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June 20, 2017, 10:38 a.m.
Mobile & Apps

“A step in the right direction,” but “I want more…”: The industry reacts to Apple’s podcast changes

Plus: How Apple’s changes will affect branded podcasts; what podcast publishers need to know about talent agencies; a new resource for Spanish-language producers.

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 124, published June 20, 2017.

Industry responses to the Apple analytics news. Last week’s newsletter was super heavy on my own analysis on the matter, and to balance things out, I’m course-correcting this week with a handy-dandy roundup of some of the more interesting (and, in some cases, telling) reactions from various notable industry folk.

Let’s jump in:

(1) “A lot of indie podcasts already speak to a highly targeted audience, so having this better data gives them more ways to pursue advertising,” Call Your Girlfriend’s Gina Delvac tells Wired. “It’s for people who can’t yet afford the middleman.”

(2) “Analytics. Finally. Industry should embrace, not run from this. Podcast tech is exploding: dynamic ads, data, streaming, scale,” tweeted HowStuffWorks’ Jason Hoch. He adds: “Exciting times to be in the podcast space. From a consumer perspective, Podcasts being treated as equal class citizen w Apps & Music.”

(3) From Norm Pattiz, founder of PodcastOne, when I reached out for comment: “We very much look forward to the release of this new data from Apple. I don’t see how it can be anything but beneficial. Much of what has been indicated is that Apple will be able to confirm and inform about audience and consumption patterns. Though most of that information is available on a number of platforms, having Apple provide further insight and confirmation is nothing but good.”

(4) From Rob Walch, of LibSyn, when reached for comment: “In the end, Apple giving this info will be good for podcasting — they were the only one in a position with enough clout to do this.”

(5) From Chris Morrow, of the Loud Speakers Network, when reached for comment: “I don’t doubt the impact is going to be significant, but do think it will be a while before we start to feel it fully. On a network like Loud Speakers, probably close to 90 percent of the ads are still Direct Response, so the attitude for the foreseeable future will be ‘if it’s not broke, don’t fix it.’ But if six months from now a few big agencies make it clear that they’re going to be buying based on Apple’s new metrics, then we’re going to have to pivot quickly.”

(6) Eric Nuzum, SVP of original content at Audible, hit up my inbox to say that conversations about the value of the new data layer should only be focused around two things: ad validation and editorial feedback. “All the rest: it’s trivia. Not actionable. But like most data, people will overuse, over-examine, and over-literalize. It’s human nature to assume data contains answers. It doesn’t,” he wrote.

(7) From Market Enginuity’s Sarah van Mosel: “This is certainly a step in the right direction. This is what we asked for and I thank the Apple team for hearing and responding to the podcast community. Now I want more… I want to be able to track individual ad campaigns via third party server… on-demand audio ad tags that will work on the Apple Podcast player.”

Of all the responses to the news that I’ve read so far, I find this argument from Tom Webster, he of Edison Research and the Infinite Dial study fame, to be the one that stuck with me the most. Let’s dig into it.

The optimization trap. They say you are what you measure, but what does it mean if you’re not actually in control of what you can measure?

That’s probably the biggest thing I took away from Webster’s post, which he published on Medium over the weekend, though by no means is it the only story here. I highly recommend reading the whole thing to get the full nuance of it, but here’s the basic framework of the argument:

  • The new Apple analytics is a largely positive development for the industry on the whole, even when you account for the various shakeouts, resizing, and resetting of expectations and conduct that it’s going to trigger across the space.
  • However, this development will likely strengthen Apple’s position as the defining metrics-provider for the industry — a state of affairs some have described as a stranglehold, and that should be some cause for concern.
  • Why? Because it doubles down on an ecosystem where publishers will be further incentivized to optimize just for Apple. “Any measurement/ratings system is a game, and the winners aren’t the best operators,” Webster writes. “They are the ones that best play that game, even to the detriment of the medium.” Aside from the garden-variety concerns associated with stacking all your bets on one (opaque, sometimes capricious) horse, there’s a grander downside at play here: while the introduction of Apple’s new analytics might be productive in deepening relationships with a broader set of advertisers, it is nonetheless a development that incentivizes publishers as a class to keep their focus on Apple — therefore constraining the ecosystem very much within Apple’s boundaries.
  • And what do those boundaries mean? As Webster points out, it’s worth keeping in mind that Apple’s consumer base, while very large, is nonetheless still very specific and non-universal in demographic. Which is to say, it isn’t everybody — and deliberately so, to some extent. As such, should the industry be pulled along this dynamic, the podcast industry’s outer boundaries will always be defined (and therefore limited) by those of Apple’s. That, to be sure, is not a good thing.

