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Oct. 2, 2018, 10:56 a.m.

Can a new slate of shows bring back the buzz for Gimlet, the aspirational “HBO for audio”?

Plus: The Telegraph figures out its audio voice, public radio management shakeups, and a bed in a box.

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 179, published October 2, 2018.

Gimlet’s fall slate. Did you know it’s been slightly over four years since Alex Blumberg launched the StartUp podcast and founded Gimlet Media, which went on to pitch itself as the “HBO of audio” and serve, more or less, as a crucial poster-company for the podcast industry? Four years — the length of a presidential term, both an eternity and a blink of an eye.

As the company heads into its fifth year, it’s preparing for a heavy fall season. According to The Hollywood Reporter’s writeup of the announcement, Gimlet is adding three new shows to its lineup: a horror fiction project called The Horror of Dolores Roach; a collaboration with New York Magazine’s The Cut called The Cut on Tuesdays; and Without Fail: Conversations With Alex Blumberg.

Let’s break those out a little bit:

  • The Horror of Dolores Roach is Gimlet’s third fiction podcast, after Homecoming and Sandra. It stars Daphne Rubin-Vega and Bobby Cannavale (who will also star in the upcoming TV adaptation of Homecoming), and one imagines the project fits well within the company’s strategy of developing intellectual property to be sold off for adaptations via Gimlet Pictures. The Horror of Dolores Roach comes out on October 17.
  • The Cut on Tuesdays appears to be Gimlet’s first swing at a programming style once heavily pursued by Panoply’s now-defunct editorial division: building out podcast extensions of existing media companies, often in the form of conversations with or between that publication’s writers and editors. The podcast will be hosted by The Cut senior editor Molly Fischer, and it drops on October 16. (Disclaimer: I’m a contributor to The Cut’s sister site, Vulture.)
  • Without Fail marks Blumberg’s first formal return to the mic as host in quite some time, if you don’t count his spots on Reply All’s “Yes, Yes, No” segments. StartUp has morphed tremendously over the years — it’s now nearly unrecognizable from its breakthrough original concept — and the last Gimlet-centric season was way back in late 2015/early 2016. Anyway, Without Fail also has the distinction of being the company’s very first interview podcast. The show will feature Blumberg sitting down with a string of big names, including Girlboss founder Sophia Amoruso, Groupon founder (and Gimlet investor) Andrew Mason, and the Golden State Warriors’ Andre Iguodala. (That explains this tweet from September 7 which, like, felt super random at the time.) The first episode dropped yesterday.

Two things I’m looking at:

  • One of the bigger questions that has always surrounded Gimlet has been the viability of its venture-backed programming strategy, often perceived to be resource-intensive, stacked towards limited-run series or tight seasons, and therefore generally adherent towards high-risk to hit-or-miss scenarios. I’d be curious to see how The Cut on Tuesdays and Without Fail balances out that perception (and reality).
  • Is it just me, or has it been a while since Gimlet has produced something particularly buzzy? By which I mean something that matched the intensity of hype around Mystery Show, or even the original run of Crimetown. Now, “buzziness” is in many ways a totally subjective experience that falls along the lines of one’s own specific media consumption universes. Sure, totally. But still: Other than Reply All, Crimetown, and Mystery Show, I haven’t heard a non-podcast obsessive talk about a Gimlet show in a while. (Again, totally subjective and specific framework.) A highly visible company trying to be the HBO of audio probably needs a new unambiguous banger. Like, soon.

As a sidenote, a few Gimlet shows are also returning: the aforementioned Crimetown kicked off its second season yesterday, and Heavyweight is back on October 4.

Number of the week: 8 million. That’s the aggregate number of downloads that Wondery’s six-episode Dr. Death has tallied since launching September 4. The podcast’s downloads were verified by Podtrac, and it should be noted that the number includes downloads of the trailer, which came out to around 440,000. If you take that chunk out, we’re talking about a spread at around 1.3 million downloads per episode at this point in time. Dr. Death wrapped up its run last Tuesday.

