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Sept. 25, 2018, 10:17 a.m.

Nope, there isn’t a podcast bubble

Plus: Serial’s audience grows, Gannett builds a local audio franchise, and what a Pandora–SiriusXM marriage could mean for podcasting.

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 178, published September 25, 2018.

BuzzFeed lays off in-house audio team. In case you missed it, this was the big podcast news that drove casual discussions about the industry over the past week: Last Wednesday, The Wall Street Journal reported that BuzzFeed has laid off its in-house audio production team — perhaps most famous for people-of-color–driven shows like Another Round, See Something Say Something, and Thirst Aid Kit — in favor of reallocating its resources towards the company’s video operations. As a result, the majority of its podcast portfolio will cease production. In an all-hands meeting Thursday (covered by BuzzFeed’s Steven Perlberg on Twitter), the company’s leadership noted that the decision was driven by difficulty finding a big audience — not a financial calculation.

Don’t miss the second part of the development, however: The company will adopt a production model similar to that of its television projects — “that is, treating shows as individual projects, with teams brought on as needed,” as Shani Hilton, VP of news and programming at BuzzFeed News, wrote in an internal memo cited in the Journal article. I imagine that arrangement will be deployed only if the company chooses to pursue another foray into audio at some point in the future, which isn’t a given. A deep-dive into BuzzFeed by The Information, published yesterday, tells the story of a company that’s shifting away from a production culture of broad experimentation towards a more resource-conscious one, stricter in the number of bets it plans to take.

In other words, what happened to the BuzzFeed’s now-dissolved audio team is a little more nuanced than what’s been driving the takes. The story of the PodSquad, I think, is mostly about a team that made great contributions to podcast culture, but was ultimately rendered a casualty of strategy.

Vox Media expands podcast operations. While one buzzy digital media company winds down its in-house audio division, another scales up. Vox Media announced this morning that it is expanding its audio efforts, effectively doubling its podcast portfolio. You can find the full details of Vox Media’s new programming slate in this announcement post, but it includes new podcasts from Recode (Pivot with Kara Swisher and Scott Galloway), Eater (Start to Sale), SB Nation (It Seemed Smart), and the broader Vox Media brand (Function with Anil Dash). Vox will also be launching a new podcast project that will accompany a new section of coverage.

There will also be show expansions: The Verge’s flagship Vergecast podcast and Vox’s flagship The Ezra Klein Show will now publish twice a week (starting next week) and Vox’s The Weeds will publish special episodes on the next several Wednesdays to cover the upcoming midterm elections.

Also, sports: SB Nation will roll out a new portfolio of 32 NFL podcasts, one for each team. This builds upon the media brand’s earlier move to build a mini-sports podcast network around the city of Philadelphia.

“Podcasting is a growth business for Vox Media,” wrote Nishat Kurwa, the company’s executive producer of audio. She noted that podcasting started out as “more of a hobby” at the organization but has since shifted into a strategic division for Vox Media. I’m told that downloads across the Vox Media Podcast Network have grown significantly year-over-year and that the network is profitable. “Obviously, super-engaged audiences are compelling to advertisers,” said Kurwa. “We’ve notably diversified our mix of advertisers this year and see this demand growing over time.” [Note that the Journal reported Sunday night that Vox Media is “expected to miss its revenue goal for this year by more than 15%.” — Ed.]

I asked Kurwa what she thought about the recent industry shakeups that seemed to have sparked a new wave of discussion around whether on-demand audio can actually provide value to media companies. “Growing a successful podcasting business can’t be a side job,” she said. “It takes serious dedication, support from the entire company, and building capabilities that require investment: development, production, marketing, and sales. And we know it’s going to take continued commitment and focus to stay competitive.”

She laid out Vox Media’s efforts on this front: how some of the organization’s top editors have put in work behind the mic for years, how the company formalized its audio division last year, and how they’ve been aggressively hiring to support the division’s programming and sales efforts.

“Even as some digital media players drop out of the podcast game, interesting new players will jump in as they see potential in this business,” Kurwa added.

Serial’s strong debut numbers. Serial returned with its highly-anticipated third season last Thursday, and what a return it was: Each of the first two episodes of Serial’s latest season brought in over 1.4 million global unique downloads within the first 14 hours of publication. I wrote about the numbers for Vulture, but here are the specific counts: The first episode, “A Bar Fight Walks Into the Justice Center,” saw around 1.46 million unique first-day downloads, according to Podtrac numbers provided to Vulture. The second episode, “You’ve Got Some Gauls,” brought in around 1.43 million unique first-day downloads.

