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Jan. 14, 2020, 10:54 a.m.

In the U.K., one podcast is betting young adults will want a heap of Broccoli Content on Sundays

Plus: Morgan Stanley says Spotify has passed Apple, Slow Burn moves from Tupac to David Duke, and: Do you know any good producers?

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 241, dated January 14, 2020.

Slate’s Slow Burn will return to politics for its fourth season. This is a Hot Pod ~exclusive~: After shifting subgenres and taking on the Biggie/Tupac story with Joel Anderson at the helm for its third season — which has brought in over 7 million downloads so far — the next iteration will see the franchise dip back into the political history well to examine David Duke’s rise to power in Louisiana in the 1980s and 1990s, honing its attention on the deep roots of white nationalism in American history.

Josh Levin, Slate’s national editor, will take over hosting duties, with Christopher Johnson, who worked on the Biggie/Tupac season, returning to serve as producer. Meanwhile, Anderson, who was hired as a staff writer in addition to his work on the podcast, will begin work on future seasons of the podcast while embarking on a live tour for the show’s third season that will take him to D.C., N.Y., L.A., S.F., and Austin. Anderson will also join Hang Up and Listen, Slate’s sports gabfest podcast, as a regular panelist.

On a broader note, Slate’s podcasting division had a pretty strong 2019. Audio now makes up about 50 percent of the company’s overall business, up from 28 percent at the end of 2018, and it brought in more than 250 million downloads across the entire Slate Podcast Network, which currently includes more than 25 shows. And for a little cherry on top: The TV adaptation of Slow Burn’s first season is scheduled to hit Epix on February 16.

ICYMI. Last Wednesday, I published an extra issue on Spotify’s push into podcast ad tech via its new Streaming Ad Insertion product. I view the story principally as one about platform power, with Spotify looking to assume more market power by solving the monetization-via-advertising problem for the many deep-pocketed brands still meh on the medium due to its relative lack of robust analytics. Don’t look now, but we do seem to be the brink of the whole bifurcation thing I’ve been harping on about for years.

Meanwhile, retired legendary tech journalist Walt Mossberg took to Twitter to express displeasure with the development over user privacy grounds. “This planned violation of privacy by Spotify is a huge reason to stick with @Apple for podcasts,” he wrote. “Ads in podcasts are fine with me, and I’ve even bought products advertised on some of my favorite shows. Ads based on vacuuming up my private info aren’t OK.”

Mossberg continued: “Most podcasts are already narrow enough that sponsors can do a decent job of figuring out where to place their ads. There’s no justification for offering them targeting based on personal information, except what I’m sure is the clamor inside the ad tech/privacy theft complex.”

Speaking of… Morgan Stanley released its sixth annual music and radio survey as a private note to investors last week, and the big takeaway is this: Spotify has apparently surpassed Apple as the “most popular” podcast platform in 2019, with the survey showing a sharp jump between 2018 and 2019 for Spotify (18 percent to 24 percent of respondents) and a drop in the same period for Apple (23 percent to 21 percent). Meanwhile, on the other end, Pocket Casts grew from 3 percent to 5 percent, beating Stitcher (which grew 3 percent to 4 percent) and Overcast (which grew from 2 percent to 3 percent). Pandora, iHeartRadio, YouTube Music, and SoundCloud fill out the middle.

As always, grain of salt, one type of study based on its own methodology (online survey), all that.

The broccoli is served [by Caroline Crampton]. One of the big 2019 developments for U.K. podcasting was the announcement of Sony Music’s joint venture with producer Renay Richardson, which takes the form of a London-based production company called Broccoli Content. Given that Sony seems to be seeking out quite a few of these partnerships at the moment — others include Jonathan Hirsch’s Neon Hum Media and Adam Davidson/Laura Mayer’s ThreeUncannyFour — it felt significant that Richardson had attracted similar investment in the smaller British podcast market.

