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Dec. 10, 2019, 12:31 p.m.

What happens when a public radio station goes after its state’s favorite tradition?

Vote first or die! Plus: an audio investment in evening commutes, what Vice is up to in podcasts, and My Favorite At-Least-$10-Million Deal.

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 238, dated December 10, 2019.

My Favorite Murder’s eight-figure deal. This probably qualifies as the biggest development from last week. On Friday, The Wall Street Journal reported that My Favorite Murder creators Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark have struck a two-year deal worth “at least $10 million” with Scripps’ Stitcher that expands the duo’s existing partnership with the podcast company. That partnership has largely taken the form of an imprint-style network called Exactly Right that launched in the fall of 2018.

Worth noting: The Journal report notes that the Exactly Right network is expected to generate nearly $10 million in revenue this year — which is pretty important context for the deal size.

Structurally, the MFM–Stitcher deal feels closer to the way a movie studio might strike a multi-picture deal with a producer, as opposed to the way, say, SiriusXM struck a deal with Howard Stern to position him as the exclusive centerpiece for that business. (For one thing, the MFM–Stitcher deal does not entail platform exclusivity, though I wouldn’t be surprised if there ended up being some bonus-content windowing in the Stitcher app.)

But there does seem to be a strategic parallel between the Stern–SiriusXM situation and the MFM–Stitcher deal — which in turn are of a piece with what we’ve been seeing throughout the rest of the podcast business, where the different major distributors are striking major talent deals in search of…let’s call it a “crown jewel.” Spotify, of course, has the Obamas; iHeartMedia has been furiously striking deals with just about any name that could grant them some amount of cultural currency (Shonda Rimes, Will Ferrell/Ron Burgundy). Even though, honestly, Stuff Media is probably their actual crown jewel, fundamentals-wise.

I’m guessing we’re going to see a lot of this type of thing moving forward.

Who’s gonna drive you home…tonight? Brian McCullough, apparently. The host of the Techmeme Ride Home podcast — which I wrote about last March — is spinning out a standalone business focused on daily news briefing podcasts, called Ride Home Media, complete with an expansion into other verticals.

The company has raised $1 million in seed funding from Tiny Capital, a boutique tech investment and holdings company whose portfolio includes the podcast app Castro, which it acquired last November. I’m told that the raise was at a $3.8 million valuation. The newly constituted Ride Home Media is kicking off life with the launch of Celeb News Ride Home, which adds to a show portfolio that already includes an elections roundup podcast McCullough launched in April. Here’s the announcement post from Tiny Capital’s Andrew Wilkinson, and here’s the Fast Company report on the raise.

In case you’re wondering: The Techmeme association is a matter of branding. McCullough owns the podcast and had licensed the Techmeme brand.

Anyway, I’m with the dude Joshua Benton on this one; seems like something that other types of media companies can cop.

Audio journalism and the Pulitzers. On Thursday, the board of the much-esteemed journalism prizes announced it was adding an Audio Reporting category to its suite of awards. I wrote about the move for Vulture, highlighting its ~sign of the times~ nature and pointing out its seeming peculiarity, given the fact that Columbia University, which administers the Pulitzers, also manages the duPont–Columbia Awards, generally considered to be the linear broadcast equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize.

Two followup thoughts on this. First, I think it’s entirely reasonable to interpret this development as something distinctly community-based. One could argue that this is the Pulitzers recognizing that its core journalism constituency — the news organizations formerly known as newspapers — has evolved the structural nature of their work, having migrated as a species to the internet and expanding into other formats like web video, social media, and, well, podcasts. If adding the category allows the inclusion of other journalistic institutions previously unrecognized by the prize — like public radio stations — that in my mind is all a net positive.

Second, I was initially sympathetic to some of the groans responding to the news — particularly the public radio-originated ones that went along the lines of “We were always here!” But I became less so after more thought. In the press release announcing the category addition, Dana Canedy, the prize administrator, linked the decision to “the renaissance of audio journalism in recent years.” And look, that renaissance — which is very obviously real, by the way, I mean come on — wouldn’t have happened without everything that podcasting has afforded both public radio and new audio publishers alike. By virtue of providing an environment that was better for consumption and distribution, the on-demand nature of the technology allowed for the flourishing of the kind of audio journalism that would be logically recognized as contiguous with the other Pulitzer categories: deeper, longer-form, and complex, all of which contributes to an experience that would be significantly harder to understand if you turned on the radio and missed the first ten minutes.

So, yeah, maybe you were always here. But maybe you weren’t always what you could’ve been.

