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Newsonomics: What was once unthinkable is quickly becoming reality in the destruction of local news
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Feb. 25, 2020, 11:26 a.m.

Can Rupert Murdoch and Boris Johnson team up to kneecap the BBC?

Plus: A new and more inclusive top-podcasts ranking, new funding for a premium-feed provider, and why album-specific podcasts are the hot new promotional tool for music.

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 247, dated February 25, 2020.

Times Radio: Murdoch’s big radio play [by Caroline Crampton]. Over the past five years, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp has been quietly building a major position in the U.K. radio scene. This effort has been led by Rebekah Brooks, CEO of the London-based subsidiary News UK — part of her rehabilitation within the company after a high profile criminal trial at the Old Bailey in 2014 found her not guilty of charges connected to the News of the World phone hacking scandal. (For which the company is still suffering losses; a filing this week reported it paid out £54 million on legal fees and damages from the scandal in its fiscal 2019.)

Those who work in U.K. commercial broadcasting are well aware of News UK’s attempts to use audio to diversify beyond newspaper publishing. But the strategy largely flew under the radar outside the media bubble until this week, when a high profile hire brought this story into contact with the major political battle being fought right now over the future of the BBC.

Let’s take a step back and look at how we got to this point first, though. Under Brooks’s leadership, in 2016 News UK acquired the Wireless Group, a Northern Irish company that mainly made television and was formerly known as UTV. With the purchase, News UK took control of a number of commercial speech radio stations in the UK and Ireland. Brooks then invested heavily in talent and rights, luring daytime TV host Matthew Wright away from Channel 5 to host the afternoon show on talkRadio and outbidding the BBC for the radio rights to the England cricket team’s tours abroad to Sri Lanka, the West Indies, and South Africa.

Its most high profile signing came in 2018, when Chris Evans left the BBC Radio 2 breakfast show — where he earned £1.6 million and had 9 million weekly listeners on what was then the most popular radio show on the BBC — to work on the News UK owned digital-only station Virgin Radio. (Not to be confused with the station he had fronted, owned, and then sued in the 1990s, which is now known as Absolute Radio. This is a new Virgin Radio, operated by Wireless from 2016 thanks to a new license from Richard Branson.) Evans’s huge salary at the BBC had been controversial for months before he left, especially in the context of ongoing gender pay gap disputes and the lack of diversity in Radio 2’s daytime lineup.

As well as stuffing their station’s schedules with expensive presenters, Wireless also started making podcasts, often as part of a cross-promotional strategy with other News UK brands. Two of the buzziest shows from this stable to date feature journalists from The Times of London, also owned by Murdoch: Giles Coren Has No Idea and The Red Box Politics Podcast. That was a strong indication of what was to come.

In January, News UK revealed its latest audio project: a new station called Times Radio. This will be a new national current affairs speech radio station explicitly designed to challenge BBC Radio 4. It’s set to launch later this year, with trusted Murdoch lieutenant Stig Abell in charge.

The details that have come out since confirm that the strategy is to go aggressively after a BBC audience. So far, that’s taken the form of an intense recruitment push, with multiple high profile BBC presenters reportedly in talks about defecting to the new station. Today presenter Nick Robinson and Brexitcast/Newscast host Chris Mason are among those thought to be considering the move.

Last week, the first major hire happened, with BBC deputy political editor John Pienaar announcing he was leaving to host the drivetime show on Times Radio. Pienaar is a big get; he’s been with the BBC for over three decades and is a popular and influential commentator. His show on BBC Radio 5Live, Pienaar’s Politics, has generally been a key destination for politicians with a story to push, and he’s one of a small handful of people of color in a senior journalistic role at the BBC.

In his Twitter thread announcing the move, Pienaar articulated what I suspect will be a key brand message of the new radio station, saying: “I’m beyond excited to be part of the newest digital venture under the oldest and greatest title in journalism.” The Times has been publishing daily since 1785, so though the new digital radio station is a very contemporary venture, it will no doubt use its parent newspaper’s heritage and center-right reputation as a way of appealing to the middle-class audience that typically feels comfortable with BBC Radio 4.

In a surprising move, the BBC took Pienaar off the air immediately after news of his departure broke, meaning that he’ll no longer appear on news broadcasts and his eponymous radio show will have a temporary host. I say surprising because Stig Abell is still comfortably ensconced as a regular presenter on BBC Radio 4’s nightly arts program Front Row. The difference, presumably, is that Pienaar is a full-time employee while Abell is a contractor — but it still sends an odd message to an already spooked Radio 4 staff to remove one but not the other.

