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Aug. 25, 2015, 9:30 a.m.
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Hot Pod: Talent discovery, a podcast accelerator, and a Ryan Seacrest joke begging to be made

“The fact of the matter is: We need to build more spaces and raise more structures that allows for new talent, ideas, and voices to be expressed, cultivated, and discovered.”

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is Issue Thirty-Eight, published August 25, 2015.

Hey Nieman Labbers!

This week’s edition is going to be pretty short compared to last week, given last week’s insane piece of news with Midroll’s premium streaming service and all that. But then again, I’m criminally incapable of keeping anything short when I’m, like, going — which is to say, if we ever meet in real life and I’m high on Terry Gross, I suggest you clear out your schedule, because you’re probably not going to see your family in a while.

Ahem. The news:

The finalists for the WNYC Podcast Accelerator have been announced! For context: The accelerator was launched back in June on the heels of the station’s first ever women’s podcasting festival, where applicants were invited to pitch their big podcast idea for a shot to getting a pilot produced under the auspices of WNYC. The announced finalists will now spend the next few weeks in a “virtual” accelerator program — no idea what this means in practice, but hey, let’s go with it — in the run up to the Online News Association 2015 conference (dubbed ONA15) in sunny Los Angeles on September 25, where they will make their trained pitches to a panel of judges that includes:

  • Dean Cappello, WNYC’s chief content officer
  • Emily Botein, WNYC’s VP of on-demand content
  • Glynn Washington, creator, host and executive producer of the exceptional Snap Judgment

Still no word on who will play the role of Ryan Seacrest, but I’m holding my flowers for Brian Lehrer, because why the hell not. Specific info on the finalists can be found here, and there’s no mention of what happens to the non-winners. But I just want to put it out there: Non-winners, feel free to gimme a call. You know that’s cooler than producing a pilot? Producing a BILLION pilots.

So, about this accelerator. To begin with, I’m still trying to get a sense of how I feel about the whole thing. On the one hand, any effort to surface and foster new talent in the (still) hierarchical and notoriously career-linear world of radio (and now podcasting) is unambiguously welcome. But on the other hand, the nature, context, and veracity of these efforts are extremely important, and there’s something about this accelerator that feels slightly off-the-mark.

When I first heard about the accelerator, my first thought was: “Why all this attention on outsiders when WNYC is positively overflowing with untapped talent?” After all, as the legend goes, Death, Sex, and Money was the winner of an internal WNYC competition a few years ago (all hail Anna Sale), and TLDR, the On the Media spinoff whose original team would later create Reply All for Gimlet, was also a podcast that came out as a result from all the talent-surfacing instigated by that competition. And plus, given WNYC’s widely-known exodus of mid-level talent (and you can imagine that at least some of those talents are just gunning for an opportunity to climb), why look outward? Why not just keep tilling the soil in your own backyard, and facilitate a robust internal mechanism that allows for continuous, perhaps seasonal, internal discovery of new potential hits, instead of dedicating effort and resources into plowing through 400 reported applications of a bunch of randos?

Thinking it through a little further, the answer is fairly straightforward: because it’s important to expand the scope of discovery beyond the organization. WNYC is an Institution; it has a specific sensibility, a certain sound, a unique aesthetic logic across its many properties. Its shows grow out of its walls; the organization informs their creation and their definitions, which is great for optimization, but not so great for ideation. An organization is limited in the way it is able to dream, at a certain point. An outward-facing accelerator, then, is an invitation for sounds that WNYC is incapable of generating to be accepted into the institution, where they can be co-opted, optimized, and distributed.

At least that’s the idea in theory, I would imagine. But the current format of the accelerator doesn’t suggest that the initiative would be able to assess the theory to its fullest extent. The best possible outcome for a finalist would be that the opportunity to have a pilot produced under the guidance, (probably) training, and resources of WNYC (and ONA, I believe!).

But then what?

Would the winner have the opportunity to secure a job at WNYC, where said winner would be able to continue honing and contributing her/his skill regardless of whether the pilot becomes a show? Would the pilot get a good shake of having the opportunity to see how it holds up in the wild? And what is the accelerator actually saying to the winner? Does it borrow the language of tech accelerators, in the sense that “we’re helping you find out whether your idea was worth it, by giving you resources/support and pushing you into conditions where you can succeed or fail fast?” Or does it more borrow from the logic of TV pilot season: “Will you strike a chord with an audience, and will you strike it quickly?” Answers to any of these really key questions remain ambiguous to me, and that’s causing me to furrow my brow a tad bit.

