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Nov. 21, 2017, 9:48 a.m.

Can Canada build its own independent podcast industry in the True North strong and free?

Plus: Everybody’s suddenly making podcasts for kids, a show reveals itself as part-fiction in its grand finale, and mixing podcasts and dating apps.

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 141, published November 21, 2017.

Lock down that turkey, folks. And for you vegans, long live the Garsquashroom.

Notes from north of the border. When it comes to the Canadian podcast industry, there seems to be a lot to talk about. At least, that’s what I found after writing up last month’s report from Ulster Media and The Globe and Mail about the country’s podcast listening statistics. That study, which you can find here, provided an independent sizing of the country’s overall podcast listenership: 24 percent of Canadians over the age of 18, or 7 million people, report consuming podcasts at least once a month. (A straightforward comparison with American numbers is tricky; Edison Research’s numbers place monthly podcast listenership in the U.S. at around 24 percent of the American population, or an estimated 67 million people, but its survey pool was of adults over the age of 12, not 18.)

My writeup of the study was meant to be a quick one: I saw the report, pulled the most salient data points, and ran it with some broad contextualizing details. But response to the item was considerable. Canadian readers and podcasters made themselves known in my inbox, and non-Canadian readers wrote in wanting to know more; the country’s podcast industry, as one reader expressed, often feels “like a black box, more or less.”

And so I spent some time over the past few weeks emailing around, trying to dig up information and additional insight into what’s going on in the great white north — even if I’m well aware of the follies embedded in any attempt to adequately capture the complexities of a country’s industry in newsletter dispatches. (Hell, I’ve been writing about the American podcast industry for three years now, and I’m still haunted by the acute sense that I only ever really see a fraction of what’s truly going on.)

Over the next few newsletters, I’ll be publishing a few stories that hopefully, as a collective, serves as a workable entry-point into the Canadian podcast industry. This week, I’ll be kicking things off with the independent news organization Canadaland. Next Tuesday, I’ll spend some ink on the Quebec region and on the machinations of an indigenous media company called Indian & Cowboys. Finally, in the week after that, I’ll round things up with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, along with some more general observations.

So, why start with Canadaland? Simple: because it’s interesting.

Scrappy. “There are no major players. There is no industry,” said Jesse Brown, founder of Canadaland, the independent news organization and podcast network. “Canada is five years behind the U.S. with professional podcasting, at least.”

Brown, of course, was one of the first people I wanted to trade emails with about Canadian podcasting, given his prominence as a media critic in the country and the fact that he’s a close observer of local industry dynamics out of necessity. Further, Canadaland has consistently popped up across conversations I’ve had about the country, looked upon as both symbol and test case for a longstanding question: Can an independent news organization exist in Canada? Can an independent podcast network? (Those questions, as you could imagine, are equally deployable with respect to the United States.)

At this point in time, the case continues to be tested. “So, Canadaland sells our own ads to brands like Casper and Hello Fresh, and we work with Midroll to sell to Squarespace and other familiar podcast advertisers,” Brown wrote, when asked about his adventures in podcast advertising. “Our founding sponsor was Freshbooks, a Canadian company. But one or two Canadian brands does not a industry or ecosystem make.” Canada has unique problem with advertising, in Brown’s formulation, as its smaller population means that advertising alone won’t be enough to sustain podcasting at a professional level. Which is why Canadaland is structured as a hybrid business built on both ad sales and crowdfunding, with the latter engine being positioned as the primary driver of the business. At this writing, the company’s Patreon account enjoys over 4,500 supporters and brings in over $22,000 a month.

Brown believes the crowdfunding model is replicable throughout the country — “nobody really knew who I was before Canadaland, so I don’t think I had any special powers in that respect,” he claimed — but he seems ultimately dubious on whether that opportunity will be capitalized upon anytime soon. “The usual Canadian dynamics are at work,” he said. “It’s far more attractive to young talent to try to break into American podcasting than to try to build our own industry from scratch. The Heart and Heavyweight are touch points, and people like Chris Berube and Drew Nelles have shown that they have marketable skills, if they are willing to move. Entrepreneurial efforts are sadly scarce. It’s sad that Canada is a laggard in this, given that the CBC has an amazing history of pioneering audio storytelling.”

