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Aug. 20, 2019, 10:54 a.m.

Open or closed: Who will control the paid-podcast experience, podcasters or tech companies?

PodPass gets some positive early reviews. Also: a new network for kids’ audio, the CBC translates podcasts to TV, and are daily news shows having any real-world impact?

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 222, dated August 20, 2019

PodPass: Open vs. closed. It’s becoming increasingly common to monetize podcasts via a direct connection with listeners, whether via merchandise, donations, live events, or bonus or ad-free content. Big networks and publishers are doing it (e.g., Wondery Plus, Stitcher Premium, Slate Plus) and independent creators are too (via Patreon, Memberful, or other solutions).

The tech required to deliver premium podcasts and bonus content alongside a free (often ad-supported) show is, on the surface, relatively simple. You need a second, private podcast feed and some means of authenticating paying users so that only they can access it. A new clutch of startups has sprung up to handle this, from Supporting Cast to Acast Access to the newly seed-financed Glow. Some larger independent shows are even building their own bespoke solutions.

But as anyone who has tried subscribing to a bonus or premium feed knows, it’s not always straightforward to get your new paid-for content set up in your podcast app of choice. Some publishers get around this by making their paywalled stuff app-specific (the Stitcher Premium way); others provide extensive FAQs and onboarding instructions to help listeners get their feeds working (the Slate Plus route). “It is a pain in the ass for us, and more importantly, it’s a pain in the ass for users,” Slate Plus editorial director Gabriel Roth told Digiday in 2018, characterizing the effort to monetize podcasts directly as “essentially, a customer-service challenge.”

That’s the state of play right now — lots of overlapping and competing routes for the podcaster interested in charging their audience for premium content, from Patreon’s patron-only audio RSS option to those new startups.

Enter Jake Shapiro and Chris Quamme Rhoden, CEO and CTO of RadioPublic respectively, who have a proposal for a new way of handling this.

What they’re suggesting, laid out in detail in this post and in the draft technical spec, is a new open protocol that would enable listener identification and authentication in any enabled app. If it can be built as they’re currently suggesting, this would drastically reduce the customer-service difficulties around delivering premium podcast content, since listeners would be able to access their extra paid-for episodes with a few taps inside their usual listening app (here’s a mockup of how it could work). They’re calling this system PodPass. I spoke to Shapiro and Rhoden yesterday to get a bit more detail on how this might work, and what the practicalities of implementation would be.

To start with, Shapiro emphasized that the PodPass proposal is a response to the pre-existing trends in the podcast industry, not an attempt to engineer a new direction. “We don’t need to incentivize or create [the direct-monetization] phenomenon. We are just proposing a way to make it more effective,” he said.

This is a moment, Shapiro argued, where apps and providers have a choice to make about how they’re going to handle premium feeds. “You can either choose a strategy where you don’t want to support any of these things in a seamless way, where you want to offer your own integrated solution — Luminary being the most extreme example — or you turn on an ability for a publisher to offer some kind of gated content on your platform,” he said.

He also made the point that there’s a gap for an open solution here, since none of the big players (Apple, Spotify) have addressed the need for seamless private feeds yet. The idea, therefore, is to develop PodPass as an open, collaborative project — RadioPublic would not have ownership of it.

“We want to really underscore that this is an open protocol rather than a company’s product,” Shapiro said. “It’d be better to have someone else implement it, or start implementing it, than just us.” The big aim, he said, is to have something completely accessible, almost as an add-on to RSS, as a means of open distribution.

Another important element is payment. PodPass is not a means for taking money, merely the mechanism via which paying listeners would be authenticated to receive their content — although Shapiro doesn’t rule out that the protocol could be used for other monetization purposes too. “The place where [a service] currently takes a cut would stay the same. If you’re Patreon and you’re providing the service, nothing changes. It’s just a more effective service.” The hope is, of course, that a better service for listeners incentivizes more of them to start paying for bonus content, thus benefiting funding platforms and in turn incentivizing those companies to implement PodPass.

