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Jan. 30, 2018, 10:51 a.m.

Turns out people really like podcasts after all (and now we have numbers to prove it)

Plus: PRX expands, WNYC shuffles, NPR stagnates, Dirty John adapts, Macmillan strategizes, and Gimlet parties.

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 149, published January 30, 2018.

One month in. When Apple rolled out its long-awaited in-episode podcast analytics last month, part of the anxiety (and excitement, really) was finding out whether, essentially, the world would end. Which is to say, whether this whole podcast thing was a bubble, a house of cards; whether perhaps many of the metrics the industry had been using to articulate, extract, and transact its value was nothing more than inflated abstraction, like the hollow vitality of a viral tweet lifted up by a golemnic army of stolen identities.

You can scratch that particular anxiety off the list. Over at Wired, Miranda Katz checked in with a few publishers one month in and wrote:

Though it’s still early days, the numbers podcasters are seeing are highly encouraging. Forget those worries that the podcast bubble would burst the minute anyone actually got a closer look: It seems like podcast listeners really are the hyper-engaged, super-supportive audiences that everyone hoped.

Among those quoted for the piece were reps from Midroll, Headgum, and Panoply.

But of course, whether podcasting was a bubble that better analytics would pop was always only half the question. The other half, whether the new data would lead to a boom, is a whole other bag of nuts. Katz writes:

On the business side, it’s likely that these high engagement rates and low levels of ad skipping will see a flood of new advertisers who have until now been reticent to enter the Wild West of podcasting — welcome news to anyone who feels about ready to throw their phone across the room any time they hear another ad for Squarespace or Casper.

We’ll see! When the analytics were first announced in the summer, Market Enginuity’s Sarah van Mosel told me: “This is certainly a step in the right direction. This is what we asked for and I thank the Apple team for hearing and responding to the podcast community. Now I want more.” More, as in the expected adtech bells and whistles like better targeting capabilities. More, as in anything above table stakes.

But hey, exciting stuff. I suppose this also means that Hot Pod will be somewhat relevant for at least a little while longer. Yay for jobs.

(Side note: I wonder how MailChimp, Squarespace, and Casper feel about their semi-lampooned ubiquity? Probably good, because ubiquity and synonymity with the rise of the medium is a plus, but there’s something about the mocking tone that suggests a more complex linkage.)

Big new clients for PRX. The Cambridge, Mass.-based podcast company announced two eye-catching partnerships yesterday: one with Night Vale Presents, the indie podcast outfit founded by Welcome to Night Vale creators Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor; and one with Gen-Z Media, the kids podcast company founded by the people behind The Disappearance of Mars Patel.

These partnerships will see PRX providing the two companies with marketing, ad sales, and technology support services. That third bit means that both Night Vale Presents and Gen-Z Media will be moving their portfolio of shows onto PRX’s Dovetail platform, which currently serves as the hosting provider for all podcasts in Radiotopia network. (Well, almost. The Allusionist migrates over in April.) Dovetail also hosts podcasts from Serial Productions, most notably handling S-Town’s monster run. (More information on that situation can be found in this column from last April.)

Gen-Z Media’s shows were previously housed on Panoply’s Megaphone platform as a result of a previous partnership struck last January, which saw Panoply supplying production, financing, distribution, and technology support. Gen-Z is also an active partner on Pinna, Panoply’s app-oriented kids programming initiative, for which the podcast company was reportedly developing a suite of new shows.

“Truly, we’re not moving away from Panoply,” replied Ben Strouse, one of Gen-Z’s principals, when asked for clarification on the company’s standing with its previous provider. “Our shows on Pinna will proudly stay there, and we’ll continue collaborating with them on new projects. Our partnership with PRX is all about connecting with new listeners and reaching bigger and bigger audiences for our upcoming shows. We’ve got to diversify our business in 2018 to continue growing, and PRX has a tremendous distribution network and highly respected collection of great podcasts.”

Gen-Z’s move to PRX caps off a complicated month for Panoply, in which the company saw (1) the departure of its kids programming chief, Emily Shapiro; and (2) Slate, its sister company, taking over its podcasts’ sales processes from Panoply.