In comparison, the first episode of the second season garnered around 1.34 million unique downloads on its first day, which means that Serial’s third season scored the podcast’s biggest debut yet. (Wanna know something crazy? The very first episode of Serial only brought in 86,000 downloads on day one. Wild.) Anyway, those numbers are verified by Podtrac, which switched over to GMT cutoff times earlier this year — hence the 14-hour time-frame.

Making a murderer. After building out an impressive podcast network chiefly comprised of conversational programming, The Ringer is now trying its hand at narrative audio storytelling. Next Monday, the Bill Simmons-founded digital media company will launch Halloween: Unmasked, a serialized podcast documentary that will dig deep into the making, phenomenon, and legacy of John Carpenter’s legendary 1978 horror film Halloween. Amy Nicholson, the film critic and podcaster (The Canon and Unspooled, both with Earwolf), will host the series, which is set to play out across eight episodes. And since there’s a new Halloween movie around the corner — also titled, conveniently, Halloween — the podcast will also feature a preview of the upcoming film, giving the project a nice timely peg.

“We knew that we needed to challenge ourselves a little bit to evolve some of the podcast stuff we’ve been doing,” said Sean Fennessey, The Ringer’s chief content officer. “We’ve obviously had some success with the conversational, news-driven, enthusiastic-obsession formats, which we love doing and will keep doing them hopefully in perpetuity. We just wanted a new stripe, a new flavor.”

The Ringer’s push into narrative audio had its fits and starts. I’m told that the company had, in fact, explored the possibility of produced a serialized podcast as far back as 2016. Back then, they pursued an idea for a NBA documentary podcast that didn’t end up coming together — they couldn’t get enough principals, they couldn’t crack the story — and later on, when they began to explore the prospect of building a narrative podcast around a film, they encountered similar development hurdles.

“I wanted to do this with a different movie franchise and it fell through (not because of us),” Simmons wrote in a statement. “We were incredibly disappointed. Then Sean had the idea to try Halloween, so I called Jason Blum” — the Blumhouse Productions founder who is producing the upcoming film, and who guested on Simmons’ podcast last October — “and pitched it to him. We needed help getting key people like John Carpenter and Jamie Lee Curtis or else it couldn’t have worked. And Jason is an awesome guy who loves movies — he wanted to listen to this podcast as much as we did. So he promised to help and we were off.”

To produce the series, The Ringer turned to Neon Hum Media, an Los Angeles-based boutique podcast production company founded by Jonathan Hirsch, the creator of Arrvls and, more recently, Stitcher’s Dear Franklin Jones. As for the choice to bring Nicholson in to host the doc: “She was kind of the perfect person for this,” Fennessey said. “I knew she’d written about horror, and she’s also a really good reporter, which is important because there are strong aspects of creative reportage that goes into a show like this… We’re trying to explore something in-depth and get to the bottom of why something became as powerful or resonant as it did.”

The hope is to create a multi-discipline podcast: part traditional making-of documentary, part critical analysis, part historical narrative. Fennessey was reluctant to cite any sources of inspiration that serve as direct models for Halloween: Unmasked — he didn’t work on the day-to-day of the podcast, so he didn’t want to speak for the producers — but he did point to one potent frame of reference: “One show we did talk a little about, which I think is very different in execution but we have a ton of admiration for, is Karina Longworth’s You Must Remember This,” he said, referring to the popular Hollywood history podcast that blends together deep research, analysis, and performance.

Thinking, again, about the recent developments in the podcast industry, I asked Fennessey about the state of podcasts at The Ringer. The network, I’m told, is profitable. “We feel really lucky that the strategy we’ve deployed has worked so far,” he said. “We’ve been really fortunate to land on a couple of really successful shows, and we feel good about the audiences for even our modestly sized shows. We just want to keep growing.”

With the addition of Halloween: Unmasked, the Ringer Podcast Network will now contain 27 shows that, according to The Hollywood Reporter, collectively brings in more than 32 million downloads a month. That scale appears to be a direct consequence of a fluidity that the company imbues into its podcast operations: At The Ringer, they tend to execute and test on new show ideas really quickly. That fluidity, I’m told, is largely representative of the culture that Simmons has built. “He always pushing us to try new stuff,” Fennessey said. “He’s not afraid to say, ‘I know we’re still piloting this, but I think it’s good enough to put out into the world,’ and if it doesn’t work, that’s okay, it’s not the end of the world.”

