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Aug. 29, 2017, 10:38 a.m.

Which is the bigger morning news podcast, The Daily or NPR’s Up First? And does it matter?

Plus: Gimlet launches a history show, DGital Media rebrands, and the launch of a new “improvised sci-fi sitcom.”

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 134, published August 29, 2017.

Art19 closes out a busy August. Last week, the California-based technology company announced a $7.5 million Series A funding round led by Bertelsmann Digital Media Investments and DCM Ventures. This makes Art19 the third podcast venture to issue such a pronouncement this month, after Gimlet Media and DGital Media (which now goes by a whole different name, by the way — more on that in a bit).

Sean Carr, Art19’s CEO, tells me that the new funds will primarily be used to increase its headcount and reach. “We’re going to accelerate product development by hiring more designers and developers,” he said. “And we’re going to expand our business team so that we can continue offering high touch support to our U.S. customers and start expanding into international markets.”

I asked if Art19 was going to maintain its focus on bigger clients (its customer list includes Wondery, the New York Times, and DGital Media, among others, and it’s also the default hosting choice for Midroll Media’s network) or whether there were plans to open up its platform for the broader self-serve, plug-and-play market that’s primarily cornered by older companies like Libsyn, which continues to grow. (Libsyn’s revenues grew 22 percent between 2015 and 2016, up to about $8.8 million, while its number of hosted podcasts grew 24 percent in that same time period, according to its 10-K.)

“We work with some smaller shows and individual users now,” Carr tells me. “It’s not our focus now, because we want to offer white glove support to our customers and that’s tough to do with a lot of volume. But as we scale our business, we will definitely broaden our product offering and our target market.”

That’s one way to do it, I guess.

A rose by any other name. DGital Media, the podcast company that provides production and ad sales support to organizations like Crooked Media and individual talent like Tony Kornheiser, is undergoing a substantial rebranding. It will now go by the name of Cadence13, and the company accompanied this announcement with news of several additions to its leadership team. You can find the full list of those people in the press release. Nothing really stands out to me in particular, other than the detail concerning the company’s intent to cultivate more logistics-related capabilities throughout the country.

They’ve also moved their offices to midtown Manhattan, in case anybody cares about the significance of corporate real estate. (FWIW, I totally do.)

Anyway, this development comes shortly after the announcement earlier this month that the company has received investment from (and is entering a strategic partnership with) the corporate broadcast radio giant Entercom. Specifically, Entercom paid $9.7 million for a 45 percent stake in Cadence13, and the former will also provide “‘significant’ annual marketing and promotion” across its broadcast infrastructure for the latter. I wrote about that situation, and provided some long-term analysis for the company, here. My thinking on the matter remains largely the same.

Also interesting, I suppose: The company’s client list now includes Girlboss Media, which recently relaunched its podcast. That podcast was once part of the Panoply network, curiously enough.

Can I get a topic, any topic? Podcasting has long been good shelter for the comedy world, consistently proving itself able in taking on many parts of that ecosystem. It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that (really longform) improvisational comedy would make its way into podcasting and germinate into a budding sub-genre of its own. Hello from the Magic Tavern, a child of the Chicago Podcast Collective and now a fully grown teenager under the auspices of Earwolf, is perhaps the first prominent example of (excessively longform) improvisational comedy distributed through RSS feeds, and it appears that its success is breeding successors.

Described as an “improvised sci-fi sitcom,” Mission to Zyxx is an upcoming podcast project that seeks to blend the instant world-building tasks inherent to improv with aggressive editing and creative sound design. It’s being spearheaded by one Alden Ford, a New York-based comedian, who currently serves as the show’s executive producer, and the podcast is staffed by a team principally drafted from the New York comedy scene — the press release makes some hay about its distinction from the more prominent Los Angeles scene — including Jeremy Bent, Allie Kokesh, Winston Noel, Moujan Zolfaghari, and Seth Lind (who, by the way, also serves as This American Life’s director of operations).

Somewhat more germane to our interests is the fact that the project is part of Audioboom’s initial foray into original programming, whose rollout is well underway. That slate also includes: another podcast from the Undisclosed team called The 45th, which is another Trump analysis show, and a new upcoming project by the team behind Up and Vanished, called Fork, among others.

