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May 19, 2020, 9:31 a.m.
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We’ve finally got some hard numbers from Luminary (and they aren’t great)

Plus: The private paid podcast tech stack gets more crowded, and podcast listening apps run up against Google’s COVID-19 rules.

Editor’s note: Hot Pod is a weekly newsletter on the podcasting industry written by Nick Quah; we happily share it with Nieman Lab readers each Tuesday.

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 259, dated May 19, 2020.

Pandemic watch. It’s Week 12, according to Stitcher’s pandemic timeline, or 11 weeks after the initial widespread implementation of stay-at-home measures in the U.S. The word from last night’s Podtrac coronavirus update: the metrics continue to crawl up, with the week of May 11-17 seeing a 4 percent increase in downloads and a 3 percent increase in audiences compared to the previous week.

Over the weekend, Podcast Addict, a popular listening app on Android, was temporarily suspended by Google because it lists content related to COVID-19, violating a new policy that requires any app referencing the virus to be properly authorized by “official government entities or public health organizations.” The policy, which is presumably meant to combat misinformation spread, puts third-party podcast app developers in a tough spot. As The Verge’s Ashley Carman wrote, “Podcast app developers…are just surfacing the content, similarly to a search engine, so they can’t necessarily filter out misinformation or individually screen every RSS feed and episode that populates. The policy might be well-intentioned, but it’s hard to police.” Google apologized and said it’s restoring the app:

Meanwhile, let’s check in on France. I’ve been trading notes with Charlotte Pudlowski, the cofounder of Louie Media, an independent podcast company based in Paris, and she described the scene as follows: France went through a strict lockdown period from March 16 to May 11, enforcing stricter measures than were ever implemented in the U.S. Not only were non-essential businesses closed, but citizens were only allowed to leave their homes once a day, and even then, they were generally restricted from moving further than a kilometer away from where they lived.

Those strict measures have since eased up, but Pudlowski describes the gradual reopening process as “mostly messy.” Free movement is allowed again, but citizens are advised to only do so for “compelling professional or family reasons.” Some schools and shops have reopened, but not all. Masks are mandatory, obvs. And restaurants will remain closed until June, after which only those operating in areas less affected by the coronavirus can open back up. (Paris, unfortunately, is still hit hard.)

Within that context, Pudlowski tells me that Louie Media saw a drop in listening during the first days of lockdown, only to see the trend reverse about a week later. The ensuing numbers are kinda fascinating: Pudlowski says that audience numbers across Louie Media’s portfolio experienced a 40 percent increase in the second week of lockdown, and by the end of the first month, listenership was up 80 percent. It increased an additional 40 percent in the following month.

Some of this can perhaps be attributed to Louie Media’s own efforts: It adapted a few of its active podcasts, in some cases doubling episode output, and launched new ones — including one called Travail (en cours), or “Work (In Progress),” about work disruptions — to meet the new needs of the current environment. But Pudlowski also suggests that there’s a cultural aspect. Though she characterized France as being “at an earlier stage” compared to the U.S. in terms of podcast consumption, she also argues that the country nonetheless possesses a strong audio culture fostered by an equally strong public radio network: Radio France. “People are used to listening to audio here, not only on their commutes,” she said.

While Louie Media appears to be enjoying a listening bump, it’s also weathering the effects of economic turbulence. Unsurprisingly, some advertisers have started pulling out of buys, causing the company to lose out on a good amount of revenue. It’s managed to sign some new accounts, but it’s also responding to the situation by ramping up the launch of Club Louie, a direct revenue program that offers supporters extra material like previews, exclusive content, and workshops. Response to the program exceeded expectations, Pudlowski says.

On balance, it seems like Louie Media is in a workable spot, all things considered. But like everybody else, it’s working hard to hunker down, push forward, and, of course, keep the team as safe as possible. They’ve had their scares: over the weeks, two staff members tested positive for COVID-19. They have since recovered, Pudlowski notes, but it remains a deep hazard of the times. “We’re trying to be reasonable and as rigorous as possible with the way we work,” she said.

Before we moving, let’s pull back a bit: I found it a little difficult to get a clear sense of the extent to which Louise Media’s experiences were representative of broader French podcast listening. For what it’s worth, Acast tells me that overall French podcast consumption across the major platforms did, indeed, see a 31 percent increase over the lockdown period — from 1.7 million in the March 16-22 stretch to 2.2 million in the April 20-26 stretch.

Luminary’s hard numbers. We finally have some concrete numbers on the paid podcast platform’s performance, courtesy of Bloomberg, and they aren’t pretty. Last Tuesday, Bloomberg reported that, before the pandemic, Luminary was spending more than $4 million per month but generating under $500,000 per month in revenue, off what sources say is only about 80,000 paying subscribers.

