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Dec. 11, 2018, 11:26 a.m.
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Bubble fears, old-guard acquisitions, and Audible: This was 2018 in podcasts

Plus: What we’ll cover in 2019, and the most interesting companies to watch.

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 189, published December 11, 2018.

Twenty Eighteen. What kind of year has it been? When I sat down to plot this column last Tuesday, a few words popped to mind: busy, chaotic, confusing. Frankly, I’m not sure how I’ll remember 2018 down the line, but I have some ideas of a few things that’ll stick.

I. Perhaps the most pronounced public narrative of the year — which is to say, the story that spread far outside the community — revolves around the late summer shake-ups at a few particularly public podcast companies. I’m talking, of course, about Panoply’s divestment from the content business (and subsequent termination of its editorial division) as well as BuzzFeed’s move to lay off its audio team, both of which happened almost simultaneously in September. Those two developments deepened a fledgling paranoia that had been seeded a month before, when Audible moved to restructure its original content strategy and abruptly phased out the group responsible for its shorter-form podcast-style programming.

The suddenness of those stories, clustered together, was jolting to many. And it understandably caused casual observers to raise the classic pundit’s question: are these signs of the “podcast bubble” bursting?

As I argued in a column at the time, I don’t believe that was the right question to ask. I remain agnostic on the question of whether there is a “podcast bubble,” but even if there were, these three stories wouldn’t be the right yardsticks to measure a burst: one showed reshufflings within an audiobook company, one company never quite committed to the medium in the first place, and one actually represents a doubling down on the future of the podcast industry.

Nevertheless, the fact that the question of a podcast bubble burst drew considerable attention tells us something about the state of medium’s public narrative: podcasting continues to feel strange, fragile, and unreal to most people outside of it (and even many who are part of it). To some extent, this shouldn’t be particularly surprising. Sure, podcasting has tangibly grown in audience, revenues, critical acknowledgment, and relevance to the broader entertainment industrial complex. But those gains have relatively been modest, slow, and steady, and they present some incongruity with what feels like an outsized increase in attention that’s been placed on the medium over the last four years. The end result, then, is a lingering expectation for podcasting to fall back down to earth, or straight down into a ditch, at some point in the future. The summer’s quick evocation of a bubble, I think, was a strong expression of that.

II. One consequence of podcasting’s relatively modest progression has been a sense of frustration among a good chunk of the podcast industry. But it’s also cultivated the smell of opportunity for an older digital audio guard looking to capitalize on the perceived gaps embedded in podcasting’s slow but steady growth, and to become the determining factor in wherever the industry goes next. The old guard’s involvement in the space seems to have kicked up a notch in 2018.

Spotify has had a busy year: signing buzzy deals with talent like Amy Schumer and Joe Budden, slowly ramping up its original podcast offerings with pre-existing shows like Dissect and established podcast-native talent like Guy Raz, and finally opening up its platform to all podcast publishers in October. The extent to which these moves have moved the needle for the Swedish streaming platform remains unclear, but nevertheless, they feel like precursors of a sort: I wouldn’t be surprised if we see something drastic from them next year.

Meanwhile, last month, Pandora rolled out the Podcast Genome Project, which it had been teasing since January. The company appears to be betting that it can leverage its built assets and made achievements — that is, up-and-running advertising infrastructure and algorithmically generated playlist experiences — to make a meaningful dent in converting existing Pandora music listeners into Pandora podcast listeners. We shall see.

And of course, we also have debt-burdened broadcast giant iHeartMedia, which has already been working hard to muscle its way into the podcast narrative for some time now. The company acquired Stuff Media, the parent company of HowStuffWorks, back in September, which comes off as another expression of its intent to harvest the podcast ecosystem’s potential.

