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April 21, 2020, 11:49 a.m.

Can Spotify’s playlists do for podcasts what they’ve done for music?

Plus: Tips for recording at home, COVID cuts at big publishers, and the benefits of a podcast book club.

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 255, dated April 21, 2020.

Pandemic watch. It’s April 21, 2020. Time has been fuzzy lately, so I’m sticking to Stitcher’s accounting of the pandemic timeline, which marks the March 2-8 stretch as Week 1 to signify the last “normal” week before the initial implementation of COVID-19 social distancing measures. By that measure, we’re now in Week 8, or seven weeks into the major rearrangement of everyday life.

So far, we’ve spent these Pandemic Watch columns tightly focused on audience numbers, trying to assess how listening has changed since the near-disappearance of the daily commute and the widespread grounding of Americans in their homes. To recap: Listening dipped in the aggregate, but has since flattened out; for the moment, bigger publishers seem to be doing better than smaller publishers; and the primary listening window appears to have shifted to later in the day.

Let’s now shift our attention to the revenue side, particularly to advertising, which remains the primary engine for the business. I haven’t seen anything that provides a clear sense of the big picture just yet, but a Digiday report from last Tuesday suggested podcast ad revenue has continued to grow despite the broader economic disruptions. Citing sources at Stitcher, Megaphone, and Entercom, the piece turns on the notion that brand advertisers are continuing to buy podcast advertising even as direct response advertisers — long the foundational constituency in the podcast advertising pool — have been pulling back on their own spends.

Digiday’s report is an interesting place to start piecing together the full picture. The big question is just how much the advertising mix will change, and the extent to which overall podcast ad spend will respond to the on-going changes in listening trends. I imagine there will be substantial fluctuations on both counts as different parts of the economy grapple with complex pandemic conditions.

Another question worth tracking: How will those advertising dollars be distributed across different types of publisher? Given the uncertainty, it’s understandable to be concerned that smaller and independent operations might end up seeing fewer ad dollars, with the spending environment turning more conservative even if actual spending levels stay steady.

Should that be the case, we’ll likely end up with far fewer smaller and independent publishers in the ecosystem, leaving us with a scenario where value, power, and opportunities centralize within a smaller group of bigger players. This has been a prominent anxiety within the community for several years now — but as has been said in other contexts, crises tend to accelerate certain dynamics already in play. This is almost certainly one such dynamic, and I feel compelled to say: That sort of centralized environment hasn’t traditionally turned out to be beneficial for creative and media workers as a class.

Speaking of bigger players, last week saw several begin to either signal or execute cost-cutting measures to weather the stormy financial waters.

Early last week, iHeartMedia indicated it’s looking to cut $250 million in costs, including executive pay cuts and the furloughing of “non-essential at this time” staff. The Hollywood Reporter highlights that iHeart is facing drops in radio station ad revenues and that they hope to offset those losses with podcasting and digital revenue. (Meanwhile, interestingly enough, Deadline notes that the company is also estimating a $100 million tax savings from the CARES Act.)

Also early last week, Scripps, which owns Stitcher and Triton Digital, said in an internal memo that the company’s leadership and board of directors are cutting their salaries and fees, with an amount equal to those cuts being donated to a relief fund they’ve set up to help employees requiring basic needs assistance.

On Friday, Vox Media officially furloughed 9 percent of its staff from May 1 through July 31. According to The Daily Beast, many of those cuts hit SB Nation and Curbed (two of its most locally focused brands), and the company also implemented reduced hours for some non-furloughed workers and cut pay for higher-earning employees as well as executives.

Major public radio organizations have tightened their belts as well. On Friday, Current reported that NPR and APM are planning spending cuts in anticipation of major budget hits as business closures throughout the country have brought significant drops in underwriting and sponsorships. Executive pay has been reduced, and NPR chief executive John Lansing was quoted as saying that the organization’s goal is to lower costs without eliminating jobs and that cutting positions is currently “not on the table,” but that there are no guarantees. Both organizations had started out the year with strong projections and are currently seeing strong audience numbers amidst the crisis.

These are but a few examples. If you’d like a more robust (and wildly depressing) accounting of cuts and closures hitting the broader industry, Poynter’s Kristen Hare has been keeping an actively updated list here.

Before we move on, here’s a link to the coronavirus update post from the folks at Podtrac. The three big things that stood out to me: the listening dip in its sample continues to level off; fascinatingly, fiction is bouncing back; and take a gander on the “U.S. Hourly Downloads by Week” section, which noted an interesting bump during peak hours on Sunday.

