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Feb. 16, 2016, 9:30 a.m.

Hot Pod: This American Life is plotting new shows to join Serial

Plus: Google plans its podcast play, Anchor joins the social-audio game, and SoundCloud’s financial numbers raise questions about viability (or acquisition).

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is Issue Sixty, published February 16, 2016.

We’re going heavy with technology this week, guys.

Why did Google Play partner with AudioBoom? RAIN News ran a piece last week citing that AudioBoom, the U.K.-based talk audio platform, will apparently be “one of the content providers for Google Play’s upcoming podcast section.” By the way, AudioBoom, once a consumer-facing player reminiscent of Stitcher, now bills itself as a “business-to-business” platform, placing it closer to a Panoply-like podcast network. It currently hosts and helps produce shows like the Adnan Syed podcast Undisclosed and is the distribution partner for radio syndication company Westwood One.

The partnership struck me as a little confusing, given what little we know so far about Google Play Music’s upcoming podcast support. When Google first announced the feature, the app appeared to openly accept podcast feeds from just about anybody for inclusion into its directory.

Curious, I sent a note to the company and was shortly connected to Stuart Last, the company’s general manager of the Americas. (What a title!)

“Google want to help their users find new exciting podcasts in a more simple, more thought-out way. To help them do that they are building strong relationships with partners like AudioBoom,” Last wrote back in an email. “My content team will be working with them closely to highlight great content across all verticals and categories. For AudioBoom’s content partners, this is a great win, as they are using a platform which has a direct relationship with the Google editorial and curation team.”

Which seems to suggest that either not enough podcasters have been submitting their feeds, or Google has been receiving feeds that they’re not that happy with.

Last’s quote illustrates something else I’ve been hearing about lately: Google Play working directly with entities in the podcast ecosystem to flesh out its podcast experience. With a partner like AudioBoom, that collaboration appears to be for the purpose of packing its directory with a critical mass of active content. (After all, scraping iTunes wouldn’t be productive; there are too many dead or inconsistently updated podcasts.) I’ve also heard, from several sources now, that Google Play Music’s podcast experience will include a promotion channel similar to that of iTunes, right down to the relatively manual workflow of communication and delivery of assets required for promotional material.

What we’re seeing here, I think, is another way that podcast networks can strengthen their position as middlemen. In this distribution of power, podcast networks manage relationships with a wide range of podcasts, which allows them to serve as a sorting solution for entrant streaming platforms like Google Play and Spotify hoping to identify batches of content that would draw out activity from a meaningful numbers of users. Meanwhile, these streaming platforms own sizable, possibly untapped pools of audiences, which are desired by podcast networks for their ad $$$-generating capabilities (schwing!). At this point, both sides are dependent on each other for access to and efficient management of what they don’t have, and a partnership at such this level would be mutually beneficial.

But keep in mind that this arrangement can only be balanced for so long, as it’s in the long-term interest for either side to gain further control in the other direction. Networks would need to work on plans to better own the audiences found on Google Play and Spotify (that is, to break their dependence), while these streaming services, if they’re interested and have the capacity to do so, would want to consider owning the relationships with the content creators. (Also remember: They already have advertising relationships of their own.)

Also note how all this leaves out the plight of the independent podcaster who chooses not to align with a network. They would have to labor to strike up a relationship with platforms like Google Play and Spotify on their own if they wanted access to those audience pools — but they would also have to somehow give these platforms adequate reason to pay attention to them. Which, you know, suggests a couple of things about the future of the medium’s much-lauded accessibility.

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Tag-team. This past weekend, The New York Times collaborated with the crack team over at This American Life on an enterprise story about the shooting of a Texas college student at a hospital where he sought treatment for a psychotic episode. I wrote about it at Nieman Lab, but I wanted to flesh two things out here:

  • This is a fine example of how a newspaper can effectively make use of audio — the format, its unique characteristics, and most importantly, its expert practitioners — without having to fully commit to building out a straight-up podcast strategy. The one-off collaboration helps further the depth, reach, and impact of that particular piece of reporting; in This American Life, the paper had access to a whole other audience pool, a whole new set of eyes and ears, and a whole other dimension to the story.
  • This American Life is, indeed, working on “some new shows.” I’ve been hearing rumors for months — months! — now about this, with whispers ranging from an audio drama podcast to another TAL-style show with a new host. But whispers are whispers, and I’m just excited that the team’s reincorporation as a public benefit corporation is leading to, well, more stuff. As a sidenote, my guess is that those new shows will probably be hosted on PRX’s semi-secret Dovetail platform, which currently powers Serial, that one TAL spin-off I hear is pretty famous.

Anchor. I’ve promised myself to abstain from covering social audio apps for the time being, because honestly I think I’ve said everything I can about this topic at this point in time. And besides, podcast companies and digital audio-producing radio stations should really just be concentrating on more important things, like standardizing metrics, developing better shows, and firming up their relationships with the advertising community.

But Anchor, a Betaworks-incubated social audio app that launched last week, stood out for me for two reasons: firstly, because it rolled out with WNYC as some sort of launch partner, and secondly, because a bunch of folks wrote me asking for an opinion, which probably says a lot about my corner of the Internet than anything else.

So here my opinion: It’s way too early to say anything! Being a social network, Anchor is only going to be as interesting or useful or important as the user base it cultivates, and it’s only like, what, Week 2? But while we’re here, these are the two things you should be thinking about: How does the app derive value, and how does it provide value?

Being a social network, not only does the app now need to cultivate a critical mass of active users — either by direct customer acquisition or by seamlessly integrating with an existing social platform — it also needs to give users a good enough reason to stay. And because the Anchor experience is essentially premised on user-generated content (and content that’s recorded on the spot, at that), this means the app would require that its users to be, well, as interesting or useful as possible so that it can attract more users.

