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Sept. 11, 2018, 10:27 a.m.

Did Serial’s Season 3 score the single biggest podcast sponsorship deal ever?

Plus: The BBC uses podcasts as radio cross-promotion, The Daily gets stuck between a rock and an Op-Ed place, and The Guardian is joining the flagship news podcast game.

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 176, published September 11, 2018.

One court, week by week. In case you missed it: Serial is coming back for its long-awaited third season later this month. Announced Wednesday, the news was well documented by mainstream outlets like Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, Elle, Cleveland Magazine, and The New York Times. (I wrote up a preview for Vulture, too.) But if you didn’t manage to get to them, here are the basics:

  • The season will drop its first two episodes on September 20, releasing new episodes every Thursday after that.
  • It will dive into the infinitely complex topic of the American justice system by delivering weekly stories from inside the courts of the ordinary everyday city of Cleveland, Ohio.
  • Emmanuel Dzotsi, a This American Life staffer and Ohio native, joins Sarah Koenig as the co-reporter for the season. Word has it that the dude moved to Cleveland for the past year to cover the courts.
  • ZipRecruiter will serve as the exclusive sponsor for the season. Public Media Marketing facilitated that deal.

Also, the new season sees Serial continuing its “exclusive streaming partnership” with Pandora. The same partnership was announced with the second season, and back then the arrangement caused some confusion: What does it mean to be a Pandora streaming exclusive when you can still download episodes with podcast apps? A rep told me: “According to Pandora, no other audio streaming services will have Serial. Since Pandora is the only streaming partner, Serial 3 won’t be available on Apple Music, Spotify, etc.” (That’s Apple *Music*, by the way, not Apple Podcasts.) This means a little more nowadays than it did back then, I think, as we’ve come to see increasing podcast-related activities from music streaming platforms. Still feels like hair-splitting, though, particularly as we continue to move down a path where everything seems to be converging anyway.

I’ve put together a story about the ZipRecruiter deal, but before we get to that, a quick thought:

It’s remarkable to look back at just how basic the premise of Serial was when first announced in the summer of 2014. “What’s different about Serial is that it’s a story that takes a dozen or so episodes to tell,” This American Life chief Ira Glass wrote in a blog post from the time. “So each new episode brings you the next chapter of this amazing, unfolding story. Serial’s a podcast, not a radio show, because a podcast seems like a better place for a long story that you need to hear from the beginning.”

The pitch wasn’t a What, but a How — not the birth of something new, but an expansion of something that existed. How an emerging technology could contribute to the show’s ever-growing editorial ambitions. This American Life was almost two decades old by that point, a period throughout which the show had continuously refined itself within the programming logic of linear broadcast radio: producing captivating multi-segmented hours designed to catch earballs foraging through the dial. If you missed a story, you missed it, but it’s okay — there’s another good one in a few minutes. And maybe you’ll bump into that earlier story someday in reruns.

That was, of course, a limitation of the broadcast structure. And to be sure, limitations are productive; there’s all that pablum about creative constraints, et cetera, et cetera. But every structure places limits on the ambition it can accommodate. There may well remain many more frontiers for narrative storytelling on broadcast radio to discover — but there are some frontiers you just can’t reach with it. You probably can’t, for example, present a deeply complicated, nuanced, and novelistic multipart Southern Gothic about the extraordinariness of an ordinary life over the broadcast airwaves of, say, KOSU. Not efficiently, anyway.

It should be said that the growth, development, and flourishing of podcasting long predated Serial’s 2014 debut. But the explosive popularity of that first season nonetheless looms over a good deal of what came after. We continue to see it in the minds (and hunger) of countless competitors, disciples, and imitators to this day. In the end, the true heart of Serial’s intent, and legacy, can perhaps be phrased as such: Where else, and how else, can you do your work?

Inside the ZipRecruiter deal. Let’s start with the obvious question: Is ZipRecruiter’s exclusive sponsorship of Serial’s third season the largest podcast ad deal to date? Let’s also be prudent and invoke a qualifier: Is it the largest launch ad deal to date, given the existence of other deal types like recurrings and branded content?

