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Jan. 31, 2017, 11:14 a.m.
Mobile & Apps

A report on podcasting details some of the industry’s issues: diversity, talent, tech, and (oh yeah) money

Plus: iHeartRadio digs deeper into on-demand audio, Gimlet deals with another cancellation, and even a small public radio station is finding success in true-crime podcasts.

Editor’s note: Hot Pod is a weekly newsletter on the podcasting industry written by Nick Quah; we happily share it with Nieman Lab readers each Tuesday.

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 105, published January 31, 2017.

The Knight Foundation has a new report out on podcasts, titled “From Airwaves to Earbuds: Lessons from Knight Investments in Digital Audio and Podcasting.” It was published last Thursday, and you can access it as a PDF or read it on Medium.

The report is the product of research done on the learnings gleaned from the various on-demand audio-related investments made by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation — of which there have been quite a few. Indeed, the foundation is strikingly ubiquitous as a funder of the space through programmatic grant support, particularly among projects that lie at the nexus of public media and podcasts. Among its beneficiaries: Gimlet Media, RadioPublic, Radiotopia, and NPR One (originally called Project Carbon). [Disclosure: Knight is also a funder of Nieman Lab.]

“It was clear to us that podcasting was beginning to meaningfully gain traction as a way to provide audiences with informative audio content,” said Sam Gill, the foundation’s vice president of learning and impact, when we spoke over the phone this week. “I believe that one of the more important things private philanthropy can do is to give risk capital to innovative ventures…We felt that’s the best thing we can do to support the field, and we hope that a lot of what we’ve learned can be useful to others entering the space.”

While the report’s focus on the foundation’s investments renders its scope somewhat limited, the issues that it ends up exploring is nonetheless pretty wide — and fairly comprehensive, I’d argue, as far as the key narratives of the space are concerned.

Longtime Hot Pod readers probably won’t be surprised by many of its findings. Among the salient issues discussed: diversity (still challenged), talent (the brain drain is real), finances (podcasting still doesn’t pay the bills for most independents and freelancers), technological infrastructure (still undercooked), data (still a mish-mash), and of course, talk of a podcasting bubble (yes and no, a respondent notes). But there are some genuine gems to be found in the details — a close read reveals mention of what appears to be WNYC’s mobile podcast discovery play, called Discover (which I’m told was quietly launched on the station’s website two months ago, and they’re laying low for now), among others.

I asked Gill if he was surprised by anything contained in the research. He pointed out two things: first, the extent to which broadcast publishers seem to genuinely embrace podcasting as a “green field for experimentation”; and second, and perhaps more notably, how self-conscious the industry seems to be in terms of how much more work needs to be done to improve the space overall. To Gill, that self-consciousness is productive.

“There’s no clear way to run a podcast business [at this point in time],” Gill said. “So what we’re seeing is a moment where everyone is very open, and which creates incentives to get really creative.”

For what it’s worth, I think I agree with that.

Art19 strikes up a distribution partnership with iHeartRadio. The partnership will give shows hosted on the Art19 the opportunity to be distributed through the broader iHeartRadio infrastructure, which includes apps for mobile devices, connected car dashboards, and various digital media players. This marks iHeartRadio’s second partnership with a podcast hosting platform in recent months. In July, a similar arrangement was announced between the company and Libsyn.

It should be noted that shows won’t automatically appear on iHeartRadio’s platform by virtue of simply being hosted on Art19. They must opt-in for inclusion, the same way shows have to submit their feeds to iTunes to get listed. “I would, however, stress that iHeart is not re-hosting Art19 podcasts nor are they running any audio ads in or around them,” Art19 CEO Sean Carr said over email last week. “Essentially, iHeart is operating just like any other podcatcher, except they are shipping much better data to us.”