On Sunday, Broccoli Content dropped the first episode of its first show since teaming up with Sony. Your Broccoli Weekly is a current affairs show, with host Diyora Shadijanova welcoming two guests on each episode to break down the three most significant news stories of the week. To learn more about the project, I caught up with Richardson and Shadijanova on the phone late last week, just as they were heading into the studio to record the first episode.

The way Richardson explains it, the original inspiration for a Sunday current affairs podcast came from an old housemate. “He used to do his ironing every Sunday — it’s the day when you reset,” she said. “If you’re going to start again and try and be better, that’s when you do it — your meal prep, your ironing, whatever.” She wanted to make a podcast that would help a healthy news habit fit into that kind of routine, and initially approached Shadijanova last autumn, before the U.K. general election was called for December.

“What with the election, with Brexit — which is supposedly going to be ‘done’ by the end of January, whatever that means — and everything else, I really wanted this be the first show we launched,” she continued.

Broccoli Content is now based out of Sony’s Kensington offices in London, and the partnership has given Richardson access to resources she hasn’t had before, including four full-time staff (plus more hires expected in the future). She wanted to aim the new show at young professionals under the age of 30, and Sony’s insights team was able to provide her with research that suggested that this demographic was underserved by existing current affairs programming from other publishers, especially the BBC. Media regulator Ofcom has been tracking this trend for a while; a report last year suggested that young people had abandoned TV news “almost entirely.”

Although there are plenty of news-based podcasts, she felt like there was a gap in the U.K. for a wholly diverse show catering to younger people in an ambitious way. “There are people doing conversations about the news with their friends, and then there’s top journalists doing stuff like [the BBC’s] Electioncast and so on. I see this is as going in between those two things,” Richardson said.

Your Broccoli Weekly will be full of opinionated conversation, backed up by guests’ substantial knowledge of their subjects. The show will also dare to go where other outlets hold back: “There’s no such thing as ‘balance,’ especially when it comes to racism,” Richardson explained. Shadijanova agreed, pointing to their decision to cover Prince Harry and Meghan’s recent announcement in light of the latter’s race and the way the media have treated her.

The title of the show links in directly with the name of Richardson’s company. She explained in a Hot Pod Career Spotlight back in 2018 that it came from the negative responses she received when trying to pitch her award-winning series About Race with Reni Eddo-Lodge to major outlets: “I was told the idea was ‘broccoli,’ meaning ‘it’s good for you but no one wants to eat it,'” she wrote at the time. Now, the knowledge that she was right that there was an audience for that show has become a guiding principle for her work. The first thing you hear from the new show is the company tag-line: “This is broccoli. Content that’s good for you.”

Such is the thinking behind Your Broccoli Weekly — rather than pretending the news is entertainment, Shadijanova and her guests are deliberately taking things seriously and trusting that their audience appreciate the value of being well informed when they head into the office on Monday morning. Also, people are just wrong in the way they characterise broccoli as a vegetable, Richardson says. “People think broccoli is boring, but throw some garlic on it! It’s great.”

They’ve also made the decision to make the show inherently British, tackling stories that matter in the U.K., rather than trying to pitch at a global audience. “There are hundreds of thousands of shows made by Americans covering America better than we could, because they’re there,” Shadijanova said. “For instance, if we talked about Iran this week, we’d just be talking loads about Trump, and there are already loads of people doing that. So instead we focus on what we can do best, what’s going on in the U.K.” And that doesn’t mean people elsewhere won’t tune in, Richardson added, saying she felt there was a real hunger for in-depth homegrown coverage of topics like Brexit elsewhere.

Your Broccoli Weekly is a mission statement, then, for what Richardson wants to do with her company. It will be the “flagship show” for Broccoli Content, she said, with its ongoing weekly production schedule ideal for launching other shows and cross promotion. By coincidence, another show she’s made has also just dropped: Money 101, a commission for BBC Sounds. She started working on that last summer, before the Sony investment, but sees its educative sensibility as something she will continue through the company’s other output.

