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April 2, 2019, 11:34 a.m.

Can a local public radio station make a national podcast — and build a donor base off it? In New Hampshire, they have

Plus: The BBC might open up its app, universal stories through Muslim voices, and podlediadau yn Gymraeg.

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 202, published April 2, 2019.

Public radio podcasts as direct donation vehicle: A case study. Last October, New Hampshire Public Radio released Bear Brook, a six-part investigative podcast that amounted to a big swing for the station. The project had local flavor; the case looked into a series of unidentified bodies found years earlier in the eponymous state park, But the podcast had broad potential appeal: Bear Brook, after all, had all the trappings of the true crime genre, a.k.a. the Bloody, Beating Heart of Podcasting.

(As an aside, a true crime podcast narrated by Dan Carlin features heavily on the second episode of the Twilight Zone reboot, as well as in an upcoming Awkwafina project. Bloody, beating heart indeed.)

And appeal Bear Brook did. By the end of March, the podcast has garnered over 4.5 million downloads across six episodes (plus two mini-updates) since its October launch, suggesting a roughly half million per episode average. That number continues to grow, indicating a strong consumption tail. It’s quite an achievement, particularly when you consider the station’s broadcast operation reaches slightly over 172,600 weekly listeners and that the Granite State has a population of just under 1.4 million people.

Bear Brook wasn’t just an attempt at content and delivery innovation, however. The team had also implemented a direct donation test inspired, in part, by a similar campaign that ran during the first season of Serial (ah, simpler times): as the six-episode season unfolded, listeners were prompted via ad read to make a one-time donation to the station. In exchange, they would get early access to upcoming episodes. All this, you might notice, might not seem especially revolutionary or new. Except that, for a mid-sized public radio station hailing from a state that isn’t quite a media hub, a revenue experiment of this sort very much is.

At this writing, the campaign has brought in over 1,800 donations for a total haul of slightly over $38,000. 95 percent of those donations came from within American borders, the rest international. The campaign remains quite active: “Like our listenership, the tail of giving is long,” said Maureen McMurray, NHPR’s director of innovation and audience development. “Contributions are still coming in on a daily basis.”

Public radio stations across the country, of all sizes, are experimenting with podcasts, actively and passively, for theoretical reasons well-documented in this newsletter: overarching shifts in media consumer preferences towards on-demand, the medium trends towards younger audiences, and so on. But such initiatives often rub up against a fundamental hurdle: How do these podcast experiments help our business and development models, historically structured around a broadcast operation? The question is often invoked as a rebuttal, but it’s one that very few — particularly among stations in similar contexts to NHPR — have actually attempted to answer with any sincerity.

That’s a bummer, of course. As you’ve probably noticed, a lot has happened in podcast-land over the past few months. Gobs of money is flowing into the space via advertising and acquisition, and Spotify just spent hundreds of millions of dollars to acquire two content companies and a platform with a strategy that is, at heart, speculative. And while there is a possible future in which we won’t see much direct result from Spotify’s Splashy Q1 2019, we do know that the fundamentals are in play: on-demand audio consumption, and interest, is very much rising. Meanwhile, some original promises remain unrealized — namely, the capacity for podcasting to improve the plight of public radio and local news, not just for centralized nationally-oriented organizations like NPR, but for the entire American public radio system as a sprawling network of individual actors. The opportunity is still there; it just hasn’t been properly explored yet.

Which brings us back to New Hampshire Public Radio. The on-demand team notes that a direct donation campaign wasn’t always in the plans. Originally, the team had shopped Bear Brook to several ad agencies to suss out pre-launch revenue package. Almost all passed, citing the station’s lack of a track record for producing hit shows. One offered $10,000 to place the show behind a paywall for six months. As McMurray and Rebecca Lavoie, the station’s digital director, told me, a paywalled-release wouldn’t have been appropriate for a variety of news-driven reasons. There was also another issue: “If we had partnered up, we may have lost full rights to the IP,” McMurray said.

The move to implement a one-time donation campaign, then, was driven by circumstances. In hindsight, the match makes sense. After all, a direct support model is consistent with the way public radio has generally raised funds. (Notably, nearly 60 percent of NHPR’s revenues come from individual donors via sustaining memberships, major gifts, vehicle donations, and so on.) But at the outset, nothing’s certain.