“I don’t believe there has even been a larger podcast sponsorship in audience reach, exclusivity term, or financial commitment,” said David Raphael, the president of Public Media Marketing, who took the podcast out to marketplace. “Yes, there have been branded content programs contracted by brand sponsors, some of them quite good. That said, I’m confident that to date none have ever reached the size and scale of the Serial audience nor matched the content produced by Sarah Koenig and her team at Serial.”

And to answer the other obvious question: No, he could not provide specific numbers. Alas.

It is hard, of course, to fully verify a claim like this without having omniscient access to everybody’s books, and when dealing with a question like this, one must account for the fact that muscle flexing is part of the point of a quote like that. For what it’s worth, I asked around, and though there were some qualifications, there was also a general consensus that this, indeed, is very probably the biggest deal to date.

In case you were wondering, how these things happen is pretty straightforward: Public Media Marketing sits down with the Serial team, discusses revenue goals, puts together a revenue package to sell, and brings it to potential advertisers. They ended up receiving multiple offers, but chose ZipRecruiter because, as Raphael puts it, theirs was “the most interesting.”

“It isn’t just about financial size,” said Raphael, when asked about what “the most interesting” meant. “It’s the ability to put together a mass reach package for a sponsor that wants ownership at a high level.” Kind of like what happened with MailChimp and the first season, he added, though, admittedly, “as Bob Ross said, that was a happy accident.”

Interesting-ness, it seems, also translates to a willingness for creative collaboration. Though hosts Koenig and Dzotsi will not voice the ads — journalistic ethics and so on — Serial’s creative team will be contributing to the development on those advertising spots, with ZipRecruiter providing a good deal of freedom and additional collaboration around a multi-platform creative campaign.

On Thursday, ZipRecruiter tweeted out a preview of what that ad experience looks like: a show-within-a-show called Road to Hired. The concept sounds reminiscent of the Ford ads Gimlet produced for StartUp, though the question here, for me anyway, is tone control: Unlike StartUp, Serial often deals with deadly serious material, and the thing to watch is whether the show will be able to toggle between its investigation and ZipRecruiter’s brand messaging without feeling too weird.

Anyway, I’m told that the deal’s exclusivity is based on a combination of time and impressions, and that it applies for every podcast distribution platform except for Pandora, which will have the ability to sell inventory around the show on its own platform to its own sponsors, provided they are not competitive with ZipRecruiter. Raphael expects the ZipRecruiter ads to run on the podcast for at least six months.

Some readers wrote in noting the fact that ZipRecruiter, a long-time direct response advertiser on podcasts, ended up headlining Serial’s highly anticipated third season feels a little underwhelming, especially given the industry’s overarching pursuit of brand-advertising dollars. I find the situation curious as well. We’ve seen numerous major brands begin invest in branded podcasts and host-reads — surely those advertisers have warmed up enough to put up numbers for something like Serial by now, right?

Raphael evoked the sense that we’re still very much in uncharted waters with a package like Serial’s third season, which commits to Big Numbers out of the gate and asks for Big Money in return. “Candidly, when you’re selling a podcast package of this size and scale, it’s a little unprecedented,” said Raphael. The reality, he argues, remains that legacy advertisers are still dipping their toes, and they continue to grapple with prevailing doubts: “One of the issues we face a lot — and this goes back for years — is that large, traditional brand advertisers still think podcasts are not able to reach hundreds of millions of impressions.”

“We can do that [consistently] now,” he said, pointing to the podcast’s first two seasons and its spinoff S-Town.

In any case, Raphael added, focusing completely on brands is besides the point. “I’m not one of those reps who believe brands are going to be the whole future of this industry,” he said. “Direct response advertisers are still going to be a big part of it — in order to maintain a healthy ecosystem, you need a good mix.”