Of course, the question we should be asking about iHeartRadio isn’t really about the data its players are able to give podcast companies, but about the amount of listenership it’s able to give publishers. iHeartRadio reportedly has over 95 million registered users, though it’s always worth noting that the number of monthly active users — the key metric — remains unclear. Furthermore, it should be remembered that iHeartRadio’s business is largely driven through live streams, the digital adaptation of the broadcast experience, which leads me to wonder about how much on-demand listening is actually happening off the iHeartRadio infrastructure, which would determine the actual value of this partnership. Sure, the iHeartRadio-Libsyn press release back in July noted that podcast listening on the former platform has grown 58 percent in the past year, but percentages are tricky things without the base number. (A source tells me that “a sizable amount” of iHeartRadio users are listening to podcasts, but that’s not much more to go on, even if that’s true.)

Whatever podcast listening may be happening on the platform, iHeartRadio nonetheless continues its steady creep towards the medium. This news comes after the company hired its first senior vice president for podcasting back in November (Chris Peterson, formerly a content partnership manager at TuneIn), which is a sign of things to come — and perhaps of a new era where iHeartRadio is taking the format seriously with a clear strategy intact. It also comes after a couple of experiments with the format, including a peculiar branded podcast partnership with the coworking space company WeWork. All of this really begs the question: What’s happening here?

Carr offers a clue. When we traded emails last week over this story, he noted: “Their aim is to become a premiere destination for podcast listening, and they want to be both publisher friendly and take a leadership role in propelling the industry forward.”

Don’t we all.

Three more things, quickly:

WNYC announces the third edition of its annual women-in-podcasting festival, Werk It. This year’s festivities will take place at the Ace Hotel in Los Angeles on October 3-5. In addition to standard sessions, the festival will feature a one-day “Podcast Bootcamp” intensive for entry-level or early-career audio producers. The list of presenters includes Anna Sale of WNYC’s Death, Sex, and Money; Jennifer White of WBEZ’s Making Oprah; Lisa Chow of Gimlet’s Startup, and Jessica Williams and Phoebe Robinson of WNYC’s 2 Dope Queens.

Early registration is now open on the event website, and folks interested in pitching a session can do so here. I’m also told that there will be scholarships available.

Gimlet cancels Undone. The podcast revisiting major news events of the past, which was hosted by Radiolab alum Pat Walters, ran for seven episodes across its first and only season. Gimlet confirms that Walters will continue on with the company as an editor, working on both current and upcoming projects. No official word on what will happen to the show’s other two producers, Julia DeWitt (a Snap Judgment alum) and Emanuele Berry, but I presume they will be reallocated within the company as well.

This is the third time that Gimlet has pulled the plug on a project that’s been out in the open. The first, as you might remember, was Starlee Kine’s Mystery Show, which took place under fairly chaotic circumstances and triggered an outcry that risked the company’s scrappy and transparent image, and the second was Sampler, which was canceled last October. As for the reason, here’s the key section from Gimlet’s official statement on Undone’s cancellation:

Undone was performing well, but the show requires a very particular kind of editorial support, and as we got into the first season, it became clear that as of right now, we don’t have everything we need for it to keep growing and experimenting and finding its way. Gimlet is a startup. Some things we try are going to continue on for a long time. And some things won’t.

I followed up by asking if the decision was less about the show itself and more about the current state of the company. A spokesperson replied:

Actually, the decision was more so centered around the talent squeeze we’re seeing in the industry overall. Hiring the particular editorial staff we needed to meet the vision for Undone was tough in this market. Right now, there is a shortage of seasoned audio editors with deep experience making complex narrative stories. By not being able to provide the required editorial support, we were unable to continue the show in a sustainable way.

The explanation here is somewhat resonant with what I’ve been increasingly hearing from other companies and teams: that there’s a shortage of seasoned talent in general, and of seasoned editors in specific. The editor shortage has long been a topic of concern in this newsletter; long-time readers might recall the Poynter column last summer written by NPR editorial specialist (and former Nieman Fellow) Alison MacAdam warning of an editor crisis, and the subsequent interview I ran with MacAdam. This problem seems to have only grown more salient over time — my inbox is often filled with requests for talent referrals, and I imagine that the public-radio-to-private-podcasting brain drain can only go on for so long before the public media pool runs out of bodies.

