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Aug. 27, 2019, 10:37 a.m.
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Podcasters now have three plots of land to prospect for gold, where they used to have just one

Plus: Some borderline bad behavior by podcasters, and New York Public Radio gets a new CEO.

Editor’s note: Hot Pod is a weekly newsletter on the podcasting industry written by Nick Quah; we happily share it with Nieman Lab readers each Tuesday.

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 223, dated August 27, 2019.

Supply side. Predicting the future is a fool’s game, but then again, I’m at least half a fool. On that note, here’s a future I’ve been mulling over: one in which Apple is no longer the overwhelming end-all of podcast distribution, and where podcast listening is broadly spread across Apple, Spotify, a rainbow of podcast apps, and maybe Pandora.

Barring catastrophe, this outcome feels very probable to me. The questions that remain, then, mostly have to do with details: what the exact market share composition will shape up to be, and the specific story of how each player will get there.

We saw a requisite scene-setting development in that latter story last week, when both Spotify and Pandora trumpeted their efforts to siphon more third-party podcasts onto their respective platforms. For Spotify, that meant pulling its “Spotify for Podcasters” dashboard out of beta and opening it up to the public. For Pandora, that meant rolling out its equivalent with the public unveiling of “Pandora for Podcasters” self-service online hub, which lets podcast publishers manually upload their shows to the platform. The fundamentals of the announcements are about the same: both companies have opened up their platforms for manual podcast inclusion (pending safety checks, natch), something that wasn’t exactly the case before.

It is, ostensibly, a no-brainer for podcast publishers to jump on both platforms (unless they’ve signed some lucrative exclusivity deal, in which case, okay.) After all, the fundamental appeal is the possibility of accessing greater pools of audiences, with the conventional thinking being: you have Apple Podcasts for the already-converted podcast audiences, but Spotify and Pandora present oodles of yet-to-be-converted folks, which both companies seem somewhat incentivized to convert themselves (at least for now). Why not ride the wave? Sure, possibility isn’t probability, and much as it is on the Apple Podcast platform, where you have to play the Apple Podcast Charts roulette and/or get the attention of the editorial team for banner promotion, you’d probably have to engage in similar dances with the Spotify and Pandora teams. But that’s fine, because you now have three plots of land to prospect for gold, where you used to have just the one.

There are additional incentives being proffered, of course. Pandora is headlining the discovery benefits of being listed within its Podcast Genome Project — i.e. truly algorithmic show-listener matching, a.k.a. a Black Box of Audience Development even more opaque than any chart system — and, tucked away in the FAQ, there’s discussion about direct on-platform monetization opportunities. “You will have the opportunity to indicate if you’re interested in being contacted about monetization during the submission process,” it reads. Which, of course, comes with terms: “Ads sold would replace any ads currently within your podcast (if you have any).” On the other hand, Spotify seems focused, at this point anyway, on building out a value narrative of providing increased listening data to podcast creators, including demographic and geographic information, which publishers can presumably use to enhance their own advertising sales efforts. (That said, all signs point to Spotify eventually layering its own advertising mechanisms onto its podcast-distribution experiences, so there may not actually be much daylight on the monetization question past the short term. The differences in messaging is still interesting, though.)

The big picture to keep in mind is whether the incentives of podcast publishers adequately line up with the incentives of Spotify and Pandora over the long term; which is to say, whether all these shifts will lead to a proportionally acceptable win-win for these new platforms and for podcast makers as a class (as opposed to, say, a small collection of winner-publishers). This, I think, comes down to how all that monetization stuff goes, along with how the terms of the rev share and ad integration policy shape up to be. There’s a way this can work, and there’s a way this won’t. It’ll all come down to the details.

A debt of a kind. Crime Junkies, a popular true crime podcast that’s reportedly drawn television interest, found itself whipped up in controversy in recent weeks when a former Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reporter accused the team of using her reporting for an episode about a 2002 murder without proper attribution. That accusation led to more accusations springing up around other episodes, and the saga was sufficiently visible to the point that it drew write-ups from mainstream publications like Variety,BuzzFeed News, and The New York Times.

The podcast initially responded by quietly pulling down several of the inadequately sourced episodes, and the team eventually issued a statement: “We recently made the decision to pull down several episodes from our main feed when their source material could no longer be found or properly cited,” the team wrote in a statement posted to its Facebook group. “Since then, we’ve worked to put additional controls in place to address any gaps moving forward.” On Friday, the removed episodes were put back into circulation, with additional citations listed on the associated blog posts published on the show’s website. (Whether those additions are enough is another discussion, but we’ll leave this off for now.)

I wrote this story up for Vulture last week and sought to tie together a few threads: among them, the notion of the podcast ecosystem still being a Digital Wild West (DWW?), the requisite gray-area fuzziness and lack of governance around standards of ethical publishing that comes from its relative DWW newness, the prominence of the true crime podcast genre within that gray area, and, to some extent, the ramifications of certain podcasts being able to achieve popularity and success while operating deep within that fuzziness.

