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April 19, 2016, 9:15 a.m.
Mobile & Apps

Hot Pod: Is $12-a-day a fair wage for New York’s many radio interns?

Plus: USA Today’s podcast download numbers, Google Play Music finally buys into podcasts, and whether independent podcasts don’t get enough attention.

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue sixty-nine, published April 19, 2016.

A living wage. Last week, a petition cycled around the Facebook feeds of public radio types asking New York Public Radio — the entity that runs WNYC, classical music station WQXR, and the events-oriented Greene Space — to pay its interns a living wage. The station currently pays interns a stipend of $12 a day, with the expectation of 2-5 days of work during the week. The petition hinges its argument on the station’s 2015 Diversity Statement, highlighting a contradiction: It’s harder to increase opportunities for training, education, and possible employment by communities that are traditionally underrepresented due to lack of means when compensation is that low in one of the most expensive cities in the world.

[Looks out apartment window, weeps softly.]

The petition was spearheaded by one Mickey Capper, a freelance radio producer based in D.C. Capper was most recently a production assistant on the Invisibilia team at NPR. He also cohosts the Tape podcast and is responsible for the Sidewalks audio experiment.

“I count a number of WNYC staffers as some of the most inspiring people I’ve met and worked with in radio. I know these are people who can teach interns a lot,” Capper said in a statement. “I hope New York Public Radio can pay their interns a living wage to make that valuable entry-level experience accessible to a wider range of people.”

NYPR has responded to the petition, with a spokesperson writing to Current: “We are currently engaged in a process of assessing how a paid internship might be structured and funded. NYPR is also fully invested in diversifying its workforce, and is in the process of creating a three-year Diversity and Inclusion strategic plan, of which paid internships would be one element.”

An internal email sent out by the organization’s HR department maintains that the issue is top of mind for the senior team as part of 2017 budget process, acknowledging that the challenge now is to locate the necessary funds to pay those wages.

Capper is due to present the petition at the next NYPR board of directors meeting, which will take place tomorrow. At this writing, the petition has gathered over 450 signatures.

Two things before moving on:

  • Full disclaimer: I signed the petition, and I’m unambiguously in support of raising the rate of compensation, for whatever that’s worth. Given WNYC’s outsized influence over labor opportunities for younger people in the radio space, the fact that I’ve consistently been told by former staffers that the station “practically runs on interns,” and that the newer podcast companies are still quite a bit away from being able to provide internships and learning opportunities at scale, this wage level feels incredibly absurd.
  • I had originally intended to spend some time this week writing about the current state of employment opportunities in the podcasting space. This took precedence.

Download literacy. Let’s talk download numbers — which is to say, let’s bash our heads against a wall! USA Today’s podcast network reportedly drummed up about 52.3 million “downloads or streams” in 2015, according to Digiday. As the lore goes, the network was only started 18 months ago, and today it boasts a whopping 22 shows on its roster. Some shows are super short daily digests, like 5 Things and Capital Download; some shows are more traditionally structured topical fare like Dad Rock (which I really like, by the way) and Tech Roundtable. The Digiday article goes on to say that the network’s podcasts average about 7 million listens per month, and that it’s on track to net about 84 million by the end of the year.

That’s a sizable number dump, and I think it’s important to go through the motions and state that those numbers mean very little by themselves. Given what we know about the industry’s problem with measurements (it’s all over the place), reporting across different platforms and recording methodologies (a “listen” on different platform means very different things), and metric standardization (there’s little to none/it’s complicated), it’s hard to tell whether:

  • All of USA Today’s reported downloads mean the same thing with respect to each other, or
  • Those reported downloads mean the same thing compared to the reporting provided by other podcasts, or
  • How the network distinguishes between downloads, listens, streams, or whatever.

But boy, 84 million listens by the end of the year sure does sound like a whopper, doesn’t it?

Now, I’m not writing this story to merely complain and wiggle my arms — although I am complaining — but to identify and articulate the three red flags that stood out to me here. Maybe you’ll find them useful in your reading of the data, or maybe I’m just being grumpy. Whatever, I think download literacy is important.

