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May 14, 2019, 10:32 a.m.

Podcast episodes will now show up in Google searches. Helpful discovery mechanism or a shot in the Platform Wars?

Plus: Spotify wants podcasts to be first-class citizens of its app, the state of indie podcast studios, and Howard Stern/Terry Gross is the most ambitious crossover event in history.

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 209, published May 14, 2019.

The state of play, mid-2019. Last week, a good portion of the podcast community got glimmers of something they’ve long wanted: seemingly structural-level solutions to discovery, one in the form of playable Google search listings and one in the form of an upcoming Spotify app redesign. But you don’t get without giving, and some would argue these solutions entail the ceding of more power to the rising layer of active platformization — which brings a ton of theoretical changes to the relationship between publishers and audiences.

But let’s not get too ahead of ourselves — first, the details.

At Google’s I/O developer conference on Tuesday, the company made a quick mention that Google Search would soon begin indexing podcasts such that playable episodes would appear as actionable entries within relevant search results. “Soon” turned out to be an understatement; the feature went live for both desktop and the mobile web by Thursday.

Here’s what it looks like:

As you can see, the execution is a little awkward, particularly when it comes to the fact that the episode players are often (though not always) appended to the Apple Podcasts listing entry in the search results. This arrangement provokes direct competition right off the bat. After all, if I searched, say, The Longest Shortest Time after learning about the show for the first time, I’d immediately find myself at a portentous fork: either click through to the Apple Podcasts platform and begin building my listening relationship there, or click an episode play button and get routed to the Google Podcast platform and begin building my listening relationship there. If I were the Apple Podcasts team, I don’t imagine being too psyched about this.

For what it’s worth, I’m still hesitant to invoke the “platform war” framework at this juncture, and that’s mostly because I think the Apple-Podcasts-link-appending business feels possibly unintentional on Google’s part; my sense is that the in-search Google Podcasts feature generally seeks to attach itself to the most relevant response, and it happens to be the case that Apple Podcast listings tend to be the most relevant response to podcast-related queries. For this to be a “podcast platform war,” I think, there should be overt intentionality. Then again…I don’t fault doomsday preppers for building underground shelters.

Anyway, the introduction of this feature also yields other potential complexities, mostly associated with the everyday doldrums of SEO management. In particular, this is probably going to change how people think about naming their shows, as they now operate within a universe that contains a powerful search engine with robust rules.

Meanwhile, also on Thursday, Bloomberg’s Lucas Shaw reported that Spotify is in the midst of testing a new, redesigned version of its app that’s meant to position podcasts on equal footing with music within the experience of its platform. (To make podcasts “first-class citizens” on the app, one could say.) Here’s the key quote from the writeup, courtesy of Spotify CFO Barry McCarthy: “We want you to get there in two clicks versus seven.”

This is, of course, a gambit to more consciously drive existing Spotify users towards its non-music assets as the company works to transition from a streaming music service to an all-consuming audio platform. This is probably going to be a tough process, as it requires some balance in maintaining the music-centric UX that brought its user base onto the platform in the first place while pointedly introducing the new podcast-centric stuff to encourage the necessary identity shift. All this Indiana Jonesing depends on the company’s assessment of the users’ relationship with the platform, plus their secondary assessment of the tradeoffs they feel they can make and ones they feel they can’t.

Again, the overhauled app still appears to be in its testing phase, and the article made no mention of a concrete rollout timeline. I’ll let you know when the redesign pops up on mine, and it probably won’t slip by me; over the past year or so, Spotify has become one of my primary listening points, mostly because it fits well with my data plan when I need to stream.

Now, I don’t believe in making ~thought leadery~ predictions one way or another about whether either of these things will really move the listening needle. They might, they might not. We’ll find out. But if there’s one thing I definitely believe about what we’re seeing here, it’s that we’re looking at the culmination of two long multi-sided processes — we’re a long way past an Apple-centered environment.

Quick history rundown: The Spotify redesign hubbub caps off an exceptionally busy few months in the platform’s aggressive effort to plant its flag in the podcast business. These efforts chiefly took the form of three podcast acquisitions since February — Gimlet Media for $230 million, Anchor for $110 million, and Parcast for $56 million — that were fully couched in the Swedish company’s commitment to an idea of itself that goes far beyond music assets.

