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June 30, 2020, 12:21 p.m.
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NPR launches an afternoon news podcast to complement its morning one, and it hopes you’ll listen to both

Plus: A mid-year podcast check-in.

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

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 264, dated June 30, 2020.

Mid-year check-in. We were on track to have a very different kind of 2020. That’s an obvious understatement, but it’s a statement worth making nonetheless.

Podcast listenership had continued to grow at a steady and dependable pace. According to the latest Infinite Dial report, an estimated 104 million Americans over the age of 12 now identify as monthly listeners. That’s up 16 percent year over year, with the further distinction that monthly podcast listenership has exceeded 100 million Americans for the first time.

On the business side, podcasting started the year on track to meet its projection of hitting $1 billion in advertising dollars by 2021, a benchmark that remains an important talking point among those who work on the revenue side. Furthermore, there was a specific number that collective podcast ad revenue was supposed to reach this year: a little over $860 million, according to the IAB/PwC study that was published last June.

Meanwhile, this was also supposed to be the year that Spotify continued to dictate the terms of the podcast industry’s narrative, controlling the pace with a steady drip of deal announcements and feature rollouts. Back in February, the company acquired The Ringer, Bill Simmons’ podcast-centric digital media company, in a deal reportedly valued up to $250 million. It was meant to set the tone for the kind of year we were going to have.

Then, of course, the world changed. The novel coronavirus disease COVID-19 was officially declared a pandemic on March 11 — the very same day the NBA suspended operations after a player was confirmed to have contracted the virus, and the day Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson were also reported to have tested positive.

Shortly after, coronavirus podcasts began to pop up everywhere, and several states began implementing social distancing and lockdown measures. One noteworthy consequence of those lockdowns was a widespread transition among podcast publishers toward remote production. That practice remains the norm today, though some have trickled back into on-site studio production, albeit with the limited capacity you’d expect from a risk-managed workplace.

Another noteworthy consequence was the collapse of the daily commute, long understood to be one of the most important contexts for podcast consumption. The numbers bore that out, at least in the beginning. According to Podtrac data — which isn’t comprehensive, but is still useful in its capacity to tell a contiguous story over time — weekly downloads and audiences started declining following the initial implementation of social distancing measures.

That decline would be short-lived, as listening began to inch back up by the end of April. By the end of May, audience numbers were directionally back on track, so much so that Podtrac opted to retire its weekly coronavirus update at the start of June. (I retired this newsletter’s recurring Pandemic Watch segment a week later.) Meanwhile, listening habits were also found to be adapting. According to the pandemic section in Stitcher’s recent podcasting report, the company found that while listening during weekday community hours decreased, listening during lunchtime hours seemed to be peaking, suggesting that audiences have found another way to integrate podcasts into their lives.

It was a hopeful development, but you could still argue the case in either direction: Americans spending more time at home generally means they have more time to consume media, which might mean that podcasting has to compete more aggressively with other media options, but it might also mean that those with a strong affinity for podcasts actually get more opportunities to listen to more stuff.

Anyway, despite the recovery in listening, the podcast business continues to face severe challenges. Most importantly, the economic picture remains bleak, with the unemployment rate in the United States now clocking in at around 13 percent. In my initial write-up on the pandemic’s impact on the podcast business, back in mid-March, the primary anxiety was around whether we’d see debilitating cuts in podcast advertising spends and whether that would result in the closure of many podcasts and podcast publishers.

When I checked in with several sales and advertising sources recently, a general consensus seemed to emerge: things have looked pretty bad, though not as bad as initially anticipated, and there have been some signs of recovery over the past few weeks. There’s some variance, of course, and to an extent, it’s been a predictable story of haves and have-nots. Publishers with a higher proportion of brand-name shows tend to have weathered the storm with relatively little disruption; others haven’t even started to see any form of the aforementioned recovery. Some have continued to sign new advertisers; others have taken this as an opportunity to start weaning off advertising altogether and push harder into direct revenue. Almost everyone agrees that the industry’s ad revenue projection won’t be met this year, and that we won’t hit $1 billion by 2021.

