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Postcards and laundromat visits: The Texas Tribune audience team experiments with IRL distribution
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Nov. 19, 2019, 11:57 a.m.

There are a gazillion new impeachment podcasts. Smart strategy or a blind stab at relevance?

Plus: The New York Times thinks you’re a nobody, Spotify wants you to Discover Podcasts Weekly, and a U.K. election sparks a mini-boom.

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 235, dated November 19, 2019.

Spotify launches a personalized podcast playlist feature. In a move that builds on its various adventures in playlisting, the aspiring all-consuming audio platform is rolling out a new podcast discovery feature that’s more or less Discover Weekly but for podcasts. It’s pretty much what you think it is: an algorithmically driven tool that analyzes a user’s podcast consumption and behavior — recent streams, follows, etc. — to generate a playlist of podcast episodes that may be of interest.

The feature, called Your Daily Podcasts, launches today, and it’s accessible by both free and premium Spotify users in Australia, Brazil, Canada, Germany, Mexico, New Zealand, Sweden, the U.S., and the U.K. Something to note: Users can only use the feature if they’ve listened to at least four podcasts within the past 90 days.

On one hand, I’m interested to see where this goes, speaking as a person who generally appreciates Discover Weekly, which has served up bangers at a somewhat reasonable hit-miss ratio. On the other, this is pretty much the kind of thing that horrifies/infuriates the corner of the podcasting universe that views the medium as a reprieve from the rest of the Internet. On the third hand (to the extent that people have three hands), the tension between those first two hands has defined the past few years of this space: Can you solve its problems while maintaining its fundamental, ideologically rooted promises?

Anyway, that question lightly connects with this next item…

Well, that’s a little harsh. The most recent issue of The New York Times Magazine — the annual Tech & Design issue, this time themed around the unforeseen consequences of the once-hopeful Internet — had a piece that leaned heavily on podcasts as its primary case study to support a headline barbed with thorns: “Even Nobodies Have Fans Now. (For Better or Worse.)” Of course, for some in the podcast/blogging/online publishing communities, the whole notion of Nobodies now being able to have fans too was kind of the fundamental point of the Internet to begin with. (For better or worse.)

Anyway, the piece ended up being somewhat basic, complete with the obligatory mention of podcasting’s so-called “intimacy” and various straightforward observations about the nature of online communities. I came away from the read with the distinct feeling that it was built largely around this one data point, which is interesting nonetheless:

According to Wyatt Jenkins, senior vice president for product at Patreon, podcasts are the second-largest category on the site, and the fastest-growing. In the past three years, the number of Patreon pages for podcasts has quadrupled, while revenue intake in the category has increased eightfold. “Roughly 40 percent of our members — this is a guess — are probably doing it altruistically,” he says. “As a vertical, podcasting communities retain memberships very, very well. A lot higher than some other verticals. They release regular weekly content, and they create this incredibly strong bond.”

The quiet but steady growth of direct support as a true monetization channel alternative to advertising has long been a trend that we’ve been tracking, and Patreon, perhaps above all other similarly-structured platforms, seems to be the most prominent actor in this lane. Perhaps we can consider it a moment of mainstream recognition for the trend.

In the U.K., election pod season is here [by Caroline Crampton]. How do you know when a news event is significant in 2019? Why, when multiple podcasts are launched to cover it, of course. (See: all the Epstein pods.)

Sometimes, depending on the news event, a few of these shows will even adhere to a daily publishing cadence. That’s how you know it’s especially important.

I’m being slightly facetious here, of course, but only slightly. I do genuinely think that decisions to turn around highly specific pop-up podcasts quickly is a good way to gauge how much of an audience publishers think there is for a particular topic. (Not how much audience there actually is, but how much media outlets think there is. An important difference.)

Of course, the raft of impeachment-related shows launched in the past month or so is a good if obvious barometer for how big a deal that process is. The Latest from The New York Times is the latest (whoops) to join a flowering lineup of daily pods that already included WNYC’s Impeachment: A Daily Podcast, CNN’s The Daily DC: Impeachment Watch, iHeartMedia and BuzzFeed’s Impeachment Today, and many more.

The iteration of this phenomenon that intrigues me more, though, is the sudden appearance of daily podcasts in the U.K. pegged to the upcoming general election on December 12. As I’ve explored in previous newsletters, the U.K. has a rather different podcast context compared to the U.S., with major legacy publishers generally practicing severe caution when investing in audio products. It isn’t a given, then, that new daily shows will appear every time something newsworthy happens. Indeed, plenty of major publishers haven’t even considered dipping their toes into daily audio.

