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June 26, 2018, 10:44 a.m.
Mobile & Apps

RadioPublic opens up a new investment platform so individual users can get a stake

Plus: Civil + podcasts, Anchor’s troublesome TOS, and IAB’s standards.

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 166, published June 26, 2018.

Wild Wild Country. If I had a dime for every time someone made a reference to podcasting, the podcast industry, and/or podcast metrics being the “Wild West,” well…I wouldn’t have enough dimes to retire, exactly, but I’d certainly have enough to buy a few Happy Meals. The latest such reference comes from AdWeek, whose podcast industry write-up bears the title “Podcast metrics are still the Wild West — but networks are moving to change that.” It’s a fairly standard check-in for the Way Things Are Right Now, but with a pretty concise spotlight on the 24-hour window download count measure that governs the current iteration of the IAB standard.

The article also features two other things that I think are worth further unpacking. The first is the focus on Wondery being “one of the first commercial podcasting companies to adopt these standards, hoping other networks and publishers will follow suit, and many have already partially opted in.” It’s probably useful to note that the list of publishers already compliant with the IAB standards — and a quick reminder that we’re talking about the latest iteration of the standards, known as V2 — includes but is not limited to: HowStuffWorks, PRX, the Turner Podcast Network, and ESPN. I’ve spoken with several other publishers that have long been actively working to shift over by the end of the year, following some period of technical recalibrations and testing.

It’s also worth remembering that, when assessing the state of standardization, a publisher can only be IAB-compliant if its shows are hosted on a platform that’s capable of supporting the IAB’s 24-hour window requirements. Those platforms include, but not are limited to, Megaphone, Streamguys, and Whooshkaa. Art19 tells me that its 24-hour filtering window measurement option is very close to the IAB V2 standard, and that it’s in the final stages of preparing for certification.

All of which is to say that a lot of this is already on the way, and that the reason standardization hasn’t been fully achieved just yet has more to do with technical particularities than a lack of political will. Like most complex things, it just takes time.

The second thing that needs unpacking is a little more delicate, and that’s the actual nature of reservations about the IAB standards. In the AdWeek write-up, it’s largely characterized as a kind of fear of pulling off the band-aid; that is, trepidation over the short-term losses despite the upside of long-term gains. But according to some podcasters, particularly independents, it’s not the immediate pains that creates anxiety. It’s the concern of whether the IAB actually got it right with this iteration of the standard.

“My frustration is why it wasn’t right the first time,” Dallas Taylor, a sound designer and the creator of the beloved independent podcast Twenty Thousand Hertz, told me. “When everyone first migrated to IAB, it was a 30- to 40-percent decline. I was fine with that for the sake of better numbers. Then, it’s like…oopsie…here comes another 20- to 25-percent drop on V2 from the same organization. What are V3 and V4 going to look like?”

Taylor also pointed out that highly produced shows — independent and otherwise — will be disproportionately affected by the revenue shifts that follow downward adjustments of listener numbers. As much as a drop in revenue from, say, $130,000 to $100,000 hurts the bottom line of quick-turnaround chat or interview shows, it materially hurts more for more intensive productions that need every dollar to pay editors, sound designers, composers and others to actually put together an episode. “It makes it harder for highly produced shows to break in,” said Taylor. “The staples will remain, but shows like mine need a loooong runway of time in order to build a big enough audience to break even and become profitable.”

He added: “IAB V2 needs to be right. We can’t keep getting a 20- to 30-percent drop in numbers every six months. Just make it right, and we’ll all move forward and adapt. I’d rather the numbers be ultra-conservative than leave any room for doubt.”

Again, to be clear about the focus: no one is against better numbers. It’s just that the shifts affect some more than others, and the hope is that any subsequent rollout will be handled with care.

Crowd-centered. RadioPublic, the listening platform led by former PRX CEO Jake Shapiro, is generally eager to play around with the possibilities of how things are and could be, and the startup’s latest experiment is no different. Last week, RadioPublic launched an equity crowdfunding campaign that lets everyday users and audiences invest small amounts — from $50 to a maximum of about $100,000 — into the venture. As of Monday morning, the company had raised almost $60,000 from 53 backers, well over its $25,000 minimum goal. The campaign is managed over a new investment platform called Republic.

