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May 5, 2020, 10:37 a.m.

Can optimizing for Hollywood be a sustainable funding model for investigative podcasts?

Plus: The first Pulitzer Prize for audio, Ira Glass drops shade, and the rise of the five-minute podcast.

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 257, dated May 5, 2020.

Pandemic watch. It’s Cinco de Mayo. Going by Stitcher’s pandemic timeline (which, at this point, somebody should copyright), we’re now in Week 10, or nine weeks into life after the widespread implementation of stay-at-home measures.

The big picture news, of course, is that several American states are beginning the patchwork process of opening back up in fits and starts, which will almost certainly be incredibly complicated, tossing any congealing notion of a so-called “New Normal” back into swampy uncertainty.

Meanwhile, last night’s coronavirus update from Podtrac suggests the continuation of a stabilizing trend: Downloads during the week of April 27–May 3 were flat, while audiences inched up by 2 percent. Second week in a row of relatively good news. Two interesting things about genres in the Podtrac sample: True crime is crawling back up, while comedy appears to have had a strong showing over the past few weeks.

A quick word on something that stood out to me this week. There has been a conventional belief forming that the pandemic-triggered lockdowns won’t necessarily result in a major disruption of new show or episode productions. Sure, there might be more risk associated with launching certain kinds of new projects, as we discussed last week, but there’s a sense that most podcast teams could still reasonably move forward with making episodes because podcast production has been able to shift into remote production with relatively little friction, compared to other mediums.

There are some strong exceptions to this, obviously. Most notably, investigative podcasts that require travel for reporting probably won’t be able to resume production for a while. A prominent example of this would be APM’s In The Dark, which had been working on its third season when the lockdowns started kicking in. They’ve since shifted to producing a smaller spinoff series about COVID-19 in the Mississippi Delta (the setting of its second season), which dropped its first episode last week.

But I’m beginning to spot other developments that might further complicate that confidence. There’s been at least one instance of a noteworthy podcast cutting back on its publishing schedule due to pandemic conditions: Slate’s Culture Gabfest, which is temporarily moving to a biweekly schedule because of budget cuts.

That said, I hear that the company has every intention to move back to a weekly schedule once the market settles and when the amount of culture and entertainment news returns to old levels. And Slate is still moving forward with new season launches, such as Hi-Phi Nation, which kicked off its fourth season last weekend. However, that fourth-season run will be only eight episodes, published weekly.

There have also been podcasts going on what appear to be unplanned hiatus periods due to life changes resulting from the pandemic. A Hot Pod reader, Danielle D., wrote in to point out that two podcasts she follows closely — Mom Rage and Comfort Food — are both taking unplanned breaks because their hosts are slammed between juggling their full-time jobs and childcare, with kids still being out of school. The dynamics of motherhood and labor applies to podcasting just they do everywhere else.

Spotify announced earnings last week, and as expected, COVID-19 factors heavily into the findings and the narrative. You can find the shareholder letter here, but four things to highlight for now:

  • The platform reported continued growth in monthly active users and premium subscribers, even as daily active users and actual consumption took a hit under pandemic conditions.
  • “Every day now looks like the weekend” — that’s the big quote from the letter, referencing the change in listening behavior now that the daily commute has mostly disappeared. It was further noted that this trend was more present in podcasting than in music.
  • Spotify reported that ad revenue and expectations saw significant drops, with the economic fallout from the pandemic leading advertisers to pull back their spends.
  • Finally, the company remains bullish on its efforts and investments in podcasting. “We continue to believe that our investments in podcasts will benefit the platform as a whole, and see an overall benefit to both usage, engagement, and retention across both Ad-Supported and Premium,” says the shareholder letter.

Every day does, indeed, look like the weekend, in so many ways.

Speaking of Spotify… Two other news bites about the Swedish streaming platform:

  • From The Verge: “Netflix and ESPN team up with Spotify to curate podcasts around their Michael Jordan documentary.”