ALL THAT BEING SAID, even with my scruples, the accelerator still strikes me as an exceptionally positive force in the industry, both in the fact that it’s drawing attention to some really talented people and for the mere symbolism of the whole endeavor. And now that I really think about it, I suspect that I give relatively few bananas whether the podcast accelerator ends up fully realizing its conceit or not.1 The fact of the matter is: We need to build more spaces and raise more structures that allows for new talent, ideas, and voices to be expressed, cultivated, and discovered.

This is something I’ve been trying to get a handle on for some time now, but there are simply not enough spaces like these for spoken audio. Speaking generically: The music industry has bars and open mic nights and YouTube channels, while the film industry has festivals and underground cinemas and, well, YouTube channels (thank you Scandinavia for Kung Fury). We have iTunes and SoundCloud, I guess, but we’re all fairly aware that both platforms are each bounded by their own specificities, so any move to create more dedicated and focused spaces for talent and podcast discovery is great, great, GREAT. The accelerator may not end up being the best of execution of the idea, but it’s another point of discovery, and at this point in the time, I have a feeling that podcast discovery is a game won by the quantity, not quality, of these discovery points.

Anyway, I was going to go on a much longer bender over the existing sites of podcast discovery, but this item is running waaayyyy long, so I’ll come back to it some other week. But speaking of WNYC…

WNYC to co-produce Snap Judgment. So this is a really interesting development, particularly if, like me, you’re fascinated by how the mechanics of this arrangement would work. The amazing Snap Judgment, which is hosted by the great Glynn Washington and features a very specific interpretation of the nonfiction narrative genre dominated by This American Life and its alums, will begin a partnership with WNYC starting October 1 where the public radio station will help support the show from a sales, marketing, and business development perspective. (Which is to say, it sounds like they will bear the responsibility for much of the show’s longterm strategy as a brand.) You can find a good, granular breakdown of the responsibilities, which WNYC will partially share with NPR, over at the Current writeup.

WNYC will also assist Snap Judgment with “creative aspects,” according to the article. What this means in practice remains to be seen, because the Snap Judgment team is based out in Oakland, California (same hometown as 99% Invisible, by the way!), so one would imagine that either a lot of flying or teleconferencing is going to happen, or somebody’s being embedded or moved. Either way, I’m pretty excited, because Snap is a phenomenal show, and those folks deserve all the support in the world possible.

This partnership also continues WNYC’s current streak of flexing its bulging, throbbing biceps in the world of public radio podcasts. Earlier this summer, the station announced that it was breaking distribution ties with NPR to distribute On The Media and Radiolab themselves, which is probably the biggest “I don’t need a man” signal coming out of WNYC. (Remember: NPR exists to serve its member public radio stations, which historically rely on NPR to handle distribution of shows from one station to every paying station in the country.) You can find more on that, again, over at Current.

Damn. I’ve spilt a lot of ink on WNYC. Ah, well, it’s a big week for them.

Bill Simmons. You can’t keep an industrious man down. The former ESPN personality is slated to make his return to podcasting on October 1, where he will debut a new show under a new multimedia contract with HBO. While it’s my understanding that your mileage may vary when it comes to Simmons, I’m personally a huge fan of his work — particularly his podcast the BS Report and his work as founder of the miracle in digital media publishing known as Grantland, itself a quality podcast producer — and I’m excited to see what he cooks up over the HBO, home of dragons, Yonkers, and Colin Farrell’s mustache.

More details and context in this handy dandy WaPo writeup.

WireTapped. Did you hear? WireTap, the painfully unique CBC radio show written, produced, and hosted by the great Jonathan Goldstein, is no more. I’m fairly upset about this. I’ve always felt that WireTap is, in many ways, the perfect podcast. It’s the sincerest embodiment of a writer’s brain — a sonic and verbal performance that oozes with the chaos, wit, and burdens of a very specific perspective. Which is to say not everything on the show is real or true, which is also to say that the show is so good at making fun of the line between fiction and nonfiction. And when the show chooses to go all nonfiction… oh what a JOY (even when it’s incredibly distressing, like in “How To Deal With Loss.” To me, this is peak Goldstein. PEAK GOLDSTEIN).

Gimlet has already announced that it is working with Goldstein on a new project. This is not surprising at the least; Goldstein is an alum of This American Life, he’s already produced an episode for the Reply All boys that hits all the beats of a good Goldstein story (“Why is Mason Reese Crying?”), and really, where else would he go if he wanted to go, oh, you know, upwards?