I asked Shapiro what, exactly, is motivating the initiative. Is this an active component of its fundraising operations, or is it more of a community-building campaign? “Definitely more the latter, but the former is potentially really good for us too,” he wrote back. “[It’s] just hard to predict success, so only made sense to do it without counting on that. But yes, if we can knock it out of the park, having $1M of crowd financing gives us more options/capacity for our roadmap and ambitions, is a good signal for other investors we’re always talking to, and creates an army of incentivized investor/ambassadors along the way.”

RadioPublic was founded in the summer of 2016 as a public benefit corporation, and has since raised over $3 million from investors that include The New York Times, WGBH, Bose, and Andrew Mason (of Groupon and Descript fame). The company’s Republic campaign page publicly lists a number of active performance data points, including:

  • The platform achieved 600,000 monthly active users within 12 months;
  • The Paid Listens program, which helps smaller podcasts monetize, currently boasts around 600 participants; and
  • Users average 72 minutes of listening a day.

It’s a cool fundraising experiment, but it’s also a cool look into the guts of what’s going on with RadioPublic. The listening platform is up against a competitive environment that’s changed substantially over the past few months, particularly with Google rolling out a standalone Podcast app and a consortium of public radio stations acquiring the Australian podcast app known as Pocket Casts. Can RadioPublic figure out a clear way forward to carve out a place among the podcast consumption apps? Or it is poised to become something else entirely?

Your rights and Anchor. How does that saying go? “If you’re not paying for the product, you’re the product?” Whatever the phrase, that’s the specter conjured by the Mac Observer blog with respect to Anchor, the once-buzzy social audio app turned next-generation podcast hosting platform. In a post published on June 20, Mac Observer’s Andrew Orr drew attention to a chunk of Anchor’s Terms of Service that seems to give the company overly broad powers over what it can do with podcast episodes hosted on the platform.

Here’s the part excerpted in the article, under the section “License Grant”:

By submitting User Content through the Services, you hereby do and shall grant us a worldwide, non-exclusive, perpetual, irrevocable, royalty-free, fully paid, sublicensable and transferable license to use, edit, modify (including the right to create derivative works of), aggregate, reproduce, distribute, prepare derivative works of, display, perform, and otherwise fully exploit the User Content in connection with the operation of the the Services, the promotion, advertising or marketing of the Services, or any other purposes.

“This means that Anchor can do whatever it wants with your podcasts, and can also transfer those rights to ‘other companies, organizations, or individuals’ it chooses to work with,” Orr wrote. “Now to be fair, T&C like that aren’t uncommon. Other companies like Google and Facebook own the rights to pretty much anything you upload to their servers. But unless you’re a professional photographer, uploading photos isn’t the same as uploading and making a living off of podcasting. Just be aware of what you sign up for.”

A similar observation about the language was made earlier on Twitter by Justin McLachlan, the creator of the audio drama EOS 10:

Anchor modified the section on June 21, adding the line “You retain all of your ownership rights in your User Content” at the top of the paragraph and removing the “irrevocable” aspect of the license that users granted the company by accepting the terms. The modified version nonetheless maintains the company’s right to create derivative works of content hosted on the platform.

You can view the latest version of the Terms of Service here, and you can view the prior version on the Wayback Machine (saved on May 16). Michael Mignano, Anchor’s CEO, also replied to McLachlan’s tweet with a thread explaining the changes and clarifications made to the Terms of Service.

When reached for comment, Anchor responded with this statement:

Anchor users always have, and always will, own the content they create on our platform. At Anchor our mission is to democratize audio, and in service of this mission we have reimagined podcasting from the ground up to give creators powerful, easy-to-use tools that make it easier than ever before for anyone to make a high quality podcast — from first time creators to seasoned pros.

