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Jan. 16, 2018, 9:47 a.m.

Who needs video? Slate is pivoting to audio, and making real money doing it

Plus: WBEZ tries to turn a podcast into a franchise, Science Friday joins WNYC Studios, and Gimlet opens up the HBO playbook.

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 147, published January 16, 2018.

We’re heavy on the “new year, new you” beat this week, folks.

Slate Outlook. This is a tad newsier and more with-the-pack than I generally like to be, but whatever — there’s a bunch of juicy, usable stuff in here.

Slate readers woke up this morning to something big from the 22-year-old online magazine: a total redesign, complete with an overhauled backend to improve the site’s user experience and a new logo to mark its third decade of publication. Accompanying the aesthetic revamp are significant adjustments to the site’s editorial architecture — including, among other things, a reorganization of its content verticals and, of course, a long-overdue push to make its substantial audio output more prominent across its web presence.

“We look at the redesign as a recommitment to the written word and audio,” Julia Turner, Slate’s editor-in-chief, tells me. She also notes that those renewed commitments are, in part, a reaction to the “pivot to video” gambit employed elsewhere in the digital media ecosystem, increasingly lampooned these days either as folly or a cynical ploy to extract dollars from the unstable hype surrounding digital video. “We’re planning to expand editorial spending on podcasts and articles,” she said. “There are good economic models behind both.”

We’ll stick to the audio portion here, of course, and our primary interest is to get a sense of just how strong that podcast business model is for Slate. Turner dished out some numbers to set the scene:

  • Slate enjoyed 100 million downloads in 2017 across its entire podcast network, not counting shows under the Slate Extra banner.
  • Podcast downloads are said to be up 42 percent from 2016.
  • December proved to be Slate’s biggest podcasting month, driven in good part by Slow Burn (more on that show in a bit), with 3.5 million downloads across the period.
  • Slate’s podcast advertising revenues were up 36 percent in 2017 over 2016, and the company expects continued growth this year, or so it is said.

(“We like to share when they’re happy numbers,” Turner said, when I expressed marvel over the volume of information being provided.)

But perhaps the most telling data point is this: In 2014, podcasting made up 0 percent of Slate’s revenue portfolio. By the end of 2017, that number has shot up to 25 percent. Whether that number continues to grow over the next few years will be something to watch. Unsurprisingly, the company expects growth in all key revenue areas — including display advertising and membership dollars in addition to podcast advertising — which, if true, would stabilize the growth of Slate’s podcast advertising dependency. But I do find it compelling to contemplate a future in which Slate primarily operates as a podcast publisher with a significant written web engine that functions as an effective lead-generation tool. (Thereby ultimately adhering to the construct sketched out by Stratechery’s Ben Thompson in his November 2015 piece, “Grantland and the (Surprising) Future of Publishing.” Indeed, such a result would create an unexpected homology between Slate and Grantland’s successor, The Ringer, if I’m reading the latter correctly.)

Anyway, depending on how you look at it, one could interpret Slate’s podcasting fortunes either as a product of luck or persistence, maybe both. Slate’s adventures in podcasting began over a decade ago, in 2004, and as Andy Bowers, who joined the company around that time as its OG producer after a twenty-year career in public radio, is fond of telling it, the site’s early audio dabblings involved publishing recordings of him reading articles out loud into a microphone. (Some ideas never really go away.) Those experiments would eventually evolve into shows with more substantial discursive formats, which would then go on to cultivate strong communities over an extended period of time. Digging through the archives and thinking back on that era, one could argue that there was no real reason for the company to continue producing those podcasts beyond simple enjoyment and serving those early communities; hence the notion of luck and persistence. But sticking to the experiment paid off, as that commitment ultimately primed them to be particularly ready for this historical juncture in digital audio publishing.

Nowadays, the Slate podcast network is a sprawling 24-show portfolio that’s spread across various Gabfests (a model that it pioneered across multiple shows and that is widely emulated these days by other online publications dabbling in the medium), some personality-driven shows (The Gist, Dear Prudence, etc.), and an emerging bucket of more ambitious projects. Bowers, after a long tenure as Slate’s EP of podcasts, went on to cofound a podcast-specific sister company, Panoply, in early 2015, and his role has now been passed onto another bald public radio veteran: Steve Lickteig.

2017 proved to be an interesting year for Slate Podcasts. Most prominently, it struck a curious partnership with Studio 360 last summer, taking over coproduction and digital distribution responsibilities from WNYC (where the show had been housed since its launch in 2000) as well as physically bringing the team into its offices. The network also steadily rolled out a suite of new shows, including a Spanish-language Gabfest and a few highly-produced narrative projects.

