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Sept. 17, 2019, 10:59 a.m.
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Vox’s new podcast goes where news podcasts haven’t gone before: Sundays

Plus: NPR expects Podcast $$ to surpass Broadcast $$ by next year.

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 226, dated September 17, 2019.

Reset: Vox Media Podcast Network’s Next Big Swing. This has been in the works for a while, but it’s finally coming out soon. On October 15, Vox Media will officially launch Reset, its upcoming technology news podcast that was originally announced back in February as part of what Axios described as a “multi-million dollar deal” expanding the partnership Vox Media struck up Stitcher that originated Today, Explained, the former’s daily news podcast. The podcast falls under the Recode brand, which was rolled up into the larger Vox.com operation earlier this year.

Details, for the discerning: Reset will publish three times a week — Tuesdays, Thursday, and, intriguingly, Sunday — with each episode, dropped in the early mornings, designed to clock in at around 20 minutes. The show will be powered by a production team befitting a robust news operation, though a search for an executive producer is still underway. Hosting duties will be held by Arielle Duhaime-Ross, most recently the climate change correspondent for VICE News Tonight, the weekly documentary cable news magazine program. The appointment marks a return for Duhaime-Ross, who, prior to joining Vice, was science reporter for The Verge. (During her original tenure at Vox Media, she won the 2015 Herb Lampert award for her story on a most radical idea.)

As you would expect, Reset will be tasked with carrying out the goals of Recode 2.0, newly reconstituted with Vox.com’s DNA of policy-minded explanatory journalism. This generally translates to a coverage framework that emphasizes reporting on the spaces in which technology, politics, culture, and society rub up against each other… but frankly, given that we’re living in some approximation of a post-“software eats the world” epoch, that framework pretty much accounts for everything. The recruitment of Duhaime-Ross as host, I’m told, was to some extent informed by a wariness of bringing on a more dyed-in-the-wool tech journalist, and an intent to establish somebody who could communicate issues in the tech world while effectively standing outside of the tech world bubble.

A genetic bond with Today, Explained is to be expected. Liz Kelly Nelson, editorial of Vox.com Podcasts, said that where Today, Explained might cover, say, Brexit from a political perspective, Reset would try to approach the story from how technology would come into it: how social media shapes the process, how some members of parliament use technology to frame their arguments, or, on a larger scale, how some tech companies could get completely screwed up if Britain leaves the EU.

For trivia-related purposes, here are two other random points of connection: firstly, both Arielle Duhaime-Ross and Today, Explained host Sean Rameswaram are Canadian, and secondly, Breakmaster Cylinder will also score Reset’s theme song, as it did with Today, Explained. Is anybody running a tally of podcast theme songs by BC? Should some enterprising podcast technology platform just hire BC full-time to crank out music libraries? (I hope so, and probably.)

It’s worth noting that there will be some differences in approach between the weekday and Sunday episodes. The Tuesday and Thursday dispatches are meant to be newsier, perhaps more in line with what you’d expect from a standard daily news podcast execution. The Sunday episodes, meanwhile, are being designed to accommodate more enterprise, agenda-setting reporting — think 60 Minutes, or something of the sort. “Pegging one of our episodes to Sundays would give us more time to produce more vigorously reported stories,” Nelson said. “It puts us in a better position to break news.”

Gotta say, I’m pretty psyched about the show’s plan to go after the Sunday morning slot. It’s always been surprising to me that more publishers haven’t attempted to go after weekend listening. Of course, I’m aware of the conventional arguments levied against programming for the weekend, which appears anchored by the belief that people are busy doing fun weekend things and thus aren’t typically in the mood to listen to podcasts, or whatever. (This is a distant cousin to the strategy of not publishing big swings during the summer, because folks are off doing fun vacation things.) I suspect these assumptions fall from a mindset that primarily views podcast listening as secondary experiences, i.e. “the thing you do when you’re doing other things.”

To which I favor two counter arguments. First, weekends also feature activities conducive to secondary media consumption: working out, driving around, making big meals, miscellaneous busywork like compulsively scrubbing the bathroom walls and/or stacking the week’s receipts, yadda yadda yadda. Secondly, and more importantly, why let audience behavior fully dictate publishing strategy? To some extent, as a maker of things, you’re supposed to be setting trends, and what better opportunity to set trends than the chunk of the week when defined by want-to-dos than need-to-dos?

On this second point, the production team seems aligned. “To us, the weekend is white space,” said Nelson, before evoking comparisons with Sunday magazine inserts, those glossy print products that come bundled with the Sunday edition of newspapers, where the expectation is that readers will spend a good amount of their Sunday morning leisure time to leaf through. “We see it as an opportunity to work hard at helping our listeners create a new habit.”