The pandemic wasn’t the only event that shook the world, of course. The killing of George Floyd in late May sparked a wave of anti-police brutality protests across the United States and elsewhere, and triggered a broader reckoning about anti-black racism and racial inequity in every almost corner of society. In the podcast world, shows about race bubbled up the charts, and some took action: Renay Richardson, the founder and CEO of the UK-based Broccoli Content, launched the Equality in Audio pact, a campaign that’s meant to push audio companies to commit to five simple actions as a starting point toward greater inclusivity.

Eventually, the podcast community’s own issues with race and inequity would primarily manifest around two separate but interrelated issues. The first is the issue of ownership of intellectual property: specifically, the question of what companies owe creators who work for them or collaborate with them on discrete projects, especially when it comes to black creators and other creators of color who are more likely to be exploited in those arrangements due to greater structural inequities. We covered two particularly visible examples of this issue last week — the tension between BuzzFeed and the former hosts of Another Round, and the tension between the hosts of The Nod and Gimlet Media. There are certainly countless more of such frictions quietly happening with many other shows and in many other organizations. (This is a foundational problem that affects talent of all demographics. Consider the friction between Barstool Sports and Call Her Daddy that flared up in mid-May, and if you’d like to go back even further, you could sort the story of Mystery Show into this narrative.)

To address a counter-argument I’ve been seeing a lot since last week: yes, companies tend to shoulder the bulk of the risk when it comes to many of these projects, and yes, they have the right to benefit from any gains that come out of that risk. But when assessing who “deserves” what in what proportion, it’s important not to downplay what the creator or the worker puts on the line as well: they are investing their labor, their time, their creative energy, and in some cases, their very identities. They carry their own risk, and they are giving more in proportion to what they have. As such, it should not be disputed that they have every moral right to a meaningful stake of what they make.

The second issue has to do with institutional support: in this context, how podcast and media companies — predominantly white and white-led — hire, retain, and support black workers and other workers of color. I believe the emphasis on institutions is crucial here. Podcasting, of course, is structurally defined by its open publishing structure, but the capacity for historically disadvantaged demographics to advance in this open (and saturated) context tends to be considerably influenced by the conduct of institutions. Media companies greenlight, finance, and de-risk projects; a large portion of their decision-making involves the allocation of resources. Put simply, media companies can be viewed as monopolies on opportunity, and so it’s imperative that those who govern those companies ensure that sufficient opportunities flow to the kinds of creators who otherwise wouldn’t be able to access those opportunities on their own.

We’re seeing this issue play out publicly with The Ringer. Last week’s report from the New York Times illustrated a number of things about the company — how there is a lack of black decision-makers, how there is a low percentage of black workers on staff, how more than 85 percent of speakers on The Ringer’s podcasts (its most valuable and visible assets) are white — all of which portray an environment that some or many black staffers might find hard to be around. Again, this is just one of the more visible examples; this problem is undoubtedly present in countless other podcast and media organizations. (One other case bubbling up that’s intriguing to me: WAMU.)

This also seems to be a problem at KPCC, with whom I partner to produce my podcast through its LAist Studios division. In a recent Twitter thread, Misha Euceph — a former staffer who worked on The Big One and created Tell Them, I Am — described her experience developing the latter project at the station. It’s a story of working within an institution that couldn’t understand where she’s coming from, where she felt under-supported as a worker of color, and where she ultimately felt exploited out of the show she made. For the record, I have had very different experiences working with KPCC — frankly, it’s been pleasant — but the difference perhaps illustrates the point: Misha and I are at different places and leverage points in our respective relationships with KPCC, and the thing that should warrant the most focus here is how institutions handle and structurally relate to their most vulnerable workers, creators, and talent.

