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Nov. 7, 2017, 9:55 a.m.
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If podcasts and radio move to smart speakers, who will be directing us what to listen to?

Plus: Pandora leans into podcasts, NPR has a leadership crisis, and Limetown and 30 for 30 plan returns.

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 139, published November 7, 2017.

Charla de Cóctel. Slate Podcasts is now bilingual. Last week, the network leveraged its hefty experience with conversational programming — which birthed the style known as the “gabfest” — to launch what it bills as its first-ever Spanish language product, El Gabfest en Español. The lineup includes León Krauze, the main anchor at Univision’s KMEX station in Los Angeles and the Wallis Annenberg Chair in Journalism at USC; Fernando Pizarro, a political reporter for Univision’s local TV stations; and Ariel Moutsatsos, the Washington bureau chief for Noticieros Televisa. (A fourth panelist will be added at a later date.) The podcast comes out of a collaboration with Univision Noticias, the Spanish-language American news source, but I’m told that Slate has full editorial control over the project. Paulina Velasco, who is based in Los Angeles, serves as the show’s producer.

When I asked the managing producer of Slate Podcasts, June Thomas, about the motivation behind the project, she systematically ticked off the drivers: demographic opportunity (“We know the stats about the growth of Spanish and bilingualism in America,” Thomas said: “37 million Latinos speak Spanish at home; the U.S. Latino population is set to reach 107 million by 2065, etc.”); a largely untapped market (“Everyone working on English-language podcasts worries about market saturation…There are a few U.S.-produced Spanish-language podcasts out there — Radio Ambulante is especially great — but the market is the opposite of saturated”); and Slate’s general intent to seek new audiences to bring into the fold.

That last bit is as much opportunity as it is challenge for Slate Podcasts. “Although lots of bilingual Spanish speakers read Slate, it isn’t an obvious place for people to come to seek out Spanish-language content,” Thomas notes. “So we have to go out and find them.” Thus the Univision Noticias partnership, given the channel’s deep knowledge of the market, its sustained relationship with the demographic, and its growing interest in podcasting as a channel.

Another challenge that Thomas’ team is finding: advertisers. “The direct-response companies that advertise on podcasts work by driving listeners to a site that touts the product’s benefits; many have told us they don’t yet have a Spanish-language website,” Thomas explained. “I don’t want to be too much of a downer, though, some of our brand advertisers are specifically looking for a sophisticated Spanish-speaking audience as they launch new products, and we expect to see more of that business.”

You can check out the show here.

Side note: In my estimation, and do let me know what I’m missing, there seem to be few formal entities explicitly working to serve and build a business around Spanish-speaking podcast listeners. (Granted, I’m a non-Hispanic immigrant who doesn’t speak Spanish, so my natural grasp of that ecosystem is limited.) Among the ones I’m familiar with: Caroline Guerrero and Daniel Alarcón’s aforementioned Radio Ambulante, CNN en Español, and Revolver Podcasts, the network founded by former Univision executive Jack Hobbs. Speaking of which, Hobbs tells me that the network sees about 2.3 million monthly downloads across its 47 shows, and that they, too, enjoy a partnership with Univision.

More podcasts on Pandora? Facing third-quarter declines across a slate of key metrics — monthly listeners, listening hours, and sold ads — the music streaming platform indicated in a recent earnings call that it will be shaking some things up to get things back on track. Among the moves articulated: expanding the platform’s non-music programming, like podcasts and spoken-word content, according to Variety.

You might remember that Pandora had previously struck up an arrangement with This American Life to bring the show, along with the two Serial seasons, onto the platform last April, where the podcasts were chapterized, given their own station, and packaged with a Pandora-specific ad unit. (You might also remember that this arrangement led to the WBAA-TAL kerfuffle, which raised the question of whether such partnerships with explicitly for-profit platform companies compromised This American Life’s commitment to the public media mission, and whether TAL should therefore be penalized by the system as a result.) In any case, despite indications at the Hivio conference in Los Angeles last summer that Pandora was “pleased with the experiment,” it hasn’t looked like the platform was moving to scale up the initiative anytime soon…until now.

What does this mean for publishers? Probably that one should expect Pandora to go knocking around for potential partnerships — I presume we’re going to see more instances of exclusives and windowing — and that the first teams to get contacted are the ones you’d expect. (The big get bigger, etc.)

Two more things to note. The first is how this tosses Pandora into the pit with Spotify, TuneIn, iHeartMedia, Stitcher, and Audible in the hunt for content partnerships that would give any one of them an edge over the others. The second is Pandora’s strategic assumptions in its pursuit of such arrangements; new Pandora CEO Roger Lynch “signaled that such a move would also make economic sense since royalties will be lower than for music programing,” as the Variety writeup notes. Remember to squeeze, folks.