It’s exciting ground to break, representative of the production’s overall marginally experimental feel. From the outside, Reset feels a little blurry with formal categorizations — of form, sensibility, approach. Not a daily news podcast, though not quite a news magazine. Not quite evergreen, though not necessarily newsy. Not quite of the technology community, not completely separate. I haven’t heard any early cuts, so I can’t speak to the actual feel of the show, but I very much appreciate the not-particularly-straightforward nature of this production. We’ll see how these things play out when the first episode drops next month.

Slate is doubling down on What Next, its daily news podcast. The company hopes to dramatically expand its team in a few directions, including a dedicated politics editor to chart the show’s coverage of Washington and the 2020 presidential election cycle, a special projects team to suss out bigger stories, and a supervising producer to lead what Gabriel Roth, Slate’s editorial director of audio, describes as a “newsroom within the newsroom.”

“The working idea right now is to have a couple of producers churning out the news and a couple of producers looking ahead, but one of the great things about Slate is that everyone does everything here,” host Mary Harris tells me. “As we’ve gotten our two new producers — Danielle Hewitt, who had been producing in DC for Slate, and Mara Silvers, who joined from WNYC — up to speed, the idea is to have producers who can book, edit, and mix. In the next year, we want to do more deep dives…more live events, like the one we’re doing at the Texas Tribune Festival later this month. We also want our producers to be able to work with Slate writers as they report their stories — that way when we interview our favorite folks, those conversations will have more texture.”

What Next will hit the one-year mark next month, on October 17.

At NPR, Pod $$ projected to beat Broad $$. Over at Current, Tyler Falk reports that NPR is expecting its podcast sponsorship revenues to surpass broadcast sponsorship revenues for the first time next year…which, you know, is a pretty big marker.

That projection was given during the NPR membership meeting that took place on September 5. According to Current, NPR CFO Deborah Cowen noted that the organization “has budgeted about $55 million in corporate sponsorship revenues from podcasts in fiscal year 2020” — which is $5 million more than what it’s expecting to bring in this year — while the “broadcast and event sponsorship” revenues are expected to be at $52.7 million next year.

Should those projections pan out, that would mean it took NPR about half a decade to reach this point following the early 2015 launch of Invisibilia, arguably the start of the organization’s modern podcasting era. Which sounds about right, I suppose; after all, nothing about this ecosystem is particularly straightforward.

Meanwhile, in the Granite State… New Hampshire Public Radio has a new president and CEO: Jim Schachter, who joins from WNYC, where he served as the VP of news for the last seven years. Prior to that, he spent 17 years at The New York Times. Schacter replaces Betsy Gardella, who retired in December 2018 after 13 years on the job.

On a related note: I’m told that the first episode of NHPR’s Patient Zero was downloaded over 215,000 times since launching on August 15. The podcast’s premium content-led fundraising campaign, as well, is off to a solid start, with the team seeing crossover donors from the Bear Brook campaign.

At the IAB Podcast Upfronts in SF last week… Wondery came out with two partnership announcements: the first with The Athletic, which involves plans to launch a daily sports news podcast for the latter, and the second with All Things Comedy, an independent digital media studio founded by Bill Burr and Al Madrigal.

The Hottest Take, the new daily audio show from The Ringer (and a Spotify exclusive), is basically everything I want for my morning commute.

What is a private feed worth? [by Caroline Crampton]. There’s a podcasting tech problem that you’ll be well aware of if you’ve ever tried to distribute or listen to a premium podcast feed. Indeed, it’s a problem that gets right to the heart of the medium’s DNA: RSS feeds, and the podcast apps that listeners use to access them, require openness — adding a login or authentication option to a feed to make sure that only paying subscribers can listen to gated content is currently incompatible with having said feed work in your average podcatcher.

Plus, since most podcast apps are directory-based and assume listeners prefer to browse and select from a catalogue UI, the option to manually add an unlisted feed tends to be clunky and off-putting to the less tech savvy. On top of that, there’s always the danger that this unlisted feed gets shared widely and attracts freeloaders, which the podcaster can’t really do much about without disrupting the experience of its paying audience.

Monetizing the connection between podcaster and listener has become increasingly common in the last couple of years, and delivering bonus audio as a reward for regular payment is pretty standard. As a result, more and more third-party solutions to this problem have been coming online, from Supporting Cast to Acast Access to Glow and others, and the proposed PodPass protocol (read my recent write up here) would see a direct fix that allows in-app authentication. Patreon also provides a patron-only feed option for distributing audio to paying supporters only.

