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Sept. 10, 2019, 11:18 a.m.
Mobile & Apps

New hires hint at how Spotify is thinking about sports and news podcasts

Plus: New leadership at NPR, Apple App Store drama, and Limetown is coming to the small screen.

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 225, dated September 10, 2019.

Platisher, ye cometh. Spotify has made two interesting personnel moves to bolster its podcast development pipeline around two key genres, sports and news, according to a report by The Information that dropped on Friday.

First, the company has hired Amy Hudson, most recently the sports media partnerships lead at Facebook, to oversee its sports programming assets. Secondly, David Rhodes, the former news chief at CBS, will now serve as a consultant on the platform’s efforts around news programming.

Neither Hudson nor Rhodes comes with explicit audio/radio experience, but that’s probably not the best prism to read this development: at heart, these moves seem to be driven by a partnership- and brand-first strategy, which feels broadly consistent with the way Spotify has gone about its non-music audio business, between the signing of individual talent like Jemele Hill and Joe Budden as well as studios like the Obamas’ Higher Ground Productions. In some ways, you could say this is somewhat reminiscent of how the radio industry approaches talent and content development. Everything is a circle; we move forward only to return to the beginning. Or something.

The genres themselves are pretty interesting to me. There’s been some heat around the sports podcasts lately, between the recent news of ESPN developing a daily sports news podcast (just call it Sportscenter, guys, come on) and The Athletic signaling that it intends to have 80 (free) podcasts by the end of the year. And that’s on top of the already strong operations in the genre by publishers like The Ringer, the ever-controversial Barstool Sports, and ESPN itself. On the other end of things, news and newsy content has long been a pretty big driver of podcast programming in general, between the ever-growing daily news podcast genre and the strong spigot of news-hooked programming, either in documentary or Pesca-discourse form.

The relevant question here, I think, is how all these machinations figure into Spotify’s position as both a platform distributor and a publisher. Will Spotify launch its own originated exclusive sports and news audio content, thus increasing competition for sports and news-oriented third party publishers? Or will it focus more on signing exclusive partnerships with said sports- and news-oriented third party publishers? The answer probably lies in an iterative mix of the two.

A clue can be found in this LA Times profile of Dawn Ostroff, Spotify’s chief content officer: “Under her watch, the number of podcasts available on Spotify has grown to more than 450,000 titles, up from 185,000 in February…Next year, Ostroff says the plan is to have ‘hundreds and hundreds’ of new original podcast series in production or available on the platform.” (One should probably note that the 185,000 to 450,000 count increase is likely tethered to Spotify opening up its podcast submission process last October. Previously, inclusion of third-party podcasts into the platform was somewhat selective. Nowadays, it mimics Apple Podcasts’ self-serve infrastructure.)

In other words, more positional complication lies ahead, along with more headaches for strategists and those who think about competitive risk in their respective organizations. All hail Psyduck, patron saint of platishers.

The thing about the Apple App store… The New York Times published a report on Monday that essentially revisits a Wall Street Journal article from July, about how Apple’s app store often seems to privilege the company’s own apps over everyone else’s. It’s a topic that fuels broader ongoing complaints over anti-competitive behavior by big technology companies in general, one that we will likely continue to see play out for quite awhile.

Anyway, the Times report has additional interest for us here in podcast-land: not only is the “podcast” search term a primary case study within the article, there’s also an appearance by Stitcher marketing chief Amy Fitzgibbons, who told the Times that the Stitcher app gets negligible downloads through the Apple app store compared to the Google Play store.

When the Journal article on the matter first dropped in June, the story mostly centered around the subject of app competition. Since then, though, we’ve learned, via Bloomberg scoop, about the possibility of Apple financing original audio content exclusive to its platform…which, of course, brings into this narrative thread a whole new weight.

NPR’s new CEO. Last Thursday, NPR’s board of directors announced Jarl Mohn’s replacement as the chief executive of the public radio mothership: John Lansing, a veteran media executive who currently serves as the head of the U.S. Agency for Global Media (formerly known as the Broadcasting Board of Governors), the federally funded agency that oversees government-owned international broadcasters like Radio Free Europe and Voice of America.