But it seems that the issues of ethics and standards embedded in this story won’t simply be limited to true crime podcasts. In fact, we may begin to see the conversation spread to other popular long-running podcasts in other genres.

On Sunday, the Slate editor-podcaster-author Josh Levin posted a Twitter thread laying out the case that The Dollop, a very popular history/comedy podcast, had committed similar infractions using Levin’s research and reporting on Linda Taylor, a.k.a. The Welfare Queen, which was initially published as a 2013 Slate feature and then this summer as a full-length book. He also highlighted another accusation, one raised by Damn Interesting’s Alan Bellows, about the podcast’s episode called “The Three Jesuses.”

There’s a good deal to unpack from all the components Levin laid out in his Twitter thread, which includes various arguments and justifications brought out by The Dollop team, and I encourage you to parse through the whole thing. But the heart of Levin’s critique lies in this line: “Whether it’s technically infringement or not, whether it’s fair use or not, this behavior from The Dollop is certainly unethical/ungenerous/rude/shitty.” Dollop co-host Dave Anthony apologized on the show’s subreddit shortly after Levin’s Twitter thread went out.

Looking over the situation with Crime Junkies and The Dollop, I can’t help but think about the notion of technical debt — i.e. a software development concept referring to long-term costs associated with limited/patchwork/easy solutions implemented in the short term. This stuff with podcasting and emerging attribution conduct standards is kind of a variant, I think. Between its ~Digital Wild West~ nature and its extended history of being generally overlooked (until recently), podcasting has long operated in an environment where certain shows — particularly in certain formats, e.g. the let’s-call-it “secondary research as a performance” formats — could achieve considerable levels of success on top of under-developed and ultimately unsustainable ethical conduct standards. For those, a kind of debt was accrued across this period.

As podcasting continues to grow in popularity, commercial power, and stakes, so will general expectations surrounding the conduct of its participants, which could bring the…let’s call it “conduct debt” (awkward, clunky, I know)…of those shows into the foreground. Feels like we’re at the beginning of a tipping point, one in which there will be more debt payments to come.

Power shuffle. Late to this, obvi, but: New York Public Radio officially has a new CEO.

On August 14, the organization’s board of trustees announced that it was installing Goli Sheikholeslami at the helm. Sheikholeslami has led Chicago Public Media, home of WBEZ, since April 2014; during that period, she nearly doubled its audience share, according to the Chicago Tribune (citing Nielsen numbers), and moderately grew its operating revenues. She joined the station after a stint as a senior executive at The Washington Post, where she led the integration of the paper’s digital and print operations, and her previous work includes roles at Conde Nast and Time Warner. She is a current member of NPR’s board of directors, and also joined the board of Patreon last year.

Sheikholeslami, of course, replaces Laura Walker, who led NYPR for over two decades, a period during which she took the station out of the city’s control and turned it into one of the country’s most formidable media institutions.

Walker stepped down from the position in March, following an extended period of tumult sparked by an exposé in The Cut, written by the journalist Suki Kim, that brought to attention a questionable organizational culture that may have especially hurt women and people of color. (An outside investigation conducted later did not find “evidence of pervasive discrimination,” but did find that “anti-bullying policies were inadequate and there were specific instances of bullying and offensive behavior by several employees toward colleagues and guests.”) Depelsha McGruder, the organization’s COO, had been serving as interim CEO since Walker’s departure.

There’s a very minor echo here. Sheikholeslami joined Chicago Public Media as CEO in 2014, replacing that organization’s longtime leader Torey Malatia, who was ousted after two decades of service. (By the way, if the name sounds familiar, that’s because he was was instrumental to the creation of what is now known as This American Life, and his name pops up as a bit at the end of each episode’s credits.) The reasons for departure were very, very different, of course: Malatia was ousted largely over lackluster station performance, according to Crain’s Chicago Business.

Still, it’s an intriguing repetition, as Sheikholeslami now takes over another prominent public radio institution following the departure of a long-serving, somewhat iconic leader. (In an unexpected note, her appointment comes as an apparent surprise to the Chicago media establishment.)

Under Sheikholeslami’s newly installed charge is a storied organization with a deep bench of assets, including WNYC, WQXR, Gothamist, the Jerome L. Greene Performance Space, and New Jersey Public Radio. Most pertinent to us, of course, is WNYC Studios, which, while still pretty big, hasn’t turned out to be the revolutionary podcast division we assumed it would become when it first rolled out in 2015.

Anyway, interested to see where this goes, but I’m additionally curious: who will take over the head honcho seat in Chicago? Also, we’re not done with public radio exec movements. A quick reminder that NPR CEO Jarl Mohn was supposed to step down in June, though he’s sticking around to help facilitate the transition phase until the next CEO is appointed, whoever that may be.

Under renovation…I’m benching the Tracking and Release Notes sections for now. Gonna rethink them, maybe implement some redesigns. They’ll come back in some form, at some point in the future.

Flakes of visible gold by Mike Beauregard used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Aug. 27, 2019, 10:37 a.m.
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