Anchor is not a traditional podcasting company. Nothing like it exists to date. We’re breaking down barriers for audio — allowing people to create together and use content in new and interesting ways. Creators give us a license for the content created on our platform in order to power features we believe should be available to everyone. Simply put, this license allows us to distribute your podcast as far and wide as we can and innovate on features that don’t exist on other platforms.

A creator-first mentality is at the core of Anchor’s values, and we listen closely to our community in order to serve their needs. To clarify and reaffirm our commitment to creators owning the content they create on our platform, we have adjusted the language of our terms of service to indicate when and how a creator can terminate the license they agree to when using Anchor. To be absolutely clear — the license is not in any way intended to take ownership of a creator’s content. Any claims that Anchor is attempting to misuse creators’ work are patently false. Our aim is to make podcasting as easy, accessible, and fun as possible for everyone and we hope folks will give Anchor a try.

But those adjustments might not be enough. As McLachlan told me:

I still think the license grants far too many rights that the company simply doesn’t need. Particularly for something like what I do, which is mostly episodic fiction. The derivative rights the company still takes (and oddly seems to grant to other users immediately on account creation) aren’t constrained. Those rights in a content-rich creation like a podcast are really important to hold onto free and unencumbered, especially if, like me, you view podcasting as more than a hobby.

I just point to what Adobe does. That’s clean, clear license grant that makes it clear the company only needs the rights to operate its services and its software. They don’t take derivative rights. That’s the standard Anchor should just, honestly, copy.

Agent acquisition. CAA, one of the major Hollywood talent agencies (FWIW, I found this THR guide super-handy), has hired Josh Lindgren to be a part of its touring department, where he will work on expanding the agency’s portfolio of touring podcast properties, Billboard reports. Lindgren joins CAA after spending almost ten years at the Billions Corporation, the nearly three-decade-old touring agency with offices in Chicago, Los Angeles, Seattle, Toronto, and Nashville, where he repped shows like Hello from the Magic Tavern, Radiotopia Live, and The Flop House.

I spoke with Lindgren about his work back in July 2017. “Unlike advertising, live revenue is not as directly related to download numbers as you might think,” he told me. “I know podcasts that can outsell artists with ten times their download numbers. It all comes down to your relationship with the audience that you have, and establishing a reputation for delivering great live shows.”

This is a really smart hire by CAA. In Lindgren, the agency has brought in somebody that not only has considerable experience with the nuts-and-bolts of producing and staging live podcast events, they also have somebody who is keenly aware of the specific upsides, limitations, and quirks of the growing podcast revenue channel. I’m a fan of this.

Blockchain…? So there’s this thing called Civil, and it’s working to build a “decentralized marketplace for sustainable journalism” using blockchain technology — that is, the tech behind cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and… experiments, I suppose you call them, like Cryptokitties. And I’m bringing it up because, as part of its efforts to build newsrooms on the technology, it’s included two podcast-oriented projects: Stable Genius Productions’ ZigZag, which is also affiliated with Radiotopia, and FAQ NYC, a Hearken-esque “How Does New York Work?” production.

I am, of course, intrigued by the hope and hook of it all. I’ve followed Civil somewhat since its introduction — unsurprisingly, I highly recommend these Nieman Lab posts for background reading: one, two, three — and I totally vibe with much of what’s on paper: Civil’s goal to promote a “more ethical and sustainable model for journalism,” to pull the news ecosystem away from attention-based incentives, to build a system that protects the independent storage and distribution of information. Again, I’m super down with all these goals. I’d just like to have a better handle on how the thing actually works.

At this point, I should show my cards: I have a fairly limited understanding of the blockchain. This isn’t for lack of trying — though it’s entirely possible I haven’t tried hard enough — as I’ve spent some time sorting through blog posts, sitting down with whitepapers, listening to podcasts like Coin Talk and Ledger Cast, and hell, even rewatching that one Silicon Valley episode where they whip up their own cryptocurrency. Even after all that, I feel like I still have a tenuous grasp on the core concepts of how the thing actually works, and how that applies to news, information, and media. I also think it doesn’t really help that much of the material seems to emphasize why the blockchain is good as opposed to how it functions on a technical level; the seemingly disproportionately emphasis on the former is the very aspect that gives the whole thing a slightly….Soylent vibe. I mean, sure, this technology may well take us somewhere, but I tend to like my revolutions with a side of doubt.

