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April 7, 2020, 11:29 a.m.

It’s the disappearance of the morning commute that seems to be hurting podcast listening most

Plus: A podcast CEO gets indicted, the merits of coronavirus episodes, and too much tuna.

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 253, dated April 7, 2020.

Scandal. Yesterday, the U.S. Attorney’s office in the Eastern District of New York announced corruption charges against two former senior executives of 21st Century Fox as part of the long-running investigation into the 2015 FIFA scandal.

One of those execs is Hernan Lopez, now the CEO of Wondery. The charges, which include bribery and money laundering, date back to Lopez’s time as the head of Fox International Channels between 2011 and 2016.

“I am shocked to hear about these allegations,” Lopez said when reached for comment. “The indictment includes a single paragraph that alleges nothing remotely improper. While I am sure the process I will have to go through will be very painful for me and my family, I am looking forward to a jury confirming my innocence following a trial.”

Jen Sargent, Wondery’s chief operating officer, said: “Wondery is shocked to learn about these unfounded allegations against our founder and CEO. Mr. Lopez denies all charges and looks forward to vigorously defending himself. We have complete faith in the U.S. justice system and look forward to Mr. Lopez’s innocence being confirmed by a jury.”

Here’s the Los Angeles Times writeup on the charges, and I recommend following reporter Ken Bensinger on Twitter on the subject; he’s written a whole book about the FIFA scandal. If you’re unfamiliar with this sprawling story and need a place to start, hit up this brief Vox explainer.

As you probably already know, Wondery is one of the buzzier podcast businesses out there, with a track record that includes shows like Dirty John and Dr. Death. Lopez founded the company in early 2016 with backing from Fox, and the L.A.-based operation has since raised a few additional rounds of funding, the most recent a $10 million raise last summer which valued the company at more than $100 million. Its investors include Lerer Hippeau, Greycroft, BDMI, and Advancit Capital. The money and pedigree is such that, when Spotify embarked on its pre-COVID-19 quest for podcast acquisitions, industry folk often thought of Wondery as a likely pickup.

Over the years, Wondery has become somewhat synonymous with the podcast-to-television adaptation pipeline (see here, here, and here, among others). It’s also pushed to become a primary face of podcasting, an effort that include its involvement in creating the Podcast Academy and Podfront, the joint venture it formed with Stitcher to expand American podcast sales abroad to Europe. Wondery is also known for amassing partnerships with respected media companies, including the aforementioned Los Angeles Times (Dirty John, Detective Trapp) and Bloomberg (The Shrink Next Door). Through its cumulative creative output, it’s developed a reputation for a certain type of show: often sensational, often tawdry, often leaning hard into the broadest of true crime. Indeed, the joke has been made that this very scandal is the kind of thing that Wondery would’ve made a podcast about.

The company has also had its share of controversies. It used to have a distribution partnership with Sword & Scale, the true crime show fronted by a host notorious for his history of derogatory statements against women and the LGBTQ community. Back in February, the company ran into attribution issues around WeCrashed, its documentary series on WeWork, when the author and podcaster Rich Roll accused the company of improperly using clips from an episode he had published.

We’ll be keeping an eye on this story, obviously. Lopez and the others charged are expected to be arraigned in Brooklyn later this week.

Pandemic watch. It’s April 7, 2020. American life continues under stay-at-home orders (for the most part), and it’s all but certain to remain this way for some time. Within the podcast context, the looming question remains how listening behavior will continue to shift as Americans move out of a transition phase and settle into an extended period without significant travel — in particular the daily commute, widely considered one of the primary environments for podcast consumption.

Will listening pick back up as audiences find new ways to re-integrate their podcast habits back into their lives? Or will it continue to dip as other media formats — whether it’s YouTube or broadcast radio or Twitch or…*checks notes* Quibi, I guess? — claim those habit gaps instead?

First, some hindsight numbers. Last week, I led the newsletter with Podtrac’s analysis blog post that sought to illustrate how U.S. podcast listening had been impacted by the pandemic, using their measurement sample. That sample is significant but not total, and among the companies not included in their measurements is Stitcher, the Scripps-owned podcast company that operates one of the larger portfolios in the industry.

This week, we’ll focus on them as a case study. Yesterday, Stitcher sent over some data points on how social distancing measures have affected listening across its shows, and here’s the big takeaway: Overall listening across the Stitcher portfolio — that is, both owned-and-operated shows and shows they rep for ad sales — decreased 8 percent over the past four weeks relative to the first week of March — a stand-in baseline for the pre-pandemic environment. But there are signs that the listening decline may be leveling out.

By way of methodology, the company looked at hourly downloads across March, and broke the period up according to five labeled week-long stretches. Week 1 (March 2-8) was “Normal Times,” as in prior to COVID-19 social distancing measures; Week 2 (March 9-15) was “Initial Measures”; Week 3 (March 16-22) was “Aggressive Measures”; Week 4 (March 23-29) was when listeners were “Adjusting to the New Normal”; and Week 5 (March 30-April 5) was “New Normal.” The sample measured includes podcasts represented by Midroll, the sales arm of Stitcher, said to be around 200 shows, all of them hosted on Omny.

