Nieman Foundation at Harvard
Postcards and laundromat visits: The Texas Tribune audience team experiments with IRL distribution
ABOUT                    SUBSCRIBE
Nov. 6, 2018, 11:13 a.m.
Audience & Social

All Chapo, no Trap House: Vice News’ bilingual podcast offers extra content for Spanish-speaking listeners

Plus: Alexa for U.S. election information, daily news podcasts that aren’t U.S.-centric, and the state of Recode’s podcasts.

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 184, published November 6, 2018.

Good Tuesday, everyone. It’s midterm elections here in the United States, which means, naturally, I’m dedicating a good chunk of this newsletter to Canada. Anyway, if you’re an American reader, I hope you’ve already voted, or plan to. I don’t have that right as a permanent resident of this country, and I envy you deeply.

Alright, let’s get into it.

ICYMI: Apple reportedly exploring investment in iHeartMedia. The Financial Times broke the news last week. This story, I think, is the living definition of the “whoa, if true” meme — or more appropriately, a “big deal, if it happens” kind of thing. Is that a thing? Whatever, it’s a thing.

Chapo Court House [by Caroline Crampton]. The trial of Mexican drug lord Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzman began with jury selection on November 5 in Brooklyn. Guzman was extradited to the U.S. in January 2017, having escaped twice from prisons in Mexico, and is now facing charges of drug trafficking and conspiracy. In light of both the length of the trial (it’s expected to run for at least four months) and the high level of global media interest in the case, the jurors will remain anonymous for their own safety and reporting will be scrutinized carefully for any potential impact on the judicial outcome — prosecutors have even asked to have sketch artists blocked from the courtroom, in case the Sinaloa cartel is able to make identifications from such images.

It is into this environment that Vice News has launched its first podcast, Chapo. It’s a bilingual English-Spanish narrative documentary series that promises to tell “the stories you won’t hear in the courtroom during El Chapo’s federal prosecution.” It trails some pretty impressive-sounding interviewees, from the former DEA agents who captured Guzman to a former president of Mexico. The first episode dropped on all platforms on November 1, to be followed by two more released widely. The rest of the eight-part series will be exclusive to Spotify, released weekly on Thursdays. All eight episodes of the Spanish-language version of the show will also be exclusive to Spotify.

There were several different aspects to this production that caught my attention, from the high-profile subject matter to the Spotify-led release plan to the fact that this is Vice News’ first foray into audio. (The broader Vice Media organization has long dabbled in podcasting.)

A Vice News spokesperson told me over the phone that the company originally explored whether this story could work on one of Vice News’s other video or digital outlets, such as Vice on HBO or the Vice News website. “Keegan Hamilton, our host, has been covering the drug trade for over a decade, and he came with this idea,” that person said. “He really wanted to go into Chapo’s life and get the stories that nobody has ever got before, leading up to this trial…As the reporting evolved, they realized how in-depth the story was and that there were so many aspects to it, so the best way to do it would be to serialize the reporting. That meant putting it through a podcast, which Vice News had never done before.”

Hamilton has been reporting for the podcast for most of 2018. The spine of the show is a conversation with co-host Miguel Angel Vega, an investigative journalist in Mexico who writes for the Riodoce newspaper. Vega is also a crucial part of the Spanish language version of the podcast, which isn’t completely parallel with the English version, but is rather a refashioning with extra context for listeners in Mexico and across Latin America.

This choice to go bilingual came early on, Hamilton told me over email. “Right from the beginning we knew we had to tell El Chapo’s story on both sides of the border, which meant including the voices of both Mexicans and Americans who were somehow affected by the drug war and El Chapo’s rise and fall,” he said. “It didn’t take us long to realize we had a ton of great tape from our reporting in Mexico that would lend itself to making a Spanish adaptation. There’s also tremendous interest in El Chapo’s case in Mexico and across Latin America, and in order to effectively reach that audience the only option was to produce a version in Spanish.”

Ryan McCarthy, editor in chief of Vice News, added that the two versions of Chapo “diverge in really interesting ways,” and that the company is “xcited about doing more bilingual projects in the future.” You can read this intention in some of the talent assembled for this show — the producer for the Spanish edition of Chapo is Martina Castro, the CEO and founder of Adonde Media who also co-founded NPR’s Radio Ambulante. (You can read Nick’s interview with her from April about bilingual podcasts here).

As for the decision to make all but the first three episode of the English edition exclusive to Spotify, Vice News told me that it’s the team’s “way into the podcast world.” The show isn’t just available to Premium users, though — the strategy seems to be more about raising awareness of Spotify generally as a platform for podcasts, rather than specifically driving paid signups.

