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May 12, 2020, 11:04 a.m.

Can Pushkin Industries bring the podcast and audiobook audiences together?

Plus: The challenges of moving a live show from theater to streaming, new shows for cloistered kids, and the podcast industry gets its first big pandemic-era acquisition.

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 258, dated May 12, 2020.

Pandemic watch. It’s May 12. Going by Stitcher’s good ol’ pandemic timeline, this is Week 11, or 10 weeks after the initial widespread implementation of stay-at-home measures in the United States. More than half of the 50 states are now undergoing some form of “re-opening” despite continued increases in COVID-19 cases and deaths.

The word from last night’s Podtrac coronavirus update: another flat week in terms of downloads, while unique listeners crawled up 1 percent over the previous week. The update also comes with a bigger-picture note on April, noting that average downloads were down 6 percent from March. Generally speaking, I’m content with flat.

Meanwhile, the podcast industry has now seen its first acquisition in the pandemic context. Last Friday, The Wall Street Journal reported that Courtside Group, the parent entity of the Los Angeles-based PodcastOne, is being bought by a company called LiveXLive. It’s something of a middling digital media platform that doesn’t seem to have a pronounced edge. Initially specializing in livestreaming music performances, LiveXLive has since branched out to include radio streams and on-demand video. In 2017, the company acquired Slacker Radio, a similarly middling online radio service, for $50 million.

The acquisition is an all-stock deal that values PodcastOne at $18.1 million. For context, that’s about the same price paid for Pineapple Street, a significantly smaller and production-minded shop, when was acquired by Entercom last year. The best comparisons for PodcastOne would probably be something like Midroll (sold to Scripps in 2015) or Cadence13 (also sold to Entercom last year), since those two firms are built on a combination of advertising sales and talent deals. Both fetched about $50 million. According to the Journal report, PodcastOne apparently did about $27.5 million in revenue last year. Given that LivexLive brought in about $33.7 million in revenue during the last fiscal year, this looks more like a merger than an acquisition.

Launched in 2013 by former Westwood One founder Norm Pattiz, PodcastOne is in many ways built around the Adam Carolla Show — Carolla just re-upped his deal through 2023 — along with torrents and torrents of celebrity-driven podcasts. Controversial and opaque, there have been sporadic rumors for several years that the company was being shopped around for a sale. They entered 2020 facing a wildly competitive environment increasingly dense with new companies, new shows, and new competition for celebrity talent deals, and their position was almost certainly further compromised by the current calamitous economic picture. It’s a stark outcome.

One smaller pandemic item to note before we move on. The New York Times reported its earnings last week, and during the earnings call, execs said that The Daily, the organization’s flagship daily podcast, is now getting about 3 million downloads every day “despite the loss of the morning commute.” I think it’s fair to say that what led to the commute’s disappearance actually adds to the number of The Daily downloads. These are intensely newsy times, after all.

Spotify dips back into video. Last week, The Verge reported that the Swedish audio streaming platform is testing a new “video podcast” feature, an effort that they’re seeding with material coming from two YouTube stars, Zane Hijazi and Heath Hussar, who also host a podcast called Zane and Heath: Unfiltered. The experimental feature — which would allow podcasters to upload accompanying video assets to their episodes — will appear for about half of Unfiltered listeners using Spotify.

Some thoughts on this. Spotify often phrases its approach to new product development as “opportunistic” — a.k.a. “why not try this thing out if we get the chance to.” Which is to say I’d counsel against assuming there’s a grand long-term strategy to this.

Still, there’s a very clear lane of opportunity. Many podcast operations distribute supplementary video of their recordings onto YouTube, in large part to further expand their surface area and possibly tap into the vast audience pool on the platform. The Ringer, now a Spotify company, does this quite a bit, as do other personality-driven podcast operations like Rooster Teeth and Kinda Funny Games. What this new Spotify feature offers, I think, is an opportunity for that type of podcaster to get a little more bang for their marginal video buck: It’s a chance to add a little more utility to their Spotify presence off the workload they already have.

It will already be interesting to watch and see if this Spotify video feature actually drives deep or new engagement of some kind. And it will be even more interesting to see if YouTube will do anything about it, should anything actually come of it.

