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July 16, 2019, 10:55 a.m.

West Coast offense: Los Angeles gets a new hub for podcasting to match WNYC Studios out east

Plus: Tim Ferriss brings back ads, two American companies go British, and the mystery of the one-star iTunes review.

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 218, dated July 16, 2019.

California dreamin’. This morning, Southern California Public Radio of supposedly sleepy Pasadena — one of the two major public radio stations serving Los Angeles (excluding KUSC), the other being Santa Monica’s KCRW — announced the launch of a new podcast division called LAist Studios, which the organization bills as “a new podcast development and production studio dedicated to expanding upon the storytelling capabilities of SCPR.” I suppose you could describe the division as, roughly speaking, the West Coast equivalent of WNYC Studios…or more precisely, an evolution of whatever WNYC Studios is supposed to be at this point in time.

The association between those two public radio podcast businesses isn’t only superficial; there’s connective tissue between the two institutions. LAist Studios is the first major initiative rolled out by Herb Scannell, who became SCPR’s new president and CEO in January. A veteran media exec who has led companies like Nickelodeon and BBC Worldwide America (among many others), Scannell chaired New York Public Radio’s board of trustees between 2009 and 2013. One imagines that New York Public Radio’s various podcast adventures are informative for this new Californian operation.

Funding for the division largely comes from a $1.5 million donation by Gordon Crawford, the influential investment fund manager, and his wife Donna Crawford, supplemented by a portion of the direct support dollars that come from the station’s listener base. Kristen Muller, SCPR’s chief content officer, will oversee LAist Studios’ day-to-day operations, while Arwen Champion Nicks will be the steward of production. The organization has also brought on Angela Bromstad, previously president of primetime entertainment at NBC and Universal Television Studios, to act as senior advisor and oversee development.

For the curious, like myself: The decision to name the division not after KPCC (the organization’s broadcast brand) but after LAist (the digital local news brand SCPR acquired last February) came out a desire to align the new podcast business with what’s perceived to be LAist’s younger, more culture content-oriented demographic. “Different brands have different kinds of permissions,” Scannell offered by way of explanation, which I find pretty interesting.

So yeah, there’s a lot going on here. This announcement isn’t particularly surprising to me; I visited the station a few months ago to broadly talk about podcast stuff, and it seemed apparent then that the executive team was actively exploring some sort of formal podcast operation. To be honest, I wasn’t sure what to expect. By that time, KPCC had already rolled out The Big One, which went to find some success, and they were preparing to launch Misha Euceph’s Tell Them, I Am. At best, I figured, they would probably do what most other public radio stations have done: play it safe, keep podcast activities relatively contained, and not break those operations out as a separate formal line of business. Conservative bet-hedging, in other words, and if there’s anything I’ve learned over the years, it’s that public radio organizations as a corporate species tend to play things safe.

That, it turns out, is not necessarily the case with SCPR.

“The question we were exploring was, ‘Is it worth doubling down on podcasts?’, and my gut feeling was ‘yes,'” Scannell told me Friday. That feeling was in part informed by the realities of running a competitive public radio station in the modern era. “Just being a radio station these days isn’t enough any more,” he added. “You have to diversify the experiences you’re putting out, and podcasting is one of those experiences. We believe we can use the podcast platform to open the aperture of public radio.”

Scannell tells me that the goal with LAist Studios is to build out a business that can sustain its costs and its ambitions. “Ultimately, we want to generate revenues that will allow us to keep churning out projects we want to make,” he said. “We want to be in a place where we have a constant flow of podcasts that are creatively inspired and mission-supported and that have a bit of variety. We want a business that has breadth and depth beyond just an advertising model, one that’s able to feed our platform and to complement platforms we aren’t on yet.”

To that end, the studio’s creative strategy is built around three content buckets. The first holds projects that will build upon the work and reporting constantly being produced by LAist’s existing digital news operation, which seems like smart table-stakes stuff.

The second bucket is broadly described as “stories inspired by the Los Angeles conversation.” Ostensibly, this is the locally-focused lane, though the notion of “local” when it comes to a globally attention-grabbing city has its particular complexities and connotations. “The world’s always had a fascination with L.A. — you know, the image of shades and palm trees and glamour and glitz — but the L.A. that’s really fascinating is the L.A. that’s the majority-minority city, not of tomorrow but of today,” said Scannel. “Capturing those voices is crucial to the way we think about the L.A. conversation.”

The third, and final, bucket is described on paper as “narrative fiction or factual narratives,” but seems to basically be short-hand for the ambitious, buzzy, often limited-run serialized narrative series that tend to drive conversation, rocket up the podcast charts, and get optioned for television and movies. It’s in this lane, presumably, where LAist Studios will lean heavily on its proximity to the many media and entertainment companies of Los Angeles, but it’s probably also the one that’s the most competitive, both within and beyond city limits.

