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Feb. 20, 2018, 10:28 a.m.

Will moving to radio put a strain on what makes The Daily work so well as a podcast?

Plus: The daily news podcast space gets a little more crowded, The Guardian experiments with an augmented player, and Amazon wants to turn your blog into a podcast.

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 152, published February 20, 2018.

Crossing over. In case you missed it: The Daily is heading to public radio, and there’s a lot to talk about. Last Tuesday, The New York Times announced that it’s working with American Public Media to repackage its wildly successful daily news podcast as a thirty-minute broadcast for distribution to public radio stations starting in April. Notably, it’s being positioned for evening time slots, with stations being free to air the weekday radio version of The Daily between 4 p.m. and midnight ET. The evening broadcast orientation contrasts with the original drop time for the podcast, which publishes at the crack of dawn ahead of the American East Coast morning commute. According to Recode, the Times will get a cut of the fees paid by underwriters for the program. Both parties declined to comment further when asked for additional detail on the financial arrangement. (Hey, thought I’d try.)

This is, of course, far from the first example of a podcast making the jump to broadcast, let alone public radio. I listed a few of these in a column from last November, but to save you a click, they include: CBS’ The Takeout, Wondery’s Inside Psycho, the dearly-departed Dinner Party Download, and an earlier effort across the Slate Gabfest portfolio. NPR itself has distributed broadcast versions of a number of its more prominent podcasts, including It’s Been a Minute, Invisibilia, TED Radio Hour, and How I Built This. American Public Media, as well, has some prior experience with the podcast-to-broadcast jump, most notably when they adapted its nine-part investigative podcast In The Dark into five hour-long specials for the radio in early 2017. That repackage ended up being distributed over approximately 150 stations across the country, hitting a combine week-long audience of over 5 million.

But here’s how this situation is different: in contrast to previous pod-to-broad crossovers, The Daily is a particularly newsy — which is to say, time-sensitive — on-demand audio product that’s being carried over into linear radio broadcast, and it’s this quality that’s triggered some skepticism. Put simply: Given the split between its morning podcast drop and evening broadcast orientation, will the radio version of The Daily be stale by the time it hits airwaves?

Anticipating the critique, the Times’ editorial director of audio Samantha Henig offered this response in the Current writeup: “We’ve found that the way The Daily approaches the biggest story of the day — by starting at the beginning and filling in all the context required to understand the latest news — is just as relevant in the evening.” I’m tempted to agree with this. In fact, these days, I’ve stopped listening to The Daily first thing in every weekday morning, often stockpiling them for an emotionally-heavy binge-listen later in the week. Indeed, in the stream of my (admittedly anomalous) media diet, they’ve begun to behave more like the stack of unread New Yorkers that’s quietly waiting for me in a room somewhere in my personal variation of hell.

So, do I like this move? I mean, I get it, but I don’t love it.

This is a good bit of business for the New York Times audio team. Aside from the pleasures of further product monetization, the distribution deal offers the Times an opportunity to ride the public radio infrastructure to reach more potential subscribers across the country, particularly those from demographics unfamiliar with podcast consumption. (One would suspect that this demographic overlaps somewhat with audiences that aren’t already being well worked on by the Times’ sophisticated digital subscriber conversion infrastructure.) If the goal is to be everywhere, then this move certainly falls in line. The distribution deal is also a potential stepping stone for the Times to deepen its relationship with the public radio system, a natural editorial ally. Even if the weekday radio version of The Daily doesn’t get much pickup (it’ll probably get some in its first year), bring much immediate value for stations (more on that shortly), or become appointment listening (¯\_(ツ)_/¯), the very conversation sparked by this move jogs the imagination. Maybe broadcasting the radio version of The Daily turns out to be a bust, but imagine the potential of specific stations developing Trump Inc.-like arrangements with the Times in the future.

But to be honest, I’d much rather see, at this point in time, the team dedicate its full resources and attention to extending its lead in on-demand audio, expanding the reporting capacities of its growing Daily franchise, and pushing further at the edges of what non-audio native news organizations can do with podcasts. As it stands, what they seem to be doing here is allocating resources to building out a radio show…that wasn’t natively designed to be a radio show. On the back of all its gains over the past year‚ this whole crossover business sports a light hint of over-extension.

