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March 5, 2019, 10:34 a.m.

The New York Times is staffing up and expanding its audio ambitions well beyond The Daily

Plus: Gimlet adjusts to its new Spotify home, Apple causes a (short-lived, small-scale) freakout, and is podcasting tailor-made to cause burnout?

For this week’s Hot Pod segment about $100 million paid-podcasting startup Luminary, see here.

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 198, published March 5, 2019.

The New York Times expands in audio. It looks like the Times is getting ready for the next phase of whatever its audio division is becoming. Its audio team is announcing a slew of new hires this morning that’s meant to deepen its operations at The Daily and ramp up its involvement with narrative projects.

Those hires include: Lisa Chow as a senior editor on The Daily, who joins from Gimlet where she hosted StartUp; Marc Georges as a new story editor on the production, who most recently worked on Tally Abecassis’ anthology documentary series First Day Back; and Adizah Eghan as a news producer on The Daily, who joins from Snap Judgment.

The team has also brought in Kelly Prime, most recently of WNYC Studios’ Radiolab, to work on narrative projects, joining a team led by Larissa Anderson and Wendy Dorr.

These developments come shortly after Theo Balcomb’s promotion as the executive producer overseeing The Daily and news. Also worth noting: Producer Lynsea Garrison has been made The Daily’s first international producer, a role that will see her crossing the globe to produce stories for the year.

To contextualize the hires, Times audio executive producer Lisa Tobin tells me:

Right now, we’re focused on two key objectives:

1. The Daily will just keep getting stronger, and pushing the boundaries of what a daily news show can be and do. That means strengthening our ability to cover the news day in and day out, and it also means expanding our capacity to use The Daily for wildly ambitious storytelling. Runs of coverage, mini-series, on-the-ground foreign reporting — we are going to be doing all that in 2019.

2. And then a handful of the most journalistically significant stories of the year will want to be told at a level of scope and ambition that will break from The Daily. We’ll be collaborating with several Times journalists on those.

The team is still hiring for a managing editor to help oversee The Daily.

Gimlet at Spotify: Business as usual…for now. At Thursday’s Hot Pod Summit (gotta keep the #brand strong, friends), I was joined on stage by Courtney Holt, Spotify’s head of studios and video, and Gimlet co-founders Alex Blumberg and Matt Lieber, who both now hold managing director titles at the company. We talked through some details about the Swedish streaming platform’s splashy dive into podcasting and its bid to transition into an all-consuming audio content provider.

We touched on a bunch of different topics — intentions, view of the market, original content production, Holt’s time at Maker Studios, potential comparisons to what’s happened at YouTube, existential anxiety and miserablism — but I think the key takeaway you’d want to know came in the form of a Matt Lieber quote. “We’re going to continue to experiment,” he said. “We don’t have a master plan, and we didn’t come here to reveal a master plan about how all of this is going to work, but I think our goals are to get more people listening to podcasts and to get more people checking out podcasts on Spotify. We’re going to figure out how that works.”

That very quote shows up in Fast Company’s writeup of the interview (“Spotify’s promise to worried Gimlet fans: We won’t ‘disrupt’ podcast magic”), courtesy of Melissa Locker, who also highlights that Gimlet’s shows will continue to be available everywhere, at least for the immediate future. Onstage, Holt himself emphasized not wanting to “disadvantage users to prove a point.”

Another detail that struck me: While details of the relationship between Gimlet and Spotify continue to be ironed out, the trio emphasized that Gimlet will continue to exist as its own world within whatever Spotify’s original podcast strategy turns out to be. To put a finer point on it: I was told that Gimlet will not be in charge of developing all of Spotify’s upcoming new podcasts.

A development the very next day appeared to bear out this configuration. On Friday, Spotify announced that Liz Gateley, a TV veteran who was most recently the executive vice president and head of programming at Lifetime, is joining as the company’s new head of creative development, where — as she outlined in a LinkedIn post — she will “be overseeing their original content development teams on both coasts and their expansion into Comedy, Sports, YA Fiction & Scripted, News/Docs and obviously more Music formats in the podcast space.” The entertainment trades seem to be directly tying Gateley’s responsibilities to the company’s growing podcast activities.

So it seems that Gimlet will continue to move forward as it always has…for now. I spent Monday morning reading about Richard Plepler’s recent resignation as HBO chief in the wake of Time Warner’s acquisition by AT&T, and I wonder.

Anyway, two more Spotify developments to note — ones that weren’t directly touched on in the panel — before moving off this story.

Burned out [by Caroline Crampton]. Alongside all the recent acquisitions and launches, another theme’s been bubbling away. Plenty of podcasters are talking about experiencing burnout, or something close to it. Again and again I’ve heard the same message: There’s all this money being thrown around, and podcasting’s never been so hot — so why am I still working 70-plus hours a week and unable to afford any help?