Picks and roll. My top-ten-of-the-year list for Vulture rolled out last week, and for the most part I feel pretty good about my picks. (I’m sure you have your own.) I mentioned this elsewhere, but I found the selection process significantly more difficult this time around than in years past. This, I think, is due to the sheer volume of new stuff that’s being put out into the world nowadays, which I’ve come to see as the result of both the industry’s broader arc of growth and the public’s ever-increasing interest in the category. The ecosystem remains generally open (for now, anyway), so there’s still nothing stopping anybody from publishing, all of which adds up to precisely what we’re seeing: a vastly expanded volume of stuff.

Some of the new stuff is quite bad. Most are generally okay-to-good. (Personal opinion. Again, you have your own.) As a matter of personal philosophy, I don’t see the vastly expanded volume of mostly okay stuff as a bad thing, because it means that there’s more stuff for more people, and that more people are making stuff. I see that as broadly a good thing, even if many of those new things don’t typically end up becoming viable pieces of business.

For what it’s worth, when I sit down to make a list like this, I’m just trying to pull together a thread of shows that I really, unambiguously love. The larger hope is that the collective list would be able to express a decent story about the creative year in podcasting, or at least the creative year as I experienced it.

Not long ago, someone asked me if I felt that these so-called boom times (a.k.a. the “renaissance of audio”) have made it harder for me to love this stuff. Good question. I think the reality is that I continue to very much love the things I love; it’s just that modern conditions have made it harder to find those things. (Some have argued that it’s made it harder for said loved things to exist. I still think the jury’s out on that.)

In her piece naming her top TV picks from the year, Slate’s Willa Paskin — whose podcast Decoder Ring is among the things I love — wrote: “Despite there being an embarrassment of television, the amount of great stuff seems, to me, to be staying the same. The pie gets bigger, but the best slice doesn’t. Still, even regular pie is pretty good, so eat up, I guess: There’s a lot of it.” The same, I think, can be said about podcasts — even if its regular pie isn’t consistently as good.

Quibi is still a big ol’ question mark, but among the influencer-heavy projects that are coming to Jeffrey Katzenberg/Meg Whitman’s upcoming “short-form video app” is an adaptation of Gimlet’s The Nod. Here’s the New York Times piece on the matter. Was I the only one to not know that Quibi is a portmanteau of “Quick Bites”? And you thought “podcast” was bad.

The power that be. There’s a lot going on over in New Hampshire.

Back in September, the public radio station over there, NHPR, launched a podcast called Stranglehold, which sought to interrogate the mythology around the Granite State’s status as the first to vote in the presidential primaries. It’s a status that has given New Hampshire a considerable amount of power and influence over the priorities of presidential election campaigns, despite the fact that the state has just over a million people, more than 90 percent of them white. That status is also the result of power and influence: A major throughline of the podcast is its examination of one of New Hampshire’s key political figures, Secretary of State Bill Gardner, whose machinations since taking office (in 1976!) are central to the preservation of New Hampshire’s position as the first in the primaries.

As you’d expect from an effort that interrogates a source of power (and, in a way, a state’s identity), NHPR has received some pushback because of the podcast, mostly from the state’s political establishment…but not always. On the December 2 edition of The Exchange, NHPR’s morning talk show, a listener called in to say: “I’ve been very disappointed with NHPR over this series. I mean, yes, some of the reporting is fine, but do you have to call it Stranglehold? Why do you feel we need to attack such a great institution?”

Like I said, a lot going on here.

You might remember NHPR most recently for Bear Brook, the truly excellent true-crime podcast they put out last year. But they have long been an organization to watch, particularly in how they’ve long punched above their weight in terms of podcasting. It’s no different with Stranglehold, from idea to execution.

To learn more about what the station’s been going through, I recently sent an email to Dan Barrick, NHPR’s news director, and Maureen McMurray, its director of content, with a ton of questions.

Hot Pod: The podcast has provoked a strong response from the state government. Could you talk a bit about what you’ve been experiencing there?

Dan Barrick: It’s been a little all over the map. Lots of journalists who’ve covered the primary for some time, or people who’ve observed it from an objective distance, have told us they appreciate a local media outlet taking a questioning stance towards an institution that has such a huge influence on our state politics. On the other hand, we expected pushback — especially from people who make their living off the primary, or who’ve based their professional and personal identity on their relationship to the primary.

That pushback has been bipartisan too. People telling us that we’re ignoring “the beauty of the primary,” that we are pushing “the same crap” that’s been peddled for decades about the primary, that we’re “tone deaf” and seeking to tear down this civic institution. I think we were a bit surprised at how quickly — even before we released the first episode! — that pushback has come, and in particular, how some other media outlets and reporters in the state have basically accused us of being ungrateful. The state’s largest newspaper ran an editorial, headlined “Is This NHPR Series Hype or Tripe?” pretty soon after we released a two-minute trailer.

