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April 14, 2020, 3:15 p.m.

Coronavirus seems to have made podcasts more of an afternoon thing than a morning thing

Plus: Spotify promotes hosts like musicians, live shows pivot to streaming, and Planet Money covers yet another giant pool of money.

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 254, dated April 14, 2020.

Pandemic watch. So, here’s my sense of where we are at the moment: it’s April 14, 2020, which means that, as of this week, we’re about one full month into widespread implementation of social distancing measures in most places across the United States. In other words, we’re now firmly in the “new normal,” I think. Now that we’re here, my inclination is to view whatever audience trends we see from here out as less about the effects of a disruptive transition and more about the new shape of podcast consumption behavior under these conditions.

(Then again, there’s the possibility that some parts of the country will opt to pull back on social distancing as part of an effort to open the economy back up, perhaps sooner than later — so there’s a chance we’ll end up seeing more bursts of disruptive transition in the weeks to come. In which case, we’ll probably see further weirdness in the audience trends. Whatever the case, we’ll continue doing these updates to the best of our ability.)

This week I checked in with Ad Results Media, the advertising agency widely believed to facilitate one of the larger shares of ad money in the podcast business. (Whether it’s the largest is the subject of some debate.) Whatever the actual percentage, it cuts across a fairly deep cross-section of the industry, and its perspective tends to hold value.

The company’s big takeaway, at least at this stage? “Overall download trends are flat from pre-quarantine time windows, with variances in different genres,” the team wrote back to me. “Given the overall disruption in the universe, the relatively unaffected consumption of podcasts is encouraging. For such a nascent medium, it can be difficult to keep your audience during times of large change. Seeing downloads remaining flat is actually promising at this time.”

They added: “Considering all of this change, we think the podcast industry is in a unique position to weather this storm and say flat is the new up.”

Some things to consider about the methodology. Ad Results says its analysis is built on information collected through direct data requests they’ve been making over the past two weeks to their partner base, which includes an array of publishers, hosting providers, ad tech vendors, and even other ad sales networks. Though the company qualifies that it isn’t an official survey method — “so take it as such,” they noted — the team nonetheless claims that their requests produced a wider set of inputs than has been reported elsewhere so far, theoretically making them more representative of the broader podcast space.

With all that in mind, here’s a chart they sent over containing trend lines on average weekly downloads from twelve “Top Networks,” anonymized:

One thing that jumps out is the way Ad Results frames its findings — “overall trend is flat” — compared to other analyses we’ve highlighted in previous weeks, namely Podtrac and Stitcher’s, which emphasize the dip in audience since the pandemic began warping everyday life.

But I’m not sure there’s a fundamental difference between these analyses, really. Ad Results’ chart is broadly similar what’s found in Podtrac and Stitcher’s data, specifically following the March 9 point, where a dip can be clearly detected. (Recall that, in Stitcher’s analysis, March 9 marks the start of “Initial Social Distancing Measures.”)

The point Ad Results is trying to make is for folks to look at the bigger picture. They emphasize that the dip is ultimately relative to a high-water mark that podcasting had achieved immediately before strong social distancing measures. To them, the fact that average downloads are largely be flat relative to the start of the year — despite the massive disruptions — shakes out to something of a hopeful win.

Sure, you can take that as positive spin — but given that the disappearance of the daily commute for many listeners could have easily driven a larger collapse in consumption, I see where they’re coming from.

Note, though, that the chart focuses on 12 “top networks,” indication that this reading of the industry indexes more heavily on the bigger operations. This ties into another finding in the notes Ad Results sent back to me, one that stood out for the it supported a potential outcome I flagged in my initial survey of COVID-19 impacts on the podcast business: unequal impacts between large and small operations.

The larger shows seem to be growing downloads at a faster rate than smaller shows. Our hypothesis is that the smaller shows are suffering, and the larger shows are seeing massive gains. For example, The Joe Rogan Podcast, generally regarded as the largest podcast, is seeing double-digit U.S. download gains since 3/9/20, which is our general benchmark date for the start of the C19 U.S. pandemic. Dax Shepard’s Armchair Expert, another large show, is seeing the same double-digit growth.

A concerning trend, even if somewhat expected. Two other findings to note:

  • No major surprises in the genre breakdowns. News and news-related content, including political talk, is up, along with “lifestyle-based” podcasts, which includes fitness, health, and kids podcasts. Sports programming is down. Business podcasts are also down, marking a slight difference with Podtrac’s findings, which found it to have had a slight bump.
  • Again, the loss of the daily commute is a major factor driving consumption change — but the nature of the change is interesting. “The download time windows have shifted, according to one of our ad tech vendors and their data,” the team wrote. “Previously the majority of the downloads were early-day downloads, 7 a.m.–9 a.m. local time, while recent data shows downloads over a longer window with a high concentration later in the afternoon, 4 p.m.–6 p.m. local time.”

