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Feb. 6, 2018, 9:29 a.m.

Can public radio powerhouse WNYC navigate a crisis of its own making?

Plus: RadioPublic stands up for the little guys, everybody’s going Hollywood, and Gannett wants to build “The Wire” (but non-fiction).

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 150, published February 6, 2018.

Good morning, all. So, while not quite breaking news, the late-day publication of a piece on WNYC’s ongoing crisis narrative has led me to rewrite and restructure the newsletter a little bit. As such, this issue is a tad messier than usual. My apologies.

“The Troubles.” We’re three months into New York Public Radio’s reckoning with sexual harassment and an organizational culture that allowed for bullying and discriminatory behaviors that have especially hurt women and people of color. (See here, here, and here.) And it’s far from over.

Boris Kachka, writing for New York magazine’s The Cut (where the original John Hockenberry piece by journalist Suki Kim dropped on December 1), published a whopper Monday evening that provides one of the most detailed looks at the station’s troubling history with sexual harassment and where it stands today. There’s a lot packed into it, and the piece performs a wide range of functions, including, among others:

  • Vividly illustrating the toxic nature of the culture that the station has cultivated over the decades;
  • Capturing the historically persistent systematic failures of the station’s human resources infrastructure — along with its weaponization (“regarded by many as the organization’s spy and enforcer”);
  • Providing additional details on the behavior of Hockenberry, Leonard Lopate, and Jonathan Schwartz;
  • Filling in some of the blanks of what has been happening in the station over the past few months.

Kachka was also able to secure an interview CEO Laura Walker last week, and in doing so, creates a partial portrait of a station leader under heavy fire whose future remains deeply, utterly in question.

The piece is sprawling and remarkably dense, but also somewhat strange. I’ve read it a couple of times now, and the piece strikes me as a keyhole-sized window into the chaos gripping the institution in the current moment — there are dangling threads everywhere, and there are places where I’m not sure how they fit together. Anyway, go read the feature, which is illuminating, but here are some details you probably shouldn’t miss:

  • Here’s what Dean Cappello has apparently been up to following his demotion to an advisory role: “While Walker made sure to be omnipresent around the office, Cappello traveled to London. According to two sources, he was negotiating with the BBC on a partnership to build a morning news podcast to rival the current market leader, the Times’ The Daily.” Hmm.
  • Here’s Walker’s view of what happens next: “She described the future as a monumental but exciting challenge, and gave herself a window of roughly a year to produce results. In addition to [former NPR News executive editor Madhulika] Sikka’s work, Proskauer’s investigation, and several ‘working groups’ of employees, there was a forthcoming ‘integrated plan for change,’ based on a dissection of the workplace now being conducted pro bono by the prestigious Boston Consulting Group.” Not for nothing, though, it should be noted that Proskauer Rose, the law firm brought in to investigate the harassment complaint, is known for union-busting at universities and being on the other side of labor in the sports world.
  • And here’s the kicker: “Cappello’s demotion left many relieved, others even more frustrated that both he and Walker are still in the building. But one thing is true, everyone agrees: Walker is trying. ‘I think she wants to save the company and save herself,’ says one WNYC reporter. ‘But my colleagues and I feel like if it doesn’t truly change, we are out of here.'”

Pocket ecosystem. This morning, RadioPublic, the podcast listening platform and PRX spinoff, announced a new revenue initiative primarily aimed at smaller podcasts that haven’t yet developed a big enough audience to secure advertisers. RadioPublic is calling it the Paid Listen program, with a hook that involves the company guaranteeing payments to participating podcast publishers. Here’s how CEO Jake Shapiro describes the basic premise in an introductory blog post:

Podcasters make ad-free episodes available in their feeds, we place ads on our platform that bookend each episode, and we pay participating podcasters $20 for every thousand listens on the RadioPublic apps for iOS and Android.

Those ads will be produced in-house by RadioPublic itself for now — hence, publishers should note that they’ll lose that bit of creative control and experience contiguity, should they indeed be concerned about such things — and producers must first submit their podcasts for screening approval to participate in the program. It’s worth noting that the compensation program is limited to listens that take place on the RadioPublic mobile apps, not its embed players scattered across the internet.

