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March 31, 2020, 9:33 a.m.

It appears people staying at home all the time is bad news for podcasting

Plus: Kids podcasts come to the rescue for harried parents, how football podcasts deal with no football, and a new weekly news podcast from Radio Ambulante.

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 252, dated March 31, 2020.

Pandemic watch. Let’s kick off with some data — specifically data on how the coronavirus pandemic and all the changes it has prompted to people’s lives has impacted podcast listening.

Podtrac published their latest report on listening trends amid the coronavirus crisis last night (it draws on data up until Sunday). The dip in listenership continues.

Some top-lines:

  • U.S. podcast downloads — for shows measured by Podtrac — dropped 4 percent in the week ending March 29. That follows a 2 percent drop the week before (ending March 22), and a 1 percent drop the week before that (ending March 15).
  • It’s a slightly different picture for U.S. unique listeners: That measure declined 5 percent in the week ending on March 29, after 8 percent the week before and 2 percent the week before that.

The post also contains genre-specific findings. Some really noteworthy things in there:

  • It appears that the biggest losers in terms of week-over-week download growth between the week ending on March 29 and the week ending on March 22 are technology (down 19 percent) and history (down 17 percent). True crime has also seen three straight weeks of download declines.
  • Meanwhile, the biggest winners in that same measure are fiction (up 19 percent), business (up 10 percent), science (up 9 percent), and kids/family (up 9 percent; more on that below). Fiction is particularly interesting: The genre had seen a significant drop in downloads since the start of the year until the effects of the pandemic set in.

So, where are we? Though it might still be relatively early, it’s safe to say that podcasting is taking a noticeable hit in the aggregate amid the coronavirus crisis and the behavioral changes it has prompted.

Of course, consider the layers here. To start with, Podtrac’s findings only address the group of shows it measures, which is significant but not the total market. Furthermore, an aggregate decline doesn’t mean a universal decline: As I noted last week, there are publishers and shows that have seen increases in listening — Vox Media and Slate’s audio divisions, PMM’s portfolio, and so on — or at least seen steady listenership.

So what can we infer from a situation where overall downloads and unique listeners are dropping, but where there are nevertheless some individual gainers?

From my perspective, we’re looking at a scenario where value may be being concentrated in a smaller group of players. And it’s not that much of a stretch to guess that most of those players are already bigger and well established.

I’m also inclined toward the idea that this is a uniquely difficult time for shows just starting out, podcasts with more casual appeal, and newer podcast talents that haven’t cultivated a strong following yet. Doubly so if they’re not offering coronavirus-related fare.

Another thread: the centrality of people’s commutes to podcast listening, along with other “in-between” contexts believed to be prime podcast consumption settings (working out, talking walks, and so on). Even this early, it’s evident that curtailing these prime settings has hurt podcast consumption. What does this tell us about podcast programming as a whole, and more importantly, how it can adapt to the moment?

Finally, a word on true crime. Broadly speaking, I’m somewhat partial to “it’s hard for folks to listen to true crime when there’s an overt universal horror in the air right now” camp. I imagine that’s debatable, at the very least among true crime podcast makers and superfans. True crime, more than many other genres, has been a substantial driver of new podcast creation, attention, and listenership over the past few years. The sputtering of that engine would represent a loss that podcasting has to make up elsewhere.

All right, one last data thing: Podsights, the podcast advertising analytics tool company, has a blog post up discussing the results of a survey on audience and advertising that they ran with their client base. Note that the publisher component of that base is described as “overwhelmingly” made up of bigger companies. Worth a skim.

Joe Biden, frontrunner in the race for the Democratic nomination, launches a podcast. He does so amid a crisis period in which he’s largely failed to break through as a leading political voice. I thought CNBC’s headline captured the situation well: “Joe Biden launches podcast as coronavirus forces 2020 campaigns to improvise.”

Anyway, the podcast is called Here’s the Deal with Joe Biden, and it’s remarkably hard to find on Apple Podcasts and Spotify. It shouldn’t be mistaken for Biden’s Briefing, which features…readouts of articles he likes, I guess? Hang on, folks. It’s going to be a weird one.