That acquisition should be a signal to all other podcast publishers, by the way. One of the effects of three opportunity-prospecting platforms descending on the podcast industry like UFOs over a cow farm is a more competitive space for deal-making (windowing, exclusives, straight-up acquisitions — take your pick). It’s a potential mess between these platforms, and some publishers can stand to gain from a mess like that.

The Pandora-iHeartMedia nexus is also particularly interesting to me for another reason, because nested within that story is the possibility of corporate control from a much older generation. Consider the following developments: in September, SiriusXM, the satellite radio giant, agreed to acquire Pandora Media, and just last week, the New York Post reported that Liberty Media, which holds a majority stake in SiriusXM, is aiming to take control of iHeartMedia as soon as the debt-laden broadcast giant digs itself out of bankruptcy, possibly early next year. I trust you can solve the equation yourself.

It’s not just older music streaming platforms jockeying for a position in podcasting’s future, though. In June, Google launched a standalone dedicated Podcast app, driven by an intent “to help double the amount of podcast listening in the world over the next couple years.” It’s a bold mission statement — some would say, a little too bold. (Seriously: why not just underpromise and overdeliver? Goodness.) Anyway, there’s been some argumentation lately about the app being a disappointment, but I think it’s a little too early to tell where this goes. It’s my personal view that system-level revolutions don’t tend to happen overnight, and that behind most “overnight success” is usually a lie, a misdirect, or a crime. (Shouts to Balzac, or whoever actually said the quote I’m paraphrasing.) As it stands, Google has every bit as much potential as Spotify, Pandora, and iHeartMedia to actually carve a meaningful place within the podcast universe.

III. Enough talk about UFOs. What’s been happening on the ground?

A number of interesting acquisitions took place this year, outside of the iHeartMedia-Stuff Media deal. Notably, Veritone One agreed to acquire Performance Bridge in August, possibly reshaping the competitive landscape of media agencies and podcast advertising.

Earlier in the summer, a coalition of public radio organizations acquired Pocket Casts, which raises questions about the viability of third-party podcast apps in the age of increasing participation from behemoth streaming platforms like Spotify and Pandora. (Also related to this: Castro being acquired by a technology portfolio company called Tiny.)

And while we’re on the subject of public radio, the most interesting acquisition to me isn’t an acquisition at all: it’s the merger between PRX and PRI, which I can’t help but read as a situation where PRX is taking control of PRI’s assets. This has ramifications for both PRX’s ongoing adventures in podcasting as well as a public radio landscape long defined by National Public Radio.

Meanwhile, another noteworthy trend revolves around the efforts of a few companies trying to capture wherever podcast advertising goes next. The overarching strategy here, I think, is to become the mediating marketplace itself for segments of the podcast ecosystem that remain under-monetized. In February, RadioPublic launched its Paid Listens program to provide revenue options for shows that would otherwise not qualify for advertising deals. On a similar note, Anchor launched its Sponsorships program last month. Looming over both these moves is Megaphone, Panoply’s reason for ditching the content business and its ticket toward realizing a programmatic future for podcasting.

But the most interesting trend, to me anyway, is one that’s been happening at the level of creators: the independent podcast studio model continues to rise, with a cluster of compelling new entrants popping up on the West Coast. The model has also taken an interesting turn in recent months. I’m thinking, specifically, of Malcolm Gladwell and Leon Neyfakh, whose podcasting efforts were previously housed at Panoply and sister company Slate, and who have left to start independent shops of their own. I am almost certain many more will follow.

IV. I’d be remiss if I didn’t briefly bring up Apple, which hasn’t been mentioned once in this column so far. As I wrote last week, the new Apple podcast analytics, which rolled out late last year and which was thought by many to be something that could change the podcast business forever, ended up representing a slow evolution rather than a rapid revolution over the past twelve months.

