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June 5, 2018, 10:37 a.m.
Business Models

Programmatic advertising is coming to audio. Should podcast producers embrace it or run for the hills?

Plus: A $1 million podcast talent deal, TV recap culture in audio form, and the delight of regional accents.

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 163, published June 5, 2018.

Well, you cats have sure been keeping busy. I’ll keep this returning newsletter clippy, as I need some time for my engine to run at full speed again. Let’s kick it off with a quick recap of the past few weeks.

The rundown. Here are the three stories that most caught my eye while I was supposed to be on vacation:

  • May 11: The Wall Street Journal reported on the existence of Luminary Media, a new venture aiming to build a subscription service that’ll serve a “portfolio of premium podcasts” to subscribers. The company, which has offices in Chicago and New York, has raised $40 million from the New Enterprise Associates and other venture/”high-worth investors,” and has already approached networks like Wondery, PRX, HowStuffWorks, and Cadence13 to strike content deals. Luminary’s pitch to publishers currently includes guaranteed upfront revenue in exchange for rights.
  • May 15: Looks like Audioboom is in trouble. Over the past few months, the U.K. podcast company has been trying to pull off a “reverse takeover” of Triton Digital that would have resulted in the formation of a new entity combining the former’s podcast advertising network and creative agency with the latter’s digital audio analytics and advertising technology services. But Audioboom was unable to raise the funds needed to complete the process, and now it finds itself in a precarious financial position. The company has since secured more capital from an existing investor, the U.K. real estate entrepreneur Nick Candy, to stay afloat, and it’s working to control its financial situation — a process that would include trimming “smaller, unsustainable podcasts” and working on attracting “more commercially viable” ones in a bid to consolidate its audience base and reduce operating costs, according to Inside Radio.
  • May 24: Bloomberg’s Lucas Shaw reports that Spotify has agreed to pay Amy Schumer more than $1 million for a comedy podcast that she will host and produce. UTA brokered the deal, but I’ve been told by many who’ve done work with talent agencies (and many who haven’t) that bigger deal sizes exist — though no specific numbers were publicly disclosed. (Harrumph.) A few even speculated that the recent Stephen Dubner–Midroll Media deal, in particular, was likely much bigger. (However, it’s worth noting that Dubner has a substantial podcast track record, and the deal covers multiple projects.) Be that as it may, I’d argue this is a significant first on several fronts. It’s the first $1 million-plus podcast deal that’s out in the public; it’s the first $1 million-plus deal for a talent that hasn’t actually produced a podcast before; and it’s the first $1 million-plus podcast deal struck by a deep-pocketed platform company whose non-music audio operations are still very much nascent. Each of those things is significant by itself, but slapped together and mixed in a bowl, they give us an amorphous signal of a broader development: rising price baselines (and price expectations).

Programmatic, and progress. Google is officially getting involved with programmatic audio ads. Last week, the company announced that its DoubleClick product — you know, the giant advertising suite that’s among of the reasons Google is one of the two tech giants that collectively account for over 70 percent of all digital advertising in the U.S. — will now let marketers across the globe access programmatic ad inventory from Google Play Music, Spotify, SoundCloud, and TuneIn through its platform. (Access to Pandora is in the pipeline.) Here’s the blog post, and here’s the accompanying case study.

This development isn’t particularly relevant to the composition of the podcast industry at this point in time, but it will likely become more pertinent as (a) DoubleClick further refines its work in this area — its director of product management Payam Shodjai told AdExchanger that it’s still early days for the new feature, and that it’s really just a question of showing advertisers the “breadth of inventory available” — and (b) the audio platforms listed, especially Spotify and Pandora, become more prominent drivers of podcast consumption (should that ever happen). In any case, the timing of the announcement is conspiracy-theory–inducing, given its close proximity to Google’s confusing early messaging campaign around its podcast intentions on Android phones.

Over at Adweek, Panoply chief technology officer Jason Cox maintains that a deeper pool of programmatic audio ads is “great for everybody.” The article proceeds to note:

Panoply already has its own programmatic advertising technology, which it’s been building with Nielsen. Cox said said he’ll be watching to see what kind of creativity comes as a result of more supply and demand.

However, while opening up more inventory might create downward pressure on ad rates, Cox said media buyers will still have to think more about brand safety with audio ads just like they do with display and video.

“Some people think of programmatic as a dirty word, and programmatic has a lot to answer for in that sense,” he said. “But in on-demand audio, we don’t have to repeat the mistakes in the display world.”

If you’ve been reading me for awhile, you can probably guess my feelings on the matter: It’s complicated but generally uneasy, given the history of programmatic and its impact on the economics (and evolution) of internet advertising. And if you’ve been reading me deeply for a while now, you probably know that I’ve consistently received pushback for holding and expressing this uneasiness. Look, I might be naive, underinformed, and prone to tragic thinking, but I also know I’m being sold something. And the product Panoply is selling here is the aforementioned programmatic podcast advertising marketplace that it’s been building with Nielsen’s Data Management Platform audience segmentation tool since striking up a formal relationship with the information and measurement company last summer.

