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Feb. 2, 2016, 9 a.m.
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Hot Pod: Podcasts about podcasts, a new player in sports audio, and a crowded election-podcast space

“I worry about big money pouring into podcasting…I really, really hope that all the money pouring into podcasting won’t bury tiny, weird independent podcasts.”

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is Issue Fifty-Eight, published February 2, 2016.

First day of fun-employment! Self-employment, I mean. Gotta find a way to make money.

FiveThirtyEight enters the elections podcast race. Let’s start with an item thematically related to what went down in Iowa last night.

FiveThirtyEight, the data journalism site led by stats dude Nate Silver, officially launched its Elections podcast last Monday. And let me be the first to say: Finally! Predictive modeling for presidential elections is basically the only reason I keep FiveThirtyEight in my bookmarks, though I must say their culture stuff gets a click or two out of me. Anyway, this launch expands the site’s podcast offering to a healthy number of three, with the elections pods joining a sports punditry show called Hot Takedown and a more general show about data and society called What’s The Point. Its launch comes after four weeks of piloting through the What’s The Point feed, where test episodes were delivered to listeners in the form of bonus content. Which is certainly an interesting method of both workshopping a show and cultivating interest in an existing user base.

So here’s the most interesting thing about FiveThirtyEight’s Elections podcast: It’s made up of different kinds of shows. The podcast’s anchor will be a Slate Political Gabfest-style panel show that will be released on Mondays, with additional episodes — which may or may not adopt the panel discussion format — dropping on other days depending on the news cycle and depending on whether the podcast team has something else they want to cover. Some of these non-Monday episodes could be a documentary; some could feature interviews.

This diversification of content was top of mind for Jody Avirgan, the former WNYC producer that the site tapped last year to head up its podcast operations. (Avirgan is also the host of What’s The Point.) “From the beginning, I wanted our election audio coverage to be a bunch of different things. I wanted it to be a home for reported stories, documentaries, etc.,” he told me over the phone. “I think a lot of people are hung up on the idea of ‘a show,’ and that you would have to do the same thing week after week after week just because you have ‘a show.'”

In this view, the podcast feed is structurally utilized in a manner reminiscent to linear TV news or radio broadcast channels, but without the need to plug gaps with filler content or reruns. For Avirgan, it’s a mark of confidence in the pull of the larger media operation, and not a specific show. “Let’s just have a home for the audio content we make, and people will follow us to wherever we create,” Avirgan continued. “I think Grantland has been a good model all along — the way they created one feed, and put all their shows all in one feed. People who like Grantland really like Grantland, and they don’t care where they get it. They just want to get it.”

FiveThirtyEight is not the first to play around with release conventions through a podcast feed. NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour, for example, is particularly good with experimentation, consistently using its feed to drop alternate programming like its sporadically-released sports show (The Giant Foam Finger!!) as well as special interviews (J.K. Rowling!!). Another interesting practitioner is the Bill Simmons Podcast Network’s “Channel 33” feed, which essentially serves as an omnibus home for Simmons’ frequent collaborators and former Grantland soldiers to play around with their own shows (The Watch and Sources Say are fabulous, by the way). But I’m a little surprised more podcast creators don’t experiment more with the RSS feed. We’ve seen some interesting, playful uses over among fiction podcasts; for example, the recent fictional podcast hit Limetown occasionally dropped mini-sode checkins to conjure the illusion of “real-time” programming. Maybe I’m just talking out of an armchair, but it doesn’t seem like it would take too much of an effort for an actual campaign trail reporter to experiment by using a feed to sporadically drop 5 minute verbal sketches of scene and space. (See: Audio Twitter.)

Anyway, back to talking about the actual podcast: the Elections podcast’s launch comes up against what appears to be an increasingly crowded field. As I’ve noted recently, it seems like there’s been another election-related pod being launched every other day, with new offerings being rolled by both podcast stalwarts and newcomers (sample list: NPR’s Politics Podcast, The Washington Post’s Presidential, Politico’s Off Message, The Huffington Post’s Candidate Confessional, Futuro Media Group’s In the Thick, The Pollsters, and many others.) I asked Avirgan what he thought about this flood of audio election programming. His response was a dry one: “There’s this perfect storm of people who think that podcasting is an easy money thing, and there’s big news cycle event coming, and so they just put the two things together,” Avirgan said. “I’m sure if this was Brazil and the World Cup was coming up, you’d see a lot of World Cup podcasts.”

