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Dec. 4, 2018, noon

A year in, Apple’s podcast analytics have been an evolution, not a revolution

Plus: The BBC is fully on board with podcasting now, Serial has its biggest season yet, and boy, the new Ron Burgundy podcast escalated quickly.

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 188, published December 4, 2018.

Apple’s analytics: One year later. Seventeen months ago, at its annual developer conference WWDC, Apple announced that it would finally be launching something many in the podcast industry had desired for a long time: better podcast analytics. Or, more accurately, better audience analytics from the historically impartial steward of the podcast ecosystem that’s still believed to facilitate the majority of all podcast listening. (For now, anyway.)

“It may look obscure,” tweeted Gimlet’s Matt Lieber at the time, “But this is the biggest thing to happen to the podcast business since Serial first went nuclear.”

Apple’s new in-episode analytics rolled out that December, six months after the initial announcement. At multiple points during those opening months, I tried to report on how the new data was impacting the podcast business. But those early inquiries were premature and produced nothing particularly useful. A really smart person would later advise me that these things, like culture shifts, take time, and I’d be better off waiting a year.

So. It’s been almost 12 full months. Did Apple’s new analytics fundamentally change anything for publishers and the podcast business? After checking in with over a dozen sources throughout various corners of the podcast ecosystem, there seems to be a general consensus around the answer: No, not really. But it has brought some positives.

Let’s pause and recall why we’re here for a second. The narrative of the podcast business has long been defined by its crude analytics, relative to other digital media channels. Podcast advertising campaigns are still bought and sold on the basis of the download, a rudimentary metric that more effectively conveys whether an episode has been shipped off to a consumer’s listening app rather than whether that consumer actually heard the episode — and therefore the ad. Compared to the broader digital media environment — where audience behavior is measurable to the nanosecond and where close user targeting is table stakes for advertisers — the podcast analytics universe is virtually prehistoric. (Nevermind, of course, the prevalence of ad fraud, the Google–Facebook–Amazon digital advertising oligopoly, and the undermining of user privacy that afflicts the broader modern digital media environment. Modernity remains desired, with all its attendant tumors.)

That prehistoric perception is a precarious problem, because the industry (broadly speaking) covets brand advertising dollars, which promise greater growth (bigger amounts), stability (longer campaigns), and, in theory, power. (Growth + stability = more capacity to impose will, probably?)

Nowadays, brand advertisers are thought to be accustomed to the taste of granular analytics to measure campaign effectiveness, and conventional wisdom argues that they probably won’t fully commit advertising dollars to podcasting unless publishers can provide them similar levels of measurement granularity — or, at the very least, something markedly better than the rudimentary analytics universe they have now.

The premise and promise of Apple Podcasts’ upgraded analytics, therefore, was a straightforward one: It could take the podcast ecosystem a step closer towards an analytics universe that can engender the same kind of advertiser confidence as any other digital media channel — thus increasing the possibility of brand advertisers meaningfully committing more podcasting dollars.

Of course, there were concerns. Some worried the new analytics would reveal podcast consumption to be less engaged than previously thought, or that it would trigger an apocalyptic, CPM-cratering scenario. Others thought the new data’s revelations would cause considerable shakeups or resizing in the podcast industry, as some publishers learned they weren’t as big and healthy as they thought they were. Others still, like Edison’s Tom Webster, posited that Apple’s new podcast analytics could create a feedback loop in which publishers are more motivated to play towards Apple’s platform, thus further narrowing the community’s focus on the finite world of Apple users — what he called “the optimization trap.” Meanwhile, direct-response advertisers, whose dollars have historically helped grown the podcast ecosystem without granular analytics, began expressing concerns about having to compete with brand advertising dollars in the future. (A totally understandable position.)

When the new analytics layer finally rolled out last December, the feature was described as in beta. And what it offered seemed incremental but nonetheless helpful: Publishers could now see aggregate in-episode listening analytics, which meant that they could now know whether anybody made it to that third midroll or the late-game twist in the narrative. Put it another way: The podcast episode, as distributed through Apple Podcasts, was no longer a “black box.” (User data was kept anonymized, true to Apple’s practices.) During those early months, the general response seemed largely hopeful.

