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June 4, 2019, 10:59 a.m.

Can Spotify and Apple put a dent in podcasting’s discovery problem?

Plus: Podcast advertising is up 53 percent, The Telegraph gets nostalgic, and the noises we try not to hear.

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 212, published June 4, 2019.

Spotify begins tests on podcast playlists feature. This came in overnight: Fresh off its run of podcast company acquisitions, Spotify is now taking a crack at the problem that’s perhaps most groaned about in the community: discoverability.

Starting this morning, the platform is kicking off what is being described as “a very small test” around a discoverability feature in the form of podcast playlists. If you’re familiar with Spotify’s normal music playlist products at all, then you already broadly know what’s up: Each playlist will give users a collection of episodes constructed around a specific genre or theme. In these early goings, only five playlist genres will be available: “Comedy,” “True Crime,” “Geek Culture,” “Walking (Motivational),” and “Relaxing (Mindfulness).” (Shout-out to Headspace.)

A source at the company tells me that the feature will initially roll out to 5 percent of users in a few markets: the U.S., the U.K., Canada, Sweden, Mexico, Colombia, Chile, and Argentina. (Playlist composition will apparently vary by language and region.) I also hear that these playlists will start off being curated by a team of flesh-and-blood humans. But Spotify being a technology company and all, I’m willing to bet that software efforts will come into play at some point in the future.

It’s early days, and it was emphasized to me that many, many things remain up in the air. As such, one should expect a fair bit of tinkering ahead, including on the rate at which these playlists are updated. Which is also to say, I suppose: It’s a process.

Cool. Three things off the top of my head:

  • In my mind, the playlist construct assumes the episode is the atomic unit of content, and it’ll be interesting to see how Spotify grapples with differences between ongoing programs, a serialized limited-run series, and something weirder like a week-long Dan Carlin episode. It’s one thing to curate music playlists, in which most of the units are approximately the same length, but it’s another to curate a broad universe of spoken audio things altogether.
  • Getting in front of somebody at Apple to get placed on the Apple Podcasts carousel has long been a marketing concern for podcast creators. What are the odds that similar dynamics will soon come into play for Spotify’s Podcast Playlists?
  • Given that discoverability is one of the most consistent grumbles I hear from the podcast community — second only to analytics, frankly — I imagine lots of people will be excited to hear about this. Would love to hear what you think, and particularly, if you think otherwise.

Meanwhile, in the great city of San Jose…

Apple’s week-long WWDC developer conference kicked off yesterday, and there are a few podcast things you should be aware of. Well, two.

The first is the official end of iTunes, which is now going to be split up into separate desktop apps (Music, TV, and Podcasts) on the new macOS Catalina. This has been long rumored, speculated, and pre-documented, but hey, it’s actually happening. So long, iTunes — I’m gonna miss ya, buddy. (I recommend NPR’s writeup on the matter if you’re looking for a brief read on why this is happening.)

Nieman Lab’s Josh Benton wrote out loud what I was thinking when I first heard about this development in a piece yesterday:

I don’t think that a native podcasts app on the Mac will do much to move the needle on listening; the rise of smartphones has meant that laptop time is now more focused on work than it used to be, and I don’t see much reason most podcast listening would move to the desk.

That said…there’s a reason that many people tie the podcast boom of recent years to Apple deciding to include a separate Podcasts app in iOS 8 in 2014.

We shall see.

The second thing is what Apple says it will be introducing to the desktop Podcasts app: discoverability features driven by machine learning. Here’s TechCrunch on the matter:

The Podcasts app for Mac offers a way to search, discover, subscribe and listen to your favorite audio programs, much as it does on iOS. Your listening data will be synced across devices, and you can listen directly in the new app, as well.

But it’s also got a new trick: it will now use machine learning technology to index the spoken words in podcasts. That will allow you to find more podcasts — or even individual episodes — that reflect your interests.

This, of course, doesn’t come out of nowhere. In December 2017, I reported that Apple was acquiring Pop-Up Archive, an online platform focused on building tools to transcribe, organize, and search audio files. Among its suite of tools was a product called Audiosear.ch, a podcast search engine which played with similar ideas.