In his blog post, Shapiro situates the Paid Listen program within the broader vision he holds for RadioPublic, one that sees advertising as one-of-many pathways for creator compensation that the platform will ultimately support. “Soon we will support listeners who prefer to pay podcasters directly instead of hearing an ad; brands who pay users to opt-in for more info; podcasters who invite their true fans to become paying members,” he writes. But those alternative models will come some other day; today, we’re given advertising, the tried-and-true and still-sexy business model that still drives the bulk of business in the podcast ecosystem.

Viewed from a distance, the Paid Listen program can be understood as another variation on your standard marketplace-building gambit deployed by advertising-oriented content platforms — see: YouTube, Spotify, Facebook, early Stitcher, etc. — where incentives are created to attract more creators onto the platform, after which their capacity to draw attention and generate sellable impressions are bundled as attention commodities and sold to advertisers. The nexus of content platforms and digital advertising has come under increasing criticism over the years (not to mention the platformization of everything in general, but that’s a whole other story), and so the distinct challenge for RadioPublic here is how the company will integrate its Paid Listen gambit into its orientation as a public benefit corporation and its stated goal to assist smaller publishers. That challenge gives rise to a broader philosophical question: Do differences in the social consequences of digital advertising and its resultant content/platform dynamics come down to details, and RadioPublic’s long-term commitments to those details — or are the outcomes ingrained purely in the structural arrangement, never to be overcome?

Whatever the answer to that question, it’s useful to read this initiative as the latest step in what may well end up being RadioPublic’s endgame: building a pocket ecosystem specifically for small, independent, and upstart creators in anticipation of a future in which that creator class will be pushed out of the current iteration of the podcast ecosystem by bigger, more organized, and typically deeper-pocketed publishers. It’s a pathway towards relevance that I’ve previously suspected we would see from the rising cohort of user-generated content-oriented apps like Anchor and Bumpers, but it seems that RadioPublic is, and has always been, much more aligned with this particular vision of the future.

The Hollywood hustle. A preamble: Last week, a reader wrote me a particularly profane note complaining about all the adaptation, IP-harvesting, and Hollywood/podcast baby-making stories I’ve been publishing for quite some time now. “Why should we care?” the note asked. “It doesn’t apply to 95% of us.” Now, this isn’t the first time I’ve received such a complaint on this subject. But this week, I figure I should just at least acknowledge the question, and make explicit what has been implicit all along: I cover it because it’s happening, and it’s going to keep happening, and it’s likely going to impact the structures of money, power, and leverage that inform relationships throughout the podcast ecosystem. Which means that one way or another, it’s going to impact you, whether you like it or not — and whether you can see it or not, so you should probably be aware about it.

Anyway, here’s the news peg. Last week, Gimlet announced something that should surprise absolutely nobody: the formation of Gimlet Pictures, its official film and television unit. As Deadline emphasized, the new division will be led by Chris Giliberti, the Boston Consulting Group alum (and Forbes 30 Under 30 fella) who formerly held the amorphous “head of multiplatform” title. Giliberti originally joined the company in the summer of 2015 as chief of staff to Gimlet president Matt Lieber. His team includes Eli Horowitz, who initially joined the company as the head of its fiction division in the run-up to the launch of Homecoming, and another development executive who is yet to be hired, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

Do read that THR piece on the matter, by the way, which also contains two noteworthy details:

  • Messaging from Lieber insisting that the company remains committed to being audio-first;
  • IMG Original Content, a division of WME, has hired Moses Soyoola, Panoply’s director business development and strategy, into its ranks.

That Gimlet moved to formalize its film and television unit isn’t particularly surprising; it is, after all, the logical end to much of what the company has been doing on the adaptation front. It’s also worth remembering that Gimlet’s adaptation pipeline — and the commoditization of its shows, episodes, and projects into intellectual property — was explicitly stated as one of its core growth pathways during its $15 million fundraising announcement last fall.