I fully expect there’ll be similar moves to come, as senior BBC figures are tempted by the high pay on offer, the new station’s freedom from BBC Charter rules, and the chance to be part of an expanding enterprise when the BBC is making substantial cuts. As we’ve already seen with its spending on talkRadio, talkSport, and Virgin, News UK is making a substantial financial bet on commercial radio. For those who’ve spent years watching round after round of budget cuts, it’s a very attractive prospect.

This is where Rupert Murdoch’s move into U.K. radio intersects with the political crisis surrounding the BBC, which I wrote about earlier this month. The current Conservative government has made very clear that it would like to reduce the BBC’s size, empower its commercial rivals, and transform its license fee into some kind of Netflix-style voluntary subscription. But it actually has only limited legislative options to do this quickly. The license fee is guaranteed until the BBC’s current Charter runs out in 2027, and under current rules, there will have to be another U.K. general election in early 2025 or sooner. Although an inquiry into the BBC’s funding has been launched, the action ministers can take in the short term is limited.

But Boris Johnson’s administration can achieve sweeping changes to the BBC without needing to wait for the legislative clock to run down. The destabilizing rhetoric that has been coming from the prime minister and his colleagues has very effectively created an atmosphere of uncertainty and fear around the BBC’s future. In that context, a new commercial venture like Times Radio can thrive, poaching major talent and luring listeners away. By the time the government and the BBC get to the negotiating table in 2022 to begin discussing the terms of the new Charter for 2027 and beyond, the BBC could well already be greatly weakened, with audience figures down and a commercial competitor demonstrating the open market can offer services that the BBC has long received public funding to provide.

In short, the government doesn’t need to wait years to dismantle the BBC. It just needs to create a climate that would allow Rupert Murdoch’s radio division — and other similar commercial competitors — to do it for them.

Ranks on ranks on ranks. Edison Research, the measurement firm of Infinite Dial fame (which, by the way, returns with a new edition next month), has joined the league of market research companies who publish public rankings of major podcasts.

The firm released those rankings for the first time yesterday, in what they claim is the industry’s first “all-inclusive” Top 10 podcast ranker. Covering Q3 and Q4 of 2019, here are the slots from largest to tenth-largest:

  1. The Joe Rogan Experience
  2. This American Life
  3. The Daily
  4. My Favorite Murder
  5. Crime Junkie
  6. Stuff You Should Know
  7. Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!
  8. Serial
  9. Pod Save America
  10. Radiolab

Compare Edison’s findings with Podtrac’s — the only other major public non-Apple podcast rankings right now — and you notice some considerable differences (like the absence of The Joe Rogan Experience) as well as some differences in order.

In Edison’s Top 10 but not in Podtrac’s: The Joe Rogan Experience (1st), My Favorite Murder (4th), Crime Junkie (5th), Wait Wait (7th; it’s 12th on Podtrac), Serial (8th), Pod Save America (9th), Radiolab (10th; it’s 14th on Podtrac).

In Podtrac’s Top 10 but not in Edison’s: NPR News Now (2nd), Up First (3rd), The Ben Shapiro Show (5th), Pardon My Take (7th), Dateline NBC (8th), Call Her Daddy (9th), Hidden Brain (10th).

Chalk these splits up to methodology. To begin with, Edison’s target of measure is “percentage of weekly podcast consumers (18+) that have listened to a show during a sample period,” as opposed to downloads. To get that, the firm uses the same survey-oriented approach used in the Infinite Dial studies, where data is gathered from a respondent pool that can be extrapolated. “From a research standpoint, we don’t ask the respondents to do anything more than enter in the names of the podcasts they listened to [over] the last week,” said Tom Webster, Edison’s senior vice president of research. “They just type them in. We do all the work.”

I’m told that the sample involves over 4,000 people, and that sampling happens continuously — as in, every day — as a means to cover differences in publishing style or schedule.

Because the data gathering comes on the audience side, not from server analytics, Edison’s approach can capture any podcast, regardless of whether it is published by an Edison client or not. Which means it doesn’t suffer from the same problem of publisher opt-outs as Podtrac, as we’ve discussed several times before. (This is probably why you won’t see stuff like The Joe Rogan Experience, along with original show portfolios from publishers like Stitcher and Spotify, on the Podtrac list.)

The launch of Edison Research’s comes as Triton Digital, the Scripps-owned digital audio technology and services provider, prepares to rollout its own publicly facing podcast reports next month.

