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Oct. 16, 2018, 11:21 a.m.
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“Yelling at her family in public, in your headphones”: Reality TV comes to podcasts

Plus: The state of Slate, Podtrac wariness, and national/local podcast collaborations.

Editor’s note: Hot Pod is a weekly 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 181, published October 16, 2018.

The state of Slate. Two seemingly conflicting ideas can be true at the same time. Here’s the first idea, which doubts a line of speculation I’ve been seeing a lot lately: Panoply’s divestment from the content business tells us relatively little about the future of the podcast business at Slate, its sister company under the Graham Holdings family. Here’s the second idea: there’s a lot changing at Slate at the moment, and I can’t tell you for certain what its podcast operations will look like this time next year.

Does this paint a worrying picture? Not necessarily. Let’s go over the notes.

Over the past week or so, the veteran digital media company has seen some turnover at the leadership level. On October 4, it was announced that Slate’s editor-in-chief, Julia Turner, is departing for the Los Angeles Times, where she will serve as the newly revitalized paper’s deputy managing editor for arts and entertainment. She will, however, remain as co-panelist on the Slate Culture Gabfest, which means that the podcast will mirror the Slate Political Gabfest in being a Slate podcast stalwart that features three main panelists who aren’t on staff. Deputy editor Lowen Liu takes over Turner’s spot for now.

Then, last Wednesday, Slate’s executive producer of podcasts, the NPR alum Steve Lickteig, announced that he, too, would be leaving the company, to become the executive producer of audio and podcasts at NBC News and MSNBC. (There, he will be joined by senior producer Barbara Raab.)

All this comes on top of the executive-level departure that was announced last month in tandem with the news that Panoply was laying off its editorial team: Jacob Weisberg, chairman of the Slate Group, was leaving to form a new audio company with Malcolm Gladwell, taking the audience-driving Revisionist History with them.

That these leadership exits are clustered is certainly eyebrow-raising, but any overtly glum narrative should be checked against the state of site’s actual podcast portfolio. And on that front, things seem to be quite good.

Consider that Slate has just wrapped up a very successful second season of its narrative documentary podcast, Slow Burn. Not only would I argue that it’s the best nonfiction narrative podcast of the year so far — yes, that includes Serial, In The Dark, and Caliphate, and yes, I’m aware it’s almost certainly recency bias — the sophomore season put up significant numbers. (Some of those numbers, apparently, came from White House aides.) I’m told that, as of Monday afternoon, the second season alone has seen 9.8 million downloads, with an expectation of beating 10 million by tomorrow. It was also an effective driver of subscriptions for Slate Plus, the site’s paid membership program, generating thousands of new members with its offerings of bonus content.

It’s worth noting that Gabriel Roth, previously a senior editor and editorial director of Slate Plus, will be taking up Steve Lickteig’s leadership role over the podcast team. Slow Burn was largely born out of the Slate Plus program, and I’m told that Roth was an instrumental part of the show’s development and strategy. He will hold a new title, editorial director of the Slate Podcast Network, and I, for one, am excited to see what else he brings into the mix.

Consider, also, that Slow Burn’s success comes on top of a well-oiled and sprawling show portfolio that most notably includes all of its Gabfest programming, The Gist with Mike Pesca, and Studio 360 (which it doesn’t own, but houses and co-produces in partnership with PRX-PRI).

That portfolio continues to grow: On Tuesday, Slate will launch its own daily news podcast (The Gist notwithstanding) called What Next with former WNYC personality Mary Harris at the mic, and the site also recently absorbed Karina Longworth’s popular history podcast You Must Remember This, previously housed at Panoply.

Again, two seemingly contradictory things can be true at the same time. In this case, you have dramatic shifts at the leadership level, but you also have a product line that appears to be stable, robust, and reaching for new heights. Take from that whatever conclusions you will, but for me, I’m tempted to put a little more weight on the latter.

