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Nov. 1, 2016, 7:59 a.m.
Mobile & Apps

Hot Pod: Will 60dB’s algorithms and user experience give it a lead over other audio platforms?

Plus: Gimlet announces a new slate of shows, NPR focuses on internal talent development, and Audible puts one of its shows outside the paywall.

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue ninety-four, published November 1, 2016.

Tiny Garage Labs pushed its short-form audio platform 60dB out into the public last week and bagged itself a bit of press, with writeups from Fast Company, Lifehacker, TechCrunch, and Nieman Lab. A few weeks ago, I briefly wrote about 60dB and the Silicon Valley-based team, which is made up of Netflix veterans John Ciancutti and Steve McLendon together with NPR alum Steve Henn. Back then, it was still in beta, and I made a point to draw attention to its focus on individual segments as the atomic unit of content.

Now that 60dB is out in the wild, I’m still not particularly sure what to make of it. But here are two things I’m thinking about:

1. It would be imprecise to view 60dB, as Fast Company’s headline suggests, as intending to solve the structural problems of podcasts. (Though, from the looks of the app’s current content offerings, it does not mind getting involved with them for now.) Rather, the app is best interpreted as attending to the larger listener experience problems associated with broadcast radio, whose distribution structure is deeply inefficient.

Ciancutti explained the problem when we spoke last week: As a radio listener, you essentially have two options when you encounter something you don’t want — you can either change the station or wait for time to pass within the confines of a specific station. (On the supply side, the problem can be viewed this way: At any given point of time, a station only has one interface point with which to work on its relationship with a listener.) 60dB’s gambit, as a platform, is to solve the efficiencies on both the listener and publisher side: Listeners are freed from the slog of unwanted experiences and having to make the bulk of choices, through a largely automated consumptive experience driven by shorter content chunks strung together by “algorithmic personalization.” And publishers will enjoy larger volumes of listeners efficiently sorted from multiple directions into their show portfolios.

Sound familiar? It’s basically the premise of almost every digital content platform from Facebook to Spotify to, well, Netflix. Which means that the attendant considerations and calculations for publishers should be the same, as they’ve lived through this story multiple times before — and are living through versions of it now.

Considerations like: Who will ultimately own the audience, 60dB or the publisher? Would the benefit of developing for the platform outweigh the potential lack of direct audience ownership in the future? What is the likelihood of a mutually beneficial audience development for both the publisher and the platform? And so on and so on.

Which is not to say that publishers are destined to play out any particular future here, or that there isn’t substantial benefit in collaborating with Tiny Garage Labs at this moment. 60dB stands to build out a new audience development arm for publishers that they are unable to explore for themselves, and publishers stand to provide 60dB with some compelling, structurally optimized content. What I’m merely saying is: At the end of the day, the devil will be in the details of the deal.

“We’re closing deals with specific partners,” Ciancutto told me. “We’re helping partners to tell and make these kinds of audio stories.” When I asked about the monetization end of the deal for publishers, he replied: “It’s stuff we still have to work on and figure out. Right now, we’re working on nailing the experience. Monetization will come next.”

2. There’s also the more fundamental question about whether 60dB’s gambit is a winning one. Two out of the three founders are Netflix veterans, and the team leans on that connection pretty hard. One imagines the shape of its strategy is appropriately Netflix-like. What does that mean? It’s helpful to refer to analyst Ben Thompson’s Stratechery newsletter this week, which spells out that strategy:

Netflix has built leverage and monopsony power over the premium video industry not by controlling distribution, at least not at the beginning, but by delivering a superior customer experience that creates a virtuous cycle: Netflix earns the users, which increases its power over suppliers, which brings in more users, which increases its power even more.

But the success of a strategy lies not just on its shape, but on the strength of its variables as well. And so the relevant question here is: Will 60dB’s interpretation of “superior customer experience” — shorter content units, largely algorithmically driven experiences — pay off?

A potential clue can perhaps be found in examinations of another media platform type whose dynamics function similarly: ad exchanges. In a piece published last week at The New York Review of Books, Slate group chairman Jacob Weisberg made the following observation: “Ad exchanges…have made digital advertising more efficient without necessarily making it more effective in increasing sales.” Which is to say, time will tell whether 60dB’s gambit of equating content efficiency with effective experiences will amount to anything, and I’m very curious to see where this goes.

Gimlet officially announced its fall launch slate this morning, and in doing so, offers a look into what appears to be a new phase for the company. Close observers probably know many of these new shows already — they were unveiled during the Brooklyn Upfronts event over the summer — but this morning’s press release revealed a previously unannounced audio drama project with a high profile cast.