    Fun if you, like me, are enjoying The Last Dance, but really, really interesting if you’re thinking about the implications of the Spotify-curated podcast playlist as an advertising and brand marketing opportunity. I’d keep a close eye on this, particularly if this evolves past being a one-off campaign.

  • From The New York Times: “David Rhodes, a former Fox News executive who also led CBS News, has quietly begun consulting for Rupert Murdoch’s media empire.”

    Mildly interesting for our purposes because Rhodes had been serving as a consultant for Spotify on matters related to news programming.

Internalizing the pipeline. Someone once told me, not too long ago, that we’ll likely see an increasing number of young journalist types who, in a previous era, would be trying to break into features writing work their way towards narrative nonfiction audio instead. That person is probably right, but the notion needs further expansion. An increasing number of veteran magazine writers are working their way into audio too, and they’re coming with guns blazing.

The latest example is newly formed podcast company Campside Media, which announced its arrival in the entertainment trades last week. Campside’s founding team is made up of three veteran journalists (Josh Dean, Vanessa Grigoriadis, and Matthew Shaer) and a screenwriter-producer (Adam Hoff). If you’re an avid listener of serialized nonfiction podcasts of a true-crime-ish bent, those three veteran journalists might sound familiar to you — Josh Dean made The Clearing with Pineapple Street Media and Gimlet; Vanessa Grigoriadis led Tabloid: The Making of Ivanka Trump with New York magazine, which was distributed through Luminary; and Matt Shaer made Over My Dead Body with Wondery.

Now, on its face, news of a few veteran journalists who’ve made reasonably effective podcasts coming together to start an audio company should hit me as a fairly straightforward affair. It is, on paper, a logical move. But what makes this story a little different is the fourth co-founder — screenwriter/producer Adam Hoff, who is said to have optioned or adapted over a dozen nonfiction stories for film and television, according to Deadline — as well as the nature of its investor: Sister, the “global production and development company” formed by Elisabeth Murdoch, Stacey Snider, and Jane Featherstone, which also has a first-look deal with the company. (For those who care: Sister Pictures was counted as a producer on the acclaimed HBO series “Chernobyl,” which, by the way, was written by Scriptnotes‘ Craig Mazin.)

In short, Campside Media appears to be a podcast studio that the IP-adaptation pipeline built right into its architecture.

When I traded emails with the team, they told me that they’d started the company to do all the things you’d expect features journalists would want to: go on adventures, string together complex stories that excite them, hopefully present those stories to audiences who want them. But the studio was also formed in such a way that allows it to capitalize on the rising interest among Hollywood types in buying podcast stories as adaptable intellectual property.

Which, of course, makes sense from a business model standpoint. “Paying for highly reported, highly intricate projects requires that at least some of the projects sell as adaptations,” they said over email. “Otherwise there’s not enough money to float the business, especially in the challenging corona-era ad market.”

That intellectual property emphasis also flows in the opposite direction, by the way. “As you might imagine, we’ve had quite a bit of interest in working directly with Hollywood production companies who have stories they’d like to test as podcasts, both in unscripted and scripted forms,” they said.

Not everything they make will end up being sold into the film and television pipeline, of course. I should say that the team also pushed back against the notion that Campside will solely function as a kind of IP factory, insisting instead that the north star is producing impactful narrative journalism. I suppose it’s a “have your cake and eat it too” sort of situation, which is also a “sweet if you can make it work” situation. But they’re saying it as a way of communicating that they’re not in the business of rejecting ideas simply because it lacks IP potential — why leave perfectly usable material on the table?