“The World’s Largest Audio Entertainment Company.” Or so goes the press release, anyway. SiriusXM, the satellite radio giant, announced yesterday that it is officially moving to acquire Pandora, the streaming music service, for $3.5 billion in an all-stock deal. This development doesn’t exactly come out of the blue; as Recode’s Peter Kafka pointed out, SiriusXM had already invested $480 million in Pandora for a 19 percent stake last summer — which, while not a straight-up acquisition, definitely set the scene for the relationship between the two companies to lead to this point. The benefits for either side are pretty clear: The satellite radio giant — operating in a traditional linear broadcasting environment that can only grow so much more — is buying into the internet, and the streaming music service needs help and more resources to compete against Spotify and Apple Music.

This is obviously a pretty big media deal, but why should you, the podcast-newsletter-reading constituency, care about what happens between a satellite radio company and a music streaming company?

Some reminders:

  • Pandora has been gearing up for some sort of big push into podcasts — or podcast-style content, or whatever term you prefer if you’re one of those people who associate the word with a strict definition of the ecosystem. As far as back as January, Pandora CEO Roger Lynch has been signalling strong intent to build a “Podcast Genome Project” as a way to insert the company into the industry’s discovery and monetization efforts. I imagine this is, in part, some response to Spotify’s (very) slowly but steadily increasing participation in the podcast space. Pandora’s involvement in podcasting is already out in the open: The company serves as the “exclusive streaming partner” for Serial and This American Life.
  • SiriusXM, as you might remember, is a strong presence in the car dashboard, and this acquisition would theoretically strengthen Pandora’s brand — and infrastructure — within the context of car entertainment systems. Depending on how Pandora’s adventures with podcasting goes, this could be a way for podcasts to greatly expand their exposure to everyday people who drive connected cars. (Insofar as normal everyday people actually drive connected cars. Shout-out to my totally analog beat-up red Subaru Forester.)

On a completely related note: Crimetown, the pulpy Gimlet Media podcast from The Jinx’s Marc Smerling and Zac Stuart-Pontier, is coming back next month, and the new season will cover the city of Detroit. And as I noted on Vulture, the new season will be exclusively available on Spotify, though the show is planning to distribute the first episode in all the places you can usually find podcasts: Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, and so on. The second episode and every subsequent installment will be found only on Spotify.

Welcome to The City. Back in February, I wrote about the curious life of The City, an upcoming project by former WBEZ producer and Chicago Reader deputy editor Robin Amer: how the project began as a winning pitch to WNYC’s 2015 podcast accelerator, how a circuitous series of events led to the show becoming the centerpiece for a big podcasting gambit by the USA Today Network, the Gannett-owned media group uniting USA Today and a wide array of local news operations, and how the podcast was staffing up in preparation for its first season.

Well, The City is finally live, with the podcast dropping its first two episodes yesterday. Set in 1990s Chicago, this first season tells the story of an illegal construction debris dump that was built in a black neighborhood by a man with connections to the city’s mob underworld — and the ensuing undercover FBI investigation that, as Amer tells me, arguably failed to bring justice to the community. The whole narrative will play out over ten parts, with new episodes dropping every Monday.

The end of The City’s first season will mark a new beginning, as the production will then shift gears to reflect the USA Today Network’s broader gambit with the project: an audio-first journalism platform that will capitalize on the organization’s broad network of local media properties. “We are an inherently local company — we have feet on the ground in 109 communities, with correspondents and bureaus in many more cities,” said Maribel Wadsworth, the publisher of USA Today and the president of the USA Today Network, pointing to the way the network pooled resources in order to help elevate the USA Gymnastics investigation, which originated at the Indianapolis Star, into the national consciousness. “That strength in local knowledge, we believe, is a key differentiator that we can leverage on a national level.”

While The City’s first season is constructed around a story that Amer brought into the production, the overarching idea for the podcast, Wadsworth tells me, is to partner with the local news brands across the Gannett portfolio on efforts to build future seasons around local stories with potential national interest. At this writing, the team is already working on a story within this model, which eventually roll out as the second season of the podcast. “That story is currently being reported by a veteran watchdog reporter at one of our local papers and a field producer there,” said Amer. “That reporter is bringing 20 years of local reporting experience into the mix, and we plan to shape that story for a national audience in a way that, we hope, will be intimately about that city.” They’re keeping the identities of the paper, city, and reporter under wraps for now, but the plan is to reveal those details at the end of the first season.

