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Nov. 17, 2015, 10:34 a.m.
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Hot Pod: What happens when NPR tries to sound casual and podcast-y

Plus, The Dissolve gets a new life in audio, WBEZ’s live events, and Bill Simmons’ podcast network.

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is Issue Forty-Nine, published November 17, 2015.

NPR’s new politics podcast, also a multiplatform coverage play. Look, American elections can be a drag. And confusing. And painful. And exciting. And nihilism-inducing. Also, just plain weird. And speaking as a person who’s not from this country, I’ve depended on podcasts quite a bit to help me get familiar with (and internalize) American political culture. As a really smart dude once told a really smart cartoonist, radio/audio works best when it’s didactic, and the truth of this is most apparent (perhaps literally so) to me through podcasts like these — they take an event, a development, a situation, and break it down with insight and context. It’s great. Hence, my eternal gratitude to the Slate Political Gabfest, On the Media, and the New Yorker Political Scene.

So I was excited to hear that NPR was launching a politics podcast that would accompany the current election cycle. An extension of the NPR Politics page, the podcast serves as part of a larger multi-platform reporting effort that will also include, to quote the press release, a Facebook group, a fact-checking network, new partnerships, additional beats (along fascinating lines like “data and technology” and “demographics”), and greater collaborative coverage across the country.

I love this stuff, but I gotta say, the podcast teaser that dropped on November 9 got me pretty worried. It was kind of a hot mess, suggesting a show that would be some sort of chaotic cross between the Slate Political Gabfest and the New Yorker Radio Hour. The teaser also made the show sound like it’s further burdened by an editorial command to be “casual, loose, and funny” — some sort of attempt to be, dare I say, appealing to millennials snake people. (Casual, by the way, is code for “cool,” and given that the definition of cool is simply not giving a damn, any instruction of the kind would be an inherently self-defeating proposition.)

The show that dropped on November 13 turned out to be a bit of all those things, but there were glimpses of stuff that could be truly worth your time. The podcast was at its best when it evoked the sense of being a tourist in the newsroom, as if you are walking up to a reporter who chooses to kick back and sound off on what he or she really thinks.

Conversely, the pod was at its clunkiest when it was attempting that aforementioned manufactured casualness. That’s not to say that manufactured casualness is inherently bad; Planet Money is an example of that conceit done very well. (There’s a design parallel here: Note how, in the NPR Politics podcast teaser, part of the pitch was: “So when you need to sound smart [about politics] at a party…” which isn’t too far from the central idea of the Planet Money cross promos, which featured the pitch of a show that’s akin to having the economy explained to you by a friend at a bar.) But the difference with Planet Money is that the intentional casualness serves a distinct, didactic purpose; that is, to explain complexity with simple language and every-person metaphor. The Politics podcast, alas, has yet to hit this mark.

But forget the content for a second. What’s really interesting here is how the pod is packaged as a multi-platform area-specific coverage initiative. A couple of things that I’m thinking about:

  • A multi-platform coverage initiative like this has two central conceptual premises: (1) that each individual platform/appendage is both able to stand alone as reportage and able to express a unique value that differentiates its worth from the overall reportage effort, and (2) that a conveyed interconnectedness between the coverage on all platforms is able to provide a collective value that’s greater than the mere sum of its parts.
  • What’s the best way to quantitatively measure the holistic effectiveness of a multi-platform initiative like this? A podcast download does not have the same value as an article click-through, and I’m curious about how the internal team will set up goals and expectations for this project.
  • A thought experiment: if NPR were an ad-driven, for-profit entity, what would be the best way to go about selling the show? As a bundle, or individually?

Fun times, fun times.

The Next Picture Show. If you consider yourself a film buff, or at the very least a connoisseur of fine film writing, you’re probably aware of The Dissolve, the well-loved but ill-fated website that sought to provide its readership with a steady stream of world-class, deeply thoughtful film criticism, analysis, and historiography. And you’re probably also aware that The Dissolve was, like Grantland, a Great Miracle and Anomaly of Digital Publishing that was too beautiful to live. The Pitchfork-operated website could not be sustained, and in July of this year, the site shuttered, and its merry band of film critics scattered in the winds.

Until now, of course. Last week, a group of Dissolve veterans launched The Next Picture Show, a podcast that seeks to continue the website’s editorial mission. The podcast is structured around two-episode chunks, where the show tries to critically link a new cinematic release with a film from the past. It’s deliciously nerdy stuff, and as a person who dreams of the Boulevard, I’m super, super jazzed about this.

