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Sept. 8, 2015, 9:45 a.m.

Hot Pod: Patronage, screenshorting audio, and the Cleveland Browns

The NFL’s Browns are paying for a podcast that promises a behind-the-scenes look at the team and its operations. Is it native advertising, sponsored content, or a new spin on the Medici model?

Sponsored content, or something like it. So here’s the thing about native advertising, or sponsored content, or advertorials, or whatever else you want to call an editorial product that’s directly paid for by a company or an advertiser: There’s a crappy way of doing it and there’s a not-crappy way of doing it. As one can imagine, and I’m not saying anything new here, the difference between those two things typically comes from the configuration of the relationship between the advertiser and the creator. How involved is the sponsor in the content? How does the sponsor define the scope of the product? How does one describe the sponsor’s governance over the project — is it one of top-down control, one that resembles a client-agency relationship (the dominant model in digital media, I think), or is it one of, for lack of better word, patronage? And by patronage, I mean that in the classical Medici sense: I like what you do, so I’m going to give you a bunch of resources, and then I’m going to give you a directive, and then I’m going to let you do what you do.

I don’t think I’ve seen many examples of patronage exercised in digital media — but then again, I’ve only been operating in this larger digital media industry for a little over a year, so maybe I’m just limited in my historical memory. I guess you can consider MailChimp’s propping up of podcast advertising in the early years as a kind of patronage. And I guess you could further argue that the underwriting model, practiced by necessity throughout the public media world, is a kind of patronage. But those arrangements see very little creative agency on the part of the advertiser, and it’s this aspect of creative agency on behalf of the advertiser that compels me. Which is why my interest was piqued when I received a note from Max Linsky, one of the three hosts behind the highly popular Longform podcast, about a new project he’s working on.

Here are the facts: The Cleveland Browns, a professional American football team, has hired Linsky to produce a podcast about, well, the Cleveland Browns. The show is called, well, the Brownscast, and the concept is simple as it is straightforward: It’s a series of interviews with people throughout the organization — players, coaches, executives, support staffers, janitors (probably, hopefully). At the heart of the whole show is, again, a simple question: “What is it like to have this job?” — which isn’t unlike the core question at the center of Longform or show like Slate’s Working podcast (or even, more peripherally, stuff like The Treatment with Elvis Mitchell). The first episode of the Brownscast is due to drop Wednesday, and the show will begin by operating on a biweekly release schedule, pegged to the coming football season.

Now, there’s absolutely nothing special about companies using podcasts as a content marketing platform to tell their story, and there’s similarly nothing special about companies tackling the medium through this idea of offering transparency into itself. There are already some legitimately decent executions of this idea: You have shows like the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz’s a16z podcast, which offers insight into the firm’s thinking through a loose conversation format, and Midroll’s The Wolf Den, which adopted this transparency strategy in its most recent two episodes — one covering its acquisition by Scripps, the other spotlighting their content team through interviews.

But there’s something quite bizarre about what’s going on with the Browns: listening to the first two episodes (which I was sent as previews), it feels like the Cleveland Browns basically left Linsky, a football fan, alone to do whatever the hell he wanted. The show doesn’t feel like any sports podcast I know (with the slight exception of Slate’s heady Hang Up and Listen) and it doesn’t sound like what I imagine a show coming out of a professional football organization would sound like. Thinking in stereotypes here: I imagine high aggression, ’80s metal guitar licks, gravelly announcer voices in the Don LaFontaine neighborhood but with 50 percent more cigarette burn. Interviews in the Howard Stern mold, or Jalen & Jacoby with more stiffness and less broadcast fluency. Sports talk radio meets SiriusXM meets Key & Peele parody is what I’m thinking, basically.

Instead, a typical Brownscast episode kicks off with a theme song rich in falsetto-by-way-of-Bon-Iver, reminiscent of the coffeehouse sing-songy droop of the Longform podcast intro music. The show proper opens with Linsky doing Linsky, your-best-friend by way of the kind of guy who says “Hey, guy!,” monologuing an introductory schtick that’s self-deprecating, thoughtful, chill. And when the episode rolls into the actual interview, it’s classic Longform: patient, intimate, and strikingly accessible — especially for someone who doesn’t watch American football. It sounds not like a sports radio show, but like a podcast, as we currently culturally understand the concept. The show is, essentially, Longform: Miami or Longform: SVU. But in this case, it’s Longform: The Cleveland Browns.

And the show is quite good. It leverages what’s uniquely powerful about the medium — intimacy, conversational narrative, a sense of osmotic didacticism — and spirits you into a world which, if you’re not plugged into in the first place, you probably wouldn’t explore on your own. I liked it a lot. But then again, if you’ve been following this newsletter for a while, you’d know that I’m the sort of guy who would stump for Longform just about anywhere.

“I think it’s a genuine experiment,” Linsky told me over the phone when we spoke about the show. “I think the people at the Browns had an idea, and they want to see it through. They’re not talking about metrics — they just want to see the best execution of the format.” Which is, of course, surprising to Linsky, who seemed frankly baffled by the whole arrangement in the first place. Firmly believing that the Browns are taking a risk “having this schmuck of Brooklyn make a podcast for them” in the first place, he also believes the project, along with its lack of attention to the metrics, is a tribute to the very specific moment that podcasting is in right now.

