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July 30, 2019, 7:36 a.m.

Apple’s podcast categories are on a brief vacation — and a reminder of how thin the industry’s infrastructure can be

Plus: Slate leans farther into the advice game, In the Dark goes global over the airwaves, and some people just like ads.

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 220, dated July 30, 2019.

Apple categories, temporarily relieved. I was fairly delirious this weekend — between the relentless summer heat and all the heavy lifting involved in packing up an apartment — when I pulled up the Apple Podcasts app only to find that, bizarrely, the entire podcast categories menu had vanished. For a moment, I briefly contemplated that it was time to get a new phone, or that my brain was finally giving out. And then, after prodding Twitter to figure out if I really was losing it, I realized that I was just being a complete dolt.

As it turned out, I had forgotten about an email that Apple had sent out the week before, which informed podcasters that they can start updating their shows using the new categories and subcategories the company announced early last month. So begins a momentary if slightly awkward period of transition: “Changes to the enhanced Apple Podcasts categories are scheduled to go live later this summer,” the email said. “In preparation for that, the category menu may be temporarily removed.”

The decision makes sense, even if it does seem rather severe. It provides the app some visual cover as the podcast universe reconstitutes itself on top of the platform according to its new organizational language. I imagine it would strange for new Apple Podcasts users (and everybody else) to dip into a new subcategory — say, “Wrestling” or “Daily News” — only to see those genres populate in realtime, complete with category-specific charts reshuffling themselves every few minutes in a manner that gives every publisher the chance to declare “We’re on the top of the Wrestling charts!” for a glorious, fleeting moment. A grace period like this, then, is arguably necessary for the Apple Podcasts universe to properly reset.

Nonetheless, there are material impacts to consider. I heard from one podcaster who observed that the temporary absence may cause complications for shows in the midst of signing on an advertiser, particularly if those negotiations require an education process that involves showing how rising download numbers correspond, broadly, with chart placement. Temporary is temporary, though, and depending on how long this absence goes, the lack of that educational reference point might not be much of an issue in the larger scheme of things.

Still, it’s pretty darn strange to pull up the Apple Podcasts app — an unquestionably fundamental pillar of the podcast ecosystem — and find the categories menu — by all accounts an important discovery and consumption management tool — completely gone like that. I suppose it’s like what it would feel like to see those massive electronic billboards in Times Square temporarily replaced with an OS update progress bar. To see something that big and seemingly important behave so…mortally is not only strange: It’s uncanny.

Because I work on this newsletter most days of the week, I’m firmly situated inside a feedback loop constantly signaling that this podcast stuff is increasingly powerful, quite valuable, rather important. But there remain instances like this that continue to remind me: This whole thing is still so weirdly fragile and cobbled together. And I find that reality, for as long as it remains true, oddly endearing.

Across the pond (and the airwaves) [by Caroline Crampton]. The Peabody Award–winning podcast In The Dark is partnering with the BBC World Service to turn its second season into a 10-part radio series for broadcast on the global network. The first episode hit airwaves on July 27 and it will continue weekly, unfolding the story of Curtis Flowers and his many trials (including the recent events in the U.S. Supreme Court). The latest audience figures for the World Service, by the way, reportedly give the network a reach in the hundreds of millions.

While I’m aware of plenty of podcast series that have then been repackaged for broadcast radio, it’s less common for a podcast to be adapted into a fresh series for its radio version. But that’s what the team at APM Reports is doing here: They’re taking their 15-episode second season (plus several update episodes) and turning it into 10 episodes, about 17 minutes each, for BBC radio broadcast. (Something fun I came across while working on this piece is this graphic of the BBC World Service program clock — enjoy.)

I checked in with Rehman Tungekar, an associate producer on the show, over Skype recently to find out a bit more about the process of turning a podcast with a dozen and more episodes of over 50 minutes into this new format. It’s not just a case of editing down the more lengthy material, he said.

“There’s been a considerable amount of rewriting. I guess like the main difficulty is condensing like a year’s worth of reporting into really short digestible episodes. That was already a challenge with season two, and with this, we’re cutting it down even further.” The radio series will also contain new reporting on Flowers’ recent Supreme Court battle, he said.

