Nieman Foundation at Harvard
Postcards and laundromat visits: The Texas Tribune audience team experiments with IRL distribution
ABOUT                    SUBSCRIBE
July 9, 2019, 9:56 a.m.

Six months into 2019, what new do we know about the state of podcasting?

Plus: The role of star power in launching shows, the news peg that arrives after the show is done, and Netflix adds a podcast audio track.

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 217, dated July 9, 2019.

A midyear check-in. I feel like I’ve been somnambulant. How is it already July? The past half-year slipped by like a breeze, and I’m still processing the two big news events that have defined the year in podcasting so far: Spotify’s massive buys into podcasting and Luminary’s bungled rollout, the latter of which has begun to carry the weight of a parable.

Both are complicated stories with endless implications, but they also happen to be the kinds of stories with consequences that will only become truly apparent in the slow, trickling aggregate — bit by bit and then all at once, like tankers in the ocean. Or climate change, I suppose. Which is why, at this point into the year, I continue to fixate on anything and everything related to those two tentpole developments. My repetitive return to these topics might strike some as dead-horse whacking, but I’m sticking with my gut. Few stories strike me as more important in podcastland, at least for now.

First, though, let’s kick off this check-in the way we always do: with the big data points I keep taped to the corner of my desk:

Audience size: 90 million U.S. monthly listeners (or 32 percent of the US population 12 and older), according to the latest Infinite Dial report from Edison and Triton Digital, which gives the industry its clearest number to beat. That was a sizable jump up from 57 million last year and the biggest leap in monthly listenership to date.

Advertising: Podcast ad revenue was $479.1 million in 2018, according to the IAB/PwC’s study on the matter, now in its third year. That’s up from 2017’s estimate of $313.9 million, and the report projects revenues to top $1 billion in 2021. As always, it’s worth noting that the study primarily draws from the self-reporting of 22 podcast companies, which is to say I view the number best interpreted as the floor.

At this point I usually list a third data point: the number of iTunes (now firmly Apple Podcasts) downloads and streams as publicly disclosed by Apple at the end of each year. The assumption being, of course, that Apple Podcasts continues to drive the majority of all podcast listening, and therefore serves as a good sizing benchmark. I’m not sure how well that assumption holds up anymore, though we can’t say anything for certain until we get a reliable third-party study or a competing platform (specifically Spotify) starts putting out similar number flexes. For now, though, I’m content to retire this metric during these check-ins to acknowledge the probable decreasing centrality of the Apple Podcast downloads/streams data within our framing benchmarks. The times, they are a-changin’, as should we.

Okay! With those numbers laid out, here are the two big questions I’m taking with me from the first half of 2019:

1. Do we actually know what Spotify is supposed to become?

Given the intensity surrounding its acquisitions and subsequent announcements, it’s tempting to think that we know a lot — even too much — about what the Swedish audio streaming platform aspires to look like in the future. But I don’t think that’s the case. In fact, I’d venture to say we know next to nothing.

We know the moves: the acquisition of content studios Gimlet Media and Parcast; the other acquisition of social audio app-turned-easy hosting platform Anchor; the hiring of TV veteran Liz Gateley as head of creative development for podcasts; the redesigned UX that positions podcasting on par with music; the testing of podcast playlists; the content deals (the Obamas, et al.); the aspirational messaging of becoming an all-consuming audio platform. But as Spotify officials mentioned onstage at the Hot Pod Summit back in February, there wasn’t really a master plan in place that drove those first acquisitions, at least not then. Rather, there’s a general goal and a willingness to make bold bets in its direction.

It remains unclear whether that’s changed. What we have, though, is a muck of details to sort through. How will Gimlet Media and Parcast relate to Spotify, and to each other? Will they be kept silos with their own P&L sheets (for some reason, I doubt it), or will they be directly integrated into the greater machine? How will Gateley’s machinations — which I assume includes further dealmaking, talent signings, and new project development — factor into everything? Who gets priority, both within the organization and, more concretely, within the context of the app’s user experience? How will third-party publishers be handled, and relatedly, how will Anchor be deployed? If it becomes a multi-sided market, how will the incentives work? Who has power, and who gets to make decisions?