Took a while, but we’re here now. Playlists vs. search engines, let’s go.

Podcast advertising revenue grew by 53 percent between 2017 and 2018, according to the latest Podcast Revenue Report by IAB and PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC).

  • Specifically: $479 million was spent by marketers on podcasts in 2018, up from $314 million in 2017.
  • The big picture: Overall digital audio advertising revenue reached $2.3 billion in 2018, up 22.9 percent from $1.8 billion in 2017, according to a broader IAB/PwC report on internet advertising released last month. Podcasting is counted in that mix, and is explicitly mentioned as a major driver of that growth.
  • The really, really big picture: Overall internet advertising revenues totaled $107.5 billion in 2018, crossing the $100 billion mark for the first time. Woof.

You can check out the whole thing here.

Big newsrooms, small team [by Caroline Crampton]. Ten years ago last month, the Daily Telegraph published a series of astonishing stories about an eye-catching piece of bureaucracy: the way British politicians had been claiming expenses. The revelations carried on for weeks, with myriad follow-ups and investigations into the extent to which some MPs had been taking advantage of a lax system of reimbursements for their own profit. Several parliamentarians would later go to prison as a result.

Opinion polls showed that the public’s trust in their politicians plummeted as a result of this information coming out into the open, and they still haven’t recovered their former levels. Some draw a direct line between this collapse in confidence in elected officials and the result of the Brexit referendum in 2016, the resurgence of the far right, and the current government quagmire.

To mark the anniversary, the paper has put out a ton of special content, including a documentary film and new interactive tools for checking your MPs’ current expenses claims. The part that intrigued me, though, was a podcast. Titled ‘Expenses’, it tells the story of the original reporting and its fallout over six weekly episodes, focusing on the different characters and processes that made it all happen. It’s a really effectively made show, well told and scored, and was made completely in-house, masterminded by The Telegraph’s senior audio producer Peter Naughton. (If it sounds a bit like Slow Burn, that’s intentional — Naughton confirmed that the work of Leon Neyfakh and team was a major influence in how they approached this project.)

The dedicated podcast team at the Telegraph is really new (I spoke to Naughton for Hot Pod last autumn when he took on the gig and he was its first member). Until the start of 2019, when producer Theodora Louloudis was brought on, the team had only one full-time member of staff and a small pool of freelancers to draw on. Given that they also have a roster of regularly publishing shows to work on, as well as other one-off series, I was pleasantly surprised by the scope and quality of the Expenses show.

Working on audio within a large legacy publication is a common but underreported job, I think. I’ve had one of these roles myself, and it can be lonely as a one- or two-person operation inside a massive machine that acknowledges the hotness of podcasts and demands quality work, but doesn’t necessarily want to invest in it fully. Especially in the U.K., where advertising revenue and listener numbers are way lower than what executives can see, say, The Daily generating, it’s hard to make the case for a properly staffed podcast operation. Given that background, I was really keen to hear from Naughton how they carved out the space at The Telegraph to invest in some larger-scale narrative audio work, and how the Expenses podcast has shifted attitudes to audio at the paper.

First, he said that being able to bring Louloudis on full time in January was absolutely vital. “I would not have to make this series without a second person around,” he said. “Theo’s been able to take a lot of the day-to-day editing of the other podcasts we’ve got running onto her plate, as well as helping to develop new ones.” They make three weekly shows (on Brexit, soccer, and rugby), each of which run between 30 and 60 minutes, as well as a fortnightly fashion podcast and several others that run seasonally throughout the year. There are at least three more in development, including a show for the Women’s World Cup in France this summer.

Naughton reports to The Telegraph’s head of audio and video, Andy Mackenzie, and when the expenses anniversary was being discussed, it was Mackenzie who suggested they develop a podcast to go alongside the 75-minute high-production-value documentary that was already planned. “The idea I had, which was basically the one that we ended up making, was to break it up into interviews with key players and take more of a longform perspective on the story,” Naughton said. He sat in on all of the interviews for the documentary film, many of which had to be cut down to mere minutes in the final piece, but was able to tape his own hours-long conversations with the central characters, from the original reporting team to the paper’s lawyer, in order to pull the podcast together.

