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May 16, 2017, 11:22 a.m.
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Making Gay History’s podcast digs into interview archives to let voices “come to life again”

Plus: StartUp is becoming a TV show, Audible’s Ponzi Supernova gets released into the wild, and the semantics of windowing.

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 120, published May 16, 2017.

On the podcasts to TV beat. A couple of developments here:

(1) ABC has officially picked up the television adaptation of Gimlet’s StartUp, according to Deadline. However, the project is now in search of a name due to another upcoming show, also titled Startup, that’s slated to roll out on the streaming service known as Crackle. (You know, the one that used to have Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee before it moved over to Netflix, or whatever. Television: It’s a strange, strange world.)

(2) CNN is reportedly testing out the prospect of bringing former Obama senior advisor David Axelrod’s podcast, The Axe Files, into the cable television format, according to Variety. Here’s something in the writeup that stood out to me:

Producers want the tone of Axelrod’s podcast to work with the TV audience. “We are really trying to do something that is simple and straightforward,” said Rebecca Kutler, executive producer of the show, who added: “We are really trying to keep it similar to the podcast, keeping it as a long form conversation, one guest for a full hour. What David is able to do so well is talk about the guest’s story.”

That’s a tricky gambit. The work of effective adaptation across mediums — of a project from book to screen, from podcast to television, from a local print newspaper to a digital local news website — involves a keen eye on the defining traits of a work separate from how it’s enabled within its original format and a willingness to let the characteristics of the new medium take over. Pardon the ham-fisted metaphor, but I reckon it’s a little like an organ transplant: No matter how good the organ is, it has to adapt to the rules of the new body in order to survive the transition.

Ponzi in the wild. It looks as if Audible is now distributing Ponzi Supernova, one of its major (and more interesting) original audio programs, out in the open podcast ecosystem. The show, which followed journalist Steve Fishman as he tried to tell a broader picture about Bernie Madoff’s $65 billion Ponzi scheme, wrapped its initial run as an Audible Original exclusive to the platform back in February. As of May 5, that exclusivity no longer applies: the show is being released as a weekly serialized podcast, and it’s being packaged with ads (from Audible, of course).

Two quick thoughts:

  • At risk of getting into a whole discourse over semantics, I wonder — can this still be considered an example of windowing? On the one hand, it fits the bill in literal terms: The show first appeared exclusively on the paywalled Audible platform and benefited from the scarcity-generated value, before being distributed everywhere else. But on the other hand, the strategic goal here is different; whereas in the case of something like Missing Richard Simmons, the point for Stitcher was to capture as much of the value upfront during the original run, this Audible initiative feels more like a traditional marketing move, in which Ponzi Supernova is being implemented as a marketing vessel for the Audible service. (There is some similarity here to the structural function of a branded podcast.)
  • Between this project and Mogul, I do find it hard to appropriately plan coverage given their staggered rollouts. Two questions prevail in my mind when making the choice: Where is the real meat concentrated, and when is the better time to drive the momentum of a possible conversation about these projects — during its closed run, or when it’s released to a wider audience, which is probably when more people would likely benefit from a writeup?

More summer preview notes. Whip out them board shorts:

  • Here are my 12 picks of the most anticipated podcast launches coming out this summer.
  • NPR posted its lineup on its press blog. Note the addition of something called Rough Translation, which will apparently be a show that serves international reporting. That’s super exciting. (Also, as a side note, it’s worth clocking that only Alix Spiegel and Hanna Rosin will return as hosts on the latest season of Invisibilia. I’m told that Lulu Miller is off on book leave, though she did do some work on this latest season.)
  • Night Vale Presents has added another show to its summer lineup: an interview show called Conversations with People Who Hate Me featuring Dylan Marron, who plays Carlos in the Welcome to Night Vale, having a conversation with someone who has sent him a hateful message. The actual launch date has yet to be determined.
  • Meanwhile, Audible is reviving Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist for the audio format.

Hit me up with your own summer launches if you got ’em, and I’ll put them up when I can.

Personnel notes. Some movers, some shakers:

(1) As expected, Ben Calhoun is returning to This American Life. Calhoun made the news public this week, not too long after it was announced that he was leaving the Chicago public radio station WBEZ — and former home of This American Life — where he was VP of content and programming.

(2) Pineapple Street Media has hired Ann Heppermann as a full-time producer. Heppermann is the founder of the Sarah Lawrence International Audio Fiction Awards and has served as a freelance producer for a variety of companies, including Slate.

(3) This week, Midroll welcomes a new member to the C-suite: Amy Fitzgibbons, who will serve as VP of marketing. She joins from PhotoShelter, a software-as-a-service company in the photography industry.

Intelligence Squared, U.S.-flavored. It might seem a little quaint, in this era of pronounced intentional disinformation, to still hold some belief in the transformational power of debate — conducted in good faith and civil manner — but I’ll cop to it. No matter how strange and crazy things might get out there, I’ll still stump for the idea of a future in which a reasonable exchange of ideas can be a truly dominant and effective form of discourse. I don’t have much hope for it, but a dude can dream for a softer world.