In previous years, back when other major platforms weren’t hovering over the horizon, this pastoral Apple development wouldn’t be such a big deal. For what it’s worth, I’m one of those people who holds stock in the idea that Apple’s position as the impartial dominant steward of podcasting has historically been a good thing, as it structurally kept the ceiling low and broadly cultivated a sense of an equal playing field. (Yes, I know this point is debatable.) And I’ve generally thought that the onus was on whoever wanted to build a podcast empire to go on and build the terms of that empire outside of a platform and on their own infrastructure. That, I figured, was the ticket to a podcast community-owned future.

But the steady encroachment of those other platforms changes the equation quite a bit. How, and in what way, remains to be seen, and that question is the main one that I’ll be tracking in the new year.

Alright, that’s it for the chunky stuff. Let’s shift gears, and briefly cover some other stories that Caroline and I thought were big from the year.

Nick’s picks for the other big stories of 2018

(1) Haven’t you heard? The Daily News Podcast, i.e. the new front page, continues to mushroom in the wake of The Daily and Up First. (Slate even has two daily news podcasts now! Also, interestingly enough, The New York Times published a thing rounding up a few for your convenience. Strange!) Two questions on this trend, through: how many is too many daily news podcasts, and where does the daily news podcast go from here?

(2) Click-farm scams on the Apple Podcast Charts seem to have hit fever pitch in recent months — which is to say, the situation has either gotten worse, or it’s always been this bad but is finally attracting a critical mass of attention. (Here’s my reporting on the matter, part one and part two.) Whatever the case, this isn’t a good situation, and the charts, a highly-observed space, feel weirder than ever.

(3) We’re beginning to see the full weight of the podcast-to-television adaptation pipeline. Lore kicked off the proceedings last fall, but this calendar year saw what you could the first full wave of this generation’s podcast-to-television adaptation projects: from Alex, Inc. (now cancelled) to Dirty John to Homecoming to Pod Save America to 2 Dope Queens.

(4) Serial returned for a third season this year, ultimately hitting two high watermarks for the legendary podcast: the biggest launch podcast advertising deal to date, and the biggest season performance to date.

(5) In May, Luminary Media raised $40 million to build a “Netflix for podcasting.” Yeah yeah, I know that label’s been thrown around a bunch since, like, basically forever, but to my eyes, the company represents the first true test of the matter: for one thing, it’s starting purely from scratch, and for another, its business model is fully pegged to the paid subscription-first structure. Fail or succeed, its exploits will likely bring us some concrete learnings about this alternate avenue for the on-demand audio universe.

(6) New York Public Radio entered the year besieged by scandal, which was catalyzed by a December 2017 expose in The Cut and only deepened in the first few months of 2018 through further coverage that shed light on an organizational culture that allowed for bullying, sexual harassment, and other discriminatory behaviors that have especially hurt women and people of color. The rest of the year was a noticeably quiet one for the station as it reshuffles its executive ranks and works its way through lingering questions. Things even look bleak from a podcast business standpoint: if you’ve been paying close attention to the station’s Podtrac numbers, its numbers for unique monthly podcast audience size for the U.S. dropped from 7.4 million in January to 6.6 million in October, despite an increase of show portfolio size from 48 to 53.

(7) I thought the de-platforming of Alex Jones was a really important podcast story — partly because it raises big questions concerning the responsibilities of podcast, audio, and music distribution platforms around hate speech, but mostly because it’s attached to a more troubling development: a trend that sees white nationalists using podcasts to get their word out. It feels as if there’s been an uptick in mainstream coverage on the matter — here are stories from the Daily Beast, HuffPost, and CNN. It’s the double-edged sword of podcasting’s historically defining trait as a contemporary torch-bearer for the open internet. Low barriers to entry means anybody can publish, which means that, well, anybody can publish.

Caroline’s picks for the 2018 stories to follow up

How podcasting deals with misinformation. There were a few points this year where I felt that the broader media narratives around the spread of fake news made themselves felt within the podcasting world, particularly the moment over the summer when Alex Jones’s InfoWars podcasts were removed from several major platforms. But industry discussions quickly (and understandably) moved on as news of layoffs and restructurings took up the audio industry’s mental space instead. I’d be interested to dig into this thread further in the future: how is fact-checking done and resourced for podcasts, do people see value in providing transcripts with sources, and how should hosts deal with guests who don’t stick to the truth? All questions I want to explore.

