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Dec. 12, 2017, 9:19 a.m.
Mobile & Apps

Apple, off-Apple, and adaptations: These were the most important podcast trends of 2017

“I am struck by a distinct sense that we’re smack dab in the middle of a really slow but considerable change. Where we’ll be this time next year, I have no idea. But I can’t shake the feeling that it won’t look much like today.”

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 144, published December 12, 2017.

Twenty Seventeen. What a year, folks. We’ve seen more hits, more new companies, more listening, more technical experiments, more platforms, mo’ money (mo’ problems), more interest, more stakes, more anxiety, more anticipation. It’s been a lot, but the question I keep finding myself returning to is this: if the world ended, would I know?

I don’t mean it in any apocalyptic sense, of course. The query is meant in the spirit of transitions: to what extent will we know if everything we once knew about this scene no longer was? Writing this newsletter week in and week out has the tendency to facilitate a kind of myopia, and yet, despite the squinting, I am struck by a distinct sense that we’re smack dab in the middle of a really slow but considerable change. Where we’ll be this time next year, I have no idea. But I can’t shake the feeling that it won’t look much like today.

Anyway, enough melodrama. In this week’s newsletter, the last of 2017, I try to wrap up the year in podcasting we just lived through. In the end, I think you can boil the biggest beats down to three nodes: Apple, off-Apple, and Adaptations.

Under the shadow of Apple. The year started with a tease. At the Code Media conference in February, when pressed on the company’s stance towards podcasts, Apple’s SVP of internet software and services Eddy Cue was cryptic. He told Recode’s Peter Kafka: “We’re working on new features for podcasts, stay tuned.”

We would find out what Cue meant four months later. At its developer conference WWDC in June, Apple announced with relatively little fanfare that it was finally going to open up in-episode analytics for podcasts. Details were near non-existent, but the implications were instantly evident to many, given what is believed to be Apple’s majority market share. “It may look obscure, but this is the biggest thing to happen to the podcast business since Serial first went nuclear,” tweeted Gimlet’s Matt Lieber.

The new Apple Podcast Analytics had a vague “later in the year” target roll-out date. My understanding is that the roll-out is at least partially reliant on a critical mass of iPhone users adopting iOS 11 — along with its redesigned Podcast App — which would take some time following the update’s September release date.

That leaves us still guessing today about how this new Apple-specific analytics layer will change the business as it exists — how it will change the way podcast consumption is measured and understood, and how that consumption behavior will be monetized. A few threads to consider:

  • Whatever change comes of this, the new analytics will nevertheless matter differently for direct response advertisers versus brand advertisers (even if the move presents an opportunity for all to renegotiate rates)
  • There are also some who believe the new analytics layer will trigger an apocalyptic scenario for podcast advertising rates, either revealing unwanted truths about people listen to episodes — ad-skipping remains a big worry — or causing podcast advertising rates to somehow plummet in historical rhyme to what happened with blogs.
  • How the new analytics will affect independents remains unclear. There are those who see this as ultimately beneficial — believing that the data will give indies more ways to pursue advertising dollars without middlemen — and others who believe the new analytics will only further reinforce “old thresholds dividing between ‘this is a hobby’ and ‘this pays.'”

The most useful take in all of this, in my opinion, comes from Edison Research’s Tom Webster. While he has generally mixed feelings on Apple’s new involvement, he makes a larger point about how the industry should continue working to move beyond an Apple-focused measurement and value paradigm. “When we optimize to fit the universe we already have, we make a smaller and smaller universe happier and happier,” he wrote. “This is why, although access to enhanced Apple statistics is generally good news for now, the industry cannot and must not stop innovating towards a non-platform-specific measure.”

Webster closed out the post by expressing hope for a new measurement project led by NPR called the Remote Audio Data format. That effort appears to still be ongoing. Last week, National Public Media’s Bryan Moffett published a blog post that fully contextualizes the project against Apple’s analytics push, discusses early testing, and expresses hope that the format will be taken up as the open industry standard in 2018.

The acquisition news from last week, where Apple picked up a company that was focused on building tools to organize and search audio files, remains a giant question mark, and we’ll likely not see much development on this for a while. These things take time, especially at an institution as large and complex as Apple. That said, one can’t help but notice some increased interest by Apple in audio tech more generally. Last week also saw news of another Apple acquisition in process: that of Shazam, the music recognition company.