Here’s the lineup:

  • Undone, a show hosted by former Radiolab producer Pat Walters that revisits big events from the past. It’s a familiar premise, one most recently utilized to great effect by Malcolm Gladwell and Panoply with Revisionist History. Launches November 14.
  • Homecoming, an original audio drama project that’ll feature Oscar Isaac, Catherine Keener, and David Schwimmer on the talent roster. Launches November 16.
  • Crimetown, which will mark Gimlet’s first foray into the ever-dependable true crime genre. The podcast is driven by part of the team behind HBO’s The Jinx — whose bubbling popularity back in early 2015 compelled critical associations with Serial — and it will examine organized crime in Providence, Rhode Island. Launches November 20.

Additionally, the company’s flagship StartUp podcast will kick off its latest full season this Thursday. This fourth season follows Dov Charney, the controversial former American Apparel CEO who was forced out of the fashion giant in 2014 following numerous reports of misconduct — including sexual harassment — as he pursues a new venture. (Frankly, I’m morbidly interested in hearing how the StartUp team handles this. The push from their end would be for reporting, the push from his end is likely image rehabilitation, and how that dynamic plays out will be the thing to watch.)

Two things:

1. The close proximity of all the launches really stands out to me here. We’re talking three launches in seven days, with each project having its own distinct press hook. Clumping is a smart strategy, I think, one that focuses attention is a way that presents Gimlet with a clear run of opportunities to firmly shape its narrative. The staggered launches of the company’s previous shows (Heavyweight in mid-September, Science Vs in late July) led to a pretty diffuse sense of momentum, and when it comes to a hits-based business — which Gimlet most definitely is — launch momentum is a crucial kind of capital.

2. Also interesting: the strategic conservatism in these bets. You can see the math at work in all three projects: the combination of a legacy radio talent with a classic premise (Undone), stacking an experimental deck with Hollywood talent (Homecoming), and tapping into a battle-tested genre that is a staple on the iTunes charts (Crimetown). Not knocking the choices here; given Gimlet’s high-value-per-project business model and a growing need for its next big hit, these are understandable moves.

The company marches into November following a few optically rough weeks between the Mystery Show controversy and the subsequent winding down of Sampler, two developments that were even dissonant within the context of the most recent StartUp mini-season, which kicked off a few hours after the Mystery Show announcement with an anxiety narrative that seemed to further split its private and public narrative. This November launch week presents a much-needed break from the past, and a chance for the company to reset its bearings.

Planet Money’s Neal Carruth is NPR’s new general manager for podcasts, a brand new position. According to the announcement memo, Carruth “will support the teams working on those shows, strengthen connections between our podcast portfolio and the newsroom and member stations, and support innovation and new program development across NPR as a key member of the newly expanded NPR Story Lab.” He will report to Anya Grundmann, VP of programming and audience development.

“I think we could probably have much richer conversations about NPR’s strategy in a few months, but what I can say is this reflects the seriousness of NPR’s commitment to podcasting,” Carruth said, when I asked about his strategy. “A big part of this for me is talent development — leveraging the incredible talent we have in our newsroom and inside the public radio system. I want to make sure NPR is a great place for creative people.”

He added: “And we want to make sure that member stations are part of this too.” (Poynter ran a longer interview with Carruth, if you’re interested.)

The hiring process for the position took place over a five-month period, with the job posted back in June. This news emerges from the shadow of the NPR podcast promotion kerfuffle (which raised questions over the organization’s relationship to podcasts) back in March, the WBAA-This American Life brouhaha (which raised questions over the broader public radio system’s relationship to podcasts and digital audio) back in May, and NPR One managing editor Sara Sarasohn’s departure from the organization in early September. NPR has been driving a positive wave of announcements lately, unveiling its restructured Story Lab initiative and drawing attention to a strong ratings increase (though, as Current’s Adam Ragusea reported, it’s unclear how to read that apart from a tweak in measurement methodology and the bump from a bonkers election year).

Carruth, a 17-year NPR veteran who most recently ran the business desk and oversaw the Planet Money podcast, will start his new role after Thanksgiving. (He’s also a super chill dude.) David Sweeney will temporarily take over the business desk.

Travel Pod. There’s huge overlap between food media and travel media: a trading in the currency of desire, an editorial choice or balance between dispensing information and peddling fantasy, an indexing towards the visual. Also worth noting to the list of shared traits is the tension I wrote about a few weeks ago within food media — between food media and media about food — which applies, I think, just as well to the travel vertical, though I do struggle to think of strong contemporary examples of viscerally driven travel media beyond the heyday of the Travel Channel circa early 2000s. (I had cable once, as a child, and it was beautiful.)

