Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue seventy-seven, published June 21, 2016.
Oh geez. So much happened while I was out. This week’s column will be more of a rundown than usual. Let’s get to it.Factsheet. I’m all about those 30,000-foot views. Last week, the Pew Research Center published its respected State of the News Media 2016 report, a dependable resource of material for media nerds to geek out over. Like previous versions, this year’s report comes with a dedicated podcasting section, and for the most part, it does a pretty good job of providing a snapshot of the industry at this point in time. Interested podcast-oriented readers should also pay attention to the section on public broadcasting, which digs into NPR’s current dynamics pretty well and digs up some handy data points to boot. (NPR One adoption is still stronger among iPhone users than among Android users, but not for long you say? Delicious.) I highly recommend checking both sections out, but I just wanted to make a quick note: This is presumably the report that many newcomers and unfamiliar media analysts will turn to — and the one that future podcast entrepreneurs will cite in pitch decks — for a clean, clear description of the state of the podcast industry in the months to come. It’s important, then, to note the many quirks of the report, including its utilization of Libsyn data to chart out the scale of podcast hosting and downloads — which doesn’t account for the volumes of hosting and downloads that take place on premium platforms like Art19, Megaphone, and whatever public radio stations use — as well as its perpetuation of the ZenithOptimedia $34 million estimate of ad spend for the medium in 2015, the problems of which I discussed in my last column.
Anyway, the Pew report wasn’t the only high-level overview of the podcast industry that came out over the past few weeks. The independent tech analyst Ben Thompson also recently published a very, very solid assessment on his Stratechery blog, which you should absolutely peruse if you haven’t already. His reading of the medium’s history is consistent with my own, and it even comes with an interesting — and possibly very complicated — alternate path for the industry to go down in the months to come.
The new NewFront. “We wanted to make it feel scrappy,” said Chris Giliberti, Gimlet’s chief of staff, when we spoke over the phone last week. “There are companies in the digital media world that aren’t just focused on scale — some are also focused on building deep connections with their audiences. Some concentrate on making their artisanal media more premium.”
Giliberti is describing the impetus behind the Brooklyn NewFronts, a new digital media industry event that took place for the first time last Tuesday. This inaugural edition saw Gimlet present its upcoming slate of programming alongside a few other up-and-coming digital media companies: the Lena Dunham-branded publication Lenny, the travel curiosity site Atlas Obscura, the annotation platform Genius, and the Hearst-powered Snapchat channel Sweet. (All five companies contributed to the organization of the event.)
Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to attend the event despite the fact it took place in Genius’ offices — a mere ten-minute walk from my apartment/kitchen office — as I’m unexpectedly West Coast-based for the summer, but I’m told that it was a fairly stripped down, focused affair. Politico Media described it as “a sort of lower-budget, smaller-scale, cool-kid version of the Digital Content NewFronts,” which I guess squares with the whispers I’ve been getting. (Interestingly enough, the Digital Content NewFronts can probably also be described as a smaller-scale, cool-kid version of the traditional TV upfronts — though, given the fact that the scale and spectacle of that NewFront seem to be growing year over year, one could expect the prestige hierarchies to flip soon enough.) An upfront, for the uninitiated, is best described as an industry event that typically features publishers presenting their upcoming wares in a move to drum up interest among ad buyers.It should be noted that Tuesday’s alt-Front isn’t the first upfront event to feature podcast programming. The past twelve months have already seen two other podcast-oriented upfronts: one organized by the Interactive Advertising Bureau and another put together by a consortium of public radio organizations (including NPR, WNYC, and WBEZ).
But what Gimlet’s doing here is interesting. Train your focus on what the company is trying to do by grouping itself within Lenny, Atlas Obscura, Genius, and Sweet. By lumping themselves in with these digital media companies working within relatively trusted mediums, Gimlet is effectively taking advantage of a halo effect generated by companies whose buzz and narratives are tied almost solely to their editorial brands and substance, as opposed to their distribution technologies — which is, unfortunately, a narrative burden that still handicaps much of the conversation around most other podcast companies. Instead of drawing overt attention to its nature as a podcast company, Gimlet appears to be focusing the conversation purely on its programming and brand, two areas of focus where the company knows it can win.
It’s a smart move. Hopefully, it pays off.