Again, it’s worth remembering that all of this only matters insofar as the status quo of Apple’s majority market share holds. It’s very likely that the status quo will continue to hold this time next year — though, I dunno, people seem to reallydislike the new Apple Podcast App. In any case, there’s enough movement in the fringes to inspire some more fundamental questions.

Off-Apple moves. The Remote Audio Data initiative isn’t the only suggested pathway out of a fully Apple-controlled ecosystem. We’ve seen activity from other platforms displaying interest in podcast opportunities, even if those efforts haven’t truly amounted to anything meaningful just yet.

  • Spotify continues to shuffle its cards, between producing original content, experimenting with various windowing arrangements (see Gimlet and Loud Speakers’ Mogul, WNYC’s 2 Dope Queens), and slowly but surely making the presence of its podcast inventory more apparent to casual listeners. It’s unclear if any of those experiments have paid off so far, but I’m pretty sure the company’s interest in the space remains solid.
  • We haven’t heard much from Google since it added podcasts to the Google Play platform last year, aside from some minor adventures in commissioning original content and swallowing up the short-form audio app 60dB in September (smart speaker play, anyone?). I’m keeping my eye on the search giant, and you should too.
  • Pandora has signaled greater intent in growing its library of “non-music content” — including podcasts — in a bid to change its fortune following a year of steady stock price declines.
  • TuneIn has also begun dabbling in the space, positioning itself as another listening destination while also testing out windowing relationships, as it did with The Ringer’s MLB Show.

A lot of quiet jostling, but again, nothing that’s proven to be a feasible alternative to Apple Podcasts just yet — or that even trends in the direction. We’ll see.

What we have seen, though, are more adventures in windowing. We saw several such efforts this year, whether by publishers looking to extract additional cash from moneyed platforms or by publishers looking to forge deeper relationships with particularly engaged sets of audiences. Two prominent examples of the latter: Stitcher Premium, which sought to create a deeper chain of value for its original programs like Missing Richard Simmons and Heaven’s Gate, and Slate, which intriguingly used its Slate Plus infrastructure to pull more value from its limited series podcast Slow Burn.

The role that Apple continues to play in these windowing arrangements is a curious one. Despite working to create alternative pathways of value, windowing publishers still very much appear to view Apple as the primary site of extracting value — a place to ultimately return in order to fully realize the bulk of a project’s value. This is a testament to both Apple’s current strength in the ecosystem and the deeply uncertain nature of all available alternatives at this point; indeed, you may embark on whatever expeditions you want, but chances are, you’ll still come home. Even Audible, with its huge built-in user base and considerable resources, has been drawn to release its original programming beyond its paywall and within the Apple Podcast infrastructure.

How Apple feels about all of it is another matter, and the main question here, I think, is whether Apple will more directly step up to interfere with windowing experiments. After all, the very concept of alternate-platform windowing clashes with Apple’s goals, which are chiefly rooted in ensuring that users continue to interact with and stay within the Apple ecosystem. Apple retaliated briefly once before, with Missing Richard Simmons; whether it will more formally do so is something to watch for.

It’s not in any publishers’ interest to stay still and just take it, of course. Despite the uncertainty of alternatives and the looming threat of a change in the Apple status quo, I’m pretty sure we’ll see more efforts to break away and establish more direct and unmediated relationships with listeners. The upside for such a strategy is way too valuable, and the downsides of a fully dominant Apple way too unnerving. Something to watch on this front: last week, The New York Times released an update to its iOS app that lets listeners consume The Daily without having to jump to the Podcast app. Imagine the analytics the Grey Lady can now access, and the opportunity to more directly up-sell subscriptions.

The rise of the podcast-entertainment-industrial complex. It’s not all technology platforms, of course. This is the year when podcasts really heated up as a source of intellectual property for more lucrative media industries. It’s been intoxicating to watch what felt like a steady stream of stories announcing yet another podcast — both independents and from major publishers — being picked up for adaptation into a TV show, a movie, a book. (Maybe Broadway, one day?)

