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Oct. 1, 2019, 11:46 a.m.

Will a merged Vox Media/New York become a bigger player in podcasts?

Plus: Slate plans a spinoff show, Canadians predict the future, and the onslaught of daily election podcasts begins.

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 228, dated October 1, 2019.

New Vox Media. Know what’s wild? It’s only been a week since news broke that Vox Media is moving to acquire New York Media, a significant media development with tremendous thematic weight, and already it feels like it’s been…oh, I don’t know, six months. A testament, perhaps, to the bonkers news pace of the past week, and the past few years more generally.

Chances are you’ve probably already heard about this deal and its various details. But just in case: here’s The Wall Street Journal reporting on New York Media’s valuation at the time of the deal, said to be around $105 million; here’s Vanity Fair’s Joe Pompeo going over the context and leadup; here’s the dude Joshua Benton with the most comprehensive analysis I’ve seen on what to track with the integration of the two orgs; and here’s New York’s Brian Feldman, most pressingly, on the grim Slack implications.

This being Hot Pod, we’re here to kick around the podcast angle. And there is most definitely one, given Vox Media’s increasingly prolific audio operation.

Before I get into all that, though, I should start with some disclosures: As you may or may not know, I’m a contributor to Vulture, New York Magazine’s entertainment vertical. In fact, when the deal was announced, I had been assigned to work on a series of pieces for a podcast package that Vulture is rolling out this wee…wait, I should do this properly.

A brief history of now. For Vulture, I tried to cram an abridged version of the history of podcasts, along with an evaluation of Where Things Stand Today, into a ~2,000 word essay. It’s part of a bigger package about podcasts that the site is rolling out today. I mostly wrote it for people who aren’t particularly deep in the pod weeds — people like my parents — and I hope you find it useful. And if you don’t, well, fill out a complaint form and send it to your local congressperson.

With that out of the way…

New Vox Media, cont’d. … Okay, so despite my contractual relationship with Vulture, I can’t say I have much insight into the organization beyond what I read in the trades. Part of this has to do with the general outsider positioning of writers on contract, but most of it has to do with the fact that New York Media hasn’t built out a significant enough audio operation for me to focus on them as a reporting subject.

Which is all to say: I found out about this acquisition the same way many others did (including, it seems, the workers of New York Media and Vox Media). And I am well aware that, moving forward, I will inevitably be writing columns about a major media company that now owns a site to which I am a contributor. It’s a tricky spaghetti-bowl situation, one that I take seriously, and I plan to continue covering the newly integrated Vox Media in much the same way as I’d cover just about anybody else.

Anyway, with all that established, let’s talk about the podcast angle here. At this writing, the deal is expected to officially close later this year, meaning the two companies haven’t actually come together just yet. It also means that it’s probably super early days for actual nuts-and-bolts strategy, which in turn means that it’s all but certain that nobody’s sat down with quill and paper to ponder, “What about the pods, tho.” Which is completely understandable, because there are a million other things to figure out beforehand.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t sit down and game out a possible trajectory here. To wit: I think there’s a good deal of meat on this bone. In a nutshell, Vox Media gives New York a few things the latter hasn’t yet cultivated: a developed audio strategy and an accompanying audio business infrastructure.

New York first dabbled in podcasting a few years ago via partnership with Panoply, back when the Graham Holdings-owned Slate spinoff was still very much in the content business. Like many other Panoply-powered shows, those early NY Mag audio products were largely roundtable affairs, à la Slate’s Political Gabfest. They eventually folded, presumably due to a lack of traction, but the publisher ultimately re-engaged with podcasting in the past year via two very different kinds of projects: The Cut on Tuesdays, a weekly show produced in partnership with Gimlet, and Tabloid, a limited-run series published as a Luminary exclusive. (There was also a third, smaller project, Intelligencer’s 2038, which dropped last fall and appears to be a one-off.)

TCOT and Tabloid strike me as twin expressions of the same strategic idea, in that both can be viewed as risk-controlled learning campaigns. Partnering with Gimlet affords a general audience and quality cushion that’s further supported by an active ad sales operation, while partnering with Luminary means upfront cash and the possibility of benefiting from a broader platform-oriented advertising campaign. Either way, as the operating publisher and content supplier, you won’t lose money on these experiments; you have quite a bit of upside if either show becomes a hit, and the experience and lessons you’d get from these projects will be useful in future attempts to build out in-house audio operations.