Furthermore, there are risks involved in this move for The Daily. In the wake of the announcement, more than a few people pointed out the strain this cross-media expansion — which comes barely after The Daily’s first birthday — might put on the production team. (Just a reminder: 12 months isn’t a ton of time when it comes to building a workflow around a genuinely new way of doing things, let alone one that’s able to accommodate a secondary workflow on top of that.) Some raised concerns over this supplementary radio workflow might compromise the team’s focus, or worse, eat into the podcast-specific strengths of the core product itself. Jody Avirgan articulated this conundrum the best over Twitter: “I trust the smart folks at NYT to make this work while keeping their show’s awesomeness (and their sleep schedules) intact,” he wrote. “But it’s worth reiterating that a *huge* part of what makes podcasting special is not having to worry about going on the radio.”

The Daily is a great product, but I find it unlikely that the team can produce both a high-quality podcast and an even decent broadcast at the same time. And I find it equally unlikely that The Daily’s radio version will be worthwhile unless a good deal of effort goes into the translation process. Sure, there are ways to control the risk; you could, say, outsource the repackaging, or hire a new in-house producer dedicated to the adaptation process — whatever it takes to keep the burden away from the core team. But will the effort be worth whatever they get back? Put another way: Will the potential gains of investing in broadcast radio outweigh the gains in doubling down on on-demand audio? (OoooOOOoooo)

Then again, this discussion is mostly moot if radio stations don’t get behind the show. Which brings us to a parallel question: is The Daily good for public radio stations?

The view from the other side. Over the past week, I checked in with a couple of public radio operatives to get a sense of how they’re thinking about The Daily. Now, it’s worth remembering that there are over 900 public radio stations in the United States, and every one of those institutions faces different decision-making parameters — market sizes, listener demographics, financial health, in-house programming capacities, time zones, and so on. Talking about public radio stations is a lot like talking about voting blocs, in that you could always find more layers to dig through. But for our purposes here, we just want to get a broad sense of the perspectives in play.

Here are some things I found:

(1) Generally speaking, The Daily is highly regarded among the people I spoke with. But most were particularly skeptical about the evening drop, given that the product’s probable staleness by airtime doesn’t play into the strengths of radio — which provides its best service when live.

(2) Virtually nobody I contacted believes The Daily is worth changing the way evening commutes are built around All Things Considered. “You’d be disrupting a staple of how the evening has always been done,” one program director said. “And it’s not like you’re disrupting something that sucks.” Indeed, more than a few emphatically noted that Morning Edition and All Things Considered are the two programs most public radio listeners actually care about, and that it’s going to take a lot more than a half-hour program that tells one or two news stories to change the evening block.

(3) The later hours after the evening commute, however, was another story. There seemed to be more willingness to try the show out between 8 p.m. to 12 p.m.

(4) Questions were raised about the shadow of The New York Times: Will the national paper’s presence over airwaves interfere with the relationship between a local station and its listeners? One person thought it might raise political complications in some markets, while another suggests that broadcasting a product of The New York Times runs the unnecessary risk of brand dilution, a concern further amplified by the fact that both the stations and the Times are oriented around similar direct subscription/support business models.

(5) Interestingly, some sources floated the theory that APM’s best move probably involves packaging The Daily with Marketplace. I’m not sure I agree, but I see it.

As for myself…well, I’m not sure. The way I see it, The Daily doesn’t ultimately help stations focus on its two primary strategic differentiators within an increasingly digital and consumer control-oriented media environment: (1) its capacity for live programming, and (2) its localism. Plus, even if The Daily turns out to be a broadcast hit for a station, it’s unclear whether the station will be able to capture the upside over the long run. After all, if those previously untouched listeners fall in love with The Daily hard, they could always just, you know, go subscribe to the podcast as opposed to waiting around the radio later in the evening.

