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Nov. 10, 2015, 10 a.m.
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Hot Pod: About a year after Serial (and Hot Pod’s launch), what does the future of podcasts look like?

“On the one side, you have podcasts-as-the-future-of-radio, and on the other side, you have podcasts-as-an-extension-of-blogging.”

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is Issue Forty-Eight, published November 10, 2015.

Last Thursday, I was conveniently informed by a very nice person on Twitter that, as of November 5, 2015, Hot Pod is officially one year old. That came as news to me. I don’t usually pay any attention to time, because time-awareness is super stressful, especially when you think about how much time goes into an hour, a day, a year, a lifetime, and realize hey, that’s not a lot of time at all, which is why I just don’t pay any attention to that kind of stuff, because really I’m afraid of dying quietly and pointlessly.

But Hot Pod is one year old, which is cause for some celebration. And so celebrate I will, with an extra-long navel gazing look back on the year in podcasting we’ve had. Welcome to a Very Special Edition of Hot Pod.

I love you all.

At the top of November 2014, Serial was still very much in the middle of its now-legendary run. “The Case Against Adnan Syed,” the show’s sixth (and best, IMHO) episode, had just dropped. It would be a week or so before a minor online backlash to the reporting, which would eventually fizzle and fade to reveal what we know now: that there had been a vibrant public obsession with the show, and that there has been nothing quite like it since — or, at least, one cannot not remember an experience that was taxonomically in the same ballpark.

While Sarah Koenig and company pulled into the home stretch, Gimlet Media was still carrying out its critically acclaimed bit of capitalist performance art: the Startup podcast. Shortly after, The Wall Street Journal would report on the company’s $1.5 million seed round fund. Silicon Valley was falling in love. Over in Cambridge, Massachusetts, another Radiotopia Kickstarter campaign was underway; it had blown through its original $200,000 funding goal, and the podcast commune announced a new set of stretch goals. It would go on to raise over $600,000 from more than 21,000 backers, becoming the most-funded Kickstarter project in the publishing, radio, and podcast categories.

Midroll Media was about a year into formal existence and was about to roll out Wolfpop, its second podcast network. This American Life was a few months into self-distribution through PRX, having ended its distribution relationship with Public Radio International a few months earlier. WNYC was still, by and large, the monopoly in the New York audio labor pool. Invisibilia was a twinkle on the horizon. Audible was still just an audiobook company. Marc Maron was chugging along. So was the rest of the comedy podcast scene. And so was the tech podcast scene: TWiT, 5by5, Relay FM. There had been a few articles discussing some sort of podcast revival — in particular, Kevin Roose‘s “What’s Behind the Great Podcast Renaissance?” in New York Magazine and Rebecca Greenfield‘s “The (Surprisingly Profitable) Rise of Podcast Networks” in Fast Company. A preface for greater brouhaha to come.

Meanwhile, I was a few months into my first real adult job at a digital media company (with benefits! damn!), cranking out daily paid-subscription newsletters and bored out of my mind. At the top of November 2014, Tuesdays were great days, sweaty days, days of furious texting and tweeting and emailing and Gchatting. Tuesday mornings were mornings when I would walk extra laps around the building where I worked so I could finish off Serial. Sundays were even better days; those were Serial listening-party days, where I’d gather with some people at my friend Macky’s apartment and we’d sit around the room stupidly trying to avoid eye contact while the week’s episode, played from someone’s iPhone speaker cradle, ran its course.

I remember that time well. I remember the excitement I felt that finally, finally, more people were beginning to ask the right questions, inching closer toward something that I had believed for awhile: That this medium with a stupid-sounding name, this historical aberration of a content distribution funnel, podcasts — that there was something here, that a unique little listening culture had been slowly fomenting for years, that a new frontier of experience had curdled quietly, unobserved, into existence.

Something was happening, I was fairly certain. But if that was the case, why didn’t anything that was written about this moment feel emotionally true? And so, across two lunch breaks between November 4 and 5 of 2014, I wrote the first issue of Hot Pod. Oh, the things you do when you’re sufficiently bored.