Lansing largely came up through Scripps’ TV business, joining the company as station manager of its Detroit affiliate and eventually rising up to become the president of Scripps Networks, a role he held between 2005 and 2013. After leaving Scripps, he took up the role of president and CEO of Cable & Telecommunications Association for Marketing, a nonprofit cable trade group, for two years. In late 2015, he was tapped by President Barack Obama to lead the U.S. Agency for Global Media.

A quick aside on the Scripps stuff, largely because it’s interesting to me: Scripps broke out into two separate publicly traded companies in 2007, EW Scripps (which owns print newspapers, local television stations, along with online content companies) and Scripps Network Interactive (which primarily focuses on cable television). Lansing led the latter, which was later acquired by Discovery in 2008. The former, you might recall, is the current owner of Stitcher. Nowadays, Scripps Network Interactive is probably best known, to slackers like me at least, as the parent company of HGTV.

Anyway, I’m inclined to argue that Lansing’s background isn’t entirely dissimilar from Mohn’s, particularly when you consider the fact that both men are veteran media executives with extensive television roots. (Mohn was a co-founder of E! Entertainment Television, and he held senior positions as VH1 and MTV.) As such, I’m tempted to read this appointment as a move by the board to maintain continuity, one way or another, with the Mohn era.

The Mohn era, by the way, is seen as largely positive. As NPR’s David Folkenflik’s comprehensive rundown of the Lansing selection points out, Mohn’s five-year term ultimately improved the organization’s operational position — prior to Mohn, NPR had been in the red for six of the seven previous years, and his tenure resulted in surpluses each year — and made strong audience gains, both in terms of broadcasting ratings and formally building a winning narrative around NPR’s considerable podcast reach. (Here’s Folkenflik: “NPR draws more than 28 million listeners each week and 40 million unique monthly visitors to its website — both represent a rise of several million over those five years.”)

But Mohn’s tenure was also unsettled by scandal. In late 2017, Michael Oreskes, then NPR’s head of news, was forced to resign following accusations regarding inappropriate conduct toward women. An independent investigation commissioned by NPR’s board, released later, found that concerns around Oreskes had been flagged even before his hiring, and had persisted throughout his time at the organization. Shortly after, The Washington Post published a report describing a workplace culture “of anxiety and insecurity” within the organization, particularly for temps, a crucial but largely unprotected segment of the NPR labor force.

On another down note, Folkenflik’s write-up also highlighted Mohn’s lack of success in realizing the ambitious fundraising goal he had set at the outset of his tenure. Goli Sheikholeslami, a member of the NPR board and incoming CEO of New York Public Radio, cited the Oreskes scandal and Mohn’s health issues as factors that inhibited his fundraising efforts. (Mohn took a brief medical leave in late 2017, amid the sexual harassment scandal, following a near-fatal ruptured aorta earlier that March.)

These are some of the threads that Lansing will be taking over when he assumes control of the organization later this year. And, to state the obvious, it’s a big gig for a big time. We’re steadily drifting deeper into an extensive 2020 presidential election news cycle, and there’s every indication that it will probably be unprecedented and unrelenting and explosive in ways that will demand the most (and then some) from news orgs of all stripes around the country.

Furthermore, the cycle will come a time when the news media has never been more politicized or structurally challenged. These are times when newsroom morale needs to be kept strong and adequately supported by leadership…which may be a tricky proposition, as we saw in a recent brouhaha. Last Friday, The Wall Street Journal reported that NPR’s SVP of news, Nancy Barnes, recently faced internal pushback for public statements she made at the recent PRPD conference, in which she said that the organization’s coverage of race is “more lacking than we realized.” An email, cosigned by about 85 NPR staffers, was later sent to Barnes expressing that such coverage “has been alive and well” in the newsroom’s output. Barnes has since apologized for her remarks.

And then there are all the concerns unique to NPR, the endlessly complex public radio ecosystem, and the relationship between the two sides. A healthy NPR doesn’t automatically translate to a healthier public radio system as a whole, particularly as far as digital efforts and smaller stations are concerned. NPR may have reason to celebrate its overall achievements with on-demand audio — as it continues to compete against the infinite horizon of the open ecosystem along with the encroaching efforts from corporate media platforms like Spotify — but there are yet to be policies and mechanisms in place that ensure every single station tied to NPR can proportionally benefit from those gains. The organization’s recently launched Morning Edition smart speaker product, which enables the bundling of local and national content, may be a step in the right direction, but I’d still argue that the larger problem of the digital divide, as it pertains to the public radio system, persists. (A quick plug for my pie-in-the-sky dynamic ad insertion theory.)