But what does putting up a shingle for a film and television development arm entail? What does having one actually mean? An industry insider tells me:

It’s all about what you do with it. The facade alone won’t open doors. Will you actually build out the resources and team? Will your deals be set up in such a way that you’re actually the production company and receiving real fees for it (a.k.a. will your agency do a good job). There is a layer of deals that are purely options and no real dollars come the way of the rights holders. They may look fancy but there is no serious financial value.

Gimlet’s announcement, together with the premiere of 2 Dope Queens’ standup specials on HBO over the weekend, kicked off a series of writeups formally documenting the ongoing podcast adaptation trend, from USA Today and Variety, along with the aforementioned Deadline and Hollywood Reporter pieces. Over at Vulture, I tried to contextualize this current wave of podcast adaptations within the sporadic podcast-to-TV attempts of the past.

On a related note: Chris Hardwick, the creator of the podcast-centric multimedia network Nerdist Industries, did not renew his contract with Legendary Entertainment, according to The Hollywood Reporter. Legendary acquired the company in 2012. Instead, Hardwick has branched off and rebranded his flagship Nerdist podcast as ID10T, which will be the basis of his new media company of the same name. That said, he remains the CEO of Nerdist Industries, but will not be involved in the day-to-day. Cadence13, formerly known as DGital Media, will support the new show on ad sales, and as such it’ll be hosted in Art19.

A note on last week’s issue. I’d like to revise an element of the writing in last Tuesday’s profile of Macmillan podcasts: in my introductory paragraph that sought to quickly establish the origin myth of the QDT–Macmillan relationship, I regrettably glossed over QDT’s pre-Macmillan history and Mignon Fogarty’s work therein. By the time she struck a licensing deal with Macmillan, Fogarty had already formally founded QDT and developed it into what she describes as a “thriving podcast network” spanning six podcasts. She remains involved in some high-level QDT decision-making to this day. The way the paragraph was originally written implies that QDT did not exist before the Macmillan deal, and that is patently not the case.

On a related note: Tor Teen, a Macmillan imprint, has brokered a three-book publishing deal with Lauren Shippen adapting her fiction podcast, The Bright Sessions. Paste Magazine has the exclusive.

Making your own shots. “If The Wire or Treme were a podcast and all the stories were true, this is what you’d get.” That’s how Robin Amer, the creator, host, and executive producer of The City, described her project in short-hand when she originally developed the concept for WNYC’s 2015 Podcast Accelerator. The City, described nowadays as a serialized longform investigative podcast exploring the “power structures of different American metropolises,” emerged as one of two winners of that accelerator competition, but WNYC Studios ultimately ended up passing on the project.

More than two years have elapsed since, and The City has now found a home in a unique situation: as the core of a big podcasting gambit by the USA Today Network, the Gannett-owned media group uniting USA Today and a wide array of local news operations. And last week, the podcast announced a number of key details: the first season will focus on the city of Chicago, the show is set to debut in the fall, and the project has pulled together a team of veteran journalists and public radio producers to build the show.

And what a team it is. Supporting Amer will be: reporter Wilson Sayre, formerly of WLRN; producer Jenny Casas, formerly of St. Louis Public Radio and City Bureau; consulting composer and sound designer Hannis Brown, formerly of NYPR’s Meet the Composer; story editor Ben Austen, former editor at Harper’s Magazine and current contributor to the New York Times Magazine; and editor Sam Greenspan, formerly the managing producer at 99% Invisible.

The City’s road to the USA Today Network was an unconventional one. After learning that WNYC wouldn’t be picking up the show in August 2016, Amer secured help from a literary agent, Danielle Svetcov, with whom she started shopping the pilot episode around in November 2016. “I knew I needed a large institutional partner to produce the show,” Amer, who is the former deputy editor at the Chicago Reader and a former WBEZ producer, told me over email. “Long-form investigative reporting isn’t the kind of thing you can do by yourself, unfunded, on nights and weekends.”

