Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue seventy-one, published May 3, 2016.
Pineapple Street Media. “Our operating philosophy is: Everybody’s still trying to figure out this shit,” said Max Linsky, quite matter-of-factly. “All this stuff changes so quickly. We’re not going to go in and say, ‘This is the exact format we’re going to use, this is the exact person we need to use.’ We’re going to be very involved in figuring out all of that.”It’s Thursday morning, and I’m in one of those bunker-like, poorly-lit Manhattan coffee shops sitting with Linsky, the cofounder of Longform.org and cohost of its eponymous podcast, along with his new business partner, Jenna Weiss-Berman. That’s the Jenna Weiss-Berman, who until recently was the director of audio at BuzzFeed, where she built out the company’s audio division and launched its first slate of podcasts, including the very popular Another Round. (News of her departure was officially circulated this morning.)
Weiss-Berman and Linsky are talking about the new venture they’re launching, the whimsically-named Pineapple Street Media, which will be in the business of developing podcasts for clients. They’re telling me about inquiries they’ve both received in recent months — how numerous companies were interested in starting their own podcast divisions, how those companies had been asking for help to develop shows, and how for the most part they’ve been unable to directly assist them.
“We’re trying to build something where we can say yes,” Weiss-Berman said.The duo is starting out with a strong list of clients, all publishers of a sort: Lenny Letter (foreshadowed in this Nieman Lab writeup), the advertising agency Wieden+Kennedy’s publishing division, and most notably, The New York Times. They hinted at a few other major clients in the pipeline, but those partners have yet to be confirmed. The Times partnership might be of particular interest to Hot Pod readers, given the paper’s recent announcement that it was building out its own in-house audio team. According to Weiss-Berman and Linsky, they’re only on contract to develop one show for the Gray Lady at this point.
“We’re big fans of the shows that Jenna and Max have created, and are excited about them helping to unleash a similar spirit and voice from New York Times personalities,” wrote Samantha Henig, the editorial director for the Times’ new audio unit, when I reached out for a statement. “We are continuing our hunt for an executive producer to oversee all of our new audio projects, including what we create with Pineapple Street. But given the enthusiasm and momentum here, we’re eager to start piloting some of the ideas we’ve been tossing around so that we’re ready to roll once we have the EP in place.”
This arrangement with the Times is indicative of the kind of work that will probably make up the bulk of Pineapple Street Media’s docket. Weiss-Berman and Linsky told me that they expect to work with a lot of companies with nascent audio divisions. They also made it a point to emphasize their flexibility as a company, a trait that will extend to their business model. “It’s going to be a slightly different scenario with each company. Some arrangements are going to involve rev shares, some are going to involve flat fees,” Linsky said.
Also notable: Pineapple Street Media will be developing its own shows. “Making original stuff is a big part of why we’re doing this,” Weiss-Berman said. She told me that Women of the Hour, the Lena Dunham-hosted podcast she produced that came out late last year is now a Pineapple Street Media show. That show was cobranded with BuzzFeed across its first season.
This all sounds like the prototypical origin story at the heart of every upstart: a plucky band of cofounders encounter a problem, identify a solution to that problem within themselves, and then form a business to capitalize on the opportunity — with hopes to drag in a few boatloads of cash along the way. And that all appears more or less the case for Weiss-Berman and Linsky. But what strikes me as significant is how relatively restrained they seem to be — in how they talk about their new venture, in their reading of the space, and in their understanding of what they’re bringing to the market. Granted, they still spoke with the swagger of people who know just exactly how good they are at what they do (well, more she than he; “I’m mostly riding Jenna’s coattails,” Linsky said), but it’s a confidence that’s noticeably tempered with the wariness of two seasoned operatives fully cognizant of the unpredictability that tomorrow brings.Though, between the substance of their track record and the depth of their Rolodexes, perhaps they probably shouldn’t too wary. Weiss-Berman is something of a renowned figure among certain circles in the public radio and podcasting industry; based on my conversations across the industry, it’s hard to overstate just how deeply respected (and connected) she is. And though he’s not natively of the audio world, Linsky’s Longform podcast, a popular interview show that features a murderer’s row of journalists as guests (Ta-Nehisi Coates! Margaret Sullivan! Brooke Gladstone!) — of which I am a huge fan — surely serves as an indication of his consistency and access. Also worth noting: Linsky developed Brownscast, the Cleveland Browns insider podcast that I wrote about a few months ago, which to my mind represents a kind of premium sponsored-content material that Pineapple Street Media can tap into further.