For Night Vale Presents, the move appears driven by an eye towards scale. Its shows were previously hosted on Libsyn. “We’ve got nothing but positive things to say about Rob Walch and the Libsyn team. They were amazing to work with — we’ve been with them since the beginning of Welcome to Night Vale, and we’ve always been very happy with them,” said Christy Gressman, partner at Night Vale Presents. “That said, we’re really looking forward to working with PRX in a streamlined way, where we’ll get to use their sales team and sponsor management resources and distribution technology (via their proprietary Publish and Dovetail applications), along with sharing other resources.”

Locking down Night Vale Presents and Gen-Z is a pretty big win for PRX, whose operations continue to sprawl out in a myriad of directions. The organization has evolved several times since its founding in 2003, when it was originally built to serve as a technology provider and tool hub for public radio stations looking to take advantage of the internet. (This involved, among other things, the creation of an online marketplace for programming and station-specific app development services.) In its current iteration, PRX has espoused a renewed commitment to independent creators, a stance that has expressed itself through the creation of its “indie podcast label” Radiotopia; the Podcast Garage in Allston, Mass.; and providing end-to-end podcast services for select partners that fit into this indie worldview. The organization is currently led by CEO Kerri Hoffman, who succeeded Jake Shapiro in 2016 when Shapiro moved on to found RadioPublic.

So, what’s the big picture here? One could argue that PRX — with its indie-minded orientation, technology stack, and expanding ad sales capacity supplied by Market Enginuity — makes for a fascinating foil for Midroll, which has long established itself as the dominant full-service provider for a good deal of the emerging podcast ecosystem. It’ll be interesting to see how PRX will further express itself as distinct from its competitors, and what kind of clients it will continue to target and lure away.

On a related note: Radiotopia’s Criminal is working on a spinoff called This Is Love that’s slated for a Valentine’s Day drop. I wrote about the details for Vulture, but I’d also like to say: What the Criminal team is trying out here seems like a good model for creative teams looking to flex their muscles in different creative directions without necessarily compromising the consistent audience interfacing of their core economic/production engines. It sets up an advantage not unlike what you’re getting in the relationship between This American Life and Serial Productions, where talent can flow between the mothership and one-off projects.

This week in public radio:

1. Last Friday, WNYC announced an executive reshuffle that sees Dean Cappello — the station’s chief content officer and CEO Laura Walker’s righthand man throughout her two-decade-plus tenure at the station — demoted into an advisory role with no direct reports. Cappello was previously responsible for overseeing WNYC News and WNYC Studios, the station’s on-demand audio division. The shift comes almost two months after New York Magazine’s The Cut published a piece from the journalist Suki Kim detailing sexual harassment complaints and allegations made against The Takeaway’s John Hockenberry during his hosting tenure at the show. Kim’s story has since catalyzed a broader reckoning about the station’s management, which was deemed to have inadequately handled the Hockenberry complaints and, more broadly, manifested a culture that allowed for bullying, harassment, and discriminatory behaviors that have especially hurt women and people of color.

However, in a statement to Splinter, a WNYC spokesperson clarified that Cappello’s demotion was part of a strategic shift and unrelated to The Takeaway controversies. (Cappello directly oversaw The Takeaway and worked closely with Hockenberry for years, as a recent New York Times piece noted.)

It’s a peculiar clarification. But then again, if Cappello’s demotion was indeed meant to be the official response to the overarching concerns about the station’s culture, then it would have been an insufficient act of accountability. As it stands then, the station still hasn’t outwardly — or inwardly, as far as I can tell — indicated what it will concretely be doing to seriously address its systemic issues.

We may well still see…something from the station. In the WNYC News piece on the matter, it was noted that station management has brought in the law firm Proskauer Rose to investigate workplace conduct and former NPR executive editor Madhulika Sikka to review editorial content and structure. But for now, it feels like the impetus for change remains more centered in the hands of the station’s supporting member base, and how that constituency will collectively choose to alter the cost of reinforcing the status quo.