In a British media landscape uncertain about how to operate in light of young people’s news consumption habits, Richardson and Broccoli Content stand out for the confidence of their vision. It’s a bold ploy, unashamedly pitching the seriousness of news at an audience that plenty of other outlets are wary of alienating further from current affairs. I suspect an awful lot of people in audio and even journalism more broadly will be watching to see if this “broccoli” approach can succeed.

Breaking down the BBC’s latest numbers [by Caroline Crampton]. Just before Christmas, the BBC put out a press release announcing “record listening on BBC Sounds” and hailing “a surge in podcast listening.” There are now 3 million weekly users for “the BBC’s digital home for all audio,” it said, a major increase on the 1.3 million figure announced in June.

For the first time, it also gave listening figures for individual podcasts, noting that (among others) Brexitcast/Electioncast garnered “more than 14 million,” That Peter Crouch Podcast “around 12 million” downloads or streams, and daily news show Beyond Today saw “around 8.5 million.” But it’s worth noting that these are combined figures across BBC Sounds and all other audio distribution platforms, both in the U.K. and around the world.

I’m sure the eagle-eyed among you will have spotted why this approach makes it a little difficult to assess the thing that everyone wants to understand better: actual podcast listening in the BBC Sounds app. That weekly users figure includes things like radio catchup and music playlists, and it also isn’t broken down between the BBC Sounds app and the BBC website (the audio portion of which has been rebranded as “Sounds” also).

The stats for individual shows are a welcome step towards greater transparency, but the lack of a breakout number for BBC Sounds (app and/or website) versus the entire podcast ecosystem again makes it hard to really comprehend the progress made with podcasting on the BBC’s flagship audio project.

It does make me wonder, given that the numbers seem to be going in a healthy direction, why a more detailed breakdown wasn’t made available. The official response from the BBC on this is that the stats are presented this way to provide the greatest possible accuracy. BBC Sounds will be included in Ofcom’s annual report on the BBC for the first time in 2020, so perhaps there will be greater clarity offered there — that report is expected in October.

From the notebook: Hiring and producers. There’s a question that I’ve been getting a lot more lately. Sometimes, it’s the last thing said in a conversation with a source. Other times, it’s a text message out of the blue. (This has happened five times now.) Once, it was shoved into the first paragraph of an email that was carrying a press release.

The question is this: “Do you know a good producer I can hire?”

Indeed, good producers definitely seem to be a premium these days. There’s some variability in the actual skillset being pursued when the word “good” is evoked in these inquiries, depending on the sort of people making the ask. Occasionally, the question comes from podcast companies run by people who themselves came up through the audio world, in which case there’s a workable specificity in what they’re looking for. Maybe it’s a producer who can confidently step into edits, the kind who can save the structure of a troublesome story. Or maybe it’s a person able to take the managerial reins of a weekly interview show, leading a stable of producers already on payroll.

More often than not, though, I get the inquiry from folks who are, let’s say, relatively new to the audio business, but nonetheless very eager. In these situations, there tends to be a lack of specificity in the type of producer being pursued — which is a sticky wicket, because it almost always suggests an operating situation where the eventual hire will, often unreasonably, be made to do All The Things.

And there are quite a few Things to be done in these jobs. There’s the ability to cut an episode together effectively and efficiently — a prerequisite, presumably. But there’s also some mix of being able to creatively conceive an episode, write a competent script, build out a sustainable booking process, manage producers (where applicable), and managing up (almost always difficult), among other things. To lay that entire bundle of responsibilities on one producer, or even a small group of them, without an informed plan of how to scale up over time (often the case) is the height of unreasonableness — and yet I suspect that realization is still slow to catch on in a number of workplaces.

A podcast exec — one I trust with having good judgment — offered an interesting analogy the last time I checked in. A veteran of the tech world, she pointed out how the growing hunt for audio producers feel a little bit like the hunt for programmers in the startup world. (“Do you even Pro Tools, bro?”)

That analogy really works for me on a few different levels. To begin with, yes, the fever does feel vaguely comparable. But the similarity goes right down to the lack of specificity often embedded in these hiring pursuits. What kind of developer are you talking about? What language, what area specialties, what background? What problems are you trying to solve? Just as front-end development expertise is different from database management, so too is rapidly turning around chat podcasts versus threading together narrative docs with scenes and heavy scripting. Also: Pro Tools vs. Reaper vs. Audition vs. Audacity?