With Vox Media in the mix, though, the learning timeline can now be dramatically revised. Since New York no longer has to build out audio expertise and infrastructure on its own, the risk calculus is radically different. They can now develop future audio projects with knowledgeable guides in-house.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that we should expect either the Gimlet or Luminary relationships to be on the chopping block in the medium-to-long term, of course. After all, the Vox Media Podcast Network still uses outside partnerships, most notably with Stitcher around the Today, Explained and Reset productions. But it does mean that New York doesn’t strictly need outside partnerships to put together audio projects moving forward.

Meanwhile, in the other direction, New York gives Vox Media more valuable raw material that can be plugged into the latter’s podcast network. This, of course, includes more talent and media brands to build new shows around, perhaps in the style of existing Vox Media podcasts. (What might a future collaboration with Stitcher look like?)

But more intriguingly, New York also brings a fairly reliable pipeline of stories (or, more crudely, ~intellectual property~) that can be used to fuel bigger-swing projects. We’ve seen traces of interest in this area already: New York Media getting signed by WME for, as The Hollywood Reporter puts it, “help in developing opportunities to adapt its content across all mediums, including film, scripted and non-scripted television, podcasts and live events,” and Vox Media acquiring Epic, a production and publishing company that specializes in developing editorial projects with an eye towards cross-media adaptation. (Epic, by the way, sits within Vox Media Studios in the organizational chart, which is the same division that houses the Vox Media Podcast Network.)

But this is how you can put the two pieces together: New York, I believe, is really good at delivering, for lack of better word, moments. The best examples of these can be found in the various mania-inducing longform behemoths dropped by The Cut, stuff like The Watcher and the Caroline Calloway saga. (Can you imagine a limited-run podcast followup to that? My goodness.) These are stories that would likely go on to be adapted into television and film — you know, like Hustlers — but you could also split the impact up and direct some that adaptation upside back in-house.

For Vox Media, with a 175-shows-plus podcast network that indexes almost completely on persistent personality-anchored programming, this pipeline offers something that wasn’t there before: the opportunity for its audio operations to create similar moments, and seize cultural ownership over the space more broadly.

That is, if the company is interested in pursuing this, of course. Narrative podcasts may be popular, but they’re also harder to make cost-effectively; they’re resource intensive and tougher to sell advertising against. That said, they are (and this is a super-soft metric, feel free to slap me for it) in some corners considered to be a little more ~prestigious~ — which, fair or unfair, could nonetheless be reason enough to invest in the format.

Anyway, that’s all I got on this. It’ll probably be another six months before we see any inkling of development on this front, but hey, at least it’ll pass quickly, right? Right?

Slate is developing a What Next spinoff. And unlike the core Mary Harris-led news podcast, it won’t be a daily show. Called What Next: TBD, the spinoff will focus on technology stories on a weekly basis, with new episodes dropping every Friday. Notably, it will be hosted by the great Lizzie O’Leary, the former host of Marketplace Weekend, current contributor to The Atlantic, and iconic dog tweeter.

“I’m thrilled to be joining Slate, and really excited about making a new offshoot of What Next that’s focused on tech and the future,” said O’Leary in a statement. “Mary and her team do great work, and our goal with this spinoff is to tackle big questions about the ways in which our world is changing, and who benefits from those changes (and who doesn’t). I’ve always been interested in unseen power and how can affect our daily lives, so that’s something I’m particularly keen to dig into.”

Producing the show will be Ethan Brooks, who has worked on episodes of What Next in the past. What Next: TBD will kick off on October 25.

Just tell me what to do. Up north, the CBC’s Podcast Playlist team has created an all-powerful podcast oracle — a.k.a. an app — to help you find your next listen, just in time for International Podcast Day (which was yesterday). The team even made a super cute video to mark the occasion.

The project reminds me of NPR’s Earbud initiative from way back in 2016. Ah, we were all so young back then.

Your daily opinions [by Caroline Crampton]. I can’t help but feel sympathetic towards anyone launching a new daily news podcast at the moment. It’s a really tough gig, partly because of the existing landscape they’re entering — The Daily has 2 million listeners a day and counting, with a style that newcomers often feel they must either closely imitate or consciously reject — and partly because the sheer maddening speed of the global news cycle.

