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April 26, 2016, 11:12 a.m.
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Hot Pod: As more podcasts become TV shows, can their founders retain creative control?

Plus: Podcasts as time-shifted cable TV; MTV News launches its first podcasts; Postloudness moves beyond Mailchimp.

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue seventy, published April 26, 2016.

Adaptation. Let me start by saying this: There are very few things in the world that I love more than watching and obsessing about television. And I don’t care that John Landgraf, CEO of cable channel FX, complained not too long ago that we’re hitting “peak TV.” (The combined total of scripted series on all TV distribution formats in 2015 was 409, nearly double the total in the past six years, according to the LA Times.) I say, what of it, my man! Give me more dragons, more zombies, more weeping costumed British people, more cops. Drown me in your linear video content!

But we’re here today to talk about podcasts, and I’m here to say, gladly, that more and more podcasts have begun contributing to the peak TV problem. At risk of writing what is essentially a trend piece, here are three things that were announced over the past two weeks that struck me as fortuitously close together:

  • Last Wednesday, The Hollywood Reporter dropped an exclusive reporting that Lore is currently being developing into a TV show. Lore is an independent horror podcast created by writer Aaron Mahnke, with each episode featuring a different story in the anthological style of Nate DiMeo’s The Memory Palace. Among the team heading up the adaptation process is Gale Anne Hurd, an executive producer on The Walking Dead, that wildly popular zombie apocalypse TV show that’s steadily shepherding AMC through the post-Mad Men era. No network is attached to the project yet.
  • The Lore news comes about a day after Two Up Productions, the studio behind the audio drama Limetown, announced through a newsletter that they, too, were working on a television pilot based on the podcast. “We have nearly completed a first draft of the pilot, and we feel pretty great about it somehow,” wrote Zack Akers and Skip Bronkie, the duo behind Two Up. “But this doesn’t mean anything, because there are so many steps between a draft and your television.” (Akers and Bronkie also mentioned that they’re still hard at work developing the second season of the podcast, along with “a completely new and separate podcast series which will probably really surprise you.”)
  • And a week before that, The Hollywood Reporter (again) reported that the TV adaptation of Throwing Shade, a comedy podcast that originally launched in 2011 and has since become a web video series on Funny or Die, has received a series pickup by TV Land. The network is hoping for a January 2017 premiere date for the show, which will feature ten episodes. News of the podcast being adapted for television first surfaced in December 2015.

All three podcasts join a steadily growing list of podcasts that, through various means and configurations, have been developed or are currently being adapted for the small screen. A partial list of examples: Comedy Bang Bang, Maron, Stuff You Should Know. We also know that a TV adaptation of Serial is being developed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, who in the past have demonstrated a knack for pulling off improbable adaptations like The Lego Movie and Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs.

My reading of the TV industry has consistently led me to perceive it as a remarkably conservative creature — albeit one capable of rather great feats — and the fact that we’re seeing that industry’s adaptation funnel expand to include podcasts a lot more is a completely expected development that builds upon the processes it has established with books, graphic novels, movies, and so on.

And we’re going to see a lot more of these, I reckon, whether it means just picking up intellectual property (for narrative and fiction podcasts, in particular) or breaking out talent in the vein of The Nerdist’s Chris Hardwick, Throwing Shade, and Men in Blazers. However, as it is the case with startups, actors, science experiments, and first dates, most of these pod-to-TV adaptations will fail. But the opportunity is here for podcast folk — for more money, more exposure, more creative frontiers. And as an avid television viewer, I’m just glad for the opportunity to have more stuff to slap my eyeballs with.

However, as someone who is both an avid television viewer and a podcast obsessive, my main query is whether these podcast talents will get the opportunity to flex their creative muscles in the way they want to — and the extent to which they should be allowed to do so. Television is an notoriously difficult industry that trades in a lot of money, and I’m sympathetic to arguments that such enterprises should be left up to the folks who have devoted their lives to the form. But yet, what’s the point of a creative industry if it does not allow for creators to create?

In any case, it’s a blindingly rare occasion that television affords the audio-native talent full creative control. And when that happens, well, it sure is something. A prominent example: in 2007, the team at This American Life launched a TV show on the Showtime channel which ran for two seasons before they called it quits. They explained in a blog post that “it was too much work doing both the radio and television shows.” In that same post, the team mentioned that they still held out hope of returning to television someday, perhaps as a special.

You can now find both seasons of the TV show on Amazon Video. I went through a bunch of the episodes over the weekend for the first time, and it’s an utterly remarkable watch. Not because it’s particularly great television — I mean, it’s good, it’s solid, it won two Primetime Emmys — but rather, because it was able to perfectly capture the feel of the radio show itself while evading any sort of “adaptation uncanny valley.” Still, for me, the pleasure came less from the show itself than the meta-show — in knowing that the team had such freedom to make whatever it wanted.