In any case, the paywall offer gave them a target number to beat: $10,000. If they could hit that number, the thinking went, it was already a win. “We knew that even if we matched the $10,000 offer, we’d come out ahead because we’d have the donor data,” said McMurray. “With that information, we were able to create a targeted newsletter, promote new episodes and new shows, and announce our tour dates to donors.” (A reminder: Bear Brook is on track to quadruple that target, at least.)

The campaign required some technical jerry-rigging. The team didn’t have pre-existing tools like Patreon, Supporting Cast, or any other custom RSS tech in place, so they had to cobble together one themselves. Listeners would pay over PayPal, which would send them to a hidden webpage containing instructions on how to manually set up an RSS feed containing early episodes. They weren’t able to create custom feeds for each unique payer, but they ultimately decided that the risk of the supporter sharing the feed with others was worth bearing. “I mean, were we really going to complain if we created a bootleg market for people who were dying to hear the next episode?” said Lavoie.

Initially, the team had set up the PayPal page to default to a single one-time donation option: $20. But after a suggestion from Deb Turner, the station’s vice president of development, they included an “other amount” option to allow for some flexibility. The change resulted in the average donation increasing from $20 to $22.

So, yes, in the larger scale of things, $38,000 isn’t a lot. I know that. Hell, some big for-profit podcasts can stand to beat that amount with a single episode (e.g. 1 million episode download × $25 CPM × 2 ad slots = $50,000). But this story isn’t for them. It’s for everybody else. And it represents a hopeful start, particularly when you consider that, according to a recent Pew Research study, only 14 percent have paid for or given money to local news of any kind — including public radio pledge drives — in the past year. (Though, I suppose you could quibble with definitions: Did Bear Brook listeners view the podcast as local news? How many was it truly local to? Does it matter?)

“The media landscape is evolving rapidly, and public media organizations need to adapt in order to survive — that’s true for both content and development,” said McMurray. “We shouldn’t toss out long-established fundraising tactics, but we should be looking closely at emerging monetization models, as well as listener behavior. For me, the big question is what do we do with our on-demand fundraising efforts right now? At this moment, a blanket approach simply won’t work, and I think we should take the opportunity to test and iterate.”

Moving forward, I’m told, NHPR’s on-demand team is focused on three things:

  • Launching new projects. Three shows will debut in the coming months: a four-part podcast from former NHPR criminal justice reporter Emily Corwin in May; a show called Patient Zero: Lyme Disease, by senior producer Taylor Quimby, in July; and a project looking at how New Hampshire became the first-in-the-nation primary, which will continue to unfold into the 2020 election season. That will be co-hosted by NHPR’s State of Democracy reporter Lauren Chooljian and Jack Rodolico.
  • Local on-demand content. “We recently launched Civics 101: New Hampshire, a local spin off of our podcast, Civics 101,” said McMurray. “We’ll be releasing our bi-weekly podcast Only In New Hampshire in the upcoming months. It’s a Curious City–inspired series where we answer questions about things happening in the state.”
  • On-demand to broadcast conversions. Finally, the team will be working to adapt its podcast efforts for broadcast distribution, which involves examining NHPR’s clock and developing appropriate broadcast schedules.

Unpacking the BBC’s annual plan [by Caroline Crampton]. In the midst of the Google-BBC kerfuffle last week — in which the BBC pulled their shows from parts of the Google podcast ecosystem citing competition issues, catch up here — the corporation also released its annual plan, which sets out “intentions and future priorities for the year.”

The plan has three intended audiences. First, it’s a document for the BBC’s regulator, Ofcom, which conducts an annual review of the BBC that in part looks at how well it has delivered on the promises in the plan. Second, it shows the rest of the broadcast industry and its observers what we can expect over the next 12 months. Finally, the plan is for any ordinary British citizens who pay the license fee and would like to check what it’s going to be spent on.

The full 54-page document can be read here, or you can take in the key points via various news writeups. (Among the headlining topics: impartiality, rising costs, changing consumption patterns, and the threat of streaming.) Another major topic is how the BBC perceives its competition, which is something you can thread back to the Google hubbub. “It seems only a few short years ago that the BBC and ITV were thought of as the titans of British media,” the report says early on. “But all of us in the UK’s traditional media solar system are getting smaller and smaller in the Apple, Amazon and Netflix universe.”

The report is a generally fascinating read, but for our specific purposes, let’s ask the question: what does the plan specifically tell us about the BBC’s audio strategy in the next year?

