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Dec. 6, 2016, 10:24 a.m.
Mobile & Apps

Hot Pod: Macmillan’s new network shows how podcasts can be a logical next step for book publishers

Plus: “The number of potential distribution points for on-demand audio is kinda getting out of hand.”

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue ninety-nine, published December 6, 2016.

Midroll’s new executive hires:

  • Korri Kolesa is the new head of sales, replacing Lex Friedman as he settles into his new chief revenue officer role.
  • Eric Spiegelman is the new VP of business affairs, taking now-CEO Erik Diehn’s place. I’m told more information on this hire will be released soon.

  • Peter Clowney is the new executive editor. He was previously the head editor at Gimlet Media.

Of particular interest is Kolesa, who is taking over what is probably Midroll’s biggest revenue engine, its ad sales business. A digital media veteran with ample experience heading up sales teams for digital products not yet quite understood by the advertisers — she led the strategy for sites in the Fox Interactive Media portfolio like MySpace and IGN in the late 2000s, if that means anything to you — Midroll is bringing Kolesa in to transition its sales operations out of its often patchwork startup configurations toward structures more capable of scaling. She was most recently a project director at Spark No. 9, a consultancy aimed at launching new businesses.

“Our team already knows how to sell, so the focus now is going to be, ‘What can we optimize?'” said Lex Friedman, who has headed sales at the company since 2013. Friedman was recently promoted to chief revenue officer, following former CEO Adam Sachs’ departure over the summer. Friedman will still be involved on the sales side, but his role will see him spending more time figuring out the next steps for the company’s emerging live events strategy and getting ready for a “significant announcement” regarding its premium subscription business, Howl. That’ll come “pretty soon.” Kolesa started work yesterday.

The road ahead for the Quick and Dirty Tips network. The decade-old, 12-podcast-strong network recently surpassed its 250 million lifetime download, and it’s getting ready for a busy, but focused, 2017. Network head Kathy Doyle told me over email:

We’re focused on continuing to build QDT’s audience and increase distribution for our core shows. We’re always open to testing new talent but, for now, we want to ensure we’re able to tap into the surge we’re all seeing in podcast consumption and make sure we’re reaching new listeners as we work to continue our great growth.

Also on the plate: the launch of a sister network. For those unfamiliar, QDT is a joint venture between Macmillan Publishing and Mignon Fogarty, whose Grammar Girl podcast anchors the network (you can find more details in a recent profile by Simon Owens), and Doyle informs me that the publishing house is getting ready to launch the Macmillan Podcast Network, its own slate of author-centric shows. She writes:

We’re taking our expertise and leveraging relationships with in-house Macmillan authors who are logical fits for the medium. These new shows will come in a variety of formats to help deepen relationships with readers and expand an author’s platform.

This new Macmillan network appears to be the logical conclusion of a long-running trend that sees authors adopting podcasts as a channel to deepen and sustain their relationship with audiences — and build out alternative revenue stream to book sales. (See: Maximum Fun’s podcast with Elizabeth Gilbert, Panoply’s Happier with Gretchen Rubin podcast, and so on.) I’d be interested to see if other book publishers will follow suit, though, given that none of them possess an arrangement quite like that between Macmillan and QDT, I kinda doubt it.

Anyway, the nascent Macmillan Podcast Network is kicking things off by releasing a preview of an upcoming author show: Raise My Roof with Cara Brookins, which is meant to accompany Brookins’ memoir that’s scheduled for a January release.

Some non-American NPR One listeners will be able to donate directly to NPR through the app, starting next year. This marks the first time the public radio mothership is establishing a contribution pipeline directly with listeners, according to Current.

If you’re asking, what about Americans? Well, join the club. When I popped the question over to the network, a spokesperson replied: “We are actively working to improve the local-station pledge experience within the app over the coming months… In 2017, we will expand on this by working with a pilot group of stations to explore a more direct connection between their listeners and their payment gateway.”

That likely means direct donations from American listeners to NPR will remain off the table. If that bums you out, considering purchasing 50 Nina Totin’ Bags off the NPR merch site. The effect is probably equivalent, plus some percentage sales tax.

The Financial Times rolls out the latest in its growing line of podcasts last week: Everything Else, a culture magazine show. This marks the fifth podcast that the paper has launched in 2016. (Which, y’know, seems kind of aggressive.)