Which leaves me to think that a station’s choice on whether to pick up The Daily is in keeping with the choice to pick up something like, well, This American Life or The New Yorker Radio Hour — magazine or news magazine shows, essentially. In other words, The Daily, while a great product, doesn’t move the needle whatsoever for the way news can be done over broadcast radio. Indeed, the theoretical feasibility of thinking about The Daily in this way suggests that my original interpretation of the show, its structural innovations, and its role in the emerging daily news podcast genre requires some revision: Contrary to what I’ve previously thought, The Daily isn’t a news product with the soul of a magazine show. It’s a magazine show with the footwork of a news product. As a result, The Daily competes less with the daily brief newsletters in your inbox, Morning Edition on your radio, or the front page of The Washington Post, and more with the aforementioned This American Life and The New Yorker Radio Hour. The reality of this has significant ramifications over the way we think about The Daily’s ultimate legacy as a podcast.

It’s complicated.

While we’re on the subject of daily news pods…

A local variant. Keep an eye on KQED, the public radio station out of the Bay Area. They’re working on a project called The Bay, which aims to tailor the daily news podcast format to cover news from the region. Episodes will be short, ranging from five to ten minutes, with each going deep on a single story. The show will be hosted by Devin Katayama, and it’s set for a hard launch on March 6, after which it’ll deliver new missives Tuesdays to Fridays. The production team includes Vinnee Tong, Erika Aguilar, and Julia McEvoy.

Also: Today, Explained debuted yesterday, building its first episode around how the nuclear football actually works. With the necessary caveat that it’s only the sample size of one pilot episode: I thought it was pretty good! Then again, I’m the kind of person who really enjoys stories about process, so maybe the topic got me over anything else.

Still, big fan of the upbeat tone in the face of global annihilation. It’s going to be interesting to watch how host Sean Rameswaram will control that tone over the long run — and over what will undoubtedly be rougher news cycles ahead.

One gripe, though: I’m not the biggest fan of how it seems to have incorporated the sonic tics of Radiolab.

A deal for Audioboom. Caught this Financial Times article last week: “Audioboom plans $185m deal with Triton Digital,” which reports that the former is moving to “buy the share capital of Triton Digital Inc’s parent company for $185m.” That’s quite a bit of money, and something’s going on, though it’s unclear to me from the piece just what, exactly, all this entails.

“It’s definitely a merger, from the staff and management’s point of view,” Rob Proctor, CEO of the Audioboom group, when I reached out over email. “The structure of the deal is that Audioboom is actually acquiring 100 percent of the Triton Digital share capital for $185 million. In reality, even though we are raising the funds to make the acquisition, this really is a coming together of two complementary businesses: Triton providing metrics and analytics services, streaming, and ad-serving, Audioboom providing audio-on-demand platform services, content creation, and host-read advertising monetization.”

Just so we’re on the same page: Triton Digital is an American digital audio advertising company that provides distribution, monetization, and measurement tools for audio publishers. The company has a growing podcast clientele, notably signing NPR as a customer of its “Tap Podcast Solution” service in early 2016. The 12-year-old company is active in 45 countries, and it’s owned by Vector Capital, a San Francisco private equity firm, after being bought in 2006. Also, it collaborates with Edison Research to produce the annual Infinite Dial report, which is how you might’ve heard of it before.

Audioboom, on the other hand, is the podcast company that’s undergone several internal revolutions over the past few years. Once a consumer-facing player in the vein of Stitcher, the company has since shifted to function more as a business-to-business platform that does all the things you’d expect a standard podcast network to do: sell advertising for shows, provide technology and creative support, figure out marketing and distribution, etc. As a network, Audioboom is perhaps best known for its signing of Undisclosed, the Serial season one-adjacent podcast led by Rabia Chaudry that has since broadened out to cover other potential wrongful convictions. A few weeks ago, the company announced its early wave of programming for the year that includes new stuff like Night Call (featuring Emily Yoshida and Molly Lambert!) as well as the return of older stuff like Mission to Zyxx and The 45th.

As part of the deal, Proctor will step aside as CEO to serve as the executive director of the new entity, which will likely be called the Triton Media Group. “Leading out with the Triton brand name makes sense in terms of North America recognition, given that Triton works with around 10,000 customers,” Proctor said. However, it might retain the Audioboom Studios name for its creative services division.