In a sense, it’s all really confirmed our underlying thesis, which is that powerful institutions in the state have a lot at stake in New Hampshire’s continued position at the head of the presidential nominating calendar, and anything that questions or examines that can be seen as a threat.

Maureen McMurray: While I expected a response, I wasn’t sure what form it would take, for a few reasons. I moved to New Hampshire in 2014, so the primary mythology is still somewhat new to me. My position oversees NHPR’s original programming and on-demand content, and this is the station’s first politics podcast. And I’m not nearly as familiar with the state’s political players, including the 424 members of our citizen legislature, as Dan or our politics team.

So, intellectually, I understood that the primary is a powerful institution. That’s what the entire podcast is about. But I was still surprised by the speed and intensity of the pushback. Like Dan, I was surprised that some of it was coming from local media outlets and reporters.

But there’s another type of response that I wasn’t expecting. I met a man at Pete Buttigieg’s filing who said he’s lived in New Hampshire for years, but had never attended a candidate filing. He listened to a few episodes of Stranglehold and said he “had to see where it all happens.” A listener in Connecticut booked a mother–daughter weekend in New Hampshire, just so they could experience the primary. Last week, we heard from a college professor who is using Stranglehold as an alternative to a textbook. She’s bringing her students to New Hampshire in January — right before primary day. I didn’t anticipate that.

Barrick: It’s caused me to question some of our own past reporting on the primary, in previous election cycles. Four years ago, NHPR put together a series called Primary Backstage, basically a bunch of profiles of the people who are behind the scenes in every primary season but who aren’t explicitly political — like the local sound tech who staffs every campaign event, or the must-stop seafood shack where candidates have gone for decades for photo ops.

It was a light series, for sure, one that tried to provide a view of how the primary has seeped into so many other aspects of New Hampshire life: the economy, culture, tourism, etc. But looking back at it now, I worry that it was an example of the kind of “Gee whiz, ain’t the primary neat!” school of thought and assumptions that we’ve been actively trying to question in this podcast.

Hot Pod: Given the pushback, how do you think through the risk of the project? Do you fear any sort of reprisal?

Barrick: I wouldn’t say that we fear reprisal, but we’ve come to expect a negative reaction from many folks we have to come into contact with on a regular basis as journalists, covering politics in a small state. We’ve had several high-profile members of the New Hampshire political class publicly dismiss or accuse us of bad faith in our reporting. We’ve thought a lot about that as a team, and have frequently talked through individual critiques we’ve received and held them up against our work.

But I think what has helped is that we have spent a lot of time talking about why we’re doing this and what we feel we owe to our audience, episode to episode, and we’re really comfortable taking criticism but also explaining our goals to critics. Still, it is hard to accept that lots of people you cross paths with on a regular basis — sources, former colleagues, friends — are going to be offended by your work. That dynamic has definitely been part of editorial conversations, but we just keep returning to the original vision of the project and why we believe there’s value in the story we’re telling.

Hot Pod: Tell me about the development process.

McMurray: We started having those casual “we should do a 2020 primary podcast” conversations right after the 2016 primary. I think we understood we had something to say, but it wasn’t formed. I kept thinking about the way reporters sounded when they had just returned to the office after a campaign event or assignment. I knew I wanted to make something that sounded like that.

Dan and I had our first “official” primary podcast meeting in the spring/summer of 2017, and started working in earnest in October 2018. The development process was very different from our other podcast series. Bear Brook and Patient Zero were creator-driven: Jason Moon pitched the idea, and came to Bear Brook’s first storyboard with a fully formed narrative structure.

The primary was this unformed lump of clay. We used the newsroom’s collective talents to shape it into something meaningful. It took a while to get there. Dan and I organized a group of reporters and producers and over a series of meetings we did all these exercises to bring us closer to a central editorial vision. Along the way, themes began to emerge, and it seemed like we were coalescing around this idea of power and the people and institutions that fuel the primary.

From there, story ideas started to emerge and we created reporting buckets. Jack Rodolico and Lauren Chooljian took the early lead on the reporting and played a huge role in shaping Stranglehold. Jason, Casey McDermott, and Josh Rogers have played an increased role as the primary progresses.

We also had to dig into tone, sound, style, and feel. Very hard stuff to articulate, and some of the people on the production team had never worked together before. I jacked Radiolab’s visual moodboard exercise. The themes that emerged in those series of meetings informed how we approached the title and logo of the podcast.

