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Sept. 8, 2016, 9:57 a.m.
Mobile & Apps

Hot Pod: The podcast industry puts on a too-big blazer and tries to impress the old guy at the party

Podcasting’s biggest players put on a dog and pony show for advertisers. Plus: More details on The New York Times’ audio push, Starbucks gets in the game, and Questlove reads ads.

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue eighty-six, published September 8, 2016.

The dog and pony show. Yesterday saw the second annual IAB Podcast Upfronts, the industry event meant to drum up interest in the medium among ad buyers. The day’s programming — which was long, exhausting a full-day affair that ran over eight hours that nearly drove me to my first cigarette in a long while — was packed to the brim with endless announcements and minutiae. In the interest of time, I’m just going to stick what the things that struck me as interesting in terms of what it says about where we’re going, along with some spattering of notable, piecemeal developments. Do read the writeups over at The Wall Street Journal, Ad Age, and AdExchanger if you’re looking for broader overviews.

We gonna get wonky here.

1. This year’s festivities saw an increase in the number of participating presenters, from eight podcast publishers to twelve. The returnees were: NPR, WNYC Studios, ESPN, CBS, AdLarge, Panoply, Midroll, and Podtrac’s recently spun-off ad sales arm known as Authentic. Joining the slate were: Wondery, HowStuffWorks, Time Inc., and PodcastOne. A strange mishmash of companies, to be sure, with the proportion of companies with legacy media roots slightly outweighing the digital natives. (My personal count on the latter category: HowStuffWorks, Panoply, Midroll, Podtrac.)

2. In their presentation yesterday, Panoply announced it was building something they regarded as an “imprint,” to borrow a book publishing concept, around the author Gretchen Rubin, which hosts the popular Happier podcast on the network. Following something of a sub-network model, Rubin is set to help curate a collection of podcasts within the self-improvement genre, likely drawing from her community of like-minded writers. This isn’t the first time such a model would be tested; Midroll, of all places, tested this out with its Wolfpop network, which was curated by comedian Paul Scheer. Wolfpop was later folded into Earwolf when Midroll moved to streamline its content offerings.

But the real thing of interest here is Panoply’s use of the book publishing analogy. That company has consistently exhibited behaviors that suggest a lean towards the direction of that industry — especially now, as it builds products around known quantities within the book publishing space, like Malcolm Gladwell and Sophia Amoruso — and a recent quote by Slate chairman Jacob Weisberg, published in a recent Ken Doctor column(more on that later), further emphasized this possible way that the company views itself:

In the world of books, nobody cares if something is published by Viking or Random House. They care about the author and the book. I think podcasting is going to be more like that.

Super interesting.

3. “One in five podcast listeners are listening to an ESPN podcast,” said JonPaul Rexing, ESPN’s senior director of sales, apparently citing numbers from Edison Research. This particular method of presenting audience data seemed to gain some currency in yesterday’s event, with Time Inc. also adopting similar language. In a press release that accompanied their presentation, the company noted that its podcast programming “reaches 3 in 4 adults who have listened to a podcast,” citing numbers from comScore-MRI Fusion. I have a little trouble internalizing these stats, the boldness of which doesn’t seem to square at all with the medium’s long-running distrust in its apples-to-apples analytics at an industry-wide level. (Not directly relevant, but totally worth knowing: ESPN works with first-party data.)

4. Speaking of ESPN, I find myself unreasonably excited about its upcoming podcast adaptation of the brand’s well-loved 30 for 30 documentary series. (News of the adaptation first surfaced back in July, when the relevant job listings went up.) The show’s first season is scheduled for an early 2017 rollout, and the production team will be announced publicly soon. I’m told that they will include alums from WNYC, NPR, and the BBC. And from the rumors I’ve heard about their identities, I’m very, very excited. And so was senior producer Jody Avirgan when he announced the project on-stage, who seemed beside himself as he enthused, “We’re going to be committing acts of journalism.”

5. There’s a bit I really enjoyed in AdExchanger’s coverage of the event that discusses skepticism over dynamic ad insertion. Check out the whole article, of course, but here’s the money:

“We are typically hearing from advertisers who are the biggest, longest-term folks in the space [that they] are concerned about insertion,” said Midroll’s [Lex] Friedman. “The networks that force them to move to insertion are seeing performance worsen.”

This sentiment echoes an item I wrote back in May, which involved reservations expressed by Mack Weldon’s marketing manager Collin Willardson (an aggressive buyer of podcast ads) about the technology. “Dynamic ad insertion disassociates the host from the advertiser, so they care less about the actual product or brand they’re trying to sell,” he told me then. “Audiences pick up on that, and quickly tune out.”

