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Nov. 24, 2015, 11:04 a.m.
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Hot Pod: Revisiting the question: Why doesn’t audio go viral?

The UX innovation we need. Plus: public radio executive pay, a boom in custom branded podcasts, and the aging of NPR’s audience.

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is Issue Fifty, published November 24, 2015.

Why audio doesn’t go viral, revisited. Do you remember what you were doing back in January 2014? I do. I was freezing my butt off in one of the colder New York winters, working on weird projects while collecting a meager paycheck from a strange little job that seemed to go nowhere, fast. But for one Stan Alcorn, then a staff writer at Fast Company and all-round multimedia journalist, it was a month that saw the culmination of a substantial investigation that he’d been bubbling over. On January 15, 2014, the media curation site Digg pubbed an Alcorn article that still haunts some corners of the audio/podcast community to this day.

The article posed a simple question at the very top: “Why does the Internet so rarely mobilize around audio?”

Or, to put it another way: “Why doesn’t audio go viral?”

Alcorn’s investigation ultimately concludes by gesturing towards to the problem of structure — the Internet as it exists today simply does not privilege audio as it privileges visual media as its dominant unit of information transmission — coupled together with the relative high demands that audio typically makes of users. It was an unsatisfying answer, at least to me, but everything I’ve seen thus far has suggested it to be nothing but completely true.

Cut to the present tense, and it would seem that relatively little has changed over the past 22 months. Sure, we had Serial and the explosion of the professional podcasting industry, but audio remains resistant to being as rapidly transmittable across the Internet as static or video visual memeography. Indeed, Alcorn’s basic concepts appear to remain as true now as they were back then. This suggests that, despite everything new we’ve seen in the space over the past year or so, there hasn’t been an actual piece of real, substantial, game-changing innovation. That there hasn’t actually been a true multiplier of on-demand audio, that whatever value that’s in these new companies still hasn’t been properly unlocked. (There’s also a possibility that I’m just incredibly optimistic, but whatever, I’m young, leave me alone, go away *hides under blanket*)

Anyway, 22 months seemed like as good a time as any for Digg to revisit the article with Dialog, its new discussion feature. The conversation was fun and great and informative and went to some really, really interesting places. I highly recommend you check out the whole thread — lots of interesting stuff in there! — but if you don’t have time, check out the thread that Digg highlighted as their favorite here.

So two quick things.

Firstly, I just want to put forward my belief that, as far as so-called “podcast virality” goes, Serial wasn’t a podcast that went viral. It was the conversations around Serial — and certain derivative elements from the pod, like the Mailkimp meme — that went viral, propelling the existence of the podcast in front of greater and greater concentric circles of people. That might sound like splitting hairs, but the distinction is important. Similarly, True Detective didn’t go viral; the phrase “Time is a flat circle” and the countless McConaughey-isms did.

Alcorn makes the very same observation and point in the dialog with a discussion of Welcome to Night Vale and its growth among the Tumblr community. I mean, this is maybe the most obvious point to make for some people, but I have a sense it’s still an idea that has yet to be properly internalized in the audio community.

Anyway, on to the second point: It seems to me that the core question — why doesn’t audio go viral? — stems from a larger, more systematically-inclined concern: Why can’t audio benefit from the full distributive power that the Internet has been able to bestow visually-based content like articles, pictures, and videos?

A common refrain, both back when the piece first published and now during its second go-around, is that the Internet is principally a visual medium. But it is also true that the accessories most commonly found coupled with phone use are headphones. Audio may not be very well accommodated by the Internet, but it’s certainly effectively assisted by the mobile device — which, as we all know, is increasingly becoming the dominant mode of consuming the Internet. There is, then, a clear and discernible gap between audio and the Internet; both things are delivered on the same device, but they’re not properly integrated.

This is untapped territory, where the gambit is to close the space between the two things within the mobile context. A really smart person once told me of his belief that the podcast format (and on-demand audio more generally) is just “one UX innovation” away from being vaulted into technological modernity.

I suspect that, whatever that innovation ends up being, it’s probably going to be simple and elegant — and, most importantly, it’s going to sound and look a little strange at first.

(More on the strange, next week.)

Public media executive pay. Current, your friendly neighborhood media entity covering public media, kicked up some dust last week when they put out a reporting series on public media executive compensation. That series included a handy spreadsheet that lists how much the head honchos at the largest public media organizations makes, at least based on 2013 filings. The compensation numbers are publicly available, by the way, but Current’s piece consolidates them and allows you to see some of the contours of the wider context.

On the very top of the list is Laura Walker, the CEO of WNYC who, in 2013, made slightly under $800,000 running a station that cost around $65 million to operate. The numbers struck a nerve among some in the New York radio community. When I sent out a call for responses on an email listserv that serves that community, I received a fair number of messages reacting with great frustration, especially given the fact that many who do work for WNYC are not paid adequately, if at all.

(On that subject: Great chunks of the work are done by interns, who I’m told get paid $12/day. I’m also told that WNYC also makes robust use of per diems, who are essentially permalancers who work without benefits. Many per diems work with the hope of someday being taken in full time, which often does not happen — or so I’m told, again.)

