as well. In 2013, for about 30 seconds, I had both Bill and Marc Maron signed on to appear together at one our media conferences, which would have been at the top of my professional highlight reel. Alas, things fall apart.

Alas, indeed.

Designing a podcast for kids. Why isn’t there more audio programming for kids? I’ve heard that question come up a lot more lately among radio types, the overarching query of which was neatly articulated by Lindsay Patterson, who produces the Tumble science podcast, in a piece for Current. That very question was also the subject of an amusing tangent at a recent podcast panel. (“The guilt of a parent who puts the television on to pacify their children is one of the most powerful emotional forces in existence,” said Gimlet’s Matt Lieber. Mild laughter ensued; stern heads nod gravely in agreement.)

I don’t have any strong theories explaining the scarcity of kids-focused audio programming. When I asked Marc Sanchez, who produces a kids’ podcast called Brains On under the American Public Media (APM) umbrella, he couldn’t come up with any theories either. “Honestly, I don’t know why it’s not more common. It seems like a great audience from a public radio perspective,” Sanchez said. “From a cynical marketing perspective, these are future listeners — why not engage them?”

Indeed, why not! After all, everybody makes babies, and everybody wants to limit how much time kids spend burning their eyeballs staring at screens, and after all, kids are the potential lifetime value consumer, if you really think about. Do it for the brand advertisers, people!

Brains On, by the way, is a great show. Similar to other science shows — early Radiolab, say, or Science Versus — the show is Q&A-based, with each episode featuring a string of interviews that look to answer a query presented at the very start. The twist here being, of course, that questions come from kid reporters, while answers come from very adult scientists. That the experts are attempting to communicate complexity to a child is something quite pleasant to experience; the adult voice lilts, introducing a gentleness to the proceedings, which ends up being soothing even to my childless mid-20s ears.

I asked Sanchez a couple of questions about how his team designed the show, and here are the highlights:

  • The team writes the show with kids between the ages of 6 and 12 in mind.
  • Like all good children’s shows, they try to make it bearable — even enjoyable! — for the adults. “We really keep in mind that parents are going to be listening to the show as well, because a lot of these kids don’t have first-hand access to listen,” Sanchez said.
  • They don’t dumb down the language. “It’s funny, because if you listen to our first few episodes, we were consciously trying to use words and concepts that we thought kids could understand,” he said. “The more feedback we got, the more we realized that kids are waaaaaaaaaay smarter than most of us give them credit. We found out pretty fast that we don’t have to talk down to kids. Think back to when you were a kid…you probably emulated older kids.”

When asked about the health of the show, Sanchez notes that it gets a “significant” number of monthly downloads. “We’re not Marketplace, but we’re in the top tier of APM,” he said. But enough downloads, it seems, to score some unique sponsorship/underwriting opportunities. Sanchez mentioned running spots for a kids magazine and even Harvey Mudd College, the science-oriented liberal arts college out in California.

Education and podcasts: Gotta start ’em young, folks. Anyway, I’m going to do some more thinking on podcasts for kids, so I’ll come back next week with another item.

Apple’s Podcasts Connect. So it looks like Apple, the precondition of the podcast universe as it currently exists, has made a small change to its podcast infrastructure: On iTunes, podcast submissions now go through a new spiffy-looking page. Dubbed Podcasts Connect, the new page looks like a step up from the early-2000s chic of the previous system, and is presumably part of the larger iTunes Connect ecosystem.

For now, the upgrade seems purely cosmetic, but it appears to portend a more significant shift towards a consolidated inventory management experience across all other iTunes verticals, like books and TV shows. (In my mind, this development is par for the course, given Apple’s penchant towards keeping users integrated with its ecosystem.)

Relevant bits:

  • Didn’t catch this last month, but: The Memory Palace’s Nate DiMeo is now developing podcasts for MTV. He works under former Grantland editorial director Dan Fierman, who’s been building an eye-catching team that includes talent with solid podcast cred under their belt, like Amy Nicholson and Molly Lambert. DiMeo will continue making The Memory Palace. (Current)
  • NPR’s newscasts now include language calling out the fact that they are live. NPR public editor Elizabeth Jensen digs into the rationale for the change, along with the complications it brings. (NPR)
  • Third Coast Festival, everybody’s favorite hippie indie audio commune, has launched a residency program for underrepresented producers in public radio. Send your proposals! (TCF)
  • PRX is getting ready to introduce something called Podquest in mid-March. More details here.
  • Bill Simmons’ upcoming publication, The Ringer, will almost certainly feature more podcasts. (Sports Illustrated)
  • Nerdist Industries’ Chris Hardwick joins Art19 as investor and advisor. (Art19 blog)
  • I played around with Anchor yesterday, and asked co-founder Michael Mignano a bunch of rambling questions. (Anchor)
  • We finally learn the fate of NPR Chicken. (Current)

Is this your first time reading Hot Pod? You can subscribe to the newsletter here, which now features exclusive content! More podcast news items! Also, a new membership model! Oh man!

Hot Pod is Nicholas Quah’s weekly newsletter on the state of the podcast world; it appears on Nieman Lab on Tuesdays.

POSTED     Feb. 23, 2016, 9:30 a.m.
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