What does this mean for every other type of publisher — the independents, the small shops, the niches, the locals, the ones that advocate for the medium’s openness? Nothing particularly comforting, I reckon.

Crisis at NPR. The story can be told in a series of headlines: “NPR’s top editor placed on leave after accusations of sexual harassment,” “Top NPR News Executive Mike Oreskes Resigns Amid Allegations Of Sexual Harassment,” “NPR bosses knew about harassment allegations, but kept top editor on job,” “At NPR, Oreskes harassment scandal leaves deep wounds,” “NPR retains law firm to review how Oreskes allegations were handled,” “NPR CEO to staff: ‘I let you down’,” “NPR Management Under Fire Over Sexual Harassment Scandal.”

It’s been an exceedingly dispiriting week for the public radio mothership. The question now is what happens next to NPR’s leadership, and in particular CEO Jarl Mohn, given his handling of newsroom concerns in the wake of the scandal — and his management of the actual allegations in the years before they were publicly revealed by The Washington Post. Parallel to this, and perhaps more importantly, is the longer-term question of how, and how vigorously, the organization will build systems to combat sexual harassment and support a better workplace culture. This latter question involves a process, constant and attentive, as the organization moves to repair a culture that has systematically affected the women in its ranks.

None of this should be viewed strictly as an internal affair. The health and internal culture of any news organization is directly relevant to our relationship with them, and this is ever more true for NPR, which is fundamentally supposed to be more than a news organization. It is a civic institution, a symbol that this society — from its government down to its people — can continuously collaborate to maintain a system meant to elevate the whole. It is also an operation financed in this spirit. NPR is not a news organization that sells you the news; it’s an entity in which you invest to improve public knowledge. You’re invited to be directly responsible for the thing — for its achievements, its character, its moral authority. Indeed, that responsibility is core to the strength of its identity and brand, if we’re allowed to use the term. That’s why any scandal, and particularly one of this nature, within NPR cuts deeper. That’s why, as both its consumers and its constituents, what troubles the institution should trouble us too.

The string of stories about sexual harassment in the media and beyond has raised a great number of questions that should be grappled with long after this moment — about its painful pervasiveness and complexities, about the way it has shaped public narratives, and so on. The NPR case clarifies an additional layer, refining a question about the role of the audience. There is a tension, it seems, when it comes to figuring out how to support the general while protesting the specific as consumers with the voting power of a listen or a download or some contribution to the AQH (now at an all-time high, we’re told). How does one express solidarity with Mary Louise Kelly & Co., while signaling displeasure or ambivalence with the leadership? How does one do these things in a way that matters?

Read also: “Reporting on Journalist-on-Journalist Sexual Harassment is a Proxy for Dealing With the Trust Problem (and can make it worse),” by Nikki Usher.

WNYC boomerangs? The station circulated an internal memo last Tuesday that Pat Walters, most recently of Gimlet Media, has returned to the Radiolab team that gave him his start. Walters left Radiolab in 2014 to join Pop-Up Magazine, the beloved “live magazine” operation, as senior editor. He later moved to Gimlet to launch and host the Undone podcast, which was ultimately canceled after one season. He was subsequently involved in the launch of Uncivil, a Civil War history podcast with journalists Chenjerai Kumanyika and Jack Hitt. At Radiolab, Walters will assume the role of “senior editor of the special projects unit.”

Walters marks the second return to WNYC in recent weeks. Joel Meyer, who was an executive producer at the station before leaving for Slate in 2014, kicked off his return engagement as an executive producer for WNYC Studios last Monday. Is this the beginning of a trend for the station?

Keep an eye on WNYC. I hear something else is afoot.

And while we’re on the subject of personnel: American Public Media’s Marketplace announced a few executive hires last week, the most relevant of which is Sitara Nieves, who will now serve as executive director of on-demand audio. Nieves was previously the interim executive producer of Marketplace, and before joining the organization in 2012, she worked on WNYC and PRI’s The Takeaway. The news comes as APM sees off the retirement of Dinner Party Download, and not too long after losing its former Marketplace Tech host, Ben Johnson, to WBUR’s budding podcast division.

Search to suggest. Look, this is going to get pretty woo-woo head-in-the-clouds in, like, a hot second, but this is my newsletter and I’ll cry if I want to, so strap in and bear with me for a bit.

