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Aug. 8, 2017, 11:08 a.m.
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The podcast business playbook: What’s the best way for a podcast studio to raise money?

Plus: How you become a podcast columnist, Radiotopia’s latest trick, Preet Bharara’s new 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 131, published August 8, 2017.

Fundraising and futures. The past seven days saw two significant stories about money being raised here in Podcast-land. Taken together, the stories contain a fair bit of meat, because they offer two very different approaches to the industry — and two different visions of what it could be.

We’ll start with the flashier one. Last Wednesday, Gimlet Media announced that it had successfully executed a $15 million Series B fundraising round led by Stripes Group, whose portfolio also includes Refinery29 and notable podcast advertiser Blue Apron. The round includes Laurene Powell Jobs’ Emerson Collective and re-ups from Cross Culture Ventures, Betaworks, and Graham Holdings (also known around these parts as Panoply’s parent company). The round brings Gimlet’s total funding raised to $22 million. A spokesperson declined to disclose valuations, but Peter Kafka’s reporting over at Recode has this gem: “Industry sources told me that Gimlet wanted a $75 million valuation when it first went looking for funding this year, but couldn’t find takers at that price.”

Gimlet cofounder Matt Lieber noted that the round was bigger than originally intended. He described the $15 million raise as opportunistic to some extent, a reaction to the level of interest Gimlet received. “But it’s not like we’ll be spending it all at once,” he told me. The company will, however, be spending that money across several areas it’s identified as key channels of growth: more programming, more training and development, more on the internal brand content agency known as Gimlet Creative, more intellectual property pipeline development. (The prospect of a virtual reality pipeline was kicked around.)

If you’re wondering how the company is doing, the press release alludes to this opaquely, as is custom: “In the past year, Gimlet doubled listenership, revenue, and output of Gimlet Creative, the company’s in-house advertising arm and content studio.” That revenue factoid doesn’t mean much without baseline numbers, and the only one I’ve got for you is $2 million — that’s the amount of revenue Gimlet generated in its first year, which Gimlet co-founder Matt Lieber disclosed in an interview with the Financial Times back in 2015. I trust you can do the speculative math yourself.

Getting somewhat less formal attention, but no less important, is news that DGital Media, the podcast company with a client list that includes Crooked Media, Recode, and Tony Kornheiser, has secured investment money from Entercom, the fourth largest broadcast radio company in the United States (it owns over a hundred radio stations across the country). The investment is phrased as a strategic partnership, and Inside Radio reports that Entercom paid $9.7 million for a 45 percent stake in DGital Media (which strikes me as a curious arrangement, all things considered), where the former will also provide “‘significant’ annual marketing and promotion” across its broadcast infrastructure for the latter. I guess we’ll find out if radio-to-podcast conversion is a thing, or not.

DGital Media has always struck me as fascinating, exhibiting a blend of old- and new-school that turned out to be somewhat effective. Founded and built by Westwood One alums — a cadre that includes CEO Spencer Brown, president David Landau, and chief content officer Chris Corcoran, along with many other imports up and down the staff directory — the podcast company has firmly worked off what you could call a familiar playbook: build a roster of personalities across well-validated genres (business, sports, comedy, politics), develop a portfolio of talk programming on top of them, and leverage their advertising expertise and relationships carried over from their radio days. It’s conservative: there are no especially big gambles on technology, no plays to build out new advertising formats or workflows, no designs for the more complicated narrative formats. It’s the playbook held by PodcastOne and CBS’s Play.it, a dimension that reflects all three companies’ roots in traditional commercial radio. But DGital Media has curiously proven itself to be consistently effective with its partnerships, which you could qualify as a savviness. The Crooked Media relationship, in particular, is a coup for the company, with a lot more room to grow.