Unsurprisingly, BBC Sounds is a core component of the BBC’s audio plans as laid out here, with “growing BBC iPlayer and BBC Sounds” being mentioned straight away as one of the four main priorities for the next year. (For the unfamiliar, BBC iPlayer is the BBC’s video on-demand and TV catchup platform, accessible online, via apps, and via smart TVs). BBC Sounds is also going to be vital for “the future of radio,” we’re told, and there are some figures included for usage of the app: around 1.8 million downloads, with “an average of more than a million listeners a week.” (Worth noting: There’s no explanation here of how much time these listeners spend in Sounds, or how a “listener” is defined.)

The document also sets out plans for new original shows for Sounds, with more podcasts linked directly to BBC TV that build on existing examples like the companion shows for the soap opera Eastenders, the celebrity reality show Strictly Come Dancing, and the just-launched audio catchup for the popular drama Line of Duty. I’m also intrigued to see that the plan promises the BBC will be “clear and transparent” with the rest of the industry around its plans for podcasts and radio.

According to the plan, it looks like the vast majority of the BBC’s radio divisions and national radio stations will be putting out their own podcasts in the coming year. This may prove controversial at the corporation, since I’ve already heard whispers of discontent in some quarters about the new pressure on radio teams to churn out podcasts and the diverting of budgets to BBC Sounds.

I was also interested to see a mention of the BBC’s podcast strategy involving some ramp-up of local and regional audio, with BBC Radio Scotland slated to launch “a range of podcasts” aimed at a younger audience. (Props to producer Jennifer Tracey, who I spoke to last year, for proving early on that podcasts made north of the border could work very well indeed.) Locally produced podcasts are also in the cards from Wales and Northern Ireland, which is great news for those of us who would like to see the U.K.’s audio industry become a bit less focused on London. There’s also a suggestion that the regional language services (stations broadcasting in Welsh and Gaelic) will be doing some podcasts too. Genuinely can’t wait for that, as I live near the Welsh border and Welsh-language talk radio is my jam.

As I noted in an Insider last week, the plan also includes the broad suggestion that BBC Sounds could be opened up to non-BBC audio, perhaps to include content from independent, competing, and commercial radio outlets. In my view, this is the biggest and likely most long-lasting change in the plan, so it’s slightly frustrating that it only merits a few sentences and no proper explanation. If the BBC were to start sharing its flagship audio platform — and there’s also confirmation in the plan that the old iPlayer Radio app will be shut down in the next year, leaving Sounds on web or device as the main digital home for BBC audio — with other providers, that would be a total sea change for the U.K. audio space. I assume that negotiations with other major outlets are still ongoing, and look forward to seeing the results soon.

If the BBC is really going to continue to push this “us vs. everyone else” line as a core framework of its strategy going forward, then I think from their perspective it’s essential that BBC Sounds not only carries a selection of non-BBC audio, but is as comprehensive a podcatcher as possible. After all, if what they’re really asking U.K. podcast listeners to do is use the BBC’s app instead of a commercial alternative, it makes sense that it has to offer a comparative or even superior service. I am also interested to see how the regulator feels about this approach, since the BBC does have obligations not to disrupt the open market where possible. But then, I don’t think that making BBC podcasts exclusive to Sounds is ever going to be enough to get a committed Apple Podcasts or Overcast user to switch — they need to be able to listen to all their shows and feel like the functionality of the app is equivalent or better. And I think that’s a really high bar that the BBC is setting for itself.

Career spotlight. This week, I traded emails with Misha Euceph, a producer on KPCC’s emerging on-demand audio team that most recently put out The Big One, which was recently written-up by the newly revamped LA Times.

Hot Pod: Tell me about your current situation.

Misha Euceph: I’m a podcast producer and host at KPCC. I just finished producing The Big One and now I’m working on getting 22 episodes of a new podcast out by May 6. The show is called “Tell Them, I Am,” and it’s about the seemingly unimportant moments that end up defining who you are and who you are not. The stories are universal; the voices are all Muslim. We’re releasing one episode every weekday of Ramadan, so it’s a beast. We have awesome guests on board like Tan France, Alia Shawkat, Mercedes Iman Diamond…basically all of my personal heroes. Their stories are beautiful, hilarious, and deeply touching.

Hot Pod: How did you get to this point?

