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July 10, 2018, 9:06 a.m.

The Washington Post wants to figure out the best places to put ads in your favorite podcasts

Plus: Crooked Media goes audio doc, Maximum Fun goes scripted fiction, and The Pub goes the way of all flesh.

Editor’s note: Hot Pod is a 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 168, published July 10, 2018.

Into the Woods. The rollout for Crooked Media’s first audio documentary, The Wilderness, began yesterday with the launch of a standalone website — which gives a preview of the season’s overall 15-part structure as well as the extensive list of interviewees who will be featured on the program — along with a trailer that was also dropped in the Pod Save America RSS feed, which pushed the podcast feed up the charts. (Tried-and-true pre-launch strategy, this.)

The series will debut on July 16. Two things to note here:

  • Interestingly, The Wilderness is a coproduction between Crooked Media and Two-Up Productions, the shop behind Limetown and 36 Questions. Pretty big get for the latter.
  • Also: What’s always been super interesting to me about Crooked Media is how…hard it is to describe. Yes, it’s a media company, albeit one that’s explicitly political, and though there are certainly media companies with overtly political bents across history — from progressive magazines like The Nation to right-wing outlets like Fox News — there’s something about Crooked Media that feels a little more, for lack of better word, alive. Or to put it another way: openly willing to directly interact with the physical world, where conventional media companies often feel separate and apart from the world. A very smart Hot Pod reader once floated the idea of a world in which a platform like Crooked Media could very well perform functions resembling that of…well, political parties. It’s a curious idea, and I’m further curious to see how The Wilderness extends this thesis.

Democracy dies in dynamic ad insertion. (Sorry, couldn’t help myself there.) The Jeff Bezos-owned Washington Post, which has been pushing pretty hard into the technology platform business alongside its journalistic endeavors, is reportedly getting into the…podcast ad tech game?

AdExchanger reports that the company’s Research, Experimentation, and Development (RED) team has put together a “dynamic ad insertion” tool, called Rhapsocord, that “identifies places to put in ads, automatically inserts them and then sends the file to different podcast platforms.”

Apparently, while advertisers and agencies can still manually buy inventory through sales reps, the tool is taking steps to allow for “a self-serve podcast ads platform or programmatic audio.” WaPo is currently testing the tech on its own podcast network.

So I can’t say that I like this. To begin with, the podcast CMS market is fairly crowded already (see: Libsyn, Art19, Megaphone, Simplecast, PRX’s Dovetail, Spreaker, CastPlus, so on and so forth), and many of those solutions already allow for dynamic ad insertion. Furthermore, I generally have reservations about programmatic ads in podcasting (see here for more on that), and my concerns are doubled should the push come from a company that, up until this point, has primarily operated in a display-ad–first digital world.

Eh, maybe I’m not being generous enough here. In any case, there is one potential positive thing that I’m curious: I wonder how this technology will fit into the Post audio team’s various dabblings with smart-speaker programming.

Meanwhile, elsewhere. I filed two interviews for Vulture last week, one pegged to a beginning and the other pegged to an end.

(1) The first looks at You Must Remember This, Karina Longworth’s fantastic podcast on the secret histories of 20th-century Hollywood, which returned last week. This new season explores Hollywood Babylon, the infamous 1959 book by avant-garde filmmaker Kenneth Anger that traded heavily in scandal and questionable gossip on early Hollywood celebrities, but which has since accrued a complicated legacy in which it is often construed as truth. (A timely topic, indeed.) It’s a pretty long interview, and in addition to discussing the season, Longworth was also kind enough to talk a bit about her process.

(2) The second interview was with Madeleine Baran of In The Dark, who spoke with me soon after the concluding episode of its spectacular sophomore season hit the feeds last week. Baran and her team will continue to cover the case of Curtis Flowers when the next development hits, and they’ll soon be in the hunt for their next story after taking a few weeks off.

I also filed the June update to my Best Podcasts of 2018 (So Far) list. You know what? I like this monthly update format. Good stuff, Vulture.

Maximum Fun broadens its horizons. Last month, Jesse Thorn’s Los Angeles-based podcast network rolled out its first foray into scripted programming. The show is called Bubble, an eight-episode scripted comedy series that — and I’m quoting the pitch I got for it, which is pretty succinct and effective — is “sort of a sci-fi/alternate-universe comedy about a group of friends who live in a town protected by a (literal) bubble.” Having listened to a few episodes, I guess you could also call it a cross between Portlandia and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It’s super zany, is what I’m saying, and if you like Maximum Fun stuff, you’re probably going to like this: It has all the warm, loving, and fun sensibilities that you’ve come to know and love from the network, plus it features a bunch of the MaxFun extended family like Eliza Skinner and the McElroy Brothers.