To round things out, Podtrac posted its latest weekly update on their numbers last night, which runs through Sunday. Two top-lines to note:

  • They report a continuing downward trend through the week of April 6-12.
  • Here’s where it gets interesting: This week, Podtrac broke out audience trends for the Top 10 and 20 publishers they measured. It found that average U.S. downloads for the Top 10 publishers were up 12 percent over February. Furthermore, total downloads for 16 out of the Top 20 publishers on the Podtrac rankers were flat or higher in March compared to February. Which is to say, this is broadly in sync with Ad Results’ findings that audiences have been flat…and that bigger publishers have been comparatively less harmed than smaller publishers.

So that’s the latest on audience numbers. Keep this in mind, though: We haven’t started seeing numbers on the other side of the equation, ad dollars. I’ll keep an eye out.

Spotify tests out profile pages for podcast hosts. The feature, which rolls out today, would allow podcast talent to build pages for themselves in the way that musicians have long been able to on the platform. I’m told testing is currently limited to a small pool of Gimlet hosts — including Alex Blumberg, Reply All’s PJ Vogt and Alex Goldman, and Science Vs’ Wendy Zukerman, among others — and that the company plans to open up the feature to third-party podcast creators in the near future.

Possibly a meaningful contribution towards greater podcast discovery on the platform. At the very least, the feature would elevate the individual host or creative team as a viable atomic unit of discovery, alongside the podcast itself.

Heads up. Triton Digital has released the first edition of its U.S. Podcast Reports. I wrote about the initiative back in January.

Zoom storytelling. The present challenges might be universal, but not everybody is challenged in the same way. Consider, for instance, the plight of live storytelling podcasts under social distancing conditions. In addition to facing the same burdens faced by the broader podcast community, they face the more fundamental problem of overcoming the loss of their core mechanic: the live stage.

But the beloved subgenre is working to figure out a way forward. A number of these podcasts are turning towards adapting their live show experiences for live streaming environments, and we’re beginning to see the first wave of such efforts come to life. On Saturday, Radiotopia’s Mortified made their livestream debut over YouTube Live, which was staged and distributed for free. This weekend will see Kevin Allison’s RISK! take to Zoom its first online show. Tickets for that event went on sale yesterday.

And then there’s The Moth, the New York-based global storytelling community and institution, which will hold its first-ever “virtual mainstage” Wednesday.

Catherine Burns, The Moth’s artistic director, told me that the team started thinking about online staging options the minute they started canceling shows a few weeks ago. “The Moth has always been more than just a live show, radio show or podcast; it’s a worldwide community,” she said. “We wanted to bring that community together as quickly as possible — but also didn’t want to rush it.”

After a fair bit of research, which involved watching a range of other virtual shows and piecing together a set of best practices, they decided to begin their foray into live streaming entertainment with an abridged version of their usual production format. “We felt less was more for the first time out, so we’re doing a one-act,” Burns said, adding that they’re bringing on Jon Goode, a warm and reliable presence who hosts the shows in Atlanta, as the anchor for the night. Tickets, which went up last week for a $10 sliding scale donation, are already sold out.

Like RISK!, tomorrow’s online staging of The Moth will happen over Zoom — specifically, its webinar platform. Burns described the process of organizing the live stream as a combination of producing a stage and television show, albeit one that involves a fully remote workflow. A full production team will be on hand, with some handling the technical transitions, others responsible for cueing up the hosts and storytellers, and others still in charge of monitoring attendees to ensure there are no disruptions.

To control for the threat of zoombombings, they aren’t releasing the link until tomorrow, the day of the event itself. The link will require a password, and all attendees will be muted. “This will lessen the chance someone can use an algorithm to attain our meeting ID to sneak into our show,” said Burns. “We’re excited to explore this new frontier and know that there may be some glitches — hopefully not many — but that’s okay.”

Understandably, the team is nervous about tomorrow. It’s the first stab at a new arrangement for what may very well be a new extensive phase for the global storytelling production. Nevertheless, they have faith in their team and their storytellers — as well as the process itself.