But the acquisitions and redesign should be situated within a broader timeline of tinkering. Remember that the most recent iteration of Spotify’s podcasting adventures largely took the form of intellectual property acquisitions, where the company sought to sign exclusive deals with talent like Joe Budden, Jemele Hill, and Amy Schumer as well as bringing in the previously independent music podcast Dissect. Also recall the iteration before that, which mostly revolved around ideas of windowing and exclusive content partnerships, as with the case of pre-acquisition Gimlet Media’s Mogul and the second season of Crimetown. All that, of course, was predated by Spotify’s very first attempt to dip its toes in the space, back in 2015, with a small, controlled distribution play that saw the platform serving up podcasts only from a select group of partners. (The company has since opened distribution to all.)

Spotify’s podcasting adventures can possibly be interpreted as a series of fits and starts, but it’s also a process of testing and discovery. In the near future, we’ll likely be treated to a scenario in which the company ends up pulling together all those learned components — the talent deals, the windowing, the content partnerships, the distribution — into a multi-sided operation that resists simple “X move causes Y outcome” analysis. Any single effort isn’t the point; the increasingly active process is the thing more worth the attention.

So it goes with Google. The search giant’s modern podcast efforts can be traced back to 2015, around the same time Spotify first began playing with podcast distribution. Back then, the Google podcast experiment was largely funneled through its Google Play service, built off the bones of Songza. That experiment didn’t seem to ultimately amount to very much, but the conversation around it did surface a bunch of new ideas. What followed after were more seeming fits and starts, including the acquisition of the short-form audio app 60dB in 2017 — maybe for Google News? maybe for smart speakers? — and some minor adventures in original programming like City Soundtracks.

Fits, starts, and then crescendo: Last week’s in-search episode discovery feature rollout is the culmination of two signals from last year. The first took place last April, when the company announced its intention to “make audio a first-class citizen” within its search universe. The second took place a few months after that, when it started rolling out the Google Podcasts app, which is meant to do for Android what iTunes/Apple Podcasts did for Mac/iOS. Some were quick to call the app a failure, and though, sure, there were technical hiccups here and there, we can now see that the app itself is just a piece of a larger multi-sided thing. What sounded like a series of separate beats now feels, in fact, like the start of a drumroll.

Again, maybe last week’s developments from Spotify and Google will be the definitive trigger for fundamental podcast distribution shifts. Maybe, maybe not — we’ll see. But they are part of a longer, increasingly concerted process that’s pushing in that direction — so we should begin anticipating the world that comes after that. How should a dominant Spotify and/or Google impact the way we think about podcast distribution?

Obviously, I have no idea. I’m just a pundit. But here’s what I’m thinking:

  • Assuming Spotify and Google do indeed each accrue meaningful podcast distribution power, should we read their podcast activities as competitive with or additive to the podcast world Apple has fostered? In other words: Is this necessarily a zero-sum game?
  • Is it possible to sketch a theory of the ecosystem that sees “Big Podcasting” as something separate from “Open Podcasting/Everything Else,” the latter perhaps mediated by Apple? Is it possible for the two things to exist in parallel?
  • With regards to Apple, there’s an obvious question and a less obvious one. The former: How will Apple respond? The latter: How should they respond? This should bring us to a more root question: What game that Apple is playing, and what’s the best version of that game specifically within the podcast context?
  • If Spotify and Google do end up commandeering the bulk of new podcast listenership, what’s the move for third-party podcast apps? What new opportunities are they best positioned to pursue? Should they double down on niche communities?

Questions, questions, questions. Mmm, yes, punditing.

MeanwhileFrom BuzzFeed News: “Supreme Court Says Consumers Can Sue Apple For Allegedly Monopolizing The App Store.”

