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Sept. 4, 2018, 10:49 a.m.

Here’s how a technical innovation meant for advertising helped Welcome to Night Vale give 1 story 3 different endings

Plus: The Washington Post is ramping up work on its upcoming daily podcast, a U.K. show gets an HBO deal, and the rise of sports gambling podcasts.

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 175, published August 21, 2018.

Quick note: Hey all! Hot Pod recently added a new writer to the team: Caroline Crampton, who will cover podcasting in the U.K. She’s contributing one story per newsletter for now, and I’ll indicate her work by listing her name in brackets next to the story header. Hopefully that’s not too confusing. Okay, let’s jump in.

Breaking: CNN’s Brian Stelter with a tasty scoop in his great newsletter last night: Madhulika Sikka — former Morning Edition executive producer, PBS public editor, and executive at Mic — has joined The Washington Post as the executive producer of its upcoming “flagship podcast,” which is scheduled to roll out later this year. Sikka will be hiring a team for the production.

Welcome to the Multiverse. Welcome to Night Vale isn’t a stranger to experimenting with the limitations of what a podcast is and how it can deliver its story. I suppose one shouldn’t expect anything less from a show where reality is a mere suggestion. One of the quirkier examples of this can be found in the September 2016 episode All Right, a cheeky missive that alternated sound delivery between the right and left headphones in ways that related directly to the plot — which involved something suitably creepy and doom-filled, as is Night Vale’s wont. And if you tuned in for the episode that dropped on Saturday, you would have encountered another technical experiment, though you might not have noticed it, especially if you only listened to the thing once.

Here’s the deal: Are You Sure?, the podcast’s 133rd episode, features three different endings that are delivered to listeners at random. The team relied on dynamic insertion technology, the increasingly ubiquitous podcast tool that up to this point had mostly been used for ads, to build the experience. For the unfamiliar, dynamic insertion tech was developed to allow publishers to more easily swap out host-reads and ad spots with having to directly alter the podcast episode. Previously, ads were manually “baked into” podcast audio files, in that they were recorded as part of the performance material before being uploaded to the hosting result. As a result, it was significantly harder to apply changes to a show’s archives as you would have to re-splice new ads into older episodes and replace them on the hosting platform.

The technology has mostly been discussed in terms of its contributions to podcast advertising and monetization: It allows publishers to re-monetize their back catalog, it enables them to quickly issue fixes to bungled ad spots, it opens up the possibility of better targeting. But with this experiment, the Night Vale crew illustrates another upside to the technology: It has distinct opportunities for creative execution.

“[Dynamic insertion] is a fascinating technology to me — that different people can download different versions of an episode,” said Joseph Fink, co-creator of Welcome to Night Vale, when we spoke over the phone about the experiment a few weeks ago. “It’s kind of baffling that nobody’s tried this before.”

The Night Vale crew, whose ad sales are handled by PRX and whose podcasts are hosted on PRX’s Dovetail platform, only created three endings because they were told that was the maximum number the platform could reliably handle at this point in time. Fink wrote one ending, while the other two were written by Jeffrey Cranor, his Night Vale co-creator, and writer Brie Williams. Their plan was to wait a few days after publishing the episode before telling anyone about the experiment, in hopes to create a situation where Night Vale fans would talk to each other about the story and organically discover that they didn’t exactly listen to the same thing. The uncertainty over which is the “true ending” will be preserved for now.

The deployment of different endings was designed to be purely random, with every subsequent download has a 66 percent chance of getting a different ending regardless of the listener’s context. But you can see how other editorial dynamic insertion frameworks can be designed and executed. For example, in theory, the tech allows for better targeting, and as such, if you could reliably identify the location of a listener, you could deliver editorial programming or journalistic information to that person specific to her city, town, or state. The possibilities that dynamic insertion technology offers news podcasts has long been an intellectual hobbyhorse of mine; I’ve long suspected that NPR’s Up First could make for a fascinating vessel for local podcasts in the way that Morning Edition’s broadcasts are reliable vessels for interspersed station spots.

Of course, more progress still needs to be made towards scale and stability. As mentioned, Night Vale could only reliably build for three endings based on Dovetail’s current architecture, and because the move is so new, there were general anxieties about whether the experience would be unsuccessful. Plus, there are all the orthogonal questions about the future of podcast delivery: How would the rise of smart speakers impact the machinations, utility, and design of podcast hosting platforms? How would a successful bid by Pandora on a Podcast Genome Project?

