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July 18, 2017, 11:10 a.m.
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Live touring is a real business for some podcasts (and you don’t need huge downloads for it to work)

Plus: Radiotopia’s Ear Hustle is a hit, Panoply partners with Nielsen for more targeted ads, and The New York Times gets another podcast.

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 128, published July 18, 2017.

Radiotopia’s Ear Hustle breaks 1.5 million downloads in its first month, qualifying the show as a “runaway hit” for the podcast collective, as the press release puts it. Also interesting from the release: the podcast, which emerged as the winner of Radiotopia’s first Podquest competition that wrapped last November, has doubled the number of advertisers that will be running spots throughout the first season. Chalk that up, perhaps, to the Today Show bump.

(By the way: Ear Hustle is very, very good, in case that’s not already clear.)

The New York Times adds a new show to its portfolio: “Dear Sugars,” formerly known as “Dear Sugar Radio,” the advice column-turned-advice podcast featuring Cheryl Strayed and Steve Almond from WBUR. This deepens the Times’ relationship with WBUR; the two organizations already collaborate on the Modern Love podcast, which itself is another column-turned-podcast initiative, and long-time observers already know that Lisa Tobin, formerly the managing producer of program development at WBUR, currently serves as the Times’ executive producer of audio.

In case you didn’t know… Lauren Osen, a former senior producer at KPCC’s AirTalk, is the new editorial lead for the Americas for the Apple Podcasts team. Which is to say, she’s the new Steve Wilson. Say hello.

NPR reaches tentative agreement with SAG-AFTRA, avoiding a strike. If you’re reading this newsletter about podcasts that’s fairly heavy on public radio-oriented coverage, you’re probably familiar with what happened here — in broad strokes, at the very least. But if you missed it, this Poynter column should suffice. (Shouts to Poynter’s Al Tompkins for hitting the beat.)

I don’t think there’s much to say that hasn’t already been said. There’s only so much you can draw from a situation that saw NPR’s leadership put forward a contract proposal largely described as “odious” and “the single worst labor proposal in NPR history” during a time when, somewhat paradoxically, the organization has been hitting all-time high ratings and news service brand awards. A proposal that, among other things, pushed for lower pay for newer employees (which will almost definitely worsen the organization’s already lacking state of diversity), rollbacks in benefits, and the eroding of union protections, creating an environment where newsroom morale was “in the dumps” and that triggered a very public fallout. There’s only so much that can be inferred about the substance of leadership here, one whose goal is to be “economically sustainable for the long-term” but at the same time is seemingly dubious in its acceptance of a world that’s rapidly shifting toward digital — remember the NPR Memo kerfuffle? Fun fact: that has now been semi-resolved, over a year later — and, really, one that allowed a public showing of disrespect to its journalists in a time when the very profession feels under siege, when questions linger over federal support in this presidential administration, and when the industry remains ever so volatile.

What else can be said? Other than the obvious: what a damn shame.

Three storylines to track moving forward:

(1) Obviously, a tentative agreement is still tentative. Eyes peeled till the ink dries.

(2) As Poynter notes: “The union had concerns about how a proposed ‘hub’ system would work and whether it would allow non-union local journalists from NPR affiliated stations to do more work now performed by union members.” That hub system in question is the one that NPR news chief Michael Oreskes announced during PRNDI last month, where he envisioned each regional hub being staffed by “experienced managers who could help identify regional stories while making it easier for local stations in those regions to share expertise and resources around investigative work and digital content.” It is in these union negotiations with NPR newsroom staffers, and how they reconceptualize its structure moving forward, where we’ll see the fulcrum upon which the initiative will turn.

(3) Someone pointed this out to me: NPR CEO Jarl Mohn’s five-year contract takes him to 2019, and the tentative agreement runs for three years — expiring in 2020.

A case study in audience targeting. Last Tuesday, Panoply announced that it was partnering with Nielsen to give advertisers the opportunity to buy targeted ads through its Megaphone hosting platform using the latter’s Data Management Platform, an audience segmentation tool built on the company’s various audience intelligence and databases (which is broken out within Nielsen’s platform as audience “personas,” of which it boasts having over 60,000).