Whether he’s right on the crowdfunding model’s replicability remains to be seen. Some observers I’ve spoken with are hopeful about the company’s position, but hold some reservation about its emphasis on news, an editorial focus that’s notoriously difficult to scale. They point to the fact that the company’s biggest successes (and presumed bumps in direct support) have been fundamentally tethered to its ability to break news — as it did with its scoops on Jian Ghomeshi, Peter Mansbridge, and Rebel Media — and how that offers an extremely high bar to clear for growth and sustainability.

Still, I imagine this might be a contestable point, and that some might believe this to be a more direct alignment between mission and business model as far as a journalistic organization is concerned. Other sources have also insisted in pointing out Brown’s recent attainment of wealth as the cofounder of Bitstrips, the maker of Bitmoji that sold to Snapchat for an estimated $100 million or so in March 2016, and how that development may render any external reading of Canadaland’s financial health a little more complicated. (I can barely wrap my own head around it.)

But Brown’s observation on the country’s entrepreneurial chutzpah might prove to be the question that’s more fundamental to whatever the future of podcasting in Canada looks like. And that’s much more complicated to parse out; it has, I think, everything to do with factors like the availability of capital, being around potential partners and acquirers, and miscellaneous elements of social and cultural support.

More next week.

Additional material. The CBC’s Lindsay Michael was kind enough to point me to two fantastic resources when researching the scene: this overview of the Canadian industry by Erica Ngao for the Ryerson Review of Journalism, and the Podcast Playlist’s Canadian Podcast Database.

Swipe. So this is interesting: An independent podcast, Food 4 Thot, has formed a publishing relationship with Grindr, in which potential fans can now discover the show right off the latter’s app. The partnership also sees the podcast featured on Grindr’s recently launched digital magazine, INTO. Here’s the announcement post on how the arrangement will work:

When you open your lovely Grindr app (we know you have it) the show will pop down with a quick summary of what this week has in store for you from topics to guests to tea — with sometimes even a quick audio preview of the episode if you ask nicely — before being brought to INTO where you can subscribe and listen. Cute, right?

With the placement, the podcast is in a position where it can potentially be exposed to Grindr’s user base — roughly 3 million daily users, according to this AdExchanger report, though it’s worth controlling the relevant number in your head for English-speakers — through what is essentially an in-app house ad. This setup also evokes the ouroboros-esque inquiry of: Just how big is the Venn overlap between being a “platform” and a “media entity” for such companies these days? Or is it more appropriate to think of these operations as one and the same? What is a publisher, anyway?

In case you’re not in the know, Food 4 Thot is an energetic indie roundtable podcast featuring: Tommy Pico, a critically acclaimed indigenous American poet and author; Dennis Norris II, a writer and MacDowell Fellow; Joseph Osmundson, a scientist and memoirist, and Fran Tirado, the executive editor of Hello Mr.

“Right now, our audience is small for a podcast, but big for one that has been 100 percent independently funded and distributed up to this point,” Tirado tells me. “Our eps get anywhere from 12,000 to 20,000 downloads.” The show’s current goal is to grow the listening base up to six figures.

When asked about dream guests, Tirado replied: “Tracee Ellis Ross. With Sasha Velour, Janet Mock, & Cardi B in close seconds.”

Coloring book. “I’m super excited about this project — I’ve been wanting to do something like this for a while,” said Matt Lieber, Gimlet’s president and local dad.

Lieber’s talking about Gimlet’s latest show, a kids podcast, which it’s launching hot on the heels of Panoply’s Pinna initiative and NPR’s Wow in the World. The move comes with an interesting angle: The podcast is a collaboration with Story Pirates, a kids-centric media company and arts-education advocacy group primarily known for letting kids be the ones that tell stories themselves — a commitment to the belief that kids are more original and wildly more creative than anything adults can ever impose on them.

Season 2 of the Story Pirates podcast debuted yesterday under the Gimlet brand, and upcoming episodes will feature appearances from prominent celebrity performers like Kristen Schaal, Billy Eichner, and Conan O’Brien, among others. To accompany the release, they’re publishing a coloring book with stuff for kids to color alongside each episode that parents can download and print out for free. “It’s part of an effort to create a social experience around the show,” Lieber adds.