Every single person who wrote me asked to be anonymous. Most wrote just wanting to vent, and they did not want the specifics of their notes made public. Like many creative industries, the radio scene is an exceedingly small world, and many folks who wrote in still work at WNYC. This state of affairs also says a lot about the current state of creative labor among audio folks: Despite the boom we’re currently living through, WNYC is still the center around which the NYC radio scene revolves, and the labor pool still has not seen any significant increases in power.) But the ones who were comfortable with being printed pretty much said the same things. One email was particularly effective in capturing all the broad strokes — you can find the full note in this Google Doc, but here’s the highlight:

It should go without saying, but it’s so hard to make $12/day three days a week and live in New York City. Not only does it put tremendous financial strain on interns, but it sends the message that our work isn’t valued. WNYC tries to justify this by framing the internship as a public service of sorts — an offering of time and support to interns, a way that the shows “give back.” (I’ve actually heard HR talk about the internship in this way.) But in many if not all of the internship job postings, they write about how integral the work of interns is to each show. I don’t think the station could actually function without its interns.

It’s just so fundamentally exploitative. I’ve accumulated more credit card debt this fall than I’ve ever had before. I live with constant anxiety about money.

All right, I’m going to stop this line of inquiry right there, for three reasons. First of all, I don’t have the full, documented, and publicly shareable information about wages and work culture in WNYC. Most of this is hearsay. Secondly, I’m not qualified at all to discourse publicly at length about labor inequities, rights, or notions of fairness. I have no formal training in any of those topics, and I have been told in the past that my moral compass is occasionally broken. And finally, I’m just an able-bodied individual of sound mind that doesn’t have much cash for legal counsel if I so needed it. So.

But clearly, this is not okay. You can cut the situation a number of different ways, but the fundamental tension of a cause-driven/public service organization not adequately supporting its own people is not just hypocritical — it’s a self-defeating proposition. It’s also bad for its own industry at large. I don’t particularly care how much money a CEO pockets; regardless of that number, there simply has to be a baseline decency to how laborers are being compensated in general and, for me at least, that baseline originates from a two-prong logic: Can the laborer literally live and not made to feel devalued into an object. And does the compensation arrangement structurally exclude huge communities of people?

Anyway, before moving on, I just wanted to say that this issue is probably the second-most talked-about topic whenever I get into natural conversation with current and former public radio folk. (The first is Ira Glass.)

NPR is getting old. If you don’t subscribe to the amazing American Press Institute newsletter, you might have missed this whopper that they highlighted yesterday: a Washington Post piece titled “NPR is graying, and public radio is worried about it” — thus making something we’ve all known and groaned about old-media official.

I highly recommend that you read the whole thing (give the click!), but here are the particularly salient bits to me:

  • Some historical context: “What they didn’t realize at the time was that what they were inventing was programming for people like themselves — baby boomers with college degrees.”
  • “Overall, audiences are growing on digital devices, said Emma Carrasco, NPR’s senior vice president for audience development. She estimated that 32 million people per week, about 1 in 10 people in the nation, hear or read (via something NPR has produced.”
  • “A sustained promotional campaign paid off with a modest 2 percent gain in the audience for “Morning Edition” during the first six months of this year.” Interesting! *scribbles on notepad*

And here’s a line that stood out to me: “No one knows, for example, how many people actually listen to the podcasts they download, or whether podcasts — still a small share of all listening — are a passing fad or an enduring format.”

Fad! A fad! Don’t you see? It’s not about whether it’s a podcast! It’s not about the format! It’s the fact that the audio is served online! Onliiiiiine! DIGIITTAALLLL $*$&@%$*

In other news, there was a chicken hanging out by the NPR offices the other day. No, but really.

StartUp episode on branded podcasts. Don’t miss the latest StartUp episode, folks. It’s about the new form of native advertising that’s steadily making its way into the podcast form — sponsored/custom podcasts, a show that’s fully commissioned and editorially guided by advertisers.

And once you’ve listened to that, read this FT piece on the matter, “Brands tune into podcast production.” (Shannon Bond, again, with the sweet beat coverage.)

And once you’ve read that, check out the podcast discussed in the article, The Message. (See that? Plugged a podcast by my day-job employer. My ethics, they are compromised.)

And once you’ve listened to that, pat yourself on the back. It’s Tuesday, AND TURKEY DAY IS TWO DAYS AWAY!!

Nieman Lab on the state of the pod. So I figured that it was only a matter of time that Joshua Benton, the director of Nieman Lab, would school me at my own game. Last week, the man himself put on a bandana and blogged it out, publishing a column titled “Podcasting in 2015 feels a lot like blogging circa 2004: exciting, evolving, and trouble for incumbents.” It was comprehensive, concise, smart, sharp, and incredibly insightful, establishing an evolutionary parallel between the blog ecosystem of yester-year to the podcast ecosystem of today.

Essentially, Benton breaks the situation down to three major spheres: professionalization, platforms, and incumbents (i.e. their probable disruption). Money quote, for me:

For all its successes, podcasts have offered no solution to the crisis of local news. I expect we’ll continue to see the gap between the WNYCs and their smaller public radio peers expand.

Great stuff. Happy Turkey day, 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     Nov. 24, 2015, 11:04 a.m.
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