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Feb. 14, 2017, 9:50 a.m.
Mobile & Apps

Reply All gets a movie deal (with Robert Downey Jr.), and Spotify is on the hunt for original shows

Plus: First Look Media’s launches a new Richard Simmons podcast, Stitcher goes premium, Spotify looks into original podcast content, and Radiolab goes remix.

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 107, published February 14, 2017.

“We’re working on new features for podcasts, stay tuned,” Eddy Cue, Apple’s SVP of internet software and services, told Recode’s Peter Kafka on stage at the Code Media conference last night. Kafka had pressed Cue on whether Apple would get more involved in podcasts — specifically, whether better analytics could be provided. (Thank goodness for Kafka.) Cue, as you would imagine, was reticent to provide more details. We’ll just have to see where this goes.

The discussion on podcasts was very short, and you can hear the rest of the interview when it gets posted on the Recode Replay feed sometime later this week.

Missing Richard Simmons. Here’s an audio documentary with a delicious hook: three years ago, Richard Simmons, the fitness guru who was super popular in the eighties (Sweatin’ To The Oldies!), suddenly and inexplicably withdrew from the public eye. The podcast follows Dan Taberski, a documentarian and TV producer who is a friend and former student of Simmons, as he tries to track down and figure out what happened to the man — and in the process, explores Simmons’ place in the culture.

The podcast has a fair bit of firepower behind it. First Look Media is leading the project, with Adam Pincus, the company’s EVP of programming and content, and Leital Molad, who recently left WNYC to head up First Look’s podcast efforts, both holding executive producer credit. The company contracted Pineapple Street Media to produce the show — Max Linsky also serves as executive producer, Henry Molofsky as producer — while partnering with Midroll for sales and distribution.

Part of Midroll’s play here involves positioning Stitcher, which it acquired last summer, as an “exclusive launch partner.” That essentially amounts to a form of windowing: subscribers to Stitcher Premium will receive new episodes a week in advance. Wait, Stitcher Premium — doesn’t Midroll have its own premium subscription service? We’ll get to that in a bit.

Missing Richard Simmons is First Look Media’s latest foray in what is now a substantial push into podcasting. Its portfolio includes the podcast version of the company’s flagship digital property, The Intercept, which rolled out last month; Politically Re-Active; and Maeve in America.

Interestingly, Missing Richard Simmons is First Look’s first audio project that isn’t handled by Panoply, which is involved in the company’s other three shows.

The podcast drops tomorrow.

Related: First Look also announced that Politically Re-Active, its politics show with W. Kamau Bell and Hari Kondabolu, will return for a second season sometime in the early spring. Maeve in America kicked off its second season today.

A few notes on Stitcher Premium. The feature quietly rolled out late last year, but I was late to the party, only spotting the “Premium” button on the Stitcher website sometime in mid-January. Todd Pringle, Stitcher’s GM and VP of product, tells me that what we’re seeing is a soft launch — not a “relaunch” of the service’s previous iteration, Stitcher Plus.

At this time, Stitcher Premium remains separate from Howl, that other premium subscription play under the Midroll banner that the organization had been developing internally prior to its acquisition of Stitcher (awkward). Pringle notes that Howl subscribers can continue to use the platform’s web and mobile apps, and that the merge will come later. “We are planning a simple migration path that, over time, will transition Howl users over to the Stitcher Premium product,” he explained.

So, what’s the deal with Stitcher Premium? The “Netflix for Podcasts” tagline was once again evoked in the response sent to me — ahem, ahem — with ad-free exclusivity being the cornerstone of the strategy here: exclusive archives, exclusive sneak previews, and of course, exclusive original content, dubbed “Stitcher Originals.” (Who isn’t doing original material these days?)

Original projects include:

  • The Seth Morris Radio Project, which launched last week;
  • A show by comedian Jessie Kahnweiler called Schmucks;
  • A new show by the duo behind CBC’s Love Me, Cristal Duhaime and Mira Burt-Wintonick, called Pen Pals; and
  • The second season of The Mysterious Secrets of Uncle Bertie’s Botanarium, whose first season is currently being distributed over the open infrastructure.

