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Jan. 12, 2016, 9 a.m.
Mobile & Apps

Hot Pod: Charting the outflow of public radio talent to the new for-profit podcast industry

“Nick, you gotta realize: Our jobs are totally made up. I have some ideas as to what her job is going to be, but I have no idea what the day-to-day is going to be.”

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is Issue Fifty-Five, published January 12, 2016.

Pods for all seasons. Lately I’ve been noticing something of a small trend: podcasts that were launched to accompany a big, seasonal event. Specifically, there have been two big clusters: podcasts that have been launched to cover the 2016 presidential election cycle and podcasts that are designed to accompany the Oscar race.

The list of election podcasts is fairly substantial. You’ve got the NPR Politics podcast (which I’ve written about before), along with Panoply’s Podcast for America and an upcoming show by Scripps called Trail Mix 2016. All three shows seem to be designed to track the campaign trail, and all three shows appear to take the premise of being informal very, very seriously. They also uniformly seem to serve the function, at least in theory, of giving journos the space to openly react to the news cycle, something that they presumably can’t do in their usual reporting platforms.

On top of these podcasts, you also have a new show from The Washington Post called Presidential, which takes a more evergreen approach by providing thematically associated material: Each episode will focus on a different U.S. president, guaranteeing us 44 episodes worth of content (if they give Grover Cleveland two episodes). Oh, and FiveThirtyEight is coming up with its own elections podcast too. That crew has been workshopping off the feed for their What’s The Point podcast. (What a fine way to soft launch, by the way.)

On the other side of serious, but with no less pomp and circumstance, you’ve got a slightly smaller stack of 2016 Oscar podcasts. There’s the Awards Show Show, a coproduction of New York’s Vulture and KPCC’s The Frame, which adopts the structure of a classic two-person you-go-now-you-go reporting outfit. And then there’s the Awards Chatter podcast by The Hollywood Reporter, which features a long list of interviews with award-hungry actors and directors currently doing the good ol’ publicity circuit. That podcast recently made rounds on the entertainment blogosphere with its fairly dry J.J. Abrams interview, which gave us an official answer to the much asked question about why The Force Awakens felt so gosh darn familiar. And finally, you have the Little Gold Men podcast from Vanity Fair, which is basically the Slate Gabfest for Hollywood gossipmongers and those who go all Ezra Klein on film and the Academy Awards (so, nerds like me, basically).

These podcasts are, in my mind, journalistic cousins of a certain podcast subgenre that’s been around for a long time: the TV recap podcast, long formalized by entities like the AfterBuzz TV Network. These shows are companion pieces, accompaniments, instruments for listeners to further critique, pore over, or generally spend more time with these narratively propulsive events — the morbidly fascinating Academy Awards race and the fascinatingly morbid American presidential elections — which, let’s face it, for the right kind of person, is a rabbit hole that keeps going down and down and down.

NPR One and retooling the concept of local. So here’s a big, juicy development coming out of the public radio mothership: NPR has hired Tamar Charney, the program director at Michigan Radio, to be the new local editorial lead for NPR One, its buzzy streaming audio app experiment. Some, like myself, might remember Charney from the piece she wrote for Current last July, where she pushed back against the podcast rush that, at the time, was taking place among some public radio stations that had been afflicted by some sense of FOMO. “I worry we are putting too much of our creative energies into this one platform,” Charney wrote. “As I see them, podcasts are just a distribution technology. Listeners sought out Serial because it was great content, not because it was a podcast per se.”

For the record, I think Charney’s absolutely right. It’s an argument that evokes discussions happening elsewhere in the media space, particularly in the war of attrition that TV and film streaming services like Netflix seem to be slowly and quietly winning against traditional broadcasting companies. At this point in time, the medium may well be the message, but as we move forward into the future, it will be the thing that the medium was built to carry that will ultimately determine the fate of these institutions.

Anyway, back to NPR One: Nieman Lab, my powerful enablers, published a really great article digging into Charney’s hire and how she fits into the larger goal that the institution is trying to achieve with the app. Essentially, NPR One is less a move to digitize and replicate the “radio” part of public radio than an initiative to digitize the concept of “local.” Which is to say, the goal isn’t to better connect the listener with quality content generated by NPR and local member stations in general — the goal is really to better connect the listener within an existing local public radio ecosystem. This is expressed in the very first question that the app asks you when you first boot it up: What’s your home station? You may well be living in Nashville, but if your real yearning is to be connected with your New Jersey roots, the NPR One experience is meant to serve you news and information from that local public radio ecosystem.

This approach is designed to meet NPR’s unique challenge when it comes to digital. Unlike WNYC — what with its pushes deeper into podcasting, self-distribution, and self-actualization as an entity unto itself — NPR has the distinct challenge of balancing a member-driven organizational structure against an imperative to establish a sustainable avenue for digital growth. Remember that dues from member stations make up NPR’s principal revenue stream. And remember as well that, theoretically speaking, if NPR were to push hard into digital by upping its ability to serve its content directly to listeners across America, that would be bypassing their member stations, which both challenges its core revenue stream and undermines what is created to do. This initiative to modernize the concept of “local,” then, is a smart move to balance its shift towards digital and stay true to its commitments.

