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March 10, 2020, 10:56 a.m.

A boom in translation is bringing podcast stories to a global audience

Plus: Sony’s podcast play vis-à-vis Spotify, the coronavirus lurks in revenue projections, and what is a Gimlet show, anyway?

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 249, dated March 10, 2020.

Spotify’s Gimlet Media hires a new head of content. That person is Lydia Polgreen, the New York Times veteran who spent the last three years as editor-in-chief of HuffPost. Confirming the move on Twitter Friday morning, Polgreen wrote: “Gimlet has built the greatest audio team in the world, and I’m so lucky to have the chance to learn from them. Together we have the opportunity to chart the future of the spoken word on the world’s most powerful audio platform.”

I’m told that Polgreen will report to Alex Blumberg and that she’ll be responsible for overseeing the division’s entire slate, including “strategic planning and setting a creative vision for the studio.” As for HuffPost, The Daily Beast noted that she did not announce a successor when she informed her team of the move on Friday. Polgreen will begin her time at Spotify sometime later in the spring.

It’s a splashy personnel move, the kind that gets picked up by both the entertainment trades and The New York Times and Axios alike. But it’s also a curious one, given the absence of audio work on Polgreen’s resume and her broader positioning as a modern newsroom leader. We’re still very early with this development, but the immediate temptation is to view this hire as indication that we may get a newsier Gimlet — more news podcasts perhaps? more investigative documentaries? more gunning for those Pulitzers and Peabodys? — whenever the Polgreen tenure begins. Then again, it’s probably too early for any pigeonholing right now.

Still, thinking through this hire made me bump up against an old question: What is Gimlet Media these days, anyway?

There was a time when I could articulate, at least to myself, what a “Gimlet show” was. Put simply, a Gimlet podcast was what you get when you take the core proposition of a standard public radio podcast (often narrative, but not always), remove the burdens of a certain cautiousness, and see where it takes you. The end result was Gimlet’s early slate of releases, which is near-legendary. It included the first season of StartUp, Reply All, Heavyweight, Mystery Show, The Nod, and Science Vs, a cluster that felt truly producer-centric — as in, let’s take a native audio talent who has been traditionally undersupported and really find out what that person can do — which still felt like a revelation in that 2015–2017 stretch.

When I think about those early shows, I see color. Not in the conventional sense of how that word is typically deployed in these kinds of columns; one thing that Gimlet has previously been criticized for is its whiteness. I mean, like, synesthetically: When I think of that early slate, I tend to imagine splotches of color. There was a fizz to those shows, a lightness that makes listening to them feel warm and engaging and hopeful. You can still get this from Reply All, which just this past week dropped an all-timer of an episode. And you could even access some aspects of it when the subject matter was significantly heavier, as in the case of Uncivil, which was developed with external talent Chenjerai Kumanyika and Jack Hitt, and Crimetown, which was forged through a partnership with the documentarians Marc Smerling and Zac Stuart-Pontier.

(Smerling and Stuart-Pontier would go on to create their own podcast imprint called Crimetown Presents, which is run through Cadence13 and not affiliated with Gimlet Media. One of its more recent releases, The Ballad of Billy Balls, exhibits some of this producer-centricity.)

You’re free to j’accuse me of concern-trolling, but I feel there’s significant distance between those original launches and more recent batches of Gimlet releases. To be clear, I’m not talking about quality; almost all of the latter-day productions, in particular The Cut on Tuesdays (co-produced with New York Magazine) and Story Pirates, have vivid points of merit. Rather, I’m talking about identity — cynically, the #brand — and, as an extension of that, I have some trouble connecting Gimlet’s creative present with its past. I’m also having trouble cleanly articulating the qualities that differentiate it from an ever-broadening horizon of competitors, many of them infinitely capable.

I guess I know how we got here, roughly speaking. We were told, in that last season of StartUp narrating their sale to Spotify, that the type of stuff they used to want to make was expensive to produce and hard to monetize. And so they sought to switch things up, which resulted in these partnerships and Hollywood-friendly fiction shows and a vastly prolific branded-content department. Which is all perfectly understandable. I’m just having a hard time clearly telling what makes that audio team the greatest team in the world when you have, you know, Radiotopia and NPR and The Ringer and Pineapple Street and The New York Times, among so many others.

It’s often been argued in my general direction that ordinary media consumers don’t give two shits about the identity of a podcast network (or book publisher or a film studio or whatever). That normal people won’t care if something’s a Gimlet podcast or a Pineapple podcast or an NPR podcast — they just want what they want. The “good stuff.” I’ve never bought that. In my mind, that would be the result of major failures in branding, marketing, and effective communication of what these creative companies stand for. In any case, to argue for that interpretation of mass listeners is to dismiss the segments of listeners who do care about such things — high-quality consumers to engage with — while deprioritizing the important work of publishers figuring out their place in a saturated universe.

