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Nov. 22, 2016, 8:54 a.m.
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Hot Pod: The indies weigh in on a podcast business gone pro (“Capitalism!”)

“The competition is getting tougher, and the top is crowded by podcasts that have teams and systems behind them. This is good in some ways!”

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue ninety-seven, published November 22, 2016.

Five perspectives from independent podcasts. We’re doing something a little different this week. One of the fundamental narratives driving the podcast space, I think, is the consequences of formalization. Much of this newsletter focuses on the exploits of a professionalizing layer of companies agitating to build a more formalized industry on top of a vibrant open ecosystem that had thus far been fueled by an expansive community of independent creators. A tension exists in the attempted cohabitation between the two; the prevailing concern that emerges from this is whether the developments of the past two years have mutually benefited both parties or whether they have largely privileged the professionalizing layer.

That tension is challenging to study, given the severe deficiencies in publicly available data on podcasts in the aggregate and the general amorphousness of what we’re talking about when we talking about “independent podcasts: — a category that encompasses a wide variety of different content, scales, business models, and ambitions. Comprehensive representation, then, is improbable, so keep that in mind as you read this. Anyway, I spoke with five independent podcast operations about how they’re processing the exploits of the bigger fish, and I’m running chunky excerpts from their responses here. Here we go.

1. Rose Eveleth, of the Flash Forward podcast, on the challenges of crowding:

I think that the gains in podcasting-as-a-business is both great and terrible for indies. The increased attention and money are largely directed at the top-of-the-food-chain shows that come from legacy radio. Even the companies that have spun out, like Gimlet, have that same DNA. They sound like the conventional audio storytelling shows and, crucially, they employ people whose job it is to get more listeners and better advertisers and make money. That’s not bad! It makes them safe business propositions for advertisers. You’ve had success advertising with NPR, This American Life, Radiolab? Great, you see Startup and Reply All as safe bets. They’re shows with an infrastructure and sales team that looks really similar to an advertiser to traditional bets they might have made on radio or big name podcasts.

With that money comes an increase in attention to podcasts in general. Which means more podcasts. Which means more competition from teams that have an infrastructure and budget like Gimlet. I think that’s great. But it also changes how viable it is for an indie show to build an audience.

Let’s take science podcasts, for example. It used to be that if you were a science nerd, you would discover Radiolab. And then you’d be like “Wow, how do I get more podcasts like this?” You’d go to iTunes and click on “Science & Medicine” and you’d get Radiolab, and then the rest of the shows on there were indie: Star Talk, You Are Not So Smart, Inquiring Minds, The Naked Scientist etc.

Now, you go to iTunes and you click “Science & Medicine” and you get: Hidden Brain (NPR), Radiolab (WNYC), Invisibilia (NPR), How to Do Everything (NPR), Science Vs (Gimlet), Science Friday, Only Human (WNYC) and then you start to get indies. The average person isn’t going to listen to more than a couple of science podcasts, probably. So, the competition is getting tougher, and the top is crowded by podcasts that have teams and systems behind them.

This is good in some ways! It means that in order to get ahead you have to make something that’s good, and surprising, and high-quality. I don’t want to overstate the quality of those pre-big-business-podcast shows — many of them were not good. But it was true that by simply making something about science and medicine you could find yourself in the top 50 on iTunes without needing a marketing team. Now, that’s much much harder, in my opinion, even if you are making something really great.

All of this isn’t unique to podcasts, right? This is a thing that happens to small industries that get an influx of cash. Capitalism!

(2) Gina Delvac, who produces Call Your Girlfriend, on the dynamics of attention:

I have a public radio background like so many podcasters, and really cut my teeth at the national show Marketplace. So from my business journo perspective, I think it makes sense to watch the people who are generating the largest volumes of venture capital, acquisitions, and revenue, and driving new fundraising models. That’s going to impact all podcasters, whether or not we are affiliated with any of those companies, because they push the boundaries of what is economically possible. (I’m talking about creators getting paid for these weird, difficult, fulfilling, and/or transformative little gems we make). We’re all watching to see how this nascent industry develops. I say “nascent” because I think there are possibilities for disruptions far beyond what we’ve seen since mid-2014 when Call Your Girlfriend (CYG) started.