Anyway, the two companies are still in working through the merger, which will finish up at some point over the next few months. When asked what comes next, Proctor sounded off a couple of things on the wish-list, including “fully transparent and independent podcast metrics,” “audio to text transcription,” and “podcast recommendations featuring NLP and AI.” He also emphasized that content creation will sit at the heart of the combined company moving forward.

It’s definitely a curious development, and in my mind, it’s yet another data point that backs some sort of convergence within digital audio, where the distinctions between podcasting and stuff like internet radio, streaming, or whatever becomes less and less meaningful, and where the question revolves what the digital audio world will look after everything gets smashed together.

Gaming the charts? The Apple podcast charts have been a subject of much consternation and analysis within the podcast community since…the beginning of time, I guess, but this deep dive from Kevin Goldberg is pretty interesting. In it, Goldberg suggests that Kickass News, a peculiarly constant occupant of the upper echelons of the charts, is gaming the system by using a script or a click farm using a VPN that makes the charts think the podcast is getting more new subscribers — the primary metric that determines placement — than it actually is.

Just a reminder for press release writers: Apple podcast charts placement don’t mean much by themselves. (I see what you’re doing.) It works the other way too: Don’t worry too much if your well-established pod is floating down somewhere in the hundreds.

Off-platform. Last week, the Guardian Mobile Lab rolled out an experimental podcast player that’s designed to be consumed off the mobile web. The experience was built around Strange Bird, a new podcast about data from The Guardian hosted by data editor Mona Chalabi and produced by Josie Holtzman.

Two noteworthy things about the experiment:

  • First, it’s a way of consuming on-demand audio without having to rely on a podcast app, and it’s eminently more usable than listening through an embedded player off a mobile browser. The latter factors pretty heavily into the way I personally listen to stuff, and I frequently run into trouble with maintaining the stream as I move on to do other stuff on my phone.
  • Second, Guardian Mobile Lab’s player layers on additional elements, primarily visual, onto the podcast episode, giving listeners the opportunity to tap and follow through to access further points of context about the story being delivered to them through headphones.

The interactivity, the visuals, the context layers — these are all features meant to augment the core experience of a podcast episode. Now, let me just point out that the Guardian Mobile Lab’s experiment here isn’t the first time someone explored the notion of adding interactive multimedia elements to a podcast to kick things up a notch; that was part of Acast’s whole deal in their initial pursuit to get listeners to use their app instead of the default Apple option. And I’m not entirely convinced that a podcast’s interactivity necessarily needs to be packaged with the core listening experience itself, though I do think greater interactivity in the form of more direct audience engagement is something that more publishers should be working towards anyway.

But the bells and whistles aren’t really the point here, are they? The point, as it were, is what’s possible when the publisher is in more direct control of the product and less beholden to the logic of a specific platform. Of course, there are deeper issues to account when thinking through this notion, like the fact that not all teams are equally able to devote resources to technology development and platform maintenance, and the more general realities of discoverability and user acquisition being really hard for anyone to deal with.

Then again, the purpose of an experiment is to dream big, y’know?

Career Spotlight. This week, I traded emails with Alex Braunstein, the community manager at PRX’s Podcast Garage in Allston, Massachusetts.

Hot Pod: Tell me about your current situation.

Alex Braunstein: I live and work in the same 0.5-mile radius in Allston. My job is to run the PRX Podcast Garage — PRX’s first community podcast studio. I like to describe my role as “Sonic Hostess” because most of my days involve helping people feel comfortable in the studio, giving tours to community groups, talking to podcasters about their goals, organizing trainings, and generally creating a space that welcomes everyone into podcasting.

Last year we hosted 85 events, so I am really good at setting up snacks and folding chairs. Back me up on this, NQ! [NQ: It’s true.]

Hot Pod: How did you get to this point? What does your career arc thus far look like?

Braunstein: I’ve done a lot of soul-searching to make the moves that got me here (shout-out to my therapist). When I graduated from Middlebury College, I immediately went into a two-year fellowship at the Vermont Community Foundation. The best part of that fellowship was learning the ins and outs of community work. Afterwards, I literally filled a backpack and flew solo to Thailand without a return ticket. I ended up coming home six months later because of my parent’s divorce but during that trip, I heard my first podcast and fell in love with photography.