Yet when Britain’s unending Brexit trauma produced our second snap general election in less than three years, a small crop of daily podcasts appeared to cover the six weeks of campaigning and, eventually, the results. New to the scene are: Electioncast from the BBC (which shares a feed with the weekly Brexitcast show), Calling Peston from ITV (built around their political editor and host of a Wednesday night political interview show), and Campaign Unwrapped from Sky News. In addition, existing daily shows from The Guardian, BBC Radio 4, The Economist, the FT, and the Evening Standard are all leaning heavily on political coverage during the campaign.

There are even several independent offerings, evidence of just how far this trend has spread. There’s Matt Forde’s Political Party, now temporarily publishing daily, and Cheerful Election Daily, a spinoff of the Reasons to be Cheerful show cohosted by former Labour Party leader Ed Miliband.

Election campaigns — especially somewhere like the U.K., where the event gets wrapped up inside two months — are traditionally when newspapers and current affairs magazines expect to see an uptick in traffic and subscriptions as more people want to read political coverage than usual. The case for adding a daily podcast to that offering, if it can be staffed properly, is clear. It’s yet another way of reaching potential customers who might be persuaded to stick around once the election is over. (Maybe.)

The material point is this, though: In 2017, the U.K. also had an election called in the midst of febrile Brexit votes and negotiations — but there was little to no dash to launch daily podcasts to cover it, whether from major publishers or independents. This new burst, then, is a small indicator of how far the U.K. podcast industry has evolved since 2017.

Notes on the impeachment podcast wave. To pick up what Caroline is putting down…

So, yeah, similar lines of questioning can be raised about how things have changed in the American podcast scene — more specifically, the American news podcasting scene — since the last presidential election. And look, for better or worse, we’re already deep into the 2020 cycle. This whole impeachment-pod boomlet isn’t just a prelude to the coming U.S. election pod wave — it’s the first chapter.

As Caroline pointed out, on this side of the Atlantic, the impeachment story is the news peg du jour for various American publishers looking to either dip their toes in news podcasting waters (if they’re new to the scene) or deepen their existing positions (if they already have an audio operation set up). And as mentioned, there are quite a few of them, a testament to both the buzziness of the audio category and the general orientation of modern major media companies to swing towards any lane that opens up for them with enthusiastic (if often imprecise) abandon.

You could broadly explain the trend with this Jody Avirgan quote from back in 2016, which I’ve re-used enough times in this newsletter now that I should probably get it tattooed on my back: “There’s this perfect storm of people who think that podcasting is an easy money thing, and there’s big news cycle event coming, and so they just put the two things together. I’m sure if this was Brazil and the World Cup was coming up, you’d see a lot of World Cup podcasts.”

Not that I can blame them. Here in the present, podcasting continues to look like easy money to a great deal of people (perhaps more so than ever), and within the specific impeachment pod lane, there is an ostensibly eager pool of Americans interested in consuming more information and material about the story. A recent ABC/Ipsos poll found that 58 percent of Americans said they are following the impeachment story closely, with 21 percent following “very closely.”

But of course the equations aren’t always straightforward with podcasting. While the numbers in the ABC/Ipsos poll suggests a theoretical ~total addressable market~ for these impeachment podcasts, the reality is that the actual TAM is something closer to: “How many Americans interested in consuming more news about the impeachment story will do so with new forms of media?” Which can be further flipped into: “How many podcast-listening Americans are interested in consuming more news and information about the impeachment story?”

Let’s set this thread aside for now. When it comes to publishers new to audio, the creature logic can be articulated fairly easily: It’s hard to deadlift a viable operation in a brand new format, particularly if you don’t have prior experience, a cultivated talent pool, or anything resembling an existing brand presence in the category. But the impeachment story is an exceptionally strong, sticky, and extended news event that offers a possible gateway into the business. The risk assessment here sees the impeachment stories as so strong that they could well outweigh the publisher’s lack of experience, polish, or talent in the audio production department. If the gambit actually works out, said publisher will have developed a foundation upon which to build out a viable audio business over time. My sense, though, is that most of these gambits will probably fail, because talent, polish, and the end experience all matter. You know, to state the obvious.

Switching over to the other end — that is, publishers with pre-existing daily news podcasts and audio operations more generally — there’s a straightforward business incentive that may explain the move to spin out a standalone impeachment pod: Another podcast feed means more ad inventory, which means more revenue. And, well, money is money, man, I get it.