At CYG, in addition to having two incredibly brilliant and delightful hosts, Aminatou [Sow] and Ann [Friedman] have their own platforms and friends in media circles, who were big boosters for us. Early writeups in Entertainment Weekly and The Guardian and regular features on iTunes helped us find an audience in a big way early on. We’ve benefited from a lot of additional press since then. I don’t say that to brag, but to acknowledge that many indie podcasters do not have quite the same bullhorn that we do outside of the podcast itself. A lack of attention paid to smaller shows is a genuine problem for those individuals to be able to continue on, and obviously for the rest of us looking to have our ears challenged by new creative approaches and the viewpoints of people who can’t afford to work for free.

(3) Paul Bae and Terry Miles, of Pacific Northwest Stories, on whether growth at the professionalizing layer has cannibalized independents:

Not at all. If you look at who rules the top of the iTunes charts, you’ll consistently see independent players like Aaron Mahnke and Dan Carlin up there with the Gimlet and Radiotopia shows. So when it comes to podcasting success, exposure is important, but, at the moment, content would still seem to be king.

What we hope doesn’t happen is a glut of mediocre celebrity-driven podcasts, people dipping their toes into the podcasting waters for a couple of episodes here and there. That could color the new listener’s impression of what the medium of podcasting is capable of delivering. It’s great that everybody can make a podcast, and there’s room for everyone, but we hope that, when it comes to exposure, the media covering the form continues to reward and trumpet high-quality, well-thought-out audio productions rather than simply looking at a name or brand and chasing that association.

It’s one thing to draw significant media attention away from the plethora of amazing content being created by those of us dedicated to podcasting for a different high-quality audio experience. It’s another to turn people off of the medium because their introduction to the form wasn’t compelling.

(4) Lauren Shippen, of The Bright Sessions, on podcast coverage:

I do think that most of the attention is paid to the big networks, but I also understand the necessity of that. There are so many podcasts out there that, for someone who is writing about podcasts, it makes sense to start with the proven, known entities and work your way down. Things break through if they get enough listens, but there are still a lot of hidden gems. But this is like any other industry — there are a lot of good musicians that no one’s ever heard of because they don’t have the machine of a label behind them…

It will be interesting to see what happens to podcasts like ours in the next six months as these bigger networks start to get into the audio drama game. My only concern is that some listeners will enjoy the “name-brand” audio drama, yet still be reluctant to try “unbranded” audio drama. We’re right up there on the charts with the recognizable names, but we don’t have the cachet of a large company behind us. I think audio drama becoming mainstream is inevitable and ultimately a good thing, but there’s always the fear that we’ll be swallowed up by bigger, shinier fish. Only time will tell!

(5) Claire Friedman, of Cards Against Humanity’s Chicago Podcast Cooperative, on the clustering of interest at the top:

Sometimes [podcast networks] are going to see an indie show and reach down and pull them up. Other times, they’ll miss something truly great. And that’s all right too! They’re not perfect. The benefit for indies is that there’s even a path now. There’s somewhere to go. They may take that path and they may not, but having it changes your mentality.

There may be people who listen to fewer indie shows now because they’re listening to ones produced on networks. There may be people who just can’t get a break where they may have previously been able to. But I truly don’t think that’s hurt indies as a whole. It’s done work to familiarize more people with the medium and more companies with the potential, and I think that’s made indies more able to communicate why they’re doing something different and cool.

