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Oct. 27, 2015, 10:33 a.m.
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Hot Pod: Decoding the secret histories of podcasting

“I reckon it’ll take us another year to figure out whether this podcast thing is actually a bubble.”

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is Issue Forty-Six, published October 27, 2015.

Alright, folks. We’ve got a lot to get through today.

*cracks fingers*

The secret histories of podcasting. Another year. I reckon it’s going to take another year or so before one of two things happen: (1) we get enough space from this so-called “podcast moment” in order to fully assess how deep this medium will be able to etch itself into the average person’s media consumption diet over the long term, or (2) some major market event hits, in which case we’ll see a reactive shrinking of the ad market in general and the drying up of podcasting ad dollars in specific, which’ll leave us with a good look at the real backbone of the industry.

In other words, I reckon it’ll take us another year to figure out whether this podcast thing is actually a bubble. Whether the medium really presents us with the digital future of radio; whether the industry can validate and justify, with evidence, its higher-than-average CPM rates; whether the companies currently making up the landscape can get their shit together and formalize both the way the industry understands itself as well as the way it presents to the external parties (advertisers, consumers, potential cross-media partners); whether the form can truly bring us to greater frontiers of creativity, art, and, perhaps, journalism.

(For the record, I’m bullish on the future of the medium. Obviously. I mean, I work for a podcast company and write a weekly newsletter about podcasts; OF COURSE I believe that there’s no question whether spoken audio will migrate to digital on-demand — it’s only a question of when. Geez.)

Which is all to say I’m looking forward to a point far enough in the future where I can actually try to figure out the historical processes pushing forward this whole thing. Because that, to me, is the really, really fun part. In the meantime, however, I’m going to have to rely on other sources for my historiographical needs.

Take Benjamen Walker, for example. His Radiotopia show Theory of Everything recently took a stab at presenting a version of events in the episode it published last week, titled “The Secret History of Podcasting.” An adaptation of a presentation he gave in a class on podcasting he’s been teaching at the New School this fall, his narrative revolves around the highly successful Kickstarter campaign that Roman Mars launched in October 2012 for his podcast 99% Invisible. At the time, it was the most funded Kickstarter campaign in the journalism category (and the second most funded in the publishing category), raising $175,000 from 5,661 backers. Walker pegs it as the inflection point fueling everything that we’re seeing today. It’s a theory of revolution rooted in business models.

Definitely check out the whole episode — taking, in particular, Walker’s point on the Rashomon quality of how the story’s being told — but what you really want is around the 16:56 mark, where Walker takes the stand: “This Kickstarter, I believe, is the inflection point for the Secret History of Podcasting. It’s really the beginning of everything that’s going on today with podcasts, because that $175,000 came from Roman’s listeners. Not from advertisers, not from investors.”

I love that kind of talk. And of course, if you take it as a way to look at the macro-trends we’re seeing and the direction the larger market appears to be gravitating towards, the claim he’s making might not actually be accurate. (For one thing, a wide swath of non-Radiotopia podcasting companies are definitely throwing their weight behind advertising as the principal growth factor, with relatively less attention being paid to membership-driven revenue diversification, as far as I can tell anyway.) But I like to think that what he’s offering here is both a documentation of that particular corner of the podcasting universe, which is many-fold and diverse in form and content, as well as a kind of historical assertion: In Walker’s ideal future, this is the principal catalyst of all things.

You could also just reject all that and go with the more conventional theory of revolution, which revolves around technology. A version of this was articulated on a recent Recode Decode episode featuring John Borthwick, CEO and cofounder of Betaworks (a “startup studio” here in New York). At around the 28:00 mark, Borthwick pegs the tipping point to an iPhone feature update that came with iOS 8 — the point in which Apple allowed the iPhone to leave Bluetooth turned on by default, which makes podcast consumption in car commutes more seamless and accessible. (There is, of course, a more conventional answer that’s also attached to an Apple development: the company’s decision to include the native Podcasts app on the iPhone by default, also in iOS 8.)

Borthwick also points to a secondary tipping point: Serial, clearly, which brought quick and sudden attention to the pile of quality audio content that has been quietly and slowly accumulating for almost a decade. As he put it: “The pump was primed, but Serial was the show that pushed it forward.”

Anyway, I’m not laying this stuff out to make any point in particular. I just like laying it out. It’s fun, like knitting and Legos.