Kids podcasts see a bump. It wouldn’t surprise anyone to hear that the coronavirus pandemic would send a lot of listeners to news podcasts. But they’re not the only genre to benefit: Kids podcasts are also seeing increased listenership in this extraordinary moment, as school closures and social isolation recommendations mean that kids are spending more time at home with their [tired, oh so tired —Ed.] parents.

To get a sense of the scale of this trend, I checked in with four teams that specialize in kids podcasts. Here’s what they’re seeing.

  • Tinkercast is the children’s media company behind Wow in the World, the popular kids podcast hosted by Guy Raz and Mindy Thomas and distributed by NPR. Meredith Halpern-Ranzer, Tinkercast’s chief executive officer (or chief executive tinkerer, in her preferred parlance), tells me that as of March 23, Wow in the World downloads were up 23 percent over the average of the previous thirteen weeks.
  • Gen-Z Media is a podcast network that focuses on scripted audio shows for kids and families. Its network, which is distributed in partnership with PRX, includes The Unexplainable Disappearance of Mars Patel, the Alien Adventures of Finn Caspian, and Six Minutes. Ben Strouse, the company’s CEO, reported a roughly 30 percent increase in overall listens over the past few weeks. “Six Minutes, for instance, which used to perform about 2 million downloads a month, is on track for 3 million,” he said.
  • Tumble Media is the production group that produces Tumble, a science podcast for kids. It’s an independent shop, but they’re also partnered with Gen-Z Media and are counted as part of that portfolio. Lindsay Patterson, who produces and co-hosts the show, and Sara Robberson Lentz, who serves as Tumble Media’s head of partnerships, tell me they saw an audience increase of about 18 percent across March — and more specifically, a pronounced 40 percent jump in downloads during the week of March 16. (Their numbers are measured by Podtrac.)
  • Kitty Felde, a public radio veteran who publishes two kids podcasts — Book Club for Kids and The Fina Mendoza Mysteries — saw similar bumps. The most recent episode of Book Club for Kids was downloaded 64 percent more than the previous episode. Downloads for The Fina Mendoza Mysteries, a smaller show, saw a much larger jump. Website traffic is up about 120 percent over last month.

These teams are in a unique position to provide not only children-focused entertainment that parents can feel good about, but also supplementary education material helpful for kids as they grapple with patchwork transitions to remote learning. “Some of these students have structured remote learning plans from their teachers, some do not,” said Tinkercast’s Halpern-Ranzer. “In either scenario, we are seeing teachers and parents gravitating to digital and free educational content.”

Many of these operations have already been producing digital educational resources to complement their podcasts, which they’re adapting to meet the moment. For instance, Tumble has been in the business of creating online materials — curriculum packages, and so on — around its more popular episodes, which were typically sold at affordable prices. They made those materials free when school closures first began, and they plan to continue doing so as long as schools stay closed. Response to the decision was strongly positive, with the team noting that the Facebook post announcing the price removal had achieved the most reach they’ve ever seen. Similarly, Tinkercast’s Halpern-Razner said Wow in the World has been seeing “record amounts of posts and referrals” about their free STEAM activities and digital content as well.

Kids podcasts are an attractive alternative to screen time, a value proposition that made them a fixture in compiled lists of free resources for temporary homeschooling meant to help parents as they developed new daily routines for their children. “Our theory is that many families who are subscribing now had heard of podcasts for kids but never found a compelling reason to listen or put it into their routine,” Tumble’s Patterson and Lentz said. “The quarantine has provided that reason, and we suspect that they’ll stay listeners even when it’s over.”

The genre is also a reprieve from the news, a plus for some families. “Shows like ours provide fun and a bit of escapism that’s comforting to kids and parents,” said Gen-Z Media’s Strouse. “More so than watching a TV show, to be able to fully escape into another world during an unprecedented crisis can feel like a relief and provide a sense of normalcy.”

