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Oct. 30, 2018, 11:27 a.m.
Reporting & Production

Sorry, New York: Los Angeles is making a play for the Podcast Capital of the World title

Plus: The CBC joins the daily podcast game, smart speakers approach a tipping point, and the growing podcast scene in the Middle East.

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 183, published October 30, 2018.

The new independence of Los Angeles. Here’s a refrain I’ve encountered with some regularity: “New York is the heart of the podcast industry.” I’ve been hearing this for years and I hear it still from producers, podcast execs, would-be producers, would-be execs, and even New York City itself. And it’s almost certainly true, given that New York is home to many of the big companies we tend to talk about here at Hot Pod along with a staggering proportion of working freelancers.

One can properly contest that claim, however, and note that Los Angeles is increasingly giving the empire city a run for its money. Long the heart of the comedy podcast world (and the birthplace of Earwolf and Midroll Media, pre-merger), the Southern California mega-city has been rapidly expanding its influence over the industry for a good while now. The bulk of this rise comes from the growing involvement of the big talent agencies, which have been steadily reshaping how things typically get done around here, or so I’ve been told. But some attention should also be paid to the entrepreneurial layer of the Los Angeles scene, which is beginning to feature some pretty interesting activity.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been looking at four Los Angeles podcast ventures that strike me as expressions of a trend. All four are independent studios — in the vein of the eastern Transmitter and Pineapple Street — founded within the past year or so and based on roughly the same impulses. As a collective, they represent a new generation of teams capitalizing on opportunities and taking their fortunes into their own hands.

Jonathan Hirsch’s Neon Hum is one such shop. Hirsch, who made Dear Franklin Jones for Stitcher last year and was once part of The Heard collective, started the company in April after noticing a pattern during his time independently producing shows for several media companies. “I noticed that I was being asked to ‘staff up’ with increasing regularity,” he said. “After a while, I began to think it’s make more sense, at least practically, to start a production company.”

According to Hirsch, Los Angeles is home to a vibrant podcast scene that’s been quietly evolving beyond comedy and celebrity-driven fare. That scene has translated into a solid client list for Neon Hum. By the end of this year, the studio will have produced 14 shows for its partner base, which includes: Wondery, with whom they worked on Dr. Death; The Ringer, producing the site’s first narrative podcast, Halloween Unmasked; as well as Nike and Uninterrupted Media on a popup podcast pegged to the 30th anniversary on the former’s Just Do It campaign. The studio is also handling production for Rachel Maddow’s new Spiro Agnew documentary series, Bag Man, and the Los Angeles Times’ two nonfiction narrative projects following up Dirty John.

“It seems to me that, as the audience and interest in podcasting continues to grow, there is a need for shops like ours: nimble and experienced storytellers supporting the creative interests of a variety of clients,” Hirsch said.

Ben Adair is a journalist who has done work for WNYC, Wondery, and the Center for Investigative Reporting, with which he helped create Reveal. Earlier this year, Adair founded Western Sound as a response to frustrations he felt working as a solo producer-for-hire. “Working as a freelancer, I was lonely and often thrown in with teams that were not optimal, [and] being part of a network, you don’t own your stuff.” Adair said. “The main reason I started Western Sound was to create a team that I believe in and then make stories that are awesome and, potentially, have additional value as intellectual property.”

While happy with his new venture, Adair suspects the independent studio model is not for everybody. “The bummer part of having a company is that the business deals get much more complicated when you’re fighting for yourself and for your work as opposed to signing work for hire contacts or just letting others own your IP,” said Adair. “But for me, it’s worth it, especially as I build something I can believe in.”

Hirsch built Western Sound with a familiar dual-business model in mind. On the one hand, the studio produces shows for clients, and on the other, it seeks to build its own original programming. The client list includes Stitcher, ESPN, and Hulu, and most of the projects in development are scheduled for release next year. There’s also some expectation of revenue from renting out their production studio, which is currently in its final phase of construction.

Also with a studio for rent: Little Everywhere. “Guests have said it’s so cozy they want to move in, and we’re pretty proud of that,” founders Jane Marie and Dana Gallucci told me over email. Alums of This American Life and Bullseye, respectively, the duo started the company after observing the lack of production houses with explicit podcast expertise operating in the city.

At the moment, Little Everywhere is perhaps most known for producing The Dream, an investigative documentary on multi-level marketing schemes, and An Oral History of the 1993 Tappan Jr. High School Talent Show, a scripted mockumentary, both published by Stitcher. But their full client list runs the on-demand audio gamut, with contracts from NPR, KCRW, Earwolf, Audible, and HarperCollins.