When I asked how the paper evaluates its podcast strategy, a spokesperson replied:

We measure the success of our podcasts in a number of ways. Subscriber numbers are important, of course, but we also gather data on engagement — whether readers favorite or share our podcasts, whether readers write in and interact with our hosts. Shows like FT Management’s Business Book Review and Alphachat have particularly enthusiastic listener responses.

High engagement is great, but of course, the larger question is whether the organization will be able to translate that into a proportional revenue outcome that would justify the investment. Anyway, when I requested some stats on the publication’s podcast audience, I was told there were over 3.5 million downloads of FT podcasts in the last 30 days. Cut that up however you will.

Just a side note: the only FT podcast that I consume with any regularity is Alphachat. That show goes deep, really embracing its casual wonkiness — a direct extension of its parent blog, Alphaville, which just celebrated its 10-year anniversary — and that’s generally a winning formula for the specific value proposition that the medium brings to a publication like The Financial Times.

The Outline went live yesterday, with a new podcast in its lineup: Sound Show. The publication also has two other shows: Tomorrow, which basically functions as founder Joshua Topolsky’s personal stump, and Out West, a fan theory pod for HBO’s Westworld, which wrapped its first season this past weekend. And for those keeping tabs: the pods are hosted on Megaphone.

Outline audio director John Lagomarsino tells me that he’s totally taking freelance pitches for Sound Show. “We’re not limiting it to just in-house writers, by any means. Multi-story episodes with a mix of writers/producers is totally the vibe we’re gonna arrive at,” he says. Hit it up, buds.

The Interactive Advertising Bureau releases a revised Digital Audio Buyer’s Guide. For those unfamiliar, the IAB is a trade association that functions as a kind of mediating body between various elements of the digital media ecosystem and the advertising community. The IAB has played a somewhat active role in attempting to attract more advertisers to the podcast industry, in part by trying to get podcast companies to cooperate over a standard ad metric (last I heard, with mixed results), in part by setting the narrative for advertisers. The buyer’s guide comes out from the latter, and this particular version was prepared by Jennifer Lane, the association’s newly appointed Industry Initiatives Lead for Audio. Lane previously worked at the digital audio trade news site RAIN News.

Obviously, check out the guide in full if you work on the advertising side of things, but this is what I’m primarily thinking about:

One has to wonder about the narrative/branding effects of lumping podcasts together with the rest of digital audio, placing the format — and its very specific quirks (as well as potential) — within the same buying conversation as streaming services like Pandora, Spotify, and iHeartMedia. Those latter companies currently function at a much greater scale than podcasts, and the value propositions for the two groups, both in terms of advertising formats and content, are drastically different. That being said, there is some transaction to be made in that consolidation of types, I think; podcasting is able to get some spillover attention from those digital audio platforms whose narratives are already established, while those platforms benefit somewhat from the shiny novelty of podcasting’s (re)surging profile. (It is, after all, something new to talk about, no?) The question is whether or not that transaction is equitable, and that’s up to you to decide. My personal, initial impression is that it isn’t, and that the podcast industry suffers more from experiencing a high likelihood of being subjected to inappropriate one-to-one audience comparisons.

In any case, I’ve previously written about my suspicion that we’re bound for a convergence in platforms and types either way — that at some point, the term “podcasting” will have no functional purpose as the content being developed in the industry becomes more agnostic in how it’s distributed. (We’ve begun to see some of that. Two examples: iHeartMedia’s peculiar creep into the podcast space; Audible’s repackaging of one of its original programs for distribution outside its Channels ecosystem.) I stand by the conclusion I made back when I first wrote about that potential convergence: that the podcast space, as well as the digital audio space more broadly, will begin to be more defined by its content type than by its distribution structure.

Related: iHeartRadio is apparently producing a podcast with Arianna Huffington’s new media venture, Thrive Global. Hm.

A mess of options. The number of potential distribution points for on-demand audio is kinda getting out of hand. Consider the following question in the last month of 2016: if you’re a podcast publisher, which distribution platform should you be keeping a close eye on and investing tangible resources toward?