Basic questions. What’s not so basic, though, is the complexity of how all these questions will fit together as a system that handles a steady flow of projects big and small moving forward. An immediate test case: When it comes to the Obamas deal, presumably a very valuable asset, who in the company gets to take the lead on that?

All these detail pieces can be further sorted, I think, under a larger umbrella question: What will be the organizing principle? We can broadly discern the specific outcomes that are desired. From a business perspective, it’s essentially whatever helps the platform obtain more users, convert more into subscribers, and keep everyone on the service for longer.

But what will be the appropriate creative strategy that’ll get them to those ends? Does this mean creating more types of content for more types of people — not unlike, say, what HBO is now apparently being made to do under AT&T’s corporate ownership? Or does this mean something more focused — to have the concept of a “Spotify Original Podcast” mean a specific thing with a specific brand identity, à la Pixar? (My guess: They’ll first try for both, then they’ll trend towards the former.) It’s all pure potential energy right now, by which I mean anybody can basically say anything about Spotify’s plans and I’ll be like, yeah, totally, cool. But I’m excited for twelve months from now, after the honeymoon is over, when the real work of marriage has begun.

2. What will people pay for?

The immediate lessons from Luminary’s messy rollout were pretty straightforward. Chiefly: None of this is going to come easy, especially when you’re walking into a community, forged with strong ideological roots, with a big sack of cash looking to make some changes. It behooves one to grasp the full context and incentive system of said community, engage in proper outreach, forge meaningful coalitions. Only then can one begin to do all the disruptive things one aspires to do; in Luminary’s case, that’s the already tempestuous work of dealmaking, curating a strong portfolio, build a product experience that’s actually better than the alternatives (and preferably, one that’s not buggy on launch), and market the crap out of the whole banana.

But I also think the larger lesson we should take from Luminary, as an archetype of the emergent paid-podcast subscription platform model, revolves around the question of value — what it is, exactly, that people will be willing to pay for. This is a problem being explored breathlessly everywhere else in the media business too, from news organizations (where things don’t look too pretty) to major media conglomerates looking to play catchup with Netflix (look, if they’ve got Hiro Murai directing the Station Eleven adaptation, I’m paying for WarnerMedia’s streaming service for at least a month). And so it goes as well here in podcastland.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise to you by now, but I haven’t found Luminary’s answer to that question all that compelling just yet. The startup’s messaging out of the gate was a blend of “don’t you hate ads” (see: the Sign Bunny fiasco) and “we’ve got premium stuff,” with the interpretation of “premium” being some mix of celebrity power, a handful of not-quite-blue-chip podcast assets, a small spread of native high-upside podcast-talent that might have needed more time as free options in to further increase their stock value, and some side projects from publishers that continue to do most of their business on the open ecosystem. It’s not that any of these portfolio pieces are actively bad; in fact, most of them are decent-to-quite-good. They just don’t collectively form any identity. Ask me what a Luminary Original is supposed to be and I’ll be damned if I could tell you. (I should also add that this critique doesn’t exclusively apply to Luminary; it applies equally to Stitcher Premium too. And I love Headlong!)

It’s worth restating that the power of a creative identity — à la Pixar or pre-AT&T HBO — is only one of the many reasons that someone might choose to pay for a content subscription. Yes, exclusivity might be another, which I suspect was part of Luminary’s thinking, though the proposition is less potent in the face of endless free alternatives. A track record of creating buzzy culture-driving hits could be another, though nobody in podcasts seems to have exhibited that edge just yet. Also, as I’ve mentioned before, I still very much believe in subject specificity — e.g., I’d like more sports podcast content in my life, therefore I would invest in a service that would continuously meet my needs on that front.