The new Gimlet shows. So what new podcasts did Gimlet trot out at the dog-and-pony show? Some we already know, others we don’t. Here’s the lineup:
Full-court press. Last week was a busy one for Panoply, which rolled out the first episode of Revisionist History, its big-swing project with author and general man-about-town Malcolm Gladwell. The Graham Holdings-owned podcast company appeared to lean hard on Gladwell’s celebrity to establish a strong promotional circuit involving spots on CBS This Morning, CBC’s Q, and the Recode Media podcast. The buzz around Gladwell’s podcast, which pushed it up to the No. 1 spot on the iTunes hotness chart (where it remains at this writing), also scored Panoply a Bloomberg profile. (Disclosure: Panoply is my former day-job employer.)
That Bloomberg profile, by the way, provides some meaty details on Panoply’s internal expectations around the podcast. Note the following quote:
Panoply’ll have to set their sights a little further if they really intend to give Serial a run for its money, of course: 500,000 downloads per episode, either as a projected goal or a realized performance, simply won’t put Revisionist History anywhere close to being “the next Serial.” When Serial’s second season was closing up its final week, the team’s community editor Kristen Taylor told me that each episode had consistently enjoyed around three million downloads on its launch week throughout the season.
[Matt] Turck [Panoply’s chief revenue officer] predicts that Revisionist History could draw over 500,000 downloads per episode, with Gladwell providing star power and Apple giving support. That would match the best performance of The Message…”I don’t know if there will ever be another Serial, anything that explosive,” said Turck. “But boy we’ve stacked the deck to give it a run for the money.”
Speaking of Panoply…it looks as if they’re developing a podcast project with First Look Media, the Pierre Omidyar-backed news organization. The project, Politically Re-active, which features comedians W. Kamau Bell and Hari Kondabolu — regulars on the public radio circuit and its podcast descendants — will explore basic, fundamental questions pertaining to the 2016 U.S. presidential elections.
This partnership with Panoply marks First Look Media’s first foray into audio, serving as a continuation of its multibrand, multiplatform strategy that’s included The Intercept, the Glenn Greenwald-fronted national security journalism site, and Reported.ly, its socially-distributed news organization focused on human rights and social justice. First Look Media has also started dabbling in film, acting as a producing partner on the Academy Award-winning Spotlight.
Crisis narrative. Add yet another thread to public radio’s growing existential crisis narrative: the fact that a generation of established talent is steadily aging out, which The Wall Street Journal’s Ellen Gamerman observes using the retirement of Prairie Home Companion’s Garrison Keillor as the hook.
“Some of the biggest radio stars of a generation are exiting the scene while public-radio executives attempt to stem the loss of younger listeners on traditional radio,” Gamerman writes, before describing how NPR is grappling with slowing the loss of younger listeners over the radio and how its member station–reliant business model is under threat from the competition generated by emerging podcast companies that complicate its attempts to transition into digital.If you’re keeping tabs on the growing body of public radio existential-crisis literature, here’s a quick list of the other incidents that have inspired this narrative: (1) NPR CEO’s Jarl Mohn summer 2015 incident during his visit to the organization’s New York bureau, which served as the catalyzing event for Politico’s “Can NPR seize its moment?” article, the first of this genre; (2) the NPR Memo kerfuffle; and (3) WBAA’s (later reversed) decision to stop syndicating This American Life, citing mission-based disagreement over the latter’s partnership with Pandora.
(And speaking of that NPR Memo kerfuffle, Gamerman’s piece contains a detail that sheds a little more light on the thinking behind the policy, highlighted by the infamous memo to hold off on promoting NPR One over broadcast: according to an NPR spokeswoman, Chris Turpin, VP of news programming and operations, “doesn’t want hosts to promote NPR One until all local stations are represented on the app.” Interesting! (Update: Isabel Lara, NPR’s senior director of media relations, emailed me to say that the Journal misquoted her when she relayed Turpin’s point. “He never said that all stations needed to be part of NPR One before we could promote it on the air,” she wrote. “The point that I was trying to make…is that we are encouraging stations to participate because our goal is to make the national/local listener experience better and better.” I’ll follow up next week.)
Meanwhile, NPR appears to be looking for a new product manager to work on podcasts and social. (I had initially thought that this hire would work alongside Mathilde Piard, who had been the organization’s product manager working podcasts but has since evolved into a more general programming role. Fascinating!) And last week also saw the start of the second season of Invisibilia, NPR’s record-breaking podcast that reportedly broke 10 million downloads within its first four weeks of launching last year.
