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Jan. 22, 2019, 10:48 a.m.

Kids podcaster Pinna is leaving the crib and ready to take its first steps solo

Plus: NPR bets on life hacks and productivity guides, a toothbrush company doesn’t like where its podcast ad ended up, and how a side project turned into 4 million downloads.

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 192, published January 22, 2019.

Pinna stands alone. This morning, Graham Holdings announced that Pinna — the kids programming-focused paid listening service that originally launched in 2017 under the Panoply umbrella — is being spun out into a standalone company. The new entity will be led by CEO Maggie McGuire, a veteran of children-focused media divisions, including Scholastic, Viacom’s Nickelodeon, and Cablevision. The standalone Pinna will be backed by Graham Holdings, the company formed from what remained of The Washington Post Co. after the Post itself was sold to Jeff Bezos five years ago.

Back when Pinna first rolled out, I considered the product to be “the first really interesting attempt to get people to pay for podcasts.” (Still do, given my arguments here.) But its fate was left uncertain in the wake of Panoply’s divestment from the content business last fall. I inquired about Pinna back when that went down, and was told by a press contact that there were “no changes with Pinna.” Well, now there are, I suppose.

Some details: The platform will continue to primarily take the form of a mobile app, and will be available for iOS and Android for $7.99 a month or $79.99 a year. (The price point is unchanged; first-timers can access a 30-day free trial.) Publishers supplying content to the platform include Gen Z Media, Scholastic, Highlights, and American Public Media, among others. The company is also a member of the kidSAFE Seal program, an independent safety certification service for child-friendly websites and apps. It calls itself the “only screen-free, ad-free audio streaming service for kids 3-8.”

For what it’s worth, I like where this is going. A product like this is worth a focused shot on its own terms, and under new but experienced leadership, its business — and what it will say about the broader on-demand audio universe — might turn out to be quite interesting indeed.

Meanwhile, in Seattle… The second installment of PodCon — the podcast conference/convention founded by VidCon’s Hank Green, Night Vale’s Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, and McElroys Travis and Justin, and directed by VidCon’s Monica Gasper — took place in Seattle over the weekend, and I hear it was bumpin’.

When asked how it went, Green tells me:

I feel like me just talking about how happy I am is going to sound disingenuous, but I am very happy. It was a really exciting and special and exhausting weekend. The creators and communities that gathered were thoughtful and respectful and excited and hilarious and moving and kind. There’s also some apprehension and concern, of course, and I hope that PodCon and events like it will help us all go into the future with open eyes and an understanding that nothing in media is inevitable…that humans decide what the future will be.

Forever35 takes care of itself [by Caroline Crampton]. I’ve been listening to Forever35, a podcast with the self-stated subject of “the things we do to take care of ourselves,” since it launched in January 2018. The podcast sees Los Angeles-based writers Doree Shafrir and Kate Spencer staging a relaxed, conversational show discussing various aspects of self-care. Within their context, the commonly deployed buzzword is broadly defined, ranging from skincare products to book recommendations to political action. They choose their guests with this broad framework in mind, and to that end, they’ve talked to doctors, astrologers, authors, chefs, and many others in their first year.

The show grew quickly in its first year, bringing in around 4 million downloads off slightly over 90 installments. (Forever35’s publishing structure is a mix of full episodes, which run over an hour, and mini-episodes of 20 to 30 minutes.) An unusually large and vocal community has developed around the podcast, residing primarily in a Facebook group with over 14,000 members. (Worth noting: The group is managed by a team of around a dozen volunteer moderators, and all posts must be pre-approved before they appear.) According to a listener survey last May, the podcast’s audience is almost 100 percent female-identified, and 93 percent have a bachelor’s degree or higher.

The podcast has remained an independent production and over the course of its first year, Shafrir and Spencer have built out a pretty enviable ship for themselves. Last month, the show released its fifty-second full episode, titled “How The Pod Sausage Is Made.” In it, the hosts discussed a lot of their decisions around independence, production, and advertising. The show is hosted on Art19 and uses the platform’s dynamic injection system, but Shafrir runs the advertising side of things herself. (They also mentioned how their desire to be transparent about the show’s business side was inspired by Call Your Girlfriend’s similar “Businesswoman Special” from April 2017.)