Chapo is also far from a bystander in this story. McCarthy said that the desire to do the show came out of a strong feeling that “it was time for a different kind of conversation about the U.S. and Mexico. Because of the monumental case against Chapo and the rhetoric we’ve seen in politics over immigration and President Trump’s border wall, we wanted to give people a new way of looking at how the U.S. and Mexico are connected.”

Hamilton pointed out that the podcast had been referenced alongside other media in a recent court filing by the prosecution in the Chapo trial, which suggested that such coverage could “taint the jury pool and derail the jury selection process.” “The judge ultimately refused to delay the start of the trial, and he mentioned a podcast — though he didn’t cite ours by name — when explaining his decision,” Hamilton explained. As the trial gets underway this week and media attention on it builds, I imagine this won’t be the last time this contention is raised.

Chapo is just the first of more audio projects from Vice News, McCarthy said. “Vice News has some really big plans for more investigative and narrative podcasts,” he said. “Looking forward to sharing more of those in the coming months.”

Citizen Alexa. Last week, Amazon rolled out a series of Alexa updates that lets users access U.S. election information through the smart speaker platform. Bill Barton, the VP of information on the Alexa team, noted in a corporate blog post that the move was a response to consumer behavior.

“Customers asked Alexa millions of questions during the 2016 presidential election and we’ve taken learnings to evolve and expand our elections experience for the midterms,” Barton wrote. These updates include the delivery of basic voter information — voter registration deadlines, polling times, what’s on the ballot, and so on, all through a partnership with Ballotpedia — and real-time election results.

Here’s what else that stands out to me: echoing similar initiatives carried out by Facebook and Twitter, it looks like the Alexa team is also building a pop-up human-staffed team to handle this major news event. “In addition to advanced AI and algorithm efforts, for every major moment like this, we also bring together a dedicated ‘war room’ of writers, engineers, and data scientists who work together to ensure Alexa is providing customers the most accurate information possible in real-time,” Barton wrote.

Amazon-as-information-company is…certainly a frontier to watch.

In related news:

Also: Looks like the NPR One team has hired Anne Li, who previously served the “interactive audio producer” at the Washington Post. As part of NPR One, she will be the emerging platform lead, a role that involves finding “new ways” for the platform’s audiences to “get news coverage and public radio content on devices such as Alexa, Google Home, and other Voice Assistant Technology.”

L.A. Hallucinations. KCRW, the Los Angeles public radio station that’s home to such fine podcast products as Bodies, Welcome to L.A., Here Be Monsters, and Don’t @ Me with Justin Simien, announced yesterday that it has picked up Nocturne, the independent podcast by Vanessa Lowe, for distribution.

Has KCRW low-key become one of the most interesting podcast publishers in biz? Why yes, yes indeed.

This week in daily news podcasts. I don’t want to spend too much time on this, but I just wanted to highlight two recent additions to the genre that are pretty compelling: the CBC’s Front Burner and The Guardian’s Today in Focus.

Three parts to this take:

(1) Both productions genuinely beat the problem of information redundancy for me, speaking as a U.S.-based news consumer. One of the major opening hurdles for any new American daily news podcasts is addressing the choice between staking claim on the biggest U.S.-centric stories — thereby risking a repeat for some listeners that might already be attached to The Daily — or pursuing an alternative route. Either way, your context is defined by the front-runner, which gets real tricky real quick.

For Front Burner, which has an open lane to claim the “new front page” of Canada, and Today in Focus, which holds a purely international gaze, the lane is open to make their choices completely on their own terms. There have been some headline overlaps, particularly when it comes to Front Burner, but I’ve found the overarching choices of both productions quite encouraging — and refreshing.

(2) Speaking of being defined by The Daily: the influence and shadow of that production seems to loom quite heavily over Front Burner and Today in Focus. I can’t speak to the extent to which The Daily’s design elements affected choices made by both production teams, but you can definitely hear some familiar moves in the toolkit. It’s quite fascinating.

(3) Something I particularly liked: Today in Focus’s choice to attach an Opinion section to the end of each episode. I’m not super hot on The Argument, The New York Times’ recently launched attempt at a podcast for its (highly scrutinized, sometimes controversial) Opinion section, in large part because I find the gabfest format to be a little too cumbersome to effectively carry out its goal: namely, to present and extend an informed opinion (ideally). The monologue structure of Today in Focus’s Opinion segment gets us much closer to the heart of it, I think.