It’s still very early days for Pineapple Street Media. Weiss-Berman and Linsky haven’t yet thought about which technology platforms to work with — though they mentioned that they wouldn’t be surprised if such arrangements change based on project needs — and they’re still in the process of hiring their first producers. On that topic, Weiss-Berman was adamant on a few things. “We have strong values around the company we’re building,” she said. “We want to pay people well, and we will always pay interns. That’s the only way we’re going to build a diverse company.”
Weiss-Berman’s last day at BuzzFeed is May 10. As for Linsky, he assures me that Longform will continue operation while he pursues this new venture. You can find the company on their new website.
BuzzFeed Audio. Jenna Weiss-Berman’s departure from the company comes accompanied by news of another exit: Heben Nigatu, one of the two hosts of Another Round, is leaving the company to join the staff at The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. “After three and a half years at BuzzFeed, my journey here is up,” Nigatu tweeted last Thursday. “It’s been an incredible ride and I really appreciate y’all rockin with me.”
After three and a half years at BuzzFeed, my journey here is up. It's been an incredible ride and I really appreciate y'all rockin with me💖
— Heben Nigatu (@heavenrants) April 28, 2016
This puts the future of the show in some question, but according to Eleanor Kagan, the show’s producer, it’s business as usual for the immediate future.
“We’re so, so proud of Heben and can’t wait to see what fantastic things she’ll make next,” Kagan wrote when I reached out for comment. “As for the future of Another Round, we’re working on ways that we can keep it going because we believe in it, love making it, and love the community it’s created. As Heben settles into her new job, we’ll work on finding the best way to do the show with her schedule. We’re excited to continue the work we’ve been doing, and new episodes aren’t stopping any time soon.”
Nigatu’s cohost, Tracy Clayton, was similarly optimistic. “Though I will be wearing black for the foreseeable future and am currently working on a cut-out Michael Jordan Cry Face mask to wear for the rest of my life, I am completely ecstatic for my sister and thrilled to see all the amazing things she is sure to do,” she wrote. “I’m also really, really excited to continue collaborating and working together to give you more of the best stuff ever.”
Meanwhile, the company hasn’t announced who will replace Weiss-Berman as the new director of audio, though they are expected to do so very soon. In any case, the #podsquad continues to chug along; they recently launched No One Knows Anything, a politics show that adopts a news magazine format. (We’ll talk about that next week, hopefully. News magazines, guys!) It’s BuzzFeed’s sixth podcast overall, though that number will drop down to five once Women of the Hour shuffles off to Pineapple Street.
I wish everybody involved — those who depart, those who stay, those who will come on board — the absolute best of luck.
Notes on collaborations. Last week brought word of a new podcast that comes out of a partnership between Mic and the Economist — two media brands that couldn’t be further apart from each other in my mind, but whatever I’m all for unexpected bedfellows, so more power to ya’. Anyway, that podcast, Special Relationship, aims to cover the 2016 U.S. presidential elections from an international perspective. It is also, interestingly enough, the latest in a growing list of podcasts that emerge from collaborations between two different media companies.
A sample list of such duets: Actuality from American Public Media and Quartz, Codebreaker from American Public Media and Tech Insider, Modern Love from The New York Times and WBUR, and The Awards Show Show from KPCC’s The Frame and Vulture.
These partnerships have caught the attention of a number of Hot Pod readers. Over the past few weeks, several folks have written me asking for how these collaborations work in practice. I’m sure the flow works really differently between each show, but just to get some flavor into this, I reached out to the teams at Special Relationship, Actuality, and Codebreaker asking for some process stories.
Special Relationship. “It’s really a joint effort across the board,” wrote Caitlyn Carpanzano, a spokesperson for Mic. “Our policy team is working very closely with The Economist’s editorial team to determine themes of each episode, we’re pulling in guest voices from both newsrooms. There is, of course, a good amount of coordination that goes into taping the episodes as Mic will tape in New York and The Economist tapes in London.”