More to the point, though, the question of Gimlet Media’s creative identity matters within the context of its own parent company. Onstage at the Hot Pod Summit last Thursday, Gimlet co-founder Matt Lieber — now Spotify’s head of podcast studios and operations — spent some time talking about how Spotify’s current podcast production is spread across four divisions: Gimlet, Parcast, The Ringer, and the Spotify Originals banner. Parcast and The Ringer have sharp identities, each shop with its own distinct aesthetics, sensibilities, functions, and goals. Meanwhile, the Spotify Originals brand has a Swiss-army-knife quality, shouldering the responsibility of being purposefully broad and being able to hold new partnerships and projects that are obviously valuable but are unhoused internally, brand-wise. (Shoutout to Kevin Bacon.)

Held up against two sister divisions with strong identities, another division that covers all other bases, and an ever-competitive universe of competitors — what is a Gimlet podcast supposed to be? And under Polgreen’s tenure, what will it become?

Language lessons [by Caroline Crampton]. A new true crime podcast caught my eye this week: The Nobody Zone, which is a co-production between Ireland’s RTÉ and Denmark’s Third Ear. It covers the alleged crimes of Irishman Kieran Patrick Kelly on the London Underground between 1953 and 1983. But it wasn’t the content of this six-part series that piqued my interest, but rather the fact that the show is being released simultaneously in five different languages: English, Danish, Spanish, German, and Irish.

The trend for multilingual podcasts has really accelerated in the past year. Building on the existing work of shows like Radio Ambulante, Radio Atlas, and the Spotify/Vice collaboration Chapo, last August two big U.S. podcast publishers — Wondery and iHeartMedia — each announced that they were beginning to make their shows available in languages other than English. Wondery started by translating Dr. Death into Spanish, Castilian Spanish, German, French, Mandarin, Portuguese, and Korean, while iHeart put together a slate (including Stuff You Should Know and Stuff You Missed in History Class) to be translated into “Spanish, Hindi, Portuguese, French, German, and more” beginning in early 2020.

The case for translation is clear for these big English-language providers. Translating and rerecording episodes with new voice talent is a moderate one-off cost, but it makes the shows accessible to millions more people in markets where podcast listening is really ramping up, such as South America and India. Not only are there plenty of listeners to acquire there, but via local distribution and monetization deals, these new language editions of existing shows can bring in fresh ad dollars.

But I’m also keen to understand how multilingual expansion looks from the perspective of independent podcasters. Translation and revoicing costs will be out of reach for most smaller creators, but there are producers working to bake multilingual options into their shows from the beginning of production.

Lory Martinez is one such — a Colombian American from Queens, she’s now based in Paris and last year founded her own production house, Studio Ochenta, aiming primarily to produce multilingual podcasts, although the outfit is also making branded podcasts and providing consulting services as part of the business. Martinez works with a team of about 10 freelance producers around the world to make her shows.

This outfit’s flagship production to date is Mija, a fiction podcast that exists in English, Spanish, and French. The first series of eight 10-minute episodes centers on the titular Mija, the daughter of Colombian immigrants in New York City, who tells her family’s immigration stories. When I spoke to Martinez last week, she explained that she had deliberately designed Studio Ochenta’s formats to work well for multiple languages. “It’s basically designed for multilingual. All of our shows are narrative, mostly single voice,” she explained.

Both Mija’s subject matter and the decision to work in fiction were also made with translation in mind. “It’s really all about being able to really recognize a universal story and being able to adapt it locally,” she said. “For me, that was an immigration story. Every market is looking at an influx of immigration, and refugee migration stories are in the news every day. It’s something that’s top of mind for people [everywhere]. And I chose a Latin American, Latinx immigration story because it was my own.” Storytelling around language itself is also in the ascendance at the moment, with shows like James Kim’s Moonface exploring a relationship between two people who don’t share a language.

Aside from helping podcasts reach more people, multilingual expansion has a strong educational impetus. Martinez has heard from people using Mija to practice their language skills, saying that providing transcripts really helps. Another Studio Ochenta production, How Not to Travel, is more in this didactic mode. The Nobody Zone, especially in its Irish version, also acknowledges this with RTÉ providing subtitled versions on YouTube. Language-learning app Duolingo is also making podcasts specifically for this purpose, producing easy to follow nonfiction stories in Spanish and French.

Martinez said that independent podcasters in the U.S. should be more aware that they already have listeners all over the world and consider taking advantage of it: “You already have an international audience. Why not tap into the rest of it?” She did caution, however, that the CPM-based advertising model commonly used in America isn’t applicable everywhere, and that some markets are smaller than others. “Different economic models are going to come up with this new growth, I think, because CPM models don’t work for every market,” she said. “In some places, it’s more about the value of the listener.”

For Martinez, multilingual production is closely tied to the nature of the content she wants to produce — she’s not translating anything just for the sake of it. The second season of Mija will come out in May, and will be available in a fourth language: Mandarin. “It’s because the story is gonna be about a Franco-Chinese Mija and her family’s immigration journey,” she explained. “We’re adding the Chinese not just because the Chinese market is big or anything like that. It’s because it fits the story.” It’s an ambitious blueprint, but one I suspect we’ll begin to see other independent podcasters following.