Though I understand the business proposition, I’m not particularly sold that it’s worth the trouble. Sooner or later, the impeachment story will reach a conclusion, one way or another. At that point, what should be done with the new podcast feed and the audience cultivated around it? Will it be flipped around for the next major news event of comparable magnitude? Will it just be converted into focusing on the elections proper? Will it just be pruned? Underlying all these queries is a bigger, fundamental question: Why start a new feed when you can further strengthen the one you have in the first place? Why go through the trouble?

[You can find Nick’s editor’s theory here. —Ed.]

If you’re so inclined, there’s also a broader editorial problem to grapple with, particularly when it comes to impeachment podcasts designed as extended deep-dive experiences. One version goes like this: Deep-dive impeachment podcasts would likely mostly appeal to a certain kind of news consumer whose positions on the matter are probably already solid — in which case the net effect of these products is to further root these audiences within the depths of their own modality. This may be a worthwhile service and/or business proposition — but the reality is that hour-long deep-dives don’t really have much capacity to change minds that were already leaning hard in a certain direction. And the counter-argument to that would probably be: Maybe “changing minds” is never actually the point with these projects.

In case anyone’s wondering, my personal product-oriented take is that there’s probably more to gain in implementing shorter impeachment-centered tracking segments within a core daily news podcast’s episode build than in building out longer standalone experiences. If you don’t have a pre-existing daily news podcast or general audio operation…well, I understand the impulse, but I wouldn’t recommend starting with an impeachment podcast. Or any podcast, really, until you’re ready to genuinely make the investment in talent, experience, and experimentation over the long run. And if you do want to invest in all that and make an impeachment pod, then it probably behooves you to be tighter, more specific, and more oriented towards whatever differentiated value you might be able to bring.

Because the biggest impediment to rolling out an impeachment podcast is the fact that there are already so many of them — and on top of that, there are already so many general news and politics podcasts carrying out much of the impeachment podcast work. Here we can revive the ghost of the whole “there are too many podcasts” discourse, and return to the earlier thread: Just how many potential listeners are there for these pods?

The way I see it, there are two broad ways to think about the audience. The first is the notion that each publisher has an audience so dedicated to its brand that they’re willing to try out its experimental new products…in which case, these pods will be an opportunity to find out just how ~strong~ these brands are. (I should note, “publishers” in this instance can be equally applied to something like NBC News, all the way to an individual like Rudy Giuliani.) The second is a mindset that views the potential audience as some amorphous roving blob of people with great interest in the impeachment story that will consume any and all forms of media about the story…in which case these pop-up impeachment podcasts are mere buckets propped up to catch as much of the blob as possible. (I’m calling this the “Giant Pool of Earballs” theory, and I’m probably going to evoke it against at some point in the future, because I have a feeling that this mode of thinking is fairly common.)

Anyway, I should probably wrap this up for now — I’m sure there’ll be infinitely more to say about impeachment, elections, and politics podcasts in the year to come. (Less than a year to the election, y’all.) In the meantime, I’ll cap off by linking back to a column that I’ve been revisiting over the past few weeks: “Did the election podcast glut of 2016 fail its listeners?”

O Property Brothers, where art thou? This week, the fine folks over at Brooklyn-based Multitude Studios announced they’re now renting out their physical space for podcasters. As part of the announcement, they published a neat Medium post walking readers through their process of building it out.

In the post, they link out to a spreadsheet breaking down the budget they set aside for the build. I gotta say, few things are more intoxicating to me than a budget sheet — acoustic caulk! shipping and handling! tax! oh my! My mother was right: I should have been an accountant.

What you gonna do. For Vulture, I tried to articulate why the notion of police departments picking up the tools of true-crime podcasts as part of a PR experiment is deeply unsettling.

Over on Public Media Island. This is cool: “The Texas Newsroom, a first-of-its-kind public radio journalism hub, has selected its first statewide managing editor: Mark Memmott.” More details in this KERA announcement post. More! Regional! Hubs!

Uncle Fun: I’m quite taken with Finding Fred, the Carvell Wallace-led audio documentary series that’s part deep reading of Fred Rogers’ legacy and part meditation on the idea of empathy in these exceptionally difficult times. It’s wonderfully written, efficient with sentiment, and most importantly, far from being bald hagiography, a quality that can ruin this kind of project. Pairs well with the out-of-this-world Taffy Brodesser-Akner profile of Tom Hanks that came out last week.

Grandpa Grumps: One thing I didn’t like about Finding Fred, though, is its non-host-read ad execution, which really harshes the mellow.

POSTED     Nov. 19, 2019, 11:57 a.m.
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