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April 12, 2016, 9:57 a.m.
Mobile & Apps

Hot Pod: How big are Audible’s ambitions in changing short-form audio? Really, really big

“I’m not at Audible to build podcasts. I’m at Audible to start a revolution. In the way audio is produced, and in the way audio is distributed.”

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue sixty-eight, published April 12, 2016.

We got a real chunky one for ya.

Audible launches Channels. If you’re reading this column at Nieman Lab, you probably already know the basics: Over the course of last week, Audible initiated the staggered rollout of a new feature called Channels, a portal through which the company now delivers what it’s calling “short-form listening experiences.” Right now, such short-form content on offer appears fairly limited, and a little strange: narrated reads of articles from newspapers like The Washington Post (natch) and The New York Times, some standup comedy recordings, and even a couple of meditation guides for the Headspace-inclined. (Nieman Lab, as usual, has a good breakdown on the details.)

There’s no mistaking what we’re seeing here: Audible has effectively changed its definition, almost overnight — it is no longer an audiobook company, but an audio content company, broadly speaking.

What we don’t see, however, is original podcast content. Which isn’t to say that there aren’t any podcasts in there right now — some digging through the Channels library reveals episodes from established podcast brands like APM’s Marketplace and Risk! — but there doesn’t appear to be anything that’s specially commissioned or developed by the original content team over at Audible’s baroque New Jersey campus, anything that feels like the podcast-equivalent of Amazon Prime Video’s Transparent or Mozart in the Jungle. (More on that in a second.)

Channels has been a long time coming. Whispers of Audible developing their own content — along with a more general portent towards aggressively stretching beyond its audiobook offerings — first hit my radar when the company hired Eric Nuzum away from NPR, where he was vice president of programming, to serve as the company’s senior vice president of original content. That happened last May. Since then, the company has been steadily packing its original content team with a long line of strong producers with solid public radio lineages: Jesse Baker, Ellen Horne, Martha Little, Lina Misitzis, and John L. Myers, among others.

But with the new feature rolling out in what appears to be in restrained fashion, it appears that I’ll have to wait a little more to see how Audible really takes a swing at the podcast market — and what, exactly, the rest of us are in for.

Or, you know, I could lob some questions over at Nuzum himself.

Q&A with Eric Nuzum, Audible’s SVP of original content. Shortly after news of the rollout began to trickle out, I managed to corner Nuzum in the kitchen of a Flatiron District office building to ask a few questions. Here’s the interview, lightly edited and condensed.

Quah: There’s probably not much you can say, so let’s start with this: What can you tell me on the record?

Nuzum: It’s really exciting for people to see Channels, which is something that was being worked on for a long time way before I got to Audible. I would describe it as if you’ve just shown a house that’s empty — it doesn’t have any furniture, there’s nobody living in it — and it’s the very, very elemental foundation of what we plan to do. There are things there right now that we’re very proud of, but it’s a fraction of what we expect to be in that place over the next couple of months.

People will find some narrated licensed material, some comedy material — which is an area we’re going to go much larger in — some drama, some literature. There is very little original stuff in there right now, almost none…

Quah: And when can we expect the originals?

Nuzum: Later.

As we get into the summer, things will get clearer both in terms of what we’ve been working on and the scale of our ambition. And I will say that “scale of our ambition” has two possible meanings, both of which are correct. So, scale of ambition as in how many things we’re working on, and also in terms of what we’re doing.

Look, when I left NPR, everybody came up to me and said, “I want to see what shows you’re going to build, what podcasts you’re going at Audible.” And that’s the completely wrong question, and it never has been the question.

I’m not at Audible to build podcasts. I’m at Audible to start a revolution. In the way audio is produced, and in the way audio is distributed.

I look at some of things that frustrate people in the podcasting space, and I’m trying to solve them both for creators and for listeners. So it really is not a question of what shows we create. The question we ask is: What do people want to listen to? That gets into a whole broader category of types of content than what you typically hear from podcasts.

I’m actually of the belief that one of the reasons many people don’t listen to podcasts is because there aren’t podcasts people want to listen to. There’s no audio content that matches a broader section of interests. And so we’re trying to figure out some of that other space.

Quah: Are we going to see non-American audio programming in Channels soon?

Nuzum: We’re trying to get this right here [in the United States] first.

But one thing that we’ve learnt — which surprised me — is how un-parochial people are in content interest. There are people in other territories, countries, and areas of the world…There isn’t a linear line we see where American people are interested in American content and British people are interested in British content.

It’s always been about: Is this relevant and good to me? And if you hit that relevant bit and be good, the boundaries and borders completely open up. That’s caused us to take a much broader look at the world of content sourcing as well as who we’re working with and who we’re offering it to.

Quah: Do you look for pitches?