“I call that ‘the optimization trap’: When we optimize to fit the universe we already have, we make a smaller and smaller universe happier and happier,” Webster concludes. “This is why, although access to enhanced Apple statistics is generally good news for now, the industry cannot and must not stop innovating towards a non-platform-specific measure.”

Webster adds that he holds out hope for NPR’s Remote Audio Data initiative. And what is that, exactly?

Remote Audio Data. It’s a technology initiative to carve out that non-platform-specific measure by setting an open industry standard for publishers and third-party distributors in the space. The initiative was originally conceived long before the Apple news, and in its wake, the enterprise takes on additional gravity. In some ways, you could frame the effort as an opportunity for the industry to wrest a little more control over its narrative back from Apple.

The initiative is being led by National Public Media, the sponsorship arm of NPR. They’re working with Triton Digital to develop the measure, which is being piloted on NPR One at the moment. News of project first appeared publicly earlier this month, with appearances in stories by AdExchanger and Inside Radio from early June.

I reached out to Bryan Moffett, the chief operating officer of NPM, for more details, and he was kind enough to oblige with a blog post-length statement.

“Remote Audio Data is a model for improving podcast listening data,” it began. “The premise is that publishers have a right to know what happens to their content when it’s distributed by third-party platforms.” He goes on to explain some of the technical aspects of how the model would be implemented:

There are two parts to RAD. First, a method for publishers to add metadata to audio files that describes important points in the file. These could be quartile markers for the content, markers for where meaningful content starts and end in an episode, or markers for sponsorships or promotional elements of an episode. Part of the encoded data is a URL where playback platforms should send data events. In this way, everything is self-contained in the file.

The second part is a lightweight way for playback platforms to read this metadata and send pings back to the publishers when those key audio events are heard by a human. The current spec is designed to make this anonymous listening data — no personally identifiable information (PII) is passed. We want to know if a human was listening to our content, not which human.

A lot of this, I should also point out, is contingent on NPM being able to effectively build a coalition of publishers and third-party listening platforms to adopt the model. That, in my mind, would’ve been difficult before the Apple news. Interestingly enough, I suspect there’s a lot more incentive to jump on this boat moving forward. Anyway, the statement touched on this later on:

Right now, we’re working on a second pass at the spec after much discussion with industry stakeholders. Once that version reaches consensus, we hope to build support for RAD across the industry, and bring stakeholders like the IAB and others into the discussion to help.

I followed up to ask Moffett if he viewed Apple’s participation as integral to the initiative’s success. “Not at all,” he wrote back. “It’s just as vital whether Apple participates or not. We still need something to measure listening for the third of our audience not on Apple’s platforms, and that ecosystem is very splintered…If they participate we have the benefit of the same apples-to-apples method across the industry (hopefully!). If they don’t, we at least have comparable metrics we could likely amass together to get at listening.”

You can read Moffett’s whole statement here.

Notes on branded podcasts. While the bulk of the discourse around how the new analytics layer will impact podcast advertising focuses on in-episode ad spots (rightfully so), don’t sleep on the question of how it’s going to impact branded podcasts as well. It’s reasonable to presume that the increased ability to understand in-episode performance of branded podcasts will give advertisers a more tangible idea of whether their highly involved form of content marketing is really building a connection with targeted audiences, giving them even more leverage over the agencies they commission in setting rates and ordering follow-ups. On the flip side, the new analytics layer does have the rather productive side effect of more directly aligning the editorial feedback loop with the branded podcast performance feedback loop, which is interesting.

Here’s a relevant AdWeek article from last week: “Thanks to nearly 8 million downloads, GE remains bullish on branded podcasts.” A key data point from the write-up:

In 2015, GE launched its first branded podcast called The Message under the umbrella of the GE Podcast Theater platform… leading to 4.5 million downloads as of November. After launching a second podcast late last year, the two programs have been downloaded another 3.2 million times in the past seven months and 7.7 million downloads overall.

Hmm. Looks like Life/After didn’t match The Message’s performance after all…

And while we’re on the subject of branded podcasts… Keep an eye on this really interesting piece of execution: On She Goes, a travel podcast for women of color hosted by Call Your Girlfriend’s Aminatou Sow. The show is part of a larger digital platform launched by the ad agency Wieden+Kennedy, and the agency commissioned Pineapple Street Media to produce the podcast.