At present, there isn’t a ton of details about projects currently in development, though I’m told we should expect at least one to drop by the end of this year. The division’s plan for now, it seems, is to prepare for the first quarter of 2020, and a good chunk of that process will involve taking pitches for potential additions to the pipeline. So if you’re in the process of shopping around a project that might fit in one of LAist Studios’ three editorial buckets, you should probably send them a note.

Lots of interesting things happening out west. For what it’s worth, I’m filing this story away as yet another data point in my “podcasting’s center of gravity is increasingly swinging out to Los Angeles” folder. Just don’t tell the podcast capital of the world.

The POC in Audio directory launches.

Last October, I wrote about the producer Phoebe Wang’s acceptance speech at the Third Coast Festival that doubled as a rousing call-to-action: a crew of organizers — Adizah Eghan, Zakiya Gibbons, Aliya Pabani, Afi Yellow-Duke, and Wang — were building a directory of producers of color to negate claims by audio institutions that it is difficult to find producers of color to hire, and that both producers looking to be included into the list should get in touch. (The whole speech can be read here.)

The organizers went on to receive almost 500 entries. Today, nine months after Wang’s speech in Chicago, the POC in Audio directory has finally gone live.

“This website is a growing directory of almost 500 people of colour who work in audio around the world,” reads a disclaimer that pops up when you first open the page. “It’s both a place for employers to find POC candidates, and a place where POC can find each other for meetups, collaborations, advice and so on, which means that not everyone you’ll see on here is actively looking for a job.”

When reached for comment, the organizers — who developed and launch the directory in whatever spare time they could find — sent this back:

The POC in Audio directory is a place where employers can find POC candidates, and POC can find each other for meetups, advice, mentorships and collaborations.

More than diversity stats, we want to hear work that’s more distinct, more nuanced, and more inclusive. We want an industry where POC are supported and valued not as moral fact-checkers, but because we advance the medium with our varied voices, influences and skills.

We want to emphasize that on its own, this directory is not a solution. We invite others to take on the work of addressing industry inequities alongside us, and those who have come before.

Again, you can find the directory here.

Stitcher and Wondery partners up to pursue pounds. This news dropped last week, but it’s worth unpacking. The two podcast companies have launched a new joint venture called Podfront U.K. to establish a sales presence to monetize both companies’ U.K.-based listens. I’m told that the U.K. represents the third largest English-language geographic market for Stitcher — after good ol’ Canada — and while Wondery didn’t provide specific market rankings, the circulated press release notes that the company reaches “millions of listeners” in the region.

Some noteworthy details: The venture will be led by Ruth Fitzsimmons, who will hold the title of managing director. Previously, Fitzsimmons was the SVP of international operations and content partnerships at Audioboom, where she oversaw the growth of that company’s U.K., Indian, and Australian businesses. The venture will kick off by building a team of eight people to rep Stitcher and Wondery’s shows in the U.K., though the Digiday writeup noted that there are broad ambitions to build a content operation at some point in the future.

This development is a pretty big deal, I think. Podfront U.K. represents the most focused effort yet by a group of American podcast publishers to build out dedicated infrastructure meant to specifically extract revenue from a specific market outside of the U.S. Whether it’s the first such effort is debatable, given Panoply’s short-lived attempt to build out a U.K. branch of its editorial arm in late 2016, back when that company was still in the content business.

I’m still not sure what exactly befell that expedition, but whatever the case, the opportunity around actual U.K. podcast advertising revenue remains very much up for grabs. Previously, U.K. downloads were generally lumped into the overall impression piles sold to American advertisers (which put a cap on the efficiencies of those buys), and attempts by American podcast publishers to monetize their U.K. audiences mostly took the form of non-advertising revenues (live shows, merch, and so on). As podcast listens continue to grow across the globe, in some markets more so than others, so will their value as sellable inventory. Somebody’s gotta make a sturdy enough bucket to catch that value on the up and up, and this might well be it.

Anyway, I spoke with Stitcher CEO Erik Diehn at length about Podfront U.K. last Thursday. I’ll run full version in Thursday’s Insider — it gets really wonky, and it touches upon podcast advertising trends more broadly — but here are a few key takeaways to consider for now:

(1) The decision to collaborate with Wondery, ostensibly a competitor in the U.S., was in part driven by the thinking that the combined inventory scale will be substantially more attractive to a larger number of advertisers, sponsors, and brands in the U.K. It was also driven by a desire to spread the costs and responsibilities around. “There’s quite a bit of overhead in setting up an operation like this,” Diehn said. “It’s a lot of work, and two companies that overhead is more efficient than one, at least at this stage of the game.”