But those are questions for another day, another crossroad. For now, Fink tells me that fans responded to the episode very well. When successful, technical experiments like All Right and Are You Sure? are fun, engaging, and participatory; they capture the conspiratorial feel of Night Vale’s live shows. “There were listeners who thought the ending you got depended on the physical location the episode was downloaded in, and so they were traveling around their towns, trying to get them all,” he said. “We made our podcast into Pokemon Go.”

How a British podcast got a HBO deal [by Caroline Crampton]. The fact that the hit British comedy podcast My Dad Wrote a Porno is to become a live HBO comedy special, as announced last week, feels like a landmark moment in UK podcasting. It isn’t the first podcast-to-TV transition for a homegrown show — the QI spinoff podcast No Such Thing As a Fish became a topical BBC panel show called No Such Thing As The News in 2016 — but the involvement of a U.S. cable network is a novelty.

I spoke to Jamie Morton, co-creator and host of My Dad Wrote A Porno (it’s his father’s erotic novels they read and discuss on the show), last week to find out more about how the HBO deal came about. He was just back in the U.K. after a couple of days in Dublin, the latest stop on a podcast live tour that has been going on since February and which, in Morton’s words, has been “a bit of a long slog” at times.

“We just feel so lucky,” he said, responding to the announcement of the live special. “HBO is such an amazing brand, and their pedigree in comedy specials is kind of unrivalled, really, so for them to get on the porn bandwagon has been pretty amazing.” His co-host Alice Levine expressed a similar sense of baffled excitement when posting about the deal on Instagram: “Can’t believe the home of Sopranos, The Wire, Girls, The Jinx, Sex and the City, Flight of the Conchords etc etc…is now the home of @mydadwrotea !!!”

The idea of the live special grew completely out of the podcast’s live show, Morton confirmed. “We felt that because the live shows go down so well and we’ve been touring it sort of everywhere, it would be a great thing to film in some capacity, and then HBO were interested,” he said. Reps from the premium cable network came to see a My Dad Wrote a Porno live show in New York earlier this year, in the spring. “They just kind of loved the show, and loved our relationship…I think seeing the show in situ, seeing how we reacted to the audience, how the audience reacted to us — because that’s the crazy thing about our show, people come dressed up as the characters in my dad’s books, they’re so invested in it and it is a real kind of cult thing.”

“I think that can be quite arresting for broadcasters, to see that there’s that level of investment in a show that on paper you wouldn’t think would have that kind of reach,” Morton added. “So I think they were impressed with that, and it went from there.” While the show’s fanbase is mostly situated within the U.K., it has racked up an impressive following on the other side of the Atlantic, where audiences enjoy the contrast between the hosts’ supposedly stiff upper lips and the lewd content of their show. “I think they kind of look at us as the Ron, Harry, and Hermione of pornography,” Morton said. “They just love the idea of these kind of really prudish British voices talking about terrible sex.” (For those keeping tabs, the podcast, which started in September 2015, surpassed 100 million downloads this past February. Its current average episode listenership remains unclear.)

Morton explained that he and his co-hosts, Levine and James Cooper, didn’t have much direct involvement in the dealmaking with HBO, which was handled by their U.K. management, Insanity, and their U.S. representatives, the Gersh Agency. (“My dad’s been loving that,” Morton said. “He’s like: ‘I’m just going to call my agent in L.A.’ Bless him.”)

As for the actual style and content of the special, Morton explained that they were at “very early stages of the creative chat.” The British director Hamish Hamilton, who has directed Super Bowl halftime shows, Academy Award ceremonies, and the televised broadcast of the London 2012 Olympics opening ceremony, will be behind the camera, and Morton says the aim is to “do some new stuff with it, and make it a bit more special for TV.” During the live stage shows, the trio read out a “lost chapter” that was cut from the actual novel prior to its release, and sometimes direct spontaneous reenactments of key scenes.

A previous attempt to translate the hit podcast onto the small screen two years ago didn’t quite work; “It’s really hard to recreate that kind of intimacy and magic of a podcast on screen,” Morton said. The pilot they made didn’t feel tonally true to the original show, he explained. “It was more of a studio set up, and it was a straight reversioning of the podcast, it was so early on.” The difference this time, he said, is to focus on recreating the energy of the live shows on screen, rather than the process of recording the podcast itself.

