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April 28, 2020, 11:15 a.m.

After weeks of pandemic-driven decline, podcast listening seems to be inching back up

Plus: Luminary survives its first year, a 10-minute podcast rooted entirely in spite, and why limited-run audio docs are in a particularly tough spot.

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 256, dated April 28, 2020.

Pandemic watch. Going by Stitcher’s pandemic timeline, it’s now Week 9, or eight weeks into life under widespread lockdown. Last night’s coronavirus update from Podtrac saw the first unambiguously positive note in a while: The week of April 20–26 saw growth in overall download numbers (up 4 percent) and audience numbers (up 2 percent) for the first time since the week of March 2–8.

As the audience picture continues to stabilize and sort itself out over the medium term, podcast publishers still have to make big decisions about how to approach new project launches in the weeks and months to come. To what extent will we see new podcast releases, originally meant for the summer, pushed back deeper into the calendar year? What kinds of projects are being deemed too “risky” to drop in the short term, amidst the uncertainty and instability of the next few months? And what kinds of projects are deemed “safe”?

These questions are rooted in fluid assessments of both audience and advertisers. How are the former feeling at this moment, and what do they want in their lives right now? How are the latter thinking about spending their marketing budgets over the next few months, and to what extent have they shifted their attention to the next quarter or even next year?

Let’s start with the obvious thing. People I spoke with last week almost universally agreed that it’s a good time to launch coronavirus-related podcasts. I say “almost” because some argued we may already be saturated with them. It’s also possible that significant swathes audiences will burn out on COVID-19 material before long, given the totalizing nature of this crisis, or that they might have internalized the new normal to the point that they want to broaden out the things they want to think about every day. There is, of course, a counter-counter-argument that the information needs under the pandemic are ever-growing and ever-changing and there will always be something new we need to know about.

When it comes to non-coronavirus podcasts, the outlook is a mixed bag. It’s generally understood that podcasting can serve a few vital roles during this moment; in addition to offering information and analysis, they can give audiences comfort, community, escapism, or just distraction. The big question is how much appetite there is among listeners to try something new, as opposed to sticking with the things they already have.

Those concerns are often about the nature of the material: Is this something people would want to experience in this environment of high-anxiety? (I’ve heard multiple instances of networks pushing back launches of upcoming true-crime podcasts.)

One other consideration stood out to me in conversations. Let’s say you’re sure that people will find immediate value in the podcast you’re making, even under these conditions. How do you promote those projects in a way that’s both able to break through to the right people in this all-consuming-pandemic environment and do so in a manner and tone that’s sensitive to the moment? (A source who works in PR pointed to this New York Times article, “The Art of the Pitch in the Midst of a Pandemic,” as being top of mind right now.)

Those twin challenges are daunting, and for some publishers, there’s a sense that skipping over the volatility and the static of the next few months would be the most prudent course of action. That’s especially true for projects requiring significant upfront costs and whose monetization window is disproportionately tied to the show’s original publishing run as opposed to the long tail.

Limited-run audio documentary series often suffer from that problem, and it’s the genre largely thought to be facing the most risk right now. They typically need to pull in significant listener numbers across their original publishing runs order to realize advertising returns that can offset the cost. (There’s also always the potential for derivative IP revenue, of course. But that income channel isn’t always dependable, and while Hollywood dealmaking continues apace, it’s an open question when productions can actually get rolling again.)

To be sure, we’ll continue to see some new limited-run audio docs roll out over this spring and summer. In some cases, that’ll be because they already have advertising commitments strongly tied to those dates. In others, it’ll be because the publisher is confident they can make the audience and advertising arrangements work. It’ll be interesting to see which publishers move forward with those kinds of projects and whether those projects can actually pop in a less-crowded space. So many questions: What types of experiences get through over others? Which publishers, and what kinds of creators, are in better positions to take risks? And how do publishers mitigate the risk profile of their projects?

