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Nov. 15, 2016, 9:10 a.m.
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Hot Pod: Did the election podcast glut of 2016 fail its listeners?

Plus: The outlook for podcasts following the election; Radio Ambulante signs a deal with NPR; a Serial spinoff.

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue ninety-six, published November 15, 2016.

Outlook. Last Tuesday’s shocking electoral conclusion has severe ramifications not just for the media generally — print and digital, legacy and new, mainstream and alternative — but also for podcasting specifically, whose position as an emerging industry would historically render it more susceptible to the fallout of uncertain economic and media environments. And make no mistake: We are marching straight into a thick fog of uncertainty.

Keep your eyes peeled for two things. First, a potential slowdown in advertising spending. Second, the significant possibility of an economic recession over the next few years, something that was already being predicted prior to this election and that some economists believe could be exacerbated by the proposed policies of the incoming administration. From The Wall Street Journal last Wednesday:

“Uncertainty is bad for ad spending growth,” said Jonathan Barnard, head of forecasting for Zenith, an ad buying and research arm of Publicis Groupe. Still, he said there will not be an “apocalyptic pullback” and just how much contraction occurs depends largely on how the economy performs and what specific moves the new administration makes.

And what of public radio? Keep your eye on the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), the federally funded organization whose financial support is essential to the health of the public media system. Familiarize yourself with two things:

1. The breakdown of NPR’s revenue sources, articulated best in this blog post from 2013 that highlights public radio’s dependence on CPB funding:

These station programming fees comprise a significant portion of NPR’s largest source of revenue. The loss of federal funding would undermine the stations’ ability to pay NPR for programming, thereby weakening the institution

2. The historical string of on-again, off-again tensions surrounding the system’s perceived relationships with ideological bias.

Executives at podcast publishers are generally adopting a wait-and-see stance on the days to come. At least, that’s what I’ve found based on my email interactions with several over the past week. Many are bracing for impact — one phrased the situation this way: “I am placing higher probabilities on the downside cases in all of our financial models” — though there are a few that believe such concerns to be overblown. (“I wouldn’t worry about it,” one person said.)

“We’ve seen no signs of any slowdown,” Matt Lieber, president and cofounder of Gimlet Media, told me. “Obviously, if a recession happens, then ad budgets will get cut. But to be honest, we’re seeing so much growth in podcast spending right now that, even in recession, I would expect slowing growth, yes, but not negative growth.”

Hernan Lopez, founder of Wondery, submitted a more positive view: “I’ve never seen ad spend decline in a growing economy. In times of general market-driven anxiety, ad budgets may shift from a quarter to the next, or between different kinds of media, and if anything podcasting has more to gain than to lose.”

National Public Media’s Bryan Moffett noted that he remains “cautiously optimistic,” pointing out the strength of 2017 upfront buys and the medium’s steady quarter-over-quarter gains. “Niche media do tend to get cut faster in turbulent times, but I also wonder if podcasting will weather any storm better than history would predict,” he wrote. “We all know how effective podcasting can be in terms of marketers reaching the right audience with the right message. So, I think we’d need a pretty significant economic pullback before any real cuts come, and they’d probably come in line with everything else.”

An executive of an independent podcast network expressed some general concern, but pointed out that even if there is to be an ad-spending cooldown, direct response advertisers would likely stay within the medium, as they’ve already figured out how to assess and achieve the return-on-investments they want. Another person I spoke to posited a similar outcome — there will always be companies looking for people to sell things to, that person said — but did say to watch how companies engaged in direct response podcast marketing will fare moving forward.

We need to move on, but I’ll just quickly note three more things:

  • This climate of uncertainty will be felt by every aspect of the podcast ecosystem, but it will be felt hardest by the community of independent producers and freelancers that provide labor, efficiency, and creativity to the space, these proprietors of small boats in a sea that thrashes from the movement of bigger ships.
  • Given everything that we’re currently seeing in the nexus of media and politics, it seems imperative, now more so than ever, that podcasting remains open.
  • Remember to donate to your local public radio station, people.

Okay, let’s go.

Radio Ambulante inks distribution deal with NPR. The public radio mothership will distribute, market, and promote the show across all of its platforms, including NPR.org and the NPR One app. I’m told to expect collaborations between Radio Ambulante and a number of other podcasts from the NPR newsroom like Code Switch, Latino USA, and Embedded. I’m also told that the show will have a presence on the weekend newsmagazines. The deal came out of conversations that started about a year ago, when NPR approached the Radio Ambulante team.