Anyway, this is all a meandering preamble to talk about the American version of Intelligence Squared, an organization that stages debates around the world. Intelligence Squared US, the local version of the enterprise, has been around for about a decade now, and aside from live debates, the organization has also been pretty effective at distributing the festivities across a variety of platforms. I’m told that the podcast version, of which I’m a fan, garnered almost 4 million downloads across 16 episodes in 2016.

Recently, the organization tested out a new debate format for the first time in its ten-year history: Instead of the classic structure of two teams taking opposite sides on an issue, a recent bonus episode saw five debaters representing five different sides on a given motion, which allowed for a more finely cut approach to spinning out the various threads of a complex issue. In this case, that issue was the question of Trump’s first 100 days in office.

I figured that this is a good time, then, to check in with the organization and get a piece up on what they’re all about. So I sent over some questions, and Clea Conner Chang, the show’s chief operating officer, was kind enough to respond:

Hot Pod: Could you tell me about the history of Intelligence Squared US?

Clea Conner Chang: It all started in 2005 when our chairman, Robert Rosenkranz, attended an Intelligence Squared debate in London. He was deeply troubled by the tone of what was coming out of the cable news networks at the time, and thought that bringing the debates to the U.S. would be a good way to encourage civil discourse and meaningful discussion of opposing ideas. At that time, the debates had been running for two years in London, and he bought the rights to bring them here. In September of 2006, we produced our first debate here in New York. This year is our tenth anniversary, and we now have more than 135 debates in our archive.

The debates take place in front of a live audience and have been recorded for broadcast on public radio from the very beginning. For a long time, NPR was our distributor, and in early 2007 our first podcast was released on iTunes. At one point that year, we ranked as the #4 most-downloaded program — right behind This American Life, Fresh Air, and Prairie Home Companion, which was very exciting. Today, our podcast is part of the Panoply network, and the radio show airs on more than 225 public radio stations across the country.

Hot Pod: What, exactly, is the corporate structure of Intelligence Squared US?

Chang: We’re a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that was founded to address a fundamental problem in America: the increasing polarization of our nation and our politics. Our mission is to restore critical thinking, facts, reason and civility to American public discourse, and we pursue that mission through our debate series.

We are a team of six plus our host, John Donvan. All of our operations, from content development to producing each show to marketing the series, are managed in-house. And we have an extended family of very talented designers, editors, and crew that are instrumental to making IQ2US the first-class live production that it is.

In addition to the podcast and radio program, we also record debates for televised broadcasts and digital streaming on Facebook Live and YouTube. You’ll find us on AppleTV and Roku as well. We also work with different media organizations, such as Newsy, to develop special content, like a 2-minute debate series on the issues.

A key part of our work is building an engaged community that is open-minded and curious about both sides of the issues. To that end, our audience votes to declare the winner of each debate, and the side that changes the most minds wins. After every debate, we hear an echo: people say they never expected to change their mind on the topic.

Tickets are available to general public for $25–$40, and we make the debates easily accessible, for free, through all of the mediums I just mentioned. It’s also a major priority for us to publish our research and make debate resources available to educational institutions nationwide.

I guess that was a long way of saying we are a stand-alone media organization — with a purpose!

Hot Pod: What was the thinking behind trying out the new format?

Chang: The idea for the new format was developed by our host, John Donvan. One of the great things about the Oxford-style debate is that it’s so focused — it allows for the kind of in-depth analysis of a subject that’s hard to find anywhere else in the media.

But there are also topics that we’d like to cover that are hard to fit into a strict for/against discussion. And one of those, believe it or not, is President Trump. Or at least some of President Trump’s accomplishments during his first 100 days in office. We were very interested in how people from across the political spectrum, depending on the topic, agreed and disagreed. And when they were in agreement, the reasons sometimes didn’t overlap. So this debate format gave us the opportunity to have 5 very different people onstage, who came to all four of our “micro” debate topics in very different ways. It allowed for a lot of nuance and some interesting partners over the course of the evening.

For example, you had Trump immigration advisor Kris Kobach and Slate’s chief political correspondent Jamelle Bouie both arguing that the media was out to get Trump. But of course, they disagreed on whether that was a good thing.

The making of Making Gay History. The first time I discovered the Making Gay History podcast, which is a sort-of adaptation of a core book project that collects personal interviews of various individuals that populate the wider swathe of LGBTQ history, I was randomly scanning through the iTunes directory for new history podcasts over Christmas. (You know, as you do.) It instantly struck me as a fascinating project on a number of levels: how the podcast functions as an extension of the work done in a pre-existing book project; how it expands the value of primary research material; how it uses the podcast RSS feed as its own kind of archival vessel.