Again, big job for big times. For what it’s worth, I checked with a couple of station managers and public radio operators about the appointment — those were willing to chat and had an opinion, anyway — and there were a few themes that came back. There was broad recognition that Lansing’s news cred is top notch, and agreement that he seems to be the kind of chief executive who doesn’t draw attention to himself. A handful noted that, prior to the selection, they were hoping for someone to come in with a “vision”; post-announcement, they express a general sense of hopefulness balanced by a “let’s wait and see” stance.

Which, you know, sounds about right. We’ll have to wait and see. The Lansing era begins in mid-October.

On a semi-related note: The fantastic Radio Ambulante returns a new season starting today, and it comes at an exciting time for the production. Daniel Alarcon, the show’s executive producer, tells me that they have just renewed their distribution deal with NPR, that they’re piloting a bunch of new shows, and their upcoming digital project, which revolves around a language learning app called Lupa, is weeks away from launch. Also: their “listening club” initiative, originally piloted last year, now has more than 75 clubs in more than 20 countries around the world. (Here’s a cool map showing the location of all these clubs.)

Don’t miss: Axios’s report from last week on the suspicious nature of Himalaya Media’s venture capital funding. The startup, linked to the Chinese audio platform giant Ximalaya FM, made a press push back in February around a supposed $100 million VC fundraise. “Today, however, we know that some of the initial information was false, and it’s impossible to validate the $100 million figure,” writes Axios’ Dan Primack and Sara Fischer. What utter ridiculousness.

Audioboom-Voxnest tech partnership. There’s a lot of hoo-ha in the press release, but essentially, Audioboom, which provides distribution and monetization services for a bunch of third-party publishers (on top of being a publisher itself), will now use Voxnest’s suite of tools. The detail to note: Voxnest is pushing programmatic audio advertising exchange integrations.

Career spotlight [by Caroline Crampton]. Hana Walker-Brown is an award-winning documentary maker, composer, producer and writer based in London, where she currently works as an executive producer at Audible. In this edition of Career Spotlight, Walker-Brown talks to us about pointing the microphone in the right direction, adversity as a theme, and using your big ol’ Doc Martens to keep the door open for others.

Hot Pod: Tell me about your current situation.

Hana Walker-Brown: As well as being an executive producer for Audible, I also compose music for stage, screen and virtual reality, write, give talks and masterclasses on sound storytelling, and teach yoga. Which means, like any good millennial, I am perpetually tired and will almost certainly tell you this at every opportunity.

Life plan? Oooft. That’s a big one. I guess I just want to make a difference. To make or facilitate or curate things that affect positive change. Even if it’s just in the life of one person. There’s often a lot of talk about “giving people a voice” which I always cringe at, because it sounds so self-serving. People already have a voice, but we have a responsibility as makers, journalists, producers, etc. to amplify those voices, to use this insane privilege that we have and make sure we are pointing the microphone in the right direction because there are a lot of bad people shouting very loudly at the moment.

I feel like I did this recently with my four part investigative documentary The Beautiful Brain, which looked at the devastating effects of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) — a degenerative brain disease found in people who’ve suffered severe or repeated blows to the head.

It began with the story of FA Cup winner Jeff Astle, then expanded outwards looking at the widows, daughters, and families who are left fighting for answers following the death of their loved ones. As the series progressed it lead me away from Britain’s football pitches to support groups for women survivors of domestic violence and beyond, sparking a vital discussion about accountability and the urgent need for further scientific studies into CTE.

It had an incredible response and brought to light the extent to which women have been left out of medical research. It was astonishing and maddening. But it has had a positive impact and lead to further funding and research in the brains of women as well an increase in brain donation which is just about everything I could have ever hoped for.

Hot Pod: How did you get here?

Walker-Brown: It’s been a crazy ride, to be honest. I did an MA in Radio at Goldsmiths, which led me to work for Falling Tree Productions. It was the greatest introduction to radio ever. Alan Hall and Ellie McDowall were incredible mentors but also gave me the freedom to really harness my style, and I don’t think I would be where I am now without their encouragement and support.

