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Feb. 13, 2018, 10:33 a.m.

Today, Explained, explained: Vox enters the daily news podcast race with a comma-happy, personality-driven show

Plus: HBO buys in, ESPN brags condescendingly, big networks scale back, and Call Your Girlfriend plots its future. Also, gifs.

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 151, published February 13, 2018.

Quick preamble: I was working on my taxes yesterday when I realized that last Thursday marked the two-year point since I incorporated Hot Pod Media LLC. To celebrate the occasion, I’m hauling an old Hot Pod feature out of retirement just for this issue: the unnecessary deployment of irrelevant GIFs. Thanks for being a reader, and to those who’ve been reading me for a while now, thanks for sticking around. I really don’t know where all that time went.

Every Day, Explained. Rejoice, news nerds: We now have a name, a release date, and a sound palette for Vox Media’s upcoming entry into the daily news podcast genre. The show will be called Today, Explained — props for keeping it #onbrand — and it will begin publishing next Monday, February 19. A trailer for the podcast went up yesterday, and it sounds…well, quite different from what I would expect from Vox.com, but entirely in keeping what I would expect from host Sean Rameswaram, whose various hijinks I’ve followed intermittently over the years.

I wrote a preview of the podcast for Vulture that came out yesterday, and I spent much of that article trying to contextualize Today, Explained within the current state of the emerging daily news podcast genre. Now, “emerging” is a word I tend to use a lot (more on that in a bit), at times way too cavalierly, but in the context of this story, the use of the term is literal: It’s been a blast watching this species of podcast come into being.

Two things I’d like to emphasize from the preview:

  • The choice to target the evening commute is a really, really smart one. I’ve argued this before, but I think it’s safe to assume that there might be considerable overlap between the audiences of The New York Times and Vox.com. As such, a move to complement The Daily is significantly more prudent than engaging it as a direct competitor. In any case, even if the overlap was small, the evening commute remains untapped by the daily news podcast to begin with — aside from Mike Pesca’s The Gist, of course, which isn’t really playing the same game anyway. It’s a safer, and therefore more reliable, base to build from, and besides, Today, Explained could always expand with an a.m. version at some point in the future. (Same goes with The Daily and a p.m. version, a prospect that it has previously explored with breaking news specials.)
  • In case it fully doesn’t come across in the writeup: I think Today, Explained’s success will mostly hinge on Sean Rameswaram’s personality — more so, I’d argue, than how Michael Barbaro fits into The Daily as a presence. Which is, I suppose, kind of the point when you bring in someone with a specific sense of showmanship like Rameswaram to headline a project.

And two more things I’d like to add to the preview:

  • Here’s Vox.com general manager Andrew Golis, responding to an inquiry about how the podcast fits into the company’s overall business goals: “It gives us an opportunity to have an audio daily presence in our audience’s life in the way our website does in text and our YouTube channel does in video. That persistent relationship and trust is a powerful platform for building our business…we believe ‘Today, Explained’ will give us a new way to introduce audiences to a growing network of Vox podcasts as we continue to expand our ambitions and programming.”
  • I’d be remiss if I didn’t discuss Midroll Media’s involvement in the production. The Scripps-owned podcast company serves as the exclusive advertising partner for Today, Explained, but I’m also told that they provided upfront investment to help assemble the team and build out the production. Chris Bannon, Midroll’s chief content officer, was also involved in the development of the show. “Creatively speaking, I spent a day in D.C. with the Vox team, and together we started sourcing host and staff candidates,” explained Bannon over email. “Right now we’re in the fun part, listening to show drafts and sharing notes. They’re alarmingly well-organized, cheerful, and efficient.” Bannon, by the way, worked with Rameswaram back when he was still at WNYC. (He left for Midroll in early 2015.)

When asked about his perspective on the potential of Today, Explained, Bannon offered an analogy. “I think we want Today, Explained to be All Things Considered to the The Daily’s Morning Edition,” he said. “Except that we will be more like All Things Considered’s smart, funny, well-informed, and streetwise uncle.”

“Streetwise uncle” sounds about right.

On a related note: I heard there’s some big news coming later today on The Daily. Keep your eyes peeled.

What comes next for the Fusion Media Group. Last week, The Onion binge-dropped A Very Fatal Murder, the satirical news site’s first stab at a long-form audio project. The show was designed to parody the wildly popular — and eminently bankable! — true-crime podcast genre, which is an appealing premise right off the bat: indeed, there’s no team I’d love to see interpret the phenomenon more than the brains behind The Onion. A Very Fatal Murder turned out to be enjoyable enough, no more and no less, though I did end up thinking it didn’t come anywhere close to realizing its promise as podcast satire.