Beyond those questions, it seems publishers are navigating the uncertainty by relying more on projects with either a big name or an established podcast talent attached. It’s no surprise that the pandemic has kicked up the volume of celebrities trying to build podcast projects, as highlighted in a brief section of this recent Deadline writeup. It’s also no surprise that some of those projects are catching heat, like the Scrubs rewatch podcast featuring former stars Zach Braff and Donald Faison. Or the Sopranos rewatch podcast featuring former secondary players Michael Imperioli and Steve Schirripa. The celebrity-rewatch podcast is a conveniently “safe” project in these conditions. As one executive said to me: People are at home, looking for distraction, novelty, and something that’s an easy filler. Backed with a big name, you can experiment within those parameters and still likely be pleased with the results. Everything outside of that will generally have more of a challenging time.

All this should sound quite familiar: It’s a lot like the dynamic we saw in play well before the pandemic’s uncertainties kicked in. But as I said last week, crises tend to accelerate dynamics that already in play.

This discussion is only about projects with significant performance expectations attached to them. If you’re thinking about starting a show, or doing something experimental, none of this should discourage you. I’m firmly in the camp of this being a time where more people should be starting new podcasts of strange and capricious qualities. The key, in my opinion, is to start out with as little risk as possible, with as little expectations as possible, and go from there. Hey, if everything works out, you might end up becoming Richard’s Famous Foods Podcast. I, for one, have been listening to repeatedly for comfort.

This American Life is now available on Spotify. Previously, the iconic public radio show and podcast couldn’t be found in the Swedish streaming audio platform’s catalogue due to a TAL partnership that gave Pandora “exclusive streaming rights” to the show. That deal was a little confusing in practice, given that This American Life was freely available on Apple Podcasts and in third-party podcast apps — but it did have the effect of keeping them off Spotify. (The deal also caused an Indiana public radio station, WBAA, to briefly cut the show from its roster. More on that fascinating historical episode here.)

Anyway, This American Life can still be found on Pandora, just no longer as an exclusive. This is all a little wonky, but it’s a pretty big deal for Spotify, given that the show commands massive audience numbers every week. And it comes the day before Spotify reports quarterly earnings — its first under pandemic conditions.

Take note, though: It’s a whole other issue for Serial, which was part of that original “exclusive streaming rights” deal with Pandora. Serial still isn’t available on Spotify. (It also still isn’t owned by The New York Times.)

Downturn watch. Deadline reports that Endeavor, the Hollywood conglomerate, is cutting costs that will impact up to a third of its workforce, including divisions like its talent agency WME.

Meanwhile, Patreon is laying off 13 percent of its staff, despite saying it has seen increases in new creators and patrons.

Luminary, one year in. Last Thursday marked a full year since Luminary, the aspiring “Netflix for podcasts” that raised over $100 million before launch, officially made its supremely messy and controversial debut. The paid podcast platform has seen quite a bit of change since then: It’s lowered its price; swapped out its young CEO for an older entertainment veteran, former HBO president Simon Sutton; added fellow HBO veteran Richard Plepler to the company’s board and its pool of investors; and expanded into a number of international English-speaking markets.

Other than those operational developments, though, things have been mostly quiet for the service. I’ve seen little discussion, either by the company itself or by others, about any markers of significant achievement — paid subscribers, revenue, breakout hits, or noteworthy listening numbers. From a brand-building and marketing standpoint, I generally expect these kinds of companies to be really trigger-happy when it comes to spouting off positive metrics — even if they sometimes require some creative accounting — to build continued hype and momentum for a business model that needs to grab your attention before pushing you down the paid subscription funnel.