Anyway, let’s stay on Spotify for a bit longer…

It’s a (Sound)trap! [by Caroline Crampton]. Soundtrap, a Swedish online music collaboration startup acquired by Spotify in December 2017, is launching a tool today aimed at podcasters called Soundtrap for Storytellers. The software itself includes a remote, multitrack interviewing system, interactive transcripts and text-to-audio editing, and access to a sound effects library. Each of those products already exist in all sorts of forms, but Soundtrap is betting on the attraction of uniting these different aspects of podcast production in a single place and, since they’re operating on a freemium model, under a single $14.99 monthly subscription. (That is of course separate from a Spotify Premium subscription, because listeners and creators are two different monetizable buckets, I suppose.)

I spoke to Per Emanuelsson, Soundtrap’s co-founder and CEO, to learn more about this expansion into spoken-word audio after years focusing on music. (Soundtrap also has an educational version of its music tool aimed at schools.)

The intention, Emanuelsson said, was to create “a full production environment where you can do professional-sounding podcasts, collaboratively done on the web.” He’s confident that they will get people switching from their separate solutions for remote interviewing, transcription, and so on to the combined service. “We’re catering to the semi-professionals, I would say, who would like to have something that’s simple to use in a browser that doesn’t require a big hardware investment.”

(Sidenote: How sought-after a feature is the kind of text-to-audio feature that Soundtrap is offering? As a producer, I’m instinctively wary of it, since I’d never want to cut tape without being able to see the waveform. I do use transcripts for story edits, of course, but via a tool that timestamps, rather than actually cuts, the original audio file. But I’m aware that I might be in a minority here, and that it could be a big timesaver for some. Let me know.)

Soundtrap is also taking advantage of its position as a Spotify-owned company to promote that platform; anything made with Soundtrap can be published directly to Spotify or downloaded for hosting and distribution elsewhere. It’s this aspect that interests me most: Isn’t Anchor supposed to be Spotify’s one-stop-shop for podcast creation? How does Soundtrap sit within the wider Spotify family, then?

Soundtrap, Emanuelsson tells me, is “run basically as a separate brand within” Spotify. When I asked him about how this new Soundtrap product works alongside Spotify’s other podcasting businesses, he made several distinctions between what Anchor his new tool. “Anchor is a creation tool focusing on mobile first — a little bit more like simple and fast creations that you do on the fly, on the mobile,” he said. “And then there’s the other part of Anchor, which is hosting and monetization for any podcast.”

The company has no intention of offering those publishing options at the moment, and they’re looking to attract podcasters working at the more advanced, production-heavy end of the market. “What Soundtrap is focusing on is the ability to create professional-sounding podcasts with all the different aspects of that — sound design, effects, remote interviews, music, and all that.” It’s a fine distinction, and Soundtrap is openly acknowledging that there is some overlap, since users who don’t want to publish solely on Spotify and want to host their Soundtrap creations somewhere are recommended that they use Anchor.

So there’s some attempt at synergy and cross-pollination here between the two Spotify-owned businesses. I’d also see this as experimentation — Spotify wants to see what works and, on the creation side, which parts of the market are most likely to pay for what. There’s a bit of a “throw things at the wall and see what sticks” feel to this, for sure. Judging by the software demo I was shown, I’m not sure that audio professionals at big publishers will be switching away from their current systems to use Soundtrap, but I can see the attraction of the price point for what I would loosely call serious hobbyists and part-time podcasters.

The other aspect of their tool that Soundtrap is keen to push is the transcription (only available in English at launch) and its potential for discoverability. It’s possible to transcribe audio on the platform and then use a text-editing interface to cut the tape, but also to publish the finished transcript alongside the audio to “improve SEO.” Soundtrap includes the ability to publish transcripts as well as audio to Spotify, Emanuelsson said, which is a feature the platform is adding in the near future. “For now, when [Soundtrap for Storytellers] is first released, it’s available for search engines, so it will be indexed by Google. Later on, obviously it will also be available for clients to consume it.”

Some tantalizing hints, then, about what’s to come from Spotify with podcasts in the next few months. Maybe.

