Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue eighty-three, published August 16, 2016.With Her. Well, this is certainly something. Last Friday saw the launch of With Her, the official Hillary Clinton presidential campaign podcast, which both marks a milestone for the industry and, I suppose, is a sign of the times. The show also has the distinction of being Pineapple Street Media’s first launch, the podcast company recently founded by former BuzzFeed director of audio Jenna Weiss-Berman and Longform Podcast cohost Max Linsky. Linsky holds hosting duties on the podcast, which he ostensibly shares with Clinton herself, though one imagines that her extensive campaigning schedule will ultimately have a say in that.
The podcast is an absolute coup for the company and a strong, attention-getting start to its portfolio. The linkup between Pineapple Street and the Clinton campaign grew out of Weiss-Berman’s previous collaboration with the team, back when she worked on BuzzFeed’s Another Round podcast that booked Clinton on as a guest last October. “I stayed in touch with her digital team,” Weiss-Berman told me over email. “And shortly after Max and I started Pineapple Street, we started talking to them and we all loved the idea of a campaign podcast that focused on day-to-day life on the trail and not policy.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, that last point — the podcast’s focused on campaign trail life and not on policy — ended up being the point of critique for a few media outlets. Politico’s writeup of the podcast bore the headline: “Hillary Clinton finds another way to avoid the press: Her campaign launches a podcast with an on-payroll moderator whose first interview is the nominee herself,” highlighting the show as an extension of a long-running grievances held by the parts of the news media about Clinton’s tightly messaged campaign. That perspective was echoed by Michelle Goldberg over at Slate, who called the show “charming and gutless propaganda” and further argued that “a politician attempting to circumvent the media by creating media of her own sets a bad precedent.”
I don’t buy those critiques. For one thing, media creation — whether through tweets, a YouTube channel, creating a TV spectacle out of a convention, and so on — is an essential tool for a candidate’s political communication, and it’s one that’s part of a much wider set of tools, with messaging through the news media (either directly, e.g. sitdowns with Charlie Rose, or indirectly, i.e. free media) being only one within a larger toolkit. A candidate’s aversion to working directly through the press, as in the case of the Clinton campaign, may well be morally and procedurally frustrating for the press, but a perfectly fine outcome in this scenario is to make the absence of participation mean something as part of the candidate’s larger spectrum of political communication. (Which, indeed, is what is already happening, and we see traces of that in Slate and Politico’s analysis.)
So the media aversion/”propaganda” reading of the podcast isn’t one that really resonates with me, but I think the reason for that lies in an understanding that the podcast shouldn’t be read as anything too dramatically different from it actually is: a political ad.
Consider With Her as yet another example of a branded podcast — not unlike Gimlet Creative’s Open for Business or Pacific Content’s Slack Variety Pack. (Indeed, viewed this way, With Her is quite possibly the first major political ad buy in the history of the podcast medium.)
And because it’s a branded podcast, we should levy onto it the very same questions (of ethics and execution) that we would those projects from Gimlet, and Pacific Content. Questions like: Is the show successful in harnessing the format’s associations with sincerity, authenticity, and intimacy? (I.e: Do the interviews make her feel more real, the way the Longform Podcast and Another Round have drawn out people in the past? Also, just how real can a career politician, so hardened by decades of battle, feel?) Is the podcast able to be engaging while nulling the overarching context that the listener has opted to enter a space where the brand is trying to get them to think and feel a certain way? Is the project doing a good job being clear with its targeting — is it focused on deepening the candidate’s relationship with her supporters, or is it more engaged with humanizing Clinton in the face of on-the-fence supporters? And is the podcast, with its opt-in, on-demand, and high-involvement consumption requirements, appropriate for that?
That’s how I’d approach reading the podcast. Which is why I’ll say this: Based on the first episode (which runs short, at about 15 minutes), I’m not very sure whether With Her will answer these questions much beyond its novelty as the first presidential campaign podcast ever. To be sure, it’s a fizzy and fun listen, and longtime Hot Pod readers know I love love love me some Linsky interviews. But as a person already predisposed to the Clinton campaign, I didn’t feel like I gained anything particularly new or meaningful that wasn’t already telegraphed at the Democratic National Convention. And considering the broader messaging context, I also don’t think it’s clear yet who the podcast is for — and, by extension, how it’s supposed to carry out the aims of the campaign, which (and this isn’t a new thought at all) really struggles with connecting.