In any case, the push to programmatic is nearly inevitable. The technology offers a willing segment of the podcast industry — professionalizing and eager for more revenue as they are — the clearest pathway to inject more pace (or steroids?) into its advertising growth, simply because it’s the most obvious sledgehammer to pull from the toolbox that’s been used to build other internet things. Even if some publishers oppose it, enough others will embrace it. And competitively speaking, the choice for the former will ultimately come down to whether to get in the game in order to shape the outcome or to hold steady on a bet that the programmatic wave plays itself out into oblivion. This is all exacerbated by the fact that, at this point in time, there doesn’t seem to be any convincing alternative tool, innovation, or model that even comes close to matching the promise of programmatic podcast advertising germinating in the minds of certain podcast publishers. (Are we seeing the effects of what some have called “dumb money”? Very probably.)

Which brings us back to Cox’s Proposition: On-demand audio doesn’t have to repeat the mistakes of the display world. But what are the necessary conditions that we need to see from the marketplace providers to prevent the past from repeating itself? That, I imagine, is where the analysis should go next.

Meanwhile, Apple, which is still understood to drive the majority of all podcast consumption, is in the midst of a busy few weeks. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that the tech giant is looking to expanding its digital advertising business, an area that hasn’t always been the cleanest for Apple. The development chiefly relates to its app-oriented advertising network, so there’s no clear pathway or linkage towards the podcast side of things, but eh, it’s worth keeping tabs on.

Also, WWDC week kicked off yesterday. I’m pre-writing this newsletter on Sunday, because I will be on a plane for the entirety of WWDC Day 1, so if anything big and podcast-specific was announced yesterday — I doubt it, but you never know — I’ll cover it here in the Nieman Lab column next week. [Editor’s note: There really wasn’t anything substantial.]

Doubling up. Today marks the release of a new audio project from Marc Smerling and Zac Stuart-Pontier of the highly popular Crimetown podcast: The RFK Tapes, a serialized 10-part series covering the 1968 assassination of Robert F. Kennedy at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, told through primary interviews and original audio from tapes kept by the LAPD for decades. The duo originally announced the project during last month’s Vulture Festival.

The RFK Tapes stands separate and apart from Crimetown, the duo’s organized-crime yarn-spinner produced in collaboration with Gimlet Media — which, by the way, will be back for a second season later this year. In an intriguing twist, the new project comes out of a partnership with Cadence13, the podcast network that notably works with Crooked Media on advertising and produces original programs like James Andrew Miller’s Origins.

Interesting move from Smerling and Stuart-Pontier.

Doubling down. In case you missed it, Note to Self’s Manoush Zomorodi and fellow WNYC senior staffer Jen Poyant recently left the public radio organization to form their own media studio, Stable Genius Productions, which is part of the blockchain-powered decentralized journalism marketplace project Civil. Their first show, the StartUp-esque ZigZag, rolls out on June 14 under the Radiotopia banner.

Zomorodi will also serve as a cohost on a new podcast from Medium (yep) that the company announced today. According to the official description, the project, called Medium Playback, will crib from the Modern Love Podcast’s structure and apply it to metered stories on the platform. Which is to say, Zomorodi and cohost Kara Brown will “read a recent metered story along with music and SFX” before doing a 10-minute Q&A with the author to “share the story behind the story.” The podcast will be available on Medium first, before going wide the next day.

Medium Playback launches June 13.

Speaking of WNYC… The station has officially announced the new shows in its summer slate:

  • American Fiasco, the previously unnamed World Cup-themed narrative collaboration with Men in Blazers’ Roger Bennett (who just became an American citizen, by the way, congrats!);
  • Aftereffect, an Audrey Quinn-led investigation into the 2016 police shooting of Arnaldo Rios Soto; and
  • The Realness, a Mogul-esque biographical series digging into the life of the rapper Prodigy.

WNYC Studios also recently forged a most interesting partnership with Night Vale Presents that sees the former reissuing the latter’s fairly avant-garde Orbiting Human Circus (of the Air). For what it’s worth, I really like this model. On one hand, it illustrates a bigger organization extracting value from the long tail of an independent project that’s been hustling out in the open for a while; on the other, it’s an arrangement that maintains the creator’s original position of independence. As clean a win-win as there can be, if it works.

One other thing: WNYC Studios has partnered with Whooshkaa to monetize its Australian podcast downloads. It seems that the peculiarly-named Whooshkaa is proving to be the go-to antipodal podcast revenue partner for American companies. In April, the outfit struck a similar monetization deal with Wondery.

