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Dec. 3, 2019, 10:32 a.m.

Can there be a third way to discover new podcasts, somewhere between word-of-mouth and soulless algorithms?

Plus: Condé Nast scales up for audio, Acast starts targeting the rest of the market, and what happens when one podcast becomes two.

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 237, dated December 3, 2019.

Peaky platforms. Two associated things, in case they’re the kind of bananas that interests you:

(1) Apple has published a “Best Listens of 2019” page for the Apple Podcast platform, which contains both picks by the in-house editors who manage the front page curation as well as a listing of shows, new and existing, that performed the best on the platform over the past year. Intriguingly, the page also appears to feature the editorial team’s picks for Best True Crime (NPR’s White Lies), Best Fiction (QCODE’s Carrier), and Best History (The New York Times’ 1619). Which, you know, feels a little strange, but whatever.

(2) Similarly, Spotify has pubbed its spiffy annual year-in-review data highlight splash, which highlights what the company says are the top-performing podcasts on the platform. There’s a global angle here. The top five podcasts are, in descending order: The Joe Budden Podcast (a Spotify exclusive), My Favorite Murder, Gemischtes Hack (a German podcast), Fest & Flauschig (another German podcast, but this one a Spotify exclusive), and The Misfits Podcast.

By the way, you should pair the Spotify thread here with the recent news that the company is setting up its own music awards…based on streaming data. Again, strange, but whatever. For what it’s worth, I found the following take from Water and Music’s Cherie Hu somewhat helpful in calibrating my gut reaction: “The more a music awards show is ‘based on data,’ the less it will actually matter in the sense of being culturally influential and driving taste. because at that point, it’s just another chart.” Hmm.

A third way for discovery? [by Caroline Crampton]. Thanksgiving week is a weird time on the internet for me. A lot of the people I work with and follow log off for the American holiday, yet where I live in northwest England, there’s no particular reason that explains the online tumbleweed. The whole predicament reminds me just how U.S.-centric my internet consumption is. Anyway, one trend I’ve observed with some interest in recent years is the rise of the “if you’re traveling for Thanksgiving, here are some podcasts you should listen to” list. I saw plenty on Twitter, and there were also articles doing a similar thing published everywhere from The New York Times to The Wall Street Journal to Elle and more.

Most of these recommendations have a few common traits, ostensibly designed around the Thanksgiving break hook. Multi-part limited-run series were very much at the forefront, being bingeable and totally finishable within a single drive/journey. Avoiding politics was a seeming priority, either as a way to take a break from their regular routine or in anticipation of heated conversations at the dinner table. These recommendations also tended to be narrative, nonfiction, and American.

If you were in the market for podcasts along these lines, it was a pretty solid few days to be online. I, for one, certainly found some new stuff to listen to, and I wasn’t going anywhere at all. For a hot second, the oft-decried “discovery problem” in podcasting didn’t feel like a problem at all. There were even people willing to personalize their recommendations: some were even asking people what they already like to listen to and tailoring suggestions accordingly.

It was especially interesting to watch this pop of human-generated podcast recommendations in the same month where we saw the launch of two algorithmic discovery tools by major tech corporations — namely, Your News Update from Google and Your Daily Podcasts from Spotify. Both use collected on-platform data about a listener’s interests, location, user history, and preferences to build a playlist of audio content tailored for them. For Google, the lists generally involve news stories and bulletins. For Spotify, they’re typically made up of whole podcast episodes and trailers. But I think the end result for the listener is broadly the same for both features: It’s something to listen to.

This kind of algorithmic curation by large corporations is just the kind of thing that can raise hackles among those who believe in podcasting’s legacy as a freer, more open alternative to the rest of the internet — not least because of the ever-present suspicion that Spotify could lean on the feature to funnel listeners toward their own original content. (TechCrunch raised this possibility in their initial writeup, and it will probably always linger no matter how much Spotify tries to suggest otherwise. Possibility may not be probability, but it’s still possibility.) It also works as a way of persuading people to listen more on the platform in order to improve the recommendations. For what it’s worth, mine are a total mess, but that’s because I only use Spotify to listen to things I can’t get anywhere else.