Balance that out however you’d like.
More on branded podcasts. Gamerman’s Garrison Keillor article wasn’t The Wall Street Journal’s only piece on pods last week. One of the paper’s media reporters, Steven Perlberg, pubbed an update on the trend of brand-sponsored podcasts following the launch of eBay’s Open for Business, the first podcast put out by Gimlet Creative, that company’s branded podcast unit.
The juiciest tidbit from that article does not have to do with Gimlet, however. It has to do to with its counterpart over at Panoply. From Perlberg’s article:
The ruling metric of the podcast industry is the “unique download” of an episode. Podcasters are often unclear on how many actually listen after downloading an episode, how long they listened and their demographic makeup.
To deal with that issue, Panoply created landing webpages for each podcast, which it distributes across its social channels and buys ads on places like Facebook. Mr. Hernandez said Panoply guarantees marketers a certain amount of engagement on those webpages, as opposed to being able to guarantee a certain number of listeners.
That’s certainly an interesting way to handle the metrics issue. At the end of the day, brand advertising effectiveness is grounded in however brands can be convinced that their making an impression over their target demographics. Panoply, then, has an advantage here, given that it has control over a platform through which they have the potential to gain some control over the way brands have conversation about advertising efficacy — through the development of new ad measurement features, through potentially partnering with third-party measurement arbiters, and so on.
Also relevant here is the following detail from the previously mentioned Bloomberg profile of Panoply from a few items up:
At the low end, Panoply charges a brand $150,000 to produce and promote a podcast. The biggest productions reach into the seven digits.
Seven digits, eh?
WNYC interns get fair-wage assurances. But will the station follow through? A few weeks ago, I wrote about a petition initiative that’s been floating about urging New York Public Radio to pay its interns more than the $12-a-day stipend they currently get. It looks like the initiative is making some headway.
Mickey Capper, the freelance radio producer who headed up the petition effort, wrote me in an email:
Jennifer Houlihan Roussel [head of the station’s comms team] confirmed that NYPR would start paying interns in fiscal year 2017. Exact wage TBD and most details TBD, but she said that all internships would be paid and they’re currently working on it. It seems Brenda Williams-Butts has been championing this and spearheading it on the inside and deserves oodles of credit.
Williams-Butts, by the way, is NYPR’s vice president of recruitment, diversity, and inclusion. I asked Capper if he thinks whether the organization will follow through. He seemed optimistic. “I believe WNYC will follow through as they’ve been very careful to commit to anything beyond vague statements of intention up to this point,” Capper wrote back.
I’ll be keeping a close eye on this. And speaking of WNYC…
Werk It, part two. The station held the second edition of its annual women in podcasting festival, Werk It, late last week. The three-day event, which took place in WNYC’s Greene Space, featured a stellar schedule of panels and presentation from some truly remarkable talent and operators, including PRX’s Julie Shapiro, Another Round’s Tracy Clayton, NPR’s Kelly McEvers, and Radiolab’s Molly Webster, among many, many others. If you didn’t get to attend, don’t worry! You can check out a recording of the festival on its website.
Meanwhile, on the West Coast. PodcastOne has named Jim Berk as the company’s new CEO, according to The Wall Street Journal, replacing founder Norm Pattiz in the position. Pattiz, who also has the distinction of founding American radio network Westwood One, will retain his title as the company’s executive chairman.
Twitter invests in SoundCloud. But I don’t think it changes much as far as the Berlin-based audio distribution platform’s relationship to the podcast space is concerned. In case you’re curious about the details: Last Tuesday, Recode reported that Twitter has invested about $70 million in SoundCloud through its venture arm. The investment apparently took place under the radar earlier this year, and both the deal’s specifics and the strategic thinking behind the move remains unclear to the public at this time.
Whatever the logic may be, however, I think it’s safe to say that however SoundCloud progresses into the future, it will do so with the music streaming business firmly in mind. (Recall that SoundCloud successfully signed a licensing deal with Sony Music, the last of the three major labels with whom the company sorely needed formal relationships with, back in March.
Which is to say, while this investment means that we should expect SoundCloud to be around for a little while longer, we probably shouldn’t cross our fingers for any solid feature developments that’ll cater to non-music audio any time soon.