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Feb. 28, 2017, 10:48 a.m.
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Is Spotify’s move into original podcasts a pure platform play or something more open?

Plus: A new season of shows from Gimlet, award-winning audio fiction, and NPR’s Embedded returns.

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 109, published February 28, 2017.

Hey folks — we got a ton of news to sort through. Let’s clip through, pew pew pew.

About those original Spotify podcasts. The music streaming giant announced its initial1 slate of original audio programming last week, somewhat validating the Digiday report from the week before about the company talking with various podcast companies — including Gimlet, HowStuffWorks, and Pineapple Street Media — to partner up for that initiative.

According to the writeups circulating last week, the three projects are: (1) Showstopper, a show looking back at key moments in television music supervision hosted by Fader editor-in-chief Naomi Zeichner that premiered last Thursday; (2) Unpacked, an interview show set in various music festivals around the United States that will drop on March 14; and (3) a yet-unnamed audio documentary about the life and times of the late music industry executive Chris Lighty, a seminal figure in hip-hop history. That last project will be released sometime April. For those wondering, it appears that Spotify is directly involved in the production of Showstopper and Unpacked, the former of which comes out of a partnership with Panoply. The Chris Lighty project, meanwhile, is produced by the Loud Speakers Network and Gimlet, with Spotify providing distribution and miscellaneous support.

It should also be noted that more Spotify Original projects are, apparently, on the way.

This news was extensively covered, but the integral question — namely, if the shows will live exclusively on Spotify, which one imagines would be central to the platform’s strategy with this — went largely unanswered. I reached out to the various parties involved in the arrangement, and here’s what I learned:

  • Showstopper and Unpacked will be distributed exclusively over Spotify for now, though it remains a possibility that they might be distributed over other platforms in the future. As Dossie McCraw, the company’s head of podcasts, told me over the phone yesterday, the plan is to concentrate effort on raising awareness of original podcast programming on the platform at this point in time. When contacted about Showstopper’s distribution, a Panoply spokesperson seems to corroborate this point. “At this point, we can’t speculate whether it’ll be on iTunes in the future,” she said.
  • The Chris Lighty project enjoys a different arrangement. Gimlet tells me that the podcast will not exclusively live on the Spotify platform, and that Spotify has what essentially amounts to an eight-week first-dibs window; episodes will appear on other platforms (like iTunes) eight weeks after they originally appear on Spotify. The show will be released on a weekly basis, regardless of the platform through which they are distributed. Gimlet cofounder Matt Lieber explained the decision: “One of our core goals is to increase the number of podcast listeners, and Spotify has a huge qualified audience that’s interested in this story of hip-hop and Chris Lighty.”
  • In our conversation yesterday, McCraw puts Spotify’s upside opportunity for podcast publishers as follows: The platform’s user base, which he describes as being “music fans first,” serves as a potential audience pool that’s ripe for publishers to convert into new podcast listeners. (Echoing Lieber’s argument.) McCraw further argues that Spotify is able to provide publishers with creative, marketing, and even production support — even to those that produce shows not exclusive to the platform. To illustrate this point, he refers to a recent arrangement with the audio drama Bronzeville which involved, among other things, a live event that the company hosted in New York. “Admittedly, we’re still growing the audience for podcast listening for audiences in the U.S.,” he said, before positioning last week’s announcement as the company’s first big push to draw attention.

So what does this all mean? How do we perceive this development, and more importantly, how does it connect with the windowing that’s being done with Stitcher Premium? Is this the real start of the so-called “platform wars” in the podcast ecosystem? What, truly, happened at the Oscars on Sunday night? (Was there a third envelope?) I’ll attend to that next week, because we’re not quite done yet with developments on this front. We have one more piece of the puzzle to account for. Watch this space.

Speaking of Gimlet…

Gimlet announces its spring slate. The returning shows are:

  • Science Vs, which will return for its second season under Gimlet management on March 9 and will stage its first live show on March 23 in Brooklyn;
  • StartUp, which will return for a 10-episode fifth season on April 14 and will see the show go back to a weekly non-serialized format;
  • Surprisingly Awesome, which will return on April 17 and will feature a new host: Flora Lichtman, formerly of Science Friday and Bill Nye Saves The World. This new season is being described as a “relaunch.”

A coalition of podcast publishers are launching a podcast awareness campaign on March 1. The campaign, called #TryPod, is being shepherded by Izzi Smith, NPR’s senior director of promotion and audience development, and the coalition involves over 37 podcast publishers — ranging from WNYC to The Ringer to How Stuff Works.

