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Aug. 15, 2017, 10:38 a.m.
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New York City makes the claim that it’s the podcast capital of the world (but is that a good thing?)

Plus: Another daily news podcast — this time from Vox and Midroll, Radiolab controversy, and are there too many celebrity podcasts?

Editor’s note: Hot Pod is a weekly newsletter on the podcasting industry written by Nick Quah; we happily share it with Nieman Lab readers each Tuesday.

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 132, published August 15, 2017.

Another daily news podcast TK. Got this email yesterday:

Vox Media and Midroll just inked a deal to launch a daily news podcast under the news brand Vox banner. The show will have a full time staff of 6 working inside the Vox newsroom. Midroll is providing creative consultation and is the exclusive advertising partner for the show. The two companies have launched an ambitious talent search to find the right up-and-coming audio talent to host and EP the show, which is targeted to launch in early 2018.

The show, whatever it will be named, will join The New York Times’ The Daily, NPR’s Up First, and The Outline’s World Dispatch as high-profile entries in the podcast-first daily news genre.

Podcast Central. Yesterday, the New York City Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment (MOME) published a fairly celebratory report on the city’s vibrant podcast scene, one that declares its centrality to the nascent but buzzy industry. “New York City, The Podcast Capital,” goes the report’s title, which has the further entertaining effect of rebuffing potential claims made by other cities — most notably Los Angeles — to the throne.

In developing and publishing this report, MOME effectively serves as a official source of validation for an industry that’s hungry for some and often takes what it can get. This is, above all, a great piece of PR for the community.

As a historical document and an industry primer for the unfamiliar, however, the report is an interesting document to consider. Much of the information contained within shouldn’t be a surprise to longtime operators in the space (or, alternatively, long-time readers of this newsletter), but it contains just enough quirks warranting critical appraisal to suggest keeping the report at a remove.

For example, the report makes the decision to illustrate the industry’s growth primarily through the growth of its advertising revenue, and it does so by drawing exclusively from that Bridge Ratings study that’s been floating about for a while now — a report that remains, to this day, somewhat controversial among many in the industry based on several sources who I’ve spoken with in the past, and whose specific methodology remains opaque to all. The report does not include the recently published PwC study, which was conducted with the explicit participation of what can be considered a critical mass of major podcast publishers, and which serves as a more substantive benchmark of the industry’s current strength and projections. Of course, that shouldn’t invalidate the report’s overall value. This is all just to say that, as with anything, the specifics of this laudatory document should be taken with more than a few grains of salt.

But credit should be given where credit’s due, and it should be noted that the report has some novel contributions. The most important of these, in my opinion, can be found in its findings on the industry’s employment numbers in the city:

Employment at the top New York City podcast networks has increased over the past several years, to about 600 people engaged in podcast creation, distribution, and management as of February 2017 from over 450 people in 2014-2015. That number is expected to grow further, say the podcast networks, perhaps by as much as 50 percent by the end of 2017.

That 600-plus number comes directly from data provided to the Mayor’s Office by the podcast companies discussed in the report. This means that the data point is both the most well-sourced number I’ve seen on the matter and one that’s probably undercounting, as even a cursory glance at the list of companies researched for this report reveals a rather limited cohort.

Anyway, despite that quirk, this employment number business is perhaps the strongest claim in the report’s bid to portray New York City as the podcast capital of the country, as it conjures an industry narrative of being a force for employment and the local economy. Indeed, you can cut the short history of podcasting in more than few frameworks: as a story of a new but familiar democratizing publishing technology, as a story of a new uncertain creative industry finding its feet, as a story of classic technological disruption carried out in slow motion, as a story of a new frontier for advertising, as a story of conflict between different communities motivated by different things. But framing it as a story of an industry, accidentally conceived, that’s now a meaningful source of employment and wages for a species of creative worker that previously had fewer opportunities is a powerful one that should center our attention on where the real value of this industry lies.

But let’s not paint too rosy a picture here. That New York City has emerged as an exceptionally strong power center for the industry (as capital or otherwise) isn’t particularly surprising given its incumbent strengths. This is, after all, the city where the more mature and storied industries of media and advertising are already clustered, and it’s generally the case that new companies — and nascent industries — structurally benefit more from being in close proximity of established power clusters with which they can develop instantly lucrative relationships than from being in places where no such appropriate clusters exist. (See: companies like Pineapple Street and Transmitter cashing in big accounts off the bat.) Which is to say, of course New York would be a power center for this emerging creative industry; it would be strange if the case was otherwise.