If these automated systems are one extreme, then the analog “peer-to-peer” discovery model emphasized by these Thanksgiving lists is the other. This dichotomy feels like the end-point of where the so-called “discovery problem” seems to be drifting towards at the moment: either you’re outsourcing your listening to a machine that’s progressively learning more about you, or you’re getting suggestions from humans based on their own experiences. (On that front, the choices we’re open to reflect our personal constitutions, even if we’re not always conscious of it.)

Is it truly either/or? Is there some middle way? We’ve already talked about the concerns regarding algorithmically-driven recommendations earlier in this column, but the prime concern with human recommendations is perhaps best represented in a type of complaint I hear every so often, from smaller or independent podcasters about how hard it is to get their show heard in a list-making climate that prioritizes the same few dozen heavy hitters.

I spend a lot of time thinking about this. Alongside my work for Hot Pod, I write a daily podcast recommendation newsletter for the curation service The Browser, and part of the mission there is to surface episodes you’re unlikely to find any other way. Listening to enough episodes to find three excellent ones for each day, while still balancing all the other things I care about (such as diversity of creators, a wide variety of subjects, different approaches and lengths, overall quality) — while also avoiding being U.S.-centric or duplicating other services — is really hard.

Sometimes it feels like I’m playing a constant, unwinnable game of chess with myself. I was interviewed by Lifehacker back in the summer about the tools I use for this process. That list includes a bulging RSS reader, multiple ListenNotes feeds and about a million random Google Keep notes. In my experience, the tool combination works best when I’m able to effectively combine machine and human elements.

I have an excellent international editor in Lindelani Mbatha, who feeds me the best episodes he encounters from his base in South Africa, but I also get a lot of leads from the “listeners also subscribed to” module on the desktop version of iTunes and the random episode generation from the Just Listen app. I comb through past lists and reviews from other critics, and I’m experimenting with the new Spotify feature. For me, the two different modes of discovery are perfectly compatible, and both make my job easier in different ways.

In an age of ever-greater data collection and personalization, it’s not unreasonable to be worried about feeding yet more of yourself into algorithms online. But every decision we make about what to consume is already being directed and influenced in more ways than we even realize. There’s never really been such a thing as a “free” choice when it comes to media, has there? I’ve never been convinced there’s any one solution to the so-called discovery problem, anyway. It seems to me that the route to more podcast listeners overall involves a middle way between the personal connection of Thanksgiving-style recommendations and better algorithmic performance. There are good things to be had from both.

Got this in the inbox yesterday:Latino USA, NPR’s only national Latino news and cultural weekly radio program, is launching its first-ever podcast episode without any translation of non-English language spoken in the piece.” Neat!

Snoop snoop snoop… Looks like Condé Nast is hiring to build out a full-fledged in-house audio unit. Poke around its Careers page and you’ll find listings for an executive producer of podcasts, a director of podcast sales, various management positions, and various producer positions. 🤔🤔🤔

To…day. The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism has published a report on news podcast and their opportunities for publishers, which you can find here. (Here’s a summary.) There are a couple of conceptual and methodological components that I’d take issue with — in particular, the heuristic for daily news podcasts, which feels pretty underbaked — but it’s still a useful primer.

Retail therapy. Look, I’m not a particularly evolved person, and I won’t pretend to tell you otherwise. I’m not going to say that I make independent well-researched choices about all the things I purchase and consume, that I’m unaffected by advertising and the opinions of others, or that I am a strong-minded individual who isn’t swayed by trends and buzz and group-think.

I will mount no defense, other than to say I have a reasonably small pool of energy and fucks to give. And by virtue of said scarcity of energy and fucks, there are only so many things I try to be a well-researched, strong-minded individual about. Such things include: a mildly broad buffet of political concerns, various preferences in film and television and podcasts, a handful of tenets in personal finance, ~Media Business Takes~, #Sports, Young People These Days, The Myriad Ways Old People are Screwing Us Over, and the Relative Importance of Cats, among others.