Third Coast debrief. The beloved Chicago-based audio conference wrapped up its eleventh edition two weekends ago, and while I wasn’t able to attend in person — and thus, disappointingly, was unable to experience the fireworks at the contentious post-election panel (Current has a solid play-by-play) — I heard it went swimmingly, with record attendance amid what is essentially a boomtime for audio. I managed to get Third Coast’s Sarah Geis, the conference’s artistic director, and Maya Goldberg-Safir, the conference’s communications strategist, on the phone yesterday for a debrief. Some selected notes:

  • “The conference was bigger than ever before,” Geis noted. “There were about 750 people this year, up from under 600 when we last held the festival two years ago.”
  • Geis and Goldberg-Safir told me that one of the major differences from the last conference was an increased presence of organizations recruiting for talent. That was reflected both in the attending companies as well as the sponsorships.
  • “I was grateful that it didn’t feel like a trade show at all,” Goldberg-Safir said, bringing up the festival’s emphasis on maintaining a sense of intimacy and approachability. This will be a continued point of focus as the team accommodates for likely increases in attendees in the years to come.
  • Finally, the team is setting up a podcast feed that will serve listeners audio recordings of the sessions from the 2016 conference as well as selected sessions from previous years. It will also contain some educational material. The feed will be published over the next few days; keep an eye on the website for details.

Geis, by the way, is leaving Third Coast at the end of the year. The organization is restructuring as a result, and will be posting job listings for an artistic associate and a manager of operations soon. As for Geis, she’ll be looking to leverage her three years developing her skills as an editor in pursuit of other opportunities.

Approaches to translation. I don’t speak many languages — truthfully, all I have is English, the mother tongue of the country I come from, and bits of obscenities scattered across various Romance languages — which means that I am largely at a loss when I cover stuff like Slate France’s early podcasting efforts, which I wrote about back in August, and the Spanish-language narrative show Radio Ambulante’s distribution deal with NPR, which I discussed last week. Ideally, I would have loved to actually experience those shows before writing about their developments, structures, and business contexts; after all, a core belief driving this newsletter is the ways in which product impacts business models and vice versa.

My frustrations with covering stories like that led me to wonder about the set of moves currently available for podcast translation and localization, which subsequently led me to U.K.-based radio producer Eleanor McDowall, whose site, Radio Atlas, seeks to bridge the language gap by converting non-English-language radio pieces into video packages that layers visual subtitles over original recordings. I first heard of Radio Atlas from a Poynter column published back in February (when the site originally launched), and at the time, I felt that the choice to essentially shift the experience from audio-first to video-first was one I ultimately didn’t want to follow as a consumer. I still feel that way, but I figured McDowall had nonetheless worked through the alternatives of approaching translation when developing the site, so I asked her to walk me through her choices.

Over email, she outlined the three approaches she considered:

(1) Transcripting, where listeners are encouraged to either read a script online or as a print-out while consuming an episode. “This happens a lot at European conferences and competitions like the IFC and the Prix Europa,” McDowall pointed out, referring to two well-known international radio competitions. “My issues with the transcript method are that you completely lose the timing. If you’re a quick reader, you’re going to leap ahead and spoil everyone’s punchlines. Yu might miss the musicality of the edit or the pause mid-sentence as an interviewee becomes overcome with emotion.”

(2) Audio reversioning, where a captioning voice is integrated into the piece itself in a way that flows over parts of that piece, often extending the listening experience well beyond its original design and runtime. “There have been some really creative approaches to audio reversioning. The translation voice might offer a new dimension, act as a new interviewee, or play with the form of a doc, to a certain extent,” she explained. “I think audio reversioning is really interesting, but for me — although every act of translation is obviously a transformation — it’s a tool that changes the character of the original documentary into something else. As with the transcript method, having the presence of a translating voice might mean that you miss the music of the original delivery… Should audio translation be neutral? Or should the speaker try and capture the tone in which lines are delivered? And if we’re listening to a ‘performed’ translation, are we diluting the authenticity of the documentary to a certain extent?”