What does being part of Audioboom’s network mean for the Zyxx team, exactly? I’m told that the deal involves Audioboom paying an advance to offset production costs, along with generally being responsible for a substantial marketing push around the show’s launch. (Which is table-stakes stuff, as far as such arrangements go these days.) And in case you’re wondering, the Mission to Zyxx team is compensated based on a revenue split, as is customary.

Facts and figures and trust. Last week saw the publication of two documents — one from the research firm Nielsen, one from the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) — that are both meant, in their own ways, to increase trust, familiarity, and the general level of knowability in podcasting among advertisers. (They’re also meant to increase the profiles of their respective publishers within their respective functions; for Nielsen, it’s to serve as a prime provider of business intelligence for the industry, and for the IAB, it’s to serve as a reliable advocate for the industry, in so far that it can.)

Nielsen’s document, “Podcast Insights Report,” is the first podcast-related inquiry for the research firm, and it attempts to say something about the shopping habits of the average podcast consumer in relation to particular item categories. Specifically, it examines the preferred brands and spending volumes of podcast listeners in bottled water, beer, and baby food categories (a curiously alliterative mix). It’s a useful tool for sellers to add to their kit, but it’s also fairly interesting to skim through if you’re a civilian — there are tidbits like “the podcast audience influences over $2.8 billion of bottled water sales annually,” and “popular beer brands among podcast consumers include Sam Adams and Coors,” stuff like that.

Also interesting in the report: a more general demographic finding that non-white podcast listenership has increased over the past six years, from 30 percent in 2010 to 36 percent in 2016.

Published ahead of its third annual podcast upfronts, the IAB’s document is a “playbook” designed to introduce potential brands, advertisers, and marketers to the basics of buying into the medium. In other words, it’s another primer for the space, albeit one with the officiating stamp of a fairly well-known trade association.

I wouldn’t underestimate the marketing value that these documents provide the podcast space as a whole. The world is big and complex and made up of many, many little bubbles, and such badges of honor go a long way in opening up the podcast industry’s relationships with new companies in previously untouched sectors.

On a related note: While we’re talking about intelligence reports, you might be interested in a recent study conducted by NuVoodoo, a research and marketing firm, and Amplifi Media on podcast discovery and consumption that was presented in last week’s Podcast Movement conference. InsideRadio has a full rundown of the findings, but remember: Take the study as one piece of a much larger mosaic. (Or, you know, one of those color dots that collectively make up like a more tangible image. Or TV pixels. Whatever. You know what I mean.)

Speaking of the IAB, just got this info from a Midroll Media rep last night:

In October, Stitcher will be making changes to align its downloading definitions with some of the emerging standards put forth by the IAB. This will give podcasters more standardized, accurate, and granular data about their shows…As part of this change, some podcasters may see an increase or decrease in the downloads attributed in Stitcher. Ultimately, the data podcasters receive from Stitcher will be more accurate and more useful for shows looking to grow, work with advertisers and gain insight into their performance.

Take note.

Preamble: All right, before I move on to the next story, which is about the way we read metrics, impute success, and orient shows in relation to one another — a story that somewhat continues last week’s discussion on daily news podcasts, The New York Times’ The Daily and NPR’s Up First — I have to first establish the following:

The New York Times’ The Daily averaged more than 750,000 downloads every weekday in August, a spokesperson from the organization told me. Which, you know, is pretty remarkable growth from the 500,000 number that was listed in the Vanity Fair feature from last month.

And as a reminder, last week NPR informed me that “Up First currently reaches a weekly unique audience of almost a million users,” with “97 percent of Up First listeners say that the podcast is part of their morning routine and 80 percent say that they listen every day.”

With that out of the way…

Safety in numbers. I’m going to preface all this by saying the following discussion may come off as a tremendous bit of navel-gazing — even by the standards of this newsletter — but I nonetheless think this story has a lot to say about measurements, milestones, and the way we think about “success” in an emerging industry still in need of public serious arbiters of value.