This marks Gimlet’s latest creative partnership with an external organization, after producing Mogul with Loud Speakers Network. (One could theoretically make the argument that Crimetown also qualifies as a collaboration, given the involvement of The Jinx’s Zac Stuart-Pontier and Marc Smerling. But I’m told it is considered more of an in-house affair.) Is this an increasing part of the company’s strategy? “I wouldn’t say that,” said Lieber. “But our doors are open to partnership, especially if it’s a story or category we haven’t done before.”

I inquired about the podcast’s approach to ads, reflecting upon Panoply and Sparkle Stories’ choice to bypass the advertising-to-kids conundrum altogether with a paid subscription model. Lieber notes that they’re pretty sensitive about being exceedingly clear that the ads are targeted towards parents, and not the children. “We’re working that out right now,” he said, when I asked about the design choices to reflect that. “You won’t be seeing ads for sugar or candy.”

Gotcha. By the way, how was Gimlet’s 2017?

“It’s been a great year,” Lieber said, flashing his trademark confidence. He tells me that business has doubled, and that the company is working on things that will blow people away in the coming months, and that Gimlet Creative, too, has had a strong year, growing into “the defining agency in the digital audio world.”

He also points to what I think is the company’s defining thread of 2017: its very loud success in building out an intellectual property pipeline into the lucrative film and television business. “This is a year where Homecoming went from an audio project to something that will become one of the tentpole projects for Amazon next year starring Julia Roberts,” he said. (Also worth noting: Last week saw the announcement that Crimetown, too, will be heading to television with FX. No surprises there, frankly, given the creative team’s television roots.)

“We’ve set the stage for next year,” he concluded.

On a related note: Perhaps sensing something in the winds, a WNYC spokesperson reached out unannounced yesterday evening to remind me of the existence of their own upcoming forays into the kids podcasting space: This Podcast Has Fleas, which comes out of a partnership with Koyalee Chanda and Adam Peltzman, and Pickle, a co-production with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Both shows are set to launch sometime in December. The station has also produced a standalone website for its kids programming.

Binders full of editors. I’ve previously written about editor scarcity and its discontents in podcast-land, something that continues to plague a lot of teams even today. (If you missed it, here’s the link to the column, which features a solid discussion with NPR’s Alison MacAdam.) I haven’t spotted much formal development on the matter in the intervening year, save for this one: Megan Tan, the host and creator of the now-retired Millennial, has assembled a spreadsheet of narratively-oriented audio editors who are available for work. She describes the type of editors that she’s included into the document as follows:

People who act as a bird’s eye over your house as you build it, by hand, from the ground up. They would provide feedback on drafts and maybe some written line suggestions here and there, but they don’t touch the tape at all. They would provide feedback on structure, help you hone in on universal themes, driving questions, plot points, character development, get rid of shitty tape, and emphasize great tape, etc.

Or, in other words, “the people you call when you can’t hear your piece anymore because you’ve heard it too many times.”

Tan’s impulse to create the speadsheet rose after her former editor on Millennial transitioned to work at a network full-time, putting her in the search for a suitable replacement. “All of a sudden, I had to find an editor who could speak the same story-structure language, who understood character development, archetypes, thresholds, and who I trusted to help me define the edges of my episodes and strip the fat off a piece when I was immersed in the weeds…AND who also fit my budget,” she said.

The resulting process left her with some pressing takeaways. Among them: “More than anything, I wanted to find someone who ‘got it,'” Tan explained. “When you’re first starting out, you don’t really understand the number of genres, styles, and approaches to radio that exist. Hiring ‘an editor’ doesn’t mean that editor is the best fit for your show.”

With a particular focus on that kind of matchmaking, she hopes the spreadsheet can set producers up with good pairings — and surface this species of editors often thought to be “hard to find,” despite their high demand. “Ideally, this Google Sheet becomes the telephone book for those people,” she said.

You can find the spreadsheet here.