In terms of coordinating production, Mic’s side of the equation is handled by John Lagomarsino, a senior post producer at the company who previously worked on the video team at The Verge. (He also cohosts his own music podcast on the side, Tuner.) Lagomarsino produces the audio, and runs point on the scripting process. The Economist’s side is coordinated by Frank Andrejasich, a product manager for the publication’s new product development department who is based in Brooklyn.
Actuality and Codebreaker. “Our editorial collaboration is pretty deep on this one,” wrote Sitara Nieves, referring to Actuality. Nieves is senior producer of Marketplace, though she also works on Actuality and has some knowledge on the process over at the Codebreaker team. “From the hosts (Sabri Ben Achour from Marketplace and Tim Fernholz from Quartz) to the feedback that comes from both teams on a periodic basis. The brain trust is shared across Quartz and Marketplace, though the production resource is largely provided by Marketplace. The sales teams work together to sell digital underwriting for the podcast and the marketing teams have worked together as well.”
“Tech Insider and Codebreaker looks a little different,” Nieves continued. “Though there are editorial conversations up front between our production team and a colleague at Tech Insider, we largely drive the editorial content. This is largely the brainchild of host Ben Johnson and he drives a lot of the approach to the podcast. Ben and the production team work with a colleague at TI during preproduction of each season to establish ideas about how reporters there can work with Ben on stories they’re thinking about.”
She went on to mention that Tech Insider handled distribution of Codebreaker through its website, producing “ancillary blog posts” for each episode that features animated videos to pull readers into the podcast.
Maximum placement. Did anybody catch the bonus Judge John Hodgman episode that dropped last Friday? The 44-minute episode, which was released outside its typical weekly publishing schedule, was a fascinating piece of advertising integration with the car company Chevrolet. The actual content saw no diversions from the typical format of the show — a sort of absurdist Judge Judy adjudicating the tiny horrors of everyday things (for the most part) — but the episode did feature a distinct automotive-related theme, an editorial choice that followed from the Chevrolet sponsorship.That bonus sponsored episode bears some similarities to the four-part sponsored series published by the Cracked podcast last November. That run, which was a campaign by GE, also kept the general structure of that podcast firmly in place, but it also involved whole segments that appear to feature GE employees as call-in experts. (Of course, that integration was overshadowed by the other GE podcast advertising campaign that took place that month — the short-run science fiction audio drama series The Message, which was produced by Panoply and remains the weird/successful podcast advertising initiative of record.) It’s also worth noting the Chevrolet podcast spot isn’t the first of its kind for Maximum Fun, the network that oversees Judge John Hodgman. Last summer, the network’s popular comedy podcast My Brother, My Brother, and Me ran a bonus sponsored episode that was far more ambitious in its creativity…and in the way it pushed against certain boundaries. The sponsor in question was Totino’s Pizza Rolls, and the episode saw the show’s hosts — Griffin, Justin, and Travis McElroy — stretch 45 minutes out exclusively discussing and answering questions about the microwavable meal.
It’s as surreal as you think it is, but that episode was also an example of a podcast having its cake and eating it too, advertorially speaking. In a Splitsider article lauding the episode, the critic Nathan Rabin wrote: “In an astonishing turn of events, this was not solely a hilariously meta parody of product placement and what it known as ‘native advertising’; it also doubled as a brilliant exercise in product placement and native advertising.”
The question at the heart of all of this, of course, is the extent to which advertising campaigns of this nature can be replicated enough to become an actual strategy, and whether they can fit into a podcast advertising environment where dynamic ad insertion and programmatic audio advertising are expected to become the norm for the purposes of scale. For the record, I don’t think this kind of campaigns will be anything more than one-off novelties; the onus, then, is on the networks to make sure these special campaigns are priced way through the roof.
Related reading: “Where Brands and Comedy Meet: The Weird World of ‘Native Marketing,'” from Katelyn Best on Splitsider. Also, “Big Corporate Sponsors Could Change Podcasting Forever” over at Wired, completely annihilating with the hyperboles.
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