Anyway, the thing about Bubble that caught my attention was how it presents a case study of a particular challenge that more podcast companies are — and should be — facing: Let’s say you want to push your creative boundaries. How do you think through the business side of that effort? So, in pursuit of that question, I reached out to Maximum Fun’s managing director Bikram Chatterji, and he was kind enough to write at length. I like this interview quite a bit, as he really lays out a good deal of the strategic considerations he deems to be important when breaking a project like this.

Hot Pod: Tell me about how MaxFun came to produce Bubble.

Bikram Chatterji: I think you could say it was entirely organic — Bubble was created by Jordan Morris, one half of Jordan, Jesse Go!, longtime friend of Jesse and the network, and one of the funniest people we know. Jordan had written the pilot for television and had taken a bunch of meetings on it — people loved the concept and the script, but were looking for a more tangible proof-of-concept (which would be tough to film because: monsters). We did a table read of the TV script last year with some friends — little/no production, small black-box theater — and when we released it in the JJGo feed it got a really positive response.

Separately, MaxFun was interested in developing a scripted comedy — as a way of trying some new things creatively, production-wise, and in terms of marketing/business model. We’d had a few meetings but nothing had grabbed us.

Bubble presented a rich and smart premise with hilarious jokes, from a person that we and our community knows and loves, so it was an ideal first step. Also, as a step in a new direction for all of us, I think that the trust that we all had in each other went a long way in making it a smooth and collaborative development process.

Hot Pod: The show strikes me as a little different from what Maximum Fun typically produces. What were the challenges involved in the production, and what were the differences in how you approached development?

Chatterji: It is different! The main assets we had going into development were (1) we know what a joke is, and how to make stuff funny, (2) we have good relationships with very talented people who know, like, and trust us, and (3) we’re nimble and creative when it comes to making stuff sound good.

For some aspects — developing a serialized arc for a cohesive season of the show, voice-directing for drama and comedy, and sound design/audio world-building, for instance — we worked with some very smart and talented folks who have done this before (in the three examples listed: Nick Adams, exec producer on Bubble, who works on Bojack Horseman and story-edited for New Girl, amongst other credits; Eric Martin, director for Bubble, hundreds of audio books, VO, directed Hoot Gibson: Vegas Cowboy for, amongst other credits; Ben Walker, producer/editor/sound design, many credits for BBC Radio that, frankly, U.S. audiences probably don’t recognize).

There were other production/creative aspects that the team worked collaboratively on — a big one being, making a show that is visually rich and involves monsters/many cool fights work in audio. The writers introduced a narrator with some personality and, fortunately, Tavi Gevinson agreed to play this part, so we were able to do the whole “constraints = opportunities” thing.

Hot Pod: Tell me about the revenue end. How did you approach building a business engine around this project?

Chatterji: This was always envisioned as an investment with a long-term, slightly unconventional return profile. That is to say, we started down this road not expecting/needing to make our money back in a hurry. At a minimum, the near-term value was expected to be:

  • Stretching ourselves creatively a bit
  • Making something great that our community would appreciate and enjoy
  • Creating a kind of statement work for people who might not know us all that well, to start broader conversations about our capabilities

We’ve ticked all those boxes, which we feel really good about. That said, we are trying some things out on the revenue side as well:

  • Like all of our shows, we envision Bubble to be paid for primarily by listeners. [Note: For more on Maximum Fun’s audience-supported model, read this column.] Unlike our other shows, it’s a limited-run series, so we’re not asking for ongoing monthly contributions, but listeners can (and have!) made one-time payments at
  • We are talking with some folks about advertising as, midway through the run, we have a solid track record of downloads to pique advertisers’ interest.
  • The show is especially suited to some other revenue channels — for instance, merchandise. So we’re exploring those as well.

MaxFun has always been different from other networks in that advertising is a secondary revenue source for us. We don’t have anything against ads — they help our creators get rewarded for their work, and we sincerely believe that if done correctly, they provide our listeners with a service. One thing we’ve always insisted on is having the option to forego ads if something doesn’t feel right — because, frankly, as listeners we have experienced ads that feel wrong (two common problems: they are so frequent as to disrupt the listener experience, or they’re so subtle as to blur the line between what is content and what’s an ad). We know that there are a bunch of smart folks working on the challenge of making advertising work in service of listeners, and we’re paying attention to that; practically, though, our approach has been to not make anything we do contingent on getting ad revenue, because it’s easy to see that forcing us into an uncomfortable position.

Hot Pod: What else did you learn through this process?