The only way is pods [by Caroline Crampton]. How real is reality, really, when it’s captured on a microphone, edited extensively, and then bundled with narration before being presented to the listener?

That’s the Big Question prompted by The Brights, a new British podcast launching this week that presents itself as part of a curious sounding genre: “structured reality.” Behind the production is a producer named Sarah Dillistone, who happens to be the brains behind big British reality TV hits The Only Way is Essex and Made in Chelsea, as well as host Lydia Bright, who found fame as a cast member on TOWIE. (That’s the fun acronym for The Only Way Is Essex, by the way, in case that wasn’t clear to you.) The Brights will follow Lydia and her family over the course of 12 weekly episodes, which will supposedly reveal their everyday highs and lows. It kicks off on October 18.

“[Podcasting] just felt like a really exciting space to be telling this sort of story in this genre,” said Dillistone when we spoke over the phone recently. I had reached out to learn about how she is translating her reality television work into the seemingly more modest audio medium.

“When you go into a family house to film a scene, you have set up your cameras, the lights go on, you have to place people in the exact position for the shot, and then they talk about whatever story is going on,” she explained. “With the podcast, we walked in, popped some mics on, and that was it…It just felt so natural. I can just walk out the room, and life continues being recorded, without the pressures of a camera.”

In many ways, the traditional methods for making a storytelling podcast — identifying characters and scenes, collecting a lot of tape, shaping it into the desired narrative, and then recording narration to go around it — are similar to the methods Dillistone said she uses to create her structured reality TV shows. The difference now that she’s working in audio, she emphasized, is how much less of an intervention the process of recording feels. With no cameras or yells of “action” going on, “the environment just doesn’t change,” she said. “I think it’s completely different to the TV that I’ve made.”

The Brights also strikes me as a straightforward commercial proposition. Lydia Bright has nearly a million followers on Instagram — where she does plenty of sponcon — and appears fairly regularly in the tabloid pages. I’m sure that Acast, the podcast platform that hosts and sells ads for the project, won’t be struggling all that hard to find sponsors who want to follow Bright into podcasting as well.

In the accompanying press release, The Brights is strongly pitching itself as the world’s first ever reality podcast. But I don’t think it can stake claim on being the first “reality podcast” per se. After all, CBC’s Sleepover, Gimlet’s The Habitat, and maybe even something like Megan Tan’s Millennial arguably fall along design lines that are somewhat similar to what we generally talk about when we talk about reality television.

Where the podcast is distinct or unusual, perhaps, is in its focus on harvesting the profile of existing reality stars and the transference of the familiar reality TV aesthetic. Rather than Lydia Bright taking the route of other social media stars and building a generic interview podcast or similar to augment her #brand, she’s actually still doing the thing she’s best known for: goofing around and yelling at her family in public, but in your headphones.

The other chart. I spilled quite a bit of ink last week on the Apple Podcast charts, how they seemed more dysfunctional than usual, and how that complicates the way the industry is represented to the eyes of many newcomers. Apologies for quoting myself, but I posed two underlying questions: “What does it mean when the top of the Apple podcast charts, one of the first touchpoints for many newcomers, features more scams than authentic entries? What signal of values does the chart project to those experiencing their first glimpse of the wider podcast universe?”

Versions of these queries very much apply to the Podtrac Industry Publisher ranker, by the way, which is the other major node of industry representation that functions as a first touch for many newcomers — and which still gets cited as an authoritative picture of the “top end” of the podcast industry without much caveat.

As a reminder: Podtrac’s Publisher ranker continues to work with an incomplete sample. Which is to say, its list of Top Ten publishers only includes those who have chosen to participate in the ranking, and a good number of major players still have not. (The case is different for Podtrac’s podcast ranker, which purports to list shows regardless of whether they opt into Podtrac’s system.) I know nobody really clicks through when I link to my older columns — newsletter analytics, baby — but I wrote about those chart limitations two years ago.