“For us, right now, being an independent production house gives us the flexibility of a freelancer with the resources of a network,” Marie and Gallucci noted. “Because we aren’t answering to anyone but ourselves, we can be selective about the projects we take on. But we also have a professional studio and partner with networks that offer us support (marketing, PR, distribution, etc.) we wouldn’t otherwise have as a small operation. At the moment, this feels like the best of both worlds.”

Rachael King’s Pod People also seeks to combine two worlds, but of another kind. The venture fashions itself as a “hybrid production company and talent agency,” a mix tailor-made for Hollywood. King, who previously ran her own boutique communications firm in the city, started Pod People after noticing an increase of inquiries from clients to help them start their own podcast initiatives.

“I’ve been a podcast fanatic for years so I loved the idea, and at first, I was just going to add podcast production as one of our services and then find some great producers/editors to work with,” King told me. “But when I looked around, I realized there was a larger business opportunity. There are so many talented freelancers looking for clients and projects, and so many companies who are now interested in podcasts — but they have no good way of finding each other.”

The way it works is the way it sounds, more or less: in addition to producing shows for clients, the company also facilitates a marketplace that connects various audio production operatives (producers, hosts, editors, sound designers, and so on) with potential projects that could be a good fit for them. “The client pays a consulting fee for us to help figure out the high-level show format/budget, and then a finders’ fee to match them with the perfect team to make it,” King explained. “It also works the other way — with this talented roster of audio producers, we’ve started packaging their show ideas and pitching them out to brands and networks.” She notes that, since launching in January, the company has drawn in almost 300 freelancers into its roster, and the production side has a client list that includes Medium, Samsung NEXT, Twitter, Brit+Co, and L’Oreal.

In an email to me, King also discussed another element to the opportunity she’s been prospecting: the need for a middle ground. In other words, something to meet a situation where clients have the money to spend, but “can’t afford the Pacific Contents and Gimlet Creatives of the world.” She added: “We appeal to companies who want to dip a toe in the podcast pond, but aren’t ready to spend hundreds of thousands to do it.”

Coastal differences. Something that I’m generally curious about are the differences of running a podcast venture in Los Angeles as compared to New York. How does the Hollywood–industrial complex affect prospects and creative life at these independent studios? How do these studio proprietors view those differences themselves?

Jonathan Hirsch:

I used to live in New York, and I was very concerned with how my future life in audio would look across the country from the center of the action…but I continue to be surprised. L.A. has a very strong and vibrant audio community, with many of us out here quietly making a big impact on what people listen to nationally.

For sure the entertainment industry impacts the kinds of projects that are being made, although I wouldn’t say it dominates the work that we do. This is all anecdotal, of course, but I find producers and EPs out here less concerned with what the more established outlets are doing in New York. This isn’t to suggest that producers here aren’t focused on national issues, quite the contrary. I just think the bullhorn of New York media is more like a distant echo out here.

Rachael King:

I grew up on the east coast and I’m in New York every other month or so, and my impression that NYC is really radio/journalism-heavy, whereas audio folks in L.A. come from all walks of life — radio and journalism, of course, but also from film production, creative writing, even sound designers or music composers who cross over to audio from the visual world, all of which I think gives us a massive advantage in terms of pulling different perspectives and voices into the medium.

L.A. has creativity in spades, and we’re never afraid to get a group of talented people together to try something new. I think the industry is starting to see the idea of what a podcast can be open up, and that L.A. will probably lead the way in terms of creativity (certainly with fiction/scripted, but beyond that too, I hope). That said, I do kind of hate this new trend of podcast-to-TV/film, and I hope that dies off quickly…otherwise L.A. will certainly be the home of it.

Ben Adair:

The L.A. scene is much different than in New York. Today, the entertainment industry is trying to figure out how to make it part of what they do, so, in an extremely short time, it’s evolved from a very grassroots, DIY scene to something with lots of agents, layers, and celebrities involved.

It’s all very strange for someone like me with public radio roots, but I suppose that’s the L.A. dream. Or something.

Or something, indeed!

Speaking of Hollywood: The television adaptation of Gimlet Media’s Homecoming debuts this Friday. There’s been a ton of press about the show, and with it, a bunch of revived takes on the podcast-to-television trend, but here’s the angle I’d pursue: Will this be the first adaptation that’s actually really good? Big Sam Esmail fan here, so my money’s on a strong “probably.”