So, for last week’s issue of Hot Pod, I wrote up this whole thing about Vox Media’s upcoming daily news podcast, the strategic openings in that product genre, and drew pretty heavily from the adventures of NPR and The New York Times in that arena. It was, I thought, a wide-ranging and interesting discussion that examined the question of how best to design your way into a field that’s competitive and, in some ways, already pretty well defined.

But it seems that readers were most compelled to the off-handed statement I made pitting Up First against The Daily — which, of course, is a tricky proposition given that each uses different metrics to publicly indicate performance and therefore lacks a fundamental baseline of comparison. The Daily has been using the download to convey its size, while Up First has been using a “unique weekly audience” metric that they gleaned off an in-house analytics tool from an outside company called Splunk, a move that falls from NPR’s broader commitment to move beyond the download. “The differences in metric might make an apples-to-apples comparison complicated for those interesting in doing so,” I wrote. “But I think the victor is pretty clear.”

The reader reaction to that off-handed sentence was exceptionally voluminous, and that indicated two things to me: (a) I was quite wrong in thinking that the victor was all that clear, and (b) people really, really wanted to know who won.

I quickly grew doubtful of my original assessment on the matter, so I felt it appropriate to dig more deeply into the question and explore the shape of its context a little further. And to do that, I traded emails Velvet Beard, the vice president of podcast analytics at Podtrac, which verifies audience sizes and download performance (using its own “unique monthly audience” metric) for a lot of major podcast providers — including both NPR and The New York Times.

You might know Podtrac from the public-facing industry ranker they publish every month — which I have some issues with as an exclusive conveyor of value for the podcast space as a whole due to its somewhat incomplete participant pool, as I wrote about when the ranker originally rolled out last year, but which I have eventually come to accept the ranker as a useful reference sheet for generally assessing what’s up with the market. In my correspondence with Beard, I wanted to learn two things: What should be the right metric to make evaluative comparisons between shows, and what was her opinion on the matter of Up First vs. The Daily?

To begin with, Beard dismissed the notion of ranking one over the other, arguing that the emphasis shouldn’t really about who “won” but rather about how there’s room in the market for two large competitive shows. (An overwhelmingly reasonable point.) And with respect to the question of the appropriate comparative metric, she expounded upon Podtrac’s choice to go with a “unique monthly audience” paradigm as opposed to, say, downloads: it better controls for varying publishing schedules, because you can’t meaningfully compare a daily show with a weekly show with a weekly show that’s deploys more than a few bonus episodes. In her reply, Beard also brought up a range of other valuable points, including how an open conversation about relative successes might disincentivize publishers from verifying their measurements and the differing definitions of “success” in the industry. (It’s a really interesting discussion, and I’ll run the full Q&A after this.)

Beard is, of course, absolutely correct in her assertion that the notion of who “won” shouldn’t be all that important, because it’s not like we exist in some zero-sum, winner-takes-all market. (Nor would we want to. Good lord no.) But I do think it’s somewhat useful to make direct comparisons between shows and to determine who’s serving more audiences (and how deeply) — particularly when you’re able to appropriately match up the two editorial products as exactly as we can with The Daily and Up First. From matchups like these, we can say something about the efficacy of each player’s choices and their capacities to make choices, and we can further draw other actionable lessons like:

  • Did NPR’s straightforward adaptation of Morning Edition pay off better than the more experimental machinations of the Times’ audio team? Or did they pay off equally, and if so, what’s the significance of that?
  • Which type of design gambit better resonated with the current composition of overall podcast listenership, the answer to which could be useful for future show development?
  • Was NPR able to maintain its various competitive advantages as the incumbent in the audio medium, and what we can say about its decision-making and creative leadership as follows from that question?

So, that’s my broader thinking about the premise of this inquiry. But, returning to the original inquiry itself, was I able to come up with a clear victor between the two shows? Let’s break it down:

  • As mentioned earlier, The Daily received at least 750,000 downloads every weekday in August. That’s tremendous, indicating some measure of high engagement.
  • We don’t have a way to figure out The Daily’s listenership on a weekly unique audience paradigm, but we can work from the other direction. Up First reports having “a weekly unique audience of almost a million users,” and that “80 percent say that they listen every day.” If we’re being fairly conservative and peg the weekly uniques to, say, 950,000, we’re talking about a volume of at least 760,000 every weekday — comparable to the level The Daily topped each weekday in August.