Lauren’s father is a celebrated wrestling coach in New Hampshire, and he suggested Stranglehold as a title. When Lauren brought it to the team, there was this collective moment of divine inspiration. It captured a number of things: the local power dynamics at play in the podcast, the fervor around the primary, New Hampshire’s live-free-or-die spirit, and our own self-awareness. It also served as inspiration for the score and artwork.

Jason composed and performed Stranglehold’s theme and original score. We wanted him to go for a dirty, late-’70s hard rock vibe — slightly over the top, with heavy drums and guitar riffs. There’s a satisfying dissonance between the score and the subject matter. One minute you’re standing alongside a wooden ballot box in quaint Dixville Notch — and then the theme comes in and turns everything on its head.

Same with the Stranglehold trailer and logo. We wanted to subvert genre expectations and create something that would, in the words of Jay Allison, make people look at their radio. I summoned Lauren Chooljian and Jason Moon to a meeting and made them watch a bunch of ’70s-era horror and action movie trailers. The trailer they produced is bold, hard-driving, and irreverent. The Stranglehold logo, designed by NHPR’s Sara Plourde features a heavy metal-like font and a crudely drawn hand clutching a ballot. The wrist below the hand is inked with a Granite State tattoo. We used one of Sara’s first drafts. Initially, she wanted to make the lines crisper, but we all agreed — keep it messy.

Hot Pod: What advice would you have for other teams developing a politics podcast in this vein?

Barrick: One thing that has been awesome on this project is that the team includes people from lots of different perspectives when it comes to political reporting. Some have been covering New Hampshire politics for almost two decades, some are relatively new to political reporting, and some have never covered politics at all. This has been great in gauging where we need to be in terms of tone and assumed knowledge on the part of the audience. It also helps serve as a collective gut check on whether we’re pushing a point too hard.=

So I’d say, if you’re planning to do something narrative-driven, politically oriented, make sure the people making editorial decisions aren’t just your veteran statehouse reporters. Include people who don’t care about politics but have other talents — who are good storytellers, who know how to find the strong characters in a story, that kind of thing.

You can find Stranglehold here.

Career spotlight [by Caroline Crampton]. Ever since I wrote about Vice News’ podcast about the Chapo trial last year, I’ve been interested in what Vice is brewing, podcast-wise. What better way to find out more than to hear from the person heading up its audio operation? Kate Osborn also gets extra props for being the first career-spotlight participant to record her answers as audio and send them transcribed, complete with time codes. Such dedication to the format.

Hot Pod: Tell me about your current situation.

Kate Osborn: My current situation is that I am the global director of audio for VICE News and VICE Media (yes apparently we do write it out in all caps). [Nieman Lab does not. —Ed.] So it’s kind of a ridiculous title.

But what that means is that I head up all things audio — and that mostly means podcasts right now — across all of the places that Vice is, which is many, many countries. So I’m responsible for helping develop and think through how to make really good podcasts in a bunch of languages now. Japanese, Spanish, German, Dutch, maybe Portuguese soon. Could be cool to do one in Chinese soon as well. Or Korean, we’re also talking them out. But you know, a lot of my day-to-day is working on the pods that we have here in the United States. And there are a whole bunch of those.

I’m kind of always thinking about: How much time do we have to make this better? I notoriously rewrite openings of episodes right before they air, which is a bad habit, frankly. And I’m often thinking about what can we do as our team (that we’re slowly-but-surely building) that other folks and other shops maybe can’t do, or how do we do it differently or in our own voice and in tape? So I am always thinking in terms of verite and ways in which we can script less — and do much more showing than telling.

So that’s what I spend a ton of time thinking about is, you know, what kinds of things should only be an audio and can only be? I often ask myself: Are we losing something about the rigors of audio if anything and everything can be an audio story? So the question for me is what moods and descriptions and intimacy and truths can be brought to an “aha” moment that only can be done in audio, as opposed to the “crutches” of visual content. I say that a little bit jokingly because that sort of brings me to my career arc…

Hot Pod: How did you get here?

Osborn: So I am not necessarily a gold-star radio person. I have dabbled in the dark arts — of, excuse me, video and film and TV.

My first love was radio. And when I was in college, I worked in community radio and learned for the first time what it meant to be creative. You know, I did photography and art and dabbled in other things like any good white chick in college. But I didn’t feel particularly like a creative person. When I was taught to record and then cut audio in Pro Tools, it felt like my version of creativity somehow. It just immediately felt really exciting to me. And I wanted to stay doing that and had done some really cool projects while I was in college. But the advice then was, “Hey, you want to work in radio, go move to a very small town somewhere in the country and maybe, maybe you can work your way back to D.C. or New York or L.A. to the bigger hubs for NPR.”