Both these issues speak to a core question about the identity of the podcast business: is it going to replicate older power structures and carry over the sins of old, or will it actually follow through on its potential to become genuinely new — and more humane — from the ground up? This question, I think, will be increasingly important as the podcast industry continues to change in the pandemic era. As mentioned earlier, the story of the pandemic-era podcast business has broadly been a story of haves and have-nots, which means that a likely outcome is an environment where the big get bigger and more power gets concentrated within a corporate few. Under those conditions, the pool of actors that facilitate opportunity gets smaller and smaller, and as history is our guide, the leadership groups behind those kinds of actors don’t tend to be very diverse.

Meanwhile, Spotify’s march onward continues apace. After acquiring The Ringer, Spotify proceeded with its steady drip of deal announcements and feature rollouts: finally bringing This American Life onto the platform, dipping its toe back into video, announcing exclusive deals with Warner Bros, DC, and Kim Kardashian-West, slowly pushing forward with next steps in ad tech and user experience. And of course, signing a multi-year licensing deal with The Joe Rogan Experience, valued at over $100 million.

What Spotify fundamentally represents hasn’t changed, even as the podcast world around it has: It’s the embodiment of a capitalistic force pushing podcasting towards further corporatization. Critics would argue that Spotify’s ambitions threaten to strip podcasting of everything that made it special: its democratic nature, its quirkiness, its sense of possibility. Admirers (and beneficiaries) argue that Spotify is the player that will bring podcasting to the next level: more money, more stardom, more power.

I’m interested to see how Spotify interfaces and grapples with the emerging politics of this moment. After all, the company is now the exclusive home of The Joe Rogan Experience, which comes with a history of deep controversy. It’s the owner of The Ringer, embroiled in its aforementioned problems with diversity, and Gimlet Media, which is working through the aforementioned intellectual property dispute with The Nod. And I should say, it’s not lost on many that all four of Spotify’s podcast acquisitions — Gimlet Media, Anchor, Parcast, The Ringer — resulted in infinitely richer white men.

So that’s the basic story of podcasting in the midway point of 2020. It’s still defined by the fundamental tension between Spotify and Apple — or, if you prefer, between Spotify and the classic open ecosystem — but it’s also been vastly reshaped by a global pandemic, and increasingly refined by a stunning political moment.

ICYMI. Probably the biggest “whoa, if true” story from last week: The Information reported that EW Scripps is shopping Stitcher around for a sale. SiriusXM and Spotify were cited as possible suitors. As a reminder, Scripps paid over $50 million for Midroll Media in 2015 and about $4.5 million for the Stitcher app in 2016, before rebranding the whole thing as Stitcher in 2018.

Here’s the logic as I see it: EW Scripps mostly operates in television and radio, and if you’re not going to be able to compete with more focused and bigger spenders like Spotify and iHeartMedia, you might as well sell the thing in a hot market. But I suppose the counter-argument would be: to what extent is the market actually hot, given the pandemic?

Consider This [by Caroline Crampton]. In late June, NPR launched another daily news podcast. But instead of a fresh product push, this new project is actually a pivot from something that already exists. Coronavirus Daily, the daily podcast NPR launched on March 18 to cover the pandemic, is being rebranded as Consider This, an afternoon counterpart to its morning news podcast, Up First. As the name suggests, Consider This has close ties to All Things Considered, the organization’s flagship news radio show, with the four hosts of that show joining the roster for the podcast.

“We think this is the first time we’ve done something like this,” Neal Carruth, NPR’s senior director of on-demand news programming, told me last week. “We’re pretty confident that Coronavirus Daily was both the fastest launch in NPR history and the fastest-growth audience of any podcast.” Coronavirus Daily was greenlit on a Thursday, with the first episode dropping six days later. Its audience would go on to grow by 56 percent in six weeks.