Nuzum: Yeah, we do. But I think that…so, one of the things that a lot of people have been confused by is what are our aspirations are. If you draw a Venn diagram between podcast and public radio and what Audible is doing, there’s a lot of crossover. But we’re doing a lot of stuff outside the crossover. There’s a lot of things that will feel and sound like podcasts, but there will be a lot of things that sound very different. We’ll make some big mistakes, but we’re trying to expand out the realm of what people think of when think of what short-form listening experiences can be.

It’s an intoxicating thing to say to people that we have the appetite and aspiration to do things that other people can’t do. One of the things that I always tell producers pitching me is that if you can imagine something being a podcast, it’s probably not a big enough idea for us. I think our risk tolerance is very high.

We’re at the point now where things are starting to come in, and we’re finishing things and stacking things up. And we’re rejecting a large number of things because they sound like they can be on NPR, because they sound like a podcast. It would be very easy just have everything sound like what you’d expect. We’re always pushing to go further — and sometimes we’ll get there, and sometimes we won’t.

If you’re giving us the same pitch that you’re giving to Gimlet or Midroll or whatever, we pass on almost all of those. But if someone has a crazy idea, or an amazing story, and they just don’t know how to get someone to back them…It’s got to be a big idea. We want big ideas.

So that’s that.

Mind you: It’s all sheer potential right now for Audible, and it remains to be seen how the company will ultimately change things up for the rest of us. We don’t know yet how it will affect the podcast industry, opportunities for creators, the producer labor market, and overall non-music audio consumption (what a clunky phrase! I wonder how Edison Research is going to deal with measurements). And we have yet to see whether it’ll result in a net positive for all digital audio businesses or, in a familiar eating of the industry, whether it’ll become the center of the universe or break up the ecosystem into a multiverse. And whether it will truly pull from the obvious advantages enjoyed by the company on paper: instant access to a large existing pool of subscribers, along with gobs and gobs of money and resources from a terrifyingly dominant company with tentacles that stretch into a murderer’s row of parallel industries.

It’s all potential right now. Which is fine; I’ll just leave my tinfoil hat on.

By the way, if you’re wondering: Audible members get full access to the new content libraries, while non-members are only provided with 30 minutes of free listening a week. Basic memberships go for $14.95 a month.

NPR, one more time. So here we are again. Sunday night treated us with a Slate cover story that rang ye olde “What’s the future of NPR?” bell, extending the conversation recently instigated by the NPR Memo kerfuffle well into its fourth week.

The article didn’t bring us anything particularly new, but it does do a pretty good job neatly summing up all the future of NPR talk. In case you’re short on time, here’s the back-of-the-flap version: Young pub radio listeners are shifting towards digital! NPR is still dependent on broadcast, because member stations! The podcasts are coming! Critics are all like “the NPR C-suite is too slow to innovate!” Jarl Mohn, NPR CEO, is all like “y’all don’t do news”! And so on, and so on.

All that stuff is still true. But as I enter the fourth week of watching the discussion play out around the ol’ social media watering hole and gossiping on this subject with many, many people — what else can I do? — I’m beginning to feel something of a tension. Eh, maybe I should’ve felt it a long time ago, but it hit me really hard this week.

It’s interesting, I think, to consider that much of the critique that we’re seeing — particularly those from Adam Davidson, whose writings and quotations powers much of the skepticism that appears in these Future of NPR pieces, including Slate’s — appears to be grounded in an outsized optimism for the swathe of new podcast companies that have emerged outside the public radio system.

But the fact of the matter is: We still don’t know how it’s all going to shake out. We don’t know if Gimlet or Panoply or Acast will grow, thrive, and blossom into influential businesses. Right now, they’re all oodles of potential, and as most of us know from decent first dates, potential is intoxicating. I guess my point is: It’s a little premature to turn the heat up on NPR from the outside with such vigor and optimism in the rise of the new. They still have a lot of work that they to do to justify all that chest-thumping.

Also: To critique NPR, and to be anxious about the fate of NPR, is to be invested in the outcome of high quality public-interest journalism delivered in the audio format. Which makes it further interesting that, given the intensity of some of these critiques, none of these buzzy, new audio-oriented organizations seem to be substantially investing in the production and delivery of news for the public interest — at least not at this point in time.

To be fair, it makes some strategic logic for these new audio companies to not deal in hard news. I was once told by a very smart person that if you’re looking to enter a market with strong incumbents, you probably want to compete orthogonally — which is to say, don’t take them head on, and own the spaces they’re not touching. For Gimlet, it’s a steady stream of highly-produced narrative podcasts that are not the bread and butter of NPR and public radio stations. And for Panoply (conjoined twin-company of Slate, and my former day-job employer — hi guys!), it’s a web of talking heads programming that prizes analysis driven by personality, a currency public radio doesn’t ordinarily trade in. Those strategies has given those companies a solid foothold in their respective businesses.

