Nieman Foundation at Harvard
After criticism over “viewpoint diversity,” NPR adds new layers of editorial oversight
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Oct. 8, 2019, 11:25 a.m.

Which podcasts have truly shaped the medium? And do they fit in convenient list form?

They do! Plus: Apple aims for a “super-bundle,” Luminary shuffles executives, StartUp tells its own tale, and Dolly Parton’s America.

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 229, dated October 8, 2019.

Just in: Luminary exec shuffle. For your intelligence dossier purposes: The Verge is reporting that Joe Purzycki, who co-founded the startup with Matt Sacks, is no longer the company’s chief strategy officer. He was replaced by Jeff Saunders, former VP of product and technology at Jet, who holds the title of Luminary’s chief product officer.

According to the report, the move came “two months or so” after launch. Purzycki’s LinkedIn profile, however, appears to show the exact timeline: In August, his position shifted from “Co-Founder, Chief Strategy Officer” to “Senior Advisor.” (On a somewhat related note, Purzycki was once the VP of Advertising at Vox Media, The Verge’s parent company.) Saunders’ LinkedIn, meanwhile, lists his start date as chief product officer as July.

It is unclear just how well the paid podcast platform is currently doing. The service first launched in April to some controversy and continues missing some key shows.

StartUp is back, and we’ll be paying close attention to this final mini-season, obviously. Partly because of what it’s meant to offer — an inside look, albeit an edited one, into Spotify’s acquisition of Gimlet — but also because of the fact that a good number of people, within and beyond the tech/investing communities, may view the mini-season’s narrative as a short-hand narrative for podcasting as a whole, depending on how things shake out.

Two quick things on the episode that came out last Friday:

  • The observation made about the economic difficulties of what was traditionally Gimlet’s programming specialty — resource-intensive narrative shows that were often seasonal or limited-run — was one I highlighted as far back as last November (“Reprocessing the limited-run podcast documentary“).
  • Gimlet Media, historically speaking, has always been a prime source of discussion and gripe for many Hot Pod readers, and this episode proved no different. Here’s a representative question that popped up in my inbox over the weekend: “So Gimlet was struggling with audiences and ad sales, and they sold for $230 million. What gives?” Great question, and I suppose we’ll just have to find out.

At this juncture, it was interesting to revisit my column on the acquisition from early February. Some of my assessments have turned out to not be the case — in particular, my tinfoil-hat theory that Gimlet Creative held value for Spotify as a possible creative-agency arm, and my working assumption that the company’s revenue had continued to rise and thus contributed to the value of the deal — but this notion still seems to hold true: “There’s also an apparent superficial logic behind [the deal]: Gimlet would give Spotify a buzzy portfolio of shows with which the platform can focus attention on and build a narrative around its podcast offerings.”

We’ll find out about that $230 million number — albeit processed through the company’s own lens — in due time, but I can’t help thinking about something a few folks kept reciting to me a while back: “This acquisition says more about Spotify than about Gimlet.”

Keep an eye out: The Financial Times has an intriguing story on the possibility of Apple building a “super-bundle of media content,” one that may combine its TV, music, games, and perhaps news offerings. Expressly relevant.

Stitcher expands its advertising business into Canada and Australia. Announced yesterday, the company is doing so through partnerships — with TPX (a.k.a. The Podcast Exchange) in Canada and Whooshkaa in Australia — in which the local company handles local sales on open ad inventories for Stitcher shows. The upsides for Stitcher includes more efficient sales experiences specific to those markets (selling and delivering Canadian ads to Canadian listeners, as opposed to lumping Canadian listeners into overall ad impressions reported to an American advertisers) and a possible increase in revenue, while the upside for TPX and Whooshkaa is…well, money.

Part of a broader effort to establish a global podcast advertising business, this development builds upon Stitcher’s work with Podfront U.K., the joint venture it launched with Wondery earlier this summer to build out a sales presence in the U.K. to monetize the region’s considerable audience numbers experienced by both companies. Back when I wrote that story, Stitcher told me that U.K. listens represented the third-largest English-language market for the company after the U.S. and Canada.

Wondery, by the way, already has ad sales partnerships with TPX and Whooshkhaa in place for the Canadian and Australian markets, going as far back as last April.

Pushkin Industries hires a new VP of content development. Malcolm Gladwell and Jacob Weisberg’s Podfund-backed venture has brought on Leital Molad, previously the executive producer of podcasts at Topic Studios, to lead development on new future projects. At Topic, Molad worked on a portfolio that includes Missing Richard Simmons, Intercepted with Jeremy Scahill, and John Cameron Mitchell’s Anthem: Homunculus. She starts October 21.