On the international front… Two stories I’m thinking about:

From The National, by Miriam Berger: “The rise of Arabic podcasts: ‘a digital revival of a long-term tradition.'” Here’s the chunk that stuck:

Ramsey Tesdell, 36, one of Sowt’s co-founders, says… Sowt has so far remained in a “weird no man’s land” free from government pressure because traditional licensing regulations and other rules that govern media don’t yet extend to podcasts. Authorities have yet to take notice of podcasts, says [Kernig Cultures co-founder Hebah] Fisher. “That’s going to change as it becomes more mainstream.”

You can pair that with…

— From The New York Times, by Amy Qin: “In China, a Podcast Inspired by ‘This American Life’ Gives Voice to the Real.”

Another challenge facing “Gushi FM” is that the show is firmly rooted in reality, warts and all, at a time when many Chinese are looking to tune out daily anxieties. That desire has fueled a surge in escapist entertainment like online live-streaming, Korean television dramas and blogs that churn out feel-good clickbait content.

These exist alongside a powerful state media apparatus bent on promoting “positive energy” by pushing party propaganda, including in forms as unlikely as rap performances and game shows. Even popular audio streaming internet platforms often focus more on promoting self-improvement through educational courses and audiobooks.

…and you can tie that to last year’s Marketplace piece on China’s $7 billion FOMO industry, which instigated an entire conversation around whether China’s “podcast model” could work stateside that never quite accounted for the whole state media apparatus part of the whole equation.

Hmm.

What’s next for the indie podcast studio? Indie podcast studios are a dime a dozen these days, as enterprising producers see less upside in working for a preexisting publisher and more upside in opening up a shop they’ll own.

There are two main things driving that perceived upside. The first is an industry environment that’s exhibiting a decent appetite for acquisitions. As more established media companies look to move into podcasting, buying their way into competency is an ever-present option. The second thing is trickier to articulate, but it’s essentially rooted in the podcast ecosystem becoming significantly more complex in composition. There was a time where, as a podcast creator, your primary overarching preoccupation was having to develop and then expand an audience for your show. With the increasing participation of established media companies (and select non-Apple ~platishers~) looking to grow and control their own respective podcast audience slices, podcast creators nowadays have the option of selling shows to those corporate newcomers — which is in many ways a hell of a lot easier than needing to make stuff while building an audience.

Not that there aren’t downsides to striking out on your own, of course. You’d need to cultivate clients, hire employees, do the hard work of keeping the lights on. Speaking as an independent small business owner myself, I haven’t had a decent night’s sleep in three years and I live in perpetual fear of annihilation with every passing second of the day. And that’s not even addressing the matter of simply needing to be good at your job.

Still, it’s a ripe time to be an independent studio, and one of the more interesting things to watch is how the parameters of an indie studio have changed since Pineapple Street Media first hung up its shingle three summers ago.

We can discern some of those differences from briefly examining Magnificent Noise, the new-ish studio founded by Eric Nuzum and Jesse Baker that’s quietly coming out of stealth mode this week. Baker and Nuzum, of course, are both public radio vets who most recently held high-level positions at Audible Originals, back when the division was still pursuing a strategy built around podcast-style programming. The duo left the Amazon-owned audiobook platform last summer, shortly after the company restructured the division in the wake of a leadership shuffle to pivot towards what I like to call the “more audiobook-like products but without the pesky book part” strategy. (The restructure, by the way, resulted in the termination of Nuzum and Baker’s old team, leaving several producers out of a job.)

Magnificent Noise is Baker and Nuzum’s next act, and as mentioned, it takes the form of an indie podcast studio. Well, more specifically, they’re calling it “a boutique production house and consulting company,” and the announcement note they recently circulated noted a focus on making “distinctive and genre-defining work that entertains, enlightens, and fosters meaning.” The studio already has a few clients lined up, some that can be named and some not so much; ones in the former category include TED, the product of which, called Sincerely X, is now out on the Luminary platform, an active buyer for many such indie studios; Esther Perel, who already worked with Nuzum and Baker back at Audible; and The New York Times. Magnificent Noise currently has three full-time staffers: Eva Wolchover, Destry Maria Sibley, and Noor Wazwaz.