Advertising sponsorships currently make up The City’s primary revenue stream. The podcast partnered with the Los Angeles-based podcast company Wondery on distribution, and I’m told that Wondery has already lined up a few sponsors ahead of launch. (The Wondery partnership also means that the podcast will be hosted on Art19.) There are plans to explore other revenue streams for future seasons, but it appears to still be early days on that front.

For Gannett, The City presents an opportunity to build an audio journalism platform that has the potential to scale. “We’ve had some success in the podcast space before,” said Wadsworth, singling out Accused, the true crime podcast from the Cincinnati Enquirer that I’m told brought in over 12 million downloads across its two seasons. “But what’s unique about The City is that it’s a template — we can formally apply it to investigate and explore issues in other cities.”

In the U.K., podcasts are TV’s new BFF [by Caroline Crampton]. TV recap podcasts are nothing new. In fact, they’re such staples that the recap podcast model is nowadays being applied to radio programs, too. There’s one that focuses on the long-running BBC radio soap The Archers, which has been broadcast continually since 1951, named DumTeeDum after the distinctively enraging Archers theme music, and there are a couple more that spin off from Britain’s longest-running radio show, Desert Island Discs.

The idea of a TV companion podcast is a little newer here in the U.K. In 2017, the BBC debuted an official companion podcast to their ballroom dancing reality show Strictly Come Dancing, and are bringing it back for the latest season this autumn. ITV experimented with the idea for the 2018 series of Love Island, a hugely popular dating reality show in which contestants live in a Mediterranean villa and are eliminated if they don’t couple up. The winning couple goes home with £50,000 at the end. (I tried to crowdsource this explanation on Twitter and a very smart friend of mine came up with “if Jersey Shore was 12 British strangers on an island.”) The companion podcast, called Love Island: The Morning After, is being produced by the independent production company Rubber Chicken and Acast.

That spinoff podcast stayed at the top of the U.K. Apple Podcast charts for weeks, and Susie Warhurst, global head of content for Acast, told me that it hit nearly 3.5 million downloads over its two-month run. Kellogg’s, the cereal brand, served as the headline sponsor for the show, and I’ve heard word that the podcast has been considered a success worth repeating by the broadcaster. Warhurst, too, was confident that other such shows will follow. “I think we’re only going to see TV tie-in audio shows increase and evolve and as a result, brand advertisers flock to them,” she said.

The digital TV channel Crime+Investigation (owned and operated by the U.S. media company A+E Networks and BSkyB) has also begun dabbling in this space. Their new flagship true crime TV show Murdertown, presented by former Coronation Street actress Katherine Kelly, now has a companion podcast of the same name. Instead of in-house talent, though, it is created by a team of independent true crime podcasters: Benjamin Fitton from They Walk Among Us (TWAU) and Anna Priestland from Casefile. Both have a pretty strong track record in this space; Fitton told me that TWAU brought in a million downloads in August.

The Murdertown podcast aims to be a companion to the TV show in a more literal sense than the Strictly or Love Island spinoff podcasts. Rather than analysing the onscreen content, it tells stories associated with the places featured in the TV episodes. There is plenty of overlap with TWAU; the Murdertown show promises “ten stories of people who might appear just like us, but are capable of evil,” which is similar to TWAU’s overarching theme that unsolved crimes are far more common than we think.

It would be perfectly possible to understand enjoy the Murdertown podcast without ever seeing the TV show — which, of course, isn’t the case for the more commentary-based podcasts. Nevertheless, Fitton and Priestland aimed for a similar aesthetic and storytelling. At the point that Fitton was brought on board, the TV series had already been filmed, but the podcast team were shown early cuts of the TV episodes to ensure the feel of the podcast matched the tone.

In other ways, Fitton’s experience of making the podcast has been “worlds apart” from the process behind TWAU, an independent show in which its two creators do everything from research to editing to illustrating to marketing. He tells me that Murdertown was a more professionalized production (that A+E retains full rights for). Fitton explained: “I’m recording the narration in a studio in London and have an audience of editors and producers, which can be quite daunting…Also, I’m not involved in the editing process, which is a change of pace, as you have to place your trust in other people. But it has been a very enjoyable experience.”

It’s not hard to see what C+I gets out of this arrangement, since working with Fitton and Priestland gives the network access to a chunky audience of dedicated true crime fans via TWAU and Casefile. For the podcasters, it’s a useful sideline, and a chance for their work to be exposed to TV true-crime fans who aren’t yet into podcasts. Essentially, it’s an alternate multimedia version of the cross-promo techniques podcasts have been employing for years.