And maybe that’s enough.

As an aside: for certain digital media companies — particularly the ones thinking about linear television — the concept of adaptation probably means much less. We recently saw digital media enfant terrible Vice roll out Viceland, a whole new cable channel, and we’re months away from seeing whether Bill Simmons will be able to develop a permeable membrane-like relationship between his HBO show and his digital media baby, The Ringer.

The past couple of months have yielded whispers of Vox and BuzzFeed looking to get into TV as well. With that in mind, one could easily imagine a future in which Vox moves to cycle its talent base — Ezra Klein, Sarah Kliff, Matt Yglesias, et. al. — further beyond their basic text, YouTube-style video, and podcast output into television. Likewise, one could imagine BuzzFeed spinning Heben Nigatu and Tracy Clayton out to television in addition to their work with Another Round.

For these companies — which have control over a pool of talent and have significant control access to the various means of production for all these different platforms — crossing over from digital to linear and back again would be considerably easier and, to be honest, expected. #Content is fluid, man, and it’s especially so for these companies.

Additional reading: Ira Glass’s 1997 diary entries on Slate covering an early adaptation opportunity.

Time-shifted cable television. Speaking of TV and podcasts, here’s something that I’ve been keeping an eye on: cable news channels that reach some audiences through (free!) podcasts. Look, I’m one of those pesky Brooklyn-occupying ~snake people~ working in media with an erratic income stream. My personal finance game is laughable, but I still managed to decide that getting a cable bundle is ridiculous. I get my sports fix at the bar down the street. I watch The Bachelor vicariously through Twitter and Bachelor recap podcasts.

And I love me some Brian Stelter, and if I’m ever going to get my grubby hands on CNN’s Reliable Sources — and not through indirect means like clips off the website, the newsletter, or Twitter — it’s going to be through the podcast, which is basically the show stripped of its video. Which is completely fine; I don’t really see the point for the visual elements of that show’s reporting anyway. (I’m sure other people do; I personally think it’s superfluous.)

CNN serves a bunch of its other, more magazine-style news programming this way as well: Amanpour, Anderson Cooper 360, State of the Union. And so do the other two major cable news channels: MSNBC — with Morning Joe, Rachel Maddow, Hardball, and others on tap — and Fox News, in case you just need your O’Reilly Talking Points during your, oh I don’t know, morning jog or something.

I tried to get a general sense of how CNN currently feels about its podcast strategy — and if it could share some ballpark audience numbers. I reached out to Tyler Moody, CNN’s VP of sales and affiliate relations, who also happens to be fairly involved with the audio arm. He wrote back:

Several CNN shows have been available as audio podcasts for many years now, and we continue to add more and more. We’ve found that fans of CNN seek out our programming across platforms including live streaming audio and video. We’re happy with the performance and look forward to doing more with on-demand audio as it continues to grow.

No numbers, but that’s still interesting to hear. Moody’s response here contextualizes CNN’s podcast strategy as a pure audience engagement play. Which makes sense: even if the cable channel chose to monetize these podcasts with ads, the revenue it would generate would probably be a mere pittance compared to what it typically wants from a new channel, at least for now. Plus, an ad load would add significantly more friction to an experience that’s able to highlight an audience segment with a very specific monetizable potential: the type of individual who finds a cable bundle cost too high a barrier, but who still wants the content enough to seek out a hacked-up audio version of it that isn’t actually optimized for the ear.

Those individuals (and I’m one of them, mind you) are slightly below the top of the funnel, and should cable costs go down — or if we finally see the Great Cable Unbundling at scale — they’ll slide all the way to conversion easily, I imagine. Of course, the problem with figuring out the exact size of that potential audience type is being able to discern between these folks and the cable subscribers who also listen to these stripped-down audio versions.

Those people, though…man, talk about engaged.

MTV News launches its first podcast slate. Here’s the trouble with writing a piece about MTV: it’s a media institution with so much history, baggage, and cultural detritus that the instant temptation is to kick a corresponding news item off with some dad-friendly pun. “I Want My PodTV,” perhaps, or “Digital Killed The Radio Star.” The alternative, of course, is to do what I just did, which is to comment on said temptation without having to actually commit to the dad-core, even though, privately, I really like those puns and just want to share them widely.

Anyway.

Last week, MTV News — the digital arm of the wider Viacom-owned cable channel operation — announced the lineup of its first batch of podcast programming. There are five shows in this initial slate, and they run the gamut you would expect from a culture and entertainment-oriented digital media company in 2016: Three pop culture shows, a politics show (it is an election year, after all), and a film podcast. It’s a rollout strategy that’s remarkably similar to that of other digital media orgs dabbling in podcasts, and each MTV News podcast would fit quite comfortably into a genre that’s packed with dozens of equivalent shows.