The dog and pony show. The fourth annual IAB Podcast Upfronts took place last Thursday at the Convene space in midtown Manhattan. The one-day instant marketplace event sees a string of podcast publishers — some old, some new, some blue — coming together to pitch advertisers on the medium and their respective place within it. Which is to say, it’s a day of suits and handshakes.

I wasn’t able to make it down there this year, but I found this AdExchanger write-up super helpful, which revolved around the theme that the industry’s various listening data-production efforts over the past year have moderately warmed up the medium’s relationship with advertisers. The article also conveyed what appears to be an ongoing touch-and-go relationship with just how granular the industry wants to get with targeted data and advertising. “When you slice an audience so thin, you really lose the focus of the story,” WNYC’s Charles Dannison was quoted as saying. Again, go read the AdExchanger piece.

Anyway, IAB Day is also a day of press releases. Here are some notable announcements:

  • WNYC Studios unveiled a partnership with the authors and podcast personalities John Green and Hank Green. Their two existing podcasts, Anthropocene Reviewed and Dear Hank and John, will be remastered and relaunched under the WNYC Studios brand as part of the partnership, which also includes a new co-production called SciShow Tangents.
  • Gothamist, the local news site that WNYC acquired and re-launched earlier this year, is developing its first podcast.
  • Midroll had multiple show announcements, including: a new project with Oprah Winfrey’s OWN network; a collaboration with LeanIn.org; an investigative podcast on the world of multilevel marketing schemes; an adaptation of a TV show from its Scripps sister company Newsy; and a series exploring the history of conversion therapy in America produced by Limina House, the studio started by Mikel Ellcessor, a former WNYC chief who, interestingly enough, was credited in this 2015 Fast Company article as the person who first brought the idea of podcasting into the organization.
  • Fans of Topic Studios and Pineapple Street Media’s Missing Richard Simmons, take note: The Dan Taberski-led podcast is now considered part of a broader anthology series, called Headlong, and a second season, titled Surviving Y2K, is scheduled to drop sometime in the fall. A third season, I’m told, is already in production.
  • Panoply is developing a fiction podcast with The Bright Sessions’ Lauren Shippen. Called Passenger List, it will star Kelly Marie Tran in the lead role.
  • NPR announced three upcoming podcasts spanning into the near new year: Believed, a Michigan Radio-led investigation into the Larry Nassar scandal, which is one of the largest serial sexual abuse cases in U.S. history; a yet-to-be-named civil rights cold case podcast; and Primer, which seeks to provide “the history we sometimes forget — or didn’t know in the first place — of the events in the news and ideas dominating our national discourse.”
  • Public Media Marketing is selling a podcast from Dr. Phil. Speaking of which, Dr. Phil has a podcast now.
  • HowStuffWorks and Tenderfoot has partnered with iHeartMedia to produce the second season of Atlanta Monster, called Monster: The Zodiac Killer.
  • The Cumulus Media-owned radio company Westwood One announced that it is launching a women-focused podcast network.

What Xtrachat tells us about the BBC’s podcast strategy [by Caroline Crampton]. Over the past year or so, a shift has taken place at the BBC, as Britain’s state-funded public broadcaster has started to think about podcasting strategically for the first time. We’ve seen the appointment of its first podcast commissioner and the launch of a new app, BBC Sounds, intended to put all their live radio, catchup, and podcast content in the same place for the first time. (It’s still in beta, and it isn’t yet clear what its final iteration will look like. But already, questions have been raised about the app.)

Last month, there was another development: The youth-focused BBC digital radio station 1Xtra launched its first podcast feed, XtraChat. It’s a showcase effort that seeks to distribute episodes of both existing and newly commissioned podcast series. (It will also receive a radio broadcast.) The station, which has a target audience of young black people ages 16 to 24, is bringing in independent podcasters from outside the BBC rather than trying to engineer its own podcast “voice” right out the gate. The first show on the feed, The Receipts, has a very distinctive style, and it would have been hard to generate its relaxed, conversational tone from a standing start.