Here’s a non-comprehensive list of projects I have tucked away in a spreadsheet:

  • Night Vale Presents’ Alice Isn’t Dead is being developed into a show for the USA Network, and last week, it was announced that Welcome to Night Vale will also make the jump to the small screen. That show is slated for FX, with creators Jeffrey Cranor and Joseph Fink, along with Better Call Saul EP Gennifer Hutchison, serving as executive producers on the show. These projects come on top of Night Vale’s already strong pipeline into the book publishing industry. It Devours!, Cranor and Fink’s latest novel in the Night Vale universe, just came out in October.
  • Gimlet Media has four confirmed projects in the pipeline: Startup at ABC as “Alex, Inc.”; a movie adaptation of the Reply All episode “Man of the People”; Homecoming at Amazon; and Crimetown at FX. More are said to be in deep development.
  • Lore made the jump earlier this year. The adaptation is now streaming on Amazon.
  • The McElroy Brothers were also hit television this year. The “My Brother, My Brother, and Me” adaptation was released on NBC’s comedy streaming service Seeso in February. Seeso shuttered last month, and in the run-up to that closure, the show was sold to Otter Media for its own streaming service, VRV.
  • WNYC has also begun to dabble in the space. In August, it was announced that 2 Dope Queens will be getting hour-long HBO Specials, and last week, we heard news that Here’s the Thing with Alec Baldwin is reportedly being developed as a talk show for ABC.
  • Other crossover projects I’m tracking: The Black Tapes, Limetown, Missing Richard Simmons, Serial, The Bright Sessions, Up and Vanished, Sword and Scale.

It’s all really exciting. But I’m drawn to the argument that the fundamental value that this adaptation deal flow gives to the podcast industry extends way beyond additional revenue, outside validation, and the creative thrill of working across mediums: in my mind, the intellectual property pipeline also represents a vital source of power for the industry that’s largely separate and apart from an Apple-defined value system. The pipeline represent bridges to external (and multiple other) systems of value, and when viewed in this manner, you could begin to conceptualize the podcast ecosystem as being something that’s less of a closed circuit, and more diversified in opportunity for fortune, than it once was. Through crossover projects, creators working in the medium now have orthogonal means of exposure and mobility. It’s a much bigger universe now, and one that takes place mostly separate from worries about optimizing for the Apple Podcast charts.

Of course, it’s pretty interesting to think about what the increased prominence of podcasts as a valuable fount of intellectual property says about the current state of the TV industry. We’re said to be living in the age of Peak TV — a time when niche programs are able to thrive more, when the existence of a future mono-culture show (beyond Game of Thrones) is uncertain, and when the increasing power of streaming platforms is fundamentally changing the way risk and value are evaluated when financing television projects. But that’s…for another newsletter, by another beat writer.

Anyway, I’d like to point out two other trends connected to this intellectual property thread:

The first is what appears to be a greater involvement in the industry by talent agencies. In June, I ran a Q&A with Ben Davis, an agent at William Morris Endeavor, and I think it remains really useful for getting a sense of how such agencies are thinking about and approaching the space. “Agents are most useful with shows that have added complexities within their agreements,” he told me. “Is there a guarantee or advance? Who controls the RSS feed? Could this become the next hit TV show? This only applies to a segment of the market, typically higher budgeted or otherwise premium shows.” You can read that interview here.

The second are adaptations from other media formats into podcasts. We saw traces of this with Wondery’s Locked Up Abroad and ESPN’s 30 for 30 podcast, which also built one of its early episodes (“Yankees Suck!”) around a successful 2015 Grantland feature by Amor Bashad. And we’re going to keep seeing more of them, I think — last week saw the announcement of a collaboration between Marvel, the Thanos-sized comic book behemoth, and Stitcher to produce a ten-episode scripted podcast around Wolverine. Two fun facts about this. First, Midroll CEO Erik Diehn worked at Marvel early in his career (and is, from what I hear, a huge comic book nerd), and second, there is something vaguely pleasant in how this recalls what Chris Giliberti, Gimlet’s head of multi-platform and IP wrangler, told Wired back in July about how he views the value of adaptations for Gimlet: “The potential over the long term is a business that could look a good bit like Marvel…You’re originating worlds and stories in a low-cost, experimental format, and then transitioning high-potential prospects into higher-return formats.”

So that’s the major arc of the year, in my mind. Now let me change gears a little bit.

The Year in #Content. A couple of notes on programming. Setting aside the obvious observations of the further preponderance of true crime as well as the baseline trend of new show launches from a myriad of sources continuing to persist year over year, I’ve found there to be three really compelling stories as far as major podcast programming trends go in the year of our lord two thousand and seventeen.