Anyway, this is a newsletter about podcasts, so let’s loop back to a relevant question: how does Civil’s blockchain technology specifically interact with audio? In other words, how does the technology’s application change the way an audio venture can work? Megan Libby, Civil’s brand marketer, was kind enough to help me walk through the questions.

Hot Pod: Could you briefly tell me how, exactly, Civil liberate participating media projects from the needs of traffic and advertising? Like, how does it provide a new business model?

Megan Libby: Civil runs on a token economy that facilitates direct relationships between journalists and citizens on the blockchain. It’s this element that allows Civil to eliminate the needs of advertisers and third-party publishers; journalists use tokens to access publishing rights on Civil’s platform, and citizens use these tokens to moderate behavior on the platform (CVL tokens are voting stakes in determining whether a Newsroom should be allowed to publish on Civil or not, among other utilities). This process is outlined more clearly in Civil’s Constitution, which is a good “rules of the road” outline for publishing on Civil — and is kept in balance by the Civil Foundation (led by former NPR’s CEO, Vivian Schiller). This is the new operating model to which we are referring: One that makes newsmakers accountable to their readership alone.

HP: So, there are a couple of podcast operations that’s part of Civil. What does that mean? Are they hosted on Civil platforms? Is there an audio-specific iteration of Civil?

Libby: Civil is the publishing platform that allows Newsrooms — like podcasts, or digital publications — to live on the Civil Registry alongside other Newsrooms. More specifically, Civil is the underlying protocol of the publishing platform; it is this protocol that enforces Civil’s community standards of journalism. When launched, each Newsroom will have its own website, business model and team that it will be responsible for overseeing. There is not an audio-specific iteration of Civil. We’re working on native podcast support, but that won’t be live at launch.

Which is to say: there isn’t a direct relationship between audio and the blockchain at this point in time, but there may be soon enough. For now, though, the way ZigZag has structured its operations is pretty illuminating. When I spoke with Stable Genius Productions founders Manoush Zomorodi and Jen Poyant last week, they described something that feels like a classic multi-platform situation. Indeed, the podcast exists and operates through traditional means — it is distributed through RSS feeds and monetized via podcast advertising managed by Radiotopia — but it will also feature a textual element that lives on the blockchain, where it will participate in the whatever the new business model over there will look like.

Libby’s explanation was fairly helpful for me to marginally better understand how Civil’s technology is supposed to create a new incentive structure — though, I’ll admit, this is going to be one of those things that I’m just going to have to see in action before fully understanding it. Nevertheless, the back-and-forth has also further clarified how I should think about the blockchain’s relationship to contemporary media operations: like television adaptations and podcasting, it is yet another platform to invest in, to watch closely, and to hold at arm’s length until the foundations of the thing reveal its full shape.

Unboxed. Loot Crate, the subscription box service that specializes in fandom merchandise, has been a direct response advertiser in podcasting for a good while now, which means that it’s been at the forefront of the way podcast advertising has grown and changed over the past few years. In that vein, I thought it could be pretty useful — or, at least, fairly interesting — to check in with the company and get a sense of how it’s thinking about the space these days.

So, I sent over some questions, and Andrea Carter, who manages marketing and partnerships at Loot Crate, was kind enough to return them with some rapid-fire responses:

Hot Pod: Tell me about Loot Crate, and what you do at the company.

Andrea Carter: I’m the marketing & partnerships manager at Loot Crate, the #1 fan subscription service in the market. Loot Crate takes your favorite fandoms and turns it into a monthly mystery box — it’s the best surprise you know is coming. I’ve been with the organization since 2015 and am currently working remotely in Denver. I’ve overseen podcast marketing since 2016 and have been obsessed ever since.