One such narrative project was Slow Burn, the Leon Neyfakh-led narrative podcast that sought to capture a sense of how it felt to live through Watergate, which I largely enjoyed and reviewed for Vulture last week. It turned out to be a hit for the company — not just as a standalone podcast project, but also as a lead-generation vessel for its membership program, Slate Plus.

Even though the core Slow Burn experience is available for free as a weekly podcast, a Slate Plus membership gives Burn-heads access to bonus episodes and other additional material. The carrot was apparently effective. “We’re seeing conversion at an extraordinary rate,” Turner said, noting that the Slow Burn campaign yielded 2.5× to 3× the daily conversion rates of an average day. “We’re seeing a ton of overlap between audio audiences and Slate Plus,” she adds. Plans are now in place to develop the property further, including an upcoming live event at the Watergate itself and a broader vision to untether the podcast from Watergate and use its conceit as a way to build future seasons around other historical events.

Slow Burn’s success should give Slate some extra confidence for the upcoming shows they’re planning to launch this year. Projects in the development pipeline includes:

  • A documentary series led by the author Michael Lewis, of The Big Short and Moneyball fame, about umpires.
  • A project built around Slate TV critic Willa Paskin, which I’m told will neither be a chat show nor an interview-show.

One imagines there will be more to come.

The notion of an online magazine entering its third decade is a wild thing to consider. (I’m not too much older than the site itself, which was founded in 1996.) Even wilder is the challenge of continuing to exist — and to fight for relevance — as a digital publication in a notoriously rough industry environment whose narratives are generally oriented around the downswings of the hype cycle these days. In its relative geriatricity, Slate now has the opportunity to contribute to a playbook that few digital publications get the chance to write.

Some odds and ends:

  • I’m also told that, as part of the changes surrounding the redesign and internal shifts, Slate will be taking over its own podcast sales from its sister company Panoply, which previously held that responsibility. A spokesperson explained the change as follows: “Since Slate podcasts are separating from the rest of Panoply, the direct response advertisers that Panoply was calling exclusively for the total network — including Slate — will, starting Q2, be called on by Slate sellers for only Slate’s network of shows. Panoply will continue to call on them for Panoply shows. Obviously, Slate very much believes in Panoply. We are creating this structure so that Slate and Panoply can each focus and do what it does best.” This separation is, of course, quite curious for Panoply.
  • It is not lost on me that the Slate Political Gabfest, one of the network’s oldest and most prominent shows, is hosted by three people who are no longer full-time Slate employees: David Plotz (now the CEO of Atlas Obscura), Emily Bazelon (now a staff writer for The New York Times Magazine and senior research fellow at Yale Law School), and John Dickerson (installed last week as cohost of CBS This Morning). This is both a testament to the legacy that Slate Podcasts has created across its run, and an indication of a potential vulnerability.
  • Speaking of Dickerson, Slate’s podcast chief Steve Lickteig confirmed that Dickerson will continue with the Slate Political Gabfest and Whistlestop.
  • As part of the editorial restructure, the Double X vertical is being phased out as its previous responsibilities become absorbed by all other verticals (there are now five: News & Politics, Culture, Technology, Business, and Human Interest). But the Double X Podcast will continue to operate, serving as the living connection to the vertical’s legacy.

Panoply loses its kids chief. I’ve confirmed that Emily Shapiro, the director of children’s programming, has left the company. Shapiro was originally hired in January 2017 to lead the emerging division, which is primarily built around the Pinna platform. I wrote about Pinna when it first rolled out last October.

Panoply declined to comment on Shapiro’s departure, citing a strict policy on discussing personnel matters.

Prior to joining Panoply, Shapiro was the cofounder of the New York International Children’s Film Festival — considered by some critics as one of New York’s best film festivals — where she worked for almost two decades. Her departure comes at a particularly hot time for the kids podcast genre, including recently launched pushes from WNYC Studios and Gimlet Media, along with long-running efforts from the Kids Listen community.

WBEZ is working on a follow-up to Making Oprah. But it won’t be about Oprah. Brendan Banaszak, the station’s interim executive producer of content development, confirmed the project over email, and noted that they’re applying the “Making” conceit to another Chicago figure whose identity will be revealed at a later date. (A move not unlike what Slate is hoping to do with Slow Burn.) Jenn White will host once again.

I don’t know about you, but I’m really into the idea of “Making” as a podcast template for local public radio stations across the country in the vein of the Hearken-powered Curious City franchise expansions. I would love a Making-style show for Idaho. (Aaron Paul??)