Bleak stuff for the curious case of this strange and moneyed startup, which raised over $100 million before the app even launched. More curious still is the fact that the company is continuing to get more strange and moneyed: the Bloomberg report also states that Luminary has just raised another $30 million to ride out the pandemic-induced storm…AND that it’s seeking more funds.

The whole thing continues to feel like a Quibi in miniature, and unsurprisingly, it continues to be one of the bigger drivers of conversation in my mailbox. There are three kinds of questions that pops up most in these emails.

1. Did Luminary’s big pre-launch fundraise ever make sense? There’s an argument to be made, sure. I’ve spoken to a few people who’ve posited that raising a buttload of money at the outset was a necessary step if the opening gambit was to secure big names that could drive big numbers on launch day, and you can’t come close to getting any of them if you don’t already have a strong war chest in hand.

I suppose I broadly agree with this assessment, but through that framework, it would seem that Luminary’s fundamental problem is that it didn’t end up signing anybody who had a powerful enough pull to drive that many paid listeners. Sure, it assembled a catalog of interesting stuff, but it doesn’t have a world-building Howard Stern/Bill Simmons-level asset, plain and simple.

Of course, it has a bunch of other problems as well, including a still barely manageable user experience and a relationship with the broader podcast community that needs mending. But I’m inclined to think that these are things that exacerbate the core vulnerability, as opposed to being fatal all by themselves. Going big is a high-risk proposition that leaves little room for error. And there were errors.

2. Does Luminary still have a viable path forward? Sure, why not. Vanishing odds, though, and again, it comes down to securing shows with strong enough pull to make the bets pay off according to a reasonable accounting timeline.

In my opinion, the most interesting factor to watch is how the uncertain economic conditions sparked by the pandemic change the deal-making equation for all sides. Back-of-the-envelope math suggests that Luminary still has deal-making money in the bank — a position presumably bolstered by the fundraising, along with human trauma-inducing layoffs and other cost-cutting measures — and one could theoretically argue that while the company will be slapped hard by this economic environment, everybody else will also be slapped too. Under these conditions, it’s entirely possible that there’s a big show out there that could be amenable to cutting an exclusive deal with the startup instead of weathering the storm.

Two counterarguments, though. First, as we’ve observed over the past few weeks, there has been some suggestion that bigger shows have been less adversely affected by the pandemic. Second, even if there was a big show out there willing to cut a deal, you also have to consider the presence of Spotify in the wings, capable not only of out-spending Luminary but also of providing clear and identifiable value with its infrastructure.

I should say, there’s a quick mention in the Bloomberg report about Luminary working to “secure distribution deals with phone and media companies” as part of its effort to grow its audience and value…but I mean, come on.

3. Why would anybody still put money into this thing? No idea. Listen, I am but a mere simpleton with a newsletter and a barely existent retirement account, so I cannot speak to the logic of the moneyed classes.

If I were to hazard a guess, though, I’d say it has to do with the recent changes to the Luminary C-suite. Simon Sutton, who replaced Matt Sacks as CEO last fall, and Richard Plepler, who invested in the company and joined its board shortly after, are both former HBO execs — when Luminary pitched itself as the “HBO of Podcasts,” I guess they literally meant it — and I reckon they continue to carry a lot of clout.

Meanwhile, two-time NBA all star Baron Davis weighed in.

Tough to come back from a dunk that hard, honestly.

On a somewhat related note… Will there ever be talk about Clubhouse in these pages? I don’t know, man.

The Paid Podcast Stack continues to be a hotly contested area. On Monday, Memberful, the Patreon-owned membership facilitation platform, rolled out a new feature that enables publishers using its infrastructure to add podcasts into the pool of exclusive products that they can offer to paid subscribers.

In doing so, Memberful joins an increasingly crowded pool of private podcast RSS feed providers that also includes Supporting Cast, Supercast, Substack, RedCircle, and even its parent company, Patreon. It’s an area of podcast tech that’s become increasingly active as more podcast makers grapple with the importance of diversifying away from purely relying on advertising, a state of affairs that’s only been intensified by the economic effects of the pandemic.

I should note: I use Memberful to manage paid subscriptions for this newsletter. However, I don’t produce a members-only podcast to test the feature with — though I will be launching a public radio podcast with LAist next month, more on that in a future issue — so I couldn’t really try out Memberful’s new podcast feature, or anybody else’s, for that matter. But flipping through the implementation doc, it strikes me as a pretty simple and straightforward affair: you can layer the feature onto an existing Memberful assemblage, including a close integration with an existing WordPress site and a relative ease when it comes to adding private podcast RSS feeds to existing subscription packages. Again, I don’t publish a paid subscribers-only podcast, but I imagine that if I did, it wouldn’t be too hard to get that set up on top of the existing Hot Pod business.