Despite the deal with HBO, though, they have no plans to abandon audio entirely. “We’ve always had the mindset that we’re so proud of being a podcast, and that really does come first for us,” he said. “We love the show that we’ve made and we love the audience that we’ve managed to build. And so anything that we do outside of that really has to exist on its own terms.”

This might not be the last Porno spinoff we see — Morton hinted at more to come, saying that “we are having conversations now about other things in America actually, about other incarnations of the show,” but insisting that their desire to “do right by Belinda” (the heroine of his father’s erotic fiction) would govern whether or not they went ahead with any other adaptations.

As for what this deal means for podcasting in the U.K. more widely, Morton hopes that Porno’s success with bring more British shows to the attention of U.S. executives. “I’m really excited about where it’s going,” he said. “You know, I just want the next really big thing to hit and take everyone with it. For the next really big hit — a British Serial? — to come from the U.K. would just be incredible, for everyone.”

Hot hand. This is sorta old news by now, but it’s worth some ink: Last Monday, Cadence13 announced a partnership with a digital media company called The Action Network to launch a sports gambling podcast network. Its first show, called The Favorites, will kick off a three-times-a-week schedule starting September 5.

Some of you might know this already — bless you, if you do — but we’re in a really interesting time for sports betting in America. In May, the Supreme Court struck down a federal law that prohibited sports gambling, allowing states to individually move ahead on legalizing sports betting within their respective borders. (Here’s a handy package from ESPN tracking the progress of relevant bills across all 50 states.)

As some have already pointed out, the legalization of sports betting in the country presents a distinctly huge opportunity for sports media companies. Recode’s Peter Kafka had a great article in May illustrating how it doesn’t take much to think through the measure at which media companies can capitalize on the sharp increase in demand for sports gambling services unleashed by the Supreme Court decision. “In-game betting — where you wager on the game while it’s being played — dominates the legal market for soccer gambling in the U.K.,” he wrote. “So it’s easy to imagine a mobile prompt from Turner’s Bleacher Report that doesn’t just tell you that the Celtics-Sixers game has gotten interesting in the fourth quarter, but asks if you want to place a bet.”

But you don’t even have to interpret the opportunity so literally, or directly. To begin with, media operators can now build out whole new companies, or develop robust new sections within existing publications, that explicitly targets the behaviors of hyper-engaged, deeply-invested sports bettors. That’s presumably the story behind The Action Network, a subscription-based sports analysis and media company that the betting and fantasy sports crowd. It was formed last October by the Chernin Group — a big media operator that has invested in startups like Anchor, Headspace, and The Athletic, and owns the majority of Barstool Sports — in apparent anticipation of the possibility of the Supreme Court’s decision.

You can also view the legalization of sports betting as recontextualizing the weight and stakes that accompanies articles, videos, or podcast segments analyzing games, teams, trades, or transactions. Where a breaking tweet from Adrian Wojnarowski or an analysis post from Zach Lowe once only had immediate and material value to basketball operators (and only wonkish/emotional value for most fans), the scope of material value now theoretically widens to include larger chunks of normal people as well. I say “wider scope” largely as an acknowledgment that sports betting has, you know, always been around and active. It’s just that the scale of participating everyday people — including inexperienced bettors — has now dramatically increased. Nieman Lab’s Joshua Benton had a great post, also from May, outlining the underlying theory on this: “An awful lot of sports reporting is about to move from entertainment information — stuff you read because you enjoy it — to production information — stuff you read because you think it’ll help you make money.”

Which is all to say: The stakes of sports media is about to get even higher as a whole, and as such, the value of sports media companies are likely going to shift, or at least be reframed somewhat, as a result.

The podcast universe is a pretty wonk- and insider-friendly place. It’s a programming class that really privileges audiences who like to go super deep into something: think Dan Carlin, Dissect, all those politics podcasts. It isn’t hard to imagine that the medium’s natural fit with the wonk-insider overlaps will create fertile conditions for sports betting media plays. Then again…I thought I’d see greater volumes of prominent finance podcasts by now.

Anyway, this Thursday marks the beginning of the NFL season, the first in an America with legalized sports betting.