So I was talking to this guy, Dan Sacher, who heads up content partnership in the United States for this Tel Aviv-based company called Audioburst, which according to Crunchbase endeavors to create a “screen-free, speech-based technology that enables search and interaction with audio.” The premise is basically “Google, but for audio,” which isn’t an entirely new gambit all by itself, if you’ve been looking around long enough. Among other tools, there’s Pop-Up Archive’s Audiosearch (which ceased public operations two weeks ago), and more recently there’s this service called Listen Notes, which got itself billed as “the Best Podcast Search Engine” by Lifehacker back in September.

But I’m not talking to Audiosearch or Listen Notes; I’m talking to Sacher, and the dude is describing how Audioburst works. As explained to a lay person (i.e. me), the mechanics feel straightforward and familiar: The technology ingests on-demand audio files and linear broadcast streams to create transcripts, which it then scans for keywords to be broken out as searchable tags for listeners — and eventually advertisers, I suppose — to look up. As with all things artificially intelligent and machine-learning–related, Audioburst’s abilities theoretically improve over time as more raw material is fed into it, and this is presumably where choices are made pertaining to the substance of the algorithm. (Here’s also where conversations about the “editorial character” of algorithms should be located, I guess.)

There is an apparent ambition to use that data to build personalized matches for individual consumers, constructed around personas or listener profiles. (This portion would not be unprecedented in this space; think Panoply’s partnership with Nielsen Data.) To this date, Audioburst has rolled out a few products built off its core indexing capability, including two smart device integrations (one for Google Assistant, one for Amazon Alexa), a developer API, and most recently, a consumer-facing search engine. One assumes there are more to come.

TechCrunch has a more in-depth explanation of the company, if any of this tickles your fancy, and the piece contains some detail on Audioburst’s strategic machinations. Among them:

The company is largely focused on partnership deals with radio stations, radio programs, and podcasters. It’s also starting to venture into the TV space, with plans to index TV news, and is chatting with a small handful of auto manufacturers about integrating Audioburst into their own in-car entertainment systems.

All right, so. This is all super interesting, but what’s the bigger thought bubble here? What’s this got to do with you?

Well, as you might’ve noticed, I’ve spent some time in this newsletter keeping tabs on the emerging smart-speaker category, and that attention is driven by a sense that some conflict and conciliation is on the horizon between the way we currently consume podcasts — as well as radio and music, for that matter — and how we will eventually consume all audio should voice-first computing further broaden itself out in the mainstream. (This is directly related to the probable convergence among different publisher types that I’ve been yammering on about since last March; the notion is that as the nature of distribution changes, so do the structural groupings of different kinds of spoken-audio content, which drains the fundamental meaning from a word like “radio” as much as it does “podcast.”)

I think the way Audioburst is setting itself up in the market, and how it views the field in the years to come, is worth mentally working through if you plan to continue playing in this space five to ten years from now. Currently, the company appears to be building out a search portal for audio content, but it’s really laying a foundation for a more linear — and to some extent, more opaque, even than Apple’s podcast editorial pages and chart algorithms — form of discovery and distribution: personalized suggestion. Audioburst’s “search to suggest” thesis comes as an anticipation of how the internet, represented visually and aurally, might next shift paradigmatically. And as this one dude Andre Staltz pointed out in a recent blog post about the Internet and Everything Else, “search to suggest” is precisely the thesis currently being operationalized by Google.

(It’s worth reading Staltz’s whole piece, by the way, which essentially walks us through the end of the seb and the rise of what he calls the Google-Facebook-Amazon “Trinet.” This all has the capacity to make you feel so very small in the face of the conflicts and tensions of structures way bigger and way more powerful than you, and that may well be true for most of us normal human individuals. But much like matters of foreign relations, we will nonetheless be recipients of the process and outcomes of those conflicts. Side note: The thing about optimism is that given a long enough time horizon, all optimism turns into tragedy. Moving on.)

Assuming you’re the kind of podcast publisher that likes to worry — or just think through — hypothetical futures, it’s worth applying some imagination in pursuit of a few workable questions around this scenario. What I’m personally trying to grasp, and where I think new knowledge is to be created, revolves around the question of how consumer power can meaningfully express itself within the “Suggest” paradigm, if consumer power will continue to exist at all. If the Amazon Echo, Google Home, or whatever else that comes down the pike becomes the primary way of consuming podcasts, the radio, or music, what does the user pathway of selecting what to listen look like? How are those user journeys structured, how can they be designed to push you in certain ways? (The “Power of the Default,” by the way, is a very real thing.) How would discovery work? Which is to say, how does the market look like? Where and how does the consumer make choices? What would choice even mean?

All right, I’ll come down from La La Land now.