Gimlet cancels Twice Removed. The celebrity-studded family history podcast hosted by AJ Jacobs will not be coming back for a second season, the company announced in a Facebook post last Friday. “Ultimately, Twice Removed proved too complicated to produce on a consistent basis,” the post read. “As part of our commitment to making the best podcasts possible for our listeners, we decided it was best to sunset Twice Removed, and refocus our efforts on making other great shows.” The podcast only published six episodes during its run. I’m told that all full-time Twice Removed staffers have been reallocated to other projects within the company.

Twice Removed is the fourth Gimlet podcast to be discontinued, following Undone (which cited a tight market for hiring editors as the principle reason), Sampler (which reallocated host Brittany Luse to a new project), and Mystery Show (which was super complicated in a bunch of ways). A fifth, Surprisingly Awesome, was recently restructured and relaunched as a whole new IP, called Every Little Thing. The news comes about two weeks after the company announced it had acquired The Pitch, a Shark Tank-esque business podcast hosted by Josh Muccio. It’s only the second time the company has brought on a show already in the market, the first being Science VS, which Gimlet acquired from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in early 2016.

On Twitter, friend-of-the-newsletter Nick Guy sees this as part of a larger trend for the company that expresses its “seeming willingness to swing for the fences and admit when it doesn’t work.” It’s an entirely plausible read, though I will say my own fixation with this story is one that ties back to my write-up on Gimlet’s acquisition of The Pitch from two weeks ago: what, exactly, constitutes a Gimlet show, and how does that question factor into cancellation decisions? (Apropos of nothing, I’m crossing my fingers for the return of Heavyweight.)

A new resource for Spanish-language producers. This is really cool, and very much needed. Radio Ambulante, the Spanish-language narrative journalism project that recently struck a distribution and marketing deal with NPR, has rolled out a set of online resources in Spanish for aspiring Latin American and Latino producers. Operating under the name “Escuela Radio Ambulante,” the project comes out of a partnership with Transom.org, the beloved online education resource for audio producers, and Hindenburg Systems, the Danish audio editing software company. There will also be paid fellowships associated with the project, offering the opportunity to work with Daniel Alarcon and the Radio Ambulante team to learn the story development process from start-to-end. Applications for that will open up later this year, so keep an eye out.

I’m told that Radio Ambulante CEO Caroline Guerrero developed the project when she was a John S. Knight Fellow at Stanford, and that it’s mostly funded through grants at the moment. You can learn more on the project’s website.

And while we’re on the subject of producer education and support… I hear that applications for AIR’s New Voices Scholarships for 2017 are now open. Go, go, go!

Talent agencies and the podcast industry. It doesn’t take a lot of looking to notice that talent agencies are growing increasingly involved in the podcasting space — not just in brokering deals for the top layer of companies, but also in picking up talent from certain pockets of indie podcast publishers.

But for many producers, indie and otherwise, talent agencies might seem strange and opaque — and that’s even more the case within the context of the budding world of podcasts. So, to get a better sense of what talent agencies do, why they’re increasingly interested in the podcast industry, and what they’re looking for, I traded emails with the very nice Ben Davis, an agent at William Morris Endeavor, one of the largest agencies in the country.

Hot Pod: Could you briefly walk me through what you do as an agent at WME?

Ben Davis: An agent’s job is to represent the interests of talent and properties across media — this includes strategizing, sourcing and negotiating deals on a client’s behalf. Through the representation of talent an agent packages projects together, then manages the project’s market to find the best home for it.

I’m an agent in the Digital department at WME. Digital covers several emerging areas within the media industry, and podcasts are a fast (very fast) growing piece of that.

HP: Which podcasts have you worked with?

Davis: Some of the podcasts I’ve worked with are:

Freakonomics Radio; Tell Me Something I Don’t Know; Pod Save America (and the Crooked Media network); Limetown; 36 Questions; Crimetown; Missing Richard Simmons; Revisionist History; Lebron James’ Uninterrupted Network; Under the Skin with Russell Brand; The Tony Kornheiser Show (with our sister company IMG producing); Unsolved Murders.

While the role I played in each of these podcasts is different, I typically negotiate the terms of a show’s deal with its respective distribution partner or network. When applicable, we also sell podcast IP into TV, film and other media.

For example, with Pod Save America/Crooked Media, we connected the team to DGital and structured the terms of their relationship.

In the case of Limetown, we signed creators Skip Bronkie and Zack Akers after it hit — and helped explore derivative opportunities for the IP. They are now developing Limetown for television (with IMG serving as the studio), sold the prequel to Simon and Schuster, and received a separate film script deal at Warner Brothers. We’re currently helping them with distribution and casting of their upcoming podcast musical, 36 Questions.

HP: Could you describe what drives WME’s interest in the podcast space?

Davis: WME’s is interested in any creative medium that drives culture, and podcasting’s impact on culture is undeniable.