But in the instances where children explicitly sought clarity on what’s happening in the world around them, these productions were also well-positioned to present that type of information appropriately. “We felt like we had the ability to address kids’ concerns and questions in a way that was really needed,” said Patterson and Lentz, which quickly turned around a special Q&A episode for kids that they later translated into Spanish. “Honestly, there are very few outlets that can speak directly to kids in a timely way…We got immediate feedback that kids appreciated having someone who was not their parents explain coronavirus to them.”

Kids podcasting has been a vibrant but relatively uncrowded genre, and there’s some belief that its comparative paucity has made it easier for individual show discoverability. “Relatively speaking, there are fewer podcast options for older kids — tweens and teens, ages 8 to 14 or so — which are the programs that attract co-listening by entire families cooped up in this crisis,” said Gen-Z Media’s Strouese. “Those are our shows, so it’s only natural that Pants on Fire and Six Minutes as well as Mars Patel get noticed by parents and kids searching for engaging podcast programming.”

Some also felt that discoverability was helped when several podcast distribution platforms — Stitcher and Apple Podcasts were explicitly cited — assembled kid-focused collections on their curatorial pages during the country’s initial stutter-step embrace of social distancing.

As prolonged social distancing becomes increasingly likely, there’s a push to get more kids podcasts out to families everywhere. Tinkercast just launched a new daily science-themed game show called Two Whats and a Why (though the effort probably preceded this moment). Kids Listen, a children’s podcasting advocacy group co-founded by Tumble’s Patterson, recently launched something called the Kids Listen Activity Podcast, a new daily feed where each new episode will feature a different Kids Listen-affiliated podcast explicitly giving families something to do every day. Meanwhile, Gen-Z Media has launched a new daily podcast through its Six Minutes feed, called Remy’s Life…Interrupted. The company is also working with its distribution partner, PRX, to push up the launch dates for three upcoming project launches, which will now debut across the next several weeks.

There will be many more, both from this pool of creators and beyond. It’s a reflection of how, in times of great disruption, there’s great opportunity to be helpful. “It’s uncomfortable to have a measure of success come as the result of such a terrible thing happening,” said Tumble’s Patterson and Lentz. “But we feel very grateful that we are making something that is serving as an important resource and comfort for many during this time.”

Before we move on… Here are few other noteworthy kids podcast projects flagged by Lindsay Patterson and Sara Robberson Lentz in our interview: Pineapple Street’s The Kids Are All… Home, Peace Out’s Time to Pause, Fun Kids’ Stuck at Home, and The Show about Science’s Transmissions from Quarantine. More can be found in this New York Times list by Patterson.

For sports podcasts, what now? [by Caroline Crampton]. No matter your industry, work right now feels alien and bizarre. But if that industry happens to be sports media, the sensation is especially strong, because the very thing you cover has literally stopped happening. (For the most part.)

The first sporting events were postponed or cancelled as far back as January 22 (Olympic boxing qualifiers in Wuhan), and that effect snowballed as the virus spread, with the NBA suspended on March 12 and the U.K.’s Premier League the next day.

It’s a long running British joke that the BBC’s radio coverage of cricket — specifically, a show called Test Match Special — is better when rain stops play, because that’s when the commentators head off on extremely weird hours-long tangents about pigeons. But now that every planned sports broadcast is dead air to be filled, it’ll take more than ad libs.

As a case study, I focused on the British football [ahem, soccer —Ed.] podcasting scene this week. As I’ve written before, football coverage makes up a significant chunk of profitable podcasting in the U.K. That’s partly because it’s an area where U.K.-based shows don’t have to compete with what’s coming out of the U.S., and partly because of how deep football fandom runs here — people are used to spending money to keep up with their teams via tickets, merch, or TV packages. That dynamic is also what led The Athletic to launch in the U.K. in August 2019, having raised an extra $50 million for overseas expansion, and to poach dozens of British sports journalists with big salary offers to make a new slate of premium, ad-free football podcasts.

