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July 12, 2016, 9 a.m.
Mobile & Apps

Hot Pod: Is Audible’s big entry into podcasting innovative enough to push the field forward?

Plus: Staffing changes at NPR, a new player in podcast advertising, and iHeartRadio hearts podcasts a bit more.

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue seventy-nine, published July 12, 2016.

Audible pulls Channels out of beta. Well, it’s finally here: The spoken audio entertainment arm of Amazon has officially launched Channels, a new “short-form audio”-focused subscription service that will come packaged with the originally audiobook-oriented Audible app. The service has been in beta since April. In case you missed the writeups by The New York Times and Bloomberg, here’s the low-down: The feature is available to existing Audible members (who already pay $14.95 a month for the service) and will cost $4.95 a month for non-members who want access Channels content without having to deal with those pesky audiobooks. Offerings range from audio digests of publications like Forbes and Harvard Business Review to standup comedy recordings to ad-free versions of popular podcasts like WNYC’s Radiolab and Radiotopia’s The Truth.

Oh, and original Audible programming, of course. I mean, that’s the real cause for speculation and excitement, isn’t it? The service launched last week with four original products — an interview show featuring writer Ashley Ford called Authorized; a texture-driven documentary series about New York City called Mortal City that, quite frankly, is more than a little reminiscent of Radio Diaries; a Mary Roach-esque narrative show featuring stories about the human breast by writer Florence Williams called Breasts Unbound; and another narrative show that serves quirky stories about American presidents hosted by historian Alexis Coe and comedian Elliott Kalan called Presidents Are People Too! — along with the teaser for an upcoming project called The Butterfly Effect, which will feature the offbeat stylings of author and occasional This American Life contributor Jon Ronson.

“You’re seeing the first half dozen this week,” Eric Nuzum, Audible’s senior vice president of original content, said in a recent interview with Nieman Lab, referring to the original programming rollout. “But what will surprise people is how often we’re putting out material at the level we’re doing.” According to the writeup, the rate translates to about one new show every one or two weeks, with 40 projects being baked in the pipeline. Seasonal considerations will also impact rollout decisions. When we spoke at the Podcast Movement conference in Chicago last week, Nuzum told me to keep a particular eye out for the launches in September, hinting towards the release of more interesting projects during that period — a choice that was made to reflect generally higher on-demand audio engagements in the fall compared to the slower summertime.

So here it is: the long-awaited play from the 500-pound gorilla that’s been creepin’, quietly but surely, at the edges of the podcasting pond. The question is, of course, whether Audible can convert its infinite pool of potential into some form of tangible dominance over non-music audio. And will it fully change the way we think about, produce, and consume the stuff we used to throw over the airwaves and down RSS feeds?

Time will tell, obviously. But three things for now:

  • Audible has, to some extent, already won the battle to become the “Netflix for podcasts,” or “spoken audio,” or whatever it is you want to call non-music audio programming. After all, the company long ago beat the fundamental barrier to entry for any subscription content business: a critical mass of paid customers, which it cultivated and solidified through its years outmaneuvering and outpacing its relatively technologically flat-footed competitors in the book publishing business before sidestepping into podcasts and non-music audio content more broadly. By expanding its understanding of the product it serves and reducing audiobooks into one of many product categories that it will deal with, Audible instantly holds a tremendous structural advantage over any newcomers — including Howl, Midroll’s own attempt at a subscription audio content play that mixes back catalogues with original programming.
  • That said, Audible’s opening structural advantage can still be undermined in the long run, with the key battleground being the strength of its inventory over time. And while we’re literally in Channels’ first month at play, I will say that its initial slate of original programming strikes me as conceptually underwhelming. None of the Audible Originals seem particularly fresh, either in terms of subject matter or sheer structure and form. Authorized can be shuffled into a deck made up of Longform, Writers Who Don’t Write, The Guardian Books Podcast, and Between the Covers. Breasts Unbound can be slotted into a stable made up of Invisibilia, Hidden Brain, and Only Human. And even Jon Ronson’s The Butterfly Effect seems to be the product of fairly straightforward strategic thinking — so straightforward, in fact, that Panoply’s already done it, except with Malcolm Gladwell.