The need for talent, I think, marks one of the more significant differences between audio and every other medium as they pertain to digital enablement: One could argue that many other forms of digital media have exploded because they were able to derive strong returns from relatively low resource investments. (Which is to say: cheap talent.) One could further posit that the quality barrier for acceptable consumption within on-demand audio is high — relative to web text, broadcast radio, digital video — which means that experience and talent are uniquely crucial to moving the needle for any given podcast operation and for the industry as a whole. A lack of experienced talent or even a clustering of them, then, is detrimental to the health of the ecosystem.

Anyway, this is all not to say Undone’s fate is purely the product of conditions external to itself. After all, if the show was hitting its marks, it would be a dumb idea to shut it down even with a shortage of editorial talent. Podcast measurements being what they are, it’s hard to precisely tell how well the show performed, but the fact that it didn’t quite reach the upper echelons of the iTunes charts as consistently as its cohort peers, Homecoming and Crimetown, is notable.

On the bright side, from the looks of the Undone Facebook page, the company seems to be managing the cancellation more effectively than the last time.

The New York Times set to debut the new Michael Barbaro show tomorrow. Barbaro was previously the host of the organization’s election podcast, The Run-Up. He moved to the audio team full-time in December. As I suspected when the Times first hired former All Things Considered supervising producer Theo Balcomb, this new project will indeed be a daily news show, analogous to morning email briefings. Episodes are expected to be 15 to 20 minutes long each, each covering 2 to 4 segments. They’ll drop into feeds at 6 a.m. Eastern on weekdays. And of course, it’ll also be distributed over the Amazon Echo and Google Home.

The show will be called The Daily, and BMW will serve as the launch sponsor.

There’s also a text-message component to the project, where Barbaro will keep subscribers in the news loop via SMS throughout the day. It sounds, uh, pretty intimate, but I suppose you could consider it an example of push-notifications-plus. (“To text with Michael,” the press release wrote, “listeners can sign up here.”)

My buddies over at Nieman Lab have a piece up that gives good background on the project, including the organization’s previous attempt at daily news pod — way back in 2006! — and a good overview of the very thin spread of existing daily news-related pods. Anyway, I’m excited to see how it shapes up, but here are three design questions I’m keeping in mind:

  • How will the show buck or appropriate the conventions of radio shows that trade in daily news? Will it evoke a similar feel to All Things Considered, or will it attempt to consciously challenge that format? And will such attempts to challenge be distracting?
  • How the show handles pacing, given its brief 15-20 minute structure, will be interesting to watch. How will the show convey momentum, and how will it balance between moving through stories and pausing for moments?
  • What will the show’s take on the anchor be? That is, how important is Barbaro’s personality to the hosting apparatus, and what is the emotional baseline that the show will try to convey?

I guess I’m also curious about The Daily’s target demo. As Nieman Lab’s tweet on the matter suggested, could this be a swipe at public radio territory? I put the question to the Times, and got a reply from Balcomb that sounds a lot like Matthew McConaughey from those car commercials:

We know there is a giant audience for this show. It’s for anyone who wants to understand the news of the day. For me, I’m making this show for the enthusiastic, news-hungry person who wants to know what’s going on in the world but doesn’t have a way in right now. Because the news isn’t where they want, when they want it.

Listeners will come to rely on this show. It’s the length you want and can handle every morning. And it’s conversational — real people talking to each other as they actually talk — while still featuring the best journalists in the world. This is for people on the go, people who live on their phones. This is for people who want to engage with reporters who actually break stories and live their beats.

Oookay.

True-crime pods continues to flourish, even at a small station. Current has a handy profile up of Suspect Convictions, a show developed out of a partnership between independent journalist Scott Reeder and northwest Illinois-based station WVIK, which covers the Quad Cities. The podcast has reportedly clocked in over 600,000 downloads since launching at the beginning of January, and has been hovering pretty consistently in the upper echelon of the iTunes charts.