Anyway, friendly reminder as always: You shouldn’t necessarily take any one of these reports, whether from Edison or Triton Digital or Podtrac, as The Final Word on the shape of the podcast universe. Consider the aggregate picture.

Deep support. Supercast, the direct monetization support platform for podcasters owned by Tiny Capital, is announcing that it’s raised $2 million in seed funding this morning. Its investors include Table Management, Form Capital, Christian Reber (the founder of Wunderlist), and Des Traynor (co-founder of Intercom), among others. Also announced is a new CEO: Jason Sew Hoy, who joins from the creative freelance platform 99designs, where he was chief growth officer.

We’ve written about Supercast before, contextualizing it as part a growing cohort of companies building technology solutions for podcast publishers that hope to monetize its listeners more directly, whether through a transactional premium subscription or a more support-oriented “I’m giving because I want you to live” arrangement. That cohort also includes Supporting Cast, Glow, Acast Access, and, of course, Patreon.

Direct support has become an increasingly prominent alternative to podcast advertising in the business models of podcast publishers big and small, particularly as the anxiety over the future of open podcasting continues to rise and as Spotify’s upcoming Streaming Ad Insertion play looms over the horizon.

Supercast’s own metrics may well reflect these dynamics, as I’m told that the number of subscribers being served by Supercast has more than doubled since we wrote about them in October. But one should also factor in a recent pricing change. Supercast now charges publishers between $0.60 to $0.80 per month per subscriber based on features used, plus additional Stripe fees. That’s down from $1.50 per month per subscriber back in October, which struck us as pretty steep at the time.

Anyway, just because I was curious, I asked about the paid subscription uptake the company is seeing from podcasts on its platform — or, put another way, the proportion of those podcasts’ listeners who end up generating direct revenue. Supercast claimed that the range was between 2 and 8 percent, depending on the incentives being offered and the type of audience that consumes the podcast.

You can find more information about the fundraise, and Supercast’s future plans, in Jason Sew Hoy’s Medium post on the matter.

Revolving door. A mildly eye-catching piece of news: Last Friday, Deadline reported that Neil Drumming, a producer at This American Life, is moving over to Serial Productions. He’ll be managing editor, where he’ll reportedly “lead the expansion of Serial Productions’ development slate, recruiting producers, writers and reporters to develop fiction and non-fiction podcasts.” Drumming, who is also a filmmaker, previously worked with Serial Productions as an editor on S-Town.

It’s a somewhat wonky development, and potentially a little confusing if you’re not familiar with the relationship between the two companies. Housing Serial and S-Town, Serial Productions is a separate spinoff entity from This American Life. That production company was first formed in early 2017, and as far as I know, continues to be co-owned by Julie Snyder, Sarah Koenig, and Ira Glass. My understanding is that talent flows somewhat freely between the two sister companies. In the case of S-Town, for example, creator Brian Reed was considered on leave from This American Life, where he is a producer, to work on the podcast.

Two quick notes. First, this sort of move would have been pure inside baseball had it happened at any other point over the past three years. (I still would’ve happily written about it, by the way; inside baseball’s kind of my thing.) But it just so happens to come about a month after The Wall Street Journal reported that Serial Productions is exploring a sale, with The New York Times being cited by “a person familiar with the matter” as a potential buyer. This gives this personnel move a little more weight, and you can bet the family farm that the close timing between these two developments has kicked up a fair amount of chin-stroking among the Hot Pod readership.

Second, I just wanted to draw attention to this quote by Serial Productions CEO Julie Snyder in the Deadline piece: “Five years ago, with the release of Serial, we invented a new kind of audio storytelling.” Given everything that’s happened to podcasting over the last five years — including, I should add, multiple cycles of folks trying to do the whole “Did Serial actually kick off the podcast boom?” thing (it happens!) — I, for one, am glad to see this type of muscle flexing.

This week in Hollywood. Looks like Slate’s Slow Burn is getting a second TV adaptation, after the Leon Neyfakh-narrated documentary series on Watergate that hit Epix last week. Deadline reports that the Martha Mitchell thread of the podcast’s first season will be the subject of a TV drama that will star Julia Roberts and be produced by Sam Esmail. (The two had already worked on another podcast-to-TV adaptation: Amazon’s Homecoming.)

According to Deadline, the project will be shopped around to “premium and streaming platforms” by NBCUniversal Content Studios, which did the same thing with several other podcast adaptations, including the aforementioned Homecoming and two Wondery projects, Dr. Death and Dirty John.