(2) I was curious about the timing: Why launch Podfront U.K. now compared to, say, a year ago? Is such a business more feasible now than before? Diehn pointed to two factors. First, their technology and technical infrastructure had to progress to a point where they could partition and sell location-specific downloads more efficiently; second, the U.K. podcast industry had to reach a point where they felt there was sufficient knowledge and demand for podcast ads.

(3) I asked if Podfront U.K. would eventually open up to allow participation from other U.S. podcast publishers. “We’ve certainly discussed it,” said Diehn. “The way the venture’s been set up, that would be feasible. I don’t know that we’re looking to add any actual owner partners to the mix right now, but we do see this as a first phase.” He did, however, definitely express interest in seeing the direction flow the other way: where Podfront U.K. could help sell inventory for U.K. shows in the American market.

So, there’s that. Caroline has an item below on the development from her point of view on the ground in the U.K., but before we get to that, I just wanted to ask out loud: Has anybody done this for Canada? Hmm.

A local view [by Caroline Crampton]. For as long as I’ve been observing the U.K. podcast scene (which is a little over half a decade now), I’ve always gotten the sense that everyone is waiting for the One Big Thing that will kick everything up a gear and make the podcast market here look more like the one in the U.S. Of course, there are plenty of issues with that mindset, not least the fact that the two countries are totally different in terms of scale and existing radio landscapes. Also, I have my issues with the general idea of looking at the U.S. to lead on everything — there are many different routes to success, you know? But even parking those for a second, opinions have always differed about what the catalyst for this leveling-up would be.

Some say what’s needed is a homegrown Serial-style megahit. For others, it’s the founding of a bonafide U.K. podcast network. Still more have suggested it would be the arrival of major VC money for audio startups. There have been false alarms, like the excitement that bubbled up when Panoply flirted with the idea of a U.K. office making content back in 2016, and more recently when a pre-Spotify-acquisition Gimlet Media had one person in London scoping out the market. Understandably, these speculations have mostly been on the content side, with U.K. producers who listen longingly to the lengthy credits at the end of U.S. shows hoping someone will show up who wants to give them a staff that big too.

But the thing that nobody had ever named to me is the thing that’s now happening: two major players in the U.S., Stitcher and Wondery, launching a joint venture to develop an advertising market in the U.K. for their own portfolio of shows. There’s a vague suggestion that some new content might follow in the future, but for now the focus appears tightly trained on a small team in London that’s been hired to sell the U.K. listens in the portfolios of those two publishers.

This is a big deal, though its immediate effects will be felt by those who already work on the commercial side in the U.K. rather than those in editorial. A frequent comment that I hear from those in sales, still, is their need to educate brands about the virtues of buying audio space before they can actually make a deal; this happens a lot less than it used to, but it’s still a big part of the job. That’s why that Dax report I wrote about in an Insider report last week matters, because although there was noise about lots of brands increasing spends next year, that lingering requirement to introduce plenty more to the space afresh remains, and that’s a lot of work.

If Podfront, which will have a substantial inventory to fill and the advantage of booming U.S. operations to draw from, can do some of the heavy lifting in this regard, it will be a major boon to everyone else trying to sell ads in the U.K. There will also be secondary benefits, in the form of the potential for trans-Atlantic deals (i.e., if Wondery/Stitcher can convince any existing ad clients to invest in the U.K. market), and an injection of healthy competition as more deals are done.

All of this is going to take time. And the fact that the Podfront initiative seems to recognize that reality is encouraging to me — they’re not banging the door down with a slate of new British shows, but rather starting by enhancing what they already have.

In a way, the arrival of Podfront is a leveling-up for the U.K. audio space, if perhaps not quite the silver bullet that some of my correspondents dream of. Until now, U.S. podcasts and networks with substantial English-language listenerships elsewhere (i.e. the U.K., Canada, and Australia) have just partnered with a local agency to handle sales, as Nick noted last year. Monetizing some of those listens was better than giving it all away for free. But now the U.K. has grown to the point where it’s worth investing in a bespoke service — or at least that’s the calculation at the top of Wondery and Stitcher. For those still yearning for a wider, deeper space for professional podcasting in the U.K., that’s not nothing.

One more thing on Stitcher. Before I move off this topic, I wanted to flag something I found interesting: Stitcher appears to be in the process of changing platform vendors for hosting services provided by Midroll, the company’s sales division. Midroll’s preferred platform had been Art19, but it’s now switching to Omny, the Australian hosting platform that Triton Digital acquired in June. Here’s some matryoshka-doll action for ya: Scripps, Stitcher’s parent company, acquired Triton Digital last December.

“Over the past few months, Stitcher has been testing Triton Digital’s ad serving infrastructure and programmatic exchange in our Stitcher app and through a sample of our owned and operated podcasts,” said Diehn in a statement, forwarded yesterday. “Triton’s acquisition of innovative podcast hosting company Omny Studio represents an exciting opportunity to explore the powerful new capabilities this platform integration will unlock for Stitcher and its partners — improved content management, better data and insights, increased monetization opportunities and a growing suite of data-driven advertising solutions. At Stitcher, our goal is always to keep the interests of our partners at the forefront and we look forward to serving them with the introduction of a new set of tools later this year.”

