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March 21, 2017, 9:30 a.m.
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Get ready to binge-listen to Serial’s new spinoff S-Town: All 7 episodes will drop at once next week

Plus: Panoply invests in audio fiction, Rookie links up with MTV, and Missing Richard Simmons wraps up its controversial run.

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 112, published March 21, 2017.

Missing Richard Simmons dropped its final episode yesterday, two days before it was originally scheduled for a wide release. The episode was released to Stitcher Premium subscribers on Sunday — Midroll had previously indicated that those subscribers would’ve gotten the episode two days before wide release. Even with the sudden shift, Stitcher was still able to honor the first-listen value proposition.

I’m told that the move was intentional. In the episode, host Dan Taberski provided what was essentially an editorial explanation within the narrative. “What’s important is telling the story about Richard as it happens,” he said. That’s an interesting reason, but I don’t think I buy it. Minor spoilers (maybe?), but there was nothing stated in that last episode — nothing that was particularly pegged to a recent public news development — that warranted such a sudden, complicated reordering of the release windows. So yeah, I’m wondering.

Panoply brings on a full-time head of scripted programming. Missed this last week, but it’s definitely worth keeping tabs on. The company has hired John Dryden, a U.K.–based writer and radio director, to lead a “new division dedicated to creating scripted programming of both the comedic and dramatic variety,” according to AdWeek, which published the news March 10.

To decode that: The term “scripted programming” is kind of a carry-over from established linear media industries. We’re basically looking at Panoply acting on its ambition to punch harder in the audio fiction genre. It’s a move that’s potentially very lucrative, given the podcast ecosystem’s growing value to other more developed adjacent creative industries, be it film, television, or books. (I’ve written about this a bunch before, start here and here.)

In hiring Dryden, Panoply gains an award-winning producer with a substantial body of work. Based on his talent agency’s website, Dryden’s rap sheet includes: The Seventh Test, a 10-part audio thriller broadcasted on BBC Radio 4 that’s based on a book by Vikas Swarup, whose debut novel, Q&A, was adapted into the film Slumdog Millionaire; A Kidnapping, a three-part radio drama, also first broadcast on BBC Radio 4, that’s being adapted into a film; and Tumanbay, a historical epic set in ancient Egypt that came out in 2015. (Indeed, it’s all very British.)

Dryden has some history with Panoply: He served as the executive producer and director of LifeAfter, Panoply’s follow-up to The Message, its well regarded branded fiction podcast borne out of a partnership with GE. It’s unclear to me whether LifeAfter was able to match or beat the success of The Message, and when I reached out to Panoply’s communications team, they declined to comment, noting that they don’t release download numbers and thus can’t comment on the performance of one show relative to another.

To my knowledge, Dryden is only the second person to hold such a role among American podcast companies. The other individual is Eli Horowitz, the “executive producer of scripted content” at Gimlet, who was responsible for Homecoming.

Dryden will keep his residence in the U.K. for the job.

Rookie Magazine is launching a podcast next month, courtesy of MTV. In my mind, Rookie is something of a miracle. A beloved online publishing concern created by blogging prodigy Tavi Gevinson for teenagers (“and their cohorts of any age”) that dates all the way back in 2011 — the same year Grantland made its debut — Rookie is part zine, part blogroll, a fascinating, amorphous digital package that’s bound together by a smart and thoughtful commitment to serving its core constituency. It represents a reminder, still, of the original promise that the Internet brought to publishing: an environment that allows for the existence of an independent creative operation with a very specific point of view and a very specific role to play.

Anyway, many other publishing concerns in 2017, Rookie is rolling out a podcast, which will be a weekly magazine show (not unlike, perhaps, The New Yorker Radio Hour). But what’s particularly interesting about the rollout narrative here is the involvement of MTV, with which Rookie has partnered to produce the show.

It’s an intriguing collaboration, and it brings the MTV Podcasts team back into my view. Frankly, I haven’t been paying much attention to that crew — which is led by Grantland alum Alex Pappademas — since they rolled out their initial programming slate around this time last year, though on the occasions that I’ve checked in, I find myself consistently fascinated with the stuff they’re trying out. I wonder how they’re doing. Check back in next week.

The Rookie Podcast will debut on April 4. It will be hosted on the Megaphone platform, as an extension of MTV Podcasts’ technological relationship with Panoply. The upcoming podcast received a shoutout in this week’s episode of This American Life, which ran a segment on the magazine’s popular “Ask A Grown Man/Woman” series. (The episode, by the way, is exquisite.)