In order to get a sense of the viability of this, I put out feelers to people at a dozen or so different companies in this space, attempting to test the temperature and interest in PodPass. I got some positive responses back.

Michael Mahemoff from PlayerFM says he’s excited by the idea and his team are “actively evaluating the details of the protocol and sharing feedback”; Garret Heaton from Swoot said “it’s especially appealing to us as app makers since it would make it easier for our users to use premium/private feeds”; David Stern from Supporting Cast said “PodPass is exciting because it would greatly streamline the process for the end listener and make it more robust and secure for the podcaster.” Several others expressed interest privately.

Several of those I spoke with pointed out that their apps or platforms alone didn’t have the capacity to develop something like this, but that they were keen to participate in a collaborative effort on a new standard. Similarly, everyone who responded was keen on the open nature of the PodPass proposal, feeling that it kept the playing field level and didn’t tie podcasters to particular companies. I’m still interested in other responses to this idea, so if you have feelings about PodPass and how it might work with your product, do drop me a line.

The big question, of course, is whether PodPass can actually work on a practical level. Chris Quamm Rhoden, who had the original idea and has worked on the draft technical spec, says so — he’s confident that what they’ve put forward in the specification now can work, but says it’s not a final version by any means. “We want to invite as many people who are interested in having a voice in the final version of the document feel like they’ve got an opportunity to do that,” he said. “We’ve seen other things happen in the past where things sort of stalled because that invitation wasn’t loud enough. And so we’re making a very loud invitation right now.”

“We’re also prioritizing making sure that people have as little work to do as possible to make the UX good,” he added, explaining that each app or platform that wants to offer PodPass will have to integrate it into its own system, and it’s difficult to say how easy or hard that will be without intimate knowledge of each product. But both he and Shapiro feel it’s eminently possible, and possible fairly quickly.

“I expect we’ll see some test implementations this fall,” Shapiro said. “I would imagine we’ll see some early versions of it, round trips through from a publisher to a hosting company to an app happen this fall — at least one or two if not three or more participating stakeholders for each one of those pieces of the chain, just based so far on momentum and interest that we’re seeing. But because this is not a RadioPublic product per se, it’s not a road map that we control…This is more movement building.”

In the year that brought us the launch of Luminary and all of the conversations that provoked about what a podcast is and what open distribution means, PodPass indeed feels like a movement — an idealistic, blue-sky-thinking plan for a new iteration of free and open distribution at a time when ever more big money players are getting into the industry. If it can gather enough momentum, it’s still a very long road for the idea to go from proposal to wide implementation.

Fun for the kids. A new children’s podcast network has launched in the U.K., growing out of Fun Kids, a national children’s radio station based in London. As well as the station’s own stable of podcasts, the network includes The Week Junior Show, an extension of Dennis Publishing’s The Week Junior magazine, and Storynory, a storytime podcast that has been in production since 2005.

Children’s media is a small but growing segment of on-demand audio in the U.K. — the growth of the sector being influenced in the past by, you guessed it, the BBC. Children’s TV and other entertainment is a major plank of public service broadcasting, with provision funded by the license fee and regulated by Ofcom.

However, the practical dominance of the BBC in the children’s TV space was one of the motivating factors behind the creation of a TV counterpart to that new Audio Content Fund I wrote about back in February, as a way for public money to find its way to smaller and more diverse providers. All of which is to say: Things are starting to change in who makes content for kids and how it is paid for.

It’s difficult to work out quite how big children’s audio is at the moment. The under-10s aren’t measured by radio listenership survey RAJAR, and since Fun Kids is aimed at 6- to 12-year-olds, it’s a little hard to gauge its audience size, but you can see figures for the teen and adult listenership in London here.

Given all of that deep background, I caught up with Fun Kids station manager Matt Deegan over email recently to find out a bit more about this new podcast network venture. The radio station and the podcast network are closely linked, he said, with the latter using the “infrastructure, team, and relationships” of the radio station.