That said: It’s only been one episode, and I want to be clear that an assessment like this doesn’t quite honor the immense complexities that go into working with a campaign that aims to win the highest office of the land. (I can’t even begin to imagine the number of clearances that the production must go through.) The podcast is slated to run up until the election in November, and I have a good amount of faith that the team will figure out a way to take this powerful, powerful novelty — let’s not forget the fact that the first presidential campaign podcast is a major milestone for the emerging medium — and fashion it out into a genuine tool of political communication in the future.
What’s next for PSM? Weiss-Berman: “We’re working on lots of great stuff and something I’m really excited about is that we’re trying many different styles. So we’re doing a very heavily produced short-run serialized mystery show, a really fun chat show with The New York Times, Women of the Hour season two with Lena Dunham, and we’re developing a bunch of original shows. And so much more! And all the shows are really different, with amazingly diverse hosts, so I’m hoping they bring in audiences that are new to podcasting.”
The convention bump. The Republican and Democratic conventions were dramatic and often confusing affairs, and it seems like a significant number of folks turned to political podcasts to figure some stuff out. Indeed, several enjoyed noticeable jumps in downloads across the two-week period. Some highlights:
These event-based growth bursts are extremely valuable, but the real question is whether the shows will be able to retain the influx of new listeners. Brent Baughman, who produces the NPR Politics Podcast, tells me that, while it’s still a little too early to tell, he estimates that about three-quarters of the podcast’s new listeners have stuck around since the conventions. He also notes that the podcast now enjoys an audience of over 560,000 weekly unique downloaders.
It should be noted that the bumps didn’t come from organic discovery alone. Around the convention period, FiveThirtyEight carried out aggressive cross-promotion efforts that hoped to draw in audiences that exist on its other platforms and on platforms controlled by parent ESPN. Those efforts included a refocus on embedding the podcast in FiveThirtyEight articles, adding language that welcomed new listeners to the show, featuring the podcast in the ESPN app, and working with ESPN Radio to run a spot on terrestrial stations promoting the podcast. “That’s going to start working into the rotation soon, I hope,” Avirgan added. “It’s not going to be a huge push, but frankly I imagine a lot of the kinds of folks who are just tuning in to the election are the types of folks who are listening to ESPN Radio, etc. So, we’re trying to be smart about targeting that group.”
NPR marshalled similar efforts of their own. On July 14, Gimlet’s Reply All dropped an episode containing a guest dispatch by NPR reporter and Politics Podcast cohost Sam Sanders (who, by the way, is an absolute star) that focused on the shooting in Dallas. And in the following two weeks, NPR director of programming Israel Smith coordinated a strong cross-promotion push across the organization’s other podcasts, acutely focusing attention onto the Politics Podcast and its presence on the convention floors.
Key national events like these conventions are essential opportunities for podcasts — or any new medium, really — to prove their worth as possible additions to the world’s wider information architecture, and the onus is on them to make themselves known in times when collective reality feels increasingly distorted.
“I think you build news consumption habits in a year like this,” Baughman said. “It’s a time when you generally want to be more informed than you are.”
An audio newsletter. It’s always a wonder to find a place that’s doing strange and wonderful things.
One such place is Boston public radio station WBUR, which will be launching an experimental 21-day fitness podcast project called The Magic Pill next month. Here’s how it works: People who sign up will receive daily Magic Pill newsletters, with each missive — that can be consumed right off their inbox — containing a short podcast episode that contains exercise tips, stories about fitness, and even some music to get that body movin’. Participants move through three-week-long sequence on their own, as they’re given the ability to initiate the challenge cycle at any time, and their relationship with the podcast will be tightly managed through their interactions with the newsletter.
“In a way, you could call this an audio newsletter,” said Lisa Williams, who holds the title of engagement director at the station. “It’s a real hybrid.”The challenge is one of the many projects being developed in WBUR’s Public Radio BizLab, a Knight Foundation-funded initiative that seeks to explore possible new business models that can help sustain public radio stations in the future through rigorous experimentation and design. (And let me tell ya’, some of these experiments are fascinating, including a blockchain-powered emerging music library.) The lab is a smart, deeply needed enterprise and, quite frankly, I’m amazed that such a thing exists in the first place.