Career spotlight. This week I traded emails with James Kim, a Los Angeles-based producer who primarily works at KPCC, and who probably represents the strongest argument for us needing to have some sort of IMDb situation going on. Kim’s rap sheet is a steady stream of weird, interesting shows, both broadcast and podcast, and it suggests a consistency in aesthetic as much as a professional progression.

Hot Pod: Tell me about your current situation.

James Kim: I’m an associate producer at KPCC making podcasts with my boss/work wife Arwen Champion-Nicks. Side note: She’s so damn good at what she does and is constantly inspiring me in many ways. We’re working on some new projects that I can’t talk about at the moment (I feel like I’m in the CIA), but you’ll hear about it pretty soon!

I’m also working on the audio drama podcast Deadly Manners. It’s been a nice shift from the projects and podcasts that I normally do.

Hot Pod: How did you get to this point?

Kim: I grew up on Korean talk radio and Top 40 music, and I had no idea what NPR was until I got to college. I was studying music and making documentaries and I somehow found This American Life on iTunes. That show told everyday stories in an interesting way and each episode sounded like an indie film. After becoming obsessed with it, I realized that I wanted to make audio documentaries as a career.

My first job in public radio was actually at KPCC. I started as an intern a few years back for the weekend show Off-Ramp and I did an internship with The Dinner Party Download (R.I.P., fam) shortly after. After finishing those internships, I couldn’t find a job or even freelance work in radio for about a year.

During that time, I almost gave up in finding a career in public radio entirely. But I decided to give it one last shot and I moved to a 2,000-person town in Texas to do another internship. I told myself, “You better make this one count, girl.”

I spent every waking hour making a podcast at Marfa Public Radio called There’s Something Out There. It was an audio documentary series about the supernatural activity in West Texas. Right before I ended my internship, I got offers to work on a couple shows and eventually got a job as a producer on KPCC’s The Frame.

Even though I finally got a full-time job, I didn’t stop making podcasts. After clocking out at The Frame I was creating a podcast called The Hiss. The show is about people holding onto memories that they want to forget. I then took a producer job with The Dinner Party Download and I continued to work on my passion projects outside of work. This time, it was a podcast called The Competition with Elyssa Dudley and Cameron Kell. The first season followed the most prestigious piano competition in the world from beginning to end, and it was inspired by my love for reality TV competition shows such as Top Chef and RuPaul’s Drag Race (anyone ready for All-Stars 3?)

I haven’t had many free weekends because of my various side hustles, but I’m sure that’s the case with a lot of producers in this field. I’m young and I got the energy to sleep 4 hours a day. So why not put that energy to good use, right?

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

Kim: At first, it meant health benefits and enough money to move out of my parent’s house. Now it’s a way for me to practice my craft every day and get better at what I do.

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

Kim: This is so embarrassing, but I wanted to be the next Ira Glass. Admit it! You’ve had that goal, too!

Bites:

  • Two-Up Production’s Limetown will return in early 2018, almost two full years after wrapping its first season. (Apple Podcasts) The team has had quite an adventure in the intervening period, including a novelization in process, a TV adaptation potentially on the cards, and a three-act podcast musical starring Jonathan Groff and Jessie Shelton.
  • 30 for 30 Podcasts will return for its second season later this month, thereby executing a shockingly short turnover time between seasons (under four months). Turns out that those early speculations appeared to be true: For this coming five-episode bundle, ESPN relied on outside partners to produce three of them. Those partners: NFL Films, Long Haul Productions, and Pineapple Street. This structure makes the podcast series more closely mirror its parent film operation. (Press release)
  • Cardiff Garcia, the editor of the Financial Times’ flagship financial and economics blog Alphaville, is moving to NPR’s Planet Money, where he’s attached to a “new project to be revealed soon.” Garcia, of whom I’m a fan, starts work next Monday. Also: Planet Money spinoff? (Talking Biz News)
  • Just a periodic reminder that Podcasts in Color is an invaluable resource. (Twitter)
  • Al Jazeera has launched its own podcast network, called Jetty. One thing to watch: the network will apparently be experimenting with Facebook Watch as a potential audience driving channel. Mark that up as another test on social podcast discovery — even if we’re talking about digital video on a social platform, which seems to be all the rage these days. (Nieman Lab)
  • Steal the Stars, MacMillan Publishing’s first foray into the audio drama category with its Tor Labs division, wrapped its first season last week. (Website)
  • “Podcast patent troll’s fight might finally be over.” This story, geez. (Engadget)
POSTED     Nov. 7, 2017, 9:55 a.m.
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