A new venture has now joined the flood in this space: Supercast, a subscription podcasting product from the Canadian agency DoubleUp (it’s worked with podcasters Peter Attia and Sam Harris in that capacity already; Attia is also a Supercast investor and early adopter). The offering is very similar to what’s already out there, with the emphasis on providing the podcaster with a private feed for each paying subscriber and a smooth on-boarding process to get their feed into their podcatcher of choice. Supercast also puts emphasis on its analytics, and seeks to provide participating podcasters with plenty of data about what bonus content their paying subscribers engage with as well as preventing so called “feed fraud” when a private feed is shared more widely.

Aidan Hornsby from Supercast gave me a demo of the Supercast dashboard so far before launch, and there certainly seemed to be elements there that would address these issues. The part I’m missing, though, is pricing. Supercast can either integrate with a podcaster’s existing membership platforms (e.g. Memberful or Memberpress) and just provide the feed element, or it can run the whole transaction.

It’s fairly standard on platforms like Patreon for the podcaster to pay for the service via a fee levied per transaction, and I believe that’s how Supercast charges in the latter instance. In the former scenario, though, it charges the podcaster a monthly fee per activated feed. So, if 100 out of 150 paying subscribers choose to access bonus content, you pay each month for 100 feeds.

I discussed with Hornsby the possibility of using Supercast for my own podcast, which I monetize with subscriptions via Memberful, and was told that, for me, it would cost $1.50 per month per activated feed (with a discount offered should I become an early adopter and offer feedback on the platform in return). That would mean that if 150 subscribers activated their feeds, a podcaster would pay $225 per month for this service. (For the record, I declined and have no relationship with this outfit.)

When I queried this fee with Hornsby — it seems like a pretty steep rate to me, when compared with alternatives like Patreon, and easily outstrips what a podcaster needs to pay for other services like main feed hosting and so on — he responded that “we want to make Supercast affordable for podcasters at all levels and are working closely with early adopters during the beta period to gather data finalize the rate and scaling tiers.” He added that the fee would “decrease as the number of subscribers scales…shows with larger audiences pay less per user.”

Curious, I asked for more information about Supercast’s pricing model or tiers, but nothing more specific was forthcoming. It therefore remains unclear to me what the uptake for Supercast will be or how likely it is to grow a substantial user base, since I can’t evaluate its possible revenue stream.

You might have become aware of Supercast’s launch a couple of weeks ago when a Medium post titled “Howard Stern is getting ripped off” appeared, in which Andrew Wilkinson from Tiny Capital (which invests in DoubleUp and Supercast) argued that “the transition from advertising to a subscription model is going to make podcasters billions of dollars and mint a ton of millionaires.” There are a lot of untested assumptions in that piece — including the one that because a lot of people happily listen to an ad on a popular podcast now, they will equally happily convert into paying subscribers in droves. Which, you know, is questionable. More recently, Tim Ferriss’s experience would, at minimum, suggest this is not always the case.

I think it’s safe to say that when a problem has long been prevalent, the solutions aren’t always so straightforward or simple. And particularly when it comes to a still-developing ecosystem like podcasting, it behooves the peddlers of solutions to mount their efforts in the spirit of complementarism, not superiority. The main text on Supercast’s website reads “Enough with the MeUndies ads,” which doesn’t quite suggest a good grasp of why advertising has been important for podcast creators, independent and corporate, for the length of time that the business has been around. A softer touch, along with a softer outlook on the world, is generally recommended.

Open ears, full hearts, can’t lose: WQXR’s new classical music podcast [by Sara Ivry]. In August, I saw the Knights orchestra perform at Tanglewood, the Western Mass music venue that’s also the home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. It was an interesting scene: I reckon that, while the average age of the audience was 70, the average age of the musicians was 35, a gulf that made me wonder about the future of classical audiences. Given the obvious implication of the age spread, how will the classical music scene replenish its audiences moving forward?

That’s a question I see at the heart of The Open Ears Project, a new podcast from WQXR and WNYC Studios hosted by Clemency Burton-Hill, the writer, violinist, broadcaster, and producer who also happens to be WQXR’s creative director of music and arts. (She’s also the author of Year of Wonder: Classical Music to Enjoy Day by Day, which came out last year.)

Open Ears is a bite-sized daily audio show that features everyday New Yorkers — as well as not-so-everyday New Yorkers like Alec Baldwin and Wynton Marsalis — waxing romantic, nostalgic, and philosophical about a single, beloved piece of classical music. In many ways, it’s a great companion to another podcast that WQXR recently rolled out: Aria Code, hosted by Rhiannon Giddens.

I got to speak with Burton-Hill recently, who shared the thinking behind the new project.

Hot Pod: How much of The Open Ears Project represents an effort to cultivate new — that is, younger — audiences with a little help from A-list friends?