They’ve also had to drop entire reporting threads to be able to get the episodes down to the required length — the lengthy exploration of the role of Flowers’s uncle Doyle Simpson in the case has had to go, for instance — and the team has also been “very mindful” of the fact that the World Service audience might not be fully familiar with the story’s context in the U.S. justice system. Those latest audience figures show that India and Nigeria are the biggest countries for the network, with Kenya and Afghanistan also big audiences. “I feel like with this whole experience we’ve had to really think about our audience in a different, maybe even deeper way,” Tungekar said.

In addition, the series has been restructured somewhat for the radio, since the reporters can no longer assume that listeners will be able to hear all the episodes sequentially — they may catch the series partway through broadcast. “We’ve kind of had to approach each episode with the idea of ‘how much do you need to know to actually make this make sense,'” he said.

The biggest consideration throughout this reformatting process, though, has been time. “With the podcast, we have the ability to just let the story kind of develop slowly, whereas with the broadcast version we have to be very aware of pacing and the fact that people don’t necessarily control their own listening experience. They might be driving, we could be competing with other things. And so we just have to be mindful that the story has to be really well told and gripping.”

The team is delighted to work with the BBC World Service, Tungekar said. “We’re incredibly honored and grateful that they approached us and are giving us this platform to share our reporting with our global audience.”

It’s a pretty good matchup, from what I can see — the BBC has a strong interest in campaigning, public-service journalism, of course, and In The Dark represents those qualities in spades. The decision to create a new, radio-specific version of the podcast I think is a positive one too, since it recognizes that the two formats are different and their audiences require different styles and paces. I hope this might serve as a template for other podcasts to come to traditional broadcasters in a similar fashion.

Permanent collection. Here’s something really cool: The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture — abbreviated as NMAAHC — has selected 11 episodes from Revision Path, an interview podcast by the entrepreneur and web designer Maurice Cherry showcasing black designers from all over the world, for inclusion into its permanent collection. We’re told that this is the first time that a podcast has been added to NMAAHC’s collection.

The eleven episodes in question were interviews with Gail Anderson, Hannah Beachler, Darhil Crooks, Jon Daniel, Emory Douglas, Cheryl D. Miller, Andrea Pippins, Dori Tunstall, Craig L. Wilkins, and Hadiya Williams, plus a round-table discussion episode on the design of the Marvel film Black Panther.

Revision Path was launched way back in February 2013. It’s published as part of the Glitch Media Network.

How to service, journalistically. I don’t know about you, but I tend to subconsciously associate the concept of “service journalism” — which I’ll describe as reader-focused reporting, often towards actionable ends — with the personal improvement genre. (Which, by the way, I will always happily dedicate copious amounts of my waking life towards, as I noted in a column about NPR’s Life Kit back in January.) I’m aware this isn’t a strictly appropriate association — not all service journalism is about personal betterment, and the extent to which personal betterment is service journalism depends on, I suppose, the quality of the journalism — but I’m similarly drawn by the broadly actionable nature of both categories. What can I say: I like news I can use.

As such, it is with some interest that I’m keeping an eye on the podcast Slate rolled out fresh from the oven this morning, called How To! with Charles Duhigg. They’re pitching the project as an enterprise of “investigative service journalism,” which is an accurate enough description, though I’d say it seems a little more like a case-of-the-week procedural spliced with advice column DNA. (Think the CBC’s Personal Best, but more straightforward and without the daffiness, I guess?)

The premise: Each episode follows Duhigg, a veteran of The New York Times and author of books like The Power of Habit and Smarter Faster Better, attending to various everyday problems from ordinary people and attempting to solve them by applying classic journalist-y methods: talking to experts, research, that kind of stuff. I’d use the term “everyday problem” loosely, though; one of the four episodes dropped at launch earlier this morning is called How to Rob a Bank, which isn’t exactly an everyday problem, though I suppose it is an everyday daydream for some people. (People like myself, I should say, fresh off multiple rewatches of Heat as part of research for a Vulture piece.)

How To will roll out new episodes on a weekly basis, and Audible has bought in as the launch sponsor. Serving as executive producer is Derek John, a multitalented public radio veteran who also shepherded the project through the pilot process at Slate.