That DGital Media is selling off a 45 percent stake to Entercom, a behemoth of the old world, is a glimpse at the company’s most probable exit strategy. And from a distance, you can begin to see the overarching narrative: this is a story about a company serving as a vessel building the bridge between the old world and the new world, one whose value is largely contained in its ability to perpetuate the pre-existing industry power structure.

Where DGital Media’s future is directly informed by its past, Gimlet’s future is defined by a whole different framework: one that seeks to figure just how far this rabbit hole goes. The company’s more ambiguous arc was sealed with its original choice to pursue venture capital from the beginning — something that DGital Media didn’t do — and further solidified when it positioned itself as being closer to more digital-native media companies as opposed to radio companies, as the company did with the way it participated in the more bespoke Brooklyn NewFronts last year with brands like Atlas Obscura, Genius, and Lenny. What will Gimlet become? How big can it truly become? How will this end? All is uncertain, and it’s hard to visualize a playbook that hasn’t been written yet. That’s sort of the point with these types of ventures, though, and for some it’s a point of relish. (Like myself, I’d say, perhaps as an affect of my relative youth.) But when directly contrasted against DGital Media’s more straightforward path, others might be tempted to perceive it as a point of burden.

One more thing to note. Some have raised the question to me, publicly and privately, about the significance of the timing around these deals. As Bumpers’ Ian Ownbey phrased it over Twitter, “Lot of people getting ready for that iTunes analytics launch.” I’m inclined to not put too much stock into that, but hey, it’s a theory worth considering nonetheless.

Investment hurdles. Peter Kafka’s piece on the Gimlet round also contains a chunk worth highlighting:

When I first heard that Gimlet was raising money a couple months ago, I asked a range of venture capitalists whether they were investing in the company or any other podcast startup. I got lots of noes.

The longer answer: VCs had looked, but found various reasons not to invest. They were concerned that there’s no real tech in podcasting. Or that the industry is dominated by Apple, and Apple doesn’t seem terribly interested in podcasting. Or that the podcasting industry just isn’t big enough to produce an exciting return.

Kafka hedged the analysis slightly in the DGital Media-Entercom article he wrote later in the week, but for what it’s worth, his findings are somewhat consistent with my own. What might spur actual investment interest? Explosive and public growth, perhaps, or some technological development that brings the medium closer to the language that VCs speak.

Justice and fairness. It’s no secret that Preet Bharara, the former US Attorney famous for his work on corruption and financial malfeasance, has been attached to some sort of podcast project following his recent controversial dismissal by the Trump administration. The Hill reported as such earlier this summer, shortly after Bharara joined the media firm Some Spider Studios, which was founded by his brother, the entrepreneur Vinit Bharara. The only question was who’s going to get that account.

We got the answer yesterday. The weekly podcast, which will be called “Stay Tuned with Preet” and will apparently focus on issues of “justice and fairness,” is officially a project by Cafe, an entertainment brand from Some Spider Studios. But the show sees Cafe partnering up with Pineapple Street Media to handle production — bringing Pineapple’s list of political clients up to two, the other being, of course, Hillary Clinton —  and WNYC Studios to handle distribution, promotion, and ad sales. (WNYC Studios will also consult on the show, a spokesperson added.) If you’re looking for more details off the press release, Variety’s got you covered.

There are so many story threads you can pull from this, it’s basically one big fat ball of yarn: What’s the conceivable function of such a podcast? What’s up with politicians and podcasts? What does this tell us about the opportunities that podcasting provides political media and advertising? What does Pineapple Street Media’s continued work with liberal(-ish) political figures suggest about its arc as a media agency, and how should this impact the way we think about its pre-existing relationship with the New York Times? What does this tell us about WNYC Studios’ game plan (which seems to be quite pleasantly leaning heavily on its New York-ness)? Why is it called Some Spider Studios? Does Preet Bharara know what a podcast is? #Sohe’srunning?

Me, I’m more interested in why WNYC Studios is partnering with an outside podcast agency for a show that it has every means and capacity to produce on its own. Someone’s flexing here. I’m just wondering who.