Spotify expands podcast playlists. The Swedish streaming audio platform’s march into podcasting continues apace. Today, the company is rolling out the next phase of its effort to do unto podcasting what it’s long done with music: establish a prominent system of curated playlists that drives discovery, engagement, and in some cases, brand power.

The new iteration of its podcast playlists will initially be available in just six markets: the U.S., the U.K., Sweden, Germany, Mexico, and Brazil. All six markets will start out with the same three flagship playlists — “Best Podcasts of the Week,” “Brain Snacks,” and “Crime Scene” — that will be rounded out by a localized array of territory-specific playlists designed around different topics, themes, and categories. Each market will start out with somewhere between 12 and 15 playlists.

For now, these playlists will be manually curated, with editorial responsibilities held by small curatorial teams operating in each market. I’m told the curation process will be driven by a mix of editorial taste, platform data, and general entertainment trends. The individual episode will serve as the atomic unit of these playlists, and the team’s general intent is to assemble a mix of “iconic” episodes and standard fare.

“The goal isn’t to weigh the playlists too much towards our internal studios, of course, but to reflect what the market would want,” said Courtney Holt, Spotify’s global head of studios and video, when we spoke about the product’s new approach last week.

As you might recall, Spotify has been operating podcast playlists on the platform for some time now. The initial version of the product went live last summer, and in November, the company pushed deeper with the release of the algorithmic “Your Daily Podcasts” and “Your Daily Drive” products, both of which share some directional similarities with the popular “Discover Weekly” music playlist. For what it’s worth, I haven’t found any of these previous podcast playlists particularly useful for my own listening. Then again, I’m a highly irregular consumer and I understand the limitations of my preferences in this context.

Anyway, in some cases, the new podcast playlists will be rebranded versions of existing ones. This will be the case for the three flagships: “Best Podcasts of the Week” will take over “Today’s Top Podcasts,” “Crime Scene” over “Dead Good True Crime,” “Brains Snacks” over “Podcasts Under 20 Minutes.” All playlists will be updated either weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly, depending on the nature of the beast, and I’m told there’s an expectation to eventually launch two new playlists per month per market.

You can see where Spotify hopes to go with this. The company’s music playlists are no trifle: They’re strong tools for discovery and engagement on the platform, with tens of millions of Spotify users routinely interacting with them. But the larger theoretical prize lies in the way some of these playlists, like RapCaviar and Hot Country, have become prominent brands in and of themselves, capable of driving interest, influence, and enthusiastic engagement from the music industry. “They’ve built an intense and loyal following,” Holt said of the music playlists. “In many cases, they’ve driven promotions for Spotify through mentions from artists.”

It will probably take time and several more tweaks before we can get a clear sense of whether this adaptation gambit works. Holt emphasized that the product is still quite early in its implementation — “remember that is still in beta” — and that key components of the full product remain in development. Among them: a formal process for podcasters to submit episodes for playlist consideration through the Spotify for Podcasters portal, and a possible algorithmic component to support the curation process at some point in the future.

I asked if Holt was able to share any further insight into how the company has been affected by the pandemic, particularly as it pertains to podcast consumption on the platform. (I’d been thinking about several reports noting how music streaming, not unlike podcast listening, had dipped under stay-at-home conditions.) “We’re looking at the trends closely, but we haven’t seen anything that gives us great concern or pause around podcast behavior,” he replied, adding that the company has the capacity to track trends across several international markets, many of which are at different points of the COVID-19 timeline.

Holt said that the company has been seeing just about the same things as everyone else, including the shift of primary listening windows to later in the day. They’re also learning the same things as everyone else, like adopting robust remote production workflows. On this note, he cited the example of Way Down in The Hole, The Ringer’s new “The Wire” re-watch podcast, which was fully developed and produced remotely.

So not a super clear picture, but it’s a start. The company’s next earnings report is scheduled to drop at the end of the month, April 29. I imagine we’ll find out more then.

On a related note: For more on the influence Spotify’s playlists have over the music industry, I recommend reading this 2017 Vulture piece from Craig Marks, which focuses on RapCaviar.

U.K. Audio Relief Fund. A new hardship grant system has been launched to help those in the U.K. working in audio and radio and struggling financially because of the coronavirus outbreak. It covers anyone working in podcasts, radio, or audiobooks — especially freelancers — and will give out up to £1,000 per individual.