The process involved preliminary conversations with more than a few of, as Amer puts it, “the usual podcasting suspects,” but she was eventually connected with the USA Today Network through John Barth, the managing director of PRX and a mentor of Amer, who introduced her to Liz Nelson, the network’s vice president of strategic content development and one of the people in charge of expanding the organization’s budding podcasting efforts. One thing led to another, and last summer, Gannett ultimately agreed to buy The City, acquiring its intellectual property, and bring Amer on an as employee to build and run the project.

“They completely bought into my vision for the show,” Amer said. “The network comprises 109 local news outlets all across the country in addition to USA Today, and is extremely committed to investigative reporting, so my vision of focusing on a different city every season not only made sense to them but was actually feasible.” When asked about the budget that the network is granting the project, Amer described it as “comparable to others that have been launched by major media organizations,” though no specific details were given. For the USA Today Network, The City represents a big swing in a larger push to expand its on-demand audio operation. The network hopes to grow its podcast portfolio to over 60 shows this year. (Which is, uh, wild.)

I’m told that the team is currently deep in the reporting process. “Now that our staff is on board, we’re resuming the reporting that I’ve been doing on and off for the last two years. We’ll be reporting through May, then in scripting and production mode through the summer,” Amer said. They are also laying the groundwork for the second season, which they hope to roll out in the spring of next year.

With a vision to build out a whole new platform for investigative reporting, The City could well emerge as the latest entry in a growing lineage of substantively journalistic podcasts like Reveal or In The Dark — or, as Amer hopes, the broader tradition of investigative narrative works spanning so many other mediums, like those of Errol Morris, Matthew Desmond, and as alluded to in The City’s original shorthand, David Simon. “If we’re successful, I hope it will be one more piece of proof that you can both tell a gripping story and have meaningful impact,” she said. “And hopefully that will spur other media outlets to invest in this kind of work.”

But for now, Amer has already carved out another kind of legacy: of pushing past closed doors with grit, and realizing new ways to raise a project.

On a vaguely related note, because Chicago: Ellen Mayer, a former engagement consultant at Hearken, has launched a new local podcast project called IlliNoise, which is dedicated to “answering your questions about the Illinois state government, how it works, and how it impacts your community.” Not to be confused with Illinoise, the second album in Sufjan Stevens’ 50 States project — where the musician would’ve made 50 albums, each based on a different state — that he would dismiss in 2009 as “such a joke.” (Alas.)

Now if you excuse me, I’m going to make audio puns out of every state.

Career Spotlight. This week, I traded emails with Jayson De Leon, one of those young, energetic whipper-snappers.

Hot Pod: Tell me about your current situation.

Jayson De Leon: Currently I’m a producer over at Slate where I primarily produce a show called Trumpcast. We started the show back in March 2016 with the idea of it being a short run thing about a fascinating campaign with the promise of doing the podcast until this was over and…well, this is still not over. We describe Trumpcast as being “quasi-daily” and have brought on two more hosts since the election who each bring their own expertise on the administration to the show (Jamelle Bouie and Virginia Heffernan).

In addition, I just finished a stint producing Family Ghosts over at Panoply alongside Sam Dingman (who hosts and created the show), Veralyn Williams (a fellow Slatester), Odelia Rubin (part of the Famoply), and Micaela Blei (The Moth). The show explores those stories you’ve always heard your family talk about, but never quite worked up the courage to look into. I think Sam put it beautifully in the second episode of the series, No Brown Spots: This is a show where “our goal is to turn burdens into talisman.” I love that line and have it pinned to a corkboard in my room. A second season of Family Ghosts is in the works.

Hot Pod: How did you get to this point?

De Leon: I went to the University of Central Florida and received my degree in economics. During my senior year, I had that moment of, “oh crap, I don’t want to work in a bank for the rest of my life,” so I applied for this internship at Planet Money and got it. I started listening to Planet Money back in 2008 during the financial crisis. Orlando was in a lot of ways the epicenter of the housing crisis, and I was looking for a place to answer the questions I had about the unraveling of my family’s real estate business at the time. I was completely hooked by the pace and detail of the stories. And, to some degree, I think the early days of Planet Money have informed how I think about making a show like Trumpcast where the news changes minute to minute.