I’ve been checking in with football podcasters over the past few days, and naturally, the main thing everyone is dealing with is how to fill their episodes. Neil Atkinson from The Anfield Wrap (TAW) — a Liverpool-based company with well over 10,000 paying subscribers — told me they’re still putting out their two free shows a week, as well as another 10 or so premium episodes and daily videos. “What I’m finding is that structured formats help,” he said. “And good guests, guests we wouldn’t otherwise have got.” Now that almost everyone in the field is stuck at home, it’s much easier to get players and pundits on a quick call to record.

As well as covering how players and support staff are handling the situation, TAW is dipping into comedy, history and broader fan culture. Iain Macintosh, chief executive of Muddy Knees Media — best known for The Totally Football Show and other associated podcasts — spoke of similar plans. His team just has “an inexhaustible supply of new feature ideas,” he said. “We’re not trying to replicate what we did before, because we can’t, but rather see it as a chance to go through all those things that we’ve talked about doing that, you know, real life has got in the way. Now we can get them out there and give them some air.” That includes a forthcoming “Pundit World Cup” as well as film reviews, documentaries, and quizzes.

Anders Kelto, co-host and executive producer for the daily podcast The Lead at The Athletic, echoed that: “One of my first thoughts was, ‘Will it make sense for us to continue doing our podcast?’…It was just so hard to imagine what the sports landscape would look like, and what kinds of stories we would cover on a daily sports news show if there were no actual competitions going on. But it quickly became apparent that there were tons of interesting stories to cover — some related to coronavirus and others not.” As well as discussing the virus fallout, Kelto and colleagues are making sure to keep up with stories like the U.S. women’s soccer team and their fight for equal pay to keep a balance of material on their feed.

Even with plenty to fill the time, sports media is in a strange position, Armstrong said. “I think that people either want information about the virus and the reality of the situation or they want to escape it,” he said. “At TAW, we can make episodes that don’t even mention it, but the very nature of our shows and what’s absent from them is a reminder of it. So we’re neither a complete escape nor are we addressing it explicitly from a news or scientific point of view.”

So far, Macintosh reported that things were steady on the business front for Muddy Knees. (Their sports shows are primarily ad-supported.) “Everyone’s nervous, for lots of reasons, personal and professional. But our contracts are all in place and are holding up,” he said. Overall listening figures haven’t really changed, but episodes now have a much longer tail as material is less time-sensitive and listeners don’t necessarily have to hit play immediately after release. The company also makes non-sports shows, and that decision to diversify is paying dividends now. They’ve picked up a new commission to make an educational history podcast for the BBC as part of their homeschool strand, and had new inquiries from brands looking for marketing options while staff are quarantined.

At TAW, they’ve seen “an increase in cancellations” on their £5 (roughly $6.20) monthly subscription, although Armstrong said they’d also had a bad six weeks prior to the virus outbreak because of technical difficulties on their website, so it’s not easy to separate the two. “We will have to make a couple of business decisions around the options the government has put forward,” he said, “but we’re not having panicked calls about what we do next.” Sponsor reads are still coming in from Audioboom for their free shows, and right now they’re focused on serving their community with as much good content as they can.

According to the Financial Times, The Athletic was very close to its goal of 100,000 paying subscribers in the U.K. before the virus outbreak. The free trial period has recently been extended from 7 to 90 days. Co-founder Adam Hansmann told the FT that despite the current difficulties, the company still had “a clear line of sight to profitability.”

At both ends of the scale — TAW with a dozen staffers, The Athletic with over 400 — subscription-based sports media is likely to feel the effect of the next few weeks and months acutely as customers have to cut back on expenses. As everyone I spoke to laid out, how great the impact really depends on how soon professional sports can get started again. And that’s one thing nobody knows right now.

El Hilo: a new Spanish-language news podcast. The work must go on.

Last Friday saw the launch of a new podcast from the team at Radio Ambulante: El Hilo, a Spanish-language weekly news show focused on covering Latin America and the U.S. The podcast, they say, is designed to deliver stories in a style similar to Radio Ambulante, but grounded in a newsier approach.