Most other concerns, I generally opt to outsource. For example, I enjoy music, but I’ll lean on more passionate friends to feed my earballs. (Also, frankly, the Great Spotify Algorithm in the Sky.) I enjoy celebrity ephemera, but I’ll rely on Lindsey Weber and Bobby Finger to clothe my culture. I love to cook, but I’ve happily submitted my free will to the Church of Epicurious and NYTimes.com/Cooking.

I am, of course, well aware of the various critiques, philosophical and practical, of constructing a life and personality according to the blueprint of, say, Wirecutter or Discover Weekly. Indeed, in some cases, I’ve even internalized them. Again, I don’t pretend to be a particularly enlightened human, and I suppose a semi-justification I’d try to weasel out here is that part of making choices is the choice to make choices. And in some cases, I’d rather not make choices, because there are so many other important choices to make.

Or maybe I’m just a lump of coal who should try harder.

Aaaaaanyway, this is all an extensive preamble to a rather interesting news hook, which is Gee Thanks, Just Bought It, the new podcast hosted by the writer-author Caroline Moss, which very shrewdly launched on Black Friday with two episodes. Designed to be “a shopping guide of sorts,” GTJBI endeavors to serve listeners recommendations of relatively inexpensive products that would have outsized impact on their day-to-day lives. Each episode runs for about 30 minutes, and they’re generally structured around a different guest talking about a specific item, with Moss closing out the show with a rec of her own. All of which is to say: You bet your ass I’m outsourcing my purchasing decisions to this podcast.

Gee Thanks also has the distinction of being the first new podcast launched under the banner of Forever35, the podcast fronted by Kate Spencer and Doree Shafrir about “the things we do to take care of ourselves” that, by virtue of the subject matter, frequently discusses products itself. We’ve covered Forever35 a bunch of times before, viewing the production as a pretty interesting example of an independent operation effectively navigating through an increasingly industrializing business — most recently, they struck a deal with Acast, exchanging some amount of independence for more resources — and this show expansion further deepens the story.

I jumped on the phone with Shafrir — who, by the way, also has a piece out in The New York Times about her experience with another podcast project, Matt & Doree’s Eggcellent Adventure, which you should read — just before Thanksgiving and the launch of Gee Thanks to talk about the new podcast, the move to build out a new show, and capitalism.

Hot Pod: Could you walk me through the decision to help create Gee Thanks, Just Bought It?

Doree Shafrir: The goal of Gee Thanks, Just Bought It is to bring you the under-the-radar life-changing products you didn’t know you needed. It’s meant to be a shopping guide of sorts, not in the sense of “buy all these things,” but “get this one thing, which will be life-changing.”

It was inspired by Caroline’s Twitter feed where she posts recommendations under the hashtag #WireCaro, which is a play on Wirecutter, of course. I’m friends with Caroline, I’d followed her on social media for a long even before I met her in person, and I’ve always loved her recommendations. The podcast came about because I had jokingly replied to a thread saying, “You should do a YouTube channel!” And she was like, “LOL, no, but I would do a podcast.” Obviously, I told her we should talk. One thing led to another, and here we are.

I’m really hoping that people will take the show as irreverent but smart and, um, #servicey. That’s the intention — the things we recommend, we really do think they’ll make your life better.

Hot Pod: When I first heard about the show, I immediately thought about two business model-related things. The first was the potential for affiliate marketing, which is something that’s become quite common elsewhere on the internet but which still isn’t really technologically supported in the podcast context. (Unless you count the traditional promo code arrangement, which I think is a little too indirect to be counted.) And the second thing is stuff about editorial integrity and the relationship between the products being discussed and the substance of the show. Could you talk about the business model of the show? Is it advertising-driven, and if so, how do you think about the way it squares with the product-orientation of the show?

Shafrir: Yeah, so, one thing I’ve learned from doing Forever35 — where we talk a lot about various products to begin with — is that it doesn’t really stop other companies from advertising on our show. If anything, my impression is that advertisers like taking out spots on a show where people are primed to buy stuff. That’s especially true with host-read ads, where the host is doing personal endorsements of a product.

More broadly, though, the thing about Gee Thanks, Just Bought It is that everything Caroline recommends tends to have a low price point. Even if she does love, like, Casper mattresses, she probably wouldn’t talk about it because it’s not at the price point that the show is intended for. And so, on that level, Casper might be interested in buying on the show because Caroline’s probably not going to be talking about them or discussing a product area where they’re generally operating in, but the listeners are already in the hunt for something to buy.