But there’s a thing, and then there’s everything around the thing. And despite the minor swing and miss of A Very Fatal Murder, I was nonetheless left quite excited about the prospect of future projects from The Onion, and curious about what’s going on with the audio team at The Onion’s parent company, Fusion Media Group (FMG).

So I checked in with Mandana Mofidi, FMG’s executive director of audio. In case you’re unfamiliar, FMG is the sprawling, multi-tentacled corporation best known in some circles — mine, namely — for absorbing the remains of the Gawker empire post-Terry Bollea lawsuit in the form of the Gizmodo Media Group that spans Gizmodo, io9, Jezebel, and others. A television arm factors in somewhere, as does the city of Miami.

Anyway, Mofidi tells me that since her team kicked off operations about a year ago, they’ve been playing around with a couple of ideas and formats to see what would stick. Weekly interview and chat shows made up the early experiments, which apparently ended up working well for Lifehacker (The Upgrade), Kotaku (Splitscreen), and Deadspin (Deadcast). But following the reception they received for A Very Fatal Murder as well as Containers, Alexis Madrigal’s audio documentary about the sexy, sexy world of international shipping from last year, more plans have to been put in place to build out further narrative projects.

Mofidi’s overarching goal this year, it seems, is to ensure that each of FMG’s properties gets a solid podcast of their own. To that end, they have several projects in various stages of development, including:

  • A six-part narrative series from Gizmodo about “a controversial and charismatic spiritual guru who uses the internet to build her obsessive following.” That show is being developed with Pineapple Street Media, which appears to be really carving out a niche around themes of obsession, charismatic leaders, and the followings they spawn, following Missing Richard Simmons and Heaven’s Gate.
  • A show for Jalopnik called Tempest, which will examine “the funny and at times tragic intersectionality of people and cars.”
  • A series that “explores the connectivity of our DNA” — which evokes memories of Gimlet’s Twice Removed — featuring Grammy Award-winning artist René Pérez, a.k.a. Residente. Gretta Cohn’s Transmitter Media is assisting with this project.
  • A collaboration with The California Endowment that’ll produce stories on young activists “who are using their platforms to promote solidarity between different communities and causes.”

Mofidi also talked about an intent to dig deeper into events. “We recently did a live taping of Deadspin’s Deadcast in St. Paul before the Super Bowl. We were expecting to sell about 200 tickets, but ended up with over 360 people,” she said. The smart speaker category is also of interest, along with figuring out ways to collaborate with FMG’s aforementioned television arm.

I asked Mofidi if she had any dream projects that she’d love to produce in her role. “A daily show,” she wrote back. “It would be ambitious, but with so many passionate voices across our sites it feels like something we could do in a way that was distinct.”

Related reading: Publishers with TV ambitions are pursuing Netflix.

We’re back with this nonsense: “Public media again in bull’s-eye in president’s FY19 plans.” Re-upping my column from the last time we were in this mess, on why it’s bad in ways you already know and in more ways you don’t.

And while I’m linking Current, the public media publication just announced the new host for its podcast, The Pub: Annie Russell, currently an editor at WBEZ.

Pod Save America heads to HBO. Surprise, surprise. Crooked Media’s flagship podcast is heading to the premium cable network with a series of hour-long specials that will follow the Obama bros — that’s former Obama aides Jon Favreau, Tommy Vietor, and Jon Lovett, in case you’re unfamiliar with the deep-blue podcast phenomenon — as they host live tapings on the campaign trail for what will most definitely be a spicy midterm election season this fall. This is the latest addition to the newly buzzy trend of podcasts being adapted for film and television, and the deal for this adaptation in particular was handled by WME.

Over at Vulture, I tried to turn a series of dots into a squiggly shape linking this development, the recent debut of 2 Dope Queens’ HBO specials, and HBO’s relationship with Bill Simmons to say something about the premium cable network’s potential strategic opportunities with podcasting. Put simply: Traditional standup comedy programming is getting more expensive due to the pressure of Netflix’s infinitely large war chest, and one could argue that certain types of conversational podcast programming offer HBO an alternative resource to adapt and develop content that can potentially hit the same kind of experience and pleasure beats you’d get from conventional standup TV specials.

But sometimes dots are just dots, and those aren’t really constellations in the sky — just random, meaningless arrangements of stars that are indifferent to your experience of them.

Happy Valentine’s Day.