It’s obviously a stupendous good fit, but I still can’t help but mourn for WireTap. I know next to nothing about this new project, and to be sure I’m very excited for it, but if it’s nothing like WireTap, if it tries too hard to play around with the essential Goldstein-ness, if it tries to deviate away from the singularity of Goldstein, I’m going to flip so many shits that I’m going to need, like, 50 spatulas.

So, uh, I need your help. I’m trying to organize a panel at SXSW about podcast audience growth — the strategies, the philosophies, the challenges, the structures, the specific experiences, and the ideas; the nature and dynamics of the whole endeavor. But here’s the thing: To get a panel into SXSW, I need to get votes. Not sure why the system is set up this way, but them’s the shakes.

Here’s what I can tell you about the panel. It’s going to feature:

There are specific beats I’d like to hit with each of the panelists — in my mind, each one of them adopted very separate approaches to thinking about their audiences and, in turn, developing them — based on the hope that specific case studies are a lot more useful than the turning of generic rules of thumb. But that’s what I’m working with in theory.

You can vote for the panel here. Please note that you’d have to create some sort of login to vote, which kinda blows and I’m so sorry and I’ll make it up to you somehow.

Anyway, whether or not the panel goes through with enough votes, I’m going to write up these three case studies at some point in the future, and maybe more. We’ll see how the fall looks.

Also, if you’d rather vote for another SXSW panel about podcasting, maybe one that involves, oh I don’t know, public radio types, you can check out NPR’s sweet, sweet list of public radio-related SXSW panels. Note in particular the one titled: “Journalist Intrapreneurs: Snows Becoming Starks.” Whoever wrote that title, I salute you and your nerd cred.

Following up that Jarl Mohn piece last week: If you had a good time reading about NPR and its (digital) discontents, you might enjoy chasing that shot with this long, fizzy dialogue between Planet Money cofounder Adam Davidson and John Sutton, a professional audience researcher, about the future of public radio, which you can find in its entirety on Current. Check it out! I have many thoughts on this, but I’ve already written too much. And if you have any thoughts, please write me!

Following up that platform conversation last week: Nieman Lab (a.k.a., that weird hippie website you’re reading this on right now) ran a great piece yesterday about programmatic ads on podcasts, the challenges they raise, and the opportunities they promise. It prominently features Panoply which, in case I haven’t mentioned already, is the company I work for — so here we have a plug for a Nieman Lab article by a newsletter housed in Nieman Lab written by a guy who works the company that’s featured in said article. Ethics is a flat circle, and who’s line is it, anyway?

Slate’s Joel Meyer heads over to WBEZ. My dawg. My bro. Why you be leaving? As reported by Robert Feder, the go-to guy for coverage on Chicago’s media beat: Joel Meyer, managing producer of Slate podcasts, is moving to WBEZ to be the executive producer, starting September 14.

I am, of course, devastated, as I’m a huge fan of his work and an even bigger fan of his preroll reads. But as his colleague, I’m even more devastated because he’s just such a gosh darn calming force in the office. I’m gonna miss ya, buddy; I’m sorry we didn’t get to hang out more.

Topics? Real talk, fellas. It’s week 2 of Hot Pod being housed on Nieman Lab, and I want to put it out that I’m very aware that my coverage of the space is, for better or worse, far from comprehensive. I’ve never meant for Hot Pod to be a holistic surveyor of the industry; I’ve only worked to hammer down on things that I find particularly interesting and, to my mind, indicative of the larger trends. But! I know that I’m a limited human being in terms of language and scope and depth, so if there’s anything you feel strongly about that I should pay more attention towards and cover, please let me know. Send me a note at hotpodnewsletter@gmail.com, and I’ll try my best.

All right. That’s about it for now. See you next week, ya nerds!

Is this your first time reading Hot Pod? You can subscribe to the newsletter here, which mostly features irrelevant exclusive content (mostly more GIFs and TMI personal info but whatever that’s the newsletter strategy I’m rolling with).

Nicholas Quah heads audience development at Panoply.

  1. However, I would give endless bananas if the accelerator didn’t end up doing right by the finalists, which is to say, if the accelerator ends up stringing them along with an inflated sense of what they could potentially get out of the initiative. Nothing, at this point in time, suggests that this will happen, but you never know, and it’s always important to just point it out. []
POSTED     Aug. 25, 2015, 9:30 a.m.
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