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Oct. 6, 2015, 10:52 a.m.
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Hot Pod: What will we find out from the deeper podcast metrics everyone says they want?

Plus: Podcasts as live journalism, a rebirth of an old corporate drama brand, and a new way to experience Serial.

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is Issue Forty-Three, published October 6, 2015.

So it looks like I’m back after a week off, and it seems I’m a little rusty with the Oxford comma. On the bright side, I barely use punctuation anyway, and besides, I can’t believe you’re reading this and I’m just happy you’re here.

“I always get kind of confused by the talk of how podcasts don’t have good data.” So says Roman Mars, steward of the great 99% Invisible and Radiotopia, on this week’s episode of Big Venture Capital Firm Andreessen Horowitz’s a16z podcast, which discusses the surge we’re currently seeing in podcasts. Mars’ point, which is well taken, is that podcast measurements via downloads are way better and significantly more precise than broadcast radio measurements and that, besides, the metrics we use to conduct transactions with advertisers come from a kind of shared fiction (a “lie”) anyway. Metrics, much like gender and time and the basis of life in liberal arts colleges, are a social construct.

Broadly, I absolutely agree with these points. And I suspect (though I have no way to prove this, so let’s just call this a strawman right out of the gate) that this perspective comes from a very legitimate skepticism (or perhaps fear) that our various pursuits to generate better, more granular data reporting on the way people listen to audio on the Internet are ill informed. It’s very possible that we would open the black box only to realize that most people don’t actually listen past the 10th minute for most shows — much like how most people don’t actually scroll past the first two paragraphs of meaty investigative long-form pieces, you know, the kind that takes down presidents and wins Pulitzers and gets synecdoched — and we consequently lose whatever clout, bargaining chip, or basis of reasoning in our dealings with the advertising community.

And I also suspect, with no proof yet again, that the bulk of us are ill prepared to rapidly rebuild that collective fiction to a workable place once it’s broken. If that’s the case, it must explain why it feels like everybody is squeezing as much juice as they can out of their oranges before the frost. (Holy crap, what a pretentious metaphor.) Many businesses, both good and not-so-good-but-still-businesses, have been built on the rudimentary metrics that podcasting as a medium has been able to provide so far. Much of that building must have taken a lot of hard, hard work, the kind of labor that I simply can’t begin to understand. It’s hard to truly understand the entrepreneur — particularly, the creative entrepreneur — unless you do it yourself, and so it’s hard to know the true emotional impact of such, er, disruption.

But on a conceptual level, I still believe that increasing the knowability of podcast consumption is an essential and worthwhile pursuit. Maybe it’s a function of my youth, arrogance, and/or relative lack of structural power in the space, but I believe that breaking apart the makeshift fundamentals of today’s podcasting business models will lead to better creative and revenue environments in the future. More granular data will lead to better editorial decisions and better, perhaps more meaningful advertising practices. It could perhaps even lead to better alternatives to advertising.

Right. That’s enough of me saying a lot without providing any evidence. Other things to note from the podcast (which you should listen to in full!):

  • The other guests were Ryan Hoover and Erik Torenberg of Product Hunt, the buzzy hot app-curating startup, which recently launched its podcast discovery vertical.
  • Super interesting tidbit: At around the 7:50 mark, Hoover made reference to a new Gimlet show in the pipeline that’s due to drop sometime by the end of this year: a podcast that recommends new podcasts. The jockeying for the center of the podcast universe continues. Of course, there have been attempts at a podcast (or radio show) like this in the recent past, but I’d be damned if I didn’t admit to being super excited.
  • Also interesting: The age-old question of “What’s the atomic unit of podcasts?” Mars appears to take the position that the unit is the show, while Product Hunt has clearly sided with the episode as the discrete unit. I can’t remember what I sided with back when I asked that question myself in this newsletter, but I’ve recently come to suspect that maybe we’re asking the wrong question.
  • The episode also gave reference to a framework that I’ve long loved when it comes to thinking about the current landscape of podcasting: that it’s remarkably analogous to the early days of blogging. Waiting for that Breitbart equivalent.