As to how the team is structured: “At the moment, I’m working with content providers to onboard them to the network. We have four producers working on content and a sales team of four working to help monetize the network.”

The focus at the moment is attracting existing shows, although there is some flexibility to add a production element to the relationship, according to Deegan. “If an existing children’s podcast wants to join us, they’ll be hosted by us for free, we’ll sell and deliver their advertising for them, and they’ll be cross-promoted by shows on the network. As we make our own kids content too, we’re particularly tuned to the sensitivities about advertising to children,” he said. They’re also open to exploring branded shows for kids as well.

Advertisers want scale, which in a kids’ audio space growing from a small start isn’t always easy for shows to offer. This is something that Deegan and the team hope that the network can help with. At the moment, they’re seeing half a million downloads a month across the shows currently signed up. “For smaller podcasters, being part of the network means they have access to campaigns that could be harder for them to get themselves, that we’ll sell across the network. We’re also able to group together podcasts around certain topics — like stories.”

It’s fascinating to me that this development has come out of commercial radio (Fun Kids radio runs short ad breaks on its shows) rather than a grant-funded initiative or public broadcaster. A lot of children’s digital radio disappeared from the BBC in 2011, after it was found that very few kids actually listened to it, but Fun Kids and the like are showing that there is still a young audience out there for audio.

By moving early — as far as I’m aware, Fun Kids is the only formal children’s podcast network operating in the U.K. so far — Deegan hopes that they can reap the rewards as advertisers and other publishers realize the potential for children’s audio in the U.K. Although Pinna in the U.S. has opted for a subscription-based model, Fun Kids is pursuing an ad-supported model. They’re starting slow, going for growth while they educate the market.

“Our aim at the moment is to establish ourselves, and the product, in the advertising market whilst talking to new podcasts that are interested in joining,” he said. “Right now, we’re also concentrating on using cross-promotion to grow each of the shows and the network’s total downloads. In 12 months, we expect to have an even broader slate and be the obvious choice for advertisers in the U.S. and U.K. to use if they want to reach children and families.”

A check-in with Forever35. Back in January, I interviewed Doree Shafrir and Kate Spencer from the Forever35 podcast all about their first year as an independent business. At the time, they had clocked 4 million downloads off just over 90 episodes in 2018, basically handling the entire sponsorship pipeline by themselves. In July, Shafrir and Spencer released a meta-episode that laid out some changes behind-the-scenes: They’d opted to sign a deal with Acast, and in doing so traded total independence for access to more resources.

Intrigued, I reached out over email to learn more about the thinking behind their decision to switch things up. Here’s that exchange.

Hot Pod: What was the motivation behind partnering with a network, after what seemed like a successful start as an independent operation?

Shafrir and Spencer: We had a lot of success as an independent — we were completely sold out of ad inventory in the last three quarters, and we’ve grown the podcast organically to 125,000 downloads per week on our own. But we felt like we had taken the pod as far as we could without help. We wanted to partner with a network who could access advertising opportunities that weren’t available to us.

Also, selling ads was turning into a huge time and resources suck for us — energy that we felt would be better spent on the podcast itself. And we’re hopeful that Acast can help us grow, particularly internationally.

Hot Pod: What were you looking for in a network?

Shafrir and Spencer: We wanted to partner with a network that we felt aligned with content- and strategy-wise. We were already fans of some of Acast’s shows, and their signing of the Earios network was also a big plus for us. And we wanted a network that had a clear vision about how we could grow.

Hot Pod: How did the shopping process go? Did you feel like there were lots of possible homes for your show?

Shafrir and Spencer: Our agent, Oren Rosenbaum at UTA, set up a bunch of meetings for us. (Side note: Oren is the best.) We talked to several different networks, all of which had their strengths. It was really interesting to hear how each network would approach growing our show and why they wanted to work with us in the first place. It was really flattering to have options!

Hot Pod: You ultimately decided to work with Acast — what was the deciding factor?