    Which is not to say that the shows aren’t good, or that I won’t eagerly pay $4.95 for the privilege of consuming some if not most of these projects. I enjoy Presidents Are People Too! a hell of a lot, and I will gleefully suck all the marrow out of anything Jon Ronson whips up. It’s just that the slate feels a lot like something you’d call Audiobooks+.

    (Alternatively, the goal may well be to produce shows that are structurally familiar to other podcasts but are either best-in-class or good enough, to a point where Audible users are satiated enough to not go looking for shows of similar categories off the Channels platform. Programming is only part of the value proposition; convenience is another.)

    And that’s a bit of a shame, considering Audible’s sheer potential to take insane risks without having to worry about conventional audience goals driven by advertising needs. Give me a musical, give me neo-Finnegan’s Wake, give me whatever’s the audio equivalent of Broad City or Terrence Malick. Give me something I’ve never heard before.

  • But perhaps that was never the direction Audible was meant to go. I’m reminded of something Nuzum told me for a Q&A I ran back in April: “It really is not a question of what shows we create. The question we ask is: What do people want to listen to?” And reckoning, for a moment, with the fact that the Audible data that informs Nuzum’s thinking is essentially data about audiobook consumers, it’s no wonder that we’re seeing these projects: more Jon Ronsons, more Mary Roach-esque compositions, and so on. When people indicate what they want by indicating what they once wanted, there’s only so much you can see beyond the frontier.

    Which raises the question: Who, then, will bring us to the next, next thing?

A curious partnership in ad tech. AdsWizz, a digital audio ad tech company, announced the launch of something called PodWave last week, which the company bills as “the first ad marketplace specifically created to meet the needs of podcasts.”

What does that mean, exactly? The theoretical purpose of a technologically-enabled advertising marketplace like PodWave is to serve as the platform upon which publishers can sell ad spots and marketers can buy them more efficiently. What “efficient” means can play out in a number of ways, including (1) the enablement of transactions at scale, (2) the increase of control among advertisers and marketers over the shape and depth of their campaigns, and (3) a similar increase in expectation and accountability of returns through stronger metrics, improved targeting capacities, and the implementation of best practices and creative executions, among other things. Podcast advertising, in its current form, still remains relatively high-touch and artisanal, with advertisers and agencies working directly with publishers to make bids, process buys, and evaluate campaigns. (Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing; such high-touch advertising workflows are probably desirable for podcast publishers that want full control over their value narrative and sales processes.)

AdsWizz’s press release didn’t get specific on how the platform measures up to those markers of efficiency, but what’s notable is its partnership with National Public Media (NPM), the sponsorship sales arm for NPR and PBS. NPM’s involvement with AdsWizz appears to be significant, with Ad Age reporting that NPM will assemble a “special team to sell PodWave and help marketers tailor their messages” in the podcast format — a situation that sees NPM playing a sort of ambassadorial role aimed at recruiting publishers. According to the Ad Age writeup, AdsWizz CEO Alexis van de Wyer has stated that “over 500 shows and publishers will participate” in the marketplace, though he declined to provide specific names. We’ll see how the marketplace shapes up, and whether marketers will bite, in the months to come. I imagine that if AdsWizz’s gambit is successful, it could encourage more advertisers to invest in the medium.

This is the second time in recent months that NPM has thrown its weight and reputation behind another company in an effort to encourage industry-wide formalization. When the podcast measurement company Podtrac announced its industry rankings project back in May — an initiative that could well help more advertisers ease into medium — NPM chipped in on the accompanying press release, with NPM general manager Bryan Moffett providing the quote: “With Podtrac’s monthly industry rankings and unique audience metrics, advertisers now have a view of not only the combined audience size across NPR’s many podcasts, but can compare our reach to other publishers to more accurately plan their podcast media buys.”

Smooth moves, NPM. Smooth.