And I think I agree. To many on the outside, the medium is very exciting — but at this point in time, very little about it is understood. This gives rise to an environment that offers up more or less agreeable blind spots that makes it socially, economically, and strategically acceptable for just about anybody with resources to spare to run wild. And the crazy thing about it is that — in the time between now and whenever somebody figures out how to demystify, quantify, and monetize the whole caboose — whatever comes out of these chance patronage arrangements could end up defining current tastes, genres, and audience expectations. Those expectations, in turn, would theoretically inform whatever thinking that will go into the structures of knowledge, quantification, and monetization that will ultimately prop up the podcasting ecosystem of the future — assuming we don’t crater by some ad market crash before then.

In other words, we’re in creatively vital times, and arrangements like the ones between the Browns and Linsky are all the more powerful for people like Linsky.

Anyway, beyond its core interestingness, the arrangement also sets up an environment where we can test out a bunch of interesting questions. Linsky drops a couple of things he’s asking:

  • Will this show draw more Browns fans or more podcast enthusiasts? Will the technology barrier be too big for the non-tech savvy Browns fans? Those questions are expressions of a more fundamental query: What’s easier, getting people who are really interested in one thing (in this case the Browns) to listen to podcasts, or getting people who are really into podcasts interested in that one thing?
  • Will there be more listening on the web than on podcast apps? “That to me is the big question,” Linsky said. Are people going to subscribe to this show, or are listeners going to listen off the web? What does tell us about that listenership?
  • That question gets more interesting when contextualized against whatever the demographic breakdown of the show ends up being, and when further buttressed against a hypothesis laid out by BuzzFeed’s Jenna Weiss-Berman on Nieman Lab’s Press Publish podcast: that young people tend to listen more off SoundCloud, at least for her shows. Balance that against Linsky’s claim that 90 percent of the Longform podcast listenership happens off a podcast app. So many clashes, so many blank spots, so many questions!

All right, that’s enough of that. Wow, that was a totally chaotic and rambling writeup. Sorry about that, folks. Labor Day weekend, y’know? Anyway, look out for the Brownscast whenever it drops, and learn, like me, what an audible is, aside from that company with the audiobooks and the Nuzum.

Screenshorting audio, and the fallacy and/or difficulties w/r/t understanding audio virality. Okay, this one is going to be super messy as well — and the thinking here is going to be incomplete — but it’s something that I’ve been thinking about for a while, so bear with me here, folks.

Have you ever used the OneShot app? If you’re reading this on Nieman Lab, you probably already do (you nerd), but in case you’re a normal human being, you should know that it’s a little, remarkable thing. OneShot is an app that formally streamlines a Twitter-behavior known as “screenshorting” (tragically unfortunate name; stylish nomenclature is dead), whereby a user beats the 140 character limit by tweeting out a partial snapshot of an article to share a particularly resonant piece of that article.

There are a couple of ideas I want to play with here, some of which are probably wrong, but it’s what I’m working with at this point in time:

  • Let’s state the obvious that, aside from a screenshort being an element of the user’s self-expression-thru-curation, a screenshort also doubles as a potential marketing tool for the larger articles — a teaser, a trailer, a cut. Whatever you want to call it.
  • Let’s focus on the marketing aspect here. Here’s an assumption: A screenshort leads to one of two results. The first is that a viewer of the screenshort is compelled to click through to the larger article — a result of interest being piqued. The second is that a viewer ends up seeing the screenshort as an efficient shorthand read of the longer article. In the second case, the screenshort serves as an entity that increases the efficiency of information-consumption on Twitter. I’ve read the screenshorted quote, therefore I calculate in my head that I probably know what I’m going to get from the rest of the article, so I’m not going to click through, because doing so would yield less of a return, or a return that isn’t worth it.

I’m building this assumption on a particular conceptualization of an article as a composite unit of consumable media: one that sees a unit article as an assemblage of “Lego bricks” — each brick being a central idea, finding, argument, observation, quote. The act of screenshorting involves isolating and drawing attention to a singular brick, with the hope that it is explosive, propulsive, or compelling enough to draw the viewer into investigating the other bricks. It comes with an associated hope, that the viewer would also be interested in how the highlighted brick relates to all those other bricks, and will be able to derive informational value from that.

(Which would give rise to another interesting, albeit superfluous question: Does the reader get more utility out of the exploration of those other bricks, or in the examination of how all those bricks relate to each other? The most probable answer is a liberal arts student’s delight: Both are important, and it depends on the article. But that isn’t a fun answer. Also also: I suspect Circa was an extreme operationalization of this way of thinking about digital text articles, specifically to news coverage. Its status as a dead thing suggests the market has told us what people think about this idea. But maybe it’s the execution that was the problem, and not the framework itself? So many questions, too short of a lifespan.)

