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Dec. 20, 2016, 9:26 a.m.
Mobile & Apps

Hot Pod: Smart speakers, TV adaptations, newsier podcasts, and other things to watch for in 2017

Plus: The beginning of a podcast is incredibly important; the “gee whiz” podcast trend; is The New York Times swinging for a daily news show?

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 101, published December 20, 2016.

There’s not a lot of big news this week, but there are some chunky ideas to break into!

Predictions. It’s that most wonderful time of the year, when the annual Nieman Lab Predictions for Journalism series trickles in to fill your holiday stockings with an assortment of the aspirational, the dire, the cautiously hopeful. Say what you want about media navel-gazing, but I’m a huge fan — and a participant! — not least because (a) I happen to believe navel-gazing is a productive exercise, (b) I generally think it’s healthy to talk things out, much like therapy, and (c) in any case, the series as a whole serves as a solid method to broadly evaluate where we stand at the end of this year, long and grueling and bizarre as it was, and how we see our way through the days to come.

Anyway, this year’s batch contains some solid podcast-focused pieces, and there were three dominant themes that stand out to me.

(1) Stratification and resistance

Audible SVP of original content Eric Nuzum has a piece that is probably going to be dead-on, more or less. He speculates that 2017 is going to see a “stratification” of podcasting into hard layers, with the professionalizing companies — Big Podcasting, one might even call it — spinning away from the original iTunes-driven RSS infrastructure into its own (probably closed) ecosystem, due to its incentives for growth and control over its data. Nuzum caps off his piece with this:

With the big publishers slowly evolving out of the space, what happens to the overall iTunes/RSS-centric podcast traffic? My fear is that the ecosystem we have invested in all these years will start to resemble the vanity publishing marketplace or the guy selling CDs out of the trunk of his car after gigs: a place that’s easy to publish into, but rarely yields a significant audience. Which means we’re just making it harder for our industry’s indies to grow into future hitmakers.

It’s certainly…interesting that this view should come from an executive of what is perhaps the most explicitly closed-off on-demand audio ecosystem — Channels, like everything else in the growing Bezos media empire, is a gigantic black box for anybody outside the shop, and one wonders what Nuzum is finding, and how he squares all that away with what he’s saying here. It’s also pretty interesting that what Nuzum is describing is a lot like the notion of Silicon Valley breaking off from the union to create its own island super-state, a separation that follows decades of foundational support from the mainland. The principal questions that flow from this are twofold: (1) what is the responsibility of Big Podcasting toward the independents and the original ecosystem? And (2) what can the indies do?

My own entry in the series echoes Nuzum’s realist sensibilities:

Podcasting is going to further formalize at the emerging professionalizing layer, and the bulk of advertising growth will be captured at the top. Value will not trickle down, gains will not be equally spread. The independent community will be pressured into self-organizing. Though the ecosystem will end the year less open than when it started the year, there will at least be formal sites of resistance.

We shall see.

(2) The newsy podcast

This prediction by Asma Khalid, who served as one of the primary panelists on the NPR Politics podcast, about our likelihood of seeing a boom in newsy podcasts next year really resonated with me. Here’s the money:

I predict we’ll see more news-oriented podcasts from traditional outlets, regardless of their fluency with audio. In other words, the sense of a gold rush that’s permeated the podcasting market since Serial will only swell larger, with startup shows, professional media organizations, and one-hit wonders all flooding iTunes and other podcast platforms. In the long run, many will die; the true barometer of success will likely be the quality of the product. And, in my mind, this is twofold: (1) quality audio production that’s easy and comfortable to listen to, and (2) charismatic hosts with dynamic personalities and diverse perspectives.

Much of what Khalid describes has already come to pass. We saw an absolute flood of newsy podcasts from traditional media organizations this year, an overwhelming portion of which were pegged to the recently concluded 2016 presidential election cycle. But that isn’t to dispute Khalid’s point; if anything, it further validates it, and sets the conditions for an even bigger flood ahead. This year’s bumper crop of election-related podcasts left us with a great deal to work with, especially the following two things:

  • The foundation for a production workflow and template that supports the continuous, dynamic creation of news cycle-driven podcasts.
  • A base group of listeners that are primed to consume newsy podcasts in this manner.

Adding to this thread, there’s another piece up in the series by Why Oh Why’s Andrea Silenzi that offers an idea that should be taken very seriously by podcast publishers considering newsier material: the notion that dynamic ad insertion technology can be used to create a regularly updated newscast. (One that doesn’t flood your podcast app, the way the NPR Hourly News Summary feed used to do.) I really, really can’t agree more, and I’ve been arguing for something similar as far back as August, when I briefly wrote about the design challenges of political podcasts. Back then, I argued: “Break the archives, throw the whole frozen-in-time nature of the podcast episode out the damn window, and update older episodes in the archives as further developments take place. Theoretically speaking, this is a feasible option, given the possibilities afforded by dynamic ad insertion.”