The question, of course, is whether New York City being the podcast capital is a productive thing. On that matter, I’ll say this: I’ve never been able to get this seminal argument by Nieman Lab’s Joshua Benton on the cost of a geographically concentrating media industry out of my head — how physical context and concentration impacts an industry’s fundamental nature, and how those impacts may foster deficiencies that yield negative consequences. In that piece, Benton specifically trains his focus on the news business, but I think it’s perfectly applicable to every other part of the media as well, given the ecosystem’s fundamental trade in the projection of ideas, identity, and information.

Benton writes:

So if the news business is becoming even more centered in New York, what sort of impacts would that have on our news?

For one thing, you’d expect it to make the media more liberal — culturally and politically. Journalists don’t like it when conservatives point out that they, as a group, lean farther left than the country as a whole. But you don’t need to be a conspiracy theorist to believe it: College-educated liberal arts grads who live in cities — a group most American journalists fit into — are more liberal as a group than the American median. And those who live in New York or San Francisco are going to be more liberal as a group than those in Cincinnati or Knoxville.

You can argue about whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing. But one element of Donald Trump’s rise is a backlash against the sort of cultural cosmopolitanism that lots of people who’ve never taken the Acela feel is on the rise. When trust in the media is at an all-time low, this shift could make it harder to bridge those divides.

There are also negative implications for the podcast worker. I’ll turn what I just positively said about the industry as a force of employment slightly askew: New York City, among other things, is a punishingly expensive place to live and work and exist, even if you’re the beneficiary of various degrees of privilege, and the further concentration of the industry in New York will only continue to ensure that only certain kinds of people get to join the industry. That, of course, is counterproductive for reasons social, political, and economic; it imposes a hard limit on the actual contributions of the podcast community as an industry.

Or, oh I don’t know, maybe podcasting will turn out to be largely a city-specific industry, the way the movie business is generally clustered in Los Angeles, or the way high technology is clustered in Silicon Valley. (Both of which have cultivated conditions that are to the cultural detriment, by the way.) Maybe that’s just the way things work. In any case, it’s something to consider, and let’s now also pay some lip service to the other podcast nodes in the country: Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago, Atlanta, the Bay Area. Did I miss any? Am I reading this the wrong way? Hit me up.

Again, you can find the MOME report here.

On compensation. Not unrelated to this question about podcast centers is the question of wages and compensation. Alex Laughlin, an audio fellow at BuzzFeed, has been putting together a side project in the form of a salary study meant to inject some initial industry compensation data into the public sphere where there previously were very little. Last Monday saw that study culminate with Laughlin publishing a Medium post on the matter titled “How much are audio producers making?

It should be noted that the study isn’t all that robust — the sample size is exceedingly small and too demographically limited to be in any way comfortably representative — and for some, there are enough flaws in the methodology (question framing, job position conflations, etc.) might be too much, but I think the meta-conversation around the study is nonetheless interesting. You can go over the findings and qualifications yourself in the post, but in case a click is too much of a commitment, I spoke to Laughlin to get at the bigger ideas.

Hot Pod: What do you think was the most important thing you took away from the study?

Alex Laughlin: One of the biggest takeaways from my survey was how much more podcast companies like Gimlet and Panoply are paying producers than public media is. [The study found that] the average podcast company salary was $78,519, while the average public media salary was $56,931.

HP: Talk to me about the significance of the sample size.

Laughlin: The sample size was very small, very white, and very female. I think this is partially indicative of the industry, but there was also an element of confirmation bias in terms of who decided to even submit. So I say it in the blog post, but this analysis shouldn’t be used to diagnose or dismiss any gender or racial wage gap in the industry. All of the numbers should be taken with a big ole grain of salt, but I hope that my findings can be useful to people (especially underrepresented minorities) who find themselves in the position where they need to put a number on their skills and experiences.

We didn’t have a wide enough racial diversity in our sample size to responsibly publish an analysis, but I really wish we could have. I would love to see these numbers replicated either by a company or by a larger sample size, and analyzed across race and gender.

HP: Was there anything in the study that especially surprised you?

Laughlin: It’s not so much a surprise as an affirmation: People are really, really hungry for this data. It’s tricky talking about salaries and you have to make sure to do it right. But I hope this is the beginning of more quantitative analysis of the ways we hire, compensate, and promote in this industry. I’ve already heard people talking about replicating the analysis in different countries, as well as production vs. hosts.

You can find Laughlin on Twitter at @alexlaughs, and once again, here’s the Medium post.