“I’ve been commissioning podcasts across the two networks from the end of last year,” said Louise Kattenhorn, commissioner executive for Radio 1 and 1Xtra, when we spoke recently about the thinking behind the launch. “We started with Radio 1, so we were concentrating on more comedy, and I learned a lot from that, but we’ve always had in the back of our minds that we wanted to work towards a podcast feed or a few podcast feeds for 1Xtra specifically for that audience.”

One of the primary considerations in the planning phase, she said, was the desire to avoid making something that already existed as an independent show. “I don’t want the BBC to come in and artificially create something that’s already out there,” Kattenhorn said. The option was there to make an entirely new show or shows, but she decided against it and rather chose to work with existing podcasts.

As a fan of The Receipts in its independent form, she felt that hosts Tolani Shoneye, Audrey Indome, and Milena Sanchez were the obvious choice to start XtraChat off, not least because of their existing audience (the show attracts about 25,000 listens per episode). Her hunch seems to have proved correct: The initial run of The Receipts on 1Xtra has been extended from six to eight episodes, and the feed hit the top of the U.K. iTunes chart after the first one dropped. Whether it can be sustained as different voices and shows take over the feed is unclear — a showcase initiative like this, I feel, will likely encounter consistency challenges.

The aim with XtraChat from the start, Kattenhorn said, was “to do something that brings in new audiences to the BBC, but also allows [the podcasters] to have a platform to a wider audience too.” It’s also part of a broader strategy for the two networks Kattenhorn works on to use podcasting as a way of moving into spoken word content.

“We’re a music station, really, and there aren’t many places on the schedule where we can explore exciting speech content,” she explained. BBC Radio 1Xtra focuses on hip hop, R&B, and grime, particularly by British artists, and although the presenters do narrate and conduct interviews, there isn’t much non-music content on air. In theory, podcasting opens up that space for them, Kattenhorn said: “That scope to have really in depth conversations that aren’t restricted by time or broadcast slot is really exciting. That’s what I’m really excited about, that we can have this speech content for young audiences that is really resonating with them.”

This is something that could apply to other BBC stations, too. Radio 3, for instance, traditionally focuses on classical and world music, interspersed with a few short documentaries (and has an average listener age of over 50), but accompanying conversational podcasts could help it attract a new younger audience. Classic FM, a commercial classical music station operated by Global, has had a surprising amount of success with a music-oriented true crime podcast called Case Notes; it would be an unusually bold but welcome move if the BBC’s podcast-first commissions were to start playing with genre in this way as well.

It was clear from my conversation with Kattenhorn that while XtraChat might be a podcast-first product, radio still has a lot of pull over what the BBC does. (Which isn’t that surprising; although podcast take-up has grown substantially recently, especially among younger people, live radio still has a 74 percent share of U.K. listening.) She was open about her hope that the podcast feed would help pull non-radio listeners into the rest of the network’s output, rather than just existing on its own merits — it seems to be a marketing extension for them, in a way. “We know there are a lot of podcast listeners who don’t listen to 1Xtra,” she said. “We’d love to bring them into the network, we think we’ve got a lot to offer them.”

I think this gets to the heart of an ongoing dilemma for the BBC, actually: Are podcasts just there to bring more listeners to their radio content, or do they stand alone on their own merits? I’m not sure they know the answer to that yet.

Daily news podcast news roundup.

  • The day after the whole anonymous New York Times op-ed brouhaha dropped last week, I thought The Daily found itself in a reaaaaally interesting place: stuck firmly between being the voice of the paper and a proxy for the reader, in a situation where there’s an impenetrable gap between the two. The end result flew straight down the unsatisfying middle (at least for me), perhaps understandably. In my mind, it’s yet another expression of a persistent question: What’s the most appropriate way for the podcast to stand in relation to the paper? And more crucially, what is the right position of the podcast when the organization is, itself, the source of news?
  • On a related note: The Washington Post appears to be staffing for a sizable team to produce its upcoming flagship daily news podcast.
  • The Guardian is also developing a flagship daily news podcast, and the org tapped political editor Anushka Asthana to host it. They have also built a sizable team behind the show, which includes Leo Hornak as executive producer and The New Yorker Radio Hour’s Mythili Rao as lead producer.