Using that framework, Stitcher saw:

  • A 1 percent drop in listening in Week 2 (“Initial Measures”), compared to Week 1;
  • A 11 percent drop in listening in Week 3 (“Aggressive Measures”), compared to Week 1;
  • A 9 percent drop in listening in Week 4 (“Adjusting”), compared to Week 1; and
  • A 11 percent drop in listening in Week 5 (“New Normal”), compared to Week 1.

It might take another week before we can feel good about saying a 9 to 11 percent decline is the “New Normal” here, but the team sees the past three weeks as largely stable in terms of listening. And so the big question, then, is whether we’re seeing a true leveling off with regards to the pandemic-related dip.

Like many others, Stitcher sees the absence of the morning commute as the primary cause of decrease in overall listening: Average listening between 5 a.m. and 10 a.m. dropped about 20 percent, while average listening in other hours was down just 4 percent. By the start of April, their data saw a slight uptick in listening during non-commute hours, but it wasn’t enough to make up for the commute loss.

So that’s Stitcher. A few other data threads to peruse:

  • Podtrac has updated its study of the pandemic’s impact on listening data in its measurement pool through April 5. Among other things, their findings mirror the idea that the listening dip is leveling off over the past week, as was suggested in Stitcher’s data. You can find the full dive here.
  • A Spotify blog post from March 30 said that the audio streaming platform has seen “increased interest in news podcasts,” and that they too have seen “an increase in the streaming of Kids & Family content.” No specific numbers provided, however. The broader context, from Rolling Stone: “Music Streaming Is Down in the Time of Social Distancing.”
  • An Acast blog post from April 2 claims the company has seen its listening figures continuing to follow “the upward trajectory seen year on year — including record breaking listens (+8.4% globally) during the past two weekends.”
  • According to The Hollywood Reporter, iHeartRadio is claiming to see podcast listening “up 6 percent month-over-month, a number that is even higher in cities where there are shelter-in-place mandates.”
  • Meanwhile, Chartable, the podcast analytics company, dug into its own sample — which pulls data through its analytics used on over 7,000 client podcasts — and the resulting writeup provides some further texture to the overall listening dips. Personally, I’d ignore the bit on reviews and consider the discussion regarding the way they think about the “listen” metric.

Before we move on, let’s zoom back out for the bigger ad picture. From The New York Times:

Overall spending on digital ads for March and April is down 38 percent from what companies had expected to lay out, and ad spending has fallen 41 percent on TV, 45 percent on radio, 43 percent in print publications, and 51 percent on billboards and other outdoor platforms, according to the trade group IAB.

Hang on tight, folks.

This week in public radio. Last month, PRX ran a brief survey to figure out how producers were being affected by the coronavirus shutdowns. In a recent blog post, they found that “more than 80% of producers have already been impacted, with nearly 15% reporting they’ve needed to cease or postpone production.”

Check out that post in full, by the way. Written by PRX CEO Kerri Hoffman, it offers a view into how a major public media organization has been affected by the pandemic — among other things, the org had canceled a planned 3 percent increase in station fees — and how it’s adapting its various efforts as a response to new needs and the new environment.

The post also comes with a philosophical call-to-action. “None of us want this moment,” Hoffman wrote. “But having arrived here, are there opportunities to not just get through it, but to make the kind of changes that begin to shape a new future for public media?”

Meanwhile, elsewhere in public radio…

  • NPR has appointed a new chief marketing officer: Michael Smith, a veteran of Scripps Networks Interactive, where he most recently held the position of SVP/GM of digital video channels until late 2018.
  • The public radio mothership also announced a new public editor through a partnership with Poynter: Kelly McBride, chair of the Craig Newmark Center for Ethics and Leadership. In an interesting bit of timing, McBride’s name also popped up in other media story yesterday, this one about the seemingly non-amicable exit of Hollywood Reporter editorial director Matthew Belloni, which came, as the Los Angeles Times reported, after “Valence Media, The Hollywood Reporter’s parent company, had been working with the Poynter Institute for the last 18 months over how to maintain editorial independence and provide ethics training.”
  • Keeping an eye on this thread. From Current: “Consultants and development executives say public media’s underwriting income is in jeopardy as businesses absorb substantial financial losses due to the COVID-19 outbreak.”

How much should you cover coronavirus? [by Caroline Crampton]. What do podcasts owe their listeners at a time like this?

That’s a question I’ve been turning over in my mind for the past few weeks as the consequences of the coronavirus pandemic rippled around the world. For those working in the current affairs space, the answer is pretty clear: rigorous, well-sourced updates about your beat made to the best of your team’s ability under the new circumstances. It’s no surprise we’ve seen daily news podcasts adapt to providing almost entirely coronavirus coverage, along with new spinoffs launched into this space. Although the subject matter might be unprecedented, the methodology at work is largely the same; after all, these are shows built to cover fast moving news stories.