As the months rolled on, those initial concerns…didn’t come to pass. Podcast consumption turned out to be as engaged as everyone thought they would be. CPM rates didn’t crater, suggesting that this particular version of the apocalypse isn’t nigh (for now, at least). There were eye-catching shakeups in various corners of the community, but the impacts felt localized, and while the new analytics may have played some direct role in those shifts, they were more likely the results of broader trends. It remains unclear if Webster’s optimization trap ensnared any significant chunk of publishers, but whatever the case, the Apple Podcasts platform continues to be gamed in other ways. Meanwhile, direct-response advertisers are still expressing concerns about having to compete with brand dollars, most recently at the last IAB Podcast Upfronts, according to this Digiday writeup.

But 12 months in, the legacy and impact of Apple’s new analytics is still very much a work in progress: trending positive, but complicated. The data has certainly proved useful, helping some publishers to better understand things like unlistened downloads, ad skipping, and episode retention rates. But based on the exchanges I’ve had, the general feeling seems to be that the data hasn’t fundamentally changed podcasting’s prehistoric perception among advertisers. Many argued that as long as the podcast business remains pegged to the download, trouble is afoot.

This isn’t to say that publishers weren’t able to secure more brand advertisers over the past year. (As many were quick to assure me.) Rather, some sources argue that until measurement actually shifts away from the download, the podcast ecosystem will never structurally unlock brand advertising dollars. One argued the nature of the problem has only worsened over the past year, given the increase in participation from competing platforms — Google, Pandora, iHeart, Spotify, and so on — that could, with their respective user bases and expertise in data and targeting, potentially end up assuming gatekeeper control between brand advertisers and podcast publishers, should any of them gain real traction against Apple.

Some argued that things can only really change if the industry is able to successfully shift its analytics paradigm towards a “true” listening metric — that is, a universe in which publishers can sell advertising based on actual consumption, not episode delivery. And while there is some optimism around NPR’s Remote Audio Data (RAD) initiative (which, I’m told, might finally be widely deployed in the coming months), the prevailing suspicion is the publisher-led shift won’t come quickly enough. “We’re still pretty far from where we need to be,” one podcasting executive told me.

We remain in the universe of downloads, though, and while we’re here: Most people I spoke with believe that the Interactive Advertising Bureau’s podcast measurement standards were a lot more influential over the past year than the new Apple analytics. “IAB V2 created a more even playing field,” National Public Media’s Bryan Moffett told me. “There’s a common definition of a download, and we can all speak the same language.” There continues to be some debate over the nuances of the standards, but the podcast industry appears to have broadly aligned with the IAB on download measurements, so at least that hurdle seems to have been cleared. (Previously, the concern was the lack of apples-to-apples comparison between how different companies counted downloads.)

Still, as mentioned, there were some concrete ways in which Apple’s in-episode analytics have helped publishers. For one thing, the new data allowed teams to better capture, understand, and convey listener engagement, and that contribution shouldn’t be downplayed. “I think the greatest benefit is knowing that the vast majority of people aren’t skipping the ads on our shows — especially when the hosts do a really engaging job with their reads,” said Alyssa Martino, Macmillan’s associate director of podcasts. “It’s hard to connect that specifically to spends, since our shows sell well, but it’s great to have the data now to back up what we’ve known and said anecdotally for years.”

The new data also helped some publishers to build and improve new advertising products. Dave Shaw, the executive producer of podcasts at Politico, told me that they’ve successfully sold postroll ad slots on the Politico Playbook Audio Briefing after being able to show that listeners stick around to the end. Anna Phelan, the editorial program manager at TED, said the new analytics have helped them evaluate some longer ad experiences that they’ve been integrating into WorkLife with Adam Grant. “We didn’t know how listeners would respond to the length or content, but we felt confident enough in the appeal of the content to take the risk,” Phelan said. “The high consumption rates that we saw, with almost no drop-off during the ad break, reassured us that the approach resonates with our audience and gives us permission to continue to develop other formats in this style.”

There is another way in which Apple’s in-episode analytics unambiguously proved useful — as editorial data. Almost every publisher I contacted talked about how they’ve been able to learn about episodes and experiments that worked (and didn’t), and how the data has helped them feel more confident when shifting around resources or making structural adjustments to shows (cutting or expanding publishing schedules, shortening or lengthening episodes).

