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Aug. 6, 2019, 9:09 a.m.

A unique collaboration lets the Bundyville podcast tell stories of anti-government extremism in the American West

Plus: Apple’s new podcast categories are live, Podtrac’s rankings continue to confuse people, and Dolly Parton.

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 221, dated August 6, 2019. (By the way, we’re taking next week off. Happy summer, everyone.)

The Apple podcast categories are back in business. After a brief vacation, the categories, thought to be an important discovery and consumption management tool, have rolled back out, complete with the new genres and subgenres announced at the beginning of June.

It will probably take a little while longer for the new categories to get fully up to speed and for some wrinkles to get ironed out. (For example, at this writing, a tab called “All-Time Bestsellers” can be found when you click through the New Show options.) But for now, it’s pretty satisfying to pore through the new Fiction and True Crime pages, which presents the formalization of key podcast segments that have been a long time coming.

This again? From Fast Company, almost exclusively citing Podtrac’s monthly ranker:

It’s estimated that there are more than 700,000 active podcasts today. While the low barrier to entry has given rise to the running joke that everyone has a podcast, the saturated market can make it difficult to grow an audience.

One thing that might help: Build a multi-million-dollar radio empire first and then segue into podcasting.

Every time Podtrac, the long-running service that verifies podcast analytics for publishers, pops up in this newsletter, I make it a point to link to my older columns on the service that points out the caveats, like so: here, here, and here.

That’s because Podtrac’s industry rankers continue to be structurally incomplete representations of the overall podcast industry; that was true when I wrote those columns in 2016, and it remains true today. As a reminder, those rankers only pull in hard data for publishers that participate in Podtrac’s measurement system — a requirement that not every publisher is comfortable with, which is why we don’t see complete participation — while the show rankers purport to equally display shows from publishers that participate in their service and shows from publishers that don’t (with the download counts for non-paying publishers said to be “determined by a proprietary Podtrac algorithm which uses publicly available data,” though the reliability of that claim is anybody’s guess).

However, despite their incomplete nature, Podtrac’s rankers remain the only easily accessible industry rankers out in the public, which is why they become a natural point of reference for reporters looking to quickly grasp a narrative around the podcast industry — and in doing so, likely under-weighing the implications of the necessary caveats. And so we continue to have situations like this Fast Company writeup, which does acknowledge the opt-in nature of Podtrac rankers but doesn’t fully play that fact out. As such, you need up with the perpetuation of narratives like the one contained in the article’s kicker: “For all the talk about radio being disrupted by the rise of podcasting, seems like thus far radio is making the transition quite nicely.” When in fact, the reality is not as straightforward as that.

(Even taken at face value, you’d have to confront the stickiness. For one thing, calculating the monthly unique audience per show averages reveal noticeable disparities between publishers that aren’t adequately reflected by the rankings, and for another, the paths of old-school radio giants versus public radio giants are very, very different.)

To be clear: I’m not necessarily dismissing the idea that old-school radio empires are disproportionately claiming the podcast space. I definitely think there may well be an interesting story somewhere about how some old-school radio companies are seeing some success in their efforts to buying their way into podcasting in order to access cultural relevance and structural growth. But Podtrac’s rankers aren’t by themselves adequate sources of information to tell that story, even if that story ends up being true.

Of course, this over-privileging of Podtrac’s rankers is just fine for Podtrac and its participating publishers. Podtrac continues to get attention as the publisher of “the industry’s only podcast rankings”; participating publishers get to walk off looking like the unambiguous kings of this new universe. There’s a strong incentive here for the two sides to keep this image going, particularly within a podcast universe that persists in a state of data scarcity. Sure, NPR is definitely a massive podcast publisher, but is it the biggest? Not necessarily. But they, along with the other publishers on the ranker, get to benefit from the broken narrative.

Look: I’ve been writing versions of this rant again and again over the years. And it looks like I’m going to have to keep writing it for years and years to come. I hate that it’s the case, but screw it, who else is going to do it? NPR? iHeartMedia? Nah.

Revenue diversification, for big and small. Multitude Productions, a Brooklyn-based independent podcast collective, isn’t small by any means, but it isn’t terribly big either. Formed in 2017 by Amanda McLoughlin (who I interviewed for a career spotlight back in March), Multitude is now at a size where, in the month of July, the collective brought in over 2 million downloads across its five shows: Spirits, Join the Party, Potterless, Waystation, and Horse.