Some clues can be found in a new writeup by Bloomberg’s Gerry Smith Friday. Smith shows the company struggling to live up to its grand ambitions a year in, citing some noteworthy departures from the service (like the brand-name political operator David Axelrod) and talk from some Luminary podcast creators that few people ended up listening to their shows behind the paywall. (Luminary declines to say how many paid subscribers it has.) The piece goes onto note that the company is “regrouping,” switching up and refining its approach after a difficult first year, though Smith rightly notes that it will be doing so in an increasingly harsh economic environment. I’m only nibbling on this cake; do check out the whole piece in full, as there is quite a bit of other noteworthy details in there.

Not to sound like a broken record on this, but I continue to believe that there is some kind of pathway to a viable paid on-demand audio platform in this media ecosystem. And I mean a genuine upstart, setting up shop in this day and age — one that isn’t Audible, Headspace, or a hypothetical New York Times-based “HBO for podcasts” product that would have the structural advantage of an existing paid audience built in. In my opinion, the key lies in contributions that are more specific and pronounced, perhaps even niche-oriented, as opposed to something built around the idea of monetizing small portions of competitive programming areas and labeling it as “premium” or of “quality,” even if it comes with the currency of brand-name celebrities.

(That said, considering that we currently find ourselves in an economic picture of unprecedented bleakness, I’m not sure it’s the best time to start any new companies from scratch right now. But hey, I’m not a Startup Guy, so whatever.)

Anyway, speaking of bleak economic pictures and Luminary, one other detail to note. Check out this Los Angeles Times piece that came out yesterday, which focused on how the coronavirus crisis has “helped” Spotify’s podcast business. While I found the core argument a little soft — its one quantitative data point appears to be a sharp increase in additions to the platform’s podcast catalogue, which is helpful, sure, but only to a point — the article nonetheless has an interesting Luminary-related detail in a section discussing the broader industry environment: Luminary, it seems, is among the audio companies either laying off, furloughing workers, and cutting salaries amidst the crisis. I haven’t seen that detail elsewhere, but it’s worth filing away.

Listen, I know I can come off sounding salty whenever I write about Luminary, particularly after its botched-beyond-imagination rollout. The way I see it, if you’re going to raise all this money, bring all this hype into value and pricing within the podcast talent market, and command that much attention within the podcast conversation, the least you could do is make all of it worth it.

I’ll strive to keep an open mind, though. Maybe Year 2 will be better than Year 1. Maybe premium cable television skills will translate into on-demand audio, and maybe they’ll do so under the worst economic conditions in a very long time. But we’ll see.

I just can’t get over this story. From HuffPost: “Quibi Sent These Podcasters A Cease-And-Desist, So Now They’re Out For Blood.”

The podcast is called Streamiverse (née Quibiverse, until the C&D). Anyway, aside from the strangeness of this story in general, another thing that struck me about the show is the win-win nature of its conceit, which is kinda genius.

As hosts Rob Dezendorf and Danielle Gibson explained in an early episode, given the amount of money that Quibi raised before launch, this thing is either going to be a colossal failure or an outstanding success. For those of us in the content-mining business, it’s a formula that can’t do you wrong. Mad respect.

How one podcast critic is listening in lockdown [by Caroline Crampton]. Miranda Sawyer is one of the U.K.’s high profile podcast critics, with a good writeup in her weekly “radio and podcasts” column in The Observer being a highly sought-after review spot for new shows. Like many of the rest of us, she’s found her listening routine completely disrupted by the coronavirus lockdown. I spoke to her last week about the U.K. podcast scene at the moment and how the “new normal” has changed her listening routine. We’re doing this in the “as told to” format; it’s more fun that way.

Obviously, most people listen while commuting or going to the gym, usually, but I don’t do either. Because I work from home, I tend to listen just when I’m pottering around the house. I put my headphones in and then I do those boring straightening jobs that I hate — I’m not very domestic.

Audio is about when you’re doing things. You get those weird maps, especially if you’re in the same place a lot. I go to the same park a lot to walk the dog, and so the different parts of the park are always associated with revelatory bits in this podcast or an upsetting bit in that podcast, a bit where I cried.