And speaking of This American Life…

S-Town comes out this time next week. The hotly anticipated Serial spinoff, the first project to be released under the newly created Serial Productions banner, debuts Tuesday, March 28, and I’ll taking the day off to dig into it.

All seven episodes of the show will drop at once — I believe the olds call this “Netflix-style” or “binge-style” — when it comes out next week, switching up the typical cadence we’ve come to expect from longform serialized storytelling, as established by the first season of Serial and, most recently, Missing Richard Simmons. This marks the first high-profile attempt at employing this format within the podcast space. Previous full-season-drop experiments, like ESPN’s Dunkumentaries and Panoply/Parents Magazine’s Pregnancy Confidential, were not serialized storytelling endeavors.

For folks keeping tabs on the numbers: Serial’s second season surpassed 50 million going into the final episode, with each episode yielding a 3 million download average during its launch week. Blue Apron and Squarespace are serving as the show’s exclusive launch sponsors.

Oh man, I’m so excited for this. Also: It’s only been three months, but 2017 already feels like it’s been a damn good year for podcast listeners. Damn. Damn. *throws laptop out the window*

It’s official — the fight for Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s federal funding is on. The budget blueprint released by the Trump administration last Thursday confirmed what many suspected: that the decades-old conservative flirtation with the defunding of public broadcasting would be revived once again under the new president, with the CPB’s annual allocation of $445 million on the chopping block. (The CPB is one of many programs, including the National Endowment for the Arts and the Legal Services Corporation, being targeted for cuts.) What makes the stakes of today’s fight all the more towering is the political and economic environment of the fourth estate; the broader news and media ecosystem has been tremendously weakened over the past decade by digital disruption, and they walk into this struggle in an increasingly combative environment between the state and public information as they represent it.

Nieman Lab covered the news in some depth, but here are the four top-line things you need to know:

  • The budget blueprint is just a proposal — it will need to go through Congress. It already looks as if the budget is going to have a hard time with congressional Republicans. But pushback on the budget as a whole doesn’t necessarily equate with pushback on the specifics; it’s up to the CPB to ensure the cut doesn’t remain in future iterations of the budget.
  • To that end, the CPB and its advocates are executing on a playbook that’s been developed for these budgetary fights. Among these efforts are strong messaging efforts — including an PR press push touting all-time high ratings — and public participation campaigns like the Protect My Public Media petition. CNN’s Brian Stelter has a good piece providing an overview of the fight.
  • As Nieman Lab notes, and as I’ve written about before, defunding the CPB would fundamentally cripple the public broadcasting system. That isn’t the same as saying public media would be dead; as many have pointed out, NPR and the bigger stations like WNYC and WBUR would likely survive in some leaner form, but the real damage would be to smaller stations that often support underserved and information-poor markets — many of which are populated by Republican voters.
  • Why does this matter to the emerging podcast industry? Well, as I’ve argued before, a weaker public radio system is a weaker podcast ecosystem, as the former has substantially contributed to the space through cultivating a generation of strong talent, supplying a good chunk of solid programming, leveraging its prestige to draw in more advertisers, and generally raising the medium’s profile for wider audiences. There’s also, you know, the whole issue of a weaker public broadcasting system almost definitely leading to a weaker society, which kinda makes an environment where we all, save for a capital-rich few, ultimately suffer alone together.

So there’s that. And there’s this too:

Some relief for West Virginia Public Broadcasting. Following weeks of staring down a budget blueprint in which West Virginia Governor Jim Justice, a Democrat, had proposed the elimination of the annual $4.6 million support it gets from the state, WVPB’s state support will be restored. The governor issued a press release last Friday that the money will be reinstated. State funding accounts for 45 percent of WVPB’s budget.

The press release also noted that Governor Justice “is working on a deal with West Virginia University to allow Public Broadcasting to become a fully integrated part of WVU in the near future.” It is unclear to me how this shift would affect WVPB operations. I’ve gone ahead and submitted a Currently Curious request to my buddies over at Current, who assure me they’re looking into it.

Meanwhile, in Australia. The continent is set to welcome a new podcast network later this week. The network is called Planet Broadcasting, and it will be launching off the strength of an established YouTube channel, Mr. Sunday Movies, and a podcast, The Weekly Planet, which I’m told enjoys about 250,000 downloads per episode. Planet Broadcasting’s aims are fairly ambitious; according to the circulated press release, the network primarily aims to develop a space for the country’s comedy community to break onto the world stage. As an extension of that goal, Planet Broadcasting will launch on March 26 with a variety of comedy offerings, and some nonfiction documentary fare as well (including the well regarded Human/Ordinary).