AdWeek’s writeup has the details: “Hosts of podcasts produced by those participating partners will encourage their listeners to spread the word and get others turned on to podcasts. The campaign is accompanied by a social media component unified under the #TryPod hashtag, which is already making the Twitter rounds ahead of the launch.”

The Sarah Lawrence College International Audio Fiction Award announces this year’s winners. Impeccable timing, I’d say. They are:

The actual awards for each of these winners will be announced at this year’s ceremony, which will take place at WNYC’s Greene Space on March 28. An interesting way to do things, but cool nonetheless. Website for tickets and details.

Vox Media hires its first executive producer of audio: Nishat Kurwa, a former senior digital producer at APM’s Marketplace. A spokesperson tells me that Kurwa will be responsible for audio programming and development across all eight of the company’s editorial brands, which includes The Verge, Recode, Polygon, and Vox original recipe. She will move to New York from L.A. for the job, and will be reporting to Vox Media president Marty Moe.

I’ve written a bunch about Vox Media’s podcast operations before, and the thing that’s always stood out to me is the way in which its audio initiatives are currently spread out across several brands according to considerably different configurations. The production for Vox.com’s podcasts, for example, is being handled by Panoply, with those shows hosted on its Megaphone platform as a result. Meanwhile, Recode’s podcasts are supported by DGital Media with Art19 providing hosting, and that site still appears to be hunting for a dedicated executive producer of audio. The Verge, Polygon, Eater, Curbed, and SB Nation — though not Racked, alas — all have various podcast products of their own, but they all appear to be produced, marketed, and distributed individually according to their own specific brand infrastructures.

Kurwa’s hiring suggests a formalization of those efforts across the board. What that will mean, specifically, remains to be seen, but I wouldn’t be particularly surprised if it involves a consolidation of partnerships, infrastructures, and branding. In fact, I’d even go so far as to say that’s necessary.

Midroll announces the second edition of Now Hear This, its live podcast festival, which will take place on September 8-10. This year sees the company shift the festivities from Los Angeles to New York, which I’m told is largely a function of customer experience.

“[New York City] is an easy city for locals to commute in for the event and for out-of-towners to come for the weekend and easily get around. While our fans and performers loved Anaheim, it’s not always the easiest place to get to from the LA area. The fan experience continues to be our top priority,” Lex Friedman, Midroll’s chief revenue officer, told me. He also added that it was an opportunity to mitigate impressions of the festival as a West Coast event. (And, I imagine, impressions of Midroll as a West Coast company.)

Details on venues and performers will be released over the coming weeks. In the meantime, interested folk can reach out to the team over email, or get email alerts from the festival website, which also features peculiar videos of gently laughing people.

What lies ahead for APM’s on-demand strategy? Last month, I briefly mentioned APM’s hiring of Nathan Tobey as the organization’s newest director of on-demand and national cultural programming, which involves running the organization’s podcast division and two of its more successful cultural programs: The Dinner Party Download and The Splendid Table. Tobey’s recruitment fills a six-month gap left by Steve Nelson, who left APM to become NPR’s director of programming last summer. It was notable development, particularly for a network that wrapped 2016 with a hit podcast under its belt (In The Dark) and a bundle of new launches (The Hilarious World of Depression; Terrible, Thanks for Asking; Make Me Smart).

I traded emails with Tobey recently to ask about his new gig. Here are three things to know from the exchange:

Tobey’s role and immediate priorities:

The title is a mouthful. But it really consists of equal parts creativity facilitator, entrepreneur, and audience-development strategist.

He phrases his two immediate priorities as follows: the first is to invest in the future of the organization’s current podcast roster, and the second is to lay the foundation for APM’s on-demand future, including content development, business planning, and team building.

What defines an APM show?

The basic traits are similar to some of our big public media peers — production craft and editorial standards you can count on, creative ambition to spare, plus a steady focus on addressing unmet needs, from making science fun for kids (Brains On!) to de-stigmatizing depression (The Hilarious World of Depression). But really, the new shows we’ll be making will define what we stand for more than any slogan ever could – so I think the answer to your question will be a lot clearer in a year or two.

Potential collaborators are encouraged to pitch, regardless of where you are:

Hot Pod readers: send me your pitches and ideas, and reach out anytime – with a collaborative possibility, or just to say hi. I’ll be in New York a lot in the coming years, and we’ve got an office in L.A. too, so don’t think you need to be out here in the Twin Cities (though you should totally come visit). We’ll be looking for podcast-focused talent of all kinds in the years to come — from producing to sponsorship to marketing — so be sure to check our job listings.

I dunno, man. Minneapolis and St. Paul are pretty great.