Will this premium exclusive approach to the market pay off? My thinking on this remains the same as the first time I wrote about the model back in August 2015:

Midroll’s choice to play the premium subscription game — with content and a sizable amount of back catalogs placed behind the paywall — and the subsequent positioning of the product as the potential “Netflix for podcasts” exhibits a very specific hypothesis of podcasts as consumable media, one that posits podcasts will be valued by audiences enough where they would pay for it and that enough podcasts have back-catalogues that will be deemed “worth it.”

This is difficult enough to internalize in the present tense. Unlike Netflix and television/movies or Tidal and music, podcast audiences have little-to-no experience with paying for shows in the past, and the hurdle of convincing users to go from an entire experiential history of enduring host-read ads, which they can skip fairly easily, to paying for an ad-free experience is tremendous.

To state the obvious: the success of Stitcher Premium would almost purely come down to a question of programming: Will the team be good enough at curating the right kind of paywalled library, and will it be savvy enough to build right incentives for certain creators to put their wares behind that paywall? And barring that, will the company figure out how to further increase the value of the premium service beyond just the content?

A Reply All episode is being adapted into a movie, according to The Hollywood Reporter. The episode in question is “Man of the People,” a shockingly relevant tale of a con-man who built an empire off fake medicine, populism, and radio dominance — and the man who works to take him down. The adaptation will be directed by Richard Linklater, with Robert Downey Jr. in the starring role. Linklater and Downey will also serve as producers under their respective production banners, along with Susan Downey, Annapurna’s Megan Ellison, and Gimlet Media’s own PJ Vogt (who reported and hosted the episode), Tim Howard (who edited the episode), and Chris Giliberti (the company’s head of multi-platform).

This is Gimlet’s first announced film adaptation deal. The company currently has two TV adaptations in the pipeline: StartUp (recently given a pilot order by ABC) and Homecoming (being developed by Mr. Robot’s Sam Esmail). Giliberti also holds producer credit with those two projects. With this third adaptation, I think it’s safe to say that Gimlet has officially built out a formal adaptation pipeline — a move that introduces a whole new revenue dimension and potential to its content backlog. You can read my previous analyses on the topic here, here, and here.

“Spotify has been talking to podcast producers about original shows,” according to a new report at Digiday. Those being approached include: Gimlet, HowStuffWorks, and Pineapple Street Media. The article cites “multiple people familiar with the discussions.” What’s unclear: how developed those discussions are, the substance of those plans, and how central original and non-music content currently are in Spotify’s machinations. (Though, recall that original video programming is apparently still a notable part of the company’s vision.)

Spotify has produced original audio programming before…in Germany. That podcast, featuring the talents of German comedians Jan Böhmermann and Olli Schulz, rolled out last May. (Here’s the press release, for all you German speakers in the crowd.)

Here’s another interesting bit from the Digiday writeup: “To date, podcasts have fit awkwardly into Spotify’s product…The number of users that have bothered to look them, thus far, is quite small. For most podcast producers, Spotify accounts for less than 5 percent of their total shows’ listens.”

Hmm. The article frames the development as a “big new front has opened up in the war for exclusive podcasts.” We’ll see, but at this point, I’m not inclined to read too much into it for all the hesitations I outlined earlier about podcasts and exclusivity. I mean, I see the upside for Spotify to hammer out these deals with bigger podcast shops, but I don’t see any upside for those shops other than pocketing upfront cash — which, as we saw with the now-ceased Facebook Live publisher deals, is good enough reason for some, so long as there are excess resources to commit.

HowStuffWorks partners with AdsWizz to make use of the latter’s dynamic advertising tech to expand its ad inventory and monetize its substantial content library. The partnership will apparently also grant the Atlanta-based infotainment podcast network with increased targeting and reporting capacities, according to the press release.