Google Podcasts failed to load for some users last week, according to Android Police. The company issued a fix on Thursday. These things happen, I suppose, whether you want to call it growing or rollout pains. Still, it always makes me uneasy to think of the direct and indirect ramifications that occur when a company that big, powerful, and totalizing runs into a bug.

Don’t miss Noreen Malone’s profile on Red Scare, a leftist podcast “in the key of Chapo Trap House” led by three Brooklyn women, over at The Cut. Come for the examination of the podcast’s relationship with feminism, leftist politics, and the so-called “dirtbag left,” stay for a tight snapshot of Patreon-funded podcast economics.

Curation in the Middle East [by Caroline Crampton]. “We have a long history of the oral tradition in the region, and maybe more so than other cultures. Of course, storytelling is commonplace across communities, but here in the Middle East there’s always been this tradition of gathering around oral storytellers in the streets,” Hebah Fisher was telling me. “You would sit for hours and hear these longform stories in Beirut and in Cairo.”

Fisher is the co-founder and CEO of Kerning Cultures, a podcast company that focuses its curatorial eye on the Middle East. I first became aware of Kerning Cultures earlier this year, when their story “Where The Heart Is,” about how displaced people in the Middle East are refashioning the concept of “home,” crossed my feed. Since then, I’ve been curious about the Middle East-focused podcast company and how podcasting has been developing over there. Last week, I had the pleasure of spending some time talking to Fisher, who splits time between Dubai and Seattle, and Alex Atack, the company’s managing producer. (He’s based in Beirut.) Together with a broader team of producers, they make narrative documentaries about the Middle East, which are released on their podcast feed as well as syndicated on radio stations around the world.

The key thing to understand about podcasting in the Middle East, they told me, was that the form has really only started to gain traction in the past couple of years. Although there have been podcasts from the region, both in Arabic and English, since about 2008, she stressed that radio is still by far the dominant audio form. “Radio continues to reach more households in the Middle East and North Africa than television,” Fisher said. “That’s both an accessibility issue and the fact that it’s cheaper and easier.”

While there isn’t yet any official research into podcast consumption in the Middle East, both Kerning Cultures’ own data gathering efforts and more general figures about internet usage in the region suggest that younger people in particular are increasingly using smartphones to discover and consume their chosen news and entertainment sources. “We’ve been trying to map out what a directory of Middle East podcasts looks like,” Fisher said. “[There are] maybe 200 to 300 active shows that have anything to do with the region either in English or in Arabic.” The industry is growing fast now, she added — their list was steady at around 100 shows for about 18 months until the post-Serial boom reached the area in around 2016.

Of course, that’s a rather small supply of podcasts compared with the U.S. and the U.K., but Fisher and Atack feel that the growth is nonetheless significant. Radio stations in the region do put out the kind of “copy and paste” catch up podcasts familiar from elsewhere in the world, but both amateur and professional broadcasters are increasingly experimenting with more narrative, podcast-first content. Download numbers remain tiny compared to the U.S., U.K., or Australia, but they are rising. Sowt, an Arabic language podcast outfit in Jordan, reported earlier this year that they average 2,000 downloads per episode. Kerning Cultures is currently pulling in about 10,000 downloads per month, and has ambitions to grow their audience to seven million listeners over the next five years. “That kind of growth won’t come from English language content, though,” Fisher said. “That’s going to be Arabic stories.”

The actual industry layer of the podcast community continues to be very early-stage, though Kerning Cultures claims that they beginning to see some interesting advertising activity. “We’ve sold over a dozen ads to Dubai-based brands for $135 per CPM, which you’ll know is a more premium rate in the industry, the average is typically $18-35 per CPM,” Fisher submits. “We’re able to do that because it’s a new space and we get to define the value and our advertisers recognize the value of our audience [which is] young, educated and affluent.” She also pointed out that demographically, their proposition works perfectly for the Middle East. “Sixty-five per cent of the region’s population is under the age of 35…That translates to 140 million individuals between the ages of 15 and 35.”

In the last year, there’s been a clear increase, Fisher said, in the basic level of knowledge about podcasts in the meetings she goes to. That could partly be down to greater institutional involvement in the space — universities and NGOs are now far more active, with the latter even running programs for resettled Syrian refugees to learn to tell stories through audio “as a healing mechanism.” Kerning Cultures and a few other podcast companies from Saudi Arabia and Dubai recently organised the first Middle East Podcast Forum, which took place at the end of September. Over 200 people from the region came together for the event, flying in from all over, for what Fisher said was really “the first formal gathering of podcasters in the Middle East.”