Who gets hired. I was in the room at the Third Coast Awards this year when Phoebe Wang delivered her striking speech on the audio industry’s failures when it comes to hiring and representing people of color. It was a fascinating moment, not least because many of the decision-makers she called out were in the room. At the end of the speech, Wang announced that she and others would be maintaining a list of producers of color, and that recruiters were welcome to email them for resumes of qualified people (never again could they say they were “unable” to find any suitable candidates of color). I’d like to know how this initiative has fared in the few months since, and whether the good work of Wang and her collaborators has prompted any organizational culture shifts.

Going live. I’m still a bit of a podcast live show sceptic, but given that there have been new festivals popping up everywhere, I’m clearly in the minority. I’m also very aware that live events have become a business model in their own right for some podcasters — shows like Lovett or Leave It and The Guilty Feminist record in front of a live paying audience, meaning that production costs are probably more than covered before an episode even hits the feed. I’d like to explore the economics of this more, and take a stab at why more podcasts aren’t getting up on stage.

Audio drama beyond the podcast-to-TV pipeline. There’s been a lot of discussion of podcasts getting made into TV shows this year, but what’s going on in audio drama beyond churning out IP for Hollywood studios?

Windowing: who is it working for and how? As more platforms bet on “premium” offerings, it’s almost become the norm for a show to drop in multiple places at different times. As we accept a practice, though, we stop scrutinizing it, and I’d like to know whether this windowing idea is (still?) working for producers, whether they’re releasing first onto Spotify Premium or uploading early through a Patreon RSS feed. Is early access something that listeners are willing to pay for, and does audio actually drive sign-ups to a wider service?

Google. It’s gone big on the podcast talk this year, with a new Android native app and headline support for a collaboration with PRX to train new podcasters. The stated ambition was to convert non–podcast listeners into podcast listeners, but how is that going? There’s been some grumbles recently about the non-appearance of a “tsunami of Android listening,” and I think it’s something worth digging into further.

Billboards. In the U.K. this year, for the first time, I started seeing major real-world display adverts for podcasts, on billboards and on public transport. I also had conversations with podcasters who could afford to do such campaigns, but were choosing not to because they felt that “listen to our podcast” was too diffuse a message for a poster (“What are we actually asking them to click on?” one said. “It’s about five steps too many from poster to listen.”). Apart from being a nice way to splash cash, does physical marketing have any measurable benefit for a podcast?

Quit-your-job money. Just a couple of weeks ago I wrote about the persistent myth that successful podcasting is accessible to anyone. That piece got a lot of approving responses, and it made me think more about what resources and monetization options are available to podcasters who are in what I think of as the “in-between zone.” By that, I mean people who aren’t just making audio as a hobby, but who also aren’t full-time employed to create their dream show either. Each episode probably gets somewhere between 15,000 and 35,000 downloads — a lot, but not the magic 50,000 mark that would bring in the big advertisers and therefore the cash that would allow them to junk the day job. I met quite a few of these people at Third Coast this year, and there was some frustration expressed about the lack of options that exist for audio at this level. It’s related to Nick’s piece about the limited series problem, and I’d like to look into it further.

Decentralizing podcasting. This is an easy one: who is making stuff not in the places where everyone makes stuff, and how are they finding it? In the UK, this means not-London; I imagine in the U.S. this means not New York or LA. If this is you, tell me all about it.

Communities. I’ve been very grateful for the existence of the UK Audio Network listserv this year, and I know plenty of people reading this owe a lot to other, similar groups. Having spaces to talk openly and honestly about subjects like pay, discrimination, and working conditions really matters in an industry that thrives on the use of casual staff. How we organize determines the change we can effect, and it’s good to keep acknowledging and exploring the role that listservs, Facebook groups, and group chats play in making this whole thing run.