The podcast is part of WBEZ’s Filmspotting family, the third in line after the original Filmspotting, a movie review and discussion podcast (which, fun fact, was one of the first podcasts I personally got into), and Filmspotting: Streaming Video Unit, which tackles movies that are available on demand. The Filmspotting Network is shaping up to be a very strong argument for a podcast network-as-curatorial entity, on top of whatever shared infrastructure they have in terms of ad sales and operations (if any), as the three shows are linked by a common style, sensibility, and corner of the larger cultural fabric.

With this development, there’s some sort of larger argument that can, and should, be made about podcasts being a viable medium for…well, for lack of a better word, resurrections of failed larger media projects. The Next Picture Show isn’t a particularly well-produced podcast — it has some basic audio quality issues that, for some, might be hard to get around — but it’s perfect for a highly niche, enthusiast audience base whose relative small size was not monetizable enough to allow The Dissolve website to continue. A podcast, which is probably substantially cheaper to make and is not strictly bound to traffic goals/concerns, is theoretically a lot more manageable, while taking up a smaller fraction of each individual’s overall time, freeing them up for other (probably more profitable) pursuits.

And while I’m spinning in this circle, the podcast medium appears to be great for creative revivals more generally. See: Marc Maron.

Bill Simmons’ podcast network. Speaking of Great Digital Publishing Miracles, untimely ends, and pod-related creative revivals: so it turns out that, among all the things that Bill Simmons is planning/contracted to build over at HBO — TV shows, documentaries, possibly another site — a full-out podcast network is part of it. To be distributed under the new “Channel 33” feed, the first new show to be launched after the Bill Simmons podcast is The Watch, featuring Andy Greenwald and Chris Ryan, and essentially a revival of Grantland’s Hollywood Prospectus podcast. (Long-time readers: Do you hear that noise? That whimpering sound is me, crying with joy. GREAT JOB, BARANSKI!)

Expect more podcasts to come under the banner, hosted by the other folks that Simmons spirited away to the land of premium cable. Also, note the network’s current usage of a singular podcast feed to house what will inevitably be a wide range of podcasts. That’s just good audience management.

WBEZ live events. WNYC isn’t the only public radio station in town looking to own the live events space. Got this note in from friend of the show and WBEZ man-about-town Tyler Greene:

WBEZ is planning a live podcast series that will feature 6 different podcasts over the course of 6 months. The series will take place in different neighborhoods across Chicago, bringing the audience closer to the stories, the personalities and the city they love.

I’m producing/directing the series and, in general as a theater-trained person, I make every attempt to create an experience that moves beyond three mics and a table. Not that there’s anything wrong with doing it that way, but I personally believe that in doing a live “thing,” you have to take into account both the listeners who will hear the podcast, but also the ones in the room. Examples of this include adding video, a live band, audience interaction, etc.

You know, Tyler, if and when I get off my butt and actually produce a live Hot Pod show, it’s totally going to be, like, a stage with just a bunch of white dudes in a garage around a microphone on a table talking about white dude stuff, but all, like, Shia LaBeouf performance art-style, y’know? It’s gonna be great.

But I feel where you’re coming from, brother. Good luck! And if you’re a Chicago reader, be sure watch out for Mr. Greene and his great many adventures.

Niche. I’m loving this Media REDEF article — in particular, a standout point it makes on niche-as-a-content-strategy, which feels incredibly relevant to anybody who is thinking about launching a podcast. To quote:

While it’s difficult to motivate people to pay for broad general content, small but passionate audiences will flock to where they need to go to get their genre (and usually pay up).

Also, a larger observation about how publishers in general probably won’t be able to control their interactions with advertisers due to programmatic (which is impending for the spoken audio format), leading to a hollowing-out that will force the assumption of the following strategies for survival:

This [hollowing-out] will force mid-tier digital publishers with real overhead and undifferentiated audiences out of the game. Other publications will survive because either their costs are so low that programmatic advertising can cover their expenses, they’re cross-subsidized by another business (see: Bloomberg), or they’re so niche in their coverage that their audience will be willing to pay (see: Jessica Lessin’s excellent The Information). Everybody else will get wiped out.

I can’t recommend the article highly enough. Check it out.

Pandora–Rdio. According to Variety, Pandora, a music streaming service that isn’t Spotify, is acquiring music subscription service Rdio for its talent, technology, and IP. Recode with the kicker: “[Pandora] wants to offer a new subscription service of its own next year.” Why is this relevant to you, podcast fans? Because Pandora kicked up some dust recently when it announced that Serial, that one obscure podcast nobody’s really heard about, will soon be available on its streaming platform. Something’s going on over there, so I’d keep an eye on ’em if I were you.

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 also recommendations).

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. 17, 2015, 10:34 a.m.
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