The Hollywood Reporter writeup notes that the company currently has 11 projects in development, three of which are already in the adaptation pipeline one way or another. The team tells me its first-year slate will involve a standard mix of what you’d expect from a group of veteran magazine journalists. “We’ve got a con-artist yarn, some corporate intrigue, an American Hustle-esque sting story, and a bank robbery story that’s about so much more than bank robbery,” they said. There’s also a “big ocean rescue story” by Sean Flynn, the GQ correspondent and National Magazine Award winner, and a new project from Shaer tentatively called Masked. They also noted that they’re looking into plans to build shows in other countries, and that some of their current projects involve production in multiple languages.

As you can probably discern from those descriptions, a good portion of Campside’s production model will involve collaboration with other veteran longform journalists and book authors. The team maintains that their studio will emphasize proper creator compensation — paying fair rates, fair splits on IP proceeds, and working to ensure that the talent remains a strong part of the adaptation process. “To be frank, there has been exploitation in this area,” they said. “We don’t think journalists spending six months working on a story that they brought to us should have to freelance a bunch of articles at the same time to make ends meet.”

With its focus on collaborating with veteran longform journalists and book authors, Campside can be situated within a fairly competitive niche in the podcast business, one that also includes Pushkin Industries, Prologue Projects, maybe Slate’s Slow Burn franchise, as well as Wondery and Pineapple Street, former production partners of Shaer and Dean, respectively. The team acknowledges the competition within the segment before sounding the belief there’s always room for more players. Which is probably true; here’s hoping that the increased competition will lead to more unexpected collaborations.

Anyway, Campside is also interesting to me as part of a larger puzzle I’ve long been trying to process: the fact that the limited-run audio series is perhaps the most difficult genre to financially execute in podcasting. A limited-run podcast often requires high upfront resource cost but offers a comparatively shorter runway for advertising revenue, as the bulk of performance requirements are typically stacked at the top of a given show’s release.

If you’re making an expensive four-part series about, oh I don’t know, a freight shipping scandal and, like, the reporting process took three years of the reporter being undercover in the yards or something, you’re still probably left with a situation where the podcast would need to meet the bulk of its audience number expectations across its first four to, say, eight weeks after launch in order to maybe break even. That, or you stretch four parts into ten parts to give more runway, or you flip the podcast feed into an “overarching” brand that houses different stories as different season of the same brand. (See: Dan Taberski’s Headlong.)

Or — or maybe “and” — you can put your faith in the IP gods.

(Quick aside on this: In the past, I’ve mostly limited this discussion to limited-run audio documentaries. But it stands to reason that versions of the same problem can be found in limited-run fiction podcasts. For now, we’re mostly talking about the former, but I wanted to acknowledge it either way.)

The inherently difficult nature of the limited-run structure is partly why we’re seeing such a deep lean among makers of limited-run series podcasts into the Hollywood IP pipeline — in addition to the thrill and glamor or whatever of working in TV and the movies, of course. And so it’s interesting to see how Campside, as an organizational structure, iterates on this increasingly tight relationship between this type of podcast and sellable IP outcomes. By taking money from Sister, a company with infrastructure in the broader entertainment industry, Campside appears to formally institutionalize a kind of partnership that they were always going to have to make anyway. They internalized the IP pipeline, so to speak.

Interesting stuff. Anyway, I’m looking forward to that big ocean rescue story. Listen, Ashton Kutcher’s “The Guardian” was a godawful movie, but it was on cable all the damn time when I was growing up in Malaysia, so I have a soft spot for ocean rescue shit.

Speaking of the IP pipeline… Maximum Fun’s 2018 fiction series Bubble is being adapted into an R-rated animated film by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg. Here’s the Indiewire writeup on this development.

The Pulitzer Prizes were announced yesterday, and the prize for audio reporting — the first of its kind after the category was added last December — went to the This American Life episode “The Out Crowd,” which included “Goodbye Stranger” from Los Angeles Times reporter Molly O’Toole (produced by Nadia Reiman); “Take the Long Way Home” from the journalist Emily Green (produced by Lina Misitzis); and a prologue reported by Ira Glass with Aviva DeKornfeld.