Bait and switch. This is a tricky one, and it involves a mea culpa on my part. Last week saw the conclusion of the latest series in Radiotopia’s Showcase initiative, called The Polybius Conspiracy, which saw the “audio documentary” reveal itself to be — spoiler alert, I guess — in large part fictional. This comes after a run in which the show mostly carried itself as a work of nonfiction, though it never said as much outright. (For what it’s worth, the inverse was also true: The show never explicitly identified itself as a piece of fiction either.) Many reviewers, including myself, approached the show off its conduct (and initial press signaling) as a piece of nonfiction, and I would ultimately write a review for Vulture off the first three episodes to that effect. “A seven-part audio documentary,” was how I described it, working from the press release and various assumptions I internally made about the Showcase initiative.

The podcast sought to explore an Oregonian urban legend and conspiracy theory of a mysterious arcade cabinet that started bubbling up around the ’80s, one in which the myth describes a game so addictive that it caused weird things to happen to people when they stopped playing. Polybius, the podcast, was narratively structured around a main subject who claimed to have been the victim of a traumatic incident as a result of the arcade cabinet, and a good deal of the resulting drama falls from the tension about whether that the incident actually happened or not. The show essentially uses the narrative conceit as a way to explore the shape and textures of urban legends — and, to some extent, the way a person deals with trauma. Of course, by the end of the show’s run, we learn that the central character was a fictional invention, and that much of the stakes involved weren’t as high, or as meaningful, as one would initially think it was.

Slate’s Jacob Brogan was the first, I believe, to raise the question about the show’s claim to documentary, and he rightfully called me — along with other reviewers — out for taking the bait. And it seemed Radiotopia eventually received enough pushback to address the matter in a blog post. Here’s the most relevant portion:

The Polybius Conspiracy itself takes on the form of the urban mythology it interrogates, wrapping layers of conjecture and invention around elements of truth and nostalgia. As a network, we value the overall ideas and cultural critique built into the series. We do apologize to listeners who were disappointed to discover that the story isn’t completely true, and felt we intentionally misled them by not stating outright, from the beginning, that the story was a blend of fact and fiction.

Thinking through the whole situation a little more, I will say I’ve come to find myself pretty annoyed by the ordeal. Annoyed, partly for what felt like a completely unnecessary embellishment on the creative team’s part, particularly these days when the notion of reality, digital and otherwise, seems especially politically fraught and sensitive. Maybe there’s a version of this show, interrogating this idea, that earns this sleight of hand; this podcast, however, wasn’t that.

But mostly, I’m annoyed by the fact that I let the ball fly right by me, that I was played a fool, that I wasn’t skeptical of the show enough to double down on a double check. To some extent, perhaps I’m still operating with kid’s gloves as an observer and critic of the space, working off an internal assumption that the space is still small and young and should still constantly be given the benefit of the doubt due to its youth. But at the end of day, I shouldn’t be automatically taking things as face value, as there are potential negative ramifications to overlooking something like this on my part. So, I’ll be taking the L on this one.

Over the weekend, a few readers wrote me inquiring as to whether this incident raises some larger questions about norms and ethics in the space — if we’re seeing some editorial crisis in what appears to be a tendency among certain corners of the podcast ecosystem to aggressively flirt with evoking journalistic or documentary tropes to build fictional spaces. (One reader pointed to the constant use of the technique by another Radiotopia show, by way of example.) I’m not quite sure if we’re in such a “crisis” just yet, though I’m tempted to agree with the broader critical focus on the community’s norms: one thing that I do constantly find myself perturbed by is the relatively unchecked nature of certain true crime podcasts and their interaction with real, physical lives and communities, which is itself a direct extension of transgressions we’re seeing elsewhere in digital media.

But I’ll hold my tongue — and my pen — on that one for now, lest I succumb to hypocrisy. I did, after all, just fall for The Polybius Conspiracy’s ruse.

Career Spotlight. I’m a casual fan of The Black Tapes and its associated “Pacific Northwest Stories” fiction podcasts — there’s something about its public access feel that gets me — but I’ve long admired the team for just how far they’ve come. (Tanis, one of their projects, is currently being developed for television.) This week, I traded emails with Paul Bae, one of the show’s creators who recently rolled out a new show called The Big Loop, to get a sense of where he is with himself these days.