Shareable audio [Caroline Crampton]. 9to5Google spotted that a new sharing functionality has been added to the Google Podcasts app in the past few weeks. You can now click the dots in the top right of the screen and get a direct link for the show or episode you currently have loaded up. On an Android device, clicking this will open the relevant content straight in the app, and on desktop/other platforms it shows the podcast’s artwork and a link to download the Google Podcasts app. There isn’t yet any support for linking to specific timestamps within an episode, but we can only assume that’s coming, given Google’s previously stated aim of using AI to automatically transcribe podcasts so that listeners can jump easily between sections.

The question “can audio go viral” is a bit of a meme at this point, and I’m not sure that a basic functionality like this is suddenly going to change the game in that department. However, I’m all for easy linking options, especially on a mobile platform that doesn’t have an obvious or default podcast option.

Recode to be folded into The influential tech business news site, launched by Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg in 2014 and acquired by Vox Media a year later, is being reshuffled within the organization. According to The Wall Street Journal, which was first to report the move, Recode is set to relaunch as a section of next year — where it will more formally take advantage of the latter’s editorial, technology, and distribution assets — though the site will reportedly retain its brand and business. Swisher also published a blog post clarifying these changes. If it sounds confusing, Nieman Lab helpfully points to a precedent: a similar shift happened with, Vox Media’s retail site, not too long ago, where it has relaunched as a section called “The Goods.”

The Wall Street Journal story held up two things: (1) that Recode’s traffic went down 50 percent year-over-year, and (2) that the audience for the site’s podcasts, newsletters, and conferences has increased over the last year, though no specific numbers were given. (One should also add to that whatever revenues it gets from its TV partnerships.) Predictably, the ensuing observational analysis tended to emphasize the former more than the latter, and this is perhaps understandable: without more specific information on the growth of those three other business channels, it’s a little tricky to intuit the outlook of how the audience and revenue gains from those other channels may balance out the losses in web traffic. And given the generally gloomy media environment — and not to mention the general cattiness of the media industry — catastrophic thinking is the default assumption.

As far as intuiting how the podcast piece fits into the company’s current story, this might be helpful: I’m told that Recode’s podcast audience doubled over the past year, and that its podcast inventory has continually sold out at the upper range of ad rates in the industry. Not unrelated: parent company Vox Media doubled its podcast portfolio earlier in the fall. Sure, yes, slap me with the caveats: who knows what the future looks like for podcast advertising revenues, and we don’t know to extent to which those podcast revenues currently make up for digital advertising losses. Sure, maybe one day the podcasting well will dry up. Totally possible. But the overarching trend holds: display advertising on web text is a losing hand, and as far as a non-subscription-first digital media company goes, the logical strategy is to continue ramping up revenue dependencies elsewhere.

Notes from the Hot Docs Podcast Festival in Toronto. I spent much of the past week attending the Hot Docs Podcast Festival in the great city of Toronto, and I brought back a scattered collection of notes and observations on Canadian podcasting that I’m ill-equipped at the moment to string together into some unified clarifying narrative. But I’ll share what I have in the form of scattered notes and collection because there are some ideas to stew over and, all things considered, I really liked what I saw.

(1) “The Canadian podcast industry here is a few years behind the U.S..” I heard this idea, and many variations thereof, quite a bit over the past week, and I almost always squirm when I hear it. Sure, I can see the data points and logical route supporting the notion, particularly when the analysis revolves around the subject of money and business creation. But I’m reticent to accept the statement in the way it’s phrased: somewhere in the back of my head, I hold out hope that different countries can, and should, go down their own paths towards ecosystem development — that the Canadian podcast industry isn’t behind anybody, that it’s just early in their own trajectory. (On an unrelated note: I’d be a great soccer dad.)

I was consistently told Canadian podcast advertising remained nascent, still negligible in volume and experimental in budgets, and that there has yet to be clear pathways for upstart podcast companies in the country to reliably progress from idea to operational sustainability (let alone exits). Occasionally, I’d try to rebut the claim by saying the pathways in the U.S. aren’t super clear either, particularly if you’re an independent. The invariable reply from the interlocutor: if I had the choice, I’d still prefer the upsides of the U.S. — more money, more jobs, more potential outcomes.

Fair enough.

(2) Some contextual numbers to set the scene. As always, Edison Research has our backs in this department: its Infinite Dial Canada 2018 report, published earlier this year, found that 61 percent of Canadians over the age of 18 are familiar with the term “podcasting,” and that 28 percent of that demographic reports having listened to a podcast within the past month.

I know I just burbled something about non-comparisons, but in case you need a yardstick: the Infinite Dial US found that 64 percent of Americans over 12 report being aware of the term “podcasting,” while 26 percent of the demographic having listened to a podcast within the past month.