Among the notable publishers that still do not participate in Podtrac’s Publisher Ranker: Gimlet Media, the Vox Media Podcast Network, Cadence13, and Stitcher. That’s not to say that they would all show up in the top 10 if they were included, mind you; I’m just making a point about what the ranker is actually telling you, and many of those noteworthy podcast shops remain excluded at this writing.

This should not be taken to mean that Podtrac’s industry ranker isn’t a helpful resource. I’ve come to find it really useful as a snapshot of the several major publishers that have opted into the list, and it’s generated some interesting questions for research: I, for one, am fascinated by why many companies in Podtrac’s top ten seems to cluster around the 5 million unique U.S monthly listeners mark. All I’m saying is that being “the third biggest publisher on the Podtrac” is far from being the “third biggest podcast publisher,” period — which is an interchanging I’ve seen used a fair bit.

In general, I’d counsel being wary of any industry analysis, ~thought leadership~, or self-congratulations using the Podtrac ranker that:

  • Doesn’t mention its incomplete sampling;
  • Doesn’t take into serious consideration the efficiency ratios of listed publishers — a publisher that needs 600+ shows to reach 5 million unique U.S. monthly listeners has a very different industry position than a publisher that reaches the same audience number with only 5 or 6 shows.

Put some nuance on it, y’know?

Locally sourced [by Caroline Crampton]. Repackaged radio content still makes up a considerable chunk of podcasts. Here in the UK, the BBC in particular does a lot of this — the majority of shows that you can see on its Apple page, for instance, went out as radio broadcasts first. Most of the time, they just get sandwiched with a new intro and outro bits. Occasionally, they slap on some extra material, but typically what you hear on the podcast is what you would have heard on the radio. Until the BBC’s recent shakeup to its podcast commissioning efforts (which I’ve written about in more detail here), this is how the corporation initially projected its influence through podcasting.

That was on my mind when I saw the announcement that BBC English Regions was planning to launch its own showcase podcast feed, called Multi Story. For the uninitiated, English Regions is the segment of the corporation that produces local and regional television, radio, and web content for England, the Isle of Man, and the Channel Islands. (Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland have their own operations going on.) I assumed that the feed would be yet another basic radio repackage effort designed to broadly bump up the potential reach of the division’s 43 local radio stations. The project sounded like a budget-friendly way of getting local radio stories out through podcast feeds when individual stations, typically cash-strapped, might not have the time, bandwidth, or resources to produce original podcast content. And you know, I figured that was totally cool.

But when I listened to the opening of “Swallows,” the first episode dropped into the Multi Story feed last Wednesday, I realized that this was something far more than a simple repackage.

Veteran local radio journalist Becca Bryers, who serves as host and producer, had woven hand-picked excerpts of personal stories from various local radio documentaries into a contemplative, act by act structure. It’s vaguely reminiscent of the way a typical episode of This American Life is constructed. The show’s atmosphere feels purely suited to on-demand audio, from the scoring to Bryers interjecting dashes of her personal life experiences. Even more notably, the episode was largely stripped of any local radio promotional effort in favor of a clean, immersive, podcast-first listening experience.

“Local radio gets stories that perhaps some of the networks don’t, almost because they’re not able to, because at a local station you’re coming into contact with people on a really small level all the time,” Bryers told me. The idea of a digital audio project weaving these more lasting, timeless, personal stories together seemed the natural next step to her.

Development for Multi Story began around 18 months ago, when Bryers took that idea of weaving together timeless and personal locally sourced stories to the then English regions commissioner, David Holdsworth. After getting her to make a pilot, he commissioned a ten-episode first series of Multi Story, an out-of-the-box move for a BBC executive heading up a division that had no real track record with podcasting. It’s a stretch play that Bryers is grateful for. “I really appreciate that he took that chance on me,” she said.