Hosted by Eliezer Budasoff and Silvia Viñas, El Hilo is making its debut at a most anxious time, as the world grapples with a pandemic exacerbated by streams of misinformation. The first episode, as you would imagine, dives headfirst into the mess, and the show will likely continue to do so across its opening weeks.

To learn more about the show’s development process, and what it means to launch a new podcast during this specific moment in time, I sent a few questions over to Viñas, who also serves as the show’s executive producer.

Hot Pod: Walk me through the basics. What is El Hilo, what is it being built to do, and what should I know about its production context?

Silva Viñas: El Hilo is a weekly show that covers the most important news of the week from a Latin American perspective. Every Friday morning on El Hilo, we’ll speak to reporters, Radio Ambulante contributors, and other voices from the region, focusing on the most significant news story of the week.

It’s hosted by Eliezer Budasoff — former editorial director at The New York Times en Español, currently editor for special projects at El País — and me, Silvia Viñas, a journalist, editor, and producer who has been with Radio Ambulante for seven years. I’m also El Hilo’s executive producer. We’ve learned a lot in the last nine years making Radio Ambulante, and we want to bring those lessons and that style of storytelling to the news. This is going to sound new in Latin America, where shows like this just don’t exist. We think the audience is going to respond.

El Hilo is also the second podcast by Radio Ambulante Estudios, more urgent and newsy than our flagship podcast. There are currently no podcasts in Spanish with a regional vision that report on timely news events using narrative storytelling, scoring, and archive. El Hilo is a response to that, but also to the need for more context, analysis, and understanding of news from Latin America and the Spanish-speaking world.

El Hilo will be hosted and distributed by Acast, and they will manage the relationship with sponsors. Acast has led the way in podcasting for years, and have developed a marketplace for podcast advertising that was appealing for us. Not only does Acast have a strong presence in the U.S., but also in a number of countries in Europe and Asia, and has recently opened an office in Mexico City. We felt Acast was the right platform for us, in part because they share the global vision that characterizes Radio Ambulante.

Radio Ambulante Estudios is a nonprofit organization and receives foundation support. Not all of our revenue comes from philanthropy (we’ve developed products like Lupa, for example, our language learning app, that are starting to bring in significant revenue), but we were able to find a couple of grants to support the development of the project and make it a reality.

Hot Pod: I’ve heard that El Hilo has been in development for about a year. What went into that process?

Viñas: When Carolina and Daniel began thinking about building Radio Ambulante the podcast into Radio Ambulante Estudios, a production company with multiple shows, they were convinced that a news show should be the next project.

We did multiple audience surveys and knew that our audience wanted more shows, and that there was an emerging regional consciousness. People in Latin America were curious about what exactly was happening not just in their country, but in neighboring countries as well.

Early last year, we started developing the podcast with The New York Times as a way to dive deep into the region’s stories with their NYT en Español team and Spanish-speaking correspondents. We hired a producer and a sound designer and piloted several episodes during the summer of 2019. Unfortunately, when the Times decided to close operations for their Español team in September, the partnership didn’t make much sense anymore, so both organizations agreed to terminate the contract. The Times agreed that Radio Ambulante could continue developing the show independently, but of course, for a small organization like Radio Ambulante, it represented a big challenge.

Still, by then we had a show we were proud of and a committed and talented team working from New York, Mexico City, London, and Berlin. We knew that we needed to launch the podcast independently. It took us over six months to develop the product side and distribution strategy and to secure a couple of grants to make it a reality.

Hot Pod: I imagine it’s a strange time to be putting something new out into the world, particularly if it’s not specifically coronavirus-related. Has that been weighing on your mind?

Viñas: It’s a fraught time to launch a new product, honestly. But we’re a mission driven organization, and in some ways, COVID-19 has clarified that mission for us. We need better and more rigorous reporting about this unprecedented crisis. We need it desperately in Spanish, for U.S. Latino communities and for Latin America, where the response has varied widely from country to country, and where the public health systems are not, generally speaking, so robust. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that at times like these good journalism can save lives.

You can find El Hilo here. New episodes will drop every Friday morning.

Illustration by Alexandra Andres used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     March 31, 2020, 9:33 a.m.
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