What does Sony Music Entertainment want with podcasts? As you may or may not know, I help publish Water+Music, Cherie Hu’s fantastic newsletter on innovation in the music business, and I had Cherie join me onstage during last week’s Hot Pod Summit — yes, a second namecheck, sorry – to co-moderate a session on Sony Music’s recent excursions into podcasting, which now includes a joint venture with ThreeUncannyFour and investments in Neon Hum Media, along with the U.K.’s Broccoli Content and Somethin’ Else.

From that conversation, she produced this great column, where she gives considerable meat to the argument that Sony Music’s increasing involvement in podcasting is a direct competitive response to Spotify.

Here’s an excerpt:

Spotify now has a stake in almost every source of value in the podcast industry: content (production companies), distribution (streaming platforms) and monetization (ad technology and marketplaces). This verticalization likely gives Spotify more leverage in licensing negotiations with Sony Music and other major record labels.

But I think Sony is essentially betting that it can erode that position of power by diversifying its own content and intellectual property into the kinds of verticals that Spotify might need most, especially beyond music.

“We’ve got certain things up our sleeves that would touch different verticals for our partners, which is a slight shift” from how the label side of Sony Music traditionally engaged with streaming services, said [vice president of podcast marketing Christy] Mirabal. In other words, future Sony Music-backed podcast projects could live, say, within the sports or comedy verticals on Spotify, instead of being delegated by default to music.

Mirabal also insisted that Spotify is “a very important partner of ours,” rather than a competitor. But as of now, Sony Music isn’t making any podcast-specific revenue directly from Spotify (yet); rather, it’s pulling in revenue from traditional ad deals off-platform, as most other podcasts in the world do today. This is a stark contrast to music, in which Sony is likely making between 10 and 15 percent of its recorded-music revenue from its direct licensing deal with Spotify alone (assuming directionally similar finances to those of its major-label rivals).

Hence, I don’t think it’s unfounded to assume that Sony Music and Spotify are competing directly — for listening time, for ad dollars, and especially for talent.

Do yourself a favor and read the whole thing here. And then subscribe to her newsletter.

Manoush Zomorodi will begin her run as host of the TED Radio Hour this Friday, replacing longtime host Guy Raz, who you can still find in another corner of the NPR podcast universe asking various successful people how they built stuff.

One more detail to note about this story: In addition to taking over TED Radio Hour hosting duties, Zomorodi’s independent podcast effort ZigZag is also joining the TED family of podcasts. That arrangement takes the shape of a partnership: Zomorodi still co-owns the show with her business partner Jen Poyant under the Stable Genius Productions banner, while TED will primarily operate as a marketing and sponsorship partner.

ZigZag was originally launched as a show within the Radiotopia family. It isn’t exactly a full split: PRX, which operates Radiotopia, also serves as a distributor for TED’s audio portfolio.

I asked Zomorodi how her perspective on starting a podcast business has changed since starting Stable Genius in mid 2018. “As long as COVID-19 doesn’t destroy marketing budgets, there are many more opportunities to be a podcast ‘entrepreneur'” these days, she wrote back. “And it’s become a wide spectrum: On one end, some people want to build a production house with a slate of shows. On the other end, there’s real demand for solo-preneurs who can make podcasts for businesses or other talent.”

She added: “I think the hardest is right in the middle — launching an independent, high-quality show and breaking through this saturated market is TOUGH. I’d like to see more small but mighty podcasts succeed because they emphasize quality over quantity. Maybe one day ‘just make more episodes’ won’t be the only answer to a financial problem.”

A forever echo of what’s happening everywhere else, which is the death of the middle.

Revolving door. Condé Nast Entertainment, the entertainment and IP-repackaging arm of the prestige magazine publisher, has hired an executive producer of podcasts: Alex Kapelman, who you might know as the co-creator of Pitch (not to be confused with The Pitch, which itself should not be confused with Shark Tank), and who I know as the guy who made that one podcast where he tried to bail on the Knicks in search of a new NBA team to root for.

Anyway, those curious about this whole business with Condé Nast Entertainment and podcasts should check out this Digiday writeup from last month. FRANCHISES, BABY, ALL ABOUT THOSE FRANCHISES.

COVID-19 and advertising. As above, so below. Which is to say, what happens in Big Advertising will at some point impact us here. On that note, some things to mull over:

(1) From CNBC: “Experts told CNBC that if the spread of coronavirus continues significantly, that could result in increased ad spending in areas such as mobile gaming or streaming services if consumers end up spending more time at home amid the outbreak, while ad spend could decrease in areas such as out-of-home advertising.”

(2) From Digiday’s Max Willens: “As interest in Coronavirus has surged globally, publishers have launched a fleet of popup products focused on the disease, including popup newsletters, podcasts, live blogs, and even a text messaging service. But a publisher’s ability to monetize those products is limited.”

POSTED     March 10, 2020, 10:56 a.m.
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