Bryers sees Multi Story first and foremost as a chance to make a rgreat podcast rather than necessarily as a direct promotional tool for radio or the local stations that it draws on. “I don’t know if completely the aim is to increase the listenership for the radio stations,” she said. “Obviously you’d hope that it raises awareness of local radio in general…We think of it a bit like the Facebook pages that each of the local stations have. Originally the thinking with those was as a branding strategy for the station, whereas often now we see them as a separate entity, just another service that the local stations offer. Just because you use the Facebook page doesn’t mean you listen to the radio and vice versa.”

She used her contacts in local radio to find “producers who really get podcasting” at each station, who would then populate a farm system feeding her suitable stories. She also did a substantial amount of original reporting, gathering tape for “stories I’ve been working on for a while but haven’t found a place on the station.” With the pieces that had already been broadcast, she worked extensively to “reversion” them in a “podcasty way,” to avoid the sound being that of replayed radio. “That’s not to take away from the original broadcast,” she said. “I think that if you’ve got something that’s two people talking in a studio, there’s ways that you can lift that into a podcast style and put music under it, or give it more pauses, and breathing space.”

The result, I think, is something quite rare — a genuinely fresh piece of audio made partly from cuts of previous broadcasts. Bryers’ personal immersion in podcasting (she counts herself a massive fan of Ira Glass and Radiolab) and determination to do something different have allowed her to break out of the customary “BBC sound,” and hers is a template that others trying to squeeze more out of the BBC’s existing resources could do well to follow. “I’m genuinely passionate about doing this,” Bryers said. “I really hope that it comes across that it’s not just a ‘local radio thinks they should jump on the podcast bandwagon’ thing.”

Speaking of locally oriented media and podcasts…

The national local. Next Monday will see the release of Believed, an investigative series by NPR and Michigan Radio, the state’s network of local public radio stations. The podcast will examine the USA Gymnastics sex abuse scandal, one of the largest serial sexual abuse cases in American’s history. Michigan Radio reporters Kate Wells and Lindsey Smith will host the series. Here’s a great Elle write-up outlining the show.

Here’s something that this NPR-Michigan Radio collaboration is making me think about: this scandal was originally vaulted into the national consciousness by The Indianapolis Star, the Gannett-owned daily news organization in neighboring Indiana. Gannett, of course, also owns the USA Today Network, which recently launched its own nationally oriented podcast platform that intends to use Gannett’s ecosystem of local publishing entities as pipelines for potential investigative projects.

I bring Gannett’s national podcast initiative up to highlight what seems to be a noticeable increase in the trend of local-national podcast production partnerships. For some reason, my gut tells me that this isn’t a particularly new development, but I can’t seem to find very many similarly structured productions going back over the past four years. (In other words, hit me up with examples I totally missed.)

Anyway, here are two other contemporary productions that I see fitting into this mold:

(1) Gladiator, a limited series that debuted yesterday from the Boston Globe’s Spotlight team in collaboration with Wondery on the former NFL player Aaron Hernandez, who was convicted of murder and later took his own life in prison. This project continues Wondery’s strategy of partnering with local news organization to produce feverish, nationally eye-catching podcast programming that can be then packaged off as adaptation IP — see: the Los Angeles Times’ Dirty John, now an upcoming Bravo series starring the great Connie Britton. (Give! Connie! Britton! More! Roles!)

Speaking of which, the LA Times is apparently developing two follow-ups to the aforementioned Dirty John, or so the company announced at the recent NewFronts West event. Here’s some info for those projects, as described by AdWeek:

The first new podcast project, tentatively titled Big Willie, will follow a local street racing veteran and Vietnam veteran, examining his eccentric career and checkered legacy; the second, Room 20, centered on an unidentified car crash victim who has been in a coma for 17 years, will piece together clues about the man’s life.

Note that they are both true crime projects. True crime: if it works for them, it works for you.

(2) Last week also saw the release of Underdog, a new weekly podcast documentary from Texas Monthly and Pineapple Street Media tracking the closing days of the Democratic senatorial campaign of Beto O’Rourke — pronounced Beh-to, not Bey-to, as I learned from the first episode — as we crawl into the midterm elections.