And then there are all the reasons for smaller sustainability-seeking operations, principally the whole “I’d pay so-and-so dollars a month because I want to support this publisher” value proposition. You know, much like how some very nice people choose to pay $7 per month to help the continued production from a newsletter about podcasts. *cough*

The nexus of paid value and podcasting gets more interesting, I think, when you try to squish Spotify into the equation. Spotify, of course, is already a platform rich with paying subscribers. It practices a freemium model, which gives paid subscribers an ad-free experience and access to more consumption features. At this point, the company hasn’t talked much about pushing hard into exclusive podcast content, but I mean, come on, does a bear crap in the woods? It’s going to happen. And when it does — well, doesn’t it seem that they would basically have the business Luminary and Stitcher Premium want to have? Plus they’ve already cleared the fundamental hurdle: giving people a reason to pay and getting enough of them to build a formidable base. Hell, this race might already be over.

Anyway, that’s it on the check-in front. Oh, I’ll toss in one more thing: my Best of the Year (So Far) list for Vulture. Okay, let’s move on.

Guy Raz to step away from the TED Radio Hour (plus star power in podcasting). This came in just before the long weekend: Guy Raz, the wildly industrious purveyor of wonder and enthusiasm, will be stepping away from the TED Radio Hour as host and editorial director at the end of this year. In a statement, NPR, which co-produces the popular “podcast about ideas” with TED, announced that they will soon be kicking off a national search — “looking inside NPR and across the media landscape” — for a new host. The show is said to be one of NPR’s most downloaded podcasts, and it is currently aired by more than 600 public radio stations. Raz will continue working with NPR on How I Built This and Wow in the World.

I reckon Raz is probably one of the few battle-tested talents in this business. By which I mean, he’s one of the very few people who has a track record of driving audiences for new podcast projects, again and again. He’s had an interesting path: Now 44, he spent most of his professional career at NPR, where he started out as an intern on All Things Considered and rose up through the ranks over the next two decades, with pit stops as a correspondent for CNN and as a Nieman Fellow at Harvard. In 2013, he became host and editorial director of the TED Radio Hour, which would become the starting point for Raz’s adventures in empire building. He would go on to launch two other projects, How I Built This, the wildly popular business interview podcast, and Wow In The World, NPR’s first foray into kids’ programming. Last year, he was attached to a Spotify exclusive project, a music interview show called The Rewind.

If we’re keeping on brand with TED, one big idea this makes me think about: Have we had a proper conversation about star power in podcasting yet? Specifically, “star power” as a show development mechanism where a particular talent, native to podcasting, can be plopped into a project and have the name currency of that talent actually mean something on a material audience conversion level. I think we’ve seen this very rarely so far; the most recent example I can think of 99% Invisible’s Avery Trufelman being recruited to host a new Vox Media property, Nice Try. Frankly, I probably wouldn’t have rushed to check it out if Trufelman wasn’t attached to the project.

Anyway, it feels like star power in podcasting has largely interpreted so far as an importing strategy: “Let’s pay Celebrity So-and-So with not that much experience behind the mic a million dollars to make a podcast and maybe attract their fans.” With few exceptions — the Conan O’Brien crossover, in particular, turned out pretty well — I don’t think that has really worked out. I’m fairly convinced there’s more value to be found cultivating that currency within the community.

Here’s a thought exercise: If you had to make a list of podcast talents you’d feel comfortable betting a good portion for your personal bank account on, how long would that list be? I mean, don’t actually bet your life savings on podcasting, of course, but hypothetically? Me, I think I have…15, maybe 16 people? Six, if we’re talking about ones who aren’t already making gobs of money?

Anyway, more power to Raz, who will presumably use his newly freed-up time to make even more podcasts. And for what it’s worth, I hope NPR documents its search for a new TED Radio Hour host. This is the stuff of reality programming.