Strictly speaking, it’s a somewhat minor development, as it only practically affects the non-owned-and-operated partner shows that opt into Stitcher’s hosting services. But I had been curious about the ramifications of the Omny acquisition, and this news bite ties up that loose end for me.

Leave us a rating [by Caroline Crampton]. Checking in on a story that’s been rumbling for a few days now on Reddit and in various podcasting Facebook groups: the sudden appearance of a lot of one-star ratings for certain podcasts in Apple Podcasts. One show, the true crime podcast Obscura, has gone public about the problem, and when I reached out to host Justin Drown, he told me over email that he’s seen his show’s one-star ratings go from “122 to 175 to steady heading to 300 in three days.” Four days in, he’s at over 500.

Drown has attempted to contact Apple via phone and email to talk about resolving the problem and some ratings have been removed, but then more reappear. The issue, he says, is that although there is a process for reporting a malicious or spam review (i.e. actual text), there isn’t a way of doing this for a star rating. I did contact Apple to find out more about how they’re handling this matter, by the way, but didn’t hear back.

Ratings matter, of course, because of their influence on the Apple Podcasts charts and their general impression on new listeners. Nick reported last fall on what appears to be successful attempts to use bots to send unknown shows to the top of the charts; this is starting to look like an attempt to do the same thing but in the opposite direction, using a ton of fresh ratings to suppress a show’s discoverability. From what I’ve seen, some corners of the podcasting community are a bit shaken by this development. It might be an amusing curiosity when weird podcasts send themselves to the top, but it’s less so when your show gets junked against your will.

More than a few people seem to be connecting this phenomenon to the controversy surrounding Sword and Scale host Mike Boudet, who took a break from true crime podcasting after his show was dropped by Wondery after he published a misogynistic Instagram post back in March. He returned to hosting his now-independent podcast on July 4.

The Clearing. I wrote a preview piece for Vulture last week on The Clearing, a new true crime project by Pineapple Street Media in collaboration with Gimlet Media that’s due to drop Thursday. The piece focused on the creative hook of the podcast — it’s pretty wild — but what I didn’t get to discuss much there was the context of the collaboration, which I found interesting.

Pineapple Street developed the project with the journalist Josh Dean, who had initially pursued the story as a magazine feature. The independent podcast studio continues to handle the bulk of production and creative responsibilities, while Gimlet mostly plays a role in marketing and distribution, though they gave notes on the project, which is very Hollywood-esque, I guess. Another detail worth flagging: the deal predated Gimlet’s acquisition by Spotify.

Max Linsky, Pineapple Street’s co-founder, also had this to say when I interviewed the team last week: “[The deal] was a really easy, natural thing. The email chain where we hammered things out was four emails long, and it’s worked great. We own the show, Gimlet has some participation in it, and my sense is that it’s worked out well for everybody.”

In a larger sense, I think it’s another example of this moment of adolescence for the podcast industry, where you can still run experiments and try stuff out, and the people making decisions generally work everything out on the fly. We haven’t done two of the exact same kinds of deals yet. Neato.


  • Tim Ferriss has ended his experiment with moving his popular podcast to a completely fan-supported model, which he kicked off at the beginning of June. The reason? “It turns out that most of my listeners have a strong preference for an ad-supported model compared to other options,” he wrote. “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.” Ferriss will be issuing refunds to every supporter for all that they have given to this point. You can find full details about this on his blog.
  • Blubrry has released a dynamic ad insertion feature for its users with a professional hosting account. Here’s the press release.
  • Acast has expanded to Germany. On a related note, Edison Research has added the country to its list of digital media markets that are subjects of its Infinite Dial studies.
  • APM’s In The Dark gets the New York Times profile treatment.
  • NBC News and MSNBC’s audio team, led by Slate alum Steve Lickteig, is staffing up. The organization has hired Ellen Frankman, formerly the interim executive producer of WNYC’s The Takeaway, to EP its upcoming 2020 election podcast. Frankman started work yesterday.

Release notes

  • Bundyville, the journalist Leah Sottile’s podcast that explores anti-government extremism in the American West, has returned for a second season. The production is published by Longreads in collaboration with OPB.
  • Shoutout to Boise State Public Radio and the Mountain West Bureau, which just rolled out its own investigative podcast project, Locked.
  • Hub & Spoke has added another show into its collective: The Constant.
  • Keep an eye out for the Los Angeles Times’ new limited-run series, produced through its LA Times Studios arm: Larger Than Life.

Illustration of the Los Angeles cityscape by Giordano Polani used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     July 16, 2019, 10:55 a.m.
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