But the revived music news operation has a distinct competitive advantage: the company hired very, very well. This is true for a good portion of the front-of-mic talent — which includes Molly Lambert and Alex Pappademas, formerly of Grantland (RIP), and film critic Amy Nicholson, co-host of Earwolf’s The Canon — and it is uncommonly for the staff that make up the production team. According to Deadline, it’s a list of four: former Marketplace producer Mukta Mohan, former Pitchfork Radio station manager Michael Catano, former This American Life producer Jane Marie, and The Memory Palace’s Nate DiMeo.

(Current first reported on DiMeo joining the MTV News team back in January, in one of the earliest articles discussing the shape and ambition of MTV News’ audio operations. “The truth is while everyone else is writing about Drake or whatever,” DiMeo told them, “I will probably be sitting there writing about the Brooklyn Bridge.” He will continue producing The Memory Palace in addition to his duties at MTV News.)

Alex Pappademas, who also serves as the site’s executive editor, is reportedly the person leading MTV News’s podcasting operations, according to Variety. Pappademas, by the way, was half of the great Grantland podcast Do You Like Prince Movies? (RIP, on two counts), which he co-hosted with Wesley Morris (who’s now at The New York Times and can be heard sporadically on the NYT Music Popcast.)

And speaking of Prince (RIP, again): Shortly after news of Prince’s death broke last Thursday, the team published a 30-minute podcast special reflecting on the artist’s legacy. The special featured conversations with various critics and was, to some extent, a baptism by fire. I thought it was really good, and a fine — if not raw — example of what this operation can do.

One more thing before we move on: podcasts about music and podcasts that substantially utilize popular music as part of sound design are rich, potential genres that many podcast producers and networks are simply dying to get into but that have so far been held up in the podcasting space, largely due to the legal costs associated with licensing. I reckon MTV News, with its existing licensing relationships, is uniquely positioned to do a lot more with music in podcast programming than its competitors. Which is great! But I want more Carly Rae Jepsen in my podcasts, man.

At this writing, the iTunes listings for the podcasts are not live yet, but you can find them on MTV News’ Soundcloud account.

Funding Postloudness. Last week saw the announcement of a new podcast collective coming out of Chicago called “Postloudness,” which hopes to provide a platform to bring more underrepresented voices into the podcast medium. My buddies at Nieman Lab posted a great write-up on the collective last week, and you should totally check it out in its entirety, but there was a line in there that caught my eye:

[T]he ideal advertisers for the network are niche local brands and organizations that cater to Postloudness listeners’ worldview and interests, such as women-owned book stores or independent sex-positive sex toy shops. That’s a niche where there is opportunity for growth, (co-founder Cher) Vincent believes.

At a time when all I hear about are podcast networks looking to attract big brands into the market, this struck me as refreshingly idealistic. Curious, I wrote to the founders — James Green, Cher Vincent, and Alexandra Cox — for more information.

One of the more consistent knocks I’ve heard made against podcasts is how the same kinds of advertisers keep showing up in all podcasts — Squarespace, Mailchimp, etc. What is your approach to sourcing these new advertisers?

We are finding new advertisers out of necessity. We aren’t one of the big guys, so we’re not going to get the attention of Squarespace or Mailchimp, nor do we believe that our listenership would get a lot of value from something they’ve heard many times over. Our approach has been to align with small businesses that want to support a small collective.

We are actively doing the groundwork to reach out to businesses, but each show on the network can actively seek out their own sponsorship, either for ad slots on their shows, or to share among the entire collective. We know we have to get the word out somehow, so we are organizing live events, partnerships with other organizations and festivals in the area, and other ways to get more ears acquainted with Postloudness.

Are y’all thinking about monetizing in any way beyond advertising?

Currently we are focusing on smaller advertisers, but we know there are individuals who want to support Postloudness directly. One of the great things about Simplecast, the hosting service we use, is that they offer direct donations. Along with donations, we are also investigating support through grants and residency programs.

One more question: I have my own theories, but why do you think podcasting is so white, straight, and male?

Podcasts are cis, white, and male for the same reason all emerging media throughout history has been. We all know the radio community is very small and usually produced by the same people, so an echo chamber is created and unknowingly (at times) cultivated. With jobs and new projects, people usually hire friends or those in adjacent networks. If that cycle continues, then radio (or any other field that suffers from this issue) will continue to be homogeneous. If Postloudness can even fissure this cycle by a mere margin, more voices are heard, the podcast audience grows, and everyone wins in the long run.

Cool.

This version of Hot Pod has been adapted for gentle Nieman Lab-reading eyes. For the full stuff, you can subscribe to the main newsletter here. The mother version has more news, analysis, material. And you can support the work done on Hot Pod by becoming a member. More information on the website.

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

POSTED     April 26, 2016, 11:12 a.m.
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