Do it, people. Come on. I know you can do it.

(3) Voice-based computing

Steve Henn, the former Planet Money reporter who now serves as the co-founder of short-form audio platform 60dB, argues that speech and audio are the next paradigm for computing. The splash quote:

Today, we’re at the very beginning of the next big change — voice. Amazon’s Echo, Google Home, and Siri are simple, imperfect computers you can talk to. They’re often frustrating, but they’re getting better fast. These new platforms are going to compete for the time in your life when you can’t look at a screen. They are going to be there when your eyes and hands are busy.

Henn then argues that the first killer apps of this new computing (and media-distributing) paradigm is going to look a lot like radio that’s intelligent and driven by user-context, a solution that sounds a lot like the thing he’s trying to build over at 60dB. (Typical.)

I don’t know about that, but for what it’s worth, I do think he’s right about smart speakers (and whatever the hell AirPods are supposed to portend) being the area to watch in the coming year, and that it is, indeed, a considerable opportunity for on-demand audio companies to structurally diversify away from the constraints of RSS feeds on mobile devices. This might end up being a frying pan-into-the-fire situation — Alexa, after all, is yet another platform you don’t quite control — but I suppose we’ll all cross that bridge when we get there. (Relevant factoid: about a third of Amazon Echo users use the thing three times or more every day, according to Backchannel.)

So those are the big ones that stood out to me, but be sure not to miss the other predictions from some familiar faces. Consider the piece by Guy Raz, he of TED Radio Hour and How I Built This fame, in which he argues that “inspiration and hope will matter more than ever.” And you might want to pair that with WNYC president Laura Walker, who sees a year in which journalism tightens its lens on “small” stories — that is, authentic stories of individual lives, grounded in details. Oh, and don’t miss Libby Bawcombe’s call for more kid-focused podcast programming that builds on the work done by some fine places like the Kids Listen project, or Andrew Ramsammy‘s manifesto on the “rise of the rebel journalist.”

And while you’re digging through those, do you stick around for all the other stuff too. Everything discussed — fake news, media business models, local journalism, trust — directly applies to everything we do in the podcast industry, as well as every aspect of how we live outside of it.

Other things I’m watching for in 2017. Those three themes I just pointed out also happen to make up the main things I’m going to be tracking in the new year. Here are four more things I’m going to keep in mind:

  • How much did podcast audiences grow in 2016? We’ll find out in Edison’s Share of Ear study, which will publish in the summer.
  • What will Apple do (if anything), and what will become of our distributor-saturated environment?
  • How will podcast advertising evolve? Will it grow beyond the host-read ads, or will we see better innovations on the format?
  • Will we see a major hit, something we didn’t quite see in 2016?

Gimlet TV, part two. Homecoming, the company’s so-called “experimental fiction” podcast, is being developed for television by Sam Esmail, creator of the highly popular Mr. Robot, according to a Deadline exclusive. The article describes the deal as emerging from a “very competitive situation,” and notes that the project is expected to be shopped around to premium cable networks or platforms like Netflix and Amazon Video early next year. This marks Gimlet’s second television project after the October announcement of a StartUp adaptation getting a strong vote of confidence from ABC.

This development shouldn’t be all that surprising. Back when the Startup-ABC deal was announced, I asked Gimlet’s Chris Giliberti — who was then the company’s chief of staff and has since transitioned into the role of “head of multiplatform” — whether the company would be pursuing more adaptation deals, and he hinted strongly that more deals like this are on the way. (“Hopefully :)” was his exact email reply.)

Furthermore, Homecoming feels like a project that’s tailor-made for adaptation by another (much more lucrative) media industry. Its impressive cast, which includes film stars Oscar Isaac and Catherine Keener along with TV veteran David Schwimmer, certainly makes it easier for film and television executives to imagine the project in their respective mediums, and its impressionistic threadbare plot is largely defined by an abundance of negative space that allows writers to do whatever they want with the intellectual property.

You should probably expect to see a crap-ton more adaptation deals like this in the year to come, as podcasts firm up their status as yet another cavern that film and TV studios can mine for intellectual property, having exhausted young adult novels and comic books.

