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July 7, 2016, 9 a.m.
Mobile & Apps

Audible’s answer to the podcasting world is officially out of beta, and it’s looking as ambitious as ever

“What will surprise people is how often we’re putting out material at the level we’re doing.”

“In the audio space, it is hard but doable to produce things of high quality. It is hard but doable to produce a lot of things. It is very difficult to produce a lot of high quality things,” Eric Nuzum, Audible’s senior vice president of original content, told me, continuing a line he’s always held since joining the Amazon-owned group last year to oversee original content (audiobooks has been its bread and butter): that Audible’s ambitions for audio stories are huge.

In April, Audible rolled out a new section in its mobile app called Channels, featuring curated collections like “The Daily Rush” or “The Weekender,” shows from many publishers like Marketplace or PBS Newshour, and voice-narrated versions of news stories from places like The Wall Street Journal, Scientific American, or The Washington Post (no preferential billing for the Jeff Bezos-owned Post). It teased listeners with an original show: Presidents Are People, Too, hosted by a former Daily Show head writer and a historian. It introduced timely collections — “British Exit: The Global Impact” — with an editor-curated collection of analysis and opinion pieces from a variety of sources. Channels content came with a full Audible subscription, but there was no opportunity yet to subscribe to just Channels.

audible-channels-presidentsNow, Channels is out of beta. Audible members ($14.95 per month) can still access all the audio content there for free, or interested users can pay $4.95 per month just for Channels access. The official launch comes with a smorgasbord of new curated collections and shows (you can view the whole current list here). Audible is also kicking off several original shows with the launch of Channels in addition to Presidents Are People, including a show on breasts (in science and society), a series hosted by Jon Ronson, and another hosted by writer Ashley C. Ford featuring transgender activist Janet Mock in its first episode. Collaborations with other publishers are also in the works (no details yet).

New shows and collections will be added rapidly throughout the year, informed by user research and the data gleaned from how people spent their time within the Audible app. (Audible declined to share specific data, including subscriber totals. A spokesperson reiterated that Audible has “millions of members.”) For example, since many people are using Channels as a way to “unwind and get some perspective on the world around them,” the team will consider how to put together more pieces geared towards mindfulness and relaxation.

New programming could also be introduced around holidays or important historical anniversaries. This year, for instance, is the 75th anniversary of Pearl Harbor: “We can have a number of projects both in the curated space and then the original content space, marking that very significant milestone.” (Audible is currently hiring for an editorial director for Channels, to oversee that front.)

“The bar is always, let’s do something that would be hard for someone else to pull off. The world has so many podcasts. There’s just no reason for us to be doing something of the same scale and ambition as other people,” Nuzum said. “We’re taking a lot of time and care in the details of things that many podcasts just don’t have the time and resources to do.”

Still, what is the difference between Audible’s original programming and many of the “prestige” shows other outlets were already putting out (say, shows from juggernaut NPR, or prominent new players like Gimlet)?

“I would say that a lot of podcast houses that are producing content come up with two or three big plays a year that are their gems,” Nuzum said. “I have 40 of those that all qualify at that same level of innovation and enterprise. You’re seeing the first half dozen this week. But what will surprise people is how often we’re putting out material at the level we’re doing.” That rate, according to Nuzum, is one every week or two, and “that doesn’t stop.” (Nuzum is also understandably eager to steer away from the term “podcast.”)

About a dozen staffers are working on Channels out of its Newark headquarters. A few other people are based in London, and a few in California. The Audible team also regularly taps a network of 60 to 70 independent producers.

As for the strictly daily news component, the read-aloud headlines from places like USA Today are “doing really well,” and those offerings will grow, according to Nuzum.

“They’re a lot of what’s in Channels right now, and what a lot of people use as part of their daily media habit,” he said. “For the Audible originals, we are not necessarily trying to be a resource in that regard, but many of our projects have elements of journalism. There will be projects coming out in the fall that relate to topics in the news. There are things we are working on which will break news, and which will do pioneering things in journalism.”

POSTED     July 7, 2016, 9 a.m.
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