The Telegraph’s audio strategy [by Caroline Crampton]. The Daily Telegraph, one of Britain’s major national broadsheet newspapers, is making a fresh push into audio content. I’ve been keeping an eye on things over there for quite some time now, ever since I heard that podcast critic Pete Naughton had signed on earlier this year to be the publication’s full-time senior audio producer. The Telegraph is a traditionally right-of-center paper (in British terms, not American, of course), endorsing the Conservative Party in general elections and the Leave campaign in the 2016 EU referendum, and the average age of its readership is somewhere over 50. Given the generally younger and left-wing reputation of the podcast ecosystem, I was interested to find out how such a legacy media brand is approaching this expansion.

I spoke to Naughton over the phone to catch up on his activities since he took on the role in May. “Basically, The Telegraph started taking this stuff seriously about a year ago,” he said. “They had a new director of video and audio, and having spent some years in a bit of an agnostic position towards podcasting, they became more faithful.” The paper already had several shows in production; it was actually fairly early to release podcasts back in the mid-2000s, but that effort “just was naturally left by the wayside for a while” (I think in a similar fashion to The Guardian’s early efforts at a daily news podcast, which I reported on recently).

A good chunk of Naughton’s task, as is the case for many producers joining a big media company, was to become familiar with what audio the newspaper was already putting out, and then to develop a sense of strategy and coherence around its slate of shows. “Part of it’s just been instilling best practice across our shows, trying to get things tightened up,” he said. “Even simple things like getting music beds sorted and rethinking formats.” For example, as a result of this process, The Telegraph’s football podcast has been refashioned and renamed for the start of the new season.

Naughton tells me that a big part of The Telegraph’s audio operation will focus on smart speaker content. “One of the things we’re really proud of is that we were one of the first non-broadcast media organisations to dedicate fulltime staff to making bulletins for smart speakers,” he said. There are two people making four updates a day, seven days a week, that go out on the Amazon Alexa and Google Home infrastructures (with freelancers working shifts alongside the staffers to keep it running week-round). The main bulletins are current affairs-based, and there is also a separate technology news briefing. “We’re looking to roll out other subject-specific ones in the near future as well,” Naughton said.

Being at the forefront of new tech isn’t necessarily something that people associate with The Telegraph, but Naughton said a lot of work on new formats goes on behind the scenes. “There’s a team that does a lot of work on Instagram and Snapchat, and they’ve had a relationship with them since early on.” There’s a willingness to experiment and try new things, which has partly driven the push into smart speakers. “It was like, ‘look, this is moving, we don’t quite know what it means yet, but let’s put some attention on it and get some resources to it and see if we can get something going,'” he said.

Audience growth has apparently been encouraging, and The Telegraph hopes that the relationships they’ve formed with Amazon and Google by being among the first in the U.K. to get on the platforms will pay dividends in the future. They are also in the early stages of producing more interactive content for smart speakers. “There’s a lot more to come there that I think a news group could be well positioned to use creatively, where people interrogate the news a bit more and ask questions of stories.”

Another area that Naughton has been focusing on: less timely audio content. Which makes sense, because in my experience existing publications tend to lean heavily into regularly produced, quick turnaround shows, so there’s a bit of an untapped market in longer-tail, less current affairs oriented productions. “That’s one thing that we’re keen to look at: building a body of audio journalism that isn’t necessarily timely or dated very quickly, but instead can live online and serve as a kind of encyclopedic resource for listeners,” he said.