Chatterji: I think the other piece that is fundamentally different from anything we’ve done before is marketing a limited-run series. We have put a lot of time and energy into this show, and we think it’s wonderful. I was (and am) well aware of other limited-run shows that have high production values but limited long-term impact. I didn’t want that to happen here.

Philosophically, you can probably divide marketing strategies between creating a massive event (often at considerable cost in terms of time and resources) and relying on something more sustained/word-of-mouth based. We tried a hybrid approach — a big bang within our community, who we could reach pretty easily and who we know will be responsive to our messaging, and a longer, slower burn for the wider podcast audience. It’s still something we’re working on, and something that is in progress, but so far it seems to be going okay.

The main other thing that I’ve taken away from this is how — this could be obvious, but I find it gratifying — creative people love working on something really good. At the start of this process, I was a little apprehensive about whether we could bring aboard some of the big names to do this thing that was new to us and that, frankly, did not pay much money (relative to TV, etc.). I think the fact that we were successful attests in part to the great reputation MaxFun and Jesse have built up over the years, but also — and members of the cast have mentioned this at a few of the Q&As we’ve been hosting — that the same hunger for good shows that is out there from our audience exists amongst the creative people we work with as well.

That sounds like more of a creative consideration than a business one, but I think it’s something at the heart of our strategy, long-term: Make something great and the rest of your job becomes a lot easier.

You can find Bubble…well, pretty much anywhere you’d find podcasts, aside from those pesky podcast platforms with a big paywall blocking out the sun.

Career Spotlight. You know I love running these. This week, I interviewed Stitcher’s John Asante, who spoke about moving through what seemed to be a “conventional” trajectory, having worked on radio with live elements, and the podcast industry being a producer’s market.

Hot Pod: Tell me about your current situation — job title, role, life plans, etc.

John Asante: I’m a senior producer for original content at Stitcher, based in Los Angeles. Some of the podcasts I work on are released as free, ad-supported shows (we call these Stitcher Originals), while others are made solely just for our subscription-based service, Stitcher Premium. The shows range from longform interviews to scripted comedies and dramas, to documentaries on a variety of topics. For reference, some of the podcasts I had hand in producing are Heaven’s Gate, Dear Franklin Jones, and Gossip.

In my role, I mainly wear three different hats as I develop new podcasts from pitch to production to launch. On some projects, I’m the lead producer who’s editing scripts with the host, sitting in on interviews and taking notes, and then cutting tape to make the final product. On others, I play more of a project manager role, communicating with all the teams (production, marketing, ad sales, content operations, etc.) and assisting with any tasks to make sure all the deadlines are met in order to launch a new podcast. And while I’m actively producing shows, I’m brainstorming new ideas for podcasts and evaluating pitches from writers and producers who are looking to get their podcast picked up by Stitcher.

I also host and produce an independent podcast called Play It Back. It’s a storytelling show where artists, producers, and music lovers talk about discovering the songs that have changed their lives. It’s a concept I thought about executing for years that I hadn’t heard much of in the podcast space. Full disclosure: I took a hiatus from making new episodes with the move from NYC to LA last year and to rethink the format, but the plan is to get it back up and running sometime this year.

Hot Pod: How did you get to this point?

Asante: I’ll admit that on the surface, my journey has been similar to many fellow podcast producers — I was an intern at NPR after graduating college who then worked his way into a full-time job at the network in 2009. But my career arc differs from some people, as I primarily worked on shows with live elements before diving into podcasting — namely Talk of the Nation and Ask Me Another. And while I was working on those shows and thinking of making a transition into podcasting for narrative-driven shows, I got the feeling that my live-show experience was undervalued in comparison to other producers who cut more radio pieces and longform interviews, like All Things Considered or Morning Edition.

After some frustration with my career trajectory and finding some trouble advancing, I actually left public radio in 2014 to try something completely different: marketing. That’s another long story, but the goal was to keep my radio chops up during the career switch. But after a year and a half away, I really missed producing on a daily basis…and marketing was not for me. The more I listened to podcasts — especially those produced by my radio friends who were moving into the podcast industry — the more I realized that there were a growing number of opportunities to produce podcasts. I realized WNYC was investing more resources into podcasts, and I got a temp position producing There Goes The Neighborhood back in 2016. A few months later, I landed a full-time gig on The Takeaway, mainly producing arts and culture pieces, which I had embraced as my forte at that point. Last year, I moved out to Los Angeles to make moves in the podcast industry. Stitcher’s work and mission felt like the best fit, and I’m glad they believe in my ability to create and develop new podcasts.