Local-national production partnership aside, here’s why I’m in on this show. As I, armchair political analyst Nick Quah, told Fast Company:

[O’Rourke’s] fight with Ted Cruz is increasingly a stand-in for a bigger struggle about the heart of America… I know [O’Rourke] said otherwise, but he’s probably a viable 2020 [presidential] contender for the Democrats [if he wins]. I’d listen the crap out of a Beto-Cruz podcast.

But also: I remain fascinated by Pineapple Street’s continuing adventures with political media and podcasting. Underdog is a strictly journalistic product co-developed with a widely respected monthly, but Pineapple Street is also the shop that produced With Her, the official Hillary Clinton 2016 presidential election campaign podcast that’s essentially a longform political ad/branded podcast, and Stay Tuned with Preet Bharara, an interview show-slash-ideas platform for the former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York. There’s some line straddling here, but nonetheless, I’m very interested to see where else the boutique studio will take political podcasts, already a vibrant and saturated genre.

Midterms, everyone: it’s a mere three weeks away.

One last local podcast bite —

Last week also saw the final dispatch of WBEZ’s 16 Shots, which sought to document the Laquan McDonald police shooting trial in semi-real time. The production was the latest in a line of similarly structured efforts by MPR News with 74 Seconds, which followed the Philando Castile police shooting trial, and WHYY with Cosby Unraveled.

Betsy Berger, the station’s director of communications, tells me that they’re considering 16 Shots a success “from a journalistic perspective, as a partnership with the Chicago Tribune and critical acclaim.” She noted that it was promoted heavily on social media and through the station’s email newsletter, and that the project garnered more than 30 media placements. However, they declined to share download numbers.

This week in New York. Did you know that New York Magazine is developing not one but two new podcasts?

  • The Intelligencer, the new site that merged together NY Mag’s politics and business-focused Daily Intelligencer and tech-focused Select All sections, is working on something called 2038, which will “explore eight different visions of how we can expect to live in two decades.” It will be hosted by Max Read and David Wallace-Wells, and it drops tomorrow.
  • I wrote this up already, but now we have a thread: New York Magazine’s The Cut site is collaborating with Gimlet Media to produce a weekly “what’s happening in the newsroom” podcast, called The Cut on Tuesdays. It’s hosted by Molly Fischer, and the first episode dropped today.

These two projects add to Vulture’s ongoing interview podcast Good One: A Podcast About Jokes, hosted by Jesse David Fox, resulting a New York Magazine podcast portfolio shape that I suppose you can describe as “one-site, one-show.” For now, anyway. This marks the storied media organization’s second wave into on-demand audio; the first came in the form of Panoply partnerships, back when that company was still producing content and generally pursued a strategy of hand-holding non-audio publishers into the medium through Gabfest-style templates. That early wave resulted in the Vulture TV Podcast, New York Magazine’s Sex Lives, and the Grub Street Podcast, all of which are now defunct.

A disclaimer: I contribute to Vulture as a podcast critic, but I have no special insight into these matters. In fact, I didn’t even know these shows were in the oven! Freelancers and contractors, we are an afflicted kind, living in little wells with fleeting views of the sky.

Miscellaneous Bites

  • Eric Mennel, the co-creator of Criminal and a senior producer at Gimlet Media who hosted a recent season of Startup, is moving to NPR, where he will join the Embedded team. There, he will serve as a supervising producer tasked with making the podcast a “premiere franchise for serious journalism” whose work will be presented through various platforms.
  • The television adaptation of Crooked Media’s Pod Save America debuted on HBO this past week. Much like Texas Monthly’s Underdog podcast, it runs until the midterms, which means it’s a really limited series.
  • “Mississippi-based podcast aims to educate, impact local ears.” (AP)
POSTED     Oct. 16, 2018, 11:21 a.m.
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