I crossed paths recently with Eric Marcus, the man behind the project, and that encounter was somewhat fortuitous: I had, for some reason or another, been thinking a lot about archives over the past few weeks, especially nowadays when federal databases and information sources seem to be disappearing. So, in an effort to pick his brain for some thoughts on archives and the potential value podcasting might bring to that endeavor, I reached out, and instead I got instead a rich, textured recollection of how the Making Gay History podcast came to be. It’s packed with detail and people and process that I think many, hoping to set out on their own projects, might find it useful. I’ll get to the archive stuff some other time, and in what might perhaps be a manner that’s too on the nose, I’ll let Marcus unload his own personal history here:

The making of the Making Gay History podcast story begins on September 11, 2015. That’s the day I was fired from my job at a suicide prevention organization where I was responsible for programs for people who have lost a loved one to suicide. Once I caught my breath I did what you do when you have to figure out next steps. First, I looked at my assets — my work experience, past projects I’d filed away, ideas I’d started to develop but hadn’t pursued, etc. One key asset I had was an audio archive that the New York Public Library had recently digitized. The archive included about 100 interviews that I’d conducted for the two editions of my book Making Gay History (the original 1992 title was Making History), which is an oral history of the LGBTQ civil rights movement from World War II until 2001.

The second thing I did was have lots of conversations with people I know and people I was referred to by the people I know. My primary goal in having these conversations was to figure out what I might do with my archive, which I knew had value, especially as many of these stories had never been told and most of the people I’d interviewed had died.

One of the people I talked to was my longtime friend Kevin Jennings, who was then the executive director of the Arcus Foundation. Kevin had some suggestions regarding who I might talk to and to make a long story short, I was introduced to Debra Fowler and Miriam Morgenstern, the two educators who run History UnErased, a nonprofit organization that’s dedicated to creating LGBTQ-inclusive K-12 curricula. We talked, we met, we had dinner and decided that three to five-minute clips from my audio archive would be the perfect jumping off point for some of their middle- and high-school lesson plans.

With a grant in hand from the Arcus Foundation to create what I called “mini-podcasts,” I spoke with my friend and neighbor (we live across the street from each other in NYC) Sara Burningham, an independent radio producer, and asked if she could “cut tape.” Another long story short, Sara thought that our rough cuts, which were between eight and ten minutes, sounded like a podcast. We were both astonished by how powerfully inspiring and moving these archival interviews were, which made us all the more determined to bring these voices and stories to a wide audience beyond their use for History UnErased’s curricula. We thought that the podcast format would be a perfect fit — that it would allow these interviews to come to life again, for people to hear these voices for the first time.

To strengthen her podcast producing skills, Sara took a multi-day workshop at the end of last summer — run by Rose Eveleth at UnionDocs — where Jenna Weiss-Berman from Pineapple Street Media was a guest instructor for the final presentation class. Jenna loved what she heard and asked Sara how she could help. Under Jenna’s wing, we launched the fully fledged podcast about four weeks later in time for LGBT History Month, complete with a robust website and a production schedule that included ten episodes. Jenna and Pineapple Street are our pro bono co-producers. We also record our intros and outros at Pineapple’s Brooklyn studio.

During those few weeks between the podcast class and our launch, we contracted with a web designer and social media strategist. And soon after we launched we were fortunate to have a volunteer researcher come on board. Along the way we were introduced to the wonderful people at the ONE Archives and ONE Archives Foundation, who have helped with photos. And we’ve had ongoing support from the New York Public Library Manuscripts and Archives Division, including the use of their archival photos.

Based on the success of the first season, we began thinking about a second season and how we were going to finance it. I made some calls about potential funding and one of the people I spoke with, Barbara Raab, a program officer at the Ford Foundation, was able to provide funding support.

From the beginning we were aware that it can be tough for an independent podcast to make a splash. So we were stunned by the amount of press attention we had for our first season and we’ve been delighted by the overwhelmingly positive response we’ve had from listeners from around the world. Over the course of our two seasons (season 2 concluded on May 4), we’ve had more than one million episode downloads.

We’re now seeking funding for season 3, which we’re planning to launch in October to coincide with LGBT History Month.

Bites:

  • “Starting in June, NPR One users in New York, San Francisco, Boston and Chicago will be able to use a ‘one-touch’ donation process…A five-day international pilot in July will take a similar approach to collecting donations from NPR One users in the U.K., marking the first time the network will accept donations directly from listeners.” (Current)
  • This is cool: APM Marketplace’s story producer Jennie Josephson has a blog post up on the music used for the Make Me Smart podcast. (Marketplace)
  • The Third Coast Festival has announced the judges for the 2017 edition of its Richard H. Driehaus Foundation competition. Submissions are open today. (TCF)
  • From the submission box: “Our latest podcast episode, Serious Jolt, follows the story of a young, SF-based man reviving Yemeni coffee for global exports (fun fact — the art of the brewing coffee first originated in Yemen)…When everything in the US about Yemen is war, bombs, and famine, we think it’s really refreshing to hear a story that people can actually relate to: coffee.” (Hebah Fisher, Kerning Cultures)

Photo by Tony Webster used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     May 16, 2017, 11:22 a.m.
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