Louloudis was invaluable, transcribing tape and acting as a sounding board, but Naughton said he worked on the series like it was a passion project alongside his actual job. (He also narrates it.) “I’ve done this one in a bit of a…megalomaniac might be the wrong word, but it came to a point where the quickest way to do this, at least in the way that I set out, was just to plough through it myself.”

That meant he worked a lot of weekends, taking advantage of the break from the regular schedule for the other podcasts and the relative quiet in his inbox to spend uninterrupted hours working on the script or “jumping between my desk and the little recording studio behind to tweak links.” Production fully kicked into gear on it three months ago, and he estimates that the first episode took between 40 and 50 hours of his own time, with the subsequent ones needing more like 30.

Something that really helped elevate the project was working with original music, which isn’t something The Telegraph can usually stretch to for their regular shows. “One of our freelancers, Elliott Lampitt, is also really talented sound designer and composer,” Naughton said. “He and I worked together on an existing song that he had to turn that into the theme. On one level, that sounds like a small thing, but I remember the day when we got that locked down and it really felt like I knew what the shape of the project was going to be.”

The Expenses series isn’t sponsored; they’re using midroll ad slots to point towards other aspects of The Telegraph’s package for the anniversary, and later they’ll use it to promote their other shows, Naughton said: “It was always going to be a flagship, this one, and I think will remain so.”

Although the expenses investigation remains central to how The Telegraph positions its brand, Naughton said they were given absolute freedom to make the podcast however they wanted. “People were very willing to let me get on with telling the story. And then since it’s come out, I’ve had people around the newsroom come up to me and say we got it, spot on.” This is one of the things I really liked about the series — although it sounds slick, it doesn’t shy away from representing British journalism as it is, rather than as some shiny Hollywood fantasy.

“When I went into the interviews, I wasn’t sure how how much the journalists would be willing to show that side of it,” Naughton said. “They’re not ashamed of the fact that they were working in a really messy room and a lot of it was kind of flying around and having to be figured out and lost and found again. That process is actually something that they really proud of.”

Although Slow Burn and The Daily were very influential, Naughton was anxious that the series not just sound like a ripoff or an homage. “One thing I was really sort to tease out in this is a Britishness — I think the episode with Matt [the paper’s cartoonist] captures that really nicely for me,” he said. “Not that the American podcasts don’t do this, but I think the piss-taking aspect of British culture is one of our great strengths.”

With three episodes out, the series has already exceeded all internal expectations about how many listeners it could attract, and it’s still growing as word of mouth builds, Naughton said. While it’s definitely put down a marker for what his small team can achieve (and there are already plans for more high-quality narrative projects), he’s keen to find a better process that doesn’t require quite so many of his weekends to be spent in the office. “Having gone through Expenses, which was a learning curve for me — just to be doing this as well as doing the day-job stuff — I know that to make another one we’ll need we need a bit more help,” he said.

[Editor’s note: Back in 2009, we published a good piece on how The Guardian tried to catch up to The Daily Telegraph’s reporting on the expenses scandal with what was one of the first large-scale crowdsourcing efforts in digital journalism — take a look.]

BBC Sounds: Changes at the Top [by Caroline Crampton]. At the end of last week, it was reported that Charlotte Lock, launch director of the BBC’s flagship audio app BBC Sounds, had stepped down. Her departure comes at a time when the corporation is seeking an overall “Controller” for the app (as well as for its digital TV platform, BBC iPlayer) in what is already a shift in the way these products are managed.

Lock shared her reason for leaving with boss James Purnell, the BBC’s director of radio and education, who in turn included it in his email to staff announcing the change. She and her family are based in the north of England, and she’s been travelling to London for nine months in order to do the BBC Sounds launch director role. Now she feels it’s important that the Sounds team have on-the-spot leadership, which she can’t provide while doing so much commuting. Here’s the relevant section of Purnell’s email, which you can also read in full here.