Meanwhile, in the nonprofit world. This one’s pretty interesting: Tiny Spark, the Amy Costello-led independent nonprofit news outfit that covers the world of philanthropy and nonprofits, has been acquired by Nonprofit Quarterly, which is…well, a much larger independent nonprofit news organization that covers the world of philanthropy and nonprofits. “Amy…has done an exceptional job building the audience for her podcast. We are excited not only to add this new media channel to our organization, but also to collaborate with Amy to expand our reach into public radio,” said Joel Toner, NPQ’s president and chief operating officer.

As part of this arrangement, NPQ owns Tiny Spark’s intellectual property and Amy Costello is brought on as a senior correspondent to lead the organization’s investigative journalism work, podcast development, and public radio outreach. “Tiny Spark’s work fits very well into the topics we cover at NPQ,” said Toner, when asked about the strategic thinking behind the acquisition. “Additionally, our 2017 annual audience survey confirmed that our readers had a significant interest in having us develop a podcast channel.”

I’d like to point out just how much this arrangement reminds me of the one that was struck between USA Today and Robin Amer, which I profiled last week. Speaking of which…

A quick update to last week’s item on The City. In the piece, I talked a little bit about the USA Today Network’s podcast plans for 2018, chiefly drawing information from a summer 2017 press release the organization circulated when they first announced the acquisition of The City. The plans mostly involve launching more podcasts across its properties.

The company reached out to let me know that their thinking has since evolved. “The network already produces dozens of podcasts across its 109-plus sites, but is now focusing on a handful of those shows to support with resources and marketing à la The City,” wrote Liz Nelson, the USA Today Network’s vice president of strategic content development. “At the time [the press release] was written, we did have 60-plus podcasts — most of which bubbled up organically at the local level. We’re closer to 40 now. That number will continue to ebb and flow and we encourage experimentation at the local level, which gives our journalists the space they need to experiment in the medium.”

Nelson added: “But from a network level, we are not putting the same amount of resources we’ve put into The City into every single show. We’re concentrating on a smaller set of shows we believe can have national impact.”

Hold this thought. We’re going to talk about other stuff for a bit, but we’ll get back to this notion of resource focus.

“It amuses me,” wrote Traug Keller, ESPN’s senior vice president of audio, in a corporate blog post touting the sport media giant’s podcasting business, “when I read about podcasting in the media with references to it being ‘new’ or ’emerging.'”

Keller continued:

As ESPN has done with other technologies — be it cable TV in 1979, the Internet in the ’90s, HD television or mobile initiatives more recently — we embraced podcasting as soon as we could and ran with it — even if we didn’t always know where we would end up! We launched our first podcast way back in 2005. A head start is often critical in a competitive business environment.

I also chuckle when people refer to podcasting as some mysterious new format to figure out. I’ve spent a career in audio, and I can tell you the key ingredients for compelling audio are constant…

Yeah, I don’t know, dude.

The borderline condescending tone of the post isn’t exactly something I’d want to hear from a company whose public narrative is one of crisis on multiple fronts — from the disruption of its cable-bundle–reliant business model to layoffs to its uneven handling of social media policies to the uncertain future of a gamble on OTT distribution — let alone a podcast publisher whose Podtrac ranking placement (as always, disclaimers of that service here and here) is powered by what is still largely a spray-and-pray strategy, in which 82 shows are deployed to bring in 35 million global unique monthly downloads. For reference, the infinitely smaller PRX team gets 4 million more with less than half that number of shows (34 podcasts), while NPR bags three times more downloads with just 42 podcasts that don’t at all traffic in naturally addictive sports content.

To be clear, I am, very generally speaking, more appreciative of a world with a strong (and better) ESPN in it than one without. And let me also just say that I really like some of its recent moves in on-demand audio, namely the creation of the 30 for 30 Podcast and having Katie Nolan launch her own show.

But I just don’t think very highly of this whole “oh we’ve been doing this for a long time/we were doing this first therefore we are super wise” mindset that either mistakes early sandbox dabblings for meaningful first-mover value creation or simply being first for being noteworthy. To be fair, this isn’t a knock that exclusively applies to Keller’s blog post; that thinking governs an alarming share of press releases and huffy emails that hit my inbox. But here’s the thing: I really don’t think it matters whether you did first. What mostly matters is if you did it right. Which is to say: If you invented Facebook, dammit, you’d have invented Facebook. Furthermore, as it stands, if there’s anything I’m acutely aware of writing this newsletter every week, it’s that, much like everywhere else, nobody really knows anything. It’s just a bunch of people working really hard, trying to figure this whole podcast thing out.

Anyway. I normally try not to be too worked up about anything, but this stuff really bugs me, and goodness, there’s nothing I would love more than to take this mindset, strap it onto the next Falcon Heavy rocket, and launch it straight into the dying sun.