It’s close! You could theoretically call this close to a neck-and-neck draw, or even a slight advantage to Up First despite launching three months after its competitor. But then again, you could also say that it sure is something that a relative newcomer to the audio space — admittedly, one with the resources and pedigree of the Times — has been able to pretty effectively match the public radio mothership, whose incumbency is built on decades and decades of experience in audio news. Further, you could say that there’s a sense that the terms and outcome of this matchup are far from being finished; as previously established, The Daily’s growth in recent months, from a daily average of 500,000 in June/July or so up to a daily minimum of 750,000 in August, suggests a show that’s coming further into its own and increasingly reaping the benefits of self-discovery.

As always, I’ll be keeping my eye on this.

Q&A with Velvet Beard. As I mentioned, here it is in full:

Hot Pod: The Podtrac industry ranker is built on a “unique monthly audience” paradigm, which stands separate and apart from the general “downloads” metric that’s generally used to discuss show performance. Let me start by asking why you guys decided to focus on the “unique monthly” metric.

Velvet Beard: As you know, Podtrac began in 2005 providing free podcast measurement and demographic services to publishers with the aim of gathering the information on podcast audiences that advertisers needed to make ad buys. By late 2015, when the podcast renaissance was in full swing, we began to hear consistently from advertisers that they were interested in podcasting but confused about download metrics. It was clear to advertisers that even the definition of a download was different from publisher to publisher and this kept some advertisers on the sidelines which was frustrating to the publishers we work with.

Here’s how one podcast advertiser put it to Digiday:

The way that some of these tools piece together these download numbers can be bizarre, confusing, and not necessarily the most accurate representation of what’s actually happening…You’d be surprised how many podcasts don’t even have analytics on their downloads.

We knew that unique monthly audience is an important metric used in other types of digital media because it enables planners to consider monthly audience reach regardless of potential impressions served. Given Podtrac’s 10-plus years of measurement data and experience, we realized we were in a unique position to create an audience/reach metric that would be consistent across publishers and shows whether episodes post daily, twice a week, weekly, or even less frequently.

HP: When we were emailing, you mentioned that the choice between the metrics depends on “how the industry wants to ultimately define success.” What do you mean by that, and can you walk me through the thinking?

Beard: We didn’t create the audience metric to “define success,” but to help advertisers understand what they are buying (audience reach) and publishers understand how many unique people their content reaches. But out of that did come a ranking which does lead to comparisons and implications of success.

Given that, what I was trying to say in regard to choosing a metric for success is that it depends on what the objective is. So again, while setting a success metric was not our intention, I do think this is super interesting to think about. If the publisher/advertiser/industry most values reach/influence, then having the largest unique audience would make you the most successful. If ad revenue is most valued, then having the most impressions to sell (unique downloads) would make you the most successful (though I guess you would have to sell the inventory to capitalize and seal the deal on this success).

And maybe it isn’t how the industry “ultimately defines success,” but maybe there are multiple potential metrics used for different purposes and so there could be multiple winners depending on how you look at it although right now at the publisher level I would say these two metrics track. That is, NPR has by far the largest unique audience and I would venture to say generates the most ad revenue.

HP: From your vantage point, could you walk me through the advantages of using “weekly uniques” over “downloads”? And, if you could flip that on its head for a moment, what are the advantages of using “downloads” over “weekly uniques”?

Beard: I’m going to assume you are asking about the advantages of unique audience over unique downloads as a metric to determine a show/publisher’s success/ranking, since I think both numbers are valuable and have their uses and I don’t think we should throw either of them out.

(We don’t actually publish a weekly unique number right now, although we do have publishers asking. Right now we are calculating monthly audience.)

This is a bit in the weeds, but for a weekly podcast, the weekly unique download number for an episode is the unique audience number for that episode. So we don’t calculate unique audience at the episode level but at the show level and at the publisher level.