Radiotopia’s Showcase, a place for unconventional shapes. Fresh off a strong start to Ear Hustle, Radiotopia has wasted no time unveiling its latest magic trick. Last week saw the launch of Showcase, a new banner and RSS feed under which the indie podcast collective will curate original, limited-run series from producers around the world. Some of the curated will be entrants to Radiotopia’s Podquest competition that didn’t make it through for reasons of structural fit, which is a reflection of one of the collective’s larger findings from the competition: not every idea is best served as a conventionally structured podcast.

The first series to be featured is called Ways of Hearing, a Podquest entrant that takes the shape of a six-part series about listening in the digital age and is hosted by the musician Damon Krukowski. Following that will be “a nonfiction series about an urban legend based on an arcade game” called “Polybius Conspiracy,” according to Fast Company.

Its enterprise is a feat of creative flexibility over anything else, putting the team in a good position to do a lot of things that are great for the space that most other podcast companies are ill-positioned to do. The accompanying press release lists some of those things: support ideas that are best delivered in short servings, highlight more perspectives and voices, systematically throw more weight behind emerging talent, test run crazy ideas that could grow into longer-term projects, push boundaries, break down walls.

Here’s hoping for more crazy.

Meanwhile, across the pond. This is interesting: a recent market study in the United Kingdom found that while the number of listeners within its borders continues to creep up, there is a quietly growing concern that the popularity of advertising-free programming in the region — a consequence of the BBC being dominant in the ecosystem, where the government-funded body generally eschews advertising — might be a suppressive force on podcast advertising growth in the market. Emarketer has the write-up.

I wonder if Canada, where public broadcaster CBC also makes up most of the regional podcast market and also boxes out advertising, faces the same dynamic.

It’s a small world. Yesterday NPR announced details for its upcoming podcast, Rough Translation, which will see the organization bring the weight of its international presence to bear on its podcasting operations. The show will be hosted by Gregory Warner, a longtime international correspondent for the public radio mothership, and it seeks to “explore how the ideas we talk about in the US…are being discussed somewhere else in the world.”

Some qualities worth tracking: to begin with, the project’s structure seems strangely similar to the Kelly McEvers-led Embedded, which also featured some episodes that applied a narrative journalism framework to stories from other countries. Rough Translations is also said to be a product of NPR’s Story Lab, an agitating body within the organization meant to aid in the internal development of new shows and training resources. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the show will apparently draw from NPR’s reporting assets scattered across the organization’s 17 international bureaus across the globe. If the team can work out a solid and replicable workflow, I suspect there’s a way in which those workflows could be transposed to the “regional hub” initiative that the organization has been going on about. Eh, just a thought.

Rough Translation will debut on August 14.

In related news… The Pew Research Center just published the most recent edition of its “Public Broadcasting Fact Sheet,” which you should totally check out.

Here’s what I find to be the most interesting finding, though: NPR’s total operating revenue in 2016 was $213 million, up 9 percent from 2015 levels, while revenues for the 125 largest news-oriented licensees — organizations that operate local public radio stations — remained flat. APM’s revenue, however, went down 6 percent year over year, garnering $126 million in 2016.

Podcast coverage. We’re doing something a little different with Career Spotlight this issue. Today’s Q&A is with Sarah Larson, a New Yorker staffer who will be writing the website’s new podcast column, “Podcast Dept.,” which launches this week.

So, I’m a big fan of Larson’s work, both the stuff she’s written about podcast in the past — including write-ups on Happier with Gretchen Rubin, Serial, Mogul, and Norman Lear’s All of the Above — and her stuff more generally, like a recent essay titled “U2 Plays ‘The Joshua Tree’: Outside, It’s America,” which is about a lot of things, but is most importantly about returning to something when you’re no longer the same.