The collective was originally assembled to do all the things collectives are made to do: share resources, collaboratively develop audiences, foster a sense of community, and, of course, realize revenue opportunities that could be more effectively achieved as a group than as a set of separate solo operations. Since its formation, the group has monetized their downloads through standard means like advertising (which Multitude sells and derives commissions from as an entity) and Patreon (hosts and Multitude the entity collectively own the podcasts and split the direct support flows accordingly).

But the collective has also proactively worked to diversify its revenue lines. In recent months, Multitude expanded to offer consulting and full-service production services, which runs through an office and studio they opened up in the Greenpoint neighborhood a few weeks ago. When we spoke over the phone recently, McLoughlin tells me that their client list ranges from independent producers to college students to Fortune 500 companies. That work has grown steadily enough, McLoughlin says, that Multitude now considers itself to be an independent podcast collective and production company. (They declined to provide specific revenue numbers.)

And the march for further diversification goes on. Last month, the collective announced yet another addition to its widening range of revenue sources: a membership program called MultiCrew. Built off three tiers — $10, $20, and $30 per month — the program offers listeners and fans the opportunity to support the operation, and it’s built to give a bunch of benefits typical for membership programs like these, including behind-the-scenes material, bonus content, and some input into future programming decisions. There’s also a members-only podcast, a weekly “friendly debate show” called Head Heart Gut that features all of the hosts in the Multitude universe. (For those curious about the technical end, the collective is using Memberful — which I also use for Hot Pod, by the way — to manage the program, which they route through a WordPress site.)

I asked McLoughlin: Why launch the membership program at this point in time, adding to what feels like an increasingly sprawling revenue frontier? Membership programs, as a variation on and an extension of the broader media industry’s current affinity for subscription models, come with their own complexities and can be hard to execute well.

The way she explains it, the membership rollout seems specifically geared towards forward-looking projects, while the rest of the revenue lines were forged to maintain the collective’s current operations at a sustainable rate. “The arrangement we had worked for us at our size,” said McLoughlin, referring to the current advertising/­Patreon/­consulting/­production nexus that powers the collective. “But we needed a way to finance new work. We have tons of ideas for shows we want to make, and in lieu of a platform deciding to partner with us to make a show, we didn’t want to have to wait until somebody says yes to us to do something we’re passionate about.”

Eric Silver, the group’s head of creative, added: “It’s not like we don’t want to do the usual things like looking for partnerships, but we’re independent — we don’t have any sort of VC money, any financial backing from a bigger media entity, we’re not The Ringer, we’re not Gimlet — and so we’re doing the best we can, which means trying to group together a bunch of different revenue streams in a bunch of different ways. We could try chasing after a hundred thousand downloads or something like that, but instead we’re going to do what we’re best at and be sustainable in our own way.”

I asked McLoughlin and Silver if they had a specific target in mind for their program. “I don’t know — I’d be excited to have a hundred people,” McLoughlin replied. “It feels like a large enough party to be nervous to speak in front of. That’s the goal for the first few weeks.”

She added: “But ultimately, we’d love to grow it to a place where we can pay our people to make exciting shows that might not be able to pay for themselves for the first few months on their own. We love to do the production stuff, we love to do the consulting stuff, but I always feel better adding a different revenue model.”

Revolving door. Two notable hires over at PRX, a.k.a. the merged entity known as PRX–PRI:

  • Jason Saldanha has joined as the organization’s new content director, starting August 1. Previously, Saldanha was managing director of communications and audience experience at the Chicago Humanities Festival. He was also a producer at various points in his career, including stints at Chicago Public Radio and Campfire.
  • Charlotte Cooper joins as its new director of audience growth and marketing, starting this week. She was most recently the senior manager of podcast membership at New York Public Radio.

Three Uncanny Four Productions. That’s officially the name of the Adam Davidson–Laura Mayer–Sony Music joint venture that was originally announced back in May. Which is great, because I no longer have to regard it as the Adam Davidson–Laura Mayer–Sony Music joint venture, or any abbreviation thereof. (Davidson-Mayer-Sony? DMS? DSM?)

Anyway, the studio has also brought on Dan Bobkoff, formerly of Business Insider, where he made and hosted Household Name. Bobkoff will serve as a showrunner.

In context: Bundyville: The Remnant. So, I really liked Bundyville, the Oregon-based journalist Leah Sottile’s audio documentary on anti-government extremism in the American West that released its second season last month, and I highly encourage you to check the podcast out.