Cross-national comparisons with the U.S. are tricky, of course, in large part due to the intense differences in population sizes and geographical dynamics. Canada has about 36.7 million people, which is slightly below the population of California. To put things some perspective: America, as a whole, has about 325.7 million people, and if you do the rough math, the number of monthly American podcast listeners is about twice the population of Canada. That has implications about the way you could think about advertising returns.

(3) Here’s a cliché about travel: sometimes you need to leave in order to see where you’re from clearly. (A curious device to apply to myself, a newly minted American immigrant, but applicable nonetheless.) It’s true for podcast stuff as it is for anything else: poking around the Canadian scene made me appreciate the extent to which conversations in the U.S. have been dominated by the podcast-as-IP boom, the increasing involvement of talent agencies, and the venture capital-backed shadow of Gimlet Media. Also: capitalism and anxiety.

Some things, though, are familiar on both sides of the border. One expression of this: the perceived podcast dominance of public radio in both the U.S. and Canada. On the first day of the festival, I moderated a panel with the CBC’s head of podcasts Leslie Merklinger and NPR’s deputy director of programming and new audience N’Jeri Eaton, and there was a query during the Q&A that felt familiar to me. I can’t remember the wording, exactly, but it was something along the lines of: “Do you feel like the CBC’s dominance limits the ability of private podcasters to grow?” The sentiment echoes many emails I’ve received over the years from American readers about NPR, WNYC, and the wider American public radio system.

The perception is perhaps understandable: the CBC, Canada’s public broadcaster and its biggest institutional podcast publisher, is said to bring in around 16 million global podcast downloads per month across a 40-plus-show portfolio that includes broadcast repackages and original podcast content. In the States, NPR garners around 16 million unique monthly listeners in the U.S. and over 140 million global downloads across a 41-show portfolio. It looks big, it feels big, and when you feel like a tugboat around tankers, the natural position to interpret threat.

But of course, life in a tanker is generally harder than you would think. Something that came across from both Merklinger and Eaton during the panel: despite the perception that the CBC and NPR are powerful and all-consuming in their respective countries, both individuals lead development funnels with budgets that are tighter than you would ordinarily imagine. Another cliché: people often look like they’re doing better than they actually are.

Does the dominance of a podcast-publishing public broadcaster generally inhibit the ability of private podcasters to grow? I tend to reject this notion. That would imply that dominance is an actual thing in the podcast industry, and there’s been little evidence to suggest that at all.

(4) Another similarity of note: it’s always worth paying attention to individuals taking matters into their own hands. There was a panel that caught my eye featuring Vicky Mochama, co-founder of the independent podcast shop Vocal Fry Studios; Annalise Nielsen, a producer who’s trying to start an in-house podcast network at a large publicly traded Canadian media and entertainment company called eOne; and Ryan McMahon, an Anishinaabe comedian, writer, podcaster, and proprietor of Indian & Cowboy, a listener-supported Indigenous podcast network.

Of particular interest from the discussion was a focus on non-advertising revenue streams, which significantly touched on branded podcasts — a trail well-blazed in the country by Pacific Content, and taken up by Mochama — and crowdfunding, which proved central to the development of a new investigative podcast by McMahon in partnership with Canadaland, called Thunder Bay. The Ryerson Review of Journalism has a solid write-up on Canadaland’s crowdfunding effort to raise that production, which you should check out. The podcast, as well, is very good.

(5) The Hot Docs Podcast Festival is currently in its third year of operation, though the whole thing feels like it’s been around for much longer. The festival was well-executed, thoughtfully composed, and frankly one of the best podcast events I’ve ever attended. This probably has a lot to do with the fact it’s actually a spinoff of the quarter century-old Hot Docs international documentary film festival (no relation to Hot Pod, by the way); which is to say, they’re old hands at putting stuff like this together. But something has to be said about the organization’s general level of care in handling a new community: it’s a rare team that displays awareness and respect for a world not of their own. I’ll be glad to go back.

POSTED     Nov. 6, 2018, 11:13 a.m.
SEE MORE ON Audience & Social
Show tags
Join the 60,000 who get the freshest future-of-journalism news in our daily email.
Postcards and laundromat visits: The Texas Tribune audience team experiments with IRL distribution
As social platforms falter for news, a number of nonprofit outlets are rethinking distribution for impact and in-person engagement.
Radio Ambulante launches its own record label as a home for its podcast’s original music
“So much of podcast music is background, feels like filler sometimes, but with our composers, it never is.”
How uncritical news coverage feeds the AI hype machine
“The coverage tends to be led by industry sources and often takes claims about what the technology can and can’t do, and might be able to do in the future, at face value in ways that contribute to the hype cycle.”