This is the context that the Evening Standard, a daily evening newspaper that caters to London and the surrounding suburbs, is launching its first foray into daily news podcasting. The show is called The Leader and the first episode dropped on Monday. It’s named for the paper’s daily editorial column; as editor George Osborne said in the announcement: “Our editorial column has always spoken for our readers — now you can hear it too.”

Some background on the cultural context of this publication, for those not particularly familiar with British media: Founded in 1827, the paper has been publishing in one form or another for almost 200 years. In 2009, it was bought by Russian oligarch (and former KGB agent) Alexander Lebedev and his son Evgeny, who soon after their purchase made the newspaper largely free, distributed on the street and in transport hubs. It has an average circulation of just over 800,000 copies per issue, but last year reported losses of over £12 million and has recently cut jobs in a merger between the print and online teams.

Osborne, a former Conservative MP and chancellor of the exchequer, became editor unexpectedly in 2017 after being sacked as a government minister by Theresa May when she became prime minister. (He stepped down from parliament a month after taking the Standard gig.) However, his status as a former leading light of the Conservative Party — and lack of previous journalistic experience — has proven controversial in some quarters, especially since the region that the paper serves has been increasingly voted for other parties in recent years, Labour in particular.

I tend to find the Evening Standard a polarising topic among my fellow British journalists. For some, it’s just a local freesheet that ends up mostly unread on the floor of tube carriages at the end of every day, and for others, it’s a major and significant media outlet in the capital. All depends on your point of view, I think.

Lucy Hunter Johnston, an executive editor at the paper and an executive producer of the new daily podcast, explained that the Evening Standard had been building up its audio operation in the last year. Among its previous output has been Women Tech Charge, a limited series on technology which came out earlier this year, and the formation of a smart-speaker bulletin team.

Hunter Johnson said that the idea for The Leader podcast came out of discussions about the Evening Standard’s strengths as a brand. “We were looking at what are the strengths of the paper, what is it that we’re known for,” she told me over the phone. “And increasingly, with George Osborne as the editor, politics is a space that is important to us, as is opinion.” The Leader will not be “just a straight news bulletin,” she added, but will rather offer “opinion and analysis” on the day’s agenda from the newsroom.

Adapting a paper’s opinion pages for headphones isn’t an entirely novel concept. The New York Times has The Argument, which uses a weekly format rather than a daily one, and The Guardian’s daily news show Today in Focus often features an opinion segment, though it doesn’t often lead an episode. By putting opinion front and center, the team at The Standard believes it can cut through in the crowded daily-news-podcast space.

They’re also hoping to use audio to reach out beyond the area that the print newspaper serves. “The proposition for Evening Standard digital is to be serving urban audiences or audiences that are interested in urban things, in London but also in other large urban areas in the U.K. and around the world. So the work that we’re doing in audio is an extension of that really,” said Chris Stone, the paper’s executive producer of video and audio. The Standard opened an office in New York about a year ago with the same goal in mind, and the smart-speaker bulletins are also aimed at a global audience. This is a trend I’ve been noticing more broadly for a while: British content is often an easier sell to non-British readers/listeners, especially those without access to the BBC.

The show’s production will be closely integrated with the existing newsroom, Hunter Johnson explained, with the host attending the leader conference, which happens every morning around 8 a.m., and then the script will be developed alongside the print and online version of that day’s column. The aim is to get each episode live at 4 p.m., ready for the evening commute. (The newspaper starts hitting stands at around 2 p.m.) The 15-minute episodes will also include interviews with Standard journalists and with figures relevant to that day’s topics. Although Osborne will likely be a regular guest on the show (he writes a lot of the leader columns, I’m told), he isn’t hosting — that honor goes to team member David Marsland. And although politics will feature heavily, other topics will also be covered.

The team at the Evening Standard is aware that they’re coming fairly late to the audio space. “I mean, there’s a lot of very successful daily podcasts, and I think that part of the advantage of not having the first-mover advantage is that you get to see what your competitors are doing well and what they’re doing badly,” Stone said. As well as being their first daily show, this is also their first regularly published podcast.