After my internship, I spent some time working as a freelancer. I was a huge Grantland fan (R.I.P.) and ended up getting connected to one of their contributors, Brian Koppelman, by sheer luck (I sent him a tweet). He had just started his own podcast on their network called The Moment and I helped produce that show for close to two years while working as Brian’s assistant on his Showtime TV series, “Billions,” which he created alongside his partner, David Levien. The Moment ended up moving to Slate in April 2015 and from there I met a ton of people who helped me land a bunch of work. I freelanced for a little over a year and worked on shows like Slate’s Working and Political Gabfest until I ultimately landed in Jacob Weisberg’s office (who runs The Slate Group) throwing around ideas for what Trumpcast could sound like alongside my then co-producer, Henry Molofsky.

TLDR — making a living doing audio feels like it required a bunch of breaks to go my way. As a former poker player, it feels like I’ve just caught a run of good cards and I’m just ecstatic to still be in the game.

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

De Leon: Great question, Quah! Hmmm…I never get to think about this. I guess to me a career allows you to enrich those parts of your life you’ve always wanted to enrich while at the same time allowing you to build an actual life for yourself. Only recently have I started to think about this as a “career.” Where I work allows me to try all sorts of new things with storytelling and there’s a certain level of relief that comes with knowing you have time to sit and really think about the best way to tell the story you want to tell or make the best version of the show you want to make. I’m finding that the stories come from a more generous rather than desperate place these days. Like anybody engaging in this medium, I’m just looking to make something that’s urgent, compelling, and feels worthwhile to me and the people listening.

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

De Leon: As a kid, I thought I was going to be a professional basketball player. I don’t think I’m more jealous of any other thing on Earth than people who play basketball professionally. Thinking about it is actually making me upset right now. I also thought I was going to be a professional jiu-jitsu fighter after spending four years training full-time. There was also a very good chance that if I didn’t get that Planet Money internship, I would’ve just stayed in Orlando and tried to make my life work over there. So no, when I started out in life, I never thought I wanted to tell stories, but I’m damn happy to find it when I did.

When I first started out playing in the audio space at Planet Money, I was a complete mess. I had no idea what I wanted to do so I tried to do everything. I went on a reporting trip with Zoe Chace which opened my eyes to speaking with people out in the world. Who knew you could do that for living? I pitched stories basically every week at the Planet Money edit meeting. Mainly because I’m very competitive, but also because it was kind of fun to hear why things don’t work.

Phia Bennin, who was producing over at Planet Money then, helped me with basically everything else while I was there — learning to track, edit, mix, etc., and I can’t thank her enough for that. I think I ultimately ended up producing out of necessity, because I really wanted to stay in New York and keep playing my hand in audio, but it’s just in the last year or so that it feels like I’ve been able to tell myself that this is probably what I’ll be doing with my days for years to come.

Bites:

  • Pandora is reorganizing its business — which is to say, it’s downsizing and engaging in cost-saving measures while placing bets on new gambles, like ad tech and further expanding into non-music content. The music streaming company is also working to grow its Atlanta office, situated in “a region with lower costs than the company’s headquarters in Oakland.” What finagling! (Press release)
  • “Audible’s pursuit of more audiobook publishing rights could squeeze traditional book publishers in the fastest-growing segment of the market.” (The Wall Street Journal)
  • Amazon has acquired Pulse Labs, a startup that aims to help voice app developers “test out new apps on a target audience before publicly launching.” (Recode)
  • The Modern Love podcast celebrated its 100th episode last week. I asked the team to list out their favorite entries. (Vulture)
  • The Onion binge-dropped a six-part true-crime spoof yesterday, titled “A Very Fatal Murder.” (Website)
  • The ever-funny, always-delightful Glen Weldon with “The 6 Eminently Disprovable Rules For Roundtable Podcasting.” (NPR Monkey See)
  • Are you reading Caroline Crampton? You absolutely should.

Photo of WNYC mug by _molins used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Feb. 6, 2018, 9:29 a.m.
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