AdWeek has a pretty good overview of the story, but here’s the most important thing to know: looking to gain an edge among advertisers, Panoply is now in the business of building out a new podcast advertising marketplace for brands looking for more specificity beyond the broad spray of buying into a given podcast. Panoply isn’t the first to create such a targeting-oriented podcast advertising marketplace; last January, Triton Digital rolled out its Tap Podcast platform, later signing on NPR as a client. (And Panoply isn’t the first audio-related company to gain access to Nielsen’s DMP, either; the measurement giant hammered down a similar-looking partnership with Westwood One last summer.) But where the Tap Podcast partnership was specific to one organization, NPR, this Panoply arrangement theoretically give advertisers a broader, qualified catalog to choose to buy from.

That said, news of this partnership with Nielsen has caused what is now a familiar wave of concerns about how the changes such platforms brings to the advertiser’s power in the ecosystem might affect marketplace dynamics to the detriment of publishers: fears of plummeting CPMs, publishers losing leverage, and so on. To think through these concerns, I thought it might be useful to figure just how the technology and arrangement of how one of these partnerships work — and how it might affect the market — and so I reached out to Panoply to get more insight into its situation. They obliged.

Here’s my conversation with CTO Jason Cox, director of product Joel Withrow, and chief creative officer Andy Bowers (lightly edited for clarity):

Hot Pod: Here’s how I comprehend the arrangement: Nielsen has a big data-driven platform that collects a bunch of aggregate user behaviors and then classes them out to 50,000 different kinds of user profiles, with those profiles being built on multi-channel behavior from stuff that they do when they’re watching videos online or surfing on their browsers. And it’s my understanding of this Nielsen data makes up a firehose that will be piped into your platform to inform the way Megaphone dynamically targets and inserts ads based on those audiences.

My initial question is: how does the Nielsen data translate specifically to podcast users? I don’t quite see how the base Nielsen data could be applicable to podcast users if there isn’t the same kind of tracking happening. And I’m curious to hear how you’re able to tell if a certain podcast listener fits within a certain profile.

Jason Cox: That’s pretty much most of it in a nutshell. So, Nielsen tracks demographic segments against these individual user profiles they’ve got from around 9.5 billion unique devices that they’re tracking. They ingest all of that data, they anonymize it, they turn it into a hashed-out idea of the user that has a profile attached, and then they port that data over to our platform. It’s just a huge amount of data that’s constantly flowing in — they have no concept of whether the the user is a podcast listener or not. And so what we do is ingest all of that data, and at the same time we’re building profiles against the activity we’re seeing in our platform: server-side stuff, behaviors, metadata, all of those things allow us to tie user profiles together.

HP: So you guys are trying to translate and connect the profiles they have with what you’re seeing from the podcast user-side, and you’re making those sort of interpretations and connections yourselves?

Cox: Exactly.

HP: Does that identification happen on the server side, and not on the listening side?

Cox: Yep, as long as the content isn’t cached and the request is coming through the Megaphone server, which is what usually happens with the podcast apps, then we can perform the targeting.

HP: What are the data points that you use to identify an anonymous user? Is it stuff like geography, IP addresses, consistency of listening…how does that work?

Cox: So it’s all of that: geolocation, the content they’re requesting, the device they’re on as well as behavior we’ve tracked in the past, and so on.

HP: How does this affect things like the podcast advertising marketplace?

Joel Withrow: The way we envision this rolling out to our publishing partners is that you would have the option to participate in the marketplace. So, if you’re participating as a publisher, your inventory goes into the marketplace and it becomes eligible for ads that are targeted as part of this marketplace. Advertisers can choose demographic characteristics, behavioral characteristics, etc., and if you have unsold impressions that match those types of listeners, you would be eligible for these ads’ revenue from the marketplace.

We’re keeping it consolidated right now to participating publishers only. We’re not going to allow advertisers to target shows as well as applying this more granular targeting. The idea there is that we’re not trying to create any sort of channel conflict or competing demand out there for publisher’s brand: if you still want to reach Malcolm Gladwell or Gimlet’s audience and you really want to connect with the brand, then you’re going to work with that publisher and that publisher’s sales team directly and they’re going to buy into their entire audience rather than sort of drilling into, like, “I want to buy Malcolm, and I also want to do males 13 to 35 with a household income of X percentage.”