Science Friday joins the WNYC Studios portfolio. The move was announced last Friday. Here’s what that means:

  • WNYC Studios will lead sponsorship sales for the Science Friday podcast along with its spinoff show Undiscovered.
  • Starting April 11, WNYC Studios will take over distribution responsibilities for the Science Friday radio broadcast.
  • Science Friday remains an independent nonprofit media organization, and will continue production as usual in their current studios and offices.
  • WNYC Studios will also assist in the scaling of Science Friday’s audience, along with fielding opportunities for potential future creative collaborations between the two organizations.

This development bears strong resemblance to the August 2015 Snap Judgment move to enter into a coproduction deal with WNYC, the specifics of which you can read in this Current writeup from the time. In this case, however, Science Friday is breaking away from its distribution ties with PRI, with whom they’ve had a relationship since January 2014.

“We love PRI — they’ve been great partners, and our audience is bigger than its ever been” Christian Skotte, codirector and head of digital at Science Friday told me. “For us, as we look forward into the future, WNYC has shown how to launch and market podcasts, and as we think about what our future looks like, we’re thinking beyond just being a radio show and podcast towards being able to create whole new suites of content.”

Science Friday is currently celebrating its 27th year of production.

This week in the revolving door:

  • Eleanor Kagan, the director of audio at BuzzFeed, is leaving the company to join Pineapple Street Media. This move comes almost a month after BuzzFeed announced that it was parting ways with Another Round due to “strategic changes” at the company. Worth noting: Pineapple was cofounded by Jenna Weiss-Berman, who originated the podcast team at BuzzFeed.
  • Jessica Stahl, who originated The Washington Post’s current audio operations in her role as deputy editor on the audience team, has been promoted to director of audio. In related news, The Washington Post’s audio operations launched seven new podcasts in 2017, including two specifically for smart speaker devices.
  • James Green, cofounder of the Postloudness collective and a former producer at Gimlet Media, is joining The Outline to work on its daily show, World Dispatch.
  • John Lagomarsino, audio director at The Outline, is moving to Anchor to serve as head of production. It is a newly created role.

Wait, Anchor has a head of production now? Yep. But the gig is more a product role than anything else. “Ultimately, I’m responsible for making sure content on Anchor is high-quality, well-curated, and relevant for creators and listeners,” Lagomarsino tells me through a rep, before going on to describe a role that liaises between Anchor’s userbase and the company’s product, marketing, and content teams.

For the uninitiated, Anchor is a mobile-oriented app that originally rolled out within the “Twitter, but for audio” construct. That initial orientation was defined by a twin focus: ease of creation and ease of sharing. The company was founded in 2015 and, after picking up some initial buzz at SXSW the year after, has persisted to kick about in pursuit of a place within the marginally iterating podcast technology ecosystem. Last fall, Anchor raised $10 million in a Series A round led by Google Ventures. According to a TechCrunch writeup at the time, the company is still not generating revenue.

The current iteration of Anchor further increases its focus on creating the “easiest path to making a podcast” for the biggest number of people (the bulk of which, one imagines, is relatively inexperienced in audio production). This positioning was expressed last July, when Anchor seized on the reported instabilities at SoundCloud — previously the go-to hosting option for first-time and newer podcast publishers — by offering easy hosting transfers. It was a shrewd move, as the two services map nicely for their target demo given that both platforms are free and relatively simple to use.

How Anchor fits into the broader on-demand audio universe remains to be seen. Will the platform continue to be the lord of its own content universe, or will it meaningfully usurp portions of the technology stack that supports the rest of the podcast ecosystem? The answer hinges on whether CEO Mike Mignano’s thesis on the space pans out.

“The reality of the current landscape is that podcasting has remained an artificially small industry, because it’s so hard to contribute to,” Mignano wrote through a rep. He continued:

Between the friction that exists at nearly every step of the content lifecycle, and the antiquated technology that the industry has relied on for years, creators are left with limited data and limited opportunity for monetization, thus capping the potential of the market. We’re well past the breaking point where innovation across the entire stack is absolutely necessary for growth.

With Anchor, we’re focused on creating technology that strengthens the entire ecosystem and unlocks the true potential of the audio landscape. I expect Anchor to have a lot of competition in the coming years, which we’re excited about, because true innovation is ultimately going to come from technology pushing the boundaries of what’s previously been possible.

I happen to agree with the characterization of podcasting as an “artificially small industry.” The question I’ve kept encountering throughout my years writing this newsletter is whether that’s actually a bad thing.

Billboard outside ATL, Georgia. Atlanta Monster, the new true crime series from Atlanta podcast companies HowStuffWorks and Tenderfoot, appears to be playing around with OOH advertising local to the Atlanta city area:

Neato.