Director’s commentary, but for podcasting [by Caroline Crampton]. We love a good director’s commentary track in my house. I still buy DVDs most of the time for the extras, and when it comes to films I really love, I sometimes play them while I’m writing with the commentary track going in the background with the screen dimmed so there’s no picture. There’s something about the focused energy of the filmmaker’s voices analyzing their own work that I find really conducive to productivity. It’s a quirk. (Also: I will never get over the fact that in the first few seconds of the commentary track for the 1995 adaptation of Sense and Sensibility, Emma Thompson pretends to review her own “appearance” as the woman in the Columbia Pictures title card. A highly formative piece of metafiction.)

There are a lot of similarities between the classic film commentary track and your average pop culture podcast, superficial and otherwise. They usually feature people who know each other well and who’ve come together to talk about a film or TV show in extreme detail. Banter and chemistry are as crucial to good commentary tracks as they are to good culture podcasts, along with earnest and enjoyable tangents.

Above all, they’re primarily audio products. Most of the time you don’t really need to be able to see the film under discussion in order to enjoy the conversation. Given this, it’s been frustrating and somewhat baffling for me, as a fan of the classic commentary, that this format has been slow to make the leap to digital and streaming technology. It feels obvious that platforms like Netflix and Amazon should have a “toggle commentary on/off” button — it can’t be that complicated technologically, surely? — but it’s yet to turn up as a widespread option.

That’s not to say that they haven’t experimented with it a bit. On Netflix, there was a version of “House of Cards”‘ opening season that you could steam with commentary, though it’s no longer available to play nowadays, and on Amazon Prime, you can watch the first season of “Transparent” with commentary audio from creator Jill Soloway, although you have to stream it as a separate title.

Now, it looks like Netflix is scratching this itch a little deeper with the launch of Watching With, a podcast where each episode can also double as an alternate audio track for the film in question. The two episodes out so far feature director Kaytin Robinson discussing her film Someone Great, as well as director Nahnatchka Khan and producer/actor Randall Park talking about Always Be My Maybe. It’s a bit of a jerry-rigged solution — the show is accessible as normal via podcatchers, and host Jarett Wieselman just counts the listener/viewer down from three so that they press play at the same time and therefore have their picture synced up with the podcast’s audio.

Netflix, of course, isn’t by any means the first to use podcasts as a handy workaround for the inbuilt commentary track — from Simpsons show Four Finger Discount to the experimental audio show Imaginary Advice to Rebecca Lavoie’s HGTV & Me, various podcast folks have been playing with this construction for a good while. Shows like The Ringer’s Binge Mode and your classic episode-by-episode TV recap podcasts sit in an adjacent space to the pure commentary podcast, as does an awful lot of other pop culture podcast discussion and critique. (Sidenote: I would also put podcasts about podcasts, e.g. Before It Had a Theme, which covers This American Life episodes, in an adjacent category to all this. Did I mention that I love all things meta?)

Plenty of audio producers I’ve spoken to over the years have expressed interest in formal commentary accompaniments as a potential format for podcasting, but the issue of rights and permissions is mostly what stops makers from testing out these waters. To make such podcast commentary more comprehensible for listeners who aren’t playing the film in front of them, or to help sync it up when they are, you’d ideally need to be able to play good chunks of the film’s audio — far beyond what’s usually acceptable to qualify for fair use — under discussion. And that’s just not something that’s typically possible.

This, of course, is where streaming giants like Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu have a huge advantage over your average independent podcaster. These days, they not only license and distribute a lot of content — they also make their own original shows and films, which are therefore much easier to create additional extras around, since there are no ownership negotiations required and they already have easy access to the talent involved. It’s no accident that the first two episodes of Watching With cover Netflix originals — it works both from a rights point of view, but it also makes the podcast commentary a handy branded publicity extension for the works being discussed.

It’s this last aspect that makes sense of the commentary podcast as part of Netflix’s budding orchestrations around audio as a marketing channel. (Nick recently wrote an overview of their podcasting endeavors so far for Vulture, which you should check out.) Netflix doesn’t appear to be making any moves on becoming the “Netflix for podcasts” — that title which so many other recent entrants into the industry crave — and has instead focused on launching shows that aim to get viewers spending more time with the platform’s properties (and presumably strengthening their relationship with their Netflix account). This commentary-as-podcast show fits right into that, giving fans another way of connecting with a Netflix original.