When I checked in with the duo last Friday, a recurring theme was about making specific, focused, inward-facing choices. They told me about how they’re not doing any branded content work for now — not that they think anything ill of it, they maintain, it’s just not something they want to do — which didn’t use to be an option for podcast studios back when there weren’t as many potential buyers. They also talked about an intention to remain small and focused, with a view to preserving an ability to choose projects with a select pool of partners of a certain kind. One imagines this would be a tougher proposition for a shop that’s raised any amount of investment capital — suggesting that to be in this position, you either need to have the capital to begin with or the right kind of starting contracts to get you going.

It’s fascinating how the indie studio model builds on itself, much like everything else, and just how much difference a few years can make. I can’t imagine a newly-founded indie studio being able to assert that much freedom of choice in, say, the summer of 2016. Then again, I can’t say I’ve imagined much of the way podcasting has shook out, either.

During our conversation, Nuzum and Baker told me about their flexibilities in certain other areas. How, for instance, they’re somewhat laid back in regards to their relationship with the intellectual property of the things they make — “it’s not really a hill we want to die on,” they noted — and around revenue participation percentages. Extending this line of explanation, they evoked the film and television-style model of packaging show ideas and commitments together to bring out to potential buyers. (At the moment, they are not working with a talent agency.)

The duo also laid out their theory of how Magnificent Noise is different from the pack, which itself hinges on their theory of the future: “What we hope to see is the U.S. developing something similar to what you’d see in London, where there are maybe over a hundred small production houses, many of them two- or three-person shops, that have mostly supplied content to the BBC but have, in recent years, realized that there is more than one person in town to dance with. In this kind of arrangement, you’d have these different studios that each specialized in a different type of production.”

It’s an appealing vision, one that’ll undoubtedly feed into the perceived upside of the indie studio. But I dunno. So much of that will depend, frankly, on the nature of the buy side, and there’s so much about it that’s still so far up in the air.

Tracking

  • ICYMI: Stitcher hires Sarah van Mosel as its new chief revenue officer, replacing Korri Kolesa. Van Mosel was most recently the chief podcast sales and strategy officer at Market Enginuity.
  • Chartable, the podcast analytics company, has raised $1.5 million in seed funding from a group of investors that includes Alexis Ohanian’s Initialized Capital, Ryan Hoover’s Weekend Fund, Naval Ravikant, Greycroft, The Fund, Jim Young, and a syndicate led by Lukas Biewald.
  • Heads up: Art19 and Voxnest is now certified for the IAB 2.0 podcast measurement guidelines.
  • This is probably useful to know for a ton of people, from Deadline: “ICM Partners Names Caroline Edwards Director Of Podcast Initiatives.”
  • What a difference an election makes. From RBR: “The House Appropriations Committee has proposed $495 million in advance funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in fiscal year 2022 — the first increase for public broadcasting in 10 years.”
  • Slate is staging a whole day of Slate things called Slate Day on June 8, Slate Slate Slate, here’s the link.
  • Courtesy of Food 4 Thot’s Joseph Osmundson, via McSweeney’s: “Damn You, Ira Glass and Your Perfect Male Vocal Fry.”

Release notes

  • Howard Stern will appear on Fresh Air for the first time this week, a two-parter that’ll air Tuesday and Wednesday. AWWWWWWW YEAHHHHHH
  • Ear Hustle returns for its fourth season June 5.
  • Matt Mullenweg, the co-founder of WordPress and CEO of Automattic, will soon launch a podcast about the future of work, and how it’s distributed.
  • Vox Media has a new narrative-ish show coming out built around critic Todd VanDerWerff: Primetime, the first season of which will examine TV’s relationship with the presidency. I’m all about narrative-ish podcasts built around critics; shout-out to Willa Paskin’s Decoder Ring and Amy Nicholson’s Halloween Unmasked.
  • The BBC has a new podcast out on the Apollo 11 moon landing called 13 Minutes to the Moon. (30 Seconds to Mars? Whatever. Don’t tell Kyrie.) A big hook the team is pushing is the fact that Hans Zimmer did the theme song. BWOONGGG.
  • This week, KQED will launch Truth Be Told, an advice podcast made by and for people of color.
POSTED     May 14, 2019, 10:32 a.m.
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