Andy Bowers: From a producer’s point of view, we will also be getting a much clearer picture of who’s actually listening to the show. With listener surveys, even if they have great responses, you’re still getting some tiny, self-selected fraction of the listenership. Now, even for people who are using Megaphone who are not using the marketplace, they have much more data in real-time whenever they want it about who is listening to each show — and I imagine that would help on an individual level when they’re selling their shows.

HP: If I’m a buyer working through the marketplace, what does that look like? Do I start providing generic ad experiences that’ll go into a bunch of different shows?

Withrow: The ads themselves will be show-specific, because we won’t be enabling that kind of targeting. We’re looking to build a really premium marketplace and will be reaching out to all the usual suspects that we work with to get their opt-in and participation, and part of that is really high standards of content. In the early days of this, we’ll be doing very careful vetting of advertisers and partners that come onto the platform — so, there will be generic ads, but we will be doing our best to educate advertisers on what really works in [podcast] advertising.

HP: More than a few folks are worried this will drive CPM rates down. What’s your take on that?

Bowers: I think the opposite is true. I think this will enable advertisers to much more clearly identify whom they are reaching in a way that we’ve only been able to guess at until now, and that’s much more valuable, especially for a premium podcast that reaches what we all suspect is a very desirable audience. But now we can prove it.

Withrow: The other thing to note is that we’re building this with full hindsight of mature programmatic marketplaces and video-on-display and we’ve seen the dynamics that have taken place over the last decade-plus. There’s a lot of hard-earned wisdom that’s come from that that can inform the way we roll this out. And, as you know, Panoply started out just as a podcast publisher dealing with CPMs, and so we’re not just an ad tech company trying to squeeze every cent out of every impression. We’re heavily invested in keeping CPM rates high. That’s part of the motivation of not opening up this capability far and wide — we’re trying to start out with the context of a marketplace where you know where there’s premium inventory that’s in high demand.

Bowers: Yes, we do not intend to shoot ourselves in the foot.

HP: Finally, and I’m just curious: Panoply is still both a content and technology company, right?

Bowers: Well, I’m not going anywhere.

I’m really excited to see this data for our shows and to see how it can shape how we think about who’s listening to us. I think it will bring in advertisers who can now see exactly who they’re reaching. Everything we do, we do from the point of view of podcast producers first. And so, when Jason first conceived of this idea, we asked ourselves: will this help us? Will this help our shows? Will this help our partners? We wouldn’t have proceeded if we didn’t think it would.

HP: Anything else to add?

Bowers: One thing I’d point out is that I think this works — and not by design, because we didn’t know what Apple was planning — but I think it dovetails very well with what Apple has or will do [with the introduction of in-episode analytics] soon, because we’re all expecting that, inevitably, we will see people skipping over ads.

I mean, the number of ads being heard is not going to go up in the new Apple metric. It’s inevitably going to go down or at the very best stay flat, but probably go down a little bit. So it’s going to be more important than ever that advertisers know, of those remaining people who are listening, who they are. That’s one reason we’re confident about the CPMs with this model, and we think that the two hand-in-hand are going to become the gold standard of what advertisers expect that they can get from podcasts.

How touring agencies work the podcast scene. Live shows are shaping up to be an increasingly meaningful component of your standard podcast business (to the extent there is such a thing as “standard”), and if you’re looking to set that up, you probably need the help of touring professionals.

The Billions Corporation — a 28-year-old touring agency with offices in Chicago, Los Angeles, Seattle, Toronto, and Nashville — has been working with podcasts for a while now, representing shows like Welcome to Night Vale, Criminal, and The Flop House. I recently traded emails with Josh Lindgren, an agent at the company’s Seattle office, to get some insight into what a touring agency does and what it’s doing in the podcast space.

Hot Pod: Could you walk me through what the Billions Corporation does?

Josh Lindgren: We’re an agency that books live performances for a select roster of artists. This includes tours, one-offs, festivals, conferences, etc. As an artist’s chosen representative, we provide an experienced partner in the live entertainment industry that can advocate for the artist’s interests, participate in long-term planning, and help them build a live career that fits into their broader goals.