NPR’s Embedded returns with a three-episode mini-season. Dubbed a “special assignment,” all three episodes will all focus on a single topic: police encounters caught on video, investigated from all sides. Two things to note:

  • Embedded will enjoy some formal cross-channel promotion between podcast and broadcast. Shortened versions of the show’s reporting will be aired as segments on All Things Considered, and NPR is also partnering with WBUR’s morning talk program On Point with Tom Ashbrook to produce on-air discussions of the episodes.
  • NPR seems to be building live event pushes for the show: Host Kelly McEvers presented an excerpt from the upcoming mini-season at a Pop-Up Magazine showing in Los Angeles last week, and she’s due to present a full episode at a live show on March 30, which will be held under the NPR Presents banner. Investigative journalism-as-live show, folks. I suppose it’s officially a thing.

I’m super excited about this — I thought the first season of Embedded was wonderful, and I’m in awe at McEvers’ capacity to lead the podcast in addition to her work as the cohost of NPR’s flagship news program, All Things Considered. (Personally, I can barely write a newsletter without passing out from exhaustion.)

Episodes of the mini-season will drop on March 9, 16, and 23.

Related: “NPR, WNYC, and Slate Explain Why They Are Betting on Live Events” (Mediafile)

RadioPublic formally pushes its playlist feature, which serves as one of its fundamental theses on how to improve the ecosystem’s problems with discovery. The company’s playlist gambit is largely editorially driven and built on collaborations with publishers, with those collaborators serving as the primary manufacturers of playlists. A blog post notes that the company has been “working with industry leaders like The New York Times, Salon, The Huffington Post and PRX’s Radiotopia network.” (RadioPublic CEO Jake Shapiro was formerly the CEO of PRX.)

We’ll see if the feature ends up being a meaningful driver of discovery on the platform — provided the platform is able to accrue a critical mass of users, of course — but I do find the discovery-by-playlist idea is intriguing. The moment immediately after an episode ends is a sphere of user experience that’s ripe for reconstruction, and I suspect that a playlist approach, which takes the search and choice burden off the listener to some extent, could serve that really well. Again, it all depends on RadioPublic’s ability to siphon users into that mode of consumption, so I reckon it’s the only real way the playlist approach is able to be properly tested.

Following up last week’s item on Barstool Sports. So it looks like the company’s podcast portfolio is being hosted on PodcastOne’s infrastructure, which isn’t measured by Podtrac. As such, it’s hard to accessibly contextualize the company’s claims of 22 million monthly downloads against how other networks — particularly those measured by Podtrac, like NPR, This American Life, and HowStuffWorks — and therefore how it fares in comparison. Nonetheless, it’s a useful piece of information to have in your back pocket.

Related: After last week’s implosion of Milo Yiannopoulos, the now-former Breitbart editor and ostensibly conservative provocateur, PodcastOne appears to have terminated his podcast — which the network produced in partnership with Breitbart — and scrubbed any trace of it from iTunes and the network’s website.

DGital Media announces a partnership with Bill Bennett, the conservative pundit and Trump advisor, in the form of a weekly interview podcast that promises to take listeners “inside the Trump administration and explain what’s really going in Washington, D.C. without the hysteria or the fake news in the mainstream media.” (Oy.) The first episode, which features Vice President Mike Pence, dropped last Thursday.

Interestingly enough, Bennett now shares a podcast production partner with Recode and, perhaps most notably, Crooked Media, the decidedly progressive political media startup helmed by former Obama staffers Jon Favreau, Tommy Vietor, and Jon Lovett.

Related: Crooked Media continues to expand its podcast portfolio with its third show, With Friends Like These, an interview-driven podcast by political columnist Ana Marie Cox.

Bites:

  • Hmm: “As it defines relationship with stations, NPR gains board approval for price hike.” Consider this a gradual shift in system incentives, one that anticipates potential decreases in federal support and further shifts in power relations between the public radio mothership and the vast, structurally diverse universe of member stations. (Current)
  • And sticking with NPR for a second: Their experiments with social audio off Facebook doesn’t seem to have yielded very much. (Curios)
  • This is interesting: “Progressive legislators turn to podcasts to spread message.” (The Missouri Times) It does seem to speak directly to the stuff I highlighted in my column about the ideological spread of podcasts from last summer, along with my piece for Vulture about the future of political podcasts.

Photo of someone listening to Spotify with a vaguely Spotify-colored mug by Sunil Soundarapandian used under a Creative Commons license.

Notes
  1. Initial, that is, if you don’t count Clarify, the tentative first English-language original podcast that the company produced with Mic.com and Headcount.org back in 2013.
POSTED     Feb. 28, 2017, 10:48 a.m.
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