With Gee Thanks, we’re going to engage in normal host-read ads, but as we’ve done with Forever35, we’ve always made it clear that we only do ads for products that we genuinely endorse. We also work to make it clear that there’s no pay-to-play on Forever35. I’ve discussed this elsewhere, but some brands have tried to pay us to do interviews, and we would never allow a brand to pay Caroline to recommend products.

In terms of affiliate marketing, because there’s no real way to do this audio-wise, and because Caroline has already built out a brand for herself, she’s keeping all of the affiliate revenue from her website and Twitter.

Hot Pod: What did the process of shepherding Gee Thanks into production involve?

Shafrir: We had already been talking to Acast about potentially starting more shows, even before this project was on the table, where they would be our revenue partner for whatever podcasts we would launch. When Kate and I started talking to Caroline, we went over to Acast and said, “Okay, now we have a show that we want to launch. Can we get a more formal deal in place between us” — as in, Forever35 and Acast — “for this show and any other future show we might want to launch?” So we got that deal done, and then we went back to Caroline and laid out the terms.

Basically, Caroline has a deal with us, and we have a deal with Acast, where Acast handles the ad sales. They also offer some additional support, like providing a studio for Caroline to record in New York, plus some marketing and publicity stuff.

Hot Pod: A rote question: Do y’all have any download benchmarks when bringing this show to market?

Shafrir: We haven’t discussed specific goals. I mean, we have some numbers in mind, and we told Caroline what a “successful” podcast broadly looks like, but only because she was wondering about the industry, generally. We felt it was a little premature to come up with a benchmark off the bat, and our move is to take the first few months to feel out the baseline and then figure out what makes sense moving forward. We see this as a long-term partnership.

Hot Pod: What did you tell Caroline in terms of those industry benchmarks?

Shafrir: I explained that for most shows to qualify for advertising these days, you’re usually looking at a minimum of 10,000 downloads per episode. Of course, it’s a little different now with dynamic insertion, because the framework there is weekly downloads. For that, I said that if we’re able to get about 20,000 downloads a week, that’s a pretty good threshold.

Hot Pod: If you were to give advice to another show in your position — a reasonably-sized independent podcast looking to help shepherd another show into existence — what would it be?

Shafrir: That it’s important for the parent show to have a sizeable and loyal audience. You want to be in a position where you’re able to tell your listeners, “Hey, we’re launching this new thing,” and they’ll be excited that it has your imprimatur. For example, there were already a few reviews up on Gee Thanks, Just Bought It’s page on Apple Podcasts before we even launched, where someone said “If Kat and Dor are connected to this, I’m listening. Love Forever35, excited to see them expanding. 💃”

The parent show needs to have that before it can spin something off. Not that Gee Thanks, Just Bought It is a “spinoff,” necessarily. But it’s certainly congruent with what Forever35 has done. It’s a show that makes sense for us to be doing. It’s not completely out of the blue. I think if we were, like, launching an eight-part true-crime documentary series or a politics show or something, our people might get confused about that.

Hot Pod: Maybe it’s too early to ask, but are y’all thinking about launching more shows?

Shafrir: We’re taking it one project at a time, but we are thinking about other shows. We’re starting to have conversations with other people who we think will make great hosts. We’re interested in bringing people who haven’t podcasted before, and give them the guidance and production support they need. But it’s still too early to discuss publicly.

Hot Pod: One last question. What has your experience talking about products on Forever35 and developing Gee Thanks, Just Bought It taught you about capitalism?

Shafrir: So, our mission is really to help people shop better. The goal isn’t “acquire a million things.” It’s to say, simply, “here’s a really useful spatula, or whatever, that we think you should buy.” I’m hoping that people will take it in that spirit, and that it’s not us telling you that you need to acquire endless amounts of stuff. (I mean, even Marie Kondo is selling things now.)

I think working on these podcasts has made me a more ethical consumer. I do think a lot more about where the things I’m buying are coming from, and more about the places I’m actually buying them from. These things are really emphasized for me now.

