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March 22, 2016, 10:30 a.m.
Mobile & Apps

Hot Pod: Is the NPR podcast promotion kerfuffle overblown or a sign of something real?

“The key to evaluate NPR’s fate, I believe, lies in the way the institution views radio and digital/podcast audiences as two separate categories with separate strategies for audience development.”

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is Issue Sixty-Five, published March 22, 2016.

I’ve been sick for days and too much happened last week, so apologies for the particularly agonizing column this week. Prost!

The NPR memo. “It was intended as a small internal memo for a specific operational purpose,” he said over the phone. “A ready checklist for people to think about when these particular issues came about it was never intended to be an external document, some sort of formal statement from NPR.”

I’m talking to Chris Turpin, NPR’s vice president of news programming and operations. It was Friday evening, the last stretch of a long week, and we had gotten in touch over phone to talk about the uproar that took place a day earlier. Given that you’re reading a wonky newsletter about the podcast industry or, alternatively, you’re skimming this off a Harvard-housed journalism innovation blog, you probably already know the broad details, so forgive me for dropping a play-by-play for the uninitiated:

  • Last Thursday, NPR published a memo on its Ethics Handbook blog noting that on-air talent should avoid promotional language when mentioning NPR podcasts. This would include explicit instructions on where to find, and how to download, podcasts. The memo also contained a second instruction, which stated that “for now, NPR One will not be promoted on the air.”
  • The publication of the memo kicked up what NPR ombudsman Elizabeth Jensen called “a spirited conversation” on Twitter and multiple closed Facebook groups among “public radio insiders and others who closely follow the digital evolution of journalism.” (Current.org has a good roundup.)
  • Later on Thursday, Nieman Lab’s Joshua Benton published a post critical of NPR, where he contextualized the underlying thinking of the memo as one that’s trapped within the institution’s business structure — namely, its being accountable to member stations. Benton further drew a comparison to the way newspapers kept their focus on their print while they were being disrupted digitally; he evoked the concept of the “strategy tax.”
  • On Friday afternoon, the brouhaha found its way into posts by Quartz and The Verge, suggesting that the situation drew broader interest. Benton’s post served as the theoretical anchor to these posts, which also skewed critical.
  • Late Friday, NPR ombudsman Elizabeth Jensen published her findings on the issue. Jensen situated the memo within its literal scope: that it’s meant to guide language specifically within journalistic contexts, and that it doesn’t necessarily outlaw podcast promotion outside of editorial journalism content on broadcast. But she did note that the tension NPR feels navigating its digital future is real.

There’s a lot to unpack here, with many different things bound up in this one incident. But on a broad level, here’s what I think: That memo, written for a specific context, was taken largely out of context, and as a result its significance was blown out of proportion.

But I also think the fact that the underlying questions raised by the uproar — whether NPR takes seriously the notion of digital and podcasts as central to its future, whether it’s strategizing adequately, whether it can reshape relationships with member stations or their priorities, whether it can retain its status as a journalistic stalwart moving into the future — returned to the forefront so easily with this misunderstanding suggests that the organization, up to this point, hasn’t done a very good job giving anybody enough confidence to believe that they’ll be able to adequately address these questions.

And this kerfuffle — an unanticipated breakdown in optics which may well have real ramifications on internal morale — further undermines the faith and confidence of observers (mostly external, but some internal), many of which are emotionally invested in NPR and its ability to grapple with the extremely complex problems that will define the terms of its future.

Sometime later on Friday evening, Turpin sent out an internal followup. “Let’s be absolutely crystal clear; NPR is deeply committed to podcasting,” he wrote. Later on in the email: “Our podcasts regularly top the charts, and our leadership in the podcast space is obvious.”

Indeed, that’s certainly true for today. But of course, what we’re really concerned about is tomorrow.

Four takes here.

1. The key to evaluate NPR’s fate, I believe, lies in the way the institution views radio and digital/podcast audiences as two separate categories with separate strategies for audience development. Turpin indicated this view when he spoke to Jensen, stating that the two formats “serve different audiences. This isn’t some kind of zero-sum game.”