NPR was already working toward launching an afternoon news podcast when the pandemic started dominating attention in March. It was supposed to be the next show to drop in the organization’s ongoing push toward more short-form news podcast content (the group includes Up First, The Indicator from Planet Money, Shortwave, NPR Politics and Life Kit). Carruth contrasted this moment with when the impeachment proceedings began in December 2019 and many publishers created pop-up podcasts in response. Back then, NPR chose to make the NPR Politics podcast daily instead of starting a new show. But for Coronavirus, a new feed felt like the best way to meet the moment.

When Coronavirus Daily started publishing daily episodes, Carruth said, nobody had any idea how long it would run for. “At that point, who knew what would happen? It might have made sense to keep that up and running for a year or even two years.” Three and a half months in, the moment has changed, and the decision was made to broaden the show’s scope. “We’re hoping to still capture what people remember about how they got first introduced to Coronavirus Daily,” he explained.

Meeting this moment requires being more flexible in coverage, both because of what’s happening in the news, and because of a change in listenership data. “It started to become clear that the audiences were disengaging a little bit from the coronavirus story,” Carruth said. He noted that by transitioning to the Consider This banner, the show will be able to cover things like the current debates over race and policing, the presidential election, and whatever lies ahead.

The original plan for the NPR afternoon podcast was to tie it in with All Things Considered, and that’s still an important element of this new strategy to “elegantly crossfade” Coronavirus Daily into that show. As well as sharing hosts, the new podcast will also see a blend of production teams, with Coronavirus Daily’s Beth Donovan, Brent Baughman, Gabriela Saldivia, and Anne Li being joined by All Things Considered producers Lee Hale and Cara Tallo. (Saldivia and Li are also members of the NPR One team, and they will likely bring audience insights from that work.)

The intention, Carruth said, is that Up First and Consider This will complement each other. The latter is intended to be an afternoon deep dive, providing an extended treatment of a single topic (though it will switch things up on the days where it makes more sense to cover multiple stories).

Avoiding duplication between the two podcasts will be key, because NPR wants listeners to tune into both shows, rather than choosing one or the other. Rather than seeing Consider This solely as a standalone entity competing with other afternoon or evening drops, Carruth suggested that it should also appeal to Up First listeners who want to check in on the news again with NPR later in the day. “We think the audience will get a lot of value out of listening to both,” he said. The aim is to publish each daily episode of Consider This around 5 PM ET, although that’s “flexible” while the team settles into the new schedule.

Just like the original creation of Coronavirus Daily, this transition plan has also come together very quickly, having been put together in the last few weeks. A big part of that is to avoid doing the same work twice, Carruth explained. “We’re trying not to build separate systems, but rather build onto the existing system…That includes the member station work — we’re making use of existing systems and sources to bring this work to a new audience,” he said. “It’s also a way to showcase the strength of the public radio system as a national local network.”

One side effect of 2020 so far that I’m finding fascinating is the deluge of previously unprecedented changes in established organizations. I suspect that if anyone had outlined this plan internally at NPR a year ago — to launch a new daily news show within a week, and then transition it into a new and permanent accompaniment to a flagship show three months later — there would not have been enthusiastic uptake for that strategy. And yet, here it is.

On a related note… The public radio mothership has announced a new slate of podcasts for the fall 2020/early 2021 seasons. It also announced a new phase for Invisibilia; Alix Spiegel and Hanna Rosin are leaving the show, and current producers Yowei Shaw and Kia Miakka Natisse are taking over as hosts. That new version will debut in winter 2021.

Also, don’t miss this profile of NPR’s Code Switch by The Hollywood Reporter’s Natalie Jarvey. A data point to highlight: the podcast experienced a whopping 270% surge in downloads in the wake of the anti-police brutality protests compared with its previous thirteen weeks.

Meanwhile. Stitcher has an intriguing new narrative podcast with Market Road Films called Unfinished: Deep South; Pineapple Street is launching a new show hosted by Tracy Clayton and Josh Gwynn later in the summer; now that Cam Newton’s a Patriot, I have mixed feelings about the upcoming Cam Newton audio doc by The Ringer’s Tyler Tynes.