The same as it ever was. For as long as I’ve been writing this newsletter, there has always been talk about the podcast bubble. Indeed, the first time I spoke on a podcast panel, at an alumni event for my alma mater back in February 2015 at WNYC’s Greene Space in Manhattan, the moderator, who now leads a fairly notable podcast operation, kicked off the discussion with the question: “Is this a bubble?” Again, that was 2015, and while the bubble narrative largely settled into the background during the intervening years, in many ways, its shadow — that much of podcasting’s popularity, value, and gains are fragile, fleeting, or fictitious for whatever reason — has never stopped looming over everything.

Over the past week, the bubble narrative stepped into the spotlight once again, with some observers stringing together the stories of the BuzzFeed audio layoffs, Panoply’s phasing out of its editorial division, and Audible’s elimination of its podcast-style production team to establish a gloomy narrative.

So, here’s the thing: I do think there’s been bubble-like behavior here in podcast-land — but those three stories have nothing to do with it at all. Here’s how I read them:

  • BuzzFeed’s position in audio should be considered limited at best, despite what I’d argue were outsized early returns that the company didn’t end up capitalizing upon.
  • Panoply laying off of its editorial team marks a divestment from content, and its refocusing on “merely distributing podcasts” is more accurately a wholesale commitment to developing next-generation podcast advertising technology. It’s also important to note that its sister company, Slate, is more committed to audio now than ever before.
  • Audible’s machinations appear to chiefly be the result of a vision-shift related to executive reshuffling — and that Audible’s various original content experiments, in any case, don’t really say much about the podcast business, given the specificity of its business model.

In any case, it’s worth remembering that any wholesale evaluations of the podcast industry should probably consider the health of podcast-first companies that will face the strongest headwinds in market downturns: places like Stitcher, Gimlet, HowStuffWorks, Wondery, Radiotopia, Night Vale Presents, the suite of boutique podcast agencies, and so on. (And not to mention big solo shops like The Joe Rogan Experience.) One also needs to consider the health of podcast divisions in non-audio-first media companies that have actually capitalized on previously developed podcast successes: The New York Times, The Ringer, Vox Media, and so on. And let us not forget public radio, that old segment: NPR, Serial Productions, member stations, and so on.

Those evaluations should also, I think, consider what the podcast advertising community is thinking. I spoke to a few sources over the past week, and the emerging narrative I heard is a little different: that the industry is “maturing,” that advertising demand is continuing to grow, that their demands are likely to evolve as the podcast ecosystem continues to evolves. iHeartRadio’s acquisition of Stuff Media featured prominently in our exchanges; though it’s unclear to many what that move means for podcasting, they appear to be reading it as a positive.

Which is all to say: If there is a podcast bubble, the aforementioned three stories aren’t your indicators.

It’s up to you to decide if the existence of a podcast bubble should take up your concern. The significantly more tangible and pressing question, I’d argue, isn’t whether podcasting is a bubble, but whether podcasting remains open, broadly defined. A long time ago, a really smart person (whose identity I’ve completely forgotten, I’m so sorry) told me that the principal puzzle of podcasting lies in the fact that, because it has an extremely low barrier to entry, it has an extremely high barrier to scale. And what I think we’re seeing with the BuzzFeed and Panoply stories — leave aside Audible, come on — is a moment where that latter barrier fully expresses itself, or perhaps grows worse as the space becomes even more competitive.

That problem, of openness, has always been core to what we’ve been talking about all this time.

Miscellaneous bites:

  • PRX has hired a new chief marketing officer: Donna Hardwick, the senior director of communications and distribution at the public television company ITVS in San Francisco.
  • APM’s Marketplace has a fascinating profile on an ecosystem of paid podcasts in China, which seems to mostly be in the self-help genre.
  • “Inside Barstool Sports’ Culture of Online Hate: ‘They Treat Sexual Harassment and Cyberbullying as a Game.'” (The Daily Beast)
  • This is wild: According to a recent political news story by The New York Times’ Katie Rogers and Maggie Haberman, some aides in the White House are listening to Slate’s Slow Burn — “a podcast about the events surrounding the Nixon and Clinton impeachment efforts” — amidst concerns of possible impeachment proceedings.
POSTED     Sept. 25, 2018, 10:17 a.m.
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