The Radio Academy is administering it via an independent panel and has used its existing benevolent fund to kickstart the pot. There have also been contributions so far from the BBC, AudioUK, Audible, and Reelworld. Details on how to apply are available here.

AIR Media’s Freelance Audio Fund still taking apps. The fund, meant to provide emergency relief for members of the professional audio community economically impacted by the pandemic, is still accepting applications until Saturday, April 25. As noted previously, the effort is currently in its second round, which broadened out eligibility to include applicants who aren’t official AIR members.

Here’s an update from Ken Ikeda, AIR’s CEO, sent over email last week:

The Fund started with $50K and AIR has been matched since March 27th with $78K in additional funds. We are setting an internal goal of $200,000 at this time. Pending a few conversations, that bar might move upward to $250K+.

The need is absolutely validated and the candor and resiliency in the applications has been a love letter to the audio craft and the degree to which freelancers in our industry are undercounted and deprioritized.

Again, you can find out more information about the fund here.

From the Margins to the Center, a podcast incubator for women of color, is now accepting applications for its second batch. The incubator is organized by Amped and House of Pod, both of Colorado, and its programming will take place over six weeks in June and July. It’s free for all selected participants. You can find out more here; applications are open until May 8.

More technical guidance. Friend of the newsletter Rob Byers sent me a note recently flagging two new support guides for those recording and editing at home. He wrote:

Final Final v2 (a collab I’m a part of) recently released two guides that are aimed at helping audio producers working from home.

The first, Pro Tools over Zoom, shows how to play Pro Tools sessions over Zoom calls. Super handy for edit and feedback sessions, script read-throughs with tape, or just to share ideas without bouncing and sharing MP3s. It also fixes some problems found in previous methods.

The second, Crossing the streams, shows how to record multi-track interviews using multiple VOIP connections like Zoom, Skype, and FaceTime. Every guest ends up on their own track! It’s written for Pro Tools but could be adapted for other software. It requires Loopback from Rogue Amoeba.

There are lots of bad jokes in both! And bad jokes make everything better.

Not sure I agree with the bad jokes bit…ah, what am I saying, I love bad jokes.

Revolving door. Acast has appointed Georgina Holt as managing director for the U.K., Ireland, and ROW, a role that was previously being covered by Joe Copeman in tandem with his position as global SVP of sales (he will now focus exclusively on that job). Holt joins from The Stylist Group and will be based in London.

R.I.P. From The New York Times: “Liyna Anwar, a podcast producer of South Asian descent whose struggle to find a stem cell donor to treat her cancer became the center of a social media campaign that aimed to make up for racial disparities in marrow and stem cell registries, died on March 26 in a hospital in Duarte, Calif. She was 30.”

Do read the piece in full. One of Anwar’s final projects was Asian Enough for the Los Angeles Times.

A modest proposal for podcast book clubs [by Caroline Crampton]. I’ll be upfront about this: I have never been part of a successful non-virtual book club. My friend tried to start one in a pub in Clapham, South London, in 2012; we waited all afternoon, but nobody from the Facebook invite turned up, so we downed the “for the table” wine ourselves and I donated our chosen tome to the free shelf by the bus stop on the way home. I’ve always assumed that even when they do get off the ground they mostly go like the book club in the 2010 movie Date Night: One person (Steve Carell) will read the book cover to cover, but no one else (Tina Fey, Kristen Wiig, Mark Ruffalo) will bother, making proper literary discussion basically impossible.

I have, however, been the main organizer and an enthusiastic member of a podcast book club for just over a year now. I run it for the paying supporters’ club attached to my podcast Shedunnit; every month we read a different mystery novel and discuss it. I make a bonus primer episode about the chosen book each month just for club members. The discussion takes place at the end of the month in a private Discourse forum, which has the benefit of both being asynchronous (so there’s no need to pick one night when everyone has to be free) and fulfilling my nostalgic need to pretend I still live in the age of dialup. The tone of the book conversations is kind, respectful, and knowledgeable, to an extent that they routinely give me warm fuzzy feelings about the internet as a force for good.

Now, this is by no means a revolutionary concept I’ve got here — there are plenty of other online book clubs out there fighting this good fight. (Shouts to Well Read Black Girl and The Rumpus, luminaries of this space.) But since in this time of lockdown and social distancing online book clubs are getting a lot of attention, I thought it was worth taking a look at where this intersects with podcasting.