(3) Subtitling, which is the method McDowall employs at Radio Atlas, a move that structurally reconstructs the experience from being purely aural to primarily visual. “[Subtitling] controls when you get the translation so you can get a much better sense of timing and delivery and it’s not disrupting the audio world of the original,” she said. “Radio Atlas is designed with the hope that you think as little as possible about the act of reading. I’m keen that words only appear as you need them and, where possible, I leave the screen blank so that you’re focused on the act of listening rather than looking.”

Thinking this through, it’s also entirely possible to consider a fourth option: direct translation, where the script is rewritten and reperformed in English. Of course, this wouldn’t be feasible for many nonfiction shows, which are typically structured around primary recordings of source or guest interviews, but one imagines that this could work well for non-English audio dramas — and for attempts to export English audio dramas to non-English-speaking countries as well, of course.

Aside from running Radio Atlas, McDowall is a senior producer at Falling Tree Productions, an independent production company, and the series producer of Short Cuts, a BBC Radio 4 documentary show and podcast.

Here’s an editorial partnership to watch: Song Exploder is teaming up with Vulture for “a series of episodes on the most interesting film scores of the year.” The series kicked off last week with an episode covering the score for the movie “Arrival,” composed by Jóhann Jóhannsson. It’s a very smart, non-zero-sum collaboration, with obvious up sides for both parties: Song Exploder gets itself in front of the Vulture audience (many of whom may be new potential listeners), and Vulture gets a piece of compelling, resonant #content that’ll engage and further monetize its readership. (#Synergy, baby.) Other podcasts, and other digital publications, would be wise to replicate this move.

And props to Song Exploder creator Hrishikesh Hirway for his entrepreneurial efforts to participate in a collaboration like this. This partnership with Vulture isn’t his first; between May 2015 and March 2016, Song Exploder was presented almost weekly on Wired.com as what appears to be a syndicated package.

Codebreaker returns for season two. Interesting and curious, gimmicky but somewhat pleasantly so: I thought Codebreaker’s first season was an uneven but admirable attempt to go beyond your standard podcast publication format. The show sought to build an interactive experience on top of the show, hiding codes throughout the episodes — which were ordinarily scheduled to publish weekly — that would unlock the rest of the season for the more involved audiences. You could call it a tiered community management structure, one that’s designed to identify, segment, and reward the more engaged listeners (a data point that could undoubtedly prove useful to the Codebreaker team).

The podcast, which comes out of a partnership between American Public Media and Business Insider, kicked off its second season last week. This season focuses on the question: Can technology save us? Host Ben Johnson tells me that the new season is more ambitious than the first, both in terms of the storytelling and the code design. He seems very excited. You can check out the website for more information.

Bites:

  • RadioPublic is now publicly available on iOS and Android. (Nieman Lab)
  • “Podcasts’ strong ad sales help NPR reach second year of budget surplus.” According to National Public Media CEO Gina Garrubbo, “Podcast income drove the growth in digital…with advertisers renewing at an “extremely high” rate.” (Current)
  • Digiday reports that The Ringer’s podcast network apparently brings in 5 million downloads per month, citing “people familiar with the matter.” (Digiday)
  • How a local news nonprofit is experimenting with audio to build new revenue streams. Gotta hand it to those Vermonters. (Nieman Lab)
  • Add this to the list of podcasts-to-TV jumps: “‘Drink Champs’ podcast coming to Diddy’s Revolt TV Network.” Though one imagines a celebrity-driven podcast strategy — like the one practiced by Drink Champs’ parent podcast network, CBS Play.it — is set up to more efficiently, but perhaps not necessarily more effectively, cultivate conversions like these. (Variety)
  • Radio journalist Joshua Johnson will succeed Diane Rehm as host of WAMU’s long-running public-affairs discussion program. The new show will be called “1A.” It’s not directly podcast-related, but I’ve been a long-time listener of Rehm’s show, so I’m just dropping this here because I find it super exciting. (Washington Post)

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. 22, 2016, 8:54 a.m.
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