Podcasts are a source of compelling new voices and properties. Not only has this created an exciting business in it of itself, but also one that feeds into other areas that we work in. For example, WME has been involved with crossing podcast properties such as a StarTalk and Men In Blazers into television.

At the same time, podcasting is a new medium for our clients from other areas, whether it is Malcolm Gladwell or Amblin, to create and experiment in. Clients can also own their distribution in a way that is not traditionally possible in other areas of the entertainment business.

HP: My understanding is that talent agencies — WME, of course, but also CAA (Creative Artists Agency) and UTA (United Talent Agencies) — are playing an increasing role in (some layers of) the podcasting industry, though podcasting itself as a sector might not necessarily be growing as quickly within talent agency portfolios. Is that accurate, and what is your view on where we are now with talent agencies and the podcast industry?

Davis: I can’t speak for the other agencies, but podcasting is growing very quickly within WME.

Agents are most useful with shows that have added complexities within their agreements. Is there a guarantee or advance? Who controls the RSS feed? Could this become the next hit TV show? This only applies to a segment of the market, typically higher budgeted or otherwise premium shows.

HP: Where do you think this relationship between talent agencies and the podcast industry is going?

Davis: I think talent agencies will play an increasingly important role in the ecosystem by:

— Helping podcast creators cross IP over into other media (whether that is audiovisual, live or written).
— Pairing creators with the right distribution partners, and negotiating the terms of the relationship.
— Packaging creative elements (i.e. talent and writer) to create turnkey audio productions for distributors.

The space is changing so quickly, though, and my answer would have been different 6 months ago. So really, who knows?

HP: What are the most important things that you think podcast publishers should know about talent agencies, if they don’t already know?

Davis: It’s amazing to me how podcasts have emerged as a longer-form medium with insanely engaged audiences, in a world where traditional media is fighting for the attention of distracted and fragmented consumers. In this current environment and in the future, those with an engaged audience have an enormous opportunity. Talent agencies provide a platform to maximize the impact and value of that opportunity.

You can find Ben on Twitter at @benjamin_davis, though it doesn’t look like he tweets much. I guess you can hit up his LinkedIn instead.

Bites:

  • Not content with its business-to-business position in the market, AudioBoom — best known, perhaps, for repping the popular Undisclosed podcast — is getting into the original programming game. This comes after some restructuring and what appears to be a rigorous PR push, with the company pumping out a few studies about the podcast industry into the public sphere. (Press release)
  • Heads up, Jesse Thorn fans: the Maximum Fun proprietor has a new ~summertime~ project where the famed interviewer interviews interviewers about interviewing. The guest lineup includes Terry Gross, Larry King, Werner Herzog (!!), and Audie Cornish, among others. And interestingly enough, it’s being distributed in partnership with the Columbia Journalism Review. (website)
  • The first advertising network for the Amazon Echo’s Alexa Skill ecosystem has shut down in the wake of an Amazon policy change that bans advertising for third-party products and services. (TechCrunch)
  • The New York Times’ The Daily is going to test a guest host as Michael Barbaro heads off for a summer vacation: Caitlin Dickerson takes over the mic. (Twitter)
  • BuzzFeed audio fellow Alex Laughlin is conducting a survey on audio producer salaries. Go take it. She posted some preliminary findings on Twitter yesterday.
  • NPR is funding two pilots off its Story Lab program: “Midnight Oil” from Alaska Public Media and “Inter(Nation)al” by an independent production team. Cheers, folks! (Press Release)
  • One of these days, I’m going to build out a bracket for Podcasts by Major Media Companies. We’re going to have to add some upcoming stuff from The Atlantic to the list now, which is currently on the lookout for its very own (short-term) podcast producer, it seems. (The Atlantic)
  • Poynter owning the “McClatchy getting into podcasts” beat. Kristen Hare’s latest is on Biloxi’s Sun Herald and its podcast about LGBT issues, Out Here in America. It follows Ben Mullin’s write-up on Majority Minority and Beyond the Bubble, two politics podcasts from McClatchy DC. No specific download numbers were present in either write-up, unfortunately.
  • Rooster Teeth, the Austin, Texas-based digital media production company focused on gaming content, has launched a new business unit focused on podcast creators. “The company is hoping to gather between 30 and 50 creators for its network, and it’s already peeled a couple rising stars away from its bigger competitors,” Max Willens reports. (Digiday)
  • Signl.fm, a platform focused on making podcasts more searchable, is part of the latest Matter.vc class. (Nieman Lab)
POSTED     June 20, 2017, 10:38 a.m.
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