The year ahead for Pushkin Industries. “There’s a fair amount of worry,” said Jacob Weisberg, the former Slate Group exec who co-founded Pushkin Industries with Malcolm Gladwell in late 2018. “Not about whether we’re going to make it or anything like that — it’s just a nervous time. At the end of this, we’ll probably see an acceleration of the shift to podcasting, but as of yet, I don’t think anybody can point to a huge bump in listenership.”

As with everyone else, the pandemic has brought some disruption to Pushkin’s operations. The company had a strong 2019 and started this year with a transition to new, bigger office space. But now, like everyone else, they’re managing what may end up being an extended shift to remote production, a process that involves a good deal of improvisation, trial and error, and trust from the entire team.

That said, Weisberg contends that the broader podcast ecosystem remains in solid position. “The overall ad market is still so small, and most of the advertisers who are there are really committed to podcasting,” he said. “They’re not going to go anywhere unless their companies go belly up or they don’t have money to spend any more.” His belief is further supplemented by a sense that this could be a transformational media moment — the kind that leads to new habits that will stick through to the other side of the pandemic. When people start heading back to their offices again, the thinking goes, maybe they’ll take podcasting into their commute instead of sliding back into linear radio or something else.

We’ll only really know about all that much later, though. For now, Pushkin’s immediate focus is managing a reality where the company may not get a lot of the upside it’s been expecting this year — new advertisers, new pools of available money — and where there’s a strong possibility of rougher economic big pictures up ahead.

Despite the general air of nerves, the company is pushing ahead with what will be a very busy second half to the year. They just rolled out new seasons of Against the Rules with Michael Lewis and The Happiness Lab with Laurie Santos. Later this week will see the debut of The Last Archive, a new project from the historian Jill Lepore that’s set to be a genre-bending production mixing elements of classic radio drama with a sweeping investigation into the death of truth. Next month, Pushkin will launch a daily news podcast it’s been developing with Axios, first announced back in March, along with the fifth season of Gladwell’s Revisionist History, which remains something of a flagship production.

More project launches lie deeper into the calendar. Most of these are still under wraps, but they’re currently able to drop details about two. The first is Deep Cover, a series by Jake Halpern about an undercover FBI agent whose infiltration of a biker gang in Detroit leads all the way to the U.S. invasion of Panama. (Pushkin is considering this podcast their first foray into true crime, which I suppose is literally true.) The other is a project that will be hosted by the British novelist Hari Kunzru.

It’s a bumper crop of projects, and the team anticipates having a portfolio of around 15 shows by the end of the year. From a distance, it can seem like a sprawling slate, but when I asked Weisberg if there were any guiding principles behind a Pushkin show, the answer came quickly. “I think it’s about the pleasure of intelligence,” he replied.

In something of a coronation for this expansionary phase, the company is also going through a visual and audio rebrand, an effort that will involve fresh updates to their current look from creative brand director John Custer — the gentleman behind the Comic Sans-centric show art for Against the Rules, who I interviewed last year — as well as a new audio logo by the composer Nicholas Britell.

These expansions also apply to the business end. In keeping with the times, Pushkin has set up shop in Los Angeles, hiring David Markowitz, most recently the director of audio at Headspace, to serve as the managing producer for that office. They have also brought on Brendan Francis Newnam, the producer of The Paris Review’s podcast and former co-host of Dinner Party Download, to serve as VP of special projects, a role that includes leading the creative for productions that will be distributed through channels beyond the traditional podcast format.

That last sentence is a little convoluted and cryptic, but it basically refers to Pushkin’s continuing interest in opportunities outside of the industry’s core advertising-driven model. As you can imagine, it’s an interest that’s only intensified under present conditions. Newnam’s hire, then, is a push to further suss out the many shapes this might take.

In the past, that’s meant deals with a platform like Luminary (like Food Actually with Tamar Adler), but more intriguingly, it’s also meant pretty ambitious forays into audiobook production. The prime example of the latter is the audiobook version of Gladwell’s Talking to Strangers, which was essentially produced in the style of a podcast. That audiobook was “hugely successful,” I’m told, and that success underscores an opportunity at play here for the Pushkin team.