But will the abundance of these podcasts prove a hurdle for FiveThirtyEight, whose mass-market raison d’être, for all intents and purposes, is elections-focused data journalism? Avirgan doesn’t think so, citing operational nimbleness, close fidelity to its audience, and a keen awareness of the space as differentiating factors. “There’s a reason our show is on Monday versus other days,” Avirgan notes. “We’re separated [from other podcasts] on the calendar…We’re not going to pull off what the [Slate Political] Gabfest does. We have our own people. We’re going to do what we’re good at.”

You can find FiveThirtyEight’s Election Podcast here.

Podcasts, but for podcasts. Or broadcasts, but for podcasts. Or broadcasts, but for podcasts that are also later distributed as podcasts.

A common refrain among those who are involved in or follow podcasts is that discovery is broken, and its broken-ness is one of the many primary structural impediments that prevents podcasts from growing, maturing, and becoming mainstream, which is arguably what everybody wants. So far, all we really have is iTunes, and even that audience development pipeline is being further corroded by the recent podcast rush that has undoubtedly led to increased competition for real estate on iTunes. It is perhaps inevitable, then, that this unfortunate state of affairs would lead to a situation where we see a bunch of launches involving podcasts dedicated to the curation of high-quality podcasts for the pleasure of mass earballs.

In recent weeks, we saw the birth of Gimlet’s Sampler and Washington public radio station WAMU’s The Big Listen, two shows from different sides of the public/private podcasting divide. They join the Canadian Broadcasting Company’s Podcast Playlist, which was the first high-profile attempt to execute on this particular idea. (Disclaimer: I’ve been a guest on the podcast before.) Playlist was first launched in the summer of 2015 with WNYC’s Sean Rameswaram (who is actually Canadian, by the way) performing sole host and curation duties. Its current iteration features in-house hosts Lindsay Michael and Matt Galloway, presumably because Rameswaram had to go back to his home station to develop whatever secret project he is no doubt developing at this very second.

Let’s take a second to think about the bigger idea at play here. These shows ostensibly exist to perform a specific structural function for their respective audiences, which is to provide guidance through the hyper-abundant, anarchic, and desperately overwhelming offerings of the wider podcast ecosystem whose low barriers to entry and democratic promise, while much lauded, are ultimately counterintuitive to actual consumption.

In my mind, the emergence of these podcasts about podcasts could well be thought of as an echo to what happened with the rise of aggregation among the blogosphere back in the mid-2000s. Wiser folks than I have already written about the structural and developmental similarities between blogs and podcasting, but I’d like to go further here and draw a straight line between these podcasts about podcasts and blog aggregators. The latter plays the very same role as the former: to streamline the reader’s experience of the rest of the Internet’s “Wild West” within the same medium. And though the value-add for the aggregated is the potential of a clickthrough, a retention, and a conversion, there’s an opportunity for the aggregator to leverage any attention gained for its curatorial prowess to further establish power and authority in the space.

But before any of these podcasts about podcasts can become authorities, they must first figure out how to differentiate themselves from each other. The three shows actually do a pretty good job of being compositionally different from one another — Playlist opts to play a bunch of segments straight with bits of set-up here and there, Sampler is much swifter with its clips, and The Big Listen, at least with the one episode that’s out so far, seems to really favor interviews with creators — but all three shows sound strikingly similar. This might be a function, perhaps, of CBC’s and WAMU’s public radio stature, and of Gimlet’s overall public radio roots, even though Sampler host Brittany Luse herself is not of the public radio world. (Luce comes to Gimlet from the very good For Colored Nerds podcast, which sounds nothing like her work on Sampler — which may itself be an expression of the issue at hand.) And all three shows also seem to use the same type of narrative tools (creator interviews, play and response, etc.) within the episode-level to perform the same duties and that, in turn, leads to a relative homogeneity in sound.

Which raises the question: What tools do these podcasts have to differentiate themselves? Seems obvious to say, but aside from basic standards of audio quality (and sometimes, not even that), the differentiation ultimately comes down to a mix between the strength of the curator’s personality — podcasts and radio shows are principally personality-driven, after all — and, well, the curator’s taste, which itself is a function of her or his personality. Which is all to say this: These podcasts should really lean harder into the specificities of its hosts.