Last week, I reached out to dig a little deeper into how they view the state of their business. They tell me that the podcast has vastly exceeded their expectations and that it had sponsors right from the very first episode. Although neither had worked in podcast advertising before, Shafrir was roughly familiar with the process due to a previous podcast project, Matt & Doree’s Eggcellent Adventure, a show she made with her husband about IVF. (Advertising for that podcast is sold by Midroll.) She credits Forever35’s early success landing sponsors in part to her having a podcast track record.

“The first person who approached us was a woman who worked at tripping.com,” Shafrir told me. “We launched the Forever35 Instagram a few weeks before we actually launched the podcast, and she messaged us there to say, ‘Hey, I don’t know if you guys thought about sponsorships but we’d love to be a launch sponsor.'” Prior to that message, Shafrir and Spencer had expected at least six months of audience-building work before they would ready to find any sponsorship opportunities.

It also helped that there’s a really clear fit between the subject of their show and the kind of products sold by typical podcast advertisers, with recipe kits, vitamin subscription services, and mattress brands now among their sponsors. Health food store Thrive Market was an early advertiser, along with small independent skincare brands like the Texas spa chain milk + honey.

A lot of those sponsorship opportunities came through word of mouth. “People who worked for [these companies] would listen and become fans of the podcast and want to advertise on the show,” said Shafrir. And because many of its sponsors are consumer goods companies, the team also uses clearly disclosed affiliate links on their website as another source of revenue.

Running a podcast ad operation on your own isn’t easy, of course. Shafrir notes that one of the drawbacks of operating independently is not being able to get a good sense of market comparisons to help with setting ad rates. “I have no idea if I was low-balling us or what in the beginning, but we did raise our rates pretty quickly,” she said. Spencer added: “I think it was connected to the increase in listeners.” They didn’t want to disclose their rate, but they did say that they didn’t get any pushback to the higher asking price.

Shafrir and Spencer didn’t set out to turn Forever35 into an independent business. The way they tell it, that was just something that happened along the way. “When we started the podcast, it wasn’t like, ‘We’re going to sell all of our ads and do all of this stuff.’ That wasn’t really part of our initial thinking. Once it started happening, we just thought we might as well just continue doing this,” Shafrir said. Until this, her journalism career had been entirely in editorial, but she was now excited to learn how her work could make money.

“It gives you a kind of power, I think,” she added.

They are, however, planning on either signing on with a network or getting some other help with advertising in the next few months. “I’m going have a baby in April…it’s getting to be just a lot of work that I don’t have the bandwidth to do anymore,” Shafrir said. Spencer said that audience growth and cross-promotion are two other big reasons they’re considering this move. “I think it would be a helpful tool to be a part of a podcasting family, especially because of advertising on other podcasts that might have an audience that doesn’t know us yet but would like what we’re offering,” she said.

Forever35 did get some early approaches from networks, the hosts told me, but they weren’t convinced that anything was the right fit at that time. Some of the meetings they had didn’t feel right. “Sometimes we would have conversations with networks and they clearly hadn’t listened to our show — they couldn’t be bothered to take an hour out of their day for a show geared to women,” Shafrir said. “That was just interesting. We felt like there was a bit of a patronizing tone. We were definitely lowballed by networks early on in a way that felt sort of gross.”

Now that the show is more established, those conversations have become more productive, Spencer said. “We have had conversations with people who totally get it and are so supportive and on board and understand our show and our audience and what we’re doing.”

With new family commitments on the horizon and an increasing workload, they’re ready to swap independence for more support and a bigger team around them. Both Shafrir and Spencer found it difficult to estimate exactly how many hours a week they work on the podcast, but neither has another full-time job and they said they do some work on it almost every day. They’re both working on other projects, but Forever35 has become their main focus.