For the uninitiated, Radio Ambulante is a fully Spanish language narrative journalism project — in the vein of This American Life and Snap Judgment — focusing on stories from Latin America and Latino communities in the United States. The show was founded in 2011 by Daniel Alarcón, Carolina Guerrero, Martina Castro, and Annie Correal. (Castro and Correal have since left the team.) Radio Ambulante is widely loved and critically acclaimed, and received the Gabriel García Marquez Prize for Innovation in Journalism in 2014.

Alarcón told me that the team intends to expand in the near future. “We have to see where we stand early next year, but I think we have to grow in order to fulfill our mission,” he said. “This deal will help us get there.”

The show will roll out its latest season on November 22. The news was formally announced early on Tuesday, but the gossip trickled out at the Third Coast Festival in Chicago this past weekend.

A Serial spinoff? Speaking of Third Coast, I wasn’t able to be there myself this year, but I wish I had been, because this bit of news was apparently announced at a presentation by Serial’s executive producer Julie Snyder. The details, cobbled together from tweets by attendees: A Serial spinoff will debut in March. It will be hosted by This American Life producer Brian Reed, and it will be an “artsy” and “novelistic” seven-part series set in Alabama, following “a man who despises the town he’s lived in all his life and decides to do something about it.” Cool.

Audible expands comedy offerings on its Channels lineup, stacking its deck with audio shows from comedians like Will Arnett, Nick Offerman, and Eugene Mirman. The new slate also features something called “Audible Comedy Specials,” a programming channel that bears strong structural similarities to the comedy special blocks you’d find on television networks like HBO and Comedy Central. It’s kind of a shrewd move, efficiently tapping into the well-established sub-community of comedy podcasts and, on the supply side, offering comedy producers yet another platform to monetize a given performance.

This expansion likely draws from a supply and production infrastructure established by Rooftop Media, the company’s West Coast-based, comedy-focused arm. Audible acquired Rooftop Media back in October 2014.

Meanwhile, in Canada: The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) isn’t cool with third-party podcast apps distributing its programming with in-app ads served on top, according to a report by Canadaland. Specifically, the CBC “has sent legal threats to at least one third-party podcast app developer for serving ads without a prior agreement with the broadcaster.” The corporation is also blocking the presence of its programming on those apps. The exact apps that are affected are not confirmed, though the article highlights the Podcast Republic app and also points out the other apps that adopt the in-app ad practice, like Stitcher, Overcast, and Podcast Addict. Hit up Canadaland for more details on this story.

“The wrong format for the moment?” Josh Nathan-Kazis, a staff writer at The Forward, published a string of tweets (a tweetstorm, as the kids call it) that mounted an intriguing critique of the political roundtable podcast format in the wake of last Tuesday’s election. Reproduced here, with some streamlining:

An item for the media post-mortem: The political roundtable podcast turns out to have been exactly the wrong format for the moment…They’re cheap to produce, and fun to half-listen to while doing the dishes.

And there was a lot to talk about. It felt like you could understand the election through the roundtables. Everyone was so smart. Knew what they were talking about. The intimacy inherent to podcasting made them addictive: Hang out with the smart kids each week and they’ll tell you all you need to know.

On Tuesday, it turned out the smart kids were wrong. Some were flagrantly, smugly, obnoxiously wrong. Others were a bit wrong. They weren’t uniquely wrong. But there’s something about that intimacy that makes their particular wrongness feel almost like a betrayal. I wonder how much we really learned from these podcasts. They were closed loops; arguments among friends, played for entertainment.

And were we really trying to learn? Did anyone go to Keepin’ It 1600 or Slate’s Political Gabfest for anything but affirmation? And if that was just 2016’s “unskewing,” then maybe these shows were more harmful than we realized. Ear candy. If we’d spent a bit less time listening to our radio buddies joke about “bedwetters,” maybe we wouldn’t have been so surprised this week. (To be fair, Keepin’ It 1600’s post-election mea culpa episode on Wednesday was really good.)

Put simply: did the political roundtable podcast glut of the 2016 election cycle fail us?

There is a lot to think through here, and I’ll start by saying that the strokes being painted here are way too broad. (And Nathan-Kazis qualified them as such in follow-ups.) At the heart of this critique, I think, are two central ideas: The first is the explicit notion that the insular space created by the roundtable podcast either leads to or creates a greater probability of confirmation bias, and the second is an implicit sense that the media product supplied by these shows exacerbates a potential negative tendency among consumers to use these media products, some journalism and some not so much, as a crutch as opposed to one of many tools of news and information.