Sideways to “live journalism.” Bill Simmons made some news last week when he dished out some insight into the brouhaha behind his dismissal from ESPN, openly discussing the issue with guest Wesley Morris (formerly Simmons’ employee back at Grantland, and who recently left the site to be The New York Times’ critic-at-large — R.I.P., the great “Do You Like Prince Movies?” podcast). His comments proved to be harvestable material for the digital media mill, with organizations ranging from The Washington Post to Business Insider1 crunching out posts delivering their own highlights, recaps, and takes on the podcast episode.

So the highlight I want to highlight in this state of affairs is not anything Simmons-related, but rather the fact that the podcast episode catalyzed several other pieces of media into existence. It underlined the fact that podcasts, or certain kinds of podcasts, at least, are themselves raw material for further reporting — a primary resource that seems underutilized by media institutions that actually have their own podcasts.

Let me put it this way: This Simmons situation highlights a manner in which podcasts can be more directly linked with more established digital media output that has yet to be adequately exploited. When wielded as an extension of journalistic institutions, podcasts (and live events) can themselves serve as raw material for use by reporters who focus on shortform blog posts and actively participate in instant recap culture. I think we saw a close-to-decent example of this with a recent episode of Recode Decode featuring an interview with BuzzFeed founder Jonah Peretti, who disclosed some truly juicy numbers about the media company’s traffic proportions. Recode did a really good job getting more mileage out of that bit of news by reporting further and publishing an addendum on the actual post that originally housed the podcast episode, and we saw Business Insider doing its thing where it basically published a partial transcript of that moment in the interview.

It’s a win on a lot of levels. First, a good interview or audio report is an easy source for writers and reporters to report on, reflect on, and put up to feed the beast. Second, such posts increase the attention paid to the podcast — thus increasing the likelihood that the show would be tried out by a reader who wouldn’t typically dabble in the medium. And finally, moves like these help close the gap between audio and other kinds of digital output; they further extend the utility of the podcast as part of the institution’s overall reportage, as opposed to being a placid digest-as-distribution-play, brand-extension effort, or some wackadoo accessory to the larger operation.

Perhaps the parallel that comes closest to evoking what I’m trying to say with this is the curious manner in which The New York Times’ Charles Duhigg describes the paper’s conference initiatives. “It’s live journalism,” Duhigg has been quoted as saying.

All right. I think I’ve met my quote for ~~thought leadership~~ this week. Let’s get to some juicy announcements!

Serial to be adapted for TV. Right. So I remember reading this last week and immediately putting down my laptop and going straight to bed. But here are two things that makes this situation really interesting, per reporting over at Deadline and The Hollywood Reporter:

  • The people responsible for the adaptation are Phil Lord and Chris Miller, the insane duo that’s fashioned a fascinating and incredible career out of pulling off highly unlikely adaptations with verve. For reference, they were behind The Lego Movie and 21 Jump Street, both of which were not only box office hits but critically praised as well. (Their most recent project, the TV show The Last Man on Earth, didn’t quite reach the heights of their cinematic output, but you gotta give it to them for handling a really high concept.)
  • The adaptation concept positions it well for television. According to Deadline, “Miller and Lord will develop a cable series that would follow the making of the podcast as it follows a case.” Which makes it sound less like a miniseries adaptation and more like a straight-up season-long procedural.

Eh, why the hell not. Count me in the bag for this.

Speaking of Serial. Old news now, but in case you missed it, Maxim magazine put out the first report a few weeks ago that one of the new seasons in the podcast’s pipeline will revolve around Bowe Bergdahl, the American soldier who mysteriously went missing from his base when on duty in Afghanistan back in 2009. He was eventually found to be held captive by the Taliban, and was freed in a prisoner exchange in 2014. The Serial team has not confirmed this.

Not going to spend too much time on this, but I’ll just say: If it’s true, this is the best possible go at round two. The team at This American Life are often lauded for its capacity at storytelling, but it should never, ever be forgotten that they are also first-class journalists and documentarians — and they’re perhaps the best team to take on this subject with proper sensitivity and insight.

The release date for the next season has not been confirmed, but it could well drop as soon as a few weeks from now. For a better overview, check out the New York Times writeup.

Two new shows to check out:

Last Wednesday was International Podcast Day, apparently. And The New York Times wrote a little about it, with me and Gimlet’s Matt Lieber throwing out a couple of podcast recs. All hail Anna Sale, as usual.

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.

  1. Congratulations on the acquisition! I think? []
POSTED     Oct. 6, 2015, 10:52 a.m.
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