Of course, that’s an insanely difficult proposition, because here’s the thing: Not everybody is great on tape! And if the idea is that, at some point, Anchor users will become better at producing audio for Anchor, then the game is to keep folks using the app until a critical mass of users can develop a language, a set of customs, and a sense of value gained within the app.

Which brings us to a classic chicken-egg problem. Fundamentally, the app needs to figure out how to make sure the content generated on its platform is compelling enough to draw in new users, but it can’t begin doing that unless it already has enough users to both creatively experiment and provide user-driven validation/refutations of those experiments. An inorganic power move, which is the one employed by Anchor with the recruitment of WNYC as a launch partner here, is to bring in partners presumed to be better than the average user at generating compelling stuff. But said partners would need a reason to keep expending effort and resources into producing more content; that reason would be an audience, which is the very thing that the app recruited said partner to help generate.

And on and on we go, spiraling into endless loop of what, wait, who’s there?

I might sound down on the app, but really I’m not! I think it’s thoroughly interesting, I’m fascinated by the prospect of talking back, and I’ll probably use it a couple of times to perfect my yodeling. I’m just saying: If we’re going to seriously consider it as something worth paying attention to — something that’s going to really take audio off the chain — the app’s got to figure out the dynamics of how to rope me in for good.

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What’s going on with SoundCloud? The Berlin-based audio social network — and playground for independent musical transgressions like Breakmaster Cylinder and the fleeting miracle that was Death Cab for Yeezy — provoked some gloom last week after it published financial reports that painted a seemingly unsettling picture. In short, the reports show a company that’s spending a heck of a lot more than it’s bringing in; according to Billboard, SoundCloud spent $63.8 million to generate $19.7 million in 2014, and the company expects to continue losing money over the next three years as it invests more into its operation. This state of affairs brought about end-times language, most notably by FACT Magazine, which published an article last week with the headline “SoundCloud could be forced to close after $44m losses.”

This development sparked a flurry of activity in my feeds and private podcast-related Slacks, which is a small way of showing how SoundCloud matters, interestingly enough, to the podcast community. Over the years, the platform has unexpectedly become the go-to option for producers in need of an embeddable player and a free-to-cheap hosting option.

Over at the New York Radio listserv, Jim Colgan, who served as SoundCloud’s head of audio for almost three years, argued that these headlines were “overstating things.” He asserted:

No well-funded startup is making a profit, and if they’re not spending their money, there’s something wrong. The “revelation” is a quirk of UK financing rules that make private companies disclose their accounting. So I really wouldn’t worry about SoundCloud “going away” any time soon. They just signed a deal with UMG, which removed the real thing threatening them — that they’d be sued out of existence (that’s 2 out of the 3 big major music labels).

That other major label is Warner Music, which signed a deal with SoundCloud in November 2014. The remaining holdout is Sony Music, which also happens to be the world’s largest music publisher. These label deals are essential to the company’s survival and future, as they allow SoundCloud to do a few basic things — including simply generating revenue and building new products like its recent Charts feature — without fear of being sued into oblivion.

According to a source knowledgeable in these matters, these deals make the company a much better target for acquisition, which is a more likely outcome given what’s described as a “tepid IPO market.” A parallel can be drawn with YouTube’s 2006 acquisition by Google, which is said to have come about shortly after similar deals were made with these labels.

So, that’s the probable play for SoundCloud. However, even if SoundCloud does sort its legal house out and end up a juicy acquisition, it remains an open question whether podcasts and non-music audio will have anything to do with the company’s future. Manolo Espinosa, a vice president described as having been involved with the spoken-audio side of operations, is no longer part of the company, having moved on at the beginning of 2016 to advisory roles at a number of other startups. Add to that Colgan’s own departure last year (he’s now the executive producer at Rooftop Media, also known as Audible West), along with the fact that much of the company’s strategy, in the future as it was in past, is (understandably) music-oriented, and you get a vision of the future that leaves little room for anything other than music.

Given this, though the writing may not necessarily be on the wall for SoundCloud, it still probably behooves SoundCloud-using podcasters to start backing up their assets and looking for a home elsewhere. As Klint Finley argues in Wired, “as music has become more durable, it has — paradoxically — also become more ephemeral,” and whether SoundCloud goes under or gets acquired, you can’t be sure that those audio files will be adequately preserved over the long run — and that’s especially true if your file type is an afterthought in relation to the company’s core business.

Relevant bits:

  • The WFMT Radio Network in Chicago is building the Studs Terkel Radio Archive with a vision that podcasters can mine the archive as a giant source of voices and sounds for future reuse. And they need your help! (Kickstarter)
  • Clammr is working with Entrepreneur magazine to pilot something called a Native Audience Growth service. More information when I get it at a later date.
  • Stitcher, the Deezer-owned podcasting app that a relatively small but vocal set of listeners absolutely love, was down this past weekend. The platform’s downtime was apparently due to “maintenance,” and on early Monday morning, the company posted some follow-up notes on its Facebook page. (Facebook)
  • NPR’s board of directors is considering a change to the formula that determines certain public radio station fees. Which, you know, has implications for NPR’s incentives and relative power. (Current)
  • “Seeking to cut costs, the BBC will reportedly merge its radio and TV divisions.” (Poynter)
  • Here’s a case study sketching out how KUOW, the NPR member station in Seattle, adapted Esquire’s podcast for broadcast. That episode, by the way, is fab. (PRX Blog)
  • A quick follow-up from the MailChimp product placement piece not too long ago: “Podcast network Midroll and MailChimp try out product placement.” (Ad Age)

Is this your first time reading Hot Pod? You can subscribe to the newsletter here, which now features exclusive content! More podcast 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. 16, 2016, 9:30 a.m.
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