Two bits that stood out to me from the article:

  • The station isn’t expecting tons of revenue from the show, according to the station’s general manager, Jay Pearce. “Under the station’s agreement with Reeder, it only has rights to sell local sponsorships for the show.” Fascinating.
  • Pearce “intends to look for other partners in the community to create additional podcasts, especially on local subjects that could interest listeners outside of Northwest Illinois.”

Do check out the whole article.

After the Trump administration’s chaotic first week, I’m reupping my column from last summer: “Can a political podcast avoid being overtaken by events?” At the time, I was trying to think through the bananas 2016 election cycle, which seemed to churn out controversies in a brisk, staccato clip. Those days seem quaint now, as the sheer abundance of the Trump presidency’s first 10 days — with its rapid-fire signings of executive orders and ever-expanding number of complex issues involved — further accentuates the core weaknesses of the way political coverage is currently delivered through the podcast format. Back then, I was specifically referring to podcasts that adopt the weekly recap discussion format, but at this point, it really does feel applicable to just about everything else.

I wrote: “With every episode, the discussion produces a model for the listener that helps guide their reading of the news, and like all models, they are forced into iteration by every future development. As a result, the discussion in those episodes — frozen as they are in time — exist with built-in half-lives; their value erodes, organically, as more new things happen.”

At the rate this administration is going, weekly political podcast episodes have a remarkably high chance of being rendered irrelevant even before they hit feeds. Further compounding the problem is the fact that, from the looks of it, the high-octane news environment is only going to worsen in volume and complexity over time — a state of affairs that would likely make it very difficult to communicate the news with appropriate proportionality, focus, and depth.

I’m tempted to think that deploying a cool and sober approach to presentation might be an appropriate way to solve this problem of issue abundance, but I’m not entirely sure about current conditions would necessarily allow for that. The recent years has seen an increasing rebellion against news presented by a voice of authority — presenting a view from nowhere — in favor of more personality-driven, supposedly human conversational styles. Within that latter paradigm, a cool and sober approach would be deficient. However, the problem that arises from this is that the tone and emotional performance becomes an incredibly important editorial variable to convey severity, synonymous with the size of a headline or the text of a chyron.

There is, in my mind, a surreal disconnect when that isn’t fully considered. That informational uncanny valley is pretty present in shows like, say, Pod Save America or The Washington Post’s Can He Do That?, where the political horrors being examined are considerably undercut by off-hand jokes or spritely uses of music.

I’m still working through this idea, but I’ll say one more thing: I can’t think of any show that handles tone in this news environment better than On The Media, whose recent string of episodes conjure an emotional space so sophisticated that it allows for both horror and process.

Bites:

  • Heads up, business journalists with audio work: The Society of American Business Editors and Writers’ Best in Business 2016 awards has an audio category, and the deadline is February 7. (SABEW)
  • In case you missed it, First Look Media’s The Intercept has rolled out the first episode of its new podcast, Intercepted. Jeremy Scahill hosts. Its First Look’s third podcast overall, following Politically Re-Active and Maeve in America, and the show continues the organization’s political focus. All three shows are listed in iTunes as resulting from a partnership with Panoply. (iTunes)
  • Meanwhile, in Australia: the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, the country’s national public broadcaster, has launched a TV campaign promoting its podcasts.
  • Looks like Dan Carlin’s back with another long, long episode of his hit podcast Hardcore History: “The Destroyer of Worlds,” on the nuclear age. The episode clocks in at 5 hours and 49 minutes. Hardcore History saw only two episodes drop in 2016, but Carlin’s been keeping busy nonetheless with his political commentary show, Common Sense. (iTunes)
  • As always, you can find a curated list of upcoming podcasts here. And let me know if you’d like to add to it.
POSTED     Jan. 31, 2017, 11:14 a.m.
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