Those editorial benefits are important, but ultimately, they’re secondary to our advertising concerns here. And on that front, a good deal (though not all) of the sources I spoke with generally want more from Apple. Some expressed frustration over what feels like slow product iteration on the part of Apple’s new analytics dashboard. “I know it’s still supposed to be a beta, but let’s go already!” one executive told me. Several want Apple to make more data available through an API, so publishers can more effectively integrate listening data — which, despite Apple’s dominance, only represent one chunk of a show’s overall audience at the end of the day — into their central measurement dashboards, thus helping them paint better pictures of their audiences for advertisers to peruse.

There is still, it seems, a long way to go. One year after being rolled out, its impacts seem to be somewhat muted — or, at least, nowhere near as revolutionary as many had hoped. As such, there’s a certain sameness between the way this year is ending and the way it began. Maybe these things take longer than a year — or maybe those changes need to take different shapes. In any case, if there is to be some revolution, it isn’t quite here yet.

In the meantime, the podcast industry will continue to grow in the way that it’s always been growing.

BBC podcasting in 2018 [by Caroline Crampton]. I think of the BBC as a huge, old-fashioned ocean liner. The analogy works a few ways. The ship is beautifully made, and it makes going somewhere really worthwhile — but the journey itself can get a bit rough sometimes. Across the sprawling structure, there are so many different teams on different decks doing different things that they don’t always necessarily know what everyone else above and below is doing. It’s big, and as such, it can be a violent force of momentum and inertia. Even after a decision to change course has been made, the ship will travel quite a lot further in the prior direction before it turns.

It’s this last aspect that I’ve been most conscious of in 2018. Until the spring of last year, the corporation’s involvement in podcasting was largely hands-off, with radio shows repackaged for download and a very small number of original podcast-first commissions that were tied closely to existing formats. Then a shift began, with some new shows appearing that attempted to do something different compared to its existing radio output, such as the drama box set Tracks and the pop culture deep dive series Unpopped.

Part of this shift came from an increasing recognition internally that younger U.K. listeners were choosing to go elsewhere for their audio content — to Apple Music and Spotify, and to the feeds of independent podcasts like My Dad Wrote a Porno and The Receipts. The regulator Ofcom ruled this year in its annual report that the BBC must do “more and more quickly” to reach these audiences if the corporation is to keep up its remit as a national public service broadcaster. The ship was turning, slowly.

Then, all of a sudden, everything seemed to speed up. In March, it was announced that the BBC had appointed its first commissioner for podcasts, Jason Phipps. He started work in May, and over the next few months, we saw more evidence of this internal shift towards more original podcasting. I’ve written a lot about it since I started with Hot Pod in September; from the youth-focused Xtrachat showcase feed to this new political podcast from Scotland, there’s been a lot to say.

The biggest moment for the BBC in 2018 was the launch of the BBC Sounds app at the end of  October. It had been in beta since late June, with mixed reviews from those trying to use it and reports of internal confusion over its mission. Was it an attempt to make an alternative podcatcher, which indexed non-BBC podcasts as a way of luring listeners away from their current tech, or a walled garden of purely BBC content, trying to offer a premium content experience like Spotify or Audible? In a move that felt inevitable for those of us who have been observing the BBC for a while now, they did something that looks a bit like both options — sort of. BBC Sounds consists almost entirely of BBC podcasts, radio shows, playlists, and archive material, with a very small number of independent shows in there too (I could find six, let me know if you can see more). I’m unclear of the long-term rationale behind this hybrid model, but execs seem bullish about the numbers so far, which of course they would.

In one sense, BBC Sounds has been a success already, because it’s given the BBC a way to properly talk about podcasting. A consistent message has been rolled out across all stations and programmes: Presenters who never used to refer to online downloads are now routinely saying “if you want to hear more like this, try X podcast on BBC Sounds.” I remain unconvinced that it will be a silver bullet for the younger audience problem, but I do think it could help to convert some radio listeners who have never tried digital audio before into podcast listeners, which can only be a good thing.

The app itself still has a few glaring omissions to my eyes, chief among them a sharing functionality, although I’m sure that’ll be on the way at some point. I still find it difficult to find shows I know must be there, and the algorithmic recommendations are a bit…hit or miss. The same goes for the first slate of original programming. There are some really interesting and innovative ideas in there, such as the spinoff audio dramas for the TV soap Eastenders, the podcast-spoofing scripted horror serial I wrote about last week, and music documentary series Live Lounge Uncovered, which takes a popular radio session slot and goes deeper on it. Then there’s also some other stuff that I’m less convinced is worth the BBC’s time, such as the supposedly youth-orientated daily news podcast Beyond Today (that I’m still skipping in favor of the old-fashioned news bulletins on the radio), the Duvet Days interview show (which sounds a lot like the many, many other interview shows that already exist), and The Disrupters (yet another interview show focused around entrepreneurship that has yet to wow me with either its guests or approach).