(An aside: I imagine the parallel also suggests the opportunity for popup producer training programs in the style of these “coding bootcamp” operations that were all the rage a few years back. By the same token, the associated risk of borderline scams apply. Coding bootcamps continue to have somewhat mixed results, and there is always the possibility of popup programs that overpromise, ask for buckets of money, and ultimately don’t provide an audio production skillset that can actually make you useful for a hiring operation. Just…be careful out there.)

Anyway, I realize I’m not making a particularly novel point in writing all this, but I feel compelled to reiterate the idea back out loud. While there continues to be some debate, at least in some circles, over what the atomic unit of podcast content is supposed to be — is it the episode? the segment? the show? the RSS feed? — there shouldn’t really be any doubt as to the atomic unit of podcast production: It’s the producer, duh.

Given that, it bothers me how — despite this apparent increase in premium on hiring producers — I still get this sense that the specific contours of their value continue to be misunderstood. While I can’t speak for production conversations that are happening everywhere (obviously), I’ve heard enough stories where various decision-makers with the money still seem to be overvaluing the person in front of the mic and undervaluing the person on the production side. I’m still hearing producers being talked about as if they were interchangeable commodities, instead of operators whose very involvement in a segment or project can fundamentally change the feel and nature of the thing. It’s frustrating.

Much of this, perhaps obviously, can be pegged to the fact that the work of producers tends to be invisible. (Relatedly, you can apply this entire rambling brief to that other important but undervalued and invisible operator in podcast production: the trusty audio editor, an overlapping species.) When producers are talked about, it’s typically because they’re two-way players, both producer and talent: think, like, Emmanuel Dzotsi, Avery Trufelman, Lina Misitzis, Jody Avirgan, Paul Bae, Lauren Shippen, and so on. (A counter-argument I got when workshopping this column: Narrative hosts historically come up as producers. Plus, if you wanted to do some adventurous stuff, you typically had to cut it yourself. For what it’s worth, I think that used to be the case, but not as much any more.) Yes, I’m aware there’s a narrative lean in those examples. On the talk side, I’d like to believe that WTF with Marc Maron’s Brendan McDonald holds currency in ~The Culture~, but, broadly speaking, known talk producers tend to bubble up into the (podcast) public consciousness if they get enough play as sidekicks to the main talking head. (Think The Ringer, essentially.)

But for every one of those known individuals, there are so many producers without front-of-mic presences whose names should be better known — and valued accordingly as a line item on the budget — by the people who make the decisions with the money, because those are kind of people whose involvement in a project could very well bump up its survival (and success?) rate.

I guess what I’m advocating here is more structural visibility of the producer, such that the achievements of the productions they work on can be theirs too. We should talk about them more, think about them, increase audience understanding of them. Some of these producers are genuine stars, in my opinion, and while I’m somewhat reticent to advance the concept of a “star producer” — because it’s cheesy as hell — I do believe in some sort of discourse framework where these types of producers can be elevated and exposed to a point here they can valued by people both inside and outside of the business in the same way that front-of-mic talent do. I imagine there will some downsides to this proposition; feel free to share them with me. But I really do think the collective community gains will work out in the aggregate.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering: I give the same reply to the “Do you know a good producer I can hire?” question almost every time: Buy a Hot Pod Classified, man.

Career Spotlight. As we drag our stiff, tired bodies into the new year and deeper into what will undoubtedly be the most exhausting presidential election cycle of all time — until the next one — one should probably expect some deck-shuffling on the part of news orgs — and in particular on their audio teams — as they continue to ramp up coverage.

On that note, I figured I should read out to Irene Noguchi, who recently joined Politico after two years of heading up Vox’s Today, Explained for one of these features. She was kind enough to oblige, talking Etch A Sketches, daily news pod saturation, and pasta-making grannies.