That said, Memberful’s paid podcast feature strikes me as not being terribly differentiated from many of its other competitors’, which, in turn, haven’t really turned out to be terribly differentiated from each other. You have the same fundamental approach to the flow, the same kinds of awkwardness when it comes to listener implementation. Occasionally, you’d get an interesting innovation here and there, as with the case of letting listeners subscribe to the private RSS feed via scanning a QR code, which is present in the new Memberful podcast feature, but I think was originally deployed by Stratechery’s Ben Thompson a few months ago as part of his emerging efforts with independently facilitated paid podcasts.

Speaking of Stratechery, it’s been interesting to watch what Ben Thompson’s been doing with the category, which, at this point, includes distributing audio versions of his paid subscribers-only Daily Update newsletters as well as a whole new three-times-a-week paywalled podcast called Dithering, which he makes with Daring Fireball’s John Gruber. My understanding is that he designed and commissioned the development of the subscription back-end himself, building around the specific needs of his vision. The result is something that doesn’t feel like a round peg squished into a square hole.

Anyway, I’m having trouble seeing the pathways for differentiation, and therefore the possible arc of how the competition for podcast paid subscription tech dominance might play out. Of course, to some extent, we’re talking about some advancements in overall user experience, and my gut instinct is to assume that much of this is going to come down to a crude battle over signing podcast publishers, which means that we might have to think about these companies in terms of the strength of their respective slices of the podcast ecosystem that they end up supporting. But is there any path forward for a real leap in innovation within this category?

One last wrinkle in this area that stands out has to do with Spotify, which still doesn’t allow listeners to add custom RSS feeds and therefore can’t serve as a listening platform for paid-only podcasts. Not sure if it’ll move on that any time soon, but it sure seems like an interesting frontier to think about.

Meanwhile, on the video podcast front. Following last week’s write-up about Spotify’s efforts around podcasting and complementary video (vodcasting?), here’s a news bite with interesting timing: Zane and Heath: Unfiltered, the first named podcast that’s part of Spotify video-podcast experiments, has signed with The Roost, the podcast network with strong video orientations built around Rooster Teeth, which I had flagged as a likely beneficiary of expansions in vodcasting. Here’s the Tubefilter write-up on that development.

Technicalities. Quickly flagging this webinar that’s happening Tuesday at 12 ET for folks interested in the really wonky stuff: “The Public Media Stack is a new report that has detailed profiles of over 100 software products used in the workflow for digital public media. We’ve analyzed the products to identify key strategic, technological, ethical and financial risks for public media orgs, and published detailed analysis for every individual product.”

The webinar will be hosted by the Tow Center’s Emily Bell, and you can register for the thing here.

What’s going on here? I’m still trying to wrap my head around what appears to be a saga that’s been happening over at Barstool Sports, which touches on stuff like contracts, intellectual property ownership, and the power dynamic between talent and media companies. Start with this write-up by the New York Post — which, by the way, seems to lean heavy into Barstool Sports coverage — and then hit this episode of the podcast in question, Call Her Daddy, which was also written up by the NY Post.

This general area of the podcast universe is typically not my jam, but there’s a lot in here to think through.

Show Notes.

  • The Death, Sex, and Money team is kicking off a three-week financial therapy special series, featuring the financial therapist Amanda Clayman. Why yes, yes indeed.
  • This Science Magazine profile about a German podcast called Coronavirus Update, which made its virologist host a cult figure in the country, is super interesting.
  • On balance, The Last Dance was just all right, but the extended Last Dance content universe remains interesting. Quick nod to Pushin’ Thru: After The Last Dance, with BJ Armstrong and Tate Frazier.
  • Decent amount of chatter around the latest episode of NPR’s Rough Translation, called Hotel Corona.

Ready to Roll: RPG podcasts and accessibility [by Caroline Crampton]. I think we all have them, no matter how deeply involved we are in this industry: the areas of podcasting where no matter how much we might appreciate their popularity on an academic level, we just don’t spend much personal time.

For a long time, role playing games (RPG) podcasts fulfilled this role for me. Sure, I’ve enjoyed the odd game of Dungeons & Dragons at a house party, and I’ve even been to a couple of live episodes in this genre when I’ve happened to be at a podcast festival, but I’ve never dug into the subgenre at any more depth.

Then I was alerted to the existence of this report about the state of this report about the state and status of RPG podcasts. It was put together by Tess Cocchio, who created the RPG Casts directory, and I was really intrigued by some of her findings. Her work was based on the 520 shows that had submitted to the directory by the end of 2019, but she theorizes that’s a large enough sample to be considered representative.