Career Spotlight [by Caroline Crampton]. This week, I got in touch with Lily Ames, who is a development producer at The Guardian and a familiar email presence to many podcast types in the U.K. because of her excellent work founding and curating the main U.K. audio listserv. She wrote about what inspired her to move from Canada to the U.K. just as Serial Season 1 dropped and why she wants the audio industry to be more transparent.

Hot Pod: Tell me about your current situation.

Lily Ames: I’m currently working at The Guardian as an audio producer (formerly CBC, Pacific Content, Vice, and countless freelance gigs). I’m also the creator of the U.K. Audio Network — an email listserv that promotes transparency, industry growth, and community building. I’m happy in any role where there’s equal part strategy, creativity, and community. I most recently wrapped up a giant show development project at The Guardian. On top of that, I’ve been working on my weekends to produce a freelance podcast series about a startup Christian record label.

Hot Pod: How did you get to this point?

Ames: I’m secretly Canadian, so I started out in public radio at the CBC. At 29, I did that thing where you race to do everything you wanted to do before you turn 30. I headed to Third Coast and met a British radio producer named Sophie Black who worked for a radio station out of a London prison. After hearing all about the British radio scene — the home of the BBC, the PRA, and Resonance FM, I knew I needed to pack up and move to London (my British ancestry passport helped). My plans were to try to get a job at that prison radio station but I arrived the month Serial launched, so I dove head first into podcasting. As a Canadian, I’m kind of the lovechild of the U.K. and U.S. — with a unique perspective on both.

This also means I spend a lot of time thinking about the similarities and differences between each scene. I started the U.K. Audio Network, inspired by the various listservs that exist in the U.S. My feeling was that the U.K. lacked the transparency that the U.S. scene has so I set up the infrastructure to promote that. The group is about a year old and I’ve received lots of exciting feedback that people are getting work and making connections through it. Next plans are to start the wage discussions. People are chronically underpaid in British audio.

Hot Pod: What does career mean to you?

Ames: A portfolio of skills. I am obsessed with building on what I have. Again, I think this is quite a Canadian thing where you’re working within tiny industries so it’s always about scrappily leveraging one position into another.

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

Ames: When I was a kid, I wanted to be a movie star; when I was a teenager, I wanted to be a therapist; and in university I wanted to be a radio producer. Radio producer = therapist + movie star?

Hot Pod: What are you listening to right now?

Ames: I’m listening to Season 2 of Slow Burn.

Hot Pod: What’s the most unusual thing working in audio has lead you to?

Ames: Sometimes it’s the smallest gigs that turn out to be the most exciting. A couple of years ago, during a freelance dry spell, I said yes to recording a talk — just a straight-up tech job. When I arrived, it turned out the speaker was Monica Lewinsky! It was a private talk for rich business women. Very exciting indeed.

You can find Lily Ames on Twitter here, and check out the U.K. Audio Network here.

Miscellaneous bites:

  • The 9to5Google blog has unearthed what appears to be early conceptual designs of Google’s experimental “Shortwave” podcast app, whose existence was first reported last month. A spokesperson for the company told the blog that those designs are “not representative” of the current product. I’d counsel keeping an eye on this development…and to not take it too seriously. For now, it’s a minor curiosity at best. (9to5Google)
  • Twitter is apparently launching an “audio-only broadcasting” feature. Shades of early Anchor and Bumpers, which have since evolved into a different value proposition and shut down, respectively, but also shades of its own history: Let’s not forget that Twitter began life as Odeo, one of the first podcast directories and publishing platforms, which pivoted into whatever it has become today after Apple began including podcasts into iTunes. Back to the beginning, but no longer the same. (Twitter)
  • Meanwhile, over in Newark, we’re still seeing considerable activity around whatever Audible’s Originals initiative has become: The audiobook giant is now offering two free Audible Originals products to members every month. (Engadget)
POSTED     Sept. 11, 2018, 10:27 a.m.
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