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June 28, 2016, 10 a.m.
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Hot Pod: Is the BBC’s power to blame for the U.K. podcasting scene’s underdevelopment?

Plus: Shutting down a podcast after 11 years, Scripps tries out a new model, and Radiotopia picks its finalists.

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue seventy-eight, published June 28, 2016.

The view on the other side. “I think the corporate heart of the BBC currently undervalues radio and may well be about to undermine it,” wrote Gillian Reynolds, the radio critic at The Telegraph, in a column published two weeks ago. (Radio critic! I want that job!)

Reynolds noted that “a 20 percent portion of [the BBC’s license fee] is spent on radio but [radio] accounts for 40 per cent of total BBC consumption,” and that the BBC’s radio properties — along with its digital audio relatives — provides its public with an unmatched programming value. She is concerned, then, with the institution’s recent move to merge its radio commissioning division with its television unit. “There really is nothing like BBC radio anywhere else in the world. Dilute it and it will vanish,” she argued.

It’s a fascinating argument, and one that feels more than a little familiar with respect to certain conversations about the American public radio system (see: the WBAA-This American Life-Pandora narrative that largely revolves around concepts of diluting the public radio mission) — though, of course, the dynamics and actual questions at play are drastically different. At the heart of it all lies the question about what gives public media its “public-ness” and quality, and how these things will survive in the face of increasing economic crunch.

Reynolds’ column also grants us some really interesting numbers on the U.K.’s podcast sector, which appears to be an opportunity that hasn’t been properly capitalizes upon just yet, on both the consumption and creation ends. Here are the numbers:

The BBC offers 450 podcasts from across its networks: Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time gets 2.3 million downloads every month, The Archers 2.2 million. That’s about 25 million a year, each.

The UK’s underdeveloped podcast consumption levels also appear to be matched by a similarly immature podcast advertising market.

“In my experience, the big players are still Squarespace and Audible, so the money is really coming from the U.S.,” observed U.K.-based Helen Zaltzman, of the Answer Me This and The Allusionist podcasts, when I reached out to her over email for some insight. “Generally, the whole of podcasting is undercooked here. The U.K. is years behind the U.S. in all aspects of the business. I don’t know anyone else here in the same position as me, making a living from their own podcasts (i.e., not counting producers for hire).”

Zaltzman noted that this lack of financially viable independent podcasts in the U.K. — along with an overall lack of podcasts — can possibly be attributed to the region’s large and varied radio industry. Two dynamics are suggested to be at play here: On one hand, the general structure of work opportunities provided by that industry incentivizes talent away from starting and running their own ships, and on the other, that talent is further deterred from doubling down on their own projects due to an immature business environment.

It’s a tough situation for stalwarts like Zaltzman, who is one of the very few U.K. podcast creators able to lean on the U.S. for a revenue stream that grants her sustainability. It also raises the question, then, of what kind of value is actually being created by companies that portend to support podcasters that currently operate in the U.K.

So-called begging. A very, very frustrating quote coming out of Acast cofounder Måns Ulvestam, who said the following in a recent Nieman Lab writeup about their new paid subscription feature:

If you look at the Spotifys of the world, they started with advertising, then turned to subscriptions. If you look at the history of podcasting, you’ve got Patreon, you’ve got crowdfunding efforts. But for me that’s not a business model, that’s just begging.

Ulvestam’s comments here are not only ignorant of models that have proven to be incredibly successful in the past — see the entire public radio system (including WNYC), Radiotopia, Maximum Fun, and so on — but also deeply ignorant of the realities of contemporary digital media, which are increasingly reflecting the notions that: (1) different business models must be adopted by different businesses based on their specific traits, public profile, and configuration, and (2) Patreon and crowdfunding efforts are part and parcel of larger development efforts to cultivate a direct relationship between publishers and consumers in a way that generates trust, collaboration, and community.

His comment is also deeply arrogant and incredibly disrespectful of the way a sizable chunk of independent creators need to function on the Internet in order to build out sustainable businesses. Independent creators, by the way, that also happen to be one of their target clienteles — like Flash Forward, which is distributed by Acast and is listed as an example on that Nieman Lab piece, but whose creator, Rose Eveleth, also relies on Patreon for a sizable chunk of her revenue.

Note:

Ugh.

A long-running podcast ends its run. Vox Tablet, an award-winning weekly podcast by Tablet Magazine, is shutting down after 11 years and 500 episodes, marking the end of one of the oldest podcasts maintained by a publication. When I reached out for comment, the team behind Vox Tablet, host Sara Ivry and producer Julie Subrin, cited changing economics and shifting priorities within Tablet as the primary reasons for the closure.

The show’s archives will be digitally maintained, and listeners can access them in all the usual places. Ivry and Subrin are on the hunt for their next gigs — with Ivry indicating an intent to find more work within the audio space (“In fact, I have some podcast ideas I want to pitch,” she noted), and Subrin hoping to help alleviate the impending editor shortage crisis.

I asked them if they would be willing to share what they’ve learned from their 11 years making the show. They responded:

Ivry: “To follow your curiosity as an interviewer, trust that you have this job on account of your imagination, willingness, and ability to have a good conversation. Another way to put that is, as the interviewer, you are the proxy listener who may know nothing about the topic, and so never assume foreknowledge and don’t talk over/condescend to your audience. That makes it alienating and unwelcoming to listeners.”

Subrin: “I’ve come to appreciate a the pleasures of a good two-way (or three-way, or…). I still love listening to (and making) carefully crafted, well-produced pieces, but I find my ears really prick up when I’m listening to something and I can hear that there’s a real conversation underway — unscripted, lively, thoughtful, engaged.”

Good luck, Sara and Julie!

