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March 1, 2016, 10:05 a.m.
Mobile & Apps

Hot Pod: The battle for your car’s dashboard — and for your ears during your commute — is on

Plus: More on the lack of podcasts for kids, WBUR builds on partnerships, and a pregnancy podcast releases all episodes Netflix-style.

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is Issue Sixty-Two, published March 1, 2016.

We’re going really deep on cars, folks. Buckle up.

The fight for the dashboard. On February 20, The New York Times ran a piece about how SiriusXM, the popular subscription-based U.S. satellite radio network, is grappling with the prospect of increased competition generated by the growing ubiquity of connected cars, whose Internet-enabled infotainment systems will make it easier for drivers to use apps like Spotify, Deezer, and Pandora during their commutes. (Many of which, by the way, are becoming podcast providers themselves in addition to their music streaming functions — thus bringing them closer to SiriusXM’s product offering in concept.)

If this is the first time you’re encountering the connected car issue and how it pertains to radio and podcasts, here are two things to get you started. First, the “connected car” is a rather broad umbrella term for cars that feature better and near-persistent Internet access that’s primarily channelled to the driver through the vehicle’s dashboard interface. Its connectivity affords significant gains in the driver experience, like quicker GPS navigation (through, say, Google Maps or Waze) or better safeguards facilitated by automated car-to-car communication — but of course the thing we really want to talk about here in a column about podcasts is the benefit for the driver’s media consumption, which has up until this point been largely restricted to AM/FM and satellite radio. In the U.S., the satellite option has been dominated by the aforementioned SiriusXM, which currently boasts almost 30 million subscribers, while AM/FM radio still owns the majority of the American listening population, at 91 percent of folks over 12.

The second thing you need to know is how SiriusXM was able to develop a unique competitive advantage, which I’d argue is how the company has been able to carve out a life for itself thus far. The key is in the company’s intense structural reach, derived from the company’s successful cultivation of relationships with car manufacturers. Wooing car manufacturers grants the company default placement on their (largely pre-connected car, but not always) in-vehicle infotainment systems. Per the Times:

SiriusXM pays about $1 billion a year in subsidies and revenue splits to automakers, and according to the company, 75 percent of all new vehicles sold in the United States come with satellite radio installed. (It works with every major carmaker.) Of the 29.6 million subscribers to SiriusXM at the end of last year, 24.2 million paid the $11 to $20 monthly fee themselves, with the rest covered through promotions by car companies.

With the connected car and its new ecosystems becoming increasingly in focus — Android Auto and CarPlay are favored by many to become the operating systems of choice in the future — SiriusXM’s mastery of the dashboard as a distribution channel is potentially loosened.

It’s also become increasingly apparent that the dashboard is central to the focus of a bunch of hungry folks in the podcasting space. Last year’s DASH conference (amusingly subtitled “Radio & The Connected Car: A Survival Guide For Radio Broadcasters” — ohhhh how I love the drama) featured such radio and podcast operators as Midroll, NPR, Audible, Podcast One, Westwood One, and Adam Carolla.

Of course, just because streaming apps are more available doesn’t automatically means drivers will flock to them. (Although, it does help: Recall that the last across-the-board bump in podcast listenership is widely attributed to Apple’s decision to automatically bundle the native Podcasts app with iOS 8.) Further, the only problem we can be certain increased availability will solve is the one faced by the particularly plugged-in user who relies on a cumbersome Bluetooth solution to hook up their phone’s stream to the car stereo system. But these industrious consumers are never the prime target demo — that would be the passive, I’ll-listen-to-whatever’s-easiest, choice-is-a-burden commuter. If that user demographic can be converted at scale, the thinking goes, the game is basically won.

So, the billion-dollar question for the streaming apps — and the podcast companies who place their hope on them as the gateway between drivers and their content — is whether they’ll able to jockey their way into being the default or go-to listening option on the dashboard. Which will be difficult, of course, given that they’ll be competing with each other in addition to AM/FM and SiriusXM in dealing with whoever governs the on-board operating system (be it car manufacturers or CarPlay/Android Auto). Those apps would also to have to see if they’ll be able to successfully convert individual listeners down the marketing funnel — in essence fighting the same fight on the dashboard that they already are on the phone. After all, what is your car if not a giant mobile device? Crappy pun, but stare at it long enough and it becomes so true, yo.