That thinking makes some sense to me; an entirely plausible strategy to anticipate is one that sees NPR playing something of a caretaking role with broadcast — let them age out, allowing a dignified transition into a niche channel — while increasing its investments, activities, and long-term operational bets on digital and podcasts. But my thinking comes from a firm belief that terrestrial radio will become less dominant over time, a view that Turpin does not seem to share. “This is a win-win. Terrestrial radio has a lot more life in it, and it will continue to have more life in it as young talent comes in,” he told me.

Let’s assume, for argument’s sake, that I’m wrong and that broadcast may well hold strong over time. It still doesn’t explain to me why, frankly, the organization omits even taking the step to educate them on how to download a podcast — I’d argue that education is something theoretically different from promotion. (To anticipate the counterargument using the bookstore analogy: it’s one thing to tell them to go to Barnes & Noble, it’s another thing altogether to explain how a bookstore works to a population that’s new to the concept of bookstores.)

When I asked this question, I got two answers. The first is the fact that they simply haven’t seen meaningful conversions from broadcast to podcast. The second that, in Turpin’s view, it isn’t that hard for listeners to learn how to consume a podcast they heard about on broadcast. “I think people know where to go and find podcasts,” Turpin said. “Downloading a podcast is not that hard to figure out. They can easily Google it!”

I’ll take the point, but I will say that there’s something about that position that strikes me as distinctly not-user-centric — presumptuous, even, of who makes up NPR’s audience.

2. I’ve spent the better part of the past three days toiling over this story. Frankly, I started out fairly sympathetic to NPR, and then I swung to being very frustrated, and now I find myself stuck somewhere down an apathetic middle. I don’t believe, not even for a second, that NPR isn’t investing significant resources into digital and podcasts. The substantial success of Invisibilia, the launches of Hidden Brain, the NPR Politics podcast, and the upcoming Embedded (more on that next week), and the hiring of Tamar Charney as the local editorial lead for NPR One are all signals to me of considerable investment.

But reviewing my notes and re-reading all the responses, I can’t help but bash my head against…how much it feels like NPR isn’t taking the threat of its digital disruption seriously enough. The spectre of that rather unflattering Politico story from last August still looms over my thinking, and I wonder just how much has changed over the past seven months.

3. Much has already written about how this all is largely a function of NPR’s being beholden to the desires, interests, and anxieties of its member stations. And much has been said, on the other side, about how public radio as a whole — member stations included — is internalizing the digital disruption that the medium is facing. “Everyone is working out how podcasts fit into their overall long-term strategy,” as Turpin told Jensen.

But I just want to talk, very briefly, about the purpose that NPR is supposed to fulfill. As I interpret it, NPR was created to serve the public, but through member stations that collectively serve as proxies for the public. It’s worth asking, then, whether member stations still serve their respective publics at the level they once did before — and whether the limitations they introduce to NPR’s calculus outweighs, on a net level, the benefits of NPR serving the public directly.

4. I think it’s important to note that the NPR One issue should be considered separately from the larger podcast promotion issue. Based on my conversation with Turpin, along with some insiders, I’ve come to think that the institution views the app as a work-in-progress. The NPR One portion of the memo, then, is more the result of marketing housekeeping: Why push an incomplete product in front of the bulk of your audience? Turpin also told me that they are getting ready for a big marketing push surrounding the app. (“When?” I asked. “In a matter of months,” he replied.) This information is consistent with what I’ve heard about in the past, and I do feel like we haven’t quite seen what’s in store for NPR One.

Okay, that’s way too much ink spilt on NPR takes, and my head’s spinning. Let’s move on.

Additional reading: Adam Davidson, co-founder of NPR’s Planet Money who now writes for The New York Times Magazine and hosts of Gimlet’s Surprisingly Awesome, on his fear that NPR is allowing itself to grow irrelevant. (Facebook)

A hunt for new sounds. PRX’s Radiotopia launched a new talent-seeking competition called Podquest last week, a campaign that will ultimately resulting in a brand new show joining the network/label/collective’s current roster of 13 shows. The competition will select 10 semifinalists; from among them, three finalists will each receive $10,000 along with creative, entrepreneurial, and technological support from PRX throughout the entire process.

Calls for submissions are open until April 17, and the competition will conclude in November.

