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Sept. 1, 2016, 10:40 a.m.
Mobile & Apps

Hot Pod: Your favorite podcasts, coming to a TV screen near you?

Plus: The Washington Post start an audio game show, Vox Media is staffing up for podcast growth, and why celebrities are so compelling to advertisers as show hosts (even if their shows are only so-so).

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue eighty-five, published September 1, 2016.

Gimlet’s StartUp being adapted for television. My inbox has long bubbled with rumors of Gimlet getting involved in television and L.A. sightings of company co-founder Matt Lieber, and so I wasn’t particularly surprised when a Deadline report dropped Monday night indicating that ABC is bringing the StartUp podcast to linear television.

According to the report, the project will be a comedy with Zach Braff (of Scrubs and Garden State fame) attached to direct the potential pilot and star as its protagonist. ABC has reportedly made a “put pilot commitment” — which, I understand, means the pilot will almost definitely see the light of day. I’m told that this arrangement is relatively uncommon, and indicates something of a vote of confidence in the project.

StartUp is merely the latest in an emerging trend of podcast properties being picked up for adaptation to television. (I published a deep dive on this back in April.) But however this first deal is structured — and whether or not it’s lucrative for Gimlet — I think it’s more interesting to see if the podcast company will be able to use the momentum of this first development to build out a formal adaptation pipeline — à la Epic Magazine, which commissions longform features with a specific eye for Hollywood interest. I think it’s good business: a good way to consistently multiply the value of their output, and an even better way of expanding their sphere of influence. (When I asked the company will be pursuing more adaptation deals, chief of staff Chris Giliberti replied: “Hopefully :)”)

But whether these adaptations will translate into good eye-fodder in the age of Peak TV is a separate matter. As a consumer, and a yuge fan of the podcast’s first season, I’m not wild about this StartUp news. For the uninitiated, the podcast was originally a first-person audio documentary that followed former Planet Money cofounder Alex Blumberg as he set out to form what is now known as Gimlet. And while the show moved away from its innovative diaristic first-person style in future seasons to adopt a more classically documentarian format, that first season was absolutely sublime for the way it was so…well, vulnerable and performatively personal and utterly real.

That the TV adaptation is set to be a fictional comedy broadly described to be “based” on the podcast, revolving around a thirtysomething dude who quits his job to start a business, feels contradictory to the elements that made up the original genius of the podcast, even if the TV show turns out halfway decent. I also wonder why, indeed, did Gimlet’s property need to be picked up to get television project of this subject going in the first place when there are already a number of original television properties that effectively explores in life lived within the paradigm of entrepreneurship. (See HBO’s Silicon Valley and the latter seasons of CBS’s The Good Wife.) A possible argument? Consider the built-in audience of the StartUp podcast, multiplied by whatever Braff’s star power is able to bring in. The question is, then, whether that equation will work for ABC.

Anyway, it’s bad form to moan about something that hasn’t even materialized yet. I’m excited for Gimlet — this is, unmistakably, a coup for the Brooklyn-based podcast studio — and I’m eager to see how the team figures the adaptation. I only pray that the show be a gritty, violent remake.

Relevant: Desus and Mero of The Bodega Boys are making a late night talkshow for Viceland. Now this, this I’m super wild about…too bad I’m too cheap to pay for Sling TV.

On the celebrity strategy. The trade publication Adweek is running a special series on audio this week, with a particular focus on podcasts that readers of this hyper-niche column would probably find interesting. It’s chock full of the fairly platitudinal findings one comes to expect from broad excursions into the subject — sample sentence: “the key, podcast pros say, is to do something that no else is doing, and to do it better than anyone else can” — but there are bits of interesting information (and fun posturing) packed in the quotes.

The series also contains what is perhaps my favorite quotation — which bears my favorite insight — in a long, long time. In the article “Celebrities Are Flocking to Podcasts, but Will They Stick Around?“, a podcast producer named Matthew Passy drops this gem:

Shaquille O’Neal could fart into a microphone for an hour and 100,000 people would download it, while other podcasters are putting out great content advertisers [don’t pick up on], because for advertisers there’s a high threshold…if you don’t have 10 to 50,000 downloads, most advertisers don’t bother.

Passy’s sentiment here addresses the annoying and increasingly prominent spike in the lazy (and cynical) strategy of plopping a known name in front of a mic with little direction or production value with the expectation of committing temporary arbitrage. It also usefully contextualizes it as prudent within the basic advertiser dynamic. It illuminates how the space currently possesses a value universe in which high-quality work is crowded out, and how these relatively slipshod programs, in their capacity to move money before advertisers gain full podcast literacy, leads to their further proliferation. Cheers, mate.