There’s suddenly a lot of interest in the potential for sharing literature online, especially through audio and video. For the first few weeks of isolation, it felt like you could barely move on social media without seeing a celebrity reading a book to their followers, for instance. Podcasts are part of this too, with Criminal’s Phoebe Judge reading a chapter of a mystery novel a day on this feed and British comedian Frank Skinner doing poetry here.

Pop-up free audiobooks aside, articles about how to run your own online book club are suddenly everywhere. Being already part of this space from the podcast side, I was interested to see how others in audio might be responding to this trend. I spent a few days hunting through my various apps, and while there are plenty of shows that bill themselves as “book clubs,” I found that a lot were clubs only in the loosest and most passive sense of the word. There are lots of shows where the hosts read a book and then record themselves discussing it and perhaps even interview the author. And that’s great — there’s nothing wrong with a literary interview and discussion show. But in most of these cases, the experience of being in the “club” is really just the same as being a listener of any podcast. The sense of everyone sitting round to talk about a book together that is peculiar to a book club isn’t really there.

So this is where my proposal comes in. I think, especially now when people are craving connection and routine, podcasts of all kinds should consider putting the “club” back in “book club.” Community moderation takes time, of course, and is not a task to be undertaken lightly. But there are lots of relatively low-stress ways to add this element, and you don’t necessarily have to be suddenly trying to host a Zoom session of 200 people shouting literary hot takes in order to have a go at this.

The much-touted intimacy of podcasting is already doing a great job of making people missing their socializing feel more connected — but offering options for both active and passive participation in your show is a great service to your audience and a potential listener growth strategy. A core group of really engaged and loyal club members is far more likely to recommend your podcast to friends, and it’s a great way to attract and reward supporters on a platform like Patreon or Memberful (the latter of which I use). I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but if you’d like to try this here are five guidelines based on what I’ve learned in my first year of podcast book clubbing.

Pick your platform. If a Discourse install is a bit too much to handle right now, then Slack is a great tool that I’ve seen used with great success for book club discussion, as is a Facebook group. Even a Twitter hashtag can do the job in a pinch. You just need a way of separating your book discussion from general chatter that doesn’t also require members to jump through a lot of technical hoops to take part. You can run a live video chat for your club, of course, but I’ve personally found that a forum style conversation where members can drop in as and when they have time is more realistic for most people’s lives (including mine).

Make it opt-in. Don’t spam your entire audience with your longform book thoughts. Only a diehard group of core fans are going to want to take part in this, so tell them where they can go to find it but don’t fill your whole show or social media presence up with book club business. If you’re going to allow listeners to leave voicemails with their book analysis, make a separate bonus episode to share them so that those who aren’t taking part don’t have to wade through that stuff to find the regular show.

Set a timetable and stick to it. I’m not good at this one, but I recognize the value of it! Think very carefully about how much time you have to invest in this, and then set the schedule accordingly. Don’t promise to do monthly author interviews if you don’t have the bandwidth for that. Maybe your audio element happens every other month, or is really short. My bonus book primer episodes are almost always under 10 minutes for this reason. Do open the discussion on the day you said you would and keep members informed about what’s coming up next.

Voting can be fun. Maybe you want to run your podcast book club as a benevolent dictatorship, and that’s just fine. I’ve found that introducing a democratic element is fun, though. In my club, we vote each month for the next title to read from a shortlist of suggestions from the group. This has the advantage of making it not my fault when someone’s favorite isn’t chosen, and it also means that members have a stake in the club’s organization.

Use audio creatively. The biggest advantage of doing a podcast book club over a regular one, I think, is that you can use an RSS feed for your club to distribute…any noises you want to make, basically. If you’re making the group exclusive to paying supporters (as I do) then a system like Patreon, Memberful, Glow, or others will allow you to have a private podcast feed only for members’ ears. And you can put anything you like on it! Interviews, primers, and essays are probably the most common choices, but you could also run listener voicemails, relevant bonus content from your main show, or just the sound of your dog snoring at your feet while you read. Do some improv as the main character in this month’s book. Chat through a reading list inspired by a recent pick. Record yourself going for a socially distanced walk and talk about how you’re finding the book as you go. Having a small group of really invested fellow readers listening is liberating and at the moment it feels really good to be part of something together. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

POSTED     April 21, 2020, 11:49 a.m.
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