I respect Charlotte’s reasons for opting out of this next phase for Sounds, and with her agreement, I want to share that context with you. I persuaded Charlotte to move from her role as Director of M&A for R&E and Content to lead the launch phase of Sounds, knowing that meant typically travelling 20 hours each week back and forth from her home in the North of England. Charlotte has been clear that the next phase of Sounds needs visible and hands-on leadership in London and cannot be done remotely – a commitment that unfortunately, Charlotte can’t make long-term with a young family and home in the North.

Lock is moving on to a role with BBC Sport in which she will be reviewing their offering to younger audiences, a big and pressing concern for the BBC more broadly as I’ve written about a lot before. BBC Sport is a BBC North division, and as such is based at the Media City campus in Salford, Manchester, which is much nearer where she lives.

The London-centric nature of the BBC is a long running issue. As far back as 2010 and beyond, the corporation has been criticized by parliamentarians for not sufficiently discharging its responsibilities as a public broadcaster to represent the whole of the U.K., something which has been argued is harder to do when a big chunk of your staff is based in the capital and rarely venture outside it. In 2011, as part of a strategy to address this problem, several major BBC divisions including BBC Sport, BBC Children’s, and BBC Radio 5 Live moved to Salford. The following year, BBC Breakfast followed, although two of the presenters (anchor Sian Williams and sports host Chris Hollins) declined to be relocated and left the program as a result.

As a small sense-check for those not familiar with the U.K.’s geography, the distance between the BBC’s base in central London and its campus in Salford is about 200 miles, a journey that can be done door-to-door via train in about three hours. It’s a hefty commute for someone like Lock who was trying to work full time in London, but it’s not an insurmountable distance for a weekly check-in meeting, say, if a team was to be split between the two locations.

Other revolving door notes:

  • Gimlet has announced a new deputy head of new show development: Collin Campbell, who joins from the Audible Originals team, where he worked on Evil Has a Name, Sincerely, X, and The Making of a Massacre. Previously, he ran audio content and strategy at KPCC. Campbell will be based in Los Angeles, where, according to the internal Gimlet announcement, he will “tap into a new pool of talent on the West Coast.” The company will be apparently looking to hire two new L.A.-based producers in the near future.
  • Elsewhere in L.A., the Los Angeles Times has hired Abbie Fentress Swanson as executive producer for audio, where she will “lead the production of podcasts and other editorial audio products, reporting to AME Len De Groot.” Here’s the announcement post.

Tracking

  • This is interesting: Tim Ferriss, he of the very popular eponymous podcast, is kicking off a six-month test period where the podcast will drop its ad and sponsorship-based business model in favor of pure direct support. I’ll be keeping track of this, and here’s the announcement post.
  • The Weekly, The New York Times’ documentary TV series for FX/Hulu and franchise expansion of The Daily, launched this past Sunday.
  • From 9to5Mac: “Castro Podcast Player for iOS adds support for creating and sharing podcast clips.” This comes not too long after Overcast added the same feature. Who’s next?
  • I’ll read anything Hua Hsu puts out, but this one’s extra interesting. From The New Yorker: “The Noises We Try Not to Hear.”

Release notes

  • This Sounds Serious, the Canadian true crime parody by Kelly&Kelly, has returned for its second season.
  • New Hampshire Public Radio has announced a new project: Supervision, which “chronicles the story of one man’s journey to navigate a new life after release from prison.” It kicks off as a podcast this Wednesday, and it will be repackaged for radio broadcast June 24–27 in the 6:30 p.m. slot.
  • WGBH Radio has partnered with PRX and Gen-Z Media to launch a podcast version of Molly of Denali, the PBS Kids show rooted in Native storytelling. It debuted last Thursday, ahead of the TV show’s premiere.
  • Wonder Media Network is launching its first daily podcast: Encyclopedia Womannica, which endeavors to bring “the often overlooked contributions women have made throughout history to the fore.” Each episode runs five minutes, and the series will publish for the next year.

Detail of Paolo Forlani’s 1565 map “Vniversale descrittione di tvtta la terra conoscivta fin qvi” via the Library of Congress.

POSTED     June 4, 2019, 10:59 a.m.
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