He cited the example of Edgelands, a Telegraph podcast series made in collaboration with former Army officer and filmmaker Ash Bhardwaj, who recently travelled the length of Europe’s frontier with Russia. Bhardwaj collected plenty of tape while on his trip, which Naughton and his team then turned into a six-part travel series. “Travel felt like an underpopulated category…it was probably a three-month turnaround, and that has gone really well for us — we’ll do another series from another location.” Part of the show’s aim was to drive registrations and signups for the Telegraph website (it has a metered paywall), and Naughton said that via a windowing strategy in which new episodes and additional content were available early for registered users, they saw a good flow of listeners to the site. Since the series isn’t time sensitive, people are still downloading it.

As ever, when a historic media outlet tries something new — The Telegraph was founded in 1855, and its current proprietors (the famed Barclay brothers) took over in 2004 — there’s an existing culture to deal with. “One of the things that every media organization finds when they move into any new medium, but taking audio as the example, is that part of your job is to persuade the print journalists it’s a good idea and worth making time in their already very stretched schedules to give something to it,” Naughton said. That process has gone well so far, he said — people from the newspaper staff now approach him with podcast pitches, or are happy to be interviewed for the smart speaker bulletins. “I think there’s always a tipping point,” he said. “Once you make something successful, people are just keen to be involved in some way.”

At the moment, The Telegraph is monetizing its podcasts in-house, securing sponsors itself. At the moment, the paper’s rugby show, finance show, and a few others all have headline sponsors through this mechanism. However, the plan is to move to a third-party programmatic provider in the near future, so that all their shows are bringing in some revenue.

For now, though, money is just one part of what The Telegraph is looking for in a successful podcast. They’re also looking for shows that can drive new website registrations, grow the publication’s audience, and increase its brand awareness. “Podcasts can reach out to an audience who don’t have a relationship with The Telegraph in another medium, or might even have a sense of it being a stuffy old publication,” Naughton said. “That’s something I’m keen to do more of — make audio products that are more playful, or younger, or pointing to something that we don’t really cover in the newspaper, so we can widen the spectrum of what we’re doing.”

The Sundance Institute gets into podcasts, via the BBC [by Caroline Crampton]. The Sundance Institute, the nonprofit founded by Robert Redford in the early 1980s to discover and develop the talent of independent artists in the American film industry, has made its first foray into podcasting, courtesy of a nifty collaboration with the BBC World Service. The five-part audio series, called Neighbourhood, was commissioned by the BBC, and it features five different short audio documentaries themed and inspired by the concept of, well, neighborhoods. Those audio documentaries were the product of a process in which Sundance recruited documentary filmmakers through an open call and provided them with training from BBC podcast and radio journalists. The series was originally aired on the World Service radio network back in August, and is now receiving a wider release as a podcast. The first episode dropped yesterday, and you can find the feed here. And for what it’s worth: Redford voices the intro to every episode.

A collaboration likes this makes sense to me, even if the principal creators involved haven’t actually had much radio or podcast production training before. After all, this is an equation in which the Sundance Institute’s curatorial prowess is combined the BBC World Service’s infrastructural legacy with audio production to generate something that might possibly be aesthetically noteworthy. Plus, the World Service’s huge global audience — over 54 million people, according to the latest data — along with solid, listener-informed budgets doesn’t hurt.

Simon Pitts, the BBC’s commissioning editor on the project, told me that he’d been to the Sundance Film Festival a few times and felt inspired by the talent he saw at those events. He has worked in television himself, and feels that audio presents “a really good untapped opportunity” for filmmakers because of classic comparative costs reasons. “It’s so easy to tell your story if you don’t have to raise tons of money,” he said. Pitts made contact with Tabitha Jackson, director of the Institute’s Documentary Film Program, and suggested working together to introduce independent film makers in Sundance’s network to audio storytelling. She was keen on the idea, partly because Pitts pitched that the BBC was “promising that we would fund the production of up to six docs,” and partly because of the opportunity it offered for film makers to reach a wider audience.