2. Minnesota Public Radio’s Garrison Keillor problem continues to be a flaming mess. A quick list of recent developments:

  • Last Tuesday, MPR News published an investigation going deep into Keillor’s troubling history of inappropriate workplace behavior around women. “An investigation by MPR News…has learned of a years-long pattern of behavior that left several women who worked for Keillor feeling mistreated, sexualized or belittled,” the piece wrote. “None of those incidents figure in the ‘inappropriate behavior’ cited by MPR when it severed business ties.”
  • That same day, MPR CEO Jon McTaggart published a note responding to several questions that have been sent in by listeners about the controversy. “The irony is that while MPR has been careful to protect Garrison’s privacy and not hurry any decisions, others have rushed to judge and criticize MPR’s actions without knowing the facts,” he wrote in response to one query.
  • A few days later, Keillor pushed back against MPR, MPR News, and an accuser through a statement published on his website and sent to HuffPost. “If I am guilty of harassment, then every employee who stole a pencil is guilty of embezzlement,” he wrote.

There remains a standoff between MPR management and Keillor, with the fate of the Prairie Home Companion archives — considered “historically valuable” by a curator at the University of Maryland, and to which Keillor holds many of the rights — at stake, as the Star Tribune reports.

3. NPR published the 2017 edition of its staff diversity numbers last week, which shows virtually no progress from the year before. Ombudsman Elizabeth Jensen with the details:

The overall racial and ethnic diversity of the news and information division remained virtually unchanged as of Oct. 31, 2017, when compared with the year earlier. Figures supplied by NPR’s human resources department showed the division of 377 people to be 75.10 percent non-Hispanic white (as self-identified). That compared to 75.4 percent the year earlier, when there were 350 newsroom employees. I’ll repeat what I said of the 2016 numbers, which showed only incremental change over the last five years: this was a disappointing showing.

Year-to-year, there were some small changes in the makeup of the remaining 25 percent of the newsroom. The percentage of employees who reported they were Latino or black rose slightly; Asian employees as a percentage dropped slightly.

Jensen’s piece unpacks a number of elements embedded in the station’s problem with employment diversity that’s worth thinking about, including a “trickle down” dynamic as well as the indirect impact of the broader public radio ecosystem’s lack of diversity as a potentially relevant factor in the station’s failure to adequately solve the problem. (One thing I’m personally wondering about, though, because I’m a yellow person: Why did the percentage of Asian employees drop slightly? Are we just, like, not talking more about that?)

But there is absolutely nothing new to be said about this issue that hasn’t already been said, not that doesn’t it have to be said repeatedly, ad infinitum, until the light of the sun snuffs out or the percentages actually change: This needs to be fixed, like now, and it’s ridiculous that the needle has barely moved, maybe even regressed.

In other news: Marjorie Powell, vice president of human resources, has left the organization. Current has some noteworthy background on the development.

Nope, not a good week for public radio.

Personnel notes:

  • Dave Shaw, the executive producer of podcasts at E.W. Scripps, has moved to Politico to lead the podcast team there. He started work today. Also at Politico: Bridget Mulcahy has been promoted to senior producer, and Micaela Rodríguez joins full time as assistant producer.
  • Vox Media now has a dedicated podcast marketing manager: Zach Kahn, who previously worked in the brand marketing and sponsorship division.

Dirty John in the age of Peak TV. The multimedia true-crime project from the Los Angeles Times is in the process of being adapted into two different series for two different networks, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

Bravo, home of the Real Housewives Expanded Universe, is reportedly “near a deal” for an anthology series based on the Times’ Christopher Goffard’s reporting and accompanying podcast (produced in collaboration with Wondery). It will be a two-season order; first season of that show will be based on the Dirty John story, while the second will focus on a new tale altogether.

The Oxygen network is the other suitor, having ordered a companion unscripted series focused on the subject of Goffard’s feature, John Meehan.