With 4 million downloads in their first year, the podcast is in a prime position for expansion. Two big areas they’ve yet to explore — merchandise and live shows — are on the cards for 2019, as well as working out how to be flexible around parental leave and other writing work. Theirs might not be a typical podcasting success story, but Shafrir and Spencer (along with editor Samee Junio) have shown how a rapidly growing independent show can bring in revenue all by itself.

Teach me how to live. Let me begin by showing my cards here: I’m a sucker for stuff broadly known as “self-help” or “personal betterment,” along with many of its associated sub-genres that carry the prefix “personal” (personal finance, personal fitness) or the suffix “hacks” (life hacks, travel hacks). Which is to say, I’m the kind of guy who compulsively reads about budgeting, credit card point maximization, meditation and focus, quick and simple recipes, the best so-and-so to buy for such-and-such. Among my first tabs every morning: Lifehacker, The New York Times’ Smarter Living, a number of curtly written personal finance blogs I’m too ashamed to list. Give me a headline that reads “6 Ways to Work Smarter, Not Harder,” and friend, I’ll happily give you 10 minutes of my one wild and precious life.

(Which isn’t to say that I follow through with many of the personal betterment things that I consume. I most certainly do not. But much of my experience here, I suspect, involves some exercise of fantasy, or a prayer, almost, towards the version of myself that I imagine becoming. Same goes with sports and political horserace media, of which I’m also an avid consumer. I’m never going to actually work in the NBA, and there’s only so much that, say, the electoral strategies of Beto O’Rourke’s failed 2018 senatorial campaign can directly impact my personal political engagements in my community. But I digress.)

There’s a news hook here, of course, and it’s this: Last month, NPR’s podcast universe formally marched into the personal betterment territory with something called Life Kit. The project is described as a “family of podcasts for navigating your life — everything from your finances to diet and exercise to raising your kids.” What this means, in practice, is a spread of different podcast feeds, each dedicated to a specific guide. At this writing, there are four guides out in the wild: two personal fitness feeds (“Exercise: Learn To Love (Or At Least Like) It” and “Eat Your Way To A Healthier Life”) and two personal finance feeds (“Secrets of Saving and Investing” and “Find Money You Didn’t Know You Had”). The plan, it seems, is to publish a new guide every month.

Currently, each guide contains about three short episodes, each hosted by a different person and each taking the form of the kind of one-shot story you’d expect from something like Planet Money. The Planet Money comparison is particularly interesting to me, as Life Kit feels in many ways like the realization of what Planet Money should have grown into for years: a simple production concept and brand that’s easily applicable to an infinite number of subjects. (Planet Sports, Planet Health, Planet Politics, and so on.)

Anyway, I’ll go out on a limb to say that Life Kit’s perception of the feed as the atomic unit of content is a shrewd one for searchability purposes. The approach not only allows the project to tap into popular search pathways — its content is easily encountered by someone who entered “Investing” or “Exercise” as search terms, and who searches for “Life Kit,” anyway? — but it also taps into fairly rich preexisting podcast communities. After all, podcast-land is no stranger to personal betterment content. You could even argue that the genre gave podcasting many of its early elders, folks like Tim Ferriss, John Lee Dumas (à la Entrepreneur on Fire), and perhaps even Mignon Fogarty (a.k.a. Grammar Girl), who cultivated the Quick & Dirty Tips network.

For NPR’s podcast unit, Life Kit represents an expansion in internal editorial framework as much as it is an expansion into fertile land. “We’re trying to do a lot of different things,” said Neal Carruth, the organization’s GM of podcasting, when asked about how the initiative fits into their broader programming strategy. Carruth talked about the team’s continuing push into podcasts with daily publishing schedules, which will soon include a new daily science podcast, and about all the narrative stuff that has long served as the division’s calling card. “Shows like Invisibilia and Rough Translation are still really important to us,” he said. “We pride ourselves in being a place that makes shows that are sophisticated, layered, complex, and deeply reported. That’s a thing we’re known for, and we’re going to continue to support that stuff.”