Speaking of which, we should probably talk about how the podcast fits into Slate’s portfolio. Interestingly enough, How To is the sixth show that Slate has launched this year and the 15th since April 2018. The past year-plus has been a considerably active period for the veteran digital media company, which continues to deepen its podcast position: Slate currently houses over 30 active podcasts in its portfolio, which collectively drove more than 180 million downloads last year. I’m also told that podcast revenue presents more than 28 percent of its business, and that the company expects the segment to make up half of all revenue by the end of this year.

Another thing to note: The positioning of How To! as an audience-centric vessel of service journalism feels like an extension of Slate’s broader success with advice columns on its site. As Nieman Lab’s Laura Hazard Owen noted this month, Slate’s four web advice columns — Care and Feeding, Dear Prudence, How to Do It, and Beast Mode — are increasingly traffic drivers for the site. In many ways, How To can be viewed as a further exploration of that trend.

Anyway, interesting stuff. I’m curious to see where this project goes, but writing this piece also makes me curious to see more straightforward advice podcasts…aside from, like, The Dave Ramsey Show or something.

It’s okay to enjoy the ads [by Caroline Crampton]. I was intrigued back at the start of June when lifehacker extraordinaire Tim Ferriss announced that he was experimenting with a business model switch: He would try shifting his popular podcast from an ad-supported model towards a direct-support model — an audio variant on the composition favored by popular individual-driven blogs like, say, Kottke.org.

Ferriss’ show has a large audience; he says the podcast has recently passed 400 million downloads across the more than 370 episodes it has published since April 2014. In his version of the direct-support model, he offered six tiers, starting at $9.95 a month, which gave paying subscribers access to an exclusive monthly Q&A video. Nick broke down the model in more detail at the time in an Insider issue, but suffice it to say here that Ferriss had originally planned to run the experiment for six months, citing his main motivation as the amount of time and effort it typically takes to organize and implement all the ads.

Flash forward to the present, about a month or so after the start of this trial period, and Ferriss has apparently stopped stopped the experiment and reverted to his previous ad-supported model. He explained the move thus: “It turns out that most of my listeners have a strong preference for an ad-supported model compared to other options. Many folks have come to use the podcast…for discovering new products and services, and that has been reflected in the comments since launch. After weeks of consistent feedback from my audience, it’s now loud and clear that my vetting and sharing of sponsors is better received and a better fit.”

In his post on the subject Ferriss went on to say that it should have been obvious to him that the direct subscription model wasn’t going to work — at least for him. “The really comical part is that I should have known, and I could have known. Actually, one could argue that I did know” — Ferriss notes that he had always received good feedback on the ads, and that many listeners said they couldn’t afford to support multiple podcasts directly, preferring instead to help out by hearing the sponsor reads and following up on products they were interested in. Viewed from this perspective, removing the ad reads actually meant removing the way that this (very large) section of the audience had long supported the show (albeit passively, for the most part). Additionally, it took away a product recommendation service they valued as part of the podcast.

Ad-free access is something I see offered a lot by podcasts that invite direct contributions from listeners, whether Patreon or a similar platform. (I do it myself for my own show and I can only speak from that experience, but for my show, the allure of an ad-free experience had never been a big driver of signups — people say they come for the bonus content or the community instead.) The value proposition of an ad-free repackage is predicated on the assumption that ads are inherently annoying and a necessary evil, and that those who choose to stump up extra cash would rather not hear them. And that does hold true in some cases, without a doubt.

But even before I saw Ferriss announce that he was stopping his experiment, I’d been mulling over a related angle around this. Several podcasters I’ve spoken to who offer ad-free versions of their shows said they’ve been contacted by paying listeners frustrated to miss out on the discount codes and promotions offered to non-paying listeners in the sponsor reads. One host said that they’d gone as far as to start posting all of the sponsor promotions in their supporters-only Facebook group so that the paying listeners could still benefit from the deals.

Could it be that the assumption that everyone would rather not hear adverts is incorrect? I conducted an ~extremely informal, unscientific~ poll of podcast-listening friends while I was thinking about this, and most of those I chatted with said they would always rather support a show by listening to a few sponsor reads than make a direct payment, pointing out that if you listen to lots of podcasts, it’s just not practical to support more than two or three directly. That makes sense to me; I think a sizeable minority of listeners know they’re getting something that costs money to make for free and are perfectly willing to pay with a few minutes of their attention as a fair exchange.