I grew up in New York, in the Bronx. That was not something that I was necessarily willing to do, let’s say. TV work and documentary work was aplenty. I got offered a job at PBS to work with Bill Moyers. I worked on a weekly show kind of right away, first, a documentary for him. And then a weekly show doing news.

I always say I didn’t go to journalism school, but I went to the Bill Moyers School for Journalists. And at that shop, I worked with three generations of journalists and I learned all of the stuff: how to pull documents with a FOIA request, get transcripts from a subcommittee in Congress, look for earmarks in legislation — that kind of old school, I guess, shoe-leather type stuff. And also did a ton of travel for him around the country.

From there, I’ve woven in and out of TV news nightlies, weeklies, investigative and feature documentaries, and then found my way back to radio. I was working at WBUR in Boston for a time. And that got me back to being able to find a way of making ends meet and doing radio. The whole podcast boom has made that increasingly viable, to be honest.

Hot Pod: What does a career mean to you?

Osborn: I don’t know. I don’t think that I ever had a “Here I am at point A, I want to get to point D by X year of my life.” I’ve always been really driven by opportunities and new challenges. And I think that part of the motivation for me personally in being a journalist, and being in audio especially, is the ability not to be bored, and to be always learning new things, and being humbled by people’s experiences that they share with you, and learning how to do a better job. And you mess up, and then you have to try again and try to make it better. (Especially in audio where you are constantly solving problems — how do I explain something or conjure the right image when I can’t just show it to you, but also without being pedantic and cloying?) For me, that’s a career. Constantly learning and trying something new, and trying to do it differently the next time.

I tend to be sort of mission-driven, about journalism and its role in the world. And it’s not to overly inflate its importance, but, you know, making sure that we’re not wasting money to make something that doesn’t necessarily have resonance or impact or reflect back to folks what we’re feeling.

So to me, my career is about change, but also about making sure that whatever project I’m on has some form of impact. I think that I don’t necessarily even know where I’m going to go from here, you know? I don’t know that there’s somewhere on the horizon, a point X, Y, Z for me. It’s a dynamic career.

I will say that I’ve had a lot of friends and colleagues leave the profession in the last couple of years, in part because of being burnt out, in part because they’re sick of screaming maybe into an overly crowded void or feeling like consolidation of the media is intense and impacting their lives and also how they make a living. But I’m very bullish about the news and audio.

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

Osborn: I think I said at my kindergarten graduation that I would be a veterinarian. There was certainly an interest and desire for me to be in the medical profession from my family, my dad being an ER doctor, my mom a midwife. I thought about it. I was interested.

But, you know, there is a reality to what we do every day that you don’t know about before you actually have a job. You’re thinking more about your identity and what it’s going to say about you and less about what is it that you actually do everyday. And what are the actual environments that you’re in all day, and are there windows? I recognize the blessing of being able to choose.

Hot Pod: What are you listening to right now?

Osborn: I mean, isn’t everyone listening to Jad’s Dolly Parton podcast? I know I am. And I’m rapt and I think it’s really fucking good.

I’m also listening to Rough Translation which has a Ukraine miniseries out right now. I haven’t finished it yet. I also want to give a little shoutout to The Secret Lives of Black Women, which is a great new pod, and the Reno season of The City. I’m just getting started and I’m really loving it. Can’t forget to include the recent Nadia Reiman-produced episode of This American Life, “The Out Crowd.” And I also think that You Must Remember This is doing a very good reality check on Disney this season.

Hot Pod: What’s the most unusual thing your work has led you to?

Osborn: Well, a bunch of stuff. But the most recent would probably be to a morgue in Ciudad Juarez in Mexico. We were trying to get a sense of just how intense — to provide a visceral and stark way of communicating the massive death rate that that city has gone through, unfortunately, many times. But the time that we were referencing back to was some very extreme cartel violence a couple of years ago. And there is a doctor in that morgue who by necessity has had to come up with a way to essentially — “reanimate” is not the right word, but to essentially take very desiccated bodies and bring them a little bit more back to identifiable life.

We went to do an interview with him, and I knew it was going to be pretty intense, but it was physically overwhelming. So if you want to hear that, that’s in the Chapo podcast. That is in all the places you get your podcasts.

Kate isn’t really on Twitter, so here’s her website.

POSTED     Dec. 10, 2019, 12:31 p.m.
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