Definitely check out the whole Times article, which touches upon multitudes of SiriusXM’s other flashpoints. But four more things before we move on:

  • I’m utterly fascinated by SiriusXM’s explanation for their value proposition that successfully moves folks down the subscription funnel, which essentially amounts to “a less crappy advertising load.” It can’t be that simple, can it? CAN IT? *rips hair out*
  • It’s entirely possible that some podcasting networks — particularly the ones that wrangle upwards of 25 podcasts — would consider developing an over-the-top solution that they can take directly to these operating systems. That, I think, would be an insanely difficult route to take, and I’d only recommend it if you have an asset as big and native to the form as, well, Howard Stern (who is locked in at SiriusXM, by the way, in case you missed that). But good on you if that’s your game, man.
  • Here’s a useful number I like to keep in my back pocket: 75 percent of the 92 million cars expected to ship globally in 2020 will be Internet-enabled, according to estimates by BI Intelligence.
  • How much will this all matter once self-driving cars kick in? I have no idea. I have as little idea about that as I do about how virtual reality will completely reconfigure aggregate media consumption behaviors. In the long run, we’re all self-driving cars in virtual reality, as Keynes once said.

Why isn’t there more audio programming for kids? Revisited. I asked this question last week, but only as a way to kick off an item about design points for kid-oriented podcasts. But it stuck with me — specifically in the context of public radio, but also radio and podcasts more broadly — so I spent a bit time last time asking around for theories, ideas, histories.

Here are the two that vibrated with me the most:

(1) Sponsorship uneasiness. This one comes from Guy Raz, editorial director and host of NPR’s TED Radio Hour, who emailed me after last week’s newsletter went out. Lightly edited for clarity and stuff:

It’s all about sponsorship. This is a longstanding problem with quality kids programming. Parents don’t want their kids to be exposed to ads (for good reason) and so it would have to be the kind of show that has (a) foundation support or (b) sponsorship from brands that are aligned with the mission of the show (similar to what PBS Kids does with the underwriting between shows).

There is a (c) option, and that would be very clearly delineated spots — even more so than we do on the TED Radio Hour or Alex [Blumberg] does on StartUp — but in a way where parents could skip through it. But I’m not sure advertisers would like that unless the right companies got involved — companies who understood the value of great kids shows and could accept less in-your-face ads in exchange for the so-called “halo effect” of association with the podcast.

There’s a juicy refraction that we can draw out from the problem as expressed by Raz here: One would imagine that whatever ends up working the best for kids programming — following the terms laid down in option (c) — would, in design and in theory, also work equally well for podcast advertising more broadly: that is, a set of advertising conventions built upon thoughtfulness, sensitivity to the listener’s context, alignment between brand and show, and the utmost care for the boundary between editorial and advertorial.

An additional problem to consider here, of course, is how to apply those precepts to executions that come out of dynamic ad insertion and, whenever it happens, programmatic audio advertising. (Pairing the question of programmatic with this appeal towards thoughtful advertising, I offer, portends a much larger rabbit hole: Can automated matching solutions be efficient, effective, and data-rich enough as to be empathetically intelligent? Merp.) But that’s a whole other can of worms, and we’ll deal with it when we get there.

Raz, by the way, also moonlights for something called the Breakfast Blast Newscast, which he produces with Mindy Thomas, the program director and on-air host for SiriusXM’s Kids Place Live. Breakfast Blast features kids doing news roundups and discussing material from peer-reviewed journal articles, which honestly is something that could’ve made my grad school life a lot better. You can find it on SoundCloud.

(2) Historical precedent, or lack thereof. This one comes from Lindsay Patterson, one of the folks behind a science podcast for kids called Tumble. (She also wrote a manifesto of sorts on the issue, which you can find on Current.)

Patterson believes the sponsorship argument has limited explanatory power. “The answer may be as simple as it just never really occurring to people to make things for kids,” she said to me when we spoke over the phone last week, specifically referring to the context of public radio.

I was a little resistant to that point — there are just too many reasonably intelligent people, and too many people in power who have, well, kids, for the idea to not have come up before. Patterson gestured to the way things generally get moving within large institutions: Every project that gets developed draws, in some part, from notable past projects that serve as strong enough templates. As her argument goes: There simply hasn’t been a notable enough show or experiment in the past that’s spurred enough confidence leading to more resources being poured into more kids programming. (But enough templates, in my mind, to fuel more podcasts about the mysteries of everyday life.)