Roads and Kingdoms, a Brooklyn-based digital media concern, is one such example of a media company about travel, in the sense that it plays with the symbols of globetrotting fantasy while running longform magazine-y pieces. (A chilled-out person’s Vice, one would say.) There is much I find fascinating about R+K: its magazine gloss, its malleable niche, its acceptance of investment by media personality Anthony Bourdain. This is the kind of boutiquey media company that counts among its leaders a guy, one Nathan Thornburgh, who says stuff like: “A great listicle about seven cabanas and seven beaches is still going to kill on the Internet and power glossy magazines, but there are lots of people who think about travel as losing yourself in someone else’s life.”

The company, of course, is pursuing a podcast project, which will be called The Trip. Hosted by Thornburgh and executive editor Kara Parks, the show will showcase the kinds of stories that you’d expect from the site — a mix of travelogue, foreign journalism, cultural anthropology, scenes, and places pieces — and will be backed by sound-rich production values. Bourdain will feature in some pieces. I’m curious.

Production is led by Josie Holtzman, a Brooklyn-based producer on NPR Music’s Jazz Night in America. Philadelphia-based Alex Lewis is handling the ad creative, a set of short midroll profiles on chefs working in New York City’s Lower East Side. The first season, which will run for six episodes, is sponsored in full by Tiger Beer, and Panoply will play a supporting role with distribution and promotion, whatever that means. It will tentatively launch in the first week of March 2017.

Governmental advertising on U.K. podcasts? Caroline Crampton, an assistant editor at the left-of-center British publication the New Statesman (which has a healthy podcast roster), writes in to let me know about a string of governmental ad buys that have been taking place on UK podcasts. Over email, she explained:

We’ve had two major government-sponsor campaigns on our shows. The first ran in spring this year, and was about the benefits to UK companies of exporting their goods to other countries (part of this initiative) and the other is from the Department of Work and Pensions and encourages small business owners to sign up for the new government Workplace Pensions Scheme (this one is due to run from 7 November). Both were sponsor reads, rather than externally-recorded ads, so we were sent a brief containing the facts and figures and then our hosts worked with it to create the final audio. Both campaigns appeared on the New Statesman Podcast, which is our biggest show and focuses on UK politics, and were mostly about spreading information — the action listeners was asked to take was just to read a website for more details.

I asked Crampton if she had heard of anything beyond governmental ads. She replied:

We haven’t yet seen any non-government political ads in the UK as far as I’m aware — at the New Statesman we haven’t yet been approached by a candidate or political campaign, and I haven’t heard such an ad anywhere else. My sense is that government media buyers have bigger budgets than everyone else in the political sphere, and are thus able to be a bit more forward-thinking and experimental with how they spend their cash. They seem to be trying out podcasts as a new platform for citizen informational campaigns beyond the more traditional posters and radio/TV spots. I don’t know of any political party or union that is yet choosing to spend money with podcasts as a way of reaching voters or members, although given that the 2015 general election was the first time the UK really saw parties spending big money on targeted social media ads (dominating the so-called “cyber war” is considered to be a big part of why the Conservatives won a surprise victory) I don’t think party political podcast campaigns can be that far off here.

Fascinating. Crampton, by the way, recently launched a new podcast criticism column in the New Statesman, and you should check it out.

Bites:

  • Oh, NPR’s Story Lab Pitch Portal is now live! (NPR)
  • Audible crawls out into the wild west: One of its original shows, Presidents Are People Too, is now available for free in podcatchers everywhere. “It’s been our plan since the beginning to try other platforms as a way to introduce listeners to the great series we have available at Audible,” Audible SVP of original content Eric Nuzum tells me. (iTunes)
  • Stephen Dubner writes in to correct a detail I ran last week: His Midroll show with James Altucher, Question of the Day, is actually not running any more, having wrapped publication in early September. Sorry about that!
  • The Memory Palace’s Nate DiMeo, currently the artist-in-residence at the Met, releases his first few episodes from that stint. (The Memory Palace)
  • BuzzFeed’s latest podcast: See Something Say Something, a show hosted by Ahmed Ali Akbar about being Muslim in America. (iTunes)
  • “How To Cope With 2016: Start An Election-Gambling Podcast.” (FiveThirtyEight)
  • Midroll’s inaugural Now Hear This festival took place over the weekend, and from what I’ve heard from a few attendees, it seemed to have been a successful first run. If you were there, let me know what you think! I’d love to run a reaction roundup.
  • The great Linda Holmes of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour has a fun theory that sorts the different podcast communities according to a Hogwarts-like taxonomy, but her concluding point is cash money: “My point is mostly that when you’re trying to serve podcast audiences OR creators, many in these houses are UTTERLY indifferent to others.” (Twitter)

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. 1, 2016, 7:59 a.m.
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