The first idea can be straightforwardly interrogated: My immediate reaction is to argue that the risk of confirmation bias here is less linked to the format itself than it is to the participants of the roundtable. Which is to say, it’s not the tool, it’s the wielder; failures, where they existed, were specific to the show, not general to the form. We were awash with election podcasts this cycle, but there were definable differences between shows that were explicitly journalistic in intent (like the NPR Politics Podcast) and shows that were rooted more in a classical sense of punditry (like Keepin’ It 1600, which was consumed by many as therapy and which, interestingly enough, now appears to be the mirror image of conservative talk radio). Those are two very separate product types with very different relationships to the journalistic position, and speaking personally, my experience of what I now recognize to be confirmation bias between the two shows was dramatically different.

The second idea is harder to parse. Essentially, it attends to what appears to be a causal question: does the sense of comfortable insularity conjured by these podcasts somehow discourage listeners from seeking out additional or competing viewpoints? Attempts to unpack the question only leads to further inquiries: is it even possible to prove a causal relationship? Is there a certain condescension in this causal hypothesis — one that suggests news consumers to be anything other than perfectly intelligent adults who will take the time to fully read complex pieces, verify sources, balance out their information intake, and check their biases on their own? To whom does the responsibility of information fall: those who produce the information, or those who consume information? These are fundamental questions akin to those pertaining to corporate social responsibility on the part of the information producers; I am tempted to think that governance is required, but government often seems antithetical to the productive creation and free flow of information.

Nathan-Kazis’ point on the medium’s intimacy triggering a stronger feeling of betrayal hits closer to home, as it highlights the previously unrealized problem that emerges from the design premise of many of these roundtable podcasts, particularly those produced by journalistic institutions like Slate and FiveThirtyEight. The conceit of such shows is to give listeners a sense of what journalists or experts are talking about in spaces separate from the performed professionalism of the public platform; after all, what is said on the front page is far from what was debated in editorial discussions leading up to an article’s final construction or what was discussed on a human level at the bar afterwards. The basic idea in these setups is to engender trust in the people and the process, not just the product. But when the people and the process fail, the cut feels so much deeper, and it is incredibly hard to win that trust — that sense of comfort and safety (which is perhaps the problem?) — back.

That intimacy and sense of process, however, proved essential to how several non-political roundtable podcasts played the role of therapy for many with their post-election episodes. And it is perhaps here that the roundtable conventions are unambiguously valuable. Shows like Call Your Girlfriend, Still Processing, Nerdette, and The Read all provided listeners with personal spaces of communion — spaces to be alone but together, to feel and process the scope of the night’s events, to emotionally prepare for the days to come.

So, did the political roundtable podcast fail us in 2016? Some did, some didn’t; but the problem listeners face is the fact of living in a world where both successes and failures — emerging from both journalistic and non-journalistic sources — exist, flatly, within the same platform, the same space, the same context.

A media format is a tool; it is only as strong, and only as right, as its practitioners. Whether we screw it up or not, podcasting’s core value proposition is always going to be there for us all: a distinct ability to create a space to talk things through, to feel things out, to let doubt grip you. If anything, maybe the lesson here is that we should have leaned more into conveying doubt. A scene from On The Media’s bonus episode, dropped the day after the elections:

Bob Garfield: “What I most hope… is that we are not all passengers on the ship of fools.”
Brooke Gladstone: “What the fuck does that mean?”

Relevant: Melody Joy Kramer on Poynter — “Spread your masthead across the country, and other ideas to prevent groupthink”

Bites:

  • For those keeping tally, add the following companies to the list of brands making their own podcasts: InterContinental Hotel, Avion Tequila, State Farm Insurance. (AdWeek)
  • Refinery29 is launching what appears to be a combined podcast-newsletter product, called “UnStyled.” The last example I heard of such a product combination was WBUR’s “The Magic Pill” project. (Refinery29)
  • “The story so far: Fiction podcasts take their next steps” (New York Times)
  • “Where political talk radio is driven by a sense of community, not partisanship” (CJR)
  • DGital Media launches the latest show under its new partnership with Sports Illustrated, “The Seth Davis Podcast.” (SI.com)
  • Meanwhile, in Australia: The Wheeler Center and the Audiocraft conference are collaborating to launch “The Australian Audio Guide,” “an online companion to the best Australian podcasts and radio features.” (Link)

This shortened 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     Nov. 15, 2016, 9:10 a.m.
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