Still, credit should be given where’s credit due: The post goes on to discuss what I think is a really positive development for ESPN’s podcast business:

To get there, we pared our lineup — once numbering in triple digits — to about 35, focusing on the most popular offerings (NFL, MLB, and NBA) and other niche topics where we can “own” the category. It’s a “less is more” strategy, where we can better produce and promote a smaller lineup.

Which reminds me of something…

After spray-and-pray. ESPN’s move to pare down and focus its overflowing podcast portfolio reminds me of another podcast publisher that’s been pretty active since the first podcast boom: NPR.

NPR’s podcast inventory, too, once numbered in the triple digits. In August 2005, its directory housed around 174 programs, 17 of which were NPR originals while others were shows from member stations that the public radio mothership were distributing on their behalf. (That practice has since been terminated.) The show number peaked around 2009, when the directory supported about 390 podcasts.

“Back in those days, podcasts were hard to access and only the really digitally savvy listeners could find and download them,” an NPR spokesperson told me. “We were experimenting and we were excited with the possibility of putting out NPR content on-demand, repackaging content that had aired about specific topics, seeing what the audience would like…It also allowed for additional creativity in programming, podcasts could be a sandbox for piloting new ideas.” Some of those ideas eventually grew into segments and radio shows of their own, but these podcasts mostly ended up being an unruly system of small, quiet, under-the-radar projects.

All that changed with this most recent podcasting boom, which started in the latter half of 2014. Around that time, a focused effort was made to identify and retain shows that fit a certain set of criteria that included having a native podcast experience (and not just recycled segments from existing shows), strong listener communities, an alignment with the organization’s business needs, and so on. The rest were culled. By the end, NPR was left with 25 shows. “Our thinking was that by having a smaller portfolio, we could draw more attention to them, serve them better, cross-promote, bring sponsorship support, create significant reach,” the spokesperson said.

The move felt like a gamble at the time, but it paid off. “While everyone expected our downloads to go down, within two months, downloads were somewhere near 50 million a month,” remembered Audible’s Eric Nuzum, then vice president of programming at NPR. “Within a year, it was over 80.”

That number is now 110 million. The point of this little parable is…well, I don’t think I have to spell it out. You get the picture.

Call Your 2018. There are few teams I admire more than the trio behind Call Your Girlfriend, the podcast for long-distance besties everywhere: journalist Ann Friedman, international woman of mystery Aminatou Sow, and radio producer Gina Delvac. The show has, over its nearly four years of existence, evolved from a fun side project to stay connected into something so much more than that. It is, in equal parts, a platform, a community, and an ever-growing resource. And if the enthusiasm of some friends of mine who consider themselves devout CYG fans are any indicator, Call Your Girlfriend is also damn close to being a full-fledged movement.

Last year was a difficult one for the team, given the political environment, but it was also a call to arms to which they responded with vigor. “Despite the trash-fire that was 2017 in America,” they wrote me, “Better yet, because of it, we wanted CYG to function as a place of refuge for our listeners, and for ourselves.” This translated into an interview schedule that was dense with guests that spoke directly to the moment — including but not limited to Hillary Rodham Clinton, Kirsten Gillibrand, Margaret Atwood, and Ellen Pao — as well as a multipart series on women running for office that featured sit-downs with first-time candidates and organizations that support women seeking political office. The team also worked to push the show creatively, producing a special episode on pelvic pain and trauma and occasionally handing the mic over to other podcasting teams, like Who? Weekly’s Lindsey Weber and Bobby Finger along with Good Muslim Bad Muslim’s Tanzila Ahmed and Zahra Noorkbakhsh.

The year was also fruitful for Call Your Girlfriend’s business. Though specific numbers were not disclosed, I’m told that the show’s revenues — which come from a combination of ad sales, live events, and a healthy merchandising arm — far exceeded their original targets. More ambitious goals were set for the new year.

We’re neck-deep into the second month of 2018, so I thought it was a good a time as any to check in with the team about their plans for the coming months, their thoughts on how the industry has changed, and their commitment to being independent. They were kind enough to oblige:

Hot Pod: What are y’all hoping to do this year?

Call Your Girlfriend: One of our first interviews of the year was with Cameron Esposito, and we loved her answer to everyone who’s told her she’s too loud or too gay: She’s simply getting gayer and louder. Likewise here at CYG, we’re getting more political, more feminist, and more obsessed with the transformative power of friendship.

Editorially, we’re both digging in and branching out. We’ll be featuring more of our sheroes as well as women whose stories you haven’t heard yet. We’re deepening our work with political candidates who will (hopefully) be running our country soon, and the writers, critics, and artists whose interpretive work helps us endure. We have a number of themed episodes in the works.