So here we are, November 2015. We’re on the cusp of the next season of Serial, which has been paraded at Cannes and will soon be adapted into a TV show. It’s all so very exciting. Gimlet Media now nears 30 employees (or maybe it’s already there?) with a fourth show under its belt, booking about $2 million in revenue from a mere three often-captivating shows over the course of the year. Midroll Media is now the property of the E.W. Scripps Company, a huge public corporation founded in the nineteenth century, marking it as the first major acquisition in the podcasting space. It’s testing a premium subscription model called Howl, and it sells for Bill Simmons.

This American Life is now a for-profit entity — a public benefit corporation, to be specific — and is, by virtue of this development, better positioned to do much more in this emerging space than ever before. Panoply is now a thing and, having acquired a technology platform, is hoping to shake up parts of the podcast ecosystem that have long remained unchecked. Radiotopia is bigger and stronger and more beautiful than ever, and rumor has it that PRX, its parent company, has something very special in the works.

Audible has fired a shot in the air; over the past year, it has hired away NPR exec Eric Nuzum to serve as SVP of original content, along with a murderer’s row of talent from public radio. BuzzFeed is making podcasts now, and it has a #podsquad that’s also principally built out of talent from the public radio.

Which is to say, public radio has seen a vibrant exodus of mid-to-high range talent, sustaining a sizable shock to system. WNYC has reacted with a gesture toward greater autonomy by shifting toward a self-distribution model, launching WNYC Studios, and generally hyping itself up. It will take awhile for the station to win back the trust of its people, who are now facing a world of increasing options. NPR faces a more uncertain world; bound by its structural commitments to member stations, it appears less capable of embracing the inevitable shift to digital over the very long run. And yet NPR is the home of Invisibilia, one of the fastest growing podcasts of all time, and despite its long-term positioning, it remains the stalwart producer of unparalleled high-quality reporting.

Speaking of reporting, more publications, journalistic and otherwise, are launching podcasts of their own. Time will tell whether these gambits pay off. Maron interviewed Obama. Spotify and Pandora are getting into the game. So is Google Play.

Adnan Syed, by the way, has been granted a hearing on new evidence.

And over on my side of the world, Hot Pod continues. I now write them in the middle of the night, over cans of beer, listening to show tunes.

Through what is surely an accident, I now work at Panoply, one of these previously discussed podcasting places. I have no idea what I’m doing, none whatsoever, and I spend most of my hours studying the network, stalking the iTunes charts, squinting at the consumption data, banging pots with distributors like Stitcher, observing partners and competitors and frenemies, thinking, writing, sketching, digging, experimenting. Sometimes I offer recommendations, sometimes I play around with things without telling anybody. Some days I feel like I’m getting closer, most days I feel pointless and unmoored and aloof. Sometimes I’m frustrated that I’m mostly observing, longing to be a lot more involved and in control. Sometimes I feel like observing is all I’m really good for.

Also, I’m also finally making enough money to afford a therapist, so there’s that.

I don’t know where this is all going, clearly.

If I did, well, I’d probably find another profession, like prophet. But I have some broad ideas about where we are, and some 30,000-feet things that I’m thinking about, and here are four such things that could be useful for you, dear reader:

The industry’s fundamental challenge remains simple, and it is unchanged from the beginning: to grow the overall pie and convert non-podcast consumers into podcast consumers. Right now, an overwhelming majority of new podcasts to hit the market are all targeting the same group of people — folks who are already listening to podcasts, mostly likely off the native iPhone podcasting app. (Alas, we watch and talk about the iTunes charts with such fervent religiosity). I’m going to guess that a lot of those people are power users. This is unsustainable, because even the most fanatic of podcast consumers are still human, and typical humans have eardrums that can only sustain so much talking.

At the same time, the shift to digital audio is inevitable; with the coming full connectivity of cars, the continuing shift toward mobile devices, and the increasing presence of the Internet in daily life, it simply boggles the mind to imagine a future where traditional radio infrastructures and power structures remain dominant. There are two scenarios in which this could be the case: (a) an apocalyptic event that wipes out the Internet, or (b) larger anti-competitive movements that keep consumers trapped within the current technological stage, not unlike the moves we see slowing down the inevitable shift toward cord cutting.