Three things:

  • Dirty John is the latest in a growing line of podcast-to-television adaptations, which you can read more about here, here, and here. At some point, I’ll put together a spreadsheet or something tracking the pipeline so we can figure out the split between fiction and nonfiction projects, true crime and non-true crime, so on and so forth.
  • The fact that Dirty John is being adapted into both scripted and unscripted forms is super interesting. How much juice can you squeeze out of a fruit? Depends on the fruit, I guess. Or maybe not?
  • This bit of news comes as the L.A. Times is increasingly engulfed by managerial maelstroms, including dramatic reshuffles in its management, sexual harassment allegations levied against publisher and CEO Ross Levinsohn, and a comically capitalistic parent company called Tronc that’s engaged in questionable business strategies to the detriment of its talented newsrooms. The situation remains fluid; I recommend following Ken Doctor and David Folkenflik if you’re tracking the story.

Macmillan outlook. The podcasting adventures of Macmillan, the international book publishing giant, can be traced back to the closing weeks of 2006 when John Sterling, then the publisher and president of the Henry Holt imprint, called up a science writer named Mignon Fogarty after reading about her rapidly growing podcast, Grammar Girl, in The Wall Street Journal. A phone call about a potential book deal turned into the mutual identification of a unique opportunity, which in turn led to the creation of the Quick & Dirty Tips Podcast Network, one of the earliest podcast publishing experiments by a non-audio native company. (Simon Owens has a great recent history of QDT on his website.)

The network has since grown into a robust and well-oiled machine. It is now over 275 million podcast downloads strong, having added 25 million episode downloads across 2017 to the 250 million in lifetime downloads the network had accumulated by the end of 2016. Fogarty continues to publish Grammar Girl, the network’s flagship program now flanked by an array of spinoffs, and she has published several books that direct extend from her work on the podcast. Meanwhile, Sterling, who continued to oversee QDT even as he ascended to the role of executive vice president at Macmillan proper in 2008, recently announced that he was stepping back from full-time work at the publisher to get into politics. The news comes shortly after he completed work as the editor of Michael Wolff’s Fire & Fury.

With delicious lore to spare, Macmillan is a fascinating figure in podcasting: an early adopter, a persistent player, and a singular operation. And last year proved to be no different for the publisher as it continued to work the on-demand audio angle.

At the tail end of 2016, I wrote about Macmillan’s ambitions to further scale up its on-demand audio operations with the formation of Macmillan Podcasts, a new internal venture that seeks to explore more systematic ways of bridging authors and podcasts. Led by Kathy Doyle, the company’s vice president of podcasts, the newly formed division spent the year setting the table — “We tripled the size of our team and put together a workflow that enables us to be nimble and responsive to requests from our publishers, as well as authors and talent, as we grow our catalog,” she said — and establishing their presence within the organization. This work was mostly tied in the development and rollout of new projects, of which there were five in the latter half of 2017 (Raise My Roof, Dig If You Will, Feminasty, Rossen to the Rescue, and Steal the Stars), but it also revolved around an internal awareness-raising campaign. “We did a road show introducing the potential inherent in podcasts to all our publishers and showcasing the ways we can help contribute to their success — no topic or narrative style is off limits,” she explained.

Steal the Stars, in particular, emerged as the standout project for the division. I first wrote about the podcast last summer, when Tor Books, a science fiction and fantasy-focused Macmillan subsidiary, announced the formation of Tor Labs, an experimental imprint “emphasizing experimental approaches to genre publishing,” which developed Steal the Stars as its first project. I loved the idea of Tor Labs; here you have a new internal venture that’s working to cultivate publishing projects that are meant to contemporaneously span across multiple platforms such that value can be simultaneously extracted from the different markets of different mediums. Such a setup vastly expands the surface area of a single project, dramatically increasing the work’s exposure and further allowing for the possibility of ushering more audiences to cross over between mediums. Sure, much like Subcast from last week, the whole thing isn’t particularly revolutionary — we do live in an age where just about everything gets adapted into any given direction, from podcasts-to-television to documentaries-to-podcasts — but the real innovation is the efficiency and contiguity of the arrangement. Every element is plugged in together from the outset, and that seems new to me.

Steal the Stars was indicative of what the bleeding edge for Macmillan Podcasts could look like. It involved close coordination between Gideon Media (which created and produced the podcast), Tor and Tor Labs, Macmillan Podcasts, and Macmillan Audio (which oversees its audiobooks operations), all collectively working together to ensure that every format of the show was set up to perform well within their respective markets.