I’ve since freelanced for a lot of companies (Falling Tree, 24SYV and Reduced Listening are firm favorites) and networks across the globe and have been lucky to travel all over the world, hearing and recording all kinds of stories from cheerleading grannies in the Arizona desert to shipwreck survivors in the Pacific Ocean to rap stars in the Navajo Nation to Gangs in East London and Naked Man festivals in Japan. I have honestly had the time of my life and each story has left me altered. In a good way.

I got approached by Audible at an awards ceremony three years ago and have been working there ever since as an executive producer. My highlights this year were definitely “The Beautiful Brain” and producing “To The Woman,” which was Audible UK’s flagship podcasts series for International Women’s Day 2019. More recently, I curated and produced 21 (!!!) live shows as part of our three-day line up for our first ever Audible Live Stage at Wilderness Festival.

I really hope I haven’t peaked too early.

Hot Pod: What does a “career” mean to you?

Walker-Brown: I never set out to have a “career” in audio/radio. It just all kind of happened. Which I know is the most infuriating thing to read EVER if you’ve been working your arse off.  But rest assured, I worked my arse off and then some.

I’ve always been drawn to storytelling and stories of humans overcoming adversity — that have had to fight and come out on the other side. If you look at my portfolio that’s definitely a theme in my work along with women-led stories.

I’ve also tried to carve out my own path which is hard in any creative industry but I was determined to make it work and to find a new way through that suited me and it worked. I did what I knew I was good at, that was authentic to me and cultivated a space for myself within this industry. You need your biggest Doc Marten boots to keep your foot in that door, but it’s still there and I always try to keep it open for others. I’m really lucky that I get to do this and I don’t think I’ve ever taken it for granted.

Hot Pod: What are you listening to right now?

Walker-Brown: The new series of Short Cuts on BBC Radio 4. It’s hands down the most enchanting thing you will ever hear on the radio. Ellie McDowall’s sensibility, artistry , and dedication are second to none. Plus, it’s where I started my career so it always has a special place in my heart/ears.

I’m also listening to the “Hag” collection on Audible, which is a new fiction podcast featuring original short stories from writers including Daisy Johnson, Eimear McBride, and Liv Little. There are eight women in total who have reimagined folk tales sourced from across the U.K. by Professor Carolyne Larrington, a specialist in Old Norse and British fairy tales at St John’s College, Oxford. I’m a huge advocate for anything woman-led so this is right up my street.

And finally, I listen to Brené Brown’s audiobooks and the Headspace app on repeat every day because it’s 2019 and the world is utterly terrifying without them.

You can find Hana Walker-Brown on Twitter here. This is her website.

Release notes. Three projects to flag:

1) Preach, a new 10-episode interview podcast that’s being rolled out by PRX and Salt Lake City’s KUER, which features the station’s religion reporter, Lee Hale, in conversation with various guests and celebrities on doubts and beliefs. (Swerving into that Krista Tippett lane.)

2) Broken: Jeffrey Epstein, i.e. the first project from the joint Sony Music-Adam Davidson-Laura Mayer venture, a.k.a. Three Uncanny Four.

3) Las Raras, the Chilean Spanish-language nonfiction podcast and Google Podcast Creators program alum, returns for its second season this Thursday.

By the way, I’ve updated my Best Podcasts of 2019 (so far) list.

Y’all thought Hollywood was going to put indie fiction podcasts out of business…but did anybody think about Korn?

This week in the adaptation pipeline: Limetown is finally hitting…the small screen, I guess? ICYMI: the television version of the 2015 fiction podcast, created by Skip Bronkie and Zack Akers, was picked up by Facebook Watch, the social media giant’s long-form video initiative, and the project will made its first public appearance at the Toronto International Film Festival last week. It’s scheduled to drop on the FB Watch service on October 6.

Can’t say I know much about Facebook Watch, particularly as it relates to the rest of the ~streaming wars~, but here’s a Variety report from June in which Facebook tries to make the argument that the service is working. Note the major prefaces when it comes to the audience stats.

In the meantime, shout-out to LAist Studios’ Arwen Nicks, whose recent tweet hit the target so hard it ripped a hole in the fabric of the universe: “all my TV friends want to make podcasts and all my podcast friends want to make TV.”

POSTED     Sept. 10, 2019, 11:18 a.m.
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