You can find the finalists plus jury list here, and Glass penned a brief post about the win on the TAL website. “It’s an honor to be recognized this way by the Pulitzers. And exciting to win their very first prize for audio reporting. Fun fact: The Peabody Awards were established in 1940 partly because the Pulitzers wouldn’t give out awards to this newfangled medium called radio,” he wrote. “I guess they decided audio journalism is finally here to stay.”

🌶️🌶️🌶️

Today in paid audio platforms. Another company to track, if you’re interested in this segment of the business: there’s a new app called Vennly that specializes in providing “exclusive, non-denominational short-form audio content from a diverse and highly curated network of top spiritual and community leaders.” It’s priced at $4.99 per month with a 30-day free trial. Here’s the press release and here’s the website.

Kids today. Joining the ranks of The Daily and Radiolab, Today, Explained has pulled together a special kids-minded podcast experience out of their workflow. The Vox daily news podcast dropped a special episode last week dedicated to explaining the coronavirus to kids.

“The thing I love most about this kid’s episode is that I had nothing to do with it,” host Sean Rameswaram tells me. “Major kudos to Noam Hassenfeld and Byrd Pinkerton who did everything I would have done and more, down to the brief Drake homage. Teamwork makes the dream work. Tell your kids.”

Third Coast Festival will go virtual this year, for obvious reasons. The beloved Chicago audio conference typically takes place every November. This year would have been the first such gathering under new executive director Shirley Alfaro’s tenure. Here’s the official blog post, and the team is also running a survey on how to make the virtual session work. Help ’em out.

The really, really short podcast [by Caroline Crampton]. Maybe it’s my diminishing attention span, or the seemingly endless supply of podcasts these days, but for whatever reason, I’m gravitating more these days towards shorter episodes. And I mean significantly shorter, as in under seven minutes, often under five. A conventionally “short” episode probably lasts 10 to 15 minutes, but to earn that extra status of “really short” for me, it’s got to be under five or nearly so.

There’s some evidence I’m not alone in this inclination towards brevity. Research by Megaphone on shows that made the Apple Podcasts Top 200 list suggests that, over the past five years, episodes have been getting shorter as more podcasts try to fill what they termed “the 10-30 minute niche.” Pacific Content’s Dan Misener ran a similar study on a broader sample, finding that “monthly average episode length” has been declining steadily for at least a year, with a broader trend downwards since roughly 2016 (check out this graph). He still found that the average episode duration overall is 41 minutes, though, which is a long way from my really short sweet spot.

Part of this episode shrinking can be explained by technological changes and the shifts in consumption habits that accompany them. Smart speaker experiences prioritize bite-sized bulletins, and some podcast playlists (like the ones that Spotify are experimenting with) seem to prefer them too. It might seem obvious, but we’re mostly listening to podcasts on constantly syncing smartphones now, not MP3 players that have to be connected to a laptop to download new episodes wholesale. We’re also leaning more towards mobile data to download or stream, rather than waiting for a wifi or ethernet connection.

The rise of the daily news podcast has had some effect on length too. It’s just not practical, even for a well-resourced team, to put out a show much longer than 25 minutes five days a week, and in any case, listeners don’t have time for that type of extensive daily length either. The Daily, along with its many competitors and imitators, have popularized the 25-ish minute format that manages to feel compact yet also comprehensive. Halving that, a show like This Day In Esoteric Political History sticks around 10 to 12 minutes, delivering one segment and then stopping.

But it’s the even shorter episode formats I find myself most drawn towards. From what I can tell, the “really short” podcast tends to fall into one of three broad categories: the bulletin, the one shot, and the experiment.

The bulletin is self-explanatory: These are often news or current affairs shows doing regular (sometimes daily) updates on a given topic, with the aim being to deliver information as efficiently as possible. Think the Politico Playbook Audio Briefing, an audio version of the eponymous newsletter, which stuffs their headlines into your ears in under five minutes every day. No frills, no tangents, no distractions.