The Standard is working with Acast on hosting and monetisation, although they aren’t launching with any big sponsorship deals in place. The opinion-centric nature of the show brings some challenges in that regard, Hunter Johnson said. “There’s an interesting dynamic going on here, because obviously we’re creating something that we’re saying is sort of the voice of the paper,” she noted. “Now that means that we’ve got to be super careful about how we approach something like sponsorship, because we don’t want to be seen to be saying that, you know, the paper endorses a particular thing in and of itself.” With the newspaper and website being free to access, the podcasts-as-subscription-pipeline route that other publications have exploited isn’t open to them either.

For now, Stone said, the primary goal is to build an audience. “I’m seeing it as a network of audio products,” he said. “So this is all about a building habit-forming relationships with our audience, wherever they are.” The Leader will be produced until the end of the year as a three-month trial, after which the project will be reassessed.

I have to say: This is a fascinating experiment. Explicitly basing a podcast on a print property and moving away from the news angle to opinion are each something of a gamble, and I’ll be interested to see whether this small team (four full-time people on audio, plus contributions from across the newsroom) that has little track record in regular podcast publishing can grow fast enough to make an impact. The show launches into an unprecedentedly polarized, febrile political environment, and I can’t work out yet whether that will be its best opportunity for success or its greatest weakness.

Audioboom CEO Rob Proctor steps down. The London-based company — historically oriented around its technology platform, but which has since diversified towards other business-to-business functions — made the news public yesterday, and further announced that COO Stuart Last is stepping into an interim CEO role. I don’t know about you, but the announcement struck me as rather abrupt.

When reached for comment, Last said: “Rob’s leaving us in a great position. We’re the biggest independent podcast company in the world right now, and I don’t expect this to have any negative impact on how we’re growing. I’ll be steering the ship while we figure out a strong long-term leadership plan.”

The last time we covered Audioboom extensively, it was in the context of its failed merger with Triton Digital last summer. More recently, the company got a $4 million cash infusion from Michael Tobin, its own chairman, and Candy Ventures, its largest shareholder, to fund more content deals, according to Inside Radio. It’s set to release third-quarter results next week.

Deezer announces distribution partnerships with five podcast platforms: Libsyn, Blubrry, Simplecast, Podomatic, and the France-based Ausha. Fun fact: Deezer, which is also based in France, used to own the Stitcher app, but sold it off to Scripps in 2016.

This week in Spotify. Yesterday, the company released a feature that lets users “build playlists of podcasts, or add podcasts to existing playlists for a mixed-media experience.” The feature is said to be frequently requested.

Playlists are crucial for Spotify, serving as the underlying construct for many of its discovery mechanisms. Think the popular Rap Caviar playlist, or the personalized and AI-driven Discover Weekly. The history of podcasts and playlists on Spotify has thus far been pretty limited, previously restricted to Spotify-curated podcast playlists, which started rolling out back in June. (Personally, I haven’t found them terribly useful.)

User-created podcast playlists are significantly more interesting, if only for the reason that I get to see how other humans are putting together preferred listen lists. By the same token, though, I’m relatedly cognizant of the anxiety being raised by some, about the feature’s likely data-mining purpose.

Meanwhile, an eagle-eyed reader recently brought this job posting to my attention: Spotify’s Gimlet Creative division is hiring for a Supervising Producer, and if you look closely at the description, you’ll find this: “Gimlet Creative is the division of Gimlet Media that has historically partnered with brands to create award-winning advertising spots, as well as original podcasts for brands….In 2020, Gimlet Creative will shift focus to creating original shows for Spotify.”

Career spotlight. Shout-out to Montana, which was hit by unprecedented February-level snowstorms (!) this past weekend, and which is also the home state of this week’s interviewee, Lacy Roberts. The mountain west is wild, y’all.

Hot Pod: Tell me about your situation.

Lacy Roberts: I’m the managing producer at Transmitter Media, a podcast production company in Brooklyn. That means I’m part of the leadership that helps make the editorial and production decisions that keep the shop ticking. I also lead production on a handful of projects. I’m currently working on a narrative series about con men (con people?) and developing Transmitter’s first original show — something we’re really excited about.

Hot Pod: How did you get here?