“One of the few ways you can bomb at The Moth is to be too polished,” Burns said. “If someone stumbles a little, it can actually make the story better because that’s authentic…so we hope that, even if something does go wrong — which it inevitably will — that will only add to the shared experience.”

The Third Coast Festival is still figuring out the conference, but for now, they’re pushing forward with its annual narrative audio awards, i.e. the Third Coast/Richard H. Driehaus Foundation Competition. Entries are now open, and they’ve made some changes, including a new pricing structure, an affordability initiative, and two new categories. More details here.

Miscellaneous show notes.

  • Slate has announced details for the fifth season of Slow Burn. According to The Hollywood Reporter, the season will cover the lead-up to the Iraq War, and the publisher is bringing on Noreen Malone, most recently the editorial director of New York magazine, to host the season.

    As a reminder, the fourth season hasn’t rolled out yet. That one will feature Slate staffer Josh Levin going deep on the rise of David Duke. They’re really going full 30 for 30 with this franchise, huh? Hey, I’m not complaining.

    Speaking of New York magazine…

  • Pivot, the weekly show hosted by Kara Swisher and Scott Galloway, is now officially a New York podcast. Swisher will also take up an editor-at-large position at the magazine, where she’ll contribute features in addition to co-hosting Pivot, which will also still be considered part of the Vox Media Podcast Network.

    You might already know Swisher as the co-founder of Recode, now part of Vox Media following a 2015 acquisition, and that Vox Media acquired — merged with? — New York last fall. She also hosts Recode Decode, another podcast under the Vox Media Podcast Network. That’s a lot of branding criss-crosses, but that’s life in an age of media consolidation.

    And in case you forgot: In addition to running Hot Pod, I’m also a contributing writer to Vulture, a vertical of New York magazine, owned by Vox Media. Yeah, my head hurts too.

  • Speaking of me writing for Vulture: I reviewed The Atlantic’s Floodlines, which is very good and also Very Resonant In These Times.
  • Meanwhile, 99% Invisible is set to debut the second season of Articles of Interest, its spin-off series hosted by staffer Avery Trufelman, on May 12. Episodes will be distributed over the main 99% Invisible feed at launch, and will be redistributed over its own dedicated feed later on.

R.I.P. Matt Holzman. A real one.

“Feels like old times”: Planet Money faces another economic crisis. The last time there was a global economic crisis — which, in case you forgot for some reason, was the halcyon days of 2008 — the iPhone was barely a year old, the Obama presidency was in its opening innings, and there were only a few batches of millennials in the workforce, not yet unfairly maligned but not yet fully cognizant of just how screwed they (we) were going to be.

Those were the conditions under which Planet Money was born, subprime mortgage bubble and all. The first major podcast property in public radio, Planet Money was created off the momentum of a widely recognized series of This American Life–NPR episodes, beginning with “The Giant Pool of Money.” You might already know the names of those who made the thing: Alex Blumberg, then at This American Life; Adam Davidson, then at NPR; Ellen Weiss, then providing key institutional support from NPR. As a public service enterprise, the podcast was built to explain, in clear and human ways, what exactly was happening in the economy, often an opaque and inhuman thing, and it continues to do so to this very day.

Planet Money is plenty different now than it was back then. The original team is all gone. The staff is bigger. It even has a daily spinoff project called The Indicator. But the essentials have stayed the same: the show remains one of the best possible vehicles that can accessibly communicate the complexity of a massive economic disaster. As we find ourselves in the teeth of yet another crisis, Planet Money and The Indicator are predictably doing some of the very best work on the way the global economy has been affected by the pandemic. (See: “Stimulus Rex,” “America Unemployed, “Scarcity in the Emergency Room.”) It’s also doing some of the very best work it’s ever done.

“It feels like the same moment all over again,” said Alex Goldmark, the supervising producer of Planet Money and The Indicator. “Listeners that have been subscribed for ten years are writing in to tell us it feels like old times.”

Goldmark spoke to us about how the team’s production process, whether it’s inherently suited to covering crises, and what this moment says about the legacy of Planet Money. This email Q&A has been edited for clarity:

Hot Pod: How has the production process changed for Planet Money and The Indicator since everybody went remote?

Alex Goldmark: A lot! I’m sure it’s pretty similar to all other shows. Everything takes 25 to 50 percent longer or more depending on the task. We’re less likely to do what we call “group shows,” where each host takes a segment and we then combine. Our producers are now also expert IT consultants, while NPR’s actual IT team are journalism supply chain heroes. Dongles we never knew existed are saving hours and hours of time. I can go on.