You have, of course, the de facto stronghold that everybody already knows about and has probably dedicated much of their distribution strategy to wooing: the native iOS Podcast app and its underlying iTunes infrastructure, whose share of ear is roughly upwards of 50 percent. But you also have the wide, wide range of independent third-party podcast apps, from Overcast to Castro, all of which command some small percentage of the overall podcast listenership. And then you have Stitcher, previously one of the biggest of those third-party apps, which was acquired earlier this year by Midroll Media and is therefore likely to see some resurgence in capital and activity.

Now, let’s not forget the slew of new, buzzy contenders, like RadioPublic and 60dB (not to mention the public radio–specific NPR One, which is less new but remains nonetheless part of this category), all jonesing to do some exciting with the consumer-side experience. And then you have the larger music streaming platforms, like Google Play Music and Spotify, which over the past year have added podcasts into their inventory… to so-far little revolutionary effect, it appears. (Which reminds me: best not leave out Pandora’s lone dalliance into the space with This American Life and Serial.)

And then we have the more unconventional routes to market — things like Otto Radio, with its car-specific integrations and recently announced partnership with Uber, and the Amazon Alexa platform, which is pulling in a steady stream of short content publishers. And what about the spread of older audio streaming platforms in the space, like iHeartMedia and TuneIn, which are agitating their way into podcasts, whatever that means for those companies that come from drastically different structural interpretations of digital audio? Oh, and what about the connected car dashboard? (What ABOUT the dashboard?)

It’s a mercilessly long list, and from the whispers I’ve been hearing, it’s only going to get a whole lot longer as we move into the new year. Which is theoretically interesting; while I don’t completely buy the oft-uttered refrain that podcast discovery and distribution is broken — even now at the very end of 2016 (garbage, garbage 2016) — it remains well below par, and what’s theoretically exciting about all of this is how this reflects a high level of competition in approaches for how to improve listening experiences and growing the overall pie, which I view as a good thing.

But at this point in time, all those approaches are yet-to-be-fully-realized potentials, and a good chunk of them are requesting support — or at least, cooperation and participation — from publishers. This presents a problem for the perpetually resource-constrained podcast publisher, which I articulated at the top of this item: which nascent distribution platform should I be keeping a close eye on and investing tangible resources toward? I can’t tell you what to do, but here are three quick thoughts on the matter:

  • The basics: keep in mind that any such partnership is a transaction, and just the math of figuring out of whether any such arrangement you strike up equitably benefits both sides. After all, both publisher and platform are targeting the same thing: more listeners/users, and at the end of the day one imagines there would be some eventual tension in how both parties are competing for listener/user loyalty.
  • It’s quite possible that we end up in a situation where each app commands very specific kinds of users. Consider the possibility that a user who ends up primarily listening to podcasts over Spotify doesn’t possess the same demographic or psychographic profile as a user who favors RadioPublic. These differences, then, should be the basis of a publisher’s strategy in the way it chooses which distribution partnership to invest more time, energy, and resources in. This also suggests a way every distributor can illustrate its value proposition in attempts to cultivate greater cooperation or participation with a given publishing partner.
  • This point should be obvious, but I’ll say it anyway: if you’re a resource-constrained publisher, don’t overextend yourself across all possible partnership options. Pick your battles, and your partners, wisely.

Anyway, that’s all I’ll say about that.

Bites:

  • Gimlet Creative, the company’s branded content division, has a launched a show for Tinder, the dating app/cultural shorthand for “oh you know what a world we live in now.” It’s called… well, DTR. (Wall Street Journal)
  • Sam Sanders is leaving the NPR Politics Podcast roster at the end of January, though he’s staying at the public radio mothership and will be launching a new show (Twitter). Sanders’ co-panelist, Asma Khalid, is leaving NPR to work the biz/tech beat at WBUR. She will also be launching a new podcast ((Twitter).
  • DGital Media is reportedly seeing revenue “in the high seven figures.” (LA Biz Journal)
  • “Hearst is launching a 10-person team tasked with building voice-activated experiences.” (AdWeek)
  • “Using podcasts to capture stories: Gardner Pilot Academy sixth graders push their writing and technical skills.” (Harvard Gazette)
  • “Here’s the climate change podcast you didn’t know you were looking for.” (The Verge)

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     Dec. 6, 2016, 10:24 a.m.
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