Miscellaneous programming notes:

  • Cults, YouTube, and serialized audio narrative: Gizmodo is leaning into a sweet Venn Diagram with its latest foray into podcasting, called The Gateway.
  • Speaking of cults and serialized audio narrative, 30 for 30 Podcasts binge-dropped the Julia Lowrie Henderson-led Bikram two weeks ago. And it’s a doozy.
  • Maximum Fun is currently hard at work on its first scripted comedy narrative podcast. The show, Bubbles, will kick off its 8-episode first season on June 13. Meanwhile, iHeartMedia is developing a scripted podcast series of its own that will apparently target younger listeners.
  • Bring those takes to the grill: Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History is back with its third season.
  • A quick shoutout to the CBC, whose excellent Sleepover with Sook-Yin Lee just returned with an ambitious new season.

TV Land. From a recent Variety writeup considering the humble but mighty TV podcast genre:

“Colony” executive producer Ryan Condal says that show’s official podcast came out of an abandoned idea for a televised after-show as a way to talk about the behind-the-scenes, too.

“A podcast is so much cheaper, and frankly, I think a better medium for the after-show,” he says. “We all travel around L.A., and we all sit in a lot of traffic and [a podcast is] a great way to pass the time. You may not have two hours of TV-watching time [for a show and after-show], but you have the time while commuting or walking the dog or exercising at the gym, and you can engage with the people who make the show. It’s the director’s commentary of the internet age.”

The “director’s commentary” analogy is one side of the TV podcast phenomenon, pertaining to the involvement of official TV studios in the medium. The other revolves around TV recap internet culture: While the genre remains very much alive in whatever the blogosphere has now become, its genes have definitely trickled down into podcasting.

Take the recent series finale of The Americans: I’m still rehydrating my eyes, and if this was a few years ago, my aching for post-televisual emotional processing would have spanned a few inadequate conversations with friends in my physical vicinity and then hours of refreshing search engines for verbose and often beautifully written recap posts from sites like Television Without Pity (R.I.P.) as well as writers like Alan Sepinwall and Joanna Robinson. Nowadays, I’m leaning more on TV recap podcasts from, well, anybody — I can’t get enough of it, no matter how variable the quality may actually be. (The same applies to my NBA viewing, by the way.) I still hit the recap blogs sometimes, which appear to have been absorbed into the major institutional architecture — Vulture does it, EW does it, even The New York Times does it — but I don’t know, I just feel better hearing someone talk her feelings out loud. TV recaps are partially forms of cultural therapy, and I prefer my therapy verbal.

Related:

  • “The TV-Recap Podcast That Got Me Through My Divorce.” Katherine Carlson for The Cut.
  • Keep your Peak Podcast takes: I don’t care what it means that even NBC is pooping out podcasts. They’re giving us The Good Place: The Podcast — and that. Is. My. JAM.
  • Shouts to Pineapple Street for producing an exceedingly clever branded podcast for Netflix. You Can’t Make This Up offers interviews with the creators behind some of the streaming service’s hit documentaries, including Wild Wild Country, The Keepers, and Evil Genius. But here’s the kicker: The interviewers have largely been drafted from a roster of well-known podcast hosts, including Kelly McEvers, Matt Bellassai, Lindsey Weber, and the Las Culturistas duo Bowen Yang and Matt Rogers. True-story docs, cult-hero podcast hosts, conversations: It’s a soup made to stick.

Elemental. Virginia Heffernan, writing for Wired, on the deep pleasures of accent-filled podcasts:

Some have suggested that podcasting and the true-crime genre — hugely popularly since Serial — are singularly well matched because the intimacy of a podcast works well to both touch and contain the vulnerability we all feel to violent crime.

Maybe. Or maybe when we tune in to chatty Alabamans, Bostonians, Baltimoreans, Californians, Corkonians, and Norwegians trying to sort out what the hell happened in their towns, we’re just listening to what we’ve always listened to through our headphones: music.

What’s wild about Heffernan’s thesis — which I completely agree with, by the way — is just how much it contrasts the “voice of God”/”public radio voice” paradigm of audio news delivery. The move was once to hitch hopes on a generic voice that was meant to be appealing to the masses. But maybe where we were always supposed to go next, in this place, is greater specificity.

Bites:

  • Pandora has completed its acquisition of audio ad tech company AdsWizz. (TechCrunch)
  • Digiday’s Max Willens with the jam: “‘A pain in the ass for users’: Subscription publishers wrestle with delivering exclusive audio.” Come for the technical gripes, stay for the heat from Slate’s Gabriel Roth.
  • Remember Zardulu, from that one great Reply All episode? You might want to check out the titular performance artist’s music collaboration with the mysterious Breakmaster Cylinder. (HuffPost)
  • Happy second birthday to The Ringer, whose podcast operations remain the most interesting to me — and the most pleasurable, personally speaking.
  • Sarah Larson’s latest: “Why ‘In the Dark’ May Be the Best Podcast of the Year.” (The New Yorker)
POSTED     June 5, 2018, 10:37 a.m.
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