On a related note: By the end of this year, Pushkin will have rolled out nine podcasts in total, plus an audiobook. The company is also bringing on Emily Rostek as a producer focused on advertising experiences. Rostek, who joins from Gimlet, starts this week.

WBAI, the Brooklyn progressive non-commercial radio station, has shut down. Pacifica Foundation, which owns the station, cited financial issues as the reason. Here’s New York Amsterdam News with the report. I only wrote about WBAI once in the past, when the station brought Leonard Lopate back onto the airwaves after his dismissal from WNYC following an investigation into allegations of inappropriate behavior.

The other end of buzziness [by Caroline Crampton]. Journalists write about new stuff. I know this: I’ve been both a writer and an editor for over ten years; I’ve had my pitches for pieces about cultural things that are cool-but-ongoing turned down, and I’ve turned down similar ideas from others in turn.

Perhaps it used to be the case in podcasting — as I’ve heard from some people who have been putting out episodes since the mid-2000s — that a new show could make a dozen episodes and find its feet before embarking on a publicity campaign. Nowadays, though, the way all the promotional mechanisms of this industry are set up means that a new podcast’s best chance of visibility is when it launches. That’s when new subscriptions will propel it up the Apple Podcasts charts, and the very fact of its newness will attract journalists to review it and curators to feature it. When it’s a professional and commercial endeavor, a regularly publishing show needs to ride the wave of this early momentum if it’s to find a monetizably sized audience quickly. Even the best podcast-specialist publicist will find it hard to get coverage for a podcast 30 episodes in.

I started thinking about this problem when I briefly took over this newsletter from Nick this summer and was suddenly getting all the new-show announcements that usually grace his inbox in mine. All these new podcasts, all hoping to reach enough people to keep publishing into the future. Maybe some of these launches will do so successfully, but it’s likely they will find it harder to attract press attention again. After all, “podcast people like continues to publish episodes” is a tough sell for a piece.

Which all got me wondering: Shouldn’t I be paying more attention to the shows that make it, rather than just the ones that are as-yet untested? The constant grind of serving an audience and trying to grow a base doesn’t go away just because the press mentions come along less often.

To understand better what this position looks like from the podcaster’s point of view, I got in touch with Geoff Lloyd, a British radio presenter and broadcaster who currently hosts two podcasts: Adrift and Reasons To Be Cheerful. Both launched in 2017, after Lloyd left his regular presenting job at Absolute Radio, and each has now racked up over a hundred episodes. When I spoke to him over the phone last week, Lloyd explained that the two shows have very different missions, but in each case there’s a specific aim for it beyond just “do more downloads”.

With Adrift, he said, he and co-host Annabel Port are trying to serve their long-standing audience. This podcast, in which they talk about social awkwardness and social anxiety, is “a kind of continuation” of the radio show the pair hosted on Absolute Radio for almost a decade, although it’s now a completely independent podcast-only production. “With time, it’s become almost like a little club, really, which is what I always intended it to be,” Lloyd explained. “It does get numbers. But it’s very much static.”

They’re okay with the fact that the show isn’t for everybody, and that it’s not the easiest thing to sum up quickly for a press hit or recommendation: “If you are a socially incompetent person, it really resonates with you. And if you’re not it probably sounds like drivel.” As a result, new listeners usually come via word of mouth, and their audience is very loyal. “It never drops in terms of listeners, and it doesn’t grow exponentially or anything either,” he said.

Other high profile engagements the hosts do don’t seem to have much impact — Lloyd has been presenting Saturday mornings on BBC Radio 5 Live recently, for instance — but even that doesn’t cause much of an uptick. But that doesn’t really both him, because the way he measures the success of the show is what it gives to its audience. As long as people who have the same anxieties and awkwardness as him are finding it useful and enjoyable, Lloyd said, he’s happy and feels no particular need to push the podcast or strategise particularly hard for its growth.

It’s a different story with his other podcast. “With Reasons To Be Cheerful, we’re constantly thinking about what we do with it and where we go with it,” Lloyd explained. He co-hosts this show with the politician Ed Miliband, the MP for Doncaster North and between 2010 and 2015, the leader of the U.K.’s Labour Party. In each episode, the pair discuss a policy issue that is a “reason to be cheerful” and interview an expert about the subject. (Recent topics include the case for universal free childcare and decolonising the teaching of history.)

“It became this big thing very quickly, and then I think Ed had the realization that perhaps it could get ideas that would normally only be seen in think-tank reports and read by spads [special political advisors] out to a broader audience,” Lloyd said. They started out funding the show out of their own pockets, but now that it brings in money via sponsorships and live shows (Lloyd works with Acast on both of his podcasts), they’re able to pay for a researcher to help expand the remit of what they can cover. Miliband doesn’t take any fee for his involvement.