6. Miscellanea:

  • The New York City Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment is apparently working on a report on the state of the podcast industry in the city, which will likely include an examination of its labor dynamics. (Re-upping this Adam Ragusea piece, as appropriate.) A city-driven ad campaign to raise podcast awareness is also impending.
  • Edison Research rolled out some additional data points to their Share of Ear study, revolving around the way podcast consumers relate to the medium’s current advertising executions and practices. You check those out in a report posted on the IAB website ahead of the upfront.
  • AdLarge announced its own consumer-facing podcast play: a platform called Cabana. Details to come.
  • Panoply’s branded podcast collaboration with GE, which resulted in last year’s The Message, is due for a second show later this year.
  • Also for the horse-race observers, Midroll is now repping APM’s Brains On!, which they grouped with The Longest Shortest Time as a parenting show. And speaking of Midroll, they’re trying their hand at true crime, with a show about the Boston Strangler called Stranglers, which comes out of a partnership with documentary shop Northern Light Productions. (Not that anybody asked, but my favorite Boston Strangler media is the Sebastian Junger book A Death in Belmont.)
  • Night Vale Presents’ new show: something called The Orbiting Human Circus. Their ad sales are being represented by Authentic.
  • Time Inc. officially announced its slate of podcasts yesterday. You can find the details in the customary press release. And speaking of Time Inc., one of its brands, Sports Illustrated, announced its own batch of new shows this week. It also mentioned that it is now partnered up with DGital Media. This marks the brand’s move away from Panoply, which it previously worked with on the podcast front. I was told the departure was amicable.

Wow that made my neck hurt.

What’s going on? This year’s upfront festivities took place in Time Inc.’s Henry R. Luce auditorium in downtown Manhattan, somewhat of a step up in lavishness compared to last year’s venue, the homelier Greene Space at WNYC. That isn’t intended as shade on the Greene Space, which I love. Rather, I state it as an indication of an underlying problem.

While the proceedings yesterday were significantly smoother compared to last year’s festivities — “there’s air conditioning!” was a common refrain among attendees, a reference to some ventilatory disturbances back then — it was also significantly stranger, a little more strained. It had, simultaneously, the feel of a child wearing a much-too-big blazer and the feel of a much-too-older man at a college party.

The former is something I’ve articulated before: the strangeness of the podcast industry, as the new new thing, appropriating the traditional structure of the upfront ritual, an anthropological performance carried over from the old world of commercial television and radio. I called it a conservative stance, one that operates off the sense that you win trust by performing the rituals they do and by the looking the way they look, as opposed to creating new rituals, spaces, and market expectations of their own.

The latter comes out from what is an inevitable dynamic: the entrance of folks from legacy radio backgrounds bringing in legacy radio sensibilities, along with a not-insignificant amount of overconfidence that those sensibilities will transition well — and in a manner that isn’t destructive — as they followed both the potential money and the new cool. It’s that sensibility that defined the tone of yesterday’s festivities, I think: all the usual tropes associated with the positive elements of the medium, but devoid of its rich, glorious complexities.

This upfront, at this particular point in time, bore the responsibility of publicly constructing the narrative of the medium for the benefit of not just the advertising community, but everything else around it as well. Some of those people were not ready to do that, and the ones who were, alas, were given the wrong stage to do it. The result? A deficiency of cool — a currency vital to the function of a creative advertiser — and a representation of a medium, with all the power and thrills and beauty it contains, that only fleetingly comes close to being vaguely recognizable.

“It’s kind of a coming-out party,” said Jason Hoch, the chief content officer of HowStuffWorks, when we spoke on Tuesday ahead of the IAB Podcast Upfronts. “I mean, people have heard of us. It’s just that they didn’t realize we were as big are.”

I’ve committed my fair share of sins writing this newsletter, and perhaps one of the biggest is the lack of attention I’ve paid to HowStuffWorks, the 18-year-old Atlanta-based digital media outfit that also happens to be one of the strongest, and most interesting, podcast operations currently running. A multi-platform entity spanning across audio, video, and text that has transferred ownership a few times — its current parent company is Washington-based Blucora — HowStuffWorks has built a considerable following on its so-called “longform edutainment” programming whose strengths, in my view, are largely tethered to its enthusiastic hyper-focus on subject verticals — which are Wikipedia-esque in scope and sprawl — and celebrity-creation, which gives the company a digital sensibility vaguely reminiscent of YouTube multi-channel networks (MCNs). It’s overwhelmingly pleasant, smart, and nourishing.

The podcast arm of HowStuffWorks is substantial, 12 shows strong at this writing, and it’s growing. According to a press release sent out earlier this week, the network tripled its downloads over the past two years, from 8.8 million monthly downloads in 2014 to over 28 million downloads in June 2016. Download volumes, I’m told, are split equally between new episodes and across the network’s back catalogues. (Worth noting: HowStuffWorks relies on Podtrac’s measurement standards, and regularly appears in the latter company’s monthly podcast ranker.)

Hoch tells me that Podtrac’s Industry Rankings, which was introduced in May and ranked networks by unique monthly downloads in the U.S., proved to be a boon for the network. HowStuffWorks debuted in the fourth spot, where it remains, and while the ranker should be interpreted with copious disclaimers (context and caveats can be found in a previous Hot Pod), it brought the company a great deal of fresh attention. “The in-bounds we got from that were amazing,” Hoch said, exuding confidence over advertising prospects. (Relevant: the company has secured Liberty Mutual as an exclusive advertiser on its CarStuff podcast for a full year, if that’s interesting to you.)