The move will probably lead to a significant revenue increase for HowStuffWorks, given its relatively evergreen structure. Jason Hoch, HowStuffWorks’ chief content officer, tells me that listening across the network in any given week is evenly distributed between the head and the tail — that is, between the latest episode of a given show and the rest of that show’s catalogue.

To Hoch, this partnership with AdsWizz is more a matter of efficiency than it is about unlocking a whole new driver of the business. “The old method of stitching an ad placement directly into the same MP3 file as the episode makes no more sense than hard-coding a banner ad on your website,” he said. Hoch also notes that this doesn’t really change the dynamics of selling campaigns. “We don’t differentiate between new shows and those in our deep library. In 95% of cases, advertisers aren’t buying a specific episode of a show, they are buying that show and the passionate fan base of that show,” he explained.

Quick note on the tech. HowStuffWorks uses its own internal Amazon Web Services’ hosting infrastructure to house its shows, and that it remains the case after this partnership. “Rather than move our entire infrastructure elsewhere to make this happen, the AdsWizz software platform became technology that sat on top of what we already had,” Hoch said. “That’s pretty unique in the industry and was a good fit for our approach.”

Turner Broadcasting now has its own official podcast arm. The new division, called the Turner Podcast Network, is headed up by Tyler Moody, who serves as GM and VP for the network. Moody was previously the VP of CNN Newsource, the organization’s affiliate video service, and CNN Collection, its video archive library. While in those roles, Moody laid the foundation for CNN’s tentative foray into original podcast content, signing President Obama’s former chief strategist David Axelrod’s podcast The Axe Files in late 2015.

“We want to engage with fans of our shows and networks in the podcast space, and do it in a coordinated way across all of Turner,” Moody tells me. “Initially I’ll be on the lookout for things internally, meeting with producers at our networks for show ideas and to assess our current capabilities to deliver high quality podcasts. Externally I’ll be looking at industry trends in terms of content, ad delivery, sponsorship models, and potential partnerships with other podcast producers.”

Here’s a model that other publishers can emulate: Yesterday, New York Magazine’s entertainment site Vulture rolled out Good One: A Podcast About Jokes, a limited-run podcast where comedians are brought on to deconstruct a joke in their repertoire. In other words: “Song Exploder, but for jokes.” Perhaps not unrelatedly, Song Exploder recently partnered with the site for a special run of episodes focusing on notable film scores from last year. That arrangement was timed for awards season, which culminates two weekends from now with the Academy Awards. Good One is hosted by Vulture senior editor Jesse David Fox. It kicked off yesterday, and will run weekly for ten episodes.

The podcast was described to me as an extension of the site’s experiments with topically-focused, one-off editorial projects — similar to the string of “pop-up” blogs that Vulture has executed in the past. A spokesperson directed me to a 2014 Poynter write-up of that strategy, which explained the internal process as follows:

The editorial team comes up with a series of topics they think would be a good fit for New York [Magazine], and the advertising staff tries to sell those concepts to advertisers. If the sales team finds a sponsor, the editorial side creates the blog and fleshes out plans for coverage.

“Basically, we have certain editorial projects across platforms that are pitched to advertisers for exclusive sponsorship,” that spokesperson told me. “The editorial is completely independent (though thematically aligned), but only gets created once a sponsor commits.” In this instance, that advertiser is HBO, which is peddling its latest comedy offering, Crashing.

The production of Good One is handled by Panoply, similar to NY Mag’s other podcast projects.

And speaking of Panoply, it looks as if the network’s sister company, Slate, which also functions as one of the company’s core clients, announced layoffs yesterday. The Huffington Post with the details.

Documentaries, queued up. The Bay Area public radio station KQED is testing an intriguing model to distribute short-run, multi-part audio features: a single RSS feed that will serve as a home for serialized investigation projects produced by the station. The feed is framed as being its own weekly show called Q’ed Up.