Certainly, in terms of beauty products, I used to not pay particular attention to whether things were cruelty-free, but now it’s something I care about a lot. I had been, I think, somewhat willfully ignorant about it, and between doing the show and getting gentle encouragement from listeners to pay attention, it’s really affected my thinking.

You can find Gee Thanks, Just Bought It here. And speaking of Acast…

Acast opens up [by Caroline Crampton]. Since Acast acquired Pippa back in April, some kind of integration of the two has been expected. Acast has operated on an invite-only basis since its founding in Sweden in 2014, mostly choosing to work with existing publishers moving into audio — like the Financial Times and The Guardian — and larger independent shows that were at or near the threshold for monetization. Pippa was a smaller, Anchor-esque DIY hosting solution that was particularly popular in France.

The melding of the two products is now complete and takes the form of Acast Open, which sees Acast’s platform open up to any and all podcasters for the first time. There are now three tiers offered below the existing invite-only pro level, the first of which is free, and with the higher two offering extra features like transcription and a show website. The Pippa brand has been retired, and its four employees are now on the Acast team.

Although there’s nothing particularly novel about the features on offer from Acast Open — plenty of other hosting providers have very similar options — it is something of a departure for a company that has so far specialized in monetizing the semi-pro and professional end of podcasting as its source of revenue rather than going the route of charging smaller shows for services.

Part of the motivation behind Acast Open, Acast co-founder Johan Billgren told me, was the desire to manage the complete pipeline from a tiny show’s first launch to its later success as a big hitter. “I think for us, it’s a level of maturity,” he said. “So we have done very well in our core markets in finding really high-quality content that we can help to grow and help to monetize. But we are starting to see shows that come from nowhere and become big, and we want to be with them from the very beginning. This is a way for us to identify those future stars.”

Each show is assessed on a case-by-case basis to see whether it can graduate to the full monetization system, but there’s a rough threshold. “If you have more than 10,000 listeners a week, you’re definitely interesting to us,” Billgren said. At the moment, there won’t be any spot ads on Acast Open shows, although that’s an option users will be able to turn on in a few months’ time.

Following the broader trend in the industry, this is the latest of a series of Acast moves to add revenue streams beyond advertising and sponsorships. In addition to Acast Open, they’ve opened Acast Live (an events business for their larger shows) and a content development arm called Acast Studios. The latter recently debuted its first series, called The Score: Bank Robber Diaries, which is a co-production with Western Sound, the outfit led by producer Ben Adair, who has worked on Dr. Death and Reveal.

The revenue from Acast Open’s higher-tier fees is not expected to outstrip ad revenue any time soon, but it’s one of the several factors informing the launch. “There’s definitely a revenue component to it,” Billgren said. “It’s not going to be, you know, big enough to change our business model as it is, but it’s definitely there.”

As far as he’s concerned, Acast is now the only place to get the full spectrum of podcasting services. “We have our own apps. We have embed players, we have web hosting. We have monetization with in-house sales, et cetera. So we’re taking care of everything that has to do with podcasting. And so if you’re a podcast creator, you don’t have to go anywhere else. You don’t have to sell your own ads. You don’t have to use a third-party statistics tool or anything like that,” he said. “I think we are the only ones that now go both for the really big ones — like the absolutely biggest ones in the world, like the BBC and The Economist and The Guardian — all the way down to someone who just wants to try it out by themselves.”

While advertising and sponsorships won’t stop driving the biggest portion of Acast’s revenue any time soon, this push towards diversification I think reflects the increased competition the company faces. As I’ve written about before, Acast has made a specialty of entering non-U.S. podcast markets early, forging relationships with major publishers, and scooping up big independent shows — in the U.K., for instance, they work with My Dad Wrote a Porno and David Tennant Does A Podcast With.

But as more players move in, from an enhanced Spotify to new competitive ad-sales ventures like Podfront U.K., that first-mover advantage — which has helped Acast seem like the “default” monetization option for small- to medium-sized independents — dissipates. Adding more strings to the bow seems like the natural way to go as the fight for every ad spot heats up.

POSTED     Dec. 3, 2019, 10:32 a.m.
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