Speaking of that John Borthwick interview. This was perhaps my favorite segment from the whole chat:

Peter Kafka, Recode: And do you think…these things will just coalesce into a handful of podcast channels dominated by a handful of big players, or just a world where there’s gonna be podcasts that have 10 listeners and someone makes them? The old blog construct, where people originally thought that, ‘Oh, I’m going to blog about my cat’ and someone’ll want to read it, and that went away after time. It turned out that blogging worked much better as a scale business. Do you think podcasting ends up that same way?

Borthwick: Yeah, look, I mean we’re sitting here doing this podcast right now in a studio. And so I think you can see that studio-produced podcasts are significantly better than doing it on your phone. Yes, you can do it on your phone, which is awesome and gives it a degree of accessibility to this medium, but I do think that aggregators will have a role here. I also think that social platforms will have a role here.

Check it out.

Podcast timeline. Vanessa Quirk, a fellow at Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism, whipped a nifty history of podcasting timeline using the Knight Lab’s TimelineJS tool. Look it over, and let her know if there are any additions she should make/consider.

What the hell happened to The Longest Shortest Time? So over the past two weeks, I spilt a lot of digital ink on WNYC Studios, the highly optimistic podcast development initiative that well serves as a signal for a new phase of creativity and opportunity for the station. But a couple of hours after last week’s newsletter dropped, I learned about the cancellation of The Longest Shortest Time, a beloved parenting show that the station had been producing. The cancellation was surprising, abrupt, and confusing; the announcement came out through a post on the show’s Facebook page, and practically no information came out from official WNYC channels.

When I sent an inquiry to the station’s PR team, I received this reply:

We continually review our projects and sometimes wind down partnerships as we look at other projects. We’re proud of the work we’ve done with Hillary, and think The Longest, Shortest Time is valuable content. The episodes we created together will continue to be available to listeners in the WNYC app.

Many readers wrote me asking about the fate of the show, and what went into the station’s decision to let it go. Most of them could not reconcile this news with the launch of WNYC Studios which, in their minds, institutionally served to create more opportunities for shows like The Longest Shortest Time to not only exist, but to thrive.

And I gotta say, I can’t reconcile it for myself either.

“What I can say on the record for now is what I’ve been saying here and there in social media,” Hillary Frank, the host and creator of The Longest Shortest Time, wrote to me when I sent her a note. “This came as a surprise to me, as the show has been the top Kids & Family podcast in iTunes for over a year.” And it came as a surprise to just about everybody I’ve spoken to about this — from the outside, the show had looked like it was going well, and it enjoyed a level of engagement with its audience that other podcasts would presumably kill for. Plus, it felt like the station had been providing the show with adequate resources. Not too long ago, Nieman Lab published an article covering an app that the show created to meaningfully connect with its listeners. WNYC had provided the development support, which was requested when the show first signed on to join the station last year.

The whole thing is a mystery, and a mess. Furthermore, it’s indicative of a problem that WNYC needs to negotiate if it’s going to weather this new digitally-enabled environment, with an increasing number of hungry competitors threatening to steal its talent: The institution needs to be a lot more transparent. And it needs to give people like me, who are trying to understand its side of the story, more material to work with.

(And it needs to pay its producers more. That’s, like, number one.)

“I feel optimistic about finding a new home soon,” Frank tells me. She says that she’s been getting a lot of inquiries from possible new homes, some of which were from interesting and unexpected places. The last I heard, she’s still shopping around — so if you’re a company thinking about investing in some pretty rockin’ podcasting talent, you’d best reach out soon. You can find Hillary on Twitter and on her website.

Gimlet’s upcoming slate of shows. My earballs are happy again. Supporting the notion that there is, indeed, a summer slump and that fall is the true starting point of programming season even in Podcastland, Gimlet rolled out the first episode of a new Startup mini-season on Thursday. For this short run, the show turned the focus back on itself, and the episode is fantastic…okay, wait. It’s more than fantastic.

I think I might’ve already expressed this, but I didn’t really enjoy the second season all that much. Which is not to say that I thought it was bad, necessarily — the season was solid, and the larger ideas the show sought to tackle then were good and ambitious and worth spending so much time unpacking. But the season never really hit the heights of the first, which suggested a kind of misunderstanding of what made that first season so special. A good friend of mine articulated the difference well: The first season was really a bildungsroman, a diaristic coming-of-age story that conveyed impossible stakes through authentic confession. In contrast, the second season tracked like a Wired article — perfectly fine on its own terms, but which gave up a sense of connection because the predominant mode was a subtle negotiation between reporter and subject, as opposed to confessional confidence. The end result just wasn’t…special, which is perhaps an unfair thing to keep asking for, but hey a boy can dream. Last Thursday’s episode was an unambiguous return to form, and tugged my black ol’ heart in ways I haven’t felt in a while. It felt, distinctly, like I had come home.