First Day Backed. June has been eventful for the Cincinnati-based media octopus E.W. Scripps, which announced its acquisition of podcast app Stitcher (and the app’s impending absorption into the Midroll brand) a few weeks ago. But the corporation is also making some moves on the programming front.

Scripps has officially picked up First Day Back, a small independent podcast affiliated withThe Heard podcast collective, for its second season. Produced by film documentarian Tally Abecassis, the podcast’s first season followed Abecassis as she attempted to resume her filmmaking career after a long, long maternity leave. The narrative plays out in the diaristic first person, with Abecassis switching constantly between audio journaling and field recordings (the “field” often being places within her home, as she interacts with her family). The form and tone may be familiar to you; it’s reminiscent of Millennial, along with the pilots of Only Human and Death, Sex & Money. There are special standalone episodes featuring a memory, or listener feedback. It’s raw, and it’s really good.

The second season of the show will pivot away from Abecassis and the theme of work/life balance in motherhood. She did not clarify what the new season will focus on — only that it will focus on another person, that it’ll be a whole different storyline, and that it’ll adopt a more traditionally documentary-like feel.

Conversations for a possible pickup began when Scripps approached Abecassis late last year, after the show caught the attention of Scripps producer Marc Georges. “We loved what she did and felt it fit really well with the company’s desire to develop podcasts that blend journalism and storytelling in new ways and to be a destination for people who have great ideas,” explained Ellen Weiss, chief of the Scripps Washington Bureau who also oversees the organization’s podcast initiatives, when I reached out over email last week.

To be clear: First Day Back will be a Scripps-supported show, not an Earwolf show — unlike the former WNYC podcast Longest Shortest Time, which appears to be very much branded as an Earwolf property — and it’ll play out with an arrangement that’s different than DecodeDC, which is a podcast that Scripps fully owns, produces, and distributes. Furthermore, the fact that Scripps supports the show doesn’t necessarily translate into the inception of some sort of “Scripps Podcast Network,” as Weiss assures me. It’s a little confusing, but I think it’s more or less consistent with the view of Scripps as some sort of Berkshire Hathaway-esque holdings group as opposed to a straightforward media company.

The podcast will receive editorial support from the organization. The two entities are still figuring out how the distribution portion of the partnership would work, but advertising on First Day Back will be sold through Midroll — which is the case for all other shows that Scripps supports.

Weiss was unwilling to be more specific on the arrangements. “We really don’t discuss the details of our partnerships,” she wrote.

First Day Back will also continue its affiliation with The Heard.

The Radiotopia Podquest finalists. The talent-hunt initiative announced its slate of finalists this morning — and surprise! There’s going to be a final four, instead of a final three. They are:

  • Ear Hustle, by Nigel Poor, Antwan Williams, and Earlonne Woods. This podcast will bring you “the hidden stories of life inside prison, told and produced from the perspective of those who live it.”
  • Meat, by Jonathan Zenti. This is a show about “bodies and the lives we live because of them.” (Fantastic name, by the way.)
  • The Difference Between, by Jericho Saria and Hadrian Santos. This show will explore “the world of ‘information doppelgängers’ — the stuff you always confuse for that other thing — to find out what makes them truly unique.”
  • And Villain-ish, by Vivian Le. It’s a show about “gaining new perspectives on dubious figures we’ve been taught to revile, and exploring the hidden details we may have never considered.” (Which, I suppose, places it pretty thematically close to Revisionist History and that new history-oriented show that Gimlet hopes to put out later this year. A growing subgenre, perhaps?)

All four finalists will receive $10,000, along with additional editorial and technical support to create three pilot episodes. The finalists will be introduced onstage at the Podcast Movement conference in Chicago next week. Only one will be selected to join the Radiotopia collective at the end of this process — that’ll happen at the Third Coast Conference in November.

You can read the bios of the finalists — and the six semi-finalists — on the Podquest website.

Podcast networks, pay attention: After November, there will be some good show teams and concepts up for grabs.

Bites:

  • This is fantastic: “Obama White House Veterans Gleefully Enter the Podcast World.” (The New York Times)
  • Night Vale Presents has rolled out a second show, after Alice Isn’t Dead. Written by Welcome to Night Vale cocreator Jeffrey Cranor and author Janina Matthewson (Of Things Gone Astray), Within The Wires is a 10-part podcast that’s told through a series of relaxation cassettes. Given that this is the Night Vale team, the cassettes are expectedly creepy in the classic left-of-center way. (iTunes)
  • WNYC CEO Laura Walker responds to the growing narrative on public radio’s existential crisis: “Radio’s Next Incarnation: Join the Creative Disruption.” (Medium)
  • Why Oh Why?, an excellent and super trippy show by Andrea Silenzi, is now officially a Panoply show — and it’s on the hunt for a producer. (Panoply)
  • NPR One data point: “The largest age group listening to NPR One is 25- to 34-year-olds, according to NPR, with 40 percent of listeners under 35. More than a third of users who answered NPR surveys said they never or only occasionally listen to broadcast radio.” (Current)
  • “Seven ways public can attract a more diverse workforce.” Current recaps a panel moderated by Andrew Ramsammy at the recent Public Radio News Directors conference in St. Louis. (Current)
  • Ramsammy, by the way, is a former Public Radio International operative who is leaving the organization to start something called UnitedPublic Strategies, which comes with the tagline “Taking public media beyond broadcast.” Not much is known about it at this point in time, but expect more details when it launches sometime in July. (UPStrategies)

This version of Hot Pod has been adapted for Nieman Lab, where it appears each Tuesday. You can subscribe to the full newsletter here. You can also support Hot Pod by becoming a member, which gets you more news, deeper analysis, and exclusive interviews; more information on the website.

POSTED     June 28, 2016, 10 a.m.
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