Anyway, I thought it’d be useful to hear what Larson has to say about critical podcast writing and her approach to the matter. Let’s jump in.

Hot Pod: What do you do for a living, and how did you end up doing it?

Sarah Larson: My somewhat hilarious job title is “roving cultural correspondent” for newyorker.com. I’ve been on staff at The New Yorker since 2001. For most of that time, I was a copy editor for the print magazine, and I also wrote theatre blurbs for Goings On About Town. I hadn’t thought of myself a journalist — my first love was writing fiction and memoir, which I have always done on the side. But in January 2013, I discovered a style of journalistic writing that suited me, for the webite. I wrote a freewheeling post about Barry Manilow’s show on Broadway, and suddenly it was as if everything clicked. I was having fun, and it felt right. I began writing regularly for the site and for Talk of the Town, in the magazine, and in 2014 my editors hired me to write for the site full-time. As roving cultural correspondent, I go out into the city and report on theatre, music, comedy, podcasts, other cultural creations, and the people who make them. I cover a very wide range of cultural work. (Including “Game of Thrones”!)

HP: How did your new podcast column come about?

Larson: I was avoiding the form of criticism, generally, because we have critics at the magazine, and that was their role, not mine. But in my writing about podcasts over the past few years, which I’ve loved and found exciting, I’ve been surprised to hear gratitude from people in the podcast community for writing anything critical at all. Everybody covers the podcasts that hit it very big, but there’s a dearth of critical podcast writing in comparison with the amount of podcasts there are — even for the bigger-budget highly produced podcasts, and, as you know, there are hundreds of lesser known podcasts beyond that. When my colleague Emily Stokes suggested that I write a weekly podcast column, I thought, Yes! It felt exactly right. It’s such an exciting time in the podcast world. I wish I’d started it a year ago.

HP: Could you tell me about how you’re approaching the work?

Larson: My first objective with this column is to listen closely, to get to know what the podcast is doing and the intentions of the people creating it, and to give the reader a sense of what the experience is for the listener and how well the podcast accomplishes its goals. It’s not necessarily to pronounce various podcasts good or bad but to take them seriously and to think about them. The landscape has changed so much in the past few years, as you know, Nick. I’m really intrigued to see where that goes in the next year or two.

I’m listening for work that creates an authentic, interesting experience for the listener and a connection to the listener, and which connects us to the larger world in a way that feels valuable. I tend to be very sensitive to sound design and its use and misuse, and to hosts’ voices, and the particular feeling of intimacy that this form can foster. Another thing I’m paying attention to is the wonderful but insidious role of storytelling, which can enhance journalism beautifully but can also become treacherous.

Basically, I want to take a look at a genre that hasn’t been one of the standard categories of criticism and do my part to pay it the respect that it’s earned in our culture in this moment. Podcasts are incredibly plentiful and diverse, and I know a great many, but I also feel like I’m on the edge of a very lush forest, curious to see what’s within. So I thought, I better get hiking.

You can find Sarah on Twitter at @asarahlarson.

Bites

  • This is good: “Personal Audio loses its appeal for podcasting patent.” (TechCrunch) And for further background, refer to this episode from This American Life, “When Patents Attack!” (This American Life)
  • The Ringer’s Paolo Uggetti takes on the podcast speed listening question, as part of the site’s “Inefficiency Week” editorial package. (The Ringer)
  • Props to TheNew Yorker Radio Hour for giving us the Scaramucci tapes. (WNYC) Speaking of which, did you know that he actually has his own podcast called, uh, The Motivation Inside (TMI)? Yeah. I can’t wrap my head around this. (Apple Podcasts)
  • Not directly related to podcasts, but nothing happens in a vacuum: “For the new far right, YouTube has become the new talk radio.” Plus, the ideological alignments between digital formats is a theme we’ve visited before. (NYT Magazine)

Piggybanks photo by Subash BGK used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Aug. 8, 2017, 11:08 a.m.
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