What I also liked: the arrangement behind the production, which I thought was pretty interesting to parse through. A co-production between Longreads and Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB), Bundyville originally started out as a written feature to be published on the Longreads website that ultimately evolved into a bigger project, complete with an accompanying audio series that was robust enough to stand on its own.

“Early on in the reporting, I went to my editor at Longreads, Mike Dang, and said, ‘I think we have enough for a series,’ and he said, ‘Sounds great to me — also, we’re also interested in doing a podcast, do you know anything about that?'” explained Sottile, when we jumped on the phone last month. “I said, ‘No, not really, but I do know people at OPB.”

That inquiry set the stage for what eventually became the co-production partnership. In terms of the responsibility split over the podcast, Longreads handles financing — paying Sottile, along with producers Robert Carver and Peter Frick-Wright, both of 30 Minutes West Production — while OPB provided the services of its news content manager, Ryan Haas, who served as the editor on the show. The first season, which principally focused on the 2016 standoff at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and its resulting trial, rolled out in its entirety last May, and its followup season, which further traces its influences and effects, deployed the same binge-drop approach last month.

There doesn’t seem to be advertising on the podcast just yet, but the show essentially functions as a piece of brand marketing for Longreads and OPB, while its substance additionally falls into the latter’s public radio purview.

“It’s definitely useful for us, and honestly, I hope more public radio stations look at the partnership we’ve done here,” Haas told me. “Oftentimes public radio newsrooms don’t have big budgets or a lot of extra bodies to throw at a project like this, and so it’s nice to have a situation where there’s a partner that can bring their own resources and skills to the table, and we can all benefit from that.”

Cool. Anyway, I whipped up a more editorial-oriented Q&A with Sottile and Haas for Vulture, and I’m spinning out a related career spotlight with Haas for the next section. As you can probably tell by now, I’m plugging this show hard.

Career spotlight. Ryan Haas’ work on Bundyville was folded into his day-to-day responsibilities at Oregon Public Broadcasting, of which there were already quite a few. In this edition of Career Spotlight, Haas talks to us about editing for audio, sports writing in the Carribean, and the relationship between public media and print media castoffs.

Hot Pod: Tell me about your current situation.

Ryan Haas: I’m currently a news editor at OPB. I manage a team of four reporters whose beats range from rural coverage in Oregon to criminal justice. My main job is to help them tell their stories better and to connect Oregonians through journalism.

My work on Bundyville is a bit of a side project but uses a lot of those same skills I utilize in my daily work. During both seasons of the show, I’ve done everything from audio producing to editing to assisting with the reporting when needed.

Hot Pod: How did you get here?

Haas: I never would have predicted I would have ended up in public media and podcast production. In university, I studied creative writing and literature instead of journalism, but not surprisingly, I needed a job to help pay the bills when I got into the working world. I started occasionally freelancing for newspapers in 2006, and I had no idea what I was doing. Those first assignments were a crash course in journalism that was invaluable, even if they paid next to nothing.

My first actual journalism job on staff was as a sportswriter in the Caribbean. There I quickly expanded to more general news and politics coverage, during which I learned a lot on the job about being creatively solving your journalistic problems in place without free speech protections or a Freedom of Information Act. When I returned to the U.S., I eventually took a job as the editor of a newspaper in a small Oregon town for a number of years before landing in Portland and joining Oregon Public Broadcasting.

Sometimes people ask me how I ended up in radio when most of my journalism background was in print. I think I came to public media at a time when they were grabbing up a lot of print media castoffs as a way to further build the journalism chops of public broadcasters. I’ve also been involved with sound editing, design, and production throughout my life by recording music. I love the technical aspects of creating audio.

Hot Pod: What does a career mean to you?

Haas: A career, to me, is about the quality of the work you leave behind. I’ve never been a person who has been driven by status or awards when it comes to journalism. (I actually dread awards season!) But what I do look forward to when I work on a story, as a reporter or editor, is the effect it has on people when they hear it or read it. When someone tells me they felt moved or frustrated or elated or personally conflicted after hearing a piece I did, then I know I’ve done my job.

If something I work on can change the way a person thinks about an issue — for example, domestic extremism in this latest season of Bundyville — then I feel I have accomplished something real to nudge our world in the right direction. For me, the goal of a journalist should be to do that as often as possible and hopefully live a life of service educating people in your community.

Hot Pod: When you first started out being a person, what did you want to be?