Although not so strictly newsy, I would also put “quote of the day” or “poem of the day” feeds in this group too.

One of the more interesting shows in this category is Was läuft heute? (What’s On Today?) from the German production shop detektor.fm. The show provides three daily recommendations of things to watch or listen to, in under five minutes. Founder Christian Bollert told me over email that they see this show as having “a more service-oriented format, in opposition to most other podcasts, where you dive into a conversation.”

The one shot is a slightly more subjective kind of really short podcast. The marquee show in this space is WNYC’s 10 Things That Scare Me, in which an interviewee lists…well, 10 things that scare them. Episodes don’t always come in under my seven-minute threshold, but the smart, snappy editing style — not every “thing” gets any elaboration or explanation, and any questions or prompting are removed entirely to make it a monologue — often makes it feel shorter than it is. The key thing is that the show has one topic and one aim, and doesn’t diverge from them.

Another podcast that does this well is Now for Tomorrow, a recently launched show hosted by Deepak Chopra and produced by Jesse Baker and Eric Nuzum of Magnificent Noise. Most episodes so far are between 6 and 8 minutes, and each has a single topic and actionable piece of advice (improving sleep, finding forgiveness, coping with stress, and so on). Nuzum, a broadcast veteran, says that the shorter form has made sense to him for a while now.

“As a broadcast veteran, we think in hour or half hour increments — but listeners’ lives don’t operate that way. When you think about how people are going to use this thing — and what their life is like…and what time they want to spend with it, the answer almost always leads you to ‘shorter is better.'”

In a recent Hot Pod Insider, I wrote about Listen Rinse Repeat, a feed that curates 20-second moments from independent audio creators to help listeners time their required hand-washing sessions. That to me is the ideal one-shot podcast — it has a purpose and it meets it with something surprising and fresh each time. See also: Chompers.

Finally, the “experiment.” There’s a thriving vein of experimental audio distributed as really short episodes on podcast feeds, blending sound art and found sound with other techniques to produce brief, perfect little bites of creativity. Long Live the New Sound does a great job of curating some of this, and I also really like David Weinberg’s Random Tape (which is exactly what the title suggests it would be). A favorite newer discovery of mine is James T. Green’s u+1f60c, which he describes as “an experimental audio zine.” Each file on the feed is a tiny collage that evokes a particular moment in time.

“I’m inspired by music and songwriters and the journeys they unlock in five minutes,” he said, when I asked him why sub-five-minute podcast episodes were the right medium for this project. “I think of Caroline Polachek, Kendrick Lamar, Jenny Lewis, Roddy Rich, Maxo Kream, Jill Scott, Mike Dean — songwriters and producers that create sonic landscapes that roadtrip you on a full narrative and do so more efficiently and effectively than many podcasts that stick to the arbitrary 25-35 minute limit. A podcast feed is a material and medium like oil paint and stone. The limitless nature of digital audio means it can be any length it desires. So when I choose shortform audio as a medium, I think of it like giving myself a tiny, pulled canvas and asking myself, what can I tell in 5-7 minutes?”

Podcast producers can learn a lot from music producers, Green continued. (He highlighted this video of Travis Scott and Metro Boomin in the studio as an example of what can be achieved in such a short space of time.)

There’s also value in placing time restrictions on the creative process, he said — he recently challenged himself to make a promotional video for a new show from Transmitter Media (where he works) in under three hours, just to see what would come out of that compressed process.

I don’t listen to shorter podcasts because I have less time to give to audio — I’ll frequently queue up half an hour’s worth of five-minute episodes — but because I love variety and the feeling of being utterly transported in a short period of time. I think it’s a form that’s deepening all the time as new creators try it and listeners find out how well it fits into their lives. I hope to see more producers, thinking about a project with 20-minute episodes, stopping to think: Could this work better if they only lasted for five?

POSTED     May 5, 2020, 10:37 a.m.
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