The three most interesting companies.I did this segment before I took my brief sabbatical last fall, and I thought it came out great, so I’m doing it again. Here, I’d like to quickly highlight the three companies that struck me as the most interesting over the past twelve months. They aren’t necessarily the most successful or the biggest, but rather, they’ve been the most fun to think and/or talk about.

Cadence13. Has anybody looked at its portfolio lately? Consider the fact that Cadence13’s operations currently includes: partnerships with Crooked Media, Vox Media, Goop, and Sports Illustrated; shows with James Andrew Miller, Tony Kornheiser, and Brian Koppelman; plus a newly minted deal with Malcolm Gladwell and Jacob Weisberg’s Pushkin Industries. In my mind, Cadence13 looks exactly like what Panoply should have been, if Panoply hadn’t gone down a path that led it to double down on Megaphone and becoming a technology company.

KCRW. Once home to the late great Joe Frank, the Santa Monica public radio station has quietly becoming one of the most interesting publishers of unconventional and surprising independent-spirited podcasts. With an outstanding portfolio that includes Nocturne, Welcome to LA, Bodies, Here Be Monsters, Lost Notes, The Organist, Don’t @ Me with Justin Simien, and Celestial Blood/Sangre Celestial, KCRW appears to be realizing one of podcasting’s most potent promises: to be used as a technology that gives life to a space for quirky, offbeat projects that simply wouldn’t find a home (or an audience) in most other places.

Audible. Okay, so this one’s a cheat, because Audible is obviously not a podcast company. But the Amazon subsidiary remains acutely relevant to everything that’s going on here in the podcast industry, even after pushing its original programming strategy away from podcast-style productions. Based on this New York Times report from June, Audible’s new original content strategy involves directly pursuing established authors, like Michael Lewis and Curtis Sittenfeld, to get them signed into audiobook-first deals. With this shift, Audible seems to be leaning more heavily into the preexisting nature of its core relationships with book publishing world and the book-buying audience; which is to say, the move plays more directly into the company’s core strengths as it continues down the broader path of taking power away from the traditional gatekeepers of the book industry.

The question is whether this opens up any opportunities for podcast publishers and independent podcast studios. It remains to be seen whether Audible will be content with simply replicating the feel of basic audiobooks around the originals that they acquire, but should its designs eventually expand beyond that… well, that could be quite interesting for this new on-demand audio universe.


  • Broke this story last Friday on the site: Gimlet is getting into the daily news podcast space, courtesy of The Wall Street Journal. It’s currently seeking an executive producer and a host to staff the project. More details in the original writeup.
  • ICYMI: NPR CEO Jarl Mohn will step down from the role after his five-year tenure ends next summer. His time at the organization will be marked by substantial gains in audiences and revenues, but will also be marred by a crisis that revolved around sexual harassment allegations against NPR’s former top news editor, Michael Oreskes.
  • And while we’re on the subject of NPR, don’t miss this report from The Washington Post’s Paul Farhi: “At NPR, an army of temps faces a workplace of anxiety and insecurity.” Worth noting: the galling details described in the piece is applicable to both NPR and the wider public radio universe: from big stations, like WNYC, to smaller stations to national-level competitors. A life in public media shouldn’t be a vow of poverty, and this is absolutely something that should be fixed systemically.
  • Scout FM (née Subcast), the company that’s trying to build experiences that bridge smart speakers with podcast publishers, have launched a new feature called “Station Creator,” which lets anybody make custom stations.
  • Pandora has now rolled out its podcast offering, powered by the Podcast Genome Project, to all users. Here’s the corporate blog post.

Image by Yeye Weller on Behance.

POSTED     Dec. 11, 2018, 11:26 a.m.
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