In other words, it’s the story of how anything new ever gets made in large, legacy, or relatively conservative institutions. Which says a lot about the state of podcasts, to be honest.

An Australian Third Coast. Attention, Ozzies! Audiocraft is a one-day Australian-focused audio conference that’s taking place in Sydney this Saturday. If the premise of Audiocraft sounds familiar to you, that’s because it draws inspiration from the Third Coast Festival, which I’ve talked about a fair bit before. In fact, the organizers came up with Audiocraft during the last Third Coast Festival back in 2014 (in a pre-Serial and pre-Trump America).

According to Kate Montague, the executive director of the conference, Audiocraft was conceived out of a belief that there weren’t many opportunities for the various parts of the Australian radio community — the public sector, the community radio sector, the independents, even the commercial — to come together and discuss the “state of the Australian sound.”

You can learn more about Audiocraft on their site. They’re also set to announce a short features competition soon, so watch out for that if you’re hanging out in Oceania.

Standalone spinoffs. Last week, I ran a quick item on Modern Love, the podcast that comes out of a partnership between WBUR and The New York Times, bagging 1.4 million downloads across the whole show in its first month. For the few of you in my readership who are in charge of program development in your respective institutions, and who might probably benefit (or gain anxiety) from looking into somebody else’s bowl, here are three interesting details from my conversation last Monday with Jessica Alpert, WBUR’s managing producer for program development:

  • From first conversation to negotiation to production to launch, the entire process took a year and a half.
  • Actual show development started on October 15. Given that the show launched on January 20, that’s a pretty quick turnaround: a little over three months.
  • Launch sponsors included Living Proof and Squarespace.

Okay, with that out of the way, I want to briefly talk about two things:

  • Modern Love is the latest in a relatively long line of interesting partnerships that WBUR has cultivated over the years. Currently, they have Dear Sugar Radio, another adaptation of a well known column, out on the market, and past collaborations include Finish Line with The Boston Globe and The Checkup with Slate. Now, striking up partnerships to create shows isn’t all that novel — in fact, the business model of my former day job employer, Panoply, was initially built upon that premise — but there’s something scrappy and vivacious about the way WBUR, which is basically a traditional public radio station, has been trying out partnerships. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but I’m pretty curious to see what they come up with next.
  • So, real talk for a second: I’m the kind of guy that reads the Modern Love column, uh, ironically. But I’m utterly enthralled by the execution of the show — particularly how effectively, to my ears at least, it can be consumed as a piece of media that stands apart from The New York Times’ brand. This suggests a specific way that we look for potential podcast projects to spin out of papers and magazines: What editorial elements can you adapt that could lead to shows that are able to be their own independent brand?

Relevant bits:

  • The Knight Foundation’s Prototype Fund published a list of 11 media projects that it’s funding in its latest round, and there are two audio-centric products you should pay close attention to: This American Life’s audio-sharing tool and something called Satchel, a podcast distribution platform with a local emphasis. (Nieman Lab)
  • 99% Invisible collaborated with Vox on a short video piece which came out last Friday. At 12 p.m. ET on Monday, the podcast was placing at No. 9 on the iTunes charts, with the video having clocked about 1.1 million views. (Roman Mars’ glorious Twitter feed, here’s the video on
  • Gimlet previews the pilot for The Hunt, a reality TV-style podcast created out of the company’s recent “Mix Week,” behind their membership paywall. They also wrote up one of those spiffy Medium posts discussing the mix-week process. (Medium)
  • Panoply dropped a 32-episode podcast about pregnancy, which they developed with Parents magazine, last week. The full series was released simultaneously — you know, Netflix-style, or whatever you want to call it. I’ll follow up in a few weeks to see how this distribution method takes, and whether it actually turns out to be a good match with the editorial need. (RAIN News)
  • Flash Forward, a podcast made by independent producer Rose Eveleth and distributed by the former zine/now quirky website Boing Boing, surged into the Top 10 of the iTunes podcast charts after its collaboration with Planet Money published last week. At 12 p.m. ET on Monday, the podcast was placed at No. 7. When asked for comment, Eveleth said: “SO MANY EMOTIONS.” (iTunes)
  • “Craig Windham, NPR Newscaster, Dies.” R.I.P. (NPR)

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     March 1, 2016, 10:05 a.m.
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