Although I still have hopes that the built-in commentary track will still make the leap to streaming platforms as a default feature, releasing them as podcasts is a canny first step. It comes with little-to-no development costs and operates as a handy marketing tool, since the audio is accessible to those without a subscription. I’d be curious to see if the likes of Netflix will do something like loosen restrictions around outside podcasters using their materials to create commentary podcasts…though I realize that’s unlikely because, well, capitalism. Still, I live in hope.

The long-tail news peg. When the first two of earthquakes hit Southern California last week, I instantly thought about two things. The first was Kathryn Schulz’s “The Really Big One,” which I’ve reread every six months for the past four years and which crosses my mind at least once every other week. The second was: “Man, that KPCC earthquake project was really well-timed.”

I’m referring, of course, to The Big One: Your Survival Guide, KPCC’s service-journalism-meets-speculative-fiction project, published earlier this year, that endeavors to help listeners in southern California and beyond with earthquake preparedness and give them a tangible sense of what to do if/when the big one hits.

And well timed it was. “We did see a spike in downloads, and there we were again in the top charts in Apple,” Arwen Champion Nicks, who leads KPCC’s podcast team, told me over email. “What was great to see was how many people who had listened to it tweeting about it and recommending it to people.” Indeed, I saw that last bit for myself. All across Twitter, in communities far outside podcasting, I spotted the podcast being passed around.

There’s a programming lesson in here somewhere. I think it’s this: “Newsiness” as an editorial strategy tends to be associated with the bleeding edge, the infinite present: what’s happening right now, what happened in the last 24 hours, here’s what you need to know today. The Big One’s past week suggests that strategy could be reinterpreted as a series of forward-facing investments: Here’s what people might need to know in the near future. “What to do when the coastline catches up to your house,” “what to expect for your community when there’s a constitutional crisis,” “how to prepare for the next recession.”

Morbid food for thought.


  • T.J. Raphael, senior producer at Slate, is leaving to join the Sony-Davidson-Mayer venture, which still doesn’t have a name?
  • Bill Irwin, Stitcher’s director of audience growth, is leaving the company to…well, the destination doesn’t appear to be officially disclosed just yet. (Don’t worry, I’ll get it.) I think this is a low-key important development — not a lot of people have held that job at a high level.
  • Keep an eye on ESPN. Connecticut’s finest appears to be on the move, podcast-wise. Here’s a Jody Avirgan tweet, with curiosity-piquing job postings for an upcoming flagship daily project and editorial lead.
  • Louie Media, the French podcast studio founded by Mélissa Bounoua and Charlotte Pudlowski, has struck an exclusive partnership with Acast. Here’s the report from Pere La Fouine, in French.
  • Podfund has announced its second batch of content investments.
  • From NPR: “Podcasts Are Providing A New Way Into Poetry.”
  • From TechCrunch: “Podimo raises €6M to become Europe’s ‘Netflix for podcasts.'”
  • This is peripherally interesting. From The Verge: “Mozilla has started teasing an ad-free news subscription service, which, for $5 per month, would offer ad-free browsing, audio readouts, and cross-platform syncing of news articles from a number of websites.” Emphasis mine.

Photo of torn calendar pages by Hansen/2 Design+Direction used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     July 9, 2019, 9:56 a.m.
Show tags
Join the 60,000 who get the freshest future-of-journalism news in our daily email.
Postcards and laundromat visits: The Texas Tribune audience team experiments with IRL distribution
As social platforms falter for news, a number of nonprofit outlets are rethinking distribution for impact and in-person engagement.
Radio Ambulante launches its own record label as a home for its podcast’s original music
“So much of podcast music is background, feels like filler sometimes, but with our composers, it never is.”
How uncritical news coverage feeds the AI hype machine
“The coverage tends to be led by industry sources and often takes claims about what the technology can and can’t do, and might be able to do in the future, at face value in ways that contribute to the hype cycle.”