We were founded in the late 80s as a music agency and have had some pretty big successes in that medium, such as Mumford & Sons, Death Cab for Cutie, Arcade Fire, Sufjan Stevens, The Mountain Goats, and many more. Several years ago, we decided to start applying our established model and relationships to the newly emerging industry of live podcasts. We quickly discovered that there was a great need for our services and have built up the podcast side of our business quickly but thoughtfully. Our goal in the podcast industry is the same as our goal in the music industry — to make touring as artist-centric as possible.

Most podcasters and networks don’t have the time, resources, or experience to book live shows on a large scale. That’s our specialty. We book live podcasts every day year round, so we’re constantly maintaining up-to-date knowledge and relationship with venues big and small around the world.

HP: What does being an agent typically entail?

Lindgren: I work with artists to develop a touring strategy and execute it. This involves selecting venues, negotiating deals, pitching to festivals, making sure any special needs like recording or video projection are being provided, and making sure the artists are paid appropriately for their work. I also manage a team that tracks all of the day-to-day details of any given show, from door times to ticket sales. They take care of things like issuing contracts on the artist’s behalf and preparing documents for immigration. It’s also my job to find new talent and build new relationships, so I’m always listening to new podcasts and going to conferences and events.

HP: Who do you work with?

Lindgren: We represent Stuff You Should Know, Welcome to Night Vale, Criminal, Last Podcast on the Left, RISK!, Throwing Shade, The Greatest Generation, The Memory Palace, Hello from the Magic Tavern, FiveThirtyEight Elections Podcast, Bullseye with Jesse Thorn, The Flop House, Song Exploder, Mystery Show, West Wing Weekly, Scharpling & Wurster, One Bad Mother, and Garrison Keillor. We also book Maximum Fun’s touring festival, Very Very Fun Day, and we’ve done work for NPR on a per-tour basis.

HP: Why do you think podcasts are interested in live touring? Do live podcast shows make money?

Lindgren: The motivation to tour really varies from one artist to the next. It can be establishing a new revenue source, connecting with fans in person, getting in front of sponsors, recording live episodes, raising money for charity, or really anything you can think of. The wife of one of my artists asked me to book him more live shows so that they’d have an excuse to do some traveling together — I loved that!

Live shows are definitely a source of income for the podcasts I work with. The proportion of an artist’s income that’s made from live shows really varies depending on a lot of factors, like number of shows, size of venues, typical ticket prices, etc., as well as, of course, what their other revenue streams are. Unlike advertising, live revenue is not as directly related to download numbers as you might think. I know podcasts that can outsell artists with ten times their download numbers. It all comes down to your relationship with the audience that you have, and establishing a reputation for delivering great live shows.

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

Lindgren: Working with an agency allows podcast publishers to focus on what they do best — making great audio. We focus on what we do best, which is booking great live shows. It’s really a very cost-effective model, too. We take a 10 percent commission on what the artist actually earns from live shows. No retainer fees, no percentages of merch or advertising. We just get paid for the work we do. It’s a classic agency model, just like in music or comedy. Our 10 percent is pretty much always going to be a lot cheaper than staffing a team of experienced show bookers, not to mention our accountant, marketing manager, or in-house attorney. We work with podcasts produced by massive companies and podcasts that are entirely created and operated by one person. What we do is very scalable.

You can find Josh on Twitter at @joshtown.

Bites

  • The IAB released revised podcast measurement guidelines, and it’s opening the doc up to public comment through August 11. (IAB)
  • Remember Radio Atlas, the super-cool audio documentary translation and localization initiative by Eleanor McDowall that uses subtitled video? Well, it’s a podcast now, one that’s hoping to serve as “an English-language home for subtitled audio from around the world.” A fantastic idea. (Apple Podcasts)
  • Shouts to WNYC’s Manoush Zomorodi, whose Bored and Brilliant series off her Note to Self podcast is being adapted into a book. (Twitter)
  • “Philly podcast fest turns five, celebrates big growth.” Those McElroys, they’re everywhere. (Philly.com)
  • KCRW’s 24-hour Radio Race is back. Nifty website! (KCRW)

Photo of curtains by AnToonz used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     July 18, 2017, 11:10 a.m.
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