Diversity is top of mind for the PRX team. “We’re looking for shows not yet represented by Radiotopia’s roster — both in the ‘who’ and the ‘what’ behind each proposal,” wrote Julie Shapiro, PRX’s executive producer, in an email to me. “Intentional use of sound and an innovative weaving of story are hallmarks of all Radiotopia shows…but we also want to support someone(s) new on the podcasting scene, who might have a different background and approach to creative storytelling in mind, and the ambition and drive to do the hard work to get there.”

To ensure a more diverse pool of applicants, the company has also been reaching out to organizations, Facebook groups, and university programs to increase awareness of the competition in communities beyond their existing networks.

I’ve been struggling to come up with a good analogy for Podquest, particularly after spotting Fast Company equating the competition to American Idol and a press release evoking Project Greenlight. Podquest strikes me as more in the style of the tech accelerator/incubator model, or maybe some sort of expedited MFA for podcasts. Shapiro is sympathetic to this perspective. “I actually don’t feel a tension between the tech-style startup approach and simultaneous creative-editorial guidance; rather the bundling of ALL of it seems necessary right now to help any new podcast succeed,” she wrote.

Anyway, I’m excited for this! With this initiative, Radiotopia is providing a spin on what a podcast network-label-collective should be doing: identifying talent and material that listeners will find valuable. And they seem to be particularly committed to finding and developing fresh, original, sui generis talent — as opposed to adapting another celebrities, brands, or another logo on a slide — which I’m thankful for.

If you’re interested to learn more, head over the Podquest page. And good luck!

And while we’re on the subject of pod competitions (pod-petitions?): I hear that the winners of WNYC’s podcast accelerator are still chugging away. Developments, and possibly launches, are expected to come soon.

On iTunes, part three. ICYMI, I’ve been going pretty deep into the subject of the iTunes charts over the past few weeks. First, I sketched out a theory on how the iTunes charts work and how they fit into the industry’s larger ecosystem of values. Then I took a look at how podcast advertisers perceive, understand, and utilize those charts. I’d like to conclude this miniseries now by unbundling the three major functions that iTunes has come to play in Podcastland, and discuss the various companies (that I know about, anyway) trying to fulfill those functions:

1. Discovery. Above all things, the iTunes charts is the principal driver of podcast discovery — a position that’s no doubt closely tied to the fact that an estimated 70 percent of consumption takes place on the platform. There are several companies currently looking to stake claim in this space: As we’ve discussed previously, Google Play and Spotify are potential competitors, though it increasingly appears that their entry has been slow and muted. We also have relatively older solutions like Stitcher, though its activity has been dimmed down since its acquisition by Deezer. The challenges for both kinds of solutions are associated with their existence as apps; the task comes down to user acquisition, management, and engagement in a mobile space that’s incredibly congested.

But the problem of discovery doesn’t have be solved from this one channel of the mobile device. An app called Otto Radio, for example, is a lean-back curatorial solution that appears specifically designed in anticipation for increased usage on a car dashboard. Another angle comes from pre-existing media infrastructures. Think about it this way: Reviews, recaps, and writeups are central to both TV culture on the Internet and the TV industry’s marketing and discovery initiatives. It’s perfectly plausible that podcasts — and audio programming more generally — can engage in mutually beneficial relationships with culture and entertainment-oriented sites. The AV Club, by the way, has been on this for ages with its Podmass column. (Also something to keep tabs on: the way streaming video content is being serviced by Vulture’s Streaming guide and soon, The New York Times’ new Watching subsite).

2. Measure of value. A chart theoretically serves the purpose of representation. A big part of understanding the health of a show is knowing how it stacks up against other shows, and as I’ve discussed previously, the iTunes chart displays how well shows are driving iTunes interactions relative to other shows — which, as a proxy, is workable, but it provides creators, advertisers, and listeners a distorted picture.

A solution on this front is intimately bound up with the industry’s larger issue concerning standardized, transparent measurements, which will remain a roadblock for the length of this problem. However, at this point in time, it’s worth speculating that a number of podcast networks will not view themselves as being incentivized to adopt measurements standards and open themselves up to transparent rankings. As I mentioned in an issue way back when:

It’s very possible that we would open the black box only to realize that most people don’t actually listen past the 10th minute for most shows…and we consequently lose whatever clout, bargaining chip, or basis of reasoning in our dealings with the advertising community.