Before we go any further, take these key stats from her report: Approximately two-thirds of RPG shows fall into the “actual play” subcategory, meaning that they feature a group of players playing through a table top game like D&D, often with a serialized, multi-episode structure with recurring characters that encompasses an entire campaign in the game. A further 19 percent were discussion shows that look at behind-the-scenes aspects of gaming, with the remainder “one shots” that tend to move between different gaming systems on the same feed.

Over half, or 53 percent, of the shows that Cocchio looked at featured D&D, with the rest divided among 41 other games. Like any other in podcasting, this sector has its big hitter shows, such as the McElroy Brothers’ The Adventure Zone on Maximum Fun or the livestream-podcast hybrid Critical Role (which in 2019 raised a staggering $11 million to make an animated series based on one of its campaigns; from what I’ve been able to find, this makes it one of the most-funded Kickstarters ever).

Looking beyond that, though, the space is pretty diverse, according to Cocchio’s findings. Almost half — specifically, 45 percent — of shows have some LGBTQIA+ representation, 25 percent feature people of color, and 15 percent have non-binary players. The report highlights that there is a big gap when it comes to accessibility, though, with only 4.4 percent of shows having any kind of episode transcript available.

This all confirmed my own sense from tentatively dipping a toe into the RPG podcast world: there’s a great variety of stuff out there, but it isn’t always necessarily reaching out beyond the already initiated. I reached out to Cocchio to find out more about her report, and to get her assessment of the challenges facing this space.

“RPG podcast fans tend not to listen to only one RPG podcast. Most of us have a dozen or more shows that we love and support,” she told me over email. “The barrier isn’t necessarily finding more listeners — there are always more listeners. I think the barrier is discoverability in the sense of letting the listeners find them.”

I tested this hypothesis via the highly scientific method of “asking my friends who play a lot of D&D what they think,” and got some similar responses back. One even admitted that although she had played for a total of ten hours over Zoom last weekend and enjoys podcasts in other genres, she still found navigating the world of D&D podcasts a bit tricky, since the episodes tend to be pretty long, they aren’t often recommended by app curators, and it’s hard to quickly sift through a lot of similar options to find what exactly you like.

While there’s surely the broader context of that much-discussed podcast discoverability problem at work here, Cocchio said that she thinks there’s something specific to RPG podcasts that’s compounding the issue. “I think RPG podcasters could do a better job at making themselves findable,” she said. “In some ways, the RPG podcasting community falls behind other types of podcast communities. It’s rare to find press kits or, on Twitter for example, pinned posts linking to all the places you can find/listen to a show and interact with them.” That’s why she launched her directory, which lets you browse both by type of play and type of host — there, you can seek out shows with women or non-binary players specifically, for instance — and why she generally encourages RPG podcasters to make their shows more available for recommendation and discovery.

As I’ve written about before, a really helpful way a podcast can be more accessible is by providing transcripts. Having text alongside the audio means that people who are hard of hearing or have auditory processing issues can still enjoy the show, as can those who aren’t fluent in the original broadcast language. But, as Cocchio pointed out, there are certain intrinsic aspects of RPG podcasts that make this a more time-consuming process than your average show. “Most RPG podcasts are largely improvised — there are no scripts — with often anywhere from three to six cast members all improvising, so that is a lot of voices to track,” she explained.

The average episode tends to be anywhere from 45 to 90 minutes long, which is a lot of transcription to do from scratch. And there are also factors that make AI transcription less helpful in this genre. “With the nature of RPGs being out of the realm of ‘modern’ or ‘normal,’ you’ve got all sorts of names and places and creatures that an AI doesn’t know how to transcribe. Both human and AI transcription options take more time and, of course, money. A lot of RPG podcasts are made from a place of love, and are either breaking even or losing money. None of these are excuses for not being accessible — I think it’s more that when you consider all of those things, creators likely find it daunting to transcribe even a single episode.”

Even providing timestamps with content warnings and summaries can help, though, Cocchio said — transcripts aren’t the only route to greater accessibility and discoverability. There are RPG shows baking this stuff in, too, such as Join the Party from Multitude Productions, which has full transcripts for each campaign installment as well as behind-the-scenes episodes about how to play.

Improving accessibility matters for opening up the RPG podcasting subgenre to more people, Cocchio said. “The common misconception from outside the RPG podcasting community is that our community generally isn’t professional, doesn’t have good quality shows or high production, or has ‘only a couple’ of decent shows,” she said. “All of these are just so untrue.” RPG podcasters are adapting very well to coronavirus restrictions, she added, since many play online and record remotely anyway. Perhaps this is their moment to shine for a wider audience, as the world pivots toward forms of entertainment that can keep up a regular schedule regardless.

Mask and earbuds by byronv2 used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     May 19, 2020, 9:31 a.m.
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