The choice of neighborhoods as the project’s theme and title was largely a response to the current global political context. “It’s the thing you see in Brexit, it’s the thing you see in the Trump vote, it’s the thing you see in the rise of the far right — who do we live amongst, who are we, where do we fit?” said Pitts. The five projects commissioned for the series were made all over the world: two in the U.S., one in Nigeria, one in Finland, and one in India. “The point was to bring in new voices and new approaches to storytelling,” he explained.

The BBC provided practical assistance to the chosen teams, both on a technical level since many hadn’t worked in audio before, and in a larger practical sense with matters of risk and security for producers when they were recording in the field. Sundance also had its own “care stuff” happening during the process, Pitts said. The overall aim was to be “helpful but not produce for them.”

Although the series has already been broadcast on the World Service radio network, I was told that the project had always been intended to primarily function as a podcast. “That’s why we asked Redford to introduce it,” Pitts said. “Everything’s got this ‘episode one’, podcast-y feel, rather than something more traditional.” In selecting pitches for the series, he tried to pick things that would suit the medium. “The storytellers are all young, I think it’s exciting and good that we’ve got young storytellers telling youthful stories.” As an example of this tone and point of view, he cites the first episode, titled “Fake Marriages for Real Homes,” which focuses on a young unmarried couple trying to rent an apartment in Mumbai, where the housing system is designed only to serve families and married people.

The overall average age of the audience for the BBC World Service, Pitts said, is somewhere between 28 and 31, although it varies from country to country. This series is aimed at that late twenties, early thirties listener, but he feels that there’s no reason that “it shouldn’t be of interest to everybody, because it’s about what’s happening now.”

Even though the podcast has only just started publishing, both the Sundance Institute and the BBC World Service has been deemed the collaboration a success and there are already plans in place to repeat it next year. The next series will be titled Detours, and the call for pitches will be published shortly — so watch out for that. “I hope that we’ll get some lateral, intelligent, thoughtful, creative responses to [the theme],” Pitts said. “So often storytelling is on the nose, providing an immediate response to to something. I hope ‘detours’ offers the opportunity to think around a topic, or take a side approach, or to look off the main drag and see what’s there.”

Pitts was keen to stress that although the project has been aimed at filmmakers with no background in audio, he would have no problem including those with a track record in podcasting, if the pitch was right. “We’re looking for journalists, and we’re primarily interested in the story,” he said. “It’s a good collaboration with an interesting institution and their people, but it’s all about the story and how we treat it.”

This Week in Bezos. This story starts elsewhere: Digiday had an interesting piece last week on Bloomberg’s podcast and text-to-audio products. Two things to note: “The company said that audience downloads for its [podcasts] have increased 35 percent year over year, but was unwilling to give exact numbers.” And its text-to-audio offerings are now apparently the “second-most popular media type on the app (behind live TV).” What wasn’t mentioned in the writeup, but is totally worth flagging, is this data point: Bloomberg uses Amazon Polly for those text-to-audio conversions, according to TechCrunch.

Meanwhile, Amazon is now building out a line of affordable bed-in-a-box mattresses through its AmazonBasics brand, establishing a new front of competition for companies like Casper and Helix Sleep, which are active direct-response podcast advertisers. Hat tip to my boy Gabe Bullard:

Truly, the Bezos comes for us all.

Public radio management shakeups. Been following these two stories:

— Patti C. Smith, the interim general manager of Austin station KUT, abruptly resigned last Monday “amid turmoil following allegations that staff for years were mistreated by a newsroom leader and the surfacing of a recent recording in which a prominent host joked about the Spanish language,” according to a news report by the station itself.

To make things more distressing, later that week the University of Texas, which owns and operates KUT, appears to have instituted a policy in which it will no longer pay out overtime wages to reporters, instead allocating it to a “comp-like bank instead,” according to a KUT reporter Mose Buchele. It’s a difficult situation, and it looks like the station’s workforce is bearing the brunt of the pain.

— In a completely separate situation, New Hampshire Public Radio’s CEO Betsy Gardella announced that she was retiring from the organization after “serious management, human resources and communication issues were identified by independent investigators brought in by the station’s Board of Trustees following complaints from employees.” Here’s NHPR own report on the matter.