This is super cool: Death, Sex, and Money is collaborating with Love + Radio on a special series, called Skin Hunger. I’m told that it’s a series in two parts that will draw stories from listeners of both shows, with interviews conducted by both Death, Sex, and Money’s Anna Sale and Love + Radio’s Nick van der Kolk. Most intriguingly, it will also blend the music and sound design styles of both shows. Big fan of crossovers, could use more of ’em.

This is also super cool: Macmillan Podcasts is collaborating with Apple Maps to create a custom map based on the former’s upcoming podcast series, Driving the Green Book, which is being produced by Lantigua Williams & Co.

Heads up: Edison Research is releasing its first report on Latino podcast listeners in the U.S. later today. There will be an English-language webinar at 1 PM ET, and a Spanish-language webinar at 2 PM ET. Here’s the link to register.

This is kinda unexpected: From The Verge: “Reddit will ban r/The_Donald, r/ChapoTrapHouse, and about 2,000 other communities today after updating its content policy to more explicitly ban hate speech.” Chapo Trap House, of course, is the highly popular “dirtbag left” podcast, though the subreddit is described by the article as a “spinoff” of the show.

This is pretty unexpected: From Politico: “How a veteran’s secret podcast put her in the Trump administration’s crosshairs.” That podcast, by the way, is the also highly popular Mueller, She Wrote. Remember the Trump impeachment? Damn.

New BBC podcast unit [by Caroline Crampton]. The BBC Radio in-house production unit relaunched on Monday as “BBC Audio,” having formerly been known as “BBC Radio & Music Production.” I went into more detail on this in Friday’s Insider, but the key element of this restructuring is the designation of a new creative development unit for podcasts in Bristol, to be headed up by Clare McGinn. With a core team of four, this unit has the remit to make shows both for radio stations and BBC Sounds, as well as working with “teams and individuals new to podcasting on pitching and development.”

The part of this news that is coming up most in my discussions with sources at the BBC is its location: Bristol is in the southwest of England and is home to a very prestigious and old university as well as some of the wealthiest suburbs in the whole of the UK. (You might have come across it recently as the place where protestors threw a statue of slaveowner Edward Colston into the harbor, a move that the city’s black mayor welcomed.)

The mission statement for BBC Audio commits it to representing everyone in the UK, but the commissioning power for podcasts so far seems very concentrated in areas traditionally overrepresented in the media, i.e. London and Bristol, with only a couple of people (including the controller of BBC Sounds, Jonathan Wall) based in Salford near Manchester. Prior to the pandemic, outgoing director general Tony Hall had announced that more BBC jobs in journalism and tech would move outside of London, but it’s unclear how much support that devolution agenda has now in an economic downturn, and whether any senior editorial jobs will ever be relocated.

Times Radio debuts [by Caroline Crampton]. Rupert Murdoch’s new radio station, Times Radio, launched this week on the UK airwaves. This is News Corp’s big push against the BBC — it has already poached a number of presenters and journalists — and is part of the company’s ongoing attempt to replace falling print and digital newspaper advertising revenue with subscriptions. The latter is clearly visible in the station’s name, which connects it to another Murdoch property, The Times newspaper, and the fact that a number of that publication’s journalists are now also hosting radio shows.

Times Radio was conceived of in a pre-pandemic moment when relations between the BBC and the government couldn’t have been worse. But there’s been a rapprochement of sorts in that quarter since struggled to use Alexa get hold of Times Radio in London, instead being redirected to a station called Times Radio Malawi based in East Africa, while those on Google devices reported getting a UK station called Radio X, as the assistant mistook the word “Times” for a multiplication symbol, apparently. A timely reminder of how hard it is to name things these days

POSTED     June 30, 2020, 12:21 p.m.
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