Euceph: I didn’t get any of the internships I applied for and no one was taking me seriously, so I followed the lead of Megan Tan and Peter Bresnan and made an autobiographical show called Beginner. Some episodes were absolute shit, but it’s the most honest thing I’ve ever made. I learned how to run a small business by turning a profit on the podcast. I learned how to market by emailing random press people and convincing them to write about my show. I learned how to edit audio and sound design. I learned how to make deadlines. But most of all, I learned that the only way to get people to take you seriously is by doing the thing itself. Going through the system and climbing my way to the top left too much outside of my control. It would have taken decades. So I had to go around the back way.

Hot Pod: What does a career mean to you?

Euceph: I’ve always had the imperative to “make it.” As a little kid, I decided I was going to be famous. A couple years ago, I decided that I don’t just want to be famous, I also want to be the most me possible. I’m still figuring out what that means, but at this particular moment, it’s about making work about my ghosts — the things that haunt my life or that are hard to figure out about myself. I don’t want to just make shows about myself or my identity, but I want to pour as much of that into the things I do make. I think that’s the only way to help other people feel like they belong. And I want to die having made a large body of work, as a producer and host.

Hot Pod: When you started out, what did you want to do?

Euceph: I wanted to be a lawyer and eventually go into politics. I competed in high school and college debate and it seemed the logical route. Towards the end of my senior year of college, I realized you can be really good at a thing but not get a sense of fulfillment from it. And you can’t spend most of your hours in life doing a thing that’s about proving yourself, rather than enjoying yourself.

Hot Pod: So much has changed lately. How do you feel about all this, and about being at a public radio station while all this is happening?

Euceph: My gripe with public radio, regardless of what’s happening in the industry, is taking “public service” to mean you can’t run a business. You can do both.

That said, I am where I’m supposed to be right now. I feel lucky to have learned from [head of podcasting] Arwen Nicks and [producer] James Kim and to have had time to launch 2 shows within a year and a half. Whatever happens in the industry, having the ability to make really incredible shows will always be the most important. The support of brilliant, creative people and the ability to collaborate with them will always be important. Being excited to go to work every morning will always be important.

Hot Pod: What should I be listening to right now?

Euceph: Southern Nights by Allen Toussaint.

You can find Euceph on Twitter here, or on her website.

Keep an eye out: Last Thursday, The Allusionist’s Helen Zaltzman flagged on Twitter that there’s a YouTube channel re-posting video repackages of episodes from a variety of podcasts without permission — which, you know, isn’t legal. A good deal of those videos have since been taken down following copyright strikes, but it’s nonetheless worth flagging. I don’t think this is a particularly new scam, as I seem to recall having seen something like this a few years ago, but I can’t quite find any older writeups on the problem.

Release notes

  • Pinna, the Graham Holdings-owned kids-centered paid podcast platform, announced a new slate of comedy podcasts, which includes three Pinna originals plus Kyle’s Wild World and WNYC Studios’ This Podcast Has Fleas.
  • The show goes on, despite the union fight: Gimlet will launch a new show, Motherhood Sessions with Dr. Alexandra Sacks, on April 11.
  • Spotify’s Jemele Hill is Unbothered will go live on April 15.
  • Unqualified Media dropped its new celebrity show, Minor Adventures with Topher Grace, over the weekend, and recently announced a new project with Alyssa Milano.
  • WNYC Studios has a new project with Kai Wright called The Stakes that’ll come out April 23.
  • Pushkin Industries’ first new property, Against the Rules with Michael Lewis, will debut this week.
  • The third season of Dan Taberski’s Headlong anthology series will be out on April 23.
  • Shouts to This is How We Die, which is scratching the itch left by KPCC’s The Big One.

Tracking

  • Edison Research’s The Podcast Consumer 2019 report, which expands on the Infinite Dial findings, will drop on April 11. You can register for the webinar here.
  • Recode appears to be on the hunt for the host and executive producer of its upcoming flagship podcast, which it’s developing with Stitcher on the same deal structure used for Vox’s Today, Explained.
  • From Variety: “Production-finance company Buffalo 8 is launching Freewater Creative Development…Companies hire Freewater to assess their intellectual property and identify potential opportunities within it for web series, episodic TV, film, documentaries and podcasts. Freewater then develops projects in conjunction with the companies.” The name to watch is Kyle Ryan, the VP of TV/film development at Onion, Inc.
  • From Adonde Media: “Podcasting in Puerto Rico: past, present, and future.”
  • Podcasts: an undervalued political communication tool? Perhapsperhaps not.

Photo illustration based on a photo of NHPR studios by Cheryl Senter/NHPR used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     April 2, 2019, 11:34 a.m.
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