Vox Media on the hunt. Well lookie here: Vox Media posted a job listing earlier this week in search of an executive producer for audio. According to the job description, the EP will be in charge of both refining the existing stable of podcasts as well as launching new shows. It also appears to span across the company’s eight sites (and possibly its in-house creative agency, Vox Creative).

This comes a week after Recode, Vox Media’s tech and business news site, published a job listing for a similar position. Dan Frommer, Recode’s editor-in-chief, had indicated to me that their listing was “an early sign of things to come from Vox on the audio front” — and it seems that this is yet another development within a much larger strategic move. The juxtaposition of these positions suggests the probable reporting structure, with the former overseeing the work of the latter, which itself foretells a probable future where we may see similar roles emerge across Vox Media’s seven remaining sites. (It’s a matryoshka doll of executive producers!)

If you’re a mid-career audio operator looking for a big step up, it’s a good time.

The Washington Post is ramping up its podcast operations, months after testing the waters with the history podcast Presidential, which first dropped in January. To kick off its second wave, the Post recently launched two somewhat straightforward shows: a fantasy football podcast (The Fantasy Football Beat), rolled out in early August, and an interview-driven politics podcast hosted by PostPartisan blogger Jonathan Capehart (Cape UP), which dropped last week.

But it has also two rather interesting projects in the pipeline that should be watched. First, a quiz show named Ciquizza featuring Chris Cillizza — whose blog, The Fix, is already being delivered in audio form through the Amazon Echo. Second, a fascinating collaboration with American Public Media called Historically Black, which will leverage the Post’s reader-driven Tumblr of the same name. A call for submission was put out two weeks ago for Historically Black, which you can find here.

The scaling up comes shortly after the Post hired Carol Alderman to serve as the company’s in-house audio producer in May. Alderman previously worked on podcasts at USA Today. I’m told that Alderman is the only person on staff whose sole focus is on audio works — though the actual production flows involve collaborations from several other people in the newsroom. I’m also told that, as part of the audience team, she reports to Jessica Stahl, who officially holds the lengthy title of “editor for social, search, and communities.” Stahl serves as Alderman’s editor on the audio products. That’s a stark contrast from The New York Times’ approach, which has a much larger team of dedicated operators with at least six full-timers focusing on podcasts, by my count (many of them public radio veterans).

Also worth noting: The Post plans to further experiment with the Amazon Echo’s Alexa platform. I’m personally pretty bullish on the possibilities afforded by voice-based/audio-first computing and the way in which the Echo paves for a whole new way in which information can be transferred digitally, and I’ve been utterly fascinated by the number of news organizations that have begun dabbling with the platform. (A partial list of dabblers: NPR, Slate, The Wall Street Journal, Newsy, Refinery29, Bloomberg, TMZ, and, excitingly, local NBC affiliates.) I had originally planned to dive deeper into what’s been going at this particular nexus, but my friends at Nieman Lab beat me to the punch earlier this week. I highly recommend checking out their writeup on news organizations and Alexa.

There is, indeed, quite a lot packed into what the Post’s is trying to kindle on this frontier. To find out more, I asked Jessica Stahl a few questions over email, and I think her responses are pretty useful, so I’ll run them in full here.

Quah: Could you tell me about the scaling up and how Carol Alderman plays a role here — is she quarterbacking projects, or will she be directly involved in tape cutting and such?

Stahl: We’ve spent the past couple of months sending our first batch of projects through the development process and are really proud of what we’ve been working on. Presidentialhas always been almost completely reported, edited and produced by Lily Cunningham in what can only be described as a Herculean effort. Beyond that, Carol is directly producing/editing some of our podcasts, and working with others primarily during the development process to help refine the idea and provide the training they need to eventually edit/produce themselves. So we’re hoping that with those two workflows in place, it we’ll be able to create the high quality output we want while still facilitating as many great ideas as we can. We’ve also been able to start codifying best practices, which helps us be consistent about things like launch process, format for posting to our site, promotion on social media, and so on.

Quah: What are the factors that led to the Post’s decision to do more with podcasts?

Stahl: The first is passion and interest in this type of storytelling. We have people in this newsroom who listen to podcasts as consumers and love the experience they get with that medium. And that’s meant we have people in the newsroom who’ve been wanting to tell stories in audio form, including a couple — like Lily — who figured out they had the skill to go ahead and do it. So there was this enthusiasm for podcasts, and a well of exciting ideas, that was bubbling over. That’s kind of been reflected in the podcasts we’ve launched or are working on so far — they all come from people in our newsroom who were passionate about getting into this space and who were willing to work hard with us to refine pitches, record and re-record demos and basically create something they would be psyched to listen to.

The other major factor was the success of Presidential, which showed that audio can accomplish the type of deep, informative journalism we strive for, and that there are significant audiences for it if you do it right. We announced at the end of March, only about two months after Presidential had launched, that it had already surpassed 1 million downloads.