After two years and counting of weekly episodes, what helps them keep the momentum up is still the original mission of the show: to lighten the gloomy political times by better understanding areas of endeavour where there are still positive outcomes. “The objective isn’t increasing the number of listens to the podcast. The objective is to increase the reach of these ideas that we’re talking about,” Lloyd said. To that end, they’re working on plans to do more video content with their guests, to make a website that allows listeners to engage with the topics in more depth, and perhaps launch a book club so that the community can read relevant nonfiction together.

Lloyd has been in the game long enough to know that it’s new, buzzy things that are easier to get attention for, though. “I’ve found it so frustrating at different points of my career when I’ve been doing new things and they get the attention, and then you feel you can hit a real purple patch of something and no one’s interested in a purple patch, they’re interested in things when they launch,” he said. “I don’t get why newness is such an orthodoxy. But I feel that like so many things in life, if you start pulling the threads the whole thing comes unravelled very quickly.”

Here’s what I took from the conversation: If a show has defined and attainable objectives, there’s no reason why fatigue or disillusionment has to set in, even though it’s been in production for a long time. But I also think that we here at Hot Pod, as well as others in this position, can help by finding new ways to cover long-running shows — and, additionally, realizing that even the best ideas have a lot of growing to do.

Education market? This isn’t explicitly a podcast story, but you can sort it into the broader “on-demand audio” bucket.

Last week, an audio-first online education startup called Knowable initiated a press push announcing that it has raised a $3.75 million seed round. Product-wise, Knowable is structured as a platform that sells users long-form courses around a series of topics at $100 per course. Its offerings are currently clustered around tech-person-oriented stuff like launching startups and self-improvement stuff like “speaking with confidence,” but there’s also a course in there about starting podcasts. (I suppose you have to start somewhere.) Here’s TechCrunch with a deeper dive.

Knowable’s funding round was led by Andreessen Horowitz’s Connie Chan, who published a blog post last November that sought to lay out a comparative analysis between the American podcast market and what she defined as China’s “paid podcast” market, which felt like an extension of an assumption held by a Marketplace piece that September on what it calls China’s FOMO industry — the assumption being, it’s appropriate to compare what goes on in the American podcast market with China’s paid audio market.

Which I don’t think should be the case, as I argued in this interview column from May, because paid audio market comparisons between the U.S. and China should account for something like Audible, quite literally a paid subscription on-demand audio platform.

Anyway, something interesting about this Knowable story is the way the company defines its value-generating strategy in part by cobbling together the online education market and “audio renaissance” narratives. When I spoke with founders Warren Shaeffer‏ and Alex Benzer recently, they evoked the fact that the current global e-learning market is estimated at around $190 billion and projected to grow to $300 billion by 2025. They argued that the U.S. market doesn’t appear to have many audio-first options and theorized that podcasting’s rising popularity suggests an opportunity to plug a gap that may well exist.

Which may or may not be an accurate assessment, depending on how you view the scope of competitors. For what it’s worth, I use Audible as an “audio-first online education” tool quite a bit already, and there are more than a few podcasts that fill various education needs on my end. (Shout-out to NPR’s Life Kit. I’m not sure if its real estate series directly helped me in my recent home-buying adventures, but it did make me feel like I was preparing for something.)

The longer-term counter-argument, I suppose, is the possibility of successful platform-oriented execution over time. Presumably, by monitoring behaviors on its platform, the Knowable team may figure out good feedback loops that’ll help them better serve and grow its base of paid audiences.

Or they might not.

First draft. Vulture rolled out a fairly chunky week-long package on podcasts, and I had the pleasure of contributing a bunch of pieces and generally helping shape the feel of the whole thing. The anchor, I think, was an essay I wrote that sought to frame the brief history of podcasting so far, which broadly organizes the timeline around three discrete eras — or, alternately, around two turning points. That piece was supplemented with a zippy guide to podcast apps, generally oriented towards casual consumers and newcomers who may have fewer opinions about things like speed-listening and more feelings about the core question of “How the hell do I actually use one of these things?”

The bulk of the package, however, took the form of an assortment of lists — what else? — that present readers with “essential picks” from several genres. I assembled the collections for Narrative Nonfiction, Conversation, and Fiction, while Becca James took Comedy, Rebecca Lavoie took True Crime, Leon Neyfakh took News & Politics, and Wil Williams took Pop Culture.