  • USA Today’s network reportedly averages about 7 million listens (however defined) per month. Let’s think that through. The network is 22 podcasts strong, so if we break it down to how many “listens” an individual USA Today pod nets on a weekly basis, we’re talking about an average of about 79,500 listens per show per week. In contrast, the most recent episode of Earwolf’s new podcast Beautiful/Anonymous (which is absolutely fabulous, by the way) bagged 128,000 downloads within its first week — and that’s after an all-powerful bump from This American Life. Beyond that recent episode, the show appears to average around 95,000 downloads per episode within its first four weeks. That the average download volumes between the USA Today shows and Beautiful/Anonymous are within the same general area seems…oh I don’t know, it seems a little off to me. That’s not to say that it’s impossible — who knows, maybe there’s a monster hit show in there that carries the whole network on its back — it’s just really hard to tell what I’m looking at.
  • The Digiday article cited that the strength of the download numbers comes in spite of the fact that none of those podcasts has ever broken into the iTunes charts. Now, I’m the last person that would ever argue for the charts being any adequate indicator of download volume (see here, here, and here), and it might well be the case that USA Today’s podcasts were able to significant listenership outside iTunes and the podcasting app. But it’s a little hard to believe that when you square the network’s reported 7 million monthly listens against the fact that Apple platforms drive the majority of podcast listenership.
  • The purpose of focusing so much on download volume — aside from estimating the reach of your reporting/editorial so you may prognosticate about the impact your journalism/content is making — is, from a business perspective, to signal the advertiser-worthiness of a show or a network. So there’s something that should be said about the fact that only two of USA Today’s podcasts have featured sponsors. The podcast advertising market might still be relatively immature, but between the (now comically) routine patronage performed by Audible, Mailchimp, and Squarespace, good voluminous podcast inventory simply doesn’t just go unfilled.

What, exactly, is going on here? I think what we’re seeing is USA Today possibly interpreting downloads in a way that’s significantly more liberal than other podcasters and podcast networks. Which isn’t to say that there is any intent to mislead — I’m not in any position to accuse anybody of ad fraud or inflated numbers at this point in time. Rather, it just may well be the case that this is a situation of misinterpretation. Or maybe, indeed, the team over at USA Today has figured out some novel way of obtaining audiences, perhaps through another platform that portends a different kind of listening relationship. The fact of the matter is: We don’t know, and we’re presented with downloads that look the same as any other kind of download.

In any case, I’m just pushing for more clarity and specificity to what we talk about when we talk about podcast listenership data; to clearly articulate the value provided, to embrace whatever nuance may exist. We’re about a year and a half into this podcast-renaissance racket, but even with all this talk, a download still doesn’t necessarily mean a download, and an impression still doesn’t necessarily mean an impression.

(By the way, did you hear? There are no gods in digital media.)

Remember, folks: Ask more of your data, your platforms, your reporting, and your networks.

Anyway, I’ve sent USA Today a request asking whether we could go through those download numbers through their submission form, but at this writing, they haven’t gotten back to me yet.

Google Play Music finally launches its podcast feature. Five months after first announcing that it would be frolicking with the pods — and a solid month after a Bill Simmons-induced false alarm — Google Play Music now serves listeners podcasts on top of its core music offering, echoing a similar rollout that took place over at Spotify back in January. The feature, which went live yesterday, aims to “connect you with podcasts based on what you’re doing, how you’re feeling and what you’re interested in,” according to a post on the official Android blog.

That description of intent matches what Elias Roman, a product manager on the Google Play team, told me when we spoke back in November. Roman, who previously ran the music concierge app Songza before it was acquired by Google in the summer of 2014, explained Google Play Music’s approach as being built on the notion of introducing podcasts to non-podcast listeners who aren’t already looking for them. “I love the concierge format,” he told me. “It’s something that anticipates what you need and then serves it to you. Interviews and podcasts are a big leap into that direction.”

Is this an inflection point for podcasts? A premature question, truly. (Why did I even ask it?) I’ll be keeping my eye on this, which reminds me: Perhaps it’s about time I check in with how Spotify is doing.

“We are a huge part of the story”: Q&A with Night Vale’s Joseph Fink on independent podcasts. Here in Hot Pod, I pay a disproportionate amount of attention on the bigger institutions — the public radio stations, the Gimlets, the Midrolls — and I do that, I’d argue, for a fairly simple reason: The narrative hook I often seek when sourcing out stories is the measure in which a given entity or development may potentially influence the configuration of the larger podcast ecosystem. And more often than not, companies that command more money and labor and scale tend to fit that bill.

(I also have some quirks that dictate my coverage: I’m particularly emotionally invested in journalistically oriented media companies, for example. Also: The Ringer.)

But I am cognizant that there are tremendous limits to this approach, for placing too much attention on the bigger institutions runs the risk of unconsciously internalizing them — and, by extension, representing them — as proxies for that larger ecosystem, when in fact that’s not always the case. And for podcasting, this is particularly not the case, given the combination of the relative immaturity of the space and the formally organized companies within it.