I want to personally second Laughlin’s point that folks are really hungry for this data. And, I should add, the lack of such data has material consequences for the space: up until this point, audio producers — both in radio and podcast, I believe — possessed few public resources that could provide them with formal reference points for salary negotiations and context for how much they’re supposed to be making at any given point in their careers. This state of affairs isn’t great for producers (though it is great for employers, but let’s leave that for now), because it hampers their ability to confidently advocate for appropriate compensation and, more precariously, it also likely has the further effect of hurting their ability to conceptualize a long-term career in the industry.

While employers benefit from having such informational leverage over potential employees, you could argue that the bit on not being able to imagine a sustainable career is bad for podcast companies and the broader industry in the long-term, because an environment that de-contextualizes and therefore demoralizes talent is one that cannot retain talent, and your mileage on whether that’s detrimental to the long-term outcome of the podcast ecosystem is probably dependent on whether you believe the industry is sexy enough to continue attracting new people. And I think the jury is still out on whether that will be the case.

Anyway, just a thought.

2 Dope Queens goes to TV. HBO is bringing the Phoebe Robinson and Jessica Williams-fronted comedy podcast to television, marking the latest in a long line of podcast-to-television adaptations. There are two things about this development that strikes me as really interesting, though: first, his is the first show in the WNYC Studios portfolio to receive the television treatment, and second, the podcast is being adapted as a series of hour-long specials. That latter bit is a great thing to observe; adaptations aren’t just about getting the thing to fit television, but to get television to fit the thing as well.

You can find more details about the adaptation in my Vulture writeup.

Vanity projects?  Lauren Ober, who hosts the WAMU meta-podcast The Big Listen, had a skeptical reaction to last week’s news about the upcoming Preet Bharara project by WNYC/Pineapple Street, and she pegs it to a larger trend that she finds concerning. “I feel like podcasting is becoming a vehicle for people w/ name recognition to extend their personal brands w/o adding anything new,” she tweeted me. She later joked on her public feed: “I’m starting a podcast about people starting podcasts to extend their ‘brand.’ It’ll be called Vanity Project. Thus extending my own brand.”

For what it’s worth, I’m somewhat less perturbed by this trend — which I believe to be very real — than Ober, largely accepting this to be the natural consequence of any lucrative market. But Ober’s remarks appears to have resonated with a great deal of people, so I reached out to Ober for further comment, asking what she’d like to see more of instead.

“I’d like to see news organizations invest more heavily in specific investigative projects rather than providing another platform for their stars (from whom we are hearing the same things in podcast form that they’re either saying on TV or writing in print),” she wrote. “However, I understand that providing stars with a podcast platform makes for an easy win for media companies. And thus it seems like a no-brainer, but I’m not entirely certain it’s serving the marketplace.”

Ober is particularly skeptical of the celebrity interview podcast. Her argument is worth quoting in full:

There seems to be an overabundance of them featuring tastemakers like Tavi Gevinson, Janet Mock, Larry Wilmore, Lena Dunham, Amber Rose, Pauly Shore, and any number of YouTube celebrities. At times, it feels like an infinite feedback loop with so much guest overlap in these shows. Also, what differentiates these shows, besides the actual voice of the person behind the mic? I suppose. again. it’s a vehicle to speak to your existing fan base. Your fans are clamoring for a podcast so they can hear more from you. But for me as a general listener, I’d like to hear these celebrities move beyond the standard two-way format and give me something more.

All of that said, the market prevails, I guess. If no one was interested in these name-brand showpieces, then they wouldn’t exist. Someone is listening to them. I have no issue with celeb (I’m using that term v broadly) podcast projects, assuming there’s some creativity, innovation and value-add for the listener.

When asked for examples of such projects that she finds are successful, Ober pointed to WNYC’s A Piece of Work with Broad City’s Abbi Jacobson, LeVar Burton Reads, and Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History. “All these folks have some expertise or interest in an area that gives their shows some specificity instead of just being a general talker,” Ober argued.

In other news: did you hear that Oprah Winfrey has a podcast now? Sort of. The feed drops a selection of her interviews from her show, Super Soul Sunday.

The Radiolab controversy. So, this is a sticky one. Over the weekend, Radiolab, the celebrated WNYC podcast, decided to take down “Truth Trolls,” a story it recently published about 4chan, the deeply controversial online community (hivemind? phenomenon?) and its recent campaign to disrupt actor Shia LaBeouf’s art installation protesting the Trump presidency. The team’s decision came after receiving listener backlash over, among other things, the segment’s framing, which is argued to have lacked broad chunks of meaningful context about the subject, and tone, which could be construed as somewhat… impressed.