What the unique audience number lets us do is understand the overlap in listeners to a show across episodes or overlap in listeners across all shows for a publisher during a specific period of time — which right now is monthly.

The general advantage I see to a unique audience number versus a download number is that it controls for number of episodes/impressions served and measures more accurately how many people are actually listening to a show or a publisher’s shows. So if we looked at only download numbers to compare shows, then, daily shows will have a huge advantage over weekly shows in their ability to generate downloads (5-7 times more opportunities), but that doesn’t mean they are reaching any more people. So this advantage holds if what you want to understand is your audience = how many individual people you are reaching, which is something that advertisers are interested in. Audience numbers also fluctuate less than download numbers as downloads are influenced a lot by adding a bonus episode, doing a promotion of an episode or other one-off activities which may or may not bring in new audience members but usually always increase downloads.

The “advantages” of using downloads to compare shows/publishers are probably that it is easier for the general public and less sophisticated publishers to understand and that the numbers are always larger — which makes everyone feel better. :-)

HP: So, I’m personally of the opinion that it’s valuable and productive to be able to pit two comparable shows — say, a daily news podcast vs. another daily news podcast — against each other and be able to tell who has come out on top. I think you disagree with me on this. What’s your perspective on this issue?

Beard: If two shows are in our top 20, it means they are highly successful in gaining audience. So you could say which has more than the other, but it might be more interesting/productive to ask why these two are more popular than others in their category.

I’d be interested to understand what value you see coming out of the pitting of two shows against one another, unless it is for an advertiser to choose where to put their money? In that case I think that already happens everyday on media plans — just not publicly. We really did create the rankings to help raise the visibility of podcasts and try to help advertisers be more comfortable with podcast metrics in an effort to grow the pie for everyone. Publishers like NPR and HowStuffWorks saw the value in this and were eager to participate.

To my mind, “pitting” one show against another at this point in the industry’s development could be counterproductive in that “losers” will not want to share data and could then become even further incentivized to create their own numbers. I think we already see this at the publisher level. Maybe once the industry has stabilized around success metrics this type of public comparison becomes more useful, however, I still say pitting of shows against one another based on just one metric (audience or downloads) seems overly simplistic as it doesn’t consider demographics, distribution and access points, audience-host connection, etc. It seems more useful for multiple publishers to consider their shows successful and then be able to differentiate them to audiences and advertisers based on those factors.

The feedback from publishers and advertisers in regard to the rankings using unique U.S. audience has been very positive, and having most top podcast publishers embrace transparency in this way is helping more and more brands understand the space and build confidence in their podcast advertising decisions.

Bites

  • Gimlet Media has announced its latest podcast: Uncivil, which seeks to “brings you stories that were left out of the official history of the Civil War, ransacks America’s past, and takes on the history you grew up with.” It will be hosted by Chenjerai Kumanyika and Jack Hitt. You might remember Kumanyika from the great Scene on the Radio series Seeing White, and Hitt is a longtime journalist whose works have appeared on This American Life and in The New York Times Magazine. Launches October 4. (Uncivil)
  • ESPN has makes two additions to its podcast portfolio ahead of football season: one new college football show and one new weekday NFL show. They’re also rolling out “bonus” conversation episodes in the 30 for 30 feed. (Press release)
  • For some reason, I’ve been asked multiple times this week whether I had any intel on when WNYC’s More Perfect will return for a second season. I don’t know much beyond what’s publicly available, which is that it’ll be back sometime in fall. That team takes its time, y’know? (Twitter)
  • Hmm. “Leela Kids opens up the world of podcasts to children.” (TechCrunch)
  • This is fascinating: “Love it or hate it, truckers say they can’t stop listening to public radio.” (Current) As an aside, while reading this I couldn’t stop thinking about the coming effects of automation on those jobs. (Quartz, The Atlantic)
  • Remember, the Channels initiative isn’t Audible’s only foray into original content. “Mother Go is an audio-first novel that harkens back to the golden-age of sci-fi.” (The Verge)
  • Reveal’s Al Letson is an American treasure. (Reveal)

Photo by kokotron bcm used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Aug. 29, 2017, 10:38 a.m.
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