Two quick things. First, this Martha Mitchell project will be called “Gaslit.” Coincidentally, it almost shares a name with a recent fiction podcast by QCODE, “Gaslight” (starring Chloe Grace Moretz), which was one of those audio projects obviously meant to serve as a cost-effective proof-of-concept for future film/TV adaptation.

The second thing is a lukewarm take: The whole streaming wars — with its marginal reduction of barriers-to-entry for television and subsequent elevation of demand for more projects and assets, all of which are couched in a fever of competition — has been a very good thing for podcast-to-TV adaptation aspirants.

The new hot way to promote your album: Make a podcast about it [by Cherie Hu]. The ongoing blending of the music and podcast worlds — thanks to aggressive podcast investments from both Spotify and Sony Music Entertainment — has led to an interesting new hybrid marketing tactic: Artists, from all genres and at all career stages, are now creating podcasts to promote their albums.

In June 2019, the rock band Pixies launched its limited podcast series It’s a Pixies Podcast, which teased their album Beneath the Eyrie by dropping behind-the-scenes episodes week by week, leading up to the album’s official release date in September 2019. Later that same September, Spotify Studios released the original podcast 21 Days with mxmtoon, which follows the titular YouTuber-turned-artist as she made her latest full-length album the masquerade from start to finish, using her song lyrics as entry points into ruminations on her identity, family, and career growth.

And just released today, Asking For It — a fictional podcast from Mermaid Palace and CBC Podcasts about a musician navigating queer romance and relationship abuse — takes a more experimental approach to the hybrid album/podcast approach, by contextualizing new music in a fictionalized rather than documentarian setting.

The women playing two of the main characters in Asking For It — Drew Denny, who plays Goldie, and Christina Gaillard, who plays her bandmate KG — are also bandmates in real-life, performing as HIPS, and made an exclusive, self-titled soundtrack for the podcast that also premieres in full today. The show itself incorporates not just this soundtrack, but also archival recordings from HIPS’ demos, rehearsals, and live performances as far back as 2012, as well as some original scoring from Gaillard.

“It’s exciting to think that people who wouldn’t seek out our music otherwise will learn about it because of the podcast,” Denny tells me, adding that the discovery also goes in the other direction: “People who like our music maybe don’t listen to podcasts, or haven’t listened to a fictional podcast before.”

The hybrid podcast/album release strategy is part of a wider trend of independent artists starting their own podcasts, both to talk directly to loyal fans and to cut through the noise of an oversaturated music-streaming landscape.

But on a mainstream level, the approach still feels relatively niche. When bigger celebrities want to share deeper, more intimate and behind-the-scenes content leading up to an album release, they typically turn to video. For instance, Justin Bieber just released a YouTube Original docuseries to promote his album Changes; Beyoncé’s $60 million deal with Netflix was timed nicely to coincide with the release of her live Coachella album, as well as the availability of Lemonade on Spotify and Apple Music; other artists like Berner, Future, and Korn have released shorter album docs on their respective YouTube channels, filled to the brim with raw studio footage and interviews.

Importantly, a lot of the kind of footage that works well in these behind-the-scenes videos don’t necessarily translate to audio. “We realized a few weeks in that just recording someone making an album is boring — especially if they’re good at it,” Kevin Wortis, founder of Signal Co. No1, “a podcast label dedicated to music culture” which co-produced 21 Days with mxmtoon with Spotify, tells me. “Even though it was [mxmtoon’s] first record, she was an absolute consummate pro in the whole process. But then there was no story; it was all just workaday stuff. We had to find stakes. It took a while to figure that out.”

For mxmtoon, those stakes ultimately reached beyond the recording studio and became much more personal. The episodes seem less focused on the recording process and the songs themselves, and more on larger themes that emerge from mxmtoon’s lyrics, such as her biracial and bisexual identity, her experience navigating YouTube and TikTok, her mixed relationships with fans, and her mental health. Several interviews from her family and management team are also scattered throughout to help support the narrative.

In a similar manner, Asking For It draws much of its core storyline from HIPS’ own song lyrics, allowing more narrative breathing room than what a traditional, 30- to 40-minute album might provide. “A lot of our lyrics are describing real-life shit and life changes that we were going through at the time, so it’s amazing to interweave those stories into longer story arcs — not just within two minutes, but within 30 minutes for a single episode and then 3.5 hours for a whole show,” says Denny.