And I also suspect, with no proof yet again, that the bulk of us are ill prepared to rapidly rebuild that collective fiction to a workable place once it’s broken.

One could hypothesize, then, that the reason we haven’t seen an actual Billboard-style chart alternative is a hurdle the industry has imposed upon itself. Which is to say, some companies don’t really want to know how their shows are actually doing, or they don’t really want to reveal how they stack up to other shows. But as the medium experiences further increases in broad consumer adoption, and as more and more advertisers spend time coming into contact with more and more podcast companies and creators — in other words, as knowledge is generally increased across the board — the benefits of being opaque will eventually be completely eroded.

So far, the only major play I’ve heard coming down the pipeline is the software development kit (SDK) that the fine folks at Nielsen are cooking up. I’ve also heard rumors of another podcast hosting/measurement platform knocking on some doors, but I’ll confirm that when I can get something on the record.

3. Directory. Pretty straightforward here, so I’ll be quick: On a very basic level, iTunes functions as the de facto podcast search engine. A podcast not listed on iTunes is, in a lot of ways, a podcast that doesn’t really exist. (Like the tree falling in the woods. Or whatever that metaphor is supposed to be). Each podcast listing on iTunes contains key identifying information — show description, creator information, cover art, and so on — that can be grouped and linked together to build a more robust knowledge base for listeners, creators, advertisers, and producers, each looking to perform very different information-gathering tasks.

Last week, something called Podcat made rounds around the Internet and the podcast community. The site dubbed itself the “IMDb for Podcasts,” and it’s the most recent incarnation of this idea. The speech-to-text company Pop-Up Archive has a similar product in its Audiosear.ch platform, which compiles and organizes sets of identiying information that draws from its transcriptions. The challenge here is informational fidelity, accuracy, and timeliness, and from the looks of it, both solutions are still in their very early days. But it’s a glimpse of what could be, and that glimpse is pretty cool.

In related news, the iTunes charts has jumbled up again. It was brought to my attention this weekend that it experienced yet another one of these re-shufflings: This time, the top bracket favored hitherto unheard-of finance podcasts. Right now, the unstoppable MouseChat sits pretty on the top slot once again. I suppose it’s worth noting, at this point, that the underlying mechanics of iTunes charts are subject to internal change — that can’t be adequately documented externally, by the way — as well as periodic anomalies, such as the chart’s tendency to occasionally reshuffle the deck. Maybe I should’ve said that at the beginning.

Relevant bits:

  • Song Exploder’s Hrishikesh Hirway is launching The West Wing Weekly, a new pod with Joshua Malina that will cover the show’s run. They got decent press, including an NPR segment which got them in front of their best possible target demo. The first ep will drop tomorrow, or at least that’s what Hirway told me. (iTunes, NPR)
  • Audible rolled out a fully functional audio clip-sharing feature last week. Called Clip, the feature lets users can share about 30 seconds of audio with another person using a link. (Wired)
  • For anyone else keeping tabs: This American Life “currently draws 10.7 million downloads for every episode,” with CPMs sometimes reaching $50 to $60. Also, another TAL spinoff is due to drop sometime later this year. It’s probably not the only spinoff in development. (Adweek, Baltimore Sun)
  • Pretty intense to hear Uber and Viceland advertising on The Ringer’s Channel 33 podcast feed. (Soundcloud)
  • “The value of using podcasts in class — ironically, they can encourage students to read more.” (The Atlantic)
  • “DeepGram lets you search through lectures and podcasts for your favorite quotes.” (The Next Web)
  • “Why you should consider shutting down your newsroom…temporarily.” Lessons from Gimlet’s Mix Week. (Poynter)
  • “Spotify’s lack of music exclusives isn’t turning people away.” (Tech Insider)

Is this your first time reading Hot Pod? You can subscribe to the newsletter here. It’s got more stuff, and then a couple more things, but really I’m just happy you’re here with me.

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

POSTED     March 22, 2016, 10:30 a.m.
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