Roberts: I’ve been pretty focused since my early twenties when I decided I wanted to work in audio, but like pretty much everyone else who graduated from college during the Great Recession, my path ended up being pretty meandering. After school, I interned the Kitchen Sisters in San Francisco, which was super rad, but I was waiting tables every night and trying to take any paid audio work I could, and I burned myself out pretty quickly. This was 2010–2011, when there was ~very little~ work to be had, and what work there was paid very little, especially outside of New York. I ended up back home in Montana, where I ran a food co-op and worked in affordable housing for several years.

Then after Serial happened in 2013, it felt like it was finally The Time when I might be able to feed myself and pay my student loans with an audio job. I decided I needed to go back to a city and find a network — turns out no one hires green producers who live in Montana — so I went to journalism school at UC Berkeley and worked at KQED in my free time. It worked — that network gave me a bunch of cool opportunities that lead to a job with Al Jazeera’s audio network Jetty. While I was there, I was a producer on Closer Than They Appear and led development on a couple original shows, including a weekly international news show called The Take.

When Al Jazeera moved the team in S.F. to D.C., I split off and, on a whim (kind of), moved to New York. I really never imagined moving here. I’m really more oriented towards living in the western half of the United States…but I kind of looked around me in San Francisco and didn’t see a lot of opportunities. Gretta Cohn at Transmitter was the first person I talked to in New York about a job, and I’m so happy things worked out this way.

Hot Pod: What does a career mean to you?

Roberts: A few years ago, having a career was about working my butt off and obsessing about creating the Most Perfect And Beautiful Thing and making my work the center of my life. Now, it’s much more about balance and flexibility and making the financials work, while still being proud of what I make.

The other thing I’d say is that as I’ve spent more time doing this, I think way less about my performance and how my work measures up, and a lot more about working on an a happy team and making sure everyone’s voice is heard and everyone coming together to do something you can’t on your own.

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

Roberts: I was a really ambitious kid, but I had no idea what I wanted to be when I grew up. I found podcasts when I was studying abroad in Amman, Jordan in 2008. I was studying Arabic and I’d listen to This American Life and Radiolab on my iPod all the time because I was lonely and wanted to hear someone speak English to me. I remember having a very concrete feeling of “Oh, I could do this.”

That’s actually the first time I remember having a clear idea of what kind of career I wanted.

Hot Pod: When you look around podcasting these days, what do you see?

Roberts: As a listener, I’m really excited to see any narrative work coming out of smaller stations or publications outside of NYC/LA/SF. I’m thinking of stuff like The Richest Hill out of Montana Public Radio, the work they’re doing at New Hampshire Public Radio and CapRadio, The Bitter Southerner. More podcasts from the rest of the country, please, made by people who live there!

As a producer, I am always thinking about ways to communicate to potential partners the work that goes into making a quality show — narrative, interview, otherwise. Many of us (including, and perhaps especially freelancers) experience how drastically the people we work with underestimate what goes into making this stuff, and that’s a challenge to the industry as a whole.

Also, where are all the super weird podcasts? I know they’re out there, but how do I find them?

Hot Pod: What are you listening to these days?

Roberts: I am kind of systematic about what I listen to and when. During my commute, I like to listen to interview shows that I can sort of drop in and out of. (I love Call Your Girlfriend, and Terry Gross is my Xanax.) On the weekends, I’ll binge narrative shows.

I have a tendency to wait for a show to release all its episodes before I dive in, so I’m usually behind on what’s new. Recently I loved The Ballad of Billy Balls. I also dived right into the new season of Trump Inc. I think they are so badass. But the newest thing is NO PODCAST SUNDAYS, a day when I don’t listen to or think about podcasts at all!

You can find Roberts on Twitter here.

Show notes

  • Add two more projects to the list of official music podcasts: The Road Taken with CT and Baio, The Ringer’s upcoming joint with two members of Vampire Weekend, along with Striped: The Story of the White Stripes, which comes from Misfire Media and Jack White’s Third Man Records.
  • The Paris Review’s podcast is returning for a second season, via a partnership with Stitcher. Kicks off October 23.
  • Starting this week, the NPR Politics is moving to a daily publishing schedule straight through the 2020 elections. What’s the over/under on the number of daily election podcasts we’ll have by April? Forty?
POSTED     Oct. 1, 2019, 11:46 a.m.
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