The difficult thing now is that listening to podcasts is essentially a solitary activity. It’s not like radio where it chunters away in the background and everyone can hear it. There are a few podcasts that you blast out to the whole family, but I’m finding — as I think is possibly borne out by the statistics — that my own podcast listening has gone down. Because, you know, I’ve got to look after my nine-year-old.

There’s four of us in our family at home: me, my husband, our 14-year-old son and nine-year-old daughter. The dog, as well. We do tend to separate at points during the day, because otherwise we’ll just kill each other, and I think it happens quite naturally. When that happens, I quite often listen to podcasts. I’ve got a fucking rowing machine, so I row and listen because rowing is really boring. And sometimes, actually, I listen in the evenings when the kids are playing Fortnite and my husband’s watching a telly show that I’m not interested in. I quite often do sit in the same room with him, but listen to a podcast.

My natural inclination is no drama or fiction, but I’m finding I need to be a bit more transported. I’m not a fan of sci-fi, but I am a fan of spookiness. I wanted something to take me away. Thanks to a few recommendations, I’ve been listening to something that was done a while ago for the BBC called Strata, written by Matthew Broughton. I would never normally listen to something like that, but I’ve been enjoying it while I queue to get into the supermarket.

I’m free to choose what I write about in my column. There’s the main copy, and then I have three little boxouts at the bottom, and they can be anything. In the last three or four weeks, I’ve been trying to pick ones that might soothe people. Helen Zaltzman is doing The Tranquillusionist, or a podcast that’s meant to help you go to sleep — that kind of thing. But I really am free to write about whatever I want. Sometimes, they tell me there’s something’s happening in The Archers and I’d better cover it…I’m not a natural Archers fan, but I quite like it, because I always end up tuning in when there’s a crisis to write about it, so as far as I’m concerned The Archers is just one big mad crisis, I never hear the boring “Sumer is icumen in” harvest bits.

What’s happening now in British podcasting is a big push for younger listeners who wouldn’t naturally come [to audio]. There’s a lot more shows about telly, and some that come out of Instagram accounts. Shagged Married Annoyed came out of that — they were successful on Instagram, and actually it’s a great podcast. That’s a gateway podcast, where people who would never usually listen to podcasts will try it, in the same way people will try That Peter Crouch Podcast. The way that podcasts are moving is more relaxed and bantery — I mean, they’ve always been relaxed and bantery, but they’ve been a little less mainstream in what they were bantering about. Now it’s everyday relationships, TV you can see easily, stupid football talk. It’s like the equivalent of pub talk. Remember that?

People just want something nice. Familiar people, having fun. If you get the right celebrities in it — and I don’t think we’ve got the right celebrities in it yet — then that will work more and more. Finding the right British celebrity is really hard, though, especially if you want to be more than just a British hit. If you want to be an American hit — my daughter’s taking the mickey out of me right now — you have to be really famous. It would have to be Tom Holland hanging out with other Marvel stars. My daughter’s saying Stormzy, and I agree, if he did one with people he liked or inspired, that would be a massive hit.

I don’t get particularly anxious, other than at three in the morning like everyone else, so I can listen to coronavirus podcasts. I think if you are anxious or prone to frustration, I wouldn’t listen. The best one I’ve found is the one from BBC Radio 5 Live called The Coronavirus Diaries, where they asked people who are working on the front lines — a GP, an ICU doctor, someone working in a care home — to record audio diaries about what’s happening to them. I also think the one from LBC with Nick Ferarri is good because he’s a really tough interviewer.

Podcasting is at an interesting time, and this will make it even more interesting, because there will be so many mad celebs stuck at home who need to express themselves in certain ways. But I think that if people spend a little time learning their technique while they’re at home, there will be more good shows in the long run.

You can find Sawyer on Twitter here.

POSTED     April 28, 2020, 11:15 a.m.
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