Of course, not all adverts are created equal. My tiny focus group had good things to say about ads where a degree of artistry and effort keeps them brief and entertaining. (Special commendation was singled out for the in-universe mattress ads in Wooden Overcoats, the Squarespace singalongs on Answer Me This, and the early Pod Save America host reads). Long, rambling, or unprepared host reads were less popular, which makes total sense. Nobody likes to feel that their time is being wasted.

Advertising is what makes this industry tick, after all. We’d be nowhere without the ads. Listeners, by and large, understand the role they play in the audio ecosystem; creative work should be paid for, and it isn’t diminished by covering its costs. I occasionally encounter a podcaster who feels guilty for including commercial messages in their show, and I wish I could smooth their worries away. If Tim Ferriss’s experience is anything to go by, plenty of listeners aren’t just tolerating the ads — they’re enjoying them.

Tracking

  • AdsWizz, the digital audio advertising solutions provider acquired by Pandora last summer, has rolled out new ad insertion software that it says “fully supports the Remote Audio Data (RAD).” If you need a reminder on all this RAD business, hit up this old writeup from The Verge.
  • NPR has made a new addition to the team that handles the organization’s digital funding credits: Cara Stevens, who joins Chioke I’anson and Jessica Hansen. This credit announcement team, by the way, is the primary ad-read mechanism that NPR uses in its podcasts in place of host-read ads.
  • From Engadget: “Amazon cancels podcast-inspired ‘Lore’ after two seasons.”
  • From The Hollywood Reporter: “Spotify Acquires Music Podcast ‘The 500.'” A reminder that, as much as Spotify is a buyer of podcast companies, it’s also a buyer of podcasts more generally. Interestingly, The 500 will continue to be available on all platforms outside of Spotify as well.
  • From The Wall Street Journal: “Apple Dominates App Store Search Results, Thwarting Competitors.”
  • From the Pew Research Center: “A Week in the Life of Popular YouTube Channels.” Always worth looking over in that direction. By the way, if you, like me, find YouTube and influencer culture eminently interesting, you should be following Taylor Lorenz.

Release notes

  • Fresh off the buzz of Bear Brook, New Hampshire Public Radio has announced details for two upcoming projects: Patient Zero, a Taylor Quimby-hosted series that will investigate what it calls “one of the most enigmatic and controversial epidemics of the 21st century,” Lyme disease (drops August 15); and Stranglehold, which will be the station’s locally-focused presidential election project, tasked with unpacking the state’s power and relationship with the primaries (drops September 4).
  • I’m told that SkimmThis, the bite-sized evening-focused daily news podcast published by The Skimm, has crossed the 10 million lifetime download mark last week, around the same time that it dropped its 100th episode. The show, which is produced in partnership with Cadence13, launched back in March.
  • Pinna, the Graham Holdings-owned, kids-focused paid podcast platform, is still humming along, and the company sent over details for two interesting new projects being added to its portfolio: Piper in the Dots, a “musical interactive podcast,” and Quentin & Alfie’s ABC Adventures, a show meant to help kids with phonological awareness.
  • Yesterday, Stitcher published the trailer for an upcoming nonfiction narrative series called Mob Queens, which will “explore the story of Anna Genovese, a New York drag club maven, self-styled entrepreneur and mob wife.” It will be hosted by Jessica Bendinger and Michael Seligman, and it will debut on August 19.
  • Earios, the women-led comedy-inclined podcast network that’s been making a hard press push lately, has added three shows to its roster: The Big One, a conversational show discussing ethical conundrums; The Alarmist, a history-ish show; and Sex for Money, a game show that endeavors to “demystify the sexual experience.” If you’re keeping tabs: Earios is partnered with Acast.
  • Here’s a branded podcast that I found pretty well-executed: Vanguard, by Shopify Studios. Its second season rolled out earlier this month. I think there’s quite a bit of overlap here, in terms of brand strategy at least, with what Mailchimp has been doing with podcasts and internally produced media more broadly.
  • Keep an eye on Radiotopia this morning.

Photo of apples, categorized, by Peter Feghali.

POSTED     July 30, 2019, 7:36 a.m.
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