It’s a nuanced topic that people experience differently depending on their own situations. Podcasters Roundtable put out an episode (“Have you podfaded, feeling like you’re close or maybe wish you could take a break?”) on the subject a few days ago, and Helen Zaltzman and Eleanor McDowall talked about it at the Audiocraft festival in Sydney last year. It’s discussed in this recent book about podcasting, and Megan Tan has described her decision to stop making her first-person show Millennial in that context too.

Plenty has been written about burnout across industries lately, but is there something peculiar to podcasting that means people working in audio are more likely to experience it?

For Sophie Harper, producer of Not By Accident — a personal podcast that documents her decision to become a single mother and then her life with her daughter — it was a long time building. “I began my podcast in early 2017, naively believing what I was reading: that if I made something good and released it on a regular schedule, I would gradually build an audience, find advertisers and make enough to live off,” she told me over email.

“I had success, got media attention, saw my download numbers explode, partnered with a network and started running ads. Once I had advertisers, I felt real pressure to meet the agreed schedule. I’d get sick, or my daughter would, and I’d be forced to keep working around the clock regardless. I was doing the whole thing alone. I listened to the credits of other shows and thought: They don’t know how lucky they are. Once the ad revenue started coming in, I realized it was only really enough to cover the time I’d spent making the ads.”

Burnout is usually defined as a period of mental and physical exhaustion, triggered by sustained stress and anxiety. For Harper, this came in the form of “the pressure, real or imagined, to keep putting out episodes on schedule, forever and ever.” The ongoing serialized nature of podcasts came up a lot as I talked with podcasters who had experienced burnout. Helen Zaltzman, who makes The Allusionist with Radiotopia, told me over Skype that working deadline to deadline can really get to her.

“I tend to take January and July off in order to avoid total breakdown. Usually by November of each year, I’m just kind of crawling to the finish line and looking forward to the point where I don’t have to release stuff,” she said. “But in those times I’m still working — they’re times to catch up and bag interviews for the next few months and generate ideas.” Last July, Zaltzman was ill and had to be in hospital for weeks, so her planned hiatus from releasing episodes couldn’t be used to do behind-the-scenes work as she had hoped. “I didn’t really get ahead on interviews and ideas and stuff because I was somewhat incapacitated and I’m still feeling the effects of that now, eight months later,” she explained.

Another facet of podcasting that seems conducive to burnout: its narrative of supposed accessibility, which I’ve written about before. It’s theoretically possible to make a very high-quality podcast completely by yourself, but that fact can also lead to unrealistic expectations and difficulties. Tamar Avishai, producer and host of The Lonely Palette podcast, articulated this dichotomy in her email to me:

“The reality [is] that if I’m not making this podcast, it’s not being made. There isn’t a single piece of the process that I could realistically outsource and still feel like the show is in my voice, and my voice is a crucial piece of it, in more ways than one. In some ways, it’s enormously liberating and self-actualizing to be the boss, when you don’t have any kind of editorial board assuring you it’s not crap or helping to guide you away from crap, you’re your own judge, jury, and executioner. And that kind of stress can be extraordinarily corrosive.”

But despite the constant releases and all the solo work, everyone I spoke to wanted to stress how lucky they felt that they had been able to gain a foothold in the audio space at all. A producer from the U.K. who asked to remain anonymous described how, even at the worst points, they were reluctant to reveal the difficulties: “All I thought about was audio/podcasts. I was working quite a high-pressure day job and taking annual leave to do my audio and other projects, so I was never getting a proper break. All of my weekends were spent working, and I kept telling myself, ‘this is your own doing, you asked for all of this,’ so felt I couldn’t really complain.”

Zaltzman echoed that, citing it as one way she keeps the burnout at bay. “I’m aware through all of this how lucky I am to have the existence that I have and I always remember that as well. When things are kind of troubling to me, I still realize that it’s a very jammy thing to get to do.”

Taking breaks — if possible when you need to keep revenue coming in — was a popular coping strategy. So was working on short-run series rather than committing to constant publication. Harper urged would-be solo podcasters to be ambitious and work towards what they really need to make their show, rather than suffering in silence. “Try for a production deal,” she said. “Do it with a budget, a production team, a marketing budget, and a salary.”

The more I explore it, the more podcasting — with its apparent level playing field between big-budget productions and independent side hustlers — seems perfectly designed to produce a boom in burnout. If you have experiences or thoughts to share on this subject, find my email address here.

Tracking:

This time last year. To refresh: I’m copping this new feature from the very smart Ali Griswold, who writes a damn good newsletter on the sharing economy called Oversharing, where we go over the headlines from this point last year.

In the March 6, 2018 issue, kids start Chomping, folks are trying to figure out how to make money off Alexa, Spotify gets ready to IPO, Marc Maron moved garages, and Stitcher performs another windowing test with Dear Franklin Jones.

Photo of people listening on the New York City subway by Susan Jane Golding used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     March 5, 2019, 10:34 a.m.
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