The show kicked off operations last week with the debut of its first investigation, American Suburb, an eleven-part feature on gentrification in the Bay Area as told through the story of a single suburb 45 miles east of the Bay. (As a side note, I love titles with the “American” prefix. See: American Governor, American Pastoral, etc. Much gravitas.) At this writing, the station has at least two other features in the pipeline that will immediately follow American Suburb once it concludes, including an investigation into the growing number of homeless college students in the region and another that examines the story of a wrongly accused paroled man.

Holly Kernan, KQED’s VP of news, tells me that Q’ed Up emerged as a means to solve an anticipated problem. “[American Suburb] started out as a reporting project that ended up being this really rich documentary, and so we thought, okay, we want to turn this into an on-demand audio experience,” Kernan said. “But when you have a one-off podcast like this, it’s a problem when you don’t have anything else coming down the pipe once you put all this marketing effort into and build up an audience.”

She added: “So we thought, if we’re going to put all this effort into this beautiful production, why not give it an umbrella?”

Kernan aims to grow Q’ed Up to a point where it’s able to function as a break-even proposition for the station, but she’s also keen on ensuring that the show’s investigations will yield local impact. She notes that the primary intended audience for American Suburb is listeners who live in Antioch and the East Bay — areas covered in the story — and that the station has partnered with the San Francisco Foundation (which also serves as the show’s sponsor) to hold community events to discuss issues highlighted in the investigation.

“American Suburb” is reported by Sandhya Dirks and Devin Katayama. Julia McEvoy is editor.

Keep an eye on this: West Virginia governor’s budget plan proposes to eliminate state funding for West Virginia Public Broadcasting. Tyler Falk at Current with background, The Charleston Gazette-Mail with detail.

Audible seeks the Jad Abumrad bump. Checked out the Radiolab feed lately? The widely loved WNYC podcast published what was essentially a cross-promo for an Audible Original series, the Bernie Madoff documentary Ponzi Supernova, late last week. And it wasn’t an instance of a simple rebroadcast or a straightforward drop-in-the-RSS feed either: the episode was slightly remixed in the Radiolab style, with Abumrad leading segments intros and outros.

This isn’t the first time that Radiolab has published a remixed cross-promo of other another program. Just last month, the podcast ran a similarly repackaged version of the special On The Media series “Busted: America’s Poverty Myths.” The show also gave the same treatment to its Supreme Court-focused spinoff, More Perfect, twice last year, though that’s completely understandable given the heritage. But it is, to my knowledge, the first time the show has provided exposure support to a show outside the WNYC system. That said, Ponzi Supernova isn’t a show that’s entirely outside the WNYC family — Ellen Horne, an executive producer at Audible who leads the show’s production, is a Radiolab alum.

It’s often been said within the industry that the most effective podcast marketing channel is other people’s podcasts. I guess that will apply to Audible as well.

Ponzi Supernova wrapped up its six-episode run on Audible earlier this month.

Bites:

  • The New York Times is looking for a producer for a “New York Times Arts show” — that is, stuff like books, music, film, TV, theater. It’s unclear how this show, and this producer, will be related to the still-running first-gen Times pods Popcast and the Book Review. A fascinating job posting, but certainly not as interesting as news of the organization’s partnership with Spotify. Those youngs, they love the musics. (The New York Times)
  • Looks like Who? Weekly’s Bobby Finger has a new show: “Dirtcast,” which comes out of his day-job at Jezebel. (Jezebel)
  • “How Patreon became a major source of revenue for podcasters.” Some podcasters, at least. (Simon Owens)
  • On the more strictly technology front: Betaworks, the “startup studio” responsible for (among other things) Tweetdeck, Chartbeat, and the Digg relaunch, has announced an accelerator for teams working on voice-driven interfaces. Venturebeat’s coverage has more background, and here’s the link to the application.

Photo by Roey Ahram used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Feb. 14, 2017, 9:50 a.m.
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