Shafrir and Spencer: We loved that there are lots of women in senior, decision-making positions at Acast — all of whom had been fans of the show even before we started talking to them. This really made a difference to us, and not just because of optics. It says a lot about a company to have multiple women in powerful roles, and as a women-run podcast, this was important to us. We felt that going into it, they understood how to work with our show, had great ideas, and really wanted to see us succeed. And so far, they’ve been great!

Hot Pod: If you could advise other independent podcasters also looking for a bigger home in the industry, what would you suggest?

Shafrir and Spencer: Don’t rush into anything. We started getting approached by networks within a few months of launching, and we’re so glad we waited for the right partner for us. Make sure that you’re really clear on why you’re looking for a network partner, and find out if they will truly be able to help you get there.

Talk to other podcasters on the networks you’re interested in — are they happy, did the network grow their podcast, etc. Also, don’t think that you need to launch with a network — if your show takes off, you’ll be in a stronger negotiating position down the road when you do start talking to networks. Don’t sign away your IP.

Also: GET A LAWYER WHO WORKS WITH PODCASTS. Even if you have a lawyer, a regular entertainment or contract lawyer who has never done a podcast contract might not know what to look for and ask for. We anecdotally know of multiple podcasts who signed very restrictive contracts with networks that they now regret. Needless to say, we have a great lawyer.

You can learn more about the Forever35 podcast on their website.

Career Spotlight [by Nicholas Quah]. Alan Montecillo combines his work as a producer at Illinois Public Media with studying for an MLIS degree. In this edition of Career Spotlight, Montecillo talks to us about how he got into audio, how his favorite podcast set him on the path to his current job, and the privilege dimension of the volunteer/intern hustle.

Hot Pod: Tell me about your current situation.

Alan Montecillo: I’m the senior producer of The 21st, a daily, live, hourlong news/talk show produced by Illinois Public Media in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois. (Okay, fine, it’s Monday to Thursday). We air on five public radio stations across northern and central Illinois, including the state’s largest non-Chicago cities like Springfield, Rockford, Bloomington-Normal, and Peoria. I’ve been here since February 2017.

We cover anything we can tie back to Illinois, whether it’s politics, the arts, science, or really anything that we can credibly say affects Illinoisans in some way. I’m also a master’s student at the University of Illinois School of Information Sciences, studying for an MLIS degree.

Hot Pod: How did you get here?

Montecillo: In college, I did a weekend-long Radio Bootcamp run by Planet Money’s Robert Smith. But I didn’t really pursue radio until a couple of years after that, in about 2015 or so.

I was back in Portland, Oregon, after spending a year working in higher ed in Singapore. I knew I didn’t want to go back to higher ed, but I also didn’t have much of a plan beyond that. I did, however, listen to a lot of podcasts, and often I’d use them to fill many of those empty spaces between jobs that can feel like an eternity.

Eventually I realized that I liked audio enough that I should actually try and give that a go. So I started volunteering at a bunch of small nonprofit stations in Portland for a few months, including KBOO Community Radio, XRAY, and Portland Radio Project. I also launched a monthly public affairs show on KBOO focusing on Asian-American issues.

Then one day, I went to a Portland meetup for one of my favorite podcasts — Death, Sex & Money. I met lots of interesting people (including Anna Sale, of course). I also met Julie Sabatier, a producer at Oregon Public Broadcasting’s talk show, Think Out Loud. A few days after the meetup, Anna forwarded along a posting for an internship at OPB. Turns out Julie had sent her the listing and asked if she could pass it along to me. So I applied, and eventually worked at Think Out Loud for a few months as an intern.

A few months after the internship, this guy named Zahir Janmohamed sent me an email saying he liked my work at KBOO and wanted to talk about a podcast idea he had about race and food with a chef+writer named Soleil Ho. That idea became a podcast called Racist Sandwich, and for nearly a year or so I was the show’s first producer and editor.

All the while, I had been applying to salaried public radio and podcasting jobs left and right, because none of those things I just mentioned were enough to financially support myself. I didn’t think I’d move to central Illinois for my first public radio job, but the team, the show and the job were just the right fit for me.