Carruth considers Life Kit to be the expression of a new angle of attack: shows designed to be explicitly useful for the audience, delivering tangible and actionable things that listeners can immediately take into their lives. “That’s different from merely informing them, or just telling them a good story,” said Carruth. “‘Useful’ is the keyword.”

Meghan Keane, who previously worked on Invisibilia and TED Radio Hour, leads the Life Kit project as managing producer. “What’s important for me is to make something that isn’t an audio bullet-point list, and instead make something that’s a good mix of takeaways and infused little narratives,” she told me. “The hope is to be motivational and aspirational without being cheesy.”

Life Kit was driven, in some part, by research indicating interest among younger audiences for such content. In the team’s thinking, this finding gives the initiative its longer-term arc. “Ultimately, if Life Kit is a success, we’ll have dozens of these guides addressing challenges across the life span,” Carruth said.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask about Life Kit’s potential relationship with local public radio stations. I was told that there aren’t any formal partnerships with local stations just yet and that the team is on the lookout for ways to collaborate with them. (So, reach out.) There was, however, mention of a partnership with a public media organization of another kind: Sesame Street, with whom the team is partnering to create a guide on having conversations with kids about heavy topics. For now, station listeners will probably mostly encounter Life Kit material as occasional segments on the national shows.

Not that local stations can’t take matters into their own hands. Observers should pair NPR’s Life Kit adventures with a similarly veined effort by Los Angeles’ KPCC, which recently launched a podcast called The Big One: Your Survival Guide that’s meant to help inform listeners on what to do when Southern California falls on the bad side of the coin-flip chance that it gets hit by a massive earthquake over the next three decades. My personal earthquake obsession/paranoia notwithstanding, I think The Big One is a really compelling listen, integrating speculative fiction elements — reminiscent of Naomi Alderman’s fiction podcast The Walk from early last year — with meat-and-potatoes science reporting. That production makes me wonder about the outer boundaries of where you could take this podcast genre in terms of presentation and subject matter. Could we get guides on, say, how to survive your divorce? Or what to do when you realize you’re no longer the person you once were?

I like this trend. I like where this is going. This stuff is compulsively addictive. “Being a person is hard work,” Keane tells me. “Everybody needs a little help and support.” I’ll take all the help I can get.

Tracking

  • Over the weekend, CBS News aired a general package on podcasts — which contained, among other things, the fact that Gimlet now employs 120 people (!?) — but you should also be aware of this poll they conducted: “According to a new CBS News poll, two-thirds of Americans listen to podcasts at least once in a while, including 23% who do so a few times a week. By comparison, a year ago, a majority of Americans said they never listened to podcasts.”
  • Next week, Maximum Fun will launch a new interview podcast that will feature legendary singer-songwriters Aimee Mann and Ted Leo talking to various creative people about the creative process. As a big Aimee Mann fan, this is totally my jam.
  • Buried in this Boston Globe Ideas column about podcasting is an intriguing factoid: Pushkin Industries, the new podcast company started by Jacob Weisberg and Malcolm Gladwell, is backed by Michael Lynton, former Sony Pictures CEO.
  • Following the death of its radio newsreader and podcaster Rachael Bland, the BBC has announced a podcasting award which will see a new show get a pilot series on the BBC Sounds app. However, the terms and conditions reveal that the contest is not open to professionals, which is to say “someone who makes more than half their income from presenting, producing or sharing audio-visual material with the public.”
  • HuffPost: “Quip toothbrushes said it will no longer buy advertising time on conservative commentator Ben Shapiro’s podcast after he recorded an episode at the March for Life Rally on Friday…Quip told HuffPost the company did not approve of their ad being ‘read in a venue we did not endorse.'”
  • Keep an eye on Anna Faris and Sim Sarna. According to Entertainment Weekly, the actor Topher Grace is headlining a podcast that will be “released under the umbrella of Faris’ Unqualified Media…Grace will host the podcast with Faris’ Unqualified co-host, Sim Sarna.”
  • A group of Canadian producers is putting together a survey to create more transparency around pay rates in Canada. If you operate in the country, check it out.

Photo by Joseph Cianciotto used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Jan. 22, 2019, 10:48 a.m.
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