Although on the surface it looks as if it’s full steam ahead for the BBC and podcasts, I’m still picking up some internal confusions. There is now a full-time podcast commissioner up at the top in Phipps, but new podcasts are also being made by existing radio stations as well as by journalists in the local and regional divisions. The messaging about where podcasts come from doesn’t always feel cohesive, and I sense the heat of internal politics and wrangling about who is getting the credit for which podcasts, rather than everyone pulling in the same direction under the same structure and focusing on the external competition instead. There are still unanswered questions about analytics, as well — I understand from various sources that producers don’t get very regular updates about how many people are actually listening to their episodes, and those they do get are on a long lag. There’s also no external verification or publication schedule for these numbers, so when an exec chooses to announce a “record month”, we have nothing to benchmark that against.

At the end of the year, it’s still no clearer to me than at the start what the BBC’s responsibilities are to the rest of the U.K. podcast market. Obviously, their entry into original programming puts them into direct competition with shows made by commercial and independent outlets, but it’s even less obvious if there should be any controls on what they can and can’t make in order to prevent their state-funded advantage cutting others out of the market. I also haven’t seen the BBC use its new podcast commissions to make much meaningful headway on the issue of diversity, which was another problem point in the Ofcom annual report. The vast majority of the new shows we’ve had so far are written and/or hosted by existing BBC talent or suppliers, with all of the existing structural problems around pay and inclusion that brings.

In conclusion: The BBC is fully on board with podcasting now, which is not a phrase I thought I’d be writing back in January. This new direction is likely going to have some really positive outcomes, and a few negative ones too if the corporation doesn’t actively guard against them. There’s a lot we still don’t know.


  • Serial’s third season was its biggest ever. The season surpassed 50 million downloads after just two months to become the show’s biggest to date — and all three seasons have brought in 420 million downloads collectively. I dug into the numbers for Vulture.
  • Malcolm Gladwell and Jacob Weisberg’s Pushkin Industries has signed an exclusive representation partnership with Cadence13. According to the press release, the deal was brokered by WME, and it seems that the upcoming Michael Lewis podcast, previously developed at Slate, have followed Gladwell and Weisberg to their new company.
  • Voxnest, the parent organization of the hosting platform Spreaker, struck up a distribution partnership with Deezer. The move is being pitched as part of the latter’s international efforts, particularly in Latin America.
  • ICYMI: Anchor launched an in-platform advertising marketplace called Anchor Sponsorships, finally giving itself a business model. I gave my analysis in last Thursday’s Insider.
  • The Verge published a look at the Apple Podcast charts scam story, and there’s an incremental finding in the mix: The tech giant “monitors its international and domestic charts and relies on a combination of humans and software to detect signs of fraud. It bans shows after they’re caught attempting fraud multiple times, Apple confirmed to The Verge.”
  • Just a reminder: The Washington Post’s daily news podcast, Post Reports, debuted yesterday.
  • If you, like me, have been keeping an eye on the issue of podcasting and platform bans on hate speech, the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard’s Cyberlaw Clinic published a nifty memo on content regulation policy for the podcasting community last week.
  • On a related note: “Rep. Steve King appeared on podcast frequented by white nationalists.” (CNN)
  • Exactly Right, the new podcast imprint cultivated by My Favorite Murder’s Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark in partnership with Stitcher, officially launched last week with four shows in the starting portfolio.
  • Meanwhile, iHeartRadio and Funny or Die are co-producing a podcast featuring Ron Burgundy, Will Ferrell’s fictional anchorman from the wildly popular (and meme-generating) 2004 comedy known as, well, Anchorman. The terms of the deal weren’t disclosed, but you know I’d love to find out how much iHeartRadio paid for the project. One assumes it’s quite a bit.
  • Fun fact: Love+Radio has a cameo in Steve McQueen and Gillian Flynn’s Widows, which hit movie theaters last month.

Illustration by Leo Natsume used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Dec. 4, 2018, noon
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