Haas: Probably a ninja turtle? If you couldn’t tell from my circuitous career path, I had no real clear idea of what I wanted to do until well into my 20s.

Hot Pod: What does being an editor for a project like Bundyville involve?

Haas: Being an editor for audio, in the journalism sense, requires a lot of skills. Those can be technical, like knowing how to clean (or trash) a piece of bad tape, and they can be social, like building confidence in a reporter who has self-doubt.

But I think first and foremost you have to be able to listen for radio that moves you. You have to talk with reporters a lot while they are in the process of doing interviews and gathering tape, and ask them why they are telling this story — what are they telling me that will make me feel something? I think about it like being their partner through the reporting process every step of the way.

One of the biggest mistakes I see editors make is thinking about the reporting and editing processes as separate. Editors often have a lot of priorities competing for time, but you have to make space so you can live a story as fully as you can with a reporter. You have to be the guiding voice for them when they are buried in tape and have lost the thread of the story they started out to tell. That is how you get to that magic moment in a story when a listener is shifted off their baseline perspective and you ask them to think about a story in a completely different way than they might normally.

You can learn to be that guiding voice for a reporter by constantly thinking critically about your own work and the works of others. One of the biggest issues in the audio industry I see is the lack of editors. There are lots of people who know how to make great stuff, but they struggle to teach others how to do the same.

But I think the solution to that dearth of editors isn’t as hard as we may think. The real way to become a better editor is by doing it, and the great thing about journalism is that every story we make or hear or read is an opportunity to think critically about the craft and get better. Taking even a moment of self-reflection about a story you heard (why did I love that anecdote in that story? why did I get so annoyed at that piece of writing?) can make you better. Learning to do that repetitiously with the media you consume will make you a much better critical thinker and in turn an editor.

Hot Pod: What are you listening to these days?

Haas: During this latest season of Bundyville, I’ve been avoiding lots of journalism podcasts just so I had the brain space to think about our own story. Instead of that, I’ve been listening to a lot of podcasts that analyze music and sound. Those have included Pensado’s Place, HowSound, Strong Songs, Song Exploder, and Twenty Thousand Hertz.

You can find Haas on Twitter here.

Tracking

  • Two framings on Spotify’s recent earnings report. Here’s Markets Insider: “Spotify slips after not adding as many paid subscribers as hoped.” And here’s The Verge: “Spotify’s big bet on podcasts is starting to pay off.” Not quite sure about the latter, but Spotify’s considerable growth of on-platform podcast audience — up 50 percent over the prior quarter, almost doubled since the start of the year — is definitely something to track.
  • SiriusXM CEO James Meyer on podcasts, during the company’s recent earnings call: “As you well know, there’s content everywhere, but it’s almost like a flea market, in that it’s up there everywhere and no one can find it and no one can find it easily. And so we’re busily working on those two things that we think are kind of gatekeeper kinds of things that need to be done for this stuff to finally catch fire.”
  • KCRW’s 24-Hour Radio Race is back and open for applications. Registration closes tonight at midnight, so get on it if you’re looking for some glory. The actual race will take place on August 10 and 11.
  • Heads up: Art19 now supports the new Apple Podcasts categories.

Release notes

  • Surprise: Radiolab’s Jad Abumrad is making a nine-part podcast series on Dolly Parton, that great American treasure, due out sometime this fall. The working title: Dolly Parton’s America. Here’s the announcement, via Twitter.
  • New York magazine (to which I’m a contributor) has released a podcast documentary series on the paid podcast platform Luminary: Tabloid, which will serially explore a different tabloid-style story every season. (Pairs well, I imagine, with Leon Neyfakh’s Fiasco!, also on Luminary.) The first season, hosted by Vanessa Grigoriadis, will revolve around Ivanka Trump, naturally.
  • The Los Angeles Times might be struggling with digital subscriptions, but its L.A. Times Studios division continues to pump out shows that consistently performs well on the Apple Podcast Charts. Its latest show to bubble up to the top is Room 20, produced in partnership with Neon Hum Media. Wondery is attached to the project as a distributor.
  • Speaking of Wondery: Looks like the company is also distributing the newly-launched official Bachelor podcast, called Bachelor Happy Hour with Rachel & Ali. Curious to see how this affects the broader Bachelor podcast universe, which is a cottage economy unto itself.

Photo of Ross’ geese near Malheur National Wildlife Refuge by Dan Dzurisin used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Aug. 6, 2019, 9:09 a.m.
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