Logistically, video series come with vastly different liberties, and challenges, from audio-based ones. “Trying to conceive of just one of the montages from one of the 15 scenes from one of the seven episodes of [Asking For It] in film would have been a multi-day production, costing tens of thousands of dollars,” says Denny, who previously filmed documentaries for Vice and CNN. “We would have needed a whole crew, lighting, hair, makeup, costumes, food for everyone on set — not to mention the cameras themselves.”

On the other hand, visual imagery — which has historically been an important tool for musicians to communicate certain ideas and retain fans’ attention, especially on social media — is inherently absent from podcasts. “Video can be kind of a crutch sometimes, whereas audio is just pure narrative, period,” Max Gredinger, who manages mxmtoon and Lauv for Foundations Music, tells me. “You can’t rely on amazing cinematography or beautiful, panning landscape shots or be like, ‘Wow, it’s so cool watching Young Thug vibe out in the studio.’ The narrative in and of itself needs to be perfect.”

As for the future of this space, we can expect Spotify to produce even more of these album/podcast hybrids, in part to help increase engagement on its own service and strengthen its relationships with the indie artist community.

Gredinger tells me Spotify began working on 21 Days in early 2019, around the same time it acquired Gimlet Media. Jesse Burton — the head of originals for music at Spotify, who supervised the acquisition and relaunch of The Joe Budden Podcast as a platform exclusive — is credited as co-executive producer of 21 Days with Yasi Salek, and the company sent Salek and others to help write scripts and record interviews onsite in mxmtoon’s hometown of Oakland.

Importantly, Spotify has bolstered mxmtoon’s profile on the platform in several other ways as well, through exclusivevideos, playlist support, and billboards in Times Square — implying that the podcast is just one prong of a larger artist-development play.

It also makes things more efficient for mxmtoon’s management team: “We can deliver one concise story to Spotify about who the artist is and what she stands for, and tell them, ‘Our two primary drivers for the year [namely, the album and podcast] are all prioritized and distributed through your platform,” says Gredinger. “Then we can have one conversation and one global message that takes a holistic perspective on mxmtoon. That can’t be beat.”

Who exactly is the audience for these kinds of podcasts? The answer isn’t yet clear. In the past, industry insiders have suggested that the podcast format is best suited for deeper communication with an existing audience — due in part to its longform, lean-in nature and in part to the enduring challenges around podcast discovery, recommendation, and curation at large.

“What we’re working on more is, how do you create something that is for superfans and for non-fans, for the general population?” says Wortis. “How do you bring current fans into new themes that they hadn’t thought of before, and how do you bring general listeners vis-à-vis those themes into the artist’s music? That’s enormously challenging.” He points to podcasts like Dolly Parton’s America — which isn’t tied to a record release, but combines a deep-dive into Parton’s diverse fanbase with a survey of universal social and political themes — as inspiration for future projects.

For 21 Days, there are some early signs that the podcast is helping out with mxmtoon’s audience expansion. “It’s still streaming a lot week-over-week, and I don’t believe that’s just her existing fans wanting to re-listen to the podcast over and over again,” says Gredinger. “It’s helping with fan acquisition, and the show is kind of a constant that exists [on Spotify] that people can subscribe to and consume to learn more about her world and her brand as it grows.”

Most of those podcast streams today are likely coming from a hybrid music/podcast playlist that mxmtoon has pinned to the top of her Spotify profile, titled “the adventures of mxmtoon: the masquerade to dawn & dusk.” That’s another benefit of these kinds of campaigns: Even if you don’t partner with Spotify, you can still make and promote your own playlists mixing music and podcasts on the platform, a functionality that isn’t yet available elsewhere.

Hybrid album/podcast releases should also be a natural strength for major labels like Sony Music and Atlantic Records that are growing their podcasting arms alongside their music catalogs. While they don’t have the benefit of direct access to millions of paying consumers the way Spotify does, they do have access to a lot of the most in-demand talent, which will be an important asset to get people to listen in the first place.

But in some ways, releasing a podcast about an album seems almost antithetical to other hot marketing tactics in the music world today, like TikTok and Triller campaigns, that are meant to maximize virality and rack up surface-level metrics with ever-increasing velocity. Producing a podcast that tells a compelling story in its own right, and that extends an artist’s world and brand in a cohesive way, takes a lot of time that not everyone may be willing to commit. But the demand and the resources — at least from bigger companies fighting for market share — are certainly there.

Photo of Rupert Murdoch by Hudson Institute used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Feb. 25, 2020, 11:26 a.m.
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