“Part of our premise is that there’s not that much overlap between podcast listeners and audiobook listeners,” Weisberg explained. “In a way, we want to mess it all up in the sense that we want to make podcasts that are more like audiobooks and audiobooks that are more like podcasts, and get the one who’s not listening to the other to cross over.” In his mind, the fundamental difference between the two media formats is the business model, not anything inherent to the content form. The audiobook model, then, which has been largely static in creative presentation for quite some time, is ripe for further innovation.

It’s worth noting that a sizable portion of Pushkin’s leadership team has experience with the book publishing world. Indeed, watching the company over the past year, I’ve come to see the structure of the book publisher as key to understanding how Pushkin thinks about its position in the podcast business. It falls naturally from the fact that most of its talent partners, whether it’s Lewis or Lepore or Santos, are the kinds of people who are already accustomed to publishing books and have built considerable followings in that medium.

The comparison also helps inform, directly and indirectly, a wide range of different organizational components, from the way the company approaches talent contracts to the way the leadership thinks about brand positioning. “Pushkin, as a superstructure, is supposed to be semi-transparent,” said Weisberg. “With book publishing, readers generally don’t care about whether it’s a Simon & Schuster book — they care about who wrote the book.”

Pushkin now has about 26 full-time staffers to support its expanding slate of shows, and as the company continues to grow, Weisberg is starting to think a lot about the pace of that progression — as well as the struggles that come with it. “There’s a real tension when we reach a point where we have such a big portfolio that I can’t be as involved in each project,” he said. “That’s an issue. Right now, I can still be deeply involved in every show we make, but over time, that will probably be less true.”

TRAX, the podcast network focused on kids between 9 and 13 from PRX, has officially launched. The effort was first announced back in December, and the key figure you’d probably want to know about is Michelle Smawley, who serves as the executive producer of the operation. You can find more details about the rollout here.

On a related note: Julie Andrews is making the press rounds for Julie’s Library, the American Public Media-distributed kids podcast she’s hosting with her daughter. Meanwhile, the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy also just launched its own podcast for kids, which involves revamping the early 1990s radio show the late first lady used to do.

Show notes. Seems like everybody’s waiting ’til the summertime to roll out the big guns. Wind of Change, which comes from the stacked Pineapple Street-Crooked Media-Spotify triumvirate, dropped yesterday, and I reviewed it for Vulture. I liked it quite a bit! It also had things that bothered me a bunch. Another launch to watch: Articles of Interest season 2, out today.

Speaking of Vulture, I had three other pieces up on there: one on Dead Eyes, one about the Oh Hello p’dcast, and a good ol’ best-podcasts-of-the-year-so-far list. I know, lists are so dumb, blah blah blah.

Going live(streaming) [by Caroline Crampton]. Of all the changes podcast creators have had to grapple with lately, figuring out how to adapt live shows to the live streaming context has to be among the most dramatic.

Selling tickets for live episodes and associated performances has provided a solid chunk of revenue for audiomakers for many years. Indeed, in 2018, the podcast segment of the live experience market had grown visible enough that The Wall Street Journal even wrote a (slightly wide-eyed) trend piece about it. Then there are the shows built specifically with live audiences at the center of the concept, from storytelling experiences like The Moth and RISK! to comedy panel shows like Lovett or Leave It and Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!

It’s one thing to get a handle on a Zoom happy hour with friends, but it’s quite another to flip a live theater show into something that can be delivered smoothly over live video — not to mention something good enough that people might still be willing to pay for it.

I’ve been checking in with different shows and teams to find out how podcasters are handling this transition. Along with the practical stuff — take all sensible precautions against zoombombing, think hard about what time zones your audience is in when scheduling a stream, try to light yourselves properly — a few larger themes emerged in what they had to say.

Test the tech. Then test it again. While there are many tech options out there for livestreaming an event, finding the one that matches your podcast’s need both in functionality and cost isn’t always easy. So don’t beat yourself up if there are glitches!

Martin Austwick, who has been coordinating live online events for the Podcast Maker series that usually runs at the London Podcast Festival, said that “the tech for livestreams is still really flaky and weird. If you’re a ninja with the software, you can do all sorts of cool stuff — Jonathan Zenti did a great psychedelic session — but if you’re not a hardened livestreamer, it’s OK to lean into it.”