Doyle considers the experiment a success. The podcast ended up clocking in a solid performance with listeners; I’m told that the 14-part run surpassed 1 million downloads and continues to perform well in the postseason. “Our strategy included taking the podcast content and adapting it into a trade paperback and ebook and just last week we released an audiobook with bonus content — we even did a prequel live event that sold out — all of which continues to drive interest in the podcast,” she explained. “We’ll be leveraging this model again.”

As far as the product itself goes, I thought it was a really fun listen. A sci-fi audio drama written by Gideon Media’s Mac Rogers, who also wrote The Message and Life After for Panoply, Steal the Stars was a comparatively straightforward narrative romp involving aliens, secret government hijinks, and romance.

So, what does the year ahead hold for Macmillan Podcasts? As you would expect, they’ve got a pile of projects in the pipeline. The division recently released a few trailers teasing two February launches: the first is called One True Pairing, which will be hosted by two St. Martin Press staffers — “Think My Favorite Murder for people who read US Weekly,” Doyle said, a description that sounds a lot like a Who? Weekly competitor — and the second is called But That’s Another Story, which “looks at how books and reading change and shape our lives” and will be hosted by best-selling author Will Schwalbe. More are on the way.

Doyle also notes that the year will be spent further building out key relationships, distribution points, and co-marketing opportunities within the industry. “We’re spending a lot of time thinking about ways we can collaborate with our partners in support of our authors and continue to innovate with new audio-first formats,” she said. You can already see some of that with Macmillan Podcasts’ participation in the marketing of Launch, a new podcast about writing a novel developed by Wondery.

Like most other podcast operatives, Doyle is thinking about the discovery gap — and where the closing of that gap will come from — as well as the longevity of the advertising model, which is the primary revenue channel for their show portfolio. That latter concern is pushing her to explore alternatives. “We’re open to additional models, perhaps working with distributors on a windowing relationship or developing exclusive content,” Doyle added. “It’s a case-by-case basis.”

But for now, though, Macmillan Podcasts is settling into itself. They remain occupants of a unique corner in the broader podcast ecosystem, hard at work figuring out how to add more layers to its niche.

Bites:

  • ESPN is reportedly exploring a sale of FiveThirtyEight. Should FiveThirtyEight break off from Disney — which owns ESPN, among so many other things — there would be considerable ramifications for the FiveThirtyEight Politics podcast and ESPN’s 30 for 30 podcast, as both shows share Jody Avirgan as a principal producer. (The Big Lead)
  • Gimlet is producing a live festival for itself. Called Gimlet Fest, it is scheduled to take place on June 16-17, not too far from their new 27,000-square-foot downtown Brooklyn offices.
  • A documentarian is developing a project about Joe Frank, and is raising funds on Indiegogo.
  • WBUR is launching its collaboration with The Washington Post, Edge of Fame, next month. The show is fronted by WaPo national arts reporter Geoff Edgers, and each episode will profile artists, actors, musicians, and comedians — including Ava DuVernay, Jimmy Kimmel, and Norm Macdonald — through a blend of interview and field recordings. Debuts on February 15.
  • Two shows to track on the local podcasting front: Nashville Public Radio’s The Promise, a limited-run series on public housing in the city, out now; and KPCC’s Repeat, which investigates the story of an L.A. County sheriff’s deputy who shot at four people in seven months. It starts February 7.
  • Variety has a big feature up on Spotify as the music streaming company sets off towards going public, titled “With 70 Million Subscribers and a Risky IPO Strategy, Is Spotify Too Big to Fail?” The piece is super useful to get a sense of what’s going on (and what’s at stake) for the company and its relationship to the broader music industry. Once you’re done with that, pair it with this Financial Times bit: “Songwriters’ court victory deals a blow to Spotify.
  • Not directly podcast-related, but maybe it can be: “A Bunch of TV Writers Are Building a Salary-Transparency Database.” (Vulture)
  • Because true crime is arguably the pulping heart of podcasts in 2018…”Hunt a Killer, One Subscription Box of Clues at a Time.” (The Ringer)
POSTED     Jan. 30, 2018, 10:51 a.m.
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