Anyway, back to Charney: what exactly does the role of “local editorial lead” entail? What will Charney’s day-to-day look like? “Oh man, I have no idea,” Sara Sarasohn, the app’s editorial lead, told me. “Nick, you gotta realize: Our jobs are totally made up. I have some ideas as to what her job is going to be, but I have no idea what the day-to-day is going to be.” But broadly speaking, Charney is meant to be something of ambassador — among other things, she will be principally in charge of figuring out the needs of local public radio stations and ensuring that the app is able to match those needs as best as possible. Which will be hard, of course; as with everything else in America, nothing is equal, least of all needs.

Before we move on, here’s a fun factoid in the Nieman Lab piece that may be interesting to some of you: “App usage ‘has been growing at a steady pace of 9 percent month over month’ — that works out to about 280 percent growth per year — since launch, with the average listening session over half an hour long.” Juicy.

More on ESPN, Grantland, and podcasts. Brian Koppelman, a screenwriter and the creator of The Moment podcast, went on the Wolf Den podcast last week to talk podcasts and the podcast business, and his conversation with Midroll CEO Adam Sachs pleasantly shed more light on the way podcasts were handled at ESPN and Grantland — which proved to be a source of frustration (among many, presumably) for high-profile talent Bill Simmons, who would later be dismissed by ESPN and who eventually launched his own podcast network while signing onto a multi-platform deal with HBO.

Koppelman, whose podcast was originally housed at Grantland before he moved it over to Slate, told Sachs:

Grantland understood and valued podcasts tremendously. But I felt that ESPN did not…and one of the ways in which that manifested is that I did the podcast for free and at a loss for the first year and a half.

And when the show began to develop an audience, ESPN began running commercials on the show — and still not giving me any of it. And then that just felt weird! At a certain point, I’m happy to run a commercial-free show and then somehow break even — that would’ve been fine. So that was in my head. And then I feel like they weren’t going to grow it at all.

He also talked about his interest in pursuing non-advertising supported podcasts. “A part of me always thinks, ‘Is there another way to do this whole thing where people don’t have to listen to advertising? Is there a subscription model that works, that I can have a smaller audience in the beginning that would contribute? There’s an appeal to that,” Koppelman said.

Well, Brian, according to this Splitsider interview, the comedian Artie Lange apparently draws in about $400,000 a year for his paywalled podcast (which goes for $7 a month). So there’s that.

A Canadian mag re-enters the podcasting space. I was a huge, huge fan of The Arcade, a literary interview podcast by the Portlandia-esque folks over at Hazlitt Magazine — back when the podcast was a thing before it suddenly ceased operations eight months ago. When I asked Anshuman Iddamsetty, the magazine’s art director and podcast quarterback, what’s up with the whole peacing-out thing, he was coy in his response and vague with the details, choosing to reply only in haikus. Of course, I’d expect nothing less of a person whose Twitter handle blares out BOARLORD and whose brain is capable of such personal essay gems like “Swole without Goal.” But still, the cessation, and the lack of details, stung.

Well, it looked like the mag pulled another fast one on me, as it launched a new podcast under the nose last November: It’s called Cavern of Secrets and it bills itself as a “show about extraordinary women.” It’s hosted by Toronto-based comedian Lauren Mitchell, and it’s three episodes deep, with guest spots by Carrie Brownstein and Tavi Gevinson.

I sent a quick note to Iddamsetty demanding more details — about goals, about strategy, about what the heck is up. His reply was swift and comprehensive:

Cavern is a departure from our previous podcasting efforts, which were more literary in scope. At Hazlitt, we’re not too concerned with chasing clicks and that gives us the freedom to experiment and focus on what I think is our core competency: giving impossibly talented voices a platform. Also paying them on time. I mean, it doesn’t seem that far off from what Canadian publishing should be doing anyway, and that means taking risks with developing voices, with mediums outside of the written word.

We recently finished the construction of a studio just for our multimedia efforts, and Cavern is the first salvo in a battery of audio products we hope to launch later this year. We’ve started development on our second show, but we’re always open to pitches, especially in the categories of religion, sports, and technology. So! If you’re a woman or person of colour or trans person interested in Canadian podcasting, drop us a line!

What a mensch. Anyway: What on earth is Hazlitt Magazine? It’s so quirky, so weird, and so utterly gorgeous that I can’t believe the forces of capitalism allowed this thing to exist. Apparently I’m not the first person to ask that question.

Moves from public radio to private, in spreadsheet form. So I finally sat down to actually begin building out this spreadsheet of radio/podcast folks who’ve jumped off the public radio ship into the private sector. This is just a very small start, and I’ll build and update it over time, but from what little there is, one can already spot some pretty clear dynamics right off the bat. Namely, that only a handful of institutions are providing the supply, and everybody’s white.

You can find the list here, and you can suggest names here. I’ll add them as soon as I vet them.

Related reads this week:

  • “To Attract New Listeners, Podcasts Need To Move Beyond Sound.” (Wired)
  • “Beyond ‘Mail-Kimp’: The Future of Podcast Advertising” (Fast Company)
  • “So, Like, Why Are We So Obsessed With Podcasts Right Now?” (Vanity Fair)
  • SoundCloud, which serves as a hosting platform for a bunch of podcasters, has reportedly secured $35 million in debt funding. (Original report by Digital, a Swedish site; TechCrunch for the English report)

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     Jan. 12, 2016, 9 a.m.
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