Hot Pod: Tell me about your current situation.

Paul Bae: I live and work out of my home in Vancouver, B.C., writing and producing the audio drama anthology series The Big Loop. I also walk the dogs my girlfriend adopts. So far, we’re sticking to an intake limit of three.

Hot Pod: How did you get to this point? What does your career arc thus far look like?

Bae: I used to be an evangelical youth pastor back in the early 90s. When I lost my faith in the mid-’90s, Jesus and my wife walked out the door. (Black Tapes fans: “Is that why Dr. Richard Strand is such a bitter atheist with a missing wife complex?” Hmmm.)

I then turned to teaching high school English for the next seven years. But my parents always hated the idea. They — my very Korean parents — initially wanted me to be a stand-up comedian. They were casual fans of Johnny Carson and David Letterman and they somehow got it into their heads that I could do that. (If you’re wondering where I get the confidence to ditch everything to attempt to scratch out a living making podcasts, this is it.)

So I started doing stand-up comedy in 2000, and eventually landed a TV gig hosting a small, daily news-comedy show in Vancouver. When that folded a year later in 2010, I found myself tired of touring the standup circuit. So I returned to teaching.

That’s when my friend Terry Miles approached me about making a podcast together. And that led to The Black Tapes, which was a lot of fun and a tremendous learning experience.

With The Big Loop, I have a chance to turn everything I’ve learned into a more intimate listening experience with stories that are more personal to me.

Hot Pod: What does a career mean to you, at this point?

Bae: I’ve been writing my whole adult life. That has been the one constant for me. The part I love most about this career is knowing that whatever I write is now going to have an audience almost immediately. If I can make a living out of this, that would mean the world to me. Since I’ve made this foray into podcasting, my girlfriend has had to do all the heavy lifting regarding our finances. I’m hoping I can take that over and let her have a turn resting at home with our dogs.

Hot Pod: When you started out, what did you think you wanted to do?

Bae: When Terry hit “publish” on the first two episodes of The Black Tapes in 2015, I had no idea what was going to happen. I don’t think I even fully understood what podcasting was at the time. To me, it was This American Life and 99% Invisible. That’s it. But I knew we had a potential hit. Personally, I had hoped to gain a good audience and open some doors for my fiction writing. Making a career of podcasting didn’t even enter my mind.

Then, one day in early 2016, I listened to Love + Radio for the first time and it stopped me in my tracks. I thought, “This is what podcasting can do. It’s way more than I thought it was.” And it changed everything for me. And I hope people recognize that influence in The Big Loop.

Bites:

  • Sarah Larson penned a great — and more importantly, holistic — snapshot piece on Third Coast Festival that came out over the weekend, and you shouldn’t miss it. (The New Yorker) Feel free to pair that with my own notes from last week, which I’ve broken out into a separate post here.
  • High-level turmoil at NPR continues: Roger LaMay, NPR Board chairman and general manager of Philadelphia public radio music station WXPN, announced last week that he was stepping down at the end of his second one-year term. But NPR also reports that “LaMay is the subject of a complaint filed with NPR alleging past inappropriate behavior.” (NPR)
  • Slate is launching a series about what it was like to live through the days of Watergate, called Slow Burn. It’s hosted by Leon Neyfakh, produced with Andrew Parsons, and slated to launch on November 28. (Apple Podcasts)
  • Speaking of Slate, sister company Panoply worked off a news hook this week, repackaging You Must Remember This’ stellar Charles Manson season into its own standalone podcast after news of Manson’s passing hit the newsreels. This is the second Manson-related podcast to emerge in recent weeks; Wondery currently has its own take on the subject in the podcast charts as well. One day, we’ll see such energy for something other than true crime and morbidity. But this is not that day.
  • “I’m that dude from the ad about background checks where I put a rifle together blindfolded.” Celeste Katz writes up the latest Crooked Media podcast, Majority 54, that comes with a Q&A with host Jason Kander. (Newsweek)
  • The Death, Sex & Money team has rounded up some podcast recs from some famous friends for Turkey Day. (Medium)

Photo of a Canadaland fan wearing a Canadaland t-shirt by Rebecca W used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Nov. 21, 2017, 9:48 a.m.
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