Okay, let me pause a bit and explain why I’m spilling a couple of hundred words on this. I was talking to the guy who created OneShot the other day and he mentioned that, since releasing the app, he’d been receiving numerous requests that he make a “OneShot for audio.” And I was struck by how…counter-intuitive that felt to me. And I’ve consistently felt that the many other times I’ve encountered similar ideas or initiatives.

So OneShot, and my whole larger Lego-bricks mumbo-jumbo, tentatively makes sense for digital text articles. But I distinctly feel, without the foundation of data and experience, that this doesn’t apply to audio — because I suspect the relationship between two audio bricks is a lot more fluid, tighter, context-reliant, and intertwined than two text bricks. That thinking can perhaps be applied to video: How often do people apply screenshorting behavior to video, either for film or television or YouTube clips? Do we have equivalent experiences with a screenshort of the latest hot take vs. a teaser for the latest episode of The Bachelor?

Building off that, I’m drawn to another line of questioning: Is this true based on innate properties of spoken audio as a medium, or is this true based on the kind of content typically executed in the spoken-audio medium? If we lived in the kind of universe where a good chunk of professional audio content involved people reading articles out loud — and where that kind of content is actively consumed — then perhaps screenshort thinking applies to the medium. But that’s not what we’re seeing right now. This further suggests to me the following: that the individual brick is a lot more valuable for digital text than for audio, and I think that’s distinctly tied to the way spoken-audio content is created today.

Okay, my brain hurts. *wipes nosebleed*

Look, I’m not saying that a OneShot for audio — or the task of excerpting audio clips for better fluidity throughout social media system — is impossible or dumb or not worth pursuing. I just think that there’s a body of theory here that needs to be further fleshed out before we can begin the enterprise. If anybody has any thoughts on this, or working data to share (looking at you, Clammr), hit me up.

Howard Stern. I don’t listen to Stern very much, but I do admire how he’s been able to grow his platform to gargantuan proportions — even with his declaration that podcasts are for losers. Anyway, his contract with satellite radio giant SiriusXM is almost up, and there’s some pretty fascinating analysis out there on his options to go over-the-top (either through the podcasting infrastructure as it exists right now, or through parallel alternatives). Two to highlight:

iTunes podcast data. A really cool Medium article called “How Podcasts Have Changed in Ten Years: By the Numbers” has been making the rounds, featuring charts (!!!) and data scraped off iTunes by an industrious sociologist-podcaster (a distant, distant cousin to the philosopher-king).

Highly recommend that you check out the whole thing, but here are a few things:

  • Given that the data is completely scraped off iTunes, I think it’s best to read this article as more a story of the iTunes Podcast Ecosystem and less a story about Podcasts. Granted, the history of the two are super-intertwined, but the way I see it, there is a break somewhere in the timeline, one that separates a kind of Pre-History and the History as we know it. To read this as a proper history of podcasting is akin to reading the history of Blogger and WordPress as the history of digital media.
  • Another way to read the findings: as more a story about podcasters, not podcasts.
  • Yet another way to read the findings: supply-side, not demand-side.
  • Christianity is the most abundant podcasting genre. For some reason, I really love that factoid.
  • Fascinated by the fact that music is the second most abundant podcasting genre, given the legal hullabaloos associated with playing music on podcasts.

Gawd this data is beautiful. Love it, love love love it.

The Hidden Brain. NPR’s podcasting followup to Invisibilia, The Hidden Brain with [former Nieman Fellow] Shankar Vedantam, is set to drop its first episode on September 22. It released a teaser last week, and the iTunes entry has shot up to the top of the podcast charts as of Monday evening. It sounds interesting enough and I’m sure it’s going to do super well, but it’s a relatively safe concept coming off many of public radio’s successes using similar premises.

As a buddy of mine put it succinctly:

I will start by saying it DOES sound really interesting. BUT who can match (without cheating!) these podcast tag lines with their shows: (1) “Explores the intangible forces that control human nature” (2) “A conversation about life’s unseen patterns” (3) “A show for people who demand skepticism, but appreciate wonder” (4) “A show for listeners who are short on time, but long on curiosity” (5) “A journey through fascinating ideas…inexplicable connections” (6) “Explores the riddles of every day life” (All in iTunes’ top 10)

Anyway, here’s the more interesting thing about NPR’s podcasting initiative: how it’s backed up by a larger multimedia infrastructure. The Washingtonian has the writeup. Pretty cool, pretty cool. I’ll be listening either way, let’s face it.

More podcasts about podcasts: The New Yorker’s Out Loud podcast had a pretty great discussion about the medium, which you can find here.

Oh man, that was way too long. Holidays are a bad idea. See you next week, folks!

Is this your first time reading Hot Pod? You can subscribe to the newsletter here, which mostly features irrelevant exclusive content (mostly different GIFs and stuff about what I had for lunch but whatever that’s the newsletter strategy I’m rolling with).

Nicholas Quah heads audience development at Panoply. Hot Pod is his weekly newsletter on the state of the podcast world; it appears on Nieman Lab on Tuesdays.

POSTED     Sept. 8, 2015, 9:45 a.m.
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