Between the essays and the lists, the underlying hope behind the package, at least for me, was to produce something that could be reasonably taken as a contextualizing historical snapshot — one that’s, well, accurate, first and foremostly, but also comprehensible and valuable to readers who don’t know much about the medium in the first place. Which is to say, most people. (Which is also to say I hoped to produce something that could help my parents understand what it is, exactly, I do for a living.)

So with the essay, the idea was to lay out the historical moment that the podcast ecosystem finds itself in and how it got here. Meanwhile, with the lists, our organizing principle was to mimic the Criterion Collection, the company that curates “important classic and contemporary films” for film aficionados, in that the goal was to identify for casual readers the podcasts we thought were important to or embodied something about how we currently understand the historical development of podcasting as a whole.

Now, as is customary in these content farmlands, these lists were limited to just 10 entries each, and as such, part of the challenge involves reckoning with noteworthy omissions in favor of making certain statements. My thinking here: The selections and omissions of any and all lists are absolutely debatable, but they are also all defensible. This is also my way of saying: I’ve received and read all your emails, DMs, and @-replies about shows I missed — and occasionally, about how much of an idiot I am — and I hear you. Indeed, I am here for you.

I should also say I’m keenly aware that any conscious attempt to “create historical snapshots” carries with it a certain quality of pretension. Which is, you know, totally true, but the challenge was attractive nonetheless. If anything, it was yet another opportunity to properly grapple with the three fundamental complications that have long haunted the work I’ve done in this newsletter. Namely:

  • Grappling with the difficulty of making a confident observation within the context of podcasting’s relative newness;
  • The persistent difficulty of saying something definitive within the context of podcasting’s actual knowability, given what continues to be the wanting state of its analytics (if you’re having a conversation about the “greatest pods of all time,” it would be nice to back that up with trustworthy download numbers as a default); and
  • Podcasting still-structural nature of being infinitely open, which leaves any historical interpretation open to critiques of omission. (For example, what of the universe of wrestling podcasts, to which I have historically paid little-to-no attention?)

As with the package, there hasn’t been a week that goes by where I’m not constantly perturbed by the feeling that I’m either (a) taking podcasting too seriously, (b) that I don’t actually know what’s going on, or (c) that I’ve missed something I shouldn’t miss. Hot Pod turns five next month, and let me tell ya: The feeling has only gotten worse the more I know.

Anyway, now that the package is fully out, I think I can say I’m more satisfied-than-not with how my end of the bargain turned out. That said, I’m the kind of person who wildly relates to David Fincher’s feeling that “movies aren’t finished, they’re abandoned” — here’s that pretension again — and, like most other people who have worked on projects of any sort, I wished I had more time to work on it. (Would that extra time have been helpful? Probably not. But still.) In any case, I’m proud of the package, I had a ton of fun working on it, and I hope you get some fun out of checking it out. Shout-out to my handlers Ray and Neil over at the site.

Show notes

  • Loud Speaker Studios and State Farm’s Color Full Lives, hosted by Angela Yee, Aminatou Sow, and Tonya Rapley, returned for a fifth season last week. According to Matt Raz, who produces the podcast, this project is one of the longest-running brand commitments to a branded podcast. Loud Speaker Studios, by the way, is the branded-content arm of the Loud Speakers Network.
  • Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend returned this week.
  • WNYC Studios and Jad Abumrad’s highly-anticipated nine-part series, Dolly Parton’s America, will drop its first episode next Tuesday, October 15.
  • On a non-Dolly Parton note, WNYC is also launching a Brian Lehrer-led daily podcast meant to help listeners track the impeachment story. A newsletter-like playbook that’s fitting for the current age of daily podcasts: If you can’t go broad, be narrow and win a specific use case.
  • Dan Gorenstein, former reporter at APM’s Marketplace, has a solo documentary on the U.S. healthcare system out soon called Tradeoffs. Starts October 16. Acast is distributing, and Gorenstein is repped by CAA.
  • On October 22, Transmitter Media and Fatherly are launching a ten-part series called Finding Fred, which will focus on exploring the life of Fred Rogers. It’s made with cooperation from Fred Rogers Productions, and it will be distributed by iHeartMedia. Presumably timed against the upcoming Tom Hanks-starring sort-of biopic A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. I suppose this is as good a time as any to shout out the 2018 doc Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, which ruled.
  • I continue to keep a close eye on Audible’s Originals initiative, which I’m fairly convinced remains very much relevant to the fortunes of the podcast industry writ large. In related news, the writer-journalist Anne Helen Petersen has a new Audible Original out furthering her work on millennial burnout.
POSTED     Oct. 8, 2019, 11:25 a.m.
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