But we’re still stuck with the reality that none of those companies, or any of the new audio companies for that matter, are explicitly engaged in the extra hard business of hard news. And as a result, none of them will either cause direct competition for NPR, which may spur them into readjustment, or lay the foundation for themselves to become the proper replacement should the public radio mothership match these apocalyptical prognostications.

So the critique has bit of a…I don’t want to call it hypocrisy necessarily, because it’s not as simple or straightforward as that, but a misalignment. A fundamental weirdness.

Again, I want to be clear that NPR’s C-suite still has to take its shifting fundamentals seriously. The quotes coming out of Jarl Mohn so starkly echo the stuff legacy publications said of digital media companies two or three years ago — I mean, damn. But I’m just saying that if we’re going to play that game, the knife should cut both ways.

If we take a few steps back, what do we see? New companies aren’t investing in news, and old companies aren’t investing in digital. And there’s a story here that’s really worth some attention, one that’s illustrated quite well in the Slate piece:

We are, after all, bombarded by news constantly — on our computers, on our phones, on TV, from newspapers, from cable news networks, from our friends on social media. Against that backdrop, it seems like there’s a very real possibility that the medium in which NPR’s reporters work — not just terrestrial radio, but audio full stop — could simply lose its place as a news source in people’s lives.

To sum it all up, with prescriptions: On the one hand, sure, NPR and its wider network of member stations need to really move and get wise on life after broadcast. But on the other hand, critics from the side of the upstarts should really dial it down and start showing us something. Which is all to say: Y’all should to stop throwing so much shade at each other and start fighting the real battles that need to be fought.

Don’t cha know that the Bezos is coming for us all?

One more thing. I’ve increasingly gotten the sense that this entire discussion — interesting as it is — has a certain generational quality. So, I think it’s worth us keeping in mind that is, in a lot of ways, is a privileged discussion. A lot of this debate seems to be driven among men of a certain age, race, and class, and there are tons and tons of young producers, reporters, and upstarts who are just looking for a place to catch a break and hone their craft, and the fact of the matter is the constellation of career opportunities afforded by these new audio companies haven’t actually touched the bottom, most-needed rung that will determine the fate of the craft, at least based on the increasing number of conversations I’m having. (More on that next week.)

So, to all you young producers reading this: I see you.

All right, that’s all I got. I can’t squeeze out anything more — I need to preserve some brain juice to come up with some scheme to pay next month’s rent. Moving on.

Additional reading: Jay Rosen’s tweet string on the ideological dimension of this discussion. BuzzFeed’s Tracy Clayton taking the Slate article’s writer, Leon Neyfakh, up to task on his characterization of “low-touch productions.” Former public radio operative-turned-public digital intellectual Melody Kramer’s “Public media is not content or platform. It’s more than that.”

WNYC Studios rolls out a new launch. 2 Dope Queens, a new show from WNYC Studios featuring Phoebe Robinson and Jessica Williams, debuted last week to a good amount of press, scoring writeups in Mashable, the Huffington Post, Tech Insider, and NBCNews.com. The show boasted strong positioning on the iTunes charts over the weekend, consistently occupying the top spot ahead of another newly launched public radio podcast, NPR’s Embedded — reflecting, perhaps, the two institutions’ mastery over iTunes as a marketing channel.

The release of 2 Dope Queens comes shortly after the launch of another WNYC Studios project, There Goes The Neighborhood, the limited-run series about gentrification in Brooklyn which premiered in early March. That we’ve been treated with two WNYC Studios launches within the span of a month suggests that we’re finally entering the first wave of projects coming out of the public radio station’s new podcast division since it was announced last October.

So what other shows should we be keeping an eye out for? According to the New York Times article covering the division’s launch back when it happened, we’re still due for a show with author Roxane Gay, a scripted fiction series with comedian Sara Schaefer, a Radiolab-spinoff that will focus on the Supreme Court, and a show that will come out of a partnership with Vice News.

Bits:

  • The second season of NPR’s highly successful Invisibilia podcast will drop in June. For those keeping tabs, last November the show added Hanna Rosin — of the Slate DoubleX Gabfest, and who you can also find in a recent Trumpcast episode — as the third cohost. (Twitter)
  • The lovely Radio Diaries, which is now a podcast distributed beneath the Radiotopia banner but was once a wee audio experiment, turned 20 years old last Friday. The team will be doing a bunch of things to celebrate the occasion over the next month, including releasing a story that’s been in development for over two years. So watch out for that. (Radio Diaries)
  • “Hear the Fear: The Rise of the Horror Podcast.” Couple of juicy numbers from this: the independent Lore podcast reportedly averages 385,000 downloads a week, while the beloved Black Tapes podcast scores about 200,000 a month. (The Atlantic)

Is this your first time reading Hot Pod? You can subscribe to the newsletter here. The original version has more news, analysis, material. And there’s more news briefs for paid members! Also, how’re you doing?

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

POSTED     April 12, 2016, 9:57 a.m.
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