For science podcasts, too, the path is reasonably clear. There’s a straightforward angle for history shows as well, with parallels to draw with the 1918 flu pandemic and other major events of the kind.

It’s for shows that aren’t directly related to news or science or history that the question of how to conduct one’s self becomes trickier. The capacity to react to the outbreak may well be there, especially if the show was already being recorded with guests or hosts recording remotely. Then again, just because you can talk about coronavirus, it doesn’t necessarily follow that you should.

This reminds me of a problem I had when I used to run the website for a weekly current-affairs magazine in London. If something highly significant happened — say, an act of terrorism — we had the publishing tools to engage in rolling updates, and indeed, that’s what my boss often wanted us to do. But as a smaller publication that largely specialized in commentary and long-range reporting, we weren’t actually equipped with the right kind of breaking news reporters and editors who could make sure that what we did was effective, responsible, and contributing. At best, we could do good secondhand curation of information for our readers, but that didn’t really help satiate the feeling that we should immediately be doing something major.

I’ve heard people make the case for two broadly opposite approaches. Some argue that whether you’re a pop culture discussion show or an improv comedy podcast, you should carry on as before — that you’ll be providing listeners with a much-needed escape. (Plus, you’ll be avoiding the trap of spreading misinformation unwittingly.) Beyond perhaps noting the pandemic’s existence and reminding listeners to stay indoors and keep washing their hands, this line of thinking goes, there’s no need to get into it any further.

On the other hand, some have suggested that the intimacy and community around a podcast is the perfect place for people to get into their feelings about the outbreak. A lot of listeners are loyal to their favorite podcasts in ways they are to few other forms of media these days — the podcast advertising industry thrives on this — and want to hear their chosen hosts’ take on “the new normal,” even if they aren’t an expert or a journalist or a scientist.

One of the more prominent shows using this second approach is Gimlet’s Reply All, which so far has published two episodes of “The Attic and Closet Show,” made from calls from listeners around the world. Although peppered with the hosts’ trademark teasing banter, the actual content is quite far from the podcast’s usual beat. Other shows have done similar things, like Forever35’s March 16 episode featuring listeners under lockdown in Italy, or the comedy show Radio Spaetkauf’s coverage of how lockdown regulations are being policed in Berlin.

Personally, I’m finding that I can’t personally listen to much about the virus at the moment without serious anxiety. I’m managing to keep up with the U.K.’s daily government briefing, but listening to first-person accounts of just how bad it all is around the world, or speculation about what this might mean for our future civil liberties, is beyond my capabilities right now. I am, however, aware that not everybody feels the same. In fact, some feel precisely the opposite and are hungry for as much virus solidarity content as they can get.

Which brings me back to my original question: What do podcasts owe their listeners at a time like this? There is no definite answer, of course, because there’s no one right way to meet this moment. Publishers have responsibilities to be fair and accurate, and to avoid being gratuitous with what they do — but that’s also true when there isn’t a pandemic happening. Some listeners might take a break if they find your approach doesn’t work for them, and that’s to be expected. But when you get right down to it, all that podcasters owe their listeners is…well, accuracy, of course, but also kindness and a pact to be understanding.

Everything else is up to you.

Oh, Hello. Let’s wrap up today with something completely not coronavirus-related. So, I’m plenty excited about the fact that Oh, Hello — the two-man comedy act by John Mulaney and Nick Kroll, originally derived from a skit off the latter’s Comedy Central program, and at one point a Broadway performance (available on Netflix) — now has a podcast incarnation.

Much of this excitement is a personal taste thing, given that I’m a fan of both comedians, as well as the whole Oh, Hello gimmick in general. But I also wanted to give a quick shoutout to the show’s spectacular trailer, delivered by the show’s producer Lina Misitzis (of This American Life, The Butterfly Effect, and The Last Days of August). You can listen to the trailer yourself, obviously, but if for whatever reason you’d rather have it described to you in text, here’s Vulture.

Anyway, it’s a good trailer! Also, I’m personally and professionally convinced that there have been only three types of podcast trailers ever made:

  • 1. The “Hi, I’m so and so, and I’m here to Verbally Explain to you what this show is about, and what it isn’t about” trailer (see Music Exists);
  • 2. The “supercut of upcoming episodes” trailer (see Hilarious World of Depression); and
  • 3. The “I’m going to give you what might sound a completely random thing, but is actually a direct representation of the kind of stuff you’ll get on this show” trailer (see This is Love, which is about creepy-ass spider behavior).Sometimes a (2) starts off as a (1), and sometimes a (2) might seem like a (3), and occasionally a (3) might think it’s doing a (2) but is actually doing a (1). Whatever the case, it seems to me that the creative ballgame, should you choose to play it, is any attempt to stretch the boundaries of any of the three formats to the point of novel non-recognizability, while still being able to perform the fundamental functions of trailer — which is communicate what this thing is about, who the person talking is, and why you might want to listen to the thing.

    Anyway, the Oh, Hello trailer is very clearly a (3), and a spectacular one at that.

POSTED     April 7, 2020, 11:29 a.m.
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