On a related note: With this partnership, Cadence13 wrapped up a fairly busy August. In the course of that month, the New York-based podcast company announced partnerships with The Action Network, Blumhouse TV, and Kobe Bryant’s Granity Studios.

Just a reminder: The IAB Podcast Upfronts take place in New York this Thursday. Apparently, NPR CEO Jarl Mohn and iHeartRadio CEO Robert Pittman will share the stage to close out the event…natch, I guess?

Running. Keep an eye on Wonder Media Network, a new audio-first media company focused on women and politics started by former editor Shira Atkins and former Bloomberg News reporter Jenny Kaplan. Their first project, Women Belong in the House, which covers the women running for Congress this year, drops this Thursday.

We The North. Two Canadian podcast conferences to track in the fall:

Looks like y’all got a healthy circuit brewing up there.

The taste of the machine. I’ve been listening to film podcasts for as long as I’ve been listening to podcasts — shouts to the /Filmcast, the Filmspotting family, Bald Move, etc. — and so it’s super interesting to see that Rotten Tomatoes, as part of its broader effort to diversify what constitutes a “critic” that contributes to its Tomatometer, is now including individuals who primarily deliver reviews through podcasts into its rubric.

The New York Times has a good description of this: “For the first time, people who review films exclusively via podcast can apply to become Tomatometer-approved. Podcasts must publish at least four episodes a month to be eligible, among other criteria, although Rotten Tomatoes stipulates that ‘podcasts reaching underrepresented groups will also be considered on a case-by-case basis.'”

Rotten Tomatoes’ efforts can also be read as a response to the changing economics and realities of critics and criticism. (Which is nowadays, as you might’ve guessed, pretty darn sucky…but that’s a whole other column.) Anyway, while everyone should probably brace for inevitable hiccups, frictions, and other associated growing pains with this move — along with your garden-variety skepticism against Rotten Tomatoes in general, a viewpoint with which I am mildly sympathetic — this is nonetheless a somewhat satisfying validation of podcasts as a site of taste-creation by a fairly powerful platform. One imagines inclusion will also come with discovery benefits.

Rotten Tomatoes is owned by Fandango, by the way, in case that’s useful information to you.

Number of the Week: 24. That is, 24 hours, which is the temporal length of the podcast marathon that the writer Rembert Browne held last week as part of a campaign to raise $24,000 in order to send kids from his childhood camp in Southwest Atlanta to see the U.S. Open. Browne met his goal, ultimately raising $26,571 from 559 people. He embarked on the nonstop recording session, which ran from noon on Thursday to noon on Friday, at the Anchor studios in New York.

Miscellaneous bites:

  • Eric McDaniel, editor of NPR’s daily news podcast Up First, published a Twitter thread last week outlining his personal attempt to parse through the gender breakdown of the show’s guest booking. Really cool project. (Twitter) Producer Barton Girdwood later followed up: “I’d love to see how these numbers stack up next to other daily news pods. While podcasting in general has trended towards diversity…have the major outlets responsible for the daily pods followed suit?” (Twitter)
  • RadioPublic’s crowdfunding campaign concluded in the wee hours of Monday. In the end, the podcast app raised almost $150,000 from 403 investors, beating its original target by over 500 percent. (Republic) I initially wrote about the effort back in June.
  • WBEZ recently released 16 Shots, a collaboration with the Chicago Tribune that offers a comprehensive look into the fatal police shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, who was shot 16 times by Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke. The podcast is designed to track alongside Van Dyke’s trial, which begins September 5. (WBEZ)
  • Audiobook watch: Audible U.K.’s revenues reportedly grew by 45 percent across 2017 to over £97 million. It also posted its first operating profit to date. (The Bookseller)
  • Shouts to All Songs Considered, which celebrated its 666th episode last Friday.
  • The Atlantic’s Crazy/Genius returns for its second season last week. (Apple Podcasts)
  • Fans of Two-Up’s 36 Questions rejoice: Apparently, the team is working on a second musical. (h/t J Leeman) (Twitter)
  • Made some additions to the Fall 2018 Preview list. More to come. (Website)
  • Someone recently flagged to me the plot of an upcoming CBS show called God Friended Me, in which an outspoken atheist podcaster is…friended by God on Facebook. It does not star Zach Braff, and presumably outspoken atheist podcaster Sam Harris is not involved in the production. (Trailer)

POSTED     Sept. 4, 2018, 10:49 a.m.
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