So, what does the future hold for HowStuffWorks? I’m told that the company expects to double its podcast revenue across the next year, and that more shows — along with some possible headcount expansion — should be expected down the line. But I’m also told to watch out for a technology-related development. In a tech environment that seems more than a little ad-tech envious, I’m curious to see what, exactly, this means.

One more thing: I find myself endlessly fascinated by the company’s physical placement in Atlanta. I’ve often thought that it’s a great media city, beyond Turner Broadcasting. Hoch tells me that between the university system and the region’s robust film and television industry (which he claims is substantially better than that of Los Angeles), he has easy access to a strong talent pool for both talent and engineering. Speaking as someone who is growing increasingly weary of the coasts, that’s utterly welcome news.

Juicy, juicy details. I’m a big fan of media analyst Ken Doctor and his Newsonomics columns — which tend to be extravagantly long and mercilessly wonky — and so it was such a pleasure for me to find that he’s put out two very separate podcast-related analyses over the past week.

The first column, published in Politico, is structured around newly announced developments at The New York Times’ audio team and contains several bits of detail that, as a collective, vividly illustrates how this baby industry operates on a ecosystemic-level. Do read the whole column in its entirety, but here are my highlights:

Between its selective partnerships, the manner in which its spread its bets, and the way it juxtaposes internal development with external collaborations, I think the Times is hitting a very sweet spot between being strategic caution and intelligent risk. Half of the battle, frankly, is starting out in a good position, and while some of their partnerships (and projects and hires) will probably fail, they’re configured to do so in a way that’ll help them survive into the next step.

Doctor’s second column, published in Current, is far more exhaustive and surveys the breadth of the industry along with its requisite opportunities. This piece, in particular, I’m not going to disrespectfully butcher through excerpt and extensive aggregation, and I highly encourage you to spend some time with this. But I did want to point out an idea embedded in the writeup that I’m currently turning around in my head:

In the wider sense, podcasts offer tryouts for public radio, “minor leagues” for talent development, with candidates given greater responsibility and opportunity to be coached and nurtured. Further, the freer and bigger market for audio talent begins to impact hiring throughout the public radio ecosystem.

This is true beyond the public radio system, as we’ve seen with the emerging trend of podcast-to-TV adaptations and the continuous stream of moneyed networks picking up homegrown independent podcasts. It’s a function of, and remains a testament to, the medium’s creator-friendly openness. (The condition of which, by the way, is increasingly thought to be contested as the industry professionalizes.)

Quick note. The IAB Tech Lab issued some guidelines for podcast advertising earlier this week. Check out the Ad Age writeup, and expect my analysis next week.

Bites:

  • Early last week, American Public Media announced a new investigative podcast, In The Dark, that’ll examine the child abduction of Jacob Wetterling in rural Minnesota — the case that led to a law enforcing state sex-offender registries. In a chilling coincidence, Wetterling’s remains were discovered last Thursday. The podcast launched early Wednesday morning, with the reporting fully on the case. In The Dark hit at the top of the charts earlier this week, on the strength of its teaser. (iTunes, Star Tribune)
  • Midroll has a new CEO: Erik Diehn, formerly the company’s VP of business development. He replaces Adam Sachs, who announced his departure from the company back in June after two years in the role. Also, Lex Friedman, formerly the EVP of sales and development, is the company’s new chief revenue officer. (Company blog)
  • This is pretty cool: WNYC is finding some success in using text-to-donate campaigns whose call-to-actions are included in their podcasts. It’s still not a system where you can donate directly to a specific podcast, however, but I think that set-up is never going to happen. (Current)
  • Jonathan Goldstein’s new show, which he’s making at Gimlet, is finally coming out later this month. I swear it’s like summer is the season everyone drops stuff even though we’re all on vay-cay. (iTunes)
  • Pandora is experimenting with the host-read advertising format, which it will use in the music-interview show hybrid station the company is launching with musician Questlove — who, together with Malcolm Gladwell, gave the opening keynote at yesterday’s IAB podcast upfront. (Digiday)
  • NPR’s going for that sweet Tim Ferriss/Recode/StartUp money with How I Built This, a new interview podcast about entrepreneurship and stuff. Hosted by Guy Raz, that other guy with the cool glasses. (NPR)
  • Starbucks has branded podcasts. Yep. Part of a larger multi-platform branded content situation. (TechCrunch)
  • Apparently there’s a piece of fancy apparel called the “Boho Mid-length Long Sleeve Podcast Co-Host Top,” courtesy of Modcloth. No, this isn’t a native ad, but I’m all ears if someone from Modcloth is reading this. (New York; WBEZ’s Nerdette podcast also did some digging)
  • Also, Apple is getting rid of the headphone jack. And introduces “AirPods.” Oh boy. (BuzzFeed)

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     Sept. 8, 2016, 9:57 a.m.
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