Furthermore, as Welcome To Night Vale co-creator Joseph Fink argues, independent podcasts (which is to say, podcasts produced outside the bigger companies) wield considerable influence over the aesthetics, current and future, of the medium.

Over email, Fink was kind enough to clue me in on his thinking about the state of indie pods.

Quah: So, I’m definitely guilty of spending a disproportionate amount of ink covering the bigger podcasting companies. Can you tell me how this affects the way we think about podcasts?

Fink: I think one of the defining features of podcasting as a medium currently is that it is still a remarkably open medium. The cost barrier to entry for decent sounding production is low and for the most part distribution is free and equal (more on that in a moment) to everyone. With Night Vale, we started out with a $65 USB mic and free audio editing software, and we were immediately playing in the same space and being distributed on the same channels as This American Life and the Adam Carolla Show. This makes podcasting remarkable in that it is possible to just have a really good idea and have that sometimes be enough. Obviously, there’s a lot of luck involved, but it still is a lot more open than any other form of media I can think of.

There is also the fact that podcasting is young enough that it is still possible to do something new with the format. It’s hard to find something to do with, say, a novel, that someone hasn’t done something at least pretty similar to. But with podcasting, it’s still possible to put out a show that is totally different than any other show out there. That’s a really exciting and rare position to be in as an artist.

But having the coverage focus in on big companies and especially existing large radio organizations, you are only looking at the podcasts that still work exactly like radio, and that almost entirely sound like radio. Which is to say, I think, that you are ignoring everything that makes podcasting interesting and different.

Quah: What are the major challenges that independent podcasts face?

Fink: While distribution is equal, obviously promotion and attention aren’t. Those of us making independent podcasts aren’t going to have our first episode placed as a segment of This American Life. We don’t have the name recognition where we can just name our show The [name of host] Show and make the icon a picture of our face.

We rely much more on the luck of word of mouth. The only thing you can do as an independent podcaster is consistently put out episodes you’re proud of, and hope that other people start enjoying them too.

We also have way less sway on the business side of things obviously. We don’t set CPM rates; we can’t bring new brands into the advertising side of things. We have to let the bigger players do that and then play by the rules they’re setting.

There is also just the frustration of trying to be part of the conversation. It’s easier to not cover independent podcasts, because we’re diverse and messy and there’s a lot of us, and NPR is happy to send you a press release. And so a lot of media just doesn’t talk about us. But we are a huge part of this story too.

Recently Alex Goldman of Reply All talked on twitter about how he sees what he does as “radio” because he thinks there’s no difference between podcasting and radio, and he hates the term “podcasting” anyway. I would say that’s (a) the point of view of someone who’s never stepped outside of the radio ecosystem and (b) someone who is failing to understand and respect the medium he’s working in. Podcasting is not radio, and the difference between the two lies with the indie podcasters and what we’re doing.

Quah: Tell me about the strengths of indies.

Fink: While we don’t have much say in the direction of how advertising will be sold and formatted, and we aren’t invited to the panel discussions about the future of the industry where people who have worked in radio their whole lives talk about what podcasting is, I think that on an artistic level, big podcast companies are more often chasing independents than the other way around.

Independent podcasting is more willing to try something completely new, and if it takes off, then the bigger companies swerve to try to catch up to that.

Which is to say that big media organization act a lot out of risk management. Independent podcasters have nothing to lose, so we’re willing to try anything.

I think along with pushing the big organizations forward artistically, we also show them there is business in places they wouldn’t necessarily have been willing to look on their own. I think it’s very likely that the huge success of The Read showed bigger podcast organizations that there was a huge market for podcasts in which black hosts talked about black issues in a funny, conversational way. I don’t know if BuzzFeed would have been willing to produce Another Round, or WNYC would have been willing to produce 2 Dope Queens without The Read having happened.

I don’t necessarily agree with all the points that Fink makes here — I believe our biggest disagreement would be over the magnitude of influence — but I think his overarching point is absolutely right: Independent podcasts do play a significant role in the aesthetic innovation we see in the space, and a lack of representation would be a disservice. And while the big institutions will never stop making up a considerable portion of what Hot Pod covers, I’ll be hustling to close the gap in my own coverage.


Is this your first time reading Hot Pod? You can subscribe to the newsletter here. The original version has more news, analysis, material. And there’s more news briefs for paid members! Also, winter is coming.

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

POSTED     April 19, 2016, 9:15 a.m.
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