When reached for comment, a WNYC spokesperson said:

WNYC Studios supports Radiolab’s decision to remove the “Truth Trolls” episode this past weekend after listeners pointed out that the way the story was told left Radiolab’s position on the ideology and behavior they were covering too open to interpretation. Radiolab unambiguously rejects the beliefs and actions of the trolls, and deeply regrets doing anything that would imply differently.

As you can imagine, this is an incredibly complicated situation with a lot baked into it, including: the proper amount of contextualization required to adequately discuss something like 4chan, the push and pull of listener uproar, the politics of retraction and removal, and so on.

As a matter of editorial judgment, what happened seems pretty straightforward: here we have a situation where the Radiolab team inadvertently took on an endlessly volatile topic — one that defines an increasingly strong facet of this current socio-political moment, i.e. the relationship between certain chaotic corners of the Internet and the modern socio-political environment, which feed off each other in ways that remain under-appreciated even to this day — and utterly misread its baggage, weight, and significance. As a result, they did not show the complex and sensitive subject matter the respect it required, and that ultimately led them to miss what’s fundamentally important about the subject in their search for a fluffier conclusion. (Put it this way: it’s as if they decided to do a segment on gerrymandering and ended up making it about just how clever some politicians can get, while skipping past things like historical context and social consequences and ideology and so on.)

It was an unambiguously explosive mistake for Radiolab to make, but I’m further perturbed by the team’s decision to take down the segment completely as a response to the pushback. In an environment where taking back something is every bit as political — and politically charged — as putting something out in the first place, this may well be a case where Radiolab’s effort to limit its contribution to a damaging situation is one that fuels it even further.

There may be some value to following in the footsteps of This American Life, when that team faced a retraction in 2012 with “Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory,” which turned out to be the work of fabrication. You can still easily find the original radio story online, most prominently in the Internet Archive, and This American Life keeps the original episode’s transcript hosted on its website. There, the move was to re-report and re-contextualize, and to produce an entirely new episode around the correction. That move remains, to my mind, the gold standard to fixing an error in judgment in any form for two reasons: it does not shirk from ownership over the mistake, and it repurposes the breakdown into an even more valuable opportunity to more aggressively contain the damage while delivering a sense of justice where it can. That said, there are some potentially meaningful differences: most notably, where This American Life’s retraction was spurred by errors of fact, Radiolab’s segment removal was spurred by errors of framing. That’s a big difference that might not change very much about the proposed solution, but it’s a difference to consider nonetheless.

It should be noted that some critics have connected this instance of misjudgment to an earlier controversy: the infamous Yellow Rain episode from 2012, where co-host Robert Krulwich was criticized for the way he handled an interview of a Hmong veteran for a story about the possible presence of a chemical weapon during the Vietnam War. (Krulwich eventually apologized through a blog post and in an addendum to the podcast.) Minnesota Public Radio has a good breakdown of the matter, with the key critique being the very same one you could level on the “Truth Trolls” incident: in the episode’s pursuit of a specific thing (in this case, the “truth” of whether a chemical weapon was actually deployed), the show missed a larger and more important emotional reality (the Hmong interviewee’s experience of genocide), and the end result was a story with a chilling, dissonant myopia. The similarity between these two incidents is stark, almost consistent; one wonders if a more fundamental dysfunction lies beneath the surface.

Anyway, if you want to judge the matter for yourself, you’re going to have to do some digging. (Though, like with anything else on the Internet, it shouldn’t be that hard to find.) The segment’s take-down also resulted in the removal of the public comments on the show posting, which I’m told was worth peering through. You can find screenshots of some of those comments in this blog post by the prolific podcaster Dave Chen, and you can get an additional sense of what happened, and the significance of it all, from this thread on the New York Times’ Podcast Club.


  • The highly popular My Favourite Murder has moved to Midroll from Feral Audio. (Twitter) Also, the show is doing two crossover episodes with Anna Faris is Unqualified starting this week, in case that’s interesting to you. #murderinos
  • The Los Angeles Times is partnering up with Wondery in search of its own, uh, “Serial Moment.” (Adweek)
  • DGital Media has released details for its upcoming show with James Andrew Miller, the award-winning journalist who is most recognized for his oral histories of ESPN, Saturday Night Live, and CAA. The podcast, called Origins, will begin its run with an oral history of Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm. It debuts September 6. (Vanity Fair) Cue tuba.
  • Indivisible, the live call-in show produced by WNYC and Minnesota Public Radio, lives on, sort of, with one of the hosts, MPR’s Kerri Miller, leading the upcoming show Flyover, which will serve to continue a lot of the threads developed in its spiritual predecessor. (Current)

Photo of New York City by Mikel used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Aug. 15, 2017, 10:38 a.m.
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