I settled into a job at Brown University’s Center for Public Service — one of the first public service centers in the country — where I was in charge of all communications and marketing. I worked with amazing scholars and activists. In my free time, I was trying to learn everything I could about storytelling, photography, and audio. I remember wandering the streets of Providence asking people about their biggest fears for Transom’s Online Workshop with Scott Carrier. It didn’t take long for me to get hooked on talking to strangers. So, I started a program at Brown called Storytellers for Good for students to learn about digital media and storytelling for social change. For three years, I selected and trained a group of students to create stories, organized campus-wide workshops and talks, and launched a multimedia storytelling platform. Many of those students now work in radio and podcasting (hey guys!) and inspired me to do the same.

When I quit Brown, I knew that working in public radio was now-or-never. I also knew my resume had nothing that would appeal to an NPR station — not even a role at a high school newspaper or experimental college radio show — so I gave myself six months to work on some creative projects, take an internship at RIPR, and work in a coffee shop so I could, y’know, pay my bills. I remember the news director calling me up and being like: “You’re 30! You sure you want to do this?” Thankfully, Providence is a small city where you can live on a barista salary. Nine months and many cover letters later, PRX offered me this job, so my partner and I shut down the pie company (a story for another newsletter) and moved to Boston.

Hot Pod: What does a career mean to you, at this point?

Braunstein: My career means being around people I like. I didn’t really meet people working in public radio until I was 26. I didn’t work in public radio until I was almost 30. My reason for changing my career was simply a decision about who I feel good around. It sounds cheesy, but I met the most curious, intelligent, humble, and kind people in radio and I wanted those qualities to rub off on me. They say you’re a reflection of the five people you spend the most time with, right?

I remember coming up with a vision for my career after college (okay embracing the cheesiness now) and writing: “creativity on fire.” I’ve realized since then that my fire is stoked by other people and if I’m inspired by my coworkers and community then my career is on track.

Hot Pod: When you started out, what did you think you wanted to do?

Braunstein: As I kid, I wanted to be a dog-holder — not the veterinarian, but the person who holds the dogs during veterinarian visits. When I graduated college, I wanted to run a nonprofit that would help people. I had watched my mom stay up late writing grants and running support groups and that seemed like the most heroic thing in the world to me. Unfortunately, one job was too specific and the other one was too vague.

Looking back, the signs pointing me to a career in public radio seem so obvious. I’ve always been completely in love with stories. Now, I understand that my role isn’t to tell the stories but to coach, convene, and support creators to make better work.

I don’t know anyone else with the same job title as me. I love that my job weaves together these threads of community and storytelling that mean so much to me. I wish there were more public spaces in public media. We have a lot of work to do and we need everyone to feel welcomed, supported, and trained to share their story.

Remember to hold dogs, everyone.

Bites:

  • Audible announced its first round of commissions for playwrights whose work will be produced into “performative audio for the digital era” and distributed over the platform. (Los Angeles Times) The program was originally unveiled last May.
  • “The Story of Combat Jack, Hip-Hop’s Flagship Podcaster.” Over at Vulture, Paul Cantor penned an introspective piece on the final days and legacy of Reggie “Combat Jack” Ossé, with whom he was a close friend. Don’t miss it.
  • Amanda Hess’ latest missive on podcasts: “The Transgressive Appeal of the Comedy Murder Podcast.” We’ve gone full postmodern here, people. (The New York Times)
  • WBUR has dismissed Tom Ashbrook following review of bullying and harassment allegations. (WBUR)
  • Repeat, KPCC’s limited-run investigative podcast, has garnered over 475,000 downloads across three episodes since launching on February 7, according to senior producer Arwen Nicks. They expect to hit half a mil by the end of today.
  • I left this story out from last week’s issue due to space, but it’s worth tracking: “Amazon launches a Polly WordPress plugin that turns blog posts into audio, including podcasts.” (TechCrunch)

Photo of members of The Daily team (from left, Samantha Henig, Michael Barbaro, Theo Balcomb, and Lisa Tobin) via The New York Times communications.

POSTED     Feb. 20, 2018, 10:28 a.m.
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