Clemency Burton-Hill: Everything I do in the classical music sphere is geared to opening it up, talking about it, listening to it. Unless we in the classical world do a better job of making people feel welcome, we are going to lose audiences. In a lot of places, I’m gratified to see diverse and younger audiences, and often institutions are doing absolutely everything they can, but they’re hamstrung by many realities. In the U.S., there’s no public subsidy of the arts.

I wish we could fix it with a podcast. We can take baby steps to say, “This shit’s amazing. Come listen and decide for yourself.”

Hot Pod: How did The Open Ears Project come about?

Burton-Hill: Year of Wonder came out in the U.S. last year, and partly I wrote that because to me classical music is another form of music. For many people that’s not the case. People were approaching me to help them out with classical music, to find a way in. They’d say “I don’t know that I’m listening right. I don’t know if I’m doing it right,” and I wanted to shout from the rooftops, “There is no right!”

There’s obviously a perception that classical music is for an educated elite, and I don’t mean that went to college. I mean, people who are schooled in arcane rituals that surround the art form, that unless you’re in the know, you don’t get to talk about it. Unless you have the technical or musical background, your reaction to it is not valid. That’s problematic; it keeps people out.

I wanted to really show up for that idea that this can be anyone’s music and therefore anyone can talk about it.

Hot Pod: The fear people have about not “getting” classical music reminds me of the fear people have about poetry.

Burton-Hill: Poetry and music are more spiritually aligned than we talk about. They act upon us in ways that we cannot immediately understand. The primary way to respond is emotional — how it makes you feel, and that that feeling helps us through our lives, through grief or heartbreak or whatever it may be. Why are a few words arranged on a page or a few notes able to actually do something to us?

It’s a public service to demystify poetry and music because they can have a real impact on people’s daily lives. I want everyone to have access to that. I’m not saying everyone should love it, but they shouldn’t be shut out.

Hot Pod: Do you get a heads-up about what the guests are going to select?

Burton-Hill: I have no idea what people are going to talk about. You’re not going to get “Beethoven was born wherever.” It’s much more about the human connection. We’re living in times of real disconnect and disharmony. We’re all shooting into our little voids and these sonic love letters that are very short and intimate might help us hear this thing called classical music differently but also hear our fellow humans, as well.

These are exercises in empathy and connection. The episodes are brief and soulful.

Hot Pod: What’s the range of guests on The Open Ears Project?

Burton-Hill: I’ve had waiters, bartenders, a guy who served in the military, taxi drivers, preschool teachers. No one I have approached hasn’t had a story about classical music.

I invited Call Your Girlfriend host Aminatou Sow. We went in cold for the interview and she had me in bits because of the story she told of hearing this Florence Price music on the day she got a cancer diagnosis.

There have been quite a few interviews that have really floored me. Some classical musicians are in the mix — and that was deliberate and important to me; it was giving them the license to talk on a purely emotional level about how something affects them — Eric Jacobsen about his mother and her death. It was incredible to hear mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton talk about how she felt met and received by the Chopin Nocturne, talking about what it was like to be 15 and bisexual and not fitting in.

Hot Pod: How do you imagine people listening?

Burton-Hill: I want this to be a joyful, empathy-inducing warm feeling that’s created in you. Hopefully you can create a daily listening habit that can transform your day. It takes you out of your everyday. It’s also bingeable. You open your ears to it and engage with someone else’s story.

The music might move you, and it might not and that’s also great because it will cultivate your own taste. We play the full track at the end of each episode and you can absolutely immerse yourself in it. If it’s not for you — that’s cool. Come back tomorrow because maybe you’ll love that one.

You can check out The Open Ears Project here.

This issue’s guest contributor is Sara Ivry, a freelance writer, editor and podcaster based in New York City. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Bookforum, Money, Design Observer, and a range of other outlets. Until 2016 she hosted the National Magazine Award-winning podcast Vox Tablet. She’s currently a co-producer on season two of In It from Understood.org.

Release Notes

— Spotify’s Gimlet Media division is apparently getting ready for fiction-focused fall rollout. Three projects, very Hollywood talent-oriented, a couple of returning series. You can find the details in Variety.

— Radiotopia launches Passenger List, its fiction podcast starring Kelly Marie Tran, this week. Here’s my preview piece on the project for Vulture.

— Here’s something you don’t see very often: A bilingual podcast series, presented in both English and German. It’s called Finding Van Gogh, it’s a five-part series, and it’s released by the Städel Museum in Frankfurt. Sarah Omar is the producer.

— The New York Post’s Page Six is launching a podcast this week, and it’s apparently called “We Hear” — separate and distinct, of course, from “We Here For You.”

— All hail Who? Weekly’s Lindsay Weber and Bobby Finger, icons of our time. The Guardian has a great profile on the duo.

POSTED     Sept. 17, 2019, 10:59 a.m.
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