Hot Pod: Tell me about your situation.

Irene Noguchi: After two years leading Today, Explained, Vox’s daily news podcast, I’m starting as the head of audio at Politico, right in time for the 2020 election. I will be overseeing Politico’s podcasts and leading the company’s focus on making original short-form content for smart speakers through the Google News Initiative.

Basically, “Hey Google” means more “Hey Politico” this year!

Hot Pod: How did you get to this point?

Noguchi: My career hasn’t been a straight line…it’s more Etch A Sketch. I went from newspapers, to radio, to law, back to radio, and then to podcasts.

The highlights: Started off with the high school paper, followed by college internships at NPR, The Washington Post, and PBS NewsHour. Cue hiring freeze. Went to law school. Became a corporate lawyer, but after mass layoffs, said “screw it, let’s do what I love,” which meant a move back to Seattle, interning for free, working part-time jobs, and living off the McDonald’s 99-cent menu.

Landed my first full-time NPR producer gig in Vegas — right at the bottom of the recession, when breadwinners with two homes and a boat now stood in line for food stamps. (You don’t understand the true impact of a recession until you see it up close every day, and see how it tears people down.)

Fast forward a few years: Produced live shows at KQED in San Francisco, covering everything from Uber’s scandals to catastrophic fires to Trump’s election. Everyone was hungry to get into podcasts, and The Daily was the hot new show. So when Vox wanted to start a daily news podcast, I wanted in. Host Sean Rameswaram and I hired our team in D.C. and launched Today, Explained at the speed of a bullet train. It’s been one of the all-time greatest rides of my career so far.

Two years later, Politico came knocking. I was ready for a change. And here I am.

Hot Pod: What does a career mean to you?

Noguchi: Being open to change. When I started interning at NPR in 2002, “success” was making it to the mothership — i.e. NPR in D.C. — and reporting on overseas coups and pasta-making grannies. Now “success” is apparently selling your podcast company to Spotify for ~$230 million.

The space is constantly changing. Apple and Spotify are preparing to lock heads, Spotify and Luminary are courting Hollywood, Sony’s pushing in. The lines between radio and podcasting and Netflix and music streaming keep blurring. So if you’re a creative moving up, it’s not just about content anymore. You’ve got to learn business and everything in between, and be open to adaptation. Because the space — and your goals — will look remarkably different in five years.

Hot Pod: Tell me about your experience establishing a daily podcast. What were your biggest takeaways?

Noguchi: I think companies don’t realize how much people people and resources it takes to put out a high-quality daily pod…and the high risk of burnout. I worked with six incredibly talented host/engineer/producers who worked their butts off, and it was still an intensive sprint each day. The space is getting very saturated, and people will only tolerate so many dailies in their queue. Vox and a handful of others were lucky they entered the space early, while listeners were still forming their daily habits.

I suspect more newsrooms will shift toward short-form readers like Techmeme Ride Home, The Daily 202, and Politico Playbook: low production, low cost, key niche info.

Oh, and hire the right people. I lucked out big time with Sean, Efim Shapiro, Brigid McCarthy, Noam Hassenfeld, Amina Al-Sadi, Haleema Shah, and (previously) Luke Vander Ploeg. You need people who can laugh during stressful times and pour their hearts into the creative side.

Hot Pod: Could you talk a bit more about what’s going to happen at Politico?

Noguchi: I want to (1) focus on audio that plays to Politico’s strengths (e.g. insider politics, energy/healthcare/foreign policy, access to candidates and conventions). We’re at the start of one of the most consequential election years in history, and Politico will be at the forefront.

And (2) continue my predecessor Dave Shaw’s game plan of building out a sustainable sponsor-supported business model. [Nick’s note: Shaw recently joined The Daily as its first D.C. staffer.] We’ll be experimenting with shorter-form content and adapt along the way.

Hot Pod: What are you listening to these days?

Noguchi: A few buckets:

You can find Noguchi on Twitter here.

Image of broccoli by Cream Studios used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Jan. 14, 2020, 10:54 a.m.
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