With Google officially throwing its hat back into the ring, Spotify on the horizon, and Pandora doing…whatever it’s doing, we’re being offered a peek into a potential future where podcasts/spoken audio, much like the rest of digital content, are principally distributed and consumed through an ecosystem defined by platforms as opposed to its current RSS feed-enabled state of being open, unkempt, and flat.

An ecosystem of freedom and extreme accessibility is great, except when the entire thing becomes saturated, which leads to a state of inequality (it’s no wonder that the top of the iTunes charts are dominated by public radio), which in turn leads to demands for better agents of organization and mediation (to force the connection: the podcast community’s constant lament that “podcast discovery is broken” — it’s never existed). The discovery problem could, in theory, be fixed by a decent search tool that indexes RSS feeds in an effective and user-centric way (whatever that means), but that’s probably a late 90’s way of reading the situation. I hate to put it in such cliched terms, but we live in the age of social media, and this age is built on platforms.

For as long as I’ve been writing this newsletter, I’ve been struck by a tension within the format: On the one side, you have podcasts-as-the-future-of-radio, and on the other side, you have podcasts-as-an-extension-of-blogging. When one complains about podcasts being dominated by white dudes sitting in basements talking around microphones, one is in large part referring to content in that latter category. And when, in a recent Startup episode, Alex Blumberg discussed the 95 percent of the iTunes podcast charts that average a couple of hundred of listeners per episode, he was actually building an economic argument that contrasts his company — a serious, high-quality production endeavor — against a mountain of, well, hobbyist audio blogs. The two things are playing very different games, but they share the same real estate.

We have yet to collectively solve the problem of what, exactly, we are talking about when we talk about podcasts. I suspect this tension will sort itself out over time with a certain kind of innovation. The podcast-as-an-extension-of-blogging category is a species of content-creation that’s social. It’s the kind of stuff, I think, that Odeo was originally conceived to support. So, if the world ever sees a successful audio-first social network, I’m fairly confident that this type of content will be sorted into that ecosystem, and the semantic conundrum of the “podcast” will sort itself out, leaving the podcast-as-future-of-radio category to focus on its own game…

…or will it? Maybe it won’t. Given that professional publishing and journalistic entities are trying to figure out how to (a) adapt their work to be best served by those platforms and (b) carry out their editorial imperatives on those platforms, maybe what we’re heading toward is a point where the binary I’ve set up collapses into itself: everything is flattened once again, and a unit of socially optimized journalism is consumptively equal to a unit of socially optimized…detritus.

And we’d just have to start this conversation all over again. (Flat circle, baby.)

Podcast content needs to stop being so gosh darn predictable, and podcast talent needs to be further diversified. The two things are related, of course. I’m often struck by how rare it is for something to pierce straight through the iTunes charts and grab me by the lapels. The vast majority of the charts draw upon the same few concepts, deriving from the same few traditions, borne of the same few sensibilities. Touchy-feely reportage. Public radio two-ways. Public radio science-y shows. Shows about music. Comedians talking with comedians. People talking with people like themselves. Celebrities talking celebrity things. Conversationals. True crime true crime true crime. Shows about Serial (a cottage industry onto its own).

I hope to hear more things that I’ve never heard before. I hope to see more writing that subjects the medium to more punishment. I hope to see more scripted productions — not re-assumptions of old radio dramas, but the creation of real audio shows, sitcoms, serials. I hope to see more creative playfulness, more bravery. And I hope to see more kinds of people come into the space. Certainly, I’d love to see more diversity in terms of demographics — race, nationality, gender — which will most definitely stretch the limited range of sensibilities wide open to accommodate a grander universe of stories, but also, I’d love to see more diversity in terms of creative tradition. I hope to see more writers, creators, and auteurs begin to view podcasts, or spoken audio more generally, as a legitimate choice among the many mediums they can pursue, aside from television and film and blogs and magazines and the stage.

It’s been quite a year. So much has happened, so much to do. And I never thought I’d be so captivated, so drawn in, so caught up by something so bizarre. Podcasts? Radio? The journey of spoken audio from broadcast to digital? I mean, what the hell? How random can you get?

Here’s to another year of pods, voices, stories. Thanks for reading.

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     Nov. 10, 2015, 10 a.m.
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