NPR One data and local listening. Be sure not to miss a post that’s up on Current right now by Tamar Charney, who currently serves as the project’s acting managing director following Sara Sarasohn’s departure back in September. The post expounds upon listening data that her team has been collecting off the app, drawing a few editorial lessons that are not just applicable to local public radio stations, but to podcasts more generally. Here’s the finding that should apply to most of you:

We can’t overstate how important the start of a podcast is. When [NPR innovation accountant] Nick DePrey examined podcast-listening data on NPR One, he found a typical episode loses 20 to 35 percent of the listening audience within the first five minutes. The rate of the dropoff is higher within the first five minutes than at any time until the credits roll.

What does this tell us? Listeners make their decisions to commit to a podcast in those crucial opening moments. A mediocre episode with a good intro will almost always perform better than a great episode with a poor intro. In a world in which we’re increasingly competing for the listener’s attention against so many other entertainment options — audio or otherwise — you need to justify from the very first moment why the audience should choose you. Only established shows with loyal followings can overcome uninteresting or non-engaging beginnings.

Seems like a no-brainer, but it’s always a useful finding to recall and reinforce, and it’s always nice to see all of that backed up by data.

Anyway, I can’t recommend Charney’s post enough, especially if you’re interested in local news and, more specifically, the potential for on-demand audio delivery of local news. That said, keep in mind that, in your own internalization of the learnings, it’s worth continuously interrogating the ways in which NPR One data listening is representative of broader listening behaviors. We don’t, for example, know the overall sample size of unique listeners in this study, nor do we have a good sense of how strong the differences are in the consumption behavior between NPR One users and general public radio listeners, and between NPR One users and listening app users in general.

Nevertheless, I’m really into the extended discussion about local newscast consumption off NPR One and what it tells us about the role they play in the relationship between listeners, the stuff in those newscasts, and the channel through which they are distributed.

“When a listener hears a local newscast, statistically they are more likely to listen to NPR One again and listen longer than listeners who don’t get a local newscast,” Charney writes. She is prompted to then wield the following metaphor: “That makes me wonder if newscasts are like the bread on the table at a restaurant. You probably don’t choose a restaurant because of that bread, but you’d be disappointed if it weren’t there.”

It’s an interesting idea, and I’m tempted to agree. Another way you could cut it, I suppose, is to see newscasts as something that doesn’t get folks through the door, but gets them to stay. Which sounds a lot like one of the major ways you could think through how a print newspaper functions: so-called “hard news” isn’t quite the product that drives the purchase, but a positive (albeit somewhat optional) consequence of the other stuff that makes up the issue.

Cool cool cool.

Bites:

  • Two developments in the New York Times’ audio team: The Gray Lady has hired Theo Balcomb, currently the supervising producer of NPR’s All Things Considered, as a senior producer. (Giving credence, perhaps, to rumors that the Times might be swinging for a daily news show soon.) The Times also announced that Michael Barbarro, host of The Run-Up, is moving into the audio department full-time, and will be developing an “exciting new project that will launch in early 2017.” Additionally, The Run-Up will continue past the inauguration.
  • Bloomberg Businessweek is launching a new interview podcast, “Debrief,” driven by editor-in-chief Megan Murphy. First up on the guest list: J.P. Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon, with the episode dropping on Thursday.
  • News UK, the British subsidiary of News Corp, is planning to nearly double the podcast output for its tabloid paper, The Sun, and its daily national newspaper, The Times. According to Digiday, the conglomerate hopes to increase the number of shows from six to ten, with each new show focusing on specific verticals to attract advertisers. (Digiday)
  • The latest Caroline Crampton: “Why we like podcasts that break down TV episode by episode.” Personally, I’m more fascinated by the distinction between recap culture and criticism as well as the structural similarities between TV recap podcasts and sports talk radio. (New Statesman)
  • Art19 has hammered down a partnership with Feral Audio, expanding its clientele that includes Midroll Media, The New York Times, DGital Media, and Wondery. (Press Release)
  • Vox.com’s podcast audiences apparently grew by 300 percent in the past year, according to Vox Media’s year in review report. An impressive number, though we don’t quite know the base number. (Vox Media)
  • Radio Atlas, that nifty website with video translations of notable non-English audio documentaries, is being featured at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York. The event description calls the project “a new and unique form of cinema.” Really cool. (Museum of the Moving Image)
  • “NPR & AIR team up on post-election coverage to take public media deep into local.” (MediaShift)
  • “The globalization of local radio.” (New York Magazine)
  • Still processing this critique of the positivism (and “explainerism”) endemic in a certain kind of podcast genre: the “gee whiz,” “hidden forces of everyday things” science storytelling shows prevalent within public radio. Note that the author erroneously conflates all the podcasts he discusses under the NPR umbrella. (The New Inquiry)

Have a great holidays, folks. I’m taking the next two weeks off, and I’ll see you in the new year.

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. 20, 2016, 9:26 a.m.
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