Catherine Burns, artistic director at The Moth, explained that the show has added a new element to their workflow to try and account for potential platform issues: “We’ve added tech ‘cue-to-cue’ rehearsals. We want everyone going into the evening confident that they know what is happening when.”

Be prepared. In all the conversations I’ve had, it quickly became clear that it’s vital to have a Plan B at the ready in case the internet connection drops out or a laptop dies mid-sentence. Sarah Myles, who runs the Rise & Shine audio festival, explained her precautionary setup, which involves a Zoom meeting streamed live to YouTube. “During the festival, I used two computers to hold the stream in case something happened and had a mobile hotspot ready if my internet dropped. Also, getting everything ready well in advance is critical — setting up the YouTube links, doing line checks, running a few test streams…These things may seem tedious but they’ll make sure you and your speakers are confident in the process,” she said. Be ready to work hard on this, too: “The amount of tech, coordination, and production involved has been pretty mind-blowing,” Burns added. Christina Moore of Don’t Skip Media echoed this as well. People don’t realise “how much work goes into nurturing an audience for free for the livestreams, never mind those behind a paywall,” she explained.

Make it interactive. Myles notes that her audience is noticeably more confident about asking questions online than at previous in person events, so she tries to provide more opportunities for them to get involved. “The podcasting world can often put pressure on people to pretend they know every geeky detail so seeing that pressure ease a bit has been nice,” she said. During shows, she fields questions from YouTube comments and feeds them live to the speakers through Zoom chat. Others I spoke to mentioned having a separate WhatsApp group as a back channel just for performers and crew during the show for the same reason, making sure that they can get through as many questions as possible.

It won’t be the same. Podcasters used to seeing a physical audience when onstage may find the digital experience sterile by comparison, and it’s important to account for that. “It’s impossible to get a sense of the audience because there isn’t an audience in front of you,” Burns said. “You can’t hear the laughter after a joke or feel the hushed tones of an audience leaning in towards you during the serious parts.”

Kevin Allison, from the live true storytelling show RISK!, agreed: “Instead of being able to look right at the audience in the room and play off of their visible and audible reactions, you have to look at your webcam and act as if people are definitely watching and listening to you, because they are!” It might be necessary to refashion your show as a streaming experience. “Don’t try to just point a webcam at your regular stage show and call it a day,” he added. “Figure out how to look and sound your best in a livestream in particular, and take the time to figure out how to give your audience the best viewing experience possible.”

Live is still live. A universal lesson from everyone I spoke with had to learn quickly: Embrace the imperfections. “We’re working hard to preserve the essence of the live experience,” said Sarah Haberman, executive director for The Moth. “There will always be tech glitches, but even with the snafus, how can we ensure that our audience and tellers will feel connected by the shared experience?” Catherine Burns elaborated: “Often the little missteps end up being a memorable part of the night, because they remind the audience that we’re all human, trying to make this unprecedented moment in history work.”

Celebrate the upsides. The process of moving live shows online isn’t all challenges and tough choices, though. Accessibility was a benefit that several creators highlighted as something positive to come out of this transition. “We have so many fans in far-flung locations who would never get the opportunity to see a normal live show anywhere near them who are easily and happily able to come to these online shows,” Allison said. “We also have fans with disabilities and mobility issues who find online shows much more pleasant to attend than in-person shows. We also have fans who are parents who love not having to get babysitters.”

Sarah Myles was also delighted to discover how she could integrate YouTube’s automatic closed captioning system into her events: “I can’t afford to pay a captioner for every stream I do live, but having captions there for catch-up watching is a great step in the right direction,” she said.

Finally, everyone I spoke to urged those considering streaming events to put as much, if not more, planning and production into them as they would for an in person show. There’s a lot of competition for listeners’ time and cash right now, so keeping everything focused and purposeful matters. Allison summed it up: “If you wouldn’t pay or make time to come see your own online live show, why would the audience?”

Book art by KittyKatesKrafts.

POSTED     May 12, 2020, 11:04 a.m.
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