HP: What shows does Loot Crate advertise on?

Carter: Since Loot Crate covers just about everything you could possibly be a fan of, we have worked with an incredibly diverse roster of shows. Big shows like Joe Rogan all the way down to small indie darlings like This is Rad. Primarily we like to be on geeky shows and comedy shows.

HP: How do you find new podcasts to advertise on?

Carter: I’ll actually go through Reddit pages of shows that do well for us — I’ve found some great gems by going through The Weekly Planet’s Reddit page in the past. There’s almost always a subreddit thread of fans talking about other shows that they love. Trust the fans!

HP: In your mind, what are the biggest misconceptions that podcast publishers have about advertisers?

Carter: Perhaps that it isn’t as big as it truly is. Podcast customers are loyal and incredible and so much mightier than people realize. It may seem in the shadows of digital/social marketing, but at this point it truly is one of the most authentic channels to sell in.

HP:: How do you measure the success of your ad buys?

Carter: Carefully.

No, but for real — we track via both vanity URLs and promo codes and I’ll go through results for both for as accurate an average as possible. Since podcasts aren’t a click-through channel, I’ll also include multipliers to account for customers who have heard about Loot Crate but haven’t used a URL or promo code. Those multipliers are based on survey results when our Looters say they heard about Loot Crate on podcasts.

HP: How has your approach to podcast advertising changed over time?

Carter: We’ve been able to take risks on new shows and more interesting partnerships since starting up podcast advertising. In 2016/2017 we were trying new shows every month for about 6 to 8 weeks to reach new audiences. In 2018, we’ve taken podcasts down a bit to focus on launches of new products, but I’d love to see what’s in store for the back end of 2018 and into 2019.

HP: It’s been about six months since Apple rolled out in-episode analytics. How has that affected the way you approach campaigns?

Carter: I have been keeping the same analytics strategy for our records, but the Apple analytics are fascinating and something I’ve been following. I’d love to see what this looks like in another six months when groups are taking lots of data into account.

Carter: The IAB info doesn’t affect me in my world too much, but I’m curious to see what happens next.

HP:: What are you thinking about these days?

Carter: Justice. Also, the Planet Broadcasting team! I’ve been working with the absolutely brilliant Claire Tonti in doing some sales and advocacy for the shows. Adore them, adore their team, all about it. Same with Allyson [Marino] at Lipstick & Vinyl. Absolutely brilliant, wonderful, powerful and so excited to see what’s next (and happy to connect anyone as needed for additional info!).

Big thanks to Andrea for taking the time to answer my questions.

Bites

  • Quick revolving door item: WNYC’s Jim Lally has moved to Market Enginuity, where he will serve as SVP of national podcast and broadcast sales. At New York Public Radio, he was the senior director of national sponsorship. As a reminder, Market Enginuity handles advertising sales for PRX. (LinkedIn)
  • The Austin Film Festival has announced the return of its Fiction Podcast Script Competition. The judges for this year’s iteration includes The Bright Sessions’ Lauren Shippen, Panoply’s John Dryden, and Studio 360’s Jocelyn Gonzales. Deadline for entries is July 6. (Website)
  • Food 4 Thot’s Tommy Pico is rolling out a new interview podcast next month: Junk, which will feature Pico interviewing literary and cultural luminaries about a keepsake, souvenir, or random bauble they’ve held onto over the years.
  • “How BBC Stories experiments with audio to reach younger audiences.” (Digiday)
  • ICYMI: “UTA and Cadence13 launch Ramble Podcast Network for Digital Stars.” (Deadline)
  • “The New York Times agreed not to use on-the-record audio for The Daily after the White House objected.” (HuffPost)
  • Speaking of which: my latest review looks at Caliphate. (Vulture)
  • Not directly podcast-related, but thought this was super interesting: “It Was an Ad? So What. It’s Still Art.” (NY Times)
POSTED     June 26, 2018, 10:44 a.m.
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