Like all other BizLab projects, The Magic Pill was designed to answer very specific, testable questions: Could you create a tightly-design podcast experience that plays out within a subscriber’s inbox (as opposed to, say, an RSS feed)? Can the process of creating that experience increase the level of data literacy among the operators at WBUR? And, perhaps most importantly, are listeners who take part in an ongoing experience more likely to donate or become members?
That last question, which focuses on discovering new fundraising avenue within the public radio system, is a crucial pillar for the BizLab initiative. And much of the project designs are guided by tangible, and often frustrating, past experiences. “We did this great project once on Whitey Bulger,” Williams said. “It was just such amazing work, but we didn’t do anything to package it in a way that would get people to support the station more. But when we packaged and sold it as an ebook, about 11,000 people bought it. We left money on the table.” (Interestingly, the ebook, “Whitey on Trial,” is generally available for free, but it’s priced at $1.99 on the Amazon Store — the lowest possible rate — because ebooks can’t be listed there for free.)
When I asked Williams what conversion rates she would consider a success, she guided me to focus more on the balance between outcome and effort. She noted that relatively low conversion rates would still be considered fine, given that the amount of work that goes into making The Magic Pill is significantly less than the huge fundraising efforts that involve heavy participation across the whole station. In Williams’ mind, the emphasis is on the tightness of workflow and a rigor in pushing specific sets of audiences down the fundraising funnel. It is a valiant, refreshing prospect, and I’m curious to see where this goes.
You can sign up for the newsletter here. The Magic Pill project goes live on September 1.
Bumpers. I believe I’ve been on the record before as not particularly enthusiastic about social audio apps and any relevant enterprise that seeks to make podcasts more shareable on social platforms like Twitter and Facebook more broadly. For me, the arguments largely takes two forms: (1) a sense that the rendering of a piece of media into something more shareable threatens to deconstruct, atomize, and commoditize that piece of media for a whole other purpose — and for podcasts, that fundamentally means a stripping it of its original value proposition, and (2) a general feeling that social platforms are universes upon themselves whose activities should be native to the very structures of those platforms. Plus, there’s a whole square peg/round hole bit to such efforts, and I just find it all rather inelegant.That said, I’ve still made it a point to keep an eye on new social audio apps like Anchor (my write up here) and Rolltape (R.I.P., my write up here) because I figured there’s always something to learn from such experiments.
Which is why I’ve been tracking a new app called Bumpers for some time now and, I have to say, it’s perhaps the audio-oriented app that comes closest to deconstructing and replicating the original value proposition of a podcast. Where apps like Anchor and Rolltape focused on communication, Bumpers firmly trains its eye on creation and expression — and that, I think, is where it gets the association right.
Here’s how it works: Users record a session through the app, which then automatically segments the recording based on sentences that users can stitch together into a podcast (referred to as a bumper within the app’s universe, for obvious reasons) by selecting and sequencing those sentence units into a whole through the app’s rather intuitive mobile audio editing interface (which, goodness, is key to the whole experience). There’s a library of preset sounds that you can throw into the mix, the additions of which greatly influences the feel of the bumper — not unlike, say, how an Instagram filter alters the feel of a picture.
That evocation of Instagram is not accidental. “I think a good analogy is Instagram for podcasts,” said Ian Ownbey, one of Bumpers’ creators, when I asked him to describe the app, which I had trouble articulating. “Instagram’s goal wasn’t to replace professional photographers — it was to let everyone else easily take and share high quality photos.”Ownbey, who was an early engineer at Twitter and is also responsible for the OneShot app (which I’ve written about in relation to the theory behind screenshorting audio), has been paying close attention to the dynamics of the podcast space to build Bumpers, and thus is privy the complexities associated with the distribution and listener-end of the ecosystem. A lot of those considerations inform the development of the app.
“The problem isn’t solvable as long as the community is fractured over all these different consumption mediums,” he said, reflecting on the distribution question. “Even if I went out and created a consumption client that had the best discoverability in the whole world, it would be impossible to get adoption high enough that it was useful…If all the listening happens in Bumpers itself (or in an embed from bumpers), we can start to solve these problems.”
For now, though, it’s still early days for Bumpers, and so tackling the distribution angle will have to be a future preoccupation. “Creation is our entire focus right now,” Ownbey said.
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.