The emotive power of audio to communicate the pressing issues affecting the region comes up a lot in conversations around podcasting in this area of the world. The primary audience for Kerning Cultures, she said, is the team itself, who are all “kids who are identified as being from the region, whether it’s because they grew up here or they’re Arab or Middle Eastern and so on.” It’s that personal perspective, I suspect, that will help to forge relationships with the young, engaged audience they are seeking to reach.

This week in smart speakers:

  • Variety: “Almost half of all consumers will own a smart speaker after the upcoming holiday season, according to a new study by Adobe.” Note that the writeup was published in early September.
  • CNBC: “Streaming platforms are feeding the growing boom in smart speakers such as Echo, Home, and HomePod, study reveals.”
  • Slate: “Streaming music is by far the most popular way we’re using smart speakers…but a new pastime is gaining popularity — talking to your assistant for fun. 68 percent of smart speaker owners admit to chatting with their Alexa, Google Assistant, or Siri digital assistant just for fun, while 53 percent report a similar activity, asking their assistant ‘fun questions.'”

As a collective, these stories suggest to me that the smart speaker experience sits in a really interesting, perhaps still-undefined middle ground on the spectrum between “on-demand” and “linear/streaming,” with hard lean to the latter. I wonder how Scout.fm is doing?

Slate’s Decoder Ring plays with alternate reality games. Benjamin Frisch, who cowrote the latest episode “The Incunabula Papers” with host Willa Paskin, tells me:

This month our episode is about Ong’s Hat a.k.a. The Incunabula Papers, which was an interdimensional conspiracy theory which arose through the mail in the ’80s and then crossed over into the internet as it came online. It was secretly an art project masterminded by one guy, who didn’t mean to create a real conspiracy theory, but then it got out of hand. According to him, the purpose was to create altered states of consciousness in people, which he succeeded in. Ong’s Hat was also, inadvertently the birth of the ARG, the alternate reality game, where clues and puzzles are seeded in multiple mediums, inspiring players to work together to solve them.

The thing we did in this episode that I’m very proud of, is that we wanted to recreate some of that altered consciousness, and so we turned the episode in a bit of a mini-ARG. I masterminded a story with a fake, evil mattress advertiser, a fake website, and some radio drama thrown in.

Very cool. Also: pretty creepy!

Bites:

  • Quick and Dirty Tips is getting ready to launch a special series: The Faces of Farming, which will come out of the decade-old Nutrition Diva podcast. I’m told it has hit 35 million lifetime downloads, and will publish its 500th episode this week. (Congrats!) The five-part miniseries will “feature voices of American farmers, highlighting the role not only food but farmers play in our everyday lives.”
  • The CBC launched its own daily news podcast yesterday. It’s called Front Burner, and it’s hosted by former Toronto Star investigative journalist Jayme Poisson.
  • Waze, the GPS navigation app, adds a built-in audio player to its experience. The player supports eight content streaming services: Stitcher, NPR One, Pandora, Spotify, iHeartRadio, TuneIn, Deezer, and Scribd, according to Engadget.
  • Vice News is rolling out its first narrative podcast on Thursday. Called Chapo: On Trial, the eight-part series is pitched as “a journey across Mexico and the U.S. to meet people affected by El Chapo and the drug war.” It’s pegged to Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán’s trial in Brooklyn, which begins on November 5, and the podcast will be released in both English and Spanish. The English version is produced by freelancer Kate Osborn, and the Spanish version is handled by Adonde Media’s Martina Castro.
  • Twitter-spotting. Think maybe they talked about the charts?
  • The BBC will publicly launch its Sounds app this week. It’s meant to target the youths! Because we like apps!
  • Jon Ronson’s latest Audible Original is apparently due out next January, according to a report by the New Zealand Herald. It’s a followup to The Butterfly Effect, and it’ll stay within the milieu of the porn industry. As a reminder, Audible switched up its originals strategy — and restructured the relevant team — this past summer. Ronson’s project came from the earlier era, and it remains to be seen whether he will continue making stuff like this after the followup comes out.
  • This is fascinating: A massive Facebook group — made up almost entirely of women — is helping to solve a case gripping Australia, reports Nieman Lab.
  • This week for Vulture: I wrote up Articles of Interest, which I loved!
  • Fun Fact: Today marks the 80th anniversary of Orson Welles’ “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast. I’d reference something about fake news at this point, but that would be too obvious, too true, and too depressing. Fun fact, indeed.

Collage by Laura Benhini used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Oct. 30, 2018, 11:27 a.m.
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