Career Spotlight. This week, I traded emails with the very pleasant Adam Cecil, who does various things over at Night Vale Presents.

Hot Pod: Tell me about your current situation.

Adam Cecil: I’m the director of marketing at Night Vale Presents, and I also run most of our membership programs and the merch stores. Big picture, I work with the show teams to engage with listeners outside of the actual show. Also at Night Vale, I’m the assistant producer on the excellent comedy erotica podcast Pounded In The Butt By My Own Podcast with Chuck Tingle.

Hot Pod: How did you get to this point?

Cecil: I went to school at NYU and got a BFA for dramatic writing, so I always have that as a backup in case marketing doesn’t work out. Before Night Vale, I was employee #6 at a fintech startup called Policygenius. I was hired for content marketing, but being in that environment allowed me to stretch my legs beyond my job title and got me into rooms that I would otherwise have no business being in. It also taught me how to survive at a company that’s constantly changing and evolving from week to week.

As the company got bigger and things got a bit more regimented, I wanted to go someplace smaller where I could do a bunch of different jobs and learn some new skills outside of the typical marketing track. I saw a job listing for Night Vale in Hot Pod and have been there for two years this month.

Hot Pod: What does a career mean to you?

Cecil: End goal for me is to be able to make a living by making art, so I feel very lucky to be in a position right now where I’m working with artists and helping them make their work and get it in front of audiences. I don’t know what career means to me other than I hope to keep being able to help make art happen.

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

Cecil: I pretty much always wanted to be a writer in one form or another.

Hot Pod: What drew you to Night Vale, and what drew you to audio fiction?

Cecil: I met a lot of the core Welcome to Night Vale folks back when the show was just starting out — I was interning for the New York Neo-Futurists at the time, a theater group here that most of the WTNV folks have been a part of. So, I was definitely drawn to it because it was like, “Oh, people I know are making a podcast.” But I was also drawn to it because these folks turned their writing into a podcast that thousands of people would listen to. By that point, I’d been listening to podcasts for years but had never thought of it as a medium for fiction. For me, audio fiction is exciting because there are so many different ways to tell a story, both through the writing and through sound. There is a ton of diverse storytelling out there right now, and as more people start creating audio fiction, it’s only going to get more interesting.

Hot Pod: What are you listening to right now?

Cecil: I’m wrapping up my binge of Tommy Pico’s Junk right now — I love object history and Tommy Pico, so this show has been very much up my alley. On the recommendation of Jeffrey Cranor, I’ve been dipping into Imaginary Advice, a very inventive fiction show. I’m also super excited to listen to Kaitlin Prest’s The Shadows. The Heart is one of my fav podcasts of all time and one that I consistently recommend to folks, and I’m so excited to see what Kaitlin does with fiction. Also, I’ve got to plug the Night Vale fall slate — Within the Wires, Adventures in New America, and the upcoming Dreamboy — three shows that show off three very different approaches to audio fiction.

Thanks so much, Adam. You can find him on Twitter.

Miscellaneous bites:

  • This Medium post has been making the rounds: Eric Nuzum, the former Audible Originals who led the division’s podcast-style production team, penned an essay last week on the misconceptions around the spate of industry shakeups we’ve seen over the past few weeks. He discusses what we actually we mean when we talk about a bubble, the current state of podcast CPMs, and his continuing bullishness on the space. (Medium)
  • Stitcher has a new VP of content partnerships: Drew Welborn, a former agent at the Billions Corporation.
  • Pineapple Street Media is working with Texas Monthly on a podcast project, to be dropped on October 11. The pitch: “Beto. Cruz. Texas. The podcast.” I’m sold, baby. (Twitter)

Illustration of StartUp’s hosts by Topher McCulloch used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Oct. 2, 2018, 10:56 a.m.
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