High-level staffing changes at NPR. Some personnel changes to note at the public radio mothership, with some major implications for folks shopping around their projects:

  • Steve Nelson is the organization’s new director of programming. He was previously American Public Media’s director of on-demand programming, where he led the launch of the Infinite Guest podcast network in August 2014 which distributes on-demand versions of The Dinner Party Download, Too Beautiful To Live, and KPCC’s The Mash-Up Americans, among others. Nelson will reportedly front NPR’s “new anchor entertainment weekend programming” and assist with new podcast development. He starts in August, and will continue working from his current base in Minnesota.
  • N’Jeri Eaton joins NPR as senior manager for program acquisition, where she will be in charge of sourcing new external talent and programming to be brought into the organization. She was previously the content development and initiative manager at the Independent Television Service, an organization principally backed by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting that supports the development of independent filmmaking. According to the press release, Eaton will the organization’s “first point of contact for program idea pitches from outside contributors to NPR,” so keep that in mind, folks!

Also: Israel Smith has been promoted to senior director of promotion and audience development. He was previously the organization’s director of programming, the role that Steve Nelson now holds.

Two new distribution points for Libsyn. Last week, the stalwart podcast hosting platform company announced that podcasts hosted on its platform can now be consumed on iHeartRadio, the digital audio arm of iHeartMedia, the media giant formerly known as Clear Channel. The service reportedly has more than 85 million registered users, though it should be noted that its monthly active user count is unclear. (For comparison: Pandora has 250 million registered users and 78 million monthly active users around the end of 2015, according to Digital Music News.) Still, it’s a new point of access for podcasts, and I suppose it’s also worth noting that iHeartRadio’s app is one of the stronger brands available on connected cars.

Also worth noting: This isn’t iHeartMedia’s first foray into podcasting. The company previously partnered with livestreaming/podcast hybrid company Spreaker in 2014 to serve as a distribution point for its content, and back in June, it collaborated with the coworking space company WeWork to produce what appears to be a branded podcast about entrepreneurship. That podcast initiative was part of a much larger project called Work Radio, which involves iHeartRadio developing a live radio station for the WeWork network of campuses. Yep, it’s strange, but frankly, so is much of the radio industry.

Libsyn also debuted a new feature last week that lets its users publish podcasts on YouTube more easily, according to a MediaShift writeup. The measure and depth to which audio-only podcasts (as opposed to video-audio podcast hybrids) are consumed on YouTube remains unclear on the aggregate, but certain networks — like Night Vale Presents and the Loud Speakers Network — have seen considerable engagement on the platform in the past when they’ve repackage their episodes as videos with static images. (Depending on the show, both networks enjoy YouTube views in the tens of thousands. Examples can be found here and here.)

Cool.

Bites:

  • From a panel at the recent Podcast Movement conference: The IAB will be releasing a standards guideline for podcasting metrics sometime in the next quarter.
  • The nascent L.A.-based Wondery network picks up the increasingly popular true crime podcast Sword and Scale, expanding its true crime and audio drama-heavy lineup to ten shows overall. This development comes shortly after the announcement of the network’s first original production, Found, which is set to premiere on July 13.
  • A couple of ESPN job postings have been kicking about indicating the organization’s intent to develop an audio-version of its insanely popular 30 for 30 documentary brand. Having just burned through much of the series’ eight-hour doc on O.J. Simpson, I’m incredibly psyched for this. (Disney Careers)
  • John Sheehan, a producer on WHYY’s Fresh Air, has a new podcast for kids called The Radio Adventures of Eleanor Amplified, and it’s oodles of fun. It also appears to be the product of an internal station competition — one of those bakeoffs I keep hearing about — according to a writeup on Current. Terry Gross previewed it on the Fresh Air podcast feed last week. (WHYY)
  • And while we’re on the subject of kids podcasts, here’s a related read: “Who says kids don’t have podcasts? Here are 18 choices from public radio” by Melody Joy Kramer. (Poynter)

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     July 12, 2016, 9 a.m.
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