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

Asante: A career means being able to work on a variety of podcasts in different roles. I wanted to make the move from producing one show to developing and producing several, and I’m definitely achieving that at Stitcher. From here, I’d like to take on bigger producer and editor roles, working on scripted projects and narrative shows that tell more stories about people of color and those living in underserved communities. It’s really important to me that these stories are told, even in ways I never imagined.

I also want to be in the position of giving guidance and help producers and editors of color make moves in the podcast space. The same goes for those who don’t have the same career path as those of us who came from the public radio world. There’s certainly room for improvement when it comes to diversity. Our voices need to be heard on both sides of the mic.

And with the amount of connections I’ve been fortunate to make in LA, I’ve definitely thought about starting my own production company one day. I know I’m not the only podcast producer who’s thought about this!

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

Asante: After toying with the possibility of working my way up the ladder as a TV reporter, and simultaneously falling in love with college radio (then shortly after public radio), I graduated college desperately wanting to become a public radio producer. I was obsessed with NPR’s style of storytelling after interning there and formed an even stronger obsession with radio as a medium.

My initial plan was to line a full-time producing job, then do freelance pieces in my spare time, and use those pieces to apply for a job as a member station reporter 4-5 years later. But after getting a few pieces on the air, I realized it wasn’t the right fit, so I focused more on producing. Then around 2011, a few friends and I started making a podcast of our own. We just wanted a way to make use of our interests and telling stories we weren’t hearing on the news or other programs. While the project lasted less than a hear, it made me realize that podcasting was a low-stakes way to experiment, try out new ideas, and see what’s possible. So my trajectory slowly started to shift toward producing podcasts, though it would take a while before I felt confident enough that I could make a career out of that new vision.

Hot Pod: How do you view the podcast industry, such as it is, at this point in time?

Asante: It’s wild, exciting, and moving incredibly fast. Every day, I’m impressed by the number of well-produced and fascinating podcasts I discover or get recommended, as well as the amount of money going into the industry. And I get legitimately excited when friends ask me for recommendations.

I’m glad there are more players in the field, from small production houses to larger media companies. From my experience, this means it’s a producer’s market. More and more companies want to make higher-quality content, which means having the ability to cut tape, write scripts, and develop an idea is so vital.

Also, podcast discovery still needs to be more developed. So many interesting independent podcasts go under the radar due to a number of factors, and I hope these shows don’t get overlooked for personalities with a bigger following.

Hot Pod: What should I be listening to right now?

Asante: Gossip: As I mentioned before, I was part of the production team on this show, so I’m definitely biased. But this show is unlike anything I’ve ever heard or worked on. It’s a scripted dramatic comedy podcast created by Allison Raskin about three women living in a suburban town who meet up each week to talk about all the crazy rumors spreading through their town. Think Desperate Housewives meets Jane the Virgin.

The Nod: I love Brittany and Eric’s dedication to telling stories about elements of black life that you’ve probably never heard of, or didn’t know how they were created. Their unique way of storytelling is playful and informative that has taught me about entertainers and activists like Josephine Baker, and made me think critically about the cultural impact of movies I’ve seen a dozen times, like Coming To America.

Thanks, John.


  • Pour one out for Current’s The Pub. The public media trade publication of choice is shuttering its podcast after 113 episodes and 3.5 years. Executive director Julie Drizin announced the move last Friday through a post on the Current website, citing lack of underwriting support as the main reason for the show’s termination. However, Drizin also noted that The Pub’s closing doesn’t necessarily mean that the publication won’t be dabbling podcasts anymore. She leaves open the possibility of future projects, provided they are able to “secure committed funding.”
  • Filmspotting: Streaming Video Unit, the Alison Willmore and Matt Singer-led online movie-focused podcast in the Filmspotting family, has concluded its run. The long-running show released its final episode last Tuesday. As a longtime listener, I’m pouring another one out for this one too.
  • This is really good: “Using true crime to teach Indigenous history: Reporter Connie Walker on ‘Finding Cleo,'” writes Elon Green for CJR. The CBC podcast wrapped the season last month, and yesterday, host Connie Walker tweeted that the season has now been downloaded over 10.5 million times across its ten episodes.
  • James Cridland has a pretty interesting writeup on some RSS feed chicanery that seems to be going on with CastBox.
  • What an angle: “Amazon Alexa may be better at selling you things, but Google is more likely to understand you, say ad industry insiders,” via CNBC.
  • Tangentially-related, but worth keeping tabs: “Apple Music Just Surpassed Spotify’s U.S. Subscriber Count,” per Digital Music News.

Photo of Amazon founder and Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos by AP/J. Scott Applewhite.

POSTED     July 10, 2018, 9:06 a.m.
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