Anyway, ’nuff of this sappy crap. I’m writing this item because Hot Pod Senior Midwestern Correspondent Joel Leeman reupped the question to me recently.

  • Science Vs (due to launch in 2016, but the iTunes listing is up!)
  • Awesome Boring, now known as Secretly Awesome (though I think it now has another name)
  • A podcast about other podcasts (probably a clip show of some sort)
  • A show probably called Encounters, also known as the new Jonathan Goldstein joint

I also vaguely recall an early job listing for a show that would be an offshoot of an existing media product. Not sure how that project’s going, but the company certainly has a lot in the works.

Radiotopia forever. PRX’s Radiotopia. everybody’s favorite podcast indie label/hippie commune/sound collective, is kicking off its fall fundraising effort, and things are going to work a little differently this time compared to last year’s Kickstarter campaign. Committing to the collective’s vision of mixing up business models to avoid a dependency on advertising, Radiotopia’s fall campaign now allows for a Patreon-like monthly repeated contributions in addition to its one-time donation asks. It’s using a platform called CommitChange to power the campaign.

I haphazardly sent the team a set of questions over email. The awesome Kerri Hoffman, PRX’s chief operating officer, obliged with answers:

How have the developments of the past year affected the design of this campaign, compared to last year’s?

This campaign is about sustained monthly support from loyal listeners who feel they are getting something remarkable with every episode, and want to show their appreciation by donating on an ongoing basis. Radiotopia is a network not just of shows and producers, but a community of listeners. We want to engage our listeners directly. We also are using this opportunity to build our infrastructure of donation processing, record keeping, and communication with our fans.

We propelled Radiotopia forward with Kickstarter and now we are investing in ourselves to keep it going strong.

What are your main goals with the money that y’all will raise?

This campaign is about supporting the shows so they can experiment, continue to push the boundaries and expand with production support, interns, and other things that help them as entrepreneurs. We are committed to free quality shows to the widest possible audience. We are also supporting our corporate partners — this time around with a challenge from Slack. We use Slack as a primary communication tool for Radiotopia and are thrilled to have their support.

A big fundraiser is hard to pull off — it is a lot of communication, planning, data gathering and nimble reaction. The connection to our fans and seeing the way they connect to us — as individual shows and as a network — is worth it in every way.

As for our future plans, Radiotopia will be launching a pilot fund project in early 2016 — more on that soon!

Tell me: Do you feel that future podcasting companies — or media companies in general — should adopt this mixed model of ad sales and fundraising campaigns?

We see support for our shows as a three-legged stool. Listener support, philanthropic, and corporate support are all important pillars for us. We want our funding base to be diversified and strong.

You can check out and/or contribute to the campaign here.

The Bill Simmons Podcast: Early performance. Digiday with the useful writeup recapping the launch of the new Simmons pod. Big plot points for me:

  • “The show’s 10 episodes had been downloaded nearly 4 million times, according to Simmons.”
  • “…advertisers have not only included direct response podcast mainstays such as Squarespace, Stamps.com and ticket site SeatGeek, but also Universal Studios, which ran a brand awareness campaign for Steve Jobs.”

And on a podcast growth note, I particularly enjoyed this piece of insight:

Simmons stands to earn more with his current deal than he did while working with ESPN, where he was paid a salary, not based on how much revenue his podcast made. Simmons, then, has even more reason to attract as many new listeners as possible. He regularly promotes the new show on Twitter, where he has 4.7 million followers, and is likely to promote it further once the HBO show he is slated to host airs next year.

“This system works because all the parties are incentivized in the right way,” said Adam Sachs, CEO of podcast network Midroll Media.

Highly recommend that you check out the article in full, which also includes a stab at what Simmons might have made off the show so far assuming standard CPM rates.

Serial. We’re creeping ever so closer to Season 2. Since this newsletter is dropping on a Tuesday, and I pre-write these things, hey, it could have already dropped by the time you’re reading this, but there’s really no way to know, ‘cuz that crew has kept a. tight. lid. on details.

Two small developments to tide you by:

Rock on, Garth.

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     Oct. 27, 2015, 10:33 a.m.
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