“Gimlet is a multimedia storytelling brand, not just a podcast network.” So goes the opening argument from Gimlet’s new chief marketing officer, Jenny Wall, which headlined a quick Fast Company piece last week, as she moves to elevate the company’s profile.

This is, of course, no new revelation for Gimlet, which has pretty explicitly highlighted its formalizing intellectual property pipeline — carved out in large part by Chris Giliberti, its young “head of multiplatform” — as both differentiating factor and exceptionally strong potential growth channel. Nor is it a particularly new revelation for the industry as a whole; as I noted in my 2017 year-in-review column, the adaptation pipeline is one that extends widely across the ecosystem (though with particular concentration within the audio drama category) and offers the industry a significant pathway to gain strength independently from the platform dynamics governed, still, by Apple. Nor is Gimlet the only entity that’s been exceptionally active in ushering podcast-first properties into projects for other mediums; Night Vale Presents has proven to be equally prominent, with the added nuance of not potentially burdened by the demands of venture capital.

But I thought the quote was interesting for three reasons:

  • It’s super reminiscent of HBO’s “It’s Not TV, It’s HBO” campaign that Wall worked on earlier in her career, which I pointed out last week when writing up her appointment.
  • I was wondering when Gimlet would explicitly make the “actually, we’re not just a podcast company” turn in its narrative. It’s a mindset that you could arguably trace back to a point as early as the company’s participation in the summer 2016 Brooklyn NewFronts event, where it sought to gain association with broader digital media brands like Genius, Atlas Obscura, and Lenny Letter. Perhaps you can trace it back even further.
  • One potential function for the narrative redraft: to open and grease more paths for acquisition. It’s one thing if you’re a podcast company whose most literal suitors would be a bigger, traditional audio company — see Cadence13 and Entercom — but it’s another thing altogether when your perceived value is non-medium specific. It definitely makes things more interesting for, say, a talent agency, or perhaps even a global advertising agency not unlike the one that chipped in $5 million into Gimlet’s recent investment round.

Bites:

  • Like Slate, This American Life has also undergone a redesign, which includes a new shock-red logo. I think the Washington Post’s Alexandra Petri said it best: “Congrats to @ThisAmerLife on its new job as The Economist.” I myself, er, am not a fan. (Website)
  • Last Thursday, ESPN Audio rolled out the first episode of a new podcast from Katie Nolan, who joined the sports media giant from Fox Sports in October.
  • The Loud Speakers Network is bringing back its brand collaboration with State Farm, Color Full Lives, with Aminatou Sow and Angela Yee in the hosting seats. Interestingly, this will be the branded podcast’s third season. They’re also set to experiment with an accompanying video component. (Apple Podcasts)
  • At CES last week, NPR published a new smart speaker study that has some additional data points for your pitch decks. Check it out.
  • This is cool: closing out her third season, Flash Forward’s Rose Eveleth graphed the gender ratio and racial diversity of the guests she brings onto her episodes. (Flash Forward)
  • This is also cool: Doree Shafrir, author and senior tech writer at BuzzFeed, is independently publishing a podcast called Forever35, which is focused on serving women in their 30s and 40s. This is her second indie podcast project, following Matt & Doree’s Eggcellent Adventure, which chronicles her and her husband’s experience of conceiving through in-vitro fertilization.
  • Meanwhile, on the Beltway: Senator Cory Booker (D-New Jersey) has jumped on the politician podcasting train with one of those shows where he talks to people doing stuff he’s likes. He joins senators Bernie Sanders (D-Vermont) and Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), along with former U.S. Attorney General Preet Bharara, in the style.
  • “Pandora CEO Roger Lynch Wants to Create the Podcast Genome Project.” Okay. (Variety)
  • “The Opening of the American Mind: How Educational Podcasts Are Making Us Smarter Citizens.” (Pacific Standard)
  • “Alexa, We’re Still Trying to Figure Out What to Do With You.” (NY Times)
  • PodcastOne announces partnership with the Associated Press around a daily audio news product accompanying the Winter Olympics. (Press Release)
  • “Whatever it is, I’m not afraid of what happens after death.” Don’t miss this glorious conversation with Terry Gross by Vulture’s David Marchese.

Next week, we’re talking crypto-pods.

Correction: In the January 2, 2018 edition, I mentioned that Mary Wilson, current producer of Slate’s The Gist, was a former WNYC staffer. She is not. I regret the error!

Photo of a live Slate Culture Gabfest event by Steve McFarland used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Jan. 16, 2018, 9:47 a.m.
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