Will big money squeeze out independent podcasting? Here’s a quote that’s pertinent to the independent podcasters out in the audience:

I worry about big money pouring into podcasting. Not so much for ourselves — I think we’ve carved out our little space and we’ll be okay. But I worry about people being able to do what we did. “I have a weird idea and I have a $60 USB microphone, and I’m going to just make this thing and maybe someone will listen to it.” I think that is what appealed to me about podcasting from the very start, and I really, really hope that all the money pouring into podcasting won’t bury tiny, weird independent podcasts like that.

That nugget comes from Welcome to Night Vale’s Joseph Fink, who was being interviewed along with cocreator Jeffrey Cranor, on-stage in D.C. last November. The interview recording was published last week as part of the Pop Culture Happy Hour (that’s two mentions in one newsletter, oy!) Blizzard Special, and you should definitely check out the whole conversation.

For context, Fink was expressing concern of how money flowing into the podcasting space may well suppress opportunities for the new, the small, the different, and the weird. First acknowledging that the podcasting space is generally a lot more exciting now than it was five years ago, Fink then highlighted the entry of bigger players with bigger wallets into the podcasting space, like Bill Simmons setting up his own podcast network, GE funding a big weird fiction project in The Message, and WNYC rolling $15 million into a podcast studio.

Again, I highly recommend you check out the whole interview — which touches upon Night Vale’s business model, the team’s favorite podcasts, and more — but for reference, this segment begins at the 31:56 mark.

NPR signs with Triton Digital’s Tap Podcast platform For advertising. More CMS news!

NPR, everybody’s favorite public radio mothership, announced yesterday that it has signed a deal with Triton Digital’s audio advertising platform for podcast monetization and distribution purposes, according to MediaPost. That’s a big get for Triton, who initially announced the launch of platform early last month, so you could probably imagine that this deal has been on the stove for a while.

Okay, real talk for a sec: The past few weeks have seen an uptick of podcast-CMS-related developments from several key players — Acast, Panoply (my former day job employer), Art19, now Triton Digital — many of which are relatively new. What we’re seeing now is some sort of land grab, with each of these players hitting the market in a rush to sign as many podcasts that are still being hosted on LibSyn or SoundCloud — which those podcasts probably chose because, well, those two were probably perceived to be the only options. (And SoundCloud is basically free, so that’s a big plus for them.) At some point, I’ll make a living comparative spreadsheet of who powers who, because most (though not all) of that information is made publicly available by these companies and because that’ll probably make a useful consumer guide for somebody.

Anyway, if you’re one of these podcasts that’s still figuring out your CMS situation, I gotta say: it’s a great and speculative time! Remember to ask questions, shop around, and consult your loved ones.

Nerdist Sports. Jonah Keri, the former ESPN/Grantland sports writer and podcaster, has found a new home for his podcast in Chris Hardwick’s Nerdist Industries, which also happens to be the home of some really amazing podcasts like James Bonding and The Thrilling Adventure Hour. It might not sound like the most obvious of hits, but that’s because Keri’s podcast will serve the flagship show of what will eventually become the network’s new sports vertical — a subject matter that the network has previously never ventured into. According to Keri’s preamble on the first episode of the relaunched show (which features an interview with the notoriously giggly Hardwick himself), he’s going to be fairly involved with whatever comes out of this new vertical — on Twitter, he described his plans as “copious” — even though he’s unsure of the exact details at this point in time.

In related news, Variety reports that Nerdist Industries is greatly expanding its network, and now boasts a total of nearly 50 podcasts. And that’s not even taking its video offerings into consideration. Yikes!

Relevant bits this week:

Phew. That was exhausting!

Is this your first time reading Hot Pod? You can subscribe to the newsletter here, which now features exclusive content! More pod news items! Also, stuff about what I had for lunch. Whatever, that’s the newsletter strategy I’m rolling with.

Hot Pod is Nicholas Quah’s weekly newsletter on the state of the podcast world; it appears on Nieman Lab on Tuesdays.

POSTED     Feb. 2, 2016, 9 a.m.
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