We’re also each taking on more as individuals: Amina is sharing more of her personal experience with illness and grief, Ann is bringing more of her stellar reporting and editorial strategy evident in her many bylines and newsletter to the podcast, and Gina is stepping in front of the mic to host an upcoming episode about sex.

We’re also hiring our first ever associate producer! Applications just closed, so we’ll be excited to announce the newest member of our coven in the coming weeks.

Hot Pod: How has it grown over the years?

Call Your Girlfriend: We are very happy that we’ve stayed independent, and we’re working on some more official/structured ways of helping newer, like-minded independent podcasts find their footing as well. We’re also working on ways to leverage our listeners’ incredible political engagement. Our audience — primarily millenial women — drives book sales, ticket sales, merch sales, charitable donations in the tens of thousands and more. Folks on our mailing list are even volunteering to donate their blood for a national drive we’ll be announcing soon.

Part of how we’ve stayed independently owned is through the ads Midroll sells on our behalf. We’ve heard from the partnerships team that our sell-through rates are excellent, and our audience is a highly prized demographic segment. From a pure capitalistic standpoint, there are more advertisers recognizing the buying power in our demo than available ad inventory. We’d like to see more women behind the mic for myriad reasons, including getting paid. We’d also like to see more and better products and services that our audience will enjoy. We’re looking into ways to carve open more space, to bring revenue to great projects and better ads to fit women’s outsized purchasing power. (Weight-loss products need not apply. We love women of all sizes.)

Hot Pod: How do you see Call Your Girlfriend right now, and how has the vision for the show changed over time?

Call Your Girlfriend: When we started, this was a project to stay connected to one another and have fun. We still do that, but we’ve added a number of elements outside the podcast itself along the way. Like the music touring model, that’s mainly meant live events and selling merch. Now and looking into the future, we see Call Your Girlfriend as a great clearinghouse for authentic content for ladies who get it. We’re always thinking about bigger projects in audio, as well as TV, digital, political action, and more.

We’ve talked about engagement, but on a qualitative level our fans respond and show up the way that close friends do. The live shows are a great example. We see friends in cahoots who seem like lifelong besties — and then discover they’ve just met. The number of friends who’ve planned road trips or flown in to be with their long-distance BFF for our shows is astonishing. The community around what we do is really positive and powerful. So we’re interested in adding to that experience as much as possible, that sense of pride and belonging, whether it’s on stage, in your earbuds, on a t-shirt or, perhaps, a screen.

Hot Pod: What’s worrying you guys?

Call Your Girlfriend: As exciting as it’s been to see the emergence of so many new shows and projects, it seems harder than ever for new self-funded shows to find their footing. In an ad-centric model, it takes a lot of work to build a sizeable audience. Audience support has practical challenges. And while we’re excited about the energy around podcasting from media companies, not everyone has the production and marketing budget to invest to help insure a smash hit.

Discoverability remains a challenge. We’re also interested to see whether the proliferation of connected cars, smart home devices, and other access points to audio make it easier to entice brand new listeners.

Finally, for us and shows like ours, hosted by women who are overtly political, we worry about being overlooked or diminished, particularly when compared with similar endeavors that feature men. We specialize in conversations among politically-savvy women who are running things or will be soon. We blend serious discussion of the policies that dramatically impact women’s lives with a good dose of banter. We hope that audiences and industry watchers see that our delight in friendship is completely in line with the seriousness of our analysis and aims. We’re here for every facet of women’s humanity.

Hot Pod: What have you been seeing with the rollout of Apple’s new podcast analytics?

Call Your Girlfriend: It’s been really interesting to run a weekly show with the emergence of so many serialized and/or seasonal programming, watching which episodes really pop and which ones less so. It’s causing us to think critically about re-engagement, promotion, and leaning into vs expanding our style of content.

Hot Pod: Has it been difficult staying independent?

Call Your Girlfriend: It hasn’t been hard for us to stay independent — that’s remained one of our core values — but as we each advise fellow podcasters we recognize that these are very different waters to wade into. Listeners are getting really sophisticated, which is great. But, that makes it harder to learn as you go. There’s much less room to fudge things like your show’s editorial framing, ill-considered artwork, or audio quality. And kind of like your inner circle of friends, once you have core besties, you limit how many new intimates you take on, by necessity.

Hot Pod: Finally, is there anything else you’d like to talk about?

Call Your Girlfriend: Anyone who has money to burn, talk to us. You’re a fool not to talk to us. We’re killing it.

Bites:

Photo of Sean Rameswaram by James Bareham/Vox Media.

POSTED     Feb. 13, 2018, 10:33 a.m.
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