Quah: What does success look like for the Washington Post’s podcasts?

Stahl: We’ve talked a lot about how we can define different models of success so that something that is building engaged community, for example, or doing really important journalism, or growing slowly but steadily could be considered to be working — just like something that gets tons of listeners right away would be considered to be working. We have several dimensions we use to measure success — similarly to how we might think about whether a written reporting project is a success. Sometimes big numbers tell you something worked, and sometimes you know something worked because it causes real change.

We’re also trying to be very intentional about how we know what’s not working, so we can adjust quickly to try new strategies, or ultimately to decide that we want to move on. Podcasts actually live as part of the Audience team, so figuring out how to benchmark progress and measure success across all sorts of different platforms is kind of just part of our worldview.

Quah: Are you guys trying anything interesting with respect to distribution?

Stahl: Our Historically Black podcast with American Public Media (APM) Reports is definitely something new and different for us. That grew out of a UGC (user-generated content) project on Tumblr and has developed into a cross-platform multimedia effort that’s going to be distributed as a podcast, but also through Tumblr to the audience that’s participated in it, and through The Post website and all our various platforms via a series of articles.

We’re also thinking about podcasts in the context of audio more broadly. It’s still very early for us, but we’ve been having conversations across departments to talk about different ways we can think about audio and audio delivery, and there are a lot of great ideas. A platform we’re currently playing with is Alexa, which powers the Amazon Echo and other devices. We started out there with a daily politics flash briefing written by Chris Cillizza of The Fix that was delivered via text-to-speech. But we all realized that it would be more compelling to have a human voice with some personality deliver that information, so we used the Republican and Democratic National Conventions as an opportunity to launch a recorded, voiced version. I’m anticipating more experiments like that, both on the Alexa and on other platforms.

Quah: Tell me more about the Alexa projects. What’s the potential that you see here?

Stahl: The Alexa politics brief is something that started as a collaboration between the product team and the politics section, and Carol hopped in to help make the leap into recorded audio. It’s not the only thing The Post is doing on the Alexa platform — we’re also experimenting with “skills” that enable users to ask for information about the elections or the Olympics and get answers from us.

There’s a lot of crossover between the platforms our product team is interested in and what the podcast side is interested in, so that was a great opportunity to start the conversation about what we want to experiment with and where it makes sense to work together either on technologies or on content. I think there’s a ton of potential, not only with Alexa but with all the new ways that people are going to consume audio products — from voice systems like Alexa, to music sites like Spotify or Pandora that are opening up to spoken audio, to in-car systems, and things we haven’t thought of yet. Those are going to open up new audiences for podcasts and also demand new forms of audio storytelling. So we want to make sure we’re thinking about it and experimenting with it, and getting out ahead of it with offerings that feel right for the platforms we decide to focus on. And that means we’ll keep collaborating closely with all the teams that are thinking about those platforms from lots of different angles.

Bites:

  • “In the early days of the medium, Podcasting was disproportionately a medium for white males, ages 25-44…but today, the content universe for Podcasts has exploded, and the diversity of programming available rivals any other form of audio,” writes Tom Webster, vice president of strategy at Edison Research, which puts out the ever-helpful annual Infinite Dial study in collaboration with Triton Digital. Webster’s statement comes from new data, and you should check out the full blog post.
  • Art19 announced a new executive vice president of content last week: Roddy Swearngin, who was most recently the director of digital at Levity Entertainment Group.
  • Wondery follows up the successful launch of its first original property, Found, with an audio drama anthology show called Secrets, Crimes & Audiotape. (Spot the reference.) The company is clearly leveraging its roots within the film and television industry, from which its founder Hernan Lopez (formerly of Fox International Channel) hails, and it’ll be interesting to see its efforts will lead to a new model for audio drama outside its current strengths in horror and sci-fi — and whether it’s endeavors will draw in bigger advertisers. (The Hollywood Reporter)
  • Audible partners TED to produce a new show, entitled Sincerely, X. (Fast Company)
  • It looks the podcast components of ESPN’s multimedia initiative Pin/Kings were downloaded “more than 200,000 times” across all episodes as of August 26. The podcast published 17 episodes across its run, plus one teaser. (Digiday)
  • “I’ve already done my first interviews for it last week. And tell your ad readers we’re looking for a sponsor for Season 2,” Malcolm Gladwell tells Adweek, when asked about a follow-up to Revisionist History’s highly successful first season. (Adweek)
  • “U.K. Podcast Listeners Favor Ads over Payment”…and “56% said they didn’t mind ads during podcasts as long as they were relevant to the podcast topic,” according to a new survey. Usual survey-consuming disclaimers apply. (eMarketer)

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. 1, 2016, 10:40 a.m.
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