I’ll be keeping an eye on this. Podcast consumption in Australia is growing, though I’d still characterize it as underdeveloped relative to the American podcast industry. According to an audience research report by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation published last October, 36 percent of surveyed Australians indicate that they listened to more podcasts in 2016 than in 2015, though numbers for baseline listenership were not circulated. The ABC is the largest podcast publisher in the country, enjoying about 160 million overall downloads in 2016.

Side note. One of the more interesting stories from last year — a story that’s affected how I view the tradeoffs of the relationship between creators and distribution platforms — was the dustup between the Indiana public radio station WBAA and This American Life. (This is the third mention of This American Life in this issue. My apologies: That show was on my mind a lot this week.)

Last summer, the station announced that it had decided to cut the show from its airwaves as a response to its partnership with Pandora, which gave the music streaming service the ability to distribute and sell advertising against both This American Life and Serial. Mike Savage, WBAA’s general manager, argued that Pandora, with its profit-making incentive, posed a fundamental threat to public radio’s broadcast model and that by entering into a relationship with the service, This American Life engaged in an arrangement that places it at odds with the public radio system’s incentives.

Ira Glass, the show’s creator, argued otherwise, noting that the money gained from the partnership was reinvested to further improve on the programming that will continue to appear throughout the public radio system. Glass also made another point, which to me lies at the heart of this item, about reaching more audiences. “Nationally, we’re not losing audience on the radio because people are getting us on other platforms — we’re just adding audience,” Glass said, as printed in Current. “We’re adding to the number of people who are hearing public radio content by offering it on these other platforms.”

Maybe I’m connecting dots in the most tenuous of ways — I’m prone to being worried about that, particularly these days, as conspiracy theorizing seems to have become prominent as a mindset in power — but I can’t help seeing parallels between that incident and the contemporary concern of how the increasing involvement of streaming platforms like Spotify, Google Play Music, iHeartRadio, and Pandora (to the extent they become involved beyond This American Life), many of which are closed, will affect the open podcast system, its value, and the role it plays in the current state of podcast publishing and distribution. At some level, the value proposition that they bring to podcast publishers remain the same: All these platforms, in theory, provide access to an audience that may very well be untouched, and even if podcast listening ultimately doesn’t end up happening on those platforms, at least participating publishers will be able to pocket some extra money that can be reinvested in their shows, which will be nonetheless enjoyed on other platforms and on the open ecosystem.

There are limits to this, of course. For one thing, it’s hard to square the parallel I’m sketching here against what’s happening on the rest of the Internet: the platform dependency that’s growing between publishers and Facebook, between video creators and YouTube, between music artists and, well, Spotify, Pandora, et. al. For another thing, This American Life stands as an exception to the broader universe of publishers: it has unparalleled clout to both establish and benefit from this relationship, and it has a strong pre-existing listener base that protects it from any potential development of future dependency on Pandora.

Bites:

  • Today in Black Mirror: Google Home recently tested what appears to be an audio ad for the new live-action film adaptation of Beauty and the Beast. When pressed, Google appeared to briefly regard it instead as some sort of content experiment before backing off on that too. It’s weird and confusing, but kind of a great beyond-the-veil story. (The Register) Also: “Woman who shares name with ‘Alexa’ and ‘Siri’ says life is ‘waking nightmare'” (The Huffington Post)
  • Crooked Media continues to reproduce, adding another show to the top of the iTunes charts: Lovett or Leave It. I swear, it’s like watching mitosis.
  • Wondery is pumping out a podcast unpacking the production of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. It’s pretty well timed; the TV adaptation of the movie, A&E’s Bates Motel, is quickly approaching its final season, where the show will catch up with the film. It will be interesting to see if Wondery is able to capture the spillover from whatever interest is currently being enjoyed by the TV show, and, more importantly, whether it can make that argument explicitly if it is able to do so. (iTunes)
  • It looks as if the new season of Politically Re-Active, the First Look Media podcast featuring W. Kamau Bell and Hari Kondabolu, is now being sold by Midroll Media instead of Panoply. Interesting. Shouts to Jeff Umbro writing for The Daily Dot for that scooplet.
POSTED     March 21, 2017, 9:30 a.m.
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