Creative approach is where things are really interesting. Our normal process is pretty collaborative. Everyone gets a chance to pitch in the best idea. Pre-reporting suggestions come from all corners. Drafts are shared, notes solicited. But after we went remote, our editor, Bryant Urstadt, put out a guidance that all of that had to change. “Speed over perfectionism” was the essence — don’t wait for consensus, work solo or in small pairs, trust your colleagues. We’re lucky we have such talented hosts who can each make great shows on their own, while each having their own styles and expertise.

We’ve moved the brainstorm chatter online to Slack. We’ll kick around ideas there for a bit, sometimes we just call each other up one-on-one. Every day in a morning group video chat, we’ll talk about what we’re all curious about, and if there’s enough curiosity for a topic, it gets some refining with Bryant, and then the hosts charge away at it. The result is faster and scrappier shows. More of them too. There has also been more variety in styles, which I’m really liking. The challenge comes in thinking through how to pair people up, so we get the benefits of teamwork without it slowing us down too much. It’s a balance.

Also, it’s worth saying: We have a show staffed by reporters many of whom who spent years as beat reporters on local stories or fast-paced beats. So they have that type of news metabolism. I couldn’t get them to slow down with this story even if I tried. They’re turning in drafts before deadlines to keep up with news right now. It’s amazing.

Hot Pod: When did it become apparent to the team that the COVID-19 story was also going to become a big, sprawling economic crisis?

Goldmark: I think we’re all still seeing just how massive this is. But I remember a moment, way back at the beginning of March, where we had some plans around a newsletter for Super Tuesday and started to see prices spiking for masks spike. That’s when we first turned our attention to pandemic coverage.

Sarah Gonzalez had wanted to do a vaccine story for a while, and she just raced to make it work ASAP. Since then, it’s been waking up, reading, and asking: What is the biggest economic question our audience is likely to have today and next week? And how can we answer that in the most interesting way as fast as possible to help the audience when they need it?

In other words: What’s the listener need? What is huge and happening now that needs explaining and causing confusion? That’s what we cover in the most interesting way possible. Other outlets might say “The Fed is injecting $2.5 trillion into the economy” and leave it there. But what the heck does that mean? “Injecting?” That’s what we’re here for. Hopefully, we’re succeeding at being clear and interesting, while blending expertise with empathy right now.

Hot Pod: It’s not lost on me that Planet Money came out of the Great Recession — which is to say, the last economic crisis. Do you feel like there’s something inherent to the show’s DNA that makes it uniquely built for moments like these?

Goldmark: Planet Money was created to fill the need of making sense of chaotic and confusing, huge and important economic forces that were moving so fast it was hard to keep up with. And at the time, the reporting in the mainstream media might talk past you, using terms like “collateralized debt obligation” but then not saying what those were or how they worked. Or maybe the coverage was for Wall Streeters, which causes it to read like a foreign language if you aren’t a finance geek yourself.

Planet Money’s goal is to put what’s happening in plain conversational English, and to use the narrative journalism approach to make it actually interesting. It was also extremely scrappy and experimental at the start, all over the map in style and topic. And fast. The approach has evolved over the years, but the core service, and the core need, never changed. All of the original staffers are gone now. But this team is stepping up in a huge way.

So, yes, I think Planet Money in particular is built for this moment and that in itself is motivating to the team now. We have the expertise, the sources, the systems. We know how to move fast. And, I’ll add, the variety of hosts with different interests and styles, which lets us be nimble and varied in format, topic, whatever.

Hot Pod: There’s something to be said about Planet Money being almost a dozen years old, and that it’s been able to sustain long enough to see an echo like this. How does that inform the way you think about its significance and legacy?

Goldmark: Roman Mars affectionately called us an “old dog” in the podcast game. I’ll take it. An old dog, ten years after its creation is back in the same role serving the same need, even to some of the same audience members who have stuck around for ten years, but with a completely different staff — to me, that’s a marker of maturity of podcasting as an institution.

The secret sauce, or whatever you call it, is not in one person or founder but in the group, and that group can change and evolve as the show can evolve and change. (And it has.) But the core service is still there. This is what it means to be an institution, for better or worse. That the show can go on without the original host and still thrive. Podcasting doesn’t have many institutions like that. I suspect we’ll start to see more and more.

“Podcast as Theseus’ Ship,” Goldmark added before ending his email, going full public radio. You can find Planet Money and The Indicator here, in case you’re not already following them.

Photo of a pedestrian in Sydney, Australia, by Kate Trifo.

POSTED     April 14, 2020, 3:15 p.m.
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