(1) If anything, the past twelve months bore out the prediction that WBUR’s Asma Khalid provided in last week’s Nieman Lab predictions package: 2017 was, indeed, the year of the newsy podcast. Specifically, it was the year of the Daily News Podcast, between The New York Times’ The Daily — which became a media sensation in its own right and now serves as the starting point for what the Times assistant editor Sam Dolnick calls a potential “franchise” — and NPR’s Up First, which continues to pump a hefty number of downloads for the public radio mothership. We’ll kick off next year with Vox Media’s own entry into the genre, helmed by former WNYC staffer Sean Rameswaram, and the question that this launch will inevitably trigger is whether there are enough earballs in the world for all this daily news content. (Similar questions could be asked of media companies in general, but let’s ignore that for now.)

(2) Another genre that saw an interesting year: the political podcast, which was forced to reorient itself in the wake of the 2016 presidential election cycle that concluded, to put it mildly, in a rather unexpected manner. Podcasts that had expected to wind down, like Slate’s Trumpcast, continued to march on, and weekly news-pegged shows, like FiveThirtyEight’s Politics podcast and the NPR Politics Podcast, had to continually grapple with an increasingly blistering news cycle. (For hard news nerds, 2017 has felt like the longest year in existence, a span of time dense with the substance of infinite lifetimes.) We also saw the launch of more and more Trump-related podcast content — in keeping with broader media business behavior, you could say — and on the other end of news, we saw the rise of political media operations like Crooked Media and Chapo Trap House, which are novel in their ability to function as a kind of anchor for a certain subspecies of the political left. They represent, to a point, a distinct evolution to the political podcast genre, coming ever closer to reflecting the politically powerful and socially impactful broadcast radio infrastructure of the right. One could go back and forth on the moral significance of this trend. On the one hand, an entity like Crooked Media can position itself to replace a wide range of institutions from liberal magazines like The New Republic to, if it perhaps so intended, even formal political fundraising arms like the DCCC. On the other hand, this could be used as yet another data point in the argument for “how the left lost its mind.

(3) Finally, this was a year that we saw considerable momentum for children’s podcast programming. A number of major networks have made investments in the space and rolled out products, from NPR’s Wow in the World to Gimlet’s Story Pirates collaboration to WNYC Studios getting into the scene to Panoply’s paid app initiative Pinna. This builds on top of the substantial work done by long-active advocates in the space like the Kids Listen group and the independent kids’ audio publisher Sparkle Stories. However, as much of a push as we’ve seen in this area this year, it feels like we’re only on the tip of this K-12 iceberg.

And to round out the year, here are the stories I’m tracking from last week…

(1) We’re beginning to see friction in the experiences of some podcast publishers working in dynamic ad insertion. This Digiday article from last Friday has everything: the jettisoning of third-party ads, a need for guidance, a community of people used to doing things one way learning how to work differently.

(2) The Heart is ending production in January 2018 as “they pursue other projects and evaluate the future of the show,” according to a PRX blog post published Friday. This is the third Radiotopia show to retire in 2017, following Lea Thau’s Strangers in November and Megan Tan’s Millennial in August.

(3) Patreon took some heat last week after the membership platform announced changes to its payment structure under the veil of making the structure more creator-friendly. Some creators have argued that the new system largely pushes the cost burden to supporters and de-incentivizes small-dollar donations, both of which are undesirable conditions for their relationships with supporters. I found this (widely cited) argument from writer Natalie Luhrs helpful in understanding the technical details of the critique, and I also found this analysis from writer-developer Chris Buecheler — which speculates a connection between the changes and Patreon’s recent involvement with venture capital funding — pretty compelling. The controversy at Patreon comes not too long after Kickstarter unveiled its own membership platform to the market, called Drip.

(4) The public radio system continues to grapple with sexual harassment scandals. In addition to the John Hockenberry accusations, WNYC also suspended Leonard Lopate and Jonathan Schwartz last Wednesday pending an investigation into allegations of inappropriate conduct. The station’s next board meeting is on Thursday, and it is open to the public. Meanwhile, in Boston, WBUR has suspended On Point host Tom Ashbrook following undisclosed allegations.

(5) Two senior employees at Audible unexpectedly resigned last week. One of those executives was chief content officer Andy Gaies, who also oversees the company’s original content initiative. In his piece on the matter, The Hollywood Reporter’s Jeremy Barr also noted: “Before Thanksgiving, the company announced plans for a broad review of Audible’s internal culture. It’s not clear whether the resignations are related to this review.”

All right, that’s it, folks. It’s been a year, we had a lot of fun, we had a lot of not-so-fun, and I’ll see you in 2018. Remember to call your mom, and stay hydrated.

POSTED     Dec. 12, 2017, 9:19 a.m.
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