Almost all of my audio journalism experience has consisted of producing interviews/conversations, actually. It kind of happened by coincidence. If I had applied for an OPB internship at the news desk instead of the talk show, I might be filing spots instead of producing long segments. But I think producing fits me really well, so I’m glad it turned out this way.

I should also note that during a large portion of the volunteer/intern hustle, I was relying on financial support from my parents in some capacity. That privilege really bought me the time and space to work on my skills, think about what I wanted, and network with people who fit my interests. So I’ve been very lucky in that regard.

Hot Pod: What does a career mean to you?

Montecillo: I have a feeling that it’s always going to change. But right now, it’s about two things. First, at a really basic level, a career means having the resources to buy the flexibility I need, when I need it.

For example, I’m a U.S. citizen but my parents live in the Philippines. In fact, the vast majority of my family lives in the Philippines. Lots of us, I suspect, have many loved ones who are far away from us. A career that doesn’t give me the flexibility to see them on a regular basis isn’t a good career, no matter how much I enjoy the craft of it. So much of this is about tangible resources like salary and PTO, but it’s also about finding workplaces that encourage you to be a person outside of your professional life. That’s really important to me.

Second, I think I just want to be useful to people who actually need what I’m providing for them, if that makes sense. When I was at Racist Sandwich, it felt like the interviews we had were filling a need for a lot of people. That felt good. Now, I’d like to think our show provides high-quality news and conversations for an enormous part of the state of Illinois that really needs it.

So in a radio context, I want my work to be focused on producing clear and honest conversations. And I think every topic deserves clarity and honesty, whether it’s a complicated government policy or an intensely personal story. I also appreciate the qualities that working on a talk show forces on me: empathy, yes, but also consistency, calmness under pressure, and the ability to trust your team members.

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

Montecillo: When I was a small person? An NBA player. We didn’t have PBS or other local English language children’s TV in Hong Kong, so instead I grew up watching my dad’s NBA VHS tapes from the 80s and early 90s. One of them was a series with individual player highlights set to 80s music, which was a pretty hilarious way to get introduced to lots of American songs.

In high school, I thought I’d work in politics on a campaign, or perhaps for an elected official. I was a “West Wing” kid.

Hot Pod: When you look around at what’s going in podcasting these days, what are you thinking about, paying attention to, seeing?

Montecillo: Pretty much every new daily news podcast pitch goes something like “the news is just crazy, but we’re here to help you understand it!” So I’m wondering whether that’s actually happened or not. Have daily news podcasts (a) helped their audiences (or perhaps new audiences!) understand the news more deeply than they would otherwise, and (b) has that depth translated into meaningful civic engagement? Has anyone studied this yet?

Hot Pod: What are you listening to these days?

Montecillo: I rotate between some of the national daily news podcasts, and lately it’s been Post Reports and Today Explained. I also listen to The Lowe Post and Kotaku Splitscreen when I need to give my brain a rest and just think about my non-radio hobbies for a minute.

Also: Bundyville. Listen to Bundyville.

You can find Montecillo on Twitter here.


Release notes

  • The Sterling Affairs from ESPN’s 30 for 30 published all five episodes today. Reported and hosted by Ramona Shelburne, it covers the Donald Sterling scandal from 2014, plus race and power structures in the NBA.
  • Night Vale Presents has announced details of some fall shows; Within the Wires Season 4 starts on September 10.
  • Marvel and Stitcher are collaborating on their third podcast adaptation; Marvels comes to Stitcher Premium this fall and other apps in 2020.
  • Parcast has launched Today in True Crime, a daily (!) true crime podcast that tells you about a different case…each day.
  • The Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror is launching an official podcast for their annual Saturn Awards. It’s called Live From Saturn and the first episode drops today.
  • Another podcast collaboration between the BBC and the Sundance Institute is coming — Detours arrives in apps on September 4.
POSTED     Aug. 20, 2019, 10:54 a.m.
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